Pentecost 17 C: Resolutely Watch for God’s Answer

The readings for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament & Psalm, Option I

Old Testament      Lamentations 1:1–6

Psalm                    Lamentations 3:19–26 or Psalm 137

or

Old Testament & Psalm, Option II

Old Testament      Habakkuk 1:1–4, 2:1–4

Psalm                    Psalm 37:1–9

New Testament     2 Timothy 1:1–14

Gospel                   Luke 17:5–10

The prophecy of Habakkuk is a dialog with God, an affirmation about how essential such a dialog is, and a lesson on how we faithfully fulfill our part in the conversation.

History has provided ample impetus for people of faith to start their conversation with God with “Why?” Why do we pray for peace and justice, but hear no answer? For me, these days, the question takes on a bit of a different shape: Why are we humans so easily duped into acting against our own self interests. Why are we so intent on destroying ourselves?

Why do we not cooperate to end the pandemic and to prepare for the next? Why do so many Republicans deny the results of a fair election, and support a man who so consistently lies and acts like a spoiled brat? Having watched Ken Burns’ documentary “The US and the Holocaust” I ask, why are people so gullible and quick to believe lies that turn them against their neighbors? Why are they easily persuaded to shut their doors to families desperately trying to find safety from demonic forces? Why is it that we can be fooled into hating the very people we need to form a vital society?

When we ask why some prayers aren’t answered, one plain answer that we don’t want to hear comes in Isaiah 1:15, where God says, “I don’t answer prayers from people whose hands are full of blood.”  So, immediately, we should be moved to look at our own folded hands. How much blood is there because we too treated innocent people harshly, or we just plain didn’t care?

But God’s answer to the prophet here is that God is still in control. Even the hated Chaldeans, or Babylonians, are tools of God. And when Habakkuk complains that these Babylonians have gone way past being tools, and are acting in ways that terrorize the righteous, God assures Habakkuk that the Babylonian success will last but a moment, while the righteous will live by their faith, or faithfulness.

But the passage that I believe is most remarkable in this lesson is Habbakuk 2:1, where the prophet says,

I will stand at my watchpost,

and station myself on the rampart;

I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,

and what he will answer concerning my complaint.

The prophet stands fast because the Word of God that he listens for is the only thing that speaks truly to his ultimate concerns.

Try as we might to search the world’s wisdom, we will never find the answer to why people love tyrants, follow the lead of bullies, and blame and hate the vulnerable. And certainly—most certainly—we will not find there anything that will help us do what is right and just, even when we understand it theoretically.

During the awful chapter of history called the Holocaust a great majority of people around the world saw that the oppression and killing of Jews was evil. But a great majority of them still favored doing nothing and closing their doors to immigration. “Times are rough all over,” they reasoned. “We can’t afford to help.”

And Hitler was right to point out the hypocrisy when people condemned Germany for wanting to rid themselves of Jews, while their immigration policies showed they didn’t want them in their countries.

The world’s political, scientific, and philosophical wisdom is impotent. It can easily speak one way and act another. It can always find reasons for the evils of apathy and self-preservation.

Habakkuk knew what the Apostle Paul knew. Ultimate questions demand ultimate answers, and worldly wisdom does not offer it.—what he wrote about in the first chapter of First Corinthians:

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:21-25).

So, the prophet waits. He stands fast. He shows us the way of prayer that’s worth its salt. Yes, we do have blood on our hands. Yes, both as a nation and as individuals, we are complicit in the gullibility, stupidity, fear, hatred, and self-serving of our age—all the things that feed racism and all kinds of injustice.  But if we hang in there with our prayers we will eventually understand our need of repentance. Then we will understand better God’s hidden ways and broader horizon. Then we will understand the infinite compassion and universal love of God that moved God to send Jesus Christ to turn the world right side up through humility and suffering. Then we will better understand the foolishness of God that is more powerful than any of the wisdom of the world. Then we will get up from our prayers filled with new hope.

It is a good thing when Christian congregations meet to discuss the world’s problems. But any such discussions must begin and end with steadfast waiting in prayer. We must remember that any observations by social scientists, activists, or political analysts, are penultimate. The ultimate answer to our ultimate questions of good and evil in our world will always come in the Word of God. And the Word has become flesh in Jesus Christ alone.

YOU CAN FIND ALL OUR PANDEMIC BLOG POSTS BY CLICKING ON THAT CATEGORY IN THE LIST TO THE RIGHT OF THIS PAGE.

Posted in Church, Church and Social Movements, Featured, John's Posts, Pandemic Blog, Prayer, Reflections on Sunday Readings, Social Political Issues, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pentecost 16 C: The Group Mind of the Church

Instead of my normal practice of reflecting on one or more readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, this week, and since we will be welcoming new members to St. Luke Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, I have chosen to focus on the affirmation portion of the service of Affirmation of Baptism of the book Evangelical Worship, where we ask people

Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism:

to live among God’s faithful people,

to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,

to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,

to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,

and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?

And, when they respond, “I do, and I ask God to help and guide me,” we ask the entire congregation:

People of God, do you promise to support these sisters and brothers and pray for them in their life in Christ? To which they answer, We do, and we ask God to help and guide us.”

You see, I had one of those syncronicity—serendipitous moments of grace from a mischievous God this week.

First I ran across an amazing article in the New York Times. It was about this amazing bird called the bar-tailed godwit. Any day now flocks of  godwit will take off from the coastal mud flats of Alaska and fly over 7,000 miles of the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand. Now these are not sea birds, so they can’t plop down in the ocean for a rest, or to feed. No, they fly nonstop for nine or ten days. They don’t rest, and they don’t eat. They keep flapping their wings until they get there. Then, next March, they will fly back to Alaska.

Scientists who came to know all these things only recently because they have fastened transmitters to these birds and can tell how their wings are flapping and at what altitude (they can fly miles and miles high) have been amazed. They know the godwits build up fat, yet make many of their organs smaller so that they can have lots of  energy, yet fly with half the weight of their more breeding and feeding days. But how, for instance, do they navigate? How do they avoid the typhoons and other weather disasters along that long journey?

One scientist, who has observed these birds day and night while they are on the ground, noticed a curious scenario. A bird flaps and bounces about and shows obvious signs that she wants to start out. But then she looks around her at the other godwits. The mass of birds don’t get excited with her. They seem to be saying, “No, it’s not time.” Finally, after days of this same behavior, a bunch of other birds appear to agree—it’s time—and so she goes along with them and joins the first flock to depart.

So, the observers have wondered, “Is this group mind? Are they pooling their intelligence?”  And I wondered, is that what’s happening when I watch the huge V formation of Canada geese, and they alter their course in mid air, and now one is the leader and now another? Or when a huge mass of starlings stay choreographed together as a great flock, while sweep around in a great dance in the air?

And then – and then, right after reading that article, I opened what is fast becoming my favorite book of theology of all time, titled Fools for Christ, by a theologian and historian from the last half of the 20th Century, Jaroslav Pelikan. The book reminded me of how Martin Luther has been misinterpreted through the years. People make the mistake of thinking that if Luther broke from the authoritarianism of the Roman Catholic Church, and urged people to think for themselves, and stressed the freedom of the Christian, he must have been a radical individualist. But, in fact, Luther did battle against many of the individualists of his time. He also stressed that neither he, nor any believer could live out  the Christian life without the aid and encouragement of fellow believers. Luther knew we may have to do our own believing, and our own dying, yet we are never alone. Where one of us is weak, another is strong. Each has something to contribute to the common good.

But the group mind of the church is more than that. In the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians we read this:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…

The group mind of the church isn’t our great asset because all the people around us in the pews are such virtuous people.  It isn’t great because consensus is always better than independent thinking, or because the majority is always right. The group mind of the church is powerful because we are saints.

And please stay clear of the commonplace definition of saint. What is a saint? Saints in the Bible aren’t saints because they are particularly good, but because they are forgiven in Christ Jesus. So saints know when they meet other people who are bent down by sin, that they are no different. Only by the grace of God can I stand before another and exchange stories of pain and suffering. Only because Jesus has died for me and has shared resurrection life with me can I share hope with you.

This is our group mind. Anything good we know about life and death and new life is because we are have died and risen again in baptism into Christ.

We can’t ever do it on our own. We can proclaim good news, serve people, strive for justice and peace—we can do good for our loved ones and neighbors only because we live among God’s faithful people, hear the Word of God, and share in the Lord’s Supper.  Only because we know we are sinners who are forgiven.

Life is a journey, they say. Think of the bar-tailed godwits. They are even now taking off from Alaska and flying 7,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand. They don’t do it alone , but with their flock. They have a group mind that helps them know when and where to fly around the storms. You and I have membership. We have one another in the church. We have the group mind that is the mind of Christ. We must do our own believing, living and dying, but we never do it alone.

FIND ALL OUR PANDEMIC BLOG POSTS BY CLICKING ON THAT CATEGORY IN THE LISTING TO THE RIGHT OF THIS PAGE.

Posted in Faith, Featured, John's Posts, Pandemic Blog, Reflections on Sunday Readings | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sméagol’s Death Leaves a Hole in Our Lives

Sméagol the cat, lived with us almost the whole 20 years we have been at Heatherhope.

Being dog people, Connie and I often thought of him as something of a bother. He woke us each up at least once or twice a night as he liked to shift about his own sleeping positions, and preferred to use us for his pillows. He grew a strong preference for the “living water” as they say in the Bible; and so pestered us until we put him on the bathroom sink to drink from the faucet. So, we bought him his own private drinking fountain that we had to keep perfectly clean. Like any cat he would beg to be let outside and then stand still at the threshold before making his commitment. Watching TV he would shift from my lap to Connie’s side several times each show.

But then this past year he gradually lost half his weight. His howls for attention turned to whimpers. And the past couple of days he gave up eating at all. We took him to see the veterinarian, who felt a tumor inside. And at over 21 years of age, we agreed with him that it would be wrong to put Sméagol through an operation.

It was sudden, but not sudden. We knew it was coming. But when it did, and we returned home to have a night without feeding him his canned food and cleaning his two litter boxes, and welcoming him into our bed, we thought not of the bother, but of the hole in our lives.

The house is alive when you share it with a cat. Things move into and out of your peripheral vision. Soft mewings crescendo into blood curdling moans. You make constant accommodations and negotiations. It seems a bother, but it is life.

And we know that Sméagol had his own fan club. Friends, family, training clinic patrons, the farm sitter, all ask about the cat before they ask about me. How is old Sméagol? Is he still shaped like a balloon? No. Not now. Is he still as talkative? We wish. Does he still like to rub up against the legs of all the guests? No. We are left trying to remember how he felt.

No bother now. And so there is a great big hole in our lives.

Posted in Farm Diary, Featured, John's Posts, Pandemic Blog | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Pentecost 15 C: Ceremonies for Transcendence

The readings for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament & Psalm, Option I

Old Testament      Jeremiah 8:18–9:1

Psalm                    Psalm 79:1–9

or

Old Testament & Psalm, Option II

Old Testament      Amos 8:4–7

Psalm                    Psalm 113

New Testament     1 Timothy 2:1–7

Gospel                   Luke 16:1–13

Well, we are right in the middle of a HUGE lesson about majesty. The death of Queen Elizabeth II, and the accession of King Charles III continues to be a global event.

If you are like me, and I think most Americans, what has transpired since Queen Elizabeth’s death, has been truly amazing. In America we don’t have a hereditary monarch as head of state. We don’t have the pageantry of bugles and bells, troops of men in huge hats, crowns and golden thrones. We don’t have the endless ceremony. We don’t have the royal beekeeper passing on the news of the Queen’s passing to the royal beehives.

But the British do. And it seems to work miracles. You have past prime ministers and members of parliament who are quite used to accusing each other of terrible things, and yelling at each other—standing shoulder to shoulder. You have millions of battling conservatives and liberals, not only in Britain, but in New Zealand and Australia and Canada and Jamaica man—laying down their arms and waving the same flag and shedding the same kinds of tears. And all of this is so irresistible, that we might think this woman was America’s Queen as well.

Tradition. Ceremony. Continuity. Unity. All because of the majesty of a Queen the world seems to agree has been the best Queen ever.

We might think the whole idea of a King or Queen as head of state is an anachronism and…well something peculiar. But the noted British classics scholar and popular theologian, C. S. Lewis, once wrote this about it:

“Where men are forbidden to honor a king, they honor millionaires, athletes, or film stars instead; even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.”

            In my humble opinion Lewis was half right. People hunger for majesty. But I’m sure even Lewis himself, in his more sober moments, would agree that our most essential spiritual need is not to honor a king or queen, but to honor God.

            This brings us to Psalm113 that we just prayed. The first six verses are all about praise, which is our practiced acclamation of the majesty of God. It goes like this:

1           Praise the Lord!

Praise, O servants of the Lord;

praise the name of the Lord.

2           Blessed be the name of the Lord

from this time on and forevermore.

3           From the rising of the sun to its setting

the name of the Lord is to be praised.

4           The Lord is high above all nations,

and his glory above the heavens.

5           Who is like the Lord our God,

who is seated on high,

6           who looks far down

on the heavens and the earth?

            Now, the Psalms are the worship book of the Old Testament, the prayer book of Jesus, which he even recited from the cross, and it’s the worship book of the church through the ages—monks chant them, pastors read them to the dying, people memorize their beautiful poetry.

            But what this psalm says should have more impact with us after watching what the pomp and circumstance of the Elizabeth’s funeral, and Charles’ accession and speeches have done to the world.

We need praise. We need traditions. We need worship. We humans do have a spiritual need rituals and traditions of ceremonies to remind us of the Transcendent.

We need to be reminded that the differences between Trump and Biden supporters are not ultimate. The things we fight over today, where will they be in a thousand years—or in just a few years or moments when you and I are on our death beds?

We need to be reminded that there are things to live for more important than money. Sure, it’s convenient, it’s nice not to fear your retirement will dry up and you will wind up eating cat food or crammed in an understaffed nursing home because it’s the only one that will take Medicare. But haven’t we all had times when we had little to live on, but we had loved ones surrounding us, and it was not only good enough, it was great? They keep telling me this stock market slump or this recession was the worst in years—in decades. But I think back about those awful years in the 90s or the 70s and I can’t remember what the stocks or economy was doing. I think of family and love and whether I was any good at sharing God’s love. Those are the things that really matter. We need majesty and ceremony—we need good hymns and liturgy and people praising God in the way they live God’s love. We need these things to remind us that God is more important than money.

And we need majesty and awe to remind us that the things we worry about don’t amount to a drop in a bucket. Martin Luther once told his friends around the dinner table that when the Devil came ‘round to frighten him he would just cut a fart to chase him away. His potty mouth aside, he wanted to make the point that one single word from God is all it took to defeat the Devil, because that Word was Jesus Christ.

 It is important to know that CS Lewis here was only half right—and so he was completely wrong. He was right that we have a spiritual hunger for majesty—but not just any majesty. We have a need for faith, but not faith in just anyone. Not even good Queen Elizabeth.

And that’s where the last few verses of Psalm 113 come in:

                  Praise the Lord because…

7           He raises the poor from the dust,

and lifts the needy from the ash heap,

8           to make them sit with princes,

with the princes of his people.

9           He gives the barren woman a home,

making her the joyous mother of children.

Praise the Lord!

And remember what 1 Timothy says: Don’t worship, but pray for kings and all in high positions. But when it comes to worship and praise, save it for the one who desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of truth…the one who sent his Son to be a mediator between God and humankind, and to give his life as a ransom for all.

What we do here in worship is something like the pomp and circumstance of the Queen’s procession, lying in state, and funeral. It’s like the trumpet blasts for King Charles. But it’s much, much more. We come here every Sunday, light the candles, put on special clothhing, sing songs, bow our heads, make the sign of the cross, even kneel sometimes. Why? To practice doing things our grandparents did ages ago. To protest against petty things. To remind ourselves, week after week, that God is more important than the nitpicking we fight over at school board meetings and in elections. To remember God is much more powerful than anything that we are losing sleep over.

      We affirm proudly that this God, who is sovereign and in charge, loves us and the whole world so much that God sent his Son to die and rise and live for us forevermore.

FIND ALL OUR PANDEMIC BLOG POSTS BY CLICKING ON THAT CATEGORY IN THE LIST TO THE RIGHT OF THIS PAGE.

Posted in Church, Church and Social Movements, Featured, John's Posts, Pandemic Blog, Reflections on Sunday Readings, Social Political Issues | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Pentecost 14 C: The Church and the Cancel Culture

The readings for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament       Jeremiah 4:11–12, 22–28

Psalm                    Psalm 14

Old Testament & Psalm, Option I

or

Old Testament & Psalm, Option II

Old Testament       Exodus 32:7–14

Psalm                    Psalm 51:1–10

New Testament      1 Timothy 1:12–17

Gospel                   Luke 15:1–10

I remember a banner from anti-war days of the early 70s: “We make war like giants and peace like pygmies.”

There is some degree of truth also to those who complain about the insidious side of the “cancel culture.” We are pros at piling on blame and amateurs at taking it off.

Of course, there is the other side of things: We may love laying blame on others, but allergic to accepting responsibility for our own guilt. we are expert at avoiding and denying when it comes to our own guilt.

This Sunday’s readings are lessons about the Christian’s role in the time of cancel culture. First, we must be constant advocates for God’s reputation for mercy. Second, the church must be constant servants of the only productive way of dealing with sin and evil.

God’s brand is at stake in Exodus 32. Surely those who point the finger of blame want God to exact justice and smite the evildoers of this world. God must uphold justice. But Moses intercedes. He refuses to pile on and allow God to cancel backsliding Israel and start over with a new breed of Moses’ own offspring. Instead, he reasons rightly that if God wipes out Israel at this point then the Egyptians would be able to say, “You are no better than others. By your violent cancelling you will show yourself as evil. There is no ultimate good in cancelling, but only in mercy.”

It is a perennial temptation for the church to pile on in the cause of morality. If there is too much sexuality, greed for power, hunger for wealth, or social injustice in this world, then we must plant our flag for the cause of moral reform. But, while the God of the Bible is a God of justice, even more so is God merciful. There is forgiveness with God that God should be feared. God looks not to cancel, but to restore.

There is good reason the three parables of Luke 15 are among the most memorable of the Bible. The lost sheep, lost coin, and prodigal son stories have one common lesson: God and all heaven are defined not by judgment, but by joy over repentant sinners.

But that brings us to a key point. If the world around us is so bad at restoration, who will show the way? It is up to the church.

The God the church worships rejoices over repentant sinners, but repentance is a forgotten art. Society is of two minds and needs a third. On the one hand, cancel culture is nothing new. People have always loved to point out the specks in others eyes and demand that a price be paid. On the other hand people are terribly practiced at strategies for avoiding and hiding their own faults. The same people who want senators and celebrities cancelled over their sexual harassment, may be keen consumers of pornography. I am reminded often of  words of Tom Lehrer as he introduced his satirical song about National Brotherhood Week: “I’m sure we all agree that we ought to love one another, and I know there are people in the world that do not love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that.”

Restoration cannot happen unless people do something constructive with both their moral lapses and their lack of trust in God’s love that is the origin of sin. Racism, sexism, selfishness, greed, irrational hatred and fear, and all the rest, are endemic. As Genesis 6 says, the wickedness of humankind is great, and the inclinations of human hearts is evil. And the root of it all is bad belief. But there is a Way to deal with both sin and its root cause.

The “Way” begins with an essential realization. We cannot deal with sin by making ourselves better. We find our Way not as a continuation of our own path of systematic moral improvement, either with the help of our own sheer grit, or with the help of churchly cheerleaders. We find our Way as a new thing. With Psalm 51 we look to the Lord to “create a clean heart” within us and to “restore a right spirit” within us. We look to the God who finds and loves sinners when they dead in their sin. Coming alive from death is the most frightful thing, because it requires a new heart, new spirit, and new orientation to life. But we open ourselves to that dangerous fury of God in cross and apocalypse, because only then will we find ourselves returning to the God who breaks out in joy at the sight of us coming up the lane. Only then are we eager to celebrate in the Great Party of restoration that that merciful God sets for us.

This Way takes shape in the life of the church, but it is no way controlled by it. The church cannot and shall not commodify it, but must only serve it. It is ritualized in confession and absolution, and the sacraments, and takes on flesh and blood in the way Christians welcome and have fellowship with one another.

We Christians and our church can no longer let God or ourselves be branded as those who blame and punish. Instead of pointing the finger of blame at others we join 1 Timothy in pointing to ourselves as champion sinners whom God has restored. We are the ones who turn from cancelling others, and instead invite them to the Great Party of restoration.

FIND ALL OUR PANDEMIC BLOG POSTS BY CLICKING ON THAT CATGORY IN THE LIST TO THE RIGHT OF THIS PAGE.

Posted in Church, Church and Social Movements, Featured, John's Posts, Pandemic Blog, Reflections on Sunday Readings, Social Political Issues | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pentecost 13 C: Beyond Anti-Racism, Beyond Woke

The readings for the Twelth Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament & Psalm, Option I

Old Testament      Jeremiah 18:1–11

Psalm                    Psalm 139:1–6, 13–18

or

Old Testament & Psalm, Option II

Old Testament      Deuteronomy 30:15–20

Psalm                    Psalm 1

New Testament     Philemon 1–21

Gospel                   Luke 14:25–33

We will focus on the Gospel reading from Luke, because it serves to remind the whole church of our radically different message about ethics when we hear Jesus require of his disciples that they hate family to follow him. God and Moses command us to honor parents, but Jesus now stands that on its head.

Years ago, the great historian, and all-around thinker and theologian, Jaroslav Pelikan, wrote that Christians fall into a big trap when they treat moralism, rather than the gospel, as the center of their message for the world. This happens when prophetic voices notice both the moral decline of society, and the church’s neglect of  ethical rigor and social justice in favor of right doctrine. Society at large will very often give positive feedback to such prophetic voices, but only as long as the prophets speak its language and share its conventional values. Society at large, in other words, has no use for the deep and more radical ethical implications of the full gospel message. But, Christians—even Christians who seem to be most earnest in “speaking truth to power”—fall  into the moralistic trap when they forget the gospel. Pelikan says that moralism is the trap we fall into when we confuse the good with the Holy. (Jaroslav Pelikan, Fools for Christ: Essays on the True, the Good and the Beautiful, 1955, Augsburg Fortress.)

Recently the denomination I belong to, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has been living through a time of testing about wokeism and moralism. An activist, trans bishop disciplined a Latinx, activist pastor, creating a crisis. Then the female bishop of the national church body attempted to impose a solution that many deemed inadequate and insensitive. Instantly the prophetic voices of the ecclesiastical universe broke out in—not a chorus—but a din of accusation. Almost every pastor, bishop, and mover and shaker in the church knew this was all a matter of racism. Or was it transphobia?

In Luke 14 Jesus is demonstrating the gospel and its implications in the context of a dinner. He sees all around him people jockeying for social position, so he invites us to the gospel table where everyone is for everyone else. He talks the kind of practical, common sense etiquette that you might find in Proverbs or Dear Abby, but then moves on to the soaring dimensions of gospel hopefulness: God has destined us for a future where all our social distinctions are neutralized, everyone dines together, and the ones formally invalidated are honored. The implication is that we trust that God the Giver has filled our needs, so we have absolutely no need to look for redundant affirmation or payback from our fellow diners.

Our reading from Luke 14:25-33 seems at first not to belong to this larger setting. But we must keep these verses together with the foregoing to see how morality must be kept together with the theology of the gospel.

Jesus starts here calling on his audience to do the obviously immoral, commandment-breaking thing: to hate family.  He ends with the charge to give up “possessions.” But the Greek word for possessions here goes well beyond material wealth. Social historians like to point out that in Jesus’ ancient Mediterranean world one’s family was everything. The extended family was where you got your food, shelter, education, religious training and meaning, network of social connections. Family provided security, identity…everything.  Risking the loss of family was risking the loss of control of everything else that sustains life.

I believe the family is not less but more essential to us. Who in this crowded, busy world cares for our feelings if not parents, siblings, wives or husbands? What we think of as family is even more of a center and source for us today.

It is a radical challenge to us when Jesus tells us the risk of loss of that center is worth taking for the sake of a truer center.  Family is good, but not holy. Family is not absolute or ultimate.

Our family system and the good of playing our part in it are ours. They are things that we can control and that we seem to possess. But there is something greater that puts an absolute claim on us and that we cannot domesticate. It is the Holy God who claims us.

The table that Jesus presides over, and invites us to, is a table that includes all because the Holy God has no limits to food or fellowship. The family that Jesus invites us to is one that supplants our everything with one that is God’s EVERYTHING.

Christians look forward to dining at a table where all  are welcome though they can contribute nothing. They live now in a family that our world cannot recognize, and yet truly does give us everything.

Our society, including all the woke ones within it, care nothing for this kind of imagination, yet Christ calls on us, nonetheless, to not be embarrassed by it. And this worldview iis the greatest contribution we can make to the culture wars around us.

Being woke and anti racist can be a most wonderful thing. But it will never be able to take us to the nature of our sin, because it is always merely a matter of morality; and sin and righteousness are both beyond morality. If sin were a matter only of the moral, then Jesus was the greatest of sinners because he welcomed sinners and dined with them.

And being champions of wokeness and anti racism in the church is a shame when it causes us to neglect or be ashamed of the most important insight to justice and morality that we have.

If we are committed above all to gathering all of God’s people, as sinners, to the gospel table, we will not put principles above people. In the ELCA we will look on bishops, pastors, and lay folk not in terms of their place on a moral continuum, but we will see them and listen to them as they are–deep and complex beings, on the winding journey of life, walking always as sinners beloved by God. We will not be quick to point the finger, name the malady, pin the slogan on others. We will not see racism everywhere, but also see awkwardness, ignorance, and laziness. We will not reduce every problem to racism, we will see beyond racism to the sin within us all. And only then be able to see the way out of our sin: coming to the table of God’s grace. We will not be adding to the rage around us, and the eagerness to point the finger; but we will unashamedly share with people the gospel that we all need—the invitation to the banquet for broken, fallible people.

FIND ALL OUR PANDEMIC BLOG POSTS BY CLICKING ON THAT CATEGORY IN THE LIST TO THE RIGHT OF THIS PAGE.

Posted in Church, Church and Social Movements, Featured, John's Posts, Pandemic Blog, Reflections on Sunday Readings, Social Political Issues | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pentecost 12 C: College Debt Relief and the Smell Test

The readings for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament & Psalm, Option I

Old Testament      Jeremiah 2:4–13

Psalm                     Psalm 81:1, 10–16

or

Old Testament & Psalm, Option II

Old Testament      Sirach 10:12–18 or Proverbs 25:6–7

Psalm                     Psalm 112

New Testament     Hebrews 13:1–8, 15–16

Gospel                   Luke 14:1, 7–14

I woke up this morning and I couldn’t smell anything.

The symptoms of Covid, I’m learning on a very personal basis these days, are odd, and infinitely varied; and the complete mix of them is unique to each of the infected. In the past couple of weeks I have mixed and overlapped my own mix from sinus congestion to chills to diarrhea to  trouble urinating to sleeplessness to deepening cough. And this morning, to loss of smell.

They say this loss of smell is associated with depression and neurological problems. Oh great! But the Mayo clinic shared some good news: Smelling things can come back if we re-train our noses by taking time to intently breathe in certain key aromas like clove, eucalyptus, and rose.

And, from what I understand, the depression, stems from the mountain of other symptoms, and  especially fatigue and brain fog; but most notable is that smell is linked to taste and delight, and excitement. It is at the heart of the way we sort the good from the bad. So, to my way of thinking, all these are down to discernment.

There is a reason we say, “That doesn’t pass the smell test.” Smell is perhaps the most powerful of all our senses. It is primal. It is sexy and romantic. It is all about the difference between pure marvelous and pure yuck. When you smell gas, get out of your house, it might blow in any second! When you smell rot, don’t eat it!

My loss of smell this morning was so acute that I pondered if I would go down the road of depression. But I just as quickly realized that we all possess other systems of discernment than the olfactory. God gives us many ways to discern.

This brings us to our Option II lessons for this week. All of them concern our spiritual and ethical senses of discernment. And all of them, happily and coincidentally, have the power to help us asses the controversial move this week by President Biden to ease the burden of student debt in our nation.

On the surface of things, Proverbs 25, is simply about getting ahead in life by strategic behavior at parties. “Avoid embarrassment by seeming to be modest, and so allowing your host to notice you and invite you up the pecking order.” But, when Jesus, in Luke 14,  reinterprets this piece of wisdom, he invites us deep into our discernment of the way our entire world—social, economic, and spiritual, is shaped. He advises us, when we are hosts, to fill our banquet tables with people who have no power at all to boost us up the social ladder. Jesus is saying “Your true status is shaped not by money or prestige, but by the love of God. So, in God’s economy, you will be blessed when you reach out to those who can’t repay. Train your spiritual senses to favor not those who you think you need, but those God has favored. God loves the vulnerable, and God knows we all need them—even when we think we don’t.”

Psalm 112 should go a long way toward re-training our inner sense of moral discernment. It says, “Happy are those who fear the Lord enough to obey God’s commands and thus deal fearlessly and generously with the poor. They don’t think, “I’ve earned it, I deserve it, it’s mine, and I’ll keep it.” But they think, “I live and thrive only in community, and so I’ll distribute what’s mine to others who don’t have all the advantages I have.”

The Psalmist says that those people who train their senses to see the world this way, and therefore to act this way, develop steady and fearless hearts. They may not always receive the fake honor that the world doles out, but they get their genuine honor from the compassionate God. But, just as with the more literal odors and fragrances, if we don’t discern the signals correctly, the results will be dramatic. If we don’t train our organs of morality and spirituality correctly, we will fall among those who, whenever they see mercy and generosity, grow angry, gnash their teeth, and live futile lives.

Let us see who falls into which column as President Biden’s actions about student debt are challenged. The super pacs and law suits are primed and ready to slow and destroy this initiative.  People claim it’s all wrong to forgive anything, and that it’s all a matter of fairness. “If I tightened my belt and borrowed less, then it is unfair if someone with more debt gets helped.” Others will have the sense that allows them to see that getting through college has become outrageously expensive. They will see that if 45 million people now owe $1.6 trillion—all adding up to more than they collectively own for all their car loans or consumer debt—that it has eaten at the health of our entire society. Will we rejoice when burden is lifted, or gnash our teeth?

And finally, there is Hebrews 13. The book of Hebrews is like one large sermon, or perhaps a piecing together of two or three. The author calls on Christians to celebrate the real thing. God has given people, through the ages, countless witnesses to God’s love and examples of the trust in those promises that has carried them through difficult times. But in Jesus Christ all of that has come to completion. All of God’s promises of justice and mercy find full focus—infinitely beyond high definition, 4K and every next new thing.

But what should we now do? How does any of this change the health of our organs of discernment, or of our lives?

Hebrews 13 gives us a provocative list of the health and life outcomes that flow from trust in God’s promises. But to my way of thinking, we can understand it all all in terms of  training of our spiritual senses and applying the spiritual smell test. If you can train your senses by constantly smelling to grace of God—by seeing your world the way the author of Psalm 118:6 saw it, rejoicing that if God is by your side you have nothing to fear—then you will smell all things the way they should be smelled. Then you will have the character to use as you should  pour out not only your wealth of stuff, but the wealth of compassion the Lord has woven into your body. You will be able to go so far as to Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

Today I can’t smell the Metholatum by my bedside. I can’t smell my food, or the little collection of essential oils that came with my humidifier. Perhaps I’ll have to retrain my sense of smell soon. But I must also make full use of my soul’s system of spiritual discernment. Christ died and was raised again for me. In my baptismal life Christ reclaimed my body as his body. I’m dead to seeing all things selfishly, and  I rise every day to the full life of living selflessly.

I remember my college and seminary tuition as being little more than $1,000 or $2,000 a year. In any event, I could pay it off quickly and easily with almost little help from my parents. The money I earned working no more than 20 hours a week and summer jobs handled most of the costs. But today my children are 42 and 47 years old, with families of their own, and still painfully and slowly paying off their college debt. They must fret over their own children’s education while they continue to pay down their own.

Something’s wrong here. So I thank President Biden for thinking not only of me, or himself, but of our entire community. We need to help the people who can’t repay. We need these 45 million neighbors, just as they need us to care—to trust in God, and apply the spiritual smell test, so that we can care.

FIND ALL OUR PANDEMIC BLOG POSTS BY CLICKING ON THAT CATEGORY IN THE LIST TO THE RIGHT OF THIS PAGE.

Posted in Featured, John's Posts, Pandemic Blog, Reflections on Sunday Readings, Social Political Issues | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pentecost 11 C: God Does Not Play Phone Tag with Our Covid

The lessons for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost are:

Old Testament & Psalm, Option I

Old Testament       Jeremiah 1:4–10

Psalm                    Psalm 71:1–6

or

Old Testament & Psalm, Option II

Old Testament       Isaiah 58:9b–14

Psalm                    Psalm 103:1–8

New Testament      Hebrews 12:18–29

Gospel                   Luke 13:10–17

I am attracted to the Option II lessons because of their news of God’s amazing power and

preference for healing.

There has been a gap of a week in our pandemic blog posts, and reflections on Sunday readings, because my wife, Connie, and I paid a heart-renewing visit to our daughter, son-in-law, and two young grandchildren in Florida. The Lord blessed us mightily in a kind-of compressed version of the Exodus wanderings of our ancestors in faith. Many obstacles were put in our way, and it all cut short our time with family, yet all the while the Lord was with us in steadfast love and mercy.

The final time of testing came when Connie started to have cold symptoms, and came up Covid positive on an antigen test, a full day and a half before our planned flight home. We could not return to be with our two month-old grandson, or our granddaughter whom we had planned to accompany to her first day of kindergarten in two days. Also, we didn’t want to risk infecting others on a two-leg plane trip back home, nor to risk holding up our farm-sitter if we missed our connecting flight in Charlotte, which was scheduled less than an hour after landing there. The cancellation of that Charlotte to Gainesville flight had already robbed us of good family time. So, we endured two 11 hour days of driving, including tedious stints through rush hours in Atlanta and Nashville, and countless slowdowns for road construction.

Then, back home and exhausted, I tested positive for Covid as well.

What I have to lift up now is my ridiculous experience of anxious phone tag throughout this little ordeal. For well over two years we had been dreading not only infection from Covid-19 and its numerous variants, but the obvious effects of human sinfulness as well. The pandemic has been e a universal global problem that we could have mitigated so well if we could just cooperate with each other, learn from our mistakes, use all our fabulous technology, and give up some of our advantages to make sure the most vulnerable are also helped to short circuit the virus’ ability to propagate. And, if we could give the health professionals the green light—and even the demand—to act efficiently and quickly, we would have surely saved millions of lives.

So, I had heard that Paxlovid, an anti-viral medicine that can simply be swallowed as a pill, was 90% effective in keeping old codgers like us, from needing hospitalization in case of Covid infection. The trick is, however, that a regimen of Paxlovid must be begun within five days after symptoms appear. The BIG SNAG was that, for months after this blessed protection was available, it was used by precious few because people didn’t know about it, it had to be prescribed by a doctor, the doctor had to be seen in person, many doctors didn’t want to risk seeing Covid patients, and if they did see those patients their offices made them wait for much more than the five days to make an appointment.

Knowing that Connie’s symptoms were already two days old, and looking forward to a two-day drive home, I got on the Internet and the phone. The good news was that our President Biden had started the great “Test and Treat” program. The good news was that thousands of pharmacies and health centers were enlisted to offer this program where, theoretically, people could be tested, see a health professional, and have a prescription filled right there for the wonderful Paxlovid. The bad news has been in the implementation of our President’s designs.

So I called the national hot-line for more information, to be told by the automated voice that I had to wait for several hours for the “hot-line” to get hot.

I called nearby Wallgreens and CVS pharmacies, only to be connected to their national lines, where no one was available to talk.

Fiddling with web sites I discovered that “test and treat” was done through appointments, and when I tried to make an appointment so Connie could start treatment on our way home, I got other run-arounds. I soon discovered that those test and treat sites listed on the Internet often required that a doctor to make a referral.

So, I phoned the Florida Health Department in the county we were visiting for more direction. After a couple of tries, someone answered, didn’t know what to say to me, and promised to get answers and phone back. But they never did.

So, Connie and I decided not to beat this dead horse, but to get packed and on our way for our first day of driving. Meanwhile, we left phone messages with our own primary doctor back home, asking him to phone in a prescription to a pharmacy on the way. I should say we would have been delighted to talk to a doctor—any doctor, but such a move isn’t possible in our world. So we spoke with a person who promised to speak to a nurse who hopefully would then talk to the doctor. And someone would get back to us.

To back up this strategy we also left a message on the MyChart app, hoping that way to reach the omnipotent doctor.

Funnily, near the end of the next day’s driving, we finally got a message through the MyChart app that our doctor’s prescription was waiting for us at the pharmacy back home. So, after several days of symptoms and phone tag, Connie was able to start Paxlovid.

Then it was my turn to go though the whole thing again with our primary care doctor when I tested positive at home. Of course, the nurse asked me about my symptoms, which were mild at first; but I kept leaving messages that the symptoms were building up: scratchy throat, then sore throat, then copious sinus drainage, then chills and shakes, then a night without any sleep. Finally I got my Paxlovid too.

Connie and I are well on the mend now. But as I look at this week’s lessons, I’m struck. There, in a house of prayer, a woman appears who had been harassed by a crippling spirit for eighteen years. How often had she been brushed off? How many ways had she been let down by her community that just didn’t know how to respond to her? How many times have people, like the synagogue leader, hidden behind standard operating procedure and correctness? But Jesus simply and immediately acts. By the Father’s grace he has something to give and he does not hesitate to offer this woman healing.

It is true: God does not hide from our disease by playing phone tag.

And our reading from Isaiah 58 takes us deeper. The syndrome of human sin is a virus, and it is enabled by our pretending. We pretend to do the right thing, but our pretend hides our weakness of will. Isaiah knows that this is endemic in religion. We think that going through the motions of worship will open the channels through which God can bless us. But when things fall apart in our society, because of our hypocrisy and our callousness towards the suffering of others, we assume God let us down. God didn’t play fair.

But Isaiah says, if you stop pretending in the pews and start making your worship of God real through your compassionate actions, then your “light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom be like the noonday.”

The Book of Hebrews is shot through with the good news about God’s promises being the real deal in a world of pretend, second best, and imitation. And today’s lesson hammers it home: we haven’t come to a God who terrorizes and kills, but to a God who has suffered and spilled blood for our healing. This is the real deal God who cares.

And, finally, in spite of our little wilderness wandering through seemingly endless phone tag, Connie and I can surely rejoice with Psalm 103. Yes, we humans have failed the test of Covid. Yes, we have argued and fought rather than cooperated. Yes, we continue to pretend that we are “taking all measures,” to slow the spread, when really we are just pretending the pandemic is over. Yes, we pretend to praise God, while we fail to lay it on the line with the way we show compassion with each other. But God is the real deal. God has not played phone tag with us. God, through the Spirit of Christ, is acting right now to heal us of Covid-19. This is the only good news of these pandemic days.

And so…

1Bless the Lord, O my soul,

and all that is within me,

bless his holy name.

2Bless the Lord, O my soul,

and do not forget all his benefits—

3who forgives all your iniquity,

who heals all your diseases,

4who redeems your life from the Pit,

who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

5who satisfies you with good as long as you live

so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

FIND ALL OUR PANDEMIC BLOG POSTS BY CLICKING ON THAT CATEGORY IN THE LIST TO THE RIGHT OF THIS PAGE.

Posted in Farm Diary, Featured, John's Posts, Pandemic Blog, Reflections on Sunday Readings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pentecost 8 C: One Binary that Matters

The Lessons for the Eighth Sunday After Pentecost are

Old Testament & Psalm, Option I

Old Testament      Hosea 11:1–11

Psalm                    Psalm 107:1–9, 43

or

Old Testament & Psalm, Option II

Old Testament      Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12–14, 2:18–23

Psalm                    Psalm 49:1–12

New Testament     Colossians 3:1–11

Gospel                   Luke 12:13–21

So much of the Bible is what today we call “binary:” Life or death, sin or righteousness, faith or unbelief, flesh or spirit, light or darkness.

And today’s New Testament readings are prime examples. They are both about “Either-Or.”  Colossians sees life through the lens of baptism, which in the ancient church happened for adults who were converting from polytheism at the all night Easter Vigil. After weeks of  teaching of the faith they stripped off their old clothing and were given new garments, and were told, “You have now died with Christ—died to your old self and your old way of life, and are raised to new life.”  And Colossians says it loud and clear. Yes, you have died to your old way of  thinking and your old way of life, and you have been raised with Christ to something new. So, don’t go back! Strive for what is above and not what is below. The baptism life is “Either-Or.”

And then we hear Jesus, in Luke 12, tell the story of a rich farmer who wants to get richer still; and so he talks himself into thinking, “When you have ample goods then you can relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” But he’s a fool, Jesus says, because he is fantasizing about the future when today his life—or his soul—is being demanded of him and he will be judged. You can strive to be rich in stuff—or rich toward God. “Either-Or.

Just today my wife and I were joined by five good folk for some coffee and sweets on our deck, enjoying the breezes and the sheep and the dogs. We started talking about something that reminded me about this week’s texts, I mentioned this sermon, and Irene said rather emphatically,  “‘Either-Or’ is passé.”  And she brought up the most famous non-binary thing there is today, saying, “We are learning that it’s not acceptable to talk about only males and females, because gender isn’t binary.”

I then asked, “But does that mean that there are no binaries at all? Are there no absolutes? Can we talk about the difference between telling the truth and lying?” And Irene had a good rejoinder that I can’t properly remember, something about times when there are no blacks and whites of truth, but only 50 shades of gray; and when it may be a the moral thing to tell a lie.

I came away from that lively conversation with two takeaways: If there are absolutely no binaries, no Either-Ors, then the Bible and the Christian faith can and should be thrown out the window. If binary is passé, surely our two texts for today are passé. The second takeaway is that knowing what the great Either-Or is in life is not easy.

For starters here I don’t think binary has just now become unpopular. I think it’s the human condition for us to want to have our cake and eat it too. We are expert at excuses. We hate lines in the sand. There are so many things that look good, taste good, and feel good, and we know we will pay a steep price later for our indulgence, but we find reasons to pay that price. Paul in Romans 7 spells it out: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  These days it’s easiest to excuse this inner conflict by saying there is no such thing as a good and evil binary.

I hate taking the time to floss my teeth. And I remember distinctly that day when my dentist, for the umpteenth time reminded me to floss my teeth, and I needed to rationalize, so I asked, “Which of my teeth do I really need to floss?” And he answered, “Just the ones you want to keep.”

And when I was having heartburn my doctor said don’t eat or drink alcohol after eight PM, and I complained that it seemed no matter the problem, doctors always say give up the good stuff—give up coffee, alcohol, sugar, and everything that you enjoy; my doc simply said, “It’s all about choices.”

But we don’t want to choose. We don’t want binaries. We don’t want “Either-Or.”

Now, there are many ways we have drawn the wrong lines between the “Either-Or.” Just with diet alone we’ve messed people up with the wrong “Either-Ors.”  We used to think fat was the big culprit, but now we know some fat is essential and the real problem is too many carbohydrates.

Butter was the culprit, but now we say its trans-fats and butter and eggs in moderation are good for you. Some dark chocolate, some nuts, also good.

In the history of the church there have been many times when people thought Jesus and Paul were saying the body is bad and it’s only the spirit we should tend to. Things that feed the body, like too much sex or food or good company—those you should flee and strive to live in the desert or in a cave or in a monastery. Martin Luther fought hard against such a choice saying it terrorized consciences.

Colossians sounds at times like body is bad when it says, Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire. But earlier it makes the point that God created all that stuff good, and Jesus saved us through his body and blood.   

We used to restrict marriage to men and women, but the world is full of people who live happier, more loving lives, because they have been allowed to choose to marry the one they are truly sexually attracted to.

We have learned that the Greeks weren’t all wrong when they said, “All things in moderation—find the Golden Mean.”

But is the Bible telling us anything helpful when it talks “Either—Or?” Are there real forks in life’s road? Are there times when it’s good to stop driving along the yellow line and pick a lane?

Our lessons give us two strong hints: in the form of a parenthetical phrase, and in the form of an invitation list.

The parenthesis is in the list of vices. Paul writes: “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).Again, we must remember “put to death the earthly” he doesn’t mean body and sex are bad in themselves. God made them. Jesus saves us through his own body and blood.

But Colossians ends this part of his list with greed, which is idolatry because the great Either-Or of a Christian is all about what rules your life. Martin Luther, said that the key to the Ten Commandments is deciding who you fear, love and trust. You must decide, will you fear, love and trust the God who has the power, and who uses that power to give of himself to love you? Or will you let the powers of selfishness run your life?

Greed is idolatry because it serves the god of selfishness. “I never have to deny myself. I need to build my barns bigger because too much is never enough. What I fear, love and trust may be money, or fame, or sex, or drugs, and indeed they will often shift from one to another because they are all false gods—they are all self-serving gods.”

So, the one binary we must respect, according to our faith, is “You must choose whom you fear, love and trust above all things. You must choose what will run your life!”

And then there is the end of our reading where Colossians adds, “You have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”

I call this an invitation list because when you clothe yourselves…when you put on a new self…when you are renewed, it’s an occasion for a great party. And who do you invite to this party? You could get all binary and say just straight people who are either male or female, just people who act like me and look like me and vote like me—not those other people. Surely not the barbarians, Scythians, and slaves—they are all the bottom of the heap and to be kept off the invitation list at all costs. Or you could take seriously God’s bottom line, serious, life and death binary. The false and destructive binaries in life are those that tear God’s community apart. Colossians says this kind of greedy, binary living produces anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, and lies.

But the binary that matters says you can put on Christ. Christ made those people. Christ died to redeem those people, and Christ uses those people to complete you.

Who or what runs your life? Whom do you serve? Whom do you fear, love, and trust? There are many grey areas of life. There are many ways in which the best thing is not to think black or white, either-or, but both-and.   But Jesus and Colossians warn us too that there is one binary that we should never let become passé.

A preacher once grabbed my attention when he said, “Most of the time most of us ruin our lives because we don’t love enough to really enjoy God’s love, and we don’t sin enough to really enjoy sin.” I’m convinced that Jesus and Colossians call us to fully embrace this Great Binary—to reject the god’s of selfishness and look around at all those different kinds of people and love one another because Christ is all in all!

For the most part, it is a difficult thing to distinguish where binary thinking hurts and where it helps. But I believe Christ made it possible for us to join him in a great death and resurrection. We can put on the Lord Jesus and see not two kinds of people (us and them) but as an all in all. We can choose to fear, love, and trust the God who gathers.

FIND ALL OUR PANDEMIC BLOG POSTS BY CLICKING ON THAT CATEGORY IN THE LIST TO THE RIGHT OF THIS PAGE.

Posted in Church, Church and Social Movements, Featured, John's Posts, Pandemic Blog, Reflections on Sunday Readings | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Pentecost 7 C: Audacious Insistence on a God of Mercy

The readings for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost are:

Old Testament      Hosea 1:2–10

Psalm                    Psalm 85

or

Old Testament & Psalm, Option II

Old Testament      Genesis 18:20–32

Psalm                    Psalm 138

New Testament     Colossians 2:6–15 (16–19)

Gospel                   Luke 11:1–13

Of all these readings, the Genesis 18 lesson offers the most helpful theological insight.

The Bible contains verses of various kinds. Most inspire the best of faith and life. Some are dangerous, and can even inspire the worst of each.

Walter Bruegemann, in his 1982 volume on Genesis in the  Interpretation Commentaryseries, deals with Genesis 18:16 through 19:38 as a unit. It’s held together by the common idea that God is the only true author of beginnings and endings: here represented by the gift of a son to Abraham and Sarah and the destruction of Sodom. The fate of Lot is also something that ties these sections together.

Most helpful is Bruegemann’s insight that the sinfulness of Sodom and its fate at the hands of an angry God are both stereotypical, and indeed part of the Bible’s background material. The sin is not merely homosexuality, but complete disorder. The destruction is total. And both are typical of the literature of the ancient Near East. They are like today’s comic book movie fair, feeding off of our base human appetite for the reward of the good guy and the punishment of the wicked. We call it justice, but is it really?

However, there is a fulcrum moment to this sequence in Genesis 19:29:

So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the Plain, God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had settled.

And the whole of Genesis 18:16-32 forms a corrective to the rest of the section. Abraham is a single, chosen, individual who is given authority by God to inject righteousness into humanity by his audacious insistence on mercy.

It’s audacious because Abraham here assumes the role of God’s teacher:

Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”

And yet Abraham takes on this role only because the LORD, who is the author of beginnings and endings, has “remembered” Abraham, just as he did Noah when he ended the destroying flood (Genesis 8:1). The LORD has, by this remembering, lifted Abraham above the average, the common, the stereotype. Abraham cannot see the human situation, or God, as defined by retribution. He sees a necessity of mercy.

Today the gross distortion and politicization of the Christian faith is advanced by the leveling of Scripture—insisting that every word is inerrant and God’s will and word for people today. This kind of interpretation cannot help but put justice at the service of retribution, as it puts God’s wrath and mercy on the same plane.

Jesus himself, the Gospels tell us, advanced Abraham’s audacious insistence on mercy. “You have heard it said ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” is but one of many ways he takes us beyond the basest of human impulses through his bold interpretation of Scripture (Mt. 5:43-45).

This day, as I write this reflection, we had an excellent example of a person rising above common expectation and insisting on a new and better way. The outcome of the Tour de France, a grueling three-week, 2000 mile bike race, had come down to a furious two person final mountain stage in the Pyrenees. On the final, treacherous mountain descent before the final climb of the day, both of these two riders struggled to stay upright on the narrow road. The overall leader of the race, in the famous yellow jersey, wobbled violently and almost wiped out at high speed, which would have likely doomed his chances of winning. Soon thereafter, the man in second place overshot a sharp corner, ran into loose gravel, managed to slow his descent, but finally crashed into a ditch.

Common sense and common custom would dictate Tadej Pogačar, the Slovenian who fell, was pushing the pace and counting on his skill as a “descender” to get the advantage and take over the race lead; therefore Jonas Vingegaard, the wearer of that coveted yellow jersey, would certainly be in the right to take advantage and open up his lead. Instead, Vingegaard, of Denmark, slowed on the road, looked back repeatedly, and waited for Pogačar to rejoin him. The two antagonists then actually shook hands as they commenced racing.

The Tour de France is an epic struggle—a metaphor of the many trials of human life. But Vingegaard refused to let the struggle hold him to the so called “natural law of tooth and claw.” I don’t know his religion or his philosophy of life, but Vingegaard joined Abraham and Jesus in declaring that tooth and claw is neither natural nor  law. Being righteous is more divine than being right.

To be human, to be Christian, to read the Bible in the Spirit, we must rise above common expectation and demonstrate just such audacious insistence on God and God’s law of mercy.

FOLLOW ALL OUR PANDEMIC BLOG POSTS BY CLICKING ON THAT CATEGORY IN THE LISTING ON THE RIGHT OF HIS PAGE.

Posted in Church and Social Movements, Featured, John's Posts, Pandemic Blog, Reflections on Sunday Readings, Social Political Issues | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment