Sep
2021

Like A Tree

The Psalm for this Sunday in the lectionary is Psalm 1.  The first Psalm was not placed at the opening of the Psalter by accident: indeed, this poem may have been composed to introduce the book. In the Leningrad Codex, on which the standard critical edition of the Hebrew Bible is based, the first psalm is unnumbered, suggesting that it stands as a heading to the psalms that follow.

Psalm 1 affirms that God’s torah  (traditionally translated “law”) is the source and ground of blessing (Ps 1:1-2). This emphasis on Torah reflects the structure of the Psalter, which is divided by four doxologies (Pss 41:13; 72:18-19; 89:52; and 106:48) into five books, reminiscent of the Five Books of Moses–called, in Judaism, the Torah.

Still, Psalm 1 seems an odd place for this book to begin. In Hebrew, the book of Psalms is called Tehillim, or “praises;” yet, the first psalm is not a song of praise! Numerically, the book of Psalms is dominated by prayers for help, and yet Psalm 1 is not a prayer.  As James Luther Mays observes, “The Book of Psalms begins with a beatitude. Not a prayer or a hymn, but a statement about human existence” (Psalms, Interpretation [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994], p. 40).

Icon of St. Athanasios - (1AT15)

But perhaps this is not such a strange beginning, after all. For while the Psalter certainly gives expression to Israel’s theology, this is not so much a book about God as it is a book about us: the community of faith. As St. Athanasius wrote,

Within [the Psalter] are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul.  It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed and, seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given.       . . . In the Psalter you learn about yourself (from “To Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms”).

So, what does this psalm teach us about ourselves, as we are and as we might become? Psalm 1 contrasts the wicked (Hebrew resha’im) and the righteous (tsadiqim). The wicked are defined only in negative terms: by their opposition to the righteous, who do not follow their way, or sit in their councils (1:1), just as the wicked themselves

will have no standing in the court of justice—
    neither will sinners
    in the assembly of the righteous (1:5).

The righteous, by contrast, are positively defined by their immersion in God’s torah. My old friend and fellow Bible Guy Jerome Creach proposes that in Psalm 1, torah refers not only to the written Law of Moses, but also to the Psalter itself:

The Psalms are a part of the pluriform expression of divine instruction by which the righteous find a secure destiny, hope for their living (Jerome Creach, The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms [St. Louis: Chalice, 2008], 139).

 

Certainly, the language of Psalm 1 does not permit a legalistic understanding of righteousness. Contrast this psalm’s approach to Torah with, say, Deuteronomy.  In Deuteronomy 15:5, for example, Israel is enjoined to “carefully obey the Lord your God’s voice [Hebrew shama’ beqol; literally, “hear the voice”]  by carefully doing [Hebrew shamar; “keep” or “observe”] every bit of this commandment  [Hebrew mitswah] that I’m giving you right now” (see also Lev 26:14).

None of this legal vocabulary appears in Psalm 1. Instead, the righteous are here said “love (Hebrew chapets, “desire;” rendered “delight in” in the NRSV) the LORD’s Instruction” and told to “recite (the verb hagah actually means “murmur,” implying constant, repetitive study and recitation; the NRSV has “meditate”) God’s Instruction day and night” (Ps 1:2).

The same verb is used in Joshua 1:7-9:

“Be very brave and strong as you carefully obey all of the Instruction that Moses my servant commanded you. Don’t deviate even a bit from it, either to the right or left. Then you will have success wherever you go. Never stop speaking about this Instruction scroll. Recite it day and night so you can carefully obey everything written in it. Then you will accomplish your objectives and you will succeed.  I’ve commanded you to be brave and strong, haven’t I? Don’t be alarmed or terrified, because the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

As the CEB recognizes, Hebrew torah may be better rendered as “instruction” than by the traditional translation “law.”

Reflection on Psalm 1 | New Life Narrabri

Focus on divine instruction yields for the righteous happiness and security (Ps 1:3; again, compare Josh 1:8). The Psalmist avows,

They are like a tree replanted by streams of water,
    which bears fruit at just the right time
    and whose leaves don’t fade.
        Whatever they do succeeds.

This arboreal imagery emphasizes both the stability and fruitfulness of the righteous.

Winnowing - Life on Earth Pictures

In sharp contrast, the wicked “are like chaff that the wind drives away” (1:4, NRSV): empty husks–dry, lifeless, fruitless, and rootless.

But the image of “trees planted by streams of water” also calls to mind other biblical connections. The reader may think of Eden, the well-watered garden of God (Gen 2:8-14), in which grew “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen 2:9, NRSV), or of the river in Ezekiel 47:1-12, along whose banks

will grow up all kinds of fruit-bearing trees. Their leaves won’t wither, and their fruitfulness won’t wane. They will produce fruit in every month, because their water comes from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for eating, their leaves for healing (Ezek 47:12; compare Rev 22:1-2).

No photo description available.

These passages in turn evoke the image of Zion: center of the world, source of life and meaning, and site of the temple (for example, Isa 2:2-4//Mic 4:1-3; Ezek 28:13-14; Ps 46:4-6).

The Zion link is particularly intriguing, as other features of Psalm 1 connect this Torah psalm to Psalm 2, a royal psalm celebrating the coronation of the king “on Zion, my holy mountain” (Ps 2:6).  Most of the psalms in Book 1 of the Psalter (Pss 1–41) have superscriptions connecting them to David.  But neither of the two opening psalms of the Psalter is given a title (apart from these two, only Pss 10 and 33 lack such superscriptions). Further, Psalms 1 and 2 are bracketed by the Hebrew expression ’ashre (“happy;” compare Pss 1:1 and 2:11). In this way, the book of Psalms opens with the two major themes of the Hebrew Bible conjoined: law and kingship, conditional covenant and unconditional promise, Sinai and Zion (cf. Jon Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry Into the Jewish Bible [New York: Winston Press, 1985], 217).

Jerome Creach argues that in Psalm 1, Torah has replaced Zion as the means of access to God’s presence and blessing (The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms, 145). Curiously, in our New Testament, it often seems that the opposite shift has taken place.  Zion themes, particularly those promises linked to the Davidic line, have displaced Sinai themes–or, as Christians so often phrase it, the Law has been displaced by the Gospel. So, Paul can describe Sinai allegorically as Hagar, Abraham’s slave wife whose children remain in bondage (Gal 4:24-25), while his free wife Sarah “corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother” (Gal 4:26, NRSV).

But the relationship between Sinai and Zion is in both testaments more complex than at first appears. The book of Psalms does not simply set Zion aside, but makes frequent reference to temple worship; further, the attribution of many of its poems to David leads, ultimately, to the traditional ascription of the Psalter as a whole to that paradigmatic king (See, for example, Mark 12:36-37//Matt 22:43-45; Rom 4:6). Although Paul asserts that “a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the Law but rather through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16), he opposes simple antinomianism: for example, Paul recognizes the command to love the neighbor (Lev 19:18) as the fulfillment of the law (Rom 13:8-10).

In the New Testament as in the Old, then, Sinai and Zion are held in unresolved tension. Insofar as faith involves the relationship of the believer with God, all of Scripture affirms that God’s grace alone makes that relationship possible: the unconditional promise of Zion reassures us. Insofar as faith involves life in the world, all Scripture insists upon God’s will as an imperative: the conditional covenant on Sinai challenges and compels us.

A man In deep thought looking himself in mirror - The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

To return then to the question with which we began, what does Psalm 1 teach us about God and ourselves? Although the poem appears to describe two different groups of people, it is apparent that the Psalmist actually has no interest in the wicked; like chaff, they have no real substance. The righteous alone are defined positively and concretely, by their relentless pursuit of Torah. Therefore, the righteous alone have purpose and destiny:

The Lord is intimately acquainted
    with the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked is destroyed (Ps 1:6).

The NRSV, like the old KJV, has “for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous” (Ps 1:6). But the verb here is yada’, that is, “know.” In Hebrew, “knowing” has to do not simply with intellectual grasp, but with relationship. Those who desire to know God, who seek out and meditate upon God’s instruction, are in turn known by God: as the CEB has it, the LORD is “intimately acquainted” with them!

Psalm 1 says of the righteous, “Whatever they do succeeds” (Ps 1:3). But this psalm is not about how to be successful.   The righteous are described in the opening verse of this psalm as happy, but Psalm 1 is not about how to be happy. Just as Jesus’ beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12) are descriptive rather than prescriptive, so the beatitude pronounced upon the righteous in Psalm 1 describes rather than defines them.

The destiny of the righteous in this psalm is to know, and be known, by God—to enter into a relationship with the Divine; to become like trees in the temple garden, drawing life from God and bearing fruit for God. The means to that end set forth in this psalm is immersion in Scripture: in God’s Torah. Such seekers will not seek in vain!  As Jesus promises in the Sermon on the Mount, “Ask, and you will receive. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you” (Matt 7:7).

AFTERWORD:  The odd map above, with Jerusalem at the center of the world, is the Bünting Clover Leaf Map (the German title reads Die ganze Welt in einem Kleberblat/Welches ist der Stadt Hannover meines lieben Vaterlandes Wapen; “The entire world in a cloverleaf, which is the coat of arms of my dear Fatherland, the city of Hanover”).  It was drawn by the German pastor, theologian, and cartographer Heinrich Bünting, and published in his book Itinerarium Sacrae Scripturae (“Travel through Holy Scripture”) in 1581.  See if you can find America on this map!

Sep
2021

When the Worst Thing That Can Happen, Happens

On September 11, 2001, I was teaching at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, just north of Richmond. I well 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.

On Thursday of the week following this assault, Ashland held a memorial service on the 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 Habakkuk 3.16-19.  Habakkuk saw his homeland destroyed by the Babylonians.  He knew what it was to suffer attack, to lose family and friends to a remorseless enemy.  The shock and horror we felt that day, Habakkuk knew well.

Nearly every year since beginning this blog, on or around September 11, I have reprinted the sermon I preached on that day.  Last year, I posted my heartbreak, to realize how fully the fears I had expressed back then in this sermon were realized.  Today, twenty years later, we continue in our fear and mistrust to give ground to racism and xenophobia.  Yet there are many hopeful signs that we are at last ready to confront our national sins, to repent, and to allow God’s spirit of justice to move us, following what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” It is my prayer, today as back then, that Habakkuk’s ancient words will speak to us all, of honest grief, and hope, and healing.

 

            What do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  That question weighs most heavily this morning on the hearts of those who have themselves been injured, and those who grieve for loved ones, torn from them or suffering grievous harm in this attack.  But surely, it is asked by all of us here today.

            What do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  While this question was brought home to us powerfully and poignantly in the events of this past week, it is certainly not a new question.  The prophet Habakkuk saw his world destroyed.  He saw advancing Babylonian armies swallow up town after town, village after village.  He saw homes in flames.  He saw his friends and family slaughtered or taken away in chains to Babylon.  Habakkuk cried out, “Are you from of old, O LORD my God, my Holy One?  We shall not die.” (Hab. 1:12)  Surely, surely, you will not let us die.  “Your eyes are too pure and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (Hab 1:13)  Habakkuk is in shock.  He can’t accept what he sees and hears.  “I hear, and I tremble within.  My lips quiver at the sound.  Rottenness enters into my bones, my steps tremble beneath me.” (Hab 3:16)  We know how that feels, don’t we?  Seeing on the television screen, or reading the newspaper, or hearing on the radio the news of what happened Tuesday morning in Washington and New York and Pennsylvania—surely, we know how the prophet feels.  Who could believe it?  Who can believe it now?

From shock, Habakkuk moves to anger.  “I wait quietly for the day of calamity to come upon the people who attack us.” (Hab 3:17)  We know how that feels too, don’t we?  Our hearts cry out for vengeance against those who have brought this horror and devastation to our land.  We are dishonest to ourselves and dishonest to God if we do not own that anger.  But, Habakkuk didn’t stay with the anger, and neither can we.  If we stay with the anger, the desire for vengeance, then we will never heal.  We will never move on to wholeness and new life.

Sisters and brothers, God forbid that the horrific assault that our nation suffered on Tuesday should cause us to forget who we are!  We are a nation founded upon fundamental human rights and freedom for all people, affirming the essential dignity of every woman and man.  If this assault makes us forget that, then the terrorists will have won.  They will have destroyed, not just stone and mortar and steel and flesh, but the dream that makes us who we are.

A former student of mine is working as a missionary in Egypt, helping to settle Sudanese refugees.  He told me that Egyptians have been coming up to him since September 11, telling him how horrified they are by what happened and how deeply sorry they are that this has taken place.  Even the Sudanese refugees with whom he works, people who have lost everything, who have nothing, have been comforting him, telling him how sorry they are about all that has happened.  Friends, the people who committed this atrocity may have been Arabs, but the Arab people did not do this.  Those who brought this horror to us may have called themselves Muslims, but Islam did not do this.  In the difficult days ahead, should the call that justice be brought to the criminals who perpetrated this act transform itself into a cry of vengeance against a race or religion, we must recognize that prejudice for the evil that it is, repudiate it, and root it out of our midst.

So what do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  Habakkuk says, “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)  Oh God, this is as bad as it gets!  How can we get through this? Habakkuk says, Though I cannot see your face, Lord, though I cannot feel your hand, I know you are with me: “I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.” (Hab 3:18).

The attacks Tuesday morning robbed us of a sense of security, of safety, of invulnerability that many of us had come to accept as our birthright.  Such things happen over there, sure, in foreign places, but they can never happen here.  We were wrong.  But then, our security never was in the strength of our military, much as we respect and honor those who serve us all in that noble calling.  Our security lies this morning where it has ever lain, in the confidence that God’s peace enfolds us, and that nothing can wrest us from God’s hand.

The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)  That’s security, sisters and brothers–the only security we can have; the only security we truly need.

“GOD, the Lord, is my strength,” Habakkuk says; “He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.” (Hab 3:19)  A deer can make its way over seemingly impassible terrain.  It can mount up impossible precipices.  The prophet is saying, “Lord, I don’t see how I can get through this!  But I know that you have given me feet like the feet of a deer, to leap over the obstacles that lie before me, to mount up the precipices that rise to cover me.”  May that be our prayer today: that God will give us feet like a deer, to carry us through these times!  God can give us, and will give us in these coming days, the courage to meet whatever obstacles lie ahead, and the resolve to make our way through.

We’ve already begun well, by coming here to pray together, lifting ourselves and our nation up to the Lord.  We’ve already begun well, by involving ourselves in ministries of kindness and service.  God will show us, in coming days, ways that we may demonstrate God’s love and kindness to a hurting world.  But most of all, as we turn to the Lord, God will give us in these days to come the confident assurance that we are in God’s hands.  No one and nothing can take us from the hand of God—not even when the worst thing that can happen, happens.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Sep
2021

The Syro-Phoenician Woman

Canaanite woman

This Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 7:24-37) is one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament.  First, Jesus treats a Gentile woman, pleading for her daughter’s exorcism, with what certainly sounds like contempt: “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27).  Then, he heals a deaf and mute man by what certainly looks like magical means. Jesus spits on the man’s tongue (!), puts his fingers in the man’s ears, and then says what seems in context a magic word: Ephphatha (“[let it] be opened” in Aramaic; the Greek of the Gospel translates it in an imperative form: dianoichtheti, “be opened”). 

It may be some comfort to know that the Gospel writers struggled with these strange stories, too.  Only Matthew also has the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Matt 15:21-28), and the healing of the deaf and mute man appears nowhere else.  But while that second account is merely odd (rather like the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida [Mark 8:22-26], also found only in Mark), the first is downright offensive.  How could Jesus treat someone this way?

In Matthew’s account, the exchange with the woman is somewhat softened.  Despite his disciples’ insistence that the woman be sent away, Jesus enters into a conversation with her, explaining, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel” (Matt 15:24).  Additionally, Jesus himself praises the distraught mother:

Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed (Matt 15:28).

This exchange comes at a pivotal point in Matthew’s Gospel.  For this most Jewish of the evangelists, Jesus had first come, as he explains to the Syro-Phoenician woman, to his own people (Matt 10:5-6).  Only after being rejected by the Jewish religious leadership (see Matt 16) does he broaden his focus to include the Gentile world.

But Mark’s presentation lacks any such moderation.  Although her daughter is granted the deliverance the Syro-Phoenician woman had come seeking, there is no hint of either apology or of praise.  As is typical of this generally terse Gospel, the accent falls on actions rather than words.

But He Did Not Answer Her a Word": Lessons from the Syrophoenician Woman | Emily Tomko

That said, the conversation is remarkable!  For Jesus to speak in public with a Gentile woman would have seemed to many scandalous.  But then, far from being submissive, this woman talks back!  When Jesus says, “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs,” she retorts, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:27-28).

Jesus recognizes that she has won the point–the only place in any of the Gospels where anyone wins an argument with Jesus!  Still, the matter-of-fact acknowledgement in the NRSV (“For saying that, you may go”) and the KJV (“For this saying, go thy way”) is a better rendering of the Greek than the CEB, with its implicit praise:

“Good answer!” he said. “Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.”

The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. – Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

What are we to do with this?  It takes extraordinary eisegetical gymnastics to avoid the clear implication of this story, in Matthew as well as in Mark.  As Wil Gafney puts it, “In that moment, something happened to and in Jesus.”  Jesus, acknowledging that he was wrong, changes his mind!  This Gentile woman has become “The Woman Who Changed Jesus.”

To us, this may seem offensive–perhaps, even more offensive than Jesus’ words to the Syro-Phoenician woman.  How could Jesus, who is God, change his mind?  Similarly, when I have questioned Moses’ authorship of the Torah, or David’s of the Psalms, some students have angrily noted that Jesus himself in the Gospels ascribed these works to their traditional authors–and Jesus, certainly, could not have been wrong!  Perhaps the best response to such questions is another question: do we believe–really believe–in the Incarnation?  Do we somehow imagine that Jesus did not, after all, learn or change or grow?  If so, then his “humanity” was a mere pretense–and we are in serious trouble!

St. Gregory of Nazianzus put it very well: “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved” (to gar aproslepton, atherapeuton; ho de henotai to theo, touto kai sozetaiEp. 101).  In short, if Jesus is truly to atone for us, reconciling us to God, then he must really be one of us–not just seeming to be human, but actually being human.  Debi Thomas writes:

The Jesus who appears in the Gospels is not half-incarnate.  He is as fully human as he is fully God.  Which is to say, he struggles, he snaps, he discovers, he grows, he falters, he learns, he fears, and he overcomes.  He’s real, he’s approachable, and he’s authentically one of us.  The “Good News” is not that we serve a shiny, inaccessible deity who floats five feet above the ground.  It is that Jesus shows us — in real time, in the flesh — what it means to grow as a child of God.  He embodies what it looks like to stretch into a deeper, truer, and fuller comprehension of God’s love.

In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus comes to understand that this Canaanite woman is not after all outside of the community he has come to save.  For the first time, he knows that he has been given by God his Father to and for all the world.  We Gentiles owe her an enormous debt of gratitude.

Aug
2021

God’s House

Owen Kanzler, Urban Neighborhood with Church

A former student told me that his church was once handing out treats for Halloween.  Like the houses in their neighborhood, they had indicated that they were in business by turning on their porch light.  Still, many children were reluctant to approach their door. Finally, one brave child asked, “Doesn’t God live here? Is this candy from God?”

Perhaps, when you were a child, you too thought that the church was God’s house, where God lives, as we live in our own homes.  I remember a picture of Jesus at the front of our sanctuary in the church where I grew up, that I used to think was God, looking at me!

Our Old Testament lesson for Sunday is from Solomon’s prayer to dedicate the temple (1 Kings 8: 10-13, 22-30, 41-43). In the Hebrew Bible, several words are used for the temple. In this week’s Psalm, mishkan is used (Ps 84:1[2]): “dwelling place,” a word related to shakan, meaning “settle, or “camp”– “tabernacle” in KJV. Elsewhere, we find miqdash, “sanctuary,” related to qadosh, “holy;” and hekal, a word likely borrowed from Sumerian or Phoenician, meaning “temple” or “palace,” sometimes used just for the temple’s main room.

When ancient Serendib lured Jewish ships | Daily News

But the most common word used for the temple is bayit, meaning “house.” We hear it later in Psalm 84:4 (“Those who live in your house are truly happy; they praise you constantly”), and throughout our OT lesson for today.  In 1 Kgs 8:13 (NRSV), Solomon says to God, “I have built for you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.”  Yet Solomon’s prayer later calls that claim into question: “But how could God possibly live on earth? If heaven, even the highest heaven, can’t contain you, how can this temple [Hebrew bayit; the NRSV reads “house]  I’ve built contain you?” (1 Kgs 8:27)

Since God is not contained by our houses of worship, does going to church matter? Many clearly say no. When Gallup first measured U.S. church membership in 1937, 73% of those surveyed belonged to a church.  Membership in houses of worship remained near 70% for the next six decades, before beginning a steady decline around the turn of the 21st century. In 2020, only 47% of Americans said that they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque–down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999, falling below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend.

Golfing At Sunday River Photograph by David McLainWe often hear people insist that they don’t need to go to church–they can meet God in nature, or on the golf course. That is true—God is everywhere, and we might meet God anywhere. But, God does meet us here!

Solomon prays for God to be attentive to the temple, and to the prayers offered both there, and “toward” the temple, by folk far away (as we have often been in this pandemic).

Constantly watch over this temple, the place about which you said, “My name will be there,” and listen to the prayer that your servant is praying toward this place.  Listen to the request of your servant and your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Listen from your heavenly dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive! (1 Kgs 8:29-30).

Not only the prayers of faithful Jews, but prayers offered there by anyone, even foreigners, are heard!

Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name —for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built (1 Kgs 8:41-43, NRSV).

So, is the church “God’s house”? In the simple sense, no. But still, the church is the place where God comes to meet us. When Jesus’ frantic parents at last found their missing boy in the temple, he said, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). Much later, the adult Jesus would tell his followers, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them” (Matt 18:20).

About Orthodox Christianity

In today’s gospel, Jesus’ hard teaching about himself as the bread of life causes many to leave him:

Jesus asked the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”

Simon Peter answered, “Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are God’s holy one” (John 6:67-69).

Peter’s question is a good one.  God has promised to be attentive to our gathering in this place.  Jesus has promised to join us whenever and wherever we gather. So, if we truly want to meet God, where–other than the church–should we go?

As disturbing as the church membership statistics may be, there is also good news in the numbers, friends! According to the most recent survey conducted by PRRI, the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans (including atheists, agnostics and some people who say they pray daily but don’t claim a specific faith tradition), the fastest growing religious group in America since 2006, is now in decline: the “nones” peaked at 25.5% of the population in 2018.  Today, they make up just 23% of the country.

While White Evangelicals continue to decline (14.5% of the population, down from a peak of 23% in 2006), other Christian groups have grown: Black and Hispanic Christians (23% in 2006, now 26%) and white Mainline Protestants (now 16.4%–down from 18% in 2006, but up from 13% in 2016).  People are finding their way back to church again.

Friends, I harbor no delusions about the church’s many problems.  Frustration with the church in our day is palpable, and easily understood: like all institutions, the church has been slow to change when change is needed. But the church is still God’s house! God’s presence is still experienced, and God’s will made known, in and through the church. Despite its many troubles and conflicts, the institutional organization of the church remains the means by which ministry gets done. Our challenge is to learn new ways to be the church, in a rapidly changing culture, without losing our identity in the face of change.

 

 

 

 

 

Aug
2021

“Ask”

File:Giordano Le Rêve de Salomon Prado.jpg - Wikimedia CommonsAt the beginning of David’s reign, all Israel had come to Hebron to acknowledge David’s rulership (1 Chr 11:1), and had followed him to Jerusalem, to conquer that city (1 Chr 11:4).  Similarly, at Solomon’s decree, “all Israel” assembles at Gibeon:  to offer sacrifices to the LORD (2 Chr 1:2-3).  While warrior David’s reign began in conquest, Solomon begins his reign with a pilgrimage, and an act of worship.

Although the authors of Kings apologize for Solomon’s worship at the Gibeon “shrine” (NRSV “high place;” the Hebrew is bamah, a word used for places of idolatrous worship) , in Chronicles, no apology need be given (compare 2 Chr 1:3-6 with 1 Kgs 3:2-4). Until the completion of the temple in Jerusalem, Gibeon was the proper place for sacrificial service, as the altar and the tent of meeting were there (2 Chr 1:5; see also 1 Chr 16:39; 21:29). Indeed, the bronze altar before the tent is here said to be the very altar which Moses’ master craftsman, “Bezalel son of Uri, son of Hur,” had fashioned, following the pattern revealed to Moses (2 Chr 1:5; see Exod 35:30-33; 38:1-2). This is a fitting place, then, to seek the will of the LORD–which is the reason Solomon and the assembly have come to Gibeon (2 Chr 1:5).

The LORD responds dramatically to Solomon’s magnificent sacrifice (one thousand burnt offerings; see 2 Chr 1:6//2 Kgs 3:4). That night, God appears to the king in a vision, with an astonishingly open-ended offer: “Ask whatever you wish, and I’ll give it to you” (1 Kgs 3:5//2 Chr 1:7).

Similar surprising offers appear in the gospels: “If you have faith, you will receive whatever you pray for” (Matthew 21:22); “Therefore I say to you, whatever you pray and ask for, believe that you will receive it, and it will be so for you” (Mark 11:24); “When you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14).

A majority of vaccine skeptics plan to refuse a Covid-19 vaccine -- study

Ever since this pandemic began, we have seen Christian churches and pastors insist that, rather than masking or vaccines, they will trust in God to keep them safe–motivated, in no small measure, by their understanding of Bible passages like these. We have also seen, in case after case, where those very pastors have fallen ill to COVID, and those very churches have become epicenters for contagion, illness, and death.

So, what are we to make of such texts?  Surely, if we have lived any time at all in the faith, we know that we don’t always get what we pray for.

Solomon’s response provides the key:

Please give your servant a discerning mind in order to govern your people and to distinguish good from evil, because no one is able to govern this important people of yours without your help (1 Kgs. 3:9)

What Solomon wants turns out to be what God wants for him: that is, to be the best king that he can be.

Maybe the point of these remarkable, open-ended offers in Scripture isn’t, “How can I get what I want out of God?”,  but rather “What, after all, do I want?”, and  “Do I want what God wants?”  It is the lesson Jesus learned in the long night of Gethsemane when, the author of Hebrews writes, “Christ offered prayers and requests with loud cries and tears as his sacrifices to the one who was able to save him from death,” and “was heard because of his godly devotion” (Hebrews 5:7).  Clearly, Jesus was not heard in the sense that he was delivered from death on the cross!  Instead, he was given the strength to pray, “My Father, if it’s not possible that this cup be taken away unless I drink it, then let it be what you want” (Matt 26:42).

Paul says that this empowerment of our prayer life is the work of the Spirit:

In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans.  The one who searches hearts knows how the Spirit thinks, because he pleads for the saints, consistent with God’s will (Rom 8:26-27).

God is pleased with Solomon’s prayer–so pleased that God promises to give the young king not only what he has asked for, but also what he hasn’t:

God said to him, “Because you have asked for this instead of requesting long life, wealth, or victory over your enemies—asking for discernment so as to acquire good judgment—I will now do just what you said. Look, I hereby give you a wise and understanding mind. There has been no one like you before now, nor will there be anyone like you afterward.  I now also give you what you didn’t ask for: wealth and fame. There won’t be a king like you as long as you live.  And if you walk in my ways and obey my laws and commands, just as your father David did, then I will give you a very long life” (1 Kgs 3:11-14; compare 2 Chr 1:11-12).

So too, Jesus says, “desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt 6:33), and Paul affirms, “We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).

The feeding of the five thousand- Christian Art

In Sunday’s Gospel (John 6:51-58), some of the multitude Jesus had miraculously fed (see John  6:1-15) have come to Jesus asking for more–a request he pointedly refuses to fulfill!  Instead of giving them the bread they seek, Jesus offers them himself:

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.  My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them (John 6:54-56).

Friends, all our wants pale beside what Jesus offers—a share in his own substance, his very life.  When we accept that gift, trusting God’s direction for our lives, we, like Solomon, can surely count on finding fulfillment in God’s will for us.  Knowing that we are in the center of God’s will, we can face anything life throws at us fearlessly, for “whoever eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:58).

 

Jul
2021

Whatsit

Celebrate National Tell a Joke Day with Fozzie Bear! - D23

Did you hear that the Energizer Bunny was arrested? He was charged with battery.

I tried to catch some fog, but I mist.

I know a guy who drinks brake fluid. I told him I think he’s addicted, but he says he can stop any time.

What can I say–I love puns! Hebrew does, too: the Old Testament is full of them.  Exodus 16:15, from this week’s Hebrew Bible text, is a doozy!

Manna - Wikipedia

When Israelites first see the miraculous food God has provided for them in the wilderness, they ask, “What is it?”—in Hebrew, man hu’. But since, in Hebrew, the word for “manna” is also man, they are answering their own question: man hu’ also means, “It is man.” That is why it is called “manna”: literally, “whatsit!”

Deuteronomy 8:3 makes a theological point of this:

He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors was acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD (NRSV).

My teacher and mentor, the late S. Dean McBride, Jr., may light perpetual shine upon him, worked on the NRSV translation of the book of Deuteronomy. He suggested that this famous phrase (quoted by Jesus in the wilderness) could perhaps better be translated, “one does not live by bread alone, but by anything that the LORD decrees.”

Woman eating oyster food photography by Whysall Photography| Whysall Photography | Oysters, Food photography, Eating oysters

The manna was an answer to prayer, but it was also a test. The strangeness of the manna was itself a test: would Israel submit to living on whatever the LORD provided?  It has been said that it was a brave person who ate the first oyster–but what about the Israelites, gathering this “whatsit” off the ground?

The way that the manna was provided was also a test.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I’m going to make bread rain down from the sky for you. The people will go out each day and gather just enough for that day. In this way, I’ll test them to see whether or not they follow my Instruction (Exod 16:4).

The exceptions were the sixth day, when they could gather enough for two days, and save it, and the Sabbath, when no manna fell (Exod 16:23).

The Israelites fail this test. Some try to gather more than they need, but discover they have only gathered enough. Some try to save the manna, but it becomes wormy. Some even go out to gather on the Sabbath.

Surely we can understand and sympathize with their failure. The manna subverts our ideas of economy! It follows no laws of supply and demand. There can be no shortages, for everyone is given as much as they need. There can be no surpluses, for the manna cannot be hoarded. There is no incentive to greater productivity, because however much you gather, you wind up with no more than you need. Longer work hours are not simply discouraged, they are impossible: the manna evaporates as soon as the morning passes, and on your day off, it does not come at all!

The point is that God is generous, and that God’s generosity is not limited by our standards of fairness. In God’s economy, we don’t get what we deserve! God’s grace and acceptance are given to all. God’s generosity challenges us to live generously.

The Audiences of Jesus

In today’s Gospel, the crowds who had been fed by Jesus seek him out at his home in Capernaum, looking for more:

They asked, “What miraculous sign will you do, that we can see and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, just as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” (John 6:30-31)

Jesus confronts them:

Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Human One will give you. God the Father has confirmed him as his agent to give life (John 6:27).

Instead of giving them what they came seeking, Jesus offers himself:

I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty (John 6:35).

Traditional Death & Burial Prayers to Recite at Funerals

As with Israel in the wilderness: God cares about our needs, but will not be reduced to a means to our ends—as though God were a cosmic vending machine. The test, once more, is whether or not we will respond faithfully, and seek, not what we want, but what God wants.

 

 

 

Jul
2021

Mary Magdalene

Sue Ellen Parkinson | Christian | icons | Mary Magdalene - Northcoast Artists GalleryToday, July 22, is the feast of Mary Magdalene.  All of the gospels (including the idiosyncratic Fourth Gospel; see John 20:1-18) agree that Mary Magdalene was an eyewitness to Jesus’ resurrection. But Luke in particular “emphasizes the priority of the women’s own experience over the angels’ words” (Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke : A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel [Crossroad, 19812], 227). The women see for themselves that the tomb is empty; then they hear the angels’ explanation (Luke 24:2-7; contrast Mark 16:6-8). The bravery and initiative of the women at the tomb in Luke contrasts with Mark’s gospel, where the witnesses “said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).

Luke identifies three of the group of brave women bearing witness to Jesus’ death, burial, and empty tomb by name: “It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles” (Luke 24:10). Mark identifies three and only three women (“Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome;” Mark 16:1), while Matthew names only two (“Mary Magdalene and the other Mary;” Matt 28:1). Still, all of the gospels agree that the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection were women, and that Mary Magdalene was present.

Two of the three women named in Luke’s account of Jesus’ resurrection are mentioned earlier in his gospel (Luke 8:2-3): Mary Magdalene, “from whom seven demons had been thrown out,” and Joanna, “the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza.” These two, together with “Susanna, and many others,” served as patrons for the ministry of Jesus and the twelve (Luke says that they “provided for them out of their resources;” Lk 8:3).

Anointing the Feet of Jesus Painting by Ann Lukesh

Somehow, Mary Magdalene came to be identified in Christian tradition with the “woman from the city,  a sinner” in Luke’s account of the woman who anointed Jesus with fine ointment (Luke 7:36-50; compare Matt 26:6-13//Mark 14:3-9; in John 12:1-7, the woman who anoints Jesus is identified as another Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus!).  This led to the common, but mistaken, notion that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Quite to the contrary, Luke presents her as a respectable matron of independent means, who was delivered from demonic possession by Jesus, and became his follower and supporter.

Mary Magdalene and Joanna are long-time followers and supporters of Jesus. The “other Mary” is likely the mother of two of the disciples. In short, these are reliable witnesses. However outlandish their story may appear, they have earned a respectful hearing.

But then, they are women. In first century Judaism, a woman’s testimony was not regarded as legally admissible. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote, “From women let not evidence be accepted, because of the levity and temerity of their sex” (Antiquities 4.8.15:219).  So the eleven do not listen: “Their words struck the apostles as nonsense [Greek leros], and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11). The greatest event in the history of the world is ignored because of the sexist small-mindedness of eleven men.

Only Peter takes the women with sufficient seriousness to check out their claim. Indeed, Peter “ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves” (Luke 24:12; compare John 20:6-7). This is an odd, but significant detail: why would a grave robber have unwound the grave cloths and left them behind? Certainly Peter has no explanation: “he returned home, wondering what had happened” (24:12). Still, he corroborates the women’s claims regarding the empty tomb: his is the second, independent witness required by Jewish law (Num 35:30; Deut 17:6; 19:15-21).

Rather like the eleven in Luke 24:11, who considered the women’s testimony about Jesus’ resurrection “nonsense,” too many refuse to hear the good news when proclaimed by a woman.  Still, in my tradition, women have been preaching for nearly as long as the Methodist movement has been in existence.  In 1787, John Wesley himself gave permission for Sarah Mallet to preach, holding her to standards no different than those expected of all Methodist lay preachers.  However, it was a move severely criticized.

Many regarded women preachers as little more than a novelty; Samuel Johnson, upon hearing of women preaching in the Quaker movement, said, “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

The powerful preaching of women evangelists such as Jarena Lee

and Phoebe Palmer

gave the lie to such condescending nonsense.  But still, though women were recognized as evangelists or local pastors, they were mostly barred from ordination in the various denominations that would form the United Methodist Church (the former United Brethren being an occasional exception).  Not until 1956, the year I was born, were women ordained in the former Methodist Church, a right expressly continued in 1968 when the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches joined to form the United Methodist Church.

Tragically, still today, women in ministry face resistance and rejection.  But by refusing to hear God’s word proclaimed in a female voice, we close ourselves off from God.  Particularly on this feast of Mary Magdalene, may the Lord open our minds and hearts and ears, to receive with joy the witness to our Lord’s death and resurrection that faithful women continue to bring.

Jul
2021

My Favorite Paradox

The Rick Astley Paradox - Imgur

Rick Astley’s 1987 video “Never Gonna Give You Up” remains enormously popular, largely due to “Rickrolling“–a prank involving the unexpected insertion of the video, or the song, or its lyrics, into. . . well, pretty much anything. But this tweet caught my attention with its opening question: what, after all, is my favorite paradox?

Way up there has to one of the infamous paradoxes of Divine omnipotence: If God is all-powerful, can God create a rock so heavy that God can’t lift it? Attempts to resolve this paradox lead into some unexpected, and quite sophisticated, theological insights.

René Magritte, Exhibitions | The Ralli Museums

One possible answer to the riddle is, No. God can’t make a rock that God can’t lift–not because God’s power is lacking, but because God will never act contrary to God’s own character. Biblically, that solution seems likely to have appealed to the prophet Ezekiel. Some 72 times in his book, God acts, whether in judgment (for example, Ezek 7:4) or salvation (for example, Ezek 37:28), so “that they might know that I am the LORD.” Bible scholar Walther Zimmerli called this the Erkenntnisformel, or “recognition formula,” a motif that sums up the essence of Ezekiel’s message. As Zimmerli wrote,

The whole direction of the prophetic preaching is a summons to a knowledge and recognition of him who, in his action announced by the prophet, shows himself to be who he is in the free sovereignty of his person (Ezekiel 1,  trans. Ronald E. Clements; Heremeneia [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979], 40).

In other words, God does what God does because of who God is. Period.

The Prophet Ezekiel, 1510 - Michelangelo - WikiArt.org

The LORD acts for the sake of the LORD’s own honor and name–which is, in the end, extraordinarily good news. For Ezekiel, the history of God’s people has demonstrated that, if our hope for salvation depends upon our faithfulness, we have no hope at all (see Ezekiel 20). The only way that we can have any hope for the future is if our deliverance depends upon God’s character—not upon our worthiness, or even upon our repentance. Therefore, Ezekiel baldly states,

The LORD God proclaims: House of Israel, I’m not acting for your sake but for the sake of my holy name, which you degraded among the nations where you have gone (Ezek 36:22).

The author of Ephesians expresses this truth more positively:

You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed.  It’s not something you did that you can be proud of (Ephesians 2:8-9).

As intriguing as this angle on the paradox is, I must confess that I prefer a different solution. Can God create a rock so heavy that God can’t lift it? Yes. Of course God can. But, God chooses not to, and so remains omnipotent.

The Faith of a Physicist (Theology & the Sciences Series): John C. Polkinghorne

The implications of this seemingly glib solution to the riddle are staggering. God, in God’s freedom, voluntarily chooses to limit Godself! This insight is fundamental to the theology of creation posed by Anglican theologian and particle physicist John Polkinghorne in his 1993 Gifford Lectures. He writes:

The act of creation involves divine acceptance of the risk of the existence of the other, and there is a constant kenosis [literally, an emptying or pouring out] of God’s omnipotence. This curtailment of divine power is, of course, self-limitation on his part, and not through any intrinsic resistance of the creature. It arises from the logic of love, which requires the freedom of the beloved. . . God remains omnipotent in the sense that he can do whatever he wills, but it is not in accordance with his will and nature to insist on total control (The Faith of a Physicist [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996], 81).

Polkinghorne’s use of the Greek term kenosis immediately brings to mind the Christ hymn quoted by Paul in Philippians 2:6-11:

Though he was in the form of God,
        he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
[Greek ekenosen]
        by taking the form of a slave
        and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
         he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
        even death on a cross.
Therefore, God highly honored him
        and gave him a name above all names,
     so that at the name of Jesus everyone
        in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
        and every tongue confess
            that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

That the Incarnation was an act of Divine kenosis is undeniable. Christians confess that, while Jesus was fully God, he was also fully human. But if Polkinghorne is right, God’s emptying of Godself–God’s self-limitation–began not in Bethlehem, or on Calvary, but at the very beginning of all things, when God called into being a world that was not God, and granted to that reality its own authentic autonomy.

Nothing demonstrates this truth so powerfully as what God does on the seventh day:

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.  And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.  So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation (Gen 2:1-3, NRSV).

God loves and trusts the world that God has made enough to let it go. Of course, this does not mean that God is absent from the cosmos.  The God of Genesis is certainly not the clockmaker god of the Deists.  Nor, however, is the God we meet in the creation story a divine puppet master, the lone real actor in the cosmic drama. Genesis 2:1-3 affirms that God rests, and the world goes on. Creation is not abandoned by God, and left to its own devices, any more than loving parents abandon their adult children as they prepare to go off on their own.  But like a loving parent, God does, in love and confidence, let the world go. 

Jun
2021

Just How Big WAS Goliath?

 

Title: David and Goliath [Click for larger image view]

The Old Testament reading for this Sunday is 1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49: the familiar story of David and Goliath.  The painting above by folk artist John August Swanson is the way that I recall this scene from my childhood Bible story books.  Goliath is a fairy-tale giant, inhumanly massive.  Little David’s defeat of this monster is a nothing short of a miracle: especially as David eschews armor and weaponry, facing the giant with only his shepherd’s sling and five smooth stones.  That is how we tell the story.  But what does the Bible say?  Just how big was Goliath, anyway?

In the old King James Bible, where I first read this story, his “height was six cubits and a span” (1 Samuel 17:4; see also the NRSV, the NIV, and the ESV)–a literal rendering of the Hebrew shesh ‘ammot wazareth.  The Hebrew units were originally rules of thumb: a cubit is the distance from your elbow to the tip of your middle finger; a span is the width of your outstretched hand, from the tip of your thumb to the tip of your little finger–or, as you can check for yourself, about half a cubit.  According to Kahler and Baumgartner’s Lexicon, that would be about a foot and eight inches (50 cm) for a cubit, and about ten inches (25 cm) for a span, making Goliath ten and a half feet tall!  The CEB (and text critic P. Kyle McCarter in his HarperCollins Study Bible footnotes) presume a more conservative reckoning: “he was more than nine feet tall.”  Now, that is big, to be sure, but it isn’t fairy-tale big: Goliath was not 25 feet tall, or 50 feet tall.  He was much bigger than people usually get, but still a very big man, not a monster (although the marginal notes in one Latin text suggest that Goliath was sixteen cubits tall!).

Top 10 All Time Tallest NBA Players

Intriguingly, the Septuagint–the translation of Jewish Scripture into Greek from north Africa, in the century or two before Jesus’ birth–says that Goliath’s height was four cubits and a span, or (according to McCarter and the CEB footnotes), over six feet tall.  This is still big–particularly in the Late Bronze-Early Iron Age, when (at five and a half feet) I would have been tall.  But it is scarcely gigantic: most pro basketball centers (who average seven feet) would be taller than Goliath!

Sometimes, the differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew text used in the synagogue, on which our Old Testament is based (called the Masoretic text, or MT) involve the translators re-interpreting or even misreading the text before them.  But the discovery of ancient Hebrew scrolls and fragments at Qumran (commonly called the Dead Sea Scrolls) confirms that often, the Septuagint translators were working with different–and in many cases, older and better–texts of those books.  This is particularly the case with Samuel, which seems to have been poorly preserved by the MT scribes.  One fragmentary Hebrew text of Samuel, found in Cave Four (4Q Sam a), is now the oldest and best text of Samuel available.  In 1 Samuel 17:4, it too reads four cubits and a span.

So, if Goliath was not a giant, but just a big man, why was no one in Saul’s army willing to face him in single combat?  The text tells us why: Goliath was ‘ish-habbanayim–“the man who stands between” (English Bibles render this as “champion”).  In other words, going out alone between combatting forces, to face and defeat the ish-habbanayim of his enemies in single combat, was Goliath’s job.  That he was still alive, and famous, means that he was very good at his job.  Goliath was a dangerous, well-trained, and well-armed professional killer.

To us, this too may sound like a fairy tale: would any army really rely on single combat to determine which side would prevail?  We know that other clan-based cultures did use such contests to resolve their differences.  The Celts, in particular, sometimes settled disputes over property or territory not only by single combat, but by non-lethal contests between bards involving song, poetry, and insults! Such resolutions would be far more economical than pitched battles, with their loss of life and destruction of property.

The description of Goliath’s armor and weaponry tells us much, both about the culture of the times, and this champion’s preferred fighting style:

He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels [about 125 pounds] of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels [about fifteen pounds] of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him.(1 Samuel 17:5-7, NRSV).

The mixture of bronze and iron in Goliath’s weaponry is a reminder of the late eleventh century BCE context of this narrative.  The Philistines (unlike the Hebrews; see Judges 1:19) had mastered the working of iron, but it was still difficult, and expensive.  So only the head of Goliath’s heavy, stabbing spear is made of that wonderful, armor-piercing metal; his armor, and his throwing javelin, are bronze (intriguingly, his sword is not mentioned).  That javelin, note, is Goliath’s only distance weapon–which makes sense, for a single fighter. Goliath counts on closing with his enemy, where his size and strength–and his armor-piercing spear–will make short work of any adversary.

David’s chosen tactic, then, makes good sense!  Being unarmored, he can move quickly: much more quickly than his heavily armored adversary.  Should Goliath opt to throw his javelin, David will be able to dodge.  Goliath, on the other hand, is anything but nimble: a scarcely-moving target for David’s sling stones.  David’s sling catches him in the forehead, just below his bronze helmet, and knocks him senseless–so that David can run up and decapitate the Philistine champion with his own sword (1 Samuel 17:51).

Title: Tapestry of David slaying Goliath [Click for larger image view]

This is a different story than the one in my childhood Bible story book!  But I think it is a better one.  Retelling the story, we tend to heighten the marvelous and miraculous elements, something that indeed the Bible does as well.  Some biblical traditions do claim the the Israelites faced giants in Canaan–monsters descended from the half-human, half-god Nephilim (Numbers 13:33; Genesis 6:4).  But the more human story revealed by the best text of Samuel does not in any way lessen God’s involvement and care.  If anything, it makes the encounter between David and Goliath more real: less a children’s story about “Bible times” and more a promise of God’s presence with us in our encounters with enemies that seem too strong to overcome: whether the besetting sins that threaten our personal spiritual walk, or the national and cultural sins of racism, poverty, and pollution.  With David, we can say to our contemporary adversaries,

You are coming against me with sword, spear, and scimitar, but I come against you in the name of the LORD of heavenly forces, the God of Israel’s army . . . the whole world will know that there is a God on Israel’s side.  And all those gathered here will know that the LORD doesn’t save by means of sword and spear. The LORD owns this war, and he will hand all of you over to us (1 Samuel 17:45-47).

Jun
2021

Juneteenth

Title: Lift Every Voice and Sing, or, The Harp
[Click for larger image view]

FOREWORD: I am re-sharing this post (slightly edited) from last year, regarding what Juneteenth is, and why it matters to us all.  Pray, friends, for peace with justice, and for the willingness to let God send us forth, giving those prayers hands and feet and a public voice.  

 

June 19th has long been a famous day in the African-American community, where it is remembered and celebrated as “Juneteenth.” In recent days, more and more white Americans have been brought to realize the significance of this day, as tragic events have brought forcefully and painfully to our national attention America’s original sin of racism and injustice. Juneteenth recalls June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war was over, and that the enslaved were now free. This was over two months after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865, and two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, delivered on January 1, 1863. Yet Black Americans in Galveston remained enslaved until the arrival of General Granger’s regiment overcame local resistance to the idea of liberation.

General Granger issued General Order Number 3, which began:

 

The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.

 

Perhaps we should not be surprised that freedom came so late to Galveston. After all, while the decades following the Civil War saw the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, promising freedom and equality, they also saw the betrayal of that promise, as with at best the indifference, and at worst the connivance of the federal government, the rights that the Constitution conveyed to all Americans were denied.

Corridor in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Whatever the Constitution said, the social norms of white supremacy were codified in Jim Crow laws, and enforced by horrific violence. The Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama honors the memory of more than 4,400 black people lynched in the United States–hanged, burned, murdered, tortured to death– between 1877 and 1950.

 

That legacy of violence is not past. In this past year alone, the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery, the police killings of Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks, and most of all, the horrific videos of George Floyd‘s public murder by a Minneapolis police officer, prompted not only a national, but a world-wide outcry against racial injustice and police brutality.  Yet sadly, even as justice has prevailed in some of these cases, it remains deferred in others–while new acts of racist violence continue to arise.

 

Some readers of this blog may be wondering what any of this has to do with the Bible, which is after all the subject of this blog. That, as it happens, is a very good question. It is no accident that nineteenth-century abolitionists did not base their arguments on Scripture. The bulk of the biblical witness seemed to be on the opposite side of the issue–indeed, African slavery was justified then on biblical grounds.  After all, both testaments assume the existence of slavery, and the New Testament repeatedly urges slaves to be obedient to their masters (Eph 6:5; Col 3:22; 1 Peter 2:18).

 

While I was studying for my doctorate at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, my library carrel was for a time near a tall shelf of books written by Bible scholars teaching and writing at that distinguished Southern school in the years prior to the Civil War. Their books noted, rightly, that the Bible never challenges the institution of slavery. Indeed, some argued that slavery had been a boon for the African people, civilizing these savages and introducing them to the Christian gospel.

 

What those white antebellum Bible scholars could not see, but new African American Christians could, were texts such as Paul’s statement, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Somehow those distinguished Bible scholars could not see that the heart of the Hebrew Bible–called by philosopher Emil Fackenheim the “root experience” of the Jewish people–was the exodus out of Egypt: God’s action to set slaves free.  Sadly, it still remains possible for us to read the Bible from cover to cover and somehow miss the passion for justice that runs like a river from Genesis to Revelation. Similarly, in white America, racism remains invisible to those who, thanks to white privilege, do not–or cannot–see it, over 150 years after that first Juneteenth.

 

Community and equality, cooperation and justice, mutual respect and mutual regard are biblical principles. Far from being unreachable ideals, they are the only way that the world truly works, reflecting the identity of the Creator, who is in Godself a community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When any culture elevates one person, class, or race over another, and exalts taking and having over giving and sharing, life itself breaks down. No wonder our economy, our world, and our church are in trouble!

Juneteenth
In 2019, Gov. Tom Wolf declared Juneteeth a holiday in Pennsylvania, following the unanimous passage of a bill establishing this holiday in the state House and Senate. “Proud to designate June 19 as #Juneteeth National Freedom Day to commemorate the ending of slavery in the United States,” the Democratic governor tweeted that day. “On this day, let us recognize the importance of continuing to build a nation that truly reflects the self-evident truth that all people are created equal.” This Juneteenth, may we Christians embrace that message, which is at the core of the gospel. As Jesus Christ himself has said,” you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. . . . Therefore, if the Son makes you free, you really will be free” (John 8:31-36).


AFTERWORD:

The photograph at the head of this blog is from “Art in the Christian Tradition,” an on-line gallery linked to the lectionary, managed by The Vanderbilt Divinity School Library. The image comes from The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, April 1939. The sculpture by Augusta Savage (1892-1962) appeared in the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It is called “Lift Every Voice and Sing, or, The Harp,” and was inspired by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson’s hymn, “Lift Every Voice:” sometimes called the African American national anthem.