Tag Archives: science and religion

Sunday, May 24th


Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Mighty God, you breathe life into our bones, and your Spirit brings truth to the world. Send us this Spirit, transform us by your truth, and give us language to proclaim your gospel, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” John 16:13.

Not long ago I ran into a friend from a congregation to which I once belonged and served. After the usual exchange of pleasantries, she unloaded upon me her frustrations with the “new” direction taken by our church (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Of particular concern was our 2009 churchwide decision to permit the blessing of same sex relationships and to accept for ordination persons living faithfully in such relationships. “The Bible has taught us that marriage is a life-long commitment between one man and one woman from the beginning of time,” she remarked. “Why change it now?”

How to answer? There was so much wrong with the question itself that I hardly knew where to begin answering. My friend’s assertion about the Bible’s teaching on marriage is dead wrong. In addition to monogamy, the Bible recognizes polygamy, concubinage and sexual slavery as legitimate arrangements. When it comes to the sheer number of Bible passages available on the subject of marriage, there are far more verses one could use to undermine the monogamous relationships we have now come to call “traditional” than there are to be used against same sex marriages. The church adopted the rule of monogamy largely because it was the dominant trend both in 1st Century Judaism and throughout Mediterranean culture generally. Of course, there were theological reasons as well. Paul’s assertion that there is in Christ neither male nor female undermined the cultural assumption of patriarchy and the treatment of women as property. The comparison of marriage to Christ’s relationship with the church in the letter to the Ephesians leaves no more room for polygamy than does the First Commandment for polytheism. But at the very least, we need to acknowledge that societal trends played a large part in driving the church’s recognition of monogamy as normative for marriage. It was not that way from the beginning of time or throughout the scriptures.

If the church had all the truth, it would not need the Holy Spirit to guide it. I don’t believe the church has ever claimed that it possessed all the truth even in its worst moments of triumphalistic arrogance. I do believe, however, that we frequently claim possession of more truth than we actually have. The church has also been flat out wrong about some things-and we usually don’t take kindly to folks who point that out to us. It took us centuries to get over Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei informing us that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way around. The rich irony here is that, even as the Vatican was bringing Galileo up on charges of heresy, its ships were using navigational maps based on his heretical theory because maps based on the orthodox, Bible based Ptolemaic understanding of the universe reliably ran them into the rocks. At some point, denying the obvious in order to preserve “what we have always believed and taught” is just silly.

Even as the church is not always right; so too, societal trends are not always wrong. Clearly, Copernicus and Galileo were on the right track. The church would have done well to take their work seriously and think more deeply about what the Bible actually has to say about creation and our abilities to understand it. Had we done that, it is entirely possible that we would have spared ourselves the embarrassment of Galileo’s heresy trial, the Scopes Monkey trial centuries later and the present day humiliating spectacle of multi-million dollar museums featuring T-rex’s cavorting with Adam and Eve.

So, too, it has long been the scientific consensus (since at least the early 1970s) that homosexual orientation is a naturally occurring phenomenon rather than a psychiatric disorder. It has also become painfully and tragically evident that pseudo-scientific methods employed to “cure” people of their sexual orientations are not only ineffectual, but harmful. I am not suggesting that one cannot assert good faith arguments against the blessing/marriage of same sex couples or that theological concerns about so doing should be dismissed out of hand. But let me say emphatically that no argument should be entertained based on junk science, literalistic readings of cherry picked scripture passages or irrational fear and hatred toward gay and lesbian people.

Thankfully, the church’s long history demonstrates that it is capable of adaptation. Marriage has evolved within the church from an arrangement between men by which women were transferred as property to a relationship of mutuality mirroring that of Christ to the church. That, in my view, is a much bigger leap than merely opening up our current understanding of mutual covenant love and faithfulness to same sex couples. We cannot pretend that the church is guided strictly by doctrines, morals and practices that remain unaltered in their pristine form dating from biblical times. That is not what the Bible tells us.

The church has changed throughout the ages and will no doubt change in ways we cannot predict throughout the coming century. But that should not trouble us. Jesus promises to be present in our midst through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. That Spirit can be trusted to correct our missteps and guide us into all truth. I only pray that my friend and all others who share her concerns find comfort and peace in that promise.

Ezekiel 37:1-14

For my general comments on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, see my post of September 7, 2014. For my reflections on this text in particular, see my post of April 6, 2014.

This familiar story of the prophet and the valley of dead bones takes on a new meaning when played in the major key of Pentecost rather than the minor key of Lent. The focus now is less on the hopeless circumstances of the people and more on the life giving power of the “the breath,” or “ruach” as the Hebrew has it. As I have mentioned before, ruach may be translated either as “spirit” or as “breath.” As our psalm points out, it is the breath of God that gives life to inanimate clay. Psalm 104: 29-30; Genesis 2:7. It is this same breath that is summoned by the words of the prophet to inspire hope among an exiled people on the verge of extinction. Vss. 11-14. The interplay between God’s word that goes forth from God finding expression in the words of the prophet and God’s Spirit/Breath that gives life is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly in the writings of the prophets. Torah is not dead letter. It is the place where God seizes the heart and imagination even as the believer wrestles with Torah in prayer and reflection. Psalm 119 in particular testifies to this lively and dynamic relationship between word and spirit, hearing and prayer, meditation and daily life.

So, too, Spirit is not an ethereal inwardness. The Spirit of God is always tied in some way to God’s word. The Hebrew God is the one who speaks. God speaks creation into being, speaks through the gift of Torah and speaks through the mouths of the prophets. God’s Spirit is given through speech. The God of the Bible is not the deity of philosophers whose nature and identity is discovered through reflection upon his necessary attributes. The God of the Bible reveals God’s self through acts of salvation on behalf of a particular people. God’s Spirit is given through the narratives of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, through the story of the Exodus, Wilderness Wanderings, Settling of Canaan, the Davidic Monarchy, Exile and Return from Exile. To receive the Spirit is to locate yourself in these grand narratives.

It is easy enough to find ourselves in this narrative. We are the dead bones, a people in decline. We inhabit a landscape of museums, office buildings and theaters that once were thriving places of worship. For those sanctuaries that still function as such, there is often a huge disconnect between the small, aging and fragile band of worshipers and the triumphal architecture housing them. We are the dead bones, but can we recognize ourselves as the bones upon which the breath of God’ blows? Are we able to recognize those places where God’s Spirit is creating life in our midst? Where is the Spirit moving in the church today?

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

For my extensive comments on this psalm, I invite you to revisit last year’s Pentecost post of June 8, 2014. I am struck this time around by the dependence of our earth upon the animating word and Spirit of God. The cosmology of Genesis places the habitable world under a great dome creating a bubble within the chaotic waters that were before time. Should the windows of heaven crack allowing the waters above the earth to cascade down and the waters beneath the earth erupt over the land, the creation would soon degenerate into chaos. Indeed, this is precisely what almost occurred during the great flood in Noah’s time. Genesis 7:11. Obviously, our 21st Century cosmology is a good deal more sophisticated than the biblical understanding of the universe. Nevertheless, whether one is reading this psalm or Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, one cannot help but be impressed with how vulnerable our little planet is. When you stop and think about how our earth runs its course around the sun through a gauntlet of asteroids that could inflict (and in the past have inflicted) catastrophic destruction on our planet, it is amazing that we all have the presence of mind to go about our daily business. The psalmist reminds us that we are, after all, a frail and vulnerable island of relative peace within a violent universe every bit as terrifying as the monster infested waters of creation. Yet the psalmist goes on to assure us that the universe is not a billiard table. It is not merely cosmos. It is creation, a creation that was made by a God who loves it, watches tenderly over it and animates it with God’s own Spirit.

The good news here is that even the sea monsters and seemingly destructive forces are God’s creatures in which God takes delight. The world is neither a haunted house animated by warring demons as the ancient near eastern religions often asserted, nor is it a dead and soulless chamber of ricocheting rocks subject only to randomness. The Spirit of God is at work, as I have said, bending each subatomic particle toward the creation of a new heaven and earth. That is an affirmation of faith that cannot finally be verified empirically. It is discovered by a people living in covenant with their gracious and merciful God. Finally, thanks again to the makers of the lectionary for sparing us poor, simple minded sheep from scriptural expressions not strictly in accord with American middleclass protestant, slightly left of center, ever white and ever polite sensitivities. I refer, of course, to verse 35a which reads: “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.”

A couple of things need to be kept in mind here. First, this is a payer expressed to God. It is one thing to ask God to rid the world of the wickedness we perceive. It is quite another to take that task on oneself whether it be through the more direct means of genocide or the softer methods of punitive legislation against perceived vice. Jesus did not commission his disciples to create a moral society, much less to “take back America” for him. Judgment there surely will be, but that’s God’s business.

Second, we do ourselves no favors by “softening” the scriptures. Of course it would be nice if the kingdom could come on earth as in heaven without changing anything (at least the things I don’t want changed). But in reality, the greatest impediment to the kingdom is sin, not merely or even primarily personal vices, but the systemic violence, oppression and abuse inherent in the powers that be. As much as it goes against the grain, we need to pray for sinners to be consumed from the earth and for the wicked to be no more. Of course, we must also recognize that we are praying against ourselves. We are, after all, complicit in systemic evil in ways that we do not even recognize. So we need to be mindful of what we are asking God to do. The line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart. Thus, if God were to execute judgment in military fashion, most of us would end up casualties of war. The earth and its creatures would be collateral damage. Obviously, that is not the outcome God seeks. Eradicating evil from creation is a slow, painful and exacting operation. As we will learn in the next reading from Romans, it is a process under which not only humanity, but all of creation groans. Liberation from evil comes about only through repentance-a radical reorientation of the heart. Hearts seldom turn on a dime. Generally speaking, they turn more like aircraft carriers. They move in increments so small that they are hardly visible. Only after traveling a great distance is it possible to see just how profound that fraction of a degree change actually was.

Romans 8:22-27

“The expression… ‘the whole creation’ includes the entire range of animate and inanimate objects on earth and in the heavens.” Jewett, Robert, Romans: a Commentary, Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 516. The groaning of creation as it awaits liberation stands in stark relief to the Roman hymns and poems declaring the rejoicing of creation at the rise of Augustus Caesar and his successors. Ibid. The Pax Romana imposed by Rome was no true peace according to St. Paul. He sees right though Rome’s nationalist propaganda. Rome’s “peace” was nothing other than institutionalized war against the masses of humanity at the bottom of the societal pyramid. The consequences of nation state institutionalized violence and enslavement on the non-human world are even clearer in our own time as we witness the mass extinction of animal species, destruction of forests and pollution of our rivers, lakes and oceans. Yet Paul points out that the creation is subjected to futility “in hope.” Vs. 20-21. Its endurance is not for the sake of pointless misery. The creation longs for the liberation it already recognizes in the children of God. Vs. 21. For Paul, the church is not merely the future of humanity, but the destiny of all creation. The agony experienced by creation and shared by the children of God is not raw, pointless suffering. It is the birth pangs of the new creation. It can therefore be borne in “hope.” Again, like the psalmist, Paul asserts that the universe is “creation” and not merely cosmos. It has a beginning in the creative act of God and an end toward which God is bringing it-an end not simply in terms of completion but as goal or purpose.

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Vs. 26) or, as one commentator puts it, “Nor are we alone in our struggles. The Holy Spirit supports us in our helplessness.” The Epistle to the Romans, Sanday, W., Headlam, A.C., (c. 1977 by T. & T. Clark Ltd.) p. 212. God shares the agony of a creation in bondage to human exploitation and cruelty. It is for this reason that the Spirit of God can offer prayer for what we most need but cannot yet fully comprehend. The Spirit alone knows what it truly means for us to pray “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Spirit alone is able to transform us into persons capable of living in God’s kingdom, a people who will recognize the coming of that kingdom with joy rather than with dread. Our own prayers are often bent toward our selfish interests and distorted by our myopic perspectives. But the “Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Vs. 27. This lesson gives us the Holy Spirit as the inspiration of transformative hope.

It seems that we are transformed by that for which we hope and long for. Hope for success, recognition and wealth are powerful motivators. They drive our capitalist economy, but are they worthy of hope? Success is an elusive goal, always one step ahead of us. Recognition is often not worth the envy and ill will that frequently comes with it. As for wealth, it is an addictive substance. The more one has, the more one wants and the less it satisfies. Much energy and talk (mostly talk) has gone into increasing economic opportunities for more people in our society. While there is nothing wrong with that, opportunities do nothing for people incapable of using them wisely and well. For those whose hopes are misdirected, more opportunity means only more rope with which to hang oneself. The hope for a new heaven and a new earth is cosmic in scope. It is a hope for the wellbeing of all creation transcending personal interests. Because sin turns us in upon ourselves, we are incapable of hoping for and naturally will not pray “that God’s will” rather than our own “be done.” The Spirit is needed to draw us out of ourselves, raise our gaze beyond our own selfish interests and focus us on the higher vision of God’s glorious intent for all creation.

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

This reading is hard to follow without having read the entire Farewell Discourse at John 13-17. You might want to do that before proceeding further. Comprehension is made all the more difficult by the lectionary peoples’ decision to excise the first four verses of chapter 16. You should read John 16:1-4 at the very least. There you will learn that the whole point of this discussion about the coming of the “Counselor,” “the Spirit of Truth” is to prepare the disciples for the hostility and violence they will encounter following Jesus’ crucifixion. As pointed out in my post for Sunday, May 17, 2015, this warning might well reflect the rejection of the Jesus movement by the reconstituted Sanhedrin at the close of the 1st Century. Yet I think that it reflects as much the general hostility toward Jesus throughout the world at large of which the Jewish community was merely a microcosm.

Of particular importance are verses 8-11 which describe the role of the Spirit. The Spirit convinces the world concerning sin, righteousness and judgment. Vs. 8. It is important to recall that for John, sin is not the transgression of any particular law, rule or statute. Sin is revealed through the way in which the Son who was sent by the Father is received. Sin is revealed in the desertion of Jesus by disciples who can not endure his “hard” teachings. John 6:60-65. Sin is revealed in the cowardice of those who believe Jesus, but will not confess him for fear of persecution. John 12:42-43. Sin is revealed in the blindness of the religious rulers who refuse to acknowledge Jesus even in the face of irrefutable testimony to his marvelous works. John 9:13-34. Sin is revealed in Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (John 13:21-30); Peter’s denial of Jesus (John 18:15-27); and Pilate’s placing his loyalty to Caesar over his recognition of Jesus’ innocence. John 19:12-16. We may have all kinds of notions about right and wrong. But it is impossible to identify, recognize and acknowledge sin apart from knowing Jesus.

Similarly, righteousness cannot rightly be understood apart from God’s verdict on Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection. Throughout John’s gospel, various people render their own judgments on Jesus. But the final judgment, the court of last appeal belongs to God. God raises Jesus from death thereby rendering all other judgments null and void. Jesus is the Son sent by God for the life of the world. All who believe this and put their trust in the Son are righteous. So, too, the final judgment upon Jesus illuminates God’s verdict against the world. In crucifying Jesus, the world shows its true colors. It is the rebel creation that murders the most precious gift its Creator has to give-the gift of the Creator’s self. The world’s religious institutions, the world’s governmental structures and the world’s people all conspire in the murder of the Son. That is the truth about who and what we are. God sent the Son and, when he was murdered and rejected, raised the Son up and continues to offer the Son to the very world that murdered him. That is who and what God is.

Again, I will be accused of reading Augustinian Trinitarian thought into verses 12-15. Perhaps, but I truly believe Augustine got this right. So if I am guilty of anything it is plagiarism or at least I would be guilty if I claimed this reading as my own. Just as the Father has given “all” that he has to Jesus, so the Spirit takes what is Jesus’ and declares it to the disciples. Vss. 14-15. The Spirit glorifies Jesus as does the Father. Vs. 14; John 12:28. This describes the internal workings of the Trinity whose differentiation in three persons exists only in their relations to each other. The Trinity’s external works are necessarily the work of the whole Trinity in perfect unity. The Spirit, then, is the presence of the resurrected Christ among his disciples communicating to them “all” that is God the Father.

Sunday, March 30th


1 Samuel 16:1–13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8–14
John 9:1–41

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Bend your ear to our prayers, Lord Christ, and come among us. By your gracious life and death for us, bring light into the darkness of our hearts, and anoint us with your Spirit, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Because you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.” Jesus of Nazareth, John 9:41.

What do you do when you run into two irreconcilable facts? Our brains don’t handle that very well. Psychologists call it “cognitive dissonance.” We have a need for order and intelligibility. When that order is challenged by data that conflicts with what we know and believe, it causes us psychic discomfort. That seems to have been the problem for the religious authorities in our lesson from John’s gospel this week. They have right in front of their noses a miraculous sign they cannot deny-a man born blind restored to sight. He insists that Jesus is the one who restored his sight. But the authorities know that Jesus is a sinner. He violates the Sabbath, he disrupts worship in the temple and teaches the people without proper credentials. How can a man who is a sinner open the eyes of the blind-an act requiring divine power?

I remember something of that same discomfort from my middle school years when, fascinated with biology, I first read about the theory of evolution. I had been brought up on the biblical account of creation in which all things come to be at the command of God. But now I was confronted with a very convincing explanation of our origins that worked fine without God. There were two options: I could simply dismiss science altogether and tell myself, “I don’t care what any wise guy in a white lab coat tells me. I believe the Bible and that’s that.” Some believers have resolved their cognitive dissonance in precisely that way. Of course, that position has become more difficult to maintain over the years as advances in biological research and technology continue to substantiate evolutionary theory and assume its basic tenants going forward. Denying evolution outright is becoming a little like denying that the earth revolves around the sun (which the founder of my church, Martin Luther, actually did).

My other option was to harmonize the two opposing truths in some way. That is the course I chose, but I cannot say it was an easy one. For a lot of years, I had to learn to live with cognitive dissonance. I was forced to hold two seemingly mutually exclusive propositions in my head as I struggled to arrive at an understanding big enough to accommodate both. I needed to learn different ways of reading the Bible. I also discovered that the evolutionary account of our origins was not as complete an explanation as it first seemed. As near as I could tell, evolutionary theory had little to say about the “why” of our existence. Perhaps there are people for whom such a question does not matter, but I am not one of them. So I turned to the scriptures for that “why” and learned that there are ways of “knowing” that do not involve empirically verifiable observations. There is truth that can only be recognized by the heart. What is true, what is beautiful and what is good cannot be measured by objective observation or experimentation alone. Bach’s Mass in B Minor is beautiful not merely because of its ingenious composition, but because it touches something deep within that defies objective definition. Some truths can only be grasped by the imagination.

In the end, I came away with a deeper faith and a more profound respect for the capacity of science to help us understand our world. I can’t say that everything is harmonized. I still find that my natural scientific inquisitiveness questions my faith. So also my faith informs and reframes the questions posed by science. That’s OK. A little bit of cognitive dissonance is required for a healthy, growing faith. The religious authorities in our gospel might have overcome their blindness if they had had the patience to live with a little cognitive dissonance for a while, look at the scriptures in a different light and spend some time actually listening to Jesus instead of just thinking up arguments to refute him.

We dare not assert that “we see.” What we see, the way we understand and what we believe is too often skewed by prejudice, self-interest and fear. Our judgments are superficial; our perceptions limited and our convictions clouded. Like the man born blind, the disciples and the religious authorities in our gospel lesson, we need Jesus to open our eyes. All of our lessons for Sunday speak in some fashion of knowledge and ignorance, light and darkness, blindness and sight. In our gospel lesson, the religious authorities cannot see past Jesus’ Sabbath violations to recognize him as the one sent by God, but a man born blind worships him for who he is. Samuel learns how inaccurate human judgments about people can be and that God alone knows a person’s heart. Paul challenges the church at Ephesus to walk in the light of Christ and the psalmist confesses his/her confidence in God’s readiness to sojourn with him/her into the valley of the shadow of death. These words remind us that however prone to blindness we might be, in Christ “there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.” Evangelical Lutheran Worship # 815.

1 Samuel 16:1–13

Israel was ever ambivalent about the institution of kingship. Samuel anointed Saul as Israel’s first king only reluctantly. He warned the people that their demand for a king to rule over them “like other nations” would come back to bite them one day. I Samuel 8:10-18. In the view of this particular biblical narrative, the election of a king to rule Israel was idolatrous. It amounted to a rejection of God as King. I Samuel 8:7. This, however, is not the only voice in the Hebrew Scriptures speaking to the matter of kingship. Some of the Biblical authors recognize the rise of the Davidic monarchy as another of God’s saving acts on par with the Exodus, God’s leadership throughout the wilderness wanderings and the conquest of Canaan. Psalm 78 is an example of that sentiment. The psalm recites Israel’s repeated failures to live up to its covenant responsibilities and the dire consequences that followed. But it concludes on a triumphant note with the rise of David to be “the shepherd of Jacob.” “With an upright heart he tended them, and guided them with skilful hand.” Psalm 78:70-72.

These two divergent views of the monarchy in Israel are woven together throughout the narratives of I & II Samuel. The pro-monarchy view comes to us from an early source probably compiled during the reign of Solomon, David’s son. This writer regards the establishment of kingship in Israel as divinely ordained for Israel’s salvation. Anyone who lived to see the rise of the Israelite empire from a lose confederacy of divided tribes oppressed by the militarily superior Philistines could not fail to be impressed by David, the architect of this great achievement. For the first time ever Israel lived within secure borders. Trade and commerce flourished under the protection of the new central government. Israel was beginning to be recognized as a power to be reckoned with among the other nations. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that the monarchy was seen as an instrument of God’s blessing and salvation.

The later source was likely composed during the latter days of the Judean monarchy between 750 B.C.E. and 650 B.C.E. This author views Samuel as the true and greatest ruler of Israel. S/He views the monarchy as a sinful rejection of God’s rule over Israel. By this time, Israel had experienced civil war and the succession of ten of its twelve tribes from the house of David. Injustice, corruption and idolatry turned out to be the price of commercial success and military power under monarchy. The prophets gave voice to God’s displeasure with Israel’s kings and to the cries of those crushed under their oppressive yolk. Samuel’s warnings had come true with a vengeance. Nevertheless, this subsequent writer still views David in a positive light in spite of his having been elected to a disfavored institution.

The reading from this Sunday comes from the later anti-monarchy source. God chides Samuel for grieving over God’s rejection of Saul’s kingship and directs Samuel to go to Bethlehem for the anointing of a king God has chosen to replace Saul. Samuel is reluctant to take on this errand, fearing that Saul might find out his purpose and kill him. In order to avoid arousing suspicion, Samuel takes with him a heifer and goes to Bethlehem on the pretext of offering a religious sacrifice. It was probably well known to the people of Bethlehem that there had been a falling out between Saul and Samuel (I Samuel 15); hence, their fear. The last thing these villagers wanted was to get caught in the crossfire between these two powerful personages. Vs. 4.

There seems to be a deliberate contrast between this Sunday’s lesson and the acclimation of Saul as king in I Samuel 10:20-24 (also from the later source). In that narrative, Samuel presents Saul to the people and the writer notes that “when he stood among the people, he was taller than any of the people from his shoulders upwards.” Vs. 23. Samuel declares, “Do you see him whom the Lord has chosen? There is none like him among all the people.” Vs. 24. In Sunday’s lesson, Samuel looks upon Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab, and declares “surely the Lord’s anointed is before him.” Vs. 6. But the Lord rebukes Samuel warning him, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him.” Vs. 7. “[F]or the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Vs. 7. This rebuke to Samuel will become a constant theme throughout the books of I Kings and II Kings where each individual monarch is judged by the degree of his faithfulness to the covenant.

The theme of God’s choosing the younger son over the elder is a persistent one throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g. Jacob over Esau, Genesis 27; Ephraim over Manasseh, Genesis 48:8-22). God’s proclivity for favoring the younger sibling is altogether contrary to the cultural and legal traditions strongly favoring the eldest son. One can perhaps hear an echo of this refrain in Jesus’ parables (i.e., The Prodigal Son; The Two Sons). The greater lesson here is that God seems to delight in irony. God chose Sarah and Abraham, the infertile couple, to be the parents of his people Israel. He chose Moses, the fugitive murderer, to deliver the Ten Commandments. It should come as no surprise, then, that God should choose the runt of Jesse’s litter as Israel’s king. As Moses reminded the people of Israel when they drew near to the promised land: “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples; but it was because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 7:7-8. Saint Paul sums it up nicely by pointing out to the Corinthian church that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” I Corinthians 1:27-29.

Psalm 23

What can I say about the 23rd Psalm that has not already been said? Though this is obviously the prayer of an individual, the community of Israel is never far from the psalmist’s consciousness. The God of Israel is frequently referred to as “Shepherd of Israel.” See, e.g., Psalm 80. Thus, the Lord is not “my” shepherd only, but “our” shepherd. Clearly, nearness to the shepherd is closeness to the rest of the flock. So when we are led to the green pastures and still waters, we travel with the rest of the flock. When we pass through the valley of the shadow, we have not only the rod and staff of the shepherd to comfort us but the company of the communion of saints. It is important to keep this in view lest the psalm become nothing more than the pious ruminations of a lone individual.

“I shall not want.” This can be read either as a bold declaration of confidence in God’s willingness and ability to provide all that the psalmist needs, or as an expression of contentment with all that God has provided. These two understandings are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but the emphasis in our culture should be on the latter. If ever there was a people who wanted more, it has to be us. The amount of resources we Americans consume relative to the rest of the world is staggering. Still, we always seem to want more and, as I have pointed out before, it is this lust for more stuff that drives the so called economic recovery. Precisely because people have a tendency to buy bigger houses and more expensive cars simply because they can, jobs and money increase. Is there not a better and more sustainable way to live? Is it really necessary to keep on increasing our consumption at what is surely an unsustainable rate in order to live well?

“God leads me in the path of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Here again it is critical to understand that God’s leading is not simply for our own individual benefit. It is for the sake of God’s name; that God’s name may be hallowed. Too often Paul’s promise in his letter to the Romans (Romans 8:28) that “all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose” is similarly misunderstood to mean “all things work together for my personal good.” Clearly, they do not. But that is because we are speaking not of people in general, but of people called according to God’s purpose. Thus, while one can be confident that God will achieve God’s purpose in one’s life, this affirmation does not translate into “everything will be alright for me.” To the contrary, Jesus warns us that we can expect no better treatment from the world than he himself received at its hands. John 15:18-21.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” In a death denying culture such as ours, even these comforting words bring a chill. We seldom use the “D” word in polite conversation. We say, “she passed on,” “he left us,” “she has gone to her reward.” While no one can doubt that the so called enlightenment has given us many important conceptual tools for understanding the universe, post modern thinkers correctly point out that it also represents a colossal failure of imagination. Our commitment to empiricism has imprisoned us in a world no bigger than what can be proven through objective experimentation. Too often, theology has capitulated to this limited world view paring down the bold proclamation of resurrection and eternal life to fit within the confines of “authentic existence” (whatever that is). Small wonder, then, that fewer people are attracted to worship in mainline churches. Who would give up a bagel with cream cheese, a good cup of coffee and the New York Times on Sunday morning for “authentic existence”?

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” This is a frank admission that being led by God brings us into the presence of enemies. Significantly, the enemies are not vanquished. Rather, the psalmist is able to find peace even in their presence. So how might we learn to live peaceably in the presence of our enemies? Can we trust the shepherd enough to disarm ourselves? To drop all of the defenses we put between ourselves and those we fear? To be more specific, are we sufficiently confident in the Lord’s ability to protect us that we are ready to shut down the alarm system in our sanctuary and remove the locks from our doors? Is that what it might mean to allow God to prepare the Eucharistic Table for us in the presence of our enemies?

Ephesians 5:8–14

Sunday’ lesson from Ephesians is yet another exhibit tending to substantiate my suspicion that the lectionary was put together by chimps with scissors. Not only have they severed the verses in our text from their context, but they have also sliced the very first verse in half! Before reading the lesson proper, one needs to read the introductory verses 1-2 of chapter 5. These sentences are the lens through which the rest of the chapter must be read. We are admonished to be “imitators of God.” How is this done? “By walk[ing] in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” This is what it means to “walk as children of the light.” Vs. 7.

It is critical to understand that the light spoken of here is the “light of Christ.” Not just any light will do. Exposing darkness is not simply muckraking. For example, you don’t necessarily expose the darkness or bring any truth to light by revealing that your neighbor was once convicted of a felony-particularly if you fail to mention that the crime was committed when your neighbor was very young, that she has since made restitution to her victims, become a productive member of society and an example to other people attempting to change their destructive behaviors. Facts that are taken out of context and blown out of all proportion so that they distort the whole truth are no different than lies. Consequently, when exposing the sins of ourselves or others to the light, it must be the Light of Christ that embraces the sinner, forgives the sin and reflects the infinite love of God.

The final verses of our lesson contain what appear to be the lines of an ancient Christian hymn celebrating the resurrection. Sullian, Kathryn, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Philippians, Philemon, Colossians and Ephesians, New Testament Reading Guide (c. 1960 Order of St. Benedict, Inc.) p. 69. It is interesting to note the metaphors of sleep for death; waking for resurrection; Christ for light. Though the resurrection is an event for which the believer hopes and to which s/he looks forward, it is also an event that occurs in the here and now. The proclamation of the good news creates a new reality: life in the light of Christ. It is this light which illuminates and transforms domestic life in the household into opportunities for “imitating God” through walking in love.

John 9:1–41

There is far too much content to unpack in these verses on a blog such as this. As Saint Augustine observed in one of his homilies on this text: “We have just read the long lesson of the man born blind, whom the Lord Jesus restored to light; but were we to attempt handling the whole of it, and considering, according to our ability, each passage in a way proportionate to its worth, the day would be insufficient.” Homilies on the Gospel of St. John, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo published in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VII, (pub. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 245. Needless to say, if Augustine cannot exhaust these verses in the course of a day, I can hardly expect to make a dent in them with a single post. So my remarks will necessarily be scattershot and incomplete. Still, I hope that they will be somewhat helpful.

What I found compelling in my most recent reading of this text is John’s ingenious use of “darkness” and “light;” “blindness” and “sight.” The story begins with the disciples asking a “when did you stop beating your wife” sort of question. Was a blind beggar’s blindness brought about by his own sins or those of his parents? There is a kind of blindness here on the part of the disciples. They see not a suffering human being, but a theological riddle. Their reaction to the man’s blindness is not compassion, but theoretical speculation. I often think that my church’s years of discussion focused on human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular ran amuck for the same reason. We find ourselves engrossed in theoretical doctrinal disputes over abstract principles ignoring altogether the real flesh and blood people impacted by these discussions. Jesus looks past the theoretical issues with compassion for the person. He is, after all, the Word made flesh.

Jesus assures his disciples that sin has nothing to do with the beggar’s blindness. The beggar was born blind so that God might be glorified through him. One commentator notes that Jesus’ explanation is no more “acceptable to modern humanitarianism” than the disciples’ attribution to sin. Smith, D. Moody, John, Proclamation Commentaries, (c. 1976 by Fortress Press) p. 34. True, but who gives a flying fruit cake for modern humanitarianism? It has been a peculiar ailment of human nature from the beginning to imagine that we are at the center of the universe and that everything exists to make us content. From such a myopic standpoint, it is impossible to imagine a purpose more important than one’s own personal self fulfilment. A good part of our blindness to what is true, beautiful and good results from our inability to get ourselves out of the center. So, I believe, St. John would say.

The miracle is performed with the use of clay and spittle. A similar use of spittle is found in the healing of the deaf mute at Mark 7:31-37. Some commentators see in this an echo of Adam’s creation in Genesis 2:7. See, e.g., Marsh, John, Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1968 by John Marsh, pub. Pelican Books Ltd.) p. 378. However that might be, it is also the case that, at least in John’s narrative, these materials are essential to the plot. Jesus is accused specifically of making clay on the Sabbath. He is not charged with healing on the Sabbath precisely because his adversaries maintain that he is not truly responsible for the blind man’s recovery of sight. If they were to accuse him of performing such a miracle on the Sabbath, they would be conceding that Jesus had in fact done something unheard of “since the world began.” Vs. 32. The man is told to wash in the pool of Siloam, meaning “sent.” This is an echo of Jesus’ repeated claim that he has been “sent” by the Father. See e.g., John 3:16. In a larger sense, the blind man is being “sent” to the religious authorities before whom he will give testimony to Jesus.

Upon learning that the blind man has received his sight, the people who know him bring him to the “Pharisees.” Again, it is worth pointing out that the gospel of John was written at least two decades after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The Sadducees and the chief priests who were principally responsible for Jesus’ arrest and deliverance to Pilate are no longer a factor in the life of the church. The principal antagonist in John’s time is not the temple establishment, but the synagogue which replaced the temple as the center of Jewish life and worship. The ferocity of Pharisaic opposition to Jesus in John’s gospel is therefore reflective of this later stage in the church’s history and not so much the time of Jesus’ ministry. It appears that disciples of Jesus were initially participants in the life of the synagogue and all other aspects of the Jewish community. Indeed, they considered themselves to be Jews and understood their discipleship as a movement within rather than against Judaism. By the time John’s gospel was written, however, the relationship between the church and the synagogue had deteriorated to such an extent that followers of Jesus were threatened with being “put out of the synagogue.” Vs. 22. This was tantamount to excommunication. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John, I-XII, The Anchor Bible (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 374. Disciples in John’s faith community were therefore placed in the position of choosing between confessing Jesus and facing formal exclusion from Israel or denying Jesus in order to remain in good standing with the synagogue. As the gospel demonstrates, there were some who sought to have it both ways by keeping their belief in Jesus secret. John 12:42-43.

Throughout the dialogue between the formerly blind man and the religious authorities we see both the growth of sight and deepening blindness. The blind man receives his sight and declares that “the man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes.” Vs. 11. When he is first called to testify before the authorities, he says of Jesus, “he is a prophet.” Vs. 17. In his second appearance before the authorities, he testifies that Jesus is “from God.” Vs. 33. In the end, he worships Jesus as the “Son of man.” Vss. 35-38.

By contrast, the authorities become increasingly blind in the face of this remarkable sign they cannot deny. Though the blindness of the man from birth is attested by his parents, his sight is attested by the people who know him, and the attribution of this sign to Jesus is supported by all of the evidence, still the authorities stubbornly persist in their unbelief. The reader is left with the implied rhetorical question: Who is really blind here? Ironically, it is those who insist that they can see. Vs. 40.

John also employs the interplay between darkness and light. Jesus notes that “We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work.” Vs. 4. The gathering darkness of the cross is foreshadowed here and, more immediately, the growing blindness and opposition of the authorities to the sign that Jesus is about to perform. Yet in the midst of this gathering darkness, Jesus is the light of the world (vs. 5) who is even now banishing the darkness through the miracle of restored sight and, even more, though the faith of the man whose eyes are opened.

Similarly, there is a battle of the “knows” going on. The man whose sight was restored speaks of what he knows: I was blind; Jesus put clay on my eyes and told me to wash; I washed and now I see. The authorities speak insistently of what they know: Jesus does not keep the Sabbath; Jesus is a sinner. There is one thing, however, that the authorities confess they do not know, namely, where Jesus comes from. “[A]s for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” No doubt they intended this inadvertent admission as a slight to Jesus and an insult to the man before them: How can you believe in a self-proclaimed teacher from the back woods of Galilee who has no teaching credentials? Unbeknown to them, they have revealed the fatal flaw in their position: their failure to recognize Jesus as the one “sent” from God. They know the Scriptures, but not the One to whom the Scriptures testify. See John 5:39.

This lesson, about which volumes more could be said, reinforces the central theme of John’s Gospel: that sight, light, knowledge of God, salvation and eternal life all grow out of one’s “abiding” in Jesus. If you take the time to read this marvelous gospel from beginning to end, you discover that all of the themes, images and metaphors used throughout the first twelve chapters of John are woven together in the “farewell discourse” in chapters thirteen to seventeen. These chapters unpack John’s vision of the love between Father and Son spilling out into the world through the Spirit of God poured out upon the disciples and reflected in the disciples love for one another.