Apr
2019

Palm Sunday from the Left-Hand Side of the Bible

This Sunday, Palm or Passion Sunday, marks the beginning of Holy Week, leading up to the remembrance of Jesus’ death on the cross–and of course, ultimately, to the celebration of his resurrection, and our own.  We Christians may think that now of all times our proclamation must stick to the uniquely Christian Scriptures on the right-hand side of our Bibles.  But in truth, we cannot understand the Gospel account for this day without looking at three passages in particular from the Hebrew Bible.

Curiously, Zechariah 9:9-12 is not one of the lectionary readings for Palm Sunday in any year, although Matthew and John both quote Zechariah 9:9 in their accounts of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matt 21:5 and John 12:15; see also Mark 11:1-11 and the Gospel reading for this year’s celebration, Luke 19:28-40, which both use the word polon, “colt,” found in the Septuagint’s Greek translation of Zech 9:9):

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion.
        Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem.
Look, your king will come to you.
        He is righteous and victorious.
        He is humble and riding on an ass,
            on a colt, the offspring of a donkey.

Applying to this passage a deliberately wooden literalism, Matthew describes Jesus entering Jerusalem somehow mounted on both an ass and her colt (Matt 21:6-7)!  This bizarre image was doubtless intended to ram the point home, making absolutely certain that the reader could not miss the connection between Jesus’ actions and the prophet’s words. As the early Christian teacher Theodoret of Cyrus records, “This acquires a clear interpretation in actual events: the king who is prophesied has come” (Commentary on the Twelve Prophets, trans. Robert Charles Hill [Brookline: Holy Cross, 2006], 256).


The CEB translation “righteous and victorious” (9:9) is difficult to understand. The Hebrew reads tsaddiq wenosha’. The first term means “righteous,” perhaps defending “the royal legitimacy of the king” (so Carol and Eric Meyers, Zechariah 9-14; AB 25c [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1993], 127; note that NRSV has “triumphant”), although it may also refer to his morality (the Aramaic Targum Nebi’im has zaqay, meaning “innocent”). The second term is a passive participle meaning literally “one who is saved” (reflected also in the Aramaic of Tg. Neb.). The Septuagint renders this as sozon, an active participle (“saving”). David Petersen, who translates these two words as “Righteous and victorious,” says that the Greek reading “seems to be the required sense” (Zechariah 9—14 and Malachi, OTL [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995], 55). Carol and Eric Meyers, however, stay with the plain sense of the Hebrew: “[The LORD] is victorious over the enemies, with the result that the king is ‘saved,’ thereby enabled to assume power” (Meyers and Meyers 1993, 127). In short, this is already a transformed notion of kingship, grounded not in dynastic and regal pomp and power, but in God’s own salvation and deliverance.

As this passage unfolds, it continues to draw distinctions between this king and other, previous kings. The humble mount in Zech 9:9 derives from a long tradition of kingly processions  (Meyers and Meyers 1993, 129). By riding an ass rather than a war horse or chariot, the king shows humility and declares that he comes in peace. But this time, the prophet declares, this is not just for show!  This king truly is humble, and not only comes in peace but also comes to bring peace:

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
        and the warhorse from Jerusalem.
The bow used in battle will be cut off;
        he will speak peace to the nations.
His rule will stretch from sea to sea,
        and from the river to the ends of the earth (Zech 9:10).

In the Persian period, the province (called a “satrapy”) to which Judah belonged was Abar-Nahara: that is, the lands “Beyond the River,” across the Euphrates and west toward the Mediterranean Sea. “[F]rom the river to the ends of the earth” seems to envision Jerusalem’s sway extended throughout this region. Further, the mention of Ephraim (the largest of the northern tribes, often used to represent the entire northern kingdom of Israel, e.g., Isa 7:2; Jer 7:15; Ezek 37:19; Hos 5:3) shows that this renewed kingdom will include those formerly excluded, the “lost tribes” from the northern kingdom destroyed and dispersed by the Assyrians long before.

It is little wonder that this passage, with its transformed view of kingship, so captured the imagination of the Gospel writers. While the first Christians confessed Jesus as christos, the term used in the Septuagint for Hebrew meshiakh (“Messiah”), it is clear that their understanding (and Jesus’ own understanding) of what it meant to be “Messiah” transformed that image. Mark 1:1 identifies Jesus not only as Christos, or Messiah, but also as “the Son of God.” While related to the idea of the king as God’s adopted son (Pss 2; 45), this confession goes much further than any Jewish conception of Messiah: Jesus the Messiah is God! This confession creates new problems, raising the need for the church to affirm that “Jesus Christ has come as a human” (1 John 4:2; see also John 1:14).

But while Christian confessions about Jesus exalt the role of Messiah far beyond traditional Jewish expectations, they at the same time subvert the idea of Messiah as king. In debate with the Pharisees, who believed in a literal future Messiah (Matt 22:41-46), Jesus asks,

“What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?”  “David’s son,” they replied (Matt 22:42).

In response, Jesus quotes Psalm 110:1:

The Lord said to my lord, ‘Sit at my right side until I turn your enemies into your footstool’

Assuming the speaker to be David (the title of this psalm after all identifies it as a psalm of David), Jesus asks, “If David calls him [that is, the Messiah] Lord, how can he be David’s son?” (Matt 22:45). Although Matthew’s genealogy takes pains to demonstrate Jesus’ descent from David (Matt 1:6, 17), Christ is more than another Davidic king!


Particularly subversive of traditional Messianic expectation is the Christian view that the Christ must be understood in terms of suffering. Thus, in Mark, Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is the Christ is inadequate: faced with Jesus’ determination to suffer and die, Peter rebukes him and is in turn himself rebuked by Jesus (Mark 8:29-33). Indeed, in Mark, the first human to make a full confession about Jesus is his executioner, who declares when Jesus dies, “This man was certainly God’s Son” (Mark 15:39). It may well be that Jesus understood his own role in terms of the Servant of the LORD in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; and 52:13—53:12). Certainly, early Christians did (see 1 Cor 15:3; Acts 8:32-35; 1 Peter 2:22-25), and the idea must have come from somewhere (cf. Matt 8:17; 12:18-21; 20:28; Mark 9:12; 10:45; Luke 22:37). In any case, for early Christians, the image of the peaceful and humble king in Zechariah 9:9-10 was the perfect representation of Jesus.

The gospel lesson for Palm Sunday this year is missing one familiar feature: in Luke’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry, nothing is said of the crowd shouting “Hosanna!”  This is typical of Luke–writing as a Gentile for a Gentile audience, he often avoids Jewish or Semitic elements (which is why Luke 23:33 uses the Greek Kranion [“The Skull”] rather than the Aramaic Golgotha for the place where Jesus is crucified; the KJV of Luke 23:33 uses the Latin Calvary; both “Calvary” and “Golgotha” also mean “skull”).  Still, “Hosanna!” is woven into our Palm Sunday hymns, and into our liturgies.  In Matthew, Mark, and John’s accounts, the crowds shout “Hosanna!” the way that we might cheer at a ball game:

Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:9-10; compare Matthew 21:9; John 12:13).

“Hosanna” comes from Psalm 118, the Psalm reading for this Sunday.  Psalm 118:25 reads in Hebrew:

‘ana’ YHWH hoshi’ah na’

‘ana’ YHWH hatslikhah na’.  

In Judaism, this Psalm is part of the Hallel (Pss 113—118), sung in festivals and particularly at Pesach, or Passover: the feast that in today’s reading brought these crowds on pilgrimage from across the Roman world to Jerusalem.  The first two psalms in the Hallel are sung before the Passover meal, and the last four are sung after.  So the Hallel would have been in the air, for any Jewish community, surrounding Pesach.  Little wonder the words of the Hallel come so readily to the lips of the crowd.

The Hallel would have been learned, and sung, in Hebrew, but most ordinary Judeans in Jesus’ day didn’t actually speak Hebrew: their everyday language would have been Aramaic.  So, while the crowds know the words to the song, they don’t necessarily know what those words mean. While they shout “Hosannah!” as though it meant “Hurray!,” what it really means is “Save us, please!”  The CEB translates this verse,

Lord, please save us!
    Lord, please let us succeed!

Whether the crowd knows it or not, when they shout “Hosannah!,” they are calling for Jesus to save them!

The last passage presupposed by our Palm Sunday Gospel reading is Habakkuk 2:9-11:

Doom to the one making evil gain for his own house,
        for putting his own nest up high,
        for delivering himself from the grasp of calamity.
You plan shame for your own house,
        cutting off many peoples
        and sinning against your own life.
A stone will cry out from a village wall,
        and a tree branch will respond.

The expression botsea’ betsa’ (“making. . . gain”) elsewhere refers to greedy, unjust gain (Prov 1:19; 15:27), and particularly to the wealthy and powerful preying on the poor and powerless (Jer 6:13; 8:10; Ezek 22:27).  But Habakkuk doubles down on this depiction by adding the adjective ra’ (“wicked, evil”): “Doom to the one making evil gain for his own house” (2:9). Often in Hebrew, “house” refers to one’s family, but here the term is used literally to refer to the solid, secure mansions of the rich (see also Amos 5:11; Isa 5:9).  In the following verses, Habakkuk plays with this ambiguity, going back and forth between house as a building, and house as one’s family.

Habakkuk accuses the rich of using their unjust gains for

for putting his own nest up high,
        for delivering himself from the grasp of calamity (2:9).

The reference to a nest set “up high” calls to mind the eagle’s nest (Job 39:27) used as a metaphor for security. Indeed, the Song of Moses (Deut 32:1-43) compares God’s providential care and protection of Israel in the wilderness to the eagle nurturing its young in their nest:

Like an eagle protecting its nest,
    hovering over its young,
God spread out his wings, took hold of Israel,
    carried him on his back (Deut 32:11).

Elsewhere, however, this metaphor depicts a vain quest for safety; those who seek, like the eagle, to set their nest high in the rocks will be brought down (Num 24:21-22; Jer 49:16; Obad 3-4).

So, Habakkuk declares, robbing the poor to set up strong and secure houses will bring the wealthy of Jerusalem no security. Instead of gaining security, by the pursuit of dishonest gain, “You plan shame for your own house”–here, the family rather than the physical structure–and indeed are “sinning against your [the NRSV has “you have forfeited”] your own life” (2:10).

The CEB of Hab 2:11 reads, “A stone will cry out from a village wall, and a tree branch will respond.”  The NRSV reads, “The very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork.” The word rendered “tree branch” in the CEB and “plaster” in the NRSV is the Hebrew kaphis, found only here in the Hebrew Bible.  From its use elsewhere, however, it seems best to render it as “beam” or “rafter” (see the KJV and NIV of this passage).  In short, the houses themselves (here, the buildings once more) will witness against their wicked owners!

In Luke’s account of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus alludes to Habakkuk 2:11.  When the Pharisees’ demand that Jesus silence his obstreperous followers, Jesus says, “I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out” (Luke 19:40).  Jesus, like the prophet Habakkuk, opposes the religious and secular leadership of Judah for refusing to hear the outcry of the poor–something we might miss entirely if we didn’t know where Jesus’ words were coming from!

Brothers, sisters, friends, as you worship and teach and preach this week, let your proclamation be enriched by the whole of Scripture!  God be with you.

 

Mar
2019

The Writing on the Wall

 

I have been diving deeply into Daniel in recent days, prompted by an assignment for a textbook on the prophets I am writing with my good friends Steve Cook and John Strong, and by a Lenten series on Daniel I am teaching at Fox Chapel Presbyterian.  Right now, I am thinking about the story of Belshazzar’s feast (Dan 5:1-31).  Like the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, or of Daniel in the lions’ den, Belshazzar’s feast is one of the best-known and most-loved stories in Scripture, familiar to many of us from when we were children in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School.  Indeed our English expressions “the writing on the wall” and “weighed in the balances and found wanting” come from this narrative.

That Belshazzar used the gold and silver vessels stolen from Jerusalem’s temple for his drunken party (see Dan 1:2, which details the destruction of the temple and the theft of those vessels by Nebuchadnezzar) was bad enough. But then, Belshazzar and his guests further defiled all that remained of the holy temple, compounding disrespect with sacrilege: as they “drank a lot of wine,” they “praised the gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone” (Dan 5:4). Belshazzar symbolically destroyed the temple all over again, sealing his own fate and the fate of his kingdom. Now at last judgment would come upon Babylon for the destruction of Jerusalem.

The judgment is announced formally, in writing, via a most unusual inscription: “the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the king’s palace wall in the light of the lamp” (Dan 5:5). None of the sages and magicians in Belshazzar’s court is able to interpret the strange writing. But then, the queen steps forward (Dan 5:10; given both her influence over Belshazzar and her clear knowledge of events from Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, she may be the king’s mother, or even grandmother, rather than his wife) to tell Belshazzar of Daniel’s great wisdom, derived from “the breath of holy gods” (Dan 5:11, see also 5:14 and 4:8)–or perhaps, from “the spirit of the holy God”!

The message, we now learn, reads, “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN” (Dan 5:25).  These were common, familiar Aramaic words: units of weight and money equivalent to the Hebrew minah (about a pound in weight; in money, about four months wages), shekel (about a third of an ounce in weight; maybe $10.00 in modern currency–but note that the Israeli shekel today is worth about 29 cents US) and paras (half of a minah).

So, why does the text say that no one could understand the writing?  Some have suggested that the writing was coded in some way.  In his famous painting of this scene, Rembrandt depicts the words as written in columns, so that anyone trying to read the letters normally, in a line from right to left, would find nonsense:

But nothing in our passage suggests a difficulty in reading the message.  The problem wasn’t what this message said–that was clear enough!  Although these amounts are of course WAY off, it is as though the writing on the wall read “A dollar, a dollar, a penny, and fifty cents.”  We could read such a message with no problem, and know the meaning of each word, but still be left asking, “What the dickens does that mean?”

In Daniel’s interpretation, each Aramaic noun is read as a related (or at least, similar-sounding) verb, so that the message means “Numbered, numbered, weighed, and divided.” The application of this message to Belshazzar is now made painfully clear. “MENE: God has numbered the days of your rule. It’s over!” (Dan 5:26). The repetition intensifies this judgment—and indeed, according to Dan 5:30-31, Babylon fell that very night. “TEKEL means that you’ve been weighed on the scales, and you don’t measure up” (Dan 5:27)–or, in the classic language of the King James Version, “Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.” Not only the kingdom of Babylon, but Belshazzar himself personally, had been judged and condemned; Belshazzar died the same night that his kingdom fell. “PERES means your kingship is divided and given to the Medes and the Persians” (Dan 5:28). Here, we hit a problem.

The Babylonian empire was not, historically, divided between the Medes and Persians.  It had been the Assyrian empire that was divided between the Medes and the Babylonians.  In 612 BCE, the alliance of Cyaxares the Mede and Nabopolassar the Babylonian destroyed Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire, and divided the Assyrian territory between them.  The Median empire was contemporaneous with the Babylonian Empire, and fell to Cyrus the Persian in 549 BCE—seventeen years before Babylon was conquered. Why then does Daniel insist that the Medes followed the Babylonians, and preceded the Persians (see Dan 6:28)?

 

This is not the only historical snag in this narrative.  The historical Belshazzar was neither the son of Nebuchadnezzar nor the last king of Babylon.  Belshazzar’s actual father Nabonidus (556-539 BCE) was Babylon’s last ruler, and while Belshazzar ruled as regent during his father’s frequent absences from Babylon, he was never king.  The city of Babylon fell to Cyrus the Persian (cf. 2 Chron 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4; Isaiah 45:1-4), not the otherwise unknown Darius the Mede credited with that conquest in Dan 5:30-31.

These factual glitches make sense when we realize that Daniel was not written at the time in which these stories are set.  The community the book of Daniel directly addresses, and for whom it has been written, lived in the mid-second century BCE–as far removed from the Babylonian exile as we are from Shakespeare.  For this community, the future history envisioned in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan 2) and Daniel’s vision of the four beasts (Dan 7) reached its culmination with them.  There would be, these symbolic accounts declared, four great world kingdoms: the Babylonians, the Medes, the Persians, and then the fourth, and last, world kingdom–the Greek empire established by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE.  When Daniel was written, their part of the Greek world, in Palestine, was ruled by the cruel despot Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 BCE)–but not for much longer!  Soon heavenly armies, led by the archangel Michael, would intervene:

At that time, Michael the great leader who guards your people will take his stand. It will be a difficult time—nothing like it has ever happened since nations first appeared. But at that time every one of your people who is found written in the scroll will be rescued.  Many of those who sleep in the dusty land will wake up—some to eternal life, others to shame and eternal disgrace.  Those skilled in wisdom will shine like the sky. Those who lead many to righteousness will shine like the stars forever and always (Dan 12:1-3).

Of course, the world did not end in the mid-second century BCE.  Later Jewish and Christian readers identified Daniel’s fourth kingdom first with Rome (2 Esdras 12:10-12; Rev 17:9), then with other oppressive powers.  The message was re-read, again and again, and applied to new situations.

In short, Daniel is neither an accurate historical account of Babylonian and Persian history, nor a reliable record of future history.  But if Daniel is not accurate, doesn’t that mean that Daniel is not true?  How, then, can we read it as Scripture?

Our problem comes in large measure from the post-Enlightenment view in the West that “truth” and “fact” are one and the same. A little reflection reveals the poverty of that assertion. Consider what matters most to you—your faith, your friendships, those you love, what you find beautiful, what brings you joy. Now, ask how you might go about establishing these claims as facts. How would you prove them, empirically: what evidence could you marshal? What tests could you use?

For example: I love my wife. How would I establish that, empirically? I could analyze my actions toward Wendy, but could those same actions not be performed if I were practicing a deception, and only pretending that I loved her? If I were a chemist or biologist, I could talk about glands and hormones and chemical reactions in my brain. If I were a sociologist or anthropologist, I might compare our marriage with others statistically, and determine the likelihood of our relationship enduring; or examine courtship rituals in Western cultures. None of this, however, has anything to do with what I mean when I tell Wendy that I love her, or how I feel when she says that she loves me.

Certainly we want to affirm as true much that we cannot demonstrate as fact. To put this more precisely, we realize that what we can demonstrate as fact does not adequately express what our values mean to us, as if love were reducible to bioelectrical impulses in the brain or hormones or social convention. Such oversimplifications fail to comprehend the tremendously complex world of human life and experience, wherein the whole cannot be reduced to the mere sum of its parts.

So, Daniel can be true even if it is not factual.  How can we read it as Scripture? The story of the writing on the wall shows us how–not just for this book, but for all of Scripture.  For what a text says may not be all that a text means–nor does it direct or determine how that passage of Scripture should be applied.  What we need is what Daniel provided for the ill-fated Belshazzar and his court: careful, prayerful, Spirit-led interpretation.

Like the other stories of Daniel and his friends in the first six chapters of this book, the story of Belshazzar’s feast is an effective and artful narrative, remembered and retold for its lesson on the dangers of hubris, and its message of God’s ultimate control of history.  Indeed, all of the Daniel traditions model hopeful, faithful living in difficult, even oppressive, circumstances.  Mahatma Gandhi, who called Daniel “one of the greatest passive resisters that ever lived,” said:

When Daniel disregarded the laws of the Medes and Persians which offended his conscience, and meekly suffered the punishment for his disobedience, he offered satyagraha [nonviolent resistance; the term was coined by Gandhi] in its purest form (Cited by Daniel Smith-Christopher, in “The Book of Daniel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” NIB VII, [Nashville: Abingdon, 1996], 91).

I find myself reading this passage today in light of the recent decision by the United Methodist General Conference not only to retain the language in our Discipline excluding lesbian and gay persons (“The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching,” ¶ 161F), but to intensify enforcement, through church trials and penalties.  Many at that gathering, as well as before and since, have presented this decision as affirming the “plain teaching of Scripture” on human sexuality, as set forth in Leviticus, Romans, and the Gospels, as well as in the Christian natural law tradition grounded in Genesis.  The links given here will take you to my own studies of those passages.  I freely acknowledge that what the Bible says, in some passages, condemns same-gender sexual relationships.

But we do not always follow the “plain teaching of Scripture” so unbendingly!  Whatever our rhetoric, we generally recognize that there is not always a straight line from what Scripture says to what it means and how it is to be applied.  Certainly in America, Christians have no difficulty insisting that the plain teachings of Jesus about money (e.g., Matt 6:4; 19:21) are not really about money, or that the New Testament’s condemnation of divorce and re-marriage (Matt 5:31-32; see also Matt 19:3-9//Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 16:18 and 1 Cor 7:10-16) does not apply to our marriages.  Too often, we insist on taking a hard line with regard to the lives of others, while insisting on a gracious reading when the texts come too close to our own lives.  “The authority of Scripture” too easily becomes a cover for my authority, my ideology, my preferred way of life.

How would it be, friends, if we came to Scripture the way that Daniel came to the message on Belshazzar’s wall–not assuming that we know what it says, or even that what it says expresses all that it means?  How would it be if, guided by the “breath of our Holy God,” we permitted the Spirit to show us a new thing in this very old Book–to catch the Word of God within these ancient words?

 

Mar
2019

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

FOREWORD:  I am reposting this blog entry for St. Patrick’s Day.  Beannachtai Na Feile Padraig Oraibh–May the blessing of St. Patrick’s Day be upon you!

March 17 is the feast of Saint Pádraig–better known as Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.  The saint was likely born in the late fourth century; according to Saint Fiacc’s “Hymn of Saint Patrick,” he was the son of a Briton named Calpurnius.  Patrick was just sixteen when he was kidnapped from the family estate, along with many others, by Irish raiders.  He would be a slave in Ireland for six years.

Once he was free, Patrick studied for the priesthood under Saint Germanus of Auxerre, in the southern part of Gaul.  Saint Germanus took his pupil to Britain to save that country from Pelagianism: together they travelled through Britain convincing people to turn to God from heresy, and throwing out false priests (some say that this is the source of the legend that Patrick drove the “snakes” out of Ireland!).

Despite his experience of hardship and abuse as a slave, Patrick longed to return to Ireland.  He told his teacher that he had often heard the voice of the Irish children calling to him, “Come, Holy Patrick, and make us saved.” But Patrick had to wait until he was sixty years old before Pope Celestine at last consecrated him as Bishop to Ireland.  At the moment of Patrick’s consecration, legend says, the Pope also heard the voices of the Irish children!

That year, Easter coincided with the “feast of Tara,” or Beltane–still celebrated today by kindling bonfires. No fire was supposed to be lit that night until the Druid’s fire had been kindled.  But Saint Patrick lit the Easter fire first.  Laoghaire, high king of Ireland, warned that if that fire were not stamped out, it would never afterward be extinguished in Erin.

King Laoghaire invited the Bishop and his companions to his castle at Tara the next day–after posting soldiers along the road, to assassinate them!  But, according to The Tripartite Life, on his way from Slane to Tara that Easter Sunday, Patrick was reciting his Breastplate prayer (a masterpiece of Celtic spirituality, which has, not at all surprisingly, been set to music many, many times; the links in this blog will take you to a few of these).  As the saint prayed,

A cloak of darkness went over them so that not a man of them appeared. Howbeit, the enemy who were waiting to ambush them, saw eight deer going past them…. That was Saint Patrick with his eight…

Therefore, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” is also called the “Deer’s Cry.”

As the legend of the Deer’s Cry demonstrates, Celtic spirituality is linked closely to nature.  St. Patrick’s teaching embraced God’s presence manifest in God’s creation.  Even the tradition that Patrick used the shamrock to teach the Trinity connects God’s revelation to the natural world.  This is particularly evident, however, in the Breastplate prayer:

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven:

Light of sun,

Radiance of moon,

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of wind,

Depth of sea,

Stability of earth,

Firmness of rock.

In the Book of the Twelve, God’s presence manifest through the natural world is presumed in the book of Haggai.  Haggai’s prophecy began “in the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month on the first day of the month” (Hag 1:1)–that is, August 29, 520 BC, about seventeen years after the fall of Babylon, and the end of the Babylonian exile.  Together with his fellow prophet Zechariah, Haggai called for the community in Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, which had been in ruins since the Babylonians destroyed the city in 587 BC.

 

Haggai 1:3-11  joins fertility and abundance to God’s presence, enshrined and celebrated in the right temple with the right liturgy.  Patrick celebrates this theme positively, through a joyful nature spirituality wherein a simple herb expresses the mystery of God’s nature, the vibrancy and constancy of wind and water and stone and tree witness to God’s presence and power, and the line between the human world and the animal world, between people and deer, can blur and vanish.

But in Haggai, this theme is expressed negatively. The failure of the community to rebuild God’s temple has meant disaster–not only for the human community, but also for the land itself.  Just as for Patrick the presence of God, honored and celebrated in true worship, brings life and blessing to the land, for Haggai the absence of God’s temple has brought death, infertility, and drought:

Therefore, the skies above you have withheld the dew,
        and the earth has withheld its produce because of you.
I have called for drought on the earth,
        on the mountains, on the grain,
        on the wine, on the olive oil,
        on that which comes forth from the fertile ground,
        on humanity, on beasts,
        and upon everything that handles produce (Hag 1:10-11).

Haggai challenges his community,

Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses
            while this house lies in ruins?
So now, this is what the Lord of heavenly forces says:
    Take your ways to heart.
    You have sown much, but it has brought little.
    You eat, but there’s not enough to satisfy.
    You drink, but not enough to get drunk.
    There is clothing, but not enough to keep warm.
    Anyone earning wages puts those wages into a bag with holes (Hag 1:4-6).

As Stephen Cook observes, Haggai makes a clear connection between the temple lying “in ruins” (1:4; Hebrew khareb) and the “drought [Hebrew khoreb] on the earth” (1:11; see Stephen Cook, “Haggai,” “Zechariah,” and “Malachi” in The New Interpreter’s Bible One-Volume Commentary  [ed. Beverly Roberts Gaventa and David Petersen; Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2010], 529–539.).

For Haggai, since God’s presence in the temple was the source of life and fertility in all the land, the refusal of the people to rebuild the temple had resulted in God’s absence, and so in infertility and drought.  In the great baseball film “Field of Dreams,” a Voice prompts Ray Kinsella to carve a baseball field out of his Iowa cornfields, saying, “If you build it, he will come.”  Just so, Haggai urges his community to action:

Go up to the highlands and bring back wood.
    Rebuild the temple so that I may enjoy it
        and that I may be honored, says the LORD (Hag 1:8).

“If you build it,” Haggai assures his people, “he will come.”

We may see connections between Haggai’s temple theology and the modern “prosperity gospel,” which promises health, wealth, and success to those who believe the right things, and pray in the right way.  But this so-called “gospel” is actually an outrageous misappropriation of Haggai’s theology.  Haggai does not tell his community what they must do in order to prosper.  Indeed, he lays the blame for their currently unfulfilled lives on their pursuit of prosperity.  Haggai 1:4 asks, “Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses while this house lies in ruins?”  The reference to paneling (Hebrew saphun) calls to mind the opulence of the royal palaces of Solomon (1 Kings 7:7) and Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 22:14).  Haggai’s community, with their “paneled houses,” had aspired to that former wealth and prosperity, and in so doing had placed themselves first, and God last.

But this way of living had not brought them the satisfaction and fulfillment they sought; in fact, it had desolated both them and their land.  Only by obeying God’s command through the prophet to rebuild the temple, and so placing God first, could Haggai’s community not only find the fulfillment that had eluded them, but also heal their land.

This St. Patrick’s Day, may we listen to the message of the saint–a message proclaimed long before him by prophets like Haggai.  May we seek God first, and so find fulfillment for ourselves and for God’s world.

Oh, and–Erin go bragh!

AFTERWORD

Here is the complete traditional text of the “Breastplate of St. Patrick.”

I arise today

Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,

Through the belief in the threeness,

Through confession of the oneness

Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today

Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism,

Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,

Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,

Through the strength of his descent for the judgment of Doom.

I arise today

Through the strength of the love of Cherubim,

In obedience of angels,

In the service of archangels,

In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,

In prayers of patriarchs,

In predictions of prophets,

In preaching of apostles,

In faith of confessors,

In innocence of holy virgins,

In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven:

Light of sun,

Radiance of moon,

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of wind,

Depth of sea,

Stability of earth,

Firmness of rock.

I arise today

Through God’s strength to pilot me:

God’s might to uphold me,

God’s wisdom to guide me,

God’s eye to look before me,

God’s ear to hear me,

God’s word to speak for me,

God’s hand to guard me,

God’s way to lie before me,

God’s shield to protect me,

God’s host to save me

From snares of devils,

From temptations of vices,

From everyone who shall wish me ill,

Afar and anear,

Alone and in multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,

Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,

Against incantations of false prophets,

Against black laws of pagandom

Against false laws of heretics,

Against craft of idolatry,

Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,

Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.

Christ to shield me today

Against poison, against burning,

Against drowning, against wounding,

So that there may come to me abundance of reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,

Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ on my right, Christ on my left,

Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,

Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,

Christ in every eye that sees me,

Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today

Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,

Through belief in the threeness,

Through confession of the oneness,

Of the Creator of Creation.

 

Mar
2019

Until An Opportune Time

 

My favorite play is a little two-act musical fairy tale called “The Fantasticks,” (music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones). In the first act, two best friends, pretending to be bitter enemies, forbid their children (a son and a daughter) to see one another. Sure enough, just as the friends had planned, the boy and girl fall in love. Next, the fathers stage a phony kidnapping, with the boy “rescuing” the girl and so winning her father’s “grudging” approval. The first act curtain closes on a smiling, hugging tableau, the cast frozen, as in a photograph, in a moment of elation: happy ending!  When I first saw this play, I turned to my wife Wendy and asked, “What could possibly happen now?”

Act two begins with the characters still frozen in their happy-ending poses. But they cannot hold the pose for long. Soon the group hug breaks apart. The best friends discover, now that they are in-laws, a dozen little things they cannot stand about one another. The boy and the girl lose their infatuation and break up. In short, life goes on. “The Fantasticks” turns out to be about what happens after the happy ending.

I thought of that play this week as I read Sunday’s gospel (Luke 4:1-13), the biblical basis for the church spending these forty days in prayer and fasting.  Jesus, in the wilderness, triumphs over the devil, and the devil “departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13, NRSV).  The enemy would be back.  Like “The Fantasticks,” Luke reminds us that there are no closing act curtains in life or in history.  The action continues–something always comes next.  We are never “finished.”

There is a reason that Lent—like Easter, like Christmas—is not a moment, or even a day, but a season.  Jesus came to his moment of victory over the enemy after 40 days in fasting and prayer. Of course, this is a problem for our culture of instant gratification!  But it is also a problem for my own Christian tradition, which has so stressed making one’s “decision for Christ”—as though once for all. Paul, wisely, says not that we have been saved, but that we are being saved—we are on the way.

In this life, we are never “finished”—for good or for ill.  No matter how good it gets, no matter how often we succeed, the enemy will return, “at an opportune time.”  The danger of our ever thinking, self-righteously, that we have arrived is that when trials come, as they will come, when the enemy returns, we will be unprepared, and may be undone.

In Luke, the “opportune time” does come.  The enemy makes another personal appearance: when “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve” (Luke 22:3). This time, the enemy appears victorious: Jesus is betrayed, arrested, tried, condemned, tortured to death.

Yet even this is not the end!  As we will celebrate when these forty days of preparation are ended, Jesus rose victorious over sin, death, hell, and the grave, and is alive forevermore!

In this life, we are never “finished”, friends–no matter how bad it gets, no matter how often we fail.  I have been learning this through the past week, following the United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis. There, we voted not only to retain the language in our Discipline excluding lesbian and gay persons but also to double down on enforcement, trials, and penalties.  After that vote, I posted a screen shot of the tally on my Facebook page, and wrote, “That is that.”  But my former student and colleague in ministry BT Gilligan told me “No!  That is NOT that.”  It has taken me days to realize that of course he is right!
We are not finished.  God is still at work–in me, in our church, in our world.  Confident in the power of Christ’s resurrection, we we need never lose heart!  For while on this side of eternity, there are no closing-act curtains, ultimately, finally, the victory belongs to Christ Jesus.  Thanks be to God.

AFTERWORD:  I preached this message yesterday in Chapel at PTS.  Thanks to Kendra Buckwalter Smith, who invited me, and to my liturgists and co-celebrants at that service, Cici James, Hattie Taylor, and Shawn Weaver.

Jan
2019

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Creative Extremist

 

In most of the nation, today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: a day rightly dedicated to celebrating the legacy of our greatest civil rights leader.  It is also right that a monument to Dr. King, dedicated on October 16, 2011, stands in Washington, D.C. among the memorials to other American heroes in that city of monuments.  But honoring the hero may mean losing the man. Perhaps it was inevitable that honor and recognition would mute King’s radical call to justice, particularly to racial justice; that as King’s national stature grew, his historical message would be blunted, even obscured.

So, as Newsweek magazine reported yesterday, “Vice President Mike Pence compared Donald Trump to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. . . . claiming both leaders have inspired Americans to change through the legislative process.”

“Honestly, you know, the hearts and minds of the American people today are thinking a lot about it being the weekend we are remembering the life and the work of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King was, ‘Now is the time to make real the the promises of democracy,’” he said, quoting a passage from Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Pence continued on to argue that like MLK, Trump has also “inspired us to change.” “You think of how he changed America, he inspired us to change through the legislative process, to become a more perfect union,” he said. “That’s exactly what President Trump is calling on the Congress to do, come to the table in a spirit of good faith.”

When white Americans have grown so comfortable with Martin Luther King, Jr. as to believe it appropriate to identify him with the very epitome of white privilege, in service of so racist a project as the border wall, it is clearly long past time for us to remember that Dr. King stood for, marched for, was jailed for, and died for, justice and equality. He was, by his own free admission, an extremist!  In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” he wrote:

I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. 

Dr. King was in jail, in Birmingham, for leading sit-ins, marches, and protests of racial discrimination in that city.  While in jail, he learned of an open letter published in Birmingham area papers, called “A Call for Unity”—signed by eight prominent white Alabama clergymen (including, to my shame, two Methodist bishops).  The letter bemoans a “series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders,” and says, “We… strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.”

Dr.  King  wrote his famous letter in response to these white Christian leaders, who evidently preferred “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Prophetically, King wrote of the church in his own day–and sadly, in ours:

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

A truly Christian view of racial justice must begin as Christian Scripture begins: with a radical affirmation of human unity, dignity, and equality.  As Dr. George D. Kelsey, mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. at Morehouse College, understood (George D. Kelsey, Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man [New York: Scribner, 1965]), the biblical confession that we are all descended from Adam and Eve means that there is one single human family. Throughout his theology and ethics, Dr. Kelsey “pointed to the Genesis creation narrative and its assertion of a singular and common ancestry of all humanity” (Torin Alexander, “World/Creation in African American Theology,” in The Oxford Handbook of African American Theology, ed. Katie G. Cannon and Anthony B. Pinn [New York: Oxford University, 2014], 186.)

Close reading of Genesis 1 underlines that insight.   On Day Three, when God invites the earth to “put forth vegetation” (Genesis 1:11), the earth produces “plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it” (Genesis 1:12).  Similarly, on Day Five, God creates “every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind” (Gen 1:21). On Day Six, God again invites the earth, “bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind” (Gen 1:24).  Every form of life God makes comes in kinds–except one.

When we arrive at the creation of humanity at the end of Day Six, nothing is said of there being any “kinds” of people (see Phyllis A. Bird, “‘Male and Female He Created Them’: Gen 1:27b in the Context of the Priestly Account of Creation,” Harvard Theological Review 74 [1981]: 146). This is certainly not because the ancient Israelites were ignorant of other races and cultures: Palestine was a crossroads of ancient civilizations. The Israelites were fully aware of Africans and Asians, people of varying ethnicities, speaking a host of languages, coming from a variety of cultures.  Yet Israel does not distinguish among these races and nations, as though some are more human than others.  Certainly, Genesis does not identify the Israelites as human, and their neighbors as something less. This is a remarkable confession, rejecting every form of racism and jingoistic nationalism–including our own.

As Scripture sadly but faithfully bears witness, Israel was not always faithful to this insight. But it is an insight that recurs again and again—and one that the church in our day must reclaim.  For while Genesis identifies no “kinds” of people, we have been swift to make up that lack, hastening to identify all sorts of folk as outsiders, strangers, aliens, who are not welcome in our communities. Especially on this day in honor of that “creative extremist,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., may God help us to see and repent of this sin, and to love all whom God loves, as we have ourselves been loved.

 

 

 

Jan
2019

Sun of Righteousness

 For millions of Western Christians, Sunday January 6, will be the Feast of the Epiphany–a day associated particularly with the light of the star that guided the Magi to the Christ Child (see Matthew 2:1-12).  More broadly, however, Epiphany celebrates the light of God shining into the world with the birth of Christ, and indeed, the light of God’s revelation shining into our lives yesterday, today–and one day, forever!

In Malachi 4:1-3 (3:19-21 in the Hebrew), that coming day of the LORD is described, as is typical in the Book of the Twelve (for example, see Zech 10:3-6; 12:1-9), as a day of fiery judgment upon the wicked oppressors of God’s people:

Look, the day is coming,
        burning like an oven.
All the arrogant ones and all those doing evil will become straw.
    The coming day will burn them,
says the LORD of heavenly forces,
        leaving them neither root nor branch. . . .
You will crush the wicked;
        they will be like dust beneath the soles of your feet
       on the day that I am preparing, says the LORD of heavenly forces.

But Malachi also declares that that day will be a time of renewal and blessing for God’s faithful, who are rejuvenated and filled with exuberant joy:

But the sun of righteousness will rise on those revering my name;
        healing will be in its wings
            so that you will go forth and jump about like calves in the stall (Mal 4:2).

Christian readers of this blog will likely be reminded of Charles Wesley’s use of this passage in his 1739 Christmas carolHark! the Herald Angels Sing.”  Charles Wesley’s third stanza is:

Hail the Heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and Life to All he brings,
Ris’n with Healing in his Wings.

Mild he lays his Glory by,
Born—that Man no more may die,
Born—to raise the Sons of Earth,
Born—to give them Second Birth.

In Wesley’s mind, clearly, the “Sun of Righteousness” is Jesus!

For Malachi, it is the LORD who is “the sun of righteousness,” rising with “healing. . . in its wings.” The Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint, as well as the Latin Vulgate, have “his wings” (see the KJV, and the words of Wesley’s carol), but the Hebrew text and the Targum (the Aramaic version of this text used in early synagogues) have “her wings”–probably with reference to “righteousness,” which is a feminine noun in Hebrew.

For good (for example, Ps 84:11) or for ill (see Ezek 8:16), images of the LORD as the sun, and associations of the sunrise with God’s presence in the Jerusalem temple (which faced east) are fairly common in Scripture.  As a part of the worship reforms put in place by King Josiah, the horses and chariots of the sun were removed from the temple (2 Kgs 23:11).  Indeed, mosaics of the solar chariot (associated in Greco-Roman religion with Apollo or with Sol Invictus) appear in early synagogues at Beth Alpha (shown above), Naaran, Hamath Tiberius, Yafa, and Isfiya.

 

The Egyptian sun disc, often combined with a winged scarab, was a widespread symbol in the ancient Middle East, even incorporated into the royal seals of Judean kings such as Hezekiah.

Malachi, writing in the Persian Period, was likely familiar with a modification of the winged solar disc from Persian art.  This symbol appears with Persian king Darius’ monumental inscription at Behistun, at his palace at Persepolis, and above the door of his tomb (depicted above); likely, it is meant to represent the Persian creator god Ahuramazda.  But for the prophet Malachi, of course, the sun of righteousness with healing in his wings can only be the LORD!  Depicting God’s coming as the sunrise represents a positive counter to the destructive image of the day of the LORD “burning like an oven” (4:1): the coming of the LORD may burn, but it also heals.

In the Christian East, the liturgical year follows the old Julian calendar. By their reckoning, Christmas–the dawning of the Sun of Righteousness–is January 7.  So, to our Orthodox sisters and brothers–Merry Christmas!

May this new year be for us all a time of healing and renewal. May the Sun of Righteousness rise today, in our hearts, our homes, our country, and our world, burning away the chaff and dross of the past, and empowering us to live anew!

AFTERWORD:  I am reposting this (slightly edited) blog from 2016 for Epiphany.  One further note: while I am in favor of the use of inclusive language in the United Methodist Hymnal, our editors have erred theologically, I believe, in rendering the next-to-last line in the third stanza of Charles Wesley’s glorious hymn as “Born to raise us from the earth.”  Escape from the earth was not Charles’–or indeed John’s–intent.  Instead, it is that we earthlings, we “sons of earth” in Charles Wesley’s admittedly sexist rendering–may be raised to new life, and even attain holiness of heart and life, here and now, in this world that Christ has come to save.  It is an important distinction, I believe.

 

Dec
2018

A Blessing for the New Year

Appropriately enough, the Hebrew Bible lectionary reading for January 1 is the Priestly Blessing from Numbers 6:24-26.  Like many of you, I first learned these words as the Methodist Youth Fellowship Benediction:

The LORD bless you and keep you:
The LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you:
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Others may know Peter C. Lutkin’s familiar musical setting with its sevenfold Amen, or perhaps John Rutter’s version, famously used at the wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markle.

The priestly blessing has, of course, deep roots in Jewish worship.  Still today, it is pronounced in Conservative and Orthodox congregations by the kohanim: members of the Jewish community who trace their lineage back to Aaron.  The distinctive hand gesture accompanying the blessing is meant to represent the Hebrew letter shin, first letter in Shaddai: an ancient name of God commonly translated “Almighty.”  But it will be more familiar to many (particularly to my fellow Trekkies) from Spock’s Vulcan greeting:

The late Leonard Nimoy shared that the Vulcan salute came from his childhood memories of experiencing this blessing, pronounced numinously and potently in the synagogue.  Of course, Spock’s Vulcan greeting caught fire in popular culture:

It’s been that way to this day: almost fifty years later, people are still doing it. . . .  It just touched a magic chord! Most people to this day still don’t know what it’s all about.  People don’t realize they’re blessing each other with this!

The ancient significance of the priestly blessing is confirmed by archaeology, as well as liturgy.  This passage of Scripture is engraved in miniature on tiny silver scrolls found at Ketef Hinnom, and dating to the eighth to sixth century BCE–making it the oldest written text of Scripture yet found.

In keeping with ancient sacred tradition, friends, let us bless one another at the turning of the year with these words, claiming the biblical promise:

So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them (Num 6:27).

A merry Christmastide, happy New Year, and blessed life journey to you and yours.

Dec
2018

You Can’t Always Get What You Want!

Micah prophesied in the middle of the eighth century, in a tiny village about 25 miles southwest of the big city of Jerusalem called Morasheth-Gath.  It was a long way from Jerusalem to Morasheth-gath: a distance not so much geographical as social.  As its name implies, Morasheth-gath was a border town, located in contested territory right on the edge of Jewish Judah and Philistine Gath.  Its people were a hard-scrabble lot: rural, not urban; poor, not rich; decidedly lower, not upper class

Perhaps it was this distant perspective that enabled Micah to see so clearly through the arrogance of Jerusalem’s leaders:

who reject justice and make crooked all that is straight,
         who build Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with injustice!
 Her officials give justice for a bribe,
        and her priests teach for hire.
Her prophets offer divination for silver,
        yet they rely on the Lord, saying,
            “Isn’t the Lord in our midst?
                Evil won’t come upon us!” (Micah 3:9-11).

Such blithe, naive arrogance was dangerous, Micah knew, for the mid-eighth century was a dangerous time, when the cruel military power of Assyria was on the rise.  This crisis called for just, wise, decisive leadership.

In Micah 5:2-5, the prophet recalls the humble birth of David, Israel’s greatest king, in Bethlehem: a little Judean village not unlike Micah’s own.  If Judah is to survive the onslaught of Assyria, what will be needed is a return to those humble beginnings and values.  The last thing Judah needs in this crisis is another Jerusalemite dandy, born to the purple and raised with the assumption of power and privilege!  Instead, speaking for the LORD, Micah says,

As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces,
        one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you.
    His origin is from remote times, from ancient days.
Therefore, he will give them up
        until the time when she who is in labor gives birth.
        The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel.
He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
        in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
        They will dwell secure,
        because he will surely become great throughout the earth;
        he will become one of peace (Micah 5:2-5).

Such a leader would have been the last thing that Jerusalem’s elites wanted.  But Micah is convinced that this is precisely what Judah needs!

The heading I’ve given to this blog post was shamelessly stolen from a Rolling Stones song–chances are, you’ve been playing it in the back of your head ever since you read the title!  Like Micah, Mick Jagger declares, “You can’t always get what you want.  But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need!”

Micah’s words are quoted in Matthew 2:5-6.  When the foreign sages come to Judah following a star, looking for a new-born king, they come to the big city of Jerusalem, and to Herod’s palace–because where else would you look for a king?  Herod consults the scribes, who then read to him, and to his guests from the east, Micah’s ancient prophecy.  Sure enough, Jesus, like David, would be born humbly, in the little village of Bethlehem–the child of a peasant girl and her itinerant laborer husband.

We need to hear just how unlikely this sounds!  Because sometimes, in this season, we Christians wonder how Jesus’ own people could’ve missed him–implying, of course, that we would have done a better job.  But an old African American spiritual, with far more wisdom, recognizes the truth:

Sweet little Jesus Boy, we made you be born in a manger.

Sweet little Holy Child, we didn’t know who You were.

Didn’t know you’d come to save us, Lord; to take our sins away.

Our eyes were blind, we couldn’t see, we didn’t know it was you.

Herod’s scribes, who gave the wise men their directions from Scripture, did not go with them to the manger—I wonder why?  Likely it was because they couldn’t believe that Micah really meant it! Surely Messiah would not actually come in such a way!

Jesus was not recognized as the Messiah for the very good reason that he was born among the poor– not the wealthy, powerful, or influential.  As he grew, he surrounded himself with the least, the lost, and the outcast–not the best and the brightest.  No one ever expected that Messiah would come like this! No one looked for, dreamed of, or wanted such a Messiah! But as Micah, and Mick, remind us “You can’t always get what you want. . . You get what you need.”

Jesus is still an astonishment, friends. He still shows up in the most unlikely places, among the most unlikely people—the least, the lost, the lowly. So if we would find him, that is where we too must go. And when we are lonely, when we have lost our way, we need only turn our heads to find him right there, beside us.  Because that is who he is.  That is what he does.

Jesus is still not the King we thought that we wanted—but he is the one that we need: the one who “shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD”. . . the “one of peace.”

AFTERWORD:  Thank you to John Magnuson and Todd Leach of Shadyside Presbyterian in Pittsburgh, who invited me to preach in their Advent Vespers series–this blog is taken from that sermon.  Merry Christmas and the happiest of New Years to all and sundry, friends!

Nov
2018

A Bigger Table

 

I have a confession to make: I talk to things.  I talk at home to our cat Mocha, which I guess isn’t too odd, but I also talk to cats and dogs that I meet on the street, and to the birds and squirrels in our neighborhood.  I talk to my computer when it is running too slowly.  I talk to my keys, or my phone, or my reading glasses when they have run off and are hiding from me.

So I am right at home with Joel 2:21-27, the Old Testament lesson for this Thanksgiving Day, which begins by addressing the natural world: not only the living things, the animals and trees and green plants, but even the dirt itself:

Don’t fear, fertile land [the NRSV reads, “O soil”!];
    rejoice and be glad,
    for the Lord is about to do great things! (Joel 2:21).

The setting for this remarkable passage is the aftermath of a locust plague, which has decimated Judah.  The locusts are described by God as

the cutting locust, the swarming locust, the hopping locust, and the devouring locust . . .  my great army[!], which I sent against you (Joel 2:25).

But that is over now, and after the swarm has passed, when the locusts all are gone, reassurance is offered to the community, the “children of Zion” (Joel 2:23), who twice are promised, “my people shall never again be put to shame” (Joel 2:26, 27).

Yet the people also learn that they are part of a larger community than they had known.  Just after our reading in Joel comes the most famous passage from this book, quoted by Peter in his Pentecost sermon:

After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone;
        your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
        your old men will dream dreams,
        and your young men will see visions.
 In those days, I will also pour out my
    spirit on the male and female slaves. (Joel 2:28-29).

The “children of Zion”—“my people”—includes not just the adult men of the worshipping congregation, but women, children, the aged–even slaves.

Nature itself is also caught up in that community: the animals, the trees, the green plants—yes, even the dirt!

Don’t fear, fertile land;
    rejoice and be glad,
    for the Lord is about to do great things!
Don’t be afraid, animals of the field,
        for the meadows of the wilderness will turn green;
    the tree will bear its fruit;
        the fig tree and grapevine will give their full yield. (Joel 2:21-22)

All are told not to fear. All are promised life, from God and by God. All are caught up in God’s promises of deliverance, vindication, and freedom from shame. Today, reading these words of Scripture, we too hear God’s promises of deliverance, vindication, and freedom from shame. But we cannot experience those blessings separately and severally. They are not offered to us in that way. We will find them together—all of us–or we will not find them at all.

Community is who we are, but it is also what we do.  This past week in Denver, I heard Jim Wallis share a profound statement of faith and call to action, coming from an extraordinary gathering of Christian leaders.  Called Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis,  this statement says in part,

WE BELIEVE each human being is made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). That image and likeness confers a divinely decreed dignity, worth, and God-given equality to all of us as children of the one God who is the Creator of all things. Racial bigotry is a brutal denial of the image of God (the imago dei) in some of the children of God. Our participation in the global community of Christ absolutely prevents any toleration of racial bigotry. Racial justice and healing are biblical and theological issues for us, and are central to the mission of the body of Christ in the world. We give thanks for the prophetic role of the historic black churches in America when they have called for a more faithful gospel.

If we would be free, brothers and sisters, then we must work to free one another, for until we all are free, none of us are free.  We must be willing to draw the circle wide–to find ourselves a part of a larger community than we had known, embracing sisters and brothers we had not known we had.

We must also extend our circle to include all of God’s world, for Joel reminds us that there can be no good for any of us if that good does not include our suffering earth.  This truth was brought brutally home by the devastating Camp Fire in California, which has left 81 dead and 699 still missing.  While natural disasters such as the Camp Fire are commonly called “acts of God,” eschewing human responsibility, there can be little doubt that we are responsible for this one, through climate change brought on by our own careless greed.  We must do better, remembering to treat the earth with responsibility and care.

On this Thanksgiving Day, sisters and brothers, we are going to need a bigger table, for Scripture reminds us that our family is larger than we had known. Thanks be to God for all our community!

 

 

Oct
2018

Laughing at the Devil

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

This (allegedly) traditional Scottish prayer, collected by folklorist D. L. Ashliman, reminds us of the grim folklore back of Hallowe’en.  The night before November 1 was once called Samhain, an old Celtic festival of the quarter-year (falling between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice). In Celtic culture, it was believed to be a night when the borders between this world and the next became particularly thin, so that the unquiet dead could cross over into this world and molest the living. Food offerings, lamps, and even the severed heads of enemies (grimly recalled, perhaps, by Jack o’lanterns) could be set out to appease or turn aside the ghosts.

We call October 31 not Samhain, but Halloween (that is, Hallow E’en), because October 31 is of course the night before November 1, All-Hallows Day–hence, All-Hallows Eve.  All-Hallows, or All-Saints, Day began in the days of Pope Boniface IV as a feast day for all martyrs, and was first celebrated on May 13, 609.  Pope Gregory III (731-741) shifted the focus from the martyrs to the celebration of all the saints who lack a feast of their own (and by extension, of all who have died in the Lord), and as such All-Saints was declared an official holy day of the church by Pope Gregory IV in 837.  The feast was shifted from May to November 1 in response to the European (specifically Celtic) holiday of Samhain (El Dia de Los Muertos in Spain).

When the Celts became Christians, this night was transformed by the realization that Jesus Christ had triumphed over death, hell, and the grave. Death, and the dead, no longer needed to be feared.  Those Celtic Christians now knew, as Ephesians 2:4-7 affirms,

God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!  And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus.  God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.

The association with All-Hallows Day made this a night of rejoicing! Hallowe’en is a celebration of life, and of Christ’s victory over death and the fear of death.

Because of Samhain’s grim past, some Christians have argued that we should not celebrate Hallowe’en at all–that to do so is to flirt with the demonic, and to open the door to evil influences.  I disagree.  I think it is fitting that this night, which used to be a grim and grisly night of fear, has become a night of laughter and joy, when it is little children who come to our doors to receive our offerings of food–and surely, there is no better medicine against fear and despair than joy and laughter!  As the Reformer Martin Luther once observed, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”

This saying of Martin Luther was used as an epigraph to C. S. Lewis’ famous Christian satire The Screwtape Letters: Letters From a Senior to a Junior Devil–letters of advice from the senior devil Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, on how Wormwood can tempt his “patient” into hell (an appropriately “Halloweeny” read, to be sure!).  The book is dedicated to J. R. R. Tolkien, the Roman Catholic friend who led Lewis into the Christian faith. That connection is particularly interesting, as some of the same Christians who condemn Hallowe’en as a pagan holiday also mistrust the fantasies of both Lewis and Tolkien, fearful of their alleged “occult” influences–despite the explicitly Christian worldview evident in both the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.

These waning days of October prompt anticipation, not only of Hallowe’en and All -Saints Day, but also of Election Day on November 6.  The continuing popularity of The Screwtape Letters has prompted the following item, posted on numerous Facebook pages:

I can understand the frustration with our own current political season that prompted this posting.  However, not only is this not a quote from The Screwtape Letters, or from anything else by C. S. Lewis, it is also a position that Lewis was unlikely to espouse.  To be sure, in The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape does advise Wormwood to get his client thinking obsessively about politics–whether conservative or liberal (“Patriotism or Pacifism”, in Lewis’ World War II English context) doesn’t matter:

Let him begin by treating Patriotism or Pacifism as a part of his religion.  Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part,  Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which religion becomes merely part of the “cause” (The Screwtape Letters, letter 7).

However, this does not mean that Lewis believed we should be concerned simply for the salvation of our own souls.  First, while Lewis would certainly agree that sin and salvation are personal, he would certainly not agree that either sin or salvation is private. In fact, so important is the Church that Screwtape advises Wormwood to prevent his patient from attending worship by disillusioning him:

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans.        . . . When he gets to his pew and looks around him he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbors. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous (The Screwtape Letters, letter 2).

Second, Lewis would certainly not agree either that concern for a “broken system” is misplaced, or that trying to fix what is wrong in our world is futile.  The Screwtape Letters was published in book form in 1943, but began as a wartime serial in The Guardian between May and November of 1941–just after the Blitz, a terrible period during which England was under almost continual attack from Nazi Germany.   Indeed, Wormwood’s “patient” is killed by a German bomb:

One moment it seemed to be all our world; the scream of bombs, the fall of houses, the stink and taste of high explosive on the lips and in the lungs, the feet burning with weariness, the heart cold with horrors, the brain reeling, the legs aching; next moment all this was gone, gone like a bad dream. . . Did you mark how naturally–as if he’d been born for it–the earth-born vermin entered the new life? (The Screwtape Letters, letter 31).

Lewis was well aware of the dangers posed by systemic, political evil, and of the responsibility owed by citizens to work for the common good.  Christian faith does not call us to quietism–indeed, loving what God loves will engage us positively and passionately with what God is doing in the world.  If you decide not to vote in this election, or that your involvement cannot make a difference in the world, don’t think to justify your cynicism by appeal to Lewis–though, come to think of it, Screwtape and his ilk likely are involved.  But our Christian faith also reminds us that we, together with all the saints who have gone before us, are part of something larger than this current political season: the Church of Jesus Christ, “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.”  Happy Hallowe’en, sisters and brothers!

AFTERWORD:

This is a slightly revised version of a blog first posted in 2016.  The false quotation attributed to C. S. Lewis is once more making the rounds, however, as it probably will every election year–hence this repeat post.

That’s my Dad, Bernard Tuell, sitting next to me in this photo.  I got my laugh and my hairline from my Dad–but also, my love for the Bible and for the Lord.  Hallowe’en is also Dad’s birthday.  So–happy, happy birthday, Daddy.  God bless you, as God has blessed so many through you.