Posts Tagged Religion

Ashes and regrets; a poem by Louis Untermeyer; and the lessons for Sunday, February 18, 2018

See the source imageFIRST SUNDAY IN LENT

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, heavenly Father, in the waters of the flood you saved the chosen, and in the wilderness of temptation you protected your Son from sin. Renew us in the gift of baptism. May your holy angels be with us, that the wicked foe may have no power over us, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” Psalm 25:7.

Perhaps it is a function of age that makes this particular line from the psalm strike me with such poignancy. The past is fixed and you can only look back on it with a sense of thankfulness, nostalgia or deep regret. You can’t alter it. It is what it is. Though I am hardly without sins of commission, the most painful sins of my youth are those of omission. These include the friendships I let die from neglect; the opportunities to offer help and comfort for which I was too busy; my shameful lack of generosity growing out of an unfounded fear that I did not have enough for myself and my loved ones; my failures to express thanks to the many people whose lives have enriched mine; the times I remained silent when I know in my heart I should have spoken up; my indifference to the suffering of the poor and oppressed around the world and around the corner. I have lived a privileged life with a great measure of wealth, opportunity and security. But having been given so much, it seems I have contributed so little.

Perhaps the biggest regret I have is that Sesle and I never took in any foster children. I always had in my mind the strong belief that being foster parents is something we ought to do. Every child deserves a stable and loving home. We had such a home and we could easily have opened it to children in need. Of course, there were many reasons we never got around to it. We had three children of our own, one with a chronic medical condition that required a substantial commitment. Sesle was very ill for over a decade in our younger years which would have made taking on additional responsibilities difficult. We were stretched financially at times-or thought we were. Nevertheless, despite all of these excuses, the fact remains that we could have opened our home to more children and I have no doubt we would have been blessed beyond whatever hardships came with them. If I had only looked to the enormity of God’s generosity and the wealth of God’s promises rather than to my own perceived lack of time, money and stamina, I would have ordered my life differently-or so I tell myself.

This coming Wednesday I will receive on my forehead, along with millions of other Christians, the sign of the cross in ashes. This is a graphic reminder that so much of what we plan, hope for, value and prize turns out to be only ashes and dust in the end. We are confronted with all that might have been if only our lives had been inspired by faith rather than driven by fear. For those of us whose lives are mostly behind us, this is a bitter pill to swallow. Nonetheless, it is the pill that frees us. It is the truth that makes us free and the truth, bitter though it sometimes is, can be borne because we worship a God who is “merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” This God does not judge us according to all that we have done and failed to do. This God judges us on the basis of God’s own steadfast love and faithfulness. However late the hour, it is not too late. “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Joel 2:1.

The past cannot be changed, but we can decide what it will mean for us going forward. The past can be the enslaving power that shapes our future into its own perverse image or it can be that from which we turn away for the sake of a new future. Yesterday can be the negative in the dark room that produces a bright and colorful new image. The ashes remind us that we are dust; but they also remind us of the God who at the dawn of time breathed life into lifeless dust to create a living being. The disciplines of Lent offer us a path toward healing the past precisely because God’s compassion is deeper than the sins of our past and is able still to make something beautiful with our remaining days-however few they may be.

Here is an interesting poem by Louis Untermeyer juxtaposing the solemnity of Ash Wednesday with something of the giddy joy of Easter Sunday.

Ash Wednesday

(Vienna)

I

Shut out the light or let it filter through
These frowning aisles as penitentially
As though it walked in sackcloth. Let it be
Laid at the feet of all that ever grew
Twisted and false, like this rococo shrine
Where cupids smirk from candy clouds and where
The Lord, with polished nails and perfumed hair,
Performs a parody of the divine.

The candles hiss; the organ-pedals storm;
Writhing and dark, the columns leave the earth
To find a lonelier and darker height.
The church grows dingy while the human swarm
Struggles against the impenitent body’s mirth.
Ashes to ashes. . . . Go. . . . Shut out the light.

(Hinterbrühl)

II

And so the light runs laughing from the town,
Pulling the sun with him along the roads
That shed their muddy rivers as he goads
Each blade of grass the ice had flattened down.
At every empty bush he stops to fling
Handfuls of birds with green and yellow throats;
While even the hens, uncertain of their notes,
Stir rusty vowels in attempts to sing.

He daubs the chestnut-tips with sudden reds
And throws an olive blush on naked hills
That hoped, somehow, to keep themselves in white.
Who calls for sackcloth now? He leaps and spreads
A carnival of color, gladly spills
His blood: the resurrection—and the light.

Source: Untermeyer, Louis, Burning Bush (New York: Harcourt, 1928). Louis Untermeyer (1885-1977) was the son of a New York jeweler. His  interest in poetry led to friendships with poets from three generations, including many of the century’s major writers such as Robert Frost and Ezra Pound. In addition to children’s books and anthologies, Untermeyer published collections of his own poetry. You can find out more about Louis Untermeyer and sample more of his poetry on the Poetry Foundation website.

Genesis 9:8-17

The first eleven chapters of Genesis are best understood as an “overture” to the biblical story of Israel, beginning with the call of Abram and Sarah in Genesis 12:1-3. There God calls Abram to leave everything behind and follow God’s leading into a land that will one day belong to his descendants. More importantly, Abram’s descendants are to become a nation by which all nations will find blessing. As Professor Terence Fretheim points out, “[t]he first eleven chapters of Genesis explain in advance why all the families of the earth need the blessing of God. [They] define the universal condition of sin that explains Israel’s particular history. Why God chose Israel, the election of the people of Israel, has meaning only against this universal background. Israel can make sense of her own history only in relation to God’s creation, judgment, and preservation of all mankind.” Fretheim, Terence, Creation, Fall, and Flood, Tower Books, (c. 1969 by Augsburg Publishing House) pp. 17-18. These themes of creation, judgment and preservation are introduced and interwoven into the opening chapters of Genesis. It is important to understand from the start that judgment always serves God’s larger aims of creation and preservation. Even that most terrible of all judgments, the Great Food, serves in the end to preserve the earth through the establishment of a new covenant between God and God’s creation.

The Flood story found in Genesis 6-9:19 is a complex and layered narrative put together from two different and sometimes conflicting versions of the event. For some background on the composition of the first five books of the Bible generally, see the online article on the Documentary Hypothesis I have cited previously. Here it is enough to note that the full text is far too long for reading in a typical protestant worship service. That is unfortunate, because our lesson cannot be appreciated fully apart from an understanding of the larger narrative. The story begins with God’s observation that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Genesis 6:5. God was “sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’” Genesis 6:6-7. There are a couple of things worth noting here. First, though God’s grief is induced by human evil, God resolves to blot out not only human beings, but all other creatures as well. The animals appear to be “collateral damage.” Like non-combatants who, through no fault of their own, happen to be standing in front of a military target, the animals will be caught in the crossfire of God’s war on humanity. Tragic and unfair as it may be, this is war after all. Any good Niebuhrian realist would understand.

Second, there is one slight wrinkle. “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” Genesis 6:8. Surely Noah at least must be saved. Of course, because “it is not good for the human being to be alone” (Genesis 2:18), it will not do to let Noah’s wife and children perish in the coming judgment. Furthermore, the animals are both partners and sustainers of Noah’s existence. So God commands Noah to build an “ark” to shelter himself, his family and two pairs of each animal (or seven, depending on the source) throughout the coming flood. If you read with care Genesis 6:14-22, you will discover that the “ark” Noah was commanded to build is definitely not a large ship. It was, as the term implies, a great enclosed box. That is precisely what was required under the circumstances.

According to the first creation account in Genesis 1:1-2:4, God placed the earth between two huge vaults of water, one “above the heavens” and the other “under the earth.” Genesis 1:7-9. So when we read in Genesis 7:11-12 about how the “fountains of the great deep burst forth and the windows of heaven were opened,” it becomes clear that the flood was not simply an abnormally heavy rainfall that covered the earth with water. God was dismantling the infrastructure of creation, allowing the waters to prevail over the earth and so returning everything to a “formless void.” Genesis 2:2. Obviously, a boat would have been useless in such a catastrophe!

But in the middle of God’s demolition project, something remarkable happens. “God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark.” Genesis 8:1. Where will Noah, his family and the animals be when there is no more being? How can they live without the creation which once sustained them? It seems God must choose between saving the last of his creatures and carrying out his design to blot out all that he has made. It is at this point that God drives the waters from the face of the earth with a wind, shuts up the fountains of the deep and closes the windows of heaven. Genesis 8:1-3. God turns away from God’s destructive intent. God reverses course and heals the creation. That is the context for Sunday’s lesson. God makes a covenant with the whole creation, promising “never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” Genesis 9:11. Again, this is more than just a promise to limit the destructiveness of ordinary weather phenomenon. God is promising never to exercise the “nuclear option” against creation. That is why all of the Bible banging nincompoops threatening us with “Left Behind” type scenarios are chuck full of buffalo chips. At the dawn of history God lay down God’s bow and determined once and for all not to be the sort of angry, vengeful, mean spirited deity that most of humanity makes him out to be.

I have said many times that pacifism is not a tangential subtheme in the scriptures, inspirational for monks, nuns and starry eyed idealists but of no use to practical “worldly” Christians. To the contrary, God’s unequivocal rejection of violence is at the heart of the Hebrew Scriptural witness. It is founded in God’s refusal to be a God who reigns through the exercise or threat of violence. God will suffer violence rather than inflicting it upon his creation. You might say that here, in the very first covenant made with all creation, God first takes up the way of the cross. That way will be embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Psalm 25:1-10

This is another of the “acrostic” psalms. The others are Psalm 119Psalm 9Psalm 10Psalm 34Psalm 37Psalm 111Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. The first word of the first verse begins with the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The first word of the second verse begins with the second letter and so on through the alphabet. In addition to assisting a new reader in learning her ABCs, this style of composition assists in memorization of the psalm. Memorization is critical in a culture where the vast majority lack reading skills and books are readily available only to priests. Stylistic similarities between this psalm and Psalm 34 suggest that they might have been composed by the same author, though I would exercise caution in making such a judgment. The stylistic conventions used by the psalmists were very likely shared widely so that their appearance in multiple psalms by different authors would not be unexpected.

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

Particularly striking to me is the plea, “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” vs. 7. This is a prayer that God’s remembrance of the psalmist will be shaped not by recollection of his or her sins, but by God’s loving kindness. The psalmist’s sins cannot be erased. They have left scars on the psalmist’s life and still threaten to compromise his or her relationship with God. But memory is more than just a filing drawer full of all things past. Healthy memory is shaped as much by the present and future as by the past. A heartfelt apology opens the way to forgiveness and reconciliation. Where there is reconciliation, memories of hurt, betrayal and insult lose their sting. If they are remembered at all, they will be recalled as the prelude to a renewed and strengthened relationship. They will be understood as something that has not been allowed to define the relationship going forward. Just as in our lesson from Genesis God would not allow human sin to define God’s relationship to his creation, so by virtue of our baptism, we are not remembered merely as sinners, but as sinners redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

1 Peter 3:18-22

For my more extensive comments on this section generally, see my post of Sunday, May 25, 2014. Sunday’s reading is one of the more obscure snippets of scripture. It is perhaps the only New Testament reference to Jesus’ descent into hell (or to the dead, if you prefer) referenced in the Apostle’s Creed. To begin with, I believe it is important to point out that “1 Peter 3:18 is not saying that Christ’s body died but his soul was resurrected; it is saying that although from a human point of view he was put to death, he was given life in and by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, in the realm where death has no dominion. Though it may appear that the religious and civil authorities won, the real victory belongs to God.” Judith Jones, Professor of Religion, Wartburg College and St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Waverly, Iowa on workingpreacher.org. The “angels, authorities and powers” made subject to Jesus are not mere abstractions. As pointed out by Walter Wink, the “powers and authorities” are embodiments of the “domination system” of oppression upheld by the myth of “redemptive violence.” Wink, Walter, The Powers that Be, (c. 1998 by Augsburg Fortress) pp. 57-62. In Jesus’ day and in that of the New Testament church, these powers consisted mainly of the Roman Empire and its bureaucratic/militaristic machinery. Today these authorities and powers are frequently embodied in the governments of nation states, in the corporate powers controlling health care, access to capital and exploitation of the earth’s resources and in a consumer culture dictating our values and priorities.

Our understanding of Jesus’ descent into hell therefore requires us to refrain from over spiritualizing. “Hell” is less a place of eternal punishment for disembodied souls as it is the position of all who find themselves victims of the domination system. It is the place of those branded “sinners” by the religious establishment; “unclean” by reason of sickness; “godless and ignorant” by virtue of their lack of access to education; “idle” because they are unable to find employment; abandoned by God as evidenced by their shameful and public execution under the laws of the state. These are the imprisoned ones for whom Jesus descended into hell in order to proclaim the good news of God’s triumph over the powers that enslave them.

I firmly believe that Jesus’ descent into hell belongs in the Creed. Moreover, I favor retaining the word “hell” rather than “descent to the dead,” notwithstanding the fact that a more literal translation of the Greek text favors the latter. “Hell” aptly describes what a high school boy often experiences when he discovers that he is gay and has no safe place even to talk about his feelings, fears and hopes. It describes the gut wrenching terror felt by the parent of a child with cancer whose insurance company denies coverage for life saving treatment. Hell is what returning soldiers experience when they discover that they cannot leave the horrors of war buried in the sands of Iraq or the caves of Afghanistan as they try to resume civilian life as usual. People who say there is no hell have never seen what a teenage girl can do to her body after being convinced by pop culture’s false notions of beauty that she is ugly. The bad news is that hell is real. The good news is that Jesus has descended into that godforsaken place to break its hold over the spirits imprisoned there.

Mark 1:9-15

Matthew and Luke both tell us in detail about the temptations Jesus faced. Matthew 4:1-11Luke 4:1-12. Mark tells us nothing more than that Jesus was tempted by the devil for forty days. As we have already seen, Mark’s gospel has Jesus moving with urgency and breakneck speed. Jesus goes “immediately” from one place to the next, one confrontation to the next. Suddenly, in the midst of this maddening pace of his life and ministry, Jesus is driven out to live in the wilderness for forty days.

I don’t know, but I suspect that one temptation Jesus faced was to get himself out of the wilderness prematurely. Who can blame him? Forty days is a long time to be out in the wilds where there is no cell phone reception, no internet access and no hope of getting anything productive accomplished. I suspect that Jesus wanted some direction, some sense that he was getting somewhere, some idea of how far he had to go and how much longer it was going to take. But when you are in the wilderness, you can only take each day as it comes. You will get there when you get there-wherever “there” is. In the meantime, you have to adapt to whatever terrain you pass though, deal with whatever wild beasts come your way and be content with whatever you find along the way to satisfy your needs. That sounds like a heck of a way to live.

Yet it describes well the way many of us live for much of our lives. For many of us, grief is a kind of wilderness. If I have learned anything about grieving over the years it is this: grief takes a different shape for each loss and every individual’s journey through it is unique. I never say to a grieving person, “I know what you are going through” because, in fact, I do not. After more than six years, I still struggle with the loss of my parents. That grief was compounded by the death of my grandson three years ago. I am still not back to normal, whatever normal may be. I doubt that I ever will be normal again, if normal is the way I was before all of these losses occurred. There is a strong presumption out there in society that I ought to be “over” all this by now. If not, then I ought to seek counseling, therapy or something else to “fix” what is wrong with me and get me back up to speed. “It’s time to move on.” That is the common modern mantra. But people who live in the wilderness understand that life cannot be conformed to schedules, “to do” lists and strategic planning. They know that there are powers much greater than self in the universe and that they are as much driven as they are driving.

Mark does give us one small piece of information we don’t find in Matthew or Luke. We read that Jesus was “with the wild beasts.” Vs. 13. If you are going to spend any time in the wilderness, the true wilderness, you need to be comfortable with the idea of being always in the presence of wild, carnivorous beasts. That takes some getting used to, because our culture is geared toward fencing out wild beasts. We desperately want to live in a secure, gated neighborhood where tragedies don’t occur, where families never fracture, where people never die. That is why people on magazine covers, even the AARP bulletin, are young and vibrant rather than old and infirm. That is why sitcom families always manage to work out all their problems in sixty short minutes-less the commercials. That is why we treat sadness with a trip to Disney World, a shot of scotch or medication rather than embracing and trying to understand it. You have a right to be happy. It’s written into the Declaration of Independence. So if you are not happy, if you are not satisfied, if you are not content in your marriage, your job or your neighborhood, something must be wrong. Something needs to be fixed. You need to get yourself a life coach. You need to get out of the wilderness and back on track.

It is significant, I believe, that Jesus’ temptation comes hard on the heels of his baptism. To be told that you are God’s child is a mind blowing experience. It is not surprising that Jesus would need at least forty days to sort all of that out and decide what it means. Perhaps that is what baptism is like (or should be like) for all of us. We are ripped out of the fabric of our family, cultural and societal identities and reborn into this new regime in which God alone reigns. We spend the rest of our lives figuring out what that means. The Lenten journey affords us a good opportunity for reminding ourselves that we are in many respects still lost in the wilderness, still clueless about the kingdom and have much to learn from Jesus.

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Transfigured to purgatory; A poem about Transfiguration; and the lessons for Sunday, February 11, 2018

See the source imageTRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD

2 Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9

PRAYER OF THE DAY Almighty God, the resplendent light of your truth shines from the mountaintop into our hearts. Transfigure us by your beloved Son, and illumine the world with your image, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

As noted below in my remarks on the gospel for this Sunday, Rudolf Bultmann is convinced that the transfiguration story is an ancient resurrection account that Mark the Evangelist has worked into the center of his narrative. This placement was then followed by Matthew and Luke whose gospels rely upon Mark. So why would anyone other than Bible scholars care about any of this? What significance does this have for the faithful reader of the gospels? I believe that this is one of those rare instances where redaction analysis really matters. The Evangelist is not simply being sloppy here. S/he is deliberately introducing the only resurrection account we have in Mark’s gospel into the very midst of the story. In the Transfiguration, death is undone. The relentless march of time is ended. The line of demarcation between past and future evaporates into the midst and we stand in God’s eternal now. The figures of Moses and Elijah, separated by centuries, converse together with Jesus on the mountain top. Can you blame the three disciples for believing that the reign of God had arrived? That the resurrection had occurred? That nothing remained but to bask in the glory of God’s new creation?

But here’s the thing. The reign of God has not come in full. The will of God is not done on earth as in heaven. The resurrection of the dead has not occurred. That is why the disciples are told not to speak of what transpired until after Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection-a reality about which they remain in a state of willful denial. Therein lies the problem. Neither the world nor the disciples are ready for the resurrection. They are not yet the kind of persons capable of living joyfully, faithfully and obediently under God’s gentle reign of peace. Resurrection is not good news if it means only that our present existence with all of its conflicts, prejudices, blood feuds, animosities and unresolved conflicts is projected into eternity. That sounds much more like a definition of hell!  If we ourselves are not fundamentally transformed, we can hardly expect to live in a world transfigured by God’s glory.

Though not Biblical in the strict sense, there is a certain logic behind the medieval doctrine of purgatory. The term is derived from the Latin verb, purgo, meaning literally “to cleanse.” I doubt that few of us would deny that a single lifetime is far too short to become a creature capable of living under God’s reign. If you have any doubts about that, ask yourself whether there is anyone you would not want to meet in the hereafter. If you can answer that inquiry with a confident “no,” you are either a bonafide saint or seriously deluded. If it is God’s will that none perish and that all come to repentance, then the “all” includes those with whom we are at enmity. We might rather have God cleanse the universe of people we hate; but God would purge us of hatred so that we can live peaceably with those we now count as enemies-however long that might take. This “purging,” however, is not to be found in some intermediate state between heaven and hell. It takes place here and now through the daily practice of confession and forgiveness. We are purged in that fiery furnace known as the church, where we must live together with people we wouldn’t necessary choose as our friends, people who rub us the wrong way, people we might not want in our midst-but people whom Jesus has called, and that because they can help us purge ourselves in ways we could never manage to do on our own.

Significantly, the voice from heaven directs the disciples away from the vision of resurrection and back to Jesus. “This,” says the voice, “is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” There is no short cut to the resurrection and eternal life. There is no bypassing the fiery ordeal of repentance; no alternate route avoiding the valley of the shadow of death. There is no way around purgatory, only through it. That is where Jesus led his disciples in the gospel and that is where he leads his church during the season of Lent. We summoned on Ash Wednesday to acknowledge what our death denying culture so adamantly refuses to accept: that we are dust and to dust we return. We are invited to journey with Jesus into Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna” that soon will turn to cries of “Crucify him!” We are asked to dine with Jesus at his last meal with his disciples-which will continue in a way too marvelous for us to comprehend. On Easter Sunday we will be drawn to the tomb as were the women-only to discover that our Lord is not there! This is our purging. This is our preparation for the reign of God: Listening to him revealed to us as God’s beloved Son.

Here’s a poem about the Transfiguration.

Transfiguration

The sky was dark and overcast the day
we began our ascent to the top of that mountain.
Cold mist soaked our garments from without
as did the sweat of our weary bodies from within.
Up and up we followed in His footsteps,
each of us wondering how He knew the way
and how He could see the path through the
impenetrable fog all around us on every side.
Our hearts pumped frantically, our lungs gasped at the thinning air,
our aching limbs longed to fall motionless to the ground.
And so they did at long last when finally we reached the summit.
Broken with fatigue we lay down on the grass,
heedless of the cold and wet, leaving Him to His meditations.

Of what we saw-or thought we saw-when we awoke
I still cannot find words enough to tell the half of it.
His face shown like the sun as he conversed with the ancient ones.
The cloud enveloped us and brought us to our knees
with the power of a mighty ocean wave.
But most terrible of all was that voice driving
like a nail into our very souls these words:
“This is my Son, my Beloved. Listen to him.”
Small wonder we fell to the earth and hid our faces.
When at last we found enough courage to open our eyes
the cloud was once again cold drizzle and fog,
the voice silent, the ancients gone
and only He remained to lead us back to the plane.

Anonymous

2 Kings 2:1-12

The life and ministry of Elijah and his successor, Elisha, must be understood against the backdrop of the times. Elijah’s ministry began during the reign of Ahab, a king over the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Ahab inherited the kingdom from his father, Omri, who seized the throne following a bloody civil war. Omri led Israel to national greatness, strengthening the nation through military and commercial treaties with the surrounding Phoenician kingdoms. He is also credited with establishing as his capital the city of Samaria. Like his father, Ahab was an ambitious monarch eager to expand the military and commercial strength of his kingdom at all costs. To that end, he continued the policies of his father, renewing Israel’s Phoenician treaties and solidifying them through marriage to Jezebel, daughter of Tyre’s King Ethbaal. Ahab appears to have been personally loyal to the God of Israel. The names of his three children, Ahaziah, Jehoram and Athaliah all derive from the root of the divine name, YAHWEH. Nevertheless, Ahab did not interfere with his wife’s vigorous implementation of Baal worship throughout Israel. It seems that Baal worship was becoming so pervasive that it was threatening to displace the worship of Israel’s God.

The prophet Elijah appears as if out of nowhere to challenge Ahab’s unfaithfulness. At first a solitary figure, it becomes evident toward the end of the narratives about him in the Book of II Kings that Elijah is to some degree associated with a guild of prophets known as “the sons of the prophets.” Vss. 3, 5 and 7. Little is known about this group, but it appears that they shared some sort of common life apart from the rest of Israelite society. Though colorful and dramatic, Elijah’s life comes to an end with his mission largely unfulfilled. At the time of his departure, the house of Omri still reigns through Ahab’s son Jehoram, Jezebel still wields considerable influence and the worship of Baal is in full swing. To Elisha, Elijah’s successor, will fall the task of completing what Elijah could only begin.

Our lesson begins with Elijah and Elisha following a path taking them to points pregnant with meaning. Bethel is the site of Jacob’s dream about the heavenly ladder and God’s conferring upon him the covenant promises given to his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham. Genesis 28:10-22. Jericho was the first city conquered by Joshua in the land of Canaan. Joshua 6:1-21. The crossing of the Jordan River (vs. 8) echoes both Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea under the leadership of Moses and her own crossing of the Jordan into the promised land with Joshua centuries before. Exodus 14Joshua 3:14-17. After the crossing of the Jordan, Elisha asks that he inherit a “double share” of Elijah’s spirit. Elisha is not seeking more spiritual power than Elijah. Rather, he is seeking the double portion of inheritance due a first-born son under Mosaic Law. See Deuteronomy 21:15-17. Elisha thus stands in the position of a first-born son among “the sons of the prophets.” He will inherit the position of prominence belonging to Elijah.

It is unclear whether Elisha held a specific office or title among the sons of the prophets. Obviously, he held an important leadership role, caring for a prophet’s widow (II Kings 4:1-7 ), directing the building of a common dwelling (II Kings 6:1-7) and presiding at a common meal II Kings 4:38-44. It is conceivable that the sons of the prophets came into royal favor with the overthrow of Omri’s line by Jehu, the man anointed by command of Elisha. II Kings 9. With such royal favor frequently comes royal cooption and corruption. Under the new regime, it is quite possible that the prophetic guild of Elijah and Elisha became the religious mouthpiece of the state. That would make Amos’ declaration that he is neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet altogether intelligible. Amos 7:14. Amos, who was highly critical of the monarchy in Northern Israel, was making it clear that he was not in any way associated with the official state prophets. Though certainly plausible, this conclusion is thin on evidence from the biblical texts and altogether lacking from any other literary or archeological source.

Perhaps the most profound words spoken in this reading come from the lips of Elisha as his master is being taken away from him. “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” vs. 12. The true might of Israel is not on the throne in Samaria or in its military might. The voice of prophecy is Israel’s chariots and horsemen. The Word of the Lord is its power. Once again, militarism is soundly rejected by the Hebrew Scriptural witness.

Psalm 50:1-6

This psalm summons us to the divine court where God is bringing a legal proceeding against his covenant people. Our lesson consists of the opening scene in which God calls the whole world as his witness. Vss. 1-6. Walter Brueggemann describes this section as “a stylized description of a theophany, a majestic overpowering coming of Yahweh in his royal splendor.” Bruggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 89. In verses 5-6, we are alerted to the legal standards under which this trial is to be conducted and Israel judged. Terms such as “faithful ones,” “covenant” and “righteousness” make clear that the allegations to be asserted under the counts of God’s complaint are based on the Mosaic covenant. Ibid.

In the first count of God’s complaint (Vss. 7-15) God takes to task those who imagine that their covenant obligations are fulfilled merely by attending to the proper rituals. Sacrifices are not commanded because God needs them. It is absurd to imagine that God needs to be fed by human beings. “God is here disengaged from any necessity bound to Israel. Israel knows and relies on God’s abiding engagement with Israel. On Yahweh’s part, however, that engagement is one of free passion, not of necessity.” Ibid. 90. Sacrifices are commanded because human beings require intimacy with God and God’s people. They are to be offered with thanksgiving, not under the mistaken belief that they appease God’s anger or buy God’s favor.

In the second count (Vss. 16-21), God reproves all who learn by rote and recite God’s commandments but make not even the slightest pretext of obeying them. Such people divorce their worship from the rest of their lives. On Sunday they sing hymns to the Lord who preached the Sermon on the Mount. On Monday they report to work at a bank that practices predatory lending; bundles toxic loans into securities sold to retirement plans and practices illegal and oppressive foreclosure procedures. Such worshipers are Christian churches and organizations that publish preachy-screechy statements on social justice even as they argue in the Supreme Court that they ought to be free to discriminate against their employees by denying them health insurance. See Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 132 S. Ct. 694, 181 L. Ed. 2d 650 (2012). They “hold[] the form of religion but deny[] the power of it.” II Timothy 3:5. These false worshipers imagine that God is like themselves. Vs. 21. They assume that God regards the Mosaic covenant obligations as lightly as do they. They are mistaken. God is serious in promising deliverance for his people who invoke the covenant by calling upon him. Vs. 15. But God’s faithfulness ought to evoke faithful obedience from Israel. God takes his demand for covenant obedience on Israel’s part as seriously as God takes his own covenant promise to save.

Finally, God declares that proper worship consists in sacrifice with a spirit of thanksgiving from those whose lives, not merely their words, are ordered by God’s commandments. Vss. 22-23. Some commentators believe that this psalm may have ancient roots in Israel’s covenant renewal ceremonies. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 236. Others classify the psalm as an enthronement hymn celebrating God’s kingly triumph over all the powers hostile to God’s reign. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 175. Either suggestion is plausible.

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

We are now jumping from Paul’s First Letter to the church in Corinth to his Second Letter. Paul’s relationship with the church at Corinth deteriorated significantly between the writing of I Corinthians and II Corinthians. It appears that there were some individuals or groups within the church at Corinth that were challenging Paul’s apostolic authority, undermining his leadership and questioning his fitness as a preacher. Following his first letter, Paul made what he describes as a “painful visit” to the church. II Corinthians 2:1. This visit did not accomplish whatever it was he had intended. Not wanting to make another such visit, Paul wrote a “severe letter” to the church in Corinth out of “much affliction and anguish of heart.” II Corinthians 2:4. Though we cannot be certain, many commentators believe that at least part of this “severe” letter is contained in II Corinthians 10-13. E.g., Godspeed, Edgar J., An Introduction to the New Testament, (c. 1937 by University of Chicago Press) pp. 61-62. Whatever the case may be, it is evident that Paul was concerned about the effect his letter would have upon the church and so sent his associate, Titus, to Corinth in order to deal with the fallout. (It is also possible that Paul sent the letter along with Titus). Paul became so preoccupied with the problems at Corinth and the potential impact of his letter that he cut short a preaching tour in Troas and traveled to Macedonia in search of Titus. There Paul finally caught up with his associate who brought him a very favorable report from Corinth. II Corinthians 7:5-13. Paul’s severe letter had evidently done its work. The congregation gave its full support to Paul. Paul’s opponents were disciplined by the congregation so severely that Paul had to write and urge the church to reach out to them with forgiveness and “reaffirm” their love for these errant members. II Corinthians 2:5-11. It is this third letter from Paul to Corinth from which our lesson comes.

The term, “Let light shine out of darkness” (Vs. 6) does not appear verbatim in the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul is likely alluding to the opening lines from the first creation account in Genesis. Genesis 1:3-4. Just as light, the very first element of creation, was spoken into existence by the word of God, so also the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ is a word from the mouth of God. It is from this word that Paul derives his apostolic authority. His preaching and the faith it kindles constitute a creative act of God. Balla, Peter, “2 Corinthians,” published in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament edited by G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson (c. 2007 by Beale & Carson, pub. by Baker Academic) p. 763. It is also possible that Paul has in mind Isaiah 9:2 in which the prophet promises the ultimate liberation of the northern tribes of Israel living under the darkness of Assyrian domination. Reading further we discover that this liberation will be inaugurated through a messianic ruler from the line of David who will usher in a new age of everlasting righteousness, justice and peace. Isaiah 9:6-7. The “zeal of the Lord” will bring this about. Isaiah 9:7. Whether Paul was thinking of Genesis, Isaiah or both, he is making the point that his authoritative preaching is not really his own, but is God’s light shining through him. In the following verses Paul will go on to say that he and his associates are but “earthen vessels” containing this glorious gospel light. II Corinthians 4:7-12.

In this brief passage Paul reminds the church that its job is to reflect Jesus to the world just as his own job is to reflect Jesus to the church. Paul is well aware that, due to his own human limitations and shortcomings, that good news might be “veiled.” Yet strangely, it is precisely because God makes use of such imperfect and flawed people that the limitless grace and mercy of God are so clearly evident. It is through the inept efforts of the disciples to keep up with Jesus in Mark’s gospel and the fractious and dysfunctional existence of the church in Corinth that the Body of Jesus continues reaching out with healing and reconciliation to the world.

Mark 9:2-9

The transfiguration story in Mark is arguably the climactic center of the gospel. I say “arguably” because some commentators, perhaps most, would place the “Intermission” for Mark’s drama directly after Peter’s confession at the end of Chapter 8. But it seems to me that Peter’s incomplete understanding of Jesus’ true identity sets the stage for the drama presented in our lesson. The term “after six days” immediately raises the question, “six days from when?” Most likely, Mark means six days following Peter’s confession. I am convinced, however, that this time period serves a literary purpose. Chronology is a concern altogether absent elsewhere in the gospel. Six days was traditionally the period of time required for self-preparation and purification before a direct encounter with God. Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 234. The six days also could be an allusion to the theophany on Mt. Sinai with Moses. Exodus 24:15-18. It is possibly an echo of the “sabbath rest” declared in Genesis 2:1-3. In either case, the six day intro strongly suggests a lead up to some definitive revelation, work or appearance of God.

We are told that Jesus’ “garments became glistening, intensely white” possibly evoking Moses’ changed countenance after conversing with the Lord on Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35) or the Son of Man referenced in Daniel 7:13-14. In either case (or both), Mark means to let the reader know that Jesus is something more than the messiah Israel was expecting.

Peter blurts out, “Let us make three booths,” one for each of the distinguished personages. Mark informs us that this remark came out as something people say when they have no idea what to say but feel compelled to say something. Under those circumstances, I have no doubt that we have all said things that don’t make a lot of sense. That, however, has not stopped generations of exegetes from looking for some meaning Mark might have missed. The Greek term “skaynh” translated as “booth” in our English Bibles can mean anything from a temporary tent-like dwelling to a tabernacle or more or less permanent dwelling. Commentator Vincent Taylor believes that Peter’s intended meaning was more in line with the temporary booths made of interlacing branches at the Feast of Tabernacles. Leviticus 23:39-44. Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.) p. 391. Yet if it was Peter’s desire to prolong indefinitely this transcendent encounter, construction of temporary dwellings is hardly an effective means to that end. It is difficult to determine from this brief utterance exactly what Peter had in mind (if indeed he had anything in his mind other than stark terror).

The cloud again evokes the Exodus theophany. It is “par excellence the vehicle of God’s Shekinah and the medium in and through which he manifested himself” in the Hebrew Scriptures. Nineham, infra, p. 235. See Exodus 16:10Exodus 19:9-16Exodus 24:15-18 and Numbers 14:10. The voice from the cloud focuses the reader’s attention (and that of the disciples as well) on Jesus. “This is my Son”-the same word spoken to Jesus at his baptism (Mark 1:11) is repeated here with an emphatic, perhaps desperate command/plea: “Listen to him.” This is the whole point of the story. It reaffirms to some extent what has already been established in the account of Peter’s confession in Chapter 8. Jesus is not to be identified with John the Baptist, Elijah, Moses or any other prophet. He is uniquely God’s Son and the disciples are to listen to him. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) pp. 217-218.

Rudolf Bultmann is convinced that the transfiguration story is an ancient resurrection account, perhaps narrated in language closer to its original form in II Peter 1:16-18. Bultmann, Rudolf, History of the Synoptic Tradition, (c. 1963 by Basil Blackwell, pub. 1976 by Harper & Row) p. 259. If he is correct, then this is the only resurrection narrative we have in Mark (barring the post Mark 16:8 accretions). This leaves us to ponder what it means to experience the resurrection, not at the conclusion of Lent, but as we are about to descend into the darkness of the final conflict and Jesus’ crucifixion. What does it mean to celebrate Easter at sunset? It seems to me that by projecting the resurrection back into the life and ministry of Jesus, Mark blunts so much of the triumphalistic distortion afflicting our Easter proclamation. Resurrection is no longer the “happy ending,” or a bland metaphor affirming that “all’s well that ends well.” It is rather an affirmation that eternal life is found at the heart of Jesus’ life of preaching, healing and casting out demons, a life that was not extinguished by his crucifixion.

 

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Naming the stars; a poem by Henry Rago; and the lessons for Sunday, February 4, 2018

See the source imageFIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

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.

She, Nameless

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.

Isaiah 40:21-31

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.

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

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.

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

“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.

Mark 1:29-39

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.

 

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Evangelical Christian leaders in foreclosure; a poem by Stephen Dobyns; and the lessons for Sunday, January 28, 2018

See the source imageFOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

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

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
uncharted lands.

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 18:15-20

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.

Psalm 111

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 119Psalm 9Psalm 10Psalm 25Psalm 34Psalm 37Psalm 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.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

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.

Mark 1:21-28

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.

 

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Listening for a silent God; a poem by Mary Oliver; and the lessons for Sunday, January 14, 2018

SECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

1 Samuel 3:1-20
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Thanks be to you, Lord Christ, most merciful redeemer, for the countless blessings and befits you give. May we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day praising you, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.” I Samuel 3:1.

The age in which young Samuel lived is similar to my own in at least this one respect. I cannot say that have ever had anything like a vision. I don’t preach from any direct, personal experience of God’s self-revelation. I proclaim only what has been handed down by the church for the last two millennia and has been entrusted to me for proclamation. Yes, I can add that I have trusted the gospel all my life and found it to be a truthful, intelligible and reliable hermeneutic for understanding my own existence and that of humanity generally. Yes, I do my best to interpret the texts I have received faithfully to illuminate the good news about Jesus and his implications for the church and for the world. Sometimes I get that right. Other times, I don’t. Yes, I believe that Jesus lives in and through his church and I have seen, heard and experienced plenty to convince me that this belief is well founded. But at the end of the day, I am staking my faith, my hope and my very life on the testimony of the prophets and apostles. To their witness I can neither add nor subtract a thing.

For all of the reasons set forth above, I find myself identifying with Eli in our first reading for next Sunday. Like this aged priest, I have no direct experience of the Almighty. Like him, I have only the traditions handed down to me. For Eli, these consisted in the stories of how God liberated the children of Israel from Egypt, brought them through the wilderness and into the land of Canaan. Eli knew also of the many threats to her very existence Israel faced in settling her new land, not the least of which was the temptation to forget the God who formed her as a people and to pursue the more exotic deities of Canaan. Against the pull of Israel’s disintegration, Eli had only the ancient stories of salvation to be repeated through ritual, sacrifice and celebration. With these tools Eli struggled to remind the people of Israel who they were and to whom they belonged. My tools are the Word of the Gospel made present through preaching and Eucharist. I must rely upon them to make the voice of God heard in a world where God’s website often appears to have gone dark.

Of course, the story goes on to tell us that God did finally speak a new word for Israel to Samuel and that Samuel made it known. But this only goes to show that God speaks and acts in God’s own good time. God will not be rushed. Remember that Israel languished for four hundred years in slavery before God sent Moses to lead them into freedom. You might reasonably ask, “What good did the Exodus do for the thousands of people who were born into slavery, knew nothing but mindless toil all their lives and died in that very same state? What kept them alive as a people under such extreme circumstances? Though the Bible does not give us much in the way of documentary evidence, I strongly suspect that these slaves knew that they were not always a slave people. I suspect that they knew the story of their ancestors Abraham and Sarah as well as the promises made to them. I think that they probably told and retold the story of how these two bold pilgrims left behind their family, community and livelihood to pursue God’s promise of a land, a people and a blessing. These inspiring narratives and the promises woven into them were more real for Israel than the bonds holding her captive. For this reason, the people were able to hear anew those promises spoken again to them through the mouth of Moses.

So too, I think, we are a people sustained by the remarkable story of the crucified and resurrected Jesus who poured out his life witnessing to the inbreaking of God’s gentle reign of justice and peace. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. That is the mystery of our faith. The day will come when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. That is the reason why disciples of Jesus spend their lives working in refugee camps where life is only becoming more difficult and hopeless each day. That is the reason why we practice forgiveness, seek reconciliation and love our enemies-even when it does not seem to be accomplishing anything worthwhile. That is why we continue to gather on the Lord’s day to hear the good news about Jesus proclaimed and meet him in the meal that is his very self-even though we are becoming older, fewer and smaller. We know that God is at work in the world and among us. The day will come when God will speak anew to us. God will renew his church in the time and manner of God’s choosing. Until then, we are nourished and sustained by the narratives and testimony of our spiritual ancestors.

I am left, however, with one haunting question: When God speaks, will we recognize God’s voice? What does the voice of God sound like? Is God speaking now and we simply do not hear? Samuel at first did not recognize God’s voice. Eli only caught onto the miracle after three false starts. How can we train our ears to listen for the divine voice? How can we be sure we will recognize that voice when we hear it? “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work,” says poet, Mary Oliver. Here is a poem by Oliver illustrating the kind of attention paid to the ordinary that might aid us in listening for and recognizing the call of God.

First Snow

The snow
began here
this morning and all day
continued, its white
rhetoric everywhere
calling us back to why, how,
whence such beauty and what
the meaning; such
an oracular fever! flowing
past windows, an energy it seemed
would never ebb, never settle
less than lovely! and only now,
deep into night,
it has finally ended.
The silence
is immense,
and the heavens still hold
a million candles, nowhere
the familiar things:
stars, the moon,
the darkness we expect
and nightly turn from. Trees
glitter like castles
of ribbons, the broad fields
smolder with light, a passing
creekbed lies
heaped with shining hills;
and though the questions
that have assailed us all day
remain — not a single
answer has been found —
walking out now
into the silence and the light
under the trees,
and through the fields,
feels like one.

Source: New and Selected Poems, Vol. I, (c. 1992 byMary Oliver, pub. Beacon Press) p. 150. Mary Oliver was born in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio. She was deeply influenced by poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her work received early critical attention with the 1983 publication of a collection of poems entitled American Primitive. She is a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award. You can read more about Mary Oliver and sample some of her other poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.

1 Samuel 3:1-20

In their present form, the books of First and Second Samuel are part of a historical narrative composed by an editor/author scholars refer to as the “Deuteronomist.” This story begins at Deuteronomy and extends through the end of II Kings. The Deuteronomist was clearly influenced by the prophets’ criticisms of the monarchy and its failure to lead Israel in faithfulness to Torah. This critical assessment of the monarchy finds expression in numerous ways throughout the greater narrative.

To a lesser degree, the narrative denigrates the priesthood of Eli and the shrine at Shiloh. This resting place of the Ark of the Covenant was evidently destroyed by the Philistines. Our lesson for Sunday may be, in part, designed to explain this catastrophe. In the prior chapter we learn that Eli’s sons “were scoundrels” who “had no regard for the Lord.” I Samuel 2:12-17. That is the reason given for the judgment God is about to bring on Shiloh and the house of Eli. Vss. 13-14. Yet I believe the principal concern here is to introduce Samuel as the prophet, priest and judge who will be the transitional figure for Israel’s move from a tribal confederacy loosely joined together around the shrine at Shiloh to a united monarchy with a new priesthood based at the temple in Jerusalem.

Samuel, you may recall, was the son born to formerly childless Hannah in response to her prayer. I Samuel 1:9-23. Hannah had vowed to dedicate any son she might be granted to the Lord’s service at Shiloh. True to her word, she brought young Samuel to Eli the high priest of Shiloh when he was weaned and Samuel began assisting Eli in his priestly duties. I Samuel 1:24-28. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days.” Vs. 1. So rare and uncommon were revelations of God that it took Eli three promptings through Samuel to figure out that God was attempting to address the young man. Once Eli realizes what is happening with Samuel, he instructs him how to respond. The message young Samuel receives is bad news for Eli and his sons. Eli must know this, but he still insists firmly that Samuel disclose everything he has heard from God. Vs. 17. Eli responds, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” Vs. 18. (Really, what else could he have said?) Verses 19-21 summarize the outcome of this interchange. God still appears at Shiloh and speaks to Israel. But his word comes not through the established priesthood of Eli, but through the prophecy of the young Samuel.

Eli’s parenting skills might well have been lacking. Perhaps that is why his sons turned out to be “scoundrels.” Still, I believe Eli deserves credit for his openness to God’s word, even when that word foretold his own demise. It takes a courageous person to accept the end of his family line, the end of his ministerial heritage and the end of his religious tradition. Few pastors, congregational leaders or denominational officials are willing even to entertain the possibility that God might have no further use for mainline Protestantism and that its end has been decreed. We have trouble reckoning with the possibility that the old wineskins of our institutions might not be capable of containing the new wine of God’s kingdom. We tend to become so fixated on preventing the disintegration of the old skins that we miss out on the sweetness of the new wine. Eli, I believe, recognizes that the word declaring his own doom is a word of life for Israel. It is that word, not the house of Eli, not Trinity congregation or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that lasts forever.

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

This psalm defies categorization. In some respects, it resembles a lament. This label does not quite fit, though, because the psalmist does not seek salvation from his/her own enemies as much as the destruction of God’s enemies. Though the psalmist struggles with God’s imminence and transcendence, reducing his/her reflections to such mere abstractions does a disservice to the psalm. This is not an individual sharing his/her speculation about God’s nature with someone else. This is a prayer in which the psalmist addresses his/her God. The psalm arises from and is imbedded in a dynamic relationship between God and the psalmist. His/her questions and assertions arise out of his/her experience of covenant life with the God of Israel.

God has “searched” and “known” the psalmist. It is comforting that God is so intimately familiar with us-or is it? There are times I would prefer not to be aware of God’s presence or to think too deeply about it. Does God have to be present when I defecate, pick my nose and do other things that everyone does, but no one admits too? Can’t I take a vacation from God’s presence when I need to vent my most vindictive feelings, feelings that I know are unworthy of me, feelings that I am ashamed of? Is it possible to experience God’s presence not as sweet comfort, but as an oppressive weight? The psalmist seems somewhat ambivalent about God’s constant nearness. S/he seems to be asking, “Is there no escape from this all-encompassing reality that seems to have me hemmed in from all sides?”

Verses 13-18 praise God for God’s intimate involvement with the psalmist’s life from womb to tomb. “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them yet existed.” Vs. 16. Taken literally and in isolation from its larger context, this verse appears to assert a strict determinism. Each day and everything in it is predetermined right down to the red tie I decided (or think that I decided) to wear today. But the nature of the psalmist’s relationship to his/her God suggests anything but a detached deity running a soulless machine. As the psalmist looks back on his/her life, s/he marvels at God’s activity in his/her life and all that God has done to bring him/her to this place and time. God has indeed given the final shape to each of the psalmist’s days, not as an author working with a fixed plot, but as a relational partner coaxing, persuading and nudging the psalmist toward deeper covenant living.

Some years ago a colleague of mine told me of a jarring experience she had conducting a funeral for a stillborn child. Using this psalm as her text, she assured the grieving parents of God’s tender care for their little one throughout the pregnancy and of God’s deep sorrow in his death. She spoke at length about the infinite value of this little life, short though it was. Following the service she was approached by an angry woman who through clenched teeth asked, “Do you have any idea how cruel, hurtful and unfeeling your words sound to a woman who has had an abortion?” She went on to accuse my friend of using the funeral to further the pro-life agenda and then stalked away before any response could be made.

I relate that story because it illustrates how thoroughly many of our scriptures have become captive to ideological disputes in our culture. I know that the last thing my friend would ever have wanted to do is address a political hot potato in the midst of a pastoral crisis like this one. Her only “agenda” was to speak words of comfort to a couple experiencing a traumatic loss and I have no doubt that they were in fact comforted. I am also convinced that abortion was not even at the furthest horizon of the psalmist’s thought process. It was obviously at the forefront of this individual’s thought process, however. So much so that it colored everything she heard my friend saying.

I am not sure how we deal with scriptural texts that have become almost “too hot to handle.” I believe that my friend was right to point out how this text affirms the value of the life that was lost to these grieving parents, God’s sharing in their sorrow and the significance of that life despite its never having seen the light of day. I believe it is altogether improper to use this psalm as ammunition in support of legislative measures regulating or criminalizing abortion. I reject having to choose between an ideology that reduces an unborn child to disposable tissue and one that simply equates termination of pregnancy with homicide. (If you are at all interested in my take on the whole abortion debate, see my post for December 24, 2017) I recognize certain Bible passages have collected a lot of dirt from having been dragged through the culture wars. They must be spoken with care, sensitivity and compassion-but spoken nonetheless. I maintain that whether or not one has (or should have) a legal right to do a thing has no bearing on whether a disciple of Jesus should exercise that right. I reject the notion that issues, such as abortion, can only be discussed in terms of “rights,” especially within the Body of Christ. And that brings us to the next lesson.

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

As we will be hearing from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians for the next four weeks, you might want to refresh your recollection concerning the background of that letter. To that end, I refer you to the Summary Articleby Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N. on enterthebible.org.

As I have probably said too many times already, it is impossible to comprehend Paul without appreciating his understanding of the church as the Body of Christ. Again, this is not a metaphor. Paul truly believes that the church is the physical presence of the resurrected Christ animated by the Spirit of Christ. It is the objective of the Holy Spirit to form “the mind of Christ” in this body of believers. I Corinthians 2:16. That happens as believers learn to appreciate each other as indispensable members of Christ. Just as the human body instinctively protects an injured part, so the church surrounds with care and compassion the member that is hurting. Just as the action of one part of the human body affects the whole, so each member of the Body of Christ must measure his or her conduct by its effect on the Body of Christ. See I Corinthians 12:12-26.

Today’s reading tackles sexual immorality or, more specifically, the believer’s engagement of prostitutes. Before considering this particular issue, however, we need to remind ourselves that “Paul’s ethical counsels and appeals stand in letters which were addressed to particular congregations and were formulated in response to particular situations.” Furnish, Victor Paul, “A Paradigm for Ethics in First Corinthians,” Interpretation, Vol. 44, No. 2 (April 1990), p. 145. Therefore, “[o]ne must not presume that his judgments about particular issues, say, in Corinth, would be the same were he writing to Christians elsewhere. Indeed, insofar as Paul’s counsels were specifically applicable in the situations to which they were originally addressed, they cannot be specifically applicable in any other situation. Nor is it possible to extract or reconstruct from his specific counsels a set of general “ethical principles…” Ibid. 145-146 (emphasis in original). Instead, “one finds there not a “Pauline ethic,” but Paul the pastor/counselor, reflecting on how the truth of the gospel forms and reforms the lives of those who are in Christ, and urging his congregations to be conformed to that truth within the particulars of their own situations.” Ibid. 146 (emphasis in original).

Paul’s ethics therefore derive not from scriptural rules or prescriptions. That which is good builds up the Body of Christ-whether it comports with some other objective moral prescription or not. That which injures the Body of Christ or compromises its witness to Jesus is evil-even if there is scriptural precedent for it. For Paul, ethics are not about breaking or keeping rules. It comes down to each member of the church being so totally possessed by the mind of Christ that s/he instinctively does what is appropriate to protect and build up Christ’s Body.

Earlier on in chapter 6, Paul was taking the Corinthian believers to task for their litigiousness. When fellow members of the Body of Christ sue each other in pagan courts, their witness to Christ is horribly compromised. “Can it be,” asks Paul incredulously, “that there is no man among you wise enough to decide between members of the church?” I Corinthians 6:5. Indeed, the very fact that individual members have disputes that they are incapable of resolving between them is a defeat for the Body of Christ in which all members are to work in harmony for the sake of the whole Body. I Corinthians 6:7-8.

So now Paul takes the bull by the horns. “All things are lawful for me,” say Paul’s opponents. Is this really what they were saying or is Paul caricaturing their position by means of a reductio ad absurdum? Whatever the case may be, it appears that the issue of prostitution was a genuine one for believers. Bear in mind that prostitution was entirely legal in Corinth and often connected with pagan civic and religious ritual. While the practice was hardly universally condoned and often condemned by philosophers and moralists of many persuasions, prostitution was nevertheless common and altogether legal. That may well be, Paul replies. The law affords one many “rights.” You may have a right to sue. You may have the right to do all manner of things, including consortium with prostitutes. But legality is beside the point. Within the Body of Christ, it is never a matter of what is legal. It is always a matter of what is “helpful,” of what contributes to the health of the whole Body.

Though Paul could have drawn from a host of biblical passages condemning prostitution and fornication, he makes no such citation. Instead, Paul quotes the passage from Genesis following the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib stating that “the two became one flesh.” Genesis 2:24. Vs. 16. That being the case, how can one who is a member of Christ’s Body become one flesh with a prostitute? Clearly, given that most prostitutes were connected in some way with pagan ritual, such an act amounts to idolatry. Just as significantly, however, the life-giving and covenant building potential inherent in sexual intercourse is wasted on dead end casual encounters. Instead of building up “the Temple of the Holy Spirit,” the fornicator is desecrating that Temple by joining it to the temple of pagan gods. Vs. 19. “You are not your own,” says Paul. There can be no assertion of “My body, my choice.” “You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” Vss. 19-20.

Obviously, Paul is addressing an issue that is non-existent for most of us. (I can’t recall the last time one of my parishioners reported being solicited by a temple prostitute). So, too, there are plenty of issues important to us that Paul’s prescription does not address directly: Cohabitation between adults not formally married; uncoerced sex between persons in a dating relationship and more. That is not to say, however, that Paul contributes nothing to our consideration of these issues. Clearly, Paul’s primary concern is how sexual conduct (any conduct for that matter) affects the church’s life and mission. Paul is also concerned about how such conduct affects other individual believers who are members of Christ’s Body. Finally, Paul would insist that we consider whether the conduct builds up the church. Sexual relationships, therefore, must be characterized by selfless love, covenant faithfulness and life-giving expression that builds up the Body of Christ. Based on these reflections, the author of the Letter to the Ephesians can state that the covenant between wife and husband ought to reflect the same covenant relationship God desires between Christ and the church. (BTW, it matters not one wit whether you characterize the husband as Christ and the wife as church or do it the other way around. There is no hierarchy in the kingdom of heaven. “Love” and “respect” are simply two sides of the same coin.)

John 1:43-51

Having already called Peter and Andrew to be his disciples the day before, Jesus decides to leave the Judean banks of the Jordan River and travel to Galilee. Jesus “found” Philip and called him to be his disciple. Philip, in turn, “found” Nathaniel and declared to him, “We have ‘found’ him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Vs.45. Here again John’s use of language is very deliberate. The Greek word translated “found” in our English Bibles is “eureeka,” from which we get our expression: “Eureka!” meaning “I’ve got it!” This exclamation is attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher/scientist Archimedes. According to anecdotal legend, Archimedes observed one day how the water level rose as he stepped into the bath tub. This, in turn, led to his realization that the volume of water displaced must be identical to the part of his body submerged. Upon making the connection, he gave us that immortal exclamation. So the “finding” that is going on in this story amounts to more than just a random discovery. It is disclosure of a critical piece of the puzzle that is God’s redemptive intent for the world.

Philip, though identified as one of the Twelve disciples in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), plays no active role anywhere else therein. By contrast, Philip is a major player in John’s gospel, being among the first disciples Jesus called. He is instrumental in bringing Nathaniel to Jesus. Vs.45. He is personally mentioned in the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:5-7), acts as an intermediary between Jesus and some Greeks wishing to see him (John 12:20-23) and takes an active part in one of Jesus’ major discourses (John 14:8-9). Nathaniel is not included among the twelve disciples in the synoptics. Though some strands of tradition identify him with Bartholomew, there is no solid textual or historical basis for so doing.

The fact that Philip describes Jesus to Nathaniel as the one about whom both Moses and the prophets wrote indicates that he has already concluded that Jesus is Israel’s messiah. The “law and the prophets” is frequently used shorthand for the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures in their entirety. See, e.g., Matthew 5:17Luke 16:16Acts 13:15; and Romans 3:21. It is quite understandable that Nathaniel would be skeptical about Philip’s claim. Nazareth of Galilee, unlike Bethlehem or the City of Jerusalem, is not the sort of place from which you would expect a great leader to arise, much less Israel’s messiah. Furthermore, according to John’s gospel, Jesus’ father, Joseph, is merely a local with no evident royal lineage. Philip bears a substantial burden of proof! Rather than attempting to argue Nathaniel out of his very reasonable objections, however, he simply invites him to “come and see.” Vs. 46.

“Behold, an Israelite,” Jesus declares. Vs. 47. This might well be translated, “Now here’s the real thing! A true Israelite.” While it is not exactly clear what Jesus meant by remarking that Nathaniel was without “guile,” the point is Nathaniel’s response. “How the hell do you know anything about me?” (very roughly translated). “I could be Jack-the-Ripper for all you know.” (Not actually said and a tad anachronistic but, hey, it captures the spirit of the conversation). Vs. 48. Jesus’ response is extremely important. He replies to Nathaniel, “When you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Vs. 49. Jesus is not simply showing off his clairvoyance. He is making a messianic proclamation echoing the words of the prophet Micah: “but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.” Micah 4:4. In effect, Jesus is saying, “I know, Nathaniel, that you are of the New Israel, an Israelite without ‘guile’ (unlike Jacob!), because the messianic age has come.” This “word of the Lord of Hosts” is enough to convince Nathaniel. He confesses Jesus as both the King of Israel and the Son of God, both common messianic titles. Barrett, C.K., The Gospel According to John2nd Ed. (c. 1978 by Westminster Press) p. 186.

But there is more to Jesus than Nathaniel has guessed. “You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Vs. 51. The reference here is to the story of “Jacob’s Ladder” narrated at Genesis 28:10-17. After waking from a dream in which angels ascended and descended from a heavenly ladder upon the rock where he lay, Jacob declared: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Genesis 28:17. Jesus, then, is “the house of God” that will replace the temple with its holy of holies. John 2:19-21. Jesus is the “gate” through which the sheep will go in and out and find pasture. John 10:9. Keep your eye peeled and focused on Jesus. You haven’t seen anything yet!

 

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Love makes room for another to be; a poem by Jalal al-Din -Rumi; and the lessons for Sunday, January 7, 2018

See the source imageBAPTISM OF OUR LORD

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, creator of light and giver of goodness, your voice moves over the waters. Immerse us in your grace, and transform us by your Spirit, that we may follow after your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

In the beginning God said “let there be” and there was. That is already grace. God had no need to create anything. God was not lonely, nor did God make the universe out of boredom. God was fully sufficient in God’s self, the Father passionately loving the Son with that love that is Spirit. Yet, in another sense, creation was necessary. It was necessary because genuine love is forever looking beyond itself. By its very nature, it overflows its banks giving life to everything it touches. Thus, although God had no need for anything beyond God’s Triune self, “the three in love and hope made room within their dance.” “Come, Join the Dance of Trinity,” Leach, Richard, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #412 (c. 2001 by Selah Publishing Co., Inc.). In creation, God generously makes room for us to be. In the person of his Son, God breaks down the walls of isolation, exclusion and rejection that manifest themselves within our human experience of brokenness. In Jesus, God makes room for the outcast, the sinner, the hungry, the poor- the very “least” by our hierarchical standards of judgment-to draw near to God’s self.

We should perhaps pause and think about what it means for love to be understood simply as “that which makes room for the other.” Love is a word used rather loosely in our nomenclature. I can as well say, “I love ice cream” as I can say “I love my wife.” But are these two “loves” even remotely similar? A lot of what passes for love is neither life giving nor liberating. Love that is possessive and controlling smothers its object with jealousy and distrust. Parental love that does not free our children to become the unique individuals they are destined to become, but seeks to channel their lives into what we deem to be in their best interests is hurtful and destructive. Love for one’s country that closes borders, restricts immigration and imposes arbitrary religious, social and cultural norms on the whole population is far from anything like true patriotism. Genuine love, as Saint Paul reminds us, is “patient…kind…and does not insist on its own way…It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:4-7. Love makes room for a person to be and become who he or she is-whether or not I like it, approve of it or agree with it.

Too much that passes for Christian discipleship these days has been shaped by love that seeks to constrict rather than make room for the other. The good news of Jesus Christ was never meant to be imposed as a cultural norm. For that reason, the very notion of a “Christian nation” is an oxymoron. God has no use for nation states. God neither needs nor desires defenders. God seeks witnesses to the good news that there is room in God’s heart for all people-even those who do not believe in God; even those who misunderstand God; even those who hate God; even those whose actions grieve the heart of God. Witnesses have no obligation to defend, refute or persuade. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. To love someone is to make room for them to be in God’s presence without judgment or condemnation. It is to allow the Holy Spirit all the time that is necessary to do her work in the heart of the other and, most importantly, accept the outcome.

Our gospel lesson invites us to focus on Jesus. As we are drawn into his orbit of influence, our lives are transformed. And yes, we are called upon to make room in that dance for all others we encounter. Some will join in the dance, learn its subtle steps and movements, fall into the rhythms of worship, prayer, giving and witness. Others will follow another path. There we would do well to remember Jesus’ admonition that “whoever is not against us is for us.” Mark 9:40. It is not for us to convert the world to any particular religious, moral or political vision. In truth, our understandings of these things are far too unsure, shifting and tentative to serve as an absolute norm. We are called only to make room for our neighbors-be they Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist or whatever else to grow into the image of their Creator in whatever way the Spirit directs.

Here is a poem about creatively “making room” for which another name might be “hospitality.”

This, Being Human, is a Guest House.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning is a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
[S]he may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Jalal al-Din -Rumi

Source: Garmon, Rev. Meredith, “Radical Hospitality,” Liberal Pulpit, 2015/11/10 (trans.Coleman Barks).  Jalal al-Din Rumi was one of the greatest poets of the Sufi Muslim tradition. He lived and worked during the 13th century. Rumi was already a teacher and theologian in 1244 when he encountered a wandering dervish (a Muslim ascetic) named Shams of Tabriz. Spiritually inspired by the dervish to find God in worldly experiences, he founded the Mevlani Order of the Sufi sect. Find out more about Jalal al-Din Rumi and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Genesis 1:1-5

To reiterate what I have said previously about Genesis and the other four books of the “Pentateuch,” namely, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, most scholars are convinced that there are at least four main literary sources for these works, each of which narrates the drama of Israel’s origins. These four sagas were woven together and edited throughout the years of the Davidic dynasty to the period following the Babylonian Exile. In chronological terms, that would stretch from about 950 B.C.E. to 500 B.C.E. The first literary tradition, known as the “Jahwist,” is the earliest source. It probably dates from the years of the Davidic Dynasty, being a product of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Next in chronological order would be the “Elowist” source. This literary tradition tells the story of Israel from the viewpoint of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and was likely brought to Judah by refugees escaping the Assyrian conquest and annexation of that nation around 721 B.C.E. The third contributor, known as the Deuteronomist, consisting of Deuteronomy and extending through the end of II Kings, is credited with joining the Jahwist and Elowist material into a single narrative. The final literary contributors, designated the “Priestly” source, rounded out the final form of the Pentateuch as we have it today incorporating ancient liturgical traditions preserved by the Jerusalem priesthood. This final editing was done sometime during or immediately after the Babylonian Exile ending in 538 B.C.E. For further elaboration, I invite you to read the online article, Documentary Hypothesis.

Our lesson, the opening to a marvelous poetic portrayal of creation, is a product of the Priestly author chiefly responsible for editing and contributing to the final form of the Pentateuch. This editor(s)/author(s) composed during the Babylonian Exile from 587 B.C.E. to about 530 B.C.E. Throughout this period Israel lived as an ethnic minority in a culture that was hostile to her faith in the Lord of the Exodus. The people were surrounded by and immersed in the religious symbols, practices and mores of their captors, whose decisive victory over Israel called into question the validity of their faith. The temptation to become assimilated into Babylonian society was strong. Should Israel continue to worship a God that seemed to have been overcome by the deities of Babylon? If Israel’s God was God, how could this God allow his holy city and temple to be destroyed?

The Babylonian Enûma Eliš saga relates how the earth was created out of a civil war between the gods and how humans were created from the divine blood shed in that conflict for the purpose of serving the victorious gods. The gods were ruled by the chief of these divine victors, Marduk, who in turn presided over a strict hierarchy. The Babylonian empire mirrored this heavenly hierarchy on earth with the emperor standing at the top of the social order. Under him were his officers, army and patrons. At the bottom of the pyramid were slaves-barely human and at the mercy of their owners whim. The empire was the gods will done on earth as in heaven according to the Babylonian creed.

The first chapter of Genesis constitutes an alternative creation narrative reflecting a very different understanding of divinity, the cosmos and the social order. The story describes creation as the sovereign act of one God whose merciful and compassionate care ensures stability and sustenance for all creatures. There is no hint of conflict or struggle in the act of creation. Everything is brought into existence by the sovereign word of God that declares everything made to be “good.” If you were to read further, you would discover that human beings do not spring up unintended from the blood of conflict, but are specially created in God’s image. They have not been made to serve as a race of slaves, but to be fruitful, multiply and rule over the good world God has made.

Of particular significance for the Baptism of Our Lord is the interplay between the “Spirit of God moving over the waters,” the speech of God crying “Let there be,” and the result: “and there was.” It is unfortunate that the lectionary folks did not pair this reading up with John 1:1-18, our gospel for last week. There is a clear correlation between these opening words of the Hebrew Scriptures and John’s prologue to his gospel in which he recites how the Word was in the beginning with God, was God and was the means by and through whom all things were made. John 1:1-3. It is fitting, too, that Jesus should be announced by John, the one who baptizes with water. Water, Word and Spirit are interwoven throughout both these readings. Baptism brings us terrifyingly close to “the deep” where all order, coherence and consciousness are dissolved. To be blunt, baptism kills us. Yet the waters that drown and destroy also hold the potential for life. Water is critical to life and makes up a substantial piece of what we are as creatures. We cannot live without water, nor can we live comfortably with it. The Spirit, however, moves these waters toward their creative pole. The word gives the formless deep a form. So what is dissolved in the waters of baptism is called forth newly constituted.

Psalm 29

Most commentators suggest that this psalm is an Israelite poet’s adaptation of an ancient Phoenician hymn praising Baal-Hadad, the Canaanite storm god. E.g., Gaster, T.H., “Psalm 29,” JQR 37 (1946) pp. 54ff cited by Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 261; see also Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 142. It is also possible to maintain that the psalm is a liturgical recital of God’s appearance to Israel on Mt. Sinai. Both views might be correct. Israel frequently borrowed liturgical and literary material from its neighbors in shaping its own worship traditions. Thus, a hymn originally praising the storm god in the wake of a particularly fierce weather event might have served as a template for this psalm memorializing God’s stormy appearance on Sinai.

The psalmist unashamedly attributes to Israel’s God the awe inspiring and often destructive effects of a storm. That is a little unnerving for us moderns who are squeamish about attributing anything to God that isn’t “nice.” Indeed, this psalm is particularly problematic for those of us affected by severe storms. Are these destructive storms God’s doing? Does God send them or just allow them to occur? Does it make any difference either way? Is it anymore comforting to believe that God just fell asleep at the wheel and allowed a hurricane to happen rather than to believe that God deliberately sent one? Has the universe gotten so far out of God’s hands that God is no longer able to prevent hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis?

I don’t pretend to have neat answers to all these questions. But perhaps our problem is rooted in our homocentric view of things. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that the problem may be with our “me” centered approach to faith. It seems to me that a lot of our prayers are exceedingly self-centered. We pray for good weather on our vacations-even in times when our farms are desperate for rain. We pray for an economic recovery without any thought to the economic, ecological and social havoc our economy wreaks upon the world. Even our prayers for others often have a strong streak of selfishness in them. As the father of a child with a chronic medical condition, a day does not go by that I don’t pray for her healing. Yet lately I have been wondering about my motives. Am I looking for a special miracle? By what right do I get to push to the head of the line of parents with sick children to receive such special treatment? Thanks to the benefits of medical treatment afforded through insurance, my daughter is able to live a relatively normal and healthy life despite her condition. So shouldn’t any miracle go to a child without these benefits?  I find that too often my prayers do not venture beyond my own needs, concerns and the small circle of people in my small world.

Perhaps this psalm gives us some perspective. The psalmist does not begin his or her prayer with a request that God stop the storm or steer it in some other direction. The psalm begins with praise, awe and reverence for God. As Jesus taught his disciples, that is where all prayer needs to begin. Recall that in both of the creation stories from Genesis, the world was created first. In the first chapter of Genesis, the earth and all its creatures were created and declared good. Then human beings were created to rule over and care for the earth. Likewise in the second chapter of Genesis: the earth was created and God planted a garden in the earth. Then God created human beings to tend and care for the garden. The message is clear. It’s not all about us. The world was not designed to be a twenty-first century playground that is so well padded and equipped with safety features that no kid could ever possibly get hurt-or have any fun either.  No, the world is far more like the way playgrounds used to be-a place where you can really play. It pains me to no end that my grandchildren will probably never know the ecstasy of rocketing half way to the sky on a real swing set. Nor will they ever experience the dizzying high you could get from one of those merry-go-rounds that we used to crank up to warp speed. Our public parks have been cleansed of all such unacceptable risks. The attorneys and insurance underwriters who have taken over our lives have determined that fun is just too dangerous for kids.

But don’t get me started on that. We were talking about the psalm and the fact that we are not the center of God’s universe. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, God is not a tame lion. God is not “safe” and neither is the world God made. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, (c. 1950 by Estate of C.S. Lewis; pub. by Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.) pp. 73-74. There is no room in the Bible or in real life for a wimpy, weak kneed religion that longs for a “nice” god. You can get hurt on this planet and tragically so. But for all that, the earth is a good place to be. It’s a place where you can have real fun. Beauty the likes of which you see in the ocean, in the storm and on the top of Sinai necessarily has an element of terror.  The psalmist doesn’t hide in the storm shelter and plead with God not to be so scary. The psalmist praises God for this awesome display of power and rejoices in the beauty, wonder and terror of creation. This is the glorious world God made and the stage on which God acts. The psalmist doesn’t complain about its dangers. S/he prays instead that Israel will find the courage to live boldly and faithfully in this grand universe. Anybody who whines about bad weather and wishes that God had made a safer planet has never been on a real swing!

Last Sunday John pointed out to us that God’s creative word became flesh. God entered fully into the adventure of being human in a creation filled with mystery, wonder, beauty and terror. Baptism into the name of this Triune God is to join in the adventure of becoming fully and truly human.

Acts 19:1-7

It appears that a distinct community of John the Baptist’s disciples continued to exist well into the New Testament period. Whatever the baptism of John was all about, it surely did not include the name of Jesus. Thus, it is not surprising that, upon becoming associated with the church, these disciples of John should be baptized into Jesus Christ. Of what, then, did this new baptism consist? Much energy has been expended in speculation over how baptism might have been practiced in the early church and whether a Trinitarian formula was used or merely the name of Jesus. I am not particularly interested in those arguments. What we know is that the Trinitarian baptismal formula was around from at least the writing of Matthew’s gospel toward the end of the 1st Century. There isn’t a scrap of textual evidence to support the spurious supposition that this formula was a later addition to the text. Moreover, the church has consistently spoken of “baptism into Christ” throughout history without implying anything less than fully Trinitarian baptism. There seems to me no sound theological reason to baptize in anything less than God’s Trinitarian Name. As to the baptism of the believers in our lesson “into the name of Jesus,” I agree with St. Basil:

“Let no one be misled by the fact of the apostle’s frequently omitting the name of the Father and of the Holy Spirit when making mention of baptism, or on this account imagine that the invocation of the names is not observed. As many of you, he says, as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ; and again, as many of you as were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death. For the naming of Christ is the confession of the whole, showing forth as it does the God who gave, the Son who received, and the Spirit who is, the unction.” De Spiritu Sancto, 12:28.

I must admit that I don’t know what theological sense to make out of the chronology in this brief snippet from Acts. Preaching comes first; then comes baptism and after that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. I don’t know how a person can receive the Word of God without the aid of the Spirit, nor do I understand how one receives the Spirit apart from the Word and baptism. But one of those things or both seems to have occurred here. Rather than trying to make theological sense out of this passage, I prefer simply to take it as a warning against becoming too dogmatic about how faith and the Holy Spirit work. As I said before, I have performed more than a few baptisms where there appeared to be little in the way of proper motivation or even openness to faith. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but that is really out of my hands. When you invoke the Holy Spirit, you are by definition placing matters in hands beyond your own. In a sense, I suppose I am hoping that what happened in this text will eventually occur for these families, namely, that the Holy Spirit will fall upon them-however belatedly.

Mark 1:4-11

Mark tells us less about Jesus’ baptism than any of the other gospels except for John who tells us nothing about it. Mark’s introduction to John the Baptist, though brief, is pregnant with suggestive imagery. The Baptist appears “in the wilderness.” As Commentator Morna Hooker points out, Israel’s long sojourn in the wilderness became a metaphor for her captivity in Babylon and hence associated with the idea of a new Exodus. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 36. Some of the Hebrew prophets looked back to these years spent in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land as an ideal period. Ibid. In the wilderness, Israel had none but God to rely upon and so her relationship with God was naturally closer. See Jeremiah 2:2Jeremiah 31:2Hosea 2:14Hosea 9:10; and Amos 5:25. From this outlook there developed a strong conviction that final salvation for Israel would have its beginning in the wilderness where the messiah would first appear. Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 by Cambridge University Press) p. 42.

Mark’s description of John is filled with images pointing to his prophetic role. His camel hair robe might suggest the “hairy mantle” associated with professional prophets in Zechariah 13:4. Mark’s description of John’s leather belt is an echo of the description of Elijah in II Kings 1:8. By this time Elijah’s role as harbinger of the messianic age was deeply ingrained in Jewish consciousness. See Malachi 4:5-6. Mark’s audience needed no further explicit citations to scripture to understand that John was to be understood, if not as Elijah himself, then surely as a prophet fulfilling Elijah’s eschatological mission. It is in this light that we must understand his declaration that “after me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” Vs. 8. The point here is that John is merely the prophet who goes before the Lord preparing the Lord’s way.

Yet I think it far too simplistic to assume that Mark’s only or even chief purpose is to undermine the importance of John the Baptist whose community might still have been in existence competing with the church for Israel’s allegiance. John plays a critical literary/theological role in Mark’s gospel. So far from detracting from Jesus, his ministry sets the stage for Jesus’ revealing. That is where the baptism comes in. Again, I am not convinced that the early church was “embarrassed” by Jesus’ baptism under John. Whatever ecclesiastical embarrassment there might have been over this event arose much later as a result of distorted notions of what constitutes “sin,” truncated understandings of “repentance” and inadequate models of atonement that could not accommodate Jesus’ undergoing a baptism of repentance. Yet once repentance is understood as a turning toward God, something Jesus did throughout his life, there is nothing inconsistent in Jesus undergoing a baptism of repentance. In our case, repentance always means turning from sin. But that is a consequence of our turning toward God, not a precondition.

We began the church year with a reading from Isaiah in which the prophet cries out: “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” Isaiah 64:1. In Sunday’s gospel that plaintive cry is answered. “And when [Jesus] came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.’” Vs. 10-11. The Greek verb translated here as “opened” (“schizo”) actually means to “rend” as does the Hebrew equivalent in the above Isaiah quote. In Jesus God has torn open the heavens allowing the Holy Spirit to flood into the world. God’s reign has been let loose. The new wine is spilling into the old wine skins and splitting them at the seams. Better buckle your seat belt and put on your crash helmet. This is going to be a wild ride!

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Rethinking beauty; a poem by Carolyn Kizer; and the lessons for Sunday, December 31, 2017

See the source imageFIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS

Isaiah 61:10—62:3
Psalm 148
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, you wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and yet more wonderfully restored it. In your mercy, let us share the divine life of the one who came to share our humanity, Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. Galatians 4:7.

Three leaders of the Miss America Organization resigned on the Saturday before Christmas, two days after a report revealed purported e-mails from them and other employees disparaging Pageant contestants. Following the report, dozens of former Miss America title holders from as far back as the 1940s issued a joint call for the resignation of the organization’s leadership. “As dedicated members of communities, businesses and families, and ambassadors for the Miss America program across the country, we stand firmly against harassment, bullying and shaming — especially of women — through the use of derogatory terms meant to belittle and demean,” the statement said.

Both the statement and the subsequent string of resignations are welcome developments. The “Me too” movement denouncing sexual assault and harassment in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against film producer and executive Harvey Weinstein has led to a much needed examination of systemic misogyny and sexism in the culture of entertainment, politics and the workplace generally. It is good to see that many of the worst bullies and predators in our midst are finally being held accountable for their crimes and misconduct. Nevertheless, the actions of these individuals are symptomatic of a cultural disease that I believe is exemplified in the Miss America Pageant itself.

The Pageant originated in 1921 as a “bathing beauty revue.” As such, it was geared toward judging women on their appearance and sexual appeal. In more recent years, the Pageant has expanded the scope of the contest to include character, intellect, accomplishments and community service as factors in evaluating contestants. Nonetheless, physical attractiveness remains a dominant feature of the Pageant and that raises many troubling issues. Female beauty and sex appeal, we must not forget, are defined by men in a culture that continues to be dominated by men. Despite our general acknowledgement of gender equality in principle, inequality is still very much the reality in many dimensions of our common life. That is hardly surprising. Less than a century ago, women were denied the opportunity to vote or hold political office in this country. In the world of my childhood, no one would have considered seriously the notion that a woman could be president of the United States. Women physicians were a rarity. The church in which I grew up taught that the ministry of word and sacrament must be reserved exclusively for men. The subordination of women to men was as natural and seemingly unchangeable as gravity.

Some of the old rules have changed, but too many attitudes unfortunately have not. After all, we elected a president who routinely calls women he doesn’t like “dogs,” “pigs” “fat” and other names I would rather not print. One of our two major political parties poured money into a herculean effort to elect to the highest legislative body in our land a man who routinely preyed on teenage girls. Women, their rights, freedoms and security are still not a high priority for a huge section of our population. In a society where women are secondary beings who exist for the benefit of men and live to support them in the “real world” of work, standards for judging their “beauty” as well as their character are invariably measured in terms of their usefulness and desirability to men. A “good woman” is a good wife and mother, someone who can satisfy the needs and wants of a man. That is the fatal flaw in the Miss America Pageant and it should not surprise us overly much to learn that the men who have dominated this event exemplify our worst cultural tendencies to objectify women.

The consequences of this objectification go far beyond the bullying and harassment of Pageant contestants. The violence done to girls and women by our cultural images of female beauty (often exaggerated to inhuman proportions with the help of airbrushing and other photogenic techniques) is incalculable. According to the Center for Change, an organization that treats eating disorders, 86% of all American women are dissatisfied with their bodies to some degree:

“Women and adolescent girls regard size, much like weight, as a definitive element of their identity. Some girls assume there is something wrong with their bodies when they cannot fit consistently into some “standard” size; others will reject a pair of jeans simply because they won’t wear a particular size. The majority of girls step on the scale to determine their self-worth; if they have lost weight, then it is a good day and they can briefly feel “okay” about themselves. If the number on the scale has increased ever so slightly, then the day is ruined and they feel worthless.” Battling our Bodies: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Body Images, Nicole Hawkins, PhD., Website for Center for Change.

These feelings of worthlessness and self-hatred often lead to self-destructive behavior, particularly among teenage girls, such as anorexia, bulimia and self-cutting. As important as it is to hold accountable men who bully, harass and sexually abuse women and girls, it is just as important that entertainment organizations, glamour publications and fashion industries be called out for shamelessly promoting ideals of female beauty based on narrowly defined and largely unattainable standards grounded more in male sexual fantasies than reality. A kinder, gentler Miss America Pageant is not the answer. Nothing short of totally dismantling the Pageant and all other societal structures that reflect and promote the false values of male privilege and female beauty will do.

In our second lesson for this Sunday, Saint Paul reminds us that we are no longer to regard ourselves as “slaves,” but as free children. Slavery was accepted as a fact of life in Paul’s world-just as subordination of women to men was uncritically accepted in my childhood years. The world of the First Century was both hierarchical and patriarchal. At the top of the pyramid stood the emperor, below him the aristocracy, then male Roman citizens, and after that, male Roman subjects. Women, slaves and aliens were at the bottom of the heap. They were considered non-persons for all practical purposes. Paul stands this pyramid on its head. Unlike the emperor, God is not a tyrant ruling over descending classes of slaves. God is a parent whose reign is for the benefit of “the least” among us.

All of this has ramifications for how we relate to one another. If we are all equally God’s children, then we are all equally sisters and brothers. Paul makes the startling declaration that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female.” Galatians 3:28. This is not to say that we do not retain our sexual, racial or cultural identity. Nor does it mean that the systemic injustice subordinating some to others magically disappears. It does mean, however, that within the Body of Christ there can be no claim of authority or exercise of power based on these distinctions. It also means that disciples of Jesus are called to unmask the oppressive systems of hierarchy and patriarchy for what they are-bondage to sin and obstructions to God’s gentle reign of justice and peace. We are called to be, in the words of Simeon in our gospel lesson, “a light for revelation to the nations.” Luke 2:32.

Poetry is one of the cracks through which voices too long suppressed, the voices of women, people of color, sexual minorities and the marginalized break through. One such voice is that of Carolyn Kizer, part one of whose poem appears below:

Pro Femina

ONE

From Sappho to myself, consider the fate of women.
How unwomanly to discuss it! Like a noose or an albatross necktie
The clinical sobriquet hangs us: codpiece coveters.
Never mind these epithets; I myself have collected some honeys.
Juvenal set us apart in denouncing our vices
Which had grown, in part, from having been set apart:
Women abused their spouses, cuckolded them, even plotted
To poison them. Sensing, behind the violence of his manner—
“Think I’m crazy or drunk?”—his emotional stake in us,
As we forgive Strindberg and Nietzsche, we forgive all those
Who cannot forget us. We are hyenas. Yes, we admit it.

While men have politely debated free will, we have howled for it,
Howl still, pacing the centuries, tragedy heroines.
Some who sat quietly in the corner with their embroidery
Were Defarges, stabbing the wool with the names of their ancient
Oppressors, who ruled by the divine right of the male—
I’m impatient of interruptions! I’m aware there were millions
Of mutes for every Saint Joan or sainted Jane Austen,
Who, vague-eyed and acquiescent, worshiped God as a man.
I’m not concerned with those cabbageheads, not truly feminine
But neutered by labor. I mean real women, like you and like me.

Freed in fact, not in custom, lifted from furrow and scullery,
Not obliged, now, to be the pot for the annual chicken,
Have we begun to arrive in time? With our well-known
Respect for life because it hurts so much to come out with it;
Disdainful of “sovereignty,” “national honor;” and other abstractions;
We can say, like the ancient Chinese to successive waves of invaders,
“Relax, and let us absorb you. You can learn temperance
In a more temperate climate.” Give us just a few decades
Of grace, to encourage the fine art of acquiescence
And we might save the race. Meanwhile, observe our creative chaos,
Flux, efflorescence—whatever you care to call it!

Source: Carolyn Kizer, “Pro Femina,” Cool, Calm, and Collected: Poems 1960-2000, (c. 2001 by Carolyn Kizer. pub. by Copper Canyon Press) Carolyn Kizer (1925-2014) was born in Spokane, Washington. Kizer’s work is known for its intellectual rigor, formal mastery, and willingness to engage with thorny social realities and political issues. She earned a BA from Sarah Lawrence College in 1945 and did graduate work at both Columbia University and the University of Washington. During the mid-1950s, she studied poetry at the University of Washington. Kizer cofounded the journal Poetry Northwest, editing it from inception in 1959 until 1965. You can read the rest of this and other poems of Carolyn Kizer on the Poetry Foundation website.

Isaiah 61:10—62:3

The text comes to us from what scholars typically call “Trito-Isaiah” or Third Isaiah constituting chapters 56-66 in the Book of Isaiah. This section of oracles is principally the work of a prophet who ministered after the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon, but before reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem. In terms of dating, this time period runs from 530 B.C.E. to 510 B.C.E. Our particular lesson is a continuation of the “core” section of Third Isaiah, the beginning of which we saw in our lesson for the Third Sunday of Advent. See my post for December 17, 2017 for background information.

Having just delivered an oracle of salvation in the voice of the Lord (vss. 8-9), the prophet now breaks into a psalm of praise in his own voice. S/he declares that God has “clothed” him or her with “salvation” and “righteousness.” Vs. 61:10. To Lutherans like me, this language suggests the righteousness and salvation won for us through Jesus’ innocent suffering and death, i.e., vicarious satisfaction, substitutionary atonement, etc. But the theology of substitutionary atonement is not a good fit for this oracle (nor is it a good fit for any scriptural text, but that is a topic for another day). Here God’s salvation refers specifically to God’s gracious act of restoring the exiles to their homeland and God’s promise to exalt Israel among the nations. Because the proclamation of God’s word and the fulfilment of that word are viewed by the prophet as a single continuous act, the prophet bearing the word is clothed with the salvation and righteousness the word is destined to bring about. It is the prophet’s identification with God’s word, his or her soul’s exalting in God that clothes him or her in righteousness and salvation. Vs. 61:10. Of course, it is not only the prophet who will be so clothed. “Righteousness and praise” will spring forth before “all the nations.” Vs. 61:11. As surely as the earth brings forth vegetation, so will the word of God the prophet proclaims bring forth righteousness that will embrace the world and incite praise. Vs. 61: 11.

“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent…” Vs. 62:1. Who is speaking here? Is this a continuation of the prophet’s discourse? Or are we now hearing the voice of the Lord? Does it matter? Most commentators believe that the words in chapter 62 are spoken in the voice of the prophet. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 by SCM Press Ltd) p. 374 citing Voltz, P., Iesaja, Leipzig, 1932. However that might be, I agree with Westermann that this sentence must be understood as a reply to the classical Hebrew lament, “How Long?” best illustrated throughout Psalm 13. “How long wilt thou forget me?” “How long wilt thou hide thyself from me?” “How long must I bear pain in my soul?” “How long shall the enemy be exalted over me?” The prophet’s/God’s response is “not much longer.”

It is important that the nations see Israel’s vindication. Vs. 62:2. The rebirth of a righteous people exalted by God makes known to the world the heart and gracious intent of God for all peoples. In much the same way, the resurrection of Jesus vindicates the community called church shaped by the Sermon on the Mount and suffering as a consequence of so living. It is not the great empires that “fret[] and strut[]” their hour upon the stage and are heard from no more that reflect God’s glory and implement God’s design. It is the people of the covenant living faithfully under the gracious reign of their God who embody God’s future for all humankind. Life within the covenant is God’s alternative way of being human.

“You shall be called by a new name, which the Lord your God will give you.” Vs. 62:2. A new name signifies a change in status. God changes Abram’s name (meaning exalted father) to Abraham (father of nations or peoples). Genesis 17:5. Jacob is re-named Israel. Genesis 32:28. The names “Forsaken” and “desolate,” often given to Israel by the prophets in their declarations of judgment, will no longer apply. Instead, the people will be called “My Delight is in her” and “Married” (as opposed to divorced or abandoned). Vs. 4 (not in our reading).

“You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.” Vs. 3. Note well that the symbol of God’s sovereignty is a people without an army and without any sovereign status. God exercises God’s power through God’s covenant relationship with Israel. Divine sovereignty is exercised by the power of example rather than by an example of power. The prophet therefore calls into question the church’s Constantinian assumptions about the necessity of state sanctioned violence to establish and maintain order. More specifically for us Lutherans, the prophet puts the lie to our understanding of the state as God’s instrument of civil peace enabling the church to undertake its spiritual mission. As I have said many times before, pacifism is not one of many biblical themes. It is the biblical theme that finds its ultimate expression in the cross.

Psalm 148

This psalm is one of a group (Psalms 146-150) that begins and ends with the expression of praise, “hallelujah” or “Praise YAHWEH.” It is beautifully structured. The injunctions to praise begin with the heavens, the angels, the sun, moon and starts descending to the earth and its creatures. The forces of nature, geographical features (mountains and hills) and plant life all are called to join in the choir of praise to God. All people from mighty kings, to slave girls to small children are drawn into this cosmic hymn of praise to the Creator. Finally, the call to praise is directed to “the people of Israel who are near to him.” Vs. 14. The perfect symmetry of this psalm is further illustrated by its final focus on this one particular people who, though at the narrowest end of the spectrum, are nonetheless “near” to the almighty Creator God.

Vs. 1 “Praise the Lord!” or “Halleluiah” A refrain that appears again and again throughout the psalm. The word “Yah” is a Hebrew short form for the name “Yahweh.” “Hallel” is the word for praise or singing.

Vs. 2 “all his angels” or “Kol Melachw” in Hebrew literally translated means “all his messengers.” “All his hosts” or “Cal Zaboth” likely refers to angelic beings. The similar term, “Yahweh Zaboth,” is common throughout the Old Testament and is often translated “Lord of Hosts.” It can also be translated “Lord of Armies” or “Lord of the heavenly beings.”

Vs. 3 “Cal Cochav Or” or “all you points of light.” The stars are called to give praise to God as are the sun and moon. This is reminiscent of a passage in the book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” Job 38:4-7.

Vs. 4 “You waters that are above the heavens.” Here we see a reference to ancient cosmology-the understanding of the earth as subsisting inside of a great bubble with the waters above held back by the sky and those beneath confined to the sea bed. Though perhaps not entirely consistent with our 21st Century understanding of the cosmos, it nevertheless displays a profound recognition that our existence is precarious and preserved only by the creative Word of the Lord holding all of the destructive forces of nature in check.

“He commanded and they were created.” Vs. 5. See Genesis 1 in which the universe is called into being by the command, “Let there be!” In verse 6 the psalmist declares that God “established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds which cannot be passed.” There is an echo here of Yahweh’s promise to Noah: “Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt-offerings on the altar. And when the LORD smelt the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.’” Genesis 8: 20-22.

“Ye sea monsters and all deeps” Vs. 7. In Canaanite mythology, the sea monster Tiamat was an evil symbol of chaos that reigned before creation. We can hear an echo of that in Genesis 1:2 where the pre-creation state of things is referred to as “Tohu Vabohu” or “without form and void.” In the Canaanite creation myth, Tiamat is defeated in a great battle with the sky god Maraduk. There is no “struggle” in the creation story, however. When God speaks, the waters withdraw and order is introduced into the universe. Fire, hail, snow and ice-all potentially destructive forces-were very much feared in a culture of subsistence farmers. Vs. 8. Yet even these powers serve the will of God. In verses 9-10 we are reminded of the creation account in Genesis chapter 1 where God creates each species according to its kind, including the “creeping things.”

In verses 11-12 “kings and princes of all the earth” give praise to God. This is reminiscent of the universal appeal found in Second Isaiah: “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow every tongue shall swear.’” Isaiah 45:22-23.

“He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him.” Vss. 13-14. The psalm comes to a climax with praise to God for what he has done for Israel. This is quite by design. Though Israel surely recognized her God as Lord of Creation, God’s saving power and loving kindness are demonstrated not chiefly in the realm of nature, but in the realm of history. It was in the Exodus that God showed Himself as the God of mercy who glories in raising up the slave and putting down the mighty. It is through God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Israel that God makes himself known as the God who keeps promises. So also in the New Testament God demonstrates that God is not merely “as good as His Word,” but that God in fact is God’s Word. See John 1:1-18.

Galatians 4:4-7

For background information on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, see Summary Article by James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org. Our lesson is a summarization of the main point Paul is making in this letter. Our salvation is relational. That is to say, we are redeemed not by adherence to the letter of the law, but through trusting Jesus, God’s Son through whom we have been adopted as God’s children. Paul contrasts the master/slave relationship governed by law, threat and the fear of punishment with the parent/child relationship that is grounded in parental love inspiring trust on the part of the child.

It is important to understand that Paul is not antinomian or hostile to Torah. The relationship between parent and child is not without boundaries, rules and expectations. The difference is that, as between parent and child, the rules serve the relationship. The relationship is not defined by the rules. That is enormously important because a lot of religion these days, much of it going under the name of Christianity, is more about rules than it is about our relationship with Jesus. For too many people, the Bible is essentially a rule book. The problem with that approach lies with the Bible itself. Its rules are frequently contradictory and always contextual. Nobody keeps all the rules in the Bible. So which ones do we keep? If you are going to raise up one passage out of Leviticus to condemn male homosexual conduct as “abominable,” don’t you have to say the same for people who eat lobster, also an abomination? See Leviticus 11:9-12Leviticus 18:22. Which abominations are more abominable and why? As long as you maintain that the Bible is a rule book, you will never get past that argument.

Jesus makes clear that, while there are rules in the Bible and that these rules must be taken seriously, not all rules are equal. When asked which commandment was the greatest, Jesus replied that there are two that tower over all the rest: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Mark 12:28-34. If you interpret the Torah in any manner such that it detracts from love for God and compassion for your neighbor or if you construe the scriptures in ways that drive people away from God’s loving embrace, you have got it wrong. That is why I say repeatedly (and most often in vain) to people who insist that biblical provisions preclude full inclusion of GLBT persons, “Look, you can scream ‘Bible, Bible, Bible’ in my face until hell freezes over and I’m going to keep replying “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” Either you use (abuse) people to serve the interests of the particular law that suits your fancy, or you put the whole law to work in the service of God and your neighbor. That is the very issue Paul addresses in his Letter to the Galatians.

Luke 2:22-40

Luke seems to be conflating a couple of Hebrew Scriptural traditions in this lesson. The first is the rite of purification for Mary following the birth of Jesus. This requirement is spelled out in Leviticus 12. The second is the required ransom of the firstborn. Exodus 13:1-16Exodus 34:18-20Numbers 18:16. The offering of “a pair of turtle doves, or two young pigeons” clearly pertains to the purification. No mention is made of the five shekel fee required to redeem a first born male child. It appears, though, that Luke is far more concerned with getting Jesus into the Temple than he is with explaining whatever ritual purpose might have brought him there. Luke’s purpose appears to be that of echoing the presentation of Samuel “to the house of the Lord at Shiloh.” I Samuel 1:24. Brown, Raymond E., The Birth of the Messiah-A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, (c. 1977 by Raymond E. Brown, pub. Doubleday & Company) pp. 450-451. Just as the shrine at Shiloh was the backdrop for Samuel’s consecration, so the temple serves as the staging for Jesus’ initiation into God’s service.

Luke’s gospel both begins and ends in the temple. The story opens with Zechariah’s service in the temple and ends with the disciples returning to the temple “blessing God” following Jesus’ ascension. Luke 1:5-25Luke 24:50-53. When Jesus goes MIA during a family pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he is found in the temple “about his Father’s business.” Luke 2:41-51. It may be that in drawing the implied parallel between the sanctuary at Shiloh (destroyed by the Philistines) and the temple in Jerusalem, Luke is foreshadowing the temple’s destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E. I must add that I have not found any commentary to support me on this. I may well be reading too much into the text. Nonetheless, I cannot help but believe that Luke has some literary/theological purpose in mind with all of his temple episodes.

Significantly, the main actors in this temple drama are not the priests responsible for performing the rites that allegedly drew the family to the temple in the first place. It is the prophetic voice of old Simeon that articulates Jesus’ calling. Vss. 25-35. Through revelation of some kind, Simeon has learned that he will see the Lord’s messiah before his dying day. Vs. 26. The Holy Spirit leads Simeon to the temple where his prophetic vision is fulfilled. Now he can die in peace.

Simeon’s song of blessing anchors Jesus’ mission in Israel’s longing for salvation and her hope for a renewed existence. He was, after all, “looking for the consolation of Israel” and found it in Jesus. Vs. 25. Yet Simeon’s words to the effect that God’s salvation has been prepared “in the presence of all peoples” and that the messiah is to be “a light for revelation to the gentiles” foreshadow the movement of the church in the Book of Acts beyond the scope of Israel. Vs. 31. The cross is also foreshadowed by Simeon’s warning to Mary that “a sword shall pierce through your heart also.” Vs. 35.

The other main actor in this drama is Anna, daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher. “Anna” is the Greek equivalent of “Hannah,” the mother of Samuel. It appears that from the death of her husband early in their marriage, Anna has been living a life of devotion to prayer and religious observance. The suggestion that she might have belonged to a religious community of widows providing service to the temple is interesting, but lacking in evidential support of any kind. Like Simeon, she was looking for “the redemption of Jerusalem.” Vs. 38. Whereas Simeon appears to have been speaking principally to Mary, Anna speaks of the child Jesus to all who, like her, anticipate the salvation of Israel.

 

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