Posts Tagged racism
FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you are the tree of life, offering shelter to all the world. Graft us into yourself and nurture our growth, that we may bear your truth and love to those in need, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“We walk by faith, not by sight.” II Corinthians 5:7
That’s good, because I can’t see very much these days of the “new creation” Paul talks about in this Sundays’ lesson. This week Italy’s new populist government refused to let a humanitarian boat carrying more than six hundred refugees and migrants, including one hundred twenty-three unaccompanied minors, eleven other children and seven pregnant women dock at any of its ports. Meanwhile, here at home our nation’s policy on illegal immigration is routinely separating minor children from their parents. Last week South Dakota Republican State Representative, Michael Clark, declared that a businessman “should have the opportunity to run his business the way he wants. If he wants to turn away people of color, that’s his choice.” All of this sounds a lot more like the old creation of marital strife, violent religious conflict, tribal animosity and cultural divisiveness depicted in the early chapters of Genesis than anything new. We had better be walking by faith because walking by sight leads only to despair.
Walking by faith involves more than a Polly Annaish hope that things will get better. For Paul, walking by faith means living as though Jesus really was raised from death to life. If it is true that the crucified one who poured out his life for the poor, the sick and the unwanted of the earth has been exalted to God’s right hand, if it is true that the nations are to be judged strictly on their treatment of the people for whom Jesus died, if it is true that every knee will one day bow and every tongue confess this Jesus as Lord, then we are compelled to see the world in a new and radically different way. No longer is it possible to view anyone, least of all the outcast, strictly from the human viewpoints of national security, cultural compatibility and economic utility. No longer do we dare allow ourselves to be formed by these false measures of judgment, much less employ them. The resurrection subverts the tenants of nationalism, populism, racism and tribalism with the bold declaration that Christ died for all so that we might no longer live for ourselves, for our families, for our tribes or for our nations, but rather for all people-especially for those living at the margins of society.
Paul challenges us to stake everything on the belief that God raised Jesus from death, thereby changing everything. That is a big ask, especially when it appears that nothing is changing, that the whole world is playing by the winner-take-all rules of the old creation and that we stand to lose everything if it turns out this whole resurrection thing never happened. “Nice guys finish last” says the old adage. Ironically, that very point was made recently by Tony Perkins, evangelical leader and president of the right-wing Family Research Council. Mr. Perkins said contemptuously of Jesus’ admonition to turn the other cheek when stricken: “You know, you only have two cheeks…Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.” I guess that means you can only follow Jesus so far. There comes a point where you have to lay aside all that Jesus crap and follow Kenny Rogers’ dictum: “Sometimes you have to fight to be a man.” I get that. It is hard to be a disciple of Jesus when it appears that everything Jesus tells you to do seems ineffective and might get you beaten up or even killed. But that is precisely where walking by faith begins.
Last week Paul pointed out exactly what it looks like to walk by faith:
“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” II Corinthians 4:7-12.
I have said many times that I am not a “progressive.” That does not mean I don’t think progress is sometimes made. Most assuredly, it is. I count it progress that our nation elected an African American president named Barak Obama. I count it progress that on any given day on most college campuses in the United States you will see mixed race couples, gay and lesbian couples and transgender persons walking the pathways between classes and nobody takes a second look. I count it progress that women are being emboldened to speak out against and stand up to a culture of sexual abuse and exploitation that has for too long been tolerated at all levels of our society. These are tangible gains, but they are far from permanent. We dare not suppose that any gain is irreversible. The reemergence of blatant racism and the growing acceptance of white supremacy we have seen since the 2016 election are grim reminders that we can never safely turn our backs on evil or confidently suppose that the hard-fought gains we achieve for good are complete or safe from reversal.
I am hopeful that the election of Donald Trump was the last frantic scream from the GOP base of predominantly angry white men whose numbers are decreasing and who rightly sense that they are losing their grip on power and privilege. I am hopeful that a younger generation of voters with minds uncluttered by the bogymen of their parents will move us from stale partisanship to fresh thinking and a determination to address our nation’s entrenched racism, its environmental challenges and its role in the global community. Yet I know all too well that this penultimate hope of mine might be misplaced. It is possible that we are entering into a dark period in the history of our nation and of the world. It may be that we will finally be unable to come together in time to avert ecological disaster, nuclear war and tyranny. It is possible that we are being plunged into a new age of night where “because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold.” Matthew 24:12. What then?
Whether I am right in my hopes for the future or wrong, nothing really changes. Our calling as disciples remains the same. We stand with the marginalized-even when we lack the means, power or influence to do much for them. We love our neighbors, even those who seem to hate us. We care for the earth, even when it seems that it has been handed over to the “destroyers of the earth” for ruthless exploitation. Revelation 11:17-18. We speak truthfully to power, even when our voices are shouted down by the megaphone of falsehood. We meet violence with non-violent resistance-even if that means losing our lives. For the death we carry in our bodies is the death of Jesus, the seed of resurrection. The future belongs to the God who raised Jesus from death. For now, that future takes the shape of the cross. But when God is all in all; when God’s gentle reign of peace arrives; when God’s will is done on earth as in heaven; we will rise to discover that, after all, we were on the right side of history.
Here is a poem about signs of hope, their ambiguity and a call to walk by faith and not by sight.
I could have sworn I heard a songbird,
What type I cannot guess.
Her music came from so far away
I scarcely could tell whether
It was indeed a song I heard
Rather than the pipes, radiators
Or someone turning on NPR.
I stood still in the bathroom,
Staring out the window into darkness,
As if the intensity of my gaze
Might induce her to give me another bar.
She must have sensed my interest
Or perhaps my senses coming to life
Snuffed her music the way an
Acolyte extinguishes an altar candle.
I still don’t know if what I heard
Really was the song of a bird
Or just my restless imagination
Reaching out to embrace
A friendlier season.
You can’t grow a new cedar simply by planting a twig from another cedar. Vs. 22. That is just not biologically possible. Moreover, cedars do not bear edible fruit. Vs. 23. But that only makes more emphatic the work God is doing here. The allegory of the cedar is filled with messianic and eschatological (consummation of the age) imagery. The messiah is frequently spoken of in prophetic literature as a “branch” or “shoot.” See Jeremiah 23:5-6; Zechariah 3:8. The exaltation of Mount Zion is a common prophetic term for the fulfilment of God’s purpose for Israel and the world generally. See Micah 4:1-4; Isaiah 2:1-4; Psalm 87. From a mere twig cut from the tree out of which it draws sustenance, a twig that by all rights is as good as dead, God grows a tree on the highest mountain that will tower over all other trees. Vs. 23. It will give shelter to animals and a home to birds of every kind. Vs. 24. By this great act, “all the trees of the field,” that is, the nations “shall know that I the Lord bring low the high tree, make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish.” Vs. 24.
The phrase “you shall know that I am the Lord” appears frequently throughout the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel 6:7, 10, 14; Ezekiel 7:4, 9, 27; Ezekiel 12:15; Ezekiel 13:23; Ezekiel 14:8; Ezekiel 17:21. It is important that God and God’s works be made known to Israel. In this passage, however, God is to be made known to all the nations, not merely by name but by action. God is to be known as the one who brings mighty empires to nothing and raises up a people that, to all appearances, appears to be nothing. Echoes here can be heard of the Exodus-God’s liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt to make of her a nation of promise. In a culture where the greatness of a god is measured by the political and military might of its patron nation, the God of a defeated and exiled people would seem hardly worthy of worship. But God does not belong to Israel only. God is God of all nations, raising them up and disposing of them as best serves God’s redemptive purposes. Moreover, God’s glory is not tied to Israel’s military might or geopolitical influence but to Israel’s faithfulness. This portrait of Israel’s exultation is therefore not comparable to the rise of great empires such as Assyria and Babylonia that dominate and exploit the lesser nations. Israel’s exaltation will be a life giving event for the nations of the world. This will be a different kind of kingdom ruling a different kind of world!
It is always worth asking how disciples of Jesus articulate and live out the prophetic confession of this God who raises and brings down empires for God’s own purposes in a nation that believes itself to have been uniquely selected by God to further God’s purpose through advancing its own national interests. The identification of God’s purpose with that of America, known as “American particularism,” is deeply imbedded in the American protestant psyche. Nowhere is this heretical notion better expressed than in our standard practice of placing the American flag in our sanctuaries, frequently on the same level as the altar and the cross. Sometimes I long for an encyclical from our ELCA presiding bishop condemning this idolatrous practice. I know full well, though, that no such directive will be forthcoming. First, American Lutheran bishops don’t issue encyclicals. Second, such a decree would generate more opposition than an order to shorten the worship service by omitting some of the appointed lessons. The latter is a sad commentary on the spiritual state of the church!
The superscription, “A Song for the Sabbath,” indicates that this psalm was used in connection with Sabbath observance in later Judaism. According to one commentator, the psalm most likely originated in public worship at a festival at some sanctuary lasting for several days. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 614. It is possible that the festival in question was the New Year celebration instituted in Leviticus 23:24-25. Ibid. The strict injunction against work of any kind during this holiday would help to explain its later use for Sabbath worship. The sanctuary in which this liturgy was first used could have been the one at Shiloh referenced in I Samuel or the temple in Jerusalem.
“It is good to give thanks to the Lord.” Vs. 1. That is a simple yet important reminder. To live well is to live thankfully. Thankfulness does not come naturally for most of us. Many of us are stuck in the entitlement mentality, believing that God, the world, our families or our churches “owe us something” and never quite pay up in full. Or we are caught up in the deadly sin of envy that can never recognize God’s gifts to us as anything other than second best to what is given to others who seem to be better off. Of course, in a culture that values accomplishment and achievement, thankfulness is practically an admission that you received something you have not earned or deserved. Why thank God or anybody else for what I earned by the sweat of my own brow?
A thankful worshiper understands quite simply that s/he lives by grace. S/he lives life at a leisurely pace, refusing to be rushed. S/he savors the smell of fresh coffee each morning, the warmth of the sun, the refreshment a spring rain brings to thriving vegetation, the songs of birds and the shouts of children. A thankful worshiper understands that each day of health, strength and vigor is an undeserved gift and that there is no entitlement to the same tomorrow. S/he knows that on the worst day there is still always plenty for which to give thanks and praise.
It is not altogether clear what is meant by a “ten stringed lute” in verse 3. The lute was a medieval predecessor to the guitar, but whether it was anything like the instrument described in the psalm is unknown. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 161. That it had “strings” suggests that it was something like a lute, guitar or lyre.
Verses 12-14 are reminiscent of Psalm 1 which speaks of the prosperity that flows from choosing the way of righteousness over wickedness. The fate of those who lack the sense to recognize God’s works and ways is discussed in verses 5-9 which are not included in our reading. For my cautionary remarks on the interpretation of psalms such as these, see my commentary on Psalm 1 in my post for Sunday, May 17, 2015. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 92 in its entirety.
For my general comments on Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, see my post of June 7, 2015.
The most puzzling piece of this passage is Paul’s remark that “while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.” Vs. 6. Shorn of its context, this sentence is rife with potential for misinterpretation. Paul is not suggesting that the body is the prison of the soul or that salvation is liberation of the spirit from bodily incarceration. Paul is merely stating a fact. As pointed out earlier in II Corinthians 5:1, “the earthly tent we live in is [being] destroyed.” We are dying as is the creation. Nonetheless, “though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.” II Corinthians 4:16. So far from separating soul from body, salvation consists in resurrecting the body. Thus, “while we are still in this tent [body], we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked.” II Corinthians 5:3. There is no advantage to being a naked spirit even if such a thing could exist. To be human is to be a body. It is only through the body that we can know each other. We are dependent on speech, hearing and sight. Critical to communication are the subtle tones of voice telling the hearer that, whatever our bear words might convey, we are speaking in jest. Facial expressions, hand gestures, hugs, kisses and so much more can only be conveyed by creatures with bodies. That is precisely why God has always spoken to Israel and the church through the words of Moses, Elijah, the prophets and apostles. That is why in the fullness of time the word became embodied. Jesus’ resurrection was the resurrection of his Body. His ascension to the right hand of the Father did not dispense with that Body but extended its reach to every scrap of matter in the universe. God remains embodied in God’s holy people. It is for this reason only that we can say God is in some measure knowable.
That said, we are in a limited sense imprisoned by our bodies. However much we might think we know another person, there are depths we cannot reach even with our best communication skills. How much more so with our God! Our bodies are imperfect communicators, lacking the ability to “know as we are known.” We cannot know each other or our God perfectly. As Paul says in his first letter to the church in Corinth, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” I Corinthians 13:12. Thus, our hope is not that we shall be liberated from our bodies to become naked spirits, but that “we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” II Corinthians 5:4. God is even now working the miracle of this transformation in our bodies giving us manifestations of God’s Spirit within the church as a guarantee of all that is to come. II Corinthians 5:5.
Knowing this, Paul is confident in his ministry. He is well aware that some in the Corinthian Church are critical of his personal appearance and what they judge to be his deficiencies as a public speaker. II Corinthians 10:10. There is also a suggestion that some in the congregation believe Paul to be mentally unstable. Vs. 13. Paul does not waste his breath disputing any of this. “I may stutter, I may be uglier than a baboon’s butt and mad as a hatter,” says Paul (highly paraphrased). “But it’s all for your sake that we do what we do.” Vs. 13. Paul is motivated by the love of Christ who died for all. Knowing that, it is impossible for Paul to view or judge anyone from a purely human perspective. Vs. 16. Paul once judged Jesus from just that perspective, but having encountered him as the one God raised from the dead, Paul cannot view him anymore as just another misguided teacher with some radical notions who came to a bad end. Vs. 16. Neither can Paul view women as subordinates, slaves as mere property or gentiles as unclean. Galatians 3:28. The resurrection is a game changer. Seen through the lens of Jesus’ resurrection, creation is altogether new. Vs. 17.
Sadly, the lectionary moves on next week to chapter 6 of II Corinthians passing over what I believe to be one of the most powerful articulations of the church’s mission to be found in the New Testament, namely, II Corinthians 5:16-21. I invite you to read it and reflect on it as it follows directly from what Paul has just told us in today’s lesson and explains what follows in next week’s reading.
The first of these two parables of God’s kingdom follows upon the Parable of the Sower told in Mark 4:3-9. This parable is not an allegory, though Jesus later resorts to allegory in order to explain it to his clueless disciples. Mark 4:10-20. The kingdom of God is to be seen in the totality of the circumstances: the sower who spreads his precious seed indiscriminately over soil both receptive and resistant; the varying degrees of response to that sowing and the resulting fruitfulness. Building on the same imagery, the parable of the planting, growth and harvest in verses 26-29 illuminate the kingdom from a different angle. The sower, though powerless to make the seed sprout, grow and mature nevertheless takes an active role in the process. The sower both plants and takes in the harvest. But that is the extent of the sower’s power to act. Growth comes of itself without the sower’s activity. For all that takes place between planting and harvest, the sower can only patiently wait.
So is Jesus intimating that the kingdom may be a long time in coming and that his disciples must sow the seeds of their ministry and wait patiently for growth? (Weiss, J., Das Markusevenelium (in Die Schriften des Neuen Testaments, Vol. I, 3rd ed. Revised by W. Bousset, c. 1917) cited by Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to Mark, Second ed., Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor) p. 266)). Or is he saying in effect that the time of growth is over and the day of harvest has arrived? (Schweitzer, A., The Quest for the Historical Jesus(c. 1906 by W. Montgomery, English Translation) cited by Taylor, supra.); Cranfield, The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 by Cambridge University Press) p. 167; Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 142. That the reference to the harvest has strong eschatological overtones (e.g. Joel 3:1-13) suggests that the interpretation favored by the weight of scholarly authority is in fact the better view. The conviction that the time for harvest has already come comports with Jesus’ inaugural declaration that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” Mark 1:15. Nevertheless, it is appropriate to recognize the parable’s emphasis on the growth and maturing of the crop as beyond the control of the planter. As Mark will make clear to us, the disciples’ understanding of Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims is laden with misconceptions and clouded by self-interest. Nevertheless, that kingdom is erupting into the world under their very noses and the opportunities for harvest are plentiful but as yet unseen.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed in verses 30-32 should likewise be understood against the backdrop of Jesus’ declaration that the kingdom of God has drawn near. Just as the parable of the planter concludes with an allusion to the final judgment pronounced by the Prophet Joel, so too this parable concludes by echoing the messianic proclamation in our lesson from Ezekiel. Yet there is a striking difference between the Parable of the Mustard Seed and Ezekiel’s prophetic oracle about the miraculous growth of the great cedar. Unlike the stately cedar, mustard is an invasive plant that can readily take over a field cultivated for more profitable crops. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a weed. Whereas Matthew and Luke dignify the parable by characterizing the mustard plant as a tree (Matthew 13:31-32; Luke 13:18-19), Mark is content to call it what it is-a bush.
However one wishes to characterize the mustard plant, there is an obvious contrast between its seed which is proverbially small and the grown plant. Moreover, mustard is a fast growing plant that is highly disruptive. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 136. Thus, it is unlikely that the parable is stressing the need for patience as the disciples wait for the gradual, progressive evolution of God’s kingdom through the institutions of democratic societies. The seed carries in it the immanent incursion of God’s reign into the well-ordered imperial garden. Be afraid, Caesar. Be very afraid!
Seeing the Parent in the child; a poem by Juan Felipe Herrera; and the lessons for Sunday, May 6, 2018
SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you have prepared for those who love you joys beyond understanding. Pour into our hearts such love for you that, loving you above all things, we may obtain your promises, which exceed all we can desire; through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.” I John 5:1.
One of the many memories that haunts and accuses me took place in the middle school lunch room on a cold, dreary spring day like this one. I was sitting alone at the opposite end of a long table from Candice. Candice was a short, shy, withdrawn girl who was more than just a little chubby. We had gone through elementary school together so I knew her well enough at least to say hello when I passed her and she would sometimes smile faintly and wave. On this particular day, a group of 8th Grade girls stopped by to inform Candice that she was ugly, fat, would never have a boyfriend and unloaded lots of other mean girl stuff besides. Candice was used to this sort of thing. She went on with her lunch as though her tormentors were not even present, though I am sure she was crying inside. Failing to get a response out of Candice, the girls lost interest and moved on. I remember watching all this through my twelve year old eyes, my stomach in knots, knowing I should be doing something to help, but not quite sure what. I felt much the same way watching comedian Michelle Wolf making fun of Sarah Huckabee Sander’s appearance at the White House correspondents’ dinner as Ms Sanders sat in full view of the audience just a few feet away.
Yes, I understand that there is a distinction to be made between Candice, who wanted only to be left alone to eat her lunch in peace, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, an intelligent, articulate and attractive women who voluntarily thrust herself into the public eye. Nobody put a gun to Sanders’ head and compelled her to become the public face of Donald Trump. Understand that I don’t pity her for being criticized, mocked and lampooned for bobbing, weaving and feinting before the press. I have little sympathy for the loss of credibility she has suffered from defending the most indefensible statements and conduct of her boss. She knew very well what she was getting herself into when she signed on with the Donald. But it seems to me that mocking her personal appearance goes well beyond legitimate criticism and even political satire. That’s personal. It is designed to insult, hurt and humiliate. These remarks made about Sarah Huckabee Sanders in Ms. Wolf’s performance should be beneath us all. That Ms. Sanders has defended far more egregious and offensive remarks made by her boss and his cronies does not mitigate my view one wit. The high road is still the high road no matter how deep into the cesspool the low road might take you.
We have seen plenty of lows since the 2016 presidential campaign. We have seen the election of a man who mocks people with disabilities, makes openly racist remarks, brags about fondling women without their consent and lies with impunity. It is maddening to see day after day scandals that would have felled any president before him make not a single dent in the presidency of Donald Trump. I sometimes want to scream at the top of my lungs: “Are you people all just bloody stupid!” But in fact, as annoying as is Sarah Huckabee Sander’s dogged defense of her boss-who is beyond merely annoying-she is one of God’s children, a sheep for whom Jesus died. “To love the parent is to love the child,” Saint John tells us. This holds true even when the child has a name like Sarah Huckabee Sanders or Donald Trump.
I am not suggesting for one moment that the love of which Saint John speaks requires us to overlook or acquiesce in the evil works a person does. People who practice injustice, violence and cruelty need to be confronted and called to account. How much more those who propagate “lies of tongue and pen,” and “all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men.” “O God of Earth and Altar,” by Gilbert K. Chesterton, Lutheran Book of Worship (c. 1978 by Lutheran Church in America, American Lutheran Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) # 428. Nonetheless, those of us who follow Jesus must know that we cannot afford to lose sight of the humanity of the people whose works we oppose. When we can no longer recognize ourselves and the image of Christ in a person, that person ceases to matter. When we no longer matter to each other, nothing matters, nothing is off limits, nothing is sacred. There is no longer any limit to the cruelty we can inflict on one another or to the lengths to which we can go to achieve a “win.” We are in danger of being consumed by this new ruthlessness that has infected our politics, our entertainment and, sadly, our religion. We are in danger of becoming the mirror image of what we most hate in one another.
The church is called to be a community recognizing the holiness of persons. Disciples of Jesus know that the only God there is stares at us through the eyes of everyone encounter. Recognizing and serving the neighbor is the only way to honor God. To injure the soul of another human being-any human being-is to blaspheme God. Here is a poem by Juan Felipe Herrera calling upon us to recognize in the midst of these most brutal and unsettled times the humanity of all involved, victim and perpetrator alike.
@ the Crossroads-A Sudden American Poem
RIP Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Dallas police
officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith,
Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa—and all
their families. And to all those injured.
Let us celebrate the lives of all
As we reflect & pray & meditate on their brutal deaths
Let us celebrate those who marched at night who spoke of peace
& chanted Black Lives Matter
Let us celebrate the officers dressed in Blues ready to protect
Let us know the departed as we did not know them before—their faces,
Bodies, names—what they loved, their words, the stories they often spoke
Before we return to the usual business of our days, let us know their lives intimately
Let us take this moment & impossible as this may sound—let us find
The beauty in their lives in the midst of their sudden & never imagined vanishing
Let us consider the Dallas shooter—what made him
what happened in Afghanistan
flames burned inside
(Who was that man in Baton Rouge with a red shirt selling CDs in the parking lot
Who was that man in Minnesota toppled on the car seat with a perforated arm
& a continent-shaped flood of blood on his white T who was
That man prone & gone by the night pillar of El Centro College in Dallas)
This could be the first step
in the new evaluation of our society This could be
the first step of all of our lives
Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 10, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets. (c. 2016 by Juan Felipe Herrera.) Juan Felipe Herrera (b. 1948) was born in Fowler, California. His parents were migrant farmers who lived in trailers or tents along the roads of the San Joaquin Valley as they followed farm work throughout Southern California. Herrera graduated from high school in 1967, and attended UCLA on an Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) scholarship. There received a BA in Social Anthropology. He received a master’s degree in Social Anthropology from Stanford in 1980, and went on to earn an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1990. Herrera is the author of many collections of poetry as well as books of prose for children.He has received fellowships and grants from the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Stanford Chicano Fellows Program, and the University of California at Berkeley. In 2015, he received the L.A. Times Book Prize’s Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement. You can find out more about Juan Felipe Herrera and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
This passage is part and parcel of a larger narrative beginning with Peter’s vision in which the Lord speaks to him and commands him to slaughter and eat a host of animals deemed ritually unclean in the Hebrew Scriptures. See Acts 10:1-16. The meaning of this strange vision is not revealed to Peter until he finds himself in the midst of a gentile family, that of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. There he witnesses the Spirit of God filling them all with faith and inspiring them to confess Jesus as Lord.
The story as a whole reflects the inner struggle of a deeply Jewish church with the positive response of gentiles to the good news about Jesus. Most Jewish disciples, like Peter, harbored serious reservations about receiving gentiles into the church. How could these outsiders possibly have an informed and sincere faith in the Jewish messiah when they knew next to nothing about the Jewish scriptures and practices? What would be the consequences of an influx of these new comers? What conditions, if any, should be placed upon admission of a gentile believer? Must he be circumcised? Should he be required to learn the Hebrew Scriptures? Peter was on solid scriptural grounds with his scruples about eating ritually unclean food and sharing meal fellowship with non-Jews. Jewish believers under the Greek tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes chose to endure torture and to die horrible deaths rather than eat food deemed unclean as demanded of them. I Maccabees 1:62-64. How could Peter go into the home of a Roman oppressor of Israel and eat unclean food at his unclean table? Would this not dishonor the memory of the brave martyrs under Antiochus?
Peter’s scruples are resolved by an act of God filling his gentile hosts with the Holy Spirit enabling them speak in tongues. Vss. 44-46. His seemingly rhetorical question echoes that of the Ethiopian eunuch in or lesson from last Sunday: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Vs. 47; cf. Acts 8:36. A couple of things are noteworthy here. In the first place, the filling of the Holy Spirit precedes rather than follows baptism. Our theology of baptism has it quite the other way around-and rightly so. Baptism is given as God’s pledge that God’s Spirit dwells within us-even when there are no outward manifestations or inward feelings to substantiate it. As such, it is a great source of comfort. Nevertheless, God does not need baptism to impart God’s Spirit. We need baptism to remind us that God’s Holy Spirit dwells within us. Thus, baptism was quite properly administered to these newly Spirit filled believers to serve as God’s witness and vow that the Spirit they had just received would never leave them.
Second, this outpouring of God’s Spirit upon outsiders follows the trajectory established in the first chapter of Acts where the ascending Jesus commissioned the disciples to be his witnesses “in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8. The church, however, seems reluctant to take the good news of Jesus so far so fast. I am sure that the leaders back at synod headquarters would have preferred to conduct a lengthy study into the theological basis for mission to the gentiles followed by a mission viability survey and vote at some subsequent synod assembly. But the Spirit will have none of that. The Spirit continues to push, prod and needle the church into action. Throughout the Book of Acts it seems the church is forever racing frantically to catch up with the Holy Spirit. Then as now, disciples of Jesus are frequently dragged kicking and screaming into God’s future. We are not in charge of the church’s mission-and a good thing that is!
This is a psalm of praise celebrating a great victory won for Israel by God’s might. This victory might refer to the Exodus, the Return from Babylon or some other great act of salvation experienced in Israel’s history. Rogerson and McKay are probably right in saying that we cannot determine with certainty which of these events is intended, if any of them. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 226. Saint Augustine says of this opening verse to the psalm: “When the whole earth is enjoined to sing a new song, it is meant, that peace singeth a new song.” Augustine, Expositions on the Book of Psalms, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol.3 (reprinted 1979, edited by Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D., pub. by WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 480.
“Newness” (as in “Sing a new song” vs. 1) is a recurring theme in the prophets, particularly in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55): “Remember not the former things; behold, I do a new thing…” Isaiah 43:18. So also in the New Testament: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” II Corinthians 5:17; “Behold, I make all things new.” Revelation 21:5. Notice also the refrain of “victory” or “yeshuath” throughout the psalm. Vss. 1-3. The word is actually from the root “yeshua” or “salvation,” root also of Joshua and, of course, Jesus. God’s victory or salvation is for the ends of the earth, not only for Israel. Vss. 4 and 9. Yet Israel is instrumental in proclaiming and making known that victory.
“His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.” Vs. 2. This is a figurative reference to divine power which alone is responsible for Israel’s victories. Ibid. It is worth remembering that when we confess that Jesus ascended to the right hand of God, we are asserting that Jesus is that power through which God exercises God’s reign. The power of God is God’s patient suffering, refusal to resort to retaliation and determination to love us in the face or our stark rejection.
“[God] will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.” Vs. 9. As Professor Anderson points out, “[t]he verb ‘judge’ means much more than the English word suggests. It refers to the power to obtain and maintain justice and proper order-power which human rulers should have (“Give us a king to judge us,” I Sam. 8:6) but which, in the biblical view, is vested supremely and ultimately in God.” Anderson, Bernhard, W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c.1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 179.
Saint John’s argument is maddeningly circular. First he tells us, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” I John 4:12. This week he tells us, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.” Vs. 2. It seems we cannot know and obey God without loving one another and we cannot love one another without loving and obeying God. It is similar to the impossible conundrum faced by so many college graduates: You need experience to get the job; but you also need the job to get experience. This is a lot like trying to shimmy up a greased pole!
Upon further reflection, though, I don’t believe it is a question of the starting point. We don’t necessarily find God in love for one another. A lot of what goes under the name of love is really lust, desire for control, need for self-affirmation and codependency. Most violent crimes occur within the context of domestic abuse. Much of what goes under the rubric of loving our children has more to do with living vicariously through them. Love of one’s own family, tribe or nation often has as its flip side distrust or outright hatred of outsiders. Love, as John points out, is not an abstract principle or mere sentiment. It is concretely exercised by God toward us in the sending of God’s Son. I John 4:10. Jesus is the shape love toward our sisters and brothers in Christ must take. Moreover, this community of love is sent into the word for which Jesus died, just as Jesus himself was sent. John 20:21-22. Thus, the relationship between believing in Jesus and loving your sisters and brothers is dialogical. Love becomes concrete or “incarnate” within the community of disciples, but is refined by the abiding presence of Jesus through whom repentance and forgiveness is freely offered.
The difficulty in preaching this text and that of the gospel which follows lies in the word “love,” a vacuous word in our language. How much meaning can any word have when I can use it interchangeably to describe both my feelings for my wife as well as my fondness for rum raison ice cream? Saint John, as I have said, anchors love in God’s sending of the Son and the Son’s sending of his disciples. This countercultural love transcends and supersedes all other social, familial and nationalist loyalties grounding itself in the One who was sent for the life of the world. In so doing, it undermines all systems of domination, whether tribal, patriarchal or nationalistic. Faith in Jesus thereby “overcomes the world.” Vss. 4-5.
The gospel reading builds on the lesson from the First Letter of John. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” Vs. 9. Love is grounded in the Trinity. The love binding the community of faith together is not based on common interests, family ties or cultural heritage. It is the love that is the unity of the Trinity. God’s love for the Son is bound up with the sending of the Son, the beloved. So deeply did God love the world. John 3:16. The disciples are now invited to abide in that same Trinitarian love.
It is the nature of Trinitarian love that it “goes out” from itself. As the hymn has it, “The universe of space and time did not arise by chance, but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.” “Come Join the Dance of Trinity,” Lutheran Worship,(c. 2006 by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, pub. by Augsburg Fortress) Hymn # 412. Just as love made room for the universe of space and time, so the sending of the Son makes space within the universe for that same pulsating Triune love. Love is not merely a human emotion or a humanly discerned philosophical/moral concept. It is the defining characteristic of the Holy Trinity pre-existing time itself. The same cannot be said of hatred, prejudice, jealousy, greed or any other vice. In fact, it cannot really be said of any other virtue either.
Trinitarian love is not hierarchical. Though I am hardly a student of doctrinal history, it seems to me that most, if not all, the heretical understandings of the Trinity rejected by the church have at least one thing in common: they created a hierarchy within the Trinity. It is surprising to me that a church that had become so rigidly hierarchical and so thoroughly patriarchal nevertheless rejected so many doctrinal models of the Triune God that subordinated the Son and/or Spirit to the Father in some way. Given the influence of the Empire over the Trinitarian disputes, this outcome is all the more remarkable. Perhaps we must simply attribute the church’s insistence on the unity and coequality within the Trinity to the working of the Holy Spirit in spite of rather than because of the church! Jesus makes clear that his relationship to his church is not a master/slave arrangement. It is through friendship that Jesus exercises his lordship over his disciples and will one day exercise it over all creation. To use Paul’s language, we are God’s ambassadors of reconciliation extending friendship with God to the world. II Corinthians 5:20. This is the “fruit that will last” about which John speaks. Vs. 16.
“…so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” vs. 16. Taken out of context, this promise is problematic. God does not give us everything for which we ask-nor should he. Half the time we don’t have any idea about what we really want. Seldom do we have the sense or courage to ask for what we need. If God were to start writing blank checks in response to prayer, I suspect we would very soon find ourselves living in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Nothing is more dangerous to us than our desires. It is therefore critical to read this promise in light of Jesus’ commission to “bear fruit that lasts.” Jesus assures his disciples that God will give them all they need to bear faithful witness to the reconciling love of God in their midst and for the world.
Finally, Jesus’ admonition in verse 17 is worth raising up. “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” Much of the time the church has gotten that directive backwards. Rather than putting the commandments in the service of love, we have made our love and acceptance of people contingent on compliance with the rules. While the commandments are to be observed and obeyed, obedience to any single commandment is shaped by the greatest commandment to love one another.
FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, rich in mercy, by the humiliation of your Son you lifted up this fallen world and rescued us from the hopelessness of death. Lead us into your light, that all our deeds may reflect your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” Numbers 21:5.
Lately, Facebook seems to have been inundated with nostalgia posts. These are video feeds that walk you down memory lane into friendly neighborhoods of yore where nobody locked their doors, kids played stick ball, hopscotch, hide and seek all day on the sidewalks, in the streets and in vacant lots without supervision and nothing bad ever happened to them. These were the days when you could get a popsicle for a dime that broke in the center so you could share it with a friend. Teachers exercised discipline without fear of being sued and kids were all better behaved for it. Everyone respected the flag, loved their country and did their jobs without complaining. It was a happier, simpler time. These feeds usually end with an invitation to share if you concur with such sentiments. I never do.
I will admit that there is a part of my psyche that enjoys these posts. I can be as nostalgic as the next person for the things I miss-the hiss and crackle of vacuum tubes you heard when turning on the old radio. The television shows we watched in black and white with the living room curtains drawn because that was the only way we could see even an outline of what was on the screen. I miss the sound of the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard whistle that signaled the end of my Dad’s work shift, letting me know that he would soon be walking up the street from the bus stop. So naturally, I get warm and fuzzy feelings from being reminded of these relics of my past.
But there is a dark side of nostalgia as well. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” the people of Israel demand of Moses indignantly. Their frustration is understandable. They have been experiencing the hardships of the wilderness for years. They have seen war, hunger and thirst. So hard is their lot that they yearn for Egypt, the land of bondage from which they had so recently been liberated. In their minds, Egypt was a land of plenty. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic.” Numbers 11:5. They seem to have forgotten, however, the Pharaoh’s cruel edict requiring them to expose their male children and leave them to die. They seem to have forgotten the cruel bondage from which they cried out for four hundred years to be delivered. It is all reminiscent of the song made famous in my youth by Barbara Streisand in the movie, The Way We Were: “Memories, may be beautiful and yet, what’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.” Selective memory is a pernicious mental process that distorts the past, colors our perceptions of the present and darkens our outlook on the future. Nostalgia can tempt us to reject the day which the Lord has made in favor of what we deem to have been better days in the past. It can turn us away from the future into which God is calling us.
The nostalgia I see again and again on Facebook posts seems innocent enough on the surface, but it plays all too easily into the sinister myth of a golden age in America, an age to which we must return if we would prosper. It goes something like this: Once upon a time America was great. Once upon a time a man was the king of his castle, the master of his home. It was a time when doctors, lawyers, senators and state representatives were men-white men to be specific. There was a time when everyone knew what it meant to be a man and women knew-and accepted-what it meant to be a woman. There was a time when people of color knew their place in America-and were happy to stay there. It was a time when businesses closed on Sundays, sports leagues ceased their activities and the only people on the street were those on their way to church. There was a time when the way a man chose to keep his family in line was his own business and he didn’t have to concern himself with visits from the police, nosy social workers or child protective services. There was a time when just wars were the only ones America ever fought and America always won. This was an America where opportunities abounded for anyone willing to work and there was no explanation for failure or poverty except laziness and dishonesty.
You will object that, in fact, no such America ever existed. You are correct. But this is a myth and myths need not be true. They need only be credible and credibility requires a low standard of proof. Older white men like me who see their America slipping away, who see a new diverse generation of young people far more at home in a developing world of computers, cross-cultural relationships, a changing economy and a job market requiring skills we don’t have are particularly vulnerable to seduction by this toxic nostalgia for a country that never was. We feel as though we are losing control, that our knowledge and expertise is not valued, that our beliefs and convictions are being disregarded and our positions of privilege are slipping away. We sense that we are growing old, becoming less relevant and approaching death. All of that is true, by the way. God is doing a new thing-and we don’t like it!
The Trump campaign deftly exploited this white, male rage making the 2016 election into a referendum on the demographic future of America. It tapped into the white man’s visceral fear that his Norman Rockwell America is evolving into an increasingly feminist, multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-religious melting pot that he no longer recognizes as home. Trump’s handlers understood the deep-seated panic felt by white men when they hear that the white population will lose its majority status sometime between 2040 and 2050 and witness the increasing strength of women and people of color in business, entertainment and government. It should have come as no surprise that Trump’s berating women as “fat pigs” and “dogs” won him howls of approval from his white male base. Nor is it surprising that few in that base seemed at all concerned about their candidate’s sordid history of discrimination in his real estate developments or his derogatory remarks about Mexicans. To the contrary, they freely admit that his attractiveness stems from his willingness to say out loud what they are thinking.
Seen in this light, it is easy to understand the appeal of Trump’s claim that some “deep state” made up of liberals is really controlling the country. It is easy to see why universities are perceived as centers for “brainwashing” young people and scientists are regularly dismissed as white coated, God denying, America hating agents of the left. As preposterous as these notions might be, they make sense of the white man’s fears and put a face on the menace threatening him. Donald Trump validates the white man’s rage in a way that no other candidate in the field was able to do. He speaks their language and addresses their fears in ways that they can understand. His call for “making America great again,” taking us back to a simpler and happier time is understandably appealing to his base. In reality, however, this toxic nostalgia is the opiate ever threatening to derail the people of God and lure them back into captivity. Whatever direction America may take, disciples of Jesus must resist the temptation to look for salvation in the past.
We worship a forward-looking God. That does not mean that everything new, everything contemporary and everything promising change is necessarily good. It does mean, however, that today is the hand we have been dealt and we are not at liberty to throw it down and walk away from the table. It means that the future, however dark and threatening it can sometimes appear, is God’s future, the trajectory of which is determined by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The end of all things is the reign of God which, whether we like it or not, takes in peoples of every tribe, tongue and nation. Our movement must ever be forward toward that goal, journeying hopefully, faithfully and confidently-not in our plans, programs, politics or ideology, but in the promise that, as Christ has died and has risen, Christ will come again.
Here is a poem by Miller Williams about history and forward-looking hope eschewing the lure of nostalgia.
Of History and Hope
We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.
We know the sound of all the sounds we brought.
The rich taste of it is on our tongues.
But where are we going to be, and why, and who?
The disenfranchised dead want to know.
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.
But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
except in the minds of those who will call it Now?
The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?
With waving hands—oh, rarely in a row—
and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.
Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an even chance
cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.
Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head
cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.
Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child
cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.
We know what we have done and what we have said,
and how we have grown, degree by slow degree,
believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become—
just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.
All this in the hands of children, eyes already set
on a land we never can visit—it isn’t there yet—
but looking through their eyes, we can see
what our long gift to them may come to be.
If we can truly remember, they will not forget.
Miller Williams (1930-2015) was an American Poet, editor, critic, and translator born in Hoxie, Arkansas to a Methodist pastor. He was honored as the country’s third inaugural poet, reading the above poem at the start of former President Bill Clinton’s second term. Williams earned a Bachelor of Science in biology from Arkansas State University and an Masters in zoology from the University of Arkansas. He taught college science for many years before securing a job in the English department at LSU with the support of his friend, the noted author, Flannery O’Connor. Williams has written, translated, or edited over thirty books, including a dozen poetry collections. You can read more about Miller Williams and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Source: Some Jazz A While: Collected Poems, (c. 1999 by Miller Williams; pub. by University of Illinois Press).
Numbers is the fourth book of the “Five Scrolls” or “Pentateuch,” sometimes referred to as the Five Books of Moses. Its title comes from the English translation of the Greek title, “Arithmoi,” given to the book in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures). I am guessing the name “Numbers” stems from the first several chapters of the book which narrate a census of each of the twelve Israelite tribes, family by family. The Hebrew Scriptures use the title “Bemidbar” which means “in the wilderness” and aptly describes the content of this book narrating Israel’s forty years of wandering between the Exodus from Egypt and her entry into the land of Canaan. During this period the generation of Israelites that left Egypt with Moses and Aaron died and was succeeded by a new generation. From the old generation, only Moses and Joshua remain alive at the close of Numbers. It is clear that Joshua, not Moses, will lead this new generation into the land of Canaan. Throughout this period, the people are faced with numerous challenges that put their faith in God to the test. Though the faithfulness of Israel is often less than adequate, God remains steadfast from beginning to end.
Our lesson begins with the people of Israel setting out on a new leg of their journey following a victory over the Canaanite king of Arad. Arad was a Canaanite city of the Negeb located in present day Tell Arad, Israel. Its ruins consist of a large mound containing potsherds indicating that Arad was first occupied in the 4th Century B.C.E. The site is about fifty miles north of Kadish where Israel remained encamped for extended periods of time.
After this battle, the people set out from Mt. Hor (precise location of which is unknown) and take the “way of the Red Sea.” The Hebrew actually reads “reed sea,” but it is likely that the Red Sea is intended here. This road, which begins at Ezion-geber at the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, would have taken Israel to the west of Edom rather than through it, the objective set forth in the text. Vs. 4. It is at this point that the people become discouraged, complain against Moses and even against God. They go so far as to call the manna with which God has been feeding them “this miserable food,” food to which the Psalms refer as “the bread of angels.” Psalm 78:25. Vs. 5. God responds by sending “fiery serpents” among the people, translated by the NRSV as “poisonous serpents.” The assumption seems to be that the serpents are merely a species of snake with a bite that causes a burning sensation. That would comport with our 19th Century penitent for interpreting the scriptures in such a way as not to violate cannons of the Enlightenment. But despite these noble efforts at ridding the Hebrew Scriptures of primitive supernaturalism, the problem remains. Not only are we lacking any known species of near eastern reptile capable of inflicting such a bite, but we are also faced with the biological reality that no snake of any kind travels in large groups. (When was the last time you saw a herd of snakes?) Nor do snakes typically attack without significant provocation.
More likely than not, the serpents were understood by the narrator, not as any known species of snake, but as one of the many mythical creatures thought to inhabit the desert, such as the “flying serpent” referenced in Isaiah 30:6. In any event, the creatures, whatever they are, were sent by God to punish Israel’s faithless complaining. Recognizing their sin, the people repent and turn to Moses for aid. As he has so often done before, Moses intercedes with God for the sake of Israel. Vs. 7.
What follows is truly fascinating and, in some respects, difficult to understand. God instructs Moses to fashion a bronze serpent and elevate it on a pole-seemingly a direct violation of the First Commandment (or the Second, depending on how one numbers them): “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…” Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8. The serpent, though greatly feared, was nevertheless a common symbol of healing and fertility. One wonders why Moses would be instructed to create such a symbol as an instrument of healing where it could so easily lead to idolatrous worship. Indeed, according to II Kings this very consequence occurred necessitating King Hezekiah’s destruction of the very same bronze serpent centuries later. II Kings 18:4.
Of course, the Abrahamic religions have always had ambivalent feelings about images. Islam forbids absolutely any image of God (Allah) and discourages (in varying degrees) images of any creature. Similarly, Christianity has vacillated between the extremes of icon adoration and iconoclasm. The danger of images is nowhere better illustrated than in our consistent depictions of God as male. Though one would be hard pressed to make from the scriptures the case for a gendered God, Christian art could hardly lead you to any different conclusion. Our images invariably turn out to be limited by our own cultural, sociological and ideological biases and therefore limiting in their portrayal of the God we claim to worship.
That said, it seems we cannot do without images. When we are physically forbidden to make them, our imagination continues to manufacture images. Moreover, the doctrine of the Incarnation affirms that the Word of God became flesh (John 1:14) and even that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God…” Colossians 1:15. Our liturgy urges us to adore the Word made visible in Jesus that we might learn to love the God we cannot see. We are imaginative creatures who comprehend our universe by means of images.
Some years ago, I was very taken with a painting of the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem. The painting was by a Mexican artist whose depiction of the temple’s architecture along with the dress of Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna was with imagery drawn from his own cultural environment. I clipped a copy of this painting out of the magazine in which I found it. Some weeks later, I found the same biblical scene portrayed in an early Byzantine wall mural in National Geographic. I clipped this one also and put it into the same shoebox with the other print. I now have about half a dozen such portrayals of the Presentation. Singly, they are time bound, parochial and culturally circumscribed. In their plurality, they reflect from multiple dimensions a miracle too beautiful and magnificent for any single imagination to contain. They represent the impact of a marvelous narrative as it rolls through the ages gathering meaning as a snowball gathers mass. The difference between an icon and an idol is simply this: the idol points only to itself limiting the God it would represent to the confines of a single image, whereas the icon points beyond itself to that which is finally beyond imagination.
This is a psalm of praise. Verse 22 suggests that it was sung by the faith community before a sacrifice of thanksgiving. That the worshipers are “gathered from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (Vs. 3) suggests that this psalm was composed after the Babylonian Exile and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Though some of the exiled Jews returned home to Palestine, most of the Jewish population remained scattered throughout the Mediterranean world, making pilgrimages to Jerusalem on high holy days. Such pilgrim journeys were fraught with dangers, escape from which was one of many occasions for thanksgiving.
Our reading jumps from the introductory verses 1-3 to verse 17 stating that some of the worshipers now giving thanks had become “sick” through their sinful ways. The Hebrew is obscure at this point. Some translations of the Hebrew Scriptures favor the alternative reading: “some were fools, they took to rebellious ways.” New English Bible. Given this ambiguity, we are left to ponder whether the persons described here were rescued from sickness brought on by their rebelliousness or from their rebellious ways otherwise destructive to their wellbeing. Verse 18 stating that these individuals were so affected as to become “sickened” at the sight of food is merely figurative. It means little more than that food brought them no pleasure and that they had no appetite. Thus, there is no definitive indication that sickness is the affliction from which these worshipers were delivered. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 52; but see Weiser, Artur, The Psalms: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 687 for a contrary view.
In verse 18 we are told that the worshipers “drew near to the gate of death.” The psalmist pictures death as a city drawing the hapless traveler into its fatal orbit. Again, the interpretation depends on our rendering of verse 17. In a world without much in the way of medicine and where illness was poorly understood, many of the sicknesses we view as non-life threatening brought fear and foreboding. Every sickness was a reminder of human mortality as it might well progress to something much worse than first appeared. So, too, bad choices can bring a person to ruin from which there seems no way of return. In either case, we are invited to glorify the God of Israel for turning even these seemingly hopeless circumstances into occasions for the exercise of God’s saving power.
God “sent his word” at verse 20 can be understood at several different levels. At the most superficial level it can be understood as a word of rebuke (assuming that the affliction is foolishness) or of encouragement (assuming the affliction to be illness). The bringer of the word can be linked to the word in such a way as to be an extension of that word. This notion of angelic intervention applies to help in the form of natural elements that serve as God’s “angels” or angelic beings serving at God’s behest. In later Judaism and in the New Testament, the word often became identified with God’s self. See John 1:1.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 107 in its entirety. This marvelous hymn recounts God’s faithfulness and salvation through the lenses of many differing human situations of want and need. In every case we are invited to “thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men.” Vs. 21.
“Dead through trespasses and sins” “following the prince of the power of the air” –how are we to make sense of these terms? To understand what Paul and his followers meant by this terminology, it helps to understand the context in which they lived and worked. The Roman Empire was the overriding and dominating presence throughout the Mediterranean world in the 1st Century. Under its reign society was rigidly and hierarchically ordered with the emperor at the apex and slaves making up the base of its pyramid of power. How you regarded and treated others in your life was dictated by your assigned place in this order. Jewett, Robert, Romans-A Commentary, Harmenia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 49 and the citation to Lendon, J.E., Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World (c. 1997 by Oxford: Clarendon) pp. 289-292. For Paul and his associates, this way of “walking” (Vs. 1) is sinful by definition. As a Jew, Paul understood God as the one who liberated Israel from slavery for a life of freedom in covenant with God. As a disciple of Jesus, Paul believed that genuine divine power does not manifest itself top down through the imperial hierarchy, but from bottom up through the faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection of the Christ. Jesus topples Rome’s pyramid uniting into a single people persons of all nations, all classes and all races. Of this people, Jesus Christ, not Caesar is Lord. There is no hierarchy in this new people, but only a diversity of gifts exercised for the building up of the Body of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-16. This is the good work in which disciples of Jesus are called to walk. Vs. 10.
I believe Paul would have recognized much that was familiar to him in the United States of America. Though surely saddened, I doubt Paul would be shocked to discover that elections are bought by powerful corporate interests, that wealth is overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of a very few while a growing sector of the population lacks even the basic necessities of life. I don’t think Paul would be shocked to find African American neighborhoods patrolled by an overwhelmingly white police department that looks far more like an occupation force than a public service. I think that Paul would recognize “the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Vs. 2) every bit as much in our age as in his own.
What I am not sure Paul would recognize is the presence of the church in the midst of such a world as ours. Would Paul recognize a church that is so thoroughly woven into the cultural and economic fabric of our domination society that it blends naturally into the Americana landscape? Would Paul recognize as the meeting place of Christ’s Body a locked building with a “No Trespassing” sign over the door? Would Paul see in our still highly segregated Sunday mornings the descendants of his churches? Would Paul find any disciples of Jesus engaged in the good works in which they are called to “walk.”? Vs. 10.
Our failure to appreciate the extent to which the church’s very existence challenged the legitimacy of Rome’s culture of domination has compromised our preaching of this and other Pauline texts. As a result, our pastors, teachers and bishops remain largely blind to the dangerous, toxic mix of nationalism and deviant Christianity that constitutes so much of what has, ironically I think, been called evangelical Christianity and its insidious infiltration of our churches. See my post of July 26, 2017.
For some background on the larger context of this brief snippet from John’s gospel, my post from Sunday, March 16, 2014. Suffice to say that Jesus is engaged in a conversation with Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, who has come to him by night. Nicodemus, having been told that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being “born from above” mistakenly believes that Jesus means he must be born all over again-a seeming impossibility. When Jesus explains that entering the Kingdom is not so much a re-birth as it is a new birthing by God’s adoption of us through the Spirit, Nicodemus is still mystified. Jesus then says to Nicodemus what we have in our lesson for Sunday: “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Vss. 13-15.
As pointed out by one prominent commentator, the words “in him” are associated with eternal life rather than with “believe.” Thus, “whoever believes, in him may have eternal life” is the preferred rendering. Barrett, C.K., The Gospel According to St. John, Second Ed. (c. C.K. Barrett, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 179; accord, Marsh, John Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. John Marsh, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 187. Belief is not the engine of salvation unto eternal life. As Martin Luther points out, “the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol.” The Large Catechism of Martin Luther, published in The Book of Concord, edit. Theodore G. Tappert (c. 1959 by Fortress Press) p. 365. Eternal life is given in Jesus, the Word that evokes and directs faith toward himself. To read this verse in any other way suggests that faith is a precondition for God’s mercy rather than the heartfelt response to such mercy.
“Eternal life” is a term frequently used throughout the fourth gospel, though the other gospels use it occasionally as well. While used in Jewish and Christian literature to speak of life in the new age to come, John uses it in a more expansive way. For John, eternal life begins when one believes in Jesus. “And this is eternal life,” says Jesus, “that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” John 17:3. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the eternal life Jesus shares with the Father is mediated to the disciples. John 16:13-15. It is critical to emphasize John’s present tense lest eternal life be misunderstood as a distant hope realized only after death.
It is important to remember also that the Greek texts do not contain punctuation. Thus, the decision to end the quote from Jesus at verse 15, as does the RSV, is an editorial decision. The NRSV continues the quotation up to verse 21. Commentators are split on this point. For example, Professor Raymond Brown sides with the NRSV. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 149. Professor Lightfoot, however, would end the quote at verse 15. Lightfoot, R.H., St. John’s Gospel (c. 1960 by Oxford University Press) p. 118. I lean toward the NRSV rendering on this point. I see no compelling reason not to extend the quote up to verse 21 and so accept John 3:16 as Jesus’ pronouncement. “All Jesus’ words come to us through the channels of the evangelist’s understanding and rethinking, but the Gospel [of John] presents Jesus as speaking and not the evangelist.” Brown, supra, at 149. With this in mind, it is possible to read John 3:16 not as a doctrinal proposition, but as Jesus’ proclamation of his reconciling mission to us.
“God so love the world” Vs. 16. The word “world” is important. When I was in confirmation, my pastor encouraged us to substitute our own names in place of “world” when reciting this well-known verse. While I appreciate that he was trying to help us personalize Jesus’ ministry, there is a danger in such particularization. For too long the church has held a narrow, individualistic view of salvation. It is as though God were trying to save as many passengers as possible from the deck of a sinking ship. This wicked world is on cruise ship destined for hell. But faith is the lifeboat that can get you safely off the ship before she goes down. God, however, is determined to save the ship. “The earth is the Lord’s” the psalm tells us. Psalm 24:1. God is not conceding one inch of it to the devil. For this reason, our own individual salvation is inextricably bound up with the salvation of the rivers, forests, animals, the hungry, the oppressed and the oppressor.
The “sending” of the Son into the world as an expression of God’s love points in two directions. Vs. 16. First, it points to the miracle of the Incarnation. John treats this in his poetic prologue at John 1:1-18. It is important to understand that incarnation, the dwelling of God with humankind, has been the intent of God from the “beginning,” that is, before creation, the fall into sin and its consequences. The constant refrain throughout the prophets is “I will be their God and they shall be my people.” That refrain is echoed in the Book of Revelation where this divine desire is finally fulfilled. Revelation 21:3-4.
Second, the sending of the Son points forward to the cross-the price God is prepared to pay for dwelling in our midst, for becoming flesh that can be torn, broken and pierced by nails. This desire of God to dwell among us at the cost of God’s only beloved Son is the measure of divine love. Such love takes shape in our lives when we become passionate about God’s reign or, to use John’s language, when we enter into eternal life which we might well render life that is eternally significant. To believe in the resurrection is to believe that the God Jesus lived and died for is real; that the salvation he offers the world is worth living for and even dying for.
Jesus continues by telling us that he has been sent not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Vs. 17. Yet condemnation there surely will be. “He who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Vs. 18. Often there is a twofold reaction to Jesus in the gospel of John placing in stark relief the response of faith to that of rejection and unbelief. It is not that Jesus himself judges any person. Rather, “the idea is that Jesus brings out what a man really is and the real nature of his life. Jesus is a penetrating light that provokes judgment by making it apparent what a man is.” Brown, supra, pp. 148-149. For, “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” Vs. 19. This applies to all persons across the board. The question is how one responds to this judgment. Does one say “yes” to the judgment upon his or her life and turn from death to “eternal life” as we have defined it? Or does one shun the light, continue in sin and cause the judgment to become condemnation? In sum, this passage presupposes an encounter with Jesus such as is occurring with Nicodemus in our lesson. It should not be lifted out of this context and employed for speculation about who will or will not finally be saved.
One final observation: for all the dualism in this text-light vs. darkness; belief vs. unbelief; and knowledge vs. ignorance-terms which seem to mandate that one choose one side or the other, Nicodemus remains an ambiguous character throughout John’s gospel. He appears briefly in Chapter 7 when he questions his fellow members of the council about their rush to judgment on Jesus and his ministry. John 7:50-51. We meet him again after Jesus’ crucifixion as he goes with Joseph of Arimathea to give Jesus a proper burial. John 19:38-42. John seems to recognize that there is a twilight zone between darkness and light; belief and unbelief; understanding and ignorance. In this zone faith struggles to be born.
 In November of 2008, for the first time in history, an election was not decided principally by white men. In the first election in which a major party candidate was an African American, the white vote went decisively in favor of John McCain over Barak Obama to the tune of twelve percentage points. But this clear win in America’s still biggest demographic could not offset overwhelming support among Hispanic, African American and Asian voters coupled with a substantial edge among women and the near unanimous support of the LGBTQ communities. The hope of white voters that the Obama victory was an historical fluke that would soon be erased once the panic generated by the recession of that era faded was dashed by Mr. Obama’s substantial electoral and popular victory over Mitt Romney in 2012. Though Mr. Romney won the white vote by ten percentage points, Mr. Obama’s support among minorities and women again carried the day. The electorate twice defied the will of the white man to put an African American in the White House-and white, male America was mad as hell about it. See Roper reports for 2008 and 2012.
FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Everlasting God, you give strength to the weak and power to the faint. Make us agents of your healing and wholeness, that your good news may be made known to the ends of your creation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Lift up your eyes and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name.” Isaiah 40:26.
“[God] determines the number of the stars, he gives to all of them their names.” Psalm 147:4.
The International Star Registry (ISR) is an organization founded in 1979 for the purpose of giving the general public an opportunity to name stars in honor or memory of a loved one. The company claims to have named about two million stars since its formation. These christened stars are then copyrighted and published in a series of books. I don’t know what legal effect, if any, attaches to naming a star through the ISR. Nor do I understand quite how one can be certain that his or her star is not being resoled under numerous different names and dedicated to any number of different individuals. But perhaps my concern is misplaced. After all, there are probably more stars in the universe than we poor mortals can begin to name.
Which brings us to the lessons for this coming Sunday, two of which tell us that God not only numbers, but also names the stars. There is something reassuring about God’s knowing and even having names for stars that we will never see. Stars beyond the reach of our most powerful telescopes; stars that have gone dark ages before our planet was born; stars that will be born after our sun has gone dark-all of these stars and the worlds circling them are intimately known by the One who calls them into existence. That being the case, argues the Prophet Isaiah, how can Israel complain that “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.” Isaiah 40:27. How can Israel imagine that the God who knows and treasures each molecule of the universe could lose track of God’s own covenant people?
Nonetheless, I have no doubt that the people of Judah did feel quite forgotten, living as they were as exiles in a land not their own. I can imagine their faith withering away along with their native language, spoken less frequently day to day and, by the younger generation, perhaps not at all. How long before this once great nation evaporates and disappears into the mist? How long before the sacred texts have no one to read and interpret them? How long before Israel joins the list of peoples known only to archaeologists by the few tell-tail artifacts they have left behind? It is terrible to be forgotten. One great fear I discover time and again among the people I serve is the terror of being forgotten, the fear that there will be no one left to weep at their passing, none to remember the lives they have lived, no one to name a star for them. Then, too, there are the nameless ones known only as “collateral damage” in some conflict of which they wanted no part; body counts following some natural disaster; or statistics in some morbidity report. Numbers with no names.
Sometimes I think we resist giving names to the nameless because doing so would open our hearts to their suffering and make it our own. Knowing that the “illegal aliens” we are so eager to get rid of have names, have children with names, identities, dreams and longings, in short, recognizing them as people makes it harder to banish them from our midst and forget them. Knowing that the “uninsured” is somebody’s baby that is going to die makes it harder to blather on about the love of Jesus and family values out of one side of your mouth while insisting that health care is not a right and should, on principle, be denied to any who can’t afford it. If we allowed ourselves to know the names of the millions who suffer to sustain the supremacy of white privilege, male hierarchy and “our American way of life,” it would crush us-in just the same way that this knowledge crushes the heart of God. Yes, to be a child of God is to experience the crushing pain of the universe God feels. It is to take up the cross.
Of course, this pain of naming the stars is the flip side of delighting in each one of them. God would have us love each molecule of the universe, each nameless face and each dying species as God loves them. Perhaps that is why the first task given to Adam at the dawn of time was to name the animals with whom he shared the Garden of Eden. By learning the names of the people that ring up our grocery bills, serve us our French fries, patrol our neighborhoods, pass us on the way to the bus stop, sit in detention centers awaiting deportation, stand on the corner with cardboard signs seeking help, expire all alone as anonymous patients in hospitals-we give them back their humanity. By learning the names of the plant and animal species in our own back yards we begin to appreciate the depth and complexity of this world in which all creatures are interconnected and interdependent. The most precious gift we can give each other is to call one another by name.
Here is a hauntingly sad poem about namelessness by Henry W. Rago.
These winds pass, and breathe a soft song for her,
And press their loving mouths upon the grass
Where yesterday she danced.
The twilight, grey-robed, comes from the glowing mist
To pin a blue star in her rippling hair-
But she is gone…
She left a song to tremble on these lips,
To beat its tired wings upon the narrow cage.
There is no more. The night swoops to the earth
Like a great bird,
And the river undulates into the purple dusk,
Not questioning, not knowing.
Source: Poetry (July 1993, c. Henry Rago). The son of a businessman, Henry Rago (1915-1969) graduated from the DePaul College of Law in 1937. Thereafter, he earned degrees in theology and philosophy from the University of Notre Dame. Rago served overseas in counterintelligence during World War II. After the war, he returned to the United States and taught both theology and literature at the University of Chicago until just before his death. Rago published only one collection of poetry during his lifetime under the title A Sky of Late Summer, (pub. by Macmillan Co., 1963). You can read more about Henry Rago and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Chapter forty of Isaiah marks the beginning of a section of that book commonly referred to as “The Book of Consolations” or “Second Isaiah.” Whereas the prophet Isaiah of the first thirty-nine chapters preached to Judah in the 8th Century as the nation lived uneasily in the shadow of the Assyrian Empire, the historical context of this unnamed prophet we refer to as “Second Isaiah” is Babylon’s defeat by Cyrus the Great in or around 538 B.C.E. Babylon’s policy was to carry into exile the leading citizenship of the nations it conquered. This reduced the potential for revolution in these captive provinces while bringing into Babylonian society thousands of skilled and gifted leaders. Cyrus’ policy was to permit peoples, such as the Jews, living in exile within the Babylonian territories he conquered to return to their homelands. Though often hailed as an enlightened and compassionate act, Cyrus’ policy was calculated to destabilize Babylon. When the captive populations learned that Cyrus intended to set them free, they were quick to rally to his side against their Babylonian rulers. The prophet of the Book of Consolations recognized in this new historical development the hand of God creating an opportunity for the people of Judah to return to their homeland-and much, much more.
Our lesson opens with a question: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth…” vss. 21-22. This indicates a new development in Israel’s thinking about YAHWEH. Although Israel always praised YAHWEH as the greatest of all gods, she did not necessarily deny in principle the existence of other gods. See, e.g., Psalm 82 in which “God has taken his place in the divine counsel; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” Here the prophet makes the assertion that other gods have no more substance than the nations that depend on them. In fact, it is YAHWEH who raises up nations and kings for his own purposes. Vss. 23-24. The same goes for Israel. The kingdom under David served its purpose for a time and that time has passed. But does that mean YAHWEH is through with Israel as a people? No! Even though Israel has lost the line of David, the temple and its land-all the things by which it used to identify itself-YAHWEH still has a part for Israel to play. As the prophet points out later on, Israel’s new purpose is far greater than merely restoring the kingdom of David to its former glory. Isaiah 49:6.
“Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?” vs. 26. Another rhetorical question. Ancient near eastern religion attributed dread powers to the stars and planets. Their alignment was believed to control the fate of nations and kingdoms. Not so, according to the prophet. YAHWEH created the stars, named them and set them in their courses to give light to the world. The universe is not a haunted house and the human race is not helplessly caught in the crossfire between warring deities. The world is the product of a Creator who wills salvation for the good earth that he made.
“Why do you say, O Jacob and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?” Vs. 27. Now the prophet comes right to the point. In view of the fact that God numbers the stars and presides over the rise and fall of all nations and peoples, how can Israel say that God has forgotten her? How can she imagine that YAHWEH’s salvation has failed? The prophet sums up his/her argument by pointing out that YAHWEH is lord not merely of Israel, but of the whole earth. Vs. 28. Not only so, but YAHWEH is concerned for the whole earth and all its peoples. Israel has an important role to play in that universal salvation of the whole earth that is about to be unveiled.
“They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.” Vs. 31. The Jewish exiles feel faint and powerless. They have lost the hallmarks that identified them as a people: temple, king and land. So the prophet encourages them with the promise that YAHWEH will renew their strength and enable them to take on the mission to which he is now calling them.
Clearly, the prophet would have us know that Israel’s God is the Lord of nature and history. The prophet is not encouraging fatalism here or a passive trust in God to make everything come out all right in the end. To the contrary, the prophet is keenly aware of the geopolitical events transpiring around him/her. Where most of the exiles might be tempted to see in Persia’s conquest of Babylon only a change of masters under the inevitable yolk of slavery, the prophet recognizes the hand of YAHWEH opening up an opportunity for Israel to begin anew. Just as God once parted the Red Sea for Israel to escape from Egypt, so now God is opening up a way for Israel’s departure from Babylon and return to the land of promise. This is nothing short of a new Exodus. So far from encouraging passivity, the prophet is calling his/her people to seize the moment and begin a bold, new undertaking filled with risk and promise.
Such prophetic imagination is critical for mainline churches in the North American context. For many of us exiles, the landscape looks bleak and unpromising. Never again will our great houses of worship be filled to standing room only on Sunday mornings. Never again will pastors command the honor, respect and social standing we knew during the first half of the prior century. Many of us oscillate between frantic efforts to make the old engine work as it used to and despairing inaction. Others of us recognize a unique opportunity for the church to shed cultural shackles that have compromised its ministry for more than a millennium and become the Body of Christ Jesus would have us be. As has always been the case, the future belongs to the prophets and those who share their vision.
For my discussion of this psalm in its entirety, I invite you to revisit my post of Sunday, January 4, 2014. Many of the same themes found in our lesson for Isaiah are echoed in the psalm. God “heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds.” Vs. 3. God “determines the number of the stars, he gives to all of them their names.” Vs. 4. Most striking is this juxtaposition between the naming of stars and tender care for “the downtrodden.” Vs. 6. This care extends to the animal and plant population of the planet as well. God gives rain to “make the grass grow upon the hills.” Vs. 8. God “gives to the beasts their food.” Vs. 9.
I am particularly struck by verses 10-11 in which the psalmist reminds us that God takes no pleasure in physical prowess-a discordant note at this time as the nation looks with anticipation toward the Super Bowl. I make no apology for the delight I take in the strength of my Seattle Seahawks (not so impressive this year as in some others). I believe, however, that the psalmist’s reference here is not to athletic prowess, but to military strength. This disparagement of militarism is a consistent theme throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Even in the Book of Joshua, which is very much about Israel and its wars against Canaan, victory is always attributed to the power of the Lord. A Veteran’s Day holiday would be unthinkable in Israel. No one in Israel would even think about “thanking a veteran” for victory, freedom or prosperity. To the contrary, the psalmist states unequivocally, “for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm give them the victory; but thy right hand, and thy arm and the light of thy countenance; for thou didst delight in them.” Psalm 44:3.
America has a deep cultural affection for war heroes, tough cops and gun slinging cowboys whose freewheeling violence brings about a sort of frontier justice far more appealing than the hard-won kind meted out by courts of law. In their recent book, The Myth of the American Superhero, (c. 2002 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett argue that, in a culture that doubts the integrity and ability of its government and institutions to achieve justice, people are naturally drawn to the uniquely American “monomyth.” This “monomyth” supplies the underlying plot for stories about heroes who must take the law into their own hands in order to rid a community of evil. The world of entertainment is laced with such monomythic tales. We find them in the oldest black and white westerns that feature a virtuous gunslinger riding into town to rid the populace of a criminal gang neither the law nor the courts can handle. The same basic plot can be found in such recent productions as the Star Wars movies in which “jedi knights” with superhuman powers and a code of law all their own rise up to destroy an evil empire that has usurped the powers of the old republic. The most insidious element of this myth is the unspoken and unquestioned assumption that, when all is said and done, evil can only be eliminated by violence.
Nothing illustrates the futility and the horrific consequences of applying this simplistic Hollywood metaphysic to deeply complicated geopolitical conflicts than our recent military forays into the middle east in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. So far from vanquishing the powers of evil, these exploits have simply bred more powerful and increasingly violent enemies. Peace in the war torn middle east seems further away than ever. Nevertheless, the entertainment industry and our political leaders (who are more entertainers than leaders) continue to operate within the constricted parameters of the monomyth inflaming further conflict, sacrificing more lives and glorifying this senseless butchery with parades, memorial services and white crosses at Arlington Cemetery.
Our country needs in the worst way to have an honest conversation about the role of violence in our culture and its effect on everything from domestic relationships to foreign policy. I believe that the church is an excellent place for such a discussion to begin. We are as divided, confused and complicit with violence as the society at large. We are as caught up in the cult of the warrior and as oblivious to the insidious ideology of institutionalized brutality as are our unbelieving neighbors. We find it nearly impossible to distinguish the “way of life” our nation seeks to defend with the sword from the way of discipleship calling upon us to forsake the sword. We could use some strong pastoral leadership to get this discussion rolling.
“Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” vs. 16. There are echoes here of the prophet Jeremiah: If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name’, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” Jeremiah 20:9. Paul grounds both his apostolic authority and his motivation in his call. To be sure, he is entitled to compensation for his work of preaching as he has argued earlier in the chapter. I Corinthians 9:3-7. So also the believers in Corinth have a legal right to consort with prostitutes and are free from moral constraints against eating meat sacrificed to idols. But exercising a legal right does not equate with fulfilling a moral obligation. Being free to do something does not end the ethical inquiry for a disciple of Jesus. Again, everything comes down to what builds up the Body of Christ and enhances the church’s witness to Christ. True freedom, Paul argues, is not the liberty to do whatever you will, but the will to do that which serves Christ and his church. For the sake of the gospel Paul has forgone his “right” to make his living from his work as an evangelist.
Verse 19 sums up Paul’s major thesis: though free from the bondage of external legal/moral demands, the apostle is nevertheless bound to the service of his “neighbor” in the broadest sense of that word. That this obligation extends to those who Paul would win to faith in Christ demonstrates that this service is not limited to those within the church. As Martin Luther would put it fifteen hundred years later, “The Christian is a perfectly free lord subject to none; the Christian is a dutiful servant and slave to all.” What this amounts to is a reorientation of the Torah specifically and all “law” generally. Law is useless as a means of pleasing God. It is critically important, however, to the service of one’s neighbor.
This text is worth talking about because, in my own experience, most solid, pious, sincere, church attending people still don’t get it. I would say that most folks who self-identify as Christians still believe that God’s preoccupation is with the law and human obedience to it. It is almost as though God first created the law and then, as an afterthought, decided that it would be a good idea to create some people to obey all of God’s wonderful rules. So enamored is God with his rules that he can’t endure their violation nor can he forgive an infraction without extracting an appropriate penalty. In reality, however, God has no need of Torah. God’s people need Torah to protect their freedom from bondage to all that is less than God. Because “the Sabbath was created for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath,” Sabbath law (and all the other commandments, statutes and regulations) must be interpreted and applied in ways that are life giving and freeing for God’s people.
The greatest commandment, as Jesus tells us, is first to love God above all and next to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Mark 12:28-31. Because one’s neighbor is created in God’s image, it is impossible to observe either of these commandments without obeying the other. In reality, the two commandments are one. Sometimes obedience to the greatest commandments means that other commandments, even one of the Ten Commandments, must be set aside. Mark 2:23-28. The polestar for interpreting and applying Torah, from Paul’s perspective (and that of Jesus as well), is love for the neighbor. Such love requires one to put oneself into the neighbor’s skin and see the world through the neighbor’s eyes, putting aside all judgment. It is in this context that we need to understand Paul’s remarks about “becoming all things to all people.” Vs 22. It is not that Paul molds his personality, convictions and ethical behavior to conform to the cultural norms governing whatever community in which he happens to find himself. Rather, his preaching and ministry are shaped by his understanding of his hearers, their experience of bondage and their longing for salvation. That is a model of mission and ministry worth emulating.
The messianic authority of Jesus displayed in the synagogue last Sunday with the exorcism of a demon is further illustrated through Jesus’ power over illness. First Century people tended to view illness as a personal force hostile to God’s intent for humanity akin to demon possession. Hence, the similarity between the healing accounts and exorcism stories in the New Testament. Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 80. The Greek word for “lift up” used to describe Jesus’ taking Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand and raising her up is one typically used in Talmudic literature to mean “cure” or “heal.” Ibid. at 81. That immediately following her healing Peter’s mother-in-law began to serve him and the disciples indicates the swiftness and completeness of the cure. I also believe that it illustrates how the exercise of God’s mercy is intended to enable the recipient to become a channel of God’s goodness to others.
The people come to Jesus at Peter’s home after sundown. As you may recall from last week’s lesson, this was a Sabbath day. The Sabbath ended at sundown, at which time it became permissible to carry the sick through the streets to the place where Jesus was and permissible also for Jesus to perform healings. In addition to healings, Jesus performs more exorcisms, commanding the expelled demons to keep silent about his identity as Israel’s messiah. This “messianic secret” has been the source of much scholarly debate. William Werde, a prominent commentator around the turn of the last century viewed this aspect of Jesus’ teaching as a literary invention of the early church to explain why Jesus was never recognized as messiah during his earthly ministry. Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien, Göttingen 1901. (Published in English as The Messianic Secret, London 1971). More recent commentators maintain that the secrecy motif goes back to Jesus himself who wished to conceal his messianic identity to prevent its being misunderstood. E.g., Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.); Cranfield, C.E.B., St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 by Cambridge University Press).
As Morna Hooker points out, there are problems with both theories. If Jesus himself had been concerned about being misunderstood, it hardly seems likely that he would have chosen a confusing and enigmatic title for himself like “son of man” while performing works that could not help but call attention to himself. Werde’s attribution of these secrecy commands to the early church in order to explain Jesus’ lack of messianic recognition are equally problematic. One of the few so called “historical facts” we can be reasonably sure of is that Jesus was put to death by Rome as a messianic pretender. Thus, whether he sought the title or not, Jesus was clearly thought to have assumed a messianic identity during his lifetime. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to St. Mark, Blacks New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 67. Nevertheless, Werde was correct insofar as he pinpoints the resurrection as the turning point in the church’s understanding of Jesus. It is not so much that Jesus’ resurrection caused the disciples to discover Jesus’ messianic identity as that it clarified for them the nature of his messianic mission. “It is not that the Church imposes a messianic interpretation on to a non-messianic life and death: rather, in light of Easter faith the disciples see events from a new perspective.” Ibid.
The “secret” functions throughout Mark in exactly the opposite way one would expect secrecy to work. Rather than concealing Jesus’ identity, it operates to reveal that identity to Mark’s readers. Jesus’ life, ministry and death remain an enigma and cannot be rightly understood until after he is raised from death. Only as God declares God’s emphatic “yes” to all that Jesus said, did and was can his messianic identity be properly recognized and believed.
Once again, to ask how much of the “secret” can be attributed to the so called “historical Jesus” is to raise a question the apostolic authors would neither have understood nor cared about. The peculiar belief that there exists a pure and objective history, unsullied by human interpretation and accessible to empirical historical critical investigation, is a relic of 19th Century thinking. Even what we observe with our own eyes is interpreted by layers of meaning we have accumulated through a lifetime of experience. So the question is not whether the gospel accounts comport with some non-existent objective historical standard, but rather whether the apostolic witness is a reliable testimony to who Jesus was and what he did for us. That question cannot be answered by any amount of historical critical research.
Following this Sabbath evening of healing, Jesus arose early in the morning and went out to pray. The readers of Mark’s gospel, who knew the Jesus story well, would probably make the connection between this “arising” and Jesus’ rising from death early on the morning of the first day of the week. In Mark there is no resurrection appearance of Jesus nor any account of the Great Commission if we accept (as I think we must) the ending of Mark’s gospel at Mark 16:8. Yet it has been persuasively argued that Mark’s resurrection encounter appears at the center of his gospel in his story of the Transfiguration. Perhaps in the light of Easter we can recognize in Jesus’ invitation for his disciples to follow him in declaring the good news to other towns and villages throughout Galilee and in the giving of the Great Commission.
Evangelical Christian leaders in foreclosure; a poem by Stephen Dobyns; and the lessons for Sunday, January 28, 2018
FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Compassionate God, you gather the whole universe into your radiant presence and continually reveal your Son as our Savior. Bring wholeness to all that is broken and speak truth to us in our confusion, that all creation will see and know your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 7:21.
Two weeks ago, we heard the voice of God witnessing to Jesus as God’s beloved son. In today’s gospel Jesus is acclaimed “the Holy one of God” by the most unholy of witnesses-a demon. Just as the devil can quote scripture, so the devil can make an orthodox confession of Jesus. I can only guess at what advantage the devil thought he might get from being given free reign to confess Jesus as Lord. Clearly, however, Jesus wants no part of any such testimony, true as it surely is. He has learned through his temptation experience in the wilderness that the devil’s promises are empty and his seemingly good gifts always come with strings attached. In the short term, changing stones into bread to satisfy your hunger, grabbing hold of the levers of political power to accomplish worthwhile objectives and winning the applause of the crowd with death defying stunts might seem like a sure path to survival, recognition and popularity. But that path will not teach you reliance upon God’s promises or release the power of self-emptying love into the world or induce disciples to surrender their lives to the promise of God’s reign. So, too, letting the devil do Jesus’ PR work is not likely to further God’s reign of love.
Evangelical Christian leaders have been slow to heed this warning. I speak specifically about Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., Bishop Harry Jackson, an African American pastor from Beltsville, Md., megachurch pastor Paula White, radio host James Dobson and, of course, Rev. Franklin Graham. These evangelical leaders have remained steadfast in their support of the president, notwithstanding his boasts of grabbing young girls by the genitals, his history of racial epitaphs and acts of discrimination, his ruthless cruelty toward refugees and immigrants, his pathological lying and his gross ignorance of the basic doctrinal tenants of the Christian faith. Indeed, Rev. Graham went so far as to call him God’s champion for American Christianity. Though surely not blind to what these folks term as Donald Trump’s “shortcomings,” their rationalization is that Mr. Trump 1) is not Hillary Clinton; 2) is anti-abortion; 3) is willing to discriminate against LGBTQ folks (or I should say, uphold the freedom of Christians to discriminate against them in the name of Jesus). After all, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, right?
Wrong. Common enemies do not good friends make. The ends do not justify the means; but the means always distort the most just of ends. Or, to put it in gospel language, the devil is a merciless creditor who always demands his due on every contract he makes. Payday on the Trump pact is arriving for the above Evangelical leaders. Amy Gannett, a young evangelical blogger, recently observed: “Over the last several months, I have lost respect for the Republican party, and I honestly thought that would be the biggest tragedy of this election. But the disappointing truth is this: I’m losing faith in Evangelicals. And this is frightening. I am an Evangelical. I hold to Evangelical theology. I have attended not one, but two Evangelical schools. But I fear that we’re going to lose an entire generation because of the actions, words, and teachings of some Evangelicals.” How Evangelicals are Losing an Entire Generation. Ms. Gannett goes on to say, “Yes, we value the rights of the unborn, but we want leaders that are pro-life in all areas of society. Millennials feel the daily pangs of racial tension, a deep desire for equality for all, and a propensity toward the social justice issues surrounding the refugee crisis.” She concludes, saying “Evangelical leaders [ ] are using their political and social weight on issues close to their generation, and are neglecting the moral imperatives to seek justice, peace, and equality for the Black community, the immigrant community, and the refugee community (and a slew of others). My generation will not identify with this. We cannot call a candidate “good,”[ ], who has made racist remarks. We will not call a candidate “good” who has demoralized and dehumanized women on national television. We will not buy into the hierarchy of [some] proposed morals over others. Because [some evangelical leaders] are making this hierarchy of morality intrinsically related to the Christian life and theology, we will not stand with them.” If evangelical leaders think that banging their Bibles and becoming ever more preachy screechy with their excoriation of science, racist xenophobia and homophobic vitriol is going to win over young, thoughtful and faithful evangelical Christians like Ms. Gannett to their blind adoration of Donald Trump and his inhuman agenda, they are dreaming-and not in a good way.
I suspect that in relatively short time (talking decades here, not generations), the old guard evangelicals will find themselves a sad little club of old, angry, white men. They will be left with nothing but their sick and twisted religion and nothing to do but shake their impotent fists at a world, a church and a God that have all moved on and left them behind. It’s a sorry little inheritance to be sure. But that’s always what you wind up with when you make deals with the devil.
Here is a poem by Stephen Dobyns reminding us how insubstantial our souls are, how deeply we are formed by the pacts we make and how easy it is to lose the thread that defines us.
Over a cup of coffee or sitting on a park bench or
walking the dog, he would recall some incident
from his youth—nothing significant—climbing a tree
in his backyard, waiting in left field for a batter’s
swing, sitting in a parked car with a girl whose face
he no longer remembered, his hand on her breast
and his body electric; memories to look at with
curiosity, the harmless behavior of a stranger, with
nothing to regret or elicit particular joy. And
although he had no sense of being on a journey,
such memories made him realize how far he had
traveled, which, in turn, made him ask how he
would look back on the person he was now, this
person who seemed so substantial. These images, it
was like looking at a book of old photographs,
recognizing a forehead, the narrow chin, and
perhaps recalling the story of an older second
cousin, how he had left long ago to try his luck in
Argentina or Australia. And he saw that he was
becoming like such a person, that the day might
arrive when he would look back on his present self
as on a distant relative who had drifted off into
Source: Poetry (December 2001). Stephen Dobyns grew up in New Jersey, Michigan, Virginia and Pennsylvania. He attended Shimer College and Wayne State University and received his master’s degree from the University of Iowa. Dobyns was a reporter for the Detroit News and taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Warren Wilson College, the University of Iowa, Syracuse University, and Boston University. He has produced several books of poetry, some novels and published short stories. You can read more about Stephen Dobyns and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the “Pentateuch,” the first five books of the Bible traditionally attributed to Moses. It should be understood that even from this traditional perspective, authorship was not understood as it is today. Modern biblical research has led to a general consensus that the Pentateuch is the product of four sources and perhaps several editors. For a brief outline of the history for the Pentateuch’s composition, see my post for January 7th. For a more thorough discussion, see this article on the Documentary Hypothesis.
Sunday’s lesson deals with the nettlesome issue of prophetic authority plaguing nearly every religious movement. Who speaks for the Lord to the community of faith after that community’s founding prophet dies? That is the question addressed by our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures. The Book of Deuteronomy constitutes Moses’ final address to Israel. He knows that he will not be with them as they enter into the Promised Land. Accordingly, Moses speaks “Torah” to the people. This “Torah,” so much more than is conveyed by the word “law” used to translate it in most English Bibles, will serve as the normative guide for Israel’s corporate existence in Canaan. As such, it is a sort of surrogate for Moses himself.
Yet no written scripture, however exhaustive and profound, can take the place of a spiritual leader. Circumstances will be different for Israel in Canaan than they were for her in Egypt and in her journey through the wilderness. Some of the dangers Moses can foresee and address. Most of them are not even imaginable. Such is also the case for the Christian community. Paul could never have foreseen, much less addressed, the important ethical issues Christians face today. You won’t find many references in your biblical concordance to human cloning, biological warfare, genetic engineering, in vitro fertilization, global warming or fracking. That isn’t to say that the scriptures cannot enlighten us on these matters. It is obvious, however, that we will need someone to interpret them. We will need people who understand fully how Moses, the prophets and the apostles thought about issues in their own time and who are capable of applying that wisdom to our thinking about the challenges we face today. In other words, we need prophets.
Moses was well aware of that need and he speaks to it in our lesson. He promises that God will raise up prophets like himself to speak the word of the Lord to Israel as she takes up her new life in Canaan. Vs. 15. That is a gracious word. God does not intend simply to leave Israel with a user manual for the new life God has given her. The scriptures are living documents. Not only were they inspired by the Holy Spirit, but their continued power for subsequent generations depends on that Spirit working in the hearts of all who preach and teach them. Thus, the well-loved Lutheran dictum “Sola Scriptura” cannot be taken to mean that the scriptures alone are sufficient to govern the church. From very early on, the church has formulated creeds to articulate the heart of the scriptural witness. We can see the seeds of such creedal authority in the scriptures themselves. For example, in I Timothy Paul remarks: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” I Timothy 3:16.
Yet while creeds can keep our focus on what is central to the scriptural witness and help us avoid “wander[ing] away into vain discussion,” they cannot by themselves produce “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.” I Timothy 1:3-7. For that, “teaching” and “prophetic utterance” are essential. I Timothy 4:14. Here I differ with a number of theologians who have said over the years that disciples of Jesus are a “people of the book.” That we clearly are not. We are a people of the resurrected Jesus. That is not to denigrate the scriptures. They constitute the normative witness to Jesus. All other witnesses, including the ecumenical creeds, stand under their judgment. Yet they point beyond themselves to the one we confess to be God’s only beloved Son incarnate, crucified and raised for the life of the world. Faith is not subscription to scriptural doctrines or principles. It is trust in a living person. The authority of the Bible is therefore inseparably linked to the living community of disciples through whom faith is mediated by teaching, preaching and the example of holy living.
In one sense, the prophetic task belongs to the whole community. Thus, we encourage all believers to share their faith in Jesus and to speak out on behalf of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable in public forums and to their elected representatives. We expect all believers to be involved in the ministry of teaching. A little appreciated fact about Luther’s Small Catechism is that it was written as a guide for parents to introduce their children to the Christian faith, not as a model curriculum for pastors to teach confirmation classes. Yet it seems inevitable that prophetic authority for the community must be invested in someone. I have gotten to know several groups within the Anabaptist and Pentecostal traditions that have strong anti-clerical streaks. They place a special emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. I have observed, however, that even within these groups there is usually one or more persons who stand out as authorities on matters of faith and life. Thus, even though they lack formal designation as authorities, they are recognized as authoritative nonetheless. As our gospel lesson demonstrates, authority can make itself felt without credentials.
Be all of this as it may, I believe that the church is best served when we are intentional about who we invest with prophetic authority. There is something to be said for standards, requirements and systems of accountability for the ministry of public preaching and the Lutheran confessional requirement that this ministry be legitimated by a “call” formally recognized in the church. Preaching is too important a task to be left in the hands of whoever shows up on Sunday and has the inclination to do it. Would you want a layperson with only a deep appreciation for medicine and a desire to try practicing surgery operating on your spine? How much less your soul!
Of course, neither individual zeal nor official recognition can guaranty that prophetic speech will not go off the rails. That is one of the concerns addressed in the verses following our lesson: How can we be sure the preacher is giving us the word of the Lord and not something else? How do you distinguish a true prophet from a false one? The only way to make this determination is to discern whether the prophet’s words prove true. Deuteronomy 18:21-22. If we understand prophecy to be no more than predicting the future, this advice is practically worthless. But of course, prophecy is much more than astrology. Prophesy is not principally foretelling the future, but forthtelling God’s word to our present circumstances. Prophets do not speak in a vacuum. They speak from the scriptural witness; their scriptural interpretations are normed by the creedal statements and, most specifically, by Jesus. For the church, Jesus is our way into the scriptures, the light by which we read the scriptures and the Spirit by which we interpret the scriptures. Prophesy is therefore not to be accepted blindly or uncritically. Paul encouraged his hearers to examine the scriptures in order to validate his preaching. Acts 17:11. John warns us to “test the spirits” in order to avoid giving heed to false prophets. I John 4:1. Genuine prophetic ministry thrives where there exists a healthy tension between the scriptures, the prophetic voice of public preaching and the critical discernment of the whole people of God.
This psalm is an “acrostic” poem, meaning that each strophe begins with a new letter of the Hebrew alphabet in sequential order. Other psalms of this family are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. It is possible that this psalm is related to Psalm 112, also an acrostic poem. Whereas the theme of Psalm 111 is the goodness and faithfulness of the Lord, Psalm 112 speaks of the blessedness of the person who fears and trusts in the Lord. Because the acrostic form is a relatively late development in Hebrew poetry, most scholars date this psalm during the period after the Babylonian Exile.
The psalm makes clear that the greatness of God is made known in God’s works. Though the Exodus, wilderness wanderings, conquest of Canaan and the return from exile are not specifically referenced, they were doubtlessly in the mind of the psalmist as s/he proclaimed the redemption of God’s people. Vs. 9. The giving of the law appears to be the paramount act of salvation in the psalmist’s mind. The statutes of the Lord are “trustworthy…established forever and ever. Vs. 8. It was, after all, the Torah that preserved Israel’s identity throughout the long years of Babylonian captivity and kept alive the hope that finally inspired her return and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple.
The most memorable and familiar verse is the final one: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Vs. 10. Fear of God is a distasteful notion to us moderns who prefer a deity similar to the white, upper middle class, slightly left of center dad of the Ward Clever variety. But the Bible testifies to a God who is sometimes scary and not always very nice (though the lectionary folks do their best to shave off his rough edges with their incessant editing). Fear is usually the first emotion biblical characters express when face to face with God or one of God’s angelic messengers. So anyone who has no apprehension about encountering God is probably downright foolhardy.
Frankly, I think that if we feared God more, we might fear a lot of other things less. Worshipers of Israel’s God should know that instead of fretting over what the deficit will do to us if we commit ourselves to providing everyone with sufficient housing, food and medical care, we ought to be concerned about what God might do to us if we don’t. If the good people on Capitol Hill believed that on the last day God will confront all nations and peoples through the eyes of everyone they could have clothed, fed, befriended and cared for, I think the log jam over social legislation would disappear in a New York minute. The fact that most of these folks self-identify as Christians shows just how poor a job their churches have done teaching them what they should and should not fear. Healthy fear understands that the decisions we make matter-eternally so.
This section of Paul’s letter is not particularly “relevant” in terms of its subject matter. When I purchase meat, I don’t worry much about whether it was used in some pagan sacrificial rite. I am more concerned about the conditions under which the animal in question was raised, what it was fed and injected with, how it was butchered and processed. Sometimes I wonder whether I should be eating meat in the first place. These, however, are entirely different issues than those with which Paul is concerned. The question of consuming pagan sacrificial meat arises out of the larger context of Corinthian culture in which Paul’s congregation was situated:
“A glance at the plan of the excavated forum of Roman Corinth detects the numerous temples and shrines in it dedicated to various gods that non-Christian Corinthians reverenced. Civic and social life in such a city would have meant an obligation to join in festivals, celebrations, and public ceremonies on occasions when religion and politics were not clearly demarcated; there were also many guilds of tradesmen and other voluntary associations in which specific gods were honored with banquets and sacrificial meals. Feasts in honor of various deities were celebrated regularly in numerous temples, when food (cereals, cheese, honey) were offered and animals (goats, cows, bulls, horses) were sacrificed to them, according to the manuals of the pontifices. The meat of animals so slaughtered, when not fully consumed in sacrifice, was often eaten by the offerers and attending temple servants. The latter sold at times the surplus meat on the markets.” Fitzmyer, Joseph A., First Corinthians, The Anchor Yale Bible, Vol. 32 (c. 2008 by Yale University) p. 331.
In this cultural setting, a disciple’s faithfulness to Jesus as the Son of Israel’s God cut across loyalties of professional, social and legal obligations inherent in daily life. Your clients and business associates might well begin to wonder why you are routinely turning down their dinner invitations. Your community might question your patriotism when you avoid civil ceremonies that invariably involve pagan sacrificial rites. Your old friends might be deeply hurt when you refuse to accept gifts of food from sacrificial feasts. Furthermore, how can you be sure that the meat you buy in the market place has not been used in one of these feasts?
Some in the Corinthian church took a pragmatic view. They knew that there is no God but one. They knew that food is derived from God’s good creation and does not become any less good simply because some pagan priest mumbles a few words of devotion to a god that doesn’t even exist. So why not eat and enjoy? Whatever the pagans may think, we know that meat is meat and that it is meant to be enjoyed as God’s good gift.
Paul seems to agree with these “knowledgeable” folks in principle. But there is more to all of this than “knowledge.” For most people, the pagan rituals pervading social life in Corinth were pregnant with meaning and significance. It was practically impossible for them to separate the eating of sacrificial meat from participation in the sacrificial rite. They could no more eat sacrificial meat without being drawn into its religious significance than can an alcoholic indulge in “just one little drink.”
“So what?” say those “with knowledge.” “Why should the scruples of other people stand in the way of what we do with a clear conscience?” “Because,” Paul replies, “this ‘knowledge’ of yours is not the guiding principle.” As Paul pointed out to us last week, just because we are free to do something does not mean that we ought to do it. Here the guiding principle is not ‘knowledge’ but love. Vs. 3. It is true that in Christ we are free to enjoy the good gifts of God’s creation without worrying about all the other so-called ‘gods’ that pagans believe in. Nevertheless, we are obligated as members of Christ’s church to place the welfare of our sisters and brothers above our own desires. Everything a believer does must be done with the well-being of the whole church and all of its members in mind. Thus, although Paul shares the “knowledge” of his critics and the freedom they prize so highly, he will not exercise this freedom in any way that undermines the faith of any member of the church. If that means giving up meat altogether, so be it. Vs. 13.
Again, this issue is obviously a non-issue for us 21st Century believers. But Paul’s approach to it is still as timely as ever. A good dose of Paul’s advice would go a long way toward easing the tension that comes with changes in liturgy, remodeling of sacred space and discussion of controversial issues in the church. A lot of us feel that change comes far too slowly in the church. Many of us get frustrated with constant resistance to anything new. We are tempted to resort to the ways of the world in dealing with such resistance. We build alliances, stack committees, resort to political power, appeal to legal/constitutional provisions and settle matters by means of majority vote. All of that is a lot easier than the slow, cumbersome and painful work of building consensus. Yet consensus is the way of the cross and the only way to health for the whole Body of Christ.
Immediately following his call to the four fishermen, Jesus enters Capernaum and begins teaching in the synagogue there. Capernaum was a fishing village located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee about two miles from the entrance of the Jordan River. Though scholarly opinion is not entirely unanimous, most commentators believe the precise location to be at the site of the ruins of a town that came to be known by the Arabic name, Tell Hum. Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, (2nd Ed.), Thornapple Commentaries, (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. Baker House Co.) p. 171. During the early part of the 1stCentury C.E. the town had a population of about fifteen hundred. Archaeological excavations have revealed two ancient synagogues built one over the other. A church near Capernaum is said to be the home of the Apostle Peter.
Synagogue worship consisted of prayers, benedictions, readings from the law and the prophets with translations from Hebrew into Aramaic, the language of the people. Expositions of the readings were conducted by the scribes who were the official interpreters of Torah. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. A&C Black (Publishers) Limited) p. 63. Most scribes belonged to the party of the Pharisees, though some were associated with the Sadducees. Ibid. In either case, these scribes would have grounded their teachings upon citations to Torah. It appears that Jesus speaks in the voice of prophesy without citation to any scriptural authority. His is a “new” teaching, not simply a recasting of the old. The people are therefore “astounded” because Jesus speaks “with authority” unlike the scribes. Vs. 22.
Somehow, a man with an unclean spirit appears among the worshipers. This “unholy spirit,” is the one and only one who recognizes Jesus as the “holy” one of God. The crowds don’t know quite what to make of this astonishing teacher. The disciples have not weighed in yet either. Of course, we have known from Mark 1:1 that Jesus is the messiah and the Son of God. Jesus knows this because God has called him the beloved Son at his baptism. Mark 1:11. As the story continues, however, we will discover that we do not know what we think we know. Jesus will turn out to be a very different sort of messiah than Israel was expecting and the Son of a very different sort of God than the one we think we know.
The demon asks “What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Vs. 24. The former phrase might better be translated “What do we have in common?” or “Why are you interfering with us?” or simply “Mind your own business!” Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 Cambridge University Press), p. 75. The demon’s use of the first person plural “us” suggests that it is speaking for demons as a class. Vs. 24. The demons know that Jesus will be their undoing. Their invocation of Jesus’ name is a vain effort to gain control over him. Ibid. 77. The common belief was that learning the name of a deity conferred a certain degree of power over that deity. Ibid. This demonic effort at getting a leg up on Jesus fails. Even in the mouth of a demoniac, the name of Jesus glorifies Jesus. Jesus silences the demon’s witness and casts it out. Vs. 25. This mighty act of power over the demonic further demonstrates Jesus’ authority which goes beyond mere speech. His authority flows as much through what he does as what he says. Jesus’ teaching is indeed both new and authoritative. Vs. 27.
This story emphasizes the radical “newness” of God’s reign pressing in upon the old order. The demonic opposition is a harbinger of the confrontation to come between Jesus and the powers that be. The cross and resurrection are foreshadowed in each episode of Mark’s gospel. Even as Jesus is gradually revealed, he is increasingly concealed as everything we think we know about him proves inadequate, incomplete or just plain wrong.
Calling a thing what it actually is; a poem by Anne Waldman; and the lessons for Sunday, October 29th
Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, gracious Lord, we thank you that your Holy Spirit renews the church in every age. Pour out your Holy Spirit on your faithful people. Keep them steadfast in your word, protect and comfort them in times of trial, defend them against all enemies of the gospel, and bestow on the church your saving peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation, Art. 21.
This week we saw a decorated four-star general with a distinguished record of service to his country disgrace himself and his uniform by trying to explain away the mad ramblings of an emotionally unstable president with rank lies about an elected member of the house of representatives. In response to queries about that by an incredulous press, we heard the president’s press secretary tell reporters that military leaders are not to be questioned. Meanwhile, a state university in Florida hosted a white supremacist whose demagoguery incited the same kind of violence against protesters that occurred at his appearance in Charlottesville last summer, thankfully without the same tragic results. Am I the only one who finds it passing strange that white supremacist Richard Spencer is given a platform to preach his racist idiocy at an expense to the taxpayers of over half a million dollars while reporters asking questions about the public statement of a military leader are told to shut up? Are we still in the United States of America?
More disturbing than the current administration’s shredding of the constitution, a university’s dignifying racist yammering and the absolute disregard for truth that has washed like tsunami over our nation is the religious underpinning for all this so generously provided by the evangelical wing of American religion. The president’s equivocation (to put it charitably) on the violence in Charlottesville resulted in so many resignations from his Strategic and Policy Forum and Manufacturing Jobs Initiative councils that he was forced to disband both. But labeling neo Nazis and clansmen “fine people” was not enough to tickle the gag reflexes of Mr. Trump’s religious advisory council. Unlike the captains of industry, these religious figures didn’t feel that a little racism (to say nothing of sexual predatory conduct) is anything over which to become upset. If God has placed the Donald in the White House (and yes, that’s what these folks are saying), then opposing the Donald is opposing God.
All of this might be laughable-except that God’s presidential appointee is in the process of deporting children to countries where they have never lived, don’t speak the language and have no cultural or even family ties. We might just shake our heads, sigh and go on with our business-except that this president is bringing us closer every day to an unwinnable military conflict that could well bring ours and everyone else’s business to an abrupt end. We might shrug our shoulders and take the attitude that life goes on-except it might not and surely will not for the growing number of victims of hate crimes incited by Trumpist dog whistling. We might dismiss idiots like Richard Spencer as harmless clowns dancing around outside the margins of respectable society, spewing their venom but harming no one. But Mr. Spencer is not muttering his malarkey into a beer mug at a dark pub in the hearing only of some unfortunate bartender, where ten years ago we would have expected to find such sorry specimens of humanity. Instead, he is speaking at publicly funded universities and even landing interviews with NPR. Overt racism, once unthinkable in polite society, is becoming as American as apple pie-again.
“The truth will make you free” Jesus declares in this Sunday’s Reformation gospel. The sad corollary is that lies imprison us. We are currently enslaved by a congress that has been lying to itself and to us about the obvious fact that we have managed to elect a deeply paranoid, narcissistic and delusional man to the highest office in the land and armed him with the deadliest arsenal on the planet. We are being lied to by well-meaning leaders who suggest that, if we just learn to talk nice to each other, we can come together and solve the country’s problems-except that inviting people of color to discuss commonalities with those who want to lynch them is a mighty big ask. Moreover, anyone who thinks that welcoming Spencer and his hoards into the political mainstream will domesticate them would do well to remember the Weimar Republic’s last prime minister, Paul von Hindenburg, who named Adolf Hitler chancellor of the republic in hopes that the responsibilities of governing would curb his fanaticism. We are being lied to by the church and not only that heretical fragment ensconced in the Trump White House. We are also being lied to by a mainline church that, in my view, has failed to recognize and name the evil we face for what it is-a nationalistic, militaristic and racist revival of xenophobic populism that is taking root not only in the United States but in democracies everywhere. Let us be clear: this has nothing to do with disputes over politics, economics and social policies about which reasonable persons of good will might well disagree. Toning down the rhetoric alone will not bring us back to civility and peace. The election of 2016 has ignited a tidal wave of racist, misogynist, xenophobic and homophobic hate that respects neither law nor policy. This irrational madness has placed the mad man in the White House. That is the hard truth that needs to be spoken.
Five hundred years ago Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg for discussion and debate with this preface: “Out of love for the truth.” His was a challenge to the church of his day to engage in frank and fearless discussion about what he saw to be the blinding lies holding captive the people of God. If we want to be faithful to the reformation tradition, I believe we need to hear that call today. I think Martin is calling us to name truthfully the evil confronting us for what it is. Moreover, we (especially those of us in the white, straight, male category) need to take a careful inventory of the ways in which we have contributed to the making of the Trump presidency by failing to recognize and confront the systemic oppression that has always existed at all levels of government, education and the work place. Donald Trump did not invent racism, sexism or homophobia. He only exploited it and made us painfully aware of a truth we have been reluctant to see. That might well be the one positive accomplishment of his presidency. As important as getting the mad man out of the White House surely is, getting the madness of entrenched bigotry out of our institutions and our hearts is by far the more daunting task. We desperately need bishops, theologians and pastoral leaders with courage to speak difficult truths to us and lead us on the hard journey of repentance and faith. However painful that path might be, it is the way to which Jesus calls us and the only way to freedom.
Here is a poem by Anne Waldman about the inbreaking of truth.
To the Censorious Ones
(Jesse Helms & others…)
I’m coming up out of the tomb, Men of War
Just when you thought you had me down, in place, hidden
I’m coming up now
Can you feel the ground rumble under your feet?
It’s breaking apart, it’s turning over, it’s pushing up
It’s thrusting into your point of view, your private property
O Men of War, Censorious Ones!
get ready big boys get ready
I’m coming up now
I’m coming up with all that was hidden
Get ready, Big Boys, get ready
I’m coming up with all you wanted buried,
All the hermetic texts with stories in them of hot & dangerous women
Women with lascivious tongues, sharp eyes & claws
I’ve been working out, my muscles are strong
I’m pushing up the earth with all you try to censor
All the iconoclasm & bravado you scorn
All the taunts against your banner & salute
I’m coming up from Hell with all you ever suppressed
All the dark fantasies, all the dregs are coming back
I’m leading them back up now
They’re going to bark & scoff & rage & bite
I’m opening the box
Source: In the Room of Never Grieve: New and Selected Poems, 1985-2003, (c. 2003 by Anne Waldman, pub. by Coffee House Press). Anne Waldman was born 1945 in Millville, New Jersey, but grew up in Manhattan. She was heavily influenced by Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Gertrude Stein. She was educated at Bennington College in Vermont. Waldman has received honorary grants from the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She co-founded the Poetry Is News collective poet Ammiel Alcalay in 2002. You can find out more about Anne Waldman and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
For a brief but excellent summary of the Book of Jeremiah see the article by Terence E. Fretheim, Elva B. Lovell Professor of Old Testament at enterthebible.org.
Recall that Jeremiah prophesied immediately before and for some time after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. The new covenant of which Jeremiah speaks does not differ formally from the old. The “law” or “Torah” which God promises to write upon the hearts of God’s people is the law delivered to Israel at Sinai. The problem is not with the law but with the people who failed to internalize it and therefore observed it only in the breech. For example, during the reign of Judah’s last king, Zedekiah, the Babylonian armies advanced and captured all but two of Judah’s fortified cities. Jeremiah 34:7. Hoping to placate God and induce the Lord to save Judah from conquest, Zedekiah persuaded the people to do away with a longstanding practice of enslaving their impoverished fellow Hebrews beyond the six year limit on servitude established under Torah (Exodus 21:2-6). See Jeremiah 34:6-10. Shortly thereafter, Hophra, Pharaoh of Egypt, marched north to attack the Babylonian forces in Palestine. Babylon was forced to raise the siege against Jerusalem and draw its troops down to repel the Egyptian forces. When it seemed as though the Babylonian threat had receded, Zedekiah revoked the decree freeing the slaves and reinstated the lawless practice of indefinite servitude. Jeremiah 34:11. Jeremiah warned Zedekiah that this blatant act of hypocrisy would not go unpunished, that the Babylonian army would return and that there would be no escape from destruction. Jeremiah 34:17-22.
This particular oracle in Sunday’s lesson is regarded by most scholars as coming from Jeremiah’s post 587 prophesies. Jerusalem was in ruins and a substantial part of the population had been deported to Babylon (modern day Iraq). There seemed to be no future for Judah. Yet here Jeremiah, the very prophet who refused to offer Judah’s leaders even a sliver of hope for deliverance from Babylon, now speaks to the sorry remnant of the people about a new beginning. Such words could not be heard by Judah before the destruction of Jerusalem because her leaders were too intent on preserving the old covenant that had been irretrievably broken. Judah was hoping that salvation would come in the form of a Babylonian defeat, that somehow the line of David would be preserved, that the Holy City and the temple of Solomon would be spared from destruction. But that would not have been salvation. For a nation that had so thoroughly strayed from her covenant with her God, salvation for her institutions would only have enabled her to stray further. A miraculous deliverance from Babylon would have saved Judah’s national independence, her architectural treasures and her royal lineage. But it would have damned her soul. Salvation lay not in preserving Judah and her institutions, but in the new heart God would form in his people after all these things had been taken away. Judah would never again be the glorious nation she was; but through the new covenant Jeremiah promises, Judah would become precisely the nation God needed.
Jeremiah has been dubbed the prophet of doom. Yet the more I read him, the more convinced I am that he has gotten a bum rap. Jeremiah does have good news for his people. The problem, though, is that the people are not ready to hear it. They cannot see the glorious future God is offering them because they are fixated on preserving the past. As far as they are concerned, there can be no future other than a return to the past. A future without the throne of David, the temple in Jerusalem and the land of Israel is no future at all. Loss of these three pillars of Judah’s identity constituted only the end. The people of Judah had neither the language nor the conceptual tools to imagine life beyond that end. Their minds could not process the vision of a radically new existence as God’s people under a radically new covenant.
I am convinced that our protestant churches in the United States suffer from the same malady that affected the people of Judah in Jeremiah’s time. God has moved beyond the past. Our church is still hopelessly stuck in it. I have encountered Jeremiah’s dilemma over and over again when trying to speak with church leaders about the promise of God’s future for the church in America. I always preface my remarks with what has become for me a mantra: “These are exciting days in which to be the church.” Yet I find that when I share that excitement, the response often ranges from sadness, to fear, to outright rage. The good news is heard as bad. Very often I find that when congregations say they want to grow, thrive and do new ministries, what they are really seeking is some way to rebuild the glories of the past. They want the pews filled again, a robust Sunday school and a church basement filled with teenagers playing twister. When I try to tell them that the church they are seeking is dead and never coming back-they are far too fearful/sad/angry to hear the good news, namely, that God has something better in mind. What is true of congregations individually is just as true of my denomination as a whole. Our leaders’ response to several years of decline and loss of support? A capital fund drive. If successful this effort, along with the assets collected from more and more closing congregations, will keep the denominational machinery going long after our congregations are nearly depopulated!
To be fair, this is not altogether about self-preservation. My congregation does some fine ministry in our community that would be missed should the church fold. So also, my denomination’s institutions do many important things for the whole of society. They feed the hungry; shelter the homeless; care for refugees; provide disaster relief; educate and advocate for justice and peace. The world will be decidedly poorer in the event my church’s corporate ministries cease to exist. Yet I must emphasize that one very important reason for their present peril is our failure to make our congregations communities capable of forming saints with hearts for the hungry, poor, oppressed and homeless. Instead of welcoming the stranger into our midst, we have created professional agencies to “address their needs.” We have cultivated a “check book charity” that allows congregations to buy off their “social consciences” without ever having to get their hands dirty. I think that John Tetzel would have approved the logic at work here. Indulgences financing social programs rather than building projects might be more palatable to our progressive tastes. But at the end of the day, the result is the same. Sanctification for sale. Genuine gospel mission cannot long maintain itself on such a flimsy foundation.
As Jeremiah saw it, the kingdom of David was beyond redemption. The faithlessness of the people could not be addressed by changing or reforming Judah’s existing institutions. Change must come at the very deepest level: within the heart. Salvation is still possible for Judah, but it lies on the far side of judgment. The good news has to be heard as bad news before it can be received as good. So, too, I often wonder whether Jesus’ promise that whoever loses life for the sake of the gospel will find it sounds like unmitigated bad news because we can’t quite get over the “loss” piece. We lack the capacity to imagine church without our individual congregations and their sanctuaries, seminaries, professional clergy and the recognition we have known in society at large. It is for that reason I continue to hold up Church of the Sojourners, Reba Place Fellowship and Koinonia Farm as alternatives to what we have come to understand as church. I don’t suggest that these communities can be emulated by all our congregations or that they provide us with any sort of blueprint for tomorrow’s church. They do, however, challenge our assumptions about what it means to be church in the 21st Century and what is required to be faithful disciples of Jesus and, perhaps just as importantly, what is not. Like Jesus’ parables, these communities stimulate our imaginations and give us concrete images with which to envision God’s future.
The promise “I will be their God and they shall be my people” encapsulates at the deepest level God’s final (eschatological) intent for humanity. Vs. 33. The same refrain echoes throughout the book of the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 11:20; Ezekiel 14:11; Ezekiel 36:28) and appears again in the concluding chapters of Revelation. Revelation 21:1-4. Under this new covenant, it will no longer be necessary to instruct people in Torah because Torah, the very shape of obedience to God, will be wholly internalized. If you ask me what such a community looks like, I cite once again the powerful example of the Amish community following the Nickel Mine tragedy. In extending forgiveness to the murderer of their children and offering support to his family, the Amish demonstrated to a sick, violent and gun wielding culture what the kingdom of Christ looks like. This response speaks louder than all the preachy-screechy moralistic social statements ever issued by all the rest of us more mainline, official and established churches. Here, for a brief instant, it was possible to see at work hearts upon which God’s words have been inscribed.
This psalm is associated with the protestant Reformation generally and Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God” in particular. Structurally, the hymn is made up of three sections punctuated twice by the refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge/fortress.” Vss 7 & 11. Each section is followed with the term “selah.” This word is found throughout the Psalms and also in the book of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:3; Habakkuk 3:9; Habakkuk 3:13). It is most likely an instruction to musicians or worship leaders for use in liturgical performances. The exact meaning has been debated among rabbinic scholars since the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek around 270 B.C.E. This suggests that whatever function the term served had ceased even then.
In the first section the psalmist declares confidence in God’s protection in the midst of an unstable world. Earthquakes, storms and floods were terrifying events often attributed to angry deities. The psalmist does not speculate on causation here, but confidently asserts that the God of Jacob can be trusted to provide security and protection even in the midst of these frightening natural phenomena.
The psalmist turns his/her attention in the second section to the city of Jerusalem which, though not mentioned by name, can hardly be any other than the “city of God,” “the holy habitation of the Most High.” Vs. 4. The “river” that makes glad the city of God might be the Gihon Spring, the main source of water for ancient Jerusalem. It was this water source that made human settlement there possible. The Gihon was used not only for drinking water, but also for irrigation of gardens in the adjacent Kidron Valley which, in turn, was a source of food for the city. Of course, the prophet Ezekiel relates a vision in which a miraculous river flows out of the restored temple in Jerusalem to give life to desert areas in Palestine. Ezekiel 47:1-14. Similarly, John of Patmos describes “a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 22: 1-2. God’s presence in the midst of the city recalls the promise of Jeremiah that “I will be their God and they will be my people.” Jeremiah 31:33.
As a relatively small nation existing in a violent and dangerous geopolitical neighborhood, Israel was no stranger to “raging” nations and unstable kingdoms. Vs. 6. But the psalmist will not be rattled by these dangers. S/he knows that the Holy City is under the protection of the Holy One of Israel. It is not the nations or their rulers who determine the course of history. The God of Jacob is the one whose voice “melts” the earth. So Isaiah would try in vain to convince King Ahaz to be still and wait for God’s salvation from his enemies rather than allying himself with the empire of Assyria-which would be his nation’s undoing. Isaiah 7:1-8:8.
In the third section, the focus is upon the violent geopolitical scene. The God of Israel is no friend of war. To the contrary, “he makes wars to cease to the end of the earth.” Vs. 9. Moreover, he destroys the weapons of war. He does not call upon Israel to deal violently with the nations of the earth. The psalmist assures us that God can handle that job without us. God says instead, “Be still and know that I am God.” Vs. 10. When confronted with violent enemies (as Israel frequently was), the people are called upon to put their trust in the God of Jacob who is the one and only reliable refuge. In a culture indoctrinated with the belief that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the contrary witness of this ancient psalm is critical.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is the only one in which he makes a sustained theological argument from start to finish. For that reason alone, it is impossible to interpret any single passage in isolation from the whole work. As I have said in prior posts, I believe that Paul’s primary concern is expressed in Romans 9-11. In that section, Paul discusses the destiny of Israel in God’s saving work through Jesus Christ. It is not Paul’s intent to discredit his people or their faith. Rather, he is making the argument that through Jesus the covenant promises formerly extended exclusively to Israel are now offered to the gentiles as well. Though some in Israel (most as it ultimately turned out) do not accept Jesus as messiah, it does not follow that God has rejected Israel. “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29. Paul points out that Israel’s rejection of Jesus as Messiah has occasioned the inclusion of the gentiles into the covenant promises. “A hardening,” says Paul, “has come over part of Israel until the full number of the gentiles come in.” Romans 11:25. I must confess that I don’t quite understand how Israel’s rejection of Jesus as messiah makes it any easier for the gentiles to believe. Nevertheless, Paul sees some connection here and, in any event, Israel’s salvation (which is assured) is inextricably bound up with the salvation of the gentiles. According to Paul, Israel and the church are both essential players in God’s redemptive purpose for creation.
With all of this in mind, let’s turn to our lesson for Sunday. Paul points out that “the law” speaks to those under the law so that every mouth will be stopped and the whole world held accountable to God. Vs. 19. Here it is essential to distinguish between “Torah” and “law” as Paul uses it. Torah was always understood and accepted by Israel as a gift. The commandments, even those governing the smallest details of dietary and hygienic practice, were not intended to be oppressive and controlling. They were designed to make every aspect of living, however humble and mundane, a reminder of the covenant through which Israel was privileged to be joined with her God. As such, observance of Torah was a joy, not a burden.
Nevertheless, when observance of Torah is misconstrued and understood not as a gift, but rather a means or method of pleasing God or winning God’s favor, it becomes a burden. The focus is no longer on God’s grace in giving the Torah, but upon my success in keeping it. When that happens, the gift of Torah becomes the curse of “law.” Law always accuses. Think about it: no matter how well you do on the exam, isn’t it usually the case that you come away feeling that you could have done just a little better? Try as we do to be good parents, I have never met one that didn’t feel he or she failed his or her children in some respect. How can you ever be sure that you have done enough? The fear of people in Luther’s day was that God would not be satisfied with their repentance, their confession of sin and their efforts to amend their lives. In a secular culture such as ours, we might not fear eternal damnation quite so much. But we find ourselves enslaved nonetheless to our fears of social rejection and anxiety over failure to meet societal standards of beauty and success. That is why we have young girls starving themselves to death because they cannot measure up to what teen magazines tell them is beautiful. It is also why men become depressed, violent and prone to addiction during prolonged periods of unemployment-a real man earns his own living and pays his own way. We may be a good deal less religious than we were in Luther’s day, but we are no less in bondage to “law.”
Verse 21 contains one of the most critical “buts” in the Bible. “But now,” Paul says, “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…” So just as all are judged guilty under the law, so all are justified by God through Jesus Christ as a gift. Henceforth, being right with God is no longer a goal to be achieved through obedience to rules of one kind or another. It is a gift promised by God. Our obedience is no longer an onerous effort to win God’s favor but a thankful response to the favor God freely gives us. That is as true for Jews as it is for Gentiles as Paul will go on to point out in Romans 4. Abraham, after all, was called and responded in faith while he was still essentially a gentile, being uncircumcised and without the Law of Moses. Jews are therefore children of promise who owe their status as God’s people to God’s free election. They did not earn their covenant status through obedience to the law and therefore have no grounds to exclude the gentiles from God’s call to them through Jesus into that same covenant relationship. Importantly, Paul makes the converse argument in Romans 9-11, namely, that gentiles are in no position to judge or exclude the Jews from covenant grace, not even those who do not believe in Jesus. Their status as covenant people does not rest on their obedience or disobedience, but on God’s irrevocable call.
Our reading is part of a much larger exchange beginning at John 7:1 where Jesus declines his brothers’ invitation to accompany them to the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, but later comes on his own slipping into Jerusalem unnoticed. John 7:1-13. In the midst of the feast, Jesus goes up to the Temple and begins teaching the people. At first, the people do not seem to recognize Jesus. They can see that he is a common person of the type usually untrained in the finer points of Torah. But there is no question that Jesus is, in fact, learned in the law and they marvel at his teaching. When it becomes clear that this strange man is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, the chief priests send officers to arrest him. But instead of bringing Jesus in and booking him, they return amazed and overawed by what they have heard. Exasperated, the chief priests ask the officers why they have not arrested Jesus as ordered. They can only reply, “No one ever spoke like this man!” John 7:46. The chief priests then vilify the officers and the crowds, cursing them for their ignorance of the law. But Nicodemus, a member of the council, cautions the chief priests against pre-judging Jesus’ case before hearing him-only to be rebuffed. (We meet Nicodemus early on in John’s gospel at chapter 3 when he comes to see Jesus under cover of darkness. John 3:1-21. We will meet Nicodemus again following Jesus’ crucifixion as he comes with Joseph of Arimathea to bury the body of Jesus. John 19:38-42).
The narrative is interrupted by the story of the woman caught in adultery, a story that probably was not originally part of John’s gospel. John 8:1-11. Then Jesus’ discourse begun at the last day of the feast picks up where it left off in John 7:37 ff. Though the opposition continues, Jesus is gaining some support. We read that as he spoke, many believed in him. John 8:30. But success is short lived. Our reading picks up just where Jesus turns his focus upon these new believing supporters and tells them, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Vss. 31-33. Clearly, this remark rubbed them the wrong way. “Just what do you mean by that? We are Abraham’s descendants and we have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you promise to set us free?” Vs. 33. Clearly, Jesus’ newfound supporters are experiencing a “senior moment.” Have they really forgotten the four hundred years their ancestors spent as slaves in Egypt? Have the forgotten the Babylonian Exile? Israel has in fact known bondage under the whip of foreign masters and beneath the tyranny of many of her own leaders. But the greatest tyrant is not Egypt or Babylonia or Rome. The greatest bondage is slavery to sin.
John speaks of sin almost exclusively in connection with each person’s response to Jesus. It is not that people are sinless before they encounter Jesus. Rather, their encounter with Jesus reveals their sin and confronts them with the choice of remaining in sin or being set free from sin. It is precisely because Jesus’ opponents both see and claim to understand him that their guilt is established. John 9:39-41. To know and be set free by the truth is to know Jesus. This knowledge does not consist of propositions about Jesus. To know the truth about Jesus is to know Jesus-just as you know a loved one. That sort of knowledge requires the cultivation of a relationship that grows over time and, as all of us who experience friendship know, is never fully complete. We are always learning more about the people we love and think we know so well. How much more so with Jesus, whose life is the eternal life of the Father?
I believe much of the membership loss among American mainline protestant churches may be a direct result of our misunderstanding of what it means to know and to teach the truth. We have modeled our Christian education programs along the lines of public schools. Sunday school involved teaching kids stories and rudimentary doctrines about Jesus. That, however, is not how Jesus taught his disciples. Rather than inviting them to come to his seminars, Jesus called people to become fishers for people. He taught them by involving them in his ministry, sharing his meals with them and taking them with him on the road. By contrast, we confirm kids in the spring time (when graduation commencements occur) and very often figure that we have done our job. These kids have been taught the truth and when they are old enough, we can include them in the church’s ministry. Trouble is, when that time finally comes, they are already long gone. And why not? They got whatever truth they needed to get in the system. The rest is just a refresher course and who needs one of those every single week?
In sum, we have not done a very good job of teaching people who have come through our congregations that discipleship, not membership is the end point; that growing intimacy with Jesus, not just a boat load of facts about him is what constitutes true discipleship. Perhaps the next reformation can address this shortcoming.
Jonah, Jesus and white male privilege; a poem by Emma Lazarus; and the Lessons for Sunday, September 24th
SIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty and eternal God, you show perpetual loving kindness to us your servants. Because we cannot rely on our own abilities, grant us your merciful judgment, and train us to embody the generosity of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The concept of fairness seems to be built into our human DNA. Small children are acutely sensitive to what’s fair and what isn’t. They notice when there happens to be a tad more orange juice in a sibling’s glass than their own. Everyone knows that when you visit a three child household, you bring three gifts or none at all. Kids have a low tolerance for disparate treatment. So do adults. Everyone knows it is not wise to share the amount of your bonus with co-workers. Unless you are the sort of person who likes to flaunt your wealth or bemoan your poverty, you don’t disclose your financial affairs or inquire into those of other people. Envy and resentment are likely to rear their ugly heads when it comes to who makes how much. For that reason, financial matters, like politics and religion, are routinely avoided in polite company.
Nothing riles us more than to see people get more than we think they deserve. Though I have never run the numbers, I have a sneaking suspicion that the government would save a ton of money if it just provided food assistance to everyone who seeks it without qualifications and without financing an elaborate system of verification and enforcement to prevent fraud and abuse. Again, I don’t know whether that is actually the case. Even if it were, however, I doubt the public would ever approve such a measure-no matter how much money it might save us. The idea that somebody else might get an undeserved share of our tax dollars is just too hard on our moral sensibilities. We all had to work for what we have. So should everyone else-or at least those who can.
The same kind of righteous outrage seems to be at work in the hearts of the prophet Jonah and the day laborers in Jesus’ parable. Jonah cannot fathom why God should pardon Assyria, a nation so brutal and heartless it makes ISIS look like a church choir by comparison. This is especially galling when one considers that Israel’s transgressions were punished with national defeat and exile. The first hired laborers in Sunday’s gospel are fit to be tied when they discover that the slackers who showed up an hour before sundown take home the same full day’s pay they received for actually doing a full day’s work. What gives here? Is there no fairness at all?
Actually, no. Life isn’t fair and most of us wouldn’t want it to be if we took the time to think it through. I know I wouldn’t want absolute fairness. I have been the recipient of too many undeserved advantages. First off, I had the good fortune to be born in the 1950s when the economy was a good deal kinder to working class men without college degrees like my Dad. Because Dad was able to find a job that paid a living wage, provided health benefits and gave him an adequate pension, he was able to give a stable home to his kids and provide us with the college education he never had. Second, I was born “white.” That means I had little to fear from the police beyond the annoyance of a traffic ticket. I never had to worry about how my ethnicity, skin color or accent was affecting my job interview or whether a client of my firm might have “demographic concerns” about my representing their company. Third, I was born male, which means that there were many more educational and vocational opportunities open to me with no “glass ceilings” to worry about. I never had to worry either about bosses, prestigious clients or white celebrity males touching my breasts, grabbing me by the genitals or propositioning me for sex as a condition for keeping my job. Finally, quite apart from any effort, initiative or skill on my part, I managed to avoid all of the genetic factors that predispose some people to childhood diseases, cancers and chronic conditions that render them incapable of self-care. I did absolutely nothing to earn or deserve any of those advantages. Did I work hard for everything I now have? You bet. But I know that, absent the head start with which I was born, I would have been working a lot harder for a lot less.
Saint Paul states the matter quite plainly with his usual bluntness. “What have you that you did not receive?” he asks rhetorically, “If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” I Corinthians 4:7. We are not self-made people. We didn’t all start at the same place in this race we call life. Those of us who got a head start must recognize that we were, in many respects, just lucky. In many respects, we benefited from the effects of systemic racism and entrenched patriarchy in education, politics and the work place. None of that makes us bad people, but it certainly ought to put a damper on our boasting and kill our obsession with “fairness,” especially as it pertains to ourselves. We should not resent efforts to enable those who have been historically disadvantaged to catch up-though for those of us who have grown accustomed to having a head start in life that might feel as though we are losing ground. It is hard to be told, no, you didn’t hit a triple. In fact, you were born on third base.
I believe it is precisely this irrational resentment and misplaced self-pity that is feeding the resurgence of white supremacy groups throughout the country. When we hear “black lives matter,” we jump to the conclusion that ours don’t. When we see the increasing presence and influence of African Americans in politics, entertainment, sports and professions that formerly were overwhelmingly white, we feel that something of ours is being taken away from us. When languages that are unfamiliar appear on our ballots, signs and official documents, we feel as though we are being pushed aside by strangers. As more and more Americans look less and less like us, it seems as though we are losing the country we thought we knew. Consequently, when someone comes along who vilifies these folks who are destroying our America, assures us that our feelings are justified and promises “to make America great (read, “white”) again,” his voice resonates. “He says what we feel,” one Trump supporter recently told me. So too, the extreme expressions of white supremacy legitimize the blind rage felt by those of us who resent the loss of our privilege, privilege we have mistaken for a natural right.
The lessons for this Sunday speak a salutary word to those of us fuming over the loss of privilege and feeling unjustly deprived. The Book of Jonah reminds us that God loves us too much to treat us fairly. God treats us-all of us-mercifully. Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard lets us know in no uncertain terms that God’s good gifts to us are just that: gifts. We are no more worthy of them if we have been toiling throughout the heat of the day and no less entitled to them if we arrive only at the eleventh hour. In fact, “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Psalm 24:1. Only when we are ready to release our own claim of ownership on the piece we think is “ours” can we hope to receive it as gift. The following poem by Emma Lazarus expresses gratitude for this land we call home by those for whom it is not yet home. It is the song of immigrants newly discovering America with gratitude and generosity we established Americans too often lack.
“Since that day till now our life is one unbroken paradise. We live a true brotherly life. Every evening after supper we take a seat under the mighty oak and sing our songs.”—Extract from a letter of a Russian refugee in Texas.
Twilight is here, soft breezes bow the grass,
Day’s sounds of various toil break slowly off.
The yoke-freed oxen low, the patient ass
Dips his dry nostril in the cool, deep trough.
Up from the prairie the tanned herdsmen pass
With frothy pails, guiding with voices rough
Their udder-lightened kine. Fresh smells of earth,
The rich, black furrows of the glebe send forth.
After the Southern day of heavy toil,
How good to lie, with limbs relaxed, brows bare
To evening’s fan, and watch the smoke-wreaths coil
Up from one’s pipe-stem through the rayless air.
So deem these unused tillers of the soil,
Who stretched beneath the shadowing oak tree, stare
Peacefully on the star-unfolding skies,
And name their life unbroken paradise.
The hounded stag that has escaped the pack,
And pants at ease within a thick-leaved dell;
The unimprisoned bird that finds the track
Through sun-bathed space, to where his fellows dwell;
The martyr, granted respite from the rack,
The death-doomed victim pardoned from his cell,—
Such only know the joy these exiles gain,—
Life’s sharpest rapture is surcease of pain.
Strange faces theirs, wherethrough the Orient sun
Gleams from the eyes and glows athwart the skin.
Grave lines of studious thought and purpose run
From curl-crowned forehead to dark-bearded chin.
And over all the seal is stamped thereon
Of anguish branded by a world of sin,
In fire and blood through ages on their name,
Their seal of glory and the Gentiles’ shame.
Freedom to love the law that Moses brought,
To sing the songs of David, and to think
The thoughts Gabirol to Spinoza taught,
Freedom to dig the common earth, to drink
The universal air—for this they sought
Refuge o’er wave and continent, to link
Egypt with Texas in their mystic chain,
And truth’s perpetual lamp forbid to wane.
Hark! through the quiet evening air, their song
Floats forth with wild sweet rhythm and glad refrain.
They sing the conquest of the spirit strong,
The soul that wrests the victory from pain;
The noble joys of manhood that belong
To comrades and to brothers. In their strain
Rustle of palms and Eastern streams one hears,
And the broad prairie melts in mist of tears.
Source: Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems and Other Writings (2002). Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) is most famous for the words inscribed on the Statute of Liberty from her poem, The New Colossus:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Lazarus was one of the first successful and publically recognized Jewish American authors. She was born in New York City to a wealthy family. She began writing and translating poetry as a teenager and was publishing translations of German poems by the 1860s. Lazarus was moved by the fierce persecution of her people in Russia, a frequent topic of her writings, as well as their struggles to assimilate into American culture. You can sample more of Emma Lazarus’ poetry and read more about her at the Poetry Foundation website.
The book of Jonah differs from all the other prophetic books. Rather than containing the oracles of a prophet, this book tells the story of a prophet. It reads very much like a short story. It is also different in that the prophetic focus is not upon Israel, but upon Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s archenemy, Assyria. That is where the problem lies as far as the prophet is concerned. Jonah would far rather be declaring gleefully Assyria’s doom to his fellow Israelites than bringing a warning to the doomed nation. Assyria, after all, was responsible for the downfall and destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The Southern Kingdom of Judah only narrowly escaped the same fate. Jonah, like the rest of Israel, wanted nothing more than to see God’s judgment fall with full force on this cruel empire. So Jonah does everything in his power to ensure the failure of his mission to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh.
First, Jonah tries to run away from his commission. Rather than traveling to Nineveh, he gets on a boat heading in the opposite direction. God catches up with Jonah, however and sends a storm that threatens to swamp the ship. Everyone on the boat begins praying frantically to his god, except Jonah who is fast asleep in the hold. Jonah is not on speaking terms with his God. The sailors wake Jonah and implore him to pray to his God for rescue, but instead Jonah suggests that they throw him overboard. He would rather drown than prophesy to Nineveh. But Jonah’s attempt at suicide fails. God is not letting him off the hook that easily. God sends a great fish to swallow Jonah and there he remains, in the belly of the fish, for three days. After giving Jonah adequate time to reflect, the fish vomits Jonah up on shore. God repeats the original command: Go at once to Nineveh.
Knowing that he can never escape from God, Jonah goes reluctantly to Nineveh and preaches the shortest and most uninformative sermon ever given by a prophet. The message? “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Jonah 3:4. That’s it. Jonah does not tell the people of Nineveh why they are being overthrown, who is going to overthrow them or whether there is anything they can do to prevent the overthrow. Yet this half-hearted and incomplete sermon brings about a remarkable effect. “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone great and small put on sackcloth.” Jonah 3:5. Not only that, but “when the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” Jonah 3:6. Even the animals repented with fasting! Jonah 3:7-8. “Who knows?” remarked the king. “God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” Jonah 3:9. God does indeed hear the penitent cries from the people of Nineveh and God changes his mind. God spares the city from destruction.
This is just what Jonah had feared and what he had done everything possible to prevent. “I knew it!” cries the exasperated prophet. “Is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning: for I knew that you were a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah 4:2. Jonah knows his Torah well. This confession of God as merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. See, e.g, Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 145:8 and Psalm 103:8. Indeed, it is with these very words that God reveals to Moses his innermost being. Exodus 34:6-7. But Jonah does not seem to want a God who is merciful and slow to anger. He wants a God that is fair. Assyria is guilty of unspeakable acts of war, oppression and cruelty. It is only fair that God visit upon Assyria what the empire has inflicted on Israel. An eleventh hour show of repentance should not be enough to win Nineveh a reprieve from justice.
God proves to be as patient and forgiving toward his stubborn prophet as he is toward the wicked city of Nineveh. God employs an object lesson. He causes a plant to grow up giving the sulking prophet shade. Then, a day later, God sends a worm causing the plant to wither and die. Now Jonah is livid. Bad enough that God should make a fool of him by calling off the judgment he had predicted. Now it appears that God means to give him sunstroke as well. Then God makes his point: “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” Jonah 4:11. That is how the book ends-with God’s question. We never hear Jonah’s answer and perhaps that is intentional. The question is really directed at us. What sort of God do we worship? Is God chiefly concerned with abstract notions of justice, with punishing sin and rewarding good behavior? Or is God more concerned with the well-being of people? Does God hate sin because it offends against his precious laws? Or does God hate sin because it harms his creatures?
For numerous reasons, most scholars date this book in the post exilic period following 539 B.C.E. While the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by Assyria was a more distant memory, Judah’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonians was a fresh and painful recollection. To be sure, Jeremiah and Ezekiel had explained these catastrophes as consequences of Israel’s breach of covenant faithfulness to God. But even so, Israel’s less than perfect obedience was surely light years closer to righteousness than the brutal and oppressive ways of Assyria and Babylonia. If Israel was justly punished for her sin, is it too much to expect that these empires also should face judgment?
The Book of Jonah shifts the focus of this discussion from fairness to mercy. God does not inflict judgment merely settle scores or maintain some sort of moral balance. God punishes in order to heal. Thus, whether God punishes sin or decides to refrain from punishment has nothing to do with fairness. It is finally a question of what will bring about a change of heart, healing and ways that are life giving. If repentance can be achieved without punishment, God abstains from exercising the rod-even if that seems unfair. Likewise, God will inflict whatever hardships are necessary to bring his people to the point of recognizing their self-destructive ways and their need for him-whether the punishment is commensurate with the crime or not. But God’s concern is always for the well-being of his people both within and outside of his covenant with Israel.
“All of this points in the direction of the fact that God’s will for his world is salvation and not destruction. He will do all within his power to see that salvation comes rather than destruction. God’s love and mercy always have priority over his anger (see Psalm 30:3). He wishes life for his creatures rather than death (see Ezekiel 18:23, 32). Fretheim, Terence E., The Message of Jonah, (c. 1977 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 130.
This psalm is a hymn in acrostic form. Every verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic poems usually do not develop ideas but consist rather of loosely connected statements. The technique aids in memorization, but also conveys the message that the whole of the topic is being addressed “from A-Z.” Other psalms in the acrostic family are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 145 in its entirety.
Formally, this is a psalm of praise, probably from the period after the Babylonian Exile. God alone is acknowledged as “king” rather than any ruler of the Davidic line. Vs. 1. Professor Walter Brueggemann classifies this psalm as a “song of creation,” a subcategory of his “psalms of orientation,” namely, psalms that “express a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 25. Psalm 145 expresses Israel’s “joyous and grateful confidence in the Creator.” Id. at 28. There is no thematic development in this psalm. It is, as Brueggeman points out, “static in form, articulating what is enduringly true of the world.” Id. at 28-29. The range of praise stretches from the first person to the intergenerational “we” of the worshiping community.
“The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Vs. 8.This refrain is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as pointed out in my observations concerning our first lesson, where we encounter it in the context of irony. Jonah 4:2 It is because God is so gracious and merciful that Israel felt free to address God in prayer, even-indeed, especially-when she knew that she had fallen short of her covenant obligations. Placed as it is in contrast to Jonah’s citation of this ancient confession, the psalm invites us to ponder what it means to have a God whose principle attributes are graciousness, mercy, and steadfast love. Such a divine disposition is comforting when applied to ourselves but, as the lesson from Jonah illustrates, not quite so palatable when applied to our enemies. Are we prepared to accept God’s graciousness and mercy extended toward Al Qaeda or to ISIS? Or does the very idea throw us into a Jonah snit?
To repeat briefly what I have said about Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in the past, this is not one letter but three.
Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)
Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)
Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)
This Sunday’s reading comes from the Letter of Friendship Paul wrote while imprisoned. Paul is mindful that his imprisonment might well end with his being sentenced to death. Though hopeful that he will finally be released and allowed to continue his ministry, Paul does not fear death. For whether through his future ministry or through his faithful acceptance of death for the sake of the gospel, whether short or long, Paul’s life will bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:19-20. Paul prefers deliverance from prison to martyrdom, but this is not because he fears death. Indeed, he views death in Christ as “gain.” Vs. 21. Paul wishes to live that he may continue his ministry to the church in Philippi and to his other congregations. Vs. 25-26.
Paul urges the Philippian believers to let their manner of life “be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Vs. 27. To give content to this admonition, we need to read further both in Philippians and in the other letters of Paul. The church, as the Body of Christ, is to live a counter-cultural existence in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female.” Galatians 3:28. In the midst of the hierarchical and stratified culture of Rome, such a community constituted a subversive challenge. The church was, as Paul aptly pointed out, an “omen to them of their destruction.” Vs. 28. The church can therefore expect opposition. Faith in Jesus naturally entails “suffering” for his sake and participation with Paul in his own conflict with the empire. Vss. 29-30.
Paul’s sentiments and the struggles of his Philippian congregation are hard to grasp in a culture where the church fits neatly into the Americana landscape. Even as Christianity fades from popular culture and the church’s influence recedes, we do not face anything like persecution. Yes, I know about Fox’s reporting on the so-called “war on Christianity.” But if you really think that barring a crèche from the town square during the holiday season amounts to persecution, you need to talk to Christians in Egypt, Pakistan and Iraq. They will tell you what real persecution looks like. What we actually are experiencing is the beginning of marginalization. Given our substantial loss of membership, participation and support, we mainliners no longer represent a significant demographic group. We are fast becoming a minority. But then again, perhaps we always were a minority. Maybe the cultural support churches received in the past and the social expectation for church membership and participation characteristic of earlier times falsely inflated our numbers. It could be that, despite the loss of members, the church has more disciples today than ever before. I have no idea whether that is so or how one would go about finding out one way or the other. But I digress.
I believe that a careful reading of Paul’s letters in our present context compels a change of subject. Rather than trying to reverse membership loss to save our institutions, we need to be talking about becoming and making disciples. Rather than wracking our brains trying to figure out how to get people to go to church, we need to start talking about how we can better be the church. It’s high time that we become an “omen” once again.
The parable reflects the gritty realities of life in Palestine and, sadly, many places in our own country. Labor is cheap and it’s a buyer’s market. Men and women stand in groups at the market place in Galilean towns or in front of the Shoprite in Union City hoping to get work for the day. The work day in Palestine lasted from sunrise to sunset. The daily wage, a denarius, was set by rabbinic custom and tradition. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 John Knox Press) P. 392. The requirement that payment be made at the end of the day is rooted in Torah. Deuteronomy 24:15. “Vineyard” is a frequent metaphor for Israel throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. See, e.g., Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:8-9.
It is important to understand that this parable follows Jesus’ teaching concerning lifelong fidelity in marriage (Matthew 19:1-9); the call of some to forego marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:10-12); Jesus’ declaration that children, who the disciples found to be a distraction, are the proper heirs of the kingdom (Matthew 19:13-15); the story about the man whose riches prevented him from following Jesus in the way of the kingdom (Matthew 19:16-22); and Jesus’ words on the cost and rewards of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:23-30). Matthew’s use of the vineyard here suggests that he is giving us a snapshot of what life in the kingdom looks like-if only we have eyes to see it.
The hiring of the first laborers at dawn for a day’s wage is hardly unusual. It would not be unusual either to hire additional laborers later in the day if, for example, the rainy season were drawing near with its potential for cooler weather and even frost. Hiring workers an hour before sunset simply is not credible. Yet that appears to be the point. The owner of the vineyard is not looking at this venture from a purely business like, self-interested perspective. He is looking to the needs of the laborers. At an hour from quitting time, he discovers that there are still laborers standing idle in the marketplace. It seems odd that the owner of the vineyard would ask these unemployed laborers why they are idle. Isn’t that like asking an unemployed factory worker why he isn’t at work? The answer seems obvious, yet the owner seeks an answer from these unfortunate individuals just the same. When the would-be laborers tell him that they are idle because they have not been hired, the owner promptly hires them and sends them out.
While it might seem strange that the owner of the vineyard should pay the last workers before the first, this order of events is critical to the parable. Had the first hired been the first paid, they would each have taken their denarius and gone home contented. As the owner later points out, they received the benefit of their bargain. They are taking home a living wage for a day’s work. Their wages seem disagreeable to them only because they have witnessed payment of the same amount made to those hired last. For this reason only their wages look small and miserly. In reality, the first hired are offended not so much by their own pay as by the owner’s generous treatment of those workers that, in their view, had not earned it. This is the “Jonah” complaint in an economic context.
The owner’s strange management of labor in his vineyard is in fact how the kingdom of heaven operates. Fruitful labor for a living wage is available for all who seek it. To put it into the language of the Lord’s Prayer, daily bread is provided for all. The problem is that people want more than daily bread. That is why it is so hard for the rich to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 19:23-26. They want and expect more than daily bread. For the rich, a heavenly kingdom where all have enough to see them through each day-and no more-would be a hellish existence. So who is included among these “rich”? Who are the laborers who feel cheated? All of us, I suppose, who have more than what we need to live on today and remain unsatisfied. I believe one reason that the specter of socialism is bandied about to such great effect by political leaders has to do with our deep sense of entitlement to the fruits of our labor. I am entitled to the value of my labor (which always seems undervalued by my employer!) and nobody is entitled to anything that has not been earned. Though public assistance is hardly a significant piece of our tax burden, we still seem hell bent on cutting it because there is something deep inside us that cannot abide a person getting what they have not “earned.”
We are also uncomfortable with this parable because it challenges the gospel of wealth that permeates our culture. America is the land of opportunity, we believe, where anyone with enough determination and grit can get rich. In fact, the gap between rich and poor is growing in our land as it is globally. Those folks who are working two or three minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet would find it hard to believe that they are not working hard enough. But the problem is not merely that the American dream isn’t working. The larger problem is that, even if it did work, our lives would still be running amuck. Pursuit of wealth is a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. It selfishly demands more than God promises and winds up settling for much less. It rests on the false assumption that the world is a shrinking pie and my well-being depends on grabbing the biggest piece and guarding it jealously.
The parable of the vineyard, in addition to exposing our selfish, thankless and proud imaginings, also points to an alternative economics. It testifies to the possibility of an economy that maximizes human well-being rather than financial gain; gives priority to the needs of all rather than the luxuries of the few; harvests the fruits of the earth rather than exploiting and poisoning them.
Before leaving this parable, I want to share an additional take on it from Professor Stanley Hauerwas: “It is particularly important for Gentile Christians to remember that as heirs of the promise to Israel we are the last hired. The decisive commentary on Jesus’ parable of the vineyard is Paul’s understanding of God’s faithfulness to Israel developed in Romans 9-11. Paul writes to the Gentile Christians to insist that God’s promise to Israel remains in effect. Israel has stumbled on the stumbling block that is Jesus, but it has done so that salvation may come to the Gentiles (11:11-12). Accordingly, no account of the church, of those last hired, can ever be intelligible without the story of Israel, and those who are the inheritors of that story, the Jews.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brozos Press) p. 176.