Tag Archives: Letter to the Hebrews

Sunday, August 28th

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Proverbs 25:6–7
Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1–8, 15–16
Luke 14:1, 7–14

Prayer of the Day: O God, you resist those who are proud and give grace to those who are humble. Give us the humility of your Son, that we may embody the generosity of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“There is nothing stronger than these two, patience and time, they will do it all.” Leo Tolstoy

These words seem strangely out of place among a people increasingly impatient with the institutions of government, with persistent economic inequality and with the intransigent reality of racism running through it all. Time, it seems, is more enemy than ally. Each new day brings another act of violence widening the fault lines in our polarized society. Every year that passes brings us further down the path of ecological ruin. At the end of each year when I fill out the annual parish parochial report for my denomination, I am forced to confront the fact that my congregation is top-heavy agewise and I wonder whether there is enough time left for us to turn around our decades’ long march toward decline. Time seems to be running out for us in so many ways. It is only natural for us to become impatient. It is only natural that we feel compelled to do something-anything.

In every age, the church has faced the temptation to wrest from God the reigns of history, to grasp at the levers of worldly political power in order to facilitate the reign of God and make history turn out right. I think that is why we are forever being drawn into our nation’s partisan disputes and why the church is too often merely a pale reflection, a microcosm of our fractured culture rather than Jesus’ alternative humanity. We fear that events are taking us in the wrong direction. We worry that we are running out of time. We want the kingdom now and we find it hard to resist the temptation to take matters into our own hands and start building that kingdom with whatever tools are at hand.

That is precisely the temptation Jesus faced in the wilderness when the devil offered him the kingdoms of the world and their glory. Let’s face it. Reconciliation is long, hard and dangerous work. It requires making yourself vulnerable to rejection, hostility and violence. It means dying without ever seeing the fruits of your labor. The hearts of people change course more like aircraft carriers than speed boats. It takes thousands of incremental pushes and thousands of miles traveled before you even notice a slight alteration in course. Most of us don’t have the patience for that kind of work, nor do we believe that there is time sufficient to waste on strategies that don’t bring immediate results. That’s where the devil’s appeal comes in. He has a faster and easier way. With enough fire power behind you, you can make people behave themselves whether they want to or not. Threats, coercion and violence can get you a kingdom more quickly and efficiently than winning hearts through relentless acts of love. Persuading your enemy can take a life time. Killing him takes but one squeeze of the trigger. Power gets instant results. No doubt about it, the kingdoms of the world have a lot of power.

Of course, there was just one catch-there always is with the devil. In order to receive all this power and glory, Jesus must worship Satan. That is the price you pay when you get impatient, cut corners and seek ways to peace, justice and redemption bypassing the slow and patient way of the cross. What you get in the end from bargaining with the devil, using his methods and following his short cuts is something less than God’s reign of love. Unlike the kingdoms of the world, God’s reign cannot be imposed-not by force of arms, not by rule of law and not by the will of the majority. Jesus is not interested in becoming yet another conquering hero riding into town on his warhorse. He isn’t interested in winning an election or vanquishing his opposition. Jesus will conquer the world by winning its trust and devotion to his way of reconciliation-or not at all.

Disciples of Jesus understand that time and patience are not abstract notions. They are embodied in the God who took six full days to create the heavens and the earth. (Even if you are inclined to take that literally, you have to admit that six days is far more time than should have been necessary for a God who is able to create simply by uttering a command.) This is the God who waited until Abraham and Sarah were in their 70s to promise them an heir-and only got around to keeping the promise when they were well into their 90s. This is the God who promised to make of Abraham and Sarah a nation of blessing and did so, but not before their descendants lived as resident aliens in the land that was supposed to be theirs for three more generations and four hundred years after that as slaves in Egypt. This is the Lord Jesus whose parting words from the Book of Revelation are “Lo, I am coming soon!” Revelation 22:20. Two millennia later his church still confesses that “he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” As the Apostle Peter puts it, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” II Peter 3:8. While it might seem to us that the present crisis (whatever that might be) calls for God’s  immediate and decisive intervention, God might take an entirely different view. Peter goes on to say that it is not God’s will for any to perish, “but that all should reach repentance.” II Peter 3:9. That might take another millennium or two or three. But God knows what God wants and God will take whatever time is required to get it. God will not be rushed.

A passage from the Letter to the Hebrews (inexplicably excised by the lectionary police from Sunday’s reading) reminds us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Hebrews 13:8. The Jesus who comes again in glory is not somehow different from the Jesus who spent his entire existence serving the poor, speaking truth to power and who finally died for the kingdom he proclaimed at the hands of his enemies. But through the miracle of repentance that happens among people shaped by faithful preaching, persistent sacramental practices and prayerful community, our hearts are being prepared to recognize his glory for what it is, to yearn for his coming and to live peaceably under his gentle reign. Through simple acts of hospitality, courage, faith and devotion to a kingdom yet unseen God is at work breaking the yolk of bondage, felling the walls of hostility and reconciling all things in Christ Jesus.

Here is a poem by Nikki Giovanni about small acts of faith, courage and compassion bearing much unanticipated fruit.

Rosa Parks

This is for the Pullman Porters who organized when people said
they couldn’t. And carried the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago
Defender to the Black Americans in the South so they would
know they were not alone. This is for the Pullman Porters who
helped Thurgood Marshall go south and come back north to fight
the fight that resulted in Brown v. Board of Education because
even though Kansas is west and even though Topeka is the birth-
place of Gwendolyn Brooks, who wrote the powerful “The
Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock,” it was the
Pullman Porters who whispered to the traveling men both
the Blues Men and the “Race” Men so that they both would
know what was going on. This is for the Pullman Porters who
smiled as if they were happy and laughed like they were tickled
when some folks were around and who silently rejoiced in 1954
when the Supreme Court announced its 9—0 decision that “sepa-
rate is inherently unequal.” This is for the Pullman Porters who
smiled and welcomed a fourteen-year-old boy onto their train in
1955. They noticed his slight limp that he tried to disguise with a
doo-wop walk; they noticed his stutter and probably understood
why his mother wanted him out of Chicago during the summer
when school was out. Fourteen-year-old Black boys with limps
and stutters are apt to try to prove themselves in dangerous ways
when mothers aren’t around to look after them. So this is for the
Pullman Porters who looked over that fourteen-year-old while
the train rolled the reverse of the Blues Highway from Chicago to
St. Louis to Memphis to Mississippi. This is for the men who kept
him safe; and if Emmett Till had been able to stay on a train all
summer he would have maybe grown a bit of a paunch, certainly
lost his hair, probably have worn bifocals and bounced his grand-
children on his knee telling them about his summer riding the
rails. But he had to get off the train. And ended up in Money,
Mississippi. And was horribly, brutally, inexcusably, and unac-
ceptably murdered. This is for the Pullman Porters who, when the
sheriff was trying to get the body secretly buried, got Emmett’s
body on the northbound train, got his body home to Chicago,
where his mother said: I want the world to see what they did
to my boy. And this is for all the mothers who cried. And this is
for all the people who said Never Again. And this is about Rosa
Parks whose feet were not so tired, it had been, after all, an ordi-
nary day, until the bus driver gave her the opportunity to make
history. This is about Mrs. Rosa Parks from Tuskegee, Alabama,
who was also the field secretary of the NAACP. This is about the
moment Rosa Parks shouldered her cross, put her worldly goods
aside, was willing to sacrifice her life, so that that young man in
Money, Mississippi, who had been so well protected by the
Pullman Porters, would not have died in vain. When Mrs. Parks
said “NO” a passionate movement was begun. No longer would
there be a reliance on the law; there was a higher law. When Mrs.
Parks brought that light of hers to expose the evil of the system,
the sun came and rested on her shoulders bringing the heat and
the light of truth. Others would follow Mrs. Parks. Four young
men in Greensboro, North Carolina, would also say No. Great
voices would be raised singing the praises of God and exhorting
us “to forgive those who trespass against us.” But it was the
Pullman Porters who safely got Emmett to his granduncle and it
was Mrs. Rosa Parks who could not stand that death. And in not
being able to stand it. She sat back down.

Source: Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea, (c. 2002 by Nikki Giovanni, pub. by HarperCollins Publishers Inc.) Nikki Giovanni is one of the best-known African-American poets who reached prominence during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1943, she moved with her parents from Knoxville to a predominantly black suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio when she was still a child. Giovanni enrolled at Fisk University, an all-black college in Nashville, Tennessee where she served as editor of the campus literary magazine. She went on to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University in New York. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Giovanni’s popularity as a speaker and lecturer increased. So also did her renown as poet and children’s author. She received honors from the National Council of Negro Women and the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers. You can find out more about Nikki Giovanni and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Proverbs 25:6–7

The Book of Proverbs is a compilation of poetic exhortations and pithy sayings couched in Hebrew parallelism. Though attributed in its entirety to King Solomon by tradition and by the opening verse (Proverbs 1:1), material within the text is attributed to at least two other authors. See Proverbs 30:1 and Proverbs 31:1. Though it is certain that the book reached its final form in the period after the Babylonian Exile in the Sixth Century, the material upon which the author/editors drew might well be ancient indeed. I have previously expressed the view that some of these sayings might indeed date back to the time of Solomon. Nevertheless, as one would expect, they also speak to the realities of Jewish life under Babylonian, Persian and Greek rule. Though life under foreign domination was no doubt difficult on the whole, there were always opportunities in the imperial bureaucracy for bright young Jewish boys like Daniel and attractive Jewish women like Esther. These opportunities were fraught with danger, however. Monarchs are fickle and prone to paranoia and cruelty. A little success leads to advancement. Too much success breeds suspicion, distrust and fear on the part of the king, as David learned. Success within the king’s court also invites jealousy and intrigue from those passed over for promotion. Keeping a low profile is, therefore, reasonably good advice for a young person desiring a long career and a secure retirement within the royal court.

A few words about proverbial wisdom are in order. Because Israel believed that “the earth is the Lord’s,” she also believed that it was governed by moral principles clearly set forth in Torah, but also evident in the realm of nature and human relationships. This strain of wisdom tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures has often been labeled “humanistic.” The label is inaccurate and misleading, however. While Israel believed the world to be intelligible, she clearly did not believe that anything like “human reason” could arrive at an understanding of God and creation independently. Whether understanding came from observation of the natural world or through meditation on the scriptures, the ultimate source of all knowledge is God’s revelation. It is not surprising, then, that Israel saw no dichotomy between “reason” on the one hand and “revelation” on the other.

Proverbial wisdom has its limits. “Waste not, want not” was one of my mother’s favorite proverbs. That maxim proves true often enough that we teach our children the value of thrift, careful planning and the avoidance of waste. Yet we all know that people sometimes lose everything and come to abject poverty in spite of a lifetime of careful planning and responsible spending. The universe does not run like a Swiss watch dispensing appropriate rewards for wise behavior and punishment for foolishness. We cannot assume that poverty is the fruit of foolish financial management or laziness any more than we can attribute sickness to divine punishment for sin (as Job’s three friends had to learn). It is therefore best to view proverbs as portholes that give us unique perspectives on the world. Each proverb provides an enlightening, but limited view of life that is far from the full picture. It is one perspective. There are others.

For perspectives different from those set forth in Proverbs, one need not look any further than the Book of Ecclesiastes, also attributed to Solomon. For further background on this unique book, see my post of Sunday, July 31st.  Suffice to say for our purposes that the “teacher” of Ecclesiastes fails to find much of any moral order in human existence concluding at last that “all is vanity.” Ecclesiastes 1:2. This gloomy outlook is poles apart from the enthusiastic testimony of Proverbs to God’s wisdom shining through every crack and crevasse of creation. Yet for a young father trapped in a refugee camp helplessly watching his family starve to death, the world probably looks exactly like the cruel and heartless place the “teacher” says it is. It all depends on which porthole you happen to be looking through and the scriptures give us many.

Psalm 112

Here we have another psalm in the wisdom tradition of Proverbs. It affirms the operation of God’s righteousness in human life rewarding all who trust in God and practice generosity, compassion and integrity. There is some truth in this bold testimony of the psalmist. In communities where these righteous virtues are held in high esteem, people whose lives exemplify them earn the love and respect of their neighbors. Their businesses flourish because everyone knows that they are honest people who honor their commitments and practice patience and leniency with their debtors.

But that is not the whole story. In cultures that value shrewdness over integrity, profit over fairness and productivity over compassion, this same righteous behavior described by the psalmist can lead to failure, suffering and persecution. Again, it all depends upon which porthole you happen to be looking through. The psalmist appears to be aware that, however blest the righteous person may be, s/he is not immune from trouble. Vs 7. Nevertheless, the righteous person does not live in fear of bad news because s/he is confident that God’s saving help will be there to see him/her through whatever the future might hold. I rather like this verse. I must say that I have spent too much of my life worrying about what might happen, i.e., what if I cannot pay for my children’s education? What if I lose my job? My health insurance? That not a single event in this parade of horrors ever materialized emphasizes the futility and wastefulness of worry. Moreover, even if one or more of these things had occurred, it would not have been any less burdensome for my having worried about it in advance! I recall someone defining worry as our taking on responsibility God never intended for us to have. That is what breeds fearful living.

It is impossible to date this psalm with any certainty. Though some scholars are prone to regard it as having been composed after the Babylonian Exile given its wisdom emphasis, I am skeptical of such reasoning. As noted above, I believe that the wisdom material may well have roots in traditions dating back to the Judean/Israelite monarchies. Whatever conclusions one might reach concerning the age of the psalm, it seems clear that it is related to the previous psalm, Psalm 111. Whereas Psalm 111 praises the goodness of God, Psalm 112 testifies to the blessedness of people who trust this good God. The formal similarities between the two psalms are striking. Both are semi acrostic with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet starting off half strophes. They share a number of parallel phrases as well. Whether they were composed by the same psalmist or edited by a later hand to complement each other, it seems likely that they were used together liturgically in some fashion.

Hebrews 13:1–8, 15–16

This reading brings into sharp focus exactly what the letter to the Hebrews is all about. The writer begins with an admonition for the believers to love one another and then goes on to flesh out exactly what that means. Sisterly/brotherly love means sharing the imprisonment and torture of fellow disciples. Despite the delusional ravings of some on the far (very far) religious right who imagine that the government is waging a “war against Christianity,” I maintain that we in this country have absolutely no experience or any concept of what persecution really means. The martyrs of the early church who actually knew a thing or two about what persecution looks like would probably get a pretty good belly laugh from the paranoia of extreme right wing Christians who imagine that they are under siege.

Of course, persecution is a present reality for the church in many places throughout the world where allegiance to Jesus can get you killed.  So what does this scripture have to say to us? In what way do we “remember those who are in prison…and those who are being tortured”? Paul teaches us that the church is Christ’s Body and that when one part of the Body suffers, the whole Body suffers with it. I Corinthians 12:26. What is wrong with our nerve endings that we are not feeling sufficiently the pain of our sisters and brothers in conditions of poverty, persecution and imprisonment?

The writer also calls upon this community to practice hospitality-a core biblical value deeply held throughout the scriptures. The reference to entertaining angels unawares goes back to Abraham’s encounter with the Lord and his angels in Genesis 18. In an age before Holiday Inn where lodging was scarce and the roads vulnerable to banditry, safe travel often depended upon the hospitality of strangers. This was certainly the case in the Bronze Age when the patriarchs lived and probably for much of the First Century world as well. When Jesus sent out his disciples to proclaim the coming of the God’s reign, they were sent out with no provisions and instructed to rely upon the hospitality of the towns to which they preached. Mark 6:7-13. This seems to have been the model for early Christian mission. While the admonition to practice hospitality obviously included traveling missionaries, I believe the allusion to anonymous angels suggests that the command applied more broadly to traveling strangers as well. In the gospel lesson, Jesus will push the parameters of hospitality to the limit.

Luke 14:1, 7–14

Like so many other episodes in the gospel of Luke, this story takes place at a dinner party. Jesus notes how the guests are vying for the best seats at the table and delivers his “parable” about guests at a wedding feast. I am not clear on why Luke refers to this pronouncement of Jesus as a parable. From a literary standpoint, it is much closer to a biblical proverb such as we find throughout the book by that name. Indeed, the likeness of Jesus’ words here to the proverb in our first reading was probably not lost on the host and his guests. Perhaps they found it rather witty, Jesus holding their behavior up to the mirror of proverbial wisdom. But Jesus has a larger purpose than amusing/embarrassing his dinner companions. His remark is a commentary on the social and political underpinnings of this meal.

In both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, meals are sacred. One might even refer to them as sacramental. They are constitutive of community. Passover, Feast of Booths and so many other ritual meals define Israel just as the Eucharist defines the church. Who you welcome to your table tells the world who you are, to whom you belong and who you worship. The Torah makes clear that the Passover meal is to be celebrated by all Israel. Though observed by families, Passover transcends the immediate family to include “all the congregation of Israel.” Exodus 12:1-13. This meal to which Jesus was invited was anything but inclusive of all Israel. Evidently, it consisted of the host’s family and “rich neighbors.” The whole affair is strikingly similar to George Babbitt’s use of dinner invitations to advance his social and professional status. See Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis.

Jesus sees in this occasion a “teachable moment.” “When you give a dinner or a banquet,” says Jesus, “do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or your rich neighbors, lest you be repaid.” Vs. 12. Of course, that is the whole purpose from the host’s point of view. In typical George Babbitt style, he is employing the practice of hospitality, not in the way envisioned by the author of Hebrews, but in order to advance his own standing and build up favors that he can someday call in. Jesus lets him know in no uncertain terms that he is making a bad investment. Just how bad this investment is will be revealed in Chapter 16 where Jesus delivers the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. There it will become clear that this host, through his elaborate and exclusive dinner parties, is building a vast crevasse between himself and the coming messianic banquet with Abraham and all the folks he has seen fit to exclude.

Jesus warns his host to bridge the divide, close the gaping crevasse and open up the table of fellowship with all Israel before he finds himself on the wrong side of that divide. Let us not trivialize this message by turning it into a call for more social programs to care for the poor or for more advocacy on their behalf. Understand that I am not against either poverty assistance or advocacy. In fact, we could use more of both. But that is not enough and it does not get to the heart of the problem-the great divide between those of us who live in relative ease and the ever increasing numbers of people living in deplorable poverty. That divide will keep on growing as long as we continue treating the poor as a social problem to be solved rather than “the treasure of the church” as St. Lawrence would have it. It is not enough to feed the poor. Jesus sends us to invite them to the messianic banquet, to share our table.

In all candor, I am not keen on welcoming the poor into my home and seating them at my table. I would prefer to write a check or spend an evening every week dolling out food at the shelter. Let me be clear: don’t stop writing checks or volunteering down at the shelter. Just understand that we cannot let it end there. Meals are about more than eating. They are for building the people of God. So we have to find a way to make room at the table, our table, for the poor.

I must say that I was delighted to learn of a church that is doing just that. At St. Lydia’s, in Brooklyn, N.Y., whoever comes to the table gets fed. The church is made up of approximately thirty people from a variety of faith journeys and backgrounds. They join each week to cook, eat and worship in each other’s company around the congregation’s three practices: working together, eating together and sharing their stories. Everyone who attends an evening service is invited to help cook.  That way there is no distinction between the helpers and the helped. Everyone contributes to preparing the meal. Everyone is equally a member of the community. That is what makes St. Lydia’s so different from a mere soup kitchen. It is an extension of Jesus’ ministry. Anyone can feed hungry people. But only Jesus can invite them to the messianic banquet.

 

Sunday, August 21st

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 58:9b–14
Psalm 103:1–8
Hebrews 12:18–29
Luke 13:10–17

Prayer of the Day: O God, mighty and immortal, you know that as fragile creatures surrounded by great dangers, we cannot by ourselves stand upright. Give us strength of mind and body, so that even when we suffer because of human sin, we may rise victorious through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

The Third Commandment calling us to honor the Sabbath was actually the first commandment God gave. Unlike the rest of the commandments, this one was given to all of humanity at the dawn of creation and not only to the people of Israel. At the climax of the creation story in the first two chapters of Genesis we read: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” Genesis 2:1-3. Of course, God does not grow weary and God needs no rest. But God knows we need rest and so this provision for rest is woven into the very fabric of creation.

This statute was again repeated in the Ten Commandments given specifically to Israel, a people just liberated from slavery. God’s Sabbath honoring community called Israel was intended to be an alternative society to that of the surrounding empires in which the life of common people was characterized by never ending, back breaking, soul destroying labor-all for the benefit of the ruling class. Such was the life Israel experienced in Egypt, “the house of bondage.” In Egypt, non-Egyptians were enslaved, oppressed or driven out. Egypt was for the Egyptians-and mostly for Egyptians of the imperial household.

Life under Israel’s covenant with her God was to be a very different arrangement with a radically different view of labor. Elaborating upon the Third Commandment in Exodus 23, Moses declared: “For six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your home-born slave and the resident alien may be refreshed.” Exodus 23:12. Sabbath rest is commanded not only for people and animals, but for the land as well: “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.” Exodus 23:10-11. Aliens and sojourners in the land of Israel were to be treated with the same consideration as citizens. Thus, Moses admonishes his people: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Leviticus 19:33-34.

The commandment to honor the Sabbath is as relevant now as ever. It is a word spoken for the sake of men and women working three jobs at wages that barely allow them to make ends meet. It was designed for workers who are fearful of taking what little vacation they have because it might reflect poorly on their devotion to the company and hurt their chances for promotion. Sabbath was made to liberate an earth groaning under the strain of ruthless exploitation and pollution by human consumption and waste. Slavery is what happens when work gets out of hand, when a person’s right to eat and find shelter is determined by the labor market, when profits become more important than people, when the work is worth more than the workers whose lives and limbs are sacrificed to get it completed on time. Bondage to hunger, poverty and ecological ruin result when we cease to view the earth as God’s garden and instead treat it as nothing more than an inanimate ball of finite real estate and resources to be fought over and controlled by competing nation states. God gave us the Sabbath to check our human inclination toward just such bondage and slavery. We need to be reminded that the earth is the Lord’s; that it keeps on turning without our completing all of our very important projects; that labor is a gift given by God enabling us to serve our neighbors, not a tool of the rich and powerful to exploit in feeding their insatiable greed.

To observe the Sabbath in our culture of frantic busyness might be the most radical and subversive act the church can perform. No, I am not talking about reinstating the blue laws or boosting church attendance. I am suggesting that believing workers begin living as though their jobs were less important than the families they support and unite in speaking a firm “no” to the ever expanding reach of the office into all other areas of life. I am suggesting that employers who claim to be disciples of Jesus pay their workers a living wage-whether the law compels it or not. I am suggesting that discipleship involves finding ways to live gently in the land, giving back more to the biosphere than we consume. The Sabbath observance to which God called Israel and to which Jesus calls his disciples involves far more than refraining from work on a single day of the week. Sabbath observance is a way of life. Such a life honors creation, serves the neighbor and leaves behind a legacy of healing, growth and renewal instead of scars upon the land.

Here is a poem by Mary Oliver about John Chapman, the historical figure behind the legend of Johnny Appleseed. Oliver describes a beautiful life that comes as close to genuinely honoring the Sabbath as I have ever seen.

John Chapman

He wore a tin pot for a hat, in which
he cooked his supper
toward evening
in the Ohio forests. He wore
a sackcloth shirt and walked
barefoot on feet crooked as roots. And everywhere he went
the apple trees sprang up behind him lovely
as young girls.

No Indian or settler or wild beast
ever harmed him, and he for his part honored
everything, all God’s creatures! thought little,
on a rainy night,
of sharing the shelter of a hollow log touching
flesh with any creatures there: snakes,
racoon possibly, or some great slab of bear.

Mrs. Price, late of Richland County,
at whose parents’ house he sometimes lingered,
recalled: he spoke
only once of women and his gray eyes
brittled into ice. “Some
are deceivers,” he whispered, and she felt
the pain of it, remembered it
into her old age.

Well, the trees he planted or gave away
prospered, and he became
the good legend, you do
what you can if you can; whatever

the secret, and the pain,

there’s a decision: to die,
or to live, to go on
caring about something. In spring, in Ohio,
in the forests that are left you can still find
sign of him: patches
of cold white fire.

Source: American Primitive, c. 1983 by Little, Brown and Co. Mary Oliver was born in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio. She was deeply influenced by poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her work received early critical attention with the 1983 publication of a collection of poems entitled American Primitive. She is a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award. You can read more about Mary Oliver and sample some of her other poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Isaiah 58:9b–14

The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures comes from Third Isaiah, the designation given by biblical scholars to the anonymous preacher who addressed the Jewish people after their return from the Babylonian exile around 530 B.C.E., but before the second temple was completed around 515 B.C.E. This prophet’s oracles are found at Isaiah 56-66. The verses constituting our reading need to be set in context. This oracle begins at the head of Chapter 58 with a command for the prophet to declare to Israel her transgressions. The people complain because God does not answer their prayers for Israel’s restoration. They pray and fast to no avail. But the prophet points out that even as they fast and pray, the wealthy and powerful among the people pursue their own commercial interests and oppress their workers. They quarrel and fight among themselves even as they offer prayers. Such fasting does not reflect repentance and a change of heart. So the prophet, speaking on behalf of the Lord, declares:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Isaiah 58:6-9. The reading for Sunday further develops this theme promising that if the people will show compassion to the poor and the afflicted, remove the yolk of oppression and cease their hateful quarreling, the restoration for which they pray will be given them. “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”Isaiah 58:12.

Hebrew Scriptural scholar Claus Westermann suggests that vss 13-14 of our lesson come from a different prophetic source. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, (c. SCM Press Ltd, 1969) p. 340. This conclusion is based on the fact that the prior verses all have to do with turning toward one’s neighbor, whereas verses 13 and 14 focus strictly on Sabbath observance. Ibid. However that might be, the text as we have it in the cannon clearly joins Sabbath observance to compassion for the oppressed and the afflicted. As pointed out in the introductory remarks, this is quite in keeping with the understanding of Sabbath reflected throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Divorced from its goal of providing relief from oppression and poverty, Sabbath becomes an empty ritual that is itself oppressive. Jesus will make this very point in the gospel lesson.

Psalm 103:1–8

I frequently encounter people within the church who hold a very negative view of the Hebrew Scriptures. At the extreme end are folks (most of whom have not read extensively in the Hebrew Bible) who reject these scriptures as archaic, barbaric and contrary to “the God of love” revealed in the New Testament. In the first place, this characterization is inaccurate. The greatest biblical bloodbath with the highest body count is found not in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament book of Revelation. Moreover, the God Jesus calls “Father” is none other than the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament does not introduce to us “a kinder, gentler” God. Moreover, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with expressions and testimony to God’s love and compassion. The psalm for this Sunday is a testimony to God’s mercy and capacity for forgiveness as clear and beautiful as any found in the New Testament. Unfortunately, verses 9-13 are not included in our reading. They point out that “[God] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities.” “As far as the east is from the west, so far does [God] remove transgressions from us.” “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him.” The psalmist is a man or woman who has experienced firsthand God’s tender loving mercy.

This psalm begins not with an address by the psalmist to God, or with a declaration from God to the psalmist. The psalm begins with the psalmist addressing himself/herself with a command to “bless the Lord.”  If you read Psalm 103 in its entirety (which I encourage you to do), you will discover that the psalmist proceeds almost imperceptibly from his opening soliloquy to declaration of God’s eternal love contrasted with human mortality. The psalm concludes with the psalmist calling upon the very angels and the entire universe to join in his/her song of praise. This marvelous opening out of a soul to the praise and Glory of God is a wonderful paradigm for prayer. St. Augustine felt much the same way:

“Bless, is understood. Cry out with your voice, if there be a man to hear; hush your voice, when there is no man to hear you; there is never wanting one to hear all that is within you. Blessing therefore has already been uttered from our mouth, when we were chanting these very words. We sung as much as sufficed for the time, and were then silent: ought our hearts within us to be silent to the blessing of the Lord? Let the sound of our voices bless Him at intervals, alternately, let the voice of our hearts be perpetual. When you come to church to recite a hymn, your voice sounds forth the praises of God: you have sung as far as you could; you have left the church; let your soul sound the praises of God. You are engaged in your daily work: let your soul praise God. You are taking food; see what the Apostle says: Whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God. I Corinthians 10:31. I venture to say; when you sleep, let your soul praise the Lord. Let not thoughts of crime arouse you, let not the contrivances of thieving arouse you, let not arranged plans of corrupt dealing arouse you. Your innocence even when you are sleeping is the voice of your soul.” Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Psalm 103New Advent.

Hebrews 12:18–29

For my take on Hebrews, see my post of Sunday, August 7th. You might also want to take a look at the summary article of Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary on Enterthebible.org.

Thus far the author of Hebrews has argued extensively that Jesus is the new Temple of God that supersedes the temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. In Chapter 11 s/he compared the life of discipleship to the lives of the patriarchs and the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness. Like them, disciples of Jesus are to live as aliens in a hostile world. They willingly forego the comfort and security that comes from having a place to call home or a temple to which they can point and assert: “there is the dwelling of God.” They must believe that Jesus, the “pioneer and perfecter of their faith” goes with them and before them surrounded by that invisible cloud of witnesses who have died in faith and hope. Now throughout Chapter 12 the author comes to the point: encouragement. The Hebrew disciples must run their race with perseverance knowing that their journey has an end not at the place of judgment, but with a festal gathering of angels and saints.

I am particularly moved by verse 24 in which the author tells us that the blood of Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, “speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.” Abel, you will recall, was the world’s first murder victim. When God confronted Abel’s murderer (his brother Cain), God told him that Abel’s blood was crying out to him from the ground. Though the Genesis narrative does not say so specifically, we can infer that Abel was crying out for vengeance from the fact that henceforth the ground was cursed for Cain and bore nothing for him in the way of crops for harvest.

Vengeance is the natural human response to wrong. Much of the law in the Hebrew Scriptures was designed to limit or curtail vengeance. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” sounds rather draconian to our way of thinking. But in a society where there was no police force, no judicial system as we know it and nothing to stop the endless bloodletting between feuding clans whose thirst for revenge knew no limits, this is actually a life-giving provision. It does not literally mean that you are entitled to break the tooth of anyone who breaks your tooth. Rather, it limits the remedy of the injured party to recompense from the wrongdoer. Retaliation cannot be made against the wrongdoer’s family and the wrongdoer’s responsibility is limited to restitution for the wrong done. Jesus, of course, directs his disciples to go beyond this statute to exterminate vengeance altogether.Matthew 5:38-42.

In our culture, vengeance is too often equated with justice. “Getting justice” for a victim of violent crime amounts to witnessing the perpetrator’s punishment. Victims often express their hope of getting “closure” from seeing the murderer of their loved ones die. Thanks be to God, I have never had to stand in their shoes. That being the case, I will refrain from judgment. Still and all, I find it hard to believe that punishment of the perpetrator brings any real sense of closure to the families and loved ones of victims. Execution of the murderer does not bring back the victim, heal the void left from the loss or quell the burning anger such crimes ignite. It only takes the object of that anger out of the picture. Retribution does not really heal. That is why it is not really justice. Biblical justice is concerned not merely with the adjudication of disputes and the punishment of wrongs, but with the reconciliation of the parties involved thereafter. In order to get the kind of justice God wants, he must forego retribution. That is what God does in Jesus. Instead of avenging his cruel death, God raises Jesus up and gives him back to us, his murderers, with an offer of reconciliation.

It is important to keep in focus the fact that Jesus died a violent death. If ever vengeance were justified, this would have been the case. If ever there were just cause for raising the sword in self-defense, the night of Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane would have been the time and place. If ever shed blood had reason to cry out for vengeance, it was the blood of Jesus shed on the cross. But herein is the victory of the cross: that God will not be goaded into vengeance. God does not need to get “closure” by witnessing the death of his Son’s murderers. Mercy triumphs over judgment. The blood of Jesus speaks mercy and so inspired the lines from the hymn: “Abel’s blood for vengeance pleaded to the skies; but the blood of Jesus for our pardon cries.” “Glory Be to Jesus,” Lutheran Book of Worship Hymn # 95.

Luke 13:10–17

The scene here opens with Jesus teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, evidently with the permission of the ruler of the synagogue. Teaching on the Sabbath is not at all objectionable. But when Jesus encounters a woman “with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years,” he calls her to himself and heals her in the presence of all. Evidently wishing to avoid attacking Jesus directly, the ruler of the synagogue directs his criticism to the crowd: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.”

This objection follows roughly word for word the instructions laid down by Moses in Exodus that we saw earlier. In light of this, the ruler’s objection does not seem unreasonable. The woman had been crippled for eighteen years. This was hardly a medical emergency. She had only to wait a few hours until the Sabbath was over. Yet those of us who experience back pain know that when it kicks in, a few hours is a very long time. You don’t get much rest when your back is hurting and rest is, after all, what the Sabbath is all about. So from Jesus’ perspective, there is no better time to give someone rest from pain than on the Sabbath. In fact, Jesus puts the question this way: “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” Another way to translate this would be: “Was it not necessary that this woman…be set free from bondage on the Sabbath?” As we have seen before, Luke speaks frequently of “necessity” driving Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. See, e.g. Luke 24:26Acts 2:23Acts 3:18. In view of the drawing near of God’s kingdom, it was necessary to break the yolk of bondage and allow this woman her Sabbath rest.

In addition to clarifying for us the true meaning of Sabbath, this story is also instructive for how we ought to read the Bible. If one goes by the simplistic rubric: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it,” then you have to side with the ruler of the synagogue. Healing is work and work is forbidden on the Sabbath. Game over. But if you think more deeply about what the Sabbath is for and why it was given, then I think it becomes clear that Jesus was right. How can you invoke the letter of the Sabbath law to deny Sabbath rest to a daughter of Abraham? This healing was not merely permitted, but demanded by Sabbath law. We don’t read biblical texts in a vacuum. We begin with the proposition that the Bible is God’s word because it is our most authoritative witness to the Incarnate Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus teaches us that any interpretation of scripture that bars a person from the Sabbath rest God offers to us through Jesus has just got to be wrong.

 

Sunday, August 7th

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 15:1–6
Psalm 33:12–22
Hebrews 11:1–3, 8–16
Luke 12:32–40

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you sent your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of your church. Open our hearts to the riches of your grace, that we may be ready to receive you wherever you appear, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

The clarion call for preparedness sounds throughout the New Testament. This call, however, is far more specific than the Boy Scout motto: “be prepared.” The Apostles urge us to prepare for the coming of the Son of Man, the day on which Jesus will be revealed, the judgment of the quick and the dead. I wish the Apostles had told us more. Specifically, I wish the Jesus had given us an historical road map through the remainder of history, a date certain for the end or at least some way to know when the time is drawing near. Nothing is quite as unnerving as getting lost and being without a map, compass or GPS.

I hardly need to tell you that there are no shortage of pastors, teachers and self-proclaimed prophets who claim to have found just such an historical road map in the Bible. One such individual was Rev. Timothy Lahaye who passed away last week. Lahaye co-authored the popular Left Behind series of books that later inspired several movies under the same franchise. Though perhaps good for some harmless distraction while trapped in an airport or sitting in the doctor’s office, these books should not be taken for more than what they are: fast, entertaining reads. They tell us a lot more about Rev. Lahaye’s politics, philosophy and worldview than about anything in the Bible.  The Left behind series reflects fear and loathing for the United Nations, globalization, Catholicism and mainline Protestantism. Behind the elaborate plot and a very selective use of scriptural passages ripped from their context lies a profound despair over the future. The Left Behind books mirror the American religious right’s deeply felt conviction that the America we all once knew and loved has been taken away from us. Lahaye and his followers, however, have given up on “taking America back” and “making America great again.” They are convinced that the world has slipped too far into the grip of the forces of evil they fear. Nothing short of a violent cleansing for the earth through the wars, plagues and natural disasters of the “tribulation” and the forceful implementation of Christ’s kingdom can set things right.

Of course, Lahaye is not the only one claiming to have figured out God’s’ timeline. In the 1970s Hal Lindsey made a big stir with his book, The Late Great Planet Earth. And who can forget Harold Camping and his prediction that the world’s end would occur on May 21, 2011? There are numerous other individuals throughout history too numerous to list who have tried to figure out what even Jesus himself did not know-exactly when the kingdom of God will be revealed in its fullness.

It’s easy to poke fun at these failed prophets and more so the many hapless folk who always seem to be taken in by their claims. But I can understand the anxiety and impatience that give such claims their appeal. After all, it is not easy remaining on full alert twenty-four/seven until further notice. It’s not easy, having to earn a living, raise a family and pay off a mortgage-all while keeping one eye peeled for the coming of the Son of Man. More difficult still is our lack of understanding about what exactly we are looking for and how we are supposed to know it when we see it. Yes, I know there are some graphic descriptions of the coming of the Son of Man in the New Testament. But these come to us in the garb of apocalyptic literature whose lurid, poetic imagery was never intended to be taken as news headlines from the future. It is the kind of language you have to use when talking about something you know to be real but don’t fully comprehend. It was  designed to inspire, encourage and comfort-not to measure, quantify and explain.

Our lesson from the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1. Faith seeks understanding, but does not require it. Abraham and Sarah did not need to understand how God would fulfill God’s promise to give them an heir. Nor did they have to understand when or how God would manage to give their descendants the land ruled by powerful Canaanite city states in which they were dwelling as illegal aliens. In the same way, we don’t need to understand when or how God will complete the reconciliation of all things in Jesus Christ, how the hearts of all the world will be won over to faith in Jesus or how those who have died in faith will be raised up to participate in God’s new heaven and earth. As John the Apostle tells us, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” I John 3:2. It is enough to know that in the end, God will dwell among God’s people; we will have formed in us the mind of Christ; and we will be able to see God as God is and all of God’s people as they are known and loved by God in Christ. The when and the how of that must be left in the hands of the God who promises to bring it all about.

In the meantime we wait, remaining alert to the signs of the coming of the Son of Man. As the saints of old, we will likely die in faith. Yet we, like them, “have seen and greeted” that day from afar. Hebrews 11:13. As church, we struggle to live together as though the kingdom has come in its fullness and God’s will is being done on earth as in heaven. As Clarence Jordan so aptly put it, we strive to be a demonstration plot for the new heaven and new earth spoken of in the Book of Revelation where God and all God’s people live together as one. Much of the time, we fail miserably. But every so often, we get it right. Every so often the miracle of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace shine through in our midst by some witness of love, courage and wisdom. That seems to happen just often enough to remind us of what God has in store for us at the end and to keep us watchful, hopeful and ready for the coming of the Son of Man.

At the end of the day, it matters more that our hearts and minds are shaped by the faithful anticipation of Jesus’s revealing than knowing when and how it is to come about. The best preparation for the coming of the Son of Man is learning to love and serve him now so that, whenever he arrives, we will not find him to be a stranger.

Here is a poem about faithful anticipation by Emily Brontë.

How Beautiful the Earth is Still

How beautiful the earth is still,
To thee – how full of happiness!
How little fraught with real ill,
Or unreal phantoms of distress!
How spring can bring thee glory, yet,
And summer win thee to forget
December’s sullen time!
Why dost thou hold the treasure fast,
Of youth’s delight, when youth is past,
And thou art near thy prime?

When those who were thy own compeers,
Equals in fortune and in years,
Have seen their morning melt in tears,
To clouded, smileless day;
Blest, had they died untried and young,
Before their hearts went wandering wrong,
Poor slaves, subdued by passions strong,
A weak and helpless prey!

” Because, I hoped while they enjoyed,
And, by fulfilment, hope destroyed;
As children hope, with trustful breast,
I waited bliss – and cherished rest.
A thoughtful spirit taught me, soon,
That we must long till life be done;
That every phase of earthly joy
Must always fade, and always cloy:

This I foresaw – and would not chase
The fleeting treacheries;
But, with firm foot and tranquil face,
Held backward from that tempting race,
Gazed o’er the sands the waves efface,
To the enduring seas – ;
There cast my anchor of desire
Deep in unknown eternity;
Nor ever let my spirit tire,
With looking for what is to be!

It is hope’s spell that glorifies,
Like youth, to my maturer eyes,
All Nature’s million mysteries,
The fearful and the fair –
Hope soothes me in the griefs I know;
She lulls my pain for others’ woe,
And makes me strong to undergo
What I am born to bear.

Glad comforter! will I not brave,
Unawed, the darkness of the grave?
Nay, smile to hear Death’s billows rave –
Sustained, my guide, by thee?
The more unjust seems present fate,
The more my spirit swells elate,
Strong, in thy strength, to anticipate
Rewarding destiny!”

Source: The Poems of Emily Brontë, edited by Derek Roper and Edward Chitham (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995). Emily Brontë was born on July 30, 1818 in the parsonage at Thornton in Yorkshire to the Reverend Patrick Brontë and Maria Branwell Brontë. Best known for her novel, Wuthering Heights, she was also the author of several poems, most of which did not receive public attention until after her death in 1848. You can read more about Emily Brontë and sample some of her other poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Genesis 15:1–6

Abram’s arrangement with Eliezer reflects a custom known to have existed in Mesopotamia documented in the Nuzu tablets.  Nuzu was an ancient Mesopotamian city located southwest of Kirkūk in Iraq. Excavations undertaken there by archaeologists in 1925–31 revealed material extending from the prehistoric period to the age of the early Roman Empire. More than 4,000 cuneiform tablets were discovered at the site. These tablets date from about the 15th century B.C.E. and contain numerous statutes governing family relationships and civil institutions. According to these provisions, a childless property owner could provisionally adopt a slave who would then be obligated to care for his owner until death and see to his proper burial. In exchange for these services, the slave would be freed and inherit his owner’s property. The arrangement was provisional insofar as it became null and void upon the birth of a legal heir to the owner. Such was the case for Eliezer upon the birth of Isaac. (Sorry Eliezer. Close, but no cigar.)

Abram is assured that his line will not become extinct, but that a son born to him will be the channel of fulfillment for the original promise made in Chapter 12 (Genesis 12:1-3) and repeated here.  Abram’s response is to believe the promise. This particular response of Abram is prominent in Paul’s arguments in both Romans and Galatians for the primacy of faith over works. Knowledge of this background is critical to understanding what Paul means by “faith.” It is not the unquestioning acceptance of doctrinal propositions, but confidence in God’s promises. Therefore, even though faith is primary, it is never divorced from a faithful response. Abram has already demonstrated his confidence in God’s promises to him by uprooting himself from his homeland and becoming a wandering sojourner in Canaan. Though some of Abram’s subsequent actions reflect a less than faithful attitude, that only goes to show that the fulfillment of the covenant promises finally depends neither upon Abram’s faith nor on his works but upon God’s faithfulness.

Psalm 33:12–22

This psalm of praise celebrates Israel’s God as both creator and lord of history.  Sunday’s reading begins at verse 12 with the exclamation, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he has chosen as his heritage!”  God is not a passive and objective observer when it comes to the affairs of nations and peoples. God is unashamedly partisan and favors Israel through which he will be made known to the world of nations. Neither kings nor their armies direct the course of history. Reliance upon them is futile. By contrast, the Lord can be trusted to deliver those who rely upon him. Consequently, while the nations rely upon their rulers and their armies, Israel’s hope is in the Lord.

It is difficult to date this psalm. An argument can be made that, given the psalmist’s dismissive attitude toward the power of kings and military might, the psalm was likely composed after the Babylonian Exile when Israel had neither the monarchy nor an army. On the other hand, even during the pre-exilic monarchy Israel always understood that victory comes from the Lord. Consequently, it is altogether possible that this psalm constitutes a festival liturgy used for worship in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem or perhaps even during the era of the Judges.

In a culture that is prone to rely increasingly upon military might, violence and raw power to settle disputes, this psalm sounds a dissonant chord, calling us to recognize God’s reign and leave the business of retribution to him. The Lord neither needs nor desires our assistance in punishing the wicked. Instead, we are called to bear witness to God’s goodness in lives of faithful obedience. The extent of faithfulness to which we are called is the measure of Jesus’ faithfulness unto death. Knowing that “the eye of the Lord is on all who fear him [and] on those who hope in his steadfast love,” we can face the might of kings and their warhorses without violence and without fear. “Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and shield.” Vs. 20

Hebrews 11:1–3, 8–16

As we will be hearing from the Book of Hebrews for the next four weeks, it might be helpful to refresh our recollections with an overview. As most of you know by now, I do not view this epistle as an assertion of Christianity’s superiority over Judaism. Instead, I believe that the letter was written to explain the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and to deal with the disappointment of some disciples who might have been expecting that event to usher in the new age. The destruction of the Temple was a severe blow to both Jews and Christians who, according to the Book of Acts, worshiped there. For Jews it meant the end of the sacrificial cult that came to define much of what it meant to be a Jew. For Christians it meant the loss of an institution Jesus attempted to purify and the failure of a prophetic understanding of its destruction as a sign of the inbreaking of God’s reign. In short, the destruction of the Temple was a traumatic event for Jews and Christians alike. Jews dealt with this catastrophe by turning to the Torah as their center of faith and life. Disciples of Jesus saw in Christ “a new temple not built with hands.” John 2:19-22. So the objective is not to discredit Judaism with Christianity, but rather to illustrate how the ministry and mission of Jesus fulfills the functions of the temple cult and supersedes it.

Chapter 11 of Hebrews comes after the conclusion of these arguments. The disciples are called to live faithfully in an uncertain time. There are no eschatological markers (such as the Temple) to indicate where they stand in relation to the consummation of God’s reign. The day might be just around the corner, but it is more likely somewhere further out into the indefinite future. The disciples must therefore accept their current status as aliens in a hostile land awaiting the country God is preparing for them. In this respect, they are following in the train of a long list of Israelite heroes whose faith sustained them and who died without seeing the realization of their hope. Abraham is raised up as a primary example of faith which is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Vs. 1. In obedience to God’s call, Abraham set out for a land he had never seen on the strength of a promise whose fulfillment was humanly impossible.

Verses 13-16 make the point that neither Abraham nor the other Hebrew heroes of faith were truly at home. They had received the promise of a homeland more real to them than the land of their sojourning. Precisely because their lives were pattered after the ways of this anticipated homeland, they were constantly at odds with the predominant cultures in which they lived. Such lives, lived in faith and ending in hope, became paradigms for discipleship in the early church. We see rightly, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, only as the biblical narratives become our own stories. I think the late John Howard Yoder says it best of all in his book, Body Politics:

“Whereas contemporary dominant mental habits assume that there is ‘out there’ an objective or agreed account of reality and that faith perspectives must come to terms with that wider picture by fitting into it, as a subset of the generally unbelieving world view, I propose rather that we recognize that we are called to a believing vision of global history, suspicious of any scheme or analysis or management that would claim by itself to see the world whole or apart from faith or apart from avowing its own bias. The modern world is a subset of the world vision of the gospel, not the other way around. That means we can afford to begin with the gospel notions themselves and then work out from there, as our study has done, rather than trying to place the call of God within it.” Yoder, John Howard,  Body Politics, (c 2001, Herald Press) p. 74.

Luke 12:32–40

I am not sure what the lectionary people had in mind here. It seems as though verses 32-34 belong with verses 22-31 in which Jesus gives his sermon on God’s care for the ravens and the lilies of the field, admonishing his disciples not to live anxious and fearful lives. Verses 35-40 advance into a new topic, namely, watchfulness and readiness for the coming of the Son of Man. So it seems to me that, if one chooses to preach on the gospel, it probably will be necessary to make a choice between these two topics.

The admonitions against anxiety follow naturally from last week’s parable of the rich fool. It is just as foolish for the destitute disciples to fret over their seeming lack of necessities as it was for the man in the parable to fret over what to do with his surplus of goods. God provides for the ravens (crows) that feed on carrion. Are not the disciples of more value than these birds? So also God clothes the lilies, short lived plants that perish in a matter of days, in raiment more glorious than that of kings. Can the disciples imagine that this God will neglect them?

That sounds comforting until Jesus spells out the natural consequences. “Sell your possessions and give alms.” Vs. 33. There is no need to amass any degree of wealth if you believe what Jesus has just said about the birds and the lilies. To store up supplies for the future is to make a mockery of the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Yet accumulation is a way of life culturally ingrained upon our consciences. The financial industry impresses upon us constantly the need to save through investing, the need to plan for the indefinite future and the necessity of obtaining to that nirvana of “financial security.”  In the face of all this, obedience to Jesus in this instance appears to be highly irresponsible. So who do you believe: Jesus or the banks?  Whose word do you follow: Jesus’ or that of your financial adviser?

I cannot find an easy out for us here. Of course, there are plenty of tricks preachers have used over the years to dodge this bullet. One is the contextual argument: The society in which Jesus lived was vastly different from our own. The banking and monetary systems on which we depend did not exist. Therefore, you cannot take what Jesus said in the context of an agricultural subsistence economy and simply apply it to the economy of a modern industrialized society. So the argument goes, but I find myself asking, “Why not?” How is piling up money in the bank different from storing your surplus grain in barns? Isn’t this just a distinction without a difference?

Then, of course, we can spiritualize the text and argue that Jesus was speaking only figuratively. Selling all of your possessions means simply remaining sufficiently detached from them. That is, “have your wealth as if you had it not.” I have heard that one too. It sounds about as convincing as the drunk who insists that he is not an alcoholic because he really could quit drinking any time if he wanted to. In the end, I think this is one of many instances where Jesus tells us something about our lives, our values and our culture that we really would rather not hear.

Verses 35-40 mark an abrupt change of subject. The topic now is readiness for the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus begins by directing his hearers to “Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning.” Vs. 35. The Greek word for “loins” or “waist” is “osphus.” It refers to the locus of the reproductive organs. In the first century, garments were worn loosely around the waist without a belt while inside the home. When one went outside the home, it was customary to tie them up about the loins with a belt functioning in much the same way as a male athletic support. Thus, having “your loins be girded” was a sign of readiness for immediate departure or vigorous work. Marshall, Howard I., Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 1978 The Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 535. There is an echo here of Moses’ instructions to the Israelites in Exodus on the eating of the first Passover meal: “In this manner you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand…” Exodus 12:11. Just as the Israelites had to be prepared for God’s imminent act of liberation from Egypt, Jesus’ hearers must be prepared for the salvation God will usher in through the coming of the Son of Man.

Jesus uses the image of a man gone off to a marriage feast, leaving his slaves in charge of the house. Marriage celebrations in ancient Palestine could last for days and so the slaves would have had no way of knowing precisely when their master would return. They must therefore be ready to unlock the door and welcome him home at any time of day or night. This much is entirely plausible. But then Jesus goes on to promise that, should the master of the house find his slaves ready and waiting for him with everything in order upon his return, he will invite his slaves to sit at table and will gird himself for work and serve them. It is hard to imagine a fellow making dinner for his servants after coming home in the middle of the night from days of partying. Yet that is precisely the point. The coming of the Son of Man brings with it rewards that are beyond imagination-for those ready and waiting for it. But for those who are unprepared, the day will come like a thief, catching unprepared the householder who leaves his home unattended.

Whether the coming of the Son of Man is understood as the final event signaling the end of the age or whether one understands this coming as an event occurring throughout the life of the church, the point is the same. For those waiting with eager anticipation for that day and who have pattered their lives on obedience to the Son of Man, the coming of the Son of Man will be an occasion of unimaginable joy. For those living as though Jesus’ coming were some distant event so far in the future that it has little bearing on day-to-day life, that coming will be a rude awakening.

In some respects, this latter section of the gospel lesson ties in nicely with the lesson from Hebrews urging us to let our lives be shaped and our expectations informed by the narrative of those heroes of faith who lived in anticipation of God’s future. Make friends with God’s future now and you need not worry that it will overtake you like an ambushing foe.

Sunday, December 20th

FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Micah 5:2-5a
Luke 1:46b-55
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that binds us, that we may receive you in joy and serve you always, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The Magnificat, a song sung by Mary the mother of our Lord, is the psalmody for this coming Sunday. It is a remarkable song for a lot of reasons. Mary appears certain that the downfall of the mighty, the salvation of the oppressed and the realization of God’s covenant promises for Israel are accomplished facts. Unless she is hallucinating, she must know that the Roman Empire is still firmly ensconced, Israel is still under military occupation and none of that seems likely to change anytime soon. Mary seems to be living an alternative reality where God’s promise of salvation to Israel has already been fulfilled. For her, it’s a done deal.

An unborn child, not even a person in our contemporary estimation, is a slim reed on which to base this confident assertion of God’s triumph over injustice and oppression. Yet Mary stubbornly insists that she is pregnant with Israel’s salvation. Her longing is too real to be denied. So is God’s. One of my seminary professors, Fred Gaiser I believe it was, told us that the Hebrew Scriptures are straining toward Incarnation. The refrain, “I will be your God and you will be my people” is sounded throughout the law and the prophets. That refrain forms the back drop for John the Evangelist’s declaration that “the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” It is given expression in the Book of Revelation, where John of Patmos has the angel in his vision declaring: “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.” The Incarnation, then, is where God’s longing for us meets our yearning for salvation. In Jesus, room is made for God to dwell in our midst. That is the miracle about which Mary sings. Where there is room for God, there is room for anything!

Here’s a poem called “Magnificat” by Mary Ruefle.

O Lord, I did walk upon the earth
and my footprints did keep pace with the rain
and I did note, I did note where orange birds
flew up from the puddles thou hast made
and where the toads leapt from your trenches,
but nowhere was there that I could go
for I could not rise from the firmament
upon which I was placed, and nowhere could I
so I kept until I could no more straight
then bent said I am down to make room for the more
and you half hearing did send me down
into the soul of another by mistakes
and I would like to thank you for it
from where I lie, risen in the eye of the other.

(Emphasis in original text) “Magnificat” by Mary Ruefle, from Selected Poems (c. 2010 by Wave Books, 2010). Mary Ruefle was born in 1952 outside of Pittsburg to a military family. Throughout her childhood, she travelled with her family to various places in the United States and Europe. She has written several books of poetry, essays and fiction, including Indeed, I was Pleased with the World, The Adamant, A Little White Shadow, and The Most of it. You can find out more about Mary Reufle and her books at the Poetry Foundation website.

Micah 5:2-5a

Micah is one of the Minor Prophets. He is “minor,” though, not in terms of importance but by the volume of his work. In comparison with the Major Prophets (i.e. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel & Daniel), Micah is only a slim collection of prophetic utterances. As is the case for most of the prophets, the book of Micah is not really a book in the proper sense. It is more like an anthology or collection of the prophet’s oracles most likely compiled and arranged by his disciples after his death. It is likely that this “book” was edited and supplemented with the work of these disciples and probably reached its final form during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile following the conquest of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.

According to the introductory verse of the book, Micah prophesied during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Micah 1:1. This would have made him a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah. See Isaiah 1:1. Micah was from the small village of Moresheth in Judah (Micah 1:1) and so had occasion to observe up close the injustice and oppression exercised by the rich and powerful in society, a perspective that his contemporary might have lacked, being associated as he was with the royal court in Jerusalem. See, e.g. Micha 2:1-2. He likewise deplored the abuse of the prophetic office, (Micah 3:5), the corrupt practices of Judah’s rulers (Micah 3:11) and the moral indifference of her priests (Micah 3:11).

At this point, Judah was leading a precarious existence in the shadow of the mighty Assyrian Empire. Micah witnessed the Assyrian attack that would eventually end the Northern Kingdom of Israel, thereby bringing the Assyrian army to the very border of Judah. In the face of this crisis, King Ahaz saw only two choices. He could join with the Northern Kingdom of Israel and its ally Syria in an anti-Assyrian alliance-which appeared doomed to failure. Or he could proactively seek an alliance with Assyria. The emperor of Assyria would no doubt find such an offer attractive. It would give him a small, but effective ally at the rear of his enemies. Control of Judah would also give Assyria a buffer between its own sphere of influence and Egypt, its enemy to the south. Of course, such an alliance would come at a heavy price for Judah, including the loss of her sovereignty, the requirement that she receive into her temple the gods of Assyria and heavy tribute payable through taxation of the common people. Yet as unattractive as this Assyrian alliance was, King Ahaz found it preferable to joining an anti-Assyrian military effort that was likely to end badly.

Micah (and Isaiah) saw yet a third alternative. Judah could wait for her God to deliver her-as God had always done in the past. Though Ahaz proved a disappointing king, Micah is confident that God will yet raise up from Bethlehem (the home of David) a king who, unlike Ahaz, will give to Judah and her people the peace, safety and security for which she longs. Scholars have long debated whether these words constituting the reading for Sunday are actually those of Micah or those of a prophet living after the Exile speaking these words of hope and encouragement to the exiled Jews. I side with those who attribute them to Micah. There is no mention at all of Babylon in chapter 5, but there is a clear reference to the threat posed by Assyria. Micah 5:5. Though the NRSV separates this verse from the section forming our reading, I don’t see any warrant for that in the Hebrew. Neither did the translators for the old RSV. Furthermore, Israel is not addressed here as a community of exiles, but as a nation under siege according to Micah 5:1 (which also is not included in our reading). This would fit the historical circumstances in which Micah found himself in the 8th Century B.C.E.  See Isaiah 36-37.

However one might date these prophetic words, they reflect Israel’s hope that God would finally raise up a ruler fit to be a king in the proper sense. Christians have long asserted that Jesus constitutes the fulfillment of this hope, but we cannot afford to slide too easily from Micah to the New Testament. Such an identification of Jesus with the one “who shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord” (vs. 4) raises more questions than it answers. What sort of security does Jesus provide? In what sense does he stand in “the strength of the Lord”? How can one rightly say that Jesus has “become great to the ends of the earth”? vs. 4. Clearly, Jesus is not the sort of king that would make mincemeat out of the Assyrians (or Romans) and re-establish the Davidic dynasty of old or one like it. What, then, does it mean to call “Lord” and “King” someone who was born out of wedlock in a barn and died the death of a criminal? These are the questions with which the gospels and the letters of Paul struggle.

Luke 1:39-45

I want to move directly into the gospel lesson for Sunday because it seems to address some of the questions raised by our identification of Jesus with Micah’s promised deliverer. I also believe that this narrative is absolutely essential to a proper understanding of verses 46-55 used as this Sunday’s psalmody. This remarkable visit between two women touched in a profound way by the Spirit of God sets the stage for Mary’s remarkable hymn. Elizabeth, you may recall, was infertile and so bore societal “reproach.” Mary also was carrying a child and it is tempting to draw the conclusion that she bore reproach also as the pregnancy was obviously out of wedlock.  Both women would then have been subject to human reproach, albeit for different reasons. Both women also have been divinely vindicated. This provides a delightful literary symmetry that would work nicely in crafting a sermon, but I fear that we might be reading too much into the text. It does not appear that anyone regards Mary with moral distain as a result of her pregnancy. Unlike Matthew’s gospel, Luke does not tell us of any ambivalence on Joseph’s part.  Neither does Mary express any sense of shame or give any indication that she has been subject to moral sanction from any quarter. Thus, the thrust of this encounter appears to be Elizabeth’s affirmation of Mary’s vision and recognition of her unborn child as the one whose way her own son has been sent to prepare.

Most remarkable is, once again, the vulnerability of the promised savior. The helplessness and fragility of this fetus stands out in stark relief against the world dominating might of the Roman Empire. From this vantage point, the cross seems inevitable. A confrontation between this savior and the Empire could end in no other way. What is less obvious and what Luke strives to reveal is that what appears to be inevitable defeat will turn out to have been victory. The cross, Rome’s instrument of terror by which it maintained the pax Romana (peace of Rome), is soon to be snatched from the hands of the Empire to become the symbol of a very different sort of peace-the peace of Christ.

Something else is worth noting here. The gospel of Luke contains a lengthy genealogy tracing Jesus’ ancestry from Adam through the line of David up to Joseph. Luke 3:23-38. Yet Luke takes pains to emphasize that Jesus was not the natural son of Joseph. Consequently, Joseph’s Davidic credentials appear to be irrelevant. If anybody’s genealogy matters here it is that of Mary. But we don’t know anything about her ancestry. So why does Luke include it?

One reason might be that the gospels are not “books” in the sense of having a single author writing his or her own material from start to finish. The gospels consist of parables and sayings from the preaching and teaching of the early church that were subsequently woven into a narrative or “story.” Because the gospel writers were working with material from several different sources and trying to fit it into a coherent story, there were naturally inconsistencies, seams in the narrative and places where the story does not flow naturally. That all may be so, but I think it glosses over the issue with a little too much ease. The gospel writers may have been relying upon material that was handed down to them, but they were doing more than simply stapling pages together. To the contrary, they exercised a high degree of originality and creativity in their use of stories, parables and hymns that came down to them. They took an active part in shaping the tradition to enhance the story they were trying to tell. I doubt that Luke would have intentionally allowed such a great discrepancy to stand unless he had a reason for it.

My belief is that the genealogy over against Jesus’ miraculous birth makes the same point John the Baptist elaborated on last week. “Do not say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” Luke 3:8. So also, God does not need the line of David to raise up a savior for Israel. Out of sheer grace, God adopts the line of David-as he once did David himself. Jesus’ status as Savior and Lord does not stand or fall on his Davidic credentials. It stands rather upon the redemptive and grace filled work of God. Out of mercy, compassion and in faithfulness to his covenant with the line of David, God freely adopts that line identifying God’s self with God’s people Israel.

Luke 1:46b-55

This remarkable hymn of Mary, known as the Magnificat, is woven directly from the worship tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures. The closest scriptural parallel is the Song of Hannah from I Samuel 2:1-10. Like Elizabeth, Hannah was unable to have children and sought the help of the Lord. Hannah’s song is a hymn of praise and thanksgiving in response to the birth of her child, Samuel. Both hymns praise God for looking upon the humble state of the petitioners and hearing their prayers. Both hymns transition from thanks for personal deliverance to praising God for his compassion for the poor and for raising them up. The theme of the “great reversal” that will be seen throughout Luke’s gospel is reflected in Mary’s song: “God has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree.” Vs. 52. God’s exaltation of the humble maidservant Mary prefigures the career of Jesus who lifts up the outcast and the sinner. Also prefigured is the day when the reversal begun in Jesus will be complete. Just as John will one day bear witness to Jesus, so Elizabeth now testifies concerning the messianic destiny of Mary’s Son.

The hymn opens with the words: “My soul magnifies the Lord…” Vs. 46. This is most likely the Greek rendering of a Hebrew expression, “Praise the Lord, O my soul!” See, e.g., Psalm 146:1. The “soul” here is the “self.” Thus, the psalmist praises God with his or her whole being. One could also say that the self becomes a lens for magnifying the glory and goodness of God through the act of worship. It is likely that the hymn is a Jewish one adapted to Luke’s literary purposes here. There is nothing to suggest authorship within the early Christian community. Marshall, I. Howard, Commentary On Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 by Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 79. Though I would hasten to add that the earliest church, being a movement within the larger Jewish community, probably shared, adopted and adapted for its own use worship material from the synagogue. Thus, it is hazardous to attempt hard and fast distinctions here.

It is critical that Mary’s song be understood within the context of Israel’s covenant relationship with her God. It is not for general consumption. This is not a song about some general social revolution. The salvation spoken of here is very specifically understood as the vindication of Israel’s hope in the covenant promises of Israel’s God. The raising up of the humble and the leveling of the proud takes place within the covenant community when the terms of covenant existence are observed. This covenant life is what makes Israel a “light to the gentiles.” The conclusion of the hymn says it all: “God has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever.” Vss. 54-55. As gentiles, we enter into this covenant by the door graciously opened for us through Jesus.

Hebrews 10:5-10

What more can I say about Hebrews than I have already said? As I have pointed out in previous posts, I have never been convinced that this epistle argues for the superiority of Christianity over Judaism, though it has been so interpreted. I believe rather that the author of Hebrews is struggling with the trauma to early believers resulting from the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The loss of this structure and the liturgical institutions that gave meaning and substance to the faith of Israel struck a demoralizing blow to all of Judaism, including those Jews who were disciples of Jesus. Judaism dealt with this event by refocusing its worship more deeply in the life of the synagogue and in the study of Torah. Disciples of Jesus turned to the redemptive suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus as celebrated in the worship of the church.

The quotation attributed to Christ in verses 5-7 appears to have been cobbled together from a few Hebrew sayings found in various forms in Psalm 40:6-8; I Samuel 15:22; Psalm 50:8-15; Isaiah 1:10-17; Jeremiah 7:21-26; Hosea 6:6. It is not surprising that the quotation is not precise. The author appears to be working from memory rather than in the stacks of the library. For example, in Chapter 2:6 s/he introduces a citation from Psalm 8 with the words, “It has been testified somewhere…” We need to remember that in this age, centuries before the invention of the printing press, books were available only to a tiny fraction of the population. Reading was a rare skill and a useless one to common people with nothing to read. Consequently, one’s Bible was whatever had been committed to memory-and that typically constituted a lot of material. This is evident from the letter to the Hebrews which is saturated with quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures (though not with citations!).

The argument spelled out here is that the Temple and its sacrificial liturgy were merely “a shadow of the good things to come.” Heb. 10:1. They could not effect true reconciliation with God. The Temple was only a symbol of the dwelling place of God and its priests were merely human representatives whose sacrifices could do no more than point to the perfect sacrifice required to establish communion with God. By contrast, Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and resurrection by the power of God establish communion with God, the reality to which the Temple and its priesthood could only point in anticipation.