Tag Archives: Slavery

Sunday, September 4th

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Deuteronomy 30:15–20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1:1–21
Luke 14:25–33

Prayer of the Day: Direct us, O Lord God, in all our doings with your continual help, that in all our works, begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy name; and finally, by your mercy, bring us to everlasting life, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“The power of choosing good and evil is within the reach of all.” Origen

My strict Lutheran upbringing causes me to wince at Origen’s bald statement, as well as Moses’ call to “choose life” and the Psalmist’s insistence that one must choose between the life of righteousness or wickedness. I grew up confessing each Sunday that I was a “poor miserable sinner” and that I was incapable of performing any truly good work. I still believe that to be true in this sense: I am convinced that my most noble acts are tinged with self-interest and always motivated to some degree by greed, need for approval or some other unworthy impulse. Knowing that helps to keep me humble and self-critical in a healthy way. That is particularly important for clergy types like me for whom messianic delusions are an occupational hazard. I need to be reminded that my view of God’s will in every situation is myopic. My judgment is fallible and my good intentions are often misguided. Of course, no good work on my part can be employed to win God’s favor. God’s grace, mercy and goodness are gifts freely given apart from however good or evil my actions might be.

That said, there is a dark side to this doctrine of original sin. Belief in the pervasiveness of sin and its tendency to infect our motives and cloud our judgment can easily become an excuse for inactivity, evasiveness and a tacit acceptance of the status quo. We have seen how much damage has been done by religious fanatics whose moral crusades leave behind a trail of blood and ruin. We know all too well the dangers of pride, self-righteousness and spiritual snobbery that can grow out of movements aimed at living the Sermon on the Mount. Far better, therefore, to forsake these religious pretensions, accept one’s limits and live a flawed, but forgiven life at peace with the secular world. Grace, then, becomes mere permission to settle for good citizenship rather than pursuing holiness. Discipleship, like politics, becomes the art of the possible. Christians are not better people; they are just forgiven-which means that their lives are no different from those of anyone else.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously unmasked this misconstruction for what it truly is: “cheap grace.” There is a difference between the student, on the one hand, who studies diligently, receives a less than satisfactory mark but is nevertheless given a pass to the next grade; and the student on the other who never bothers to attend class or complete any assignments yet shows up for the first time on the last day of school seeking the same favor. However poorly the Corinthian church of the New Testament may have embodied Christ, it understood nonetheless that its calling was to be the Body of Christ. At the very least, we can see in the contours of its failure what it was trying to become. By contrast, I often wonder whether anyone can tell by looking at the typical American protestant church exactly what it is trying to be. Is it a fund raising unit for disaster and famine relief? Is it a civic organization providing social services for the surrounding community? Is it a social club of like minded individuals who share the same religious/philosophical/cultural outlooks and artistic tastes? Is any of this even mildly interesting for a culture saturated with opportunities for charitable work, volunteer experiences, socialization and youth educational and entertainment programs-to say nothing of a cornucopia of quasi-religious options? Whatever the church might have to offer, you can get it better and cheaper somewhere else. So why join the church? Is it worth sacrificing a leisurely Sunday morning out on the porch with a bagel & cream cheese, a good cup of coffee and the Sunday edition of the New York Times?

The early church was hardly perfect, but it understood that it was called to an existence radically different from the surrounding culture. It understood that Jesus was offering it a better life than the dominant society could provide. It also understood that this new life inevitably took the shape of the cross in a world dominated by greed, injustice and violence. Moral choices had to be made on a daily basis and these choices were a matter of life or death. They were often costly. Joseph H. Hellerman tells the story of a small congregation in Northern Africa during the third century facing just such a costly life or death decision. (Full article published in Called to Community, edited by Charles F. Moore and published by Plough Publishing House, c. 2016) pp. 26-30. A young actor expressed a desire to be baptized and join the church. Acting in the third century was not the craft of pure entertainment we know today. It was employed exclusively for the celebration of pagan festivals featuring plays depicting overt violence and explicit sexual immorality. Accordingly, the young man was required to renounce his profession and he did so. Subsequently, after his baptism, the young man started his own school to train actors for the very profession he had given up. When confronted by his pastor, he pointed out that he needed still to make a living to support himself and that, because he was no longer involved with the actual plays, he didn’t feel that he was violating his baptismal vow to follow Jesus.

At a loss for how to handle this unique situation, the pastor sought advice from his bishop, Cyprian of Carthage. Cyprian’s response was clear and uncompromising. Participation in pagan religious productions, whether as an actor or as an acting instructor, is inconsistent with the church’s faith and witness. The young acting instructor must again be called upon to abandon his profession. That might sound harsh and it is. But there is more. Cyprian went on to say that the congregation should provide support and sustenance for the young man for as long as he needed it to make his transition to another trade. Furthermore, Cyprian offered the support of his own church in the event this responsibility proved too great for the little congregation. Thus, Cyprian was not a puritanical judge determined to cleanse the church of sinners. Rather, he was the caring pastor of a church community whose members were dedicated to helping one another turn from sin to the better life Jesus offers. This is a classic example of what Saint Paul calls “bearing one another’s burdens and so fulfill[ing] the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2.

In my own Lutheran tradition we tend to identify a person’s calling or vocation with his or her profession, trade or job. We call this the “priesthood of all believers.” After all, the work that we do in society for the sake of our neighbors is no less holy than the work of ministry within the church. That sounds good, and it works well enough when your employment fits your temperament and contributes to the well-being of society. But more and more I am finding young people employed by companies demanding more time, more energy and more tangible results while offering less security and compensation. Through the cellphone and the internet, the office seems to be worming its way into evenings at home and family vacations demanding availability 24/7. Unskilled heads of families find it necessary to hold down two and sometimes three jobs to make ends meet leaving little time for family, church and community. Attorneys find that, so far from advancing the rule of law and justice, their hours are consumed with assisting insurers in denying the claims of sick and injured people. Doctors find their care of patients increasingly dominated by the cost cutting measures of insurers and HMOs. Many folks I know have deeply ambivalent feelings about their jobs-such as a young woman who works for a manufacturer of automatic fire arms sold to civilians. Work that exploits, overreaches, enslaves and compromises is anything but holy. It is hard to view it as a calling to serve God. I think that many folks caught up in these dehumanizing roles would welcome an opportunity to free themselves from this way of death and embrace Jesus’ life-giving alternative. But that is a lot to expect from an individual.

Maybe this is where the church comes in. Perhaps we need to become a community that does more than call upon people to choose life. We need to be the kind of community that helps people choose life by supporting them every step of the way-as did Cyprian. We are similar in this respect to a twelve step community of addicts trying to help one another achieve and maintain sobriety. We are all struggling to break away from ways of death that threaten to destroy us and embrace Jesus’ way that leads to life. To be sure, Christians are not better people, but we are people who believe in a better way of being human. We are sinful people, but people who are nevertheless capable of making good, faithful and life-giving choices-especially when we support, strengthen and encourage one another. We are a people in which the Holy Spirit is at work forming the mind of Christ. When that happens, the Body follows suit.

Here’s a poem by Louise Gluck about choosing life.

Odysseus’ Decision

The great man turns his back on the island.
Now he will not die in paradise
nor hear again
the lutes of paradise among the olive trees,
by the clear pools under the cypresses. Time
begins now, in which he hears again
that pulse which is the narrative
sea, at dawn when its pull is strongest.
What has brought us here
will lead us away; our ship
sways in the tinted harbor water.
Now the spell is ended.
Give him back his life,
sea that can only move forward.

Louise Glück is an American poet. She was born in 1943 in New York City and grew up on Long Island. She attended both Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University. She is a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Academy of American Poet’s Prize. You can read more about Louise Gluck and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Deuteronomy 30:15–20

The Book of Deuteronomy places us with Moses and the people of Israel at the frontiers of the promised land of Canaan. Moses’ career is drawing to a close. He will not enter with Israel into Canaan. Instead, the torch of leadership will pass to Joshua. So we are to understand that Moses is giving to Israel his final instructions. That the composition of this book likely took place in the latter years of the Davidic monarchy with additions during and after the Babylonian Exile only serves to illustrate how the stark choice between “life and good, death and evil” is ever before God’s people. In every age, in every individual life, at each moment God urges us to “choose life.”

That injunction to “choose life” has picked up a lot of distorting overtones from the so-called culture wars in recent years. The phrase “culture of life” was popularized by Pope John Paul II. As used by the Pope, it describes a societal existence based upon the theological premise that human life at all stages from conception through natural death is sacred. It is, of course, hard to disagree with this statement as a general proposition. But then again, general moral propositions are usually quite palatable. It is their specific application that often catches in our throats. Social conservatives in the United States, citing the Pope as their ally, frequently invoke his teachings on the “culture of life” in their opposition to abortion, destruction of human embryonic stem cells and contraception. I can’t say I entirely disagree. Few things strike me as more violent than the removal of a fetal human life from the womb with the purpose of terminating it. (Whether a fetus ought to be considered a “person” in contemplation of law and thus entitled to the consequent legal protections is, of course, an entirely different question.) I cannot help but notice, however, the roaring silence of these same conservatives when it comes to the Pope’s opposition to capital punishment, his criticisms of free market capitalism and his repeated calls for governments to come to the aid of the poor, brought into even sharper focus by his successor, Pope Francis. I guess that for them, the culture of life extends only from conception to birth. After that, you are on your own.

But I digress. Such discussion risks leading us dangerously off the mark. In reading and interpreting this text, the first question to ask is: who is being addressed? Without doubt, Moses is speaking to Israel as God’s covenant partner. We can also say that he is addressing the church, but only because we gentiles “who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.” Ephesians 2:13. Can we use this text as a platform for promoting a “culture of life” in the United States? Is that an appropriate use of the book of Deuteronomy? If you have been following me more or less regularly, you know that my answer is “no.” The biblical injunction to choose life arises out of the covenant relationship between Israel and her God. “Deuteronomy is not general moral law…but instruction for a specific covenant people, with a particular history that reaches back to the time of Abraham.” Achtemeier, Elizabeth, “Plumbing the Riches of Deuteronomy for the Preacher,” published in Interpretation, Vol. 51, No. 3, July 1987, p. 270. As another commentator has noted, “every act of Torah-obedience finds its motivation, its purpose, and its criterion of appropriateness in Israel’s love for Yahweh.” Janzen, Gerald J., “The Yoke That Gives Rest,” published in Interpretation, Vol. 51, No. 3, July 1987, p. 256.  The covenant gives concrete shape to God’s call for Israel to be a unique people in the midst of the nations. Israel is to worship only the Lord who “give[s] justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain[s] the right of the afflicted and the destitute…rescu[ing] the weak and the needy.” Psalm 82 3-4. They are not to worship the gods of the nations who typically champion the cause of their imperial patrons and “judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked.” Psalm 82:2.  Unlike the hierarchical regimes of the empires that are indifferent to the plight of the poor in the land and are built on the backs of slaves, Israel is ruled by the God who commands that there be no poor in her midst. Deuteronomy 15:7-11. Israel is to be a light to the nations and a witness to God’s intent for creation. Apart from Israel’s election and her covenant with God, the command to choose life is a pale, insipid and vacuous moral indicative waiting to be filled with practically anyone’s political agenda.

Despite idolatrous claims of American exceptionalism, the United States is not God’s chosen people and there is no covenant between God and the United States. For that reason one cannot apply the terms of Israel’s covenant with Yahweh to American society. That would be very much like trying to enforce a contract against a person who never signed it. The application of covenant obligations can be made only against the people of Israel with whom the covenant was made and the people of God brought into that covenant by baptism into Jesus Christ. We are the ones God calls upon to “choose life” and that choice involves not subscription to a moral template or party platform, but to live as God’s covenant people Israel, and as church, to live as faithful members of the Body of Christ where the mind of Christ is formed in us individually and communally.

The implication is clear. Whether you are advocating for tougher legal restrictions on abortion or food assistance for poor children in the United States, you cannot do so from the platform of Deuteronomy or any other covenantal scripture. Or I should say you cannot do that unless you are convinced that somewhere along the line God made the United States a party to Yahweh’s covenant with Israel. The only place where these covenant obligations (and the promises which are even more numerous) can be given effect is within the covenant communities of Israel and the church.

Mark Twain is credited with saying, “To be good is noble. To teach someone else to be good is more noble still-and a lot less trouble.” I believe the church goes far astray when, instead of internalizing the scriptures, we use them as a platform for lecturing the rest of the world on “culture of life,” justice, peace and other abstract nouns. What if instead of issuing a never ending stream of preachy screechy social statements in which we wag our moralistic fingers at society at large, we turned our criticism inward? What if the bishop of the ELCA issued a call to all of our congregations to ensure that all members of our churches receive adequate medical insurance coverage? What if instead of merely joining the chorus of voices calling for stiffer gun legislation, our bishop were to call upon members of all ELCA congregations to dispose of their fire arms-or at least those designed for human combat? I believe that the best way for the church to “choose life” is for the church to become “a culture of life.” Let’s be the change we want to see in the rest of the world.

Psalm 1

Scholars disagree as to whether or not this psalm was specifically composed as an introduction to the Psalter. Pro see Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 16; contra see Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 102.  In either case, it serves that purpose well. Teachings such as the blessedness of the godly life, the futility of wickedness, the faithfulness of God to all who trust in him and the joy of meditating on the scriptures reflected in the first Psalm find further expression and amplification throughout the rest of the Psalter. This psalm is classified as a “wisdom psalm” and, as such, makes the bold assertion that both righteousness and wickedness find their proper reward within the parameters of a human lifetime. The assertion is as problematic as it is bold and requires numerous qualifications, explanations and, above all, faith in the goodness of God when God seems altogether absent from the scene. For now, though, you stand at the beginning of the Psalter “with a faith to suit you well.” “Borning Cry,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 732. As life becomes more complex, nuanced and layered, so will God’s faithful presence in the next one hundred forty-nine psalms.

Beatitude begins with answering God’s call to come out from among the wicked. The call to Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 is echoed in this opening verse of Psalm 1. The implication is that Israel’s call to be separate from the nations is precisely for the purpose of being a light to the nations. Rather than taking her cues from the wicked, the righteous person’s delight is in the Torah. Meditation on the covenant guides her life course and, as a result, she is firmly grounded and well cared for as a tree planted next to a river. Vs. 3. Rooted as it is near a perpetual source of water, this tree symbolizing the righteous person is unaffected by drought.

By contrast, the wicked are characterized as “chaff,” empty husks that are blown away by the wind in the threshing process. Vs. 4. They are of no value and their works have no permanence. They cannot stand “in the judgment.” Vs. 5. Though the original author of the psalm may only have understood “judgment” in a purely temporal, “this worldly” sense, later Judaism and the early church began to see in this assertion a reference to God’s final judgment. Though God is always judging, purifying and sanctifying “the congregation of the righteous” (vs. 5), there must finally be a day when that congregation is fully cleansed from all wickedness. That day will come, however, in God’s own good time. For now, the righteous must be content to live among if not in the counsel of the wicked. As Jesus points out, one ought not to become impatient and exercise judgment before the appointed day. Matthew 13:24-30.

Philemon 1:1–21

This brief letter from Saint Paul to a disciple of Jesus named Philemon is a fascinating window into the life of the New Testament church. It was evidently written when Paul was imprisoned. Though some scholars have suggested that Paul was writing from Rome, it is also possible that the letter was composed while Paul was imprisoned at Ephesus or Caesarea. Philemon was a convert of Paul and the leader of a house church in Colossae. Evidently, Philemon’s slave, Onesimus escaped from him and made his way to where Paul was imprisoned. There he became a companion and helper to the apostle during his imprisonment. At some point, Onesimus also became a disciple of Jesus, though whether he was such when he deserted Philemon or received baptism under the influence of Paul is not altogether clear. In any event, Paul is sending Onesimus back to his master, Philemon, with the letter bearing his name.

In the pre-Civil War south this letter was frequently invoked to defend the institution of slavery. After all, Paul does not say anything critical about slavery in his letter. Moreover, he returns Onesimus to his master and even acknowledges his master’s right of ownership. From this, they argued, we must conclude that slavery is not evil per se and that a slave owner’s rights over his slave should be honored. Paul has come under a good deal of modern criticism on that score. Should not Paul have championed the human rights of Onesimus rather than honoring the property rights of Philemon? For the reasons below, I would reject this anachronistic argument.

First, it is important to understand that slavery in antiquity, though a lamentable condition, was far different from the slavery that existed in the United States in the nineteenth century. Slavery in the first century Roman Empire was not race based. Racial and ethnic groups were not singled out as inferior or “natural slaves” as was the case for African Americans. If you were a slave in the Roman Empire, it was likely because your parents sold you to satisfy a debt or you were on the losing side of some military conflict. Though few and far between, there were opportunities for slaves to win their freedom and achieve high office in the Roman bureaucracy as the philosopher, Seneca attests. Seneca the Younger, Letter 47. It is impossible to imagine anything like that ever happening in the pre-Civil War south. Thus, there can be no meaningful comparison between slavery in antiquity and that which existed in the southern states prior to the Civil War.

Second, Paul had no interest in creating a more just society. He was concerned only with witnessing faithfully to the new creation of which the resurrected Body of Christ was the first fruits. Anyone who asserts that Paul’s returning Onesimus to his master constituted recognition of Philemon’s rights as a slaveholder would do well to read carefully the rest of Paul’s writings. This is not a matter Philemon’s rights, but the healing of Christ’s Body. Whatever rights may be involved here is irrelevant. The governing reality is that Onesimus and Philemon are now brothers in Christ Jesus and must be reconciled as such. Moreover, Paul makes clear that henceforth they are to live as brothers, regardless of their legal status in the outside world. The Body of Christ is to be a microcosm of God’s new creation in the midst of the old. Paul was more interested in witnessing to the new creation than patching up the old one.

Luke 14:25–33

This is a tough text. Jesus insists that whoever would come after him must “hate” his or her family members. In an effort to soften the effect of this saying, one commentator suggests that the Semitic understanding of this Greek word which would be “to love less” is intended. Marshall, Howard I.,Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 1978 Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 592. Nice try Howard, but as Luke has proved himself quite fluent in literary Greek and shows no inclination to favor Semitic meanings, I don’t find that line of argument persuasive. The word Luke uses for “hate” is the Greek word “miseo” from which we get our word “misanthropic” meaning “hatred of humanity.” Clearly, there is no kinder, gentler meaning for Jesus’ words that somehow got lost in translation. I think we need to take Jesus at his disturbing word here. So what do we make of what Jesus is telling us?

I sought help from Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. As I have said many times before, I don’t believe the church has seen a teacher and preacher as gifted as St. Augustine. For Augustine, the greatest evil was not hatred. Hatred is only the symptom of a deeper problem, namely, disordered love. Human love is designed to bring about human happiness through guiding the self to love its Creator. Love for non-divine, creaturely things is also appropriate, but “In all such things, let my soul praise You, O God, Creator of all things, but let it not cleave too close in love to them through the senses of the body. For they go their way and are no more; and they rend the soul with desires that can destroy it, for it longs to be one with the things it loves and to repose in them. But in them is no place of repose, because they do not abide.” Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 4, Chapter 10, Paragraph 15. Unless love is firmly grounded in the Creator, it latches on to its fellow creatures. Ultimately, these creatures cannot satisfy the restless heart that can find peace only in God. Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 1, Chapter 1, Paragraph 1.

The problem here is idolatry or what St. Paul calls worshiping the creature in place of the Creator. Romans 1:25. Such misdirected love turns into hate when our idol, the object of our love, cannot meet the demands of godhood we place on it. The woman of my dreams turns out to be a human being with flaws, shortcomings and needs of her own. She can never live up to my romance novel fantasies. When that becomes evident I feel hurt, disappointed and perhaps even deceived. The job I thought would give me the sense of purpose, the assurance of accomplishment and the status among my peers I believed could make me happy turns out to be, well, just a job. So I start hating every day I have to show up for work. I go from idol to idol seeking the peace only God can give me. When the idol inevitably disappoints me, I angrily kick it off its pedestal and look for another. Even love that is directed toward the Creator can be idolatrous. Worship designed to meet my own needs rather than to glorify God, prayer that seeks to manipulate God into doing my will instead of conforming my will to God’s and preaching about God that uses religious language to further a thinly veiled political agenda are all examples of idolatry. The idolater seeks to have God on his or her own terms rather than living life on God’s terms. When it becomes clear that God cannot be possessed and controlled, he or she becomes angry and disappointed with God as well.

Hatred, then, is quite simply our natural response to seeing through an idol. We hate the idol because it is not the god we thought it was. Augustine would not be at all surprised to learn of our epidemic of spouse and child abuse, skyrocketing rates of debilitating depression and ever increasing incidents of teen suicide. After all, what can you expect when you worship the creature instead of the Creator? What can you expect when you push God to the margins of family life, somewhere down on the order of priorities below band practice, Disney World, the Sunday Times and thousands of other diversions? When hearts created to love God fall in love with something less than God, they are bound to get broken.

Finally, after having been disappointed by a long line of idols, each of which has failed to give the idolater the peace s/he seeks, the idolater begins hating life itself. That might sound like a hopeless place to be, but it is precisely there, where all the idols have failed us and all hope for salvation from them has faded, that Jesus meets us. Once we discover that we have been “looking for love in all the wrong places,” we are finally ready to discover it in the right place. Hating the life of misdirected love and misplaced hope is the first step toward new life where love is properly grounded first and foremost in the Creator. That is the first step toward learning to love the world, its creatures and our families rightly; not as gods, but as fellow creatures and gifts of the Creator.

So as hard and offensive as Jesus’ words from our gospel lessen sound to us, I believe they are precisely the words we most need to hear. We need to see the destructiveness of our selfish and misdirected love and hate what it is doing to us. We need to be reminded that Jesus will not settle for second place in our lives, and that when we relegate him to some lower priority we are only hurting ourselves as well as the ones we most love. If we are ever going to love our families, our communities, our nation and the world in a proper and life giving way, we need to learn daily to take up the cross and follow Jesus.

The parables about the unfinished tower and the king outflanked by his enemy reinforce the theme we have seen since Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem in Luke 9:51. Discipleship is a costly business and is not to be undertaken lightly. Just as you would not begin building a tower unless you were sure you had the resources to finish it or embark upon a military campaign without the troops and munitions required to prevail, so one should not come after Jesus unless s/he is prepared to pay the price. That price is the cross. Understand that we are to take this literally. As John Howard Yoder would remind us: “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 William B. Eerdmans Co.).  Thus, to follow Jesus is to enter into the struggle upon which he embarked when he set his face to go to Jerusalem. It is becoming evident to the disciples and perhaps the crowd as well that this encounter at Jerusalem may end in Jesus’ death. What they cannot yet anticipate is the “Exodus” Jesus will accomplish there. They cannot yet understand the “necessity” of Jesus’ suffering dictated by his faithfulness to his heavenly Father and his determination save his people. That will become clear only after Jesus is raised and “opens their minds” to understand the scriptures. Luke 24:45.

“Whoever of you does not renounce all that s/he has cannot be my disciple.” Vs. 33. By now we should know better than to dismiss this declaration as hyperbole or attempt to spiritualize it. Jesus means what Jesus says. To receive the gift of the kingdom, you need empty hands. Harkening back to our friend Augustine, not until the whole heart is given to God with all other loves being renounced can these lesser loves be received and loved properly.

Sunday, October 27th

Reformation Day

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, gracious Lord, we thank you that your Holy Spirit renews the church in every age. Pour out your Holy Spirit on your faithful people. Keep them steadfast in your word, protect and comfort them in times of trial, defend them against all enemies of the gospel, and bestow on the church your saving peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

I don’t plan to say much about Reformation here or on Reformation Sunday. If you want some reflection on that subject, I did say a few things about it in my monthly article in the Voice of Trinity. For those of you who are not on the mailing list, you can access the article at this link. I must confess that I have never understood what the lectionary people were thinking when they selected these texts for the observance of Reformation Sunday. The connections I have tried to make every single year (because the readings never change) always seem forced and tenuous. So for now, let’s put Reformation to one side.  

What I found most striking in my reading of the lessons this time around is Jeremiah’s oracle about Judah’s restoration. I am particularly struck by the promise that God will write his Torah into the hearts of his people such that they no longer need instruction, but know the Lord almost instinctively. It reminds me of Paul’s admonition to the Philippian Church to “have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the likeness of a servant.” Philippians 2:5-7.

That is an appealing image. I don’t know about you, but I got more than a belly full of arrogance, pride, grasping for power and contempt these last few weeks watching our national leaders behave in ways our nursery teachers would never tolerate in their classrooms. And don’t bother to point out to me who did what first to whom or who started it. I am not interested in who was right and who was wrong. Like an exasperated school teacher, I don’t care. I only wish there were an adult somewhere up on Capital Hill to make all the spoiled little kids play nice. But to be fair, the conduct of our leaders is no worse than what I often see at sporting events, traffic jams and, sadly, in some of our churches. It is a reflection of a depraved and inwardly directed heart that beats in my own chest no less than in anyone else’s. We all need to have the words of God inscribed upon our hearts. But how could such a thing possibly happen? What would it look like if it did happen?

Let me say first off that I don’t believe there are any shortcuts to sanctification, which is perhaps just a fancy name for what Jeremiah calls the inscribing of God’s words upon our hearts. Loving God above all else and loving my neighbor (who may also be my enemy) goes against the grain of my being. Taking up the cross is the last thing I choose. It will take a lot of work to chisel love into this selfish, willful and rebellious old heart.

Second, I know I cannot do this on my own. Martin Luther said it best of all: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to him.” Small Catechism, Explanation of the Creed, Article 3. I need God’s Spirit to overcome my willfulness and teach me obedience, faithfulness and compassion. No, I cannot control the Holy Spirit, but I know where the Holy Spirit is, where the Holy Spirit works and where the Holy Spirit promises to meet me. Where the Word of God is proclaimed; where the waters of baptism flow; where the Eucharistic table is spread-that is where the Spirit is found. That is where I need to be if I expect the Spirit to transform me.

That brings me to the final point. I need the people of God. I suppose that, in theory, the Spirit of God could transform me without the help of any other human agent. But that isn’t how the Spirit has chosen to work. The Word of God is inscribed upon our hearts as we learn the hard lessons of forgiveness-both giving and receiving it. Sanctification happens as I am forced to work with, support and care for people I did not choose as friends; people who may not like me; people who I might not like either. The word of God is inscribed upon our hearts as God makes of a diverse and fractious group of individuals One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. That is a long and difficult task. I often doubt that there is enough time left in my life to complete it. Yet though I may lack time, God is prepared to take all the time necessary to complete what he started at my baptism. I don’t see it yet. But Jeremiah assures me that “the days are surely coming.” For now, that has got to be enough.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

For a brief but excellent summary of the Book of Jeremiah see the article by Terence E. Fretheim, Elva B. Lovell Professor of Old Testament at enterthebible.org. Recall that Jeremiah prophesied immediately before and for some time after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. This particular oracle in Sunday’s lesson is regarded by most scholars as coming from Jeremiah’s post 587 prophesies. Jerusalem was in ruins and a substantial part of the population had been deported to Babylon (modern day Iraq). There seemed to be no future for Judah. Yet here Jeremiah, the very prophet who refused to offer Judah’s leaders even a sliver of hope for deliverance from Babylon, now speaks to the sorry remnant of the people about a new beginning. Such words could not be heard by Judah before the destruction of Jerusalem because her leaders were too intent on preserving the old covenant that had been irretrievably broken. Judah was hoping that salvation would come in the form of a Babylonian defeat that would preserve the line of David, the Holy City and the temple of Solomon. But that would not have been salvation for a nation that had so thoroughly strayed from her covenant with her God. Hope lay not in preserving Judah and her institutions, but in the new thing God would do for Israel after all these things had been taken away from her. Israel would never again be the glorious nation she was; but through the new covenant Jeremiah promises, Israel will become precisely the nation God needs.

I have said many times before that the prophet Jeremiah might have an important word for a church coming to the end of its prominence and position in western culture. A broken and fragmented church on the fringes of society unable to support the denominational missions, ministries and educational institutions that defined it in the past might not be the “church of the future” we would choose if we had a choice. But such a church might be exactly the kind of people God needs to be the Body of Christ in the world of the Twenty-First Century.

The new covenant of which Jeremiah speaks does not differ substantively from the old. The “law” which God promises to write upon the hearts of God’s people is the law delivered to Israel at Sinai. The problem is not with the law but with the people who failed to internalize it and therefore observed it only in the breech. For example, during the reign of Judah’s last king, Zedekiah, the Babylonian armies advanced and captured all but two of Judah’s fortified cities. Jeremiah 34:7. Hoping to placate God and induce the Lord to save Judah from conquest, Zedekiah persuaded the people to do away with a longstanding practice of enslaving their impoverished fellow Hebrews beyond the six year limit on servitude established under Torah (Exodus 21:2-6). See Jeremiah 34:6-10. Shortly thereafter, Hophra, Pharaoh of Egypt, marched north to attack the Babylonian forces in Palestine. Babylon was forced to raise the siege against Jerusalem and draw its troops down to repel the Egyptian forces. When it seemed as though the Babylonian threat had receded, Zedekiah revoked the decree freeing the slaves and reinstated the lawless practice of indefinite servitude. Jeremiah 34:11. Jeremiah warned Zedekiah that this blatant act of hypocrisy would not go unpunished, that the Babylonian army would return and that there would be no escape from destruction. Jeremiah 34:17-22.

As Jeremiah saw it, the kingdom of David was beyond redemption. The faithlessness of the people could not be addressed by changing or reforming Judah’s existing institutions. Change must come at the very deepest level: within the heart. Salvation is still possible for Judah, but it lies on the far side of judgment. Such restoration does not come easily. In the wilderness of exile, the people will learn once again to depend upon their God for sustenance. Only so can the Torah be written upon the hearts of God’s people.

The promise “I will be their God and they shall be my people” encapsulates at the deepest level God’s final (eschatological) intent for humanity. Vs. 33. The same refrain echoes throughout the book of the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 11:20; Ezekiel 14:11; Ezekiel 36:28) and appears again in the concluding chapters of Revelation. Revelation 21:1-4. Under this new covenant, it will no longer be necessary to instruct people in Torah because Torah, the very shape of obedience to God, will be wholly internalized. If you ask me what such a community looks like, I cite once again the powerful example of the Amish community following the Nickel Mine tragedy. In extending forgiveness to the murderer of their children and offering support to his family, the Amish demonstrated to a sick, violent and gun wielding culture what the kingdom of Christ looks like. This response speaks louder than all the preachy-screechy moralistic social statements ever issued by all the rest of us more mainline, official and established churches. Here, for a brief instant, it was possible to see at work hearts upon which God’s words have been inscribed.

Psalm 46

This psalm is associated with the protestant Reformation generally and Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God” in particular. Structurally, the hymn is made up of three sections punctuated twice by the refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge/fortress.” Vss 7 & 11. Each section is followed with the term “selah.” This word is found throughout the Psalms and also in the book of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:3; Habakkuk 3:9; Habakkuk 3:13). It is most likely an instruction to musicians or worship leaders for use in liturgical performances. The exact meaning has been debated among rabbinic scholars since the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek around 270 B.C.E. This suggests that whatever function the term served had ceased even then.

In the first section the psalmist declares confidence in God’s protection in the midst of an unstable world. Earthquakes, storms and floods were terrifying events often attributed to angry deities. The psalmist does not speculate on causation here, but confidently asserts that the God of Jacob can be trusted to provide security and protection even in the midst of these frightening natural phenomena.

The psalmist turns his/her attention in the second section to the city of Jerusalem which, though not mentioned by name, can hardly be any other than the “city of God,” “the holy habitation of the Most High.” Vs. 4. The “river” that makes glad the city of God might be the Gihon Spring, the main source of water for ancient Jerusalem. It was this water source that made human settlement there possible. The Gihon was used not only for drinking water, but also for irrigation of gardens in the adjacent Kidron Valley which, in turn, was a source of food for the city. Of course, the prophet Ezekiel relates a vision in which a miraculous river flows out of the restored temple in Jerusalem to give life to desert areas in Palestine. Ezekiel 47:1-14.  Similarly, John of Patmos describes “a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 22: 1-2. God’s presence in the midst of the city recalls the promise of Jeremiah that “I will be their God and they will be my people.” Jeremiah 31:33.

As a relatively small nation existing in a violent and dangerous geopolitical neighborhood, Israel was no stranger to “raging” nations and unstable kingdoms. Vs. 6. But the psalmist will not be rattled by these dangers. S/he knows that the Holy City is under the protection of the Holy One of Israel. It is not the nations or their rulers who determine the course of history. The God of Jacob is the one whose voice “melts” the earth. So Isaiah would try in vain to convince King Ahaz to be still and wait for God’s salvation from his enemies rather than allying himself with the empire of Assyria-which would be his nation’s undoing. Isaiah 7:1-8:8.

In the third section, the focus is upon the geopolitical scene. The Lord causes wars to cease. The God of Israel is no friend of war. To the contrary, “he makes wars to cease to the end of the earth.” Vs.  9. Moreover, he destroys the weapons of war. He does not call upon Israel to deal violently with the nations of the earth. The psalmist assures us that God can handle that job without us. God says instead, “Be still and know that I am God.” Vs. 10. When confronted with violent enemies (as Israel frequently was), the people are called upon to put their trust in the God of Jacob who is the one and only reliable refuge. In a culture indoctrinated with the belief that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the contrary witness of this ancient psalm is critical.

Romans 3:19-28

Paul’s letter to the Romans is the only one in which he makes a sustained theological argument from start to finish. For that reason alone, it is impossible to interpret any single passage in isolation from the whole work. As I have said in prior posts, I believe that Paul’s primary concern is expressed in Romans 9-11. In that section, Paul discusses the destiny of Israel in God’s saving work through Jesus Christ. It is not Paul’s intent to discredit his people or their faith. Rather, he is making the argument that through Jesus the covenant promises formerly extended exclusively to Israel are now offered to the gentiles as well. Though some in Israel (most as it ultimately turned out) do not accept Jesus as messiah, it does not follow that God has rejected Israel. “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29. Paul points out that Israel’s rejection of Jesus as Messiah has occasioned the inclusion of the gentiles into the covenant promises. “A hardening,” says Paul, “has come over part of Israel until the full number of the gentiles come in.” Romans 11:25. I must confess that I don’t quite understand how Israel’s rejection of Jesus as messiah makes it any easier for the gentiles to believe. Nevertheless, Paul sees some connection here and, in any event, Israel’s salvation (which is assured) is inextricably bound up with the salvation of the gentiles. According to Paul, Israel and the church are both essential players in God’s redemptive purpose for creation.

With all of this in mind, let’s turn to our lesson for Sunday. Paul points out that “the law” speaks to those under the law so that every mouth will be stopped and the whole world held accountable to God. Vs. 19. Here it is essential to distinguish between “Torah” and “law” as Paul uses it. Torah was always understood and accepted by Israel as a gift. The commandments, even those governing the smallest details of dietary and hygienic practice, were not intended to be oppressive and controlling. They were designed to make every aspect of living, however humble and mundane, a reminder of the covenant through which Israel was privileged to be joined with her God. As such, observance of Torah was a joy, not a burden.

Nevertheless, when observance of Torah is misconstrued and understood not as a gift, but rather a means or method of pleasing God or winning God’s favor, it becomes a burden. The focus is no longer on God’s grace in giving the Torah, but upon my success in keeping it. When that happens, the gift of Torah becomes the curse of “law.” Law always accuses. Think about it: no matter how well you do on the exam, isn’t it usually the case that you come away feeling that you could have done just a little better? Try as we do to be good parents, I have never met one that didn’t feel he or she failed his or her children in some respect. How can you ever be sure that you have done enough? The fear of people in Luther’s day was that God would not be satisfied with their repentance, their confession of sin and their efforts to amend their lives. In a secular culture such as ours, we might not fear eternal damnation quite so much. But we find ourselves enslaved nonetheless to our fears of social rejection and anxiety over failure to meet societal standards of beauty and success. That is why we have young girls starving themselves to death because they cannot measure up to what teen magazines tell them is beautiful. It is also why men become depressed, violent and prone to addiction during prolonged periods of unemployment-a real man earns his own living and pays his own way. We may be a good deal less religious than we were in Luther’s day, but we are no less in bondage to “law.”

Verse 21 contains one of the most critical “buts” in the Bible. “But now,” Paul says, “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…” So just as all are judged guilty under the law, so all are justified by God through Jesus Christ as a gift. Henceforth, being right with God is no longer a goal to be achieved through obedience to rules of one kind or another. It is a gift promised by God. Our obedience is no longer an onerous effort to win God’s favor but a thankful response to the favor God freely gives us. That is as true for Jews as it is for Gentiles as Paul will go on to point out in Romans 4. Abraham, after all, was called and responded in faith while he was still essentially a gentile, being uncircumcised and without the Law of Moses. Jews are therefore children of promise who owe their status as God’s people to God’s free election. They did not earn their covenant status through obedience to the law and therefore have no grounds to exclude the gentiles from God’s call to them through Jesus into that same covenant relationship. Importantly, Paul makes the converse argument in Romans 9-11, namely, that gentiles are in no position to judge or exclude the Jews from covenant grace, not even those who do not believe in Jesus. Their status as covenant people does not rest on their obedience or disobedience, but on God’s irrevocable call.

John 8:31-36

Our reading is part of a much larger exchange beginning at John 7:1 where Jesus declines his brothers’ invitation to accompany them to the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, but later comes on his own slipping into Jerusalem unnoticed. John 7:1-13.  In the midst of the feast, Jesus goes up to the Temple and begins teaching the people. At first, the people do not seem to recognize Jesus. They can see that he is a common person of the type usually untrained in the finer points of Torah. But there is no question that Jesus is, in fact, learned in the law and they marvel at his teaching. When it becomes clear that this strange man is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, the chief priests send officers to arrest him. But instead of bringing Jesus in and booking him, they return amazed and overawed by what they have heard. Exasperated, the chief priests ask the officers why they have not arrested Jesus as ordered. They can only reply, “No one ever spoke like this man!” John 7:46. The chief priests then vilify the officers and the crowds, cursing them for their ignorance of the law. But Nicodemus, a member of the council, cautions the chief priests against pre-judging Jesus’ case before hearing him-only to be rebuffed. (We meet Nicodemus early on in John’s gospel at chapter 3 when he comes to see Jesus under cover of darkness. John 3:1-21. We will meet Nicodemus again following Jesus’ crucifixion as he comes with Joseph of Arimathea to bury the body of Jesus. John 19:38-42).

The narrative is interrupted by the story of the woman caught in adultery, a story that probably was not originally part of John’s gospel. John 8:1-11. Then Jesus’ discourse begun at the last day of the feast picks up where it left off in John 7:37 ff. Though the opposition continues, Jesus is gaining some support. We read that as he spoke, many believed in him. John 8:30.  But success is short lived. Our reading picks up just where Jesus turns his focus upon these new believing supporters and tells them, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Vss. 31-33. Clearly, this remark rubbed them the wrong way. “Just what do you mean by that? We are Abraham’s descendents and we have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you promise to set us free?” Vs. 33. Clearly, Jesus’ newfound supporters are experiencing a “senior moment.” Have they really forgotten the four hundred years their ancestors spent as slaves in Egypt? Have the forgotten the Babylonian Exile? Israel has in fact known bondage under the whip of foreign masters and beneath the tyranny of many of her own leaders. But the greatest tyrant is not Egypt or Babylonia or Rome. The greatest bondage is slavery to sin.

John speaks of sin almost exclusively in connection with each person’s response to Jesus. It is not that people are sinless before they encounter Jesus. Rather, their encounter with Jesus reveals their sin and confronts them with the choice of remaining in sin or being set free from sin. It is precisely because Jesus’ opponents both see and claim to understand him that their guilt is established. John 9:39-41.  To know and be set free by the truth is to know Jesus. This knowledge does not consist of propositions about Jesus. To know the truth about Jesus is to know Jesus-just as you know a loved one. That sort of knowledge requires the cultivation of a relationship that grows over time and, as all of us who experience friendship know, is never fully complete. We are always learning more about the people we love and think we know so well. How much more so with Jesus, whose life is the eternal life of the Father?

I believe much of our membership loss in the Lutheran Church may be a direct result of our misunderstanding of what it means to know and to teach the truth. We have modeled our Christian education programs along the lines of public schools. Sunday school involved teaching kids stories and rudimentary doctrines about Jesus. That, however, is not how Jesus taught his disciples. Rather than inviting them to come to his seminars, he called them to become fishers for people. He taught them by involving them in his ministry, sharing his meals with them and taking them with him on the road. By contrast, we confirm kids in the spring time (when graduation commencements occur) and very often figure that we have done our job. These kids have been taught the truth and when they are old enough, we can include them in the church’s ministry. Trouble is, when that time finally comes, they are already long gone. And why not? They got whatever truth they needed to get in the system. The rest is just a refresher course and who needs one of those every single week?

In sum, we have not done a very good job of teaching people who have come through our congregations that discipleship, not membership is the end point; that growing intimacy with Jesus, not just a boat load of facts about him is what discipleship is about. Perhaps the next reformation can address this shortcoming.

There! I did get around to talking about Reformation after all.

Sunday, September 8th

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Deuteronomy 30:15–20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1:1–21
Luke 14:25–33

Prayer of the Day: Direct us, O Lord God, in all our doings with your continual help, that in all our works, begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy name; and finally, by your mercy, bring us to everlasting life, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

I was one of the many students at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota to have been under the instruction of Professor Sheldon Tostengard. Professor Tostengard taught “homiletics” which is a fancy theological term for preaching. He took the task of preaching seriously and had very little patience for anyone who didn’t. Professor Tostengard never tired of reminding us that preaching should proclaim the biblical text-good, bad or ugly. “Never apologize for the Bible,” he used to tell us. “You didn’t write it. It isn’t your job to edit it, soften it or protect people from it. Your job is to say it and let the chips fall where they will.” Nothing made Professor Tostengard more livid than efforts to “domesticate” Jesus. “Don’t you dare ever preach a sermon in this class about what Jesus really meant,” he used to tell us. “Jesus meant what Jesus said. If you don’t have the stomach for it, then get out of the pulpit and make way for someone who does!”

I wish Professor Tostengard were still among the quick, because I would love to know how he would have handled this Sunday’s gospel. Jesus tells us that no one who does not “hate” parents, spouse and children can follow after him. That is mighty hard to stomach. I could deal with being told that I must love God above all other loves-though that is no small feat either. But does discipleship entail hating the people nearest and dearest to you? I consulted the Greek text of the New Testament and my lexicon in hopes of finding a loophole. The word Luke uses for “hate” is the Greek word “miseo” from which we get our word “misanthropic” meaning “hatred of humanity.” Clearly, there is no kinder, gentler meaning for Jesus’ words that somehow got lost in translation. So what do we make of what Jesus is telling us?

As Professor Tostengard is no longer around to be consulted, I sought help from Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Yes, he is dead too, but he left behind a treasure trove of his theological reflections. As I have said many times before, I don’t believe the church has seen a teacher and preacher as gifted as St. Augustine. For Augustine, the greatest evil was not hatred. Hatred is only the symptom of a deeper problem, namely, disordered love. Human love is designed to bring about human happiness through guiding the self to love its Creator. Love for non-divine, creaturely things is also appropriate, but “In all such things, let my soul praise You, O God, Creator of all things, but let it not cleave too close in love to them through the senses of the body. For they go their way and are no more; and they rend the soul with desires that can destroy it, for it longs to be one with the things it loves and to repose in them. But in them is no place of repose, because they do not abide.” Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 4, Chapter 10, Paragraph 15. Unless love is firmly grounded in the Creator, it latches on to its fellow creatures. Ultimately, these creatures cannot satisfy the restless heart that can find peace only in God. Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 1, Chapter 1, Paragraph 1.

The problem here is idolatry or what St. Paul calls worshiping the creature in place of the Creator. Romans 1:25. Such misdirected love turns into hate when our idol, the object of our love, cannot meet the demands of godhood we place on it. The woman of my dreams turns out to be a human being with flaws, shortcomings and needs of her own. She can never live up to my romance novel fantasies. When that becomes evident I feel hurt, disappointed and perhaps even deceived. The job I thought would give me the sense of purpose, the assurance of accomplishment and the status among my peers I believed could make me happy turns out to be, well, just a job. So I start hating every day I have to show up for work. I go from idol to idol seeking the peace only God can give me. When the idol inevitably disappoints me, I angrily kick it off its pedestal and look for another. Even love that is directed toward the Creator can be idolatrous. Worship designed to meet my own needs rather than to glorify God, prayer that seeks to manipulate God into doing my will instead of conforming my will to God’s and preaching about God that uses religious language to further a thinly veiled political agenda are all examples of idolatry. The idolater seeks to have God on his or her own terms rather than living life on God’s terms. When it becomes clear that God cannot be possessed and controlled, he or she becomes angry and disappointed with God as well.

Hatred, then, is quite simply our natural response to seeing through an idol. We hate the idol because it is not the god we thought it was. Augustine would not be at all surprised to learn of our epidemic of spouse and child abuse, skyrocketing rates of debilitating depression and ever increasing incidents of teen suicide. After all, what can you expect when you worship the creature instead of the Creator? What can you expect when you push God to the margins of family life, somewhere down on the order of priorities below band practice, Disney World, the Sunday Times and thousands of other diversions? When hearts created to love God fall in love with something less than God, they are bound to get broken.

Finally, after having been disappointed by a long line of idols, each of which has failed to give the idolater the peace s/he seeks, the idolater begins hating life itself. That might sound like a hopeless place to be, but it is precisely there, where all the idols have failed us and all hope for salvation from them has faded, that Jesus meets us. Once we discover that we have been “looking for love in all the wrong places,” we are finally ready to discover it in the right place. Hating the life of misdirected love and misplaced hope is the first step toward new life where love is properly grounded first and foremost in the Creator. That is the first step toward learning to love the world, its creatures and our families rightly; not as gods, but as fellow creatures and gifts of the Creator.

So as hard and offensive as Jesus’ words from our gospel lessen sound to us, I believe they are precisely the words we most need to hear. We need to see the destructiveness of our selfish and misdirected love and hate what it is doing to us. We need to be reminded that Jesus will not settle for second place in our lives, and that when we relegate him to some lower priority we are only hurting ourselves as well as the ones we most love. If we are ever going to love our families, our communities, our nation and the world in a proper and life giving way, we need to learn daily to take up the cross and follow Jesus.

Deuteronomy 30:15–20

The Book of Deuteronomy places us with Moses and the people of Israel at the frontiers of the promised land of Canaan. Moses’ career is drawing to a close. He will not enter with Israel into Canaan. Instead, the torch of leadership will pass to Joshua. So we are to understand that Moses is giving to Israel his final instructions. That the composition of this book likely took place in the latter years of the Davidic monarchy with additions during and after the Babylonian Exile only serves to illustrate how the stark choice between “life and good, death and evil” is ever before God’s people. In every age, in every individual life, at each moment God urges us to “choose life.”

That injunction to “choose life” is loaded with many political overtones. The phrase “culture of life” was popularized by Pope John Paul II. As used by the Pope, it describes a societal existence based upon the theological premise that human life at all stages from conception through natural death is sacred. Social conservatives in the United States, citing the Pope as their ally, frequently invoke his teachings on the “culture of life” in their opposition to abortion, destruction of human embryonic stem cells and contraception. I cannot help but notice, however, their roaring silence when it comes to the Pope’s opposition to capital punishment, his criticisms of free market capitalism and his repeated calls for governments to come to the aid of the poor. I guess that for these social conservatives, the culture of life extends only from conception to birth. After that, you are on your own.

In reading and interpreting this text, the first question to ask is: who is being addressed? Without doubt, Moses is speaking to Israel as God’s covenant partner. We can also say that he is addressing the church, but only because we gentiles “who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.” Ephesians 2:13. Can we use this text, however, as a platform for promoting a “culture of life” in the United States? Is that an appropriate use of the book of Deuteronomy? If you have been following me more or less regularly, you know that my answer is “no.” The biblical injunction to choose life arises out of the covenant relationship between Israel and her God. The covenant gives shape to God’s call for Israel to be a unique people in the midst of the nations. It is precisely for this reason that Israel is commanded to ensure that there are no poor in her midst, that the orphan, widow and resident alien are treated with justice and compassion. Israel is to be a light to the nations and a witness to God’s intent for creation. Apart from Israel’s election and her covenant with God, the command to choose life is a pale, insipid and vacuous moral indicative waiting to be filled with practically anyone’s political agenda.

Despite idolatrous claims of American exceptionalism, the United States is not God’s chosen people and there is no covenant between God and the United States. For that reason one cannot apply the terms of Israel’s covenant with Yahweh to American society. That would be very much like trying to enforce a contract against a person who never signed it. The application of covenant obligations can be made only against the people of Israel with whom the covenant was made and the people of God brought into that covenant by baptism into Jesus Christ. We are the ones God calls upon to “choose life.”

The implication is clear. Whether you are advocating for tougher legal restrictions on abortion or food assistance for poor children in the United States, you cannot do so from the platform of Deuteronomy or any other covenantal scripture. Or I should say you cannot do that unless you are convinced that somewhere along the line God made the United States a party to Yahweh’s covenant with Israel. The only place where these covenant obligations (and the promises which are even more numerous) can be given effect is within the covenant communities of Israel and the church.

Mark Twain is credited with saying, “To be good is noble. To teach someone else to be good is more noble still-and a lot less trouble.” I believe the church goes far astray when, instead of internalizing the scriptures, we use them as a platform for lecturing the rest of the world on “culture of life,” justice, peace and other abstract nouns. What if instead of issuing a never ending stream of preachy screechy social statements in which we wag our moralistic fingers at society at large, we turned our criticism inward? What if the new bishop of the ELCA issued a call to all of our congregations to ensure that all members of our churches receive adequate medical insurance coverage? What if instead of merely joining the chorus of voices calling for stiffer gun legislation, our bishop were to call upon members of all ELCA congregations to dispose of their fire arms-or at least those designed for human combat? I believe that the best way for the church to “choose life” would be for the church to become “a culture of life.” Let’s be the change we want to see in the rest of the world.

Psalm 1

Scholars disagree as to whether or not this psalm was specifically composed as an introduction to the Psalter. In either case, it serves that purpose well. Teachings such as the blessedness of the godly life, the futility of wickedness, the faithfulness of God to all who trust in him and the joy of meditating on the scriptures reflected in the first Psalm find further expression and amplification throughout the rest of the Psalter. This psalm is classified as a “wisdom psalm” and as such makes the bold assertion that both righteousness and wickedness find their proper reward within the parameters of a human lifetime. The assertion is as problematic as it is bold and requires numerous qualifications, explanations and, above all, faith in the goodness of God when God seems altogether absent from the scene. For now, though, you stand at the beginning “with a faith to suit you well.” “Borning Cry,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 732. As life becomes more complex, nuanced and layered, so will God’s faithful presence in the next one hundred forty-nine psalms.

Beatitude begins with answering God’s call to come out from among the wicked. The call to Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 is echoed in this opening verse of Psalm 1. The implication, then, is that Israel’s call to be separate from the nations is precisely for the purpose of being a light to the nations. Rather than taking her cues from the wicked, the righteous person’s delight is in the Torah. Meditation on the covenant guides her life course and, as a result, she is firmly grounded and well cared for as a tree planted next to a river. Rooted as it is near a perpetual source of water, this tree symbolizing the righteous person is unaffected by drought.

By contrast, the wicked are characterized as “chaff,” empty husks that are blown away by the wind in the threshing process. They are of no value and their works have no permanence. They cannot stand “in the judgment.” Though the original author of the psalm may only have understood “judgment” in a purely temporal, “this worldly” sense, later Judaism and the early church began to see in this assertion a reference to God’s final judgment. Though God is always judging, purifying and sanctifying “the congregation of the righteous” (vs. 5), there must finally be a day when that congregation is fully cleansed from all wickedness. That day will come, however, in God’s own good time. For now, the righteous must be content to live among if not in the counsel of the wicked. As Jesus points out, one ought not to become impatient and exercise judgment before the appointed day. Matthew 13:24-30.

Philemon 1:1–21

This brief letter from St. Paul to a disciple of Jesus named Philemon is a fascinating window into the life of the New Testament church. It was evidently written when Paul was imprisoned. Though some scholars have suggested that Paul was writing from Rome, it is also possible that the letter was composed while Paul was imprisoned at Ephesus. Philemon was a convert of Paul and the leader of a house church in Colossae. Evidently, Philemon’s slave, Onesimus escaped from him and made his way to where Paul was imprisoned. There he became a companion and helper to the apostle during his imprisonment. At some point, Onesimus also became a disciple of Jesus, though whether he was such when he deserted Philemon or received baptism under the influence of Paul is not altogether clear. In any event, Paul is sending Onesimus back to his master, Philemon, with the letter bearing his name.

In the pre-Civil War south this letter was invoked to defend the institution of slavery. After all, Paul does not say anything critical about slavery in his letter. Moreover, he returns Onesimus to his master and even acknowledges his master’s right of ownership. From this we conclude that slavery is not evil per se and that a slave owner’s rights over his slave should be honored. Paul has come under a good deal of modern criticism on that score. Should not Paul have championed the human rights of Onesimus rather than honoring the property rights of Philemon? For the reasons below, I would reject this anachronistic argument.

First, it is important to understand that slavery in antiquity, though a lamentable condition, was far different from the slavery that existed in the United States in the nineteenth century. Slavery in the first century Roman Empire was not race based. Racial and ethnic groups were not singled out as inferior or “natural slaves” as was the case for African Americans. If you were a slave in the Roman Empire, it was likely because your parents sold you to satisfy a debt or you were on the losing side of some military conflict. Though few and far between, there were opportunities for slaves to win their freedom and achieve high office in the Roman bureaucracy as the philosopher, Seneca attests. Seneca the Younger, Letter 47. It is impossible to imagine anything like that ever happening in the pre-Civil War south. Thus, there can be no meaningful comparison between slavery in antiquity and that which existed in the southern states prior to the Civil War.

Second, Paul had no interest in creating a more just society. He was concerned only with witnessing faithfully to the new creation of which the resurrected Body of Christ was the first fruits. Anyone who asserts that Paul’s returning Onesimus to his master constituted recognition of Philemon’s rights as a slaveholder would do well to read carefully the rest of Paul’s writings. This is not a matter Philemon’s rights, but the healing of Christ’s Body. Whatever rights may be involved here is irrelevant. The governing reality is that Onesimus and Philemon are now brothers in Christ Jesus and must be reconciled as such. Moreover, Paul makes clear that henceforth they are to live as brothers, regardless of their legal status in the outside world. The Body of Christ is to be a microcosm of God’s new creation in the midst of the old. Paul was more interested in witnessing to the new creation than patching up the old one.

Luke 14:25–33

As indicated in my opening remarks, this is a tough text. Jesus insists that whoever would come after him must “hate” his or her family members. In an effort to soften the effect of this saying, one commentator suggests that the Semitic understanding of this Greek word which would be “to love less” is intended. Marshall, Howard I., Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 1978 Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 592. Nice try Howard, but as Luke has proved himself quite fluent in literary Greek and shows no inclination to favor Semitic meanings, I don’t find that line of argument persuasive. I think we need to take Jesus at his disturbing word here. For my take on that, see the introductory remarks.

The parables about the unfinished tower and the king outflanked by his enemy reinforce the theme we have seen since Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem in Luke 9:51. Discipleship is a costly business and is not to be undertaken lightly. Just as you would not begin building a tower unless you were sure you had the resources to finish it or embark upon a military campaign without the troops and munitions required to prevail, so one should not come after Jesus unless s/he is prepared to pay the price. That price is the cross. Understand that we are to take this literally. As John Howard Yoder would remind us: “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 William B. Eerdmans Co.).  Thus, to follow Jesus is to enter into the struggle upon which he embarked when he set his face to go to Jerusalem. It is becoming evident to the disciples and perhaps the crowd as well that this encounter at Jerusalem may end in Jesus’ death. What they cannot yet anticipate is the “Exodus” Jesus will accomplish there. They cannot yet understand the “necessity” of Jesus’ suffering dictated by his faithfulness to his heavenly Father and his determination save his people. That will become clear only after Jesus is raised and “opens their minds” to understand the scriptures. Luke 24:45.

“Whoever of you does not renounce all that s/he has cannot be my disciple.” Vs. 33. By now we should know better than to dismiss this declaration as hyperbole or attempt to spiritualize it. Jesus means what Jesus says. To receive the gift of the kingdom, you need empty hands. Harkening back to our friend Augustine, not until the whole heart is given to God with all other loves being renounced can these lesser loves be received and loved properly.