Posts Tagged gay and lesbian
FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you are the tree of life, offering shelter to all the world. Graft us into yourself and nurture our growth, that we may bear your truth and love to those in need, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“We walk by faith, not by sight.” II Corinthians 5:7
That’s good, because I can’t see very much these days of the “new creation” Paul talks about in this Sundays’ lesson. This week Italy’s new populist government refused to let a humanitarian boat carrying more than six hundred refugees and migrants, including one hundred twenty-three unaccompanied minors, eleven other children and seven pregnant women dock at any of its ports. Meanwhile, here at home our nation’s policy on illegal immigration is routinely separating minor children from their parents. Last week South Dakota Republican State Representative, Michael Clark, declared that a businessman “should have the opportunity to run his business the way he wants. If he wants to turn away people of color, that’s his choice.” All of this sounds a lot more like the old creation of marital strife, violent religious conflict, tribal animosity and cultural divisiveness depicted in the early chapters of Genesis than anything new. We had better be walking by faith because walking by sight leads only to despair.
Walking by faith involves more than a Polly Annaish hope that things will get better. For Paul, walking by faith means living as though Jesus really was raised from death to life. If it is true that the crucified one who poured out his life for the poor, the sick and the unwanted of the earth has been exalted to God’s right hand, if it is true that the nations are to be judged strictly on their treatment of the people for whom Jesus died, if it is true that every knee will one day bow and every tongue confess this Jesus as Lord, then we are compelled to see the world in a new and radically different way. No longer is it possible to view anyone, least of all the outcast, strictly from the human viewpoints of national security, cultural compatibility and economic utility. No longer do we dare allow ourselves to be formed by these false measures of judgment, much less employ them. The resurrection subverts the tenants of nationalism, populism, racism and tribalism with the bold declaration that Christ died for all so that we might no longer live for ourselves, for our families, for our tribes or for our nations, but rather for all people-especially for those living at the margins of society.
Paul challenges us to stake everything on the belief that God raised Jesus from death, thereby changing everything. That is a big ask, especially when it appears that nothing is changing, that the whole world is playing by the winner-take-all rules of the old creation and that we stand to lose everything if it turns out this whole resurrection thing never happened. “Nice guys finish last” says the old adage. Ironically, that very point was made recently by Tony Perkins, evangelical leader and president of the right-wing Family Research Council. Mr. Perkins said contemptuously of Jesus’ admonition to turn the other cheek when stricken: “You know, you only have two cheeks…Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.” I guess that means you can only follow Jesus so far. There comes a point where you have to lay aside all that Jesus crap and follow Kenny Rogers’ dictum: “Sometimes you have to fight to be a man.” I get that. It is hard to be a disciple of Jesus when it appears that everything Jesus tells you to do seems ineffective and might get you beaten up or even killed. But that is precisely where walking by faith begins.
Last week Paul pointed out exactly what it looks like to walk by faith:
“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” II Corinthians 4:7-12.
I have said many times that I am not a “progressive.” That does not mean I don’t think progress is sometimes made. Most assuredly, it is. I count it progress that our nation elected an African American president named Barak Obama. I count it progress that on any given day on most college campuses in the United States you will see mixed race couples, gay and lesbian couples and transgender persons walking the pathways between classes and nobody takes a second look. I count it progress that women are being emboldened to speak out against and stand up to a culture of sexual abuse and exploitation that has for too long been tolerated at all levels of our society. These are tangible gains, but they are far from permanent. We dare not suppose that any gain is irreversible. The reemergence of blatant racism and the growing acceptance of white supremacy we have seen since the 2016 election are grim reminders that we can never safely turn our backs on evil or confidently suppose that the hard-fought gains we achieve for good are complete or safe from reversal.
I am hopeful that the election of Donald Trump was the last frantic scream from the GOP base of predominantly angry white men whose numbers are decreasing and who rightly sense that they are losing their grip on power and privilege. I am hopeful that a younger generation of voters with minds uncluttered by the bogymen of their parents will move us from stale partisanship to fresh thinking and a determination to address our nation’s entrenched racism, its environmental challenges and its role in the global community. Yet I know all too well that this penultimate hope of mine might be misplaced. It is possible that we are entering into a dark period in the history of our nation and of the world. It may be that we will finally be unable to come together in time to avert ecological disaster, nuclear war and tyranny. It is possible that we are being plunged into a new age of night where “because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold.” Matthew 24:12. What then?
Whether I am right in my hopes for the future or wrong, nothing really changes. Our calling as disciples remains the same. We stand with the marginalized-even when we lack the means, power or influence to do much for them. We love our neighbors, even those who seem to hate us. We care for the earth, even when it seems that it has been handed over to the “destroyers of the earth” for ruthless exploitation. Revelation 11:17-18. We speak truthfully to power, even when our voices are shouted down by the megaphone of falsehood. We meet violence with non-violent resistance-even if that means losing our lives. For the death we carry in our bodies is the death of Jesus, the seed of resurrection. The future belongs to the God who raised Jesus from death. For now, that future takes the shape of the cross. But when God is all in all; when God’s gentle reign of peace arrives; when God’s will is done on earth as in heaven; we will rise to discover that, after all, we were on the right side of history.
Here is a poem about signs of hope, their ambiguity and a call to walk by faith and not by sight.
I could have sworn I heard a songbird,
What type I cannot guess.
Her music came from so far away
I scarcely could tell whether
It was indeed a song I heard
Rather than the pipes, radiators
Or someone turning on NPR.
I stood still in the bathroom,
Staring out the window into darkness,
As if the intensity of my gaze
Might induce her to give me another bar.
She must have sensed my interest
Or perhaps my senses coming to life
Snuffed her music the way an
Acolyte extinguishes an altar candle.
I still don’t know if what I heard
Really was the song of a bird
Or just my restless imagination
Reaching out to embrace
A friendlier season.
You can’t grow a new cedar simply by planting a twig from another cedar. Vs. 22. That is just not biologically possible. Moreover, cedars do not bear edible fruit. Vs. 23. But that only makes more emphatic the work God is doing here. The allegory of the cedar is filled with messianic and eschatological (consummation of the age) imagery. The messiah is frequently spoken of in prophetic literature as a “branch” or “shoot.” See Jeremiah 23:5-6; Zechariah 3:8. The exaltation of Mount Zion is a common prophetic term for the fulfilment of God’s purpose for Israel and the world generally. See Micah 4:1-4; Isaiah 2:1-4; Psalm 87. From a mere twig cut from the tree out of which it draws sustenance, a twig that by all rights is as good as dead, God grows a tree on the highest mountain that will tower over all other trees. Vs. 23. It will give shelter to animals and a home to birds of every kind. Vs. 24. By this great act, “all the trees of the field,” that is, the nations “shall know that I the Lord bring low the high tree, make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish.” Vs. 24.
The phrase “you shall know that I am the Lord” appears frequently throughout the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel 6:7, 10, 14; Ezekiel 7:4, 9, 27; Ezekiel 12:15; Ezekiel 13:23; Ezekiel 14:8; Ezekiel 17:21. It is important that God and God’s works be made known to Israel. In this passage, however, God is to be made known to all the nations, not merely by name but by action. God is to be known as the one who brings mighty empires to nothing and raises up a people that, to all appearances, appears to be nothing. Echoes here can be heard of the Exodus-God’s liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt to make of her a nation of promise. In a culture where the greatness of a god is measured by the political and military might of its patron nation, the God of a defeated and exiled people would seem hardly worthy of worship. But God does not belong to Israel only. God is God of all nations, raising them up and disposing of them as best serves God’s redemptive purposes. Moreover, God’s glory is not tied to Israel’s military might or geopolitical influence but to Israel’s faithfulness. This portrait of Israel’s exultation is therefore not comparable to the rise of great empires such as Assyria and Babylonia that dominate and exploit the lesser nations. Israel’s exaltation will be a life giving event for the nations of the world. This will be a different kind of kingdom ruling a different kind of world!
It is always worth asking how disciples of Jesus articulate and live out the prophetic confession of this God who raises and brings down empires for God’s own purposes in a nation that believes itself to have been uniquely selected by God to further God’s purpose through advancing its own national interests. The identification of God’s purpose with that of America, known as “American particularism,” is deeply imbedded in the American protestant psyche. Nowhere is this heretical notion better expressed than in our standard practice of placing the American flag in our sanctuaries, frequently on the same level as the altar and the cross. Sometimes I long for an encyclical from our ELCA presiding bishop condemning this idolatrous practice. I know full well, though, that no such directive will be forthcoming. First, American Lutheran bishops don’t issue encyclicals. Second, such a decree would generate more opposition than an order to shorten the worship service by omitting some of the appointed lessons. The latter is a sad commentary on the spiritual state of the church!
The superscription, “A Song for the Sabbath,” indicates that this psalm was used in connection with Sabbath observance in later Judaism. According to one commentator, the psalm most likely originated in public worship at a festival at some sanctuary lasting for several days. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 614. It is possible that the festival in question was the New Year celebration instituted in Leviticus 23:24-25. Ibid. The strict injunction against work of any kind during this holiday would help to explain its later use for Sabbath worship. The sanctuary in which this liturgy was first used could have been the one at Shiloh referenced in I Samuel or the temple in Jerusalem.
“It is good to give thanks to the Lord.” Vs. 1. That is a simple yet important reminder. To live well is to live thankfully. Thankfulness does not come naturally for most of us. Many of us are stuck in the entitlement mentality, believing that God, the world, our families or our churches “owe us something” and never quite pay up in full. Or we are caught up in the deadly sin of envy that can never recognize God’s gifts to us as anything other than second best to what is given to others who seem to be better off. Of course, in a culture that values accomplishment and achievement, thankfulness is practically an admission that you received something you have not earned or deserved. Why thank God or anybody else for what I earned by the sweat of my own brow?
A thankful worshiper understands quite simply that s/he lives by grace. S/he lives life at a leisurely pace, refusing to be rushed. S/he savors the smell of fresh coffee each morning, the warmth of the sun, the refreshment a spring rain brings to thriving vegetation, the songs of birds and the shouts of children. A thankful worshiper understands that each day of health, strength and vigor is an undeserved gift and that there is no entitlement to the same tomorrow. S/he knows that on the worst day there is still always plenty for which to give thanks and praise.
It is not altogether clear what is meant by a “ten stringed lute” in verse 3. The lute was a medieval predecessor to the guitar, but whether it was anything like the instrument described in the psalm is unknown. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 161. That it had “strings” suggests that it was something like a lute, guitar or lyre.
Verses 12-14 are reminiscent of Psalm 1 which speaks of the prosperity that flows from choosing the way of righteousness over wickedness. The fate of those who lack the sense to recognize God’s works and ways is discussed in verses 5-9 which are not included in our reading. For my cautionary remarks on the interpretation of psalms such as these, see my commentary on Psalm 1 in my post for Sunday, May 17, 2015. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 92 in its entirety.
For my general comments on Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, see my post of June 7, 2015.
The most puzzling piece of this passage is Paul’s remark that “while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.” Vs. 6. Shorn of its context, this sentence is rife with potential for misinterpretation. Paul is not suggesting that the body is the prison of the soul or that salvation is liberation of the spirit from bodily incarceration. Paul is merely stating a fact. As pointed out earlier in II Corinthians 5:1, “the earthly tent we live in is [being] destroyed.” We are dying as is the creation. Nonetheless, “though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.” II Corinthians 4:16. So far from separating soul from body, salvation consists in resurrecting the body. Thus, “while we are still in this tent [body], we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked.” II Corinthians 5:3. There is no advantage to being a naked spirit even if such a thing could exist. To be human is to be a body. It is only through the body that we can know each other. We are dependent on speech, hearing and sight. Critical to communication are the subtle tones of voice telling the hearer that, whatever our bear words might convey, we are speaking in jest. Facial expressions, hand gestures, hugs, kisses and so much more can only be conveyed by creatures with bodies. That is precisely why God has always spoken to Israel and the church through the words of Moses, Elijah, the prophets and apostles. That is why in the fullness of time the word became embodied. Jesus’ resurrection was the resurrection of his Body. His ascension to the right hand of the Father did not dispense with that Body but extended its reach to every scrap of matter in the universe. God remains embodied in God’s holy people. It is for this reason only that we can say God is in some measure knowable.
That said, we are in a limited sense imprisoned by our bodies. However much we might think we know another person, there are depths we cannot reach even with our best communication skills. How much more so with our God! Our bodies are imperfect communicators, lacking the ability to “know as we are known.” We cannot know each other or our God perfectly. As Paul says in his first letter to the church in Corinth, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” I Corinthians 13:12. Thus, our hope is not that we shall be liberated from our bodies to become naked spirits, but that “we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” II Corinthians 5:4. God is even now working the miracle of this transformation in our bodies giving us manifestations of God’s Spirit within the church as a guarantee of all that is to come. II Corinthians 5:5.
Knowing this, Paul is confident in his ministry. He is well aware that some in the Corinthian Church are critical of his personal appearance and what they judge to be his deficiencies as a public speaker. II Corinthians 10:10. There is also a suggestion that some in the congregation believe Paul to be mentally unstable. Vs. 13. Paul does not waste his breath disputing any of this. “I may stutter, I may be uglier than a baboon’s butt and mad as a hatter,” says Paul (highly paraphrased). “But it’s all for your sake that we do what we do.” Vs. 13. Paul is motivated by the love of Christ who died for all. Knowing that, it is impossible for Paul to view or judge anyone from a purely human perspective. Vs. 16. Paul once judged Jesus from just that perspective, but having encountered him as the one God raised from the dead, Paul cannot view him anymore as just another misguided teacher with some radical notions who came to a bad end. Vs. 16. Neither can Paul view women as subordinates, slaves as mere property or gentiles as unclean. Galatians 3:28. The resurrection is a game changer. Seen through the lens of Jesus’ resurrection, creation is altogether new. Vs. 17.
Sadly, the lectionary moves on next week to chapter 6 of II Corinthians passing over what I believe to be one of the most powerful articulations of the church’s mission to be found in the New Testament, namely, II Corinthians 5:16-21. I invite you to read it and reflect on it as it follows directly from what Paul has just told us in today’s lesson and explains what follows in next week’s reading.
The first of these two parables of God’s kingdom follows upon the Parable of the Sower told in Mark 4:3-9. This parable is not an allegory, though Jesus later resorts to allegory in order to explain it to his clueless disciples. Mark 4:10-20. The kingdom of God is to be seen in the totality of the circumstances: the sower who spreads his precious seed indiscriminately over soil both receptive and resistant; the varying degrees of response to that sowing and the resulting fruitfulness. Building on the same imagery, the parable of the planting, growth and harvest in verses 26-29 illuminate the kingdom from a different angle. The sower, though powerless to make the seed sprout, grow and mature nevertheless takes an active role in the process. The sower both plants and takes in the harvest. But that is the extent of the sower’s power to act. Growth comes of itself without the sower’s activity. For all that takes place between planting and harvest, the sower can only patiently wait.
So is Jesus intimating that the kingdom may be a long time in coming and that his disciples must sow the seeds of their ministry and wait patiently for growth? (Weiss, J., Das Markusevenelium (in Die Schriften des Neuen Testaments, Vol. I, 3rd ed. Revised by W. Bousset, c. 1917) cited by Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to Mark, Second ed., Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor) p. 266)). Or is he saying in effect that the time of growth is over and the day of harvest has arrived? (Schweitzer, A., The Quest for the Historical Jesus(c. 1906 by W. Montgomery, English Translation) cited by Taylor, supra.); Cranfield, The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 by Cambridge University Press) p. 167; Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 142. That the reference to the harvest has strong eschatological overtones (e.g. Joel 3:1-13) suggests that the interpretation favored by the weight of scholarly authority is in fact the better view. The conviction that the time for harvest has already come comports with Jesus’ inaugural declaration that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” Mark 1:15. Nevertheless, it is appropriate to recognize the parable’s emphasis on the growth and maturing of the crop as beyond the control of the planter. As Mark will make clear to us, the disciples’ understanding of Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims is laden with misconceptions and clouded by self-interest. Nevertheless, that kingdom is erupting into the world under their very noses and the opportunities for harvest are plentiful but as yet unseen.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed in verses 30-32 should likewise be understood against the backdrop of Jesus’ declaration that the kingdom of God has drawn near. Just as the parable of the planter concludes with an allusion to the final judgment pronounced by the Prophet Joel, so too this parable concludes by echoing the messianic proclamation in our lesson from Ezekiel. Yet there is a striking difference between the Parable of the Mustard Seed and Ezekiel’s prophetic oracle about the miraculous growth of the great cedar. Unlike the stately cedar, mustard is an invasive plant that can readily take over a field cultivated for more profitable crops. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a weed. Whereas Matthew and Luke dignify the parable by characterizing the mustard plant as a tree (Matthew 13:31-32; Luke 13:18-19), Mark is content to call it what it is-a bush.
However one wishes to characterize the mustard plant, there is an obvious contrast between its seed which is proverbially small and the grown plant. Moreover, mustard is a fast growing plant that is highly disruptive. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 136. Thus, it is unlikely that the parable is stressing the need for patience as the disciples wait for the gradual, progressive evolution of God’s kingdom through the institutions of democratic societies. The seed carries in it the immanent incursion of God’s reign into the well-ordered imperial garden. Be afraid, Caesar. Be very afraid!
FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, rich in mercy, by the humiliation of your Son you lifted up this fallen world and rescued us from the hopelessness of death. Lead us into your light, that all our deeds may reflect your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” Numbers 21:5.
Lately, Facebook seems to have been inundated with nostalgia posts. These are video feeds that walk you down memory lane into friendly neighborhoods of yore where nobody locked their doors, kids played stick ball, hopscotch, hide and seek all day on the sidewalks, in the streets and in vacant lots without supervision and nothing bad ever happened to them. These were the days when you could get a popsicle for a dime that broke in the center so you could share it with a friend. Teachers exercised discipline without fear of being sued and kids were all better behaved for it. Everyone respected the flag, loved their country and did their jobs without complaining. It was a happier, simpler time. These feeds usually end with an invitation to share if you concur with such sentiments. I never do.
I will admit that there is a part of my psyche that enjoys these posts. I can be as nostalgic as the next person for the things I miss-the hiss and crackle of vacuum tubes you heard when turning on the old radio. The television shows we watched in black and white with the living room curtains drawn because that was the only way we could see even an outline of what was on the screen. I miss the sound of the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard whistle that signaled the end of my Dad’s work shift, letting me know that he would soon be walking up the street from the bus stop. So naturally, I get warm and fuzzy feelings from being reminded of these relics of my past.
But there is a dark side of nostalgia as well. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” the people of Israel demand of Moses indignantly. Their frustration is understandable. They have been experiencing the hardships of the wilderness for years. They have seen war, hunger and thirst. So hard is their lot that they yearn for Egypt, the land of bondage from which they had so recently been liberated. In their minds, Egypt was a land of plenty. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic.” Numbers 11:5. They seem to have forgotten, however, the Pharaoh’s cruel edict requiring them to expose their male children and leave them to die. They seem to have forgotten the cruel bondage from which they cried out for four hundred years to be delivered. It is all reminiscent of the song made famous in my youth by Barbara Streisand in the movie, The Way We Were: “Memories, may be beautiful and yet, what’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.” Selective memory is a pernicious mental process that distorts the past, colors our perceptions of the present and darkens our outlook on the future. Nostalgia can tempt us to reject the day which the Lord has made in favor of what we deem to have been better days in the past. It can turn us away from the future into which God is calling us.
The nostalgia I see again and again on Facebook posts seems innocent enough on the surface, but it plays all too easily into the sinister myth of a golden age in America, an age to which we must return if we would prosper. It goes something like this: Once upon a time America was great. Once upon a time a man was the king of his castle, the master of his home. It was a time when doctors, lawyers, senators and state representatives were men-white men to be specific. There was a time when everyone knew what it meant to be a man and women knew-and accepted-what it meant to be a woman. There was a time when people of color knew their place in America-and were happy to stay there. It was a time when businesses closed on Sundays, sports leagues ceased their activities and the only people on the street were those on their way to church. There was a time when the way a man chose to keep his family in line was his own business and he didn’t have to concern himself with visits from the police, nosy social workers or child protective services. There was a time when just wars were the only ones America ever fought and America always won. This was an America where opportunities abounded for anyone willing to work and there was no explanation for failure or poverty except laziness and dishonesty.
You will object that, in fact, no such America ever existed. You are correct. But this is a myth and myths need not be true. They need only be credible and credibility requires a low standard of proof. Older white men like me who see their America slipping away, who see a new diverse generation of young people far more at home in a developing world of computers, cross-cultural relationships, a changing economy and a job market requiring skills we don’t have are particularly vulnerable to seduction by this toxic nostalgia for a country that never was. We feel as though we are losing control, that our knowledge and expertise is not valued, that our beliefs and convictions are being disregarded and our positions of privilege are slipping away. We sense that we are growing old, becoming less relevant and approaching death. All of that is true, by the way. God is doing a new thing-and we don’t like it!
The Trump campaign deftly exploited this white, male rage making the 2016 election into a referendum on the demographic future of America. It tapped into the white man’s visceral fear that his Norman Rockwell America is evolving into an increasingly feminist, multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-religious melting pot that he no longer recognizes as home. Trump’s handlers understood the deep-seated panic felt by white men when they hear that the white population will lose its majority status sometime between 2040 and 2050 and witness the increasing strength of women and people of color in business, entertainment and government. It should have come as no surprise that Trump’s berating women as “fat pigs” and “dogs” won him howls of approval from his white male base. Nor is it surprising that few in that base seemed at all concerned about their candidate’s sordid history of discrimination in his real estate developments or his derogatory remarks about Mexicans. To the contrary, they freely admit that his attractiveness stems from his willingness to say out loud what they are thinking.
Seen in this light, it is easy to understand the appeal of Trump’s claim that some “deep state” made up of liberals is really controlling the country. It is easy to see why universities are perceived as centers for “brainwashing” young people and scientists are regularly dismissed as white coated, God denying, America hating agents of the left. As preposterous as these notions might be, they make sense of the white man’s fears and put a face on the menace threatening him. Donald Trump validates the white man’s rage in a way that no other candidate in the field was able to do. He speaks their language and addresses their fears in ways that they can understand. His call for “making America great again,” taking us back to a simpler and happier time is understandably appealing to his base. In reality, however, this toxic nostalgia is the opiate ever threatening to derail the people of God and lure them back into captivity. Whatever direction America may take, disciples of Jesus must resist the temptation to look for salvation in the past.
We worship a forward-looking God. That does not mean that everything new, everything contemporary and everything promising change is necessarily good. It does mean, however, that today is the hand we have been dealt and we are not at liberty to throw it down and walk away from the table. It means that the future, however dark and threatening it can sometimes appear, is God’s future, the trajectory of which is determined by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The end of all things is the reign of God which, whether we like it or not, takes in peoples of every tribe, tongue and nation. Our movement must ever be forward toward that goal, journeying hopefully, faithfully and confidently-not in our plans, programs, politics or ideology, but in the promise that, as Christ has died and has risen, Christ will come again.
Here is a poem by Miller Williams about history and forward-looking hope eschewing the lure of nostalgia.
Of History and Hope
We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.
We know the sound of all the sounds we brought.
The rich taste of it is on our tongues.
But where are we going to be, and why, and who?
The disenfranchised dead want to know.
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.
But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
except in the minds of those who will call it Now?
The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?
With waving hands—oh, rarely in a row—
and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.
Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an even chance
cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.
Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head
cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.
Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child
cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.
We know what we have done and what we have said,
and how we have grown, degree by slow degree,
believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become—
just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.
All this in the hands of children, eyes already set
on a land we never can visit—it isn’t there yet—
but looking through their eyes, we can see
what our long gift to them may come to be.
If we can truly remember, they will not forget.
Miller Williams (1930-2015) was an American Poet, editor, critic, and translator born in Hoxie, Arkansas to a Methodist pastor. He was honored as the country’s third inaugural poet, reading the above poem at the start of former President Bill Clinton’s second term. Williams earned a Bachelor of Science in biology from Arkansas State University and an Masters in zoology from the University of Arkansas. He taught college science for many years before securing a job in the English department at LSU with the support of his friend, the noted author, Flannery O’Connor. Williams has written, translated, or edited over thirty books, including a dozen poetry collections. You can read more about Miller Williams and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Source: Some Jazz A While: Collected Poems, (c. 1999 by Miller Williams; pub. by University of Illinois Press).
Numbers is the fourth book of the “Five Scrolls” or “Pentateuch,” sometimes referred to as the Five Books of Moses. Its title comes from the English translation of the Greek title, “Arithmoi,” given to the book in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures). I am guessing the name “Numbers” stems from the first several chapters of the book which narrate a census of each of the twelve Israelite tribes, family by family. The Hebrew Scriptures use the title “Bemidbar” which means “in the wilderness” and aptly describes the content of this book narrating Israel’s forty years of wandering between the Exodus from Egypt and her entry into the land of Canaan. During this period the generation of Israelites that left Egypt with Moses and Aaron died and was succeeded by a new generation. From the old generation, only Moses and Joshua remain alive at the close of Numbers. It is clear that Joshua, not Moses, will lead this new generation into the land of Canaan. Throughout this period, the people are faced with numerous challenges that put their faith in God to the test. Though the faithfulness of Israel is often less than adequate, God remains steadfast from beginning to end.
Our lesson begins with the people of Israel setting out on a new leg of their journey following a victory over the Canaanite king of Arad. Arad was a Canaanite city of the Negeb located in present day Tell Arad, Israel. Its ruins consist of a large mound containing potsherds indicating that Arad was first occupied in the 4th Century B.C.E. The site is about fifty miles north of Kadish where Israel remained encamped for extended periods of time.
After this battle, the people set out from Mt. Hor (precise location of which is unknown) and take the “way of the Red Sea.” The Hebrew actually reads “reed sea,” but it is likely that the Red Sea is intended here. This road, which begins at Ezion-geber at the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, would have taken Israel to the west of Edom rather than through it, the objective set forth in the text. Vs. 4. It is at this point that the people become discouraged, complain against Moses and even against God. They go so far as to call the manna with which God has been feeding them “this miserable food,” food to which the Psalms refer as “the bread of angels.” Psalm 78:25. Vs. 5. God responds by sending “fiery serpents” among the people, translated by the NRSV as “poisonous serpents.” The assumption seems to be that the serpents are merely a species of snake with a bite that causes a burning sensation. That would comport with our 19th Century penitent for interpreting the scriptures in such a way as not to violate cannons of the Enlightenment. But despite these noble efforts at ridding the Hebrew Scriptures of primitive supernaturalism, the problem remains. Not only are we lacking any known species of near eastern reptile capable of inflicting such a bite, but we are also faced with the biological reality that no snake of any kind travels in large groups. (When was the last time you saw a herd of snakes?) Nor do snakes typically attack without significant provocation.
More likely than not, the serpents were understood by the narrator, not as any known species of snake, but as one of the many mythical creatures thought to inhabit the desert, such as the “flying serpent” referenced in Isaiah 30:6. In any event, the creatures, whatever they are, were sent by God to punish Israel’s faithless complaining. Recognizing their sin, the people repent and turn to Moses for aid. As he has so often done before, Moses intercedes with God for the sake of Israel. Vs. 7.
What follows is truly fascinating and, in some respects, difficult to understand. God instructs Moses to fashion a bronze serpent and elevate it on a pole-seemingly a direct violation of the First Commandment (or the Second, depending on how one numbers them): “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…” Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8. The serpent, though greatly feared, was nevertheless a common symbol of healing and fertility. One wonders why Moses would be instructed to create such a symbol as an instrument of healing where it could so easily lead to idolatrous worship. Indeed, according to II Kings this very consequence occurred necessitating King Hezekiah’s destruction of the very same bronze serpent centuries later. II Kings 18:4.
Of course, the Abrahamic religions have always had ambivalent feelings about images. Islam forbids absolutely any image of God (Allah) and discourages (in varying degrees) images of any creature. Similarly, Christianity has vacillated between the extremes of icon adoration and iconoclasm. The danger of images is nowhere better illustrated than in our consistent depictions of God as male. Though one would be hard pressed to make from the scriptures the case for a gendered God, Christian art could hardly lead you to any different conclusion. Our images invariably turn out to be limited by our own cultural, sociological and ideological biases and therefore limiting in their portrayal of the God we claim to worship.
That said, it seems we cannot do without images. When we are physically forbidden to make them, our imagination continues to manufacture images. Moreover, the doctrine of the Incarnation affirms that the Word of God became flesh (John 1:14) and even that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God…” Colossians 1:15. Our liturgy urges us to adore the Word made visible in Jesus that we might learn to love the God we cannot see. We are imaginative creatures who comprehend our universe by means of images.
Some years ago, I was very taken with a painting of the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem. The painting was by a Mexican artist whose depiction of the temple’s architecture along with the dress of Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna was with imagery drawn from his own cultural environment. I clipped a copy of this painting out of the magazine in which I found it. Some weeks later, I found the same biblical scene portrayed in an early Byzantine wall mural in National Geographic. I clipped this one also and put it into the same shoebox with the other print. I now have about half a dozen such portrayals of the Presentation. Singly, they are time bound, parochial and culturally circumscribed. In their plurality, they reflect from multiple dimensions a miracle too beautiful and magnificent for any single imagination to contain. They represent the impact of a marvelous narrative as it rolls through the ages gathering meaning as a snowball gathers mass. The difference between an icon and an idol is simply this: the idol points only to itself limiting the God it would represent to the confines of a single image, whereas the icon points beyond itself to that which is finally beyond imagination.
This is a psalm of praise. Verse 22 suggests that it was sung by the faith community before a sacrifice of thanksgiving. That the worshipers are “gathered from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (Vs. 3) suggests that this psalm was composed after the Babylonian Exile and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Though some of the exiled Jews returned home to Palestine, most of the Jewish population remained scattered throughout the Mediterranean world, making pilgrimages to Jerusalem on high holy days. Such pilgrim journeys were fraught with dangers, escape from which was one of many occasions for thanksgiving.
Our reading jumps from the introductory verses 1-3 to verse 17 stating that some of the worshipers now giving thanks had become “sick” through their sinful ways. The Hebrew is obscure at this point. Some translations of the Hebrew Scriptures favor the alternative reading: “some were fools, they took to rebellious ways.” New English Bible. Given this ambiguity, we are left to ponder whether the persons described here were rescued from sickness brought on by their rebelliousness or from their rebellious ways otherwise destructive to their wellbeing. Verse 18 stating that these individuals were so affected as to become “sickened” at the sight of food is merely figurative. It means little more than that food brought them no pleasure and that they had no appetite. Thus, there is no definitive indication that sickness is the affliction from which these worshipers were delivered. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 52; but see Weiser, Artur, The Psalms: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 687 for a contrary view.
In verse 18 we are told that the worshipers “drew near to the gate of death.” The psalmist pictures death as a city drawing the hapless traveler into its fatal orbit. Again, the interpretation depends on our rendering of verse 17. In a world without much in the way of medicine and where illness was poorly understood, many of the sicknesses we view as non-life threatening brought fear and foreboding. Every sickness was a reminder of human mortality as it might well progress to something much worse than first appeared. So, too, bad choices can bring a person to ruin from which there seems no way of return. In either case, we are invited to glorify the God of Israel for turning even these seemingly hopeless circumstances into occasions for the exercise of God’s saving power.
God “sent his word” at verse 20 can be understood at several different levels. At the most superficial level it can be understood as a word of rebuke (assuming that the affliction is foolishness) or of encouragement (assuming the affliction to be illness). The bringer of the word can be linked to the word in such a way as to be an extension of that word. This notion of angelic intervention applies to help in the form of natural elements that serve as God’s “angels” or angelic beings serving at God’s behest. In later Judaism and in the New Testament, the word often became identified with God’s self. See John 1:1.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 107 in its entirety. This marvelous hymn recounts God’s faithfulness and salvation through the lenses of many differing human situations of want and need. In every case we are invited to “thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men.” Vs. 21.
“Dead through trespasses and sins” “following the prince of the power of the air” –how are we to make sense of these terms? To understand what Paul and his followers meant by this terminology, it helps to understand the context in which they lived and worked. The Roman Empire was the overriding and dominating presence throughout the Mediterranean world in the 1st Century. Under its reign society was rigidly and hierarchically ordered with the emperor at the apex and slaves making up the base of its pyramid of power. How you regarded and treated others in your life was dictated by your assigned place in this order. Jewett, Robert, Romans-A Commentary, Harmenia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 49 and the citation to Lendon, J.E., Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World (c. 1997 by Oxford: Clarendon) pp. 289-292. For Paul and his associates, this way of “walking” (Vs. 1) is sinful by definition. As a Jew, Paul understood God as the one who liberated Israel from slavery for a life of freedom in covenant with God. As a disciple of Jesus, Paul believed that genuine divine power does not manifest itself top down through the imperial hierarchy, but from bottom up through the faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection of the Christ. Jesus topples Rome’s pyramid uniting into a single people persons of all nations, all classes and all races. Of this people, Jesus Christ, not Caesar is Lord. There is no hierarchy in this new people, but only a diversity of gifts exercised for the building up of the Body of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-16. This is the good work in which disciples of Jesus are called to walk. Vs. 10.
I believe Paul would have recognized much that was familiar to him in the United States of America. Though surely saddened, I doubt Paul would be shocked to discover that elections are bought by powerful corporate interests, that wealth is overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of a very few while a growing sector of the population lacks even the basic necessities of life. I don’t think Paul would be shocked to find African American neighborhoods patrolled by an overwhelmingly white police department that looks far more like an occupation force than a public service. I think that Paul would recognize “the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Vs. 2) every bit as much in our age as in his own.
What I am not sure Paul would recognize is the presence of the church in the midst of such a world as ours. Would Paul recognize a church that is so thoroughly woven into the cultural and economic fabric of our domination society that it blends naturally into the Americana landscape? Would Paul recognize as the meeting place of Christ’s Body a locked building with a “No Trespassing” sign over the door? Would Paul see in our still highly segregated Sunday mornings the descendants of his churches? Would Paul find any disciples of Jesus engaged in the good works in which they are called to “walk.”? Vs. 10.
Our failure to appreciate the extent to which the church’s very existence challenged the legitimacy of Rome’s culture of domination has compromised our preaching of this and other Pauline texts. As a result, our pastors, teachers and bishops remain largely blind to the dangerous, toxic mix of nationalism and deviant Christianity that constitutes so much of what has, ironically I think, been called evangelical Christianity and its insidious infiltration of our churches. See my post of July 26, 2017.
For some background on the larger context of this brief snippet from John’s gospel, my post from Sunday, March 16, 2014. Suffice to say that Jesus is engaged in a conversation with Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, who has come to him by night. Nicodemus, having been told that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being “born from above” mistakenly believes that Jesus means he must be born all over again-a seeming impossibility. When Jesus explains that entering the Kingdom is not so much a re-birth as it is a new birthing by God’s adoption of us through the Spirit, Nicodemus is still mystified. Jesus then says to Nicodemus what we have in our lesson for Sunday: “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Vss. 13-15.
As pointed out by one prominent commentator, the words “in him” are associated with eternal life rather than with “believe.” Thus, “whoever believes, in him may have eternal life” is the preferred rendering. Barrett, C.K., The Gospel According to St. John, Second Ed. (c. C.K. Barrett, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 179; accord, Marsh, John Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. John Marsh, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 187. Belief is not the engine of salvation unto eternal life. As Martin Luther points out, “the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol.” The Large Catechism of Martin Luther, published in The Book of Concord, edit. Theodore G. Tappert (c. 1959 by Fortress Press) p. 365. Eternal life is given in Jesus, the Word that evokes and directs faith toward himself. To read this verse in any other way suggests that faith is a precondition for God’s mercy rather than the heartfelt response to such mercy.
“Eternal life” is a term frequently used throughout the fourth gospel, though the other gospels use it occasionally as well. While used in Jewish and Christian literature to speak of life in the new age to come, John uses it in a more expansive way. For John, eternal life begins when one believes in Jesus. “And this is eternal life,” says Jesus, “that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” John 17:3. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the eternal life Jesus shares with the Father is mediated to the disciples. John 16:13-15. It is critical to emphasize John’s present tense lest eternal life be misunderstood as a distant hope realized only after death.
It is important to remember also that the Greek texts do not contain punctuation. Thus, the decision to end the quote from Jesus at verse 15, as does the RSV, is an editorial decision. The NRSV continues the quotation up to verse 21. Commentators are split on this point. For example, Professor Raymond Brown sides with the NRSV. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 149. Professor Lightfoot, however, would end the quote at verse 15. Lightfoot, R.H., St. John’s Gospel (c. 1960 by Oxford University Press) p. 118. I lean toward the NRSV rendering on this point. I see no compelling reason not to extend the quote up to verse 21 and so accept John 3:16 as Jesus’ pronouncement. “All Jesus’ words come to us through the channels of the evangelist’s understanding and rethinking, but the Gospel [of John] presents Jesus as speaking and not the evangelist.” Brown, supra, at 149. With this in mind, it is possible to read John 3:16 not as a doctrinal proposition, but as Jesus’ proclamation of his reconciling mission to us.
“God so love the world” Vs. 16. The word “world” is important. When I was in confirmation, my pastor encouraged us to substitute our own names in place of “world” when reciting this well-known verse. While I appreciate that he was trying to help us personalize Jesus’ ministry, there is a danger in such particularization. For too long the church has held a narrow, individualistic view of salvation. It is as though God were trying to save as many passengers as possible from the deck of a sinking ship. This wicked world is on cruise ship destined for hell. But faith is the lifeboat that can get you safely off the ship before she goes down. God, however, is determined to save the ship. “The earth is the Lord’s” the psalm tells us. Psalm 24:1. God is not conceding one inch of it to the devil. For this reason, our own individual salvation is inextricably bound up with the salvation of the rivers, forests, animals, the hungry, the oppressed and the oppressor.
The “sending” of the Son into the world as an expression of God’s love points in two directions. Vs. 16. First, it points to the miracle of the Incarnation. John treats this in his poetic prologue at John 1:1-18. It is important to understand that incarnation, the dwelling of God with humankind, has been the intent of God from the “beginning,” that is, before creation, the fall into sin and its consequences. The constant refrain throughout the prophets is “I will be their God and they shall be my people.” That refrain is echoed in the Book of Revelation where this divine desire is finally fulfilled. Revelation 21:3-4.
Second, the sending of the Son points forward to the cross-the price God is prepared to pay for dwelling in our midst, for becoming flesh that can be torn, broken and pierced by nails. This desire of God to dwell among us at the cost of God’s only beloved Son is the measure of divine love. Such love takes shape in our lives when we become passionate about God’s reign or, to use John’s language, when we enter into eternal life which we might well render life that is eternally significant. To believe in the resurrection is to believe that the God Jesus lived and died for is real; that the salvation he offers the world is worth living for and even dying for.
Jesus continues by telling us that he has been sent not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Vs. 17. Yet condemnation there surely will be. “He who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Vs. 18. Often there is a twofold reaction to Jesus in the gospel of John placing in stark relief the response of faith to that of rejection and unbelief. It is not that Jesus himself judges any person. Rather, “the idea is that Jesus brings out what a man really is and the real nature of his life. Jesus is a penetrating light that provokes judgment by making it apparent what a man is.” Brown, supra, pp. 148-149. For, “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” Vs. 19. This applies to all persons across the board. The question is how one responds to this judgment. Does one say “yes” to the judgment upon his or her life and turn from death to “eternal life” as we have defined it? Or does one shun the light, continue in sin and cause the judgment to become condemnation? In sum, this passage presupposes an encounter with Jesus such as is occurring with Nicodemus in our lesson. It should not be lifted out of this context and employed for speculation about who will or will not finally be saved.
One final observation: for all the dualism in this text-light vs. darkness; belief vs. unbelief; and knowledge vs. ignorance-terms which seem to mandate that one choose one side or the other, Nicodemus remains an ambiguous character throughout John’s gospel. He appears briefly in Chapter 7 when he questions his fellow members of the council about their rush to judgment on Jesus and his ministry. John 7:50-51. We meet him again after Jesus’ crucifixion as he goes with Joseph of Arimathea to give Jesus a proper burial. John 19:38-42. John seems to recognize that there is a twilight zone between darkness and light; belief and unbelief; understanding and ignorance. In this zone faith struggles to be born.
 In November of 2008, for the first time in history, an election was not decided principally by white men. In the first election in which a major party candidate was an African American, the white vote went decisively in favor of John McCain over Barak Obama to the tune of twelve percentage points. But this clear win in America’s still biggest demographic could not offset overwhelming support among Hispanic, African American and Asian voters coupled with a substantial edge among women and the near unanimous support of the LGBTQ communities. The hope of white voters that the Obama victory was an historical fluke that would soon be erased once the panic generated by the recession of that era faded was dashed by Mr. Obama’s substantial electoral and popular victory over Mitt Romney in 2012. Though Mr. Romney won the white vote by ten percentage points, Mr. Obama’s support among minorities and women again carried the day. The electorate twice defied the will of the white man to put an African American in the White House-and white, male America was mad as hell about it. See Roper reports for 2008 and 2012.
Reconciling irreconcilable differences; a poem by Daniel Webster Davis; and the lessons for Sunday, October 15, 2017
NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Lord of the feast, you have prepared a table before all peoples and poured out your life with abundance. Call us again to your banquet. Strengthen us by what is honorable, just, and pure, and transform us into a people of righteousness and peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.” Philippians 4:2.
This intriguing snippet from Paul’s letter to the Philippians in Sunday’s second lesson is one of many highly personal, particular and cryptic references in the epistles that makes me long to know more. Who were Eudia and Syntyche? In what respect were they not “of the same mind in the Lord?” What little we know is that Eudia and Synctyche were women who worked “side by side” with Paul to proclaim the gospel and that Paul views them both as “fellow workers” whose names are written “in the book of life.” In short, they were both dear friends and valued colleagues of the apostle who is clearly pained by their apparent discord.
Though we can only speculate over what their points of disagreement might have been, it seems obvious to me that the dispute or disputes between these two women were not of the trivial sort, i.e., what color to paint the church restrooms, where to situate the choir during worship or which sauce to use at the annual pasta dinner. These women were, after all, leaders and co-workers with St. Paul in his gospel ministry. As such, we can safely assume that they were mature in their faith, deeply committed to the mission of the church and zealous for the kingdom of heaven. For this very reason, we can also assume that each of these women’s respective positions stemmed from a significant concern that the mission of the church be carried out faithfully and well. Both women had the best interests of the church and the kingdom to which it witnesses at heart.
Paul was no stranger to such disputes. We read in the Book of Acts that he separated from his long-time partner, Barnabas, over a disagreement involving staffing for an important missionary journey. Acts 15:36-41. Paul found himself at odds with many of his fellow Pharisees at the Jerusalem council where he presented the case for his ministry to the gentiles. Acts 15:1-29. He also had a sharp confrontation with the Apostle Peter in Antioch over Peter’s practice of “dividing the table” between Jewish and gentile believers. Galatians 2:11-14. Paul understood that principles are important, particularly as they pertain to preaching and practicing the gospel of Jesus Christ. But he also understood that principles are meant to serve the Body of Christ, not the other way around. Paul knew that amputation is not the treatment of choice when curing an ailing body part. So he does not take sides as between Eudia and Syntyche. He does not scold or reprimand them. Nor does he recommend that they part company. Instead, he urges them to work at becoming reconciled, to be at one in the Lord.
Reconciliation is hard work. It does not happen overnight and sometimes those of us who find ourselves at odds need help getting there. That is why Paul appeals to the entire Philippian congregation to “help these women.” They need help in extricating themselves from a dispute that has become bigger and stronger than both of them. At its best, that is what the church does. It creates a supportive, but honest forum where its members are loved and accepted while their respective viewpoints are rigorously evaluated and judged. Living in such a community calls for maturity, humility and a very thick skin.
During my first year of seminary back in the late 70s, I did my fieldwork training at a small congregation in downtown Minneapolis. That is where I met a youth minister I will call Tony. Tony told me that he was ordained, but “flying a little under the radar” at the time. When I asked him what he meant by that, he told me that he had come out as gay in his first congregation in the northern half of the state and had been asked to leave his pastorate. His bishop was in the process of removing him from the clergy roster. I asked him something along the lines of why he remained in a church that didn’t want him. Tony smiled and said, “Well, it’s like this. I know the church doesn’t want me. Believe me, there are plenty of days when I don’t want the church either. But Jesus wants me and the church sort of comes with him. So, me and the church are kind of stuck with each other whether we like it or not.”
I have thought about that a lot over the years. I’m not sure that I would have been as determined as was Tony to stick with the church if I had been in his shoes. I tend not to hang out very long where I get the sense that I’m not wanted. But Tony understood what Paul also understood, namely, that the church is Christ’s Body and we don’t heal its wounds by hacking off its wounded members, that Jesus sometimes calls people who are total jerks to follow him, that we don’t all arrive at a knowledge of the truth at the same time, that there are those of us who think we have arrived but still have a long way to go, that we all need each other if we are going to arrive at the end of the journey, that the mind of Christ is formed in communities of people that don’t always get along and sometimes don’t even like each other very much. That’s church. It’s not for the faint of heart.
The gritty determination of people like Tony and St. Paul strikes a dissonant chord in a culture where religion is just one more consumer good that can be had at any corner church. There is little incentive to remain in a congregation where, for whatever reason, you don’t feel at home. Why not find a more congenial church or, failing that, start your own? That’s the American way, isn’t it? Perhaps, but it is not the way of Jesus and his church. We are called to be a community of people who do not give up on one another. Discipleship requires living with irreconcilable differences until in God’s good time we are led to a place of reconciliation. The church is God’s ambassador for reconciliation. The church exists to demonstrate for all the world that there is a better way to be human, that our divisions can be healed and that the future need not be a replay of our contentious past. Reconciliation is not just a utopian pipe dream. It is the only practical way forward for a world in danger of social collapse, thermonuclear war and catastrophic climate change. The alternative to reconciliation is too terrible to contemplate.
Here’s a delightful little poem about reconciling differences among the people of God by Daniel Webster Davis.
De Linin’ ub De Hymns
Dare a mighty row in Zion an’ de debbil’s gittin’ high,
An’ de saints done beat de sinners, a-cussin’ on de sly;
What for it am? you reckon, well, I’ll tell you how it ’gin
Twuz ’bout a mighty leetle thing, de linin’ ub de hymns.
De young folks say taint stylish to lin’ out no mo’,
Dat dey’s got edikashun, an’ dey wants us all to know
Dat dey likes to hab dar singin’ books a-holin’ fore dar eyes,
An sing de hymns right straight along to mansion in de skies.
Dat it am awful fogy to gin um out by lin’,
An’ ef de ole folks will kumplain ’cause dey is ole an’ blin
An’ slabry’s chain don kep dem back from larnin how to read,
Dat dey mus’ take a corner seat, and let de young folks lead.
We bin peatin’ hine de pastor when he sez dat lubly pray’r
Cause some un us don kno’ it an’ kin not say it squar,
But dey sez we mus’ peat wid him, an’ ef we kan keep time,
De gospel train will drap us off from follin’ long behin’.
Well p’haps dez’s right, I kin not say, my lims is growin’ ole,
But I likes to sing dem dear ole hymns ’tis music to my soul
An’ ’pears to me twon’t do much harm to gin um out by lin’,
So we ole folk dat kin not read kin foller long behin’.
But few ub us am lef here now dat bore de slabry’s chain,
We don edekate our boys an’ gals we’d do de sam’ agin
An Zion’s all dat’s lef us now to cheer us wid its song,
Dey mought ’low us to sing wid dem, it kin not be fur long.
De sarmons high-falutin’ an’ de chuch am mighty fin’,
We trus’ dat God still understans ez he did in olden times;
When we do ign’ant po an’ mean still worshiped wid de soul
Do oft akross our peac’ful breas’ de wabes ub trouble rolled.
De old time groans an’ shouts an’ moans am passin’ out ub sight,
Edikashun changed all dat, and we believe it right:
We should serb God wid ’telligence but fur dis thing I plead,
Jes lebe a leetle place in chuch fur dem as kin not read.
Source: Poetry Foundation Magazine. This poem is in the public domain. Daniel Webster Davis (1862-1913) was a teacher, minister and poet. Born a son of slaves in rural Virginia, he moved to Richmond following the end of the Civil War. He began teaching in 1880 and was ordained a Baptist minister in 1896. Shortly thereafter, he became pastor of Richmond’s Second Baptist Church, a position he held for the rest of his life. Both in his writing and preaching, Davis engaged issues of racial justice, a task that required uncommon courage in an era marked by the violence of overt white supremacy. His true love, however, was the life of the church and its roots in the values of faith, family and friendship. You can read more about Daniel Webster Davis on the Poetry Foundation website.
This is a psalm of praise for God’s anticipated salvation. The Hebrew text is riddled with difficulties rendering the English translations doubtful at best. For example, the statement in verse 2 “Thou hast made a (or the) city a heap” is a questionable reading. Mauchline, John, Isaiah 1-39, Torch Bible Paperbacks (c. 1962 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 189. Commentators disagree over which specific city, if any, is intended. Most tend to favor Babylon. Ibid. It is also possible that the poem is dated as late as the Greek period under the Seleucids. Ibid. If either of these theories holds, then this song clearly could not have been composed by the Isaiah of the Eight Century B.C.E. as was the bulk of the material in Isaiah 1-39. The phrase in the same verse, “A palace of strangers to be no city” is also doubtful. Ibid. Whatever their dating and precise translation, the gist of verses 1-5 is clear. God will humble and bring to nothing the ruthless and arrogant nations oppressing the poor and helpless. The latter will be exalted and the former reduced to fear and awe before God’s justice.
Verses 6-9 contain the prophecy of a new age to be initiated by God’s saving activity. As is so often the case throughout the Bible, the coming of the messianic banquet is compared to a great feast, often a wedding feast. God is the host of this great feast which will be for “all peoples.” Vs. 6. Moreover, the people are to be fed with “fat things full of marrow.” Vs. 6. The “fat” of animals was reserved for the Lord according to Israelite cultic practice. See, e.g., Leviticus 1:8, 12. Here, however, this choice part is given by God to the people.
The “covering” and the “veil” over the nations to be destroyed by the power of God may refer to the former ignorance or the mourning of the “strong peoples” and the “ruthless nations” that have been chastened by God’s judgment. Vs. 7. The lavish hospitality of God poured out upon all peoples seeking his favor at Mt. Zion is capable of overcoming both types of blindness. The declaration in verse 8 that God will “swallow up death forever,” and “wipe away tears from all faces” is echoed by John of Patmos in Revelation 21:3-4. Death, like poverty and want, has no place in the new age. It does not necessarily follow, however, that immortality is intended here. Death, in Hebrew thought, was the natural end to life. It was seen as evil only to the extent that it was untimely or violently imposed. Thus, some commentators attribute this promise to the work of a redactor much later than either Second Isaiah or Third Isaiah. Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 13-39, The Old Testament Library (c. 1974 by SCM Press Ltd.) p. 201. While this may well be, the defeat of death can be interpreted in a way consistent with Hebrew thinking on the subject. Though death itself might remain in the messianic age, the evil of death might be said to have been vanquished in a world where all people live in peace and security to a ripe old age. Where death is restrained and prevented from disrupting the peace of the community or ending life prematurely, its destructive power is ended.
It is generally agreed by most commentators that Verse 9 begins a new and separate song of praise. Some scholars limit it to this one verse, while others suggest that it continues to verse 12. Ibid. 202. Nonetheless, verse 9 stands in the canonical text as a fitting conclusion to the preceding hymn of praise for God’s salvation. Israel’s patient waiting for the fulfilment of God’s ancient promises is to be vindicated on a day of the Lord’s choosing. Israel and all the world will then know that God’s people have not suffered, lived faithfully or died in vain. As noted above, it is impossible to date this passage with certainty, but the message is clear and applicable to many different times and places.
Professor Walter Brueggeman has said that commenting on the 23rd Psalm is almost pretentious. That has not stopped me from trying. Given the frequency with which this psalm appears in the lectionary, I am fairly sure that I have said about everything else I have to say at my posts for Sunday, July 19, 2016, Sunday, April 26, 2015, Sunday, October 12, 2014, Sunday, May 11, 2014, Sunday, March 30, 2014, Sunday, April 21, 2013 andSunday, July 22, 2012. I will only add that the NRSV’s translation of the last verse differs from the old RSV which reads: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The NRSV renders the passage: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” That has proved unsettling for a lot of folks who saw in that verse the assurance of everlasting life. While the newer translation is probably more faithful to the intended meaning of the Hebrew, I don’t believe that we are using this psalm unfaithfully at funerals. Life, after all, is God’s gift. It is precisely because life was grounded in God that Israel insisted immortality is not a property of the human person. There is nothing in us that survives death. Nonetheless, there is nothing inconsistent with God’s continuing to give us the gift of life even after death. Though life everlasting might have been more than was contemplated by the psalmist, in the light of Jesus’ resurrection it is nonetheless a proper extension of his/her confident assurance of God’s saving presence throughout his/her existence.
Once again, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is not one letter but three.
Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)
Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)
Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)
As you can see, this Sunday’s reading contains elements of the Letter of Friendship and the letter of warning. Verse 1 concludes the main theme of the letter of warning by urging the Philippian congregation to “stand firm” in the truth of the gospel against the onslaught of false teaching. Verse 2 turns to what appears to have been an internal problem for the congregation. It seems that two leading women of the congregation are at odds with one another, namely, Euodia and Syntyche. We know nothing of the dispute, but it is clear that Paul values both of these individuals as fellow disciples who have “labored side by side” with him. Vs. 3. This brief, cryptic note is a reminder that the church has been plagued by divisive forces from its inception. Unity in the Spirit must ever be carefully guarded and nourished with constant conversation, consolation, loving confrontation and forgiveness.
“Rejoice in the Lord always.” Vs. 4. Whatever faults the Apostle Paul had, he was ever thankful. He was thankful for his fellow workers in his missionary endeavors; he was thankful for his struggling little churches; he was thankful for his many experiences of God’s guidance and protection. But most of all, Paul was thankful for the grace of God through which even a persecutor of the church with blood on his hands could find forgiveness, peace and newness of life.
The admonition to “have no anxiety” is the corollary of trusting God’s promises in Jesus Christ. Anxiety is the consequence of assuming responsibility God never intended for us to have. It is the fruit of thinking that equality with God is a thing to be grasped. Philippians 2:6. We are not in a position to direct our destinies or plan our lives. Neither are we given the task of passing judgment on the value, success or importance of our lives. That job belongs to God. All we need to know is that God has made us his children through baptism, God has his own purpose for our lives and God will complete what he began in our baptisms. Nothing we do or fail to do will change that.
Verses 8-9 encourage the church to think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, gracious, excellent and worthy of praise. That is a refreshing word in a culture that thrives on scandal, gossip and maliciousness. It is a sad commentary on our national character that candidates simply cannot win elections without “going negative.” At least that is what professional consultants tell us. Are we really so bankrupt of ideas, imagination and the will to improve our lives that we cannot raise ourselves up without pulling someone else down? However that might be in the surrounding culture, Paul makes clear that this is not how life in the church should look. Instead, members of the Body of Christ seek reasons to praise one another, honor one another and bear with one another. For a body cannot be healthy unless all of its parts complement one another. When the politics of the church begins to resemble the politics of the world, the health of Christ’s Body is endangered. Church councils and Synod Assemblies take note!
This story of the feast and the thankless guests is told also in the Gospel of Luke with a different twist. See Luke 14:16-24. Unlike Luke, Matthew tells us that the host is a king and the occasion for the feast is the wedding of his son. The Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament frequently use feasting in general and wedding feasts in particular as metaphors for the kingdom of heaven. This rich imagery could not have been lost on Jesus’ hearers.
The story itself seems hardly credible. In a culture where the opportunity to dine on meat of any sort was a rare luxury, who would turn down the chance to eat one’s fill of prime rib? Who would miss the opportunity to dine in a palace and who would think it wise to abuse and kill the messengers of a king bearing such an invitation? Are these folks out of their minds? What sort of king would have to go out into the streets and beg for guests to attend such a splendid affair as the marriage of his son? And what sort of ingrate, having been undeservedly granted admission to such a grand occasion as the royal wedding, would show up in gardening cloths?
Yet I think the story’s very implausibility illustrates the point Jesus is making. The kingdom of heaven is the greatest gift God has to offer, yet human beings reject that gift and go so far as to kill the messengers announcing its coming. It is a parabolic way of saying what John tells us in his gospel: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19. Our attitudes of indifference and hostility toward the kingdom of heaven are no less inexplicable than the behavior of the invited guests toward the king’s wedding invitation.
Some commentators have concluded that vss. 11-14 (the guest without a wedding garment) was originally a separate parable. Indeed, Eduard Schweizer is convinced that these verses could not have been added by Matthew because they do not fit the thrust of the parable, namely, that the “first called” who rejected the invitation will be passed over in favor of the “chosen” gathered from “good and bad alike.” Vss. 8-10. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 by John Knox Press) p. 416. There is, however, no strong textual evidence in support of deleting verses 11-14. Moreover, I believe that the episode further illustrates Matthew’s point. Just as egregious as the outright rejection of the wedding invitation is the absence of thankfulness and respect shown by the guest’s lack of proper attire.
It would seem unfair to fault the ill clad guest if, as in Luke’s gospel, he had been drawn from “the poor and maimed and blind and lame.” Luke 14:21. But that is not the case in Matthew’s telling of the story. There is no indication in this parable that the guests were unable to meet the formal requirements of this gala wedding. Moreover, the guest does not plead this excuse or any excuse at all. We read only that he was “speechless.” Vs. 12. He had no excuse. The harshness of his treatment makes more sense when we recall that this is a parable of the kingdom of heaven, the rejection of which is its own punishment.
The sting of this parable becomes clear when set alongside Sunday’s reading from Isaiah. That lesson recites with vivid imagery the marvelous, generous, abundant feast of good things God prepares for his people. Yet so far from flocking from the far corners of the earth to partake of this great dinner, we ignore the invitation, go about our business and even mistreat the prophets bearing God’s invitation. I learned recently that the average active Lutheran Christian attends worship roughly twelve times per year. Note well that these are the “active” members, though by what reasoning one could call such spotty participation “active” escapes me. I suppose that these members are off each to his own business of tending the house down at the shore, racing to children’s athletic events or catching up on sleep-all of which takes precedence over the wedding feast of the Lamb.
I wonder what would happen if we offered $100,000 dollars to everyone who could get a certified statement from his/her pastor verifying that s/he had attended church for all fifty-two Sundays out of a given year. Somehow, I cannot imagine anyone giving up money like that for a kid’s soccer game. Nor do I think very many people would mind losing an hour or two of sleep on the weekend for a payoff like that. In short, I believe that such an offer would pack our churches to the rafters-for a year anyway. Makes you wonder who really is God in our lives. Once again, I think Stan Hauerwas says it best:
“This is an extraordinary parable that makes for uneasy reading for those who want Jesus to underwrite a general critique of elites in the name of creating a community of acceptance. To be sure, just as the previous parables had been, this parable is meant to make those in power and the well-off uncomfortable. Most of us, particularly in the commercial republics of modernity, refuse to recognize that we are ruled by tyrants or, worse, that we have become tyrants of our own lives. We believe that we are our own lords, doing what we desire, but our desires make us unable to recognize those who rule us. We have no time for banquets prepared by the Father to celebrate Jesus’s making the church his bride. We have no time for the celebration of the great thanksgiving feast in which we are “living members” of the King, the “Son our Savior Jesus Christ” (Book of Common Prayer 1979, 365). Such a people are right to be challenged by God’s hospitality to those who must live in the streets.
“Yet this parable also makes clear that those who come to the banquet from the streets are expected to be clothed by the virtues bestowed on them through their baptism. If the church is to be a people capable of hospitality, it will also have to be a community of holiness. Jesus expects those called to his kingdom to bear fruit (Matt. 21:34). He has made clear in the Beatitudes how those called to his kingdom will appear. To be poor and outcast may well put one in a good position to respond to Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom, but Jesus expects the poor and downcast to live lives worthy of the Lamb who will be slain. Only people so formed will be able to resist the emperors, who always claim to rule us as our benefactors.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub by Brazos Press) p. 189.
Marriage, Morality, and Righteousness; a poem by Dana Gioia; and the lessons for Sunday, October 1, 2017
SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: God of love, giver of life, you know our frailties and failings. Give us your grace to overcome them, keep us from those things that harm us, and guide us in the way of salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
There were two couples. The first couple never married, but remained faithful to each other throughout their lives. During the course of their shared life, they adopted several special needs children, provided for them a stable home and supported them as they sought to live independently in a society not particularly accepting of people labeled “disabled.” The second couple was legally married in a church ceremony. Over the course of their lives they had numerous extramarital affairs, fought continually, neglected and abused the children born to them and ultimately ended the marriage. Which of the two couples did the will of their heavenly Father?
I suspect that some of you might object that the question is not fair. You might argue that neither couple did what God requires, but they each disobeyed in different ways. On the surface, that appears to be a legitimate point. But Jesus’ parable in Sunday’s gospel about the two sons challenges us to look deeper into the matter. At the end of the day, neither the first son’s refusal to work nor the second son’s insincere promise to work amounts to anything. What matters is what each son finally did. The first son did his father’s bidding. The second did not. By the same token, the first couple in my above example did not enter into a binding legal covenant requiring faithfulness to one another until death as did the first couple. Nonetheless, the first couple was, in fact, faithful. They were in fact good and compassionate parents to their children. They did everything the first couple promised to do in the presence of God and God’s people-but did not.
I am no more attempting to undermine the institution of marriage here than Jesus was promoting tax fraud and prostitution when he pointed out that the harlots and tax gatherers responded faithfully to John the Baptist’s message, whereas his opponents, the religious authorities, did not. The point is that righteousness is not measured by the cannons of respectability, whether they be the religious standards of first century Palestine or the cultural expectations of twenty-first century white middle class America. Righteousness is not achieved by keeping all the rules. Righteousness is measured by one’s response to the gracious call of Jesus and takes the shape of love for God and for one’s neighbor in concrete action. Such love does not necessarily negate religious, social and legal norms, but it surely transcends them.
Much of the debate these days over the “institution of marriage” centers around arguments over its definition. My evangelical friends often insist that marriage is by biblical definition the life-long monogamous union between one man and one woman. But that, quite frankly, is not the exclusive biblical model. Polygamy was widely accepted in the biblical world-as was sexual slavery. In much of the Hebrew Scriptures, marriage was practiced as a commercial transaction between men rather than a courtship ritual between a man and a woman. Because women were deemed the legal property of some man, adultery was not considered an offense committed against a person’s spouse, but an offense by one man against another. The New Testament is not inclined toward a single definition of marriage either. In I Timothy we are told that a bishop must be “the husband of one wife.” I Timothy 3:2. Does that mean that the bishop must be married only once or does it mean that he must be monogamous-suggesting that there might have been bigamists accepted as members of the church, though not qualified to be bishops? Church weddings are foreign to the New Testament. Marriage, whatever shape it took, was considered a civil affair. Though believers were urged to honor it, the early church seems to have taken no interest in regulating or defining marriage.
That isn’t to say that anything goes. I believe that the Bible does inform our view of marriage, but in a far more nuanced way. For example, Paul likens it to the relationship between Christ and his church-an analogy that would seem to rule out hierarchy and polygamy/polyandry. And by the way, for those who might find this analogy patriarchal, I believe you can switch the roles such that Ephesians 5 reads: “Husbands, be subject to your wives; wives, love your husbands” rather than the other way around (as it is in the text) without changing the sense of the text one wit. That is because Christ reigns through serving and pouring out his life for the disciples who are, in turn, called to pour out their lives in service to him. The theological implications of this imagery thus undermine Paul’s patriarchal instincts. Marriage must also be seen through the lens of what Paul declares concerning unity in Christ that recognizes no gender distinctions. Galatians 3:28. The gospel frees us from strictures of cultural, political and societal expectations to become the unique and wonderful persons we truly are.
In the final analysis, the formal definition of marriage is less important than the narrative it creates for two persons finding in one another the mystery of love, the jewel of faithfulness and the sometimes joyous and often tragic beauty of a shared life. The miracle of two lives, ever unique and separate, discovering that together they are even more as they become one tells us whether, in the end, a marriage has been a reflection of the eternal dance between Christ and his Church. That miracle is as likely to be found among gay and lesbian couples as among the straight. It is no less common among those married in courthouses as among those married in churches-or never legally married at all. As in Jesus’ parable, the truth about a marriage is seldom revealed in how it starts out, but only in how it finishes.
Here’s a poem by Dana Gioia about a marriage finishing well.
Marriage of Many Years
Most of what happens happens beyond words.
The lexicon of lip and fingertip
defies translation into common speech.
I recognize the musk of your dark hair.
It always thrills me, though I can’t describe it.
My finger on your thigh does not touch skin—
it touches your skin warming to my touch.
You are a language I have learned by heart.
This intimate patois will vanish with us,
its only native speakers. Does it matter?
Our tribal chants, our dances round the fire
performed the sorcery we most required.
They bound us in a spell time could not break.
Let the young vaunt their ecstasy. We keep
our tribe of two in sovereign secrecy.
What must be lost was never lost on us.
Source: 99 Poems (c. 2016 by Dana Gioia, pub. by Graywolf Press). Dana Gioia (b. 1950) claims to be the only person in history ever to have gone to business school to become a poet. He was, in fact, a graduate of Stanford Business School and became a vice president of General Foods. He committed himself to writing full time in 1993. Gioia served as chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2008 where he led Operation Homecoming which provides writing workshops to U.S. soldiers and their spouses. You can find out more about Dana Gioia and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
For my general comments on Ezekiel, see the post from September 10th.
The prophet’s dialogical oracle is incited by what appears to have become a popular proverb among the Babylonian exiles: “The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Vs. 2. By this saying, the exiles are placing the blame for their predicament upon the sins of their ancestors. They are not altogether mistaken about that. There is no question that the economic exploitation, nationalistic policies and foolish decisions of Judah and her leaders put the nation on the trajectory of her disastrous clash with Babylon. Much of this pre-dated the births of people living in the present community. In the same way, exploitation of the African continent, the slave trade and legislatively imposed segregation pre-dates the lifetimes of most people now living in the United States. Nevertheless, the sad legacy of that history still haunts us and racism continues to infect the very structures of our society. We are all born into a world we did not make.
But that is not the end of it. The problem with the exiles’ proverb is that it purports to place full blame for their predicament on the shoulders of their ancestors, thus making the exiles themselves innocent victims. That, according to Ezekiel, amounts to self-deception. It allows the exiles the luxury of despair and inaction. The prophet would have his people know that they are still in the game. Though they may have been dealt a bad hand, they are not excused from playing it. That is where the proverb breaks down. While we cannot change the historical realities that made American cities like Charlottesvile, South Carolina flash points of racial violence, we can, if we have the courage and determination, shape what that history will mean for us today and how that understanding will, in turn, shape the future. We can refuse to be shackled by the chains of our past and open ourselves up to God’s future. In biblical terms, we can repent.
Ezekiel’s message is an important one for an increasingly cynical culture obsessed with movies of apocalyptic doom and dystopian scenarios for the future. This prophet is no shallow optimist. I have no doubt he would agree that global warming, militarization and nationalism are genuine threats placing our planet in dire peril. A lot of damage has been done that our best efforts will not be able to repair anytime soon. Nevertheless, the God of Israel is the one who breathes life into dead bones. Ezekiel 37:1-14. For that reason, despair, inertia and inaction are not options. God has not given up on the world, but is still very much at work redeeming it. Neither has God given up on his people. Though acts of mercy, compassion and healing so often seem ineffective in a world so torn by violence, cruelty and death, God assures us that the future is God’s new heaven and new earth. God’s people are privileged to take part in its birthing.
This is another of the “acrostic” psalms. The others are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. The first word of the first verse begins with the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The first word of the second verse begins with the second letter and so on through the alphabet. In addition to assisting a new reader in learning her ABCs, this style of composition assists in memorization of the psalm. Memorization is critical in a culture where the vast majority lack reading skills and books are readily available only to priests. Stylistic similarities between this psalm and Psalm 34 suggest that they might have been composed by the same author, though I would exercise caution in making such a judgment. The stylistic conventions used by the psalmists were very likely shared widely so that their appearance in multiple psalms by different authors would not be unexpected.
The psalm is a prayer for salvation and protection from enemies-something you would not learn unless you read the entire psalm. Verses 1-9, which make up this Sunday’s reading, constitute an affirmation of trust in God’s promises. This trust in God’s faithfulness is the basis for the psalmist’s plea for help. The psalmist knows that God is the protector of the helpless and of those who trust in God’s promises. The psalmist is well aware of God’s long history of faithfulness to Israel and so feels confident in calling upon God for assistance in his or her own particular situation.
Particularly striking to me is the plea, “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” vs. 7. This is a prayer that God’s remembrance of the psalmist will be shaped not by recollection of his or her sins, but by God’s loving kindness. The psalmist’s sins cannot be erased. They have left scars on the psalmist’s life and still threaten to compromise his or her relationship with God. But memory is more than just a filing drawer filled with all things past. Healthy memory is shaped as much by the present and future as by the past. A heartfelt apology opens the way to forgiveness and reconciliation. Where there is reconciliation, memories of hurt, betrayal and insult lose their sting. If they are remembered at all, they will be recalled as the prelude to a renewed and strengthened relationship. They will be understood as something that has not been allowed to define the relationship going forward. By virtue of our baptism into Jesus, we are not remembered merely as sinners, but as sinners redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
It strikes me that the psalmist’s understanding of forgiveness is in some respects complementary to Ezekiel’s message. Both the prophet and the psalmist insist that sin and punishment are not the last words spoken. Even when one stands amidst the ashes of a ruined past, one nevertheless stands. Because the future is God’s future, it has power to redeem the past.
Once again, to reprise what I said last week, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is not one letter but three.
Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)
Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)
Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)
As was the case last week, Sunday’s lesson is from Paul’s Letter of Friendship. Paul encourages the Philippian church to be “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Vs. 2. There is something repugnant about a group of people having “the same mind” or “one mind.” Our culture treasures the right of every individual to his or her own opinion. But the church is not made up of individuals endowed with a bundle of rights. It is the living Body of the Resurrected Christ of which all disciples of Jesus are members. Clearly, a body cannot function where each member has its own self-interested mind and will. As I have often said, the language of rights is not one that can articulate well the polity of the church.
It seems to me that in spite of our fierce dedication to preserving our individual rights, our preference for personal “spirituality” (whatever that is) over “organized religion,” and the value we place on making up our own mind, we are a good deal less independent than we think we are when it comes to thinking. “Movements” often tend to break out without any prior organization or structure. Groups of people are seized by images on the internet to take action of one kind or another. Crowds are whipped into a frenzy by news of some injustice, real or imagined. Celebs, political leaders and talk radio hosts collect followings of people who are infatuated with them or their views. Perhaps Paul understood better than we do the inevitability of some mind greater than our own dominating or at least influencing us powerfully. That being the case, says Paul, let it be the mind of Christ. Let your outlook, your words and your actions be shaped by your relationship to Jesus.
There is near scholarly consensus that Paul is citing in this passage an ancient Christian hymn of Palestinian origins possibly alluding to the “servant” figure form Second Isaiah. See, e.g., Isaiah 53. It fits perfectly Paul’s articulation of his theology of the cross in I Corinthians 1:18-4:20 and his discussion of the church as the Body of Christ in I Corinthians 12:1-14:40. As the “Body of Christ,” the church must have the “mind of Christ.” Vs. 5. So far from aspiring to godhood (the sin of Adam and Eve), Jesus willingly took the form of a servant, living joyfully, trustingly and obediently within the limits of his humanity. Vss. 6-9. The Greek word for “servant” (doulos) is literally translated “slave.” It is the word Jesus used when he told his disciples that the greatest among them must be the servant/slave of all. Mark 10:44.
In a sinful world, a life so lived draws hostility and hatred. Jesus’ death on the cross was therefore the expected outcome of his obedient life. It is in precisely this sense that Jesus’ death was necessary. To put it in the most cynical way, “that’s what happens to nice guys.” But such cynicism is silenced by God’s resurrection of Jesus from death. Vs. 9. The upside down kingdom for which Jesus lived and died is real. The powers that put him to death are transitory and doomed to pass away. It is to Jesus, not to Caesar or any other nation or flag that all the universe will one day kneel. Vss 10-11. Disciples are called to live in the certain knowledge of that reality now.
“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Vs. 12. That phrase taken alone is troubling-as well it should be. Salvation, to be sure, is God’s free gift. Yet, like the gift of a fine musical instrument, much time, hard work and dedication are required to make proper use of it. If the recipient simply thanks the giver and packs the gift away on a closet shelf, it loses its transformative power. It becomes, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say, “cheap grace.” Nonetheless, lest anyone should conclude that salvation is less than sheer gift, Paul goes on to remind us that “God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Vs. 13. Salvation is God’s work from start to finish.
By this point in Matthew’s narrative, Jesus has entered Jerusalem in triumph (Matthew 21:1-11) and cleansed the temple (Matthew 21:12-13). He has now re-entered the temple on this, the following day, to take up teaching the people. It would seem quite natural for the chief priests and elders of the people to question Jesus about his credentials. What is your authorization to do these things, Jesus, and where did you get it? Vs. 23. At first blush, it would seem a little unfair for Jesus to demand from his opponents an answer to a subsequent question of his own without first answering theirs. But in reality, Jesus’ question is his answer. The source of Jesus’ authority is also the source of John’s authority. It is obvious, though, that the chief priests and the elders have been dodging the issue of John’s authority. As John was put to death by Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, these leaders whose seat of authority was in the jurisdiction of Judah might well have managed publically to dissociate themselves from John’s execution. But in Matthew’s gospel, the ministry of John is intimately linked to that of the Messiah. John is the figure of Elijah who heralds the coming of the Lord. Matthew 11:7-15 cf. Malachi 4:5-6. The leaders are thus caught in a double bind. They cannot acknowledge John without acknowledging Jesus. Neither will they denounce John in the presence of the people. By confronting the chief priests and the elders with the ministry of John, Jesus has answered their question, though not in the way they had hoped. Rather than gaining an admission they could have used to prosecute Jesus before Pilate, the religious leaders receive a question they cannot answer but which leaves little doubt as to the source Jesus’ claims for his authority.
By this time, the chief priests and the elders are no doubt beating a hasty retreat. But Jesus will not let them off the hook. “What do you think?” He calls to them as they seek to disappear into the crowd. “A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today,’ And he answered, ‘I will not;’ but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered ‘I go sir,’ but did not go. Which of these two did the will of his father?” Vss. 28-31. It is significant here that Jesus asks specifically which of the two children did what the father asked rather than which of the two was properly obedient or respectful. There could be only one response and that is the one the leaders were compelled to give, namely, that the first child who showed profound disrespect and disobedience to his father was nevertheless the one who did as he was commanded. Jesus then returns to the uncomfortable issue of John the Baptist. The tax collectors and prostitutes, people clearly outside any definition of righteousness, nevertheless did what righteousness required by heeding John’s call to repentance. By contrast, the chief priests and the elders, with all of their righteous credentials, refused to recognize the one who came to them in the way of righteousness. Vs. 32. Now the religious authorities are clearly on the defensive, where they will remain until the end of chapter 23.
Once again, Matthew redefines righteousness for us. Righteousness is not, as the chief priests and elders maintain, adherence to any written code, even the Torah. Right conduct grows out of a faithful response to Jesus’ call to discipleship. It is neither definitional nor behavioral, but relational. As observed by Professor Stanley Hauerwas,
“The chief priests’ and elders’ question has been repeated through the centuries of Christian history. Attempts to answer the question as posed inevitably result in diverse forms of Christian heresy, for the attempt to establish grounds more determinative than Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for why we should believe in him results in idolatry. If one needs a standard of truth to insure that Jesus is the Messiah, then one ought to worship that standard of truth, not Jesus. There is no place one might go to know with certainty that Jesus is who he says he is. To know that Jesus is the Son of God requires that we take up his cross and follow him. Having taken up the cross, Christians discover they have no fear of the truth, no matter from where it might come.” Hauerwas, Stanely, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 185.
Forgiveness, Forgiving, being forgiven; a poem by Harindranath Chattopadhyay and the Lessons for Sunday, September 17th
FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord God, merciful judge, you are the inexhaustible fountain of forgiveness. Replace our hearts of stone with hearts that love and adore you, that we may delight in doing your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The lessons for this Sunday all dwell on forgiveness and forbearance in some fashion. In our lesson from Genesis, Joseph forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery recognizing that, what they did to him out of malice, God used to bring about salvation. Our psalm echoes the familiar refrain found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, namely, that God is merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Paul urges us to treat with gentleness and respect those whose path of discipleship differs from our own. In our gospel, Jesus reminds Peter by way of a challenging parable that our readiness to forgive one another must match God’s willingness to forgive us.
We need to have a clear understanding, though, about what forgiveness is and what it is not. Forgiveness does not absolve one of responsibility. Precisely because God forgives us, we are now set free to make right what we have done wrong-so far as is humanly possible. Being forgiven for our sins makes us more, not less responsible for their consequences. Forgiveness is not premised on anyone’s request to be forgiven. As Jesus’ parable in this Sunday’s gospel demonstrates, forgiveness might not be appreciated. It might not result in a changed life for the one forgiven. Nonetheless, just as God sends the sun and the rain upon the righteous and the wicked and showers both with his love and forgiveness, so disciples of Jesus are to forgive without regard to its effects. Finally, forgiveness is not a grant of permission for abuse. I might forgive my abuser and forego any thoughts of retaliation. But I will not simply permit him/her to continue injuring me without resistance. Quite apart from the issue of forgiveness, I have a moral responsibility to myself, to my abuser and to the community to break the cycle of abuse.
What, then, does forgiveness mean? From God’s side, it is a determination not to let sin define God’s relationship to God’s creation and God’s creatures. God will continue to work with our world, broken and misdirected as it is, to bring about a new creation. Even our acts of evil, selfishness and destruction can become God’s instruments for good-as was the case in the story of Joseph and his brothers. God refuses to give up on our world, and that means we can’t give up on it either. To forgive is to recognize God’s holy image in all people, even when they have names like David Duke and Richard Spencer. To forgive is to continue worshiping, serving and praying with a church full of people that continue to let you down. To forgive is to take a deep breath when someone cuts you off on the interstate-because you don’t know what kind of hell they might be going through. To forgive is to find something true, something beautiful and something good in each day, because it is, after all, the day the Lord has made. Forgiveness is seeing with a clear and unsentimental eye the world as it is, while at the same time holding tight God’s promise of all that it will be.
Here’s a poem by Harindranath Chattopadhyay with a unique take on forgiveness. It gives us a tantalizing hint about how deeply hurtful we can be in our everyday lives and the breadth of forgiveness required to cover us.
Each moment things forgive you. All your hours
Are crowded with rich penitence unknown
Even to you. Shot birds and trampled flowers,
And worms that you have murdered with a stone
In idle sport-yea, and the well whose deep,
Translucent, green and solitary sleep
You stirred into harsh wrinkles with a stick.
Red mud that you have bound into brick,
Old wood that you have wrought into bark,
Flame in the street-lamp held to light the dark,
And fierce red rubies chiseled for a ring…
You are forgiven each hour by everything!
Source: Poetry Magazine May, 1931. Harindranath Chattopadhyay was an Indian English poet, dramatist, actor and musician. He founded and administered the Hyderabad College in India, which later became the Nizam’s College in Hyderabad. You can find out more about Harindranath Chattopadhyay and sample more of his poetry at the Scroll.in website.
“Genesis is a rich composite of many different oral traditions, written sources, and editorial hands…The authors incorporated everything from the myths of ancient Near Eastern high culture to the local legends of Palestinian Bedouins. We can identify scores of different literary genres deriving from as many sociological settings.” Mann, Thomas W., “All the Families of the Earth: The Theological Unity of Genesis,” Interpretation, Vol. 45, No. 4, October 1991, p. 350. For more specifics as to written sources, see the online article Documentary Hypothesis; for a discussion of literary genres found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures see Coats, George W., Genesis: With an Introduction to Narrative Literature, The Forms of the Old Testament Literature, Vol. I (c. 1983 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Yet as diverse as its literary and written components are, we must focus on “the theological integrity of biblical narratives in their present canonical shape, rather than as dismembered pieces…” Mann, supra, at 343.That is to say, as fascinating as the process of biblical formation may be, it is the finished product that commands our primary attention. Furthermore, “[I]t is obvious that the book of Genesis does not stand on its own but looks beyond its own content to unresolved issues.” Mann, Supra, at 350. Just as the first eleven chapters of Genesis set the stage for the call of Abram and the stories of his extended family, so the Book of Genesis itself sets the stage for the liberation of Israel from bondage in Egypt that will occupy the narrative in the Book of Exodus. The state of slavery under Egypt will find its liberating contrast in the life of freedom embodied in Torah.
This should give us some context for understanding Sunday’s lesson which brings us to the conclusion of the patriarchal saga. As you may recall, Joseph’s brothers sold him as a slave to a band of traders in a fit of jealousy. They then told their father that Joseph had been mauled to death by wild beasts. Joseph, through a series of misadventures finally winds up in the court of the Egyptian Pharaoh where he engineers a food rationing program that saved Egypt from starvation over the course of a seven year famine. Canaan, by contrast, is caught off guard and Joseph’s father, Jacob, and his brothers are facing starvation. Knowing that there is food to be had in Egypt, Jacob sends Joseph’s brothers there with money to buy food. To abbreviate the account, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers and assures them that they need not fear retaliation. Then he sends them back with instructions to bring their father with them to the land of Egypt where they can ride out the famine.
When sometime later father Jacob dies, a disturbing thought occurs to Joseph’s brothers. What if Joseph was not as forgiving as he let on? What if he refrained from taking revenge only out of respect for his father? Now that Jacob is dead, what is to stop Joseph from doing to his brothers what he had done to them-or worse. Wishing to be proactive, Joseph’s brothers seek an audience with Joseph in which they plead their father’s dying request that he, Joseph, forgive them for the evil they have done. Whether this final testament of Jacob was real or manufactured, Joseph understands well enough that it reflects what his father would have desired. More significantly, Joseph recognizes that there is something bigger at stake here than whatever quarrel he might have with his brothers. Though the brothers acted out of petty jealousy, God was acting at the same time for the purpose of salvation for the family and for many other people. Joseph understands that he is not “in the place of God” who clearly was determined to save the lives of his brothers and their families and has accomplished that very purpose through Joseph’s ordeal.
It would be easy to trivialize this story by summing it up with the maxim: “All things work together for good.” While that is true, it must be born in mind that the good toward which all things work is not necessarily one’s own good. There was nothing good about Joseph’s years of slavery, his separation from his father and the malice of his brothers against him. Joseph’s good fortune later in the game does not erase the scares of what he had to endure. Yet God was able through these harrowing events to further God’s saving purposes and accomplish the good intended.
We should not fail to recognize the ambiguity inherent in this apparent “good.” Though saved from starvation, Israel is brought into Egypt, the house of bondage, as a result of Joseph’s influence. Note well that Joseph had, for all intents and purposes, forsaken his family, culture and faith in his meteoric rise from prisoner to prince of Egypt. We read that after appointing him to his new office, Pharaoh gave Joseph a new name, an Egyptian name. The new clothing he received was an Egyptian brand. The woman he married was an Egyptian woman-and not the common suburban type either. She was the daughter of a priest of Egypt’s gods. Genesis 41:50. Joseph did what all good immigrants are expected to do. He assimilated. He learned to dress and speak like an Egyptian. He married into a prominent Egyptian family. He adopted the religion of Egypt and even accepted an Egyptian name. If there is anything left of his Hebrew roots, Joseph has had the good sense to keep it out of sight. Joseph had no intention of returning home. The name Joseph gives to his second son says it all: “God has made me forget my suffering and my father’s house.” Genesis 41:51.
Though Joseph was sitting in the cat bird’s seat, the covenant was in grave danger of disappearing into the cultural soup of Egypt. It was salvaged only because God brought Joseph’s family back to him. Joseph’s reconciliation with is brothers was therefore not just a family affair. It was a turning from idolatry to covenant faithfulness on the part of a man who nearly forgot who he was. All of this prefigures the struggle Israel will undergo when she returns to the Promised Land and will be compelled to find ways of living faithfully within the context of a very enticing Canaanite culture.
There is also a note of irony in the story. Joseph’s rationing program became an instrument whereby the Empire was able to purchase the very bodies of his subjects rendering them slaves. Genesis 47:13-22. Little did Joseph know how suddenly the institution of imperial slavery he constructed would be turned ruthlessly against his descendants!
I frequently encounter people within the church who hold a very negative view of the Hebrew Scriptures. At the extreme end are folks (most of whom have not read extensively in the Hebrew Bible) who reject these scriptures as archaic, barbaric and contrary to “the God of love” revealed in the New Testament. In the first place, this characterization is inaccurate. The greatest biblical bloodbath with the highest body count is found not in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament book of Revelation. Moreover, the God Jesus calls “Father” is none other than the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament does not introduce to us “a kinder, gentler” God. Moreover, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with expressions and testimony to God’s love and compassion. The psalm for this Sunday is a testimony to God’s mercy and capacity for forgiveness as clear and beautiful as any found in the New Testament. Unfortunately, verses 9-13 are not included in our reading. They point out that “[God] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities.” “As far as the east is from the west, so far does [God] remove transgressions from us.” “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him.” The psalmist is a man or woman who has experienced firsthand God’s tender loving mercy.
This psalm begins not with an address by the psalmist to God, or with a declaration from God to the psalmist. The psalm begins with the psalmist addressing himself/herself with a command to “bless the Lord.” If you read Psalm 103 in its entirety (which I encourage you to do), you will discover that the psalmist proceeds almost imperceptibly from his opening soliloquy to declaration of God’s eternal love contrasted with human mortality. The psalm concludes with the psalmist calling upon the very angels and the entire universe to join in his/her song of praise. This marvelous opening out of a soul to the praise and Glory of God is a wonderful paradigm for prayer. St. Augustine felt much the same way:
“Bless, is understood. Cry out with your voice, if there be a man to hear; hush your voice, when there is no man to hear you; there is never wanting one to hear all that is within you. Blessing therefore has already been uttered from our mouth, when we were chanting these very words. We sung as much as sufficed for the time, and were then silent: ought our hearts within us to be silent to the blessing of the Lord? Let the sound of our voices bless Him at intervals, alternately, let the voice of our hearts be perpetual. When you come to church to recite a hymn, your voice sounds forth the praises of God: you have sung as far as you could; you have left the church; let your soul sound the praises of God. You are engaged in your daily work: let your soul praise God. You are taking food; see what the Apostle says: Whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God. I Corinthians 10:31. I venture to say; when you sleep, let your soul praise the Lord. Let not thoughts of crime arouse you, let not the contrivances of thieving arouse you, let not arranged plans of corrupt dealing arouse you. Your innocence even when you are sleeping is the voice of your soul.” Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Psalm 103, New Advent.
Last week Paul made the point that disciples of Jesus ought to have no debt beyond that of love toward one another. In this Sunday’s lesson he puts shoe leather on that concept. Friendships, marriages and intentional religious communities so frequently fail because they assume that, deep down under, we are really all the same. That is a lie. The deeper you go into the heart of a person, the more you discover how complex, unique and different s/he is from you. The more you get to know another person, the more obvious it becomes that there are some things about him/her that are beyond your understanding and that you will probably never comprehend. You cannot genuinely love another person as long as you insist on viewing him/her as just a variation of yourself. Love accepts the fact that there is a vast gulf between each of us. Love can do that because, as St. Paul reminds us, “love never ends.” I Corinthians 13:8. Because we have all eternity to grow in our knowledge and understanding of one another, there is no rush. We can afford to be patient.
“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak.” Vs. 1. According to one commentator, the “weak in faith” are those with “an inadequate grasp of the great principle of salvation by faith in Christ; the consequence of which will be an anxious desire to make this salvation more certain by the scrupulous fulfilment of formal rules.” Sandy, William and Headlam, Arthur C., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary, c. 1977 by T. & T. Clark, Ltd.) p. 384. I believe this to be an oversimplification. Paul seems principally to be addressing the “strong” here who likely characterize their scrupulous opponents as “weak.” It is unlikely that these scrupulous folks would so characterize themselves! For the sake of argument, Paul utilizes these patronizing terms, but only to stand them on their heads. Jewett, Robert, Romans-A Commentary, Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 834. There is a degree of sarcasm here as Paul admonishes the seemingly “strong” to exercise control over their urge to disabuse the “weak” of their misconceptions and so find genuine inner strength to love the “weak” without having to make them over into their own likeness. So also Paul assures us that the “weak” one will stand strong in the day of judgment because “the master is able to make him stand.” Vs. 4. In short, Paul is undermining the phony distinction between those who fancy themselves “strong” and the ones they contemptuously view as “weak.” No one is strong enough stand on his/her own strength and no one is too weak to be upheld by the strength of the Lord.
It is difficult to ascertain precisely what calendar of holy days or dietary restrictions are involved here. While it is tempting to assume that this dispute is between gentile believers not steeped in Jewish tradition and Jewish believers still deeply attached to their religious practices, the assumption might well be misguided. Anders Nygren points out that the weak were probably not Jewish believers because there is no blanket commandment in the Torah against eating meat or drinking wine. Nygren, Anders, Commentary on Romans (c. 1949 by Fortress Press) p. 442. Vs. 2. Again, however, Paul might well be employing hyperbole in order to make his point. Just as there probably exists no person or group that “believes he may eat anything,” so also it would be unusual for a 1st Century resident of Rome to eat “only vegetables.” Vs. 2. “The rhetorical effect of placing these parameters so far beyond the likely, actual behavior of groups in Rome is to enable each group to smile and feel included in the subsequent argument.” Jewett, supra at 838. At the end of the day, Paul’s stance toward both groups, the so called “strong” and the so called “weak,” is unmistakably evenhanded. Both weak and strong are present in the Body of Christ by Jesus’ gracious invitation. In that sense, all are “weak.” Both weak and strong are enabled to stand before God on the day of judgment in the strength of their faith in Jesus. In that sense, all are “strong.”
We need not dwell overly much on framing the issues Paul is addressing in this lesson. They are almost certainly moot by now. Nonetheless, Paul’s instructions to the church are insightful and instructive. Without even recognizing it, churches frequently seek people “who fit in,” who “share our sense of mission,” who “are like us.” The departure of large numbers in my own Lutheran Church over their inability to live in community with gay, lesbian and transgendered persons testifies to the ongoing relevance of Paul’s argument here. As one who has remained in the church precisely because I support its inclusive posture, it is tempting to posture myself as one of the “strong” and excoriate those who left as the “weak.” But I believe that in so doing I would be falling into the same flawed outlook held by the disputing groups in the Roman church. This schism must be seen as our church’s failure to accept one another, be patient with one another and allow the Spirit to complete in her own good time the mind of Christ in all of us.
How much and how often am I expected to forgive? That is Peter’s question and it is a reasonable one. We hear it all the time. How many times do I have to remind you to put down the seat! I can’t believe you forgot to pay the credit card bill again! Can you please stop doing that! You know how it annoys me. I don’t believe that Peter is speaking about actions that, in themselves, press the limits of forgiveness. He isn’t speaking of murder, robbery, arson or anything along those lines. Instead, he is speaking about the sorts of offenses people commit on a regular basis, often without even knowing it. Some people can’t help but offer you their advice, regardless whether you want or need it. Other people have odd mannerisms that can be extremely annoying. There are people who seem to have a natural gift for saying hurtful and insensitive things when you are most vulnerable. Often these people wind up in the church because we are probably the only community of people willing to put up with them. So am I supposed to be a bottomless reservoir of forgiveness?
Well, yes, says Jesus. Then he backs it up with the disturbing parable of the forgiven, but unforgiving servant. The parable is disturbing precisely because it suggests that forgiveness which does not inspire forgiveness in the one forgiven can be revoked. In other words, forgiveness is not unconditional. This isn’t the first time that Matthew’s gospel makes the point. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns his disciples “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Matthew 6:14-15. Perhaps it is best to read this parable less as a threat, and more as a very pointed question directed to Peter: If God’s unlimited forgiveness of our sins does not evoke in us the same breadth of compassion and forgiveness toward our neighbor, what good is it? Have we really heard that gracious word of forgiveness from God? Are we fully aware of the degree to which we harm one another and so dishonor God’s image? If, in fact, we are fully aware of the depth of our sin and the corresponding depth of God’s full and free forgiveness, how can we fail to be as forgiving toward fellow human beings?
As commentator John Nolland points out, this parable is hyperbolic and thus exceeds the parameters of any commercial transaction that might have occurred between slave and master in First Century Palestine. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 by Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 760. We should take care, then, not to interpret the parable literally or overly allegorically. From the context it is clear that Jesus is reinforcing for Peter what he has earlier said, namely, that his forgiveness for his fellow disciples must be as limitless as God’s forgiveness for him.
Hard words and the cost of not speaking them; a poem by Emily Dickinson; and the lessons for Sunday, September 10th
FOURTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord God, enliven and preserve your church with your perpetual mercy. Without your help, we mortals will fail; remove far from us everything that is harmful, and lead us toward all that gives life and salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die’, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand.” Ezekiel 33:8
The Lord makes clear to his prophet that silence is not an option. A person who possesses a truth that ought to be spoken and remains silent is as guilty as those who act contrary to that truth. Moreover, it is no excuse that the truth is likely to be resisted, rejected and ignored. It is not for the prophet to determine whether the word given him/her to speak is likely to be effective. The prophet cannot presume to know God’s intended purpose for God’s word. God’s word might as easily harden hearts as melt them. It is, after all, God’s word. God will use it in whatever manner, in whatever time and for whatever purpose God desires. The prophet’s responsibility is simply to ensure that the word is spoken and released into the world of its hearers.
It falls to God’s prophets to speak hard words. Hard words make for angry outbursts, awkward silences and divided communities. Telling the truth disrupts the lying narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves, about our country, about our acts of selfish meanness and about the people we call enemies. Truthfulness frequently breaches the peace. But God knows that the truth is the only antidote for what ails us. It’s the only medicine that can make us free. So Ezekiel is commissioned to tell his exiled people the truth of their predicament. The Promised Land, the line of David and the temple in Jerusalem have all been taken away from them as a consequence of their unfaithfulness to God’s covenant. The people need to hear, understand and own this hard truth before they can hear God’s word of forgiveness and promise for Israel’s future. Ezekiel’s silence would have contributed to the painful breach between God and God’s people. It would have made healing and reconciliation impossible.
Hard words should be hard to speak. I worry about preachers who, under the rubric of being “prophetic,” take a perverse delight in shocking, angering and dividing the church. Make no mistake about it, I believe that the Word of God discomforts the comfortable, that he Holy Spirit disrupts our expectations and that the object of our worship is, as Professor Walter Brueggemann is fond of saying, an “unsettling God.” But unless a word is as unsettling to the prophet as to his/her audience, it is unlikely a word of God. A true prophet never speaks down in anger toward the people from some platform above the people. The genuine prophet stands with the people under the same judgment s/he proclaims to the community. Amos pleaded with God to soften the judgment on Israel he was told to announce. When Isaiah encountered the Lord in the temple he acknowledged that he was a sinful man among sinful people. Jeremiah lamented bitterly the task of pronouncing Judah’s doom. The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures knew that their fate was bound to that of their people. Like the God for whom they spoke, they took “no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” Ezekiel 33:11.
Nevertheless, the hard words must be spoken. It is better that the church be divided by the truth than united under something less. To be sure, it is not easy to speak plainly about white privilege and how it continues to hamper people of color from achieving genuine freedom and equality. It is hard to be confronted with the reality of sexual discrimination, intimidation and harassment that is the everyday experience of women and girls in our schools, workplaces and, sadly, the church. Overcoming two millennia of bad science and bad theology that have bred contempt for sexual minorities is proving to be a painful and difficult task for our churches. None of us who have spent our lives working to achieve financial security like being reminded that we have reached this coveted goal at the expense of billions living in poverty.
In the face of all this discomfort, we are strongly tempted to avoid hard words. Isn’t the church a place of communal love? Does bringing the divisiveness of our culture into the church make that love grow? Are we not simply making the church into a microcosm of our polarized society? Doesn’t all of this controversial stuff just offend our people and undermine our ability minister compassionately and be present to them when they desperately need our care in times of personal distress? There is some validity to these concerns. Again, speech that places the prophet on a higher moral plane than the rest of the community, speech that only lectures, judges and condemns is not genuinely prophetic. A prophet must be one whose life demonstrates genuine compassion for his/her people and their everyday concerns. S/he must be fully transparent about his/her own complicity in the evils s/he identifies and honest about his/her own faults, blind spots and failures. Only so will his/her prophetic speech be received as credible and reveal not only the depths of the community’s sin, but also the passionate love of a God who wounds only in order to heal and who breaks down only to build back better and stronger.
Sometimes truth needs to be slipped in through the back door. A frontal assault on one’s deeply held opinion is likely to arouse defensiveness and cause one to cling all the more tenaciously to that opinion. That is why Jesus employed parables. That is why the prophets often used poetic imagery to make their point. When King David committed murder and adultery, the prophet Nathan did not begin by confronting him with irrefutable facts proving his guilt or moral lectures aimed at changing his behavior. Instead, he told a story that drew the king into it so deeply that he did not realize until too late that he himself was the villain and not the hero he imagined himself to be. So, too, Jesus’ parables re-frame issues in ways that force us to challenge old assumptions about sinfulness, righteousness, faith and unbelief. Rather than bludgeoning us into submission, the truth seduces us.
Here are some wise words from Emily Dickinson on truth telling.
Tell all the Truth, but tell it Slant
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, (c. 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College; edited by Ralph W. Franklin, ed., Cambridge, Mass.) Emily Dickinson (1830-1866) is indisputably one of America’s greatest and most original poets. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, she attended a one-room primary school in that town and went on to Amherst Academy, the school out of which Amherst College grew. In the fall of 1847 Dickinson entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary where students were divided into three categories: those who were “established Christians,” those who “expressed hope,” and those who were “without hope.” Emily, along with thirty other classmates, found herself in the latter category. Though often characterized a “recluse,” Dickinson kept up with numerous correspondents, family members and teachers throughout her lifetime. You can find out more about Emily Dickinson and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Though a prophet and critic of Judah’s cultic and religious practices, Ezekiel appears to have been of priestly lineage being intimately connected to the temple in Jerusalem and its worship. Ezekiel’s eccentric behavior, lurid visions and obscene imagery have discomforted both his Jewish and Christian interpreters. According to some Jewish traditions, the study of Ezekiel’s prophecies was restricted to men over the age of thirty. Ezekiel was a contemporary of Jeremiah. But whereas Jeremiah’s ministry took place in Jerusalem during and immediately after its final conquest and destruction by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E., Ezekiel preached among the exiles deported to Babylon ten years earlier in 597 B.C.E. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel viewed Jerusalem’s destruction as God’s judgment for her unfaithfulness. Judgment, however, is not Ezekiel’s final word. The book of his oracles ends with a glorious vision of a restored Jerusalem and a new temple from which rivers of healing water transform the land of Israel into an Eden like paradise. The parallels between this vision (Ezekiel 40-48) and that of John of Patmos in Revelation 21-22 suggest inspiration of the latter by the former. For further general information on the Book of Ezekiel, see Summary Article by Dr. Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org.
The image of the prophet as “watchman” or “sentinel” is a common one. Vs. 7. Cf. Isaiah 21:6; Jeremiah 6:17. For a walled city located near a hostile frontier, the sentinel served as an early warning system. The fate of the city might well depend on the sentinel’s ability to detect and warn the city’s defenders of an approaching enemy. His failure to sound the alarm might seal the city’s doom. So also the prophet bears a heavy responsibility for warning the people about the consequences of their sinful and self-destructive behavior. As grave as the people’s sin would be the prophet’s failure to denounce it in their hearing.
Verses 10-11 indicate that the people have gotten the message loud and clear. “Our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?” vs. 10. This is no vain question. We all know there are sins that leave lasting scars upon us and others. Sometimes a relationship is so deeply wounded by unfaithfulness and betrayal that it can never be healed. Yet that is not the case for Israel and her covenant relationship with her God. The door is open for Israel’s return. This section of Ezekiel, then, prepares the way for the promises and visions that will be the burden of the last part of the book. Jenson, Robert, W., Ezekiel, Brozos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2009 by Robert W. Jenson, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 254.
God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Vs. 11. Yet so much of our cinematic entertainment is grounded in just such pleasure. That is so, I believe, because cinematic art is capable of flattening and simplifying our universe in such a way as to eliminate moral ambiguity. On the screen, evil people are so thoroughly evil and devoid of humanity that their destruction hardly counts even as justifiable homicide. Conflicts lack the historical baggage, cultural subtleties and ethical conundrums plaguing non-virtual, flesh and blood confrontations between individuals, groups and nations. One might argue that, while this is all true, we are dealing here with entertainment. Of course the real world is too varied and complex to fit into a two hour movie. The stage can never replicate life, but only show us a glimmer of it. Yet, be that as it may, when a popular genre generates repeatedly and consistently stories of conflict that admit of no other solution than violence, it can easily start to color the way we process the real world. Worse still, it can distort our view of the scriptures and the character of our God.
John Correia, preacher at an Arizona church, said in a recent article: “What fuels my passion for guns and self defense? First and foremost my Christian faith.” Read the entire article if you wish. Believe me, you can’t make this stuff up. He goes on to say, “I wish everyone got along, I wish that everybody was nice, but they’re not. And until we get into that perfect world where Jesus comes again, we need to be able to protect ourselves and in Luke 22:36 I believe Jesus said ‘let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.’” Though Jesus did say that, he went on to rebuke his disciples when they took him literally as did Pastor Correia. Luke 22:38. Moreover, rather than allow his disciples to use their swords in self defense or in his own defense, Jesus told them to cease fighting immediately and even healed the man they had injured. Luke 22:49-51. If that passage is the best defense the good pastor can put up in support of righteous gun violence, he is firing blanks. It would appear that his Bible is missing a few key chapters-such as the Sermon on the Mount. Pastor Correia is said to have remarked that the only way he would ever willingly give up his firearms was if Jesus personally told him to do so. Well, Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Matthew 26:52. Seems clear enough to me.
But I digress. The point here is that, once we adopt a world view in which good and evil are neatly divided and the only possible resolution to conflict is violence, we are likely to ignore or simply lose our ability to hear the voice of Jesus in the scriptures. Instead of conforming our lives to the scriptures as interpreted by the cross, we trivialize the cross, treat it as a special case that applied only once and only to Jesus and order our lives by the lights of John Wayne, Chuck Norris or some more moderate philosophy of “realism.” The God of Israel would have us know that this is not how he does business, nor is it the way he would have his people behave. God would have us deal as patiently and forgivingly with our enemies as God dealt with us “while we were enemies” of God. See Romans 5:10.
Though characterized as a “wisdom” psalm by most scholars, Psalm 119 has elements of praise as well as lament. Old Testament Professor, Artur Weiser gives this psalm a rather short and dismissive evaluation: “This psalm, the most comprehensive of all the psalms, is a particularly artificial product of religious poetry. It shares with Psalms 9, 10, 111 and others the formal feature of the alphabetic acrostic, with the difference, however, that here the initial letter remains the same for each of the eight lines of a section. In accordance with the number of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet twenty-two such ‘poems’ are joined together; these, however, neither show a consistent thought-sequence one with another nor represent units complete in themselves. This formal external character of the psalm stifles its subject-matter. The psalm is a many-coloured mosaic of thoughts which are often repeated in wearisome fashion…” Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 739.
I think the good professor’s cursory treatment is unwarranted. Though admittedly lacking in chronologically progressive order, the psalm revolves constantly around the Torah experienced by the psalmist as reliable guide, faithful companion, relentless judge, purifying fire and source of endless joy. It has a way of drawing the reader into deeper contemplation that is anything but “wearisome.” I think that Brueggeman rightly recognizes this psalm as “a massive intellectual achievement” through which the psalmist affirms that the Torah meets us at every stage of life addressing every human experience from “A to Z,” or more precisely “alpeh to tav.” Brueggeman, opcit. p. 40.
Much is lost in translation through the rendering of “Torah” as “law.” Torah is far more than a dry set of laws, statutes and ordinances. For Israel, Torah was the shape of the covenant; “the mode of God’s life giving presence.” Ibid. It was “a launching pad form which to mount an ongoing conversation with God through daily experience.” Ibid. p. 41. Still, “[i]t is Yahweh who is the portion of the speaker (v. 57), not the Torah nor one’s keeping of the Torah.” Ibid. The psalm finally recognizes that Torah is the medium through which prayer is made possible. As a rabbi friend once remarked, “the Torah is the rope in an extended tug-of-war. We continue to pull on it because we firmly believe there is One on the other end with whom we are in constant tension.”
This particular section of the psalm reminds us that God’s Torah is not something that can be learned by rote, such as the atomic chart or an algebraic equation. Torah must be “taught” by God. It goes hand in hand with prayer, study and ever faithful efforts to live into it. Just as Torah shapes the faithful believer’s life and conduct, so the believer’s life experience deepens his/her understanding of the Torah. So the psalmist implores God, “Give me understanding, that I may keep thy law and observe it with my whole heart.” Vs. 34. Torah obedience does not come naturally. Thus, the psalmist prays that God will “incline my heart to thy testimonies…” vs. 36. For the psalmist, Torah is not a collection of rules and statutes. Its provisions are the handles that prayer grasps in engaging God. Thus, the psalmist “long[s] for thy precepts…” for they lead to a vision of God’s righteousness that gives the psalmist life.” Vs. 40. Again, the Torah is not an end in itself. It points the faithful to the heart of Israel’s God where true righteousness and wisdom are found.
The term “owe no one anything” is a conventional expression for freedom from both monetary and social obligation. Jewett, Robert, Romans, a Commentary, Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 Fortress Press) p. 805. This admonition, deeply rooted as it is in Paul’s concept of the Church as Christ’s Body, is more than mere practical advice. As noted in my post for Sunday, September 3rd, the Roman Empire was a hierarchical society held together by networks of patronage and social obligation with the emperor seated at the apex. Caesar was Lord. The church, however, recognized not Caesar but Jesus as Lord. The social order dictating the terms under which the disciple lived was not that of the empire, but that of the church. Discipleship, then, was radically counter-cultural and deeply subversive.
Again, some commentators have criticized Paul for being too parochial here in focusing the love command upon the church community rather than all humankind. Such criticism, however, presupposes a Constantinian ecclsiology in which an institutional church serves as the moral conscience of a largely Christian society. That same outlook still serves as the unquestioned underpinning both for liberal Protestantism’s social advocacy and right wing Evangelical social conservative initiatives. Each in their own way are attempting to “Christianize” America. Only their platforms differ. Paul, by contrast, understood the church not as an instrument to bring about a kinder, gentler empire, but as a radical alternative to Rome.
It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this blog with any consistently that I favor serious rethinking of our ecclesiology and mission as we find ourselves in the post-modern, post-Constantinian context. The conversations we need to be having revolve not over which legislative initiatives to support, but how we live together as church in a way that mirrors the kingdom of heaven. Religion that does no more than help people cope with the dehumanizing conditions of life under late stage capitalism is not worth spit. A church richly deserves extinction if does no more than issue preachy-screechy social statements, mobilize its membership to support legislative tweaks to a brutally oppressive and unsustainable economic system while asking/offering no more to its members than an hour on Sunday with a tithe.
Will churches modeling the counter-cultural example of Paul’s congregations or the community described in the Book of Acts “change the world?” Well, they will not bring in the kingdom of heaven. At best, they can only witness to it. But if we can simply plant the idea in peoples’ heads that there is an alternative to a life of wage slavery so soul numbing and stressful that you need four weeks of vacation just to cope with it, if we demonstrate that medical care need not be controlled by profit driven corporations and administered by strangers in an alien environment, if we can build communities where security is not dependent upon the dubious integrity of insurers and investment bankers, but grounded in networks of caring relationships, who knows? The church might once again turn the world upside down.
Love fulfills the law. Vs. 10. As indicated in the previous paragraph, “love” is not an abstract principle for Paul. “No, the appropriate social context of the love ethic in this section is the small Christian congregations in Rome, and, more concretely, the love feasts and sacramental celebrations in which members shared their resources. Pervo, Richard I, “Panta Koina: the Feeding Stories in the Light of Economic Data and Social Practice” published in Religious Propaganda and Missionary Competition in the New Testament Word: Essays Honoring Dieter Georgi (c. 1994 Nov/TSup 74 Leiden: Brill) p. 192, cited in Jewett, supra, at 807. It is with this understanding in mind that we interpret Paul’s admonition to the church in Corinth concerning its failure to “discern the Body” in its Eucharistic celebrations. Where each person “goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another drunk” (I Corinthians 11:21), the community is not living as a Body in which the needs of each part are honored and provided for. See I Corinthians 12:12-31. There is no distinction between Eucharistic sharing and “social ministry.” Sharing of resources to ensure the well-being of all is no more an act of “charity” than is the heart’s pumping of blood to the rest of the body. Love is the concrete act of having all things in common. That does not necessarily imply communal living or “common purse” communities. Conventions governing property ownership vary from age to age and culture to culture. At a bare minimum, however, the church must see to it that the basic needs for food, shelter and healing are met for all its members. To do less than this is to fail to discern the Body.
This passage is cited in just about every congregational constitution I have ever read, usually under the rubrics of “church discipline.” A similar procedure is alluded to by Paul in II Corinthians 13:1. Unfortunately, the passage has frequently been interpreted as a provision to protect the purity of the church. Nothing could be further from Matthew’s intent. In fact, the concern here is for the erring sister or brother. Precisely because Jesus declares “it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matthew 18:14) that every effort must be made to prevent conduct rupturing the community and alienating its members. For this reason, sin must first be addressed individually by the one perceiving it with an eye toward reconciliation/repentance. Only when this step fails is it permissible to bring other individuals into the matter. Where reconciliation cannot be achieved with the assistance of two or three additional persons, the matter must then be brought before the church for resolution. Severance of ties between the sinner and the community is a measure of last resort. Moreover, even this drastic step of treating the sinner as a tax collector has in view the objective of winning the estranged member back to the community. Outcasts and tax collectors are not lost causes, but special objects of Jesus’ mercy and compassion. See also, I Corinthians 5:5; II Corinthians 2:5-7.
A further practical caution is in order here. Not every annoying habit, inconsiderate act or careless utterance by someone in the congregation merits this disciplinary procedure. Unless sin rises to the level at which it threatens to rupture the unity of the church or alienate one of its members, it should be borne with patience, understanding and forgiveness. The church was never intended to be a community of the perfect, but rather a congregation of sinners being perfected by the faithful practice of living together under a love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:7.