Pentecost 22 B: Daily Resurrection and the Plague

The readings for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament      Jeremiah 31:7–9

Psalm                    Psalm 126

New Testament     Hebrews 7:23–28

Gospel                   Mark 10:46–52

I resolve to recite to myself the last three verses of Psalm 126 every time I recover from watching PBS Newshour and the heartache going in the world:

      Restore our fortunes, O Lord,

like the watercourses in the Negeb.

5     May those who sow in tears

reap with shouts of joy.

6     Those who go out weeping,

bearing the seed for sowing,

shall come home with shouts of joy,

carrying their sheaves.

The Covid plague; the hypocrisy of government actions on climate change, one party’s synchronized sabotage of voting rights, the way despots use sickness and starvation as weapons, etc., etc. All of it buries me in grief.

The first four verses of Psalm 126 address the BIG PICTURE of Zion and the nations.  It is not easy to translate some of the verbs in the Psalm; so it is not possible to be certain of the historical perspective. Is this joy over the Lord’s restoration in the past, or hopeful anticipation of future salvation? But Psalms are like that—purposely vague so that anyone at any time can pray them.

Then, the last few verses turn to the quotidian. That’s a fancy word from the Latin. In the Lord’s Prayer in that language there is the petition, “Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie, which means, “Give us this day our daily, or quotidian, or daily bread.”

If we feel buried in grief over what is happening in our world and to our loved ones, then we are human. It is proof we are alive. But, then we have the potential of the new growth that is a daily dose of resurrection.

Luther had the insight that this is the way baptism keeps working in our lives. In our daily repentance we die to our old selves and rise again to our new.

But the emphasis in this psalm is not on our repentance but God’s. The most common word for the act of repentance in the Hebrew Bible is shoove which has the basic meaning of “turn.” In the first verse of this psalm it is the Lord who turns around the fortunes of Zion, or Jerusalem, so dramatically that people can’t keep from laughing and screaming out loud.

But it is everyday turning that God does that makes it possible for our tears to turn to joy. One image of this regular restoration is the “watercourses of the Negeb.” It’s an arid landscape, but when the rain comes the desert blooms! And it is predictable. The dead land becomes fruitful.

But the image that makes this come alive for us who aren’t desert dwellers, is the one that goes on all the time here on the farm. It is going on right now with our winter wheat that looks so gorgeous at twilight—golden hues cast on the brilliant green. The seeds were buried, they burst forth, they will sleep through the winter, and then bless us with a crop to feed countless people. We can count on it.

“Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”

The Russian author, Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoyevsky was marched out in a freezing Siberian winter’s day and lined up with others to be shot. It turned out to be a cruel lesson from the Tsar; so a messenger stopped the mass execution and told the prisoners to be grateful to their master who was now giving them the “reprieve” of four years hard labor followed by four years of service in the army.

Dostoyevsky survived the eight years of misery, but a friend died along the way. So Dostoyevsky wrote a letter to the widow of that friend. In it he said that life entails living grief over and again in memory. In the process “one can test the true gravity of what one has endured, gone through, and lost…[And] in such moments, one does, “like dry grass,” thirst after faith, and that one finds it in the end, solely and simply because one sees the truth more clearly when one is unhappy.”

In his final great novels, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky works through what death and resurrection mean in daily human life. Hopefully few of us will ever have trauma like a death squad in Siberia to deal with. But we all have the unhappiness that illuminates truth. And today we have it in great heaps because of the viral plague and the plague of irrational political divisions that are running rampant. The Devil is on the prowl!

Let us all, with the Psalmist, open our eyes to the ways of winter wheat–to the ways the Lord turns things upside down and inside out–to the ways darkness has us searching for the light, to the ways we experience both quotidian death and quotidian resurrection.

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Pentecost 21B: Disarm with Subservience

The readings for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost are:

Old Testament       Isaiah 53:4–12

Psalm                    Psalm 91:9–16

New Testament      Hebrews 5:1–10

Gospel                   Mark 10:35–45

Years ago I heard a young woman describe a tense encounter she had just had. After cooling off at a public pool she was rinsing off before dressing for home. From a shower stall next to hers she heard a loud commotion. It sounded like a young child was being defiant, and her mother had lost her patience and temper and was shaking and spanking the child while spitting out threats through her clenched teeth. “If you don’t shut up and stop making a scene, I’m going to give you something to cry about!”

The dilemma? How to intervene without adding to the mother’s embarrassment and the child’s panic?

The young woman pulled back the curtain to the adjoining shower stall, peeked around the corner, and whispered, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

And that was that. No more spanking or tears. Things just settled.

In his masterful The First One Hundred Years of Christianity, the German Bible scholar Udo Schnelle describes the early community behind the Gospel of Mark, and the sayings common to Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. He notes how these early believers chose to shape their lives around a very radical set of teachings of Jesus that included renunciation of possessions, renunciation of violence and coercion of any kind, and dedication to the service of all people, regardless of background. Schnelle points out that all around this community of faith a firestorm of resentment, hatred, and brutal revenge was brewing. Then he notes:

Despite danger and hostility, the societal situation should be positively changed through the power of love that overcomes boundaries. The creator God is the model, and the promise of becoming “sons of God” functions as a motivation (Luke 6:34–36). The basic issue is to rely on the principle of reciprocity (Luke 6:32: “When you love only those who love you, what reward do you have?”) and to do what is extraordinary: not to judge and first to pay attention to one’s own blindness or limitation (Luke 6:37–41)…In a society shaped by hate and violence, the followers of Jesus proclaimed the message with credibility because they practiced nonviolence and the abandonment of possessions and cared for nothing other than the kingdom of God.

Central to the idea that emptying oneself makes one powerful is the even deeper idea that people can suffer on behalf of others. The prophet Ezekiel laid on his side for over a year to dramatize the possibility  that he, as a righteous one, could absorb the sins of the people around him. In our Old Testament reading for this day from Isaiah 53 we hear the most famous expression of this:

Surely he has borne our infirmities

and carried our diseases;…

yet we accounted him stricken,

struck down by God, and afflicted.

            But he was wounded for our transgressions,

crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the punishment that made us whole,

and by his bruises we are healed.

This is a new thought for Israel, and the world—that one person’s suffering can absorb the sin and pain of those who surround her, and can even serve to heal. It will be what changes disciple’s hearts centuries later when they see a completely innocent man die willingly on a cross. And at the moment of this one man’s death graves are opened, an enemy centurion’s eyes are opened, and the world changes.

Jesus in Mark 10 says that actions of voluntary servitude  form the greatest power on earth. The attitude that produces such actions is what truly makes a person great and first.

Certainly this thought can be dangerous. If we preach voluntary subservience to people who have been bullied and coerced into servitude by their rulers or husbands or bosses, then we only lend support to the sinful ones among us who love to lord it over others. But used wisely this strategy can turn the world upside down. It is counter-cultural resistance. In American culture today self-esteem is the number one virtue. But we then suffer because we can’t all be the greatest. We can’t all be in the spotlight or the center of the circle of life.

From divorce to intractable, centuries-long conflicts that tear whole nations apart, we see the same old pattern: people want to sit on the left and right hand of glory, and damn anyone who gets in their way. People want keep playing at life as though it’s a zero-sum game.

But something magical happens when someone peeps around the corner and asks, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

It disarms. It defuses. It de-escalates. It takes the wind out of the sales of umbrage and rage. It gives everyone permission to throw away the scorecard of past insults and injuries.

From the congressional battle over the debt limit and Build Back Better, to the street battles over racial justice, to the global battles over Covid and COP26, to the battles in our families about who we are and what we stand for, I pray for more and more people who will empty themselves and ask, “Is there anything I can do to help?

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Emergence of Winter Wheat

Martin Luther was smart enough to remember what we all forget. Every day we forget how great life can be if we live to the potential God has built into us. Sadder still, we forget how much God does to help us reach those heights. According to Luther, we never, ever, outgrow our need to get back to basics about these two things.

Luther wrote his Small Catechism to remind us of the basics: The Ten Commandments, the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism and Eucharist.

In his succinct explanation to the first article of the Creed—the part about the Creator God–Luther writes: God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children, fields, livestock, and all property—along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life.”

Then, in his explanation to the Lord’s Prayer, he says the key to living a full life is prayerful gratefulness for the things God gives. Among them is “daily bread” which encompasses the following: “Everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.”

This past week we have had a wondrous awakening to the infinite dimensions of “daily bread.” The past year our corner of the world, like most others, has been touched by climate change. We have been teetering between moderate and severe drought from late winter into fall. Prior to our planting the fields had been turning to dust. But just two days after a new winter wheat crop was planted here we were blessed with more than a half inch of rain. Then another, and another.  

Chauncey Watson II, who planted the crop, was only half joking when he asked me after the planting to use my divinity connections to arrange for a dose of rain right after he finished his wheat plantings of our field and a couple others. Half joking, but half deadly serious and desperate.

The timing turned out to be exact and celebrated by all the wheat farmers. Yet I will ever insist “I’m in sales and not management.” I can only join my heart with that of farmers all over the planet in begging for favorable weather and being amazed when it comes.

But when I think with Luther’s ultra-wide perspective, I must give thanks to God that the fertilizers were spread, the weeds harrowed away, the seed beds prepared with care and planted with good seed. I must continue to be thankful that  the seasons turn beautifully, the farmers stay safe and can pay the bills and finish the harvest, the barges and trucks be manned safely by the haulers, the processors do their work with adequate sanitation, the grocers run their operations adequately, and all of it spin together like clockwork. I must pray for and give thanks for good government and decency and mercy among us all that allows all of these things to go on.

Just in time. The rains came exactly in time. And the field is greening up with the genius of beauty. And for daily bread to be given by God there must be beautiful clockwork.

Daily and abundantly God provides. Now let us do our part. Let us give thanks and praise this God with the way we live our lives with kindness and generosity.

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Pentecost 20 B: Life or Death on the Oregon Trail

The readings for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament      Amos 5:6–7, 10–15

Psalm                    Psalm 90:12–17

New Testament     Hebrews 4:12–16

Gospel                   Mark 10:17–31

If you were to travel the Oregon Trail, as thousands of desperate immigrants did in its heyday of the 1840s through the 1860s, you would have found the 2,000 mile plus trail littered with discarded items. The anxious travelers thought these pieces of equipment, clothing and furniture   precious as they began the arduous trek, but they were jettisoned to lighten the wagons for the survival of their exhausted oxen and mules, and so for themselves.

Each item signified a life or death decision.

The nature of our apocalyptic Christian faith is to say some decisions mean everything. Not everything is “both and.” Very many are “either or.”  There is a reckoning coming. And that is the message that the church must proclaim to this world on the brink.

Amos knows he is crazy. He knows he is not the “prudent” man of 5:13, who should keep silent and keep his head down in such an evil time. But he can’t hold it in. He shouts out about the reckoning to come and the radical, life and death decisions that people must make on the wilderness  road leading into their future: “Seek the Lord and live,” he exclaims. “Hate evil and love good.”

“Quit grasping for power and wealth when it is the survival of your very soul and the soul of your people at stake. Quit taking bribes and pushing aside the needy when it is a God of righteousness and justice and mercy who holds your very life in her hands.” There will be no tomorrow for any of us if we don’t think of all of us.

Amos knows there is a reckoning waiting us all along the Oregon Trail we are all walking.

Hebrews mixes metaphors to get the point across. The author picks up a very ancient and widespread picture of a skilled butcher who is deft at cutting away joints from marrow on a carcass to highlight the value of sharp spiritual and moral discernment. But, as this metaphor is used in other places, such as in the Tao Te Ching,  to inspire the advancement of individual discipline in finding balance and meaning in life, the author of Hebrews insists the butcher’s incisive skill is God’s alone. God’s Word is the knife the cuts efficiently and cleanly. So, what hope do we mere mortals have when our judgment is dull?  Hebrews answers that our hope is in our high priest, Jesus Christ. The typical high priests of the latter second temple period of the New Testament, were politically appointed, corrupt, and self-concerned. But Christ, our high priest, is a true intermediary between fallible humans and infallible God. Jesus understands we humans can’t always make the right life and death decisions. So he calls us to daily repent, turn to God and be forgiven. We can walk forward with boldness knowing we are approaching the divine throne of grace, not condemnation.

Hebrews knows each step we take demands sharp decisions, but even with our dull wits we can go forward along our Oregon Trail of life.

Jesus is on his journey in Mark 10, and along the way a young man comes and wants navigation advice for making it to the end of the trail—for inheriting eternal life. Jesus reminds the young man that God has long ago provided a very good map and compass in the Torah that outlines all the necessary basics of social justice: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’  The young man declares his life-long dedication to these principles, and Jesus his dedication and love for the man.

But then Jesus exercises his divine gift of exacting discernment. He senses the man on his journey, is carrying with him so much of a burden of material possessions that it betrays his one deadly lack: he doesn’t have eyes for the prize. The only way forward for this rich young man is to cast away the unnecessary—to lighten the load lest he and his loved ones with him fall exhausted along the trail. The loaded camel will never make it through the eye of the needle.

Jesus, like Amos and Hebrews knows not everything is “both and.” There are many that are, finally “either or.” We must choose life over death, good over evil, essentials over excess baggage.  And Jesus, like Hebrews, knows it is beyond human capability to survive the journey without help from beyond. We fail the test often and need repair and redemption.

So, it is the apocalyptic Christian faith that Jesus ends with. He says there is a difference between this world’s aims and the aims of God. And we have to have our aims set on the right destination.  Then for the sake of survival, we can lighten our loads by giving up some of the things we have been grasping.  We need to see that many daily decisions are about aiming ourselves at the dominion of the just, merciful, and compassionate God.

Next, when Peter, nervously asks, “We’ve given up things for you, haven’t we, Lord? Won’t we be rewarded?” Jesus answers apocalyptically: “Yes, any such unburdening is and will be rewarded, but in a dimension of being you have just started to taste and see. Reward will come with the real future, not the one you have been used to be chasing. Meanwhile you will know persecution. But in the end there will be the eternal reward of God’s love.

Jesus ends, “Many who are at the head of the line will wind up last. Many last will be first.” And if you had this assurance on the Oregon Trail you would surely rejoice. There were those achingly slow to learn. They insisted on hauling grandma’s dresser that they shipped from Ireland. They were at the head of the wagon train in Missouri, but fell further and further back. Yet even they got wise in the mountains and somehow made it. The first will wind up last, but if they choose the good and choose life and choose the Lord, they too will make it.  

I personally get ill these days watching the news. A very bad ending to humanity’s Oregon Trail seems to be taking shape. Can’t we see it? Ethiopian children and infants are starving to death. Immigrants desperately flee war, gang violence, oppression, and climate change, and seek refuge in Europe and the United States. Fires, floods and hurricanes are on the rise. And all the while our leaders can’t even work together to distribute vaccines, stop the rich from avoiding taxes, or make essential budget choices that care for the common good. The wagon train is falling apart. We must stick together to survive the trials ahead. But our leaders are frightfully failing us.

Yet the real heart of the problem isn’t up there at the top echelons. It is here in each of our hearts. We are the ones who choose whom to trust or fear. We are the ones who vote or get involved, or just turn away. We ultimately hold the purse strings. And we are the ones who must know where we are headed and what we should carry along the way—what will give life and what will just wear us down.

There is a mighty judgment coming. There will be a reckoning. The first will be last and the last first. Where will we be?

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Pentecost 19B: The Child’s Way through Propaganda

The readings for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost are:

Old Testament      Genesis 2:18–24

Psalm                    Psalm 8

New Testament     Hebrews 1:1–4, 2:5–12

Gospel                   Mark 10:2–16

The Pharisees tested Jesus. They were confused by the hot topic of divorce and wanted to know if Jesus could cut through all the rhetoric. Rabbis had different solutions. All of them saw a place for divorce, but what should be the “grounds.”

Jesus says that Moses’ very practical advice about a man’s granting a document of divorce so a woman could remarry was less a direct command than an accommodation to human “hardness of heart.” Jesus makes that connection by taking the imaginative leap of looking at things “from the beginning.” When God made them for each other and steered them to leaving mom and dad and  forming a new household, he intended for two people to become distinct and one—a precious union that no one should separate.

After that little debate people brought children near for Jesus to touch and bless them. Disciples thought this rude and a breach of protocol, but Jesus became indignant and said with great solemnity, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

I take from these two scenes divine affirmation of the way I’ve always tried to follow to cut through all the poisonous language that’s fed to us every day in the form of political propaganda that is designed to divide people into opposing camps. This propaganda is formed by a meticulously concocted stew of distorted language. Each word or phrase is coated in fear, and together they then have the power to drive us into ideological corners that we can’t get out of or see beyond.

Words like family values, the traditional definition of marriage, Black lives matter, critical race theory, second amendment rights, little babies, the right to life, socialism, big spending, secure borders, and even freedom itself, are deployed as short cuts to thinking. We are rarely encouraged to deeply listen or look at the facts. We are seldom taught that really there are always far more than two approaches to deciding our problems. We are almost never helped to consider that we may only have a bit of the truth and the other guys have other bits. We are never taught that we are all responsible for finding solutions that work.

Jesus tells us two things: Go back to the beginning, and receive like a little child. Break things down to the fundamentals.

When I faced up to my divorce many years ago I learned that the official act itself took about five minutes in a courtroom. But the real heart of the matter was a lifetime, and it was all about love. In the beginning God made me for love, I had no alternative but to love my wife, and I bore full responsibility for the way I loved. So, in spite of that five minutes it took to flush our twelve year-old marriage down the drain, I was one with her and with the children of our union. I had to find ways, even new ways, to keep loving.

And though my wife and I were grown with our own family, we were, inside still children who needed love. That need made it imperative that we reach out for the love from beyond—from the God who we needed to surround us with parents and friends and church that could love us back to health.

Every day I must confront the horrible ways we distort language and try to make very complex human problems go away rather than solve them or cope with them. The only way I can do that is by receiving God’s love into my life as a little child. And God’s design for me cannot be forgotten. I cannot ever stop listening to or loving others because of the mixed up ways we talk past each other. I must go back to the beginning, to the child’s point of view, to the fundamentals, and cut through the fog of loaded language.

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Pentecost 18B: Friendship, Peace, and Social Distancing

The readings for this 18th Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament      Numbers 11:4–6, 10–16, 24–29

Psalm                    Psalm 19:7–14

New Testament     James 5:13–20

Gospel                   Mark 9:38–50

Are not the biggest twin challenges of this time the social distancing of the pandemic and the social distancing caused by so-called social media?

And is it not so that the most promising strategy for navigating these troubled waters is reviving the neglected gift of friendship?

I want to focus on our Gospel reading for this week, and especially on Jesus’ charge to “be at peace with one another.”

I see the entire last 20 verses of Mark 9 as related. First, Jesus discloses to his disciples the core strategy of his ministry. He will go to Jerusalem to be betrayed, killed, and then exalted by God. It is surely not the strategy of the messiah people usually long for, but it is God’s formula for releasing the power of the fullness of life.

But once again in Mark’s gospel, the disciples prove to be tone deaf. Instead of practicing self-emptying they argue about which of them is the greatest. Jesus challenges them saying, “If you aim to be fist of all you must live to be last and servant of all.”

Continuing to our reading for this Sunday, the disciples voice their resentment that someone not in their entourage is successfully curing people of demon possession. It doesn’t matter that people are being healed. The disciples are miffed that though they were first in line there are others muscling in on their territory—and doing it by crass imitation–using the formula of Jesus’ name. Jesus seizes on the irony saying if there are any two things that should unite people they are acts of loving-kindness and the name of Christ.

Continuing in our lesson Jesus speaks of “stumbling blocks.” The Greek verb this translates is “skandalizo.” It is related to our ideas of taking offense and being embarrassed. It is obvious in this entire sequence of episodes that the disciples are stumbling over Jesus’ call to self-sacrificing caring and service toward others. They don’t get it. They take offense at the notion that this is what religious faith amounts to. Faith should certainly be something more glorious, spiritual, and other-worldly. The disciples are embarrassed at such seeming weakness.

But Jesus says being scandalized by such a faith is worse than death itself. If any organ of your body would spark such offense in you, look out. It would be better for you to be anchored and thrown into the sea. In fact, I think Jesus is saying, “I you can’t accept the call to service of others you are taking the exit ramp from the road of life.”

The reason I associate the idea of friendship to all of this is that it is both the thing most fitted to our nature that opens us to sacrifice for and serve other human beings, and the thing most endangered in our age. The Greco-Roman moral philosophers were pretty united in seeing friendship as both the greatest gift of the gods as well as a skill or virtue to be cultivated. The key idea that comes up often in the writings of these thinkers is that virtue of friendship is the opposite of the vice of envy. Friendship is cooperation that revitalizes,while envy is competition that withers the soul.

The double whammy of social media and the social distancing we must endure because of the pandemic have sped up the decline of friendship that was already in well on its way since the 18th  century. With industrial division of labor shortening our interactions and social and physical mobility lengthening the distances that separate us, we lost grip on the millennia-old tradition of contemplating friendship. We stopped thinking and writing about it. Wound up with a funeral anthem for it by Carole King: “So far away. Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore? It would be so fine to see your face at my door. Doesn’t help to know you’re so far away.”

Then came the anti-social effects of social media. With algorithms written to enhance profits by preferencing the most extreme, contentious, and divisive of content, we have pushed people further and further away from each other. Young people compare their bodies, dance skills, and wit with each other, and very often become hopelessly discouraged. Adults find themselves being sucked into the polar opposites of the political spectrum. All of us find ourselves in echo chambers and thought silos.

On top of these forces comes the pandemic.

In this time of social distancing and life on a lonely planet, it is more important than ever to cultivate friendship. We must learn to appreciate friendship as the opposite of envy and competition, the opposite of resentment and polarization, and the antidote to deadly division.

Don’t take offense at this. It is simple but not simplistic. They say don’t curse the darkness but light a candle. The way to do this in our lonely age is to find just one true friend, and then another. Find someone who shares your truth and your world, and who cares enough to get vaccinated. Pry yourself away from the counterfeit society of the virtual kind. Turn away from the screen, and spend time face to face and even arm in arm. Walk together. Enjoy music together. Stand shoulder to shoulder and feel the power of defying all of the doomsayers as you solve the world’s problems together. Don’t take offense and laugh at this notion—if you can see it, it will begin to happen because God is seeing it and loving it too. Learn that all of the fear and loathing stirred up by politicians and pundits is the real fantasy. Your connection with another human being is the truest thing in this world. You will find that altruism is not dead. Selflessness is not dead. Hope is not dead.

Oh, yes, the sting of salt and the pain of fire are still there. But they are good because they just make your friendships all the more precious and all the more powerful. It took a long time and a Resurrection for Jesus to teach the disciples this lesson, but the church is here because it finally sunk in.

And, as Jesus said, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

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Pentecost 17B: Fighting Hard in the Culture Wars

The readings for this 17th Sunday after Pentecost are:

Old Testament      Jeremiah 11:18–20

Psalm                    Psalm 54

New Testament     James 3:13–4:3, 4:7–8a

Gospel                   Mark 9:30–37

We are at an inflection point. We are in a culture war. We are in the midst of a grand worldwide conflict over how to prioritize our values.

Surely the polls show it. One recent poll says that about ¾ of people of one political party say it’s a bad idea to remind Americans about the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing racial inequities. And, true to form, about ¾ of the other side say it’s a good idea. And the same goes for whether voting is a right or privilege, and a host of other issues. And, of course, there is the head to head battle over vaccines and Covid measures that are forcing us to decide whether personal liberty or care for the community is the priority value in the face of this health emergency.

And the church of God has a “dog in this fight.” In this moment or inflection and conflict, the followers of Jesus Christ have a great responsibility to be in on the action, and to understand the weapons God has given them to fight with. The wrong side—the side of authoritarianism and resentment and protection of privilege at all costs–may be relatively small in number, but they are have outsized influence because they know it is indeed a battle that they are waging. So they are organied, and they are committed to fighting hard.

All the readings this Sunday have something to do with fighting hard. Jeremiah is in his hometown of Anathoth, There people have grown annoyed with him because of his relentless warning that they have mistaken covenant for privilege and unconditional protection. Jeremiah has warned that if the people of Judea don’t get more serious about their faithfulness to God and about God’s requirement of compassion for the poor, God will bring the hammer down on them. And so there are folk in Anathoth who are plotting to get rid of Jeremiah by any means possible—even death. They have voted that it is definitely not a good thing to be reminded of their sins. Jeremiah does not respond with softness. He will not forgive them. Instead he pronounces a solemn, divine oracle of vengeance on them: sword, famine, and total disaster.

Is Jeremiah being too harsh? Perhaps. It is possible to be so hard as to close off all possibility that enemies of justice will listen, be persuaded, or recognize the power of God’s love? Perhaps. But pulling punches doesn’t win fights either. And the Christian default strategy should not be to forgive so quickly and softly that it closes off all chance for true repentance and social change.

Psalm 54 does not pull punches either. There are people out there who are ruthless, insolent, and downright acting against God’s purposes. The high point of this psalm is the idea that when we fight a righteous battle we can count on God to be a faithful upholder of the covenant of compassion and vindicate (sooner or later) those who stand up for it.

James calls on Christians to make sure we are being counter-cultural with our hardness. Some of the people we must engage with are loud and enraged and well organized and full of zeal not because they are right, but because they have simply dressed themselves in the façade of righteous indignation. Their true and hidden motives really arise out of  a “friendship with the world” that makes them “enemies of God.”

Saint Augustine of Hippo said “Bad people use God to enjoy the world. Good people use the world to enjoy God.” So, Christians should be hard and loud in calling out hypocrisy. There is true evil in dressing up the desire to maintain privilege in Bible quotations and sanctimonious slogans. But being religiously neutral or anti-religious can be another smokescreen. Today it is quite fashionable for comedians and “public intellectuals” to be atheists. And so we should remember James’ advice that the most counter-cultural thing of all in any age is to ask for things in prayer rather than always plotting to grab them through raw power plays. Prayer changes us into a new creation.

It is Jesus’ words in the last half of our Gospel reading from Mark about greatness that has the last and most important advice for engaging in these times. Of course it is dripping with irony when the disciples around Jesus, who have already heard their master claim the role of sacrificing servant of all humankind, and his call to follow him, argue with each other about who is the greatest. But here, one more time, Jesus says it and shows it:

Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.

We are living at an inflection point. All around us a culture-war is being waged. We must fight by being organized and by being not too hard, but also not to soft. But most of all we of God’s church must never, ever, act as anything other than servants of all. Our job isn’t to win arguments, but to win people. Our job is to truly see, hear and understand, not only our opponents in this conflict, but all the silent stakeholders who are forced to sit on the sidelines. We need to listen long enough to understand them and feel their needs and give whatever we can to meet those needs.

And we must never forget to serve all. Not only the ones who look like us or vote as we do—but serve them all.

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Pentecost 16B: Teaching through the Pandemic

The readings for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost are:

Old Testament      Isaiah 50:4–9a

Psalm                    Psalm 116:1–9

New Testament     James 3:1–12

Gospel                   Mark 8:27–38

Teachers in a time of pandemic would be wise to pay close attention to the lessons for this Sunday.

The first lesson, from Isaiah, sets the stage forcefully with its opening words: “The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.” Translators must decide between two options: is it “the tongue of a teacher,” or “the tongue of one who is taught?” The answer is “yes.” The good teacher must be able to take all kinds of opposition, and stand firm—setting her or his “face like flint” against all the bullies of this world. Yet, the one thing that enables the teacher to keep up this hard work is learning from experience—even the most painful kind. Even the kind that comes as the result of past mistakes.

Isaiah 50 is called by many the third “suffering servant” poem. There is ambiguity about who that servant is: a coming leader, the people of Israel, Jesus, the future suffering Messiah, or the prophet. In chapter 50 there is less ambiguity—this is the prophet. And today’s teachers, around the world, must be prophets. They are today caught in the crushing vice grips of senseless political division about vaccinations, masking, and whether instruction should be in-person or online. True teachers will be those who stand firm.

I hear teachers asking people to protect the health of the entire community by taking every precaution necessary. They want to teach. They want to give students the richest possible learning experience. But they don’t want any more senseless deaths of students, their family members, or teachers or school staff.

But we live in an age of rage. And the righteous, patriotic defenders of individual freedom have at their hands the weapons of social media. The can rail. They can assassinate the characters of health workers, teachers, and administrators of every level with immunity. And they do.

And it is clear that the painful lesson of over 652,000 deaths in the United States, and over 4.5 million worldwide hasn’t yet sunk in for many—or for any of these bullies. They speak and rage with the tongue of the untaught.

So, it is up to the teachers—the worthy teachers of our world—whether in schools or in households—to steel themselves—to set their faces like flint and move forward with the truth that we must all work together and care for one another’s health. This is even more important at this time than one’s own personal freedom.

James chapter three chimes in with a warning that with the great power of teaching comes great responsibility. He backs up his argument using the tools of Greco-Roman moral philosophy, warning teachers not to lash out with the same out-of-control emotions that fuel the bullies of the pandemic, or the age of rage we are living through. Let the better angels of  reason, and God-given compassion, keep your fear and anger in check like the rider with a bridle for a wild horse, or a pilot with the rudder for a big ship. And don’t let your tongue be the spark that sets a forest ablaze! He uses another couple of these philosophical topoi—of the fig tree and its fruit and the spring and its water—to advise teachers to keep tending to their own inner selves. From the discipline of healthy beliefs, values, and convictions come health-affirming words and actions.

As usual it is the Gospel reading that ultimately shows us the way. Good moral philosophy or even good, solid education is never enough—and especially not in this age of rage. We try to keep cool. We try to always have our facts straight. And we try to always do the right thing. But we fall short.

Jesus tells us his mission is a radical one, and our vision for life, and or teaching must likewise take a radical turn. In fact, we must lose our lives to gain them. We must hand our broken lives over to God, who gives them back whole. We must stop trying to make ourselves more science based, patriotic, or even righteous, and let God’s grace remake us.

The reason the bullying of teachers, health care providers, and civic leaders is so raw and hurtful today is that it is always so self-righteous. Everyone knows better. Everyone is a better Christian. Everyone a better freedom loving patriot.

Yet it is self-righteousness and the umbrage and rage it spawns that is killing us. It is sick religion. It is sick patriotism.

Martin Luther, following Paul in Romans 6, helps us recognize that since we all go on sinning, in spite of our very best intentions, we all need to die and rise again every day. We need to die to our old selves and rise again, forgiven by God’s grace, so that we can quit trying to look good or make ourselves good. We can be so right that we can’t be saved, and we surely can’t be the loving presence this world needs. We can leave that all behind and think of one another instead. Every day of our lives we do this by dying and rising forgiven through our sincere repentance.

Jesus is our model for this. He forfeits his life out of new-creation-love for others.

It’s when we follow this example that we become true learner-teachers. Only then can teachers, and all our leaders, set their faces like flint against the bullies of this age of rage, and show us the way to both learning and healing.

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Pentecost 15B: We Are All Beggars

The readings for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost are…

Old Testament      Isaiah 35:4–7a

Psalm                    Psalm 146

New Testament     James 2:1–10 (11–13) 14–17

Gospel                   Mark 7:24–37

Concurrent with the pandemic has come the challenge of social justice. With the killing of Briana Taylor, George Floyd and others, has come a long overdue reckoning with the heritage of white supremacy and the systemic oppression of blacks. Then seeped to the surface the hidden insanity that was falling on Asian-Americans as people insulted, assaulted and even murdered them for their imagined responsibility for Covid-19. And it wasn’t long before we were forced to remember centuries of bias against Asians and all people of color.

So racism is the cause of the day. But prejudice against the poor is an even more universal force for evil; and it would serve us well to wake up to it if we are going to bring into the cause of social justice those of all races, including the whites, who feel overlooked.   

One of the things that connects all of the readings for this Sunday is that they show a God who is intent on turning things around, and who invites us to be part of the plan. The chosen of Israel will be vindicated, and those who oppress her will receive their due payback.

But the New Testament continues another strong theme that the prophets all emphasized: God’s bias for the poor who are always and everywhere oppressed.

Our reading from the Book of James says something startling: Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?

Wait a minute: We thought God chose us! Not the poor!

James is particularly bothersome for Lutherans who like to claim we are saved by faith alone. But James writes, “Faith without works is dead.” And in the first line of our reading today he goes even deeper. He says faith without care for the poor isn’t faith at all.

James challenges all church folk by picturing their Sunday mornings. He says, “If someone drives up in a Mercedes, gets out wearing fine clothes, and drops a thousand dollar check in the collection plate, and you snap to attention, shake their hands and make sure the pastor follows up on them and gets them to join the church; but on the other hand, when a guy in worn out jeans and a torn shirt and calloused hands walks in and asks for some help with food for his kids, and you try not to look him in the face, or you give him five bucks and say don’t come back no more, something is out of whack!” James asks, “If you act like that do you really believe in Jesus Christ?” What James is saying is, “Faith without works isn’t just dead, it’s not faith at all. If you don’t care for others then you better look again at what you truly base your life on.”

Look at it this way: False faith is founded on the idea that there are two kinds of people in this world: there are people like you and me – and then there are the beggars. You and I somehow made ourselves. We earned our place on the inside. The beggars just beg. They have earned nothing. And we owe them nothing. And so we are blinded to systemic poverty—blinded by the way we moralize about it. Jesus, I think, satirizes this tendency when he speaks as a Jew to the Gentile Syro-Phoenician woman, begging for her child’s life in today’s Gospel, “It’s not fair to give the children’s food to the dogs.” We have a hard time honoring or even sympathizing with any poor person when we moralize, and stand on fairness in such a way. And we cannot see that the mercy of God far outstrips any fairness.

But true and living faith is founded on the idea that there is only one kind of people:

We are all beggars who live by the grace of God. In fact, Martin Luther’s final words on his death bed kind of summed up his whole theology. He said, “We are all beggars, this is true.”

 
There was another man named Martin—in fact Luther was named for him—who history identifies with beggars. As he was ending his life of death, serving as a soldier of the Roman empire in the mid fourth century, he met a beggar shivering from mid-winter cold. He raised his sword and used it—to cut his own cloak in half. Then he gave half to the beggar.

After a long saintly life he was acclaimed as the bishop of the city of Tours. The day he was expected to arrive, the city magistrate spruced up the city for his arrival. His final act of sprucing was to chase all the beggars off the main street. When he told the last beggar to make way for Martin the new bishop, the man said, “I am Martin the bishop.” Of course the magistrate was mortified and apologized profusely, but Martin replied, “Don’t apologize to me. Apologize to the beggars of your town.

The magistrate’s faith was a false one. But Martin’s was true, because he knew who Christ is. It is said that one night, while he was deep in prayer, Martin had a vision. Christ appeared to him, radiant as the sun, and wearing fine robes and a bejeweled crown. The vision spoke, “Bow down and worship me, Martin.” Martin looked the figure over and said, “But where are the nail holes?” And the apparition disappeared. It was not the Christ who dies for us beggars. It was the devil.


James warns us against the ingrained habit we have of judging books by their cover. So, we think what makes us rich is money, when it is really God’s love and the relationships we have with others that are built on that love. When we mistake the money-rich for the good guys, we get suckered, and they oppress us and take us to court. But when we read the poor we meet like the good books they are, we see that them as the blessed ones of God.

Earlier in his letter James says the reason we can’t do God’s Word, and live truly fulfilled lives, is that we don’t read ourselves either. We judge ourselves by the cover, and miss the fact that we are covering up. “It’s like looking at ourselves in the mirror and walking away and immediately forgetting what we truly look like,” he writes. Indeed, Martin Luther pointed out that the most important use of God’s Law is as a mirror. He advised that we use the Ten Commandments to hold up that mirror in our daily confession and repentance. And, in today’s society, when we hear that self-esteem is everything and that we are great, and there is nothing we can’t do if we dream and work hard enough at it, using the Commandments this way is a great corrective. We always know, deep down, we can’t do anything. We know self-esteem must be tempered with  realistic humility. We know deep down that we cover up our flaws and mistakes with more money, more make-up, and more stuff.

Look hard at the mirror God gave us as a gift of grace. And let all this drive you to the foot of the cross as a fellow beggar. Then appreciate that it is beggars God receives. It is as people who are dead in sin and ungodly that Christ dies for us.

We are all beggars, this is true. And we are invited to kneel at the altar rail together,  with our hands out. And into our beggars’ hands is given the Body and Blood of Christ, the Giver.

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Pentecost 14 B: Virtues for Pandemic Times

The readings for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost are…

Old Testament      Deuteronomy 4:1–2, 6–9

Psalm                    Psalm 15

New Testament     James 1:17–27

Gospel                   Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23

Our lessons this Sunday should inform the church so that it can be the world’s school of virtue for times of pandemic.

The Deuteronomy reading is the warning of Moses for the Hebrew people as they ready themselves for entering the land. He says that they need to develop the virtue of respect for law and government. Wake up America! Our trust in government and the rule of law is at an all time low, and that’s why we are on the verge of becoming a failed state. Look at the gates of the Kabul airport and you will see what failed state means. Those who risk being trampled in the hope of flying off to a place where justice is enforced should teach you that Ronald Reagan was wrong (and disingenuous?) when he said government is not the solution, it’s the problem. Reagan himself went on to increase government’s size and budget; and we must realize that when government fails, we correct it—we don’t trash it. And the only way we, as a species, will survive this and coming pandemics, is if we trust one another and our common efforts to wisely and compassionately govern ourselves. Here we Lutherans are reminded that the Law of God is not opposed to the Gospel of God’s grace – it can be an instrument of that grace. See how good God can be to us, to give us good government and just laws!

Psalm 15 teaches us about the virtue of radical commitment. These are days of flux. The climate is changing, and along with it we feel the flood waters, hurricane winds, and flash fires. The Covid advice is changing, and along with it the quick-sands of politics. The economy is changing as we fear the loss of jobs, then the loss of people willing to do the jobs, then too little then too much liquidity. Anxious about these changes the Psalmist says, “To be able to stand and not be moved, practice the virtue of steadfastness. Don’t look for loopholes, but walk blamelessly. And stand by your commitments and pledges even when it hurts!” And don’t be merely “woke” for a day when it comes to racism and inequality, but actively resist the wickedness that you see around you.

James expounds on the virtue of the active life, but adds texture to the psalmist’s call for commitment. He says the only committed and active life that is worth living is one that flows from the commitment and action of God. Our generosity must flow from God’s. Our action must not be knee-jerk. Rage and zeal are destructive if they are not God’s rage for what is right. James also calls us to the virtue of slowness. Be slow to speak and slow to anger, but quick to listen and understand. If this age we are living in is one where the trust in government is at its nadir, so is our collective ability to truly converse with each other. We prefer trolling. We prefer umbrage and outrage. But acting this way is a form of forgetfulness—we forget what we look like and that we need repair every day of our lives if the world we live in is to be repaired.  

And Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, calls us to a complex but essential virtue: the ability to distinguish the ultimate from the penultimate. The teaching of Jesus is set up by one of the many instances of judgment. Pharisees and scribes—people who should be experts in God’s commandments, criticize Jesus’ disciples for eating with unwashed hands. But Jesus points out that they critique is born of a greater insult to God than any violation of a tradition. They have used their religion to create barriers—to divide themselves from others. “Cleanliness is next to godliness” can become a rationale to keep those who do our “dirty work” for us at a distance. It can become a device for avoidance of our own responsibility for things that more truly defile. And Jesus then points us to the true character of those binding commandments that God has given us. They are for us to be constructively self-critical—to take care not to judge others, but to tend to what we are saying and doing to make our world a better place. So, Luther was right to say that the first and truest “use of the Law” is as a mirror. This also ties into  the reading from James who says that looking at ourselves in a mirror and remembering what we look like, is the best way to not only hearers of God’s word, but doers.

This pandemic is a global and existential threat. But what is a far more ominous threat is the way we fight each other about the pandemic. We have politicized just about everything that we could have overcome if we had exercised these virtues: Treasure and preserve good government, stand fast on commitments and responsibilities even when it hurts, be in conversation with those you disagree with, be constructively self-critical, and let the Law of God bring you together with others, not drive you further apart.

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