Tag Archives: temptation

Toxic nostalgia; a poem by Miller Williams; and the lessons for Sunday, March 11, 2018

FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT

Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, rich in mercy, by the humiliation of your Son you lifted up this fallen world and rescued us from the hopelessness of death. Lead us into your light, that all our deeds may reflect your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” Numbers 21:5.

Lately, Facebook seems to have been inundated with nostalgia posts. These are video feeds that walk you down memory lane into friendly neighborhoods of yore where nobody locked their doors, kids played stick ball, hopscotch, hide and seek all day on the sidewalks, in the streets and in vacant lots without supervision and nothing bad ever happened to them. These were the days when you could get a popsicle for a dime that broke in the center so you could share it with a friend. Teachers exercised discipline without fear of being sued and kids were all better behaved for it. Everyone respected the flag, loved their country and did their jobs without complaining. It was a happier, simpler time. These feeds usually end with an invitation to share if you concur with such sentiments. I never do.

I will admit that there is a part of my psyche that enjoys these posts. I can be as nostalgic as the next person for the things I miss-the hiss and crackle of vacuum tubes you heard when turning on the old radio. The television shows we watched in black and white with the living room curtains drawn because that was the only way we could see even an outline of what was on the screen. I miss the sound of the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard whistle that signaled the end of my Dad’s work shift, letting me know that he would soon be walking up the street from the bus stop. So naturally, I get warm and fuzzy feelings from being reminded of these relics of my past.

But there is a dark side of nostalgia as well. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” the people of Israel demand of Moses indignantly. Their frustration is understandable. They have been experiencing the hardships of the wilderness for years. They have seen war, hunger and thirst. So hard is their lot that they yearn for Egypt, the land of bondage from which they had so recently been liberated. In their minds, Egypt was a land of plenty. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic.” Numbers 11:5. They seem to have forgotten, however, the Pharaoh’s cruel edict requiring them to expose their male children and leave them to die. They seem to have forgotten the cruel bondage from which they cried out for four hundred years to be delivered. It is all reminiscent of the song made famous in my youth by Barbara Streisand in the movie, The Way We Were: “Memories, may be beautiful and yet, what’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.” Selective memory is a pernicious mental process that distorts the past, colors our perceptions of the present and darkens our outlook on the future. Nostalgia can tempt us to reject the day which the Lord has made in favor of what we deem to have been better days in the past. It can turn us away from the future into which God is calling us.

The nostalgia I see again and again on Facebook posts seems innocent enough on the surface, but it plays all too easily into the sinister myth of a golden age in America, an age to which we must return if we would prosper. It goes something like this: Once upon a time America was great. Once upon a time a man was the king of his castle, the master of his home. It was a time when doctors, lawyers, senators and state representatives were men-white men to be specific. There was a time when everyone knew what it meant to be a man and women knew-and accepted-what it meant to be a woman. There was a time when people of color knew their place in America-and were happy to stay there. It was a time when businesses closed on Sundays, sports leagues ceased their activities and the only people on the street were those on their way to church. There was a time when the way a man chose to keep his family in line was his own business and he didn’t have to concern himself with visits from the police, nosy social workers or child protective services. There was a time when just wars were the only ones America ever fought and America always won. This was an America where opportunities abounded for anyone willing to work and there was no explanation for failure or poverty except laziness and dishonesty.

You will object that, in fact, no such America ever existed. You are correct. But this is a myth and myths need not be true. They need only be credible and credibility requires a low standard of proof. Older white men like me who see their America slipping away, who see a new diverse generation of young people far more at home in a developing world of computers, cross-cultural relationships, a changing economy and a job market requiring skills we don’t have are particularly vulnerable to seduction by this toxic nostalgia for a country that never was. We feel as though we are losing control, that our knowledge and expertise is not valued, that our beliefs and convictions are being disregarded and our positions of privilege are slipping away. We sense that we are growing old, becoming less relevant and approaching death. All of that is true, by the way. God is doing a new thing-and we don’t like it!

The Trump campaign deftly exploited this white, male rage making the 2016 election into a referendum on the demographic future of America.[1] It tapped into the white man’s visceral fear that his Norman Rockwell America is evolving into an increasingly feminist, multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-religious melting pot that he no longer recognizes as home. Trump’s handlers understood the deep-seated panic felt by white men when they hear that the white population will lose its majority status sometime between 2040 and 2050 and witness the increasing strength of women and people of color in business, entertainment and government. It should have come as no surprise that Trump’s berating women as “fat pigs” and “dogs” won him howls of approval from his white male base. Nor is it surprising that few in that base seemed at all concerned about their candidate’s sordid history of discrimination in his real estate developments or his derogatory remarks about Mexicans. To the contrary, they freely admit that his attractiveness stems from his willingness to say out loud what they are thinking.

Seen in this light, it is easy to understand the appeal of Trump’s claim that some “deep state” made up of liberals is really controlling the country. It is easy to see why universities are perceived as centers for “brainwashing” young people and scientists are regularly dismissed as white coated, God denying, America hating agents of the left. As preposterous as these notions might be, they make sense of the white man’s fears and put a face on the menace threatening him. Donald Trump validates the white man’s rage in a way that no other candidate in the field was able to do. He speaks their language and addresses their fears in ways that they can understand. His call for “making America great again,” taking us back to a simpler and happier time is understandably appealing to his base. In reality, however, this toxic nostalgia is the opiate ever threatening to derail the people of God and lure them back into captivity. Whatever direction America may take, disciples of Jesus must resist the temptation to look for salvation in the past.

We worship a forward-looking God. That does not mean that everything new, everything contemporary and everything promising change is necessarily good. It does mean, however, that today is the hand we have been dealt and we are not at liberty to throw it down and walk away from the table. It means that the future, however dark and threatening it can sometimes appear, is God’s future, the trajectory of which is determined by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The end of all things is the reign of God which, whether we like it or not, takes in peoples of every tribe, tongue and nation. Our movement must ever be forward toward that goal, journeying hopefully, faithfully and confidently-not in our plans, programs, politics or ideology, but in the promise that, as Christ has died and has risen, Christ will come again.

Here is a poem by Miller Williams about history and forward-looking hope eschewing the lure of nostalgia.

Of History and Hope

We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.
We know the sound of all the sounds we brought.
The rich taste of it is on our tongues.
But where are we going to be, and why, and who?
The disenfranchised dead want to know.
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.

But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
except in the minds of those who will call it Now?
The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?
With waving hands—oh, rarely in a row—
and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.

Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an even chance
cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.
Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head
cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.
Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child
cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.
We know what we have done and what we have said,
and how we have grown, degree by slow degree,
believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become—
just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.

All this in the hands of children, eyes already set
on a land we never can visit—it isn’t there yet—
but looking through their eyes, we can see
what our long gift to them may come to be.
If we can truly remember, they will not forget.

Miller Williams (1930-2015) was an American Poet, editor, critic, and translator born in Hoxie, Arkansas to a Methodist pastor. He was honored as the country’s third inaugural poet, reading the above poem at the start of former President Bill Clinton’s second term. Williams earned a Bachelor of Science in biology from Arkansas State University and an Masters in zoology from the University of Arkansas. He taught college science for many years before securing a job in the English department at LSU with the support of his friend, the noted author, Flannery O’Connor. Williams has written, translated, or edited over thirty books, including a dozen poetry collections. You can read more about Miller Williams and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Source: Some Jazz A While: Collected Poems, (c. 1999 by Miller Williams; pub. by University of Illinois Press).

Numbers 21:4-9

Numbers is the fourth book of the “Five Scrolls” or “Pentateuch,” sometimes referred to as the Five Books of Moses. Its title comes from the English translation of the Greek title, “Arithmoi,” given to the book in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures). I am guessing the name “Numbers” stems from the first several chapters of the book which narrate a census of each of the twelve Israelite tribes, family by family. The Hebrew Scriptures use the title “Bemidbar” which means “in the wilderness” and aptly describes the content of this book narrating Israel’s forty years of wandering between the Exodus from Egypt and her entry into the land of Canaan. During this period the generation of Israelites that left Egypt with Moses and Aaron died and was succeeded by a new generation. From the old generation, only Moses and Joshua remain alive at the close of Numbers. It is clear that Joshua, not Moses, will lead this new generation into the land of Canaan. Throughout this period, the people are faced with numerous challenges that put their faith in God to the test. Though the faithfulness of Israel is often less than adequate, God remains steadfast from beginning to end.

Our lesson begins with the people of Israel setting out on a new leg of their journey following a victory over the Canaanite king of Arad. Arad was a Canaanite city of the Negeb located in present day Tell Arad, Israel. Its ruins consist of a large mound containing potsherds indicating that Arad was first occupied in the 4th Century B.C.E. The site is about fifty miles north of Kadish where Israel remained encamped for extended periods of time.

After this battle, the people set out from Mt. Hor (precise location of which is unknown) and take the “way of the Red Sea.” The Hebrew actually reads “reed sea,” but it is likely that the Red Sea is intended here. This road, which begins at Ezion-geber at the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, would have taken Israel to the west of Edom rather than through it, the objective set forth in the text. Vs. 4. It is at this point that the people become discouraged, complain against Moses and even against God. They go so far as to call the manna with which God has been feeding them “this miserable food,” food to which the Psalms refer as “the bread of angels.” Psalm 78:25. Vs. 5. God responds by sending “fiery serpents” among the people, translated by the NRSV as “poisonous serpents.” The assumption seems to be that the serpents are merely a species of snake with a bite that causes a burning sensation. That would comport with our 19th Century penitent for interpreting the scriptures in such a way as not to violate cannons of the Enlightenment. But despite these noble efforts at ridding the Hebrew Scriptures of primitive supernaturalism, the problem remains. Not only are we lacking any known species of near eastern reptile capable of inflicting such a bite, but we are also faced with the biological reality that no snake of any kind travels in large groups. (When was the last time you saw a herd of snakes?) Nor do snakes typically attack without significant provocation.

More likely than not, the serpents were understood by the narrator, not as any known species of snake, but as one of the many mythical creatures thought to inhabit the desert, such as the “flying serpent” referenced in Isaiah 30:6. In any event, the creatures, whatever they are, were sent by God to punish Israel’s faithless complaining. Recognizing their sin, the people repent and turn to Moses for aid. As he has so often done before, Moses intercedes with God for the sake of Israel. Vs. 7.

What follows is truly fascinating and, in some respects, difficult to understand. God instructs Moses to fashion a bronze serpent and elevate it on a pole-seemingly a direct violation of the First Commandment (or the Second, depending on how one numbers them): “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…” Exodus 20:4Deuteronomy 5:8. The serpent, though greatly feared, was nevertheless a common symbol of healing and fertility. One wonders why Moses would be instructed to create such a symbol as an instrument of healing where it could so easily lead to idolatrous worship. Indeed, according to II Kings this very consequence occurred necessitating King Hezekiah’s destruction of the very same bronze serpent centuries later. II Kings 18:4.

Of course, the Abrahamic religions have always had ambivalent feelings about images. Islam forbids absolutely any image of God (Allah) and discourages (in varying degrees) images of any creature. Similarly, Christianity has vacillated between the extremes of icon adoration and iconoclasm. The danger of images is nowhere better illustrated than in our consistent depictions of God as male. Though one would be hard pressed to make from the scriptures the case for a gendered God, Christian art could hardly lead you to any different conclusion. Our images invariably turn out to be limited by our own cultural, sociological and ideological biases and therefore limiting in their portrayal of the God we claim to worship.

That said, it seems we cannot do without images. When we are physically forbidden to make them, our imagination continues to manufacture images. Moreover, the doctrine of the Incarnation affirms that the Word of God became flesh (John 1:14) and even that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God…” Colossians 1:15. Our liturgy urges us to adore the Word made visible in Jesus that we might learn to love the God we cannot see. We are imaginative creatures who comprehend our universe by means of images.

Some years ago, I was very taken with a painting of the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem. The painting was by a Mexican artist whose depiction of the temple’s architecture along with the dress of Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna was with imagery drawn from his own cultural environment. I clipped a copy of this painting out of the magazine in which I found it. Some weeks later, I found the same biblical scene portrayed in an early Byzantine wall mural in National Geographic. I clipped this one also and put it into the same shoebox with the other print. I now have about half a dozen such portrayals of the Presentation. Singly, they are time bound, parochial and culturally circumscribed. In their plurality, they reflect from multiple dimensions a miracle too beautiful and magnificent for any single imagination to contain. They represent the impact of a marvelous narrative as it rolls through the ages gathering meaning as a snowball gathers mass. The difference between an icon and an idol is simply this: the idol points only to itself limiting the God it would represent to the confines of a single image, whereas the icon points beyond itself to that which is finally beyond imagination.

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

This is a psalm of praise. Verse 22 suggests that it was sung by the faith community before a sacrifice of thanksgiving. That the worshipers are “gathered from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (Vs. 3) suggests that this psalm was composed after the Babylonian Exile and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Though some of the exiled Jews returned home to Palestine, most of the Jewish population remained scattered throughout the Mediterranean world, making pilgrimages to Jerusalem on high holy days. Such pilgrim journeys were fraught with dangers, escape from which was one of many occasions for thanksgiving.

Our reading jumps from the introductory verses 1-3 to verse 17 stating that some of the worshipers now giving thanks had become “sick” through their sinful ways. The Hebrew is obscure at this point. Some translations of the Hebrew Scriptures favor the alternative reading: “some were fools, they took to rebellious ways.” New English Bible. Given this ambiguity, we are left to ponder whether the persons described here were rescued from sickness brought on by their rebelliousness or from their rebellious ways otherwise destructive to their wellbeing. Verse 18 stating that these individuals were so affected as to become “sickened” at the sight of food is merely figurative. It means little more than that food brought them no pleasure and that they had no appetite. Thus, there is no definitive indication that sickness is the affliction from which these worshipers were delivered. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 52; but see Weiser, Artur, The Psalms: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 687 for a contrary view.

In verse 18 we are told that the worshipers “drew near to the gate of death.” The psalmist pictures death as a city drawing the hapless traveler into its fatal orbit. Again, the interpretation depends on our rendering of verse 17. In a world without much in the way of medicine and where illness was poorly understood, many of the sicknesses we view as non-life threatening brought fear and foreboding. Every sickness was a reminder of human mortality as it might well progress to something much worse than first appeared. So, too, bad choices can bring a person to ruin from which there seems no way of return. In either case, we are invited to glorify the God of Israel for turning even these seemingly hopeless circumstances into occasions for the exercise of God’s saving power.

God “sent his word” at verse 20 can be understood at several different levels. At the most superficial level it can be understood as a word of rebuke (assuming that the affliction is foolishness) or of encouragement (assuming the affliction to be illness). The bringer of the word can be linked to the word in such a way as to be an extension of that word. This notion of angelic intervention applies to help in the form of natural elements that serve as God’s “angels” or angelic beings serving at God’s behest. In later Judaism and in the New Testament, the word often became identified with God’s self. See John 1:1.

As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 107 in its entirety. This marvelous hymn recounts God’s faithfulness and salvation through the lenses of many differing human situations of want and need. In every case we are invited to “thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men.” Vs. 21.

Ephesians 2:1-10

“Dead through trespasses and sins” “following the prince of the power of the air” –how are we to make sense of these terms? To understand what Paul and his followers meant by this terminology, it helps to understand the context in which they lived and worked. The Roman Empire was the overriding and dominating presence throughout the Mediterranean world in the 1st Century. Under its reign society was rigidly and hierarchically ordered with the emperor at the apex and slaves making up the base of its pyramid of power. How you regarded and treated others in your life was dictated by your assigned place in this order. Jewett, Robert, Romans-A Commentary, Harmenia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 49 and the citation to Lendon, J.E., Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World (c. 1997 by Oxford: Clarendon) pp. 289-292. For Paul and his associates, this way of “walking” (Vs. 1) is sinful by definition. As a Jew, Paul understood God as the one who liberated Israel from slavery for a life of freedom in covenant with God. As a disciple of Jesus, Paul believed that genuine divine power does not manifest itself top down through the imperial hierarchy, but from bottom up through the faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection of the Christ. Jesus topples Rome’s pyramid uniting into a single people persons of all nations, all classes and all races. Of this people, Jesus Christ, not Caesar is Lord. There is no hierarchy in this new people, but only a diversity of gifts exercised for the building up of the Body of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-16. This is the good work in which disciples of Jesus are called to walk. Vs. 10.

I believe Paul would have recognized much that was familiar to him in the United States of America. Though surely saddened, I doubt Paul would be shocked to discover that elections are bought by powerful corporate interests, that wealth is overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of a very few while a growing sector of the population lacks even the basic necessities of life. I don’t think Paul would be shocked to find African American neighborhoods patrolled by an overwhelmingly white police department that looks far more like an occupation force than a public service. I think that Paul would recognize “the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Vs. 2) every bit as much in our age as in his own.

What I am not sure Paul would recognize is the presence of the church in the midst of such a world as ours. Would Paul recognize a church that is so thoroughly woven into the cultural and economic fabric of our domination society that it blends naturally into the Americana landscape? Would Paul recognize as the meeting place of Christ’s Body a locked building with a “No Trespassing” sign over the door? Would Paul see in our still highly segregated Sunday mornings the descendants of his churches? Would Paul find any disciples of Jesus engaged in the good works in which they are called to “walk.”? Vs. 10.

Our failure to appreciate the extent to which the church’s very existence challenged the legitimacy of Rome’s culture of domination has compromised our preaching of this and other Pauline texts. As a result, our pastors, teachers and bishops remain largely blind to the dangerous, toxic mix of nationalism and deviant Christianity that constitutes so much of what has, ironically I think, been called evangelical Christianity and its insidious infiltration of our churches. See my post of July 26, 2017.

John 3:14-21

For some background on the larger context of this brief snippet from John’s gospel, my post from Sunday, March 16, 2014. Suffice to say that Jesus is engaged in a conversation with Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, who has come to him by night. Nicodemus, having been told that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being “born from above” mistakenly believes that Jesus means he must be born all over again-a seeming impossibility. When Jesus explains that entering the Kingdom is not so much a re-birth as it is a new birthing by God’s adoption of us through the Spirit, Nicodemus is still mystified. Jesus then says to Nicodemus what we have in our lesson for Sunday: “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Vss. 13-15.

As pointed out by one prominent commentator, the words “in him” are associated with eternal life rather than with “believe.” Thus, “whoever believes, in him may have eternal life” is the preferred rendering. Barrett, C.K., The Gospel According to St. John, Second Ed. (c. C.K. Barrett, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 179; accord, Marsh, John Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. John Marsh, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 187. Belief is not the engine of salvation unto eternal life. As Martin Luther points out, “the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol.” The Large Catechism of Martin Luther, published in The Book of Concord, edit. Theodore G. Tappert (c. 1959 by Fortress Press) p. 365. Eternal life is given in Jesus, the Word that evokes and directs faith toward himself. To read this verse in any other way suggests that faith is a precondition for God’s mercy rather than the heartfelt response to such mercy.

“Eternal life” is a term frequently used throughout the fourth gospel, though the other gospels use it occasionally as well. While used in Jewish and Christian literature to speak of life in the new age to come, John uses it in a more expansive way. For John, eternal life begins when one believes in Jesus. “And this is eternal life,” says Jesus, “that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” John 17:3. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the eternal life Jesus shares with the Father is mediated to the disciples. John 16:13-15. It is critical to emphasize John’s present tense lest eternal life be misunderstood as a distant hope realized only after death.

It is important to remember also that the Greek texts do not contain punctuation. Thus, the decision to end the quote from Jesus at verse 15, as does the RSV, is an editorial decision. The NRSV continues the quotation up to verse 21. Commentators are split on this point. For example, Professor Raymond Brown sides with the NRSV. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 149. Professor Lightfoot, however, would end the quote at verse 15. Lightfoot, R.H., St. John’s Gospel (c. 1960 by Oxford University Press) p. 118. I lean toward the NRSV rendering on this point. I see no compelling reason not to extend the quote up to verse 21 and so accept John 3:16 as Jesus’ pronouncement. “All Jesus’ words come to us through the channels of the evangelist’s understanding and rethinking, but the Gospel [of John] presents Jesus as speaking and not the evangelist.” Brown, supra, at 149. With this in mind, it is possible to read John 3:16 not as a doctrinal proposition, but as Jesus’ proclamation of his reconciling mission to us.

“God so love the world” Vs. 16. The word “world” is important. When I was in confirmation, my pastor encouraged us to substitute our own names in place of “world” when reciting this well-known verse. While I appreciate that he was trying to help us personalize Jesus’ ministry, there is a danger in such particularization. For too long the church has held a narrow, individualistic view of salvation. It is as though God were trying to save as many passengers as possible from the deck of a sinking ship. This wicked world is on cruise ship destined for hell. But faith is the lifeboat that can get you safely off the ship before she goes down. God, however, is determined to save the ship. “The earth is the Lord’s” the psalm tells us. Psalm 24:1. God is not conceding one inch of it to the devil. For this reason, our own individual salvation is inextricably bound up with the salvation of the rivers, forests, animals, the hungry, the oppressed and the oppressor.

The “sending” of the Son into the world as an expression of God’s love points in two directions. Vs. 16. First, it points to the miracle of the Incarnation. John treats this in his poetic prologue at John 1:1-18. It is important to understand that incarnation, the dwelling of God with humankind, has been the intent of God from the “beginning,” that is, before creation, the fall into sin and its consequences. The constant refrain throughout the prophets is “I will be their God and they shall be my people.” That refrain is echoed in the Book of Revelation where this divine desire is finally fulfilled. Revelation 21:3-4.

Second, the sending of the Son points forward to the cross-the price God is prepared to pay for dwelling in our midst, for becoming flesh that can be torn, broken and pierced by nails. This desire of God to dwell among us at the cost of God’s only beloved Son is the measure of divine love. Such love takes shape in our lives when we become passionate about God’s reign or, to use John’s language, when we enter into eternal life which we might well render life that is eternally significant. To believe in the resurrection is to believe that the God Jesus lived and died for is real; that the salvation he offers the world is worth living for and even dying for.

Jesus continues by telling us that he has been sent not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Vs. 17. Yet condemnation there surely will be. “He who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Vs. 18. Often there is a twofold reaction to Jesus in the gospel of John placing in stark relief the response of faith to that of rejection and unbelief. It is not that Jesus himself judges any person. Rather, “the idea is that Jesus brings out what a man really is and the real nature of his life. Jesus is a penetrating light that provokes judgment by making it apparent what a man is.” Brown, supra, pp. 148-149. For, “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” Vs. 19. This applies to all persons across the board. The question is how one responds to this judgment. Does one say “yes” to the judgment upon his or her life and turn from death to “eternal life” as we have defined it? Or does one shun the light, continue in sin and cause the judgment to become condemnation? In sum, this passage presupposes an encounter with Jesus such as is occurring with Nicodemus in our lesson. It should not be lifted out of this context and employed for speculation about who will or will not finally be saved.

One final observation: for all the dualism in this text-light vs. darkness; belief vs. unbelief; and knowledge vs. ignorance-terms which seem to mandate that one choose one side or the other, Nicodemus remains an ambiguous character throughout John’s gospel. He appears briefly in Chapter 7 when he questions his fellow members of the council about their rush to judgment on Jesus and his ministry. John 7:50-51. We meet him again after Jesus’ crucifixion as he goes with Joseph of Arimathea to give Jesus a proper burial. John 19:38-42. John seems to recognize that there is a twilight zone between darkness and light; belief and unbelief; understanding and ignorance. In this zone faith struggles to be born.

___________________________________________________________________________________

[1] In November of 2008, for the first time in history, an election was not decided principally by white men. In the first election in which a major party candidate was an African American, the white vote went decisively in favor of John McCain over Barak Obama to the tune of twelve percentage points. But this clear win in America’s still biggest demographic could not offset overwhelming support among Hispanic, African American and Asian voters coupled with a substantial edge among women and the near unanimous support of the LGBTQ communities. The hope of white voters that the Obama victory was an historical fluke that would soon be erased once the panic generated by the recession of that era faded was dashed by Mr. Obama’s substantial electoral and popular victory over Mitt Romney in 2012. Though Mr. Romney won the white vote by ten percentage points, Mr. Obama’s support among minorities and women again carried the day. The electorate twice defied the will of the white man to put an African American in the White House-and white, male America was mad as hell about it. See Roper reports for 2008 and 2012.

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

See the source imageFIRST SUNDAY IN LENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ash Wednesday

(Vienna)

I

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

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

(Hinterbrühl)

II

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

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

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

Genesis 9:8-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 25:1-10

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

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

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

1 Peter 3:18-22

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

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

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

Mark 1:9-15

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

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

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

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

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

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

See the source imageFOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

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

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Compassionate God, you gather the whole universe into your radiant presence and continually reveal your Son as our Savior. Bring wholeness to all that is broken and speak truth to us in our confusion, that all creation will see and know your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 7:21.

Two weeks ago, we heard the voice of God witnessing to Jesus as God’s beloved son. In today’s gospel Jesus is acclaimed “the Holy one of God” by the most unholy of witnesses-a demon. Just as the devil can quote scripture, so the devil can make an orthodox confession of Jesus. I can only guess at what advantage the devil thought he might get from being given free reign to confess Jesus as Lord.  Clearly, however, Jesus wants no part of any such testimony, true as it surely is. He has learned through his temptation experience in the wilderness that the devil’s promises are empty and his seemingly good gifts always come with strings attached. In the short term, changing stones into bread to satisfy your hunger, grabbing hold of the levers of political power to accomplish worthwhile objectives and winning the applause of the crowd with death defying stunts might seem like a sure path to survival, recognition and popularity. But that path will not teach you reliance upon God’s promises or release the power of self-emptying love into the world or induce disciples to surrender their lives to the promise of God’s reign. So, too, letting the devil do Jesus’ PR work is not likely to further God’s reign of love.

Evangelical Christian leaders have been slow to heed this warning. I speak specifically about Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., Bishop Harry Jackson, an African American pastor from Beltsville, Md., megachurch pastor Paula White, radio host James Dobson and, of course, Rev. Franklin Graham. These evangelical leaders have remained steadfast in their support of the president, notwithstanding his boasts of grabbing young girls by the genitals, his history of racial epitaphs and acts of discrimination, his ruthless cruelty toward refugees and immigrants, his pathological lying and his gross ignorance of the basic doctrinal tenants of the Christian faith. Indeed, Rev. Graham went so far as to call him God’s champion for American Christianity. Though surely not blind to what these folks term as Donald Trump’s “shortcomings,” their rationalization is that Mr. Trump 1) is not Hillary Clinton; 2) is anti-abortion; 3) is willing to discriminate against LGBTQ folks (or I should say, uphold the freedom of Christians to discriminate against them in the name of Jesus). After all, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, right?

Wrong. Common enemies do not good friends make. The ends do not justify the means; but the means always distort the most just of ends. Or, to put it in gospel language, the devil is a merciless creditor who always demands his due on every contract he makes. Payday on the Trump pact is arriving for the above Evangelical leaders. Amy Gannett, a young evangelical blogger, recently observed: “Over the last several months, I have lost respect for the Republican party, and I honestly thought that would be the biggest tragedy of this election. But the disappointing truth is this: I’m losing faith in Evangelicals. And this is frightening. I am an Evangelical. I hold to Evangelical theology. I have attended not one, but two Evangelical schools. But I fear that we’re going to lose an entire generation because of the actions, words, and teachings of some Evangelicals.” How Evangelicals are Losing an Entire Generation. Ms. Gannett goes on to say, “Yes, we value the rights of the unborn, but we want leaders that are pro-life in all areas of society. Millennials feel the daily pangs of racial tension, a deep desire for equality for all, and a propensity toward the social justice issues surrounding the refugee crisis.” She concludes, saying “Evangelical leaders [         ] are using their political and social weight on issues close to their generation, and are neglecting the moral imperatives to seek justice, peace, and equality for the Black community, the immigrant community, and the refugee community (and a slew of others). My generation will not identify with this. We cannot call a candidate “good,”[             ], who has made racist remarks. We will not call a candidate “good” who has demoralized and dehumanized women on national television. We will not buy into the hierarchy of [some] proposed morals over others. Because [some evangelical leaders] are making this hierarchy of morality intrinsically related to the Christian life and theology, we will not stand with them.” If evangelical leaders think that banging their Bibles and becoming ever more preachy screechy with their excoriation of science, racist xenophobia and homophobic vitriol is going to win over young, thoughtful and faithful evangelical Christians like Ms. Gannett to their blind adoration of Donald Trump and his inhuman agenda, they are dreaming-and not in a good way.

I suspect that in relatively short time (talking decades here, not generations), the old guard evangelicals will find themselves a sad little club of old, angry, white men. They will be left with nothing but their sick and twisted religion and nothing to do but shake their impotent fists at a world, a church and a God that have all moved on and left them behind. It’s a sorry little inheritance to be sure. But that’s always what you wind up with when you make deals with the devil.

Here is a poem by Stephen Dobyns reminding us how insubstantial our souls are, how deeply we are formed by the pacts we make and how easy it is to lose the thread that defines us.   

Over a Cup of Coffee

Over a cup of coffee or sitting on a park bench or
walking the dog, he would recall some incident
from his youth—nothing significant—climbing a tree
in his backyard, waiting in left field for a batter’s
swing, sitting in a parked car with a girl whose face
he no longer remembered, his hand on her breast
and his body electric; memories to look at with
curiosity, the harmless behavior of a stranger, with
nothing to regret or elicit particular joy. And
although he had no sense of being on a journey,
such memories made him realize how far he had
traveled, which, in turn, made him ask how he
would look back on the person he was now, this
person who seemed so substantial. These images, it
was like looking at a book of old photographs,
recognizing a forehead, the narrow chin, and
perhaps recalling the story of an older second
cousin, how he had left long ago to try his luck in
Argentina or Australia. And he saw that he was
becoming like such a person, that the day might
arrive when he would look back on his present self
as on a distant relative who had drifted off into
uncharted lands.

Source: Poetry (December 2001). Stephen Dobyns grew up in New Jersey, Michigan, Virginia and Pennsylvania. He attended Shimer College and Wayne State University and received his master’s degree from the University of Iowa. Dobyns was a reporter for the Detroit News and taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Warren Wilson College, the University of Iowa, Syracuse University, and Boston University. He has produced several books of poetry, some novels and published short stories. You can read more about Stephen Dobyns and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the “Pentateuch,” the first five books of the Bible traditionally attributed to Moses. It should be understood that even from this traditional perspective, authorship was not understood as it is today. Modern biblical research has led to a general consensus that the Pentateuch is the product of four sources and perhaps several editors. For a brief outline of the history for the Pentateuch’s composition, see my post for January 7th. For a more thorough discussion, see this article on the Documentary Hypothesis.

Sunday’s lesson deals with the nettlesome issue of prophetic authority plaguing nearly every religious movement. Who speaks for the Lord to the community of faith after that community’s founding prophet dies? That is the question addressed by our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures. The Book of Deuteronomy constitutes Moses’ final address to Israel. He knows that he will not be with them as they enter into the Promised Land. Accordingly, Moses speaks “Torah” to the people. This “Torah,” so much more than is conveyed by the word “law” used to translate it in most English Bibles, will serve as the normative guide for Israel’s corporate existence in Canaan. As such, it is a sort of surrogate for Moses himself.

Yet no written scripture, however exhaustive and profound, can take the place of a spiritual leader. Circumstances will be different for Israel in Canaan than they were for her in Egypt and in her journey through the wilderness. Some of the dangers Moses can foresee and address. Most of them are not even imaginable. Such is also the case for the Christian community. Paul could never have foreseen, much less addressed, the important ethical issues Christians face today. You won’t find many references in your biblical concordance to human cloning, biological warfare, genetic engineering, in vitro fertilization, global warming or fracking. That isn’t to say that the scriptures cannot enlighten us on these matters. It is obvious, however, that we will need someone to interpret them. We will need people who understand fully how Moses, the prophets and the apostles thought about issues in their own time and who are capable of applying that wisdom to our thinking about the challenges we face today. In other words, we need prophets.

Moses was well aware of that need and he speaks to it in our lesson. He promises that God will raise up prophets like himself to speak the word of the Lord to Israel as she takes up her new life in Canaan. Vs. 15. That is a gracious word. God does not intend simply to leave Israel with a user manual for the new life God has given her. The scriptures are living documents. Not only were they inspired by the Holy Spirit, but their continued power for subsequent generations depends on that Spirit working in the hearts of all who preach and teach them. Thus, the well-loved Lutheran dictum “Sola Scriptura” cannot be taken to mean that the scriptures alone are sufficient to govern the church. From very early on, the church has formulated creeds to articulate the heart of the scriptural witness. We can see the seeds of such creedal authority in the scriptures themselves. For example, in I Timothy Paul remarks: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” I Timothy 3:16.

Yet while creeds can keep our focus on what is central to the scriptural witness and help us avoid “wander[ing] away into vain discussion,” they cannot by themselves produce “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.” I Timothy 1:3-7. For that, “teaching” and “prophetic utterance” are essential. I Timothy 4:14. Here I differ with a number of theologians who have said over the years that disciples of Jesus are a “people of the book.” That we clearly are not. We are a people of the resurrected Jesus. That is not to denigrate the scriptures. They constitute the normative witness to Jesus. All other witnesses, including the ecumenical creeds, stand under their judgment. Yet they point beyond themselves to the one we confess to be God’s only beloved Son incarnate, crucified and raised for the life of the world. Faith is not subscription to scriptural doctrines or principles. It is trust in a living person. The authority of the Bible is therefore inseparably linked to the living community of disciples through whom faith is mediated by teaching, preaching and the example of holy living.

In one sense, the prophetic task belongs to the whole community. Thus, we encourage all believers to share their faith in Jesus and to speak out on behalf of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable in public forums and to their elected representatives. We expect all believers to be involved in the ministry of teaching. A little appreciated fact about Luther’s Small Catechism is that it was written as a guide for parents to introduce their children to the Christian faith, not as a model curriculum for pastors to teach confirmation classes. Yet it seems inevitable that prophetic authority for the community must be invested in someone. I have gotten to know several groups within the Anabaptist and Pentecostal traditions that have strong anti-clerical streaks. They place a special emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. I have observed, however, that even within these groups there is usually one or more persons who stand out as authorities on matters of faith and life. Thus, even though they lack formal designation as authorities, they are recognized as authoritative nonetheless. As our gospel lesson demonstrates, authority can make itself felt without credentials.

Be all of this as it may, I believe that the church is best served when we are intentional about who we invest with prophetic authority. There is something to be said for standards, requirements and systems of accountability for the ministry of public preaching and the Lutheran confessional requirement that this ministry be legitimated by a “call” formally recognized in the church. Preaching is too important a task to be left in the hands of whoever shows up on Sunday and has the inclination to do it. Would you want a layperson with only a deep appreciation for medicine and a desire to try practicing surgery operating on your spine? How much less your soul!

Of course, neither individual zeal nor official recognition can guaranty that prophetic speech will not go off the rails. That is one of the concerns addressed in the verses following our lesson: How can we be sure the preacher is giving us the word of the Lord and not something else? How do you distinguish a true prophet from a false one? The only way to make this determination is to discern whether the prophet’s words prove true. Deuteronomy 18:21-22. If we understand prophecy to be no more than predicting the future, this advice is practically worthless. But of course, prophecy is much more than astrology. Prophesy is not principally foretelling the future, but forthtelling God’s word to our present circumstances. Prophets do not speak in a vacuum. They speak from the scriptural witness; their scriptural interpretations are normed by the creedal statements and, most specifically, by Jesus. For the church, Jesus is our way into the scriptures, the light by which we read the scriptures and the Spirit by which we interpret the scriptures. Prophesy is therefore not to be accepted blindly or uncritically. Paul encouraged his hearers to examine the scriptures in order to validate his preaching. Acts 17:11. John warns us to “test the spirits” in order to avoid giving heed to false prophets. I John 4:1. Genuine prophetic ministry thrives where there exists a healthy tension between the scriptures, the prophetic voice of public preaching and the critical discernment of the whole people of God.

Psalm 111

This psalm is an “acrostic” poem, meaning that each strophe begins with a new letter of the Hebrew alphabet in sequential order. Other psalms of this family are Psalm 119Psalm 9Psalm 10Psalm 25Psalm 34Psalm 37Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. It is possible that this psalm is related to Psalm 112, also an acrostic poem. Whereas the theme of Psalm 111 is the goodness and faithfulness of the Lord, Psalm 112 speaks of the blessedness of the person who fears and trusts in the Lord. Because the acrostic form is a relatively late development in Hebrew poetry, most scholars date this psalm during the period after the Babylonian Exile.

The psalm makes clear that the greatness of God is made known in God’s works. Though the Exodus, wilderness wanderings, conquest of Canaan and the return from exile are not specifically referenced, they were doubtlessly in the mind of the psalmist as s/he proclaimed the redemption of God’s people. Vs. 9. The giving of the law appears to be the paramount act of salvation in the psalmist’s mind. The statutes of the Lord are “trustworthy…established forever and ever. Vs. 8. It was, after all, the Torah that preserved Israel’s identity throughout the long years of Babylonian captivity and kept alive the hope that finally inspired her return and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple.

The most memorable and familiar verse is the final one: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  Vs. 10. Fear of God is a distasteful notion to us moderns who prefer a deity similar to the white, upper middle class, slightly left of center dad of the Ward Clever variety. But the Bible testifies to a God who is sometimes scary and not always very nice (though the lectionary folks do their best to shave off his rough edges with their incessant editing). Fear is usually the first emotion biblical characters express when face to face with God or one of God’s angelic messengers. So anyone who has no apprehension about encountering God is probably downright foolhardy.

Frankly, I think that if we feared God more, we might fear a lot of other things less. Worshipers of Israel’s God should know that instead of fretting over what the deficit will do to us if we commit ourselves to providing everyone with sufficient housing, food and medical care, we ought to be concerned about what God might do to us if we don’t. If the good people on Capitol Hill believed that on the last day God will confront all nations and peoples through the eyes of everyone they could have clothed, fed, befriended and cared for, I think the log jam over social legislation would disappear in a New York minute. The fact that most of these folks self-identify as Christians shows just how poor a job their churches have done teaching them what they should and should not fear. Healthy fear understands that the decisions we make matter-eternally so.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

This section of Paul’s letter is not particularly “relevant” in terms of its subject matter. When I purchase meat, I don’t worry much about whether it was used in some pagan sacrificial rite. I am more concerned about the conditions under which the animal in question was raised, what it was fed and injected with, how it was butchered and processed. Sometimes I wonder whether I should be eating meat in the first place. These, however, are entirely different issues than those with which Paul is concerned. The question of consuming pagan sacrificial meat arises out of the larger context of Corinthian culture in which Paul’s congregation was situated:

“A glance at the plan of the excavated forum of Roman Corinth detects the numerous temples and shrines in it dedicated to various gods that non-Christian Corinthians reverenced. Civic and social life in such a city would have meant an obligation to join in festivals, celebrations, and public ceremonies on occasions when religion and politics were not clearly demarcated; there were also many guilds of tradesmen and other voluntary associations in which specific gods were honored with banquets and sacrificial meals. Feasts in honor of various deities were celebrated regularly in numerous temples, when food (cereals, cheese, honey) were offered and animals (goats, cows, bulls, horses) were sacrificed to them, according to the manuals of the pontifices. The meat of animals so slaughtered, when not fully consumed in sacrifice, was often eaten by the offerers and attending temple servants. The latter sold at times the surplus meat on the markets.” Fitzmyer, Joseph A., First Corinthians, The Anchor Yale Bible, Vol. 32 (c. 2008 by Yale University) p. 331.

In this cultural setting, a disciple’s faithfulness to Jesus as the Son of Israel’s God cut across loyalties of professional, social and legal obligations inherent in daily life. Your clients and business associates might well begin to wonder why you are routinely turning down their dinner invitations. Your community might question your patriotism when you avoid civil ceremonies that invariably involve pagan sacrificial rites. Your old friends might be deeply hurt when you refuse to accept gifts of food from sacrificial feasts. Furthermore, how can you be sure that the meat you buy in the market place has not been used in one of these feasts?

Some in the Corinthian church took a pragmatic view. They knew that there is no God but one. They knew that food is derived from God’s good creation and does not become any less good simply because some pagan priest mumbles a few words of devotion to a god that doesn’t even exist. So why not eat and enjoy? Whatever the pagans may think, we know that meat is meat and that it is meant to be enjoyed as God’s good gift.

Paul seems to agree with these “knowledgeable” folks in principle. But there is more to all of this than “knowledge.” For most people, the pagan rituals pervading social life in Corinth were pregnant with meaning and significance. It was practically impossible for them to separate the eating of sacrificial meat from participation in the sacrificial rite. They could no more eat sacrificial meat without being drawn into its religious significance than can an alcoholic indulge in “just one little drink.”

“So what?” say those “with knowledge.” “Why should the scruples of other people stand in the way of what we do with a clear conscience?” “Because,” Paul replies, “this ‘knowledge’ of yours is not the guiding principle.” As Paul pointed out to us last week, just because we are free to do something does not mean that we ought to do it. Here the guiding principle is not ‘knowledge’ but love. Vs. 3. It is true that in Christ we are free to enjoy the good gifts of God’s creation without worrying about all the other so-called ‘gods’ that pagans believe in. Nevertheless, we are obligated as members of Christ’s church to place the welfare of our sisters and brothers above our own desires. Everything a believer does must be done with the well-being of the whole church and all of its members in mind. Thus, although Paul shares the “knowledge” of his critics and the freedom they prize so highly, he will not exercise this freedom in any way that undermines the faith of any member of the church. If that means giving up meat altogether, so be it. Vs. 13.

Again, this issue is obviously a non-issue for us 21st Century believers. But Paul’s approach to it is still as timely as ever. A good dose of Paul’s advice would go a long way toward easing the tension that comes with changes in liturgy, remodeling of sacred space and discussion of controversial issues in the church. A lot of us feel that change comes far too slowly in the church. Many of us get frustrated with constant resistance to anything new. We are tempted to resort to the ways of the world in dealing with such resistance. We build alliances, stack committees, resort to political power, appeal to legal/constitutional provisions and settle matters by means of majority vote. All of that is a lot easier than the slow, cumbersome and painful work of building consensus. Yet consensus is the way of the cross and the only way to health for the whole Body of Christ.

Mark 1:21-28

Immediately following his call to the four fishermen, Jesus enters Capernaum and begins teaching in the synagogue there. Capernaum was a fishing village located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee about two miles from the entrance of the Jordan River. Though scholarly opinion is not entirely unanimous, most commentators believe the precise location to be at the site of the ruins of a town that came to be known by the Arabic name, Tell Hum. Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, (2nd Ed.), Thornapple Commentaries, (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. Baker House Co.) p. 171. During the early part of the 1stCentury C.E. the town had a population of about fifteen hundred. Archaeological excavations have revealed two ancient synagogues built one over the other. A church near Capernaum is said to be the home of the Apostle Peter.

Synagogue worship consisted of prayers, benedictions, readings from the law and the prophets with translations from Hebrew into Aramaic, the language of the people. Expositions of the readings were conducted by the scribes who were the official interpreters of Torah. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. A&C Black (Publishers) Limited) p. 63. Most scribes belonged to the party of the Pharisees, though some were associated with the Sadducees. Ibid. In either case, these scribes would have grounded their teachings upon citations to Torah. It appears that Jesus speaks in the voice of prophesy without citation to any scriptural authority. His is a “new” teaching, not simply a recasting of the old. The people are therefore “astounded” because Jesus speaks “with authority” unlike the scribes. Vs. 22.

Somehow, a man with an unclean spirit appears among the worshipers. This “unholy spirit,” is the one and only one who recognizes Jesus as the “holy” one of God. The crowds don’t know quite what to make of this astonishing teacher. The disciples have not weighed in yet either. Of course, we have known from Mark 1:1 that Jesus is the messiah and the Son of God. Jesus knows this because God has called him the beloved Son at his baptism. Mark 1:11. As the story continues, however, we will discover that we do not know what we think we know. Jesus will turn out to be a very different sort of messiah than Israel was expecting and the Son of a very different sort of God than the one we think we know.

The demon asks “What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Vs. 24. The former phrase might better be translated “What do we have in common?” or “Why are you interfering with us?” or simply “Mind your own business!” Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 Cambridge University Press), p. 75. The demon’s use of the first person plural “us” suggests that it is speaking for demons as a class. Vs. 24. The demons know that Jesus will be their undoing. Their invocation of Jesus’ name is a vain effort to gain control over him. Ibid. 77. The common belief was that learning the name of a deity conferred a certain degree of power over that deity. Ibid. This demonic effort at getting a leg up on Jesus fails. Even in the mouth of a demoniac, the name of Jesus glorifies Jesus. Jesus silences the demon’s witness and casts it out. Vs. 25. This mighty act of power over the demonic further demonstrates Jesus’ authority which goes beyond mere speech. His authority flows as much through what he does as what he says. Jesus’ teaching is indeed both new and authoritative. Vs. 27.

This story emphasizes the radical “newness” of God’s reign pressing in upon the old order. The demonic opposition is a harbinger of the confrontation to come between Jesus and the powers that be. The cross and resurrection are foreshadowed in each episode of Mark’s gospel. Even as Jesus is gradually revealed, he is increasingly concealed as everything we think we know about him proves inadequate, incomplete or just plain wrong.

 

Sunday, March 5th

FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT

Genesis 2:15–17; 3:1–7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12–19
Matthew 4:1–11

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Lord God, our strength, the struggle between good and evil rages within and around us, and the devil and all the forces that defy you tempt us with empty promises. Keep us steadfast in your word, and when we fall, raise us again and restore us through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Jack was a parishioner of my first congregation. He was as devout a believer as I ever knew, but was plagued with severe arthritis that robbed him of mobility, sleep and sometimes the ability to concentrate. One day I came to see him, and as we sat together in his kitchen, he pushed a mail order advertisement across the table to me. The ad featured a miracle cure for arthritic pain. It promised near instant relief and, as is usually the case for such ruses, it contained testimonials from several formerly crippled people who were now climbing mountains, jumping out of airplanes and running marathons. “I sent my order and a check out this morning,” said Jack through his tears. “I’m not a stupid man, Pastor,” he said. “I know it’s a hoax. I know it won’t heal me. But Pastor, I had such a horrible night last night-and I wanted so badly for this ad to be true. I wanted so badly to believe it. I just couldn’t help myself.” My heart ached for Jack-and burned with wrath against the heartless, callus, lowlife slime behind that ad specifically designed to reap corporate profits from Jack’ misery. I saw in a very concrete way the demonic nature of temptation and its devastating effect on those who fall prey to it.

Now you might point out that, unlike Jack, Adam and Eve were in no such desperate straits. They were living in paradise, after all. But perhaps that is the whole point. We imagine that life would be so much better if we could free ourselves from pain, get rid of our debt burden, get away from difficult family situations or get hold of enough money to make us financially secure. Yet this lesson from Genesis tells us that, even when given everything we need (or think we need), we still feel insecure. We still think we need more. We still imagine that we are in a zero sum game in which we have to get full ownership and control. Of course, this is delusional thinking. We don’t really own or control anything-not our homes, our children or even our own lives. We lose it all in the end. Nobody gets off this planet alive.

It is precisely here where the serpent injects his poison. “You shall not die,” he assures us. “You don’t have to accept the limits God places on you. You can be ‘like God.’” It’s a preposterous lie, but a comforting one.  We want desperately to believe the serpent, though common sense tells us he can’t possibly be speaking the truth. In spite of our sophisticated, scientific understanding of the universe, there is still a part of us that can’t help falling for the serpent’s empty promise of immortality. Perhaps that is why we have such difficulty planning for our last years on this earth. Maybe that is why so many of us resist moving out of our homes, even when the burden of maintaining them is well beyond our capability. Maybe that is what makes it so difficult to discuss hospice arrangements for our dying loved ones and medical directives for ourselves when the time comes that we are unable to make our own choices. There is at the core of my being the blind, irrational hope that none of this really applies to me and I don’t need to trouble myself with it-at least not yet. This latent fear of death is well captured in the following poem by Deborah Landau:***

I Don’t Have a Pill for That
 
It scares me to watch
a woman hobble along
the sidewalk, hunched adagio

leaning on —
there’s so much fear
I could draw you a diagram

of the great reduction
all of us will soon
be way-back-when.

The wedding is over.
Summer is over.
Life please explain.

This book is nearly halfway read.
I don’t have a pill for that,
the doctor said.

Source: Poetry Magazine (January 2001) c. Deborah Landau.

The devil knows how to exploit our craven fear of death. He knows how frantically we want that “pill,” how much we want to escape the grave and how eager we are to grasp any straw, however feeble, that promises a way around it. He knows how sweet his empty promises sound in our ears. And we know how vulnerable we are to voices that promise us quick fixes, easy solutions and painless resolutions. History is littered with the ruins of nations destroyed by demagogues promising wealth, glory and jobs with little or no cost to a people hungry for a better life. The cosmetic industry makes a fortune selling creams and lotions that promise to remove wrinkles and obscure all other evidence of aging-as though that could fool the grim reaper. On the extreme end of things, people with the means to do so are having their bodies cybernetically frozen in hopes that we will someday discover technology allowing us to unfreeze and resuscitate them once again. Is not all of this simply an expression of our irrational belief in the serpent’s promise that, if we push hard enough against our mortal limits, we will become “like God?”

Jesus isn’t buying any of it. He knows full well that the devil’s promises are empty and that he cannot deliver on any of them. Jesus knows well enough that, as God’s human creature, he is not autonomous but that his life depends on the fruits of creation that are God’s free gifts. Jesus knows that the power of empires and armies is illusory. He knows full well that pain, suffering and death are the price we pay for living freely, joyfully and faithfully as God’s beloved creatures within the limits of our humanity. Jesus has no interest in being “like God.” Instead, he lives a life that is genuinely and faithfully human. You might say that Jesus is the first truly human person.

During this season of Lent we are challenged to see through the devil’s lies and recognize the grip they have on our lives. We are challenged to let go of our delusions of autonomy, control and invulnerability. We will be reminded this week that we are but dust into which God graciously breaths the spirit of life. To dust we shall return in the hope that the same God will breathe on us once more that holy wind of life and raise us up just as he did our Lord Jesus Christ. We will be reminded once more that it is in pouring out our lives in love for God and faithful service to our neighbors that we receive them back again one hundred fold.

***Deborah Landau is Director of the Creative Writing Program at New York University. She studied at Stanford University, Columbia University, and Brown University, where she was a Jacob K. Javits Fellow and earned a PhD in English and American Literature. She co-directed the KGB Bar Monday Night Poetry Series and co-hosted the video interview program Open Book on Slate.com. In 2016, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. You can find out more about Deborah Landau and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Genesis 2:15–17; 3:1–7

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

Our reading from Sunday is attributed in the main to the Jawhist. Unlike the first chapter of Genesis where the Priestly writer testifies to God’s creation of the universe in a poetic hymn building on the six days of creation to the culmination on the Seventh Day when God rests from his labor, the Jawhist spins a simple narrative about the creation. God first creates an “earth creature.” This creature, though human, is not properly speaking a “man.” He is an “adam,” having been taken from the earth (“earth” being “adamah” in Hebrew). Not until God recognizes that it is not good for this “adam” to be alone and creates from his own body a female counterpart can he be called a “man.” The Hebrew word for a male human being is “ish” and that for a female, “ishah.” The term “ish” is not used for the “adam” until the creation of the woman. Genesis 2:23.

Though seemingly primitive, this story is a nuanced account of humanity’s problematic relationship with its Creator. As such, it is less an explanation for how evil came into the world and more a description of the way matters now stand. Though Christian and later Jewish tradition has identified the serpent with the devil, that does not seem to have been the intent either of the Jawhist or the subsequent editors. According to the narrative, the serpent is a creature made by God like all other creatures. It is “subtle,” but not necessarily evil. We are not told why the serpent tempted Eve to eat from the forbidden tree or what he stood to gain from humanity’s disobedience. No explanation is given as to why God would place in the garden inhabited by human beings a tree bearing knowledge God did not want for humans to have. But perhaps we are overthinking this. The point seems to be that human beings are creatures. Though endowed with marvelous potential for learning, love and creativity, they are nevertheless bounded by limits. They are mortal. They are dependent upon the rest of creation for their sustenance. They cannot change the past or control the future. They have only today. Yesterday must be surrendered to the God who made it and tomorrow must be left trustingly in God’s hands. In order to live well, human beings must live faithfully within their limits trusting God for what lies beyond.

The serpent suggests that this need not be so. Humans do not have to accept the limits God has placed upon them. They need not accept God’s determination of what is “good” for them. If God places limits on Adam and Eve, it can only be that God is holding something back. God has goods he doesn’t want to share. The bottom line, as far as the serpent is concerned, is that God cannot be trusted to do right by his creatures. “So,” says the serpent, “don’t believe for one minute that you will die from eating the fruit of the tree. That’s just an empty threat. The tree is the key to being master of your own destiny. Do you want to be a humble little gardener for the rest of your life? Wouldn’t you rather be lord of the garden?”

It is a pity the lectionary does not let the entire story be told. If it were to do so, we would learn that there are betrayals going on at all levels here. Adam and Eve betray the trust invested in them by God. Adam throws Eve under the bus when confronted by God over his disobedience. Genesis 3:12. Eve blames the snake, thereby implicating God who is ultimately responsible for having made such a creature. Genesis 3:13. Harmony between the Creator and his human subjects, harmony in the most intimate of human relationships and harmony between human beings and the earth from which they were taken has all been disrupted. Genesis 3:14-19.

In the end, we are left with a humanity that rages futilely against its limits, running up again and again against God’s firm “no.” The forces of nature we cannot control, our weakness and vulnerability to accident and disease, the looming prospect of death become oppressive burdens when we can no longer recognize on the frontiers of these limiting factors the gracious God who can be trusted to see to our ultimate good. We have seized the unlimited prerogative of God, but as limited mortals we cannot bear it. Psychologist and Philosopher Ernest Becker puts it all quite succinctly in secular language.

“Man is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.” Becker, Ernest, The Denial of Death, (c. 1973 Free Press Paperbacks). That pretty much reflects the terrifying state of human existence in the absence of God’s grace reflected in our reading from Genesis.

Psalm 32

This is one of the seven “penitential psalms” so classified in the commentary of Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator written in the 6th century C.E. (These include Psalms 6, 32, 3851102130 and 143). Not surprisingly, it was a favorite of Augustine and Luther. The psalmist speaks eloquently about the joy and relief found in forgiveness of sin and the futility of denial and self-justification. The psalmist does not disclose the nature of his or her sins, but indicates that it was some illness that brought him or her to an acknowledgement of sin and the need for confession. There is no question but that guilt induced stress can bring about illness, but it is far more likely in this case that the psalmist’s illness was the catalyst for guilt. Sickness was almost universally understood in ancient cultures as an affliction from God intended to punish sin. As such, its onset naturally drove the psalmist to introspection and self-examination.

In this case, the psalmist’s self-examination led to the discovery of sin that the psalmist had been trying to hide from God and perhaps even from the psalmist’s own self. In the confession and acknowledgement of sin, the psalmist found healing and relief. The psalmist therefore instructs fellow worshipers not take the path of sin and self-deception that leads to illness and misfortune, but to “come clean” with God and cry out for deliverance. Mulish stubbornness will only lead to grief. As Augustine puts it, “much is he scourged, who, confessing not his sins to God, would be his own ruler.” Moreover, “it is right to be subject unto [God], that so you may be placed above all things beside.” Augustine’s Commentary of Psalm 32 published in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Vol 8, (Erdmans, 1979) p. 71.

The psalmist’s advice is good as far as it goes, but his/her experience, valid and instructive though it may be, must not be elevated to a universal principle. Jesus reminds us that illness and disability are not necessarily related to anyone’s sin. John 9:3. The preacher from Ecclesiastes points out that in many cases justice and right do not prevail and all seems like “vanity.” Ecclesiastes 4:1-7. Sometimes tragedy happens for no apparent reason. There are psalms to address these circumstances as well. See, e.g. Psalm 39. When ministering to the sick and dying, one must always take care to avoid any suggestion that the individual’s suffering is a punishment from God. It is one thing for the sufferer himself/herself to come to an understanding of sin through reflection upon his/her ordeal and discover the healing power of forgiveness. It is quite another for someone else to pronounce a judgment of sin from the outside and expect the sufferer to plead guilty and repent!

That said, sometimes sickness is the result of our sinful lifestyles. It is well known that we are working longer hours these days under more stressful conditions. For many people in our country, this isn’t a choice. When you are at the minimum wage level, you need multiple incomes from two or three jobs just to put food on the table and keep a roof over your family. But for many of us, I believe that our frantic work ethic is more about maintaining a particular lifestyle. I have told the story many times of a fellow attorney who suffered a heart attack at the ripe old age of forty-one telling me, “This is what I get for spending my life doing work I hate to earn money I don’t need to buy stuff I don’t want to impress people I don’t like for reasons that don’t matter.” Chronic anger leads to high blood pressure, heart disease and depression. Our careless and excessive eating habits often lead to obesity and the health problems it creates. Nevertheless, it is dangerous to apply these general observations to instances of individual suffering.

Romans 5:12–19

Martin Luther says of Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “The sum and substance of this letter is: to pull down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh (i.e., of whatever importance they may be in the sight of men and even in our own eyes), no matter how heartily and sincerely they may be practiced, and to affirm, establish, and make large the reality of sin (however unconscious we may be of its existence).” Luther, Martin, Lectures on Romans, The Library of Christian Classics (c. 1962 L. Jenkins, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 3. That certainly describes the way in which Paul begins his letter. In Romans 1 Paul lambasts the gentile culture of Rome for its gross immorality. In chapter two, we discover that this critique of the gentiles was but a sucker punch. The knockout blow comes in Romans 2:1 when Paul turns to his audience, the Roman church, and says, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge are doing the same things.” I suspect that the readers are remarking at this point, “You can’t be serious, Paul! We don’t take part in any of those horrid, immoral practices!”

Paul is serious, though, and he is setting the stage for his argument in the chapters to come that sin is far deeper, more complicated and pervasive than his readers imagine. He is out to demonstrate to them that their supposed righteousness and moral superiority over the gentile culture they excoriate is an illusion. Sin is not a matter of living up to moral standards. It is a matter of the human heart being so hopelessly turned in upon itself and away from God that it cannot possibly obey God. The good news of Jesus Christ is not about reforming sinners. It is about crucifying and raising them up as new people.

In our reading for Sunday, Paul points out that sin came into the world through the disobedience of Adam. As we have seen in our first lesson, Adam’s and Eve’s sin consisted in this: they failed to trust God to see to their good and sought to reach beyond their creaturely limits and determine that good on their own and for themselves. Paul points out that sin was in the world before the law was given to Israel. Sin therefore existed even when there was no law by which to measure it. Paul will go on to point out that, while the law can reveal and expose sin, it cannot be used as a tool for overcoming sin. Romans 7:7-12. At its core, sin is our failure to trust God to be God. Therefore, the remedy for sin is the restoration of our trust or “faith” in God. Unless we can come to the point where we trust God enough to be God, we will never be able to live faithfully within our creaturely limitations. Without faith, we will always be reaching up in a futile effort to take control.

How, then, is our lack of trust overcome? How can the nagging doubt about God’s faithfulness planted in our hearts by the serpent be driven out? For an answer to that question, we need to back track to Romans 5:6-11. There Paul points out that while we were still sinful, faithless and rebelling against God, God showed his faithfulness toward and love for us in Jesus’ death for our sake. Romans 5:8. The death of Jesus demonstrates both the depth of human depravity in rejecting the very best God had to give and the greater depth of God’s love which will simply not take no for an answer. Paul wraps up his argument in Romans 8:31-39. “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, will he not give us all things with him?” Romans 8:32. “For I am sure,” says Paul, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39. It is the preaching of this wonderful good news that ignites trust and confidence in God’s faithfulness, silencing forever the serpent’s lies.

Matthew 4:1–11

As usual, Matthew employs numerous citations and allusions to people and events in the Hebrew Scripture’s narrative of God’s saving acts for Israel. Jesus’ forty days of fasting echoes Israel’s forty years of wilderness wandering as punishment for unfaithfulness on the verge of Canaan. Deuteronomy 8:2-3. It might also allude to the forty days Moses spent fasting on Mt. Sinai to prepare for confirmation of God’s covenant with Israel. Exodus 24:18Deuteronomy 9:9. Temptation to turn stones into bread could be an allusion to Moses’ rebellion in striking the stone to bring forth water in Numbers 20:1-13, but I have to say that I think this is a bit of a stretch.

“If you are the son of God…”  A first class condition in the Greek, this does not suggest that the devil doubts Jesus’ sonship. It reflects instead a desire to ferret out what sort of son Jesus will be. “Rhma,” is the Greek word used for “word” in Jesus’ scriptural response to the temptation to turn stone into bread. Somewhat broader than the term “logos,” it can include “event,” or “happening.” Just as Israel was made to rely upon the bread “spoken into existence” by the mouth of God while residing in the wilderness, so Jesus relies upon his heavenly Father to provide for his needs in his own wilderness wandering.

The temptation to jump from the pinnacle of the temple follows naturally from Jesus’ response to the last temptation. “Alright, Jesus. So you trust the promises of God to sustain you. Is that it? Well let’s see how much you trust those promises.” The devil is not a flunky when it comes to interpreting scripture. He has the jist of Psalm 91 correct. The psalmist does indeed claim that “because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your habitation, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.” Psalm 91:9-10. As we have seen, a similar conviction is expressed more moderately in this Sunday’s psalm. But as previously noted, these are not the only psalms in the Bible. They represent the life experiences of the individuals who prayed them and they still resonate for many people today-but not all people. Sometimes good conduct is not rewarded. Sometimes justice is not done. Sometimes our prayers meet with seeming silence. Often faith finds itself in circumstances where there is little or no evidence of God’s love and protection. There are psalms dealing with these very circumstances also. See, e.g., Psalm 88. Furthermore, the devil would do well to reflect on Psalm 30 in which arrogant presumption brings discipline and divine rebuke. Psalm 30:6-7.

The devil’s hermeneutic (focusing on a single scriptural voice to the neglect of others) is one of choice for culture warriors seeking biblical sanction for their various agendas. By cherry picking the verses you like and ignoring those you don’t, you can make the Bible say just about anything you want. But such use of the Bible does not honor its authority. Rather, it strips the Bible of all authority and makes the Bible a servant of ideologies, political platforms and social agendas.

The last temptation, to employ the power and glory of empire, is perhaps the most difficult to resist. Political power promises swift results-often good results. The only catch is that you need to worship the devil to get it. So political power is not neutral. To employ political means is not the same as using a spade-which could also be used as a weapon-to till a field. It is to enter into the realm of coercion, threats, moral compromises and always ultimately, violence. The devil would argue that you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. There will inevitably be blood spilled on the way to a better world. Collateral damage cannot be avoided. Some truths must wait to be spoken until a more opportune time-after the election preferably. The ends justify the means.

But we learn from the Sermon on the Mount that it is precisely the other way around for disciples of Jesus. The means determine the end. In fact, one could well say that the means are the only end a disciple is commanded to pursue. This might not appear to be helpful to persons seeking a general ethic for advancing the common good through political means. But Jesus does not seem interested in that. Indeed, the only time he mentions the nations of the world is when he tells his disciples not to be like them. As far as a disciple is concerned, truth must be spoken without any thought given to the effect it will have on the election of a candidate or the passage of a piece of legislation-however beneficial these may be. Violence must not be employed even in the service of justice and peace. The law courts are not to be used by disciples to defend their rights. This is the shape of Kingdom building Jesus chooses over the devil’s imminently more practical alternatives.

Sunday, September 25th

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Amos 6:1a, 4–7
Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6–19
Luke 16:19–31

Prayer of the Day: O God, rich in mercy, you look with compassion on this troubled world. Feed us with your grace, and grant us the treasure that comes only from you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“If we have food and clothing,” Saint Paul tells us, “we will be content with these.” I Timothy 6:8. That ought to be enough and it is enough for the ravens and for the grass of the fields. Hording is a peculiarly human behavior. Animals typically do not overeat, nor do they hunt other species to extinction. If they have any concept of tomorrow at all, it doesn’t figure into their behavior today. Animals seem to have a primal instinct leading them to be content when there is food at hand, water nearby and no predators on the horizon. Along with godliness, says Paul, such “contentment” is “great gain.” I Timothy 6:6.

There are people, though few in number, who find such contentment. Saint Paul was one of them. “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” Philippians 4:11-12. Saint Francis of Assisi was another such person. He also rejoiced in living day-to-day, receiving charity shamelessly and thankfully when in want, but giving cheerfully and generously when blessed with abundance. So, too, there continue to be Anabaptist communities like the Amish, monastic fellowships and other intentional Christian groups that find contentment in living simply and gently on the land, rejecting the American creed of contentment through accumulation and consumption. These witnesses testify to the better life God is able to give us-if only we can empty our hands to receive it.

Here is a poem by Walt Whitman reflecting contentment.

Song of the Open Road
1
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)

2
You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all that is here,
I believe that much unseen is also here.

Here the profound lesson of reception, nor preference nor denial,
The black with his woolly head, the felon, the diseas’d, the illiterate person, are not denied;
The birth, the hasting after the physician, the beggar’s tramp, the drunkard’s stagger, the laughing party of mechanics,
The escaped youth, the rich person’s carriage, the fop, the eloping couple,

The early market-man, the hearse, the moving of furniture into the town, the return back from the town,
They pass, I also pass, any thing passes, none can be interdicted,
None but are accepted, none but shall be dear to me.

3
You air that serves me with breath to speak!
You objects that call from diffusion my meanings and give them shape!
You light that wraps me and all things in delicate equable showers!
You paths worn in the irregular hollows by the roadsides!
I believe you are latent with unseen existences, you are so dear to me.

You flagg’d walks of the cities! you strong curbs at the edges!
You ferries! you planks and posts of wharves! you timber-lined sides! you distant ships!

You rows of houses! you window-pierc’d façades! you roofs!
You porches and entrances! you copings and iron guards!
You windows whose transparent shells might expose so much!
You doors and ascending steps! you arches!
You gray stones of interminable pavements! you trodden crossings!
From all that has touch’d you I believe you have imparted to yourselves, and now would impart the same secretly to me,
From the living and the dead you have peopled your impassive surfaces, and the spirits thereof would be evident and amicable with me.

4
The earth expanding right hand and left hand,
The picture alive, every part in its best light,
The music falling in where it is wanted, and stopping where it is not wanted,
The cheerful voice of the public road, the gay fresh sentiment of the road.

O highway I travel, do you say to me Do not leave me?
Do you say Venture not—if you leave me you are lost?
Do you say I am already prepared, I am well-beaten and undenied, adhere to me?

O public road, I say back I am not afraid to leave you, yet I love you,
You express me better than I can express myself,
You shall be more to me than my poem.

I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air, and all free poems also,
I think I could stop here myself and do miracles,
I think whatever I shall meet on the road I shall like, and whoever beholds me shall like me,
I think whoever I see must be happy.

5
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently,but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.

I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.

All seems beautiful to me,
I can repeat over to men and women You have done such good to me I would do the same to you,
I will recruit for myself and you as I go,
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,
Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,
Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.

6
Now if a thousand perfect men were to appear it would not amaze me,
Now if a thousand beautiful forms of women appear’d it would not astonish me.

Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.

Here a great personal deed has room,
(Such a deed seizes upon the hearts of the whole race of men,
Its effusion of strength and will overwhelms law and mocks all authority and all argument against it.)

Here is the test of wisdom,
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools,
Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it,
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof,
Applies to all stages and objects and qualities and is content,
Is the certainty of the reality and immortality of things, and the excellence of things;
Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.

Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.

Here is realization,
Here is a man tallied—he realizes here what he has in him,
The past, the future, majesty, love—if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them.

Only the kernel of every object nourishes;
Where is he who tears off the husks for you and me?
Where is he that undoes stratagems and envelopes for you and me?

Here is adhesiveness, it is not previously fashion’d, it is apropos;
Do you know what it is as you pass to be loved by strangers?
Do you know the talk of those turning eye-balls?

7
Here is the efflux of the soul,
The efflux of the soul comes from within through embower’d gates, ever provoking questions,
These yearnings why are they? these thoughts in the darkness why are they?
Why are there men and women that while they are nigh me the sunlight expands my blood?
Why when they leave me do my pennants of joy sink flat and lank?
Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?
(I think they hang there winter and summer on those trees and always drop fruit as I pass;)
What is it I interchange so suddenly with strangers?
What with some driver as I ride on the seat by his side?
What with some fisherman drawing his seine by the shore as I walk by and pause?
What gives me to be free to a woman’s and man’s good-will? what gives them to be free to mine?

8
The efflux of the soul is happiness, here is happiness,
I think it pervades the open air, waiting at all times,
Now it flows unto us, we are rightly charged.

Here rises the fluid and attaching character,
The fluid and attaching character is the freshness and sweetness of man and woman,
(The herbs of the morning sprout no fresher and sweeter every day out of the roots of themselves, than it sprouts fresh and sweet continually out of itself.)

Toward the fluid and attaching character exudes the sweat of the love of young and old,
From it falls distill’d the charm that mocks beauty and attainments,
Toward it heaves the shuddering longing ache of contact.

9
Allons! whoever you are come travel with me!
Traveling with me you find what never tires.

The earth never tires,
The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first, Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first,
Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop’d,
I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.

Allons! we must not stop here,
However sweet these laid-up stores, however convenient this dwelling we cannot remain here,
However shelter’d this port and however calm these waters we must not anchor here,
However welcome the hospitality that surrounds us we are permitted to receive it but a little while.

10
Allons! the inducements shall be greater,
We will sail pathless and wild seas,
We will go where winds blow, waves dash, and the Yankee clipper speeds by under full sail.

Allons! with power, liberty, the earth, the elements,
Health, defiance, gayety, self-esteem, curiosity;
Allons! from all formules!
From your formules, O bat-eyed and materialistic priests.

The stale cadaver blocks up the passage—the burial waits no longer.

Allons! yet take warning!
He traveling with me needs the best blood, thews, endurance,
None may come to the trial till he or she bring courage and health,
Come not here if you have already spent the best of yourself,
Only those may come who come in sweet and determin’d bodies,
No diseas’d person, no rum-drinker or venereal taint is permitted here.

(I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes, rhymes,
We convince by our presence.)

11
Listen! I will be honest with you,
I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,
These are the days that must happen to you:
You shall not heap up what is call’d riches,
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,
You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart,
You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you,
What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting,
You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands toward you.

12
Allons! after the great Companions, and to belong to them!
They too are on the road—they are the swift and majestic men—they are the greatest women,
Enjoyers of calms of seas and storms of seas,
Sailors of many a ship, walkers of many a mile of land,
Habituès of many distant countries, habituès of far-distant dwellings,
Trusters of men and women, observers of cities, solitary toilers,
Pausers and contemplators of tufts, blossoms, shells of the shore,
Dancers at wedding-dances, kissers of brides, tender helpers of children, bearers of children,
Soldiers of revolts, standers by gaping graves, lowerers-down of coffins,
Journeyers over consecutive seasons, over the years, the curious years each emerging from that which preceded it,
Journeyers as with companions, namely their own diverse phases,
Forth-steppers from the latent unrealized baby-days,
Journeyers gayly with their own youth, journeyers with their bearded and well-grain’d manhood,
Journeyers with their womanhood, ample, unsurpass’d, content,
Journeyers with their own sublime old age of manhood or womanhood,
Old age, calm, expanded, broad with the haughty breadth of the universe,
Old age, flowing free with the delicious near-by freedom of death.

13
Allons! to that which is endless as it was beginningless,
To undergo much, tramps of days, rests of nights,
To merge all in the travel they tend to, and the days and nights they tend to,
Again to merge them in the start of superior journeys,
To see nothing anywhere but what you may reach it and pass it,
To conceive no time, however distant, but what you may reach it and pass it,
To look up or down no road but it stretches and waits for you, however long but it stretches and waits for you,
To see no being, not God’s or any, but you also go thither,
To see no possession but you may possess it, enjoying all without labor or purchase, abstracting the feast yet not abstracting one particle of it,
To take the best of the farmer’s farm and the rich man’s elegant villa, and the chaste blessings of the well-married couple, and the fruits of orchards and flowers of gardens,
To take to your use out of the compact cities as you pass through,
To carry buildings and streets with you afterward wherever you go,
To gather the minds of men out of their brains as you encounter them, to gather the love out of their hearts,
To take your lovers on the road with you, for all that you leave them behind you,
To know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls.

All parts away for the progress of souls,
All religion, all solid things, arts, governments—all that was or is apparent upon this globe or any globe, falls into niches and corners before the procession of souls along the grand roads of the universe.

Of the progress of the souls of men and women along the grand roads of the universe, all other progress is the needed emblem and sustenance.

Forever alive, forever forward,
Stately, solemn, sad, withdrawn, baffled, mad, turbulent, feeble, dissatisfied,
Desperate, proud, fond, sick, accepted by men, rejected by men,
They go! they go! I know that they go, but I know not where they go,
But I know that they go toward the best—toward something great.

Whoever you are, come forth! or man or woman come forth!
You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house, though you built it, or though it has been built for you.

Out of the dark confinement! out from behind the screen!
It is useless to protest, I know all and expose it.

Behold through you as bad as the rest,
Through the laughter, dancing, dining, supping, of people,
Inside of dresses and ornaments, inside of those wash’d and trimm’d faces,
Behold a secret silent loathing and despair.

No husband, no wife, no friend, trusted to hear the confession,
Another self, a duplicate of every one, skulking and hiding it goes,
Formless and wordless through the streets of the cities, polite and bland in the parlors,
In the cars of railroads, in steamboats, in the public assembly,
Home to the houses of men and women, at the table, in the bedroom, everywhere,
Smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright, death under the breast-bones, hell under the skull-bones,
Under the broadcloth and gloves, under the ribbons and artificial flowers,
Keeping fair with the customs, speaking not a syllable of itself,
Speaking of any thing else but never of itself.

14
Allons! through struggles and wars!
The goal that was named cannot be countermanded.

Have the past struggles succeeded?
What has succeeded? yourself? your nation? Nature?
Now understand me well—it is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.

My call is the call of battle, I nourish active rebellion,
He going with me must go well arm’d,
He going with me goes often with spare diet, poverty, angry enemies, desertions.

15
Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well—be not detain’d!

Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.

Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

Source: Complete Poetry and Selected Prose by Walt Whitman, (c. 1959 by Miller, James E., Jr., pub. by Houghton Mifflin Company). No poet captures the essence of what is genuinely American quite as comprehensively as Walt Whitman. Born 1819 in Huntington, Long Island, Whitman worked alternately as a journalist, government clerk and as a volunteer nurse during the American Civil War. He traveled widely throughout the United States giving expression to his zeal for democracy, nature, love and friendship. Though admired by such contemporaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne, it was not until after his death in 1892 that he received wide acclaim in the United States. You can read more about Walt Whitman and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Amos 6:1a, 4–7

For some background on Amos the prophet, see my post for Sunday, September 18th. Amos is continuing his criticism of Israel’s commercial class here. Once again, I cannot understand why the common lectionary omits verses 2-3 of chapter 6. In them Amos invites his listeners to take a field trip to three cities, Calneh, Hamath and Gath. The location of Calneh is uncertain. Hamath was at the northernmost border of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. It was under the control of Israel’s King Jeroboam II in Amos’ time, but it appears to have been subject to attack and conquest throughout the lengthy struggle between Israel and its arch enemy, Syria. We know that Gath was destroyed by Hazael, King of Syria a century before Amos in about 850 B.C.E. The point here seems to be that God knows how to punish nations for their wickedness. What happened to these cities can as easily happen to Israel. Indeed, the fact that Israel has been chosen as God’s covenant partner makes her subject to a higher standard of righteousness. Consequently, God’s judgment is all the more likely for Israel and will be all the more severe.

The prophet is unsparing in his criticism of Israel’s ruling class for its decadence, opulence and callous disregard for the wellbeing of the people of Israel. Interestingly, Zion is also mentioned here, unusual since the audience is from the Northern Kingdom of Israel rather than the Southern Kingdom of Judah whose capital is Jerusalem (Zion). Amos 6:1. Some scholars suggest that this might be the work of a subsequent editor seeking to make the prophet’s oracle relevant to Judah at a later time. Though possible, it is more likely that Amos himself included his homeland within the sweep of God’s judgment just as he did in chapter 2. Amos 2:4-5. The complete and unfeeling exploitation of the poor by the commercial class in Israel is sure to bring down God’s judgment. Amos warns that these “first” among the people of Israel will be the “first” to go into exile. Amos 6:7.

Psalm 146

This is a psalm of praise celebrating the sovereignty of Israel’s God. Like the remaining psalms in the Psalter (Psalm 147-Psalm 150) the hymn begins and ends with the exclamation, “hallelujah” which is Hebrew for “Praise Yahweh!” More than likely, this psalm comes rather late in Israel’s history. There is no mention of the line of David or any hint of the monarchy in Israel. After a half millennia of disappointing kings whose leadership ultimately led to the destruction of Solomon’s temple, the siege of Jerusalem and the loss of the promised land, Israel was in no mood to put her trust in yet another royal figure:

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
4 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.

Vss. 3-4. Instead, Israel is encouraged to put her trust in God. God is the one ruler who “sets the prisoners free.” Only “the Lord opens the eyes of the blind…lifts up those who are bowed down…” and “loves the righteous.”vss.7-9. The only king worthy of our trust is the God of Israel.

The psalm concludes with the bold affirmation that the Lord will reign forever. The implication is that God has been reigning throughout history in spite of some severe setbacks for Israel and despite her precarious existence under foreign domination and occupation. This confidence is rooted in Israel’s past experience of God’s salvation for the poor and downtrodden in the Exodus, wilderness wanderings and the conquest of the land of Canaan. The return from Exile might also be in view here. But it must also be said that Israel’s faith is future oriented. There is reflected here a hope, expectation and longing for the “Day of the Lord” when perfect justice and righteousness will be established.

1 Timothy 6:6–19

My son-in-law refers to the lottery as “a tax on stupidity.” He is right. Who would buy stock in a company if the odds against growth were one in 175 million and the odds in favor of losing your principal investment were the same? You might just as well throw your money over the bridge. You would have to be insane to make such an investment, but millions of people do just that every time they purchase a lottery ticket. Most of us know this. So why are lottery tickets such hot items?

A lottery ticket is, as the advertisements correctly call it, “a ticket to a dream.” Somebody has to win. Why not me? And if by chance I won-just imagine! I have to confess that I have often been tempted to purchase a ticket in spite of my understanding of the odds against me. Winning would certainly seem to solve a lot of my problems. Naturally, I have friends and family under financial burdens whom I would be in a position to help (and I expect I would discover family I never knew I had!). And, Oh yes! The church: how could I forget? Beyond the loss of a dollar or two, is there any downside in buying this ticket to a dream?

I think Paul nails it when he tells us flat out: “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” I Timothy 6:9. Why are we so eager to be rich? In my own case, the chief draw is autonomy. If I were independently wealthy, I would not be answerable to anyone. Nobody could tell me when I need to be at work. I would not be dependent upon any bank or mortgage company. I could live my life on my own terms. But wasn’t that precisely why Adam and Eve found the fruit on the tree of knowledge so very attractive? The serpent promised them that the fruit would make them “like God” and enable them to choose for themselves what is good; to live their lives on their own terms.

I have a feeling that the serpent is lurking very near the convenience stores where lottery tickets are sold whispering his same old lies. And they are lies. Truth is, money does not make me autonomous anymore than princes can offer me salvation. What money can do is make me forget how rich I really am. Yes, I am rich precisely because I am surrounded by loving people upon whom I can depend. My family is such a close and loving one because we have always had to depend upon each other and have therefore learned to care so deeply for each other. I am rich because I have received through the testimony of two millennia of saints a faith in a God whose love for me braved even the cross. Because life has taught me again and again that I am not autonomous, I have learned dependence upon and trust in this God who has never failed me. I have learned that true security comes from belonging to a community of mutually caring people living together as a single body-the Body of Christ. Giving up all of that is the true cost of a lottery ticket. Investing in one is therefore even more stupid than the math suggests.

For good reason, then, Paul advises Timothy to shun the quest for wealth and pursue instead “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.” I Timothy 6:11. Again, these virtues are not developed in people who are autonomous or imagine themselves to be so. They are developed among people who know themselves to be dependent upon a gracious and compassionate God who shares his very self with them and invites them to do the same for each other.

Luke 16:19–31

A few things are worth noting right of the bat. First, note that Lazarus is the character in this story who is given a name. The rich man has no name. That already tells you something about where Jesus’ concern lies. The poor, starving masses have a name and a face. The rich man, for all his wealth and power, is nearly invisible. It is usually just the other way around, isn’t it? In our culture, the poor, the sick and the dying are kept mercifully out of our sight. The parable mirrors testimony to God’s compassionate care for the downtrodden reflected in last Sunday’s psalm:

Who is like the Lord our God,
who is seated on high,
who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust,
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,

to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.

He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the Lord!

Psalm 113:5-9. When the transcendent God stoops to look down upon the earth, he sees the poor, the needy and the childless-people that usually are invisible to us. God doesn’t seem much interested in what the kings, princes, presidents and prime ministers are up to.

Second, Jesus tells us nothing about the character of either of the two men in his parable. For all we know, the rich man might have been a regular worshiper at synagogue each Sabbath. He may have been a generous contributor to charity. He may have been a loving husband and a dedicated parent. We cannot assume that he was greedy, miserly or cold hearted. He may have passed by Lazarus without making eye contact, but honestly, who of us has not at some point in our lives done that very same thing on our way to the train or the bus in Times Square or some other place where the wretched of the earth come to beg? As for Lazarus, we know nothing of his character either. He might have been a good, honest and hardworking man just down on his luck. But he might also have been a scoundrel whose irresponsible lifestyle brought him to his sorry state. Can you blame the rich man for not giving him a hand out? How would the guy know whether his generosity will go simply to buying alcohol or drugs? How could he be sure that his well-intended efforts to help would only destroy Lazarus’ last ounce of incentive to better himself? Jesus does not tell us one way or the other. It does not matter to Jesus and it should not matter to us. The Scriptures do not limit the command to care for the poor with any provisos such as that the poor be “deserving.”

Third, this is not a parable about God punishing rich people for failing to care for the poor. God is not even in this parable and God is not responsible for that gap between Hades where the rich man finds himself and the bosom of Abraham were Lazarus resides. The rich man built that gap all by himself. It grew wider every time the rich man drove up to his estate and turned his gaze away from Lazarus as his limo with the tinted glass pulled through the gate. The gap grew larger whenever the rich man switched TV channels to avoid the disturbing images of starving children on the news. The gap widened as the rich man invested ever more of his wealth into shoring up the security fence and the alarm system around his property. When the rich man arrives at the afterlife, he discovers that the gap he erected between Lazarus and himself is still there. The only difference is that the great reversal has occurred. Lazarus is now the honored guest at the messianic banquet and the rich man is on the outside begging for scraps.

Now the saddest thing about this parable is that there is no learning curve. The rich man is still under the illusion that he is somebody important. He thinks he can hobnob with Father Abraham and extract favors from him. He doesn’t even deign to speak directly to Lazarus. Instead, he asks Abraham to “send that boy there-what’s his name? Lazarus? (As though it matters!) Send that boy to fetch me a drink.” Abraham has to point out to the rich man that things have changed. The reversal has come, just as the prophets warned. But the rich man still doesn’t get it. He still thinks nothing has changed. He still thinks he is in a position to order Lazarus about like a servant, only now he wants Lazarus to warn his brothers to repent before they also come to his “place of torment.” Abraham replies that the rich man’s brothers have all the warning they need. They have Moses and the prophets. They need only listen. “No, father Abraham,” he protests. “But if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”

It is hard to miss the irony here. Of course, we know that someone has come back from the dead, but the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow. So what will it take to wake us up? What will it take to convince us that by ignoring the cries of the poor we are building our prison in Hades? God has sent his Son to wake us up from our deathly sleep and after we rejected even him, God raised him up and gave him back to us again. God continues to raise up Jesus for us. If that does not melt our hearts, what will?

 

Sunday, August 28th

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Proverbs 25:6–7
Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1–8, 15–16
Luke 14:1, 7–14

Prayer of the Day: O God, you resist those who are proud and give grace to those who are humble. Give us the humility of your Son, that we may embody the generosity of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“There is nothing stronger than these two, patience and time, they will do it all.” Leo Tolstoy

These words seem strangely out of place among a people increasingly impatient with the institutions of government, with persistent economic inequality and with the intransigent reality of racism running through it all. Time, it seems, is more enemy than ally. Each new day brings another act of violence widening the fault lines in our polarized society. Every year that passes brings us further down the path of ecological ruin. At the end of each year when I fill out the annual parish parochial report for my denomination, I am forced to confront the fact that my congregation is top-heavy agewise and I wonder whether there is enough time left for us to turn around our decades’ long march toward decline. Time seems to be running out for us in so many ways. It is only natural for us to become impatient. It is only natural that we feel compelled to do something-anything.

In every age, the church has faced the temptation to wrest from God the reigns of history, to grasp at the levers of worldly political power in order to facilitate the reign of God and make history turn out right. I think that is why we are forever being drawn into our nation’s partisan disputes and why the church is too often merely a pale reflection, a microcosm of our fractured culture rather than Jesus’ alternative humanity. We fear that events are taking us in the wrong direction. We worry that we are running out of time. We want the kingdom now and we find it hard to resist the temptation to take matters into our own hands and start building that kingdom with whatever tools are at hand.

That is precisely the temptation Jesus faced in the wilderness when the devil offered him the kingdoms of the world and their glory. Let’s face it. Reconciliation is long, hard and dangerous work. It requires making yourself vulnerable to rejection, hostility and violence. It means dying without ever seeing the fruits of your labor. The hearts of people change course more like aircraft carriers than speed boats. It takes thousands of incremental pushes and thousands of miles traveled before you even notice a slight alteration in course. Most of us don’t have the patience for that kind of work, nor do we believe that there is time sufficient to waste on strategies that don’t bring immediate results. That’s where the devil’s appeal comes in. He has a faster and easier way. With enough fire power behind you, you can make people behave themselves whether they want to or not. Threats, coercion and violence can get you a kingdom more quickly and efficiently than winning hearts through relentless acts of love. Persuading your enemy can take a life time. Killing him takes but one squeeze of the trigger. Power gets instant results. No doubt about it, the kingdoms of the world have a lot of power.

Of course, there was just one catch-there always is with the devil. In order to receive all this power and glory, Jesus must worship Satan. That is the price you pay when you get impatient, cut corners and seek ways to peace, justice and redemption bypassing the slow and patient way of the cross. What you get in the end from bargaining with the devil, using his methods and following his short cuts is something less than God’s reign of love. Unlike the kingdoms of the world, God’s reign cannot be imposed-not by force of arms, not by rule of law and not by the will of the majority. Jesus is not interested in becoming yet another conquering hero riding into town on his warhorse. He isn’t interested in winning an election or vanquishing his opposition. Jesus will conquer the world by winning its trust and devotion to his way of reconciliation-or not at all.

Disciples of Jesus understand that time and patience are not abstract notions. They are embodied in the God who took six full days to create the heavens and the earth. (Even if you are inclined to take that literally, you have to admit that six days is far more time than should have been necessary for a God who is able to create simply by uttering a command.) This is the God who waited until Abraham and Sarah were in their 70s to promise them an heir-and only got around to keeping the promise when they were well into their 90s. This is the God who promised to make of Abraham and Sarah a nation of blessing and did so, but not before their descendants lived as resident aliens in the land that was supposed to be theirs for three more generations and four hundred years after that as slaves in Egypt. This is the Lord Jesus whose parting words from the Book of Revelation are “Lo, I am coming soon!” Revelation 22:20. Two millennia later his church still confesses that “he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” As the Apostle Peter puts it, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” II Peter 3:8. While it might seem to us that the present crisis (whatever that might be) calls for God’s  immediate and decisive intervention, God might take an entirely different view. Peter goes on to say that it is not God’s will for any to perish, “but that all should reach repentance.” II Peter 3:9. That might take another millennium or two or three. But God knows what God wants and God will take whatever time is required to get it. God will not be rushed.

A passage from the Letter to the Hebrews (inexplicably excised by the lectionary police from Sunday’s reading) reminds us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Hebrews 13:8. The Jesus who comes again in glory is not somehow different from the Jesus who spent his entire existence serving the poor, speaking truth to power and who finally died for the kingdom he proclaimed at the hands of his enemies. But through the miracle of repentance that happens among people shaped by faithful preaching, persistent sacramental practices and prayerful community, our hearts are being prepared to recognize his glory for what it is, to yearn for his coming and to live peaceably under his gentle reign. Through simple acts of hospitality, courage, faith and devotion to a kingdom yet unseen God is at work breaking the yolk of bondage, felling the walls of hostility and reconciling all things in Christ Jesus.

Here is a poem by Nikki Giovanni about small acts of faith, courage and compassion bearing much unanticipated fruit.

Rosa Parks

This is for the Pullman Porters who organized when people said
they couldn’t. And carried the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago
Defender to the Black Americans in the South so they would
know they were not alone. This is for the Pullman Porters who
helped Thurgood Marshall go south and come back north to fight
the fight that resulted in Brown v. Board of Education because
even though Kansas is west and even though Topeka is the birth-
place of Gwendolyn Brooks, who wrote the powerful “The
Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock,” it was the
Pullman Porters who whispered to the traveling men both
the Blues Men and the “Race” Men so that they both would
know what was going on. This is for the Pullman Porters who
smiled as if they were happy and laughed like they were tickled
when some folks were around and who silently rejoiced in 1954
when the Supreme Court announced its 9—0 decision that “sepa-
rate is inherently unequal.” This is for the Pullman Porters who
smiled and welcomed a fourteen-year-old boy onto their train in
1955. They noticed his slight limp that he tried to disguise with a
doo-wop walk; they noticed his stutter and probably understood
why his mother wanted him out of Chicago during the summer
when school was out. Fourteen-year-old Black boys with limps
and stutters are apt to try to prove themselves in dangerous ways
when mothers aren’t around to look after them. So this is for the
Pullman Porters who looked over that fourteen-year-old while
the train rolled the reverse of the Blues Highway from Chicago to
St. Louis to Memphis to Mississippi. This is for the men who kept
him safe; and if Emmett Till had been able to stay on a train all
summer he would have maybe grown a bit of a paunch, certainly
lost his hair, probably have worn bifocals and bounced his grand-
children on his knee telling them about his summer riding the
rails. But he had to get off the train. And ended up in Money,
Mississippi. And was horribly, brutally, inexcusably, and unac-
ceptably murdered. This is for the Pullman Porters who, when the
sheriff was trying to get the body secretly buried, got Emmett’s
body on the northbound train, got his body home to Chicago,
where his mother said: I want the world to see what they did
to my boy. And this is for all the mothers who cried. And this is
for all the people who said Never Again. And this is about Rosa
Parks whose feet were not so tired, it had been, after all, an ordi-
nary day, until the bus driver gave her the opportunity to make
history. This is about Mrs. Rosa Parks from Tuskegee, Alabama,
who was also the field secretary of the NAACP. This is about the
moment Rosa Parks shouldered her cross, put her worldly goods
aside, was willing to sacrifice her life, so that that young man in
Money, Mississippi, who had been so well protected by the
Pullman Porters, would not have died in vain. When Mrs. Parks
said “NO” a passionate movement was begun. No longer would
there be a reliance on the law; there was a higher law. When Mrs.
Parks brought that light of hers to expose the evil of the system,
the sun came and rested on her shoulders bringing the heat and
the light of truth. Others would follow Mrs. Parks. Four young
men in Greensboro, North Carolina, would also say No. Great
voices would be raised singing the praises of God and exhorting
us “to forgive those who trespass against us.” But it was the
Pullman Porters who safely got Emmett to his granduncle and it
was Mrs. Rosa Parks who could not stand that death. And in not
being able to stand it. She sat back down.

Source: Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea, (c. 2002 by Nikki Giovanni, pub. by HarperCollins Publishers Inc.) Nikki Giovanni is one of the best-known African-American poets who reached prominence during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1943, she moved with her parents from Knoxville to a predominantly black suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio when she was still a child. Giovanni enrolled at Fisk University, an all-black college in Nashville, Tennessee where she served as editor of the campus literary magazine. She went on to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University in New York. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Giovanni’s popularity as a speaker and lecturer increased. So also did her renown as poet and children’s author. She received honors from the National Council of Negro Women and the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers. You can find out more about Nikki Giovanni and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Proverbs 25:6–7

The Book of Proverbs is a compilation of poetic exhortations and pithy sayings couched in Hebrew parallelism. Though attributed in its entirety to King Solomon by tradition and by the opening verse (Proverbs 1:1), material within the text is attributed to at least two other authors. See Proverbs 30:1 and Proverbs 31:1. Though it is certain that the book reached its final form in the period after the Babylonian Exile in the Sixth Century, the material upon which the author/editors drew might well be ancient indeed. I have previously expressed the view that some of these sayings might indeed date back to the time of Solomon. Nevertheless, as one would expect, they also speak to the realities of Jewish life under Babylonian, Persian and Greek rule. Though life under foreign domination was no doubt difficult on the whole, there were always opportunities in the imperial bureaucracy for bright young Jewish boys like Daniel and attractive Jewish women like Esther. These opportunities were fraught with danger, however. Monarchs are fickle and prone to paranoia and cruelty. A little success leads to advancement. Too much success breeds suspicion, distrust and fear on the part of the king, as David learned. Success within the king’s court also invites jealousy and intrigue from those passed over for promotion. Keeping a low profile is, therefore, reasonably good advice for a young person desiring a long career and a secure retirement within the royal court.

A few words about proverbial wisdom are in order. Because Israel believed that “the earth is the Lord’s,” she also believed that it was governed by moral principles clearly set forth in Torah, but also evident in the realm of nature and human relationships. This strain of wisdom tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures has often been labeled “humanistic.” The label is inaccurate and misleading, however. While Israel believed the world to be intelligible, she clearly did not believe that anything like “human reason” could arrive at an understanding of God and creation independently. Whether understanding came from observation of the natural world or through meditation on the scriptures, the ultimate source of all knowledge is God’s revelation. It is not surprising, then, that Israel saw no dichotomy between “reason” on the one hand and “revelation” on the other.

Proverbial wisdom has its limits. “Waste not, want not” was one of my mother’s favorite proverbs. That maxim proves true often enough that we teach our children the value of thrift, careful planning and the avoidance of waste. Yet we all know that people sometimes lose everything and come to abject poverty in spite of a lifetime of careful planning and responsible spending. The universe does not run like a Swiss watch dispensing appropriate rewards for wise behavior and punishment for foolishness. We cannot assume that poverty is the fruit of foolish financial management or laziness any more than we can attribute sickness to divine punishment for sin (as Job’s three friends had to learn). It is therefore best to view proverbs as portholes that give us unique perspectives on the world. Each proverb provides an enlightening, but limited view of life that is far from the full picture. It is one perspective. There are others.

For perspectives different from those set forth in Proverbs, one need not look any further than the Book of Ecclesiastes, also attributed to Solomon. For further background on this unique book, see my post of Sunday, July 31st.  Suffice to say for our purposes that the “teacher” of Ecclesiastes fails to find much of any moral order in human existence concluding at last that “all is vanity.” Ecclesiastes 1:2. This gloomy outlook is poles apart from the enthusiastic testimony of Proverbs to God’s wisdom shining through every crack and crevasse of creation. Yet for a young father trapped in a refugee camp helplessly watching his family starve to death, the world probably looks exactly like the cruel and heartless place the “teacher” says it is. It all depends on which porthole you happen to be looking through and the scriptures give us many.

Psalm 112

Here we have another psalm in the wisdom tradition of Proverbs. It affirms the operation of God’s righteousness in human life rewarding all who trust in God and practice generosity, compassion and integrity. There is some truth in this bold testimony of the psalmist. In communities where these righteous virtues are held in high esteem, people whose lives exemplify them earn the love and respect of their neighbors. Their businesses flourish because everyone knows that they are honest people who honor their commitments and practice patience and leniency with their debtors.

But that is not the whole story. In cultures that value shrewdness over integrity, profit over fairness and productivity over compassion, this same righteous behavior described by the psalmist can lead to failure, suffering and persecution. Again, it all depends upon which porthole you happen to be looking through. The psalmist appears to be aware that, however blest the righteous person may be, s/he is not immune from trouble. Vs 7. Nevertheless, the righteous person does not live in fear of bad news because s/he is confident that God’s saving help will be there to see him/her through whatever the future might hold. I rather like this verse. I must say that I have spent too much of my life worrying about what might happen, i.e., what if I cannot pay for my children’s education? What if I lose my job? My health insurance? That not a single event in this parade of horrors ever materialized emphasizes the futility and wastefulness of worry. Moreover, even if one or more of these things had occurred, it would not have been any less burdensome for my having worried about it in advance! I recall someone defining worry as our taking on responsibility God never intended for us to have. That is what breeds fearful living.

It is impossible to date this psalm with any certainty. Though some scholars are prone to regard it as having been composed after the Babylonian Exile given its wisdom emphasis, I am skeptical of such reasoning. As noted above, I believe that the wisdom material may well have roots in traditions dating back to the Judean/Israelite monarchies. Whatever conclusions one might reach concerning the age of the psalm, it seems clear that it is related to the previous psalm, Psalm 111. Whereas Psalm 111 praises the goodness of God, Psalm 112 testifies to the blessedness of people who trust this good God. The formal similarities between the two psalms are striking. Both are semi acrostic with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet starting off half strophes. They share a number of parallel phrases as well. Whether they were composed by the same psalmist or edited by a later hand to complement each other, it seems likely that they were used together liturgically in some fashion.

Hebrews 13:1–8, 15–16

This reading brings into sharp focus exactly what the letter to the Hebrews is all about. The writer begins with an admonition for the believers to love one another and then goes on to flesh out exactly what that means. Sisterly/brotherly love means sharing the imprisonment and torture of fellow disciples. Despite the delusional ravings of some on the far (very far) religious right who imagine that the government is waging a “war against Christianity,” I maintain that we in this country have absolutely no experience or any concept of what persecution really means. The martyrs of the early church who actually knew a thing or two about what persecution looks like would probably get a pretty good belly laugh from the paranoia of extreme right wing Christians who imagine that they are under siege.

Of course, persecution is a present reality for the church in many places throughout the world where allegiance to Jesus can get you killed.  So what does this scripture have to say to us? In what way do we “remember those who are in prison…and those who are being tortured”? Paul teaches us that the church is Christ’s Body and that when one part of the Body suffers, the whole Body suffers with it. I Corinthians 12:26. What is wrong with our nerve endings that we are not feeling sufficiently the pain of our sisters and brothers in conditions of poverty, persecution and imprisonment?

The writer also calls upon this community to practice hospitality-a core biblical value deeply held throughout the scriptures. The reference to entertaining angels unawares goes back to Abraham’s encounter with the Lord and his angels in Genesis 18. In an age before Holiday Inn where lodging was scarce and the roads vulnerable to banditry, safe travel often depended upon the hospitality of strangers. This was certainly the case in the Bronze Age when the patriarchs lived and probably for much of the First Century world as well. When Jesus sent out his disciples to proclaim the coming of the God’s reign, they were sent out with no provisions and instructed to rely upon the hospitality of the towns to which they preached. Mark 6:7-13. This seems to have been the model for early Christian mission. While the admonition to practice hospitality obviously included traveling missionaries, I believe the allusion to anonymous angels suggests that the command applied more broadly to traveling strangers as well. In the gospel lesson, Jesus will push the parameters of hospitality to the limit.

Luke 14:1, 7–14

Like so many other episodes in the gospel of Luke, this story takes place at a dinner party. Jesus notes how the guests are vying for the best seats at the table and delivers his “parable” about guests at a wedding feast. I am not clear on why Luke refers to this pronouncement of Jesus as a parable. From a literary standpoint, it is much closer to a biblical proverb such as we find throughout the book by that name. Indeed, the likeness of Jesus’ words here to the proverb in our first reading was probably not lost on the host and his guests. Perhaps they found it rather witty, Jesus holding their behavior up to the mirror of proverbial wisdom. But Jesus has a larger purpose than amusing/embarrassing his dinner companions. His remark is a commentary on the social and political underpinnings of this meal.

In both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, meals are sacred. One might even refer to them as sacramental. They are constitutive of community. Passover, Feast of Booths and so many other ritual meals define Israel just as the Eucharist defines the church. Who you welcome to your table tells the world who you are, to whom you belong and who you worship. The Torah makes clear that the Passover meal is to be celebrated by all Israel. Though observed by families, Passover transcends the immediate family to include “all the congregation of Israel.” Exodus 12:1-13. This meal to which Jesus was invited was anything but inclusive of all Israel. Evidently, it consisted of the host’s family and “rich neighbors.” The whole affair is strikingly similar to George Babbitt’s use of dinner invitations to advance his social and professional status. See Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis.

Jesus sees in this occasion a “teachable moment.” “When you give a dinner or a banquet,” says Jesus, “do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or your rich neighbors, lest you be repaid.” Vs. 12. Of course, that is the whole purpose from the host’s point of view. In typical George Babbitt style, he is employing the practice of hospitality, not in the way envisioned by the author of Hebrews, but in order to advance his own standing and build up favors that he can someday call in. Jesus lets him know in no uncertain terms that he is making a bad investment. Just how bad this investment is will be revealed in Chapter 16 where Jesus delivers the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. There it will become clear that this host, through his elaborate and exclusive dinner parties, is building a vast crevasse between himself and the coming messianic banquet with Abraham and all the folks he has seen fit to exclude.

Jesus warns his host to bridge the divide, close the gaping crevasse and open up the table of fellowship with all Israel before he finds himself on the wrong side of that divide. Let us not trivialize this message by turning it into a call for more social programs to care for the poor or for more advocacy on their behalf. Understand that I am not against either poverty assistance or advocacy. In fact, we could use more of both. But that is not enough and it does not get to the heart of the problem-the great divide between those of us who live in relative ease and the ever increasing numbers of people living in deplorable poverty. That divide will keep on growing as long as we continue treating the poor as a social problem to be solved rather than “the treasure of the church” as St. Lawrence would have it. It is not enough to feed the poor. Jesus sends us to invite them to the messianic banquet, to share our table.

In all candor, I am not keen on welcoming the poor into my home and seating them at my table. I would prefer to write a check or spend an evening every week dolling out food at the shelter. Let me be clear: don’t stop writing checks or volunteering down at the shelter. Just understand that we cannot let it end there. Meals are about more than eating. They are for building the people of God. So we have to find a way to make room at the table, our table, for the poor.

I must say that I was delighted to learn of a church that is doing just that. At St. Lydia’s, in Brooklyn, N.Y., whoever comes to the table gets fed. The church is made up of approximately thirty people from a variety of faith journeys and backgrounds. They join each week to cook, eat and worship in each other’s company around the congregation’s three practices: working together, eating together and sharing their stories. Everyone who attends an evening service is invited to help cook.  That way there is no distinction between the helpers and the helped. Everyone contributes to preparing the meal. Everyone is equally a member of the community. That is what makes St. Lydia’s so different from a mere soup kitchen. It is an extension of Jesus’ ministry. Anyone can feed hungry people. But only Jesus can invite them to the messianic banquet.

 

Sunday, June 12th

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

2 Samuel 11:26—12:10; 12:13–15
Psalm 32
Galatians 2:15–21
Luke 7:36—8:3

Prayer of the Day: O God, throughout the ages you judge your people with mercy, and you inspire us to speak your truth. By your Spirit, anoint us for lives of faith and service, and bring all people into your forgiveness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Uriah the Hittite died bravely, making the ultimate sacrifice for his nation. No doubt he was buried with full military honors. Perhaps King David himself honored the war hero’s act of courage with his presence at the funeral. Maybe he even gave a speech extolling Uriah’s selfless act of bravery and calling upon all Israel, not merely to praise this great man, but to emulate his devotion to his country. Then, in a magnanimous show of generosity and compassion to the family of the fallen warrior, King David takes Uriah’s widow, Bathsheba, who is with child, into his harem. What a fine example of support for the families of slain veterans who have given so much! No doubt the whole affair inspired the public with patriotic pride and determination to support David’s war effort against Ammonites.

That, in any event, was the narrative David had composed for the public. Perhaps he half believed it himself. We all have a tendency to lie to ourselves about ourselves. When uncomfortable with what we have said, done or experienced, we concoct soothing narratives that justify ourselves, alternative realities in which we are the innocent victims and the wrongs we have done are really the responsibility of someone else-often the one we have harmed. “If he weren’t so damned arrogant…If she had just minded her own business…If my wife had respected and appreciated me half as much as my co-worker…If the company had treated me fairly….” So also I suspect that David was up to the same sort of psychic gymnastics. Perhaps he blamed Bathsheba. What did she think would happen when she went out on her roof buck naked to bathe? Or perhaps he blamed Uriah. Didn’t he understand how lonely a woman gets when her husband is away on a lengthy deployment? To be fair, Uriah did have a tendency to put devotion to his military service above all else, including his wife-and that turned out to be his undoing. See II Samuel 11:6-15.

In any other near eastern nation, David would not have had to go to such lengths to cover his tracks. A Canaanite king was considered a deity. If he fancied a woman, it mattered not whether she was married to someone else. His wish was her command. Not so in Israel. In this peculiar nation, there was a covenant that governed both king and people. No one was above the commandments of Israel’s God-not even the king. That is why David had to know from the get go that his deeds were inimical to his role as God’s anointed, the defender of the covenant. It is practically impossible to live peacefully with these two very dissonant selves: the man of God you are expected to be and the adulterous and murderous man you are. So David climbed into the fabricated story he had fashioned thinking that life would go on for him exactly as before. God’s favor would continue to be with him and success would meet him at every turn.

But the prophet Nathan knew things were not what they seemed. Somehow, Nathan saw through the false narrative. That is what prophets do. They penetrate the fantasies in which we try so hard to live. They tell us the ugly truth we so desperately try to conceal. The task of a prophet is not an easy one. People don’t appreciate being unmasked and exposed. They don’t like having the mirror of truth held up in front of their eyes. David had become so wedded to his web of lies that he could no longer recognize himself in Nathan’s parable of the old man and his ewe lamb. Instead, he made up a new role for himself as the old man’s avenger, the white knight coming into the story from the outside to set things right. Nathan has to show David that he is already a player in the drama-and not the hero he fancies himself. The parable, once interpreted for David in a four word sentience, does its work. David can no longer hide from the truth. He knows himself now to be the very man he would have sentenced to death.

The other prophet we meet in our lessons is none other than Jesus. He, too, sees beneath the fabric of lies through which Simon, his dinner host, views the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears. For Simon, the woman is a “sinner” and Jesus, as a prophet, ought to be aware of that. Just exactly what made this woman a sinner in Simon’s eyes is unclear. We tend to think of sin strictly in moral categories. But that is not always the way it is used in the scriptures. This woman could have been sinful merely by association. Perhaps she was married to a man whose job (such as working with leather) made him perpetually ritually unclean. Or she might have been the wife of a gentile. Whatever her transgression may have been, Simon cannot see past the convenient label, “sinner.” Jesus seems entirely unconcerned with this woman’s sins, whatever they might have been. He focuses rather on her kindness, hospitality and compassion. The truth about this woman is that she is one who loves and believes in Jesus.

Like Nathan, prophets deconstruct the myths we believe about ourselves and which conceal from our consciences the harm we inflict upon each other. Like Jesus, prophets help us to see beyond the lenses of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, legal status, religion and political party affiliation that distort our perception of the neighbor Jesus calls us to love. God give us prophets and ears with which to hear them!

Here’s a poem by Adrienne Rich that talks about our struggle to maintain the illusion of “innocence.”

Virginia, 1906

A white woman dreaming of innocence,
of a country childhood, apple-blossom driftings,
is held in a DC-10 above the purity
of a thick cloud ceiling in a vault of purest blue.
She feels safe. Here, no one can reach her.
Neither men nor women have her in their power.

Because I have sometimes been her, because I am of her,
I watch her with eyes that blink away like a flash
cruelly, when she does what I don’t want to see.
I am tired of innocence and its uselessness,
sometimes the dream of innocence beguiles me.
Nothing has told me how to think of her power.

Blurredly, apple-blossom drifts
across rough earth, small trees contort and twist
making their own shapes, wild. Why should we love purity?
Can the woman in the DC-10 see this
and would she call this innocence? If no one can reach her
she is drawing on unnamed, unaccountable power.

This woman I have been and recognize
must know that beneath the quilt of whiteness lies
a hated nation, hers,
earth whose wet places call to mind
still-open wounds: her country.
Do we love purity? Where do we turn for power?

Knowing us as I do I cringe when she says
But I was not culpable,
I was the victim, the girl, the youngest,
the susceptible one, I was sick,
the one who simply had to get out, and did

: I am still trying how to think of her power.

And if she was forced, this woman, by the same
white Dixie boy who took for granted as prey
her ignored dark sisters? What if at five years old
she was old to his fingers splaying her vulva open
what if forever after, in every record
she wants her name inscribed as innocent

and will not speak, refuses to know, can say
I have been numb for years
does not want to hear of any violation
like or unlike her own, as if the victim
can be innocent only in isolation
as if the victim dare not be intelligent

(I have been numb for years): and if this woman
longs for an intact soul,
longs for what we all long for, yet denies us all?
What has she smelled of power without once
tasting it in the mouth? For what protections
has she traded her wildness and the lives of others?

There is a porch in Salem, Virginia
that I have never seen, that may no longer stand,
honeysuckle vines twisting above the talk,
a driveway full of wheeltracks, paths going down
to the orchard, apple and peach,
divisions so deep a wild child lost her way.

A child climbing an apple-tree in Virginia
refuses to come down, at last comes down
for a neighbor’s lying bribe. Now, if that child, grown old
feels safe in a DC-10 above thick white clouds
and no one can reach her
and if that woman’s child, another woman

chooses another way, yet finds the old vines
twisting across her path, the old wheeltracks
how does she stop dreaming the dream
of protection, how does she follow her own wildness
shedding the innocence, the childish power?
How does she keep from dreaming the old dreams?

Source: Your Native Land (c. 1986 by Adrienne Rich, pub. by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.) p. 41.  Adrienne Rich was born 1929 in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father was a renowned pathologist and her mother a concert pianist. She excelled academically and graduated Radcliff University in 1953. A thoroughgoing feminist, Rich wrote extensively on sexism and the ideologies that perpetuate it. She argues that gender relationships are informed and distorted by violent mythologies of male dominance. What we need, she maintains, are “new myths [that] create new definitions of humanity which will not glorify this angry chasm [between the sexes] but heal it.” You can find out more about Adrienne Rich and read more of her poems at the Poetry Foundation Website (from which the above quote is taken).

2 Samuel 11:26—12:10; 12:13–15

The Prophet Nathan’s confrontation with David through the parable of the stolen sheep is one of the most masterful tales in the Hebrew Scriptures. It does to David precisely what parables are intended to do: draw the hearer into the story, induce him to choose sides between the characters in the story and then expose the hypocrisy reflected in that choice. Jesus will employ the very same strategy against Simon the Pharisee in our gospel lesson for this Sunday. By appealing to David’s sense of justice and arousing his compassion for the poor man in the story, Nathan is now able to place Uriah in the shoes of this poor man David was so ready to defend. There is now only one other pair of shoes left in the parable and David cannot help but recognize that he is standing in them.

David’s repentance is true and heartfelt. Nathan’s assurance of God’s forgiveness is therefore appropriate. Nonetheless, there will be consequences. The lectionary has done a hack job on the reading, omitting some unpleasant but critical information. In 2 Samuel 12:10-12 God declares in judgment against David that the sword he used to strike down Uriah will now strike his house. Just as David has taken Uriah’s wife, so David’s wives will be taken-not in secret as was David’s crime, but publicly to David’s great humiliation and shame. This pronouncement foreshadows the coming rebellion against David’s kingdom led by David’s son, Absalom. The House of David will henceforth be a fractious and divided family right up to the time of David’s death. Like David his father, Solomon will secure the throne only through a series of assassinations and executions. From inception, then, the Davidic monarchy has been founded as much on blood as covenant. Like the Temple in Jerusalem, the house of David is portrayed in the books of Samuel and Kings both as a symbol of promise and as an object of idolatrous infatuation.

The prophetic tradition is likewise ambivalent about David. Some prophetic voices see the monarchy as a rebellious departure from God’s intent for Israel. Other prophetic voices, though critical of the Davidic kings and their evil and unjust ways, nevertheless looked for a descendent of David that would exercise his power and authority with justice and in obedience to the covenant. Jeremiah and the earlier Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39) are examples of this sentiment. The omitted material is therefore important for giving us a balanced view of David and the monarchy he founded. The New Testament takes care in pointing out that the one sometimes called “Son of David,” promises a very different sort of kingdom under the gentle reign of his heavenly Father. For good reason he warns his disciples that “all that take the sword perish by the sword.” Matthew 26:52.

The most troubling aspect of this story from the perspective of us moderns is the death of David’s and Bathsheba’s child as a consequence of David’s sin. Even if we assume that Bathsheba was complicit in the affair-an assumption we cannot fairly make in view of David’s status as king and the subordinate position of women in near eastern society-it seems unnecessarily cruel to inflict death upon their child. After all, we don’t choose our parents. Yet it remains a sad fact of life that children do suffer the consequences of their parents’ selfishness, neglect and stupidity. Sinful acts have unpredictable and unintended consequences that sometimes harm the people we most love. The entire human family is inescapably bound together and linked in ways we cannot begin to see and understand. While from a modern scientific perspective the causal link between sickness and death of a child and the adulterous relationship in which it was conceived is problematic, the theological understanding of sin’s insidious propensity for sending destructive ripple effects into the larger human community is sound. We live among the ruinous effects of our ancestors’ sins and our descendants will have to cope with the destruction we have wrought in our own time.

Psalm 32

This is one of the seven “penitential psalms” so classified in the commentary of Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator written in the 6th century C.E. (These include Psalms 6, 32, 3851102130 and 143). Not surprisingly, it was a favorite of Augustine and Luther. The psalmist speaks eloquently about the joy and relief found in forgiveness of sin and the futility of denial and self-justification. The psalmist does not disclose the nature of his or her sins, but indicates that it was some illness that brought him or her to an acknowledgement of sin and the need for confession. There is no question but that guilt induced stress can bring about illness, but it is far more likely in this case that the psalmist’s illness was the catalyst for guilt. Sickness was almost universally understood in ancient cultures as an affliction from God intended to punish sin. As such, its onset naturally drove the psalmist to introspection and self examination.

In this case, the psalmist’s self examination led to the discovery of sin that the psalmist had been trying to hide from God and perhaps even from the psalmist’s own self. In the confession and acknowledgement of sin, the psalmist found healing and relief. The psalmist therefore instructs fellow worshipers not take the path of sin and self-deception that leads to illness and misfortune, but to “come clean” with God and cry out for deliverance. Mulish stubbornness will only lead to grief. As Augustine puts it, “much is he scourged, who, confessing not his sins to God, would be his own ruler.” Moreover, “it is right to be subject unto [God], that so you may be placed above all things beside.” Augustine’s Commentary of Psalm 32 published in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Vol 8, (Erdmans, 1979) p. 71.

This psalm presents the same issue as our lesson from II Samuel. Just as we do not typically associate the death of an infant with the sin of its parents, so we do not ordinarily associate illness with transgression. Still, I would not be too dismissive of this insight. Sometimes sickness is the result of our sinful lifestyles. It is well known that we are working longer hours these days under more stressful conditions. For many people in our country, this isn’t a choice. When you are at the minimum wage level, you need multiple incomes from two or three jobs just to put food on the table and keep a roof over your family. But for many of us, I believe that our frantic work ethic is more about maintaining a particular lifestyle. I have told the story many times of a fellow attorney who suffered a heart attack at the ripe old age of forty-one telling me, “This is what I get for spending my life doing work I hate to earn money I don’t need to buy stuff I don’t want to impress people I don’t like for reasons that don’t matter.” So the psalmist’s advice is good as far as it goes, but his/her experience, valid and instructive though it may be, must not be elevated to a universal principle. As the case of Job illustrates, illness is not always the result of sin. The preacher from Ecclesiastes points out that in many cases justice and right do not prevail and all seems like “vanity.” Ecclesiastes 4:1-7. Sometimes tragedy happens for no apparent reason. There are psalms to address these circumstances as well. See, e.g. Psalm 39.

Galatians 2:15–21

If all you read were the verses set forth in the lectionary, you would never guess that what Paul has to say here is all about meal fellowship. Paul explains in Galatians 2:11-14 how Cephas (Simon Peter) came to the church at Antioch where Paul was working among the gentiles. Peter was quite content to eat with these gentile believers and share their table fellowship until the arrival of some Jewish believers from Jerusalem. When these folks came, Peter withdrew and separated himself from the gentiles eating only with the believers from Jerusalem. He probably had the best of intentions. He did not want to offend his fellow disciples from Jerusalem and so cause division within the church. (Similar reasons were given back in the 1960s by churches resisting integration.) We all get along better by keeping our distances.

Paul went ballistic. For him, this was not a matter of whether believers could eat meat from the market place that had been used in pagan sacrifice or whether disciples should or should not marry or whether and under what circumstances one should pray in tongues. In all of these matters Paul urged compromise, patience and acceptance for the sake of maintaining the unity of Christ’s Body. But meal fellowship was a cornerstone of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus got himself into trouble precisely because he went about with sinners and even ate with them. Jesus’ most intimate expression of fellowship was the last supper he shared with his disciples. To exclude people from the table is to exclude them from the church and the presence of Jesus. To divide the table between Jews and gentiles amounts to a division of the Body of Christ and a denial of its reconciling power. Peter and his fellow disciples from Jerusalem were thus not being “straightforward about the truth of the gospel.” Vs. 14.

So now we can understand why Paul launches into his declaration that people are justified not by works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. It is faith in Jesus that constitutes table fellowship. Dividing the table between Jew and gentile therefore reflects not only prejudice. It amounts to a rank denial of the good news that all are made God’s children through faith in Jesus. This is not just a theological disagreement over “justification” in the heady realm of doctrinal abstractions. This is a critical matter of the church’s most central and constituting practice-a matter of life and death. Oneness in Christ is not an ideal. It is a concrete reality grounded in one table to which all are invited and welcomed.

Paul relates this dispute he had with Peter in order to illustrate the insidious effects of that “other gospel,” to which the Galatian church seems to have turned. The “truth of the gospel” is Jesus, not Jesus plus something else. There is room for cultural diversity in the church; there is room for theological disagreement in the church; there is room for differing liturgical practices in the church. But there can be only one savior in the church. When it comes to where faith rests, it is Jesus and Jesus alone. If Jesus is not all, then Jesus is nothing.

From the language he uses, you might get the impression that Paul hates the law and Judaism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Paul both loved and lived under the Torah throughout his life and ministry. It is rather “works of the law” that Paul hates or, more specifically, works of the law aimed at earning God’s love and salvation. Paul points out in many of his letters that Judaism at its best has always been grounded in the God whose generous, free and undeserved mercy sustains Israel. The church at its worst sometimes forgets this marvelous good news.

Luke 7:36—8:3

This is one of the many instances in the Gospel of Luke in which a Pharisee shows Jesus genuine hospitality and expresses a degree of openness to him. Simon invites Jesus to dinner and it is clear that he has not quite made up his mind what to think of his notorious guest. But he has clearly formed some very firm opinions about the woman who appears in this story to anoint Jesus’ feet. In all likelihood, the dinner took place in a sheltered, but open air setting where people from off the street might wander in. Even so, it would have been highly inappropriate for a woman to enter unaccompanied into a gathering of men. Most of the commentaries I have read assume that the woman was a prostitute, but none of them have given me any convincing reason to draw that conclusion myself. The gospel refers to her merely as a “sinner.” At least one commentator points out that this could mean merely that she was the wife of an impious or irreligious man. E. Earle Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary, (c 1974, Marshall, Morgan & Scott), p. 122. Thus, her being labeled a “sinner” might be a reflection on her social status rather than her character. In either case, Simon views her as unclean and untouchable.

Simon is at a loss to understand how Jesus, who is purported to be a prophet, fails to see that the woman touching him is a sinner-something that is obvious to him. He therefore concludes that Jesus could not possibly be a prophet. But it turns out that Jesus knows more than Simon supposes. Jesus is keenly aware of where sin is residing and so, in the tradition of Nathan, poses a parable to Simon. Two debtors owed their creditor a sum of money. The first owed a substantial amount, the second only a small sum. The creditor forgave both debts. “So,” Jesus asks Simon, “which of the two will love him more.” Like David, Simon is boxed into giving a response that will trap him. “I suppose,” he replies, “the debtor who was forgiven more.” Jesus has Simon where he wants him. Now he can contrast the woman’s lavish affection with Simon’s quite proper but strictly formal hospitality. Simon discovers that Jesus is in fact a prophet. Not only does he know the woman’s heart better than Simon, but he also knows Simon better than Simon knows himself.

And there is more. The guests and onlookers marvel when Jesus declares to this woman that her sins are forgiven. “Who is this that even forgives sins?” vs. 49. That is an understandable question. Forgiveness of sin is the prerogative of God alone. See, e.g.Mark 2:7. Luke is pressing the question of Jesus’ true identity here. Simon and his guests do not know the answer to that question, but the implication is that the woman does. Her faith, that is, her assurance that Jesus would receive her and accept her has been vindicated. Her confidence that Jesus can and does in fact offer her forgiveness of sin has inspired the love so evident in her lavish kindness toward him.

 

Sunday, February 14th

FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, you led your people through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide us now, so that, following your Son, we may walk safely through the wilderness of this world toward the life you alone can give, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

For most of my life I never really understood the first temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Aside from the fact that the suggestion came from the mouth of the devil, why would it be inappropriate for Jesus to turn stones into bread? If Jesus can turn water into wine in order to rescue a wedding feast, surely there can be nothing wrong with his turning a few stones into bread, especially where, as here, he finds himself in the middle of nowhere on the verge of starvation. The solution to this quandary is so obvious that it’s hard to imagine how I managed to miss it all these years. Jesus was in the midst of a fast. For that reason alone his use of miraculous power to produce bread and so satisfy his hunger would have been a faithless act of disobedience.

Fasting is unintelligible in our fast food culture. We know only one solution for our cravings, namely, to satisfy them as soon as possible.  Our economy grows by feeding insatiable consumer appetites created by artful advertising. The engine of late stage capitalism is driven by our hunger for new products and the conviction that our happiness depends on satisfying it. Fasting is therefore a dangerously subversive act. If all who identify as Christian began practicing this Lenten discipline, they would pose a far greater threat to the American way of life than a hand full of Muslim extremists. If Christians began en masse saying “no” to consumerism and insisting that we live instead by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, they would bring our economic growth to a screeching halt. While that might not be a welcome development for Wall Street, for the rest of us it could pave the way for the emergence of a new economy based on human need rather than corporate greed.

But fasting requires patience-a virtue that is not in the American DNA. There is nothing we Americans hate more than being told we have to wait. There is nothing that enrages us more than to be told that our problems are difficult and complex, that they will require years of hard work and sacrifice to address. Our blood boils over into road rage when traffic grinds to a halt. We don’t take well to being told we can’t get to where we are going or can’t have what we want right now. Violence is only the end stage manifestation of chronic impatience.

Nobody is more skilled at exploiting our impatience than the devil. For that reason, I suspect that the devil’s first temptation was his deadliest. At first blush, it would seem a small thing for Jesus to end his fast a tad early. Who will it hurt? Besides, forty days is plenty long enough. Would Jesus have changed the course of history by ending his fast a day or two earlier than planned? Though a day or two one way or the other might seem small in the grand scheme of things, there may be more at stake here than meets the eye. After all, if Jesus can be induced to end his fast prematurely, he almost certainly can be induced to abandon the long road to the cross and embrace the quicker and easier methods of kingdom building employed by the nations of the world. Military actions get measureable results a whole lot faster than the painstaking work of reconciliation and peacemaking. If Jesus cannot put off a meal, he most likely lacks the patience to wait for God’s vindication of his humble life of service and his shameful death. If Jesus cannot wait for God to provide his daily bread, he will surely lose patience with God’s slow pace of redeeming creation. Maybe Jesus will run out of patience altogether and try forcing God’s hand through some foolish, suicidal act of desperation-like throwing himself from the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem. The devil is betting that Jesus will prove to be as impatient as the rest of us. He is hoping that, like us, Jesus will be willing to cut corners, take short cuts and focus on the ends to the exclusion of the means.

Impatience is at the heart of my own struggles in pastoral leadership. It is tempting to marshal influential members of the congregation in support of my initiatives. That way I can steam roll them through the council and present them to the congregation in a neat little package. With little time to consider them, discuss them and evaluate them, it is more than likely my proposals will sail through without objection. Why is this temptation so strong? Why am I afraid of taking the slow, clunky and time consuming way of consensus building? Is it because I lust after evidence of progress my eyes can see? Is it because I fear that my plans will be shot down if I open them up to full discussion? Why do I fear having my ideas rejected? Is it because I fear appearing to be a weak and ineffective leader? Is it because I don’t believe that the Spirit of God is at work in the midst of the church accomplishing God’s purpose? Or is it because I am just too impatient to wait for the mind of Christ to be formed in the church?

Lent is time for cultivating the virtue of patience. It is a time for learning to distinguish the genuine hunger of our souls from the appetites of the flesh urging us to buy the latest digital gadget, raid the refrigerator just because it is there and drive our cars as though they were weapons. Lent is a time for remembering that peacemaking and reconciliation, like mastering a language or learning to play a musical instrument or doing anything else worthwhile, is slow, difficult and sometimes painful work. The devil would have us believe that it is too slow, too difficult and ultimately ineffective. There is a faster, easier and more efficient way to get what you need. Our impatient hearts would like very much to believe that. But like everything else the devil tells us, it’s a lie. The devil’s promised short cuts only lead us into a wilderness of cravings for things that appeal to our appetites but cannot feed our souls. Only the words that come from the mouth of the Lord can give us life.

If we can sit still long enough to hear it, there is good news in all of this. God will see to the coming of God’s reign in God’s own good time. We are relieved of the anxiety, worry, anger and frustration that comes of thinking it somehow depends on us. To live patiently means recognizing that your life will always be somewhat out of step with the surrounding culture. It means embracing a hunger for righteousness and justice that likely will not be satisfied in your lifetime. It means choosing the slow, winding path of reconciliation and peacemaking over the smooth and seemly straightforward way of coercion, intimidation and violence to get things done. Patience is life under the cross anticipating the Easter sunrise.

Here’s a poem about living patiently by Sir Thomas Wyatt.

Patience, Though I Have Not

Patience, though I have not
The thing that I require,
I must of force, God wot,
Forbear my most desire;
For no ways can I find
To sail against the wind.

Patience, do what they will
To work me woe or spite,
I shall content me still
To think both day and night,
To think and hold my peace,
Since there is no redress.

Patience, withouten blame,
For I offended nought;
I know they know the same,
Though they have changed their thought.
Was ever thought so moved
To hate that it hath loved?

Patience of all my harm,
For fortune is my foe;
Patience must be the charm
To heal me of my woe:
Patience without offence
Is a painful patience.

This poem is in the public domain. Sir Thomas Wyatt was born in 1503 at Allington Castle in Kent, England. He worked in the court of Henry VIII and served as ambassador to France and Italy. During his travels, he came to appreciate several forms of poetry that he later adapted and employed in the English language. He is credited with having introduced the sonnet into English literature. You can read more about Sir Thomas Wyatt at the Academy of American Poets website.

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

This is the passage that I love to refer to as the “First Thanksgiving.” Moses is addressing the children of Israel as they stand at the threshold of the Promised Land. The refrain “remember” has been reverberating throughout the previous chapters and it will be heard in the succeeding ones as well. Forgetfulness is the greatest danger Israel faces as she begins to settle into the land of Canaan.  There is a very real possibility that the lessons learned throughout the years of wilderness wandering will be lost once the people are in possession of productive land. “Take heed lest you forget the Lord your God.” Deuteronomy 8:11. “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth’” Deuteronomy 8:17. Moses knows that the most potent antidote to arrogance and greed is memory. Therefore, he outlines a liturgy for the Israelites to recite at each presentation of “first fruits” from the annual harvest. Vs. 2. You might call it a sort of “creed.”

The Israelites are to recite their history. They are to remember that they were sojourners, “few in number.” Vs. 5. They are to recall that “the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us; and laid upon us hard bondage.” Vs. 6. They are to remember how “we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.” Vs. 7. This is significant because God would have Israel know that she was not delivered from bondage merely to become another Egypt. Unlike Egypt, Israel is to “Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:19. “Justice and only justice you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you.” Deuteronomy 16:20. “If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” Deuteronomy 15:7-8.

In the final verses of this reading, Israel is commanded to “rejoice in all the good which the Lord your God has given you and to your house…” vs. 11. The opposite of faith is not doubt, but ungratefulness. When you start thinking that everything you have is the fruit of your own toil, you start to resent having to help out a poor neighbor. “I worked for it. It’s mine to do with as I please.” You also start to worry about losing what you have. “After all, if everything I have has been achieved by my own efforts, what will happen when my efforts fail? Where will my daily bread come from when I can no longer extract it from the ground by the sweat of my own brow? Can I afford to offer up the first fruits when I don’t know what tomorrow will bring? Can I afford to lend a hand to my neighbor when I might not even have enough for my own needs?” This is the kind of worry, anxiety and fear that always comes of imagining that ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ That, by the way, is why Jesus would not take the devil’s challenge to prove that he is God’s Son by making bread for himself out of stones. It is precisely because one is a child of God that he or she need not resort to such measures. Faith knows that “The eyes of all look to thee and thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest thy hand, thou satisfiest the desire of every living thing.” Psalm 145:15-16. God did not create a world of scarcity filled with desperate creatures fighting for an ever smaller slice of a shrinking pie. This is how the devil would have us view the world. Jesus recognizes the devil’s world view for what it is-a lie.

Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

We get the devil’s spin on this psalm from our gospel lesson (Luke 4:9-12).  Unfortunately, this prayer extolling the protective love of God for those who trust in him is open to just such a demonic distortion. There is no shortage of religion in book stores, on the airwaves and pulsing through the internet promising that the right kind of faith in God insulates a person from suffering. The Prayer of Jabez bv Bruce Wilkinson is a prime example. Though I am probably guilty of oversimplifying Mr. Wilkinson’s argument, his basic claim is that extraordinary blessings flow from praying the prayer of a biblical character mentioned briefly in the book of I Chronicles by the name of Jabez. The entire scriptural basis for this assertion is I Chronicles 4:9-10: “Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, ‘I gave birth to him in pain.’ Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, saying, ‘Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.’ And God granted his request.”

This snippet of narrative comes in the midst of a lengthy chronology with no supporting context. Jabez’ mother gave birth to him in pain. I am not sure what this means as childbirth typically does not happen without some pain for Mom. Perhaps this was a particularly difficult delivery. All we know about Jabez himself is that he was more honorable than his brothers. But since we don’t know his brothers, this assessment is hard to evaluate. Is this like being the smartest of the Three Stooges? Jabez prays that his territory will be enlarged so that he will be protected from pain-a seeming non sequitur. I must confess that I really don’t know quite what to make of Jabez, but I think I will continue to get my instruction on prayer from Jesus.

But I digress. The point here is that we should not let the devil snooker us the way he did Mr. Wilkinson. This psalm is not telling us that faith in God is a magical antidote to life’s slings and arrows. If you read the psalm carefully from the beginning, you will discover that it was composed by one who has been a soldier in combat, lived through epidemics and faced mortal enemies. The psalmist knows that the dangers out there in the world are very real and that life is not a cake walk. You might well prevail over lions and adders, but that does not mean you will come through without any scratches. The Lord promises, “I will be with him in trouble,” which can only mean that trouble will come the psalmist’s way. Vs. 15. This psalm, then, must be interpreted not as the promise of a magic charm (the devil’s exegesis), but as a word of assurance that God’s redemptive purpose is at work in the lives of all who place their ultimate trust in God’s promises. As such, it is a word of profound comfort.

You will note that from verse 14 on the voice changes. In the previous verses the speaker appears to be that of the psalmist. But the last three verses are words of God declaring a promise of protection to those who know and trust in him. It is possible that this last section of the psalm constitutes an oracle proclaimed by a temple priest or prophet to the psalmist as s/he was seeking assurance in time of trouble and that the previous verses were inspired by the psalmist’s experiencing the fulfillment of these words of promise in his or her own life. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) pp. 203-204.

Romans 10:8b-13

In this chapter Paul is dealing with what I believe is the foremost concern of his heart, namely, the relationship between Israel and the church. I cannot overemphasize how important it is for us to recognize that Paul’s letters were written long before Christianity existed as a religion separate from Judaism. Throughout Paul’s lifetime, the church was a movement within Judaism asserting that Jesus of Nazareth was the longed for messiah foretold in the Hebrew Scriptures. In this letter to the church in Rome Paul is arguing on two fronts. Over against his Jewish critics, Paul asserts that Israel’s messiah is not for Israel alone. As Paul rightly points out, Israel is called to be a light to the nations pointing to the reign of Israel’s God over all creation. It follows, then, that the salvation offered through Israel’s messiah must be available to the gentiles as well. While Paul’s critics would probably agree with him to this extent, they parted company with Paul’s assertion that the gentiles could be received as covenant partners with Israel’s God without effectively becoming Jews. As a practical matter, to be included among God’s covenant people, gentiles would need to undergo circumcision and to observe all mandatory Jewish ritual and dietary laws. Paul maintains, however, that the gentiles come into the covenant as gentiles through baptism into Jesus Christ. This is so because the covenant stretching back to Abraham is based not on circumcision or ritual obedience, but on faith in God’s promises.

Over against the gentile members of the church in Rome, Paul is careful to remind them that they are “wild olive branches” that have been grafted into the vine that is Israel. Romans 11:13-24. They must therefore never look with contempt upon the people of Israel-even those who do not acknowledge Jesus as messiah. They are not to imagine that God has rejected Israel. Romans 11:1 To the contrary, “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29. You can reject God, but you cannot make God reject you. All of this is important for understanding the lesson for this Sunday. The emphasis is on the power of the “word [that] is very near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach).” Vs. 8. This, in turn, is a citation from Deuteronomy 30:11-14Free will has nothing to do with salvation. Belief in Jesus is the fruit of the Spirit working through the word of God. It is not a decision we make on our own. As Paul states earlier in chapter eight, “For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…” Romans 8:29. Consequently, one need not fret over whether and to what degree one “truly believes” or “sincerely confesses” Jesus as Lord. As we read a few verses later, “faith comes through what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.” Romans 10:17. If the word is there, it will take care of the rest.

Luke 4:1-13

We have touched on the first and last temptations of Jesus in our discussions of the prior lessons. So let’s focus on the middle one. “And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, ‘To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall be yours.’” Vss. 5-8. You have to wonder why, if the devil really possesses such authority, he is willing to give it up. Perhaps he is lying. Maybe the devil does not really have the goods he promises to deliver. That is possible. The devil’s proclivity for falsehood is well known. More likely, however, the devil realizes that the power he is offering Jesus doesn’t really amount to much. Raw power is useful for subduing the world, but it is not particularly effective in ruling it. There has never been an empire able to hang onto its vast holdings forever. Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome eventually collapsed under the weight of their oppressive governmental machinery. In our own day we have seen the evaporation of the British Empire and the implosion of the Soviet Union. Our own nation, the United States, has learned through blood shed in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan the limits of military power in trying to secure the peace and safety for which we yearn.

Still and all, the power of the sword entices us. It is easy to imagine that, in the right hands, such power can be used for good. Of course, just as you cannot make an omelet without cracking a few eggs, you can’t rule an empire without cracking a few heads. Collateral damage is the clinical word for the death and disfigurement of innocents that get caught in the crossfire from the shootout at the OK Corral. Tragic, to be sure, but it is a small price to pay for freedom, democracy, justice, peace, liberation or whatever noble objective you are trying to achieve. The ends justify the means. And even if they don’t, at the very least, by seizing the devil’s offer, Jesus would have prevented the power of the sword from falling into the wrong hands. Wouldn’t you rather have Jesus as emperor than Nero? Isn’t it better that nuclear weapons remain firmly in the hands of decent people than fall into the hands of terrorists or criminals? If you don’t take hold of the power Satan offers, there are plenty of scary people out there who will. It is all well and good to sing, “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the river side,” but shouldn’t you be a little bit concerned about who might pick them up?

Of course, there is a price to be paid here. You can’t get the devil’s goods without paying the devil his due. The price of imperial power is the worship of Satan. That is where the power of the sword always leads us. Jesus knows that the ends never justify the means. How can they when we don’t even know what the ends are? We seldom, if ever, know what the outcome of our simplest actions will be. The be..Wfrequently frequentlydespite our best intentions. We often do not foresee the long term consequences of decisions that seemed right and sensible at the time are often far different from what we anticipated. We simply do not control nor can we foresee the ends of our actions. The means are all that we do understand and control. Jesus tells us that the means are all important and that they will shape the ends of everything we do.

Jesus is not interested in the power of the sword because he knows that it cannot deliver the reign of God he comes to initiate. Jesus is not interested in winning battles. He is interested in winning hearts. Jesus will die for the kingdom of God, but he will not kill for it. Jesus does not want “every knee to bend and every tongue confess” him as Lord only because they fear that they will get a rifle butt in the teeth if they don’t. Jesus will spend whatever time it takes to win every last heart to faith and obedience. Victory will be painfully slow in coming. Reconciliation takes a lot more work, patience, sacrifice and time than a blitzkrieg campaign of shock and awe. Reconciliation, however, is the way of Jesus. There are no shortcuts to the reign of God.

 

Sunday, October 11th

TWENTIETH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Psalm 90:12-17
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty and ever-living God, increase in us your gift of faith, that, forsaking what lies behind and reaching out to what lies ahead, we may follow the way of your commandments and receive the crown of everlasting joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Roseburg, Oregon is the site of the latest mass shooting-an event so common in our nation these days that one can hardly call it news anymore. I have no doubt that this event will elicit another angry cry from all of us who want to see this madness end. It will certainly trigger the usual run on guns and ammunition by millions fearing the imminent government seizure of their weapons. The gun industry will cry all the way to the bank. We can expect the usual mantra from the NRA: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” The presidential hopefuls will get into the act, walking the tightrope between public empathy for the victims and quiet assurances to their NRA donors that nothing will change. Once the victims are buried and forgotten, life will go on-for the rest of us anyway.

I don’t have any animus against guns or gun owners per se. I grew up in Washington State on the Olympic Peninsula where hunting was second only to fishing in popularity as an outdoor sport. My parents did not hunt or own guns, but most of my friends’ families did. There were few shootings or gun accidents back then because gun owners in our community were, for the most part, responsible people who knew how to use guns, how to care for them and how to keep them locked away and out of the hands of children. Guns were something very different back then. We never thought of them as weapons. They were like fishing poles, designed to enable men and women to engage in a friendly contest with mother nature in the beauty of the wilderness.

Here I will pause and apologize to my animal loving friends who might find this characterization insensitive. Personally, I prefer not to kill animals. But in defense of my hunter friends, I would only say that their taking down a deer in the wilderness, as any number of animal predators might do, is a good deal more humane than the industrial slaughter of millions of cattle that never see anything like a natural habitat. Food for thought.

But I digress. Today guns are more than mere sporting implements. They have become the ultimate symbol of control in this increasingly violent and paranoid American cultural scene. My gun stands between me and the sweeping changes overtaking society. My gun is all that protects me from a government I can no longer trust. My gun represents my ultimate power to say “no.” When they finally come for me (whoever “they” are), I can turn my gun on them and fight to the last round. Then, in a final act of defiance, I can turn it myself. As the now well-known bumper sticker epitaph has it: “They’ll take my gun when they can pry it from my cold dead fingers.”

Despite the never ending string of school, workplace and public area shootings we have experienced over the last couple of decades, Americans for the most part remain firmly committed to retaining their fire arms. The shootings, we are told by gun control foes, are the price we must pay for maintaining our freedoms, and that requires unrestricted ownership and use of firearms. It is not surprising to me that we have become a nation that loves its guns more than its children. The Hebrew Scriptures teach us that false gods always demand the blood sacrifice of our children. It’s the price we must pay, they tell us, for the safety and protection they offer. So we hang on tight to our guns and offer the required sacrifice. The latest holocaust in Roseburg will not be the last. Molech is a hungry deity. At its root, our problem with guns is not in regulation or the lack of it. Our problem is idolatry.

Our gospel lesson tells the story of a young man who turned away from the kingdom of God because he could not let go of his wealth. Unless he had a change of heart that we don’t know of, I suspect that his money had to be pried from his cold dead fingers in the end. So it is with all the idols to which we cling so tenaciously whether guns, wealth or something else. They promise safety, security and happiness. But in the end, and only when it is too late, do we finally discover that they have robbed us of what is most dear, lied to us, betrayed us and deserted us.

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

For some autobiographical information on Amos, I refer you to my post of Sunday, July 12th.  Israel was experiencing an economic, military and religious revival under the leadership of her King, Jeroboam II. Business was booming; the long struggle with Syria had ended in victory for Israel; the chief sanctuary of the Lord in Bethel was packed to the rafters with avid worshipers. It was morning in Israel. Yet despite all appearances to the contrary, things were rotten to the core. The courts were turning “justice to wormwood.” Vs. 7. A new commercial class had gained unprecedented wealth by ruthlessly exploiting the poor even as they patronized the temple singing the hymns to Israel’s God. Vs. 11. It was Amos’ job to tell his people that their wealth was not evidence of God’s blessing, but kindling for God’s fierce wrath. Wealth built on injustice will not be tolerated among the people called to be God’s light to the nations. So Amos calls his people to “seek the Lord and live, lest he break out like fire against the house of Joseph.” Vs. 6.

The parallels here between 8th Century Israel and 21st Century Wall Street are hard to miss. That pervasive infection of greed, selfishness and complete lack of conscience that built a mountain of phony wealth ending in a devastating crash ruining our economy is precisely the kind of sin infecting Israel. Like Amos, there were some lone voices in the business community crying out words of warning, but they were ignored. Though we can surely point to conduct by banks, mortgage brokers and venture capitalists that was absolutely despicable, I believe part of the blame for our present economic woes must fall squarely upon the rest of us who were all too willing to tolerate such conduct as long as it was growing our pensions and increasing the value of our homes. Nobody was trying to occupy Wall Street when the gravy train was on the roll.

Still and all, I think we need to be careful about drawing parallels. There is a difference between Israel and the United States of America. Israel was God’s covenant partner. She was called to be a light to the nations. She had received her freedom as a people and her land from the hand of God. She was God’s chosen people. Therefore, she was judged under the terms of the covenant relationship that her conduct had so grievously violated. The United States is not God’s chosen people. God has no covenant with America. Because America is not a party to the covenant, America is not answerable to its terms. That is not to say that God is unconcerned with what America or any other nation does or does not do. In general terms, God’s judgment falls upon all nations that practice injustice and unrighteousness. Psalm 47:8-9. In general, God judges the righteousness of a people by how they treat and care for the weakest and most vulnerable in their midst. Psalm 82:1-4. I think we can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that God is not pleased with the conduct leading up to the crash on Wall Street or with how the economic burdens resulting from that crash have been distributed. That said, Israel, as a people called by God to live in a covenant relationship reflecting a better hope for all humanity, is uniquely responsible for obedience to the terms of the covenant under which that hope is given concrete expression. So this word of Amos is more properly directed to the people of God, Israel and the church, than to Wall Street. So we need to ask ourselves how these words speak to us as disciples of Jesus.

For the first three centuries of its existence, the church had no buildings, meeting places or financial reserves. It met in people’s homes or in the open air. Not until the church came under the patronage of the Roman Empire did it begin to accumulate wealth. As both Amos and Jesus point out, wealth often looks like blessing when, in fact, it is a curse. When churches come into money, they have a tendency to become more like lawyers, businesspeople and accountants than faithful disciples. It is sobering to realize that Israel’s finest hours occurred at times when she had her back against the wall and nothing with which to defend herself. That is where she most often witnessed the saving power of God. When Israel had wealth, peace and power she tended to forget where these gifts came from and began to imagine that they were hers to do with as she wished. The church is no less vulnerable to the temptations of wealth than was Israel. We are just as apt to confuse the gift with the Giver and place our trust and confidence on the shifting sand of financial security rather than on the Rock which is Christ Jesus.

The church must never forget that she is in the business of making disciples-not growing membership, maintaining church programs and facilities or investing wealth to make more wealth. Money is not evil, but the love of money is. Most of us have a hard time having money without becoming attached to it and allowing it to run our lives. The gospel lesson is a very pointed reminder of that very thing.

Psalm 90:12-17

This gloomy psalm is attributed to “Moses, the man of God.” Vs. 1. This attribution was probably added late in the life of the Psalter. Wieser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 595. That, however, is no reason to discard the possibility that the psalm’s origin was in some fashion connected to Moses. While we know that the alphabet and thus the written Hebrew language did not exist during the time of Moses, we also know that poetry originating during the time of the Judges, also pre-alphabet, was passed on in oral form and written down only centuries later. (i.e., The Song of Deborah at Judges 5:1-31). It is not so much of a stretch to suggest that the same might be true of songs sung by the people of Israel before their migration into Canaan.

However scholars might resolve the question of authorship, it is obvious from a canonical standpoint that the worshiping community of Israel associated this psalm with Moses. This is the prayer of a people that has seen years of suffering, hardship and sorrow. As God’s mediator, it is not inconceivable that Moses might have uttered such a prayer. Adding to the peoples’ misery is the knowledge that their own sins and folly are at least partly responsible for the predicament in which they find themselves. They recognize in their sorrow the just wrath of God upon the evil they have done and the just consequences of the bad choices they have made. Beyond all of this, the psalm seems to recognize a universal sorrow that goes with being human. No matter how good life may have been to us, it inevitably slips away. Our children grow up and begin living lives separate from our own. The house, once boisterous and chaotic, is now quiet and a little empty. We retire and someone else takes our place. We lose our ability to drive. We might have to move out of the home we have lived in for most of our lives. Time seems to take life away from us piece by piece. As it all comes to an end we are left with unfinished tasks, unrealized dreams, regrets about those things of which we are now ashamed, but can no longer change.

Moses might have prayed this prayer on behalf of his people as they struggled through the wilderness toward a promise he knew that he would never see fulfilled. It always seemed a tad unfair to me that God denied Moses the opportunity to enter into the land of Canaan with the people he had led for so long all on account of what seems a trivial offense. (See Numbers 20:2-13). Yet that is the way of mortal existence for all of us. We bring life to the next generation, but will never know that generation’s final destiny. Our strength leaves us before we have been able to complete the many tasks we have set for ourselves. We often die without knowing which, if any, of our efforts to achieve lasting results will bear fruit. We can only pray with the psalmist that God will establish the work of our hands and complete what we could only manage to begin.

Gloomy as it is, though, the psalm contains a ray of light. The psalmist’s prayer was answered. The psalmist concludes his/her prayer with the words: “establish thou the work of our hands upon us, yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” Vs. 17. That we have this psalm in the scriptures, and that we will be singing it together on Sunday demonstrates that God in fact “established the work” of this psalmist’s hands. (I should mention that I owe this insight to Professor Rolf Jacobson, professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, M.N.) As dark as this psalm may be (and it is pretty dark), it is nevertheless a testament to God’s determination to make of our lives something beautiful and worth preserving. It reminds me of Paul’s assuring word to the disciples at Philippi: “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6. Time may be at work taking us apart piece by piece. But the Spirit of God is also at work piecing together the new person born at our baptism into Jesus Christ.

As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 90 in its entirety.

Hebrews 4:12-16

For my general comments on the Letter to the Hebrews, see my post of Sunday, October 4th. You might also want to take a look at the Summary Article by Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org.

In Sunday’s lesson, the writer compares the word of God to a double edged sword. Vs. 12. This is a violent image. A sword has one purpose and that is to slay. Yet as discomforting as this image may be, it is entirely appropriate. To hear God’s word is to come very close to death. Recall the terror of Isaiah when confronted by a vision of God in the Temple of Jerusalem: “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” Isaiah 6:5. The word of God discerns the “thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Vs. 12. In its light, nothing is hidden.

I think a lot of us put a lot of effort into keeping secrets on ourselves. It has been said that every person has three selves: the one she is, the one she thinks she is and the one everyone else things she is. It is the first one that I am least likely to know because I am overly concerned with the first two. I want to believe that I am a person of integrity, courage, wisdom and vision. Those character traits are important to a minister. So I when I am less than honest, I rationalize it by convincing myself that it is all to spare the feelings of those who might be offended by what I believe to be the truth. When I am cowardly, I tell myself that discretion is the better part of valor. When I make mistakes, I make excuses. When I am at a loss over what needs to be done, I try to exude confidence. It takes a lot of energy to maintain a disguise. So as painful as a confrontation with God’s word may be, it is also liberating. There is nothing like the relief a person feels when a good and trusted friend says, “Who do you think you’re fooling. I know what’s going on here. Let’s talk about it.” Suddenly, the pressure is off. I no longer have to maintain the façade. I can stop making excuses, explanations, justifications and get down to the business of taking responsibility and making the changes I need to make.

That brings me to the second part of this lesson. The writer of Hebrews does not urge us to flee in fear from this blinding light of God’s word, but rather “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”  Vs. 16. God never wounds us unless it is for the ultimate purpose of healing. If the word of the Lord sometimes scares the hell out of us, it is because we were made for something better than hell. Those of you who have undergone joint replacement surgery know that healing can sometimes be a long and painful journey. Successful surgery can relieve you of a lot of pain and give you more freedom of mobility. But to get there, the pain is going to have to get worse before it gets better. So it is with the Kingdom of God. The vision of a new heaven and a new earth where God dwells in our midst and we live together in peace with our neighbors and all of creation is one to which I am irresistibly drawn. Yet I know that I am not the sort of person that could live in such a renewed creation. I need a heart transplant and the only surgical instrument sharp enough to perform that operation for me is the word of God. Only daily repentance and forgiveness among people of faith can assist me in growing into the stature of Jesus Christ. With the psalmist, I must rely upon God to establish the work of my hands. I must trust Jesus to complete what he began at my baptism.

Mark 10:17-31

This is without doubt one of the saddest stories in the gospels. The way Mark tells it, this young man was sincere when he came to Jesus yearning for eternal life. And let us be clear about one thing. When the gospels speak of “eternal life,” they are not merely speaking about some distant event in the “sweet by and by.” Eternal life is life that is spent doing the things that are of eternal importance, the things that matter to God. Naturally, then, Jesus refers the young man to the Commandments, all of which he claimed to have observed from his youth. We are told that Jesus, “looking upon him loved him.” Vs. 21. “You lack just one thing,” says Jesus. Vs. 21. But alas, that one thing is just one thing too much for the young man. He wanted to follow Jesus. He wanted to spend the rest of his life doing things that matter eternally. Instead, “he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.” Vs. 22.

I am afraid that I identify with this rich young man. No, I am not rich by Bill Gates standards, but like nearly all Americans, I enjoy a measure of wealth that two thirds of the world can only dream about. I have never had to go hungry. I have never had to travel further than the kitchen sink to find clean water. Like everybody else in America, I feel I am not making enough, that my taxes are too high and that everything is more expensive than it should be. But I have no fear of starving to death or having to sleep on the street or being driven out of the community in which I live. Even if I were to end up broke and homeless, I have enough family and friends that would see to my basic needs and a social safety net that, despite years of trimming down, is still there. That might not get me on the cover of Forbes, but it makes me filthy rich by standards of most the world’s population.

Like the rich young man in our gospel lesson, I want to live my life for the things that matter eternally, but at the cost of losing my wealth? I would like to think that this is just a hypothetical question. Of course Jesus does not expect all of us to give up everything. This rich young man was a special case because…well, because he was rich. He was addicted to his wealth. But that’s not me. I am no addict. Just because an alcoholic must refrain from drinking to maintain his sobriety, that doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to be teatotalers. So the argument goes. Trouble is, there is no indication that this young man was anymore addicted to his wealth than we are. In fact, we don’t even learn that he was wealthy until the end of the story. There is no indication either that Jesus knew about his wealth initially.

Moreover, the twelve disciples, who do not appear to have been rich, were also required to gave up all of their possessions to follow Jesus. Vs. 8. So this is not about class warfare. Jesus is not siding with 99% against the 1%. Jesus asks no more or less of this young man than he does the rest of his disciples. But unlike the twelve, who left everything to follow Jesus, the young man cannot walk away from his wealth.  So I do not believe we can get ourselves out from under this troubling word by trying to make of the rich young man a special and extraordinary case. Giving up everything seems to go hand and hand with discipleship.

This story is so unsettling because it hits us right where we live. Next to the cult of individualism that has become so much a part of the American consciousness, I believe that the greatest threat to the health of the church today is our wealth. Somehow, we have convinced ourselves that we cannot be the church without elaborate sanctuaries in which to worship, a seminary trained pastor for each individual congregation, a Sunday School, numerous programs to meet every conceivable need and a big piece of real estate that does nothing other than provide a place for people to park their cars once a week on Sunday. The churches in the African nation of Namibia cannot afford any of these things, yet these churches are growing and thriving even as American churches decline. The question here is not about individual giving to the church-important as that is. Rather, the question is whether, as a church, we have given all to Jesus. How much of what we do is geared toward satisfying our own wants and needs as members rather than surrendering all to become the Body of Jesus in our communities? Do we trust Jesus enough to follow after him doing the things that matter eternally-even when those things are not financially rewarding, desired by our members or promising in terms of increasing membership? We confess each week in the Creed that we believe in Jesus, but are we ready to put our money where our mouth is? A church’s budget is frequently a portal into its soul. What do our financial records say about who we are? Do they reflect a passionate concern for the things that matter eternally?

Sunday, September 6th

FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-17
Mark 7:24-37

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Gracious God, throughout the ages you transform sickness into health and death into life. Open us to the power of your presence, and make us a people ready to proclaim your promises to the whole world, through Jesus Christ, our healer and Lord.

“Put not your trust in princes…” Psalm 146:3.

This renunciation did not come cheaply for Israel. From the dawn of the Iron Age when the people first demanded a king and the prophet Samuel reluctantly anointed one for them until the disastrous wars against Rome that ended once and for all her hopes for national restoration, Israel’s trust in human leaders invariably led to disappointment. The psalmist testifies to this hard won wisdom and warns his/her people against yielding again to the Siren song of messianic pretenders. Happy the people “whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord [their] God,” s/he declares. Psalm 146:5. God alone can be trusted to “uphold those who are bowed down…” to watch over the resident alien, to “uphold the widow and the fatherless…” Psalm 146:8-9. Yet it seems we cannot do without some type of human governance. That is why for the last three decades I have faithfully made my sojourn to the polling station on the first Tuesday in November to cast my vote.

But not this time. I have finally decided that, for the time being at least, I am through voting in national elections. I can already hear the howls of protest. How irresponsible to lay down a potent weapon in the struggle for social justice! How cold and unfeeling to abandon the marginalized by forsaking the political process! How can I so heartlessly turn my back on the needs of the world to revel in my self-centered, other worldly piety? Do I really imagine that I can keep my soul pure by refusing to dirty my hands with the hard work of advocating justice, peace and equity in the public forum? I don’t take these charges lightly. Nor did I make this decision without giving the matter some thought. So let me explain myself before you decide my case.

My rationale for refusing to vote is simple. I don’t vote because none of the candidates for whom I am eligible to vote care for the issues about which I am passionate. Some will offer them lip service, given the right audience. But no one I know is campaigning for truly affordable health care for all people, full and adequate funding for Medicaid and the WIC program. No candidate is running on proposals to end hunger and poverty globally or to pursue complete military disarmament. Nobody I know is advocating housing, healthcare and nutrition as basic human rights rather than mere “programs” that can be defunded at the whim of a congressional committee. If at least some of these things are not at the top of the agenda and incorporated into a candidate’s concrete proposals for the nation’s immediate future, I don’t believe it’s worth my time to stop by the ballot box.

Let me also say that, as far as I am concerned, it’s not about the economy. I have no interest in the sterile debate over which of the two major parties can do a better job of revitalizing the economy. Frankly, I have no interest in reviving an economy built on the foundation of exploited labor and risky financial ventures that put the pensions, savings and homes of ordinary people at risk to produce huge profits for speculators while producing no product of social value. I see no benefit to resurrecting an economy driven by credit rather than real wealth. We got into a recession just ten years ago through an orgy of consumption. By falsely inflating the value of real estate, mortgaging it to the hilt and packaging it into fraudulent financial instruments we duped the public into spending money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need at prices we cannot afford. Thinking that we can find our way to a sustainable solution through more of the same is lunacy. The economy does not need to be revived. It needs to be remade. I want an economy that produces goods and services that meet human need rather than satisfying human greed. I want an economy that compensates workers for the social value of what they produce. I want an economy that re-distributes wealth rather than concentrating it in the hands of a few. Nobody on any party’s slate is promising to work for that. To put it as simply as I can, I am not voting because there is no one for whom to vote.

Oddly enough, I have been called both cynical and hopelessly idealistic in almost the same breath: cynical because I have supposedly given up on politics and left it to the devil and his angels; hopelessly idealistic because it should be obvious to me that no candidate can possibly win an election on the platform I am looking for. Politics is the art of the possible, I am told. We must make the choices that are presented to us, not hold out indefinitely for choices we would like to have. But I must say, I cannot think of anything more cynical than the view that what we have on the slate is the best we will ever get and so we should just hold our noses and pull the lever for whoever’s stench is least offensive. I refuse to accept the proposition that we will never have any leader that is not selected for us by kingpins with the money and influence to buy their nominations. I must also say that I cannot imagine any sillier, more naïve, more head-head-in-the-sand notion than believing continued participation in a wholly corrupt, morally bankrupt system of elections dominated by two parties whose well-heeled handlers determine the outcome will someday produce a government with integrity. That is not even idealistic. It’s delusional.

I maintain that my refusal to vote is a vote. It is a vote of no confidence in a government by the wealthy and powerful for the wealthy and powerful. If enough of the electorate joins me, perhaps that will open the way for a new generation of leaders who see an opportunity in winning back the disenfranchised. Perhaps then we will get candidates willing to talk to us about the issues that matter. Maybe we will finally see an election that is not dominated by ideological food fights and name calling matches. Perhaps we will finally have debates consisting of more than trading sound bites. It may be that the door will finally be opened for concerns like mine actually to be heard, discussed and considered rather than dismissed out of hand as “off message.” Perhaps no vote is the only vote that holds out any hope for genuine change.

This might all be wishful thinking. I cannot guarantee that abstention from voting will bring about a salutary change. But I am reasonably sure that doing the same thing over and over based on the same assumptions and using the same methods practically guarantees getting the same result. Thirty years of voting consistently in every election has gotten me nothing but an increasingly self-interested, dysfunctional and unrepresentative government. So now I am trying something new.

Isaiah 35:4-7a

As I have noted previously, the Book of Isaiah constitutes a rich collection of prophetic oracles, prose and narrative that biblical commentators typically divide into three sections. The first section is largely attributed to the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39). Isaiah preached to Judah and counseled her kings during a tense period of the nation’s history as she lived uneasily in the shadow of the great Assyrian Empire. The second section, sometimes called “Second Isaiah” (Isaiah 40-55), is the work of an anonymous prophet who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile between 587 B.C.E. and 539 B.C.E. The prophesies comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66) come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E. The identity of this prophet is likewise unknown.

This three part division of Isaiah, like life in general, is not as neat and tidy as we might hope. Our lesson for Sunday is a prime example. Although located within the collection of prophetic material usually attributed to the Isaiah of the 8th century, these verses are taken from a poetic composition that comes to us from the 6th century and is therefore attributed to Second Isaiah or a prophet of his or her circle. In order to get a clear picture of what is happening here, you need to read Isaiah 35 in its entirety.

The prophet’s principal concern was to encourage the exiles to return to their homeland in Palestine. Naturally, the exiles were hesitant. After all, most of these people were second generation exiles born in Babylon. For them, exile did not feel like exile. It felt like home. They had built their livelihoods in Babylon and set down roots there. How likely is it that they would want to leave all of that behind to make a dangerous trip through what is now the Iraqi desert to start all over again in a land that they knew only through stories, songs and tradition? The prophet announces that God will be with the exiles no less than with the Israelites in Egypt. God will cause a garden to bloom in the heart of the desert rich with pools of water, vegetation and shade. No dangerous animal will inhabit this Eden like paradise that will stretch from Babylon to Jerusalem. Moreover, the garden highway will remain forever as a memorial to God’s new saving act of deliverance for the exiles. As the exiles set out on their journey home, their illnesses will be healed. The blind will see. The lame will dance and the deaf will hear.

One might fault the prophet for over promising. After all, we know that no such miraculous garden ever sprang up from the desert floor. We know also that the exiles’ journey back to Palestine was difficult and dangerous. Moreover, when the exiles arrived back home they found their beloved city in ruins, the land occupied by hostile peoples and much political resistance to rebuilding the community. Yet in spite of all that, the exiles did in fact return. The prophet’s message inspired them to respond in faith to this new window of opportunity and so a new chapter in Israel’s history began.

I believe this reading is instructive for us on many levels. First, it teaches us to look for the doors of opportunity God is opening for us in the unremarkable occurrences of everyday life. The exiles might have looked at the conquest of Babylon by Persia as no more than a geopolitical event that meant nothing to them. One tyrannical empire conquers another. That is how it has always been. Now we have a new master. So what? It took a prophetic imagination to see in this event an opportunity for something truly new. It took the eye of a prophet to spot God’s hand at work in what most would cynically characterize as “geopolitics as usual.” So where are the opportunities God is making in our world today? What doors are being opened? Is God dangling a glorious future right under our nose, but we fail to see it because we are so fixated on the past we lost and to which we long to return? What will it take to reignite a prophetic imagination in our hearts and minds?

Another aspect of all this is that, in some respects, the prophecy failed. The miraculous signs did not occur. The eternal memorial highway from Babylon to Jerusalem never materialized. The rebuilt community did not become the glorious magnet of wisdom and teaching that would draw all nations to peaceful co-existence. Then again, maybe the prophecy has not failed. Perhaps it still awaits fulfillment. Maybe this word of the Lord is bigger and more profound than even the prophet realized. Does God still have plans for Jerusalem? I hesitate even to ask the question because there is so much bad theology out there about the restoration of Jerusalem. Some of that theology calls for uncritical and unquestioned support for the State of Israel based on the mistaken belief that the rebuilding of Solomon’s temple (highly unlikely to occur for many reasons) will trigger a bloody end to the present age and the dawn of a new one-for the survivors anyway. Naturally, we don’t want to encourage these misguided notions.

Still, we ought not to over spiritualize this text. Clearly, Jerusalem is central to God’s saving work in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus wept over Jerusalem and brought his ministry to conclusion there. The New Testament speaks of Jerusalem as a potent symbol of the fulfillment of God’s ultimate intent of living among human creatures. Revelation 21:3-4. Jerusalem has been throughout the scriptures a unifying symbol of peace. Yet throughout history, the city of Jerusalem has been anything but that. Like the prophecy in Isaiah, the symbol that is Jerusalem has yet to become an historical reality.

I have never been a fan of “interfaith” dialogue. I find that enterprise generally trite, superficial and unproductive. Nevertheless, I cannot overlook the fact that the city of Jerusalem is a potent symbol of salvation, justice and peace for the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Perhaps a good place to begin a truly fruitful discussion is around the city of Jerusalem that means so much to all of us. How do we understand the role of Jerusalem in each of our faith traditions? Are we content to let Jerusalem continue being a source and center of bloody conflict? How might Zion become the crossroads where nations come for instruction in the ways of peace and justice? See Isaiah 2:2-5.

Psalm 146

This is a psalm of praise celebrating the sovereignty of Israel’s God. Like the rest of the psalms that follow it to the end of the Psalter (Psalm 147-Psalm 150), this hymn begins and ends with the exclamation, “hallelujah” which is Hebrew for “Praise Yahweh!” It is likely that this psalm comes rather late in Israel’s history. We know, at any rate, that it was used in later Judaism as part of daily morning prayer. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 830. There is no mention of the line of David nor any hint of the monarchy in Israel. After a half millennia of disappointing kings whose leadership ultimately led to the destruction of Solomon’s temple, the siege of Jerusalem and the loss of the promised land, Israel was in no mood to put her trust in yet another royal figure:

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.

When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.

Vss. 3-4. Instead, Israel is encouraged to put her trust in God. God is the one ruler who “sets the prisoners free.” Only “the Lord opens the eyes of the blind…lifts up those who are bowed down…” and “loves the righteous.”vss. 7-9. The only king worthy of our trust is the God of Israel.

The psalm concludes with the bold affirmation that the Lord will reign forever. The implication is that God has been reigning throughout history in spite of some severe setbacks for Israel and despite her precarious existence under foreign domination and occupation. This confidence is rooted in Israel’s past experience of God’s salvation for the poor and downtrodden in the Exodus, Wilderness Wanderings and the Conquest of the Land of Canaan. The return from Exile might also be in view here.

But it must also be said that Israel’s faith is future oriented. There is reflected here a hope, expectation and longing for the “Day of the Lord” when perfect justice and righteousness will be established through the defeat of Israel’s enemies. Everson, A. J., “Day of the Lord,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Vol. (c. 1976 by Abingdon) pp. 209-210.   This hope is sometimes expressed in military terms. When Israel prevailed over her enemies in war, she always understood these victories as engineered by God. See, e.g., Deuteronomy 8:17; Psalm 44:1-3. Yet from the time of the Judges to the time of the Maccabean princes, Israel’s experience with political and military rulers had been a disappointment. Even the best of these leaders had failed to inaugurate anything like the new creation to which her prophets testified. Clearly, another kind of messiah was needed.

James 2:1-17

For my general comments on the Letter of James, see my remarks at last week’s post for Sunday, August 30, 2015.

This Sunday’s lesson begins with an admonition against making judgmental distinctions among people within the church. Of course, there are legitimate distinctions among members of the Body of Christ as Paul points out. There are various gifts given to different members for use in building up the church. Some are called to preach, others to teach, still others to evangelize and so on. But there is no hierarchical distinction here. Rather, each person is to use his or her gift in building up the Body of Christ. It is not important which gift you have but rather how you are using it.

James is not talking about such distinctions here. Rather, he is coming down hard on the practice of importing into the church distinctions of rank, class and social status that deserve no recognition among disciples of Jesus. Distinction based on wealth noted by James is but one example of such improper discrimination. There are many others. Sunday morning is still the most racially segregated time of the week in our country.  To our shame, I must point out that my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America leads the pack on that score. See The Most and Least Racially Diverse U.S. Religious Groups. I don’t believe that most churches consciously decide to segregate. In fact, most protestants surveyed would agree with the statement, “Our church needs to become more racially/culturally diverse.” See “Research: Racial Diversity at Church More Dream Than Reality” at Lifeway Research. Diversity is widely lauded as an important principle. Everybody wants diversity. They just don’t want to be around people that are different. Our welcome extended to folks outside of our racial/cultural preserve grows cold when it becomes clear that “they” are not going to become like “us.” As James would point out, we never really do extend a genuine welcome to anyone we think of as “them.”

Some churches distinguish between charter members or “long time” members and more recent members, affording more respect and giving greater deference to the opinions of the former. It is also not uncommon for church leaders to yield to the demands of a high volume contributor or make concessions to individuals who provide valuable services to the church that might otherwise require expenditures of money. Nepotism is fairly common in churches, especially smaller congregations where a single family can exercise a substantial influence. All such favoritism tarnishes the church’s witness to God’s kingdom that makes no such distinctions among the baptized.

Often I believe churches practice an unintentional but deeply improper discrimination against children. I have never favored the practice of running “child care rooms” during the worship service or conducting Sunday School classes while the grownups are in church. Yes, I know how hard it is to be in church with small children. I raised three of my own. I know what it is like trying to keep them pacified, taking them in and out to the bathroom, enduring the annoyed and agitated stares of people in the surrounding pews. I’ve been there and done that. But I will add that I don’t regret a minute of it and I believe that there is no better place for a small child to be during the worship service than in the worship service. And let me go on record here to say that, as a pastor, I don’t care how loud, disruptive or hyperactive kids get during worship. From my perspective, there is only one thing worse than babies crying in church: no babies crying in church.

Mark 7:24-37

I don’t much care for the way Jesus treats this Syrophonician woman, but I can understand it. Jesus went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. This is gentile territory, territory where Jesus probably would not be generally known. Evidently, he wanted it that way. Jesus entered a home intending not to be seen or recognized. Vs. 24. Jesus had had enough. He had fed two crowds of people after teaching them for several days. He has had to endure constant sniping and criticism from his enemies. He has had to put up with the faithless and dimwitted antics of his disappointing disciples. Now Jesus is entitled to some down time. But even in this district where he should be anonymous, he cannot be hid. Vs. 24. A woman comes crying after him, begging him for help. Jesus snaps at her. “Let not the children’s bread be thrown to the dogs!” vs. 27. That sounds harsh and it is. But it is just a fact of life. Not even Jesus can heal everyone in the world. You have to draw the line somewhere, don’t you? Furthermore, dogs are dependent animals. They live from the hands of their masters, “the children.” If the children are not fed, the dogs will perish as well. Jesus needs his bread. If he doesn’t get it, nobody gets fed.

Yet the woman will not leave it there. Yes, she says, the children must be fed. But even so, there is enough left over to feed the dogs. Vs. 28. This remarkable woman is turning back on Jesus his own teachings that have been demonstrated not once, but twice in his feeding of the five thousand and four thousand respectively. God always provides enough for everyone’s need (if not for everyone’s greed). We cannot tell from the text, but it would not surprise me if Jesus smiled at this point as if to say, “Alright, you got me.”

If it is a little discomforting to see Jesus getting tired, irritated and losing his cool, perhaps that is because we forget that he was, after all, fully human. Jesus got tired and cranky like everyone else. Jesus was afraid of suffering and prayed to be delivered from the cross. When he was crucified, the pain, the suffering and despair was real. It was not just Superman playing dead. Living faithfully as God’s son did not make Jesus any less human. In fact, you could say that Jesus is the only one ever to have lived a genuinely human life.  We say that he was without sin not because he lacked human limitations, but because he lived faithfully within those limitations trusting his Heavenly Father with all matters beyond those limits.

The second story in this Sunday’s reading is Jesus’ healing the deaf and speechless man. This healing is intensely personal. In contrast to the exorcism of the Syrophonician woman’s daughter, whose demon was cast out from a distance, Jesus gets physical here. He touches the man’s ears. He spits and touches his tongue. Vs. 33. He looks up to heaven and sighs. He shouts, “Be open!” vs. 34. Everything Jesus does here is reflected in the healing rituals of other wonder workers in legends current during the ministry of Jesus. Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) pp. 203-204. The casting out of the demon in the prior story seemed almost effortless. This healing appears to require a great deal of exertion on Jesus’ part. I am not sure what is going on here. Is Jesus slowing down? Is the frantic pace of his ministry as related in Mark’s gospel finally starting to take its toll? In any event, Jesus once again enjoins to secrecy this man who has received the benefit of healing. As in prior instances, Jesus’ admonitions prove ineffective. The news of his good work spreads despite his efforts to keep it confidential. It appears that not even Jesus can hide himself or keep a lid on the good news of God’s coming reign.