Posts Tagged peace
Hope in the shadow of the bomb; a poem by Thomas Centolella; and the lessons for Sunday, June 10, 2018
THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: All-powerful God, in Jesus Christ you turned death into life and defeat into victory. Increase our faith and trust in him, that we may triumph over all evil in the strength of the same Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.” Psalm 130:5-6
I am just old enough to remember the “duck and cover” drills to which kids were subjected in elementary school during the height of the cold war. The sirens would go off and we would be instructed to crawl under our desks and crouch face down covering our heads with our hands. Our teachers would rush about drawing the heavy curtains across the windows, closing the doors and turning off the lights. All this took place throughout my first and second grade years. I recall hearing adults talking in hushed tones about “the bomb” and that the Russians had it and might use it against us at any time. Of course, I understood very little about who the Russians were, what the bomb was or why the Russians would want to use it against us. But I knew enough to realize that “the bomb” and Russians represented dangers sufficient to frighten the adults in my life. That alone made it very terrifying to me. If the grownups are afraid, where can a kid turn for comfort and security?
The psalmist responds to that very expression of existential terror with a call to wait for the Lord in hope. What else can you do when the grownups entrusted with custody of the bomb are calling each other names, drawing lines in the sand like playground rivals and threatening each other with “fire and fury?” What concerns me most is not the bellicose rhetoric of our leaders. I’ve seen that before. What disturbs me is the seeming lack of concern expressed by the public, the discussion in high places of a “military option” for dealing with North Korea-as though a nuclear war were actually winnable-and the naïve assumption that, at any rate, it will all play out “over there.” I worry that, to a generation that has never known selective service, has no living memory of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and experiences war as something that is handled by someone else’s children on the other side of the world, the very real dangers posed by the current situation might appear distant and abstract. So to all you millennials out there who might be thinking this does not affect your lives and futures, be warned: Our leaders are playing Russian roulette with your lives.
I pray for and am hopeful for the success of the upcoming summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Yes, I am well aware of the odds against any substantially positive outcome for this event. I am aware of all the dangers involved. My hope for this summit might reasonably be characterized as foolish. But my hope is not finally in these leaders, their diplomatic teams or their good intentions. My hope, like that of the psalmist, is in the Lord.
Sometimes witnesses and workers for peace have names like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Oscar Romero. But often the instruments of peace turn out to have names like Mao, Nixon and, yes, Un and Trump. As for the latter grouping, I do not suggest that there is anything to be admired in their characters or that their crimes should be overlooked. I am only pointing out that, what human beings in their smallness of heart intend for evil, God somehow engineers for good. See Genesis 50:20. God is the hidden and often overlooked ingredient in the mix of political, social and religious forces that seem to be driving history. For that reason, the future continues to elude our most erudite predictions and frequently produces outcomes that surpass our expectations and prove our fears to have been baseless. For that reason, too, when I’ve done all I think I can and the world seems still to be careening toward the abyss, I find it possible to “wait for the morning” in hope.
Here is a poem about hope by Thomas Centolella.
The Hope I know
doesn’t come with feathers.
It lives in flip-flops and, in cold weather,
a hooded sweatshirt, like a heavyweight
in training, or a monk who has taken
a half-hearted vow of perseverance.
It only has half a heart, the hope I know.
The other half it flings to every stalking hurt.
It wears a poker face, quietly reciting
the laws of probability, and gladly
takes a back seat to faith and love,
it’s that many times removed
from when it had youth on its side
and beauty. Half the world wishes
to stay as it is, half to become
whatever it can dream,
while the hope I know struggles
to keep its eyes open and its mind
from combing an unpeopled beach.
Congregations sway and croon,
constituents vote across their party line,
rescue parties wait for a break
in the weather. And who goes to sleep
with a prayer on the lips or half a smile
knows some kind of hope.
Though not the hope I know,
which slinks from dream to dream
without ID or ally, traveling best at night,
keeping to the back roads and the shadows,
approaching the radiant city
without ever quite arriving.
Source: Almost Human, Centolella, Thomas (c. Thomas Centolella, 2017, pub. by Tupelo Press, 2017). Thomas Centolella is an American poet and author of four books of poetry. He is a recipient of the Lannan Literary Award, the American Book Award, the California Book Award and the Northern California Book Award. He is also Wallace Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University and lives in the San Francisco Bay area. You can read more about Thomas Centolella and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
To get the full impact of this encounter between God and God’s human creatures, we need to go back a chapter to where God, determining that it is “not good” for the “Adam” (“earth creature”) to be alone, draws from Adam a partner. Here for the first time Adam is referred to as “man” or “ish” in contrast to the “isha” or woman. Significantly, they are at this time both naked and unashamed of their nakedness. Genesis 2:25. We are told that the serpent was more cunning than all the other creatures God had made. Genesis 3:1. There is a clever play on words here that gets lost in translation. The Hebrew words for “naked” and “cunning” are “arumim” and “arum” respectively. Thus, the knowledge offered through the cunning (arum) of the serpent manifests itself first by revealing to Adam and Eve that they are naked (arumim). Genesis 3:7.
Our understanding of this text is clouded by our cultural association of nudity with sexual immorality. The eye opening shock experienced by Adam and Eve had less to do with sex and more to do with the sheer terror of exposure, a terror that could not exist if all indeed were clearly exposed. But I suspect that Adam is even now concocting his plan to throw Eve under the bus when confronted by God over the matter of the forbidden tree. Eve, too, is formulating her defense and would prefer to keep that strategy to herself. This new “knowledge” Adam and Eve have obtained discloses in a poignant way how little they can know of each other, which is truly terrifying given their growing lack of trust.
What we see in this story is a reflection of relationships in general as well as of marriages in particular. “There are no secrets between us,” I often here couples say. But of course that is never the case. I doubt most couples share between them all of their fantasies and daydreams. Most of us have experiences in our past we prefer to keep secret. We tell small, inconsequential lies to one another in order to bring comfort or avoid hurt. So too with less intimate relationships. We weigh how much to share with any given friend, keeping back those things we think might cause him/her to think less of us. In social settings we steer conversation away from topics that we think might give rise to argument, awkwardness or embarrassment. We develop “filters” to prevent us from speaking all that is on our mind because we know how destructive that can be to our relationships.
The portrayal of God in this story is quite remarkable. God comes not as the unbearable presence atop the fiery mountain in Sinai, nor as the overwhelming presence enthroned in the heavens we met in last week’s lesson from Isaiah. God comes strolling onto the scene enjoying the evening breeze just as any one of us might do in the cool of the evening. Adam and Eve are nowhere to be seen. Vs. 8. God must call them out of hiding. Vs. 9. God interrogates his creatures on their odd behavior. “Why ever would you hide from me?” Vs. 10. Of course, God knows what is wrong. God’s creatures now have secrets from God (or so they think). They don’t want to be naked in front of God anymore than they want to be naked before each other. There can be but one explanation for their unusual conduct: “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” vs. 11.
Now it is clear that the humans cannot hide their nakedness any longer-at least not from God. Rather than giving God a straightforward “yes” to the inquiry about the tree, Adam moves immediately to his defense. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Vs. 12. The woman explains, “The serpent [whom you made and put in the garden] tricked me, and I ate.” Vs. 13. If the serpent had an excuse, we don’t get a chance to hear it. God evidently feels he has taken enough evidence to enter judgment on this case.
Judgment is first pronounced upon the serpent. Henceforth, the serpent will be cursed even within the animal world, doomed to crawl on its belly eating dust for the rest of its days. Vs. 14. Furthermore, there will be enmity between the serpent and humanity that will continue throughout the generations to come. Vs. 15. In my opinion, we read too much into this text when we construe the “crushing” of the serpent’s head in this verse as the victory of Christ over Satan. The serpent is not a demonic figure in this narrative. It is one of God’s good creations. Though “cunning,” it is not inherently evil. Yet its presence in the garden and the role it plays in this story tells us that there is an element of randomness in God’s good creation. God made a world loaded with potential for good, but the potential for tragic and unintended consequences exists as well.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty I have found in preaching this text is the baggage it has accumulated over the last century in the still active campaign of “creationists” to defend their interpretation of this text as an historical, geological, astronomical and biological account of origins in the face of all we have learned from the sciences. Even our own theological language characterizing this story as “the Fall” mischaracterizes the narrative truth. This is not the story of a pristine beginning spoiled by a stolen apple. When the text is read in that way, we are left with a host of imponderables. Who is the serpent? Where did he come from? Why did God put him in the garden to begin with? It does not help to identify the serpent with the devil. That only kicks the metaphysical can further out into the cosmos. For now we must ask where the devil came from.
This creation story is best understood as descriptive of what now is rather than an explanation for why it is. To the extent that there is a “why” lurking in the narrative, it consists only in acknowledging that God creates a world filled with creatures loaded with potential. Human inquisitiveness, cunning essential to survival, knowledge that is both promising and dangerous are all woven into the fabric of creation. The creation of the “earth creature” or what we might call the emergence of self-consciousness and differentiation from the animal world is a good development, enabling the human to serve as God’s steward and gardener for the earth. Yet this same development brings with it the temptation to exploit, dominate and control. In a sense, each generation is Adam and Eve. We are born into a world with certain givens. There is inherent randomness. We inherit a history of violence, injustice and cruelty that continues to make itself felt. It is in this sense that we can speak of what is often (and inaptly) called “original sin.” Yet there are endless opportunities also for enacting compassion, justice and peace.
If you were to read further in the chapter, you would discover that judgment is not the last word in this story. Though the consequences of their transgression are not reversible, God nevertheless sends Adam and Eve from the garden with clothing made by God’s own hand, covering the nakedness that so terrifies them. Genesis 3:21. God has not given up on the human creatures. There is more to this story which is only beginning to unfold.
This psalm is one of seven “penitential psalms” (the others being Psalm 6; Psalm 32; Psalm 38; Psalm 51; Psalm 102; and Psalm 143) so named by Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, a statesman, writer and scholar of the sixth century. It is characterized by Hebrew Scripture scholars as a “lament” containing all of the essential elements of its type:
- Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
- Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
- Witness of praise to the community, vss. 7-8.
See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. The Hebrew word “mimmaamkym” “From out of the depths” is a term that is equated with “sheol” or the abode of the dead. For the Israelite there was no “after life.” The concept of resurrection from death came only much later in Israel’s thinking. Consequently, death was the end of any meaningful life. To be in sheol was to be separated from the realm of life and therefore from the Lord of Life. There is no praise of Israel’s God in sheol. Consequently, the psalmist must have been in very deep distress, though we cannot tell what his or her specific complaints were.
According to Anderson, supra, the “word ‘depths’ [mimmaamkym] reverberates with mythical overtones of the abyss of watery chaos, the realm of the powers of confusion, darkness and death that are arrayed against the sovereign power of God.” Ibid. Perhaps, but the point seems to be that the psalmist feels as utterly distant from God who is “enthroned upon the cherubim” (Psalm 99:1) as any creature can be. This distance is due, in part at least, to the psalmist’s sin. Though clearly in some sort of deep trouble, the psalmist knows that s/he is in no position to claim God’s help and salvation. Nevertheless, the psalmist is able to “hope in the Lord” and encourages all Israel to do the same because, “there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.” Vs. 4. It is worth repeating here that the New Testament did not invent forgiveness. God has always been and always will be forgiving toward his people Israel and toward his people engrafted into the covenant with Israel through baptism into Jesus Christ. If that were not the case, if God did in fact “mark iniquities” (vs. 3), there would be no point in prayers such as this.
The psalmist is resolved to “wait for the Lord.” Vs. 5. S/he knows that answers to prayer are not instantaneous. Prayer requires a willingness to wait and watch for the answer. Jesus also told his disciples “Ask, and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Matthew 7:7-8. Thus, asking is only the beginning. One must then seek the answer and be willing to knock on what appears to be a closed door.
“My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning.” Vs. 6. This is a striking image. In Jerusalem, watchmen took their post after sunset to keep a look out for approaching enemies. They were the ancient world’s equivalent of early warning systems. It was a tedious job on a long winter’s night and one can well imagine the watchman, who had no clock or wrist watch, scrutinizing the horizon for signs of the sunrise signaling that his lonely vigil was finally coming to an end.
In verses 7-8 the focus changes from the psalmist’s personal prayer to an admonition directed to all Israel to hope in the Lord. As we saw in Psalm 51, Israel frequently took ancient prayers of individuals and adapted them for use in public worship as prayers for the whole people. In this case, an Israelite who lived after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem may well have found in this individual’s plea for personal help a reflection of Israel’s post exilic distress. Having lost the line of David, the Temple, and her land, Israel was likewise “crying out from the depths.” Like the individual, Israel turned to the Word of the Lord and God’s promises for comfort and hope, knowing that with her God was forgiveness. Vs. 4.
For a brief but thorough introduction to Paul’s Second Letter to the Church in Corinth, see the Summary Articleby Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. In short, Paul’s relationship with the church at Corinth deteriorated significantly between the writing of I Corinthians and II Corinthians. It appears that there were some individuals or groups within the church at Corinth that were challenging Paul’s apostolic authority, undermining his leadership and questioning his fitness as a preacher. Following his first letter, Paul made what he describes as a “painful visit” to the church. II Corinthians 2:1. This visit did not accomplish whatever it was he had intended. Not wanting to make another such visit, Paul wrote a “severe letter” to the church in Corinth out of “much affliction and anguish of heart.” II Corinthians 2:4. Though we cannot be certain, many commentators believe that at least part of this “severe” letter is contained in II Corinthians 10-13. E.g., Godspeed, Edgar J., An Introduction to the New Testament, (c. 1937 by University of Chicago Press) pp. 61-62. Whatever the case may be, it is evident that Paul was concerned about the effect his letter would have upon the church and so sent his associate, Titus, to Corinth in order to deal with the fallout. (It is also possible that Paul sent the letter along with Titus). Paul became so preoccupied with the problems at Corinth and the potential impact of his letter that he cut short a preaching tour in Troas and traveled to Macedonia in search of Titus. There Paul finally caught up with his associate who brought him a very favorable report from Corinth. II Corinthians 7:5-13.
Paul’s severe letter had evidently done its work. The congregation gave its full support to Paul. Paul’s opponents were disciplined by the congregation so severely that Paul had to write and urge the church to reach out to them with forgiveness and “reaffirm” their love for these errant members. II Corinthians 2:5-11. It is this third letter from Paul to Corinth from which our lesson comes.
Our reading begins with Paul’s lose citation to Psalm 116:10: “I kept faith, even when I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted.’” To make sense of this, you need to go back and read II Corinthians 4:7-12 where Paul speaks about the afflictions he has endured as a missionary of the gospel of Jesus Christ. These include being “persecuted” and “struck down.” Notwithstanding these afflictions, the Spirit continues to give Paul the courage to “speak out.” Vs. 13. Paul is convinced that, though he is always “carrying in the body the death of Jesus” (II Corinthians 4:10), the God who “raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.” Vs. 14.
For this reason, says Paul, “we do not lose heart.” Vs. 16. Even though our “outer nature” is wasting away, “our inner nature is being renewed every day.” Vs. 16. The former is evident. We experience the aging process that diminishes our bodily health and strength. We see our achievements fade into insignificance. Our friends move away, die or become estranged through time and circumstance. The universe, we are told, is expanding and doomed to run out of steam. The latter is not evident. Based solely on the empirical evidence, no one can assert that we are being renewed even as we are in the process of dying or that this expanding universe is being transformed into a new heaven and earth. This reality is only illuminated by the resurrection of Jesus from death. It is for that reason we dare to believe God is at work bending each subatomic particle of the universe and turning all of its energies toward redemption. In the words of Rick Barger, president of Trinity Lutheran Seminary, “If the tomb had not been empty on Easter Sunday, we’d have nothing to talk about.”
This passage is incredibly good news for social workers who spend their energies helping people crawl out of horrible situations only to fall back in again. It is good news for teachers struggling to provide a quality education to underprivileged children in underfunded, poorly run and neglected schools. It is good news for pastors of churches that continue to struggle notwithstanding their enormous efforts to build them up. We do not look only to what is seen in the light of the status quo. We view everything in the light of Jesus’ resurrection which demonstrates that the universe is bent toward the kingdom of God and that life in conformity with that kingdom is eternal.
What would you do if you learned that your adult son was acting erratically, not eating properly and getting himself into trouble with the authorities? Upon hearing these very reports about Jesus, his mother and brothers did what I believe any loving family would do. They organized an intervention. It was their intent to “seize” Jesus and take him home by force if necessary. They might have succeeded but for the crowd around Jesus they could not penetrate. Failing to reach Jesus, they send word that they desire to speak with him. His response must have been a blow to their hearts, particularly to his mother. “Who are my mother and brothers?” Vs. 33. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Vs. 35.
As I have noted in previous posts, there is no shortage of organizations under the Christian franchise devoted to preserving the “traditional family.” One such organization is Focus on the Family whose self described mission is “to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with as many people as possible by nurturing and defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide.” Of course I think sharing the Gospel is critical and know well that success on that score requires cooperation with the Holy Spirit. I am not necessarily opposed to promoting biblical truths either, though I suspect I might not agree with Focus on what those truths are. The real sticking point, though, is the “God-ordained institution of the family.” According to Focus, the ideal family is “one man and one woman committed to each other for life, raising their children in a loving, supportive home.” That, however, is not what Jesus just told us. Marriage is not the foundation of family and blood lineage does not define its boundaries. Baptism is the foundation of family and trumps all other relationships, including marriage. See Luke 18:29-30. For disciples of Jesus, water is thicker than blood. Church is the only “God ordained” family there is. Focus on the Family is therefore focusing on the wrong family.
That is not to say that families and households are not important. To the contrary, they are. I agree with Focus that “our culture increasingly disparages family life,” though I believe poverty, inadequate wages, increasing demands for employee productivity, requirements for worker mobility, lack of job security, lack of access to adequate health care and erosion of quality educational opportunities have a lot more to do with that than marriage equality-the culprit blamed by Focus. Does anyone really believe that marriage of the gay couple across the street poses a greater threat to his/her family’s well-being than losing a job or health care coverage? If Focus is truly committed to the welfare of families, I would recommend to its board of directors a campaign against late stage capitalism. Somehow, I don’t think that would fly.
Sandwiched in between the two ends of this episode with Jesus’ family is the allegation of the scribes that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul who enables him to cast out demons. Jesus responds by pointing out the faulty reasoning of the scribes. Vs. 22. Why would Satan give Jesus power over his own legions? If in fact “Satan is cast[ing] out Satan,” his kingdom is imploding. That can only mean the Kingdom of God is at hand-just as Jesus has been saying. Vss. 23-25. Jesus goes on to say that no one can plunder a strong man’s house unless he first binds the strong man. Thus, Jesus can only do what he is doing because he has, in fact, bound Satan. Vs. 28.
Finally, we have that ever troublesome verse about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit for which one “never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” Vs. 28-29. That verse has been a torment to many people over the centuries, not the least of whom was the father of Soren Kierkegaard who confided to his son that he once cursed God for the dreariness of his life while living as an impoverished serf. What does it mean to blaspheme the Holy Spirit? In the first place, it is important to note that this admonition is not addressed to the public but to the specific scribes who equated Jesus’ exorcism of demons with the work of demons. Unable to deny that Jesus has truly freed people from the power of Satan and unwilling to ascribe any good to Jesus whatever the evidence might show, they resort to nonsensical arguments in order to discredit Jesus. These particular scribes are hardened in their opposition to Jesus. They are not doubters, skeptics or even indifferent to Jesus. They have made up their minds and formed their opinions about Jesus. They refuse to allow the facts to confuse the issue.
To the few folks I have met over the years (and there have been a few) concerned about whether they might have committed the unforgivable sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit, I have simply told them that their concern in that regard is a pretty clear indication that they have not. I am fairly convinced that the persons (if any) who are actually guilty of this sin don’t much care and never lose a night’s sleep over it. In sum, if you are worried about having committed this unforgivable sin, you haven’t. If you have committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, you are not the least bit worried about it and you are probably not reading this blog anyway.
Praying for the peace of Jerusalem; a poem by Harriet Monroe; and the lessons for Sunday, May 20, 2018
DAY OF PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Mighty God, you breathe life into our bones, and your Spirit brings truth to the world. Send us this Spirit, transform us by your truth, and give us language to proclaim your gospel, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Today the United States officially moves its embassy in Israel to the city of Jerusalem amidst protests, violent military strikes and almost unanimous condemnation by world leaders, including allies of the United States. According to Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, in so doing, President Donald Trump has fulfilled biblical prophecy. In comments on the network and in a column on the Fox News website, Pirro said:
″[Trump], like King Cyrus before him, fulfilled the biblical prophecies of the gods [sic] worshipped by Jews, Christians and, yes, Muslims, that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish state and that the Jewish people finally deserve a righteous, free and sovereign Israel.”
Well, hate to burst your bubble Jeanine, but that isn’t anything close to what the Bible says or what Persian Emperor, Cyrus the Great, actually did. First off, understand that the earth is the Lord’s and whatever claim we have to it is provisional, contingent and temporary. Psalm 24:1. This is so for the State of Israel no less than any other nation state. What the people of Israel (as distinct from the nation state by that name) learned and the church has had to learn over and over again is that the minute we start thinking of anything in our hands as a permanent entitlement, we are tempting the Almighty to take it away from us. Speak to the prophet Jeremiah about that. Second, Cyrus did not give back Judah and Jerusalem to the Jews returning from exile in Babylon as the capital of a “free and sovereign Israel.” Not by a long shot. Palestine under Cyrus was one of many satraps governed by local Persian rulers. Reoccupying the land of Israel was for the newly liberated exiles a privilege granted by the empire, not a right. Living faithfully in the land does not require and certainly does not entitle one to control and monopolize it.
Indeed, the Bible states fairly clearly that, just as Israel is given as a covenant to the nations (Isaiah 49:6), so Jerusalem is a city belonging to all peoples. Consider, for example,
“Among those who know me I mention Rahab [Egypt] and Babylon; behold, Philista and Tyre, with Ethiopia-‘This one was born there,’ they say. And of Zion it shall be said, ‘This one and that one were born in her;” for the Most High himself will establish her, The Lord records as he registers the peoples, ‘This one was born there.’” Psalm 87:4-6.
“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’” Isaiah 2:2-3.
“And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Isaiah 56:6-7.
These passages all testify to Jerusalem as a center of worship and prayer open to all peoples. Turning this holy city into the capital of a modern nation state controlling and limiting access flies in the face of all that Jerusalem signifies in the scriptures. Only in the weird and wacky world of right wing pre-millennialism, a faith cooked up by sectarians in the late 19th Century, does nationalizing Jerusalem make theological sense. For more on that, see my post of Sunday, June 11, 2017.,The scriptures offer not one single straw in support of nationalizing the Holy City.
The story of Pentecost gives us much needed perspective here. The breaking down of linguistic barriers among Jews on the morning of Pentecost prefigures the breakdown of racial, gender and cultural barriers between peoples the church will encounter on its mission “to the ends of the earth.” What Jesus declared to the Samaritan woman is fulfilled in the church’s mission spawning faithful communities of worshipers throughout the greko roman world. True worship of God is tied not to any geographic place, temple or shrine, but occurs wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name. That does not mean, however, that Christians have no stake in the city of Jerusalem. According to the Book of Acts, Jerusalem is the birthplace of the church of Jesus Christ and the temple was the first place of worship for his disciples. Jerusalem will always be critical to the church’s narrative as the place where Jesus died and was raised, the place where the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the church and the place from which the church’s mission to the world was launched. So, too, Jerusalem will always be central to the faith and self-understanding Israel. For Muslims the Holy City is no less holy. Jerusalem, as Jesus and the prophets declare, is a house of prayer for all nations. Can we find a way to let it be so? Can we find a way to acknowledge Jerusalem as a city holy to the God we all claim to worship, a city open and welcome to all, shared and cared for by all, but owned and controlled by none? Would not such a Jerusalem testify to the prophetic hope we all share for a united humanity?
Here is a poem about Jerusalem by Harriot Monroe suggesting that the mere endurance of the Holy City against a violent history of aggression is a source of inspiration and hope.
Who am I, Jerusalem, that I should climb your streets,
Erect on your sharp knee-wounding stones?
Who am I that I should reflect and reject
Here where so many pilgrims have accepted all?
The Holy Sepulchre, the three orifices for the crosses,
The deep-down tomb of Lazarus where he lay three days,
These are morticed to the truth with blood and tears.
Time has seeded your shrines with beauty-they bloom like
The myths grow little flowers of faith.
None can conquer you-not the Egyptian, nor the
Babylonian, nor the Roman.
They battered down your walls and burnt your towers
Till not one stone was left upon another,
Yet your rose again.
The Philistine took you, the Moslem, the Crusader,
And General Allenby walked in triumph through your
Yet here you stand on your hill,
Stronger than mountains are your foundations,
And loftier than stars your towers.
Source: Poetry, October 1929. Harriot Monroe (1860-1936) was founder and editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. She was born in Chicago and read at an early age. Her father’s large library fed her insatiable curiosity and love for verse. Monroe graduated from the Visitation Academy of Georgetown, D.C., in 1879 and published a number of poems thereafter. In 1912 she convinced one hundred prominent Chicago business leaders to sponsor the magazine Poetry by each committing to fifty dollars a year for a five-year subscription. This money, along with her own funds, launched the publication that continues to this day. Monroe was determined that her publication be a portal for aspiring talent. “Open Door will be the policy of this magazine” she wrote. “…may the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius! To this end the editors . . . desire to print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written.” You can learn more about Harriot Monroe and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
The Book of Acts continues Luke’s story begun in his gospel. Recall that, in the Transfiguration, Luke describes Jesus’ coming suffering, death and resurrection in Jerusalem as his “departure.” Luke 9:31. This word is derived from the term for “Exodus” employed in the Greek Old Testament known as the Septuagint. Luke means to tell us that Jesus is soon to bring about a saving event on a par with Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. Throughout his telling of the story, Luke has sought to demonstrate a history of salvation in the ministry of Jesus and its continuation through the church. This history is told against the backdrop of the Roman Empire that has been lurking in the background from the beginning, takes an interest in Jesus during his ministry in Galilee and moves to crush him as he makes his very determined last trip to Jerusalem. Luke is showing us that history is made not in the capital of Rome, but in the backwaters of the Empire where a homeless couple gives birth to an infant in a barn. The word of God comes not to the Temple in Jerusalem, but to a ragged prophet in the wilderness of Judea. God’s glory is revealed not within the Holy of Holies, but outside the city on a hill overlooking a garbage dump where the vilest of criminals are executed. By way of the resurrection, God makes clear that Caesar is not Lord. Jesus is.
The second chapter of Acts takes us to the next episode of Luke’s salvation history, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. Pentecost, known as the “Feast of Tabernacles” or “Feast of Booths” was intended as a reminiscence of the fragile dwellings in which the Israelites lived during their 40 years of travel through the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. According to the prophet Zechariah, this feast of booths will become a universal festival in the last days during which all the nations will make pilgrimages annually to Jerusalem in celebration. Zechariah 14:16-19. The gathering of many Diaspora Jews in Jerusalem and their receptiveness to the disciples’ preaching indicates that the long awaited messianic age has arrived.
Some scholars have pointed out that later rabbinic teachers understood Pentecost not merely as a harvest festival or reminiscence of the wilderness wanderings, but a commemoration of God’s appearance to Israel upon Sinai and the giving of the law through Moses. Gaster, Theodore H., Festivals of the Jewish Year, (c. New York: Morrow, 1952) cited by Juel, Donald, Luke Acts-The Promise of History, (John Knox Press, c 1983) p. 58. Thus, if Jesus’ ministry culminating in Jerusalem was God’s new Exodus, Pentecost corresponds to God’s descent to Israel on Mount Sinai. The mighty wind and flame reported in Luke bring to mind the Sinai appearance accompanied by fire and storm. Exodus 19:16-25. The speaking of the disciples in multiple languages corresponds to rabbinic legends claiming that the law given to Moses was miraculously translated into every language under heaven. See Juel, supra citing Lake, Kirsopp, “The Gift of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost,” Beginnings of Christianity, 5:114-16.
Pentecost was understood by some Jewish writers as a commemoration of the renewal of God’s covenant with the earth made through Noah. See Jubilees 6:17-18. Such awareness on Luke’s part is entirely consistent with the universal appeal of his gospel. It is also tempting to read the Pentecost story as the undoing of the confusion of tongues imposed by God as a judgment upon the nations at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. I don’t believe that it is necessary to select any of these interpretations of the Pentecost event over all of the others. Luke is not building a ridged typology tying the Church’s story to that of Israel. Rather, he is alluding to episodes in the Hebrew Scriptures that illuminate the new thing God is doing through Jesus. Pentecost can therefore be seen as a new revelation from God poured out upon the disciples and spilling over into the languages of all nations. It can be understood as a revocation of God’s judgment of confusion upon a rebellious people bent on storming the gate of heaven. It is a new event in which God “storms” into the life of the world. Or Pentecost can be seen as an allusion to the coming of the messianic age through the ingathering of God’s people. Whichever emphasis one might wish to give this story, Luke means for us to recognize in it the mission of the church that will take the disciples to “the ends of the earth.”
One final note: the folks gathered here are all “devout Jews.” Though they come from Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean world and speak the languages of the localities in which they reside, they are nonetheless people of Israel. Inclusion of the Gentiles, though hinted at throughout Luke’s gospel, is not yet on the church’s agenda. Nevertheless, the mission to the Gentiles can be seen in embryonic form among these diverse Jews through the languages and cultures they have internalized.
This psalm is a remarkable hymn to God, the Creator. Its focus on God’s sovereignty over the earth, sea and sky reflects a date after the Babylonian Exile where Israel was exposed to and tempted by the creation myths from the religion of her Chaldean captors. The Babylonian Enûma Eliš saga relates how the earth was created out of a civil war between the gods and how humans were created from the divine blood shed in that conflict for the purpose of serving the victorious gods. By contrast, this psalm describes creation as a sovereign act of the one God whose merciful and compassionate care ensures stability and sustenance for all creatures. There is no hint of conflict or struggle in the act of creation. Wind and flame are God’s “ministers” (the same word used for “angels”). Vs 4. The feared sea monster, Leviathan, understood in near eastern mythology to be a fearsome and threatening divine agent, is not a rival god or even God’s enemy in the biblical view of things. It is merely another of God’s creatures in which God takes delight. Vss. 25-26. Everything that lives depends upon God’s Spirit, without which there is no existence. That Spirit is capable not only of giving life, but also restoring it. vs. 30.
This psalm has theological affinities with the creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:3, also composed during the period of Israel’s exile in Babylon. Here, too, everything is brought into existence by the sovereign word of God that declares everything made to be “good.” Human beings are created not from the blood of conflict, but from the dust of the earth and in God’s image. They have not been made to serve as a race of slaves, but to be fruitful, multiply and rule over the good world God has made. The sun, moon and stars are not magical entities whose movements and alignments control the fate of people and nations. Rather, they are luminaries created to provide light for the benefit of God’s creatures. This is not a world of haunted horrors in which humans are at best slaves and at worst collateral damage in an ongoing struggle between gods and demons. It is a good world ruled by a generous and compassionate Creator.
While Babylonian religion has long since faded into the dead zone of history, I still believe that in this so called “post-modern” era we are confronted with a secularized paganism. Babylonian religion portrayed a world ruled by warring gods, each having its own sphere of influence and all of which needed to be placated by human beings living at their mercy. So also I believe for us contemporaries, the world seems a soulless place at the mercy of corporate economic interests, nationalist military conflicts and societal expectations for conformity exercising tyrannical power over us. Humans are viewed as “cheap labor,” “voting blocks,” “collateral damage,” “demographic groups,” and categorized by other dehumanizing labels. The earth is viewed as a ball of resources to be used up freely and without limitation by anyone having the power to control and exploit them. Unlike the Babylonian and post-modern visions, the Bible does not view the world either as a haunted house inhabited by warring demons or as the battleground for competing national, commercial and tribal interests. This psalm testifies to the beauty, goodness and holiness of the earth as God’s beloved creation.
The church at Corinth was a congregation only the Apostle Paul could love. It had every conceivable problem a church could have. It had divisive factions; power struggles; sex scandals; doctrinal disputes; arguments over worship practices; and, of course, money issues. Yet remarkably, Paul can say to this messed up, dysfunctional congregation, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. He does not say, “You should be the Body of Christ!” or “You could be the Body of Christ if you would just get your act together!” No, Paul is emphatic that the church at Corinth is the Body of Christ even now, with all its warts and blemishes. This is no metaphor. Paul means for the church to understand that it is Jesus’ resurrected Body. Nothing Paul says makes any sense until you get that.
In this Sunday’s lesson the issue is spiritual gifts. Understand that Paul is not using the term “spiritual” in the wishy washy new age sense that we so often hear it today-i.e., “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” (Whatever that means.) When Paul speaks of the spiritual, he is speaking explicitly about the Spirit of Jesus. That Spirit can be experienced only through the intimate knowing of Jesus. Jesus is known through communion with his Body, the church. Thus, it is impossible to speak of obedience to Jesus apart from communion with his Body. The church is the Body of Jesus precisely because it is animated by the Spirit of Jesus. Therefore, every ethical decision, every doctrinal teaching, every matter of church administration, every aspect of worship boils down to what does or does not build up the unity and health of Christ’s Body.
The reading begins with the assertion that “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Vs. 3. We need to be mindful of the political implications of this claim. The mantra of the Roman world was “Caesar is Lord.” Because there is room for only one divine emperor, asserting that anyone other than Caesar is Lord constitutes de facto treason. At best, you earn ridicule from the pagan community for making such a claim. In the worst case scenario, the confession of Jesus as Lord might be treated as a criminal offense. The assertion was equally problematic within the Jewish community. According to Deuteronomy 21:22-23, a person put to death by hanging on a tree is cursed. Consequently, confessing a crucified criminal as Israel’s Messiah could be regarded as blasphemy. In sum, making the confession “Jesus is Lord” could result in ostracism from your religious community, mockery from your pagan neighbors and possibly conviction of a capital crime. Quite understandably, then, Paul insists that making this bold confession and living by it requires the support of God’s Spirit.
In the first part of verse 3 (not included in our reading) Paul states that no one can say “Jesus be cursed” by the Spirit of God. I Corinthians 12:3. This might seem obvious. One would not expect such an exclamation from within the church community. Given the hostile environment in which the church found itself, however, it is not inconceivable that a weak member of the church might be tempted to curse the name of Jesus in order to conceal his or her affiliation from family, religious or civil authorities. Some commentators suggest that Paul is referring to the Roman practice of requiring suspected Christians to revile the name of Christ in order to clear themselves of any accusation. Fitzmyer, Joseph A., First Corinthians, The Anchor Bible Commentary, Vol. 32, (c. 2008 by Yale University) p. 456. This approach to the church was evidently taken in Asia Minor as evidenced by correspondence from Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan in 110 C.E. Though this conclusion is plausible and tempting, I rather doubt that Paul had anything so specific in mind. The church was still a tiny sect within and indistinguishable from Judaism in the mid First Century when Paul was active. It is therefore unlikely that the Roman authorities in Corinth during this period would have recognized it or singled it out for any such specialized policy of enforcement.
So now we come down to the specific issue at hand: “spiritual gifts” given to individual members of the Body of Christ for the building up of that Body. There is no hierarchy in the church for Paul. The issue is never “who is in charge.” Jesus is the Head of the church. He alone is in charge. The rest of us are all members of the body. A little finger might not seem to be particularly important-until you try using a keyboard without it or it gets slammed in the car door. Suddenly, the least important part of the body is commanding center stage! So also in the Body of Christ, the prominence of any person’s gift at any particular time depends upon what is happening. When determining the short term management of a large monetary gift to the church, someone with administrative skill in managing funds is critical. Such persons know how to transfer property quickly, efficiently and without loss to a place where it can appreciate in value as the church decides how to use it. But, when it comes to long range management of these funds, different gifts are required. The mission of the church is not to maximize income on its investments, but to use its resources to build up the Body of Christ and witness to the reign of God. To make faithful use of the church’s resources to these ends, the gift of prophetic vision is required. The gift of discernment is necessary also to evaluate such visions and find within them the call and command of Jesus. When all members of the church work together using their unique gifts to build up the Body of Christ, the gifts complement each other.
Unfortunately, such harmony was not the prevailing mood at Corinth. Certain individuals were convinced that their gifts conferred upon them greater status and authority. They were using their gifts and abilities to advance their own interests instead of building up the church. So Paul begins in these verses an extended discussion about the proper use of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives to each member of the Body of Christ. In the first place, all members of the Body are gifted and their gifts are necessary to the proper functioning of that Body. Vs. 4. So the church must constantly ask itself whether it is recognizing the gifts among its members. Second, it matters not which gift a person has, but how the gift is used. Paul makes clear that all gifts must be used for the common good of the whole church. Vs. 7. In the example of the monetary gift, a short term manager who loses sight of the big picture and is concerned only with maximizing returns on investment rather than growing the ministry of the church is no longer serving the Body. So also the visionary with great plans for the church’s resources, but who is unwilling to submit his or her vision to the ministry of discernment within the Body is no longer building up the Body. Third, there is no hierarchy of gifts. Hierarchy is antithetical to the well-being of the church. Sadly, it seems today that we lack the imagination, creativity and vision to function without hierarchy. But don’t get me started on that.
John’s Pentecost story is out of step with that of Luke (or the other way around if you prefer). John has Jesus breathing the life giving Spirit into his disciples on the morning of his resurrection. More than any other witness, John identifies the Holy Spirit with the presence of the resurrected Christ in his church. Of course, Saint Paul makes the same identification in referring consistently to the Church as Christ’s Body. Similarly, the Book of Acts makes clear that the mission of the church is in many respects the continuation of Jesus’ ministry of healing, feeding the hungry and preaching good news to the poor. So I believe that the New Testament witness is consistent in anchoring the outpouring of the Spirit with the continued presence of Jesus in the church. Hence, I side with the Western church on the matter of the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed, namely, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. For the perspective of the Eastern Church which rejects this clause such that the Creed affirms the procession of the Spirit from the Father only, check out this link.
Luke and John are entirely on the same page in their identification of the Spirit with the commissioning of the disciples. In the very same breath (pun intended) that Jesus says “receive the Holy Spirit,” he then says “as the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” Vss. 22-23. So also in Luke’s understanding. The Spirit is given so that the disciples can become Jesus’ “witnesses” to “the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8. In John’s account, Jesus goes on to tell his disciples that “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Vs. 23. Exactly what does this mean? According to Luther’s Small Catechism, this verse refers to the “Office of the Keys” through which the church, through its public ministry, absolves penitent sinners and withholds this benefit from the unrepentant. Luther’s Small Catechism, Part V. But is that really what John had in mind here? In my view, the context makes that interpretation extremely doubtful. The focus is not upon the internal workings of the community of disciples but upon the disciples’ mission to the world. Undoubtedly, the two are related in this gospel. It is through the disciples’ love for one another that they will be identified as followers of Jesus. John 13:35. But the principal emphasis is on the disciples’ witness to the world, not to their relationship with one another. So what can it mean to “retain” sins?
I believe that John is emphasizing the importance of the commission that Jesus has just given to his disciples. It is through them that the life giving Word of forgiveness is to be made known to the world. It is “in” them that the Spirit now resides. If the disciples of Jesus do not make known God’s forgiveness of sin, the world will remain in the grip of sin. Those sins will be retained. But if the Word is spoken, it will be accompanied by the Spirit of God that inspires faith and breaks the bondage of sin. I believe that is what commentator Raymond Brown is saying in the following quote:
“In summary, we doubt that there is sufficient evidence to confirm the power of forgiving and holding of sin, granted in John 20:23 to a specific exercise of power in the Christian community, whether that be admission to Baptism or forgiveness in Penance. These are but partial manifestations of a much larger power, namely, the power to isolate, repel, and negate evil and sin, a power given to Jesus in his mission by the Father and given in turn by Jesus through the Spirit to those whom he commissions. It is an effective, not merely declaratory, power against sin, a power that touches new and old followers of Christ, a power that challenges those who refuse to believe. John does not tell us how or by whom this power was exercised in the community for whom he wrote, but the very fact that he mentions it shows that it was exercised.” Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John, XIII-XXI, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 29a, (Doubleday, c. 1970) p. 1044.
Seeing the Parent in the child; a poem by Juan Felipe Herrera; and the lessons for Sunday, May 6, 2018
SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you have prepared for those who love you joys beyond understanding. Pour into our hearts such love for you that, loving you above all things, we may obtain your promises, which exceed all we can desire; through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.” I John 5:1.
One of the many memories that haunts and accuses me took place in the middle school lunch room on a cold, dreary spring day like this one. I was sitting alone at the opposite end of a long table from Candice. Candice was a short, shy, withdrawn girl who was more than just a little chubby. We had gone through elementary school together so I knew her well enough at least to say hello when I passed her and she would sometimes smile faintly and wave. On this particular day, a group of 8th Grade girls stopped by to inform Candice that she was ugly, fat, would never have a boyfriend and unloaded lots of other mean girl stuff besides. Candice was used to this sort of thing. She went on with her lunch as though her tormentors were not even present, though I am sure she was crying inside. Failing to get a response out of Candice, the girls lost interest and moved on. I remember watching all this through my twelve year old eyes, my stomach in knots, knowing I should be doing something to help, but not quite sure what. I felt much the same way watching comedian Michelle Wolf making fun of Sarah Huckabee Sander’s appearance at the White House correspondents’ dinner as Ms Sanders sat in full view of the audience just a few feet away.
Yes, I understand that there is a distinction to be made between Candice, who wanted only to be left alone to eat her lunch in peace, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, an intelligent, articulate and attractive women who voluntarily thrust herself into the public eye. Nobody put a gun to Sanders’ head and compelled her to become the public face of Donald Trump. Understand that I don’t pity her for being criticized, mocked and lampooned for bobbing, weaving and feinting before the press. I have little sympathy for the loss of credibility she has suffered from defending the most indefensible statements and conduct of her boss. She knew very well what she was getting herself into when she signed on with the Donald. But it seems to me that mocking her personal appearance goes well beyond legitimate criticism and even political satire. That’s personal. It is designed to insult, hurt and humiliate. These remarks made about Sarah Huckabee Sanders in Ms. Wolf’s performance should be beneath us all. That Ms. Sanders has defended far more egregious and offensive remarks made by her boss and his cronies does not mitigate my view one wit. The high road is still the high road no matter how deep into the cesspool the low road might take you.
We have seen plenty of lows since the 2016 presidential campaign. We have seen the election of a man who mocks people with disabilities, makes openly racist remarks, brags about fondling women without their consent and lies with impunity. It is maddening to see day after day scandals that would have felled any president before him make not a single dent in the presidency of Donald Trump. I sometimes want to scream at the top of my lungs: “Are you people all just bloody stupid!” But in fact, as annoying as is Sarah Huckabee Sander’s dogged defense of her boss-who is beyond merely annoying-she is one of God’s children, a sheep for whom Jesus died. “To love the parent is to love the child,” Saint John tells us. This holds true even when the child has a name like Sarah Huckabee Sanders or Donald Trump.
I am not suggesting for one moment that the love of which Saint John speaks requires us to overlook or acquiesce in the evil works a person does. People who practice injustice, violence and cruelty need to be confronted and called to account. How much more those who propagate “lies of tongue and pen,” and “all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men.” “O God of Earth and Altar,” by Gilbert K. Chesterton, Lutheran Book of Worship (c. 1978 by Lutheran Church in America, American Lutheran Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) # 428. Nonetheless, those of us who follow Jesus must know that we cannot afford to lose sight of the humanity of the people whose works we oppose. When we can no longer recognize ourselves and the image of Christ in a person, that person ceases to matter. When we no longer matter to each other, nothing matters, nothing is off limits, nothing is sacred. There is no longer any limit to the cruelty we can inflict on one another or to the lengths to which we can go to achieve a “win.” We are in danger of being consumed by this new ruthlessness that has infected our politics, our entertainment and, sadly, our religion. We are in danger of becoming the mirror image of what we most hate in one another.
The church is called to be a community recognizing the holiness of persons. Disciples of Jesus know that the only God there is stares at us through the eyes of everyone encounter. Recognizing and serving the neighbor is the only way to honor God. To injure the soul of another human being-any human being-is to blaspheme God. Here is a poem by Juan Felipe Herrera calling upon us to recognize in the midst of these most brutal and unsettled times the humanity of all involved, victim and perpetrator alike.
@ the Crossroads-A Sudden American Poem
RIP Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Dallas police
officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith,
Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa—and all
their families. And to all those injured.
Let us celebrate the lives of all
As we reflect & pray & meditate on their brutal deaths
Let us celebrate those who marched at night who spoke of peace
& chanted Black Lives Matter
Let us celebrate the officers dressed in Blues ready to protect
Let us know the departed as we did not know them before—their faces,
Bodies, names—what they loved, their words, the stories they often spoke
Before we return to the usual business of our days, let us know their lives intimately
Let us take this moment & impossible as this may sound—let us find
The beauty in their lives in the midst of their sudden & never imagined vanishing
Let us consider the Dallas shooter—what made him
what happened in Afghanistan
flames burned inside
(Who was that man in Baton Rouge with a red shirt selling CDs in the parking lot
Who was that man in Minnesota toppled on the car seat with a perforated arm
& a continent-shaped flood of blood on his white T who was
That man prone & gone by the night pillar of El Centro College in Dallas)
This could be the first step
in the new evaluation of our society This could be
the first step of all of our lives
Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 10, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets. (c. 2016 by Juan Felipe Herrera.) Juan Felipe Herrera (b. 1948) was born in Fowler, California. His parents were migrant farmers who lived in trailers or tents along the roads of the San Joaquin Valley as they followed farm work throughout Southern California. Herrera graduated from high school in 1967, and attended UCLA on an Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) scholarship. There received a BA in Social Anthropology. He received a master’s degree in Social Anthropology from Stanford in 1980, and went on to earn an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1990. Herrera is the author of many collections of poetry as well as books of prose for children.He has received fellowships and grants from the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Stanford Chicano Fellows Program, and the University of California at Berkeley. In 2015, he received the L.A. Times Book Prize’s Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement. You can find out more about Juan Felipe Herrera and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
This passage is part and parcel of a larger narrative beginning with Peter’s vision in which the Lord speaks to him and commands him to slaughter and eat a host of animals deemed ritually unclean in the Hebrew Scriptures. See Acts 10:1-16. The meaning of this strange vision is not revealed to Peter until he finds himself in the midst of a gentile family, that of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. There he witnesses the Spirit of God filling them all with faith and inspiring them to confess Jesus as Lord.
The story as a whole reflects the inner struggle of a deeply Jewish church with the positive response of gentiles to the good news about Jesus. Most Jewish disciples, like Peter, harbored serious reservations about receiving gentiles into the church. How could these outsiders possibly have an informed and sincere faith in the Jewish messiah when they knew next to nothing about the Jewish scriptures and practices? What would be the consequences of an influx of these new comers? What conditions, if any, should be placed upon admission of a gentile believer? Must he be circumcised? Should he be required to learn the Hebrew Scriptures? Peter was on solid scriptural grounds with his scruples about eating ritually unclean food and sharing meal fellowship with non-Jews. Jewish believers under the Greek tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes chose to endure torture and to die horrible deaths rather than eat food deemed unclean as demanded of them. I Maccabees 1:62-64. How could Peter go into the home of a Roman oppressor of Israel and eat unclean food at his unclean table? Would this not dishonor the memory of the brave martyrs under Antiochus?
Peter’s scruples are resolved by an act of God filling his gentile hosts with the Holy Spirit enabling them speak in tongues. Vss. 44-46. His seemingly rhetorical question echoes that of the Ethiopian eunuch in or lesson from last Sunday: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Vs. 47; cf. Acts 8:36. A couple of things are noteworthy here. In the first place, the filling of the Holy Spirit precedes rather than follows baptism. Our theology of baptism has it quite the other way around-and rightly so. Baptism is given as God’s pledge that God’s Spirit dwells within us-even when there are no outward manifestations or inward feelings to substantiate it. As such, it is a great source of comfort. Nevertheless, God does not need baptism to impart God’s Spirit. We need baptism to remind us that God’s Holy Spirit dwells within us. Thus, baptism was quite properly administered to these newly Spirit filled believers to serve as God’s witness and vow that the Spirit they had just received would never leave them.
Second, this outpouring of God’s Spirit upon outsiders follows the trajectory established in the first chapter of Acts where the ascending Jesus commissioned the disciples to be his witnesses “in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8. The church, however, seems reluctant to take the good news of Jesus so far so fast. I am sure that the leaders back at synod headquarters would have preferred to conduct a lengthy study into the theological basis for mission to the gentiles followed by a mission viability survey and vote at some subsequent synod assembly. But the Spirit will have none of that. The Spirit continues to push, prod and needle the church into action. Throughout the Book of Acts it seems the church is forever racing frantically to catch up with the Holy Spirit. Then as now, disciples of Jesus are frequently dragged kicking and screaming into God’s future. We are not in charge of the church’s mission-and a good thing that is!
This is a psalm of praise celebrating a great victory won for Israel by God’s might. This victory might refer to the Exodus, the Return from Babylon or some other great act of salvation experienced in Israel’s history. Rogerson and McKay are probably right in saying that we cannot determine with certainty which of these events is intended, if any of them. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 226. Saint Augustine says of this opening verse to the psalm: “When the whole earth is enjoined to sing a new song, it is meant, that peace singeth a new song.” Augustine, Expositions on the Book of Psalms, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol.3 (reprinted 1979, edited by Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D., pub. by WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 480.
“Newness” (as in “Sing a new song” vs. 1) is a recurring theme in the prophets, particularly in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55): “Remember not the former things; behold, I do a new thing…” Isaiah 43:18. So also in the New Testament: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” II Corinthians 5:17; “Behold, I make all things new.” Revelation 21:5. Notice also the refrain of “victory” or “yeshuath” throughout the psalm. Vss. 1-3. The word is actually from the root “yeshua” or “salvation,” root also of Joshua and, of course, Jesus. God’s victory or salvation is for the ends of the earth, not only for Israel. Vss. 4 and 9. Yet Israel is instrumental in proclaiming and making known that victory.
“His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.” Vs. 2. This is a figurative reference to divine power which alone is responsible for Israel’s victories. Ibid. It is worth remembering that when we confess that Jesus ascended to the right hand of God, we are asserting that Jesus is that power through which God exercises God’s reign. The power of God is God’s patient suffering, refusal to resort to retaliation and determination to love us in the face or our stark rejection.
“[God] will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.” Vs. 9. As Professor Anderson points out, “[t]he verb ‘judge’ means much more than the English word suggests. It refers to the power to obtain and maintain justice and proper order-power which human rulers should have (“Give us a king to judge us,” I Sam. 8:6) but which, in the biblical view, is vested supremely and ultimately in God.” Anderson, Bernhard, W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c.1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 179.
Saint John’s argument is maddeningly circular. First he tells us, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” I John 4:12. This week he tells us, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.” Vs. 2. It seems we cannot know and obey God without loving one another and we cannot love one another without loving and obeying God. It is similar to the impossible conundrum faced by so many college graduates: You need experience to get the job; but you also need the job to get experience. This is a lot like trying to shimmy up a greased pole!
Upon further reflection, though, I don’t believe it is a question of the starting point. We don’t necessarily find God in love for one another. A lot of what goes under the name of love is really lust, desire for control, need for self-affirmation and codependency. Most violent crimes occur within the context of domestic abuse. Much of what goes under the rubric of loving our children has more to do with living vicariously through them. Love of one’s own family, tribe or nation often has as its flip side distrust or outright hatred of outsiders. Love, as John points out, is not an abstract principle or mere sentiment. It is concretely exercised by God toward us in the sending of God’s Son. I John 4:10. Jesus is the shape love toward our sisters and brothers in Christ must take. Moreover, this community of love is sent into the word for which Jesus died, just as Jesus himself was sent. John 20:21-22. Thus, the relationship between believing in Jesus and loving your sisters and brothers is dialogical. Love becomes concrete or “incarnate” within the community of disciples, but is refined by the abiding presence of Jesus through whom repentance and forgiveness is freely offered.
The difficulty in preaching this text and that of the gospel which follows lies in the word “love,” a vacuous word in our language. How much meaning can any word have when I can use it interchangeably to describe both my feelings for my wife as well as my fondness for rum raison ice cream? Saint John, as I have said, anchors love in God’s sending of the Son and the Son’s sending of his disciples. This countercultural love transcends and supersedes all other social, familial and nationalist loyalties grounding itself in the One who was sent for the life of the world. In so doing, it undermines all systems of domination, whether tribal, patriarchal or nationalistic. Faith in Jesus thereby “overcomes the world.” Vss. 4-5.
The gospel reading builds on the lesson from the First Letter of John. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” Vs. 9. Love is grounded in the Trinity. The love binding the community of faith together is not based on common interests, family ties or cultural heritage. It is the love that is the unity of the Trinity. God’s love for the Son is bound up with the sending of the Son, the beloved. So deeply did God love the world. John 3:16. The disciples are now invited to abide in that same Trinitarian love.
It is the nature of Trinitarian love that it “goes out” from itself. As the hymn has it, “The universe of space and time did not arise by chance, but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.” “Come Join the Dance of Trinity,” Lutheran Worship,(c. 2006 by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, pub. by Augsburg Fortress) Hymn # 412. Just as love made room for the universe of space and time, so the sending of the Son makes space within the universe for that same pulsating Triune love. Love is not merely a human emotion or a humanly discerned philosophical/moral concept. It is the defining characteristic of the Holy Trinity pre-existing time itself. The same cannot be said of hatred, prejudice, jealousy, greed or any other vice. In fact, it cannot really be said of any other virtue either.
Trinitarian love is not hierarchical. Though I am hardly a student of doctrinal history, it seems to me that most, if not all, the heretical understandings of the Trinity rejected by the church have at least one thing in common: they created a hierarchy within the Trinity. It is surprising to me that a church that had become so rigidly hierarchical and so thoroughly patriarchal nevertheless rejected so many doctrinal models of the Triune God that subordinated the Son and/or Spirit to the Father in some way. Given the influence of the Empire over the Trinitarian disputes, this outcome is all the more remarkable. Perhaps we must simply attribute the church’s insistence on the unity and coequality within the Trinity to the working of the Holy Spirit in spite of rather than because of the church! Jesus makes clear that his relationship to his church is not a master/slave arrangement. It is through friendship that Jesus exercises his lordship over his disciples and will one day exercise it over all creation. To use Paul’s language, we are God’s ambassadors of reconciliation extending friendship with God to the world. II Corinthians 5:20. This is the “fruit that will last” about which John speaks. Vs. 16.
“…so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” vs. 16. Taken out of context, this promise is problematic. God does not give us everything for which we ask-nor should he. Half the time we don’t have any idea about what we really want. Seldom do we have the sense or courage to ask for what we need. If God were to start writing blank checks in response to prayer, I suspect we would very soon find ourselves living in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Nothing is more dangerous to us than our desires. It is therefore critical to read this promise in light of Jesus’ commission to “bear fruit that lasts.” Jesus assures his disciples that God will give them all they need to bear faithful witness to the reconciling love of God in their midst and for the world.
Finally, Jesus’ admonition in verse 17 is worth raising up. “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” Much of the time the church has gotten that directive backwards. Rather than putting the commandments in the service of love, we have made our love and acceptance of people contingent on compliance with the rules. While the commandments are to be observed and obeyed, obedience to any single commandment is shaped by the greatest commandment to love one another.
FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord Christ, good shepherd of the sheep, you seek the lost and guide us into your fold. Feed us, and we shall be satisfied; heal us, and we shall be whole. Make us one with you, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” I John 3:17.
This week witnessed an air strike against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad by American, British and French military forces. This action was taken in order to punish the al-Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people and to ensure that no such attack occurs again. One can hope that the message will be received and that no similar atrocities involving lethal chemical agents will occur. Yet that alone will do little to alleviate the misery of the Syrian people who have been living in a state of civil war for the last several years. Arbitrary massacre of civilians has been al-Assad’s modus operandi from the beginning. The bodies of Syrian children washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean with grim regularity testify to the desperate, failed attempts by families to flee the bloodshed. One cannot help but wonder why murdering children with poison gas triggers a military response, whereas years of killing them with cluster bombs, land minds and chasing them into the sea with “conventional” weapons has evoked barely a whispered protest. I also wonder at the moral indignation of our president over violence against these same children that he so vehemently refuses to shelter within our borders. Evidently, killing Syrian children with starvation, disease and bullets does not warrant a response. Closing our borders and allowing them to languish in refugee camps is not at all morally repugnant. But using poison gas crosses the line. I cannot be the only one catching the odious scent of hypocrisy in such pretended outrage.
Saint John’s admonition makes clear that anyone following Jesus owes his neighbor whatever help s/he is able to provide. And just to be clear, there is no proviso that the neighbor be somehow deserving, worthy or even properly thankful for such help. Nor is there any exception to this command for national security. Martin Luther went so far as to say that withholding life preserving help that you might have provided to your neighbor in need is nothing short of murder-a violation of the Fifth Commandment:
“In the second place, this commandment is violated not only when a person actually does evil, but also when he fails to do good to his neighbor, or, though he has the opportunity, fails to prevent, protect, and save him from suffering bodily harm or injury. If you send a person away naked when you could clothe him, you have let him freeze to death. If you see anyone suffer hunger and do not feed him, you have let him starve. Likewise, if you see anyone condemned to death or in similar peril and do not save him although you know ways and means to do so, you have killed him. It will do you no good to plead that you did not contribute to his death by word or deed, for you have withheld your love from him and robbed him of a service by which his life might have been saved. Therefore, God rightly calls all persons murderers who do not offer counsel and aid to men in need and in peril of body and life.” Tappert, Theodore G., The Book of Concord, “Luther’s Large Catechism,” (c. 1959 by Fortress Press) pp. 390-391. In short, if you believe in Jesus, you believe in open borders. When someone comes to your doorstep, your neighborhood, your country fleeing violence, persecution or starvation, you welcome them. That’s the Bible. That’s Jesus. Deal with it.
I am never thrilled with military solutions. The best argument to be made for one is that it amounts to a belated effort at addressing an injustice that has gotten way out of hand by reason of prolonged recklessness, neglect and stupidity. I have often said that arguments for the necessity of military action are similar to those of the adulterous couple who claim that their attraction was “bigger than both of us.” At some critical point, that was probably true. It wasn’t true, however, when they first felt an attraction that they knew very well should not be pursued. It wasn’t true the first time they lingered together for longer than they both knew was necessary at the water cooler. It wasn’t true when, against their better judgment, they started taking lunch together at the gym. It wasn’t true when they arranged to be sent to the same training seminar sponsored by their employer. At any point along the way the fire could have been put out before it got out of control. So, too, western leaders had reason to know for nearly a century that their colonization, exploitation, domination and manipulation of middle eastern countries to ensure their supplies of petroleum would ultimately blow up in their faces. But the west did and still does little to reverse this pattern of exploitation. Their leaders should not be heard at this late hour to insist that their military strikes were necessary to extinguish a wild fire that has been smoldering for generations.
So, too, our president should not be heard to insist that the United States is the victim of illegal immigration. The victims are peoples of Africa, the middle east, Mexico and Latin America whose lives have been put in jeopardy in no small part by the pernicious effects of colonization and exploitation. An “America First” policy that places our nation’s interests above those of our neighbors in other lands has contributed substantially to the global refugee crisis. Sealing our borders to all who come to us seeking freedom and safety is but to compound our sins.
The church is called to be a witness to God’s coming reign. Unlike nation states, we are to have no borders, nor must we recognize any border that threatens our oneness in Christ or interferes with our mandate to love our neighbors as ourselves. That is why we cannot remain silent or inactive as walls, both tangible and bureaucratic, are erected against our neighbor in desperate need. Doing so, quite frankly, equates with a violation of the Fifth Commandment against murder.
Here is a poem by Blas Manuel De Luna that exposes graphically the cruelty and human carnage lying behind political slogans like “secure borders,” “national security” and “deportation.” Read and ask yourself whether it reflects the kind of nation we Americans want to be. Ask yourself how a disciple of Jesus can acquiesce to such brutality.
Bent to the Earth
They had hit Ruben
with the high beams, had blinded
him so that the van
he was driving, full of Mexicans
going to pick tomatoes,
would have to stop. Ruben spun
the van into an irrigation ditch,
spun the five-year-old me awake
to immigration officers,
their batons already out,
already looking for the soft spots on the body,
to my mother being handcuffed
and dragged to a van, to my father
trying to show them our green cards.
They let us go. But Alvaro
was going back.
So was his brother Fernando.
So was their sister Sonia. Their mother
did not escape,
and so was going back. Their father
was somewhere in the field,
and was free. There were no great truths
revealed to me then. No wisdom
given to me by anyone. I was a child
who had seen what a piece of polished wood
could do to a face, who had seen his father
about to lose the one he loved, who had lost
some friends who would never return,
who, later that morning, bent
to the earth and went to work.
Source: De Luna, Blas Manuel, Bent to the Earth (c. 2006 by Blas Manuel De Luna, pub. by Carnegie Mellon University Press). Blas Manuel De Luna (b. 1969) grew up working alongside his parents and siblings in California’s agricultural fields in Madera, California. He holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from California State University-Fresno and has written prolifically in poetry and fiction. His writings frequently dwell on his and his family’s experience as immigrant laborers. You can find out more about Blas Manuel De Luna and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Last week Peter and John managed to attract a great deal of attention in front of the temple when, in the name of Jesus, they brought healing to a known cripple. Seizing the opportunity, Peter uses the occasion to preach a powerful sermon proclaiming as Israel’s messiah and God’s Son Jesus, the crucified one raised from death. Not by the power of the apostles, says Peter, but through the name of Jesus the man they once knew as lame now walks and experiences perfect health.
But the apostles have also attracted the attention of the temple authorities chiefly responsible for handing Jesus over to Pilate. Annoyed that these men are teaching in the name of Jesus, they arrest Peter and John, holding them in prison overnight. Acts 4:1-4. On the following day, the apostles are brought out before the high priest and the high priestly family to answer for their actions. It is noteworthy that the first question out of the accusers’ mouth is: “By what power or by what name did you do this?” vs. 7. We can see immediately what is at stake here. The authorities seem to have no objection in principle to the disciples teaching the people or even with the fact that they performed a miracle of healing. Sects within Judaism abounded in the 1st Century. For the most part, they were of little concern to the temple authorities. But the name of Jesus obviously set off some alarm bells and raised red flags.
It is not surprising that the authorities should be concerned about this Jesus movement. Throughout his ministry Jesus upset the social and political norms by sharing table fellowship with outcasts. Parables such as that of Lazarus and the Rich Man foretold an upending of the existing order, the dissolution of boundaries, the disintegration of family and a radical reorientation of the Torah in the service of “the least” of all peoples. How much more disturbing was the growth of this movement into a community living out the kingdom Jesus proclaimed! The man they thought they had killed has risen up and come back to them in spades. The authorities know that they are face to face with the Spirit of the risen Christ and have not the slightest clue what to do about it. If you were to read further, you would learn that the leaders find themselves powerless. Their dear old friend and ally, violence, is of no use in suppressing the name of Jesus. Peter brazenly ignores the threats of the authorities and announces his intent to continue preaching Jesus and his kingdom regardless what they tell him. Acts 4:13-22.
It is the name of Jesus that gets the disciples into trouble. Like most governments, the Jerusalem establishment had no problem with religious people doing socially useful work. Jesus would probably not been put to death if he had been content merely to feed the poor and hungry. Our own government applauds such work on behalf of the less fortunate as long as the boundary between “helpers” and “helped” is maintained. We have no objection to helping the poverty stricken to strive for the American Dream. But Jesus did more than that. He gave the poor a better dream. Jesus did not merely feed the poor. He invited the poor to the messianic banquet. He told them they were blessed, that they were rightful heirs to the earth, the primary recipients of God’s richest blessing. Jesus invited the poor into a new way of being human, a new way of living together under God’s reign. He rejected the domination system of the Jerusalem establishment and its Roman overlords in favor of the gentle reign of God. That reign is now unfolding in the very precincts of the temple and the high priest with his cronies can only watch and be afraid-very afraid.
Again, the call of Luke-Acts is for disciples of Jesus to be a community that is a demonstration plot for the reign of God. The church is an alternative way of being human. One might well say it is the genuine way of being human as God intends. That is, of course, a tall order. Even the Book of Acts, frequently said (erroneously I think) to be an “idealized” portrait of the church, demonstrates that the disciples frequently fell short of their high calling. Nonetheless, in spite of its faults and shortcomings, through the power of the Spirit within it “the word of God increased.” Acts 6:7.
I think that I have probably said about everything I have to say about the Twenty Third Psalm at my posts for Sunday, October 12, 2014, Sunday, May 11, 2014, Sunday, March 30, 2014, Sunday, April 21, 2013 and Sunday, July 22, 2012. That, of course, does not mean that there is no more to be said. I encourage you to read the commentary by Joel LeMon, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University Atlanta, Georgia on workingpreacher.org. I would also recommend The Shepherd Who Feeds Us by Debra Dean Murphy at ekklesiaproject.org. This article discusses the “shepherd” metaphor employed in the 23rdPsalm and elsewhere. Finally, Augustine’s profound reflections on this psalm in his commentary is well worth rereading.
This lesson needs to be read against the gospel. As does the shepherd, so should the sheep do. We know love through what Jesus has done for us. Jesus the Good Shepherd laid down his life for his sheep. This love shown toward us must be reflected among and between the sheep. The sheep must be prepared to lay down their lives for each other and, that being so, how much more their worldly possessions. “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” vs. 17.
All of this sounds simple enough. So why do we have in the same county believers in Jesus (like me) who have more than adequate housing, clothing, access to health care and employment alongside believers who are homeless? Yes, I know that we are advocating for legislation to change all of that. I hope it all comes to fruition. I really do. But in the meantime, our sisters and brothers continue to be in need and, instead of opening our homes, our hearts and our faith communities to them, we offer them social services. Instead of being the alternative to the old order, we produce reams of preachy screechy social statements lecturing the old order in hopes of making it a little less oppressive. Again, I can hear dear old Mark Twain reminding us with a twinkle in his eye, “To be good is noble; to teach someone else to be good is more noble still-and a lot less trouble.” As I have said elsewhere, I believe that the more vibrant and promising models of church in this 21st century are those seeking to embody Jesus rather than implement some politicized abstraction of his teachings. See, e.g. post of Sunday, November 23, 2014.
“God is greater than our hearts” vs. 20. While it is never wise to disregard one’s conscience, conscience does not reflect God’s judgment upon our lives and conduct. The voice of conscience is not the voice of God. Conscience can be misguided, misdirected and grounded in false standards. God’s verdict on our lives is dictated by God’s love for us expressed in Jesus. So, too, our conduct with respect to our neighbors is shaped by that same love. Therefore, John can boil Jesus’ commandments down to the two “great” commandments identified in the synoptic gospels: “This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ and love one another.” Vs. 23. This love is not an abstraction, as in “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” (Good Lord, have I ever dated myself!). Nor is love an expression of my own personal sentiments. The love of which John speaks is quite unintelligible apart from the gospel narratives and the larger context of the Hebrew scriptural narrative about God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel. It is also unintelligible apart from the community living out of those narratives. Love, then, is the miracle the Spirit imparts to a people that understands itself as heir of the promises made to Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures and offered to the world through the gracious invitation of Jesus. It is forged in the furnace of a community that strives to follow its Lord.
In Chapter 9 of John’s gospel, Jesus gave sight to a man born blind which, in turn, brought on a confrontation with the religious authorities in Jerusalem. The blind man was finally excommunicated from the synagogue for his dogged insistence that Jesus was responsible for his newfound sight. In the end, the man healed of his blindness worshipped Jesus. This sets the stage for Sunday’s lesson in which the question is posed: Who is the true Shepherd and what is the true community to which the Shepherd grants/denies admission? Clearly, the religious leadership claims to wield such authority and did so with respect to the man born blind. Now these so-called shepherds and the flock they claim as their own are contrasted with the Good Shepherd who also lays claim to the flock.
In verses 7-15, Jesus lays down the acid test determining the genuineness of a true shepherd. When the wolf shows up, the fake shepherd flees. He is but a “hireling.” Vs. 13. Because the sheep do not actually belong to him, he has nothing to lose beyond a day’s wage by running away. The shepherd who owns the sheep actually has “skin” in the game. Unlike the hired hand, this shepherd will put himself between the sheep and the jaws of the wolf. The Greek word used for “good” is not the more common “agathos,” but the word “kalos,” meaning “fine,” “beautiful” or “precious.” Unlike the leaders in Jerusalem who, under threat of Roman violence, are prepared to throw Jesus to the wolves in order to save their own skins, Jesus willingly lays down his own life to save the people. There are several levels of irony here. Caiaphas insists that “it is expedient…that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” John 11:50. What he means, of course, is that Jesus must be sacrificed to preserve the status quo which is treating Caiaphas and his cronies quite well. But Caiaphas has unwittingly articulated Jesus’ mission and all that makes him a “fine, beautiful and precious” Shepherd. The sheep given Jesus by his Father recognize his voice. Vs. 14. Such faithful recognition has already been illustrated in the prior chapter by the blind man who could not be persuaded by the authorities (false shepherds) to deny Jesus, but, when confronted with Jesus, worships him.
As pointed out by Professor Raymond Brown, the Hebrew Scriptures are rich in shepherd imagery. God is frequently spoken of as the Shepherd of Israel. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 397. Genesis 49:2; Psalm 23; Psalm 78:52-53; Psalm 80:1. Kings also, particularly David, were referred to as shepherds. Psalm 78:70-72. This title carries with it profound responsibilities for Israel’s rulers and withering judgment for kings failing in their role as “shepherds.” See I Kings 23:17; Jeremiah 10:21; Jeremiah 23:1-2; and Ezekiel 34. It is against the backdrop of these Hebrew texts that we must understand Jesus’ use of this powerful shepherd metaphor. John would have us understand that Jesus is the genuine Shepherd who alone puts the well-being of the sheep first and foremost.
Taking the Bible back from the masses; a poem by Jacqueline Woodson; and the lessons for Sunday, March 25, 2018
SUNDAY OF THE PASSION / PALM SUNDAY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Everlasting God, in your endless love for the human race you sent our Lord Jesus Christ to take on our nature and to suffer death on the cross. In your mercy enable us to share in his obedience to your will and in the glorious victory of his resurrection, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, the journey from Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, through his betrayal, suffering and death and into the sunrise of the Resurrection. Holy Week, like the church year generally, was designed for a people familiar with and formed by the larger biblical narrative. The parallels between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the messianic prophecies of Zechariah and the triumphal entry of David with the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem should not be lost on such a people. Nor should the strong overtones of the Exodus and Passover at the Last Supper escape their notice. The refrains of the suffering servant songs and the tortured cries of the lamenting psalmists should frame the context for the cross, and the Resurrection should be grounded in the liberation of Israel at the Red Sea and informed by all of the ancient promises made to Israel from Genesis to Malachi. The problem, however, is that practicing Christians are increasingly deaf to these interrelated themes. They are like beginning piano students who, at best, can manage to pick out only the melody line of a complex musical score.
I think this problem goes far beyond mere biblical illiteracy. It is rooted in our protestant insistence that the Bible is a book for general consumption and that any fair-minded person can pick it up, read it and readily arrive at its meaning and significance. Witness the tireless work of the Gideons in assuring that every motel, hotel and resort suite throughout the United States is stocked with a King James Bible. It is as though evangelism were only a matter of getting the book into the hands of the unbeliever. In truth, however, the Bible is a complex, layered and nuanced collection of writings speaking in many voices. It is as much the testimony of Israel and the church as it is the testament of God. Its open-ended narrative is rich in frolics and detours. There are numerous rabbit holes down which one might venture, texts that confuse, terrify and serve as springboards for some of the most abhorrent forms of religious expression ever to appear on the world stage. I sometimes wonder whether placing the Bible into the hands of the common people was not one of Martin Luther’s biggest blunders.
This is not to say that the Bible belongs solely to the educated elite. I am convinced that many scholars armed with the tools of historical criticism are as inept as unlearned literalists when it comes to interpreting the Bible. As Professor Stanley Hauerwas has observed, “literalist fundamentalism and the critical approaches to the Bible are but two sides of the same coin, insofar as each assumes that the text should be accessible to anyone without mediation by the church.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Unleashing the Scriptures: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, (c. 1993 by Abingdon Press) p. 17. That is to say, the Bible cannot rightly be interpreted apart from the communities that gave birth to it and have been formed by it. Without Israel and the church, the Bible would have no more significance than the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It would be a fascinating literary relic, of interest perhaps to students of ancient religion, archaeology and art-but of no relevance to most 21st Century people. The Bible continues to speak to the world today only because it speaks directly to these two communities, Israel and the church, telling them who they are, why they are and how they are to live.
Unlike our sisters and brothers in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, we protestants have nothing like a “teaching magisterium” to guide us in our interpretation of the Scriptures. Indeed, given our fiercely individualistic impulses, the very thought of such an institution makes us see red. We bristle at the notion that anyone should have the right to “tell us what to think.” Yet I believe the fragmented protestant experience has taught us that reliance upon the faculties of reason possessed by the common person (or the highly educated one for that matter) to arrive at the objectively correct reading of a biblical text is misplaced. We need the guidance of the Holy Spirit which comes when we read the Bible together as a community of disciples following Jesus. Even when one reads the Bible alone, s/he does not read it in isolation, but in the company of St. Augustine, St. Aquinas, Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., contemporary theologians, pastors, teachers, friends and mentors. Interpreting the Bible is a job far too important to be left in the hands of any one individual. It requires the shared wisdom of a community of disciples in communion with the whole church and grounded in that church’s rich and diverse historical traditions.
Holy Week should be a shared exercise in Biblical interpretation integrated with the disciplines of Lent and careful listening to the passion and resurrection narrative. Just as we cannot hope to follow Jesus apart from the communion of saints, so too, we cannot expect to understand the Scriptures apart from participation in that holy communion wherein the mind of Christ is formed.
Here is a poem by Jacqueline Woodson with a fleeting picture of what formation looks like within a community of faith.
On Sundays, the preacher gives everyone a chance
to repent their sins. Miss Edna makes me go
to church. She wears a bright hat
I wear my suit. Babies dress in lace.
Girls my age, some pretty, some not so
pretty. Old ladies and men nodding.
Miss Edna every now and then throwing her hand
in the air. Saying Yes, Lord and Preach!
I sneak a pen from my back pocket,
bend down low like I dropped something.
The chorus marches up behind the preacher
clapping and humming and getting ready to sing.
I write the word HOPE on my hand.
Source: Jacqueline Woodson, “Church” from Locomotion, (c. 2003 by Jacqueline Woodson, pub. by Puffin Books). Jacqueline Woodson was born in Columbus, Ohio, but grew up in Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of over thirty books for children and young adults. Her honors include the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Newbery Honor. She received the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement, the St. Katharine Drexel Award and the Anne V. Zarrow Award for Young Readers’ Literature. You can find out more about Jacqueline Woodson and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Mark’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is a good deal more subdued than the accounts of Matthew, Luke and John. It is not clear whether those accompanying Jesus with palms and praise included anyone other than his disciples. Moreover, when Jesus arrives at Jerusalem, he is not swept into the temple on a tsunami of praise to cleanse it. Instead, he merely inspects it and retires to Bethany with his disciples. The parade ends with a whimper instead of a bang.
Unlike the other gospels, Mark does not cite Zechariah 9:9 in his telling of the story. Nevertheless, he is most probably influenced by the whole of Chapter 9 from the Book of the Prophet Zechariah. Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, Second Ed., Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.) p. 353-354; Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 Cambridge University Press) p. 352. For a more dubious view, see Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to St. Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentary (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Henderson Publishers, Inc.) p. 257. The oracle of Zechariah 9:1-8 foretells the destruction of Israel’s enemies at the dawn of the messianic age. Zechariah 9:9 announces that Israel’s messiah is coming, not as a military conqueror on a war horse, but “humble and riding on an ass.” The chariot and the warhorse shall be “cut off” and the new king will “command peace to the nations,” not armed attacks. There may also be echoes in this account of the entry of Simon Maccabeus into Jerusalem “with praise and palm branches…and with hymns and songs.” I Maccabees 13:51. Taylor, supra at 546. This triumphal entry also was associated with a cleansing of the temple. Maccabees 13:50. I find the association doubtful, however.
The term “Hosanna” is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew imperative, “Save now” found in Psalm 118:25. Vs. 9. This is a cry for salvation similar to other such cries found throughout the Psalms of lament, though used here in a Psalm of thanksgiving. It is also used in other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures to address kings with petitions for relief. II Samuel 14:4; II Kings 6:26. Psalm 118:25 is perhaps antiphonally juxtaposed to Psalm 118:26 cited by Mark immediately thereafter: “Blessed is he who enters in the name of the Lord.” Vs.10. This was possibly a blessing pronounced by the priest to pilgrims coming to worship at the temple on high holy days and would certainly fit the occasion of Passover in Jerusalem. Mark, of course, expands this exclamation to cover Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem as messiah/king. The words “blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming!” stop short of “full throated Messianic homage.” Vs. 10. Taylor, supra at 452. Clearly, however, Mark himself fully intended for the reader to draw this conclusion. Cranfield, supra at 352.
The meaning both of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and of Zechariah’s prophecy are sharpened by the occurrence of another parade that would have taken place a week earlier when through a gate at the opposite end of the city Pontius Pilate entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers to keep the peace during the potentially turbulent time of Passover. See Borg, Marcus and Crossan, John Dominic, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus Final Week in Jerusalem (c. 2006 Harper) pp. 2-5. Pilate represented another kind of peace: the Pax Romana. To an extent never before seen in history, the Roman Empire was able to enforce its reign over the Mediterranean basin establishing law and order. While Rome’s governance kept a lid on local hostilities and allowed the expansion of trade and commerce, these benefits came at a terrible human cost. The cross was the ultimate instrument of terror by which Rome kept the peace.
I cannot help repeating what I have said many times before, namely, that while pacifism has been at the fringes of Christian theology since the beginning of the 4th Century, it is at the heart of the New Testament witness to Jesus. Palm Sunday is as strong a repudiation of the Armed Forces parade as any you will ever find. Pilate at one end of the city with his armed columns, their sabers rattling and their boots tramping over the stones with military precision inspiring terror. At the other end, the humble king riding unarmed and peacefully into town on his donkey greeted with joy and hope. The “Just War Tradition,” “The Two Kingdom Doctrine” and “Christian Realism” amount to little more than Christendom’s lame effort to march in both parades at once.
This reading is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6thCentury B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. For more specifics on the Book of Isaiah generally, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.
Sunday’s reading is a passage from the third of Isaiah’s four “servant songs.” The other three are found at Isaiah 42:1–9, Isaiah 49:1-6 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. According to biblical commentator Claus Westermann, these songs represent a special strand within section two of Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. SCM Press, Ltd. 1969) p. 92. Scholars hold differing views on the identity of the “servant” in these songs. Some view the servant as an individual, perhaps the prophet him/herself. Others maintain that the servant is the people of Israel whose covenant life in the restored Jerusalem will enlighten the nations. Christians from very early on have seen reflected in these verses the ministry of Jesus. It seems to me that all of these interpretations are valid in some measure. Clearly, the prophet himself/herself understood that s/he was announcing an act of God that would be revelatory for all peoples. So too Israel always had an awareness that her existence was in part a demonstration of God’s glory to the world though, like the church, she tended to forget that aspect of her calling at times. The church likewise confessed from the outset that Jesus’ lordship was defined in terms of the hopes and expectations set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as the faithful service of the prophet was a model for Israel’s servant role among the nations, so the church is a continuation of Jesus’ faithful ministry. In sum, these differing interpretations enrich rather than contradict one another.
Though tidings of a new beginning might at first blush sound like good news, it is likely that many of the exiles did not hear it that way. Life in cosmopolitan Babylon may not have seemed much like captivity to the second generation of Jews who had purchased land, begun businesses or secured important posts in the Babylonian government. Giving up the security of a settled existence for a dangerous trip back to a ruined land must have seemed like madness to them. No doubt they resented and perhaps feared this prophet whose preaching enticed members of the community away from their homes and families to embark on such a misguided adventure. Not surprisingly, the prophet met with resistance that included violence (smiting, spitting and pulling out the beard). Vs. 6. The prophet is undismayed by this abuse, confident that his commission is from the God of Israel. Vss. 7-9.
Westermann notes that “[t]he special characteristic of the prophetic office is the very fact that the prophet wakens his ear ‘morning by morning,’ and must continually allow it to be opened by God, in order to have ‘an answer to give to the weary.’” Ibid. p. 229. Perhaps this is what John the evangelist had in mind when he quotes Jesus as saying: “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” John 7:16. The incarnation, then, fuses the prophet and the Word as one. Not surprisingly, then, the rejection of that Word by a sinful world, as occurred most definitively in the passion narrative, takes the form of lethal violence.
Westermann believes these passages from Isaiah to be “truly revolutionary in their importance” because they express the servant’s acceptance of his/her persecution as an affliction intended by God as the fulfillment of his/her prophetic mission. Ibid. p. 231. Though the psalmists and the prophets, most notably Jeremiah, struggle with seemingly unmerited persecution which they hope to see redressed through retribution of some kind, the servant seeks not retribution but vindication. Israel’s final salvation, not her just punishment, will demonstrate that the servant’s suffering is not evidence of God’s rejection, but of the prophet’s faithfulness.
I agree with Westermann’s reading of this text, though I am not convinced that it is quite as revolutionary as he supposes. While the prophets could be caustic in their prayers for retribution against their enemies and unsparing in their proclamations of judgment, they never lost sight of their solidarity with Israel. Even the socially ostracized Jeremiah could weep bitterly over the fate of his people-however justly deserved it might be. Jeremiah 9:1. Isaiah recognizes that he is “a man of unclean lips, and dwells in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah 6:5. As withering as Amos’ judgments against Israel were, he prayed fervently that the people might be spared the worst of God’s wrath. Amos 7:1-6. In sum, the prophets always understood God’s judgment as an instrument of healing and salvation. Similarly, they must have understood at some level that their persecutions were part and parcel of their callings.
These observations tie naturally into the passion narrative that will occupy center stage this coming Sunday. The persecuted and rejected prophetic word, now become flesh, is vindicated and triumphs not through an act of counter-violence, but through God’s patient determination to keep on speaking the gracious invitation to forgiveness, reconciliation and peace in the face of that rejection. God’s power is God’s patience.
This is a psalm of lament, one of the most common types found in the Psalter. As noted in last week’s post, the essential elements of its type are:
- Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
- Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
- Witness of praise to the community, vss. 7-8.
See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. If some elements are missing in this week’s reading, it is because the lectionary has truncated the psalm, probably in the interest of fitting the readings onto the commercially prescribed bulletin inserts. Moreover, the psalms are prayers formed in the furnace of human experience. As such, they do not always fit neatly into the scholarly categories of literary forms floating about like Platonic prototypes in the scholastic ether. In any event, it is puzzling to me that the lectionary did not begin the reading early enough at least to incorporate verse 5, “Into thy hand I commit my spirit.” Psalm 31:5. That would have been a good tie in to the passion narrative, albeit John’s rather than Mark’s.
Verses 9-13 are particularly striking. The psalmist complains that he is surrounded by enemies, people who whisper behind his back and seek his destruction. We might wonder about the mental health of someone who makes such complaints. Folks who imagine that the world is conspiring against them generally overrate their importance and exaggerate the hostility of those around them. I was recently asked by a traveling companion who noticed my Ezee Pass, “Doesn’t it bother you that the government knows where you are going and when?” I don’t remember what my precise response was, but the truth is I would be flattered to learn that the government or anyone else deemed my little life important enough to merit observation.
That being said, we all tend to be a little paranoid when we are feeling sick, weak and vulnerable. The aged and infirm naturally fear well-meaning relatives and friends who take it upon themselves to make important decisions for them without their input. When rumors of layoffs begin to make their way through the workplace it is natural to look for indications in the way people talk to you and act around you suggesting that you might be on the “to go” list. When something deeply hurtful, deeply personal and deeply embarrassing occurs in your life, it is not unusual to begin wondering whether the person you are speaking with knows all about it and what he or she might be thinking. Whether real or imagined, human malice is an experienced reality and one that the psalmist rightly lays before the Lord.
In addition to the affronts of his enemies, the psalmist is clearly disappointed in the friends s/he feels have deserted him or her. Vs. 12. Again, this desertion may or may not actually be real or malicious. When we are hurting, human companionship alone seldom fulfills all of our needs. We are all aware that there are some people who feel neglected and slighted no matter how often you visit or call. As important as friendship is and as valuable as it can be in difficult times, it is no substitute for faith in God’s promises. Perhaps it is because we lean too heavily on our human relationships, looking to them for the healing only God can offer, that they fail us. Marriages, friendships and family simply collapse under the weight of our unrealistic expectations. Again, the psalmist quite properly turns his or her hope toward God, the one companion whose promises never fail. When that adjustment is made, a return to healthy human companionship is again possible.
There is near scholarly consensus that Paul is citing in this passage an ancient Christian hymn of Palestinian origins possibly alluding to the “servant” figure form Second Isaiah discussed under the heading of our first lesson. It fits perfectly Paul’s articulation of his theology of the cross in I Corinthians 1:18-4:20 and his discussion of the church as the Body of Christ in I Corinthians 12:1-14:40. As the “Body of Christ,” the church must have the “mind of Christ.” Vs. 5. So far from aspiring to godhood (the sin of Adam and Eve), Jesus willingly took the form of a servant, living joyfully, trustingly and obediently within the limits of his humanity. Vss. 6-9. The Greek word for “servant” (doulos) is literally translated “slave.” It is the word Jesus used when he told his disciples that the greatest among them must be the servant/slave of all. Mark 10:44.
In a sinful world, a life so lived draws hostility and hatred. Jesus’ death on the cross was therefore the expected outcome of his obedient life. It is in precisely this sense that Jesus’ death was necessary. To put it in the most cynical way, “that’s what happens to nice guys.” But such cynicism is silenced by God’s resurrection of Jesus from death. Vs. 9. The upside down kingdom for which Jesus lived and died is real. The powers that put him to death are transitory and doomed to pass away. It is to Jesus, not to Caesar or any other nation or flag that all the universe will one day kneel. Vss 10-11. Disciples are called to live in the certain knowledge of that reality now.
I don’t preach on the Passion. The Passion text preaches itself. Whatever I might add can only detract. Yet, if you are foolhardy enough to try and improve on the gospel narrative, there are several points of interest. First, the story begins with Jesus in the home of Simon the leper. Mark 14:3. This individual was likely well known to Mark’s audience as nothing more is said to identify him. Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books) p. 371. It is worth noting that, up to the very end, Jesus maintains table fellowship with those deemed unclean.
Second, the story of the woman who anoints Jesus with the alabaster flask of ointment is worth telling. Mark 14:3-9. It is ironic that this story has been saved, according to Jesus, to preserve the woman’s memory though we do not even know her name! We might use this opportunity to memorialize all the unknown, nameless persons whose acts of extravagant generosity go unrecognized. It strikes me that this would be a good opportunity for recognizing social workers, school teachers and other members of the helping professions seldom mentioned without a condescending sneer on the lips of politicians from a certain political party of the American two-party system which is not Democratic and will otherwise remain appropriately anonymous. These folks work long hours, are disgracefully underpaid and typically handle oversize classes and/or caseloads with decreased funding. On top of all that, they must endure the constant refrain that their sacrifices are pointless and a waste of taxpayer money.
Third, I have always found interesting that, at the close of chapter 13, Jesus admonishes his disciples three times to “watch.” Mark 13:32-37. In the Garden of Gethsemane they must be jarred out of sleep exactly three times and reminded to watch. Mark 14:32-42. Recall that the disciples are preoccupied with the timing of the temple’s destruction and the signs accompanying the close of the age. Evidently, they do not know what to watch for. The darkening of the sun (Mark 15:33), the acclimation of Jesus as “King” (Mark 15:26) and the confession of Jesus as God’s son by the gentiles (Mark 15:39) all occur within the Passion narrative. Jesus came in his glory, but the disciples missed it because they failed to keep watch! Makes you wonder what signs should we look for? How does Jesus rule? What is glory anyway? Nothing of what we expect.
Then, of course, there is my favorite: the streaker in the garden. Mark 14:51-52. This little aside about the young man wearing a linen cloth has always fascinated me. Where did he come from? Why was he naked except for the linen? Why, out of all the disciples, did the temple authorities grab him? Whatever happened to him? Why does Mark (and only Mark) bother to relate such a seemingly inconsequential detail of such an important story? I can’t answer any of these questions, much less figure out how to get a sermon out of them.
In summary, I recommend not preaching the Passion. But if you must, these are just a few things you might talk about.
SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life. Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
For what are you willing to die? Answer that question honestly and your answer will tell you a lot about yourself. The operative terms are “honestly” and “you.” Political leaders compete with each other in heaping praise on fallen soldiers and the virtues of the nation for which they died. But that rings hollow coming from men who managed to shirk their military service through fabricated medical conditions or appeals to high level government connections. Patriotism comes a bit easier these days now that we have a soldier class willing to do the fighting. It was different back in the days when the duty of national defense fell upon the whole citizenry (ideally at least) and we understood that the next young man coming home from Vietnam in a flag draped coffin could very well be our brother, father or friend. Under these very different circumstances, we were compelled daily to ask ourselves whether the objectives of this war were worth the human cost.
By contrast, we are now into the fifteenth year of America’s longest war and most of the time we are only peripherally aware that it is going on. That is because the tab for the human cost is being picked up by someone else. Because a group of volunteers are sending their children to fight and die, I needn’t send my own. It is enough that I show up each year at the Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day celebrations to wave my flag and listen to an inspiring speech or two. It is much easier to pledge allegiance to the flag and the republic for which it stands without asking whether that allegiance is merited or worth the cost when I know in my heart that it will never cost me anything. Give me a free car and I will take it with thanks. But if I have to buy it, you had better believe I’ll take a much closer look under the hood and think long and hard about what I will have to give up in order to make the purchase. In all likelihood, I will decide to hang onto my money and my old clunker. How much more my life!
So what are you willing to die for? I guess we never know the answer to that question until we have to face it. Whenever there is a shooting, fire or some other disaster in a public building, there are those who run in blind terror for the door and a few who confront the danger, risking their own lives to save others. I don’t know that any psychiatric/sociological studies have been done to determine what makes these people we call “heroes” different from the rest of us. But I suspect this difference is rooted in a deeply imbedded commitment to something bigger than oneself that compels one to sacrifice everything-even life itself-in the service of that something. One does not become a hero in the heat of the moment. A hero is often indistinguishable from the rest of us until the crisis arrives that reveals him/her for who s/he is.
I think our admiration for heroes is more than a tribute to their individual courage. I believe we are secretly envious of what they have and what we often lack, namely, something so beautiful, true and good that it is worth dying for. As Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “A man who has nothing he’ll die for has nothing to live for.” Or, as Jesus puts it in today’s gospel, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Mark 8:35. Disciples of Jesus believe that the kingdom of God is worth living for. Reconciliation among nations and people, peace with God, peace within the human community and peace between ourselves and our planet are visions worth living for, sacrificing for and even dying for.
Like many of you, I have been watching the Winter Olympics. I can only imagine how many countless hours of practice, how many sprained muscles and bruised limbs, how many disappointments and setbacks the young athletes standing on the podium must have experienced on the long road to receiving their medals. Yet I doubt that any of them regrets a single minute of that difficult journey. At that moment, they are not thinking about the hours of sleep lost, the parties they did not attend or desserts they had to forego along the way. All of these sacrifices pale in comparison with the satisfaction of finally achieving the dream that inspired them. Surely life under the gentle reign of God into which Jesus invites us is worth at least the same level of dedication, loyalty and sacrifice-and promises us so much more!
Those of us, like myself, who have grown up relatively privileged and know nothing of discrimination, poverty, persecution and alienation often find it difficult to relate to Jesus’ call to take up the cross. We often trivialize this call, equating the cross with some hardship we experience in the midst of an otherwise untroubled life. We say of a difficult relative, a sore back or an unsatisfying job, “this is my cross to bear.” No. The cross is the shape God’s reign takes in a world that is hostile to it. It is the inevitable friction that comes with living the values of the Kingdom in a culture that rejects them. I think that few people understand the fullness of that kingdom and the cost of loving it better than Black Americans whose lives have so often been the very antithesis of God’s reign, yet who desire it, seek it and struggle for it so insistently. It is to the poetry and spirituality of Back poets that I think we can turn to recapture the meaning of the cross and the hope of the resurrection. It is for that reason that I feature the excellent poem of Margaret Walker in this week’s post.
For My People
For my people everywhere singing their slave songs
repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues
and jubilees, praying their prayers nightly to an
unknown god, bending their knees humbly to an
For my people lending their strength to the years, to the
gone years and the now years and the maybe years,
washing ironing cooking scrubbing sewing mending
hoeing plowing digging planting pruning patching
dragging along never gaining never reaping never
knowing and never understanding;
For my playmates in the clay and dust and sand of Alabama
backyards playing baptizing and preaching and doctor
and jail and soldier and school and mama and cooking
and playhouse and concert and store and hair and
Miss Choomby and company;
For the cramped bewildered years we went to school to learn
to know the reasons why and the answers to and the
people who and the places where and the days when, in
memory of the bitter hours when we discovered we
were black and poor and small and different and nobody
cared and nobody wondered and nobody understood;
For the boys and girls who grew in spite of these things to
be man and woman, to laugh and dance and sing and
play and drink their wine and religion and success, to
marry their playmates and bear children and then die
of consumption and anemia and lynching;
For my people thronging 47th Street in Chicago and Lenox
Avenue in New York and Rampart Street in New
Orleans, lost disinherited dispossessed and happy
people filling the cabarets and taverns and other
people’s pockets and needing bread and shoes and milk and
land and money and something—something all our own;
For my people walking blindly spreading joy, losing time
being lazy, sleeping when hungry, shouting when
burdened, drinking when hopeless, tied, and shackled
and tangled among ourselves by the unseen creatures
who tower over us omnisciently and laugh;
For my people blundering and groping and floundering in
the dark of churches and schools and clubs
and societies, associations and councils and committees and
conventions, distressed and disturbed and deceived and
devoured by money-hungry glory-craving leeches,
preyed on by facile force of state and fad and novelty, by
false prophet and holy believer;
For my people standing staring trying to fashion a better way
from confusion, from hypocrisy and misunderstanding,
trying to fashion a world that will hold all the people,
all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations;
Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a
bloody peace be written in the sky. Let a second
generation full of courage issue forth; let a people
loving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty full of
healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing
in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs
be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now
rise and take control.
Source: This is My Century: New and Collected Poems (c. 1989 University of Georgia Press, 1989) Margaret Walker (1915 –1998) was an American poet and writer. She was part of the African-American literary movement in Chicago, known as the Chicago Black Renaissance. Her works include the award-winning poem For My People (1942) and the novel Jubilee (1966). She was born in Texas, Alabama to a minister who, along with her mother, taught their daughter philosophy and poetry as a child. The family moved to New Orleans when Walker was a young girl. She attended school there, including several years of college, before she left home and moved north to Chicago.
Walker received her Bachelor of Arts Degree from Northwestern University. In 1936 she began work with the Federal Writers’ Project under the Works Progress Administration created under the Roosevelt administration. During that time, she was a member of the South Side Writers Group, a circle of influential African-American writers and poets formed in the 1930s in Chicago. In 1942 she received her master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa. In 1965 she returned to that school to earn her Ph.D. Walker married Firnist Alexander in 1943 and moved to Mississippi to be with him. They had four children together.
You can read more about Margaret Walker and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website. You may also want to explore the profound work of other Harlem/Chicago Renaissance poets featured on the website in recognition of Black History Month.
As observed last week, “Genesis is a rich composite of many different oral traditions, written sources, and editorial hands…The authors incorporated everything from the myths of ancient Near Eastern high culture to the local legends of Palestinian Bedouins. We can identify scores of different literary genres deriving from as many sociological settings.” Mann, Thomas W., “All the Families of the Earth: The Theological Unity of Genesis,” Interpretation, Vol. 45, No. 4, October 1991, p. 350. For more specifics as to written sources, see the online article Documentary Hypothesis; for a discussion of literary genres found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures see Coats, George W., Genesis: With an Introduction to Narrative Literature, The Forms of the Old Testament Literature, Vol. I (c. 1983 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Yet as diverse as its literary and written components are, we must focus on “the theological integrity of biblical narratives in their present canonical shape, rather than as dismembered pieces…” Mann, supra, at 343.That is to say, as fascinating as the process of biblical formation may be, it is the finished product that commands our primary attention.
As noted last week, Genesis 1-11 forms the backdrop for Israel’s story. It paints the picture of a Creator deeply in love with his creation, though deeply grieved by the evil and brokenness that have infected it. Chiefly is this Creator God grieved by the violence of human beings made in God’s own image. Because of humanity’s crimes, the earth lies under a curse. Humanity is at odds with its Creator, at odds with the earth from which it was taken and at odds with itself, being divided into nations, tribes and clans separated by language and culture. In Genesis 12:1-3 God begins to undo the curse by calling Abram to follow God’s leading into a land where God will make of him “a great nation” so as to “be a blessing.” It is by Abram, Sarai and their descendants that God will bring blessing to a world lying under the curse of sin. It is therefore not too far a stretch to call the Book of Genesis “a book about dysfunctional families and the ways in which God seeks to use those families as agents of divine grace to ‘all the families of the earth,’” as one commentator has done. Mann, supra, at 341.
This Sunday’s lesson takes us deeper into God’s covenant with Abram. It is part of a larger narrative comprising all of Genesis 17 in which circumcision is introduced as a definitive mark of the covenant people, so much so that “any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” Genesis 17:14. The people of God are to be distinguished from all other nations and tribes by an irreversible physical sign. Precisely because it is irreversible, circumcision makes it impossible to deny affiliation with Israel. Moreover, this is a sign normally imposed shortly after birth and so is hardly a matter of choice.
If the whole of this chapter were included in the reading, it might be worth pondering how indoctrination into faith squares with our modern emphasis on individual rights and freedoms. The famed scientist and atheist activist Richard Dawkins recently remarked, “What a child should never be taught is that you are a Catholic or Muslim child, therefore that is what you believe. That’s child abuse.” Daily Mail, April 22, 2013. In a culture where protestant Christianity is so thoroughly integrated into our notions of respectable citizenship, Dr. Dawkins’ assertion comes across as rather preposterous. Yet I think he puts his finger on something important. Our laws are shaped by public consensus on what constitutes responsible behavior. As recently as when I was a child (alright, maybe that isn’t recent!), spanking was an accepted form of discipline. While my parents limited the practice to an occasional front hand swat on the rump, it was not uncommon for fathers to “take the belt” to their children. No one would have considered reporting that to the police and I doubt the police would have intervened if they had. Discipline of children, within reasonable limits, was the prerogative of parents.
Of course, our understandings of “reasonable limits” change and evolve with time. We now understand (or at least we should) that physical punishment is at best ineffective and, at worst, damaging to child development. Accordingly, our laws governing child protection now deem abusive many practices that were common place in my childhood. That, in my view, is a welcome development. But in what direction might our laws evolve should societal consensus conclude that religious indoctrination is harmful? If one assumes that faith, morals and values are matters purely of individual choice, that children should be raised in environments of intellectual neutrality toward competing religious claims so that their choices in that realm are free and uncoerced, where does that leave circumcision? Infant baptism? Catechetical instruction? Is it perhaps time to consider whether our fierce loyalty to individual freedom is not misplaced? Is freedom to be equated with individual autonomy? Is critical thinking necessarily incompatible with being raised as a member of a faith community? Is not raising a child in an environment of strict religious neutrality also a kind of indoctrination? Some of these questions are addressed in a fine article by Michael Brendon Dougherty published in The Week.
But I digress. My point is to draw out the tension in this entire chapter between the promise to Abram and Sarai that they will be parents of “many nations” and the mark of circumcision that singles out the particular nation of blessing. While the Book of Genesis makes much of the line of blessing traced through Abram (and not Lot), Isaac (not Ishmael) and Jacob (not Esau), we see repeated instances where this special people becomes an agent of blessing to those outside of the covenant. Abram pleads with God to spare the righteous in Sodom resulting in the rescue of Lot and his family. Genesis 18:22-33. Jacob’s service to his uncle Laban brings about a substantial increase in Laban’s flocks. Genesis 30:29-30. Through Joseph, God spares Egypt from the ravages of a seven year famine. Genesis 45:4-15; Genesis 50:19-21. This tension between the uniqueness of Israel among the nations and its mission to the nations finds expression throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. If the books of Ezra and Nehemiah represent the extreme in guarding Israel’s unique identity among the nations, perhaps the prophetic oracles of Isaiah 40-55 best articulate Israel’s mission of blessing to the nations.
This tension is perhaps helpful for the church in rethinking her own mission to the world. To a very large degree we have accepted uncritically the premise that the Christian mission to the world is to make everyone a Christian. We have assumed that the command to “make disciples of all nations” means to make all people of every nation into disciples. The job of a witness, however, is not that of the prosecutor or the public defender. Witnesses do not persuade. They witness to what they have seen and heard. The witness will be made passionately, forcefully and convincingly. But the work of persuasion is left to the Holy Spirit to call into the church those whom Jesus has chosen.
It is important to keep in mind that this “election” is not “selection.” The call to discipleship, like the call to Abram, is one of service to the world for the sake of the world. God is not snatching a few select souls from a sinking ship. God is commissioning a people to bear witness to God’s stubborn determination to save the entire ship! To be chosen is to be elected for the purpose of reconciling the world to the gentle reign of God.
There is a seemingly bitter irony in the change of name from Abram, meaning “Exalted Father,” to Abraham, meaning “Father of a multitude.” The man is ninety-nine years old and childless at this point. Equally implausible is the change of Sarai’s name to Sarah, meaning “princess.” That this barren Bedouin couple should be declared progenitors of a people who one day will possess and rule the land where they now live essentially as illegal aliens seems like a cruel joke. No wonder that the promise invoked bitter laughter from Sarah in the very next chapter! Genesis 18:9-15. The stage is set for the God of Israel to do exactly what God does best: “He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children.” Psalm 113:7-9.
“[I]t is obvious that the book of Genesis does not stand on its own but looks beyond its own content to unresolved issues.” Mann, Supra, at 350. Just as the first eleven chapters of Genesis set the stage for the call of Abram and the stories of his extended family, so the Book of Genesis itself sets the stage for the liberation of Israel from bondage in Egypt that will occupy the narrative in the Book of Exodus. The state of slavery under Egypt will find its liberating contrast in the life of freedom embodied in Torah.
This is a psalm of lament that begins with the words familiar to us from Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” vs. 1; cf. Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46. You would never guess that from our reading, however, which begins at vs. 23. Verse 22 marks a transition point in the psalm. Up to this point, the psalmist has been pouring out his or her complaint to God, describing the torment and ridicule s/he experiences at the hands of his or her enemies and crying out for deliverance. Though no such deliverance has yet occurred, the psalmist is confident that God will soon intervene to rescue him or her. So sure is the psalmist of God’s impending salvation that s/he is even now declaring thankfulness, praise and testimony to these saving acts. The psalmist takes delight in knowing that God’s intervention on his or her behalf will bring glory and praise to God from future generations who will learn from his or her experience that God is indeed faithful.
I should add that some commentators have argued that vss. 1-21 and vss. 22-31 constitute two separate psalms, the first being a lament and the second a hymn of thanksgiving. Perhaps that was on the minds of the lectionary makers when they divided the psalm as they did (assuming, of course, that they have minds-something I often question). I am not at all convinced by their arguments, however, which seem to hinge on the dissimilarities of lament versus thanksgiving between the two sections. Psalms of lament frequently contain a component of praise or promise of thanksgiving for anticipated salvation. See, e.g., Psalm 5; Psalm 7; Psalm 13. Artur Weiser, while maintaining the unity of the psalm, asserts that the psalm was, in whole or in part, composed after the psalmist’s prayer has been answered. Weiser, Artur The Psalms, a Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1962 SCM Press), p. 219. That interpretation does not fit the language of the psalm which speaks of salvation in the future tense. This salvation, though real, is nevertheless an anticipated act of God.
It has been suggested by some commentators that Jesus’ cry from the cross might not have been a cry of dereliction at all, but that the gospel writers meant to say that Jesus was praying this psalm from the cross. Clearly, the body of the psalm reflects at many points precisely what Jesus was experiencing at the hands of his enemies, so much so that New Testament scholars argue over the extent to which the psalm might have influenced the telling of the passion story. However these questions might be resolved, there is obviously a parallel between the psalmist praising God for deliverance s/he cannot yet see and Jesus’ faithful obedience to his heavenly Father even to death on the cross. In both cases, faith looks to salvation in God’s future even when there appears to be no future.
In this snippet from Paul’s Letter to the church at Rome, Paul lifts up Abraham as an example of saving faith. It is important to emphasize that Paul understands “faith” not as subscription to creedal or doctrinal formulae, but as trust in God’s promises. In Abraham’s case, the promise was to give him an heir and to give his descendants the land of Canaan. As we have seen, the promise was problematic due both to the Abraham and Sarah’s advanced age and their infertility. The biological clock had ceased ticking for both of them ages ago. But for Abraham, age and infertility did not enter into the equation. God had made a promise and would keep the promise. It was up to God, not Abraham, to figure out how to make it all work.
Of course, we know that Abraham was sometimes less than trusting. He even tried to “help God out” by resorting to what amounts to surrogate parenting. He took Sarah’s slave girl, Hagar, as a concubine and managed to father Ishmael with her. But God did not need Abraham’s help and insisted that the covenant promises would be kept through a child of Sarah. This takes nothing away from Paul’s point. However shaky and imperfect Abraham’s trust in God may have been, God’s faithfulness never wavered. That is why Abraham “grew strong in his faith.” Vs. 20. The implication is that his faith was not so strong to begin with. God’s faithfulness precedes our faith and makes that faith possible. It is because God raised Jesus from death that we dare to trust that the reign of God Jesus proclaimed is a present reality despite all evidence to the contrary in the world around us. Because God faithfully returned to Jesus the life Jesus trustingly commended into God’s hands, we can entrust our lives to God knowing that we will receive them back again restored, sanctified and made new.
Paul also makes the point that children of Abraham are those who share the faith of Abraham-not necessarily those who share his genes. Again, Paul appeals to the missional aspect of Israel’s existence expressed throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that Paul is not suggesting that the church displaces Israel as God’s people. Recall that Paul is writing at a time when the Jesus movement was understood and understood itself as existing within the larger tradition of Judaism. Paul’s argument is that Abraham is the father not merely of Israel but of many nations and of all who share his faith in Israel’s God through baptism into Jesus Christ.
This is the first instance in Mark’s gospel where Jesus speaks specifically to his disciples about his coming suffering, death and resurrection. This speech comes immediately following Peter’s declaration of faith in Jesus as Israel’s messiah. Peter is understandably confused and upset. The messiah is supposed to liberate Israel. How can his rejection, suffering and death accomplish anything along the lines of salvation? We might expect Peter to wonder a bit about Jesus’ resurrection and what that might mean, but it seems he cannot get past Jesus’ suffering and death. So Peter does what any good friend would do for a buddy who talks about being rejected, persecuted and dying. He gives him a pep talk! “Come off it Jesus! Don’t be such a Debbie Downer. They’ll love you in Jerusalem just like they do everywhere else!”
This pep talk earns Peter a rebuke-a harsh rebuke. To be sure, Peter was missing the whole point of Jesus’ mission and ministry. But was it really necessary to call him the devil? That seems a little over the top. Yet as we saw last week, Jesus was driven into the presence of Satan immediately following his baptism. There God declared Jesus to be God’s Son. Jesus, and by extension his church, is never in greater danger of Satanic influence than when Jesus’ identity and mission are misconstrued. While we cannot know what Peter had in mind when he declared Jesus to be God’s messiah, a couple of things are obvious. First, the cross had no place in Peter’s understanding of Jesus’ mission. Whatever Peter’s understanding of God’s Kingdom may have been, he was convinced it could be ushered in without the cross-the very argument advanced by Satan according to Matthew and Luke and implicitly in Mark as well.
Second, as will become clear from the story of the Transfiguration to follow, Jesus is more than Israel’s messiah. He is more than even Moses and Elijah. Jesus is God’s beloved Son. Peter should listen to him rather than insisting on advising him. At this point, Peter’s understanding is moribund, limited to what is humanly achievable. Whatever his notion of salvation may have been, it was too small. Satan knows too well that he cannot deter Jesus by tempting him with what is evil. So he tempts Jesus with something that is merely less than the highest good. Listen to Peter. Don’t do anything rash. Stay out of harm’s way. Dead men cannot preach, heal and cast out demons. Peter’s is the voice of reason, but as Martin Luther once said, reason can easily become the devil’s whore.
Ultimately, Peter is seeking to make an end run around the cross. That is why Jesus must make it clear that all who wish to follow him must embrace the cross. This is not an abstract metaphor. The cross was Rome’s ultimate instrument of terror. Execution by crucifixion conformed to a morbid ritual in which the condemned person was required to carry his/her own cross bar to the place of execution, which was always a public area. The condemned was then stripped naked and fastened to the cross by nails through the hands or wrists and through the feet or above the heels. Held immobile for every passersby to see, the crucified was unable to cope with heat, cold, insects or care for his bodily needs. Perker, Pierson, “Crucifixion,” The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 747. Crucifixions were common events throughout Galilee and so Jesus’ hearers knew he was not referring to an aching back, a nagging in-law or any of the other annoyances bandied about in common parlance as “my cross to bear.” As pointed out in a frequently quoted passage from the works of John Howard Yoder, “The cross of Calvary was … the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling [Jesus’] society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c. 1972 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 129.
In sum, God’s reign has come. It is present, not future tense. Nevertheless, the reign of God is being asserted in a world where other powers claim supremacy. Cultural norms, societal expectations and civil obligations make demands upon us that are contrary to the claim of Jesus, the shape of which is spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere. It is for this reason that loyalty to Jesus brings us into conflict with the world around us. In such a world, God’s reign necessarily takes the shape of the cross.
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection awaken us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and keep us blameless until the coming of your new day, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Apocalyptic literature, such as we find in Sunday’s gospel, is hard for us mainline protestants to digest. We are progressive in our outlook. We expect the kingdom of heaven to come incrementally. Shaped as we are by 19th Century rationalism, we view our present state of civilization as the vanguard of a slow but steady march from barbarism to liberal democracy and beyond. We can point to enough instances of progress to make this view of reality somewhat plausible. We have outlawed the overt practice of slavery. We have created an international network of alliances, agreements and institutions which, though they cannot altogether prevent war from breaking out, limit the scale of warfare and provide mechanisms for resolving military conflicts that might otherwise drag on indefinitely. Freedom, equality and prosperity are reachable for more people today than at any other time in recorded history. All of this suggests that we are progressing toward a better day.
The gospel, however, challenges our faith in progress. The evangelist reminds us of truths we would prefer to ignore, namely, that the increased prosperity of some has come at the expense of many more who remain mired in poverty; that slavery has been abolished in name only and is very much alive for victims of human trafficking and millions laboring in harsh conditions for wages that cannot sustain them. The treaties and institutions that have maintained peace and stability in many parts of the world are experienced as oppressive and unjust to many who had no voice in their creation nor any role in governing them. Moreover, these institutions are beginning to collapse under the weight of a new nationalism spreading across the globe. Racist ideologies and patriotism grounded in “blood and soil,” once thought relegated to the dust bin of history, are on the rise. The hard-fought gains for people of color, sexual minorities and women in this country that we hoped were permanent are in danger of being lost. Our faith in progress is being shaken-and that might be a good thing because faith in anything less than Jesus is idolatry.
The evangelist warns us against the notion that we can obtain intelligence into the when and how of God’s coming reign. S/he assures us that the day of the Lord will come, but that the timing and method of its coming are beyond our comprehension. The evangelist is clear on one thing, however. The kingdom will not come through gradual, incremental, peaceful evolution. It will come through revolution, violence and bloodshed. The institutions to which we look for peace, stability and progress must be dismantled in the birthing of the new creation. To those of us who have traditionally looked to the institutions of the old order for security, peace and progress, that is a frightening word. Yet for the many who find these very structures oppressive, violent and unjust, the apocalyptic message of Mark is remarkably good news.
During the Advent season we are reminded that we can only wait for new creation. That is a bitter pill to swallow for those of us who would like simply to patch up the old creation. It is hard to be told that a “kinder, gentler empire” will not do. The evangelist is telling us that the new world cannot dawn without the death of the old. This means that a lot of what we hoped was permanent, a lot of what we believed was good, a lot of what we worked so hard to achieve will be dissolved before we arrive at God’s gentle reign of peace.
That isn’t to say that what we do in the meantime doesn’t matter. Precisely because we know the world ends in God’s reign of justice and peace, it matters all the more how we spend whatever time we have left. We must practice justice and peace now so that the world may know its destiny is God’s kingdom and so that we might be formed into the kind of people capable of living faithfully in that kingdom when it finally is revealed. Making the world a better place is not a vain effort. To the contrary, that is why human beings were created. It is critical, however, to recognize that nothing we accomplish, however good and important, is eternal. No gain that we make is irreversible. Neither our lives nor our accomplishments are immune from the “change and decay in all around I see.” We can hope, pray and even expect that our works of justice, compassion and mercy witness to the kind of world God is making. But we dare not confuse our efforts with God’s own redemptive work. By all means strive to make progress; but trust only in God.
Here’s a poem by Jones Very on that very point.
The New World
THE NIGHT that has no star lit up by God,
The day that round men shines who still are blind,
The earth their grave-turned feet for ages trod,
And sea swept over by His mighty wind,
All these have passed away, the melting dream
That flitted o’er the sleeper’s half-shut eye,
When touched by morning’s golden-darting beam;
And he beholds around the earth and sky
That ever real stands, the rolling shores
And heaving billows of the boundless main,
That show, though time is past, no trace of years.
And earth restored he sees as his again,
The earth that fades not and the heavens that stand,
Their strong foundations laid by God’s right hand.
Source: American Religious Poems, Harold Bloom and Jesse Zuba, editors; pub. by Library of America, Inc. p. 96. This poem is in the public domain. Jones Very (1813–1880) Though a minor figure in the American poetic pantheon, Very’s work was highly regarded by such prominent figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott. He studied at Harvard Divinity School until he succumbed to religious delusions that lead to his expulsion. His style bears the mark of his devotion to William Shakespeare whose sonnets he often emulated. You can find out more about Jones Very and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
The fifty sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah opens into what scholars agree is a third collection of prophetic oracles separate from the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39) and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. These prophesies, comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66), come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E. The band of exiles, inspired by the poetic promises of Second Isaiah to brave the dangerous journey across the Iraqi desert from Babylon to Palestine, arrived home to find Jerusalem in ruins and the land inhabited by hostile tribes. The Eden like path through the desert promised by Second Isaiah did not materialize. Life in Palestine proved to be difficult, dangerous and unpromising. The people were understandably disappointed and demoralized. This was the tough audience to which Third Isaiah was called to appeal. A people led to such a desperate plight by their belief in a prophet’s promises were probably not in any mood to listen to yet another prophet! Third Isaiah opens with the words, “Maintain justice and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come.” Vs. 1. You can almost hear the people groaning in the background, “Oh no! Here we go again!”
The prayer of lament that constitutes our lesson is, according to Professor Claus Westermann, one of “the most powerful psalms of communal lamentation in the Bible.” Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c 1969 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 392. The prophet does not take lightly the disillusionment of his/her people. Speaking in the voice of the community, s/he cries out, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” vs. 1. Like the rest of the people, the prophet longs for God’s intervention. The prophet reminds God (as though God needed reminding!) that there was a time when God did act decisively on Israel’s behalf. The prophet alludes to the saving acts of God in the past. Though lacking in specificity, the prophet’s references to “terrible things that we looked not for” might well include the Exodus, the Conquest of Canaan, the triumphs of Samuel and David. Vss. 3-4. God acted then, so why not now?
Of course, the prophet knows and the people no doubt suspect that the reason for God’s silence is tied to their own lack of covenant faithfulness. Yet the people cannot help but feel that God’s anger is out of proportion to their offenses. In verse 5, the prophet cries out, “Behold, thou wast angry, and we sinned…” The order here is most curious. It almost seems as though the people attribute their sin to God’s anger. How can one believe in and trust a God whose wrath is so unsparing? No wonder that “no one calls upon [God’s] name, that bestirs himself to take hold of [God].” Vs. 7. It is God “who has delivered [Israel] into the hands of [her] iniquities.” Vs. 7.
Our reading ends with a plea for God not to be so exceedingly angry. Vs. 9 “Thou art our Father,” the prophet declares. “We are the clay, and thou our potter; we are the work of thy hand.” Vs. 8. In verses 11-12 (not in our reading) the prophet calls God’s attention to the holy city of Jerusalem and the once great temple of Solomon, now in ruins. The poem concludes with a haunting question: “Wilt thou restrain thyself at these things, O Lord? Wilt thou keep silent, and afflict us sorely?” vs. 12.
This prayer strikes a resonant note for an age that seems far removed from miracles and unequivocal words and acts of God. For a good many modern folk, the stories of the Exodus and the Resurrection are just that, stories. At best, they are metaphors for experiences that fit neatly within the narrow confines of our secular frame of reference. For the most part, though, they are archaic myths that we have long outgrown. Those of us who still believe long for the God of the Bible to “rend the heavens and come down” so that we might be assured that the line to mystery, revelation and renewal has not gone dead. Are we shouting frantically into a broken connection? Is there no longer any listening ear on the other end?
I would encourage you to read chapter 65 of Isaiah in addition to our lesson. There you will find God’s response. God, it seems, is equally frustrated by the lack of communication. “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me,” God replies. “I said, ‘Here am I, here am I,’ to a nation that did not call on my name.” Isaiah 65:1. Though God might not be responding with the fireworks Israel is seeking, God is responding nonetheless. So perhaps the problem is not with God’s silence, but with our lack of perception. Perhaps we cannot hear the word of the Lord because we have bought into the limited and limiting vision of empiricism. Perhaps the silence of God can be attributed to our lack of capacity to imagine, contemplate and be open to mystery. Maybe God is even now rending the heavens and coming down and we have only to open our eyes and look up to see the Advent of our God.
This is a psalm of lament. Mention of the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh suggest that this was originally a psalm of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Dating is difficult. The portrait of the land of Israel as an abandoned vineyard with its defenses torn down and its fruit at the mercy of any passing beast certainly fits what must have been the case following the Assyrian conquest in 722 B.C.E. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that the Northern Kingdom was considerably less stable politically than Judah under the line of David. It was also beset by its hostile neighbor, Syria, which frequently expanded its holdings into Israelite territory. Thus, it is entirely possible that this psalm dates from as early as the 9th Century. After the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria, it is probable that this psalm and other literary traditions from the north were brought to the Southern Kingdom of Judah and incorporated into what ultimately became the Jewish scriptures. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard E. Anderson, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 171.
As we saw in last week’s lesson from Ezekiel, the term “shepherd” is commonly associated with kings and rulers. “Enthroned upon the cherubim” (vs. 1) is an allusion to the presence of God symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant which had images of two of these heavenly beings on its cover. Exodus 25:17-22. Though the Ark had likely been captured or destroyed by this time and, in any event, would not have been in the possession of the Northern Kingdom, this term for God’s majesty lived on.
Like the psalm from Isaiah, this psalm also implores God to act and asks “how long wilt thou be angry with thy people’s prayers?” vs. 4. This is a common refrain throughout the psalms of lament. See, e.g., Psalm 13:1-2; Psalm 74:10; and Psalm 79:5. It seems as though God has abandoned his people to suffering and to the mockery of their enemies. As we see time and time again, Israel had no qualms about letting God know when she felt God was not holding up his end of the covenant. Yet as angry, disappointed and disillusioned as Israel sometimes was with her God, she never ceased speaking to God. As hard as it was for Israel to believe in God’s promises, it was harder simply to dismiss them. Israel knew that her ancestors lived for four hundred years as slaves in Egypt crying out for salvation before God sent Moses to deliver them. Israel knew that nearly all of those ancestors died on the long trek through the wilderness without seeing the Promised Land. Israel knew that in the past her ancestors had had to wait for God’s salvation. Why should things be any different now? With this knowledge and experience in her memory Israel cries out in the refrain found throughout this psalm, “Restore us, O God, let they face shine, that we may be saved!” vss. 3; 7 and 19.
In a culture that rewards speed, efficiency and instant satisfaction, the virtues of patience and persistence have little place. Praying to a God who acts in his own good time and for whom a thousand years is but a day has little appeal in the world of Burger King where you can have it your way right now. The Psalms remind us, however, that there is value in waiting. It is not just wasted time. Waiting gives us time to consider and contemplate that for which we pray. Those who practice prayer patiently and consistently know that one’s desires are transformed in the process. In the discipline of persistent and constant prayer, longings and desires are purified. We often discover in the process that what we thought we wanted, longed for and desired is not what we truly needed. By the time we recognize God’s answer to our prayer, our prayer has changed-and so have we. Waiting is perhaps the most important dimension of prayer.
As always, I urge you to read Psalm 80 in its entirety.
You might want to refresh your recollection concerning Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. To that end, I refer you to the Summary Article by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N. on enterthebible.org.
Our reading for Sunday is a snippet from Paul’s greeting to the church in Corinth. Paul alludes herein to the matters to be dealt with in the body of his letter, namely, “knowledge,” “eloquence,” “spiritual gifts,” and “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” at the “Day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Of particular importance for the dawning of this Advent season is the promise of Christ to “sustain” us to the end. Vs. 8. Endurance is and always has been a key New Testament virtue. As I have said before, I do not believe there ever was a “crisis” in the early church prompted by the “delay of the second coming” (sometimes called “the Parousia”). I am convinced that the church understood from the witness of Jesus himself that the kingdom of God had come with power and glory in the cross and resurrection-but that in a sinful world the kingdom necessarily takes the shape of the cross. Though longed for, the consummation of the kingdom was not expected momentarily and the fact that it did not so occur did not occasion any “crisis of faith.” The God and Father of Jesus Christ was the God who sojourned with the patriarchs through their many years as foreigners in the Promised Land; the God who waited four hundred years before answering the cries of his enslaved people in Israel; the God who sat for seventy years in exile with his people and who sent his Son in the fullness of time. Patient longing has been part of the discipleship package from the start. It was not invented by the church to save its disillusioned members from their dashed hopes.
That means, of course, that disciples of Jesus must reconcile themselves to not knowing what time it is. The end (in the sense of Jesus becoming all in all) might come tomorrow. Yet again, it might not come for several more millennia. For all we know, tomorrow’s seminaries might include courses in space travel for pastoral leaders called to churches established at human colonies in far off star systems. Like the children of Israel in the wilderness, we do not know how long it will take for us to arrive at our destination, what the road ahead will look like or how we will know when we have arrived. Only patient, hopeful and confident trust in our Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, can sustain us on this journey.
The language employed by Jesus in our reading is similar to prophetic judgment and apocalyptic speech employed in the Hebrew Scriptures. As such, it is “more than metaphorical, less than literal.” Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 2 (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by A&C Black, Limited) p. 319. The imagery suggests cosmic dissolution. The coming of the Son of Man in glory means the end of the world as we know it.
That said, I believe Mark is doing something unique with this section of his gospel. Jesus has said before that “this generation will not pass away before these things take place.” Vs. 30. See also Mark 9:1. So the question is, what “things” is Jesus talking about? Note well that Jesus tells his disciples no less than three times to “watch.” Vss. 33-37. As we will see, they famously fail to stay awake and watch three times. Mark 14:32-42. At Jesus’ crucifixion, “there was darkness over the whole land until the 9th hour.” Mark 15:33. Jesus is acknowledged (albeit mockingly) as Messiah while hanging on the cross and confessed as Son of God at his death. Mark 15:21-39. Jesus, identified in the first chapter of Mark as “Messiah” and “Son of God” (Mark 1:1), is so glorified in his crucifixion-a strange sort of glory. Do these words of Jesus from our gospel lesson pertain to some cosmic event in the distant future? Or do they refer to Jesus’ impending crucifixion? Is the cross for Mark the end of the world?
I suspect that this is a matter of both/and rather than strictly either/or. What happened with Jesus did indeed initiate the dissolution of the cosmos. Evidence of dissolution is everywhere. Nonetheless, if the sky is falling it can only mean that God is replacing it with a new heaven and a new earth. The end of the world is therefore the revealing of God’s kingdom, which now is hidden under the form of the cross. The end of the world is plainly visible for all who are watching for it. I concur therefore with Professor Cranfield who has this to say:
“If we realize that the Incarnation-Crucifixion-Resurrection-and Ascension, on the one hand, and the Parousia, on the other, belong essentially together and are in a real sense one Event, one divine Act, being held apart only by the mercy of God who desires to give men opportunity for faith and repentance, then we can see that in a very real sense the latter is always imminent now that the former has happened. It was, and still is, true to say that the Parousia is at hand-and indeed this, so far from being an embarrassing mistake on the part either of Jesus or of the early Church, is an essential part of the Church’s faith. Ever since the Incarnation men have been living in the last days.” Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 Cambridge University Press) p. 408.
Though Cranfield employs concepts that are far outside the theological outlook of Mark’s gospel, I believe that his conclusion is nonetheless sound. For Mark, the new age was inaugurated by Jesus in the midst of the old. The cosmic events surrounding the crucifixion are of one piece with the final convulsion in which the old age withers before the advent of the new.
This is a timely word for all who experience dissolution, whether it be the dissolution of the America they once knew, the dissolution of a marriage, the dissolution of a mind into dementia or the dissolution of a church. Jesus does not soft peddle the reality of death in all its aspects. The creation is subject to death and the convulsions of its death throes are everywhere. But these same convulsions, for those who are attentive, are birth pangs of something new. That is the good news in this lesson.