Tag Archives: Family Values

Hope in the shadow of the bomb; a poem by Thomas Centolella; and the lessons for Sunday, June 10, 2018

THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Genesis 3:8-15
Psalm 130
2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1
Mark 3:20-35

PRAYER OF THE DAY: All-powerful God, in Jesus Christ you turned death into life and defeat into victory. Increase our faith and trust in him, that we may triumph over all evil in the strength of the same Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.” Psalm 130:5-6

I am just old enough to remember the “duck and cover” drills to which kids were subjected in elementary school during the height of the cold war. The sirens would go off and we would be instructed to crawl under our desks and crouch face down covering our heads with our hands. Our teachers would rush about drawing the heavy curtains across the windows, closing the doors and turning off the lights. All this took place throughout my first and second grade years. I recall hearing adults talking in hushed tones about “the bomb” and that the Russians had it and might use it against us at any time. Of course, I understood very little about who the Russians were, what the bomb was or why the Russians would want to use it against us. But I knew enough to realize that “the bomb” and Russians represented dangers sufficient to frighten the adults in my life. That alone made it very terrifying to me. If the grownups are afraid, where can a kid turn for comfort and security?

The psalmist responds to that very expression of existential terror with a call to wait for the Lord in hope. What else can you do when the grownups entrusted with custody of the bomb are calling each other names, drawing lines in the sand like playground rivals and threatening each other with “fire and fury?”  What concerns me most is not the bellicose rhetoric of our leaders. I’ve seen that before. What disturbs me is the seeming lack of concern expressed by the public, the discussion in high places of a “military option” for dealing with North Korea-as though a nuclear war were actually winnable-and the naïve assumption that, at any rate, it will all play out “over there.” I worry that, to a generation that has never known selective service, has no living memory of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and experiences war as something that is handled by someone else’s children on the other side of the world, the very real dangers posed by the current situation might appear distant and abstract. So to all you millennials out there who might be thinking this does not affect your lives and futures, be warned: Our leaders are playing Russian roulette with your lives.

I pray for and am hopeful for the success of the upcoming summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Yes, I am well aware of the odds against any substantially positive outcome for this event. I am aware of all the dangers involved. My hope for this summit might reasonably be characterized as foolish. But my hope is not finally in these leaders, their diplomatic teams or their good intentions. My hope, like that of the psalmist, is in the Lord.

Sometimes witnesses and workers for peace have names like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Oscar Romero. But often the instruments of peace turn out to have names like Mao, Nixon and, yes, Un and Trump. As for the latter grouping, I do not suggest that there is anything to be admired in their characters or that their crimes should be overlooked. I am only pointing out that, what human beings in their smallness of heart intend for evil, God somehow engineers for good. See Genesis 50:20. God is the hidden and often overlooked ingredient in the mix of political, social and religious forces that seem to be driving history. For that reason, the future continues to elude our most erudite predictions and frequently produces outcomes that surpass our expectations and prove our fears to have been baseless. For that reason, too, when I’ve done all I think I can and the world seems still to be careening toward the abyss, I find it possible to “wait for the morning” in hope.

Here is a poem about hope by Thomas Centolella.

The Hope I know

doesn’t come with feathers.
It lives in flip-flops and, in cold weather,
a hooded sweatshirt, like a heavyweight
in training, or a monk who has taken
a half-hearted vow of perseverance.
It only has half a heart, the hope I know.
The other half it flings to every stalking hurt.
It wears a poker face, quietly reciting
the laws of probability, and gladly
takes a back seat to faith and love,
it’s that many times removed
from when it had youth on its side
and beauty. Half the world wishes
to stay as it is, half to become
whatever it can dream,
while the hope I know struggles
to keep its eyes open and its mind
from combing an unpeopled beach.
Congregations sway and croon,
constituents vote across their party line,
rescue parties wait for a break
in the weather. And who goes to sleep
with a prayer on the lips or half a smile
knows some kind of hope.
Though not the hope I know,
which slinks from dream to dream
without ID or ally, traveling best at night,
keeping to the back roads and the shadows,
approaching the radiant city
without ever quite arriving.

Source: Almost Human, Centolella, Thomas (c. Thomas Centolella, 2017, pub. by Tupelo Press, 2017). Thomas Centolella is an American poet and author of four books of poetry.  He is a recipient of the Lannan Literary Award, the American Book Award, the California Book Award and the Northern California Book Award. He is also Wallace Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University and lives in the San Francisco Bay area. You can read more about Thomas Centolella and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Genesis 3:8-15

To get the full impact of this encounter between God and God’s human creatures, we need to go back a chapter to where God, determining that it is “not good” for the “Adam” (“earth creature”) to be alone, draws from Adam a partner. Here for the first time Adam is referred to as “man” or “ish” in contrast to the “isha” or woman. Significantly, they are at this time both naked and unashamed of their nakedness. Genesis 2:25. We are told that the serpent was more cunning than all the other creatures God had made. Genesis 3:1. There is a clever play on words here that gets lost in translation. The Hebrew words for “naked” and “cunning” are “arumim” and “arum” respectively. Thus, the knowledge offered through the cunning (arum) of the serpent manifests itself first by revealing to Adam and Eve that they are naked (arumim). Genesis 3:7.

Our understanding of this text is clouded by our cultural association of nudity with sexual immorality. The eye opening shock experienced by Adam and Eve had less to do with sex and more to do with the sheer terror of exposure, a terror that could not exist if all indeed were clearly exposed. But I suspect that Adam is even now concocting his plan to throw Eve under the bus when confronted by God over the matter of the forbidden tree. Eve, too, is formulating her defense and would prefer to keep that strategy to herself. This new “knowledge” Adam and Eve have obtained discloses in a poignant way how little they can know of each other, which is truly terrifying given their growing lack of trust.

What we see in this story is a reflection of relationships in general as well as of marriages in particular. “There are no secrets between us,” I often here couples say. But of course that is never the case. I doubt most couples share between them all of their fantasies and daydreams. Most of us have experiences in our past we prefer to keep secret. We tell small, inconsequential lies to one another in order to bring comfort or avoid hurt. So too with less intimate relationships. We weigh how much to share with any given friend, keeping back those things we think might cause him/her to think less of us. In social settings we steer conversation away from topics that we think might give rise to argument, awkwardness or embarrassment. We develop “filters” to prevent us from speaking all that is on our mind because we know how destructive that can be to our relationships.

The portrayal of God in this story is quite remarkable. God comes not as the unbearable presence atop the fiery mountain in Sinai, nor as the overwhelming presence enthroned in the heavens we met in last week’s lesson from Isaiah. God comes strolling onto the scene enjoying the evening breeze just as any one of us might do in the cool of the evening. Adam and Eve are nowhere to be seen. Vs. 8. God must call them out of hiding. Vs. 9. God interrogates his creatures on their odd behavior. “Why ever would you hide from me?” Vs. 10. Of course, God knows what is wrong. God’s creatures now have secrets from God (or so they think). They don’t want to be naked in front of God anymore than they want to be naked before each other. There can be but one explanation for their unusual conduct: “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” vs. 11.

Now it is clear that the humans cannot hide their nakedness any longer-at least not from God. Rather than giving God a straightforward “yes” to the inquiry about the tree, Adam moves immediately to his defense. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Vs. 12. The woman explains, “The serpent [whom you made and put in the garden] tricked me, and I ate.” Vs. 13. If the serpent had an excuse, we don’t get a chance to hear it. God evidently feels he has taken enough evidence to enter judgment on this case.

Judgment is first pronounced upon the serpent. Henceforth, the serpent will be cursed even within the animal world, doomed to crawl on its belly eating dust for the rest of its days. Vs. 14. Furthermore, there will be enmity between the serpent and humanity that will continue throughout the generations to come. Vs. 15. In my opinion, we read too much into this text when we construe the “crushing” of the serpent’s head in this verse as the victory of Christ over Satan. The serpent is not a demonic figure in this narrative. It is one of God’s good creations. Though “cunning,” it is not inherently evil. Yet its presence in the garden and the role it plays in this story tells us that there is an element of randomness in God’s good creation. God made a world loaded with potential for good, but the potential for tragic and unintended consequences exists as well.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty I have found in preaching this text is the baggage it has accumulated over the last century in the still active campaign of “creationists” to defend their interpretation of this text as an historical, geological, astronomical and biological account of origins in the face of all we have learned from the sciences. Even our own theological language characterizing this story as “the Fall” mischaracterizes the narrative truth. This is not the story of a pristine beginning spoiled by a stolen apple. When the text is read in that way, we are left with a host of imponderables. Who is the serpent? Where did he come from? Why did God put him in the garden to begin with? It does not help to identify the serpent with the devil. That only kicks the metaphysical can further out into the cosmos. For now we must ask where the devil came from.

This creation story is best understood as descriptive of what now is rather than an explanation for why it is. To the extent that there is a “why” lurking in the narrative, it consists only in acknowledging that God creates a world filled with creatures loaded with potential. Human inquisitiveness, cunning essential to survival, knowledge that is both promising and dangerous are all woven into the fabric of creation. The creation of the “earth creature” or what we might call the emergence of self-consciousness and differentiation from the animal world is a good development, enabling the human to serve as God’s steward and gardener for the earth. Yet this same development brings with it the temptation to exploit, dominate and control. In a sense, each generation is Adam and Eve. We are born into a world with certain givens. There is inherent randomness. We inherit a history of violence, injustice and cruelty that continues to make itself felt. It is in this sense that we can speak of what is often (and inaptly) called “original sin.” Yet there are endless opportunities also for enacting compassion, justice and peace.

If you were to read further in the chapter, you would discover that judgment is not the last word in this story. Though the consequences of their transgression are not reversible, God nevertheless sends Adam and Eve from the garden with clothing made by God’s own hand, covering the nakedness that so terrifies them. Genesis 3:21. God has not given up on the human creatures. There is more to this story which is only beginning to unfold.

Psalm 130

This psalm is one of seven “penitential psalms” (the others being Psalm 6Psalm 32Psalm 38Psalm 51Psalm 102; and Psalm 143) so named by Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, a statesman, writer and scholar of the sixth century. It is characterized by Hebrew Scripture scholars as a “lament” containing all of the essential elements of its type:

  1. Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
  2. Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
  3. Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
  4. Witness of praise to the community, vss. 7-8.

See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. The Hebrew word “mimmaamkym” “From out of the depths” is a term that is equated with “sheol” or the abode of the dead. For the Israelite there was no “after life.” The concept of resurrection from death came only much later in Israel’s thinking. Consequently, death was the end of any meaningful life. To be in sheol was to be separated from the realm of life and therefore from the Lord of Life. There is no praise of Israel’s God in sheol. Consequently, the psalmist must have been in very deep distress, though we cannot tell what his or her specific complaints were.

According to Anderson, supra, the “word ‘depths’ [mimmaamkym] reverberates with mythical overtones of the abyss of watery chaos, the realm of the powers of confusion, darkness and death that are arrayed against the sovereign power of God.” Ibid. Perhaps, but the point seems to be that the psalmist feels as utterly distant from God who is “enthroned upon the cherubim” (Psalm 99:1) as any creature can be. This distance is due, in part at least, to the psalmist’s sin. Though clearly in some sort of deep trouble, the psalmist knows that s/he is in no position to claim God’s help and salvation. Nevertheless, the psalmist is able to “hope in the Lord” and encourages all Israel to do the same because, “there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.” Vs. 4. It is worth repeating here that the New Testament did not invent forgiveness. God has always been and always will be forgiving toward his people Israel and toward his people engrafted into the covenant with Israel through baptism into Jesus Christ. If that were not the case, if God did in fact “mark iniquities” (vs. 3), there would be no point in prayers such as this.

The psalmist is resolved to “wait for the Lord.” Vs. 5. S/he knows that answers to prayer are not instantaneous. Prayer requires a willingness to wait and watch for the answer. Jesus also told his disciples “Ask, and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Matthew 7:7-8. Thus, asking is only the beginning. One must then seek the answer and be willing to knock on what appears to be a closed door.

“My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning.” Vs. 6. This is a striking image. In Jerusalem, watchmen took their post after sunset to keep a look out for approaching enemies. They were the ancient world’s equivalent of early warning systems. It was a tedious job on a long winter’s night and one can well imagine the watchman, who had no clock or wrist watch, scrutinizing the horizon for signs of the sunrise signaling that his lonely vigil was finally coming to an end.

In verses 7-8 the focus changes from the psalmist’s personal prayer to an admonition directed to all Israel to hope in the Lord. As we saw in Psalm 51, Israel frequently took ancient prayers of individuals and adapted them for use in public worship as prayers for the whole people. In this case, an Israelite who lived after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem may well have found in this individual’s plea for personal help a reflection of Israel’s post exilic distress. Having lost the line of David, the Temple, and her land, Israel was likewise “crying out from the depths.” Like the individual, Israel turned to the Word of the Lord and God’s promises for comfort and hope, knowing that with her God was forgiveness. Vs. 4.

2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1

For a brief but thorough introduction to Paul’s Second Letter to the Church in Corinth, see the Summary Articleby Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. In short, Paul’s relationship with the church at Corinth deteriorated significantly between the writing of I Corinthians and II Corinthians. It appears that there were some individuals or groups within the church at Corinth that were challenging Paul’s apostolic authority, undermining his leadership and questioning his fitness as a preacher. Following his first letter, Paul made what he describes as a “painful visit” to the church. II Corinthians 2:1. This visit did not accomplish whatever it was he had intended. Not wanting to make another such visit, Paul wrote a “severe letter” to the church in Corinth out of “much affliction and anguish of heart.” II Corinthians 2:4. Though we cannot be certain, many commentators believe that at least part of this “severe” letter is contained in II Corinthians 10-13. E.g., Godspeed, Edgar J., An Introduction to the New Testament, (c. 1937 by University of Chicago Press) pp. 61-62. Whatever the case may be, it is evident that Paul was concerned about the effect his letter would have upon the church and so sent his associate, Titus, to Corinth in order to deal with the fallout. (It is also possible that Paul sent the letter along with Titus). Paul became so preoccupied with the problems at Corinth and the potential impact of his letter that he cut short a preaching tour in Troas and traveled to Macedonia in search of Titus. There Paul finally caught up with his associate who brought him a very favorable report from Corinth. II Corinthians 7:5-13.

Paul’s severe letter had evidently done its work. The congregation gave its full support to Paul. Paul’s opponents were disciplined by the congregation so severely that Paul had to write and urge the church to reach out to them with forgiveness and “reaffirm” their love for these errant members. II Corinthians 2:5-11. It is this third letter from Paul to Corinth from which our lesson comes.

Our reading begins with Paul’s lose citation to Psalm 116:10: “I kept faith, even when I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted.’” To make sense of this, you need to go back and read II Corinthians 4:7-12 where Paul speaks about the afflictions he has endured as a missionary of the gospel of Jesus Christ. These include being “persecuted” and “struck down.” Notwithstanding these afflictions, the Spirit continues to give Paul the courage to “speak out.” Vs. 13. Paul is convinced that, though he is always “carrying in the body the death of Jesus” (II Corinthians 4:10), the God who “raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.” Vs. 14.

For this reason, says Paul, “we do not lose heart.” Vs. 16. Even though our “outer nature” is wasting away, “our inner nature is being renewed every day.” Vs. 16. The former is evident. We experience the aging process that diminishes our bodily health and strength. We see our achievements fade into insignificance. Our friends move away, die or become estranged through time and circumstance. The universe, we are told, is expanding and doomed to run out of steam. The latter is not evident. Based solely on the empirical evidence, no one can assert that we are being renewed even as we are in the process of dying or that this expanding universe is being transformed into a new heaven and earth. This reality is only illuminated by the resurrection of Jesus from death. It is for that reason we dare to believe God is at work bending each subatomic particle of the universe and turning all of its energies toward redemption. In the words of Rick Barger, president of Trinity Lutheran Seminary, “If the tomb had not been empty on Easter Sunday, we’d have nothing to talk about.”

This passage is incredibly good news for social workers who spend their energies helping people crawl out of horrible situations only to fall back in again. It is good news for teachers struggling to provide a quality education to underprivileged children in underfunded, poorly run and neglected schools. It is good news for pastors of churches that continue to struggle notwithstanding their enormous efforts to build them up. We do not look only to what is seen in the light of the status quo. We view everything in the light of Jesus’ resurrection which demonstrates that the universe is bent toward the kingdom of God and that life in conformity with that kingdom is eternal.

Mark 3:20-35

What would you do if you learned that your adult son was acting erratically, not eating properly and getting himself into trouble with the authorities? Upon hearing these very reports about Jesus, his mother and brothers did what I believe any loving family would do. They organized an intervention. It was their intent to “seize” Jesus and take him home by force if necessary. They might have succeeded but for the crowd around Jesus they could not penetrate. Failing to reach Jesus, they send word that they desire to speak with him. His response must have been a blow to their hearts, particularly to his mother. “Who are my mother and brothers?” Vs. 33. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Vs. 35.

As I have noted in previous posts, there is no shortage of organizations under the Christian franchise devoted to preserving the “traditional family.” One such organization is Focus on the Family whose self described mission is “to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with as many people as possible by nurturing and defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide.” Of course I think sharing the Gospel is critical and know well that success on that score requires cooperation with the Holy Spirit. I am not necessarily opposed to promoting biblical truths either, though I suspect I might not agree with Focus on what those truths are. The real sticking point, though, is the “God-ordained institution of the family.” According to Focus, the ideal family is “one man and one woman committed to each other for life, raising their children in a loving, supportive home.” That, however, is not what Jesus just told us. Marriage is not the foundation of family and blood lineage does not define its boundaries. Baptism is the foundation of family and trumps all other relationships, including marriage. See Luke 18:29-30. For disciples of Jesus, water is thicker than blood. Church is the only “God ordained” family there is. Focus on the Family is therefore focusing on the wrong family.

That is not to say that families and households are not important. To the contrary, they are. I agree with Focus that “our culture increasingly disparages family life,” though I believe poverty, inadequate wages, increasing demands for employee productivity, requirements for worker mobility, lack of job security, lack of access to adequate health care and erosion of quality educational opportunities have a lot more to do with that than marriage equality-the culprit blamed by Focus. Does anyone really believe that marriage of the gay couple across the street poses a greater threat to his/her family’s well-being than losing a job or health care coverage? If Focus is truly committed to the welfare of families, I would recommend to its board of directors a campaign against late stage capitalism. Somehow, I don’t think that would fly.

Sandwiched in between the two ends of this episode with Jesus’ family is the allegation of the scribes that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul who enables him to cast out demons. Jesus responds by pointing out the faulty reasoning of the scribes. Vs. 22. Why would Satan give Jesus power over his own legions? If in fact “Satan is cast[ing] out Satan,” his kingdom is imploding. That can only mean the Kingdom of God is at hand-just as Jesus has been saying. Vss. 23-25. Jesus goes on to say that no one can plunder a strong man’s house unless he first binds the strong man. Thus, Jesus can only do what he is doing because he has, in fact, bound Satan. Vs. 28.

Finally, we have that ever troublesome verse about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit for which one “never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” Vs. 28-29. That verse has been a torment to many people over the centuries, not the least of whom was the father of Soren Kierkegaard who confided to his son that he once cursed God for the dreariness of his life while living as an impoverished serf. What does it mean to blaspheme the Holy Spirit? In the first place, it is important to note that this admonition is not addressed to the public but to the specific scribes who equated Jesus’ exorcism of demons with the work of demons. Unable to deny that Jesus has truly freed people from the power of Satan and unwilling to ascribe any good to Jesus whatever the evidence might show, they resort to nonsensical arguments in order to discredit Jesus. These particular scribes are hardened in their opposition to Jesus. They are not doubters, skeptics or even indifferent to Jesus. They have made up their minds and formed their opinions about Jesus. They refuse to allow the facts to confuse the issue.

To the few folks I have met over the years (and there have been a few) concerned about whether they might have committed the unforgivable sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit, I have simply told them that their concern in that regard is a pretty clear indication that they have not. I am fairly convinced that the persons (if any) who are actually guilty of this sin don’t much care and never lose a night’s sleep over it. In sum, if you are worried about having committed this unforgivable sin, you haven’t. If you have committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, you are not the least bit worried about it and you are probably not reading this blog anyway.

Sunday, June 7th

SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Genesis 3:8-15
Psalm 130
2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1
Mark 3:20-35

PRAYER OF THE DAY: All-powerful God, in Jesus Christ you turned death into life and defeat into victory. Increase our faith and trust in him, that we may triumph over all evil in the strength of the same Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

These are tough times for the Duggar family. For those of you who might not be in the know, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, along with their nineteen children, are stars of the TLC network reality show, “Nineteen Kids and Counting.” The show focuses on the life of the Duggar family. Devout Independent Baptists, the Duggars have home schooled all of their children and limit their access to movies, television and gaming. They frequently discusses values of purity, modesty, and family. The Duggars reject all forms of birth control claiming that God alone should determine the number of children they have. They practice “chaperoned courtship,” monitoring the dating relationships of their children. The expectation is that physical expressions of affection, even hand holding, are to be avoided until engagement. Kissing and sexual conduct are to be foregone until marriage. The Duggars promote and practice family structure based on male hierarchy and female submission to male authority.

TLC portrayed the Duggars as the model of everything a wholesome Christian family ought to be. At its peak, Nineteen Kids and Counting averaged 2.3 million viewers. But this image began to crumble two weeks ago after a police report from 2006 surfaced showing that sexual molestation allegations had been made against the Duggars’ eldest son, Josh Duggar. According to the report, Josh, who was then fourteen or fifteen years old, molested five young girls, four of which were his own sisters. TLC promptly suspended the series.

I feel sorry for the Duggars. No parent should have to go through what they did with their son Josh. Certainly no little girl should have to endure molestation. Obviously, Josh has serious problems that need to be addressed, not only for his sake, but chiefly for the sake of all children with whom he might someday come into contact. This is a family deeply in need of prayer, care and support. That they happen to be celebrities does not make them any less human. I wish them only God’s comfort and healing presence.

That said, it sticks in my craw that for nearly a decade the Duggars, with the help of their TLC handlers, represented themselves as the paradigm of Christian family wholesomeness and virtue when they knew full well that incest and sexual abuse had been occurring under their own roof. I find it repulsive that Josh had the moxie to accept a leading position at the Family Research Council, a right wing parachurch organization that seems to conduct little research but lobbies and promotes extensively “family values” which, however defined, I am sure does not include incestuous predatory behavior by teenagers against their younger siblings. Be aware that Josh’s criminal conduct was brought to light in 2006, a good two years before the Duggar family took to the airwaves in order to help “others to see that the Bible is the owner’s manual for life.” Thus, for the better part of a decade the Duggars have been perpetrating a lie on the public. For that they ought to be ashamed.

Though I would not describe the Bible as a “manual for life,” it is (unlike the Duggars) brutally honest about the realities of family life. Our lesson from Genesis tells us that the first recorded marriage in the Bible is seeded with mutual blame, dishonesty and struggle for dominance. The next generation brought with it the first recorded murder-a fratricide. Biblical families are rife with incest, sexual abuse, violence and betrayal. According to our gospel lesson for this Sunday, even the “holy family” seems to have been a bit dysfunctional. Nevertheless, these same dysfunctional families are the arena for love, faithfulness, reconciliation and promise. Despite their brokenness, God finds ways to work redemptively through families to bring healing and peace.

Parents Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar write in their official response to the recent revelations about Josh, “We pray that as people watch our lives they see that we are not a perfect family. We have challenges and struggles everyday.” Well Jim Bob and Michelle, though I wish you had said this eight years ago, I am glad to hear you say it now. I hope you mean it. I hope that the brokenness in your own family moves you to look with greater empathy, understanding and acceptance for all of the other broken families in our country, especially the ones that look different than your own. I hope you can now see single parent families, families of same sex couples, even white bread families like my own that don’t adhere to your standards of behavior as arenas for God’s redemptive work. I hope that you will come to see that all families, whatever their makeup, share common needs, yearnings and dreams. Perhaps one day we can both sit at the same table and discuss how together we can strengthen our families by ensuring a living minimum wage for all workers, stable communities based on an economy driven by human need rather than corporate greed, and access to affordable health care-especially for our children. Perhaps, too, we can share insights into how we read the scriptures for wisdom and guidance in our parenting. Your experience has demonstrated that you do not have all the answers for what ails our family life. There is no shame in that. None of the rest of us have answers either. But working together in humility, mutual acceptance and trust in our God, we can build a healthier environment in which some of those answers might emerge.

Genesis 3:8-15

To get the full impact of this encounter between God and God’s human creatures, we need to go back a chapter to where God, determining that it is “not good” for the “Adam” (“earth creature”) to be alone, draws from Adam a partner. Here for the first time Adam is referred to as “man” or “ish” in contrast to the “isha” or woman. Significantly, they are at this time both naked and unashamed of their nakedness. Genesis 2:25. We are told that the serpent was more cunning than all the other creatures God had made. Genesis 3:1. There is a clever play on words here that gets lost in translation. The Hebrew words for “naked” and “cunning” are “arumim” and “arum” respectively. Thus, the knowledge offered through the cunning (arum) of the serpent manifests itself first by revealing to Adam and Eve that they are naked (arumim). Genesis 3:7.

Our understanding of this text is clouded by our cultural association of nudity with sexual immorality. The eye opening shock experienced by Adam and Eve had less to do with sex and more to do with the sheer terror of exposure, a terror that could not exist if all indeed were clearly exposed. But I suspect that Adam is even now concocting his plan to throw Eve under the bus when confronted by God over the matter of the forbidden tree. Eve, too, is formulating her defense and would prefer to keep that strategy to herself. This new “knowledge” Adam and Eve have obtained discloses in a poignant way how little they can know of each other, which is truly terrifying given their growing lack of trust.

What we see in this story is a reflection of relationships in general as well as of marriages in particular. “There are no secrets between us,” I often here couples say. But of course that is never the case. I doubt most couples share between them all of their fantasies and daydreams. Most of us have experiences in our past we prefer to keep secret. We tell small, inconsequential lies to one another in order to bring comfort or avoid hurt. So too with less intimate relationships. We weigh how much to share with any given friend, keeping back those things we think might cause him/her to think less of us. In social settings we steer conversation away from topics that we think might give rise to argument, awkwardness or embarrassment. We develop “filters” to prevent us from speaking all that is on our mind because we know how destructive that can be to our relationships.

The portrayal of God in this story is quite remarkable. God comes not as the unbearable presence atop the fiery mountain in Sinai, nor as the overwhelming presence enthroned in the heavens we met in last week’s lesson from Isaiah. God comes strolling onto the scene enjoying the evening breeze just as any one of us might do in the cool of the evening. Adam and Eve are nowhere to be seen. Vs. 8. God must call them out of hiding. Vs. 9. God interrogates his creatures on their odd behavior. “Why ever would you hide from me?” Vs. 10. Of course, God knows what is wrong. God’s creatures now have secrets from God (or so they think). They don’t want to be naked in front of God anymore than they want to be naked before each other. There can be but one explanation for their unusual conduct: “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” vs. 11.

Now it is clear that the humans cannot hide their nakedness any longer-at least not from God. Rather than giving God a straightforward “yes” to the inquiry about the tree, Adam moves immediately to his defense. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Vs. 12. The woman explains, “The serpent [whom you made and put in the garden] tricked me, and I ate.” Vs. 13. If the serpent had an excuse, we don’t get a chance to hear it. God evidently feels he has taken enough evidence to enter judgment on this case.

Judgment is first pronounced upon the serpent. Henceforth, the serpent will be cursed even within the animal world, doomed to crawl on its belly eating dust for the rest of its days. Vs. 14. Furthermore, there will be enmity between the serpent and humanity that will continue throughout the generations to come. Vs. 15. In my opinion, we read too much into this text when we construe the “crushing” of the serpent’s head in this verse as the victory of Christ over Satan. The serpent is not a demonic figure in this narrative. It is one of God’s good creations. Though “cunning,” it is not inherently evil. Yet its presence in the garden and the role it plays in this story tells us that there is an element of randomness in God’s good creation. God made a world loaded with potential for good, but the potential for tragic and unintended consequences exists as well.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty I have found in preaching this text is the baggage it has accumulated over the last century in the still active campaign of “creationists” to defend their interpretation of this text as an historical, geological, astronomical and biological account of origins in the face of all we have learned from the sciences. Even our own theological language characterizing this story as “the Fall” mischaracterizes the narrative truth. This is not the story of a pristine beginning spoiled by a stolen apple. When the text is read in that way, we are left with a host of imponderables. Who is the serpent? Where did he come from? Why did God put him in the garden to begin with? It does not help to identify the serpent with the devil. That only kicks the metaphysical can further out into the cosmos. For now we must ask where the devil came from.

This creation story is best understood as descriptive of what now is rather than an explanation for why it is. To the extent that there is a “why” lurking in the narrative, it consists only in acknowledging that God creates a world filled with creatures loaded with potential. Human inquisitiveness, cunning essential to survival, knowledge that is both promising and dangerous are all woven into the fabric of creation. The creation of the “earth creature” or what we might call the emergence of self-consciousness and differentiation from the animal world is a good development, enabling the human to serve as God’s steward and gardener for the earth. Yet this same development brings with it the temptation to exploit, dominate and control. In a sense, each generation is Adam and Eve. We are born into a world with certain givens. There is inherent randomness. We inherit a history of violence, injustice and cruelty that continues to make itself felt. It is in this sense that we can speak of what is often (and inaptly) called “original sin.” Yet there are endless opportunities also for enacting compassion, justice and peace.

If you were to read further in the chapter, you would discover that judgment is not the last word in this story. Though the consequences of their transgression are not reversible, God nevertheless sends Adam and Eve from the garden with clothing made by God’s own hand, covering the nakedness that so terrifies them. Genesis 3:21. God has not given up on the human creatures. There is more to this story which is only beginning to unfold.

Psalm 130

This psalm is one of seven “penitential psalms” (the others being Psalm 6; Psalm 32; Psalm 38; Psalm 51; Psalm 102; and Psalm 143) so named by Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, a statesman, writer and scholar of the sixth century. It is characterized by Hebrew Scripture scholars as a “lament” containing all of the essential elements of its type:

  1. Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
  2. Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
  3. Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
  4. Witness of praise to the community, vss. 7-8.

See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. The Hebrew word “mimmaamkym” “From out of the depths” is a term that is equated with “sheol” or the abode of the dead. For the Israelite there was no “after life.” The concept of resurrection from death came only much later in Israel’s thinking. Consequently, death was the end of any meaningful life. To be in sheol was to be separated from the realm of life and therefore from the Lord of Life. There is no praise of Israel’s God in sheol. Consequently, the psalmist must have been in very deep distress, though we cannot tell what his or her specific complaints were.

According to Anderson, supra, the “word ‘depths’ [mimmaamkym] reverberates with mythical overtones of the abyss of watery chaos, the realm of the powers of confusion, darkness and death that are arrayed against the sovereign power of God.” Ibid. Perhaps, but the point seems to be that the psalmist feels as utterly distant from God who is “enthroned upon the cherubim” (Psalm 99:1) as any creature can be. This distance is due, in part at least, to the psalmist’s sin. Though clearly in some sort of deep trouble, the psalmist knows that s/he is in no position to claim God’s help and salvation. Nevertheless, the psalmist is able to “hope in the Lord” and encourages all Israel to do the same because, “there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.” Vs. 4. It is worth repeating here that the New Testament did not invent forgiveness. God has always been and always will be forgiving toward his people Israel and toward his people engrafted into the covenant with Israel through baptism into Jesus Christ. If that were not the case, if God did in fact “mark iniquities” (vs. 3), there would be no point in prayers such as this.

The psalmist is resolved to “wait for the Lord.” Vs. 5. S/he knows that answers to prayer are not instantaneous. Prayer requires a willingness to wait and watch for the answer. Jesus also told his disciples “Ask, and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Matthew 7:7-8. Thus, asking is only the beginning. One must then seek the answer and be willing to knock on what appears to be a closed door.

“My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning.” Vs. 6. This is a striking image. In Jerusalem, watchmen took their post after sunset to keep a look out for approaching enemies. They were the ancient world’s equivalent of early warning systems. It was a tedious job on a long winter’s night and one can well imagine the watchman, who had no clock or wrist watch, scrutinizing the horizon for signs of the sunrise signaling that his lonely vigil was finally coming to an end.

In verses 7-8 the focus changes from the psalmist’s personal prayer to an admonition directed to all Israel to hope in the Lord. As we saw in Psalm 51, Israel frequently took ancient prayers of individuals and adapted them for use in public worship as prayers for the whole people. In this case, an Israelite who lived after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem may well have found in this individual’s plea for personal help a reflection of Israel’s post exilic distress. Having lost the line of David, the Temple, and her land, Israel was likewise “crying out from the depths.” Like the individual, Israel turned to the Word of the Lord and God’s promises for comfort and hope, knowing that with her God was forgiveness. Vs. 4.

2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1

For a brief but thorough introduction to Paul’s Second Letter to the Church in Corinth, see the Summary Article by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. In short, Paul’s relationship with the church at Corinth deteriorated significantly between the writing of I Corinthians and II Corinthians. It appears that there were some individuals or groups within the church at Corinth that were challenging Paul’s apostolic authority, undermining his leadership and questioning his fitness as a preacher. Following his first letter, Paul made what he describes as a “painful visit” to the church. II Corinthians 2:1. This visit did not accomplish whatever it was he had intended. Not wanting to make another such visit, Paul wrote a “severe letter” to the church in Corinth out of “much affliction and anguish of heart.” II Corinthians 2:4. Though we cannot be certain, many commentators believe that at least part of this “severe” letter is contained in II Corinthians 10-13. E.g., Godspeed, Edgar J., An Introduction to the New Testament, (c. 1937 by University of Chicago Press) pp. 61-62. Whatever the case may be, it is evident that Paul was concerned about the effect his letter would have upon the church and so sent his associate, Titus, to Corinth in order to deal with the fallout. (It is also possible that Paul sent the letter along with Titus). Paul became so preoccupied with the problems at Corinth and the potential impact of his letter that he cut short a preaching tour in Troas and traveled to Macedonia in search of Titus. There Paul finally caught up with his associate who brought him a very favorable report from Corinth. II Corinthians 7:5-13.

Paul’s severe letter had evidently done its work. The congregation gave its full support to Paul. Paul’s opponents were disciplined by the congregation so severely that Paul had to write and urge the church to reach out to them with forgiveness and “reaffirm” their love for these errant members. II Corinthians 2:5-11. It is this third letter from Paul to Corinth from which our lesson comes.

Our reading begins with Paul’s lose citation to Psalm 116:10: “I kept faith, even when I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted.’” To make sense of this, you need to go back and read II Corinthians 4:7-12 where Paul speaks about the afflictions he has endured as a missionary of the gospel of Jesus Christ. These include being “persecuted” and “struck down.” Notwithstanding these afflictions, the Spirit continues to give Paul the courage to “speak out.” Vs. 13. Paul is convinced that, though he is always “carrying in the body the death of Jesus” (II Corinthians 4:10), the God who “raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.” Vs. 14.

For this reason, says Paul, “we do not lose heart.” Vs. 16. Even though our “outer nature” is wasting away, “our inner nature is being renewed every day.” Vs. 16. The former is evident. We experience the aging process that diminishes our bodily health and strength. We see our achievements fade into insignificance. Our friends move away, die or become estranged through time and circumstance. The universe, we are told, is expanding and doomed to run out of steam. The latter is not evident. Based solely on the empirical evidence, no one can assert that we are being renewed even as we are in the process of dying or that this expanding universe is being transformed into a new heaven and earth. This reality is only illuminated by the resurrection of Jesus from death. It is for that reason we dare to believe God is at work bending each subatomic particle of the universe and turning all of its energies toward redemption. In the words of Rick Barger, president of Trinity Lutheran Seminary, “If the tomb had not been empty on Easter Sunday, we’d have nothing to talk about.”

This passage is incredibly good news for social workers who spend their energies helping people crawl out of horrible situations only to fall back in again. It is good news for teachers struggling to provide a quality education to underprivileged children in underfunded, poorly run and neglected schools. It is good news for pastors of churches that continue to struggle notwithstanding their enormous efforts to build them up. We do not look only to what is seen in the light of the status quo. We view everything in the light of Jesus’ resurrection which demonstrates that the universe is bent toward the kingdom of God and that life in conformity with that kingdom is eternal.

Mark 3:20-35

What would you do if you learned that your adult son was acting erratically, not eating properly and getting himself into trouble with the authorities? Upon hearing these very reports about Jesus, his mother and brothers did what I believe any loving family would do. They organized an intervention. It was their intent to “seize” Jesus and take him home by force if necessary. They might have succeeded but for the crowd around Jesus they could not penetrate. Failing to reach Jesus, they send word that they desire to speak with him. His response must have been a blow to their hearts, particularly to his mother. “Who are my mother and brothers?” Vs. 33. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Vs. 35.

As I have noted in previous posts, there is no shortage of organizations under the Christian franchise devoted to preserving the “traditional family.” One such organization is Focus on the Family whose self described mission is “to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with as many people as possible by nurturing and defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide.” Of course I think sharing the Gospel is critical and know well that success on that score requires cooperation with the Holy Spirit. I am not necessarily opposed to promoting biblical truths either, though I suspect I might not agree with Focus on what those truths are. The real sticking point, though, is the “God-ordained institution of the family.” According to Focus, the ideal family is “one man and one woman committed to each other for life, raising their children in a loving, supportive home.” That, however, is not what Jesus just told us. Marriage is not the foundation of family and blood lineage does not define its boundaries. Baptism is the foundation of family and trumps all other relationships, including marriage. See Luke 18:29-30. For disciples of Jesus, water is thicker than blood. Church is the only “God ordained” family there is. Focus on the Family is therefore focusing on the wrong family.

That is not to say that families and households are not important. To the contrary, they are. I agree with Focus that “our culture increasingly disparages family life,” though I believe poverty, inadequate wages, increasing demands for employee productivity, requirements for worker mobility, lack of job security, lack of access to adequate health care and erosion of quality educational opportunities have a lot more to do with that than marriage equality-the culprit blamed by Focus. Does anyone really believe that marriage of the gay couple across the street poses a greater threat to his/her family’s well-being than losing a job or health care coverage? If Focus is truly committed to the welfare of families, I would recommend to its board of directors a campaign against late stage capitalism. Somehow, I don’t think that would fly.

Sandwiched in between the two ends of this episode with Jesus’ family is the allegation of the scribes that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul who enables him to cast out demons. Jesus responds by pointing out the faulty reasoning of the scribes. Vs. 22. Why would Satan give Jesus power over his own legions? If in fact “Satan is cast[ing] out Satan,” his kingdom is imploding. That can only mean the Kingdom of God is at hand-just as Jesus has been saying. Vss. 23-25. Jesus goes on to say that no one can plunder a strong man’s house unless he first binds the strong man. Thus, Jesus can only do what he is doing because he has, in fact, bound Satan. Vs. 28.

Finally, we have that ever troublesome verse about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit for which one “never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” Vs. 28-29. That verse has been a torment to many people over the centuries, not the least of whom was the father of Soren Kierkegaard who confided to his son that he once cursed God for the dreariness of his life while living as an impoverished serf. What does it mean to blaspheme the Holy Spirit? In the first place, it is important to note that this admonition is not addressed to the public but to the specific scribes who equated Jesus’ exorcism of demons with the work of demons. Unable to deny that Jesus has truly freed people from the power of Satan and unwilling to ascribe any good to Jesus whatever the evidence may show, they resort to nonsensical arguments in order to discredit Jesus. These particular scribes are hardened in their opposition to Jesus. They are not doubters, skeptics or even indifferent to Jesus. They have made up their minds and formed their opinions about Jesus. They refuse to allow the facts to confuse the issue.

To the few folks I have met over the years (and there have been a few) concerned about whether they might have committed the unforgivable sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit, I have simply told them that their concern in that regard is a pretty clear indication that they have not. I am fairly convinced that the persons (if any) who are actually guilty of this sin don’t much care and never lose a night’s sleep over it. In sum, if you are worried about having committed this unforgivable sin, you haven’t. If you have committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, you are not the least bit worried about it and you are probably not reading this blog anyway.

Sunday, February 8th

FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Everlasting God, you give strength to the weak and power to the faint. Make us agents of your healing and wholeness, that your good news may be made known to the ends of your creation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Every time I read the gospels I discover new significance in something to which I had never paid much attention in the past. This time around I was drawn to reflect on Peter’s mother-in-law. The mere fact that he had one indicates that he must also have had a wife and perhaps children as well. Yet, as Mark tells it, Peter left “everything” to follow Jesus. Mark 10:28. This on the heels of last week’s gospel lesson in which James and John left their father with his hired men to follow Jesus.

One hallmark of those movements we define as religious “cults” is the tendency to undermine family loyalty, even to the point of turning converts against the rest of their families. Yet isn’t that precisely what Jesus said he came to do? “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me…” Matthew 10:34-37. I cannot help but wonder whether Peter’s faithful response to Jesus generated the same kind of strife under his own roof.

When Jesus’ own mother and brothers learned that Jesus was overworked, undernourished, emotionally unstable and getting himself into trouble with the law, they did what I think any loving family would do. They organized an intervention. They planned to take him home-by force if necessary. Jesus’ response to their request for an audience with him is telling. “Who are my mother and brothers?” He went on to say, “whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Mark 3:31-35. You can hardly call Jesus a champion of “family values.”

I probably don’t need to point out that a lot of religious energy of late has gone into saving or shoring up the “traditional family,” an entity that has a lot more affinities with Leave it to Beaver than any traditions you are likely to find in the Bible. Focus on the Family, Family Research Council; American Family Association; Campaign for Working Families are just a few examples of family preservation efforts. I have deliberately not provided links to the websites for these outfits. I just wasted twenty minutes of my life there which I know I will never get back. I don’t wish that fate on anyone else.

This misdirected “focus on the family” is not just a right wing phenomenon. For us mainliners, though, it is more a matter of accommodation than advocacy. We have positioned ourselves as an institution designed to support families, provide services to families and meet the needs of families. We go out of our way to be family friendly. It is gratifying, I must say, that many of our churches are beginning to understand the concept of family in a broader and more inclusive way. Still, loyalty to family, whatever you conceive it to be, is not the same as loyalty to Jesus. It is hard to imagine one of our churches calling anyone to abandon family for the sake of God’s reign. I don’t believe most of us are capable of imagining loyalty to Jesus that would conflict with being a good citizen, a responsible parent and a loyal spouse. Sometimes it seems that our sole reason for existence is merely to enable people to be those very things.

Truth be told, family isn’t such a big deal in the New Testament. Mark and John tell us nothing about Jesus’ family origins. Matthew and Luke both give us lengthy genealogies of Joseph, but it turns out that he has nothing to do with the conception of Jesus. If anybody’s genealogy counts, it is Mary’s. We don’t know squat about her origins. It seems the only family that matters in the gospel is the one called into existence by Jesus. Our baptismal family, not our birth family, is primary. Water is thicker than blood.

Understand that I am not trashing families of any kind. Nor do I believe that love for family is inherently incompatible with faithful discipleship. But like any one of God’s good gifts, family cannot carry the freight of idolatrous infatuation. I believe that some families break down under the weight of expectations we place on them. Some families are organized around priorities, values and objectives unworthy of Christ’s kingdom. I believe that sometimes family becomes a tyrannical, unsafe and abusive environment from which people need to be liberated. I am convinced that family, like everything else on the planet, needs to be dissolved, reborn and reconfigured in order to exist in a life giving way under God’s gracious reign. Rather than focusing on the family, the family needs to be refocused on, subordinated to and incorporated into the Body of Christ. That is where our ultimate family loyalty belongs.

Isaiah 40:21-31

Chapter forty of Isaiah marks the beginning of a section of that book commonly referred to as “The Book of Consolations” or “Second Isaiah.” Whereas the prophet Isaiah of the first thirty-nine chapters preached to Judah in the 8th Century as the nation lived uneasily in the shadow of the Assyrian Empire, the historical context of this unnamed prophet we refer to as “Second Isaiah” is Babylon’s defeat by Cyrus the Great in or around 538 B.C.E. Babylon’s policy was to carry into exile the leading citizenship of the nations it conquered. This reduced the potential for revolution in these captive provinces while bringing into Babylonian society thousands of skilled and gifted leaders. Cyrus’ policy was to permit peoples, such as the Jews, living in exile within the Babylonian territories he conquered to return to their homelands. Though often hailed as an enlightened and compassionate act, Cyrus’ policy was calculated to destabilize Babylon. When the captive populations learned that Cyrus intended to set them free, they were quick to rally to his side against their Babylonian rulers. The prophet of the Book of Consolations recognized in this new historical development the hand of God creating an opportunity for the people of Judah to return to their homeland-and much, much more.

Our lesson opens with a question: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth…” vss. 21-22. This indicates a new development in Israel’s thinking about YAHWEH. Although Israel always praised YAHWEH as the greatest of all gods, she did not necessarily deny in principle the existence of other gods. See, e.g., Psalm 82 in which “God has taken his place in the divine counsel; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” Here the prophet makes the assertion that other gods have no more substance than the nations that depend on them. In fact, it is YAHWEH who raises up nations and kings for his own purposes. Vss. 23-24. The same goes for Israel. The kingdom under David served its purpose for a time and that time has passed. But does that mean YAHWEH is through with Israel as a people? No! Even though Israel has lost the line of David, the temple and its land-all the things by which it used to identify itself-YAHWEH still has a part for Israel to play. As the prophet points out later on, Israel’s new purpose is far greater than merely restoring the kingdom of David to its former glory. Isaiah 49:6.

“Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?” vs. 26. Another rhetorical question. Ancient near eastern religion attributed dread powers to the stars and planets. Their alignment was believed to control the fate of nations and kingdoms. Not so, according to the prophet. YAHWEH created the stars, named them and set them in their courses to give light to the world. The universe is not a haunted house and the human race is not helplessly caught in the crossfire between warring deities. The world is the product of a Creator who wills salvation for the good earth that he made.

“Why do you say, O Jacob and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?” Vs. 27. Now the prophet comes right to the point. In view of the fact that God numbers the stars and presides over the rise and fall of all nations and peoples, how can Israel say that God has forgotten her? How can she imagine that YAHWEH’s salvation has failed? The prophet sums up his/her argument by pointing out that YAHWEH is lord not merely of Israel, but of the whole earth. Vs. 28. Not only so, but YAHWEH is concerned for the whole earth and all its peoples. Israel has an important role to play in that universal salvation of the whole earth that is about to be unveiled.

“They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.” Vs. 31. The Jewish exiles feel faint and powerless. They have lost the hallmarks that identified them as a people: temple, king and land. So the prophet encourages them with the promise that YAHWEH will renew their strength and enable them to take on the mission to which he is now calling them.

Clearly, the prophet would have us know that Israel’s God is the Lord of nature and history. The prophet is not encouraging fatalism here or a passive trust in God to make everything come out all right in the end. To the contrary, the prophet is keenly aware of the geopolitical events transpiring around him/her. Where most of the exiles might be tempted to see in Persia’s conquest of Babylon only a change of masters under the inevitable yolk of slavery, the prophet recognizes the hand of YAHWEH opening up an opportunity for Israel to begin anew. Just as God once parted the Red Sea for Israel to escape from Egypt, so now God is opening up a way for Israel’s departure from Babylon and return to the land of promise. This is nothing short of a new Exodus. So far from encouraging passivity, the prophet is calling his/her people to seize the moment and begin a bold, new undertaking filled with risk and promise.

Such prophetic imagination is critical for mainline churches in the North American context. For many of us exiles, the landscape looks bleak and unpromising. Never again will our great houses of worship be filled to standing room only on Sunday mornings. Never again will pastors command the honor, respect and social standing we knew during the first half of the prior century. Many of us oscillate between frantic efforts to make the old engine work as it used to and despairing inaction. Others of us recognize a unique opportunity for the church to shed cultural shackles that have compromised its ministry for more than a millennium and become the Body of Christ Jesus would have us be. As has always been the case, the future belongs to the prophets and those who share their vision.

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

For my discussion of this psalm in its entirety, I invite you to revisit my post of January 4th. Many of the same themes found in our lesson for Isaiah are echoed in the psalm. God “heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds.” Vs. 3. God “determines the number of the stars, he gives to all of them their names.” Vs. 4. Most striking is this juxtaposition between the naming of stars and tender care for “the downtrodden.” Vs. 6. This care extends to the animal and plant population of the planet as well. God gives rain to “make[] the grass grow upon the hills.” Vs. 8. God “gives to the beasts their food.” Vs. 9.

I am particularly struck by verses 10-11 in which the psalmist reminds us that God takes no pleasure in physical prowess-a discordant note at this time as I have one eye on the computer screen and the other on the Super Bowl. I make no apology for the delight I take in the strength of my Seahawks. I believe, however, that the psalmist’s reference here is not to athletic prowess, but to military strength. This disparagement of militarism is a consistent theme throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Even in the Book of Joshua, which is very much about Israel and its wars against Canaan, victory is always attributed to the power of the Lord. A Veteran’s Day holiday would be unthinkable in Israel. No one in Israel would even think about “thanking a veteran” for victory, freedom or prosperity. To the contrary, the psalmist states unequivocally, “for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm give them the victory; but thy right hand, and thy arm and the light of thy countenance; for thou didst delight in them.” Psalm 44:3.

America has a deep cultural affection for war heroes, tough cops and gun slinging cowboys whose freewheeling violence brings about a sort of frontier justice far more appealing than the hard-won kind meted out by courts of law. In their recent book, The Myth of the American Superhero, (c. 2002 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett argue that, in a culture that doubts the integrity and ability of its government and institutions to achieve justice, people are naturally drawn to the uniquely American “monomyth.” This “monomyth” supplies the underlying plot for stories about heroes who must take the law into their own hands in order to rid a community of evil. The world of entertainment is laced with such monomythic tales. We find them in the oldest black and white westerns that feature a virtuous gunslinger riding into town to rid the populace of a criminal gang neither the law nor the courts can handle. The same basic plot can be found in such recent productions as the Star Wars movies in which “jedi knights” with superhuman powers and a code of law all their own rise up to destroy an evil empire that has usurped the powers of the old republic. The most insidious element of this myth is the unspoken and unquestioned assumption that, when all is said and done, evil can only be eliminated by violence.

Nothing illustrates the futility and the horrific consequences of applying this simplistic Hollywood metaphysic to deeply complicated geopolitical conflicts than our recent military forays into the middle east in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. So far from vanquishing the powers of evil, these exploits have simply bred more powerful and increasingly violent enemies. Peace in the war torn middle east seems further away than ever. Nevertheless, the entertainment industry and our political leaders (who are more entertainers than leaders) continue to operate within the constricted parameters of the monomyth inflaming further conflict, sacrificing more lives and glorifying this senseless butchery with parades, memorial services and white crosses at Arlington Cemetery.

Our country needs in the worst way to have an honest conversation about the role of violence in our culture and its effect on everything from domestic relationships to foreign policy. I believe that the church is an excellent place for such a discussion to begin. We are as divided, confused and complicit with violence as the society at large. We are as caught up in the cult of the warrior and as oblivious to the insidious ideology of institutionalized brutality as are our unbelieving neighbors. We find it nearly impossible to distinguish the “way of life” our nation seeks to defend with the sword from the way of discipleship calling upon us to forsake the sword. We could use some strong pastoral leadership to get this discussion rolling.

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

“Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” vs. 16. There are echoes here of the prophet Jeremiah: If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name’, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” Jeremiah 20:9. Paul grounds both his apostolic authority and his motivation in his call. To be sure, he is entitled to compensation for his work of preaching as he has argued earlier in the chapter. I Corinthians 9:3-7. So also the believers in Corinth have a legal right to consort with prostitutes and are free from moral constraints against eating meat sacrificed to idols. But exercising a legal right does not equate with fulfilling a moral obligation. Being free to do something does not end the ethical inquiry for a disciple of Jesus. Again, everything comes down to what builds up the Body of Christ and enhances the church’s witness to Christ. True freedom, Paul argues, is not the liberty to do whatever you will, but the will to do that which serves Christ and his church. For the sake of the gospel Paul has forgone his “right” to make his living from his work as an evangelist.

Verse 19 sums up Paul’s major thesis: though free from the bondage of external legal/moral demands, the apostle is nevertheless bound to the service of his “neighbor” in the broadest sense of that word. That this obligation extends to those who Paul would win to faith in Christ demonstrates that this service is not limited to those within the church. As Martin Luther would put it fifteen hundred years later, “The Christian is a perfectly free lord subject to none; the Christian is a dutiful servant and slave to all.” What this amounts to is a reorientation of the Torah specifically and all “law” generally. Law is useless as a means of pleasing God. It is critically important, however, to the service of one’s neighbor.

This text is worth talking about because, in my own experience, most solid, pious, sincere, church attending people still don’t get it. I would say that most folks who self-identify as Christians still believe that God’s preoccupation is with the law and human obedience to it. It is almost as though God first created the law and then, as an afterthought, decided that it would be a good idea to create some people to obey all of God’s wonderful rules. So enamored is God with his rules that he can’t endure their violation nor can he forgive an infraction without extracting an appropriate penalty. In reality, however, God has no need of Torah. God’s people need Torah to protect their freedom from bondage to all that is less than God. Because “the Sabbath was created for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath,” Sabbath law (and all the other commandments, statutes and regulations) must be interpreted and applied in ways that are life giving and freeing for God’s people.

The greatest commandment, as Jesus tells us, is first to love God above all and next to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Mark 12:28-31. Because one’s neighbor is created in God’s image, it is impossible to observe either of these commandments without obeying the other. In reality, the two commandments are one. Sometimes obedience to the greatest commandments means that other commandments, even one of the Ten Commandments, must be set aside. Mark 2:23-28. The polestar for interpreting and applying Torah, from Paul’s perspective (and that of Jesus as well), is love for the neighbor. Such love requires one to put oneself into the neighbor’s skin and see the world through the neighbor’s eyes, putting aside all judgment. It is in this context that we need to understand Paul’s remarks about “becoming all things to all people.” Vs 22. It is not that Paul molds his personality, convictions and ethical behavior to conform to the cultural norms governing whatever community in which he happens to find himself. Rather, his preaching and ministry are shaped by his understanding of his hearers, their experience of bondage and their longing for salvation. That is a model of mission and ministry worth emulating.

Mark 1:29-39

The messianic authority of Jesus displayed in the synagogue last Sunday with the exorcism of a demon is further illustrated through Jesus’ power over illness. First Century people tended to view illness as a personal force hostile to God’s intent for humanity akin to demon possession. Hence, the similarity between the healing accounts and exorcism stories in the New Testament. Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 80. The Greek word for “lift up” used to describe Jesus’ taking Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand and raising her up is one typically used in Talmudic literature to mean “cure” or “heal.” Ibid. at 81. That immediately following her healing Peter’s mother-in-law began to serve him and the disciples indicates the swiftness and completeness of the cure. I also believe that it illustrates how the exercise of God’s mercy is intended to enable the recipient to become a channel of God’s goodness to others.

The people come to Jesus at Peter’s home after sundown. As you may recall from last week’s lesson, this was a Sabbath day. The Sabbath ended at sundown, at which time it became permissible to carry the sick through the streets to the place where Jesus was and permissible also for Jesus to perform healings. In addition to healings, Jesus performs more exorcisms, commanding the expelled demons to keep silent about his identity as Israel’s messiah. This “messianic secret” has been the source of much scholarly debate. William Werde, a prominent commentator around the turn of the last century viewed this aspect of Jesus’ teaching as a literary invention of the early church to explain why Jesus was never recognized as messiah during his earthly ministry. Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien, Göttingen 1901. (Published in English as The Messianic Secret, London 1971). More recent commentators maintain that the secrecy motif goes back to Jesus himself who wished to conceal his messianic identity to prevent its being misunderstood. E.g., Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.); Cranfield, C.E.B., St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 by Cambridge University Press).

As Morna Hooker points out, there are problems with both theories. If Jesus himself had been concerned about being misunderstood, it hardly seems likely that he would have chosen a confusing and enigmatic title for himself like “son of man” while performing works that could not help but call attention to himself. Werde’s attribution of these secrecy commands to the early church in order to explain Jesus’ lack of messianic recognition are equally problematic. One of the few so called “historical facts” we can be reasonably sure of is that Jesus was put to death by Rome as a messianic pretender. Thus, whether he sought the title or not, Jesus was clearly thought to have assumed a messianic identity during his lifetime. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to St. Mark, Blacks New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 67. Nevertheless, Werde was correct insofar as he pinpoints the resurrection as the turning point in the church’s understanding of Jesus. It is not so much that Jesus’ resurrection caused the disciples to discover Jesus’ messianic identity as that it clarified for them the nature of his messianic mission. “It is not that the Church imposes a messianic interpretation on to a non-messianic life and death: rather, in light of Easter faith the disciples see events from a new perspective.” Ibid.

The “secret” functions throughout Mark in exactly the opposite way one would expect secrecy to work. Rather than concealing Jesus’ identity, it operates to reveal that identity to Mark’s readers. Jesus’ life, ministry and death remain an enigma and cannot be rightly understood until after he is raised from death. Only as God declares God’s emphatic “yes” to all that Jesus said, did and was can his messianic identity be properly recognized and believed.

Once again, to ask how much of the “secret” can be attributed to the so called “historical Jesus” is to raise a question the apostolic authors would neither have understood nor cared about. The peculiar belief that there exists a pure and objective history, unsullied by human interpretation and accessible to empirical historical critical investigation, is a relic of 19th Century thinking. Even what we observe with our own eyes is interpreted by layers of meaning we have accumulated through a lifetime of experience. So the question is not whether the gospel accounts comport with some non-existent objective historical standard, but rather whether the apostolic witness is a reliable testimony to who Jesus was and what he did for us. That question cannot be answered by any amount of historical critical research.

Following this Sabbath evening of healing, Jesus arose early in the morning and went out to pray. The readers of Mark’s gospel, who knew the Jesus story well, would probably make the connection between this “arising” and Jesus’ rising from death early on the morning of the first day of the week. In Mark there is no resurrection appearance of Jesus nor any account of the Great Commission if we accept (as I think we must) the ending of Mark’s gospel at Mark 16:8. Yet it has been persuasively argued that Mark’s resurrection encounter appears at the center of his gospel in his story of the Transfiguration. Perhaps in the light of Easter we can recognize in Jesus’ invitation for his disciples to follow him in declaring the good news to other towns and villages throughout Galilee the giving of the Great Commission.

Sunday, June 22nd

SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Jeremiah 20:7–13
Psalm 69:7–18
Romans 6:1b–11
Matthew 10:24–39

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Teach us, good Lord God, to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labor and not to ask for reward, except that of knowing that we do your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Let’s be honest. Whether we are pastors, congregational leaders or merely solid members of the church, we have been wounded by the church at some point in our lives. Somebody has broken a confidence and shared information about us or a loved one that was not intended for public consumption. A particular group of people with an agenda has undermined our leadership by working behind the scenes fostering opposition to our plans and proposals. We have heard words of judgment, condemnation and criticism when we most needed a word of grace. We have been bullied and intimidated by alpha males who can find no other place than the church to prove their manhood. We have had to hear self-righteous church ladies’ scold us for the antics of our children during the service. So even though nobody has ever beaten me up and left me in the stocks overnight, I can sort of understand how Jeremiah felt when he uttered the prayer we find in our first reading for this coming Sunday.

Jeremiah does not pull any punches with his prayer. He lays it all on the line. He is mad as hell! He is angry with God for leading him into a ministry that has proved to be just one failure after another. He is angry with his congregation for its rejection of his preaching, its opposition to his mission and its violence against his person. He is ready to throw in the towel and call it quits-except that he can’t.

“If I were to say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name, there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in and I cannot.”

Jeremiah 20:9. It seems Jeremiah simply can’t help himself. He has to preach.

The first bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Rev. Herbert Chilstrom, once told a group of college students considering pastoral ministry, “Don’t become a pastor unless you just can’t help it.” Jeremiah seems to fit that profile to a tee. He is captive to the word of the Lord. As much as he might like to abandon his calling (and who wouldn’t after spending a night in the stocks?) he cannot bring himself to do it. As bishops, pastors and church leaders of all kinds know, proclaiming the word of the Lord is sometimes a thankless task. You sometimes have to tell people things they would rather not hear. You can count on being misunderstood, misinterpreted and misrepresented. It goes with the territory. Discipleship is a risky business. Follow Jesus and you might lose a few friends. You might lose your job. You might get the crap beaten out of you. You might get nailed to a cross. A prophet who understands all of that, but still just can’t keep his/her mouth shut is the real deal.

Jeremiah 20:7–13

The Book of Jeremiah stands out from the other prophetic books in this respect, namely, that it presents us with a rough chronology of the prophet’s career and a deep look into his soul. In brief outline, Jeremiah received his call at the beginning of what turned out to be the twilight years of the Davidic kingdom in Judah. He was most likely born at some point during the reign of King Josiah from 640 B.C.E. to 609 B.C.E. Josiah presided over Judah’s brief return to independence and power. This revival took place shortly after the dominant Assyrian Empire experienced military setbacks causing it to lose its hold over Palestine. Under Josiah’s leadership, Judah seized this window of opportunity to reassert her power, not only over her original territory, but also throughout what had been the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Josiah, then, was presiding over a kingdom comparable to that of David and Solomon.

Like nature, geopolitics abhors a vacuum. Beginning in 609 B.C.E. events moved quickly for the nation of Judah. Josiah was killed when he attempted to block the Egyptian army from joining up with the remnant of Assyrian forces struggling against Babylonia, the new rising imperial star of the Near East. Evidently, he feared a resurgence of Judah’s old foe, Assyria, more than any threat Babylon might pose. Josiah’s son Jehoahaz succeeded him, but ruled only three months. The victorious Egyptians took Jehoahaz captive, brought him back to Egypt and placed his brother Jehoiakim on the throne as their vassal. As it turned out, Babylon, not Egypt or Assyria, would prove the greater danger for Judah. The Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar ultimately defeated the joint Egyptian and Assyrian forces at Carchemish ending Egyptian sovereignty over Palestine. Recognizing that discretion is the better part of valor (initially at least), Jehoiakim surrendered to the Babylonian force and became a puppet of that empire.

After three years of Babylonian vassalage, Jehoiakim (or his advisors) decided that Judah had had enough. He rebelled against the Babylonian empire. Perhaps he thought that his overlords were preoccupied with weightier matters and could not spare the military resources required to subjugate his small kingdom. He was wrong. The Babylonian response was quick and brutal. Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and was on the point of crushing it when Jehoiakim died. His son, Jehoiachin, took the throne immediately thereafter and promptly surrendered himself to the Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar took the king and his family as prisoners back to Babylon along with the king’s military leaders, his advisors and all the smiths and craftspeople in the land. He also removed everything of value from the temple in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Nebuchadnezzar spared the city of Jerusalem and placed on the throne of David Jehoiachin’s uncle, Zedekiah, to govern the kingdom as Babylon’s vassal.

One might think that Zedekiah would have learned a thing or two from observing the rash actions of his brother and their dire consequences. But there was no learning curve for the house of David. Almost immediately Zedekiah began to plot with Egypt and other Palestinian nations against the reign of Babylon. His ill-fated rebellion ended in 587 B.C.E. during the eleventh year of his reign. The Babylonians besieged the city of Jerusalem. The king was captured when attempting to escape the city and flee to Egypt. After being forced to witness the execution of his sons, Zedekiah was blinded and taken prisoner to Babylon where he died. Jerusalem was sacked, the city walls broken down and the temple destroyed. Another substantial number of persons were taken prisoner and deported to Babylon.

It was during these tumultuous times that Jeremiah prophesied to his people. He had the unenviable job of proclaiming the end of Judah’s existence as the kingdom of David in the land of Canaan. Babylon was God’s agent of judgment and would prevail over Judah and Jerusalem. Resistance was not only futile, but constituted rebellion against the Lord. There would be no miraculous rescue this time. Like all prophets, Jeremiah carried a message of salvation and the promise of a new beginning. But salvation lay on the other side of judgment. There would be no way around exile. Jeremiah knew, though, that faith could find a way through it.

Scholars have debated the dating of Jeremiah’s call to prophesy, the timing of his oracles and utterances as well as the approximate date of his birth. Generally speaking, there remains a scholarly tradition that regards the early part of the Book of Jeremiah as coming from him and credits the narrative sections with being historically reliable-though commentators differ on the history they reflect! More recent biblical study pays more attention to the process of the book’s formation and assumes that the person of Jeremiah set forth therein is a literary product of post-exilic scribes piecing together preserved oracles, narrative traditions and anecdotes in ways meaningful to the post-exilic community. I am no more interested in the historical Jeremiah than I am in the so called “historical Jesus.” I tend to agree, however, with the observation of Walter Brueggemann that it is “probable that the person, memory, and impact of Jeremiah were so powerful and enduring that personal reality presided over and shaped the imaginative reconstruction.” Brueggemann, Walter, “The Book of Jeremiah,” Interpretation, Vol 37, #2, April 1983, pp. 131-132.

The prayer of Jeremiah found in our reading for Sunday has been labeled one of his many “confessions,” the others being Jeremiah 11:18-12:6; Jeremiah 15:10-21; and Jeremiah 17:12-18. This literary characterization is inaccurate and needlessly confusing. What we actually have here is a classic lament. Prayers of this type are found throughout the Psalms, e.g., Psalm 3; Psalm 4; Psalm 5; Psalm 22. The lament, as I have noted before, is not just a lot of “bitching and moaning.” It is a complaint made to God by God’s covenant partner, Israel. The Psalms are altogether unintelligible unless that covenant relationship is presupposed. It is precisely because God has made promises to Israel that Israel may be so bold as to demand that God keep those promises and even challenge God when it seems as though God has failed to live up to the terms of the covenant. This has nothing to do with the general and woefully tiresome whine, “How come God let’s bad things happen to good people?” To that puerile inquiry one could easily respond, “What obligation does God have to get involved with anyone’s individual woes?” But Israel is not just “anyone,” and God is not simply “the supreme being.” God is the one who liberated Israel from slavery and promised her a land, a people and a blessing. The lament arises not out of any foggy notion that God is somehow ethically obliged to reward good behavior and punish bad. It springs from the terms of a covenant under which God has agreed to be bound to this people Israel.

That said, we need to focus on Jeremiah’s call in which God promises, “I am with you to deliver you.” Jeremiah 1:8. In obedience to that call and in reliance upon God’s promise to deliver him, Jeremiah preached in the courts of Jerusalem’s temple the message of judgment he had been given. Jeremiah 19:14-15. If you were to read the verses immediately preceding our lesson, you would discover that Jeremiah received for his trouble a severe beating and a night in the stocks. Jeremiah 20:1-6. So now Jeremiah understandably wants to know where God’s promised deliverance was when he needed it! Like most of the laments found in the psalms, Jeremiah’s complaint is accompanied by affirmations of God’s faithfulness. In a strange way, the prophet’s complaint of abandonment and even betrayal reflect his confidence in God’s faithfulness. Jeremiah is convinced that his status as a covenant partner entitles him not only to a hearing, but ultimately to vindication. “In response to Yahweh’s questionable reliability, both the confessions and the biography show Jeremiah enacting a Joban steadfastness in which doubt and patience define one another and in which even the momentary wish for non-existence is but the dark coloration of the light of faith and unquenchable vocation.” Janzen, Gerald J., “Jeremiah 20:7-18,” Interpretation, Vol 37, #2, April 1983, p. 180.

Psalm 69:7–18

This is the second most frequently quoted psalm in the New Testament (the first being Psalm 22). Like the prayer of Jeremiah in our first lesson, this psalm is a lament in which the individual pours out his/her complaint and plea for deliverance to the Lord. It bears repeating that the context for such prayer is the intimate covenant relationship between Israel and her God which makes prayer possible.

It is impossible to determine the date and historical context of the psalm. Given that “zeal for [God’s] house” has consumed the psalmist (vs. 9), we might infer that it was composed prior to the temple’s destruction in 587 B.C.E. or after its reconstruction which began in 520 B.C.E. and was completed in 515 B.C.E. It seems just as likely to me, however, that composition took place during the period before construction began. We know that the first returning exiles faced opposition from the local peoples to their plans for reconstruction of the temple, that reconstruction was a long time in coming and that prophetic encouragement was required to get the job done. A person zealous in promoting the temple project might well have met with opposition from folks less committed to the task or merely preoccupied with survival. In any event, the hostility experienced by the psalmist appears to arise from his or her faithfulness to the temple as the place where God’s name dwells. This verse is quoted at John 2:17 to explain Jesus’ cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem.

The opposition faced by the psalmist is intense. “I am the talk of those who sit in the gate.” Vs. 12. This individual is the subject of cruel gossip and public ridicule. Even the drunks make fun of him/her. Hostility cuts deep into the psalmist’s immediate family relationships. Vs. 8. In a culture where one’s identity is bound up with family and clan, such abandonment amounts to an existential crisis. Who is a person when s/he is no longer part of the family that bore him/her, named him/her and serves to identify him/her to the community at large? Such a person has only the God who regards with tender care the orphan, the widow and the stranger. Only in Israel, where the most fragile and vulnerable are of special concern to the God of the covenant, could a prayer such as this be made with confidence.

“Answer me, O Lord.” Vs. 16. The most intolerable aspect of the psalmist’s suffering is that s/he has cried out incessantly to God, but God has not yet responded with deliverance. In desperation, the psalmist pleads, “Turn to me.” Vs. 16. This is reminiscent of days long ago when my son, then only two or three, used to grab my head and turn my face toward his when I was on the phone or otherwise engaged in conversation and he needed my immediate attention. So the psalmist pleads: “hide not thy face from thy servant.” Vs. 17. S/he desperately needs face time with God and s/he is not afraid to demand it!

“Redemption” is a technical word in Hebrew referring to one who redeems or restores property for another by payment of a debt or satisfaction of a lien. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 97. The plea “redeem me” might therefore be translated, “Do your duty by me.” Ibid. Again, the psalmist can make this bold demand only because of the intimate covenant relationship binding Israel to her God.

Romans 6:1b–11

I will be preaching regularly on the Romans texts that we will be encountering throughout the summer. Thus, a few introductory remarks are in order. Unlike Paul’s other letters, this one is not directed to a church that Paul founded or with which he had developed a pastoral relationship. From all we know, it seems clear that Paul has never visited the church in Rome. He does, however, appear to known many of the apostles, leaders and missionaries currently in Rome. What purpose, then, does Paul have for writing this letter? Some commentators suggest that he was simply writing the letter to introduce himself before coming in person. That, however, would seem to be unnecessary given the number of people well known to him already present and active in Rome. Others maintain that Paul’s intent was to generate support for his intended mission to Spain. There is some support for this view in Romans 15:24 and Romans 15:28. However, these two verses appear to me a slim reed upon which to divine Paul’s motives. Paul knew very well how to ask for money for his missions and he was not afraid to be blunt. E.g., I Corinthians 16:1-4. If this were a stewardship letter, I think it would be impossible to miss the point!

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

Martin Luther says of Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “The sum and substance of this letter is: to pull down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh (i.e., of whatever importance they may be in the sight of men and even in our own eyes), no matter how heartily and sincerely they may be practiced, and to affirm, establish, and make large the reality of sin (however unconscious we may be of its existence).” Luther, Martin, Lectures on Romans, The Library of Christian Classics (c. 1962 L. Jenkins, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 3. That certainly describes the way in which Paul begins his letter. In Romans 1 Paul lambasts the gentile culture of Rome for its gross immorality. In chapter two, we discover that this critique of the gentiles was but a sucker punch. The knockout blow comes in Romans 2:1 when Paul turns to his real audience, the Roman church, and says, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge are doing the same things.” I suspect that the readers are remarking at this point, “You can’t be serious, Paul! We don’t take part in any of those horrid, immoral practices!”

Paul is serious, though, and he is setting the stage for his argument in the chapters to come that sin is far deeper, more complicated and pervasive than his readers imagine. He is out to demonstrate to them that their supposed righteousness and moral superiority over the gentile culture they excoriate is an illusion. Sin is not a matter of living up to moral standards. It is a matter of the human heart being so hopelessly turned in upon itself and away from God that it cannot possibly obey God. The good news of Jesus Christ is not about reforming sinners. It is about crucifying and raising them up as new people. That, I believe is the theological core of Paul’s letter.

In chapters 3-5 Paul argued that the believer in Jesus lives by faith rather than by human accomplishment through obedience to the law. Now Paul begins to speak of how the believer lives by faith. As he so often does, Paul begins with a rhetorical question: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” Vs. 1. The question is a serious one as Lutherans like myself know well. Nothing has bedeviled us more than trying to explain how and why good works still matter even though they bring us no closer to God, cannot atone for sin and are so thoroughly contaminated by our selfish motives that they frequently bring about more evil than good. We have attempted to address this question under the rubric of “the priesthood of all believers.” In our tradition, all believers have a “calling” or “vocation.” For some of us, that calling is an ecclesiastical one. We are pastors, associates in ministry, church musicians, bishops, etc. For most of us, however, our callings are lived out in the secular world, though because the world is the arena of God’s action, we ought not to call it “secular.” God has two hands, the right hand being the church through which God brings sinners to saving faith in Jesus Christ. God’s left had works in the world through the orders of government, family and trade to ensure a semblance of order so that human life can thrive and the church can do its work. Therefore, if I am a pastor I must exercise my calling through attendance to preaching, the administration of the sacraments and pastoral care. If I am a lawyer, my calling is to represent my clients to the best of my ability so that the system of justice will function as effectively as it can be expected to do in a sinful world. If I am an engineer, I must use my skills to ensure that airplanes, elevators and ski lifts are well constructed and maintained for the good of all who use them. If I am an executioner, I must practice my craft with skill so that I do not botch things up as recently happened in Nebraska and wind up causing excessive pain for the people I kill.

In addition to ensuring that the reader is still awake, that last example was intended to bring into sharp relief a problem I have with our Lutheran view of the “priesthood of all believers.” It rests on the assumption that human institutions as we find them are ordained by God to achieve justice. To be sure, we do not claim that these institutions are perfect, but that is all the more reason for disciples of Jesus to engage with them. By our faithful participation in government, work and family, we become the leaven that raises the loaf. So goes the argument, but I am not convinced. As observed by Robert Brimlow:

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

It is difficult to see your job as a divine calling when deep inside you wonder whether that job is even necessary, whether it is not actually inflicting harm on people and whether the cost of advancing or even just hanging onto your job requires conduct altogether inconsistent with following Jesus. So far from being a transformative presence, disciples of Jesus are typically transformed by their work environments and their societal roles. The job, the school, the community dictate how time, money and attention are focused. Anyone involved in the church knows how hard we must struggle to extract time for worship, corporate prayer and instruction in discipleship from these competing interests. The understanding of the church as a community that empowers disciples to carry out their vocations in the world is another one of those ecclesiastical dogmas that sounds better in theory than it has ever worked out in practice.

Paul suggests a different answer to his question about how we should live by faith. He points out that we have been baptized into Christ’s death and so united with him. It is important that we do not lose sight of Paul’s understanding of the church as Christ’s Body. Baptism and incorporation into the church are one and the same thing. This text must be read with I Corinthians 12 in mind. To be united with Christ is to be grafted into a new community whose loyalty to Jesus transcends the ties of race, soil and blood. Even the sacred bonds of family are superseded by the unity of Christ’s Body. So far from being the cheerleader for individuals trying to live out their Christian faith by participation in a dehumanizing culture, the church constitutes an alternative culture, a radically different way of being human. The church is a community of persons of diverse backgrounds and formerly conflicting loyalties that have been renounced for the sake of loyalty to Christ. Paul will spell out specifically what this alternative lifestyle looks like in Romans 12-15. For our purposes today, it is enough to point out that Paul understands the church to be both the Body of Christ through which God is reconciling the world and the furnace in which sinners are transformed into saints by the work of the Holy Spirit. Church is not some place you go to be rejuvenated for the more important tasks that lie ahead on Monday. The church is what you are 24/7. That assertion raises questions too numerous and complex to tackle on a single post!

Matthew 10:24–39

These uncompromising words of Jesus complement the reading from Romans by spelling out the consequences likely to occur for those united in Christ’s death by baptism. The context is Jesus’ commissioning of the Twelve Disciples to proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew 10:5-15. A disciple is not above his Master and so the Twelve can anticipate rejection, opposition and persecution. Their activity will generate hostility within their own families such that the disciple’s most ardent foes will be members of his/her own household. Loyalty to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims must take precedence over the closest and most intimate national, social and family ties. In the Kingdom of Heaven, water is thicker than blood. Baptism is what finally defines who we are and who is our family.

“A disciple is not above his teacher.” Vs. 24. Literally translated, a disciple (mathatas) is “one who learns.” But merely hearing Jesus’ teach as he did in the synagogues would not in itself amount to discipleship as understood by Matthew. The word generally points to an allegiance to a particular teacher and involves following, living with and sharing the pattern of life practiced by the teacher. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 2005 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 191. Thus, the disciple must be prepared to share the adversities and hardships that accompany the teacher’s way of life. For disciples of Jesus, this means embracing the cross. So too, because Jesus is the church’s only “teacher” (Matthew 23:8) and because that teacher is with the church “to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20), discipleship remains a matter of following Jesus. It is never a simply a matter of absorbing knowledge, but rather a lifetime of practicing the art of obedience to Jesus in communities where “little faith” becomes mature faith through mutual accountability and mutual forgiveness.

Just as Jesus’ works are attributed to “Beelzeboul,” so also the mission of the disciples will be discredited. The word “Beelzeboul” is a transliteration into Greek of the name for a Canaanite god, meaning “Baal, the Prince.” Over time the term became synonymous with “Satan.” Identification of your adversary with a symbol of evil is a cheap and easy way to discredit him or her without having to deal seriously with the adversary’s arguments. How often haven’t we heard politicians of all persuasions compare their opponents to Hitler? The inflammatory power unleashed by invocation of what we all know to be sheer evil is intended to distract the audience from the weakness and incoherence of the speaker’s own position. At least that is the theory. I suspect Jesus’ opponents had similar intentions when they asserted that “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.” Matthew 9:34.

“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Vs. 28. The word “soul” is the English word used for the Greek word “psyche.” While there probably is no better word than “soul” available in our language, it is nevertheless misleading given all the baggage that comes along with it. Judaism in Jesus’ day knew nothing of a disembodied soul. The soul is more the essence of the whole person than an ontologically separable component of that person. Ibid, p. 436. Thus, the point is not that the soul somehow survives death, but that God has control of the whole person, body and soul, even beyond the grave. The message is one of comfort, not threat. For Jesus goes on to assure his disciples that the God who knows the fate of each sparrow also knows and values each of them intimately. Vs. 31.

‘Geehnna” is the Greek word translated as “hell” or “hades” in our English bibles. It is actually a transliteration into Greek from the Hebrew proper name, “Geh Hin·nom” or “Valley of Hinnom,” This was a ravine located south west of Jerusalem. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, the Judean Kings, Ahaz and Manasseh, offered human sacrifices there. II Chronicles 28:1-3; II Chronicles 33:1-6. The prophet Jeremiah warned that this valley would become a burial place for corpses left from the catastrophic judgment God was soon to bring upon Jerusalem and Judah. Jeremiah 7:31-35. The term is therefore more properly understood as a figure of speech than reference to an actual place.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Vs. 34. This is a verse no Sunday School kid was ever forced to memorize. I doubt you will ever see it embroidered on any wall hanging. I have never seen it on a bumper sticker or refrigerator magnet. What follows is even more problematic, particularly for those who look to Jesus as the defender of “family values.” “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household.” Vs. 35. So much for “family values.” Once again, family is defined not by ties of blood but through union with Jesus, a union that might well fragment all other ties.

This is a difficult text for us mainline churches who have always assumed that our job was to fortify societal bonds, strengthen the community and shore up social institutions like marriage, the so called traditional family and the PTA. Subconsciously or consciously, we are still trying to play that role. But our problem is that the world has now figured out that it can stand up just fine without our support. We have been downsized, laid off, pink slipped, informed that our services are no longer required. Yet like the fired middle manager in a state of denial, we continue leaving the house each day, briefcase in hand, only to be repeatedly bewildered when we arrive at the office and discover that we no longer have a cubicle, or assignments waiting for us or a parking space in the garage. We mainliners have been sidelined.

We can react to this crisis by continuing to show up at the office, hanging around the water cooler attempting to fit in, trying to look useful, hoping against hope that the boss will find some reason to re-hire us. That often appears to be the mainline strategy-if you can call it that. Or we can recognize that getting fired was probably the best thing that could have happened to the church. The old job of propping up civilization’s moral underpinnings stank and we were never good at it anyway. So let’s re-think what it means to be “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” I Peter 2:9. If we allowed our baptism to shape our vocations rather than attempting vainly to fit our baptismal identity into the functions defined for us by society, I suspect that there might soon be a lot of unemployed believers. I anticipate that this might well generate a good deal of strife and tension within families as the resulting impact on accustomed lifestyles begins to make itself felt. When we begin to make known in concrete ways to our neighbors that loyalty to our baptized sisters and brothers in nations hostile to the U.S. takes precedence over the loyalty of American citizenship, I don’t doubt that the persecution of which Jesus speaks will cease to be figment only of our past heritage. Martyrdom might once again become the norm rather than the exception for believers and so also the joy and excitement that come with being a witness to the dawn of a new age. Being church is a lot harder than merely going to church, but it’s also a lot more fun.

Sunday, September 8th

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Deuteronomy 30:15–20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1:1–21
Luke 14:25–33

Prayer of the Day: Direct us, O Lord God, in all our doings with your continual help, that in all our works, begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy name; and finally, by your mercy, bring us to everlasting life, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

I was one of the many students at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota to have been under the instruction of Professor Sheldon Tostengard. Professor Tostengard taught “homiletics” which is a fancy theological term for preaching. He took the task of preaching seriously and had very little patience for anyone who didn’t. Professor Tostengard never tired of reminding us that preaching should proclaim the biblical text-good, bad or ugly. “Never apologize for the Bible,” he used to tell us. “You didn’t write it. It isn’t your job to edit it, soften it or protect people from it. Your job is to say it and let the chips fall where they will.” Nothing made Professor Tostengard more livid than efforts to “domesticate” Jesus. “Don’t you dare ever preach a sermon in this class about what Jesus really meant,” he used to tell us. “Jesus meant what Jesus said. If you don’t have the stomach for it, then get out of the pulpit and make way for someone who does!”

I wish Professor Tostengard were still among the quick, because I would love to know how he would have handled this Sunday’s gospel. Jesus tells us that no one who does not “hate” parents, spouse and children can follow after him. That is mighty hard to stomach. I could deal with being told that I must love God above all other loves-though that is no small feat either. But does discipleship entail hating the people nearest and dearest to you? I consulted the Greek text of the New Testament and my lexicon in hopes of finding a loophole. The word Luke uses for “hate” is the Greek word “miseo” from which we get our word “misanthropic” meaning “hatred of humanity.” Clearly, there is no kinder, gentler meaning for Jesus’ words that somehow got lost in translation. So what do we make of what Jesus is telling us?

As Professor Tostengard is no longer around to be consulted, I sought help from Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Yes, he is dead too, but he left behind a treasure trove of his theological reflections. As I have said many times before, I don’t believe the church has seen a teacher and preacher as gifted as St. Augustine. For Augustine, the greatest evil was not hatred. Hatred is only the symptom of a deeper problem, namely, disordered love. Human love is designed to bring about human happiness through guiding the self to love its Creator. Love for non-divine, creaturely things is also appropriate, but “In all such things, let my soul praise You, O God, Creator of all things, but let it not cleave too close in love to them through the senses of the body. For they go their way and are no more; and they rend the soul with desires that can destroy it, for it longs to be one with the things it loves and to repose in them. But in them is no place of repose, because they do not abide.” Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 4, Chapter 10, Paragraph 15. Unless love is firmly grounded in the Creator, it latches on to its fellow creatures. Ultimately, these creatures cannot satisfy the restless heart that can find peace only in God. Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 1, Chapter 1, Paragraph 1.

The problem here is idolatry or what St. Paul calls worshiping the creature in place of the Creator. Romans 1:25. Such misdirected love turns into hate when our idol, the object of our love, cannot meet the demands of godhood we place on it. The woman of my dreams turns out to be a human being with flaws, shortcomings and needs of her own. She can never live up to my romance novel fantasies. When that becomes evident I feel hurt, disappointed and perhaps even deceived. The job I thought would give me the sense of purpose, the assurance of accomplishment and the status among my peers I believed could make me happy turns out to be, well, just a job. So I start hating every day I have to show up for work. I go from idol to idol seeking the peace only God can give me. When the idol inevitably disappoints me, I angrily kick it off its pedestal and look for another. Even love that is directed toward the Creator can be idolatrous. Worship designed to meet my own needs rather than to glorify God, prayer that seeks to manipulate God into doing my will instead of conforming my will to God’s and preaching about God that uses religious language to further a thinly veiled political agenda are all examples of idolatry. The idolater seeks to have God on his or her own terms rather than living life on God’s terms. When it becomes clear that God cannot be possessed and controlled, he or she becomes angry and disappointed with God as well.

Hatred, then, is quite simply our natural response to seeing through an idol. We hate the idol because it is not the god we thought it was. Augustine would not be at all surprised to learn of our epidemic of spouse and child abuse, skyrocketing rates of debilitating depression and ever increasing incidents of teen suicide. After all, what can you expect when you worship the creature instead of the Creator? What can you expect when you push God to the margins of family life, somewhere down on the order of priorities below band practice, Disney World, the Sunday Times and thousands of other diversions? When hearts created to love God fall in love with something less than God, they are bound to get broken.

Finally, after having been disappointed by a long line of idols, each of which has failed to give the idolater the peace s/he seeks, the idolater begins hating life itself. That might sound like a hopeless place to be, but it is precisely there, where all the idols have failed us and all hope for salvation from them has faded, that Jesus meets us. Once we discover that we have been “looking for love in all the wrong places,” we are finally ready to discover it in the right place. Hating the life of misdirected love and misplaced hope is the first step toward new life where love is properly grounded first and foremost in the Creator. That is the first step toward learning to love the world, its creatures and our families rightly; not as gods, but as fellow creatures and gifts of the Creator.

So as hard and offensive as Jesus’ words from our gospel lessen sound to us, I believe they are precisely the words we most need to hear. We need to see the destructiveness of our selfish and misdirected love and hate what it is doing to us. We need to be reminded that Jesus will not settle for second place in our lives, and that when we relegate him to some lower priority we are only hurting ourselves as well as the ones we most love. If we are ever going to love our families, our communities, our nation and the world in a proper and life giving way, we need to learn daily to take up the cross and follow Jesus.

Deuteronomy 30:15–20

The Book of Deuteronomy places us with Moses and the people of Israel at the frontiers of the promised land of Canaan. Moses’ career is drawing to a close. He will not enter with Israel into Canaan. Instead, the torch of leadership will pass to Joshua. So we are to understand that Moses is giving to Israel his final instructions. That the composition of this book likely took place in the latter years of the Davidic monarchy with additions during and after the Babylonian Exile only serves to illustrate how the stark choice between “life and good, death and evil” is ever before God’s people. In every age, in every individual life, at each moment God urges us to “choose life.”

That injunction to “choose life” is loaded with many political overtones. The phrase “culture of life” was popularized by Pope John Paul II. As used by the Pope, it describes a societal existence based upon the theological premise that human life at all stages from conception through natural death is sacred. Social conservatives in the United States, citing the Pope as their ally, frequently invoke his teachings on the “culture of life” in their opposition to abortion, destruction of human embryonic stem cells and contraception. I cannot help but notice, however, their roaring silence when it comes to the Pope’s opposition to capital punishment, his criticisms of free market capitalism and his repeated calls for governments to come to the aid of the poor. I guess that for these social conservatives, the culture of life extends only from conception to birth. After that, you are on your own.

In reading and interpreting this text, the first question to ask is: who is being addressed? Without doubt, Moses is speaking to Israel as God’s covenant partner. We can also say that he is addressing the church, but only because we gentiles “who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.” Ephesians 2:13. Can we use this text, however, as a platform for promoting a “culture of life” in the United States? Is that an appropriate use of the book of Deuteronomy? If you have been following me more or less regularly, you know that my answer is “no.” The biblical injunction to choose life arises out of the covenant relationship between Israel and her God. The covenant gives shape to God’s call for Israel to be a unique people in the midst of the nations. It is precisely for this reason that Israel is commanded to ensure that there are no poor in her midst, that the orphan, widow and resident alien are treated with justice and compassion. Israel is to be a light to the nations and a witness to God’s intent for creation. Apart from Israel’s election and her covenant with God, the command to choose life is a pale, insipid and vacuous moral indicative waiting to be filled with practically anyone’s political agenda.

Despite idolatrous claims of American exceptionalism, the United States is not God’s chosen people and there is no covenant between God and the United States. For that reason one cannot apply the terms of Israel’s covenant with Yahweh to American society. That would be very much like trying to enforce a contract against a person who never signed it. The application of covenant obligations can be made only against the people of Israel with whom the covenant was made and the people of God brought into that covenant by baptism into Jesus Christ. We are the ones God calls upon to “choose life.”

The implication is clear. Whether you are advocating for tougher legal restrictions on abortion or food assistance for poor children in the United States, you cannot do so from the platform of Deuteronomy or any other covenantal scripture. Or I should say you cannot do that unless you are convinced that somewhere along the line God made the United States a party to Yahweh’s covenant with Israel. The only place where these covenant obligations (and the promises which are even more numerous) can be given effect is within the covenant communities of Israel and the church.

Mark Twain is credited with saying, “To be good is noble. To teach someone else to be good is more noble still-and a lot less trouble.” I believe the church goes far astray when, instead of internalizing the scriptures, we use them as a platform for lecturing the rest of the world on “culture of life,” justice, peace and other abstract nouns. What if instead of issuing a never ending stream of preachy screechy social statements in which we wag our moralistic fingers at society at large, we turned our criticism inward? What if the new bishop of the ELCA issued a call to all of our congregations to ensure that all members of our churches receive adequate medical insurance coverage? What if instead of merely joining the chorus of voices calling for stiffer gun legislation, our bishop were to call upon members of all ELCA congregations to dispose of their fire arms-or at least those designed for human combat? I believe that the best way for the church to “choose life” would be for the church to become “a culture of life.” Let’s be the change we want to see in the rest of the world.

Psalm 1

Scholars disagree as to whether or not this psalm was specifically composed as an introduction to the Psalter. In either case, it serves that purpose well. Teachings such as the blessedness of the godly life, the futility of wickedness, the faithfulness of God to all who trust in him and the joy of meditating on the scriptures reflected in the first Psalm find further expression and amplification throughout the rest of the Psalter. This psalm is classified as a “wisdom psalm” and as such makes the bold assertion that both righteousness and wickedness find their proper reward within the parameters of a human lifetime. The assertion is as problematic as it is bold and requires numerous qualifications, explanations and, above all, faith in the goodness of God when God seems altogether absent from the scene. For now, though, you stand at the beginning “with a faith to suit you well.” “Borning Cry,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 732. As life becomes more complex, nuanced and layered, so will God’s faithful presence in the next one hundred forty-nine psalms.

Beatitude begins with answering God’s call to come out from among the wicked. The call to Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 is echoed in this opening verse of Psalm 1. The implication, then, is that Israel’s call to be separate from the nations is precisely for the purpose of being a light to the nations. Rather than taking her cues from the wicked, the righteous person’s delight is in the Torah. Meditation on the covenant guides her life course and, as a result, she is firmly grounded and well cared for as a tree planted next to a river. Rooted as it is near a perpetual source of water, this tree symbolizing the righteous person is unaffected by drought.

By contrast, the wicked are characterized as “chaff,” empty husks that are blown away by the wind in the threshing process. They are of no value and their works have no permanence. They cannot stand “in the judgment.” Though the original author of the psalm may only have understood “judgment” in a purely temporal, “this worldly” sense, later Judaism and the early church began to see in this assertion a reference to God’s final judgment. Though God is always judging, purifying and sanctifying “the congregation of the righteous” (vs. 5), there must finally be a day when that congregation is fully cleansed from all wickedness. That day will come, however, in God’s own good time. For now, the righteous must be content to live among if not in the counsel of the wicked. As Jesus points out, one ought not to become impatient and exercise judgment before the appointed day. Matthew 13:24-30.

Philemon 1:1–21

This brief letter from St. Paul to a disciple of Jesus named Philemon is a fascinating window into the life of the New Testament church. It was evidently written when Paul was imprisoned. Though some scholars have suggested that Paul was writing from Rome, it is also possible that the letter was composed while Paul was imprisoned at Ephesus. Philemon was a convert of Paul and the leader of a house church in Colossae. Evidently, Philemon’s slave, Onesimus escaped from him and made his way to where Paul was imprisoned. There he became a companion and helper to the apostle during his imprisonment. At some point, Onesimus also became a disciple of Jesus, though whether he was such when he deserted Philemon or received baptism under the influence of Paul is not altogether clear. In any event, Paul is sending Onesimus back to his master, Philemon, with the letter bearing his name.

In the pre-Civil War south this letter was invoked to defend the institution of slavery. After all, Paul does not say anything critical about slavery in his letter. Moreover, he returns Onesimus to his master and even acknowledges his master’s right of ownership. From this we conclude that slavery is not evil per se and that a slave owner’s rights over his slave should be honored. Paul has come under a good deal of modern criticism on that score. Should not Paul have championed the human rights of Onesimus rather than honoring the property rights of Philemon? For the reasons below, I would reject this anachronistic argument.

First, it is important to understand that slavery in antiquity, though a lamentable condition, was far different from the slavery that existed in the United States in the nineteenth century. Slavery in the first century Roman Empire was not race based. Racial and ethnic groups were not singled out as inferior or “natural slaves” as was the case for African Americans. If you were a slave in the Roman Empire, it was likely because your parents sold you to satisfy a debt or you were on the losing side of some military conflict. Though few and far between, there were opportunities for slaves to win their freedom and achieve high office in the Roman bureaucracy as the philosopher, Seneca attests. Seneca the Younger, Letter 47. It is impossible to imagine anything like that ever happening in the pre-Civil War south. Thus, there can be no meaningful comparison between slavery in antiquity and that which existed in the southern states prior to the Civil War.

Second, Paul had no interest in creating a more just society. He was concerned only with witnessing faithfully to the new creation of which the resurrected Body of Christ was the first fruits. Anyone who asserts that Paul’s returning Onesimus to his master constituted recognition of Philemon’s rights as a slaveholder would do well to read carefully the rest of Paul’s writings. This is not a matter Philemon’s rights, but the healing of Christ’s Body. Whatever rights may be involved here is irrelevant. The governing reality is that Onesimus and Philemon are now brothers in Christ Jesus and must be reconciled as such. Moreover, Paul makes clear that henceforth they are to live as brothers, regardless of their legal status in the outside world. The Body of Christ is to be a microcosm of God’s new creation in the midst of the old. Paul was more interested in witnessing to the new creation than patching up the old one.

Luke 14:25–33

As indicated in my opening remarks, this is a tough text. Jesus insists that whoever would come after him must “hate” his or her family members. In an effort to soften the effect of this saying, one commentator suggests that the Semitic understanding of this Greek word which would be “to love less” is intended. Marshall, Howard I., Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 1978 Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 592. Nice try Howard, but as Luke has proved himself quite fluent in literary Greek and shows no inclination to favor Semitic meanings, I don’t find that line of argument persuasive. I think we need to take Jesus at his disturbing word here. For my take on that, see the introductory remarks.

The parables about the unfinished tower and the king outflanked by his enemy reinforce the theme we have seen since Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem in Luke 9:51. Discipleship is a costly business and is not to be undertaken lightly. Just as you would not begin building a tower unless you were sure you had the resources to finish it or embark upon a military campaign without the troops and munitions required to prevail, so one should not come after Jesus unless s/he is prepared to pay the price. That price is the cross. Understand that we are to take this literally. As John Howard Yoder would remind us: “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c 1972 William B. Eerdmans Co.).  Thus, to follow Jesus is to enter into the struggle upon which he embarked when he set his face to go to Jerusalem. It is becoming evident to the disciples and perhaps the crowd as well that this encounter at Jerusalem may end in Jesus’ death. What they cannot yet anticipate is the “Exodus” Jesus will accomplish there. They cannot yet understand the “necessity” of Jesus’ suffering dictated by his faithfulness to his heavenly Father and his determination save his people. That will become clear only after Jesus is raised and “opens their minds” to understand the scriptures. Luke 24:45.

“Whoever of you does not renounce all that s/he has cannot be my disciple.” Vs. 33. By now we should know better than to dismiss this declaration as hyperbole or attempt to spiritualize it. Jesus means what Jesus says. To receive the gift of the kingdom, you need empty hands. Harkening back to our friend Augustine, not until the whole heart is given to God with all other loves being renounced can these lesser loves be received and loved properly.

Sunday, August 18th

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 23:23–29
Psalm 82
Hebrews 11:29—12:2
Luke 12:49–56

Prayer of the Day: O God, judge eternal, you love justice and hate oppression, and you call us to share your zeal for truth. Give us courage to take our stand with all victims of bloodshed and greed, and, following your servants and prophets, to look to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

The phrase “family values” has become an increasingly common and increasingly politicized rallying cry invoked to marshal support for or opposition to everything from health care reform to regulation of our soda intake. We all have differing opinions about a lot of these issues, but everybody supports family values. The worst thing you can say about your political opponent is that s/he denigrates family values. The best way to undermine support for a piece of legislation is to argue that it is “anti-family”. If you are going to run for office on a platform without a solid family values plank, then you might just as well come out against Mom, apple pie and saluting the flag. Your campaign is doomed.

I am never quite sure what people mean by the term, “family values.” It seems to me that we are far from agreement about what constitutes a “family” and what kinds of “values” hold it together. Rather than attempting to define that nebulous term on my own, I consulted a neutral authority for that purpose. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, “family values” are “values especially of a traditional or conservative kind which are held to promote the sound functioning of the family and to strengthen the fabric of society.”  Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. I suspect there might be some dispute over which values qualify as “traditional” or “conservative,” but let’s put that to one side. Obviously, whatever these values might be, they are deemed important for the promotion of “the sound functioning of the family” and for strengthening of “the fabric of society.”

In this Sunday’s gospel, Jesus is not merely indifferent to family values. He is downright hostile to them. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’” Luke 12:51-56. If you think that is anti-family, just listen to this: “Now large crowds were travelling with [Jesus]; and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’” Luke 14:25-26. It makes you wonder how so many avowedly Christian individuals and organizations can claim Jesus as an ally in their fierce battles to uphold family values. Do they ever actually open up and read those Bibles they keep waving in our faces?

As it turns out, Jesus does hold family values. But he defines “family” altogether differently from our “traditional” cultural norms and his “values” differ greatly from our preoccupation with strengthening “the social fabric of society.” We meet Jesus’ family in the 8th Chapter of Luke. “Then [Jesus’] mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’ But he said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’” Luke 8:19-21. Jesus’ understanding of family can be summarized in just five words: Water is thicker than blood. The community of disciples born of water and the Spirit radically re-defines the meaning of family. No longer are marital, filial and fraternal relationships the defining parameters of family identity. From now on, the family is the community of faith. All other relationships are secondary. Loyalty to Jesus takes precedence over familial duties, clan loyalties and responsible citizenship. There is no higher calling than discipleship-even when answering that call shatters the peace of the “traditional family.”

For too long, the church in our culture has tried to function as a tool for strengthening the traditional expressions of family rather than acting as a destabilizing agent of the Spirit breaking them up, redefining them and bringing them under the Lordship of Jesus. It might sound rather cold to insist that one must “hate” one’s own family in order to follow Jesus. But the hard truth is that anything we put before Jesus is an idol. The things that become idols for us frequently are not evil in and of themselves. But they become evil when they demand from us loyalty and devotion that belong only to our Lord. While I am no psychologist, it is my sense that a lot of family dysfunction arises from our demanding too much from family relationships. Too many parents are trying to live the lives they wish they had had through their children, placing on their backs the burden of their unfulfilled dreams. Too many children are walking around with anger toward parents who (like all parents) were less than fully supportive, understanding and empathetic. Too many marriages are disintegrating under the strain of having to meet needs for intimacy, meaning and self worth that no human being can satisfy for any other. Bottom line: Family is a great thing, but it isn’t God. If you try to make it God, it will implode, collapse and crush you along with it.

Paradoxically, as soon as you learn to hate and to see through the idol that your family has become, you are free to start loving it as a gift of God. That is why I believe that the best thing we can do for our families is to stop making them the center of our lives, stop demanding of them the intimacy only God can give and recognize them as one of the many places where we are called to live out our obedience as disciples of Jesus. Families thrive when freed from the burden of being the “the basic unit of society” (Heritage Foundation Website). Families are strengthened when we begin to understand that they are not individual, self contained units, but subsets of a much larger family called into existence by the incarnate Word, rooted in the baptismal font and gathered around the Lord’s Table. According to Jesus, family transcends blood relations, racial identity and national allegiance. Simply put, Jesus’ family values are “the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

Jeremiah 23:23–29

Jeremiah is a prophetic book that reports the ministry of the prophet Jeremiah to the people of Israel both before and after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. It is made up of poetic and prose oracles interspersed with vivid narrative capturing the prophet’s ministry among a resistant and hostile people in the twilight years of the Davidic Monarchy. Like most of the prophetic books, the book of Jeremiah has gone through several stages of editing. It reached its final form long after the death of the prophet and this is most likely because it was not until after the fall of Jerusalem that Israel recognized the truthfulness of this faithful prophet who had been hated, persecuted and ignored throughout his lifetime.

Jeremiah’s chief adversaries were his own prophetic colleagues. As the Babylonian military machine tightened its grip on Judah and began besieging the city of Jerusalem, these prophets continued to insist that God would yet intervene to save the holy city and its temple. Not surprisingly, the people were drawn to their messages of hope. These hopeful prophecies were entirely consistent with Israel’s past experience. Hadn’t God always come to the aid of his people in the days of the Judges? Didn’t God break the army of Assyria at the gates of Jerusalem a century before? What reason was there to think that God would not come through for Israel once again?

Jeremiah had the difficult task of letting his people know in no uncertain terms that there would be no miraculous act of deliverance this time. Judah’s belief that God would be compelled to defend Jerusalem in order to protect his temple amounted not to faith, but godless superstition. There was indeed hope for Judah and even the promise of deliverance-but not for the monarchy, not for the temple and not for a society built upon injustice and exploitation. Salvation lay on the far side of judgment. Not until Judah’s false hope for salvation without repentance was crushed could genuine hope come into view.

Our lesson for this morning finds the Lord addressing the false prophets through the lips of Jeremiah with a series of rhetorical questions: “Am I a God near by…. and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? Do I not fill heaven and earth?” Jeremiah 23:23-24. These prophets of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call “cheap grace” are reminded that they will be held accountable for the messages they proclaim. They cannot hide behind the poor excuse that they were simply mistaken. Of course, they can speak all they wish about their dreams and visions. They can express their views about what is taking place in Jerusalem and perhaps even venture an opinion about what God might be up to. But one dare not frivolously preface such remarks with “Thus saith the Lord.” That seems to be Jeremiah’s chief point: if you are going to speak in the name of the Lord, you better be sure that you have got it right and that what you speak is in fact the Lord’s word and not your own.

Of course it is easy for us to side with Jeremiah from our own safe vantage point. For us this is all ancient history. The outcome of the war with Babylon is well known as is Judah’s subsequent interpretation of that traumatic event. I doubt that matters were so clear in the midst of Jerusalem’s siege. Jeremiah’s prophetic colleagues turned out to be wrong in the end, but the people listening to them and to Jeremiah were not at the end. They were in the anxious middle trying to discern the word of the Lord in the midst of all this prophetic wrangling. I don’t think it was unreasonable to hope that God would rescue Judah from Babylon at the eleventh hour just as he had saved Israel from Pharaoh at the Red Sea and rescued Judah from the army of Assyria in the days of King Hezekiah. If I were standing in the shoes of the audience, I cannot say whether I would be more inclined to trust Jeremiah over his more hopeful critics.

Perhaps we can never judge the genuineness of prophecy except in retrospect. In any event, that appears to have been the case for Jeremiah. With the temple destroyed, Jerusalem in ruins and the people in exile, Jeremiah’s was the only prophetic word able to help the remnant of Judah make sense out of the terrible thing that had happened to them. His promise of salvation on the far side of judgment, a word that people frantic to escape judgment could not possibly hear, now relit the flame of hope.

I often wonder whether we mainline protestants are not even now facing our own 587 B.C.E. In the face of precipitous decline, we are turning to consultants, gimmicks and motivational techniques in an effort to turn ourselves around. Though the rhetoric of change is rampant, from where I sit it appears that we are all in high gear preservation mode. We are cutting costs, consolidating administrative functions and merging task forces, etc. But that strikes me more as siege behavior than genuine transformation into a new thing. Could it be that the real enemy is not secularization, anti-institutional sentiment or generational differences, but the Lord God? What if God does not need our denominational machinery anymore than God needed the Davidic Monarchy, the Jerusalem temple or the land of Palestine? What if God is bringing our years of societal influence, strength in numbers and established patterns of ministry to an end? What if the church we are striving to save is not the church God needs? What if our efforts to revive our church are really just desperate acts of rebellion?

I would be committing the same offense as Jeremiah’s colleagues if I were to suggest that I know this to be the case. I don’t. Nothing here is prefaced with “thus saith the Lord.” Nevertheless, I believe it is worth thinking about where we might be in time, not chronological historical time, but in time as measured by the biblical narrative. Is 2013 also 587 B.C.E.? If so, it is reassuring to know that we are not without hope and light. However dark this stretch of the road may be, the scriptures testify to people of God who have traveled there before us. They have wisdom and encouragement to share that we very much need. As we shall see, our lesson from Hebrews makes this very point.

Psalm 82

This psalm reflects an early period of Israelite history when the existence of gods other than the Lord was more or less taken for granted. Nevertheless, these gods were always viewed as inferior to Israel’s God, YAHWEH. The psalmist gives us a peek into the grand council of the gods in which YAHWEH rises to criticize these lesser gods for the unjust management of their respective realms. These lesser gods are “national” gods in the true sense of the word. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, (c 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 164. That is, their sole concern is to promote the interests of their national patrons. Ibid. It is important to note that YAHWEH does not rise to assert the rights of Israel over the nations governed by the gods. Israel is not even mentioned. YAHWEH’s agenda for this meeting is justice for the “weak,” the “orphan,” the “destitute” and the “afflicted.” The “foundations of the earth” do not rest upon any kingdom, empire or nation state. They rest on justice. Naturally, then, these “gods” who base their reign upon princes or kings will share with them the same fate of mortality. The psalmist concludes by affirming that, notwithstanding the many gods worshiped among the nations of the world, these nations nevertheless belong to YAHWEH who will judge them according to justice.

There is much debate over the extent to which Israel, even in the early period of its history, accepted the existence of gods other than the Lord. While academically interesting, this question is hermeneutically irrelevant. The take away here is that Israel’s God is not a national deity. God’s chief concern is not with Israel’s nationalistic ambitions, but with justice for the weak, the orphan, the destitute and the afflicted in whatever land they might be. To be sure, Israel is God’s chosen nation. But she has been chosen not to receive special favors or achieve national prominence, but to be a faithful witness to the justice and compassion God desires for all people. Needless to say, this insight is also applicable to the church.

Hebrews 11:29—12:2

Our lesson for Sunday builds upon last week’s discussion of faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1. Having ended his inspiring roll call of faithful saints from the dawn of creation to the Israel’s entry into the promised land, the writer identifies and alludes to many other such heroes of faith whose stories would hardly fit the printed page. He goes on to point out that their faithfulness, courage and willingness to suffer stems from the conviction that God is leading them to a better country. For the sake of that promised homeland, they were content to be pilgrims, travelers and outcasts.

This is a helpful reminder that the church is a pilgrim people. Something deep inside of me resents that. I yearn to be settled. Yet I must admit that, for reasons I have never been able to explain, I feel the deepest sense of anxiety when I finally do get settled into a place where I am happy, enjoy my work and feel content. Perhaps that anxiety arises from my knowledge that nothing ever remains quite the same. Pleasant conditions never last forever. The neighborhood I moved into twenty-one years ago is not the one I live in today. My children have left home. Many of our friends have moved on and strangers live in the houses that once were oases of hospitality. I scarcely recognize the town in which I grew up. Even the church that I have served for the last five years is not the same. Some dear old souls have passed on to the church triumphant. New people have stepped in and made their presence felt. The words of the old hymn ring true: “Change and decay in all around I see.”

This letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we are called not merely to endure such changes but to embrace them. The suffering and loss that go with being always on the move constitute more than the death throes of our old way of life. They are also birth pangs of a new creation. It is the firm conviction that God is at work in the midst of conflict, suffering and death bringing to birth a new creation that makes endurance possible. So the author of Hebrews urges his/her readers to take comfort from the example of this scriptural “cloud of witnesses” whose faithful lives both challenge and encourage them to persevere in suffering and persecution. More than that, they are called upon to look to Jesus who embraced the cross-not because suffering is a good thing in itself; and not because God needs a blood sacrifice in order to be merciful; but because the cross is the natural consequence of faithfulness to God’s command to love even the enemy.

Luke 12:49–56

Jesus’ opening words here call to mind the preaching of John the Baptist in the early chapters of Luke: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you withthe Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Luke 3:16-17. Jesus’ ministry culminating in Jerusalem will cast fire upon the earth. The consequences that John speaks of metaphorically as separation of wheat from chaff, Jesus spells out with brutal particularity. The line of demarcation between loyalty to Jesus and unbelief will split families down the middle and create discord. Such is the cost of peace through reconciliation, not to be confused with the tense, brutal and unjust peace imposed by Rome. That false peace is soon to be shaken to its core. As pointed out earlier, this is fully in accord with Jesus’ teaching about the cost of discipleship elsewhere throughout Luke’s gospel. Luke 8:19-21Luke 9:57-62; Luke 14:25-26.

Jesus does not call his disciples to endure this baptism alone. Indeed, the lesson opens with Jesus’ declaration that the baptism of fire is first and foremost his own. Jesus will be the first to endure the betrayal, abandonment and loneliness that goes with prophetic faithfulness. Because Jesus goes before his disciples into this baptism of fire, his disciples will not face that ordeal alone. In the hostile reception and treatment they receive from the world, they will be united with him. That unity is the basis for the new community, the family of God bound together not by ties of blood but by the promises of baptism.

At verse 54, Jesus changes his focus from the disciples to the multitudes gathered about him. The charge that these folks are “hypocrites” suggests that Jesus’ hearers are actually more astute than they let on. Their ability to recognize signs of imminent weather phenomena does in fact extend to “interpret[ation of] the present time.” Vs. 56. By now it must be evident that Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem signals stormy weather on the horizon. Such knowledge should impel his listeners toward an appropriate response, namely, repentance and reconciliation. Instead, Jesus’ hearers choose to remain blind to the signs of the times. This is further spelled out in the parable which follows (but is not included in the gospel reading): “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.” Luke 12:57-59. With every step Jesus takes toward Jerusalem, the judgment draws closer and the call for repentance and reconciliation becomes more urgent.