Posts Tagged gay and lesbian
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.
TENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God our defender, storms rage around and within us and cause us to be afraid. Rescue your people from despair, deliver your sons and daughters from fear, and preserve us in the faith of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Storms rage around us and cause us to be afraid.” So says the prayer of the day and it hits the nail on the head. I am afraid. I’m not so much afraid for myself. Straight white males like me haven’t much to fear in the way of oppression and never have. I am afraid, however, for my friends who are people of color whose position becomes ever more tenuous under the growing tide of white supremacy that has found its way into the mainstream and even into the once hallowed halls of the White House. I am afraid for my daughters, my granddaughter and all the women I love whose safety and well-being has casually been devalued by our country’s appalling indifference to the history of sexual predatory conduct dogging the man it elected to the highest office of law enforcement in the land. I am particularly afraid for many family members, friends and colleagues who identify as gay, lesbian and transgendered against whom, in an effort to whip up support from the army of deplorables that created it, the present administration has unleashed a string of punitive executive initiatives, including the discharge of all transgendered persons serving in the military, many of whom have served for years with courage and distinction. I am sickened by the growing chorus of hatred against these people I love by the unholy choir of so-called “evangelical” Christians and the willingness of our ruling party to grovel at their feet to win their votes by codifying their bigotry into cruel, repressive, humiliating and unjust laws. Most of all, I am frightened by my own church’s seeming inability or unwillingness to confront this darkness with a bold proclamation of Jesus as gospel.
I can’t say that I fully understand the sentiments of Elijah in our first lesson for this coming Sunday. Nobody has ever persecuted me on account of my faith. Truth is, when it comes to mistreatment, I have born a lot more hostility, insult and injury from within the church than from the world outside. But even the worst of that does not amount to anything like persecution. Still, like Elijah, I do at times feel tired, lonely, isolated and, yes, frightened. I sometimes wish I could wake up and discover that the last seven months have been a terrible nightmare and that Barak Obama, George Bush or any other president whose administration I have lived through were still in the White House.
I’d like for God to end these fearful storms we are experiencing, but that is not what is promised. Elijah receives only the bare assurance that he is not altogether alone, that God still has important work for him to do and that the purposes for which God called him will be fulfilled, though perhaps not in his lifetime. The psalmist is not saved from his/her distress, but assured that his/her prayer and hope for a new day have been heard. Though Jesus quieted the storm on the Sea of Galilee, we know that there are greater storms ahead. All Jesus’ disciples know is that Jesus will be there to help them navigate through. That has to be sufficient. We don’t get an end to the storm, only enough (sometimes just enough) hope, faith and courage to weather it. We don’t get a road map for the journey. We get only enough light to take the next step. We don’t get a game plan. We only have the same instructions Jesus gave us two thousand years ago to speak good news to the poor boldly and truthfully, live generously without anxiety, care for the poor, the imprisoned, the naked, the hungry and the stranger. We are invited to stand with Jesus as he stands with the powerless and persecuted-whether it is politically popular or not. We don’t always get to see the fruition of our labors. We get only the assurance that God will work with them to accomplish God’s purpose in God’s own good time.
Finally, we are again invited to believe in the reign of God inaugurated in Jesus. That is the one reliable anecdote to fear. After all, racism, nationalism, hate and bigotry (even under the cloak of religion) have no future. Tomorrow belongs to the Lord. All we need to know about tomorrow is that it brings us another day closer to that age when God’s will is done on earth as in heaven; one day closer to the day when, in the words of the psalmist:
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
In the meantime, we pray that God’s’ will may at least be done among us and through us for a world desperately in need of God’s reign of love.
Lo! The hosts of evil round us
scorn the Christ, assail his ways!
From the fears that long have bound us
free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
for the living of these days,
for the living of these days.
“God of Grace and God of Glory,” Text: Harry E. Fosdick, 1878-1969 Tune: CWM RHONDDA, Evangelical Worship, # 705.
Here is a poem about soldiering on in hope through history against the tides of overwhelming opposition by Nikki Giovanni.
The Song of the Feet
It is appropriate that I sing
The song of the feet
The weight of the body
And what the body chooses to bear
Fall on me
I trampled the American wilderness
Forged frontier trails
Outran the mob in Tulsa
Got caught in Philadelphia
And am still unreparated
I soldiered on in Korea
Jungled through Vietman sweated out Desert Storm
Caved my way through Afghanistan
Tunneled the World Trade Center
And on the worst day of my life
Walked behind JFK
Stood embracing Sister Betty
I wiggle my toes
In the sands of time
Trusting the touch that controls my motion
Basking in the warmth of the embrace
Day’s end offers with warm salty water
It is appropriate I sing
The praise of the feet
I am a Black woman
Source: Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (c. 2002 by Nikki Giovanni, pub. by HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 2002) Nikki Giovanni is one of the best-known African-American poets who reached prominence during the late 1960s and early 1970s. She was born 1943 in Knoxville, Kentucky and attended Fisk University, a prestigious, all-black college in Nashville, Tennessee from which she graduated in 1968. From there she went on to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University in New York. Giovanni authored several volumes of poetry for children and adults. She is the recipient of multiple NAACP Image Awards, the Langston Hughes Award for Distinguished Contributions to Arts and Letters, the Rosa Parks Women of Courage Award and over twenty honorary degrees from colleges and universities around the country. You can read more about Nikki Giovanni and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
The most fascinating character in the Book of I Kings is not a king at all, but the prophet Elijah. Elijah first appears during the reign of King Ahab over the northern kingdom of Israel. Ahab inherited the kingdom from his father, Omri, who seized the throne following a bloody civil war. Omri led Israel to national greatness, strengthening the nation through military and commercial treaties with the surrounding Phoenician kingdoms. He is also credited with establishing as his capital the city of Samaria. Continuing the policies of his father, Ahab renewed Israel’s Phoenician treaties solidifying them through marriage to Jezebel, a Phoenician princess with a fierce loyalty to her god, Baal. Though Ahab appears to have been personally loyal to the God of Israel, he did not interfere with his wife’s vigorous implementation of Baal worship throughout Israel. It seems that Baal worship was becoming so pervasive that it was threatening to displace the worship of Israel’s God.
Elijah the prophet appears as if out of nowhere announcing to King Ahab a drought that would soon devastate the land of Israel for three years and end only upon the prophet’s word. At the prompting of the Lord, Elijah flees and lives for the next three years as a fugitive. Ahab, knowing that Elijah holds the key to ending the drought, seeks him throughout Israel and asks for extradition privileges from any other kingdom in which the prophet might seek refuge. At the end of the three year period, Elijah reveals himself to the king with a proposition. Let there be a contest between himself and the prophets of Baal. The God of Israel challenges Baal to a duel-high noon at Mr. Carmel. Let two altars be built, one for Baal and one for the Lord. The god who consumes the sacrificial animal on his altar is God indeed. Ahab agrees and the prophets of Baal turn out in force and build their altar. Elijah, too, builds an altar and places his offering upon it. Fire from heaven consumes the offering on Elijah’s altar. Baal is a no show. A rain storm follows breaking the drought. Everyone knows who to thank.
You would think the matter had been settled once and for all. Wrong. Jezebel, the real power behind the throne, issues a death warrant for Elijah. Once again, Elijah is a fugitive. Understandably, he is despondent. Three years of toil, sacrifice and danger with nothing to show for it. Baal still rules the religious roost in Israel, the priests of the Lord are being murdered or driven into exile and Elijah is a homeless fugitive. That is the state in which we find him at the top of Mount Horeb in our lesson for Sunday.
The voice of the Lord is sought in earthquake, wind and fire. But the word of the Lord is not found in any of these dramatic phenomena. Rather, that word is revealed in a “still, small voice,” as the RSV translates it. Vs. 12. The NRSV translates the term as “a sound of sheer silence,” seemingly an oxymoron (or perhaps foreshadowing Simon & Garfunkel?). The Hebrew word is unclear, but perhaps the critical and operative term is “voice” or “sound.” It is through the word that God achieves God’s purposes-not through spectacular shows of force. If fireworks could turn the heart of Israel back to her God, surely the fire from heaven coming down on Mr. Carmel would have been enough to do the trick. But miraculous shows of power alone, like the miracles Jesus performed, are incapable of producing faith. At best, they inspire fear and amazement. They might show that God is powerful, but they do not demonstrate conclusively that God is good.
Elijah gets a word that is not altogether encouraging. Seven thousand people in all Israel remain faithful to the Lord and have not worshiped Baal. Vs. 18. That isn’t very many. Elijah is instructed to anoint a new king for Syria, Israel’s arch enemy. Vs. 15. That cannot be a good sign. He is also instructed to anoint a new king for Israel. This is somewhat hopeful as it indicates God’s determination to bring Ahab’s corrupt line to an end. Finally, Elijah is instructed to anoint his own successor. This can only mean that Elijah will not live to see the work of his ministry completed. He will come to the end of his life with a lot of loose ends still hanging out there.
That might be God’s word to the church in the United States-or at least the protestant part of it. Gone are the days when protestant Christianity was recognized as the de facto religion of the United States. Gone are the days when businesses, sports leagues and civic programs ceased their activities on Sunday morning out of deference to the church. Gone are the days when everyone went to church somewhere (or claimed they did because they knew they were expected to go). The culture we live in today is largely indifferent to traditional, mainline Christianity. We are increasingly discovering that we must make the case for why Jesus is important, why the church matters and what difference all of this makes in one’s day to day life. In other words, we need to start doing what Jesus has been telling us to do for centuries: make disciples. Churches that are finding ways to do that are thriving. Churches that are carrying on with business as usual and simply hoping that people will someday come back are dying. That is the long and short of it.
There is much good news here for those with ears to hear it. The good news is that the reign of God is God’s project from beginning to end. The kingdom’s coming will be in God’s own time and in God’s own way. We are privileged to take part in that drama. We don’t get to choose our parts or write the script. For a church that has gotten used to being a powerful and respected force within society, becoming a smaller and poorer community speaking from the margins of society is a bitter pill to swallow. But for a church that recognizes in its poverty, decline and weakness the still small voice of God’s word, which is the only thing of value it has ever really had, this ancient scripture opens up new vistas of hope and promise.
This is a psalm of lament or, as Professor Walter Bruegemann would call it, “a psalm of disorientation.” According to Bruegemann, the psalms address human life in all of its varied seasons. There are seasons of wellbeing in which the faithful heart recognizes the blessedness of a life well lived, the rewards of righteous conduct and the well-oriented structure of human existence as it is lived out in the context of the created world, family and community. There are also seasons of anguish, brokenness and chaos when life does not make sense. Injustice, violence and cruelty seem to abound unchecked. Persons are so traumatized that recovery and healing seems impossible. God seems absent and life is disoriented. Then, too, there are seasons of re-orientation. After severe shock and trauma, life never returns to normal if “normal” means the way things used to be. You never get over losing a child. But you might discover in your grief ever deeper levels of family love, friendship and support that allow you to heal and grow. People who have been through periods of disorientation can never again sing the old songs from the season of well-being in quite the same way. They have learned how much life can hurt. But that is not all they have learned. They have come to recognize that God was indeed present even when God seemed most absent. Re-oriented people no longer expect to be spared from all suffering and disorientation, but they are firmly convinced that, come what may, God will always be with them. See, Bruegemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 19.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 85 in its entirety. If you read it from the beginning (as I recommend) you will discover that it starts with an affirmation of God’s faithfulness to Israel in the past. It is critical to understanding what is going on here. Though it is hard to discern the specifics, it is obvious that this prayer was composed during a turbulent time in Israel’s history. Times are hard and the psalmist acknowledges that this is due in no small part to God’s displeasure with Israel. Yet the psalmist can pray confidently because he or she has a recollection of occasions in the past where God has turned from anger to compassion. (see vss. 1-3). The psalm concludes with a confident affirmation of the psalmist’s belief that God will intervene to save once again as God has always done in the past. This affirmation constitutes the reading for this week.
Most remarkable is the certainty on the part of the psalmist that steadfast love, faithfulness, peace, righteousness and goodness constitute the future of God’s people. As the earlier verses of the psalm make clear, these words are spoken from a context of despair. The psalmist has lived through a long period of darkness and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. His or her hope arises from memory. The psalmist remembers the faithfulness of God to Israel in dark times past. These memories sustain him or her in the present darkness and open a porthole into a brighter hope.
Memory is important. I have heard stories all my life of deathbed conversions, but I have never seen one and rather doubt that they happen with much frequency. I say that because I believe faith is a habit of the heart. Trust develops in the context of relationships spanning years. Only a history of faithfulness and loyalty proves that the one you trust is in fact trustworthy. If the Lord has been your shepherd leading you through the traumas of adolescence, the challenges of establishing yourself in the world of work, the anguish of family life and the uncertainties that accompany growing older, then it is not such a stretch to believe that the Lord who has taken you so far will accompany you also over the last frontier. Faith like this cannot be learned in a crash course. So let us build these sustaining memories now by attending to worship, prayer, giving, service and daily meditation on the scriptures.
Paul’s argument here is based on a passage in Deuteronomy 30:11-14:
“Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”
Paul begins by reiterating what he has said previously: that if one would justify himself/herself by the law, one must do more than learn it and adhere to the letter. One must live by it. That, as Paul has already pointed out, is impossible while we remain in the flesh. The flesh is forever using the law to justify itself, ingratiate itself to God and elevate itself over others. Rightly understood, the law is a gift given to Israel to protect her freedom. It is the servant of love, never the master. Wrongly understood, the law is something that must be retrieved by “go[ing] up to heaven” or “cross[ing] to the other side of the sea.” In fact, the law has already been given to Israel to assure her blessedness in the promised land. But it does not secure God’s favor. The Book of Deuteronomy from which Paul quotes has already made clear from the outset that it is not because of any greatness or goodness on Israel’s part that God loves her: “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 7:7-8. God loves Israel no more when she is obedient and no less when she is disobedient.
So Paul comes back once again to his gospel moorings. The “word” which is near us is the good news about Jesus Christ that inspires confident trust in God’s promises: “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Vs. 9. This is wildly important and tragically misunderstood. “Belief” is not mere intellectual assent. Perhaps some of you can recall the Kennedy Evangelism Explosion program purporting to school believers in the art of evangelism. Would be evangelists are instructed to ask those to whom they witness: “If you were to die tonight and God were to ask you, why should I let you into my heaven, what would be your response?” The problem with this whole approach is that it treats faith as though it were mere intellectual assent to a doctrinal proposition. What you need to get into God’s good graces is information. You have to come up with the correct answer and articulate it correctly.
That is nothing like the heartfelt trust in Jesus that Paul is talking about. Faith is the conviction that God raised Jesus from death. The tomb is empty. If that really is the case, human life should look altogether different than the way we experience it. If God raised the man who fed five thousand with just five loaves, then we ought not to sweat a few thousand children crossing the border into our country. If God raised from the dead the man who would not take up the sword in his own defense, then there is no reason any disciple of Jesus should feel the need to own a fire arm for self-defense. If God raised the preacher that gave us the Sermon on the Mount, there is no reason why any believer in Jesus should not be tithing his or her income. Quite frankly, the problem is that there are more atheists in the church than outside it. Functional atheism confesses Jesus with the lips but does not believe with the heart that God raised him from death. To borrow another phrase from Paul, too many of us are “holding the form of religion but denying the power of it.” II Timothy 3:5. That is why churches fight constantly over budgets. That is why the average percentage of income given yearly by the average Lutheran church member is a whopping 1.9%. That is why Sunday morning continues to be the most segregated hour in the United States. That is why protestant denominations are turning to highly paid consultants, resorting to capital fund drives and fundraising gimmicks under the false label of “stewardship” to save their institutional souls. All that religious stuff is fine for children and little old church ladies. But we all know that in the real world you have to be practical. So when it comes time to talk money, we politely ask Jesus to leave the room.
Paul would have us know that there are two starkly different claims about what is real and only one of them can be true. Either you believe that Jesus is still dead, that everything he lived for was hopelessly idealistic and impractical, or you believe that God said “yes” to the life Jesus lived by raising him from death. If Jesus is still in the tomb, nothing has changed. If the tomb is empty, everything is changed. Once you get it through your head and into your heart that the tomb is empty and Jesus is alive, you don’t listen to practical advice from the worldly wise telling you how impossible it is to walk on the surface of the sea-which brings us right to the gospel for Sunday.
The lesson follows directly on last week’s story about the feeding of the five thousand plus. Now that the crowds have been fed, Jesus dismisses them. He “compels” his disciples to get into a boat and go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Because Jesus sends them “ahead of him” we can assume that he meant to catch up to them at some point. The disciples are making their way across the sea against a strong headwind when they spot Jesus walking on the surface of the sea. Understandably terrified by what they take to be a ghostly apparition, the disciples cry out in terror. Immediately, Jesus calls out to them and urges them not to be afraid. Peter then replies, “Lord, if it really is you, bid me come to you on the water.” Vs. 28. Interestingly, Peter seeks a command from Jesus. Apparently, he knows that he is incapable of such a feat on his own. When Jesus replies, “come,” Peter steps out of the boat onto the water and comes to Jesus. Vs. 29.
The way Matthew tells it, Peter is not entirely clueless as he is portrayed in Mark’s gospel. He believes that Jesus is both capable of walking on the sea and that he is capable of enabling Peter to do the same. This belief is not merely theoretical as Peter’s first step out of the boat onto the water demonstrates. Moreover, when Peter begins to sink as a result of his doubt, he nevertheless knows to call out to Jesus for salvation. His faith, albeit “little,” is nonetheless genuine. So, too, the disciples confess Jesus as God’s son-a conclusion never reached by any of the disciples in Mark’s gospel. Yet this knowledge, like Peter’s faith, is not fully formed. There is more to Jesus than meets the eye and more yet to be learned and absorbed.
The telling of this story is perhaps shaped by Psalm 107 which narrates the perils faced by pilgrims making their way to the place of worship in Jerusalem and God’s saving intervention on their behalf. Of particular interest are verses 23-32:
Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters; they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.
Just as the pilgrims in the psalm recognize the compassion and salvation of God in their escape from the dangers of the sea, so the disciples are compelled to worship Jesus who stills the storm and brings them safely to their destination. The face of Israel’s God shines through the works of his messiah.
Though they recognize Jesus as “God’s Son,” the disciples still must learn what sort of Son Jesus is. Their failure to understand or accept the death Jesus predicts for himself in Jerusalem, their failure to anticipate Jesus’ resurrection and their continued doubt even in the presence of the resurrected Christ show that the disciples’ faith leaves much to be desired and will require continual growth through challenges yet to come. The message, then, for the church from Jesus is this: your faith is genuine; you have what you need to be my disciples; but your faith is still “little” and in need of nourishment, formation and maturity. One never graduates from the school of discipleship.
NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Glorious God, your generosity waters the world with goodness, and you cover creation with abundance. Awaken in us a hunger for the food that satisfies both body and spirit, and with this food fill all the starving world; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
There is nothing quite so basic to well-being in the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament than eating. Biblical justice demands that all be filled. One should not have to earn the right to eat. Nor should one have to explain why s/he is hungry, demonstrate whether s/he qualifies for benefits, prove that s/he is unable to work, demonstrate his/her citizenship, convince anyone that s/he does not have a drinking problem, a drug problem or a criminal conviction in order to be fed. It is enough that a hungry person is created in the image of God, loved by God and ransomed by God at the cost of God’s Son for a disciple of Jesus to recognize in him/her the appeal of Jesus himself. Whoever denies bread to the hungry inflicts hunger upon Jesus and blasphemes his heavenly Father. Toleration of hunger is apostasy.
It is important to note that Jesus’ parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25 is told against “the nations of the world.” The command to feed the hungry, as well as the commands to welcome the stranger, care for the sick and liberate the prisoner, is a command by which all the nations of the world are to be judged. And it is against the backdrop of this command that we must judge a government that, having narrowly failed in its zealous efforts to deprive between 16 and 22 million people of their health insurance, now turns to consider a proposed budget that will cut nutritional aid over ten years by over $200 billion dollars. That includes $11 billion from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children known as “WIC” and another $193 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program known as “SNAP” (formerly Food Stamps). This same budget would, over ten years, cut international humanitarian aid by a whopping 51% or $160 billion dollars. Justify any or all of this under whatever economic theory or political ideology you wish. But don’t embarrass yourself by appealing to the Scriptures, much less to Jesus of Nazareth. Nothing could be a clearer expression of indifference or, more accurately, outright contempt for everything Jesus than this proposed budget plan. So for all of you so called “conservative evangelicals” out there following the likes of Rev. Franklyn Graham, Dr. James Dobson, Ralph Reed, Tony Perkins, Jerry Falwell, Jr. and the Duck Dynasty crowd who see in Donald Trump everything from an “unlikely champion” of all things Christian to “God’s anointed” (Oh, yes, there are some folks out there actually saying that), I just have once piece of free legal advice. Whatever you’re smoking, don’t do it in public. I’m betting that anything powerful enough to bend your mind that far out of shape is still illegal in all fifty states.
The current administration’s motto is “Make America Great Again.” Except for the “again” part, I can get on board with that. Only let’s be clear about what we mean by “great.” In biblical terms, a nation’s greatness is judged not by the size of its army, the strength of its economy or the glory of its cultural accomplishments, but by how well or poorly it treats the orphan, the widow and the most vulnerable people (citizens or not) in its midst. As of 2015, 42.2 million Americans were living in food-insecure households, including 29.1 million adults and 13.1 million children. As of 2014, 5.4 million seniors (over age 60), or 9% of all seniors, were estimated to be food insecure. Food insecurity is defined as “an economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” The USDA breaks this definition down further into categories of “low food security” and “very low food security.” 
- Low food security(old label=Food insecurity without hunger): reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.
- Very low food security(old label=Food insecurity with hunger): Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.
The long and short of it is that some folks suffer malnutrition because they live in places that have limited access to grocery stores, markets and other sources of nutritious food. Consequently, they wind up consuming calories available to them-processed and fast food items-that are neither nutritious nor cost effective. Others are unable to obtain sufficient caloric content of any kind. That such conditions exist to the degree they do in a country that surpasses all others in the production of food is nothing short of scandalous. Such a nation is hardly “great” by biblical standards. The proposed budget, that cuts severely what insufficient support exists for the hungry in our midst, moves us in precisely the opposite direction of greatness. Hungrier, poorer and sicker is not greater.
Of course, we can blame poverty on the poor, just as we blame police brutality against African Americans on African Americans for “having an attitude”, violence against women on women because they dress too provocatively, and attacks on LBGTQ folks on LBGTQ folks because…well, heck, attacking them really needs no justification. Again, cite whatever cockamamie conspiracy theory you want to rationalize this malarkey, but don’t bother appealing to the scriptures. The Bible I read doesn’t say anything about the disciples setting up a screening process to ensure that all of those five thousand people Jesus fed in this Sunday’s gospel were deserving of food assistance. That is because food, like medicine, shelter, clothing and all other essentials are what disciples of Jesus owe their neighbor-whether they are deemed “worthy” or not. It is also the standard of conduct by which God will judge “all the nations.” At least that is what Jesus tells us at Matthew 25:32.
Food is gospel. Its abundance is the theme of the prophet’s song in our first lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the free gift of God to all God’s creatures as our psalm proclaims and celebrates. Jesus describes the kingdom of God as a joyful banquet. A gospel message that leaves behind an empty stomach is an abominable gnostic heresy.
Here is a poem by Pablo Neruda, an atheist who understands the gospel better than many Christians. It’s about the “justice of eating.”
The Great Tablecloth
When they were called to the table,
the tyrants came rushing
with their temporary ladies;
it was fine to watch the women pass
like wasps with big bosoms
followed by those pale
and unfortunate public tigers.
The peasant in the field ate
his poor quota of bread,
he was alone, it was late,
he was surrounded by wheat,
but he had no more bread;
he ate it with grim teeth,
looking at it with hard eyes.
In the blue hour of eating,
the infinite hour of the roast,
the poet abandons his lyre,
takes up his knife and fork,
puts his glass on the table,
and the fishermen attend
the little sea of the soup bowl.
Burning potatoes protest
among the tongues of oil.
The lamb is gold on its coals
and the onion undresses.
It is sad to eat in dinner clothes,
like eating in a coffin,
but eating in convents
is like eating underground.
Eating alone is a disappointment,
but not eating matters more,
is hollow and green, has thorns
like a chain of fish hooks
trailing from the heart,
clawing at your insides.
Hunger feels like pincers,
like the bite of crabs,
it burns, burns and has no fire
Hunger is a cold fire.
Let us sit down soon to eat
with all those who haven’t eaten;
let us spread great tablecloths,
put salt in the lakes of the world,
set up planetary bakeries,
tables with strawberries in snow,
and a plate like the moon itself
from which we can all eat.
For now I ask no more
than the justice of eating.
Source: PeacemealProject. Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was born Ricardo Eliezer Neftali Reyes y Basoalto in Parral, Chile. He adopted the pseudonym, Pablo Neruda under which he became famous while still in his early teens. A devout communist, Neruda was politically active throughout his lifetime in his native Chile running for president as the nominee of the nation’s communist party in 1971. He withdrew his nomination, however, when he reached an accord with Socialist nominee Salvador Allende. After Allende won the election he reactivated Neruda’s diplomatic credentials, appointing the poet ambassador to France. While living in Paris Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. You can read more about Pablo Neruda and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
This lesson comes to us from the final chapter of Second Isaiah, the prophet who preached to the Jewish exiles carried away into Babylon following the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. We had verses 10-13 as our reading for July 16th. These were discussed in my post for that date.
This final chapter of Second Isaiah begins with an invitation to eat and drink well at absolutely no cost! The exiled people of Judah are invited to “delight yourselves in fatness.” Vs. 2. That might not go down so well in a culture like ours where we are being killed by overeating rather than starvation. But in a culture where starvation was always just one bad harvest away, the prophet’s delivery of God’s invitation sounded a note of incredibly good news. It also constituted an astounding reversal of Israel’s religious practices. Typically, the fat of an animal sacrifice was set aside as an offering by fire to the Lord. The rest of the animal might be consumed by the priests, by the one offering the sacrifice or both. See, e.g., Leviticus 3-4. In this passage, however, God is the one making the invitation and offering the choice portions of the feast to the exiles.
This invitation to the feast echoes (or is echoed by?) Proverbs 9:1-6 where “wisdom” personified invites all who will hear her to a banquet. Perhaps this passage or one like it lies at the base of Jesus’ parables about the ungrateful and unresponsive persons invited to the marriage feast. See Matthew 22:1-14; Luke 14:16-24. The prophet chides the people with some rhetorical questions: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” vs. 2. So also, keeping in mind that meat was eaten only on very special occasions and the opportunity to have as much as you could eat was a once in a life time event, those listening to Jesus’ parable must have been wondering what kind of idiot would pass up such an opportunity for the sake of inspecting his oxen. Answer: the same kind of idiot who goes on with life as usual when the kingdom of heaven is at the doorstep. In other words, us!
Of course, meals are viewed as sacred throughout the Bible. Biblical characters never just “catch a bite.” Our casual eating practices would surely be viewed by our biblical ancestors as expressing an attitude of thanklessness and contempt for God’s gracious provision as well as for the gift of family, friendship and community. Eating was sacramental. A meal represented both the generosity of God toward human beings and the hospitality of human beings toward one another. First Century Israelites did not break bread with just anyone. Who you ate with defined who you were. That is why Jesus created so much outrage by eating with “sinners,” that is, people deemed beyond the scope of proper Israelite society. But for Jesus, these meals demonstrated the radical hospitality of God that reaches out to embrace the outcast. Indeed, outcasts are not merely included. They are exalted to the place of highest honor. “The last shall be first and the first last.” Matthew 20:16.
In verses 3-6 God promises to make a new Davidic covenant with Israel. This is the only time David is even mentioned in Second Isaiah. That is hardly surprising. Israel’s experience with the line of David was not always a happy one. The descendants of David were largely responsible for the foolhardy foreign policies resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile. Only too well had Israel learned not to put her trust in human monarchs. Psalm 146:2-4. Thus, Second Isaiah specifically avoids laying any messianic overtones on David or any of his descendants. The new Davidic covenant will not be with any specific descendant of David’s line, but with all Israel. Just as David and his descendants were instruments of justice in Israel, so now Israel will be God’s instrument of justice in the world.
There is a striking contrast, however, between the old Davidic covenant and the new. In the psalms celebrating the old Davidic covenant, the king is given “the nations” as his heritage and instructed to “break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Psalm 2:8-9. In our lesson for today, however, the exiles are told, “you shall call nations that you know not, and nations that knew you not shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy one of Israel, for he has glorified you.” Vs. 6. God will reign over the nations through the glory revealed among his faithful servant people, not through any show of violent force. There is an echo of this vision in the Gospel of John where Jesus prays: “I do not pray for these [disciples] only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may be one; even as thou Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou has sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.” John 17:20-23. It is through God’s covenantal love toward and among his people that the world comes to understand that God’s glory is God’s deep, passionate and patient love.
This psalm is a hymn in acrostic form. Every verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic poems usually do not develop ideas but consist rather of loosely connected statements. The technique aids in memorization, but also conveys the message that the whole of the topic is being addressed “from A-Z.” Other psalms in the acrostic family are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 145 in its entirety.
This is a psalm of praise, probably from the period after the Babylonian Exile. God alone is acknowledged as “king” rather than any ruler of the Davidic line. Vs. 1. The verses making up our reading contain a refrain found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: “The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Vs. 8. See, e.g, Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Jonah 4:2; and Psalm 103:8. It is because God is so gracious and merciful that Israel felt free to address God in prayer, even-indeed, especially-when she knew that she had fallen short of her covenant obligations.
Verses 15-16 are commonly and appropriately used as grace for meal times.
The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.
It is always good to be reminded from whence comes our daily bread. Our American culture of individualism and self-initiative would lead us to believe that our bread is won by our own hard work and achievements. Wealth or “capital” is created by individuals whose genius creates products and services stimulating new markets and growing the economy. As long as we continue making more stuff and people keep on buying it, the economy keeps on generating jobs, opening up new investment opportunities and making life better for everyone. Of course, this all works better in theory than in practice as the growing disparity between rich and poor in this country demonstrates. Whether the system would work better with more government regulation or less is an ongoing debate. It is also a sterile one in my humble opinion.
The problem with economic liberalism is a theological one. It rests on the proposition that we are the generators of our own wealth. It constitutes a denial of what our psalm insists to be a basic truth: that all living things, from humans to microbes, receive their food in due season from the hand of the Lord. When that perspective is lost, life becomes a struggle of all against all. Instead of reflecting the glorious generosity of its Creator, the world becomes a ball of ever diminishing resources. Each nation, each household, each individual must jealously guard his or her share. There is no room for generosity, compassion or sharing in such a tight fisted world. Its people all too easily degenerate into an angry mob of fist shaking, hate filled, fear mongering bullies who threaten starving and abused children seeking refuge with the National Guard.
The psalm teaches us that the Lord “fulfills the desire of all who fear him.” Vs. 19. Yes, I know. We liberal, slightly left-of-center, ever polite and ever white protestant types get all antsy in the pantsy whenever “fear” and “God” get mentioned within one hundred words of each other. It seems we are practically tripping over each other in pained efforts to explain that “fear” does not really mean “fear,” but “awe” or “respect” or some other such malarkey. I don’t buy it. If God doesn’t scare the socks off you, then you have mistaken the God of the Scriptures for Mr. Rogers. Furthermore, it seems to me that we inevitably wind up fearing something. Whether it is communists, cancer or monsters under the bed, everybody is afraid of something. People driven by fear do foolish and destructive things, particularly when the object of their fears is mostly imaginary. Fear driven people wind up burning witches, running away from black cats and sending the National Guard out against sick and starving children. That being the case, I think we would be in a better place if our fears were directed toward things that really are fearful. Our gospels teach us that God is real and God is to be feared. This God is the one whose Son calls little children to come to him and tells us that the kingdom of heaven has been prepared for them. If the God of the Bible is real, then rather than fearing the consequences of welcoming needy children in our land, we ought to fear what this God might do to us if we do not welcome them. Perhaps the fear of the Lord really is the beginning of wisdom. Psalm 111:10.
The psalm ends with a declaration on the part of the psalmist that s/he will “speak the praise of the Lord, and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever.” Vs. 21. That declaration sums up the tone of the entire psalm. This prayer is one of sheer praise. It seeks nothing from God, asks nothing of God and expects nothing more than what God has already so richly supplied. There are many such prayers in the Book of Psalms and that ought to teach us something about prayer in general. Prayer is not all about us, our needs and our predicaments. It is first and foremost about this God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Vs. 8. On the worst days of my life (and I have had some horrible ones lately), there is never any shortage of reasons for giving thanks. It is with thanks, I believe, that all prayer ought to begin and end.
The original New Testament texts did not have chapter and verse numbers, paragraph separations or subject headings. These artifacts were added long after the Bible had been copied, re-copied and re-copied again, translated, re-translated and re-translated again from the Greek into Coptic, Latin and subsequently into other languages. It is important to keep that in mind, because determining where to end a chapter, begin a paragraph or place a subject heading is an interpretive decision. It shapes how the text is understood. Our English Bibles all seem to follow the chapter divisions between Romans 8 and 9, ending Paul’s discussion begun in Romans chapter 1 at the close of Romans chapter 8. At first blush, that feels right. Paul sums up everything he has been saying about the liberating grace of God with the following words: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39. It is all I can do to refrain from adding “amen.”
Yet refrain I must, because there is no “amen.” The “amen” does not come until the end of our reading for this Sunday. Verses 1-5 of Romans 9 are part and parcel of Romans 8:31-39. The impossibility of anything separating us from the love of God in Christ is the premise for what Paul has been arguing from the beginning of Romans, namely, that just as sin imprisons both Jews and Gentiles under the power of death, so the grace of God in Christ Jesus frees both Jews and Gentiles from the power of sin and the law. Throughout chapters 9-11 Paul will proceed to discuss the role of Israel and the church in God’s redemptive plan. Paul wishes to make clear, however, that both these communions are essential and complement each other.
Understand that at this point in history, there was no decisive break between Christianity and Judaism. Neither Jesus nor Paul understood the movement referred to as “the way” in Acts as constituting a new religion. The Jesus movement was a reform movement within Judaism. Paul would be shocked and saddened to learn that today Jewish and Christian communities live largely separate and independent existences. For Paul, the good news of Jesus Christ was the conduit through which the covenant promises given to Israel are now shared with the gentiles. This same good news challenged Israel to understand its role in a much bigger and more profound way, much as did the prophet of Second Isaiah. Just as Paul insisted that it was not necessary to convert gentiles to Judaism before welcoming them into the Body of Christ, so Paul was not interested in drawing Jews away from their ancestral faith. It was Paul’s hope that in Christ Jesus the gentiles would come to trust in the God of Israel and that Israel would discover a broader vision of all that was promised in the law and the prophets.
So Paul concludes his discussion of God’s grace in Christ by affirming his own Jewish faith and that of his fellow Jews. “To them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.” Vss. 4-5. Notice the present tense. Paul does not suggest that Israel has lost its status as God’s chosen people or that what once belonged to Israel is now the property of the church. What God has given with one hand, God does not take back with the other. Paul will make this point further on. Rather than taking away Israel’s covenant relationship, God is broadening it to include those formerly outside that covenant. We gentiles, who had no legal claim or right to the blessings given Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; who did not pass through the Red Sea, travel through the wilderness or enter into the promised land; who have none of the blood of the patriarchs pulsing through our veins; we have nevertheless been invited to take part in this marvelous story.
Over the centuries, we gentile believers have forgotten that we are invited guests. Instead of receiving thankfully the undeserved hospitality that has been extended to us in Jesus Christ, we have begun to imagine that we are masters of the house. Worse than that, we have attempted to expel the Jewish inhabitants, put our feet up on the furniture and redecorated the place to suit our own tastes. Over the centuries, our theology has treated Judaism not as the mother she is, but the wicked step mother whose presence cannot be tolerated. Christianity divorced from its Jewish roots cannot help but lose touch with its Jewish savior and the promises of the Hebrew Scriptures that cannot be fulfilled apart from the participation of the Hebrew people. When Paul’s letter to the Romans is read in the way I have just suggested, as I believe it was intended, we are compelled to look critically and with great sadness on the centuries of Christian hostility toward Judaism and the current gulf dividing church and synagogue.
Upon learning of John the Baptist’s execution by Herod Antipas, Jesus withdrew in a boat with his disciples to a “lonely place apart.” Vs. 13. But Jesus cannot remain hidden. The crowds seek him out with their illnesses, fears and hopes. Jesus, moved by compassion, remains to heal their sick. Now it is late and the disciples are concerned. The crowd is hungry and hungry crowds are dangerous. These people have heard the whisperings about Jesus, that he is John the Baptist raised from death, Elijah the miracle working prophet or perhaps even Israel’s longed for messiah. They have high expectations. Their hunger for greater miracles is as great as the hunger in their bellies. Now is the time to send the crowd away. Their sick have been healed; it is still light; they can still perhaps find their way to someplace where there is food. The disciples recognize the potential danger and the need to act promptly to avoid a riot.
Jesus, however, seems unconcerned. “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Vs. 16. Evidently, Jesus cannot do math. Five loaves of bread and two fish will not go far among five thousand men and their families. But the math of the kingdom is far different from our math. We tend to approach the needs of our world with an eye toward our own resources. We ask, “How much can we do with what we have? How far can we stretch our dollars? What can we expect to accomplish, given that we are a small, aging and poor congregation?” By contrast, Jesus meets the needs of the world on the strength of God’s promises. It is never a question of what we can do with what we have. It is always a question of what God can do when we place our all into his hands, relying on his promises. No, we cannot solve the world’s problems with what little we have, but Jesus does not ask us to do that. Instead, he invites us to become part of and share in what God is doing to redeem creation.
Verses 20-21 echo the concluding words to the story of Elisha’s feeding one hundred of the sons of the prophets with twenty loaves of bread. II Kings 4:42-44. In both cases, the amount of food was insufficient. As did Jesus in our gospel lesson, so Elisha instructs his disciple to distribute this clearly inadequate food supply to a needy community. Both stories conclude with God’s provision of abundance through what appeared to be scarcity. This message dovetails nicely with the theme of our psalm reminding us that God is a God of abundance and generosity. Only when our trust strays from God’s gracious promise to provide for all of our needs do we see scarcity and want. I think that the comments of Rev. Dr. George Hermanson on this reading sums it all up very nicely: “What follows invites us to remember our own wildernesses, our own places of chaos, when our own insufficiencies may have been blessed, broken, and given away. And yet it was precisely in risking that impossible insufficiency that there was enough. Indeed, more than enough.” Holy Textures, Commentary on Matthew 14:13-21.
 “How Trump’s Budget Would Affect Every Part of Government” New York Times, 5/23/17
SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Faithful God, most merciful judge, you care for your children with firmness and compassion. By your Spirit nurture us who live in your kingdom, that we may be rooted in the way of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is not god.” Isaiah 44:6.
From May 29th-31st 1934 the Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church met in Barmen, Germany to address false teachings propagated by the “German Christians” appointed by the Nazis to administer the protestant churches under the Reich. Organized in 1932, the German Christian movement was driven by nationalistic ideology permeated with Nazi anti-Semitism. The movement affirmed Article 24 of the 1920 Nazi Party Platform, which read:
“We demand the freedom of all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not jeopardize the state’s existence or conflict with the manners and moral sentiments of the Germanic race. The Party as such upholds the point of view of a positive Christianity without tying itself confessionally to any one confession. It combats the Jewish-materialistic spirit at home and abroad and is convinced that a permanent recovery of our people can only be achieved from within on the basis of the common good before individual good.”
The German Christians saw in this statement an affirmation of “Christian values” which they saw as being under attack by modernistic thought and scientific inquiry. Therefore, they supported the Nazis and advocated the racist principles embodied in the Nürnberg Laws of 1935.
In response to this attack on the sovereignty of Jesus over his church, the subordination of the church’s teaching to the political agenda and policies of the Reich and the idolatrous exaltation of the state’s reign over the reign of God, the Confessional Synod had this to say:
- Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
- We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.
- We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords–areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.
- We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.
I invite you to read the Barmen Confession in its entirety.
The Barmen Confession has been rightfully criticized for its failure to address specifically the Reich’s anti-Semitic violence and violence against religious dissenters, racial minorities and political dissidents. Our Jewish sisters and brothers point out that the confessional church, for the most part, took the shape of an internecine ecclesiastical protest rather than a frontal assault on the evils of the Nazi government. Notwithstanding their shortcomings, however, the courage expressed by Barmen’s signatories under the threat of Nazi reprisal stands in stark contrast to the appalling silence of the American Church and its leaders in the face of flagrant conflation of Christian symbols and rhetoric with the ugliest manifestations of American nationalism by white Christians and the overwhelming support of such white Christians for the racist, homophobic, misogynist and xenophobic policies of the Trump administration in accord therewith.
The nationalistic ideology of “American exceptionalism” enshrined in the very first sentence of the 2016 GOP platform states specifically: “We believe that American exceptionalism — the notion that our ideas and principles as a nation give us a unique place of moral leadership in the world — requires the United States to retake its natural position as leader of the free world. Tyranny and injustice thrive when America is weakened. The oppressed have no greater ally than a confident and determined United States, backed by the strongest military on the planet.” This dangerous notion that America, as the savior and rightful defender of the free world, justifiably wields its influence carrying a huge thermonuclear stick, meshes well with the rhetoric of religious organizations such as Christian Nationalist Alliance which asserts (among other things) that “These United States of America were founded by Christian men upon Christian tenets” and that “Islam is a heretical perversion of the Judeo-Christian doctrine and must be recognized and treated as a threat to America and Western Civilization as a whole.” Defense of “Christian civilization” has regularly been invoked to justify harassment of and attacks against Muslim Americans and to uphold an irrational and inhumane ban against refugees fleeing to our country to escape oppression and violence. Exceptionalism is wholly consistent with ideology promoted by Focus on the Family whose “Truth Project” teaches that “America is unique in the history of the world. On these shores a people holding to a biblical worldview have had an opportunity to set up a system of government designed to keep the state within its divinely ordained boundaries.” It provides the perfect conceptual framework supporting the claim of Rev. Franklin Graham that Donald Trump is in the Whitehouse “because God put him there.”
This toxic mix of nationalism and aberrant Christianity has created an environment favorable to the expression of racist, sexist and anti-Islamic sentiments and acts of hatred against people of color. It has mainstreamed white supremacy to the point where formerly fringe characters like white supremacist Richard Spencer are able to secure interviews on NPR and alt.right extremists like Steve Bannon have become fixtures in the Whitehouse. We should be concerned about this new American nationalism injected with the steroid of religious fervor. As observed by Blaise Pascal, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
Let me be clear in stating that there is certainly nothing wrong with acknowledging and celebrating the unique history and character of the United States. Nor is there anything wrong with recognizing and affirming the democratic, egalitarian ideals of freedom reflected in its constitution. The notion, however, that the United States is somehow superior to other nations, that the United States is divinely favored to dominate all other nations, that there is some fixed American culture that must be defended against “foreign” (non-western, non-white, non-Christian) influences or that the interests and ambitions of the United States and its citizens should be given “first” priority over all other peoples is entirely incompatible with the Biblical confession of Israel’s God, the God and Father of Jesus Christ who reigns over all the nations and who has given his people Israel as a light to all the nations and the church as a witness to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ for all the nations.
Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical, Testem benevolentiae nostrae, warned Roman Catholics over a century ago against “some who conceive and would have the Church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world.” Though spoken in a very different context, these words nevertheless serve as a salutary reminder that the life of the Church is to be ruled first and foremost by its Lord and not by the cultural and ideological currents of nations in which it resides as a pilgrim and a sojourner. The Jesus we confess was born to a homeless couple fleeing as refugees from genocide in their homeland of Judea across the border into Egypt. Jesus was a dark-skinned non-person living under the oppressive reign of the Roman Empire. He practiced unconditional hospitality, welcoming to his table beggar and soldier, priest and prostitute, Jew and Samaritan. Jesus taught us that the two greatest commandments that norm all others are the commands to love the one true God who chooses and liberates slaves and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. His life of sacrificial love ending in his crucifixion was vindicated by God who raised him from death. It is impossible, consistent with allegiance to Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims, for one to elevate one’s own nation, its culture and its ambitions above the well-being of one’s neighbors throughout the rest of the world.
The question, then, is: can we continue to remain silent while the name of our Lord Jesus Christ is employed to support a ban on refugees fleeing oppression to our shores, legitimize and normalize racist rhetoric, demonize gay, lesbian and transgendered persons, promote a godless ideology of American exceptionalism that puts devotion to the nation state over God’s expressed concern for the salvation of the whole world? Yes, I am aware that all of the mainline churches have issued statements condemning specific actions of the current administration such as the discriminatory ban against refugees, restrictive and family-hostile immigration policies and environmentally destructive regulations. But that only scratches the surface of our country’s sickness, a sickness that has infected the church to the depths of its soul. What we need is to name the demon of idolatry. What we need is for the American church to come together around a Barmen like confession naming and rejecting the false god of American nationalism and the America first agenda to which no one believing in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church can possibly subscribe. The American church needs to unite in affirming Jesus Christ as the “one Word of God…which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death” to the exclusion of all “other events and powers, figures and truths,” purporting to be “God’s revelation.”
Here is a poem by Rev. Martin Niemöller, a leader in the confessing church, who was imprisoned under the Nazis. His warning is one all American church leaders should take to heart.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
This Quotation from Martin Niemöller is on display in the Permanent Exhibition of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. You can find out more about Martin Niemöller by visiting the site for the Holocaust Encyclopedia.
Like last week’s reading, this lesson is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6th Century B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. For more specifics on the Book of Isaiah generally, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.
Our passage is part of a single pericope containing vss. 21-22 also. Vss. 9-20 constitute a prose interpolation mocking the worship of idols. I would recommend reading the piece in its entirety. Isaiah 44:6-8, 21-22. This is one of many “trial speeches” from Second Isaiah in which the God of Israel, as plaintiff, calls the so called gods of the nations to appear and give testimony before him. The people of Israel, as jury, must decide the case. God challenges these deities to demonstrate whether they have ever spoken a prophetic word that came to fruition. The implication is that, so far from responding to the challenge, these gods fail even to make an appearance. Thus, the Lord declares rhetorically, “Is there a God besides me?” Then, in response to silence from the absent gods, God replies, “There is no Rock; I know not any.” Vs. 8. Turning, then to the jury, God calls upon Israel to remember “these things.” “These things,” might refer to God’s saving history narrated in the Exodus story, Wilderness Wanderings or the Conquest of Canaan. More likely, however, the reference is to the courtroom proceedings in which God has decisively demonstrated that there is no other God, no other Rock than God’s self. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, (c. SCM Press Ltd 1969) p. 142. Israel must now similarly testify that God alone is God and there is no rock beside God.
Westermann rightly points out that this is not an assertion of abstract monotheism, but a response to an urgent concern on the minds of the prophet’s audience. The holy city of Jerusalem had been conquered by Babylon. The temple of the Lord had been profaned and destroyed. Did this not demonstrate unequivocally that the gods of Babylon had bested the God of Israel? How could the people ever again trust the God who failed to protect them when they cried out to him in his sanctuary? Moreover, if the prophet Jeremiah was correct, if God had indeed brought the Babylonian army upon Jerusalem as judgment for her sin, did this not mean that God was finished with Israel? Whether God was unable or unwilling to defend Israel, it amounted to the same thing. There could be no expectation of salvation from this God. So it is that the prophet begins with an assertion of God’s power to save and ends with the assurance that God has “swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist.” Israel therefore can return confidently to her God with the assurance of forgiveness and salvation. Vs. 22.
These bold assertions are as stirring as they are pastorally problematic. In truth, I cannot assure that my cancer stricken friend will experience a remission or cure. What, then, must be said about this God whose will and power to save is unhindered by any other “god” or obstacle? It is worth noting that the situation for Israel was not much different than that of my friend. The prospects for a successful return to Jerusalem and restoration of the promised land were at least as bleak as prospects of recovery from terminal cancer. It is also worth noting that the actual return, as we have said, was not accomplished in the miraculous and glorious manner envisioned by Isaiah. That may only go to show that prophets often don’t know what they are talking about. Their words are fulfilled in ways that they could never have foreseen and take on meanings generations hence that would surprise them. So perhaps we ought not to be so timid in speaking these words in the face of seemingly hopeless circumstances. Ours is only the duty to speak the word. Fulfilment is in the hands of the One whose word we speak.
This is a psalm of lament, though interwoven with the psalmist’s complaints are confessions of God’s greatness, expressions of faith in God’s steadfast love and prayers for guidance and understanding. As always, I urge you to read Psalm 86 in its entirety. Apropos to our lesson from Isaiah, this is precisely the sort of prayer in which God’s limitless power and willingness to save are brought into circumstances of seeming godforsakenness. The psalmist pelts God relentlessly with his promises, his attributes of steadfastness and compassion in an effort to persuade God to act on his/her behalf. It is as if the psalmist were crying out, “How can you not help me?”
In vs. 11 the psalmist prays that God may teach him/her his ways and to walk in God’s truth. The psalmist recognizes that his/her troubles come, at least in part, as a result of failure to discern the way in which God would have him/her walk. So the psalmist prays, “unite my heart to fear thy name.” This might also be translated, “let my heart rejoice to fear thy name.” Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 180. In any case, the psalmist is praying for more than mere knowledge. S/he seeks transformative wisdom that will enable him/her to live faithfully and obediently.
The psalmist refers to himself/herself as God’s “servant,” “slave,” the son of “God’s handmaid.” Vs. 16. That the terms are masculine do not preclude feminine authorship or usage. Such terms are stereotypical poetic phrases found throughout Hebrew verse and utilized in prayer by all Israelites. Just as a slave has no rights of his/her own and must depend on his/her master for vindication and protection, so the psalmist must rely solely on God for his/her defense. Precisely because the psalmist is helpless before his/her adversaries, God is obliged to intervene on his/her behalf.
This is a fine example of lament: prayer that reaches up on the strength of God’s promises from what is to what ought to be. It is exactly the sort of prayer uttered by creation as it awaits liberation from death and decay. Paul will have much to say about this in the following lesson.
Paul begins by restating his argument from last week. Having been baptized into Jesus Christ, we live no longer “in the flesh” or for our own selfish ends. Instead, we live “in the spirit,” that is, as friends of Jesus. To be friends or siblings of Jesus is to be children of God and thus God’s heirs. Note the stark contrast to life in the flesh that is characterized by bondage to sin and slavery under the law. Such a life is characterized by the “master slave” relationship. Life in the Spirit, however, is characterized by familial relationships. Jesus as brother, God as Father, fellow believers as siblings. That we can address God as “Abba,” the word young children use to address their fathers, testifies to the presence of God’s Spirit within us. The change brought about for us by Jesus is therefore relational. We are no longer slaves who view God through the prism of law, but sons and daughters who view God through the prism of Jesus.
So far, so good. But then comes the disturbing word: We are “heirs of God and fellow heirs of Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified in him.” Vs. 17. Commenting on this verse, Karl Barth remarks that “The action of God is the Cross, the Passion: not the quantity of suffering, large or small, which must be borne with greater or with lesser fortitude and courage, as though the quantity of our pains and sufferings would in itself occasion our participation in the glory of God. Participation in suffering means to suffer with Christ, to encounter God, as Jeremiah and Job encountered Him; to see Him in the tempest, to apprehend Him as Light in the darkness, to love Him when we are aware only of the roughness of His hand.” Barth, Karl, The Epistle to the Romans, (c. 1933 Oxford University Press) p. 301. Or, as observed by John Howard Yoder, “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c. 1972 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 129. Suffering, then, is the consequence of being fully human, as only Jesus was, in an inhuman and inhumane world.
Paul goes on to say, however, that he considers “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Vs. 18. This is not to be taken as an appeal to put up with the status quo today in hopes of seeing a brighter tomorrow. Paul insists that God’s future has broken into our present. In that respect, Commentator Anders Nygren’s reading of Paul is correct. The church lives simultaneously in two eons, the old age that is passing away and the new age whose birth pangs are even now being felt in the course of the old’s dissolution. See Nygren, Anders, Commentary on Romans, (c. 1949 Fortress Press). The joy of partaking even now in the new age dwarfs the suffering to be endured at the hands of the vanishing old order. The people of God who have been set free from sin and death to live “in the spirit” are the first fruits of what is in store for all creation. The whole creation, says Paul, “will be set free from its bondage to decay” and will “obtain the glorious liberty” now enjoyed by the children of God. Vs. 21.
Paul sums up the posture of the church in one word: “hope.” This hope is not to be construed as some groundless desire for favorable conditions in the future, i.e., “I hope the weather will be dry and sunny for the picnic next month.” The hope of which Paul speaks is grounded in the resurrection of Christ-an event that has already occurred and in which believers participate. Consequently, even our suffering is a reminder of the work of resurrection being completed in us. What the rest of the world fears as death throes believers welcome as birth pangs. Needless to say, this hope shines an entirely new light on aging bodies, dying churches, fading empires and diminishing expectations for wealth and prosperity. Things are not what they seem. If the sky is falling, it is to make way for a new heaven and a new earth.
The parable of the wheat and the weeds is coupled with its explanation quite sensibly omitting (for purposes of the lectionary) the intervening parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven. Taken by itself, the parable of vss. 24-30 might appear to refer to the problem of false disciples within the church. The prior parable of the sower and the different types of soil in last week’s lesson ended with the “good soil” producing a fruitful yield. Sunday’s lesson, which immediately follows, therefore appears to focus on what is planted in that good soil. Jesus’ explanation of that parable in vss. 36-43, however, suggests a much broader application. The field is not the church, but the world; the good seed is the “sons of the kingdom; and the weeds are “sons of the evil one.” Vs. 38. Historical critical analysis suggests that the explanation of the parable is a later interpretation of the early church imposed over the parable giving it a cosmic flavor it lacked on the lips of Jesus or an earlier disciple. As you know by now, I have no interest in the so called “historical Jesus” or in anybody’s fanciful reconstruction of the “Matthean community.” The only context we have for the parable is the gospel of Matthew in which we find it. That is the context upon which I rely for interpretation.
That said, it seems to me that whether we are speaking of persons within the church whose hearts are not fixed upon Jesus or persons in the world openly hostile to the kingdom of heaven, the principle is the same. It is not for disciples of Jesus to purify either the church or the world. Judgment, sanctification and the punishment of evil must be left in the hands of God who alone sees all ends and knows what is just. Disciples of Jesus must exercise mercy, compassion, patience and forgiveness against wrongdoing, whether it arises from within the church or from the world. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “The parable of the wheat and the tares, like all the parables, is an apocalyptic parable, but apocalyptic names the necessity of the church to be patient even with the devil. Just as Jesus was patient with Judas, so we must be patient with those who we think we must force the realization of the kingdom. Jesus’ parables tell us what the kingdom is like, which means that the kingdom has come. It is not, therefore, necessary for disciples of Jesus to use violence to rid the church or the world of enemies of the gospel. Rather, the church can wait, patiently confident that, as Augustine says, the church exists among the nations.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 133.
The church of the New Testament was understood to be a communion that transcended racial, national, social and cultural barriers. In Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28. That the church often fell short of this vision is evident from the pages of the New Testament itself. Nonetheless, for all of their quarrelsomeness and instability, Paul’s congregations appear to have reflected the diversity found within the Mediterranean population of the 1st Century. The same can hardly be said of American Protestantism in which the red state/blue state divide breaks down neatly along denominational lines. Too often our legislative gatherings turn out to be microcosms of the increasingly tiresome “culture wars” being fought in the larger society. Sadly, religion of the protestant sort has more frequently inflamed, polarized and oversimplified discussion of contentious issues than modeled a community of thoughtful reflection, truthful speech and patient listening. All of this tends to reflect impatience: impatience with a world that won’t conform to our chosen ideologies; impatience with a church that fails to live up to our romantic notions of what it should be; impatience with a God who works too damn slowly in rooting out evil. Jesus would have us meet evil with truthful speech, compassion, empathy and forgiveness. Retribution, assuming there is a need for it, can be left in God’s hands and to God’s good timing.
SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, we thank you for planting in us the seed of your word. By your Holy Spirit help us to receive it with joy, live according to it, and grow in faith and hope and love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Once again, the gospel reading for Sunday has become a victim of lexicographic malpractice. Verses 10-17 have been excised. Here they are for your reference:
“Then the disciples came and asked [Jesus], ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.’
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”
Admittedly, this is a difficult saying. It appears as though Jesus’ audience is destined to misunderstand him. The hearts of his hearers are hopelessly ossified and hardened in their opposition to the kingdom he proclaims. So why parables? And why parables that are so difficult that even Jesus’ disciples, whose “eyes see” and whose “ears hear,” fail to understand them? If even the disciples fail to grasp the parables, how can Jesus expect the crowds to get anything from them?
Perhaps our difficulty arises from failure to understand Jesus generally and his parables in particular. I have never been comfortable with the slogan, “Jesus is the answer,” the reason being that Jesus does not seem particularly interested in being or giving answers. For the most part, Jesus avoids answering the questions posed to him by his disciples, the crowds and his opponents. In so doing, Jesus is not being evasive. He is simply refusing to accept the terms in which questions are framed. He will not be cross examined.
As an attorney, I am familiar with the art of cross-examination. In a nut shell, it consists of posing your question in such a way as to get the answer you want. You don’t ever learn anything by cross-examining a witness. In fact, learning something you didn’t already know from a witness on the stand is the worst thing that can happen to a lawyer. Long before trial, a good attorney has read every transcript of all the testimony a witness has ever given, every letter, tweet or e-mail the witness has ever authored and every document the witness has ever signed. S/he knows exactly what the witness must say to avoid perjury and how to frame his/her questions to get exactly the answers s/he needs. If the lawyer is skilled and has done his/her homework, there will be no surprises on the day of trial.
Jesus’ parables are designed to surprise his hearers and get them out of cross-examination mode. He is not so much interested in providing answers as getting his disciples and opponents to ask better questions. When the lawyer in Luke’s gospel tries to pin Jesus down on who should be considered a neighbor, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, thereby forcing him to consider rather how to be a neighbor. When Jesus’ opponents question him about healing people on the Sabbath, Jesus invites them to consider whether leaving persons in pain and illness that deprives them of Sabbath rest is really honoring the Sabbath as God intended. When asked whether the kingdom of God would arrive sooner rather than later, Jesus asks his disciples instead to consider whether they have the faithful stamina to persist in prayer for that kingdom however long it might take in coming. Many of Jesus’ parables are open ended, leaving us with more questions than answers. How is the kingdom of heaven like a mustard seed? Did the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Son ever accept his father’s invitation to join the feast celebrating his brother’s return? What happened with that family going forward? Did the unfruitful fig tree, spared from the ax for one more year by its owner at the request of a servant, use this gracious reprieve to bear fruit? These are questions worth pondering and from which we might actually learn something-or learn to ask even better questions!
Unfortunately, our lust for definitive answers often gets in the way of our hearing Jesus. We find that tendency in both civil and religious discourse. “Are you pro-life or pro-choice?” “Are you for or against the death penalty?” “Is homosexuality a sin or not?” “Do you believe in evolution or creation?” And don’t give me any qualifiers, ifs ands or buts. Just give me a straight answer: “yes” or “no.” Although Jesus never addressed any of the above issues, they seem to be litmus tests of genuine Christianity in a lot of circles. I get these “gun to the head” questions all the time. I don’t even try to answer them anymore. They are coercive and unfair. In order to answer, I have to accept the all of the underlying assumptions, prejudices and misinformation these questions often imply. I am learning not to take the bait.
I have no doubt that if we addressed these questions directly to Jesus, his answers would not prove anymore definitive than his response to questions posed to him in the gospels. I think Jesus would give us parables, pose questions and force us to think differently. I believe Jesus would bring into sharp focus the deeply human aspects of real people caught up in morally, socially and religiously ambiguous circumstances. He would tell stories that put faces on the ones we judge as “the least” among us and the people we are most prone to label “sinners.” I doubt Jesus would give us the clear moral black and white answers we seek. But I am confident he would leave us asking much better questions.
Parables are for the hard of heart. They are designed to penetrate to a depth rational argument can never reach. They shatter our understandings of right and wrong, sin and righteousness, good and evil. When our convictions are too strong to be argued away through any amount of reasoned discourse, parables come in through the back door of our consciences to undermine all of which we are certain, to soften our hearts and make room for the work of the Holy Spirit.
Here’s a poem by Robert Pinsky that speaks to the way Jesus’ parables dive “deep into [the] brain to word [us] back.” As in the lessons that follow, we are left to ponder the efficacy of these words tenderly and compassionately spoken.
In the Coma
My friend was in a coma, so I dove
Deep into his brain to word him back. I tried
To sing Hallelujah, I Just Love Her So in
Ray Charles’s voice. Of course the silence grew.
I couldn’t sing the alphabet song. My voice
Couldn’t say words I knew: Because I Could
Not Stop for Death, He Kindly Stopped for Me.
I couldn’t remember the Dodgers and the Giants.
I tried to tell the stories that he and I
Studied when we were young. It was confused,
The Invisible Man was laughing at how a man
Felt History jump out of his thick fair head
And beat him half to death, as being the nightmare
Out of which Isaac Babel tried to awake.
The quiet. Next time won’t you sing with me.
Those great diminished chords: A girl I know.
The cold of the coma, lightless. The ocean floor.
I struggled to tell things back from decades gone.
The mournful American soldier testifying
About My Lai: I shot the older lady.
Viola Liuzzo, Spiro Agnew, Jim Jones.
And by the time I count from one to four
I hear her knocking. Quiet of the deep,
Our mouths are open but we cannot sing.
Source: Poetry Magazine (February 2016). Born in 1940, Robert Pinsky is one of America’s foremost poets and critics. He was elected and served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1997 to 2000. He produced a highly acclaimed translation of Dante’s Inferno and has produced several books of poetry and works of poetic criticism. During his tenure as Poet Laureate, Pinsky initiated and promoted the Favorite Poem Project under which Americans were invited to submit and record their favorite poems for archiving with the Library of Congress. The program generated a greater than expected public response. You can read more about Robert Pinsky and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
This reading is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6thCentury B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. For more specifics on the Book of Isaiah generally, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org
Our lesson is part of the closing chapter of Second Isaiah’s work. In order to get the full force of this remarkable word, you need to read the entire section beginning at verse 6. I encourage you, then, to take a minute and read Isaiah 55:6-13 in its entirety. The prophet has made his case to the exiles, pointing out the opportunity for a new start, declaring that God’s hand has opened the way for Israel’s return to her homeland and assuring the people that God will accompany them throughout their journey back to the land of Canaan with miraculous works of power just as God accompanied their ancestors from Egypt to that same promised land centuries ago.
The prophet begins with a call for the people to “Seek the Lord while he may be found.” Vs. 6. As Hebrew Scripture commentator Claus Westermann observes, this phrase is a liturgical cultic formula calling upon worshipers at the temple to approach God with sacrifices and offerings. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, (c. SCM Press Ltd 1969) p. 287. In the prophetic era beginning in the 8th Century B.C.E., it lost its connection with the Temple and began to be employed more broadly as a call for the whole people to repent and turn towards God. Ibid. Verse 7 makes more specific the content of this call:
7 …let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
Westermann and others are convinced that this verse is an interpolation from another source, the work of a later editor of Second Isaiah’s writings. Ibid at 288. However that might be, the verse nevertheless fits neatly into the call. Turning away from sin is merely the flip side of returning to the Lord. Moreover, there is a neat balance between the “wicked…way” and “unrighteous…thoughts” referenced in verse 7 above and God’s “ways” and God’s “thoughts” which are higher than those of the people. Vss. 8-9.
Verses 10-11 serve to emphasize with certainty that the prophet’s word will be fulfilled. That is a bold assertion, given that the return from exile is at this point merely an aspiration. The fulfilment of this vision is fraught with numerous obstacles and practical difficulties. Small wonder, then, that the exiled Jews are skeptical. The prophet stubbornly maintains, however, that the word of the Lord which he speaks is as sure to come to fruition as is new growth from the soil nurtured by the rain.
Second Isaiah brings his prophecies to a close with a marvelous promise that the exiles will go forth from Babylonian captivity in peace, that the mountains and hills will break forth into song and that the trees will clap their hands. Vs. 12. From a literary standpoint, one might balk at these crude anthropomorphic projections into the realm of nature. Nonetheless, the point is that Israel’s return to her homeland is not a matter merely of local geopolitical interest. It is a cosmic event in which God is at work bringing about redemption for the whole creation. That being the case, it should not surprise us that the returning exiles are greeted by a natural world hungry for God’s redemptive touch. It is only natural that the thorn withdraw to make room for the shade-giving cypress and myrtle. It is only right that this Eden-like pathway of return should stand as a memorial to this new Exodus miracle. Vs. 13.
We cannot leave our reflections here, however. While the return from Babylon to the promised land did indeed occur, it did not transpire in the way Second Isaiah had foretold. There was no return of the whole people of God. As best we can ascertain, the returning exiles made up but a tiny group of Jews. The greater part of the community remained, constituting what came to be called the “Diaspora.” Moreover, the return was not facilitated by the miraculous highway of well-watered and shaded land about which the prophet sings. Upon return, life was difficult and precarious. It took the urging of subsequent prophets and the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah to inspire the demoralized people to take up the task of rebuilding Jerusalem and its temple.
In short, when asked whether the prophetic words of Second Isaiah were fulfilled, we must answer both “yes” and “no.” There is no question that the prophet succeeded in inspiring a community to take up the call to seize an opportunity for a new beginning. Yet the fulfillment hardly lived up to the hope that Israel’s return would be accompanied by such miraculous splendor that the nations would take note and give praise to her God. In that sense, the prophecy points beyond itself into a future that even this visionary prophet could not imagine. That should not surprise us. God’s ways are higher than our ways. The word spoken by the prophet is not his own. It is God’s word. As such, there is no telling how far beyond the prophet’s own vision that word might stretch, what it might accomplish or how far into the future it might extend.
This is one of my favorite psalms. It is a song of pure praise. It asks nothing of God and expresses no desire for anything other than what God in God’s immeasurable generosity has already provided. One cannot help but be impressed with the psalmist’s confidence in God’s willingness to provide all that is needful in life. This worshiper knows nothing of the “ideology of scarcity” referenced by Walter Bruegemann cited in last week’s post. S/he knows only the god who “crownest the year with thy bounty” vs. 11. This psalm strikes a joyfully discordant note to the fearful and hateful rhetoric aimed at immigrants and refugees lately codified into law by executive order that perfectly embodies this ideology. To a sick and twisted world view shaped by the perception of the world as a shrinking pie, our psalm holds up the bold confession of a God whose giving knows no limit.
“Praise is due to thee, O God, in Zion.” Walter Brueggemaan suggests that this line is a direct polemic against any suggestion that praise is due any other deity or human ruler. Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 135. The first four verses are sandwiched between “Zion” at vs. 1 and “temple” at vs. 4 indicating that this psalm originated as a liturgy for use in the temple of Jerusalem during the period of the Judean monarchy. The people as a whole, including the king, concede guilt and celebrate God’s forgiveness. Such a public right is hardly conceivable in our culture which seems incapable of introspection, reflection upon national calamity and admission of failure. Perhaps that is why our nation has never quite come to terms with the debacle in Vietnam. It was simply impossible to concede the loss of fifty thousand American lives to a mistake. We could not bear the sight of Vietnam veterans because they were a constant reminder of the first war America ever lost. Consequently, they were virtually ignored and even stigmatized for decades. Much as the Nazis blamed Germany’s loss of World War I on betrayal within their ranks and the influence of highly placed Jews, so through the myth of Johnny Rambo and similar cinematic dramas we have placed blame for our defeat in Vietnam on weak kneed politicians, corrupt military leadership and the anti-patriotic influence of the press.
Israel’s response to military reversals was entirely different. In the first place, Israel did not glorify its warriors or credit their valor for her victories. “For not by their own sword did [our ancestors] win the land, nor did their own arm give them the victory; but thy right hand, and they arm, and the light of thy countenance; for thou didst delight in them.” Psalm 44:3. Victory belonged to God and Israel knew well that she could not presume upon God’s favor. Accordingly, when her fortunes fell on the battlefield, Israel turned to God in lament, soul searching and repentance. See, e.g., Psalm 74. This finally led Israel to conclude that “a king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.” Psalm 33:16-17. Would that Vietnam had taught us the limits of military power and the need to develop more constructive methods of dealing with conflicts rather than driving us into the dead end of self-deception and tragic repetitions of our past.
The occasion for this psalm is likely a festival or some other event when the people assembled at the temple to make thank offerings in fulfillment of vows made during the year. Given the repeated reference to fruitful harvests and healthy breading of sheep and cattle, it is possible that the occasion for this psalm was the end of a period of drought. But it is just as likely that the festival was an annual event in which prayers of thanks were offered for all blessings. A successful harvest would certainly be a common focus for thanks. Prayers for the same (accompanied by vows) would probably have been made in any given year.
In verse 7, God is said to “still the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples.” The “sea” and the “waves” are symbols of turbulence and disorder. Psalm 93:3-4. These forces are sometimes personified in the creation stories of the ancient world. We can hear echoes of such personification in Psalm 74:13-15. In this psalm, however, the tumult is chiefly that of the peoples or nations for which the tumultuous sea is but a metaphor. God’s subduing of the waters is not a violent response to any threat against God. Rather, it is a merciful act done to make the earth safe for human existence and bring the worship of Israel’s God to “earth’s farthest bounds.” Vs. 8. The remainder of the psalm speaks eloquently of God’s lavish provision through the gift of rain, productivity and fertility-all of which were regarded by the indigenous population as the province of the Canaanite Ba’als. The psalmist would have all know with certainty who is to be thanked for this successful harvest!
For the last couple of Sundays, St. Paul has been making clear to us that the law is ineffectual both in reconciling ourselves to God and in trying to live a God pleasing life. As long as we are in the grip of sin we use the law, like everything else, as an instrument of sin. Only God can free us from sin and that is precisely what God does in Jesus. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we are freed from slavery to sin and made slaves of righteousness through our union with Jesus Christ. Freedom, then, is not the liberty to do as we wish. That, according to Paul, is the worst kind of slavery. It is like a ship without a rudder, blown to wherever the prevailing wind takes it. True freedom is the opportunity and the liberty to do what is right. This freedom we find living by faith in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is important to understand what Paul means when he contrasts living “in the flesh” with living “in the spirit.” Paul does not mean to say that there is some immaterial part of us called “spirit” which is good and pure as opposed to the “body” which, being material, is evil. Paul does not denigrate the human body. In fact, he thinks highly enough of the body to use it in describing the nature of the church. The Church is Christ’s Body. See Corinthians 12. When Paul speaks of the “flesh,” he uses the Greek word, “sarx” rather than the word “soma,” meaning “body.” The flesh denotes an orientation of the self toward itself and its own interests. Such an outlook might lead one to indulge in the so-called “sins of the flesh,” i.e., sexual sins of one kind or another. More insidious, however, is what we might well label, “religious sin.” This is the sin of justifying oneself by resort to the law whether that be religious practices, adherence to morals or achieving some standard of success to prove our worth. Life in the flesh degenerates into moral anarchy or comes under the tyranny of some hierarchical system that pits the strong against the weak. Such communities of the flesh make up “the body of death” to which Paul refers in Romans 7:24.
By contrast, life in the spirit is life grounded in an intimate relationship with Jesus. To help us understand what Paul is talking about, let’s borrow a verse from John’s gospel: You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” John 15:14-15. I believe that John is saying in a different way what Paul is articulating in our reading. Life in the Spirit is characterized by friendship. Friendship does not operate on the basis of rules. In all my eighteen years of practicing law I never once came across a friendship contract! Friendship is built on mutual affection, shared interests, common priorities, loyalty and trust. The binding obligations that hold it together grow organically out of love.
We are transformed by our friendships and this is why it does not follow that, because we are no longer under the bondage of law, we are now set at liberty to sin. Such an assertion makes sense only if you believe that there are but two alternatives: law or anarchy. Paul insists that there is a better way than either of these two false alternatives. That way is friendship with Jesus. The Body of Christ is not a place where everyone is free to do what s/he wants. It is a place in which, through worship, prayer, study, mutual sharing, admonition, repentance and forgiveness we sinners are transformed into the image of Christ. It is the place where we discover the freedom to be truly human.
There is another aspect of this passage, too, that needs some clarification. Too often we have understood being “in Christ” or “possessing the Spirit” as an individual experience. Though it is in part that, Paul understands life in the spirit primarily in corporate terms. That is to say, it is within the church that the mind of Christ is formed. “’By the Spirit Christ seizes power in us, just as conversely by the Spirit we are incorporated into Christ.’ Although many exegetes remain uncomfortable with this dimension, Paul’s language throughout this passage is charismatic and ‘mystical;’ it reflects a collective type of charismatic mysticism in which God’s Spirit was thought to enter and energize the community as well as each member.” Jewett, Robert, Romans, Hermenia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, (c. 2007 Fortress Press) pp. 490-491 citing Kasemann, Ernst, Commentary on Romans (c. 1980 Eerdmans) p. 222. In sum, life in the Spirit is not a life without accountability. Rather, it is life accountable to the covenant of friendship formed with the church by God in Jesus Christ.
“You can quote the Bible to me all day and say whatever you want, but I’ve been raised to believe……..and I am not about to change my mind now!” Fill in the blank with whatever issue you please. We have all heard something like this at one time in our lives. Parents say it to their children; people in the church say it to each other and we hear plenty of that attitude in our not-so-civil discourse these days about any number of issues. My mother used to say, “There was never a mind so weak as that which is made up too strongly to change.” She was right, I am afraid, and so was Jesus when he cited the words of the prophet Isaiah in that part of the reading which the lectionary makers deemed unfit for your tender ears. Check it out at Matthew 13:10-17.
Turns out parables are uniquely designed to break through ears that will not hear and hearts that will not bend. They catch you off guard, pull you into the story, make you identify with the characters. Then, just when you think you have figured out what the parable is about, who the good and bad guys are and how the story will end-you discover you were altogether wrong. Nathan’s parable of the old man and his little lamb is a classic example. See II Samuel 12:1-15. David is feeling pretty good about himself. He stole the wife of one of his generals and had the general conveniently placed in the line of fire where he died a hero’s death. Then, in a romantic gesture of patriotic compassion for the fallen hero’s widow, he takes her into his harem. Nobody is the wiser.
But then his court prophet, Nathan, approaches him with some disturbing news. There was a poor old man with no family but a little lamb he kept as a pet. It was as a child to him. His rich neighbor, needing to feed an unexpected guest and being too stingy to slaughter one of his own many sheep, took the poor man’s lamb and served it up for dinner. David thinks he knows what this story is about and where he stands in it. This is a story about injustice in his kingdom and he is the just and righteous king that will make it right. “By God!” says David. “This beast deserves death! I’ll see that he pays back the old man fourfold. Who is this scoundrel anyway?” David has swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker. When Nathan replies, “you are the man,” it’s too late. David is hung by his own rope. Too late for excuses, too late for rationalizations. David has nowhere left to hide. That’s how parables work.
So too, I think the Parable of the Sower is deceptively simple. We all tend to think of ourselves as soil of one kind or another and begin reflecting on whether we are foot path, rocky ground, weedy dirt-or perhaps good soil. But maybe we are looking in the wrong direction. What about the sower? What sort of lame brain farmer would toss his precious seed in places where it had no chance of growing? Is this really about our receptivity? Or is it rather about the generosity of the sower and the confidence that, in the words of our reading from Isaiah: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:10-11. If the latter is the case, who are we to decide what soil is fertile and what is barren waste? Who are we to know whether the word we hear today or the one we share with another will be snatched away, withered by adversity or choked out by other distractions? Was not some of the richest soil in the world today once rocky terrain pelted over millennia by seeds that germinated, dug with their roots into rocky crevices, died and mixed with the stone fragments they displaced? Are not seeds spread to different regions by the birds that devour them? Is it inevitable that wheat must parish in the midst of tares? Perhaps this gospel parable reflects in one more way the profound generosity of our God who, like Isaiah, the psalmist and St. Paul would have us live joyfully, thankfully and abundantly.
SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, our leader and guide, in the waters of baptism you bring us to new birth to live as your children. Strengthen our faith in your promises, that by your Spirit we may lift up your life to all the world through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Someone placed a sticker on one of the traffic signs in front of my church that reads: “Spiritual people inspire me; religious people scare me.” I can’t say whether that missive was directed specifically at us, whether the anonymous poster was directed at churches more generally and ours happened to be in the path of opportunity or whether the sticker was placed without any thought about its surroundings. I take note of it, however, because it presses a distinction between “spirituality” and “religion” that is fast becoming normative. I question the validity of the distinction, however. For the life of me, I cannot imagine how anyone can traffic in spirits of any kind without being religious. Nor can I fathom how one can be religious without some connection to spirit or deity. Definitionally speaking, spiritual people are inescapably religious just as religious people are inherently spiritual. Thus, the term “spiritual but not religious” appears to me an oxymoron.
That said, I have listened to any number of people claiming to be spiritual but not religious (SBNR). However much I might disagree with their chosen terminology, I believe they are saying something coherent that deserves the church’s attention. We are being told that we are at best irrelevant to genuine spirituality; at worst, we are a hindrance to spiritual awareness/experience/growth. Though I cannot identify in their expressions of belief any other single common denominator, a few things I have gleaned from my conversations with SBNRs are worth noting.
- Not all SBNRs are millennials.
When you start saying things like, “when I was a kid,” or “back in my day,” or “kids these days…” you know that you have become an old fart. One of the hazards of being an aging baby boomer is the tendency to blame everything, including declining church attendance, on the millennials. Why not? Our parents did pretty much the same thing to us. But the fact is, disenchantment with the church cuts across the whole generational demographic. There are plenty of folks in the adult (read post 55) apartment complex where I live who do not attend church but consider themselves believers in God, morality and the afterlife. They might not use the term “spiritual but not religious,” but it amounts to the same thing. They have some measure of belief in God and they seek faith and meaning, but not in the church or any religious community structure. So SBNR is not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to the younger generation.
- Many SBNRs have had bad experiences with the church.
A lot of SBNRs have told me their stories of rejection, insult or condemnation at the hands of “organized religion.” This is frequently the case for divorced persons, single parents and gay, lesbian and transgendered people. We all know that, to our shame, there have been too many people physically and emotionally abused by clergy and other church leaders. These folks are understandably angry at the church and distrustful of its efforts to engage them. I have met a number of people now working in the various sciences whose youthful interest in cosmology, evolutionary biology and astronomy put them on a collision course with the fundamentalist doctrines of their churches. Forced to choose between a suffocating dogma that blocked their curiosity at every turn and the academic freedom offered through a secular education, they chose the latter-though at some level, they still feel a need for worship, mystery and awe.
- SBNRs often tend to distrust institutional authority
We live in an age of suspicion and skepticism about the institutions that traditionally have ordered our lives as a community. The bigger these institutions are, the less we tend to trust them. Big government, big banks, big corporations are all frequently perceived as hostile to the interests of common people. Why should big churches be viewed differently? Just as corporate bosses, politicians and Wall Street investment bankers are excoriated for pursuing wealth and power at the expense of ordinary people, so church leaders are perceived as being more interested in preserving their own institutional structures, power and influence than caring for the people they seek to bring in. Critics of organized religion frequently point to the many examples of fraud, bigotry and abuse of power by church leaders. I am often reminded of the corruption and sexual misconduct among the big name evangelists of the 1980s as well as the systemic concealment of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic hierarchy throughout the 20th Century. Sadly, we Christians have given SBNRs plenty of reasons to be skeptical of our intentions. It is not surprising that they view us with suspicion.
- SBNRs find traditional churches lacking in spiritual depth.
A lot of SBNRs tell me that they “get nothing out of going to church.” That is to say, the church does not satisfy their hunger for meaning, purpose and inspiration. For some of these folks, this is a matter of style. They drop out of more traditional mainline churches only to gravitate toward churches with more contemporary, audio-visual and interactive styles of worship. Others seek a church actively engaged in addressing issues of justice and compassion or exploring in depth the moral and ethical challenges of living in the 21st Century. Instead, they find a closed group of like-minded people whose spirituality is limited to one hour of worship on Sunday, who shy away from controversial and uncomfortable topics and whose activities include only the men’s breakfast, the women’s quilting group and the youth group’s monthly Twister championship in the church basement. They find that people in church are no different from those outside the church except for the fact that-well, they go to church.
- SBNRs are frequently uninformed concerning what the church is actually about.
Let’s face it, ours is a generation grossly ignorant of biblical and ecclesiastical traditions. More and more these days I am running into people who have never been inside of a church before, cannot name even one disciple of Jesus or identify more than three of the Ten Commandments. Much of what some SBNRs actually know about the church and the Bible comes from caricatures they see on TV or in the movies. Frequently, the media uses the term “Christian” when speaking exclusively about the most extreme right wing perversions of Christianity. Consequently, SBNRs who have had little or no actual experience with any particular congregation begin to view the whole church as an intolerant, racist, sexist and homophobic organization that rejects science in favor of simplistic interpretations of the Bible. Sadly, that is true for too much of what is identified as “Christian,” but it is not true of the church as a whole.
6. SBNRs are often spiritually open and curious people
I think it is a mistake to view SBNRs as hostile or approach them in a spirit of argumentation. It does not help to criticize their beliefs (which sometimes border on the nonsensical) or chide them for their lack of understanding or knowledge about all the good things the church does. That only serves to reinforce their perception of the church as a place where people are bullied into faith. SBNRs are generally interested in and open to discussing and learning about Jesus. They share a deep concern for morality and justice. They frequently have a keen sense of awe and wonder they yearn to express. If we can hold in our natural urge to defend the church, get past the SBNRs’ hostility toward the church as they perceive and experience it and instead listen to their concerns, I believe we will discover that we have much in common with them. Recall that many of the folks who followed Jesus were people who did not fit in very well with the religious establishment of their day. If we are patient, opportunities for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ will open up. The best way to receive a SBNR is with a listening ear.
In today’s gospel lesson Jesus receives Nicodemus in just this manner. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, fearful no doubt that his meeting with Jesus will be perceived by his fellow rulers as support for Jesus. Yet Jesus does not judge Nicodemus or accuse him of cowardice. Jesus does not demand that Nicodemus choose between his allegiance to the religious tradition from which he comes and the kingdom of God Jesus proclaims. Instead, Jesus receives Nicodemus and allows him to begin the conversation on his own terms. Their dialogue is honest, yet open ended. Jesus does not seek to silence Nicodemus’ questions with authoritative answers. Rather, he responds to his questions by prompting him to ask better questions. Nicodemus does not come away from the encounter a disciple of Jesus. Nonetheless, we find him speaking up in defense of Jesus when the rest of his colleagues would have Jesus arrested. We meet him again following the crucifixion when he comes forward to give Jesus an honorable burial, whereas Jesus’ own disciples left him to hang dead on the cross.
We never learn the final fate of Nicodemus and perhaps that is intentional on the part of John the Evangelist. Maybe John would have us wonder where Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus finally led him. Perhaps John means for us to ponder the mystery of faith and the unlikely places where it is sometimes found. It may be that John is warning us against dismissing as hostile and resistant people whose spiritual hunger has not yet led them into fellowship with Jesus. I believe we can hear in the story of Nicodemus the echo of Jesus’ words: “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.”
Here’s a poem by Michael Schmidt about faith, skepticism and a church.
When I cannot believe,
The brown herds still move across green fields
Into the tufty hills, and I was born
Higher, where I could watch them as a bird might.
When even memory seems imagined, what
Can I bring to prayer? A pair of knees.
The great faith that built a stair to heaven
As now my memory tries to climb a hill,
Becomes an old stone building, a deaf priest
Whose hand is in the pockets of his parish,
Who longs to buy a bell he’ll never hear.
The water in the font is cold, I trace
A circle on my brow and not a cross.
Source: New and Collected Poems, (c. 2010 by Michael Schmidt, pub. The Sheep Meadow Press). Michael Schmidt was born in Mexico City in 1947. He founded, edited and managed Carcanet Press Limited and served as general editor of the PN Review. He is currently a professor of poetry at the University of Glasgow (UK). You can find out more about Michael Schmidt and read more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
These verses mark a critical transition point in the Hebrew Scriptural narrative. Genesis 1-11 constitutes what might be characterized as an “overture” to the drama that will be the story of Israel. These chapters narrate God’s creation of an earth that is in all respects “good.” Yet human rebellion spoils the goodness of God’s earth, polluting it with violence. Human violence finally brings upon the earth the great flood of Noah, a judgment so catastrophic that, but for the triumph of God’s mercy over God’s wrath, it would have destroyed all. The Tower of Babel represents yet another human act of overreaching that ends with the peoples of the world divided by national identity, language and culture. We are left at the end of Genesis 11 with a humanity alienated from God, divided against itself and at war with its natural environment. It is a world under curse.
But now history takes a new turn. The overture has ended, the curtain rises and the drama begins! God calls Abram and gives him a threefold promise: a land, a people and a blessing. We know that the land referred to here is Palestine, the land of Canaan. But from Abram’s standpoint, it could have been little more than an abstraction. He had never been to this promised land, had no idea where it was or how long it would take him to get there. Abram is to become the father of many nations and, in particular, the father of a new people of blessing through which the world now under the curse of sin will find blessing. Through Abram and his offspring, the alienation witnessed in the prior chapters of Genesis will be undone. Curse will be overcome with blessing.
It is helpful to remember that the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Genesis, though perhaps ancient in their own right, were woven together into the narrative we now possess by later authors living from the time of the Israelite and Judean monarchies until after the Babylonian Exile. See post from March 5th. Thus, the stories, poems and genealogies preserved in Genesis 12-50 were selected and arranged with an eye toward illustrating their meaning and significance for Israel’s history, beginning with the exodus from Egypt and ending with the return from exile in Babylon.
With all this in mind, it is possible to see how this ancient tale of a family’s departure from the old country in pursuit of a divine promise has been able to inspire subsequent generations up to the present day. The exiled Jews in Babylon drew from this story encouragement to heed Isaiah’s call to make the long journey home to Palestine knowing that their origin lay in a single family’s decision to put its faith in the summons of its God. As we will see, Paul saw in Abram’s obedient trust in God’s promises the essence of reconciling faith in Jesus. Christian philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, also saw in Abram the paradigm of faithfulness. See Kierkegaard, Soren, Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death, translated by Walter Lowrie (c. 1968 by Princeton University Press). The story strikes a chord for all people in every age who recognize in the choices that lie before them God’s call to a deeper, more profound and significant life along an unfamiliar path filled with risk and uncertainty.
This psalm is part of a collection within the Psalter designated “Songs of Ascent.” (Psalms 120-134) While the precise meaning of this title is unknown, it is probable that these psalms were used on the occasion of pilgrimages to Jerusalem by Diaspora Jews visiting the second temple built following the return from Babylonian Exile. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 114. It is important to keep in mind, however, that although these psalms were compiled into this collection following the Babylonian Exile, the psalms themselves or portions of them might well belong to a much earlier period.
Psalm 121 is second only to Psalm 23 in popular piety. Though originally an expression of faith in God’s protection for pilgrims making the long and sometimes dangerous journey to Jerusalem from Egypt, Persia and what is now Iraq, the psalm is also a fitting expression of faith for believers in almost any circumstance.
Some scholars have suggested that the psalm was designed to be read antiphonally with verses 1 and 3 being questions addressed to the priest by worshipers at the holy place and verses 2 and 4 constituting the priest’s answers. This would necessitate translating verse 1 as a question: “If I lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence does my help come?” The second verse would need to be translated: “Your help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.” The Hebrew text does not support such a reading, however, as verse 2 continues in the first person rather than transitioning to the second person. Consequently most English translators reject this reading. Rogerson, J.W and McKay, J.W., supra at pp. 115-116.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills.” Vs. 1. This might be a reference to the “high places” where the “Ba’als” were worshiped. See, e.g., II Kings 23:5. It is also possible that the expression simply reflects the anxiety a traveler passing through a foreign land might feel looking up at the surrounding hills that could well be concealing gangs of bandits or hostile tribes. In either case, the point to be made is that Israel’s God is the source of all help and protection. Weiser, Arthur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 746.
“He will not let your foot be moved.” Vs. 3. This might be a metaphorical way of saying that God will not allow the dangers of travel to deter the pilgrim on his or her journey. It may also be taken quite literally. A broken or sprained ankle could be a death sentence for a traveler far from any source of food, water and shelter.
“Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” Vs. 4. Therefore, the pilgrim can sleep soundly and peacefully at the stops along the way of his or her journey. The Lord protects the pilgrim both from the blazing heat of the sun and also from whatever malevolent forces might flow from the moon. Like many other ancient cultures, the Israelites believed that over exposure to moonlight could bring about detrimental effects. In sum, the pilgrim can be assured that the God of Israel will “keep [his or her] going out and  coming in.” That is, God’s protection will attend the pilgrim’s journey to and from the holy city of Jerusalem.
Israel’s recognition of the temple in Zion as God’s dwelling place stands in tension over against the recognition that God cannot be contained or confined to any one place, shrine or temple. Professor of Hebrew Scripture, Bernhard W. Anderson, points out that the central sanctuary in Jerusalem is described as God’s “dwelling place,” the Hebrew word for which is “mishkanoth.” The same word is also translated as “tabernacle” or “tent.” Anderson, Bernhard, Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak to us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 197. Thus, the understanding is that God “tents” among his people. John’s gospel picks up on this concept in its prolog where the evangelist declares that the Word of God became flesh and came to “tent” (Greek “eskanosen”) among us. John 1:14. Thus, the confession that God dwells in Zion or is made present in the person of Jesus is not a denial that God is omnipresent. It is rather an affirmation that this God makes his saving presence visible, tangible and approachable to his people.
In last week’s lesson, Paul went to great lengths demonstrating that sin is not the mere breaking of law. Indeed, Paul argues, sin was in the world long before the law was given to Israel. See post of March 5th. Similarly, faith was also at work in the world before the law was given. Paul points out that we know nothing of Abram’s life prior to God’s calling him. We know only that he responded to God’s call in faith trusting in God’s promises. This faith, according to Paul, is the true righteousness. It must be understood that God is not engaging in a fiction here. It is not as though God accepts Abram’s faith in lieu of true obedience to the law-a sort of second best. Faith in God’s promises is not a substitute for true righteousness. Faith is true righteousness. Recall that Paul views sin as an inability to trust God. Whether a person seeks the righteousness/fulfillment only God can give by indulging in lust and drunkenness (as do the gentiles) or by trying to achieve righteousness through obedience to the letter of the law (as do Paul’ Jewish opponents), it amounts to the same thing: unbelief. Sin is a refusal to trust God to do for us what needs to be done.
Paul’s argument is based on Genesis 15:6 where we are told that Abram (Abraham by this point) believed God and God reckoned his belief as righteousness. Some scholars maintain that the “he” who reckons faith as righteousness is not God but Abram. The translation should then be something like this: “Abram believed God, reckoning God to be righteous.” This is a plausible translation. If accepted, it might blunt the clarity of Paul’s argument, but it does not undermine Paul’s conclusion in the least. Though Paul focuses on this particular verse in Genesis, he no doubt has in mind the larger narrative in which God promises Abram a land, a people and a blessing. He has the promise of Isaac in view and probably the terrible test Abram will someday face on Mt. Moriah. Genesis 22:1-19. Though the Torah had not yet been given, Abram lived faithfully, trusting in God’s promises. Such trust in God’s faithfulness to God’s covenant promises equates with righteousness.
The backdrop of Genesis 1-11 also comes into play. Abram, it must be recognized, was one of the “ungodly” scattered across the face of the earth in the wake of humanity’s dissolution at the Tower of Babel. He is in many ways the antithesis of Adam, the man placed in the Garden of Eden, surrounded by God’s favor on all sides. By contrast, Abram will live out his days as a wandering nomad at the mercy of hostile governments, plagued by famine and caught in the crossfire between warring kingdoms. So begins God’s history with humanity, choosing as his “light” to the nations the poor, the enslaved, the barren and the vulnerable. The world will not be redeemed from the top down. Salvation will not come through the movements of emperors and kings, but from below by persons who have none but God to save them and so learn that there is no other who can. That is how the righteousness of God is made manifest.
Nicodemus is described as a “ruler of the Jews,” most likely a member of the Sanhedrin, or so says Professor Raymond Brown. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel of John I-XII, The Anchor Bible (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 130. At the time of Jesus, the Sanhedrin was the highest governing body of the Jewish people. It was composed of Sadducees, Pharisees and lay leaders of the aristocracy. This assembly was presided over by the high priest. Ibid. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night to avoid any suggestion that he might be associated with him. Such a concern reflects a much later time in the history of the church during which the church’s chief antagonists were not the priestly Sadducees in charge of the Jerusalem Temple, but the local synagogues that became the center of Jewish life and worship after the temple’s destruction in 70 B.C.E. There is clearly a literary scheme at work here as well. The interplay between darkness and light is a recurring thread throughout John’s gospel. Darkness symbolizes the realm of evil, untruth and ignorance. Just as Judas leaves the disciples to betray Jesus entering into the night (John 13:30), so Nicodemus comes out of the darkness to the light of Jesus.
There are some interesting word plays in verses 3-8 that do not come across so well in the English translation. First, Jesus tells Nicodemus that no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born “from above,” which can also be translated born “anew.” Nicodemus assumes that Jesus is speaking of the second meaning and thus his question: “How can one who is old enter a second time into his mother’s womb?” vs. 4. Jesus is speaking rather of the new birth that comes through water and the Spirit. Vs. 5. It is important to understand here also that the Greek word for “spirit” (pneuma), like the Hebrew word (ruach), can also mean “breath” or “wind.” Thus, Jesus makes the point that, just as the wind cannot be seen or traced or controlled, so the Spirit of God blows where it wills. One born of the Spirit is one who is born into the community of Christ, the church. This dialogue, then, prefigures John’s account of the disciples’ receipt of the Holy Spirit following the resurrection when Jesus “breathed on them, and said ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” John 20:22.
The term “Kingdom of God” is commonly used throughout Matthew, Mark and Luke, but John uses it only twice and only in this chapter (vss 3 and 5). Possibly, the term is part and parcel of older oral or written traditions about Jesus that John has incorporated into his narrative without alteration. Ibid. p. 130. Or perhaps John intentionally makes this rare use of the term because it fits in with the global scope of this particular dialogue. Jesus utters in verse 16 the words we all memorized in Sunday School, namely, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whosoever believeth in him shall not die, but have everlasting life.” (KJV). It is for the entire world that God sent the Son whose reign for the sake of that world is properly described in kingdom language. Perhaps it is best to read this verse in concert with Jesus’ prayer in John 17 where the life of the church is so beautifully described as a testament to what God wills for his whole creation: that all may see in the disciples’ love for each other the love of the Father for the Son and, in the Son’s sacrifice, the Father’s love for the world.
Nicodemus is an interesting character. His is a Greek name meaning “conqueror” or “ruler of the people.” This has led some commentators to opine that he is not a real person, but only a literary foil created by John to represent the Pharisees. Consequently, we have in this dialogue a conversation not between Jesus and an individual, but between the Johanine Church and the Synagogue. Most commentators reject this view and maintain that John, while certainly speaking to his own contemporary context, is nevertheless making use of traditions received from the early apostolic ministry. As the name Nicodemus was in common use throughout the first century, there is no reason to suppose that its use here is allegorical or figurative. Nicodemus is clearly drawn to Jesus, but is not willing to become Jesus’ disciple. He pops up again in John 7:45-52 where the Sanhedrin lambasts the temple police for failing to arrest Jesus. Nicodemus suggests that Jesus is entitled to a hearing before being judged. He receives a stinging rebuke. We meet Nicodemus one last time in John 19:38-42 when, following Jesus’ crucifixion, he and Joseph of Arimathea (a “secret” disciple of Jesus), go to Pilate for permission to give Jesus a proper burial.
Whether intended or not, there is no little irony in that these “secret” followers of Jesus are the ones who find the courage to approach Pilate on Jesus’ behalf and risk association with Jesus, whereas his open followers remain in hiding. Though John criticizes believers who will not confess their faith for fear of social rejection (John 12:41-43), he does not write them off altogether. Discipleship is, after all, a journey. The seeming coward sometimes finds courage s/he never knew s/he had to do extraordinary things, while those who boast of going to the cross with Jesus fail him when the time of trial comes. John 13:37-38.