Tag Archives: Joshua

Sunday, March 6th

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32 
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Prayer of the Day: God of compassion, you welcome the wayward, and you embrace us all with your mercy. By our baptism clothe us with garments of your grace, and feed us at the table of your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Probably from the time I first gave Jesus’ parable of the “Prodigal Son” more than a superficial glance, my sympathies lay with the elder son. I know this kid who grew up under the storm clouds of conflict between his parents and his rebellious sibling. I know the compulsion he felt to ease his parents’ heartbreak by being good enough to make up for the pain his brother’s selfish conduct was causing. I understand his deep desire to smooth things over and make peace in the family. I know the burden of guilt he carried for having failed at this hopeless task. I know well the nights he cried himself to sleep and, if he could have articulated his pain, might have said, “Daddy, I know my problems are not as great as my brother’s, I know my sins are not as weighty as his. But I hurt too. I am also afraid and insecure. I need your understanding and forgiveness. Forgive me, but I sometimes wish your heart would break for me too. You yearn for the son you have lost-but this son is still with you and needs you too.”  The prodigal son learned some hard lessons in the far country. But the elder son’s journey on the home front wasn’t a cake walk either.

If we resist the temptation to place this familiar parable of Jesus into the straight jacket of a simplistic morality play or reduce it to mere illustrative scaffolding for some abstract theology of grace, the story can lead us into a deeper understanding of family, faith and salvation. Now that I have become a father myself, it’s easier for me to understand the anguish of the father in Jesus’ parable. We love our children, to be sure. Yet their needs exceed everything we have to give them. We yearn to save them from the mistakes we have made in life and arm them with the hard won knowledge we have gained through life experience. But the wisdom we have to share comes across as irrelevant, pedantic and judgmental. We want desperately to support our children with our love, but a growing child is a moving target. Just when it seems we have this parenting thing down pat, the kids enter into another stage of their development and all bets are off. We can never love our children enough in the right way at the right time.

Consequently, the results of our parenting are always mixed. Under the best of circumstances, our relationship with our parents is nuanced, conflicted and ambiguous. Love and admiration mix with resentment and disappointment. Thankfulness is laced with blame. Perhaps we can never do more than love our children the best we can, keep our doors ever open to them and continue urging them “to come home,” whether that means actually returning to the homestead or being reconciled with each other through repentance and forgiveness. That, in any event, is where Jesus’ parable leaves us.

There is a reason why the scriptures employ parenthood (not fatherhood exclusively!) as the strongest metaphor for God’s covenant relationship with Israel and with the church. That relationship, too, is laden with ambiguity and unreconciled conflict. Nowhere is the ambivalence in our relationship to God more evident than in the Psalms, that treasury of prayer found at the heart of the Bible. There, as in the parable, we find the whole spectrum of parent/child sentiment from profound love, pride and thankfulness to rage, blame and resentment. Yet the very fact that the covenantal dialogue continues throughout the darkest of times testifies to God’s dogged determination to keep that covenant alive and bring its promises to fruition. The father’s pleading prefigures Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem. The cross is finally the price God willingly pays to keep the covenantal line from going dead and hold together the fraying bonds of God’s covenant family.

At the end of the parable, we find the father pleading with his elder son to join the festive celebration for prodigal’s return. He offers the boy his very self and all he has. Still, it is not enough. Nor is it clear that his lavish welcome for the returning prodigal succeeded in turning that boy’s heart to obedience and humility. For all we know, the prodigal son might have been off the very next day to another far country for more riotous living. Like last Sunday’s parable of the fig tree, this story leaves a lot of loose ends for us to ponder. But that, after all, is the purpose of parables.

Here is a poem about parenthood by Langston Hughes. Perhaps you too can hear in this an echo of the God who urges us never to despair of his covenant love.

Mother to Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Source: The Weary Blues, by Langston Hughes (c. 1926 by Alfred A. Knopf, pub. by Random House, LLC). Langston Hughes was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”  Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).

Joshua 5:9-12

Sunday’s reading from the book of Joshua marks a significant transition in the story of Israel. Moses, the man who led Israel through the wilderness for forty years is dead. Israel’s nomadic existence is ended. No longer will she eat bread from the hand of God and water from miraculous springs. She will now get her bread from the good earth God has given to her-and therein lurks the next temptation. Israel has no experience with agriculture. Though the God of Israel is clearly competent when it comes to leading nomads through the wilderness, what does he know about farming? Can Israel manage to transform herself from a nomadic society into an agricultural society without losing her soul to the Canaanite gods of fertility?

Israel’s new Canaanite neighbors’ entire culture is founded on farming and fertility. Where religion permeates all of life, it is nearly impossible to separate the mechanics of planting, growing and harvesting from the mythical underpinnings and cultic practices that accompany these tasks. It was hard for Israel to download this new agricultural app from the surrounding culture without importing the designer’s malware into her spiritual hard drive. The tales recounted in the much older book of Judges suggest that Israel’s transition was a rocky one. The conquest narrative in the book of Joshua reflects the gravity of the issues involved and the stark choices Israel must face every time she finds herself in a new cultural context-whether that be Canaanite, Babylonian, Persian, Roman or American.

I sometimes wonder whether the internet and the cornucopia of communication options it makes available does not pose some of the same threats for the church that Israel faced in the land of Canaan. I have heard terms like “virtual church” and “liquid church” tossed around in some circles. Online discussion groups consisting of faceless monikers and online IDs can sometimes approach a sort of closeness that resembles intimacy. Yet how, I wonder, can intimacy exist in such a medium where you cannot even be sure that the people you are communicating with really exist? More to the point, how can a church professing to be the Body of Christ, claiming that the Word of God became flesh and asserting that the body and blood of Christ are truly present in bread and wine exist in a virtual universe? How do you share the peace of God in a chat room?

Of course, I recognize the irony involved in posing these questions on an internet blog. Obviously, I am not a Luddite rejecting all things digital. The internet brings together people and perspectives that might not otherwise meet. Online discussions may lack the warmth and humanity of a face to face discussion. Still, they enable persons who might otherwise lack time or mobility to engage in conversation with others about things that matter. Moreover, I tend to think online discussions give introverted persons who usually get shouted down and talked over in face to face meetings a better shot at being heard. This blog, Trinity’s Facebook presence and our webpage provide valuable links to folks we might not otherwise reach. Still, I am fully aware that whatever else I might be doing here, it is not church. The folks who regularly interact with me on these posts might arguably be classified in some sense as a community, but they are not the Body of Christ. For that you need to be physically present at 167 Palisade Avenue on Sunday at 9:00 a.m.

For some good background information on the book of Joshua, see the Summary Article by Kathryn Schifferdecker, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N. on enterthebible.org.

Psalm 32

This is one of the seven “penitential psalms” so classified in the commentary of Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator written in the 6th century C.E. (The others being Psalms 63851102130 and 143). Not surprisingly, it was a favorite of Augustine and Luther. The psalmist speaks eloquently about the joy and relief found in forgiveness of sin and the futility of denial and self justification. The psalmist does not disclose the nature of his or her sins, but indicates that it was some illness that brought him or her to an acknowledgement of sin and the need for confession. There is no question but that guilt induced stress can bring about illness, but it is far more likely in this case that the psalmist’s illness was the catalyst for guilt. Sickness was almost universally understood in ancient cultures as an affliction from God intended to punish sin. As such, its onset naturally drove the psalmist to introspection and self examination.

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

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

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

A few introductory words about the Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians are in order. The church in Corinth, you may recall from previous weeks, was a congregation only Paul could love. See post for Sunday, January 17th Paul’s first letter makes clear just how divided, conflicted and scandal ridden this church was. Paul evidently made a visit to the church in Corinth after writing his first letter. This visit was “painful” and did not result in any reconciliation of differences between the apostle and his congregation. Rather than attempting another visit that he feared would also be unsuccessful, Paul wrote a “letter of tears” to Corinth sent by the hand of Titus. II Corinthians 2:1-13; II Corinthians 7: 5-16. Fearing the effects of this severe letter, Paul left Troas in Asia Minor where he had begun a successful mission and returned to Macedonia in search of Titus. Paul rejoined Titus in Macedonia and was greatly relieved to learn that the Corinthians had indeed responded favorably to his “severe” letter with a change of heart toward him. Paul wrote his second letter to express his gratitude to the Corinthians and to encourage them in their faith.

For centuries biblical scholars have puzzled over the abrupt change in tone between II Corinthians 1-9 and II Corinthians 10-13. Most scholars now agree that these two sections represent different letters, though both authored by Paul. To further complicate matters, there is a fragment at II Corinthians 6:14-7:1 that seems to have no bearing on what precedes or follows suggesting that we might have part of a third letter in the mix. Some scholars believe that chapters 10-13 constitute all or part of Paul’s “letter of tears” while chapters 1-9 constitute a letter of thanksgiving written in response to Titus’ favorable report. Enslin, Morton Scott, Christian Beginnings, (c. 1938 by Westminster Press) pp. 254-261; Filson, Floyd V., “Introduction and Exegesis,” The Interpreter’s Bible, 10th Ed. (c. 1953 by Abingdon Press). If that is in fact the case, the reading for this Sunday comes from Paul’s letter of thanksgiving. As appealing as this hypothesis might seem at first blush, there are substantial grounds for dating the material found in chapters 10-13 after rather than before the composition of chapters 1-9. Furnish, Victor Paul, II Corinthians, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 32A, (c. 1984 by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) p. 38-41. Accordingly, chapters 10-13 most likely are not Paul’s tearful letter.

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.” To fully understand the import of this sentence, you need to back up and read verses II Corinthians 5:14-15: “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” To regard no one from a human point of view is to regard everyone from God’s viewpoint-as people for whom Christ died. Consequently, I believe when we read that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation,” or, as some translators put it, “when anyone is in Christ-new creation,” Paul is not talking only about some inward individual spiritual renewal. We are talking about a radical reorientation in terms of how we see the world and the people in it. Because Christ has died, all have died. Because all have died, all are reconciled. It is the task of the church to live as an embassy of God modeling and proclaiming the reconciliation accomplished in Jesus.

From a human point of view, our enemies are defined for us by the U.S. Department of State. Our interests are defined by national borders and international treaties. Our neighbors are defined by accidents of geography, demography and history. But from the perspective of God in Christ, these are distinctions without a substantive difference. The starting point for viewing every individual is the conviction that such individual is reconciled to God in Christ. Whether he or she knows it is entirely beside the point. We know it and that knowledge shapes our thoughts and actions. The implications of this text are subversive to say the least. Reconciliation is a fine objective-as long as it applies only to neighbors with nothing between them but white picket fences. Take it into the arena of geopolitics and you could get yourself crucified.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

I have expressed my reflections on the gospel lesson above. Here are some interesting points that may or may not influence your understanding of the story.

A father could dispose of his property in one of two ways: 1) by a will that is probated after his death; or 2) by a gift made during his lifetime. Though there is no specific provision for disposition of an estate prior to the testator’s death in the Old Testament, there is some evidence that the practice existed even if discouraged. The book of Sirach written in the early 2nd Century B.C.E. contains the following admonition:

“To son or wife, to brother or friend, do not give power over yourself, as long as you live; and do not give your property to another, in case you change your mind and must ask for it. While you are still alive and have breath in you, do not let anyone take your place. For it is better that your children should ask from you than that you should look to the hand of your children. Excel in all that you do; bring no stain upon your honor. At the time when you end the days of your life, in the hour of death, distribute your inheritance.” Sirach 33:19-23.

In any event, it would be highly irregular, to say nothing of presumptuous, for a younger son to initiate the settlement of his father’s estate with his living father. The parable tells us nothing of the son’s motives in making such an unusual request or those of the father in acquiescing. At first blush, it might appear as though in “dividing his living between them” the father had made a complete disposition of his estate between his two sons. But it is obvious from the balance of the story that, at the very least, he maintained control over his property. His gifts to the returning prodigal, slaughter of the “fatted calf” and preparation of the lavish celebration all indicate that the balance of the estate remained under the father’s control.

The degree of the younger son’s reinstatement is a matter of dispute. Some commentators see in the provision of the robe and the ring an echo of Pharaoh’s elevation of Joseph, the implication being that the younger son was being included once again in the father’s inheritance. Jeremias, Joachim, The Parables of Jesus, (c. 1971 by SCM Press) p. 130; Marshall, I. Howard., The Gospel according to Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 by Paternoster Press, Ltd.) pp. 610-611. I think that is something of a stretch. The father assures his older son at the end of the parable that “all that is mine is yours.” Vs. 31. In view of this assurance, the only conceivable complaint the older son might have is that the lavish party for his brother was diminishing his future inheritance. I am not convinced that the legal framework of the transactions in the parable can be reconstructed or that doing so would give us any clearer picture of what is going on. Like the ungrateful guests who refused the lavish wedding invitation (Luke 14:16-24), the circumstances of this parable appear to be exaggerated for literary effect. No one could imagine a son so blatantly disrespectful and imprudent. Nor could anyone imagine a father forgiving and receiving back such a son, much less with so lavish a reception. Against this seeming madness, the elder son’s protests come across as the single voice of sanity.

The one constant in this parable is the father whose love pursues in unrestrained measure both of his wayward sons. The lavish party is given not because the younger son deserves it, but because he needs it. The elder son must learn that his father’s love for him cannot be earned but only received as the free gift genuine love always is. We cannot know how these two sons will respond to their father’s love, but it is clear that their father is determination to continue loving both his sons, come what may.

Sunday, September 27

EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Prayer of the Day: Generous God, your Son gave his life that we might come to peace with you. Give us a share of your Spirit, and in all we do empower us to bear the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Our lessons have a lot to say about leadership and how it is exercised by the people of God. That is a timely concern as our country awaits the visit of Pope Francis while trying to make sense out of that reality show we call the presidential primaries. What do we look for in a leader? How does one lead effectively? What is this thing we call “authority”? Who has it?

Judging by the polling data, we seem to respect a leader who is decisive, knows what s/he believes and is not afraid to express it-as long as we like what we hear. So a candidate running for elected office needs to walk a fine line avoiding a kind of soft-spokenness that might suggest weakness or indecision on the one hand and an outspokenness that is perceived as rude and offensive on the other. The trouble with the electoral process is that it often gives us leaders shaped by us into what we want rather than leaders capable of taking us where we need to be. How effective can one be as a leader after obtaining his/her office through following the very ones s/he is supposed to lead?

A key constituent of leadership is authority-not to be confused with power. The former makes a great leader, the latter, standing alone, makes only a dictator. Authority is frequently found among the powerless. Though Jesus had no official teaching status (as far as we know) and held no political office, his hearers recognized that he taught “as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” Matthew 7:29. What was it, then, about Jesus that made his word authoritative? I believe it boils down to one word: integrity. Jesus’ actions were so thoroughly in harmony with his words that, as Saint John would say, Jesus was his Word. John 1:1.

Being a leader sometimes means you have to tell people things they don’t want to hear-and not just the people you know will never vote for you anyway. Truth has to be spoken to your strongest supporters, your most committed followers, your most trusted friends. You have to keep reminding the people of your vision and what is required of them to achieve it long after its novelty and freshness has worn thin. As Moses is beginning to learn in our first lesson, it is hard to lead when the Promised Land is forty years away and your constituents want results yesterday. In our gospel lesson Jesus is finding that leading his fractious, power hungry and self-centered disciples is a little like herding cats. James urges us to lead those who are wandering from the community of faith back home again. Leadership is not an easy task. It calls for more than sound judgment, careful discernment and prudent action. People will finally be lead only by those they trust. That is why leadership begins with “followership.” Unless and until we are prepared to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, it is unlikely anyone will heed our call to take that difficult road.

Pope Francis offers a welcome contrast to the noisy clamor for votes we have been forced to endure the last several months. Here is a man who has consistently refused the luxuries that typically come with his office. Francis’ determination to be among the people (much to the consternation of our security forces) demonstrates the same willingness to be vulnerable that he calls upon the nations of the world to exercise in receiving refugees fleeing war and starvation in the Middle East. His frank talk about our country’s consumerism, inequality and violence will no doubt make us uncomfortable and perhaps a bit angry. But the Pope does not need or seek our votes. He seeks instead our hearts for Jesus. Now that’s what I call authority!

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

The Book of Numbers is the fourth of the five books of Moses commonly referred to as the Pentateuch. Modern biblical research has reached a general consensus that the Pentateuch is the product of four sources and perhaps several editors. For a thorough discussion of this theory, see this article on the Documentary Hypothesis. The title, “Numbers” comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint. It was no doubt inspired by the census of the Hebrew tribes narrated in the early part of the book. The Hebrew Bible uses the title “bemidar” which means “In the wilderness.” In fact, the book as a whole narrates the journey of Israel through the wilderness from Egypt to the land of Canaan. For a more thorough outline of Numbers, see the Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, MN on enterthebible.org.

This lesson brings back family memories-not of a good sort. Make no mistake about it, I love the family in which I grew up. I think my parents did a wonderful job raising me and my siblings. I enjoyed doing things with my family for the most part. Family vacations constitute one of the few exceptions to that rule. We never went to Disneyland or any comparable place when we took the two weeks of vacation to which my father was entitled each year. Instead, we drove out from Bremerton, Washington to Iowa to visit my aunt and uncle, stopping in Montana along the way to see another uncle and aunt. This was before air conditioning was standard equipment for cars and long before digital technology transformed the back seat into rolling entertainment center. We traveled in a Chevy station wagon, my younger sister and me sitting all the way in the back on a seat facing the rear. There were no seat belts and they probably would not have been much help anyway if we had been rear ended. Before we had gotten halfway through Washington State my sister and I were already whining: “When will we get there? We have to go to the bathroom! We’re hungry! How much longer do we have to drive? Why do we have to go on this stupid trip? Why can’t we just stay home?” Multiply that by several thousand voices and forty years and perhaps you can begin to appreciate Moses’ dilemma.

The people are angry. They have been travelling for a long time eating food that is unfamiliar to them. They don’t know where they are going or when they will get there. They have to rely upon Moses to give them that information and it appears that Moses is not altogether clear on the future either. So they complain. “Come on Moses! You told us that you were leading us to a good land! You told us we would live as a free people in our own country. But so far, all we can see is this wilderness that can’t support us. We have to survive by scrapping our bread off the desert floor. When are you going to deliver on your promises Moses? How long do we have to wait?”

Moses is angry too-at God. “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people?” Vss. 11-13.

I think everyone who has ever served as a church leader knows how Moses feels. “Am I the only one here that sees what needs to be done? Is mine the only number in the church directory? Why does everyone always call me for every little thing that goes wrong down at the church? Do I have to do it all?” Now I think we need to stop here and reflect on Moses’ complaint. In fact, God did not lay the burden of all the people on Moses. Moses assumed that burden himself. Has Moses forgotten that it was God whose mighty works brought Pharaoh to his knees? Does Moses really believe that God expects him to “carry the people in his bosom?” Was it not God who has been carrying the people thus far? Moses should know that this liberation project is God’s, not his own. God is the one responsible for getting Israel to the Promised Land. Moses’ job is simply to lead the people in taking the next step.

Part of Moses’ problem, too, is that he has come to believe he is indispensable. He has convinced himself that no one is capable of leadership except him. Of course, when you assume responsibility for everything, you wind up taking the heat for everything. No human being can remain sane for long under that kind of pressure. God knows that. That is why God does not expect any of us to shoulder the load when it comes to mission and ministry.

Moses discovers that the people, who he has been seeing as the problem, are actually the solution. Moses learns that he is not indispensable, that there are other persons with prophetic gifts capable of sharing his responsibility of embodying God’s vision for Israel. Of course, that means Moses has to let go of some of his authority. That is not always an easy thing for leaders. Most of us leaders are convinced that nobody can do things as well as we can. Most of us leaders are convinced that our way is “the” right way. The notion that God might be leading through the insight and knowledge of someone else is threatening to us. So sharing leadership is a little frightening. Moses, to his credit, is willing to take the risk of sharing his authority. He is secure enough in his leadership role to recognize the prophetic voice of God even when it is spoken outside of “official channels.” When Joshua reports to Moses that there are two men prophesying that were not among the seventy that he “properly ordained,” Moses tells him not to fret about it. Instead, rejoice that the generosity of the Spirit is bigger than our imagination and more expansive than our organizational structures. Vss. 26-29.

This lesson serves to remind us that the church is not made up of leaders and followers. It is made up of a communion of saints each having his or her own unique gifts for building up the Body of Christ. So leadership in the church is never a question of “who is in charge.” Rather, it is always a question of how best to recognize each person’s unique gifts and to order our life together in such a way as to enable, encourage and support the exercise of those gifts for mission and ministry.

Psalm 19:7-14

The first six verses of Psalm 19 praise God for God’s self-revelation in the wonders of the natural world, the heavens, the forests and fields. The second half of the Psalm, which is our text for Sunday, focuses on God’s self-revelation in Torah, the teachings of the scriptures. “By them also is your servant enlightened, and in keeping them there is great reward.”  Vs. 11. This is not to say, of course, that God rewards people who are obedient to the law with approval or that people who keep the law are somehow immune from suffering or bad fortune. Meditation on the scriptures is its own reward. By so doing, we are drawn closer to God and deeper into the heart of God. By internalizing the scriptures, we give the Holy Spirit a powerful tool for transforming us into the image of Christ. That is why I continue to recommend reading two psalms per day, one in the morning and one at night.

The psalm concludes with a prayer: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.” Vs. 14. These words remind us of the admonitions of James the last few Sundays regarding the use of our tongues and the responsibility of being teachers in all that we do and say. This would be a good prayer to repeat each morning before we have had a chance to speak to anyone. It is a reminder that wherever we are, we are always in the presence of Jesus.

James 5:13-20

“The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” Vs. 16. Over the years, there have been several studies done in the medical community to measure the “effectiveness” of prayer for people who are sick. The results have been inconclusive. At best, some data suggests that where people are supported by a praying community, they tend to experience a faster and more thorough recovery. Other test results suggest that people who are the object of prayer feel a sort of “obligation” to recover. Because setbacks in recovery might be interpreted as a lack of faith or divine support, knowing that one is being prayed for might actually hinder recovery.

Obviously, the problem here is our understanding of effectiveness. If the measure is simply recovery of the sick person we are praying for from his or her disease, that measure is flawed. Eventually, all of us will suffer an illness or accident from which we will not recover. No amount of prayer will save us from our mortality. Consequently, I don’t believe we can take James to mean that prayer always results in healing the sick. Moreover, James tells us that when we pray for the sick person, the Lord will raise him or her up and forgive his or her sins. Vs. 15. Is “raising up” synonymous with healing? It may be so in some circumstances, but not all. Recall that Paul prayed three times for the removal of a “thorn in the side” that he felt was hindering his ministry. We do not know whether that was a physical ailment, but the point is that God did not remove the thorn. Instead, Paul was left to work around it and, in so doing, he discovered that God’s strength was sufficient for his weakness. Indeed, God was able to use Paul’s infirmity to strengthen his faith and deepen his ministry.

Prayer is more than making requests and seeing them answered. One of my predecessors here at Trinity, Rev. Stephen Bouman, recently said that “lament” is that space between what should be and what is. I like that. I believe that prayer often has a dimension of lament where we struggle with a reality that seems to cast doubt on God’s love for us and commitment to our wellbeing. It is in that struggle that we finally arrive at the place where God would have us be. It is perhaps not the place we hoped to arrive at. It is probably much different than what we expected salvation to look like. But it turns out to be a good place nonetheless because it is the place where Jesus brings us.

Mark 9:38-50

The first part of this Gospel lesson is strikingly similar to the interchange between Joshua and Moses in our first lesson. James and John come upon a man who is doing the work of exorcism in Jesus’ name. He is not one of the Twelve or any of the disciples commissioned by Jesus. So James and John put a stop to his ministry because, “he was not following us.” Notice the pronoun “us.” The disciples do not say that this man was not following Jesus, but only that he was not with them. In modern parlance, we might say that this man was not “properly ordained” or “approved by the credentialing committee” or “on the clergy roster of any Synod of this church.”  Now we need to be careful here. As I said before, the church is not a community of leaders and followers. It is a communion of saints each of whom is given gifts for building up the Body of Christ. As one who has experienced firsthand the destructive power of ecclesiastical regulations and guidelines that operate to crush opportunities for ministry that don’t fit into narrowly defined understandings of how ministry is to be done, I resonate to Jesus’ admonition here. Do not stop someone from exercising his or her gifts for ministry just because they don’t fit into any predetermined pattern. Rather, examine the pattern to see what must be transformed so that this gift of ministry might be gratefully accepted and integrated into the full Body of Christ.

Still and all, a call to ministry is never merely a matter of individual choice. It is the Body of Christ, the communion of saints that must help each person discern, develop and exercise his or her gifts for ministry. I might be entirely wrong about what my gifts and abilities are. I may be immature and inexperienced in my exercise of those gifts. I am always in need of the church’s guidance, encouragement and discipline in the exercise of ministry. That goes not only for pastoral ministry but for all ministries in the church-music, education, stewardship, administration, etc. Nobody’s office in the church is above the discipline and admonition of the church.

What follows is one of the few instances in which Jesus preaches hellfire. Whoever causes one of these “little ones” who believe in Jesus to fall will have hell to pay. Vss. 42-48. Is this a continuation of Jesus’ teaching last week to the effect that there is nothing greater in the kingdom of God than to receive a child? Or is it a further response to James and John for their suppression of the exorcist? I think it might be a little of both. The lectionary readings from last week began with the question: “Who is the greatest?” Jesus first tells the disciples that to be great in the kingdom of God, there is no nobler task than receiving a child. Under this standard, moms, babysitters and nursery school teachers will be elevated over presidents, generals, captains of industry, bishops, pastors and seminary professors. How does one lead with greatness in the kingdom of God? Well, certainly not by suppressing the work of other people who are exercising the power of that kingdom under the poor excuse that they don’t have the proper credentials. Rather, greatness requires keeping the borders of the church porous, hazy and in flux so that it will be capable of receiving the gifts of the Spirit wherever they are manifest.

Exercising the worldly greatness of hierarchy in the church is a crime against the Body of Christ. It ignores Jesus’ dictum that the last are first and the first last. It imports methods, values and structures into the life of the church that are antithetical to the ways of the Spirit. In the name of exercising authority for the sake of the church, people acting under such a false understanding of greatness actually stifle the work of the church, hinder the Spirit of God and undermine the church’s witness to Jesus.

The term “salted with fire” is obscure and the subject of debate by many commentators. Vs. 49. Though it is possible that purification by persecution is intended, that hardly fits the context. To have salt is to be at peace. Vs. 50. It would therefore seem that the countercultural existence to which the disciples are called works like salt-an agent of seasoning and preservation. It is so very basic that, if it loses its essence, nothing exists that can restore it. The little group of disciples, preoccupied as it is with greatness and preserving its position of privilege to the neglect of the “little ones” for whom Jesus is chiefly concerned, is sorely in need of “salting with fire.” Only to the extent that there is among the disciples peace born of mutual service to the least can the nature of God’s reign be made known.

Sunday, August 23rd

THIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, your word feeds your people with life that is eternal. Direct our choices and preserve us in your truth, that, renouncing what is false and evil, we may live in you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

I have never spent more than a few days on a farm and then only as a small child. But in recent years I have gotten to know a few farmers. My conversations with them have given me a glimpse or two into what farming is like. One thing I know is that, for farmers, death is not an abstraction. Turkeys are butchered. Hogs are slaughtered. The sight, sound and smell of death permeates life on the farm. Farmers come in from work with death on their clothing, death on their hands and death under their fingernails. They cannot escape being conscious all the time of what urban folk like me conveniently forget: that the pound of hamburger, the package of drumsticks, the strip steaks and the pork chops we buy at Shop Rite were once living, breathing animals that somebody had to kill. Even those of us who are vegetarians cut down, uproot and devour what was once alive. In order for us to live, something else has to die.

So maybe it should not surprise us overly much to hear Jesus telling his disciples that their lives depend on eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Eternal life is costly. Making it available to the likes of you and me required the death of God’s Son. Having it requires internalizing Jesus which, in turn, puts us in the path of martyrdom. Paul urged the disciples in Rome to present their bodies “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” Romans 12:1. For a people whose Lord’s body was nailed to a cross, these words could not have been understood metaphorically. Rome knew well how to disfigure, torture, violate and kill human bodies. The disciples knew that imitating their Lord might well lead them into the gaping jaws of that empire. Yet such is the cost (and the privilege) of living eternally in a culture of death.

To be a disciple of Jesus is to know that you have the blood of the Lord on our hands. It is to know that you must answer “yes” to the question propounded in the old spiritual: “Where you there when they crucified my Lord?” To believe in Jesus is to understand that he died because he entrusted himself to us-and we murdered him. Yet, as it turns out, Jesus was not just another victim of injustice. Rather, he is God’s way of exposing injustice and God’s means of overcoming that injustice with God’s more infinitely powerful capacity to forgive. In the cross, we are shown to be the true victims-victims of or our own distrustful, vindictive and violent ways. We are finally saved from the whirlpool of our hate by a love that outlasts it.

This is a hard word for all who would like to believe that there really is nothing wrong with us; that the answers lie in enacting the right legislation, electing the right candidates to office or funding the right programs. It is a hard word for all who imagine that a tepid “spirituality” promising tranquility, lower blood pressure and a happier existence is a suitable substitute for living among recovering sinners seeking freedom from the addictive bondage of selfishness. Jesus’ words are hard for rugged individuals who imagine that they can truly pull themselves up by their own boot straps to a life that is eternal. Today’s gospel is bad news for mega-church leaders who fill auditoriums by preaching a happy clappy religion and imagine that they are fulfilling Jesus’ commission to make disciples. But as Peter rightly recognized, these words of Jesus, hard as they are, are the words of eternal life.

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

The Book of Joshua tells the story of the Israelites’ entry into the Promised Land after forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Joshua, the successor to Moses, led the Israelites into Canaan where they conquered the Canaanites and redistributed the land among their own twelve tribes. The book ends with a covenant ceremony in which the people of Israel vow in the presence of Joshua and their God to forsake all other gods and “serve the Lord.” Vs. 18 That is where our reading for this Sunday fits in.

A cursory reading of the Book of Joshua could lead one to believe that Israel had, under Joshua’s leadership, thoroughly exterminated the Canaanite population from the Promised Land. A closer reading reveals, however, that the Canaanite influence remained after Israel’s entry into the land. Vs. 15. Though no longer a military threat, the Canaanite agricultural society and its underlying religion posed an even greater danger to Israel’s existence. As Israel began its transition from a tribal nomadic society to a settled farming community, a significant theological question arose: could this God who successfully led Israel out of Egypt, across the desert and into Canaan now also provide rain, protection from insect pests and other favorable conditions required for growing staple crops? Or should Israel turn to the various gods and goddesses of the Canaanites who specialize in agriculture? The choice was not as clear cut as might appear to us moderns. For ancient peoples, there was no distinguishing between the role of religion and practice when it came to planting, cultivating and harvesting. It was nearly impossible for Israel to absorb Canaanite farming methods apart from Canaanite religion. Participation in the cultic worship of the fertility goddess, Ashroth, was no less critical than fertilizing your field with manure.

We read in verse 1 that the people “took their stand before God.” The phrase recalls the seminal moment when Israel first stood before Sinai where she made her covenant with God. Exodus 19:17. The story thereby emphasizes that this covenant is not a “new” commandment, but the renewal of the covenant made before Moses at Sinai.

Shechem, the site of this covenant ceremony, is located about forty miles north of Jerusalem. It later became the first capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Some commentators see in this location the author’s/editor’s hope that this city and other territories of the Northern Kingdom destroyed by Assyria in 722 B.C.E. might be recovered by the Southern Kingdom of Judah. This hope may, in part, have inspired Hezekiah’s failed revolt against Assyria in 701 B.C.E. The northern territories were, in fact, successfully (albeit briefly) recovered by King Josiah who reigned over Judah between 640 B.C.E.-609 B.C.E. It is also possible that this text reflects a post-exilic context given Joshua’s near certainty that Israel will fail to fulfill her vow to serve the Lord only. See Fox, Everett, The Early Prophets, The Schocken Bible: Volume II (c. 2014 by Everett Fox) p. 118.

“Beyond the River” (Vs. 14) is a reference to the Euphrates and could denote either Mesopotamia or Harran, both points along Abram’s journey to Canaan. Genesis 11:31-32; Genesis 12:1-6. The point here is that the demand to abandon worship of gods other than Israel’s God is grounded in the call to the patriarchs and matriarchs. It is evident that idol worship was as much a temptation for them as for Israel. They, too, needed to be reminded to abandon their false gods. See, e.g. Genesis 35:1-4.

If you read one verse further, you will discover that Joshua is well aware of the new danger facing Israel. He is skeptical of his fellow countrymen’s ability to meet the challenge of living as God’s covenant people in the land which God has given them. Vs. 19. He can see all too well how easily the lessons learned in the wilderness, where God fed Israel each day her daily bread, could be lost now that Israel had inherited a good land capable of sustaining her. He understood how persuasive would be the appeal of Canaanite religion to a people desperate to ensure a good harvest. In time, the saving acts of God, so fresh in the minds of Joshua’s generation, might seem “irrelevant” to the generations yet to come.

Memory seems to be a key factor here. Still fresh in Israel’s memory are the saving acts of God that liberated her from slavery in Egypt and God’s provision for all of her needs as she traveled through the wilderness. Vss. 16-17. Perhaps that explains why “Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua; and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work which the Lord did for Israel.” Joshua 24:31.  But when memory fades, so does faithfulness. Something is lost when events pass out of living memory. It takes deliberate effort for subsequent generations to own and appropriate the lived experiences of the past. That is why Israel built into her planting, cultivating and harvesting celebrations recitals of God’s saving acts toward the patriarchs and matriarchs, toward their enslaved descendants and toward the wandering clans as they made their way to the Promised Land. It was critical that Israel’s heart be shaped by memories of God’s faithfulness to her if she was to resist the allure of Canaanite religion and culture.

Times of transition often wreak havoc upon one’s faith. Statistics demonstrate that, of those persons who leave the church, a significant number is made up of people who have moved from one community to another. Moving is a stressful and demanding process. So is the process of finding a new church home. Many reasons are given by people who have moved for neglecting worship. Lack of time and energy is one factor. Getting settled into a new home is a chore in itself. Finding a good pediatrician for the kids and getting them registered for school takes time. Changing your driver’s license, auto registration, voting registration and opening bank accounts all take their toll. Looking for a job in a new community is a full time job in itself. All of this is taxing on the psyche. For those who have made an effort to find a church, many are disappointed because the churches they visit seem less than friendly, or don’t have the programs they are looking for or “just aren’t the same as our old church.” Whatever the reasons, often the first thing people shed when they settle into a new community is their faith. So Joshua was justified in his concern that, with all the demands of settling the land of Canaan, worship of the faithful God Israel had come to know in the wilderness might fall to the bottom of the priority list.

In some respects, each new day is another entry into the Promised Land. One never knows what any given day will bring, but we believe that “it is the day the Lord has made.” Psalm 118:24. There are always the routine and anticipated aspects of the day. Sometimes it seems as though that is all there is. Yet even in the most ordinary humdrum day there usually is some element of the unexpected: the card from that friend you have not heard from in years; the call from your child’s teacher suggesting a conference; the guy in the smelly sweatshirt that approaches you asking for money as you are coming out of the grocery store. These circumstances often present us with the same choice Joshua presented to the children of Israel as they prepared to settle into Canaan: will you serve the Lord your God or some other “god”? If we are attentive, we can hear Joshua’s voice throughout our day asking us, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Vs. 15.

Psalm 34:15-22

The psalm for Sunday is the third and last section of Psalm 34, which we have been reading for the last two weeks. My comments on the content, style and form of this psalm are found in my post for Sunday, August 9, 2015 and my post for Sunday, August 16, 2015. I would only add as a point of interest that verse 20 is prominently cited in the Gospel of John.

“Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of his bones shall be broken.’ And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’”

John 19:31-37.  For further perspective on this psalm, you might want to read the commentary of Henry Langknecht, Professor of Homiletics at Trinity Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. This can be found at Workingpreacher.org.

Ephesians 6:10-20

In this remarkable passage Paul encourages us to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” Vs. 10. He then proceeds to turn everything we think we know about strength on its head. “For we are not contending against flesh and blood” says Paul. Vs. 12.  But there are many forces in our culture telling us that our struggle is against flesh and blood. It is against liberals and socialists; against conservatives and right wingers; it is against illegal immigrants; it is against terrorists and criminals. The devil is constantly trying to convince us through a huge array of ideologies that the world can neatly be divided into good people and evil people. As long as you are on the side of good, it is acceptable to employ violence to achieve justice and defend “our” way of life whoever “we” may be. The devil would have us believe that “God is on our side” and that he, the devil, is on the side of our enemies. Of course, the devil does not take sides in human conflict. He has no stake in who controls the world or which nation triumphs over all others. As long as people are hating and killing each other, it matters not who “wins.” As far as the devil is concerned, wherever there is war he is the winner.

Saint Paul recognizes, however, that our real fight is “against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Vs. 12. In truth, the line between good and evil does not run along national, racial, religious or ethnic lines. The line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart and that is where we need to begin engaging it. We are urged to put on “the whole armor of God.” Vs. 11. Paul then uses a host of extremely militaristic images of armor and weaponry to describe the spiritual resources given to the church for its struggle against evil. Vss. 14-17. This remarkable contrast is designed to emphasize the gentle means by which God overcomes the powers of wickedness that know only violence and coercion. The only body armor the disciple of Jesus has is truth, righteousness and peace. The only shield a disciple has to withstand the violent forces of evil is faith in God’s promises. The only protection from a mortal head wound is the salvation wrought in Jesus Christ. This is the armor with which disciples of Jesus were called upon to meet the brutality of a hostile empire with armies, weapons and torture implements at its disposal. The only offensive weapons disciples of Jesus have are prayer and the Holy Spirit. Vs. 18.

So where are the principalities and powers, the hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places today? I suggest that many of them are found in the same places they were dwelling in the days of the New Testament church. They are found in the machinery of empire, the jealous sovereignty of nation states insisting that their own national interests trump global concerns for the wellbeing of all. When the “world rulers of this present age” insist that we must kill our neighbors in direct contradiction to Jesus’ call to love even our enemies and to resist not one who is evil, then we should be hearing the voice of Joshua from our Old Testament lesson crying out, “Choose this day who you will serve.” For too long, I believe, the church has sided with the principalities and powers in exchange for public support and respectability. For too long churches have confused the interests of the Kingdom of God with the interests of whichever nation they happen to reside in. The cry of “God and country” has too often muffled Joshua’s cry of either/or.

I also believe that the principalities and powers often worm their way into the life of the church. A church that values doing worship “right” over worshiping Jesus well has succumbed to the powers. A church that values maintaining its traditions over welcoming its community and allowing the Spirit to transform it has come under the influence of the principalities. A church that values survival over mission is a church that is run by the rulers of this present age. A church that values its reputation over faithful witness to the scandalous and controversial good news about Jesus Christ is a church that has lost its armor and has become fearful of taking a stand for its Lord.

Thanks be to God that in Jesus Christ we are well armed. The power of truthful speech unmasks the powers of evil urging us toward violence and hate. The good news of God’s reconciliation in Christ gives us all the ammunition we need to wage peace. Righteousness and integrity guard us from temptation, threats and intimidation. Faith, the conviction that God has already accomplished all things needful for the salvation of the world in Jesus Christ, gives us courage to endure the seeming failure of our own faithful efforts. We know that Christ promises to complete what we can only begin. Finally, through prayer and the work of God’s Spirit within us we exercise the very power that raised Jesus from death. No more potent weapon exists or is needed for the advance of God’s Kingdom.

John 6:56-69

Last week it was the crowd and Jesus’ critics who mumbled and complained because Jesus said in very graphic terms that he was the bread of life and that having life meant eating his flesh and drinking his blood. This week it is Jesus’ own disciples who are doing the complaining. Many of them, after hearing these words from Jesus, no longer followed him. vs. 66. But I have to ask, were they ever really following him to begin with? These disciples may have cheered as Jesus cleansed the Temple and rid it of corruption and commercialism. They were thrilled to receive their fill of bread in the wilderness. If this is what Jesus is doing, what’s not to like? Now, however, Jesus offers them more. He offers them his very self. But these disciples do not want anything more. They do not want Jesus. They want all the good things they think Jesus can give them. They want to be disciples of Jesus, but on their own terms. To internalize Jesus, to be sustained by him alone and to be transformed by Jesus is more than what they bargained for. They wanted Jesus to transform their unhappy circumstances, but they had no intention of letting him change them. These disciples were prepared to be admirers of Jesus, supporters of Jesus and even followers of Jesus-up to a point. But when Jesus makes it clear to them that salvation lies precisely in going beyond that point, they want nothing further to do with him.

Let’s be clear. It is not that Jesus is demanding a higher morality, a higher level of devotion or a higher level of spiritual awareness from his disciples. Jesus has already said that the only work God requires is that we trust in him. Trusting Jesus means believing Jesus when he tells us that what he has to give us is what we truly need. Jesus offers to abide in us. Abiding in Jesus means being absorbed into Jesus, transformed into the likeness of Jesus and drawn into the mission of Jesus. We don’t accomplish that on our own. Jesus offers it to us as a gift. But therein is the rub: too often we just don’t want this gift. We don’t want to internalize Jesus. We want Jesus at a distance. We want him to be there as a shoulder to cry on, a gentle presence to give us peace, a savior who is there in times of trouble, but decent enough to stay out of our way when times are good. We want a Jesus who will defend our homes and protect our soldiers, but not the Jesus who prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies and then calls upon us to invite those enemies to the feast. We want a Jesus who will change our unpleasant circumstances, but not a Jesus who wants to change our hearts and minds. As the Gospel of John has already indicated: “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”  John 3:19.

Jesus lost some disciples that day and he seems not to have been too worried about it. There are some kinds of followers Jesus does not need. Among them are those who are tagging along only for what they can get out of discipleship. There is a great deal of concern expressed these days about the decline in church membership among protestant denominations such my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Some folks are blaming the national church for its stances on controversial subjects. Others blame the synods for their lack of leadership. Many blame pastors for failing to speak effectively to the younger generations. We pastors, for our part, point the finger at our congregations for their lack of commitment and support. That is all counterproductive. Fixing blame for the sinking of the Titanic would not have kept it from going down and certainly will not bring it back up from the bottom of the sea. Moreover, I am beginning to wonder whether anyone is to blame or whether anything blameworthy is being done. Maybe the membership of the church is shrinking because its capacity for true discipleship is growing. Maybe we are driving people out of the church precisely because more of us are internalizing Jesus. When a church takes seriously its duty to show hospitality to the stranger regardless of the stranger’s legal status; when the church opens its doors to people who dirty its carpets, disrupt the flow of its worship and tarnish its reputation, very often long time members respond as did many of Jesus disciples in our Gospel lesson: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” Vs. vs. 60.

These days I am hearing an ever more urgent call for some strategy, some new change of direction, some marketing ploy that will “turn the church around.” If by that we mean turning away from sin and turning toward Jesus and the new life he offers, then I am all for it. But if “turning the church around,” means only that we grow our membership by whatever means available and increase our income so that we can preserve our denominational institutions, I am not sure I want in on that. Maybe Jesus does not need a church that owns real estate in every town. Maybe Jesus does not need a guild of professional clergy represented in every congregation. Maybe Jesus does not need bishops who travel the world to address heads of state and numerous programs addressing every conceivable human need. Maybe all Jesus needs is a little band of sheep that hear his call and follow him. Perhaps a poor, small, broken church living faithfully at the margins with no social influence or political power is a more faithful witness to the resurrected Christ than a large, thriving corporate church. It may be that we are not dying, but only getting pruned. (See John 15:1-2). I don’t pretend to know God’s grand plan for the church in the twenty-first century. I do not even know what God’s plans are for the ELCA of which I am a part. I am convinced, however, that we need to be open to the possibility that our view of what our church needs might be vastly different from what God is doing with us. We may fear that we are getting too small, but from God’s perspective we may still be too big.

In sum, following Jesus is no sure way to success, institutional or otherwise. But then again, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Vs. 68. That alone is why we follow Jesus. Jesus knows what matters eternally and tells us in no uncertain terms that we matter eternally to him. Jesus loves us too much to let us waste our lives pursuing bread that cannot feed us, chasing success in projects that don’t matter and satisfaction in pleasures that do not last.