Dec
2019

Thoughts About the Solstice.

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We have been taught–and rightly–that God creates the universe out of nothing.  Theologians and philosophers talk about creation in this way because of their high view of God. If God is indeed God, then God is not an object in the world of time and space: certainly, then, God must have called all that is into being. Therefore, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians alike talk about Creatio ex nihilo: that is, God creating the world “out of nothing.”

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But that is not what Genesis 1 is about. The question posed by the beginning of the Bible is not, “Where did the world come from?” Ancient people really did not care how the world began.  What they wanted, and needed, to know was something more immediate and pressing: is there a meaningful order to reality? Can I plant my crops and know that the rain will fall, the sun will rise, the seed will sprout and germinate, and the harvest will come?

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Here in the northern hemisphere, December 21 is the winter solstice, the official beginning of winter.  Ancient people knew all about solstices and equinoxes. Though they did not understand how this happened, they were fully aware that every year, when the autumnal equinox rolls around, the day and the night are of equal length (hence, “equinox:” that is, “equal night”). But every night after that the nights get longer and longer, and every day after that the days get shorter and shorter, until finally we come to the winter solstice: the longest night and shortest day of the year.

Every human culture in the world recognizes the equinoxes and the solstices, and for a very important reason. After all, how can we know that this time around, the nights won’t just keep getting longer and longer and longer until everything is swallowed up in night? How can we know that this time around the air won’t just continue to get colder and colder and colder until everything is swallowed up in an endless winter of darkness and death?

 

Image result for 2012 ice ageCan we be certain that the wheel will turn and that the cycle will continue? In short: does the world make sense?

The opening verses of Genesis record, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form” (Hebrew tohu wabohu; Gen 1:1-2). This “formless void” (the NRSV rendering of the verse) is further described as “the deep sea” (Hebrew tehom) and “the waters” (Hebrew hammayim; Gen 1:2). In Genesis 1:1-2, then, the state of things when God began creating was chaos, without order or pattern, represented as tossing, shifting, formless water.

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Picture yourself floating in the ocean. There is no land in sight. It is night: the sky is overcast, so that there is no moon and no starlight. All you can see, all you can imagine, is the endless rise and fall of the water, the tossing of the waves, and the wind blowing over the deep. That is the way Israel’s ancient priests imagined the beginning of things.

It all begins with shapeless, formless water. But when God speaks God’s creative word–“God said, ‘Let there be light”–God imposes order on that chaos. The implicit question in Genesis 1, then, is not, how did the world begin, but rather, does the world make sense? God establishes order and meaning in place of disorder and meaninglessness.

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It makes eminent sense, then, that early Christians began celebrating Christ’s birth soon after the solstice: to recognize the truth that Christ’s light has shone into our darkness, to bring the promise of new life and hope.  The one who is the Word–the Logos, the Pattern of all reality–has come among us in the person of Jesus (John 1:1-5, 14), to remind us of the world’s meaning.  Merry Christmas, friends!

Dec
2019

What Sweeter Music Can We Bring?

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What sweeter music can we bring,
Than a carol, for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly King?
Awake the voice! Awake the string!

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Dark and dull night, fly hence away,
And give the honour to this day,
That sees December turn’d to May.

Why does the chilling winter’s morn
Smile like a field beset with corn?
Or smell like a meadow newly shorn,
Thus on the sudden?

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Come and see
The cause why things thus fragrant be:
‘Tis He is born whose quickening birth
Gives life and lustre public mirth
To heaven and the under-earth.

We see Him come, and know Him ours,
Who with His sunshine and His showers
Turns all the patient ground to flowers.

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The Darling of the world is come,
And fit it is we find a room
To welcome Him.

The nobler part
Of all the house here, is the heart.

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Which we will give him; and bequeath
This holly and this ivy wreath,
To do him honour who’s our King,
The Lord of all this revelling.

–“A Christmas Carol, Sung To The King In The Presence At Whitehall,” by Robert Herrick (1591-1674), 1648.

GOD BLESS US, EVERY ONE!  MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU AND YOURS!

AFTERWORD: Thanks to our beloved St. Paul’s UMC choirmaster Tom Taylor for selecting this lovely piece, set to music by John Rutter, for our choir.  Prayers for your speedy convalescence, Tom!  Thanks to the estimable Alaine Fink for stepping capably into the breach, and leading us into this celebration of Christ’s birth.

Dec
2019

Remembering Nicholas

 

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FOREWORD: The feast day of St. Nicholas of Myra is December 5/6 in the Western Church and December 19 in Eastern Churches.  We celebrated the saint in chapel at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary on December 10, with a service built around the sketch below by senior PTS student Joshua Demi, printed here with his permission.  The liturgist was Dr. Helen Bleier, Santa was portrayed by my first-year advisee Tom Harrison, who is (no wonder!) a professional Santa, and Nicholas was portrayed by me.  The pictures below were taken by another PTS student, Rebecca Young, who gave permission for me to use them.  Thanks to all of you!

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, St. Nicholas was

Bishop of Myra in Lycia; died 6 December, 345 or 352. Though he is one of the most popular saints in the Greek as well as the Latin Church, there is scarcely anything historically certain about him except that he was Bishop of Myra in the fourth century.

Some of the main points in his legend are as follows: He was born at Parara, a city of Lycia in Asia Minor; in his youth he made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine; shortly after his return he became Bishop of Myra; cast into prison during the persecution of Diocletian [284 to 305 CE], he was released after the accession of Constantine [306 to 337 CE], and was present at the Council of Nicaea.

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Note that part of the legend was that Nicholas punched out Arius at the Council of Nicaea for denying the full divinity of Christ!  Legend also connects St. Nicholas to gift-giving at Christmas, and specifically to hanging stockings.

“REMEMBERING NICHOLAS”

LITURGIST: Today is the feast of St. Nicholas, the liturgical traditions celebrate the life and legacy of St. Nicholas, the fourth century bishop of…
(SANTA enters from the wings. He proceeds to hand out treats and do his thing. This section is intentionally left open to give the actor playing Santa some creative freedom.)
(The doors of the worship space slowly swing open and a robed and bearded figure NICHOLAS enters, carrying a large bound Bible [perhaps the Bible from the pulpit which has been mysteriously absent until now?]. As he enters, a hush of silence comes over SANTA. As NICHOLAS passes the font, he genuflects and makes the sign of the cross, staring intently at the cross on the opposite side of the wall. Paying no mind to anyone, he walks to the front row, sits down, and begins to pray silently. SANTA regains his composure and then continues.)

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NICHOLAS: (genuinely confused) Excuse me. What is going on?
SANTA: I’m jolly olde St. Nick. I came all the way from the North Pole to spread some Christmas cheer.
NICHOLAS: Oh my.
SANTA: Well, at least I think I am. I stopped by the mall the other day to buy some tube socks, saw myself, and had a bit of an identity crisis.
NICHOLAS: You are most certainly not Saint Nicholas. Yet, I can see it. You are a symbol, like a half-faded memory of me, the memory of a child, bits of reality filtered through the lens of fantasy and fairytales. But I am so much more than this. I lived at a time of great social upheaval and theological divide. I was imprisoned for worshiping Our Lord, and I saw the great persecution come to an end. I stood against heresy, perhaps a bit too vigorously at times. I didn’t give to spread Christmas cheer; I gave because I saw their need. I gave because I had been given much. I gave everything I had, everything I was, to reflect the love of God back into the world, albeit with whatever a dim and cracked a mirror I could.

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(NICHOLAS approaches the pulpit, and opens his massive Bible)
NICHOLAS: The Gospel of Our Lord According to St. Luke, Chapter 6, verses 17-23:

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets [NRSV].

The time is coming, and may have already come, when love will be met with hate, when good will be met with evil, when you will weep with those who weep and everything within you will cry, “Enough! I can take no more of this.” When this time comes, remember, blessed are you who weep, for you will laugh. Let your love be great, for great is The One who loves you. Let your gifts be great, for greatly have you been given. And remember, your Beloved, the one who was, and is, and is to come, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, is with you always, even unto the end of the age.
(NICHOLAS leaves the pulpit, and goes to leave, passing the font, genuflecting and making the sign of the cross, starring intently at the cross as he did before.)

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SANTA: Wait, do you have to go?
NICHOLAS: Yes, for I too am but a memory, albeit a slightly clearer one. I am the feeble attempt of a few modern minds to capture the message of a life long gone to glory. Why don’t you come with me? I would love to hear more about this North Pole of yours. One can learn a great deal from the wisdom of children.
(SANTA exits with NICHOLAS. As they exit, SANTA excitedly tells NICHOLAS about the North Pole. NICHOLAS humors him as a loving parent humors a child.)

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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).

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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. . .

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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.