Posts Tagged wisdom

Solomon: a pragmatically clever fool; Lessons for Sunday, July 30th; and a poem by Julia Kasdorf

EIGHTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

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

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

It is hardly surprising that young Solomon should pray for wisdom at this point in his life. He describes himself as “but a little child” who has inherited his father’s throne and must now reign over “a great people that cannot be numbered or counted for multitude.” The geopolitical landscape of the ancient near east was no less dangerous and complex than the global landscape is today. Peace and prosperity were maintained by strategic military alliances, trade agreements and treaties governing the use of land passages and waterways. Each nation had its own vital interests and ambitions. Israel’s wellbeing, indeed, her very existence as a nation state, required a leader capable of navigating these dangerous waters, avoiding reefs and shoals. Such a leader must recognize the benefits and dangers of international cooperation. He must possess a clear understanding of Israel’s vital interests and know when it is essential to be firm, when it is wise to be flexible, when the exercise military force is essential, when the wiser course is to refrain from military involvement. A strong leader must be a good judge of human character. He must know those he can trust to have his back, those on whom he must never turn his back and those who must be removed from positions of power altogether. A good ruler never promises his people more than he can deliver and he never delivers less than what the people need to thrive. It seems that young Solomon has a lot to learn in a very short time!

The wisdom for which Solomon prays, however, is not the wisdom of politics and statecraft. Instead, he prays for wisdom to discern “between good and evil.”  That is precisely the wisdom God promises Solomon. Significantly, however, God does not simply open up Solomon’s brain in order to pour this wisdom into his head. Instead, God points Solomon to the place where wisdom can be found. You will obtain wisdom, God tells Solomon, if only you “walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments.” That way of wisdom is spelled out more specifically in our Psalm reading for this Sunday, wherein the psalmist declares that the “unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” S/he tells us, “with open mouth I pant, because I long for thy commandments.” S/he pleads with God, “teach me thy statutes.”  S/he prays, “keep steady my steps according to thy promise, and let no iniquity get dominion over me.” Wisdom consists not in mastering the art of diplomacy, learning the protocols of the royal court, becoming proficient in navigating the politics of office and boardroom, but in having one’s character shaped and molded by living faithfully within the community of God’s covenant people. The people of Israel were not liberated from slavery in Egypt merely to become another nation like Egypt, oppressing its own people, enslaving foreigners and making gods of its emperors and kings. Israel’s life under her covenant with her liberating God was to be a light to the nations, the sign of a different way of being human, a testimony to the gracious will of the one true God for all of creation.

The narrative of Solomon’s reign unfortunately reflects precisely the wrong kind of wisdom. Solomon brought wealth, geopolitical dominance and cultural advances to Israel-but at a cost. The Temple built under Solomon’s direction in Jerusalem was constructed with slave labor. National security was maintained by brutally occupying and dominating smaller surrounding nations. Solomon’s elaborate building and military projects in Judah were financed by taxation that impoverished the common people, particularly those in Northern Israel which seceded from the house of David shortly after Solomon’s death. The international treaties into which Solomon entered involved his taking as wives the daughters of foreign kings and building for them shrines in which to worship their gods. The Israelite kingdom under Solomon was long on political success, but woefully short on covenant faithfulness.

From a practical perspective, one might argue that Solomon’s reign was comparatively less oppressive than those of other near eastern nations. Politics, being the art of the possible, does not pretend to create ideal societies. At its best, it builds the best society possible from the materials at hand. When it comes to affairs of state, good and evil are relative terms. Solomon inherited Israel’s disastrous decision to appoint a king to rule over her that she might “be like all the other nations.” He inherited a contentious and divided court simmering with blood feuds between his own brothers and ambitious military leaders left over from the prior administration. Solomon was not responsible for the violent state of the world in which his kingdom existed. Arguably, he did the best he could with what he had.

Such arguments, however, begin at the wrong place. Wisdom is not measured by the yardstick of pragmatism. “The fear of the Lord,” we are told, “is the beginning of wisdom.” Solomon’s reign, however successful it might seem on a geopolitical scale, did not satisfy God’s standard for wise leadership under the terms of the covenant. That covenant, as spelled out in the Torah, calls for protection, not enslavement of resident aliens. It requires a community in which no one goes hungry, no one is subject to foreclosure, no widow is left destitute and no orphan abandoned. The covenant requires that all worship and devotion be directed toward the one God who frees slaves. No practical objection can be raised to justify neglect of these or any other terms of God’s covenant designed to ensure justice for all. Consequently, sacrifices of practical safety, security and success are required by the wisdom that puts God and God’s priorities first. In order to be a light for the nations, Israel had to cease being a nation in her own right. It was only after she lost her royal line, her land and her temple, all the marks of nationhood, that Israel was able to start anew as a people whose sole identity derived from faithfulness to God’s covenant promises. Out of this new beginning the community of Israel that we know as Judaism was born.

The psalmist’s quest for wisdom begins at exactly the right place: prayer. The course of wisdom is not easily discernable. All of us are born into families with rivalries, conflicts and scars we didn’t create. We all have jobs that invite us to sacrifice more of ourselves than we or our families can afford. We live in a country whose democratic institutions are falling apart even as racist, misogynist and homophobic ideologies are on the rise. The temptation is great to negotiate this dangerous environment on its own terms. It is easy to remain silent when we ought to speak up. It is easy to speak before we have listened. It is easy to make compromises that help us get along to go along. It is easy to hunker down in a defensive position hurling insult for insult, blow for blow and tit for tat. But Jesus calls us to learn his way of dealing with a sinful world. He invites us to the table where all are welcome and everyone is fed; he invites us to sit together as one in order to hear his words; he invites us to let our characters be shaped and our actions flow from our friendship with him. Wisdom is learned by example. It is acquired by living faithfully and honestly in covenant community with other frail, foolish and struggling mortals. It is learned from being raised and mentored by wise and loving people.

Here is some godly wisdom poet Julia Kasdorf learned from her mother.

What I Learned From My Mother

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.

Source: Sleeping Preacher (c. Julia Kasdorf 1992, pub. by University of Pittsburgh Press) Julia Kasdorf (b. 1962) is a Poet, essayist, and editor. She was born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania and received her BA from Goshen College. She earned an MA in creative writing and a PhD from New York University. She is the editor for the journal, Christianity and Literature and author of several books of poetry. You can find out more about Julia Kasdorf and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

1 Kings 3:5–12

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 119:129–136

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

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

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

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

Romans 8:26–39

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52

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

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

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

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

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Sunday, May 22nd

The Holy Trinity

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

Prayer of the Day:  Almighty Creator and ever-living God: we worship your glory, eternal Three-in-One, and we praise your power, majestic One-in-Three. Keep us steadfast in this faith, defend us in all adversity, and bring us at last into your presence, where you live in endless joy and love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Does any of this stuff matter anymore?” That question was raised by a lay theology student in a class I was teaching on basic Christian Doctrine during a discussion of the Holy Trinity. This individual was not alone in her sentiments. More than a few of my congregants and even some of my colleagues question whether the assertions hammered out in the church councils and given expression in the Ecumenical Creeds still matter. “All that matters is that we follow Jesus.” This student went on to say.

In a way, I agree with her. Following Jesus is everything. Preaching, Bible Study and catechesis are not worth spit if they don’t lead us deeper into worship and discipleship. In a world threatened by war, famine, ecological destruction and gross injustice, how can we justify time spent obsessing over abstract doctrines of God? One colleague of mine jokes that you can question the Nicene Creed with impunity in my denomination, but God forbid you should be caught serving bottled water at a church event or using the wrong pronoun for the deity. We mainliners are not alone in this indifference to doctrinal precision. Christians who characterize themselves as “conservative evangelicals” seem far more interested these days in defining marriage, regulating sexuality, policing public lavatories and keeping “god” in the Pledge of Allegiance than defending central tenants of the faith set forth in the creeds. If John Shelby Spong and Franklin Graham seem to agree on anything, it is that doctrines like the Trinity are not particularly important to Christian faith and life.

Saint Augustine would take issue with us on that score. Augustine was no ivory tower theologian. He was about as immersed in his own contemporary culture as a person can be. He had lived his life under numerous doctrines about the nature of God and learned from bitter experience that it makes a huge difference what we say and believe about God. This is so precisely because the heart of the creator determines the shape of creation and dictates how we treat the earth and our fellow creatures both human and non-human. Christians confess that God created the world “ex nihilo,” that is, out of nothing. Strictly speaking, that is true, but in a larger sense we must say that God created the world out of love. The world exists not to meet some divine need. God was not lonely. It is because God is not a monad having only God’s single self to love that the world is not simply God’s ant farm. Because the love of God the Father has always had an object distinct yet within God’s self, namely, the Son, and because the love between Father and Son is a spiritual projection of God’s self, “the universe of space and time did not arise by chance, but the Three in love and hope, made room within their dance.” “Come Join the Dance of Trinity,” by Richard Leach, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 412.

Augustine’s Trinitarian arguments have often been criticized as mere word games. Yet I believe that there is a substantive basis for his insistence on the necessity of God’s being Triune. If God were merely one, could it still be said that God’s nature and character is love? Without an object, love can only be self directed-which is not genuine love at all. Consequently, if God were one and not Triune, love could not have preexisted creation as it would have had no object. The essence of God would then have to have been something other than love. Rather than God’s very being, love would be only an acquired divine attribute, a creature of God’s making rather than the essence of who God is.

Because God is Triune, love, faithfulness, obedience, friendship and community are eternal. They pre-existed creation in the being of the Triune God. That is why they require our witness, but never our defense. God’s will must be done and God’s kingdom must come because the forces resisting it are not within God and thus not eternal. Sin has no staying power. Evil cannot go the distance. Violence cannot silence the Word. Death cannot keep Jesus in the grave. Our hope for a new heaven and a new earth, says Augustine, is based on the conviction that the essence of the Triune God is love between the persons of the Trinity, love that God desires to share with all humankind. If God were less than Triune, God would be other than love and love would be less than eternal. If love matters to you, the Trinity should matter too.

Here’s a poem by Ariana Reines that speaks of love as a disruptive force that just “is.” I think Augustine would agree.

[Love]

Is an interruption or an aberration, a force in opposition to the ultimate inertia
of the universe,
 
Wrote Marguerite Duras.
 
Whether or not it is worth it it occurs. Whether or not it is to be believed it is.
 
The wind moves us without a frond being needed to be held by a slave girl.
 
The rudiments of sentences are ancient without a mouth needing to remember
what it is losing as it lets those words out, something eviller than what they
even mean right now, something too evil to be known right now
 
Or ever.
 
I feel sure that even the most culpable people have other qualities secreted
away
 
Adjusting their garments in light of fate
 
He turned his head upward, he looked up the white wall. The light from the
lamp could be light coming from a great distance, it could be a great distance
away, and the wall could be snow it is so beautiful, he said. His head looking
up the wall, his eyes looking up it, he said, that nail in the wall could also be
beautiful, for so far away.

Source: Mercury, (c. 2011 by Ariana Reines, pub. by Fence Books). Ariana Reines was born in Salem, Massachusetts. She is a poet, playwright and translator. She has taught at Columbia University and the European Graduate School. In 2009 Reines was the Roberta C. Holloway Lecturer in Poetry at the University of California-Berkeley, the youngest poet to ever to have held that distinctive position. She is deeply committed to humanitarian causes and has often traveled to Haiti to take part in relief efforts there. You can read more about Ariana Reines and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

I am not at all sure why this reading is included among the Holy Trinity lessons. It just happens to be one of the texts that the Arian heretics cited in support of their claim that the Son was a creature (albeit an exalted one) and in no sense true God. In this particular text, wisdom is not a pre-existent divine being distinct from God, but an aspect or characteristic of God who is poetically endowed with speech. Thus, it is largely irrelevant to the dispute between the Arians and the Orthodox Trinitarian believers. Still, it is a wonderful text testifying to the beauty and order of creation and the glory of its Creator.

The Book of Proverbs is a collection of poems and short sayings dating from as early as the tenth century B.C.E. to as late as the fourth century B.C.E. Unlike the Psalms which are for the most part expressions of prayer, praise, and lament within the context of worship, Proverbs is concerned with universal and pragmatic “wisdom” and the means by which it is acquired. Though clearly influenced by Egyptian and Mesopotamian wisdom literature, Israel’s understanding of wisdom has its own unique flavor. Though it shares with these foreign sources a humanistic focus on reasoned inquiry into the natural world, Israelite wisdom identifies the divine will and purpose as the ultimate human good wisdom reveals. Truth acquired through reason is open to the whole of humanity. Still, for Israel wisdom is subordinate to Israel’s God. It functions within the context of Israel’s covenants and the Torah.

In view of all this, it is not surprising that the particular poem in this week’s lesson affirms that wisdom, as wonderful as she is and though accessible to all willing to submit to her instruction, is nevertheless God’s creation. The human mind can do no more than appropriate what already exists by virtue of God’s creative activity at the dawn of time. Wisdom therefore necessarily takes the shape of Torah. It is not that Israel forsakes reasoned inquiry for blind adherence to law. Nor can it be said that Israel’s keen spirit of inquiry runs contrary to Torah obedience. Rather, Torah both shaped Israel’s questions of the natural world and informed her conclusions. Perhaps the clearest case of incorporation of wisdom into Torah is found in the very lengthy Psalm 119. Though the psalmist praises Torah as the source of all wisdom, it is obvious his/her own wisdom has been forged in the furnace of experience where Torah meets the challenges of everyday life.

Psalm 8

This psalm is one that biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann classifies a song of orientation. As such, it expresses “a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Publishing House (c. 1984) p. 25. It is further classified by the majority of Old Testament scholars as a “creation” psalm glorifying God for making and sustaining an orderly and reliable world in which season follows upon season, harvest upon harvest and the cycles of birth, maturation, old age and death are blessed with the gracious presence of the Lord.

The psalm points specifically to the place of human beings in the created order. Though the psalmist does not focus on human frailty and mortality, s/he is clearly aware of it when asking “what are human beings and their descendants that you care for them?” vs. 4. In comparison with God’s other works, the sun, the moon and the stars which are for all practical purposes immortal, human beings with their moribund existence and their short, fragile lives hardly seem to register. Yet the psalmist recognizes that God is uniquely concerned with human beings, that they are little lower than the angels in his estimation and that they have been appointed to rule over the earth and its creatures.

It is important to understand that “dominion” over the earth given human beings is to be exercised as an extension of God’s reign over creation. Thus, the words of last week’s psalm should be ringing in our ears: “All of [the creatures of the earth]look to you to give them their food in due season. You give it to them; they gather it; you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.” Psalm 104:27-29. Dominion is not given to human beings for exploitation of the earth and its resources. Human beings rule as stewards who must give account for the care they have exercised in managing God’s good earth. Ecology is very much a biblical value!

Stylistically, the psalm is carefully crafted to reflect in its composition the same good order manifest throughout God’s creation. It begins and ends with the same refrain: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!” The psalm begins with people, even infants, glorifying God for the majesty of the heavens. Then the psalm turns to God’s glorification of human beings, small though they may be, in making them rulers over the earth and sea.

Romans 5:1-5

For Paul, the Holy Spirit is the animating force for the church which he regards as the Body of the resurrected Christ. As such, the Spirit’s primary concern is the health of that Body. Gifts of the Spirit given individually to members of the church are intended to “build up” the Body of Christ. Thus, it matters not at all which particular gift one has, but how one uses his or her gift. Whether one speaks in other tongues, prophesies, works miracles or exercises leadership, the net result must be that the church is strengthened. If leadership divides and alienates rather than unites or if miracles draw attention to the miracle worker rather than to the mercy of God in Christ, then these gifts become tools of Satan to break down the Body. Paul lays out all of this very succinctly inI Corinthians 12. Put differently, spiritual gifts must be exercised under the gentle reign of love. Of all the manifestations of the Spirit within the church, “the greatest of these is love” I Corinthians 13:13. That should help us understand what Paul is saying here in Romans.

“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” Vs. 5. Recall Augustine’s assertion that the Trinitarian character of God is revealed in the love between the Father and the Son which is the Holy Spirit. Genuine love, however, is not exclusive. It “overflows” the bounds of the relationships that give rise to it. Perhaps that is what we mean when we confess in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from the Father and the Son. Love is ever seeking new objects. It is precisely because the one God is also three and because the relationship between the three is characterized by their mutual love and because love by its very nature makes room for the other, the Spirit of God, which is love, broods over the waters at the dawn of time seeking that other. The Word beckons the other into being and the Father blesses what comes to be. Again, this is not to say that the universe was the work of a committee. Rather, creation is a singular act of the Triune God which bears the stamp of that God’s innermost Trinitarian being.

It is perhaps clearer now why Jesus could say that the two greatest commandments are first to love God with all the heart, mind, soul and strength, and next to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Such love is grounded in the innermost being of God.

John 16:12-15

In this tightly packed paragraph from John, Jesus speaks of the interaction between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of truth will be given to the disciples and will lead them into “all the truth.” Yet the Spirit speaks not on its own authority, but on the authority of the Father. However, the Spirit imparts “truth” to the disciples by “taking what is mine [Jesus’) and declaring it to you.” The disciples are recipients of the Spirit who comes from the Father and whose sole job is to impart Jesus to them. Once again, the sending of the Spirit is a unitary act of the one Triune God by which the disciples are drawn into the heart of God’s Trinitarian life of mutual love. Not surprisingly, this section of John was a favorite of our friend Augustine (on whom I have perhaps gone a little heavier than I should have!).

 

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Sunday, August 16th

TWELFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Proverbs 9:1-6
Psalm 34:9-14
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Ever-loving God, your Son gives himself as living bread for the life of the world. Fill us with such a knowledge of his presence that we may be strengthened and sustained by his risen life to serve you continually, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

I have never been a fan of “home schooling.” That is partly because I believe one important objective of education is training children to live in and take responsibility for the larger society. Public schools are and should be places where children are confronted with people expressing ideas, holding opinions and practicing beliefs that are different from their own precisely because ours is a nation founded on the belief that such differing folk can nevertheless work together for the common good. I must also confess that my skepticism toward home schooling has been reinforced by many of its proponents whose fear, loathing and distrust of the larger society, often supported by outlandish conspiracy theories, sometimes borders on paranoia. The belief that our public schools are the agents of some nefarious plot to undermine religion, family values and promote moral anarchy strikes me as, well, a little crazy. What sort of child emerges from an isolated family unit where s/he is taught to fear and distrust the civil institutions that make our common life as a people possible?

Yet some recent reflections shared by home schooler Paisley Hillegeist in a recent issue of Plough Quarterly have given me pause. Ms. Hillegeist is no conspiracy theorist, nor does she view the public school system as the dark side of the force. She is, however, concerned about the carnivorous environment existing in middle and high schools. Bullying, drug abuse, sexual exploitation are recurring problems within the student population that she feels the schools are finding difficult to address effectively. These concerns, however, are not the primary reasons for Ms. Hillegeist’s decision to home school her children. She points out that she is able to shape her curriculum to the needs of her children in a way that would be nearly impossible in a class of thirty students. She is able to integrate the disciplines of prayer, worship and service into the children’s daily routine. Moreover, academic learning can be integrated with daily life. “We learn life skills together. How do you balance a checkbook? Mail a package? Do the laundry? Shop for the best deals? Build a chicken coop? Butcher turkeys? All this is part of our classroom.” “Why I Homeschool,” Plough Quarterly, Winter 2015, No. 3 (c. 2014 by Plough Publishing House) p. 35.  Most impressive, however, is Ms. Hillegeist’s insistence that “character comes first.” Ibid. More important than what her children may end up doing in life is who they become. “I believe with all my heart,” she says, “that the most powerful good I can bring to my community is to raise my own kids in the way that will best help them to become the men and women that God has created them to be.” Ibid. Education is not all about knowledge. It is chiefly about wisdom.

That, I believe, is what our modern approaches to education so often lack. Our assumption seems to be that education serves the needs of the labor market which, in turn, serves the profit generating, corporate interests of Wall Street. Nothing illustrates this trend better than the so called “Common Core Initiative.” According to its website:

“State education chiefs and governors in 48 states came together to develop the Common Core, a set of clear college- and career-ready standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts/literacy and mathematics. Today, 43 states have voluntarily adopted and are working to implement the standards, which are designed to ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to take credit bearing introductory courses in two- or four-year college programs or enter the workforce.”

It is important to add that, despite any flowery policy language to the contrary, the two or four year college programs are likewise designed to integrate their graduates into the workforce, albeit at a higher level. Education is all market driven. It consists in cramming the heads of young people full of knowledge that will make them profitable. That is why programs like music and art are always the first to hit the cutting room floor when public school revenue drops. Multinational corporations can hardly expect to turn a profit through county libraries, municipal orchestras or community theater. Unless you are a child prodigy, you might as well not bother pursuing an education in the fine arts. There is no market for that sort of thing. Is it any wonder, then, that kids fail to empathize with each other when they are treated like machine parts? Is it any wonder that they deaden the pain of suppressing their humanity with illicit drugs? Can you blame them for making self-destructive decisions when they are supplied with knowledge, but left unschooled in wisdom?

The scripture lessons for this week have much to say about wisdom. Our lesson from the Book of Proverbs invites us to feed ourselves with wisdom. The psalmist encourages us to pursue the wise practices of truthfulness and peacemaking. Paul urges us to walk wisely through a world in bondage to folly on the strength of prayer and song. Jesus is the very embodiment of wisdom calling us to internalize him by “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood.”

Wisdom should never be confused with mere knowledge. Knowledge gives us power over things. Wisdom gives us power over ourselves. The same body of knowledge can enable us to make either vaccines or biological weapons. Wisdom teaches us to place knowledge in the service of life. Wisdom concerns not so much what we learn as how we are shaped by our learning. The mere acquisition of knowledge is not genuine education. Our children are not machines for programming to meet the needs of the labor market. They are unique children of God whose lives unfold like blossoms. Education seeks to nourish and strengthen them as they seek the mystery that is God’s purpose for them. I applaud Ms. Hillegeist for having the courage to say “no” to the dehumanizing and abusive values of late stage capitalism and having the courage to educate her children into character so that they might become wise as well as knowledgeable. That’s a gutsy choice that I admire-even if I cannot follow it in good conscience.

I am still not a supporter of home schooling. Though Ms. Hillegeist’s words and example have raised important questions and illuminated much that is wrong with our educational institutions in this country, I am not convinced that home schooling is the answer. My responsibility for education does not end with my own children and I cannot properly educate my children on my own. Love her or hate her, Hillary Clinton got it right on this point: it takes a village to raise a child. Together, we must all learn to educate our children to live wisely and well as they pursue the common good. To that end, can we as parents and teachers take back the education of our children? Can we make education serve our children rather than the needs of the market? Can we create space for interaction between the classroom, the family and the faith community? Can we educate children to become wise and compassionate as well as knowledgeable?

Proverbs 9:1-6

The Book of Proverbs, along with Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and several of the Psalms constitutes a collection of works biblical scholars often refer to as “wisdom literature.”  “Wisdom,” loosely defined, is insight gained through life experience often expressed in short proverbial sayings. One such example is Proverbs 10:2, “Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death.” This is true as far as it goes. How many wealthy and powerful people have been brought down by an insatiable desire for wealth that knows no moral or ethical boundaries! But is it always the case that ill-gotten gain leads to ruin? Is righteousness always rewarded? It didn’t turn out that way for Job. Furthermore, the “preacher” in Ecclesiastes has this to say: “There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy upon men: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them; this is vanity; it is a sore affliction.” Ecclesiastes 6:1-2. So which is true? Is it the proverb or the observation of the preacher?

The answer is that both utterances are true as far as they go, and they only go as far as the experiences of the people who make them. Human wisdom, though valuable and worth pursuing, is nevertheless incomplete, partial and subject to modification. It is true that righteousness and integrity can bring you respect and a good name in the community. But sometimes the cost of doing the right thing is the loss of friendship, respect and social standing. Wickedness often is its own punishment, but we also know of people who inflict all manner of pain on others and are never brought to justice. That is why it is best to take these utterances of human wisdom not as moral laws governing the universe, but as the experiences of individuals who have lived their lives in pursuit of understanding. Wisdom literature invites us to step into the shoes of people who have lived life under numerous circumstances and have each come to view it from their own perspectives. Think of wisdom sayings as portholes into reality. Because they are unique and different from our own perspectives, they enrich our understanding. Yet we dare not forget that, like all human perspectives, these sayings are limited to the experience of one individual. They do not take in all of reality. So it should not surprise us to find different and even conflicting expressions of learned wisdom. Biblical wisdom does not fit neatly into a unified system because, as the product of human experience, it is necessarily incomplete.

The Book of Proverbs is made up of four distinct collections of sayings. Book I (Proverbs 1:1-9:18) consists of extended discourses of warning and admonition that encourage the hearer to live piously, ethically and prudently. In two of these poems, wisdom is personified as a wise and beautiful woman. Proverbs 1:20-33 and Proverbs 8:1-36. Wisdom is similarly personified in today’s reading taken from this first book. Our lessson is part of a larger poem contrasting wisdom with folly. Proverbs 9:1-18.

Books II (Proverbs 10:1-22:16) and IV (Proverbs 25:1-29:7) are both attributed to King Solomon. They contain collections of maxims dealing mostly with virtues, vices and their consequences. Attribution to Solomon does not necessarily imply authorship. The identification might simply reflect the author’s/editor’s tribute to Solomon’s legendary wisdom. That said, I am not ready to dismiss the potential contribution of Solomon to either of these two books. Wisdom literature reaches “back into the earliest stages of Israel’s existence.” Crenshaw, J.L., Wisdom in the Old Testament, Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, (c.1976, Abingdon). It was during the reign of Solomon that the Israelite monarchy reached the height of its international prominence. Solomon made treaties with Egypt and the Phoenician kingdoms, transacting commerce and forming military compacts. Cultural exchanges would have followed naturally and thus exposure to wisdom literature from these sources. The authors/editors of Proverbs may well have had access to collections of sayings from this ancient and illustrious period.

Book III (Proverbs 22:17-24:34; Proverbs 24:23-34; Proverbs 30:1-31:31) is a series of exhortations of Egyptian sages probably modeled on an ancient book of Egyptian wisdom entitled “The Instruction of Amen-em-ope.” These sayings may date back to the time of David and Solomon and so could have come into the hands of royal scribes through the cultural exchanges with Egypt previously discussed. The final editor fused all four of these books into one, attributing them all to Solomon. Proverbs 1:1. For more on this marvelous book of the Bible, see Summary Article by James Limburg, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N.

In our lesson we read that wisdom has “slaughtered her beasts, she has mixed wine, she has sent out her maids to call from the highest places, ‘Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!’ To him who is without sense, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.’” Vss. 4-5. Perhaps Jesus had this saying in mind when he told his parable of the unresponsive guests invited to the wedding feast. Matthew 22:1-10; Luke 14:15-24. To turn away from wisdom’s feast of learning is foolish. How much more so to snub an invitation to the messianic banquet! The reading also underscores the importance of eating that is far from simply metaphorical. Most people in the ancient near east were always just a bad harvest away from starvation. Eating well is a mark of wellbeing as Jesus’ discourse throughout chapter 6 has been demonstrating.

“Leave simpleness and live and walk in the way of insight.” Vs. 6. Simplicity is often portrayed as a virtue: “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free…” says the old Shaker hymn. But there is a dangerous simplicity that seeks to eliminate all nuance and ambiguity. There is a simplicity that prefers clearly drawn lines between good and evil, right and wrong, friend and enemy, insider and outsider. The dangerous polarization we are witnessing in our civil discourse these days is a good example of where such simplicity leads us. Insight recognizes the shades of gray inhabiting the vast no-man’s land between the lines of combat. Insight makes us mindful of our limitations, blind spots and inherited prejudices that distort our thinking. Insight understands that every event, every conflict and every spoken word is seen, heard and processed differently by each individual person. Insight knows that listening is the most important communication skill we will ever develop.

Psalm 34:9-14

These verses constitute the second half of the psalm from last Sunday. For my observations on the psalmist’s style and the psalm’s literary characteristics, see the post for Sunday, August 9, 2015.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” says the psalmist in Psalm 111:10. Not surprisingly, then, the psalmist in our psalm for this Sunday calls us to learn the fear of the Lord. Vs. 11. “What man is there who desires life, and covets many days, that he may enjoy good?…Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” Vss. 12-13. Does good conduct lead to a long and satisfying life? Often, but not always. Again, this is the experience of the psalmist. It is also my own experience. Let me be clear about this. I have not always been so very successful in departing from evil and doing good or seeking peace. But when I am, I discover that life is better. I am much happier when I am not pursuing a zero sum game, win at all costs strategy, but looking instead beyond the immediate conflicts I have with people to the people themselves and working toward building relationships of trust. That makes it possible to find win/wins solutions.

Still, in all honesty, that has not always been my experience. Sometimes people take advantage of my trust and return my offer of friendship with hostility. The psalmist appears to have had similar experiences. He or she goes on to say in verses not included in our reading, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous…”  Vs. 19. Clearly, righteousness does not immunize one against the slings and arrows of living in a world filled with cruelty and injustice. Indeed, righteous conduct sometimes invites hostility. The righteous are sometimes “brokenhearted” and “crushed in spirit.” Vs. 18. Nevertheless, the psalmist reminds us that even at these times “the Lord is near.” Vs. 18.

How is it possible to keep one’s tongue from evil and one’s lips from speaking deceit? Vss. 13. This warning echoes Paul’s admonition from Ephesians last week to put aside all falsehood and speak the truth. Ephesians 4:25. There is much deceit taking place, not the least of it within ourselves. We have an enormous capacity for self-justification, blaming, scapegoating and excuse making that colors the way we understand everything and everyone around us. This is why we need to be in a community dedicated to speaking truthfully. We need each other to overcome our own self-deception. Unless that is happening, we cannot hope to speak convincingly to the world around us.

Ephesians 5:15-20

Once again, I refer you to my post of Sunday, July 12, 2015 for general comments about the Letter to the Ephesians. In our lesson for this Sunday, Paul admonishes us to “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” Vs. 15. This usage of “walk” is found throughout Ephesians. In Ephesians 2:2 Paul reminds his readers that, prior to their baptism into Christ, they “walked” in sin following the course of this world (N.B. NRSV translates “walked” as “lived”). But now, as Christ’s workmanship, they “walk” in the “good works” for which they were created. Ephesians 2:10.  In chapter 5 we find the admonition to walk at three points. First Paul urges us to “walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” Ephesians 5:2. (Again, NRSV uses “live” instead of “walk”). Next, Paul tells his readers that, having been brought out of darkness into the light, they must walk as “children of the light.” Ephesians 5:8. (Again, NRSV renders “walk” as “live”). So in today’s lesson we are urged to walk as “wise” people. Vs. 15. (Ever consistently if not aptly, NRSV employs “live”).

I am not ordinarily disposed to quibble with the NRSV. It is by far one of the most accurate and readable translations of the Scriptures available in the English language. But in rendering the Greek word “walk” or “peripdateo” as simply to “live,” the translators have done us a disservice. The Greek carries with it the sense of “walking after” taken from the ancient practice of instruction under which young persons studying with a particular teacher followed after that teacher. Paul intersperses this expression with “sit” (Ephesians 1:20; Ephesians 2:6) which in Hebrew usage is also a posture of learning. E.g., Luke 10:39; Acts 8:31. For Paul in Ephesians (in the Scriptures as a whole, for that matter), wisdom is not understood as knowledge to be obtained, but as a habit of the heart to be learned, practiced and grown into. It is not merely absorbed into memory from the written page, but taught through the example of a mentor whose living relationship to his/her disciple gives shape to his/her teaching.

So too, Paul urges us to “understand what the will of the Lord is.” Vs. 17. That is a tall order. It isn’t that I don’t know generally what God requires. The problem arises when I try to understand what God requires of me in the minutia of my day to day life. If God is not active there, then God’s will is largely irrelevant. Oddly enough, we are not given much guidance here. We are warned against drunkenness-that clearly will not get us to an understanding of God’s will for us. Vs. 18. But when it comes specifically to figuring out God’s will, we are told simply to be filled with the Holy Spirit-and to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Vss. 18-19. Yet maybe the apostle is on to something here. There is nothing like singing to create a sense of community and shared vision. Other than the national anthem sung at sports events, I cannot think of any situation in our culture except worship where people still sing together. There is something about singing that opens a person’s imagination to a broader view of things. A hymn is sort of like a snowball. The more you sing it at different times and places in your life, the more meaning it accumulates. I suspect that for all of us there is a hymn that makes us tear up, a song that helps us visualize the mysteries of faith that escape conceptualization. I think that the practice of singing our faith together helps us to internalize that faith and so also create space for the Spirit of God to begin working out God’s intent for us. We don’t begin by trying to figure out God’s will and then trying to do it. Rather, we begin with worship. Gradually, we begin to recognize God’s will unfolding in our lives after it has seeped into our bones through the practices of worship, singing, prayer, generosity and hospitality.

John 6:51-58

I have to confess that my initial reaction to this section of John is, “Yuck!”  The image of someone eating flesh and drinking blood, even when understood metaphorically, is distasteful to put it mildly. And clearly, Jesus is not speaking metaphorically. This conversation started out with Jesus providing bread to five thousand people who proceeded to eat, chew and swallow it. Jesus then identifies himself as the bread of life, that which sustains human existence. But lest we get too comfortable with this assertion as a benign figure of speech, Jesus drives it home with some very graphic language: “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you…” Vs. 53. The bread of life Jesus offers comes at the cost of his own death at the very hands of those he came to feed. Moreover, the way to eternal life is through sharing in Jesus’ suffering and death. The crowd which initially sought Jesus with enthusiasm thinking that they had found an ATM with a limitless supply of bread, now begins to turn on Jesus. How can Jesus’ flesh satisfy their hunger? How can his blood satisfy their thirst? Vs. 52. They want desperately to turn the conversation back to plain old bread. But Jesus will not let them off the hook. “The bread you are seeking,” says Jesus, “won’t satisfy your hunger.” Even the manna God provided for Israel in the wilderness could not satisfy the peoples’ deepest need. John 6:49. What the people needed and what we need is a restored relationship with our Heavenly Father. Reconciliation requires risk, sacrifice and even loss of life. Not surprisingly, Jesus paid with his life for the reconciliation he offers our troubled and warring world. The early Christian martyrs knew that witnessing to the reconciliation achieved in Jesus leads to persecution. The price of pursuing peace and reconciliation was death for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This living bread, so freely and generously shared with us, comes at a terrible cost.

It is also worth noting that, for John, eternal life is more than just living forever and it does not begin sometime in the distant future. Living eternally means doing the things that matter eternally. That is what Jesus’ “signs” are all about. Jesus shares his bread with a hungry crowd; Jesus provides wine in abundance for a peasant wedding; Jesus speaks with a Samaritan woman-a bitter enemy of his people; Jesus heals a cripple who is living on the fringe of the fringe; Jesus opens the eyes of a man born blind and deemed under the curse of God. These are signs not because they are miracles, but because they show the miraculous power of God turning toward the poor, the outcast and the rejected. What matters eternally is how we treat those deemed the least of all people.

These verses resonate, I believe, with our Lutheran insistence that the Eucharistic bread and wine are not figuratively, metaphorically or symbolically Christ’s Body, but truly and actually the Body and Blood of Christ. This is so because unless the resurrected Christ is present, there is no Church. But because the bread and wine on our altar is the Body and Blood of Christ and because we are what we eat, the congregation eating this food is likewise the Body of the Resurrected Christ in the world today. I have always found it interesting that John’s gospel does not end with Jesus sending his disciples out to proclaim the gospel or with Jesus ascending to the right hand of God. John’s gospel ends the way the other gospels begin: with the disciples leaving their nets and their boat to follow after Jesus. The last words spoken by Jesus to his disciples in the Gospel of John are “follow me.” John 21:19. It is as though John simply cannot conceive of the church without the presence of its resurrected Lord.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Sunday, July 27th

SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Kings 3:5–12

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 119:129–136

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

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

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

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

Romans 8:26–39

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52

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

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

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

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

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Sunday, February 16th

SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Deuteronomy 30:15–20
Psalm 119:1–8
1 Corinthians 3:1–9
Matthew 5:21–37

O God, the strength of all who hope in you, because we are weak mortals we accomplish nothing good without you. Help us to see and understand the things we ought to do, and give us grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Two men were seated in a darkened movie theater. One, Curtis Reeves, a retired police captain with a distinguished record of public service. The other, Chad Oulson, a husband and father of a young toddler. Both men were gainfully employed, taxpaying citizens enjoying an American entertainment staple-going to the movies. A dispute arose over Oulson’s use of a cell phone as the movie was starting. Reeves complained. Oulson ignored him. Reeves became increasingly vocal in his complaints. Oulson turned to confront him. Tempers flared. Oulson threw his popcorn on Reeves. Reeves pulled out a revolver and shot Oulson, killing him and wounding his wife.

How did this trivial dispute over theater etiquette erupt into a violent confrontation ending in death? I suspect testosterone had something to do with it. A young man is insulted and disrespected in front of his wife. An older man, having been an authority figure all his life, finds his authority ignored and finally challenged. Each feels his manhood is on the line. Neither can afford to back down. They are both trapped in a spiral of escalating anger taking them where I suspect neither of them really wanted to go. The end, I am sure, is not what either Reeves or Oulson could have imagined.

Anger is a dangerous emotion. When it seizes control, it robs a person of rationality and common sense. When people are angry, they make rash statements they later regret. They make poor decisions. In the extreme, anger leads to violence. At the dawn of history Cain became angry with his brother Abel. God warned Cain with these words: “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Genesis 4:6-7. Tragically, Cain could no more master his anger than could Reeves and Oulson. So history began with brother murdering brother out of anger. And so it continues.

Jesus was right on the mark when he equated anger with murder. The latter frequently follows upon the former. Relatively few murders are committed in “cold blood.” There is almost always provocation of some sort, either real or imagined. For that reason, Jesus counsels his disciples to nip anger in the bud. The time for reconciliation is when anger first rears its ugly head. If you have reason to believe that someone is angry at you or you become aware of anger against someone else, drop what you are doing-even if you are in the middle of prayer-and be reconciled. The earlier anger is quenched, the less time it has to breed hatred and violence.

There is no place for anger in the church. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out, “Jesus will not accept the common distinction between righteous indignation and anger.” Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Cost of Discipleship, (c. 1959 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 143. Jesus meant for his community of disciples to be an “anger free zone.” Reconciliation requires us to put ourselves into the skin of the very person with whom reconciliation is sought; to see ourselves through his/her eyes; to be ready and willing to let go of our anger. I cannot do that on my own. I am too blinded by my rage; too convinced of the rightness of my own cause; too hurt and fearful to expose my wounds to those I feel have injured me. I need a community of honesty and truthful speech to help me diagnose the source of my deep seated anger. Before I can risk reconciliation, I need to know that I am embraced by the Body of Christ where I can be certain that the sins brought to light in the process of confession will be forgiven. The church is the one place where anger must not be allowed the last word. It is the place where anger is recognized, exposed, confessed, forgiven and reconciled out of existence.

Deuteronomy 30:15–20

This lesson is for people on the brink of a new frontier. The Book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ final word to the people of Israel as they are encamped on the borders of the Promised Land. Life is about to change for the people of Israel. They will no longer have Moses to lead them. Moses, of course, has been leading the people for half a century. He confronted Pharaoh, King of Egypt on their behalf speaking God’s demand for Israel’s release from slavery. He led Israel out of Egypt and to the brink of the Red Sea where God defeated Pharaoh’s armies decisively. Moses was God’s spokesperson bringing down from Mt. Sinai the words of the covenant that would shape Israel’s new life of freedom. He was with the people throughout their wanderings in the wilderness. Now Moses addresses the people for one last time before they reach their long awaited destination.

The Book of Deuteronomy is connected with the reform movement undertaken during the reign of King Josiah. See II Kings 22-23. Though reportedly triggered by the rediscovery of “the book of the law” during the course of renovating Jerusalem’s temple (II Kings 22:8-13), the teachings of Deuteronomy reflect much of the preaching against idolatry and injustice found in the writings of the prophets. The Book of Deuteronomy itself therefore represents more than whatever might have been discovered in the temple. It is rather a reinterpretation of the ancient Mosaic covenant with Israel in light of centuries of prophetic preaching and bitter experience of Israel’s failure to live faithfully within that covenant under the pressures and temptations of nationhood. More than likely, the Book of Deuteronomy is the product of a few authors working with various ancient traditions brought together by the final author/editor into the single canonical narrative we have today.

The decline of Assyrian influence in the near east at the end of the 7th Century gave the Southern Kingdom of Judah breathing room to rebuild and re-assert its independence from imperial control. The writers and editors of Deuteronomy saw this geopolitical development as Judah’s opportunity for a fresh start and a new beginning. Drawing upon the wisdom of the Mosaic covenant, they retold Israel’s story in such a way as to inspire hope for the dawn of this new day and to warn of the temptations they knew were lying ahead.

It seems we are always on the frontier of something. Seniors in high school look forward with anticipation to June which holds for them a new existence, whether in college, the workforce, the armed forces or, sadly, the increasingly challenging search for work. Embarking on married life is a similar departure into unknown territory. Those of us beginning to feel the aches and pains of aging bodies understand that we finally will face the ultimate frontier where we will be compelled to rely upon the steadfast love of our Good Shepherd more than ever before. Each frontier holds both promise and threat; possibilities and temptations; invitations to faith and the danger of unbelief. In each instance, we are faced with life and death decisions. Whether we are the children of Israel at the border of Canaan, the nation of Judah picking itself up again after years of foreign domination, or churches here in the Meadowlands struggling to understand how to be the church in a society that no longer needs the church; God’s people are always at the edge of some new frontier. Moses’ admonition: Chose life. Vs. 19. Cleave to God; obey God; trust God. Remember both who and whose you are.

Moses promises prosperity and wellbeing for the people should they choose obedience to the covenant and destruction should they disobey. As noted in last week’s post on Psalm 112, this testimony is true as far as it goes. The commandments were given to order life around faithfulness to God and love of neighbor. In a community shaped by these commands, faithfulness is rewarded with blessing. But no community is ever so thoroughly shaped by the covenant that it is free from injustice. Moreover, when the people of God are thrown into historical circumstances where the covenant community is shattered and the covenant no longer carries any weight, this simple equation breaks down altogether. This is what Walter Brueggeman would call the “state of disorientation” where faithfulness results not in blessing, but in suffering, persecution and even death. Brueggeman, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 52. The Books of Ecclesiastes and Job as well as many of the lament Psalms afford a corrective, reminding us that very often the faithful suffer grievously even as the wicked prosper. The ultimate test of faith, then, comes when faithfulness seems ineffective, futile and even counterproductive. It is precisely this sort of faith to which Jesus calls his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.

Psalm 119:1–8

Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible with no less than 176 verses. It is also just two chapters away from the shortest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 117, which is a mere two verses. So much for Bible trivia.

Like Psalm 112 from last week, Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem. However, instead of each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Psalm 119 is made up of twenty-two 8 verse sections in which each line begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Sunday’s reading consists of the first section in which each of the 8 verses begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “aleph.” The next section has each verse beginning with the next Hebrew letter, “beth.” So it goes for twenty more sections through the rest of the Hebrew alphabet ending in the letter “tav.” Thus, if the composition sometimes appears a bit strained, remember that the psalmist is working within the confines of a stringent poetic form. Anyone who has ever attempted to compose a sonnet in the form utilized by Shakespeare will understand.

Though characterized as a “wisdom” psalm by most scholars, Psalm 119 has elements of praise as well as lament. Old Testament Professor, Artur Weiser gives this psalm a rather short and dismissive evaluation: “This psalm, the most comprehensive of all the psalms, is a particularly artificial product of religious poetry. It shares with Psalms 9, 10, 111 and others the formal feature of the alphabetic acrostic, with the difference, however, that here the initial letter remains the same for each of the eight lines of a section. In accordance with the number of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet twenty-two such ‘poems’ are joined together; these, however, neither show a consistent thought-sequence one with another nor represent units complete in themselves. This formal external character of the psalm stifles its subject-matter. The psalm is a many-coloured mosaic of thoughts which are often repeated in wearisome fashion…” Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 739.

I think the good professor’s cursory treatment is unwarranted. Though admittedly lacking in chronologically progressive order, the psalm revolves constantly around the Torah experienced by the psalmist as reliable guide, faithful companion, relentless judge, purifying fire and source of endless joy. It has a way of drawing the reader into deeper contemplation that is anything but “wearisome.” I think that Brueggeman rightly recognizes this psalm as “a massive intellectual achievement” through which the psalmist affirms that the Torah meets us at every stage of life addressing every human experience from “A to Z,” or more precisely “alpeh to tav.” Brueggeman, opcit. p. 40. Much is lost in translation through the rendering of “Torah” as “law.” Torah is far more than a dry set of laws, statutes and ordinances. For Israel, Torah was the shape of the covenant; “the mode of God’s life giving presence.” Ibid. It was “a launching pad form which to mount an ongoing conversation with God through daily experience.” Ibid. p. 41. Still, “[i]t is Yahweh who is the portion of the speaker (v. 57), not the Torah nor one’s keeping of the Torah.” Ibid. The psalm finally recognizes that Torah is the medium through which prayer is made possible. As a rabbi friend once remarked, “the Torah is the rope in an extended tug-of-war. We continue to pull on it because we firmly believe there is One on the other end with whom we are in constant tension.”

The first eight verses of Psalm 119 making up our reading begin with a proclamation of blessing for those who walk in the Torah of the Lord. This is a good reminder that genuine prayer arises out of our covenant relationship with Israel’s God into which us gentile folks come through baptism. It is only because God speaks that prayer is possible. Prayer is always responsive. It does not presume upon unfettered access to God as a matter of right, but seizes upon God’s commands and promises as grounds for praise, petition and lament. It is for this reason that the Psalms are the best possible resource for learning to pray. Reading one every morning and one each night is the best medicine I know. That said, I think it is permissible to break up Psalm 119 into a few days.

1 Corinthians 3:1–9

Last week in I Corinthians 1 and 2 the Apostle Paul was contrasting the spirit of divisiveness at work in the Corinthian church with the Spirit of God who forms in the church “the mind of Christ.” I Corinthians 1:10-17; I Corinthians 2:14-16. In this Sunday’s reading Paul goes on to explain that he has been unable to address the Corinthian church as spiritual people because they are still people of “flesh.” Like nursing infants, they are not ready for the solid food of the “hidden wisdom of God.” I Corinthians 2:6-8. Here it is worth noting that Paul uses the Greek word for flesh (“sarkos”) to describe people whose minds are dominated by worldly ways and, more specifically, the sort of divisiveness and strife that characterizes pagan culture in Corinth. This “fleshly” thinking is informing the conduct of the congregation, preventing it from growing into the mind of Christ and functioning as Christ’s Body.

Many misguided criticisms have been made of Paul for disparaging the human body and the physical world with a dualistic theology valuing spirit over matter. Paul does no such thing. In fact, Paul’s favorite expression for the church is “the Body of Christ.” This is not the sort of expression you would expect from a world hating gnostic! How could someone holding the body in contempt simultaneously speak of that body as “the temple of the Holy Spirit?” I Corinthians 6:19. When Paul speaks critically of “the flesh” he is not disparaging the human body or the material world. He is instead referring to an attitude, outlook, worldview dominated by selfishness and the will to power.

Paul points out that the apostolic witness is united in its testimony to Christ. The focus should not be upon the individual apostles who have ministered at Corinth. Just as the apostles, Apollos, Cephas and Paul work in concert, one evangelizing for Christ, another nourishing for Christ; so the church ought to be living in harmony through Christ. At the end of the day, the one who plants, the one who waters and the one who reaps can each be replaced. It is God who gives the growth. Paul is laying the foundation here for his extensive discussion of the church as the Body of Christ and the unity in love necessary to sustain it, all to be presented in the coming chapters.

Matthew 5:21–37

In this Sunday’s gospel lesson Jesus goes on to explain what he meant in last week’s reading when he told his disciples that, unless their righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and the Pharisees, they would never enter the kingdom of heaven. He does so by taking the Ten Commandments and turning them up on high heat. For the rest of Matthew 5, Jesus will be employing the same formula repeatedly: “You have heard that it was said….but I say to you.” Jesus will finally point out that all the law and the prophets boil down to love of God and love of neighbor. But that is no slackening of the law. To the contrary, love demands even more than the letter of the law can deliver.

The Commandment forbids killing. There is a good deal of literature in which Old Testament scholars bicker over whether the commandment should be interpreted “Thou shalt not kill” or whether it should be rendered “thou shalt not commit murder.” But Jesus renders that sterile debate moot. So far from taking a human life, the disciple must not even harbor anger or engage in name calling. Vss. 21-22. Moreover, it is not enough merely to hold one’s peace. A disciple is under obligation to seek reconciliation with a person s/he knows to have a grudge against him or her.

“So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Vss. 23-24. The sacrifice envisioned here is not an obligatory one, but a voluntary one expressing devotion or thanksgiving and the desire to draw near to God. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 232. The point made here is that devotion to God cannot be divorced from the disciple’s relationship to his or her neighbor. As will be made clear in Jesus’ parable of the last judgment, God is rightly served chiefly through caring for one’s neighbor. Matthew 25:31-46.

Next Jesus addresses the commandment against adultery. It is noteworthy that the focus here is exclusively on men. This is because, technically speaking, adultery was a crime of one man against another. A woman was regarded as in some sense the property of her husband and, as such, not an independent agent. That would not necessarily make her blameless by any means, but the assumption seems to be that the male bears primary responsibility for the crime and for its prevention. In a culture such as our own where women are increasingly on a par with their male counterparts in all areas of life, the injunction against lust and the responsibility for adultery attach to them as well. That said, there remains a significant power imbalance between men and women leading to abuse ranging from verbal sexual harassment to rape in numerous venues. Perhaps, then, it is premature to adjust the focus of this text overly much.

A word or two about “lust” is in order. Lust should not be equated with sexual attraction. It is rather a ruthless desire to possess and control with no recognition of the rights, needs or welfare of the other. Instead of building up and supporting faltering marriages, lust preys upon them. Indeed, it is the nature of lust to exploit the weak and vulnerable. While rape is the most blatant and ugly expression of lust, it can also masquerade as love and compassion-such as when a pastor, counselor or therapist sexually exploits a parishioner/patient.

Lust is not limited to sexuality. Indeed, our culture’s insatiable appetite for consumer goods from iphones to the latest clothing is perhaps the most destructive form of lust in existence. Our opulence is leading to the relentless exploitation of our planet and the poorest and most vulnerable communities inhabiting it. Given the danger lust poses to the bonds of trust and faithfulness needed to sustain community, it is not surprising that Jesus calls for extreme measures to prevent its taking hold.

Given the prevalence of divorce in our culture, Jesus’ treatment of the subject makes for some uneasiness in the pews of just about every congregation. When attempting to interpret this passage in our present context, one needs to keep in mind the status of women in Jesus’ day. As previously explained, a woman was typically considered in some sense the property of a man. If she was unmarried, she belonged to her father. If married, to her husband. The means of self-support for independent women were few and not enviable. A woman divorced from her husband and rejected by her father was in a plight as desperate as the woman widowed without grown children to support her. Therefore, to divorce one’s wife usually consigned her to a life of abject poverty-or worse. Not surprisingly, then, Jesus did not look kindly upon casual divorce and remarriage as it constituted a thin legal gloss for adultery and abandonment. There is, we must acknowledge, a difference between such casual divorce and a divorce in which both partners agree or are made to take responsibility for each other’s financial well-being and that of any children of the marriage.

That having been said, there remains every reason to support marriages and discourage divorce. Unfortunately, efforts by religious groups to preserve marriage have frequently focused on making divorce more difficult. Resistance to so-called “no fault” divorce was strong in the 60s and 70s. The failure of marriages, however, has less to do with laws facilitating divorce and more to do with the breakdown of community resulting in young families having to locate in areas where they are virtual strangers left to struggle with family pressures on their own. Extended families, affiliations with church/synagogue, stable neighborhoods and social organizations fostering friendship and support are now the exception rather than the rule for many young couples. Economic insecurity and unemployment add to these strains. We need to recognize that failing marriages are not the cause, but the symptom of a failing society and address the disease rather than focusing on the symptom.

“Do not swear at all…” Vs. 33. How many times haven’t you heard it said: “To be perfectly frank with you…” “Let me be honest with you…” “To tell you the truth…” Sometimes I am tempted to respond to these prefaces by remarking, “So, now you are being honest with me. Does that mean you have been lying through your teeth for the last ten minutes of this conversation? Are you not always honest when you talk to me? That is the problem with oaths. The fact that you feel the need to take one indicates that you know your word is not trustworthy enough and that you need to invoke the threat of divine punishment in order to make other people believe what you are saying. Jesus maintains that, since a disciple is aware that every word spoken is said in the presence of God, an oath is not necessary. No speech should ever be anything less than truthful.

Truthful speech is a habit of the heart. It is not an inborn trait. In fact, deception is our default behavior. The most dangerous lies are the ones we tell ourselves to assuage guilt, justify hurtful actions and rationalize plans that we know deep down are selfish, self-serving and destructive to others. In my former life as an attorney, I listened to hundreds of people lie under oath. Most of them would probably have passed a polygraph test with flying colors. That is because when we tell ourselves a lie often enough, we begin to believe it. It becomes the truth for us. The same thing happens collectively. When a lie is repeated again and again and again on television, radio and over the internet, it gains traction no matter how demonstrably false it might be. Advertisers and political campaign managers realize this and have made productive us of it. Honesty is an empty virtue among people who have lost the ability to discern the truth.

Nobody understands the difficult art of learning to tell the truth better than a recovering addict who has gone through a twelve step program. Regaining and maintaining sobriety requires an unflinching commitment to telling the truth in the company of people equally committed to that goal. The fact is, we are all addicts to the lies we tell to comfort ourselves. What we need is to be accepted into a community dedicated to truthful speech where our lies can be laid bare and rejected; where through repentance and forgiveness we begin to see ourselves as we truly are and our God as he truly is. That community is called church.

There are more sermons in this gospel lessen than one can shake a stick at. It is best just to choose one and run with it.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Sunday, February 9th

FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Isaiah 58:1–12
Psalm 112
1 Corinthians 2:1–16
Matthew 5:13–20

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Lord God, with endless mercy you receive the prayers of all who call upon you. By your Spirit show us the things we ought to do, and give us the grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Last night the Seattle Seahawks trounced the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. I am doing my best not to gloat, but it’s hard. Having grown up just across the bay from Seattle, I have a kind of hometown tie with the Seahawks. For the last couple of weeks I have been warned by everyone from seasoned sportscasters to the kids in my confirmation class that the Broncos were sure to run away with the game. Now I feel vindicated.

If there is a lesson to be learned here, perhaps it is that predicting outcomes is a risky business. I am sure the sportscasters had good reasons for favoring the Broncos. I have no doubt that they made careful evaluations of each player, the game strategies employed by the respective teams along with their relative strengths and weaknesses. But there are also important factors that cannot be measured, such as a team’s dangerous overconfidence, its underestimation of its adversary, the personal emotional state of key players on the night of the game resulting from events and circumstances we cannot know. It is probably a good thing we don’t know. Sporting events would not be very entertaining if we all knew in advance how they are going to come out.

So if we cannot even predict the outcome of a football game, how can we possibly predict the effects of implementing complex legislation affecting the lives of millions? Or how can we anticipate the consequences of military action in countries made up of numerous ethnic groups with complex and often conflicting interests? It seems to me that history has proven again and again that she is a beast too wild and willful to be tamed by the likes of us mortals. We discover again and again that our actions bring about consequences we never dreamed of. Who could have predicted back in the days when we were fighting fascism in Europe side by side with our Soviet allies that we were building up a nation soon to become our nuclear rival and cold war enemy? Who could have imagined that the bands of Afghan guerrilla fighters we armed in the 1980s to annoy the Soviet Union would evolve into a terrorist organization capable of inflicting horrendous attacks on our soil two decades later when the Soviet Union was only a memory? Of course, not all of our efforts to steer the course of history end so badly and even those that do often yield unexpected benefits. But the point is that, whether beneficial or detrimental, the consequences of our actions seldom fit within the limited scope of our intentions. That is why I have never been a fan of what has come to be called “Christian Realism.” Though this philosophy has never precisely been defined, Christian Realists maintain generally that the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be realized on earth due to the innately corrupt tendencies of all human communities. The intractable reality of human sin at work in society forces believers to compromise the ideal of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Human perfectibility is an illusion-and a dangerous one at that. Recognizing that we human beings are inherently self interested and that this tendency infects all we do, we must settle for whatever limited measure of imperfect justice we can achieve by whatever means are required.

There is some truth in all of this. Clearly, we are not able to perfect ourselves and can hardly imagine what human perfection looks like. Obviously, our motives are infected by self interest such that we cannot even trust our best intentions. But it seems to me that if we are to discard the values of the Kingdom of Heaven (and the Sermon on the Mount in particular) we need to ponder what is left to us. For the life of me, I have never been able to distinguish between the ethics of Christian Realism and Joseph Fletcher’s “situation ethics,” under which the ends justify the means. Love, according to Fletcher, is the objective; therefore, if the end is to achieve a result that best serves the need of one’s neighbor, one ought not to quibble about whether the means violate some lesser moral principle.

The problem, though, is that we never know the ends because we cannot foresee the consequences of our choices. We know what we hope the ends will be. We can make an educated guess about what they will be, but as yesterday’s Super Bowl demonstrates, the reliability of such guesses is doubtful. That is precisely why, after over fifty-thousand American dead in Vietnam, we finally had to withdraw and consider how to tell the bereaved families that their loved ones died for a mistake. Instead of the ends justifying the means, it seems the means have a perverse way of corrupting the ends. The greater good for which we abandon honesty, peacemaking, and mercy never materializes and we are left with evil at both ends and in the middle. From the days of Constantine the church has gotten sucked into the vortex of real politic in hopes of turning history in what we imagine is God’s chosen direction. The world seldom gets any better as a result, but the church frequently gets worse as it internalizes the rules (or lack thereof) of the game it has learned to play.

Jesus calls his disciples to a humbler yet more difficult task than turning history in God’s direction. Disciples are told to be salt and light for the world. Salt doesn’t change the meat. It only seasons it. Light does not transform the world. It simply illuminates it. So far from compromising the values of the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus would have us live those values defiantly in the heart of a world that rejects them. The Sermon on the Mount, from which we will be hearing in our Gospel readings throughout the season of Epiphany, was not intended to be an unattainable ideal. It was given to the church as a tool through which the Holy Spirit forms in us the mind of Christ (as St. Paul would put it). Disciples of Jesus are to practice truthful speech-even when doing so will surely offend and estrange them from would be allies in a common cause for good. Disciples are to practice non-violence even when the use of limited violence appears to be the best hope of removing an oppressive tyrant from power and promises to prevent even greater violence and injustice. Disciples are called to be peacemakers, merciful and forgiving-even when none of these things seems to be accomplishing anything. Indeed, they are called to be faithful to Jesus even when such faithfulness only makes matters worse.

The problem with Christian Realism is that it focuses on the wrong reality. Certainly, sin and human fallibility are real. We ignore them at our peril. Yet Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that the only enduring reality is the Kingdom of Heaven which has drawn near. In the ultimate sense, we know how the game will end. Jesus tells us that the earth will belong to the meek; that the hungry and thirsty will be satisfied and that the mourners will be comforted. What is more, the blessings of that victory are shared with us mysteriously even now as Jesus invites us to begin living today the way we will be living eternally. Only so can the world discover that the way things are is not the way things have to be nor the way things always will be. It is enough to belong to Jesus. Season and illuminate; but leave history to the Lord of history.

Isaiah 58:1–12

Some historical background might be helpful in understanding this reading. The Southern Kingdom of Judah was decisively defeated by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. who then sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple and carried off a substantial number of the leading citizens of Judah into exile. In 538 B.C.E., Babylonia fell to the Persians under Cyrus the Great. Cyrus issued an edict allowing for the return of exiled peoples such as the Jews to their land of origin and authorized the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. The following year, a small group of Jews returned from Babylon and began laying the foundations for the new temple. Due to political and economic uncertainty arising from instability within the Persian Empire, this work came to a stop. So far from the glorious future forecast by the prophecies of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), life for the returning exiles proved to be harsh and difficult leading many to cynicism and despair. This is the context for the preaching attributed to Third Isaiah, Isaiah 56-66.

The prophet faces a tough audience. Consider that most of the exiled Jews elected to remain in Babylon where they had managed to build new lives for themselves. The returning exiles were the faithful few inspired by the preaching of Second Isaiah to stake everything on the prophet’s assurance that God would do a “new thing” for them. They fully expected their return to the Promised Land to be a triumphal homecoming accompanied by miraculous acts of salvation rivaling the Exodus from Egypt. Upon arrival, they found a ruined land occupied by hostile peoples. It appeared as though they had been cruelly deceived. One can hear the bitterness in their exasperated cries to the God who so disappointed them: “Why have we fasted, and thou seest it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and thou takest no knowledge of it?” Vs. 3. As the people see it, they have demonstrated the ultimate act of faith in returning to Palestine. On top of that, they are fasting and humbling themselves in an expression of repentance for all of Israel’s past sins. Can God ask any more than this?

Apparently, God does expect more. We are back to the familiar confusion between ritual and liturgical compliance aimed at pleasing God and obedience to God’s command to care for the neighbor. Evidently, their pious fasting does not prevent the rich from pursuing their unjust and oppressive economic practices. Nor does it prevent the people from quarreling to the point of violence. God is not impressed with shows of humility that do not reflect a true change of heart. So the prophet, speaking on behalf of the Lord, responds to the complaint of the people by instructing them in what true fasting looks like: “to loose the bonds of wickedness:” “let the oppressed go free;” “share your bread with the hungry;” “bring the homeless poor into your house;” “cover” the naked; and “not to hide yourself from your own flesh.” Vss. 6-7.

Of all these examples of proper fasting, the call to “bring the homeless poor into your house” is by far the most jarring. I will cheerfully contribute items of food and donate cash to feed and house the homeless. I have even spent nights at homeless shelters assisting in this good work and spending time with the homeless poor. But taking these people into my home? That is a bridge too far. Sharing my private family space demands too much. I don’t want to share my bathroom with these people I hardly know. I don’t want their laundry mixed up with mine. I must confess that I probably would not sleep very soundly under the same roof with the homeless people I have encountered at shelters. I have to admit that the prophet has rattled my cage with this utterance!

Yet the prophet’s words have taken some faithful disciples beyond mere discomfort. Ten years ago, a group of Christians in Durham, North Carolina, launched a community of hospitality in a historic neighborhood called Walltown. Since then, the Rutba House has welcomed folks who are homeless, returning home from prison and others who just need a safe place to land. Now In his new book, Strangers at My Door: A True Story of Finding Jesus in Unexpected Guests (c. 2013 Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, pub. Convergent), Rutba co-founder Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove shares everyday stories of the people he has encountered. To learn about some of these remarkable accounts of transformation taking place through the exercise of hospitality, I invite you to read a comprehensive interview with Wilson-Hartgrove at this link. It always shakes me up when I hear about someone who actually takes Jesus and the prophets seriously. It makes me wonder whether I do!

Psalm 112

Here we have another psalm in the wisdom tradition of Proverbs, instructing all who hear to live long and well by conforming their lives to God’s righteous commands that underlie the framework of the universe. As I have said many times before, I believe one must regard the wisdom sayings as “portholes” through which the wisdom teachers invite us to view the world. They offer some unique insights into the nature of reality that can help us make sense of our experiences. As portholes, however, the view they offer us is limited. The reader must always keep in mind the fact that there are other portholes offering views from different perspectives. No one (save God) stands on such lofty ground as to be able to see all things from all angles. Thus, wisdom literature places a high value on humility and openness to continual learning.

With that caveat, Psalm 112 affirms the operation of God’s righteousness in human life rewarding all who trust in God and practice generosity, compassion and integrity. As such, it is characterized, rightly I think, by Walter Brueggemann as a psalm of “orientation.” It expresses “a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. Augsburg Publishing House, 1984) p. 25. The Lord blesses the person “who greatly delights in his commandments.” Vs. 1. Such a person is endowed with wealth, protection from evil and God’s constant presence. Vss. 3-4. It is well with the person “who deals generously and lends, who conducts his/her affairs with justice.” Vs. 5. There is much 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, the 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. 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. Vs 7. 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 most scholars are prone to regard it as having been composed after the Babylonian Exile given its wisdom emphasis, I am skeptical of such reasoning. I think it altogether likely that the wisdom material, which was common in the royal courts of 8th and 9th Century B.C.E. nations throughout the near east, may well have found its way into the courts of the Judean and Israelite kings of that period also. Consequently, it is entirely plausible that this psalm has 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 two psalms 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. The formal similarities between the two psalms are also striking. Both are semi acrostic with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet starting off the half strophes. So rendered in English, the first verse of our psalm might read:

A song of praise to the Lord is seemly;

Blessed is the one who fears the Lord

Commandments of the Lord are greatly delighted in by such a person.

I know. The paraphrase is poor and the syntax stinks. But you get the idea.

1 Corinthians 2:1–16

As I have probably said too many times already, it is impossible to comprehend Paul without appreciating his understanding of the church as the Body of Christ. Again, this is not a metaphor. Paul truly believes that the church is the physical presence of the resurrected Christ animated by the Spirit of Christ. It is the objective of the Holy Spirit to form “the mind of Christ” in this body of believers. Vs. 16. That happens as believers learn to appreciate each other as indispensable members of Christ. Just as the human body instinctively protects an injured part, so the church surrounds with care and compassion the member that is hurting. Just as the action of one part of the human body affects the whole, so each member of the Body of Christ must measure his or her conduct by its effect on the Body of Christ. Paul’s ethics therefore derive not from scriptural rules or prescriptions. That which is good builds up the Body of Christ-whether it comports with some other objective moral prescription or not. That which injures the Body of Christ or compromises its witness to Jesus is evil-even if there is scriptural precedent for it. For Paul, ethics are not about breaking or keeping rules. It comes down to each member of the church being so totally possessed by the mind of Christ that s/he instinctively does what is appropriate to protect and build up Christ’s Body.

It is for this reason that Paul “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” when he first preached to the Corinthians. He could easily foresee that, in a church made up of Jews and gentiles of multiple persuasions, there were bound to be endless disputes over moral and religious matters. We all know that when the Bible is invoked as a rule book to settle disputes, the result is usually a shouting match between entrenched ideological positions whose partisans each claim that “the Bible speaks clearly on this matter!” Paul will have none of that! He starts with the presupposition that the Corinthian church with all of its problems is nevertheless the Body of Christ and every person in that congregation is a member of that Body. I Corinthians 12:27. Thus, there can be no question of amputating limbs and cutting out organs that seem not to be functioning in an optimal fashion. There is no alternative other than for all members of the congregation to accept one another and live together with one another as one Body. Such an existence can only be maintained by love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:7. That is a tall order, but Paul will have it no other way.

According to Paul, true wisdom is imparted by the Spirit. This Spirit is not some abstract, faceless new age force. It is the Spirit of Jesus whose faithful obedience to God and love for his church led to crucifixion by “the rulers of this age.” Vs. 8. Thus, contrary to some rather inept criticisms of Paul by a few commentators who feel that he had little or no concern for anything outside of the church, Paul knows full well that Jesus was crucified for the life he lived and that the church continues to bear his cross as it continues his life in the world. As the mind of Christ is formed in the church, the Body of Christ will continue to suffer until the oppressive tyranny of evil is swallowed up in love. That love which conquers all is revealed in Christ and made present to the community of faith even now. Vss. 9-10.

Matthew 5:13–20

There is surely too much in these verses for any one sermon. There is a risk that any preacher trying to do justice to the text might well lose sight of the forest for the trees. Again, it is critical to recall that these words gain their force and significance precisely because they are spoken by Jesus who declares in both word and deed that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near. This kingdom makes claims on its subjects that are contrary to the claims made by Rome and the religious establishment in Jerusalem for loyalty and obedience. The kingdom of heaven and these existing kingdoms are rivals from the get go. The difference between life under the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of heaven is spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus makes clear to his disciples that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Vs. 20.

In verses 13-16 Jesus declares that his disciples are to be “light” and “salt.” The purpose of a lamp is to illuminate the room in which it is placed. It is not there to call attention to itself. So also, nobody I know has ever come back from dinning out raving about the wonderful salt on a steak. Salt is there to enhance the flavor of the meat. You are not supposed to notice it. If you do, it means that the cook has over seasoned the meat. While the disciples’ works are to be seen by the world, they are to glorify the Father rather than call attention to the disciples. Vs. 16. Keep in mind, though, that these admonitions follow immediately upon Jesus’ promise that, like the prophets before them, his disciples will experience persecution, rejection and hatred from the rival kingdoms still asserting jurisdiction over a world Jesus has now claimed for the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet it is precisely in this militant loyalty to the Kingdom of Heaven that elicits so much opposition that creation is “seasoned” and the nature of God’s reign is “illuminated.”

In addition to flavoring and preserving, salt was used in the ancient world as a cleansing agent, to brighten the light of oil lamps and to increase the efficiency of baking ovens. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 212. It was recognized in antiquity as a fundamental human necessity. See, e.g., Sirach, 39:26. Matthew goes on to make the point that, while salt is used to flavor, purify and cleanse other items, there is nothing with which salt itself can be restored once its seasoning capacity has been lost. It is difficult to understand how this could occur unless the salt were somehow diluted with some other substance. But perhaps that is the point. Salt is so basic that it cannot be “unsalted” no matter what anyone does to it.

Jesus points out that a city set on a hill cannot be hid any more than a lamp can be concealed by placing it under a bushel basket. Note well that any lamp used anywhere in the First Century would have required a flame. Placing such a lamp under a bushel basket to conceal it would only result in the basket catching fire generating further illumination. Consequently, persecution of the disciples will not quench the light of God’s reign, but only enhance it. I should add that some commentators render the term translated “bushel basket” in the NRSV as “bowl,” pointing out that the reference is most likely to a tightly woven, air tight basket used for extinguishing household lamps without making excessive smoke. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975, John Knox Press) p. 102. I don’t find much support for that in the text. The word at issue, “modios,” means simply “a grain measure containing about 8.75 liters or almost one peck.” This according to my trusty Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, W. Bower, edited by W.F. Arndt and F.W. Gingrich (c. 1957, University of Chicago Press). Nevertheless, if Schweizer and likeminded folk are correct, then I have read too much into the text. Either way, though, the point remains. It would be absurd to go to the trouble of lighting a lamp only to extinguish it again. It is something that simply would not be done. So also the light of God’s reign will not be suppressed.

Verse 17 shifts focus to the place of the law and the prophets. Matthew is emphatic that Jesus has no intention of abolishing the Torah. Every last provision remains valid and the disciples are not to disregard any of it. Yet as we shall see when the Sermon progresses, Jesus radically re-orientates the law and the prophets. It is not enough merely to follow the letter of the law. This is the righteousness of Jesus’ opponents which makes the law an end in itself. The better righteousness to which Jesus calls his disciples is grounded in love so deep and profound that it embraces even the enemy. Such indiscriminant love is the perfection of God to which Jesus calls his disciples. Matthew 5:43-48. “For Matthew, the love-commandment became the principle of interpretation for the law.” Barth, Gerhard, “Matthew’s Understanding of the Law,” published in Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew, The New Testament Library (c. 1963 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 104.

The practical effect of this is that Matthew interprets the law always in the service of love for God and love for the neighbor. The law is the servant, never the master of love. Consequently, this love commandment can “be critically directed against individual commandments of the Old Testament itself.” Ibid. 103-104. Matthew is no antinomian. The law and the prophets remain valid, though of course, they must be interpreted. Blind obedience to the letter of the law leads only to arrogance and obscures the spirit of God’s commandments. (Literalists who insist “I don’t interpret the Bible, I just read it” take note!) Interpretation is essential and it is only a question of what guides it. For Matthew, the loadstar of biblical interpretation is love. In his view, an interpretation of the law which leads to contempt for the neighbor or places a stumbling block in front of a person responding to God’s gracious invitation to come under his blessed reign is always going to be wrong, not matter how rationally, thoroughly and scripturally supported.

It seems to me that anyone preaching on this text must choose whether to focus on the “salt and light” theme or the role of the law and the prophets. Fitting both into one sermon will likely do justice to neither. The latter theme discussing the place of the law and the prophets fits nicely with the reading from Isaiah, making the point Jesus will be explaining further on, namely, that obedience to God’s commands is accomplished through love for one’s neighbor. Matthew 22:34-40.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Sunday, October 6th

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Habakkuk 1:1–4; 2:1–4
Psalm 37:1–9
2 Timothy 1:1–14
Luke 17:5–10

Prayer of the Day: Benevolent, merciful God: When we are empty, fill us. When we are weak in faith, strengthen us. When we are cold in love, warm us, that with fervor we may love our neighbors and serve them for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

There are times when I wish I had faith strong enough not to believe in Jesus. Sometimes I think that if I could just convince myself that Christ did not rise from death, that it all ended at the cross and that compassion, kindness and mercy died there too, I would have an easier time digesting the news. I would probably still find it difficult to live in a world where children are slaughtered with poison gas and assault rifles. But I would know better than to be shocked or to hope for anything better. It would not be my problem. I could shrug my shoulders, assure myself that there is nothing I can do about it, pour myself a drink and switch the channel to Comedy Central. I cannot do that, however, because I do believe that God raised Jesus from death. My heart and mind have been so thoroughly shaped by the narrative of Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection that I am compelled to challenge the darkness and seek in the most tragic events the redeeming presence of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

The prophet Habakkuk seems to be having a similar problem. His heart and mind have been shaped by the narrative of the Exodus and the many stories, hymns and teachings about this marvelous God who, transcendent and almighty as he is, stoops to save the poor, oppressed and despairing. Living as he did during the twilight years of David’s kingdom and at the height of Babylonian power, the prophet saw precious little evidence of salvation. The events taking place all around him were at variance with the Exodus narrative and the prophet cannot understand why. “Why do you make me see wrongs and look upon trouble?” “The law is slacked and justice never goes forth.” Habakkuk 1:3-4.

These are not the words of a doubter or an unbeliever expressing his personal disillusionment with religion to whoever might be listening. Understand that Habakkuk is not wrestling with that tired old whine, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” He is not so simple minded as all that. Habakkuk knows well enough that human life has its limits; that it is a gift we hold only for a little while and we don’t get to complain that the life we have is shorter, harder or more difficult than what seems to us the case for someone else. He also knows that he and his people are not innocent bystanders. They have been sinful and unfaithful to the covenants God made with them. He is aware that his people’s suffering has been in no small part their own doing. But Habakkuk still believes that, however sinful he and his people might be, God must nevertheless be true to God’s self. So his are the protests of a believer addressed to God and calling God to account. It is because Habakkuk refuses to let go of his faith, refuses to give up on God’s promises and believes that his prayers are heard that he speaks so forcefully to his God.

In the most basic sense, God does not owe anybody anything. We would have no basis to call upon God or expect any help from God except for the fact that God entered into human history and made some very specific promises to Israel. Israel, then, has a unique claim upon God. Israel is in a position to call God to account, to insist that God honor his promises. So, too, believers in Jesus who come into that covenant relationship through the waters of baptism have grounds to cry out to this God and insist that he honor his promise to wipe out their sins, give them a clean heart and a new start. We have no choice but to believe that God is never closer to us than when we are ready to cry out, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” We have no choice but to cry out to God against the atrocious suffering, injustice and violence we witness. Such forwardness is not disrespect, nor does it reflect doubt or unbelief. To the contrary, it demonstrates the boldest possible act of faith in the God who is at work in the darkest prison cell, the most violent neighborhood and the most deeply conflicted areas of the world making peace through the blood of his cross.

Habakkuk 1:1–4; 2:1–4

As I said in the opening remarks, the prophet Habakkuk lived and preached during the Babylonian period of domination over the Southern Kingdom of Judah. We know very little about him. Though a prophet by the name of Habakkuk appears in the apocryphal book of Bel and the Dragon, it is unlikely that there is any historical or even literary connection.  Moreover, the prophet’s work appears to be a compilation of materials from different periods in Israel’s history, but which share a common theme. Thus, the prophet might be more an “editorial artist” than an original preacher.

Though the notes in my study Bible identify Habakkuk’s theme as “theodicy,” or “justifying the ways of God,” I don’t believe that is really the prophet’s concern here. This is not a dissertation on “the problem of human suffering.” It is, as I said before, a passionate plea from a person of faith calling upon his God to honor the covenant promises made to Israel. The common lectionary has again done a fine hack job on this text, omitting the sections that help us place the words of Habakkuk in context. In verses 5-11 we read of how the prophet attributes to God the raising up of the “Chaldeans,” another term for the Babylonians.

Look at the nations, and see!
Be astonished! Be astounded!
For a work is being done in your days
that you would not believe if you were told.
6 For I am rousing the Chaldeans,
that fierce and impetuous nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth
to seize dwellings not their own.
7 Dread and fearsome are they;
their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.
8 Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more menacing than wolves at dusk;
their horses charge.
Their horsemen come from far away;
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
9 They all come for violence,
with faces pressing* forward;
they gather captives like sand.
10 At kings they scoff,
and of rulers they make sport.
They laugh at every fortress,
and heap up earth to take it.
11 Then they sweep by like the wind;
they transgress and become guilty;
their own might is their god!

Habakkuk 1:5-11. After describing the violence, cruelty and injustice of the Babylonian invaders, Habakkuk appeals to the Lord:

Are you not from of old,
O Lord my God, my Holy One?
You* shall not die.
O Lord, you have marked them for judgement;
and you, O Rock, have established them for punishment.
13 Your eyes are too pure to behold evil,
and you cannot look on wrongdoing;
why do you look on the treacherous,
and are silent when the wicked swallow
those more righteous than they?
14 You have made people like the fish of the sea,
like crawling things that have no ruler.

Habakkuk 1:12-14.

God’s answer finally comes in the second chapter. “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.” Habakkuk 2:4. Contrary to Habakkuk’s hopes, this time of trouble, violence and injustice is to continue for an indefinite though surely finite period. Until relief in the form of God’s salvation comes-and it will come-the just must live by faith. That is, they must continue to live justly in an unjust world whether their justice and righteousness bear fruit or not. Faithfulness, not tangible success, is required.

This is a hard word for our culture which is used to seeing conflicts resolved within the space of an hour, less the commercials. But life is not like TV. It plods from one unresolved conflict to the next. Most likely, we will not see the fulfillment of all our hopes within our lifetimes. We will likely die without ever seeing the fruits of our acts of mercy and kindness. But that does not matter. “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” Habakkuk 2:3.

Psalm 37:1–9

This psalm is one of the acrostic psalms, meaning that the first word of the first strophe begins with the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The first word of the second strophe 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.

The psalm reads more like a collection of wisdom proverbs, such as found in the Book of Proverbs, than a hymn or a prayer. The unifying theme is trust in God and in God’s providential rule. Throughout the psalm we find assurances that God ultimately rewards faithful behavior and punishes wickedness though, as Habakkuk also had to learn, such justice is not always executed as swiftly and clearly as we might hope. So the psalmist warns his hearers: “Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers…” Psalm 37:1. Given the style and content of the psalm, most scholars date its composition as having taken place relatively later in Israel’s history, probably after the Babylonian Exile.

This psalm calls for patience in the face of wrongdoing and confidence in God to accomplish justice. The psalmist warns against “stewing” over the seeming success of the wicked and becoming cynical about life. Rather than obsessing over whether the wicked are properly punished, the righteous person should focus upon his own conduct, committing his way to the Lord. Vs. 5. The righteous person need not take matters of justice into his or her own hands. God, who sees all hearts and knows all circumstances, is in a much better position to determine what is actually just and how justice should be carried out.

Of course, this confidence in divine justice is easier to maintain in times of relative peace and stability where a semblance of justice has a chance of prevailing. Habakkuk, who lived in the shadow of war and societal breakdown, found it far more difficult to take the confident view expressed by the psalmist. Once again, we do well to remember that wisdom sayings such as those found in the psalm offer us a porthole view into reality which may well be true and insightful as far as it goes. Still, a porthole’s view is limited and there are other portholes through which the world must be examined if we are to arrive at a balanced understanding. Wisdom literature invites us to glimpse the world through as many portholes as possible.

2 Timothy 1:1–14

For my views on authorship of this and the other two pastoral epistles (I Timothy and Titus), see my post on the lessons from Sunday, September 15th.

This second letter addressed to Timothy from the Apostle Paul, now imprisoned at Rome, is an admonition for Timothy to stand firm against a number of false teachings that have crept into the church. The primary purpose of the letter, however, appears to be that of summoning Timothy to come and assist Paul in his imprisonment. II Timothy 4:9-13. At first blush, it appears that Timothy was a third generation Christian whose grandmother and mother were also believers. It is just as likely, though, that both mother and grandmother were converted at the same time through missionaries at Lystra. Perhaps Timothy was also baptized at that time or shortly thereafter. In any case, the letter reflects a level of intimacy between the Apostle and his fellow worker.

There is a reference here to the “laying on of hands” conferring a “gift” which Timothy is encouraged to “rekindle.” Vs. 6. Is this a reference to ordination? Or is it an aspect of the baptismal rite? There is support for either proposition, but not enough evidence to make decisive assertions. Like the other pastorals, this letter affirms the good news of salvation through grace in Jesus Christ apart from works. Vs. 9.

Timothy is encouraged to guard the good treasure that has been entrusted to him. That good treasure is “the sound teaching” Timothy has received from Paul. Clearly, the Apostle is concerned that the gospel is in danger of distortion or loss. We can see here a challenge that will confront the church in every age: How to preserve the integrity of the good news from generation to generation while at the same time addressing it to the ever changing circumstances of the world for which it is sent. Obviously, there is a risk involved whenever we seek to make Jesus known to an ever changing cultural context. The temptation is to make Jesus attractive, appealing and likable. The consequence is a portrait of Jesus created in our own image and likeness, a Jesus that fits nicely into our societal routine, but never gets in the way, never challenges us or calls us to repentance. In short, we run the risk of idolatry.

But there is also danger in trying to preserve the proclamation of Jesus by enshrining him in unbending theological orthodoxy or “timeless” liturgical practices. Sometimes heresy takes the form of correct expressions of the truth that have been held onto for too long. The words may not change, but their meanings do. The language of our faith can easily get hijacked, twisted around and used to express all manner of false and misleading notions if we are not vigilant about reexamining and reinterpreting it faithfully to each age. For example, scholars have noted that the word “faith” as used in this letter to Timothy often refers to a body of teaching rather than simple trust in God’s promises as used by Paul in letters such as Romans and Galatians. Whether Paul in his later years saw the need to expand his working definition of the term “faith” to meet the needs and concerns of the church or whether a disciple of Paul writing in Paul’s name expanded on the term, the same point is illustrated. The church’s teaching must be as flexible as the culture to which it speaks while remaining faithfully anchored in the apostolic witness to Jesus.

Luke 17:5–10

The disciples got it half right. When you need faith, Jesus is where you go. Their problem is that they did not understand faith. They assumed that faith is like a muscle; something you are born with and need to develop. They were looking for a spiritual exercise regimen (or more likely a shot of faith enhancing steroids) to improve their inborn faith. But faith is not a virtue or a human quality with which we are born or can produce in ourselves. It is a gift. As such, it is never a matter of “more or less.” It is like being pregnant. You are or are not. The same is true for faith. You have it or you don’t. Furthermore, if you have it, that is only because the Holy Spirit has given birth to it and brought it to fruition in your heart. The disciples do not need more faith. They need faith, period.

Faith is no longer faith when it becomes a work, a condition we need to satisfy before God will accept us. The worst advice you can give someone plagued by doubt is to say, “Just have faith.” That is like telling a starving child in Somalia, “You really should eat more!” The good news about Jesus is not that our faith saves us, but that God’s faithfulness saves faithless people like us. When that word is proclaimed in its fullness, faith follows. Strange as it may seem, faith begins at just the point where we realize we don’t have it and cannot ever hope to generate it on our own.

The parable about the servants is simply the flip side of faith. Recognizing that faith is a gift and that whatever is done from faith is finally God’s own work removes all grounds for “boasting,” as Saint Paul would say. Romans 3:27-29. For Luke, faith is never merely conceptual. John the Baptist made clear in his preaching that repentance involved bread and butter compassion, such as sharing food and clothing with neighbors in need, dealing honestly and fairly in a culture of greed and exploitation. Luke 3:10-14. Discipleship described in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain is the shape of faith. Yet precisely because faith is a gift, the “fruits” of repentance and the “works” of faith are not the works of the disciple. They are solely the works of the Holy Spirit and, as such, they do not earn the disciple any right to praise or recognition. The most that can ever be said of a disciple is that, through the work of the Holy Spirit, s/he has become what God the Father created him or her to be from the beginning.

This lesson is a needed corrective for a culture obsessed with self esteem. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that we ought to be self haters or become obsessed with our unworthiness. I do believe, nonetheless, that there is just as great a danger in becoming overly obsessed with having our accomplishments valued and recognized. I wonder, when did it become mandatory that everyone be “special”? When did we decide that “average” is not good enough? When did we get this idea that we are supposed to “amount to something,” and that the something to which we must amount is necessarily a cut above everyone else: a high GPA, prestigious college, six figure salary, seven figure home and children who achieve even higher in these categories? When did it become necessary to celebrate graduation from middle school, grade school and even kindergarten? This need to succeed and, more than that, have our success recognized starts to smell a lot like the religion of salvation by good works against which Paul and Martin Luther preached. It is a secularized version of “works righteousness” focused on proving my self worth to myself alone. Whether religious or secular, a life turned in upon itself leads just as surely to emptiness and despair.

Luke’s gospel would have us know that there is no reward in seeking self esteem through recognition-whether it be through rigorous religious observance or social/financial success. God does not value either sort of achievement. Instead, God values trust in his promises, faithful obedience to his reign and love for the neighbor. These practices might not win you any recognition, but that does not matter. Disciples know that they are not entitled to recognition anyway. They discover instead the joy and freedom of living life without the need for recognition from any quarter.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment