Tag Archives: hell

Sunday, July 3rd

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 66:10–14
Psalm 66:1–9
Galatians 6: 7–16
Luke 10:1–11, 16–20

Prayer of the Day: O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus, you are the city that shelters us, the mother who comforts us. With your Spirit accompany us on our life’s journey, that we may spread your peace in all the world, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

The makers of the common lectionary try to make the Bible easy for us by blunting its sharp edges, silencing its discordant voices and omitting its embarrassingly frank talk of vengeance, wrath and eternal punishment. Nowhere is the heavy hand of modernist editorial butchery more evident than in this Sunday’s gospel lesson where Jesus’ warning about the consequences of ignoring the good news of the kingdom is excised in its entirety. If you read only the lectionary’s edited version of this text, you might imagine that there are no such consequences, that it is a matter of indifference whether you believe the kingdom has drawn near or not, that Jesus’ preaching is but one of many interesting side dishes on the buffet table we call life. Take as much or little as you like-or none at all.

Not so, says Jesus. “I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town [which will not receive the disciples and their preaching of the kingdom].” Of those towns that have already rejected him, Jesus says: “ Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But at the judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades.” So read the omitted verses 12-15.

In some respects, I sympathize with the lectionary makers and, like most preachers these days, secretly wish I could thank them for steering me away from having to talk about “hell.” That term carries so much faulty metaphysical baggage. For many of my parishioners, it denotes a place created by God for the punishment of people who break his rules. In truth, God cares far less about rules than about the people rules are intended to protect. Furthermore, to the extent hell can even be deemed a work of God, it is a place for the imprisonment of the devil and all the forces of evil that destroy humanity. It was never designed for human habitation. It is the will of God that all people be redeemed-if we are to take St. Peter seriously. Nevertheless, God’s saving will notwithstanding, Jesus warns us that there are eternal consequences for turning away from God’s good and gracious will. He warns of the day when the Lord will no longer recognize his own image in the work of his hands and remark, “I never knew you. Depart from me.”

So how can we speak of this reality in a meaningful way? What exactly is “hell?” If I had to choose one word to sum it up, it would probably be the word “regret.” Nothing is quite so painful as having to live with a past you can’t change. Things I have said and done inflict pain on those I love. As much as I would like to take them all back, I cannot. Some of my sins have ended friendships, alienated family members and destroyed opportunities. Even in those many cases in which I have been forgiven by the ones I have wronged, the scar tissue remains-as does my guilt. Things are never quite what they were before and perhaps never will be. That is one way I have experienced hell.

How much more hellish does life become when one turns away the one and only person with power to re-write our stories, bring our hurtful histories into his own healing narrative and give even our sins a redemptive meaning and significance? Where would we be without the God of the second chance who seeks out the very disciples who denied, betrayed and deserted him to his death and calls them to a new beginning? Who but the one who has all eternity to work with can heal the wounds we have inflicted upon each other in the universe of time? No torment I can imagine could be worse than staring back for eternity at a fixed past of irreparable wrongs, missed opportunities and wasted living. That is the fate from which Jesus came to save us-the hell of regret.

Here’s a brief poem about regret by Paul Laurence Dunbar

The Debt

This is the debt I pay
Just for one riotous day,
Years of regret and grief,
Sorrow without relief.

Pay it I will to the end-
Until the grave, my friend,
Gives me a true release-
Gives me the clasp of peace.

Slight was the thing I bought,
Small was the debt I thought,
Poor was the loan at best-
God! but the interest!

Source: Johnson, James Weldon, The Book of American Negro Poetry (c. 1922 by Harcourt Brace & Company). Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) was one of America’s first influential African American poets. He grew up in Dayton, Ohio where he lived with his widowed mother. His poetic skill became evident already in high school. The only black student in his class, he was elected class president and class poet. Though he was never able to obtain a college education, he read voraciously. His early poetry gained the admiration and respect of influential poets such as James Whitcomb Riley. With the support of Orville Wright, then in the publishing business, Dunbar was able to publish his first book of poetry. His popularity continued to grow and in 1896 he was invited for a six month reading tour in England to present his poetry. He returned in 1897, married fellow writer Alice Ruth Moore and took a clerkship position in the U.S. Library of Congress, a job that left him time to continue his writing career. In 1902, Dunbar’s physical and psychological health began to deteriorate, leading to his eventual divorce. He became fatally ill in 1905 and died in February of the following year.

You can find out more about Paul Laurence Dunbar and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Isaiah 66:10–14

The 66th chapter of Isaiah is a complicated section of scripture possibly constructed from several sources including passages from psalms, utterances from prior prophets and material original to the prophet him/herself. The prophet of which I am speaking is Third Isaiah, the designation given by biblical scholars to the anonymous preacher who addressed the Jewish people after their return from the Babylonian exile, but before the second temple was completed. (Isaiah 56-66) The temple project was very much on the peoples’ mind at this point. The prophet Haggai was a contemporary of Third Isaiah. In his preaching Haggai urged prompt rebuilding of the temple suggesting that its completion was essential to initiating the messianic age. Haggai 2:18-23. It is but a small step from here to the false conclusion that completion of the temple by the work of Israel’s own hands could bring about this age of blessing. Against this notion, Third Isaiah makes the following remarks:

Heaven is my throne
and the earth is my footstool;
what is the house that you would build for me,
and what is my resting-place?
All these things my hand has made,
and so all these things are mine, says the Lord.
But this is the one to whom I will look,
to the humble and contrite in spirit,
who trembles at my word.  Isaiah 66:1-2.

God does not need a temple in order to save Israel. At most, the temple is a symbol of God’s presence given as a reminder to Israel that the Lord is always in her midst. Moreover, as the prophets throughout the Hebrew Scriptures point out repeatedly, properly performed worship is an abomination when practiced without an obedient and faithful heart. E.g.Amos 5:21-24Isaiah 1:10-17Jeremiah 6:20.

Whoever slaughters an ox is like one who kills a human being;
whoever sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck;
whoever presents a grain-offering, like one who offers swine’s blood;*
whoever makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like one who blesses an idol.

Isaiah 66:3

The prophet is making the point that neither the rebuilding of the temple nor proper temple worship will move God to save Israel. But then the prophet changes his/her tone and addresses those who “tremble at [God’s] word.” Isaiah 66:5. It is possible that the people to whom the prophet is speaking are a persecuted minority among the exiles, perhaps a sect of believers within the post-exilic community similar to the Rechabites who lived in Judah prior to the exile (See Jeremiah 35). It is also possible that the prophet is speaking more generally to the faithful core of believers among the exiles who hold a proper understanding of faithfulness and obedience. In either case, the prophet goes on to deliver a startling oracle of salvation:

Listen, an uproar from the city!
A voice from the temple!
The voice of the Lord,
dealing retribution to his enemies!
Before she was in labour
she gave birth;
before her pain came upon her
she delivered a son.
Who has heard of such a thing?
Who has seen such things?
Shall a land be born in one day?
Shall a nation be delivered in one moment?
Yet as soon as Zion was in labor
she delivered her children.
Shall I open the womb and not deliver?
says the Lord;
shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb?
says your God.

Isaiah 66:6-9. The voice sounds “from the temple,” leading some scholars to conclude that this section of the oracle refers to a later time when the temple had already been completed and worship resumed. But that is not necessarily the case. It would be quite in character with the prophecy for God to speak from an as yet unfinished temple to make the point that its completion is not necessary to enable God to speak, act or save. God works independently of the temple. If we assume that the prophet is speaking to a group within the larger exilic community, then the birth analogy suggests that this community is the “womb” from which God will deliver his new and redeemed people. That sets the context for Sunday’s lesson, an exclamation of praise calling upon the hearers to “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her.”

Remarkable here is the feminine imagery used to describe God’s care for Israel, which is likened to infants sucking at God’s breast. “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” Vs. 13. Such a word of comfort was no doubt very much needed by this community within a community sharing not only the brunt of persecution from hostile inhabitants of the land against the Jewish population generally, but persecution from their fellow Jews as well. The hope sustaining them, though ridiculed now, will ultimately be vindicated when God acts to restore Jerusalem. Be patient, Oh people. Hang onto your hope. It will not be disappointed.

Psalm 66:1–9

This is a psalm of praise containing two distinct parts. Verses 1-12 constitute a liturgy of praise offered by the worshiping assembly extolling the majesty of God made manifest in his “terrible deeds” and his “great…power.” Among these deeds is the Exodus from Egypt and God’s salvation of his people from the armies of Pharaoh at the Red Sea. The worshipers affirm God’s faithfulness by testifying that God “has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.” The reading for Sunday comes from this section of the psalm.

It is important to be aware of the second section in order to appreciate what may be going on here. Verses 13 to 20 constitute a hymn of thanksgiving offered up by an individual who has experienced God’s salvation in his or her own life. It is possible that verses 1-12 served as a liturgical invocation offered up by the assembly as a preface to individual prayers of thanksgiving for specific saving acts toward particular worshipers accompanied by a sacrifice in the temple. So says at least one commentator. Weiser, Artur The Psalms, a Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1962 SCM Press), p.468. Other commentators maintain that it is just as likely that the psalm is a unitary prayer offered by a single individual who prefaces his own thanksgiving with a more general hymn of praise for God’s saving works on behalf of all Israel. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary, (c. 1977, Cambridge University Press), p. 76-77.  Either interpretation would be consistent with Israel’s understanding of prayer as grounded in God’s covenant faithfulness to his people. Indeed, God can be relied upon even in the absence of any saving act on the personal level because God has proven faithful to Israel throughout her history. See, e.g, Psalm 74:12-17Psalm 77:11-15. For this reason, the petitioner can be confident that his/her prayers have been heard by a God who is both willing and able to save.

This hymn is a reminder that we live in the narrative of God’s mighty acts of salvation. The believer is strengthened by the conviction that his or her individual life is a microcosm of the greater story of God’s saving work in biblical history that ends with liberation from sin, death and the devil. That, too, is why I recommend without fail: two psalms per day, one in the morning and one at night.

Galatians 6: 7–16

This lesson constitutes Paul’s final summation of his argument against his opponents. For more background on them, see my post from Sunday, June 2nd. Paul suggests here that the motives of his opponents in seeking to compel the Galatian believers, who were gentiles, to be circumcised was to avoid criticism and escape “persecution for the cross of Christ.” This may well be so, but there might have been more to it than that. Perhaps Paul is not giving his opponents a fair break. Maybe they were not merely trying to avoid persecution but also were genuinely concerned about keeping the bridge between the Jesus movement and the rest of Judaism open. It may be that they saw their work in terms of preserving the unity of the church and its vital connection to its Jewish roots. I suspect something like that was Peter’s motivation in the conflict with Paul at Antioch. See Galatians 2:11-21. Is that so very wrong?

There is no question that the church is called to express the unity of Jesus with the Father as John’s gospel teaches and to live as a single body as Paul maintained. Division within the church diminishes its witness to the world and undermines our belief in “One Lord, One Faith, One Spirit and One Baptism.” Ephesians 4:4-6. Yet although Paul was a strong proponent of unity within the Body of Christ, he understood that true unity in the Spirit cannot be built upon anything less than Jesus Christ. If the foundation is flawed, the building will not stand.

The question addressed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians is very much alive in the church today. Our church’s decision to begin ordaining women to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the 1970s clearly raised another barrier to reconciliation with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. It has been argued that our more recent decision to welcome gay and lesbian people into that ministry has divided not only our own church body but may further complicate ecumenical relations with other churches. That may very well be so. But if the price of unity is shutting the door to people the Holy Spirit is calling to minister among us, then the price is too high. We cannot afford to sacrifice the good and liberating news Jesus brings to anyone on the altar of a false and ill founded unity.

Luke 10:1–11, 16–20

Last week Jesus “set his face” to go to Jerusalem where we know he will accomplish his saving “exodus” for his people through his suffering and death. That determination has already cost him the loyalty of the Samaritans and has sharpened the demands of discipleship. Now he sends out seventy of his disciples to go before him on his itinerary to Jerusalem proclaiming that “the reign of God has drawn near.” This reign of God is not a future promise/threat. It is a present reality. The number of seventy (seventy-two in some New Testament manuscripts) signifies completion. It might also be an allusion to Moses’ selecting seventy elders to share his burden of leading the people of Israel through the wilderness. Numbers 11:16-30 (Again, seventy-two elders according to the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint). Some scholars see an allusion to the list of nations in Genesis 10-11 numbering seventy, thereby foreshadowing the mission to the gentiles that will come to fruition in the Book of Acts.

The time of harvest has arrived. This is an image heavy with eschatological or “end times” significance. Nothing remains but to reap the fruits. There is a sense of urgency here echoing Moses’ injunction to the children of Israel to eat the first Passover meal with haste (Exodus 12:11) and Elisha’s command in sending his servant Gehazi to the home of his patron, the Shunammite woman whose son had just died: “If you meet anyone, do not salute him; and if anyone salutes you, do not reply.” II Kings 4:29.

Jesus is sending the disciples out as lambs among wolves. There is some irony here in that the reign of God is characterized as an age of peace in which the wolf and the lamb dwell together in harmony. Isaiah 65:17-25. The disciples are to share this peace with the towns to which they are sent. Yet although the peaceful reign of God is a present reality, because it is present in the midst of a sinful and violent world, that reign of God takes the shape of the cross. The disciples can anticipate hostility and rejection.

The disciples are sent out with no provisions for their journey. They are to depend solely upon the hospitality of the towns and villages to which they preach. It should be noted that the practice of hospitality toward traveling apostles and prophets was widely practiced in the early church-and was sometimes abused as noted in theDidache, an ancient teaching document from the second century.

But concerning the apostles and prophets, so do ye according to the ordinance of the Gospel. Let every apostle, when he cometh to you, be received as the Lord; but he shall not abide more than a single day, or if there be need, a second likewise; but if he abide three days, he is a false prophet. And when he departeth let the apostle receive nothing save bread, until he findeth shelter; but if he ask money, he is a false prophet.” Didache 11:3-6, Translated and edited by J. B. Lightfoot.

Jesus’ instruction to the disciples to remain in one house rather than going “from house to house” might be an injunction against exploiting hospitality.

That the mission of the seventy depends upon hospitality goes a long way toward explaining why Jesus warns that, for those refusing to show such hospitality to the disciples and rejecting their message, the result will be judgment more severe than Sodom’s. Vs. 12. The ancient city of Sodom was destroyed largely for its hostility to strangers and failure to show hospitality to God’s angels. How much more shall the towns and villages rejecting God’s messiah incur the wrath of God! This wrath of God is simply the flip side of God’s passionate love. Is it not the case that the people with the greatest capacity to hurt us, wound our hearts and incite us to anger are those we love most deeply? God’s love for his covenant people is not an emotionless philosophical abstraction void of all feeling. God’s love is fierce, passionate, jealous and relentless.

This lesson brings into sharp focus what is at stake here. For all who accept it, the reign of God is “peace.” For all who reject it, the dawn of this reign is judgment. But the message is the same for the receptive and the recalcitrant: “The reign of God has drawn near to you.” The “peace” the disciples are called to share is not simply the absence of conflict. It is the reconciliation of all things and all peoples with their God. It is well being for all of creation, the equivalent of the Hebrew word, “shalom.” The only alternative to such peace is enmity, hostility, division and finally self destruction. You are either with the reign of God or against it. There is no middle ground upon which to stand. The disciple’s mission is therefore a matter of life and death.

Sunday, February 22nd

 

FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, heavenly Father, in the waters of the flood you saved the chosen, and in the wilderness of temptation you protected your Son from sin. Renew us in the gift of baptism. May your holy angels be with us, that the wicked foe may have no power over us, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

We lost the war against terror the minute it was declared. By christening it “the war against terror,” we acknowledged that our enemies terrify us. Furthermore, what terrifies us most is our enemies’ willingness, indeed, eagerness to die in the fight. That willingness renders impotent all of our superior military might. “National security” through military readiness rests on the premise that our enemies want to live just as badly as we do. If they know that attacking us will earn them a swift and deadly reprisal, they will resist the impulse to do us wrong. But what if the enemy does not fear death? What if the enemy views death in the struggle as a glorious testimony to his or her cause? What if our enemies celebrate the death of their comrades rather than lowering the flag half mast and entering into collective acts of mourning? What if they regard their losses as triumphs rather than tragedies? Threats of firepower are useless against an aggressor willing to strap a bomb onto his body and detonate.

It was this very willingness to die that rendered the Roman Empire impotent in the face of the early church. Rome maintained its supremacy by assertion of its overwhelming power and its willingness to use it ruthlessly. The cross was the ultimate symbol of terror. The crucifixion of rebels in public sent a very clear message. Don’t even think about messing with us. It worked too-as long as Rome’s subjects continued to value their lives above all else. But then one day a little known rabbi from a backwater province of the Roman Empire went willingly to the cross. He did that because he loved the kingdom of his heavenly Father more than his life. He was not the last. More would follow. Members of this new community of believers in the rabbi from Nazareth all loved the kingdom he proclaimed more than they feared the empire. They turned the empire’s symbol of terror into a symbol of victory over death. No torture, no threat of violence could deter them. Rome had no leverage against this people who had lost their fear of death. Rome’s legions were powerless against this new threat to its supremacy.

In the same way, I believe we are learning that raw power cannot overcome the likes of Al qaeda, ISIS, Al Shabaab and Boko Haram. They know very well that we outnumber, out gun and out money them. They understand that we can kill more of them than they can kill of us. But they also know that, when push comes to shove, we want desperately to live. We want to be safe and secure. They know they can take that away from us. They already have. No matter how many bombs we drop and no matter how many of their people we kill, they know that they have us running scared. We are the ones hiding behind security measures that affect every aspect of our lives from traveling by air to renewing our driver license. We are the ones looking over our shoulders, panicking whenever we notice an abandoned back pack and fretting over the unstable financial markets created by their disruptive acts. The war against terror is already lost because we are afraid and they are not.

This week disciples of Jesus will be receiving the sign of the cross in ashes upon their foreheads. Let’s stop and ponder what this might mean in the context of a fruitless war against terror that was lost the day it began. We are dust and to dust we return. But we worship the God who once breathed the spirit of life into lifeless dust and formed a living being. So death is not the worst thing that can happen to us. Kayla Mueller, the young woman who died recently while a captive of ISIS, was one of the few people who understood this. Kayla joined the campus Christian ministry at Northern Arizona University where she immersed herself in social action. She worked nights at a women’s shelter as a volunteer and started a chapter of Amnesty International on her campus. She traveled to Israel where she spent a summer volunteering at a camp for young African refugees. While there, she traveled to Israel’s occupied territories to show support for Palestinians. Kayla went on humanitarian missions to Guatemala and India. She knew well the risks she was taking when she traveled to Turkey and finally to Syria to work among refugees of that troubled region. Little has been said in the media about Kayla’s faith, but an excerpt from one of her writings speaks volumes: “I find God in suffering,” she wrote. “I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.” “Remembering the remarkable Kayla Mueller” by Dana Milbank, The Washington Post, February 13, 2015.

While certainly sad and regrettable, Kayla’s death was not tragic. It was, rather, a testament to the precious hope for which she lived. Dr. Martin Luther King once remarked that a man for whom nothing is worth dying has nothing for which to live. Jesus said much the same thing when he told his disciples that whoever seeks to save life must be ready to lose it; and whoever loses life for the sake of the good news of the kingdom of heaven will surely gain it back again. The truth of the matter is that terrorism exists only for terrified people. Once death has lost its sting, terrorism loses all leverage. The ashes on our foreheads remind us that death is no tragedy. The real tragedy is life lived in persistent fear of death. That is the bondage from which Jesus frees us.

So while I have little hope for any positive outcome to the so-called war on terror, I am greatly inspired by Kayla Mueller and the millions of unsung heroes of faith like her who strap onto their bodies the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the spirit and then travel to the most violent places on the face of the earth to detonate for the gentle and peaceful reign of God. See Ephesians 6:13-17. Against faithful disciples wielding such weapons neither the terror of Rome, the might of nation states nor the violence of extremists can hope to prevail.

Genesis 9:8-17

The first eleven chapters of Genesis are best understood as an “overture” to the biblical story of Israel, beginning with the call of Abram and Sarah in Genesis 12:1-3. There God calls Abram to leave everything behind and follow God’s leading into a land that will one day belong to his descendants. More importantly, Abram’s descendants are to become a nation by which all nations will find blessing. As Professor Terence Fretheim points out, “[t]he first eleven chapters of Genesis explain in advance why all the families of the earth need the blessing of God. [They] define the universal condition of sin that explains Israel’s particular history. Why God chose Israel, the election of the people of Israel, has meaning only against this universal background. Israel can make sense of her own history only in relation to God’s creation, judgment, and preservation of all mankind.” Fretheim, Terence, Creation, Fall, and Flood, Tower Books, (c. 1969 by Augsburg Publishing House) pp. 17-18. These themes of creation, judgment and preservation are introduced and interwoven into the opening chapters of Genesis. It is important to understand from the start that judgment always serves God’s larger aims of creation and preservation. Even that most terrible of all judgments, the Great Food, serves in the end to preserve the earth through the establishment of a new covenant between God and God’s creation.

The Flood story found in Genesis 6-9:19 is a complex and layered narrative put together from two different and sometimes conflicting versions of the event. For some background on the composition of the first five books of the Bible generally, see the online article on the Documentary Hypothesis I have cited previously. Here it is enough to note that the full text is far too long for reading in a typical protestant worship service. That is unfortunate, because our lesson cannot be appreciated fully apart from an understanding of the larger narrative. The story begins with God’s observation that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Genesis 6:5. God was “sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’” Genesis 6:6-7. There are a couple of things worth noting here. First, though God’s grief is induced by human evil, God resolves to blot out not only human beings, but all other creatures as well. The animals appear to be “collateral damage.” Like non-combatants who, through no fault of their own, happen to be standing in front of a military target, the animals will be caught in the crossfire of God’s war on humanity. Tragic and unfair as it may be, this is war after all. Any good Niebuhrian realist would understand.

Second, there is one slight wrinkle. “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” Genesis 6:8. Surely Noah at least must be saved. Of course, because “it is not good for the human being to be alone” (Genesis 2:18), it will not do to let Noah’s wife and children perish in the coming judgment. Furthermore, the animals are both partners and sustainers of Noah’s existence. So God commands Noah to build an “ark” to shelter himself, his family and two pairs of each animal (or seven, depending on the source) throughout the coming flood. If you read with care Genesis 6:14-22, you will discover that the “ark” Noah was commanded to build is definitely not a large ship. It was, as the term implies, a great enclosed box. That is precisely what was required under the circumstances.

According to the first creation account in Genesis 1:1-2:4, God placed the earth between two huge vaults of water, one “above the heavens” and the other “under the earth.” Genesis 1:7-9. So when we read in Genesis 7:11-12 about how the “fountains of the great deep burst forth and the windows of heaven were opened,” it becomes clear that the flood was not simply an abnormally heavy rainfall that covered the earth with water. God was dismantling the infrastructure of creation, allowing the waters to prevail over the earth and so returning everything to a “formless void.” Genesis 2:2. Obviously, a boat would have been useless in such a catastrophe!

But in the middle of God’s demolition project, something remarkable happens. “God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark.” Genesis 8:1. Where will Noah, his family and the animals be when there is no more being? How can they live without the creation which once sustained them? It seems God must choose between saving the last of his creatures and carrying out his design to blot out all that he has made. It is at this point that God drives the waters from the face of the earth with a wind, shuts up the fountains of the deep and closes the windows of heaven. Genesis 8:1-3. God turns away from God’s destructive intent. God reverses course and heals the creation. That is the context for Sunday’s lesson. God makes a covenant with the whole creation, promising “never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” Genesis 9:11. Again, this is more than just a promise to limit the destructiveness of ordinary weather phenomenon. God is promising never to exercise the “nuclear option” against creation. That is why all of the Bible banging nincompoops threatening us with “Left Behind” type scenarios are chuck full of buffalo chips. At the dawn of history God lay down God’s bow and determined once and for all not to be the sort of angry, vengeful, mean spirited deity that most of humanity makes him out to be.

I have said many times that pacifism is not a tangential subtheme in the scriptures, inspirational for monks, nuns and starry eyed idealists but of no use to practical “worldly” Christians. To the contrary, God’s unequivocal rejection of violence is at the heart of the Hebrew Scriptural witness. It is founded in God’s refusal to be a God who reigns through the exercise or threat of violence. God will suffer violence rather than inflicting it upon his creation. You might say that here, in the very first covenant made with all creation, God first takes up the way of the cross. That way will be embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Psalm 25:1-10

This is another of the “acrostic” psalms. The others are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. The first word of the first verse begins with the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The first word of the second verse begins with the second letter and so on through the alphabet. In addition to assisting a new reader in learning her ABCs, this style of composition assists in memorization of the psalm. Memorization is critical in a culture where the vast majority lack reading skills and books are readily available only to priests. Stylistic similarities between this psalm and Psalm 34 suggest that they might have been composed by the same author, though I would exercise caution in making such a judgment. The stylistic conventions used by the psalmists were very likely shared widely so that their appearance in multiple psalms by different authors would not be unexpected.

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

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

1 Peter 3:18-22

For my more extensive comments on this section generally, see my post of Sunday, May 25, 2014. Sunday’s reading is one of the more obscure snippets of scripture. It is perhaps the only New Testament reference to Jesus’ descent into hell (or to the dead, if you prefer) referenced in the Apostle’s Creed. To begin with, I believe it is important to point out that “1 Peter 3:18 is not saying that Christ’s body died but his soul was resurrected; it is saying that although from a human point of view he was put to death, he was given life in and by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, in the realm where death has no dominion. Though it may appear that the religious and civil authorities won, the real victory belongs to God.” Judith Jones, Professor of Religion, Wartburg College and St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Waverly, Iowa on workingpreacher.org. The “angels, authorities and powers” made subject to Jesus are not mere abstractions. As pointed out by Walter Wink, the “powers and authorities” are embodiments of the “domination system” of oppression upheld by the myth of “redemptive violence.” Wink, Walter, The Powers that Be, (c. 1998 by Augsburg Fortress) pp. 57-62. In Jesus’ day and in that of the New Testament church, these powers consisted mainly of the Roman Empire and its bureaucratic/militaristic machinery. Today these authorities and powers are frequently embodied in the governments of nation states, in the corporate powers controlling health care, access to capital and exploitation of the earth’s resources and in a consumer culture dictating our values and priorities.

Our understanding of Jesus’ descent into hell therefore requires us to refrain from over spiritualizing. “Hell” is less a place of eternal punishment for disembodied souls as it is the position of all who find themselves victims of the domination system. It is the place of those branded “sinners” by the religious establishment; “unclean” by reason of sickness; “godless and ignorant” by virtue of their lack of access to education; “idle” because they are unable to find employment; abandoned by God as evidenced by their shameful and public execution under the laws of the state. These are the imprisoned ones for whom Jesus descended into hell in order to proclaim the good news of God’s triumph over the powers that enslave them.

I firmly believe that Jesus’ descent into hell belongs in the Creed. Moreover, I favor retaining the word “hell” rather than “descent to the dead,” notwithstanding the fact that a more literal translation of the Greek text favors the latter. “Hell” aptly describes what a high school boy often experiences when he discovers that he is gay and has no safe place even to talk about his feelings, fears and hopes. It describes the gut wrenching terror felt by the parent of a child with cancer whose insurance company denies coverage for life saving treatment. Hell is what returning soldiers experience when they discover that they cannot leave the horrors of war buried in the sands of Iraq or the caves of Afghanistan as they try to resume civilian life as usual. People who say there is no hell have never seen what a teenage girl can do to her body after being convinced by pop culture’s false notions of beauty that she is ugly. The bad news is that hell is real. The good news is that Jesus has descended into that godforsaken place to break its hold over the spirits imprisoned there.

Mark 1:9-15

Matthew and Luke both tell us in detail about the temptations Jesus faced. Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-12. Mark tells us nothing more than that Jesus was tempted by the devil for forty days. As we have already seen, Mark’s gospel has Jesus moving with urgency and breakneck speed. Jesus goes “immediately” from one place to the next, one confrontation to the next. Suddenly, in the midst of this maddening pace of his life and ministry, Jesus is driven out to live in the wilderness for forty days.

I don’t know, but I suspect that one temptation Jesus faced was to get himself out of the wilderness prematurely. Who can blame him? Forty days is a long time to be out in the wilds where there is no cell phone reception, no internet access and no hope of getting anything productive accomplished. I suspect that Jesus wanted some direction, some sense that he was getting somewhere, some idea of how far he had to go and how much longer it was going to take. But when you are in the wilderness, you can only take each day as it comes. You will get there when you get there-wherever “there” is. In the meantime, you have to adapt to whatever terrain you pass though, deal with whatever wild beasts come your way and be content with whatever you find along the way to satisfy your needs. That sounds like a heck of a way to live.

Yet it describes well the way many of us live for much of our lives. For many of us, grief is a kind of wilderness. If I have learned anything about grieving over the years it is this: grief takes a different shape for each loss and every individual’s journey through it is unique. I never say to a grieving person, “I know what you are going through” because, in fact, I do not. After more than three years, I still struggle with the loss of my parents. That grief has only recently been compounded by the death of my grandson last summer. I am still not back to normal, whatever normal may be. I doubt that I ever will be normal again, if normal is the way I was before all of these losses occurred. There is a strong presumption out there in society that I ought to be “over” all this by now. If not, then I ought to seek counseling, therapy or something else to “fix” what is wrong with me and get me back up to speed. “It’s time to move on.” That is the common modern mantra. But people who live in the wilderness understand that life cannot be conformed to schedules, “to do” lists and strategic planning. They know that there are powers much greater than self in the universe and that they are as much driven as they are driving.

Mark does give us one small piece of information we don’t find in Matthew or Luke. We read that Jesus was “with the wild beasts.” Vs. 13. If you are going to spend any time in the wilderness, the true wilderness, you need to be comfortable with the idea of being always in the presence of wild, carnivorous beasts. That takes some getting used to, because our culture is geared toward fencing out wild beasts. We desperately want to live in a secure, gated neighborhood where tragedies don’t occur, where families never fracture, where people never die. That is why people on magazine covers, even the AARP bulletin, are young and vibrant rather than old and infirm. That is why sitcom families always manage to work out all their problems in sixty short minutes-less the commercials. That is why we treat sadness with a trip to Disney World, a shot of scotch or medication rather than embracing and trying to understand it. You have a right to be happy. It’s written into the Declaration of Independence. So if you are not happy, if you are not satisfied, if you are not content in your marriage, your job or your neighborhood, something must be wrong. Something needs to be fixed. You need to get yourself a life coach. You need to get out of the wilderness and back on track.

It is significant, I believe, that Jesus’ temptation comes hard on the heels of his baptism. To be told that you are God’s child is a mind blowing experience. It is not surprising that Jesus would need at least forty days to sort all of that out and decide what it means. Perhaps that is what baptism is like (or should be like) for all of us. We are ripped out of the fabric of our family, cultural and societal identities and reborn into this new regime in which God alone reigns. We spend the rest of our lives figuring out what that means. The Lenten journey affords us a good opportunity for reminding ourselves that we are in many respects still lost in the wilderness, still clueless about the kingdom and have much to learn from Jesus.

Sunday, November 9th

TWENTY SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Amos 5:18–24
Psalm 70
1 Thessalonians 4:13–18
Matthew 25:1–13

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God of justice and love, you illumine our way through life with the words of your Son. Give us the light we need, and awaken us to the needs of others, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

I love the parable in our gospel lesson about the ten maidens for at least this reason: that it inspired one of my mother’s favorite hymns, “The Bridegroom Soon Will Call Us.” The first verse goes like this:

The Bridegroom soon shall call us;

Come, all ye wedding guests!

May not his voice appall us

While slumber binds our breasts!

May all our lamps be burning

And oil be found in store

That we, with Him returning

May open find the door!

The Lutheran Hymnal # 67 verse 1. Mom always insisted on singing all seven verses at our family devotions held around the dining room table during the Advent season. She left specific instructions that the same should be done at her funeral. I regret that this hymn from the old “blue hymnal” did not make the cut for all the subsequent hymn books we have produced over the years. Like the parable to which it refers, this hymn paints a portrait of joyful anticipation and hope.

There is one detail in Jesus’ parable, however, that has always bothered me. You know the story. There were ten maidens gathered at the door of what was soon to be the site of a grand wedding celebration. Their task was to go out and meet the bridegroom and escort him with lanterns to this joyful event. Five of the maidens were “wise” in that they brought with them additional oil for their lanterns. The other five were “foolish” and brought only what their lanterns could hold. The bridegroom was delayed in coming and the maidens all slept. Suddenly, at midnight, the cry went up: “the bridegroom is coming!” The maidens all rose from sleep and trimmed their lamps, but the foolish soon discovered that they were out of oil. Turning to the wise, they asked them to share their abundance of oil with them. But the five refused, arguing that they had only enough for themselves. The foolish were then forced to go into the town and purchase more oil. While they were away, the bridegroom came and everyone present went into the celebration. The five maidens, arriving late on the scene, were denied entrance.

The actions of the five wise maidens in refusing to share their oil has always struck me as contrary to everything Jesus ever taught. The argument that there was insufficient oil to go around seems to fly in the face of the logic of the loaves and the fishes. Moreover, the bridegroom’s refusal to allow the late coming maidens into the wedding banquet for an oversight so seemingly insignificant appears harsh on its face. I am sorely tempted to preach on one of the other lessons this week.

But something tells me that I should resist this temptation. It is often the hard words of Jesus that are the most edifying and life giving when one has the courage and patience to listen to them. So I find myself asking some difficult questions of this parable. Are there aspects of the gospel that simply cannot be shared? Is it possible to wait too long before preparing for the bridegroom’s coming? Is it possible for a soul to become so warped and distorted by the false values of the world that God, its Maker, can no longer recognize anything of God’s image in it? Is it possible that one can become so thoroughly estranged from God that God must finally say, “I no longer recognize you”?

I have come to believe that there are some things that cannot be shared, or at least they cannot be hastily transferred. A mature faith is one of those things. The confidence I now have in Jesus (frail and incomplete as it still is) did not come to me all in a flash. That confidence grew over a life time of failure and forgiveness; arrogance leading to over confidence leading to humiliation and forgiveness again. I came to trust in Jesus through facing dangers with him that seemed too fearful to endure, but with his help, somehow I endured. I came to believe in Jesus during my travels through grief, loss and suffering where I found him a trustworthy companion and friend. Most importantly, I have learned faith through living in a community of faith where faith was modeled for me in the lives of ordinary saints. I also have learned that I cannot give such faith to people lacking it when crisis looms. It cannot be obtained through a crash course on the internet. Though I would be the last to say that death bed conversions are impossible, I have never seen one and doubt very much that they are common occurrences. Faith adequate for the long haul takes time. It takes a lifetime to prepare for the coming of the Bridegroom!

The five foolish maidens were not evil or immoral. At worst, they were careless, thoughtless and lacking in foresight. I suspect that they had a lot on their minds as they were preparing for the wedding banquet. Then, as now, a wedding was a big deal. There were a lot of details to be seen to. Preparation of the lanterns was perhaps low on the list of priorities. The five “foolish” maidens probably figured that, if everything went as planned, there would be plenty of oil to see them through the festivities. But therein lies the fatal flaw. Everything would not go as planned. It never does. Not with weddings, not with life. Plans go awry. Dreams get busted. Tragedy intrudes into the festivities. So do you have what it takes to go the distance? Have you given the Spirit enough space and time to form in your heart a faith that will carry you through until the bridegroom arrives? “If not now, when?” Hillel the Elder.

Finally, we must ask the most difficult question of all. Is it ever too late? I would like to believe not. When we confess that Jesus descended into hell, I think we are saying that if there is such a place of separation from God, even there Jesus is striving to reconcile the lost to himself. I would like to believe that Jesus will not depart from hell until he has emptied it, shut it down and turned off the lights. Yet it seems that the five foolish maidens have in their misplaced priorities and careless distraction become so thoroughly unrecognizable to the bridegroom that they cannot gain access to the wedding feast. It may be that a creature can so ruin the divine image in which s/he was created that s/he is no longer recognizable as God’s creature. Because Jesus’ parable suggests that terrible possibility, we need to take it seriously. Nonetheless, this is never a judgment we can pass on any individual, nor can we presume that God will so judge anyone. The end is not yet. The final chapter has not been written for anyone’s story. For that reason, we have no choice but to view all people as the ones for whom Jesus died and thus deserving of our compassion, kindness and hope.

Amos 5:18–24

The prophet Amos had two strikes against him. First off, he was not properly ordained according to ecclesiastical guidelines. Second, he was a foreigner and we all know how people feel about them. Now to be perfectly clear, Amos was not altogether foreign to the Northern Kingdom of Israel to which he preached. He was a native of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Recall that Israel and Judah were both descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel that came up out of Egypt. They had once been a single nation under the reign of David and then Solomon. After the death of Solomon, the kingdom split. Thus, the north and the south, despite their political differences, shared a common ancestry, language and faith in Israel’s God. For more general information on the Book of the Prophet Amos, see Summary Article by Rolf Jacobson, professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, M.N.

In our lesson for Sunday Amos delivers a scathing condemnation of Israel’s religious aspirations and practices. In verses 18-20 he mocks the peoples’ desire for the coming of the “Day of the Lord.” This term is common throughout both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. From ancient times, it referred generally to a time of judgment in which Israel would be vindicated against her enemies. As such, the Day of the Lord was understood as a day of salvation. But the prophets, beginning with Amos, gave the term a whole new twist. To be sure, the Day of the Lord is to be a day for God to triumph over his foes. These foes, however, are not the enemies of Israel but Israel herself! To be sure, the Day of the Lord brings the establishment of justice-but that is hardly good news for an unjust people. Consequently, the peoples’ yearning for the Day of the Lord as deliverance from their enemies is misplaced. The Day of the Lord will not be what Israel hopes for and expects. It is, says Amos, “as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him.” Vs. 19. For an oppressive and unjust nation, the Day of the Lord is “darkness and not light,” “gloom with no brightness in it.” Vs. 20.

In verses 21-24 Amos, speaking in the voice of the Lord, takes the people to task for the emptiness of their worship. Israel was undergoing something of a religious revival at the time of Amos. The worship of Israel’s God, once driven underground and nearly eradicated under the reign of Ahab and his queen, Jezebel, was restored under the leadership of Jehu. II Kings 10:1-31. Under the prosperous reign of Jehu’s descendent, Jeroboam II, Israel’s fortunes took a turn for the better both commercially and militarily. While the people understood their newfound peace and prosperity as signs of God’s favor, Amos took a very different view. The peace was maintained by means of militaristic adventures and prosperity was unevenly spread. The royal and aristocratic classes accumulated wealth through unjust and oppressive economic measures that kept many if not most of the common people in desperate poverty. Thus, Amos chided the leading citizens with these words:

For three transgressions of Israel,

and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;

because they sell the righteous for silver,

and the needy for a pair of sandals—

they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,

and push the afflicted out of the way;

father and son go in to the same girl,

 so that my holy name is profaned;

they lay themselves down beside every altar

on garments taken in pledge;

and in the house of their God they drink

wine bought with fines they imposed.

Amos 2:6-8

Naturally, God is offended when these folks, who have enslaved their own people, come into the sanctuary singing hymns to the God of the Exodus, the God that liberated his enslaved people from Egypt. Such empty and hypocritical worship makes God sick to God’s divine stomach! Let the justice about which you sing find expression in your life as a people, says the prophet. Vs. 24.

As we approach the Thanksgiving Day holiday on which it is customary to give thanks for “all our many blessings,” we might do well listening to Amos rather than to the mythology of the Pilgrims, manifest destiny and the heresy of American particularism. What we characterize as “blessings” are more accurately described as “privileges” maintained at a terrible cost to the rest of the planet and its people. Does God really want credit for the horrifying geopolitical arrangements that keep one third of this world’s peoples in poverty in order to preserve “our way of life”? Does God’s divine stomach not turn when we invoke God’s name to mislabel our plundered booty as God’s blessings? Is not such thanksgiving a farce?

To further complicate matters, the line between the God and Father of Jesus Christ and the generic god referenced on our money and in the pledge of allegiance becomes even more blurred on Thanksgiving than it usually is. Similarly, the distinction between God’s chosen people Israel and God’s church on the one hand, and the myth of America as somehow divinely established and favored on the other all but disappears. What arises out of this queer pagan nationalist mythology seasoned with a dash of Judeo-Christian imagery is rank idolatry. I cannot imagine that Amos (much less Jesus!) would sanction his peoples’ celebration of such a holiday. I am all for giving thanks to God for God’s many blessings. But I want to be sure that I am thanking the God and Father of Jesus Christ for the blessings promised in the Beatitudes we discussed in last week’s post. I am quite sure that our national holiday of Thanksgiving has little to do with either.

Psalm 70

This psalm is practically identical to Psalm 40:13-17 discussed in my post from Sunday, January 19, 2014. This is one of those psalms that I find to hard pray-at least from a solely individual standpoint. I don’t have any enemies to speak of. There are probably a few people who don’t care for my company. I know there are a lot of people that might disagree with me on one thing or another. But I am not aware of anyone plotting to destroy me or who wishes me ill fortune. My life has been pretty much enemy free since middle school.

Not everyone is so fortunate, however, and I do not pray the psalms individually. I pray the Psalter along with the entire people of God. I pray along with the Christians in Iraq and Syria who are being murdered and dispossessed. I pray with women and children suffering sexual abuse. I pray with the hungry, the impoverished, the addicted, the homeless and the marginalized. These folks do have enemies and, to that extent the church includes these victims and the church is one Body, their enemies are mine also. I have a direct interest in their vindication in the sight of their enemies and, according to the Psalmist, so does God. The oppression of the righteous calls into question God’s faithfulness to the covenant. So the question is, can I pray this psalm consistent with Jesus’ command to love the enemy?

It is obvious that enemies inflict pain, sometimes permanent bodily and psychic injury. The resulting hurt, outrage and desperation must be given expression. Prayer that is less than honest about these very human realities is not genuine prayer. The psalms teach us to express our whole selves to God-the good, the bad and the ugly. Some of what we feel is rather ugly, mean spirited and unworthy of a disciple of Jesus. Yet leaving all of this stuff unexpressed, denying it and pretending that it does not exist only makes it more dangerous to us and to others. Better express anger, hatred and vengeful thoughts honestly to God in prayer than let them leak out through passive/aggressive behavior or explode into actual violence. When exposed to the light, our wounds can be healed.

But again, where does that leave us when it comes to loving our enemies? Perhaps we need to think more carefully about what we mean by “love.” If love is nothing more than an emotion-and “a second hand” one at that as Tina Turner would put it-one could not realistically expect a rape victim to love his/her tormentor. But I believe Jesus has in mind something a lot more substantial than emotion. For Jesus, love is grounded in the conviction that human beings are created in God’s image and for that reason their lives are sacred. To love God is to love what is made in God’s image. To destroy or injure what is made in God’s image is to blaspheme. Vengeance, as St. Paul points out, belongs solely to God. Romans 12:19. God alone can be trusted to work out the intricacies of retributive justice-which is nearly impossible for those of us whose judgment is skewed by our often exaggerated sense of injury, righteousness and moral certainty. One can express to God anger and the desire for vengeance or retribution, but that is where it ends. If and when retribution is called for, God will deal with it. Instead, Paul counsels us to care for our enemy through concrete acts of mercy, regardless of how we might feel about him/her. Romans 12:20.

1 Thessalonians 4:13–18

Paul is dealing with a pressing pastoral concern here. As I have noted previously, the biblical authors know nothing of an “immortal soul.” The Christian hope is grounded in God’s gracious promise to raise the dead sealed in Jesus’ own resurrection. In Hebrew thought, resurrection was never an individual event. It was the culmination of God’s saving acts at the close of the age inaugurating a new heaven and a new earth. Jesus’ resurrection was seen in just that way as demonstrated in Matthew’s gospel reciting the resurrection of the saints who appeared after Jesus’ crucifixion. See Matthew 27:51-54. That being the case, how is it that believers are still dying and what is their fate, seeing that they have died before the appearing of Jesus in glory?

Paul does not retreat from the Jewish understanding of resurrection. The new age has indeed been inaugurated by Jesus’ death and resurrection. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Vs. 14. Jesus is the first fruits of a general resurrection that will be complete when “the Lord himself will descend from heaven.” Vs. 16. Then “the dead in Christ will rise first.” Vs. 16. Those living at that moment “shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air…” This is one of the proof texts for the so-called “rapture.” Note, however, that there is no mention here of any “great tribulation,” “antichrist” or “thousand year reign.” In order to fill out the rest of the Left Behind scenario you need to pull a slew of scripture fragments out of their context from other places and cobble them together. Note well that Paul urges the church in Thessalonica to “comfort one another with these words,” not scare the socks off of each other.

The pastoral intent and tone of this section is further underlined by Paul’s concern that the members of his church not “grieve as others do who have no hope.” Vs. 13. Paul does not suggest that disciples of Jesus should not grieve over the loss of a loved one, but only that their grief should not end in despair. I have discovered that it is much easier and a good deal more edifying to preside at funerals taking place in the church surrounded by the symbols of font and altar where the descendant was a person of faith. There is, to be sure, plenty of weeping and sorrow at such funerals. But the tone is altogether different where the mourners are made up of believers and it is understood that we are going to the graveyard to plant a seed, not simply to dispose of a body. It makes all the difference in the world when the climax of the funeral service is the Eucharist celebrated with the angels, archangels and all the company of heaven. There is grief here also, but it is grief in a major key.

Matthew 25:1–13

This chapter contains three parables dealing in some way with readiness for the close of the age. This Sunday’s parable of the foolish and wise maidens and the third parable about the judgment of the nations (Matthew 25:31-46) are recorded only in Matthew’s gospel. The second parable about the servants and the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) is found also in Luke, but with an additional twist. Luke 19:12-27. The parable of the maidens is difficult to interpret largely because “we have little knowledge of the specifics of wedding customs among first-century Jews, and we do not know how fixed various patterns were.” Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 1004. We know even less about the lanterns that Matthew might have had in mind in his telling of this story. Ibid. It appears most likely that the maidens were emissaries of the bride whose responsibility it was to meet the bridegroom and accompany him to the place where he would claim his bride. There the celebration would begin with all going in together to partake of the festivities.

Once again, the wedding feast is a common and powerful biblical metaphor for the kingdom of heaven. The focus is on the maidens with whom the disciples of Jesus are called to identify. The delay of the bridegroom in this story has frequently led some scholars to conclude that the parable is a product of Matthew’s church rather than the so-called “historical Jesus.” The rationale for this conclusion is that the church must have been struggling with the crisis of the delay in Christ’s second coming. E.g, Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 John Knox Press) p. 465. Since I believe neither that such a crisis ever occurred in the early church nor that there exists a “historical Jesus” lurking behind the New Testament witness, I take little interest in this sterile speculation. The parable calls the disciple to live simultaneously as though the Kingdom of Heaven might dawn at any instant or as though it might be centuries in coming. The temptation is to gravitate toward one pole to the neglect of the other.

The parable is a reminder that we really don’t know what time it is. End time speculation has demonstrated time and again our inability to discern any divine time table for cosmic history. Except within the last vestiges of American Protestant progressivism, our confident belief in the social evolution of the species toward a democratic world governed by reason has been dashed. It isn’t clear anymore where history is going, if anywhere. We truly know neither the day nor the hour when the kingdom of heaven will come and we can only be confident that it will come because Jesus has promised it. Our only alternative is to stay close to Jesus, being ever transformed within the community that is his Body so that when the kingdom comes, we will be the sort of people capable of embracing it with joy, people who will be recognized by God because God’s image is being restored in us.

What, then, is the fault of the foolish maidens? Only that they were misled by the clock. They wrongly assumed that they knew what time it was. It was not simply that they miscalculated. Their problem was that they thought they could calculate. They imagined that everything would go “as scheduled,” but the schedule turned out to be an illusion. The same error is made whenever the church thinks it has found its niche in society, or discovered God’s direction for history in some social/political/economic movement or ideology. This is not to say that God is not at work in the world outside of the church. To the contrary, God is very much at work. But apart from the church, I don’t have a clue what God is doing and I don’t have much faith in people who claim they do.