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The God who gives a damn; a poem by Emmy Perez; and the lessons for Sunday, June 24, 2018

See the source imageFIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Job 38:1-11
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God of creation, eternal majesty, you preside over land and sea, sunshine and storm. By your strength pilot us, by your power preserve us, by your wisdom instruct us, and by your hand protect us, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Teacher, do you not care if we perish?”  Mark 4:38

“Why are you afraid?” A simple question addressed by Jesus to his disciples. The answer seems obvious. The disciples have just left the familiar shores of Galilee for what Mark characterizes as “the other side.” We know from the context that Jesus means the other side of the Sea of Galilee, the country of the Gerasenes. The length of this journey does not appear great on the map, but tackling it with a boat designed chiefly for netting fish just off shore represented a significant risk even in fair weather. Moreover, Jesus and his disciples were leaving the neighborhood in which Jesus had become well known and had built up a substantial following. This was safe territory. The territory across the sea was new ground populated by strangers, many if not most of whom were gentiles. When the disciples exclaim in exasperation, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?’ I can hear undertones of “I told you this was a bad idea!” The disciples have plenty of good reasons to be afraid, but they also have one good reason not to give into fear. Jesus is with them. He is the one who initiated this venture to the “other side” and he can be trusted to see it through.

The disciples have good reason to be afraid. The threat of the wind and the waves breaking over the boat is real. Furthermore, it could not have been obvious to the disciples that there was much Jesus could do about the storm. It is far too much to expect even a great teacher like Jesus to control the weather. But is it too much to ask that he care? If Jesus can’t be bothered to wake up and help bail, couldn’t he at least offer a few words of encouragement? Are the lives of his disciples so cheap that they merit not even a final benediction before they are swallowed up by the sea?

At the very core of our being, there is a craven fear that perhaps, after all, nobody cares. I see that fear in the eyes of elderly people who manage to outlive their friends, have no family nearby and little in the way of human contact outside of the institutions in which they live. I see it in the eyes of those teens who just don’t seem to fit in anywhere. Lately, I have seen too much fear that no one cares in the eyes of refugee families incarcerated and split up for the crime of wanting a safe and productive life in a land where they need not fear starvation, war and gang violence. It’s the fear that each of us is finally alone in the world and nobody in it or beyond it gives a damn.

According to the scriptures, that fear was placed into our hearts by the serpent who managed to convince Adam and Eve that God did not care about them, that God didn’t have their best interests at heart, that God looks out for God and that they should be like God and do likewise. From that vantage point, life becomes a zero sum game of survival at all costs in a war of all against all. America first, but of course, Americans like me first. Within my racial, cultural and ideological tribe, my family first. In the end, though, it finally boils down to me first. If everyone is finally in it for themselves, then I would be a fool not to put my own interests first. I can’t afford to care because I know that no one really cares for me.

Jesus makes it clear that he does care-as does his heavenly Father. So the disciple’s fear is unfounded. It is tempting to accept the calming of the storm as the end and object of this story. Just have enough faith and you will be safe in any storm. But those of us familiar with the whole gospel narrative know that isn’t the case. We know that the storm on the Sea of Galilee was but a minor squall compared with the storms to come. When Jesus arrives at “the other side,” he will be met by a legion of demons and rejected by a community that wants nothing more to do with him. As he leads his disciples toward Jerusalem, resistance to Jesus grows. We know how this will end. Jesus is going to the cross and he invites his disciples to follow him there. There is no safety in discipleship. Any storm you face could be your last and one of them one day surely will.

The good news in this story-and it is incredibly good news-is that God cares about a dozen fishermen tossed about on their leaky little boat in the midst of the sea. God cares about that old guy in the nursing home that never seems to get any visits. God cares about the kid who cries herself to sleep after another day of bullying at school. God cares about the families that are being ripped apart at our southern border a good deal more than God cares about the policy decisions of a certain biblically illiterate Attorney General spun out of the loathsome religion of Trumpist Evangelicalism. God even cares about the likes of selfish, egotistical, spoiled, privileged white guys like me who were born on third base and congratulate ourselves for hitting a triple. God cares. And because God cares, we had damn well better start caring too.

Here is a poem by Emmy Perez calling us to a deeper level of caring.

Not one more refugee death

A river killed a man I loved,
And I love that river still

—María Meléndez

1.

Thousands of fish killed after Pemex
spill in el Río Salado and everyone
runs out to buy more bottled water.
Here, our river kills more crossers
than the sun, than the singular

heat of Arizona, than the ranchlands
near the Falfurrias checkpoint.
It’s hard to imagine an endangered
river with that much water, especially
in summer and with the Falcon Reservoir

in drought, though it only takes inches
to drown. Sometimes, further
west, there’s too little river
to paddle in Boquillas Canyon
where there are no steel-column walls

except the limestone canyon’s drop
and where a puma might push-wade across,
or in El Paso, where double-fenced muros
sparkle and blind with bullfight ring lights,
the ring the concrete river mold, and above

a Juárez mountain urges
La Biblia es La VerdadLeela.

2.

Today at the vigil, the native singer
said we are all connected
by water, la sangre de vida.

Today, our vigil signs proclaimed
McAllen is not Murrieta.
#iamborderless. Derechos
Inmigrantes=Derechos
Humanos. Bienvenidos niños.
We stand with refugee children.
We are all human. Bienvenidos
a los Estados Unidos.

And the songs we sang
the copal that burned
and the rose petals spread
en los cuatro puntos were
for the children and women
and men. Songs

for the Guatemalan
boy with an Elvis belt buckle
and Angry Birds jeans with zippers
on back pockets who was found
shirtless in La Joya, one mile
from the river. The worn jeans

that helped identify his body
in the news more times
than a photo of him while alive.
(I never knew why the birds
are angry. My mother said
someone stole their eggs.)

The Tejas sun took a boy
I do not know, a young man
who wanted to reach Chicago,
his brother’s number etched in
his belt, his mother’s pleas not
to leave in white rosary beads

he carried. The sun in Tejas
stopped a boy the river held.
Detention centers filled, churches
offer showers and fresh clothes.
Water and a covered porch may
have waited at a stranger’s house

or in a patrol truck had his body
not collapsed. Half of our bodies
are made of water, and we can’t
sponge rivers through skin
and release them again
like rain clouds. Today

at the vigil the native singer
sang we are all connected
by water, la sangre de vida.

Source: With the River on Our Face (c. 2016 by Emmy Perez, pub. by University of Arizona Press). Originally from Santa Ana, California, Emmy Perez earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California and her Masters in Fine Arts from Columbia University. Her poems have been published in numerous periodicals. She is an associate professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where she teaches in the MFA and undergraduate creative writing programs. She was a Canto Mundo fellow from 2010 to 2012 and a member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop. Her honors include the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation Award, the James D. Phelan Award. She has also received poetry fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the New York Foundation for the Arts. You can learn more about Emmy Perez and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Job 38:1-11

“Stay away from the Book of Job,” my preaching professor told me in seminary, “unless you are prepared to go the distance.” What he meant, I think, is that preaching Job honestly requires us to deal with the whole messy, troublesome story. And this story is plenty messy and troublesome.

Job, you may recall, was a righteous man. So righteous was he that he not only took care to avoid sin himself, but offered sacrifices on behalf of his children to atone for any sins they might have committed. Job 1:1-5. God rewarded Job’s righteousness with a beautiful wife, wonderful children and fabulous wealth. “Now there was a day,” we read,” when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord and Satan also was among them.” Job 1:6. The NRSV translates “sons of God” as “heavenly beings” which, though making the text properly inclusive, says more than we actually know. It is presumed that we know who Satan is, though we might wonder at how he manages to slip in and out of God’s court with such freedom. Though clearly adversarial, Satan’s relationship with God seems almost collegial. Their rivalry resembles more the philosophical jousting typical among professors within the same university faculty than cosmic conflict between mortal enemies.

God, it seems, is a humanist convinced that human nature is capable of righteousness and moral progress. Satan, by contrast, is a hardened cynic. To him, human beings are a bundle of nerve endings. They do whatever they do to avoid pain and obtain pleasure. The specimen Job seems to prove God’s position and God cannot help but rub this in a little. “How ‘bout that Job, Heh? Blameless, upright, not an evil bone in his body! Now tell me Satan, doesn’t the existence of a man like that put the lie to your pessimistic outlook on the human race?”

“Righteous, yes. I’ll give you that.” Says Satan. “Of course, he’s got good reason to be righteous, doesn’t he? You reward him well enough for it. Pay me like you pay him and I’ll be righteous too!”

“What are you suggesting?” God inquires, a little uncertainly.

“Oh, just this,” says Satan. Job is righteous because he knows it pays to be righteous. But take away all the goodies, rob him of his wealth, introduce a little tragedy into his life and he will turn on you in a New York minute.” This, by the way is strikingly similar to the tactic the serpent used on Eve in the Garden of Eden. “Can God really be trusted to do right by you? Are the commands he gives you really for your own good? Or is God holding something back? Is there something God wants to keep all to God’s self?” Just as the serpent undermined humanity’s trust in its Creator, so now Satan seeks to undermine God’s confidence in God’s creature. Like Eve, God takes the bait-hook, line and sinker. God gives Satan leave to take everything from Job but his life and health.

If Satan thought he would score an easy philosophical victory here, he was wrong. Job lost his wealth and his children in one fell swoop. Though urged by his wife to curse God and die, Job replies: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:21. Now God can hardly contain himself: “Have you considered my servant Job…he still holds fast his integrity, although you moved me against him, to destroy him without cause.” Job 2:3. In what God thinks is a victory speech, God has unwittingly conceded defeat. God admits that Satan has “moved” God against his faithful creature. That has been Satan’s game plan all along.

Satan has more dirty work to do, however. “Well,” says Satan, “I must admit that your Job held up much better than I expected. But every man has his price. Job still has his health. Break his body, render him incontinent, deform his appearance and afflict him with chronic pain and he will crack. A human being is but a bundle of nerve endings. Let’s see how well he pronounces blessings when those nerve endings start to hurt.” Once again, God takes the bait and Job is afflicted with bodily sores that disfigure him. At this point, Satan drops out of the story and is heard from no more. God is also off stage until the very end of the drama. In the meantime, Job receives a visit from three friends who come to comfort and advise him.

Job can see no reason for his suffering or the failure of God to respond to his cries for vindication. His friends, however, know full well what the problem is. Job is being punished for his sin. That is the only explanation there can be if we accept as true the theology of Psalm 1, which teaches us that the righteous one “is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season,” who prospers in all that he does; whereas the wicked “are like chaff which the wind drives away.” If Job is perishing, it can only be because of some evil he has done. Any other conclusion ascribes injustice to God-which is blasphemy. Naturally, the friends’ theology of God constricts their ability to speak a life giving and comforting word to Job. Job’s insistence upon his innocence only threatens the friends’ deeply held beliefs about how God’s justice works to reward the righteous and punish the wicked. Their lengthy poetic argument with Job on this point proceeds for thirty-four dreary chapters, becoming more vitriolic with every verse. The friends seem to be more concerned with defending God’s honor than comforting poor Job. Job increasingly ignores his friends’ arguments and directs his speech to the God who does not answer. Finally, just as the argument seems mercifully to have ground to a halt, one more friend steps out of the shadows to put in his two cents worth. In fact, he puts in more than two cents worth of pedantic blather, lecturing poor Job for six more chapters on his pride and impiety.

Then God speaks, and that is where our lesson for Sunday comes in. God bypasses the friends and speaks directly to Job, peppering him with rhetorical questions that Job cannot possibly be expected to answer. The point seems to be that creation is such a terrible, fearful, beautiful and awesome mystery that no mortal can comprehend it. Human life in all of its complexities cannot be boiled down to simplistic rules of moral cause and effect. The reasons for beauty, terror, joy and despair defy rational explanation. It should be enough to know that the creation is a wondrous place filled with potential for human joy and fulfilment as well as human tragedy. It is not for Job to complain that God did not make the world differently or that God could have made it better.

All of that might fly well enough if only Job’s suffering really were inexplicable. But it’s not. We already know that Job’s suffering has nothing to do with mysteries too deep for human understanding. The reader understands only too well why Job has been so cruelly afflicted. God was induced by Satan to brutalize Job in order to make a point. Worse than that, it is obvious that God is not coming clean with Job. God has Job believing that his suffering lies hidden in mysteries too great for his understanding. In the end, God restores Job’s wealth and gives him more children. The inadequacy of such a remedy is clear enough to every parent who has lost a child and been told by some well-meaning friend, “Well, thank God you’re young enough to have more children.” Children are not fungible goods. So the Book of Job ends as it began-with a lot of very troubling issues.

I have a feeling some folks might be taking offense at my treatment of this great book. In my own defense I can only say that I have chased commentators, preachers and linguists from hell to breakfast looking for a way to derive a positive message from Job. But the only way I have found to make peace with the book is to interpret it as satire from beginning to end. It is, I believe, a cautionary tale about religion run amok. “This,” says the anonymous author(s) of Job, “is what you get from a religion of moral causation, a religion that interprets all events as rewards or punishments for human behavior. (Are you listening Pat RobertsonFrank Graham and Assemblywoman Shannon Grove?) You wind up with people like Job who can find no comfort in their faith. You wind up with people like Job’s friends whose religion can provide no healing or life giving word to those who suffer. You wind up with a god who is unworthy of Job’s worship and trust.

The latter observation is aptly expressed in Robert Frost’s play Mask of Reason, which is based on the Book of Job. The drama takes place years after the events related in the Bible have transpired. God pays a visit to Job and his wife and Job poses the question: “Now after all these years You might indulge me. Why did You hurt me so? I am reduced to asking flatly for the reason-outright.”

God responds: “I was showing off to the Devil, Job, as set forth in Chapters One and Two. Do you mind?”

“No, No. I musn’t,” Job Replies. “Twas human of You. I expected more than I could understand and what I get is almost less than I can understand.”

Mask of Reason, lines 207-269; lines 327-233 printed in Frost, Robert, The Poetry of Robert Frost (c. 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston) pp. 473-390.

If there is a positive word in this book, it finds expression in the character of Job. Though Satan succeeded well in turning God against God’s creature, he failed to turn Job from his faith in his Creator. So the question posed by the Book of Job is this: “Is there a God out there worthy of Job’s steadfast trust and confidence?” The book does a fine job of telling us what such a god is not. We must look beyond that book for a portrait of who that God is.

Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32

This is a psalm of praise. Verse 22 suggests that it was sung by the faith community before a sacrifice of thanksgiving. That the worshipers are “gathered from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (Vs. 3) suggests that this psalm was composed after the Babylonian Exile and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Though some of the exiled Jews returned home to Palestine, most of the Jewish population remained scattered throughout the Mediterranean world, making pilgrimages to Jerusalem on high holy days. Such pilgrim journeys were fraught with dangers, escape from which was one of many occasions for thanksgiving.

Our lesson begins at verse 23 and relates the adventures of sea going merchants (who might also have been pilgrims). In addition to being a powerful metaphor for the primordial chaos that reigned prior to creation (Genesis 1:2), the sea was also a very tangible source of terror for the Israelite people. How many Jewish sea captains do you read about in the Hebrew Scriptures? Jonah is the only Hebrew scriptural character known to have gone to sea-and it did not turn out well for him. Yet even the terrifying power of the sea is subject to the voice of Israel’s God.

“Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.” Vss. 27-28. These words parallel the cries of the terrified disciples in our gospel lesson and the Psalm as a whole implies the answer to their question: “Who, then, is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” Mark 4:41. Of course, for the pilgrims in the Psalm standing safely within the confines of the temple courts, escape from the dangers of the sea seemed no less miraculous and God driven.

These are the testimonies of persons who have experienced in a graphic way God’s saving intervention. That God does not always so act and that there are also ships full of people that go down does not dull the effect of their faithful witness. Rather, it underscores the gracious nature of God’s salvation which is neither earned, deserved, nor can it be expected as a matter of course. People who have experienced God’s salvation from death understand that each morning is a gift of one more day in a finite lifetime. Such humble thankfulness is well expressed in a poem by the late Jane Kenyon:

Otherwise

I got out of bed on
two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Jane Kenyon from Constance (1993)

Moreover, such salvation experiences are not to be understood as special favors reflecting God’s preference for one person over another. Instead, they are occasions for God’s mercy and steadfast love to be manifested to the world. Hence, the command: “Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.” Vs. 22.

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Paul has just finished a very fine articulation of his apostolic mission set forth in II Corinthians 5:16-21. He describes himself as an “ambassador” for Christ; God making God’s appeal for reconciliation through Paul’s ministry. In the name of Christ, then, Paul appeals to the Corinthian church “not to accept the grace of God in vain.” That is, let not the grace of God be without effect. Furnish, Victor Paul, II Corinthians, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1984 by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) p. 341. Quoting Isaiah 49:8, Paul urges his readers to respond faithfully now, for time is of the essence. Vs. 2.

Verse 3 seems to be an abrupt transition. Paul has been speaking of his apostolic mission to the world, but now seems fixated once again upon his detractors’ rejection of his apostleship. Some commentators suggest that the material in II Corinthians 6:14-7:1 belongs immediately after vs. 2 rather than after verse 13. Ibid. 353. There is no question that this material seems wildly out of place where it now is and that II Corinthians 7:2 follows naturally after verse 13 in our lesson. But the transposed section does not seem to fit any more naturally between verses 2 and 3 than it does after verse 13. Accord, Furnish, supra. For my part, I am doubtful that II Corinthians 6:14-7:1 is even genuinely Pauline. It seems to contradict entirely the advice given in I Corinthians 7:12-16. If, however, one enlarges the focus to include the whole of Chapter 5, it becomes evident that Paul is simply circling back to the defense of his apostleship begun at II Corinthians 5:11-15. He points out that his credentials are the hardships he has embraced and the sacrifices he has gladly made for the sake of Christ’s reconciling mission. Vss. 4-10. Paul argues that he has done everything possible to earn the trust of the Corinthian church and asks that, as he has opened his heart to them, they similarly open their heart to him.

This passage illustrates how the greatest asset any church leader has is his/her integrity. A pastor that tithes need not apologize for asking the same from his/her congregation. A trustee that takes up the rake need not be bashful in calling upon the rest of the congregation to pitch in with the spring cleaning to avoid the expense of landscaping bills. Nothing takes the wind out of criticism quite as effectively as honesty, transparency and reliability.

Mark 4:35-41

In this gospel lesson Mark continues pressing the $64,000 question: “Who is Jesus?” Of course, those of us reading the gospel already know who Jesus is because the gospel begins in Mark 1:1 by telling us that this is the story of Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah. Jesus knows who he is because the voice from heaven spoke to him at his baptism saying, “You are my beloved Son.” Mark 1:11. The demons know that Jesus is the Son of God and Jesus has to tell them to keep quiet about his identity. Mark 1:23-25. The only people who don’t seem to be getting it are the disciples.

Mark’s telling of this story is rich in allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures suggesting that Jesus is something more than a mere teacher. Indeed, as will later be demonstrated on the Mountain of Transfiguration, he is more even than Israel’s Messiah. The ability to control the sea and subdue storms was regarded as divine. Psalm 89:8-9Psalm 93:1-4Psalm 106:8-9Psalm 107:28-29; and Isaiah 51:9-10. Additionally, the image of “the waters” was a common metaphor for the powers of evil and the trials of the righteous. Psalm 69:1-2Psalm 18:16. Finally, in the mist of such tribulation, the faithful are called upon to express confidence in God’s power to save and deliver. Isaiah 43:2Psalm 46:1-3; and Psalm 65:5. It should also be noted that the ability to sleep peacefully, as Jesus is evidently doing, is a sign of trust in the protective power of God. Proverbs 3:23-24Psalm 4:8Psalm 3:5; and Job 11:8-19. Jesus’ posture of trust evidenced by his sleeping is therefore a potent contrast to the agitation of the disciples. For a fuller discussion of these Hebrew scriptural echoes, see Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) pp. 146-148.

It is tempting to criticize the disciples for being such dolts. Particularly after they make the remark, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” vs. 41. Unwittingly perhaps, they are practically quoting from this week’s Psalm. Had they realized what they were saying, they would not have had to ask their question. Yet the problem here is deeper than mere failure to connect the scriptural dots. Surely the people to whom Mark’s gospel is addressed, like us, know that Jesus is the Son of God. The question is, does that knowledge make any difference to them or us? Though we confess that Jesus is the Son of God, is he the first one to whom we turn in the midst of a raging storm? Or do we call out to him only when our strength, our wits and our resources have all failed us and the boat is half swamped? In these troubled and fearful times, we can still hear Jesus speaking to us, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” vs. 40.

 

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, March 19th

THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT

Exodus 17:1–7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1–11
John 4:5–42

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Merciful God, the fountain of living water, you quench our thirst and wash away our sin. Give us this water always. Bring us to drink from the well that flows with the beauty of your truth through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

In this Sunday’s gospel, Jesus encounters a woman of Samaria. The Samaritans, who shared a common history, common scriptures and a common claim to the land of Israel, were hated precisely because their very existence challenged the Jewish claim to be the only true Israel. The Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim undermined the legitimacy of the one in Jerusalem. The Samaritan’s contrary interpretation of the scriptures undercut the authority of the Rabbis. The Samaritans posed an existential threat to Judaism-or so it seemed. For that reason, “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” For that reason also, the Samaritan woman is shocked that a Jew should expect the kindness of a drink of water from her hand. The disciples are equally surprised to find their Rabbi speaking with a Samaritan who, in addition to being a foreigner, is also an unaccompanied woman. By the simple act of engaging this woman of Samaria in conversation, Jesus violates some very fundamental social, moral and political boundaries. That is exactly what Jesus always does. That, too, is what he expects his church to do.

It is hard not to see the encounter between Jesus the Jewish Rabbi and the woman of Samaria through the lens of xenophobic anger that swept into power an administration that has, in turn, unleashed a campaign of propaganda and exclusion against immigrants and refugees seeking asylum in the United States. The slogan, “America First” has become a thinly disguised cover for normalization of the darkest angels of our country’s nature. The anti-immigrant sentiments we find today are nothing new. To the contrary, they are as old as the republic. Benjamin Franklin said of my own beloved German ancestors in Pennsylvania that they were “the most ignorant stupid sort of their own nation…They begin of late to make their bonds and other legal writings in their own language, which (though I think it ought not to be) are allowed good in our Courts, where the German business so increases that there is continual need of interpreters; and I suppose in a few years they will be also necessary in the Assembly, to tell one half of our Legislators what the other half say….Unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies…they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in my opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.” Quoted by Keye, Jeffrey, Moving Millions-How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration, (c. 2010 by Jeffrey Kaye, pub. by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.) p. 24.

Franklin’s concern and that of “alt.right” adherents, such as the president’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is for the preservation of American “culture.” Though that term is largely left undefined, there can be little doubt that it means “white Anglo” culture, the culture of white male privilege. Just as Franklin feared the influx of German immigrants would destabilize government, dilute the country’s language and weaken the position of English speaking whites, so opponents of immigration and refugee resettlement fear that an influx of persons from the Middle East, central America and Africa will bring about a cultural sea change in our own day. That may be so, but it should be of no concern to our republic. As an American, I have to say that ours is a nation founded not on any notion of “culture,” “blood” or religion, but upon ideas of government. Our constitution assumes that culture will change and evolve-and that is a good thing. That is why the constitution goes to great lengths in the Bill of Rights to ensure that government stays out of the culture preservation business. Cultural values, beliefs and traditions-like businesses, religions and political parties-must survive on the strength of their own initiative and persuasiveness. Government should neither stifle them, nor should it attempt to prop them up when they fail. The founders were convinced that the best defense against bad cultural influences was a free and open marketplace of ideas where conflicting visions of America’s identity, government and role in the world can be discussed and debated without government interference or intimidation. They trusted the wisdom of the American people and expected that, in the end, the best ideas would prevail and shape the country for the better. Such a society need not worry that its culture will be diluted by newcomers. The influence of immigrants can only strengthen the fabric of American society. For that reason, I must say that I believe the current hysterical opposition to immigration is destructive to our way of life, unpatriotic and un-American.

My posture of welcome to immigrants and refugees, however, rests on the much deeper conviction that disciples of Jesus are called to demolish walls, not to erect them. Let me be perfectly clear: Jesus was a globalist. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son-not America or any other nation. John 3:16. Jesus sent his disciples to make disciples of all nations. Matthew 28:19. The communion of saints as envisioned by John of Patmos is made up “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues.” Revelation 7:9. hen God called Abraham and Sarah, he promised to make them a blessing such that “all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” Genesis 12:3. There is but one holy, catholic and apostolic church that transcends all national boundaries and that church must receive with compassion and hospitality all who seek sanctuary within Christ’s Body. No claim of sovereignty by any temporal authority, no national security argument, no order or decree must be permitted to supersede the church’s ministry of welcome to the stranger.

Jesus is the personification of welcome. In today’s gospel we find him in foreign territory offering the water of life to a designated enemy. We see him cracking the religious and social barriers that have separated two peoples for generations. And at the end of the story we witness the wall of separation come tumbling down as the people of Samaria welcome Jesus and hear his gracious words to them. The gospel tells us that those who seek safety behind walls are on the losing side of history. Salvation is global. Deal with it.

Oh, Praise the Gracious Power

Oh, praise the gracious power
That tumbles walls of fear
And gathers in one house of faith
All strangers far and near:
We praise you, Christ!
Your cross has made us one.

Source: Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 651, text by Thomas H. Troeger (c. 1984 by Oxford University Press, Inc.) Professor Thomas H. Troeger was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church and as a minister in the Presbyterian Church. He has authored twenty books in the fields of preaching, poetry, hymnody and worship. He is a frequent contributor to journals dedicated to these topics and is a monthly columnist for Lectionary Homiletics and The American Organist.

Exodus 17:1–7

God has liberated his people from slavery in Egypt, defeated the Egyptian army at the Red Sea and led Israel to freedom. But freedom brings with it new challenges. The brick making abilities Israel had learned in Egypt are of little use in the wilderness. A whole different skill set is needed for survival in the desert. In desperate need of water for themselves and their animals, the Israelites begin to complain to Moses. They criticize his leadership, question his motives and begin to wonder whether God is truly behind Moses. Have they been duped? Have they followed a mad man on a suicidal quest? The question is summed up in the final verse of our lesson: “Is the Lord with us or not?” Vs. 7.

Moses seems also to have his own doubts about this enterprise and his ability to carry it out. That is understandable. He left Egypt with Israel trusting in God’s promise to be with him. Now he finds himself in the midst of an angry mob of thirsty people asking questions he cannot answer and demanding results he cannot deliver. No wonder Moses is at his wits end. He cries out in all too human frustration, “What shall I do with this people?”  Vs 4. Here God demonstrates remarkable patience, instructing Moses to take with him some of the elders of the people to the “rock of Horeb.” He is told to strike this rock with the staff he used to strike the Nile River turning it to blood. See Exodus 7:14-24. Moses does as God instructs and water comes forth from the rock for the people. Vs. 6.

As I have noted previously, the first five books of the Bible are believed by most Hebrew scriptural scholars to be the product of four distinct sources, these being the Jawhist source, the Elowist source, the Deuteronomic source and the Priestly source. For further elaboration, I invite you to revisit my post of March 12th and/or read the online article, Documentary Hypothesis. As it turns out, our lesson for today does not fit neatly into this hypothesis. Old Testament scholars disagree sharply over its source origin. Some have argued that the section is a conglomerate in which two or more sources are blended together, but there is no unanimity on which sources are implicated and where in the text their influence is to be found. Professor Brevard S. Childs is convinced that “th[is] question cannot be decided with any degree of certainty” and I tend to agree. Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, A Critical, Theological Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1974 Brevard S. Childs, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 306.

The mention of “the rock at Horeb” is odd. Horeb is another name for Sinai, the sacred mountain where Moses received the covenant. Israel will not reach that mountain until Exodus 19. It is possible that this is an allusion to God’s initial appearance to Moses on the mountain in the burning bush. It was there that Moses’ staff was first shown to be an instrument of God’s transformative power. Exodus 4:1-9. This narrative would dove tail naturally into the mention of the same staff later used by Moses to turn the Nile’s water into blood. Vs. 5.

This story is remarkably similar to one related in Numbers 20:1-13. Indeed, the commonality of geographic detail, etiology and plot have lead most Hebrew scriptural scholars to conclude that the two accounts are variations on a single story. In the Numbers narrative, matters do not go so well for Moses. Though instructed to speak to the rock and ask it for water, Moses proceeds to throw a tantrum in the presence of the people. He asks them, sarcastically no doubt, “shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” Numbers 20:10. He then strikes the rock with his rod (contrary to God’s specific instruction), but water nevertheless flows forth for the people and their cattle. Moses and Aaron are denied the privilege of bringing Israel into the land of promise as a result of their disobedience. Numbers 20:12-13.

This story of Israel’s rebellion at Massah and Meribah is mentioned in the Psalms. SeePsalm 95:8Psalm 106:32-33. Paul takes up the image of the water producing rock in this narrative (possibly with some latter rabbinic embellishment) recognizing it as a metaphor (or more?) for Christ’s sacramental presence in the church. I Corinthians 10:1-5. This and other stories from Israel’s time of wandering in the wilderness proved meaningful for the early church struggling to find its way in a world increasingly hostile to its presence. The same stories present a challenge, however, to modern churches that have settled into and become a part of the cultural landscape. Are our sedentary ways compatible with those of a people seeking, but who have not yet arrived at a homeland? See Hebrews 11:13-16.

Psalm 95

This is one of about twenty psalms thought to be associated with an enthronement festival for Israel’s God held in the fall, during which time worshipers made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem celebrating God’s triumph over all powers hostile to his rule. Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983, Bernard W. Anderson, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 175. The festival may have been patterned after rites common among Israel’s neighbors, such as the feast of akitu where the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma elish, was recited and re-enacted. Ibid. 176. However that might be, there is a critical difference between typical near eastern mythology on the one hand which tended to reflect and legitimate the imperial infrastructure, and Israel’s salvation narrative on the other hand acclaiming Yahweh as Lord. The difference is borne out by the fact that Israel’s worship outlasted her dynastic existence whereas the Babylonian and Canaanite religions died along with their empires.

Whatever its origins, Psalm 95 in its present state is obviously composed for use in public worship. It opens with an invitation for all Israel to worship God, not merely as creator, but as the God who is its “rock of salvation.” Vss. 1-2. Verses 3-5 declare that the whole of creation belongs to the Lord who is “a great king above all gods.” This might well be an ancient worship formula from a period of time when Israel acknowledged the existence of other deities, though always subject to Yahweh, her Lord. Nevertheless, its use in later Judaism functioned as a denial of even the existence of such gods. Vss 7b to 11 refer back to the narrative from our Exodus lesson as a warning to Israel. The worshipers must learn from the faithless conduct of their ancestors and its dire consequences not to be rebellious, disobedient and unbelieving.

The psalm is an illustration of just how important the narratives of God’s salvation history with Israel were for her worship and piety. The ancient stories of the wilderness wanderings were not dead history for Israel. They were and continue to be paradigms of covenant life in which Israel is challenged each and every day with God’s invitation to trust his promises and with the temptation to unbelief and rebellion. So, too, as the church enters into Lent and Holy Week, the gospel narrative of Jesus’ obedient life, faithful suffering and sacrificial death inform the real life choices that are ever before us. We see ourselves in the tentative response of Nicodemus to Jesus; Peter’s failure to follow through on his promise to go with Jesus to suffering and death; Judas’ betrayal of Jesus; and the disciples’ abandonment of Jesus. More significantly, we recognize our own new beginning in the resurrected Christ who seeks out his failed disciples and calls them to a new beginning.

Romans 5:1–11

This is a pivotal passage in Paul’s argument that we have been following for the last two weeks (in spite of the lectionary’s best efforts to scramble it). Having established that righteousness is measured not in terms of what is achieved by human effort but by trust in what God promises, Paul now sums up the consequences. Trusting in the forgiveness of sin and the promise of sanctification accomplished in Jesus, believers find the peace that always eluded them when they sought righteousness on their own terms. Paul points out that Jesus reconciled us to God while we were yet sinners. This is difficult to grasp because we usually think of reconciliation as a two way process by which two hostile parties somehow resolve their differences and manage to live peaceably going forward. But when it comes to the reconciling work of Christ, reconciliation is a one way street. We are reconciled to God whether we like it or not. The cross is God’s act of unilateral disarmament.

In the face of this bold proclamation, we often hear the inevitable objection: “If Christ has done everything to reconcile us and we cannot add anything to it by way of response, doesn’t that render us mere passive objects? What incentive do we have to be moral if salvation is simply given to us without any preconditions or expectations? Does anything we do make a difference? The answer is both “no” and “yes.” If the question is whether anything can be done to win God’s favor or improve your standing before God, the answer is clearly “no.” On the other hand, if the question is whether reconciliation transforms your life in any way, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Recall that righteousness is defined as faith which, in Paul’s understanding, translates as trust in God’s covenant promises. This faith is not merely intellectual ascent to a doctrinal assertion, i.e., “I believe that Jesus’ death paid the penalty for my sin; therefore, I am saved from the wrath of God.” Faith is confidence in God’s faithfulness to his promise to love and forgive us without limit. True obedience, then, flows not from compliance with legal obligations, but out of thankfulness and praise for all that God has accomplished for us in Christ.

John 4:5–42

For reasons probably far beyond the grasp of my simple mind, the makers of the lectionary have omitted the first four verses of our reading so that we have no idea how Jesus came to be in the vicinity of the Samaritan town of Sychar. That is unfortunate because these verses indicate to us that Jesus was on his way to Galilee from Judea and that he “had to pass through Samaria.” Vs. 4. Geographically speaking, this is not true. Though the main route from Judea to Galilee appears to have been through Samaria, Jesus could have avoided Samaria altogether if he had wanted by going up the Jordan Valley and into Galilee. The necessity, therefore, is rooted in the plan of God for Jesus’ mission and ministry.

There is no evidence of any town by the name of “Sychar” anywhere near the well that is known to be associated with Jacob. The most probable explanation is that “Sychar” is a corrupted spelling of “Shechem” which was only a short distance from the well. See, Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-X11, The Anchor Bible, (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 169. The well was about one hundred feet deep covered with a stone. Without a bucket and a rope, the well could offer no relief to thirsty travelers like Jesus.

In order to get the full impact of this story, we need to understand a little bit about Samaritans. Samaritans were a Semitic people situated in central Galilee during the first century. They claimed to be descended from the ten tribes of Israel that broke away from the Davidic monarchy in Jerusalem shortly after the death of David’s son, Solomon around 922 B.C.E. After that time, there were two Israelite nations: the kingdom of Judah in the south under the reign of David’s descendants and the kingdom of Israel in the north ruled by several dynasties throughout its existence. Israel eventually established its capital in the city of Samaria under its powerful King Omri in about 880 B.C.E.; hence, the name “Samaritan.”  The peoples of this northern kingdom had their own place of worship on Mt. Garizim in Samaria. After the Assyrian conquest of Israel in 722 B.C.E., many people of the land were deported, but many also remained. The Assyrians transplanted populations from other parts of their empire onto Israelite soil and there was evidently some intermarriage between the Israelites and the newcomers. The Samaritans naturally asserted that their worship was the true religion of ancient Israel existing prior to the Babylonian conquest of Judah in 587 in which the upper classes of Judah (Jews) were carried off into exile. The Samaritans maintained that the religion of the Jews practiced in the temple of Jerusalem, rebuilt after the Babylonian Exile, constituted a perversion of Israel’s true faith. Please note that the Samaritans are not extinct. According to the latest census, there are about 750 of them living in the area of Tel Aviv. To this day they maintain their cultural identity and practice their ancient faith.

The Jews, by contrast, maintained that the true faith was preserved through the institution of temple worship in Jerusalem from which the ten tribes broke away. If you have ever wondered why the books of I & II Chronicles; Ezra and Nehemiah are loaded with mind numbing genealogies documenting exactly who was carried away from Judah into Babylon, their descendants born during the exile and who returned from exile, it all has to do with establishing the pedigree of the second temple in Jerusalem erected upon the Jew’s return from Babylonian captivity. The authors wished to establish beyond doubt that worship in this new temple was connected by an unbroken line of priests, singers and artists to the original temple built by Solomon.

According to the book of II Kings, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was completely depopulated when the Assyrians conquered Samaria in about 722 B.C.E. The Assyrians brought in foreigners to settle the land, but when these new comers experienced repeated attacks by lions, the Assyrian Emperor concluded that this must be the result of their failure to worship the gods of the land. To remedy the situation, he brought back from exile some of the priests of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to renew worship at its shrine in Bethel. The authors of II Kings assert that this priesthood began to include foreigners who introduced pagan practices, thereby perverting the true worship of Israel’s God-which had been less than adequate among the northerners to begin with since the break with Judah. II Kings 17:21-34. Obviously, this account is given from the perspective of the Jews.

As you can see, the rivalry between Jews and Samaritans was both ancient and intense. The degree of animosity between them can be seen in the book of Nehemiah where the Samaritans, along with other inhabitants of Palestine, fiercely opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple. The Samaritans also supported the Syrian rulers in their wars against the Jews during which the second temple in Jerusalem was desecrated. The Jews returned this favor in 128 B.C.E. when the high priest in Jerusalem set on fire the Samaritan temple on Mr. Gerizim. This conflict and the memory of its bloody history was very much alive in the first century.

This is important to know because it makes clear just how important the issue of proper worship raised by the Samaritan woman really was. Some witless commentators have focused on the Samaritan woman’s five husbands and the fact that she was living with one who was not her husband as the most significant issue in this encounter. That is wrongheaded for two reasons. First, recall that women in first century Semitic societies were largely considered property. Any woman of standing belonged to somebody. If she was married, a woman belonged to her husband. If unmarried, to her father. Based on what we read in the gospels, divorce (an action available solely to men) was easily obtained for the slightest of reasons. Thus, this woman might have been infertile and so undesirable as a wife to each of the five men who divorced her. The man to whom she now belongs could well be her father, a brother or some other male relative willing to take her into the household in exchange for providing domestic services-such as drawing water. Based on what little we know of this woman’s circumstances, we cannot fairly draw the conclusion that she was immoral or promiscuous. In any case, Jesus shows absolutely no interest in discussing sexual morality with this woman.

In the second place, the woman’s question is not polite cocktail party jabber typically used to draw the conversation away from unpleasant disputes over “sensitive” issues. The question about the proper place of worship as between Jews and Samaritans was about as explosive and controversial as any you could think to ask. This woman is cutting right to the chase and insisting that Jesus declare himself. Jesus’ response is to strike a blow to the wall of animosity between the two warring peoples. “The hour is coming when neither on this mountain [Gerizim] nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.” Vss. 21-25. The true temple, according to Jesus, is “the temple of his Body.” John 2:21.

The significance of this encounter unfolds when the woman returns to her town and brings her people out to meet Jesus. “The fields are white for harvest.” Vs. 35. The last word in this reading comes to us from the lips of the new Samaritan believers: “for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” The operative words here are “Savior of the world” echoing John 3:16. Just as Jesus drew into his orbit Nicodemus, a member of the hostile Sanhedrin, so now he draws in people of the hostile Samaritan population. In the end, the worldwide scope of the good news is fully revealed when some Greeks seek to see Jesus. John 12:20-26.

Once again, John is playing on words here. “Living water” can be translated as “running water” as opposed to standing water that might be collected from rain in a cistern. Jacob’s well was fed by a deep underground aquifer and so would be considered running water. Hence, the woman’s question: “Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where do you get that living water?” Vs. 11. She does not yet understand that Jesus is speaking of the Spirit through which true worshipers must worship God. Water and the Spirit run through this story as they did in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus and will continue throughout John’s gospel. Water, of course, is a crucial element essential to life. In an arid region where potable water is scarce and precious, Jesus’ use of this image in speaking of the Spirit was particularly compelling. One who drinks of this living water not only quenches his own thirst, but becomes a fountain of living water welling up for eternal life. Vs. 14.

Sunday, September 13th

SIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-9
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, through suffering and rejection you bring forth our salvation, and by the glory of the cross you transform our lives. Grant that for the sake of the gospel we may turn from the lure of evil, take up our cross, and follow your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“…at a more subtle yet also more deadly level, the association of the Christian religion with white Western/Northern economic, military, and cultural imperialism constitutes the single most insidious cause of global peril. It can in fact be argued (and is) that the current bellicosity of the militant forms of Islam represents a reaction of the Muslim world to its humiliation by the powerful technocratic West, especially as the latter is embodied in the one remaining planetary superpower-which just happens to be the most avowedly Christian of all the nations of the world.”

Douglas John Hall, The Cross in our Context, (c. 2003 by Augsburg Fortress), p. 4.

Since the publication of Hall’s book we have witnessed the U.S. invasion of two middle eastern countries with the avowed intent of bringing western style democracy to the region and a virulent backlash against the waves of refugees fleeing into Europe in order to escape the unlivable environment of violence, poverty and economic chaos resulting from that failed crusade. Rising hostility against non-white immigrants in our own land has reached a fever pitch, with the rhetoric becoming particularly ugly in this primary season as politicians vie for the angry white vote. The relationship between these developments and the Christian faith is not incidental or tangential. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were overwhelmingly supported by white evangelical protestants. Anders Behring Breivik, the terrorist who systematically gunned down more than 70 children at a sleep away camp in Norway in July of 2011, acted in accord with an ideology of hatred against non-white European immigrants he felt were threatening Europe’s Christian identity. Christian identity was again invoked by the Hungarian government last week in denying passage through the country to thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, many of them children, fleeing from war, genocide and starvation. Not surprisingly, then, we find that 63% of white evangelical protestants see non-white immigrants as a threat to traditional American customs and values. White mainline protestants are not far behind at 51%. Attitudes Toward Immigration: in the Pulpit and the Pew. It appears that, at the very least, we must acknowledge a strand within Christianity that provides ideological support for white privilege as well as the economic, cultural and military machinery maintaining it. Moreover, this strand is not a mere fringe phenomenon.

Given the scriptural narratives and the high importance we Christians attribute to the Bible, it is hard to imagine how we got to this point. Our spiritual parents, Abraham and Sarah, were immigrants who had no legal status in the land of their sojourning. Like so many immigrants today, they were forced to flee their homeland to escape starvation and went as far as to trade sexual favors to get across the border. The children of Israel were descendants of Jacob whose family fled starvation in Canaan only to end up as a hated minority within the borders of a superpower that enslaved and oppressed them. When finally Israel did take possession of the promised land, she was told in no uncertain terms that she was not to replicate the ways of the empire from which she had been liberated: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”  Leviticus 19:34. We worship as Lord a child whose family was forced to flee their homeland in order to escape the genocidal madness of Herod the Great. We are disciples of the one who “had nowhere to lay his head.” Matthew 8:20. Our spiritual ancestors understood their status as resident aliens and remind us that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” Hebrews 13:14. So how did we get to the point where our hearts bleed for hypothetical bakers that might hypothetically be asked to bake a cake that might hypothetically be used in the wedding reception for a same sex couple, while turning a deaf ear and a cold heart to children fleeing across our borders from war, starvation and abuse?

Yes, that question is rhetorical. I understand the historical currents that created Christendom and shaped the church’s roll as ideological defender of western civilization and culture. I understand, too, the role of racism and how we have come to internalize and institutionalize it, even and perhaps especially in the church. The real question is, how do we get back to our biblical roots? I am wondering whether that can even happen with a church so thoroughly integrated into the Americana landscape. Perhaps we need to deconstruct the American church as we know it. Maybe that job is being done for us. It may be that mainline decline about which we do so much fretting and fussing is the wrecking ball of God.

To be honest, I don’t relish the idea that God is bringing us to the end of an era. There is much about the church in this country that I love: the majestic sanctuaries at the heart of our cities, the schools, colleges and seminaries preserving the richness of our theological, historical and liturgical traditions, the social ministries providing, food, housing, comfort and advocacy for the most vulnerable among us. My gut tells me we need to do everything possible to preserve as much as we can. Like Saint Peter, I would rather talk Jesus out of the cross. Surely there is a better way. If we just tweak the old ecclesiastical machinery a bit, pump a little more money into it and get the right consultants on board, we can turn this decline around. But that might not be the most faithful course to follow. If I am hearing Jesus correctly, you sometimes need to die before you can even think properly about living.

The way of the cross in our culture, as Douglas John Hall sees it, is to embrace our demise instead of trying to run away from it. Hall would have us accept the end of church as we know it as God’s judgment on what we have been. But it is not only that. To accept our end is also to make room for a new beginning. Without death, there can be no resurrection.

So what if our worst fears materialize? It may well be that the trends toward mainline protestant decline are not reversible, that they will continue for the foreseeable future no matter what we do. We might well find that, in a few decades, we will be but a shadow of our former self-at least institutionally. But perhaps a smaller, poorer, humbler church living and speaking from the margins of society is precisely the sort of church Jesus needs. It may just be that in losing our institutional lives, we will rediscover our true ecclesiastical self. We might find ourselves once again among the refugees on the outside looking in. But it is precisely there that we will most certainly find Jesus and the life he freely offers us.

Isaiah 50:4-9a

As was the case last week, our lesson comes to us from the Book of Isaiah. Scholars attribute this text to “Second Isaiah” (Isaiah 40-55), a collection of oracles 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.

This particular reading is taken from the third of Isaiah’s four “servant songs.” The other three are found at Isaiah 42:1–9, Isaiah 49:1-6 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. Scholars hold differing views on the identity of the “servant” in these songs. Some view the servant as an individual, perhaps the prophet himself/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.

Though tidings of a new beginning might at first blush sound like good news, it is likely that many of the exiles did not hear it that way. Life in cosmopolitan Babylon may not have seemed much like captivity to the second generation of Jews who had purchased land, begun businesses or secured important posts in the Babylonian government. Giving up the security of a settled existence for a dangerous trip back to a ruined land must have seemed like madness to them. No doubt they resented and perhaps feared this prophet and his/her preaching that enticed members of the community away from their homes and families to embark on such a misguided adventure. Not surprisingly, the prophet met with resistance that included violence (smiting, spitting and pulling out the beard). Vs. 6. The prophet is undismayed by this abuse, confident that his commission is from the God of Israel. Vss. 7-9.

Westermann notes that “[t]he special characteristic of the prophetic office is the very fact that the prophet wakens his ear ‘morning by morning,’ and must continually allow it to be opened by God, in order to have ‘an answer to give to the weary.’” Ibid. p. 229. Perhaps this is what John the evangelist had in mind when he quotes Jesus as saying: “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” John 7:16. The incarnation, then, fuses the prophet and the Word as one. Not surprisingly, then, the rejection of that Word by a sinful world, as occurred most definitively in the passion narrative, takes the form of lethal violence.

Westermann believes these passages from Isaiah to be “truly revolutionary in their importance” because they express the servant’s acceptance of his/her persecution as an affliction intended by God as the fulfillment of his/her prophetic mission. Ibid. p. 231. Though the psalmists and the prophets, most notably Jeremiah, struggle with seemingly unmerited persecution which they hope to see redressed through retribution of some kind, the servant seeks not retribution but vindication. Israel’s final salvation, not her just punishment, will demonstrate that the servant’s suffering is not evidence of God’s rejection, but of the prophet’s faithfulness.

I agree with Westermann’s reading of this text, though I am not convinced that it is quite as revolutionary as he supposes. While the early prophets could be caustic in their prayers for retribution against their enemies and unsparing in their proclamations of judgment, they never lost sight of their solidarity with Israel. Even the socially ostracized Jeremiah could weep bitterly over the fate of his people-however justly deserved it might be. Jeremiah 9:1. Isaiah recognizes that he is “a man of unclean lips, and dwells in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah 6:5. As withering as Amos’ judgments against Israel were, he prayed fervently that the people might be spared the worst of God’s wrath. Amos 7:1-6. In sum, the prophets always understood God’s judgment as an instrument of healing and salvation. Similarly, they must have understood at some level that their persecutions were part and parcel of their callings.

These observations tie naturally into the passion narrative foreshadowed in the gospel. The persecuted and rejected prophetic word, now become flesh, is vindicated and triumphs not through an act of counter-violence, but through God’s patient determination to keep on speaking the gracious invitation to forgiveness, reconciliation and peace in the face of hostile opposition. God’s power is God’s patience.

Psalm 116:1-9

This is a prayer of thanksgiving offered along with a cultic sacrifice as evidenced by verses 17-19 (not in the reading) by a person who has just come through a very difficult time in his or her life and has reached a level of recovery. We might call this new disposition a “new orientation.” Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann divides the psalms into three categories: Psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation and psalms of new orientation. Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 by Augsburg Publishing House) pp. 18-23. I believe this to be a helpful distinction because at any given time in our lives we find ourselves orientated, disorientated or re-orientated. There are in most human lives “seasons of well-being that evoke gratitude for the consistency of blessing.” Ibid. at 19.  All seems well with the world. The job is exciting and filled with opportunities for advancement. Marriage is blessed with intimacy, spontaneity and delight. The kids are getting good grades and behaving themselves. There is not a cloud in the sky. A psalm of orientation, a song of sheer praise and thanksgiving for God’s faithfulness and goodness, a prayer that asks for nothing is appropriate. There are many such in the Psalter, e.g., Psalm 111; Psalm 113; Psalm 134; Psalm 150.

Then there are psalms of disorientation arising from “seasons of hurt, alienation, suffering and death.” Ibid.  They reflect “rage, resentment, self-pity, and hatred.” Ibid. Unlike much of our protestant piety that holds such emotions at arms-length, these prayers are brutally honest about the psalmists’ hatred of his/her persecutors, anger at God and despair over life in general. I must confess that I share the discomfort experienced by many with the raw negative emotion expressed in many of these psalms. It seems rather “primitive” to be cursing enemies and praying for vengeance. But perhaps that reflects more on my sheltered and privileged existence than upon any more evolved and progressive stage of my religion. Survivors of sexual abuse, refugees forced to flee their homeland to avoid genocide and victims of racial discrimination know levels of disorientation that many of us find difficult to comprehend. These psalms testify to the readiness of God to hear their tortured cries without judgment.

Psalms of new orientation, such as our Psalm for this Sunday, are songs of those who have fallen from a secure and well oriented life into disorientation, but have experienced the salvation of a God who has led them out of the darkness and re-orientated their lives. “Human life consists in turns of surprise when we are overwhelmed with the new gifts of God, when joy breaks through the despair.” Ibid. Such was the case for the psalmist. His/her journey has not been easy, nor does it bring the psalmist back to where s/he was before. Re-orientated people have been changed forever by their trek through the darkness. They now know just how dark and terrifying life can be. But they also know just how faithful and steadfast is the God who continues to lead them even as they pass through the valley of the shadow.

This psalm does not tell us precisely what troubles the psalmist has experienced. Neither does it explain what caused the psalmist’s suffering. That is precisely what makes it so wonderfully applicable to nearly all situations of deliverance. It might well be sung by someone who has endured a long and difficult course of cancer therapy and has received news that he or she is finally “cancer free.” Or it might be heard on the lips of someone who has gone through a difficult divorce ending a relationship that was supposed to last until death-and found the way back from heartbreak and despair to a healed life of love and trust. This psalm could be the song of a recovered alcoholic or the survivor of an abusive relationship. It is important to understand that this journey did not take the psalmist back to “the way things were.” Often, there is no going back. The scars of surgery remain even after a full recovery. Life after divorce can be filled with love, life and hope-but it does not restore the relationship that was lost. There is no way back to the way things were. There is only the way forward into a new future that God promises.

As with all psalms, this one has a testimonial aspect. What God has done for the psalmist is an attribute of God’s character: readiness to help the weak and defenseless. This is part of what is implied by verse 5 in the preservation of the “simple.” Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 81. The psalmist would have the rest of the worshipping community know that their liturgically expressed beliefs about God are indeed true and have found expression in his/her own experience.

James 3:1-12

Early one Sunday morning a few years ago I stopped at a little convenience store near the church to pick up some milk and cream cheese for the family education hour that would follow our Eucharist. I met a very young woman with a little girl that could not have been more than four years old. The woman greeted me with the words, “Good morning, Father.” Then she said to her little girl, “You see that man? He is a priest. Do you know who a priest is?” The little girl said nothing. “A priest is someone who works for God,” the woman continued. The little girl looked up at me, wide eyed. I have no idea how much or little she understood about God or whether the word “God” had any meaning for her at all. But if she remembers anything from this interchange, it will be that people who wear black shirts and collars like mine represent God.

That is a scary notion! Now I think I understand why James tells us that “not many of you should become teachers.” Like it or not, “We who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.” Vs. 1. That might not seem fair, but it’s true. It does not matter that the instances of pedophilia are actually much lower among priests than in the male population generally. When a clergy person molests a child it is always more devastating. In addition to the permanent emotional scars always left by such abuse, the abused child’s perception of God is horribly corrupted. The public’s perception of the church-which is called to be Christ’s resurrected presence in the world-is irreparably damaged. It does not matter either that clergy are statistically among the least susceptible to crimes of embezzlement and fraud. When a pastor abuses the trust of his or her church in matters of money, the damage to the congregation far exceeds whatever the financial loss may be. Again, the church’s credibility with the public is undermined and so is its witness to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims. So I read James’ warning with a degree of fear and trembling.

Of course, we are all teachers in some measure. Our children learn from us more than they will ever learn in Sunday School about faith, worship and discipleship. We parents are teaching our children by example every waking moment about love, forgiveness, faithfulness and the importance of worship-or not. They learn from us how to treat people with compassion and respect-or not. They learn from us the habits of prayer, promise keeping and honesty-or not. They see Jesus formed in the families we raise-or not. We cannot avoid being teachers. The question is, how well and faithfully are we teaching? What lessons do our children come away with? What are they learning from our examples about what really matters?

James draws our attention to our use of speech as the chief source of potential destructiveness. It takes only one disparaging word to undo the sense of confidence, self-worth and courage that parents, teachers and mentors work so hard to instill in a child. Once a false rumor gets started, it continues to live on, projecting itself over the internet, through mouths of talk show hosts and in idle conversation-even after it has conclusively been refuted. But the most insidious abuse of speech, as far as disciples of Jesus are concerned, is its effect on our witness. Like every other gift, speech is intended to give glory to God and to serve our neighbor. Yet when speech is used to injure, insult and destroy, it becomes “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Vs. 9

The Eighth Commandment is clearly implicated here: “You shall not bear false witness.” In his Small Catechism, Luther writes concerning this commandment that “We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.” It is the second part of Luther’s admonition that needs our attention. It is easy enough for me to stand by and remain silent when I am part of a conversation in which someone is being attacked. Much harder it is to come to their defense, to speak well of them and try to convince everyone else to give them the benefit of the doubt. This is particularly so in cases where I tend to think that the victim might deserve some criticism or when I have my own reasons for feeling angry at him or her. But whether the absent person is guilty or not, the point is that he or she is absent. That person is the one who needs to hear whatever just criticism any individual may have. Speaking it in his or her absence only conveys a one sided account to other people who may not even have any part in the dispute. Such speech, rather than bringing about healing, reconciliation and understanding, instead broadens the conflict and contributes to distortion and misunderstanding.

Mark 8:27-38

This episode is a watershed event for the Gospel of Mark. Throughout the gospel the disciples have been struggling with the identity of Jesus. Of course, we as readers know that Jesus is God’s Son and Israel’s Messiah because we were told that in Mark 1:1. Jesus knows who he is because the Spirit descended upon him at his baptism by John in the Jordan, telling him that he is God’s Son, the beloved. Mark 1:9-11. The demons know who Jesus is and are ready to proclaim it-except that Jesus will not let them. Mark 1:21-27. Jesus’ disciples, however, remain in the dark about who he is. After Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples ask in wonder, “Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?” Mark 4:35-41.

Jesus first asks the disciples who members of the public believe him to be. Vs. 27. They give him various responses: John the Baptist raised from death; Elijah returning from heaven as long foretold by the prophet Malachi (Malachi 4:5-6); one of the great prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. Vs. 28. It is, of course, conceivable that First Century Jews among the Galilean commoners might have formed any one of these opinions about Jesus. Yet it is curious that there is no mention by the disciples of anyone among the people entertaining the possibility that Jesus might be the messiah. Indeed, I would expect that to be the first guess of the anxious populace! Be that as it may, from a literary standpoint it is perfectly understandable that Mark reserves for the disciples the discovery and confession of his identity. For Mark’s gospel has been striving to make clear to us that Jesus can never be rightly understood apart from discipleship. Only as one follows Jesus in “the way” does one begin to know him.

Now Jesus pops the question directly, “So, who do you say that I am.” Vs. 29. The emphatic use of the Greek pronoun, “You” or “Umeis,” serves to reinforce the point that, as noted previously, what is said about Jesus by his disciples is critical because only followers of Jesus can confess Jesus. See Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers) p. 202. Peter, ever the impetuous spokesperson for the disciples, blurts out his answer. “You are the Messiah.” Vs. 29. That is half the answer. Jesus is indeed the Messiah promised to Israel. But he is more than that. Peter’s answer is therefore incomplete. Just how far Peter is from understanding Jesus becomes clear in the next scene.

This is the first place in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus speaks specifically about his coming suffering, death and resurrection. Vss. 31-33. He will do so two more times. Mark 9:30-32; Mark 10:33-34. Once again, Peter is the disciple who responds to Jesus’ words-and with a rebuke. Vs. 32. Mark does not tell us exactly what Peter said, but Peter seems to have taken Jesus aside to have his conversation in private. On the face of it, it sounds reasonable. It is what good friends do when they hear a friend talking about his imminent death. “Oh, don’t talk rubbish! Things will get better. You’ll see. Nothing of the kind will happen to you. I’ll see to that!” Jesus, however, turns and sees his disciples. Vs. 33. Why does Mark add this little observation? What does the sight of Jesus’ disciples do to evoke Jesus’ harsh response to Peter? I suspect that the sight of his disciples reminds Jesus why his suffering, death and resurrection are so important for this little community of followers, the embryonic church. Yes, the cross might be avoided. Jesus could remain in Galilee with his disciples, teaching in the wilderness, on the lake shore and outside of the towns and villages. That way, he might evade capture indefinitely. Indeed, if Jesus had been content to remain on the outskirts, it is possible that neither Rome nor the Jerusalem religious establishment would have considered him a threat worth pursuing. But Jesus came not merely to level criticism against the powers that be from a safe distance. He came to challenge the right of those powers to rule God’s creation. He came to establish the reign of God. The world needs to be told that Caesar is not Lord. The world needs to hear that God is not the property of any religious elite. There must be a confrontation between the power of empire that claims to rule God’s world and the Son of Man who actually does. Only so will the world know how different the gentle reign of God over creation is and that this reign of God finally will displace the imperial rulers who seek in every age to grasp the reins of power.

Of course, the reign of God will not be born without the pain, rending and blood that accompanies every birth. Just as Jesus will confront the violent reign of the powers that be with the gentleness of God’s reign on the cross, so the disciples will be called upon to live under God’s kingdom in a world that is hostile to it. The cross of Jesus will become their own. As Clarence Jordan would say, the church must become a demonstration plot for the reign of God, a reign that must finally extend to all creation. But the shape of life under God’s reign in a sinful world is the cross. Again, this is not to glorify suffering in and of itself. Suffering is unequivocally bad. Nevertheless, suffering that is incurred as a result of faithful discipleship can be redeemed. Just as God raised Jesus, the one who was faithful to God unto death, so God raises up his disciples whose witness to God’s peaceful kingdom in a violent world leads them into the heart of conflict, persecution and suffering.

Staying alive is not everything. “Survivalists” fail to understand that in making survival the number one priority, they are surrendering what is most precious. The kingdom Jesus proclaims is worth living for. And if living for the kingdom results in our dying, then the kingdom is also worth dying for. As the late Dr. Martin Luther King put it, “If there is nothing you are willing to die for, you have nothing to live for.” Or in the words of Jesus, “What does it profit one to gain the whole world, but lose one’s self?” Vss. 36-37.

Sunday, August 3rd

EIGHTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 55:1–5
Psalm 145:8–9, 14–21
Romans 9:1–5
Matthew 14:13–21

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Glorious God, your generosity waters the world with goodness, and you cover creation with abundance. Awaken in us a hunger for the food that satisfies both body and spirit, and with this food fill all the starving world; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Food, meals and eating are at the forefront of this Sunday’s readings. Isaiah calls the exiled people of Judah to feast on the abundance of God’s mercy. The psalmist praises God for feeding his creatures and providing for their needs. Confronted with a hungry crowd, Jesus looks beyond the meagerness of a few loaves and fishes to the limitless generosity of his heavenly Father. His incredulous disciples find themselves collecting leftovers!

These and many other passages from the Bible confirm what we all know, namely, that the earth is capable of feeding and sustaining the whole human family. It will continue to do so-if we can contain our selfish exploitation and pollution of its air, water and lands. So why are 842 million people throughout the world suffering from malnutrition? However you might answer that question, you can’t fault God. God has given us all that we need to feed ourselves and our neighbors. We have all we need to live well.

Perhaps, though, we need to rethink what living well means. Sometimes it seems as though we are a nation drunk on consumption. In the town where I live, we have periodic “junk days.” On these designated days, residents can place out on the curb all the unwanted items in their houses for pickup by the department of public sanitation. I am always astounded by the mountains of furniture, rugs, toys, computers, clothing and garden tools lining the streets on each of these days. I suppose this is the end result of an economy that depends on consumer craving for more, newer and improved stuff. The more we buy, the more profits for manufacturers which translates into more jobs for more people to produce more stuff. Increased production requires a bigger sales force to convince us that our computers are hopelessly out of date, that our wardrobe is so last season and that now is the time to get the best possible trade in value for the car. Consumption is what keeps the wheels of commerce turning. So we do our patriotic duty. We keep buying, using and throwing away as though there were no limits; as though the land will go on forever enduring our ruthless exploitation.

Debate over how best to stimulate and keep this economy going rages in the halls of congress, editorial pages and barbershops throughout the country. Left wing economists argue that government regulation is essential to ensure steady and sustainable economic growth. Tea Party extremists insist that the best way to keep the economy healthy is just to leave it alone. But no one is questioning whether this economy should be kept going at all costs. Wherever we happen to be on the political spectrum, we all seem to accept the proposition that this treadmill of production, consumption and waste is essential to sustaining our way of life.

The Bible points to an alternative way of living. It is revolutionary, but not particularly new. It is a way of life reflected in the Mosaic law which mandated that “there will be no poor among you.” Deuteronomy 15:4. It is a culture in which there is no distinction between legally recognized citizens and the undocumented in the land. Leviticus 19:33-34. Provision is made so that neither the migrant nor the native will ever go hungry. Leviticus 23:22. The land is treated with tenderness and respect-not as though it were nothing more than a ball of resources to be exploited without limit. Like people and animals, the land also needs time for rest and rejuvenation. Leviticus 25:1-7. The strength and vitality of Israel was measured not by the might of its military, the size of its GNP or the opportunities for individual accumulation of wealth, but by the wisdom and righteousness of its people. Deuteronomy 4:5-8. St. Paul calls this kind of society “church.” Church is more than a group of likeminded members. It is a Body in which the welfare of each part is the welfare of the whole. I Corinthians 12:12-26. The economy of the people of God is founded upon community building virtues like faithfulness, compassion, empathy, truthfulness and love.

Of course, the United States is neither Israel nor the church. I am not suggesting that the Mosaic laws or the virtues they embody can be enacted into legislation or distilled into any political ideology. The scriptures are addressed to the people of Israel and the community called church. It is a grave mistake to make the Bible into a book of general application because it becomes unintelligible when divorced from the peoples for whom it functions as God’s word. Nevertheless, if we are a people faithful to our calling; if, as St. Paul insists, we are the Body of Christ in the world today; if we can become even an imperfect reflection of the new heaven and the new earth God promises; then perhaps we can broaden the national conversation about our economy. Perhaps one day we will become less concerned about the amount of wealth our economy produces and more concerned with the quality of character it shapes within us, the kinds of community it builds and its effects upon the wellbeing of all people. Maybe the day will come when the good life is understood less in terms of how much we acquire and more in terms of what we contribute to the health of our planet. Perhaps one day we will begin to understand that what we manage to accumulate and what we accomplish is far less important than who we become. Maybe the day will come when our efforts will focus not on the use of people to produce goods, but the production of good people through a culture that values growth of character above all else.

Isaiah 55:1–5

This lesson comes to us from the final chapter of Second Isaiah, the prophet who preached to the Jewish exiles carried away into Babylon following the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. We had verses 10-13 as our reading for July 13th. These were discussed in my post for that date.

This final chapter of Second Isaiah begins with an invitation to eat and drink well at absolutely no cost! The exiled people of Judah are invited to “delight yourselves in fatness.” Vs. 2. That might not go down so well in a culture like ours where we are being killed by overeating rather than starvation. But in a culture where starvation was always just one bad harvest away, the prophet’s delivery of God’s invitation sounded a note of incredibly good news. It also constituted an astounding reversal of Israel’s religious practices. Typically, the fat of an animal sacrifice was set aside as an offering by fire to the Lord. The rest of the animal might be consumed by the priests, by the one offering the sacrifice or both. See, e.g., Leviticus 3-4. In this passage, however, God is the one making the invitation and offering the choice portions of the feast to the exiles.

This invitation to the feast echoes (or is echoed by?) Proverbs 9:1-6 where “wisdom” personified invites all who will hear her to a banquet. Perhaps this passage or one like it lies at the base of Jesus’ parables about the ungrateful and unresponsive persons invited to the marriage feast. See Matthew 22:1-14; Luke 14:16-24. The prophet chides the people with some rhetorical questions: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” vs. 2. So also, keeping in mind that meat was eaten only on very special occasions and the opportunity to have as much as you could eat was a once in a life time event, those listening to Jesus’ parable must have been wondering what kind of idiot would pass up such an opportunity for the sake of inspecting his oxen. Answer: the same kind of idiot who goes on with life as usual when the kingdom of heaven is at the doorstep. In other words, us!

Of course, meals are viewed as sacred throughout the Bible. Biblical characters never just “catch a bite.” Our casual eating practices would surely be viewed by our biblical ancestors as expressing an attitude of thanklessness and contempt for God’s gracious provision as well as for the gift of family, friendship and community. Eating was sacramental. A meal represented both the generosity of God toward human beings and the hospitality of human beings toward one another. First Century Israelites did not break bread with just anyone. Who you ate with defined who you were. That is why Jesus created so much outrage by eating with “sinners,” that is, people deemed beyond the scope of proper Israelite society. But for Jesus, these meals demonstrated the radical hospitality of God that reaches out to embrace the outcast. Indeed, outcasts are not merely included. They are exalted to the place of highest honor. “The last shall be first and the first last.” Matthew 20:16.

In verses 3-6 God promises to make a new Davidic covenant with Israel. This is the only time David is even mentioned in Second Isaiah. That is hardly surprising. Israel’s experience with the line of David was not always a happy one. The descendants of David were largely responsible for the foolhardy foreign policies resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile. Only too well had Israel learned not to put her trust in human monarchs. Psalm 146:2-4. Thus, Second Isaiah specifically avoids laying any messianic overtones on David or any of his descendants. The new Davidic covenant will not be with any specific descendant of David’s line, but with all Israel. Just as David and his descendants were instruments of justice in Israel, so now Israel will be God’s instrument of justice in the world.

There is a striking contrast, however, between the old Davidic covenant and the new. In the psalms celebrating the old Davidic covenant, the king is given “the nations” as his heritage and instructed to “break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Psalm 2:8-9. In our lesson for today, however, the exiles are told, “you shall call nations that you know not, and nations that knew you not shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy one of Israel, for he has glorified you.” Vs. 6. God will reign over the nations through the glory revealed among his faithful servant people, not through any show of violent force. There is an echo of this vision in the Gospel of John where Jesus prays: “I do not pray for these [disciples] only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may be one; even as thou Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou has sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.” John 17:20-23. It is through God’s covenantal love toward and among his people that the world comes to understand that God’s glory is God’s deep, passionate and patient love.

Psalm 145:8–9, 14–21

This psalm is a hymn in acrostic form. Every verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic poems usually do not develop ideas but consist rather of loosely connected statements. The technique aids in memorization, but also conveys the message that the whole of the topic is being addressed “from A-Z.” Other psalms in the acrostic family are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 145 in its entirety.

This is a psalm of praise, probably from the period after the Babylonian Exile. God alone is acknowledged as “king” rather than any ruler of the Davidic line. Vs. 1. The verses making up our reading contain a refrain found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: “The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Vs. 8. See, e.g, Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Jonah 4:2; and Psalm 103:8. It is because God is so gracious and merciful that Israel felt free to address God in prayer, even-indeed, especially-when she knew that she had fallen short of her covenant obligations.

Verses 15-16 are commonly and appropriately used as grace for meal times.

 The eyes of all look to you,

 and you give them their food in due season.

You open your hand,  satisfying the desire of every living thing.

It is always good to be reminded from whence comes our daily bread. Our American culture of individualism and self-initiative would lead us to believe that our bread is won by our own hard work and achievements. Wealth or “capital” is created by individuals whose genius creates products and services stimulating new markets and growing the economy. As long as we continue making more stuff and people keep on buying it, the economy keeps on generating jobs, opening up new investment opportunities and making life better for everyone. Of course, this all works better in theory than in practice as the growing disparity between rich and poor in this country demonstrates. Whether the system would work better with more government regulation or less is, as I mentioned previously, an ongoing debate. It is also a sterile one in my humble opinion.

The problem with economic liberalism is a theological one. It rests on the proposition that we are the generators of our own wealth. It constitutes a denial of what our psalm insists to be a basic truth: that all living things, from humans to microbes, receive their food in due season from the hand of the Lord. When that perspective is lost, life becomes a struggle of all against all. Instead of reflecting the glorious generosity of its Creator, the world becomes a ball of ever diminishing resources. Each nation, each household, each individual must jealously guard his or her share. There is no room for generosity, compassion or sharing in such a tight fisted world. Its people all too easily degenerate into an angry mob of fist shaking, hate filled, fear mongering bullies who threaten starving and abused children seeking refuge with the National Guard.

The psalm teaches us that the Lord “fulfils the desire of all who fear him.” Vs. 19. Yes, I know. We liberal, slightly left-of-center, ever polite and ever white protestant types get all antsy in the pantsy whenever “fear” and “God” get mentioned within one hundred words of each other. It seems we are practically tripping over each other in pained efforts to explain that “fear” does not really mean “fear,” but “awe” or “respect” or some other such malarkey. I don’t buy it. If God doesn’t scare the socks off you, then you have mistaken the God of the Scriptures for Mr. Rogers. Furthermore, it seems to me that we inevitably wind up fearing something. Whether it is communists, cancer or monsters under the bed, everybody is afraid of something. People driven by fear do foolish and destructive things, particularly when the object of their fears is mostly imaginary. Fear driven people wind up burning witches, running away from black cats and sending the National Guard out against sick and starving children. That being the case, I think we would be in a better place if our fears were directed toward things that really are fearful. Our gospels teach us that God is real and God is to be feared. This God is the one whose Son calls little children to come to him and tells us that the kingdom of heaven has been prepared for them. If the God of the Bible is real, then rather than fearing the consequences of welcoming needy children in our land, we ought to fear what this God might do to us if we do not welcome them. Perhaps the fear of the Lord really is the beginning of wisdom. Psalm 111:10.

The psalm ends with a declaration on the part of the psalmist that s/he will “speak the praise of the Lord, and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever.” Vs. 21. That declaration sums up the tone of the entire psalm. This prayer is one of sheer praise. It seeks nothing from God, asks nothing of God and expects nothing more than what God has already so richly supplied. There are many such prayers in the Book of Psalms and that ought to teach us something about prayer in general. Prayer is not all about us, our needs and our predicaments. It is first and foremost about this God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Vs. 8. On the worst days of my life (and I have had some horrible ones lately), there is never any shortage of reasons for giving thanks. It is with thanks, I believe, that all prayer ought to begin and end.

Romans 9:1–5

The original New Testament texts did not have chapter and verse numbers, paragraph separations or subject headings. These artifacts were added long after the Bible had been copied, re-copied and re-copied again, translated, re-translated and re-translated again from the Greek into Coptic, Latin and subsequently into other languages. It is important to keep that in mind, because determining where to end a chapter, begin a paragraph or place a subject heading is an interpretive decision. It shapes how the text is understood. Our English Bibles all seem to follow the chapter divisions between Romans 8 and 9, ending Paul’s discussion begun in Romans chapter 1 at the close of Romans chapter 8. At first blush, that feels right. Paul sums up everything he has been saying about the liberating grace of God with the following words: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39. It is all I can do to refrain from adding “amen.”

Yet refrain I must, because there is no “amen.” The “amen” does not come until the end of our reading for this Sunday. Verses 1-5 of Romans 9 are part and parcel of Romans 8:31-39. The impossibility of anything separating us from the love of God in Christ is the premise for what Paul has been arguing from the beginning of Romans, namely, that just as sin imprisons both Jews and Gentiles under the power of death, so the grace of God in Christ Jesus frees both Jews and Gentiles from the power of sin and the law. Throughout chapters 9-11 Paul will proceed to discuss the role of Israel and the church in God’s redemptive plan. Paul wishes to make clear, however, that both these communions are essential and complement each other.

Understand that at this point in history, there was no decisive break between Christianity and Judaism. Neither Jesus nor Paul understood the movement referred to as “the way” in Acts as constituting a new religion. The Jesus movement was a reform movement within Judaism. Paul would be shocked and saddened to learn that today Jewish and Christian communities live largely separate and independent existences. For Paul, the good news of Jesus Christ was the conduit through which the covenant promises given to Israel are now shared with the gentiles. This same good news challenged Israel to understand its role in a much bigger and more profound way, much as did the prophet of Second Isaiah. Just as Paul insisted that it was not necessary to convert gentiles to Judaism before welcoming them into the Body of Christ, so Paul was not interested in drawing Jews away from their ancestral faith. It was Paul’s hope that in Christ Jesus the gentiles would come to trust in the God of Israel and that Israel would discover a broader vision of all that was promised in the law and the prophets.

So Paul concludes his discussion of God’s grace in Christ by affirming his own Jewish faith and that of his fellow Jews. “To them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.” Vss. 4-5. Notice the present tense. Paul does not suggest that Israel has lost its status as God’s chosen people or that what once belonged to Israel is now the property of the church. What God has given with one hand, God does not take back with the other. Paul will make this point further on. Rather than taking away Israel’s covenant relationship, God is broadening it to include those formerly outside that covenant. We gentiles, who had no legal claim or right to the blessings given Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; who did not pass through the Red Sea, travel through the wilderness or enter into the promised land; who have none of the blood of the patriarchs pulsing through our veins; we have nevertheless been invited to take part in this marvelous story.

Over the centuries, we gentile believers have forgotten that we are invited guests. Instead of receiving thankfully the undeserved hospitality that has been extended to us in Jesus Christ, we have begun to imagine that we are masters of the house. Worse than that, we have attempted to expel the Jewish inhabitants, put our feet up on the furniture and redecorated the place to suit our own tastes. Over the centuries, our theology has treated Judaism not as the mother she is, but the wicked step mother whose presence cannot be tolerated. Christianity divorced from its Jewish roots cannot help but lose touch with its Jewish savior and the promises of the Hebrew Scriptures that cannot be fulfilled apart from the participation of the Hebrew people. When Paul’s letter to the Romans is read in the way I have just suggested, as I believe it was intended, we are compelled to look critically and with great sadness on the centuries of Christian hostility toward Judaism and the current gulf dividing church and synagogue.

Matthew 14:13–21

Upon learning of John the Baptist’s execution by Herod Antipas, Jesus withdrew in a boat with his disciples to a “lonely place apart.” Vs. 13. But Jesus cannot remain hidden. The crowds seek him out with their illnesses, fears and hopes. Jesus, moved by compassion, remains to heal their sick. Now it is late and the disciples are concerned. The crowd is hungry and hungry crowds are dangerous. These people have heard the whisperings about Jesus, that he is John the Baptist raised from death, Elijah the miracle working prophet or perhaps even Israel’s longed for messiah. They have high expectations. Their hunger for greater miracles is as great as the hunger in their bellies. Now is the time to send the crowd away. Their sick have been healed; it is still light; they can still perhaps find their way to someplace where there is food. The disciples recognize the potential danger and the need to act promptly to avoid a riot.

Jesus, however, seems unconcerned. “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Vs. 16. Evidently, Jesus cannot do math. Five loaves of bread and two fish will not go far among five thousand men and their families. But the math of the kingdom is far different from our math. We tend to approach the needs of our world with an eye toward our own resources. We ask, “How much can we do with what we have? How far can we stretch our dollars? What can we expect to accomplish, given that we are a small, aging and poor congregation?” By contrast, Jesus meets the needs of the world on the strength of God’s promises. It is never a question of what we can do with what we have. It is always a question of what God can do when we place our all into his hands, relying on his promises. No, we cannot solve the world’s problems with what little we have, but Jesus does not ask us to do that. Instead, he invites us to become part of and share in what God is doing to redeem creation.

Verses 20-21 echo the concluding words to the story of Elisha’s feeding one hundred of the sons of the prophets with twenty loaves of bread. II Kings 4:42-44. In both cases, the amount of food was insufficient. As did Jesus in our gospel lesson, so Elisha instructs his disciple to distribute this clearly inadequate food supply to a needy community. Both stories conclude with God’s provision of abundance through what appeared to be scarcity. This message dovetails nicely with the theme of our psalm reminding us that God is a God of abundance and generosity. Only when our trust strays from God’s gracious promise to provide for all of our needs do we see scarcity and want. I think that the comments of Rev. Dr. George Hermanson on this reading sums it all up very nicely: “What follows invites us to remember our own wildernesses, our own places of chaos, when our own insufficiencies may have been blessed, broken, and given away. And yet it was precisely in risking that impossible insufficiency that there was enough. Indeed, more than enough.” Holy Textures, Commentary on Matthew 14:13-21.

Sunday, July 13th

FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 55:10–13
Psalm 65: 1–13
Romans 8:1–11
Matthew 13:1–9, 18–23

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, we thank you for planting in us the seed of your word. By your Holy Spirit help us to receive it with joy, live according to it, and grow in faith and hope and love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

As reflected in the prayer of the day, the readings this week are all about planting, growth and bearing fruit. This is so figuratively, as in the case of the lessons from Isaiah and the gospel, and literally as reflected in the psalm. These scriptures and countless more portray God as one both willing and capable of providing all that we need-and more besides. We can trust God to bring forth fruit from the earth to nourish and strengthen us. We can be confident that the words we hear from the scriptures, in preaching and in our hymns will take root in our hearts and form in us the mind of Christ. “I came,” said Jesus, “that [all people] may have life and have it abundantly.”

From the beginning the devil has been tempting us to doubt these precious promises. He is forever insinuating that God cannot really be trusted to provide all that we need. God is holding something back from us. God cannot be relied upon to care for us. If we don’t look after ourselves, nobody else will. So you better grab that fruit while the getting is good. God helps those that help themselves, right? The devil would have us believe that the world is a shrinking pie. Better guard your piece carefully. Already there is not enough to go around. Paul calls this demonically inspired unbelieving attitude sin. Sin places my own interests above everyone else’s. Sin makes my heart cold toward the stranger. Sin convinces me that my own survival requires denying survival to everyone else.

I cannot imagine a clearer instance of original sin than the recent efforts of an angry California mob at our southern border to prevent a bus load of sick and famished child refugees from gaining access to the care they so desperately needed. Have we, the country built up of immigrants, become so heartless and cold that we deny food and shelter to children for lack of proper paperwork? What a sad reflection on our character as a people! I hasten to add, however, that these individuals with their hateful words and actions do not represent all or even the majority of Americans. Neither do they represent the voice of the Church of Jesus Christ. In a recent statement addressed to the press, Rev. Stephen Bouman, executive director of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) congregational and synodical mission (and former pastor of Trinity!) made clear that, “As people of faith, we are reminded that among the children who had to flee across borders because of threat of life was our very own Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. When children flee across two international borders alone, the community of Jesus – the church – must accompany them.” To that end, “The ELCA, through its partnership with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, is already involved through its congregations, social ministry organizations, advocacy, and Lutheran Immigration Refugee Service affiliates on the ground,” said Bouman. “We are pursuing both the short-term efforts at achieving safety and relevant social services for these children of God, as well as long-term systemic solutions to stem the flow of children cast adrift.” See full article at ELCA advocates for unaccompanied children entering the United States. This response, I believe, is more in keeping with genuine American values. It is surely no less than what Jesus requires of us.

Immigration has become a volatile issue of late. It is important to keep in mind, however, that hostility toward immigrants is not new to the republic. None other than Benjamin Franklin said of my own beloved German ancestors in Pennsylvania that they were “the most ignorant stupid sort of their own nation…They begin of late to make their bonds and other legal writings in their own language, which (though I think it ought not to be) are allowed good in our Courts, where the German business so increases that there is continual need of interpreters; and I suppose in a few years they will be also necessary in the Assembly, to tell one half of our Legislators what the other half say….Unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies…they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in my opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.” Quoted by Keye, Jeffrey, Moving Millions-How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration, (c. 2010 by Jeffrey Kaye, pub. by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.) p. 24. Substitute the word “Spanish” or “Korean” for “German” and this comment might easily pass for a 21st Century tweet.

Another thing to keep in mind is that illegal immigration is a recently manufactured crime. Many opponents of illegal immigration make the point of telling me that their grandparents or parents came to this country legally. They are probably correct. Until 1929, it was not a crime to enter the United States without documentation and many of our ancestors did just that. The need for cheap labor was such that laws limiting or slowing immigration would have been commercially damaging. Moreover, most of the restrictions that make immigration such a slow and difficult process are of even more recent vintage. The bureaucratic hurdles faced by today’s  immigrants are far greater than those faced by immigrants in the past.

I don’t pretend to have answers to the difficult legal, social and political issues raised by the recent influx of child refugees. Nor do I purport to have in hand the ideal immigration policy. Clearly, the system we have now is broken and desperately needs reform. I leave discussion of all the potential fixes to those more knowledgeable than me. Suffice to say, however, that disciples of Jesus have a particular concern for the well being of the stranger in our midst-regardless of his or her legal status. Our response to the flood of unaccompanied children at our borders must be shaped by the parables of the Good Samaritan, the Last Judgment, and the Feeding of the Five Thousand rather than by the rhetoric of angry mobs, politicians and talk show hosts. Disciples of Jesus know that the need of their neighbors is no cause for fear and panic. Rather, it is an opportunity for sharing and experiencing the abundance of God’s bounty and compassion.

Isaiah 55:10–13

This reading is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 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 lesson is part of the closing chapter of Second Isaiah’s work. In order to get the full force of this remarkable word, you need to read the entire section beginning at verse 6. I encourage you, then, to take a minute and read Isaiah 55:6-13 in its entirety. The prophet has made his case to the exiles, pointing out the opportunity for a new start, declaring that God’s hand has opened the way for Israel’s return to her homeland and assuring the people that God will accompany them throughout their journey back to the land of Canaan with miraculous works of power just as God accompanied their ancestors from Egypt to that same promised land centuries ago.

The prophet begins with a call for the people to “Seek the Lord while he may be found.” Vs. 6. As Hebrew Scripture commentator Claus Westermann observes, this phrase is a liturgical cultic formula calling upon worshipers at the temple to approach God with sacrifices and offerings. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, (c. SCM Press Ltd 1969) p. 287. In the prophetic era beginning in the 8th Century B.C.E., it lost its connection with the Temple and began to be employed more broadly as a call for the whole people to repent and turn towards God. Ibid. Verse 7 makes more specific the content of this call:

7 …let the wicked forsake their way,  and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,  and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

Westermann and others are convinced that this verse is an interpolation from another source, the work of a later editor of Second Isaiah’s writings. Ibid at 288. However that might be, the verse nevertheless fits neatly into the call. Turning away from sin is merely the flip side of returning to the Lord. Moreover, there is a neat balance between the “wicked…way” and “unrighteous…thoughts” referenced in verse 7 above and God’s “ways” and God’s “thoughts” which are higher than those of the people. Vss. 8-9.

Verses 10-11 serve to emphasize with certainty that the prophet’s word will be fulfilled. That is a bold assertion, given that the return from exile is at this point merely an aspiration. The fulfilment of this vision is fraught with numerous obstacles and practical difficulties. Small wonder, then, that the exiled Jews are skeptical. The prophet stubbornly maintains, however, that the word of the Lord which he speaks is as sure to come to fruition as is new growth from the soil nurtured by the rain.

Second Isaiah brings his prophecies to a close with a marvelous promise that the exiles will go forth from Babylonian captivity in peace, that the mountains and hills will break forth into song and that the trees will clap their hands. Vs. 12. From a literary standpoint, one might balk at these crude anthropomorphic projections into the realm of nature. Nonetheless, the point is that Israel’s return to her homeland is not a matter merely of local geopolitical interest. It is a cosmic event in which God is at work bringing about redemption for the whole creation. That being the case, it should not surprise us that the returning exiles are greeted by a natural world hungry for God’s redemptive touch. It is only natural that the thorn withdraw to make room for the shade-giving cypress and myrtle. It is only right that this Eden-like pathway of return should stand as a memorial to this new Exodus miracle. Vs. 13.

We cannot leave our reflections here, however. While the return from Babylon to the promised land did indeed occur, it did not transpire in the way Second Isaiah had foretold. There was no return of the whole people of God. As best we can ascertain, the returning exiles made up but a tiny group of Jews. The greater part of the community remained, constituting what came to be called the “Diaspora.” Moreover, the return was not facilitated by the miraculous highway of well-watered and shaded land about which the prophet sings. Upon return, life was difficult and precarious. It took the urging of subsequent prophets and the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah to inspire the demoralized people to take up the task of rebuilding Jerusalem and its temple.

In short, when asked whether the prophetic words of Second Isaiah were fulfilled, we must answer both “yes” and “no.” There is no question that the prophet succeeded in inspiring a community to take up the call to seize an opportunity for a new beginning. Yet the fulfilment hardly lived up to the hope that Israel’s return would be accompanied by such miraculous splendor that the nations would take note and give praise to her God. In that sense, the prophecy points beyond itself into a future that even this visionary prophet could not imagine. That should not surprise us. God’s ways are higher than our ways. The word spoken by the prophet is not his own. It is God’s word. As such, there is no telling how far beyond the prophet’s own vision that word might stretch, what it might accomplish or how far into the future it might extend.

Psalm 65: 1–13

This is one of my favorite psalms. It is a song of pure praise. It asks nothing of God and expresses no desire for anything other than what God in God’s immeasurable generosity has already provided. One cannot help but be impressed with the psalmist’s confidence in God’s willingness to provide all that is needful in life. This worshiper knows nothing of the “ideology of scarcity” referenced by Walter Bruegemann cited in last week’s post. S/he knows only the god who “crownest the year with thy bounty” vs. 11. This psalm strikes a joyfully discordant note among the angry shouts of “return to sender” coming from the throats of those intent on turning back destitute children fleeing to our borders from violence and starvation. To this sick and twisted world view shaped by the perception of the world as a shrinking pie, our psalm holds up the bold confession of a God whose giving knows no limit. Neither should our generosity.

“Praise is due to thee, O God, in Zion.” Walter Brueggemaan suggests that this line is a direct polemic against any suggestion that praise is due any other deity or human ruler. Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 135. The first four verses are sandwiched between “Zion” at vs. 1 and “temple” at vs. 4 indicating that this psalm originated as a liturgy for use in the temple of Jerusalem during the period of the Judean monarchy. The people as a whole, including the king, concede guilt and celebrate God’s forgiveness. Such a public right is hardly conceivable in our culture which seems incapable of introspection, reflection upon national calamity and admission of failure. Perhaps that is why our nation has never quite come to terms with the debacle in Vietnam. It was simply impossible to concede the loss of fifty thousand American lives to a mistake. We could not bear the sight of Vietnam veterans because they were a constant reminder of the first war America ever lost. Consequently, they were virtually ignored and even stigmatized for decades. Much as the Nazis blamed Germany’s loss of World War I on betrayal within their ranks and the influence of highly placed Jews, so through the myth of Johnny Rambo and similar cinematic dramas we have placed blame for our defeat in Vietnam on weak kneed politicians, corrupt military leadership and the anti-patriotic influence of the press.

Israel’s response to military reversals was entirely different. In the first place, Israel did not glorify its warriors or credit their valor for her victories. “For not by their own sword did [our ancestors] win the land, nor did their own arm give them the victory; but thy right hand, and they arm, and the light of thy countenance; for thou didst delight in them.” Psalm 44:3. Victory belonged to God and Israel knew well that she could not presume upon God’s favor. Accordingly, when her fortunes fell on the battlefield, Israel turned to God in lament, soul searching and repentance. See, e.g., Psalm 74. This finally led Israel to conclude that “a king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.” Psalm 33:16-17. Would that Vietnam had taught us the limits of military power and the need to develop more constructive methods of dealing with conflicts rather than driving us into the dead end of self-deception and tragic repetitions of our past.

The occasion for this psalm is likely a festival or some other event when the people assembled at the temple to make thank offerings in fulfilment of vows made during the year. Given the repeated reference to fruitful harvests and healthy breading of sheep and cattle, it is possible that the occasion for this psalm was the end of a period of drought. But it is just as likely that the festival was an annual event in which prayers of thanks were offered for all blessings. A successful harvest would certainly be a common focus for thanks. Prayers for the same (accompanied by vows) would probably have been made in any given year.

In verse 7, God is said to “still the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples.” The “sea” and the “waves” are symbols of turbulence and disorder. Psalm 93:3-4. These forces are sometimes personified in the creation stories of the ancient world. We can hear echoes of such personification in Psalm 74:13-15. In this psalm, however, the tumult is chiefly that of the peoples or nations for which the tumultuous sea is but a metaphor. God’s subduing of the waters is not a violent response to any threat against God. Rather, it is a merciful act done to make the earth safe for human existence and bring the worship of Israel’s God to “earth’s farthest bounds.” Vs. 8. The remainder of the psalm speaks eloquently of God’s lavish provision through the gift of rain, productivity and fertility-all of which were regarded by the indigenous population as the province of the Canaanite Ba’als. The psalmist would have all know with certainty who is to be thanked for this successful harvest!

Romans 8:1–11

For the last couple of Sundays, St. Paul has been making clear to us that the law is ineffectual both in reconciling ourselves to God and in trying to live a God pleasing life. As long as we are in the grip of sin we use the law, like everything else, as an instrument of sin. Only God can free us from sin and that is precisely what God does in Jesus. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we are freed from slavery to sin and made slaves of righteousness through our union with Jesus Christ. Freedom, then, is not the liberty to do as we wish. That, according to Paul, is the worst kind of slavery. It is like a ship without a rudder, blown to wherever the prevailing wind takes it. True freedom is the opportunity and the liberty to do what is right. This freedom we find living by faith in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

It is important to understand what Paul means when he contrasts living “in the flesh” with living “in the spirit.” Paul does not mean to say that there is some immaterial part of us called “spirit” which is good and pure as opposed to the “body” which, being material, is evil. Paul does not denigrate the human body. In fact, he thinks highly enough of the body to use it in describing the nature of the church. The Church is Christ’s Body. See Corinthians 12. When Paul speaks of the “flesh,” he uses the Greek word, “sarx” rather than the word “soma,” meaning “body.” The flesh denotes an orientation of the self toward itself and its own interests. Such an outlook might lead one to indulge in the so-called “sins of the flesh,” i.e., sexual sins of one kind or another. More insidious, however, is what we might well label, “religious sin.” This is the sin of justifying oneself by resort to the law whether that be religious practices, adherence to morals or achieving some standard of success to prove our worth. Life in the flesh degenerates into moral anarchy or comes under the tyranny of some hierarchical system that pits the strong against the weak. Such communities of the flesh make up “the body of death” to which Paul refers in Romans 7:24.

By contrast, life in the spirit is life grounded in an intimate relationship with Jesus. To help us understand what Paul is talking about, let’s borrow a verse from John’s gospel: You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” John 15:14-15. I believe that John is saying in a different way what Paul is articulating in our reading. Life in the Spirit is characterized by friendship. Friendship does not operate on the basis of rules. In all my eighteen years of practicing law I never once came across a friendship contract! Friendship is built on mutual affection, shared interests, common priorities, loyalty and trust. The binding obligations that hold it together grow organically out of love.

We are transformed by our friendships and this is why it does not follow that, because we are no longer under the bondage of law, we are now set at liberty to sin. Such an assertion makes sense only if you believe that there are but two alternatives: law or anarchy. Paul insists that there is a better way than either of these two false alternatives. That way is friendship with Jesus. The Body of Christ is not a place where everyone is free to do what s/he wants. It is a place in which, through worship, prayer, study, mutual sharing, admonition, repentance and forgiveness we sinners are transformed into the image of Christ. It is the place where we discover the freedom to be truly human.

There is another aspect of this passage, too, that needs some clarification. Too often we have understood being “in Christ” or “possessing the Spirit” as an individual experience. Though it is in part that, Paul understands life in the spirit primarily in corporate terms. That is to say, it is within the church that the mind of Christ is formed. “’By the Spirit Christ seizes power in us, just as conversely by the Spirit we are incorporated into Christ.’ Although many exegetes remain uncomfortable with this dimension, Paul’s language throughout this passage is charismatic and ‘mystical;’ it reflects a collective type of charismatic mysticism in which God’s Spirit was thought to enter and energize the community as well as each member.” Jewett, Robert, Romans, Hermenia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, (c. 2007 Fortress Press) pp. 490-491 citing Kasemann, Ernst, Commentary on Romans (c. 1980 Eerdmans) p. 222. In sum, life in the Spirit is not a life without accountability. Rather, it is life accountable to the covenant of friendship formed with the church by God in Jesus Christ.

Matthew 13:1–9, 18–23

“You can quote the Bible to me all day and say whatever you want, but I’ve been raised to believe……..and I am not about to change my mind now!” Fill in the blank with whatever issue you please. We have all heard something like this at one time in our lives. Parents say it to their children; people in the church say it to each other and we hear plenty of that attitude in our not-so-civil discourse these days about any number of issues. My mother used to say, “There was never a mind so weak as that which is made up too strongly to change.” She was right, I am afraid, and so was Jesus when he cited the words of the prophet Isaiah in that part of the reading which the lectionary makers deemed unfit for your tender ears. Check it out at Matthew 13:10-17.

Turns out parables are uniquely designed to break through ears that will not hear and hearts that will not bend. They catch you off guard, pull you into the story, make you identify with the characters. Then, just when you think you have figured out what the parable is about, who the good and bad guys are and how the story will end-you discover you were altogether wrong. Nathan’s parable of the old man and his little lamb is a classic example. See II Samuel 12:1-15. David is feeling pretty good about himself. He stole the wife of one of his generals and had the general conveniently placed in the line of fire where he died a hero’s death. Then, in a romantic gesture of patriotic compassion for the fallen hero’s widow, he takes her into his harem. Nobody is the wiser.

But then his court prophet, Nathan, approaches him with some disturbing news. There was a poor old man with no family but a little lamb he kept as a pet. It was as a child to him. His rich neighbor, needing to feed an unexpected guest and being too stingy to slaughter one of his own many sheep, took the poor man’s lamb and served it up for dinner. David thinks he knows what this story is about and where he stands in it. This is a story about injustice in his kingdom and he is the just and righteous king that will make it right. “By God!” says David. “This beast deserves death! I’ll see that he pays back the old man fourfold. Who is this scoundrel anyway?” David has swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker. When Nathan replies, “you are the man,” it’s too late. David is hung by his own rope. Too late for excuses, too late for rationalizations. David has nowhere left to hide. That’s how parables work.

So too, I think the Parable of the Sower is deceptively simple. We all tend to think of ourselves as soil of one kind or another and begin reflecting on whether we are foot path, rocky ground, weedy dirt-or perhaps good soil. But maybe we are looking in the wrong direction. What about the sower? What sort of lame brain farmer would toss his precious seed in places where it had no chance of growing? Is this really about our receptivity? Or is it rather about the generosity of the sower and the confidence that, in the words of our reading from Isaiah,

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout,  giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,  so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,  and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55:10-11. If that’s the case, who are we to decide what soil is fertile and what is barren waste? Who are we to know whether the word we hear today or the one we share with another will be snatched away, withered by adversity or choked out by other distractions? Was not some of the richest soil in the world today once rocky terrain pelted over millennia by seeds that germinated, dug with their roots into rocky crevices, died and mixed with the stone fragments they displaced? Are not seeds spread to different regions by the birds that devour them? Is it inevitable that wheat must parish in the midst of tares? Perhaps this gospel parable reflects in one more way the profound generosity of our God who, like Isaiah, the psalmist and St. Paul would have us live joyfully, thankfully and abundantly.