Tag Archives: poetry

Sunday, May 8th

SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, form the minds of your faithful people into your one will. Make us love what you command and desire what you promise, that, amid all the changes of this world, our hearts may be fixed where true joy is found, your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Last week a powerful prophetic and poetic voice went silent. Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan died Saturday, April 30th of natural causes at a Jesuit health care facility in the Bronx. He was 94 years old. Berrigan was born May 9, 1921, in Virginia, Minnesota. He entered the Jesuit novitiate at St. Andrew-on-the-Hudson, New York in August 1939 and graduated in 1946. Thereafter, he entered the Jesuit’s Woodstock College in Baltimore graduating in 1952. He was ordained the same year and appointed professor of New Testament studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse in 1957.

Daniel Berrigan is remembered by most people for his anti-war activities during the Vietnam era. He spent two years in prison for destroying draft records, damaging nuclear war heads and leading other acts of civil disobedience. He also joined with other prominent religious figures like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to found Clergy and Laity Against the War in Vietnam. In February of 1968 he traveled to North Vietnam and returned with three American prisoners of war he convinced the North Vietnamese to release.

Berrigan was not an ideological leftist. He opposed abortion as adamantly as he resisted the Vietnam War. In 1992 he was arrested in Rochester, New York while protesting in front of a Planned Parenthood facility. Needless to say, he received no little criticism from the left for taking this position. For Berrigan, however, opposition to abortion followed as naturally as opposition to war from his over-all commitment to peace and resistance to violence. He was a longtime endorser of the “consistent life ethic,” and he served on the advisory board of Consistent Life, an organization that describes itself as “committed to the protection of life, which is threatened in today’s world by war, abortion, poverty, racism, capital punishment and euthanasia.” See “Daniel Berrigan, priest, prisoner, anti-war crusader, dies” National Catholic Reporter May 2, 2016.

I remember Daniel Berrigan chiefly as a poet and a prophet of peace and reconciliation. Berrigan published more than fifty books of poetry, essays, journals and commentaries on the scriptures. He had a gift for recognizing the sacred in what most of us would view as profane-perhaps even obscene. He was able to see the face of Jesus in all people and especially in those we often fear to look upon. Here is a poem by Daniel Berrigan. May he rest in peace and may eternal light shine upon him. 

The Face of Christ  

The tragic beauty of the face of Christ
Shines in the face of man;

The abandoned old live on
in shabby rooms, far from comfort.
Outside,
din and purpose, the world, a fiery animal
reined in by youth. Within
a pallid tiring heart
shuffles about its dwelling.

Nothing, so little, comes of life’s promise.
0f broken men, despised minds
what does one make-
a roadside show, a graveyard of the heart?

Christ, fowler of street and hedgerow
cripples, the distempered old
-eyes blind as woodknots,
tongues tight as immigrants’-all
taken in His gospel net,
the hue and cry of existence.

Heaven, of such imperfection,
wary, ravaged, wild?

Yes. Compel them in.

Source: Berrigan, Daniel, Selected & New Poems (c. 1973 by Daniel Berrigan, pub. by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) p. 80. You can read more about Daniel Berrigan and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

A discussion of the appointed texts for the  Seventh Sunday of Easter follows. For those of you who might, like Trinity, be celebrating the Ascension of our Lord, I invite you to re-visit my Post of Sunday, May 12, 2013 where the appropriate lessons are discussed.

Acts 16:16-34

This marvelous story from Acts poses numerous problems for us moderns. Demons and demon possession don’t fit seamlessly into our 19th Century world view. Then again, our 19th Century world view is coming under increasing strain in this 21st Century that is calling into question the mind’s capacity to conduct the sort of objective inquiry capable of yielding the scientific certainty we all thought the empirical method could give us. So instead of falling all over ourselves to find “rational” explanations for seemingly miraculous events narrated in the Bible, perhaps we should allow the scriptures to school us on the limits of human understanding and open to us portholes into a universe far too marvelous to fit into our constrictive rational constructs. I am not suggesting, of course, that we can or should return to the 1st Century way of looking at things. What I do suggest is that, contrary to our progressive prejudices, chronological progression does not equate with growth in wisdom, understanding and insight. I maintain that the past contains as many important insights that we are prone to forget as it does errors we have properly rejected.

Rather than seeking to reconcile the biblical narrative with 19th Century rationalism, we should be challenging this failing conceptual model with deeper understandings of reality. Walter Wink seeks to do just that in his book, The Powers that Be (c. 1998 by Augsburg Fortress). Referencing the Hebrew Scriptures, Wink points out how nations, cities and individuals were believed to have had angels representing them. The same concept appears in the Book of Revelation in which each of the seven churches in Asia Minor is said to have its own angel. Revelation 2-3. Just as at the heart of every individual there are motivating values, goals and priorities, so also at the heart of every church, corporation, government and social organization there is an ethos, a personality of sorts that guides the decision making process and conduct of their members. This “angel” falls and becomes “demonic” when an institution, such as a government, turns away from its divine vocation to provide for the wellbeing of its citizens and becomes merely self-serving and self-perpetuating.

John Dominic Crossan addresses the phenomenon of demon possession in his book, The Historical Jesus (c. 1991 by John Dominic Crossan, pub. by Harper Collins). Crossan describes individual demonic possession in Jesus’ day as a microcosm of Rome’s occupation and domination of the Holy Land:

“Think, now, of demonic possession. George Nickelsburg, speaking of the Book of the Similitudes/Parables of Enoch in I Enoch 37-71, a work that dates ‘around the turn of the eara,’ he says that ‘on the one side are God, the heavenly entourage, the agents of judgment…and God’s people…On the other are the chief demon Azazel, his angels, and the kings and the mighty…[who] would have their counterparts among the Roman generals, governors, triumvirs, and monarchs whose activities in Judea are well documented sources. The author might also have had in mind the late Hasmoneans and the Herods’…. For this representation…Roman imperialism meant that God’s people were possessed by demons on the social level. Notice, by the way, the somewhat schizophrenic implications of demonic control: it indicates a power admittedly greater than oneself, admittedly ‘inside’ oneself, but that one declares to be evil and therefore beyond any collusion or cooperation.” Ibid. at 313-314 (citations omitted).

In order to survive, the occupied peoples must to some degree internalize the practices, values and ethos of their occupiers. But in so doing, they bring into their very psyches the oppressive conditions that threaten them externally. Is it any wonder that individuals in these circumstances crack under the strain? Is it any wonder that they experience the occupier of their homeland as an occupier of their minds and hearts as well? And should it come as any surprise that this hostile occupier so internalized takes on a life of its own and becomes a separate entity within?

Let’s apply these insights to our lesson from Acts. The woman in the story is first introduced to us as a slave. That is enough to tell us that her life is not her own. She is the property of her masters who view her as a source of revenue. It is not clear why she was following Paul about. Was she doing that of her own accord? Were her masters encouraging her to do so in hopes that Paul would compensate them for giving credibility to his preaching? We can only speculate on that score. It is clear, however, that once the demon’s grip on the woman was broken, her value to her masters was gone. What is broken here is a relationship governed by economic exploitation and oppression. The woman is no longer a mere “revenue producer,” as the corporate world often terms and values its employees. Therefore, in their eyes, she is worthless.

The slave relationship as described in this narrative is uncomfortably close to those governing our own social and economic realities. I have described in previous posts the tendency of our educational system to produce units of value for the labor market rather than well rounded citizens capable of full participation in public life. Our nomenclature is littered with language suggesting that one’s “net worth” is the sum of his/her assets less liabilities. What one is worth is often equated with one’s earning capacity. What cannot be measured in dollars is, like the nameless woman in our lesson, without value.

Paul’s offense, then, was far more than a simple crime against property. It was an assault on the entire Imperial/Patriarchal hierarchy that defined who one was, how much one was worth and to whom one answered. “These men…” the woman’s owners told the local magistrates, “advocate customs which it is not lawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” Vs. 20. Not surprisingly, the authorities react with outrage, beating both Paul and his companion Silas and throwing them into prison. We are left to wonder what ever happened to the woman set free from the spirit of divination that held her in bondage. How, if at all, did that change the nature of her legal bondage? How did the rest of her life unfold?

Paul and Silas find themselves in prison where, as they would otherwise, they worshiped and gave thanks to God. An earthquake breaks open the doors of the prison and the guard in charge naturally assumes that Paul and Silas, along with the rest of the prisoners have taken the opportunity to flee. His determination to slay himself with his own sword is understandable. His Roman superiors would not have taken his dereliction of duty lightly and would likely have designed a much more unpleasant demise for him. He is relieved to learn, however, that the prisoners have not fled and turns to Paul and Silas with the question: “What must I do to be saved?” Vs. 30. It is hard to say whether the guard was moved by his prisoners’ songs and praises or their refusal to flee when given the opportunity. Needless to say, something about Paul and Silas impressed him deeply so that he turned to them in this moment of anxiety.

The salvation of the guard and his household further illustrates Luke’s literary purpose of narrating the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ through everything that happens to the apostles, even their misfortunes. Just as I would like to know more about the woman liberated from demonic possession, so also I wish I knew more about the other prisoners incarcerated along with Paul and Silas. Why did they not flee when the earthquake afforded them the opportunity of escape? Were they moved in any significant way by what they heard and witnessed? Again, these loose ends are left for us to ponder.

Psalm 97

This is a psalm of praise which asks nothing of God. It begins with an acknowledgement that “The Lord reigns.” Vs. 1. This simple statement is a shot across the bow to all claims of national sovereignty. The earth belongs to the Lord and all other claims of ownership are relative and subordinate to God’s final authority. Even the Promised Land was given to Israel only in trust and subject to revocation.   Clouds, mist and thick darkness evoke memories of the cloud that led the people of Israel through the wilderness as well as God’s appearances on Mt. Sinai. Vs.2. Fire is also a purifying force that burns away Israel’s enemies, but might also be employed to purge Israel itself. Vs. 3. Lightning, thunder and earthquake are all images used throughout the psalms to symbolize the coming of God. See, e.g., Psalm 18:6-15; Psalm 68:7-10; Psalm 144:5-6.

There is some rich irony here. The heavens are said to proclaim God’s righteousness, whereas human worshipers of images made of these created glories have not the understanding to do the same. Vss. 6-7. Zion and all of Judah do hear in the terrifying phenomenon of nature the voice of the Lord and rejoice in his just reign over all the earth. Vs. 8. In her early history, Israel did not necessarily deny the existence of other gods. Nevertheless, if such gods there be, they must necessarily be subject to the God of Israel who reigns over all the earth. Vs. 9.

Verses 10-11 illustrate that this God who reigns over the earth is not indifferent to the conduct of his human creatures. God is not a neutral observer of history. This God takes sides and, specifically, God takes the side of the righteous against evildoers. Righteousness, of course, is measured in terms of God’s covenant relationship with Israel, the ones who give thanks to his holy name. vs. 12. Nevertheless, as the prophets and other psalms illustrate, Israel’s faithfulness to the covenant is a light to all the nations of the world and a revelation of God’s gracious will for all creation.

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

This lesson represents perhaps the most egregious act of textual butchery, literary dishonesty and ecclesiastical deceit ever practiced by the lectionary goons. Before proceeding further, please read the unedited, unsanitized, uncut and unpolished version actually given to us in the text. Revelation 22:12-21. As you can see, the troublesome fact that the “dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves falsehood” have been excluded from the new Jerusalem has been conveniently hidden away out of sight. Vs.15. It is also highly ironic that the lectionary makers have seen fit to omit the very verses warning against omitting anything from the Book of Revelation. Vss. 18-19. Is it possible to treat the scriptures with any more contempt?

Well, now that I have had a chance to vent my spleen, let me say that this section of Revelation is a fitting climax to the book as a whole. The drama began in the throne room of God and the Lamb where the Lamb alone was found worthy to open the sacred scroll revealing God’s redemptive purpose for creation. Now we see the Holy City in which God and the Lamb reign-no longer in heaven above, but on earth and among human beings. “I will be their God and they will be my people,” the refrain ringing throughout the prophets and amplified in John’s gospel, has now come to pass.

Yet, as the scurrilously omitted passages show us, the new heaven and the new earth do not come about without a cleansing. Not all that now is will be part of the new age to come. Perhaps not all people will be part of the new creation. Jesus leaves open the possibility that one can become so thoroughly disfigured by sin that the image of God is no longer visible. “I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.” Matthew 7:23. We ignore Jesus at our very great peril. Of course, we are not in a position to determine who is beyond redemption. Only Jesus can make that call. For our part, we must assume that all people are capable of salvation, all people are deserving of mercy, all people are worthy of an opportunity for repentance. Moreover, it is worth remembering that the line between good and evil runs not between nations, races, clans or individuals but through the middle of every human heart. For “the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God,” St. Peter tells us. I Peter 4:17. So how much of our lives are being lived eternally, that is, in love for God and our neighbor? Are we accustoming our eyes to the light of the Lamb now so that it will not blind us when it breaks through in all its fullness? How much of who you have been and what you have done today is worth preserving for eternity?

John 17:20-26

What we have in this lesson is only a snippet of Jesus’ final prayer with his disciples wrapping up the “farewell discourses” and leading into the passion narrative to follow. Here Jesus weaves together into a single poetic fabric the Christological claims he has been making for himself throughout the gospel. Today’s reading seems to address the objection raised by the good Judas in chapter 15, namely, if Jesus really is the Savior of the world, why is he revealing himself only to a select few? John 15: 22. Jesus makes clear that his final prayer is not merely for the twelve, but for all who will believe in him through their preaching. Vs. 20. Jesus says essentially that he is praying that the love between Father and Son that has existed from eternity might bind the disciples together just as it unites the Trinity. Such love manifest among the disciples and poured out upon the world glorifies God. The reality of God living in the midst of God’s people under the gentle reign of the Lamb proclaimed in the Book of Revelation is fulfilled in some measure in the church.

Jesus prays that his church may become “perfectly one.” Vs. 23. But this oneness is perfect only in a qualified sense. Truly perfect oneness will only be achieved when the world itself is drawn into the Trinitarian love that is God. It is for the world, broken and hostile to God as it is, that the Son has been sent. The Son’s love for the world is precisely what overcomes the hostility of the world. It is for this reason that Jesus concludes his prayer with a plea to his heavenly Father “that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.” Vs. 26.

Although this is not an Ascension Day text, it might fruitfully be used as such. The trouble with the feast of the Ascension is that we often turn it into Jesus’ going away party. It is anything but that! God’s right hand is not somewhere deep in space. It is at work in the heart of creation. To say that Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father is to say that he is more intensely present to us than ever before. As the hymn tells us, “Christ is alive, no longer bound to distant years in Palestine, but saving, healing, here and now, and touching every place and time.” ‘Christ is Alive! Let Christians Sing,” Text Brian A. Wren, Music T. Williams published in Lutheran Evangelical Worship, # 389.

 

Sunday, May 1st

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
John 14:23-29

Prayer of the Day: Bountiful God, you gather your people into your realm, and you promise us food from your tree of life. Nourish us with your word, that empowered by your Spirit we may love one another and the world you have made, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

My own Lutheran protestant tradition does not put much stock in dreams as revelatory devices. Martin Luther was particularly scornful of the “heavenly prophets” among his Anabaptist critics who claimed to be guided and inspired by dreams and visions. His instincts were not altogether wrong in that respect. Dreams and visions are notoriously unreliable. Even when they have turned out to be prophetic, their messages have often been tragically misinterpreted. For example, the Lydian king, Croesus, was assured by an oracle from the shrine at Delphi that, should he attack the Persian Empire, he would destroy a great kingdom. His confidence bolstered by the oracle, Croesus attacked Persia and was soundly defeated. The oracle proved true with a vengeance. Croesus did indeed destroy a great kingdom; however, the kingdom he destroyed was not that of Persia but his own. Moses warned the people of Israel to beware of false prophets and that warning was not in vain. Throughout its long history Israel was plagued by false prophets speaking not only in the name of foreign deities, but also in the very name of the Lord. St. John warns the church to “test the spirits” to ensure their authenticity.

Still, we dare not throw out the baby with the bath water. Despite all of these salutary warnings, dreams and visions are frequently employed by God to guide God’s people throughout the biblical narrative. It was through Joseph’s dreams that his father Jacob and the rest of the descendants of Abraham were saved from starvation and brought safely to Egypt. God spoke to the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel through dreams. Joseph the husband of Mary and the Magi were guided to safety by dreams in Matthew’s gospel. In today’s reading from Acts, St. Paul’s dream re-directs his mission from Asia Minor to Europe. Our reading from the Book of Revelation is just one piece of an extended vision delivered to John of Patmos in a dream-like state. As troublesome as dreams and visions are for us 21st Century moderns, we dismiss them at our peril. We dare not allow our fear of being misled to blind us to the leading of God’s Spirit.

I have to confess that I have never in my life had a dream that I thought was revelatory. The few that I remember seem clearly to be products of my anxieties, repressed fantasies and past memories. Maybe that is true of everyone’s dreams, but is that all they are? Is it possible that the Spirit of God engages these subconscious fragments, fuses them together in new and unique ways and thereby invites us to recognize connections, relationships and correlations between aspects of our lives and experiences we could not otherwise have seen? Are the thoughts we repress, the fears we deny and the memories we have discarded the raw materials for God’s imaginative studio?

Though, as I said, I’ve never had a guiding dream or vision of my own, I have been richly blessed by those of others which manifest themselves through music, graphic arts and poetry. Through these media my imagination has been stimulated and my mind stretched. It is for this reason that I am able to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ to which the gospels testify and the new creation about which John of Patmos writes. I know these things to be real because I have been carried up into them on the wings of music and verse. I have seen them come alive in paintings and sculpture. They enter into my heart and soul through drama and dance. It was a scientist, Albert Einstein, who once said that imagination is more important than knowledge. It is by the exercise of imagination that we see beyond what merely is to what might be-and truly is-if we but have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Sadly, we are raising up an unimaginative generation. I recall hearing on NPR about a recent survey showing a marked decrease among young people of individuals believing that world peace is a possibility for our future. I can’t vouch for that survey because I could not locate it. But such an outcome, assuming it to be accurate, should not surprise us. After all, we are a nation that increasingly devalues the arts. Our schools regularly defund courses in music, dance and graphic arts in favor of more “practical” subjects that prepare students for the all-important labor market. When education becomes all about manufacturing units of labor instead of cultivating minds, it produces a people incapable of imagination. The earth inherits a generation that cannot imagine anything beyond what is and that is incapable of doing anything other than maintaining the machinery of oppression, inequality and injustice that is late stage capitalism. In such a stark and unimaginative landscape, politics becomes a relentless struggle for domination, economic life morphs into systemic enrichment of the few at the expense of the many and faith degenerates into moralism. We lose the capacity to dream.

The poet Langston Hughes once mused over what happens to dreams in such an unimaginative environment.

A Dream Deferred

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

I think Hughes knew well, as did the prophets and apostles, that dreams and visions are explosive. Paul’s dream changed the course of his mission and planted the church in new soil. John of Patmos’ Revelation helped the struggling churches of Asia Minor recognize the cosmic importance of their day to day struggle to remain faithful in the hostile culture of imperial Rome. At its best, the church has always recognized music, verse, dance and graphic arts as its essential allies in winning obedience of hearts and minds to the gentle reign of God in Jesus Christ. The arts are the natural language of the gospel. And so perhaps the most radical thing we can do is teach our daughters to play musical instruments, read poetry to our sons and lead our children in dance. Planting the explosive of creative minds under the oppressive societal structures that bind us sets the stage for an unleashing of the Spirit akin to what the prophet Joel describes:

“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

Joel 2:28-29.

Source: Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (c. 1926 by Alfred A. Knopf, pub. by Random House, LLC, 1990). Langston Hughes was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”  Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. This particular poem inspired the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry that debuted on Broadway in 1959. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).

Acts 16:9-15

If you back up and read Acts 16:6-8, you will discover that Paul seems to have been floundering in Asia Minor. None of his plans come to fruition. His mission strategies repeatedly prove unsuccessful. At every point it seems that “the Spirit of Jesus,” is thwarting his efforts to proclaim the gospel. I have been there too, but I cannot say that I recognize Jesus in any of that. To me it looks like plain old failure and nothing more. That leads me to wonder whether Paul recognized the obstacles thrown in the way of his mission work as “the Spirit of Jesus” at the time. Of course I don’t know, but I suspect that Paul was probably frustrated, angry and maybe a little despondent about his repeated failures in Asia. Perhaps it was not until he was drawn to change his focus to Macedonia, met Lydia and her friends, planted the church in Philippi which would later bring him such joy and comfort that Paul finally recognized in his prior failures the work of the Holy Spirit directing him. Sometimes I think that perhaps we are not supposed to be visionaries. Maybe God purposely does not reveal the path ahead of us. It may be that our vision, our strategizing and “intentionality” just get in the way. Perhaps we are entitled only to light sufficient for the next step we have to take and should be satisfied with that. Maybe that is what it means to “walk by faith and not by sight.” II Corinthians 5:7.

This is all thoroughly consistent with Luke’s view of the ministry as wholly under the direction of the Spirit. It is the “word of God” that grows and multiplies. Acts 12:24. “The word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly…” Acts 6:7. Just as the Spirit of God used the martyrdom of Stephen scattering the disciples throughout Judea and Samaria to bring the gospel to the Samaritans, so now the Spirit somehow hinders Paul’s Asia mission in order to redirect him to Europe. See Acts 8:1-8. Even open hostility to the preaching of the word is turned by the Spirit to the service of the word.

As was his custom, Paul begins his mission to Philippi by going to the Jewish community. Evidently, there was no synagogue in Philippi. That might have been due to Roman hostility to Jewish influence in what was an imperial colony. It is also possible that the Jewish presence was too small to support a synagogue. Nevertheless, there was evidently a place outside the city where Jews gathered for prayer and worship. This is where Paul met Lydia, accepted her hospitality and baptized her and her household. As in his gospel, so also in the Book of Acts, Luke pays particular attention to the role of women in the church. It appears that the congregation gathered at the place of prayer consisted primarily, if not exclusively, of women. If Lydia had a husband, there is no mention of him. The church in Philippi thus appears to have been founded and led by women according to Luke’s account.

Psalm 67

Most scholars characterize this as a psalm of thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest based largely on vs. 6a, “The earth has given its increase.” It has been suggested that this hymn might have been sung as a festival liturgy during the autumn festival. Weiser, Arthur, The Psalms, A Commentary, (c. 1962, S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 472.Though a good harvest surely is a testimony to God’s goodness and faithfulness to Israel, it is but one of many reasons for praise given in this hymn. God’s saving power, God’s justice and God’s guidance for the nations are all as much reason for the psalmist’s lavish praise. It is noteworthy that the blessing for which the psalmist prays is not restricted to Israel alone. S/he prays that Israel may be blessed in order that “all the ends of the earth may fear God.” Vs. 7.

The opening words of this psalm appear to have been taken from or inspired by the Aaronic Benediction at Numbers 6:24-26. The peoples are enjoined to praise and rejoice in God. God does not reign over the world by compulsion or force. Rather, God “dost judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon the earth.” Vs. 4. As pointed out in Isaiah, God rules the earth through “the law” and through “the word of the Lord.” Isaiah 2:2-4. The psalm therefore echoes God’s promise repeated to the patriarchs and echoed throughout the prophets, particularly Second Isaiah, that Israel is to be a nation by which all the other nations of the world are blessed. “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and you will be a blessing.” Genesis 12:2. “And by your descendants all the nations of the earth will bless themselves.” Genesis 26:4 “And by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves.” Genesis 28:14 “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:2.

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

I understand the need to keep lectionary readings to a manageable length. But that does not justify the ruthless butcher job that has been done to this text. The missing verses between 10 and 22 give us a graphic description of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem coming down from God, the place where God will dwell among God’s people. I encourage you to read those verses now before continuing with this post.

The first thing you will notice is John’s fixation on the number twelve. The wall of the city has twelve gates inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. The city has twelve foundations inscribed with the names of the twelve apostles. The dimensions of the city are 12,000 by 12,000 stadia. Each wall is 144 (12 x 12) cubits. The base of the walls is adorned with twelve different jewels. So what is the significance of the number twelve and all of the numbers divisible by twelve?

Of course, the number twelve has always carried symbolic significance throughout many different cultures for a number of different reasons. There are twelve divisions of the lunar year and twelve signs of the Zodiac. The number twelve is important to the Sumerian number system, one of the most ancient in the near east. From the standpoint of the Hebrew Scriptures, there were twelve tribes of Israel, though one might properly ask whether the number twelve derives its significance from the tribes or whether the tribes were divided into twelve in order to fit the sacred number. There were, strictly speaking, thirteen tribes of Israel owing to the fact that the Joseph tribe was split into Ephraim and Manasseh (Joseph’s two sons).  The land of Canaan was nevertheless divided into twelve territories because the priestly tribe of Levi did not receive an allotment of land, but only cities within the tribal territories. Joshua 21.

Each of the four gospels affirms that Jesus had twelve disciples that were especially close to him throughout his ministry. The list of their names differs between the gospels, but that is of minor significance. The twelve disciples correlated with the twelve tribes and thus emphasize the continuity between the mission of Jesus and the calling of Israel. The same point is made here with the twelve gates, the twelve foundations and the twelve jewels of the New Jerusalem inscribed both with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

Knowing this, we get a much deeper appreciation for the imagery in our lesson. From the calling of Abraham God has made clear Israel’s mission of being a light to the Gentiles and a nation of blessing for all the nations of the world. The gospels all point to Jesus as the Son of God and the savior of the world. John’s gospel refers to Jesus as “the light.” So now we see the consummation of God’s work with Israel in Jesus expressed through this image of the Holy City whose “lamp is the Lamb” and “by its light shall the nations walk.”  Once again, John of Patmos is weaving together a mosaic of images from the Hebrew Scriptures into a marvelous portrait of the Lamb’s final victory that will be brought about by the persistent suffering love of God and revealed through the faithful obedience of God’s people.

John 14:23-29

Obviously, the lectionary folks were not having a good day when they served up this Sunday’s menu. This reading does not make sense until you back up one verse to vs. 22. There you will discover that Jesus’ words here are in response to a question asked by Judas (not Judas the traitor, but another disciple named Judas). Jesus has been telling his disciples that he will soon be leaving them to go where no one can find him. Judas quite naturally asks him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” Why indeed? If Jesus really is the light of the world, the water of life, the resurrection and the life, and if Jesus is now going away, why is his identity made clear to so very few? Why does not Jesus reveal himself to all Israel? To the whole world?

Jesus responds that he will be made known to the world. The disciples drawn together by Jesus’ love will keep his commandments (which we know by now boil down to loving one another as Jesus has loved them). This love will be a witness to the whole world that God has sent the Son into the world and that the Father loves the Son yet gives up the Son to suffering and death for the sake of the world. Moreover, Jesus’ departure is not abandonment. The Holy Spirit sent by the Father is not a substitute for Jesus, but his more intense and intimate presence in their midst. Through that Spirit animating the church Jesus will continue to speak words of promise, healing, hope and resurrection.

Although John’s Gospel never refers to the church as such, it is clearly a center of concern for John, perhaps even the greatest concern of all. It is by the church that the Father’s love for the Son is made manifest to the world through the disciple’s love for each other. It is by this love that the world will know that we are Jesus’ disciples. Thus, what the church becomes is every bit as important as what the church does. Indeed, what the church does can be nothing other than what arises out of who the church is.

 

Sunday, November 29th

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection alert us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and redeem us for your life of justice, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“And there will be signs in the sun and the moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with great power and glory. Now when these things begin to take place, raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21:25-28.

Frankly, Jesus’ advice is counterintuitive. When I see threatening conditions beginning to materialize, my gut instinct is to “duck and cover.” I would not be at all inclined to raise my head at the approach of a tsunami or in the eye of a hurricane or in the midst of a terrorist attack. If I thought civilization as I know it were about to collapse, I would want to keep my head low, stock up on beans and bullets and hunker down in the root cellar. Raising your head under such dire circumstances is the last thing you want to do.

But Jesus is telling us that, “in, with, and under” all of these terrifying phenomena, is the sign of the coming of the Son of man, our redemption and salvation. In Luke’s telling of the story, this discussion about the Temple’s destruction and signs of the end times is a lead-in to the Last Supper. “I have yearned,” says Jesus, “to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” Luke 22:15. It all comes down to the table.

Meals are big in the Gospel of Luke where it seems Jesus is always at, going to or coming from a dinner party. Jesus loved table fellowship and he didn’t much care whether he was sitting in the house of a notorious outcast filled with disreputable people or in the home of a respected religious leader. He would have us understand that our humanity depends on companionship every bit as much as our existence depends on eating. We are never more truly human than when these two primal needs are met at the table. In the most wretched refugee camp on the face of the earth, shared meals hold together the last frayed bonds of family and community that have somehow survived displacement and exile. In the wealthiest of neighborhoods, where most of all household food winds up being discarded, shared meals testify that we do not live by bread alone. That is why every table in every home, in every diner, in every tent, under every tree, in every human community is a sign of the redemption God intends for all creation. The table is where we encounter the coming of the Son of man.

At the table, we discover that we are sitting on the same level. We must rely upon one another to pass the turnips, ham and potatoes. At the table we learn the truth about who we are and the purpose for which we were created. So even as “the powers of the heavens” are shaken, the sign of the coming of the Son of man appears in our midst whenever we gather around the table. When seated around the table, we find the courage to raise our heads in hope.

Not surprisingly, the table is Jesus’ favorite metaphor for the reign of God. That great messianic banquet, Jesus tells us, will be an upside down feast at which the poor, the lame, the blind and the outcast are honored guests. Those who come to this feast with a sense of entitlement are rebuked and relegated to the most humble of seats (yet these seats also are places at the table). The ones fearing even to seek crumbs falling from that great table are invited to come forward and sit at its head. In that great supper of the Lamb, the high places are brought low, the valleys exalted and the way is made clear for the coming of the Lord.

On that note, here’s a poem by Joy Harjo.

Perhaps the World Ends Here

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

From The Woman who fell from the Sky (c. 1994 by Joy Harjo, pub. by W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.)

Jeremiah 33:14-16

The time is immediately before 587 B.C.E in the reign of Judah’s last Davidic King, Zedekiah. The Babylonian army is besieging Jerusalem. The city, shut off from the outside world for over a year, is stricken with famine. Jeremiah the prophet is imprisoned for his preaching against Judah’s unfaithfulness to her God and specifically for declaring that God will not fight on her behalf against Babylon. To the contrary, God has brought the wrath of Babylon on Judah’s head as a judgment for her faithless reliance upon foreign military alliances, idolatry and cruel injustice against the poor. That is a message the people of Judah desperately do not want to hear. They want to believe that God will come through with a miracle at the last moment to save them from the Babylonians. The last thing King Zedekiah needs is for Jeremiah to be frightening his already demoralized army with dire predictions of defeat. So Jeremiah’s imprisonment is understandable. It appears as though the end has come for Judah. Indeed, the end has come for Judah as an independent nation. The end has come for Judah’s magnificent temple built by the hand of Solomon nearly five centuries before. There will be no going back to the past. The good old days are gone for good.

But the end of the past is not the extinction of the future. Israel’s story is far from over. As dark as the situation looks for Judah and for poor Jeremiah, Jeremiah nevertheless maintains that there is salvation and a future for Judah. A righteous branch will sprout from the corrupt line of David. Vs. 15. This one will rule Judah with justice and righteousness as the kings of Israel were intended to do. See, e.g., Psalm 45:4; Psalm 72:1-14. This promise shaped much of Israel’s faith in the difficult years of exile and domination under the empires of first Babylon, then Persia, then Macedonia and finally Rome. It continues to play an important role in Judaism today.

Yet even as this messianic hope can sustain a people in times of oppression, it is a dangerous hope. Israel’s history is checkered with persons claiming to be God’s messiah, rallying Israel behind them and leading Israel into disastrous military confrontations ending in crushing defeat. It was at least partly messianic fervor that led to a Jewish revolt in the late 60s A.D. which, in turn, brought the wrath of Rome down upon Jerusalem resulting in the destruction of her temple once again in 70 A.D.  In 132 A.D. another revolt, led by the self-proclaimed messiah, Bar-Kokhba, brought on another fierce drubbing by Rome and further misery to the Jews.

As secular as we may be in this country, I believe that there is still a very deep longing within us for a messiah. I suspect that might be a large part of what lies behind the anger and lack of civility in our politics. We want to believe that there is someone out there who can take us to a better place; somebody who can solve all of our complex problems without asking us to sacrifice anything to get it done. Political strategists are all too aware of this deep messianic longing we have for a savior. Not surprisingly, then, they package their client candidates as messianic figures capable of meeting our unrealistic expectations. Unfortunately, when the campaigning is over and the hard work of governance begins, reality sets in. We discover that we have not elected the messiah. We have elected a fallible human being like ourselves who cannot work the sort of magic that makes all of our difficult problems go away. Predictably, we feel betrayed. In fits of anger, we turn upon the idols we have created, kick them off the pedestals where we placed them and erect new idols in their place.

Israel had to learn (and hopefully we will one day learn as well) that no human being is able to bear the weight of messianic hope. Furthermore, that hope cannot become reality without a fundamental change in our hearts and minds, as the prophet Jeremiah rightly observed. Jeremiah 31:31-34; Jeremiah 32:39. A change of leaders or a change in government without a change of heart is futile. The truth is, the Messiah, the Davidic branch that rules with justice and righteousness came-and we killed him. We were not then and we are not yet ready to live in the sort of world we long for. But the good news of Advent is that God did not wait for us to be ready. Jesus comes to us while we are still headstrong in our self-destructive ways. Jesus embraces us even as we struggle to break free from that embrace. What is more, the love with which Jesus embraces us is stronger than sin and death. It refuses to let go. So the message of the season is clear: Here comes the Messiah, ready or not.

Psalm 25:1-10

This is one of the “acrostic” psalms, the others being Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. Each new verse begins with the next letter in order of the Hebrew Alphabet. An English example might look like this:

Awesome is our God and Creator.

Breathtaking are God’s mighty works.

Clearly, the Lord is God and there is no other.

And so on down to letter Z. In addition to assisting a new reader in learning her ABCs, this style of composition assists in memorization of the psalm. Memorization is critical in a culture where the vast majority lack reading skills and books are readily available only to priests. Stylistic similarities between this psalm and Psalm 34 suggest that they might have been composed by the same author. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W. Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) pp. 112-113. I would exercise caution in making such a judgment, however. The stylistic conventions used by the psalmists were very likely shared widely so that their appearance in multiple psalms by different authors would not be unexpected.

The psalm is a prayer for salvation and protection from enemies-something you would not learn unless you read the entire psalm. Verses 1-10, which make up this Sunday’s reading, constitute an affirmation of trust in God’s promises. This trust in God’s faithfulness is the basis for the psalmist’s plea for help. The psalmist knows that God is the protector of the helpless and of those who trust in God’s promises. The psalmist is well aware of God’s long history of faithfulness to Israel and so feels confident in calling upon God for assistance in his or her own particular situation.

I find particularly moving the first half of the third verse: “Let not those who wait for you be ashamed.” Vs. 3. Advent is about nothing if not about waiting. And unfortunately for nervous, impatient and hurried people like us, we have a God who likes to take his sweet time. God waited for four hundred years while the children of Israel languished in slavery before sending Moses to liberate them. God led Israel for forty years in the wilderness before bringing her into the Promised Land. God sat with Israel for seventy years in exile before bringing her home. After hearing that his dear friend Lazarus was ill, Jesus waited a full two days before even beginning his journey to Bethany where Lazarus lived. In a world where time is measured in nanoseconds, where everything is urgently needed yesterday and cries for immediate responses come from every direction, it is maddening to hear the command: “Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10. It is because we are a frenzied people who imagine our “historic” presidential elections, our “Giant Black Friday Sales” and our never ending string of international, economic and social crises are so very important that we need a slow God. God’s salvation, like God’s Kingdom, will come in God’s own way and in God’s own time. God will not be rushed. So we might just as well stop running around like chickens with our heads cut off and learn to wait patiently for God to act.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians was written about 45-52 A.D., making it the earliest of the New Testament writings. The purpose of the letter is to encourage the struggling church in Thessalonica. According to the Book of Acts, Paul was forced to leave the congregation early in its development (Acts 16:11-40) and he was understandably concerned that it lacked the maturity and solid leadership to survive under the pressures of persecution. Paul sent his fellow worker, Timothy, to visit and encourage the little congregation. I Thessalonians 3:1-2. Paul was overjoyed to learn from Timothy that his congregation had not merely survived, but was thriving. I Thessalonians 3:6-8. The lesson for this Sunday reflects Paul’s thankfulness and relief upon receiving this good news.

Paul’s prayer is for an opportunity to visit the congregation himself. He prays that, in any case, the Lord may make the congregation “increase and abound in love to one another and to all people so that Christ may establish your hearts in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Vs. 12. This prayer brings into sharp relief how the church is a community that lives out of the future. The future is Jesus. Yet it is Jesus’ presence with his church now that prepares it for the future. For the church, the future is now. Among us, Jesus is already recognized as King. The day will come when every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord. But the church does not wait for that day to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and live for him.

Luke 21:25-36

The Revised Common Lectionary used by the ELCA, Roman Catholics and a number of other protestant churches provides a three-year plan for Sunday readings beginning at the start of each new church year in the season of Advent. For each Sunday and festival, four readings are suggested and include: a Gospel reading, an Old Testament reading, a reading from the Psalms, and a New Testament reading. Each year of the lectionary centers on one of the synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. Reading from the Gospel of John are included in the major seasons of Christmas, Lent, and Easter. This year we focus on the Gospel of Luke. So before we begin looking specifically at this Sunday’s lesson, let me say just a few words about Luke.

The Gospel of Luke is probably best known for its story of the Nativity. Only Luke tells us of Elizabeth and Zachariah, the parents of John the Baptist. Only in Luke do we find the story of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary and telling her of the child she is about to bear. Luke alone tells us of the journey to Bethlehem, the birth of the Christ child in the stable and the angels’ tidings of joy to the shepherds. Luke is the only Gospel writer who tells us anything at all about the childhood of Jesus.

The Gospel of Luke also has many other popular stories not found in the other gospels. For example, the Prodigal Son, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Good Samaritan all are parables recorded in Luke alone. More than any of the other Gospels, Luke reveals to us the important role played by women in Jesus’ ministry. Elizabeth, Mary and the prophetess Anna have high profile involvement in the story line. Luke’s gospel tells us about the group of women who provided logistical and financial support to Jesus and the disciples. Women are frequently prominent in Jesus’ healings, his parables and in his teaching.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about is that he was the only Gospel writer who also produced a sequel that we know as the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. In Acts, Luke narrates the early years of the church, its early encounters with the gentile world and the conversion and ministry of the Apostle Paul. So too, the most irritating thing about Luke-Acts is its lack of “closure.” The Gospel ends with the disciples returning to the Temple in Jerusalem (where his gospel began) rejoicing and gathering for prayer waiting to be filled with the promised Holy Spirit. The Book of Acts ends with the Apostle Paul under house arrest in Rome, but still preaching and teaching from his place of imprisonment. We never find out what happens to him. It is as though Luke has deliberately avoided bringing his story to a fitting end because he knows that it is not over yet. The drama of the church in mission to the world continues. We are invited to become a part of this exciting story as it continues to unfold in our age.

Now for this week’s lesson. As is the case for Mark, Jesus’ prediction of the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction follows upon his noting the widow’s payment to the Temple treasury all she had to live on. For the connections here, see my post for Sunday, November 8th. The disciples ask Jesus when the destruction of the Temple will take place, assuming no doubt that this event would mark the beginning of the end of time. Not so, says Jesus. Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences; and there will be great signs from heaven.” Luke 21:10-11. But that does not necessarily signal the end. The church has a long road to travel through days of persecution, suffering and opposition. Luke 21:12. The church’s job is to bear faithful witness to the coming of God’s kingdom in Jesus. Luke 21:13. The destruction of Jerusalem is a piece of all this, but it is not the harbinger of the end.

Then, in our lesson for Sunday, comes Jesus’ enumeration of the “signs” of the coming of the Son of man. What are we to make of them? It should be obvious by now that ominous signs have occurred throughout history. Not so very long ago, Hurricane Sandy gave us a good deal of “distress and perplexity at the roaring of the sea and its waves.” Vs. 25. Someone suggested to me recently that perhaps “God is trying to tell us something” through Sandy. Maybe so. But I doubt it means that the end is near. Still and all, I think we might rightly refer to hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters as “signs” in some sense. They remind us that the earth upon which we stand is not as solid as it appears. Our orderly lives are not as stable as we think they are. Though we don’t like to think about it, we are always just one genetically altered cell, one virus, one careless driving error away from the end of the world. If we ever thought our years of careful saving and investment could give us a measure of security, the crash of 2007 surely disabused us of any such fantasy. International co-existence, economic stability and ecological balance are extremely fragile creatures. It takes very little to throw them off kilter. Terrorist attacks, hurricanes, wars and famines all serve to remind us how fragile and vulnerable we are.

Now that should make us all rather paranoid, but hear what Jesus says: “Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Vs. 28. For the new creation to be born, the old has to die. And whether you see these “signs” as death throws or as birth pangs depends on whether you view them through the cross. Jesus meant what he said when he told his disciples that his own present generation would live to see “all these things” take place. Vs. 32. The presence of God with human beings-the longed for hope of Israel-is put to death on a cross. It doesn’t get much worse than that. In fact, you could say that the worst thing that could ever happen to the world has already happened. The world murdered its last, best hope. Yet even this dark and terrible sin could not deter God from God’s redemptive purpose for the world. In the midst of death, God was working the miracle of new life. And so we can confess with St. Paul that “Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.” II Corinthians 4:16 Even in the signs of death and destruction, disciples of Jesus discern a new creation struggling to be born.

Sunday, June 21st

FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Job 38:1-11
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God of creation, eternal majesty, you preside over land and sea, sunshine and storm. By your strength pilot us, by your power preserve us, by your wisdom instruct us, and by your hand protect us, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Perhaps it is because my reflections this week happen to have been influenced by the works of two very profound poetic works. Or maybe I am impressed with how deeply the scriptural narratives this week are rooted in the poetry of the psalms and prophets. Whatever the reason, I have been thinking a great deal about poetry, its influence on us and the value (or lack thereof) that our contemporary culture places on it.

I was introduced to poetry in the same way that I suspect most of you were: through music. The choruses I learned in Sunday School, the hymns shaping worship in my church and the songs I sang in school and at civic ceremonies gave me an appreciation for the power of words wrapped in music. It is difficult for the most hardened cynic to remain unmoved while standing among a crowd of people singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

My introduction to the naked word of poetry came largely through my sophomore high school honors English class with Mrs. Boyer. She began our unit on poetry by pointing out that poetic works are looked upon with suspicion and suppressed in many countries throughout the world. “But of course,” she added, “that is not true of our own country. Poets here are free to write and publish as they wish.” Then she added with a wry smile, “The state department knows very well that nobody in this country reads poetry anyway.” Turns out she was right. Even poets are not necessarily readers of poetry. It is my understanding that the Poetry Foundation’s publication, Poetry, has more contributors than subscribers! Mrs. Boyer was determined to do everything in her power to change our cultural disinterest in poetry. To her credit, I can still recite The Road not Taken and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost as well as Mark Anthony’s funeral oration from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

To be honest, my relationship with poetry over the years has been an on and off sort of thing. I was glad to be done with the poetry unit in Mrs. Boyer’s class. I figured that I had probably had about as much exposure to poetry as a normal person needs. But in my senior year I discovered the Psalms-quite by accident as it happened. Being in study hall with no desire to study, I happened to notice a paperback book containing the Psalms someone had left in the rack under my desk. I picked it up and began reading. There began a practice that I maintain to this day: two psalms per day, one in the morning and one at night. Just like vitamins. I discovered T.S. Elliot in college and got re-acquainted with Robert Frost in seminary. As a classics major, I could hardly avoid Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, Virgil, Ovid, Juvenile and all the other usual suspects.

After graduation from seminary, I lost contact with these and other poets just as I did with most of my classmates. There was no animosity involved. It is just that our lives wound up going in different directions. My life did not intersect again in any significant way with poetry until the end of the 1990s. At that point, I began writing my own poems. I cannot say what drove me to it. There was a great deal of uncertainty during that period of my life. I was struggling professionally in my law practice, dealing with the chronic illness of my wife and wondering how (if at all) I would ever get my children through college. Poetry gave me back my imagination, enabling me to see beyond the dead end I had made for myself. I found that writing poetry allowed me to enter into and view my life from a different perspective. It also made me sensitive to the rich texture of existence that can so easily be overlooked when you are working twelve hours per day at a job that requires intense focus on detail. Nothing I wrote was worth publishing nor was it so intended. Its value lay chiefly in the spiritual support it gave me at a low time in my life and the appreciation I developed for the difficulty of the poetic task.

I don’t write poetry anymore and (apart from the Psalms) I read it only infrequently. Reading poetry is hard work. The disciplined concentration it demands does not develop naturally in our tweety, texty, brief memo, “get to the point already” culture. I think, however, that such disciplined and imaginative concentration is precisely what we need. The lessons for this week invite us to engage in poetic imagination. The poetry of Job challenges us to look past our simplistic assumptions about God, morality and the universe. The Psalm gives poetic expression to God’s acts of salvation experienced by seafaring merchants caught in a violent storm. Paul cites the bold poetry of Isaiah to encourage the church at Corinth in its common mission with him. Finally, Mark suggests that a hint to Jesus’ true identity might be wrapped up in the poetic testimony of our Psalm. Each of these poetic threads is leading us down the path of discovery. Let us follow them with awe, reverence and openness to the power of imagination.

Job 38:1-11

“Stay away from the Book of Job,” my preaching professor told me in seminary, “unless you are prepared to go the distance.” What he meant, I think, is that preaching Job honestly requires us to deal with the whole messy, troublesome story. And this story is plenty messy and troublesome.

Job, you may recall, was a righteous man. So righteous was he that he not only took care to avoid sin himself, but offered sacrifices on behalf of his children to atone for any sins they might have committed. Job 1:1-5. God rewarded Job’s righteousness with a beautiful wife, wonderful children and fabulous wealth. “Now there was a day,” we read,” when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord and Satan also was among them.” Job 1:6. The NRSV translates “sons of God” as “heavenly beings” which, though making the text properly inclusive, says more than we actually know. It is presumed that we know who Satan is, though we might wonder at how he manages to slip in and out of God’s court with such freedom. Though clearly adversarial, Satan’s relationship with God seems almost collegial. Their rivalry resembles more the philosophical jousting typical among professors within the same university faculty than cosmic conflict between mortal enemies.

God, it seems, is a humanist convinced that human nature is capable of righteousness and moral progress. Satan, by contrast, is a hardened cynic. To him, human beings are a bundle of nerve endings. They do whatever they do to avoid pain and obtain pleasure. The specimen Job seems to prove God’s position and God cannot help but rub this in a little. “How ‘bout that Job, Heh? Blameless, upright, not an evil bone in his body! Now tell me Satan, doesn’t the existence of a man like that put the lie to your pessimistic outlook on the human race?”

“Righteous, yes. I’ll give you that.” Says Satan. “Of course, he’s got good reason to be righteous, doesn’t he? You reward him well enough for it. Pay me like you pay him and I’ll be righteous too!”

“What are you suggesting?” God inquires, a little uncertainly.

“Oh, just this,” says Satan. Job is righteous because he knows it pays to be righteous. But take away all the goodies, rob him of his wealth, introduce a little tragedy into his life and he will turn on you in a New York minute.” This, by the way is strikingly similar to the tactic the serpent used on Eve in the Garden of Eden. “Can God really be trusted to do right by you? Are the commands he gives you really for your own good? Or is God holding something back? Is there something God wants to keep all to God’s self?” Just as the serpent undermined humanity’s trust in its Creator, so now Satan seeks to undermine God’s confidence in God’s creature. Like Eve, God takes the bait-hook, line and sinker. God gives Satan leave to take everything from Job but his life and health.

If Satan thought he would score an easy philosophical victory here, he was wrong. Job lost his wealth and his children in one fell swoop. Though urged by his wife to curse God and die, Job replies: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:21. Now God can hardly contain himself: “Have you considered my servant Job…he still holds fast his integrity, although you moved me against him, to destroy him without cause.” Job 2:3. In what God thinks is a victory speech, God has unwittingly conceded defeat. God admits that Satan has “moved” God against his faithful creature. That has been Satan’s game plan all along.

Satan has more dirty work to do, however. “Well,” says Satan, “I must admit that your Job held up much better than I expected. But every man has his price. Job still has his health. Break his body, render him incontinent, deform his appearance and afflict him with chronic pain and he will crack. A human being is but a bundle of nerve endings. Let’s see how well he pronounces blessings when those nerve endings start to hurt.” Once again, God takes the bait and Job is afflicted with bodily sores that disfigure him. At this point, Satan drops out of the story and is heard from no more. God is also off stage until the very end of the drama. In the meantime, Job receives a visit from three friends who come to comfort and advise him.

Job can see no reason for his suffering or the failure of God to respond to his cries for vindication. His friends, however, know full well what the problem is. Job is being punished for his sin. That is the only explanation there can be if we accept as true the theology of Psalm 1, which teaches us that the righteous one “is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season,” who prospers in all that he does; whereas the wicked “are like chaff which the wind drives away.” If Job is perishing, it can only be because of some evil he has done. Any other conclusion ascribes injustice to God-which is blasphemy. Naturally, the friends’ theology of God constricts their ability to speak a life giving and comforting word to Job. Job’s insistence upon his innocence only threatens the friends’ deeply held beliefs about how God’s justice works to reward the righteous and punish the wicked. Their lengthy poetic argument with Job on this point proceeds for thirty-four dreary chapters, becoming more vitriolic with every verse. The friends seem to be more concerned with defending God’s honor than comforting poor Job. Job increasingly ignores his friends’ arguments and directs his speech to the God who does not answer. Finally, just as the argument seems mercifully to have ground to a halt, one more friend steps out of the shadows to put in his two cents worth. In fact, he puts in more than two cents worth of pedantic blather, lecturing poor Job for six more chapters on his pride and impiety.

Then God speaks, and that is where our lesson for Sunday comes in. God bypasses the friends and speaks directly to Job, peppering him with rhetorical questions that Job cannot possibly be expected to answer. The point seems to be that creation is such a terrible, fearful, beautiful and awesome mystery that no mortal can comprehend it. Human life in all of its complexities cannot be boiled down to simplistic rules of moral cause and effect. The reasons for beauty, terror, joy and despair defy rational explanation. It should be enough to know that the creation is a wondrous place filled with potential for human joy and fulfilment as well as human tragedy. It is not for Job to complain that God did not make the world differently or that God could have made it better.

All of that might fly well enough if only Job’s suffering really were inexplicable. But it’s not. We already know that Job’s suffering has nothing to do with mysteries too deep for human understanding. The reader understands only too well why Job has been so cruelly afflicted. God was induced by Satan to brutalize Job in order to make a point. Worse than that, it is obvious that God is not coming clean with Job. God has Job believing that his suffering lies hidden in mysteries too great for his understanding. In the end, God restores Job’s wealth and gives him more children. The inadequacy of such a remedy is clear enough to every parent who has lost a child and been told by some well-meaning friend, “Well, thank God you’re young enough to have more children.” Children are not fungible goods. So the Book of Job ends as it began-with a lot of very troubling issues.

I have a feeling some folks might be taking offense at my treatment of this great book. In my own defense I can only say that I have chased commentators, preachers and linguists from hell to breakfast looking for a way to derive a positive message from Job. But the only way I have found to make peace with the book is to interpret it as satire from beginning to end. It is, I believe, a cautionary tale about religion run amok. “This,” says the anonymous author(s) of Job, “is what you get from a religion of moral causation, a religion that interprets all events as rewards or punishments for human behavior. (Are you listening Pat Robertson, Frank Graham and Assemblywoman Shannon Grove?) You wind up with people like Job who can find no comfort in their faith. You wind up with people like Job’s friends whose religion can provide no healing or life giving word to those who suffer. You wind up with a god who is unworthy of Job’s worship and trust.

The latter observation is aptly expressed in Robert Frost’s play Mask of Reason, which is based on the Book of Job. The drama takes place years after the events related in the Bible have transpired. God pays a visit to Job and his wife and Job poses the question: “Now after all these years You might indulge me. Why did You hurt me so? I am reduced to asking flatly for the reason-outright.”

God responds: “I was showing off to the Devil, Job, as set forth in Chapters One and Two. Do you mind?”

“No, No. I musn’t,” Job Replies. “Twas human of You. I expected more than I could understand and what I get is almost less than I can understand.”

Mask of Reason, lines 207-269; lines 327-233 printed in Frost, Robert, The Poetry of Robert Frost (c. 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston) pp. 473-390.

If there is a positive word in this book, it finds expression in the character of Job. Though Satan succeeded well in turning God against God’s creature, he failed to turn Job from his faith in his Creator. So the question posed by the Book of Job is this: “Is there a God out there worthy of Job’s steadfast trust and confidence?” The book does a fine job of telling us what such a god is not. We must look beyond that book for a portrait of who that God is.

Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32

This is a psalm of praise. Verse 22 suggests that it was sung by the faith community before a sacrifice of thanksgiving. That the worshipers are “gathered from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (Vs. 3) suggests that this psalm was composed after the Babylonian Exile and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Though some of the exiled Jews returned home to Palestine, most of the Jewish population remained scattered throughout the Mediterranean world, making pilgrimages to Jerusalem on high holy days. Such pilgrim journeys were fraught with dangers, escape from which was one of many occasions for thanksgiving.

Our lesson begins at verse 23 and relates the adventures of sea going merchants (who might also have been pilgrims). In addition to being a powerful metaphor for the primordial chaos that reigned prior to creation (Genesis 1:2), the sea was also a very tangible source of terror for the Israelite people. How many Jewish sea captains do you read about in the Hebrew Scriptures? Jonah is the only Hebrew scriptural character known to have gone to sea-and it did not turn out well for him. Yet even the terrifying power of the sea is subject to the voice of Israel’s God.

“Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.” Vss. 27-28. These words parallel the cries of the terrified disciples in our gospel lesson and the Psalm as a whole implies the answer to their question: “Who, then, is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” Mark 4:41. Of course, for the pilgrims in the Psalm standing safely within the confines of the temple courts, escape from the dangers of the sea seemed no less miraculous and God driven.

These are the testimonies of persons who have experienced in a graphic way God’s saving intervention. That God does not always so act and that there are also ships full of people that go down does not dull the effect of their faithful witness. Rather, it underscores the gracious nature of God’s salvation which is neither earned, deserved, nor can it be expected as a matter of course. People who have experienced God’s salvation from death understand that each morning is a gift of one more day in a finite lifetime. Such humble thankfulness is well expressed in a poem by the late Jane Kenyon:

Otherwise

I got out of bed on
two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Jane Kenyon from Constance (1993)

Moreover, such salvation experiences are not to be understood as special favors reflecting God’s preference for one person over another. Instead, they are occasions for God’s mercy and steadfast love to be manifested to the world. Hence, the command: “Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.” Vs. 22.

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Paul has just finished a very fine articulation of his apostolic mission set forth in II Corinthians 5:16-21. He describes himself as an “ambassador” for Christ; God making God’s appeal for reconciliation through Paul’s ministry. In the name of Christ, then, Paul appeals to the Corinthian church “not to accept the grace of God in vain.” That is, let not the grace of God be without effect. Furnish, Victor Paul, II Corinthians, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1984 by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) p. 341. Quoting Isaiah 49:8, Paul urges his readers to respond faithfully now, for time is of the essence. Vs. 2.

Verse 3 seems to be an abrupt transition. Paul has been speaking of his apostolic mission to the world, but now seems fixated once again upon his detractors’ rejection of his apostleship. Some commentators suggest that the material in II Corinthians 6:14-7:1 belongs immediately after vs. 2 rather than after verse 13. Ibid. 353. There is no question that this material seems wildly out of place where it now is and that II Corinthians 7:2 follows naturally after verse 13 in our lesson. But the transposed section does not seem to fit any more naturally between verses 2 and 3 than it does after verse 13. Accord, Furnish, supra. For my part, I am doubtful that II Corinthians 6:14-7:1 is even genuinely Pauline. It seems to contradict entirely the advice given in I Corinthians 7:12-16. If, however, one enlarges the focus to include the whole of Chapter 5, it becomes evident that Paul is simply circling back to the defense of his apostleship begun at II Corinthians 5:11-15. He points out that his credentials are the hardships he has embraced and the sacrifices he has gladly made for the sake of Christ’s reconciling mission. Vss. 4-10. Paul argues that he has done everything possible to earn the trust of the Corinthian church and asks that, as he has opened his heart to them, they similarly open their heart to him.

This passage illustrates how the greatest asset any church leader has is his/her integrity. A pastor that tithes need not apologize for asking the same from his/her congregation. A trustee that takes up the rake need not be bashful in calling upon the rest of the congregation to pitch in with the spring cleaning to avoid the expense of landscaping bills. Nothing takes the wind out of criticism quite as effectively as honesty, transparency and reliability.

Mark 4:35-41

In this gospel lesson Mark continues pressing the $64,000 question: “Who is Jesus?” Of course, those of us reading the gospel already know who Jesus is because the gospel begins in Mark 1:1 by telling us that this is the story of Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah. Jesus knows who he is because the voice from heaven spoke to him at his baptism saying, “You are my beloved Son.” Mark 1:11. The demons know that Jesus is the Son of God and Jesus has to tell them to keep quiet about his identity. Mark 1:23-25. The only people who don’t seem to be getting it are the disciples.

Mark’s telling of this story is rich in allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures suggesting that Jesus is something more than a mere teacher. Indeed, as will later be demonstrated on the Mountain of Transfiguration, he is more even than Israel’s Messiah. The ability to control the sea and subdue storms was regarded as divine. Psalm 89:8-9; Psalm 93:1-4; Psalm 106:8-9; Psalm 107:28-29; and Isaiah 51:9-10. Additionally, the image of “the waters” was a common metaphor for the powers of evil and the trials of the righteous. Psalm 69:1-2; Psalm 18:16. Finally, in the mist of such tribulation, the faithful are called upon to express confidence in God’s power to save and deliver. Isaiah 43:2; Psalm 46:1-3; and Psalm 65:5. It should also be noted that the ability to sleep peacefully, as Jesus is evidently doing, is a sign of trust in the protective power of God. Proverbs 3:23-24; Psalm 4:8; Psalm 3:5; and Job 11:8-19. Jesus’ posture of trust evidenced by his sleeping is therefore a potent contrast to the agitation of the disciples. For a fuller discussion of these Hebrew scriptural echoes, see Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) pp. 146-148.

It is tempting to criticize the disciples for being such dolts. Particularly after they make the remark, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” vs. 41. Unwittingly perhaps, they are practically quoting from this week’s Psalm. Had they realized what they were saying, they would not have had to ask their question. Yet the problem here is deeper than mere failure to connect the scriptural dots. Surely the people to whom Mark’s gospel is addressed, like us, know that Jesus is the Son of God. The question is, does that knowledge make any difference to them or us? Though we confess that Jesus is the Son of God, is he the first one to whom we turn in the midst of a raging storm? Or do we call out to him only when our strength, our wits and our resources have all failed us and the boat is half swamped? In these troubled and fearful times, we can still hear Jesus speaking to us, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” vs. 40.

Sunday, March 17th

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

Prayer of the Day
Creator God, you prepare a new way in the wilderness, and your grace waters our desert. Open our hearts to be transformed by the new thing you are doing, that our lives may proclaim the extravagance of your love given to all through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“I can remember when we ran two services on Sunday in this church and we still had to set up folding chairs in the aisle to accommodate everyone.” “This house used to be filled with the laughter of children. Now we just sit here in the silence and listen to the clock ticking away.”  “Time was we were all friends in this neighborhood. Now the houses are full of strangers and half of them don’t speak my language.” There are times when I grow weary of these tired old litanies. There are times when I would like to shout out with the prophet, “Remember not the former things!” But, of course, that is not enough. When the past is all you have, it is unlikely you will let it go just because somebody tells you to. Snatching a bone from the jaws of a hungry cur only gets you bitten. Ah, but if you hold up a juicy piece of fresh meat, then the dog will drop his old bone in a New York minute and you will have earned a loyal friend!

That is chiefly what the anonymous prophet of “Second Isaiah” does. He preaches to a band of Jewish exiles in Babylon a vision of God’s purpose for Israel that is so exciting, so beautiful and so compelling it inspires them to do the unimaginable. The exiles let go of their pining for the glory days of Israel’s past and the secure lives they had built for themselves to undertake a dangerous journey back to the ruined homeland of their ancestors. Against all odds, this inspired band re-settled the land, rebuilt their temple and raised up the city of Jerusalem from the ashes. They were only too glad to let go of the good old days in order to take hold of the prophet’s bold vision for their future.

I wish I could preach like that. I wish I could preach a vision of mission to make my church see that its best days are in front of it. I wish I could preach the luster of eternal life into every nursing home I visit and turn those places into beehives prayer, joy and expectation. I wish I could preach the good news about Jesus Christ with such clarity and conviction that people would wish they had more time, more treasure and more talent to pour out for the gentle reign of God. Unfortunately, I lack the poetic imagination of the prophet and his or her gift for weaving language into lyrical testimonies to the ways of God. Still, I struggle with my own prosaic preaching to describe with words that for which there is no language. There is no other way. For in the end, words are all that we in the church have.

I must confess that at times I wish I had more than words. Words tend to become worn and hackneyed. They are so easily misunderstood, misconstrued and taken out of context. Their meanings get lost in translation. The words of the wise are so often buried under the relentless onslaught of idiotic chatter radiating from every billboard, magazine and digital device. How can the church’s preaching amount to more than a whisper in a hurricane? Yet as futile as speech can sometimes appear, words remain the means by which the mystery of God is revealed. God spoke the universe into existence. The prophets preached their discouraged people out of despair into hope and action. The Word made flesh continues to throb at the heart of the church judging, forgiving and inspiring because that Word is preached. By words we live. As the prophet tells us elsewhere in the Book of Isaiah,

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

Isaiah 55:10-11.  Words are enough.

Isaiah 43:16-21

As indicated previously, these words of the prophet are addressed to the Jews living in exile at Babylon. The prophet sees in the conquest of Babylon by Persia an act of God creating an opportunity for the exiles to return home to Palestine. Though the prophet admonishes the people “remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old,” he or she is not suggesting that Israel forget her history. Rather, s/he is challenging Israel to understand her history in a new way. The Exodus, God’s liberation of Israel from Egypt, is not just an inspiring tale from Israel’s distant past. It is a prism though which Israel is challenged to look toward the future. If only the imagination of this people can grasp it, God is enacting another exodus for Israel. This time God is liberating Israel from Babylon. Just as God led Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground, so now God will lead Israel through what is now the Iraqi desert by a miraculous path of well watered garden. Israel, the people God formed for himself, will give praise to their God as they make their triumphal journey home. Even the animals will find shade and nourishment in this marvelous highway through the wilderness and will honor Israel’s God.

“Thus says the Lord.” This is a stereotypical formula for the making of a proclamation. Middle Eastern monarchs would make their decrees known by sending a messenger on their behalf who would proclaim in a public place: “Thus says the king!” The decree, order or declaration of the king would follow. Israel’s prophets often used the same formula when introducing a word from God.

“…who makes a path through the mighty waters, who brings forth the chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.” While evoking images of the Exodus from Egypt, this sentence also reflects the overwhelming victories of Persia against Babylon. The prophet is intentionally using language that draws parallels between these two events in order to help his people “perceive” the new thing that God is doing for them.

“Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Evidently, the people do not perceive. Israel has been dominated by Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. Now Persia is getting the upper hand. But so what? This only means that we have a new master oppressing us. Unless you are the lead dog, the view never changes. But this is not just a change of administration. Cyrus, the emperor of Persia, is promoting a different agenda. His policy is to allow displaced and exiled persons, such as the Jews in Babylon, to return home to their lands of origin. To be sure, Cyrus has his own self interested reasons for promoting this policy. But the prophet knows that God, not Cyrus, is the driving force behind history. God is using Cyrus to open a way of return for Israel to the land promised to her ancestors. “Can’t you see the opportunity here?” says the prophet. “Don’t you see God’s hand in this? We are experiencing a new Exodus miracle!”

This lesson challenges us to read the Bible not as a book of ancient tales from long ago, but to understand it as the lens thorough which we are to see and interpret our present circumstances and our future hope. Albert Einstein is reputed to have said that, for the advancement of science, imagination is more important than knowledge. That is also the case for interpreting the Bible. Faithful imagination is the reason why a store front preacher with a seventh grade education can inspire a congregation of desperately poor people with vivid images of salvation, hope and liberation while a learned Reverend Doctor with an Ivy League degree can put you to sleep. Don’t misunderstand me. I am thankful for the theological education I received from seminary and find it enormously valuable in understanding the sense of the biblical texts. Yet I must also say that too often in my seminary career we tended to treat the Bible as a dead relic from the past that we needed somehow to “make relevant” to the modern world. The idea that we needed to learn from the Bible what is relevant and how to understand the world seldom occurred to us. But that is precisely how believers approach the Bible-with reverent imagination. Not until we can imagine ourselves as the people of the Exodus can we begin to see God creating new opportunities in our lives for faithful witness and service. Not until we enter imaginatively into the gospel narratives can we hear God calling us away from what holds us captive. Jesus has promised to be with us to the close of the age, but it takes a faithful imagination to perceive him in our midst. The preaching of the prophet in this Sunday’s lesson gives us a vivid example of the power of imagination.

Psalm 126

This psalm served as inspiration for the revered hymn, “Bringing in the Sheaves.” The lyrics for the hymn, printed below, were composed in 1874 by Knowles Shaw.

Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve;
Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
 
Refrain:
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves,
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows,
Fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze;
By and by the harvest, and the labor ended,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Refrain

Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master,
Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves;
When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Refrain

I bring this piece of trivia to your attention because it provides us with a splendid illustration of biblical imagination discussed under the heading of our lesson from Isaiah. Through his identification with the struggles of the returning exiles striving against numerous difficulties to rebuild their ruined land, Shaw gives meaning to the lives of Christian believers striving, sometimes with little evidence of progress, to live out their discipleship.

The psalm begins with the words “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.” An alternative reading is “When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion, we were like those who dream.” If the latter reading is adopted, then “those who returned to Zion” are almost certainly the Babylonian exiles. This return was made possible by the edict of Cyrus the Great, emperor of Persia who conquered Babylon. Cyrus decreed that all peoples taken into exile by Babylon, including the Jews, would be permitted to return to their homelands. Such an opportunity would indeed seem like a dream come true. Yet there were also serious obstacles in the way of returning to Palestine. The journey home through what is now the Iraqi desert was itself a perilous trip. Upon return, the Jews found a ruined city and hostile peoples who had come to inhabit the homeland. Rebuilding would be a long and difficult task. Hence, the psalmist prays “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb!” The “Negeb” is a hilly desert region of southern Israel. Water courses there are seasonal, being dry for most of the year but brought to life in the rainy season to revive dormant vegetation. So the psalmist hopes that God will likewise restore and nurture the community of Israel in the land to which she returns. The final verses of the psalm reflect the hope that, just as a bountiful harvest follows the toil of planting, so the sacrifice, hard work and risks taken by the returning exiles will be rewarded with the rebirth of a thriving community.

The psalm concludes with this promise: “He who goes fourth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing in his sheaves with him.” Verse 6. This could well be a proverb similar to the many found in the Book of Proverbs or it could be an oracle spoken by a priest in response to the congregation’s prayer for restoration. In either case, the image of planting what appears to be a lifeless seed just as one would bury the dead in the hope of new life at harvest is a powerful exercise of imaginative preaching! It calls to mind Jesus’ parable employing the same idea. See Mark 4:26-29.

Philippians 3:4b-14

To repeat briefly what I have said about Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in the past, this is not one letter but three.

Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)

Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)

Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)

This Sunday’s reading comes from the third letter warning the Philippians to beware of the teachings of rival missionaries who were evidently teaching gentile Christians in Paul’s congregations that they needed circumcision in order to be full members of the church. In years past, scholars referred to these folks as “Judaizers,” but that name is somewhat misleading. The false missionaries with which Paul was contending were probably not Jews at all. Most likely, they were local people, probably gentiles who had received circumcision and took pride in the depth of commitment it demonstrated. Paul responds by pointing out that if such things as circumcision were really a source of pride, he could make a much stronger case on his own behalf than his adversaries. In verses 4-6, Paul points out that he has a real Jewish ancestry that he can trace; circumcision done strictly in accordance with the law and a first rate Hebrew education. But of all this St. Paul says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

Understand that there is more going on here than a fight over circumcision. In fact, circumcision is not the real issue here. The problem for Paul is that his opponents measure their worth in the eyes of God on the basis of their religious accomplishments. Paul maintains that “righteousness” depends on faith, more specifically, faith in Jesus. In this secular age where “organized religion” (so called) is in steep decline, it is hard to find many people who are striving to be righteous in the sight of God. But there is no shortage of people who are striving to achieve some measure of self worth. I am not talking only about folks striving for the American dream of a six figure income, home ownership and a comfortable retirement. I am also speaking of many of my colleagues over the years that have entered the service of the church under the mistaken notion that they are choosing a “higher calling.” There is no higher calling than baptism into Jesus Christ. From there on out, it’s all downhill. I have likewise known a good many folks who have told me that they are serving the church because “I want to make a difference,” presumably for good. At first blush, this sounds quite admirable. Yet the “I” in that claim is a little troubling. Could the translation be, “I want to be important?” or “I want to count for something?”

The fact of the matter is that Jesus does not call us to make a difference. It is not our job to change the world. As our Catechism tells us, “The Kingdom of God comes without our prayers,” and I would add, without our hard work, sacrifice and dedication. We are witnesses to the Kingdom, not its architects and engineers. That means we might spend our lives doing work that doesn’t make a difference-at least not one we can see. We might die before the harvest and when it comes, nobody will remember that we did the planting. Indeed, the harvest itself might not be appreciated. Faithfulness does not always produce growing churches, successful programs and revenue for the home office. So to people who have told me they are considering service in the church (including my own daughter), I warn them that they might very well come to the end of their ministry with their congregations, their colleagues and the denominational authorities viewing them as having failed. If you have a problem with that, you belong in some other calling.

No one knew better than Paul how tenuous are achievements in ministry and how easily each hard won gain can be lost. Paul knew that in the end, regardless of who plants and who waters, God alone gives the growth. So his focus is not on the success of his work, but on knowing Jesus and the power of his resurrection. Jesus, after all, was the quintessential failure. His ministry ended in a shameful death by public execution. His closest followers failed to understand him and they deserted him when he needed them most. But Jesus was faithful to God’s purpose for him and obedient to God’s reign-even when that obedience didn’t seem to be accomplishing anything. It is precisely that kind of faith in God’s promise to bring to completion what we cannot even properly begin that Paul is striving for. Such “striving” is nothing other than what should be happening whenever we take part in the order of confession and forgiveness. It involves letting go of what is past-both the painful memories of failure and the coveted memories of success. Failure, after all, might well prove to be a monumental triumph in the grand scheme of things. Similarly, the success in which we take such pride might prove over the long haul to have been negligible or even counter-productive. The only sure thing here is God’s promise and demonstrated determination to raise up from our shattered and imperfect lives something new and truly beautiful.

John 12:1-8

OK. So let’s start by acknowledging that Judas’ motives here were not as pure as the driven snow. Still and all, isn’t he right? In a society where malnourished children are surviving day to day on discarded scraps, how can you justify using ointment that would fetch three hundred denarii for a foot massage? Bear in mind that a denarius constituted about one day’s pay for a manual laborer. That is a lot of meals for a lot of hungry people.  Judas could cite any number of passages from the Hebrew Scriptures supporting his claim that the ointment should rightly have been sold for the support of the poor. For example, the prophet Amos castigates the aristocracy of Israel because they “anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.” Amos 6:6. There are many other such instances in which the prophets make clear God’s priority for care of the poor over opulent living and even proper worship. It seems that Judas is on pretty solid ground here.

So let me respond with a story that I once heard as a sermon illustration. I can’t remember anymore the preacher I got it from and have no idea whether it really happened. In any event, there was a parish in an impoverished neighborhood that decided to take seriously Jesus’ injunction to feed the hungry. So the social ministries committee appointed a young woman to oversee this work and she planned a Thanksgiving Day meal for the poor and homeless families in the community. Knowing how hard life is out on the street and in the grip of poverty, she decided to give her guests at least one night of fine dining in a family style setting. She bought white table linens, rented fine china with real silverware, catered a meal with one of the most renowned restaurants in the area and, to top it off, she hired a string quartet to provide music. The guests were overwhelmed. One fellow said, “I’ve been treated like a tramp for so long, I forgot what it was like to be treated like a man.” Another woman who came with two small children in tow remarked, “This is the first time in I don’t know how long that I felt like I was really welcome.”

On the Monday after Thanksgiving an emergency meeting of the church council was called and the young woman was summoned to appear. The council members were livid. “How could you so irresponsibly and thoughtlessly squander the resources of this church?” bellowed the president. “You could have fed all of those people for a fraction of the cost and still have had a substantial budget for the days ahead!” The good president had a point-as did Judas. It would have been cheaper and more efficient to serve the people processed turkey on paper plates with plastic silverware. They didn’t need table cloths. Music could have been provided via a boom box.  But that really misses the point. Jesus does not simply feed the poor. He invites them to the messianic banquet. The poor are not a demographic. They are not faceless numbers on a spread sheet or social problems needing to be solved. They are people for whom Jesus has a special interest, people who are gifted and highly valued. You don’t feed God’s special children rubber turkey and you don’t anoint Jesus with cheap perfume.

So here is the point. Mary is anointing Jesus for burial. Her act is one of profound love and significance beyond what she can fully appreciate. You cannot so honor Jesus without honoring the poor for whom he lived and died. Standing with Jesus is acknowledging the full humanity and value of the poor in the fullest possible measure. Judas did not grasp that because he could not see beyond his balance sheet. His chief crime here is neither greed nor theft. Judas’ worst crime is his lack of imagination. That brings us full circle to where we began with Isaiah. Commitment to mission is good. Bible knowledge is good. Theological education is good. But without imagination, all are worthless.