Tag Archives: poverty

Sunday, May 14th

FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 7:55–60
Psalm 31:1–5, 15–16
1 Peter 2:2–10
John 14:1–14

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, your Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Give us grace to love one another, to following the way of his commandments, and to share his risen life with all the world, for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was a victim of mob violence. Like his Lord, he died with a prayer on his lips for the forgiveness of his murderers. The story is terrifying on several levels. Mobs are scary. People swept up into mob hysteria are capable of unspeakable acts of cruelty they would probably never commit on their own. Mobs are not driven by any coherent ideology or particular religious sentiment. They are inspired by appeals to raw emotion, to the most primal fears we harbor. As irrational as it may seem, the mob always sees itself as the victim and its victim as the aggressor. It believes that it is acting in self-defense. The opponents of Stephen stirred up the people with the claim that Stephen was heard to “speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” They told the gathering crowd that he was threatening to “change the customs Moses delivered to us.” For a people under Roman domination, whose faith and customs were in fact threatened with extinction and treated with contempt by their occupiers, these were fighting words.  Stephen was for this mob the face of everything they most feared; the representative of a future that terrified them. Of course, Stephen was not really an enemy of Israel’s faith as he tried to make plain in his defense. But don’t look for rationality in a lynch mob.  All you will ever find is blind, white hot, irrational rage. As we all should know, anger is only fear that doesn’t know what to do with itself. Violence is anger that cannot find words to express itself.

It seems to me that mob psychology is strikingly similar to the movement frequently referred to as “populism.” In his recent book Dutch political scientist, Cas Mudde, defines populism as “a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, ‘the pure people,’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonte’ generale’ (will of the people).” Mudde, Cas, Populism: A Very Short Introduction (c. 2017 by Oxford University Press) p. 6. The only amendment I would make is to say that I don’t believe populism is an ideology of any sort, thin-centered or otherwise. I would define it more as a collective anxiety disorder. Most supporters of Donald Trump  (the face of populism in the United States) I have spoken to recently don’t even try to defend his overtly racist remarks or justify his sexual predatory conduct or explain away his undisputed lies. They are not necessarily committed to or interested in his political agenda or policies. They are drawn instead to his outbursts of rage that give vent to their own pent up resentments. The Trump supporters I know well have a deep seated conviction that they are losing the America they love, and that it is the fault of an elite establishment bent on undermining their values, mocking their religion, robbing them of their livelihoods, destroying their communities and selling them out to foreign powers. They are convinced that conspiracies are being hatched every day behind the scenes by “America hating, God denying intellectuals.” Donald Trump is for them a monkey wrench hurled into a hostile and malevolent governmental machine that is ruining their lives. He is their escape from a dark and threatening future back into the safety of a bygone era when America was “great.”

Parenthetically, the half dozen or so supporters of Donald Trump I have spoken too in some depth are hardly a statistically significant swath of the the electorate. Moreover, I don’t pretend to understand all that is in their minds, let alone those of millions of other Trump supporters. I will also add that these folks are right in saying that there is something very wrong with our country. Despite recovery from the recession of 2007, too many sections of the country have been left behind to struggle with massive unemployment, decaying infastructure and broken institutions. To the extent that the Trump campaign has shown a light on these problems and brought them to national attention, it has done the nation a service.  Nonetheless, I remain convinced that, while populism can illuminate deep seated problems with our government, economy and society, it offers nothing helpful in the way of solutions.

From a biblical perspective, there are two problems with populism. First, any movement grounded in fear is alien to the life of discipleship. “Perfect love,” says the Apostle John, “casts out all fear.” I John 4:18.    Populism is driven by fear of the outsider, the elite, the foreigner, the unconventional. It locates the source of evil in some “other.” By contrast, disciples of Jesus understand that sin is universal. The line between good and evil does not follow the contours of nation, race, ideology, political affiliation or religious identity. It runs right through each human heart. As psychiatrist and philosopher M. Scott Peck points out, “it is in the solitary mind and soul of the individual that the battle between good and evil is waged and ultimately won or lost.” Thus, the war on evil does not entail extermination of evil people by good people, but instead consists in one’s own struggle with repentance, faith and regeneration. Disciples see their enemies not as threats to be feared and destroyed, but as neighbors and fellow sinners in need of the same redeeming love to which they themselves cling.

The second problem with populism is its backward focus. Salvation is not to be found in the past. Hope that is focused on a return to the Garden of Eden is doomed to frustration. That way is closed to us-forever. Even if by some wizardry it were possible to travel backwards in time, we would not find there any “golden age,” but only the sin and failure we know today. The era when America was somehow better, purer and greater than it is today is no more real than the Israelites’ exaggerated memories of the fleshpots back in Egypt. The Promised Land cannot be found by turning back. It lies exclusively in God’s future. The past is a dead end and those intent on restoring it are running a fool’s errand.

How does one preach in the age of populism? I guess the same as in any other age. The good news of Jesus Christ is always good news and about the only unique thing disciples of Jesus have to talk about. Nevertheless, each era presents its own set of temptations. We must at all costs avoid succumbing to fear. That is not an easy thing. There are some real dangers on the horizon. Military confrontation in Asia and the Middle East; loss of health care for the poorest and sickest among us, discrimination and violence against racial minorities, immigrants, sexual minorities and women. I am not suggesting for one moment that any of these threats are not real or should be taken lightly, ignored or left unchallenged. Nonetheless, responding out of fear and defensiveness with the same angry, caustic and inflated rhetoric inherent in populist culture only transforms us into a mirror image of what we claim to oppose. Disciples of Jesus should know that behind the anger and violence is a frightened person whose world is changing faster than s/he can cope with and in ways s/he finds hard to comprehend. Underneath the aggression is a plea for understanding and acceptance that invites the same compassion and forgiveness Saint Stephen expressed in his final moments.

Here’s a poem about the martyrdom of Saint Stephen by Daniel Berrigan.

Saint Stephen

That day stones fell
I stood and died
unknowable, a mound of dust for heaven
to make man of.
That day stones beat
like stone beasts for a forced entry
to eat my heart: I prayed awhile
then opened brief and tossed them meat.
They ate and died of it: unproofed against
my living phial, great love.
That day
stones flew like hail of stones at first:
my dolorous flesh took their brute will
but stones transformed
to tongues, whispered at every wound:
welcome.
That day stones flowered
to dark rose-field Christ walked and gathered.

Source: Selected & New Poems, (c. 1973 by Daniel Berrigan, pub. by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) p. 46. Daniel Berrigan was born May 9, 1921, in Virginia, Minnesota. He entered the Jesuit novitiate at St. Andrew-on-the-Hudson, New York in August 1939 and graduated in 1946. Thereafter, he entered the Jesuit’s Woodstock College in Baltimore graduating in 1952. He was ordained the same year and appointed professor of New Testament studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse in 1957. Berrigan is remembered by most people for his anti-war activities during the Vietnam era. He spent two years in prison for destroying draft records, damaging nuclear war heads and leading other acts of civil disobedience. He also joined with other prominent religious figures like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to found Clergy and Laity Against the War in Vietnam. In February of 1968 he traveled to North Vietnam and returned with three American prisoners of war he convinced the North Vietnamese to release. Berrigan died on April 30, 2016 of natural causes at a Jesuit health care facility in the Bronx. He was 94 years old.

Acts 7:55–60

This account of the execution or, more accurately, the lynching of Stephen is the concluding episode to a much longer narrative reported in full at Acts 6:1-Acts 8:1. Stephen is one of seven individuals appointed to oversee the distribution of food to “widows” within the Jerusalem church community. As Professor Gerd Ludemann points out, “Many pious Jews settled in Jerusalem in the evening of their lives in order to be buried in the holy city. Therefore the care of their widows was a problem which came up frequently.” Ludemann, Gerd, Early Christianity According to the Traditions in Acts, (c. 1987 Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, pub. by Fortress Press) p. 74. Thus, the church’s practice of providing for its widows had Jewish antecedents. Oddly, however, Stephen seems occupied not with such mundane administrative work but rather with “doing great wonders and signs among the people” and disputing with representatives of the “synagogue of the freedman.” Acts 6:8-10. Stephen’s arguments enrage his opponents who bring him before the Jewish high council on charges of blasphemy. His lengthy defense recorded in Acts 7:1-53 so inflames the anger of those present at the hearing that they drag him outside of the city and stone him to death. Stephen dies with a prayer for their forgiveness on his lips. As a consequence of this event, a great persecution arises against the church in Jerusalem scattering the disciples throughout all of Judea and Samaria. Acts 8:2. But so far from silencing the church, the persecution results in the spread of the gospel and the continued growth of the church. “Those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.” Acts 8:4. This is the context of our reading.

Stoning was the punishment of choice for idolatry (Deuteronomy 17:2-7); human sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2-5);prophesying in the name of foreign gods (Deuteronomy 13:1-5);divination (Leviticus 20:27); blasphemy (Leviticus 24:15-16);Sabbath breaking (Numbers 15:32-36);adultery (Deuteronomy 22:22-24); and disobedience to parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). In 1st Century Judaism the sentence of stoning was rarely imposed and then only after strict legal procedural requirements were satisfied. The punishment could be administered only upon the testimony of two competent witnesses. Between twenty-three and seventy-one judges were required to adjudicate such a capital case, depending upon the offense. A simple majority was required to sustain a verdict. It does not appear that these procedures were observed in the case of Stephen whose death looks much more like the fruit of mob violence than a judicially ordered execution. Stoning, it should be noted, remains a legal form of judicial punishment in Iran, MauritaniaNigeria (in one-third of the country’s states), Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In actual practice, however, stoning is usually carried out by vigilantes or violent mobs.

This text gives us a look into the anatomy of violence. The whole incident begins with a dispute in which Stephen’s opponents find themselves frustrated in their attempts to persuade him that his arguments are wrongheaded. Unable to meet Stephen’s arguments, they resort to attacks on his character. They call him a blasphemer and bring him before the council. But Stephen continues to press his point until his enemies are so enraged that they actually plug their ears against his reasoning. Predictably, they finally resort to violence. Violence is the last desperate attempt of a frustrated debater to silence an opponent whose arguments he cannot meet. It is what happens when we run out of words.

By contrast, Stephen prays for the forgiveness of his executioners, mirroring Jesus’ prayer in Luke’s passion narrative. Luke 23:34. As the first Christian martyr whose death is recorded in the New Testament, Stephen’s witness has inspired and shaped faithful witness to Jesus in the face of persecution throughout the generations. It reinforces my long held conviction that non-violence is not a peripheral virtue, but a central tenant of the gospel witness. There are things worth dying for, but according to Jesus, nothing is worth killing for. In the face of violent persecution, the church’s duty is to die-as did its Lord.

Psalm 31:1–5, 15–16

This is a psalm of lament, one of the most common types found in the Psalter. As noted in last week’s post, the essential elements of its type are:

  1. Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-8.
  2. Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 9-18
  3. Expression of confidence, vss. 19-20
  4. Witness of praise to the community, vss. 21-24.

See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. If some elements are missing in this week’s reading, it is because the lectionary has truncated the psalm, probably in the interest of fitting the readings onto the commercially prescribed bulletin inserts. Moreover, the psalms are prayers formed in the furnace of human experience. As such, they do not always fit neatly into the scholarly categories of literary forms floating about like Platonic prototypes in the scholastic ether.

Verse 5 parallels both Stephen’s dying prayer in Acts 7:59 and that of Jesus in Luke 23:46. Ultimately, the psalms leave the execution of justice in the hands of God. While the psalmists can be quite explicit in their desire to see vengeance upon their enemies (See, e.g., Psalm 137), they nevertheless leave its implementation in the hands of the Lord where it rightly belongs. Pacifism is not a creation of the New Testament, but the human embodiment of the heart and mind belonging to the same God lifted up in the Hebrew Scriptures.

“Thou art my God; my times are in your hands.” Vs. 14. Verses like this are the source of both comfort and consternation. The verse seems to say that my life is in God’s hands. If I know God as merciful, compassionate and intimately involved with me, that should be comforting. It is comforting when times are good and I know who to thank for it. The problem is that I must then account for God’s management in times that are not so good, even terrible and tragic. Some deal with this by suggesting that God sends trials to strengthen and instruct us. There is a degree of plausibility in that approach. Who of us would deny that the most valuable lessons in life are learned through facing challenges, overcoming difficulties and working through problems? Even the most horrible circumstances can (though they don’t always) make us stronger, wiser and more mature. But do we really want to say that God sends sexual predators to molest children so that they can grow through the experience? Not me!

Some theologians deal with this problem by arguing that God does not micromanage creation. God sets up the universe with certain parameters, natural laws and creaturely limitations and then graciously gives us our freedom to live and make our own independent choices. We are, of course, responsible for the choices we make. Some of those choices lead to tragic results. Of course, God is not a detached watchmaker whose task ends when the watch is completed, set and wound up. God is not indifferent to all that takes place on this planet. In fact, God is deeply grieved by events such as genocide, natural disasters and epidemics. But God does not intervene or only intervenes to let us know that he feels our pain. That might make God less of a villain in the eyes of some, but I am not convinced that having a distant and grossly neglectful parent is much better than having an abusive one.

It seems to me that if we are to get out of this conundrum, we need to think differently about God’s power and God’s saving intervention. In some respects, God gave up being almighty as soon as God spoke the word, “Let there be.” Like a child conceived in love, the creation makes a claim upon its Creator. As soon as there is something or someone that is not God, God is not “omnipotent” in the sense that God is the only power there is (though it is proper to say that God is omnipotent in the sense that God is a potent force in every circumstance). Just as a child grows in complexity and variability, so also creation and its human inhabitants exercise growing potential-for good and evil. This presents God with a choice: 1) that of exercising coercive power to compel creation to comply with God’s desire for it; or 2) that of exercising persuasive power through continuous acts of faithfulness and expressions of love. What God wants is for his creatures to love him as he loves them and to trust him. That is the kingdom in which God would have us live. But God cannot get that result by coercing us. God will not reign over us as a Caesar on steroids. If God cannot implement his reign through love, God will not reign.

I believe this is what Paul has in mind when he insists that the “weakness” of God is in reality the power of God. See I Corinthians 1:18-31. God’s power is God’s refusal to be drawn into the cycle of violence to which coercive force always leads. Rightly understood, divine power is not the ability to “make the kingdom happen,” but the patience to continue loving, forgiving and inviting us into the kingdom in the face of all our hostility to it. The power of Jesus’ disciples is the conviction, borne of God’s own conviction and demonstration through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, that love outlasts violence. The weakness of God (which is in reality God’s strength) is the patience of Christ’s Body living under the peaceful reign of God in a violent world. Suffering, loss and even martyrdom are not the exceptions, but the rule for disciples of Jesus. To be in God’s hands is to take up the cross through which God reigns.

1 Peter 2:2–10

“Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk.” Vs. 2. This is a profoundly feminine image of God the mother, feeding and nurturing her children with “pure spiritual milk.” The disciple is as dependent upon Jesus as a newborn living on its mother’s milk. The image of the “living stone” follows immediately thereafter with an allusion (made quite specific further on) to Psalm 118:22. Like a stone rejected by builders which later turns out to be the cornerstone of the structure, so Jesus is the rejected Messiah who turns out to be the cornerstone of the new age. Attention then turns to the disciples who as “living stones” are built into a “spiritual house.” Vs. 5. This image then gives way to that of “a holy priesthood” offering “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Christ.” Vs. 5. Unpacking all of this is a daunting task.

The stone is a double image. For the faithful, it is a pillar of strength and, as our psalmist observed, “a rock of refuge.” Psalm 31:2. For unbelievers, however, the rock is a source of stumbling. Vs. 8 citing Isaiah 8:14-15. Even a rock that makes one stumble can be the occasion of salvation, however. If you are running head long down the path of self-destruction, tripping on a stone and landing flat on your face is the best thing that can happen to you.

Verses 9-10 apply to this Christian community in Asia Minor a laundry list of honorary titles for Israel taken from Exodus 19:6 and Isaiah 43:20-21. Yet this church, whose composition is significantly if not predominantly gentile, is reminded that she comes into the heritage of Israel by the gracious invitation extended to her through Jesus. “Once you were no people; but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.” Vs. 10. Of course, this message is even more urgent and essential for the 21st Century church that is all but exclusively gentile!

John 14:1–14

This reading is a frequent sermon text at funerals. Jesus’ assurance that there are many rooms in his Father’s house and that he goes there to prepare a place for his disciples is a powerful and comforting image for all who face the loss of a loved one. Those of us who cut our biblical teeth on the King James Version of the Bible will recall that the word for “room” (mone) is there translated “mansion.” The actual meaning of “mone” is far more modest and thus the RSV rendering of that word merely as “room.” This should not detract from the magnitude of the promise, however. Jesus is offering far more than real estate here. He is promising to make a place for us in the Father’s household. That has ramifications not only for the hereafter, but for the here and now. Eternal life begins now as the disciples begin to believe in Jesus’ promises and shape their lives according to that belief. As St. Augustine puts it, “[Jesus] prepares the dwelling places by preparing those who are to dwell in them.” Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of St. John, Tractate LXVIII, 1, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VII, (c. 1978 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) p. 322.

Jesus makes the remarkable claim that his disciple’s know the way where he is going. Vs. 4. Understandably, Thomas objects that he and his fellow disciples do not know the way. Vs. 5. Jesus replies that he is the way. Vs. 6. What the disciples do not yet understand is that Jesus “going away” is not a separation from them, but the porthole to a deeper intimacy and more profound presence. The coming of the “advocate” or Holy Spirit will initiate the oneness between Jesus and his disciples for which he prays in John 17. “The answer given by Jesus [to Thomas] articulates the high Christology of the fourth evangelist. It is not the case that Jesus is ‘away’ from the Father, and must therefore find and tread the way to him; he is the way himself: it is not the case that there is a truth about the Father which Jesus must learn and then pass on; he is the truth himself: it is not the case that the Father has eternal life which he will give to the Son when the Son reaches his home, so the Son can then bestow life; he is the life himself. And no other approach to the Father can be made than the one which has been opened in the incarnation of the eternal Word.” Marsh, John, Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1968 by John Marsh, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 504.

In what I imagine must have been a tone of utter exasperation, Philip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and we shall be satisfied.” Vs. 8. Jesus replies that whoever has seen him has seen the Father. Vs. 9. This is a remarkable statement and one that should shatter every notion we have about who and what God is. Jesus, who will soon surrender without resistance to the temple police and die helplessly on the cross is all there is of God to see. There is nothing more, nothing hidden inside or concealed. What you see is what you get. Yet this Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Vs. 6.

It should be clear by now that in declaring himself the “way, the truth and the life,” Jesus is letting his disciples know 1) that his departure is in fact the prelude to his return in a fuller, more robust presence among his disciples than they have known throughout their days of following him on the way to the cross; 2) that the way to the Father is through fellowship with him soon to be had through the coming of the “advocate.” The message of Ascension is on the horizon here. Jesus’ ascending to the right hand of the Father is his coming to fill all creation with the fullness of God. The last supper is not Jesus’ going away party.

Sunday, January 29th

FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Micah 6:1–8
Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1:18–31
Matthew 5:1–12

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.

America

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.

Micah 6:1–8

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.

Psalm 15

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.

1 Corinthians 1:18–31

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.

Matthew 5:1–12

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.

 

Sunday, January 1st

FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS

Isaiah 63:7–9
Psalm 148
Hebrews 2:10–18
Matthew 2:13–23

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord God, you know that we cannot place our trust in our own powers. As you protected the infant Jesus, so defend us and all the needy from harm and adversity, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Just last week John the Evangelist delivered to us a lyrical recitation of God’s Word becoming flesh. This week Matthew the Evangelist delivers a narrative portrayal of precisely what that means. We get a close look at what John was talking about when he told us that “he came to his own people and his own would not receive him.” God is staking everything on a baby born into a world where life is cheap, where pity must not cloud decisions made for the sake of national security, where there is no truly safe place. That is the Christmas Story in a nutshell.

As the beneficiary of white male privilege, I didn’t grow up reading the Christmas Story in that way. I have been pretty thoroughly brainwashed by images of a safe, dray and cozy little manger with clean hay, gentle animals and well-washed shepherds. The manger I grew up with was not a rude and forbidding place at all. It was a comfortable suite warmed by the light of the star overhead and sheltered by angels. All was calm, all was bright. Nothing was scary.

It is precisely because I don’t experience the world as a dangerous place that I have to struggle against the heresy of progressivism. My people lament that, for the first time since the great depression, the current generation of American young people cannot expect to live better than their parents. Such a complaint could only come from among the privileged, those of us who grew up believing that the world is becoming a progressively better place; that every year is supposed to bring a raise and a bonus; that each newly manufactured i-phone will be better than the last. I don’t see the world from the perspective of those who, on their best day, see nothing in their future but bare survival.

Of course, I understand in a cerebral sort of way that I could easily die any given day of the week on New Jersey Route 4 as I make my way down to the church. I know there is a possibility that I might have a brain aneurism waiting to blow at any second. A few close brushes with near catastrophe on the road have given me brief glimpses into the existence people in Aleppo know as everyday life. Most of the time, however, I am blissfully unaware of my fragileness, my extreme vulnerability. Most of the time, I am not consciously living as though I were at risk. Most of the time, my comfortable position of privilege blinds me to my own vulnerability and hardens me toward those who know it all too well.

That’s a problem because the Messiah lives and breathes among the vulnerable. He was, after all, a child born to a homeless couple in a stable. He was a child of political refugees fleeing across the border into Egypt from the sword of a hostile government. Jesus was a child born into a people living under military occupation. He was sentenced to death and executed as a criminal. Among the oppressed, among the vulnerable, among the least of the human family-this is where the Word becomes flesh. For this reason, he is frequently invisible to those of us who know only privilege. His proclamation of good news to the poor fills us with dread rather than hope because we can see no further than what we stand to lose if he is right. For those of us whose lives are sheltered in privilege that is maintained at the expense of the rest of the world, the Christmas Story-the real one-kind of stinks.

Or does it? What if the privileged life we fear losing is not worth the efforts we are making to save it? What if the cost of protecting what we have with gated communities, locked doors, advanced alarm systems and elaborate surveillance protocols is robbing us blind? What if the fear of losing our stuff exceeds and spoils whatever enjoyment we get out of having it? What if you really could have Christ be at the center of your Christmas because you were no longer under the pressure to buy the latest gifts, put on the most elaborate feast and figure out how you will pay for it all when it’s over? What if we finally discovered that the only thing we really have to lose is our bondage to a materialistic and self-centered existence that is choking the last vestige of humanity out of us?  What if we learned to see in the face of the poor, not the eyes of envy staring greedily at all we have, but the invitation of Jesus to care for him as generously as he cares for us?

The good news of Christmas for those of us who live in privilege is that, as mean, fearful and insensitive as we have become, the Messiah has come for us as well. Even now he is living on our streets, in refugee camps throughout the world, in our prisons and in our shelters. He is here. Emmanuel. God with us. May the Christmas narratives give us eyes to see him and hearts to embrace him.

Here’s a poem by Denise Levertov about the Word becoming flesh.

It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.

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.

Isaiah 63:7–9

This passage is the opening section of a psalm of intercession, the complete text of which is Isaiah 63:7-64:12. The entire psalm should be read in order to get the context of the verses making up our lesson. These verses constitute the beginning of a historical prologue that runs to verse 9. They recall Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and God’s leadership throughout her long journey to Canaan. Verses 10-19 acknowledge that, in contrast to God’s faithfulness to Israel, Israel has been less than faithful to her God. Indeed, “We have become like those over whom thou hast never ruled, like those who are not called by thy name.” vs. 19. The psalmist/prophet nevertheless appeals to God’s mercy and steadfast faithfulness to the covenant promises, confident that this God’s longsuffering love for his people remains even now. “Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou the potter; we are the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, consider, we are all they people.” Isaiah 64:8. Israel always understood what is expressed in the New Testament letter of James: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” James 2:13. Therefore, Israel could be as insistent that God comply with his covenant promises as she was candid about her own covenant failures. God remains faithful even when his people are not.

This wonderful psalm comes to us from the third section of Isaiah composed by a prophet speaking to the Jews in Palestine following their return from Babylonian exile in the latter half of the 6th Century. They were resettling themselves in the land and seeking to rebuild their lives and their ruined city under extremely difficult conditions. The prayer makes clear to these people that their own unfaithfulness is largely responsible for the difficult plight in which they now find themselves. Nevertheless, they must also understand that while God punishes Israel’s unfaithfulness, he does not abandon Israel or cease to be faithful to his own covenant obligations. Therefore, Israel may indeed pray for and expect God to be merciful and lead her through these difficult days as God has always done for his chosen people. The bleak circumstances should therefore not blind the people of God to the promise of a future wrought in yet further acts of salvation.

 

Psalm 148

This psalm is one of a group that begins and ends with an expression of praise: Hallelujah or “Praise YAHWEH.” (Psalms 146-150)  It is beautifully structured. The injunctions to praise begin with the heavens, the angels, the sun, moon and starts descending to the earth and its creatures. The forces of nature, geographical features (mountains and hills) and plant life all are called to join in the choir of praise to God. All people from mighty kings, to slave girls to small children are drawn into this cosmic hymn of praise to the Creator. Finally, the call to praise is directed to “the people of Israel who are near to him.” The perfect symmetry of this psalm is further illustrated by its final focus on this one particular people who, though at the narrowest end of the spectrum, are nonetheless “near” to the almighty Creator God.

This psalm is pure praise. It seeks nothing from God. It is not offered up in thanksgiving for any particular act of goodness or salvation on God’s part. The psalmist praises God because that is what creatures, all creatures, even “inanimate” creatures do. It is what we are created for according the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The longer I live, the more I am convinced that this might well be so and that perhaps a major source of our misery stems from our failure to understand it. The universe was spoken into existence by God and so its very existence is an act of praise. Praise is therefore nothing other than going with the grain of the universe. It is recognizing that joy is found only as we learn to sing our little piece in tune with the rest of the choir. Only then does our voice amount to anything worth listening to. If we were not so terribly absorbed in pursuing whatever it is we think will make us happy and accomplishing what we believe to be important and establishing our own legacy, we might not mind so much that we are after all “grass that withers and flowers that fade.”

Psalm 148 is included in the song of praise sung by the three young men thrown into the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar in the 3rd Chapter of Daniel. Don’t look for it in your Bible, though. It is found only in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (known as the Septuagint) and is omitted by most English translations that rely mainly on the Hebrew texts. It may also interest you Lutherans to know that this Apocryphal song is included in its entirety at page 120 of The Lutheran Hymnal, the official hymn book of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod from 1940 to the late 1970s.

It is difficult to date this psalm. Most scholars view it as a post-exilic psalm composed for worship in the Jerusalem temple rebuilt following the return from exile that began in 538 B.C.E. That does not preclude, however, the possibility that the author was working from the text or oral tradition of a much older tradition from the period of the Judean monarchy.

Hebrews 2:10–18

For my take on Hebrews, see my post of December 25, 2016. You might also want to take a look at the summary article of Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary on Enterthebible.org. Suffice to say that I believe the author of this letter is striving to demonstrate to a Christian audience traumatized by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem how Jesus now fulfills the mediation function of the temple cult and its priesthood. This trauma was shared by the rest of the Jewish community (from which followers of Jesus were at this point inseparable). For what ultimately became modern Judaism, the Torah (in the broadest sense of the word) became the mediating agent of God’s redemptive presence. Worship in the Synagogue therefore revolved around the learning, study and application of Torah to the life of the community. For disciples of Jesus, Jesus himself was the mediator. He animated his resurrected Body, the church with his life giving Spirit made present through the church’s preaching and communal (Eucharistic) meals.

Here the author of Hebrews points out that Jesus fulfills his priestly office through offering himself in his full humanity. The sacrificial language permeating the letter can be off putting if we adopt the medieval notion that God needs a blood sacrifice in order to forgive our sins. This understanding (or misunderstanding) is common and underlies the theory of “substitutionary atonement,” namely, the belief that Jesus’ crucifixion was God’s act of justified punishment for human sin absorbed by Jesus so that we can avoid it. That is not how sacrifice was understood in the Hebrew Scriptures. Sacrifices were more often than not offered in thanksgiving. Moreover, even when offered to atone for sin, they were not seen as “payment.” Rather, they afforded the worshiper an opportunity to share in a holy a meal where reconciliation and forgiveness could be experienced and celebrated. In the one instance where sin is transferred to a sacrificial animal (Day of Atonement), the animal is not killed, but sent out into the wilderness. Leviticus 16:1-22. Clearly, God does not need to kill anyone in order to forgive us.

Rightly understood, the language of sacrifice makes good sense. The death of Jesus was a sacrifice in the sense that loving another person deeply always involves a sacrifice of self for the wellbeing of the loved one. That is particularly so where the loved one is deeply involved in self-destructive behavior and resistant to your efforts to help him or her. Parents who walk with their children through the dark valley of addiction know better than anyone else how deeply painful love can be and how much must sometimes be sacrificed. So also it cost God dearly to love a world in rebellion against him. When God embraced us with human arms we crucified him. Notwithstanding, God continues to love the world through Jesus’ resurrected (though wounded and broken) Body. Such is the sacrifice that is Jesus.

Matthew 2:13–23

As throughout his entire gospel, Matthew gives us a panoply of direct references, allusions and echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures. The instances in both last week’s reading and this Sunday’s lesson in which Joseph is warned and guided by dreams remind us of another Joseph whose dreams ultimately led him to Egypt. See Genesis 37-50. Of course, the parallel between Moses’ escape from the Egyptian Pharaoh’s genocidal policies toward the Hebrew slaves and Jesus’ escape from Herod’s slaughter of the innocents is also hard to miss. Jesus’ time spent in Egypt parallels Israel’s painful sojourn in that land of bondage and his return to Palestine shadows Israel’s Exodus from Egypt and return to the land promised to Abraham and Sarah.

Matthew cites Jeremiah 31:15:

A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.

Jeremiah is speaking here about the ten tribes forming the Northern Kingdom of Israel that fell to Assyria in about 721 B.C.E. Much of the population was carried into exile and so the land, personified by Rachel-mother of the northern “Joseph” tribes-weeps for her exiled children. The brutality of Herod, the so called “King of the Jews,” is contrasted with that of the hated Assyrian Empire. It should be noted that Herod was not a Jew and there were few Jews who would have recognized him as their legitimate king. He was, in fact, an Edomite. Edom, you may recall from prior posts, sided with the Babylonians and took part in their sack of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. Moreover, he was appointed King of Judea by the Jews’ hated Roman overlords. Though he sought to win the affection of his Jewish subjects through building a temple in Jerusalem that surpassed even Solomon’s, Herod was still hated by all but those in the highest echelons of power who benefited from his corrupt reign.

I believe that Matthew is consciously juxtaposing Herod, “King of the Jews” to Jesus who will also receive this title, though only as a cruel jest. The king who hangs onto his throne by means of dealing death is contrasted with the king who raises the dead. The king who rules through violence is contrasted with the king who renounces violence. The king who by desperate and despicable acts of cruelty seeks to hang onto his life is contrasted with the king who pours out his life for the people he loves. We are asked to decide which king really reigns. God’s verdict is expressed in Jesus’ resurrection. Herod is still dead. Jesus lives. That says it all.

Most scholars question the historicity of this account of the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. They point out that Herod died in 4 B.C.E.-before Jesus is supposed to have been born. The birth date historically assigned to Jesus is mostly arbitrary, however. We cannot say with any certainty precisely when Jesus was born and a four year discrepancy is hardly conclusive. Although there is no other historical record of this terrible event, that too is not necessarily dispositive. Herod was well known for his paranoia and brutality. The appearance of an astronomical phenomenon accompanied by rumors that the descendent to arise from the City of David foretold by the scriptures had been born would surely be sufficient to trouble this tyrant who in his later years became increasingly paranoid and fearful of losing his throne. Herod’s cruel and inhuman command to murder all infants two years and under would hardly have been out of character for a man capable of killing his wife of many years and his own children. In a period during which the Roman Empire was still smarting from civil war, repressing revolutionary uprisings and seeking to crush banditry, it would hardly be surprising that a tragedy of only local significance should fail to find its way into these blood soaked annals of history. That said, it is also clear that Matthew employs this event as a literary device designed to illuminate the person and work of Jesus through parallels with Hebrew scriptural people and events. Thus, we ought not to obsess over whether and to what extent the slaughter of the innocents correlates with any particular historically verifiable event.

Sunday, November 13th

Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Malachi 4:1–2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6–13
Luke 21:5–19

Prayer of the Day: O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without you nothing is strong, nothing is holy. Embrace us with your mercy, that with you as our ruler and guide, we may live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

This Sunday’s lessons are hard to hear. They all bear the dreadful news of God’s judgment. Even the Psalm, which is a jubilant hymn of praise, ends with the dire warning that the Lord “comes to judge the earth.” I am not sure how to preach these texts as good news in the shadow of an election cycle that has laid bare for us the darkest angels of our nature and exposed the deep race, class, gender and ideological divides in our nation. By the time Sunday rolls around, the question of who is to occupy the oval office will have been settled. But I doubt that the deep wounds we have inflicted upon one another will be on their way to healing anytime soon. With all of the raw anger hanging in the air, what healing effect can be expected from preaching the anger of God? With all the judging we have done against one another over the last year, what good can possibly come from turning up the volume of that anger to cosmic dimensions?

Perhaps there is a silver lining here. After all, anger thrives only between siblings, neighbors, people who have some connection to each other. Even enemies are bonded, if only by their mutual hate. I wouldn’t much care what a perfect stranger thought or did about something in which I have no interest. Our anger, then, is at least a testament that our identity as a people remains intact. We are united by matters about which we all passionately care. My hope is that we will eventually find the grace to see beyond our differences to a good that is common to all of us. Whoever occupies the White House during the next four years will have no greater challenge than helping us catch a glimpse of that good which is greater and more inspiring than all of our own selfish interests.

So, too, I believe that the anger of God testifies to God’s abiding commitment to God’s creation and God’s people. It is the shape God’s passionate love takes in a creation distorted, exploited and ruined by the selfish appetites of its human creatures. It is precisely because God loves us so dearly that God says “no” to our self-destructive impulses, “no” to our Promethean ambitions to exploit the earth, “no” to the exaltation of our own clans, tribes and nations over God’s gracious reign. God will not permit us to achieve peace at the expense of justice, happiness at the expense of compassion or wealth at the expense of the poor. Yes, God is angry, but not because of anything we have done directly to God. Yes, God inflicts punishment, but not because God cannot abide infractions against God’s law. God is angry over the misery our sin inflicts upon ourselves and our neighbors. God’s punishment aims not to repay us for our wrong doing, but to curb our self-destructive impulses which, left unchecked, would destroy us. God’s judgment is God’s mercy though, like headstrong toddlers bent on running into the street, we see God’s stern intervention only as a malicious restraint on our willful freedom.

Paul reminds us in his second letter to the Church in Corinth that we are Christ’s ambassadors sent to proclaim reconciliation between God and humanity. We are the new people of God who are, as John of Patmos reminds us, made up of every tribe, language and nation. Reconciliation is the only way forward for the church and, I believe, for the nation and for the world. We cannot hope to rid ourselves of all the folks we don’t like. Twelve million undocumented immigrants, generations of descendants of slaves still smarting from the sting of racism, women steadfastly pushing with their gifts and abilities into what used to be a man’s world, gay, lesbian and transgendered persons seeking justice and legal protection for their families; angry white men who feel that their jobs, their culture and their very country is slipping out of their hands; we are all here to stay. There can be no future for America that does not include us all. Reconciliation is not an option. It is our only hope. We cannot afford to allow any obstacles to deter us from pursuing it. The pursuit of anything less is too horrible to contemplate.

Here’s a poem about the dreariness, resentment and joy of human connectedness by John Updike.

Relatives

Just the thought of them makes your jawbone ache:
those turkey dinners, those holidays with
the air around the woodstove baked to a stupor,
and Aunt Lil’s tablecloth stained by her girlhood’s gravy.
A doggy wordless wisdom whimpers from
your uncles’ collected eyes; their very jokes
creak with genetic sorrow, a strain
of common heritable that hurts the gut.

Sheer boredom and fascination! A spidering
of chromosomes webs even the infants in
and holds us fast around the spread
of rotting food, of too-sweet pie.
The cousins buzz, the nephews crawl;
to love one’s self is to love them all.

Source, Collected Poems, (c. 1993 by John Updike, pub. by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.). John Updike (1932-2009) was a prolific American author and poet. He grew up in Shillington, Pennsylvania. His early poems and fiction are grounded in the gritty industrial and cultural environment of the rust belt. His awards include the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the American Book Award for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for both fiction and criticism. You can learn more about John Updike and read more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Malachi 4:1–2a

The name Malachi means “my messenger” in Hebrew. It was most likely a pseudo name derived from chapter 3:1 and given as the author of this prophetic book by a later editor. This prophet was active sometime around 500 to 450 B.C. after the Jews returned from Exile in Babylon and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. His concern is for proper maintenance of the temple cult and the worship practices of his people. Malachi castigates the priests for accepting sick and defective animals in sacrifice at the temple rather than animals “without blemish” as the Levitical laws required. Malachi 1:6-14See, e.g., Leviticus 1:3Leviticus 1:10. He condemns the men of the community for divorcing the “wife of your youth” (perhaps in order to obtain a newer model?). Malachi 2:13-16. There is a clear connection here between unfaithfulness to Israel’s covenant with her God and the unfaithfulness of Israelite men to their wives. Both are based on covenant promises. Offering animals unfit for consumption as offerings at the temple reflects contempt for God’s covenant with Israel just as cavalierly divorcing one’s wife of many years constitutes an egregious breach of faith on the human plain. There is no separation of the sacred from the secular. All of life is bound together by covenant promises.

In chapter 3, speaking on behalf of the Lord, Malachi declares: “Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me.” Malachi 3:1. But this prophecy has a double edge, for “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” Malachi 3:2. Like a refiner’s fire, this messenger will purify the priesthood so that the peoples’ offerings and worship will once again be pleasing to the Lord and invoke blessing rather than judgment. Malachi 3:3-4. It is against the backdrop of these oracles that the verses from our lesson must be read. The day of judgment that consumes the wicked is also the refining fire that will perfect the people of God.

This lesson serves as a reminder that salvation cannot come without judgment. Forgiveness does not benefit the sinner apart from the sinner’s repentance. Sanctification is the flip side of salvation by grace. Faith that does not transform is something less than faith. If one does not come away from an encounter with God full of stark terror or with a broken bone or with blinded eyes, then you have to wonder whether the encounter was with the God of Israel and the Father of Jesus Christ. Nobody comes away from a meeting with the living God unscathed. Yet, though God be ever so terrifying, God is nevertheless good. It is a measure of God’s compassion that God takes the trouble to judge us, refine us and resurrect us as new people.

The danger here is that we might be tempted to read this text as drawing the line between the righteous and the wicked prematurely. That was precisely the problem with much of the religious tradition that Jesus confronted in his ministry. Chief among the complaints against him was that he associated with “sinners.” E.g. Mark 2:15-17. We do well to remember that the line between righteousness and wickedness does not run along any international border, or between any racial, religious, ethnic or political dividing line. Rather, the line runs through each human heart which must be both judged and redeemed by the Word of the Lord.

Psalm 98

This psalm of praise is an “enthronement psalm” celebrating the lordship of Israel’s God. The people are invited to sing a “new song” to the Lord echoing a nearly identical phrase in Isaiah 42:10 which introduces a song used in celebration of God’s coming to deliver Israel from captivity in Babylon. This similarity has led some commentators to conclude that the psalm is post-exilic. That might well be the case, but it seems to me a slender reed upon which to make a definitive decision on dating. The victories of the Lord celebrated in verses 1-3 could as easily refer to events connected with the Exodus. In the absence of reference to any specific historical event, the issue of dating must remain open.

Verse 6 makes clear that the “king” whose enthronement is celebrated here is the Lord. This, too, may well indicate a post-exilic time in which any king there might be would necessarily be a gentile ruler. The psalm would then be a bold assertion that the earth is under the sole jurisdiction of the Lord rather than any emperor or king asserting authority over the nations. If, however, this psalm dates back to the monarchic period of Israel’s history, it would testify to the prophetic insistence that even Israel’s king is finally subject to the reign of God.

Verses 4-8 extend the call to praise out to the whole earth, its peoples and all the forces of nature. All the earth is invited to “make a joyful noise to the Lord” with all manner of musical instruments. Vss. 4-6. The sea is ordered to “roar,” the floods to “clap” and the hills to “sing together for joy.” What is the great act of God evoking such cosmic celebration? The answer is given in verse 3 where the psalmist announces that God “has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.” This faithfulness has been expressed in a victory handed to Israel that is witnessed by the whole earth. Vs. 3. Furthermore, Israel will not be the only beneficiary of God’s faithfulness. For this God comes to “judge the earth” and “the world” with righteousness, establishing “equity” for all peoples. Vs. 9

Whether this psalm was written during the monarchic period of Israel’s history when she was but a small player in a violent and dangerous geopolitical neighborhood or whether it was composed following the Babylonian Exile when Israel lived as a conquered people, there was and still is a huge gap between the psalmist’s bold assertions of God’s reign and the “reality” in which the people were living. As we will see in our gospel lesson, God’s people of every age are called to live as children under God’s reign in the midst of a world where many other hostile forces assert their lordship. Faith refuses to accept the “reality” of the present world as the only one or the final one. God’s reign is the only real kingship and will endure after “crowns and thrones” have perished and after all other kingdoms have “waxed and waned.” “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” The Lutheran Hymnal, # 658.

2 Thessalonians 3:6–13

The relationship between the form and substance of II Thessalonians and I Thessalonians has led most commentators to believe that II Thessalonians was composed by a Christian leader writing to a later generation in the name of Paul and his colleagues. However that might be, this second letter echoes Paul’s admonitions to the Thessalonians in the first letter not to concern themselves with “times” and “seasons” for the triumphal return of Christ. I Thessalonians 5:1-11. Here, too, Paul urges the church “not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word or by letter purporting to come from us to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.” Vs 2. He then continues to discuss the appearance of “the man of lawlessness” and the “rebellion” preceding the second coming. This particular section of scripture has given rise to much speculation and is one of the texts that appears to have inspired the Left Behind series. Paul (or the anonymous author) does not explain who the “man of lawlessness” is, nor does he say much about the force that is “restraining him now” discussed in the omitted verses 6-12. Evidently, he assumes that the readers know perfectly well what he was talking about and they probably did. We, alas, have no clue. That is what happens when you read someone else’s mail.  You might also want to read the summary article on enterthebible.org by Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament for some good background on this brief letter.

In today’s lesson Paul addresses a perennial problem for the church. What to do with slackers in the Body of Christ? It appears that there were folks in the Thessalonian church taking advantage of the church’s hospitality and charity. Perhaps the congregation practiced common ownership of goods similar to the Jerusalem church in the Book of Acts. See Acts 4:32-37. Under this “honor system” the temptation to game the system runs high. See Acts 5:1-11. Or it might be that this church had an order of widows similar to that described in Paul’s first letter to Timothy under which elderly widows with no family to care for them received sustenance from the church in return for their commitment to minister to the needs of the saints. It seems, however, that the order was becoming a dumping ground for unwanted grannies and a refuge for younger women capable of gainful employment. I Timothy 5:3-16. In any event, it is clear that the church in Thessalonica is beset by folks who are taking far more than they give.

This problem is comparable to the dilemma presented by drifters who show up at our doors with a heart wrenching problem that cash and only cash can solve. It is perhaps similar to members of our churches who feel entitled to its benefits, but feel no responsibility to support it. They show up when someone needs to be baptized, confirmed, married or buried. You might see them on Christmas or Easter. You don’t see them at any other time, but they still think of the church as “theirs.” It is easy to share Paul’s annoyance with these slackers and I am sometimes tempted to call them out on their crass abuses of our ministry. But I never do. My reluctance is twofold. I am glad to see anyone come within the influence of the Body of Christ because I see there an opportunity to exercise hospitality and witness to the gospel.

Additionally, I cannot help but feel that the church itself is partly responsible for creating this problem. Back in the days when everyone went to church, evangelism (such that it was) consisted of little more than consumer marketing. Because we assumed that everyone was looking for a church, we advertised our church as the best in town. We touted our air conditioned buildings; our youth programs; our Sunday Schools and varied activities for seniors. Even when our outreach was specifically religious, we sold our faith as a consumer good. The trouble with consumer advertising is that it only draws consumers and consumers only consume. When we ask them to contribute, they balk-and rightly so. They were lured into our midst with the promise of freebies. Then we go and stick an offering plate under their nose, ask them to give up an evening every month to be on a committee or spend their Saturday raking our leaves. It’s a classic bait and switch.

Jesus did not market to consumers. Even to those who sought him out, he warned them that they might be sleeping on the ground or even dying on a cross should they follow him. He had no use for people who put even their family commitments ahead of discipleship. Jesus never sought mass appeal. He avoided it like the plague. Like the United States Marines, Jesus was looking for a few good people. He wanted disciples, not members. He spent the years of his ministry working intensely with twelve people and that remained his focus even when it meant turning the crowds away. Paul’s ultimatum might sound rather severe: “Whoever will not work, let them not eat.” Vs. 10. We do well to remember that Paul is not a governmental agent denying food stamps to hungry families. He is an apostle speaking to people who are under the false impression that the church is a club designed to meet the needs of its members rather than the Body of Christ devoted to the work of preaching, reconciliation and peacemaking. For their own sake and for the sake of the church these slackers need to be called to account.

Now that we are living in a post Christian age where there no longer is a huge contingent of church shoppers out there to whom we can market church membership, we can perhaps find our way back to the good work of making disciples.

Luke 21:5–19

This section of the gospel, like apocalyptic literature generally, has been subject to all manner of end times prognostication. With the arguable exception of “great signs from heaven” in vs 11, the natural and political traumas described have been regular features of every age. Consequently, it has always been possible to employ these scriptures to convince gullible persons with short historical memories that the end has in fact drawn near. Careful reading of the text reveals, however, that Jesus’ point is precisely the opposite. Neither the destruction of the temple nor any of the geopolitical fallout signal the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus is careful to point out that the cosmic signs heralding that final chapter will be impossible to miss. Luke 21:25-28.  The disciples should not imagine that the ordinary traumas of war, pestilence and famine constitute signs of the end. Vss. 10-11.

New Testament Scholarship has sometimes viewed the entire Gospel of Luke and its sequel, the Book of Acts, as a response to dashed expectations of a church that had been looking for the imminent return of Jesus in glory. The German New Testament scholar Hans Conzelmann wrote extensively on the Gospel of Luke arguing that Luke changed the emphasis in Jesus’ teaching from an expectation that the coming of the Son of Man was imminent to a focus on the redemptive presence of God’s saving work in history through the church. This, he maintained, was Luke’s answer to a theological crisis in the church occasioned by the delay of Christ’s return as expected. That would account for the emphasis in Sunday’s gospel reading on the indefinite period of testimony required of the disciples between the resurrection and Christ’s return. Conzelmann’s thinking has been quite influential in shaping New Testament scholarship generally.

Frankly, I think Conzelmann was wrong. I am not convinced that Jesus thought the end of the world or the consummation of God’s kingdom was imminent. I believe rather that Jesus understood the kingdom as having come in its fullness through his ministry and that he invited his disciples to join him in living under its jurisdiction. I also think he understood that life under the reign of God would take the form of the cross until the “coming of the Son of Man,” the timing of which is known to God alone. I am unconvinced that the church anticipated the immediate return of Christ. Though mindful that the Son of Man would come “like a thief in the night” and that watchfulness was important, I believe the church well understood that Israel waited 400 years for liberation from Egypt; wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land and spent 70 years in exile before returning home from Babylon. Though perhaps tempted by “end times” hysteria (as is our own age), the church understood from the get go that God will not be rushed. The church also understood that God can be trusted to supply her with whatever might be required to complete her journey-however long that journey might take. In short, there never was a “crisis of faith” in the early church over the supposed delay of Jesus’ return necessitating a re-write of the church’s preaching or self-understanding.

Patience and endurance have always been central to the church’s life of faith. These virtues are learned under the yolk of oppression when no hope of liberation is in sight; when one is wandering in the wilderness without a map; or while one lives as a captive foreigner in a hostile, alien culture. These virtues might not seem so very important when the direction is clear, the way ahead is smooth and the goal is in sight. But when you are waiting for all the weapons of war to be beaten into plowshares, for a world in which each person can sit under his or her own fig tree living without fear, for the blind to see, the lame to walk, the hungry to be fed and every tear to be wiped from every eye, for that you need a truck load of endurance. It is that for which I pray to help me wait faithfully for Jesus’ triumphal return and “live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal.”

What the disciples should be preparing for is an indefinite time in which they are to live as children of their Heavenly Father in a world hostile to his reign. They can expect persecution from the government, from their fellow countrymen and even from members of their own families. Vs. 12. The disciples must be prepared to give their testimony and may do so with confidence as Jesus will give them “a mouth and wisdom which none of [their] adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” Vs. 15. Though the “end” may not be imminent, the kingdom surely is-and the world’s opposition to it as well. The faithful disciple can therefore assume that tribulation will be the status quo. Nevertheless, such tribulation is not to be met with fear and foreboding. While the rest of the world is running for cover, disciples of Jesus are invited to hold their heads high in hope. They understand their trials to be not death-throws, but birth pangs.

Some New Testament scholars have practically made a career of dissecting this text and trying to figure out where the gospel writers got their material, what the material looked like before they wove it into their gospel narratives and what different meaning (if any) these supposedly independent pieces might have had in the context where they were originally composed. The fancy name for that is “redaction criticism.” In the case of this particular gospel lesson, it is commonly held that Luke relied upon Mark 13 (the “Little Apocalypse”) in composing these verses. The similarities between the two gospels at this point of intersection are striking. But there are also significant differences leading to a split of opinion over whether Luke may have relied upon other sources in addition to Mark. Marshall, I. Howard, Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978, The Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 755. There is also a good deal of scholarly argument over whether Mark relied upon a tract circulating during the Jewish War of 70 A.C.E.  Ibid. 761. That war ended with Rome’s conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. It is not altogether inconceivable that such written oracles warning of the impending disaster and seeking to interpret its significance were in existence at that time or that Mark might have relied upon one of them in composing his Little Apocalypse. Yet the fact remains that no document of this kind has ever been identified. Thus, the suggestion that either Mark or Luke relied upon such a document is merely speculative. At least that is how I see it. Bottom line? Whatever may or may not have happened along the way in formation of the gospels might be of academic interest, but as far as I am concerned it is not particularly significant. I preach from the gospel as it is, not from what somebody else tells me it might have looked like in some earlier form.

Sunday, October 30th

TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 1:10-18
Psalm 32:1-7
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Merciful God, gracious and benevolent, through your Son you invite all the world to a meal of mercy. Grant that we may eagerly follow his call, and bring us with all your saints into your life of justice and joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

In William Saroyan’s play, The Time of Your Life, protagonist “Joe” tells Tom, his young assistant and admirer, that he prefers to keep his wealth out of his own sight and management so that he doesn’t have to see the way it is hurting people. Perhaps Zacchaeus felt the same way. After all, he was a chief tax collector which meant that the dirty work of extorting from his own people the tax required by Rome, his own premium and that of his underlings was the job of his subordinates. He told them what he needed to get out of each individual and they got it for him. Zacchaeus didn’t have to see the arm twisting and the knee capping. He didn’t have to hear the desperate pleas of destitute farmers asking only to be left with enough to feed their families for one more day. No doubt he knew that the money coming into him was tainted with fraud, extortion and violence. But he also knew that life isn’t fair and only a fool expects it to be that way. Zacchaeus knew that, if he were to step out of his lucrative position, there would be plenty of others glad to step in. He knew he could not make the world one wit better by standing on principle, but in so doing, he obviously would make things a great deal worse for himself. So it made good sense simply to enjoy his wealth and not think too much about where it came from.

I don’t know that my own situation is much different. I don’t directly exploit, injure or discriminate against anyone else. But the lifestyle to which I have grown accustomed is clearly a burden on the planet. I know that the colonial ambitions of my ancestors produced a world order that perpetuates systemic poverty and injustice from which, as a white American male, I have benefited greatly. The funds held in my retirement account are invested in hundreds of companies. I hope they produce valuable goods and services, I hope they pay their employees a living wage and I hope they provide reasonable benefits for all their workers. I hope they do not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation or nationality. I hope they deal fairly and honestly with their contractors. I hope they do not pollute the rivers, lakes and oceans or deplete the forests. But I don’t know if all this is true, nor do I know how to find out. Yes, I have heard of socially responsible investment funds and have even invested in a few of these, but my review does not give me the assurances my conscience really needs.

The most troubling aspect of this story from our gospel is that we really don’t know how it ends. I would love to know how Zacchaeus lived his life going forward. How much did he have left after giving half his wealth to the poor and then paying back all the people he had defrauded over the years? How could he continue in his profession after encountering Jesus and hearing the good news of God’s reign? We don’t get answers to those questions and I suppose that is because the answers cannot be found in any book. They must be lived out in our lives. That is what makes the Bible such a difficult book to read. You start out reading what you think will be a story about a man who lived over two-thousand years ago, only to discover that the story is actually about you.

Here’s a poem by Peter Balakian giving us a glimpse into the other half of our world that those of us who live in peace, security and comfort would rather forget.

Slum Drummers, Nairobi

What were we watching on the tube under mildewed ceilings in Eastlands?
A Kenyan guy shaking a rattle made from a can
while another guy in the band was talking to the queen

about making sound out of anything? The queen smiled.
The Jubilee receiving line filed through.

2.

We shimmied past tin shacks selling wigs and bananas, coke and goat lungs;

the tine of a kalimba kissed my face. My face kissed the blue plastic of
a soda bottle sliding down a hill of glass.

I paid the gang leaders for protection
and we walked into the hills of airplane garbage,

black and blue plastic bags glowing in the sun spray over the heads
of the marabou stalking the mounds with their knife-blade beaks.

3.

Stevie Wonder and Elton John moved through the Jubilee line.
Prince Charles thanked God for the weather as the camera cut
to fireworks spewing over Hyde Park and then to an image of Nairobi
and the Slum Drummers picking metal out of the collages of garbage.

4.

My jeans were charred from the tin-can fires,
and the grilling pig guts when some men looked up from scraps of wire—

and you went back and forth with them in Swahili before they offered us
some sizzling fat, before we thanked them with our coy smiles and moved on
with Michael who took us

down a maze of alleyways where tin shacks were floating
on polymers and nitrogen and a dozen pigs from nowhere snouted the garbage.

5.

You were saying “Dad”—when a marabou-hacked bag shot some shit
on our shoes—“Dad, kinship roles are always changing”—

when a woman asked us for a few shillings and salt
for her soup. Salt? Did I hear her right? Or was it Swahili
for something else? And through the sooty wind of charcoal fires

and creaking rusty tin you were saying, “Hannah Arendt called Swahili
a degraded language of former slave holders.

In the soot of my head—I was listening—
and Michael was asking for more shillings for the gang guys

who were “a little fucked up,” he said, “but needed help”—
and when I turned around the heads of chickens

were twitching, the feathers fluttering down on oozing sludge;
“Arendt called it a nineteenth century kind of no language,”

you were saying, “spoken”—as we were jolted
by a marabou eating a shoe—“spoken—by the Arab ivory and slave caravans.”

6.

Out of bottles, cans, pipes, mangled wire—the Slum Drummers
twisted and hacked, joined and seamed their heaven

into the black plastic ghost of a mashed pot.
Pure tones blew from the vibrato holes

like wind through Makadara
where the breath of God flew through sewage pipes.

I heard in a tubophone the resurrection
of ten men rising out of coal and pig snouts

into the blue Kenyan sky where a marabou

swallowed a purse—and a woman’s conga
was parting at the seams above boiling soup cans.

7.

Down a slope of stinking plastic you kept on about Arendt—
“a hybrid mixture of Bantu with enormous Arab borrowings”

I could say poa poa  sawa sawa  karibu.

We could make a kalimba out of a smashed pot
and pour beans into a can and shake it for the queen.

Yesterday in the soundless savannah the wildebeests and zebras
seemed to float through the green-gold grass toward Tanzania.

We could hear a lion breathe; we could hear wind through tusks.

8.

On TV the guys were grinning into metal go-go drums;
hammering twisted sewage pipes and cut wire like sailors from Mombasa—
harder nailed than da Gama’s voyage down the Arab trade coast—

9.

So, where are we—in a slum of no language?
Walking through steam shovels of light, breaking over
mounds of metal as if the sky were just blue plastic?

Isn’t English just a compost heap of devouring grammar,
joined, hacked, bruised words, rotting on themselves?

I keep following you, daughter of scrutiny, into plastic fields of carrion

between sight and site, vision not visionary, pig guts on the grill,

trying to keep balance
between streams of sewage and the sky,

as you keep hacking, Sophia, at the de-centered,
the burning text, anthropology’s shakedown.

A marabou just knifed the arm of a woman picking
bottles out of plastic bags.

A rooster crows from under a pile
of galvanized tin as if it were morning on a farm.

Source: Balakian, Peter, Ozone Journal (c. 2015 by The University of Chicago Press). Peter Balakian was born in 1951. He is the author of several collections of poetry and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He grew up in Tenafly, New Jersey. Much of his poetry and prose reflect his deep interest in his Armenian ancestry and, in particular, his family’s experiences during the Armenian Genocide at the dawn of the Twentieth Century.  You can find out more about Peter Balakian and read more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Isaiah 1:10-18

As I have pointed out before, the book of the prophet Isaiah is regarded by most Hebrew Scripture scholars to be the work of three different prophets. Chapters of Isaiah 1-39 are attributed in the main to Isaiah the prophet who lived and prophesied in the 8th Century B.C.E. during the reigns of Judean kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Chapters of Isaiah 40-55 are attributed to a prophet who preached toward the end of the Babylonian exile of the Jews, declaring to them God’s forgiveness and God’s promise to lead them back from exile to their homeland in Palestine. Chapters of Isaiah 56-66 are the words of a prophet addressing the Jews who in fact returned to Palestine and were struggling to rebuild their community under difficult circumstances. But this neat three part division is still a little too simplistic. All three prophetic collections underwent editing, revisions and additions in the course of composition. Consequently, there are many sections of First Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39) that probably belong to a prophet of a much later time. It is nearly undisputed, however, that the verses from Sunday’s lesson are the work of the Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E.

Verses 10-18 are part of a collection of separate and distinct prophetic oracles making up the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah. They probably were spoken on different occasions. Each of these oracles follows the outline of a legal proceeding containing a summons, an indictment and a final word of comfort or hope. Mauchline, John, Isaiah 1-39, Torch Bible Paperbacks (c. 1962 SCM Press, Ltd) p. 44. According to Mauchline, supra, Verses 10-17 make up a distinct section criticizing Israel for her immorality, castigating her for the emptiness and hypocrisy of her worship and calling her to cleanse herself from unfaithfulness. Id. at 45. Verse 18 opens with yet another summons directed more specifically to Jerusalem. Id. See also Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 1-12, The Old Testament Library (c. 1972 by SCM Press Ltd) p. 13. Taken together, this first chapter of Isaiah is a fitting introduction to the heart of the prophet’s message, namely, that covenant faithfulness requires zeal for doing justice. Without that, worship, sacrifices and holy day observances are worse than hollow and meaningless. They are rituals that God “hates.” Vs. 14.

These oracles probably relate to the early part of Isaiah’s ministry during the relatively peaceful reign of Jotham, son of Uzziah. Riding the legacy of wealth and power built under the leadership of Uzziah, the people and their leaders were enjoying a false sense of security. The rise of Assyria to the north would soon destabilize the region and shake up the matrix of alliances that had sheltered Judah from fierce international conflicts thus far. Isaiah saw the threat coming and recognized it as God’s long overdue judgment on a people who had failed to live up to their obligations under the covenant. Nevertheless, there is still time: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Vs. 18.

Sodom and Gomorrah are, of course, the epitome of evil in Hebrew Scriptural tradition. According to the prophet Ezekiel, these evil cities “had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” Ezekiel 16:49. Their people also displayed a shocking lack of hospitality and aggression toward helpless sojourners passing through their territory. Genesis 19:1-29. Like them, the aristocracy of Judah in Isaiah’s day was “crushing” the people and “grinding the face of the poor.” Isaiah 3:15. The covenant clearly required better of Israel. Concerning the poor, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor in the land.” Deuteronomy 15:11. As for the resident alien, “when a stranger sojourns in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” Leviticus 19:33-34. Failure to observe these commands to establish justice for the poor and the stranger cannot be cured by fastidious attention to worship and liturgy. Indeed, such worship is deemed an “abomination.” Vs. 13.

Isaiah does not reject temple worship as such. When properly grounded in the Exodus narrative, in which God liberates slaves of the Egyptian Empire to make of them an entirely different kind of community based on justice and compassion, the sacrifices, holy day observances and liturgical rites serve to call Israel back to her identity and mission. But when worship becomes detached from its moorings in salvation history and appropriated for the purpose of legitimating an oppressive hierarchical status quo, it becomes worse than empty and hypocritical. It is not an overstatement to call such worship idolatrous-even when performed with perfect liturgical precision.

Psalm 32

This is one of the seven “penitential psalms” so classified in the commentary of Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator written in the 6th century C.E. (These include Psalms 6, 32, 3851102130 and 143). Not surprisingly, it was a favorite of Augustine and Luther. The psalmist speaks eloquently about the joy and relief found in forgiveness of sin and the futility of denial and self-justification. The psalmist does not disclose the nature of his or her sins, but indicates that it was some illness that brought him or her to an acknowledgement of sin and the need for confession. There is no question but that guilt induced stress can bring about illness, but it is far more likely in this case that the psalmist’s illness was the catalyst for guilt. Sickness was almost universally understood in ancient cultures as an affliction from God intended to punish sin. As such, its onset naturally drove the psalmist to introspection and self-examination.

In this case, the psalmist’s self-examination led to the discovery of sin that the psalmist had been trying to hide from God and perhaps even from the psalmist’s own self. In the confession and acknowledgement of sin, the psalmist found healing and relief. The psalmist therefore instructs fellow worshipers not take the path of sin and self-deception that leads to illness and misfortune, but to “come clean” with God and cry out for deliverance. Mulish stubbornness will only lead to grief. As Augustine puts it, “much is he scourged, who, confessing not his sins to God, would be his own ruler.” Moreover, “it is right to be subject unto [God], that so you may be placed above all things beside.” Augustine’s Commentary of Psalm 32 published in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Vol 8, (Erdmans, 1979) p. 71.

In our modern culture we do not ordinarily associate illness with transgression. Still, I would not be too dismissive of this insight. Sometimes sickness is the result of our sinful lifestyles. It is well known that we are working longer hours these days under more stressful conditions. For many people in our country, this isn’t a choice. When you are at the minimum wage level, you need multiple incomes from two or three jobs just to put food on the table and keep a roof over your family. But for many of us, I believe that our frantic work ethic is more about maintaining a particular lifestyle. I have told the story many times of a fellow attorney who suffered a heart attack at the ripe old age of forty-one telling me, “This is what I get for spending my life doing work I hate to earn money I don’t need to buy stuff I don’t want to impress people I don’t like for reasons that don’t matter.” Eating habits, lack of exercise, smoking and many other unwise life choices can also contribute to illness.

So the psalmist’s advice is good as far as it goes, but his/her experience, valid and instructive though it may be, must not be elevated to a universal principle. As the case of Job illustrates, illness is not always the result of sin. The preacher from Ecclesiastes points out that in many cases justice and right do not prevail and all seems like “vanity.” Ecclesiastes 4:1-7. Sometimes tragedy happens for no apparent reason. There are psalms to address these circumstances as well. See, e.g. Psalm 39.

Aside from all questions arising from the psalmist’s views on the causal relationship between his/her sickness and his/her sin, the psalm makes the very important point that honesty, integrity and transparency lead us to a healthy and life-giving existence. The narratives we believe about ourselves invariably cast us as heroes or innocent victims. This stories we tell on ourselves can blind us to faults that undermine relationships, blind us to opportunities and lead us into self-destructive behavior. It takes personal courage and honest friendships strong enough to bear truthful speech in order to maintain spiritual health which, in turn, is often key to one’s overall well-being.

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

The relationship between the form and substance of II Thessalonians and 1 Thessalonians has led most commentators to believe that II Thessalonians was composed by a Christian leader writing to a later generation in the name of Paul and his colleagues. However that might be, this second letter echoes Paul’s admonitions to the Thessalonians in the first letter not to concern themselves with “times” and “seasons” for the triumphal return of Christ. I Thessalonians 5:1-11.   You might also want to read the summary article on enterthebible.org by Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN., for additional background.

As it appears in the lectionary, this short reading has Paul expressing his thankfulness for and pride in the church at Thessalonica while praying that the congregation will become what in Christ it already is: a people set aside to glorify the name of Jesus. Vs. 12. Once again, the lectionary people have insulted our intelligence (to say nothing of having perverted the scripture!) by excising from the reading material offensive to mainline, slightly left of center, white and ever polite protestants. Am I being a little too hard on these good folks? I invite you to read the censored material at II Thessalonians 1:5-10 and make your own judgment. If you think Hillary’s deleted e-mails are a big deal, this will really make you flip. I am sometimes tempted to spend a year of the liturgical cycle preaching on all the sections of scripture that have been deleted from the common lectionary. Perhaps I will call it the year of the Wiki Leak’s dump.

Paul’s actual message here is a good deal less benign. He tells us that “indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you” and “that when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus…they shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord.” Vss. 6-9. Is this language consistent with the declaration of a church that insists that there is a place here for everyone? Actually, I think it is. Perhaps the kingdom Christ proclaims is the only community in which there is a place for everyone. But it isn’t clear that everyone is eager to take their place in that kingdom. In fact, I suspect that a kingdom in which you are promised only your bread for today and where the greatest of all are the least of all does not appeal to a good many folks. I think there are a lot of people who might recoil from a world in which their medals of honor no longer hold any significance, where nobody remembers all the fine buildings with their names on them; where no one has ever heard of their school or cares about their class rank. World renowned artists, theologians, musicians, business people and political leaders might find it distasteful to be ranked beneath a nursery school teacher who receives and cares for children to make ends meet. I suspect that for many such people, the kingdom of God might be pure hell!

I have often questioned the line in one of our liturgical offertory pieces in which we pray that God would “gather the hopes and dreams of all and unite them with the prayers we offer.” I think there are a lot of our hopes and dreams that have no place under the gentle reign of God. Hope for the continuance of white male privilege is one that needs to die. Dreams for unlimited accumulation of wealth and power for one’s nation or for oneself are incompatible with God’s reign. Indeed, I venture to say that most of our hopes and dreams, even (perhaps especially) the ones we deem holy, selfless and pure, probably need to be crucified before the kingdom can come in its fullness. Salvation for us is not God’s giving us all that we long for. That would be a little like giving a gift certificate from Total Wine to an alcoholic. We must be taught to long for that which is true, beautiful and good. We need to become the sort of people who will recognize the reign of God when it comes as heaven rather than experiencing it as hell.

Luke 19:1-10

Zacchaeus, we are told, was a chief tax collector and rich. He was not the sort of tax collector with whom Jesus frequently socialized. Tax collection in Palestine was accomplished by way of a pyramid scheme of extortion. The Roman overlords informed their Jewish agents what needed to be collected and left them to extort whatever profits they could as their compensation. Bamberger, B.J. “Tax Collector,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 4 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 522. As a chief tax collector, we may presume that Zacchaeus had a ground crew of agents who actually did the dirty work of squeezing money out of merchants and farmers. Marshall, Howard, I., Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 by Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 696. They also had to extract their own fee over and above what Zacchaeus directed them to collect. That may explain why Zacchaeus is not in a position to say by how much he defrauded anyone. Vs. 8.

The name “Zacchaeus” is an abbreviated form of Zachariah meaning “righteous one.” Id. Not much significance should be attached to this in my opinion. There is no obvious literary pairing with Zachariah the father of John the Baptist or the prophet by that name in the Hebrew Scriptures. If there is any symbolic meaning here it might simply be Luke’s effort at irony. Zacchaeus would have been deemed among the least righteous in the Jewish community of Jesus’ day, yet by his response to Jesus he is shown to be an example of the compassionate righteousness preached both by Jesus and John the Baptist.

Given what we know about tax collectors and the way they operate, it is hardly surprising that the people should hate Zacchaeus and resent the wealth he has obtained at their expense by collaborating with their Roman oppressors. As we have seen numerous times before, Jesus’ practice of sharing meal fellowship with tax collectors draws the ire of his critics. This, however, is a particularly grievous circumstance. One might find a degree of pity for the ground level tax collector whose earnings were likely modest-just as we might understand the addict who, in desperation, turns to dealing in order to support his habit. Zacchaeus, however, stands near the top of the food chain. He does not merely make his living by exploiting his own people. He gets rich from it!

Zacchaeus responds to Jesus’ self-invitation with lavish hospitality and astounding generosity. Not only does he give half of his wealth to the poor, but he dedicates the remaining half to compensating all whom he may have defrauded. Vs. 8. That raises all kinds of questions for us. How do you measure the amount of compensation due victims of a profession that is by its nature little more than extortion? Moreover, what will Zacchaeus do with his life going forward? Will he remain in his position but collect no premium for himself? It is hard to understand how he could do that while continuing to pay his bills and keeping his agents happy. Will he abandon his unclean profession altogether and get an honest job? In his usual irritating way, Jesus leaves us to struggle with these difficult questions.

Sunday, September 25th

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Amos 6:1a, 4–7
Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6–19
Luke 16:19–31

Prayer of the Day: O God, rich in mercy, you look with compassion on this troubled world. Feed us with your grace, and grant us the treasure that comes only from you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“If we have food and clothing,” Saint Paul tells us, “we will be content with these.” I Timothy 6:8. That ought to be enough and it is enough for the ravens and for the grass of the fields. Hording is a peculiarly human behavior. Animals typically do not overeat, nor do they hunt other species to extinction. If they have any concept of tomorrow at all, it doesn’t figure into their behavior today. Animals seem to have a primal instinct leading them to be content when there is food at hand, water nearby and no predators on the horizon. Along with godliness, says Paul, such “contentment” is “great gain.” I Timothy 6:6.

There are people, though few in number, who find such contentment. Saint Paul was one of them. “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” Philippians 4:11-12. Saint Francis of Assisi was another such person. He also rejoiced in living day-to-day, receiving charity shamelessly and thankfully when in want, but giving cheerfully and generously when blessed with abundance. So, too, there continue to be Anabaptist communities like the Amish, monastic fellowships and other intentional Christian groups that find contentment in living simply and gently on the land, rejecting the American creed of contentment through accumulation and consumption. These witnesses testify to the better life God is able to give us-if only we can empty our hands to receive it.

Here is a poem by Walt Whitman reflecting contentment.

Song of the Open Road
1
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)

2
You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all that is here,
I believe that much unseen is also here.

Here the profound lesson of reception, nor preference nor denial,
The black with his woolly head, the felon, the diseas’d, the illiterate person, are not denied;
The birth, the hasting after the physician, the beggar’s tramp, the drunkard’s stagger, the laughing party of mechanics,
The escaped youth, the rich person’s carriage, the fop, the eloping couple,

The early market-man, the hearse, the moving of furniture into the town, the return back from the town,
They pass, I also pass, any thing passes, none can be interdicted,
None but are accepted, none but shall be dear to me.

3
You air that serves me with breath to speak!
You objects that call from diffusion my meanings and give them shape!
You light that wraps me and all things in delicate equable showers!
You paths worn in the irregular hollows by the roadsides!
I believe you are latent with unseen existences, you are so dear to me.

You flagg’d walks of the cities! you strong curbs at the edges!
You ferries! you planks and posts of wharves! you timber-lined sides! you distant ships!

You rows of houses! you window-pierc’d façades! you roofs!
You porches and entrances! you copings and iron guards!
You windows whose transparent shells might expose so much!
You doors and ascending steps! you arches!
You gray stones of interminable pavements! you trodden crossings!
From all that has touch’d you I believe you have imparted to yourselves, and now would impart the same secretly to me,
From the living and the dead you have peopled your impassive surfaces, and the spirits thereof would be evident and amicable with me.

4
The earth expanding right hand and left hand,
The picture alive, every part in its best light,
The music falling in where it is wanted, and stopping where it is not wanted,
The cheerful voice of the public road, the gay fresh sentiment of the road.

O highway I travel, do you say to me Do not leave me?
Do you say Venture not—if you leave me you are lost?
Do you say I am already prepared, I am well-beaten and undenied, adhere to me?

O public road, I say back I am not afraid to leave you, yet I love you,
You express me better than I can express myself,
You shall be more to me than my poem.

I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air, and all free poems also,
I think I could stop here myself and do miracles,
I think whatever I shall meet on the road I shall like, and whoever beholds me shall like me,
I think whoever I see must be happy.

5
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently,but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.

I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.

All seems beautiful to me,
I can repeat over to men and women You have done such good to me I would do the same to you,
I will recruit for myself and you as I go,
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,
Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,
Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.

6
Now if a thousand perfect men were to appear it would not amaze me,
Now if a thousand beautiful forms of women appear’d it would not astonish me.

Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.

Here a great personal deed has room,
(Such a deed seizes upon the hearts of the whole race of men,
Its effusion of strength and will overwhelms law and mocks all authority and all argument against it.)

Here is the test of wisdom,
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools,
Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it,
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof,
Applies to all stages and objects and qualities and is content,
Is the certainty of the reality and immortality of things, and the excellence of things;
Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.

Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.

Here is realization,
Here is a man tallied—he realizes here what he has in him,
The past, the future, majesty, love—if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them.

Only the kernel of every object nourishes;
Where is he who tears off the husks for you and me?
Where is he that undoes stratagems and envelopes for you and me?

Here is adhesiveness, it is not previously fashion’d, it is apropos;
Do you know what it is as you pass to be loved by strangers?
Do you know the talk of those turning eye-balls?

7
Here is the efflux of the soul,
The efflux of the soul comes from within through embower’d gates, ever provoking questions,
These yearnings why are they? these thoughts in the darkness why are they?
Why are there men and women that while they are nigh me the sunlight expands my blood?
Why when they leave me do my pennants of joy sink flat and lank?
Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?
(I think they hang there winter and summer on those trees and always drop fruit as I pass;)
What is it I interchange so suddenly with strangers?
What with some driver as I ride on the seat by his side?
What with some fisherman drawing his seine by the shore as I walk by and pause?
What gives me to be free to a woman’s and man’s good-will? what gives them to be free to mine?

8
The efflux of the soul is happiness, here is happiness,
I think it pervades the open air, waiting at all times,
Now it flows unto us, we are rightly charged.

Here rises the fluid and attaching character,
The fluid and attaching character is the freshness and sweetness of man and woman,
(The herbs of the morning sprout no fresher and sweeter every day out of the roots of themselves, than it sprouts fresh and sweet continually out of itself.)

Toward the fluid and attaching character exudes the sweat of the love of young and old,
From it falls distill’d the charm that mocks beauty and attainments,
Toward it heaves the shuddering longing ache of contact.

9
Allons! whoever you are come travel with me!
Traveling with me you find what never tires.

The earth never tires,
The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first, Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first,
Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop’d,
I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.

Allons! we must not stop here,
However sweet these laid-up stores, however convenient this dwelling we cannot remain here,
However shelter’d this port and however calm these waters we must not anchor here,
However welcome the hospitality that surrounds us we are permitted to receive it but a little while.

10
Allons! the inducements shall be greater,
We will sail pathless and wild seas,
We will go where winds blow, waves dash, and the Yankee clipper speeds by under full sail.

Allons! with power, liberty, the earth, the elements,
Health, defiance, gayety, self-esteem, curiosity;
Allons! from all formules!
From your formules, O bat-eyed and materialistic priests.

The stale cadaver blocks up the passage—the burial waits no longer.

Allons! yet take warning!
He traveling with me needs the best blood, thews, endurance,
None may come to the trial till he or she bring courage and health,
Come not here if you have already spent the best of yourself,
Only those may come who come in sweet and determin’d bodies,
No diseas’d person, no rum-drinker or venereal taint is permitted here.

(I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes, rhymes,
We convince by our presence.)

11
Listen! I will be honest with you,
I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,
These are the days that must happen to you:
You shall not heap up what is call’d riches,
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,
You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart,
You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you,
What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting,
You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands toward you.

12
Allons! after the great Companions, and to belong to them!
They too are on the road—they are the swift and majestic men—they are the greatest women,
Enjoyers of calms of seas and storms of seas,
Sailors of many a ship, walkers of many a mile of land,
Habituès of many distant countries, habituès of far-distant dwellings,
Trusters of men and women, observers of cities, solitary toilers,
Pausers and contemplators of tufts, blossoms, shells of the shore,
Dancers at wedding-dances, kissers of brides, tender helpers of children, bearers of children,
Soldiers of revolts, standers by gaping graves, lowerers-down of coffins,
Journeyers over consecutive seasons, over the years, the curious years each emerging from that which preceded it,
Journeyers as with companions, namely their own diverse phases,
Forth-steppers from the latent unrealized baby-days,
Journeyers gayly with their own youth, journeyers with their bearded and well-grain’d manhood,
Journeyers with their womanhood, ample, unsurpass’d, content,
Journeyers with their own sublime old age of manhood or womanhood,
Old age, calm, expanded, broad with the haughty breadth of the universe,
Old age, flowing free with the delicious near-by freedom of death.

13
Allons! to that which is endless as it was beginningless,
To undergo much, tramps of days, rests of nights,
To merge all in the travel they tend to, and the days and nights they tend to,
Again to merge them in the start of superior journeys,
To see nothing anywhere but what you may reach it and pass it,
To conceive no time, however distant, but what you may reach it and pass it,
To look up or down no road but it stretches and waits for you, however long but it stretches and waits for you,
To see no being, not God’s or any, but you also go thither,
To see no possession but you may possess it, enjoying all without labor or purchase, abstracting the feast yet not abstracting one particle of it,
To take the best of the farmer’s farm and the rich man’s elegant villa, and the chaste blessings of the well-married couple, and the fruits of orchards and flowers of gardens,
To take to your use out of the compact cities as you pass through,
To carry buildings and streets with you afterward wherever you go,
To gather the minds of men out of their brains as you encounter them, to gather the love out of their hearts,
To take your lovers on the road with you, for all that you leave them behind you,
To know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls.

All parts away for the progress of souls,
All religion, all solid things, arts, governments—all that was or is apparent upon this globe or any globe, falls into niches and corners before the procession of souls along the grand roads of the universe.

Of the progress of the souls of men and women along the grand roads of the universe, all other progress is the needed emblem and sustenance.

Forever alive, forever forward,
Stately, solemn, sad, withdrawn, baffled, mad, turbulent, feeble, dissatisfied,
Desperate, proud, fond, sick, accepted by men, rejected by men,
They go! they go! I know that they go, but I know not where they go,
But I know that they go toward the best—toward something great.

Whoever you are, come forth! or man or woman come forth!
You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house, though you built it, or though it has been built for you.

Out of the dark confinement! out from behind the screen!
It is useless to protest, I know all and expose it.

Behold through you as bad as the rest,
Through the laughter, dancing, dining, supping, of people,
Inside of dresses and ornaments, inside of those wash’d and trimm’d faces,
Behold a secret silent loathing and despair.

No husband, no wife, no friend, trusted to hear the confession,
Another self, a duplicate of every one, skulking and hiding it goes,
Formless and wordless through the streets of the cities, polite and bland in the parlors,
In the cars of railroads, in steamboats, in the public assembly,
Home to the houses of men and women, at the table, in the bedroom, everywhere,
Smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright, death under the breast-bones, hell under the skull-bones,
Under the broadcloth and gloves, under the ribbons and artificial flowers,
Keeping fair with the customs, speaking not a syllable of itself,
Speaking of any thing else but never of itself.

14
Allons! through struggles and wars!
The goal that was named cannot be countermanded.

Have the past struggles succeeded?
What has succeeded? yourself? your nation? Nature?
Now understand me well—it is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.

My call is the call of battle, I nourish active rebellion,
He going with me must go well arm’d,
He going with me goes often with spare diet, poverty, angry enemies, desertions.

15
Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well—be not detain’d!

Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.

Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

Source: Complete Poetry and Selected Prose by Walt Whitman, (c. 1959 by Miller, James E., Jr., pub. by Houghton Mifflin Company). No poet captures the essence of what is genuinely American quite as comprehensively as Walt Whitman. Born 1819 in Huntington, Long Island, Whitman worked alternately as a journalist, government clerk and as a volunteer nurse during the American Civil War. He traveled widely throughout the United States giving expression to his zeal for democracy, nature, love and friendship. Though admired by such contemporaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne, it was not until after his death in 1892 that he received wide acclaim in the United States. You can read more about Walt Whitman and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Amos 6:1a, 4–7

For some background on Amos the prophet, see my post for Sunday, September 18th. Amos is continuing his criticism of Israel’s commercial class here. Once again, I cannot understand why the common lectionary omits verses 2-3 of chapter 6. In them Amos invites his listeners to take a field trip to three cities, Calneh, Hamath and Gath. The location of Calneh is uncertain. Hamath was at the northernmost border of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. It was under the control of Israel’s King Jeroboam II in Amos’ time, but it appears to have been subject to attack and conquest throughout the lengthy struggle between Israel and its arch enemy, Syria. We know that Gath was destroyed by Hazael, King of Syria a century before Amos in about 850 B.C.E. The point here seems to be that God knows how to punish nations for their wickedness. What happened to these cities can as easily happen to Israel. Indeed, the fact that Israel has been chosen as God’s covenant partner makes her subject to a higher standard of righteousness. Consequently, God’s judgment is all the more likely for Israel and will be all the more severe.

The prophet is unsparing in his criticism of Israel’s ruling class for its decadence, opulence and callous disregard for the wellbeing of the people of Israel. Interestingly, Zion is also mentioned here, unusual since the audience is from the Northern Kingdom of Israel rather than the Southern Kingdom of Judah whose capital is Jerusalem (Zion). Amos 6:1. Some scholars suggest that this might be the work of a subsequent editor seeking to make the prophet’s oracle relevant to Judah at a later time. Though possible, it is more likely that Amos himself included his homeland within the sweep of God’s judgment just as he did in chapter 2. Amos 2:4-5. The complete and unfeeling exploitation of the poor by the commercial class in Israel is sure to bring down God’s judgment. Amos warns that these “first” among the people of Israel will be the “first” to go into exile. Amos 6:7.

Psalm 146

This is a psalm of praise celebrating the sovereignty of Israel’s God. Like the remaining psalms in the Psalter (Psalm 147-Psalm 150) the hymn begins and ends with the exclamation, “hallelujah” which is Hebrew for “Praise Yahweh!” More than likely, this psalm comes rather late in Israel’s history. There is no mention of the line of David or any hint of the monarchy in Israel. After a half millennia of disappointing kings whose leadership ultimately led to the destruction of Solomon’s temple, the siege of Jerusalem and the loss of the promised land, Israel was in no mood to put her trust in yet another royal figure:

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
4 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.

Vss. 3-4. Instead, Israel is encouraged to put her trust in God. God is the one ruler who “sets the prisoners free.” Only “the Lord opens the eyes of the blind…lifts up those who are bowed down…” and “loves the righteous.”vss.7-9. The only king worthy of our trust is the God of Israel.

The psalm concludes with the bold affirmation that the Lord will reign forever. The implication is that God has been reigning throughout history in spite of some severe setbacks for Israel and despite her precarious existence under foreign domination and occupation. This confidence is rooted in Israel’s past experience of God’s salvation for the poor and downtrodden in the Exodus, wilderness wanderings and the conquest of the land of Canaan. The return from Exile might also be in view here. But it must also be said that Israel’s faith is future oriented. There is reflected here a hope, expectation and longing for the “Day of the Lord” when perfect justice and righteousness will be established.

1 Timothy 6:6–19

My son-in-law refers to the lottery as “a tax on stupidity.” He is right. Who would buy stock in a company if the odds against growth were one in 175 million and the odds in favor of losing your principal investment were the same? You might just as well throw your money over the bridge. You would have to be insane to make such an investment, but millions of people do just that every time they purchase a lottery ticket. Most of us know this. So why are lottery tickets such hot items?

A lottery ticket is, as the advertisements correctly call it, “a ticket to a dream.” Somebody has to win. Why not me? And if by chance I won-just imagine! I have to confess that I have often been tempted to purchase a ticket in spite of my understanding of the odds against me. Winning would certainly seem to solve a lot of my problems. Naturally, I have friends and family under financial burdens whom I would be in a position to help (and I expect I would discover family I never knew I had!). And, Oh yes! The church: how could I forget? Beyond the loss of a dollar or two, is there any downside in buying this ticket to a dream?

I think Paul nails it when he tells us flat out: “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” I Timothy 6:9. Why are we so eager to be rich? In my own case, the chief draw is autonomy. If I were independently wealthy, I would not be answerable to anyone. Nobody could tell me when I need to be at work. I would not be dependent upon any bank or mortgage company. I could live my life on my own terms. But wasn’t that precisely why Adam and Eve found the fruit on the tree of knowledge so very attractive? The serpent promised them that the fruit would make them “like God” and enable them to choose for themselves what is good; to live their lives on their own terms.

I have a feeling that the serpent is lurking very near the convenience stores where lottery tickets are sold whispering his same old lies. And they are lies. Truth is, money does not make me autonomous anymore than princes can offer me salvation. What money can do is make me forget how rich I really am. Yes, I am rich precisely because I am surrounded by loving people upon whom I can depend. My family is such a close and loving one because we have always had to depend upon each other and have therefore learned to care so deeply for each other. I am rich because I have received through the testimony of two millennia of saints a faith in a God whose love for me braved even the cross. Because life has taught me again and again that I am not autonomous, I have learned dependence upon and trust in this God who has never failed me. I have learned that true security comes from belonging to a community of mutually caring people living together as a single body-the Body of Christ. Giving up all of that is the true cost of a lottery ticket. Investing in one is therefore even more stupid than the math suggests.

For good reason, then, Paul advises Timothy to shun the quest for wealth and pursue instead “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.” I Timothy 6:11. Again, these virtues are not developed in people who are autonomous or imagine themselves to be so. They are developed among people who know themselves to be dependent upon a gracious and compassionate God who shares his very self with them and invites them to do the same for each other.

Luke 16:19–31

A few things are worth noting right of the bat. First, note that Lazarus is the character in this story who is given a name. The rich man has no name. That already tells you something about where Jesus’ concern lies. The poor, starving masses have a name and a face. The rich man, for all his wealth and power, is nearly invisible. It is usually just the other way around, isn’t it? In our culture, the poor, the sick and the dying are kept mercifully out of our sight. The parable mirrors testimony to God’s compassionate care for the downtrodden reflected in last Sunday’s psalm:

Who is like the Lord our God,
who is seated on high,
who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust,
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,

to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.

He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the Lord!

Psalm 113:5-9. When the transcendent God stoops to look down upon the earth, he sees the poor, the needy and the childless-people that usually are invisible to us. God doesn’t seem much interested in what the kings, princes, presidents and prime ministers are up to.

Second, Jesus tells us nothing about the character of either of the two men in his parable. For all we know, the rich man might have been a regular worshiper at synagogue each Sabbath. He may have been a generous contributor to charity. He may have been a loving husband and a dedicated parent. We cannot assume that he was greedy, miserly or cold hearted. He may have passed by Lazarus without making eye contact, but honestly, who of us has not at some point in our lives done that very same thing on our way to the train or the bus in Times Square or some other place where the wretched of the earth come to beg? As for Lazarus, we know nothing of his character either. He might have been a good, honest and hardworking man just down on his luck. But he might also have been a scoundrel whose irresponsible lifestyle brought him to his sorry state. Can you blame the rich man for not giving him a hand out? How would the guy know whether his generosity will go simply to buying alcohol or drugs? How could he be sure that his well-intended efforts to help would only destroy Lazarus’ last ounce of incentive to better himself? Jesus does not tell us one way or the other. It does not matter to Jesus and it should not matter to us. The Scriptures do not limit the command to care for the poor with any provisos such as that the poor be “deserving.”

Third, this is not a parable about God punishing rich people for failing to care for the poor. God is not even in this parable and God is not responsible for that gap between Hades where the rich man finds himself and the bosom of Abraham were Lazarus resides. The rich man built that gap all by himself. It grew wider every time the rich man drove up to his estate and turned his gaze away from Lazarus as his limo with the tinted glass pulled through the gate. The gap grew larger whenever the rich man switched TV channels to avoid the disturbing images of starving children on the news. The gap widened as the rich man invested ever more of his wealth into shoring up the security fence and the alarm system around his property. When the rich man arrives at the afterlife, he discovers that the gap he erected between Lazarus and himself is still there. The only difference is that the great reversal has occurred. Lazarus is now the honored guest at the messianic banquet and the rich man is on the outside begging for scraps.

Now the saddest thing about this parable is that there is no learning curve. The rich man is still under the illusion that he is somebody important. He thinks he can hobnob with Father Abraham and extract favors from him. He doesn’t even deign to speak directly to Lazarus. Instead, he asks Abraham to “send that boy there-what’s his name? Lazarus? (As though it matters!) Send that boy to fetch me a drink.” Abraham has to point out to the rich man that things have changed. The reversal has come, just as the prophets warned. But the rich man still doesn’t get it. He still thinks nothing has changed. He still thinks he is in a position to order Lazarus about like a servant, only now he wants Lazarus to warn his brothers to repent before they also come to his “place of torment.” Abraham replies that the rich man’s brothers have all the warning they need. They have Moses and the prophets. They need only listen. “No, father Abraham,” he protests. “But if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”

It is hard to miss the irony here. Of course, we know that someone has come back from the dead, but the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow. So what will it take to wake us up? What will it take to convince us that by ignoring the cries of the poor we are building our prison in Hades? God has sent his Son to wake us up from our deathly sleep and after we rejected even him, God raised him up and gave him back to us again. God continues to raise up Jesus for us. If that does not melt our hearts, what will?

 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Amos 8:4–7
Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1–7
Luke 16:1–13

Prayer of the Day: God among us, we gather in the name of your Son to learn love for one another. Keep our feet from evil paths. Turn our minds to your wisdom and our hearts to the grace revealed in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“You cannot serve God and mammon.” Luke 16:13

Most of us do just that. If we are not laboring to pay off mortgages, car loans and credit card debt we are striving to improve our standards of living in pursuit of a better life. As I have often pointed out, our economy is driven by the desire for increased wealth. In his book, The Wealth of Nations, philosopher/economist Adam Smith argued for a global free market economy based on the premise that the human tendency to pursue one’s own self-interest leads invariably to greater prosperity and economic growth for all. That may be so. I leave to economists the job of hashing out the validity of Smith’s assertions. I am more interested in the moral dimensions of his philosophy.

The concern of both Jesus and Amos is the effect self-interested pursuit of wealth has on the soul. Amos points out to the people of Israel how their pursuit of wealth has hardened their hearts toward the poor of the land and led them to abandon the terms of the covenant with their God. Only grudgingly do they cease from their commercial activity on the Sabbath. Amos 8:5. In blatant disregard of God’s command to leave the gleanings of the harvest for the poor, the commercial class is eager to “sell the refuse of the wheat.” Human beings are reduced to units of labor that can be bought and sold like commodities. Amos 8:6. The self-interested pursuit of wealth has made Israel “rich in things but poor in soul,” as the hymn says. Jesus therefore speaks a stark and unwelcome truth to societies like that of 8th Century B.C.E. Israel and 21st Century C.E. America that make pursuit of wealth the driving cultural force: “You cannot serve God and mammon.”

I believe that we in the church of Jesus Christ need to have some honest conversations about money, possessions and wealth and how they are shaping our priorities and the decisions we make about the way we live our lives. The early church had no compunctions about addressing the dangers of wealth and the inappropriate use of money. The story of Ananias and Sapphira makes the point very graphically. Luke tells us in the Book of Acts that “the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common.” Acts 4:32. He goes on to tell of how Barnabas sold a field which belonged to him and gave the full amount of the proceeds to the Apostles for the benefit of the church. Acts 4:36. But when Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, sold their land, they brought only a portion of the proceeds to the Apostles, representing that they had, like Barnabas, made an offering of the whole. When the Apostle Peter confronted them with their dishonesty, they were both stricken dead. I urge you to read the entire story in Acts 5:1-11. You won’t ever hear it from the lectionary. The message is clear. Greed kills. Self-interested pursuit of wealth does not lead to a better life. More is not better when it comes to money.

I am not suggesting that the early church was a communist utopia. The members of the church clearly had possessions and I suspect that some had more than others. But they all understood that possession is not the same as ownership. They all understood that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Psalm 24.1. What we possess is held in trust for the God who calls us to love our neighbor and care for creation. We came into the world with only our birthday suits and we will leave it with less than that. How we spend each penny in between is a matter of life and death. The question is not whether you have money or how much you have. The question is whether you are spending it, much or little, to invest in the things that are eternal, the things that matter to God, or whether you are simply enriching yourself in a vain effort to find happiness, security and a measure of fulfillment. Do you think of the money in your wallet, checking account or IRA as yours? Or is it a loan given you by the Lord to do God’s work in the world?

We mainline, middle class, ever white and ever polite progressive protestants are a little embarrassed by the outbreak of God’s wrath against Ananias and Sapphira. Yet perhaps the Lord’s swift action there was a kind of mercy. This couple did not live long enough to develop the stress conditions leading to heart attack, stroke and addiction so common among people caught up in the pursuit of the elusive American Dream. They did not live to discover how useless money is when you are standing over the casket of a loved one or how easily the love of money leads you to cross lines that you will regret for the rest of your life. Greed usually kills us gradually, awakening in our hearts a thirst that can never be satisfied, hardening our hearts against our neighbors and filling us with suspicion against our dear ones we suspect of scheming to get hold of our wealth. Mammon is a cruel and jealous master.

We need to recognize and name the false god, mammon. We need to shine the light of truth on the dangers of an unsustainable, greed driven economy that is increasingly dehumanizing.us and poisoning our planet. Jesus calls us to a way of living that is radically different from the self-interested pursuit of wealth. He calls us to learn, as the birds of the air and the lilies of the field already know, that all we need and more comes from the hand of a generous God. Disciples of Jesus know that the world is not a shrinking pie and that we don’t need to be obsessed with getting and keeping our piece. God has no interest in getting from us a share of what is ours. God wants us. When we finally figure out that, because  we belong to God and everything we possess belongs to God, we have all we need, then we can start truly living.

Here’s  poem by William Wordsworth about life wasted in “getting and spending.”

The World is Too Much with Us.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Source: William Wordsworth: Selected Poems (c. 2004 by Penguin Books). This poem is in the public domain. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was born in Cockermouth, Cumberland in England. He made his debut as a writer in 1787 publishing a sonnet in The European Magazine. In the same year he began attending St John’s College, Cambridge. There he received his BA degree. Wordsworth traveled widely throughout Europe and was particularly drawn to places of natural beauty. Though an ardent supporter of the French Revolution, he was first and foremost a poet drawing his inspiration chiefly from the natural world. Wordsworth was Britain’s Poet Laureate from 1843 until his death. You can read more about William Wordsworth at the Poetry Foundation website and sample more of his poetry.

Amos 8:4–7

Amos was a prophet from the Southern Kingdom of Judah, but the preaching we have from him comes to us from his ministry in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. After the death of King Solomon, the small empire King David had built split into two separate nations. Judah, consisting of the tribes of Benjamin and Judah, continued under the reign of the house of David until its final destruction by Babylon in 587 B.C.E. Israel, consisting of the remaining ten tribes, was less politically stable. It was ruled by a succession of royal families succeeding one another through violent coups. The Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 723 B.C.E. Amos came on the scene during the long and prosperous reign of Jeroboam II beginning in about 782 B.C.E. Little is known about Amos. He describes himself as “a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees,” which could mean that he was a wealthy land owner or that he was merely a servant on someone else’s estate. Amos 7:14. In any event, Amos makes it clear that he has no prophetic credentials other than his call from the Lord to preach, not to his own people of Judah, but to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Amos 7:15. By this point, the struggle in Israel between the worship of Yahweh and the cult of the Ba’als was all but over. A decisive death blow had been struck against the priesthood and temple of Ba’al by King Jehu two generations before. After taking power through a bloody revolution, Jehu killed Queen Jezebel, the widow of King Ahab and the chief patron of Ba’al. He then extinguished the entire line of Ahab. By the time Jeroboam II took the throne, worship of the Lord had become the religion of the Northern Kingdom once again. Peace, prosperity and religious revival seemed to demonstrate God’s pleasure with Israel.

But that is not the way Amos saw it. Peace and prosperity had come at a terrible price. The new commercial economy that brought so much prosperity to the commercial classes in the urban areas led to oppression and impoverishment for the rural masses. Property that under Israelite tribal law was held in perpetuity by family clans was now open for purchase or seizure. Statutes limiting the power of creditors over debtors were disregarded. The “safety net” for the poor consisting of “gleaning rights” was likewise ignored by farming interests that routinely soled “the sweepings of the wheat.” Amos 8:6.

Amos criticized the religion of Israel as empty, false and hypocritical. Religious observances, however faithfully performed and liturgically correct, are worthless unless accompanied by justice and compassion. Speaking on behalf of the Lord, Amos has this to say concerning the worship of Israel:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 6:21-24. Not surprisingly, Amos’ preaching came to the attention of the Israelite authorities. Amaziah, the high priest of Bethel, informed King Jeroboam about Amos’ preaching, saying to him “the land is not able to bear all his words.” Amos 7:10. Shortly thereafter, Amaziah ordered Amos to return to Judah and never again preach at Israel’s sanctuary at Bethel. Amos 7:12-13.

What application does this have today? I dealt with one societal issue in my opening remarks, but find it necessary to repeat the point I made last week with respect to application of biblical texts to the contemporary scene. Amos is not speaking to the world at large on the basis of human rights, natural law or some universally recognized concept of justice. He is speaking specifically to Israel as God’s covenant people convicting her of violating the terms of her covenant obligations. That is precisely why we cannot go marching up to Wall Street quoting Amos and insisting that Wall Street has broken the covenant. Wall Street would quite understandably reply, “What covenant?” Neither AIG, nor Bank of America nor J.P. Morgan Chase is God’s chosen people. The United States is not God’s people. The words of Amos are thus directed toward Israel and, through its baptismal covenant in Jesus Christ, to the church.

That said, there are obviously both Jews and Christians who live in the United States, have obligations to the United States and owe loyalties to the United States. So what happens in the United States cannot be a matter of indifference. Disciples of Jesus are called upon specifically not to conform to the surrounding culture, but to be transformed by the renewal of their minds that they may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2. That means it is not our aim to transform society or “change the world” or “make a difference.” Our call is to live faithfully and counter-culturally as the Body of Christ in whatever context we find ourselves. That, of course, might very well turn out to be transformative bringing about significant change that makes an important difference. But whether faithfulness to Jesus does or does not bring about change or the change we hope for and expect is not our concern.

Psalm 113

This psalm is remarkable in its juxtaposition of God’s overwhelming power and transcendence against God’s intimate concern for the “weak,” the “poor” and the “childless.” Verses 4-6 glorify Israel’s God as sovereign over nature and history, exalted over the nations and even far above the heavens. Yet the greatness and magnitude of God are manifested not chiefly in his transcendence, but in his imminence, and particularly in his concern for the lowly. God is glorified in the exaltation of the weak, the salvation of the helpless and the deliverance of the childless from the curse of barrenness. God’s special concern with the weak and the powerless is grounded in Israel’s experience of God’s salvation in the Exodus and is reflected throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. God’s compassion for the childless woman echoes the experiences of numerous women of the Hebrew Bible, including Sarah, Rebecca and Hannah to mention a few. This theme is given expression in Luke’s gospel through Elizabeth, the aged and barren wife of Zechariah to whom John the Baptist was born.

This psalm is the first of a collection (Psalm 113114115116117118) labeled “Hallel.” These psalms are essentially expressions of thanksgiving and joy for divine redemption. In later Jewish liturgical practice they were sung for feasts of pilgrimage at Passover, Weeks, Tabernacles, New Moon and the Dedication of the Temple. It is nearly impossible to determine the original setting of Psalm 113 or its original connection, if any, to the other Hallel psalms. The archaic Hebrew expressions found throughout the hymn suggest that it may have ancient roots in the monarchical period of Israel’s history prior to the Babylonian Exile.

1 Timothy 2:1–7

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone…” So begins the lesson. Just as Jesus is the mediator between God and humanity, so the church is the mediator between Christ and the world. When you think about it, the chief social function of bodies is mediation. What do I mean when I say, “I know Janet”? Most likely it means that, among other things, I can recognize her face, describe her features and identify body language unique to her. I must qualify this with the word “likely” because the digital age has made it possible for relationships to develop on line without the parties thereto ever meeting face to face. I have a few of those relationships myself. Yet even for these people I have developed mental “pictures.” I know full well that these people probably do not look anything at all like my mental pictures of them. Still, I cannot help myself. I think this involuntary imaginative reflex of mine just goes to show how impossible it is to conceive a disembodied person. That is also why the church confesses “the resurrection of the body” and not the immortality of the soul. Bodies with eyes, ears, noses and mouths are the way persons engage one another. That is why the Word became flesh.

So the Body of Christ mediates God to the world just as Jesus’ bodily presence mediates God to the Church. Precisely because God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4), the church is to pray for all people without exception. Accordingly, the Kyrie begins with the words, “For the peace of the whole world, for the well being of the church of God and for all people, let us pray to the Lord” (emphasis supplied). Just as the focus of prayer is not confined to those within the church alone, it is not withheld from any nation, tribe or clan even if some of these folks are considered enemies of our own nation or even the church. Thus, prayer is to be made for “kings and all who are in high positions.” Note well that the first century authorities were not particularly well disposed toward the church. To the contrary, they were suspicious of the church and prone to hinder its mission-and that was on good days. Persecution of the church, though not systematic or wide spread at this point, was not infrequent. Nevertheless, Paul understands that however flawed and corrupt government might be, it makes possible the living of a “quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” I Timothy 2:2.

All of this is consistent with Paul’s teaching in Romans 13 where he writes: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” Romans 13:1-7. I hasten to add, however, that I think protestants and Lutherans in particular have loaded far too much freight on these verses. The terms “instituted” and “appointed” appear to suggest that God has ordained whatever government happens to be in power and that, therefore, disobedience to government constitutes rebellion against God. But that does not follow.

The Greek words used in Romans for “instituted” and “appointed” actually mean more to “order,” “direct” or “arrange.” Thus, God did not ordain the Roman Empire, but God does order, arrange and direct it to do God’s bidding and accomplish God’s purposes. In the same way, God directed Assyria and Babylonia to bring about his judgment upon Israel and arranged for Persia under Cyrus to enable Israel’s return from exile. To say that God makes use of governments (without their knowledge or approval) is quite different from saying that the structures of power that exist were ordained by God and therefore cannot be resisted. Paul’s point, therefore, is not that obedience to government is obedience to God, but that faithful disciples who conduct themselves righteously need not fear the authorities. They are God’s tools whether they want to be such or not. Even if they act unjustly and persecute the people of God, God can be trusted to turn even this conduct to his own good purposes. Consequently, no argument can be made here to support the proposition that God wills for there to be nation states, governments or empires. Neither can this verse bear the weight of that uniquely Lutheran concoction, “The Two Kingdom’s Doctrine.” But don’t get me started on that.

Verse 5 contains what appears to be a fragment of early Christian creedal teaching:

5For there is one God;
there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
6 who gave himself a ransom for all.

The term “mediator” is not used anywhere else by Paul in this or any of his writings. Yet if this is indeed a citation to some other fragment of church teaching, it is hardly surprising that it differs from Paul’s own way of expressing the faith in linguistics and vocabulary. Paul seems to be citing this saying in support of his appeal for prayer directed to all people and reflecting God’s desire that “all people be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” I Timothy 2:4. One God-One Mediator-One ransom for all.

Luke 16:1–13

This parable has famously (or infamously) been labeled the “Dishonest Steward.” I am not convinced that this fellow in Jesus’ story was dishonest. The parable begins with a “rich man” who had a steward. According to most commentaries, the “rich man” was an absentee landlord letting out his property to tenant farmers. The “steward” was a “property manager” in charge of supervising the tenants and selling the landlord’s share of the produce. Such arrangements were apparently common in first century Galilee. See Marshall, I. Howard, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 617 citing Grundmann, W. Das Evangelien nach Lukas (Theologischer Handkommentar zum NT, Berlin 1966) p. 317. The charges brought against the steward involved waste and mismanagement. Such conduct surely evidences carelessness or incompetence, but it does not imply dishonesty. Moreover, we cannot even be sure these charges are true. The allegations of misfeasance against the steward came from third parties that are not even identified and we never hear that the steward was even given a fair opportunity to contest them. In today’s corporate world, heads must roll when mistakes are made and they are often not the heads of those actually responsible. That could well have been the case here.

The steward finds himself in an untenable position. In our culture of unemployment benefits, disability payments and the like, we might be tempted to roll our eyes a bit when the steward reflects: “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” Luke 16:3. This is no laughing matter, however. Day laborers were paid a mere denarius per day in Galilee. SeeMatthew 20:1-16. The work was brutally difficult, dangerous and not always available. Ibid. Begging was also difficult work and paid a good deal less than labor. Either profession would have been the death sentence for a man of delicate physical constitution.

So here is where the story gets interesting. The steward calls in his master’s debtors and reduces their bills. On the face of it, this appears to be dishonest and it might well be. But if that is the case, why would the master praise his erstwhile steward for defrauding him? That makes no sense. Of course, Jesus’ parables sometimes are counter intuitive. Only last week Jesus told the parable of a shepherd who left 99 sheep alone and unprotected in the wilderness to go searching for one lost lamb. But that was to show how God’s valuation of those persons we have written off is entirely different than our own shallow cost/benefit analysis. There was a point to the implausibility of the parable. It does not seem to me that there is any such literary purpose for the master’s improbable response to getting fleeced by a disgruntled employee.

The most plausible explanation I have found was given by two commentators who suggest that the amount of each debt written off by the steward was his own commission for collecting the debt, not money that was owed the master. Findlay, J.A., Luke, The Abingdon Bible Commentary (c. 1929 Nashville/New York) p. 1049; Fitzmyer, J.A. Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament, (c. 1971, London) pp. 161-184 cited in Marshall, I. Howard, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 615. If that is in fact what happened, the master would have no cause to complain and might indeed admire the shrewdness of his former steward for using his last commission to create a “golden parachute” for himself.

In either case, Jesus commends this fellow because he understands that he is now in a position where his money will be of very limited use to him. What he needs now more than anything else is friends. He recognizes that his future does not lie with his master or any of the master’s rich friends who no doubt know of his dismissal and are unlikely to hire him to a position of responsibility. Any future he has is with his master’s debtors, the folks he was accustomed to exploiting. For him, the “great reversal” that Mary sings about in the Magnificat is unfolding in his own life. The rich, of which he used to be one, have been cast down. The future belongs to the hungry soon to be filled. This fellow understands that the future belongs to them and that he had better make sure he is among them. To that end, he employs his last commission. He does exactly what the rich young ruler should have done in Luke 18:18-30.

Sunday, August 21st

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Chapman

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

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

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

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

the secret, and the pain,

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

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

Isaiah 58:9b–14

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 103:1–8

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

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

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

Hebrews 12:18–29

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke 13:10–17

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

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

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

 

Sunday, June 5th

Third Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 17:17–24
Psalm 30
Galatians 1:11–24
Luke 7:11–17

Prayer of the Day: Compassionate God, you have assured the human family of eternal life through Jesus Christ. Deliver us from the death of sin, and raise us to new life in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

I lost both my parents during the last decade. Their deaths grieved me deeply, especially my mother’s passing. Yet there is something natural about such grief. I always knew that I would one day bury my parents-just as they buried theirs. We are not gods, but creatures. Our days are not without limit and we can only pray for grace to live them wisely and well. Both of my parents went to their graves full of days and with a legacy of love and faithfulness to each other and to their children. What more can one ask from a creaturely life? Death is surely grievous, but not evil-at least not to the degree that the dying creature lets go of life and enters a trusting free fall into the merciful hands of its Creator. I buried my parents with deep sadness, but also in hope.

Burying one’s child, however, is another thing altogether. I fear the deaths of my children and grandchildren far more than I fear my own. They carry a part of me that would surely die were I to be so unfortunate as to outlive them. Their very existence makes me vulnerable in the way that God became vulnerable in sending the only begotten Son. Something of that vulnerability is expressed below in this week’s poem by Brenda Atri. My children force me to pray, work and hope for a better future. Because they live, I cannot allow myself the luxury of despair. For that reason, death inflicts irreparable destruction when it comes before its time. The bullet that takes the life of a school child leaves a hole far bigger than the one in the corpse. It leaves parents with inconsolable grief; it inflicts on siblings both incomprehensible loss and survivor guilt; it destroys a community’s trust; it scars the narratives of so many young lives. An untimely death is an evil death.

This Sunday’s gospel tells the story of a funeral for a young man from the town of Nain. We don’t know the circumstances of his death, but we know that he died leaving behind a mother and a grieving community. That is enough to make clear to us that his death was a great evil-an evil Jesus simply will not tolerate. That is why he stops the funeral train in its tracks, raises the young man from death and returns him to his mother. No dead kids on Jesus’ watch!

By contrast, our culture has become appallingly tolerant of untimely deaths. As a people, we here in the United States are becoming increasingly comfortable with extremist anti-immigrant proposals barring even children fleeing for their lives from finding sanctuary within our borders. Worldwide, millions of children die each year of entirely preventable causes such as hunger, abuse, neglect, gun violence, bullying, exploitation, malaria, tuberculosis, war and lack of adequate health care. We see the statistics, but not the deep craters of human agony behind the raw numbers. For each such death, there is a sad funeral procession made up of irreparably damaged souls.

Jesus has come to put an end to these funeral processions for children and young people needlessly sacrificed to death. Jesus would have his disciples know that it’s time to stop tolerating the toxic environments in our neighborhoods, schools and homes that put children at risk. It is time to stop tolerating politicians who tell us that we cannot afford adequate health care, proper nutrition and educational opportunities for our children. Over and over again, Jesus made children his priority, teaching his disciples that the kingdom of heaven was made for them. Our prayer that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven therefore includes an implicit plea that no parent should ever again have to bury a child.

Daughter

Your face mirrors mine,
As mine does my mother’s.

Your smile is a smirk
That  quickly explodes
Into sublime lightness.

Your skin has a blush
As does plums true wine,
When young men turn their heads
And whisper your name to each other.

Your hair casts a curtain
Over your face. It acts as a veil to
Guard your thoughts and hide your moods.
It falls long and silky to your waist,
and parts in a sliver, to allow one eye to spy.

If I could love you more
It would surely be like a violent death,
For I would faint, become breathless,
And my heart would burst forth from my breast

My life has been in free fall since your birth.
A never ending plunge into bottomless depths,
Fearing for your wellness and happiness.

I live only to hear you call my name
Hopefully with joy, and not with tears.

On that face that mirrors mine.

C. 2011 by Brenda Atry & published on Poetry Soup. You can sample more of this Atry’s poetry at the above website.

1 Kings 17:17–24

This story follows immediately upon the text from Sunday, November 8th of last year. Elijah is staying with an impoverished widow of Zarephath, a coastal town in the pagan country of Phoenicia.  He had been driven out of Israel by King Ahab who blamed Elijah for the three year drought that was devastating the whole region. This fugitive prophet had taken up residence with the widow and her son. All three of them were living off one jar of meal and a single jug of oil that had miraculously been sustaining them throughout the long years of drought. Then, tragedy strikes. The widow’s son becomes deathly ill. The widow lashes out at Elijah and, by extension, at God for bringing this evil upon her. That is not unusual. In the face of unbearable suffering and loss, people often question God’s mercy, wonder whether they are not somehow at fault for what has occurred or become angry at God. What is truly remarkable is the prophet’s response. Elijah does not scold the woman for her impiety or remind her of how good God has been to her thus far or explain to her that the death of her son is really a blessing in disguise that she will someday come to recognize. Elijah takes the woman’s complaint directly to God without any censorship, editing or pious window dressing. He turns and says, “Yea God! What did you have to go and kill this poor kid for? This lady saved my life! Can’t you give her a break?”

There is a lesson in this for all of us who deal with people in times of grief. It is not our place to defend God’s reputation or make explanations for God’s actions or seeming lack of action. After all, God would be a shabby excuse for a deity if he had to depend on us to cover for him. Our responsibility is to show compassion to the sufferer. That sometimes means entering into his or her anger and despair. There are precious few devotional aids that teach us how to pray when we are heartbroken, doubtful or just plain mad at God. That is where the Psalms come in. The psalmists know how to pray on good days and bad. They know how to praise God for every source of joy and beauty, but they also know how to let God know when they feel that God has let them down. That is exactly how Elijah prays over the widow’s son.

The son’s recovery demonstrates to the reader that Elijah’s prayer is heard and that God’s mercy extends beyond the confines of Israel to all nations where people of faith are found. But it is important not to lay too much stress on the healing. The message here is not that God grants whatever request a person makes-even such persons as Elijah. Rather, the point is that God hears and God acts. Such actions may not come as dramatically as in this story and they may not comport with our wishes. In the end, God means to take all of our lives. So the healing of the widow’s son amounts only to a brief reprieve. Death will eventually part the widow and her son. That the boy has been given back to his mother for an indefinitely longer period of time is sheer grace. As such, this miracle has the larger purpose of evoking the faith expressed in the widow’s response: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” Vs. 24.

Psalm 30

This is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance. It is impossible to determine precisely the danger or threat from which the psalmist has been delivered. It is possible that the psalmist is a warrior giving thanks for deliverance from death in battle. It is also possible that the psalmist is thanking God for recovery from illness. In either case, the psalmist is deeply thankful for God’s mercy which lasts forever and triumphs over God’s anger that is only momentary. S/he acknowledges that, prior to his/her troubles, s/he had become cocky and complacent. “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’” Vs. 6.  It is perhaps this very pride and presumptiveness that led to trouble for the psalmist. Prosperity and ease can create a false sense of security and invulnerability. When all is well and everything seems stable and secure, it is easy to forget how fragile a thing life is. Just one second of inattention to the road by me or someone else can tragically alter the course of my life forever. If that tiny spot on the X-ray is what I fear, then it matters not how successful I have been, how much I have stashed away in my savings or how carefully I have planned my retirement. Suddenly, it becomes very clear just how dependent I am for life upon the God who gave it to me and who will sooner or later require it from me again.

The psalmist aims what appears to be a rather presumptuous rhetorical at God: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” Vs. 9. Seriously? Does this individual really believe that God needs his or her praise and testimony so much that God simply cannot afford to let him or her die? I suppose that is one way of looking at these words. Of course, there is another take on this as well. We are, after all, created to give praise to our Creator. Perhaps the psalmist is merely pointing out to God that s/he has learned his or her lesson. Meaning and security are not found in prosperity, however impressive it might be. Human fulfillment and joy cannot be found apart from faithful reliance upon God and a life of praise directed to God. Whatever remains of the psalmist’s life, much or little, will be spent in such praise.

Galatians 1:11–24

As we are going to be in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians for the rest of this month and into the beginning of July, you might want to read the overview by James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek at enterthebible.org. You may recall that Paul is writing to the Galatian believers out of concern that they are forsaking the good news about Jesus that he has preached and are listening instead to the message of certain Jewish Christian evangelists. These folks were arguing that Gentile Christians must be circumcised according to Jewish law. Paul insists in reply that people are justified by faith in Christ rather than by keeping the requirements of Torah.

Last week’s lesson opened with Paul’s surprise and outrage that, so soon after hearing the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus, the Galatian church is now turning to “another gospel.” This week Paul launches into an account of his upbringing within Judaism and his former hatred of the church. In part, Paul wishes to impress upon his hearers that his own Jewish credentials are as good as or better than those of his opponents, but his objective is not to establish his superiority to them on that basis. He wishes rather to make it clear to the Galatians that, although he has as good a claim as anyone to Jewish ancestry and upbringing, he does base his preaching and teaching on these credentials. Instead, he basis his preaching and teaching on his encounter with the risen Christ and Christ’s commission for him to preach the good news of God’s salvation to the Gentiles. Paul also wishes to make the point that he is in fellowship with the Church at Jerusalem and has received the blessing of the rest of the apostles for his ministry.

It is important to note this twofold claim of authority. Paul is emphatic that his apostleship is grounded in his encounter with the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus. (See Acts 9:1-30 for Luke’s version of this encounter.) But he is also careful to point out that he had gone up to Jerusalem to visit with Peter and James to receive their blessing. He also points out that the church in Judea recognized his preaching and glorified God on that account. Thus, apostolic authority, understood as the authorization to preach, teach and administer the sacraments publically, is grounded in the apostle’s conviction that s/he has been called to this work. But that alone is not sufficient to make an apostle. Apostolic authority must be recognized and conferred by the church as well. I believe that this twofold call process exists in some way, shape or form in most expressions of the church. Throughout its history, the church as striven to exercise apostolic authority in ways that encourage and stimulate creative ministry and preaching while also holding preachers and ministers accountable to the biblical witness, the ecumenical creeds and our respective confessional/teaching traditions. We have not always gotten that balance quite right, but we keep trying. Perhaps that is what it means to be a church of the Reformation?

Luke 7:11–17

This account of Jesus’ raising of the widow’s son is found only in Luke. It is naturally paired with the Elijah story in I Kings, also involving the death of a widow’s only son. Indeed, the Elijah narrative might well have been on the peoples’ (Luke’s?) mind as they exclaimed, “A great prophet has risen among us.” Vs. 16. The other comment made by the crowd to the effect that “God has [visited] his people” reflects the Benedictus in which Zechariah declares: “for [God] has visited and redeemed his people.” Luke 1:68. The NRSV translates the verb for “visit” as “look favorably upon.” While not inaccurate, this rendering does not reflect the sense that God is coming to or making a saving visit to Israel. I prefer the old RSV’s use of “visit.”

Nain is a tiny Galilean village approximately twenty-five miles south of Capernaum. See map. Luke reports that Jesus raised the young man near the town gate, but no evidence of a gate or wall has ever been found at the site. Either the gate was only part of a simple enclosure or the word was used figuratively, referring to the place where the road entered the houses. In either case, it would have been necessary for the funeral procession to pass out of the town as burial of the dead would not have been permitted within the town proper.

Jesus’ compassion here is not for the dead man, but for his mother. As indicated in my opening remarks, the life of a woman without a husband or children to support her would have been a bitter lot in first century Palestine. This is yet another passage in which Luke’s particular concern for the lives of women and their participation in the gospel narrative is illustrated.

Jesus touched the bier to stop the poll bearers from proceeding further. Such an act might well have been considered rude and disrespectful. It also rendered Jesus legally unclean for the balance of the day. But this brash act makes clear Jesus’ intent to put a stop to this sad procession and turn it around.

Jesus raises the young man by commanding him to arise. He uses similar means in raising the daughter of Jairus. Luke 8:54-56See also the raising of Lazarus at John 11:43. This harkens back to the first chapter of Genesis where God speaks the world and all of its creatures into existence. Genesis 1:1-2:3.

Luke tells us that word of this event spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding hill country-strange given that the miracle took place at a small town in Galilee. Some scholars attribute this discrepancy to Luke’s general lack of knowledge about Palestinian geography.

 

Sunday, April 24th

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, you teach us that without love, our actions gain nothing. Pour into our hearts your most excellent gift of love, that, made alive by your Spirit, we may know goodness and peace, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.” John 15:17

The opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference. The mayor and leaders in Flint, Michigan did not set about with malice in their hearts to poison the children of that broken city. They did not intend for anyone to get hurt. They only wanted to find a cheap and easy solution to an expensive problem. They wanted to balance the budget. I expect they probably knew in the back of their minds that there was a risk involved with drawing the city’s drinking water from the Flint River. Perhaps they were even warned of the dangers by civil engineers and environmental specialists who knew better. But they didn’t care enough to investigate the dangers or plan for the potential consequences of their actions. They had eyes only for the bottom line. Red ink on the town’s financials was more troubling to them than the red blood of Flint’s households.

Indifference kills more of us than malice. We die at the hands of drivers who know they are too inebriated to drive but don’t want to shell out money for a cab. We die at the hands of drivers who can’t be bothered to pull off the road before responding to a text message. Our children die because the gun industry will have its profits and it is the price we will gladly pay to preserve our precious Second Amendment rights. We die because our consumptive way of life poisons our water, fouls our air and destroys the ecosystem that sustains us. Even when human lives are taken by evil people with malicious intent, it is often because the rest of us lack the desire, the will and the courage to stop them. As writer and philosopher Edmond Burke points out, “all that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing.”

Indifference takes a terrible toll on our souls as well. If St. Augustine is to be believed (and I think he is), we were created to love God. The only true temple God has is the flesh in which his Word is revealed. The only way love for God can be practiced is through our love for the neighbor made in God’s image. That is why John tells us in his letter that if we claim to love God yet harbor hatred for any of God’s human children, we are liars. I John 4:20. Whatever we worship when we come to God with cold and indifferent hearts, it is not God. Whatever we are calling “God”-even if we name it Jesus-it is not God. It is instead merely a reflection of our own twisted and depraved selves, an idol. Idols are not God, but they have the power to shape us into their own lifeless images if we allow them to become gods for us. That is the terrible fate from which Jesus came to deliver us.

Jesus came to make us angry with the wrath of God. For some people in this new age culture of blissful tolerance, an angry God is offensive. As one clergy person recently told me, “anger is unworthy of God.” (This from a preacher? God help us all.) But if God is not angry over the needless poisoning of Flint’s children; if God is not angry that a third of us live in comfort while two thirds struggle to stay alive; if God is not angry over the unnecessary police shootings of young black men; then I can only conclude that God doesn’t much care about us. But God is not indifferent. Anger is the shape love takes toward wayward children bent on following their own self-destructive paths. God’s anger, however, does not translate into revenge, retribution or punishment. God’s anger translates into a stubborn and patient determination to break our hard hearts, shock us into seeing the world the way God sees it-and weeping. Jesus came to save us from our indifference, to help us weep over the destruction we have wrought upon ourselves and one another, to make us truly human. He came that we might become a people capable of love.

Here’s a poem by James Wright that captures precisely our predicament-and suggests its cure.

Three Stanzas from Goethe

That man standing there, who is he?
His path lost in the thicket,
Behind him the bushes
Lash back together,
The grass rises again,
The waste devours him.

Oh, who will heal the sufferings
Of the man whose balm turned poison?
Who drank nothing
But hatred of men from love’s abundance?
Once despised, now a despiser,
He kills his own life
The precious secret,
The self-seeker finds nothing.

Oh, Father of Love,
If your psaltery holds one tone
That his ear still might echo,
Then quicken his heart!
Open his eyes, shut off by clouds
From the thousand fountains
So near him, dying of thirst
In his own heart.

Source:  Wright, James, The Branch Will Not Break, (c. 1963 by James Wright, pub by Wesleyan University Press) p. 14. James Wright was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio in 1927. In addition to his own work, Wright is also well known for his translations of Spanish poets. In 1972 he received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He died in 1980. This poem actually consists of three stanzas Wright translated from Goethe’s poem, “Harzreise im Winter.” You can learn more about James Wright and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Acts 11:1-18

Peter has a few problems on his hands. For starters he woke up from a terrible dream in which God was commanding him to eat a whole bed sheet full of disgusting animals including reptiles. This is more than just disgusting. It is downright wrong. Leviticus 11 makes very clear to Israel that the eating of such animals as appeared to Peter in that sheet was an “abomination.” As a matter of fact, even touching one of these animals renders a person unclean for the rest of the day! What do you make of such a dream? Could this possibly have been the voice of the Lord? Or was it the voice of the devil tempting Peter? Before Peter has a chance to reflect much on his dream, three men arrive at the house where he is staying. They were sent by Cornelius, a Roman Centurion. They inform Peter that Cornelius would like to see him and request that he come with them to Caesarea. I cannot imagine that Peter was thrilled about all of this. When the commander of the occupation force wants to see you in his office, it’s usually not a good thing. Yet the Spirit of God urges Peter to go along and he does.

Arriving at the home of Cornelius, Peter discovers that he is not going to be imprisoned or interrogated. He is instead invited to dinner. In fact, the whole household of Cornelius is present to hear what Peter has to say about Jesus. Eating unclean food is bad enough. Eating it in the home of a Gentile is unthinkable. Everything Peter ever knew and believed about the Scriptures told him that he really ought to get up, tell these folks he had nothing to say to them and excuse himself. But something much deeper in Peter’s heart was telling him to accept the hospitality of Cornelius and his family and to preach the gospel to them. That “something,” was the Spirit of God. Before Peter finishes his sermon, the Spirit of God fills Cornelius and his family just as it did the disciples at Pentecost. I don’t think Peter had worked out all the theological implications of what had happened or what he did next. But when you see the Spirit of God calling someone to faith-how can you not baptize?

Next thing you know, Peter is in hot water with the Synod. “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” he is asked. I expect that the Jerusalem leadership probably pointed out to Peter that his actions were contrary to the guidelines, procedures and requirements for mission and ministry. Though perhaps we might someday consider bringing the gospel to the Gentiles, such a step will constitute a substantial departure from the church’s understanding and practice. Such a profound change should not be made prior to rigorous study, theological reflection and deliberation. The proper procedure would have been to submit the question via resolution to the general assembly which would probably commission a task force to issue a report. After a five year study of the issue, the assembly would then be in a position to make a reasoned and comprehensive decision on whether such a policy change is warranted and, if so, how it should be implemented. That is how we Lutherans do things. If we had been in charge back then, this whole Cornelius affair would never have happened. Thank God we weren’t in charge-and still are not.

Throughout the Book of Acts, the Spirit seems always to be a few steps ahead of the church which is frantically racing to keep up. Things are happening so fast and furiously that the Apostles find themselves confused, bewildered and anxious about the direction of the church. So for people today who complain that the church isn’t what it used to be, that it is changing too fast and it’s not the church they grew up in, I have just four words: Get used to it. The Acts of the Apostles, this marvelous story about the early church, reminds us that we don’t control the mission, ministry or future direction of the church. It turns out that God seems to be active in the places we least expect. Faith is born among the folks you would least expect to be receptive. About all we can ever say about the shape of the church in the future is that it will certainly not be what we expect.

This story also tells us something about the authority of the Bible. Peter appeared to be on solid scriptural ground with his scruples about socializing among, eating with and finally baptizing Gentiles. Turns out he was wrong. That should be a lesson for all of us who are so cock sure we know what the Bible requires. “The Bible is inerrant!” said a fellow from the church in which I was raised as he brought his fist down on the book. Perhaps so, but its interpreters are fallible human beings. All you need to do is google the word “Bible” and you will discover some of the wildest, wackiest and witless notions ever expressed by people who think they have the Bible figured out. So it is quite possible to get the Bible wrong and the church has done that on many occasions. That is why we had the Reformation. That is also why the church’s understanding and interpretation of the Scriptures is always evolving, changing and growing in new directions. That is why Jesus promised his disciples that “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” John 16:13. Because we don’t have all the truth, we are prone to misread and misinterpret the Scriptures in myopic, self-serving ways. We need the Spirit to poke and prod us into taking a new look at the Bible, questioning our assumptions about what it means and listening to people who might read it altogether differently than we do.

Finally, we need the whole church to read the Bible properly. Though Peter was right to heed the voice of the Spirit when he found himself in the household of Cornelius, the extension of the church’s mission to the Gentiles was, in the end, a product of deliberations by the whole church. At the Holy Spirit’s prompting, Peter responded faithfully to the opportunity before him to share the gospel. But he did not simply dismiss the rest of the church or move forward with the mission to the Gentiles autonomously. Instead, he took the initiative to go up to Jerusalem in order to explain and defend his actions. He laid out his case for the Gentile mission before the church for its discernment and judgment. I expect that there was some spirited debate and Scriptural arguments put forth by all sides of the issue. In the end, Peter was able to persuade the church to move in the direction the Spirit led him at the home of Cornelius. That is how it should be.

Psalm 148

This psalm is beautifully structured. It begins and ends with an expression of praise: Hallelujah or “Praise YAHWEH.” The injunctions to praise begin with the heavens, the angels, the sun, moon and stars descending to the earth and its creatures. The forces of nature, geographical features (mountains and hills) and plant life all are called to join in the choir of praise to God. All people from mighty kings, to slave girls to small children are drawn into this cosmic hymn of praise to the Creator. Finally, the call to praise is directed to “the people of Israel who are near to him.” The perfect symmetry of this psalm is further illustrated by its final focus on this one particular people who, though at the narrowest end of the spectrum, are nonetheless “near” to the almighty Creator God.

This psalm is pure praise. It seeks nothing from God. It is not offered up in thanksgiving for any particular act of goodness or salvation on God’s part. The psalmist praises God because that is what creatures, all creatures, even “inanimate” creatures do. It is what we are created for according the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The longer I live, the more I am convinced that this might well be so and that perhaps a major source of our misery stems from our failure to understand it. The universe was spoken into existence by God and so its very existence is an act of praise. Praise is therefore nothing other than going with the grain of the universe. It is recognizing that joy is found only as we learn to sing our little piece in tune with the rest of the choir. Only then does our voice amount to anything worth listening to. If we were not so terribly absorbed in pursuing whatever it is we think will make us happy and accomplishing what we believe to be important and establishing our own legacy, we might not mind so much that we are after all “grass that withers and flowers that fade.”

Revelation 21:1-6

This passage begins a lengthy portrayal of the new creation brought about by the victory of the Lamb. Once again, it bears repeating that this victory will come about not through violent conquest in the manner of the “beast,” but through the faithful obedience of the saints in the face of hardship and persecution. There will be continuity between the new creation and the old. God does not destroy the work of his hands. He “makes it new.” This parallels Paul’s thinking about the resurrection in I Corinthians 15:35-50 where he explains the relationship between the mortal body and the resurrected body by analogy to the relationship between the seed and the full grown plant. While there is continuity, the plant is nevertheless far more than the seed. Note also that the saints do not go up to the new Jerusalem. The new Jerusalem comes down to them.

Jerusalem as the beloved of God is a recurring image throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. There is a rich prophetic tradition foretelling God’s salvation coming forth from this holy city. The most notable is Isaiah 2:1-4. There the prophet declares that “out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Once again, God’s reign in Zion is not one of violence and conquest. It is a reign of law and justice. There will be no further need for weapons as the Lord will judge between nations. The nations themselves “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Psalm 87 is yet another instance in which Zion is lifted up as a unifying symbol for all peoples of the world. So also in Revelation Jerusalem is again at the center of God’s saving work “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Revelation 21:2.

“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men.” Again, the term used for “dwelling” is the same root used in John 1:14where the evangelist says, “the word became flesh and lived among us.” Literally translated, the verb translated “live with” or “dwell with” means to “tent with” or “tabernacle with” or “camp among.” This language once again evokes the memory of God’s presence for Israel in the tent of meeting that accompanied her throughout her journey from Egypt to the land of Canaan. It is more than this, however. As you can discover by reading on to the 22nd chapter of Revelation, there is a description of a rebuilt Temple in the midst of Jerusalem from which flow the river of the water of life. This, in turn, echoes Ezekiel’s vision of the restored temple in Ezekiel 47. In this vision also a river flows from the gates of the temple throughout the land of Israel refreshing, restoring and making fruitful areas formerly arid and dry. These verses also allude to the declaration made by Second Isaiah to the disheartened exiles in Babylon: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Isaiah 43: 18-19.

John of Patmos is weaving all of these images from the Hebrew Scriptures into his lyrical portrayal of the Lamb’s victory in which the struggling churches of Asia Minor will share. This lesson is yet another illustration of how critical the Hebrew Scriptures are for understanding the New Testament. Reading the New Testament without knowing the Hebrew Scriptures is like getting the punch line without the joke.

John 13:31-35

Much of what I have to say about this lesson is already in my introductory remarks. Here are a few additional things worth noting. The reading begins with Jesus declaring: “Now is the Son of Man glorified and in him God is glorified.” vs. 31. It is important to note that just prior to this Judas slipped away to betray Jesus into the hands of his enemies. Thus, the glorification of which Jesus speaks is his betrayal and crucifixion. It is glorification because it reflects the depth of Jesus’ love for his disciples and God’s love for the world. On the cross, the world will see the heart of God breaking for humanity.

The “new commandment” calling the disciples to love one another does not appear to be new. The Hebrew Scriptures admonished the people of Israel to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Leviticus 19:18. The commandment is nevertheless “new” insofar as the paradigm of love is the cross. Thus, it is no longer enough to love your neighbor as yourself only, but to love as God in Christ loves you. This is higher intensity love that is not possible for the disciples unless they continue to abide in Jesus. For reasons previously discussed, I believe that practicing such love is the principal reason for the church’s existence. It is through such love that all people will know that we are Jesus’ disciples and that God sends Jesus not to condemn the world, but that the world may have life through him.