Posts Tagged refugees
SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Faithful God, most merciful judge, you care for your children with firmness and compassion. By your Spirit nurture us who live in your kingdom, that we may be rooted in the way of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is not god.” Isaiah 44:6.
From May 29th-31st 1934 the Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church met in Barmen, Germany to address false teachings propagated by the “German Christians” appointed by the Nazis to administer the protestant churches under the Reich. Organized in 1932, the German Christian movement was driven by nationalistic ideology permeated with Nazi anti-Semitism. The movement affirmed Article 24 of the 1920 Nazi Party Platform, which read:
“We demand the freedom of all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not jeopardize the state’s existence or conflict with the manners and moral sentiments of the Germanic race. The Party as such upholds the point of view of a positive Christianity without tying itself confessionally to any one confession. It combats the Jewish-materialistic spirit at home and abroad and is convinced that a permanent recovery of our people can only be achieved from within on the basis of the common good before individual good.”
The German Christians saw in this statement an affirmation of “Christian values” which they saw as being under attack by modernistic thought and scientific inquiry. Therefore, they supported the Nazis and advocated the racist principles embodied in the Nürnberg Laws of 1935.
In response to this attack on the sovereignty of Jesus over his church, the subordination of the church’s teaching to the political agenda and policies of the Reich and the idolatrous exaltation of the state’s reign over the reign of God, the Confessional Synod had this to say:
- Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
- We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.
- We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords–areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.
- We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.
I invite you to read the Barmen Confession in its entirety.
The Barmen Confession has been rightfully criticized for its failure to address specifically the Reich’s anti-Semitic violence and violence against religious dissenters, racial minorities and political dissidents. Our Jewish sisters and brothers point out that the confessional church, for the most part, took the shape of an internecine ecclesiastical protest rather than a frontal assault on the evils of the Nazi government. Notwithstanding their shortcomings, however, the courage expressed by Barmen’s signatories under the threat of Nazi reprisal stands in stark contrast to the appalling silence of the American Church and its leaders in the face of flagrant conflation of Christian symbols and rhetoric with the ugliest manifestations of American nationalism by white Christians and the overwhelming support of such white Christians for the racist, homophobic, misogynist and xenophobic policies of the Trump administration in accord therewith.
The nationalistic ideology of “American exceptionalism” enshrined in the very first sentence of the 2016 GOP platform states specifically: “We believe that American exceptionalism — the notion that our ideas and principles as a nation give us a unique place of moral leadership in the world — requires the United States to retake its natural position as leader of the free world. Tyranny and injustice thrive when America is weakened. The oppressed have no greater ally than a confident and determined United States, backed by the strongest military on the planet.” This dangerous notion that America, as the savior and rightful defender of the free world, justifiably wields its influence carrying a huge thermonuclear stick, meshes well with the rhetoric of religious organizations such as Christian Nationalist Alliance which asserts (among other things) that “These United States of America were founded by Christian men upon Christian tenets” and that “Islam is a heretical perversion of the Judeo-Christian doctrine and must be recognized and treated as a threat to America and Western Civilization as a whole.” Defense of “Christian civilization” has regularly been invoked to justify harassment of and attacks against Muslim Americans and to uphold an irrational and inhumane ban against refugees fleeing to our country to escape oppression and violence. Exceptionalism is wholly consistent with ideology promoted by Focus on the Family whose “Truth Project” teaches that “America is unique in the history of the world. On these shores a people holding to a biblical worldview have had an opportunity to set up a system of government designed to keep the state within its divinely ordained boundaries.” It provides the perfect conceptual framework supporting the claim of Rev. Franklin Graham that Donald Trump is in the Whitehouse “because God put him there.”
This toxic mix of nationalism and aberrant Christianity has created an environment favorable to the expression of racist, sexist and anti-Islamic sentiments and acts of hatred against people of color. It has mainstreamed white supremacy to the point where formerly fringe characters like white supremacist Richard Spencer are able to secure interviews on NPR and alt.right extremists like Steve Bannon have become fixtures in the Whitehouse. We should be concerned about this new American nationalism injected with the steroid of religious fervor. As observed by Blaise Pascal, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
Let me be clear in stating that there is certainly nothing wrong with acknowledging and celebrating the unique history and character of the United States. Nor is there anything wrong with recognizing and affirming the democratic, egalitarian ideals of freedom reflected in its constitution. The notion, however, that the United States is somehow superior to other nations, that the United States is divinely favored to dominate all other nations, that there is some fixed American culture that must be defended against “foreign” (non-western, non-white, non-Christian) influences or that the interests and ambitions of the United States and its citizens should be given “first” priority over all other peoples is entirely incompatible with the Biblical confession of Israel’s God, the God and Father of Jesus Christ who reigns over all the nations and who has given his people Israel as a light to all the nations and the church as a witness to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ for all the nations.
Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical, Testem benevolentiae nostrae, warned Roman Catholics over a century ago against “some who conceive and would have the Church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world.” Though spoken in a very different context, these words nevertheless serve as a salutary reminder that the life of the Church is to be ruled first and foremost by its Lord and not by the cultural and ideological currents of nations in which it resides as a pilgrim and a sojourner. The Jesus we confess was born to a homeless couple fleeing as refugees from genocide in their homeland of Judea across the border into Egypt. Jesus was a dark-skinned non-person living under the oppressive reign of the Roman Empire. He practiced unconditional hospitality, welcoming to his table beggar and soldier, priest and prostitute, Jew and Samaritan. Jesus taught us that the two greatest commandments that norm all others are the commands to love the one true God who chooses and liberates slaves and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. His life of sacrificial love ending in his crucifixion was vindicated by God who raised him from death. It is impossible, consistent with allegiance to Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims, for one to elevate one’s own nation, its culture and its ambitions above the well-being of one’s neighbors throughout the rest of the world.
The question, then, is: can we continue to remain silent while the name of our Lord Jesus Christ is employed to support a ban on refugees fleeing oppression to our shores, legitimize and normalize racist rhetoric, demonize gay, lesbian and transgendered persons, promote a godless ideology of American exceptionalism that puts devotion to the nation state over God’s expressed concern for the salvation of the whole world? Yes, I am aware that all of the mainline churches have issued statements condemning specific actions of the current administration such as the discriminatory ban against refugees, restrictive and family-hostile immigration policies and environmentally destructive regulations. But that only scratches the surface of our country’s sickness, a sickness that has infected the church to the depths of its soul. What we need is to name the demon of idolatry. What we need is for the American church to come together around a Barmen like confession naming and rejecting the false god of American nationalism and the America first agenda to which no one believing in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church can possibly subscribe. The American church needs to unite in affirming Jesus Christ as the “one Word of God…which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death” to the exclusion of all “other events and powers, figures and truths,” purporting to be “God’s revelation.”
Here is a poem by Rev. Martin Niemöller, a leader in the confessing church, who was imprisoned under the Nazis. His warning is one all American church leaders should take to heart.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
This Quotation from Martin Niemöller is on display in the Permanent Exhibition of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. You can find out more about Martin Niemöller by visiting the site for the Holocaust Encyclopedia.
Like last week’s reading, this lesson is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6th Century B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. For more specifics on the Book of Isaiah generally, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.
Our passage is part of a single pericope containing vss. 21-22 also. Vss. 9-20 constitute a prose interpolation mocking the worship of idols. I would recommend reading the piece in its entirety. Isaiah 44:6-8, 21-22. This is one of many “trial speeches” from Second Isaiah in which the God of Israel, as plaintiff, calls the so called gods of the nations to appear and give testimony before him. The people of Israel, as jury, must decide the case. God challenges these deities to demonstrate whether they have ever spoken a prophetic word that came to fruition. The implication is that, so far from responding to the challenge, these gods fail even to make an appearance. Thus, the Lord declares rhetorically, “Is there a God besides me?” Then, in response to silence from the absent gods, God replies, “There is no Rock; I know not any.” Vs. 8. Turning, then to the jury, God calls upon Israel to remember “these things.” “These things,” might refer to God’s saving history narrated in the Exodus story, Wilderness Wanderings or the Conquest of Canaan. More likely, however, the reference is to the courtroom proceedings in which God has decisively demonstrated that there is no other God, no other Rock than God’s self. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, (c. SCM Press Ltd 1969) p. 142. Israel must now similarly testify that God alone is God and there is no rock beside God.
Westermann rightly points out that this is not an assertion of abstract monotheism, but a response to an urgent concern on the minds of the prophet’s audience. The holy city of Jerusalem had been conquered by Babylon. The temple of the Lord had been profaned and destroyed. Did this not demonstrate unequivocally that the gods of Babylon had bested the God of Israel? How could the people ever again trust the God who failed to protect them when they cried out to him in his sanctuary? Moreover, if the prophet Jeremiah was correct, if God had indeed brought the Babylonian army upon Jerusalem as judgment for her sin, did this not mean that God was finished with Israel? Whether God was unable or unwilling to defend Israel, it amounted to the same thing. There could be no expectation of salvation from this God. So it is that the prophet begins with an assertion of God’s power to save and ends with the assurance that God has “swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist.” Israel therefore can return confidently to her God with the assurance of forgiveness and salvation. Vs. 22.
These bold assertions are as stirring as they are pastorally problematic. In truth, I cannot assure that my cancer stricken friend will experience a remission or cure. What, then, must be said about this God whose will and power to save is unhindered by any other “god” or obstacle? It is worth noting that the situation for Israel was not much different than that of my friend. The prospects for a successful return to Jerusalem and restoration of the promised land were at least as bleak as prospects of recovery from terminal cancer. It is also worth noting that the actual return, as we have said, was not accomplished in the miraculous and glorious manner envisioned by Isaiah. That may only go to show that prophets often don’t know what they are talking about. Their words are fulfilled in ways that they could never have foreseen and take on meanings generations hence that would surprise them. So perhaps we ought not to be so timid in speaking these words in the face of seemingly hopeless circumstances. Ours is only the duty to speak the word. Fulfilment is in the hands of the One whose word we speak.
This is a psalm of lament, though interwoven with the psalmist’s complaints are confessions of God’s greatness, expressions of faith in God’s steadfast love and prayers for guidance and understanding. As always, I urge you to read Psalm 86 in its entirety. Apropos to our lesson from Isaiah, this is precisely the sort of prayer in which God’s limitless power and willingness to save are brought into circumstances of seeming godforsakenness. The psalmist pelts God relentlessly with his promises, his attributes of steadfastness and compassion in an effort to persuade God to act on his/her behalf. It is as if the psalmist were crying out, “How can you not help me?”
In vs. 11 the psalmist prays that God may teach him/her his ways and to walk in God’s truth. The psalmist recognizes that his/her troubles come, at least in part, as a result of failure to discern the way in which God would have him/her walk. So the psalmist prays, “unite my heart to fear thy name.” This might also be translated, “let my heart rejoice to fear thy name.” Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 180. In any case, the psalmist is praying for more than mere knowledge. S/he seeks transformative wisdom that will enable him/her to live faithfully and obediently.
The psalmist refers to himself/herself as God’s “servant,” “slave,” the son of “God’s handmaid.” Vs. 16. That the terms are masculine do not preclude feminine authorship or usage. Such terms are stereotypical poetic phrases found throughout Hebrew verse and utilized in prayer by all Israelites. Just as a slave has no rights of his/her own and must depend on his/her master for vindication and protection, so the psalmist must rely solely on God for his/her defense. Precisely because the psalmist is helpless before his/her adversaries, God is obliged to intervene on his/her behalf.
This is a fine example of lament: prayer that reaches up on the strength of God’s promises from what is to what ought to be. It is exactly the sort of prayer uttered by creation as it awaits liberation from death and decay. Paul will have much to say about this in the following lesson.
Paul begins by restating his argument from last week. Having been baptized into Jesus Christ, we live no longer “in the flesh” or for our own selfish ends. Instead, we live “in the spirit,” that is, as friends of Jesus. To be friends or siblings of Jesus is to be children of God and thus God’s heirs. Note the stark contrast to life in the flesh that is characterized by bondage to sin and slavery under the law. Such a life is characterized by the “master slave” relationship. Life in the Spirit, however, is characterized by familial relationships. Jesus as brother, God as Father, fellow believers as siblings. That we can address God as “Abba,” the word young children use to address their fathers, testifies to the presence of God’s Spirit within us. The change brought about for us by Jesus is therefore relational. We are no longer slaves who view God through the prism of law, but sons and daughters who view God through the prism of Jesus.
So far, so good. But then comes the disturbing word: We are “heirs of God and fellow heirs of Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified in him.” Vs. 17. Commenting on this verse, Karl Barth remarks that “The action of God is the Cross, the Passion: not the quantity of suffering, large or small, which must be borne with greater or with lesser fortitude and courage, as though the quantity of our pains and sufferings would in itself occasion our participation in the glory of God. Participation in suffering means to suffer with Christ, to encounter God, as Jeremiah and Job encountered Him; to see Him in the tempest, to apprehend Him as Light in the darkness, to love Him when we are aware only of the roughness of His hand.” Barth, Karl, The Epistle to the Romans, (c. 1933 Oxford University Press) p. 301. Or, as observed by John Howard Yoder, “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c. 1972 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 129. Suffering, then, is the consequence of being fully human, as only Jesus was, in an inhuman and inhumane world.
Paul goes on to say, however, that he considers “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Vs. 18. This is not to be taken as an appeal to put up with the status quo today in hopes of seeing a brighter tomorrow. Paul insists that God’s future has broken into our present. In that respect, Commentator Anders Nygren’s reading of Paul is correct. The church lives simultaneously in two eons, the old age that is passing away and the new age whose birth pangs are even now being felt in the course of the old’s dissolution. See Nygren, Anders, Commentary on Romans, (c. 1949 Fortress Press). The joy of partaking even now in the new age dwarfs the suffering to be endured at the hands of the vanishing old order. The people of God who have been set free from sin and death to live “in the spirit” are the first fruits of what is in store for all creation. The whole creation, says Paul, “will be set free from its bondage to decay” and will “obtain the glorious liberty” now enjoyed by the children of God. Vs. 21.
Paul sums up the posture of the church in one word: “hope.” This hope is not to be construed as some groundless desire for favorable conditions in the future, i.e., “I hope the weather will be dry and sunny for the picnic next month.” The hope of which Paul speaks is grounded in the resurrection of Christ-an event that has already occurred and in which believers participate. Consequently, even our suffering is a reminder of the work of resurrection being completed in us. What the rest of the world fears as death throes believers welcome as birth pangs. Needless to say, this hope shines an entirely new light on aging bodies, dying churches, fading empires and diminishing expectations for wealth and prosperity. Things are not what they seem. If the sky is falling, it is to make way for a new heaven and a new earth.
The parable of the wheat and the weeds is coupled with its explanation quite sensibly omitting (for purposes of the lectionary) the intervening parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven. Taken by itself, the parable of vss. 24-30 might appear to refer to the problem of false disciples within the church. The prior parable of the sower and the different types of soil in last week’s lesson ended with the “good soil” producing a fruitful yield. Sunday’s lesson, which immediately follows, therefore appears to focus on what is planted in that good soil. Jesus’ explanation of that parable in vss. 36-43, however, suggests a much broader application. The field is not the church, but the world; the good seed is the “sons of the kingdom; and the weeds are “sons of the evil one.” Vs. 38. Historical critical analysis suggests that the explanation of the parable is a later interpretation of the early church imposed over the parable giving it a cosmic flavor it lacked on the lips of Jesus or an earlier disciple. As you know by now, I have no interest in the so called “historical Jesus” or in anybody’s fanciful reconstruction of the “Matthean community.” The only context we have for the parable is the gospel of Matthew in which we find it. That is the context upon which I rely for interpretation.
That said, it seems to me that whether we are speaking of persons within the church whose hearts are not fixed upon Jesus or persons in the world openly hostile to the kingdom of heaven, the principle is the same. It is not for disciples of Jesus to purify either the church or the world. Judgment, sanctification and the punishment of evil must be left in the hands of God who alone sees all ends and knows what is just. Disciples of Jesus must exercise mercy, compassion, patience and forgiveness against wrongdoing, whether it arises from within the church or from the world. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “The parable of the wheat and the tares, like all the parables, is an apocalyptic parable, but apocalyptic names the necessity of the church to be patient even with the devil. Just as Jesus was patient with Judas, so we must be patient with those who we think we must force the realization of the kingdom. Jesus’ parables tell us what the kingdom is like, which means that the kingdom has come. It is not, therefore, necessary for disciples of Jesus to use violence to rid the church or the world of enemies of the gospel. Rather, the church can wait, patiently confident that, as Augustine says, the church exists among the nations.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 133.
The church of the New Testament was understood to be a communion that transcended racial, national, social and cultural barriers. In Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28. That the church often fell short of this vision is evident from the pages of the New Testament itself. Nonetheless, for all of their quarrelsomeness and instability, Paul’s congregations appear to have reflected the diversity found within the Mediterranean population of the 1st Century. The same can hardly be said of American Protestantism in which the red state/blue state divide breaks down neatly along denominational lines. Too often our legislative gatherings turn out to be microcosms of the increasingly tiresome “culture wars” being fought in the larger society. Sadly, religion of the protestant sort has more frequently inflamed, polarized and oversimplified discussion of contentious issues than modeled a community of thoughtful reflection, truthful speech and patient listening. All of this tends to reflect impatience: impatience with a world that won’t conform to our chosen ideologies; impatience with a church that fails to live up to our romantic notions of what it should be; impatience with a God who works too damn slowly in rooting out evil. Jesus would have us meet evil with truthful speech, compassion, empathy and forgiveness. Retribution, assuming there is a need for it, can be left in God’s hands and to God’s good timing.
SIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, through suffering and rejection you bring forth our salvation, and by the glory of the cross you transform our lives. Grant that for the sake of the gospel we may turn from the lure of evil, take up our cross, and follow your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“…at a more subtle yet also more deadly level, the association of the Christian religion with white Western/Northern economic, military, and cultural imperialism constitutes the single most insidious cause of global peril. It can in fact be argued (and is) that the current bellicosity of the militant forms of Islam represents a reaction of the Muslim world to its humiliation by the powerful technocratic West, especially as the latter is embodied in the one remaining planetary superpower-which just happens to be the most avowedly Christian of all the nations of the world.”
Douglas John Hall, The Cross in our Context, (c. 2003 by Augsburg Fortress), p. 4.
Since the publication of Hall’s book we have witnessed the U.S. invasion of two middle eastern countries with the avowed intent of bringing western style democracy to the region and a virulent backlash against the waves of refugees fleeing into Europe in order to escape the unlivable environment of violence, poverty and economic chaos resulting from that failed crusade. Rising hostility against non-white immigrants in our own land has reached a fever pitch, with the rhetoric becoming particularly ugly in this primary season as politicians vie for the angry white vote. The relationship between these developments and the Christian faith is not incidental or tangential. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were overwhelmingly supported by white evangelical protestants. Anders Behring Breivik, the terrorist who systematically gunned down more than 70 children at a sleep away camp in Norway in July of 2011, acted in accord with an ideology of hatred against non-white European immigrants he felt were threatening Europe’s Christian identity. Christian identity was again invoked by the Hungarian government last week in denying passage through the country to thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, many of them children, fleeing from war, genocide and starvation. Not surprisingly, then, we find that 63% of white evangelical protestants see non-white immigrants as a threat to traditional American customs and values. White mainline protestants are not far behind at 51%. Attitudes Toward Immigration: in the Pulpit and the Pew. It appears that, at the very least, we must acknowledge a strand within Christianity that provides ideological support for white privilege as well as the economic, cultural and military machinery maintaining it. Moreover, this strand is not a mere fringe phenomenon.
Given the scriptural narratives and the high importance we Christians attribute to the Bible, it is hard to imagine how we got to this point. Our spiritual parents, Abraham and Sarah, were immigrants who had no legal status in the land of their sojourning. Like so many immigrants today, they were forced to flee their homeland to escape starvation and went as far as to trade sexual favors to get across the border. The children of Israel were descendants of Jacob whose family fled starvation in Canaan only to end up as a hated minority within the borders of a superpower that enslaved and oppressed them. When finally Israel did take possession of the promised land, she was told in no uncertain terms that she was not to replicate the ways of the empire from which she had been liberated: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:34. We worship as Lord a child whose family was forced to flee their homeland in order to escape the genocidal madness of Herod the Great. We are disciples of the one who “had nowhere to lay his head.” Matthew 8:20. Our spiritual ancestors understood their status as resident aliens and remind us that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” Hebrews 13:14. So how did we get to the point where our hearts bleed for hypothetical bakers that might hypothetically be asked to bake a cake that might hypothetically be used in the wedding reception for a same sex couple, while turning a deaf ear and a cold heart to children fleeing across our borders from war, starvation and abuse?
Yes, that question is rhetorical. I understand the historical currents that created Christendom and shaped the church’s roll as ideological defender of western civilization and culture. I understand, too, the role of racism and how we have come to internalize and institutionalize it, even and perhaps especially in the church. The real question is, how do we get back to our biblical roots? I am wondering whether that can even happen with a church so thoroughly integrated into the Americana landscape. Perhaps we need to deconstruct the American church as we know it. Maybe that job is being done for us. It may be that mainline decline about which we do so much fretting and fussing is the wrecking ball of God.
To be honest, I don’t relish the idea that God is bringing us to the end of an era. There is much about the church in this country that I love: the majestic sanctuaries at the heart of our cities, the schools, colleges and seminaries preserving the richness of our theological, historical and liturgical traditions, the social ministries providing, food, housing, comfort and advocacy for the most vulnerable among us. My gut tells me we need to do everything possible to preserve as much as we can. Like Saint Peter, I would rather talk Jesus out of the cross. Surely there is a better way. If we just tweak the old ecclesiastical machinery a bit, pump a little more money into it and get the right consultants on board, we can turn this decline around. But that might not be the most faithful course to follow. If I am hearing Jesus correctly, you sometimes need to die before you can even think properly about living.
The way of the cross in our culture, as Douglas John Hall sees it, is to embrace our demise instead of trying to run away from it. Hall would have us accept the end of church as we know it as God’s judgment on what we have been. But it is not only that. To accept our end is also to make room for a new beginning. Without death, there can be no resurrection.
So what if our worst fears materialize? It may well be that the trends toward mainline protestant decline are not reversible, that they will continue for the foreseeable future no matter what we do. We might well find that, in a few decades, we will be but a shadow of our former self-at least institutionally. But perhaps a smaller, poorer, humbler church living and speaking from the margins of society is precisely the sort of church Jesus needs. It may just be that in losing our institutional lives, we will rediscover our true ecclesiastical self. We might find ourselves once again among the refugees on the outside looking in. But it is precisely there that we will most certainly find Jesus and the life he freely offers us.
As was the case last week, our lesson comes to us from the Book of Isaiah. Scholars attribute this text to “Second Isaiah” (Isaiah 40-55), a collection of oracles authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6th Century B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6.
This particular reading is taken from the third of Isaiah’s four “servant songs.” The other three are found at Isaiah 42:1–9, Isaiah 49:1-6 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. According to biblical commentator Claus Westermann, these songs represent a special strand within section two of Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. SCM Press, Ltd. 1969) p. 92. Scholars hold differing views on the identity of the “servant” in these songs. Some view the servant as an individual, perhaps the prophet himself/herself. Others maintain that the servant is the people of Israel whose covenant life in the restored Jerusalem will enlighten the nations. Christians from very early on have seen reflected in these verses the ministry of Jesus. It seems to me that all of these interpretations are valid in some measure. Clearly, the prophet himself/herself understood that s/he was announcing an act of God that would be revelatory for all peoples. So too Israel always had an awareness that her existence was in part a demonstration of God’s glory to the world though, like the church, she tended to forget that aspect of her calling at times. The church likewise confessed from the outset that Jesus’ lordship was defined in terms of the hopes and expectations set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as the faithful service of the prophet was a model for Israel’s servant role among the nations, so the church is a continuation of Jesus’ faithful ministry. In sum, these differing interpretations enrich rather than contradict one another.
Though tidings of a new beginning might at first blush sound like good news, it is likely that many of the exiles did not hear it that way. Life in cosmopolitan Babylon may not have seemed much like captivity to the second generation of Jews who had purchased land, begun businesses or secured important posts in the Babylonian government. Giving up the security of a settled existence for a dangerous trip back to a ruined land must have seemed like madness to them. No doubt they resented and perhaps feared this prophet and his/her preaching that enticed members of the community away from their homes and families to embark on such a misguided adventure. Not surprisingly, the prophet met with resistance that included violence (smiting, spitting and pulling out the beard). Vs. 6. The prophet is undismayed by this abuse, confident that his commission is from the God of Israel. Vss. 7-9.
Westermann notes that “[t]he special characteristic of the prophetic office is the very fact that the prophet wakens his ear ‘morning by morning,’ and must continually allow it to be opened by God, in order to have ‘an answer to give to the weary.’” Ibid. p. 229. Perhaps this is what John the evangelist had in mind when he quotes Jesus as saying: “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” John 7:16. The incarnation, then, fuses the prophet and the Word as one. Not surprisingly, then, the rejection of that Word by a sinful world, as occurred most definitively in the passion narrative, takes the form of lethal violence.
Westermann believes these passages from Isaiah to be “truly revolutionary in their importance” because they express the servant’s acceptance of his/her persecution as an affliction intended by God as the fulfillment of his/her prophetic mission. Ibid. p. 231. Though the psalmists and the prophets, most notably Jeremiah, struggle with seemingly unmerited persecution which they hope to see redressed through retribution of some kind, the servant seeks not retribution but vindication. Israel’s final salvation, not her just punishment, will demonstrate that the servant’s suffering is not evidence of God’s rejection, but of the prophet’s faithfulness.
I agree with Westermann’s reading of this text, though I am not convinced that it is quite as revolutionary as he supposes. While the early prophets could be caustic in their prayers for retribution against their enemies and unsparing in their proclamations of judgment, they never lost sight of their solidarity with Israel. Even the socially ostracized Jeremiah could weep bitterly over the fate of his people-however justly deserved it might be. Jeremiah 9:1. Isaiah recognizes that he is “a man of unclean lips, and dwells in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah 6:5. As withering as Amos’ judgments against Israel were, he prayed fervently that the people might be spared the worst of God’s wrath. Amos 7:1-6. In sum, the prophets always understood God’s judgment as an instrument of healing and salvation. Similarly, they must have understood at some level that their persecutions were part and parcel of their callings.
These observations tie naturally into the passion narrative foreshadowed in the gospel. The persecuted and rejected prophetic word, now become flesh, is vindicated and triumphs not through an act of counter-violence, but through God’s patient determination to keep on speaking the gracious invitation to forgiveness, reconciliation and peace in the face of hostile opposition. God’s power is God’s patience.
This is a prayer of thanksgiving offered along with a cultic sacrifice as evidenced by verses 17-19 (not in the reading) by a person who has just come through a very difficult time in his or her life and has reached a level of recovery. We might call this new disposition a “new orientation.” Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann divides the psalms into three categories: Psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation and psalms of new orientation. Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 by Augsburg Publishing House) pp. 18-23. I believe this to be a helpful distinction because at any given time in our lives we find ourselves orientated, disorientated or re-orientated. There are in most human lives “seasons of well-being that evoke gratitude for the consistency of blessing.” Ibid. at 19. All seems well with the world. The job is exciting and filled with opportunities for advancement. Marriage is blessed with intimacy, spontaneity and delight. The kids are getting good grades and behaving themselves. There is not a cloud in the sky. A psalm of orientation, a song of sheer praise and thanksgiving for God’s faithfulness and goodness, a prayer that asks for nothing is appropriate. There are many such in the Psalter, e.g., Psalm 111; Psalm 113; Psalm 134; Psalm 150.
Then there are psalms of disorientation arising from “seasons of hurt, alienation, suffering and death.” Ibid. They reflect “rage, resentment, self-pity, and hatred.” Ibid. Unlike much of our protestant piety that holds such emotions at arms-length, these prayers are brutally honest about the psalmists’ hatred of his/her persecutors, anger at God and despair over life in general. I must confess that I share the discomfort experienced by many with the raw negative emotion expressed in many of these psalms. It seems rather “primitive” to be cursing enemies and praying for vengeance. But perhaps that reflects more on my sheltered and privileged existence than upon any more evolved and progressive stage of my religion. Survivors of sexual abuse, refugees forced to flee their homeland to avoid genocide and victims of racial discrimination know levels of disorientation that many of us find difficult to comprehend. These psalms testify to the readiness of God to hear their tortured cries without judgment.
Psalms of new orientation, such as our Psalm for this Sunday, are songs of those who have fallen from a secure and well oriented life into disorientation, but have experienced the salvation of a God who has led them out of the darkness and re-orientated their lives. “Human life consists in turns of surprise when we are overwhelmed with the new gifts of God, when joy breaks through the despair.” Ibid. Such was the case for the psalmist. His/her journey has not been easy, nor does it bring the psalmist back to where s/he was before. Re-orientated people have been changed forever by their trek through the darkness. They now know just how dark and terrifying life can be. But they also know just how faithful and steadfast is the God who continues to lead them even as they pass through the valley of the shadow.
This psalm does not tell us precisely what troubles the psalmist has experienced. Neither does it explain what caused the psalmist’s suffering. That is precisely what makes it so wonderfully applicable to nearly all situations of deliverance. It might well be sung by someone who has endured a long and difficult course of cancer therapy and has received news that he or she is finally “cancer free.” Or it might be heard on the lips of someone who has gone through a difficult divorce ending a relationship that was supposed to last until death-and found the way back from heartbreak and despair to a healed life of love and trust. This psalm could be the song of a recovered alcoholic or the survivor of an abusive relationship. It is important to understand that this journey did not take the psalmist back to “the way things were.” Often, there is no going back. The scars of surgery remain even after a full recovery. Life after divorce can be filled with love, life and hope-but it does not restore the relationship that was lost. There is no way back to the way things were. There is only the way forward into a new future that God promises.
As with all psalms, this one has a testimonial aspect. What God has done for the psalmist is an attribute of God’s character: readiness to help the weak and defenseless. This is part of what is implied by verse 5 in the preservation of the “simple.” Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 81. The psalmist would have the rest of the worshipping community know that their liturgically expressed beliefs about God are indeed true and have found expression in his/her own experience.
Early one Sunday morning a few years ago I stopped at a little convenience store near the church to pick up some milk and cream cheese for the family education hour that would follow our Eucharist. I met a very young woman with a little girl that could not have been more than four years old. The woman greeted me with the words, “Good morning, Father.” Then she said to her little girl, “You see that man? He is a priest. Do you know who a priest is?” The little girl said nothing. “A priest is someone who works for God,” the woman continued. The little girl looked up at me, wide eyed. I have no idea how much or little she understood about God or whether the word “God” had any meaning for her at all. But if she remembers anything from this interchange, it will be that people who wear black shirts and collars like mine represent God.
That is a scary notion! Now I think I understand why James tells us that “not many of you should become teachers.” Like it or not, “We who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.” Vs. 1. That might not seem fair, but it’s true. It does not matter that the instances of pedophilia are actually much lower among priests than in the male population generally. When a clergy person molests a child it is always more devastating. In addition to the permanent emotional scars always left by such abuse, the abused child’s perception of God is horribly corrupted. The public’s perception of the church-which is called to be Christ’s resurrected presence in the world-is irreparably damaged. It does not matter either that clergy are statistically among the least susceptible to crimes of embezzlement and fraud. When a pastor abuses the trust of his or her church in matters of money, the damage to the congregation far exceeds whatever the financial loss may be. Again, the church’s credibility with the public is undermined and so is its witness to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims. So I read James’ warning with a degree of fear and trembling.
Of course, we are all teachers in some measure. Our children learn from us more than they will ever learn in Sunday School about faith, worship and discipleship. We parents are teaching our children by example every waking moment about love, forgiveness, faithfulness and the importance of worship-or not. They learn from us how to treat people with compassion and respect-or not. They learn from us the habits of prayer, promise keeping and honesty-or not. They see Jesus formed in the families we raise-or not. We cannot avoid being teachers. The question is, how well and faithfully are we teaching? What lessons do our children come away with? What are they learning from our examples about what really matters?
James draws our attention to our use of speech as the chief source of potential destructiveness. It takes only one disparaging word to undo the sense of confidence, self-worth and courage that parents, teachers and mentors work so hard to instill in a child. Once a false rumor gets started, it continues to live on, projecting itself over the internet, through mouths of talk show hosts and in idle conversation-even after it has conclusively been refuted. But the most insidious abuse of speech, as far as disciples of Jesus are concerned, is its effect on our witness. Like every other gift, speech is intended to give glory to God and to serve our neighbor. Yet when speech is used to injure, insult and destroy, it becomes “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Vs. 9
The Eighth Commandment is clearly implicated here: “You shall not bear false witness.” In his Small Catechism, Luther writes concerning this commandment that “We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.” It is the second part of Luther’s admonition that needs our attention. It is easy enough for me to stand by and remain silent when I am part of a conversation in which someone is being attacked. Much harder it is to come to their defense, to speak well of them and try to convince everyone else to give them the benefit of the doubt. This is particularly so in cases where I tend to think that the victim might deserve some criticism or when I have my own reasons for feeling angry at him or her. But whether the absent person is guilty or not, the point is that he or she is absent. That person is the one who needs to hear whatever just criticism any individual may have. Speaking it in his or her absence only conveys a one sided account to other people who may not even have any part in the dispute. Such speech, rather than bringing about healing, reconciliation and understanding, instead broadens the conflict and contributes to distortion and misunderstanding.
This episode is a watershed event for the Gospel of Mark. Throughout the gospel the disciples have been struggling with the identity of Jesus. Of course, we as readers know that Jesus is God’s Son and Israel’s Messiah because we were told that in Mark 1:1. Jesus knows who he is because the Spirit descended upon him at his baptism by John in the Jordan, telling him that he is God’s Son, the beloved. Mark 1:9-11. The demons know who Jesus is and are ready to proclaim it-except that Jesus will not let them. Mark 1:21-27. Jesus’ disciples, however, remain in the dark about who he is. After Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples ask in wonder, “Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?” Mark 4:35-41.
Jesus first asks the disciples who members of the public believe him to be. Vs. 27. They give him various responses: John the Baptist raised from death; Elijah returning from heaven as long foretold by the prophet Malachi (Malachi 4:5-6); one of the great prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. Vs. 28. It is, of course, conceivable that First Century Jews among the Galilean commoners might have formed any one of these opinions about Jesus. Yet it is curious that there is no mention by the disciples of anyone among the people entertaining the possibility that Jesus might be the messiah. Indeed, I would expect that to be the first guess of the anxious populace! Be that as it may, from a literary standpoint it is perfectly understandable that Mark reserves for the disciples the discovery and confession of his identity. For Mark’s gospel has been striving to make clear to us that Jesus can never be rightly understood apart from discipleship. Only as one follows Jesus in “the way” does one begin to know him.
Now Jesus pops the question directly, “So, who do you say that I am.” Vs. 29. The emphatic use of the Greek pronoun, “You” or “Umeis,” serves to reinforce the point that, as noted previously, what is said about Jesus by his disciples is critical because only followers of Jesus can confess Jesus. See Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers) p. 202. Peter, ever the impetuous spokesperson for the disciples, blurts out his answer. “You are the Messiah.” Vs. 29. That is half the answer. Jesus is indeed the Messiah promised to Israel. But he is more than that. Peter’s answer is therefore incomplete. Just how far Peter is from understanding Jesus becomes clear in the next scene.
This is the first place in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus speaks specifically about his coming suffering, death and resurrection. Vss. 31-33. He will do so two more times. Mark 9:30-32; Mark 10:33-34. Once again, Peter is the disciple who responds to Jesus’ words-and with a rebuke. Vs. 32. Mark does not tell us exactly what Peter said, but Peter seems to have taken Jesus aside to have his conversation in private. On the face of it, it sounds reasonable. It is what good friends do when they hear a friend talking about his imminent death. “Oh, don’t talk rubbish! Things will get better. You’ll see. Nothing of the kind will happen to you. I’ll see to that!” Jesus, however, turns and sees his disciples. Vs. 33. Why does Mark add this little observation? What does the sight of Jesus’ disciples do to evoke Jesus’ harsh response to Peter? I suspect that the sight of his disciples reminds Jesus why his suffering, death and resurrection are so important for this little community of followers, the embryonic church. Yes, the cross might be avoided. Jesus could remain in Galilee with his disciples, teaching in the wilderness, on the lake shore and outside of the towns and villages. That way, he might evade capture indefinitely. Indeed, if Jesus had been content to remain on the outskirts, it is possible that neither Rome nor the Jerusalem religious establishment would have considered him a threat worth pursuing. But Jesus came not merely to level criticism against the powers that be from a safe distance. He came to challenge the right of those powers to rule God’s creation. He came to establish the reign of God. The world needs to be told that Caesar is not Lord. The world needs to hear that God is not the property of any religious elite. There must be a confrontation between the power of empire that claims to rule God’s world and the Son of Man who actually does. Only so will the world know how different the gentle reign of God over creation is and that this reign of God finally will displace the imperial rulers who seek in every age to grasp the reins of power.
Of course, the reign of God will not be born without the pain, rending and blood that accompanies every birth. Just as Jesus will confront the violent reign of the powers that be with the gentleness of God’s reign on the cross, so the disciples will be called upon to live under God’s kingdom in a world that is hostile to it. The cross of Jesus will become their own. As Clarence Jordan would say, the church must become a demonstration plot for the reign of God, a reign that must finally extend to all creation. But the shape of life under God’s reign in a sinful world is the cross. Again, this is not to glorify suffering in and of itself. Suffering is unequivocally bad. Nevertheless, suffering that is incurred as a result of faithful discipleship can be redeemed. Just as God raised Jesus, the one who was faithful to God unto death, so God raises up his disciples whose witness to God’s peaceful kingdom in a violent world leads them into the heart of conflict, persecution and suffering.
Staying alive is not everything. “Survivalists” fail to understand that in making survival the number one priority, they are surrendering what is most precious. The kingdom Jesus proclaims is worth living for. And if living for the kingdom results in our dying, then the kingdom is also worth dying for. As the late Dr. Martin Luther King put it, “If there is nothing you are willing to die for, you have nothing to live for.” Or in the words of Jesus, “What does it profit one to gain the whole world, but lose one’s self?” Vss. 36-37.