King David

peace able

On Thanksgiving (while watching my beloved Dallas Cowboys put in another lackluster performance—this time against the Bills!), a Target commercial was aired several times with the wonderful news that Black Friday would start at 5pm.  Mind you, this was on Thanksgiving.  Banu and I were surmising how lucky those employees were to have the privilege of working on a holiday in order to make their corporate overlords a few more dollars.  (Well, in all honesty, she said nothing about “corporate overlords.”)

But then there was more good news: twelve hours later, many employees had the privilege of opening their doors at 5am.  Banu wondered who would get up that early just to go shopping!

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Of course, that’s not the worst of it.  Maybe you saw some advertisements proclaiming Black Friday sales running throughout the entire month of November?  We invented a holiday dedicated purely to the acquisition of money (going from “in the red” to “in the black”), and predictably as these things go, it metastasized.

(Still, Black Friday has darker meanings.  For example, there were the crazed crowds in 1950s Philadelphia who came into the city for the Army-Navy game on Saturday and did some shopping the day before.  Many of them took advantage of the commotion and helped themselves to a “five finger discount,” to the extreme annoyance of the Philly cops.)

I asked Banu about her first reaction to Black Friday, and she described it as “suffocating” and “a black hole.”

Why do I start with Black Friday, since it has come and gone?  It seems to me that it symbolizes the way we think of Advent—if we think of it at all.  We too often fill our lives with that which really isn’t very important.  Indeed, the very mention of Advent often elicits yawns and sometimes, actual irritation.

(There have been times in our ministry when, in the context of worship and other events, Banu and I have had—I’ll say—“snarky” questions posed to us, such as, “Is this Advent-y enough?”)

Here’s something from A Child in Winter, a book of devotionals by Caryll Houselander.  It covers Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.  Houselander was an English artist, writer, and mystic who, as the introduction to the book puts it, “comforted and challenged the English-speaking world through the ravages of World War II and the London Blitz.”[1]

She speaks of those who fill up their lives with “trivial details.”[2]  She says, “They dread space, for they want material things crowded together, so that there will always be something to lean on for support.  They dread silence, because they do not want to hear their own pulses beating out the seconds of their life, and to know that each beat is another knock on the door of death.”  (Yikes!  There’s a pleasant thought.)

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I wonder how often we fit that description.  We too often dread the things that make for peace.  We run hither and thither (if not with our bodies, then at least with our minds).  With all of our scurrying, we ignore—we are unaware of—the luminous holiness all around.  Trust me; I am directing this to myself more than to anyone else.

The prophet Isaiah knows a little something about people scurrying around, turning from the things that make for peace.  He is active during the last part of the 8th century BC.  At this time, the Assyrian Empire is gobbling up much of the Middle East.  The northern kingdom of Israel gets gobbled; the folks in the southern kingdom of Judah are nervous.  They don’t want to be gobbled!

The way chapter 11 begins doesn’t seem to let us know of these things, that is, Assyria and its ambitions.  “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (v. 1).  This business of stumps and branches and trees goes back to chapter 10, where God tells his people, “do not be afraid of the Assyrians when they beat you with a rod” (v. 24).

The chapter ends on this note: “Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low.  He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall” (vv. 33-34).  So there’s part of the background with Isaiah and the Assyrians.

Why get into this stuff about a shoot, a tiny little stalk, emerging from a seemingly dead hunk of wood?

When I was a teenager, my dad chopped down a tree in our yard.  It was a hedge apple tree.  If you’re familiar with those trees, you know the hedge apples they produce wind up being the size of softballs.  You don’t want someone throwing them at you!

3 isAnyway, I thought the stump that was left would behave like most stumps—just sit there and do nothing.  However, within a couple of weeks, I noticed a little green sprig appearing just inside the bark.  Soon, there were other sprigs, and they continued to grow.  Eventually they became stalks, and in time, the stalks developed into little bushes.  In a matter of months, the bushes had intertwined and kept reaching skyward, well over my twice my height by then.

If I was surprised by the way new life emerged from that stump, imagine the surprise generated by Isaiah’s poem.  The biggest part of the surprise is that the shoot comes from the stump of Jesse.  That is Jesse, mind you, the father of David—the David who would be king.

In the following verses, we see that this shoot, this branch, will be a ruler like none other.  This ruler will possess and exercise wisdom like none other.  Here’s a thumbnail sketch of this leader’s qualities (vv. 2-5): “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him…  His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord…  with righteousness he shall judge the poor…  Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist.”  All of that sounds like expectations of a David-ish nature!

So what’s all this with Jesse?

Walter Brueggemann talks about this.  “David’s family and dynasty run out in failure, no king, no future, no royal possibility, only a stump.  But, says the poet [and prophet Isaiah], the stump will produce a shoot, a shoot of new life that was not expected… the new David, the new possibility of shalom,” a new kingdom, a peaceable kingdom.[3]

4 isBasically, the Davidic line has all but died.  The lofty goals have not materialized.  So let’s start from scratch, so to speak.  Let’s go back to Jesse.  And for the sake of fairness, let’s include David’s mother, who unfortunately, the scriptures leave unnamed.  However, Jewish tradition says her name was Nitzevet.[4]

This new David, this new sovereign, will reign in an era of harmony and serenity.  What does it look like, this peaceable kingdom?

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”  Everything in creation “will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (vv. 6, 9).

Here’s Brueggemann again: “The old enmities, the old appetites of the food chain, the old assumptions of the survival of the meanest, all of that is subverted.  The wild will not stay vicious, because the coming one, marked by righteousness and justice, will overrule raw power in the interest of new possibility.”[5]

As Christians, we see the coming one as the true messianic figure, the ultimate Son of David, Jesus the Christ.  That’s what the Advent season is all about.  Advent means “coming,” and so we celebrate the one who has come, the one yet to come, and the one who is always coming, who is always arriving, in our lives right now.

As for Isaiah, his message is one of assuring the people.  But it is an assurance that will cost.  “We must repent,” he says, “to turn around, and to hold on.  The Assyrians are threatening.  But stand fast.  The peaceable kingdom is on the way.  We will have to wait in the darkness before the light arrives.”

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[Holy Darkness: Formless and Void]

We have a similar message during Advent.  Our enemies might not be an invading empire, but we do have enemies, nonetheless.  Perhaps it’s largely true that our enemies are within, the struggles we face—the struggles in which we engage.  As noted before, we don’t like that uncomfortable space, that uncomfortable silence.  We want to jump right over it, to get it in our rear-view mirror.  But that’s not what Advent is about!

“This is the intention of Advent,” says Jonas Ellison.  “It’s a sacred stillness in the darkness before the triumphant joy of Christmas.  It’s where we sit in the ‘blueness’ apparent in this oft broken world and human experience.  When we grow up, we become more attuned with the suffering in the world—and in our own lives.  We can’t override this.  When we do, it festers.  Advent is the season [in which] we sit calmly in the darkness as we await the light.”[6]

He mentions growing up.  (“When we grow up.”)  That fits with the title of his article, “Advent Makes Christmas Something that Kids Can Mature Into.”  Ellison wonders about an idea I imagine we’ve all heard, that “Christmas is for kids.”  He reflects on the surface-level and theologically shallow way we so often celebrate the season.  Please don’t get the wrong idea—he treasures and finds joy in the festivities and gifts and mistletoe.  (Okay, I added the “mistletoe”!)

Yet, he dreams for his daughter.  “I hope to give my daughter a meaning of Christmas that she can mature into as she grows older and experiences the weight, depth, and density of life.”  (I’m intrigued by that term “density of life.”)  He continues, “I pray that Christmas isn’t an extended time of consumerism in order to attempt to cover up her wounds wrought from this oft broken human experience.  I pray she can sit in the darkness with herself knowing she’s not alone.  Knowing that others are sitting in that very same place and God is embracing us all even before the ‘light’ comes.”

We don’t like to wait—especially waiting in the darkness, even if it is holy darkness.  The massive weight of our society and economy shout, “Why wait?”  It’s hard for Advent to compete with that.  There’s a tidal wave that would prevent us from pausing long enough to do the “Advent” thing of reflecting, and as Isaiah would hope for, of repenting.  That means to stop, to look around, and to set ourselves on the path of active expectation.  (Or perhaps more to the point, to allow ourselves to be set on the path of active expectation.)  “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Mt 25:13).

“On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”

“Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”

 

[Here is the artist’s description of his work, “Holy Darkness: Formless and Void”]

This sculpture is number 1 of 3 in the חשך קדוש series and is based off of the phrase תהו ובהו (prounounced tōhū vābōhū) - which is translated as "formless and void" in Genesis 1.  "תהו ובהו" is written on both side walls of the drawing in a mixture of acrylic paint and gel medium, with the name יהוה (the Divine Name of God in the Hebrew Bible generally vocalized as Adonai or HaShem) written in blue on the back wall.  The very simple statement that the sculpture makes is "Even in the formless and void places of life, God is still there." The sculpture is meant to give the sense of being under water, with a bit of light coming through the surface of the 'water' from above.

 

[1] Caryll Houselander, A Child in Winter, ed. Thomas Hoffman (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2000), 1.

[2] Houselander, 9.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, “The Poem: Subversion and Summons,” Journal for Preachers 35:1 (Advent 2011), 33.

[4] www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/280331/jewish/Nitzevet-Mother-of-David.htm

[5] Brueggemann, 34.

[6] medium.com/graceincarnate/advent-makes-christmas-something-that-kids-can-mature-into-cd5b5503687e


building the earth

I want to begin by talking about mammals.  “The story of mammals is one of self-destruction.  They first arose roughly 200 million years ago, and after eons spent scurrying in the shadow of the dinosaurs, they finally cut loose and evolved into a breathtaking variety of shapes and sizes, including the largest creatures to ever exist.  And after all that, it took barely 100,000 years for one relatively young member of the group—us—to bring everything crashing down.”[1]

That’s how Ed Yong’s article in last month’s The Atlantic begins.  From the time of the early proto-humans, we have hunted, invaded habitat, and polluted the environment.  One key point in the article is how we have affected evolutionary history.  Taking into account the mammals we’ve eradicated, and those nearing extinction, it is estimated it would take 3 to 7 million years of evolution for their replacement.  Evolution is very slow; destruction is pretty quick!

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I jokingly made a comment about the article when I posted it on Facebook.  I said, “If human beings vanished from the face of the earth, it would a good thing for our fellow animals!”

Fortunately, there’s one group doing their best to make sure that doesn’t happen.

There are some folks in what’s known as the Quiverfull movement.  In a nutshell, they don’t believe in contraception.  Some are even opposed to the rhythm method.  On the contrary, they believe God wants us to procreate as much as possible.  It’s like the TV show from a few years ago, 19 and Counting.

So why do I mention the Quiverfull movement and their determination to propagate the species?  It just so happens that their inspiration is Psalm 127.  Speaking of children, in particular sons, we read, “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth.  Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them” (vv. 4-5).  Thus the name!  This is taken as, if not exactly a command from God, then at least a very firm recommendation.

Whether or not you agree with the Quiverfull philosophy, I would say their talk of arrows misses the mark.

2 psVerse 1 establishes the context of the psalm; it sets the stage.  “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.  Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.”

Backing up for just a moment, Psalm 127 is part of a group of psalms called “The Songs of Ascents.”  They run from Psalm 120 to 134.  It’s commonly thought these were songs sung by pilgrims making their way up to Jerusalem.  (I’ve never been to Jerusalem, but those who have can probably attest to the higher elevation the city occupies—thus the idea of “ascent.”)

Unless the Lord builds…  Unless the Lord guards…

The dearly-departed Eugene Peterson, author of the paraphrase of the Bible, The Message (and about a thousand other books), in 1980 wrote A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.  It deals with the Songs of Ascents.  Perhaps those who are familiar with Peterson’s work can agree with me that, whatever he wrote, he spoke with the heart and soul of a poet.

Unless the Lord builds…  Unless the Lord guards…

In his chapter on Psalm 127, he begins with his own take on building and guarding.  He says, “The greatest work project of the ancient world is a story of disaster.  The unexcelled organization and enormous energy that were concentrated in building the Tower of Babel resulted in such shattered community and garbled communication that civilization is still trying to recover.  Effort, even if the effort is religious (perhaps especially when the effort is religious), does not in itself justify anything.”[2]

The story in Genesis 11 is one of frantic anxiety.  It’s one of human desperation and despair.  It’s one of human arrogance and hubris.  “The whole world” as the story goes, said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (vv. 1, 4).  They thought their technology would save them.  They wanted to build a city; they wanted to guard their culture from ruin.

That’s not the only time we humans have done that.  Today is the 100th anniversary of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.  In 1918, the armistice was signed, ceasing the fighting of what came to be called World War 1.  It was, as our call to worship puts it, the “day when the guns once fell silent.”

3 psHuman knowledge and technology during the late nineteenth century had reached new heights.  However, as it was sadly discovered, knowledge and wisdom often progress at different rates.  The so-called “civilized” nations were plunged into what Harry Emerson Fosdick called “the most terrific war men ever waged, when faith is sorely tried and deeply needed.”[3]

This was yet another time of human hubris, when we engaged in “the war to end all wars.”  In the midst of it, he quoted Walter Rauschenbusch, “O God, we pray Thee for those who come after us, for our children, and the children of our friends, and for all the young lives that are marching up from the gates of birth…  We remember with a pang that these will live in the world we are making for them…  We are poisoning the air of our land by our lies and our uncleanness, and they will breathe it…

“Grant us grace to leave the earth fairer than we found it; to build upon it cities of God in which the cry of needless pain shall cease; and to put the yoke of Christ upon our business life that it may serve and not destroy.”[4]

He takes note of our building cities, “building the house,” building the earth, so to speak, but it must have the blessing of God.  When we build the earth while ignoring God, it leaves a horrible legacy to our children, those young ones we looked at earlier.  “We are poisoning the air of our land by our lies and our uncleanness, and they will breathe it.”

We can knock ourselves out in doing this building.  Verse 2 says, “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.”  “In vain”: that’s the third time we’ve heard that!  So many are sleep-deprived, working anxiously.  I don’t imagine this is a big surprise, but America is the most sleep-deprived nation in the world—Japan is a close second.  Roughly one-third of us get less than 7 hours of sleep each night.  It takes its toll on our health.

When I was a kid, my parents used to listen to country music.  I was never a fan.  But I remember a song by Hoyt Axton: “Boney Fingers.”  Here’s the chorus: “Work your fingers to the bone, What do you get? / Boney fingers, boney fingers.”  And we lose that sleep I was just talking about.

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Remember the last line of verse 2: “he gives sleep to his beloved.”  There’s an alternate reading which says, “he provides for his beloved during sleep.”

With all this talk of sleep, some might say, “Why bother with work—and certainly working hard?”  God will take care of it.  However, the psalm isn’t advocating being lazy.  St. Paul had an argument with some of the Thessalonians, complaining that “we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work” (3:11).

And so we come to verse 3.  “Sons [children] are indeed a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.”  Children are a gift from God.  They are created without working our fingers to the bone.  Building the house isn’t simply about a physical structure.  Building the house also means family, lineage.  For example, the house of David figures greatly in the Old Testament.

Rickie Dale Moore says, “How deeply the world view of this psalm makes this connection can be seen in the fact that the Hebrew words for ‘build’ (banah), ‘house’ (bayith), ‘daughters’ (banoth), and ‘sons’ (banim), all come from the same Hebrew root (bnh).”[5]

This brings us to the final line of the psalm.  We already saw the first part of verse 5: “Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them” (that is, sons).  Here’s how it ends: “He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.”  “The gate” represents a place where justice is meted out, a tribunal.  If someone has many sons to back him up—well, let’s say there’s a better chance of being treated fairly!

Our psalm begins with the “threat of a cursed life of vanity.”  By the time we get to the end, there’s “the promise of a blessed life.”  Our friend Rickie Dale says, “The blessed life, here, finally consists in nothing other than the plenitude of one’s children, and what’s more, the blessedness is secured and protected by nothing other than the children themselves!”[6]

That might sound like someone without children is cursed.  (If so, then my wife and I are in that category!)  Translating that into the understanding most of us share, it doesn’t have to be our own children.  It’s the children of our society, the children of our world.

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There was a movie starring Clive Owen called Children of Men.  It’s set about twenty years into the future.  For some unknown reason, women all over the planet have become infertile; nobody’s having babies.  The youngest person in the world is 18 years old.  A notable line of one of the characters goes, “As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in.  Very odd, what happens in a world without children’s voices.”  Eventually, a young woman does get pregnant, so all is not lost!

In a very real way, it is the hope of children that saves us.  They are how we build the house; they are how we build the earth.  So, to rephrase as Moore does, “Unless the Lord builds the world; Then for its builders, all is vanity.”[7]

What goes into building the house?  What goes into building our culture, building our lives?

In Mark 12:38-44, the high and mighty are giving donations in a prideful way.  It’s a reaffirmation of the respect they believe they deserve.  They have plenty of money in the bank; their investments have paid off well.  The poor widow isn’t trying to impress anyone.  She can’t impress anyone.  She gives—not for show—but from a heart of love.  She gives her all, and Jesus commends her to his disciples.

We are called to build with love.  We are called to build the earth with love.  Part of that means not wiping out hundreds of thousands and even millions of years of evolution of our companions—whether they stride, soar, or swim.

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Unless the Lord builds…  Unless the Lord guards…

We are called, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone, to be joined together—to be built—into a holy temple in the Lord (Ep 2:20-21).

 

[1] www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/10/mammals-will-need-millions-years-recover-us/573031

[2] Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 20th anniversary ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 105.

[3] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Faith (New York:  Association Press, 1917), vii.

[4] Fosdick, 60.

[5] Moore, Rickie Dale, “Futile Labor vs Fertile Labor: Observing the Sabbath in Psalm 127,” The Living Pulpit, (April-June) 1998: 24.

[6] Moore, 25.

[7] Moore, 25.


clothed with joyful mystery

This scripture passage appears in the lectionary, but it’s in Year C during the Christmas season.  As you notice, once again, I have cause to point out the exclusion of verses we all can see.  The lectionary routinely omits the “troublesome” verses.  That’s what happens in Colossians 3.

1 col

The rest of the chapter has verses as troublesome as anything in the New Testament.  “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord” (v. 18).  Oh, boy!  And then there’s the part that starts off, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything” (v. 22).

You know, maybe one reason the lectionary editors left that out is to avoid the awkward moment after reading it.  That is, when we say, “This is the word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God!”

I won’t go into great detail about this passage.  It’s been a headache for centuries.  It has been rightly criticized as being a tool supportive of the patriarchal mindset.  Of course, it can also be seen as a remnant of very specific cultural references­­­­—not at all applicable to us today.  Still, there are those who like all of the “submission of women” stuff.  And our nation’s history has been dreadfully warped by the appalling misuse of the scriptures regarding slaves.

So let’s move on.  We can think of the preceding comments as a preface, or introduction, to the sermon.

It doesn’t take very much for me to get hot.  On a warm summer day, or even during a meeting in a warm room, I might start sweating in no time.  Sometimes it happens when I’m standing in the pulpit!  I am a self-admitted wimp when it comes to hot weather.  That’s why I try to avoid going south during the summer.  That’s one reason why I love winter.

In any event, when it comes to clothing, in particular when it comes to T-shirts, I prefer the all-cotton heavy ones.  It might seem counter-intuitive, but I consider them to be cooler than the thin ones.  Unfortunately, they are difficult to find.  I have had three of them for many years, and they are getting a bit ragged.

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In our scripture reading, St. Paul talks about some clothing he likes.  It is abundant, though sometimes it doesn’t fit very well.  We usually have to grow into it.  It can be itchy and scratchy.  We have to be encouraged to put it on.  These clothes are made of material like none other: “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (v. 12).

Paul talks about clothing just a few verses earlier.  He says to get rid of “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language,” since we have “clothed [ourselves] with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (vv. 8, 10).  That’s a pretty good fashion design, better than anything modeled on a Paris catwalk!

There’s a fine thread count which makes abundant use of forgiveness.  We’re told, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (v. 14).

That bit about “perfect harmony” brought to mind the song Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney did in the 80s, “Ebony and Ivory.”  You know how it goes.  “Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony / Side by side on my piano keyboard, oh Lord, why don’t we?”

3 colThat’s not a gratuitous, unnecessary mention of music.  Beginning with the end of verse 15, “And be thankful,” we follow a path that leads to singing.  “With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” (v. 16).

There’s a saying, “One who sings, prays twice.”  That’s been attributed to St. Augustine.  I love singing, even if as I’ve said many times, no one wants to hear it.  But God really is the audience, as the apostle says—and God is a forgiving audience!

On a related topic when it comes to music, here’s something about King David.  Well known lover of music and poetry he is, the book of 1 Chronicles includes something about his reign as king.

In chapter 25, we see David setting apart some musicians “who should prophesy with lyres, harps, and cymbals” (v. 1).  They are to speak the message of the Lord with their music.  I really like that.  We know that songs are able to convey the word of God, but so can music.

Staying with the apostles’ theme, we can clothe ourselves; we can envelop ourselves in the sound of music; we can dress ourselves in joy.

Paul tells the Colossians to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.”  He adds, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (vv. 15-16).  We can indeed look good on the outside—with the clothing we show the world, covering up the clothing of virtues we saw earlier.

So what does it mean for the peace of Christ to rule in our hearts?  It’s not just to live there, but to rule.  The peace of Christ rules!  What does rule our hearts?  To what do we give our hearts?

The apostle says the word of Christ is to dwell in us richly.  Again, not simply to dwell, to take up residence, but to really take over the place.  The word of Christ is to adorn our very being.  It is to shine like precious gemstones.

I’m forced to ask myself, “How richly does that word dwell in me?”  Do I sometimes let it walk around in raggedy, sweaty clothing?

4 colThe word of Christ.  The word of the Messiah.  “Word” in Greek is λογος (logos).  Usually it just means an ordinary word.  Applied to God, it can also carry a sense of something elemental or eternal.  The “word of Christ” is like that.

In chapter 1, the word logos appears twice.  In verse 5, it is “the word of the truth” where it refers to the gospel.  In verses 25 and 26, it’s “the word of God,” which is, as the scripture reads, “the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations.”  We’re told by Marcus Barth and Helmut Blanke that the word of Christ, the word of the Messiah “is the word which proclaims the Messiah (the revealed secret) and by which the Messiah himself is received as Lord.”[1]  St. Paul says the word of Christ is the secret revealed within us.

If we look ahead to chapter 4, he asks the Colossians to pray for he and his friends so “that God will open to us a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ” (v. 3).  The apostle longs to “reveal it clearly” (v. 4).  We also are called to reveal the mystery, to make it manifest in our lives.

With what do we clothe ourselves?  Hopefully something other than those heavy T-shirts I like!

Our wardrobe is mystery, what confounds the world.  (Maybe confounding ourselves!)  Remember the material: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Putting on those virtues seems a sure-fire way of being branded “a loser.”  They might seem a bit strange in our society, which too often is marked by selfishness and even cynicism.  But like I suggested earlier, what a joy it is to don that apparel.

The world indeed needs to see us as people of joy.  We need to see that in each other.  Please note, joy is not the same thing as happiness.  It is not an emotion.  Joy can be present even in times of sorrow.  That might be the surest test of it.  It is a deep awareness of being held and loved.  It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Ga 5:22).

When we open ourselves to everything we’ve heard: clothing ourselves with these joyful qualities, especially love; bearing with and forgiving one another; letting the peace of Christ rule in our hearts; allowing the word of Christ to dwell in us richly; teaching and admonishing each other in wisdom; being grateful and singing to God—then we are fulfilling verse 17.

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“Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”  It is our lifestyle.  It simply is who we are.  It’s not something artificial.  It is a sign that Jesus Christ, through the power of the Spirit, has transformed, and continues to transform us.  (And by the way, all of that crazy nonsense at the end of the chapter is also transformed and seen to be a relic to be relegated to the past.)

We are to clothe ourselves with joyful mystery.  We are to put on the Lord Jesus Christ.  Thanks be to God!

 

[1] Marcus Barth and Helmut Blanke, trans. Astrid B. Beck, Colossians: The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 426.


confession is good for the soul

As I suggested in what might be called chapter 1 of the story of King David and Bathsheba, if the “me too” movement had existed during David’s time, he would have qualified as one of its poster boys.  But now we come to chapter 2, which could have the dramatic title, “The Reckoning.”

With a theme we’ll look at later, Nathan, who plays the role of prophet and “he who speaks truth to power,” calls David to account.

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There’s an idea I’ve heard and I imagine most, if not all of you, have also heard.  Maybe you’ve tried it, or it’s been tried on you!  One good way to convince someone, or to make a point, is to let them think it was their idea.  This might require a bit of craftiness.  Maybe simply knowing when it’s time to shut up can figure into it.  You don’t want to come out swinging or insult someone’s intelligence.

There have been times during a group discussion when I’ve tossed an idea into the mix and then said nothing else.  I didn’t belabor the point.  And on many occasions, someone else would say the same thing, and then finding approval.  Sometimes, you just got to let someone else take the credit!

One good way to implement this method is to tell a story—something the other person can identify with.  That’s what Nathan does.

Let’s review to see why he is prompted to tell his story.  After David impregnates Bathsheba, he is finally “forced” to have her husband, Uriah, killed in a deliberately ill-conceived military move.  You know—accidentally on purpose.  When word about the fiasco is brought to David, he isn’t furious, as would normally be expected.  Kings don’t usually welcome such news in a good mood.  Instead he blows it off and assures his general Joab, “Don’t worry, that’s what happens in the fog of war.”  And there’s an understood “wink wink.”

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Speaking of “wink wink,” roughly three centuries after the writing of 1 and 2 Samuel, we have the two books of the Chronicles.  One of the writer’s concerns was to emphasize the key role of David’s dynasty.  Unfortunately, Bathsheba never figures into the story.

Here’s how chapter 20 begins: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, Joab led out the army, ravaged the country of the Ammonites, and came and besieged Rabbah.  But David remained at Jerusalem.  Joab attacked Rabbah, and overthrew it” (v. 1).  Wait a minute!  Didn’t something else happen at the time?

If I didn’t know better, I would swear someone wants to sanitize history.

And so we come to today’s reading.  When Bathsheba heard of her husband’s death, “she made lamentation for him.  When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son” (2 Sm 11:26-27).

So there we go.  David’s plan finally works.  Uriah is out of the way, and as far as the world is concerned, he is the father.  Bathsheba is now David’s wife.  He’s taken her into his home.  To the unsuspecting, it might appear he’s extending royal protection to a woman who is a widow and is about to be a single mother.  Things are going fine.  “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world!”

Well, let’s not jump the gun.  Here’s verse 1: “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.”  “Be sure your sin will find you out,” as Moses told the people (Nu 32:23).  The king is about to find out that warning also applies to him.  He has been found out.

As we saw at the beginning, Nathan the prophet realizes he has an unwelcome message for David.  He tells the story of a rich man who had an abundance of sheep and a poor man who “had nothing but one little ewe lamb.”  Notice how he describes the little critter.  “He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him” (v. 3).  I’m about to cry just reading that!

But then—oh yes, but then!  The rich man has a visitor.  Hospitality requires he welcome his guest with a meal.  However, this member of the top one-percent decides he can’t bear to part with one of his vast horde of animals.  Instead, he sends his boys to grab the poor man’s lamb, slaughter it, and prepare it for the dinner plate.  Delicious.

At this point, David begins quaking and shaking with fury.  He sees red, and he explodes, “That evil so-and-so needs to be slain!  But not before making restitution to the poor fellow whose heart he crushed.”

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I wonder how long Nathan takes with his response.  Does he wait until David calms down?  Or does he strike while the iron is still hot?  Whatever the case, Nathan lets loose with something to knock David back on his heels—metaphorically and maybe even literally.  To David’s cry for the man’s blood, Nathan comes back, “You are the man!” (v. 7).

The prophet launches into a litany of what God has done for him: making him king, rescuing him from Saul, giving him Saul’s wives, “and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more” (v. 8).  But, unfortunately, that’s not all.  There will be turmoil in his family, bloodshed, and rebellion.

David does repent, but there is one more heartbreaking consequence of his actions.  As Nathan says, “because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die” (v. 14).  Afterwards, David fasts and prays to God that the child should live, but to no avail.

Let me go back to something I mentioned at the beginning, which is Nathan holding David accountable.  By the way, he does this, not without a degree of danger.  Who knows how the king will react?  Nathan might find himself in prison, or maybe David’s wish for the rich man will come true—except Nathan will be on the receiving end!

Having said that, it’s very important we have someone to be accountable to.  It can be easy to say, “I’m accountable to God,” and at the end of the day, it’s certainly true.  Still, without someone (that is, a wise, centered someone) looking us in the eye and saying, “So how are you doing with such-and-such?” we run the risk of not sticking to a path of spiritual growth.

I’ll admit, I haven’t always been faithful in finding such a person.  (We have moved quite a bit over the years—how that for an excuse?  However, I do have a wife who holds me accountable more often than I would like!)

After the confrontation (a stern form of accountability), as we know, David repents.  Is it possible there was at first a thought of self-justification?  There could be numerous ways to do this.  As we saw earlier, he could say he’s been protecting Bathsheba.  As for Uriah the Hittite, he was no child of Israel.  How do we know he wasn’t a spy?

David confesses his sin.  As mentioned earlier, Nathan gets his point across to David by giving him someone to identify with.  In an unexpected, uncomfortable, and even compulsory way, the rich man in the story becomes his idea, an idea he really doesn’t want to have!

4 2 smStill, it works.  Not every leader admits guilt.  Some say there’s nothing they need to apologize for.  Instead of accepting responsibility, they shift the blame to others.  But then, how often do we do that?  According to the Bible, human beings have been doing that since day one.

We see a David who is calculating, even brutal, but also in pain.  He must go through the fire to be purified.

He emerges on the other side, giving voice to one of the most beloved of the psalms, number 51.  It is the Ash Wednesday psalm.  If you notice the psalm’s title, or superscription, it is forever linked with Nathan’s calling him out regarding his sin against Bathsheba.

Look at verse 4.  “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.”  Understand, this can apply to any of us.  But right now, we’re dealing with it as it applies to David.

I have a question.  Where’s Bathsheba?  Hasn’t she been sinned against?  Need we go back and run through the sorry story again?  Is she being slighted yet again?  Is her voice not being heard?  Does she need to cry out, “Me too”?

O Lord, against you alone have I sinned.

In his book, The End of Memory, Croatian writer Miroslav Volf seems to agree.  He speaks of the months-long interrogation by someone he simply calls “Captain G.”  This was during the time of the former Yugoslavia, and he was under suspicion of being a spy.  He’s reflecting on that experience from more than two decades earlier and imagining a reconciliation between Captain G. and himself.

Captain G., being a loyal communist, is also an atheist, so he would only be interested in forgiveness offered by Volf, not by God.  Our friend Miroslav, being a Christian, thinks differently.

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Miroslav Volf

“By wronging me,” he says, “you’ve transgressed the moral law God established to help us, God’s beloved creatures, to flourish; so you have wronged God.  Ultimately, only God has the power and the right to forgive, and only God’s forgiveness can wash you clean of your wrongdoing.  When I forgive you, I mostly just echo God’s forgiving of your sin.”[1]

That has the makings of a pretty good theology of forgiveness!

Of course, when we wrong someone, commit those petty little offenses, we sin against each other.  Still, as the psalmist and Miroslav Volf contend, those sins are simply a reflection of the sin against God, and forgiveness offered is a reflection of God’s forgiveness.

Confession is good for the soul.  We learn it when King David confesses.  We learn it when we confess our sin against each other.  We learn it when we confess our sin against the earth.  We learn it when we confess our sin against the body politic.  That is, if we disagree, we somehow become enemies.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (v. 10).  Confession is good for the soul.  How does that chorus go?

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“Create in me a clean heart, O God, / and renew a right spirit within me. / Create in me a clean heart, O God, / and renew a right spirit within me.

“Cast me not away from Thy presence, O Lord, / and take not Thy holy Spirit from me. / Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation, / and renew a right spirit within me.”

 

[1] Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 225.


not me too!

When I was in junior high and high school, there was a certain group of people I did not like.  Unfortunately, there were quite a few of them.  I’m talking about boyfriends who treated their girlfriends, or just girls in general, disrespectfully.  They would boss them around; they would insult them.  They would brag about their physical exploits with them.

I will admit, sometimes I fell prey to the practice of blaming the girl.  “Why does she stay with him?  What does she see in him?”  Still, the vast majority of the time, it was the guy’s behavior that really ticked me off.  I guess he thought he was showing what a man he is by mistreating females.  Certainly, we can think of situations in which mistreatment is really serious.

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Last year, #MeToo really took off.  I visited the “me too” movement website, which said the movement was started in 2006 by Tarana Burke for women and girls who have survived sexual abuse.[1]  A greater spotlight has been cast on men who oppress women.  Sadly, that nasty business has been with us for quite a while—going back to the dawn of time!  And we see it throughout the scriptures, from start to finish.

In our scripture text from 2 Samuel, we see the ignoble conduct of King David.  He hardly acts in a noble way.  He would be a candidate for the “me too” movement’s rogues’ gallery.

Let’s see what leads to David’s fall from grace.

Old Testament professor Walter Brueggemann frames our story with lavish language.  He says, “We are…invited into the presence of delicate, subtle art.  We are at the threshold of deep, aching psychology, and at the same time we are about to witness a most ruthless political performance.  In this narrative we are in the presence of greatness.”[2]

My guess is “the presence of greatness” he mentions doesn’t apply to David’s behavior.  Still, we all know this isn’t the only time a great man has fallen.

He continues, “For David and for Israel, we are at a moment of no return.  Innocence is never to be retrieved.  From now on the life of David is marked, and all Israel must live with that mark.”[3]

That mark is etched when the flowers are blooming, as we see at the beginning of chapter 11: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him” (v. 1).

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“In the spring of the year.”  There would be a ceasefire during the winter.  The weather would usually be too harsh to set up camp very easily.  The rain and snow would turn the ground into mud—which can be a difficulty if you want to ride horses or drive chariots!  And besides, there wouldn’t be much to eat if you’re trying to live off the land.

Kings were expected to lead their armies into battle.  Still, notice how the verse ends.  “But David remained at Jerusalem.”  When that sentence begins with “but,” you know something’s up, and it’s probably not good!

David has other plans.  “Let those boys go fight the war for me.  It’s time for me to enjoy being king.”  Power has its privileges.  And so we’re told, “late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king's house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful” (v. 2).  David decides he’s got to do something about this.  And that he does.

He finds out her identity.  She is Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite.  He doesn’t waste time, as Brueggemann relates: “The action is quick.  The verbs rush as the passion of David rushed.  He sent; he took; he lay (v. 4).  The royal deed of self-indulgence does not take very long.  There is no adornment to the action.  The woman then gets some verbs: she returned, she conceived.  The action is so stark.  There is nothing but action.  There is no conversation.  There is no hint of caring, of affection, of love—only lust.  David does not call her by name, does not even speak to her.  At the end of the encounter she is only ‘the woman’ (v. 5).  The verb that finally counts is ‘conceived.’”[4]

Upon discovering her pregnancy, the wheels start turning in his head.  He comes up with the scheme to have his general, Joab, recall Uriah from the front.  David’s pretext is to get information about the war, but he simply wants Uriah to sleep with his wife.  People will think he’s the father of the baby.  Only Bathsheba will know the truth.  And if she were to recklessly dare say anything, it would be her word against the king’s.

Also, we can’t ignore that this is the ultimate difference in power dynamics.  King David is the leader of his country.

3 2 smDavid’s plan fails.  Uriah is too honorable to go to bed with his wife while his fellow soldiers are fighting and dying in the field.  So on to plan B.  David has Joab engage in a foolish military strategy, one that will cost the lives of many men—but he needs to make sure Uriah is one of them!  We’re told, “Joab is the kind of hatchet man every king must have, someone who acts always in the interest of the king without scruple or reservation.”[5]

The Hittite didn’t want to play ball, so he gets taken out.  He won’t be around when David pretends he’s really the father.

In that rapid fire series of verbs we looked at earlier, there’s one in particular that’s especially troubling.  In verse 4 we’re told the messengers are sent “to get her.”  The Hebrew word (לׇקַח, laqach) has the primary meaning of “take.”  It also means “seize.”  Bathsheba receives no invitation.  This is an offer she can’t refuse.  There is no discussion; she is simply taken.

The offense isn’t simply adultery.  It’s rape.  King David could definitely be a poster boy for the “me too” movement.

This isn’t the David we know and love.  This isn’t the man after God’s own heart (Ac 13:22).  This isn’t the man dancing before the Lord (2 Sm 6:14).

This isn’t the man who, when King Saul was out to kill him, had Saul’s life in his hands and then spared him (1 Sm 24).  That was when David was on the run, and he was hiding in a cave—a cave where Saul went to relieve himself.  David snuck over and cut off a piece of Saul’s robe to prove he could have done even worse.  But he was instantly stricken with guilt.  David had raised his hand against the king chosen by God.  (Even if there was more than a little comic relief!)

No, this is David at his worst.  And this isn’t something that just happened out of the blue.  It didn’t just come out of nowhere.  Remember how all of this starts.  David begins to lose himself.  What happens to the boy, and then the man, who’s fired up about the Lord?  He begins to lose his way.  Springtime comes, but he’s staying in the palace, living in the lap of luxury.  We’re told he gets up near sunset when he sees the bathing beauty.  Was he just taking a nap, or has he made it a practice to sleep the day away and prowl around at night—like a vampire?

Whatever the case, there’s been step by step, even baby steps, along the primrose path.

Something like that is true with us.  We can almost imperceptibly move in a direction we know we shouldn’t.  But then it gets easier, and in time, we wonder why we made such a fuss of it before.  Then we go a little further, and pretty soon, we’re like Dante in his work, Inferno:

4 2 sm“Midway along the journey of our life / I woke to find myself in a dark wood, / for I had wandered off from the straight path…  How I entered there I cannot truly say, / I had become so sleepy at the moment / when I first strayed, leaving the path of truth.”[6]  Such is the story of King David.

Now, I don’t think it’s a spoiler alert to say that’s not the end of the story.  We know that David repents.  We’re just not there yet.

As for Bathsheba, it takes a while, but things do turn out well for her, more or less.  Again, we’re not there yet.

 Jumping ahead quite a few centuries, the early church recognizes Bathsheba in the genealogy of Jesus.  In Matthew 1, we have the statement, “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah” (v. 6).  Oh well, she is left nameless!  Bathsheba is joined by three other women from the Old Testament: Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth.

(On a side note, really through no fault of their own, each woman has had some blemish attributed to her character.  Then of course we have Mary, who is the exact opposite of blemished!)

What can we take away from this sorry story of David?  “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive!”  David first deceives himself, which leads to a snowball effect of further deception.  He becomes willing to manipulate others, even in a lethal fashion.  He treats them like objects.

That’s something we’re all capable of doing, although we might cry, “Not me too!”  We might not go as far as rape or murder (I would certainly hope not!), but we can still have something like that in our spirit.  It’s easier than we think to go down that path.  The next chapter of our story involves Nathan, someone who is there to hold the king accountable.

So, there are many ways we can stray from the right path, but the central theme of the passage is mistreatment of Bathsheba, mistreatment of females.  Although, it is also true that boys and men can suffer similar mistreatment.  To the men, I urge us to watch our own behavior, and however seems appropriate, call out other men when they cross the line.

To the women, I encourage you, if you feel comfortable, to tell your own story.  But it’s not like you need to hear that from me, with my vast understanding of how that feels!

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What a great role model we have in Jesus Christ.  He personified qualities considered both masculine and feminine.  He challenged the biases of his culture.  Jesus welcomed and taught women, right along with his male disciples (Lk 10:38-42).  He intervened on behalf of women unfairly accused by men (Jn 8:3-11).  Women traveled with him, and he accepted their help, including financial assistance (Lk 8:1-3).  He treated and understood them as equals.  (Some would say, being a man, he understood them as his superiors!)

We have been given the Holy Spirit, the spirit of Christ, so we also are called to personify all those qualities.  Where King David trips up, the Son of David triumphs.

Jesus says to the woman who is crippled and unable to stand up straight, “You are set free” (Lk 13:10-17).  He says to all of us—and that also means those who wonder, “And not me too?  Am I not included?”—yes, you are set free.  It really is true: where King David trips up, the Son of David triumphs.

 

[1] metoomvmt.org

[2] Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 271-272.

[3] Brueggemann, 272.

[4] Brueggemann, 273.

[5] Brueggemann, 276.

[6] Mark Musa, trans. (New York: Penguin, 1984), 67.


Qoheleth, the patriot

I’ve never heard anyone suggest to new converts that they begin their reading of the Bible with Ecclesiastes.  The last I heard, it’s not very popular in Sunday school.  I guess I can understand why.  It is a strange little book.  Some rabbis of old fought hard to keep it from being called scripture.

If you’ve read the book, you can probably figure out why.  Starting right off in chapter 1 we get some pretty good clues.  Ecclesiastes says things the rest of the Bible does not say!  Already, in the second verse of the book, we hear this: “Vanity of vanities…  All is vanity.”  That sets the theme for all that follows.  All is vanity![1]  Everything is meaningless!  It’s no use!  What in the world is that doing in the Bible?  Is that something one of God’s people would say?

Hold on to that thought.  We’ll see more examples as we go on as to why folks throughout the centuries have been puzzled about the book.

In the original Hebrew, our narrator is anonymous.  He’s simply referred to as קֹהֶלֶת (qoheleth).  “Ecclesiastes” comes from the Greek translation of that word.  “Qoheleth” comes from the word קׇהַל (qahal), which means “assembly” or “congregation.”  So, “Qoheleth” would be the “convener of the assembly.”  One might say he’s the person who “ca-halls” the people together!

Even though the author calls himself “the son of David, king in Jerusalem,” it’s clear from the vocabulary used he lives hundreds of years after Solomon.  But like others who wrote what’s known as wisdom literature, he pays his respects to the king noted for his great wisdom.  Claiming to be Solomon is high praise.

All is vanity!  To those who believe faith is like the nice little graphics you click on Facebook, this might come like a bucket of ice water thrown in the face—and then followed with the empty bucket!  This is some stern, bitter language.  The translations “vanity,” “futility,” “meaningless”: none of them quite capture the sense of deep disappointment Qoheleth expresses.  Those words don’t have enough bite.  What might be necessary is something like: “Everything is b. s.”

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In fact, Methodist professor Elsa Tamez has said of Ecclesiastes it is for “times of profound disillusionment.”[2]  It seems she goes along with the saying, “Misery loves company,” because she adds, “a disappointed soul can find solace in reading this work of a frustrated narrator.”  I really like the footnote she puts at the bottom of the page.  “This has happened to me various times after giving a sermon, teaching a Bible study, or conducting a course on Ecclesiastes”!

Just look at our scripture reading.  Look at the list of frustration that Qoheleth goes through.  Generations come and go, the sun rises and sets, the winds blow, the streams flow—but nothing really changes.  “All things are wearisome,” he proclaims, “more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing” (v. 8).

Don’t forget; this is just the opening chapter!  There’s a lot more where that came from!  Maybe we can be excused for dismissing this as the ranting of Qoheleth the curmudgeon.  But then, my sermon title isn’t “Qoheleth, the Curmudgeon.”  It’s “Qoheleth, the Patriot.”

To understand how Qoheleth could be a patriot, we need to look at the world in his day.  It was after the Babylonian exile, possibly after when the Persians came to power in the mid-500s B. C., and before the Greeks took over in the late 300s.  But no one really knows.

In any case, the Jews are but a small part of a big empire, be it Persian or Greek.  And in either case, Qoheleth has witnessed the arrogance of a superpower.  Each in their own way, the Persians, then the Greeks, have dominated the Jews.  They’ve imposed their own cultural values on them.

So when Qoheleth observes, as he does in verse 9, that “there is nothing new under the sun,” in part, it flies in the face of political propaganda—the party line of the government.  The nations who have invaded the Jews have promised them all kinds of innovations, what they see as modernization, so to speak.  To the leaders who say that “everything has changed” and that “we live in a brand new world,” Qoheleth says, “I don’t think so; we’ve seen all this before!  We’ve heard these grand promises before.”

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Elsa Tamez

Our author wants to rouse his fellow Jews from their slumber.  In verse 11, he warns, “The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.”  In The Message, Eugene Peterson turns that last line into, “Don’t count on being remembered.”

Dr. Tamez reflects on how “generations come and go without remembering their own history.  Such collective amnesia means the death of a people.”[3]  If we have the attention span of a gnat, we become very easy to manipulate.  We are easy to manipulate if our life’s focus is on bread and circuses.

Being a good citizen, especially the citizen of a democracy, requires effort.  It takes discipline.  On the other hand, to live under an authoritarian requires very little effort.  We need only ignore our responsibility to others—especially to the poorest and weakest—and to the planet.  Without discipline, especially spiritual discipline, freedom slips through our fingers like sand.

The great Jewish writer Abraham Heschel published an article in February 1944.[4]  During World War 2, he speaks of that lack of spiritual discipline that permits dictatorship and war to thrive.  Heschel’s words remain relevant for us today, as they have been presented again in recent years.

“Let Fascism not serve as an alibi for our conscience.  [I think we could substitute “terrorism” for “fascism.”  But I think we could also envision fascism once again raising its ugly head.]  We have failed to fight for right, for justice, for goodness; as a result we must fight against wrong, against injustice, against evil.  We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; now we must offer sacrifices on the altar of war.”

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Abraham Joshua Heschel

He goes on, “A tale is told of a band of inexperienced mountain climbers.  Without guides, they struck recklessly into the wilderness.  Suddenly a rocky ledge gave way beneath their feet and they tumbled headlong into a dismal pit.  In the darkness of the pit they recovered from their shock, only to find themselves set upon by a swarm of angry snakes.  Every crevice became alive with fanged, hissing things.  For each snake the desperate men slew, ten more seemed to lash out in its place.  Strangely enough, one man seemed to stand aside from the fight.  When the indignant voices of his struggling companions reproached him for not fighting, he called back: If we remain here, we shall be dead before the snakes.  I am searching for a way of escape from the pit for all of us.”

We can become so focused on the agenda that’s been handed us—or that we’ve chosen for ourselves—that we forget to stop, lift up our heads, look around, and explore other possibilities.  We can emphasize what we reject more than what we accept.  We can emphasize what divides us more than what unites us.  We can attract negative energy rather than positive energy.

“Let future generations not loathe us,” Heschel says, “for having failed to preserve what prophets and saints, martyrs and scholars have created in thousands of years.  The Fascists have shown that they are great in evil.  Let us reveal that we can be as great in goodness.”

In a strange way, Ecclesiastes is valuable for those who often have an uncomfortable and questioning faith.  I don’t know; maybe that’s why I like it!

As we approach our nation’s 242nd birthday, sometimes we have an uncomfortable and questioning patriotism.  I believe that’s in the best spirit of America.  We’re still allowed to ask uncomfortable questions, at least, for now.

Our final hymn today is “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies.”  I love that song.  Most of us know the first verse by heart.  As we continue, Katharine Lee Bates deals with the innate complexity that is America.  Each verse begins, “O beautiful,” and celebrates the promise and the dream of America.  It is a promise not yet fulfilled.  Bates thinks this is reason for celebration: “O beautiful for patriot dream / That sees beyond the years. / Thine alabaster cities gleam, / Undimmed by human tears!”  Friends, we’re not quite there!

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Qoheleth asks the uncomfortable questions, and he really doesn’t have the answers.  Vanity of vanity—all is vanity!  It’s all useless!  Fortunately for us, we do have one who asked, and continues to ask, those uncomfortable questions, and he asks them to Caesar.

Jesus the Christ, the son of David, the king, makes the promise to us, even if the dream is not yet fulfilled.  We are freed to ask those uncomfortable questions, and we know at the end of the day, that all is not vanity.  To the contrary, all is bursting with light, something new under the sun.

 

[1] הֶבֶל (hebel)

[2] Elsa Tamez, “Ecclesiastes: A Reading from the Periphery,” Interpretation 55:3 (July 2001): 250.

[3] Tamez, 252.

[4] mlk50.org/writings/king-heschel/the-meaning-of-this-war-by-abraham-joshual-heschel


wait, every living creature?

When I was young, for a little while we went to church—a couple of years or so.  My Sunday school teacher had one of those billboards covered with felt material.  (The kind that images can stick to.)  She would use it illustrate the Bible stories for us students.

Of course, one of the favorites was always Noah’s ark.  There would be all manner of critters obediently marching to the giant boat.  Natural enemies would behave themselves, or rather, they would not behave as nature designed them.  The lion would not tear into the lamb.  The eagle would not swoop down and snatch the rabbit.

1 noah

We can think about how we first learn the story.  “Here come the animals, two by two.”  That sounds nice!  However, reading Genesis 7:2 gives us a slightly different take on it.  The Lord tells Noah, “Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate.”  It’s about ritual purity.  So maybe it should go this way: “Here come the unclean animals, two by two.”

Anyway, that’s how we first learn the story.  But if we leave it there, we’re reduced to asking rather cartoonish questions.  How did every species find its way to the ark?  Where did they store enough drinking water for the entire time?  Did anyone take a bath?  (You get what I’m talking about.)

Obviously, no story in sacred scripture has such a limited meaning.  The central idea of this story is covenant.

Sometimes there’s confusion between a contract and a covenant.  With a contract, terms are spelled out.  If one party does not abide by the terms, the contract is broken, and sometimes penalties are levied, punishment is meted out!  In addition, we’re always warned about reading the fine print before we sign on the dotted line.  (But who actually spends half an hour with six-point type?)

However, a covenant is quite different.  This is an agreement entered into which oddly enough, is still in effect even if one party doesn’t observe it faithfully.  It’s a statement which says, “I will honor this, even if you don’t.”  It’s “for better or for worse,” though that “for worse” in a marriage covenant can finally reach the point where it’s unsustainable.

2 noah

In the Bible, God makes numerous covenants.  We’ll look at the one in our scripture reading in a few moments.  Here are a few notable ones:

In Genesis 15, a covenant is made with Abraham—and Sarah, though she doesn’t get proper credit (v. 18)!  One who has no children is promised a multitude of descendants.

In Exodus 19, God makes a covenant with the children of Israel at Mt. Sinai.  They are promised to be God’s “treasured possession out of all the peoples” (v. 5).

In Psalm 89, we see the covenant made with David, who receives the promise, “I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.”  What if his progeny—what if a king in the Davidic line—becomes unfaithful?  No matter, the Lord will still honor the covenant (vv. 3, 34).

And of course, we have the new covenant in Jesus Christ, which applies to us.  Even when we fail, and fail we do, the covenant stands.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent.[1]  It makes sense that this would be one of the readings for Lent.  Consider the number forty.  It rained for forty days and forty nights, and the result was the great flood.  Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days.  Moses and the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years.  The number forty appears many times in the Bible.

Oh, and then there’s sin!  Sin a’ plenty.  We see the Israelites falling into sin in the wilderness.  They even long to go back to Egypt.  After all, they did have food to eat.  And talk about job security!  Sure there were chains, but who wants to fend for themselves in this terrible freedom of the desert?

Then we have Jesus in the desert.  What happens after he is baptized?  St. Mark tells us, “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (1:12-13).  Jesus is weakened and vulnerable, in body, mind, and spirit.  Come on Jesus, just give him a try.  The devil has some interesting offers, and besides, nobody has to get hurt.  Sin is dangling before him, juicy tidbit it is—but Jesus doesn’t bite.

And now we have a story of universal sin.  “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Gn 6:5).  Every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts.  And what is the remedy?  Complete annihilation (well, with the exception of Noah and his family).  That doesn’t sound like a loving God, does it?

One way to come at this would be to realize in ancient times, many of the gods just didn’t like people!  They found them irritating, and they constantly demanded obedience, or they would lower the boom.  That was the environment of the ancient scriptural stories.  The difference here is that this God shows mercy and establishes the covenant—the one I mentioned earlier.

Still, the portrayal of a God who unleashes fury isn’t so strange as we might think.  Isn’t the image of a God who hurls lightning bolts still with us?  I think there’s something within the human psyche, regardless of belief system, theology, or life philosophy, that knows we have done, and sadly still do, wrong.  And so, there’s an expectation of punishment, which can lead to all kinds of scenarios.

Of course, we also have that new covenant.  We have the covenant which says in Christ we are forgiven.  Period.

If we can agree the flood wasn’t a historical event—if we can’t point to it on a calendar—I think we can still say it was, and is, a reality.  The flood is still with us, the flood of evil thoughts and evil doings!  However, we haven’t been destroyed.  “Never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (9:11).  That’s the promise.

So here we go: “God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth’” (vv. 12-13).  The rainbow is the reminder.  “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (v. 16).

There is a covenant with every living creature.

3 noah

In ancient times, the rainbow was imagined as a bow, a divine weapon used to shoot the arrows of lightning bolts.  But now, the bow is being laid down in the clouds.  God is laying down the weapon.  We’re told God “will find a way of defeating evil without waging war.”[2]

Timothy Simpson wrote an article called, “The Politics of Saving Everybody.”[3]  If you think about it, this rainbow covenant is an extremely radical thing.  Think of it.  This is one of the stories told by those who say they are God’s chosen ones, the treasured possession out of all the peoples.  These are people who believe they’ve been set apart from the other nations.  They have special status.

At the same time, this story told by the Israelites has “the unmistakable notion that there is no living thing anywhere that will ever exist anywhere that is not covered under the scope of this covenant.”  No living thing anywhere that will ever exist anywhere.  That’s quite a sweeping statement.

I find his phrase interesting: the politics of saving everybody.  There are always political divisions.  There are always differences in how people want to accomplish certain things.  Still, maybe we can notice how, over the past couple of decades, divisions have gradually become hardened.  Too often people are questioning, not only the intelligence of those with whom they disagree, but also their character.  Not only are they wrong-headed, but wrong-hearted.  In the past couple of years, that seems to have dramatically escalated.

It can be a tricky proposition to recognize how the rainbow covenant applies to everyone and everything.

But then, that’s why this story is so perfect for Lent.  We are reminded by Joan Chittister, “Lent is the time for trimming the soul and scraping the sludge off a life turned slipshod.”[4]

God lays down the bow.  God buries the hatchet, so to speak.  Aren’t we called to scrape the sludge off our lives?  Aren’t we called to lay down our weapons?  To lay down the mistrust?  To lay down the hostility?  To tear down the walls we erect?  To stop praying for a flood to wipe out our enemies?  Isn’t that what this season of Lent is calling us to do?

I find Henri Nouwen’s prayer for Lent especially insightful.  “I know that Lent is going to be a very hard time for me.  The choice for your way has to be made every moment of my life.  I have to choose thoughts that are your thoughts, words that are your words, and actions that are your actions.  There are not times or places without choices.  And I know how deeply I resist choosing you.”[5]

It is difficult to accept God’s throwing down the bow, God’s extending the rainbow covenant to every living creature.  It is difficult to escape lazy either-or thinking, to reframe the discussion, to creatively imagine a third way or a fourth way.

When the flood comes, don’t worry.  God will not let it destroy you!

 

[1] Obviously, this sermon was posted well afterwards!

[2] www.taize.fr/en_article167.html?date=2010-07-01

[3] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-saving-everybody-genesis-98-17

[4] Joan Chittister, Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 136.

[5] drsheltie.blogspot.com/2015/02/snowy-ashes.html


make way for the weak

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

“O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

Most of you have no doubt heard that prayer before.  It has been attributed to St. Francis.  There’s a lot of good stuff in it.  There is so much that is praiseworthy about it.  And none of it is easily reflected in our lives.  But there’s one thing in particular that I find challenging—and irritating.  It’s the part of the prayer which says “grant that I may not seek so much…to be understood as to understand.”

Misunderstood

I don’t know about you, but I hate being misunderstood.  It’s too easy to take things the wrong way, to take someone the wrong way.  Maybe that’s why emoticons (or emojis) have become popular online.  It might be difficult to distinguish between a comment being snarky or good-natured.  (Though, I think the overuse of emojis suggests a poor grasp of language!)

As for St. Francis, it seems clear he doesn’t believe that he has arrived.  He knows that he still prefers to be understood.  And that isn’t good for his spiritual growth.  To be honest, it isn’t good for simply living together in society.

This idea of understanding, instead of striving to be understood, is part of the background of our epistle reading.  St. Paul wants to emphasize the humility involved in that.  Learning to be humble means it becomes more difficult to throw our weight around.  As we’ll see, he uses our Lord Jesus Christ as the icon of humility and welcoming.

But first, here are some brief comments about Paul’s letter to the Roman church.  It is the longest, most theologically packed, and influential of his works.  Some people can’t praise it enough.  Its main theme is justification by faith.  In the letter, Paul covers a wide variety of topics.  Among other things, he talks about Abraham as a model of being justified by faith and not by law.  He addresses life in the Spirit and the role of Israel.

When we get to chapter 12, there is a big turn in direction.  This is where he starts applying what he’s already said to specific ways of living.  The apostle is talking about acting on what we believe, or at least, what we say we believe.

Again, among many other things, Paul says to not take revenge.  (Even though it’s a dish best served cold!)  He tells the Christians to be good citizens of the empire, and that includes paying your taxes!  He warns them against squabbling with each other over matters that divide them into factions—matters which at the end of the day, aren’t exactly of earth shattering importance.

Today’s scripture is part of that last section, which begins with chapter 14.  He kicks things off by talking about the “strong” and the “weak.”  That goes back to what I said about throwing our weight around.  “Welcome those who are weak in faith,” the apostle says, “but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions” (14:1).  Why not?  Doesn’t he know how much fun it is making other people look bad?

Strong and weak

And there were all kinds of ways they were doing this.  For example, there were arguments about food.  Actually, those arguments never seem to end.  I like what he says.  “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables” (v. 2).  My guess is that Paul heard other people calling those vegetarians “weak.”  I don’t imagine he had a beef with them.

(I should add:  those folks’ abstaining from meat wasn’t necessarily for reasons of health or helping the environment, as they tend to be today, but for reasons of ritual purity.)

The point is, they were arguing over what they thought is vital to the faith.  At least, that’s the presenting issue.  There’s much more going on below the surface.

The so-called “strong” have knowledge, and they might dismiss the concerns of the “weak” as irrelevant.  The so-called “weak” want to defend the faith, and they might condemn the self-appointed “strong” as too cavalier, too casual.

As Paul continues through chapter 14 and then into today’s reading in 15, he yearns for them to get some perspective.  Don’t cause each other to stumble.

Our text begins, “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.”  (By the way, isn’t it convenient that Paul counts himself among the strong?)  Another version puts it this way: “Those of us who are strong must accept as our own burden the tender scruples of the weak, and not just please ourselves” (Revised English Bible).  The strong must accept as their own burden the tender scruples of the weak.[1]  Just because it’s your right to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it.

When I was a kid, my mom told me to not set things out where they could be a temptation to others.  Something really blatant would be, “Don’t show up at an AA meeting, and plop a bottle of Jack Daniel’s on the table.”  In a similar way, if the cops do something like that to get you arrested, it’s called entrapment.

We are such fragile creatures.  In the Lord’s Prayer, don’t we ask that we won’t be led into temptation?  St. James says in his letter, “all of us make many mistakes” (3:2).

I like a prayer by St. Philip Neri, who lived in 16th century Italy.  He was known for being both humble and for having an offbeat sense of humor.  This prayer seems to sum up his approach to life: “Lord, beware of this Philip or he will betray you!  Lay your hand upon my head, for without you there is not a sin I may not commit this day.”

Sometimes I insert my name into it.  Lord, beware of this James or he will betray you!

Taking all of that into account, Paul presents Jesus as the model of humility and welcoming I mentioned earlier.  He tells them to emulate Christ, who didn’t put himself first.  He is the example of understanding, rather than insisting on being understood.  He “did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me’” (v. 3).  He accepts insults; he accepts weakness.  In a way, he gives us permission to be weak.  He becomes weakness.

During Advent, we prepare the way; we make way for the weak.  The voluntarily weak one is the one of understanding and welcome.

But we aren’t to be left floundering in weakness.  This passage is shot through with hope.  Verse 4 says by the steadfastness and encouragement of the scriptures we discover hope.  They aren’t dusty, stale documents of times gone by.  They are brimming with life.

In the book of Isaiah, the scriptures promise that “the root of Jesse shall come,” that is, David (and the son of David).  One day, the Gentiles will find in him hope (v. 12).

And of course, our passage ends with the awesome blessing, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (v. 13).  These aren’t empty words.  They provide the sure basis of the hope that doesn’t disappoint.  Though at times, to be honest, that hope might feel like it’s a million miles away.

Our scripture passage hinges on verse 7, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  Welcome one another.  Practice hospitality.  That can be just as tough as the petitions in the prayer of St. Francis.  Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.  And do it, not for your glory, not for our glory, but for the glory of God.

Sometimes I see on church signs, “All are welcome.”  Really?  Do they sincerely mean that?  All are welcome, without any preconditions?  If so, that’s great.

Some people say that Paul’s appeal to welcome one another applies to welcoming both the strong and the weak.  Others say it’s about both Jews and Gentiles.  Maybe it’s about both meat-eaters and vegetarians!  Whatever the case, it seems to be a pretty expansive, wide open statement.

image from 2.bp.blogspot.com

This business of welcoming one another also has certain ramifications, certain implications, for congregations in transition.

Banu and I have mentioned these on several occasions, so let me review the developmental tasks for interim time.  Five are usually cited.  They are (1) Listening to History and Celebrating Heritage, (2) Discovering a New Identity, (3) Leadership Changes and Empowering New Leaders, (4) Rethinking Denominational Linkages, and (5) Commitment to New Leadership and to a New Future.

Right now, I want to look at number 3, Leadership Changes and Empowering New Leaders.  This is where Paul’s appeal to welcome one another is especially relevant.

I serve on our presbytery’s Committee on Representation.  It’s a strange committee, I have to say.  It’s like an ugly duckling.  It is mandated by our Book of Order (G-3.0103).  And there are a good number of presbyteries which list it, but in name only.  They don’t function; there are few, if any, people who staff them.  And it’s not hard to understand why.  A Committee on Representation can feel like a quota system.  We have to check off boxes in various categories.  What can get lost is the call to welcome one another, to be sensitive to the Spirit’s call to welcome all voices.

In congregations, leadership changes and empowering new leaders might be easier said than done.  We might feel like we’ve tried that, to no avail, or we might feel like we’re filling spots with warm bodies, so to speak.  In the nominating process, creative approaches are often called for.  Too often, we neglect a valuable resource, or at least, we don’t take it seriously enough.  We neglect bringing the matter before the spirit of creation, the Holy Spirit.  Where we don’t see a way, the Spirit of God does.

Sometimes those creative approaches might mean letting a position remain vacant.  Sometimes certain ministries or activities fade away, due to lack of interest.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Ultimately, it’s not about us.  It really isn’t “our” ministry.  It is the Lord’s ministry through us.

It can be difficult to commit to empowering new leaders.  It is important to be open to the fresh wind of the Spirit.  The wind blows where it chooses.  We use our gifts and abilities, but the true empowerment doesn’t come from us.  “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  Our task is to create the space where the glory is not ours, but God’s.

So as we move deeper into the season of Advent, let us be mindful of our call to welcome one another, in both our strengths and weaknesses.  Let us dare to seek to understand, rather than to insist on being understood.

[1] “accept as their own burden”: βασταζω (bastazō), “bear,” “carry”

[The bottom image is from the movie Antwone Fisher, starring Derek Luke and Denzel Washington. It’s from the powerful scene near the end, when Antwone finds his extended family. They are gathered for a banquet when the matriarch calls him over. She places her aged hands on his face and says, “Welcome.”]