Tag Archives: leadership

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, May 17th

ASCENSION OF OUR LORD/SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Psalm 1
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Gracious and glorious God, you have chosen us as your own, and by the powerful name of Christ you protect us from evil. By your Spirit transform us and your beloved world, that we may find our joy in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

For those of you who will be celebrating the Ascension of our Lord this coming Sunday, I refer you to my post of June 1, 2014 for the appointed texts and my comments on them. Trinity will also observe the Ascension, but through the lens of texts appointed for the Seventh Sunday of Easter. I confess that I am motivated, in part, by a desire to escape having to preach on the same texts for the same liturgical feast for the seventh straight year running. But I also feel compelled to address this very important day in the church year from a broader perspective than the appointed lessons allow. Telling Luke’s story of the Ascension without reference to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, in which Jesus returns in the same way he was seen to depart, we can create the impression that Jesus has gone to some distant place beyond the universe to await the end of time. One regrettable liturgical practice calls for the extinguishing of the Pascal candle following the Ascension gospel reading, which only reinforces this misconception.

John’s gospel leaves no room for Jesus’ absence. The gospel concludes not with Jesus departure, but with the disciples following their resurrected Lord into the future. It is as though John cannot imagine the church without the Good Shepherd to guide it. John makes clear that our confession of Jesus’ Ascension to the right hand of the Father must not leave us with his absence, but with the understanding that he is now more imminently and intimately present to us than ever before. Jesus is the right hand of God at work in the world. To borrow a phrase from St. Paul, Jesus “ascended far above the heavens that he might fill all things.” Ephesians 4:10. This is to say that Jesus is now at work in every molecule, bending each sub-atomic particle toward the advent of God’s new creation. Jesus is God’s way of being in the world for us. I like to think of the Ascension as a radical amplification of the Incarnation. The Word became flesh and now remains flesh. God is henceforth fully human-not merely as a species, but human as human was intended to be. God is human as we are not yet human. God’s humanity, God’s right hand is Jesus. And that means there will be no great tribulation unleashed by God nor any dramatic intervention to save us from our own folly. That is not God’s way with us.

In one sense, that is a little upsetting. It is comforting to believe that there is a God in control of the universe, a God that will not let us start a nuclear war or turn the earth into a pressure cooker. I would like to believe that God would never let anything really bad happen to me and that God would rapture me from the face of the earth before it goes up in flames. The trouble is, bad things have happened to me and the ones I love. Bad things are happening all over the world and God does not seem to be intervening-at least not in any dramatic or miraculous way. That leads me to wonder whether God can intervene. I sometimes wonder whether God has limited God’s self in creating a universe that is other than God along with creatures having minds other than God’s. Is human suffering the price we must pay for being creatures capable of making meaningful decisions about how we will live on this planet? Of course, volumes have been written on these subjects. The best overall treatment of the topic I have ever read is a book entitled God & Human Suffering, by Douglas John Hall (c. 1986 by Augsburg Publishing House). I cannot say that it answered all of my questions, but it convinced me that knowing the answers would probably not satisfy me.

What comfort is there, then, in knowing that God’s right had is Jesus? For me, it is good to know that God is human. On the night my grandson died and my wife and I held our son as he wept, wept as I had never seen him weep before, I knew that God’s heart was as broken as ours and that God was weeping with us. At that point, it was good to know that we were in the company of One who had lost his only beloved Son. It is good to know that God knows the ache of chronic hunger, the rage, helplessness and fear of a bullied teen and the loneliness that comes with facing death. Jesus can shepherd me through the valley of the shadow because he has been through it and knows it well.

And there is more. Suffering can break a person. Victims of violent crime can be eaten alive by anger, bitterness and grief. The tragic loss of a loved one, years of verbal and physical abuse, being stuck in grinding poverty-these are things that can extinguish the light of hope in the best of us. But if the resurrection means anything, it means that God does not succumb to despair, does not get sucked into the vortex of vengeance, does not lose the capacity to love the creation-even when it nails him to the cross. No matter what kind of ugliness we throw at God and at each other, God just keeps raising up Jesus who reaches out to us with his nail pierced hands, offering healing and forgiveness. Jesus makes clear that we cannot drag God down to our level.

It may sound trite to say that love will win, but it’s true. Love will win, not because it is the better strategy for achieving the good society or because our own better angels are stronger than the demons that drive us toward death. Love will win because it is eternal. Love is that Spirit binding the Trinity in unity. It existed before time and will outlast time. Our gospel lesson tells us that Jesus came to share with us that very love, love that now inhabits every corner of creation because Jesus is at God’s right hand. Given the grim realities of cruelty, oppression and violence inhabiting our planet, it might take some time for God to bring the world under God’s reign of love. It might take some time for God to reconcile all things through Jesus. But that’s OK. God has all eternity to work with.

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

How does the church go about selecting an apostolic leader? The method chosen for the replacement of Judas appears to be a combination of communal judgment and a coin toss. Two capable leaders, Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas, were put forward, presumably after some deliberation. But rather than choosing one of these two men by vote, the disciples proceed by casting lots. There is, of course, precedent for this means of deciding matters in the Hebrew Scriptures. See Leviticus 16:8; Number 26:55. Still, I find its use puzzling in this context. If God can be trusted to choose between the two finalists, why can’t God be trusted to select the right leader in the first instance? Why not place the names of all the disciples in a hat and hold a drawing? That would give God a much wider selection.

I suppose this episode reflects the uncertainty that is always involved with making choices like these. In the first instance, we make our best judgment. But judgment only takes you so far. A friend of mine who is involved in admissions for a fairly prestigious college once confided in me her discomfort with the selection process. “It’s easy to spot the truly brilliant applicants,” she said. “It’s also easy to weed out the bad apples. But after that, you are left with a large stack of applicants with high SAT scores, good grades and glowing recommendations. We can accept maybe a fourth of them. At this point, the selection process is pretty arbitrary.”

So it is for the church. I do my best to identify young people who I think might be called to ministry in the church. Seminaries and credentialing committees do their best to assist aspiring ministers in discerning their calls and to screen out persons clearly unfit for leadership in ministry. Congregations and pastors struggle in the call process to determine whether there is in fact a call to ministry for a particular individual to a particular church at a given point in time. But when all is said and done, we don’t really know what we are doing. The process can become arbitrary and sometimes grossly unfair. I have seen some promising leaders rejected by credentialing committees and congregational call committees that have gone off the rails. Similarly, I have seen more than a few persons sail through the process with flying colors only to crash and burn in ministry settings. When it comes to selecting our spiritual leaders, we have not come very far since the selection of Matthias to replace Judas.

We don’t hear anything about Matthias in the New Testament after he was enrolled with the apostles. The traditions about him are scarce, conflicting and, in my view, unreliable. That is unfortunate because I would love to know how he made out. Was he accepted as a full partner? Or was he treated as a second class apostle, given that he was not actually selected by Jesus himself? Where did he go and what did he do? Was he the “right” choice? Or would the disciples have done better selecting Joseph Barsabbas?

I suppose that, at the end of the day, we are always standing at the precipice of our ability to discern the will of God. When push comes to shove, we can only do our best and trust the Spirit to guide us and help us clean up the mess when we misread the signals. Thankfully, the Spirit has done that for us faithfully and well. The church has often chosen fools and scoundrels to lead us and has sometimes passed over fine and gifted people who might have contributed much. Nonetheless, the church has muddled along over the centuries managing to preach good news to a broken world and care for the souls of the faithful. That is comforting for me, particularly on those days when I doubt my own calling and wonder whether I am really where I belong. At times like that, it is good to know that I can pray, “Lord, I might be ill equipped, wrongly motivated and unsuited for ministry in this parish. But somehow or another, I wound up here and until you replace me, I’m all you’ve got. So help me out here!”

Psalm 1

Scholars disagree as to whether or not this psalm was specifically composed as an introduction to the Psalter. In either case, it serves that purpose well. Teachings such as the blessedness of the godly life, the futility of wickedness, the faithfulness of God to all who trust in him and the joy of meditating on the scriptures reflected in the first Psalm find further expression and amplification throughout the rest of the Psalter. This psalm is classified as a “wisdom psalm” and as such makes the bold assertion that both righteousness and wickedness find their proper reward within the parameters of a human lifetime. The assertion is as problematic as it is bold and requires numerous qualifications, explanations and, above all, faith in the goodness of God when God seems altogether absent from the scene. For now, though, you stand at the beginning “with a faith to suit you well.” “Borning Cry,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 732. As life becomes more complex, nuanced and layered, so will God’s faithful presence in the next one hundred forty-nine psalms.

Beatitude begins with answering God’s call to come out from among the wicked. The call to Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 is echoed in this opening verse of Psalm 1. The implication, then, is that Israel’s call to be separate from the nations is precisely for the purpose of being a light to the nations. Rather than taking her cues from the wicked, the righteous person’s delight is in the Torah. Meditation on the covenant guides her life course and, as a result, she is firmly grounded and well cared for as a tree planted next to a river. Rooted as it is near a perpetual source of water, this tree symbolizing the righteous person is unaffected by drought.

By contrast, the wicked are characterized as “chaff,” empty husks that are blown away by the wind in the threshing process. They are of no value and their works have no permanence. They cannot stand “in the judgment.” Though the original author of the psalm may only have understood “judgment” in a purely temporal, “this worldly” sense, later Judaism and the early church began to see in this assertion a reference to God’s final judgment. Though God is always judging, purifying and sanctifying “the congregation of the righteous” (vs. 5), there must finally be a day when that congregation is fully cleansed from all wickedness. That day will come, however, in God’s own good time. For now, the righteous must be content to live among if not in the counsel of the wicked. As Jesus points out, one ought not to become impatient and exercise judgment before the appointed day. Matthew 13:24-30.

Ascension faith asserts that God accomplishes judgment through Jesus, who is God’s right hand. Consequently, we must reinterpret the nature and meaning of divine Judgment through the lens of Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection. To employ Johanine terminology, the promised Holy Spirit “will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”  John 16:8-11. It is impossible to understand what sin is apart from the world’s rejection of Jesus. So too, it is impossible to know the heart of the Father without recognizing that this rejected one is the one sent by the Father to give life to the world. The “ruler of this world” or Satan is overcome through the forgiveness of a God that will not be sucked into the vortex of retributive justice.

1 John 5:9-13

The Greek word for “testimony” found throughout this passage is “martyria,” from which we get our word “martyr.” From very early in the church’s history, testimony to Jesus as Lord included a willingness to die for such loyalty. Martyrdom in the early church demonstrated the depth of a disciple’s commitment to Jesus and so lent credence to his/her witness. Thus, if the community is strengthened by the witness of its own who have suffered for their testimony, how much more should the community be strengthened by the witness of God in the suffering and death of Jesus. It is in the sending of the Son and the Son’s willingness to die that God “witnesses” or “testifies” to the depth of God’s love for us. Our own suffering as a consequence of our witness is but a pale reflection of God’s sacrificial love. Yet in so testifying to Jesus, the believer “has the testimony in himself.” Vs. 10. Disbelief in the testimony of God to Jesus is not simply the denial of a doctrinal principle. It is a refusal to believe in God’s faithfulness to God’s promises and God’s deep love for the world. Such refusal makes God a “liar” and God’s promises unworthy of our trust. Vs. 10.

“This is the testimony, that God gives us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” Vs. 11. Again, “eternal life” refers to more than just life’s duration. Life that is eternal is based on love grounded in the unity of the Trinity. It is as much qualitative as it is quantitative. Consequently, the disciples who live together in love such as the Father has for the Son are already experiencing “eternal life.” It bears repeating that such love is not an abstract principle or an inward disposition. It is expressed concretely in the person of Jesus-so much so that one who is without the Son is without eternal life. Vs. 12. Jesus is not an illustration, metaphor or example of eternal life or love. He is eternal life and love.

The whole point of John’s letter is to make his readers “know” that they have eternal life. Vs. 13. This “knowing” is relational. It has to do with knowing Jesus rather than knowing and accepting doctrines about him, though the latter have their place. It is finally through our relationships that we are shaped and transformed. To “abide” in Jesus is to know Jesus, to be a “friend” of Jesus as our lesson from the gospel would have it. According to John, we are ever “living into” Jesus, deepening our trust in him and our understanding of his very simple yet demanding command to love one another.

John 17:6-19

To get the full impact of this passage, it is essential that you read all of John 17. This chapter comes at the conclusion of Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” in John 13-17. Beginning with the washing of his disciples’ feet, Jesus instructs his disciples how they are to live together in the same Trinitarian love that exists between the Father and the Son. This love that will animate the community of disciples is the Holy Spirit, the presence of the resurrected Christ within the church. Chapter 17 concludes this discourse with a prayer that this Trinitarian unity will find expression in the disciples’ love for each other. Jesus prays that they may be one “even as we [Father and Son] are one.” Vs. 11.

Some might object to my use of the term “Trinity” in commenting on this text. But if I seem to be imposing Augustinian Trinitarianism on the text, it is because I think Augustine got this right. It is so that the disciples might know the unity of the Father with the Son that Jesus was sent into the world. Vs. 11. The Spirit, which is sent to bind the community together and draw the disciples deeper into their relationship with Jesus and love for one another, does no less than offer to the disciples “all” that was given to Jesus by the Father which, in turn, is “all” that the Father has. John 16:13-15. The gift of eternal life to a dying world is the Spirit, the love that binds the Father to the Son and unites the community of disciples. It is through this unifying Trinitarian love that the world will come to know that the Father loves the Son who was sent into the world. John 17:21. Moreover, the world will finally understand the depth of God’s love for it when it witnesses the continued sending of the Son into the world through the disciples’ ministry, notwithstanding the world’s rejection.

The disciple’s loyalty to Jesus will provoke the same hostility that Jesus himself provoked:

“This community of Christians will be hated by the world, but Jesus does not wish to have them spared this hostility. So that the depth of his love might become apparent, Jesus himself could not leave the world without facing the hostility of its Prince (xiv 30-31). Similarly each of his followers must face the Evil One (xvii 15; cf. I John ii 15-17 on the allurements of the world) if eventually he is to be with Jesus.” Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1970 by Doubleday) p. 764.

Many commentators suggest that this anticipated hostility reflects the growing animosity between the Jesus movement and the Jewish Sanhedrin constituted at the end of the First Century:

“Thus the Fourth Gospel affords us a picture of a Jewish community at a point not far removed from the end of the first century. As we get a glimpse of it, this community has been shaken by the introduction of a newly formulated means for detecting those Jews who want to hold a dual allegiance to Moses and to Jesus as Messiah. Even against the will of some of the synagogue leaders, the Heretic Benediction is now employed in order formally and irretrievably to separate such Jews from the synagogue.” Martyn, J. Louis, History & Theology in the Fourth Gospel, 2nd Ed. (c. 1979 by J. Louis Martyn, pub. by Abingdon) p. 62.

However that might be, I believe that John understood the opposition faced by Jesus to be grounded not merely in the church’s dispute with the synagogue, but in a larger struggle against “the ruler of this world.” John 16:11. What transpires within the Jewish community is simply a microcosm of the cosmic battle with the evil one who coopts not merely the religious leadership but the imperial authorities as well. It is “the world” that finally rejects the Word by which it was made and that Word’s incarnation as the Son who is sent to give it life. It is the world also that is the ultimate beneficiary of the Son.

These lessons from John can help us focus on the significance of Jesus’ being at God’s right hand or, even better, being the right hand of God. We can dispel the notion that Jesus has gone away somewhere beyond the blue to return only in the distant future by pointing out that Jesus’ ascension makes him more intimately present to his church. Jesus is now God’s way of being in, dealing with and reigning over the world. The Incarnation is irreversible. God is and will ever remain human so that we might be made genuinely human.

Sunday, September 15th

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 32:7–14
Psalm 51:1–10
1 Timothy 1:12–17
Luke 15:1–10

Prayer of the Day: O God, overflowing with mercy and compassion, you lead back to yourself all those who go astray. Preserve your people in your loving care, that we may reject whatever is contrary to you and may follow all things that sustain our life in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Moses had been up on Mt. Sinai for forty days receiving from the mouth of the Lord the covenant promises, teachings and practices intended to shape Israel’s life as God’s covenant people. But before the stone tablets of the law have had a chance to cool, God informs Moses that the people of Israel have already built an idol for themselves. How could this possibly have happened? After the Exodus from Egypt and God’s dramatic rescue of Israel from Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea, how could Israel so soon turn away from her God?

Let’s try to be a little sympathetic toward Israel here. Forty days is a long time when you are stuck in the midst of a wilderness that cannot long sustain you. It is unnerving when you have no idea where you are and there is no visionary leader in the camp to give you guidance or inspire you with a stirring description of your destination. It is under anxious circumstances like these that the temptation to idolatry so frequently raises its ugly head. When you are lost, vulnerable and directionless you are likely to fall for anyone or anything that promises to make sense out of your chaotic life and lead you out of your predicament.

I often feel as though I am living in the wilderness myself. The cultural landscape that was friendly and supportive of the church has evaporated within my very lifetime. The new cultural environment often seems hostile and forbidding to the life of the church. In the face of alarming membership decline and loss of financial support, it is difficult to be patient, to wait faithfully for God’s guidance and to do the hard work of prayer and discernment. All of that requires confidence we lack and time we think we don’t have. We want something tangible that we can do right now; something we can see and touch; something that will yield measureable results. That is exactly what idols promise to give us. Whether it is a golden calf, a “mission strategy,” a new stewardship program with a catchy name or a top dollar church growth consultant, an idol gives us something we can get a handle on. It gives us a sense of control. But God will not be controlled and God will not be rushed. God will act in God’s own good time. By trying to hurry God, we only hinder our own progress. “Forty days in the wilderness too long for you?” Well then, says the Lord, “How about forty years?” One way or the other, God will teach us patience and trust.

Perhaps, like the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, we have arrived at a point in our journey where faith requires that we simply wait. That is a tall order for a “can do” people like us who pride ourselves on setting goals, working hard and getting things done. Waiting is not in our cultural DNA. But if you follow the biblical story of Israel’s journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land, you will discover that there was a lot of waiting around. Israel could not move until the pillar of cloud did. It was nearly impossible to plan for the journey because Israel never knew which way God would lead her. The way from Egypt to Canaan was anything but direct. It must have been frustrating, but when you are lost, you have little choice other than to follow one who knows the way.

Waiting does not mean “doing nothing.” It involves listening, prayer, discerning conversation and a willingness to confess that we are lost. That takes a great deal of courage. We read in Chapter 32 of Exodus that the people came to Aaron, Moses’ brother, with the demand: “make for us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Exodus 32:1. Aaron caved and made a golden calf for the Israelites to worship. Again, I can sympathize. While Moses was up in the stratosphere conversing with the Almighty, Aaron was down in the trenches face to face with an anxious congregation and no synodical support in sight. That is a hard place to be. Every week it seems I get some missive from the larger church telling me about some initiative I should be supporting, some program I should be implementing or some ministry that my congregation should be doing. Each month my denominational periodical has inspiring stories about the wonderful things that “growing” congregations are doing-as if saying to me, “and what are you doing to be a ‘missional’ pastor?” Of course, my own congregation is also eager for me to come up with a “plan” a “strategy” for growth. Understandably, they want some answers. Like Aaron, I don’t have any. But I am sorely tempted to fake it, to cobble together some program or strategy in response. I may not believe that it will grow our church anymore than Aaron believed a golden calf could get the people to the Promised Land. But at least it will convince everyone that I am “doing something” about our challenges and get the church off my back long enough for me to figure out which rabbit to pull out of my hat next.

Last month our ELCA elected a new bishop, Rev. Elizabeth Eton, over the incumbent, Rev. Mark Hanson. I was not at the national assembly and so I have no sense for what drove the election. But I suspect that the election of Rev. Eaton was, at least in part, a desire for leadership that will take us in a new direction. That is not a bad thing, but it does represent a potential danger. I don’t doubt that the new bishop will be under immense pressure to provide us with a new “vision,” new “missional strategies” and new “programming.” Like the Israelites, I expect that we will soon be clamoring for her to build us a “golden calf” to get us out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land with as little pain, toil and sacrifice as possible. I pray to God that she is made of sterner stuff than Aaron and that she resists the temptation to give us what we crave. I hope that she will resist the temptation to saturate us with stirring rhetoric and flurries of programmatic activity that are only thinly veiled idols designed to disguise our underlying anxiety. I hope she finds the courage to do what Aaron should have done, namely, tell us the truth. “Look folks, I don’t know which way to go from here and I don’t know when or from what direction God’s guidance will come. But come it will. In the mean time, we all need to wait with open, prayerful hearts and minds.” I think the kind of leadership we need is spelled out in a profound article written recently by L. Roger Owens and Anthony B. Robinson:

“In his 1990 Harvard Business Review article “What Leaders Really Do,” John Kotter described leadership this way: First, leaders set direction. They look to the future and say, “Here’s where we are going.” Then they set strategies for getting there and prepare people and systems to communicate the new “vision of an alternative future.” Then leaders motivate the people. But in a dark night of the soul, other leadership traits are required. A church may not need a leader who casts a vision, sets a direction and rallies everyone around it. A church that’s in a dark night of the soul needs a spiritual director. A good one. In the dark night the number one temptation is to get out. To flee. We want things back the way they were, and we want out. But if it’s a true dark night, that’s not what we need.”

****************************************************************************************************

“How countercultural it would be for a church in a narrative of decline, with a need for visionary leaders to lead it out of confusion, pain and decline, to have a leader who would be a friend for its soul. That leader would encourage the church to consider what [psychiatrist Gerald] May says might be impossible to believe-that what is really going on is a graceful process of liberation and that instead of fleeing our anxiety we should sit with it and let the process unfold. What kind of leader would that be?” Owens, L. Roger & Robinson, Anthony B., “Dark Night of the Church,” The Christian Century, December 26, 2012, p. 30.

I pray that our new bishop will be precisely the soul friend we need to see us through the night.

Exodus 32:7–14

This story is strategically placed after the revelation of the Torah to Moses. It prefigures the religious and cultural struggle Israel will encounter in the land of Canaan. The religion of the “Ba’als” was imbedded in the agricultural practices Israel would need to adopt in order to thrive in the Fertile Crescent. In a world where the science of agriculture was inseparably bound up with the religion of fertility, it was not possible for Israel simply to pick up Canaanite techniques while leaving Canaanite religion behind. The struggle between Elijah and the wicked King Ahab reflects the prophetic argument that Israel’s God was as much Lord of agriculture as he clearly was Lord of Israel’s Exodus. See I Kings 17-18.

Indications are that this story reached its final written form in the later stages of the development of the Book of Exodus. The motif of sin and forgiveness runs throughout chapters 32-34  forming the compositional unit for which our lesson is the opening scene. See Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, A Critical Theological Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1964,Westminster Press) p. 557-558. Accordingly, this story speaks also in a powerful way to the circumstances of the exiled Jews in Babylon. They, too, found themselves in a wilderness of sorts. Like the Israelites journeying in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, the exiles living in Babylon following Jerusalem’s destruction in 587 B.C.E. were a vulnerable minority living in a hostile cultural environment as forbidding as the desert wilderness. The temptation to abandon the faith that seemed to have failed them was strong and the pressure to conform to Babylonian religion and culture considerable. The story of the golden calf served to illustrate for the exiles the nature of this temptation and to lay out for them the consequences of surrendering to it. Not one inch of God’s reign must be surrendered to the gods of Babylon. Like the Israelites of the wilderness wanderings, the exiles were in a posture of waiting upon their God to act. No doubt God’s faithful leading of Israel through the wilderness of Sinai to Canaan provided much of the inspiration for Second Isaiah’s poetic depiction of Israel’s way of return from Babylon to her homeland. See, e.g., Isaiah 43:16-21; Isaiah 48:20-21; Isaiah 49:8-13; Isaiah 51:9-11.

The story of the golden calf is cited twice in the New Testament. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul uses the golden calf story, along with several other wilderness wandering episodes, to make the point that many of the ancient Israelites proved unfaithful in spite of their participation in the baptism of the Exodus and the communal eating of the manna from the hand of God. So also, Paul warns, believers in Jesus, though baptized and actively partaking in the Eucharist must not imagine that their unrighteous conduct is immune from God’s judgment. Like Israel in the wilderness, the church likewise journeys through a hostile environment laden with temptations. Just as God’s judgment and discipline brought Israel back to repentance and faith, so the scriptural accounts of these acts serve as a salutary warning to disciples of Jesus to resist temptation and remain faithful. See I Corinthians 10:1-31.

The second citation occurs in Stephen’s speech before the high priest in Jerusalem. Stephen recounts the story of the golden calf (Acts 7:39-41) as yet another instance of Israel’s stubborn rejection of God’s word and Spirit culminating in the rejection of Jesus. On the whole, the speech is extremely harsh in its condemnation of Israel and it should be used cautiously in preaching for that reason. It is critical to remember, however, that Luke’s gospel and the Book of Acts which he also authored were written before the final break between Judaism and the church. Thus, Stephen is not speaking from outside Judaism at the Jews. He is speaking within Judaism as a Jew to fellow Jews. As such, Stephen stands in the shoes of Israel’s prophets whose criticisms of Israel’s faithlessness were no less severe than his. Moreover, Stephen’s ire is focused chiefly upon the Jerusalem temple establishment and not to the Jewish people as a whole. That said, his use of the golden calf story as illustrative of Israel’s (and the church’s) tendency to abandon faith in the true God for idols of one sort or another is quite in keeping with the rest of biblical tradition.

Perhaps most significant is the intercession motif. God declares his intention to destroy Israel and Moses intercedes. We have seen echoes of this motif in Genesis where Abraham intercedes with God for Sodom. Genesis 18:16-23. We see Stephen also interceding for his executioners. Acts 7:59-60. Of course, Jesus also prays that God will forgive his tormentors. Luke 23:33-34. Such prayer, like all prayer, is possible only because of God’s covenant with Israel. Moses does not appeal to high sounding moral principles or “human rights” when pleading for Israel. God is not defined or confined by any human conception of morality. Neither do humans have any rights against God. God, however, has made promises to Abraham to give his descendents the land of Canaan, to make of him a great nation and to bless his descendents and the whole world through them. So Moses holds God to God’s word. It is only because of the covenant with Israel-to which we gentiles can appeal only through our baptism into Jesus Christ-that prayer is not merely a pious wish shot into utter darkness with the faint hope that somebody is listening.

Psalm 51:1–10

Why stop at verse 10? I don’t know. It is one of the many unfathomable decisions made in the smoke filled room where our common lectionary was born. The very idea of severing this psalm is akin to dividing the living child as proposed by King Solomon to the women disputing their right to it. I Kings 3:16-27. Unfortunately for the church, the makers of the lectionary lacked the sensitivity and compassion of the child’s mother and so we have inherited a mutilated psalm. Nonetheless, I shall consider it in its entirety. This psalm is one of seven “penitential psalms” (the others being Psalm 6; Psalm 32; Psalm 38; Psalm 102; Psalm 130; and Psalm 143) so named by Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, a statesman, writer and scholar of the sixth century. It can be divided into four sections: 1) An invocation raising the theme of forgiveness (1-3); 2) confession of sin (4-6); 3) plea for forgiveness (7-9); and 4) the call for renewal (10-17). As we will see, 18-19 constitute a later addition.

The title associates the psalm with King David, identifying it as a prayer the king uttered after being confronted by the prophet Nathan over his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and his subsequent murder of her husband Uriah. See II Samuel 11:1-12:24. It should be noted that the titles given to the individual psalms were affixed at a much later date, probably subsequent to the Babylonian Exile that ended around 530 B.C.E. Their purpose appears to have been to legitimate the psalms by tying them to pre-exilic scriptural figures and to officials and musicians in Solomon’s temple. In this way the returning exiles could establish the newly reconstructed temple in Jerusalem and its liturgies as true and genuine over against the rites and places of worship maintained by the Samaritans throughout the exile. Moreover, the Hebrew preposition preceding David’s name (le) can mean “by,” “for” or “to” David. Consequently, the title might say no more than that the psalm was written in honor of or in memory of David. Of course, none of this forecloses the possibility that the psalm might actually go back to David himself. The tradition that David was a musician is well attested. Skeptics point out that the psalm does not mention any of the characters involved with the Bathsheba affair or identify the psalmist’s offense, but that is hardly unusual. The psalms of lament (of which this is one) seldom identify with specificity the individual personal events giving rise to the psalmist’s prayer.

However one might resolve the authorship question, it is clear that the last two verses, 18-19, constitute a post-exilic addition to the psalm. Whereas in verse 16 the psalmist declares that God “has no delight in sacrifice,” verse 19 declares that when the walls of Jerusalem are rebuilt, “then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings…” This seeming contradiction is resolved if in the earlier passage the psalmist is understood not to be disparaging sacrifice generally, but merely stating that ritual sacrifice cannot take the place of heartfelt repentance from sin. Nevertheless, these verses shift away from the personal prayer of the psalmist for individual forgiveness to a corporate prayer for the restoration of Jerusalem. In so doing, they make this personal plea for forgiveness and restoration suitable as a prayer for national forgiveness and restoration. Whatever its origins and despite its various contextual settings, the psalm has a timeless appeal for all who experience genuine guilt and regret over sin. That accounts for its frequent use in our prayers, hymns and liturgy.

1 Timothy 1:12–17

The two Letters of Paul to Timothy, along with his letter to Titus, constitute the “pastoral epistles.” They are so called because they are addressed by the Apostle Paul to leaders with pastoral oversight. In the last issue of the Voice of Trinity I stated that the near unanimous opinion of New Testament Scholars is that these letters were not written by Paul, but by a disciple or associate of his in his name. This conclusion is based largely on theological differences between the pastorals and those letters indisputably attributed to Paul. (Romans, I &II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians and Philemon) Additionally, it is thought that the high degree of church organization reflected in the pastorals could not have developed during Paul’s life time and ministry. The false teaching against which the pastoral epistles argue is believed to be post-Pauline. Finally, there are substantial differences in style and vocabulary between the pastorals and the letters of uncontested Pauline authorship. As pseudomonas authorship was commonplace in antiquity, it would not have been unusual nor would it have been deemed dishonest or deceptive for a disciple of Paul to write a letter under the name of his master.

While these arguments are formidable, it appears that scholarly consensus against Pauline authorship is not quite as uniform as I thought. My remarks in the Voice were based on the majority view at the time I was in seminary. (For the record, the dinosaurs were long gone by then-though there might have been a wooly mammoth or two still trundling about.) Since then two very prominent scholars have taken issue with that majority view advancing some formidable arguments favoring Pauline authorship for all three of the pastorals. Gordon D. Fee, professor of New Testament at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia recently published a commentary on the pastorals arguing forcefully for Pauline authorship. Similarly, Luke Timothy Johnson, Professor of New Testament at Chandler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia has published a commentary reaching many of the same conclusions. Without digesting their arguments in detail, they maintain that in arguing against newer heretical movements toward the end of his ministry, Paul invoked quotations from other apostolic and doctrinal sources to bolster his positions. That would account for the supposed theological differences between the pastorals and his other works. The advanced state of church hierarchy reflected in the pastorals appears only when one imbues terms such as “bishop,” “elder” and “deacon” with attributes of these offices as they existed much later in the development of the church. From the context of the pastorals alone, one cannot make a convincing case for the existence of any “advanced hierarchy.” It is evident that Paul utilized a recording secretary for his letters, even those unequivocally attributed to him. Perhaps in his later years Paul used a different secretary or gave his secretary more freedom in conveying his message. If so, that could account for the differences in language and vocabulary. In sum, the arguments against Pauline authorship are not as formidable as they appear at first blush.

In support of Pauline authorship, Fee and Johnson point out that with only two exceptions, the early church leaders all assume that the pastorals were written by Paul. Though these folks lived one or two centuries after Paul’s death, they were nevertheless eighteen centuries closer to the New Testament church than we are. More significantly, for all of the differences between the uncontested Pauline letters and the pastorals, the similarities in thinking and expression are also substantial and cannot be dismissed. While I still lean toward pseudomonas authorship, I am definitely taking another look at the issue. In the end, it may well be an argument over degree. Pseudomonas authorship defenders readily admit that there are sections of the epistles that could well have come right from the mouth of Paul. Pauline authorship contenders recognize that, whether through the liberality of his secretary, quotation of other authorities or subsequent editing, there clearly is material in the pastorals that is linguistically, stylistically and theologically different from Paul. In either case, I believe that the pastorals are sufficiently stamped with Paul’s influence for me to refer to them as “Paul’s” without committing myself on the question of authorship.

This week’s brief lesson encapsulates Paul’s self understanding and the significance of his ministry. His appointment by Jesus to the ministry of the gospel is founded in grace. As foremost of sinners, Paul was a prime candidate for apostleship. If his fanatical opposition to Jesus and his church can be forgiven; if even Paul the persecutor can be transformed so as to serve the gospel of Jesus Christ, what limit can there be to God’s mercy and capacity for redeeming sinners?

The formula “the saying is sure,” is characteristic of all three pastorals. See vs. 15. See also, I Timothy 3:1; I Timothy 4:9; II Timothy 2:11; Titus 3.8. It may well be a stylistic preface for introducing creedal material-early statements of church doctrine that are (or should be) recognized as beyond dispute, e.g. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Vs. 15. If this is the case, we may be looking at the earliest strands of DNA for the Apostles Creed in these fragments from the pastorals.

Luke 15:1–10

Once again, the occasion for the parables Jesus speaks here is a meal. Unlike last week, the meal is not taking place in the home of a leader of the Pharisees. In fact, we don’t really know where this meal is taking place. Obviously, it must be somewhere public because the Pharisees and the scribes can observe that “the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to him.” Vs. 1. We know that Jesus must be at a meal because they complain that he not only receives such folks, “but eats with them.” Vs. 2. That was deeply offensive because meals in first century Judaism were not simply about “grabbing a bite” as so often is the case today. They had a deeply spiritual dimension making them acts of worship. The sacrificial rites in ancient Israel were meals for the most part in which reconciliation with God and among the people was effectuated. “Sinners” in this context are not necessarily those whose sinful acts were more notorious than others. They were people cut off from Israel because their profession put them in contact with gentiles, unclean animals, corpses or foreign money. Or they might be excluded for having had a disease rendering them unclean such as leprosy. Then too, they might well be people whose sins were deemed beyond forgiveness. Nonetheless, Jesus welcomes them to his table and that is what gets him into trouble.

The two parables are perplexing-at least the one about the sheep. Jesus asks his hearers, “What man of you, having a hundered sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it?” vs. 4. Well, I for one. I may be a city kid, but I know that sheep don’t do well left alone in the wilderness. I expect that this shepherd’s joy at finding his lost sheep would evaporate pretty quickly if upon his return he discovered that the rest of his flock had been attacked and scattered by a pack of wolves. But perhaps that is the point. God will never be satisfied with 99%. Even if the rest of the flock is put in jeopardy, even if rescuing the lost sheep means that the shepherd must now go in search of 99 lost sheep, so be it. The shepherd will keep on searching, keep on gathering and go on herding until he has all 100 safe and accounted for.

By contrast, I think most sensible people would say that getting 99 out of 100 sheep safely through the wilderness is a pretty good day’s work. There is always loss when it comes to shipping goods from point A to point B. So consider it a cost of doing business and write it off on your income tax return. Jesus would have us know, however, that none of his sheep are expendable. What Jesus’ opponents do not understand is that the reign of God cannot come until all the sheep are brought into the fold. By hindering Jesus’ ministry to sinners, they are hindering the coming of the kingdom of God. By shutting sinners out of the community of Israel, they are shutting the door of kingdom in their own faces as well. Perhaps we err in assuming that the tax collectors and sinners are the lost sheep and the lost coin in Jesus’ parables. After all, the sinners are drawing near to Jesus and entering into table fellowship with him. They are not lost. It is only those who turn up their nose at this messianic banquet that are lost.