Comfort God’s people

A Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Advent: Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8

We all know that ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’. We may not know that the word ‘gospel’ in a Greek world context can mean good news “from the battlefield.” For Mark’s audience, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God is good news in the midst of the struggles of life (Jacobsen). After his opening declaration Mark combines material from Isaiah (40:3), Exodus (23:20) and Malaki (3:1) revealing that John is preparing the way for the Messiah, the Son of God. (Gaventa and Petersen). John and Jesus are literally in the wilderness, at the river Jordan at the very edge of Israel. Mark’s people are in the wilderness of chaotic life. We are also in the wilderness, perhaps not geography, we are not at the very edge of Arkansas, but we are close, but we are certainly amidst the disordered, dis-shoveled state of our lives. Both John and Jesus are in the proclaiming business, a sign that we should be listening, following, and also proclaiming (Jacobsen).

Mark’s Gospel story begins about 26 CE and clearly invokes the beginning of 2nd Isaiah (Bible-Hub). The part of Isaiah, we know as 2nd Isaiah, is in the time of the Persian expansion under Cyrus the Great, about 711 BCE (Bible-Hub). It has been more than 150 years since the Assyrian defeated the northern kingdom of Israel, and the destruction of Jerusalem, which lead to the exile in Babylonian (Carvalho). The Lord addresses the angles, who comprise the heavenly host, who are gathered in council (Harrelson). This heavenly council responds to God’s command to comfort “my people” by ordering that a wilderness highway be prepared (Harrelson). The recipient of this order is a prophet, who is to cry out to all of Israel God’s consoling words (Harrelson). Jerusalem, also known as Zion, is commanded to proclaim God’s message of good tidings alongside the prophet, which indicates that the people of God have an active role to play in the divine plan (Harrelson). This proclamation stands over everything else that happens in 2nd Isaiah and specifies the terms of how God is going to treat a people once deaf and blind (6:10) and how God is going to treat a city that was once unfaithful (1:21) (Seitz). The proclamation comes following a time when a prophecy was believed to be long gone. So, it shows us that prophecy has not died out; it is being transformed in ways that make it forever reliable and forever alive (Seitz).

In a grand reversal, the great Babylonian processional highway for gods and kings, prepared for triumphal entry into the city of Babylon, which Israel walked lo those many years ago as chattel, will become the way for the exiles to travel from Babylon to their home, Jerusalem (Seitz). I read an article this past week about the AR Dept. Transportation’s plan to fund AR Highways for next ten years. It makes it clear that Arkansas is responsible for her highways. There is help, but only if we first accept our local responsibility. It was curious to learn that in the days of ancient Persia, highways, which were generally unpaved, intended for wheeled transport, thus often called “wagon roads” were the responsibility of the local populations (Keener and Walton). Some things never change. That got me thinking about who is responsible for today’s wilderness highway?

Roughly 740 years after Isaiah’s prophetic vision of the divine call, Mark presents John as the prophet who receives, anew, the same call to make a way in the wilderness, a highway for the Son of God. 200o years after that, people are still in darkness. Some are oppressed, some are abused, some are marginalized in other ways. Some are in the darkness because of their own, our own, blindness and/or unfaithfulness. There are hearts, nearby and far away, that need to hear the prophetic words of divine promise, and hope. God’s people still need to hear divine words of comfort.

Advent, when it is not centered on Christmas, is often centered on Christ coming at the end of time, and every now and again on learning to see divine presence here and now (The Living Church). Advent is a time of old and new prophetic voices. Br. Jim Woodrum writes

We will come to know God’s presence with us … by teaching and healing, listening to our neighbors, both known and unknown to us (Woodrum).

It doesn’t take much awareness of the world, or our community, to realize the continuing need for comfort. One sign of the continuing need for comfort is the unending creation of winners and losers in all our social systems, especially in the ordering of our economics (Cross). In all the tax cut debates the largest disappointment has been the frequent remarks about the deserving rich versus the undeserving poor who suffer because of their own failure to make investments, without any consideration of their ability or wherewithal to make financial investments. These statements are simply demeaning to the least of God’s people. It is true, 2nd Isaiah never promises that all the suffering will cease. It does not deny or change the brokenness of the human condition. But ~ it does suggest the continuing need for messengers and that, as these messengers, we may be called to speak the truth that others will find hard to hear (Jacobsen)

Prophecies, especially apocalyptic, end of time, seconding coming prophecies tend to come with visions of cosmic disturbances, or perhaps grand social, political, or economic triumph or disaster. The language is futuristic. However, we don’t need to wait, we should not wait for God’s coming, because God is already coming, and to some extent already here, we need to be speaking comfort to God’s people right now (Epperly). The kingdom’s presence or arrival will not necessarily be this great big cosmic, the ends all things event. The Kingdom is coming into its fullness through the triumph of many small things, many small chance interactions (Brown).

The emphasis on apocalyptic, end of time return of the king tends to make time in the future more valuable to us, that is when the King will get here. In truth, all time is a treasure, because each unique moment ends. Each moment of every day is an exclusive opportunity to share the grace given comfort of God. Each opportunity seeks a deeply personal response that can occur in no other life and can occur in no other time (The Living Church).

2nd Isaiah’s Prophecy, and John the Baptist speak of the wilderness. The wilderness is where God’ s people are. Some are crying out from the margins where racism, oppression, and discrimination seek to strip them of their divine image. Some are lost in the confusion. Some are heartsick. Some are just plain tired. The Wilderness, whatever yours, or your neighbor’s, across the street, or across the world, looks like, is where God continually shows up (Lewis). The wilderness is where priest, preachers, prophets, and pedestrians belong. Thus, we are a wilderness, people.

A colleague of mine blogged this week that [John the Baptist’s] task was to point and to say, “Here is your God.” He did his job … faithfully (Pankey). This is Advent.

  • A time when we seek the comfort of the divine light in our darkness.
  • A time when we are called to speak comfort to the hearts of God’s people.
  • A time to remember 2nd Isaiah and Cyrus the Great, John and Jesus through whom the unexpected happened.
  • A time to remember that God still asks us to speak comfort into the frail lives of our neighbors.
  • A time to remember that the unexpected still happens, that God still sends comfort into our frail lives. (Carvalho).

It is Advent, the time of comfort revealed by voices that never fail.

 


References

Bible-Hub. New Testament Bible Timeline. n.d. 8 12 2017. <http://biblehub.com/timeline/#nt&gt;.

—. Old Testament Bible Timeline. n.d. 8 12 2017. <http://biblehub.com/timeline/#ot&gt;.

Brown, SSJE, Mark. “Start Small.” Brother, Give Us A Word. Cambridge, 7 12 2017. email.

Carvalho, Corrine. Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11. 10 12 2017. OliveTree App. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Cross, Casey. “The Rule of God, for Us, Advent 2.” 10 12 2017. Sermons that Work.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 10 12 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Jacobsen, David Schnasa. Commentary on Mark 1:1-8. 10 12 2017. OliveTree app. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2975 1/3>.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Lewis, Karoline. Wilderness Preaching. 10 12 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Pankey, Steve. “Here is your God.” 6 12 2017. Draughting Theology.

Perkins, Pheme. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Mark. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Bel and the Dragon. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Seitz, Christopher R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book of Isaiah 40-66. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Song of Songs 8:8. Vol. IV. Nashville: Abingdon Press (NIBC) Song of Songs 8:8, 2015. XII vols. OliveTree App.

The Living Church. 11/10: The End. n.d. <livingchurch.org/2017/12/04/11-10-the-end/>.

Woodrum, Jim. Imitate Jesus. 6 12 2017. Society of St. John the Evangelist. <http://ssje.org/word/&gt;.

 

 

 

Advertisements

The First Candle

 A Sermon for the 1st Sunday in Advent: Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

 

It happens every year. Still, it has been a long time coming. The fall equinox was Sept 22 and the nights started getting longer and longer. And then on November 5, we fell back, and the dark came even sooner. This past week I’ve been finishing spring choirs around the house; I worked until dark; when I got it was 5:30. The dark is here.

Last week a truck hit a power pole on Division St. right where W. Pecan intersects. Everyone was fine, but the power pole was not. We did not lose power; but, we did lose the street light; it is even darker. Now seems as if they are not going to replace that street light. That means I can’t see my driveway in the dark. The street light down the street works just fine; I can clearly see those driveways, but they aren’t my driveway.

So yes, it has been getting darker. And yes, it is really dark now. And I know there are months of darkness to come. Where do I find light?

Six or seven hundred years before Jesus’ day Israel was a Persian vassal. They were kind of independent, but they had to pledge allegiance to Persia to stay kind of independent. Life as a vassal state raises questions about who is really in charge? Who is in charge of political life, our economic life? Who is in charge of our religious life? It leaves you to wonder “Where is God?” It leaves you wondering about the peoples’ hopes and dreams. It is a stark reminder that Israel is not in control, which might lead us to ponder Are we in control (Carvalho)?

The self-reference to being like a “filthy rag” is a confession to being ritually unclean, which means Israel does not think of herself as worthy to come before God. And yet, they refer back to God’s self-revelation on Mount Sinai in a daring to hope that God will tear open the heavens and come down. Israel hopes the God they know (Seitz) will once again be the God of Judges and take the need course of action (Gaventa and Petersen).

We hear an echo of that plea in the Psalm, which repeatedly asks God to restore us. There are references to Israel’s past history. And those verses read like a request for a sign that God’s light will return, and Israel will, once again, be saved.

We hear another echo in Mark’s recounting of Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecy. At the beginning of this chapter, the disciples see the Temple and marvel at its sight. And it was stunning. It sits atop the highest the hill. The Temple soared some 164 feet high above the hill top and its sides plated in gold. It was a wonder of the world in its day (Gaventa and Petersen). It is helpful, probably even necessary, to know that by the time Mark wrote his Gospel account the Temple had been destroyed. The very center of Jewish life: political life, economic life, and religious life was gone (Jacobsen). Mark may well be using this particular story to give hope to a community whose life is now completely un-hitched.

Following the tradition of the prophets Jesus refers to celestial terrors in his apocalyptic imagery; the stars falling from the sky. Indeed, he makes references to Israel’s traditional apocalyptic prophecy (Keener and Walton; Gaventa and Petersen). Jesus’ use of ancient prophecies connects his ministry to God’s previous acts of salvation. Mark’s use of Jesus’ prophecy reminds his readers, including us, that Jesus’ death is not end of the story; that there is promise and power in the resurrection, that there is ancient truth in the promise of salvation (Perkins).

When Jesus finishes his apocalyptic, end of time, prophecy, the disciples also want to know when it will all happen. We get that, we are still waiting; we want to know when is all this going to happen. The depth of our curiosity is revealed in the commonness and popularity of end of time predictions (which popup every now and again) stories, and movies. Only Jesus won’t tell the disciples, or us, and he can’t, even if he wanted to because even he doesn’t know (Mark 13:32).

Jesus’ teaching continues with a common reference on how the servants of an estate should behave when the master is away. They cannot know when he will return. The only way to please their master is to get about their assigned responsibilities (Perkins). And so, it is with the return of God in Isaiah’s day, in Jesus teaching in Mark’s day, and today.

Today is the 1st Sunday in Advent. We are already looking to Christmas. I expect some of you are like us, we already have boxes piling up in closets. We may even be looking ahead to the celebration of Jesus birth. And that is a good thing, in a time of short days and long nights, when the darkness feels more and more prevalent, almost domineering. In the darkness Advent calls us to see beyond Christmas, to look at the world around us, to seek out the faint but strong light of Jesus (Tew). In the darkness we are called to be about continuing Jesus ministry of transforming the world and making the Kingdom of God known on earth right here, right now, where it is (Epperly).

When I was a kid coming home from my grand-parents’ house was a long all-day drive. There were twin water towers just outside Norcross, they were these big cylinder type towers, they had “Norcross” written across both of them. They are etched in my memory, because, they were reliable. When we saw them we always knew we had gotten almost home. They still are reliable, when I see them I know I am almost to my dad’s home. The path is a different, it certainly takes more time get there, none-the-less the sign is true, I am almost there.

Now days I am beginning to understand those towers to be a different kind of sign. They are not predictors of what is ahead, I know that. But, they are reminders, powerful, steadfast, firm reminders.

Today we lit the first Advent candle. It is a small light in the deep darkness; certainly, of the winter night, and perhaps the darkness of another source. It is the first reminder of the light that shines in the darkness (John 1:5). It is the first reminder that the world around us needs the revelation of the transforming gift of resurrection grace. It is the first reminder that the Kingdom of God on earth is right here, right now. It is the first reminder that the light will not be overcome (John 1:5).


References

Carvalho, Corrine. Commentary on Isaiah 64:1-9. 3 12 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 3 12 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Jacobsen, David Schnasa. Commentary on Mark 13:24-37. 3 12 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Perkins, Pheme. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Mark. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Bel and the Dragon. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Seitz, Christopher R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book of Isaiah 40-66. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Song of Songs 8:8. Vol. IV. Nashville: Abingdon Press (NIBC) Song of Songs 8:8, 2015. XII vols. Olivetree App.

Tew, Anna. “Keep Awake!, Advent 1.” 3 12 2017. Sermons that Work.

 

 

 

Thanksgiving, Apocalypse, and Commitment

A sermon for Proper 29, Christ the King: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

Good morning, on this last day of a Thanksgiving weekend. I hope you have enjoyed the festivities. This morning we have a very crowded docket: we have Thanksgiving, we have Christ the King, and this morning we are looking ahead to next week’s Commitment Sunday. So, let’s start with the oldest of all these traditions.

We have been celebrating Thanksgiving since 1789 after Congress requested a proclamation by George Washington. It has been celebrated as a federal holiday every year since 1863 when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of

Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens, (Wikipedia)”

I wonder, how much attention do we give to divine generosity today?

A priest Face-Book friend was asking “How many churches held a service on Thanksgiving Day?” Almost everyplace I have been held a Community Thanksgiving Service of some sort or another. I don’t think I have ever presided at a Thanksgiving Day service in my 23 years as a priest. I fear the visions of Black Friday, either avoiding or engaging, or afternoon football, or getting to the next function, have overcome any religious notion of Thanksgiving. Truth is it is I wonder how long Thanksgiving will be celebrated, other than a sale on Turkey? There is so very little in the stores about Thanksgiving these days, the merchandising goes from Halloween to Christmas. Another truth is that we should never give up Thanksgiving, because no matter the state of our lives, or the state of our community, or the state of our the nation, or the world, we should be thankful, for our Father, as always, is still here, and always will be, even if we are walking in a shadow.

There is another Thanksgiving experience to ponder. I do not know how long I have been aware of it; however, for a long time, Thanksgiving has been a time of extraordinary efforts to reach out to the least of these, in our communities and in God’s Kingdom. Growing up in Atlanta the Ga. – Ga. Tech freshman squads play an annual charity game under the theme Strong legs run, that weak legs may walk. In West Virginia, a member of the church started a simple thanksgiving meal program, that continues to grow t this day. In Blytheville the Thanksgiving program that formerly feed 800 people a hot meal, has had a change in leadership, due to a work promotion, and this year delivered 1,200 bags of food designed to feed a child for the entire week school was closed this year. I am beginning to see these commitments as an expression of Thanksgiving. And I am thankful to live in a community that celebrates Thanksgiving together, and in acts of generosity that mirrors our Father’s benevolence.

And yes, the celebration of Christ the King is not as old as the celebration of Thanksgiving. The First World War was over; however, nationalism and secularism were rising. Pope Pius XI, called for the celebration of Christ the King to encourage Christians whose faith might be flagging (Ashley). The first thing we should note is that the King that Pius envisions does not look anything like the powerful wraiths of The Lord of the Rings. For that matter Pius’ vision does not look anything like the heroic Aragorn, King of Gondor either. A close examination of the readings from Ezekiel and Matthew reveals impassioned attention on justice and relationship (Epperly; Harrelson). They are overtly political and hold us accountable for the state of the most vulnerable people in our society (Epperly).

Ezekiel’s attention is on Israel’s political leadership. The imagery of Kings as shepherds and the people as the flocks they are to tend is common in the ancient middle east (Keener and Walton; Charles L. Aaron). Unfortunately, at least Israel’s kings are not very good at their tasks, and often do what is evil in the sight of the Lord. Their disastrous self-interest has led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (Aaron Jr.). They did what all the other kings did, looked after the desires of the rich and powerful and ignored the needs of the marginalized (Hoezee, Ezekiel; Gaventa and Petersen) In fact, in verse 10, just before our reading this morning, the failed shepherd Kings are accused of eating the sheep that they are responsible for tending (Gaventa and Petersen). The shepherd Kings’ brutality, and self-interest scattered the flock, denying them food, and a safe fold. Therefore, God commands Ezekiel to proclaim that God has rejected them as shepherds over the divine flock, and God will: seek them, rescue them, feed them, lead them to good pasture, bind the injured, strengthen the weak, and feed them with justice. God will do this with one shepherd, a prince from the House of David.

Through Ezekiel God is speaking to three sets of people. First, the leaders of the people, who are in their position by heredity, or by appointment, or election or otherwise. The message is clear: “Tend to the people, all of them, or you are fired.” Secondly, to the people: “Do not despair, your worldly condition is not the consequence of, or punishment for sin you might have committed. Finally, to us. As the people of God, we are God’s stewards’ protecting everything and everyone entrusted to our care, and who belong to God, and who are the image of God. Ezekiel refers to charity events and feed the hungry special events. He also speaks to the disparity of everyday life; no one should be hungry, no one should lack medical care, no one should be denied education, no one should be refused a safe home. As God’s shepherds we are called to use all the kinds of resources we have, from personal work, and money, to social and political capital to tend the flock. And we do so because God loves them, just as God loves us.

Matthew’s apocalyptic vision is a bit more complex. We are all familiar with the righteous sheep at his right hand asking:

And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? (Matthew 25:38-39)

 And we may recall the accursed goats destined for eternal fire at his left hand asking:

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ (Matthew 25:44)

What we might have missed is that both the sheep and the goats don’t realize that the hungry, the marginalized, the poor, the naked, the stranger, and the prisoner are Jesus. We might wonder why Jesus didn’t tell them? Does he tell us, who he is when we meet him? But when we meet him, we should know who he is, because every living person, everyone who ever was, and is, or will be is made in the image of God, and that is enough (Hoezee, Matthew).

None of this is new, Proverbs we are taught

Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker,
but those who are kind to the needy honor him (Proverbs 14:31)

Way back in Isaiah we hear:

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. (Isaiah 58:7-9) (Olive Tree).

In this eschatological, end of time, proclamation Jesus says

  • nothing about confessing faith in him,
  • nothing about grace,
  • nothing about justification,
  • nothing about forgiving sins.

Jesus’ single focus is caring for God’s people, all – of God’s people (Darr).

Like Ezekiel, Jesus is speaking to the dispossessed, the rejected, and the outsiders, reassuring them that the time will come when their fortunes will be reversed. Like Ezekiel, Jesus is speaking to the leaders and people telling them “The marginalized are your responsibility.” Unlike Ezekiel there is an element here that is unique to the early persecuted church, who Matthew wants to reassure (Darr). Finally, like Ezekiel, we are the objects of Jesus’ parable. We need to quit worrying about calculating the end of days, because it is not yours to know. Between now and then, when ever that might be, we are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and visit those in prison. (Matthew 25:35-36) Then you will be blessed and inherit the life prepared for you since the beginning (Darr).

All this, all of this informs the choice we are asked to commit to next Sunday. It has a financial component to it, as it does ask us to prayerfully discern and commit to how we will financially support St. Stephen’s continuing service to Christ’s Ministry. This ministry includes sharing the story of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, especially how that story is a part of our lives. That ministry also includes tending sheep,

  • those who are prone to wonder,
    • or who otherwise get lost,
  • those deemed unworthy,
    • the otherwise undeserving,
  • the hungry,
  • the thirsty,
  • the stranger,
  • the naked,
  • the sick and
  • those in any sort of prison.

We know Jesus is the prince, of the house of David, who is tending the sheep, who is tending to all God’s people. We know we will inherit Jesus resurrection, which also means we inherit Jesus’ earthly ministry. I encourage you, in this coming week, to prayerfully discern and commit to how you will continue to by word, by action and by financial participation proclaim

  • the Good News of God in Christ;
  • seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbors as yourself;
  • and strive for justice and peace for all people, and respect the dignity of all of God’s people. (The Episcopal Church).

Amen


References

Aaron Jr., Charles L. Commentary on Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24. 26 11 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Ashley, Danáe M. “Love in Translation, Christ the King Sunday.” 26 11 2017. Sermons that Work.

Darr, Katheryn Pfisterer. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book of Ezekiel. Vol. V. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. VII vols. OliveTree App.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 26 11 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel Matthew 25:31-46. 26 11 2017.

Olive Tree. Olive Tree Cross References: Expanded Set. Harper Collins Christian Publishing, 2015.

The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.

Wikipedia. Thanksgiving. n.d. 24 11 2017. <(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thanksgiving_(United_States)&gt;.

 

 

Living In A Time of Judges

A Sermon for Proper 28: Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein, Judge Moore, HW Bush, Bill Clinton, C.K. Louis, Sen. Franken, Bill O’Reilly, Anthony Weiner, Kevin Spacey, Donald Trump, a number of pastors, and many more have been accused of sexual assault or harassment. Some have refuted the accusations. Most have acknowledged their misbehavior. Some have truly apologized. Three or more Universities have suspended all Fraternity activity because of deaths related to out of control events some fraternities sponsored. Middle-class wages have been essentially flat for about the last 40 years. Robert D. Putnam was asked by an association of bowling alleys to find out why they were selling more games than ever, but revenue was falling. It turns out participation in bowling leagues had dropped way off, and they purchase more food and refreshments than families and one-time groups buy. This lead him to research participation in all voluntary social associations. His book Bowling Alone, published in 2000, describes the broad decline in all voluntary social organizations from churches to youth sports leagues to volunteer fire departments. There have been multiple accounts of an extraordinary rise in the price of a rather ordinary medication; in one case 5000%. The denial by major corporations of damage to, or risk of damage to populations and land near facilities, are uncomfortably frequent, and frequently wrong, and sometimes shielded by federal law. There has been a notable increase in all kinds of assaults on people of another race, creed, or national origin. There has been an increase in mass shootings. The is little if any trust in social institutions, including the church. It seems that every day we hear one more story of one more way in which our social fabric is fraying. The strong covenantal attachments to family, community, creed, and faith, on which our social institutions of democracy and capitalism that celebrated liberty and individual rights stand, have greatly diminished. Racial essentialists, tribalism, and populism are rising to fill the void (Brooks). It feels as if we are reliving the time of the Judges.

The Book of Judges is between the story Exodus, the wilderness wanderings, and Joshua’s conquest of Canna and the establishment of the Kingdoms of Israel beginning with Saul and David. In it, we read tales of heroes, political attacks, and horrific images of a society in chaos (Sakenfeld). Each story follows the same cycle.

  • Israel does what is “evil in the eyes of the Lord”
  • Yahweh allows Israel to be oppressed by one or another neighbor
  • When things get bad enough, Israel repents, or at least claims she has, and calls on God for help
  • God raises up a judge to deal with the mess and finally
  • A time of stability and peace follows.

Some of the most familiar biblical heroes are found in the Book of Judges including Gideon and Samson. It is story after story of political opportunism, and domestic warfare. Through it, we catch a glimpse of the difficulties of life for the Israelites in their attempt to settle in Canaan and their desire to create a common identity (Sakenfeld). Because it was written in a time of captivity, probably in Babylon, it also reflects the struggles of a people without a land, without a king, without a political or religious center, and without control over events that affect their daily life (Sakenfeld).

This morning we read the first 7 verses of the story of Deborah, who is a prophetess judging, or settling disputes, for Israel (Gaventa and Petersen; Olson). For the first time, Israel is facing an internal enemy from Canna (Olson). We hear her call Barak to assemble the militias from Naphtali and Zebulun, to go out against King Jabin and his commander Sisera, with those 900 chariots of iron, at Mount Tabor, and that they will be delivered into his hands (Gaventa and Petersen). And here ends the reading, ~ but not the story.

The story continues with Barak bargaining; he will go, but only if Deborah goes with him. It may be an act of cowardice or a gracious, insistent invitation to Deborah. We cannot know, nonetheless, she agrees, and the story continues (Olson). Sisera hears that Barak has assembled his forces and goes to meet them with his 900 high tech chariots (Olson). Barak goes down from Mount Tabor with his ten thousand soldiers, or ten military units, and the LORD mysteriously throws Sisera and his forces into a confused panic, rather like the Egyptians at the Red Sea (Gaventa and Petersen; Harrelson; Olson). The chariot army is routed and Sisera flees on foot. With this victory, Barak could also be the Judge of Israel.

Heber is a Kenite, a descendant of Moses’ father in law, who might have been there because of the Kenites’ skill in working with iron(Gaventa and Petersen). He has left his tribe and is camped near Kedesh (Olson). Sisera goes there. Only Heber isn’t there, so, against all social customs, his wife Jael greets him, provides him hospitality, a drink of milk, and a place to sleep. Leaving Jael on guard, Sisera falls deeply asleep. Only he doesn’t wake up because Jael drives a tent stake through his temple. Causing Sisera’s death may make Jael Israel’s judge.

Jael’s action reflects the actions of prior judges: Ehud kills Israel’s oppressor, King Eglon, through deceit and with his left hand. He also offers a tribute to gain favor, and Shamgar made a weapon out of an ox-goad, which is a farming implement to guide oxen pulling a cart (Olson). Jael’s and Deborah’s strong leadership and courageous actions follow the examples of 17 other strong women in Judges (Olson). Barak’s victory is a reflection, of the other victories that brought freedom to Israel.

Some observations of all this. We need not be forced to choose between Deborah, Barak, or Jael as Judge over Israel. It is reasonable to see how all three judge Israel at the same time (Olson). This story shows God’s ability to work in complex systems, and a leadership team, in that day, of a woman, a man, and a gentile is complex (Olson). Jael’s action breaks the peace treaty between the Kenites and Canna and the tradition of hospitality to strangers. It is a similar story to Moses Killing the Egyptian overseer; both raise hard moral questions, and neither story answers them (Olson).

Some thoughts. This story and the Book of Judges, as a whole, as do many other stories and books in the Bible, assure us we are not the first people to find ourselves in troubled times. Here Israel is having trouble establishing functioning social norms that strong social institutions can be built on. Our social norms have largely fallen out of acceptance and we are struggling to establish new norms, which may include parts of the old ones, but also, must include new or revised norms.

It is possible some very violent actions may be required for our covenant attachments to be re-forged. But, we must never presume that such violence is endorsed or awarded by God; biblical silence on the morality of such action is not divine approval. Moreover, there is the risk that wide use of such violence gets built into covenant attachments and then violence becomes an accepted tool of social institutions.

In The Book of Judges, the health and well-being of women is an important measure of the core health and values of their society (Olson). In the gospels we witness that this measure includes children, the sick, the poor, those oppressed in any way, and outsiders. A way of knowing how well we are developing new covenant attachments is too honestly test how many groups of people are marginalized by whatever system of identifying groups of others we may come up with. In other words, do not survey the 80% in the middle, survey the 15% at the bottom of any social scale, there you will find the truth.

What I have come to is: yes – we do live in days of difficult transitions. They may even be dark days. However, as disciples, as followers of the Risen Christ, Son of the Living God, we know we are not the first, and because we know story of those who preceded us, we know we are not alone.

It is as Dennis Olson writes:

In the end, God’s will for the world will prevail, but God also makes adjustment to human freedom and actions along the way. As the people of God, we can be confident that God is at work in and through our lives and communities to accomplish God’s will, even when we may be unaware. Indeed, God may work through outsiders or those on the margin of our community in ways we would never expect (Olson).

I’ll go one further; you/we may never expect how God is working through you; how God is working in us; right here, right now.

AMEN


References

Brooks, David. “Our Elites Still Don’t Get It.” 17 11 2017. NYTimes.com. <nytimes.com /2017/11/16/opinion/elites-taxes-republicans-congress.html>.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Kaiser, Walter C. New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary The Book of Leviticus. Vol. I. Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. Olivetree App.

Olson, Dennis T. New Interpreter’s Bible The Book of Judges. Ed. Leander E. Keck. Vol. II. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001. XII vols. OliveTree App.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choosing to Serve

A Sermon for Proper 27; Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25, Psalm 78:1-7, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13

Loyalty can be a fickle and funny thing. I have a friend who is a dedicated Razorback fan; there is no such thing as too much Razorback red. However, he has been very disappointed with the performance of the football team over the last few years, so … he has put his Razorback red slacks in the closet until there are some leadership changes. At the moment, my favorite loyalty image is a commercial. A couple is leaving to go to her parents’ house and she tells him he cannot wear that Raiders’ shirt. So, he takes it off, revealing the Raiders’ sweater that is underneath. The next scene is around her family dinner table. He in his Raiders sweater, with those little l-e-d blinking lights that go all around like that; and she and all her family, including the dog, are in Kansas City Chiefs’ apparel. It ends with her asking him “Can you at least turn the lights off?”

This morning we hear the story of Joshua challenging Israel to choose who they will be loyal to. For some background information; ‘Joshua’ means Yahweh delivers. He was born in Egypt and became Moses’ high minister. He was one of the twelve spies that Moses sent to explore Canaan, and along with Caleb gives the only positive report. The other ten are focused on the numerous people, and their fearsome warriors. As we head a couple of weeks ago, just before his death Moses anoints Joshua to be his divinely appointed successor.

Now Joshua was given 2 missions. He is to lead Israel as they conquer the people who occupy Canaan. He is also to allocate the land among the tribes (Olson). Israel crosses the Jordan River to begin their mission, Joshua circumcises all the people and observes the Passover. Then he leads Israel to victory over six nations and 31 kings; though he does not completely conquer all Canaan’s previous occupants. Joshua dies at the age of 110, and is buried in Timnath-serah (Easton). Much like our reading a couple of weeks ago, this is a transition story. As Israel prepares to take possession the promised land, he asks them to recommit to following God. It is a cleaver challenge. He reviews Israel’s history:

  • all the way from Abraham,
    (and in verses we do not read)
  • through Egypt,
  • through the wilderness wanderings,
  • the blessing curse of Balaam,
  • the fall of Jericho, and
  • the victories over the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites,

and then he tells them choose this day the god you will serve; and immediately he pledges himself and his family (which may include his tribe) to serve the LORD.

Israel replies We also will serve the Lord, for he is our God. This is not the choice we think we hear. There is no individual aspect to it. ‘Loyalty’ is probably not a strong enough word. There is an element of unease because this pledge is grounded in reverence to and dependence on their relationship with their lord and master (Coote). ‘Lord meaning king not necessarily god; but it is that dependent relationship.

After 25 years Israel is victorious, so why is there a need for the challenge to choose who Israel will serve? Well it turns out there is real risk. Doug Bratt notes Israel is in a

strange land whose ways prove to be attractive to her. Canaan’s women are beautiful, and her gods seem powerful (Bratt).

If Israel is distracted and forgets the Lord, they will lose the gift of the Land. Israel’s history is full of apostacy and idolatry. They apparently assume that they can serve Yahweh and other gods at the same time. They have worshipped gods from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Shechem, of the Amorites and the Baals (Coote). Joshua’s challenge forces Israel to answer serious questions:

  • Who are these foreign gods?
  • What old gods do we need to leave behind?
  • What are the consequences of leaving one or many gods to follow a different vision of the divine? And Yahweh is a different vision of the divine.
  • Do they have a reality apart from the one true God?

Joshua challenges the easy relativism of being loyal to God and (quietly) honoring other gods, that come up at any of the moment, or happen to be of the land, or perhaps an idea, or some convenient product (Epperly). The challenge reminds Israel their victories were never the results of their superiority, their sincerity, their faithfulness, or their obedience; their victories were solely dependent upon God. Likewise, their future is solely dependent on God’s faithfulness, mercy, powerful word, and the transformation of their hearts (Olson).

In the exuberance of going into the promised land the people choose.

Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord

…. who did those great signs in our sight,

protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed,

who drove out before us all the peoples who lived in the land.

Therefore, we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.

Now, if it were me, I’d say “Great, well done!” But that is why Joshua is the leader. He declares You cannot serve the Lord! He knows it is important for them to realize the danger that they are in if they make the pledge to serve God and then fail to do it (Gaventa and Petersen). And the people hear him, and they proclaim No, we will serve the Lord!

Their pledge to serve God is sealed with the declaration that they are witnesses against themselves. This is not witnesses as in a court room, this is witnessing a legal document. That sealing also includes a large stone as the second witness against them. Israel’s agreeing to serve the Lord has a familiar sound to it. We have heard it before. It echoes a similar pledge at Sinai, a pledge that they rather quickly forgot (Olson). It is also similar to the local Hittite or ruler – subject/slave treaty, in terms of form and how it is put together, so they are already drawing from customs of the surrounding area. (Keener and Walton).

The idea of renewing a pledge to serve or to follow is a part of many Christian worship services, including ours. Every we recite the Nicene or some similar Creed, which is a statement of our faith. But to make a declaration of faith in God/Jesus/Spirit is also to make a declaration to serve or follow (Bratt).

Pledging to serve or follow God may resonate with a political pledge, but there are differences, especially in the US. ‘The people’ in this story is not same as ‘We the People’ of our Constitution. We are culturally and politically different than the people of Israel (Coote). As the ancient peoples did we also understand our faith in the context of our social and political order. As a nation we value individualism, and that is a part of our western culture. The way in which we pledge allegiance to the flag is a part of the cultural context in which we reaffirm our beliefs set forth in the Nicene Creed, and it influences how we understand it. And here we see how Joshua’s challenge is important to us today, just as it was then.

We can simplify Joshua’s challenge to asking ourselves “What other gods are in our world?” The list includes several political, social, economic, cosmic, or other ideologies that shape how we are in relationship with each other individually, locally, nationally, and internationally, and how we behave in those relationships. I can see how some people follow one or more of these other gods, because those gods these ideologies are the source, the primary values behind all of their decisions, that drive how they behave and their relationships with other people, and thus, thus these ideologies become the object of worship. Joshua’s warning does not eliminate wisdom from other sources nor other cultures. It does require an adaption, it requires that such wisdom or knowledge be seen and understood through the lens of God/Jesus/Spirit. The notion of purity in this morning collect is not freedom from moral defect. It is about the relationship that comes first in our lives. In the end it does not matter if you wear your Razorback Red slacks or your flashing Raiders sweater. What matters

  • is does your relationship with God/Jesus/Spirit come first?
  • is your relationship with God/Jesus/Spirit the determining factor in how you treat other people and all of creation?

How it does is a part of the wisdom by which we are able to recognize our hope and our inheritance as children of God and heirs of eternal life.


References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 27 A Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25. 12 11 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Coote, Robert B. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Joshua. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Deuteronomy 34. Vol. II. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.

Easton, Matthew George. “Joshua.” Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary. WORDsearch Corp. n.d.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 12 11 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Kent, Dan Gentry. “Joshua.” Holman Bible Dictionary. Ed. Trent C. Butler. Prod. Holman Bible Publishers. n.d.

Olson, Dennis. Commentary on Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25. 12 11 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

Help From the Saints of Ages Past

A sermon for All Saints: Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10, 22,  1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1 -12  

In some circles there is a conversation about how our times may be something of another reformation. Writers, like Phyllis Tickle, point out that about every 500 years or so the church, if not the whole world, goes through an emergent transformation, or sudden explosive evolution that follows a long period of very gradual change (Tickle). And yes, I know the reformed churches celebrated the 500th anniversary of The Reformation last week. But hang with me, because in the end, it is all the saints.

Ross Douthart suggest that neither the Protestants nor the Roman Catholic Church won the bitter wars of The Reformation. He says it was the Machiavellians, the Westerners, who wanted political and economic life set free from the meddling of troublesome priests and turbulent prophets, who have prevailed. Their new gods of the market, capitalism, and strong central states have brought us a more orderly, rational and wealthier world. But this transformation came with a cruelty, and repression and secular inquisitions that made the original look tame (Douthart). 

For centuries our view of this Machiavellian world was a story of freedom. 

We lived in stable communities where people earned a decent living. They had family living close by. They could expect to work in the same line of business all their life, buy and embellish their own home, and enjoy a few years of respectable retirement. Free education meant that if their children did well they could make a better life for themselves, near or far (Brooks, Politics).

But over time power, privilege, and prejudice were dismantled by technology, globalization, and finance. And then came Sept 11 and seven years later the 2008 financial crash. They revealed the second story in which we began to see that the liberation of technology, globalization, and high finance in reality made slaves of us all. We want to rebel against our slavery. We see the flaws in our myth of freedom, but our very identities are bound to it and we are surprised that we cannot let it go. We are disappointed to realize our freedom story is false. Samuel Wells writes that we are also surprised  when we recognize the slave story, is also false (Wells).
The Machiavellian victory in the Reformation wars has also lead us into the practice of idolatry. As long as the freedom story held, our idolatry was hidden from us. But as it crashed, and we were left 

without stable families, tight communities, stable careers, ethnic roots or an enveloping moral culture. [What we were left with] is just a whirl of changing stepfathers, changing homes, changing phone distractions, changing pop-culture references, financial stress and chronic drinking, [all of] which make it harder to sink down roots into something, or to even have a spiritual narrative that gives meaning to life.

With the failure of both the myths of Western Liberalism and of Neo-Conservatism many people turned to  an alternative populist political myth. However, just as technology, globalization, and high finance make ever increasing demands of us, political populism does too. At first the demands are reasonable  because we believe in the benefits of what we are being offered. When the benefits fail, and we realize that we are being controlled, we find ourselves enmeshed in idolatry. We are now being controlled by what we believed would bring us freedom. David Brooks writes

If [our] politics are going to get better we need better myths, unifying ones that are built on social equality… [it cannot] be fixed by political means. It needs repair of the deeper communal bonds (Brooks, Politics).

Douthart goes on to speculate that if the church had remained united it

might have served as a stronger moral check on the new powers, a stronger countervailing force against greed and secular absolutism.

He sees in all the

pan-national institutions, [like the] United Nations … European Union [and all] NGOs, a kind of ecclesiastical power, a churchlike form of sovereignty, on the basis of thinner, less dogmatic but still essentially metaphysical ideas — the belief in human dignity and human rights.

But he concedes that we recognize that they are a “thin vail over a dark power” (Douthart).
Curiously enough Neither Douthart, Brooks nor Wells is pessimistic. Brooks writes we need a counter moral vision and he thinks the America’s traditional biblical ethic is still lurking somewhere in the national DNA (Brooks, Week). Douthart notes we do not know the ending of our saga. And Wells ponders:

Are we going to allow ourselves to be possessed by pernicious and deceitful powers? Or will we discipline ourselves through obedience and thus allow ourselves to be owned by the truly liberating spirit of grace?
And thus, we arrive at the saints.

In the wonderful hymn I Sing a Song of the Saints of God we hear how God asks ordinary people do extraordinary things:

by letting our light shine so that our world may know that God is alive, 

by seeking beauty, healing, and justice in our midst,

by aspiring toward holiness

by being a person of stature, grace, and hospitality, sharing God’s healing love and 

by breaking down barriers of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality,

all of it throughout the ordinary business of everyday life  (Epperly). We can take offour Halloween masks and be who are called to be (Knowle-Zeller).
We are not the first community to be divided by the choices of a turbulent emergent future. John the Elder’s community is divided. They are separated from society and have an us-against-them mentality (Black). John tries to remind them they have good reason to hold on because they have experienced the truth of living in the presence of the risen Christ and the creator God (West). He reminds them that justice (1 John 2:29) and purity (1 John 3:3) are a response to God’s prior action not a precondition of grace. They are called to, and they can, go into a future shaped by Jesus’ death and resurrection, by which they can withstand uncertainty and loss, even death, with vigor and hope, because they are already children of God (Black).

There is a similar conflict in the community of John of Revelation. The Emperor’s cult is a significant challenge to the early Christian community, costing some their lives. Moreover, there is a division about accepting Gentiles into their community (Kiel). Revelation is realistic in its concern with power and the exercise of power, both in the divine way and in opposition to it (Rowland). It also provides a glimpse of the future  that is built upon the past, but one that also carves new channels for God’s activity and interaction with humanity (Kiel). It is not easy route. It does not mean there will be no suffering (Gaventa and Petersen). It does mean the faithful witness of the great multitude can be the vocations of others, including John’s community, including us. Witnessing against the beast, refusing to compromise, and espousing the way of the Lamb includes many who never “named the name” of Jesus but who lived and live lives that continued in the way of the Lamb. They are also, and will be, included in that great multitude of “All Saints” (Rowland).
The stories of the saints of ages past show us the road we have to travel, and the challenges we will face, but they also the strength that has already given to us as children of God. We do not know the ending of our saga. But we can trust the biblical story. We can discipline ourselves, we can draw confidence from the grace and power of the resurrected Jesus, that enables us to take off our masks, to honor one another, to work together to tend to creation, to the earth, and all humanity (Gen 1:26). We can mold the shape of our nation’s and world’s defining myth, which is grounded not in slavery, nor in freedom, nor in the allure of technology, globalization, and high finance, nor political populism, but in the grace and power of God, because we are the blessed Children of God.

References

Black, C. Clifton. “The First, Second, and Third Letters of John (NIBC) 2 Peter 3:17.” Keck, Leander. THE NEW INTERPRETER’S BIBLE COMMMENTARY (NIBC) Galatians 6:18. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015.

Brooks, David. “The Week Trump Won.” 26 10 2017. newyorktimes.com. <https://nyti.ms/2yQclxS&gt;.

—. “When Politics Becomes Your Idol.” 30 10 2017. nytimes.com. <nytimes.com /2017/10/30/opinion/when-politics-becomes-your-idol.html>.

Douthart, Ross. “Who Won the Reformation?” 1 11 2017. nytimes.com /2017/11/01/opinion/protestant-reformation.html. <nytimes.com /2017/11/01/opinion/protestant-reformation.html>.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 6 9 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Kiel, Micah D. Commentary on Revelation 7:9-17. 5 11 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Knowle-Zeller, Kimberly. “Wearing masks.” 31 10 2017. episcopalcafe.com. <https://www.episcopalcafe.com/?s=Wearing+masks&dSozmAkhgHvNE=Dv%5BkXI1%40B6.x8&jdtlMgxFsTviCbzV=U%5DSRdm2Tt1HV8vnX&gmxBluobUAyHNiqk=859Uj3OR%40%5BLdnfNo&AQiKFeghfLnTywR=%5BKsINqyVHek*%40mM&gt;.

Rowland, Christopher C. “Revelation.” Keck, Leander. The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. Vol. X. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Tickle, Phyllis. Emergence Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008.

Wells, Samuel. “Two stories that define our world.” 31 10 2017. christiancentury.org. <christiancentury.org /article/faith-matters/two-stories-define-our-world>.

West, Audrey. Commentary on 1 John 3:1-3. 5 11 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

A Contradictory Life

A sermon for Proper 25: Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-46

Here ends the Book of Deuteronomy. Yes, we jumped from Exodus 33, over last 7 chapters of Exodus, the entire book of Leviticus, the entire books of Numbers, and the first 33 chapters Deuteronomy. Here ends the Book of Deuteronomy. This is the story of Moses seeing the promised land but not being allowed to cross into it. We hear about Moses’ death, his unknown, unknowable burial place, and the thirty days of mourning by Israel for her sometimes scorned and sometimes beloved leader. We hear about the anointing of Joshua. We hear the praise of Moses as God’s unique prophet, who knew the LORD face to face and to whom there is no equal.

This is a story of ending: the end of Moses’ story, the end of Moses giving the Torah, the LAW as defined in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This is the end of Moses’ leadership, the end of Israel’s wilderness journey, the end of Israel as a nomadic people.

This is a story of beginnings: Joshua begins his leadership of Israel, Israel’s beginning residence in the promised land the beginning of cosmopolitan Israel, of Israel as a nation of cities the beginning of Israel’s Temple-centered relationship with God.

This is a continuing story, Moses’ story is over, Joshua’s story is beginning, God’s story with Israel, God’s story with all creation continues (Gaventa, and Petersen).

This is a story of contradictions. Moses was God’s faithful servant. He left a life of luxury in the Egyptian Royal House to return to his people, to God’s people. He left the burning bush to lead Israel out of captivity in Egypt. He stood between Israel’s rebellious nature and God’s fierce anger. Moses was also a less than a faithful servant. The first thing he does on his arrival among the Hebrew slaves is to kill an Egyptian overlord and flees to Midian. He continually questions God’s decision by asking “Who am I?” He threatens to quit “What am I to do with your people?” At Meribah, he does not follow God’s instruction to speak to the rock to give water to the people of Israel. On his own, he strikes the rock with the staff God gave him (Exodus 17:1-7). On the surface, this is not a big deal; however, it questions the power of speaking, as if giving voice to God’s word is not enough. There is the possible implication that Moses believes the staff has some sort of power, which diminishes the power of God’s presence. So yes, Moses disobeys God, and is a less than a perfect servant; at the same time, he is also the unparalleled servant of the Lord. This contradictory relationship is seen in Moses relationship with Israel. Israel frequently rejected Moses’ leadership, “You have brought into the desert to die!” But, at his death, they are deeply grieved (Bratt).

When I read this lesson I immediately started thinking about the lessons of transitions it has to offer us. St. Stephen’s is in a big transition as I move to part-time, and some divine guidance is certainly welcome. However, the divine muse was strangely silent. What eventually emerged is the contradictions surrounding Moses, we have just explored. I want to explore a couple thoughts about contradictions, within the context of transition.

As a nation, we are in a time of change. The political upheaval we are witnessing is a sign of changes in our economic traditions, our relationships with other nations, our internal relations along lines of race, sex and gender, our relations along class lines. Another manifestation of these transitions is what to do with all the statues and memorials to controversial leaders from our past. I want to take a very brief look at two.

Robert E Lee did lead the army of Northern Virginia in rebellious action against the United States. It was possibly an act of treason. He did own slaves. That was an unquestionable moral wrong. Like Moses, and rebellious Israel, there is more to his story. Prior to assuming command of the Army of Northern Virginia Lee faithfully served the US Army as a general, including service as the Superintendent of West Point, where he likely taught officers he probably fought against. After the end of the Civil War , e was asked to lead Washington College, named after George Washington (Virginia Historical Society). The college was in dire straits. And he did restore it to a successful path. Washing College is now known as Washington and Lee University a preeminent school in our country. As you know some statues of Gen. Lee have been removed, and an Episcopal church named in his honor, has been renamed.

The other person I wish to explore this morning is Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court from 1836 to 1864 (Wikipedia). At the time, he was the longest serving Chief Justice. His term was very productive. However, what he is known for the Dread Scott decision which includes the infamous line that

current or former slaves and their descendants had “No rights which the white man was bound to respect” (thisdayinquotes).

Driving home from Little Rock Wednesday I heard that earlier this year descendants of the Scott and Taney families meet in Baltimore for a reconciliation (NPR). A joint statement in part says:

The Scotts and the Taneys believe that Americans should learn from their history, not bury their history,” they have said in a joint statement.

They hope to raise money for a permanent educational exhibit on the site that would contextualize the Dred Scott decision and explore its ramifications in American history. If possible, they said they also hope a statue of the Maryland abolitionist Frederick Douglass can be added (Pitts).

Their task is complicated by the removal of a statue of Taney.

The Scott-Taney families’ reconciliation effort has a lot to teach us as a nation, as a church and as a congregation as we seek to find our way through this time of emergent change (Tickle).

One lesson is that to successfully navigate times of transition we also have to navigate the complexities of our contradictions. It is rare that any group or any person is all evil, or all good; most all of us, like Israel, and like Moses, are a mixture of contradictions. The Scott and Taney families are right, we should learn from our history, which means knowing it in all its contradictory complexity. It also means, as scripture commands us to do to teach it to our children and our children’s children (Deut. 6:7). Deuteronomy 34 shows us how Israel, and Moses accepted their contradictory relationship. It also shows us how God honors such relationships. God never abandons Moses, or any other contradictory biblical figure, and there are plenty, like most all of them. Moses undisclosed burial place and his epitaph Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face (Deut. 34:10). signify divine honor.

As a nation this is the time to reconcile with those with whom we have deep differences and between whom there are deep hurts. The prevailing expectation of unquestioned loyalty to a president or a party is perilously close to following other gods and idolatry. If we start here, we cannot follow the remaining 8 points of God’s plan for our lives. If we cannot follow the ten-point divine plan of life, we cannot reconcile, and if we cannot reconcile we cannot make successful transitions that are a part of life.

As a congregation this is a time to name and accept our contradictions. If we fail to name our contradictions, we will not be able to see the changes that are necessary for successful transition.

As both a nation, and a congregation, this is a time to trust that God will not abandon us for our many rebellions. Our hope is in the knowledge that God is right here, right now and will be, till the end of the ages.


References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 25 Deuteronomy 34:1-12 . 29 10 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Clements, Ronald E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book of Deuteronomy (NIBC) Numbers 36:13. Vol. I. Nashville: Abingdon, 20151. XII vols. OliveTree App.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 29 10 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Logue, Frank. “Everything Hangs on Love, Twenty-First Sunday after.” 29 10 20107. Sermons that Work.

NPR. “Soctt Taney Reconcilation.” NPR, n.d. APP. 25 10 2017.

Pitts, Johathan. “Roger Taney, Dred Scott families reconcile 160 years after infamous Supreme Court decision.” 18 10 2017. baltimoresun.com. 27 10 2017. <http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/politics/bs-md-scott-taney-reconciliation-20170306-story.html&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

thisdayinquotes. No rights which the white man was bound to respect. n.d. 27 10 2017. <http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/2011/03/no-rights-which-white-man-was-bound-to.html&gt;.

Tickle, Phyllis. Emergence Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008.

Virginia Historical Society. Robert E. Lee after the War. 27 10 2017. <http://www.vahistorical.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/robert-e-lee-after-war&gt;.

Wikipedia. Roger B. Taney. 27 10 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_B._Taney.&gt;.