Posts Tagged resurrection
When doing good doesn’t do any good; a poem by Julia Spicher Kasdorf; and the lessons for Sunday, November 26, 2017
CHRIST THE KING
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God of power and might, your Son shows us the way of service, and in him we inherit the riches of your grace. Give us the wisdom to know what is right and the strength to serve the world you have made, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
One of my favorite hymns begins with a question: “O Christ, what can it mean for us to claim you as our king?” See Lutheran Worship, (C. 2006 by Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, pub. By Augsburg Fortress Publishers) Hymn # 431. The question is difficult on a number of different levels. As an American, I chafe at the very idea of having a king. After all, didn’t we fight the revolutionary war to rid ourselves of a king? I don’t fancy being governed by a leader whose authority cannot be questioned, who cannot be voted out or impeached and who calls me to lay down my life for the kingdom. Our attitude toward kingly authority is perhaps best expressed by the sentiment I have recently seen expressed on so many toddler tee shirts: “You’re not the boss of me.” Nothing stimulates the testosterone quite like having somebody else try to tell us what to do with our lives. Yet that is precisely what Jesus does. Our lives, he tells us, are not our own. They belong to our heavenly Father and they can never be lived well until reconciled to his will. We prefer Burger King telling us that we can “have it our way,” to Christ the King who tells that our way leads to self-destruction.
More difficult than getting past the very idea of a king is coming to grips with the kind of king Jesus is. His life and ministry was anything but kingly. Kings get things done. That’s one advantage of being ruled by a king. King’s don’t have to bother with congress or worry about courts striking down their orders. Because they don’t stand for election, they don’t have to take the temperature of public opinion before they act. They can build bridges, drain swamps, fight wars and make the trains run on time in whatever way they see fit. Of course, there is a price to be paid for autocracy. As the lesson from Ezekiel demonstrates, kings frequently put their own interests above those of the people. They abuse their power. They can be cruel, ruthless and unjust. But what if you could find a king that really does love his people, who puts the common good above his own interests and who rules with justice and equity? What if you found a person with integrity so deep seated that s/he could not be moved by any bribe, threat or self-serving interest? If such a person were to exist, wouldn’t you gladly accept them as king?
In many respects, Jesus seems to fit the bill. Yet when offered the opportunity to reign as king, not merely over Israel but over the whole world, Jesus rejected it. Putting to one side the fact that the offer was made by the devil, wouldn’t it have been better for all of us if Jesus had accepted it? Think of how much good could be accomplished with Jesus controlling the levers of power rather than the likes of Emperor Caligula or Donald Trump! Jesus, however, will not take up the sword of empire, not even for the sake of his Father’s kingdom. The only weapons Jesus employs are words of liberation, healing, compassion and forgiveness. His only military strategy is victory through reconciliation. His only plan for achieving peace is peace itself. These methods usually are not politically effective. In fact, they might undermine our political efforts to affect needed social change. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible. Truth is often the first casualty in the political process. The language of diplomacy requires “incidental falsehoods.” For example, it may well be essential to American strategic alliances and to such noble objectives as achieving peace in the middle east to avoid official recognition of the Armenian Genocide of a century ago. Don’t the lives and wellbeing of people today trump recognition of people who have been dead 100 years? Can’t we find a way to honor the Armenian victims “under the table” while ignoring them-for strategic and humanitarian purposes-in the room where the sausage is made? Perhaps the day will come when the whole truth can be told-but not today.
Jesus will not settle for a peace that buries the truth. He won’t tolerate false narratives and he will not give way to the Nieburian siren song promising that the ends will justify the means-a rationalization we are all too prone to adopt. We can mock the Trumpian evangelicals all we want for supporting a pedophile like Roy Moore and a molester like Donald Trump because, after all, they support their moral agenda (which evidently does not include protection of women and girls from predatory males). But their rank hypocrisy only illustrates the end stage of the same path we so called progressives take when we turn a blind eye to the antisemitism of our allies in the struggle against Israeli aggression in the occupied territories. The desire to accomplish a great good and to see it done within one’s lifetime is hard to resist. That is why pastors and congregational leaders turn to coercive techniques when they are desperate to get programs off the ground or projects completed. It is also why Christians who seek to shape law and policy for the better frequently find themselves morally compromised. We can’t resist the temptation to grab the levers of power and use them to make history come out right. Like Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, we cannot bear to watch evil prevail and do nothing. Yes, turn the other cheek, but not now! Not under these extreme circumstances! The greater good of preventing such a travesty of justice as Jesus’ arrest excuses the limited use of the sword.
I don’t think this means necessarily that disciples of Jesus cannot engage in politics. I do think, however, that we might find we are not very good at it. It seems to me that a believing politician has to be willing to lose an election that, with the backing of a little money in exchange for an inconsequential vote or two, s/he might otherwise win. A Christian legislator may have to let a proposal for hunger relief, protections for civil rights or some other very worthy cause go down in defeat-if the cost of success means voting once again to bury the Armenian Genocide. A disciple of Jesus must never forget that no end, however noble, can justify unjust means for achieving it, but that the means always shape the ends in ways we cannot foresee. Following Jesus in the realm of politics is a daunting task requiring much integrity, honesty and humility. No wonder Martin Luther once remarked that a good prince is a rare bird.
Discipleship, in any area of life, means accepting the cruel fact that doing good might not do much good-but we do it anyway because it is what Jesus would have us do and it readies us for life under God’s reign of peace-whenever in God’s own good time it comes. Disciples of Jesus understand that while they must witness to and live under God’s gentle reign, none but God can bring it about. God does that very thing through patient, suffering love that will not allow for any shortcuts. That is the only weapon King Jesus wields and the only one with which we are armed. Following Jesus, then, most often means doing small, seemingly inconsequential acts of mercy, justice and peace on a day to day basis without stopping to consider whether it is accomplishing anything. It means taking up the cross and leaving the resurrection to God. Here is a poem by Julia Kasdorf that speaks of faithful discipleship, its challenges, costs and rewards.
We keep our quilts in closets and do not dance.
We hoe thistles along fence rows for fear
we may not be perfect as our Heavenly Father.
We clean up his disasters. No one has to
call; we just show up in the wake of tornadoes
with hammers, after floods with buckets.
Like Jesus, the servant, we wash each other’s feet
twice a year and eat the Lord’s Supper,
afraid of sins hidden so deep in our organs
they could damn us unawares,
swallowing this bread, his body, this juice.
Growing up, we love the engravings in Martyrs Mirror:
men drowned like cats in burlap sacks,
the Catholic inquisitors,
the woman who handed a pear to her son,
her tongue screwed to the roof of her mouth
to keep her from singing hymns while she burned.
We love Catherine the Great and the rich tracts
she gave us in the Ukraine, bright green winter wheat,
the Cossacks who torched it, and Stalin,
who starved our cousins while wheat rotted
in granaries. We must love our enemies.
We must forgive as our sins are forgiven,
our great-uncle tells us, showing the chain
and ball in a cage whittled from one block of wood
while he was in prison for refusing to shoulder
a gun. He shows the clipping from 1916:
Mennonites are German milksops, too yellow to fight.
We love those Nazi soldiers who, like Moses,
led the last cattle cars rocking out of the Ukraine,
crammed with our parents–children then–
learning the names of Kansas, Saskatchewan, Paraguay.
This is why we cannot leave the beliefs
or what else would we be? why we eat
‘til we’re drunk on shoofly and moon pies and borscht.
We do not drink; we sing. Unaccompanied on Sundays,
those hymns in four parts, our voices lift with such force
that we lift, as chaff lifts toward God.
Source: Sleeping Preacher (c. Julia Kasdorf 1992, pub. by University of Pittsburgh Press) Julia Kasdorf (b. 1962) is a Poet, essayist, and editor. She was born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania and received her BA from Goshen College. She earned an MA in creative writing and a PhD from New York University. She is the editor for the journal, Christianity and Literature and author of several books of poetry. You can find out more about Julia Kasdorf and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Though a prophet and critic of Judah’s cultic and religious practices, Ezekiel appears to have been of priestly lineage being intimately connected to the temple in Jerusalem and its worship. Ezekiel’s eccentric behavior, lurid visions and obscene imagery have discomforted both his Jewish and Christian interpreters. According to some Jewish traditions, the study of Ezekiel’s prophecies was restricted to men over the age of thirty. Ezekiel was a contemporary of Jeremiah. But whereas Jeremiah’s ministry took place in Jerusalem during and immediately after its final conquest and destruction by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E., Ezekiel preached among the exiles deported to Babylon ten years earlier in 597 B.C.E. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel viewed Jerusalem’s destruction as God’s judgment for her unfaithfulness. Judgment, however, is not Ezekiel’s final word. The book of his oracles ends with a glorious vision of a restored Jerusalem and a new temple from which rivers of healing water transform the land of Israel into an Eden-like paradise. The parallels between this vision (Ezekiel 40-48) and that of John of Patmos in Revelation 21-22 suggest inspiration of the latter by the former. For further general information on the Book of Ezekiel, see Summary Article by Dr. Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org.
Sunday’s passage is part of a larger section constituting all of Chapter 34. In verses 1-2, Ezekiel launches into a diatribe against “the shepherds of Israel.” The reference is to the Kings of Judah and Israel whose oppressive, self-centered and short-sighted policies lead to their nations’ demise. These kings/shepherds have put their own interests ahead of the flock, feeding their appetites as the sheep starve, wander away and become scattered. The prophet would have the exiles know that, as far as God is concerned, “enough is enough.” “I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.” Vs. 11. God will bring the people of Israel back from all the places to which they have been exiled. God himself will feed them and give them security from their enemies. Vss. 12-16. If you want a job done right, you have to do it yourself!
The kings are not solely responsible for Israel’s plight, however. In the absence of proper leadership and oversight, covenant life within the Lord’s flock has given way to the law of the jungle. The oppression of the monarchy is reflected in the oppression of the weak by the strong. Thus, God addresses the flock as well. “Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with the side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will save my flock, they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.” Vss. 20-22. For reasons known only to the inner circle of the lectionary makers, Verses 17-19 have been omitted from our reading. They expand further on this same theme.
In verses 23-24 God announces that he will set up over the people “my servant David, and he shall feed them; he shall feed them and be their shepherd.” Vs. 20. This is a little confusing. God has only just announced that God himself would be Israel’s shepherd, whereas now God announces that David (presumably a descendent) will have the job. These two notions are not necessarily contradictory, however, “for in the theology of Jerusalem the Davidic kings were an extension of Yahweh’s kingship.” Lemke, Werner E., “Life in the Present and Hope for the Future,” Interpretation, (Vol. 38, 2, 1984) p. 174. In addition to the term “shepherd” Ezekiel refers to the new David as a “prince” (Hebrew=nisi). The literal translation of this word is “exalted one,” a term that originated in the ancient Israelite tribal league existing prior to the rise of the monarchy. Ibid. Perhaps Ezekiel is deliberately avoiding the use of the Hebrew word for “king” (melech) because he wishes to make clear that this new David is not to be thought of as just a continuation of the dismal performance of his predecessors.
Ezekiel strikes a resonant chord. The blind embrace and elevation to leadership of known sexual predators to the highest offices in the land speaks both to the sickness of our governmental institutions and the perversity of the angry, white mob that is working hard to dismantle them. Somehow, we ended up with a president that is so mentally unstable that his generals are actually discussing how to handle the eventuality that he might fire off a nuke in a fit of pique as casually as he does his ill-considered tweets. The inability of our current leadership to govern, to unite the country or enact a coherent policy agenda comports with Ezekiel’s image of Israel’s self-serving “shepherds” whose inept leadership has impoverished and scattered the sheep.
Nonetheless, we cannot lay the blame of all our woes on our leadership. Unlike the unfortunate people of North Korea who inherited their bellicose, narcissistic, man-baby, we elected ours. The low approval ratings of our president, congress and judiciary are symptomatic of a general loss of faith in leadership. When we continue to vilify the establishment, characterize career politicians as crooked and dishonest, should it come as any surprise that fewer and fewer honorable people are seeking public office? When honorable people are so repelled by public service that they avoid or resign from it, who is left? Exhibit A can be found in Washington, D.C.-when he is not in Mara Lago. We must accept the fact that Donald Trump is in large part the product of our own selfishness and cynicism.
There are two observations I would make in this connection. The first has to do with the limits of human capacity for wise leadership. Few can bear the weight of the crown without being corrupted by it. Even fewer have the maturity, insight and moral courage to envision a good larger than their own parochial interests. That is why, I believe, Israel’s hope for salvation eventually turned away from reliance upon human leaders. The crown belongs to God alone. The Christian faith confesses that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ and received that crown to which every knee must finally bend. Yet this king will not have us bend in terror or under duress. He seeks obedience from the heart-something that must be won not through force of arms, but through faithful, suffering, enduring love that outlasts our distrustful resistance.
That leads me to the second observation. We are not yet a people capable of being led. The image of ourselves as sheep under the care of a shepherd does not play well in a culture of individualism like our own. We value our right to be our own person, make our own decisions and believe what we choose. While I have no problem with the state affording us these prerogatives, I am not convinced that we can hang onto them as we enter into the Body of Christ. It seems to me that the language of rights is foreign to and inadequate for defining life under our baptismal covenant with Jesus in the church. I believe one of the major flaws in American Protestantism is our penchant for organizing ourselves, whether nationally or as congregations, by means of constitutions that speak the language of rights rather than the language of covenant. We are, after all, a people who follow a king who reigns through laying down his kingly prerogatives and refusing to exercise his rights to self-defense, retribution and self-determination.
This is one of about twenty psalms thought to be associated with an enthronement festival for Israel’s God held in the fall, during which time worshipers made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem celebrating God’s triumph over all powers hostile to his rule. Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983, Bernard W. Anderson, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 175. The festival may have been patterned after rites common among Israel’s neighbors, such as the feast of akitu where the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma elish, was recited and re-enacted. Ibid. 176. However that might be, there is a critical difference between typical near eastern mythology on the one hand which tended to reflect and legitimate the imperial infrastructure, and Israel’s salvation narrative on the other hand acclaiming Yahweh as Lord. The difference is borne out by the fact that Israel’s worship outlasted her dynastic existence whereas the Babylonian and Canaanite religions died along with their empires.
Whatever its origins, Psalm 95 in its present state is obviously composed for use in public worship. It opens with an invitation for all Israel to worship God, not merely as creator, but as the God who is its “rock of salvation.” Vss. 1-2. Verses 3-5 declare that the whole of creation belongs to the Lord who is “a great king above all gods.” This might well be an ancient worship formula from a period of time when Israel acknowledged the existence of other deities, though always subject to Yahweh, her Lord. Nevertheless, its use in later Judaism functioned as a denial of even the existence of such gods. Vss 7b to 11 (not in our lesson) refer back to the narrative from our Exodus lesson as a warning to Israel. The worshipers must learn from the faithless conduct of their ancestors and its dire consequences not to be rebellious, disobedient and unbelieving.
The psalm is an illustration of just how important the narratives of God’s salvation history with Israel were for her worship and piety. The ancient stories of the wilderness wanderings were not dead history for Israel. They were and continue to be paradigms of covenant life in which Israel is challenged each and every day with God’s invitation to trust his promises and with the temptation to unbelief and rebellion. So, too, as the church year draws to a close, we prepare to begin anew the narrative of Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection through the eyes of Mark’s gospel. This story, as it is enhanced and enriched through the prism of our weekly readings, illuminates and informs the real life choices that are ever before us. We see ourselves in the tentative response of the disciples as they follow Jesus and finally betray, deny and abandon him. More significantly, we recognize our own new beginning in the resurrected Christ who seeks out his failed disciples and calls them to a new beginning.
For a brief introduction to the Letter to the Ephesians, see Summary Article by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN at enterthebible.org.
This remarkable passage consists of one single sentence in the original Greek. The Old Revised Standard Version retains the sentence structure making it impossible to read this lesson from the lectern without hyperventilating. Thankfully, the New Revised Standard Version used for our readings has broken this passage down into bite size pieces. A preacher could generate more than a dozen sermons trying to unpack this profound expression of the mystery of faith.
I believe that this passage from Ephesians is a wonderful (if tightly packed, layered and condensed) statement of what Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father means. It is therefore appropriate for the celebration of the reign of Christ. The right hand of the Father is everywhere there is and, consequently, so is Jesus. The church is described as “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Vs. 23. That is a bold statement. It says a great deal more than that Jesus is a revelation of God or God’s will. It says more than that Jesus is an exemplar, an expression of God’s image which might be found in any exemplary person who is, after all, created in God’s image. Jesus lives not merely as an idea, but as the glue that holds the universe together and the means by which God is bringing all things into submission to God’s will. The telos (Greek word for “end” or “purpose”) of the world is Jesus. To follow Jesus is to go with the grain of the universe. To go against him is to cut against that grain, to be on the wrong side of nature and history.
In a recent article published by the New York Times, James Carroll wrote: “Yet Jesus Christ is the point of all the smells, bells, rules and dogma; the point, finally, of being Catholic. Ironically, the failures of the church make that point with power, for it is when one dares imagine the deliberate act of lapsing that the image of Jesus Christ snaps into foreground focus. Here, perhaps, is the key to Pope Francis’s astounding arrival, for beyond all matters of style, doctrine and behavior, he is offering a sure glimpse of a fleeting truth about the faith: The man on his knees washing the feet of the tired poor is the Son of God.
“Francis is pointing more to that figure than to himself, or even to the church, which is why institution-protecting conservatives are right to view him with alarm. For this pope, the church exists for one reason only — to carry the story of Jesus forward in history, and by doing that to make his presence real. Everything else is rubrics.” James Carroll, “Jesus and the Modern Man,” New York Times, November 7, 2014.
What Carroll has said here about the Roman Catholic Church is every inch as true for American Protestant denominations. We are nothing if not “institution-protecting.” The precipitous decline in membership and support we have experienced in the last two decades (and before if we had been paying attention) has only exacerbated and raised to panic level this self-defeating behavior. In some respects, this takes us back to the whole question of leadership raised by our lesson from Ezekiel. The leader we desperately need is one that can point us beyond our angst over institutional decline to the figure of Jesus. Jesus alone can give us the courage to die and, paradoxically, the promise of life.
Professor Nolland suggests that the reading for Sunday was originally a parable by Jesus about a king who entered into judgment with his people, but has been progressively allegorized by the early church to the point where it has become an account of the final judgment rather than a parable. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2008 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 1024. I trust there is no need for me to repeat my skepticism about scholarship seeking the so-called “Historical Jesus” behind the gospel witness as we have it. I nevertheless agree with Nolland’s literary judgment that this story is not a parable. It is, as he points out, the climactic conclusion to the parables of the Ten Maidensand The Talents. Ibid. at 1022. Whereas the preceding parables stressed preparedness and faithfulness, the story of the final judgment paints in stark relief that for which the disciples must prepare and the shape their faithfulness must take.
The image of the Son of man separating the people of the nations as a shepherd separates sheep from goats faintly echoes our lesson from Ezekiel. As the reign of the new David in Ezekiel was to be an extension of God’s just and merciful reign, so also the Son of Man is an extension of God’s presence in judgment and salvation. A shepherd might separate the sheep from the goats in his flock for any number of reasons, one being that goats need protection from cold at night not required for sheep. Ibid. at 1026. It would be a mistake, however, to read more into the shepherd’s reasoning than is required to make sense of the story. It is enough to know that such separation was common and so a useful image for the separation to be made finally of those recognized by the Son of Man from those not so recognized.
The point of the story turns on the failure of both the sheep and the goats to recognize the significance of their actions/inactions. The story is both a judgment on the nations of the world for whom divinity is wrapped up in imperial might and worship given to the symbols of Roman power as well as encouragement to the church whose acts of compassion toward “the least” is in fact the highest possible service to the one true God. The way of patronage that advances one upward through the hierarchical strata of Roman society turns out to have been tragically misguided. When the true “king” arrives, the contacts required to win his favor will turn out to have been the very folks we go out of our way to avoid: the homeless, hungry, sick, naked, imprisoned and abandoned.
My Lutheran associates often get hung up on this text because it appears to advocate salvation by works rather than by God’s grace. Caring for the poor and hungry becomes the basis for salvation rather than faith in Jesus. Nothing could be further from the case. If works had been the basis of their salvation, the sheep would not have been so clueless about their acts of kindness to the Son of Man. Because they have been shaped by their friendship with Jesus in the baptismal community called church, their works are not their own. They simply flow from their living relationship to Jesus as naturally as breathing. Their left hand knows not what their right hand is doing. See Matthew 6:3.
Nonetheless, I have often wondered whether this story is not as much a rebuke to the sheep as to the goats. In his book, Toxic Charity, Robert D. Lupton shows how good-intentioned Christians are actually harming the people they are trying to help. Too many efforts to help the poor actually make the poor feel judged, looked down upon, only worthy of charity and handouts. The tendency is to see these people as “social problems” that need our help rather than valued persons deserving honor, respect and friendship. Lupton, Robert D., Toxic Charity, (c. 2011 by Robert D. Lupton, pub. by HarperCollins Publishers).
Perhaps the sheep could use some help recognizing their King in the faces of those for whom they are caring. Acts of charity can be and are done by Christians and non-Christians alike. Anyone can feed the hungry, but only the church can invite them to the messianic banquet. Anyone can show genuine compassion to someone in need. But only a disciple of Jesus can recognize in such a person the presence of Jesus. It is just this recognition that “the least” are not “social problems” needing a solution, but rather “the treasure of the church,” as St. Lawrence would say, that distinguishes friendship with the marginalized from toxic charity. The “least” are, in fact, priceless invitations to deeper intimacy with Jesus.
On this Sunday of Christ the King, we are asked what it means for us to be subjects of a King whose nearest associates are the hungry, the poor, the naked and the imprisoned. Taken seriously, discipleship as Matthew envisions it turns our social/economic/political world on its head.
Blessedness of dying broke; a poem along the same lines; and the lessons for Sunday, November 19, 2017
TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Righteous God, our merciful master, you own the earth and all its peoples, and you give us all that we have. Inspire us to serve you with justice and wisdom, and prepare us for the joy of the day of your coming, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“I was afraid.” Matthew 25:25
At first blush, the parable of the talents in today’s gospel strikes us as rather severe. Three servants each receive a sum of money to be held in trust. Two of them invest and double their master’s wealth and are richly rewarded. The third keeps it safe and returns it to the master with neither profit nor loss-and is severely punished. But how much of this is really the third servant’s fault? No one can predict a bull market. That is why investments that promise a high return are considered risky. What if this parable had taken place in the fall of 2008? What if the first two servants had come back with only a tenth of their original trust? Would the master then have said to the third servant, “Well done good and faithful servant! You dealt with my money carefully and prudently”? Would he have punished the first two servants for taking imprudent risks? Doesn’t the parable place upon the servants responsibility for matters well beyond their control?
No. To read the parable in this fashion is to miss the point. The first two servants were not rewarded for their investment successes and the third servant was not punished for fiscal incompetence. The first two servants are commended for being “faithful.” Nothing more is required of them. Success is God’s concern. The servants don’t have to worry about that. They need only use the resources given to them faithfully and God will accomplish whatever it is God intends to accomplish through them. Whether the result looks like success or failure to them in the end is immaterial. Freed from the crippling fear of failure, the servants can go about their work with hopefulness, joy and expectation. That is what faith looks like.
The opposite of faith is fear. “I knew that you were a hard man,” says the third servant, “and I was afraid.” But was that really the case or was it merely the servant’s perception? If the servant believed his master to be a “results oriented” boss with an eye only for the bottom line, then his decision to “play it safe” makes sense. Investments that require innovation, risk taking and novelty often do not pay off until years later-if at all. They are not an attractive option when your annual review is coming up in six months. That is why a management plan rewarding short term success and punishing failure has been shown again and again to be a failed business model. Fear and innovation don’t mix.
Fear is the author of many a poor decision. This week fans of ex-Fox commentator Sean Hannity began smashing their Keurig coffee makers because Keurig withdrew its advertising from Hannity’s show. That doesn’t make a great deal of sense. The only one you hurt by such a demonstration of disapproval is yourself. It’s rather like protesting a movie you don’t like by buying a ticket and not going in to see it. But people do stupid things when they are afraid and anger is, after all, just fear that doesn’t know what to do with itself. Fear inspires people to support political measures that are sure to hurt them economically, i.e., a southern border wall, trade wars and health care legislation limiting insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. Fear seduces otherwise intelligent people to believe all kinds of nonsense, i.e., Barak Obama is a Kenyon born Muslim bent on implementing Sharia law; the killings at Sandy Hook elementary school never happened and are just an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the liberal media; Hillary Clinton murdered Vincent Foster and opened up a child porn service out of a pizza parlor; the U.S. Air Force is concealing the bodies of extra-terrestrial aliens, etc. We (I at least) might be inclined to mock such incredulity. But none of us are our best selves when we are afraid. As nutty as some of these beliefs appear, they help make sense out of life for people whose world is coming apart and who cannot understand why. When you are convinced you are going under, you grasp at any flimsy straw within reach.
Too much of what our church does, both on the denominational and parish levels, is inspired by fear. And let’s face it, declining membership, dwindling financial resources and a culture that is becoming increasingly indifferent to organized religion are all scary things. In a time when our existence seems to be threatened, we are less likely than ever to take risks, be innovative and embrace the cross. Our first impulse is to grasp, hang onto and depend on the things we know. We know how to run capital fund drives; we know how to erect sanctuaries; we know how to develop liturgies and plan worship; we know how to advertise. These are the things to which we turn as we try to save ourselves and preserve what we have. None of that is necessarily bad, but our reliance upon it for our salvation is misplaced.
If I am reading this parable correctly, saving ourselves and preserving what we have is the last thing we should be trying to do. What ought to concern us is not the possibility that we will lose all that we have. Rather, we should be concerned that the last day will catch us with money still in the bank. We should be worried Jesus will return to discover that we have not spent all that we are and have in the service of our neighbors and in witnessing to the gentle reign of God. This century may well see the death of the church as we know it. But that should not concern worshipers of the God who raises the dead. Better to have died in confident faith than to survive until the end with nothing to show for it other than unspent potential, wasted opportunities and unfulfilled intentions. Jesus challenges us to a life of faithfulness in which loss, failure and death are not determining factors. He calls us to live thankfully, faithfully and generously, knowing that in him all things are ours to be spent in his service-and after that, to arrive at the grave broke.
Here is a playful little poem that gives us an inkling of what joy there may be in squandering all for the sake of the kingdom and the reward that comes with it.
I own the golden sunlight
breaking over the pines.
I own my neighbor’s pansies
growing neatly in spaced lines.
I own the orange harvest moon
that hangs above the hills.
I own the sparrows that come to feed
at the seed troughs on my sills.
I own the pathway through the woods
that leads down to the river.
I own the song the waters sing,
the pebbles they deliver
as on their journey to the sea
they run their endless course.
They haven’t time for worry,
nor the patience for remorse.
I own the nighttime sky
and every star on its dark vale.
I own the mighty ocean
where the ocean liners sail.
Someday I will be through
with checkbooks, funds and property.
I’m sure that once I’m broke
the world will have no use for me.
Creditors will seize my goods,
the tax man take my home.
And once they have these trifles,
then they’ll leave me on my own.
With all distractions gone
and not one penny in my plate,
at last I’ll have the leisure
to enjoy my vast estate!
Zephaniah is one of the twelve “minor” prophets, so called not because they constitute a minor prophetic league, but because their books are far smaller than those of the “major” prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel). According to the first verse of his collected writings, Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. This king, who ruled from 640 B.C.E. to 609 B.C.E., was credited in the book of II Kings for instituting in the latter part of his reign sweeping religious reforms and ridding the kingdom of idolatry. II Kings 23:1-25. The prophet’s sustained criticism of Judah’s religious infidelity suggests that he ministered in the earlier part of Josiah’s reign before the passage of his reforms. Zephaniah’s lineage is traced back to one called “Hezekiah,” but it is not known whether this Hezekiah is the Judean King by that name who ruled between 715 B.C.E. and 687 B.C.E. during the ministries of the prophets Isaiah and Micah. Zephaniah’s oracles begin with the prophet’s warning of a catastrophic judgment of cosmic proportions that will sweep away not only Judah, but all of humankind. For more general information on the Book of Zephaniah, see Summary Article by Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N.
In this Sunday’s reading, Zephaniah delivers a scorching rebuke to his nation. Like Amos in last week’s reading, Zephaniah warns that the “Day of the Lord,” a common term for God’s hoped for salvation, would be nothing of the sort for the sinful nation of Judah. Significantly, in the omitted verses 8-11, the prophet directs withering criticism toward “the king’s sons” and “those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud,” but not the king himself. Josiah was only eight years old when he assumed the throne of Judah. II Kings 22:1. It is unlikely that he would have exercised any true political authority at this point (much less had any sons!). Thus, it is reasonable to suppose that the “sons” of whom Zephaniah speaks are Josiah’s brothers, the sons of the former king, Amon. Like his father, Manasseh, Amon practiced idolatry and it seems that his sons continued in that vein. Zephaniah’s reluctance to criticize the king directly might well have been due to his reasonable fear of the consequences. It might also have stemmed from his hope that the boy king Josiah might yet prove himself made of better stuff than his father when he finally grew into the crown. The practice of “leaping over the threshold” mentioned in verse 9 appears to have been a pagan ritual upon entering a shrine. See I Samuel 5:5.
The agent of God’s judgment upon Judah will come from the north, entering by way of the Fish Gate at the northeastern wall. Vs. 10. It must be born in mind that this period of time was marked by geopolitical instability. The Assyrian Empire was fast disintegrating, leaving a power vacuum that King Josiah would later exploit to Judah’s temporary advantage. At this early point, however, the political future of the region was unclear. Restive nations now released from the yolk of Assyria were beginning to assert themselves. Like the disintegration of Yugoslavia into warring factions in the 1990s following the decline of Soviet rule, the near east was spinning into chaos as Assyria’s power faded. The feared invader from the north could therefore have been any number of potential foes. According to most scholars, the most likely suspects are the Scythian tribes. In any event, the immediate threat against which the prophet warned seems not to have materialized.
Neither military might nor wealth will be able to deliver Judah from the coming judgment. Vss. 17-18. Israel’s trust in these things is vain as their power is illusory. Yet there appear to be people in Judah whose trust is so anchored. They are, to use a contemporary term, “practical atheists.” “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill.” Vs. 12. The belief underlying this remark is that God does not get involved with human affairs. Other than worship, prayer or other religious activities, human conduct is of no concern to God. God is compartmentalized into the realm of the “spiritual” and has no place in the “real world.” Yet a God thoroughly removed from the economic, political and social realities in which human beings live might as well not exist. Belief in such a god is practically indistinguishable from belief in no god at all.
This reading does not portray our God as a kindly old over-indulgent grandfather. This is an angry God. In our modern 19th Century, rational, refined, ever white and ever polite protestant piety, a God of wrath and judgment is viewed as inconsistent with the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ. Lately, though, we are learning that the real world is a good deal messier than our quaint Enlightenment rationalism once led us to suppose. Anger and love are not as far apart as we imagine. Most acts of violence are domestic. The bloodiest conflicts often take place between religious, cultural and racial groups that are closely related. The people we love most are those with the greatest capacity to hurt us. A God incapable of anger would be a god that didn’t care. A god that that never gets in the way of what we want would not be a God of love, but one of benign indifference. It is precisely because God loves us so passionately that God is so deeply grieved and so thoroughly outraged by our self-centered and self-destructive behavior. God’s judgment, severe though it may be, is another manifestation of God’s love seeking to save us from ourselves. Even the bad news is really good news.
This gloomy psalm is attributed to “Moses, the man of God.” Vs. 1. The attribution was probably added late in the life of the Psalter. Wieser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 595. That, however, is no reason to discard the possibility that the psalm’s origin was in some fashion connected to Moses. While we know that the alphabet and thus the written Hebrew language did not exist during the time of Moses, we also know that poetry originating during the time of the Judges, also pre-alphabet, was passed on in oral form and written down only centuries later. (i.e., The Song of Deborah at Judges 5:1-31). It is not so much of a stretch to suggest that the same might be true of songs sung by the people of Israel before their migration into Canaan.
However scholars might resolve the question of authorship, it is obvious from a canonical standpoint that the worshiping community of Israel associated this psalm with Moses. This is the prayer of a people that has seen years of suffering, hardship and sorrow. As God’s mediator, it is not inconceivable that Moses might have uttered such a prayer. Adding to the peoples’ misery is the knowledge that their own sins and folly are at least partly responsible for the predicament in which they find themselves. They recognize in their sorrow the just wrath of God upon the evil they have done and the just consequences of the bad choices they have made. Beyond all of this, the psalm seems to recognize a universal sorrow that goes with being human. No matter how good life may have been to us, it inevitably slips away. Our children grow up and begin living lives separate from our own. The house, once boisterous and chaotic, is now quiet and a little empty. We retire and someone else takes our place. We lose our ability to drive. We might have to move out of the home we have lived in for most of our lives. Time seems to take life away from us piece by piece. As it all comes to an end we are left with unfinished tasks, unrealized dreams, regrets about those things of which we are now ashamed, but can no longer change.
Moses might have prayed this prayer on behalf of his people as they struggled through the wilderness toward a promise he knew that he would never see fulfilled. It always seemed a tad unfair to me that God denied Moses the opportunity to enter into the land of Canaan with the people he had led for so long all on account of what seems a trivial offense. (See Numbers 20:2-13). Yet that is the way of mortal existence for all of us. We bring life to the next generation, but will never know that generation’s final destiny. Our strength leaves us before we have been able to complete the many tasks we have set for ourselves. We often die without knowing which, if any, of our efforts to achieve lasting results will bear fruit. We can only pray with the psalmist that God will establish the work of our hands and complete what we could only manage to begin.
Formally speaking, the psalm is in a class by itself, defying the categories of scholarly classification. Though it begins by praising God’s creative and eternal power, it is hardly a song of praise. Like a lament, this poem is decidedly dark, but the psalmist is not crying out for salvation from any threat of extraordinary danger or the prospect of a premature death. The psalmist is simply reflecting on the limitations of being a mortal creature in a perishable world. From dust we are made, to dust we return. Vss. 3-4. We are like the grass, flourishing in the morning and perishing before sunset. Vss. 5-6. But in one crucial respect we are not like the grass or any other non-human creature that is content to live its span and return to nourish the earth from which it came. We want more. Unlike Jesus and very much like Adam, we view godhood as “a thing to be grasped.” Philippians 2:5-6. Yet every time we reach out for the prize of god-like immortality, we run into our mortal limits. Each passing day reminds us that our bodies and minds are in decline.
The psalmist understands and accepts (as our own culture frequently does not!) that such is life as God’s creature. There is no escape from mortality. So the psalmist prays that s/he might live wisely and well within his/her creaturely limits. How very contrary that prayer is to our fixation on youthfulness, our preoccupation with covering up the evidence of aging, our promethean dreams of indefinitely extending the length of human life through medical and technological advances! Yet it should not seem at all radical or unusual to disciples of a man who was misunderstood all his life, died violently in his youth and was abandoned by his closest friends and supporters in the end. Life need not be eternal to be eternally significant. Nor does life need to be long in order to be full and complete. If you follow Jesus, you know that the criteria by which our world measures the value of a human life are false and distorted. Not surprisingly, they lead us to despair.
As dark as this psalm is, it does not despair of human existence. Rather, it seeks wisdom to live faithfully within our human creaturely limits. In the final verse of the psalm (not included in our reading), the psalmist prays that God would “establish the work of our hands.” Vs. 17. It is, after all, only God who can endow our lives with true value and significance. It is only by commending our works into God’s hands that we can hope they will find any degree of permanence beyond the measure of our days. That we have the work of this psalmist’s hands enshrined in our scriptures testifies to the truth of his/her words.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 90 in its entirety.
For my comments generally on Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, see my post for October 22, 2017, See also Summary Article by Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, M.N.
Sunday’s reading is another one with a focus on “the day of the Lord.” As pointed out in my introductory remarks, this is a broad term that can be applied to any watershed time of salvation such as the Exodus from Egypt. But it is also used to denote the final triumph of God’s justice throughout creation. This latter sense is the one St. Paul intends in our lesson. One thing to keep in mind about the “Day of the Lord” is that it is about judgment as much as it is about salvation. You cannot have salvation of the righteous without judgment of the wicked. Finally, it must be said that we are never on shakier ground than when we presume we are wholly on one side of that divide and someone else is on the other. The line between good and evil runs right through the middle of every heart. Paul warns his church that the final judgment is already making itself felt in the present moment. Even now believers must shake themselves out of sleep (Vs. 6) and put on the armor of faith, love and hope. Vs. 8.
Though Paul reiterates what has been said in the gospels, that the Day of the Lord will come “like a thief in the night” (Vs. 2), that should not be a cause for alarm. In contrast to the rest of the world, which assumes that the cosmos is on solid ground and will continue indefinitely along the lines established in the past, disciples of Jesus understand that the night will not go on indefinitely. The daylight is coming. Now is the time to begin practicing how to live and move in the light so that the Day of the Lord will come as a welcome and anticipated moment rather than as a blinding flash of light to eyes accustomed only to the darkness.
The Day of the Lord appears as a disruptive and disturbing event to a world alienated from its Maker. It is not the apex of gradual social evolution toward a better society. Neither is it the endpoint of a predetermined historical clock whose workings are buried in the apocalyptic literature of the Bible. The church is no more knowledgeable concerning God’s timing than is anyone else. But Jesus has delivered to his disciples God’s coming kingdom now. Church under the cross is the shape that kingdom takes in a world that is not yet ready for it.
Once again, the bottom line is comfort. Apocalyptic imagery used here by Paul and throughout the scriptures is not intended to scare the socks off people. “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Vs. 9. Paul urges us “to encourage one another and build one another up” in this hope. Vs. 11.
This parable of the talents is also told in the Gospel of Luke, though with a few additional twists. Luke 19:12-27. As Professor Nolland observes, the master’s entrusting his slaves with money in this parable is unusual by 1stCentury Palestinian standards. One would normally make investment arrangements over a long period of absence in other ways. The slaves are thus being treated with unusual distinction. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) pp. 1013-1014. Though some commentators suggest that the talents represent a “business loan” of some sort, nothing in the parable supports such an interpretation. The money is not given to be used for the benefit of the slaves. Nor is there any suggestion that they are to share in the profits. The money is given to the slaves to be invested solely for the benefit of the master and his estate. That, of course, fits with the biblical understanding that “the earth is the Lord’s” and its human inhabitants but stewards. Psalm 24:1.
The term “talent” originally referred to a measure of weight on a scale. It then came to mean anything weighed and later to a specific weight of about thirty kilograms. Over time, it came to be used of money indicating the value of that weight of gold, silver, copper or whatever other precious commodity might be involved. It is the general scholarly consensus that silver talents are intended by Matthew. Ibid, p. 756. One talent, then, would amount to about six thousand denarii (Ibid), one of which constitutes a day’s wage for an agricultural laborer. Matthew 20:1-16. Thus, even one single talent amounted to a considerable chunk of change.
Upon his return, the master settles accounts with his three slaves. The first two mange to double their investment and are given the promise that their faithfulness with the “little” placed in their hands will be rewarded with responsibility over “much.” Vss. 20-24. The third slave took a different approach. Rather than investing the one talent he had been given, he buried it in the ground in a napkin to ensure its safety. This action was not commercially unreasonable. It was apparently an accepted means of keeping valuables safe. See, e.g., Matthew 13:44. But preservation is clearly not what the master was looking for. Instead of a glowing commendation, this third slave received a withering rebuke. Apparently, it was not enough for him to show that he had not pilfered or squandered the master’s goods. He needed to show that he had put them to productive use.
At a gathering of fellow clergy some years ago, I remember somebody remarking how he wished that Jesus had told this parable differently. He wished that at least one of the two successful slaves had both failed to earn interest and lost his principle. The master would nevertheless commend the unsuccessful but gutsy slave on his entrepreneurial spirit. So my friend would have had the parable end. But that proposed telling misses the point in a most obvious way. The two slaves are not rewarded on the basis of their success or their risk tolerance, but on the basis of their faithfulness. The operative words are: “well done good and faithful slave.” Where one is faithful to Jesus, his/her work will bear fruit. When one does the work of the kingdom, one cannot but succeed. Of course, success on God’s terms and for God’s purposes might not meet with our expectations of what success should look like, but that is a discussion for another day.
The problem, then, with the third slave was his lack of faith. He did not really believe in the mission with which his master had entrusted him. He thought it wiser to conserve than to invest. As far as he could see, there was no future in venturing all that had been given into his care. He could not comprehend Jesus’ warning that all who seek to save their lives ultimately lose them or his promise that those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will save them. The third slave was too fearful of losing his master’s money to make any good use of it. He thought that the only way to keep himself out of trouble was to preserve until the end what had been given to him. But God seeks missionaries, not custodians. That is a timely message for churches obsessed with maintaining their buildings, preserving their endowments and hanging on to ways of being church that no longer answer the call to make disciples of all nations.
Choosing the right kind of heroes; a poem by Denise Levertov; and the lessons for Sunday, November 5, 2017
ALL SAINTS SUNDAY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
I was a junior in High School when I first read Slaughterhouse-Five, a satirical novel by Kurt Vonnegut that chronicles the World War II experiences of his fictional character, Billy Pilgrim, from his time as an American soldier into the postwar years. The story is told in a surreal, unchronological fashion such that Pilgrim’s post-traumatic stress induced delusions mesh with his life experiences making it impossible for the reader to disentangle them. At one point, Pilgrim comes into contact with the work of Kilgore Trout, a failed novelist and author of a cheesy book entitled The Gospel from Outer Space. Trout’s novel narrates the journey of a visitor from outer space who studies Christianity to determine “why Christians found it so easy to be cruel.” The problem with the Christian religion, as the alien visitor sees it, is that its Christ is so clearly linked to God. He had connections. Who would dare to kill him? Who could expect to escape divine retribution for so do doing? Who could pardon anyone for rejecting the teachings of one so obviously close to God? The takeaway: Don’t kill people with connections.
The alien thus attempts to revise the gospel story by making Jesus not the exalted Son of God, but an ordinary, unappealing and bothersome bum nobody likes or cares about. Only after this alternative Christ is abused, neglected and left to die is he revealed as God’s son. Thus, the takeaway message from the alien’s revised gospel is this: “From this moment on, [God] will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!”
Vonnegut’s alien is actually not so very far from the truth of the gospel. Anyone who reads the gospels with any degree of discernment will soon discover that Jesus was, in fact, crucified as a “nobody.” Moreover, he warned that abuse toward the “least” of humanity is a blow against him and his heavenly Father. The kind of Christianity the alien encounters on his visit to earth is in reality a horrible distortion of the discipleship toward which Jesus calls us. Nonetheless, it accurately parodies a lot of American religion seeking to pass for Christian that sees in Jesus a moral avenger rather than a friend of sinners. The ghastliest distortion comes to us from the pre-millennial sects that have Jesus returning to a world reduced to misery by a divinely inflicted “tribulation” in order to defeat the armies of the nations with overwhelming violence and to cast into hell anyone who hasn’t the sense to believe in him after witnessing such fireworks. Such a Christ, though hardly the one proclaimed by the gospels, nevertheless fits the profile of a nation that looks to guns for security, deifies warriors and accepts school shootings as a normal and unavoidable (if regrettable) part of day to day life.
Just as we Americans are tempted to embrace the wrong Christ, we are similarly drawn to the wrong kinds of heroes. Whether it be old-fashioned westerns, comic superhero movies or police dramas, the plot is always the same. Innocent victims are beset by irredeemably evil predators. The innocent are finally rescued by a powerful male protagonist who employs violence to destroy or subdue the enemy. Everyone lives happily ever after-until next week. The characters are so hopelessly two dimensional and the plot so simplistic that we are unable to wonder what drives the evil antagonist, whether s/he is best by mental illness, scarred by an abusive upbringing or motivated by some noble, if misguided belief system. There is no room for sympathy toward the antagonist, for doubts concerning the innocence of the victims or the purity of the protagonist’s motives. Nothing must be allowed to contaminate our pure moral outrage, cool our sympathy for the victim or muddy the clear distinction between good and evil. That would only spoil the cathartic release we all expect when the protagonist justly guns down, beats up or otherwise annihilates the antagonist. The message is clear: Good and evil are delineated by clear and unambiguous moral boundaries. There is no room for compromise and no possibility of reconciliation. There is no alternative beyond life and death conflict. Good conquers evil through brute violence. As so famously articulated by the NRA, “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
Given this singular morality play repeated in so many different genres to audiences of all ages on the stage of moralistic simplicity, it should come as no surprise that we are becoming increasingly polarized and unable to view our political opponents as anything less than enemies. It is no mystery why we have managed to elect a president whose sole means of governance is confrontation. Violence from gang warfare to suburban road rage is readily understandable when we realize that such conduct flows from our emulation of the heroes from whom we learned from childhood about courage, manhood, good and evil. Violence is the only tool left in our box. No wonder we treat everyone whose ideas are different, whose race is other than our own and whose language is unfamiliar as an enemy. We lack the imagination to do otherwise.
All Saint’s Day is the church’s opportunity to offer our culture an alternative set of heroes. We are called to remember women and men who stood up alone and unarmed to speak truth to power. We memorialize the believers who faced bravely the raging bull of oppression with only the word of truth. We lift up those who renounced the ways of violence, coercion and materialism in favor of poverty, hunger for justice, mercy, peacemaking, meekness and purity. We celebrate the memories of people who gave their own lives for justice and peace rather than trying to achieve these ends by taking the lives of others. We honor those who have chosen to suffer violence rather than inflict it. Our heroes are people like Stephen, who prayed for the very people who were lynching him. We honor people like Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic nurse who risked certain death at the hands of the Nazis when she smuggled approximately 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto before its destruction. We teach our children to emulate Kyla Mueller who dedicated her life to serving vulnerable populations in impoverished and war-torn areas of the world, and who ultimately was murdered by ISIS fighters while she was assisting a hospital caring for Syrian refugees from Aleppo. We do not rejoice in the death of evil people through retributive justice. We rejoice in the death of saints whose lives bear witness to the greater restorative justice of bread and dignity for all, reconciliation and peace.
All Saint’s Day is the Veteran’s Day of the Church. It is our opportunity to honor and be inspired by those persons whose faithful discipleship mirrors the love of Jesus for the world. Our heroes are not “super.” To the contrary, they recognize perhaps better than the rest of us that the line between good and evil passes through the midst of every human heart, including their own. Just as the same potential for selfishness, meanness and cruelty driving the most depraved criminal dwells in some measure within the heart of the most dedicated saint, so also the image of God in Christ can never be entirely erased from the worst among us. For that reason, the saint understands that violence can never cleanse and redeem us. Only love can save us from ourselves; only reconciliation can give us genuine peace; only forgiveness can break the cycle of vengeance keeping us at each other’s throats from one generation to the next.
To be a saint is to embrace suffering, not because suffering is good in itself, but because the cross is the shape love always takes in a sinful world. A saint understands that the future belongs to the God who raised from death the man who gave his life to love and invites his disciples to do the same. For this reason, Jesus tells us, the life of the poor, hungry, meek, peaceful and persecuted saint is blessed.
Here is a poem by Denise Levertov about the strange blessedness of saintliness.
The Wealth of the Destitute
How gray and hard the brown feet of the wretched of the earth.
How confidently the crippled from birth
push themselves through the streets, deep in their lives.
How seamed with lines of fate the hands
of women who sit at streetcorners
offering seeds and flowers.
How lively their conversation together.
How much of death they know.
I am tired of ‘the fine art of unhappiness.’
Source: Poems 1972-1982 (c. 1975 by Denise Levertov, pub. By New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2002) Denise Levertov (1923–1997) never received a formal education. Nevertheless, she created a highly regarded body of poetry that earned her recognition as one of America’s most respected poets. Her father, Paul Philip Levertov, was a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and subsequently moved to England where he became an Anglican minister. Levertov grew up in a household surrounded by books and people talking about them in many languages. During World War II, Levertov pursued nurse’s training and spent three years as a civilian nurse at several hospitals in London. Levertov came to the United States in 1948, after marrying American writer Mitchell Goodman. During the 1960s Levertov became a staunch critic of the Vietnam war, a topic addressed in many of her poems of that era. Levertov died of lymphoma at the age of seventy-four. You can read more about Denise Levertov and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
My experience with The Book Revelation has always been bitter-sweet. Whenever I announce that I will be holding a Bible Study on Revelation, the initial response is enthusiastic. I find, however, that interest soon wanes when it becomes clear that I will not be announcing the end date for civilization as we know it, the identity of the antichrist or who can expect to be raptured as opposed to being “left behind.” The disappointing truth for many folks is that Revelation does not hold the key to predicting the future. It does nevertheless hold many other fascinating and edifying treasures often missed by those intent on using it as a crystal ball. For a good general overview of Revelation, see the Summary Article by Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Our lesson for Sunday is one of several self-contained liturgical interludes between the visions given to John of Patmos from chapters 4 through 22. See also, Revelation 4:9-11; Revelation 5:6-10; Revelation 11:16-18; Revelation 15:2-4; Revelation 16:4-7; Revelation 19:1-8. This hymn of praise, along with the surrounding narrative, was the inspiration for the old Norwegian hymn, “Behold, A Host Arrayed in White.” See Evangelical Lutheran Worship # 425. John of Patmos is given a vision of a “great multitude” too numerous to count. Vs. 9. These words echo the calling of Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 in which the patriarch is assured that God will make of him a “great nation.” See Kelly, Balmer H., Revelation 7:9-17, published in 40 Interpretation (July 1986) p. 290. That nation is precisely what John is looking at. It is a nation made up of every country, tribe and people yet its allegiance is to “God who sits upon the throne, and the Lamb.” Vs. 10. The political import of this vision is clear. The people called into existence by God and the Lamb, not the Roman Empire, will reign. God, not Caesar, sits upon the highest throne. All rule and authority belongs not to emperor, but to Jesus Christ, “the Lamb.”
We were first introduced to the Lamb in Revelation 5:1-5. He is the one being in all heaven and earth worthy to open up the scroll through which John must enter into the visions soon to be revealed. Though announced in the court of heaven as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Revelation 5:5), this being appears as a lamb that was slain. Revelation 5:6. This strange juxtaposition, the slain Lamb as the “conqueror” over the vicious predatory beasts to be revealed, is the key to understanding the Book of Revelation. Just as it is the crucified Jesus through whom God’s suffering love overcomes the violent reign of Caesar, so also through the suffering endurance of the seven churches addressed in Revelation 1-3 God’s gracious will for the world is both revealed and actualized. Contrary to appearances, the enduring reality is the life of the fragile, persecuted and demoralized churches-not the Roman Empire.
The great multitude robed in white represents the struggling churches as they truly are: loyal subjects of the triumphant Lamb. They have “washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.” Vs. 14. This is not to be understood as substitutionary atonement. This “washing” in blood refers to the churches’ sharing in Jesus’ suffering under the cross of Rome. They have come out of the “great tribulation,” that is, persecution under the reign of Caesar. Vs. 14. The image of white robes might very well be an allusion to baptism as well. The use of white garb for the newly baptized is evidenced very early in the life of the church and might well date from the New Testament era. The thrust of this vision is clear. Things are not as they seem. Presently, it appears as though Rome rules supreme and the churches are powerless victims. Caesar’s violence appears to have the upper hand. In reality, however, the patient, suffering love of God revealed in the slain Lamb is destined to outlast the empire. It is precisely through such suffering love that Caesar meets his defeat.
The song making up verses 15-17 evokes numerous images from the Hebrew Scriptures. Service in the temple of the Lord was seen as the highest possible privilege and delight. See, e.g., Psalm 84. Though reserved for the Levitical priesthood in ancient Israel, this privilege is now given to all the baptized. Language strikingly similar to Psalm 23 and Psalm 121 can be found in verses 16-17, i.e., “the sun shall not strike them,” “For the Lamb on the throne will be their shepherd,” and “he will guide them to springs of living water.” As in so many instances throughout the New Testament, John of Patmos draws from numerous familiar images in the Hebrew Scriptures and weaves them into his poetic portrayal of God’s sojourn with his church under the scourge of imperial oppression and violence.
In sum, “Revelation 7:9-17 is, therefore, unalloyed ‘gospel,’ a seeing and hearing of the final justification of the Christian hope. If it is to be part of the church’s proclamation, then, especially in Eastertide, it ought to be proclaimed without ‘if’ and ‘perhaps.’ Similarly, it will not do merely to hold out before persons tempted to despair only a future prospect, coupled with the advice to live out the times in between in chronological waiting. The strength of biblical hope is that it focuses on what is real rather than simply on what will be. Triumph will be because it is the fundamental truth of human life corresponding to the truth of God. Although apocalyptic enthusiasts have frequently reduced the images of Revelation to a time-conditioned calendar, the author surely meant to give the church a vision of God’s victorious vindication always ready to break upon the human scene, so that in the Apocalypse, perhaps more strongly than anywhere else, it is a case of the future determining and creating the present.” Balmer, supra at 294.
This is a song of thanksgiving for deliverance from unspecified distress. It is one of the “acrostic” psalms, the others being Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. Its form suggests that the psalm is more likely a mature reflection upon events in the past than a spontaneous expression of praise for something that just occurred. It is quite possible, though, that I take this view because most of the saving acts of God I have experienced appear only in the rear view mirror. That is to say, looking back on my life I can recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing me to the place where I stand today. But I am not one of those persons who experience the guidance of the Spirit in the present tense. I have seldom made choices in my life that I felt certain were inspired, willed or directed by God. Instead, I have stumbled blindly along through the darkness only to discover much later that Jesus has been with me in the darkness and has somehow gotten me to where I needed to be. And this despite my having taken the wrong course, made the wrong decisions and pursued the wrong dreams.
The psalmist invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Vs. 8. This offer to “taste” makes clear that faith is neither an intellectual exercise nor an emotional attachment. Faith takes the shape of “eating” and sustaining oneself on the promises of the Lord. “[T]hose who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” Vs. 10. It is life lived out of a relationship of trust and confidence in the Lord to provide all things necessary.
From verse 10 the lectionary takes a flying leap to verse 22 which reads: “The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.” This is not to be taken as immunization against condemnation by any human court. We know well enough that the innocent frequently are condemned by unjust and oppressive structures. Even in relatively just societies justice sometimes miscarries. But the judgments of all human authorities are relative and subject to reversal in God’s court of appeal. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate reversal of human judgment. It is precisely because God raised Jesus, who lived according to the humanly impractical directives of the Sermon on the Mount, that believers can so live, endure the world’s rejection, ridicule and persecution but anticipate vindication on the Day of Jesus Christ.
Professor Stanley Hauerwas is fond of saying that the life of discipleship is unintelligible apart from the conviction that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from death. That is why the world, which does not know or believe in what God did through Jesus, finds disciples of Jesus so utterly incomprehensible-or at least it should. This is what separates Christian ethical conduct from every other ethical point of reference. It is precisely because disciples of Jesus are convinced that the Sermon on the Mount embodies the kingdom destined to come as it must exist in a sinful world that they conform their lives to it even when doing so seems ineffective, impractical and counter-productive. The Sermon is not an unachievable ideal. It was, in fact, achieved and lived out by Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ faithfulness to the Sermon he preached resulted in his crucifixion. That, standing alone, would validate what every “realist” tells us. The Sermon is impractical. If Jesus had remained in the tomb, we would have to concede that the cross proves the realist’s point. But God raised Jesus and that changes everything. To every objection of impracticality one might raise against following Jesus’ call to love our enemies, renounce the use of coercive force and lend without expecting repayment, the only proper response is, “but God raised Jesus from death.”
“Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him…” vs. 2. This is perhaps one of the most important words on the resurrection and eternal life. Far too common is the belief that eternal life is nothing more than a continuation of our present existence-only without sickness, poverty, warfare, Barry Manilow and whatever else makes life miserable. A friend of mine once told me that “death is not real,” that it is no more than “passing through a door.” But if I am the same person on the other side of that door as I am today, nothing has changed. If I carry with me into eternity the same prejudices, the same grudges, the same scars and the same selfish ambitions that characterize my present existence, eternal life will be nothing more than a continuation of all the animosity and strife we now experience-except that there will be no end to it. That sounds very much like Jean Paul Sartre’s portrayal of hell in No Exit.
Death is not only real, but necessary. That is precisely why Paul speaks of baptism as being joined in Jesus’ death. Romans 6:1-4. We need to become the sort of people who can live faithfully, joyfully and obediently under the gentle reign of God in Jesus Christ. That requires repentance which is a sort of death. Repentance, it must be emphasized, is not an individual act. It is rather a way of living in community shaped by the faithful practices of preaching and hearing, Eucharist, prayer, sharing of resources, almsgiving and witness.
The problem with the Beatitudes is the same as the problem we have with the well known lullaby, “Rock a by Baby.” The words are so familiar that their shock value no longer registers. Seriously, does anyone really think it’s a good idea to sing an infant to sleep with a song ending in the fall of a baby from the top of a tree? So, too, is there anything inherently blessed about poverty, mourning and persecution? Yet unlike “Rock a by Baby,” which in my view has no redeeming value, the Beatitudes make sense, but only when read against the backdrop of Jesus’ obedient life, faithful death and glorious resurrection.
Moreover, when properly understood as the preamble to the Sermon on the Mount, it becomes obvious that the conditions of beatitude are not metaphorical. Poverty, real poverty, is what can be expected when you lend without expecting return, refuse to re-take what has been stolen from you and forego coercive measures to enforce your “rights.” I therefore agree whole heartedly with Dietrich Bonhoeffer in rejecting the all too common belief that Matthew’s beatitudes represent a watering down of Luke’s briefer version in the Sermon on the Plain. “There is no justification whatever for setting Luke’s version of the beatitudes over against Matthew’s. Matthew is not spiritualizing the beatitudes, and Luke giving them in their original form, nor is Luke giving a political twist to an original form of the beatitude which applied only to a poverty of disposition. Privation is not the ground of the beatitude in Luke nor renunciation in Matthew. On the contrary, both gospels recognize that neither privation nor renunciation, spiritual or political, is justified, except by the call and promise of Jesus, who alone makes blessed those whom he calls, and who is in his person the sole ground of their beatitude.” Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, The Cost of Discipleship, (c. 1959 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 119.
It is important to recall that it is not suffering in general, but the suffering consequential to faithful discipleship that Jesus calls blessed. As pointed out in a frequently quoted passage from the works of John Howard Yoder, “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling [Jesus’] society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c. 1972 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 129. Faithfulness to Jesus divides families, invites hostility from the surrounding culture and often requires the sacrifice of life itself. Though they do not frequently make the cut for what the mainstream media considers “news,” there are plenty of instances throughout the world of Christians experiencing poverty, mourning and persecution for their obedience to Jesus. That we do not typically experience these things in the United States is perhaps more an indicator of the church’s lack of discipleship in these parts than the “religious freedom” in which we take such pride.
So what is the “All Saints Day” spin on this text? For some reason, that question calls to mind a novel I read in my twenties entitled Morte d’Urban. It was written by J.F. Powers. The main character is Father Urban, a priest and member of the fictitious Clementine monastic order. Urban is personable, a skilled organizer and a charismatic speaker. His leadership skills are much needed to shore up his failing Clementine order, but the order is run by unskilled, incompetent and less forward looking men who consistently assign Father Urban to positions where his gifts are wasted. Yet wherever he goes, Father Urban uses every opportunity to further the interests and growth of the Clementines.
Over time, however, Urban begins harkening to a different voice calling him to integrity, self-awareness and compassion. The more Father Urban grows into this new self, the less successful he becomes in his role as a promoter of the Clementines. He eventually alienates the powerful and wealthy benefactors he spent so much time and effort cultivating. Ironically, it is at the point of his lowest level of competence (and the height of his spiritual development) that he is appointed leader of the failing Clementine order. His leadership proves to be as ineffective as that of his predecessors-but effectiveness is perhaps overrated.
Is Morte d’Urban a cautionary tale, a parable for a failing protestant establishment desperate to save its institutional life? When survival is at stake, both institutions and individuals are sorely tempted to put spiritual priorities to one side. The bottom line becomes the only line anyone looks at. When new money comes in the door, one tends not to look very carefully at where it came from or how it was made. If somebody within the institution is successful at bringing in membership, building up support and attracting wealthy donors, one does not scrutinize the methodology. As long as nothing blatantly illegal is going on, let the golden goose keep laying! What the heck, it works. None of us likes to think we are that mercenary. But when an institution feeds you, clothes you and provides your medical coverage, it is hard to resist grasping at anything that will extend its life.
What does saintliness look like in our context? What are the qualities we seek in our leaders? Are we valuing effectiveness over faithfulness? Or is this a false dichotomy? Do we need to ask “effective in doing what?” What is a faithful church supposed to look like in 21st Century North America? Are poverty, mourning and persecution marks of such a church? How are we measuring the success of our bishops, pastors and leaders? Is “success” even an appropriate category for such measurement? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it troubles me that so few in our church are asking them.
 I understand that women are breaking into acting roles in the superhero and police genre. I suppose that’s a good thing-if equality and diversity are genuinely advanced by our acknowledgment that women are as competent as men when it comes to killing people and breaking things.
Reconciling irreconcilable differences; a poem by Daniel Webster Davis; and the lessons for Sunday, October 15, 2017
NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Lord of the feast, you have prepared a table before all peoples and poured out your life with abundance. Call us again to your banquet. Strengthen us by what is honorable, just, and pure, and transform us into a people of righteousness and peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.” Philippians 4:2.
This intriguing snippet from Paul’s letter to the Philippians in Sunday’s second lesson is one of many highly personal, particular and cryptic references in the epistles that makes me long to know more. Who were Eudia and Syntyche? In what respect were they not “of the same mind in the Lord?” What little we know is that Eudia and Synctyche were women who worked “side by side” with Paul to proclaim the gospel and that Paul views them both as “fellow workers” whose names are written “in the book of life.” In short, they were both dear friends and valued colleagues of the apostle who is clearly pained by their apparent discord.
Though we can only speculate over what their points of disagreement might have been, it seems obvious to me that the dispute or disputes between these two women were not of the trivial sort, i.e., what color to paint the church restrooms, where to situate the choir during worship or which sauce to use at the annual pasta dinner. These women were, after all, leaders and co-workers with St. Paul in his gospel ministry. As such, we can safely assume that they were mature in their faith, deeply committed to the mission of the church and zealous for the kingdom of heaven. For this very reason, we can also assume that each of these women’s respective positions stemmed from a significant concern that the mission of the church be carried out faithfully and well. Both women had the best interests of the church and the kingdom to which it witnesses at heart.
Paul was no stranger to such disputes. We read in the Book of Acts that he separated from his long-time partner, Barnabas, over a disagreement involving staffing for an important missionary journey. Acts 15:36-41. Paul found himself at odds with many of his fellow Pharisees at the Jerusalem council where he presented the case for his ministry to the gentiles. Acts 15:1-29. He also had a sharp confrontation with the Apostle Peter in Antioch over Peter’s practice of “dividing the table” between Jewish and gentile believers. Galatians 2:11-14. Paul understood that principles are important, particularly as they pertain to preaching and practicing the gospel of Jesus Christ. But he also understood that principles are meant to serve the Body of Christ, not the other way around. Paul knew that amputation is not the treatment of choice when curing an ailing body part. So he does not take sides as between Eudia and Syntyche. He does not scold or reprimand them. Nor does he recommend that they part company. Instead, he urges them to work at becoming reconciled, to be at one in the Lord.
Reconciliation is hard work. It does not happen overnight and sometimes those of us who find ourselves at odds need help getting there. That is why Paul appeals to the entire Philippian congregation to “help these women.” They need help in extricating themselves from a dispute that has become bigger and stronger than both of them. At its best, that is what the church does. It creates a supportive, but honest forum where its members are loved and accepted while their respective viewpoints are rigorously evaluated and judged. Living in such a community calls for maturity, humility and a very thick skin.
During my first year of seminary back in the late 70s, I did my fieldwork training at a small congregation in downtown Minneapolis. That is where I met a youth minister I will call Tony. Tony told me that he was ordained, but “flying a little under the radar” at the time. When I asked him what he meant by that, he told me that he had come out as gay in his first congregation in the northern half of the state and had been asked to leave his pastorate. His bishop was in the process of removing him from the clergy roster. I asked him something along the lines of why he remained in a church that didn’t want him. Tony smiled and said, “Well, it’s like this. I know the church doesn’t want me. Believe me, there are plenty of days when I don’t want the church either. But Jesus wants me and the church sort of comes with him. So, me and the church are kind of stuck with each other whether we like it or not.”
I have thought about that a lot over the years. I’m not sure that I would have been as determined as was Tony to stick with the church if I had been in his shoes. I tend not to hang out very long where I get the sense that I’m not wanted. But Tony understood what Paul also understood, namely, that the church is Christ’s Body and we don’t heal its wounds by hacking off its wounded members, that Jesus sometimes calls people who are total jerks to follow him, that we don’t all arrive at a knowledge of the truth at the same time, that there are those of us who think we have arrived but still have a long way to go, that we all need each other if we are going to arrive at the end of the journey, that the mind of Christ is formed in communities of people that don’t always get along and sometimes don’t even like each other very much. That’s church. It’s not for the faint of heart.
The gritty determination of people like Tony and St. Paul strikes a dissonant chord in a culture where religion is just one more consumer good that can be had at any corner church. There is little incentive to remain in a congregation where, for whatever reason, you don’t feel at home. Why not find a more congenial church or, failing that, start your own? That’s the American way, isn’t it? Perhaps, but it is not the way of Jesus and his church. We are called to be a community of people who do not give up on one another. Discipleship requires living with irreconcilable differences until in God’s good time we are led to a place of reconciliation. The church is God’s ambassador for reconciliation. The church exists to demonstrate for all the world that there is a better way to be human, that our divisions can be healed and that the future need not be a replay of our contentious past. Reconciliation is not just a utopian pipe dream. It is the only practical way forward for a world in danger of social collapse, thermonuclear war and catastrophic climate change. The alternative to reconciliation is too terrible to contemplate.
Here’s a delightful little poem about reconciling differences among the people of God by Daniel Webster Davis.
De Linin’ ub De Hymns
Dare a mighty row in Zion an’ de debbil’s gittin’ high,
An’ de saints done beat de sinners, a-cussin’ on de sly;
What for it am? you reckon, well, I’ll tell you how it ’gin
Twuz ’bout a mighty leetle thing, de linin’ ub de hymns.
De young folks say taint stylish to lin’ out no mo’,
Dat dey’s got edikashun, an’ dey wants us all to know
Dat dey likes to hab dar singin’ books a-holin’ fore dar eyes,
An sing de hymns right straight along to mansion in de skies.
Dat it am awful fogy to gin um out by lin’,
An’ ef de ole folks will kumplain ’cause dey is ole an’ blin
An’ slabry’s chain don kep dem back from larnin how to read,
Dat dey mus’ take a corner seat, and let de young folks lead.
We bin peatin’ hine de pastor when he sez dat lubly pray’r
Cause some un us don kno’ it an’ kin not say it squar,
But dey sez we mus’ peat wid him, an’ ef we kan keep time,
De gospel train will drap us off from follin’ long behin’.
Well p’haps dez’s right, I kin not say, my lims is growin’ ole,
But I likes to sing dem dear ole hymns ’tis music to my soul
An’ ’pears to me twon’t do much harm to gin um out by lin’,
So we ole folk dat kin not read kin foller long behin’.
But few ub us am lef here now dat bore de slabry’s chain,
We don edekate our boys an’ gals we’d do de sam’ agin
An Zion’s all dat’s lef us now to cheer us wid its song,
Dey mought ’low us to sing wid dem, it kin not be fur long.
De sarmons high-falutin’ an’ de chuch am mighty fin’,
We trus’ dat God still understans ez he did in olden times;
When we do ign’ant po an’ mean still worshiped wid de soul
Do oft akross our peac’ful breas’ de wabes ub trouble rolled.
De old time groans an’ shouts an’ moans am passin’ out ub sight,
Edikashun changed all dat, and we believe it right:
We should serb God wid ’telligence but fur dis thing I plead,
Jes lebe a leetle place in chuch fur dem as kin not read.
Source: Poetry Foundation Magazine. This poem is in the public domain. Daniel Webster Davis (1862-1913) was a teacher, minister and poet. Born a son of slaves in rural Virginia, he moved to Richmond following the end of the Civil War. He began teaching in 1880 and was ordained a Baptist minister in 1896. Shortly thereafter, he became pastor of Richmond’s Second Baptist Church, a position he held for the rest of his life. Both in his writing and preaching, Davis engaged issues of racial justice, a task that required uncommon courage in an era marked by the violence of overt white supremacy. His true love, however, was the life of the church and its roots in the values of faith, family and friendship. You can read more about Daniel Webster Davis on the Poetry Foundation website.
This is a psalm of praise for God’s anticipated salvation. The Hebrew text is riddled with difficulties rendering the English translations doubtful at best. For example, the statement in verse 2 “Thou hast made a (or the) city a heap” is a questionable reading. Mauchline, John, Isaiah 1-39, Torch Bible Paperbacks (c. 1962 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 189. Commentators disagree over which specific city, if any, is intended. Most tend to favor Babylon. Ibid. It is also possible that the poem is dated as late as the Greek period under the Seleucids. Ibid. If either of these theories holds, then this song clearly could not have been composed by the Isaiah of the Eight Century B.C.E. as was the bulk of the material in Isaiah 1-39. The phrase in the same verse, “A palace of strangers to be no city” is also doubtful. Ibid. Whatever their dating and precise translation, the gist of verses 1-5 is clear. God will humble and bring to nothing the ruthless and arrogant nations oppressing the poor and helpless. The latter will be exalted and the former reduced to fear and awe before God’s justice.
Verses 6-9 contain the prophecy of a new age to be initiated by God’s saving activity. As is so often the case throughout the Bible, the coming of the messianic banquet is compared to a great feast, often a wedding feast. God is the host of this great feast which will be for “all peoples.” Vs. 6. Moreover, the people are to be fed with “fat things full of marrow.” Vs. 6. The “fat” of animals was reserved for the Lord according to Israelite cultic practice. See, e.g., Leviticus 1:8, 12. Here, however, this choice part is given by God to the people.
The “covering” and the “veil” over the nations to be destroyed by the power of God may refer to the former ignorance or the mourning of the “strong peoples” and the “ruthless nations” that have been chastened by God’s judgment. Vs. 7. The lavish hospitality of God poured out upon all peoples seeking his favor at Mt. Zion is capable of overcoming both types of blindness. The declaration in verse 8 that God will “swallow up death forever,” and “wipe away tears from all faces” is echoed by John of Patmos in Revelation 21:3-4. Death, like poverty and want, has no place in the new age. It does not necessarily follow, however, that immortality is intended here. Death, in Hebrew thought, was the natural end to life. It was seen as evil only to the extent that it was untimely or violently imposed. Thus, some commentators attribute this promise to the work of a redactor much later than either Second Isaiah or Third Isaiah. Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 13-39, The Old Testament Library (c. 1974 by SCM Press Ltd.) p. 201. While this may well be, the defeat of death can be interpreted in a way consistent with Hebrew thinking on the subject. Though death itself might remain in the messianic age, the evil of death might be said to have been vanquished in a world where all people live in peace and security to a ripe old age. Where death is restrained and prevented from disrupting the peace of the community or ending life prematurely, its destructive power is ended.
It is generally agreed by most commentators that Verse 9 begins a new and separate song of praise. Some scholars limit it to this one verse, while others suggest that it continues to verse 12. Ibid. 202. Nonetheless, verse 9 stands in the canonical text as a fitting conclusion to the preceding hymn of praise for God’s salvation. Israel’s patient waiting for the fulfilment of God’s ancient promises is to be vindicated on a day of the Lord’s choosing. Israel and all the world will then know that God’s people have not suffered, lived faithfully or died in vain. As noted above, it is impossible to date this passage with certainty, but the message is clear and applicable to many different times and places.
Professor Walter Brueggeman has said that commenting on the 23rd Psalm is almost pretentious. That has not stopped me from trying. Given the frequency with which this psalm appears in the lectionary, I am fairly sure that I have said about everything else I have to say at my posts for Sunday, July 19, 2016, Sunday, April 26, 2015, Sunday, October 12, 2014, Sunday, May 11, 2014, Sunday, March 30, 2014, Sunday, April 21, 2013 andSunday, July 22, 2012. I will only add that the NRSV’s translation of the last verse differs from the old RSV which reads: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The NRSV renders the passage: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” That has proved unsettling for a lot of folks who saw in that verse the assurance of everlasting life. While the newer translation is probably more faithful to the intended meaning of the Hebrew, I don’t believe that we are using this psalm unfaithfully at funerals. Life, after all, is God’s gift. It is precisely because life was grounded in God that Israel insisted immortality is not a property of the human person. There is nothing in us that survives death. Nonetheless, there is nothing inconsistent with God’s continuing to give us the gift of life even after death. Though life everlasting might have been more than was contemplated by the psalmist, in the light of Jesus’ resurrection it is nonetheless a proper extension of his/her confident assurance of God’s saving presence throughout his/her existence.
Once again, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is not one letter but three.
Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)
Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)
Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)
As you can see, this Sunday’s reading contains elements of the Letter of Friendship and the letter of warning. Verse 1 concludes the main theme of the letter of warning by urging the Philippian congregation to “stand firm” in the truth of the gospel against the onslaught of false teaching. Verse 2 turns to what appears to have been an internal problem for the congregation. It seems that two leading women of the congregation are at odds with one another, namely, Euodia and Syntyche. We know nothing of the dispute, but it is clear that Paul values both of these individuals as fellow disciples who have “labored side by side” with him. Vs. 3. This brief, cryptic note is a reminder that the church has been plagued by divisive forces from its inception. Unity in the Spirit must ever be carefully guarded and nourished with constant conversation, consolation, loving confrontation and forgiveness.
“Rejoice in the Lord always.” Vs. 4. Whatever faults the Apostle Paul had, he was ever thankful. He was thankful for his fellow workers in his missionary endeavors; he was thankful for his struggling little churches; he was thankful for his many experiences of God’s guidance and protection. But most of all, Paul was thankful for the grace of God through which even a persecutor of the church with blood on his hands could find forgiveness, peace and newness of life.
The admonition to “have no anxiety” is the corollary of trusting God’s promises in Jesus Christ. Anxiety is the consequence of assuming responsibility God never intended for us to have. It is the fruit of thinking that equality with God is a thing to be grasped. Philippians 2:6. We are not in a position to direct our destinies or plan our lives. Neither are we given the task of passing judgment on the value, success or importance of our lives. That job belongs to God. All we need to know is that God has made us his children through baptism, God has his own purpose for our lives and God will complete what he began in our baptisms. Nothing we do or fail to do will change that.
Verses 8-9 encourage the church to think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, gracious, excellent and worthy of praise. That is a refreshing word in a culture that thrives on scandal, gossip and maliciousness. It is a sad commentary on our national character that candidates simply cannot win elections without “going negative.” At least that is what professional consultants tell us. Are we really so bankrupt of ideas, imagination and the will to improve our lives that we cannot raise ourselves up without pulling someone else down? However that might be in the surrounding culture, Paul makes clear that this is not how life in the church should look. Instead, members of the Body of Christ seek reasons to praise one another, honor one another and bear with one another. For a body cannot be healthy unless all of its parts complement one another. When the politics of the church begins to resemble the politics of the world, the health of Christ’s Body is endangered. Church councils and Synod Assemblies take note!
This story of the feast and the thankless guests is told also in the Gospel of Luke with a different twist. See Luke 14:16-24. Unlike Luke, Matthew tells us that the host is a king and the occasion for the feast is the wedding of his son. The Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament frequently use feasting in general and wedding feasts in particular as metaphors for the kingdom of heaven. This rich imagery could not have been lost on Jesus’ hearers.
The story itself seems hardly credible. In a culture where the opportunity to dine on meat of any sort was a rare luxury, who would turn down the chance to eat one’s fill of prime rib? Who would miss the opportunity to dine in a palace and who would think it wise to abuse and kill the messengers of a king bearing such an invitation? Are these folks out of their minds? What sort of king would have to go out into the streets and beg for guests to attend such a splendid affair as the marriage of his son? And what sort of ingrate, having been undeservedly granted admission to such a grand occasion as the royal wedding, would show up in gardening cloths?
Yet I think the story’s very implausibility illustrates the point Jesus is making. The kingdom of heaven is the greatest gift God has to offer, yet human beings reject that gift and go so far as to kill the messengers announcing its coming. It is a parabolic way of saying what John tells us in his gospel: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19. Our attitudes of indifference and hostility toward the kingdom of heaven are no less inexplicable than the behavior of the invited guests toward the king’s wedding invitation.
Some commentators have concluded that vss. 11-14 (the guest without a wedding garment) was originally a separate parable. Indeed, Eduard Schweizer is convinced that these verses could not have been added by Matthew because they do not fit the thrust of the parable, namely, that the “first called” who rejected the invitation will be passed over in favor of the “chosen” gathered from “good and bad alike.” Vss. 8-10. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 by John Knox Press) p. 416. There is, however, no strong textual evidence in support of deleting verses 11-14. Moreover, I believe that the episode further illustrates Matthew’s point. Just as egregious as the outright rejection of the wedding invitation is the absence of thankfulness and respect shown by the guest’s lack of proper attire.
It would seem unfair to fault the ill clad guest if, as in Luke’s gospel, he had been drawn from “the poor and maimed and blind and lame.” Luke 14:21. But that is not the case in Matthew’s telling of the story. There is no indication in this parable that the guests were unable to meet the formal requirements of this gala wedding. Moreover, the guest does not plead this excuse or any excuse at all. We read only that he was “speechless.” Vs. 12. He had no excuse. The harshness of his treatment makes more sense when we recall that this is a parable of the kingdom of heaven, the rejection of which is its own punishment.
The sting of this parable becomes clear when set alongside Sunday’s reading from Isaiah. That lesson recites with vivid imagery the marvelous, generous, abundant feast of good things God prepares for his people. Yet so far from flocking from the far corners of the earth to partake of this great dinner, we ignore the invitation, go about our business and even mistreat the prophets bearing God’s invitation. I learned recently that the average active Lutheran Christian attends worship roughly twelve times per year. Note well that these are the “active” members, though by what reasoning one could call such spotty participation “active” escapes me. I suppose that these members are off each to his own business of tending the house down at the shore, racing to children’s athletic events or catching up on sleep-all of which takes precedence over the wedding feast of the Lamb.
I wonder what would happen if we offered $100,000 dollars to everyone who could get a certified statement from his/her pastor verifying that s/he had attended church for all fifty-two Sundays out of a given year. Somehow, I cannot imagine anyone giving up money like that for a kid’s soccer game. Nor do I think very many people would mind losing an hour or two of sleep on the weekend for a payoff like that. In short, I believe that such an offer would pack our churches to the rafters-for a year anyway. Makes you wonder who really is God in our lives. Once again, I think Stan Hauerwas says it best:
“This is an extraordinary parable that makes for uneasy reading for those who want Jesus to underwrite a general critique of elites in the name of creating a community of acceptance. To be sure, just as the previous parables had been, this parable is meant to make those in power and the well-off uncomfortable. Most of us, particularly in the commercial republics of modernity, refuse to recognize that we are ruled by tyrants or, worse, that we have become tyrants of our own lives. We believe that we are our own lords, doing what we desire, but our desires make us unable to recognize those who rule us. We have no time for banquets prepared by the Father to celebrate Jesus’s making the church his bride. We have no time for the celebration of the great thanksgiving feast in which we are “living members” of the King, the “Son our Savior Jesus Christ” (Book of Common Prayer 1979, 365). Such a people are right to be challenged by God’s hospitality to those who must live in the streets.
“Yet this parable also makes clear that those who come to the banquet from the streets are expected to be clothed by the virtues bestowed on them through their baptism. If the church is to be a people capable of hospitality, it will also have to be a community of holiness. Jesus expects those called to his kingdom to bear fruit (Matt. 21:34). He has made clear in the Beatitudes how those called to his kingdom will appear. To be poor and outcast may well put one in a good position to respond to Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom, but Jesus expects the poor and downcast to live lives worthy of the Lamb who will be slain. Only people so formed will be able to resist the emperors, who always claim to rule us as our benefactors.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub by Brazos Press) p. 189.
Forgiveness, Forgiving, being forgiven; a poem by Harindranath Chattopadhyay and the Lessons for Sunday, September 17th
FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord God, merciful judge, you are the inexhaustible fountain of forgiveness. Replace our hearts of stone with hearts that love and adore you, that we may delight in doing your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The lessons for this Sunday all dwell on forgiveness and forbearance in some fashion. In our lesson from Genesis, Joseph forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery recognizing that, what they did to him out of malice, God used to bring about salvation. Our psalm echoes the familiar refrain found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, namely, that God is merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Paul urges us to treat with gentleness and respect those whose path of discipleship differs from our own. In our gospel, Jesus reminds Peter by way of a challenging parable that our readiness to forgive one another must match God’s willingness to forgive us.
We need to have a clear understanding, though, about what forgiveness is and what it is not. Forgiveness does not absolve one of responsibility. Precisely because God forgives us, we are now set free to make right what we have done wrong-so far as is humanly possible. Being forgiven for our sins makes us more, not less responsible for their consequences. Forgiveness is not premised on anyone’s request to be forgiven. As Jesus’ parable in this Sunday’s gospel demonstrates, forgiveness might not be appreciated. It might not result in a changed life for the one forgiven. Nonetheless, just as God sends the sun and the rain upon the righteous and the wicked and showers both with his love and forgiveness, so disciples of Jesus are to forgive without regard to its effects. Finally, forgiveness is not a grant of permission for abuse. I might forgive my abuser and forego any thoughts of retaliation. But I will not simply permit him/her to continue injuring me without resistance. Quite apart from the issue of forgiveness, I have a moral responsibility to myself, to my abuser and to the community to break the cycle of abuse.
What, then, does forgiveness mean? From God’s side, it is a determination not to let sin define God’s relationship to God’s creation and God’s creatures. God will continue to work with our world, broken and misdirected as it is, to bring about a new creation. Even our acts of evil, selfishness and destruction can become God’s instruments for good-as was the case in the story of Joseph and his brothers. God refuses to give up on our world, and that means we can’t give up on it either. To forgive is to recognize God’s holy image in all people, even when they have names like David Duke and Richard Spencer. To forgive is to continue worshiping, serving and praying with a church full of people that continue to let you down. To forgive is to take a deep breath when someone cuts you off on the interstate-because you don’t know what kind of hell they might be going through. To forgive is to find something true, something beautiful and something good in each day, because it is, after all, the day the Lord has made. Forgiveness is seeing with a clear and unsentimental eye the world as it is, while at the same time holding tight God’s promise of all that it will be.
Here’s a poem by Harindranath Chattopadhyay with a unique take on forgiveness. It gives us a tantalizing hint about how deeply hurtful we can be in our everyday lives and the breadth of forgiveness required to cover us.
Each moment things forgive you. All your hours
Are crowded with rich penitence unknown
Even to you. Shot birds and trampled flowers,
And worms that you have murdered with a stone
In idle sport-yea, and the well whose deep,
Translucent, green and solitary sleep
You stirred into harsh wrinkles with a stick.
Red mud that you have bound into brick,
Old wood that you have wrought into bark,
Flame in the street-lamp held to light the dark,
And fierce red rubies chiseled for a ring…
You are forgiven each hour by everything!
Source: Poetry Magazine May, 1931. Harindranath Chattopadhyay was an Indian English poet, dramatist, actor and musician. He founded and administered the Hyderabad College in India, which later became the Nizam’s College in Hyderabad. You can find out more about Harindranath Chattopadhyay and sample more of his poetry at the Scroll.in website.
“Genesis is a rich composite of many different oral traditions, written sources, and editorial hands…The authors incorporated everything from the myths of ancient Near Eastern high culture to the local legends of Palestinian Bedouins. We can identify scores of different literary genres deriving from as many sociological settings.” Mann, Thomas W., “All the Families of the Earth: The Theological Unity of Genesis,” Interpretation, Vol. 45, No. 4, October 1991, p. 350. For more specifics as to written sources, see the online article Documentary Hypothesis; for a discussion of literary genres found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures see Coats, George W., Genesis: With an Introduction to Narrative Literature, The Forms of the Old Testament Literature, Vol. I (c. 1983 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Yet as diverse as its literary and written components are, we must focus on “the theological integrity of biblical narratives in their present canonical shape, rather than as dismembered pieces…” Mann, supra, at 343.That is to say, as fascinating as the process of biblical formation may be, it is the finished product that commands our primary attention. Furthermore, “[I]t is obvious that the book of Genesis does not stand on its own but looks beyond its own content to unresolved issues.” Mann, Supra, at 350. Just as the first eleven chapters of Genesis set the stage for the call of Abram and the stories of his extended family, so the Book of Genesis itself sets the stage for the liberation of Israel from bondage in Egypt that will occupy the narrative in the Book of Exodus. The state of slavery under Egypt will find its liberating contrast in the life of freedom embodied in Torah.
This should give us some context for understanding Sunday’s lesson which brings us to the conclusion of the patriarchal saga. As you may recall, Joseph’s brothers sold him as a slave to a band of traders in a fit of jealousy. They then told their father that Joseph had been mauled to death by wild beasts. Joseph, through a series of misadventures finally winds up in the court of the Egyptian Pharaoh where he engineers a food rationing program that saved Egypt from starvation over the course of a seven year famine. Canaan, by contrast, is caught off guard and Joseph’s father, Jacob, and his brothers are facing starvation. Knowing that there is food to be had in Egypt, Jacob sends Joseph’s brothers there with money to buy food. To abbreviate the account, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers and assures them that they need not fear retaliation. Then he sends them back with instructions to bring their father with them to the land of Egypt where they can ride out the famine.
When sometime later father Jacob dies, a disturbing thought occurs to Joseph’s brothers. What if Joseph was not as forgiving as he let on? What if he refrained from taking revenge only out of respect for his father? Now that Jacob is dead, what is to stop Joseph from doing to his brothers what he had done to them-or worse. Wishing to be proactive, Joseph’s brothers seek an audience with Joseph in which they plead their father’s dying request that he, Joseph, forgive them for the evil they have done. Whether this final testament of Jacob was real or manufactured, Joseph understands well enough that it reflects what his father would have desired. More significantly, Joseph recognizes that there is something bigger at stake here than whatever quarrel he might have with his brothers. Though the brothers acted out of petty jealousy, God was acting at the same time for the purpose of salvation for the family and for many other people. Joseph understands that he is not “in the place of God” who clearly was determined to save the lives of his brothers and their families and has accomplished that very purpose through Joseph’s ordeal.
It would be easy to trivialize this story by summing it up with the maxim: “All things work together for good.” While that is true, it must be born in mind that the good toward which all things work is not necessarily one’s own good. There was nothing good about Joseph’s years of slavery, his separation from his father and the malice of his brothers against him. Joseph’s good fortune later in the game does not erase the scares of what he had to endure. Yet God was able through these harrowing events to further God’s saving purposes and accomplish the good intended.
We should not fail to recognize the ambiguity inherent in this apparent “good.” Though saved from starvation, Israel is brought into Egypt, the house of bondage, as a result of Joseph’s influence. Note well that Joseph had, for all intents and purposes, forsaken his family, culture and faith in his meteoric rise from prisoner to prince of Egypt. We read that after appointing him to his new office, Pharaoh gave Joseph a new name, an Egyptian name. The new clothing he received was an Egyptian brand. The woman he married was an Egyptian woman-and not the common suburban type either. She was the daughter of a priest of Egypt’s gods. Genesis 41:50. Joseph did what all good immigrants are expected to do. He assimilated. He learned to dress and speak like an Egyptian. He married into a prominent Egyptian family. He adopted the religion of Egypt and even accepted an Egyptian name. If there is anything left of his Hebrew roots, Joseph has had the good sense to keep it out of sight. Joseph had no intention of returning home. The name Joseph gives to his second son says it all: “God has made me forget my suffering and my father’s house.” Genesis 41:51.
Though Joseph was sitting in the cat bird’s seat, the covenant was in grave danger of disappearing into the cultural soup of Egypt. It was salvaged only because God brought Joseph’s family back to him. Joseph’s reconciliation with is brothers was therefore not just a family affair. It was a turning from idolatry to covenant faithfulness on the part of a man who nearly forgot who he was. All of this prefigures the struggle Israel will undergo when she returns to the Promised Land and will be compelled to find ways of living faithfully within the context of a very enticing Canaanite culture.
There is also a note of irony in the story. Joseph’s rationing program became an instrument whereby the Empire was able to purchase the very bodies of his subjects rendering them slaves. Genesis 47:13-22. Little did Joseph know how suddenly the institution of imperial slavery he constructed would be turned ruthlessly against his descendants!
I frequently encounter people within the church who hold a very negative view of the Hebrew Scriptures. At the extreme end are folks (most of whom have not read extensively in the Hebrew Bible) who reject these scriptures as archaic, barbaric and contrary to “the God of love” revealed in the New Testament. In the first place, this characterization is inaccurate. The greatest biblical bloodbath with the highest body count is found not in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament book of Revelation. Moreover, the God Jesus calls “Father” is none other than the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament does not introduce to us “a kinder, gentler” God. Moreover, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with expressions and testimony to God’s love and compassion. The psalm for this Sunday is a testimony to God’s mercy and capacity for forgiveness as clear and beautiful as any found in the New Testament. Unfortunately, verses 9-13 are not included in our reading. They point out that “[God] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities.” “As far as the east is from the west, so far does [God] remove transgressions from us.” “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him.” The psalmist is a man or woman who has experienced firsthand God’s tender loving mercy.
This psalm begins not with an address by the psalmist to God, or with a declaration from God to the psalmist. The psalm begins with the psalmist addressing himself/herself with a command to “bless the Lord.” If you read Psalm 103 in its entirety (which I encourage you to do), you will discover that the psalmist proceeds almost imperceptibly from his opening soliloquy to declaration of God’s eternal love contrasted with human mortality. The psalm concludes with the psalmist calling upon the very angels and the entire universe to join in his/her song of praise. This marvelous opening out of a soul to the praise and Glory of God is a wonderful paradigm for prayer. St. Augustine felt much the same way:
“Bless, is understood. Cry out with your voice, if there be a man to hear; hush your voice, when there is no man to hear you; there is never wanting one to hear all that is within you. Blessing therefore has already been uttered from our mouth, when we were chanting these very words. We sung as much as sufficed for the time, and were then silent: ought our hearts within us to be silent to the blessing of the Lord? Let the sound of our voices bless Him at intervals, alternately, let the voice of our hearts be perpetual. When you come to church to recite a hymn, your voice sounds forth the praises of God: you have sung as far as you could; you have left the church; let your soul sound the praises of God. You are engaged in your daily work: let your soul praise God. You are taking food; see what the Apostle says: Whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God. I Corinthians 10:31. I venture to say; when you sleep, let your soul praise the Lord. Let not thoughts of crime arouse you, let not the contrivances of thieving arouse you, let not arranged plans of corrupt dealing arouse you. Your innocence even when you are sleeping is the voice of your soul.” Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Psalm 103, New Advent.
Last week Paul made the point that disciples of Jesus ought to have no debt beyond that of love toward one another. In this Sunday’s lesson he puts shoe leather on that concept. Friendships, marriages and intentional religious communities so frequently fail because they assume that, deep down under, we are really all the same. That is a lie. The deeper you go into the heart of a person, the more you discover how complex, unique and different s/he is from you. The more you get to know another person, the more obvious it becomes that there are some things about him/her that are beyond your understanding and that you will probably never comprehend. You cannot genuinely love another person as long as you insist on viewing him/her as just a variation of yourself. Love accepts the fact that there is a vast gulf between each of us. Love can do that because, as St. Paul reminds us, “love never ends.” I Corinthians 13:8. Because we have all eternity to grow in our knowledge and understanding of one another, there is no rush. We can afford to be patient.
“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak.” Vs. 1. According to one commentator, the “weak in faith” are those with “an inadequate grasp of the great principle of salvation by faith in Christ; the consequence of which will be an anxious desire to make this salvation more certain by the scrupulous fulfilment of formal rules.” Sandy, William and Headlam, Arthur C., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary, c. 1977 by T. & T. Clark, Ltd.) p. 384. I believe this to be an oversimplification. Paul seems principally to be addressing the “strong” here who likely characterize their scrupulous opponents as “weak.” It is unlikely that these scrupulous folks would so characterize themselves! For the sake of argument, Paul utilizes these patronizing terms, but only to stand them on their heads. Jewett, Robert, Romans-A Commentary, Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 834. There is a degree of sarcasm here as Paul admonishes the seemingly “strong” to exercise control over their urge to disabuse the “weak” of their misconceptions and so find genuine inner strength to love the “weak” without having to make them over into their own likeness. So also Paul assures us that the “weak” one will stand strong in the day of judgment because “the master is able to make him stand.” Vs. 4. In short, Paul is undermining the phony distinction between those who fancy themselves “strong” and the ones they contemptuously view as “weak.” No one is strong enough stand on his/her own strength and no one is too weak to be upheld by the strength of the Lord.
It is difficult to ascertain precisely what calendar of holy days or dietary restrictions are involved here. While it is tempting to assume that this dispute is between gentile believers not steeped in Jewish tradition and Jewish believers still deeply attached to their religious practices, the assumption might well be misguided. Anders Nygren points out that the weak were probably not Jewish believers because there is no blanket commandment in the Torah against eating meat or drinking wine. Nygren, Anders, Commentary on Romans (c. 1949 by Fortress Press) p. 442. Vs. 2. Again, however, Paul might well be employing hyperbole in order to make his point. Just as there probably exists no person or group that “believes he may eat anything,” so also it would be unusual for a 1st Century resident of Rome to eat “only vegetables.” Vs. 2. “The rhetorical effect of placing these parameters so far beyond the likely, actual behavior of groups in Rome is to enable each group to smile and feel included in the subsequent argument.” Jewett, supra at 838. At the end of the day, Paul’s stance toward both groups, the so called “strong” and the so called “weak,” is unmistakably evenhanded. Both weak and strong are present in the Body of Christ by Jesus’ gracious invitation. In that sense, all are “weak.” Both weak and strong are enabled to stand before God on the day of judgment in the strength of their faith in Jesus. In that sense, all are “strong.”
We need not dwell overly much on framing the issues Paul is addressing in this lesson. They are almost certainly moot by now. Nonetheless, Paul’s instructions to the church are insightful and instructive. Without even recognizing it, churches frequently seek people “who fit in,” who “share our sense of mission,” who “are like us.” The departure of large numbers in my own Lutheran Church over their inability to live in community with gay, lesbian and transgendered persons testifies to the ongoing relevance of Paul’s argument here. As one who has remained in the church precisely because I support its inclusive posture, it is tempting to posture myself as one of the “strong” and excoriate those who left as the “weak.” But I believe that in so doing I would be falling into the same flawed outlook held by the disputing groups in the Roman church. This schism must be seen as our church’s failure to accept one another, be patient with one another and allow the Spirit to complete in her own good time the mind of Christ in all of us.
How much and how often am I expected to forgive? That is Peter’s question and it is a reasonable one. We hear it all the time. How many times do I have to remind you to put down the seat! I can’t believe you forgot to pay the credit card bill again! Can you please stop doing that! You know how it annoys me. I don’t believe that Peter is speaking about actions that, in themselves, press the limits of forgiveness. He isn’t speaking of murder, robbery, arson or anything along those lines. Instead, he is speaking about the sorts of offenses people commit on a regular basis, often without even knowing it. Some people can’t help but offer you their advice, regardless whether you want or need it. Other people have odd mannerisms that can be extremely annoying. There are people who seem to have a natural gift for saying hurtful and insensitive things when you are most vulnerable. Often these people wind up in the church because we are probably the only community of people willing to put up with them. So am I supposed to be a bottomless reservoir of forgiveness?
Well, yes, says Jesus. Then he backs it up with the disturbing parable of the forgiven, but unforgiving servant. The parable is disturbing precisely because it suggests that forgiveness which does not inspire forgiveness in the one forgiven can be revoked. In other words, forgiveness is not unconditional. This isn’t the first time that Matthew’s gospel makes the point. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns his disciples “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Matthew 6:14-15. Perhaps it is best to read this parable less as a threat, and more as a very pointed question directed to Peter: If God’s unlimited forgiveness of our sins does not evoke in us the same breadth of compassion and forgiveness toward our neighbor, what good is it? Have we really heard that gracious word of forgiveness from God? Are we fully aware of the degree to which we harm one another and so dishonor God’s image? If, in fact, we are fully aware of the depth of our sin and the corresponding depth of God’s full and free forgiveness, how can we fail to be as forgiving toward fellow human beings?
As commentator John Nolland points out, this parable is hyperbolic and thus exceeds the parameters of any commercial transaction that might have occurred between slave and master in First Century Palestine. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 by Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 760. We should take care, then, not to interpret the parable literally or overly allegorically. From the context it is clear that Jesus is reinforcing for Peter what he has earlier said, namely, that his forgiveness for his fellow disciples must be as limitless as God’s forgiveness for him.
SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Faithful God, most merciful judge, you care for your children with firmness and compassion. By your Spirit nurture us who live in your kingdom, that we may be rooted in the way of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is not god.” Isaiah 44:6.
From May 29th-31st 1934 the Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church met in Barmen, Germany to address false teachings propagated by the “German Christians” appointed by the Nazis to administer the protestant churches under the Reich. Organized in 1932, the German Christian movement was driven by nationalistic ideology permeated with Nazi anti-Semitism. The movement affirmed Article 24 of the 1920 Nazi Party Platform, which read:
“We demand the freedom of all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not jeopardize the state’s existence or conflict with the manners and moral sentiments of the Germanic race. The Party as such upholds the point of view of a positive Christianity without tying itself confessionally to any one confession. It combats the Jewish-materialistic spirit at home and abroad and is convinced that a permanent recovery of our people can only be achieved from within on the basis of the common good before individual good.”
The German Christians saw in this statement an affirmation of “Christian values” which they saw as being under attack by modernistic thought and scientific inquiry. Therefore, they supported the Nazis and advocated the racist principles embodied in the Nürnberg Laws of 1935.
In response to this attack on the sovereignty of Jesus over his church, the subordination of the church’s teaching to the political agenda and policies of the Reich and the idolatrous exaltation of the state’s reign over the reign of God, the Confessional Synod had this to say:
- Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
- We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.
- We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords–areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.
- We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.
I invite you to read the Barmen Confession in its entirety.
The Barmen Confession has been rightfully criticized for its failure to address specifically the Reich’s anti-Semitic violence and violence against religious dissenters, racial minorities and political dissidents. Our Jewish sisters and brothers point out that the confessional church, for the most part, took the shape of an internecine ecclesiastical protest rather than a frontal assault on the evils of the Nazi government. Notwithstanding their shortcomings, however, the courage expressed by Barmen’s signatories under the threat of Nazi reprisal stands in stark contrast to the appalling silence of the American Church and its leaders in the face of flagrant conflation of Christian symbols and rhetoric with the ugliest manifestations of American nationalism by white Christians and the overwhelming support of such white Christians for the racist, homophobic, misogynist and xenophobic policies of the Trump administration in accord therewith.
The nationalistic ideology of “American exceptionalism” enshrined in the very first sentence of the 2016 GOP platform states specifically: “We believe that American exceptionalism — the notion that our ideas and principles as a nation give us a unique place of moral leadership in the world — requires the United States to retake its natural position as leader of the free world. Tyranny and injustice thrive when America is weakened. The oppressed have no greater ally than a confident and determined United States, backed by the strongest military on the planet.” This dangerous notion that America, as the savior and rightful defender of the free world, justifiably wields its influence carrying a huge thermonuclear stick, meshes well with the rhetoric of religious organizations such as Christian Nationalist Alliance which asserts (among other things) that “These United States of America were founded by Christian men upon Christian tenets” and that “Islam is a heretical perversion of the Judeo-Christian doctrine and must be recognized and treated as a threat to America and Western Civilization as a whole.” Defense of “Christian civilization” has regularly been invoked to justify harassment of and attacks against Muslim Americans and to uphold an irrational and inhumane ban against refugees fleeing to our country to escape oppression and violence. Exceptionalism is wholly consistent with ideology promoted by Focus on the Family whose “Truth Project” teaches that “America is unique in the history of the world. On these shores a people holding to a biblical worldview have had an opportunity to set up a system of government designed to keep the state within its divinely ordained boundaries.” It provides the perfect conceptual framework supporting the claim of Rev. Franklin Graham that Donald Trump is in the Whitehouse “because God put him there.”
This toxic mix of nationalism and aberrant Christianity has created an environment favorable to the expression of racist, sexist and anti-Islamic sentiments and acts of hatred against people of color. It has mainstreamed white supremacy to the point where formerly fringe characters like white supremacist Richard Spencer are able to secure interviews on NPR and alt.right extremists like Steve Bannon have become fixtures in the Whitehouse. We should be concerned about this new American nationalism injected with the steroid of religious fervor. As observed by Blaise Pascal, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
Let me be clear in stating that there is certainly nothing wrong with acknowledging and celebrating the unique history and character of the United States. Nor is there anything wrong with recognizing and affirming the democratic, egalitarian ideals of freedom reflected in its constitution. The notion, however, that the United States is somehow superior to other nations, that the United States is divinely favored to dominate all other nations, that there is some fixed American culture that must be defended against “foreign” (non-western, non-white, non-Christian) influences or that the interests and ambitions of the United States and its citizens should be given “first” priority over all other peoples is entirely incompatible with the Biblical confession of Israel’s God, the God and Father of Jesus Christ who reigns over all the nations and who has given his people Israel as a light to all the nations and the church as a witness to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ for all the nations.
Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical, Testem benevolentiae nostrae, warned Roman Catholics over a century ago against “some who conceive and would have the Church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world.” Though spoken in a very different context, these words nevertheless serve as a salutary reminder that the life of the Church is to be ruled first and foremost by its Lord and not by the cultural and ideological currents of nations in which it resides as a pilgrim and a sojourner. The Jesus we confess was born to a homeless couple fleeing as refugees from genocide in their homeland of Judea across the border into Egypt. Jesus was a dark-skinned non-person living under the oppressive reign of the Roman Empire. He practiced unconditional hospitality, welcoming to his table beggar and soldier, priest and prostitute, Jew and Samaritan. Jesus taught us that the two greatest commandments that norm all others are the commands to love the one true God who chooses and liberates slaves and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. His life of sacrificial love ending in his crucifixion was vindicated by God who raised him from death. It is impossible, consistent with allegiance to Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims, for one to elevate one’s own nation, its culture and its ambitions above the well-being of one’s neighbors throughout the rest of the world.
The question, then, is: can we continue to remain silent while the name of our Lord Jesus Christ is employed to support a ban on refugees fleeing oppression to our shores, legitimize and normalize racist rhetoric, demonize gay, lesbian and transgendered persons, promote a godless ideology of American exceptionalism that puts devotion to the nation state over God’s expressed concern for the salvation of the whole world? Yes, I am aware that all of the mainline churches have issued statements condemning specific actions of the current administration such as the discriminatory ban against refugees, restrictive and family-hostile immigration policies and environmentally destructive regulations. But that only scratches the surface of our country’s sickness, a sickness that has infected the church to the depths of its soul. What we need is to name the demon of idolatry. What we need is for the American church to come together around a Barmen like confession naming and rejecting the false god of American nationalism and the America first agenda to which no one believing in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church can possibly subscribe. The American church needs to unite in affirming Jesus Christ as the “one Word of God…which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death” to the exclusion of all “other events and powers, figures and truths,” purporting to be “God’s revelation.”
Here is a poem by Rev. Martin Niemöller, a leader in the confessing church, who was imprisoned under the Nazis. His warning is one all American church leaders should take to heart.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
This Quotation from Martin Niemöller is on display in the Permanent Exhibition of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. You can find out more about Martin Niemöller by visiting the site for the Holocaust Encyclopedia.
Like last week’s reading, this lesson is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6th Century B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. For more specifics on the Book of Isaiah generally, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.
Our passage is part of a single pericope containing vss. 21-22 also. Vss. 9-20 constitute a prose interpolation mocking the worship of idols. I would recommend reading the piece in its entirety. Isaiah 44:6-8, 21-22. This is one of many “trial speeches” from Second Isaiah in which the God of Israel, as plaintiff, calls the so called gods of the nations to appear and give testimony before him. The people of Israel, as jury, must decide the case. God challenges these deities to demonstrate whether they have ever spoken a prophetic word that came to fruition. The implication is that, so far from responding to the challenge, these gods fail even to make an appearance. Thus, the Lord declares rhetorically, “Is there a God besides me?” Then, in response to silence from the absent gods, God replies, “There is no Rock; I know not any.” Vs. 8. Turning, then to the jury, God calls upon Israel to remember “these things.” “These things,” might refer to God’s saving history narrated in the Exodus story, Wilderness Wanderings or the Conquest of Canaan. More likely, however, the reference is to the courtroom proceedings in which God has decisively demonstrated that there is no other God, no other Rock than God’s self. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, (c. SCM Press Ltd 1969) p. 142. Israel must now similarly testify that God alone is God and there is no rock beside God.
Westermann rightly points out that this is not an assertion of abstract monotheism, but a response to an urgent concern on the minds of the prophet’s audience. The holy city of Jerusalem had been conquered by Babylon. The temple of the Lord had been profaned and destroyed. Did this not demonstrate unequivocally that the gods of Babylon had bested the God of Israel? How could the people ever again trust the God who failed to protect them when they cried out to him in his sanctuary? Moreover, if the prophet Jeremiah was correct, if God had indeed brought the Babylonian army upon Jerusalem as judgment for her sin, did this not mean that God was finished with Israel? Whether God was unable or unwilling to defend Israel, it amounted to the same thing. There could be no expectation of salvation from this God. So it is that the prophet begins with an assertion of God’s power to save and ends with the assurance that God has “swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist.” Israel therefore can return confidently to her God with the assurance of forgiveness and salvation. Vs. 22.
These bold assertions are as stirring as they are pastorally problematic. In truth, I cannot assure that my cancer stricken friend will experience a remission or cure. What, then, must be said about this God whose will and power to save is unhindered by any other “god” or obstacle? It is worth noting that the situation for Israel was not much different than that of my friend. The prospects for a successful return to Jerusalem and restoration of the promised land were at least as bleak as prospects of recovery from terminal cancer. It is also worth noting that the actual return, as we have said, was not accomplished in the miraculous and glorious manner envisioned by Isaiah. That may only go to show that prophets often don’t know what they are talking about. Their words are fulfilled in ways that they could never have foreseen and take on meanings generations hence that would surprise them. So perhaps we ought not to be so timid in speaking these words in the face of seemingly hopeless circumstances. Ours is only the duty to speak the word. Fulfilment is in the hands of the One whose word we speak.
This is a psalm of lament, though interwoven with the psalmist’s complaints are confessions of God’s greatness, expressions of faith in God’s steadfast love and prayers for guidance and understanding. As always, I urge you to read Psalm 86 in its entirety. Apropos to our lesson from Isaiah, this is precisely the sort of prayer in which God’s limitless power and willingness to save are brought into circumstances of seeming godforsakenness. The psalmist pelts God relentlessly with his promises, his attributes of steadfastness and compassion in an effort to persuade God to act on his/her behalf. It is as if the psalmist were crying out, “How can you not help me?”
In vs. 11 the psalmist prays that God may teach him/her his ways and to walk in God’s truth. The psalmist recognizes that his/her troubles come, at least in part, as a result of failure to discern the way in which God would have him/her walk. So the psalmist prays, “unite my heart to fear thy name.” This might also be translated, “let my heart rejoice to fear thy name.” Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 180. In any case, the psalmist is praying for more than mere knowledge. S/he seeks transformative wisdom that will enable him/her to live faithfully and obediently.
The psalmist refers to himself/herself as God’s “servant,” “slave,” the son of “God’s handmaid.” Vs. 16. That the terms are masculine do not preclude feminine authorship or usage. Such terms are stereotypical poetic phrases found throughout Hebrew verse and utilized in prayer by all Israelites. Just as a slave has no rights of his/her own and must depend on his/her master for vindication and protection, so the psalmist must rely solely on God for his/her defense. Precisely because the psalmist is helpless before his/her adversaries, God is obliged to intervene on his/her behalf.
This is a fine example of lament: prayer that reaches up on the strength of God’s promises from what is to what ought to be. It is exactly the sort of prayer uttered by creation as it awaits liberation from death and decay. Paul will have much to say about this in the following lesson.
Paul begins by restating his argument from last week. Having been baptized into Jesus Christ, we live no longer “in the flesh” or for our own selfish ends. Instead, we live “in the spirit,” that is, as friends of Jesus. To be friends or siblings of Jesus is to be children of God and thus God’s heirs. Note the stark contrast to life in the flesh that is characterized by bondage to sin and slavery under the law. Such a life is characterized by the “master slave” relationship. Life in the Spirit, however, is characterized by familial relationships. Jesus as brother, God as Father, fellow believers as siblings. That we can address God as “Abba,” the word young children use to address their fathers, testifies to the presence of God’s Spirit within us. The change brought about for us by Jesus is therefore relational. We are no longer slaves who view God through the prism of law, but sons and daughters who view God through the prism of Jesus.
So far, so good. But then comes the disturbing word: We are “heirs of God and fellow heirs of Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified in him.” Vs. 17. Commenting on this verse, Karl Barth remarks that “The action of God is the Cross, the Passion: not the quantity of suffering, large or small, which must be borne with greater or with lesser fortitude and courage, as though the quantity of our pains and sufferings would in itself occasion our participation in the glory of God. Participation in suffering means to suffer with Christ, to encounter God, as Jeremiah and Job encountered Him; to see Him in the tempest, to apprehend Him as Light in the darkness, to love Him when we are aware only of the roughness of His hand.” Barth, Karl, The Epistle to the Romans, (c. 1933 Oxford University Press) p. 301. Or, as observed by John Howard Yoder, “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c. 1972 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 129. Suffering, then, is the consequence of being fully human, as only Jesus was, in an inhuman and inhumane world.
Paul goes on to say, however, that he considers “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Vs. 18. This is not to be taken as an appeal to put up with the status quo today in hopes of seeing a brighter tomorrow. Paul insists that God’s future has broken into our present. In that respect, Commentator Anders Nygren’s reading of Paul is correct. The church lives simultaneously in two eons, the old age that is passing away and the new age whose birth pangs are even now being felt in the course of the old’s dissolution. See Nygren, Anders, Commentary on Romans, (c. 1949 Fortress Press). The joy of partaking even now in the new age dwarfs the suffering to be endured at the hands of the vanishing old order. The people of God who have been set free from sin and death to live “in the spirit” are the first fruits of what is in store for all creation. The whole creation, says Paul, “will be set free from its bondage to decay” and will “obtain the glorious liberty” now enjoyed by the children of God. Vs. 21.
Paul sums up the posture of the church in one word: “hope.” This hope is not to be construed as some groundless desire for favorable conditions in the future, i.e., “I hope the weather will be dry and sunny for the picnic next month.” The hope of which Paul speaks is grounded in the resurrection of Christ-an event that has already occurred and in which believers participate. Consequently, even our suffering is a reminder of the work of resurrection being completed in us. What the rest of the world fears as death throes believers welcome as birth pangs. Needless to say, this hope shines an entirely new light on aging bodies, dying churches, fading empires and diminishing expectations for wealth and prosperity. Things are not what they seem. If the sky is falling, it is to make way for a new heaven and a new earth.
The parable of the wheat and the weeds is coupled with its explanation quite sensibly omitting (for purposes of the lectionary) the intervening parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven. Taken by itself, the parable of vss. 24-30 might appear to refer to the problem of false disciples within the church. The prior parable of the sower and the different types of soil in last week’s lesson ended with the “good soil” producing a fruitful yield. Sunday’s lesson, which immediately follows, therefore appears to focus on what is planted in that good soil. Jesus’ explanation of that parable in vss. 36-43, however, suggests a much broader application. The field is not the church, but the world; the good seed is the “sons of the kingdom; and the weeds are “sons of the evil one.” Vs. 38. Historical critical analysis suggests that the explanation of the parable is a later interpretation of the early church imposed over the parable giving it a cosmic flavor it lacked on the lips of Jesus or an earlier disciple. As you know by now, I have no interest in the so called “historical Jesus” or in anybody’s fanciful reconstruction of the “Matthean community.” The only context we have for the parable is the gospel of Matthew in which we find it. That is the context upon which I rely for interpretation.
That said, it seems to me that whether we are speaking of persons within the church whose hearts are not fixed upon Jesus or persons in the world openly hostile to the kingdom of heaven, the principle is the same. It is not for disciples of Jesus to purify either the church or the world. Judgment, sanctification and the punishment of evil must be left in the hands of God who alone sees all ends and knows what is just. Disciples of Jesus must exercise mercy, compassion, patience and forgiveness against wrongdoing, whether it arises from within the church or from the world. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “The parable of the wheat and the tares, like all the parables, is an apocalyptic parable, but apocalyptic names the necessity of the church to be patient even with the devil. Just as Jesus was patient with Judas, so we must be patient with those who we think we must force the realization of the kingdom. Jesus’ parables tell us what the kingdom is like, which means that the kingdom has come. It is not, therefore, necessary for disciples of Jesus to use violence to rid the church or the world of enemies of the gospel. Rather, the church can wait, patiently confident that, as Augustine says, the church exists among the nations.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 133.
The church of the New Testament was understood to be a communion that transcended racial, national, social and cultural barriers. In Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28. That the church often fell short of this vision is evident from the pages of the New Testament itself. Nonetheless, for all of their quarrelsomeness and instability, Paul’s congregations appear to have reflected the diversity found within the Mediterranean population of the 1st Century. The same can hardly be said of American Protestantism in which the red state/blue state divide breaks down neatly along denominational lines. Too often our legislative gatherings turn out to be microcosms of the increasingly tiresome “culture wars” being fought in the larger society. Sadly, religion of the protestant sort has more frequently inflamed, polarized and oversimplified discussion of contentious issues than modeled a community of thoughtful reflection, truthful speech and patient listening. All of this tends to reflect impatience: impatience with a world that won’t conform to our chosen ideologies; impatience with a church that fails to live up to our romantic notions of what it should be; impatience with a God who works too damn slowly in rooting out evil. Jesus would have us meet evil with truthful speech, compassion, empathy and forgiveness. Retribution, assuming there is a need for it, can be left in God’s hands and to God’s good timing.
FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: You are great, O God, and greatly to be praised. You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Grant that we may believe in you, call upon you, know you, and serve you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope.” Zechariah 9:12
Hope is powerful. It can inspire selfless acts of heroism. It can empower an oppressed people to endure centuries of persecution. Hope can sustain resistance to tyranny and ignite revolutionary change. Often the most slender and fragile hope for a better tomorrow is enough to see us through the darkest of days. It does seem to me that we are held prisoner by hope. Hope appears to be an indispensible element of human existence. It’s what keeps us going. It is as difficult to lose all hope as it is to will oneself to stop breathing. Even those who take their own lives are driven by the desperate hope of finally escaping an existence too painful to endure. And that, of course, brings us to the dark side of hope. Hope can be tragically misplaced.
In last week’s lesson from Jeremiah, the people of Judah were led by the false prophet Hananiah to place their hope in his prediction of Babylon’s imminent collapse. So, too, it seems was the king and his counselors who shaped their foreign policy on the basis of this lie and engineered a revolt against Babylonian domination. Jeremiah’s largely ignored warning that such folly would lead to catastrophic destruction for Judah came true with a vengeance. Babylon crushed the revolt. Judah lost her land, her temple and the royal line of David. Such are the consequences of misplaced hope.
One needs look no further than the field of medicine to find examples of misplaced hope. Of course, I am no enemy of medicine or medical progress. Some members of my family and many of my friends would likely have died in childhood if they had lived just a century ago. Thanks to modern medical advances, they are living full and active lives today. I am glad that medical science is pushing against the frontiers of human knowledge to find cures for various diseases, particularly those that strike during childhood. But medicine has limits that hope sometimes refuses to acknowledge. It is easy to forget that medicine is as much art as science, and that the human body is enormously complex. In spite of its impressive advances, medicine does not have close to all the answers for what ails us. When I was practicing law, a significant portion of my practice involved defending doctors, nurses and hospitals against malpractice claims. While medical malpractice does in fact occur with disturbing frequency, I can say that many such claims arise from unrealistic expectations of modern medicine and the caregivers who practice it. At the end of the day, doctors are only human. Medical knowledge is incomplete. Sometimes people are beyond medical help and cannot be “fixed.” Human beings are mortal-and that is perhaps the greatest sticking point of all. Medicine can’t save us from death; but obvious as this raw fact surely is, that doesn’t make it any easier to accept.
In a recent article of the Daily Express, Jon Austin reports on the work of Dr. Aubrey de Grey, a physician who has dedicated his work to the quest for eternal life. Dr. De Grey believes people who have already been born could live for ten centuries as beneficiaries of ongoing research into “repairing the effects of ageing.” He hopes ultimately to create preventative treatments enabling humans to re-repair themselves on a regular basis and so live as long as 1,000 years or possibly even forever. I hasten to add that Mr. Austin has made a name for himself covering all manner of conspiracy theories and alleged government cover-ups of UFO landings and sightings. So I am inclined to take this article with a very large grain of salt. Nonetheless, that it finds its way into public media at all suggests to me that it speaks to a longing we find hard to suppress. The notion that medical science might possibly lead us to that illusive fountain of youth makes us absolutely giddy.
Can genetic engineering extend our lives indefinitely? I rather doubt it. But not being a scientist myself, I can’t speak authoritatively on that question. What I can say with certainty is that the desire to extend one’s life indefinitely is a selfish, narcissistic, egotistical quest. It reflects a stubborn refusal to accept with gratitude the time one has been given on this planet and to graciously step aside and make room for the next generation. The utter selfishness of pursuing human immortality becomes clear when one considers that it would be entirely unsustainable unless we all decided to stop reproducing or restricted life extending treatments to an elite few. This perverse preoccupation also goes a long way toward explaining why our country’s health care system is grotesquely skewed toward providing life extending care for us oldsters while neglecting large sections of our population consisting of children and young families. The drive for immortality represents an arrogant promethean effort to put the brakes on history/evolution and elevate the status quo to a level of eternal significance. It is a refusal to let the universe progress beyond the eternal “me.”
The promise that “you shall not die, but become as God, knowing good and evil” is as old as human existence. We should not forget where it came from. Whether attainable or not, extending human life indefinitely is a false hope. Immortality can offer us only selfish misery and loneliness if it is an end in itself. St. Paul understood that well. That is why he insists that, in order to share in Christ’s eternal life, we must of necessity die. That is why Jesus tells us that only by losing our lives can we hope to gain them. Repentance is a kind of death that requires us to let go daily of past sins and false hopes. We are to practice repentance with such regularity that, when the day of death actually comes, it will be “just another day.” Rather than clinging tenaciously and futilely to life at all costs, we are invited to let our lives fall back into the hands of the One who gave them to us in the first place and who has the power to give them back to us once again, made new and reconciled.
Zechariah encourages Israel to “return to your stronghold.” That stronghold is the Lord, Israel’s covenant partner. God is where all genuine hope is finally anchored. It is within the covenant of baptism, within the community of saints under construction and within the disciplines of discipleship that we are formed through daily repentance and faith into genuinely human creatures capable of living joyfully, thankfully and obediently within the limits of our creaturely existence. Here’s a poem by Marge Piercy that speaks of a transformative life of repentance grounded in sober hope.
The hinge of the year
the great gates opening
and then slowly slowly
closing on us.
I always imagine those gates
hanging over the ocean
fiery over the stone grey
waters of evening.
We cast what we must
change about ourselves
onto the waters flowing
to the sea. The sins,
errors, bad habits, whatever
you call them, dissolve.
When I was little I cried
out I! I! I! I want, I want.
Older, I feel less important,
a worker bee in the hive
of history, miles of hard
labor to make my sweetness.
The gates are closing
The light is failing
I kneel before what I love
imploring that it may live.
So much breaks, wears
down, fails in us. We must
forgive our broken promises—
their sharp shards in our hands.
 Ne’ilah is a special Jewish prayer service that is held on Yom Kippur. It is the time when final prayers of repentance are recited at the closing of this most solemn of Jewish observances.
Source: The Crooked Inheritance, (c. 2006 by Marge Piercy, pub. by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group). Marge Piercy was born in 1936 in Detroit, Michigan. She attended the University of Michigan and received her MA from Northwestern University. During the 1960s, Piercy was an organizer in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). She was also heavily involved in opposition to the war in Vietnam. Piercy is a prolific writer having published seventeen books of poetry and several novels. You can learn more about Marge Piercy and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Zechariah is identified in the opening lines of the book bearing his name as son of Berechiah son of Iddo. Zechariah 1:1. His name means “The Lord is renowned.” He is identified, along with Haggai, as one of the prophets prophesying encouragement to the Jews newly returned from the Babylonian Exile. Ezra 5:1, Ezra 6:14. Such encouragement was sorely needed. Having left Babylon in high hopes of witnessing a miraculous recovery for their homeland, the people arrived to find only a ruined city and rubble where the temple of Solomon once stood. Conditions were daunting and soon the little settlement was reduced to subsistence living and concerned only with survival. This was hardly an ideal time to begin a stewardship campaign for a new sanctuary! Yet through his repeated proclamation of visions and oracles, Zechariah was able to assure Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah, and Joshua, the high priest, that together they could complete reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Zechariah’s preaching must have been persuasive, for the temple was indeed rebuilt and dedicated around 516 B.C.E.
Sunday’s reading is familiar to us. All four gospels cite or allude to verse 9 in connection with Jesus’ triumphal procession into Jerusalem riding on the back of a donkey. Matthew 21:5; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:28-38; and John 12:14-15. Note the contrast: Zion’s king, though triumphant and victorious, comes riding upon a donkey; but the “war horse,” “chariot” and “battle bow” are destined to be cut off. Vss. 9-10. This king will command “peace” to the nations. Vs. 10. His weapon, his “bow,” “arrow” and “sword” is the people of Israel. Zechariah 9:13 (omitted in the lectionary reading). Through the faithful witness of the covenant people, the king prevails over his foes. This is another of many instances in the Hebrew Scriptures where Israel’s God forsakes war as the means for saving and liberating his people. So, too, Jesus will forsake violence repeatedly in the gospels as the means for bringing about God’s reign.
“Blood of my covenant” is a conventional way of referring to the covenant relationship between Israel and her God. Vs. 11. That it was sealed with blood emphasizes the irrevocable nature of that relationship. “Prisoners of hope” is a difficult phrase and resort to the original Hebrew does not give us much further insight into its meaning. Vs. 12. Yet one might well describe both Israel and the church as “prisoners of hope.” Both communities were created by covenants established in the past, yet which also look to the future for their fulfilment. Hope is not a vague optimism that everything will finally work out in the end. It is shaped by promises of a new age, a new heaven and a new earth, resurrection and a new creation. It is fed by sacred narratives of God’s past acts of salvation and God’s steadfast faithfulness to us throughout history. We are in bondage to this hope that will not let us go.
This psalm is a hymn in acrostic form. Every verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic poems usually do not develop ideas but consist rather of loosely connected statements. The technique aids in memorization, but also conveys the message that the whole of the topic is being addressed “from A-Z.” Other psalms in the acrostic family are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 145 in its entirety. The verses making up our reading contain a refrain found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: “The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Vs. 8. See, e.g, Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Jonah 4:2; and Psalm 103:8. This core confession belies the all too common belief on the part of ill-informed Christians that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is a “God of wrath,” whereas the New Testament God is a kindly, old, overindulgent grandfather. God does not need Jesus to be gracious or the cross in order to forgive. It is rather because God is gracious that his Word became flesh and because God is infinitely forgiving that God’s Incarnate Word embraces with love those who would nail him to the cross.
All creation testifies to God’s grace and mercy through praise. This “all” includes God’s faithful people Israel as well as the natural world and its non-human creatures. Vss. 10-12. The term “kingdom” might better be translated “reign.” The psalmist is not speaking of something in the distant future and certainly does not refer to a place located “beyond the blue.” God reigns now, whether that reign is recognized and acknowledged or not. In talking about the nature of God’s reign, it might be helpful to reflect back on the reading from Zechariah and the humble king riding not a war horse, but a donkey. God does not rule the world in the way of all the tribes, kingdoms and empires that have drenched the earth in blood to establish their respective reigns.
Standing on its own, this little snippet from Romans is a bit confusing. So let’s give it some context. Paul has been discussing the role of the law and its relationship to sin. Law is binding only upon the living. For example, a person is bound to another in marriage for “as long as they both shall live.” But if one spouse dies, there is no longer any marriage and thus no legal obligation of faithfulness for the surviving spouse. So also a person baptized into Christ’s death is liberated from the law which attaches only to the living. The new person raised in Christ’s resurrection is, as we have said, a servant of God over whom sin has no power and the law no jurisdiction. Romans 7:1-6. The gospel is not about reforming sinners. It is not about teaching an old dog new tricks. The old dog must be taken out back and shot. What is raised up constitutes an entirely new creature.
Law, as we have said before, is given to defend us from ourselves. It serves as a protective hedge around covenant life, ensuring the proper worship of Israel’s God and the essential elements of human life, i.e., marriage, livelihood and sustenance. The law, however, must not be confused with the covenant itself. When the law is understood as a means of drawing near to God rather than as a gift designed to protect and nurture that nearness, it becomes just another occasion for sin. Using the law as a means for achieving right relationship with God is rather like trying to drive your car along a winding mountain road by keeping your eye fixed on the guard rail. In addition to losing sight of your destination, you practically ensure that you will eventually go off the road.
The law functions, then, to bring into focus the nature and depth of sin. On the one hand, the law paints a portrait of life as it ought to be in covenant with God. Yet it is precisely this portrait that illuminates my own life and the extent to which it fails to work itself out peaceably within that covenant relationship. To the extent that I see reflected in the law my own brokenness and despise it, I affirm the law’s judgment. So far, so good. The law works well as a diagnostic instrument, but it is not a cure for what ails me. When I try to use it as a cure, it only becomes increasingly clear that I am hopelessly in bondage to sin. Instead of a protective hedge, the law now becomes a ruthless master whose demands I can never satisfy. So too, my understanding of the God who gives the law becomes distorted.
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” Vs. 21. Paul speaks from experience here. It was, after all, his zeal for the law that led Paul to persecute the early church and so the messiah he now serves. Similarly, it was the religious leaders of Israel who were seeking to uphold the law and put an end to blasphemy that brought Jesus before Pontius Pilate seeking the death sentence. For his part, Pilate was simply doing his job and trying to keep the peace when he had Jesus crucified. Jesus was not killed by notorious sinners, but by decent, law abiding citizens who were only trying to do the right thing. Sin twists the law as it does everything else to serve its own destructive ends. That is why the folks who never tire of warning us that unless we enshrine “Christian values” in the laws of our land, society will disintegrate. Society might well disintegrate, but anyone who thinks that laws, however “Christian” they might be, can prevent such catastrophe has never listened to Saint Paul.
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Vs. 24. That is finally the proper question. It is not a matter of what one believes or what one does. It is a matter of who one trusts. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Vs. 25. When one trusts Jesus enough to share his death through baptism, one shares also in Jesus’ resurrection. Care must be taken to avoid the misunderstanding of “trusting Jesus” as simply another work of the law. Such trust or faith is not a precondition for salvation from sin’s bondage. Rather, the proclamation that Jesus is trustworthy works the miracle of trust in our hearts. Because sin is an absence of trust, its power is broken when the heart begins to trust God once again. When the power of sin is broken, law is superfluous.
In its usual paternalistic concern for the simple and unlearned, the lectionary has excised Jesus’ culturally offensive and intolerant language from our readings. Specifically, we have been spared Jesus’ harsh pronouncement of judgment upon the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum where he had performed miracles and works of power. Jesus even suggests that, had his works been performed in the proverbially wicked city of Sodom, that city would have repented and been spared. Matthew 11:20-24. As Professor Stanley Hauerwas points out, “Jesus’ pronouncement of judgment on the cities in which he performed deeds of power makes us, contemporary Christians, profoundly uncomfortable. We want a gospel of love that insures when everything is said and done that everyone and everything is going to be okay. But we are not okay. Like the cities of Israel, we have turned our existence as Christians into a status meant to protect us from recognizing the prophets who would point us to Jesus. Of course we do not like Jesus to pronounce judgment on the cities in which he performed deeds of power, because we do not want to recognize that we too are judged. But the gospel is judgment because otherwise it would not be good news. Only through judgment are we forced to discover forms of life that can free us from our enchantment with sin and death.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brozos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 116.
The text begins with Jesus citing a child’s proverb: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” Vs. 17. Like spoiled children who cannot be induced to play at any game, the people of the three towns in which Jesus ministered remain unresponsive to God’s reign. First, they reject the ministry of John the Baptist. That is not surprising. John is an unsettling character. He lives off the bounty of the wilderness and so is impervious to the ups and downs of the economy. He has no stake in the social order and whatever entitlements it may provide. John’s very existence is a challenge to the status quo. His mere presence literally shouts that things need not be as they are. God has no need for children of Abraham, the line of David or the temple in Jerusalem. Fruits, not roots, are what God treasures. Small wonder the public at large dismisses John as a madman.
If John was unsettling, Jesus is downright threatening. Consider the “mighty works” Jesus has already done. He begins his healing ministry by touching a leper. Matthew 8:1-4. Note well that this touch was given before the leper had been healed. That should have rendered Jesus ritually unclean, but instead it cleanses the leper. Next, Jesus heals the servant of a centurion, a hated representative of the Roman Empire. To add insult to injury, Jesus remarks that the centurion’s faith outshines that of all Israel! Matthew 8:5-13. Jesus has the audacity to declare forgiveness to a man stricken with paralysis-presumably by God as punishment for his sins. Matthew 9:1-8. Then, to top it off, Jesus is found eating in the company of notorious sinners. Matthew 9:10-13. It might have been acceptable for Jesus to feed sinners at a shelter of some kind. Nobody would have objected to Jesus preaching to sinners. But to sit down and share meals with sinners who have not repented and have shown no inclination to clean up their acts-that is a bridge too far. Jesus seems to think there is no difference between sinners and the righteous, the clean and the unclean, the legal and the illegal. All those fine social distinctions that define us, tell us who we are and where we stand come apart in his presence. No wonder the good people of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum dismiss Jesus as dunk bohemian.
Both Jesus and John are written off with cheap ad hominem attacks. The critics cannot argue with the witness of John or the works of Jesus. So they resort to attacks on their characters. John is crazy. Jesus is a drunk. Their followers have been brainwashed by the media. The lectionary is likewise uncomfortable with Jesus. Rather than openly discrediting him, however, it simply edits the offensiveness out of him. But as Hauerwas observes, the good news is not good news until we are made to recognize that the status quo to which we so desperately cling is bad news.
Jesus concludes with a prayer thanking his heavenly Father for concealing the reality of God’s reign from the “wise and understanding” and for revealing it “to babes.” Vs. 25. This is not an attack on wisdom or understanding as such. Rather, it is an assault upon the intellectual energy we expend resisting the kingdom. We all know from our own experience what so often happens when you promote change, however modest, to a group of people set in their ways. Usually, you get all the reasons for why it cannot be done except the true reason, namely, that they don’t want it done. Adults will tell you that poverty, starvation and war are inevitable and give you an endless supply of well thought out reasons for why trying to change any of that is futile. A child will simply ask why we don’t stop fighting and start taking care of one another. It is not that the child is smarter than the adult. Clearly, s/he is not as well educated or knowledgeable. Yet precisely because the child lacks the conceptual tools of adulthood that enable us so effectively to lie to ourselves and rationalize our sin, the child manages to arrive at the truth from which we flee. The child knows what we steadfastly deny. Things don’t have to be the way they are.
Children are too young and inexperienced to understand that the status quo ensures them and their parents a comfortable lifestyle and security that few in the rest of the world can dream about. Children have not yet come to understand that the world is a shrinking pie and we all need to protect our slice. Children have not yet learned the importance of being white or straight or wealthy or physically attractive. A child must be educated to appreciate these distinctions and learn the importance of ensuring that they remain in place. In short, the child must be taught the fine art of self-deception. S/he must learn that the way things are is the way they must be if we are to maintain our way of life. It is not helpful for people like John and Jesus to confuse these little ones by declaring that things do not have to be as they are.
Clearly, the good news of Jesus Christ is not about tweaking the status quo to make it more humane. The good news is the reign of God that makes all things new (and of necessity breaks apart the old.) It introduces a new reality that lies at the core of both the Hebrew and New Testament scriptures. As observed by Walter Brueggemann, “At the root of reality is a limitless generosity that intends an extravagant abundance. This claim is exposited in Israel’s creation texts, sapiential traditions, and hymnic exuberances. This insistence files in the face of the theory of scarcity on which the modern world is built. An ideology of scarcity produces competitiveness that issues in brutality, justifies policies of wars and aggression, authorizes an acute individualism, and provides endless anxiety about money, sexuality, physical fitness, beauty, work achievements, and finally mortality. It seems clear to me that, in the end, all of these anxieties are rooted in an ideology that resists the notion of limitless generosity and extravagant abundance.” Brueggemann, Walter, An Unsettling God, (c. 2009 Fortress Press) p. 171. I would add that the same limitless generosity and extravagant abundance lies at the heart of Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign. God would give us the kingdom, but God must first pry the status quo away from us so that our hands will be free to receive it.