Posts Tagged Jeremiah
Calling a thing what it actually is; a poem by Anne Waldman; and the lessons for Sunday, October 29th
Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, gracious Lord, we thank you that your Holy Spirit renews the church in every age. Pour out your Holy Spirit on your faithful people. Keep them steadfast in your word, protect and comfort them in times of trial, defend them against all enemies of the gospel, and bestow on the church your saving peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation, Art. 21.
This week we saw a decorated four-star general with a distinguished record of service to his country disgrace himself and his uniform by trying to explain away the mad ramblings of an emotionally unstable president with rank lies about an elected member of the house of representatives. In response to queries about that by an incredulous press, we heard the president’s press secretary tell reporters that military leaders are not to be questioned. Meanwhile, a state university in Florida hosted a white supremacist whose demagoguery incited the same kind of violence against protesters that occurred at his appearance in Charlottesville last summer, thankfully without the same tragic results. Am I the only one who finds it passing strange that white supremacist Richard Spencer is given a platform to preach his racist idiocy at an expense to the taxpayers of over half a million dollars while reporters asking questions about the public statement of a military leader are told to shut up? Are we still in the United States of America?
More disturbing than the current administration’s shredding of the constitution, a university’s dignifying racist yammering and the absolute disregard for truth that has washed like tsunami over our nation is the religious underpinning for all this so generously provided by the evangelical wing of American religion. The president’s equivocation (to put it charitably) on the violence in Charlottesville resulted in so many resignations from his Strategic and Policy Forum and Manufacturing Jobs Initiative councils that he was forced to disband both. But labeling neo Nazis and clansmen “fine people” was not enough to tickle the gag reflexes of Mr. Trump’s religious advisory council. Unlike the captains of industry, these religious figures didn’t feel that a little racism (to say nothing of sexual predatory conduct) is anything over which to become upset. If God has placed the Donald in the White House (and yes, that’s what these folks are saying), then opposing the Donald is opposing God.
All of this might be laughable-except that God’s presidential appointee is in the process of deporting children to countries where they have never lived, don’t speak the language and have no cultural or even family ties. We might just shake our heads, sigh and go on with our business-except that this president is bringing us closer every day to an unwinnable military conflict that could well bring ours and everyone else’s business to an abrupt end. We might shrug our shoulders and take the attitude that life goes on-except it might not and surely will not for the growing number of victims of hate crimes incited by Trumpist dog whistling. We might dismiss idiots like Richard Spencer as harmless clowns dancing around outside the margins of respectable society, spewing their venom but harming no one. But Mr. Spencer is not muttering his malarkey into a beer mug at a dark pub in the hearing only of some unfortunate bartender, where ten years ago we would have expected to find such sorry specimens of humanity. Instead, he is speaking at publicly funded universities and even landing interviews with NPR. Overt racism, once unthinkable in polite society, is becoming as American as apple pie-again.
“The truth will make you free” Jesus declares in this Sunday’s Reformation gospel. The sad corollary is that lies imprison us. We are currently enslaved by a congress that has been lying to itself and to us about the obvious fact that we have managed to elect a deeply paranoid, narcissistic and delusional man to the highest office in the land and armed him with the deadliest arsenal on the planet. We are being lied to by well-meaning leaders who suggest that, if we just learn to talk nice to each other, we can come together and solve the country’s problems-except that inviting people of color to discuss commonalities with those who want to lynch them is a mighty big ask. Moreover, anyone who thinks that welcoming Spencer and his hoards into the political mainstream will domesticate them would do well to remember the Weimar Republic’s last prime minister, Paul von Hindenburg, who named Adolf Hitler chancellor of the republic in hopes that the responsibilities of governing would curb his fanaticism. We are being lied to by the church and not only that heretical fragment ensconced in the Trump White House. We are also being lied to by a mainline church that, in my view, has failed to recognize and name the evil we face for what it is-a nationalistic, militaristic and racist revival of xenophobic populism that is taking root not only in the United States but in democracies everywhere. Let us be clear: this has nothing to do with disputes over politics, economics and social policies about which reasonable persons of good will might well disagree. Toning down the rhetoric alone will not bring us back to civility and peace. The election of 2016 has ignited a tidal wave of racist, misogynist, xenophobic and homophobic hate that respects neither law nor policy. This irrational madness has placed the mad man in the White House. That is the hard truth that needs to be spoken.
Five hundred years ago Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg for discussion and debate with this preface: “Out of love for the truth.” His was a challenge to the church of his day to engage in frank and fearless discussion about what he saw to be the blinding lies holding captive the people of God. If we want to be faithful to the reformation tradition, I believe we need to hear that call today. I think Martin is calling us to name truthfully the evil confronting us for what it is. Moreover, we (especially those of us in the white, straight, male category) need to take a careful inventory of the ways in which we have contributed to the making of the Trump presidency by failing to recognize and confront the systemic oppression that has always existed at all levels of government, education and the work place. Donald Trump did not invent racism, sexism or homophobia. He only exploited it and made us painfully aware of a truth we have been reluctant to see. That might well be the one positive accomplishment of his presidency. As important as getting the mad man out of the White House surely is, getting the madness of entrenched bigotry out of our institutions and our hearts is by far the more daunting task. We desperately need bishops, theologians and pastoral leaders with courage to speak difficult truths to us and lead us on the hard journey of repentance and faith. However painful that path might be, it is the way to which Jesus calls us and the only way to freedom.
Here is a poem by Anne Waldman about the inbreaking of truth.
To the Censorious Ones
(Jesse Helms & others…)
I’m coming up out of the tomb, Men of War
Just when you thought you had me down, in place, hidden
I’m coming up now
Can you feel the ground rumble under your feet?
It’s breaking apart, it’s turning over, it’s pushing up
It’s thrusting into your point of view, your private property
O Men of War, Censorious Ones!
get ready big boys get ready
I’m coming up now
I’m coming up with all that was hidden
Get ready, Big Boys, get ready
I’m coming up with all you wanted buried,
All the hermetic texts with stories in them of hot & dangerous women
Women with lascivious tongues, sharp eyes & claws
I’ve been working out, my muscles are strong
I’m pushing up the earth with all you try to censor
All the iconoclasm & bravado you scorn
All the taunts against your banner & salute
I’m coming up from Hell with all you ever suppressed
All the dark fantasies, all the dregs are coming back
I’m leading them back up now
They’re going to bark & scoff & rage & bite
I’m opening the box
Source: In the Room of Never Grieve: New and Selected Poems, 1985-2003, (c. 2003 by Anne Waldman, pub. by Coffee House Press). Anne Waldman was born 1945 in Millville, New Jersey, but grew up in Manhattan. She was heavily influenced by Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Gertrude Stein. She was educated at Bennington College in Vermont. Waldman has received honorary grants from the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She co-founded the Poetry Is News collective poet Ammiel Alcalay in 2002. You can find out more about Anne Waldman and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
For a brief but excellent summary of the Book of Jeremiah see the article by Terence E. Fretheim, Elva B. Lovell Professor of Old Testament at enterthebible.org.
Recall that Jeremiah prophesied immediately before and for some time after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. The new covenant of which Jeremiah speaks does not differ formally from the old. The “law” or “Torah” which God promises to write upon the hearts of God’s people is the law delivered to Israel at Sinai. The problem is not with the law but with the people who failed to internalize it and therefore observed it only in the breech. For example, during the reign of Judah’s last king, Zedekiah, the Babylonian armies advanced and captured all but two of Judah’s fortified cities. Jeremiah 34:7. Hoping to placate God and induce the Lord to save Judah from conquest, Zedekiah persuaded the people to do away with a longstanding practice of enslaving their impoverished fellow Hebrews beyond the six year limit on servitude established under Torah (Exodus 21:2-6). See Jeremiah 34:6-10. Shortly thereafter, Hophra, Pharaoh of Egypt, marched north to attack the Babylonian forces in Palestine. Babylon was forced to raise the siege against Jerusalem and draw its troops down to repel the Egyptian forces. When it seemed as though the Babylonian threat had receded, Zedekiah revoked the decree freeing the slaves and reinstated the lawless practice of indefinite servitude. Jeremiah 34:11. Jeremiah warned Zedekiah that this blatant act of hypocrisy would not go unpunished, that the Babylonian army would return and that there would be no escape from destruction. Jeremiah 34:17-22.
This particular oracle in Sunday’s lesson is regarded by most scholars as coming from Jeremiah’s post 587 prophesies. Jerusalem was in ruins and a substantial part of the population had been deported to Babylon (modern day Iraq). There seemed to be no future for Judah. Yet here Jeremiah, the very prophet who refused to offer Judah’s leaders even a sliver of hope for deliverance from Babylon, now speaks to the sorry remnant of the people about a new beginning. Such words could not be heard by Judah before the destruction of Jerusalem because her leaders were too intent on preserving the old covenant that had been irretrievably broken. Judah was hoping that salvation would come in the form of a Babylonian defeat, that somehow the line of David would be preserved, that the Holy City and the temple of Solomon would be spared from destruction. But that would not have been salvation. For a nation that had so thoroughly strayed from her covenant with her God, salvation for her institutions would only have enabled her to stray further. A miraculous deliverance from Babylon would have saved Judah’s national independence, her architectural treasures and her royal lineage. But it would have damned her soul. Salvation lay not in preserving Judah and her institutions, but in the new heart God would form in his people after all these things had been taken away. Judah would never again be the glorious nation she was; but through the new covenant Jeremiah promises, Judah would become precisely the nation God needed.
Jeremiah has been dubbed the prophet of doom. Yet the more I read him, the more convinced I am that he has gotten a bum rap. Jeremiah does have good news for his people. The problem, though, is that the people are not ready to hear it. They cannot see the glorious future God is offering them because they are fixated on preserving the past. As far as they are concerned, there can be no future other than a return to the past. A future without the throne of David, the temple in Jerusalem and the land of Israel is no future at all. Loss of these three pillars of Judah’s identity constituted only the end. The people of Judah had neither the language nor the conceptual tools to imagine life beyond that end. Their minds could not process the vision of a radically new existence as God’s people under a radically new covenant.
I am convinced that our protestant churches in the United States suffer from the same malady that affected the people of Judah in Jeremiah’s time. God has moved beyond the past. Our church is still hopelessly stuck in it. I have encountered Jeremiah’s dilemma over and over again when trying to speak with church leaders about the promise of God’s future for the church in America. I always preface my remarks with what has become for me a mantra: “These are exciting days in which to be the church.” Yet I find that when I share that excitement, the response often ranges from sadness, to fear, to outright rage. The good news is heard as bad. Very often I find that when congregations say they want to grow, thrive and do new ministries, what they are really seeking is some way to rebuild the glories of the past. They want the pews filled again, a robust Sunday school and a church basement filled with teenagers playing twister. When I try to tell them that the church they are seeking is dead and never coming back-they are far too fearful/sad/angry to hear the good news, namely, that God has something better in mind. What is true of congregations individually is just as true of my denomination as a whole. Our leaders’ response to several years of decline and loss of support? A capital fund drive. If successful this effort, along with the assets collected from more and more closing congregations, will keep the denominational machinery going long after our congregations are nearly depopulated!
To be fair, this is not altogether about self-preservation. My congregation does some fine ministry in our community that would be missed should the church fold. So also, my denomination’s institutions do many important things for the whole of society. They feed the hungry; shelter the homeless; care for refugees; provide disaster relief; educate and advocate for justice and peace. The world will be decidedly poorer in the event my church’s corporate ministries cease to exist. Yet I must emphasize that one very important reason for their present peril is our failure to make our congregations communities capable of forming saints with hearts for the hungry, poor, oppressed and homeless. Instead of welcoming the stranger into our midst, we have created professional agencies to “address their needs.” We have cultivated a “check book charity” that allows congregations to buy off their “social consciences” without ever having to get their hands dirty. I think that John Tetzel would have approved the logic at work here. Indulgences financing social programs rather than building projects might be more palatable to our progressive tastes. But at the end of the day, the result is the same. Sanctification for sale. Genuine gospel mission cannot long maintain itself on such a flimsy foundation.
As Jeremiah saw it, the kingdom of David was beyond redemption. The faithlessness of the people could not be addressed by changing or reforming Judah’s existing institutions. Change must come at the very deepest level: within the heart. Salvation is still possible for Judah, but it lies on the far side of judgment. The good news has to be heard as bad news before it can be received as good. So, too, I often wonder whether Jesus’ promise that whoever loses life for the sake of the gospel will find it sounds like unmitigated bad news because we can’t quite get over the “loss” piece. We lack the capacity to imagine church without our individual congregations and their sanctuaries, seminaries, professional clergy and the recognition we have known in society at large. It is for that reason I continue to hold up Church of the Sojourners, Reba Place Fellowship and Koinonia Farm as alternatives to what we have come to understand as church. I don’t suggest that these communities can be emulated by all our congregations or that they provide us with any sort of blueprint for tomorrow’s church. They do, however, challenge our assumptions about what it means to be church in the 21st Century and what is required to be faithful disciples of Jesus and, perhaps just as importantly, what is not. Like Jesus’ parables, these communities stimulate our imaginations and give us concrete images with which to envision God’s future.
The promise “I will be their God and they shall be my people” encapsulates at the deepest level God’s final (eschatological) intent for humanity. Vs. 33. The same refrain echoes throughout the book of the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 11:20; Ezekiel 14:11; Ezekiel 36:28) and appears again in the concluding chapters of Revelation. Revelation 21:1-4. Under this new covenant, it will no longer be necessary to instruct people in Torah because Torah, the very shape of obedience to God, will be wholly internalized. If you ask me what such a community looks like, I cite once again the powerful example of the Amish community following the Nickel Mine tragedy. In extending forgiveness to the murderer of their children and offering support to his family, the Amish demonstrated to a sick, violent and gun wielding culture what the kingdom of Christ looks like. This response speaks louder than all the preachy-screechy moralistic social statements ever issued by all the rest of us more mainline, official and established churches. Here, for a brief instant, it was possible to see at work hearts upon which God’s words have been inscribed.
This psalm is associated with the protestant Reformation generally and Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God” in particular. Structurally, the hymn is made up of three sections punctuated twice by the refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge/fortress.” Vss 7 & 11. Each section is followed with the term “selah.” This word is found throughout the Psalms and also in the book of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:3; Habakkuk 3:9; Habakkuk 3:13). It is most likely an instruction to musicians or worship leaders for use in liturgical performances. The exact meaning has been debated among rabbinic scholars since the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek around 270 B.C.E. This suggests that whatever function the term served had ceased even then.
In the first section the psalmist declares confidence in God’s protection in the midst of an unstable world. Earthquakes, storms and floods were terrifying events often attributed to angry deities. The psalmist does not speculate on causation here, but confidently asserts that the God of Jacob can be trusted to provide security and protection even in the midst of these frightening natural phenomena.
The psalmist turns his/her attention in the second section to the city of Jerusalem which, though not mentioned by name, can hardly be any other than the “city of God,” “the holy habitation of the Most High.” Vs. 4. The “river” that makes glad the city of God might be the Gihon Spring, the main source of water for ancient Jerusalem. It was this water source that made human settlement there possible. The Gihon was used not only for drinking water, but also for irrigation of gardens in the adjacent Kidron Valley which, in turn, was a source of food for the city. Of course, the prophet Ezekiel relates a vision in which a miraculous river flows out of the restored temple in Jerusalem to give life to desert areas in Palestine. Ezekiel 47:1-14. Similarly, John of Patmos describes “a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 22: 1-2. God’s presence in the midst of the city recalls the promise of Jeremiah that “I will be their God and they will be my people.” Jeremiah 31:33.
As a relatively small nation existing in a violent and dangerous geopolitical neighborhood, Israel was no stranger to “raging” nations and unstable kingdoms. Vs. 6. But the psalmist will not be rattled by these dangers. S/he knows that the Holy City is under the protection of the Holy One of Israel. It is not the nations or their rulers who determine the course of history. The God of Jacob is the one whose voice “melts” the earth. So Isaiah would try in vain to convince King Ahaz to be still and wait for God’s salvation from his enemies rather than allying himself with the empire of Assyria-which would be his nation’s undoing. Isaiah 7:1-8:8.
In the third section, the focus is upon the violent geopolitical scene. The God of Israel is no friend of war. To the contrary, “he makes wars to cease to the end of the earth.” Vs. 9. Moreover, he destroys the weapons of war. He does not call upon Israel to deal violently with the nations of the earth. The psalmist assures us that God can handle that job without us. God says instead, “Be still and know that I am God.” Vs. 10. When confronted with violent enemies (as Israel frequently was), the people are called upon to put their trust in the God of Jacob who is the one and only reliable refuge. In a culture indoctrinated with the belief that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the contrary witness of this ancient psalm is critical.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is the only one in which he makes a sustained theological argument from start to finish. For that reason alone, it is impossible to interpret any single passage in isolation from the whole work. As I have said in prior posts, I believe that Paul’s primary concern is expressed in Romans 9-11. In that section, Paul discusses the destiny of Israel in God’s saving work through Jesus Christ. It is not Paul’s intent to discredit his people or their faith. Rather, he is making the argument that through Jesus the covenant promises formerly extended exclusively to Israel are now offered to the gentiles as well. Though some in Israel (most as it ultimately turned out) do not accept Jesus as messiah, it does not follow that God has rejected Israel. “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29. Paul points out that Israel’s rejection of Jesus as Messiah has occasioned the inclusion of the gentiles into the covenant promises. “A hardening,” says Paul, “has come over part of Israel until the full number of the gentiles come in.” Romans 11:25. I must confess that I don’t quite understand how Israel’s rejection of Jesus as messiah makes it any easier for the gentiles to believe. Nevertheless, Paul sees some connection here and, in any event, Israel’s salvation (which is assured) is inextricably bound up with the salvation of the gentiles. According to Paul, Israel and the church are both essential players in God’s redemptive purpose for creation.
With all of this in mind, let’s turn to our lesson for Sunday. Paul points out that “the law” speaks to those under the law so that every mouth will be stopped and the whole world held accountable to God. Vs. 19. Here it is essential to distinguish between “Torah” and “law” as Paul uses it. Torah was always understood and accepted by Israel as a gift. The commandments, even those governing the smallest details of dietary and hygienic practice, were not intended to be oppressive and controlling. They were designed to make every aspect of living, however humble and mundane, a reminder of the covenant through which Israel was privileged to be joined with her God. As such, observance of Torah was a joy, not a burden.
Nevertheless, when observance of Torah is misconstrued and understood not as a gift, but rather a means or method of pleasing God or winning God’s favor, it becomes a burden. The focus is no longer on God’s grace in giving the Torah, but upon my success in keeping it. When that happens, the gift of Torah becomes the curse of “law.” Law always accuses. Think about it: no matter how well you do on the exam, isn’t it usually the case that you come away feeling that you could have done just a little better? Try as we do to be good parents, I have never met one that didn’t feel he or she failed his or her children in some respect. How can you ever be sure that you have done enough? The fear of people in Luther’s day was that God would not be satisfied with their repentance, their confession of sin and their efforts to amend their lives. In a secular culture such as ours, we might not fear eternal damnation quite so much. But we find ourselves enslaved nonetheless to our fears of social rejection and anxiety over failure to meet societal standards of beauty and success. That is why we have young girls starving themselves to death because they cannot measure up to what teen magazines tell them is beautiful. It is also why men become depressed, violent and prone to addiction during prolonged periods of unemployment-a real man earns his own living and pays his own way. We may be a good deal less religious than we were in Luther’s day, but we are no less in bondage to “law.”
Verse 21 contains one of the most critical “buts” in the Bible. “But now,” Paul says, “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…” So just as all are judged guilty under the law, so all are justified by God through Jesus Christ as a gift. Henceforth, being right with God is no longer a goal to be achieved through obedience to rules of one kind or another. It is a gift promised by God. Our obedience is no longer an onerous effort to win God’s favor but a thankful response to the favor God freely gives us. That is as true for Jews as it is for Gentiles as Paul will go on to point out in Romans 4. Abraham, after all, was called and responded in faith while he was still essentially a gentile, being uncircumcised and without the Law of Moses. Jews are therefore children of promise who owe their status as God’s people to God’s free election. They did not earn their covenant status through obedience to the law and therefore have no grounds to exclude the gentiles from God’s call to them through Jesus into that same covenant relationship. Importantly, Paul makes the converse argument in Romans 9-11, namely, that gentiles are in no position to judge or exclude the Jews from covenant grace, not even those who do not believe in Jesus. Their status as covenant people does not rest on their obedience or disobedience, but on God’s irrevocable call.
Our reading is part of a much larger exchange beginning at John 7:1 where Jesus declines his brothers’ invitation to accompany them to the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, but later comes on his own slipping into Jerusalem unnoticed. John 7:1-13. In the midst of the feast, Jesus goes up to the Temple and begins teaching the people. At first, the people do not seem to recognize Jesus. They can see that he is a common person of the type usually untrained in the finer points of Torah. But there is no question that Jesus is, in fact, learned in the law and they marvel at his teaching. When it becomes clear that this strange man is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, the chief priests send officers to arrest him. But instead of bringing Jesus in and booking him, they return amazed and overawed by what they have heard. Exasperated, the chief priests ask the officers why they have not arrested Jesus as ordered. They can only reply, “No one ever spoke like this man!” John 7:46. The chief priests then vilify the officers and the crowds, cursing them for their ignorance of the law. But Nicodemus, a member of the council, cautions the chief priests against pre-judging Jesus’ case before hearing him-only to be rebuffed. (We meet Nicodemus early on in John’s gospel at chapter 3 when he comes to see Jesus under cover of darkness. John 3:1-21. We will meet Nicodemus again following Jesus’ crucifixion as he comes with Joseph of Arimathea to bury the body of Jesus. John 19:38-42).
The narrative is interrupted by the story of the woman caught in adultery, a story that probably was not originally part of John’s gospel. John 8:1-11. Then Jesus’ discourse begun at the last day of the feast picks up where it left off in John 7:37 ff. Though the opposition continues, Jesus is gaining some support. We read that as he spoke, many believed in him. John 8:30. But success is short lived. Our reading picks up just where Jesus turns his focus upon these new believing supporters and tells them, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Vss. 31-33. Clearly, this remark rubbed them the wrong way. “Just what do you mean by that? We are Abraham’s descendants and we have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you promise to set us free?” Vs. 33. Clearly, Jesus’ newfound supporters are experiencing a “senior moment.” Have they really forgotten the four hundred years their ancestors spent as slaves in Egypt? Have the forgotten the Babylonian Exile? Israel has in fact known bondage under the whip of foreign masters and beneath the tyranny of many of her own leaders. But the greatest tyrant is not Egypt or Babylonia or Rome. The greatest bondage is slavery to sin.
John speaks of sin almost exclusively in connection with each person’s response to Jesus. It is not that people are sinless before they encounter Jesus. Rather, their encounter with Jesus reveals their sin and confronts them with the choice of remaining in sin or being set free from sin. It is precisely because Jesus’ opponents both see and claim to understand him that their guilt is established. John 9:39-41. To know and be set free by the truth is to know Jesus. This knowledge does not consist of propositions about Jesus. To know the truth about Jesus is to know Jesus-just as you know a loved one. That sort of knowledge requires the cultivation of a relationship that grows over time and, as all of us who experience friendship know, is never fully complete. We are always learning more about the people we love and think we know so well. How much more so with Jesus, whose life is the eternal life of the Father?
I believe much of the membership loss among American mainline protestant churches may be a direct result of our misunderstanding of what it means to know and to teach the truth. We have modeled our Christian education programs along the lines of public schools. Sunday school involved teaching kids stories and rudimentary doctrines about Jesus. That, however, is not how Jesus taught his disciples. Rather than inviting them to come to his seminars, Jesus called people to become fishers for people. He taught them by involving them in his ministry, sharing his meals with them and taking them with him on the road. By contrast, we confirm kids in the spring time (when graduation commencements occur) and very often figure that we have done our job. These kids have been taught the truth and when they are old enough, we can include them in the church’s ministry. Trouble is, when that time finally comes, they are already long gone. And why not? They got whatever truth they needed to get in the system. The rest is just a refresher course and who needs one of those every single week?
In sum, we have not done a very good job of teaching people who have come through our congregations that discipleship, not membership is the end point; that growing intimacy with Jesus, not just a boat load of facts about him is what constitutes true discipleship. Perhaps the next reformation can address this shortcoming.
THIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, we thank you for your Son, who chose the path of suffering for the sake of the world. Humble us by his example, point us to the path of obedience, and give us strength to follow your commands, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart;
for I am called by your name,
O Lord, God of hosts.
I did not sit in the company of merrymakers,
nor did I rejoice;
under the weight of your hand I sat alone,
for you had filled me with indignation.
Why is my pain unceasing,
my wound incurable,
refusing to be healed?
Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook,
like waters that fail.
Jeremiah has reached a crisis point. His love for God’s word and will for Israel have only brought into sharper focus how far Israel has strayed from God. This dissonance between what is and what ought to be torments the prophet to the point of despair. “Am I wasting my life pursuing a dream?” he wonders. “Is life under God’s covenant a hopelessly unattainable ideal? Is there any point in continuing to endure abuse from a people hostile to everything I say?” I cannot say that I have ever faced anything during my ministerial career remotely similar to the opposition Jeremiah encountered. Nonetheless, as everyone following this blog can attest, I struggle with my church’s structural, programmatic and theological impediments to fulfilling the mission of proclaiming Jesus and his kingdom. Much of what I see on the denominational and congregational level looks a lot more like self-preservation than self-sacrifice for the gospel. Like Saint Peter in our gospel lesson, we shun the cross and seek to save our institutional lives rather than putting everything on the line for Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims. That is, in my view, a large part of why the church’s testimony at the present time of crisis has been limited to measured social policy statements.
Of course, the shortcomings I see in the church are but a reflection of the faults I know have their origin in my own reluctance to embrace fully the way of the cross. Like the rich young man Jesus encountered, I am not eager to place in jeopardy the comfortable retirement that I hope awaits me. I have no inclination to “offer up my body as a living sacrifice” like Kayla Mueller who was kidnapped and killed while providing assistance to Syrian refugees. I know that, at least for the present, speaking out against the racist, sexist and bigoted policies of the Trump administration costs me nothing. Unlike Heather Heyer, I have not had to pay the ultimate price for confronting the demon of racist violence unleashed by the rhetoric of the 2016 campaign and the administration to which it gave birth. I have never had to endure the indignity of being beaten and left overnight in the stocks as did poor Jeremiah. I am therefore hardly in a position to utter the prayer on Jeremiah’s lips in this Sunday’s lesson.
Nonetheless, I experience, as did Jeremiah, that cognitive dissonance between the baptismal covenant under which Jesus invites us to live and the reality of life in the church as I know it. Perhaps that is, at the very least, a good place to start. The people of God should never allow themselves to lose their holy discomfort with the status quo governing the world, the inadequacy of their witness or the degree of their complicity with evil in their own lives. In my own Lutheran tradition we are fond of saying that we are, at the same time, “saints and sinners.” That is all well and good if it means we, like recovering alcoholics, are a community of people liberated from sin yet struggling to help each other hang onto sobriety in a world pulling us back into the self-destructive ways from which Jesus saves us. It is fine to recognize that we are subject to relapse and must stand ready and willing to forgive, help and support any one of us who “falls off the wagon.” But too often this saying is invoked to excuse a banal, secularized ideology of “self-acceptance.” Too often the saint/sinner identification is less a dynamic, faith-animating dialectic than it is a justification for a lifestyle barely satisfying the bar for white middle class respectability and good citizenship. There is a huge difference between sinners struggling to live into the identity of sainthood conferred upon us through baptism into Jesus Christ and sinners who view baptism as a stamp of approval on ethical relativism and spiritual mediocrity. Such piety (if you can call it that) produces Christians whose lives differ little from those of the prevailing culture except that, of course, they happen to be in church on Sunday instead of on the beach-at least one week out of the month anyway.
Of course, there is the opposite extreme that would dispense with the church altogether. Jeremiah seems to be teetering on the brink of doing just that-writing off the covenant people of Israel as beyond redemption. Having lived my life as an active member and/or leader in at least half a dozen congregations over my lifetime, I can sympathize with people who are “done” with “organized religion.” I understand people who are OK with Jesus but cannot stomach the church. I have experienced at least as much hurt, insult and outrage from the church as most of the folks I know who have left for that reason. So why do I stick with it? Well, for one thing, Jesus leaves me no other choice. “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” he says. The church is the Body of Christ. Discipleship is not an individual task. It requires community. There is no such thing as a lone ranger disciple of Jesus. If you want to hang with Jesus, you are stuck with the rest of the people who follow him. Be warned, they are an unsavory lot!
Second, I need the church-and so do you whether you are willing to admit it or not. At least you need it if you want the mind of Christ formed within you. I think a large part of the church’s problem is that it tends to preach itself rather than Christ. So much of our outreach proclaims the virtue of our churches-their wonderful programs, their fine preachers, their high quality worship, their great sense of community. But that has never been the reality and when we claim that it is, when we promise people a warm, wonderful, safe place where nobody ever gets hurt, we are committing spiritual consumer fraud. In fact, the church has always been a contentious body of disciples who miss the point of Jesus’ preaching, argue over which of them is the greatest and desert Jesus at his time of greatest need. If the New Testament epistles are any indication of what church life was like in the first century, then we cannot help but notice that fights over money, sex scandals, divisiveness, power struggles and worship wars are the norm rather than the exception. The church is not the place you go to escape the nastiness and evil of the world. It’s the place where you come to confront it. The church is home to a lot of people who are here because we are the only community that will put up with them. So if you want to join us, you will have to learn to put up with them too. And here is the thing: we need them, because they teach us what it means to love one another. They instruct us in the art of forgiveness. They help us to recognize Jesus in the least likely of places. We all need each other to be formed into the image of Christ. That is the reason the church exists: to form saints. That is not a process for the faint of heart. If you want to be welcomed, pampered and made to feel loved, then go to the Poconos for a Yoga weekend. But if you want to be sanctified, if you want to be shaped into the image of Christ, the church is the place to go.
Finally, I stick with the church because, every so often, we get it right. Every so often, we come together in a way that reflects God’s enduring love for the world. Sometimes it happens in a small way when the congregation or a group of people in it come together to support a family in crisis by cooking meals, providing baby sitting or transportation. Sometimes it happens in a big way when the church responds generously with financial assistance, volunteer participation and advocacy for victims of war, famine or natural disaster. Sometimes it happens when a pastor, a congregational leader or an individual believer stands up and speaks truth to power on behalf of a child being abused, a woman being sexually harassed in the work place or a victim of discrimination. Yes, the church is a fallible, corrupt and broken community with a lot of sins, failures and lost opportunities on its record. But every so often, we get Jesus and his kingdom just right. When we do, it’s beautiful and often just enough to keep me from walking out the door.
Here’s a poem by Becca J.R. Lachman picturing the church at its very best.
New Marriage, A Barnraising
What it all comes down to: unpaid
community labor gathered ’round the first
post and best beam. O impossible ark,
built to be grounded, raised by well-
beloved hands. Attendance mandatory
by risk of shunning. Even children have
tools to fetch and sharpen. Some rough hands
welcome only because they must be
offered bread and chicken after a day
of sweat and sun. Young men in rib-rafters
who once watched from hillsides, now
call out to women for water or a smile. What
grins up, squinting, is certainty they long for:
childhood, companionship, the sturdier step
on ground they know, even a body
not one’s own. Each person acts out the expected.
They assemble despite their previous plans. Walls
go up slow but sturdy, shooing debt. Shading
out loneliness. Secured for storage and ready
for life. A frame-work, in the end, they will not
own, these worn-out masses. And still they show up,
willing. Still they gather when the new couple moves
Or after a fire. Or after a flood. O urgent love,
come back and see this time next year what stands.
Source: Center for Mennonite Writing Journal (Vol. 1, November 15, 2009 c. Becca J.R. Lachman). Becca J.R. Lachman teaches and tutors at Ohio University. She was raised in Kidron, Ohio and now lives in Athens, Ohio, with her husband. Lachman is recent grad of the Bennington Writing Seminars and published her first collection of poems in 2012. Her work has appeared in several publications and in On Being’s blog for American Public Media. You can sample more of her poetry at the CMW website.
This passage is the second of six personal prayers of lament uttered by the prophet Jeremiah in the course of his ministry. The others are Jeremiah 11:18-12:6; Jeremiah 17:14-18; Jeremiah 18:18-23; Jeremiah 20:7-13; and Jeremiah 20:14-18. These prayers are similar to the psalms of lament and contain much of the rich phraseology and imagery commonly employed by Israel in her liturgical/devotional life. The prayer is divided into two sections. In the first, Jeremiah addresses God. Vss. 15-18. In the second, God responds to Jeremiah’s complaints. Vss. 19-21. Jeremiah’s prayer begins with a plea for vengeance against his enemies. Professor Thomas Raitt says of this prayer and Jeremiah’s personal laments generally:
“Jeremiah’s so-called ‘laments’ are, at worst, sub-Christian expressions of vengeance, self-righteousness and bitterness about the sacrifices involved in filling the prophetic vocation. At their best these [laments] show that being a messenger of God’s word is a difficult calling and that often the last thing people want to hear is the truth, even from God, about their specific time and situation (which is precisely why prophets are not without honor except in their own country).” Raitt, Thomas M., Jeremiah in the Lectionary, Interpretation, Vol.37, April 1983 (c. 1983 Union Theological Seminary in Virginia) p. 161.
Jeremiah’s prayer certainly does illustrate the challenges of the prophetic vocation, but is it really “sub-Christian?” I must confess that I have always had difficulty with prayers for vengeance in the Bible, of which this is only one. Forgiveness and reconciliation are so central for Christian theology and practice that there seems to be no room for expressions of vengeance. But my pious unease is probably related more to my status and privilege than to any legitimate theological objection. I have never been raped or sexually molested. My children have not been murdered either by crazed fanatics in the service of their sick understanding of God’s will or by any respected, hardworking, church going Pentagon employee sitting in a cubicle orchestrating a drone attack in which my loved ones turn out to be “collateral damage.” I have never been driven out of my home by violence and forced to flee across the border into a foreign nation that does not want me. In short, I have not experienced the depth of human cruelty and oppression that gives birth to these laments. It is not surprising, then, that they do not come naturally to my lips.
It is important to keep in focus the fact that the psalmists’ pleas for vengeance are directed toward God. In praying for vengeance, they are confessing implicitly that retribution is the sole prerogative of God. God alone knows the hearts of human beings, what are their motivations and the external circumstances that often determine their actions. Too often, our perceptions of justice are warped by the pain of our own injuries and our personal need for “pay back.” We tend to focus narrowly on the perpetrator of a crime. But are not the parents who abused and neglected him equally responsible? What about his teachers who noticed bruises in odd places but remained silent? What about the neighbors who heard through the apartment walls the noise of abuse and his cries of pain and simply turned up the TV set because, after all, it was not their business. We can further expand this web of responsibility to include an entire nation whose priorities favor tax cuts to programs designed to assist families and children at risk. When it comes to dishing out retribution, there is never an end point. That is why Paul admonishes us in today’s lesson from Romans to leave this issue in God’s hands where it belongs.
German pastor, theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer maintains that the biblical prayers for vengeance must remain within our use of the psalter. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Psalms, Prayer Book of the Bible, (c. 1974 Augsburg Publishing House). He goes on to point out, however, that our prayers against the “enemy” are to some degree addressed against ourselves as well. As sinners, we are our own worst enemies. When we pray for God to intervene and adjudicate between ourselves and our enemies, we can never fully understand what we are asking for. God sees our enmity in a different light and without the blind spots that come with the white hot rage of injury. The justice we get in answer to our prayers might not look anything like our expectations for a just outcome.
While forgiveness and reconciliation are at the core of the good news about Jesus, they are the end result of a process. If forgiveness is to have any meaning, the injuries inflicted by my enemy (and upon him/her as well) need to be fully acknowledged. Lament affords us the opportunity to lay out our wounds, our hurts and the resulting anger in the presence of God. If reconciliation is to be genuine, the mutually destructive relationship between my enemy and myself must be altered. Master and slave are not truly reconciled if, at the end of the process, they remain master and slave. New creation necessarily means the death of the old-which will not go down willingly. Forgiveness, healing and reconciliation take time, patience and, above all, grace.
Jeremiah is unsparing in his criticism of the Lord he feels has abandoned him. “Yet,” as one commentator points out, “there is a contradictory character to this prayer, for even when doubting God’s care, it is to God that Jeremiah turns. God called him to be a prophet, and God’s service had been Jeremiah’s “joy” and “delight” as well as his pain and anguish. The prayer reflects a man who even in his deepest doubts about God’s care still knows that he is absolutely dependent upon God. God will be his undoing if God has really abandoned him; but God is also his only hope and to him he must return.” Bracke, John M., Jeremiah 15:15-21, Interpretation, Vol.37, April 1983 (c. 1983 Union Theological Seminary in Virginia) p. 175. One of the marvelous capacities of our human constitution is the ability to entertain two mutually conflicting ideas, two very opposite emotions and hope in the pit of despair. Even the psalmist who cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” makes this complaint to the very God whose absence s/he now experiences!
If Jeremiah had been expecting the gentle comfort of one trained in Clinical Pastoral Education, he would have been sorely disappointed. I doubt he had such expectations and, in any event, comfort is not the medicine Jeremiah receives. It is not God who has abandoned Jeremiah, but Jeremiah who has abandoned his God. After all, Jeremiah has been chiding his people for their own unfaithfulness; for their failure to trust God in the face of the Babylonian threat; for seeking salvation from foreign alliances rather than putting their faith in the Lord. Is his own personal danger and suffering any worse than what he is calling his own people to risk and to endure? If God has proved a “deceitful brook” to Jeremiah, has not Jeremiah been preaching deceit to his people? God will continue to be with Jeremiah to deliver him. But Jeremiah cannot expect to escape the judgment he proclaims for his people. That goes with the territory of the prophetic vocation.
These are hard words for leaders of God’s people ministering in hard times. We all know that the church can be awfully hard on the people that serve her. I have been lied too, betrayed, criticized behind my back and hurt by people in the church. Fortunately, these experiences have been only small islands of unpleasantness in an otherwise deep and expansive ocean of love, support and partnership. For the most part, even people with whom I have had deep disagreements remained supportive, caring and faithful to the gospel. My worst day in parish ministry was a romp in the park compared to Jeremiah’s experiences. Jeremiah serves to remind us all that we are calling the world to take up the cross and follow Jesus. That means taking it up ourselves. We cannot get out of being crucified with Christ, but the operative word here is with. Jesus does not call us to anything through which he has not already made a path.
Some commentators view this psalm as the plea for God’s intervention on behalf of one involved in a legal dispute soon to be adjudicated. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary, (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 117. Such a circumstances might have given birth to the stereotypical phraseology in the psalm, but the prayer seems to have a broader application as it now stands. Though likely composed as an individual lament prior to the Babylonian Exile in 587 B.C.E., it has been edited to meet the worship needs of the whole worshiping community. Such is the case with many of the personal psalms.
It takes a lot of chutzpa to pray this psalm. Who among us could declare in the presence of God that we “have trusted in the Lord without wavering?” Vs. 1. How many of us would invite God “to prove” and “try us,” to “test [our] heart[s] and mind[s]”? Vs. 2. Yet it seems to me that if we read these two verses as intimately linked to the rest of this prayer for vindication against enemies, they constitute an invitation to humility. Indeed, if we are going to pray for vindication against our enemies, then we must also pray that God will try our own hearts and minds, put us to the proof and bring our motives to light. For in reality, there is no such thing as a one sided conflict. Good and evil are never cleanly divided along the lines of combat drawn between human warring factions. Yet, as I argued in my post for July 20th, we Americans have a strong tendency to view conflict in precisely this fashion. That is why our politics is so dysfunctional. After all, how can you compromise with a party whose agenda is the destruction of American society as we know it? There can be no negotiation or settlement with evil, but only eradication.
Too often, the same is true for interpersonal conflict. We tend to demonize those with whom we differ, attribute to them the worst of motives and dismiss any possibility that they could actually have a meritorious point of view. They owe us an apology and until we get it, hostilities continue. The psalmist entertains no such simple minded illusions. S/he prays not merely that God’s judgment will fall upon his/her adversaries, but that it will penetrate his/her heart of hearts as well. From the psalmist’s standpoint (as from our own!), it may very well seem that s/he has taken the high road, that s/he has avoided “the company of evildoers” (Vs. 5) and “washed [his/her] hands in innocence.” Vs. 6. But in reality, s/he knows that there are in his/her own heart motives that are unseen and assumptions about the enemy that blind him/her to the big picture resulting in vast potential for misinterpreting the meaning of words and the significance of actions. Though the psalmist cannot see it now, s/he knows that when disputes are submitted to God with an honest prayer for vindication, the one seeking such relief must be prepared to discover his/her own complicity in that dispute and be prepared to accept full responsibility. Perhaps that is why the psalmist also prays that God “sweep me not away with sinners.” Vs. 9 (not in our reading). For “if thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?” Psalm 130:3.
More, however, needs to be said. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once remarked that: “The notion that we can never suffer innocently so long as within us there still hides some kind of defect is a thoroughly unbiblical and demoralizing thought.” Godsey, John D., The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (c. 1960 Westminster Press) p. 191. We can hardly fault a child in any way for injuries suffered at the hands of an abusive parent. Yet even in what appears to be a clear case of one-sided aggression, the aggressor is a complex individual whose motives, words and actions are the product of a lifetime of experiences that likely include victimization. As evil as his/her acts clearly are, the actor can never be written off as beyond redemption-at least not by us. Thus, while it is quite possible to suffer innocently, it does not follow that the full weight of guilt and retribution can be focused on the most visible perpetrator of the wrong.
As always, I encourage reading of Psalm 26 in its entirety.
The admonitions in verses 9-13 can sound almost pedestrian when they are read in isolation. Have genuine love. Hold to what is good. Show honor and zeal. Be hopeful, patient, prayerful and generous. Well, Duh!!! How else would a disciple of Jesus behave? It is critical therefore to read these admonitions in light of Paul’s earlier call for the Roman believers to present their bodies as sacrifices for God and to be transformed by the renewal of their minds through the gospel rather than conformed to the world around them. Romans 12:1-2. The “world” of which Paul speaks is the world of the Roman Empire, a hierarchical society in which everyone from the emperor to the galley slave had his or her fixed position. Honor was due from the lesser to the greater. As one commentator points out:
“J.E. Lendon has shown that a relatively small number of officials ruled the vast empire, using a combination of force, propaganda, and patronage that was held together by ‘the workings of honour and pride,’ which provided ‘the underpinnings of loyalty and gratitude for benefactors’ that made the empire functional. Although the threat of force and the desire for gain where always present, ‘the duty to “honour” or respect officials, whether local, imperial, or the emperor himself, is vastly more prominent in ancient writings than the duty to obey…’ The subject paid ‘honour’ to his rulers as individuals deserving of it in themselves, and, in turn, the rulers are seen to relate to their subjects by ‘honouring’ them. Subject and official were linked by a great network of honouring, and obedience was an aspect of that honouring…This background is essential for understanding the argument of Romans, which employs honor categories from beginning to end. Lendon observes: ‘Honour was a filter through which the whole world was viewed, a deep structure of the Graeco-Roman mind…Everything, every person, could be valued in terms of honour.’ At the peak of this pyramid of honor stood the emperor, who claimed to renounce honors while gathering them all to himself. Beneath him the intense competition for superiority in honor continued unabated on all levels of society.” Jewett, Robert, Romans-A Commentary, Harmenia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 49 citing Lendon, J.E., Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World (c. 1997 by Oxford: Clarendon) pp. 289-292.
Paul turns this “pyramid of honor” on its head. Rather than compete with one another in the accumulation of honor, disciples of Jesus are challenged to “out do one another in showing honor.” Vs. 10. Within the church, the structures of honor and patronage holding the Roman Empire together dissolve. That explains why the church was accused (and rightly so) of “turning the world upside down.” Acts 17:6. It also demonstrates why Paul’s letter to Philemon is probably one of the most revolutionary documents ever written. Paul’s insistence that Philemon welcome back his runaway slave, Onesimus, as a brother struck at the very foundations of Roman society. While some of our aging commentators left over from the 1960s fault Paul for being less than fully socially conscious because he was not out demonstrating in the streets of Rome against slavery, I cannot help but note that the churches they represent are often just as segregated today as was Selma, Alabama in the 60s. It just goes to prove Mark Twain’s adage, “To be good is noble. To teach someone else to be good is more noble still-and a lot less trouble.” Paul’s opposition to slavery was written into his practice-not merely on a cardboard sign. His church struck at slavery by ending it within a counter-cultural community valuing all persons, regardless of their societal status, as equally members of the Body of Christ.
Verses 14-21 echo Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:38-48. At first blush, they might seem to conflict with the sentiments expressed by Jeremiah and the psalmist in our previous lessons. That is not the case, however. Like the psalmist and the prophet, Paul urges the Roman church to leave vengeance and retributive justice in the hands of God. It might well be that one’s enemy is deserving of punishment. But that is not the disciple’s concern. The disciple of Jesus is called upon to love the enemy, pray for the enemy and show kindness to the enemy whether deserving or not. By assuming God’s prerogative and seeking retribution, one is overcome by evil. Again and again we have learned that by fighting evil with evil’s own tools of violence and hateful rhetoric, we are conformed to the very image of that which we despise. Rather than be so conformed, Paul urges us to be transformed by the renewal of your minds. Romans 12:1-2.
At this point in Matthew’s gospel, the focus turns toward Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Each of the subsequent transitional sections will remind us of that destination. Matthew 16:21; Matthew 17:22; Matthew 19:1; Matthew 20:17). Here Jesus reveals to his disciples for the first time that this journey will lead to his rejection by the religious authorities and his suffering and death. Vs. 21. Peter once again personifies what must have been the response of all the disciples: “God forbid!” Vs. 22. (Ironic, isn’t it, that this “rock,” upon which Jesus said in last Sunday’s lesson that the church would be built, has so soon after become a rock of “stumbling” to Jesus!) We now learn that Peter’s bold confession of Jesus as both Israel’s Messiah and the Son of the living God, through accurate, is still unformed. He cannot reconcile the glorification of Jesus with the cross. He is not the only one. I have repeatedly been asked about verse 28 in which Jesus tells his disciples that they will not see death before they witness his coming in glory. “Pastor,” they ask me, “How can that be true? We have still not seen Jesus coming in glory.”
Of course, Jesus did come in glory. Our problem is that we don’t understand what glory is any more than we understand what power is. God is nowhere more thoroughly glorified than on the cross where the depth of God’s love for all creation is made known. God is nowhere more powerful than on the cross where even the crucifixion of his Son cannot entice God to turn against us in anger. God’s love is stronger than our sin. The cross, says St. Paul, is the wisdom of God and the power of God. I Corinthians 1:18-25. For Matthew, it is the coming of Jesus in glory. That is a bitter pill to swallow for those of us looking for a kick ass savior who will appear at the end of time to whoop the anti-christ and impose his reign in the manner of a Caesar on steroids. That is not going to happen. It is not going to happen because that is not the way God triumphs over evil. God overcomes evil in the same way Paul calls upon his churches to overcome evil: by loving our enemies, doing good to them and praying for them. That will probably take a long time. But God is in no hurry. Neither should we be.
The term “taking up the cross” has become a hackneyed phrase in our common parlance. Typically, it is a synonym for taking one’s own share of hardships that go with living. Suffering becomes a good in its own right, an end in itself, an opportunity to practice patience and self-denial. These are both fine virtues and to the extent one uses suffering to that end, all well and good. But this understanding has nothing to do with taking up the cross. As pointed out 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 [Jesus’] society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c. 1972 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 129. The cross in Jesus’ day was not a metaphor or a symbol of anything else. It was the means by which Rome put down anyone confessing a lord other than Caesar. Following Jesus means risking execution.
Yet it is precisely in risking all for Jesus that true life is discovered. Until one is ready to die, there is no prospect for life. The church is called upon to risk all-to risk dying. That is a hard word to speak to a church that is obsessed with survival. Though we talk incessantly about “change” and the “need for change” and the benefits of “change,” the change we often promote is geared chiefly to preserve ourselves. That is understandable. It is easy enough to speak abstractly about the end of the established church in the post Constantinian era. That reality, however, means the loss of some very good social ministries built with the blood, sweat and tears of people whose careers have been defined by them. It means the loss of jobs and the end of career opportunities. On the congregational level it means the loss of century old sanctuaries with brass plates on every piece of furniture memorializing a loved one. It means the loss of cemeteries where generations of families have been laid to rest. It means the end of a multitude of voices singing those dear old hymns to the accompaniment of a majestic pipe organ. That is what the death of “church as we know it” will mean. By way of full disclosure, I have a daughter who is preparing for a career in parish ministry. So although I am close enough to retirement to have gotten my own share out of the Constantinian church, I am hardly a detached observer.
Matthew tells us, however, that we have nothing to fear from death once we recognize that “dying” is the place to which Jesus calls us. We hardly need Jesus to tell us that, no matter how frantically we try to preserve our lives, we are going to lose them in the end. It is the other side of the equation that spells the good news Jesus alone can bring, namely, that by losing one’s life, one gains it. There are, as I said in last week’s post, many new and lively manifestations of “church” in our midst. I do not suggest that any of these models can simply be copied. That, too, is a recipe for failure. But they testify to what is possible when we stop fretting about survival and focus instead on being faithful disciples of Jesus. If God is taking the church we have known and loved away from us, it is because God has something better to give us. Once our hands are free from vainly trying to hang on to what is being lost, we will be free to receive the new thing God is doing in our midst.
FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: You are great, O God, and greatly to be praised. You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Grant that we may believe in you, call upon you, know you, and serve you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope.” Zechariah 9:12
Hope is powerful. It can inspire selfless acts of heroism. It can empower an oppressed people to endure centuries of persecution. Hope can sustain resistance to tyranny and ignite revolutionary change. Often the most slender and fragile hope for a better tomorrow is enough to see us through the darkest of days. It does seem to me that we are held prisoner by hope. Hope appears to be an indispensible element of human existence. It’s what keeps us going. It is as difficult to lose all hope as it is to will oneself to stop breathing. Even those who take their own lives are driven by the desperate hope of finally escaping an existence too painful to endure. And that, of course, brings us to the dark side of hope. Hope can be tragically misplaced.
In last week’s lesson from Jeremiah, the people of Judah were led by the false prophet Hananiah to place their hope in his prediction of Babylon’s imminent collapse. So, too, it seems was the king and his counselors who shaped their foreign policy on the basis of this lie and engineered a revolt against Babylonian domination. Jeremiah’s largely ignored warning that such folly would lead to catastrophic destruction for Judah came true with a vengeance. Babylon crushed the revolt. Judah lost her land, her temple and the royal line of David. Such are the consequences of misplaced hope.
One needs look no further than the field of medicine to find examples of misplaced hope. Of course, I am no enemy of medicine or medical progress. Some members of my family and many of my friends would likely have died in childhood if they had lived just a century ago. Thanks to modern medical advances, they are living full and active lives today. I am glad that medical science is pushing against the frontiers of human knowledge to find cures for various diseases, particularly those that strike during childhood. But medicine has limits that hope sometimes refuses to acknowledge. It is easy to forget that medicine is as much art as science, and that the human body is enormously complex. In spite of its impressive advances, medicine does not have close to all the answers for what ails us. When I was practicing law, a significant portion of my practice involved defending doctors, nurses and hospitals against malpractice claims. While medical malpractice does in fact occur with disturbing frequency, I can say that many such claims arise from unrealistic expectations of modern medicine and the caregivers who practice it. At the end of the day, doctors are only human. Medical knowledge is incomplete. Sometimes people are beyond medical help and cannot be “fixed.” Human beings are mortal-and that is perhaps the greatest sticking point of all. Medicine can’t save us from death; but obvious as this raw fact surely is, that doesn’t make it any easier to accept.
In a recent article of the Daily Express, Jon Austin reports on the work of Dr. Aubrey de Grey, a physician who has dedicated his work to the quest for eternal life. Dr. De Grey believes people who have already been born could live for ten centuries as beneficiaries of ongoing research into “repairing the effects of ageing.” He hopes ultimately to create preventative treatments enabling humans to re-repair themselves on a regular basis and so live as long as 1,000 years or possibly even forever. I hasten to add that Mr. Austin has made a name for himself covering all manner of conspiracy theories and alleged government cover-ups of UFO landings and sightings. So I am inclined to take this article with a very large grain of salt. Nonetheless, that it finds its way into public media at all suggests to me that it speaks to a longing we find hard to suppress. The notion that medical science might possibly lead us to that illusive fountain of youth makes us absolutely giddy.
Can genetic engineering extend our lives indefinitely? I rather doubt it. But not being a scientist myself, I can’t speak authoritatively on that question. What I can say with certainty is that the desire to extend one’s life indefinitely is a selfish, narcissistic, egotistical quest. It reflects a stubborn refusal to accept with gratitude the time one has been given on this planet and to graciously step aside and make room for the next generation. The utter selfishness of pursuing human immortality becomes clear when one considers that it would be entirely unsustainable unless we all decided to stop reproducing or restricted life extending treatments to an elite few. This perverse preoccupation also goes a long way toward explaining why our country’s health care system is grotesquely skewed toward providing life extending care for us oldsters while neglecting large sections of our population consisting of children and young families. The drive for immortality represents an arrogant promethean effort to put the brakes on history/evolution and elevate the status quo to a level of eternal significance. It is a refusal to let the universe progress beyond the eternal “me.”
The promise that “you shall not die, but become as God, knowing good and evil” is as old as human existence. We should not forget where it came from. Whether attainable or not, extending human life indefinitely is a false hope. Immortality can offer us only selfish misery and loneliness if it is an end in itself. St. Paul understood that well. That is why he insists that, in order to share in Christ’s eternal life, we must of necessity die. That is why Jesus tells us that only by losing our lives can we hope to gain them. Repentance is a kind of death that requires us to let go daily of past sins and false hopes. We are to practice repentance with such regularity that, when the day of death actually comes, it will be “just another day.” Rather than clinging tenaciously and futilely to life at all costs, we are invited to let our lives fall back into the hands of the One who gave them to us in the first place and who has the power to give them back to us once again, made new and reconciled.
Zechariah encourages Israel to “return to your stronghold.” That stronghold is the Lord, Israel’s covenant partner. God is where all genuine hope is finally anchored. It is within the covenant of baptism, within the community of saints under construction and within the disciplines of discipleship that we are formed through daily repentance and faith into genuinely human creatures capable of living joyfully, thankfully and obediently within the limits of our creaturely existence. Here’s a poem by Marge Piercy that speaks of a transformative life of repentance grounded in sober hope.
The hinge of the year
the great gates opening
and then slowly slowly
closing on us.
I always imagine those gates
hanging over the ocean
fiery over the stone grey
waters of evening.
We cast what we must
change about ourselves
onto the waters flowing
to the sea. The sins,
errors, bad habits, whatever
you call them, dissolve.
When I was little I cried
out I! I! I! I want, I want.
Older, I feel less important,
a worker bee in the hive
of history, miles of hard
labor to make my sweetness.
The gates are closing
The light is failing
I kneel before what I love
imploring that it may live.
So much breaks, wears
down, fails in us. We must
forgive our broken promises—
their sharp shards in our hands.
 Ne’ilah is a special Jewish prayer service that is held on Yom Kippur. It is the time when final prayers of repentance are recited at the closing of this most solemn of Jewish observances.
Source: The Crooked Inheritance, (c. 2006 by Marge Piercy, pub. by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group). Marge Piercy was born in 1936 in Detroit, Michigan. She attended the University of Michigan and received her MA from Northwestern University. During the 1960s, Piercy was an organizer in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). She was also heavily involved in opposition to the war in Vietnam. Piercy is a prolific writer having published seventeen books of poetry and several novels. You can learn more about Marge Piercy and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Zechariah is identified in the opening lines of the book bearing his name as son of Berechiah son of Iddo. Zechariah 1:1. His name means “The Lord is renowned.” He is identified, along with Haggai, as one of the prophets prophesying encouragement to the Jews newly returned from the Babylonian Exile. Ezra 5:1, Ezra 6:14. Such encouragement was sorely needed. Having left Babylon in high hopes of witnessing a miraculous recovery for their homeland, the people arrived to find only a ruined city and rubble where the temple of Solomon once stood. Conditions were daunting and soon the little settlement was reduced to subsistence living and concerned only with survival. This was hardly an ideal time to begin a stewardship campaign for a new sanctuary! Yet through his repeated proclamation of visions and oracles, Zechariah was able to assure Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah, and Joshua, the high priest, that together they could complete reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Zechariah’s preaching must have been persuasive, for the temple was indeed rebuilt and dedicated around 516 B.C.E.
Sunday’s reading is familiar to us. All four gospels cite or allude to verse 9 in connection with Jesus’ triumphal procession into Jerusalem riding on the back of a donkey. Matthew 21:5; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:28-38; and John 12:14-15. Note the contrast: Zion’s king, though triumphant and victorious, comes riding upon a donkey; but the “war horse,” “chariot” and “battle bow” are destined to be cut off. Vss. 9-10. This king will command “peace” to the nations. Vs. 10. His weapon, his “bow,” “arrow” and “sword” is the people of Israel. Zechariah 9:13 (omitted in the lectionary reading). Through the faithful witness of the covenant people, the king prevails over his foes. This is another of many instances in the Hebrew Scriptures where Israel’s God forsakes war as the means for saving and liberating his people. So, too, Jesus will forsake violence repeatedly in the gospels as the means for bringing about God’s reign.
“Blood of my covenant” is a conventional way of referring to the covenant relationship between Israel and her God. Vs. 11. That it was sealed with blood emphasizes the irrevocable nature of that relationship. “Prisoners of hope” is a difficult phrase and resort to the original Hebrew does not give us much further insight into its meaning. Vs. 12. Yet one might well describe both Israel and the church as “prisoners of hope.” Both communities were created by covenants established in the past, yet which also look to the future for their fulfilment. Hope is not a vague optimism that everything will finally work out in the end. It is shaped by promises of a new age, a new heaven and a new earth, resurrection and a new creation. It is fed by sacred narratives of God’s past acts of salvation and God’s steadfast faithfulness to us throughout history. We are in bondage to this hope that will not let us go.
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. 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. This core confession belies the all too common belief on the part of ill-informed Christians that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is a “God of wrath,” whereas the New Testament God is a kindly, old, overindulgent grandfather. God does not need Jesus to be gracious or the cross in order to forgive. It is rather because God is gracious that his Word became flesh and because God is infinitely forgiving that God’s Incarnate Word embraces with love those who would nail him to the cross.
All creation testifies to God’s grace and mercy through praise. This “all” includes God’s faithful people Israel as well as the natural world and its non-human creatures. Vss. 10-12. The term “kingdom” might better be translated “reign.” The psalmist is not speaking of something in the distant future and certainly does not refer to a place located “beyond the blue.” God reigns now, whether that reign is recognized and acknowledged or not. In talking about the nature of God’s reign, it might be helpful to reflect back on the reading from Zechariah and the humble king riding not a war horse, but a donkey. God does not rule the world in the way of all the tribes, kingdoms and empires that have drenched the earth in blood to establish their respective reigns.
Standing on its own, this little snippet from Romans is a bit confusing. So let’s give it some context. Paul has been discussing the role of the law and its relationship to sin. Law is binding only upon the living. For example, a person is bound to another in marriage for “as long as they both shall live.” But if one spouse dies, there is no longer any marriage and thus no legal obligation of faithfulness for the surviving spouse. So also a person baptized into Christ’s death is liberated from the law which attaches only to the living. The new person raised in Christ’s resurrection is, as we have said, a servant of God over whom sin has no power and the law no jurisdiction. Romans 7:1-6. The gospel is not about reforming sinners. It is not about teaching an old dog new tricks. The old dog must be taken out back and shot. What is raised up constitutes an entirely new creature.
Law, as we have said before, is given to defend us from ourselves. It serves as a protective hedge around covenant life, ensuring the proper worship of Israel’s God and the essential elements of human life, i.e., marriage, livelihood and sustenance. The law, however, must not be confused with the covenant itself. When the law is understood as a means of drawing near to God rather than as a gift designed to protect and nurture that nearness, it becomes just another occasion for sin. Using the law as a means for achieving right relationship with God is rather like trying to drive your car along a winding mountain road by keeping your eye fixed on the guard rail. In addition to losing sight of your destination, you practically ensure that you will eventually go off the road.
The law functions, then, to bring into focus the nature and depth of sin. On the one hand, the law paints a portrait of life as it ought to be in covenant with God. Yet it is precisely this portrait that illuminates my own life and the extent to which it fails to work itself out peaceably within that covenant relationship. To the extent that I see reflected in the law my own brokenness and despise it, I affirm the law’s judgment. So far, so good. The law works well as a diagnostic instrument, but it is not a cure for what ails me. When I try to use it as a cure, it only becomes increasingly clear that I am hopelessly in bondage to sin. Instead of a protective hedge, the law now becomes a ruthless master whose demands I can never satisfy. So too, my understanding of the God who gives the law becomes distorted.
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” Vs. 21. Paul speaks from experience here. It was, after all, his zeal for the law that led Paul to persecute the early church and so the messiah he now serves. Similarly, it was the religious leaders of Israel who were seeking to uphold the law and put an end to blasphemy that brought Jesus before Pontius Pilate seeking the death sentence. For his part, Pilate was simply doing his job and trying to keep the peace when he had Jesus crucified. Jesus was not killed by notorious sinners, but by decent, law abiding citizens who were only trying to do the right thing. Sin twists the law as it does everything else to serve its own destructive ends. That is why the folks who never tire of warning us that unless we enshrine “Christian values” in the laws of our land, society will disintegrate. Society might well disintegrate, but anyone who thinks that laws, however “Christian” they might be, can prevent such catastrophe has never listened to Saint Paul.
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Vs. 24. That is finally the proper question. It is not a matter of what one believes or what one does. It is a matter of who one trusts. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Vs. 25. When one trusts Jesus enough to share his death through baptism, one shares also in Jesus’ resurrection. Care must be taken to avoid the misunderstanding of “trusting Jesus” as simply another work of the law. Such trust or faith is not a precondition for salvation from sin’s bondage. Rather, the proclamation that Jesus is trustworthy works the miracle of trust in our hearts. Because sin is an absence of trust, its power is broken when the heart begins to trust God once again. When the power of sin is broken, law is superfluous.
In its usual paternalistic concern for the simple and unlearned, the lectionary has excised Jesus’ culturally offensive and intolerant language from our readings. Specifically, we have been spared Jesus’ harsh pronouncement of judgment upon the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum where he had performed miracles and works of power. Jesus even suggests that, had his works been performed in the proverbially wicked city of Sodom, that city would have repented and been spared. Matthew 11:20-24. As Professor Stanley Hauerwas points out, “Jesus’ pronouncement of judgment on the cities in which he performed deeds of power makes us, contemporary Christians, profoundly uncomfortable. We want a gospel of love that insures when everything is said and done that everyone and everything is going to be okay. But we are not okay. Like the cities of Israel, we have turned our existence as Christians into a status meant to protect us from recognizing the prophets who would point us to Jesus. Of course we do not like Jesus to pronounce judgment on the cities in which he performed deeds of power, because we do not want to recognize that we too are judged. But the gospel is judgment because otherwise it would not be good news. Only through judgment are we forced to discover forms of life that can free us from our enchantment with sin and death.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brozos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 116.
The text begins with Jesus citing a child’s proverb: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” Vs. 17. Like spoiled children who cannot be induced to play at any game, the people of the three towns in which Jesus ministered remain unresponsive to God’s reign. First, they reject the ministry of John the Baptist. That is not surprising. John is an unsettling character. He lives off the bounty of the wilderness and so is impervious to the ups and downs of the economy. He has no stake in the social order and whatever entitlements it may provide. John’s very existence is a challenge to the status quo. His mere presence literally shouts that things need not be as they are. God has no need for children of Abraham, the line of David or the temple in Jerusalem. Fruits, not roots, are what God treasures. Small wonder the public at large dismisses John as a madman.
If John was unsettling, Jesus is downright threatening. Consider the “mighty works” Jesus has already done. He begins his healing ministry by touching a leper. Matthew 8:1-4. Note well that this touch was given before the leper had been healed. That should have rendered Jesus ritually unclean, but instead it cleanses the leper. Next, Jesus heals the servant of a centurion, a hated representative of the Roman Empire. To add insult to injury, Jesus remarks that the centurion’s faith outshines that of all Israel! Matthew 8:5-13. Jesus has the audacity to declare forgiveness to a man stricken with paralysis-presumably by God as punishment for his sins. Matthew 9:1-8. Then, to top it off, Jesus is found eating in the company of notorious sinners. Matthew 9:10-13. It might have been acceptable for Jesus to feed sinners at a shelter of some kind. Nobody would have objected to Jesus preaching to sinners. But to sit down and share meals with sinners who have not repented and have shown no inclination to clean up their acts-that is a bridge too far. Jesus seems to think there is no difference between sinners and the righteous, the clean and the unclean, the legal and the illegal. All those fine social distinctions that define us, tell us who we are and where we stand come apart in his presence. No wonder the good people of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum dismiss Jesus as dunk bohemian.
Both Jesus and John are written off with cheap ad hominem attacks. The critics cannot argue with the witness of John or the works of Jesus. So they resort to attacks on their characters. John is crazy. Jesus is a drunk. Their followers have been brainwashed by the media. The lectionary is likewise uncomfortable with Jesus. Rather than openly discrediting him, however, it simply edits the offensiveness out of him. But as Hauerwas observes, the good news is not good news until we are made to recognize that the status quo to which we so desperately cling is bad news.
Jesus concludes with a prayer thanking his heavenly Father for concealing the reality of God’s reign from the “wise and understanding” and for revealing it “to babes.” Vs. 25. This is not an attack on wisdom or understanding as such. Rather, it is an assault upon the intellectual energy we expend resisting the kingdom. We all know from our own experience what so often happens when you promote change, however modest, to a group of people set in their ways. Usually, you get all the reasons for why it cannot be done except the true reason, namely, that they don’t want it done. Adults will tell you that poverty, starvation and war are inevitable and give you an endless supply of well thought out reasons for why trying to change any of that is futile. A child will simply ask why we don’t stop fighting and start taking care of one another. It is not that the child is smarter than the adult. Clearly, s/he is not as well educated or knowledgeable. Yet precisely because the child lacks the conceptual tools of adulthood that enable us so effectively to lie to ourselves and rationalize our sin, the child manages to arrive at the truth from which we flee. The child knows what we steadfastly deny. Things don’t have to be the way they are.
Children are too young and inexperienced to understand that the status quo ensures them and their parents a comfortable lifestyle and security that few in the rest of the world can dream about. Children have not yet come to understand that the world is a shrinking pie and we all need to protect our slice. Children have not yet learned the importance of being white or straight or wealthy or physically attractive. A child must be educated to appreciate these distinctions and learn the importance of ensuring that they remain in place. In short, the child must be taught the fine art of self-deception. S/he must learn that the way things are is the way they must be if we are to maintain our way of life. It is not helpful for people like John and Jesus to confuse these little ones by declaring that things do not have to be as they are.
Clearly, the good news of Jesus Christ is not about tweaking the status quo to make it more humane. The good news is the reign of God that makes all things new (and of necessity breaks apart the old.) It introduces a new reality that lies at the core of both the Hebrew and New Testament scriptures. As observed by Walter Brueggemann, “At the root of reality is a limitless generosity that intends an extravagant abundance. This claim is exposited in Israel’s creation texts, sapiential traditions, and hymnic exuberances. This insistence files in the face of the theory of scarcity on which the modern world is built. An ideology of scarcity produces competitiveness that issues in brutality, justifies policies of wars and aggression, authorizes an acute individualism, and provides endless anxiety about money, sexuality, physical fitness, beauty, work achievements, and finally mortality. It seems clear to me that, in the end, all of these anxieties are rooted in an ideology that resists the notion of limitless generosity and extravagant abundance.” Brueggemann, Walter, An Unsettling God, (c. 2009 Fortress Press) p. 171. I would add that the same limitless generosity and extravagant abundance lies at the heart of Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign. God would give us the kingdom, but God must first pry the status quo away from us so that our hands will be free to receive it.
THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you direct our lives by your grace, and your words of justice and mercy reshape the world. Mold us into a people who welcome your word and serve one another, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The longer I live, the more I learn and the wider I read, I become increasingly convinced that prophecy, biblically understood, has a good deal more in common with fiction, poetry, music and the graphic arts than with systematic theology. Prophecy employs symbols and allusions enabling us to see the big picture. It appeals less to our intellect and more to our imagination. Like the parables of Jesus, prophecy comes through the back door of our consciousness and shatters our strongest beliefs and convictions through which we filter what we see and hear. That, in turn, allows us to see and perceive in a new way.
Prophecy helps us make sense of the world and the way we experience it. Like art, prophecy is often disturbing, upsetting and even offensive. The prophet Isaiah walked through the streets of Jerusalem stark naked to bring home the tragic fate of Israelites from the Northern Kingdom already themselves paraded naked into exile by the Assyrians. This served to evoke compassion for these unfortunate kin and bring home the threat of a similar judgment against the people of Jerusalem. The prophet Ezekiel portrays Israel’s faithlessness in a graphic poetic fable about an unfaithful bride using imagery we would surely consider obscene. In today’s first lesson, Jeremiah wears a yolk upon his neck to illustrate God’s placement of Babylon over Judah as punishment for her sin and to warn the people against the futility of rebellion.
But just as art, literature and music can be employed to spread propaganda, so prophecy can lie. False prophets can induce us to consume lies and trust false promises. They can trick us into accepting “alternative facts” and embracing false narratives. False prophecy gains traction because it helps us make sense out of what otherwise seems incomprehensible. It fixates blame on others instead of encouraging introspection and repentance. It’s no wonder I can’t get a decent job when illegal immigrants are flooding across the border to take the few jobs that have not been shipped overseas. Of course morals are in rapid decline. What can you expect when our universities are staffed by America hating, God denying scientists who teach our young people that we all came from a bunch of monkeys? There is a perverse comfort in believing that one’s life is miserable because there are malicious forces at work in the depths of the “deep state” manipulating the economy, the job market and the media in order to make it that way. If these narratives offer nothing in the way of hope, they at least relieve one from having to take responsibility for one’s own life and give one a target against which to vent.
False prophecy points the finger of blame and shifts responsibility for change away from where it needs to begin. The false prophet blames outsiders for our problems. True prophets invite us to examine ourselves to discover the sin at the source of our misery. False prophets insist that we are miserable because the world is such a miserable place. True prophets insist that the world suffers because we are so bent on having our own way. False prophets comfort us with easy lies and pamper our inclination to self-pity. True prophets open our eyes to the very real opportunities we have for change, repentance and faith.
There is no shortage of “prophets” these days purporting to tell us what God demands of Americans and how America figures into God’s will for the rest of the world. It should come as no surprise to anyone who follows me with any regularity that I reject all claims of “American exceptionalism” and preaching that blends patriotism and white middle class morality with Christian faith. I must say that I am also skeptical of “progressive” equations of various social causes, however noble they may be, with the cause of the gospel. One should not say lightly those words, “Thus saith the Lord.” God’s ways are not our ways and God’s view of what constitutes progress in the grand scheme of things might not coincide with what we view as advantageous through the narrow lens of any current election cycle. A true prophet takes care not to say more than s/he knows.
True prophecy, like genuine art, stands the test of time. Jeremiah’s words were rejected in his own day and the nationalistic jingo of his opponent, Hananiah, was popularly received with great enthusiasm. Yet it was to the words of Jeremiah that the people turned during their long exile in Babylon. It was the prophecy of Jeremiah that helped Israel rise from the ashes of her darkest hour and find her way to a new day and a renewed community. Jeremiah’s words are preserved for us in the Hebrew Scriptures. If Hananiah’s words were ever even written down, they have long since perished in the dust bin of rightful neglect.
Here’s a poem by Muriel Rukeyser speaking eloquently of genuine prophecy as “the song of the way in.”
THE WAY OUT
The night is covered with signs. The body and face of man,
with signs, and his journeys. Where the rock is split
and speaks to the water; the flame speaks to the cloud;
the red splatter, abstraction, on the door
speaks to the angel and the constellations.
The grains of sand on the sea-floor speak at last to the noon.
And the loud hammering of the land behind
speaks ringing up the bones of our thighs, the hoofs,
we hear the hoofs over the seethe of the sea.
All night down the centuries, have heard, music of passage.
Music of one child carried into the desert;
firstborn forbidden by law of the pyramid.
Drawn through the water with the water-drawn people
led by the water-drawn man to the smoke mountain.
The voice of the world speaking, the world covered by signs,
the burning, the loving, the speaking, the opening.
Strong throat of sound from the smoking mountain.
Still flame, the spoken singing of a young child.
The meaning beginning to move, which is the song.
Music of those who have walked out of slavery.
Into that journey where all things speak to all things
refusing to accept the curse, and taking
for signs the signs of all things, the world, the body
which is part of the soul, and speaks to the world,
all creation being created in one image, creation.
This is not the past walking into the future,
the walk is painful, into the present, the dance
not visible as dance until much later.
These dancers are discoverers of God.
We knew we had all crossed over when we heard the song.
Out of a life of building lack on lack:
the slaves refusing slavery, escaping into faith:
an army who came to the ocean: the walkers
who walked through the opposites, from I to opened Thou,
city and cleave of the sea. Those at flaming Nauvoo,
the ice on the great river: the escaping Negroes,
swamp and wild city: the shivering children of Paris
and the glass black hearses; those on the Long March:
all those who together are the frontier, forehead of man.
Where the wilderness enters, the world, the song of the world.
Akiba rescued, secretly, in the clothes of death
by his disciples carried from Jerusalem
in blackness journeying to find his journey
to whatever he was loving with his life.
The wilderness journey through which we move
under the whirlwind truth into the new,
the only accurate. A cluster of lights at night:
faces before the pillar of fire. A child watching
while the sea breaks open. This night. The way in.
Barbarian music, a new song.
Acknowledging opened water, possibility:
open like a woman to this meaning.
In a time of building statues of the stars,
valuing certain partial ferocious skills
while past us the chill and immense wilderness
spreads its one-color wings until we know
rock, water, flame, cloud, or the floor of the sea,
the world is a sign, a way of speaking. To find.
What shall we find? Energies, rhythms, journey.
Ways to discover. The song of the way in.
Source: The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, (c. 2006 by Muriel Rukeyser, pub. by the University of Pittsburgh Press). Mureil Rukeyser (1913-1980) was an American poet and political activist. She is known for her poems about equality, feminism and social justice. Her poems were influenced by her roots in Judaism and contain numerous allusions to Hebrew scriptural and Talmudic themes. She grew up in the Bronx and graduated from Vassar College. She also attended Columbia University. Rukeyser is a recipient of Yale Younger Poets Award, the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award, the Levinson Prize and the Copernicus Prize. You can find out more about Muriel Rukeyser and sample more of her poems at the Poetry Foundation website.
Today’s lesson comes from a larger drama in the Book of Jeremiah that could be given the title, “The Dueling Prophets.” Unfortunately, you only get a little snippet of it in the reading. It all begins with God commanding Jeremiah to proclaim to the people of Judah that God is about to bring the Kingdom of David and the Temple to an end by the hand of the King of Babylon whose armies are even now advancing upon Jerusalem. To make the point, Jeremiah is told to wear a yolk over his shoulders, the kind used for oxen. It is God who brings the yolk of Babylonian bondage upon Judah. To resist Babylon is to resist God. Jeremiah 27:1-11. You can imagine how that must have gone over. How would you like to be sent out to meet the Fourth of July parade with a yolk on your neck to tell everyone that God is about give victory in the war on terror to ISIS?
The drama unfolds in Jerusalem where the prophet Hananiah is rallying the people of the city behind the flag. “Salvation is on the way! The Lord is coming to the aid of his people just like he always has in the past! The Lord is coming to rescue Jerusalem! The Lord is coming to save his people! The Lord is coming to whoop those “Babliofascists,” that terrorist scum and give victory to Israel! Within two years we are going to see all the treasures taken from us by the Babylonians returned. We are going to see freedom! We are going to see peace! Do I hear an ‘Amen.’?” (Paraphrase of Jeremiah 28:1-4) “Amen” shouts a voice from the midst of the cheering crowd. Everyone turns to see the prophet Jeremiah-wearing his yolk. “Amen!” shouts Jeremiah. “I hope you are right Hananiah. I hope everything you say comes true. Nothing would make me happier than to be dead wrong about everything I have said. But this is much bigger than you and me, Hananiah. This is much more important than who is right and who is wrong. The question here is, ‘What is the word of the Lord for us this day?’ Don’t forget,” says Jeremiah to Hananiah, “there have been prophets before you and me. Not all of them prophesied salvation. Some foretold disaster and destruction. Remember Elijah, remember Amos, remember Micah who once prophesied that this very city would be laid bare as a mown field. Time will tell what the word of the Lord is, who proclaimed it and who received it faithfully.” (Paraphrase of Vss. 5-9). So ends the lectionary reading, but not the story. Next Hananiah, in a dramatic and brilliant show of oratory, jumps down from the podium, breaks in two the yolk off of Jeremiah’s neck and cries out, “So shall the Lord break the yolk of Babylon from the neck of his people.” Jeremiah 28:10-11. The crowd roars its approval and Jeremiah goes his way. He lost the duel.
It is easy for us two and one half millennia later to recognize Jeremiah as the genuine prophet. But what if instead of being here today, you were among that crowd in Jerusalem at the outbreak of war? Who would you believe? Both prophets have biblical precedent on their side. Hananiah could point to the Assyrian invasion of only a century before. Sennacherib, emperor of Assyria swept down and conquered every nation in Palestine, and most of Judah. Only Jerusalem remained standing-with what was left of Judah’s defeated army cowering behind its walls. God sent an angel of the Lord to slay the Assyrian army during the night and Sennacherib was forced to retreat. Jerusalem was saved against all odds. See II Kings 18:13-19:37. If God could do it then, God can do it now.
Jeremiah, on the other hand, could point to the time of the Judges when the Israelite army, facing an attack by the Philistines, went to the Tabernacle at Shiloh and took the Ark of the Covenant, thinking that God would never let them be defeated if it meant that the Ark would be captured. But God is not one to be manipulated by lucky charms. God handed Israel a defeat and, in fact, permitted the Ark to be taken captive. I Samuel 4. So also, argued Jeremiah, don’t think you can oppress the poor among you, worship idols, ignore the commandments and then go running into the Temple like a band of fugitives from justice to escape the consequences of your deeds. God values holy hearts over holy places. God did not spare the Tabernacle in Shiloh, God will not spare the Temple in Jerusalem either.
So we have two prophets. Both are speaking in the name of the God of Israel. Both have a word consistent with the Bible, but each has a very different message. How can we know which one is speaking the word of the Lord for this people at this time? I wish I had an easy answer for that one, but I don’t. I am not aware of any definitive test that will distinguish between true prophecy and false prophecy. But here are a few observations that might help. First, prophecy is not all about the future. Rather, it is a word that helps us understand what is taking place here and now. For the people of Jeremiah’s time, the big event was the Babylonian invasion. What does it mean? How would God have us respond? What is God’s word to us now? Which scripture speaks to this circumstance?
Second, true prophecy is tempered by humility. If you read further into the story you will find Jeremiah confronting Hananiah again-not in public this time but alone. “And the prophet Jeremiah said to the prophet Hananiah, ‘Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you made this people trust in a lie. Therefore thus says the Lord: I am going to send you off the face of the earth. Within this year you will be dead, because you have spoken rebellion against the Lord.’” Jeremiah 28:15-16. I don’t know what to make of that except this: You better be careful what you say after the words, “Thus sayeth the Lord.”
Feminist reformer Susan B. Anthony once said, “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.” I think Ms. Anthony is onto something here. I am afraid we are far too confident these days in our beliefs about what God wills, what God is for and what God is against. That goes as much for mainline “advocacy” as it does for right wing efforts to make government strengthen and preserve family values. If Roberta Combs’ Jesus looks suspiciously similar to Ronald Regan, ours sometimes bears an uncanny resemblance to Fritz Mondale. When I see churches and individual congregations neatly split along the lines of “red” and “blue,” it is hard not to conclude that we have become proxies in the so called “culture wars” and that our ministries are driven less by theological conviction than ideological prejudices.
That is the difference between Jeremiah and Hananiah. Jeremiah was prepared to admit that he might after all be mistaken, that he might have misunderstood God’s word and that he might need to listen more closely to that word. By contrast, Hananiah knew he was right, was sure he had the truth and therefore felt entirely justified in shouting Jeremiah down. Arrogance is the surest mark both of a weak mind and a false prophet.
This is a royal psalm celebrating God’s salvation as mediated through God’s covenant with David. As always, I urge you to read Psalm 89 in its entirety. It is divided into three sections: 1) vss 5-18 assert God’s power as creator and ruler of the world and expresses the blessedness of Israel as God’s people; 2) vss 19-37 describe the covenant God makes with the house of David; 3) vss 38-51 describe a severe defeat for the house of David and a prayer that God will soon act to restore it. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 188. Vs. 52 is a doxology closing the third book within the psalms (Psalms 72-89) rather than a part of psalm 89.
Scholars are not in agreement over the event giving rise to the third section of this psalm dealing with the monarchy’s defeat. Because the monarchy was brought to an end by the Babylonian invasion of 587, it is unlikely the subject of the psalm, particularly as it is spoken by a king who, though defeated and humiliated, remains on the thrown. Some biblical commentators suggest that the reference might refer to the Assyrian crisis of a century earlier, but there is not enough specificity to assign these verses with certainty to any known historical period or event.
Although it celebrates God’s covenant with David as God’s saving act, the psalm acknowledges that the true sovereign of all the earth is God Himself. Vs. 18. God makes a “covenant” with David. A covenant is more than a mere contract. In the ancient near east, covenants were usually made between kings-and generally not between equals. It was common for a dominant king to enter into a covenant with the king of a subservient nation. Under the terms of the covenant, the stronger king would promise to provide military protection from common enemies (and a promise that he himself would not attack!). In return, the weaker king would pay tribute and promise undivided allegiance to the stronger king. The weaker king would often give his daughters in marriage to the stronger. (The fact that one’s daughter is at the mercy of a foreign king would naturally make one think twice about commencing hostilities!).
In the covenant with David, God is clearly the dominant partner. Yet, oddly enough, God promises both protection and eternal faithfulness. God’s love for and support of David is not contingent on David’s past accomplishments or on his promise to be loyal to the Lord. This is a one way covenant in which all of the promises flow from the God of Israel to David and his line.
The Davidic covenant was not universally recognized in Israel as was the covenant made at Sinai. Sinai was definitive both for the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Both kingdoms drew from the traditions growing out of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the Exodus, the Wilderness Wanderings and the Conquest of Canaan. The David tradition belonged uniquely to the Southern Kingdom of Judah that was ruled by one of David’s descendants from its inception around 1000 B.C.E. until Judah’s final destruction in 587 B.C.E. For Judah, the rise of the Davidic Monarchy represented another of God’s saving acts, solidifying the twelve tribes and uniting them against their many enemies. Chief among these foes were the Philistine peoples whose professional armies and superior Iron Age technology gave them a significant military advantage over the loose confederation of Israelite tribes and their largely volunteer defenders. David’s political skills and his use of mercenaries to lead his armies transformed Israel into a formidable nation state.
But Israel’s view of the Davidic Monarchy was always conflicted. Doubts about the advisability of monarchy in general are reflected in I Samuel 8 where Samuel warns the people that the security promised through the reign of a king will come at the cost of taxation, oppression and military conscription. These very evils came to fruition under the monarchy and were severely denounced by the prophets. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we find denunciations of the monarchy and its abuses alongside expressions of hope for a messianic descendent of David capable of delivering Israel from her enemies and ruling justly. This hope was burning with white hot fervor during the First Century in which Jesus lived and ministered. Nevertheless, beliefs about where the messiah would come from, what he would do to liberate Israel, how, when and where he would go about doing it were varied and conflicting. Not surprisingly, Jesus appeared reluctant to claim that title. Doing so would have invited a host of misunderstandings about his mission and ministry.
For my general reflections on the book of Romans and the introduction to this chapter, see last week’s post of June 25th. In Sunday’s reading Paul picks up where he left off last week. Again, he poses the rhetorical questions: “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under the law but under grace?” vs. 15. As discussed last week, this conclusion follows only if we assume that sin is the mere breaking of law and that successfully following the law amounts to righteousness. As Paul has already pointed out, that assumption is altogether wrong. Sin is not a matter principally of wrong behavior, but of the self-centered orientation of the heart. Because we are incurably self-centered, we wind up bending the law to serve our own selfish objectives even when we keep it to the letter. This is what it means to be in bondage to sin.
Here we come up against the much maligned and misunderstood doctrine of the “bondage of the will.” Nowhere is the brutal reality of this bondage better portrayed than in Martin Luther’s book by that name. To sin or not to sin is not a choice. Sin is the bondage into which we are born. We can no more decide to be free from sin than we can decide no longer to be bound by the law of gravity. Just so, we cannot will ourselves to be obedient or faithful to God. Luther does not mean to say that we are altogether without the ability to make choices. We can, in fact, choose to marry or remain single; to study chemistry or pursue a law degree; put on the plain tie or the striped one. Indeed, we might even choose to put an end to war, eliminate hunger or stem the tide of pollution. Ironically, folks who chafe most insistently at the notion that we are unable to will obedience to God are usually the first to complain that ending war, hunger and carbon emissions are hugely complicated tasks, fraught with opposing political/economic interests and altogether “utopian.” Yet this world with all of its conflicts and challenges is precisely the arena in which the human will is free and enjoined to act. A clearer testament to the fall into sin you could not ask for: Human freedom extends to every corner of the garden but one-and that is exactly the corner in which human nature insists on exercising it to the neglect of everything else!
So, too, Paul points out that human freedom with respect to God is illusory. We are slaves either of God or sin and, of course, a slave is not free to choose its master! Nothing will change unless God acts to alter our bondage under sin. God has done just that in Jesus. In Jesus God puts an end to our bondage under sin and exercises mastery over us. Our legal status has changed fundamentally. We no longer owe anything to sin, but everything to God. This is not simply metaphysical slight-of-hand, a magic number for X that causes the algebraic equation to work out. Sin is inability to trust God and let God be God. God’s righteousness is God’s irrevocable determination to redeem creation and win back the trust of our unbelieving hearts. This righteousness, this determination of God to remain faithful to the covenant promises made to Israel for the sake of the world is not cheap. It comes at a great cost to God. It is because and only because God is faithful to the point of the cross that faith on our side is possible. Faith comes not from any decision on our part to be faithful, but from the wonderful proclamation that God is faithful. Nothing short of this good news of God’s righteousness, God’s determination to save-no matter the cost, can turn our suspicious and distrustful hearts toward faithful obedience.
Paul therefore never conceives of freedom in the abstract. Freedom is not an end in itself, nor can it be. As between God and sin, one of them must be our master. Sin is a ruthless master whose wages are death, but Jesus is a gentle master who gives life-not as a wage, but as a free gift. Vs. 23. In Christ we are thus set free “from” bondage to sin “for” bondage to God in Christ Jesus. Freedom, then, is not the liberty to do whatever one desires, but the power to do that which is good and life giving. Freedom to sin is therefore an oxymoron. Such “freedom” is in reality the worst kind of bondage, leading invariably to death. Vss. 20-21.
This brief reading constitutes Jesus’ final words to his disciples before they embark on their mission of preaching, healing and casting out demons throughout Israel. Jesus impresses upon them the profound importance of their task. They are all of Jesus that many people will ever see. Acceptance of Jesus comes through acceptance of the disciples and their ministry. That is profoundly unsettling when one considers the degree to which the church persistently falls short of the community Jesus calls it to be. If the disciples had been exemplary saints with near superhuman goodness, we might despair of our own mission. But in all four of the gospels, we find disciples that mostly fail to comprehend the kingdom Jesus proclaims, mostly fail to be faithful precisely when faithfulness is critical and mostly fail to be the community united in love to which Jesus calls them. The church is at best a poor likeness of its Lord. Yet Jesus seems confident that his half-wit disciples will get it right. Ever so slightly more often than not, it seems they do.
The reading is also a reminder that the disciples’ mission depends upon the hospitality of those to whom they are sent. There is something beautiful about this arrangement. The mission of the disciples is not a one way transaction: “We are here to bring you the gospel. We are the helpers, you are the helped.” The disciples come to their audience with the most basic of needs; food and shelter. Just as they will call upon the villages to whom they have been sent to trust their proclamation of the kingdom and accept its gifts of healing and exorcism, so they must rely upon the kindness and generosity of their hearers. Naturally, then, the rewards of this mission also flow both ways. Not only are the disciples blessed, but also those who support them in their good work. Vs. 42.
This text is also a reminder to me of the hospitality I experience each day of my life. Every week between 25 and 40 people gather to listen to me talk. How many friends do you have who would put up with that? That people are willing to give us pastors an hour of their time to listen is already a huge act of hospitality. Moreover, I am surrounded by people who give of their time, their incomes and their prayers to ensure that the work I do goes on. After almost nine years, these folks know my shortcomings, my flaws and my failures. Yet hardly a day goes by without a word of encouragement, a prayer for support or some random act of kindness. Yes, I know how difficult life in the church can be and I spoke about that last week. I know all about “clergy killers” and “alligators.” Some days we need to take more than our share of aggression. “Into each life some rain must fall.” But let’s not choke to death on the camel while trying to strain out the gnat. We preachers have received an enormous helping of hospitality from the people we serve. They are deserving of our thanks and recognition.
FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord God, you know that we cannot place our trust in our own powers. As you protected the infant Jesus, so defend us and all the needy from harm and adversity, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Just last week John the Evangelist delivered to us a lyrical recitation of God’s Word becoming flesh. This week Matthew the Evangelist delivers a narrative portrayal of precisely what that means. We get a close look at what John was talking about when he told us that “he came to his own people and his own would not receive him.” God is staking everything on a baby born into a world where life is cheap, where pity must not cloud decisions made for the sake of national security, where there is no truly safe place. That is the Christmas Story in a nutshell.
As the beneficiary of white male privilege, I didn’t grow up reading the Christmas Story in that way. I have been pretty thoroughly brainwashed by images of a safe, dray and cozy little manger with clean hay, gentle animals and well-washed shepherds. The manger I grew up with was not a rude and forbidding place at all. It was a comfortable suite warmed by the light of the star overhead and sheltered by angels. All was calm, all was bright. Nothing was scary.
It is precisely because I don’t experience the world as a dangerous place that I have to struggle against the heresy of progressivism. My people lament that, for the first time since the great depression, the current generation of American young people cannot expect to live better than their parents. Such a complaint could only come from among the privileged, those of us who grew up believing that the world is becoming a progressively better place; that every year is supposed to bring a raise and a bonus; that each newly manufactured i-phone will be better than the last. I don’t see the world from the perspective of those who, on their best day, see nothing in their future but bare survival.
Of course, I understand in a cerebral sort of way that I could easily die any given day of the week on New Jersey Route 4 as I make my way down to the church. I know there is a possibility that I might have a brain aneurism waiting to blow at any second. A few close brushes with near catastrophe on the road have given me brief glimpses into the existence people in Aleppo know as everyday life. Most of the time, however, I am blissfully unaware of my fragileness, my extreme vulnerability. Most of the time, I am not consciously living as though I were at risk. Most of the time, my comfortable position of privilege blinds me to my own vulnerability and hardens me toward those who know it all too well.
That’s a problem because the Messiah lives and breathes among the vulnerable. He was, after all, a child born to a homeless couple in a stable. He was a child of political refugees fleeing across the border into Egypt from the sword of a hostile government. Jesus was a child born into a people living under military occupation. He was sentenced to death and executed as a criminal. Among the oppressed, among the vulnerable, among the least of the human family-this is where the Word becomes flesh. For this reason, he is frequently invisible to those of us who know only privilege. His proclamation of good news to the poor fills us with dread rather than hope because we can see no further than what we stand to lose if he is right. For those of us whose lives are sheltered in privilege that is maintained at the expense of the rest of the world, the Christmas Story-the real one-kind of stinks.
Or does it? What if the privileged life we fear losing is not worth the efforts we are making to save it? What if the cost of protecting what we have with gated communities, locked doors, advanced alarm systems and elaborate surveillance protocols is robbing us blind? What if the fear of losing our stuff exceeds and spoils whatever enjoyment we get out of having it? What if you really could have Christ be at the center of your Christmas because you were no longer under the pressure to buy the latest gifts, put on the most elaborate feast and figure out how you will pay for it all when it’s over? What if we finally discovered that the only thing we really have to lose is our bondage to a materialistic and self-centered existence that is choking the last vestige of humanity out of us? What if we learned to see in the face of the poor, not the eyes of envy staring greedily at all we have, but the invitation of Jesus to care for him as generously as he cares for us?
The good news of Christmas for those of us who live in privilege is that, as mean, fearful and insensitive as we have become, the Messiah has come for us as well. Even now he is living on our streets, in refugee camps throughout the world, in our prisons and in our shelters. He is here. Emmanuel. God with us. May the Christmas narratives give us eyes to see him and hearts to embrace him.
Here’s a poem by Denise Levertov about the Word becoming flesh.
It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
Denise Levertov (1923–1997) never received a formal education. Nevertheless, she created a highly regarded body of poetry that earned her recognition as one of America’s most respected poets. Her father, Paul Philip Levertov, was a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and subsequently moved to England where he became an Anglican minister. Levertov grew up in a household surrounded by books and people talking about them in many languages. During World War II, Levertov pursued nurse’s training and spent three years as a civilian nurse at several hospitals in London. Levertov came to the United States in 1948, after marrying American writer Mitchell Goodman. During the 1960s Levertov became a staunch critic of the Vietnam war, a topic addressed in many of her poems of that era. Levertov died of lymphoma at the age of seventy-four. You can read more about Denise Levertov and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
This passage is the opening section of a psalm of intercession, the complete text of which is Isaiah 63:7-64:12. The entire psalm should be read in order to get the context of the verses making up our lesson. These verses constitute the beginning of a historical prologue that runs to verse 9. They recall Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and God’s leadership throughout her long journey to Canaan. Verses 10-19 acknowledge that, in contrast to God’s faithfulness to Israel, Israel has been less than faithful to her God. Indeed, “We have become like those over whom thou hast never ruled, like those who are not called by thy name.” vs. 19. The psalmist/prophet nevertheless appeals to God’s mercy and steadfast faithfulness to the covenant promises, confident that this God’s longsuffering love for his people remains even now. “Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou the potter; we are the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, consider, we are all they people.” Isaiah 64:8. Israel always understood what is expressed in the New Testament letter of James: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” James 2:13. Therefore, Israel could be as insistent that God comply with his covenant promises as she was candid about her own covenant failures. God remains faithful even when his people are not.
This wonderful psalm comes to us from the third section of Isaiah composed by a prophet speaking to the Jews in Palestine following their return from Babylonian exile in the latter half of the 6th Century. They were resettling themselves in the land and seeking to rebuild their lives and their ruined city under extremely difficult conditions. The prayer makes clear to these people that their own unfaithfulness is largely responsible for the difficult plight in which they now find themselves. Nevertheless, they must also understand that while God punishes Israel’s unfaithfulness, he does not abandon Israel or cease to be faithful to his own covenant obligations. Therefore, Israel may indeed pray for and expect God to be merciful and lead her through these difficult days as God has always done for his chosen people. The bleak circumstances should therefore not blind the people of God to the promise of a future wrought in yet further acts of salvation.
This psalm is one of a group that begins and ends with an expression of praise: Hallelujah or “Praise YAHWEH.” (Psalms 146-150) It is beautifully structured. The injunctions to praise begin with the heavens, the angels, the sun, moon and starts descending to the earth and its creatures. The forces of nature, geographical features (mountains and hills) and plant life all are called to join in the choir of praise to God. All people from mighty kings, to slave girls to small children are drawn into this cosmic hymn of praise to the Creator. Finally, the call to praise is directed to “the people of Israel who are near to him.” The perfect symmetry of this psalm is further illustrated by its final focus on this one particular people who, though at the narrowest end of the spectrum, are nonetheless “near” to the almighty Creator God.
This psalm is pure praise. It seeks nothing from God. It is not offered up in thanksgiving for any particular act of goodness or salvation on God’s part. The psalmist praises God because that is what creatures, all creatures, even “inanimate” creatures do. It is what we are created for according the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The longer I live, the more I am convinced that this might well be so and that perhaps a major source of our misery stems from our failure to understand it. The universe was spoken into existence by God and so its very existence is an act of praise. Praise is therefore nothing other than going with the grain of the universe. It is recognizing that joy is found only as we learn to sing our little piece in tune with the rest of the choir. Only then does our voice amount to anything worth listening to. If we were not so terribly absorbed in pursuing whatever it is we think will make us happy and accomplishing what we believe to be important and establishing our own legacy, we might not mind so much that we are after all “grass that withers and flowers that fade.”
Psalm 148 is included in the song of praise sung by the three young men thrown into the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar in the 3rd Chapter of Daniel. Don’t look for it in your Bible, though. It is found only in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (known as the Septuagint) and is omitted by most English translations that rely mainly on the Hebrew texts. It may also interest you Lutherans to know that this Apocryphal song is included in its entirety at page 120 of The Lutheran Hymnal, the official hymn book of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod from 1940 to the late 1970s.
It is difficult to date this psalm. Most scholars view it as a post-exilic psalm composed for worship in the Jerusalem temple rebuilt following the return from exile that began in 538 B.C.E. That does not preclude, however, the possibility that the author was working from the text or oral tradition of a much older tradition from the period of the Judean monarchy.
For my take on Hebrews, see my post of December 25, 2016. You might also want to take a look at the summary article of Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary on Enterthebible.org. Suffice to say that I believe the author of this letter is striving to demonstrate to a Christian audience traumatized by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem how Jesus now fulfills the mediation function of the temple cult and its priesthood. This trauma was shared by the rest of the Jewish community (from which followers of Jesus were at this point inseparable). For what ultimately became modern Judaism, the Torah (in the broadest sense of the word) became the mediating agent of God’s redemptive presence. Worship in the Synagogue therefore revolved around the learning, study and application of Torah to the life of the community. For disciples of Jesus, Jesus himself was the mediator. He animated his resurrected Body, the church with his life giving Spirit made present through the church’s preaching and communal (Eucharistic) meals.
Here the author of Hebrews points out that Jesus fulfills his priestly office through offering himself in his full humanity. The sacrificial language permeating the letter can be off putting if we adopt the medieval notion that God needs a blood sacrifice in order to forgive our sins. This understanding (or misunderstanding) is common and underlies the theory of “substitutionary atonement,” namely, the belief that Jesus’ crucifixion was God’s act of justified punishment for human sin absorbed by Jesus so that we can avoid it. That is not how sacrifice was understood in the Hebrew Scriptures. Sacrifices were more often than not offered in thanksgiving. Moreover, even when offered to atone for sin, they were not seen as “payment.” Rather, they afforded the worshiper an opportunity to share in a holy a meal where reconciliation and forgiveness could be experienced and celebrated. In the one instance where sin is transferred to a sacrificial animal (Day of Atonement), the animal is not killed, but sent out into the wilderness. Leviticus 16:1-22. Clearly, God does not need to kill anyone in order to forgive us.
Rightly understood, the language of sacrifice makes good sense. The death of Jesus was a sacrifice in the sense that loving another person deeply always involves a sacrifice of self for the wellbeing of the loved one. That is particularly so where the loved one is deeply involved in self-destructive behavior and resistant to your efforts to help him or her. Parents who walk with their children through the dark valley of addiction know better than anyone else how deeply painful love can be and how much must sometimes be sacrificed. So also it cost God dearly to love a world in rebellion against him. When God embraced us with human arms we crucified him. Notwithstanding, God continues to love the world through Jesus’ resurrected (though wounded and broken) Body. Such is the sacrifice that is Jesus.
As throughout his entire gospel, Matthew gives us a panoply of direct references, allusions and echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures. The instances in both last week’s reading and this Sunday’s lesson in which Joseph is warned and guided by dreams remind us of another Joseph whose dreams ultimately led him to Egypt. See Genesis 37-50. Of course, the parallel between Moses’ escape from the Egyptian Pharaoh’s genocidal policies toward the Hebrew slaves and Jesus’ escape from Herod’s slaughter of the innocents is also hard to miss. Jesus’ time spent in Egypt parallels Israel’s painful sojourn in that land of bondage and his return to Palestine shadows Israel’s Exodus from Egypt and return to the land promised to Abraham and Sarah.
Matthew cites Jeremiah 31:15:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
Jeremiah is speaking here about the ten tribes forming the Northern Kingdom of Israel that fell to Assyria in about 721 B.C.E. Much of the population was carried into exile and so the land, personified by Rachel-mother of the northern “Joseph” tribes-weeps for her exiled children. The brutality of Herod, the so called “King of the Jews,” is contrasted with that of the hated Assyrian Empire. It should be noted that Herod was not a Jew and there were few Jews who would have recognized him as their legitimate king. He was, in fact, an Edomite. Edom, you may recall from prior posts, sided with the Babylonians and took part in their sack of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. Moreover, he was appointed King of Judea by the Jews’ hated Roman overlords. Though he sought to win the affection of his Jewish subjects through building a temple in Jerusalem that surpassed even Solomon’s, Herod was still hated by all but those in the highest echelons of power who benefited from his corrupt reign.
I believe that Matthew is consciously juxtaposing Herod, “King of the Jews” to Jesus who will also receive this title, though only as a cruel jest. The king who hangs onto his throne by means of dealing death is contrasted with the king who raises the dead. The king who rules through violence is contrasted with the king who renounces violence. The king who by desperate and despicable acts of cruelty seeks to hang onto his life is contrasted with the king who pours out his life for the people he loves. We are asked to decide which king really reigns. God’s verdict is expressed in Jesus’ resurrection. Herod is still dead. Jesus lives. That says it all.
Most scholars question the historicity of this account of the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. They point out that Herod died in 4 B.C.E.-before Jesus is supposed to have been born. The birth date historically assigned to Jesus is mostly arbitrary, however. We cannot say with any certainty precisely when Jesus was born and a four year discrepancy is hardly conclusive. Although there is no other historical record of this terrible event, that too is not necessarily dispositive. Herod was well known for his paranoia and brutality. The appearance of an astronomical phenomenon accompanied by rumors that the descendent to arise from the City of David foretold by the scriptures had been born would surely be sufficient to trouble this tyrant who in his later years became increasingly paranoid and fearful of losing his throne. Herod’s cruel and inhuman command to murder all infants two years and under would hardly have been out of character for a man capable of killing his wife of many years and his own children. In a period during which the Roman Empire was still smarting from civil war, repressing revolutionary uprisings and seeking to crush banditry, it would hardly be surprising that a tragedy of only local significance should fail to find its way into these blood soaked annals of history. That said, it is also clear that Matthew employs this event as a literary device designed to illuminate the person and work of Jesus through parallels with Hebrew scriptural people and events. Thus, we ought not to obsess over whether and to what extent the slaughter of the innocents correlates with any particular historically verifiable event.