Tag Archives: St. Paul

Sunday, July 27th

SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

1 Kings 3:5–12
Psalm 119:129–136
Romans 8:26–39
Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Beloved and sovereign God, through the death and resurrection of your Son you bring us into your kingdom of justice and mercy. By your Spirit, give us your wisdom, that we may treasure the life that comes from Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Wisdom defies every attempt to define it. Surely wisdom is more than mere knowledge. Knowledge can teach us to clone the human frame, alter the human genetic code and perhaps even extend the duration of human life. But only wisdom can teach us whether we ought to do any of these things. So, too, intelligence does not equate with wisdom. It is precisely our intellects that make us human animals the most deadly on the face of the planet. Without wisdom, human creativity and imagination only amplify our most destructive tendencies. Neither should we identify wisdom with morality and good intentions. Some of the most hurtful and destructive things I have ever done grew out of my sincere desire to “do the right thing.”

I am not sure Solomon understood wisdom any more than the rest of us. But he knew that he needed it. Perhaps that is the first step to becoming wise, namely, realizing that you are not. Initially at least, that realization came easily to Solomon. When hardly more than a child, the kingdom his father David had built came into his hands. Not surprisingly, Solomon did not feel up to the challenge of administering the government, leading the armed forces or negotiating commercial treaties with surrounding nations. Yet if young Solomon lacked wisdom, he was at least aware of that deficit. He also knew from whence wisdom comes. God is finally the source of wisdom and the One from whom it must be sought.

The psalm for this Sunday echoes that sentiment. “The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple,” the psalmist prays. “With open mouth I pant, because I long for thy commandments.” This Psalm in its entirety is one long admonition to learn and do the Torah of God. This is not simply a matter of learning the commandments by rote or studying commentaries on the laws of Moses or following the letter of the law. The study to which the psalmist invites us calls for lifelong reflection situated in a context of corporate worship, attentiveness to preaching and the faithful practices of prayer, fasting, alms and service. Through a communal life of mutual repentance, forgiveness and compassion informed by the scriptural testimonies to God’s covenant faithfulness, we are made wise and transformed into a people made ready for the coming of God’s kingdom.

In our gospel lesson Jesus peppers us with a set of colorful parables about the kingdom of heaven. Parables are perhaps the most effective teachers of wisdom. They are not simply stories or metaphors that illustrate a point. If parables could be boiled down into morals, philosophical observations or anything else that can be rationally explained, they would hardly be necessary. There is no need to illustrate symbolically what can readily be reduced to bullets in a Power Point presentation. Parables point to that which eludes understanding. Jesus began a few weeks ago with the parable of the sower spreading seed over ground both fruitful and unfruitful. We might conclude from this story that Jesus is comparing the church to good and receptive soil. But in the very next parable he describes the “good seed” thriving in the midst of weeds-seed that seemingly was wasted in the last parable! Then we discover in the parable of the mustard that the “seed” we assumed was useful and productive wheat is actually mustard, a plant quite out of place in a cultivated field. The kingdom turns out not to be the leavened bread sanctified for Passover, but the yeast that is cast out of the house during the Passover season. With maddening disconnectedness Jesus changes images and mixes metaphors, forever throwing us off balance. The kingdom we first imagined as a fruitful harvest produced in a well-tended field turns out to be an unwelcome, unholy and disruptive presence in our orderly rows of wheat and our kosher households!

By this time, we might be wondering whether we really want the kingdom entering into our lives turning everything topsy turvy, backwards and upside down. But it is just then that Jesus introduces the parables of the priceless pearl and the treasure hidden in the field. You bet you want this kingdom in your life! Once you get an inkling of what it’s about, you will empty your hands of everything you own to get your hands on it. In this way, the parables lead us into the mystery of the kingdom, never defining it for us, never explaining it to us, but always drawing us further in. So I believe it is with wisdom. It is not something any of us will ever possess. But if we are attentive to Jesus’ call to discipleship, if we are prepared to follow him deeper and deeper into the mystery of the kingdom, perhaps wisdom will one day possess us.

1 Kings 3:5–12

For a brief but very thorough summary of the Book of I Kings, see the Summary Article by Mark Thornveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N. In short, I Kings covers the transition from David’s reign over Israel to that of his son, Solomon. It chronicles Solomon’s construction of the temple in Jerusalem and the division of the nation of Israel into northern and southern kingdoms. The balance of the book chronicles details of the reigns of the divided Israelite monarchy, alternating between the north and the south.

In comparison to David, Solomon is a flat literary character in Israel’s narrative. His story is told with none of the passion and suspense found throughout the story of David. David is a layered, nuanced character capable of compassion, generosity and forgiveness yet also prone to arrogance, pettiness and nasty fits of temper. We see him in the context of numerous relationships with family, comrades in arms and political rivals. When it comes to Solomon, we hear much about his great accomplishments but little concerning the man himself. It appears that toward the end of his life he allowed and perhaps built shrines to foreign gods in Jerusalem to satisfy the religious inclinations of his many wives. It should be noted that these wives were taken into Solomon’s harem as part and parcel of military and commercial treaties with surrounding nations. Thus, his idolatrous projects may well have sprung from political expediency rather than personal religious conviction.

In Sunday’s lesson we meet Solomon at the beginning of his reign. This section of I Kings narrating Solomon’s story appears to be based on a literary source now lost to us called “the Book of the Acts of Solomon.” I Kings 11:41. When we first meet him Solomon is, by his own admission, “but a little child” who knows not “how to go out our come in.” Vs. 7. Knowing he lacks wisdom, he nevertheless has the sense to know that he needs it. God not only grants Solomon the wisdom for which he prays, but much that he did not seek, namely, “riches and honor.” Vs. 13. Throughout the rest of his reign Solomon excels in architectural feats, military exploits, commercial success and wisdom. Indeed, his wisdom is so well attested that foreign dignitaries travel great distances to listen to him. I Kings 10:1-10.

There is a troubling subtext in the narrative, however. The temple of Solomon in Jerusalem is built by slave labor. “All the people who were left of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, who were not of the people of Israel were left in the land whom the people of Israel were unable to destroy utterly-these Solomon made a forced levy of slaves, and so they are to this day.” I Kings 9:20-21. As noted previously, Solomon’s many wives induced him to commit idolatry. I Kings 11:1-8. Furthermore, we learn a little later on that Solomon’s heavy handed tactics contributed to the ultimate break between the northern Israelite tribes and the Davidic monarchy. I Kings 12:1-20. The story of Solomon thus begins with a humble plea for wisdom, but ends in decadence and folly.

Solomon is said to be the author of the Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, chief collections of “wisdom literature” in the Hebrew Scriptures. This attribution is more literary than historical. By placing their teachings on the lips of a king whose wisdom was legendary, the authors ground their teachings in Israel’s sacred history and give them credibility. That said, I am not ready to dismiss the potential contribution of Solomon to either of these two books. Wisdom literature reaches “back into the earliest stages of Israel’s existence.” Crenshaw, J.L., Wisdom in the Old Testament, Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, (c.1976, Abingdon). It was during the reign of Solomon that the Israelite monarchy reached the height of its international prominence. Solomon made treaties with Egypt and the Phoenician kingdoms, transacting commerce and forming military compacts. Cultural exchanges would have followed naturally and thus exposure to wisdom literature from these sources. The authors/editors of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes may well have had access to collections of sayings from this ancient and illustrious period.

Psalm 119:129–136

Psalm 119 is one of eight acrostic poems found within the Book of Psalms. The others are Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112. Instead of each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, however, Psalm 119 is made up of twenty-two 8 verse sections in which each line begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Sunday’s reading consists of the seventeenth section in which each of the 8 verses begin with the seventeenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “Pe.” Thus, if the composition sometimes appears a bit strained, remember that the psalmist is working within the confines of a stringent poetic form. Anyone who has ever attempted to compose a sonnet in the form utilized by Shakespeare will understand.

If the psalm has a theme, it is the centrality and supremacy of God’s Torah in every sphere of human life. The psalmist does not merely learn, memorize and conceptually understand the Torah. His/her heart, mind and daily practices are shaped by the Torah. Torah regulates the psalmist’s daily routine, inspires his/her praise and forms the perspective from which the psalmist views the rest of the world. One might object that such an obsession with Torah amounts to “brain washing.” But the fact of the matter is, we are all “brain washed” in the sense that how we perceive everything from the daily news to the mood of our spouses is shaped by preconceived notions about reality. Nobody is capable of viewing anything purely “objectively.” The psalmist is well aware of this. S/he wants his/her perspective on everything to be shaped by his/her reflections upon Torah-rather than say, MSNBC or Fox News. That isn’t to say that the psalmist might not have watched either of these networks had television been available in the 6th Century. But the psalmist would evaluate what s/he saw under the lens of Torah rather than the other way around.

It is for this reason that the psalmist’s “eyes shed streams of tears, because men do not keep [God’s] law.” Vs. 136. The Ten Commandments are introduced by the God who reminds Israel, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6. It is precisely because the commandments are given by the God who liberates slaves that they must be observed. It is for freedom that God gave Israel the commandments protecting the sanctity of the community and each person in it. When something less than this freedom and life giving God is worshiped; when human life, human relationships and human property are not respected, Israelite society begins to resemble the hierarchical tyranny of Egypt. This is indeed cause for weeping.

“The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” Vs. 130. The words of Torah need unfolding. They do not yield their treasures in one brief reading. The constant dialogue between Torah and the psalmist’s life experience deepens his/her understanding of God’s intent and purpose for him/her. Accordingly, the psalmist “longs for [God’s] commandments” just as one who is ravenously thirsty craves water. Vs. 131. Yet the psalmist also knows that God must assist him/her in the study of Torah. So s/he prays,” “Teach me thy statutes,” (vs. 135) and “Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is thy wont toward those who love thy name.” vs. 132. The psalmist prays for God’s guidance and support to keep iniquity from gaining power over him/her. Vs. 133. No one can learn or obey Torah unless God teaches and guides.

Romans 8:26–39

“We know that in everything God works for good.” That is as much of the verse as is often quoted-and it’s unfortunate. This truncated citation is incomplete and altogether wrong. Nothing good comes to a victim out of sexual assault. Nothing is good about children dying of preventable diseases. Nothing is good about warfare, poverty and oppression. There is nothing more hurtful and insulting than to tell a person who has just experienced a tragic loss or injury that it is God’s doing and that it is ultimately for his/her own good. Paul does not say anything remotely like that as we can see when we read the entire verse in its context.

Note that Paul has already told us that baptism into Christ Jesus is baptism into Christ’s death. Romans 6:3. Moreover, as Paul told us last week, being an heir of Christ is to share in Christ’s suffering. Romans 8:17. Jesus himself warned his disciples that a servant is no greater than his master and that they could expect no less enmity from the world than he himself experienced. John 15:18-20. Furthermore, there are events that bring tragedy into the lives of many people that have nothing to do with their behavior or God’s desire to modify it. Sometimes stuff just happens. Disciples of Jesus are not exempt from these random tragedies that strike others. No one, least of all Jesus or Paul, ever said that life or discipleship would be a cake walk.

When Paul tells us that “all things work for good” he means the good of God’s kingdom, not our own personal good. The cross was not the stepping stone to a better life for Jesus. It was the capstone on Jesus’ life of faithful obedience to the will of his Father. It was a life of service received without gratitude and poorly understood by even his own disciples. The life of discipleship might well be characterized by failure, poverty, tragedy and loss. Though God is not the author of tragedy, God nevertheless can turn any evil in creation to God’s own good purposes. Those purposes may or may not fit into our own selfish notions of what is “good.”

As Paul told us last week, our suffering is incomparable to the glory that is to be revealed when creation is set free from the bondage of decay. Romans 8:18-25. Only when our own good is fully and completely identified with the good God intends to bestow on all creation can we finally say that all things work together for our own good. This, I believe, is what we mean when we pray that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. The cross is what happens when God’s good and gracious will is done in this rebellious world. Yet because of God’s limitless capacity to suffer patiently and compassionately with us, turning even our worst sins to his own life giving purposes, God’s will finally prevails over all hostility, both to our own good and the good of all creation.

It is for this reason, too, that we need the assistance of the Spirit in our prayers. As Paul tells us, “we do not know how to pray as we ought.” Vs. 26. Too often our prayers focus selfishly on our own personal good rather than the good God intends for creation. Too often our prayers are limited to the small circle of those we love. Too often our prayers ask God to change the world to our liking rather than to change us into persons capable of loving the world as it is. We need to pray with “the mind of the Spirit” rather than with the mind of what Paul calls “the flesh.” The Spirit assists us in doing just that.

Finally, Paul brings his argument to conclusion by stating categorically that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Vs. 30. This is what separates life in the flesh from life in the Spirit. Life in the flesh is tyranny under the law and sin. It operates on the “if…then” principle. “If you are good, you will be rewarded. If you are bad, you will be punished.” God is seen as a rule obsessed judge, a stern Santa making his list and checking it twice to find out who is naughty and nice. Your standing in God’s favor is always contingent on your behavior. Like the job of an employee-at-will, it can be revoked at any time for any reason. Life in the Spirit is familial. God is our Father; Jesus is our brother and we are all siblings in Jesus. Just as a loving father cannot forsake his child-even when that child disappoints him-so God cannot forsake the children born to God through Jesus Christ in baptism. That is the good news of Jesus Christ that Paul preaches.

Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52

The first two parables in our lesson speak of the kingdom of heaven as the planting of a mustard seed and the addition of leaven to dough. In the case of both parables, the emphasis appears to be growth out of all proportion to the smallness of its origins. Though not technically the “smallest” of all seeds, the mustard seed is small. It is an annual plant that usually grows to between four and five feet tall but can reach heights of nine or ten feet. Similarly, it takes only a small amount of yeast to cause a loaf of bread to rise and bake rather than to remain an unleavened cracker. One might wonder whether someone would actually go to the trouble of planting a mustard seed in one of Palestine’s rare and precious plots of good soil when the plant grows wild in the fields. It is also worth pondering why Jesus would use the image of leaven, a substance banned from the house during Passover season, to make his point. Maybe that is the point, however. The kingdom of God is often an unwelcome, disruptive presence that makes space for itself where it clearly is not expected. The smallness with which it begins only makes its introduction more difficult to detect. As one commentator notes, these parables “must not be debased by being made to refer to a church that gradually wins over the majority or a Christianity silently transforming the world.” Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 by John Knox Press) p. 307. The kingdom has come to upend the existing state of things.

The parables of the pearl and the treasure in the field speak not to the kingdom itself as much as to its effect when recognized. After hearing the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven, one might be left wondering whether the kingdom of heaven is even desirable. Clearly, it will not live quietly and unobtrusively in Caesar’s garden! The following parables, then, state unequivocally that the kingdom is to be desired and sought after to the exclusion of all else. It has an irresistible attraction for those who see it for what it is. Of course, not everyone does. Someone untrained in valuing pears might as soon buy an imitation for $4.99 as pay top dollar for the real thing. A person unaware of the treasure in the field might dismiss the property as a poor investment-rocky soil, irregular shaped lot located in a bad neighborhood. Common to both parables is the joy of the one seeking to acquire the precious commodity. There is no anguish of decision or equivocation in the transaction. Nor is there any regret or concern expressed over the sacrifices required to consummate it. One need not lecture, scold or threaten anyone to give up all for the kingdom of heaven. It is sufficient to bear testimony to the kingdom so that all my see it for what it is.

The last parable seems a little out of place at first blush. The theme appears to be the same as that of the wheat and the weeds from last week’s lesson. Just as the wheat is separated from the weeds at the end of the harvest, so the separation of edible and inedible fish is made at the end of the day when the catch is bought in. But separation there surely will be. Perhaps the point to be made here is that ending up in the throw away pile will be the consequence of throwing away this opportunity to pursue the kingdom of heaven at the expense of all else. Failing to recognize the kingdom is to risk non-recognition on the last day, a theme that is brought to sharper focus in the parable of the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46.

The images, impressions and logic of these parables do not flow together into a consistent whole. Parables are not designed to set forth a coherent theology of the kingdom of heaven. Rather, they remind us that the kingdom defies all such efforts to reduce it to bite size cognitive mouthfuls. Rather than explain the kingdom, parables draw us ever more deeply into it.

Sunday, March 3rd

Third Sunday in Lent

Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

Prayer of the Day
Eternal God, your kingdom has broken into our troubled world through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son. Help us to hear your word and obey it, and bring your saving love to fruition in our lives through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

As most of you know, I do chapel service for the Trinity School children each Wednesday. This week following the service I heard one of the kids remark that “Pastor said a word he shouldn’t have said.” My mind started racing over every word I might have uttered over the last hour. Decades ago, when I was much younger, I was prone to fits of potty mouth now and again. Though I have long since purged expletives from my regular vocabulary, there are very rare occasions on which I go to say “shoot” and I miss. I was hoping that the child I overheard had not witnessed any such misfire. Not until our school principle pointed out to me that I had sung a song with the kids that had an “alleluia” did I finally understand the nature of my offence. We are, of course, in the midst of Lent, the season of penitence. Alleluias are strictly forbidden-even on Palm Sunday. As the pastor, I should have known better.

So when I read this Sunday’s lesson from Isaiah, I felt strangely comforted. Seems I am not the only one that tends to forget where we are in the church year. “Come, buy and eat,” “buy wine and milk,” “eat what is good,” “delight yourselves in fatness” says the prophet. This is about as far out of step with Lenten discipline as a performance of the Alleluia Chorus from Handel’s Messiah in the midst of Holy Week. It looks as though the lectionary folks blew it big time. I am not sitting alone in the liturgical penalty box for Lenten violations.

Jesus seems also to have been guilty of feasting out of season. He was once asked why the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees fast while his own disciples do not. I gather that since fasting was part of Jesus’ own discipline and instruction, the accusation was not that Jesus and his disciples never fasted. The problem seems to be that they were feasting at a time or season when fasting was expected. Jesus’ responds with a question of his own: “How can you expect the guests to fast when the bridegroom is among them?”

The problem we have observing Lent is this: we know how Jesus’ story ends. We already know that the tomb is empty; that Jesus is alive and present among us. The only reason we can bear to tell the story of Good Friday is that, even then, we cannot erase from our memory the joy of Easter Sunday. We cannot simply pretend we don’t know that God has become inextricably bound up in the messiness of our lives-even in our suffering and dying. The bridegroom is among us. How can we not celebrate? As the song says, “How can I keep from singing?”

Don’t get me wrong. I am as devoted to the observance of Lent as any other good Lutheran. But I cannot pretend I don’t know that Jesus lives. Knowing that Jesus lives cannot help but inspire joy. So I think I will go easy on myself and the makers of the lectionary as well. There are worse sins you can commit than feasting with Jesus or letting an occasional alleluia escape your lips during Lent.

Isaiah 55:1-9

For a brief but thorough overview of the book of Isaiah, see the summary by Fred Gaiser, professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary published at enterthebible.org. Here it is enough to say that these words were spoken by the prophet to the Judean exiles living in Babylon. The conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Persian opened up the possibility for the exiles to return to their homeland in Palestine. The prophet sees in this development the hand of God at work creating a new future for Judah. The exiles are naturally skeptical. Most have built new lives for themselves in the foreign land. Those born in Babylon know of Israel only through the legends and stories told by their elders. The prophet’s task is to make his fellow exiles see the glorious new future God is offering them. To that end, the prophet employs some of the most beautiful poetic language in the scriptures. He compares the opportunity for return from Babylon to the Exodus from Egypt. He promises that, just as God provided miraculous protection and provision for the Israelites as they traveled through the wilderness from Egypt to the land of Canaan, so God will shelter and protect the exiles as they travel once again to that promised land from captivity in Babylon.

In our lesson for today, God speaks as though he were a street vendor or a carnival barker inviting all those passing by to “come.” The remarkable thing here is that the voice of the Lord goes on to announce that the goods are free. “He who has no money, come, buy and eat.” Verse 1. The banquet is a frequent metaphor for the new life God offers Israel. The point is clear. God is giving a banquet for which there is no admission charge. Only a fool would turn away from such an opportunity! Yet that is precisely the choice Israel will have made should she ignore the opportunity for return to the land promised to her ancestors. This is reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the ungrateful guests invited to the wedding feast. (Matthew 22:1-14; Luke 14:15-24). The reference to milk and wine, foods associated with richness, seems to echo the image of Palestine as the land of “milk and honey.” Deuteronomy 26:9.

This is the only passage in the writings of “Second Isaiah” (Isaiah 40-55) in which King David is mentioned. The prophet is far more interested in the messianic role of Israel as a whole than in any of her leaders. Yet he or she can hardly ignore so prominent a theme in Israel’s faith and history as God’s covenant with David: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” II Samuel 7:16. Yet what hope can this promise offer now that the line of David has been extinguished? As the prophet sees it, the covenant with David is now extended to all the people. God’s “steadfast love” for David is now embodied in an “everlasting covenant” with all Israel. Vs. 3. It should be noted also that Israel has been given as “a covenant to the people, a light to the nations…” Isaiah 42:6. Thus, God opens up the Davidic covenant to the whole of Israel so that Israel might become a channel of God’s salvation to all the nations of the world.

“‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways,’ says the Lord.” This verse summarizes well a recurring theme throughout Second Isaiah: That God is God and we are not. One of the more subtle forms of idolatry is the assumption that God’s ways are our ways. Though the so called “Christian Right” has been justly criticized for linking godliness and morality to a narrowly defined set of cultural biases, I think that we mainline protestant types are often far too certain about what “social justice” ought to look like and far too eager to identify the will of God with our own partisan projects and agendas. Conservatives should be weary of assuming they know what God desires to conserve. Progressives should be equally weary of assuming they know which way God is progressing. What a hoot it would be to find out at the close of the age that nothing we thought was historic, significant and earth shaking, nothing we have given our lives to achieve ever really mattered. How rich it would be to learn that the real history was taking place in some corner of the earth we never even thought to look-like a stable in Bethlehem.

Psalm 63:1-8

The reference in verse 11 to “the king” rejoicing in God (not included in our reading) and the psalmist’s having “looked upon [God] in the sanctuary” suggest that this psalm was probably composed before the Babylonian Exile and during the reign of the Davidic kings over the Judean monarchy. The longing for God’s presence expressed in verse 1 through the metaphors of hunger and thirst of a person lost in the wilderness are artfully contrasted with the images of feasting on “marrow” and “fat” in verse 5. The psalmist’s need for God is as critical as reliance on food and water. It is satisfied through praise and thanksgiving in God’s sanctuary. The psalmist has experienced God’s help and protection throughout his/her life and so “clings” to God’s right hand. God’s steadfast love (“chesed” in Hebrew) is better than life itself.

Once again, from a strictly liturgical perspective, it is hard to sanction this wanton show of gluttony during Lent, even though we know it is expressed only in a metaphorical sense.  Yet on further reflection, it is not inappropriate to ask during this season of repentance whether in fact we actually experience this sort of hunger for God’s presence. If we do not, then perhaps, like the audience of the prophet in our first lesson, we are spending “[]our money for that which is not bread and []our labor for that which does not satisfy.” Isaiah 55:2. Our appetites need instruction. We need to learn to yearn for and crave the things that will sustain us. We need to learn to pray well. For that purpose, I can find no better teachers than the psalmists. I have said it before. I will say it again. Two psalms per day, one in the morning and one at night. There is no surer way to a rich and satisfying life of prayer.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Few sections of the Hebrew Scriptures have proved as instructive for the church as the forty years of Israel’s wilderness wandering between her deliverance from Egypt and her entry into the promised land. Disciples of Jesus, who remember with thanksgiving the “exodus” accomplished by Jesus in Jerusalem and look forward in anticipation to his return in glory, naturally identify with the Israelites at this period in their history. During these “in between” years Israel was totally dependent upon her God for food, water and protection from enemies. She was tested, tried and prepped for her entry into and occupation of Canaan.

In this passage Paul calls upon the church at Corinth to understand her own day to day existence as a time of testing and sanctification. She needs to understand that her sins of divisiveness, rebellion and lack of love (See post for Sunday, January 20, 2013 ) will produce dire consequences for her. Nevertheless, the Corinthians must also keep in mind that God’s judgment is to be understood as another side of God’s mercy. God wounds in order to heal; God judges in order to induce repentance; God’s wrath is born of God’s zealous passion for the salvation of God’s people. For this reason, Paul asserts that “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man…” Temptation here is not to be understood as a personal affliction. Paul is speaking here to the church. The temptations afflicting the Corinthian church are those that threaten her oneness in Christ and lure her into the quagmire of destructive conflict, class distinctions and partisan divisions. Just as God forged a group of escaped slaves into a mighty nation in the furnace of wilderness wandering, so the Spirit of God is shaping the Corinthian church, a fractured and divided community, into the Body of Christ where all work as one. The take away: sanctification is a slow, painful and difficult process. Left to ourselves, we are tempted to abandon it. Thankfully, God can be trusted to complete the job of transforming the church into the image of Jesus.

Luke 13:1-9

The two incidents referenced here, Pilate’s execution of an unspecified number of Galileans and the death of eighteen people in the collapse of a tower, are not referenced in any other historical source. That is not surprising. The Galileans were most likely put to death in Jerusalem during Passover. This is the only occasion on which lay people would be sacrificing their own animals. Longing for independence and resentment at Rome ran high during Passover. For this reason, Pilate made a point of being present in Jerusalem during the feast with additional troops to maintain order. This, of course, only added to the resentment of the people. It is easy to see how violent conflicts between Pilate’s troops and the Passover pilgrims could erupt. Such incidents were probably so common as to be hardly newsworthy.

The incident Jesus brought up involving the fall of the tower also appears to have been a relatively minor occurrence. “Silome” was a name given to the reservoir associated with the water supply in Jerusalem fed by the spring of Gihon. The spring was the main source of water for the city. It is referenced in Psalm 46. An aqueduct built during the Bronze Age brought the waters of the spring into the city. According to the Biblical account, it was through this aqueduct or one like it that David and his army were able to invade and conquer Jerusalem without breaching its walls. Interestingly, Pilate oversaw the construction of an aqueduct designed to improve the water supply system for the city. While it is possible that the fall of the tower to which Jesus referred had something to do with this project, there is no positive evidence on that score.

The implication here is that the people bringing to Jesus news of the unfortunate victims of Pilate’s wrath believed those victims were responsible for their plight by reason of their sins. Jesus does not specifically refute them on this point, but states that the Galileans were no more sinful than anyone else. Consequently, these people should not be focusing on what the Galileans may or may not have done, but rather upon turning from their own sin lest they meet the same fate. The same point is made with respect to the victims of the tower collapse. People should not be asking why these eighteen people died, but recognize instead God’s mercy in the very fact that they are still alive and still able to repent.

The parable of the unfruitful fig tree follows. Like this tree that has taken up good soil for three years without producing fruit, Jesus points out that the folks he is addressing are living similarly unfruitful lives. Like the butchered Galileans and the victims of the tower collapse, they deserve God’s punishment. But the ax has not fallen-yet. God has graciously given them time. The question is, how will they use it?

This parable of the fig tree is intriguing. It is tempting to interpret it allegorically with God being the owner of the vineyard and the vinedresser Jesus interceding on our behalf for mercy. But that does not work for a number of reasons. God clearly does not wish for the destruction of anyone. Even when God threatens judgment, it is with the hope that those who are so threatened will turn and repent. The owner of the vineyard is making no such threat and seems to have no hope for the tree. This is simply a business decision. The tree is an investment that has failed for three years to yield a return. It is time to pull the plug and invest elsewhere. The vinedresser’s motives are unclear. Perhaps he sees more potential in the tree than does the owner. In any event, the vinedresser is convinced he can get fruit out of the tree and tries to convince the owner to give him one more year.

As I see it, the parable has but one purpose: to illustrate the point Jesus has made with respect to the two tragedies discussed in the previous section. Fruitless as we are, we have lived to see another day. That is sheer grace. We have done nothing to earn this new day and have no guarantee that we will see another. Note well that we never hear the owner’s response to the vinedresser’s plea for more time. We would like to think that the owner said, “Fine. You think you can make this tree produce some figs? You have one year and one year only. Knock yourself out.” But it is just as likely that he said, “You have to be kidding! Three years this tree has produced nothing. What do you think will be different about year four? Cut it down!” Given that, undeservedly and inexplicably, we have been freely given this day, this hour, this minute-what are we going to do about it?

Sunday, February 24th

Second Sunday in Lent

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17–4:1
Luke 13:31-35

Prayer of the Day
God of the covenant, in the mystery of the cross you promise everlasting life to the world. Gather all peoples into your arms, and shelter us with your mercy, that we may rejoice in the life we share in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken.” Luke 13:35.

New Testament scholars are in virtual agreement that the Gospel of Luke was composed anywhere from fifteen to thirty years after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Rome in 70 C.E. Many of them are also inclined to view this saying less as a reflection of Jesus’ sentiments upon his arrival in the city toward the close of his ministry and more as the early church’s effort to provide a theological explanation for the Temple’s destruction. No doubt Luke’s telling of the story is colored by the church’s experience of historical events that followed the ministry of Jesus. That said, I don’t think it is possible to divorce Jesus from his dire judgment upon the Holy City. All four gospels contain Jesus’ words of judgment against the Temple and its corrupt leadership. One of the more serious charges leveled against Jesus at his trial was his alleged claim that he would “destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days…build another temple not made with hands.” Mark 15:58. Furthermore, Jesus was not the first prophet to pronounce a judgment of destruction against Jerusalem. Jeremiah and Micah similarly warned that, however much God might treasure the Temple and the city of David, neither could be used as a shield against God’s punishment for injustice and unrighteousness. The judgment against the Holy city brought about in Jeremiah’s time by the Babylonian invasion served as a solemn warning for all subsequent generations. It is hardly surprising that Jesus should draw upon this prophetic tradition in speaking to the Jerusalem of his day.

Yet Jesus takes no delight in pronouncing Jerusalem’s doom. He does not speak here as an angry firebrand. His mood is sad more than it is angry; heartbroken more than outraged; tired more than inspired. He is a man resigned to a violent death at the hands of his own people for the sake of a new age he will not live to see. Unlike the parallel account in chapter 23 of Matthew, Jesus does not weep. He just takes the next step in his journey to Jerusalem toward which he “set his face” back in Chapter 9. Jesus displays a grim determination to complete this race in which he is hopelessly behind and cannot hope to win. And he calls us to follow him.

This isn’t a very attractive picture of discipleship. But there are plenty of disciples of Jesus who will tell you that it is often accurate. St. Paul preached the Body of Christ throughout his ministry. What he got was churches like the one in Corinth-fraught with conflict, torn by power struggles and unable to comprehend the good news for which Jesus lived and died. I wish I could tell you about all the aid workers I have met over the years who have spent their lives in refugee camps throughout the world sacrificing ties of family and friendship at home, sacrificing their health and safety abroad for wages that ensure they will never live far above the poverty line. When their service is done they often leave a situation that has deteriorated further despite their faithful efforts. There are millions of church leaders throughout the world who volunteer their time, efforts and resources to build up the Church of Christ after spending a full day at their “real” jobs. These are the folks on the church council; the Sunday School teachers, youth leaders and trustees. Some of them toil away in churches that, in spite of their best efforts, are losing membership and financial support. Often times, they go without proper recognition and even face unjustified criticism. That is why I try my best to make these folks understand how precious and important they are. When people ask me why fewer and fewer people are involved in the church these days, I am tempted to reply that I often wonder why anyone at all is still there.

I hope we are all still here for the right reason-the same reason Jesus continued putting one foot in front of the other on the way to the cross. I hope we keep plodding on because we believe that God is serious about creating a new heaven and a new earth. I hope we struggle forward because we believe that God will finish what our lives can barely begin. I hope we embrace the cross because we understand that it is the shape the reign of God must take in a world that kills the prophets and stones the messengers of reconciliation sent to it. I hope we remain faithful because we believe that the prophetic word finally will be heard. I hope we are driven by the conviction that God is able to raise up the shattered pieces of our broken and seemingly ineffective efforts to be disciples just as he raised up the broken and lifeless Body of Jesus from the grave.

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Why would a man take a bunch of animals, cut them in half and make a path through the two halves of each of the bloody carcasses? In order to answer this question, we need to take a trip back in time to the Bronze Age. Society is made up of city states that owe their allegiance to larger kingdoms that in time will become the empires of the Iron Age. Obviously, such alliances are not agreements between equals. The ruler of a smaller state received a promise of non-aggression from the larger kingdom in return for payment of tribute and a pledge of military support if required. If this sounds rather like a protection racket, it is because that is essentially what the agreements were. These lopsided alliances were sealed by covenant ceremonies in which numerous animals were slain and cut in two. The subject king would then swear absolute allegiance, promise tribute and pledge military support to the dominant king. The dominant king would then force the subject king to walk on the bloody path between the severed animal parts. It was supposed to produce the same effect as the horse head next to which Jack Woltz woke up in the movie, The Godfather. “See these hacked up animals little king? This is what happens to little kings that try to cross the Big King? Any questions?”

In Sunday’s lesson from Genesis, God stands the whole notion of covenant making on its head. Abraham asked God “how am I to know that I shall possess [the land of Canaan]?” God’s response is to make a covenant with Abraham. Usually, it is the weaker, vassal king who seeks covenant protection from the dominant king. But here God is the one seeking a covenant with Abraham. In near eastern politics, the weaker king is the one who makes all the promises. In this case, God is the one who makes an oath to Abraham. Instead of forcing Abraham to walk between the mangled carcasses, God passes along the bloody path saying, in effect, “Abraham, if I fail to keep my promise to give you a child, a land and a blessing, may I be hacked in pieces like these animals.”

This remarkable story illustrates what one of my seminary professors, Fred Gaiser, once said: “The Old Testament tends toward incarnation.” The New Testament witness is that the Word of God became flesh, that is, became vulnerable to the rending and slaughter experienced by the sacrificial animals used in the covenant ceremony. In fact, we can go further and say that God’s flesh was torn apart, God’s heart was broken and that this rending of God’s flesh was the cost of God’s faithfulness to the covenant. So understood, it is possible to recognize the cross in this strange and wonderful tale from dawn of history.

Psalm 27

The scholarly consensus seems to be that this psalm actually consists of two psalms, the first being a prayer of trust not unlike Psalm 23 including verses 1-6. The second is a lament consisting of verses 7-14. However that might be, I still believe the psalm fits together nicely as a unit. It is precisely because the psalmist has such great confidence in God’s willingness and power to give protection that the psalmist feels free to cry out for that very protection in times of danger. Though as previously noted the commentators characterize verses 7-14 as a lament, it concludes with an affirmation of confidence in God’s anticipated salvation and an admonition to “be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord.”

Two things are noteworthy. First, this psalm is focused on dangers posed by enemies. By enemies the psalmist does not mean people who are merely disagreeable or less than friendly. These are people who “breathe out violence.” The psalmist’s response to these enemies is prayer. He or she does not strap on a six shooter with the intent of “taking care of business.” Instead, s/he calls upon the Lord to deal with the enemy. This is the characteristic approach of the psalms. Even when the psalmist expresses a distinct desire to see the enemy punished in very violent and graphic terms, the psalmist leaves the business of retribution to God. That, of course, is precisely in line with what Jesus teaches his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.

Second, the last verse of the psalm is very telling. The psalmist encourages his hearers to “wait for the Lord.” The odd thing about the psalms is that, although they are prayers addressed to God, they often contain admonitions from God in the psalmists’ mouths. Sometimes the psalmists seem to be conscious of an audience listening in on their prayers. God hardly needs to be reminded to “wait on the Lord.”  Biblical prayer is a dialogical process. The psalmists’ outpouring of prayer to God is only one side. God responds to the psalmists. Sometimes these responses are oracles delivered by a prophet or priest that have become imbedded in the psalm. See, e.g., Psalm 60:6-12. Often these prayers are sung as praises by the psalmist in corporate worship where they give encouragement to the assembly. See Psalm 27:6. For Israel, prayer was never an entirely personal matter. The confidence of this psalmist is drawn as much from God’s faithfulness to Israel throughout history as from his or her own experience. So also, the psalmists’ personal struggles become a public arena for God to demonstrate his compassion and salvation to Israel.

Philippians 3:17–4:1

To repeat briefly what I have said about Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in the past, this is not one letter but three.

Phil A = Phil 4:10-20   (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)

Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)

Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23   (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)

This Sunday’s reading comes from the third letter warning the Philippians to beware of the teachings of rival missionaries who were evidently teaching gentile Christians in Paul’s congregations that they needed circumcision in order to be full members of the church. In years past, scholars referred to these folks as “Judaizers,” but that name is somewhat misleading. The false missionaries with which Paul was contending were probably not Jews at all. Most likely, they were local people, probably gentiles who had received circumcision and took pride in the depth of commitment it demonstrated. Paul responds by pointing out that if such things as circumcision were really a source of pride, he could make a much stronger case on his own behalf than his adversaries. In verses 4-6 of chapter 3, Paul points out that he has a real Jewish ancestry that he can trace; circumcision done strictly in accordance with the law and a first rate Hebrew education. But of all this St. Paul says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

Knowing all of this makes it a little easier to stomach Paul’s call to imitate him. Paul is not just being a pompoms ass here (though I suspect that he could be just that at times). It isn’t his moral example or his sterling character that Paul calls us to imitate. Rather, he calls us to imitate his indifference to racial identity, cultural status and religious achievement. You don’t come into the church through your success in living as an observant Jew anymore than you win God’s love by living as an observant Lutheran. You come into the church by Jesus’ invitation. Everything else you bring with you is just excess baggage.

Luke 13:31-35

This encounter of Jesus with the Pharisees needs to be placed in the larger context of Luke’s story about Jesus. Recall how two Sundays ago Jesus stood with Moses and Elijah discussing the “Exodus” he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. From that point on, it was clear that something big was about to occur in the Holy City. So when we read in Luke 9:51 that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” it is clear that the time is at hand. From here on out, everything that occurs is leading up to the final confrontation that we know is approaching with every step Jesus takes toward his goal.

The Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod Antipas is seeking his life and urge him to flee. We do not know their motivation. Though the Pharisees were often hostile toward Jesus, this was not always the case in Luke’s gospel. In fact, in the very next chapter Jesus is invited to dinner at the home of a very prominent Pharisee. Moreover, the Pharisees had no great love for Herod. However much they might have disagreed with Jesus over any number of issues, Jesus was still a Jew that cared deeply about the Torah. Herod was a thug and a bully appointed by Rome who cared little about anything beyond his own comfort. As between the two, it is likely that the Pharisees would have sympathized with Jesus.

Of course, it is also possible that the Pharisees were trying to intimidate Jesus. Perhaps they felt that raising the specter of Herod might frighten him away from Judea and back into the more remote parts of Galilee where he would be someone else’s problem. In either case, Jesus will not be deterred from the course he set out in chapter 9. So far from fleeing, Jesus sends the Pharisees back to Herod with his travel itinerary.

Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem is one of the most moving passages in the gospels. We seldom get a glance into the head of Jesus. It seems to me that all four gospel writers are intent on preventing us from doing that. We are almost never told how Jesus felt or what his thoughts were about the things taking place around him. This passage marks one of the rare exceptions to that rule. Unlike the account in Matthew, Luke does not tell us that Jesus wept over the city. Nevertheless, his lament is filled with compassion. Jesus is resigned, it seems, to failure. The city that kills the prophets and stones the messengers sent to it will deal likewise with Jesus. Its people will not be gathered together by Jesus. Jesus is going to die without seeing the consummation of the reign of God to which he has given his life.

As indicated in my introductory remarks, New Testament scholars tend to read Jesus’ words of judgment against Jerusalem as an attempt to provide a theological explanation for the destruction of the Temple by Rome in 70 C.E. Again, I do not doubt that Luke had this event in mind while composing his gospel. Still, I believe that Jesus’ own remarks about the Temple and the wealth of prophetic tradition from the Hebrew Scriptures were Luke’s principle sources of inspiration. As pointed out previously, all four gospels have Jesus uttering prophetic words of judgment against the Temple and its corrupt worship practices. Moreover, the prophets were frequently unsparing in their criticism of the Temple and their threats of judgment. See, e.g., Jeremiah 12:7; 22:5. Consequently, I believe that Jesus’ address here in its Lucan context is directed more generally to Jerusalem and the people it represents who have a long history of resisting the messengers of the Lord calling them to repentance. This saying should not be read, in my opinion, to suggest that the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome was God’s punishment specifically for Jesus’ crucifixion.

Jesus’ statement, “How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood,” calls to mind a host of images from the Hebrew Scriptures. See e.g., Deuteronomy 32:11; Psalm 17:8; Psalm 36:7; Psalm 57:1; Psalm 91:4; Ruth 2:12. The shelter Jesus promises affords the kind of protection proclaimed in Psalm 27, our Psalm for this Sunday. Jesus makes it clear to us that he knows he is walking into a conflict that will claim his life. He does so with the confidence that God will see to the completion of what his “Exodus” in Jerusalem will begin and that the people will one day cry out, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”