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Love makes room for another to be; a poem by Jalal al-Din -Rumi; and the lessons for Sunday, January 7, 2018
BAPTISM OF OUR LORD
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, creator of light and giver of goodness, your voice moves over the waters. Immerse us in your grace, and transform us by your Spirit, that we may follow after your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
In the beginning God said “let there be” and there was. That is already grace. God had no need to create anything. God was not lonely, nor did God make the universe out of boredom. God was fully sufficient in God’s self, the Father passionately loving the Son with that love that is Spirit. Yet, in another sense, creation was necessary. It was necessary because genuine love is forever looking beyond itself. By its very nature, it overflows its banks giving life to everything it touches. Thus, although God had no need for anything beyond God’s Triune self, “the three in love and hope made room within their dance.” “Come, Join the Dance of Trinity,” Leach, Richard, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #412 (c. 2001 by Selah Publishing Co., Inc.). In creation, God generously makes room for us to be. In the person of his Son, God breaks down the walls of isolation, exclusion and rejection that manifest themselves within our human experience of brokenness. In Jesus, God makes room for the outcast, the sinner, the hungry, the poor- the very “least” by our hierarchical standards of judgment-to draw near to God’s self.
We should perhaps pause and think about what it means for love to be understood simply as “that which makes room for the other.” Love is a word used rather loosely in our nomenclature. I can as well say, “I love ice cream” as I can say “I love my wife.” But are these two “loves” even remotely similar? A lot of what passes for love is neither life giving nor liberating. Love that is possessive and controlling smothers its object with jealousy and distrust. Parental love that does not free our children to become the unique individuals they are destined to become, but seeks to channel their lives into what we deem to be in their best interests is hurtful and destructive. Love for one’s country that closes borders, restricts immigration and imposes arbitrary religious, social and cultural norms on the whole population is far from anything like true patriotism. Genuine love, as Saint Paul reminds us, is “patient…kind…and does not insist on its own way…It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:4-7. Love makes room for a person to be and become who he or she is-whether or not I like it, approve of it or agree with it.
Too much that passes for Christian discipleship these days has been shaped by love that seeks to constrict rather than make room for the other. The good news of Jesus Christ was never meant to be imposed as a cultural norm. For that reason, the very notion of a “Christian nation” is an oxymoron. God has no use for nation states. God neither needs nor desires defenders. God seeks witnesses to the good news that there is room in God’s heart for all people-even those who do not believe in God; even those who misunderstand God; even those who hate God; even those whose actions grieve the heart of God. Witnesses have no obligation to defend, refute or persuade. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. To love someone is to make room for them to be in God’s presence without judgment or condemnation. It is to allow the Holy Spirit all the time that is necessary to do her work in the heart of the other and, most importantly, accept the outcome.
Our gospel lesson invites us to focus on Jesus. As we are drawn into his orbit of influence, our lives are transformed. And yes, we are called upon to make room in that dance for all others we encounter. Some will join in the dance, learn its subtle steps and movements, fall into the rhythms of worship, prayer, giving and witness. Others will follow another path. There we would do well to remember Jesus’ admonition that “whoever is not against us is for us.” Mark 9:40. It is not for us to convert the world to any particular religious, moral or political vision. In truth, our understandings of these things are far too unsure, shifting and tentative to serve as an absolute norm. We are called only to make room for our neighbors-be they Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist or whatever else to grow into the image of their Creator in whatever way the Spirit directs.
Here is a poem about creatively “making room” for which another name might be “hospitality.”
This, Being Human, is a Guest House.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning is a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
[S]he may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Jalal al-Din -Rumi
Source: Garmon, Rev. Meredith, “Radical Hospitality,” Liberal Pulpit, 2015/11/10 (trans.Coleman Barks). Jalal al-Din Rumi was one of the greatest poets of the Sufi Muslim tradition. He lived and worked during the 13th century. Rumi was already a teacher and theologian in 1244 when he encountered a wandering dervish (a Muslim ascetic) named Shams of Tabriz. Spiritually inspired by the dervish to find God in worldly experiences, he founded the Mevlani Order of the Sufi sect. Find out more about Jalal al-Din Rumi and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
To reiterate what I have said previously about Genesis and the other four books of the “Pentateuch,” namely, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, most scholars are convinced that there are at least four main literary sources for these works, each of which narrates the drama of Israel’s origins. These four sagas were woven together and edited throughout the years of the Davidic dynasty to the period following the Babylonian Exile. In chronological terms, that would stretch from about 950 B.C.E. to 500 B.C.E. The first literary tradition, known as the “Jahwist,” is the earliest source. It probably dates from the years of the Davidic Dynasty, being a product of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Next in chronological order would be the “Elowist” source. This literary tradition tells the story of Israel from the viewpoint of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and was likely brought to Judah by refugees escaping the Assyrian conquest and annexation of that nation around 721 B.C.E. The third contributor, known as the Deuteronomist, consisting of Deuteronomy and extending through the end of II Kings, is credited with joining the Jahwist and Elowist material into a single narrative. The final literary contributors, designated the “Priestly” source, rounded out the final form of the Pentateuch as we have it today incorporating ancient liturgical traditions preserved by the Jerusalem priesthood. This final editing was done sometime during or immediately after the Babylonian Exile ending in 538 B.C.E. For further elaboration, I invite you to read the online article, Documentary Hypothesis.
Our lesson, the opening to a marvelous poetic portrayal of creation, is a product of the Priestly author chiefly responsible for editing and contributing to the final form of the Pentateuch. This editor(s)/author(s) composed during the Babylonian Exile from 587 B.C.E. to about 530 B.C.E. Throughout this period Israel lived as an ethnic minority in a culture that was hostile to her faith in the Lord of the Exodus. The people were surrounded by and immersed in the religious symbols, practices and mores of their captors, whose decisive victory over Israel called into question the validity of their faith. The temptation to become assimilated into Babylonian society was strong. Should Israel continue to worship a God that seemed to have been overcome by the deities of Babylon? If Israel’s God was God, how could this God allow his holy city and temple to be destroyed?
The Babylonian Enûma Eliš saga relates how the earth was created out of a civil war between the gods and how humans were created from the divine blood shed in that conflict for the purpose of serving the victorious gods. The gods were ruled by the chief of these divine victors, Marduk, who in turn presided over a strict hierarchy. The Babylonian empire mirrored this heavenly hierarchy on earth with the emperor standing at the top of the social order. Under him were his officers, army and patrons. At the bottom of the pyramid were slaves-barely human and at the mercy of their owners whim. The empire was the gods will done on earth as in heaven according to the Babylonian creed.
The first chapter of Genesis constitutes an alternative creation narrative reflecting a very different understanding of divinity, the cosmos and the social order. The story describes creation as the sovereign act of one God whose merciful and compassionate care ensures stability and sustenance for all creatures. There is no hint of conflict or struggle in the act of creation. Everything is brought into existence by the sovereign word of God that declares everything made to be “good.” If you were to read further, you would discover that human beings do not spring up unintended from the blood of conflict, but are specially created in God’s image. They have not been made to serve as a race of slaves, but to be fruitful, multiply and rule over the good world God has made.
Of particular significance for the Baptism of Our Lord is the interplay between the “Spirit of God moving over the waters,” the speech of God crying “Let there be,” and the result: “and there was.” It is unfortunate that the lectionary folks did not pair this reading up with John 1:1-18, our gospel for last week. There is a clear correlation between these opening words of the Hebrew Scriptures and John’s prologue to his gospel in which he recites how the Word was in the beginning with God, was God and was the means by and through whom all things were made. John 1:1-3. It is fitting, too, that Jesus should be announced by John, the one who baptizes with water. Water, Word and Spirit are interwoven throughout both these readings. Baptism brings us terrifyingly close to “the deep” where all order, coherence and consciousness are dissolved. To be blunt, baptism kills us. Yet the waters that drown and destroy also hold the potential for life. Water is critical to life and makes up a substantial piece of what we are as creatures. We cannot live without water, nor can we live comfortably with it. The Spirit, however, moves these waters toward their creative pole. The word gives the formless deep a form. So what is dissolved in the waters of baptism is called forth newly constituted.
Most commentators suggest that this psalm is an Israelite poet’s adaptation of an ancient Phoenician hymn praising Baal-Hadad, the Canaanite storm god. E.g., Gaster, T.H., “Psalm 29,” JQR 37 (1946) pp. 54ff cited by Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 261; see also Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 142. It is also possible to maintain that the psalm is a liturgical recital of God’s appearance to Israel on Mt. Sinai. Both views might be correct. Israel frequently borrowed liturgical and literary material from its neighbors in shaping its own worship traditions. Thus, a hymn originally praising the storm god in the wake of a particularly fierce weather event might have served as a template for this psalm memorializing God’s stormy appearance on Sinai.
The psalmist unashamedly attributes to Israel’s God the awe inspiring and often destructive effects of a storm. That is a little unnerving for us moderns who are squeamish about attributing anything to God that isn’t “nice.” Indeed, this psalm is particularly problematic for those of us affected by severe storms. Are these destructive storms God’s doing? Does God send them or just allow them to occur? Does it make any difference either way? Is it anymore comforting to believe that God just fell asleep at the wheel and allowed a hurricane to happen rather than to believe that God deliberately sent one? Has the universe gotten so far out of God’s hands that God is no longer able to prevent hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis?
I don’t pretend to have neat answers to all these questions. But perhaps our problem is rooted in our homocentric view of things. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that the problem may be with our “me” centered approach to faith. It seems to me that a lot of our prayers are exceedingly self-centered. We pray for good weather on our vacations-even in times when our farms are desperate for rain. We pray for an economic recovery without any thought to the economic, ecological and social havoc our economy wreaks upon the world. Even our prayers for others often have a strong streak of selfishness in them. As the father of a child with a chronic medical condition, a day does not go by that I don’t pray for her healing. Yet lately I have been wondering about my motives. Am I looking for a special miracle? By what right do I get to push to the head of the line of parents with sick children to receive such special treatment? Thanks to the benefits of medical treatment afforded through insurance, my daughter is able to live a relatively normal and healthy life despite her condition. So shouldn’t any miracle go to a child without these benefits? I find that too often my prayers do not venture beyond my own needs, concerns and the small circle of people in my small world.
Perhaps this psalm gives us some perspective. The psalmist does not begin his or her prayer with a request that God stop the storm or steer it in some other direction. The psalm begins with praise, awe and reverence for God. As Jesus taught his disciples, that is where all prayer needs to begin. Recall that in both of the creation stories from Genesis, the world was created first. In the first chapter of Genesis, the earth and all its creatures were created and declared good. Then human beings were created to rule over and care for the earth. Likewise in the second chapter of Genesis: the earth was created and God planted a garden in the earth. Then God created human beings to tend and care for the garden. The message is clear. It’s not all about us. The world was not designed to be a twenty-first century playground that is so well padded and equipped with safety features that no kid could ever possibly get hurt-or have any fun either. No, the world is far more like the way playgrounds used to be-a place where you can really play. It pains me to no end that my grandchildren will probably never know the ecstasy of rocketing half way to the sky on a real swing set. Nor will they ever experience the dizzying high you could get from one of those merry-go-rounds that we used to crank up to warp speed. Our public parks have been cleansed of all such unacceptable risks. The attorneys and insurance underwriters who have taken over our lives have determined that fun is just too dangerous for kids.
But don’t get me started on that. We were talking about the psalm and the fact that we are not the center of God’s universe. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, God is not a tame lion. God is not “safe” and neither is the world God made. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, (c. 1950 by Estate of C.S. Lewis; pub. by Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.) pp. 73-74. There is no room in the Bible or in real life for a wimpy, weak kneed religion that longs for a “nice” god. You can get hurt on this planet and tragically so. But for all that, the earth is a good place to be. It’s a place where you can have real fun. Beauty the likes of which you see in the ocean, in the storm and on the top of Sinai necessarily has an element of terror. The psalmist doesn’t hide in the storm shelter and plead with God not to be so scary. The psalmist praises God for this awesome display of power and rejoices in the beauty, wonder and terror of creation. This is the glorious world God made and the stage on which God acts. The psalmist doesn’t complain about its dangers. S/he prays instead that Israel will find the courage to live boldly and faithfully in this grand universe. Anybody who whines about bad weather and wishes that God had made a safer planet has never been on a real swing!
Last Sunday John pointed out to us that God’s creative word became flesh. God entered fully into the adventure of being human in a creation filled with mystery, wonder, beauty and terror. Baptism into the name of this Triune God is to join in the adventure of becoming fully and truly human.
It appears that a distinct community of John the Baptist’s disciples continued to exist well into the New Testament period. Whatever the baptism of John was all about, it surely did not include the name of Jesus. Thus, it is not surprising that, upon becoming associated with the church, these disciples of John should be baptized into Jesus Christ. Of what, then, did this new baptism consist? Much energy has been expended in speculation over how baptism might have been practiced in the early church and whether a Trinitarian formula was used or merely the name of Jesus. I am not particularly interested in those arguments. What we know is that the Trinitarian baptismal formula was around from at least the writing of Matthew’s gospel toward the end of the 1st Century. There isn’t a scrap of textual evidence to support the spurious supposition that this formula was a later addition to the text. Moreover, the church has consistently spoken of “baptism into Christ” throughout history without implying anything less than fully Trinitarian baptism. There seems to me no sound theological reason to baptize in anything less than God’s Trinitarian Name. As to the baptism of the believers in our lesson “into the name of Jesus,” I agree with St. Basil:
“Let no one be misled by the fact of the apostle’s frequently omitting the name of the Father and of the Holy Spirit when making mention of baptism, or on this account imagine that the invocation of the names is not observed. As many of you, he says, as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ; and again, as many of you as were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death. For the naming of Christ is the confession of the whole, showing forth as it does the God who gave, the Son who received, and the Spirit who is, the unction.” De Spiritu Sancto, 12:28.
I must admit that I don’t know what theological sense to make out of the chronology in this brief snippet from Acts. Preaching comes first; then comes baptism and after that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. I don’t know how a person can receive the Word of God without the aid of the Spirit, nor do I understand how one receives the Spirit apart from the Word and baptism. But one of those things or both seems to have occurred here. Rather than trying to make theological sense out of this passage, I prefer simply to take it as a warning against becoming too dogmatic about how faith and the Holy Spirit work. As I said before, I have performed more than a few baptisms where there appeared to be little in the way of proper motivation or even openness to faith. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but that is really out of my hands. When you invoke the Holy Spirit, you are by definition placing matters in hands beyond your own. In a sense, I suppose I am hoping that what happened in this text will eventually occur for these families, namely, that the Holy Spirit will fall upon them-however belatedly.
Mark tells us less about Jesus’ baptism than any of the other gospels except for John who tells us nothing about it. Mark’s introduction to John the Baptist, though brief, is pregnant with suggestive imagery. The Baptist appears “in the wilderness.” As Commentator Morna Hooker points out, Israel’s long sojourn in the wilderness became a metaphor for her captivity in Babylon and hence associated with the idea of a new Exodus. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 36. Some of the Hebrew prophets looked back to these years spent in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land as an ideal period. Ibid. In the wilderness, Israel had none but God to rely upon and so her relationship with God was naturally closer. See Jeremiah 2:2; Jeremiah 31:2; Hosea 2:14; Hosea 9:10; and Amos 5:25. From this outlook there developed a strong conviction that final salvation for Israel would have its beginning in the wilderness where the messiah would first appear. Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 by Cambridge University Press) p. 42.
Mark’s description of John is filled with images pointing to his prophetic role. His camel hair robe might suggest the “hairy mantle” associated with professional prophets in Zechariah 13:4. Mark’s description of John’s leather belt is an echo of the description of Elijah in II Kings 1:8. By this time Elijah’s role as harbinger of the messianic age was deeply ingrained in Jewish consciousness. See Malachi 4:5-6. Mark’s audience needed no further explicit citations to scripture to understand that John was to be understood, if not as Elijah himself, then surely as a prophet fulfilling Elijah’s eschatological mission. It is in this light that we must understand his declaration that “after me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” Vs. 8. The point here is that John is merely the prophet who goes before the Lord preparing the Lord’s way.
Yet I think it far too simplistic to assume that Mark’s only or even chief purpose is to undermine the importance of John the Baptist whose community might still have been in existence competing with the church for Israel’s allegiance. John plays a critical literary/theological role in Mark’s gospel. So far from detracting from Jesus, his ministry sets the stage for Jesus’ revealing. That is where the baptism comes in. Again, I am not convinced that the early church was “embarrassed” by Jesus’ baptism under John. Whatever ecclesiastical embarrassment there might have been over this event arose much later as a result of distorted notions of what constitutes “sin,” truncated understandings of “repentance” and inadequate models of atonement that could not accommodate Jesus’ undergoing a baptism of repentance. Yet once repentance is understood as a turning toward God, something Jesus did throughout his life, there is nothing inconsistent in Jesus undergoing a baptism of repentance. In our case, repentance always means turning from sin. But that is a consequence of our turning toward God, not a precondition.
We began the church year with a reading from Isaiah in which the prophet cries out: “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” Isaiah 64:1. In Sunday’s gospel that plaintive cry is answered. “And when [Jesus] came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.’” Vs. 10-11. The Greek verb translated here as “opened” (“schizo”) actually means to “rend” as does the Hebrew equivalent in the above Isaiah quote. In Jesus God has torn open the heavens allowing the Holy Spirit to flood into the world. God’s reign has been let loose. The new wine is spilling into the old wine skins and splitting them at the seams. Better buckle your seat belt and put on your crash helmet. This is going to be a wild ride!
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection awaken us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and keep us blameless until the coming of your new day, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Apocalyptic literature, such as we find in Sunday’s gospel, is hard for us mainline protestants to digest. We are progressive in our outlook. We expect the kingdom of heaven to come incrementally. Shaped as we are by 19th Century rationalism, we view our present state of civilization as the vanguard of a slow but steady march from barbarism to liberal democracy and beyond. We can point to enough instances of progress to make this view of reality somewhat plausible. We have outlawed the overt practice of slavery. We have created an international network of alliances, agreements and institutions which, though they cannot altogether prevent war from breaking out, limit the scale of warfare and provide mechanisms for resolving military conflicts that might otherwise drag on indefinitely. Freedom, equality and prosperity are reachable for more people today than at any other time in recorded history. All of this suggests that we are progressing toward a better day.
The gospel, however, challenges our faith in progress. The evangelist reminds us of truths we would prefer to ignore, namely, that the increased prosperity of some has come at the expense of many more who remain mired in poverty; that slavery has been abolished in name only and is very much alive for victims of human trafficking and millions laboring in harsh conditions for wages that cannot sustain them. The treaties and institutions that have maintained peace and stability in many parts of the world are experienced as oppressive and unjust to many who had no voice in their creation nor any role in governing them. Moreover, these institutions are beginning to collapse under the weight of a new nationalism spreading across the globe. Racist ideologies and patriotism grounded in “blood and soil,” once thought relegated to the dust bin of history, are on the rise. The hard-fought gains for people of color, sexual minorities and women in this country that we hoped were permanent are in danger of being lost. Our faith in progress is being shaken-and that might be a good thing because faith in anything less than Jesus is idolatry.
The evangelist warns us against the notion that we can obtain intelligence into the when and how of God’s coming reign. S/he assures us that the day of the Lord will come, but that the timing and method of its coming are beyond our comprehension. The evangelist is clear on one thing, however. The kingdom will not come through gradual, incremental, peaceful evolution. It will come through revolution, violence and bloodshed. The institutions to which we look for peace, stability and progress must be dismantled in the birthing of the new creation. To those of us who have traditionally looked to the institutions of the old order for security, peace and progress, that is a frightening word. Yet for the many who find these very structures oppressive, violent and unjust, the apocalyptic message of Mark is remarkably good news.
During the Advent season we are reminded that we can only wait for new creation. That is a bitter pill to swallow for those of us who would like simply to patch up the old creation. It is hard to be told that a “kinder, gentler empire” will not do. The evangelist is telling us that the new world cannot dawn without the death of the old. This means that a lot of what we hoped was permanent, a lot of what we believed was good, a lot of what we worked so hard to achieve will be dissolved before we arrive at God’s gentle reign of peace.
That isn’t to say that what we do in the meantime doesn’t matter. Precisely because we know the world ends in God’s reign of justice and peace, it matters all the more how we spend whatever time we have left. We must practice justice and peace now so that the world may know its destiny is God’s kingdom and so that we might be formed into the kind of people capable of living faithfully in that kingdom when it finally is revealed. Making the world a better place is not a vain effort. To the contrary, that is why human beings were created. It is critical, however, to recognize that nothing we accomplish, however good and important, is eternal. No gain that we make is irreversible. Neither our lives nor our accomplishments are immune from the “change and decay in all around I see.” We can hope, pray and even expect that our works of justice, compassion and mercy witness to the kind of world God is making. But we dare not confuse our efforts with God’s own redemptive work. By all means strive to make progress; but trust only in God.
Here’s a poem by Jones Very on that very point.
The New World
THE NIGHT that has no star lit up by God,
The day that round men shines who still are blind,
The earth their grave-turned feet for ages trod,
And sea swept over by His mighty wind,
All these have passed away, the melting dream
That flitted o’er the sleeper’s half-shut eye,
When touched by morning’s golden-darting beam;
And he beholds around the earth and sky
That ever real stands, the rolling shores
And heaving billows of the boundless main,
That show, though time is past, no trace of years.
And earth restored he sees as his again,
The earth that fades not and the heavens that stand,
Their strong foundations laid by God’s right hand.
Source: American Religious Poems, Harold Bloom and Jesse Zuba, editors; pub. by Library of America, Inc. p. 96. This poem is in the public domain. Jones Very (1813–1880) Though a minor figure in the American poetic pantheon, Very’s work was highly regarded by such prominent figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott. He studied at Harvard Divinity School until he succumbed to religious delusions that lead to his expulsion. His style bears the mark of his devotion to William Shakespeare whose sonnets he often emulated. You can find out more about Jones Very and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
The fifty sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah opens into what scholars agree is a third collection of prophetic oracles separate from the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39) and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. These prophesies, comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66), come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E. The band of exiles, inspired by the poetic promises of Second Isaiah to brave the dangerous journey across the Iraqi desert from Babylon to Palestine, arrived home to find Jerusalem in ruins and the land inhabited by hostile tribes. The Eden like path through the desert promised by Second Isaiah did not materialize. Life in Palestine proved to be difficult, dangerous and unpromising. The people were understandably disappointed and demoralized. This was the tough audience to which Third Isaiah was called to appeal. A people led to such a desperate plight by their belief in a prophet’s promises were probably not in any mood to listen to yet another prophet! Third Isaiah opens with the words, “Maintain justice and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come.” Vs. 1. You can almost hear the people groaning in the background, “Oh no! Here we go again!”
The prayer of lament that constitutes our lesson is, according to Professor Claus Westermann, one of “the most powerful psalms of communal lamentation in the Bible.” Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c 1969 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 392. The prophet does not take lightly the disillusionment of his/her people. Speaking in the voice of the community, s/he cries out, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” vs. 1. Like the rest of the people, the prophet longs for God’s intervention. The prophet reminds God (as though God needed reminding!) that there was a time when God did act decisively on Israel’s behalf. The prophet alludes to the saving acts of God in the past. Though lacking in specificity, the prophet’s references to “terrible things that we looked not for” might well include the Exodus, the Conquest of Canaan, the triumphs of Samuel and David. Vss. 3-4. God acted then, so why not now?
Of course, the prophet knows and the people no doubt suspect that the reason for God’s silence is tied to their own lack of covenant faithfulness. Yet the people cannot help but feel that God’s anger is out of proportion to their offenses. In verse 5, the prophet cries out, “Behold, thou wast angry, and we sinned…” The order here is most curious. It almost seems as though the people attribute their sin to God’s anger. How can one believe in and trust a God whose wrath is so unsparing? No wonder that “no one calls upon [God’s] name, that bestirs himself to take hold of [God].” Vs. 7. It is God “who has delivered [Israel] into the hands of [her] iniquities.” Vs. 7.
Our reading ends with a plea for God not to be so exceedingly angry. Vs. 9 “Thou art our Father,” the prophet declares. “We are the clay, and thou our potter; we are the work of thy hand.” Vs. 8. In verses 11-12 (not in our reading) the prophet calls God’s attention to the holy city of Jerusalem and the once great temple of Solomon, now in ruins. The poem concludes with a haunting question: “Wilt thou restrain thyself at these things, O Lord? Wilt thou keep silent, and afflict us sorely?” vs. 12.
This prayer strikes a resonant note for an age that seems far removed from miracles and unequivocal words and acts of God. For a good many modern folk, the stories of the Exodus and the Resurrection are just that, stories. At best, they are metaphors for experiences that fit neatly within the narrow confines of our secular frame of reference. For the most part, though, they are archaic myths that we have long outgrown. Those of us who still believe long for the God of the Bible to “rend the heavens and come down” so that we might be assured that the line to mystery, revelation and renewal has not gone dead. Are we shouting frantically into a broken connection? Is there no longer any listening ear on the other end?
I would encourage you to read chapter 65 of Isaiah in addition to our lesson. There you will find God’s response. God, it seems, is equally frustrated by the lack of communication. “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me,” God replies. “I said, ‘Here am I, here am I,’ to a nation that did not call on my name.” Isaiah 65:1. Though God might not be responding with the fireworks Israel is seeking, God is responding nonetheless. So perhaps the problem is not with God’s silence, but with our lack of perception. Perhaps we cannot hear the word of the Lord because we have bought into the limited and limiting vision of empiricism. Perhaps the silence of God can be attributed to our lack of capacity to imagine, contemplate and be open to mystery. Maybe God is even now rending the heavens and coming down and we have only to open our eyes and look up to see the Advent of our God.
This is a psalm of lament. Mention of the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh suggest that this was originally a psalm of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Dating is difficult. The portrait of the land of Israel as an abandoned vineyard with its defenses torn down and its fruit at the mercy of any passing beast certainly fits what must have been the case following the Assyrian conquest in 722 B.C.E. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that the Northern Kingdom was considerably less stable politically than Judah under the line of David. It was also beset by its hostile neighbor, Syria, which frequently expanded its holdings into Israelite territory. Thus, it is entirely possible that this psalm dates from as early as the 9th Century. After the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria, it is probable that this psalm and other literary traditions from the north were brought to the Southern Kingdom of Judah and incorporated into what ultimately became the Jewish scriptures. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard E. Anderson, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 171.
As we saw in last week’s lesson from Ezekiel, the term “shepherd” is commonly associated with kings and rulers. “Enthroned upon the cherubim” (vs. 1) is an allusion to the presence of God symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant which had images of two of these heavenly beings on its cover. Exodus 25:17-22. Though the Ark had likely been captured or destroyed by this time and, in any event, would not have been in the possession of the Northern Kingdom, this term for God’s majesty lived on.
Like the psalm from Isaiah, this psalm also implores God to act and asks “how long wilt thou be angry with thy people’s prayers?” vs. 4. This is a common refrain throughout the psalms of lament. See, e.g., Psalm 13:1-2; Psalm 74:10; and Psalm 79:5. It seems as though God has abandoned his people to suffering and to the mockery of their enemies. As we see time and time again, Israel had no qualms about letting God know when she felt God was not holding up his end of the covenant. Yet as angry, disappointed and disillusioned as Israel sometimes was with her God, she never ceased speaking to God. As hard as it was for Israel to believe in God’s promises, it was harder simply to dismiss them. Israel knew that her ancestors lived for four hundred years as slaves in Egypt crying out for salvation before God sent Moses to deliver them. Israel knew that nearly all of those ancestors died on the long trek through the wilderness without seeing the Promised Land. Israel knew that in the past her ancestors had had to wait for God’s salvation. Why should things be any different now? With this knowledge and experience in her memory Israel cries out in the refrain found throughout this psalm, “Restore us, O God, let they face shine, that we may be saved!” vss. 3; 7 and 19.
In a culture that rewards speed, efficiency and instant satisfaction, the virtues of patience and persistence have little place. Praying to a God who acts in his own good time and for whom a thousand years is but a day has little appeal in the world of Burger King where you can have it your way right now. The Psalms remind us, however, that there is value in waiting. It is not just wasted time. Waiting gives us time to consider and contemplate that for which we pray. Those who practice prayer patiently and consistently know that one’s desires are transformed in the process. In the discipline of persistent and constant prayer, longings and desires are purified. We often discover in the process that what we thought we wanted, longed for and desired is not what we truly needed. By the time we recognize God’s answer to our prayer, our prayer has changed-and so have we. Waiting is perhaps the most important dimension of prayer.
As always, I urge you to read Psalm 80 in its entirety.
You might want to refresh your recollection concerning Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. To that end, I refer you to the Summary Article by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N. on enterthebible.org.
Our reading for Sunday is a snippet from Paul’s greeting to the church in Corinth. Paul alludes herein to the matters to be dealt with in the body of his letter, namely, “knowledge,” “eloquence,” “spiritual gifts,” and “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” at the “Day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Of particular importance for the dawning of this Advent season is the promise of Christ to “sustain” us to the end. Vs. 8. Endurance is and always has been a key New Testament virtue. As I have said before, I do not believe there ever was a “crisis” in the early church prompted by the “delay of the second coming” (sometimes called “the Parousia”). I am convinced that the church understood from the witness of Jesus himself that the kingdom of God had come with power and glory in the cross and resurrection-but that in a sinful world the kingdom necessarily takes the shape of the cross. Though longed for, the consummation of the kingdom was not expected momentarily and the fact that it did not so occur did not occasion any “crisis of faith.” The God and Father of Jesus Christ was the God who sojourned with the patriarchs through their many years as foreigners in the Promised Land; the God who waited four hundred years before answering the cries of his enslaved people in Israel; the God who sat for seventy years in exile with his people and who sent his Son in the fullness of time. Patient longing has been part of the discipleship package from the start. It was not invented by the church to save its disillusioned members from their dashed hopes.
That means, of course, that disciples of Jesus must reconcile themselves to not knowing what time it is. The end (in the sense of Jesus becoming all in all) might come tomorrow. Yet again, it might not come for several more millennia. For all we know, tomorrow’s seminaries might include courses in space travel for pastoral leaders called to churches established at human colonies in far off star systems. Like the children of Israel in the wilderness, we do not know how long it will take for us to arrive at our destination, what the road ahead will look like or how we will know when we have arrived. Only patient, hopeful and confident trust in our Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, can sustain us on this journey.
The language employed by Jesus in our reading is similar to prophetic judgment and apocalyptic speech employed in the Hebrew Scriptures. As such, it is “more than metaphorical, less than literal.” Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 2 (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by A&C Black, Limited) p. 319. The imagery suggests cosmic dissolution. The coming of the Son of Man in glory means the end of the world as we know it.
That said, I believe Mark is doing something unique with this section of his gospel. Jesus has said before that “this generation will not pass away before these things take place.” Vs. 30. See also Mark 9:1. So the question is, what “things” is Jesus talking about? Note well that Jesus tells his disciples no less than three times to “watch.” Vss. 33-37. As we will see, they famously fail to stay awake and watch three times. Mark 14:32-42. At Jesus’ crucifixion, “there was darkness over the whole land until the 9th hour.” Mark 15:33. Jesus is acknowledged (albeit mockingly) as Messiah while hanging on the cross and confessed as Son of God at his death. Mark 15:21-39. Jesus, identified in the first chapter of Mark as “Messiah” and “Son of God” (Mark 1:1), is so glorified in his crucifixion-a strange sort of glory. Do these words of Jesus from our gospel lesson pertain to some cosmic event in the distant future? Or do they refer to Jesus’ impending crucifixion? Is the cross for Mark the end of the world?
I suspect that this is a matter of both/and rather than strictly either/or. What happened with Jesus did indeed initiate the dissolution of the cosmos. Evidence of dissolution is everywhere. Nonetheless, if the sky is falling it can only mean that God is replacing it with a new heaven and a new earth. The end of the world is therefore the revealing of God’s kingdom, which now is hidden under the form of the cross. The end of the world is plainly visible for all who are watching for it. I concur therefore with Professor Cranfield who has this to say:
“If we realize that the Incarnation-Crucifixion-Resurrection-and Ascension, on the one hand, and the Parousia, on the other, belong essentially together and are in a real sense one Event, one divine Act, being held apart only by the mercy of God who desires to give men opportunity for faith and repentance, then we can see that in a very real sense the latter is always imminent now that the former has happened. It was, and still is, true to say that the Parousia is at hand-and indeed this, so far from being an embarrassing mistake on the part either of Jesus or of the early Church, is an essential part of the Church’s faith. Ever since the Incarnation men have been living in the last days.” Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 Cambridge University Press) p. 408.
Though Cranfield employs concepts that are far outside the theological outlook of Mark’s gospel, I believe that his conclusion is nonetheless sound. For Mark, the new age was inaugurated by Jesus in the midst of the old. The cosmic events surrounding the crucifixion are of one piece with the final convulsion in which the old age withers before the advent of the new.
This is a timely word for all who experience dissolution, whether it be the dissolution of the America they once knew, the dissolution of a marriage, the dissolution of a mind into dementia or the dissolution of a church. Jesus does not soft peddle the reality of death in all its aspects. The creation is subject to death and the convulsions of its death throes are everywhere. But these same convulsions, for those who are attentive, are birth pangs of something new. That is the good news in this lesson.
Blessedness of dying broke; a poem along the same lines; and the lessons for Sunday, November 19, 2017
TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Righteous God, our merciful master, you own the earth and all its peoples, and you give us all that we have. Inspire us to serve you with justice and wisdom, and prepare us for the joy of the day of your coming, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“I was afraid.” Matthew 25:25
At first blush, the parable of the talents in today’s gospel strikes us as rather severe. Three servants each receive a sum of money to be held in trust. Two of them invest and double their master’s wealth and are richly rewarded. The third keeps it safe and returns it to the master with neither profit nor loss-and is severely punished. But how much of this is really the third servant’s fault? No one can predict a bull market. That is why investments that promise a high return are considered risky. What if this parable had taken place in the fall of 2008? What if the first two servants had come back with only a tenth of their original trust? Would the master then have said to the third servant, “Well done good and faithful servant! You dealt with my money carefully and prudently”? Would he have punished the first two servants for taking imprudent risks? Doesn’t the parable place upon the servants responsibility for matters well beyond their control?
No. To read the parable in this fashion is to miss the point. The first two servants were not rewarded for their investment successes and the third servant was not punished for fiscal incompetence. The first two servants are commended for being “faithful.” Nothing more is required of them. Success is God’s concern. The servants don’t have to worry about that. They need only use the resources given to them faithfully and God will accomplish whatever it is God intends to accomplish through them. Whether the result looks like success or failure to them in the end is immaterial. Freed from the crippling fear of failure, the servants can go about their work with hopefulness, joy and expectation. That is what faith looks like.
The opposite of faith is fear. “I knew that you were a hard man,” says the third servant, “and I was afraid.” But was that really the case or was it merely the servant’s perception? If the servant believed his master to be a “results oriented” boss with an eye only for the bottom line, then his decision to “play it safe” makes sense. Investments that require innovation, risk taking and novelty often do not pay off until years later-if at all. They are not an attractive option when your annual review is coming up in six months. That is why a management plan rewarding short term success and punishing failure has been shown again and again to be a failed business model. Fear and innovation don’t mix.
Fear is the author of many a poor decision. This week fans of ex-Fox commentator Sean Hannity began smashing their Keurig coffee makers because Keurig withdrew its advertising from Hannity’s show. That doesn’t make a great deal of sense. The only one you hurt by such a demonstration of disapproval is yourself. It’s rather like protesting a movie you don’t like by buying a ticket and not going in to see it. But people do stupid things when they are afraid and anger is, after all, just fear that doesn’t know what to do with itself. Fear inspires people to support political measures that are sure to hurt them economically, i.e., a southern border wall, trade wars and health care legislation limiting insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. Fear seduces otherwise intelligent people to believe all kinds of nonsense, i.e., Barak Obama is a Kenyon born Muslim bent on implementing Sharia law; the killings at Sandy Hook elementary school never happened and are just an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the liberal media; Hillary Clinton murdered Vincent Foster and opened up a child porn service out of a pizza parlor; the U.S. Air Force is concealing the bodies of extra-terrestrial aliens, etc. We (I at least) might be inclined to mock such incredulity. But none of us are our best selves when we are afraid. As nutty as some of these beliefs appear, they help make sense out of life for people whose world is coming apart and who cannot understand why. When you are convinced you are going under, you grasp at any flimsy straw within reach.
Too much of what our church does, both on the denominational and parish levels, is inspired by fear. And let’s face it, declining membership, dwindling financial resources and a culture that is becoming increasingly indifferent to organized religion are all scary things. In a time when our existence seems to be threatened, we are less likely than ever to take risks, be innovative and embrace the cross. Our first impulse is to grasp, hang onto and depend on the things we know. We know how to run capital fund drives; we know how to erect sanctuaries; we know how to develop liturgies and plan worship; we know how to advertise. These are the things to which we turn as we try to save ourselves and preserve what we have. None of that is necessarily bad, but our reliance upon it for our salvation is misplaced.
If I am reading this parable correctly, saving ourselves and preserving what we have is the last thing we should be trying to do. What ought to concern us is not the possibility that we will lose all that we have. Rather, we should be concerned that the last day will catch us with money still in the bank. We should be worried Jesus will return to discover that we have not spent all that we are and have in the service of our neighbors and in witnessing to the gentle reign of God. This century may well see the death of the church as we know it. But that should not concern worshipers of the God who raises the dead. Better to have died in confident faith than to survive until the end with nothing to show for it other than unspent potential, wasted opportunities and unfulfilled intentions. Jesus challenges us to a life of faithfulness in which loss, failure and death are not determining factors. He calls us to live thankfully, faithfully and generously, knowing that in him all things are ours to be spent in his service-and after that, to arrive at the grave broke.
Here is a playful little poem that gives us an inkling of what joy there may be in squandering all for the sake of the kingdom and the reward that comes with it.
I own the golden sunlight
breaking over the pines.
I own my neighbor’s pansies
growing neatly in spaced lines.
I own the orange harvest moon
that hangs above the hills.
I own the sparrows that come to feed
at the seed troughs on my sills.
I own the pathway through the woods
that leads down to the river.
I own the song the waters sing,
the pebbles they deliver
as on their journey to the sea
they run their endless course.
They haven’t time for worry,
nor the patience for remorse.
I own the nighttime sky
and every star on its dark vale.
I own the mighty ocean
where the ocean liners sail.
Someday I will be through
with checkbooks, funds and property.
I’m sure that once I’m broke
the world will have no use for me.
Creditors will seize my goods,
the tax man take my home.
And once they have these trifles,
then they’ll leave me on my own.
With all distractions gone
and not one penny in my plate,
at last I’ll have the leisure
to enjoy my vast estate!
Zephaniah is one of the twelve “minor” prophets, so called not because they constitute a minor prophetic league, but because their books are far smaller than those of the “major” prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel). According to the first verse of his collected writings, Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. This king, who ruled from 640 B.C.E. to 609 B.C.E., was credited in the book of II Kings for instituting in the latter part of his reign sweeping religious reforms and ridding the kingdom of idolatry. II Kings 23:1-25. The prophet’s sustained criticism of Judah’s religious infidelity suggests that he ministered in the earlier part of Josiah’s reign before the passage of his reforms. Zephaniah’s lineage is traced back to one called “Hezekiah,” but it is not known whether this Hezekiah is the Judean King by that name who ruled between 715 B.C.E. and 687 B.C.E. during the ministries of the prophets Isaiah and Micah. Zephaniah’s oracles begin with the prophet’s warning of a catastrophic judgment of cosmic proportions that will sweep away not only Judah, but all of humankind. For more general information on the Book of Zephaniah, see Summary Article by Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N.
In this Sunday’s reading, Zephaniah delivers a scorching rebuke to his nation. Like Amos in last week’s reading, Zephaniah warns that the “Day of the Lord,” a common term for God’s hoped for salvation, would be nothing of the sort for the sinful nation of Judah. Significantly, in the omitted verses 8-11, the prophet directs withering criticism toward “the king’s sons” and “those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud,” but not the king himself. Josiah was only eight years old when he assumed the throne of Judah. II Kings 22:1. It is unlikely that he would have exercised any true political authority at this point (much less had any sons!). Thus, it is reasonable to suppose that the “sons” of whom Zephaniah speaks are Josiah’s brothers, the sons of the former king, Amon. Like his father, Manasseh, Amon practiced idolatry and it seems that his sons continued in that vein. Zephaniah’s reluctance to criticize the king directly might well have been due to his reasonable fear of the consequences. It might also have stemmed from his hope that the boy king Josiah might yet prove himself made of better stuff than his father when he finally grew into the crown. The practice of “leaping over the threshold” mentioned in verse 9 appears to have been a pagan ritual upon entering a shrine. See I Samuel 5:5.
The agent of God’s judgment upon Judah will come from the north, entering by way of the Fish Gate at the northeastern wall. Vs. 10. It must be born in mind that this period of time was marked by geopolitical instability. The Assyrian Empire was fast disintegrating, leaving a power vacuum that King Josiah would later exploit to Judah’s temporary advantage. At this early point, however, the political future of the region was unclear. Restive nations now released from the yolk of Assyria were beginning to assert themselves. Like the disintegration of Yugoslavia into warring factions in the 1990s following the decline of Soviet rule, the near east was spinning into chaos as Assyria’s power faded. The feared invader from the north could therefore have been any number of potential foes. According to most scholars, the most likely suspects are the Scythian tribes. In any event, the immediate threat against which the prophet warned seems not to have materialized.
Neither military might nor wealth will be able to deliver Judah from the coming judgment. Vss. 17-18. Israel’s trust in these things is vain as their power is illusory. Yet there appear to be people in Judah whose trust is so anchored. They are, to use a contemporary term, “practical atheists.” “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill.” Vs. 12. The belief underlying this remark is that God does not get involved with human affairs. Other than worship, prayer or other religious activities, human conduct is of no concern to God. God is compartmentalized into the realm of the “spiritual” and has no place in the “real world.” Yet a God thoroughly removed from the economic, political and social realities in which human beings live might as well not exist. Belief in such a god is practically indistinguishable from belief in no god at all.
This reading does not portray our God as a kindly old over-indulgent grandfather. This is an angry God. In our modern 19th Century, rational, refined, ever white and ever polite protestant piety, a God of wrath and judgment is viewed as inconsistent with the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ. Lately, though, we are learning that the real world is a good deal messier than our quaint Enlightenment rationalism once led us to suppose. Anger and love are not as far apart as we imagine. Most acts of violence are domestic. The bloodiest conflicts often take place between religious, cultural and racial groups that are closely related. The people we love most are those with the greatest capacity to hurt us. A God incapable of anger would be a god that didn’t care. A god that that never gets in the way of what we want would not be a God of love, but one of benign indifference. It is precisely because God loves us so passionately that God is so deeply grieved and so thoroughly outraged by our self-centered and self-destructive behavior. God’s judgment, severe though it may be, is another manifestation of God’s love seeking to save us from ourselves. Even the bad news is really good news.
This gloomy psalm is attributed to “Moses, the man of God.” Vs. 1. The attribution was probably added late in the life of the Psalter. Wieser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 595. That, however, is no reason to discard the possibility that the psalm’s origin was in some fashion connected to Moses. While we know that the alphabet and thus the written Hebrew language did not exist during the time of Moses, we also know that poetry originating during the time of the Judges, also pre-alphabet, was passed on in oral form and written down only centuries later. (i.e., The Song of Deborah at Judges 5:1-31). It is not so much of a stretch to suggest that the same might be true of songs sung by the people of Israel before their migration into Canaan.
However scholars might resolve the question of authorship, it is obvious from a canonical standpoint that the worshiping community of Israel associated this psalm with Moses. This is the prayer of a people that has seen years of suffering, hardship and sorrow. As God’s mediator, it is not inconceivable that Moses might have uttered such a prayer. Adding to the peoples’ misery is the knowledge that their own sins and folly are at least partly responsible for the predicament in which they find themselves. They recognize in their sorrow the just wrath of God upon the evil they have done and the just consequences of the bad choices they have made. Beyond all of this, the psalm seems to recognize a universal sorrow that goes with being human. No matter how good life may have been to us, it inevitably slips away. Our children grow up and begin living lives separate from our own. The house, once boisterous and chaotic, is now quiet and a little empty. We retire and someone else takes our place. We lose our ability to drive. We might have to move out of the home we have lived in for most of our lives. Time seems to take life away from us piece by piece. As it all comes to an end we are left with unfinished tasks, unrealized dreams, regrets about those things of which we are now ashamed, but can no longer change.
Moses might have prayed this prayer on behalf of his people as they struggled through the wilderness toward a promise he knew that he would never see fulfilled. It always seemed a tad unfair to me that God denied Moses the opportunity to enter into the land of Canaan with the people he had led for so long all on account of what seems a trivial offense. (See Numbers 20:2-13). Yet that is the way of mortal existence for all of us. We bring life to the next generation, but will never know that generation’s final destiny. Our strength leaves us before we have been able to complete the many tasks we have set for ourselves. We often die without knowing which, if any, of our efforts to achieve lasting results will bear fruit. We can only pray with the psalmist that God will establish the work of our hands and complete what we could only manage to begin.
Formally speaking, the psalm is in a class by itself, defying the categories of scholarly classification. Though it begins by praising God’s creative and eternal power, it is hardly a song of praise. Like a lament, this poem is decidedly dark, but the psalmist is not crying out for salvation from any threat of extraordinary danger or the prospect of a premature death. The psalmist is simply reflecting on the limitations of being a mortal creature in a perishable world. From dust we are made, to dust we return. Vss. 3-4. We are like the grass, flourishing in the morning and perishing before sunset. Vss. 5-6. But in one crucial respect we are not like the grass or any other non-human creature that is content to live its span and return to nourish the earth from which it came. We want more. Unlike Jesus and very much like Adam, we view godhood as “a thing to be grasped.” Philippians 2:5-6. Yet every time we reach out for the prize of god-like immortality, we run into our mortal limits. Each passing day reminds us that our bodies and minds are in decline.
The psalmist understands and accepts (as our own culture frequently does not!) that such is life as God’s creature. There is no escape from mortality. So the psalmist prays that s/he might live wisely and well within his/her creaturely limits. How very contrary that prayer is to our fixation on youthfulness, our preoccupation with covering up the evidence of aging, our promethean dreams of indefinitely extending the length of human life through medical and technological advances! Yet it should not seem at all radical or unusual to disciples of a man who was misunderstood all his life, died violently in his youth and was abandoned by his closest friends and supporters in the end. Life need not be eternal to be eternally significant. Nor does life need to be long in order to be full and complete. If you follow Jesus, you know that the criteria by which our world measures the value of a human life are false and distorted. Not surprisingly, they lead us to despair.
As dark as this psalm is, it does not despair of human existence. Rather, it seeks wisdom to live faithfully within our human creaturely limits. In the final verse of the psalm (not included in our reading), the psalmist prays that God would “establish the work of our hands.” Vs. 17. It is, after all, only God who can endow our lives with true value and significance. It is only by commending our works into God’s hands that we can hope they will find any degree of permanence beyond the measure of our days. That we have the work of this psalmist’s hands enshrined in our scriptures testifies to the truth of his/her words.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 90 in its entirety.
For my comments generally on Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, see my post for October 22, 2017, See also Summary Article by Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, M.N.
Sunday’s reading is another one with a focus on “the day of the Lord.” As pointed out in my introductory remarks, this is a broad term that can be applied to any watershed time of salvation such as the Exodus from Egypt. But it is also used to denote the final triumph of God’s justice throughout creation. This latter sense is the one St. Paul intends in our lesson. One thing to keep in mind about the “Day of the Lord” is that it is about judgment as much as it is about salvation. You cannot have salvation of the righteous without judgment of the wicked. Finally, it must be said that we are never on shakier ground than when we presume we are wholly on one side of that divide and someone else is on the other. The line between good and evil runs right through the middle of every heart. Paul warns his church that the final judgment is already making itself felt in the present moment. Even now believers must shake themselves out of sleep (Vs. 6) and put on the armor of faith, love and hope. Vs. 8.
Though Paul reiterates what has been said in the gospels, that the Day of the Lord will come “like a thief in the night” (Vs. 2), that should not be a cause for alarm. In contrast to the rest of the world, which assumes that the cosmos is on solid ground and will continue indefinitely along the lines established in the past, disciples of Jesus understand that the night will not go on indefinitely. The daylight is coming. Now is the time to begin practicing how to live and move in the light so that the Day of the Lord will come as a welcome and anticipated moment rather than as a blinding flash of light to eyes accustomed only to the darkness.
The Day of the Lord appears as a disruptive and disturbing event to a world alienated from its Maker. It is not the apex of gradual social evolution toward a better society. Neither is it the endpoint of a predetermined historical clock whose workings are buried in the apocalyptic literature of the Bible. The church is no more knowledgeable concerning God’s timing than is anyone else. But Jesus has delivered to his disciples God’s coming kingdom now. Church under the cross is the shape that kingdom takes in a world that is not yet ready for it.
Once again, the bottom line is comfort. Apocalyptic imagery used here by Paul and throughout the scriptures is not intended to scare the socks off people. “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Vs. 9. Paul urges us “to encourage one another and build one another up” in this hope. Vs. 11.
This parable of the talents is also told in the Gospel of Luke, though with a few additional twists. Luke 19:12-27. As Professor Nolland observes, the master’s entrusting his slaves with money in this parable is unusual by 1stCentury Palestinian standards. One would normally make investment arrangements over a long period of absence in other ways. The slaves are thus being treated with unusual distinction. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) pp. 1013-1014. Though some commentators suggest that the talents represent a “business loan” of some sort, nothing in the parable supports such an interpretation. The money is not given to be used for the benefit of the slaves. Nor is there any suggestion that they are to share in the profits. The money is given to the slaves to be invested solely for the benefit of the master and his estate. That, of course, fits with the biblical understanding that “the earth is the Lord’s” and its human inhabitants but stewards. Psalm 24:1.
The term “talent” originally referred to a measure of weight on a scale. It then came to mean anything weighed and later to a specific weight of about thirty kilograms. Over time, it came to be used of money indicating the value of that weight of gold, silver, copper or whatever other precious commodity might be involved. It is the general scholarly consensus that silver talents are intended by Matthew. Ibid, p. 756. One talent, then, would amount to about six thousand denarii (Ibid), one of which constitutes a day’s wage for an agricultural laborer. Matthew 20:1-16. Thus, even one single talent amounted to a considerable chunk of change.
Upon his return, the master settles accounts with his three slaves. The first two mange to double their investment and are given the promise that their faithfulness with the “little” placed in their hands will be rewarded with responsibility over “much.” Vss. 20-24. The third slave took a different approach. Rather than investing the one talent he had been given, he buried it in the ground in a napkin to ensure its safety. This action was not commercially unreasonable. It was apparently an accepted means of keeping valuables safe. See, e.g., Matthew 13:44. But preservation is clearly not what the master was looking for. Instead of a glowing commendation, this third slave received a withering rebuke. Apparently, it was not enough for him to show that he had not pilfered or squandered the master’s goods. He needed to show that he had put them to productive use.
At a gathering of fellow clergy some years ago, I remember somebody remarking how he wished that Jesus had told this parable differently. He wished that at least one of the two successful slaves had both failed to earn interest and lost his principle. The master would nevertheless commend the unsuccessful but gutsy slave on his entrepreneurial spirit. So my friend would have had the parable end. But that proposed telling misses the point in a most obvious way. The two slaves are not rewarded on the basis of their success or their risk tolerance, but on the basis of their faithfulness. The operative words are: “well done good and faithful slave.” Where one is faithful to Jesus, his/her work will bear fruit. When one does the work of the kingdom, one cannot but succeed. Of course, success on God’s terms and for God’s purposes might not meet with our expectations of what success should look like, but that is a discussion for another day.
The problem, then, with the third slave was his lack of faith. He did not really believe in the mission with which his master had entrusted him. He thought it wiser to conserve than to invest. As far as he could see, there was no future in venturing all that had been given into his care. He could not comprehend Jesus’ warning that all who seek to save their lives ultimately lose them or his promise that those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will save them. The third slave was too fearful of losing his master’s money to make any good use of it. He thought that the only way to keep himself out of trouble was to preserve until the end what had been given to him. But God seeks missionaries, not custodians. That is a timely message for churches obsessed with maintaining their buildings, preserving their endowments and hanging on to ways of being church that no longer answer the call to make disciples of all nations.
Choosing the right kind of heroes; a poem by Denise Levertov; and the lessons for Sunday, November 5, 2017
ALL SAINTS SUNDAY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
I was a junior in High School when I first read Slaughterhouse-Five, a satirical novel by Kurt Vonnegut that chronicles the World War II experiences of his fictional character, Billy Pilgrim, from his time as an American soldier into the postwar years. The story is told in a surreal, unchronological fashion such that Pilgrim’s post-traumatic stress induced delusions mesh with his life experiences making it impossible for the reader to disentangle them. At one point, Pilgrim comes into contact with the work of Kilgore Trout, a failed novelist and author of a cheesy book entitled The Gospel from Outer Space. Trout’s novel narrates the journey of a visitor from outer space who studies Christianity to determine “why Christians found it so easy to be cruel.” The problem with the Christian religion, as the alien visitor sees it, is that its Christ is so clearly linked to God. He had connections. Who would dare to kill him? Who could expect to escape divine retribution for so do doing? Who could pardon anyone for rejecting the teachings of one so obviously close to God? The takeaway: Don’t kill people with connections.
The alien thus attempts to revise the gospel story by making Jesus not the exalted Son of God, but an ordinary, unappealing and bothersome bum nobody likes or cares about. Only after this alternative Christ is abused, neglected and left to die is he revealed as God’s son. Thus, the takeaway message from the alien’s revised gospel is this: “From this moment on, [God] will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!”
Vonnegut’s alien is actually not so very far from the truth of the gospel. Anyone who reads the gospels with any degree of discernment will soon discover that Jesus was, in fact, crucified as a “nobody.” Moreover, he warned that abuse toward the “least” of humanity is a blow against him and his heavenly Father. The kind of Christianity the alien encounters on his visit to earth is in reality a horrible distortion of the discipleship toward which Jesus calls us. Nonetheless, it accurately parodies a lot of American religion seeking to pass for Christian that sees in Jesus a moral avenger rather than a friend of sinners. The ghastliest distortion comes to us from the pre-millennial sects that have Jesus returning to a world reduced to misery by a divinely inflicted “tribulation” in order to defeat the armies of the nations with overwhelming violence and to cast into hell anyone who hasn’t the sense to believe in him after witnessing such fireworks. Such a Christ, though hardly the one proclaimed by the gospels, nevertheless fits the profile of a nation that looks to guns for security, deifies warriors and accepts school shootings as a normal and unavoidable (if regrettable) part of day to day life.
Just as we Americans are tempted to embrace the wrong Christ, we are similarly drawn to the wrong kinds of heroes. Whether it be old-fashioned westerns, comic superhero movies or police dramas, the plot is always the same. Innocent victims are beset by irredeemably evil predators. The innocent are finally rescued by a powerful male protagonist who employs violence to destroy or subdue the enemy. Everyone lives happily ever after-until next week. The characters are so hopelessly two dimensional and the plot so simplistic that we are unable to wonder what drives the evil antagonist, whether s/he is best by mental illness, scarred by an abusive upbringing or motivated by some noble, if misguided belief system. There is no room for sympathy toward the antagonist, for doubts concerning the innocence of the victims or the purity of the protagonist’s motives. Nothing must be allowed to contaminate our pure moral outrage, cool our sympathy for the victim or muddy the clear distinction between good and evil. That would only spoil the cathartic release we all expect when the protagonist justly guns down, beats up or otherwise annihilates the antagonist. The message is clear: Good and evil are delineated by clear and unambiguous moral boundaries. There is no room for compromise and no possibility of reconciliation. There is no alternative beyond life and death conflict. Good conquers evil through brute violence. As so famously articulated by the NRA, “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
Given this singular morality play repeated in so many different genres to audiences of all ages on the stage of moralistic simplicity, it should come as no surprise that we are becoming increasingly polarized and unable to view our political opponents as anything less than enemies. It is no mystery why we have managed to elect a president whose sole means of governance is confrontation. Violence from gang warfare to suburban road rage is readily understandable when we realize that such conduct flows from our emulation of the heroes from whom we learned from childhood about courage, manhood, good and evil. Violence is the only tool left in our box. No wonder we treat everyone whose ideas are different, whose race is other than our own and whose language is unfamiliar as an enemy. We lack the imagination to do otherwise.
All Saint’s Day is the church’s opportunity to offer our culture an alternative set of heroes. We are called to remember women and men who stood up alone and unarmed to speak truth to power. We memorialize the believers who faced bravely the raging bull of oppression with only the word of truth. We lift up those who renounced the ways of violence, coercion and materialism in favor of poverty, hunger for justice, mercy, peacemaking, meekness and purity. We celebrate the memories of people who gave their own lives for justice and peace rather than trying to achieve these ends by taking the lives of others. We honor those who have chosen to suffer violence rather than inflict it. Our heroes are people like Stephen, who prayed for the very people who were lynching him. We honor people like Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic nurse who risked certain death at the hands of the Nazis when she smuggled approximately 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto before its destruction. We teach our children to emulate Kyla Mueller who dedicated her life to serving vulnerable populations in impoverished and war-torn areas of the world, and who ultimately was murdered by ISIS fighters while she was assisting a hospital caring for Syrian refugees from Aleppo. We do not rejoice in the death of evil people through retributive justice. We rejoice in the death of saints whose lives bear witness to the greater restorative justice of bread and dignity for all, reconciliation and peace.
All Saint’s Day is the Veteran’s Day of the Church. It is our opportunity to honor and be inspired by those persons whose faithful discipleship mirrors the love of Jesus for the world. Our heroes are not “super.” To the contrary, they recognize perhaps better than the rest of us that the line between good and evil passes through the midst of every human heart, including their own. Just as the same potential for selfishness, meanness and cruelty driving the most depraved criminal dwells in some measure within the heart of the most dedicated saint, so also the image of God in Christ can never be entirely erased from the worst among us. For that reason, the saint understands that violence can never cleanse and redeem us. Only love can save us from ourselves; only reconciliation can give us genuine peace; only forgiveness can break the cycle of vengeance keeping us at each other’s throats from one generation to the next.
To be a saint is to embrace suffering, not because suffering is good in itself, but because the cross is the shape love always takes in a sinful world. A saint understands that the future belongs to the God who raised from death the man who gave his life to love and invites his disciples to do the same. For this reason, Jesus tells us, the life of the poor, hungry, meek, peaceful and persecuted saint is blessed.
Here is a poem by Denise Levertov about the strange blessedness of saintliness.
The Wealth of the Destitute
How gray and hard the brown feet of the wretched of the earth.
How confidently the crippled from birth
push themselves through the streets, deep in their lives.
How seamed with lines of fate the hands
of women who sit at streetcorners
offering seeds and flowers.
How lively their conversation together.
How much of death they know.
I am tired of ‘the fine art of unhappiness.’
Source: Poems 1972-1982 (c. 1975 by Denise Levertov, pub. By New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2002) Denise Levertov (1923–1997) never received a formal education. Nevertheless, she created a highly regarded body of poetry that earned her recognition as one of America’s most respected poets. Her father, Paul Philip Levertov, was a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and subsequently moved to England where he became an Anglican minister. Levertov grew up in a household surrounded by books and people talking about them in many languages. During World War II, Levertov pursued nurse’s training and spent three years as a civilian nurse at several hospitals in London. Levertov came to the United States in 1948, after marrying American writer Mitchell Goodman. During the 1960s Levertov became a staunch critic of the Vietnam war, a topic addressed in many of her poems of that era. Levertov died of lymphoma at the age of seventy-four. You can read more about Denise Levertov and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
My experience with The Book Revelation has always been bitter-sweet. Whenever I announce that I will be holding a Bible Study on Revelation, the initial response is enthusiastic. I find, however, that interest soon wanes when it becomes clear that I will not be announcing the end date for civilization as we know it, the identity of the antichrist or who can expect to be raptured as opposed to being “left behind.” The disappointing truth for many folks is that Revelation does not hold the key to predicting the future. It does nevertheless hold many other fascinating and edifying treasures often missed by those intent on using it as a crystal ball. For a good general overview of Revelation, see the Summary Article by Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Our lesson for Sunday is one of several self-contained liturgical interludes between the visions given to John of Patmos from chapters 4 through 22. See also, Revelation 4:9-11; Revelation 5:6-10; Revelation 11:16-18; Revelation 15:2-4; Revelation 16:4-7; Revelation 19:1-8. This hymn of praise, along with the surrounding narrative, was the inspiration for the old Norwegian hymn, “Behold, A Host Arrayed in White.” See Evangelical Lutheran Worship # 425. John of Patmos is given a vision of a “great multitude” too numerous to count. Vs. 9. These words echo the calling of Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 in which the patriarch is assured that God will make of him a “great nation.” See Kelly, Balmer H., Revelation 7:9-17, published in 40 Interpretation (July 1986) p. 290. That nation is precisely what John is looking at. It is a nation made up of every country, tribe and people yet its allegiance is to “God who sits upon the throne, and the Lamb.” Vs. 10. The political import of this vision is clear. The people called into existence by God and the Lamb, not the Roman Empire, will reign. God, not Caesar, sits upon the highest throne. All rule and authority belongs not to emperor, but to Jesus Christ, “the Lamb.”
We were first introduced to the Lamb in Revelation 5:1-5. He is the one being in all heaven and earth worthy to open up the scroll through which John must enter into the visions soon to be revealed. Though announced in the court of heaven as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Revelation 5:5), this being appears as a lamb that was slain. Revelation 5:6. This strange juxtaposition, the slain Lamb as the “conqueror” over the vicious predatory beasts to be revealed, is the key to understanding the Book of Revelation. Just as it is the crucified Jesus through whom God’s suffering love overcomes the violent reign of Caesar, so also through the suffering endurance of the seven churches addressed in Revelation 1-3 God’s gracious will for the world is both revealed and actualized. Contrary to appearances, the enduring reality is the life of the fragile, persecuted and demoralized churches-not the Roman Empire.
The great multitude robed in white represents the struggling churches as they truly are: loyal subjects of the triumphant Lamb. They have “washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.” Vs. 14. This is not to be understood as substitutionary atonement. This “washing” in blood refers to the churches’ sharing in Jesus’ suffering under the cross of Rome. They have come out of the “great tribulation,” that is, persecution under the reign of Caesar. Vs. 14. The image of white robes might very well be an allusion to baptism as well. The use of white garb for the newly baptized is evidenced very early in the life of the church and might well date from the New Testament era. The thrust of this vision is clear. Things are not as they seem. Presently, it appears as though Rome rules supreme and the churches are powerless victims. Caesar’s violence appears to have the upper hand. In reality, however, the patient, suffering love of God revealed in the slain Lamb is destined to outlast the empire. It is precisely through such suffering love that Caesar meets his defeat.
The song making up verses 15-17 evokes numerous images from the Hebrew Scriptures. Service in the temple of the Lord was seen as the highest possible privilege and delight. See, e.g., Psalm 84. Though reserved for the Levitical priesthood in ancient Israel, this privilege is now given to all the baptized. Language strikingly similar to Psalm 23 and Psalm 121 can be found in verses 16-17, i.e., “the sun shall not strike them,” “For the Lamb on the throne will be their shepherd,” and “he will guide them to springs of living water.” As in so many instances throughout the New Testament, John of Patmos draws from numerous familiar images in the Hebrew Scriptures and weaves them into his poetic portrayal of God’s sojourn with his church under the scourge of imperial oppression and violence.
In sum, “Revelation 7:9-17 is, therefore, unalloyed ‘gospel,’ a seeing and hearing of the final justification of the Christian hope. If it is to be part of the church’s proclamation, then, especially in Eastertide, it ought to be proclaimed without ‘if’ and ‘perhaps.’ Similarly, it will not do merely to hold out before persons tempted to despair only a future prospect, coupled with the advice to live out the times in between in chronological waiting. The strength of biblical hope is that it focuses on what is real rather than simply on what will be. Triumph will be because it is the fundamental truth of human life corresponding to the truth of God. Although apocalyptic enthusiasts have frequently reduced the images of Revelation to a time-conditioned calendar, the author surely meant to give the church a vision of God’s victorious vindication always ready to break upon the human scene, so that in the Apocalypse, perhaps more strongly than anywhere else, it is a case of the future determining and creating the present.” Balmer, supra at 294.
This is a song of thanksgiving for deliverance from unspecified distress. It is one of the “acrostic” psalms, the others being Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. Its form suggests that the psalm is more likely a mature reflection upon events in the past than a spontaneous expression of praise for something that just occurred. It is quite possible, though, that I take this view because most of the saving acts of God I have experienced appear only in the rear view mirror. That is to say, looking back on my life I can recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing me to the place where I stand today. But I am not one of those persons who experience the guidance of the Spirit in the present tense. I have seldom made choices in my life that I felt certain were inspired, willed or directed by God. Instead, I have stumbled blindly along through the darkness only to discover much later that Jesus has been with me in the darkness and has somehow gotten me to where I needed to be. And this despite my having taken the wrong course, made the wrong decisions and pursued the wrong dreams.
The psalmist invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Vs. 8. This offer to “taste” makes clear that faith is neither an intellectual exercise nor an emotional attachment. Faith takes the shape of “eating” and sustaining oneself on the promises of the Lord. “[T]hose who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” Vs. 10. It is life lived out of a relationship of trust and confidence in the Lord to provide all things necessary.
From verse 10 the lectionary takes a flying leap to verse 22 which reads: “The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.” This is not to be taken as immunization against condemnation by any human court. We know well enough that the innocent frequently are condemned by unjust and oppressive structures. Even in relatively just societies justice sometimes miscarries. But the judgments of all human authorities are relative and subject to reversal in God’s court of appeal. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate reversal of human judgment. It is precisely because God raised Jesus, who lived according to the humanly impractical directives of the Sermon on the Mount, that believers can so live, endure the world’s rejection, ridicule and persecution but anticipate vindication on the Day of Jesus Christ.
Professor Stanley Hauerwas is fond of saying that the life of discipleship is unintelligible apart from the conviction that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from death. That is why the world, which does not know or believe in what God did through Jesus, finds disciples of Jesus so utterly incomprehensible-or at least it should. This is what separates Christian ethical conduct from every other ethical point of reference. It is precisely because disciples of Jesus are convinced that the Sermon on the Mount embodies the kingdom destined to come as it must exist in a sinful world that they conform their lives to it even when doing so seems ineffective, impractical and counter-productive. The Sermon is not an unachievable ideal. It was, in fact, achieved and lived out by Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ faithfulness to the Sermon he preached resulted in his crucifixion. That, standing alone, would validate what every “realist” tells us. The Sermon is impractical. If Jesus had remained in the tomb, we would have to concede that the cross proves the realist’s point. But God raised Jesus and that changes everything. To every objection of impracticality one might raise against following Jesus’ call to love our enemies, renounce the use of coercive force and lend without expecting repayment, the only proper response is, “but God raised Jesus from death.”
“Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him…” vs. 2. This is perhaps one of the most important words on the resurrection and eternal life. Far too common is the belief that eternal life is nothing more than a continuation of our present existence-only without sickness, poverty, warfare, Barry Manilow and whatever else makes life miserable. A friend of mine once told me that “death is not real,” that it is no more than “passing through a door.” But if I am the same person on the other side of that door as I am today, nothing has changed. If I carry with me into eternity the same prejudices, the same grudges, the same scars and the same selfish ambitions that characterize my present existence, eternal life will be nothing more than a continuation of all the animosity and strife we now experience-except that there will be no end to it. That sounds very much like Jean Paul Sartre’s portrayal of hell in No Exit.
Death is not only real, but necessary. That is precisely why Paul speaks of baptism as being joined in Jesus’ death. Romans 6:1-4. We need to become the sort of people who can live faithfully, joyfully and obediently under the gentle reign of God in Jesus Christ. That requires repentance which is a sort of death. Repentance, it must be emphasized, is not an individual act. It is rather a way of living in community shaped by the faithful practices of preaching and hearing, Eucharist, prayer, sharing of resources, almsgiving and witness.
The problem with the Beatitudes is the same as the problem we have with the well known lullaby, “Rock a by Baby.” The words are so familiar that their shock value no longer registers. Seriously, does anyone really think it’s a good idea to sing an infant to sleep with a song ending in the fall of a baby from the top of a tree? So, too, is there anything inherently blessed about poverty, mourning and persecution? Yet unlike “Rock a by Baby,” which in my view has no redeeming value, the Beatitudes make sense, but only when read against the backdrop of Jesus’ obedient life, faithful death and glorious resurrection.
Moreover, when properly understood as the preamble to the Sermon on the Mount, it becomes obvious that the conditions of beatitude are not metaphorical. Poverty, real poverty, is what can be expected when you lend without expecting return, refuse to re-take what has been stolen from you and forego coercive measures to enforce your “rights.” I therefore agree whole heartedly with Dietrich Bonhoeffer in rejecting the all too common belief that Matthew’s beatitudes represent a watering down of Luke’s briefer version in the Sermon on the Plain. “There is no justification whatever for setting Luke’s version of the beatitudes over against Matthew’s. Matthew is not spiritualizing the beatitudes, and Luke giving them in their original form, nor is Luke giving a political twist to an original form of the beatitude which applied only to a poverty of disposition. Privation is not the ground of the beatitude in Luke nor renunciation in Matthew. On the contrary, both gospels recognize that neither privation nor renunciation, spiritual or political, is justified, except by the call and promise of Jesus, who alone makes blessed those whom he calls, and who is in his person the sole ground of their beatitude.” Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, The Cost of Discipleship, (c. 1959 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 119.
It is important to recall that it is not suffering in general, but the suffering consequential to faithful discipleship that Jesus calls blessed. As pointed out in a frequently quoted passage from the works of John Howard Yoder, “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling [Jesus’] society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c. 1972 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 129. Faithfulness to Jesus divides families, invites hostility from the surrounding culture and often requires the sacrifice of life itself. Though they do not frequently make the cut for what the mainstream media considers “news,” there are plenty of instances throughout the world of Christians experiencing poverty, mourning and persecution for their obedience to Jesus. That we do not typically experience these things in the United States is perhaps more an indicator of the church’s lack of discipleship in these parts than the “religious freedom” in which we take such pride.
So what is the “All Saints Day” spin on this text? For some reason, that question calls to mind a novel I read in my twenties entitled Morte d’Urban. It was written by J.F. Powers. The main character is Father Urban, a priest and member of the fictitious Clementine monastic order. Urban is personable, a skilled organizer and a charismatic speaker. His leadership skills are much needed to shore up his failing Clementine order, but the order is run by unskilled, incompetent and less forward looking men who consistently assign Father Urban to positions where his gifts are wasted. Yet wherever he goes, Father Urban uses every opportunity to further the interests and growth of the Clementines.
Over time, however, Urban begins harkening to a different voice calling him to integrity, self-awareness and compassion. The more Father Urban grows into this new self, the less successful he becomes in his role as a promoter of the Clementines. He eventually alienates the powerful and wealthy benefactors he spent so much time and effort cultivating. Ironically, it is at the point of his lowest level of competence (and the height of his spiritual development) that he is appointed leader of the failing Clementine order. His leadership proves to be as ineffective as that of his predecessors-but effectiveness is perhaps overrated.
Is Morte d’Urban a cautionary tale, a parable for a failing protestant establishment desperate to save its institutional life? When survival is at stake, both institutions and individuals are sorely tempted to put spiritual priorities to one side. The bottom line becomes the only line anyone looks at. When new money comes in the door, one tends not to look very carefully at where it came from or how it was made. If somebody within the institution is successful at bringing in membership, building up support and attracting wealthy donors, one does not scrutinize the methodology. As long as nothing blatantly illegal is going on, let the golden goose keep laying! What the heck, it works. None of us likes to think we are that mercenary. But when an institution feeds you, clothes you and provides your medical coverage, it is hard to resist grasping at anything that will extend its life.
What does saintliness look like in our context? What are the qualities we seek in our leaders? Are we valuing effectiveness over faithfulness? Or is this a false dichotomy? Do we need to ask “effective in doing what?” What is a faithful church supposed to look like in 21st Century North America? Are poverty, mourning and persecution marks of such a church? How are we measuring the success of our bishops, pastors and leaders? Is “success” even an appropriate category for such measurement? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it troubles me that so few in our church are asking them.
 I understand that women are breaking into acting roles in the superhero and police genre. I suppose that’s a good thing-if equality and diversity are genuinely advanced by our acknowledgment that women are as competent as men when it comes to killing people and breaking things.
NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Glorious God, your generosity waters the world with goodness, and you cover creation with abundance. Awaken in us a hunger for the food that satisfies both body and spirit, and with this food fill all the starving world; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
There is nothing quite so basic to well-being in the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament than eating. Biblical justice demands that all be filled. One should not have to earn the right to eat. Nor should one have to explain why s/he is hungry, demonstrate whether s/he qualifies for benefits, prove that s/he is unable to work, demonstrate his/her citizenship, convince anyone that s/he does not have a drinking problem, a drug problem or a criminal conviction in order to be fed. It is enough that a hungry person is created in the image of God, loved by God and ransomed by God at the cost of God’s Son for a disciple of Jesus to recognize in him/her the appeal of Jesus himself. Whoever denies bread to the hungry inflicts hunger upon Jesus and blasphemes his heavenly Father. Toleration of hunger is apostasy.
It is important to note that Jesus’ parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25 is told against “the nations of the world.” The command to feed the hungry, as well as the commands to welcome the stranger, care for the sick and liberate the prisoner, is a command by which all the nations of the world are to be judged. And it is against the backdrop of this command that we must judge a government that, having narrowly failed in its zealous efforts to deprive between 16 and 22 million people of their health insurance, now turns to consider a proposed budget that will cut nutritional aid over ten years by over $200 billion dollars. That includes $11 billion from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children known as “WIC” and another $193 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program known as “SNAP” (formerly Food Stamps). This same budget would, over ten years, cut international humanitarian aid by a whopping 51% or $160 billion dollars. Justify any or all of this under whatever economic theory or political ideology you wish. But don’t embarrass yourself by appealing to the Scriptures, much less to Jesus of Nazareth. Nothing could be a clearer expression of indifference or, more accurately, outright contempt for everything Jesus than this proposed budget plan. So for all of you so called “conservative evangelicals” out there following the likes of Rev. Franklyn Graham, Dr. James Dobson, Ralph Reed, Tony Perkins, Jerry Falwell, Jr. and the Duck Dynasty crowd who see in Donald Trump everything from an “unlikely champion” of all things Christian to “God’s anointed” (Oh, yes, there are some folks out there actually saying that), I just have once piece of free legal advice. Whatever you’re smoking, don’t do it in public. I’m betting that anything powerful enough to bend your mind that far out of shape is still illegal in all fifty states.
The current administration’s motto is “Make America Great Again.” Except for the “again” part, I can get on board with that. Only let’s be clear about what we mean by “great.” In biblical terms, a nation’s greatness is judged not by the size of its army, the strength of its economy or the glory of its cultural accomplishments, but by how well or poorly it treats the orphan, the widow and the most vulnerable people (citizens or not) in its midst. As of 2015, 42.2 million Americans were living in food-insecure households, including 29.1 million adults and 13.1 million children. As of 2014, 5.4 million seniors (over age 60), or 9% of all seniors, were estimated to be food insecure. Food insecurity is defined as “an economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” The USDA breaks this definition down further into categories of “low food security” and “very low food security.” 
- Low food security(old label=Food insecurity without hunger): reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.
- Very low food security(old label=Food insecurity with hunger): Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.
The long and short of it is that some folks suffer malnutrition because they live in places that have limited access to grocery stores, markets and other sources of nutritious food. Consequently, they wind up consuming calories available to them-processed and fast food items-that are neither nutritious nor cost effective. Others are unable to obtain sufficient caloric content of any kind. That such conditions exist to the degree they do in a country that surpasses all others in the production of food is nothing short of scandalous. Such a nation is hardly “great” by biblical standards. The proposed budget, that cuts severely what insufficient support exists for the hungry in our midst, moves us in precisely the opposite direction of greatness. Hungrier, poorer and sicker is not greater.
Of course, we can blame poverty on the poor, just as we blame police brutality against African Americans on African Americans for “having an attitude”, violence against women on women because they dress too provocatively, and attacks on LBGTQ folks on LBGTQ folks because…well, heck, attacking them really needs no justification. Again, cite whatever cockamamie conspiracy theory you want to rationalize this malarkey, but don’t bother appealing to the scriptures. The Bible I read doesn’t say anything about the disciples setting up a screening process to ensure that all of those five thousand people Jesus fed in this Sunday’s gospel were deserving of food assistance. That is because food, like medicine, shelter, clothing and all other essentials are what disciples of Jesus owe their neighbor-whether they are deemed “worthy” or not. It is also the standard of conduct by which God will judge “all the nations.” At least that is what Jesus tells us at Matthew 25:32.
Food is gospel. Its abundance is the theme of the prophet’s song in our first lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the free gift of God to all God’s creatures as our psalm proclaims and celebrates. Jesus describes the kingdom of God as a joyful banquet. A gospel message that leaves behind an empty stomach is an abominable gnostic heresy.
Here is a poem by Pablo Neruda, an atheist who understands the gospel better than many Christians. It’s about the “justice of eating.”
The Great Tablecloth
When they were called to the table,
the tyrants came rushing
with their temporary ladies;
it was fine to watch the women pass
like wasps with big bosoms
followed by those pale
and unfortunate public tigers.
The peasant in the field ate
his poor quota of bread,
he was alone, it was late,
he was surrounded by wheat,
but he had no more bread;
he ate it with grim teeth,
looking at it with hard eyes.
In the blue hour of eating,
the infinite hour of the roast,
the poet abandons his lyre,
takes up his knife and fork,
puts his glass on the table,
and the fishermen attend
the little sea of the soup bowl.
Burning potatoes protest
among the tongues of oil.
The lamb is gold on its coals
and the onion undresses.
It is sad to eat in dinner clothes,
like eating in a coffin,
but eating in convents
is like eating underground.
Eating alone is a disappointment,
but not eating matters more,
is hollow and green, has thorns
like a chain of fish hooks
trailing from the heart,
clawing at your insides.
Hunger feels like pincers,
like the bite of crabs,
it burns, burns and has no fire
Hunger is a cold fire.
Let us sit down soon to eat
with all those who haven’t eaten;
let us spread great tablecloths,
put salt in the lakes of the world,
set up planetary bakeries,
tables with strawberries in snow,
and a plate like the moon itself
from which we can all eat.
For now I ask no more
than the justice of eating.
Source: PeacemealProject. Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was born Ricardo Eliezer Neftali Reyes y Basoalto in Parral, Chile. He adopted the pseudonym, Pablo Neruda under which he became famous while still in his early teens. A devout communist, Neruda was politically active throughout his lifetime in his native Chile running for president as the nominee of the nation’s communist party in 1971. He withdrew his nomination, however, when he reached an accord with Socialist nominee Salvador Allende. After Allende won the election he reactivated Neruda’s diplomatic credentials, appointing the poet ambassador to France. While living in Paris Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. You can read more about Pablo Neruda and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
This lesson comes to us from the final chapter of Second Isaiah, the prophet who preached to the Jewish exiles carried away into Babylon following the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. We had verses 10-13 as our reading for July 16th. These were discussed in my post for that date.
This final chapter of Second Isaiah begins with an invitation to eat and drink well at absolutely no cost! The exiled people of Judah are invited to “delight yourselves in fatness.” Vs. 2. That might not go down so well in a culture like ours where we are being killed by overeating rather than starvation. But in a culture where starvation was always just one bad harvest away, the prophet’s delivery of God’s invitation sounded a note of incredibly good news. It also constituted an astounding reversal of Israel’s religious practices. Typically, the fat of an animal sacrifice was set aside as an offering by fire to the Lord. The rest of the animal might be consumed by the priests, by the one offering the sacrifice or both. See, e.g., Leviticus 3-4. In this passage, however, God is the one making the invitation and offering the choice portions of the feast to the exiles.
This invitation to the feast echoes (or is echoed by?) Proverbs 9:1-6 where “wisdom” personified invites all who will hear her to a banquet. Perhaps this passage or one like it lies at the base of Jesus’ parables about the ungrateful and unresponsive persons invited to the marriage feast. See Matthew 22:1-14; Luke 14:16-24. The prophet chides the people with some rhetorical questions: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” vs. 2. So also, keeping in mind that meat was eaten only on very special occasions and the opportunity to have as much as you could eat was a once in a life time event, those listening to Jesus’ parable must have been wondering what kind of idiot would pass up such an opportunity for the sake of inspecting his oxen. Answer: the same kind of idiot who goes on with life as usual when the kingdom of heaven is at the doorstep. In other words, us!
Of course, meals are viewed as sacred throughout the Bible. Biblical characters never just “catch a bite.” Our casual eating practices would surely be viewed by our biblical ancestors as expressing an attitude of thanklessness and contempt for God’s gracious provision as well as for the gift of family, friendship and community. Eating was sacramental. A meal represented both the generosity of God toward human beings and the hospitality of human beings toward one another. First Century Israelites did not break bread with just anyone. Who you ate with defined who you were. That is why Jesus created so much outrage by eating with “sinners,” that is, people deemed beyond the scope of proper Israelite society. But for Jesus, these meals demonstrated the radical hospitality of God that reaches out to embrace the outcast. Indeed, outcasts are not merely included. They are exalted to the place of highest honor. “The last shall be first and the first last.” Matthew 20:16.
In verses 3-6 God promises to make a new Davidic covenant with Israel. This is the only time David is even mentioned in Second Isaiah. That is hardly surprising. Israel’s experience with the line of David was not always a happy one. The descendants of David were largely responsible for the foolhardy foreign policies resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile. Only too well had Israel learned not to put her trust in human monarchs. Psalm 146:2-4. Thus, Second Isaiah specifically avoids laying any messianic overtones on David or any of his descendants. The new Davidic covenant will not be with any specific descendant of David’s line, but with all Israel. Just as David and his descendants were instruments of justice in Israel, so now Israel will be God’s instrument of justice in the world.
There is a striking contrast, however, between the old Davidic covenant and the new. In the psalms celebrating the old Davidic covenant, the king is given “the nations” as his heritage and instructed to “break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Psalm 2:8-9. In our lesson for today, however, the exiles are told, “you shall call nations that you know not, and nations that knew you not shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy one of Israel, for he has glorified you.” Vs. 6. God will reign over the nations through the glory revealed among his faithful servant people, not through any show of violent force. There is an echo of this vision in the Gospel of John where Jesus prays: “I do not pray for these [disciples] only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may be one; even as thou Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou has sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.” John 17:20-23. It is through God’s covenantal love toward and among his people that the world comes to understand that God’s glory is God’s deep, passionate and patient love.
This psalm is a hymn in acrostic form. Every verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic poems usually do not develop ideas but consist rather of loosely connected statements. The technique aids in memorization, but also conveys the message that the whole of the topic is being addressed “from A-Z.” Other psalms in the acrostic family are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 145 in its entirety.
This is a psalm of praise, probably from the period after the Babylonian Exile. God alone is acknowledged as “king” rather than any ruler of the Davidic line. Vs. 1. The verses making up our reading contain a refrain found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: “The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Vs. 8. See, e.g, Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Jonah 4:2; and Psalm 103:8. It is because God is so gracious and merciful that Israel felt free to address God in prayer, even-indeed, especially-when she knew that she had fallen short of her covenant obligations.
Verses 15-16 are commonly and appropriately used as grace for meal times.
The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.
It is always good to be reminded from whence comes our daily bread. Our American culture of individualism and self-initiative would lead us to believe that our bread is won by our own hard work and achievements. Wealth or “capital” is created by individuals whose genius creates products and services stimulating new markets and growing the economy. As long as we continue making more stuff and people keep on buying it, the economy keeps on generating jobs, opening up new investment opportunities and making life better for everyone. Of course, this all works better in theory than in practice as the growing disparity between rich and poor in this country demonstrates. Whether the system would work better with more government regulation or less is an ongoing debate. It is also a sterile one in my humble opinion.
The problem with economic liberalism is a theological one. It rests on the proposition that we are the generators of our own wealth. It constitutes a denial of what our psalm insists to be a basic truth: that all living things, from humans to microbes, receive their food in due season from the hand of the Lord. When that perspective is lost, life becomes a struggle of all against all. Instead of reflecting the glorious generosity of its Creator, the world becomes a ball of ever diminishing resources. Each nation, each household, each individual must jealously guard his or her share. There is no room for generosity, compassion or sharing in such a tight fisted world. Its people all too easily degenerate into an angry mob of fist shaking, hate filled, fear mongering bullies who threaten starving and abused children seeking refuge with the National Guard.
The psalm teaches us that the Lord “fulfills the desire of all who fear him.” Vs. 19. Yes, I know. We liberal, slightly left-of-center, ever polite and ever white protestant types get all antsy in the pantsy whenever “fear” and “God” get mentioned within one hundred words of each other. It seems we are practically tripping over each other in pained efforts to explain that “fear” does not really mean “fear,” but “awe” or “respect” or some other such malarkey. I don’t buy it. If God doesn’t scare the socks off you, then you have mistaken the God of the Scriptures for Mr. Rogers. Furthermore, it seems to me that we inevitably wind up fearing something. Whether it is communists, cancer or monsters under the bed, everybody is afraid of something. People driven by fear do foolish and destructive things, particularly when the object of their fears is mostly imaginary. Fear driven people wind up burning witches, running away from black cats and sending the National Guard out against sick and starving children. That being the case, I think we would be in a better place if our fears were directed toward things that really are fearful. Our gospels teach us that God is real and God is to be feared. This God is the one whose Son calls little children to come to him and tells us that the kingdom of heaven has been prepared for them. If the God of the Bible is real, then rather than fearing the consequences of welcoming needy children in our land, we ought to fear what this God might do to us if we do not welcome them. Perhaps the fear of the Lord really is the beginning of wisdom. Psalm 111:10.
The psalm ends with a declaration on the part of the psalmist that s/he will “speak the praise of the Lord, and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever.” Vs. 21. That declaration sums up the tone of the entire psalm. This prayer is one of sheer praise. It seeks nothing from God, asks nothing of God and expects nothing more than what God has already so richly supplied. There are many such prayers in the Book of Psalms and that ought to teach us something about prayer in general. Prayer is not all about us, our needs and our predicaments. It is first and foremost about this God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Vs. 8. On the worst days of my life (and I have had some horrible ones lately), there is never any shortage of reasons for giving thanks. It is with thanks, I believe, that all prayer ought to begin and end.
The original New Testament texts did not have chapter and verse numbers, paragraph separations or subject headings. These artifacts were added long after the Bible had been copied, re-copied and re-copied again, translated, re-translated and re-translated again from the Greek into Coptic, Latin and subsequently into other languages. It is important to keep that in mind, because determining where to end a chapter, begin a paragraph or place a subject heading is an interpretive decision. It shapes how the text is understood. Our English Bibles all seem to follow the chapter divisions between Romans 8 and 9, ending Paul’s discussion begun in Romans chapter 1 at the close of Romans chapter 8. At first blush, that feels right. Paul sums up everything he has been saying about the liberating grace of God with the following words: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39. It is all I can do to refrain from adding “amen.”
Yet refrain I must, because there is no “amen.” The “amen” does not come until the end of our reading for this Sunday. Verses 1-5 of Romans 9 are part and parcel of Romans 8:31-39. The impossibility of anything separating us from the love of God in Christ is the premise for what Paul has been arguing from the beginning of Romans, namely, that just as sin imprisons both Jews and Gentiles under the power of death, so the grace of God in Christ Jesus frees both Jews and Gentiles from the power of sin and the law. Throughout chapters 9-11 Paul will proceed to discuss the role of Israel and the church in God’s redemptive plan. Paul wishes to make clear, however, that both these communions are essential and complement each other.
Understand that at this point in history, there was no decisive break between Christianity and Judaism. Neither Jesus nor Paul understood the movement referred to as “the way” in Acts as constituting a new religion. The Jesus movement was a reform movement within Judaism. Paul would be shocked and saddened to learn that today Jewish and Christian communities live largely separate and independent existences. For Paul, the good news of Jesus Christ was the conduit through which the covenant promises given to Israel are now shared with the gentiles. This same good news challenged Israel to understand its role in a much bigger and more profound way, much as did the prophet of Second Isaiah. Just as Paul insisted that it was not necessary to convert gentiles to Judaism before welcoming them into the Body of Christ, so Paul was not interested in drawing Jews away from their ancestral faith. It was Paul’s hope that in Christ Jesus the gentiles would come to trust in the God of Israel and that Israel would discover a broader vision of all that was promised in the law and the prophets.
So Paul concludes his discussion of God’s grace in Christ by affirming his own Jewish faith and that of his fellow Jews. “To them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.” Vss. 4-5. Notice the present tense. Paul does not suggest that Israel has lost its status as God’s chosen people or that what once belonged to Israel is now the property of the church. What God has given with one hand, God does not take back with the other. Paul will make this point further on. Rather than taking away Israel’s covenant relationship, God is broadening it to include those formerly outside that covenant. We gentiles, who had no legal claim or right to the blessings given Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; who did not pass through the Red Sea, travel through the wilderness or enter into the promised land; who have none of the blood of the patriarchs pulsing through our veins; we have nevertheless been invited to take part in this marvelous story.
Over the centuries, we gentile believers have forgotten that we are invited guests. Instead of receiving thankfully the undeserved hospitality that has been extended to us in Jesus Christ, we have begun to imagine that we are masters of the house. Worse than that, we have attempted to expel the Jewish inhabitants, put our feet up on the furniture and redecorated the place to suit our own tastes. Over the centuries, our theology has treated Judaism not as the mother she is, but the wicked step mother whose presence cannot be tolerated. Christianity divorced from its Jewish roots cannot help but lose touch with its Jewish savior and the promises of the Hebrew Scriptures that cannot be fulfilled apart from the participation of the Hebrew people. When Paul’s letter to the Romans is read in the way I have just suggested, as I believe it was intended, we are compelled to look critically and with great sadness on the centuries of Christian hostility toward Judaism and the current gulf dividing church and synagogue.
Upon learning of John the Baptist’s execution by Herod Antipas, Jesus withdrew in a boat with his disciples to a “lonely place apart.” Vs. 13. But Jesus cannot remain hidden. The crowds seek him out with their illnesses, fears and hopes. Jesus, moved by compassion, remains to heal their sick. Now it is late and the disciples are concerned. The crowd is hungry and hungry crowds are dangerous. These people have heard the whisperings about Jesus, that he is John the Baptist raised from death, Elijah the miracle working prophet or perhaps even Israel’s longed for messiah. They have high expectations. Their hunger for greater miracles is as great as the hunger in their bellies. Now is the time to send the crowd away. Their sick have been healed; it is still light; they can still perhaps find their way to someplace where there is food. The disciples recognize the potential danger and the need to act promptly to avoid a riot.
Jesus, however, seems unconcerned. “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Vs. 16. Evidently, Jesus cannot do math. Five loaves of bread and two fish will not go far among five thousand men and their families. But the math of the kingdom is far different from our math. We tend to approach the needs of our world with an eye toward our own resources. We ask, “How much can we do with what we have? How far can we stretch our dollars? What can we expect to accomplish, given that we are a small, aging and poor congregation?” By contrast, Jesus meets the needs of the world on the strength of God’s promises. It is never a question of what we can do with what we have. It is always a question of what God can do when we place our all into his hands, relying on his promises. No, we cannot solve the world’s problems with what little we have, but Jesus does not ask us to do that. Instead, he invites us to become part of and share in what God is doing to redeem creation.
Verses 20-21 echo the concluding words to the story of Elisha’s feeding one hundred of the sons of the prophets with twenty loaves of bread. II Kings 4:42-44. In both cases, the amount of food was insufficient. As did Jesus in our gospel lesson, so Elisha instructs his disciple to distribute this clearly inadequate food supply to a needy community. Both stories conclude with God’s provision of abundance through what appeared to be scarcity. This message dovetails nicely with the theme of our psalm reminding us that God is a God of abundance and generosity. Only when our trust strays from God’s gracious promise to provide for all of our needs do we see scarcity and want. I think that the comments of Rev. Dr. George Hermanson on this reading sums it all up very nicely: “What follows invites us to remember our own wildernesses, our own places of chaos, when our own insufficiencies may have been blessed, broken, and given away. And yet it was precisely in risking that impossible insufficiency that there was enough. Indeed, more than enough.” Holy Textures, Commentary on Matthew 14:13-21.
 “How Trump’s Budget Would Affect Every Part of Government” New York Times, 5/23/17
SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty and ever-living God, you hold together all things in heaven and on earth. In your great mercy receive the prayers of all your children, and give to all the world the Spirit of your truth and peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me.” Psalm 66:16
This invitation is extended to all who “fear” God. Ordinarily, fear is not a good thing. It is almost always found under the surface of our most foolish, cruel and destructive behavior. Religion based on fear of an angry, vengeful and punishing god produces angry, vengeful and punishing communities that, in turn, produce angry, guilt ridden and fearful individuals. The Apostle John reminds us that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” I John 4:18. Nevertheless, Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, the chief teaching document of my church, admonishes us repeatedly to “fear and love God.” So, too, the psalmist reminds us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10) and assumes that his/her fellow worshipers are people who “fear” God. What do we make of these seeming contradictions?
Perhaps fear is something like faith. Just as Luther maintained that “faith makes both God and an idol,” I think that perhaps fear leads either to wisdom or folly-depending on where it is directed. Fear is clearly destructive when misplaced. Just as economic insecurity, national calamity and distrust of civil institutions led to the rise of fascism in Europe, so the fear of terrorism, xenophobia and anxiety over the changing demographics of our country have helped fuel the rise of nationalist populism in the United States and empowered the fringe elements of “white nationalism.” Fear of our neighbors leads us to distrust, discriminate and act against them with hostility. Fear of losing what we possess leads to greed, selfishness and insensitivity to the needs of others. As I have observed before, fear makes us stupid.
But what happens when our fear is directed toward a God we know will, as Saint Paul tells us in our second lesson, “judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and…given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead.”? Acts 17:31. What if we believed in a God who will judge us by one thing and one thing only: How well or poorly we have treated the “least” among us? What if we knew with assurance that all the arguments we might make to justify our failure to care for the poor, the hungry, the naked and the imprisoned-such as the need to balance the federal budget, the need to secure our borders-will fall absolutely flat on the day of judgment? What if we worried less about the costs and dangers of caring for our neighbors and more about what God might do to us if we don’t? It seems to me that if we feared God more, the world would soon become a much less fearful place.
Of course, it needs to be said that, while the fear of the Lord may well be the beginning of wisdom, it is not the end. God’s judgment is always a means to God’s ultimate desire for our salvation. God wounds in order to heal. It is because God loves the world so deeply, so passionately and so persistently that God will not stand by and allow it to follow its own self-destructive course. God frustrates the plans of the wicked, casts down the mighty from their thrones and exalts those of low degree. God brings down nations and kingdoms that aspire to godlike domination. All of that can appear fierce, dreadful and punishing-until one recognizes in the midst of it all the presence of Jesus standing with us and inviting us to stand with him in witnessing to God’s loving intent for all people. Make no mistake. God is passionately committed to justice. God is not a tame lion, as C.S. Lewis has said. God’s commands are not to be taken lightly. But though God is fierce and dangerous, God is nevertheless good and means to do us good. God can therefore be as much loved as feared. “Though he giveth or he taketh, God his children ne’er forsaketh. His the Loving purpose solely to preserve them pure and holy.” “Children of the Heavenly Father,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship # 781.
Here is a poem by Jessica Nelson North about what appears to me to be a proper sort of fear.
I Fear the Weak
I am not afraid of the strong,
But the weak I fear.
They fix me with their pale impassionate eyes,
And I draw near
I melt before their cries,
My heart is water and air.
I am bound long and long
In the ties of that despair.
Source: Poetry Magazine (November 1930) c. Jessica Nelson North. Jessica Nelson North (1891-1988) was a Poet and novelist born in Madison, Wisconsin. She earned her BA at Lawrence College and pursued graduate work at the University of Chicago. Her collections of poetry include The Prayer Rug (1923), The Long Leash (1928), and Dinner Party (1942). She worked with Poetry Magazine, editing the publication from 1936-1942. You can find out more about Jessica Nelson North and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
This Sunday’s lesson is Paul’s speech to the Athenians at the Areopagus. The “Areopagus” (“Ares’ Hill” or “Mars’ Hill”) is a low hill northwest of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. It was the seat of the earliest aristocratic council of that ancient city which tried capital cases and prosecuted claims of public corruption throughout the classical period of the Greek democracy. During the period of Roman domination in the 1st Century, the council was responsible for the discharge of significant administrative, religious, and educational functions. The atmosphere was very much like that of a modern university where teachers of various schools of philosophy, politicians and artists gathered.
As was his custom, Paul began his missionary work by visiting the synagogue where expatriate Jews gathered for worship. While the audience Paul found there was sometimes skeptical and even hostile to his preaching, they at least understood what he meant by proclaiming Jesus as Messiah. But when some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers invited Paul to address them and their colleagues in the Areopagus, Paul was suddenly confronted with an audience that had no knowledge or understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures or the God to which they testify. It will not do for Paul merely to proclaim Jesus as Messiah because his audience would immediately ask, “What is a messiah?” If Paul were to assert that Jesus is God’s Son, they would ask, “Which god?” Paul must therefore speak the gospel to the Athenians in language and imagery they will understand from within their own religious backgrounds.
Paul finds his opening in a curious monument “to and unknown god.” Vs. 28. Such a monument can only reflect a recognition on the part of the Athenians that their many temples and shrines do not capture the fullness of the deity. Thus, in an attempt to ensure that their worship is complete, they must also offer worship at this shrine to such god or gods that they do not know. This “unknown god,” says Paul, is the one he has come to make known. Paul goes on to point out the foolishness of imagining that God can be captured in an image or enclosed in a shrine. Certainly, his Epicurean and Stoic listeners would agree with him on that point. Unlike the common folk, these philosophers did not believe in the existence of the Greek gods of the pantheon. Their understanding of divinity was far more complex. Paul even cites some Greek literary figures to illustrate the paradox (Epimenides and Aratus): though God is so near that “in him we live and move and have our being,” nevertheless God seems distant and our efforts to “feel after” God prove futile. Vss. 26-28.
In verses 30-31 Paul comes right to the point. God now commands repentance which is possible because and only because God has revealed his heart and mind in a man though and by whom the world is to be judged. When push comes to shove, Paul must return to his Hebrew scriptural roots and to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ through whom they are properly understood. In the final analysis, Paul does not come to the Areopagus with a competing philosophy, teaching or morality. He comes not to teach the Athenians about God, but to invite them into relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, the unknown and unknowable God becomes known. But this knowledge is not theoretical, but relational. It is not principally the nature of God, but the heart of God that Jesus reveals.
This remarkable psalm begins as an exhortation for all the earth to worship and praise the God of Israel and concludes with a declaration of thanksgiving by an individual worshiper for God’s deliverance. Verses 1-12 are spoken in the second person, suggesting the role of a worship leader. Verses 13-20 are all in the first person. This has led some biblical scholars to suggest that the psalm is actually a composite of two psalms. Others maintain that it was composed as a liturgy to be recited by a king speaking on behalf of both God and the people. Still others suggest that the final form of the psalm is the work of an individual incorporating an older liturgy of corporate worship as an introduction to his/her personal expression of thanksgiving. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 76. Whatever the case may be, there is no disputing that the psalm as we have it today constitutes a unified and thoroughly harmonious expression of thanksgiving.
Verse 8, where our reading begins, is a transition point in the psalm. Whereas the prior verses and verse 7 in particular speak of God’s power over the world at large and the non-Israelite nations (“goyim”), verse 8 addresses the “peoples” or “ammim.” This word usually denotes a religious group and here almost certainly refers to the Israelite faithful. Ibid. p. 78; See also, Weiser, Arthur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 470. Therefore, what follows in verses 9-12 must be viewed through the lens of Israel’s covenant with her God. That relationship often looks very much like a rocky marriage, ever on the brink of divorce, yet somehow managing not only to survive but even to thrive.
Verses 10-12 allude to the struggles and triumphs experienced throughout Israel’s history with her God, but the psalmist does not lift up any identifiable biblical event. The metaphors of refinement could apply equally to the sojourning of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the Exodus, the struggle to secure a place in the Promised Land, the suffering of the prophets under the monarchy or the Exile.
Again, the suggestion that God “tries” and “refines” us through adversity is problematic if one views God as somehow above the fray, engineering the minutia of history and sending heartbreak or tragedy wherever needed to perfect an individual’s character. But, as noted above, these are not words addressed to the general population. They are addressed to God’s covenant people called to be a light to the world. The journey from bondage in Egypt to freedom in Canaan cannot be made without suffering, sacrifice and loss. Neither can one enter the kingdom of heaven without sacrificing all else. Discipleship is a hazardous profession in which you can get yourself killed. Witness the fate of Stephan in last week’s lesson from Acts. This psalm, however, testifies to the joy and blessedness of covenant life in which one cannot help but learn through the adversity such a life entails how faithful, compassionate, forgiving and reliable God is.
This psalm is an illustration of how an individual’s reflection on God’s faithfulness to Israel throughout the biblical narrative is mirrored in that individual’s own life experience. It demonstrates how the Bible was intended to be read and interpreted. It is in the sacred narratives that we see reflected our own struggles and triumphs. Entering into the biblical story opens our eyes to the hidden depths of meaning, significance and the presence of God in our own life stories. That is what the Psalms are for. Faithful use of the psalms in our prayer life cannot help but illuminate the contours of our baptismal walk and remind us that our existence is directed toward the promised kingdom. We might have to walk “through fire and through water,” but we can be confident that we are not adrift without a rudder. God brings “us forth into a spacious place.” Vs. 12. Or, to put it in Jesus’ words, “In my Father’s household are many dwelling places…I go there to prepare a place for you.” John 14:2-3.
This is another instance in which the divine wisdom of the lectionary makers lies beyond the scope of my humble, mortal intelligence. Verses 8-12 are critical to what follows and so I urge you to read I Peter 3:8-22 before proceeding any further. This section begins with a plea for the believers addressed in this letter to “have unity of spirit, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind.” Vs. 8. Why is this so important? It is important because nothing the church does is nearly as important as what the church is. Let me follow that up with a quotation: “So the purpose of the church, the purpose of Christians, is to love one another across our diversity so that the world can believe. Our primary method is loving one another. Not verbal witnessing to non-Christians or devising brilliant arguments for the deity of Christ or doing great social service for the poor or even loving those in the world. Those things all have their place in evangelism-they’re important, in fact-but they aren’t the core of God’s method. They will come to nothing unless people see in us the love God has given us for each other, unless they see Jew and Gentile, black and white, husband and wife, academics and uneducated, living together in peace. That peace is the light set on the hill so the world can see.” Alexander, John F., Being Church, Reflections on How to Live as the People of God (c. 2012 by John Alexander, pub. by Wipf and Stock Publishers) p. 20.
That goes against the grain of everything we American Christians (who are frequently far more American than Christian) believe about church, faith and witness. We in American Protestantism have always viewed the church as an integrated part of society. Its purpose is to “march with events to turn them God’s way”-as if we knew what that was! See Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #418, verse 2. Our job is to preach a conscience into society, lobby government to be just and shame business into behaving as much as business can be expected to behave. We are charged with transforming society in general and American society in particular. In this respect, there is virtually no difference in outlook between conservative evangelicals of the “Christian Coalition of America” variety and the social activism of mainline protestant groups like my own. Both seek to “turn events God’s way.” The disagreement is only over the turn’s direction and degree.
But what if Jesus really meant what he said in the Gospel of John, namely, that the way for his disciples to bear fruit is through abiding in his love and loving one another? John 15:1-17. What if unity of spirit and the common life of Jesus’ disciples are what give credibility to the apostolic witness as Luke maintains in the Book of Acts? Acts 2:41-47. It strikes me that “being” the church might actually get us into more engagement with the world than all of our frantic “doing.” Nothing is more unsettling and destabilizing than a countercultural community within society that practices an alternative communal lifestyle. That is the reason our attitudes range from discomfort to outright hostility and contempt for folks like the Amish. Why do they have to be so stand offish? Why are they so different from us? Yet perhaps we ought to be asking ourselves the same question the other way around: Why are we so different from the Amish? Why does the church fit so naturally into the Americana landscape? Why is it “weird” to be Amish, but not in the least remarkable to be a Lutheran, Anglican or Presbyterian?
It is precisely because the church was a community in which there was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, etc. that it posed such a profound threat to the very hierarchical and socially stratified Roman Empire. So also I believe groups such as the Amish are so discomforting to us because their way of life threatens our culture’s high estimation of success, acquisition and the accumulation of status and power. Of course we do not persecute the Amish anymore. Instead, we have domesticated them and turned them into a sort of national oddity, a harmless tourist attraction. Nonetheless, our unease is still present and if it has not broken out into open hostility more often, that has less to do with our much touted “tolerance” than the fact that the Amish have had the good grace keep a low profile and stay out of the public square. 1st Century Rome could not afford to be tolerant of such countercultural communities at the frontier of its most vulnerable border. That is why Peter takes it for granted that the believers in Asia Minor will experience persecution and suffering. They will not have to hold committee meetings or hire top dollar consultants in order to find opportunities for witness and evangelism. It will come their way merely through their being church. Vss. 13-17. As I have often said before, the Amish witness in the wake of the Nickel Mine tragedy speaks more persuasively to the heart of the gospel than all the preachy/screechy social statements of all us mainliners combined.
Saint Augustine poses the question I have always had regarding this reading: “How, then, doth the Lord say, ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments: and I will ask the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter;’ when He saith so of the Holy Spirit, without [having] whom we can neither love God nor keep his commandments so as to receive Him, without whom we cannot love at all?” Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol. VII (c. 1978 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) p. 333. He answers his question by pointing out that the disciples already had the Holy Spirit in some measure, but not in the way and to the extent promised in the gospel. Ibid. 334. “Accordingly, they both had, and had [the Holy Spirit] not, inasmuch as they had Him not as yet to the same extent as He was afterwards to be possessed.” Ibid. When one thinks this through in accord with Johannine logic, it is difficult to reach any other conclusion. Jesus exclaimed to Philip last week: “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?” John 14:9-10. Jesus is in the Father currently. The Spirit is sent from the Father and by the Father. Vs. 16. Moreover, the Spirit is identified as the Spirit of truth (vs. 17) and Jesus has previously declared himself “the truth.” John 14:6. The task of the Spirit is nothing else than to take what is of Jesus and declare it to the disciples. John 16:14-15. The Spirit, then, is as inseparable from Jesus as is the Father. The Spirit is therefore the means by which the disciples will “see” the resurrected Christ. Vs. 19. The Holy Spirit is therefore not Jesus’ successor, but his return. This, I believe, is what Jesus meant when he said: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also.” John 14:3.
Unfortunately, the lectionary has deprived us of a critical piece of this reading. In John 14:22-24 Jesus goes on to explain that, through his indwelling of the disciples by the Spirit, he will be manifested to the world. This is entirely consistent with Jesus’ declaration in John 13:35: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The disciples’ life together is the manifestation of God’s Triune love between Father and Son that cannot help but overflow into creation where it is embodied in the person of Jesus and, after his resurrection, among his disciples by the indwelling of his Spirit. This reading (in its uncut form) therefore looks ahead to Trinity Sunday just as last week’s gospel anticipates Ascension.
Most striking is Jesus’ assurance that he will not leave his disciples “desolate” or, as literally translated, “orphaned.” Vs. 18. I suspect that Jesus speaks these words to his disciples because, at the moment, they feel very much like orphans. Even with Jesus in their midst, the disciples are just barely hanging on and holding it together. They are the frightened crew of a small boat caught in the midst of a wild and tempestuous sea. Just as the storm is about to peak, their captain announces that he is to be with them for only “a little while,” and that “Where I am going you cannot come.” John 13:33. The trauma of Jesus’ crucifixion is foreshadowed here, but so also is Pentecost. It is to the disciples’ advantage that Jesus go so that the “Advocate” can come. John 16:7. This Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, is none other than the more intense and intimate presence of Jesus in their midst.
This lesson opens up a wonderful opportunity for talking about the presence of Jesus in the church. Of course, that will necessarily lead into a discussion of the experienced absence of Jesus in the church. Does the decline of our mainline churches signal Jesus’ “abandonment” of us? Is our culture’s increasing lack of interest in the church a sign of our failure to reflect Jesus, as so many critics within and without insist? Or is it rather the case that we are reflecting Jesus all too well and society’s disinterest, misunderstanding and hostility are signs of our effectiveness on that score? After all, Jesus warned his disciples that the world would hate them because they are “not of the world.” John 15:19. Is there some truth to both of these suggestions? Where and how is the Spirit working in the congregation? Does our congregational life mirror Trinitarian love? Is the world’s misunderstanding the “stumbling block of the cross,” or is it stumbling blocks of our own making?
FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, you confound the world’s wisdom in giving your kingdom to the lowly and the pure in heart. Give us such a hunger and thirst for justice, and perseverance in striving for peace, that in our words and deeds the world may see the life of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The prophet Micah does not mince words. He lets his people know in no uncertain terms that God is not interested in superficial piety. Sacrifices and elaborate religious rituals do not impress God. Neither does God care whether our coins bear the inscription “In God we trust,”” or whether the town green has a crèche, or whether we greet one another with “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” or whether God is mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance. Furthermore, I think Saint Paul would be horrified at our use of the cross in decorative jewelry, on national flags or as a bland symbol to mark graves. I think he would say that our broad acceptance of the cross as a decoration robs it of its symbolic power. He would probably be delighted that atheists are seeking to remove it from places of secular prominence. They, at least, understand that the cross has meaning-even if it is one they don’t like. As for Christians who champion such shallow piety in what they perceive as a war against them, may they lose the battle-and the sooner the better.
So what does God want? You know damn well, says Micah: do justice, love kindness; walk humbly with your God. Is that too much to ask? Justice is no abstract notion for Micah. A nation is judged by how it treats the most vulnerable within its borders. When rulers “abhor justice” and “pervert equity,” by taking bribes and selling the power of government to whomever can pay for it, there is little chance those without means can hope for justice. Micah 3:11. Though care for the poor, the resident alien, the widow and the orphan is imbedded within Israel’s covenant with her God, the Gospel of Matthew assures us that all the nations will be judged by this same standard. See Matthew 25:31-46. Nevertheless, because Israel and the church have these sacred commands enshrined in their scriptures, they bear a unique responsibility for ordering the lives of their communities around them and bearing witness to them as God’s gracious intent for all of humanity.
The shape of injustice in our culture includes oppression of the poor, racism, sexism and homophobic bigotry. According to Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, in 2015 there were 43.1 million people (13.5 percent of all Americans) living in poverty. Broken down by age demographics, 24.4 million (12.4 percent) of people ages 18-64 were in poverty; 14.5 million (19.7 percent) of children under the age of 18 were in poverty; and 4.2 million (8.8 percent) of seniors 65 and older were in poverty. During that year 13.1 million children lived in food-insecure households. According to a 2015 Survey by the United States Conference of Mayors, the leading cause of American hunger is the inadequacy of the federal minimum wage which stands at just over $7 per hour. Though some states have enacted minimum wage limits to as high as $11 per hour, the cost of living in these states most often exceeds the norm. Justice requires that workers be paid a living wage and that those unable to work are supported out of the community’s resources.
Injustice also takes the form of racism, sexism and the structural support for white privilege in government, education and commerce. Nothing spurs controversy more than bringing up race or sexism in polite company. I get particularly visceral responses to any mention of white male privilege. “Don’t call me a racist and I’m not privileged!” a middle aged man recently said to me. “I grew up in a working class family. I worked my way through college and I’ve worked for every dime I made since. I didn’t steal anything I own from anyone else!” I can understand that sentiment. I, too, worked hard to gain the financial security I enjoy today. I had no contacts in the legal field where I worked for eighteen years and I have no relatives in the hierarchy of the church either. In both cases, I had to sell myself and prove my competence from scratch. Nobody ever “got me in” anywhere.
Nevertheless, I know that there were numerous doors of opportunity open to me that for persons of color remained closed. Nobody in the corporate world in which I moved ever said “Don’t put a black person on that team,” but when the word went out to “get someone who fits in with the team,” we all knew what that meant. So too when a job required “a commanding presence” it meant don’t even think about giving this to a woman. I never had to wonder what effect my race was going to have in any interview. I never had to worry about balancing my projection of confidence against the potential of being thought “bitchy,” or wonder whether keeping a job required flirtation, tolerating wandering hands or giving sexual favors. All of these concerns that are ever present for persons of color and for women never crossed my mind. That is called white male privilege and, whether one chooses to believe it or not, it exists in education, government, the work place and, sadly, the church.
If the past election has had any positive effect, I think it has made it nearly impossible to ignore the deep seated racial hatred and the fear and loathing of strong and competent women among an increasingly insecure, frightened and violent white male population. A blue and white campaign button sported at the RNC convention last summer illustrates the point, “KFC Hillary Special: 2 fat thighs 2 small breasts…left wing.” Another contained a picture of the former Secretary of state that read: “Life’s a bitch. Don’t vote for one.” Mr. Trump’s proud boasts of grabbing women by the genitals and kissing them without their consent didn’t budge his supporters. The victims who came forward to contest his claim that he was “only joking” when he made these remarks were swiftly silenced after he threatened to use the power of the presidency to retaliate against them. It should not surprise anyone that over 500,000 women in Washington D.C. and two million world-wide came out to march in support of a woman’s right to live without fear of discrimination, harassment and abuse.
Mr. Trump’s disparaging remarks about the inability of an American born judge of Mexican heritage to preside over the case of a white man like himself and his vow to deport twelve million Hispanic undocumented immigrants drew cheers from white nationalist groups, one of which famously gave Nazi salutes and cheered “Hail Trump” the morning after the election. The week following saw a surge in racial bias incidents. For example, the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Silver Spring, Maryland had its sign advertising Spanish services ripped and vandalized with the words, “TRUMP NATION WHITES ONLY.” Hateful rhetoric begets hateful actions.
Though Mr. Trump has not expressed the same animus toward gay, lesbian and transgendered folk, the platform on which his party ran supports the repeal of marriage equality, the gutting of protections for families of same sex couples and support for the thoroughly debunked pseudo treatment of homosexuals known as “reparative therapy.” The very day of the election a web page on the White House Website dedicated to identifying health and anti-bullying information for the LGBT community was scrubbed from the site. Sexual minorities are understandably concerned that the days of “open season” aggression against them might also be making a comeback.
According to Micah and all the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, justice means standing where God stands; speaking God’s words; and confronting the powers and principalities that oppose God’s reign. That means standing with the hungry, the poor, women, people of color, members of the LGBT community and all other persons endangered by this angry tidal wave of hatred and contempt. In so doing, those of us who have lived our lives under the shelter of white male privilege need to learn to see life in this culture of ours from the perspective of those who have not. Here’s a poem by Claude McKay to give us a porthole into that reality.
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.
Source: The Liberator, Vol.2, No. 7 (July 1919) Claude McKay, born Festus Claudius McKay, was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry celebrated peasant life in Jamaica, challenged white supremacy in America and lifted up the struggles of black men and women struggling to live their lives with dignity in a racist culture. You can learn more about Claude McKay and read more of his poetry on the Poetry Foundation Website.
We know very little about the life of the prophet Micah. He was a prophet of the Southern Kingdom of Judah and a contemporary of Isaiah, the Judean prophet who preached in the 8th Century B.C.E. Micah preached against the corruption, oppression and idolatry of the Judean monarchy presided over by descendants of King David. Unlike Isaiah, however, who appears to have been a Jerusalem insider with access to the throne, Micah was an outsider from the obscure town of Moresheth. Micah predicts destruction for both Judah and the Northern Kingdom of Israel as a consequence of their sin. Interspersed throughout the book of oracles bearing his name are declarations of salvation and promises of liberation. Most scholars believe that these writings come from a prophet living sometime later than Micah preaching to a generation that had already experienced the judgment of defeat and destruction Micah foretold.
In Sunday’s lesson Micah employs a much used literary technique of Hebrew prophets. He places the controversy between God and God’s people of Judah on the stage of a mock court proceeding. The prophet summons his people to answer God’s indictment of their sinfulness, calling upon the mountains to act as witnesses to the proceedings. Vss. 1-2. First God, as plaintiff, sets forth his complaint: “O my people, what have I done to you? In what way have I wearied you? Answer me!” vs. 3. God proceeds to recite his acts of salvation for Israel from the Exodus through the wilderness wanderings “that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.” Vss. 4-5. The prophet weaves together a string of God’s saving acts to illustrate God’s faithfulness to Israel. Verse 4, in which God reminds Israel of his faithfulness in the Exodus, echoes the preface to the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Exodus 20:2. Obedience to these commands, not mere superficial acts of worship and piety, are the proper response to God’s faithfulness.
The narrative of Balak, king of Moab and Balaam referenced in vs. 5 can be found at Numbers 22-24. It contains the delightful story of Balaam’s talking ass. Immediately thereafter follows the not so delightful story of Shittim, also referenced in vs 5. Numbers 25:1-5. The people of Israel began to intermingle with the people of Moab, attending their feasts and marrying their daughters. At the Lord’s bidding, Moses responded by hanging the “chiefs of the people” in the presence of the Lord. He then directed the judges of Israel to “slay his men who have yoked themselves to Ba’al of Peor,” the Moabite deity. You won’t find this little tale in any Sunday School text. Gilgal was the spot at which Israel crossed the Jordan River into the land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. See Joshua 3:14-4:24. Thus, the Lord brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness and safely into the Promised Land in spite of her frequent rebellion and unbelief. After such steadfast faithfulness on God’s part, what excuse can the people make for their faithless behavior?
Having no defense to God’s charges, the people respond in verses 6-7, asking what they can do to atone for their sins. They ask whether God will be pleased with more burnt offerings and, if not, whether perhaps the sacrifice of their own children would suffice. The implication here is that the people believe sacrifices, offerings and religious observances can buy God’s favor. They are asking the prophet how much it will take to do the trick. But the prophet replies in verse 8 “don’t give me any of that! You know very well what God wants” (my paraphrase). God is not interested in more offerings or religious observances: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Vs. 8. The power of this response is its stark simplicity. God liberated Israel from Egypt not so that she could become another Egypt oppressing her own people, enslaved to idols and filled with violence. She was given commandments-not because God needs or desires them, but because Israel needs them to preserve the freedom bought for her by her gracious God. These commandments call for obedience to God above all else and love of neighbor. Without such obedience and love, sacrifices, worship and prayer are worth nothing.
It is worth noting that the prophet calls us to walk humbly with our God. Few things frighten me more than people who are certain they know what justice requires. People who are certain have no further need of learning. People who do not learn do not grow. People who do not grow regress to the most infantile level of understanding, i.e., Justice = Retribution. They lose their ability to appreciate ambiguity and to see all sides of every conflict. Every battle is a struggle between good and evil neatly divided along religious, racial, cultural or religious lines. It is always “us against them.” Humble people recognize that genuine learning exposes our lack of understanding and reveals to us how very much more we have yet to learn. Paradoxically, the more you know, the more you realize how much you have to learn. Justice, therefore, must never be done in righteous anger but always with a sober knowledge of the limits placed on human understanding and the flawed nature of all human tribunals and enforcement mechanisms.
Archeologists have recovered a number of religious inscriptions instructing worshippers in the ancient world about the preparations to be made and conditions to be fulfilled before entering a shrine or temple. These texts usually set forth a list of cultic requirements for cleansing, proper ritual attire and acceptable offerings. Psalm 15 focuses instead on the characteristics of character and ethical conduct as critical for determining worthiness to approach the Lord in worship. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, W, Cambridge Bible Commentary on the Psalms, (Cambridge University Press, 1977) p. 65. The requirements for approaching the temple of Israel’s God have nothing to do with placating the desires of a ritualistically finicky deity, but have everything to do with conduct of the worshiper toward his or her neighbor. While this psalm may have been used as a liturgy for entry into the temple or tabernacle during the period of the Davidic monarchy, it is also possible that it was used in preparation for making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem by postexilic Jews.
The requirements for “sojourning” in the tabernacle of the Lord and for dwelling on God’s “holy hill” are simple: truthful speech, faithful friendship, speaking well of one’s neighbor and honoring one’s promises. But to say that this is all very simple is not to say that it is easy. The old RSV translates the latter half of verse 4 as “who swears to his own hurt and does not change.” In short, those who would dwell in community with God’s people must speak the truth even when it is inconvenient and contrary to self-interest. Furthermore, the truth spoken is not subject to change or revocation under the rubric of “explanatory statements.”
Speaking truthfully does not come naturally. It must be learned. Here I think we could learn a thing or two from our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers who practice individual confession. Properly practiced, confession is nothing less than learning to speak truthfully about yourself. A good confessor is able to help you understand and see through the excuses, lies and delusions you use to justify your conduct. More importantly, he or she is able to point you toward new attitudes and new behaviors that cultivate the virtues of honesty, faithfulness and humility. Only so is it possible to begin speaking the truth “from the heart.”
Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that this is a psalm of “orientation.” Along with the similar Psalm 24, this psalm “reflects only the well-oriented community, one that has not yet addressed a theologically ambiguous or morally disruptive world.” Hence, “it is not inappropriate that access to God be measured in terms of conformity to what is known, trusted, and found reliable.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies, (c. 1984, Augsburg Publishing House) p. 42. As much respect as I have for Professor Brueggamann, I do not share his view of this this psalm. Rather than a naïve faith untested by trials, I believe this psalm reflects a mature prophetic faith. Its message fits neatly into the text from Micah and reinforces the understanding of Israel’s God as one who is interested chiefly in how his people treat one another. Jesus emphasizes this point in his own central teaching: “The first [commandment] is ‘Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31.
This lesson is perhaps the most critical to understanding Paul. Some of his more superficial critics excoriate Paul for ignoring the life and ministry of Jesus to focus only on his crucifixion. Such criticisms ignore the body of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in which Paul argues that the life and ministry of Jesus, so far from being irrelevant, are still ongoing within the life of the church. So far from constituting past data, Jesus’ earthly ministry is a present fact in communities where disciples of Jesus continue to break bread in his presence and build one another up in love with the gifts the Spirit pours out upon them.
This love of which Paul speaks is no sentimental ideal. It is a tough, gritty sort of love discovered among people with differing viewpoints, various cultural prejudices and conflicting agendas. We have already seen that the Corinthian church was no happy little commune. It was a place of fragile egos, power hungry factions and loose morals. A person who tries to practice a love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Corinthians 13:7) in such an environment is bound to get his or her heart broken-or crucified. Yet such seemingly “weak” love in the presence of arrogance, pride and coercive force is exactly the life that Jesus lived. Through such “weakness” God demonstrates a love that is so strong that not even death can prevail against it. This “weakness” of God that embraces evil with love is stronger than the divisive forces at work in the Corinthian church seeking to tear it apart.
In this age of polarization in politics and general social discourse, I believe the church is called to reflect an alternative way of living together in community. More than ever, it is critical that we do not become a microcosm of the culture wars raging around us and that our discourse not degenerate to the point of firing the same hackneyed ideological torpedoes dressed in scriptural garb over the familiar fault lines dictated more by political/commercial/social interests than by any recognizable faith commitment. There is a better way to be in community. The church at Corinth, for all of its shortcomings, was such a community. At least the Apostle Paul felt that way about it.
Last week in Matthew 4:12-25 we witnessed the commencement of Jesus’ mission and his proclamation: “the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.” Matthew 4:17. Crowds from all over the region are drawn to Jesus and, seeing them, he ascends “the mountain.” Surrounded by his disciples (four at this point that we know of), he sits down and opens his mouth to teach them. It was customary for rabbis to sit when teaching their disciples and the Semitic idiom, “he opened his mouth” adds a note of solemnity to the beginning of this very public address. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 193. The location of the “mountain” or whether it actually was anything like a mountain is altogether beside the point. Matthew’s use of the term is a literary device drawing parallels between Jesus’ teaching and the revelation of Torah, though as with all Hebrew Scriptural parallels we should not push this one too far. Matthew does not wish us to understand Jesus as another Moses or the Sermon on the Mount as another set of commandments. Jesus’ teaching here follows upon his proclamation of the nearness of the kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount is the shape that kingdom is to take among his disciples as the new age is actualized in the midst of the old.
Thus, the “beatitudes” cannot be interpreted as disembodied sayings printed on a refrigerator magnet. They must be read in the light of the exciting news of heaven’s dawning kingdom that Jesus has begun to inaugurate. For the sake of this kingdom, it is a joy to suffer hunger, mourning and persecution. The hunger for righteousness is a sweet hunger anticipating satisfaction. Persecution at the hands of an unbelieving world only reinforces the disciple’s confidence that the battle has been joined and that s/he is on the victorious side. There is nothing masochistic about the beatitudes. They do not promote suffering for suffering’s sake. They promote joyful anticipation of God’s reign of plenty for all people and a willingness to sacrifice gladly all for the sake of that gentle reign.
For this reason I do not buy into the notion advanced by some scholars that Matthew has “spiritualized” the more earthy beatitudes set forth in the Gospel of Luke at Luke 6:20-23. Neither does Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“There is no justification whatever for setting Luke’s version of the beatitudes over against Matthew’s. Matthew is not spiritualizing the beatitudes, and Luke giving them in their original form, nor is Luke giving a political twist to an original form of the beatitude which applied only to a poverty of disposition. Privation is not the ground of the beatitude in Luke, nor renunciation in Matthew. On the contrary, both gospels recognize that neither privation nor renunciation, spiritual or political, is justified except by the call and promise of Jesus, who alone makes blessed those whom he calls, and who is in his person the sole ground of their beatitude. Since the days of the Clementines, Catholic exegesis has applied this beatitude to the virtue of poverty, the paupertas voluntaria of the monks, or any kind of poverty undertaken voluntarily for the sake of Christ. But in both cases the error lies in looking for some kind of human behavior as the ground for the beatitude instead of the call and promise of Jesus alone.” Bonnoeffer, Dietrich, The Cost of Discipleship, Second Ed. (c. 1959 by SCM Press Ltd) p. 119, n. 1.
As in Luke, Matthew sees in the difficult human circumstances he calls “blessed” marks of faithful discipleship lived out in the joyful expectation of the coming reign of God. It is important to understand here that the “kingdom of heaven” is not some otherworldly paradise. “On the one hand, God’s future will not negate his creation; what he has created and done in history will be brought by him to a significant goal. On the other hand, this will not be the result of human efforts and historical processes, but will be entirely God’s doing. It follows that both the Old Testament and the New Testament are deeply interested in what is taking shape on this earth: God is controlling history, and God will bring his Kingdom about in the events on this earth. Therefore our Gospel [of Matthew] closes with authority given to Jesus “in heaven and on earth.” Matthew 28:18. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 John Knox Press) pp. 90-91.
The beatitudes constituting our lesson for Sunday are a profoundly significant part of the Sermon on the Mount as Professor Stanley Hauerwas points out: “The sermon, therefore, is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus. To be saved is to be so gathered. That is why the Beatitudes are the interpretive key to the whole sermon-precisely because they are not recommendations. No one is asked to go out and try to be poor in spirit or to mourn or to be meek. Rather, Jesus is indicating that given the reality of the kingdom we should not be surprised to find among those who follow him those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek. Moreover, Jesus does not suggest that everyone who follows him will possess all the Beatitudes, but we can be sure that some will be poor, some will mourn and some will be meek.” Hauerwas, Stanely, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas) p. 61. In short, the beatitudes are not virtues to be acquired, but the expected consequence of living as subjects in the kingdom of heaven as will be spelled out in the balance of the Sermon.
In many respects the Sermon on the Mount expresses in teaching form the meaning of “love” that is so beautifully expressed in St. Paul’s hymn at I Corinthians 13. In both the Sermon and Paul’s hymn, the cross stands at the center. This is because the cross is the form the kingdom of heaven invariably takes in a world that is in rebellion against its Creator. But as Paul reminds us, this seemingly weak and impotent expression of love in the cross is stronger than all the world’s violent hatred.