Dec
2019

To Live in Harmony


From 1820 until his death in 1849, the Quaker preacher and American folk artist Edward Hicks painted the same scene over and over again: at least 62 times in all!  Likely you have seen at least one of these paintings; the one depicted above comes from the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. In each painting, little children stand solemn, unmenaced, and unafraid among lions, wolves, and bears, accompanied by equally unfazed sheep and cattle. Each face, human and animal, gazes calmly out of the canvas, meeting our eyes in serene invitation. To each painting, Hicks gave the same title: “The Peaceable Kingdom.”

Of course, this imagery is drawn from Isa 11:6-8:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
    the calf and the young lion will feed[a] together,
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow and the bear will graze.
    Their young will lie down together,
    and a lion will eat straw like an ox.
A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole;
    toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.


Often, in the background of these paintings, Hicks depicted William Penn making a treaty with the Lenni Lenape Indians in  1682 (see the detail above). But why?  What does this have to do with Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom?  To answer that question, we need to look more closely at Isaiah 11.

This passage seems to be set in the mid-8th century BCE: after the depredations of the Syro-Ephraimite War in Judah, and the fall of Israel and deportation of its people (722 BCE).  In the wake of these tragedies, Isaiah describes his people as a tree chopped down to its roots.  But still, there is life in the stump!

A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse;
    a branch will sprout from his roots (Isa 11:1).

Image result for Isaiah sistine

Isaiah’s vision of Judah’s resuscitation is also a vision of the renewal of kingship. Jesse was the father of David, ancestor of Judah’s kings (see Ruth 4:17–22).  This passage sets forth the prophet’s hope for just rule: his idealistic vision of what the king should be, and one day would be;

The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him,
    a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    a spirit of planning and strength,
    a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
He will delight in fearing the Lord.
He won’t judge by appearances,
    nor decide by hearsay.
He will judge the needy with righteousness,
    and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.
He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth;
    by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.
Righteousness will be the belt around his hips,
    and faithfulness the belt around his waist (Isa 11:2–5).

For Isaiah, just government in the social realm reflects divine order in the natural realm (see Psalm 19), and so he dreams of a world in which nature reflects God’s intent for creation perfectly.  The peaceable kingdom of Isa 11:6–9 alludes to the priestly account of creation in Genesis 1:1–2:4a, and especially to Gen 1:29–30:

Then God said, “I now give to you all the plants on the earth that yield seeds and all the trees whose fruit produces its seeds within it. These will be your food.  To all wildlife, to all the birds in the sky, and to everything crawling on the ground—to everything that breathes—I give all the green grasses for food.” And that’s what happened.

In this account, there are neither predators nor prey in the world as God would have it be–nothing needs to die for something else to live. As Isaiah’s vision has it, “The cow and the bear will graze. . . and a lion will eat straw like an ox.”  Although his vision comes from a time of devastation and despair, for Isaiah despair at God’s punishment always yields to hope, for God’s judgment is always tempered by mercy.

The last verse of this passage looks out to the nations–as the Quaker painter realized:

On that day, the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the peoples. The nations will seek him out, and his dwelling will be glorious (Isa 11:10).

That is why Hicks places William Penn and the Lenni Lenape in his depiction of Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom.  God’s peace and justice are not the property of any one nation or race, but are given to unite the whole world.  Further, Hicks believed that Isaiah’s vision was more than a dream for someday. He saw the treaty with the Lenni Lenape as evidence that God was already at work in the world, bringing God’s peace and justice to fruition here and now.  Hicks heard that hope in the account of Isaiah’s vision.

 

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Paul heard it, too! For this apostle to the Gentiles, Isaiah’s vision demonstrated that God’s grace extends beyond the borders of Israel.  In Rom 15:12, Paul quotes that same verse (it sounds a bit different, as Paul is quoting from the Greek translation of that passage):

 And again, Isaiah says,

There will be a root of Jesse,
    who will also rise to rule the Gentiles.
        The Gentiles will place their hope in him.

For Paul, of course, the branch from the root of Jesse is Jesus, who has fulfilled Isaiah’s dreams of what a king should be, and who comes, as Isaiah envisioned,  to all peoples.

Romans is an unusual epistle.  Usually, Paul wrote to churches he had established himself or had already visited, responding directly to the circumstances and concerns of each particular community.  But at the time he wrote to the Romans, Paul had never been to Rome (see Rom 1:8-15). Why then did he write this letter, to people he had never met?

New Testament scholar Robert Jewett proposes that Paul wrote Romans as an ambassador for Christ, seeking to reconcile the estranged gentile (non-Jewish) and Jewish Christian communities in Rome.  So, Paul begins that letter by asserting his confidence that Jesus has come to and for Jew and Gentile alike: 

I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Rom 1:16)

He returns to this theme toward the end of Romans:

So welcome each other, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you, for God’s glory. I’m saying that Christ became a servant of those who are circumcised for the sake of God’s truth, in order to confirm the promises given to the ancestors, and so that the Gentiles could glorify God for his mercy (Rom 15:7-9).

Paul is persuaded that the Gospel is for all people:

May the God of endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude toward each other, similar to Christ Jesus’ attitude. That way you can glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ together with one voice (Rom 15:5-6).

The NRSV reads, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus.”

 

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In this second week of Advent, our attention is drawn to John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Christ.  John famously baptized all comers, all who repented of their sins.  He reminded the religious leaders, so proud of their distinct heritage, that God could raise children of Abraham from the stones (Matt 3:9)!  The gospel is not the property of any nation, or race, or group, but is given to the whole world.

Prof. Dr Jürgen Moltmann

Jurgen Moltmann, whose famous theology of hope had its beginnings when he was a German POW in England, warns Christians not to be seduced by nationalism:

The church of Christ is present in all the people on earth and cannot become ‘a national religion’. The church of Christ ecumenically embraces the whole inhabited earth. She is not a tribal religion, nor a Western religion, nor a white religion, but the church of all humanity. The church of Christ is not national, but it is a church of all the nations and humanity.

Moltmann’s warning comes from grim experience: he saw first-hand in Nazi Germany the destructive consequences of the church allied with a state defined by exclusion.  Jewett as well is persuaded that we must heed Paul’s call to reconciliation:

The Pauline hope of unification of all peoples through the gospel of transforming love that produces respect between groups as diverse as the Jews and Gentiles urgently needs to be placed on our agenda (Robert Jewett, “The Law and the Coexistence of Jews and Gentiles in Romans,” Interpretation 39 [1985]: 341).

Although Jewett wrote those words 34 years ago, they could have been penned this morning.  I cannot remember a time in my life when we more needed to hear “the gospel of transforming love that produces respect between [diverse] groups”!  True, the divisions that tear at the church today are not the same as those that Paul addressed, but still, the point remains.  In the Peaceable Kingdom that Isaiah saw, Paul preached, and Hicks painted, predators and prey—natural enemies!—sit peacefully together: and so must we.


In a press conference this past week, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was asked if she hated President Trump.  She responded, “I don’t hate the president. I pray for the president all the time. . . I was raised in a Catholic house. We don’t hate anybody, not anybody in the world.”  Many scoffed at those words, but that surely is the point of these Scriptures. We don’t have to agree—we do need to respect one another, to will one another’s good, and to pray for one another–at least, if we want to be a part of what God is doing in our world.  For God is in the business of overcoming our division, and uniting us in God’s love, justice, and peace.  To paraphrase Paul, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant us to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus.”

Nov
2019

The Psalm That Doesn’t End. . .

Image result for sheri lewis and lamb chop

When our guys were small, a favorite television program was “Lamb Chop’s Play-Along,” which always ended with ventriloquist Sheri Lewis, joined by her puppets Lamb Chop, Charley Horse, and Hush Puppy plus a chorus of children, singing “The Song That Doesn’t  End”:

This is the song that doesn’t end, yes it goes on and on, my friend.  Some people started singin’ it, not knowin’ what it was, and they’ll continue singin’ it forever just because it is the song that doesn’t end. . .

Repeat as long as you can stand it–which I warn you for a toddler can be a LONG time!

Which brings us to the Psalm for this Sunday, Psalm 119:137-144.  Psalm 119 feels like the Psalm that doesn’t end!  This is the longest chapter in the Bible–indeed, at a whopping 176 verses, it is longer than many biblical books: by comparison, Jonah has only 48 verses, and Ephesians only 155. Those who have attempted to read through the entire psalm may also remember it as the dullest chapter in the Bible!  There is no clear sense of development in the poem from beginning to end–indeed, as Carroll Stuhlmueller observed, “One can start at the end and read the verses backward, and it makes equally good sense”(“Psalms” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary, ed. James L. Mays [New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1988], 487).

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However, this huge, sprawling text is also tightly structured. Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem. Unlike the acrostics with which we are familiar in English, where the first letters of successive lines spell out words or phrases, Hebrew acrostics use all twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet in order.  Sometimes this is done in successive lines, as in Psalms 9—10; 25; 34; 111; 112; 145; and Proverbs 31:10-31.  Sometimes, as in Psalm 119, successive sections or stanzas follow this alphabetical pattern (see also Ps 37; Lam 1; 2; 3; 4).

The biblical acrostics may vary a bit from our expected alphabetical order.  The letters ‘ayin and pe switch places in Lam 2; 3; 4 and Ps 10–but that different sequence is also found in some ancient alphabet lists: for example, in the tenth-century BCE Tel Zayit Inscription discovered by my friend and colleague Ron Tappy (Ron Tappy, Marilyn Lundberg, P. Kyle McCarter, and Bruce Zuckerman, “An Abecedary of the Mid-Tenth Century b.c.e. from the Judaean Shephelah.” BASOR 344 [2006]:5-46).  Sometimes, Hebrew poets play creatively with that order: for example, Psalm 34 skips waw and adds an additional pe at the end, so that while the twenty-two lines are preserved, the first, middle, and last letters of the acrostic spell out ‘aleph!   But the point of the acrostic form remains completion. This is apparent even in the partial acrostic in Pss 9-10 (a single psalm in the LXX and the Latin Vulgate).  While the middle of the alphabet is missing, the beginning and end are represented, making it most likely that the original poem was damaged or altered in the course of its editing and transmission–as the division of this poem into two psalms in the Hebrew Bible, reflected in our Old Testament, already may indicate.

In Psalm 119 the acrostic form is fully realized: the psalm consists of twenty-two stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, each stanza consisting of eight verses beginning with that letter.  In Hebrew, each line of Sunday’s Psalm reading begins with the letter tsade:

צ tsade

Lord, you are righteous,
    and your rules are right.
The laws you commanded are righteous,
    completely trustworthy.
Anger consumes me
    because my enemies have forgotten what you’ve said.
Your word has been tried and tested;
    your servant loves your word!
I’m insignificant and unpopular,
    but I don’t forget your precepts.
Your righteousness lasts forever!
    Your Instruction is true!
Stress and strain have caught up with me,
    but your commandments are my joy!
Your laws are righteous forever.
    Help me understand so I can live! (CEB)

 

Patrick Miller describes Psalm 119:137-144 as a hybrid poem, combining “Praise of God’s law and prayer for help against oppression” (see his note on this passage in the HarperCollins Study Bible [New York: Harper Collins, 1993], 832).  Indeed, aspects of nearly every type of psalm can be found in Psalm 119, from hymn to thanksgiving to prayer for help. While some claim that mixing forms in this way showed a lack of fresh insight and creativity on the part of the Psalmist, James Luther Mays argued that the mixture of forms is part of the point the Psalmist wants to make. By deliberately drawing from and referring to a variety of sacred texts, the Psalmist aims to express “a more comprehensive knowledge of God” (James L. Mays, The Lord Reigns: A Theological Handbook to the Psalms [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994], 129).  Psalms 1 and 19, which like Psalm 119 draw on several poetic forms, also resemble Psalm 119 in theme (compare Psalm 1:2 with Psalm 119:15; Psalm 19:7 with Psalm 119:129-130). All three psalms express a life of piety centered on torah: God’s law or instruction. In these psalms, Mays suggests, the book of Psalms is viewed not simply as a prayer book, but as instruction in the pious life (Mays, The Lord Reigns, 134-135).

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The theme of Psalm 119 is expressed in the blessing pronounced in the first two verses:

Happy are those whose way is blameless,
    who walk in the law of the LORD.
Happy are those who keep his decrees,
    who seek him with their whole heart (NRSV)

The word translated “law” in Psalm 119:1 is, again, the Hebrew torah.  Eight different legal terms are used in Psalm 119, ordinarily one to each verse. In addition to “law,” these terms in the NRSV are “decrees,” “statutes,” “commandments,” “ordinances,” “word,” “precepts,” and “promise.” Most of this legal vocabulary comes from Deuteronomy, where these words describe different aspects of God’s law. However, in Psalm 119 no attempt is made to define any of these technical terms, nor is any distinction made among them. Professor Mays suggests that in Psalm 119, they are all interchangeable with torah: they all represent instruction (Psalms [Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 1994], 382-383.)

Note, though, that this is the LORD’s instruction. Consistently, all these terms are identified as the property of the LORD: it is “the law of the LORD” (verse 1); “his decrees” (verse two); “your precepts” (verse four); “your statutes” (verse 5). Confirmation of this insight comes even in the apparent exceptions to the rule. In Psalm 119:3, none of the eight torah terms appear. However, the Psalmist speaks of the blessed as those “who do no wrong,/ but walk in his ways” (emphasis mine; see also Psalm 119:15 and 37). Similarly, Psalm 119:90 speaks of “your faithfulness,” evident in the establishment of the created world (see Psalm 19, which also places the LORD’s torah alongside the LORD’s creation as being alike changeless and reliable). Psalm 119:122 does not refer to the LORD’s instruction at all. However, this verse does identify the Psalmist as “your servant,” indicating again an attitude of obedience and submission consistent with the theme of this psalm.

Professor Mays writes,

The word of God is given but never possessed. Because it is God’s instruction, it is not owned apart from the teaching of God.… it must be sought and constantly studied in prayer in order to be taught ( Mays, Psalms, 385).

Psalm 119 does not identify God’s instruction with the written law: an important distinction, for the ideal of obedience to God’s will can all too easily be corrupted into petty legalism. Remember that Jesus’ opponents chastised him for breaking the law, while Jesus rebuked them for neglecting “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23, NRSV). Unlike those among the religious leadership who opposed Jesus, the Psalmist recognizes that God’s instruction is also God’s gift, which cannot be possessed once for all but must be rediscovered in every time, by every seeker.  In Christian theological terms, we are saved by grace!

Author Frederick Buechner expresses what this means very well:

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.

The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.

There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.

Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too (originally published in Wishful Thinking).

 

The poet who has given us Psalm 119 set for himself a very daunting task. Using a basic theological vocabulary of eight terms meaning “law” or “instruction,” the Psalmist set out to write twenty-two eight-line meditations on the place of God’s teaching in the life of the pious, committed believer–one meditation for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. What is more, the Psalmist attempted to incorporate into this poem the various styles of the texts in which God’s instruction is encountered, including nearly every form of psalm. We may criticize the result as over-long and repetitive, but even so, Psalm 119 is a remarkable achievement.

Oct
2019

Ghoulies and Ghosties

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 this night 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.”

Happy Hallowe’en, sisters and brothers–and praise God for all the saints!

AFTERWORDS:  I am reposting this portion of an earlier blog, to recognize and celebrate Hallowe’en and All-Saint’s Day.

Image may contain: textCome join us at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary as we host a community Fall Festival and Trunk-r-Treat, Saturday October 26, 5:00-8:00 pm! The event is free and open to the public. All are welcome! There will be trunk-r-treating, food, carnival activities, pumpkin painting, fall games, smores, 50/50 raffle, and so much more!  My only beef is that they called it a Fall Festival, rather than rejoicing in the ancient Christian connections of All-Hallows Eve!

Oct
2019

Happy Birthday to Me!

Every year on or around my birthday, October 3, I try to find as many opportunities as I can to share this bit of wonderful nonsense from Theodore Geisel–better known as Dr. Suess.  Under the silliness, it carries a deep affirmation of self-worth, which reminds me of the fundamental philosophy of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s best-known alumnus, Mr. Fred Rogers.  Every day on his television program, Mr. Rogers told every little child watching, “You are special, just for being you.”

This past week, in the seminary chapel and again in the chapel of the Allegheny jail, I shared Dr. Suess’ birthday poem at the opening of a sermon on Lamentations 3:19-26:

The memory of my suffering and homelessness is bitterness and poison.
I can’t help but remember and am depressed.
I call all this to mind—therefore, I will wait.

Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended; certainly God’s compassion isn’t through!
They are renewed every morning. Great is your faithfulness.
I think: The Lord is my portion! Therefore, I’ll wait for him.

The Lord is good to those who hope in him, to the person who seeks him.
It’s good to wait in silence for the Lord’s deliverance.

 

The hope in Dr. Suess’ poem seems to echo the hope in this passage of Scripture–but does it?  After all, Lamentations (found just after Jeremiah in our Old Testament) is a grim collection of five poems mourning the fall of Judah, and the destruction of Jerusalem.  There is only one hopeful word in this book, and this is it!  Therefore, some would say that to preach on this passage is dishonest, as it is not representative of the book as a whole.  In fact,  since this passage is swallowed up by poems of despair surrounding it, the point could be that these words were ineffectual–that they provided no lasting healing or hope.

Certainly, Mr. Rogers took some flack for his message of self-affirmation.  One television panel claimed that this message was “ruining kids”:

Well here’s the problem [that] gets lost in that whole self business, and the idea that being hard and having high issues for yourself, discounted. Mr. Rogers’ message was, “You’re special because you’re you.” He didn’t say, “If you want to be special, you’re going to have to work hard,” and now all these kids are growing up and they’re realizing, “Hey wait a minute, Mr. Rogers lied to me, I’m not special”

The panel decried the damage Mr. Rogers may have done to this whole crop of kids who now feel entitled just for being them. And what he says that instead of telling them, “You’re special, you’re great,” why didn’t he just say, “You know what, there’s a lot of improvement, keep working on yourself.”

The television panel’s critique may seem to some more reflective of Christian faith (and certainly more true to the overall tone of Lamentations) than Mr. Rogers’ or Dr. Suess’ message of affirmation.  After all, Calvinism (if not Calvin) emphasizes our total depravity (the “T” in “TULIP“): that we have nothing in ourselves that is lovely or worthy, apart from God’s gracious election.  I grew up in the sawdust-trail revivalist tradition of Christianity, in which the point of preaching often seems to be bringing its hearers to such a state of fear and guilt and self-loathing that they will run to the altar to be saved from judgment, hell, sin, and themselves: repentance as the child of despair.

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But this is not the only way that Christian tradition has spoken about humanity, or about our relationship with God.  In his Ladder of Divine Ascent, 5, Christian mystic St. John Climacus writes,  “Repentance is the daughter of hope and the denial of despair.”  Repentance is not born out of despair, but is the child of hope, and indeed the denial of despair!

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (The Inner Kingdom [St. Vladimir Press, 2000], 45) unpacks St. John’s teaching on repentance:

It is not self-hatred but the affirmation of my true self as made in God’s image. To repent is to look, not downward at my own shortcomings, but upward at God’s love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of God I can yet become.

I think that it is no accident that those words of hope in Lamentations have been placed in the center of the book, in the middle of its longest poem. The point is that, yes, things are bad–as bad as they could possible be. But what saves us from despair is knowing that we are loved, and that God is faithful: “Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended; certainly God’s compassion isn’t through!
They are renewed every morning. Great is your faithfulness.” The point is not optimism, but rather hope.  Optimism says, nothing bad will happen.   However, hope affirms that no matter what happens, all will be well.  It was that hope that caused Jews being marched to the gas chambers in the Nazi holocaust to recite, from the creed of Moses Maimonides, “I believe, I believe, with a perfect faith, I believe that Messiah will come, and though he tarry, I will expect him daily.”

Friends, I believe that it is consistent with the heart of the Gospel to claim our created goodness, and our standing as people God loves, and for whom Christ died.  Looking upward to God’s love, forward with trust, we may go forth by God’s grace, transformed by Christ and empowered by the Spirit, to be the people we were created to be.

I can shout with Dr. Suess, and invite you to shout with me: “I am what I am!  That’s a great thing to be.  If I say so myself, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!”

AFTERWORD:

October is also the birth month of my father, Bernard Tuell.  We are heading back home this weekend to celebrate his 85th with family and friends at our home church, Big Tygart UMC.  God bless you and happy birthday, Daddy!

Sep
2019

That’s What It’s For

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This week’s Gospel is a parable of Jesus unique to Luke, much like those perennial favorites the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son.   But unlike those stories of Jesus, this one is unlikely to be anyone’s favorite:

Jesus also said to the disciples, “A certain rich man heard that his household manager was wasting his estate. He called the manager in and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give me a report of your administration because you can no longer serve as my manager.’ The household manager said to himself, What will I do now that my master is firing me as his manager? I’m not strong enough to dig and too proud to beg.  I know what I’ll do so that, when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses. One by one, the manager sent for each person who owed his master money. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’  He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.’ The manager said to him, ‘Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.’ Then the manager said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’ He said, ‘One thousand bushels of wheat.’  He said, ‘Take your contract and write eight hundred.’ (Luke 16:1-7)

Why does Jesus tell this strange story?  His point seems, if anything, stranger still:

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes (Luke 16:8-9, NRSV).

Yup.  That’s what it says.  Jesus said “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  What are we to do with that?

When I was a brand-new pastor, fresh out of seminary, I came into a Bible study at one of my churches, looking at the parables of Jesus.  Some of the folk in that study were using the Living Bible–a popular paraphrase of Scripture into everyday language that had been my own favorite Bible as a young Christian.  But to my astonishment, here is what the Living Bible did with this saying of Jesus:

But shall I tell you to act that way, to buy friendship through cheating? Will this ensure your entry into an everlasting home in heaven?  No! For unless you are honest in small matters, you won’t be in large ones. If you cheat even a little, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities.

That “NO!” was not in my Bible–nor, I quickly discovered, was it in the Greek text of Luke.  Kenneth Taylor, who authored this paraphrase, justifies this extraordinary reading in a footnote:

Luke 16:9 [reads] . . . literally, and probably ironically, “Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that when it shall fail you, they may receive you into the eternal tabernacles.” Some commentators would interpret this to mean: “Use your money for good, so that it will be waiting to befriend you when you get to heaven.” But this would imply the end justifies the means, an unbiblical idea.

In other words, I don’t believe that Jesus would have said this, therefore he didn’t.  But surely, that is no way to read Scripture!

I found no more help in Eugene Petersen’s popular contemporary paraphrase, The Message.  Petersen reframes Luke 16:8-9 as follows:

Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.

This is interesting–and certainly, less offensive!  But to me it seems too clever by half–particularly since this paraphrase makes no mention at all of the “dishonest wealth” that is the most troubling part of this saying, and that seems after all to have been the point of the parable.

If like me you grew up with the King James version, you may be aware that in that Bible translation, a strange old word appears:

And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.  And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.

The word mammon was never an English word.  Rather, it has been carried over untranslated from the Greek text, just as it was left, untranslated, in the Latin Vulgate.  But mammon isn’t a Greek word, either.  It comes from Aramaic, the language of first-century Palestinian Jews, and so the language that Jesus spoke.  Matthew, Mark, and John preserved numerous words and phrases in Aramaic—but Luke typically did not!  For example, in Luke the place Jesus is crucified is not called Golgotha (Aramaic for “skull;” see Matt 27:33; Mark 15:22; John 19:17), but Kranion (Greek for “skull;” see Lk 23:33); traditionally rendered, following the Latin Vulgate, as “Calvary” (Latin for “skull”).

The Aramaic word “mammon” means, as we can guess from its context in today’s passage, “wealth”—but generally, it was used in a negative sense.  It is found only four times in the Bible: once in Matthew 6:24, and, curiously,  three times in today’s reading from Luke: 16:9, 11, and 13 (//Matt 6:24). Why should Luke, who generally avoids Aramaic terms, uncharacteristically use this word, in this place?  To answer that question, we need to know a bit more about Luke.

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The gospel of Luke is the first volume of a two-volume work–part two is our book of Acts.  Luke writes in excellent Greek, for an educated, Greek-speaking audience.  Clearly, Luke was well educated, which cost money.  Both Luke and Acts open with greetings to Luke’s patron, Theophilus.  Evidently, Theophilus was funding Luke’s travels and research as he wrote his account of the life of Jesus and the growth of the early church.  In sum: Luke comes from money; his project is funded by a patron with money, and he addresses himself primarily to an audience with money.

Yet, a major theme of Luke’s gospel is the community’s responsibility to the poor.  His gospel begins with a song sung by Mary when she learns that she has been chosen to bear the Christ:

[God] has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed (Lk 1:52-53).

So too, in Luke’s version of the beatitudes, we read, “Happy are you who are poor, [rather than, as in Matthew 5:3, “poor in spirit”] because God’s kingdom is yours” (Lk 6:20 ), counterbalanced by “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation (Lk 6:24).  Indeed, next week’s gospel is another parable  unique to Luke, the story of the rich man and the poor beggar Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31).

Women pose for photos near a homeless man during New York Fashion week this month.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion, then, that the point of today’s parable is money, and what we are to do with it.  Luke was writing to a well-off community—much like the church in the US today.  To address the issue of wealth, he deliberately uses the unfamiliar Aramaic word “mammon:” a strange, but authoritative word–a Jesus word, from Jesus’ own native tongue. Luke assumes that his community is smart enough to deduce from context, as we can, that “mammon” means “wealth,” but he adds the Greek adjective adikias (rendered “dishonest” in the NRSV; “unrighteous” in the KJV) to let his community know that wealth is used here in a negative way: both the CEB and NIV have “worldly wealth,” which I think captures Luke’s point quite nicely.

By telling this parable, Jesus certainly isn’t commending the manager’s dishonesty—he doesn’t say that we should get worldly wealth that way that this man does. Rather, Jesus says, here is what we are to do with our wealth!

Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much.  If you haven’t been faithful with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?  If you haven’t been faithful with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? (Lk 16:10-12).

If  we are not faithful with worldly wealth, how can we expect to be trusted with heavenly?

Jesus stands here in the prophetic tradition of Amos:

Hear this, you who trample on the needy and destroy
        the poor of the land, saying,
    “When will the new moon
        be over so that we may sell grain,
        and the Sabbath
        so that we may offer wheat for sale,
        make the ephah smaller, enlarge the shekel,
        and deceive with false balances,
         in order to buy the needy for silver
        and the helpless for sandals,
        and sell garbage as grain?”

   The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
        Surely I will never forget what they have done (Amos 8:4-7).

Those Amos condemns cheat the poor so as to multiply their own riches, as though wealth were an end in itself.  For them, the purpose of money is to make more money, by any and every means possible.  With Amos, Jesus condemns this attitude: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt 6:24//Lk 16:13).

 

The dishonest manager in Jesus’ story may be a scoundrel, but at least he knows what money is for!  In Jesus’ parable, the manager spends his wealth (well, actually, his master’s [!]) to reduce others’ debts, to ease their burdens–to “make friends.” Only if we spend our money in that way, Jesus affirms, will our wealth make any difference in this world–and certainly, only in that way will our wealth make any difference to us in the world to come, as we cannot take it with us!

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John Wesley preached his famous sermon, “On the Use of Money,” based on this very difficult text.  His conclusion was very simple: first, “Christian prudence” means to “Gain all you can” and “Save all you can.”  However, this is scarcely the beginning:

But let not any man imagine that he has done anything, barely by going thus far, by “gaining and saving all he can,” if he were to stop here. All this is nothing, if a man go not forward, if he does not point all this at a farther end. Nor, indeed, can a man properly be said to save anything, if he only lays it up. You may as well throw your money into the sea, as bury it in the earth. And you may as well bury it in the earth, as in your chest, or in the Bank of England. Not to use, is effectually to throw it away. If, therefore, you would indeed “make yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness,” add the Third rule to the two preceding. Having, First, gained all you can, and, Secondly saved all you can, Then “give all you can.”

Here, I think, Wesley has grasped very neatly the point of this difficult parable.  Wealth is not an end to itself.  Mammon is not to be our master, but our servant: it is meant to be used, to ease another’s burden, to heal another’s pain.  We get it so that we can give it away.  That’s what it’s for.

Sep
2019

Seeing 9/11 Through a Prophet’s Eyes

On September 11, 2001, I was teaching at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, just north of Richmond. I remember the shock and horror that seized our little college town as news trickled in that Tuesday morning. First, we learned of a bizarre and horrible accident involving a plane colliding with one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.  Then swiftly came the unthinkable revelation that this was not an accident, but a terrorist attack, involving two airliners deliberately targeted on the Towers. We later learned that another plane had been targeted on the Pentagon, and that still another, intended to crash into either the Capitol or the White House, was forced down near Shanksville, Pennsylvania by its heroic passengers and crew – saving the lives of others at the cost of their own.

Many in our community had family and friends who worked in the Pentagon, or lived and worked nearby; others either were from New York themselves or had family or friends in the city, some of whom worked at the World Trade Center. So this attack hit home for us: we felt that we had been assaulted, directly and personally.

On Thursday of that week, the Ashland community held a memorial service on our town square. I was among those asked to speak. As I wrestled with what word to bring, indeed with how to speak a word of the Lord to this horrible event, I was led to the book of Habakkuk. Here was a prophet who knew what it was like to lose family and friends to a remorseless enemy. The shock and horror we felt, Habakkuk also knew. In the poem concluding this book, I found words that spoke to my own anger, grief, and desire for vengeance:

I hear, and I tremble within;
my lips quiver at the sound.
Rottenness enters into my bones,
and my steps tremble beneath me.
I wait quietly for the day of calamity
to come upon the people who attack us (Hab 3:16).

Yet on that grim day, this prophet also pointed us toward the wisdom we needed to look beyond our shock and anger, to defy the apparent meaninglessness of the moment and refuse to surrender to despair:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will exult in the God of my salvation (Hab 3:17-18).

Author photo. Theodoret of Cyr / Icon
The stark honesty of Habakkuk’s struggle with doubt and uncertainty in the face of suffering may take us aback. Certainly, in the history of the interpretation of this book, many have rushed to the prophet’s defense. Theodoret of Cyrus, for example, insists that the prophet merely “adopted the attitude” of the doubter, “putting the question as though anxious in his own case to learn the reason for what happens” ( Theodoret of Cyrus: Commentary on the Twelve Prophets, ed. and trans. Robert Charles Hill [Brookline: Holy Cross, 2006], 191). Since this is an oracle (Hab 1:1) delivered “under the influence of the Spirit,” the apparent anguish of the prophet’s cry (“O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?,” Hab 1:2) cannot be real: “it is obvious that, instead of suffering that fate personally, he is exposing the plight of those so disposed and applying the remedy” (Theodoret, Commentary, 192).

Surely this defense is unnecessary. People of God in all times and places have known that faith and doubt are not opposites: indeed, deep faith and profound doubt can occupy the same heart. Long after John Wesley’s vaunted Aldersgate experience, when his heart was “strangely warmed” and he knew the assurance that Christ “had taken away my sins, even mine,” he wrote in a letter to his brother Charles, “[I do not love God. I never did]. Therefore [I never] believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore [I am only an] honest heathen, a proselyte of the Temple” (note that the portions in brackets were written in Wesley’s private shorthand). Yet in that same letter, Wesley affirms, “I find rather an increase than a decrease of zeal for the whole work of God and every part of it,” and urges his brother, “O insist everywhere on full redemption, receivable by faith alone; consequently, to be looked for now.”

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So too, after the death of Mother Teresa, famed for her life of selfless service to the poorest of the poor in Calcutta’s slums, letters written to her confessors and superiors were published that revealed the depth of her personal struggles with doubt, darkness and fear:

Please pray for me—the longing for God is terribly painful and yet the darkness is becoming greater. What contradiction there is in my soul.—The pain within is so great—that I really don’t feel anything for all the publicity and the talk of the people. Please ask Our Lady to be my Mother in this darkness (Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta,” ed. Brian Kolodiejchuk [New York: Doubleday, 2007], 174).

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This should be no surprise to followers of the crucified Lord, who cried out from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34//Matt 27:46). Indeed, Mother Teresa could write, “I have come to love the darkness. – For I believe now that it is a part, a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness & pain on earth” (Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light, 214).

Habakkuk (both the prophet and the book) unflinchingly recognizes that sometimes the worst thing that can happen, happens. Sometimes the hurricane moves inland. Sometimes the cancer comes back. Sometimes those we love do not get better, do not come home safely – or, do not love us back. Yet, as Donald Gowan ruefully observes,

Christian worship tends to be all triumph, all good news (even the confession of sin is not a very awesome experience because we know the assurance of pardon is coming; it’s printed in the bulletin). And what does that say to those who, at the moment, know nothing of triumph? (Donald E. Gowan, The Triumph of Faith in Habakkuk [Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1976], 38).

When tragedy strikes, we have no use for Pollyanna optimism, for shallow, saccharine assurances that all will be well. Habakkuk recognizes our need to see God in the midst of doubt, struggle, loss, and pain, and affirms God’s presence even there – indeed, especially there.

AFTERWORD:  This is from my commentary on Habakkuk in Reading Nahum-Malachi, Reading the Old Testament (Macon, Ga: Smith-Helwys, 2016), 51-54.

Aug
2019

Love?

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We Christians talk a lot about love.  We love to quote John 3:16, “For God so loved the world.”  We make t-shirts and bumper stickers of 1 John 4:8, “God is love.”  We teach our children to sing “Jesus Loves Me,” and “Jesus loves the little children of the world.”  The love of God, and of Christ Jesus, is the center and the foundation of our faith.

Isaiah 5:1-7 begins, “Let me sing for my loved one a love song for his vineyard.”  It may seem strange to us for a love song to have a vineyard as its theme.  But in ancient Israel, love songs used vineyards as scenes for romance, and vines and grapes as symbols of love and fruitfulness.

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So, in the Song of Songs 7:11-12, the beloved calls to her lover :

Come, my love:
        Let’s go out to the field
        and rest all night among the flowering henna.
Let’s set out early for the vineyards.
We will see if the vines have budded
        and the blossoms opened,
    see if the pomegranates have bloomed.
There I’ll give my loving to you.

The Bible often describes Israel, God’s beloved, as a vine or a vineyard:

They will again live beneath my shadow,
        they will flourish like a garden;
    they will blossom like the vine,
        their fragrance will be like the wine of Lebanon (Hosea 14:7).

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When Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15:5), he plays on this image of connection and belonging, of fruitfulness and love.

Still, the poem that follows in Isaiah 5 doesn’t sound much like a love song!  The beloved declares that he planted his vineyard on a fertile hill, tilling the soil, lovingly tending the vines, protecting them with a hedge and a watchtower, doing everything necessary for it to bear sweet, succulent grapes for the finest wine.  But when harvest time came, he found instead shriveled, sour, worthless, wild grapes (NRSV; the CEB has “rotten grapes”!).

What is to be done?  The beloved says,

Now let me tell you what I’m doing to my vineyard.
I’m removing its hedge,
    so it will be destroyed.
I’m breaking down its walls,
    so it will be trampled.
I’ll turn it into a ruin;
    it won’t be pruned or hoed,
    and thorns and thistles will grow up.
I will command the clouds not to rain on it (Isa 5:5-6).

This is particularly ominous given what the prophet now says about the vineyard, and its Planter:

The vineyard of the LORD of heavenly forces is the house of Israel,
    and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted.
God expected justice, but there was bloodshed;
    righteousness, but there was a cry of distress! (Isa 5:7).

Likewise, in Luke 12:49-53, Jesus seems neither loving, nor lovely:

 I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze!  I have a baptism I must experience. How I am distressed until it’s completed!  Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division.  From now on, a household of five will be divided—three against two and two against three.  Father will square off against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

This doesn’t sound much like the Jesus of our childhood songs!

Friends, God is love, and Jesus is the ultimate demonstration of God’s love (see Romans 5:8).  Our problem lies not with our understanding of God, but with what we think love means.

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My favorite movie is a romantic fable called “Moonstruck,” written by John Patrick Shanley, starring Cher and Nicolas Cage.  The key scene in this wonderful film comes when the baker Ronny Cammarari at last declares his love for spinster accountant Loretta Castorini (who is already engaged, albeit lovelessly, to his brother Johnny!).

Loretta, I love you. Not. . . not like they told you love is, and I didn’t know this either. But love don’t make things nice. It ruins everything, it breaks your heart, it makes things a mess!

I confess that, far more often than I care to admit, when I say “God is love,” what I really mean is “God is nice”—God is innocuous, God is inoffensive, God will never challenge me or threaten me.  But that is not love!  Ronnie Cammarari is right: “Love don’t make things nice”!  Love ruins everything, because love means commitment.  Love forces difficult choices—and so may well immerse us in conflict.

We sometimes speak as though God’s justice is separate from God’s love–indeed opposed to God’s love.  We may even separate a “New Testament” god of love from an “Old Testament” god of wrath and judgement.  But friends, we do not have two gods: we only have the One, whose love and justice are also one.  God is a God of wrath because God is a God of love. God’s wrath is directed against cruelty and injustice because God loves justice.  God’s wrath is directed against oppression because God loves the oppressed.

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Christian writer Rob Bell puts this quite plainly:

When we hear people saying that they can’t believe in a God who gets angry—yes, they can. How should God react to a child being forced into prostitution? How should God feel about a country starving while warlords hoard the food supply? What kind of God wouldn’t get angry at a financial scheme that robs thousands of people of their life savings? (Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived [New York: HarperOne, 2011], 38).

Where would such a God have us stand today? It is not a hard question to answer.  We need only look to where, and with whom, Jesus stood. Two chapters before the disturbing Gospel text we are addressing, Jesus sets forth the two greatest commandments (Luke 10:25-28):

You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind [quoted from Deut 6:5], and love your neighbor as yourself [quoted from Lev 19:18].

Some interpreters have proposed that “Love your neighbor” is an in-house commandment: that in Leviticus, “your neighbor” means “your fellow Israelite;” in the early church, it means “your fellow Christian.” Presumably, then, for me, “your neighbor” means “someone like me.”

But Leviticus 19:33-34 demonstrates that this is far too narrow a reading. Here, love is commanded toward “immigrants” who “live in your land with you.” The Hebrew term rendered “immigrant” in the CEB is ger–that is, a person of foreign birth, living within the borders of Israel but without land or legal status (NRSV has “alien”).  A special command is needed to insure justice for the ger, as it is for widows and orphans, often mentioned in the same contexts (for example, see Exod 22:21-24; Deut 10:18-19). Leviticus 19:33-34 commands love for the ger in the same language Lev 19:18 uses for the neighbor: “You must love them as yourself.” In fact this passage says, the ger “must be treated as if they were one of your citizens.”

We could perhaps say that these words of Scripture address the church, not the state; and that national policy needs to be mindful of the security of our borders.  But for the church, and for all of us who would follow Christ, there is no passing this particular buck. If we want to be followers of Jesus, he has commanded us to love our neighbors—including immigrants and refugees—as we love ourselves.

In his love poem, Isaiah condemns his own people–God’s own people–for their violence and injustice, and declares that judgment is coming.  So Jesus warns his own generation that they should not be surprised by God’s judgment (Luke 12:54-56).

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In Palestine, then as now, the weather depends on which way the wind is blowing.  West winds off the Mediterranean bring cool, moist air, and rain.  But out of the desert to the southeast come hot, dry winds–which sometimes bring the dreaded dust storms called Khamsin, which desiccate and destroy.

Jesus says, “You know how to interpret conditions on earth and in the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret the present time?”  How can you say that you do not know what God wants or expects of us?  How can you be surprised at the word that judgment is coming?

Friends, God IS love.  But Ronnie Cammareri was right: “Love don’t make things nice.” To live in God’s love is to love what, and who, and how God loves:  to care passionately for those for whom God cares, passionately.  That may well mean confrontation and conflict, in our communities, in our churches–even, as Jesus sadly states, in our own homes.  Jesus came to set fire on the earth–the fire of God’s love and justice! May that flame catch in our land, and in our hearts.  May God’s love fill us with the passion for justice of our Lord Jesus Christ.

AFTERWORD:  Thanks to the people of Clinton PCUSA, who invited me to worship with them Sunday and share this message.

Jul
2019

Amos’ Call–And Ours

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The Hebrew Bible text for Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary is Amos 7:7-17, which begins with a vision report:

This is what the Lord showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall, with a plumb line in his hand.  The Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?”

“A plumb line,” I said.
Then the Lord said,
“See, I am setting a plumb line
    in the middle of my people Israel.
        I will never again forgive them.
The shrines of Isaac will be made desolate,
            and the holy places of Israel will be laid waste,
            and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword” (Amos 7:7-9).

This famous prophetic image is beautifully reflected in a prayer for the day from the Lectionary’s editors:

Steadfast God, your prophets set the plumb line
of your righteousness and truth
in the midst of your people.
Grant us the courage to judge ourselves against it.
Straighten all that is crooked or warped within us
until our hearts and souls stretch upright,
blameless and holy,
to meet the glory of Christ. Amen.

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The trouble is, this translation of our passage is suspect.  The word rendered “plumb line” in the Common English Bible is ‘anak, which actually means “tin.” In Amos’ vision, the LORD is standing  al-khomath ‘anak (“beside a wall of tin”), holding ‘anak (“a piece of tin”) in God’s hand.

The ancient versions attempt in various ways to come to terms with this Hebrew original.  The Greek Septuagint reads teichous adamantinou (an impenetrable, that is metal-sheathed, wall), and in the LORD’s hand is a piece of metal (adamas).  The Latin Vulgate, understanding the piece of metal in God’s hand to be a trowel (trullu cementarii), has the LORD standing on a plastered wall (murum litum).  The Aramaic Targum, as it generally does, eschews metaphor for what its translators thought the metaphor actually intended–here, the wall is a place of judgment (Aramaic din), and a judgment against Israel is in the LORD’s hand.

The reading “plumb line” is relatively recent, going back only to the medieval Jewish interpreter Ibn Ezra (1089-1164).  However, it was popularized by Martin Luther in his 1534 translation of the Bible into German (which uses the German Bleischnur, meaning “plumb line,” here) and today is found in nearly every English translation (see some examples here).  Even the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanak (an abbreviation for Torah [Law], Nebi’im [Prophets], and Kethubim [Writings], the three parts of the Hebrew Bible) has “plumb line,” although footnotes in the NJPS translation suggest that the LORD holds a pickaxe, and that the wall is “destined for a pickaxe”!   In the end, the footnotes say, the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain.

However, as we have seen, the Hebrew is not at all uncertain: in Amos’ vision, the LORD stands by a wall of tin–or perhaps, a wall sheathed in tin–holding a piece of tin.  God says that God is placing tin “in the middle of my people Israel; I will never again forgive them” (7:8).  What the text says is plain.  The question is, what does this mean?

Both Ibn Ezra and Luther apparently understood the metal in this vision to be the weight on a plumb line, and the wall to have been built using a plumb line.  The point of the vision therefore is that God is holding Israel to account, testing that they are true to the LORD as a mason uses a plumb to test whether a wall is truly vertical.  However, plumb bobs were made of stone or lead, not tin (note that the German Bleischnur used by Luther literally means “lead line”).  The ancient versions all seem, similarly, to interpret based on the metal.  But comparison with Amos’ other visions suggests another possibility.

In Amos 8:1-2, the prophet is shown a basket of summer fruit (Hebrew qayits) and told, “The end [qets] has come upon my people Israel; I will never again forgive them” (compare 7:8, where that same expression is found).  His vision is not about qayits (“summer fruit”) at all, but about the word “qayits”—a punning reference to Israel’s end (qets). So too, Jeremiah sees the branch of an almond tree (Hebrew shaqed), and is told, “I am watching [shoqed] over my word to perform it” (Jer 1:11-12).  So what if Amos 7:7-9 is also a pun?  What if the point of Amos’ vision is not ‘anak (“tin”), but something that sounds like ‘anak?

As S. Dean McBride, Jr. notes, the second person singular pronoun (“you”) in Hebrew has a complex history.  The free-standing form of the pronoun is ‘atta (contracted from an original ‘anta) or ‘at; however, the pronoun may be appended to a noun as ka or ak (meaning “your”).  The first-person pronoun may offer a clue to this complexity.  While later Hebrew texts prefer the shortened form ‘ani, the older form ‘anoki is also common.  Some Semiticists propose that the older form of the second person pronoun may have similarly been something like ‘anak.  McBride proposes that Amos’ vision of ‘anak, “tin,” in 7:7-9 is a pun on an archaic ‘anak[?], “you” (like qayits/qets in 8:1).

If this is so, then God is telling Amos, “I am placing YOU in the middle of my people Israel” (7:8)–making this vision Amos’ call to prophesy.

The narrative in Amos 7:10-17 shows us Amos snatched from his home in the village of Tekoa, in the southern kingdom of Judah, and placed by God in Bethel, one of the great cities of the northern kingdom of Israel.  There, Amos’ message of justice places him in opposition to both the high priest Amaziah and the northern political leader, Jeroboam II–which is not comfortable for the high priest or the king.  However, it is not comfortable for Amos, either!  He protests to Amaziah (and to us!) that this life was not his choice:

I am not a prophet, nor am I a prophet’s son; but I am a shepherd, and a trimmer of sycamore trees. But the Lord took me from shepherding the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ (Amos 7:14-15)

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I am reminded of Michelangelo, who always regarded himself as a sculptor rather than a painter.  So, throughout the years he spent painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling at the Pope’s command, Michelangelo stubbornly signed his letters “Michelangelo, Sculptor.”

Similarly, Amos saw himself as a shepherd, not a prophet.  Had he had his own way, he would never have left home!  But there is no doubt in Amos’ mind that he is in the right place, whether it is the place he would have chosen or not.  He is where he is because God has put him there: “the LORD took me from shepherding the flock” (7:15).  Amos was not comfortable.  Nor strictly speaking, was he successful: his passionate summons to God’s way of justice (Amos 5:21-24) went unheeded, and as he had warned, the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians.   But Amos was faithful–and that is what mattered.

Just as God spoke to Amos, so God says to us, in our day, “I am placing you in the midst of my people.”  If we believed that following Christ’s call would save us from conflict and discomfort, we were laboring under a major misapprehension!  It is not hard to see how we could have gotten there: knowing that God is love, we concluded thereby that God is nice, and wants us to have a nice life: peaceful and conflict-free.  But it was not so for Amos, or for John, or for Jesus, and it will not be so for us!  God is love–but love wills the good, not the nice; justice, not expedience.  Elsewhere in his prophecy, Amos makes this plain: “Woe to them that are at ease in Zion!” (Amos 6:1, KJV).

We too, I am persuaded, have been placed in the midst of God’s people in our day, and so in the midst of conflict and controversy. God has called and empowered us, friends, for just such a time as this.  As Charles Wesley’s powerful hymn reminds us,

To serve the present age,
My calling to fulfill:
Oh, may it all my pow’rs engage
To do my Master’s will!

Wesley is starkly–indeed, terrifyingly!–forthright regarding the stakes of our faithfulness to that call:

Help me to watch and pray,
And on Thyself rely,
Assured, if I my trust betray,
I shall forever die.

God grant that we, like Amos, will be faithful to our call.

Jun
2019

Talking Trinity

This Sunday, the first after Pentecost, is Trinity Sunday–which, sadly, is unlikely to prompt tremendous enthusiasm either on the part of preachers, reluctant to preach on this difficult concept, or their congregations, who have to listen to those sermons!

Psychoanalytical pioneer and scholar of religion Carl Jung remembered taking confirmation classes from his father, a Lutheran minister.  It was all very boring–but young Carl had read ahead in his catechism, and knew that coming up was something strange, mysterious, and wonderful–the Trinity!  When the day assigned to study the Trinity arrived at last, however, Jung’s father said, “This is very complicated, and I really don’t understand it myself, so we’ll skip over it.”  For Jung, this marked a major turning point, in his strained relationship with his father, and in his decision that he could not accept what he saw as his father’s pallid, shallow faith.

Image result for baptism

The Trinity is foundational for Christians in the most basic sense: we are baptized in name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt 28:18-20).  So we really can’t “skip over” this; we need to talk about it!  However, the Trinity is not a logic puzzle for us to solve.  Theologian George Lindbeck has argued that Trinitarian theology grows out of the struggle of early Christians to speak plainly about their experience of God. Early on, the first Christians needed to affirm, on the one hand, the continuity of their faith with the faith of ancient Israel: the God they loved and worshipped was Abraham’s God.  But at the same time, they needed to speak of Jesus in the most exalted language possible (what Lindbeck terms “Christological maximalism”), as they had come to know God, intimately and personally, through him: hence, the New Testament’s language of the Father and the Son (The Nature of Doctrine [Nashville: Westminster John Knox, 1984], 94).  We come to the language of Trinity because the shape of our experience of God drives us to it.  As my friend and colleague from graduate school Ray Jones used to say about the Trinity, “I don’t believe this stuff because I want to.  I believe it because it’s true!”

While it would be generations before Christians refined their theology into the Trinitarian formulas of the classical creeds of the church, we can already hear the seeds of this idea in the pages of our New Testament.  For example, in John 16:14-15, Jesus speaks of the Spirit who “will take what is mine and proclaim it to you” (16:14), yet also says “Everything that the Father has is mine” (16:15).  Jesus, the Spirit, and the Father are distinct, yet intimately related.  The doctrine of the Trinity emerges out of our struggle to talk meaningfully about who God is.  As 1 John 4:8 affirms, “God is love.”  The greatest power in the universe is self-giving, sacrificial love!  God in Godself is Lover, and Beloved, and the Love that binds them.  God in Godself is relationship, and community!

The early Christians were not the first to realize this.  The sages of ancient Israel looked for a way of talking about God as, on the one hand, separate from the world and its objects, and on the other, as intimately involved and engaged with the world.  Particularly in Proverbs 8, they described divine Wisdom itself as a person: a woman, as the Hebrew word for Wisdom (khokmah) is feminine.

Lady Wisdom  says, “The LORD created me at the beginning of his way, before his deeds long in the past” (Proverbs 8:22).  Through Wisdom, God creates a world reflecting God’s own character and identity: a community, a web of interrelationships, every part working together and responding to every other part, on every level.  Christian readers will be reminded of John 1:1-3:

In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
The Word was with God in the beginning.
Everything came into being through the Word,
and without the Word
nothing came into being.

Here, Christ is the Word of God, through whom the world was made (compare Genesis 1).  It is a way of talking about Christ (that is, a Christology) drawn from Proverbs 8!

Lady Wisdom, describing her role in God’s creation, says:

I was beside him as a master of crafts.
I was having fun,
smiling before him all the time,
frolicking with his inhabited earth
and delighting in the human race (Proverbs 8:30-31).

The Wisdom teachers of Proverbs are clear on the role of humanity in such a world, made in such a way by such a God: we are beloved!  God delights in us.  This is a very exalted view of humanity—the sages have no time for any “I’m only human” nonsense.  Being human is our glory, and our joy.

How are we to live with such a God, in such a world?  The role of the church is to build a community in the human family reflecting God’s own identity, and God’s will manifest in creation.  It is a daunting task.  But we are not on our own!  Remember the promise of God’s Spirit in John 16:14-15, to communicate to us all that Jesus has and is, which is in turn all that the Father has and is.

No photo description available.

Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity draws on the biblical story of Abraham showing hospitality to three strangers, who turned out to be a manifestation of the Divine (Gen 18:1-8).  The Three sit companionably around a table.  They are looking at one another, not at us: God is complete in Godself, and does not need us, or anything we can offer.  Yet God does graciously accept our worship, as the Three accepted Abraham’s hospitality.  Further, we are included in this Divine fellowship–invited to share in the Divine life.  In the side of the table, there is a small niche–representing the vision in Revelation 6:9-11 of the martyrs who are given a place under the altar in the heavenly temple.  In this icon of the Trinity, we are there!

As strange, complicated, and paradoxical as the Trinity is, we believe it because it is true: true to our experience of God in Christ, true to the witness of the Spirit in our world, true to our best hopes and dreams and insights into what the world can and should be—and in the deepest and truest sense, already is. Community, interrelationship, mutual respect and regard are more than good ideas—they are the way that the world truly works, reflecting the identity of the Creator.  When we forget this, when we elevate the self above the other, when we exalt taking and having over giving and sharing, life itself breaks down.  But the gospel for this day is that God, who in Wisdom had the first word, also has the last word.  God calls us to share God’s very life in Christ Jesus, and by the gift of God’s Spirit empowers and renews us today to live our lives in love.  We can dare to believe this, and to act on this belief, because it is true.

AFTERWORD:

I posted the original blog on which this one is based six years ago, in May of 2013: the year that I began blogging as the Bible Guy.  What a joy it is to still be sharing with you as we wrestle with the word of God in Scripture together, six years later!

I invite you, friends, to join me in this prayer for Trinity Sunday:

God of delight,
your Wisdom sings your Word
at the crossroads where humanity and divinity meet.
Invite us into your joyful being
where you know and are known
in each beginning,
in all sustenance,
in every redemption,
that we may manifest your unity
in the diverse ministries you entrust to us,
truly reflecting your triune majesty
in the faith that acts,
in the hope that does not disappoint,
and in the love that endures. Amen.
Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers copyright © 2002 Consultation on Common Texts admin. Augsburg Fortress.

May
2019

A Wesleyan Reading of Scripture

 

We Methodists love to recall that on this day 281 years ago–May 24, 1738–John Wesley went “very unwillingly” to a prayer meeting at Aldersgate Street in London. There “about a quarter before 9, while one was reading from Luther’s preface to the Letter to the Romans, I felt my heart strangely warmed.” In that moment, Wesley wrote, he felt the assurance that Christ “had taken away my sins, even mine.”  It is good, and right, that we celebrate this day.

But in 1766, 28 years after Aldersgate, Wesley wrote in a letter to his brother Charles,

“[I do not love God. I never did]. Therefore [I never] believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore [I am only an] honest heathen, a proselyte of the Temple.” 

The parts in brackets were written in the Wesleys’ private shorthand–as though, even in a private letter to his brother, John was deeply ashamed of this confession!  But we need to remember this too, friends. Wesley’s Aldersgate certainty was not always before him.  He continued, long after, to wrestle with his faith and with his God.

Later, in the very same letter in which he sorrowfully acknowledges, “[I never] believed, in the Christian sense of the word,” Wesley writes, “I find rather an increase than a decrease of zeal for the whole work of God and every part of it,” and urges his brother Charles, “O insist everywhere on full redemption, receivable by faith alone; consequently, to be looked for now.”  The point, friends, is that faith and doubt lived together in John Wesley’s heart–in short, that he was one of us!   Wesley certainly did not regard his own experience or ideas as changeless norms.

This is important, for a vital conversation in our movement right now concerns what it means to be “Wesleyan.”  One understanding of that term is that to be Wesleyan is to think what Wesley thought: to regard his sermons and commentaries and other writings as the compendium of what we too are to think and believe.  Most, of course, will recognize that not all of Wesley’s words are equal: few, for example, will think that we should embrace his medical advice:

However, we may think that Wesley’s biblical interpretations ought to be embraced by anyone who calls herself a Wesleyan: so, a Wesleyan reading of Scripture would be one that agrees with Wesley’s positions in his sermons and commentaries.

Certainly, John Wesley greatly valued the Scriptures:

Indeed, Wesley famously referred to himself as homo unius libri, or “a man of one book”–that is, the Bible:

I want to know one thing,—the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. For this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri.

However, in the preface to his Sermons (where he identifies himself as homo unius libri), Wesley also acknowledges that the meaning of Scripture is not always simple and straightforward:

Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights:—“Lord, is it not Thy word, ‘if any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God?’ Thou givest liberally, and upbraidest not. Thou hast said, ‘if any be willing to do Thy will, he shall know.’ I am willing to do, let me know Thy will.” I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God: and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.

Friends, I propose that here in this preface Wesley lays out a Wesleyan method for the interpretation of Scripture: a way to read the Bible with Wesley, reading as he read, if not necessarily drawing the same conclusions he did.  It is an approach to the Bible that recognizes the depth of Scripture: not only that the meaning of a passage may not be immediately apparent, but also that the meaning of Scripture is not exhausted by any single interpretation.

Not surprisingly, Wesley’s method reflects what Methodist scholar Albert Outler famously called the Wesleyan QuadrilateralScripture itself comes first in that tally, of course.  But a Wesleyan reading of Scripture requires prayerful reflection and spiritual discernment–that is, a personal experience of devotion to God through Christ and of yieldedness to the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, the Bible is not itself an end, in this Wesleyan reading, but a means to an end–that is, an encounter with the living God of Scripture through Jesus Christ.

Image result for C. S. Lewis

This approach to Scripture was upheld by another British Christian, long after Wesley: the famous Christian writer and thinker C.S. Lewis.  In a letter to a Mrs. Johnson, on November 8th, 1952, Lewis wrote:

It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is Myth (but of course Myth specially chosen by God from among countless Myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. But we must not use the Bible (our ancestors too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and read without attention to the whole nature and purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.

If the Bible is indeed a means rather than an end, then reading and applying Scripture must mean more than looking up “what the Bible says” about any particular issue–let alone what Wesley says!–and then stating that as our position.  Understanding the Bible also requires study–that is, the exercise of reason!  As John Wesley wrote, “I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable.”

Bible study means immersion in the Scriptures–searching out, as Wesley says, “parallel passages of Scripture, ‘comparing spiritual things with spiritual.'[1 Cor 2:13]”  We need to read the Bible in big hunks, always attentive to the way that Scripture continually alludes to itself.  Here, the UM Publishing House’s excellent resource, the Disciple Bible Study series, is a great help.  Serious Bible study will also require the careful consultation of other books: commentaries, Bible dictionaries, the best of current scholarship.

Wesley writes, “If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God: and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak.” Faithful interpretation of Scripture calls us to enter into conversation with other believers, past and present: in short, with the tradition.  But it is clear from the method laid out here, as well as from Wesley’s entire ministry, that he did not regard slavish adherence to tradition as a goal.

The end of Bible study, for Wesley, is application through teaching and preaching: “And what I thus learn, that I teach.”  But Wesley also remained aware of the need for openness to others.  In his Sermon 39, on the “Catholic Spirit,” John Wesley unpacked 2 Kings 10:15:

And when [Jehu] was departed thence, he lighted on Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him: and he saluted him, and said to him, ‘Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?’ And Jehonadab answered, ‘It is.’ ‘If it be, give me thine hand.’ And he gave him his hand; and he took him up to him into the chariot [KJV].

Wesley declared this as his own view with regard to sisters and brothers who were not Methodist: “Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? If it be, give me thine hand.”

I do not mean, “Be of my opinion.” You need not: I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, “I will be of your opinion.” I cannot, it does not depend on my choice: I can no more think, than I can see or hear, as I will. Keep you your opinion; I mine; and that as steadily as ever. You need not even endeavour to come over to me, or bring me over to you. I do not desire you to dispute those points, or to hear or speak one word concerning them. Let all opinions alone on one side and the other: only “give me thine hand.”

Wesley argued that every Christian must hold her or his convictions firmly:

A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek… he is always ready to hear and weigh whatsoever can be offered against his principles; but as this does not show any wavering in his own mind, so neither does it occasion any.

That said, however, Wesley was also fully aware that “humanum est errare et nescire: ‘To be ignorant of many things, and to mistake in some, is the necessary condition of humanity’” (Wesley’s own translation of an inscription on the tomb of John Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham, in Westminster Abbey)—that is, “He knows, in the general, that he himself is mistaken; although in what particulars he mistakes, he does not, perhaps he cannot, know.” This realization necessitates, in any reasonable person, a generosity of spirit:

Every wise man, therefore, will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions, than he would have them to insist on his embracing theirs. He bears with those who differ from him, and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question, “Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thy heart”?

It is my prayer that the people called Methodists in our own day may learn that same generosity of spirit, as we wrestle together with God’s Word in Scripture.