Tag Archives: idolatry

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

TENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 85:10-11

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

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

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

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

The Song of the Feet

It is appropriate that I sing
The song of the feet

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

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

And am still unreparated

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

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

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

It is appropriate I sing
The praise of the feet

I am a Black woman

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

1 Kings 19:9–18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 85:8–13

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

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

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

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

Romans 10:5–15

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 14:22–33

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Solomon: a pragmatically clever fool; Lessons for Sunday, July 30th; and a poem by Julia Kasdorf

EIGHTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

1 Kings 3:5–12
Psalm 119:129–136
Romans 8:26–39
Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52

PRAYER OF THE DAYBeloved and sovereign God, through the death and resurrection of your Son you bring us into your kingdom of justice and mercy. By your Spirit, give us your wisdom, that we may treasure the life that comes from Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

It is hardly surprising that young Solomon should pray for wisdom at this point in his life. He describes himself as “but a little child” who has inherited his father’s throne and must now reign over “a great people that cannot be numbered or counted for multitude.” The geopolitical landscape of the ancient near east was no less dangerous and complex than the global landscape is today. Peace and prosperity were maintained by strategic military alliances, trade agreements and treaties governing the use of land passages and waterways. Each nation had its own vital interests and ambitions. Israel’s wellbeing, indeed, her very existence as a nation state, required a leader capable of navigating these dangerous waters, avoiding reefs and shoals. Such a leader must recognize the benefits and dangers of international cooperation. He must possess a clear understanding of Israel’s vital interests and know when it is essential to be firm, when it is wise to be flexible, when the exercise military force is essential, when the wiser course is to refrain from military involvement. A strong leader must be a good judge of human character. He must know those he can trust to have his back, those on whom he must never turn his back and those who must be removed from positions of power altogether. A good ruler never promises his people more than he can deliver and he never delivers less than what the people need to thrive. It seems that young Solomon has a lot to learn in a very short time!

The wisdom for which Solomon prays, however, is not the wisdom of politics and statecraft. Instead, he prays for wisdom to discern “between good and evil.”  That is precisely the wisdom God promises Solomon. Significantly, however, God does not simply open up Solomon’s brain in order to pour this wisdom into his head. Instead, God points Solomon to the place where wisdom can be found. You will obtain wisdom, God tells Solomon, if only you “walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments.” That way of wisdom is spelled out more specifically in our Psalm reading for this Sunday, wherein the psalmist declares that the “unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” S/he tells us, “with open mouth I pant, because I long for thy commandments.” S/he pleads with God, “teach me thy statutes.”  S/he prays, “keep steady my steps according to thy promise, and let no iniquity get dominion over me.” Wisdom consists not in mastering the art of diplomacy, learning the protocols of the royal court, becoming proficient in navigating the politics of office and boardroom, but in having one’s character shaped and molded by living faithfully within the community of God’s covenant people. The people of Israel were not liberated from slavery in Egypt merely to become another nation like Egypt, oppressing its own people, enslaving foreigners and making gods of its emperors and kings. Israel’s life under her covenant with her liberating God was to be a light to the nations, the sign of a different way of being human, a testimony to the gracious will of the one true God for all of creation.

The narrative of Solomon’s reign unfortunately reflects precisely the wrong kind of wisdom. Solomon brought wealth, geopolitical dominance and cultural advances to Israel-but at a cost. The Temple built under Solomon’s direction in Jerusalem was constructed with slave labor. National security was maintained by brutally occupying and dominating smaller surrounding nations. Solomon’s elaborate building and military projects in Judah were financed by taxation that impoverished the common people, particularly those in Northern Israel which seceded from the house of David shortly after Solomon’s death. The international treaties into which Solomon entered involved his taking as wives the daughters of foreign kings and building for them shrines in which to worship their gods. The Israelite kingdom under Solomon was long on political success, but woefully short on covenant faithfulness.

From a practical perspective, one might argue that Solomon’s reign was comparatively less oppressive than those of other near eastern nations. Politics, being the art of the possible, does not pretend to create ideal societies. At its best, it builds the best society possible from the materials at hand. When it comes to affairs of state, good and evil are relative terms. Solomon inherited Israel’s disastrous decision to appoint a king to rule over her that she might “be like all the other nations.” He inherited a contentious and divided court simmering with blood feuds between his own brothers and ambitious military leaders left over from the prior administration. Solomon was not responsible for the violent state of the world in which his kingdom existed. Arguably, he did the best he could with what he had.

Such arguments, however, begin at the wrong place. Wisdom is not measured by the yardstick of pragmatism. “The fear of the Lord,” we are told, “is the beginning of wisdom.” Solomon’s reign, however successful it might seem on a geopolitical scale, did not satisfy God’s standard for wise leadership under the terms of the covenant. That covenant, as spelled out in the Torah, calls for protection, not enslavement of resident aliens. It requires a community in which no one goes hungry, no one is subject to foreclosure, no widow is left destitute and no orphan abandoned. The covenant requires that all worship and devotion be directed toward the one God who frees slaves. No practical objection can be raised to justify neglect of these or any other terms of God’s covenant designed to ensure justice for all. Consequently, sacrifices of practical safety, security and success are required by the wisdom that puts God and God’s priorities first. In order to be a light for the nations, Israel had to cease being a nation in her own right. It was only after she lost her royal line, her land and her temple, all the marks of nationhood, that Israel was able to start anew as a people whose sole identity derived from faithfulness to God’s covenant promises. Out of this new beginning the community of Israel that we know as Judaism was born.

The psalmist’s quest for wisdom begins at exactly the right place: prayer. The course of wisdom is not easily discernable. All of us are born into families with rivalries, conflicts and scars we didn’t create. We all have jobs that invite us to sacrifice more of ourselves than we or our families can afford. We live in a country whose democratic institutions are falling apart even as racist, misogynist and homophobic ideologies are on the rise. The temptation is great to negotiate this dangerous environment on its own terms. It is easy to remain silent when we ought to speak up. It is easy to speak before we have listened. It is easy to make compromises that help us get along to go along. It is easy to hunker down in a defensive position hurling insult for insult, blow for blow and tit for tat. But Jesus calls us to learn his way of dealing with a sinful world. He invites us to the table where all are welcome and everyone is fed; he invites us to sit together as one in order to hear his words; he invites us to let our characters be shaped and our actions flow from our friendship with him. Wisdom is learned by example. It is acquired by living faithfully and honestly in covenant community with other frail, foolish and struggling mortals. It is learned from being raised and mentored by wise and loving people.

Here is some godly wisdom poet Julia Kasdorf learned from her mother.

What I Learned From My Mother

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.

Source: Sleeping Preacher (c. Julia Kasdorf 1992, pub. by University of Pittsburgh Press) Julia Kasdorf (b. 1962) is a Poet, essayist, and editor. She was born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania and received her BA from Goshen College. She earned an MA in creative writing and a PhD from New York University. She is the editor for the journal, Christianity and Literature and author of several books of poetry. You can find out more about Julia Kasdorf and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

1 Kings 3:5–12

For a brief but very thorough summary of the Book of I Kings, see the Summary Article by Mark Thornveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N. In short, I Kings covers the transition from David’s reign over Israel to that of his son, Solomon. It chronicles Solomon’s construction of the temple in Jerusalem and the division of the nation of Israel into northern and southern kingdoms. The balance of the book chronicles details of the reigns of the divided Israelite monarchy, alternating between the north and the south.

In comparison to David, Solomon is a flat literary character in Israel’s narrative. His story is told with none of the passion and suspense found throughout the story of David. David is a layered, nuanced character capable of compassion, generosity and forgiveness yet also prone to arrogance, pettiness and nasty fits of temper. We see him in the context of numerous relationships with family, comrades in arms and political rivals. When it comes to Solomon, we hear much about his great accomplishments but little concerning the man himself. It appears that toward the end of his life he allowed and perhaps built shrines to foreign gods in Jerusalem to satisfy the religious inclinations of his many wives. It should be noted that these wives were taken into Solomon’s harem as part and parcel of military and commercial treaties with surrounding nations. Thus, his idolatrous projects may well have sprung from political expediency rather than personal religious conviction.

In Sunday’s lesson we meet Solomon at the beginning of his reign. This section of I Kings narrating Solomon’s story appears to be based on a literary source now lost to us called “the Book of the Acts of Solomon.” I Kings 11:41. When we first meet him, Solomon is, by his own admission, “but a little child” who knows not “how to go out our come in.” Vs. 7. Knowing he lacks wisdom, he nevertheless has the sense to know that he needs it. God not only grants Solomon the wisdom for which he prays, but much that he did not seek, namely, “riches and honor.” Vs. 13. Throughout the rest of his reign Solomon excels in architectural feats, military exploits, commercial success and wisdom. Indeed, his wisdom is so well attested that foreign dignitaries travel great distances to listen to him. I Kings 10:1-10.

There is a troubling subtext in the narrative, however. The temple of Solomon in Jerusalem is built by slave labor. “All the people who were left of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, who were not of the people of Israel were left in the land whom the people of Israel were unable to destroy utterly-these Solomon made a forced levy of slaves, and so they are to this day.” I Kings 9:20-21. As noted previously, Solomon’s many wives induced him to commit idolatry. I Kings 11:1-8. Furthermore, we learn a little later on that Solomon’s heavy handed tactics contributed to the ultimate break between the northern Israelite tribes and the Davidic monarchy. I Kings 12:1-20. The story of Solomon thus begins with a humble plea for wisdom, but ends in decadence and folly.

Solomon is said to be the author of the Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, chief collections of “wisdom literature” in the Hebrew Scriptures. This attribution is more literary than historical. By placing their teachings on the lips of a king whose wisdom was legendary, the authors ground their teachings in Israel’s sacred history and give them credibility. That said, I am not ready to dismiss the potential contribution of Solomon to either of these two books. Wisdom literature reaches “back into the earliest stages of Israel’s existence.” Crenshaw, J.L., Wisdom in the Old Testament, Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, (c.1976, Abingdon). It was during the reign of Solomon that the Israelite monarchy reached the height of its international prominence. Solomon made treaties with Egypt and the Phoenician kingdoms, transacting commerce and forming military compacts. Cultural exchanges would have followed naturally and thus exposure to wisdom literature from these sources. The authors/editors of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes may well have had access to collections of sayings from this ancient and illustrious period.

Psalm 119:129–136

Psalm 119 is one of eight acrostic poems found within the Book of Psalms. The others are Psalm 9Psalm 10Psalm 25Psalm 34Psalm 37Psalm 111; and Psalm 112. Instead of each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, however, Psalm 119 is made up of twenty-two 8 verse sections in which each line begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Sunday’s reading consists of the seventeenth section in which each of the 8 verses begin with the seventeenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “Pe.” Thus, if the composition sometimes appears a bit strained, remember that the psalmist is working within the confines of a stringent poetic form. Anyone who has ever attempted to compose a sonnet in the form utilized by Shakespeare will understand.

If the psalm has a theme, it is the centrality and supremacy of God’s Torah in every sphere of human life. The psalmist does not merely learn, memorize and conceptually understand the Torah. His/her heart, mind and daily practices are shaped by the Torah. Torah regulates the psalmist’s daily routine, inspires his/her praise and forms the perspective from which the psalmist views the rest of the world. One might object that such an obsession with Torah amounts to “brain washing.” But the fact of the matter is, we are all “brain washed” in the sense that how we perceive everything from the daily news to the mood of our spouses is shaped by preconceived notions about reality. Nobody is capable of viewing anything purely “objectively.” The psalmist is well aware of this. S/he wants his/her perspective on everything to be shaped by his/her reflections upon Torah-rather than say, MSNBC or Fox News. That isn’t to say that the psalmist might not have watched either of these networks had television been available in the 6th Century. But the psalmist would evaluate what s/he saw under the lens of Torah rather than the other way around.

It is for this reason that the psalmist’s “eyes shed streams of tears, because men do not keep [God’s] law.” Vs. 136. The Ten Commandments are introduced by the God who reminds Israel, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Exodus 20:2Deuteronomy 5:6. It is precisely because the commandments are given by the God who liberates slaves that they must be observed. It is for freedom that God gave Israel the commandments protecting the sanctity of the community and each person in it. When something less than this freedom and life giving God is worshiped; when human life, human relationships and human property are not respected, Israelite society begins to resemble the hierarchical tyranny of Egypt. This is indeed cause for weeping.

“The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” Vs. 130. The words of Torah need unfolding. They do not yield their treasures in one brief reading. The constant dialogue between Torah and the psalmist’s life experience deepens his/her understanding of God’s intent and purpose for him/her. Accordingly, the psalmist “longs for [God’s] commandments” just as one who is ravenously thirsty craves water. Vs. 131. Yet the psalmist also knows that God must assist him/her in the study of Torah. So s/he prays,” “Teach me thy statutes,” (vs. 135) and “Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is thy wont toward those who love thy name.” vs. 132. The psalmist prays for God’s guidance and support to keep iniquity from gaining power over him/her. Vs. 133. No one can learn or obey Torah unless God teaches and guides.

Romans 8:26–39

“We know that in everything God works for good.” That is as much of the verse as is often quoted-and it’s unfortunate. This truncated citation is incomplete and altogether wrong. Nothing good comes to a victim out of sexual assault. Nothing is good about children dying of preventable diseases. Nothing is good about warfare, poverty and oppression. There is nothing more hurtful and insulting than to tell a person who has just experienced a tragic loss or injury that it is God’s doing and that it is ultimately for his/her own good. Paul does not say anything remotely like that as we can see when we read the entire verse in its context.

Note that Paul has already told us that baptism into Christ Jesus is baptism into Christ’s death. Romans 6:3. Moreover, as Paul told us last week, being an heir of Christ is to share in Christ’s suffering. Romans 8:17. Jesus himself warned his disciples that a servant is no greater than his master and that they could expect no less enmity from the world than he himself experienced. John 15:18-20. Furthermore, there are events that bring tragedy into the lives of many people that have nothing to do with their behavior or God’s desire to modify it. Sometimes stuff just happens. Disciples of Jesus are not exempt from these random tragedies that strike others. No one, least of all Jesus or Paul, ever said that life or discipleship would be a cake walk.

When Paul tells us that “all things work for good,” he means the good of God’s kingdom, not our own personal good. The cross was not the stepping stone to a better life for Jesus. It was the capstone on Jesus’ life of faithful obedience to the will of his Father. It was a life of service received without gratitude and poorly understood by even his own disciples. The life of discipleship might well be characterized by failure, poverty, tragedy and loss. Though God is not the author of tragedy, God nevertheless can turn any evil in creation to God’s own good purposes. Those purposes may or may not fit into our own selfish notions of what is “good.”

As Paul told us last week, our suffering is incomparable to the glory that is to be revealed when creation is set free from the bondage of decay. Romans 8:18-25. Only when our own good is fully and completely identified with the good God intends to bestow on all creation can we finally say that all things work together for our own good. This, I believe, is what we mean when we pray that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. The cross is what happens when God’s good and gracious will is done in this rebellious world. Yet because of God’s limitless capacity to suffer patiently and compassionately with us, turning even our worst sins to his own life giving purposes, God’s will finally prevails over all hostility, both to our own good and the good of all creation.

It is for this reason, too, that we need the assistance of the Spirit in our prayers. As Paul tells us, “we do not know how to pray as we ought.” Vs. 26. Too often our prayers focus selfishly on our own personal good rather than the good God intends for creation. Too often our prayers are limited to the small circle of those we love. Too often our prayers ask God to change the world to our liking rather than to change us into persons capable of loving the world as it is. We need to pray with “the mind of the Spirit” rather than with the mind of what Paul calls “the flesh.” The Spirit assists us in doing just that.

Finally, Paul brings his argument to conclusion by stating categorically that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Vs. 30. This is what separates life in the flesh from life in the Spirit. Life in the flesh is tyranny under the law and sin. It operates on the “if…then” principle. “If you are good, you will be rewarded. If you are bad, you will be punished.” God is seen as a rule obsessed judge, a stern Santa making his list and checking it twice to find out who is naughty and nice. Your standing in God’s favor is always contingent on your behavior. Like the job of an employee-at-will, it can be revoked at any time for any reason. Life in the Spirit is familial. God is our Father; Jesus is our brother and we are all siblings in Jesus. Just as a loving father cannot forsake his child-even when that child disappoints him-so God cannot forsake the children born to God through Jesus Christ in baptism. That is the good news of Jesus Christ that Paul preaches.

Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52

The first two parables in our lesson speak of the kingdom of heaven as the planting of a mustard seed and the addition of leaven to dough. In the case of both parables, the emphasis appears to be growth out of all proportion to the smallness of its origins. Though not technically the “smallest” of all seeds, the mustard seed is small. It is an annual plant that usually grows to between four and five feet tall but can reach heights of nine or ten feet. Similarly, it takes only a small amount of yeast to cause a loaf of bread to rise and bake rather than to remain an unleavened cracker. One might wonder whether someone would actually go to the trouble of planting a mustard seed in one of Palestine’s rare and precious plots of good soil when the plant grows wild in the fields. It is also worth pondering why Jesus would use the image of leaven, a substance banned from the house during Passover season, to make his point. Maybe that is the point, however. The kingdom of God is often an unwelcome, disruptive presence that makes space for itself where it clearly is not expected. The smallness with which it begins only makes its introduction more difficult to detect. As one commentator notes, these parables “must not be debased by being made to refer to a church that gradually wins over the majority or a Christianity silently transforming the world.” Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 by John Knox Press) p. 307. The kingdom has come to upend the existing state of things.

The parables of the pearl and the treasure in the field speak not to the kingdom itself as much as to its effect when recognized. After hearing the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven, one might be left wondering whether the kingdom of heaven is even desirable. Clearly, it will not live quietly and unobtrusively in Caesar’s garden! The following parables, then, state unequivocally that the kingdom is to be desired and sought after to the exclusion of all else. It has an irresistible attraction for those who see it for what it is. Of course, not everyone does. Someone untrained in valuing pears might as soon buy an imitation for $4.99 as pay top dollar for the real thing. A person unaware of the treasure in the field might dismiss the property as a poor investment-rocky soil, irregular shaped lot located in a bad neighborhood. Common to both parables is the joy of the one seeking to acquire the precious commodity. There is no anguish of decision or equivocation in the transaction. Nor is there any regret or concern expressed over the sacrifices required to consummate it. One need not lecture, scold or threaten anyone to give up all for the kingdom of heaven. It is sufficient to bear testimony to the kingdom so that all my see it for what it is.

The last parable seems a little out of place at first blush. The theme appears to be the same as that of the wheat and the weeds from last week’s lesson. Just as the wheat is separated from the weeds at the end of the harvest, so the separation of edible and inedible fish is made at the end of the day when the catch is bought in. But separation there surely will be. Perhaps the point to be made here is that ending up in the throw away pile will be the consequence of throwing away this opportunity to pursue the kingdom of heaven at the expense of all else. Failing to recognize the kingdom is to risk non-recognition on the last day, a theme that is brought to sharper focus in the parable of the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46.

The images, impressions and logic of these parables do not flow together into a consistent whole. Parables are not designed to set forth a coherent theology of the kingdom of heaven. Rather, they remind us that the kingdom defies all such efforts to reduce it to bite size cognitive mouthfuls. Rather than explain the kingdom, parables draw us ever more deeply into it.

A Barmen Declaration for our time? Texts for Sunday, July 26th; and a poem by Martin Niemöller

Image result for Truth speakingSEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 44:6–8
Psalm 86:11–17
Romans 8:12–25
Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43

PRAYER OF THE DAYFaithful 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 no 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.

Isaiah 44:6–8

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.

Psalm 86:11–17

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.

Romans 8:12–25

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.

Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43

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.

 

Sunday, May 28th

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
I Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

Prayer of the Day: O God of glory, your Son Jesus Christ suffered for us and ascended to your right hand. Unite us with Christ and each other in suffering and in joy, that all the world may be drawn into your bountiful presence, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

My oldest daughter was always fascinated with clocks and the measurement of time. When she was just a toddler, I used to point to the clock and tell her, “Now when this big hand gets to the six, it’s time for stories and bed.” She would look intensely at the clock as though trying to make sense of it, as though she somehow knew that if only she could figure this contraption out and understand how it worked, she could negotiate a much better deal for herself. Long before she started kindergarten, this precocious child mastered the art of telling time and figuring out where she was relative to nap time, lunch, bed time and all those other significant markers punctuating a child’s day. She would frequently ask me the time of day. If we were away from the house and I was without my watch, I would have to tell her that I didn’t know what time it was. “So what time do you think it is?” she persisted. I gave her my best approximation, which I knew she would later check against the clock and hold me to account. Today she is a professor of classical languages and literature-and nothing if not punctual.

The same obsession with timing seems to be at work among the disciples in our first lesson. They want desperately to know what time it is in God’s chronology and how long until the “kingdom is restored to Israel.” That same yearning has dogged the church throughout its history. Time and time again we have seen the rise and fall of prophets and preachers claiming to have figured out the divine clock by scrutinizing the books of Daniel and Revelation. People who claim, with varying degrees of specificity, to know where we stand in relationship to the end times always seem to have a ready following. I expect that is because knowing or thinking one knows the future gives one a sense of security, an imagined measure of control.

Jesus does not give us that kind of assurance. Consequently, the church has had to learn to muddle through the darkness of history without knowing what lies ahead, how much further the road stretches or when we can expect to get to the end of it. That isn’t an easy way to live for people like us, who start planning for retirement as soon as we graduate college and order the days of our lives with digital calendars. While there is certainly nothing wrong with foresight and planning, we all know deep down that it is based on assumptions about a future that might not unfold as expected or of which we might not be a part. It is hard hearing Jesus tell us that it is not for us to know the “whens” or the “hows” of God’s coming to establish his reign.

More instructive than anything Jesus tells us about the future is the disciples’ response to the angels’ message: “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” I still don’t have the foggiest idea exactly what that means nor, I suspect, did the disciples. But we are told that the disciples returned to their lodging place in Jerusalem and “devoted themselves to prayer.” The lectionary wisely ends this pre-Pentecost lesson precisely there. Of course, we know what comes next. We recall the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Peter’s bold sermon to the people of Jerusalem, the creation of a diverse assembly drawn together by good news spoken in every tongue under heaven and the birth of a community founded on the principles of distributive justice and equality.

But we do well not to rush the narrative. It is appropriate, I think, to join the disciples in a posture of prayer. The week before Pentecost should find us in a stance of openness to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, openness to God’s future and openness to opportunities for ministry that might be right in front of us. Now is a time of readiness for change, a time for cultivating the courage to let go of our hopes, fears and expectations of the future. Now is a good time to begin imagining how the miracle of Pentecost might be occurring in our time, fracturing border walls, spilling over cultural, political, religious and economic divides to form a new people of every nation, tribe and tongue.

The Bible does not give us the content of the disciple’s prayers as they met together in that upper room in Jerusalem. But I think that our prayers during this final week of Easter should perhaps be shaped by Jesus’ prayer in our gospel lesson: “Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou has given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”

Here’s a poem by Denise Levertov about the power of imagination that is perhaps what animates prayer and translates it into action.

Making Peace

A voice from the dark called out,
‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.’
But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.

Source: Breathing the Water, (c. 1987 by Denise Levertov).  Denise Levertov (1923–1997) never received a formal education. Nevertheless, she created a highly regarded body of poetry that earned her recognition as one of America’s most respected poets. Her father, Paul Philip Levertov, was a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and subsequently moved to England where he became an Anglican minister.  Levertov grew up in a household surrounded by books and people talking about them in many languages. During World War II, Levertov pursued nurse’s training and spent three years as a civilian nurse at several hospitals in London. Levertov came to the United States in 1948, after marrying American writer Mitchell Goodman. During the 1960s Levertov became a staunch critic of the Vietnam war, a topic addressed in many of her poems of that era. Levertov died of lymphoma at the age of seventy-four. You can read more about Denise Levertov and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

N.B. To those of you who might be celebrating Ascension this coming Sunday, I refer you to my post of Sunday, June 1, 2014 discussing the appointed texts.

Acts 1:6-14

The disciples’ question to Jesus indicates that, after years of following him, forty days of which occur after his resurrection from death, they are still operating with a limited understanding of the kingdom he proclaimed. “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel,” they ask. Vs. 6. It is difficult to know exactly what was in the disciples’ minds or that of the early church in framing the question. But one thing is clear: this expectation is backward looking. “Restore,” suggests that Israel once had the kingdom and somehow lost it. It implies that Jesus is expected to bring back some “golden age” in the past when circumstances were supposedly better. “Make Israel great again.” But we should know from having read Luke’s gospel (which we have been doing throughout this church year) that the kingdom lies in God’s future and will surpass all that has been. We are talking new creation here, not a return of the good old days.

Additionally, we know that the coming kingdom will include not only Israel, but will reach out to embrace the non-Jewish world as well. We get an inkling of this in Jesus’ promise/command that his disciples “shall be witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” Vs. 8. Indeed, this verse spells out the whole trajectory of the Book of Acts which begins with Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2), spills into Samaria through the ministry of Philip (Acts 8:4-13) and, with Paul’s conversion, spreads throughout the Mediterranean world. The disciples have much to learn about the mission to which they are being called.

Quite naturally, the disciples are found staring into the sky following Jesus’ departure. Where else would you look? So intent are they in their vain efforts to keep Jesus in view that they are unaware of the two angels standing at their sides. Don’t search the heavens for Jesus. He will return in the same way as he went into heaven. I can’t say that I am sure exactly what this means, but I suspect that it is a veiled reference to Pentecost. The Greek word “ouronos,” meaning “heaven” or the “heavens” is often a circumlocution for God. Just as Jesus was taken up into the heavens (vs.11), so also on Pentecost the Spirit comes as a mighty wind from the heavens. Acts 2:2. Thus, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit can be seen as a return of Jesus to be present in an ever more intimate, powerful and omnipresent way with his disciples. Empowered by this Spirit, the church continues Jesus’ ministry of teaching the people, caring for the poor and doing works of healing.

I have spoken at some length in my introductory remarks about the disciples’ returning to Jerusalem to wait and pray. I will only add that their devotion to prayer seems like a good prescription for a church that is fast losing its social standing in society, its membership base and its financial security. We can respond to all of this in fear and wrack our brains about how to reverse it. Or we can look beyond mere “restoration” and try to discern where God is taking us next.

Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35

Commentators reflecting on this psalm agree on one thing: no other psalm presents so many translation and interpretation challenges. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 82; Weiser, Artur, The Psalms: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd) p. 481. The Hebrew text is filled with words that have either been corrupted in transmission or are unique to the Hebrew Scriptures. The style changes abruptly throughout and there are many awkward shifts in thought. All of this has led some scholars to conclude that Psalm 68 is a random collection of poetic fragments rather than a single prayer or song. Others suggest that it might be a catalogue of the first lines of about thirty different psalms. Still others believe that the psalm consists of a series of short liturgical responses for use at a ceremony that is unknown to us. Rogerson & McKay, supra, at 82-83. In any event, the mention of participation by tribes associated with the northern kingdom in a hymn exalting Mt. Zion suggests that some fragments at least date back to the time of the united monarchy under David and Solomon.

Verse 1 echoes the call to arms spoken by Moses whenever the Israelites broke camp for another leg of their journey through the wilderness to the land of Canaan: “Arise, O Lord, and let thy enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee.” Numbers 10:35. This psalm or part of it might have been composed for a celebration in Jerusalem of Israel’s journey through the wilderness. Vss. 7-10 lend credence to this view. Righteous behavior, not cultic purity is what makes one  pure in God’s sight and worthy of Israel’s heritage. Vs. 3.

“Lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds.” Vs. 4. This fragment has interesting parallels with Canaanite poetry which exalts Baal as “storm rider.” Ibid. at 85. Israel frequently appropriated the literary templates of its cultural neighbors for use in her worship of Yahweh. If that is the case here, it further testifies to the early composition of this Psalm and its fragments. Yet unlike the gods of the Canaanites, whose worship served as an ideological justification for the reigning monarch, Israel’s God is the “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows.” Vs. 5. This God is not preoccupied with shoring up any imperial house, but in “giving the desolate a home to dwell in” and leading “out the prisoners to prosperity.” Vs. 6.

Verses 7-10 recount Israel’s encounter with God at Sinai and the conquest and settlement of Canaan. The psalm might also be recognizing God’s deliverance from some drought such as occurred under Ahab in I Kings 17:1-7. See vs. 9. Once again, God is portrayed not as the patron of the great and powerful, but the help of the needy. Vs. 10.

The lectionary lurches ahead to vss. 32-35 consisting of a concluding canticle of praise. Again God is portrayed as the one who “rides on the heavens,” in much the same way as Baal was portrayed in Canaanite mythology. It is worth noting, however, that such a borrowing served the purpose of emphasizing that it is the Lord, Yahweh, not Baal or any other fertility god, who brings rain upon the earth. That point was made very graphically by Elijah in his contest with the prophets of Baal. I kings 18.

I Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

Once again, the lectionary has excised a piece of the text for reasons I cannot comprehend. The reading begins at Chapter 4:12 in which Peter tells his audience, the church in Asia Minor, not to be surprised at “the fiery ordeal” that is overtaking them. Although Peter does not tell us exactly what this ordeal is, we can infer from the context that he is speaking of persecution from the surrounding culture. Disciples of Jesus should not be surprised to find themselves persecuted. After all, didn’t Jesus warn his disciples that they would be required to take up the cross? Didn’t he tell them that “where I am, there will my servant be also”? Yet I have to say that this text sounds almost foreign to me because I have never experienced anything like persecution for being a Christian. In the town where I grew up, it would have been considered odd, perhaps even suspicious if you were not a Christian of some flavor. All my childhood friends went to church somewhere or, if they didn’t, they lied and said they did. Being unreligious was somehow un-American.

Things have changed, of course. We all accept-or should-that a person can be a good citizen, honest business person and an upstanding member of the community without being religious. The stores don’t close on Sunday, but soccer practice goes on. I also must say that over my thirty-five years of ministry, I have seen erosion in the deference traditionally given to clergy in the past. I have to say parenthetically that I am glad about that. I always felt uncomfortable when someone paid for my coffee or offered me their place in line because I was wearing a clerical collar. I understand that it was their way of showing reverence and respect for something bigger than me. Still, I am just as glad to pay for my own coffee. So even with the decline of the church’s cultural influence, we experience nothing close to persecution.

Then again, perhaps we don’t experience persecution because, even in this age of decline, the church fits too comfortably into the Americana landscape. Perhaps it is because we have confused middle class, ever white and ever polite respectability for faithful discipleship that we never find ourselves in any sort of trouble. Maybe if we began attempting to live out the radical, countercultural and subversive discipleship practiced in the book of Acts, we might find ourselves in real danger of persecution. Just a thought.

John 17:1-11

What we have in this lesson is the introductory portion of Jesus’ final prayer with his disciples wrapping up the “farewell discourses” and leading into John’s passion narrative. Here Jesus weaves together into a single poetic fabric the Christological claims he has been making for himself throughout the gospel. The hour has come for Jesus to be glorified. That glorification will take place in a way no one could have foreseen. Jesus will be glorified by his death for his disciples and for the world. In that death, the sinfulness of the world will be laid bare in its cruel rejection of the best God has to give. At the same time, however, the depth of God’s love will be revealed in God’s stubborn persistence in love even in the face of his Son’s crucifixion. God’s power is demonstrated in just this: that God does not do what we would do if our own child were killed, namely, retaliate. God will raise up his crucified and resurrected Son and give him back to the world that rejected him. God will not be dragged into the vortex of retribution in which the rest of the world is caught up.

Today’s reading seems to address the objection raised by the good Judas in chapter 15, namely, if Jesus really is the Savior of the world, why is he revealing himself only to a select few? John 15: 22. Jesus makes clear that his final prayer is not merely for the twelve, but for all who will come to believe through their preaching and love for one another. Jesus says essentially that he is praying that the love between Father and Son that has existed from eternity might bind the disciples together just as it unites the Trinity. Such love manifest among the disciples and poured out upon the world glorifies God. The reality of God living in the midst of God’s people under the gentle reign of the Lamb proclaimed in the Book of Revelation is fulfilled in some measure in the church.

“This is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent.” Vs. 3. Eternal life is not to be equated with “life after death” or “life beyond the grave” though it surely extends there. Eternal life is the relational quality of life for the disciple who “knows” the only true God through the Son God has sent into the world. A disciple experiences eternal life as s/he pours out his/her life in the service of all that is eternal. It is a life characterized by love for God, love among the disciples and love for the world God made. In a sinful world, that love takes the shape of the cross. Yet, as Peter pointed out in our previous reading, the resulting suffering can be borne with joy precisely because the disciple knows that his/her faithfulness to Jesus aligns him/her with what outlasts suffering and death.

Jesus’ statement to the effect that he is not praying for the world (vs. 9) might be taken to mean that he does not care for the world. Of course, we know that is not the case as it is precisely because God loved the world that he sent his Son. John 3:16. Jesus prays for his disciples because it will be through their love for him and for one another that the world will come to know that love and be saved through it. So the stage is set for the final section of John’s gospel, the passion narrative or the “book of glory.”

Sunday, February 22nd

SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Leviticus 19:1–2, 9–18
Psalm 119:33–40
1 Corinthians 3:10–11, 16–23
Matthew 5:38–48

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God of compassion, you invite us into your way of forgiveness and peace. Lead us to love our enemies, and transform our words and deeds to be like his through whom we pray, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:44.

I once did that very thing in my first congregation. It was in 1986 immediately following the United States’ bombing of Libya. I prayed for our nation and God’s guidance for its leaders; I prayed for the military personnel involved in the operation; then I prayed for Libyan soldiers and citizens killed or injured in the raid. It was, as you might expect, the last petition that drew the ire of certain members of my then congregation. They felt I was being disloyal to my country and disrespectful of American soldiers, particularly veterans. They expressed the view that it was my patriotic duty to support my country’s military, not undermine it (though I expressed no view pro or con with respect to the propriety of the bombing mission itself). “But what about Jesus’ command to pray for our enemies,” I asked. “Pray for them in the privacy of your own room if you must,” snapped one particularly agitated member. “But don’t betray my country in this church!” I was stunned at the time and totally unprepared for the hostile response I got to this prayer that seemed entirely in line with what Jesus commands.

Since that time, however, I have come to understand a basic truth about American Christianity-and the so-called “white evangelical” varieties in particular: Much of American Christianity is to a large extent liturgical window dressing for the religion of American nationalism. How else can you explain rejecting a very specific command of Jesus so as not to offend patriotic sensibilities? It seems as though a lot of what passes for Christianity these days is long on nationalism and short (short to the point of non-existent) on Jesus.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out, love for enemies is not optional for disciples of Jesus. Love for the enemy is, in fact, the only expression of love guaranteed to be genuine. Such love, Bonhoeffer tells us, is the very definition of love. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, The Cost of Discipleship, (c. 1959 SCM Press Ltd) p. 162.

“Christian love draws no distinction between one enemy and another, except that the more bitter our enemy’s hatred, the greater his need of love. Be his enmity political or religious, he has nothing to expect from a follower of Jesus but unqualified love. In such love there is no inner discord between private person and official capacity. In both we are disciples of Christ or we are not Christians at all. Am I asked how this love is to behave? Jesus gives the answer; bless, do good, and pray for your enemies without reserve and without respect of persons.” Ibid. p. 165.

It is important to delineate exactly what this love is as well as what it is not. Love is not uncritical devotion. It is not slavish submission to abuse. It is not “going along to get along.” Precisely because disciples of Jesus understand that they are objects of God’s undeserved love, because they understand that the enemy is no less precious in God’s sight, because they believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to regenerate every human life, disciples must confront their enemies with the truth about God and the truth about themselves. Love speaks truth to power; judgment to sin; and resistance to abuse. But the object of such truthful speech is never to overpower, defeat or shame the enemy. That would only deepen the canyon of animosity between us. Repentance, reconciliation and faith are the only legitimate objectives for speaking the hard words of reproof. The enemy (as far as we can ever know) is an indispensable piece of God’s new creation. Our efforts to build the kingdom of heaven without him are doomed to failure. We therefore have a direct stake in reconciliation to the enemy.

Finally, let us not be sentimental about love for our enemies or naïve about what it entails. My church’s ministry to and advocacy for refugees in the current climate of paranoia has met repeatedly with the objection, “but if we let these people in, some of them might be dangerous.” As anyone who follows me knows, I think the facts have demonstrated that the xenophobia generated by the present U.S. administration is factually vacuous. Nonetheless, even if the danger were real, so what? Jesus both preached and lived by example a love that embraces the enemy who nails you to the cross. He is not at all shy about telling his disciples they should gladly embrace the same. If your excuse for turning away refugees at your border is national security, well and good, but do not flatter yourself with the delusion that you are a disciple of Jesus. You are, at best, a distant admirer.

Here’s a poem about enemies by Wendell Berry

Enemies

If you are not to become a monster,
you must care what they think.
If you care what they think,

how will you not hate them,
and so become a monster
of the opposite kind? From where then

is love to come—love for your enemy
that is the way of liberty?
From forgiveness. Forgiven, they go

free of you, and you of them;
they are to you as sunlight
on a green branch. You must not

think of them again, except
as monsters like yourself,
pitiable because unforgiving.

Source:  Indivisible: Poems for Social Justice (c. 2013 by Wendell Berry, pub. by Norwood House Press). Wendell Berry is a poet, novelist, farmer and environmental activist. You can read more about him and his many works at the Poetry Foundation website.

Leviticus 19:1–2, 9–18

Leviticus is probably the least popular book of the Bible for us Christian folk. For the millions of people who have tried unsuccessfully to read the Bible cover to cover, the Book of Leviticus is likely the point at which most of them threw in the towel. Like the second half of Exodus and the first ten chapters of Numbers, Leviticus consists of instructions for sacrificial worship, ritual cleansing from contact with unclean animals, lepers, menstruating women and corpses. It spells out in excruciating detail the animals which may and may not be eaten and sets forth numerous ethical injunctions. Many of these laws appear altogether senseless to modern readers. Why is eating lobster an abomination? What is immoral about wearing two different kinds of fabric? What could be objectionable in ordering a hamburger with a milkshake?

Some literary/historical background is warranted here: Modern Hebrew scriptural scholars are in general agreement that the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) constitute a compilation of four originally independent written sources. These sources were brought together over a five century period of time (950 to 500 B.C.E.) into what we now know as the “Pentateuch,” which translated means “Five Books.” The sources are known as the Jahwist source or simply “J,” the Elohist source or “E”, the Deuteronomist source or “D” and the Priestly source known as “P.” For a very thorough discussion of this theory of interpretation, see the online article Documentary Hypothesis. For our purposes, it will suffice to note that virtually all of the book of Leviticus comes to us from the P source, the latest contributor(s) to the Pentateuch and likely its final editor(s).

It is helpful also to know that P was compiled during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile beginning at 587 B.C.E. Though much of the material this source contains is very ancient, it was edited and arranged in such a way as to speak to the then present needs of the exiled Jews living in a foreign land. As a minority community, the exiles were naturally under pressure to conform and even meld into the pagan culture of Babylon. The books of Daniel and Esther reflect the difficulties faced by Jews attempting to make their living under foreign domination while remaining faithful to their God and their unique identity.

This week’s reading is part of the “Holiness Code” (Leviticus 17-26) which most scholars regard as a distinct unit consisting of an earlier text edited and imbedded within P. Many of its laws are expressed in brief, closely packed clusters. Its style and vocabulary distinguishes the code from the main body of Leviticus. The Priestly source’s frequent reminder that “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” must be understood in the exile context. V. 2. The term “holy” does not mean “morally pure” as we have become accustomed to understand that term. To be “holy” in the biblical sense is to “be set aside for a special purpose.” Consequently, the unique worship practices and ritual behaviors that were part of Israel’s daily life in Palestine took on a new urgency in the land of exile. These practices defined Israel over against the dominant culture and preserved her identity.

In the larger canonical narrative, the P source spells out the shape faithfulness must take for Israel in the land of Canaan to which Moses is leading her. Israel is not to become another imperial Egypt, oppressing her poor and enslaving the sojourners in her land. The people are instructed not to “reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after the harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner.” Vss. 9-10. The lectionary people have excluded vss. 3-8 which, in addition to reiterating the commandment to honor parents, gives explicit instructions on how to consume meat offered as a peace offering. This omission is unfortunate as these verses illustrate that Israel did not make distinctions between ethical and ritual requirements. Worship, economics, politics and social intercourse were intended to be all of one piece in Israel. As the prophets frequently point out, worship divorced from the imperative to love the neighbor is an abomination in God’s sight. See, e.g., Amos 5:21-24.

Though it does not make for exciting reading, I believe that the Priestly author(s) contribution to the Hebrew Scriptures has a peculiar relevance for the church today. But we should not be focusing on the particular demands of these rules and statutes, the rationale and meaning of which is lost to us in many instances. Instead, we should look to their function and how they created opportunities for the faith community in exile to define itself against the dominant culture and remind itself of its own unique identity. In my own Lutheran protestant tradition there is very little that distinguishes our daily lives from those of our neighbors. In a supposedly “Christian culture,” you would not expect any such difference. And given that our particular tradition was born into the heart of Christendom and grew out of the state church tradition, it is not surprising that most of us are OK with that. In a Christian nation, why would one expect there to be any difference between faithful discipleship and good citizenship? How could the two ever conflict?

Whether or not you agree with me that the notion of “Christendom” was misbegotten from the get go, you can hardly deny that the society that was Christendom is now all but dead. The towering church buildings still dominating the Americana landscape testify more to a bygone era of socio-political influence than to any present significance. Gone are the days when everyone (or a substantial majority) assumed that church going was an essential part of life. The upcoming generation needs to be convinced that worship in general and Christ in particular merit even a cursory look. You can be a decent person and a good citizen these days without belonging to any faith community. So why belong?

I must confess that when I drive through a Jewish neighborhood on a Friday night and witness families walking together to synagogue, I feel a bit envious. Here is a community whose life is shaped by the biblical narrative. This peculiar people will not be conformed to our cultural norms. Their Sabbath will not be invaded by soccer leagues, karate lessons and after school programs. This is clearly a “holy” people, a people dedicated to its God. Their faith is not just another piece of a well-rounded American life on a par with school, sports and patriotism. Their faith is their life and everything else must find its place in subjection to that faith. I could wish that disciples of Jesus were as diligent in observance of the Lord’s Day; that prayer, fasting and almsgiving were as deeply imbedded in our lives as Sabbath observance is for my Jewish neighbors. I believe that the church needs very much to hear the Priestly writers’ call “to be holy.”

Psalm 119:33–40

For my observations on Psalm 119 generally, see my post for February 12th. Just as last week’s reading consisting of the first section of this psalm began with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “aleph,” so each line of these eight verses making up the fifth section of the psalm begin with the fifth Hebrew letter, “He.”

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.

1 Corinthians 3:10–11, 16–23

Paul has been contrasting the “mind of Christ” that binds the church together as one Body to the divisiveness of the Corinthian congregation that threatens to tear it apart. Now Paul uses the image of a building to emphasize how the apostolic ministry, and his own ministry in particular, is for the purpose of building up. The church is God’s building. Though Paul’s evangelization laid the foundation and the work of Cephas and Apollos built upon that foundation, the foundation itself is Christ Jesus.

Once again, I marvel at the gall of the “lexicutioners” whose exegetical meat cleavers exercise no restraint. Verses 12-15 are critical to understanding Paul’s argument. For having pointed out how the apostles have each worked in concert to erect the building which is God’s church, Paul notes that the project is still under construction. The Corinthian disciples are also called to the task of this ministry of building up the church. Clearly, their divisiveness illustrates that they are failing in this important calling. Hence, Paul warns the members of the Corinthian congregation to exercise care in their building ministry. For their work will be tested on the last day when the church is delivered to Christ. What does not build up the church will be destroyed. Yet it is significant that Paul adds that the builder himself will be saved. The wrath of God is directed not against the negligent builder, but at his shoddy work.

That being said, it is easier to understand Paul’s warning that “you are God’s Temple.” Vs. 16. Creating divisions within the church amounts to destroying God’s temple. As the church is the means through which Christ’s salvation is present, destroying the church is self-destruction as well. Vs. 17. You can see where Paul is going with all of this. How absurd it is for the building so carefully constructed by the work of the apostles to assert its loyalty to these same apostles as a pretext for its own self demolition! If the members of the Corinthian church truly wish to honor the apostles, they should build upon the foundation the apostles have laid rather than destabilize it.

Matthew 5:38–48

The dictum “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” is cited at Exodus 21:24Leviticus 24:20; and Deuteronomy 19:21. Though some commentators on this text argue that this principle was intended to limit retaliation to a proportionate punishment, there is nothing to support this view in the context of Hebrew Scripture. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 256. The concern was that the guilty party bear the consequence of sin such that justice is maintained within the community. See, e.g.Leviticus 24:13-23 (discussion of punishment/compensation commensurate with injury in the context of punishment for blasphemy). Such texts are addressed to the community and its leadership structures, not to the victim or the victim’s family. Nevertheless, over the course of time they came to be used in support of personal claims for compensation. In 1st Century Palestine monetary damages had largely replaced retributive vengeance, though some rabbinical authorities questioned the propriety of this. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 John Knox Press) p. 129.

Jesus renders these disputes moot, however, in forbidding retaliation of any sort. Lest there be any doubt about the absolute nature of this command, Jesus goes on to say that “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him your left.” Vs. 39. In his fine book, Walter Wink argues that a blow to the right cheek would come as a back handed slap. Turning the left cheek would make another blow awkward and perhaps ineffective for a right handed opponent. Thus, Jesus is not really speaking of non-resistance to evil, but rather of non-violent resistance. Wink, Walter, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium, (c. 1988 Augsburg Fortress) p. 101-102.  As much as I respect Professor Wink, I think he is trying too hard to read Gandhi into the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus does not see non-violence as a strategy to achieve a larger goal or to “make a statement.” He is simply calling upon his disciples to respond to hatred and violence the way he will soon confront it himself-by loving his enemies and leaving defense of his life and retributive justice in the hands of his heavenly Father. I also do not place much significance on the fact that a blow to the face with one’s fist (if that is all Jesus is talking about) is less serious than the permanent damage contemplated by the Hebrew Scriptural sayings. In the first place, Jesus doesn’t tell us that he is referring merely to a slap in the face with the back hand. Moreover, I have visited enough ERs to know that a blow to the face with one’s fist can do some serious damage to eyes and teeth. Jesus would have us know that refusing to resist evil can result in our getting pretty banged up, perhaps even nailed to a cross. But whether it is effective, ineffective or counter-productive, non-violence is always the way of Jesus and his disciples. Violence is never an arrow in their quiver. Indeed, Jesus’ teachings about lawsuits, forced conscription and response to beggars demonstrate that coercive force of all kinds is off limits. This is not to say that non-violence is incapable of bringing about substantial social and political changes for the better. The lives of people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King demonstrate that it sometimes does. Nevertheless, disciples of Jesus do not practice peace for the sake of beneficial change. They practice peace because that is the way of Jesus, period.

In verse 43 Matthew cites Leviticus 19:18 which states in part, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” While the verse does not sanction hatred against enemies, it is clear that the term “neighbor” applies to “the sons of your own people” which would exclude gentiles as well as these “cut off” from among the people of Israel. Jesus clearly means to extend the command to love one’s neighbor to the enemy. To be clear, the enemy is not simply an unpleasant relative or a bothersome neighbor. The enemy is the one who violently attacks you and takes your property. To be sure, there were plenty of figures in antiquity who urged kindness toward enemies as a stratagem for neutralizing their malevolent intent. But Jesus does not command his disciples to love their enemies for any strategic reason. They are to love because they are, like their Master, children of their heavenly Father who loves all people, good and bad, wildly, freely and indiscriminately. This intense love that cannot be blunted by hatred and rejection is the perfection of God that soon will be manifest in the destiny of Jesus. Perfect love exercised in an imperfect world takes the shape of the cross. It winds up dead, but it doesn’t stay that way.

In sum, The Sermon on the Mount makes no rational sense apart from Jesus Christ. It does not fit into any ethical system; it does not support any coherent platform for social change; it does not fit within the confines of any ideological framework. Without Jesus, the Sermon is nothing more than a smorgasbord of disjointed sayings from which one may pick and choose, providing whatever context will give it the desired meaning. Interpreted through the “weakness” and “foolishness” of the cross, however, it illuminates the new life to which Jesus invites us. See I Corinthians 1:20-25.

Perhaps John Howard Yoder says it best of all: “This conception of participation in the character of God’s struggle with a rebellious world, which early Quakerism referred to as ‘the war of the lamb,’ has the peculiar disadvantage-or advantage, depending upon one’s point of view-of being meaningful only if Christ be he who Christians claim him to be, the Master. Almost every other kind of ethical approach espoused by Christians, pacifist or otherwise, will continue to make sense to the non-Christian as well. Whether Jesus be the Christ or not, whether Jesus Christ be Lord or not, whether this kind of religious language be meaningful or not, most types of ethical approach will keep on functioning just the same. For their true foundation is in some reading of the human situation or some ethical insight which is claimed to be generally accessible to men of good will. The same is not true for this vision of “completing in our bodies that which was lacking in the suffering of Christ.” If Jesus was not who historic Christianity confesses he was, the revelation in man of the character of God himself, then this one argument for pacifism collapses. Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus (c. 1994, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 244.

 

Sunday, January 8th

BAPTISM OF OUR LORD

Isaiah 42:1–9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34–43
Matthew 3:13–17

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God our Father, at the baptism of Jesus you proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit. Make all who are baptized into Christ faithful to their calling to be your daughters and sons, and empower us all with your Spirit, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The gospels all grapple with one single issue: the identity of Jesus. In his own words, Jesus asks “Who do you say that I am?” What the gospels give us is less a definitive answer than the parameters within and the springboard from which the church must struggle until the end of time with the same question. The Creeds of the church likewise do not end the inquiry, but rather mark decisive turning points along the way in our journey toward that time when, as Paul puts it, “we will know as we are known.”

Certain formulations of the church’s past understandings about Jesus were decisively rejected at Nicaea and Chalcedon while other formulations were recognized as faithful and true. These landmark confessions guard against our slipping back into inaccurate, incomplete and misleading formulations of the faith, but they do not finally answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, under the norming authority of Scripture and in accord with the ecumenical Creeds, the church in every age must continue to articulate its teaching and shape its practices toward a deeper faith in Jesus and an ever more faithful witness to his saving work among us.

There has never been an age in the life of the church when the importance of Jesus’ identity was more critical than our own. This is so because the identity of Jesus in the United States has been hijacked by a contingent of largely white and largely male adherents to a deviant and truncated iteration of Christianity aligned with the ugliest manifestations of nationalism, racism, patriarchy and homophobia. It is maddening to hear the media regularly employing terms like “Christian” and “Evangelical” when referring solely to this narrow demographic. Rest assured (I find myself repeating to so many people whose perceptions of the church have been shaped by this vocal minority), the vile hate speech spewing from the likes of Franklin Graham, Mike Huckabee and James Dobson does not represent the preaching and teaching of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to which I belong. We confess Jesus, the Son of the God who chose two nationless nomads to found a nation of blessing; the God who chose as his people a band of landless slaves over the powerful empires sparing for control of the earth. This God says of Jesus, “this is my beloved Son. With him I am pleased.” We follow this Jesus who didn’t have a single encouraging word for people who amass wealth nor a judgmental word to speak against the poor; who rejected family values over kingdom values; who associated himself throughout his ministry with people branded “sinners” by the “moral;” who was killed because he proclaimed the coming reign of God in which the wealthy and powerful will be toppled from their thrones and their wealth redistributed. Jesus staked his life on the coming reign of God and lost it in the process. He loved the world that much-all of it.

Now I hasten to add that we Lutherans have not been stellar examples of the Christ we proclaim. We are one of the whitest churches ever to thrive in the midst of this diverse culture growing on American soil. We have been shamefully slow to name the sins of racism and sexism among us. We have stumbled awkwardly and slowly toward recognizing and welcoming our LGBT members and the gifts they bring to our life and ministry. We are materialistic, institutionally entangled with systemic injustice, infatuated with worldly power and sadly lacking in spiritual vibrancy. Yet for all of our failures, we are at least failing in the right things. We are failed disciples of Jesus, but our failures at least testify to what we are striving to become. The worst football team in the league might be playing poorly and losing every game, but at least it is playing the game. Incompetent and inept as the players might be, they know what good football is supposed to look like and they are trying to get there. Their failures testify to what they know they should be and the game they are trying to play well.

I can’t say how successful these so-called “evangelicals” are in their game because I don’t know what game they are playing. All I can say is that it looks nothing like discipleship. Trash talking the poor, glorifying wealth, preaching hate against perceived “sinners,” advocating fear and distrust of people who are different and dealing with enemies by means of brute military force sounds nothing like the Jesus we meet in the New Testament and it certainly doesn’t sound like “good news” (the root meaning of “evangelical”). Whatever this game of theirs might be, it isn’t discipleship and it’s high time the rest of us under the “Christian” umbrella called them on it. Jesus is not the poster boy for white privilege, late stage capitalistic wealth accumulation, nationalism, bullying, sexism and discrimination. He is the friend of sinners, outcasts and what our culture regards as “the least” among us. He is the Son of our God who came to save, not condemn the world. What we say about Jesus is important. In fact, it is the most important issue we have to talk about and struggle with.Here is a poem in which Marcus Wicker struggles with the identity of Jesus.

Conjecture on the Stained Glass Image of White Christ at Ebenezer Baptist Church

For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

—1 Corinthians 12:13

If in his image made am I, then make me a miracle.
Make my shrine a copper faucet leaking everlasting Evian to the masses.
Make this empty water glass a goblet of long-legged French wine.
Make mine a Prince-purple body bag designed by Crown Royal
for tax collectors to spill over & tithe into just before I rise.
If in his image made am I, then make my vessel a pearl Coupe de Ville.
Make mine the body of a 28-year-old black woman
in a blue patterned maxi dress cruising through Hell on Earth, TX
again alive. If in his image made are we, then why
the endless string of effigies?
Why so many mortal blasphemes?
Why crucify me in HD across a scrolling news ticker, tied
to a clothesline of broken necks long as Time?
Is this thing on? Jesus on the ground. Jesus in the margins.
Of hurricane & sea. Jesus of busted levees in chocolate cities.
Jesus of the Middle East (Africa) & crows flying backwards.
Of blood, on the leaves, inside diamond mines, in under-
developed mineral-rich countries. If in your image made are we,
the proliferation of your tie-dyed hippie doppelgänger
makes you easier to daily see. & in this image didn’t we make
the godhead, slightly stony, high enough to surf a cloud?
& didn’t we leave you there, where, surely, paradise or
justice must be meted out? Couldn’t we see where water takes
the form of whatever most holds it upright? If then this
is what it’s come down to. My faith, in rifle shells.
In Glock 22 magazine sleeves. Isn’t it also then how, why,
in a bucket shot full of holes, I’ve been made to believe?

Source, Poetry (December 2016) Marcus Wicker was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1984. He is the poetry editor of Southern Indiana Review and serves as director of the New Harmony Writers Workshop. Wicker is currently an assistant professor of English at University of Southern Indiana. You can find out more about Marcus Wicker and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Isaiah 42:1–9

Verses 1-4 constitute the first of four “servant songs” found in the second of three major sections of Isaiah. See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.  The other three servant songs are found at Isaiah 49:1-6Isaiah 50:4-11 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. According to biblical commentator Claus Westermann, these songs represent a special strand within section two of Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. SCM Press, Ltd. 1969) p.  92.  This section (Isaiah 40-55), you may recall, is attributed to an unnamed prophet who lived among the Babylonian exiles during the 6th Century. 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. The servant and the servant people are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6.

Scholars hold differing views on the identity of the “servant” in these songs. Some view the servant as an individual, perhaps the prophet him/herself. Others maintain that the servant is the people of Israel whose covenant life in the restored Jerusalem will enlighten the nations. Christians from very early on have seen reflected in these verses the ministry of Jesus. It seems to me that all of these interpretations are valid in some measure. Clearly, the prophet himself/herself understood that s/he was announcing an act of God that would be revelatory for all peoples. So too Israel always had an awareness that her existence was in part a demonstration of God’s glory to the world though, like the church, she tended to forget that aspect of her calling at times. The church likewise confessed from the outset that Jesus’ lordship was defined in terms of the hopes and expectations set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as the faithful service of the prophet was a model for Israel’s servant role among the nations, so the church is a continuation of Jesus’ faithful ministry. In sum, these differing interpretations enrich rather than contradict one another.

There is an interesting contrast here between the conquering Cyrus (referred to as God’s “anointed” or “messiah.” Isaiah 45:1) before whom God “breaks in pieces the doors of bronze” and the servant who will not break a “bruised reed” or extinguish a “dimly burning wick.” Vs. 3. To be sure, God turns Cyrus (and all nations) to God’s  own redemptive purposes. But they have no knowledge or understanding of these purposes. As far as they know, they are simply pursuing their own national interests. In the end, it is not the might of Cyrus, but the quiet and faithful servant who will “bring forth justice.” The servant will accomplish this through his humble ministry of healing and compassion. It bears repeating that the witness of non-violence and redemption through peacemaking do not begin with Jesus. While the Hebrew Scriptures reflect the cruelty and violence of the cultures in which they were composed, these harsh realities serve merely as a backdrop for the peaceful reign of God to which they testify.

The messiah will not be “discouraged.” Vs. 4. The task of “establishing justice in the earth” though forgiveness, reconciliation and peacemaking requires much patience. That is a quality sorely lacking in human nature generally. We want justice now. We want peace in our time. Oddly, it is often our impatient longing for peace and justice that leads us down the false path of violence. In the face of tyranny, injustice and oppression, violence promises a swift solution. Kill the enemy. Overthrow the “axis of evil.” Fight fire with fire. In reality, however, the victory obtained by violence only sows the seeds of future violence. Yesterday’s “freedom fighters” armed to undermine Soviet power are today’s terrorists against whom we are told we must also fight. Efforts to destroy these new enemies are building up resentment in an upcoming generation of Afghan and Pakistani youths. We are merely sowing for our children a new crop of enemies that may well prove more threatening still. The “short cut” to peace and justice violence promises leads finally into a vortex of hate, breeding more and more violence and destruction.

As long as peace and justice remain abstract nouns, concepts or ideals to be achieved, they will remain forever beyond our reach. Jesus does not promise a way to peace and justice. He calls us to live justly and peacefully. It is through communities that embody the heart of God revealed in Jesus that God’s justice and peace are offered to the world. That is a hard word for impatient people who become discouraged when they cannot see measurable results from their life’s work. Disciples of Jesus know, however, that there are no shortcuts to the kingdom of God. The cross is the only way. It is a hard, slow and painful way. But it is the one sure way. That is what makes it such an incredibly joyful way.

Psalm 29

Many commentators suggest that this psalm is an Israelite poet’s adaptation of an ancient Phoenician hymn praising Baal-Hadad, the Canaanite storm god. Other commentators have maintained that the psalm is a liturgical recital of God’s appearance to Israel on Mt. Sinai. Both views might be correct. Israel frequently borrowed liturgical and literary material from its neighbors in shaping its own worship traditions. Thus, a hymn originally praising the storm god in the wake of a particularly fierce weather event might have served as a template for this psalm memorializing God’s stormy appearance on Sinai. Nothing wrong with that. After all, Luther was said to compose hymns from drinking songs.

The psalmist unashamedly attributes to Israel’s God the awe inspiring and often destructive effects of a storm. That is a little unnerving for us moderns who are squeamish about attributing anything to God that isn’t “nice.” Indeed, this psalm is particularly embarrassing in the shadow of tragic, large scale weather events. Did God send this week’s blizzards and brutal cold over the country or just allow it to occur? Does it make any difference either way? Is it more comforting to believe that God just fell asleep at the wheel and allowed a tornado to happen rather than to believe that God deliberately sent one? Has the universe gotten so far out of God’s hands that God is no longer able to prevent hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis?

I don’t pretend to have neat answers to all these questions. But perhaps part of our problem is our homocentric view of things. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that the problem may be with our “me” centered approach to faith. It seems to me that a lot of our prayers are exceedingly self-centered. We pray for good weather on our vacations-even in times when our farms are desperate for rain. We pray for an economic recovery without any thought to the economic, ecological and social havoc our economy wreaks upon the world. Even our prayers for others often have a strong streak of selfishness in them. As the father of a child with a chronic medical condition, a day does not go by that I don’t pray for her healing. Yet lately I have been wondering about my motives. Am I looking for a special miracle? By what right do I get to push to the head of the line of parents with sick children to receive such special treatment? Thanks to the benefits of medical treatment afforded by our insurance plan, my daughter is able to live a relatively normal and healthy life despite her condition. So shouldn’t any miracle go to a child without these benefits?  I find that too often my prayers do not venture beyond my own needs, concerns and the small circle of people in my small world.

Perhaps this psalm gives us some perspective. The psalmist does not begin his or her prayer with a request that God stop the storm or steer it in some other direction. The psalm begins with praise, awe and reverence for God. As Jesus taught his disciples, that is where all prayer needs to begin. Recall that in both of the creation stories from Genesis, the world was created first. In the first chapter of Genesis, the earth and all its creatures were created and declared good. Then human beings were created to rule over and care for the earth. Likewise in the second chapter of Genesis: the earth was created and God planted a garden in the earth. Then God created human beings to tend and care for the garden. The message is clear. It’s not all about us. The world was not designed to be a twenty-first century playground that is so well padded and equipped with safety features that no kid could ever possibly get hurt-or have any fun either.  No, the world is far more like the way playgrounds used to be-places where you can really play. It pains me to no end that my grandchildren will probably never know the ecstasy of rocketing half way to the sky on a real swing set. Nor will they ever experience the dizzying high you could get from one of those merry-go-rounds that we used to crank up to warp speed. Our public parks have been cleansed of all such unacceptable risks. The attorneys and insurance underwriters who have taken over our lives have determined that fun is just too dangerous for kids.

But don’t get me started on that. We were talking about the psalm and the fact that we are not the center of God’s universe. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, God is not a tame lion. God is not “safe” and neither is the world God made. There is no room in the Bible or in real life for a wimpy, weak kneed religion that longs for a “nice” god. You can get hurt on this planet and tragically so. But for all that, the earth is a good place to be. It’s a place where you can have real fun. Beauty the likes of which you see in the ocean, in the storm and on the top of Sinai necessarily has an element of terror.  The psalmist doesn’t hide in the storm shelter and plead with God not to be so scary. The psalmist praises God for this awesome display of power and rejoices in the beauty, wonder and terror of creation. This is the glorious world God made and the stage on which God acts. The psalmist doesn’t complain about its dangers. S/he prays instead that Israel will find the courage to live boldly and faithfully in this grand universe. Anybody who whines about bad weather and wishes that God had made a safer planet has never been on a real swing!

Acts 10:34–43

Acceptance of gentiles into the church was a contentious issue.  Peter’s vision related in Acts 10:1-16 reflects the inner struggle of the deeply Jewish church with the positive response of gentiles to the good news about Jesus. Most Jews, like Peter, harbored serious reservations about receiving these outsiders into the church. How could these outsiders possibly have an informed and sincere faith in the Jewish messiah when they knew next to nothing about the Jewish scriptures and practices? What would be the consequences of an influx of these new comers? What conditions, if any, should be placed upon admission of a gentile believer? Must he be circumcised? Should he be required to learn the Hebrew Scriptures? Peter was on solid scriptural grounds with his scruples about eating ritually unclean food and sharing meal fellowship with non-Jews. Jewish believers under the Greek tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes chose to endure torture and to die horrible deaths rather than eat food deemed unclean as demanded. I Maccabees 1:62-64. How could Peter go into the home of a Roman, an oppressor of Israel to eat his unclean food at his unclean table? Would this not dishonor the memory of the brave martyrs under Antiochus?

Peter’s declaration “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him…is acceptable to him” came only after much difficult soul searching. Peter had to give up his long held interpretation of the scriptures and religious practices that had been part of his life since infancy. That did not come easily. I suspect it was not until Peter witnessed the Holy Spirit breathing life giving faith into the Roman Cornelius and his family that he became fully convinced that these folks should be baptized. He simply decided that any interpretation of the scriptures that stands between Jesus and a believing heart cannot possibly be right no matter how clear, convincing and well established it may be.

This story of Peter and Cornelius, along with my having met many gay and lesbian people of faith over the years, is what ultimately convinced me that the church must be fully inclusive and welcoming to these folks. When all is said and done; when all the scriptural arguments have been made; there remains the fact that the Holy Spirit has moved a person to faith in Jesus. I find myself asking, as did Peter, “Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Acts 10:47.

Matthew 3:13–17

The relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist has always been a subject of dispute among New Testament scholars.  About all they can seem to agree upon is the fact that Jesus was baptized by John. Knowing as little as we do about John the Baptist and what his ministry represented, that isn’t much to go on. How did John understand his own role? The New Testament portrays him as Jesus’ forerunner, but did he see himself that way? It seems obvious to me that John saw himself as the forerunner of somebody. The gospels all agree on this point and, unless one rejects the gospel narratives as reliable information about John (some biblical scholars have), then it seems that John understood his baptism as a preparation for the coming of the Messiah. The Gospel of Matthew very explicitly identifies John’s ministry with the return of Elijah foretold in Malachi 4:5see Matthew 17:9-13. Knowing what we do about the fate of John, this revelation can only alert us to the reception the Messiah will finally receive at the hands of Rome and the religious leadership in Jerusalem.

The larger question is: Why would Jesus seek out and submit to a baptism of repentance? Mark and Luke see no need to deal with this obvious question. The Gospel of John does not specifically state the Jesus was baptized by John, only that John bears witness to Jesus. Matthew, by contrast, puts into the mouth of John himself the question we must all be asking. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” vs. 14. Jesus’ response is that his receipt of John’s baptism is necessary to “fulfill all righteousness.” But does that explain why Jesus would need a baptism of repentance? I suppose that depends on how you understand the word “repent.” Literally, the Greek word means to turn around or go in a new direction. In the New Testament context, the term means turning toward God and God’s will. For sinful human beings, that necessarily means turning away from sin. But for Jesus, the sinless Son of God, it means simply to turn toward God. That is not to say that Jesus ever was turned away from God, but merely that Jesus’ turning toward God is much the same as his being “eternally begotten of the Father.” As the obedient Son, Jesus is always turning toward God. Only as the Word becomes incarnate and becomes flesh (to borrow John’s language) does this turning appear as a discrete act rather than an intrinsic and essential aspect of his being. So understood, Jesus’ baptism into the body of people prepared by John for the coming of the Messiah is but another step in his messianic mission of drawing that body into the Kingdom of Heaven.

“This fulfilling takes place in the adoption of baptism: in that the Messianic judge of the worlds and the Messianic baptizer himself becomes a candidate for baptism, humbles himself and enters the ranks of sinners. By this means he fulfils ‘all righteousness.’” Barth, Gerhard, “Matthew’s Understanding of the Law,” printed in Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew, The New Testament Library (c. SCM Press Ltd 1963) p. 138. It is important to recognize that for both John and Jesus, righteousness has nothing to do with adherence to an objective moral code and everything to do with being rightly related to God and to neighbor. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew-A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 154.  That is not to say, of course, that the law has no importance for Matthew. To the contrary, Matthew more than any of the other gospel writers emphasizes Jesus as the fulfilment of the law, no part of which can be set aside as long as heaven and earth endure. Matthew 5:17-18. Yet for this very reason righteousness must grow not out of slavish obedience to the letter of the law, but out of faithfulness to Jesus. The latter righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the law as demonstrated by the Sermon on the Mount.

This gospel lesson is rich with references and allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures. The declaration of the divine voice is almost a direct quote from Psalm 2:

I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron,
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’

Psalm 2:7-9. Matthew’s allusion to this psalm reflects his conviction that Jesus is indeed Israel’s king. Yet this declaration must be juxtaposed to the so called “king of the Jews” we have already met, namely, Herod. The coronation of Jesus at his baptism signals a new kind of king that exercises a very different sort of power and calls us into a kingdom radically different from any nation or kingdom the world has ever known.

More distant scriptural echoes are heard in the creation out of the watery chaos in Genesis 1:1-2; the liberation of Israel from slavery into freedom by passage through the Red Sea. Exodus 14:1-15:2. Matthew means to let us know that, although Jesus is by every measure the king that was David, the teacher that was Moses and the prophet that was Elijah, he is much more. The presence of the Holy Spirit brooding over the waters of the Jordan into which Jesus enters and emerges testifies that God is doing something altogether new here. In the words of Stan Hauerwas, “Jesus is unleashed into the world. His mission will not be easy, for the kingdom inaugurated by his life and death is not one that can be recognized on the world’s terms. He is the beloved Son who must undergo the terror produced by our presumption that we are our own creators. He submits to John’s baptism just as he will submit to the crucifixion so that we might know how God would rule the world. His journey begins. Matthew would have us follow.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brozos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 49.

 

Sunday, December 4th

Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 11:1–10
Psalm 72:1–7, 18–19
Romans 15:4–13
Matthew 3:1–12

Prayer of the Day: Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming nurture our growth as people of repentance and peace; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The prophet Isaiah was not a fortune teller. Neither was he a dreamy, starry eyed idealist musing on utopian ideals. He was an astute observer of the geopolitical climate of the 8th Century B.C.E. He saw with clarity what Judah’s kings and princes failed to perceive. The world was changing. The age of small, petty kingdoms like Judah was drawing to a close. The future belonged to imperial superpowers like Assyria, Babylon and Egypt. The old policies, strategies and alliances that seemed to have served Judah well in the past were no longer working in this new age. Judah’s “business as usual” approach to the conduct of its commercial and political affairs was destined to lead the nation into disaster. For king and people, this was a fearful time. They could sense vaguely the storm brewing on the horizon, but had no clear understanding of what it was or how to meet it. There was no going back to the good old days and no obvious way forward. This was an age plagued by doubt, perplexity and fear-the perfect culture for growing the dangerous virus of messianic longing, the desire for a leader that can be trusted.

Fear makes us stupid. It can drive an otherwise thoughtful and intelligent person to make irrational decisions and bad choices. I have seen doctors and medical professionals turn to miracle vitamins peddled by late night TV infomercials when confronted with a menacing diagnosis. I have seen people who have spent a lifetime scoffing at organized religion and ridiculing those who follow it turn to palm readers, psychics and tarot cards when their loved ones are in peril. The heart wants desperately to believe in a comforting lie even though the brain knows better.

That is why fear responds so eagerly to an authoritative voice offering simple solutions for complex problems, fixating blame for all one’s ills on a convenient scapegoat and promising protection-all in exchange for loyalty that fearful people are often only too glad to give. Fear is the engine of populism, nationalism and lynch mobs. Fear grasps the outstretched hand of a strong man like a drowning cat latching onto anything within reach. Fear will make people trust and obey anyone who seems able to deliver the safety and security for which they long, no matter how implausible their promises appear in the light of reason. Frightened people are easily manipulated into doing frightening things. False messiahs understand this. They are masters at manipulating fear. It is not for nothing that Jesus warned us in last week’s gospel to beware of people who come to us in times of great calamity seeking a following and claiming “I am the one.”

The messiah promised by Isaiah does not appeal to our fear. Instead, he inspires hope. This messiah promises justice and righteousness for the nations-not vengeance against them. This messiah smites the earth, not with the sword, but with the “rod of his mouth,” that is, his words. This messiah promises, not the destruction of enemies, but their reconciliation. There will be peace, says the prophet, when the earth is “full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Arguments, not armies will finally win us peace. Reconciliation, not victory, will bring an end to the predatory relationship between peoples and the nation states that set them one against another. Security is found not in the building of walls, but in knocking them down. When God is feared, all that is less than God loses its power to terrify and intimidate. In the absence of fear, tyrants and demagogues lose their power; borders blur into nothingness and walls come tumbling down.

This is a bold confession: that what no army, no empire, no leader has ever been able to accomplish, God’s messiah will bring about with his voice, with his appeal to our hearts. The word, the Word Incarnate, the Word of God spoken by frail human tongues is mightier than the sword of the tyrant. Here’s a poem by Robert Graves about the divine power of words that might just resonate with the prophet Isaiah or perhaps even John the Evangelist.

The God Called Poetry

Now I begin to know at last,
These nights when I sit down to rhyme,
The form and measure of that vast
God we call Poetry, he who stoops
And leaps me through his paper hoops
A little higher every time.

Tempts me to think I’ll grow a proper
Singing cricket or grass-hopper
Making prodigious jumps in air
While shaken crowds about me stare
Aghast, and I sing, growing bolder
To fly up on my master’s shoulder
Rustling the thick stands of his hair.

He is older than the seas,
Older than the plains and hills,
And older than the light that spills
From the sun’s hot wheel on these.
He wakes the gale that tears your trees,
He sings to you from window sills.

At you he roars, or he will coo,
He shouts and screams when hell is hot,
Riding on the shell and shot.
He smites you down, he succours you,
And where you seek him, he is not.

To-day I see he has two heads
Like Janus—calm, benignant, this;
That, grim and scowling: his beard spreads
From chin to chin: this god has power
Immeasurable at every hour:
He first taight lovers how to kiss,
He brings down sunshine after shower,
Thunder and hate are his also,
He is YES and he is NO.

The black beard spoke and said to me,
‘Human fraility though you be,
Yet shout and crack your whip, be harsh!
They’ll obey you in the end:
Hill and field, river and marsh
Shall obey you, hop and skip
At the terrour of your whip,
To your gales of anger bend.’

The pale beard spoke and said in turn
‘True: a prize goes to the stern,
But sing and laugh and easily run
Through the wide airs of my plain,
Bathe in my waters, drink my sun,
And draw my creatures with soft song;
They shall follow you along
Graciously with no doubt or pain.’

Then speaking from his double head
The glorious fearful monster said
‘I am YES and I am NO,
Black as pitch and white as snow,
Love me, hate me, reconcile
Hate with love, perfect with vile,
So equal justice shall be done
And life shared between moon and sun.
Nature for you shall curse or smile:
A poet you shall be, my son.’

Robert Graves (1895-1985) was an English poet, novelist, critic and classicist. He produced more than 140 works. Graves received his early education  at a series of six preparatory schools during which time he became a proficient boxer as well as a poet. At the outbreak of the First World War, Graves enlisted almost immediately and served with distinction, though his career as a soldier was hampered by the German elements in his name and a persistent (though unfounded) rumor that he had German sympathies and was a spy. His personal life was tumultuous. His first marriage ended in divorce. The business he undertook following the war failed leaving him destitute. Still, Graves continued to write and gradually gained recognition in his native England and abroad. You can learn more about Robert Graves and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Isaiah 11:1–10

Though obviously connected with verses 1-9 by references to Jesse, the father of David, most scholars view verse 10 as part of a unit separate from these preceding verses. See, e.g., Mauchline, John Isaiah 1-39, (c 1962 SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 129. Verses 1-9 speak to the character of the promised Davidic king whereas verse 10 and following speak of his role in gathering together the exiles of Israel. In my view, adding verse 10 onto the end of the reading detracts from its powerful conclusion in verse 9: “for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

Isaiah 7:14 speaks of the birth of Emmanuel. Isaiah 9:6-7 describes a child born to bear the weight of governance on his shoulders and who is given several names descriptive of his attributes. This Sunday’s reading form Isaiah 11 must be considered in connection with these verses. There is some dispute over whether the new branch representing the messianic king grows merely from the line of David or whether use of the word “stump” suggests a tree that has been cut down. If the latter is the case, one would assume that the utterance took place during a time of national disaster threatening the existence of the Davidic line. Consequently, some commentators date this oracle in the post-exilic era attributing it to a prophet other than Isaiah. I am not convinced that the language is clear enough to make a firm determination. Moreover, even assuming that the stump denotes a denuded kingdom, such a condition also matches the state of affairs existing in the aftermath of the ruinous raid by Assyrian Emperor Sennacherib in 701 B.C.E. That invasion nearly obliterated the kingdom of Judah. However one might date the oracle, though, the prophet obviously looks for God to act through a descendent from the line of David.

The Spirit of God will rest upon the savior king. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Spirit signifies God’s energy, vitality and life force which can be communicated to human beings. It can express itself in skill (Exodus 31:3Exodus 35:31), wisdom (Genesis 41:38), courage (Judges 6:34) or prophetic insight (Numbers 11:25-30). The Spirit’s involvement here is not unlike Paul’s view of the one Spirit conferring numerous gifts upon the church. I Corinthians 12:4-11. Verse 2, declaring that upon this leader shall rest “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” is prominently featured in our baptismal liturgy as well as the confirmation and ordination rites. At first blush, it might sound odd to hear that the messianic savior’s “delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” Delight and fear are not words I am used to hearing in such close proximity. Nonetheless, any intimate relationship that does not have an element of awe, wonder and, yes, fear in it probably isn’t worth having.

Verses 4-6 are critical in my view because they undermine the “myth of redemptive violence” that has gained nearly creedal status in mainline Christianity. Note well that when this king “smites” the earth he does so with “the rod of his mouth.” When he slays the wicked, he does it with “the breath of his lips.” God exercises his reign through speech-through the Word and Spirit-not through violent and coercive means. This shoot from the stump of Jesse is not simply a kinder, gentler Caesar on steroids. There is a reason why Jesus would not accept the political power and glory of the world’s kingdoms when offered to him on a silver platter. There is a reason for the observation that when the church seeks to shape history by seizing the levers of power, the world seldom gets any better but the church always becomes worse. Coercion, whether it comes in the form of naked military power or in the more subtle guise of a “political solution,” cannot bring about the state of affairs God desires. Only the Spirit working through the relentless proclamation of the Word can bring about the peaceable kingdom. Not until the earth is “full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” can Isaiah’s vision become reality.

Obviously, the state of harmony among living creatures is contrary to everything we know about ecology and animal physiology. Clearly, one ought not to take these images as literal truth. Isaiah’s point is that the fear and hostility experienced by human beings from destructive carnivorous animals will end as the savior king’s reign extends even into the realm of nature. It is easy to lose sight of this point living as we do in a world where such animals have far more to fear from us than we need fear them! Still and all, this vision testifies to God’s end (telos) for creation that shatters all expectations based on our current understanding of the universe and its ways. Thus, we ought not to castrate Isaiah by turning his marvelous visions into mere metaphors of social progress. Such sermonic slop is hardly worth giving up a pleasant Sunday morning with the New York Times, a fresh bagel with cream cheese and a good cup of coffee.

Psalm 72:1–7, 18–19

This is a royal psalm probably used either for coronation ceremonies or the annual commemoration of God’s covenant with the line of David. The prayer has many similarities with those of Israel’s neighbors. For example, a hymn celebrating the accession of the Egyptian monarch, Ramses IV sometime around 1160 B.C.E. reads:

They who were hungry are sated and gay;
They who were thirsty are drunken.
They who were naked are clothed in fine linen;
They who were dirty are clad in white.
They who were in prison are set free;
They who were fettered are in joy.
The troublemakers in this land have become peaceful.

Pritchard, J.B. Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p. 379 cited in Rogerson,, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100,The Cambridge Bible Commentary, (c 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 113. The difference, of course, is that for Israel, the blessings arising out of the king’s rule are not merely incidental to strong leadership, but flow directly from faithfulness to the Davidic covenant making the king an agent of God’s justice. Consequently, justice for the poor, the widow and the orphan are the king’s particular concern. As the prophets point out, few if any of David’s descendents lived up to their covenant obligations. Even David himself sometimes fell short. Disappointment in Israel’s monarchy led the people of God to wonder whether any human agent is up to the task of doing justice and practicing righteousness. But perhaps that is the wrong question. Jesus’ messianic mission questions not the ability of human beings to rule justly, but the political structures, methods and strategies by which they attempt to do justice. Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection demonstrate, among other things, that violence does not work. Ever. Not even when it is used to achieve a greater good.

In its usual concern for protecting the sensibilities of graying, white, upper middle class, slightly left of center protestants, the lectionary has excised a chunk of this psalm in which the psalmist prays for the expansion of the king’s reign over “all” the nations. If you wish, you can read it here. Evidently the editors did not feel the expression of such imperialistic ambitions appropriate for worship. If you ask me, though, it is no more offensive than singing “Jesus shall reign where ‘er the sun, doth its successive journeys run.” If Jesus is who we say he is, then the song is perfectly appropriate. So, I would argue, is the middle of this psalm. Again, the question we must bring to this psalm is: “What sort of king are we talking about and what sort of reign does he exercise?” Regardless of what the psalmist or the worshipers who first sang this song may have thought, for those of us reading the scriptures through the lens of the cross this is a king that smites the world with his life giving speech, slays the wicked by convicting them through Word and Spirit and extends his rule over the nations by welcoming them into covenant. Our reading from Romans illustrates that very point.

Romans 15:4–13

Though this brief passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans seems to have been lifted out of the text with no thought to context, it nevertheless contains several verses well worth talking about. Verse 4 speaks about the purpose of the scriptures-which is to give us hope and encouragement. Yet how often haven’t we seen the scriptures used to judge, condemn, exclude and criticize? Instead of encouraging us to live in harmony, scriptural preaching has often been used to disrupt harmony, widen fault lines within the church and promote schism. There are volumes to be said on this score alone.

Hope is a recurring theme throughout this reading. It is said to be the focus of the scriptural witness. Vs 4. The messianic shoot from the root of Jesse is said to be the hope of the gentiles. Vs. 12. The reading concludes with Paul’s prayer that the Roman church “may abound in hope.” Vs. 13. This is certainly an appropriate topic for Advent!

Verse 7 is also a great starting point for speaking about hospitality. “Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you.” That would seem to exclude just about every rationale thinkable for denying entry into the church of Christ. Paul is often faulted for his lack of emphasis on Jesus’ life and teachings, but behind his instructions and admonitions to his churches you can find every parable Jesus ever spoke along with the Sermon on the Mount.

Matthew 3:1–12

John the Baptist often gets a bum rap in biblical art. Frequently, he is portrayed as an angry sourpuss threatening his hearers with the wrath of God. He actually does that when the Pharisees and Sadducees come on the scene. But his preaching to the general public begins with a call to repentance framed in the context of Isaiah 40 which opens with the words, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Isaiah 40:1. The voice crying out for preparation of a way in the wilderness from Isaiah 40:3 is one of ecstatic joy. Repentance, therefore, is not to be understood as the woeful, breast beating, and self punishing sort of exercise that twisted medieval piety has made of it. Rather, it is a joyful turning away from self destructive attitudes and behavior toward new possibilities opened up by the intervention of a gracious and loving God. So forget the John you met in all those 1960s Sunday school leaflets. Matthew’s John laughs out loud and smiles.

More than any of the other gospel writers, Matthew makes clear the connection between the ministry of John the Baptist and Malachi’s prediction of Elijah’s return. See Malachi 4:5-6Matthew 17:12. Nevertheless, just as I do not believe Matthew ties Jesus exclusively to any one particular Hebrew scriptural character, so also I think it is probably not a good idea to make too much of Matthew’s identification of John with Elijah. Just as his allusions to parallels between Jesus and Moses, Joshua, Elijah and the ancient people of Israel serve to illuminate Jesus’ identity from as many angles as possible, so too I think that the comparison between John and Elijah serves more to explain his prophetic ministry than to fit him into the framework of a master plot. See my post for Sunday, November 27th.

Why would the Pharisees and Sadducees be coming to John for baptism? That seems out of character from what we learn of them in the chapters to come. It is possible that this is merely a literary device designed to introduce us to the hypocrisy of these representatives of Judaism. Yet the gospels seem to agree that John was widely respected by the general public, so much so that the leaders were afraid to criticize him in the presence of the people. See Matthew 21:23-27Mark 11:27-33Luke 20:1-8. It is therefore possible that members of these two groups were drawn to John’s preaching and perhaps even sought his baptism. Their lives, however, were not transformed so as to produce fruit befitting repentance.

John’s ire against the Pharisees and Sadducees seems to be directed principally at their insistence (mutually antagonistic) that they represent the “true” Israel. In point of fact, God doesn’t care about “roots” (upon which the ax of God’s wrath will soon fall) but for “fruits,” that is, the quality of a life transformed in anticipation of the Kingdom of heaven. It is hard to know whether the lectionary makers saw the irony in juxtaposing Isaiah’s focus on the “root of Jesse” as an image of hope and John’s dismissal of rootedness even in the expansive line of Abraham. So what is it preacher? Roots or fruits?

Is it possible that in all this talk of making children of Abraham from stones, Matthew (or his source) is alluding to Isaiah 51:1-12? There the prophet invites his discouraged post-exilic hearers to “look to the rock from which you were hewn and the quarry from which you were digged. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for when he was but one I called him and blessed him and made him many.” Isaiah 51:1-2. Clearly, God remains faithful to Israel and her people. But God’s faithfulness should not be taken for granted. Just as God made of the aged Abraham and his barren wife a great people, so God can “hew” another people from barren stone should the need arise. See Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Text Commentary (c. 2005 William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 144-45. Such an allusion is quite possible and would further emphasize Matthew’s insistence on repentance and transformation in anticipation of the coming kingdom over any claim of pedigree.

Matthew ties John’s ministry closely to Jesus. Their respective messages are identical: repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Matthew 3:2 and Matthew 4:17. Nevertheless, their respective roles are as different as night and day. For Matthew, John is a transitional figure. He represents the end of the line of Israel’s faithful prophets. As such, he is worthy of honor and recognition. But his mission consists in making way for Jesus whose coming initiates the new age of the Kingdom of Heaven. The least among the children of this new age is therefore even greater than John. Matthew 11:11-15.

 

Sunday, November 20th

Christ the King

Jeremiah 23:1–6
Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11–20
Luke 23:33–43

Prayer of the Day: O God, our true life, to serve you is freedom, and to know you is unending joy. We worship you, we glorify you, we give thanks to you for your great glory. Abide with us, reign in us, and make this world into a fit habitation for your divine majesty, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The critical question we face on this Sunday of Christ the King is posed in a hymn we often sing on that occasion: “O Christ, What Can it Mean for Us to Claim you as our King?” What indeed can it mean for us to claim as the ultimate authority in our lives the one who associated with the outcast, befriended the outlaw, blessed the poor, welcomed the outsider and chose death over violence?

The recent uptick in racial violence poses this question in a particularly pointed way to those of us who identify as white. On the Wednesday following election day, numerous acts of racist and sexist aggression occurred throughout the United States. Two male Babson College students drove a pickup truck waving a Donald Trump flag through the campus of Wellesley College where my daughter and other Wellesley alumnae had gathered for an election watch party. The truck cruised in front of Harambee House, a meeting place for students of color, as the two shouted racist and sexist insults and spit in the direction of Wellesley Students. In South Philadelphia the words “Seig Heil 2016,” were spray painted across a storefront window along with a swastika. In Wellsville, New York, a softball dugout at a local park was reportedly defaced with the words “Make America White Again” and a swastika. In the Minneapolis suburb of Maple Grove, students at the local high school were greeted on Wednesday morning with the words, “Whites Only” along with a string of obscene and racist remarks I will not dignify by repeating. And in York, Pennsylvania, students were filmed chanting “white power” while parading through the halls at a local high school. That was all in just one single day.

Racism has been endemic to American culture since the days of our founding. To the credit of many of our leaders, black, white, Asian, Latino and others, we have eradicated the most overt forms it has taken. But racial injustice has continued to operate under the radar of our laws and policies. I doubt it is any worse today than in prior decades, but I do believe the fierce campaign rhetoric from this election cycle has unleashed the beast. Racial slurs and sexist insults, that for long years were never spoken in polite company, have been dragged up from the sewers and brought back into mainline discourse. We have sent a message to many of our young people that it is OK, even “cool” to be racist again.

Over the last week I have heard a lot of admonitions to let by bygones be bygones, accept the result of the election and move on. That actually sounds pretty good to me. I would like nothing more than to erase all memory of this last campaign from my hard drive and start fresh! I’m not a sore loser. One of my first official pastoral acts on Wednesday morning after election day was to pray for President Elect, Donald Trump. I wish him and the new administration well. But I am fearful for the well-being of my friends who are people of color. I am fearful for my loved ones who are lesbian, gay and transgendered. I am worried about the growing number of folks who seem to think it is now OK to threaten, insult and humiliate them. I can accept the result of the election, but I will never accept a culture in which people of color, sexual minorities and women must live in fear. Whatever other political differences we might have, I hope we can say that we are agreed on that.

As church, we confess that all human beings share one ancestor and all are called to redemption through one baptism into the one Body of Christ. Because this baptismal oneness is at the heart of the scriptures, the creeds and our confessions, we can’t simply sweep the scandal of racial injustice under the rug. Neither can we remain silent when the most vulnerable among us are targets of terror and intimidation. What is being done to our sisters and brothers throughout the country is being done to Jesus, our King. When we overcome our spiritual neuropathy, when we understand that we truly are one body and that the health of the whole depends on the health of each part, then we will realize that what is being done to our sisters and brothers is being done to ourselves as well. Because we claim Jesus as our king, we can be nowhere else but at the side of all who are now feeling the sting of discrimination, bullying and intimidation.

Here’s a poem by Langston Hughes. May we all learn to see the world through his eyes and with his clarity!

I Look at the World

I look at the world
From awakening eyes in a black face—
And this is what I see:
This fenced-off narrow space
Assigned to me.

I look then at the silly walls
Through dark eyes in a dark face—
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!

I look at my own body
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.

Source: Poetry Magazine (January 2009) Langston Hughes was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”  Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).

Jeremiah 23:1–6

Jeremiah pulls no punches here. He faults Judah’s kings, her “shepherds,” for recklessly leading the nation into a ruinous war with Babylon that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem, the exile of a substantial number of Jews and the scattering of the remainder of the people into distant lands. His criticism of these rulers, however, goes far beyond the obvious failure of their geopolitical policies. By referring to them as “shepherds,” Jeremiah is reminding his hearers that kingship in Israel was never intended to be a position of privilege. At the coronation of a Judean king, the people prayed:

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
2 May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.

Psalm 72:1-4. The king was to be the agent of God’s justice and compassion in Israel. The wellbeing of the people, particularly the most vulnerable members of society, was to be the king’s chief concern. King Zedekiah’s decision to release Judah’s slaves in accord with the provisions of the Torah in the face of imminent military invasion and his calculated revocation of that ruling when the threat seemed to recede demonstrates just how callus and dismissive the rulers of Jeremiah’s time had become to the responsibilities of kingship. See post from October 27, 2013. In response, God declares through the mouth of Jeremiah that he himself will take kingship into his own hands. God will gather the remnants of Judah from all the nations to which they have fled or been carried away in exile. God will lead them back to their land and shepherd them with justice and compassion. It seems here as though God were saying, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

But then in verse 5 the Lord declares through his prophet that he will raise up a “righteous Branch” for David who will deal wisely and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. This seems contrary to the previous declaration in which God appears to have given up altogether on the line of David and human kingship. It is possible that this oracle comes from an earlier period in Jeremiah’s career when he may still have hoped for a righteous king to emerge from David’s line. The passage might also be from a subsequent editor who held such a hope. However that might be, the canonical testimony is that kingship over God’s people is rooted in God’s reign over all of creation. That reign is characterized by care for the land, compassion for God’s people and faithfulness to God’s covenant. That no human ruler has ever come close to exercising such a gentle and peaceful reign suggests that the good life God intends for creation cannot be implemented by political means.

It has been said that “war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means.” Carl von Clausewitz, On War. The converse is also true, namely, that politics is war by other means. It is after all through political arrangements, international treaties and multi-national commercial agreements that the dominance of the wealthier nations over the vast majority of poverty stricken peoples is maintained. The political structures that enforce grinding poverty, starvation and oppression are no less violent than terrorist attacks. Economic sanctions inflicting hunger and poverty on populations having little or no control over the governments these sanctions were intended to punish are acts of violence as devastating as any bombing raid. Most often, differences between the “military” and the “political” solution to a conflict are merely definitional. Violence is always the common denominator.

It is not for nothing, therefore, that Jesus refused to take hold of the levers of political power when they were handed to him on a silver platter by the devil. It is not for nothing that Jesus taught his disciples that the use of violence, whether offensively or defensively, is not an option for them. It is not for nothing that Jesus would not allow his disciples to use violence to defend him from crucifixion and that he also refused to invoke violent divine intervention against his enemies. It is not for nothing that God responded to the murder of his only begotten Son not with vengeance, but by raising him up and offering him to us again. Absolute renunciation of violence is not just the fringe position of a few Christians at the margins of orthodoxy. It stands at the heart of the New Testament witness to Jesus. If Jesus is our king, we can have no truck with violence whether on the battlefield or in the halls of congress.

Is politics therefore to be avoided totally? I don’t believe so. Every community needs order and disciples of Jesus benefit no less from the protections afforded, the benefits offered and the security ensured by government. Accordingly, disciples are obligated to share in the responsibility for maintaining the health and proper functioning of governmental institutions through political involvement. But like all good gifts, politics becomes toxic when it is used for selfish and self-serving ends. It becomes demonic when it usurps the reign of God. The idolatries of nationalism, imperialism and colonialism stem from divinizing nation, race, tribe or ideology.

Psalm 46

See my post from October 27, 2013 on which this psalm was one of the appointed lessons. I will only add here that verse 9 emphasizes God’s emphatic commitment to “make all wars cease to the end of the earth.”

Colossians 1:11–20

For an excellent introduction to this epistle, see the Summary Article by Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament on enterthebible.org. Of particular interest in this reading are verses 15-20. These passages are believed by most scholars to consist of an ancient Christian hymn to Christ that was incorporated into the letter by the author. As such, they demonstrate that from very early on the church understood Jesus’ life, death and resurrection to be an event of cosmic proportions with ramifications for the whole creation. The opening stanza of the hymn proclaims Jesus as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Vs. 15. Yet he is also “the head of the body, the church…” vs. 18. Consequently, the church is the concrete expression of the presence of God in and for the world. This is a remarkable claim made for a teacher from an obscure town who was ultimately rejected by the leaders of his people, deserted by all of his followers and put to a cruel, shameful death by a Roman governor.

The cosmic scope of Jesus’ ministry is reflected in the claim that through him God “reconciled to himself all things, whether on earth or heaven, making peace through the blood of his cross.” Vs. 20. The resurrection of Jesus is therefore not merely the hope of individual believers. It is the destiny of all creation of which the church is but the first fruits. This bold assertion refutes the limited, non-biblical notion of salvation as a rescue operation to save as many souls as possible from a sinking ship. Clearly, God is determined to save the entire ship! That is what makes the gospel good news not only for disciples of Jesus, but for all creation.

The temptation, of course, is to “spiritualize” this passage. Paul does not wish for us to view our “inheritance of the saints in light” as a future event. These riches belong to us even now and should shape the way we live our lives and the way we handle our wealth. If the world remains unreconciled to God; if we are a people without a heavenly Father who promises to provide for all our needs; if the world is a place of ever diminishing resources-then the only sensible thing to do is grab as much of the pie as you can now before it disappears altogether. This is the survivalist mentality. If the reign of God has any meaning to such people, it is in the distant future, after death, in the sweet by and by. That is all well and good. But I have to live now.

Paul’s point, however, is that the inheritance of the saints in light is now. The fullness of God is present now in the community of faith, a community that is called to live now under the jurisdiction of God’s reign of abundance and peace. How else will the creation learn that reconciliation has been accomplished? How else will the world know that there is an alternative to our death spiral of endless consumer greed for more stuff and ruthless commercial exploitation of the earth to feed it? Unless the Body of Christ practices confidence in God’s reconciling power and the generosity it inspires, how will the world ever understand what human life is supposed to look like? How will people come to believe that the future of creation is resurrection rather than apocalyptic demise unless they see the reality of resurrection faith lived out by Jesus’ disciples?

Luke 23:33–43

This passage seems to put to bed once and for all any claim Jesus might have to kingship. His death is one reserved for insurrectionists, terrorists and those guilty of the most heinous crimes. Pilate inscribes over the cross the title “King of the Jews” so that everyone will understand that before you go claiming to be a king, you had better make sure you really are one. In Mark and Matthew Jesus is mocked by all who pass by. In Luke’s gospel, however, a crowd of people including many women accompany Jesus to the cross with weeping and lamentation. Luke 23:27. The Jewish leaders mock and deride Jesus, but the crowds merely stand by silently witnessing the crucifixion. Vs. 35. Though all of the gospels report that Jesus was crucified along with two other criminals, only Luke relates the story of the criminal who sought recognition in Jesus’ coming kingdom. He alone seems to recognize Jesus’ kingship, a subject of mockery for the Roman soldiers and the Jewish leaders. Though sympathetic, it is not at all clear that the crowds recognize Jesus as anything more than a righteous teacher suffering an undeserved fate.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion turns our notion of kingship on its head. It is clear now that the reign of God is taking a very different form than we might have expected. Jesus is certainly not a king under any existing model of kingship. He has no army, nor royal court, no power to compel obedience. His might-and the might of God as well-consist in just this: that Jesus is able to continue loving his enemies in the face of the most virulent hatred. Just as he refused to accept his disciples’ efforts to defend him with the sword or to invoke divine power in his own defense in the Garden of Gethsemane, so now he will not rain down curses at his enemies from the cross. His only words are words of forgiveness. God will not be sucked into the vortex of retribution. That is God’s power. “For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums, but deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.” “Lead on, O King Eternal,” Lutheran Book of Worship, # 495.

What exactly did Jesus mean when he told the bandit crucified with him on the cross: “Today you will be with me in paradise?” According to the understanding of death in the Hebrew Scriptures, the end of life is the end of everything; body soul, spirit and whatever else might constitute a human person. Sheol, the abode of the dead, was not viewed as a continuation of life after death. Rather, it was a sort of universal grave yard of unknowing. In the much later apocalyptic writings like Daniel, we find a growing belief in the resurrection of the dead. Nevertheless, the dead are truly and completely dead. If they are raised to life again, it is only because God exercises his prerogative to breathe life back into the lifeless dust all flesh is destined to become.

By the dawn of the first century when Jesus’ ministry took place, Jewish beliefs about death and the afterlife were diverse and complex. The Sadducees, as we saw last week, rejected altogether the resurrection of the dead or any form of human existence after death. The Pharisees, by contrast acknowledged the resurrection of the dead. Some of them at some point also believed in a paradise for the souls of the righteous awaiting the resurrection. According to at least one commentator I have read, this post-biblical understanding of paradise was behind Jesus’ promise to the bandit crucified with him. Caird, G.B. The Gospel of Saint Luke, The pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. G.B. Caird, 1963, Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 253.

I don’t buy it. The scriptures use a host of metaphors and images when speaking about death and resurrection (how else can you speak of such things?). It is dangerous to draw metaphysical conclusions from parabolic speech. The Greek word translated “paradise” in this passage merely means “garden.” It was employed by the Greek translation of the Old Testament scriptures to describe the Garden of Eden. As such, it was also used as a metaphor for the restored creation under the reign of God. Jesus’ promise, then, was that the crucified criminal would share in the reign of God which was breaking through even now under the sign of the cross. There is no attempt here to explicate the metaphysical implications of all this (assuming there are such).

Sunday, October 30th

TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 1:10-18
Psalm 32:1-7
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Merciful God, gracious and benevolent, through your Son you invite all the world to a meal of mercy. Grant that we may eagerly follow his call, and bring us with all your saints into your life of justice and joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

In William Saroyan’s play, The Time of Your Life, protagonist “Joe” tells Tom, his young assistant and admirer, that he prefers to keep his wealth out of his own sight and management so that he doesn’t have to see the way it is hurting people. Perhaps Zacchaeus felt the same way. After all, he was a chief tax collector which meant that the dirty work of extorting from his own people the tax required by Rome, his own premium and that of his underlings was the job of his subordinates. He told them what he needed to get out of each individual and they got it for him. Zacchaeus didn’t have to see the arm twisting and the knee capping. He didn’t have to hear the desperate pleas of destitute farmers asking only to be left with enough to feed their families for one more day. No doubt he knew that the money coming into him was tainted with fraud, extortion and violence. But he also knew that life isn’t fair and only a fool expects it to be that way. Zacchaeus knew that, if he were to step out of his lucrative position, there would be plenty of others glad to step in. He knew he could not make the world one wit better by standing on principle, but in so doing, he obviously would make things a great deal worse for himself. So it made good sense simply to enjoy his wealth and not think too much about where it came from.

I don’t know that my own situation is much different. I don’t directly exploit, injure or discriminate against anyone else. But the lifestyle to which I have grown accustomed is clearly a burden on the planet. I know that the colonial ambitions of my ancestors produced a world order that perpetuates systemic poverty and injustice from which, as a white American male, I have benefited greatly. The funds held in my retirement account are invested in hundreds of companies. I hope they produce valuable goods and services, I hope they pay their employees a living wage and I hope they provide reasonable benefits for all their workers. I hope they do not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation or nationality. I hope they deal fairly and honestly with their contractors. I hope they do not pollute the rivers, lakes and oceans or deplete the forests. But I don’t know if all this is true, nor do I know how to find out. Yes, I have heard of socially responsible investment funds and have even invested in a few of these, but my review does not give me the assurances my conscience really needs.

The most troubling aspect of this story from our gospel is that we really don’t know how it ends. I would love to know how Zacchaeus lived his life going forward. How much did he have left after giving half his wealth to the poor and then paying back all the people he had defrauded over the years? How could he continue in his profession after encountering Jesus and hearing the good news of God’s reign? We don’t get answers to those questions and I suppose that is because the answers cannot be found in any book. They must be lived out in our lives. That is what makes the Bible such a difficult book to read. You start out reading what you think will be a story about a man who lived over two-thousand years ago, only to discover that the story is actually about you.

Here’s a poem by Peter Balakian giving us a glimpse into the other half of our world that those of us who live in peace, security and comfort would rather forget.

Slum Drummers, Nairobi

What were we watching on the tube under mildewed ceilings in Eastlands?
A Kenyan guy shaking a rattle made from a can
while another guy in the band was talking to the queen

about making sound out of anything? The queen smiled.
The Jubilee receiving line filed through.

2.

We shimmied past tin shacks selling wigs and bananas, coke and goat lungs;

the tine of a kalimba kissed my face. My face kissed the blue plastic of
a soda bottle sliding down a hill of glass.

I paid the gang leaders for protection
and we walked into the hills of airplane garbage,

black and blue plastic bags glowing in the sun spray over the heads
of the marabou stalking the mounds with their knife-blade beaks.

3.

Stevie Wonder and Elton John moved through the Jubilee line.
Prince Charles thanked God for the weather as the camera cut
to fireworks spewing over Hyde Park and then to an image of Nairobi
and the Slum Drummers picking metal out of the collages of garbage.

4.

My jeans were charred from the tin-can fires,
and the grilling pig guts when some men looked up from scraps of wire—

and you went back and forth with them in Swahili before they offered us
some sizzling fat, before we thanked them with our coy smiles and moved on
with Michael who took us

down a maze of alleyways where tin shacks were floating
on polymers and nitrogen and a dozen pigs from nowhere snouted the garbage.

5.

You were saying “Dad”—when a marabou-hacked bag shot some shit
on our shoes—“Dad, kinship roles are always changing”—

when a woman asked us for a few shillings and salt
for her soup. Salt? Did I hear her right? Or was it Swahili
for something else? And through the sooty wind of charcoal fires

and creaking rusty tin you were saying, “Hannah Arendt called Swahili
a degraded language of former slave holders.

In the soot of my head—I was listening—
and Michael was asking for more shillings for the gang guys

who were “a little fucked up,” he said, “but needed help”—
and when I turned around the heads of chickens

were twitching, the feathers fluttering down on oozing sludge;
“Arendt called it a nineteenth century kind of no language,”

you were saying, “spoken”—as we were jolted
by a marabou eating a shoe—“spoken—by the Arab ivory and slave caravans.”

6.

Out of bottles, cans, pipes, mangled wire—the Slum Drummers
twisted and hacked, joined and seamed their heaven

into the black plastic ghost of a mashed pot.
Pure tones blew from the vibrato holes

like wind through Makadara
where the breath of God flew through sewage pipes.

I heard in a tubophone the resurrection
of ten men rising out of coal and pig snouts

into the blue Kenyan sky where a marabou

swallowed a purse—and a woman’s conga
was parting at the seams above boiling soup cans.

7.

Down a slope of stinking plastic you kept on about Arendt—
“a hybrid mixture of Bantu with enormous Arab borrowings”

I could say poa poa  sawa sawa  karibu.

We could make a kalimba out of a smashed pot
and pour beans into a can and shake it for the queen.

Yesterday in the soundless savannah the wildebeests and zebras
seemed to float through the green-gold grass toward Tanzania.

We could hear a lion breathe; we could hear wind through tusks.

8.

On TV the guys were grinning into metal go-go drums;
hammering twisted sewage pipes and cut wire like sailors from Mombasa—
harder nailed than da Gama’s voyage down the Arab trade coast—

9.

So, where are we—in a slum of no language?
Walking through steam shovels of light, breaking over
mounds of metal as if the sky were just blue plastic?

Isn’t English just a compost heap of devouring grammar,
joined, hacked, bruised words, rotting on themselves?

I keep following you, daughter of scrutiny, into plastic fields of carrion

between sight and site, vision not visionary, pig guts on the grill,

trying to keep balance
between streams of sewage and the sky,

as you keep hacking, Sophia, at the de-centered,
the burning text, anthropology’s shakedown.

A marabou just knifed the arm of a woman picking
bottles out of plastic bags.

A rooster crows from under a pile
of galvanized tin as if it were morning on a farm.

Source: Balakian, Peter, Ozone Journal (c. 2015 by The University of Chicago Press). Peter Balakian was born in 1951. He is the author of several collections of poetry and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He grew up in Tenafly, New Jersey. Much of his poetry and prose reflect his deep interest in his Armenian ancestry and, in particular, his family’s experiences during the Armenian Genocide at the dawn of the Twentieth Century.  You can find out more about Peter Balakian and read more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Isaiah 1:10-18

As I have pointed out before, the book of the prophet Isaiah is regarded by most Hebrew Scripture scholars to be the work of three different prophets. Chapters of Isaiah 1-39 are attributed in the main to Isaiah the prophet who lived and prophesied in the 8th Century B.C.E. during the reigns of Judean kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Chapters of Isaiah 40-55 are attributed to a prophet who preached toward the end of the Babylonian exile of the Jews, declaring to them God’s forgiveness and God’s promise to lead them back from exile to their homeland in Palestine. Chapters of Isaiah 56-66 are the words of a prophet addressing the Jews who in fact returned to Palestine and were struggling to rebuild their community under difficult circumstances. But this neat three part division is still a little too simplistic. All three prophetic collections underwent editing, revisions and additions in the course of composition. Consequently, there are many sections of First Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39) that probably belong to a prophet of a much later time. It is nearly undisputed, however, that the verses from Sunday’s lesson are the work of the Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E.

Verses 10-18 are part of a collection of separate and distinct prophetic oracles making up the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah. They probably were spoken on different occasions. Each of these oracles follows the outline of a legal proceeding containing a summons, an indictment and a final word of comfort or hope. Mauchline, John, Isaiah 1-39, Torch Bible Paperbacks (c. 1962 SCM Press, Ltd) p. 44. According to Mauchline, supra, Verses 10-17 make up a distinct section criticizing Israel for her immorality, castigating her for the emptiness and hypocrisy of her worship and calling her to cleanse herself from unfaithfulness. Id. at 45. Verse 18 opens with yet another summons directed more specifically to Jerusalem. Id. See also Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 1-12, The Old Testament Library (c. 1972 by SCM Press Ltd) p. 13. Taken together, this first chapter of Isaiah is a fitting introduction to the heart of the prophet’s message, namely, that covenant faithfulness requires zeal for doing justice. Without that, worship, sacrifices and holy day observances are worse than hollow and meaningless. They are rituals that God “hates.” Vs. 14.

These oracles probably relate to the early part of Isaiah’s ministry during the relatively peaceful reign of Jotham, son of Uzziah. Riding the legacy of wealth and power built under the leadership of Uzziah, the people and their leaders were enjoying a false sense of security. The rise of Assyria to the north would soon destabilize the region and shake up the matrix of alliances that had sheltered Judah from fierce international conflicts thus far. Isaiah saw the threat coming and recognized it as God’s long overdue judgment on a people who had failed to live up to their obligations under the covenant. Nevertheless, there is still time: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Vs. 18.

Sodom and Gomorrah are, of course, the epitome of evil in Hebrew Scriptural tradition. According to the prophet Ezekiel, these evil cities “had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” Ezekiel 16:49. Their people also displayed a shocking lack of hospitality and aggression toward helpless sojourners passing through their territory. Genesis 19:1-29. Like them, the aristocracy of Judah in Isaiah’s day was “crushing” the people and “grinding the face of the poor.” Isaiah 3:15. The covenant clearly required better of Israel. Concerning the poor, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor in the land.” Deuteronomy 15:11. As for the resident alien, “when a stranger sojourns in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” Leviticus 19:33-34. Failure to observe these commands to establish justice for the poor and the stranger cannot be cured by fastidious attention to worship and liturgy. Indeed, such worship is deemed an “abomination.” Vs. 13.

Isaiah does not reject temple worship as such. When properly grounded in the Exodus narrative, in which God liberates slaves of the Egyptian Empire to make of them an entirely different kind of community based on justice and compassion, the sacrifices, holy day observances and liturgical rites serve to call Israel back to her identity and mission. But when worship becomes detached from its moorings in salvation history and appropriated for the purpose of legitimating an oppressive hierarchical status quo, it becomes worse than empty and hypocritical. It is not an overstatement to call such worship idolatrous-even when performed with perfect liturgical precision.

Psalm 32

This is one of the seven “penitential psalms” so classified in the commentary of Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator written in the 6th century C.E. (These include Psalms 6, 32, 3851102130 and 143). Not surprisingly, it was a favorite of Augustine and Luther. The psalmist speaks eloquently about the joy and relief found in forgiveness of sin and the futility of denial and self-justification. The psalmist does not disclose the nature of his or her sins, but indicates that it was some illness that brought him or her to an acknowledgement of sin and the need for confession. There is no question but that guilt induced stress can bring about illness, but it is far more likely in this case that the psalmist’s illness was the catalyst for guilt. Sickness was almost universally understood in ancient cultures as an affliction from God intended to punish sin. As such, its onset naturally drove the psalmist to introspection and self-examination.

In this case, the psalmist’s self-examination led to the discovery of sin that the psalmist had been trying to hide from God and perhaps even from the psalmist’s own self. In the confession and acknowledgement of sin, the psalmist found healing and relief. The psalmist therefore instructs fellow worshipers not take the path of sin and self-deception that leads to illness and misfortune, but to “come clean” with God and cry out for deliverance. Mulish stubbornness will only lead to grief. As Augustine puts it, “much is he scourged, who, confessing not his sins to God, would be his own ruler.” Moreover, “it is right to be subject unto [God], that so you may be placed above all things beside.” Augustine’s Commentary of Psalm 32 published in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Vol 8, (Erdmans, 1979) p. 71.

In our modern culture we do not ordinarily associate illness with transgression. Still, I would not be too dismissive of this insight. Sometimes sickness is the result of our sinful lifestyles. It is well known that we are working longer hours these days under more stressful conditions. For many people in our country, this isn’t a choice. When you are at the minimum wage level, you need multiple incomes from two or three jobs just to put food on the table and keep a roof over your family. But for many of us, I believe that our frantic work ethic is more about maintaining a particular lifestyle. I have told the story many times of a fellow attorney who suffered a heart attack at the ripe old age of forty-one telling me, “This is what I get for spending my life doing work I hate to earn money I don’t need to buy stuff I don’t want to impress people I don’t like for reasons that don’t matter.” Eating habits, lack of exercise, smoking and many other unwise life choices can also contribute to illness.

So the psalmist’s advice is good as far as it goes, but his/her experience, valid and instructive though it may be, must not be elevated to a universal principle. As the case of Job illustrates, illness is not always the result of sin. The preacher from Ecclesiastes points out that in many cases justice and right do not prevail and all seems like “vanity.” Ecclesiastes 4:1-7. Sometimes tragedy happens for no apparent reason. There are psalms to address these circumstances as well. See, e.g. Psalm 39.

Aside from all questions arising from the psalmist’s views on the causal relationship between his/her sickness and his/her sin, the psalm makes the very important point that honesty, integrity and transparency lead us to a healthy and life-giving existence. The narratives we believe about ourselves invariably cast us as heroes or innocent victims. This stories we tell on ourselves can blind us to faults that undermine relationships, blind us to opportunities and lead us into self-destructive behavior. It takes personal courage and honest friendships strong enough to bear truthful speech in order to maintain spiritual health which, in turn, is often key to one’s overall well-being.

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

The relationship between the form and substance of II Thessalonians and 1 Thessalonians has led most commentators to believe that II Thessalonians was composed by a Christian leader writing to a later generation in the name of Paul and his colleagues. However that might be, this second letter echoes Paul’s admonitions to the Thessalonians in the first letter not to concern themselves with “times” and “seasons” for the triumphal return of Christ. I Thessalonians 5:1-11.   You might also want to read the summary article on enterthebible.org by Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN., for additional background.

As it appears in the lectionary, this short reading has Paul expressing his thankfulness for and pride in the church at Thessalonica while praying that the congregation will become what in Christ it already is: a people set aside to glorify the name of Jesus. Vs. 12. Once again, the lectionary people have insulted our intelligence (to say nothing of having perverted the scripture!) by excising from the reading material offensive to mainline, slightly left of center, white and ever polite protestants. Am I being a little too hard on these good folks? I invite you to read the censored material at II Thessalonians 1:5-10 and make your own judgment. If you think Hillary’s deleted e-mails are a big deal, this will really make you flip. I am sometimes tempted to spend a year of the liturgical cycle preaching on all the sections of scripture that have been deleted from the common lectionary. Perhaps I will call it the year of the Wiki Leak’s dump.

Paul’s actual message here is a good deal less benign. He tells us that “indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you” and “that when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus…they shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord.” Vss. 6-9. Is this language consistent with the declaration of a church that insists that there is a place here for everyone? Actually, I think it is. Perhaps the kingdom Christ proclaims is the only community in which there is a place for everyone. But it isn’t clear that everyone is eager to take their place in that kingdom. In fact, I suspect that a kingdom in which you are promised only your bread for today and where the greatest of all are the least of all does not appeal to a good many folks. I think there are a lot of people who might recoil from a world in which their medals of honor no longer hold any significance, where nobody remembers all the fine buildings with their names on them; where no one has ever heard of their school or cares about their class rank. World renowned artists, theologians, musicians, business people and political leaders might find it distasteful to be ranked beneath a nursery school teacher who receives and cares for children to make ends meet. I suspect that for many such people, the kingdom of God might be pure hell!

I have often questioned the line in one of our liturgical offertory pieces in which we pray that God would “gather the hopes and dreams of all and unite them with the prayers we offer.” I think there are a lot of our hopes and dreams that have no place under the gentle reign of God. Hope for the continuance of white male privilege is one that needs to die. Dreams for unlimited accumulation of wealth and power for one’s nation or for oneself are incompatible with God’s reign. Indeed, I venture to say that most of our hopes and dreams, even (perhaps especially) the ones we deem holy, selfless and pure, probably need to be crucified before the kingdom can come in its fullness. Salvation for us is not God’s giving us all that we long for. That would be a little like giving a gift certificate from Total Wine to an alcoholic. We must be taught to long for that which is true, beautiful and good. We need to become the sort of people who will recognize the reign of God when it comes as heaven rather than experiencing it as hell.

Luke 19:1-10

Zacchaeus, we are told, was a chief tax collector and rich. He was not the sort of tax collector with whom Jesus frequently socialized. Tax collection in Palestine was accomplished by way of a pyramid scheme of extortion. The Roman overlords informed their Jewish agents what needed to be collected and left them to extort whatever profits they could as their compensation. Bamberger, B.J. “Tax Collector,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 4 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 522. As a chief tax collector, we may presume that Zacchaeus had a ground crew of agents who actually did the dirty work of squeezing money out of merchants and farmers. Marshall, Howard, I., Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 by Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 696. They also had to extract their own fee over and above what Zacchaeus directed them to collect. That may explain why Zacchaeus is not in a position to say by how much he defrauded anyone. Vs. 8.

The name “Zacchaeus” is an abbreviated form of Zachariah meaning “righteous one.” Id. Not much significance should be attached to this in my opinion. There is no obvious literary pairing with Zachariah the father of John the Baptist or the prophet by that name in the Hebrew Scriptures. If there is any symbolic meaning here it might simply be Luke’s effort at irony. Zacchaeus would have been deemed among the least righteous in the Jewish community of Jesus’ day, yet by his response to Jesus he is shown to be an example of the compassionate righteousness preached both by Jesus and John the Baptist.

Given what we know about tax collectors and the way they operate, it is hardly surprising that the people should hate Zacchaeus and resent the wealth he has obtained at their expense by collaborating with their Roman oppressors. As we have seen numerous times before, Jesus’ practice of sharing meal fellowship with tax collectors draws the ire of his critics. This, however, is a particularly grievous circumstance. One might find a degree of pity for the ground level tax collector whose earnings were likely modest-just as we might understand the addict who, in desperation, turns to dealing in order to support his habit. Zacchaeus, however, stands near the top of the food chain. He does not merely make his living by exploiting his own people. He gets rich from it!

Zacchaeus responds to Jesus’ self-invitation with lavish hospitality and astounding generosity. Not only does he give half of his wealth to the poor, but he dedicates the remaining half to compensating all whom he may have defrauded. Vs. 8. That raises all kinds of questions for us. How do you measure the amount of compensation due victims of a profession that is by its nature little more than extortion? Moreover, what will Zacchaeus do with his life going forward? Will he remain in his position but collect no premium for himself? It is hard to understand how he could do that while continuing to pay his bills and keeping his agents happy. Will he abandon his unclean profession altogether and get an honest job? In his usual irritating way, Jesus leaves us to struggle with these difficult questions.

Sunday, October 2nd

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Habakkuk 1:1–4; 2:1–4
Psalm 37:1–9
2 Timothy 1:1–14
Luke 17:5–10

Prayer of the Day: Benevolent, merciful God: When we are empty, fill us. When we are weak in faith, strengthen us. When we are cold in love, warm us, that with fervor we may love our neighbors and serve them for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

I spent Saturday of last week touring the site of the historic Shaker Village in Hancock, Massachusetts. The settlement disbanded in 1960 and sold its property to the Shaker Village Museum, a company formed for the purpose of maintaining the site and educating the public about the Shaker’s traditions, crafts and musical/artistic contributions. At this point, the compound consists of a few remaining and several reconstructed buildings that once housed one of the most fascinating Christian movements ever to take root on American soil.

The Shaker movement began in Manchester, England in the mid 18th Century under the name, United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming. It was a break off from the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) led by Ann Lee, in whose person, teachings and example the Shakers believed Christ’s second coming had been realized. She was called “Mother Ann Lee” by her followers. The term “Shaker” was originally a derisive label given to the group by outsiders who observed the trembling, shaking and whirling of their esthetic dancing in worship. Like other religious minorities in England, the Shakers experienced ridicule, suspicion and persecution.

In 1774, Mother Ann Lee led eight Shaker converts to resettle in America in hopes of building a community based on their religious tenets. Shakers practiced strict communalism, sharing all property for the common good. They believed in and practiced racial and gender equality. Like the Quakers, Mennonites and Amish, Shakers were pacifists. Unlike these groups, however, the Shakers practiced strict celibacy-even between spouses. Contemporary folks harboring shallow, vacuous and simplistic 21st Century progressive Protestant prejudices are likely to dismiss this last aspect of Shaker belief as “body hatred,” “repression” or some form of sexism. But in a world where women were often treated as little better than male possessions and sexuality was routinely expressed through relationships of male domination, the practice of celibacy was part and parcel of the Shaker’s commitment to radical gender equality. They were dedicated to creating a “Heaven on Earth” in the midst of a violent, oppressive and corrupt world and that meant a community in which “there is neither male nor female.” Galatians 3:28.  The total Shaker population peaked in the mid-19th century at which point there were an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 Shakers living in nineteen communities throughout the United States. Today there is only one Shaker community of three believers located at Sabbathday Lake in Maine.

Though all but extinct as a current movement, the Shakers’ historical witness continues to challenge the existing social, religious, and economic orders within our nation. The present electoral contest has exposed once again the ugly underbelly of racism, sexism and xenophobia that seem in every age to rise up and threaten the ideals on which our republic was founded. Thus, the Shaker witness is as timely now as ever. The alternative culture created and lived by the Shakers testifies to the reality of God’s kingdom and speaks a stubborn “no” to the normative role of hierarchy, coercion and violence in the rest of society. The Shakers also made important contributions to American culture in the areas of art, design, science, architecture, craftsmanship, business, music, education, government, medicine, agriculture, and commerce. As I viewed the carefully crafted furniture, innovative machinery and ingeniously designed buildings made by this now defunct community, I could not help but be impressed with the creative power, energy and devotion evident in the remains of the compound. This was clearly a people for whom the presence of Jesus Christ was a reality greater than all of the social, political and historical currents sweeping the rest of America into its destiny.

Of course, the Shaker movement was not able to perpetuate itself much beyond the first generation. The white hot devotion of its founders did not translate into practices capable of nurturing and sustaining the community indefinitely. Historians cite numerous reasons for the demise of the Shaker movement such as the rule of celibacy and the flood of cheap furniture injected into the market as a result of the industrial revolution. I don’t find either of these arguments persuasive. While the practice of absolute celibacy clearly didn’t help the Shaker’s evangelistic efforts, I don’t believe it was principally responsible for the group’s ultimate demise. After all, quite a number of monastic orders have been around for over a millennium and are still going strong. Contrary to our modernistic assumptions, it’s quite possible to live well and happily without sex. I also doubt that the industrial revolution had much to do with it. While it is likely that the abundance of less expansive, mass produced goods made it difficult for the Shaker communities to sustain themselves through selling their hand made products, I have no doubt that a community capable of thriving under political oppression and violent persecution could have discovered any number of ways to overcome a mere economic setback. More likely than not, the movement was undone by a gradual loss of faith in its core convictions. The difficulties of living in community and the lure of the outside world become problematic only when the community in question begins to doubt the basis of its existence and loses the certainty of belief in its founding vision. Only then does community life become oppressive and the commitments that hold it together begin to appear burdensome, senseless and limiting.

The history of the Shaker movement is of more than academic interest to me. As a lifelong member of a denomination that often appears to be going the way of the Shakers, I find myself wondering whether the glue that holds my church together is strong enough to carry us into the next generation. What is that glue anyway? Some critics argue that it is simply cultural traditions imported from northern Europe, in my case, from Norway. As our connection to our cultural roots fades, so does the church. That is partly true. Being a fourth generation American of Norwegian stock, I don’t consider myself any more Norwegian than Mandarin. Still, I know the “feel” of Norwegian Lutheran piety. When I was in my 20s, you could still find a disproportionate number of heavy Scandinavian sweaters in our congregations on any given cool, autumn Sunday. There were Ole and Lena jokes and those sugar cookies, names of which I never could pronounce. Nevertheless, there was also in, with and under that cultural packaging a particular piety, a set of practices and a language articulating a unique faith vision.

Of course, faith in Jesus Christ is no more tied to Norwegian cookies than to Shaker chairs. But if the miracle of the Incarnation teaches us anything, it is that faith in Jesus is never a disembodied principle. It cannot be abstracted from the body of believers which it animates. Without Israel and without the church, the Bible would be little more than an historical curiosity like the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It would be of interest to archeologists and historians of religion, but of no practical importance to the rest of us. Inevitably, the Body of Christ is incarnate in some culture and clothed in some cultural tradition. So the question is, how do you throw out the bathwater without losing the baby? Anybody who has ever bathed one knows that a wet baby is a slippery little eel!

It seems that St. Paul shares my concerns. I sense in his words from II Timothy some anxiety for the future of faith. Later on in that letter Paul warns Timothy to beware of a future in which people will “hold[…] the form of religion but deny[…] the power of it.” II Timothy 3:5. It is all well and good that Timothy has been instructed in the faith by his mother and grandmother. But Paul knows that this young pastor cannot possibly drive his ministry on the fumes of the prior generations’ zeal. So he urges Timothy to “rekindle the gift of God” within him. II Timothy 1:6. He admonishes him to “follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Jesus Christ.” II Timothy 1:13. Timothy needs nothing less than the same immediacy of Jesus’ presence as Paul and the rest of the apostles knew. Without that living vine growing into each succeeding generation, the branches are dead.

So how are we to “rekindle the gift of God” within us? What would such a rekindling look like? Some religious traditions would call what Paul describes here as “re-commitment,” Others would call it “revival.” Still others refer to it as “baptism in the Holy Spirit.” One thing is certain: we cannot rekindle faith by trying to preserve or re-create the cultural/religious traditions of the past any more than building a Shaker museum can revive that once vibrant movement. Our hope lies rather in trusting the Holy Spirit to lead the church, believing that the Spirit is given to us freely and that the Spirit will “rekindle” our faith through the means of grace. Our hope is expressed in passing the baton of ministry on to a new generation of believers. Our hope is grounded in Jesus’ promise to be with his church until the end of the age. For that reason, I am confident that there always will be a church. I don’t know exactly what it will look like one hundred years after I am dead and gone. I am not sure that any congregation in it will bear the name Lutheran or that I would recognize any of the hymns it will be singing. Nonetheless, I am confident that it will be exactly the church God needs. That is all I need to know.

Here are two poems by Shaker Phoebe Ann Buckingham reflecting on the passage of time, loyalty to the faith community and a longing to grow in holiness.

January 1, 1837

I am determined to be more faithful
In this year which is now begun.
That I may gain a heavenly treasure
Which will fit me for the world to come.

January 1, 1867

Behold the New Year now has come
O may it prove a prosperous one.
May everyone that now is here
Remain to greet another year.
How many changes time does bring.
Some painful and some happy things.
Within the year that now is past
Many to us have breathed their last.
Some to a happier land have fled
Others in thorns have made their bed,
Left home and friends and all for what—
The lowest pleasures the earth has got.

Source: Website for the Shaker Heritage Society of Albany, New York. Phoebe Ann Buckingham was a member of the Watervleit Shaker Community. Like many Shakers, she kept a diary in which she wrote a number of short poems.

Habakkuk 1:1–4; 2:1–4

The prophet Habakkuk lived and preached during the Babylonian period of domination over the Southern Kingdom of Judah. We know very little about him. Though a prophet by the name of Habakkuk appears in the apocryphal book of Bel and the Dragon, it is unlikely that there is any historical or even literary connection.  Moreover, the prophet’s work appears to be a compilation of materials from different periods in Israel’s history, but which share a common theme. Thus, the prophet might be more an “editorial artist” than an original preacher.

Though the notes in my study Bible identify Habakkuk’s theme as “theodicy,” or “justifying the ways of God,” I don’t believe that is really the prophet’s concern here. This is not a dissertation on “the problem of human suffering.” It is, as I said before, a passionate plea from a person of faith calling upon his God to honor the covenant promises made to Israel. The common lectionary has again done a fine hack job on this text, omitting the sections that help us place the words of Habakkuk in context. In verses 5-11 we read of how the prophet attributes to God the raising up of the “Chaldeans,” another term for the Babylonians.

Look at the nations, and see!
Be astonished! Be astounded!
For a work is being done in your days
that you would not believe if you were told.

For I am rousing the Chaldeans,
that fierce and impetuous nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth
to seize dwellings not their own.

Dread and fearsome are they;
their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.

Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more menacing than wolves at dusk;
their horses charge.
Their horsemen come from far away;
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.

They all come for violence,
with faces pressing* forward;
they gather captives like sand.

At kings they scoff,
and of rulers they make sport.
They laugh at every fortress,
and heap up earth to take it.

Then they sweep by like the wind;
they transgress and become guilty;
their own might is their god!

Habakkuk 1:5-11. After describing the violence, cruelty and injustice of the Babylonian invaders, Habakkuk appeals to the Lord:

Are you not from of old,
O Lord my God, my Holy One?
You shall not die.
O Lord, you have marked them for judgement;
and you, O Rock, have established them for punishment.

Your eyes are too pure to behold evil,
and you cannot look on wrongdoing;
why do you look on the treacherous,
and are silent when the wicked swallow
those more righteous than they?

You have made people like the fish of the sea,
like crawling things that have no ruler.

Habakkuk 1:12-14.

God’s answer finally comes in the second chapter. “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.” Habakkuk 2:4. Contrary to Habakkuk’s hopes, this time of trouble, violence and injustice is to continue for an indefinite though surely finite period. Until relief in the form of God’s salvation comes-and it will come-the just must live by faith. That is, they must continue to live justly in an unjust world whether their justice and righteousness bear fruit or not. Faithfulness, not tangible success, is required.

This is a hard word for our culture which is used to seeing conflicts resolved within the space of an hour, less the commercials. But life is not like TV. It plods from one unresolved conflict to the next. Most likely, we will not see the fulfillment of all our hopes within our lifetimes. We will likely die without ever seeing the fruits of our acts of mercy and kindness. But that does not matter. “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” Habakkuk 2:3.

Psalm 37:1–9

This psalm is one of the acrostic psalms, meaning that the first word of the first strophe begins with the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The first word of the second strophe 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.

The psalm reads more like a collection of wisdom proverbs, such as found in the Book of Proverbs, than a hymn or a prayer. The unifying theme is trust in God and in God’s providential rule. Throughout the psalm we find assurances that God ultimately rewards faithful behavior and punishes wickedness though, as Habakkuk also had to learn, such justice is not always executed as swiftly and clearly as we might hope. So the psalmist warns his hearers: “Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers…” Psalm 37:1. Given the style and content of the psalm, most scholars date its composition as having taken place relatively later in Israel’s history, probably after the Babylonian Exile.

This psalm calls for patience in the face of wrongdoing and confidence in God to accomplish justice. The psalmist warns against “stewing” over the seeming success of the wicked and becoming cynical about life. Rather than obsessing over whether the wicked are properly punished, the righteous person should focus upon his own conduct, committing his way to the Lord. Vs. 5. The righteous person need not take matters of justice into his or her own hands. God, who sees all hearts and knows all circumstances, is in a much better position to determine what is actually just and how justice should be carried out.

Of course, this confidence in divine justice is easier to maintain in times of relative peace and stability where a semblance of justice has a chance of prevailing. Habakkuk, who lived in the shadow of war and societal breakdown, found it far more difficult to take the confident view expressed by the psalmist. Once again, we do well to remember that wisdom sayings such as those found in the psalm offer us a porthole view into reality which may well be true and insightful as far as it goes. Still, a porthole’s view is limited and there are other portholes through which the world must be examined if we are to arrive at a balanced understanding. Wisdom literature invites us to glimpse the world through as many portholes as possible.

2 Timothy 1:1–14

For my views on authorship of this and the other two pastoral epistles (I Timothy and Titus), see my post of Sunday, September 11th.

This second letter addressed to Timothy from the Apostle Paul, now imprisoned at Rome, is an admonition for Timothy to stand firm against a number of false teachings that have crept into the church. The primary purpose of the letter, however, appears to be that of summoning Timothy to come and assist Paul in his imprisonment. II Timothy 4:9-13. At first blush, it appears that Timothy was a third generation Christian whose grandmother and mother were also believers. It is just as likely, though, that both mother and grandmother were converted at the same time through missionaries at Lystra. Perhaps Timothy was also baptized at that time or shortly thereafter. In any case, the letter reflects a level of intimacy between the Apostle and his fellow worker.

There is a reference here to the “laying on of hands” conferring a “gift” which Timothy is encouraged to “rekindle.” Vs. 6. Is this a reference to ordination? Or is it an aspect of the baptismal rite? There is support for either proposition, but not enough evidence to make decisive assertions. Like the other pastorals, this letter affirms the good news of salvation through grace in Jesus Christ apart from works. Vs. 9.

Timothy is encouraged to guard the good treasure that has been entrusted to him. That good treasure is “the sound teaching” Timothy has received from Paul. Clearly, the Apostle is concerned that the gospel is in danger of distortion or loss. We can see here a challenge that will confront the church in every age: How to preserve the integrity of the good news from generation to generation while at the same time addressing it to the ever changing circumstances of the world for which it is sent. Obviously, there is a risk involved whenever we seek to make Jesus known to an ever changing cultural context. The temptation is to make Jesus attractive, appealing and likable. The consequence is a portrait of Jesus created in our own image and likeness, a Jesus that fits nicely into our societal routine, but never gets in the way, never challenges us or calls us to repentance. In short, we run the risk of idolatry.

But there is also danger in trying to preserve the proclamation of Jesus by enshrining him in unbending theological orthodoxy or “timeless” liturgical practices. Sometimes heresy takes the form of correct expressions of the truth that have been held onto for too long. The words may not change, but their meanings do. The language of our faith can easily get hijacked, twisted around and used to express all manner of false and misleading notions if we are not vigilant about reexamining and reinterpreting it faithfully to each age. For example, scholars have noted that the word “faith” as used in this letter to Timothy often refers to a body of teaching rather than simple trust in God’s promises as used by Paul in letters such as Romans and Galatians. Whether Paul in his later years saw the need to expand his working definition of the term “faith” to meet the needs and concerns of the church or whether a disciple of Paul writing in Paul’s name expanded on the term, the same point is illustrated. The church’s teaching must be as flexible as the culture to which it speaks while remaining faithfully anchored in the apostolic witness to Jesus.

Luke 17:5–10

The disciples got it half right. When you need faith, Jesus is where you go. Their problem is that they did not understand faith. They assumed that faith is like a muscle; something you are born with and need to develop. They were looking for a spiritual exercise regimen (or more likely a shot of faith enhancing steroids) to improve their inborn faith. But faith is not a virtue or a human quality with which we are born or can produce in ourselves. It is a gift. As such, it is never a matter of “more or less.” It is like being pregnant. You are or are not. The same is true for faith. You have it or you don’t. Furthermore, if you have it, that is only because the Holy Spirit has given birth to it and brought it to fruition in your heart. The disciples do not need more faith. They need faith, period.

Faith is no longer faith when it becomes a work, a condition we need to satisfy before God will accept us. The worst advice you can give someone plagued by doubt is to say, “Just have faith.” That is like telling a starving child in Somalia, “You really should eat more!” The good news about Jesus is not that our faith saves us, but that God’s faithfulness saves faithless people like us. When that word is proclaimed in its fullness, faith follows. Strange as it may seem, faith begins at just the point where we realize we don’t have it and cannot ever hope to generate it on our own.

The parable about the servants is simply the flip side of faith. Recognizing that faith is a gift and that whatever is done from faith is finally God’s own work removes all grounds for “boasting,” as Saint Paul would say. Romans 3:27-29. For Luke, faith is never merely conceptual. John the Baptist made clear in his preaching that repentance involved bread and butter compassion, such as sharing food and clothing with neighbors in need, dealing honestly and fairly in a culture of greed and exploitation. Luke 3:10-14. Discipleship described in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain is the shape of faith. Yet precisely because faith is a gift, the “fruits” of repentance and the “works” of faith are not the works of the disciple. They are solely the works of the Holy Spirit and, as such, they do not earn the disciple any right to praise or recognition. The most that can ever be said of a disciple is that, through the work of the Holy Spirit, s/he has become what God the Father created him or her to be from the beginning.

This lesson is a needed corrective for a culture obsessed with self-esteem. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that we ought to be self-haters or become obsessed with our unworthiness. I do believe, nonetheless, that there is just as great a danger in becoming overly obsessed with having our accomplishments valued and recognized. I wonder, when did it become mandatory that everyone be “special”? When did we decide that “average” is not good enough? When did we get this idea that we are supposed to “amount to something,” and that the something to which we must amount is necessarily a cut above everyone else: a high GPA, prestigious college, six figure salary, seven figure home and children who achieve even higher in these categories? When did it become necessary to celebrate graduation from middle school, grade school and even kindergarten? This need to succeed and, more than that, have our success recognized starts to smell a lot like the religion of salvation by good works against which Paul and Martin Luther preached. It is a secularized version of “works righteousness” focused on proving my self-worth to myself alone. Whether religious or secular, a life turned in upon itself leads just as surely to emptiness and despair.

Luke’s gospel would have us know that there is no reward in seeking self-esteem through recognition-whether it be through rigorous religious observance or social/financial success. God does not value either sort of achievement. Instead, God values trust in his promises, faithful obedience to his reign and love for the neighbor. These practices might not win you any recognition, but that does not matter. Disciples know that they are not entitled to recognition anyway. They discover instead the joy and freedom of living life without the need for recognition from any quarter.