Sermon, 9/20/2020 Genesis 18:1-15
Often people speak casually about the difficulties of faith when the fact of the matter is that faith is the most common element of our lives. Let’s say you show up at a Yard Sale some Saturday morning. And there you spy with your little eye a complete 61-piece Royal Doulton Vansborough Dinner Tea and Coffee service and the price is $100. Now for some folks that’s no big deal. Me, you’d have to pay me the $100 to take it off your hands. But there are others who’d snatch it up.
Maybe you’re a collector. You know the Royal DOulton stamp or whatever on the bottom of the plate. You recognize the pattern. You know the value is way beyond the $100 asked for it. Now here’s where the faith comes in. If you pull out your wallet and buy the china, you have faith. You have faith first of all that it’s not a fake. I’m sure there must be such a thing as fake China, knock-offs of famous brands.
But because you know Royal Doulton, you’ve handled it before, maybe because you know the family that’s holding the yard sale, you hand over the money. You’ve exercised your faith, your credence in a number of ways. But the faith is not over. Let’s say you’re Mary Smith sitting at the checkout table and this person comes up to you with a hundred dollars, five $20 bills.
First of all, do you have faith that that’s real money, and not counterfeit? Well, it looks like most other money you’ve handled, and $20 counterfeits aren’t that common. So you take the money. But there’s more to this transaction. Why should you take five small pieces of paper in exchange for 61 beautiful pieces of Royal DOulton China? How can however many pieces of green paper equal the beauty and usefulness of 61 pieces of dinnerware? Because of faith.
You have faith in what those 5 pieces of paper represent. You have faith that you can take those 5 pieces of paper and buy food or gas or pay your rent.
You have faith that the 5 pieces of paper are backed by the full faith and credit of the US government, and that they represent, what do they represent? Not gold, we’re off the gold standard. They represent a value. They can be exchanged for goods and services of relatively equal value. But only because others in this country, and around the world, have the same faith. Everybody believes in the full faith and credit of the US Government.
Now, sometimes that faith wavers. It fluctuates. Some days $100 will buy you over 50 gallons of gasoline. Other days, it might only buy you 40, or 30 gallons, or sometimes it might buy you 60 or 70 gallons, as the strength of the faith in dollar wavers or increases.
Some days you could take that $100 and buy 12 pounds of bacon. But other days you might only get 10 pounds of bacon. We think it’s because bacon or gasoline has become more or less valuable. But what’s really going on is our collective faith is shifting, changing. The value of the dollar is strengthening or weakening, as our faith in the US government rises or falls.
Since a dollar has no inherent value, it can be spoken of in terms of gallons of gas and pounds of bacon. But if you don’t have faith that others will take your bits of paper and give you bacon in return, you probably won’t sell the Royal Doulton China set to the customer in exchange for those 5 bits of paper. You may ask for 10 or 15 bits of paper, because your faith is weakening.
I have faith that the government is not going to bait me into putting money into a Tax-Free Roth IRA, and then after I retire switch the rules and tax me on every dime I later withdraw during retirement. If I didn’t have faith I wouldn’t do it. I have faith that I can walk down Northfield Blvd on the sidewalk and no terrorist is going to intentionally jump the curb and run me down. I have faith that the sidewalk I see in front of me as I walk is real and not an illusion. I have faith the sun is going to rise tomorrow.
I have faith that I can stand at the back door after church and not one of you, not one, will pull out a butcher knife and behead me. Faith.
Every couple of weeks the church gives me a piece of paper called a check. I don’t know why it’s called that, but that’s our word for this particular piece of paper. Here ya go, Pastor, we have a check for you. I say thank you, and on the next day, I take that piece of paper and give it to a total stranger at my bank. They give me back another piece of paper, with a number on it that corresponds to the number on my “check” that the church gave me. Past experience has taught me that when I do that I can buy many pounds of bacon.
I have faith, that the check is real, that is, that it truly represents other bits of paper called dollars, and I have faith that if and when I need those dollars to pay my mortgage or buy some peanut butter, the bank, where I put my first piece of paper, will let me write on another piece of paper, and when the grocery store or mortgage company send the piece of paper that I’ve given them to the bank, they in turn will get the number of dollars that is written on the piece of paper that I have given them. Works the same way electronically, with ones and zeros, bits and bytes.
You can see how this could go on and on. We swim in a sea of faith. It’s all around us. Finance, business, relationships, it’s all about faith, and trust, and belief. That’s where the word Credit came from. Credo. Credo in unum deum. I believe in One God, the Nicene Creed begins, in Latin.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Mary Smith took that $100 in exchange for the China set because she had the assurance of what she hoped for. The Assurance of things hoped for, the conviction, the belief, the trust, of things not seen. Not seen!
All the interactions of life require faith, belief, trust. Go to a Garage sale sometime and try to buy something with a handful of Cowrie Shells and see what happens. There is no faith in Cowrie Shells, that ancient system of currency in the Pacific Islands. There is no Credo, no credit, no belief that I can exchange cowrie Shells for a pound of bacon.
Faith permeates our lives. It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning. Our lesson from Genesis today is a story of faith, or the results of faith. It is a story of mystery and shadows, a story of a God who reveals and conceals. The story has been handed down generation to generation, polished like a rock in a gem tumbler, but the oddness of the event won’t go away.
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the Oaks of Mamre, it says. And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him.
Notice. The Lord appeared to him. But Abraham looked up and saw three men. And he first saw the three men when they’re already standing in front of him. Then we get references like this: “My Lord, if I have found favor in your sight,” Abraham says. Who’s he talking to? But in vs. 5 we have “So THEY said, Do as you have said.” Then Abraham sets the food before THEM, and stands in attendance while THEY ate.
Then THEY ask him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” Abraham says, “She’s in the tent.” And then, not THEY, but The LORD says, “I will surely return to you in the Spring.” And near the end we read, “And the Lord says, “Why did Sarah laugh?” And then in vs. 16, after the end of our lesson, we read, “Then THE MEN set out from there.”
This switching back and forth between pronouns and number of speakers and actors is puzzling to say the least. The report is that three men stood in front of Abraham, and three men sat down and ate, but only the Lord speaks, that is to say the presence is three, but the message is one. There is one Lord, and one Faith. Father Son and Holy Spirit speak with one voice. All this one and three, right at the foundation of the people of God, when God first gives the barren woman offspring, when the lame walk, the blind see, and the dead are raised to new life, as Jesus said to John the Baptist, these kinds of cues are just too evocative to ignore.
Is this a theophany? Are the three men just angels? Does saying they’re angels somehow lessen God’s presence with Abraham and Sarah? Clearly the text is mysteriously leading us to believe that the Holy God, the Lord, has visited Abraham and Sarah.
Because of texts like this and others, we are justified in being confident that to speak of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not to contradict the Old Testament’s insistence on One God and there is no other.
Abraham and Moses, Jacob and Joshua, Isaiah and Ezekiel and David all speak in ways consistent with an understanding of the Triune God and his fullness in relation within himself and with his created world.
Additionally, the artificiality of reading one passage at a time may give us the impression of an always faithful and obedient Abraham and a skeptical and laughing Sarah, but in the prior chapter, when the Lord appeared to Abraham and said, “As for Sar′ai your wife, you shall not call her name Sar′ai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her; I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
Abraham responded, 7 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” Abraham laughed at God’s promise the chapter before Sarah did. Had Abraham not told Sarah what he had already heard? Would she have responded differently if she already knew what Abraham knew?
No matter what, all this is clearly outside of their experience. 100-year-old men do not father children, and 90-year-old women do not get pregnant. Back in the sixties my mom and dad had a little surprise and she had a baby, my little brother, when she was 37. Can you imagine? My older brother and I joked, to ourselves, that maybe he’d come out with 12 toes, or two heads. We were teenagers. We didn’t know what was gonna happen. She was 37! Old!
But 90? Abraham and Sarah are still learning to trust and believe. But they are willing, even if a bit amused by the prospect. Sarah hears the Lord ask Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh?” And, still in the tent, she says, either to herself or aloud, it’s hard to tell, “I didn’t laugh.” And God has the last word. “NO. But you did laugh.”
This is a worried faith. An amused faith. I didn’t laugh. You did laugh. And you’re still gonna have a baby. And that baby’s gonna father two sons, and one of those sons will father 12 sons, and they will be my people.
Faith is built on experience and trust and testimony. Do I have any warrant to believe that I can take $8.00 into Walmart and come out with a pound of bacon? I do. But faith has to go further. Faith is evidence. But it’s evidence of things hoped for. Hoped for, not yet received.
The world can be an awful, ugly, dangerous place. But that’s not all it is. The goodness of one person can put paid to all the evil that ever existed. That’s what too many skeptics don’t stop to think about. Goodness. True innocent goodness. Where does that come from if there is no God? Where even does the idea come from if there is no God? It’s almost as if the idea of innocence and goodness itself is evidence of the reality of the God. Where else would it come from in an entirely evil world? That’s why the crucifixion is the fulcrum of the redemption of the whole world. As Archimedes said over two millennia ago, “Give me a fulcrum and a place to stand and I can move the earth.”
Jesus had every opportunity to avoid his death. But even Solomon knew, “Love is stronger than death. Love is always stronger than death.”
Sermon, 9/13/20, Isaiah 65:1-12
The author of the Cloud of Unknowing is known as, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, which seems appropriate. He is anonymous, and he recommends, in general, that to know God more perfectly one should abandon consideration of God's particular activities and attributes, and be courageous enough to surrender one's mind and ego to the realm of "unknowing," at which point one may begin to glimpse the nature of God.
I truly don’t know if this is actually possible or helpful. I imagine, that within the general confines of a scriptural culture, that is, one where the Bible is believed and taught, that the anonymous author’s recommendations may work well for some individuals. People are different, and sometimes respond better or worse to different prayer and devotional practices and habits.
But I bring up the Cloud of Unknowing because that’s what this text first reminded me of. Sometimes in reading the scriptures it can be like finding yourself in a Cloud of Unknowing. In a fog.
The scriptures provide us with a figure related to this, especially in the book of Exodus, when the experience of being in the presence of God is likened to that of being in a cloud.
And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud.
The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord.
Now, to be in a cloud is to have the senses of sight and hearing dulled and limited. If the cloud is thick enough, one begins to feel lost and disoriented, like in a London fog of 100 years ago. So, there’s a reasonable purpose in speaking of the “cloud of unknowing.” As Isaiah says, in ch. 45, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.”
Our experience of God sometimes confirms this. There are days when all seems clear and bright, our purpose unclouded, our experience of God easily understood and joyful. And then there are times when God seems to hide himself. Mother Teresa, now St. Teresa, for nearly 50 years, endured what the church calls a “dark night of the soul” — a period of spiritual doubt, despair and loneliness that many of the great mystics experienced. There’s persistence, for you. 50 years. There’s an example of holy patience.
God is God, and not a contrived and constructed avatar of the greatest theologians, who follows some theological textbook definitions. I am who I am, he spoke to Moses. The inexplicable mystery of every human being has its origin in God, for one definition of the human person is that which is created in the Image of God.
God’s mystery is possessed only by and within himself, and it is the love of God that communicates that inexplicable being to the icons of his image, that is, you and me. This communication of love is always voluntary, and so there’s always more, there’s always being in reserve, for God is infinite, as is his love and his person.
Therefore, since we cannot control him by describing him as we might the characteristics of an oak tree or an elephant, God is God, and able and willing to give himself to us, for if we possessed him, he could not give.
We can know God because he reveals himself. That’s seen in the Isaiah 45 I already quoted. You are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior. God of Israel the Savior. Though God conceals, he also reveals, and even in revealing, reveals more of WHO he is, because he nonetheless conceals. He reveals who he is in that our likeness to him in that unrevealed mystery, is of the essence of personhood.
Now much of today’s lesson from Isaiah 65 is pretty clear. It’s not hard to understand on the face of it, on the surface. There are a few details to clarify with regard to what it is the “rebellious people” are doing that are called “iniquities” in vs. 7. The gist of it seems to be the idolatrous practices that are common to the area and have been taken up by the returned Jews after they have come home from Babylon.
3 a people who continually provoke me to my very face, offering sacrifices in gardens and burning incense on altars of brick; 4 who sit among the graves and spend their nights keeping secret vigil;
who eat the flesh of pigs, and whose pots hold broth of impure meat;
5 who say, ‘Keep away; don’t come near me, for I am too sacred for you!’
The kosher law against eating pigs was easily clear in the Torah, and the pig in those days was a sacrificial animal of other Canaanite religions, so it had an association with Baal and other false gods. The same connection can be made regarding sacrifices in gardens, sitting among graves and keeping secret vigils. All practices of the surrounding culture, which had moved into Judah during their 70-year absence while they were in exile. The returned Jews were now following their society rather than leading it in obedience to God.
All this is at the end of the book of Isaiah the prophet, and the context can be seen in just the previous chapter, 64. Vss. 1 and 2 say, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
2 [a] as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
And then verse 64:12 says, “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?”
So, when we come to 65, we can read it as the Lord’s response to the demands from ch 64.
“I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
to a nation that did not call on my name.
2 I held out my hands all day long
to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
following their own devices;”
Have you heard that old proverb, If God seems increasingly distant, ask yourself who moved?
That’s a good description of the Lord’s response in ch. 65. The darkness, the cloudiness I referred to at the beginning today is seen in the way most preachers, myself included, react to a passage like this. A preacher sees and hears a text the way he imagines a congregation or larger group, or whole society might see and hear it.
One way I know this is through personal experience. I cringe sometimes at the scary bits in the Bible. I’ve heard so much criticism of the Bible all my life I tend to operate on the defensive. Another reason I know this is the case, is through the fact of which Bible texts are preached on and which ones are typically ignored. Two of the largest religious controversies of the 20th century were over the Bible and its reliability, and yet in my experience fundamentalist and modernists, conservatives and liberals, avoid passages like this one and gravitate toward texts like John 3:16, the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, God is love, etc.
Preach the Word, Paul says to Timothy in his second letter to him and he doesn’t mean, at that point, the New Testament, for it was still being written. He was exhorting Timothy to preach Isaiah and Deuteronomy, the Psalms and Exodus, Ruth and the Proverbs, and so on. In Paul’s farewell speech to the Ephesians in Acts 20:26-27, he says, “Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.”
Grace is meaningless unless we understand the seriousness of judgment. Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand, Jesus said. But repent of what? the modern person says today. There are no immutable laws that govern human life, no one has a right to tell me what’s right and wrong, who says there even is such a thing as right and wrong? Don’t we see that on the streets of our cities today, and in the corridors of power and great wealth?
The church in America and Western Europe has too often reduced and reduced the gospel, boiled it down, boiled it down to just the essentials, and now there’s not much left but the stain at the bottom of the tea cup.
You’re accepted, is the new and improved gospel. Radical inclusion. All, all, are welcome, as you are, into the kingdom. Repent? What is that?
But this is not what the last chapter of the Bible says, “Blessed are those who wash their robes,[g] so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. 15 Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”
This is not what Isaiah says, “They are a smoke in my nostrils…. I will not keep silent, but I will repay; I will indeed repay into their laps
their iniquities and their ancestors’ iniquities together,” and in vv 11-12, “But you who forsake the Lord, who forget my holy mountain,
who set a table for Fortune and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny;
12 I will destine you to the sword, and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter; because, when I called, you did not answer, when I spoke, you did not listen, but you did what was evil in my sight, and chose what I did not delight in.”
And this is not what Jesus says, in multiple places. In Matthew 7:13-14, near the close of the Sermon on the Mount, he says, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14 For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
And in Luke 12, teaching his disciples the seriousness of sin, he famously remarks, “Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.4 “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. 5 But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.”
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, he spoke from the teaching of the scriptures, and, like Isaiah, he assigns eternal relevance, eternal weight, eternal reality to our words and deeds, he makes who we are and what we do eternally significant and important. That’s what judgment does.
And can you see how this elevates humanity? The underlying thesis is that the God who made all the one billion trillion stars in the universe, that’s a one with 21 zeros after it, this God, this God and no other, considers, asserts, declares, that the way you speak to your boss, your employee, your parent, your child, your spouse, is eternally significant. Even the thoughts of your heart are significant to God.
This identity of divine significance for each human person, is so far above all human titles and honors. You are an eternal being and all that you do has moment and weight. You bend the course of history with your words and deeds. All that you do.
How can a sound made by the expulsion of breath past the tongue, teeth and lips of one person matter, at all? At all? And yet.
Now, we might want to respond, what difference does it make? But that’s what’s significant here. Sure, actions have a wide variety of effect, some larger some smaller. In some places in the scriptures different kinds of sin are seemingly ranked in seriousness.
How can judgment be good news? Just asking the question in that way brightens the room and increases our knowledge and understanding, our understanding of sin and judgment and of God and Humanity.
To be judged is to be examined, to be appraised, to be considered. To be judged is the opposite of being ignored. To be ignored is to not be known. That’s the etymology of the word. Not known. Forgotten. Gone. Vanished. Erased, in the parlance of today. We put up tombstones hoping someone will remember us. What sadder than the unreadable epitaph?
Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. To be known is to be judged. To be judged is to be known. This is the case because we are speaking of God, who sees into the heart of every person.
We don’t come to Isaiah 65 from a place of ignorance. Why read Isaiah 65, after all, why read Isaiah, why even read the Bible, except that we are known by God, that we have come to know him through the Crucified Lord, Jesus Christ, and this is his Word to us?
Jesus quotes Isaiah several times and it thus becomes dear to us. Jesus’ delight was in the word of God. I have a couple of ratty old books that were owned by my great Uncle Quinney. He was an elder at Corinth Christian Church, in Georgia, and he also preached. The books aren’t valuable, except to me. I’ve gotten rid of hundreds of books in my lifetime, but I’ve held on to these for over 40 years.
They were valuable to him, so they are valuable to me. What Jesus valued is similar, but even more so, of course. He valued the word of God, but, in his words of Judgment, he valued you and me and every human person. And he lived that value, and took that value with him to the cross, where he stretched out his hands to his people, all the day long.
Sermon, September 6th; Luke 7:36-50
Do you like Pharisees? Think carefully before you answer, because this will be on the text. As I’ve said before, context is vitally important to understanding any text, texts in the scriptures and other texts. But the context to which I’m referring now, is our context today, here, in this room, at this moment. Forget the elections, forget the riots, forget the virus. We have heard the Word of God, this morning, and to it, we must attend.
Our context is partly revealed by reflecting on why we are here, and how we might correctly understand and answer that why. Part of the why is that we are called to be here. When many were abandoning Jesus, even early on, he asked the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well? Just as, later in the Garden, he said, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” We are called, we are summoned.
Jesus even said, many are called, but few are chosen, and not all who were called to be here today have answered that call.
The Word of God is publicly proclaimed around the table of the Lord each Lord’s Day. Our use of that phrase, The Lord’s Day, is a good reminder of how the phrase, The Day of the Lord, was transformed by Jesus’ death on the cross, for Judgment fell on humanity on that day, as Amos and other prophets had promised, but the Day of the Lord on that Good Friday illustrates why we call it Good, and why now, this day of Resurrection has become a Day of the Lord, because it is the Lord’s Day. It partakes of the OT notion of the Sabbath as a day of remembrance, and a day of obligation. Creation is a gift, and the Sabbath is a gift, given, in one sense, so that the gift might not be forgotten. But also, when we say The Lord’s Day, we’re reminded that God has turned judgment into salvation, without in any way undermining or compromising his own righteousness and holiness.
It’s worth noting that the Word of God, while accomplishing his purposes, does many things, and the same text of scripture can be used by the Holy Spirit in different ways for different people. Not the least of the implications of this is that the human interpreter cannot limit or bind or restrict the activities of the Spirit and the intentions of the Word of God.
This gives no license to the reader, but rather a stricter method, and a realization upon every fresh reading whose word we are reading, and who sets the tone and purposes of God’s Word.
What you need to hear today may be different from your pewmates, yet the Word of God is sufficient. That Word which, when uttered, brings light and life into being, is not in any way challenged or hindered by our different needs, for who made our ears and our hearts but the Lord?
Do you need to hear today that Jesus sees your tears, like the tears he felt in Simon’s house? Do you need to know that Jesus hears your sobs of grief and repentance? Do you need to hear that your sins are not too great a mountain for Jesus to climb, nor too great a ditch for Jesus to cross? Do you need to hear that your old sins, long unconfessed, the debt constantly growing, and the weight increasing, are but a drop in the bucket to God’s compassion?
For when those in Simon’s house said among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” The question clearly answers itself. They know. No one can forgive someone else’s sins but God himself. In those words that Jesus spoke, directly to the prostitute, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The echoes reverberated down the halls of time: Here is what the dinner guests actually heard when Jesus spoke, and what we should know as well: Moses asked on Mt. Sinai, to see God’s glory, and this is God’s response. ““The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”
Do you need to hear that Jesus knew, and still knows, even today, at this hour what is in the heart of every person? Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open?
You may have come to worship to feel superior to all the hypocrites, you may come to church to burn it down, though I hope not, you may come to church to destroy a life with gossip, you may come to church just so you can walk out shortly after worship begins, it doesn’t matter why we’ve come to church, the power of the Word of God is sufficient, and will accomplish his purpose. Whatever that may be. And we mustn’t think we always know what that is.
We may talk of the Word of God as an active, personal, divine agent, for that is how the Word is presented to us in the scriptures. One of our callings is to conform our thinking and reasoning and living to the form of speech we find in God’s Word.
And when I speak of God’s Word, I mean that which is living and active, which knows all and sees all and says what each of us needs to hear at any moment. We think we are the agents of knowing. We read the text; we decide what it means. But he says, to all who will hear, in the words of the Psalmist: “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.”
To read the text is to be read, by the text, by the Word.
When we come to Luke 7, we appropriately ask, what exactly does “Your sins are forgiven,” mean? Remember, when we come to God’s Word, our first response is to be, I don’t know what this means, in spite of what I think. The message Jesus’ words in Luke 7 carries is so much more….cosmic, let’s say, then what is experienced in the immediate moment by the forgiven sinner.
I shared with my Hebrews class last week about a teenage girl in our church when I was growing up who went forward just about every month or so at the invitation hymn on Sunday night. Some of you remember church three times a week, don’t you, back before Ed Sullivan and Topo Gigio and Lamb Chop came along on Sunday evenings. Lamb Chop was a pretty big deal. Still is. Did you know Lamb Chop testified before Congress? Bet you never did that. Did you know Lamb Chop is also a 3-Star General in the US Marine Corps. So there’s that.
Anyway, this young woman hears something. Someone was calling her. She was a baptized believer, but she kept going forward. I don’t exactly know why, I never did. She said she wanted to rededicate her life. Some of us made fun of her among ourselves, and would bet one another on whether or not she would go forward on any given Sunday, because you just never knew.
Never stake anything of importance on the empathy and compassion of a teenage boy, but you probably already know that.
What was she seeking? Why had not she found it, already? What strange confluence of events, causes and influences have me now remembering her and talking about her with you over 50 years later? Her life. She said she wanted to rededicate her life to the Lord.
What is God doing in this passage? We know he is speaking. “Day to day pours forth speech,” the Psalmist tells us.
There is a danger in coming to a text like ours today without preparation, for the unprepared heart is tempted to regard Simon as that which we don’t want to be, never want to be, and thus fall into the trap. It’s like if you ask yourself, Am I humble? Some things it’s best to leave alone.
But our text today makes us look at ourselves. “I entered your house, Simon, yet you gave me no kiss.” I wonder what they’re doing in France these days, with all that kissing? I guess you’d get used to it. Kiss on the right, kiss on the left, kiss on the right. But if we’re not even shaking hands, I imagine they’ve dropped the kissing for awhile.
Apparently, the kiss was an expected part of a standard greeting in Jesus’s day, and his world. And this absence of a kiss is combined with the absence of other normal signs of welcome. In those days you were supposed to wash their feet and oil their hair as well, it appears from Jesus’ statement. “I’m your guest, Simon and you did none of this for me, but this woman with her tears, and her hair, and her ointment, has loved greatly.”
You heard the way this went. Jesus is invited to eat with Simon, a common name, in those days, Simon the Maccabean being one of their well-remembered heroes. Simon is identified for us as a Pharisee, and that’s all we know, except to know that he has a house, which not everyone did.
It’s difficult to picture some of this, until we remember the nature of houses in the Mediterranean world back then, for houses were somewhat open-air, and privacy was not like it is today. Privacy was not a functioning practice. At a meal like this, a leading citizen invites the latest big noise to his house for dinner, there would be a lot of onlookers, kibitzers, standing around, hanging out in the ante-chambers, just to see, just to hear. To see what is the latest dish, how much food there is, maybe listen to the conversation of these important people.
And there was always the chance of some leftovers. No one lived or moved or traveled alone in those days. A Roman grandee had people lined up to see him first thing in the morning. He was their patron, their “Padrone,” everybody needed a little something, and the Roman Senator or member of any of the upper classes would hand out a few coins to anyone he recognized.
In Jesus’ world, there were people around all the time, hanging on his words, hoping to be healed, to be helped in some way. The Jews, even the strictest apparently, had absorbed some of the Greco/Roman cultural practices in spite of their resistance to much of it.
How is this woman of the city, this “sinner,” able to cry on Jesus feet while he’s eating supper? Is she down there scrabbling around under the table? No, apparently the Jews of Jesus’ day had also adopted the symposium-style dinner, where the men, lounged around a horseshoe shaped table, lying on their sides on couches, eating in a relaxed style while laying on pillow and cushions.
It’s not that someone has wandered in to his home that has alarmed Simon, but who, or what, she is. A Sinner. A woman of the city. Simon is already treading a fine line with his Mediterranean dining style, and this woman alarms him because the other part of the upper-class Greco/Roman dining style, was the provision of what were euphemistically called “flute-girls” who provided the soft soothing background music, but who in reality, were paid to provide sexual services to the rich and powerful men present.
It’s hard for us to feature just how drastically different Jewish sexual mores and practices were from the surrounding cultures of the day. Aline Rousselle, studied this world most carefully, and essentially the only person off limits to a Roman man’s sexual depredations was a Roman woman married to a man of his class or higher. All others may as well have been working for Harvey Weinstein.
One commentator said Jesus did not even need to turn around to see the source of the dropping of liquid, tears, on his feet. All he had to do was read the horror on Simon’s face, to know what was happening.
And because he knows the secrets of the heart, he knows what Simon now thinks of him, and is perhaps wishing he had not invited Jesus in the first place.
But in the tradition of the symposium from way back, Jesus begins to question Simon. He tells him a story, a parable and concludes with a question. Notice, in this overall story about forgiveness, Jesus tells a smaller story within the story about a creditor and two debtors, who owe vastly unequal debts to their common creditor. Three characters in the outer story, three characters in the inner story. Two characters owe a debt, which is forgiven by the third character.
The weeping, the sobbing, the cleansing, the sacrifice of an extremely valuable ointment, perhaps even one of the tools of her unfortunate trade, to anoint his feet, this is the context of the story Jesus tells Simon.
Jesus tells the story, and asks Simon who will love his creditor more? Simon says, in virtually every translation I could find, says, “I suppose, the one who was forgiven more.” I suppose! There is Simon’s guilty plea right there, for he knows he doesn’t love like the woman. And Jesus spells that out for him. And then he says to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” And even while the others are wondering about that, he says to her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
What was it that brought her to the supper, uninvited? What was it that made her think she could weep over the feet of this respected Rabbi, and possibly compromise him in the eyes of the world? What was it that made her think she could touch, the bare feet and legs of this preacher of the kingdom of God, in the home, once again uninvited, of a Pharisee giving a supper for Jesus and other men, men who may have known her more immediately than they would want to admit.
Your faith has saved you. Her faith drove her to that dinner. It drove her to gratitude. Her faith drove her, when she couldn’t speak because her heart was too full of mercy received, to the only language she had, which was too weep uncontrollably, to love in the only way she could, to serve, to respect, to give.
Jesus doesn’t pretend there’s nothing wrong. Jesus doesn’t pretend that sin doesn’t exist, doesn’t distort, divide, control, warp and destroy the lives of all that it touches. Which is everyone. Including Simon.
He only says, because he IS the Word of God, he says, “Let there be light.” It doesn’t sound like that to us, we hear “Your sins are forgiven.” But the word of God always says, “Let there be light.” You see how that works? Light creates, cleanses, restores, protects, reveals. Let there be light. Let the good world exist and go forward. Let the renewing act of God be found on the level of the poor, and the guilty, and the crushed and the lonely and the forgotten. Let their names be known, let men in pulpits speak about them thousands of years in the future.
Let there be light.
Psalm 32, August 30, 2020
What is sin? What is a sin? What does sin do? As I said last week, my grandmother reminded her wicked little grandsons that “your sins will find you out.” You can’t hide from the effects of your sin, was the message I received. Of course, when I was 8 years old, I would have liked to have heard more of Psalm 32 than Numbers 32. Psalm 32 begins “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven; whose sin is covered.”
I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about my grandmother, who was a hard-working mother, hard done by in many ways. From 1917 to 1931, she bore eight children, four boys and four girls, and my grandfather, who talked her into leaving Jacksonville and moving to the countryside during the depression, was often gone the entire work week, working for Railway Express, the national Package Delivery service, back when most things went by the railroad.
This is one reason the sheriff gave my mother a driver’s license when she was 12 years old, because neither of her parents knew how to drive a car and during the war my uncles had moved away, three of them in the service, and so my mother had to pick up my grandfather at the bus station when he got off work for the weekend.
I grew up hearing all the funny stories about growing up on the farm, and my mother getting chased around the house by my grandmother, and my grandfather giving my mother a nickel every time he came home which she ran and buried in the back yard, about my mother hitting a cow in the road when she was 14.
But there was sin in my mother’s family, and my father’s, as well as yours, and mine. Sin can be called the “inheritance” that no one ever misses out on. Some say we’ve all got the coronavirus by now. We’ve all got the antibodies. Whether or not that’s true, it’s certainly the case we’ve all inherited a sinful nature.
I had an aunt who had a glass eye. She made jokes about it when I was kid, we never to know what to think. The story I heard for years was that it happened in a volleyball game at high school and somebody spiked the ball. It was an accident, was what I heard. My sister says it happened in a softball gave and one of my uncles threw the ball at her when she wasn’t looking, and it hit her in the face. Was that an accident? Good clean fun? He certainly wouldn’t have been intending to blind his sister. But she lost an eye because of it. Her life was irreparably changed because of that day.
But I never heard that talked about when I was growing. Some things you don’t say in front of the children, I guess. She joked about it all the time when we were kids, but I think my mother knew about the real heartache that was a result of that day. My aunt eventually married, but for years she suffered with the imagined stigma of thinking that everybody was staring at her. Wondering which was the real eye.
Sin runs in families, doesn’t it? We pass it along, unwillingly, unknowingly. We can all think of examples of the lasting effects of sin in life. We do things, or say things, we later wish we had not. Things are done or said to us, we wish had not been. But we have to live with them. Not every sin just goes away, when we forgive and forget.
I can’t remember the name of the kid in my sixth-grade class that me and my buddies excluded from our lunch room table. There were three of us, Steve Odom, Steve Strickland, Steve Lewis. We had a club, and well, if your name wasn’t Steve you couldn’t be in our club. No Johns, or Bobs or Howards allowed.
We’re standing together in line in the lunchroom, and boy, wasn’t that fun? Unairconditioned lunches in Florida with 200 other smelly kids who didn’t use deodorant and the fragrance of spoiled milk everywhere. Not really spoiled but just a little, off. Somebody always dropped their little half pint of milk carton, and the garbage dumpster was usually just outside the open windows of the lunchroom, for convenience, I assume. Certainly not for our dining pleasure.
Anyway, there we are and this new kid is acting like he’s gonna sit with us. The nerve!
I said, You’re not in our club. What club? Our club. How do you get in the club? What’s your name? Howard. Sorry. This is a club for Steves. There was this other kid with us, Gary. What about him? he said. His name’s not Steve. He’s honorary. You can’t sit with us.
Now, on the scale of the atrocities of history, that’s a drop in the bucket, but, some buckets are filled a drop at a time. Things build up. They get worse, they boil over.
Sometimes the Bible talks about the “stain” of sin, as in Jeremiah 2:22, “Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me, says the Lord God.” And in the letter of James, 3:6 we read: “ The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature,[a] and set on fire by hell.”
This fits well with the Biblical notion of washing away sin, the washing clean effect of baptism being one of those metaphors that come readily to mind, as in Hebrews 10, “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” Or in Revelation 7, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
We use metaphors all the time and not just in the Bible. Metaphors are intrinsic to our everyday speech. The language we use about “argument” has an effect on the way we think about argument.
I demolished his argument, we say.
I’ve never won an argument with him.
He shot down all my arguments.
Her criticisms were right on target.
Once war, or that is to say, an argument has been declared, we feel the necessity to win the argument. You certainly don’t want to LOSE. You see, metaphors frame our thinking, not just about arguments, but about everything. I couldn’t preach a sermon, or talk about hardly anything without metaphor, whether overt or covert, obvious or subtle.
Some language theorists go so far as to say all language is made of metaphors, that they are the building blocks of all discourse. Most of these metaphors have been lost in the ancient history of language and we’re no longer aware of them.
The way we talk about sin affects the way we think about sin, and not only how we think, but how we conduct ourselves with regard to right and wrong, and in relations with God, and with one another, for Proverbs 23 reminds us, “as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.”
The words, the language, the stories, the metaphors you rehearse within yourself as you go through your day determine who you are. Sometimes, in reflecting upon sin, we speak of accidents, mistakes, misjudgments, even peccadilloes.
We speak of transgressions, misdeeds, errors, misdemeanors, moral lapses, shortcomings, failures, trespasses, debts. Sin, the shortest of such words, makes us sometimes uneasy. It sometimes depends on who we’re talking about. My misjudgment is a failing in my friend, and an obvious sin in my enemy.
But all of them connect to a metaphor somewhere in the history of their use in language. And they’re all sometimes, appropriate in their use for our own or others deeds.
Sin has a history. Certainly in the Bible we can see that. In Leviticus 16 we read that the High Priest places the sins of the people on the head of a goat. This is where the notion of a scape-goat comes from, first translated in that way by William Tyndale in 1530. Leviticus says: 21Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. 22The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.
Scape goat was short for “Escape Goat.” The sins, in this understanding, are conceived of as a burden, a weight, having an existence that can be transferred, that can be removed from one, or many, and placed on another. This is one way the Bible talks about sin. You can hear it in Psalm 32, in vss. 3 & 4: “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up[a] as by the heat of summer.”
The psalmist has discovered the weight, the burden of unconfessed sin. Back in Texas the church had a full-sized basketball gym, and me and a couple other guys walked round and round the gym in the morning for our health. We were like mall walkers, but we had no mall. I wore this vest that had iron bars in the pockets all over it and if it was full it weighed 40 pounds. You can imagine how good it felt to take that vest off after walking for 45 minutes wearing it.
Though a fictional character, Emma Woodhouse, the eponymous protagonist of Jane Austen’s novel, carried the burden of her sin, of publicly shaming a neighbor, Miss Bates, at a picnic in front of several others. Miss Bates is garrulous, always talking, always gossiping, lonely, and very self-conscious around her “betters,” as they would have said in the early 1800s. Miss Bates is an unmarried middle aged woman living with and looking after her widowed mother, Mrs. Bates, who is stone deaf, and they are on the edge of genteel poverty, while Emma is wealthy in her own right, and at the end of the novel, will be even more so, when she marries Mr. Knightley.
At the picnic, one of the eligible young men, Frank Churchill, suggests that each of the seven members must say to Emma “two things moderately clever-or three things very dull indeed,” to which Miss Bates replies in a self-deprecating way, “I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth”. Unfortunately, in a vain attempt at humor, Emma says in response, ‘Ah! Ma’am but there may be a difficulty. Parton me – but you will be limited as to number – only three.’”
You can see the verbal dagger go home on Miss Bates face in the filmed version of the novel. Her shame, her pain, is excruciating to watch. And later when Miss Woodhouse is privately reprimanded by Mr. Knightley, you can see her pain at failing the one man whose opinion matters to her. She carries that burden through much of the novel, and even Miss Bates refuses to see her, when she tries to apologize.
But sin as a weight, a burden is not the only way the Bible describes our sin, for even in this Psalm, vs. 5 expands upon the metaphors for that which divides us from God, “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”
Iniquity, transgression, and guilt. Iniquity referring to an inner defect in character, transgression having to do with crossing a line, violating a precept, and guilt, speaking from a legal or courtroom context, the state of being in violation of a law, though we nowadays think of guilt as an inner feeling, feeling guilty, the way we imagine our dogs feel when we come home and they’ve chewed up our shoes.
Psalm 32 uses a variety of ways to talk about sin, but by the time of Jesus’ day, the notion of sin as debt is prominent. Though we pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” because that’s the way the Lord’s prayer appeared in Tyndale’s English translation and in the first English Book of Common prayer, virtually all translations since that time render Matthew 6 “And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors.”
The notion of sin as a debt incurred is used often. In Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18, the man thrown into debtor’s prison because he owed some huge sum, and, when forgiven, demands from an acquaintance that he pay him the small sum he owes him uses debt to illustrate how sin may be thought of.
Jesus lived after a time when debt had become a much more common metaphor for sin in the prophets and some of the Torah. We have this concept still in our legal system when we talk about financial debt being “forgiven.” IN the sermon on the mount Jesus talks about settling up with anyone who has “something against” us, for if not, our accuser will hand us over to the judge and we will be put in prison and never get out till we’ve paid the last penny.
Is he just talking about lawcourts here? In the very next chapter, ch. 6, Jesus is talking about the giving of alms in verse 4, and forgiving our debtors in verse 12, and in verse 19, he reminds us not to lay up treasures on earth, but to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven.
Jews in the few centuries before Jesus’ time thought of the good they did, especially the alms they gave to the desperately poor, as treasure, or “credit,” that God would weigh up in the balance sheet against our debt, of sin. This is a commonplace not only in the Sermon on the Mount but in the Apocrypha and in Isaiah 40:2 “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.”
Their debt has been paid by the time in exile. In Jeremiah he talks about the Sabbaths that were ignored for so long have been completed while they were in Babylon, and they may return. The debt has been paid.
However we come to the presence of God, Psalm 32 is helpful for us to hear the story of the Psalmist, a fellow sinner: “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. 6 Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress the rush of mighty waters
shall not reach them. 7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.”
Some years ago, Joe Garrison asked me why we never had any form of confession in our worship service. I had never thought of that, simply because we never had “confession” in church where I grew up. But our congregation has a varied heritage among its members. Some of you have been Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, all of whom normally have a time of confession in worship.
So, thanks to Joe, I started putting a Prayer of Confession in our service before Communion. Now, because some of you, like myself, are not from those traditions, we have times without a Confession, but rather a meditation which I give on the nature of Communion. Psalm 32 makes real clear the importance of confession, to be honest with God about who we are and who we know him to be. Next month we’ll move into the time of Meditation for a while, but Confession will return, and we will, as the Psalmist says, “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous; and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.”
Sermon, 8/23/30, I Kings 21:1-19
The Collect for Purity that begins, “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid…” is found in many Catholic and Protestant prayer books, and appears to be at least 1,000 years old, found in Latin in a prayer book from the town of Fulda, in Germany. There is much that could be said about Fulda and its role in the kingdom of Charlemagne and his predecessors and successors, and also its role in the 20th century Cold War, being located in the militarily significant “Fulda Gap,” the path of an anticipated but never undertaken tank invasion of West Germany by the Soviet Union, but I want to call your attention back to the prayer found in the Fulda Sacramentary: Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open…and from whom no secrets are hid.”
You can hear the story of Santa Claus in those words, can you not?
“He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!”
Our myths around St. Nicholas have taken on some of the attributes of God, unfortunately, in the sense that we use that idea to scare our children into behaving, at least from around October till Christmas. I didn’t worry about Santa Claus because I knew my grandmother already knew everything and saw everything and could read the evil hearts of young boys who had little sisters she had to protect.
This is of course why my brother and I dug a trap for her in the backyard under the clothesline. We were just tired of the old lady ratting us out on every single good idea for mischief we came up with.
My granddaughter Elizabeth was captured on phone video recently by my daughter when she snuck off to the laundry room to yank clothes out of the front-loading dryer and try to climb inside. Never quite made it, of course.
The collect for purity is an acknowledgment in prayer of God’s omniscience, and a prayer for his cleansing, “Cleanse our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen”
And this is illustrated for us in the story of Ahab the king and his queen, Jezebel, evocative name even today, and Naboth, the owner of a vineyard. Many things lead to this travesty of justice we have heard read this morning, but certainly one thing, is proximity. This is often the case.
You don’t want to be in the way of, or even too near, rapacious power, or those who seek it. You don’t want to come between them and what they desire, like Susette Kelo in New London Connecticut, whose home was unjustly seized by the city government to transfer to a private company, along with many other home properties, for redevelopment into a hotel-retail-condo-research center for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. The constitution allows governments to “take” private property only for “public use” with “just compensation.” This is known as eminent domain.
But the redevelopment was for entirely private purposes. The city government would own nothing, except the exciting new tax revenue they dreamed about coming from all those new jobs. In a disgraceful decision, certainly not the first nor the last, the Supreme Court of the United States of America in a 5-4 decision supported New London against citizen Susette Kelo and several Homeowners who had joined her lawsuit.
Susette Kelo lost her home as did many others, but the developer lost interest when Pfizer decided to merge with Wyeth Drugs and moved its research campus to Groton CT, and 1,000 jobs left New London as a result.
When King Henry VIII wanted something, he merely let it be known what he wanted and people normally complied, except Thomas More, of course, Cardinal Wolsey’s successor as Lord High Chancellor of England. Cardinal Wolsey built a grand new palace for himself, Hampton Court, and it was so attractive and appealing and conveniently located on the Thames River, that it caught Henry’s eye, and Wolsey finally “gave” it to Henry, to try, unsuccessfully, to save his own position, and maybe his own neck. Odd that Hampton Court is on the Thames, just like New London CT is on a Thames River, across from Groton where Pfizer decided to move instead.
Ahab wanted. He wanted a vegetable garden near the palace. Maybe he liked to stroll in the garden in the cool of the evening and pick his own, perhaps the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic of Egypt, like the Hebrews lusted after in the wilderness.
Ahab wanted. Ahab coveted. Naboth had a vineyard near the palace and it was convenient, and fertile, and Ahab saw it, and he desired it. David saw Bathsheba, and he wanted her, and he got her, at the cost of her husband’s life. But Ahab, even in his covetousness, is a king of Israel, and not a baal worshiper like his queen. Ahab wants a garden close to the palace, and he wants it badly.
And so he offers to buy it from Naboth. He makes him an offer he can’t refuse. He is the king, after all. But Naboth refuses it. Naboth invokes the sacred name of the God whom they both claim to serve. “The Lord forbid that I should give you the land of my ancestors.”
Our ears should perk up here. The LORD. The Land. The ancestors. “The LORD forbid that I should give you the land of my ancestors.” Naboth refuses to cave to the King because of Resurrection. Because of Eternal life. For that’s what this was all about. The name of the LORD is the first key, for why bring him up over a simple land transaction? Maybe the price is too low, but for that you bring God into this? The Lord forbid?
Some of the laws of Moses were given to the people to prevent what is referred to today as the problem of wealth inequality. Every tribe, clan and family had land allotted to them when they came into the Promised Land. The land was something from which a Hebrew should not be alienated, for their “father” as they confessed in Deuteronomy 26, was a “wandering Aramean.” Abraham, when Sarah died, had not so much as a plot of dirt in which to bury her. He had to buy a piece of land from the Hittites. Abraham was a nomad.
The Lord forbid that I should give you the land of my ancestors! The Lord forbid that I should violate the covenant, that I should forget his promise, that I should abandon my forebears! It’s hard to figure out how this worked historically, but the idea in Leviticus is that one could only lease out property for a maximum of 49 years, or less, until the next Jubilee year, when all property would revert to the original owner.
And beyond the land, was the notion of the ancestors. Jewish ancestral piety is based on the promise of God, the notion of the bosom of Abraham. As Nathan described the love Uriah had for his wife that David had stolen, “but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. 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.”
To lie in the bosom was to sit closest to the host, or perhaps the guest of honor of a banquet, like the apostle John, leaning on the bosom of Jesus at the Last Supper.
God, as Jesus said, is not God of the dead, but of the living. This was not a new concept to Jews of his day. Their memory of their ancestors tied them to God’s promise of the land, which was the way the promise of Resurrection was seen in the misty, early vision of the Hebrew writers of Scripture. This is why and how they remembered all those named. You know all those genealogies?
“And Jared lived after he begat Enoch eight hundred years, and begat sons and daughters:20 And all the days of Jared were nine hundred sixty and two years: and he died.”
Who cares about all those names? They did. In today’s world we float like flotsam on the sea after the wreckage of the faith. Today we often don’t know who our great-grandparents are, some couldn’t tell you their grandparent’s names, and some families in our world have lost any connection to a father, or a father’s father.
The ancient Hebrews held on tightly to their place in God’s creation. They trusted God and his promise. Naboth trusted God, and perhaps even Ahab had a fear of God, but Jezebel certainly did not.
The refusal of Naboth to sell is so upsetting to poor Ahab he takes to his bed and is off his feed. When Jezebel questions him, he tells her Naboth won’t sell him the vineyard.
Jezebel, astonished that she had married such a spineless whiner, says, “Pshh, is that all? I will give you the vineyard of Naboth. No charge.”
Ahab gets what he wants and maintains his plausible deniability at the same time. Jezebel is able to orchestrate the extra-judicial murder of Naboth because everyone else is afraid not to go along with her plan because they each know they could be the next Naboth. Nice little business you got here. Shame if something happened to it. What a pretty family.
Verses 8-14 of our lesson tell us just how Jezebel suborned perjury by government officials, the elders and nobles of Jezreel, i.e., the deep state of the time. She essentially organized Naboth’s lynching. Why? Because she could.
Like those in Malachi who think God does not see, “Where is the God of Justice?” they asked. And in Psalm 94: “They pour out their arrogant words;
all the evildoers boast.5 They crush your people, O Lord, and afflict your heritage.6 They kill the widow and the stranger, they murder the orphan,7 and they say, “The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.”
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open: Jeremiah tells us “I the Lord test the mind and search the heart,” and the Psalmist says in Ps 44: “If we had forgotten the name of our God, or spread out our hands to a strange god,21 would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart.”
And, one more, as the Lord says to Samuel in I Samuel 16, “the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
How many times did I hear my grandmother say, “Be sure your sins will find you out?” As a kid I just thought that was something old people said, because she was certainly always on our case no matter what it was. She even seemed to know what we were planning to do. How did she do that?
I came across the saying years later in the book of Number 32:23: “Be sure your sins will find you out.” I’d heard her say that so often it was almost like learning that the Bible was quoting my grandmother!
Moses is warning the tribes of Reuben and Gad, who wanted to stay in Gilead on the east side of the Jordan river, that they were not to focus on building their own houses and flocks and families to the detriment and loss of their responsibility to the other tribes on the west side of the river. There was a social covenant within and among the people of God at that time. To ignore that responsibility for others of Jacob’s descendants was to violate the law in Leviticus 19: ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”
On this occasion in I Kings, the Lord calls his prophet to confront not Jezebel, but Ahab. Jezebel, Ahab’s queen consort, was a Sidonian, not a Hebrew, and a Baal worshiper, an idolater. I Kings 16 tells us, “Ahab not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him.”
The writer tells us what will happen to Ahab in 21:19, and it comes to pass in 22:38: “So the king died (he had been killed in battle in his chariot) and was brought to Samaria, and they buried him there. 38 They washed the chariot at a pool in Samaria (where the prostitutes bathed),[b] and the dogs licked up his blood, as the word of the Lord had declared.”
Jezebel seems forgotten. Have her sins not found her out? But the Word of the Lord accomplishes its purposes: 2 Kings 9 tells us how her own servants threw her out of an upper window when Jehu said, “Who is on my side?”
Trampled to death by the horses of his army, when Jehu later sent servants to find her body and bury her, for she was the daughter of a king, Jehu said, they reported back to him that there was nothing left but her skull and feet and hands, as 21:23 had said: “And also concerning Jezebel the Lord says: ‘Dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of[b]
All for a vegetable garden. A few leeks and onions, maybe. There is a God. He is the Lord. He sees all. He hears all. “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 3 Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.” The Lord does not forget… “and from whom no secrets are hid.”
A useful question to sometimes ask is why is this passage here? Why is it in the Bible and why is it where it is? What are God’s intentions with this text, for me, for today, for others, what was the writer or editor thinking?
For some of us think to ourselves, “Do we really need to know about the dogs licking up Ahab’s blood? Or Jezebel getting defenestrated?
And why hear about Ahab at all? Ahab is, or was, a part of the consciousness of the West. It is no accident that the Bible-haunted Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, named his evil captain Ahab, and his wandering sailor Ishmael. And who does Ishmael encounter before the sailing of the whale ship, but a strange man on the shore named Elijah, who warns him of Captain Ahab.
Ahab looms large in our memory, but what about King Zimri? Or his father King Omri? Historians and archaeologists assert that Omri was more powerful and effective as a King than Ahab was. We even learn that Omri did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, certainly like Ahab in that sense.
But Ahab brought idolatry to the fore. He allowed Jezebel to bring baals into the kingdom. We like to think of idolatry as a victimless crime. Who can it hurt? Like the way some used to and even still today say, the victimless crime of smoking marijuana, or the victimless crime of prostitution. Some imagine that is a simple transaction, the man gets what he wants, the prostitute gets paid, where is the harm? A victimless crime.
The nonsensical notion that prostitution has no victims is a hellish lie, just like the idea that idolatry has no victims. For greed and covetousness are idolatry, as Paul says in Ephesians 5: “Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” And again in Colossians 3: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”
Idolatry as greed or covetousness helps us to see this whole chapter of I Kings as a meditation on idolatry, on any behavior or system of government that puts anything before God.
The supposed religious neutrality of our country’s founding is coming back to bite us in recent years, for it’s false to say that it doesn’t matter what your faith is, it doesn’t matter what your religion is, it doesn’t matter what you believe in your heart, all that has nothing to do with the kind of person you become. This is to class religion as some kind of stamp-collecting, model train building hobby. And it’s not true, as many of the Founders certainly knew and understood.
We’re accustomed to reminding ourselves that our nation is founded on a “government of laws, not of men.” Made famous by John Adams, 2nd President, it is a part of the Massachusetts 1780 Constitution, drafted by John Adams.
But here’s the problem. The law has to be enforced by men. The law has to be understood by men, and taught by men. The idea was to avoid government playing favorites, changing the rules as they went along, like playing Monopoly with my older brother before I was old enough to read the rules.
A government of laws not men should mean equal enforcement because those in charge follow the law, and obey the law, without fear or favor, without slanting the law one way or another, without political interference in who is prosecuted and who is not. Laws not men.
As a country we have relied on procedure, and forgotten that the men who wrote those constitutions and laws of long ago were a different breed of men than we find all around us today. A government of laws not men is pointless and powerless if the law is mute and helpless, if, as a prophet said long ago, the law does not live in the heart of each and every man and woman, for if the law is not revered and respected by every man woman and child, there is no society that can survive the chaos that will ensue.
Naboth is our name. There is always a Jezebel, always an Ahab around the corner, or on the horizon. But the Lord says, “I have heard the cry of my people. And behold, the Lord’s arm is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear.”
Sermon on Luke 7:18-35 Sunday, August 16th
Would it bother you if I said that John the Baptist bothers me? In this passage from Luke we read that John has sent two of his disciples to Jesus after it was reported to John that Jesus had healed the servant of the Roman Centurion, raised the widow’s son from the dead, and that many were saying about Jesus, “A great prophet has arisen among us.”
The disciples of John told him about all these things we hear in vs 18, and so John sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus a question: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Now that’s a very carefully worded question. He doesn’t ask, “Are you the Messiah? Are you the Christ, as we would say? For both words, in Hebrew and in Greek, mean anointed one. Which means “person marked out by special rite or ceremony for a specific divinely ordained purpose.” Aromatic oils, made from olive oil and other ingredients, like myrrh would be used to mark the forehead.
The Kings of Israel were anointed, the priests were anointed. The prophet Samuel anointed the first King, Saul, who at first protested, saying he was from Benjamin, the smallest tribe, and the poorest family of the tribe.
Anointed is a word sometimes used in other contexts. We’re familiar with that. Sometime Journalists say so and so has been anointed to be his or her party’s standard-bearer, combining religious and military metaphors.
For whatever reason, John is not coming right out and asking if he’s the Messiah. But the expectation among many was that there was an “anointed one” who was coming. People had different ideas about what this “one who was to come” would do, but John had said, in Luke 3: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with[e] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
There was a judgment coming for which John was telling his hearers and disciples to prepare. “Repent, be washed of your sins. He comes to gather his harvest, the wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff to be cast into the furnace.”
Others expected the “one who is to come” to immediately lead Judah in a military revolt, and defeat the Romans and their collaborators, as the Lord had done of old, in the days of Moses and Joshua, Gideon and David. The Arm of the Lord! The sword of the Lord and Gideon!
John hears of healings, of Gentiles, and resurrections of unknown young men…maybe he’s puzzled. “Are you the one?” he asks. Politely as possible, it must be said. Should we look for another? You and I might think, how can they not know? How do they not recognize him?
But Jesus doesn’t fit the pattern for which John and others were watching. For notice Jesus’ answer to the question of John? “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Jesus is carrying out the program he had already announced back at the synagogue in Capernaum. Local boy makes good, asked to speak in synagogue. He read from Isaiah 61, and Luke indicates he focused on vss 1 and 2: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.”
There are plenty of others like it in Isaiah: 58:6: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
And Isaiah 35: Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
And one more, in Isaiah 29: “On that day the deaf shall hear
the words of a scroll,
and out of their gloom and darkness
the eyes of the blind shall see.
19 The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.
20 For the tyrant shall be no more,
and the scoffer shall cease to be;
all those alert to do evil shall be cut off—
21 those who cause a person to lose a lawsuit,
who set a trap for the arbiter in the gate,
and without grounds deny justice to the one in the right.
You can see what they all have in common: Human evil: “The tyrant shall be no more,” and what we might call natural evil: “the eyes of the blind shall see.” Isaiah, and Jesus, connect the reign, the rule, of the Lord, with the end of sickness, oppression and death. You can see the kind of things that evil people did 2500 years ago: payoffs in lawsuits, the corruption of the legal system.
I would also be interested to read some sort of medical-archaeological investigation into the ailments of ancient Israel. Plenty of people died prematurely from contagious diseases, colds, flu, pneumonia, diphtheria, measles, smallpox and other fevers, all kinds of things could kill in a world without anti-biotics or other medicines and no modern plumbing and sanitation practices.
There was not so much cancer, and diabetes, and heart disease back then, which believe it or not are the ailments of history’s winners. The diseases of the rich and prosperous, which come long after children and grandchildren are born. But in ancient Israel, those who dodged death from contagion nevertheless seem unusually plagued by deafness, blindness, mobility issues, the Bible category of the lame, and problems with infertility.
All of which may have connections to the effects of extreme fever, whether with adults, children, or babies in the womb, like the man born blind, in John 9.
But the passages from Isaiah were connected to the promise of return from exile, the promises of God restoring his people to his favor, the promise of God to come and be their king, to establish Zion, Jerusalem, as his throne, from which the Lord would rule the world.
The lion would lie down with the lamb. All people shall see the glory of God. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low. He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will father the lambs in his arms, and gently lead those that are with young.
This, all of this, is in Jesus’ answer to John, “the blind receive their sight. This is how this type of allusion works. Jesus quotes a verse and the whole panoply of its history and broader associations are also heard and intended.
And the claim that goes with this assertion is astounding, for Jesus associates himself, he identifies himself with the words spoken by Isaiah in the specifically messianic poems in the prophet. In ch. 40: “ To whom then will you compare me,
that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes on high and see:
who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might,
and because he is strong in power
not one is missing.
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary,
his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
This is what it means when Jesus finishes his response to John with verse 23, It’s almost like a postscript, when Jesus says: “And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”
You know that old joke about the longtime prisoners who have told the same jokes so often that all they have to do is call out #23, and everybody laughs! Or, #15. Everybody laughs. The new guy on the block decides he’ll get in on the fun and calls out: “#17!” Silence.
Finally the oldest guy says, “Some people just don’t know to tell a joke.”
Jesus, and John, and many others, knew the scriptures backwards and forward….and sideways. What else were they gonna do. No TV, no internet, no books, no Kindle. They had the scriptures, which they read, or heard read, over and over again. And because they believed that God spoke through this word, they looked hard for the connections from book to book and prophet to prophet.
They looked so hard they could connect up vast amounts of meaning and significance with a single reference, a sentence, a phrase, that took in and conveyed to the hearer whole schools of thought and interpretation.
Are you he is to come? What is John asking here, besides the obvious? Listen to this from Psalm 118:26: “Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord! We bless you from the house of the Lord. The Lord is God, and he has given us light.”
John says, are you this one? Are you the one, the Blessed one, who comes in the name of the Lord?
And Jesus responds, “Blessed is he who takes no office in me.” Jesus says, what you read in that royal Psalm 118 applies to me, speaks of me. I am the blessed one. I am he who comes in, and with the name of the Lord.
And with Jesus’ answer and Luke’s connection of the stories of John and Jesus, we learn just from this interchange what is the message of the Kingdom of God. It is a message of healing and life, it is a message of justice and righteousness, it is a message of hope that conquers the age old efforts of some groups to wreak righteousness on others, of some groups to wrest retribution out of history by means of violence, and force justice on the descendants of malefactors.
What do we see here in this exchange? It’s no accident that the Lord whom John knew, knows John’s name and his role:
“What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.’
28 I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
And this is why John the Baptist bothers me. Did you know both John and Jesus came preaching Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand? They both called the Pharisees, quote, “A brood of vipers?” They both said that every tree that does not bear fruit shall be cut down, they both were considered by everyone to be a prophet, and they both were nonetheless rejected by their hearers. They were both seized and bound by the Roman guards. Herod grieved at John’s death, and Pilate was reluctant to sentence Jesus to death. And both John and Jesus were buried by one or more of their disciples.
The gospel writers, especially Matthew, go to great lengths to develop and highlight these parallels, sometimes even going so far as to use the same exact wording in talking about John and then Jesus.
And one says to the other, are you the one who is to come? He then dies for following that one, who also dies, but for the sins of the whole world.
John bothers me in that his life so closely follows and parallels that of Jesus, and mine does not.
Does that make sense to you? Of course, though John was the greatest man in history, the least in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, in a puzzling formulation, is greater than John.
But greater, perhaps, only in what we have received. Not our wealth, not our comfort, not the prospect of long life in this world, even though global life expectancy has grown on average from less than 40 years 200 years ago, to 73 years today, around the world. An unprecedented change, most of which has happened since 1950.
The least in the kingdom of is greater than John because of what we have received, what we have, and what we know. For to live is Christ, and to die is gain. That’s the best deal ever, and that knowledge is our anchor, our life, our salvation.
As the apostle John says, “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”
Sermon, Galatians 1:11-24, August 9, 2020
It’s well known that the zeal Paul refers to in v. 14 continues to drive him in his ministry. “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” He is clear in v. 13 that he persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. “I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.” When God revealed his Son Jesus Christ, Paul did a complete 180 and began to persecute Judaism instead.
Actually, I’m just checking to see if you’re listening. Because of course that’s not what Paul did. He didn’t turn around from persecuting the church and begin to persecute the synagogue. He did the opposite naturally, because of the nature of the revelation given to him.
There are three important things to note in this second half of chapter 1 in Galatians. First is the relationship and sometimes conflict between revelation and tradition. Second is the fact that zeal must be tempered, or formed and informed by its object and inspiration. And third is the nature of Paul’s turnaround, the reversal Paul underwent when confronted by God’s revelation.
Let’s look at the second point first. In the church many have long talked about Paul’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity. For a long time, partly because that was the way commentators described it, that was the only way we had to think about it. We think in words and concepts that we are given, and it’s only repeated and continued engagement with hard and contradictory notions, which may or may not be right in themselves, that can lead us to new insight.
That’s why the cancel culture of modern-day academia, politics and social media are so stultifying and destructive to progress in understanding. Jordan Peterson wisely said “I don’t know what I think until I can formulate it in a way my listeners can understand and challenge. I don’t know what I think until I say it.”
So the notion of saying Paul did not convert from Judaism to Christianity relies on at least two insights. First, Judaism, the word itself, is only used in the NT in this passage. It seems to mean both more and less than what we might think. More because it seems to be connected to Paul’s use of the highly charged word “Zealous” or zeal. Less because it’s not really categorical name for a religion, since “religion” is a relatively modern concept, an invention of the world in secular can be seen to be the opposite of religious.
Zeal was associated with Phinehas, Moses’ brother Aaron’s grandson, who stopped the progress of God’s wrath through the camp of the Israelites by killing with his spear the Baal worship Hebrew man and his Midianite wife in their tent.
Zeal was associated with Elijah, who slew the prophets of Baal on the summit of Mt. Carmel in I Kings 18, concurrent with the law in Deuteronomy 13, that prophets of false gods were to be put to death.
Paul speaks of being zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. This means more than just being extra devout, always observing the sabbath, eating no shrimp or bacon or cheeseburgers. Paul put his zeal into action with force and violence. This is why he was the one in charge of the stoning of Stephen. This is why he uses the word here and in Phillipians3:6, “As to Zeal, I was a persecutor of the church.”
This word was used in Jewish circles to describe a form of elevated, active, can we say, fanatical devotion to the Lord. It had specific content, and, along with its use by writers in the apocrypha to refer to zealous violence of the Maccabean patriots against the Greek persecutions, it came to eventually denominate those who wanted to overthrow the Romans with violence, though we have no evidence that Paul belonged to that particular group.
What we have is Paul’s rehearsal of a story, a narrative in very compressed language in verse 15: “but when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles….”
It is the content of the revelation that makes the difference. Paul says God revealed his Son to him. So the content of that revelation is what makes the difference. Paul is not only not describing a religious conversion, he is bringing into the center of the discussion the new way of the cross. He’s helping us to see how his zeal is transformed from violence toward others to service of others.
Previously, Paul was serving God, as he saw it, by zealously persecuting the church. God, in his revelation to Paul says, No, not that way. This is how you serve me.
What Paul and all followers of Jesus are called to is contained in the content of the passion story of Christ. God’s plan for a rebellious world is found in the story of a sinless man who is crucified for the sins of the world. The Pagan Romans, the self-righteous Sanhedrin, how does God deal with them? Not violence, but by giving his Son to die for them.
We first see this way back in Genesis in the story of Abraham. It’s inserted into the DNA of Israel from the beginning. Abraham is called by God to sacrifice his son, his only son, the son whom he loves. The story in Genesis 22 is called the Akedah in modern Rabbinic commentary. It is now so central to their self-understanding the passage itself has its own name.
The story of the sacrificial Son, as revealed to Paul by God himself changes the nature of zeal. It reverses the direction of the zeal. It changes how Paul operates, because he is no longer the persecutor, but, as we read in 2 Corinthians 11, he has become the persecuted. “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning.”
But as Peter reminds us in his first letter, the story of the sacrificial Son changes the behavior of his followers. “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross,[h] so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness.”
Third point is merely to reiterate that Paul’s story is in essence the story of Jesus. He is not emphasizing here in Galatians “what Jesus did for me, how he met my needs,” which is not the way they thought back then. No, the story he tells is of a world turned upside down, a persecutor turned into an apostle, a zealot become the servant of all. In 2 Corinthians again we read, “Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters;[e] 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. 28 And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?”
Paul the persecutor has become more like a nursing mother with an infant child. As he says in I Thessalonians 2, “ But we were gentle[c] among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. 8 So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.”
The change is that Paul is no longer following his imagined idea of what it means to be zealous, but following the steps of the one described again in I Peter 2 “But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”
Paul is so tightly identified with his Lord he can say things like in Galatians 6, “I bear in my body the marks of Jesus.” Which I assume means the scars from all those beatings he listed in 2 Corinthians. Paul basically no longer operates with an agenda when we meet him in his letters, but with a directive. A command. A commission. He’s been plucked up, turned around, and given a new direction.
Finally, the first point I mentioned, is the tension between Revelation and Tradition. Paul instructs these confused Galatians that he had received no directions or instructions from other men, even the other apostles. What he preached had been revealed to him by God. The Galatians must not follow anyone who deviates from what Paul has proclaimed to them. “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters,[d] that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
But you and me. It’s a little different, isn’t it? I have received the Good news, at second hand, let’s say. I saw no visions, heard no voices. The very word, “tradition” is based on the Latin word for handing on, handing over, like in a relay race, when the baton is handed on to the next runner in the relay.
Preachers, of much training, and no training, are sometimes tempted to think we can relay to our hearers the divine revelation God has given us directly. And yes, all should listen to the Spirit of God, but all should also humble themselves under the yoke of tradition, to learn how others wiser, and with a different perspective perhaps, see the truth of God.
It is indeed ironic that our tradition is the revelation given to Paul, who says he was not “traditioned,” but given, handed, a revelation directly from God. I usually run pretty fast from characters who make that kind of claim.
The Bible itself which we believe and understand to be the Word of God is the product also of tradition, for it was not let down from Heaven on a golden rope, but came together slowly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the practices of the synagogue and the church.
Our tradition is to trust the Revelation given to Paul, and the other apostles. This is why it is an abuse of this text from Galatians to think of it as some sort of proof text for the rights of the individual conscience that stands against the forces of controlling orthodoxy. There is not a dichotomy, not necessarily a conflict here between the individual and the tradition per se, as Richard Hays says, but between the Good News God has revealed, and the human traditions arrayed against it that Paul struggled with.
Do our traditions help, or hinder others hearing and understanding the gospel? That’s the question not to forget. We mustn’t think that Paul is some sort of advocate for “The Church of What’s Happenin’ Now.” He is not the apostle of let’s all get along no matter what, the messenger of You do Your Thing and I’ll do Mine, and if we meet, it’s Beautiful.”
Paul doesn’t have a position from which he negotiates. He meets no one halfway on the truth of the gospel. Our challenge is to realize we’re not Paul, but that we need to understand and live his message.
Even if I can’t say, I’m never wrong. Even if I can’t say, No one knows the gospel like I do. That’s not for us. What we can all say is, “We would see Jesus.” We seek to know Jesus, and to make him know to others.
I can say, I will always seek to live under the guidance and direction of the Word of God, seeking him out, and finding that he is seeking me. For the Word of God is living and active, as the book of Hebrews describes him, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Sermon Psalm 30 Sunday, August 2nd
The idea of Jesus of Nazareth as the Word of God, the communication of Deity, the content, the reason, the rationality of the divine in the world, first came to me in my hearing of the first chapter of the Gospel of John. In the beginning was the Word.
I can recall a trip with our Explorer Scouts Post to the Appalachian Trail the week after Christmas, in 1971, for it was in that year my thoughts began to turn more seriously toward God.
I don’t remember the name of the lodge we stayed at, but we had given up trying to hike, because the trail was entirely frozen over. It had snowed and thawed a few times and the part of the trail we were attempting was simply a diagonal sideways sheet of ice that was impossible to hike.
Dad somehow got us, a dozen or so teenage boys, a lodge to stay in, beside some river in a state park. It was quite cold for all of us Florida boys, and we stayed inside the lodge most of the time, near the fireplace.
I mention all this because it’s where and when I remember first noticing the oddness of the first chapter of the Gospel of John. And I noticed because, in my new found religious devotion, I had decided to rewrite the Bible.
Not in any sort of Thomas Jefferson sense, picking and choosing what I liked and didn’t like, but simply by copying the text of the whole Bible. I get these big ideas. I had brought a Bible and a notebook to write in. Of course, with my handwriting, no one else would ever be able to read what I had written, but it was the doing of it, the taking in of scripture through the eyes and passing it back to the page through the muscles of the body. I didn’t know at the time, but that’s a very good way to impress on your mind what you’re reading; to copy it out by hand.
I started with the Gospel of John, I don’t know why, unless it was the notion of those initial verses that caught my attention. “In the beginning. Seemed like a great place to start. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God; and the Word was God.
This tells us a lot about God, and ourselves. The Word. There is perhaps a holiness connected to this fundamental aspect of humanness. Communication, communion, think of all the things that one does and accomplishes through words.
We listen to our children, waiting and watching for those first words, when they learn to speak, a confirmation that a signal is getting through. The mother that speaks and sings to the child, in the womb, in the crib, while nursing, while walking, reading to the child when he or she just wants to chew on the book, long before the child can talk back, this is the foundation of so much of our learning for the rest of our lives.
You see, Humanity is not an innately reasonable entity. It’s passed on. We become acculturated by those who raise us, those around us, those we’re taught to respect and revere. Even if an infant did not have to be fed and protected for many years, it’s the growth of those connections that make us human in the ways that allow families, cities and civilizations to grow and develop in ways that provide for truly human flourishing.
This is why things like loneliness are so painful. Social isolation. The child born with a facial disfigurement endures a great deal of emotional pain from those who turn away. Why is solitary confinement in prison an additional punishment? It’s painful.
This is why God gives us families, clans, tribes, neighborhoods. This is why it can make sense for a person who walked on this earth to be called, as in John 1:1, the Word of God.
God chose the most basic, distinguishing aspect of humanity with which to speak to us. And we have this diverse, variable, shimmering tapestry of beauty known as the scriptures for our birthright. Abraham didn’t. He had no Bible. Nor Moses, nor David.
In the mysteries of the power of the Holy Spirit God used those men and others to speak to us today. My great great great great grandfather was born only 262 years ago. How many generations back are those who first read the gospel of John, or a letter of the apostle Paul, perhaps not even knowing what they were holding?
And how far back, when someone first sang, or spoke, “O Lord my God, I cried out to you for help, and you have healed me,” like the writer of Psalm 30? Ellen Charry, a commentary writer, says some earlier commentators associate this Psalm with the recovery from illness of Hezekiah, narrated in 2 Kings 20. Others with the destruction of Haman and the reprieve for the Jews in the time of Esther in the Persian kingdom.
Calvin reads Psalm 30 spiritually and sees the remorse expressed as David’s anguish over his sin with Bathsheba. Different writers have seen the rescue God provides as rescue from illness, or sin, or even death itself.
However we situate its possible original setting, we mustn’t neglect its current setting, which is just as real, just as important, just as relevant for the interpretation of this Psalm and every scripture.
What does that mean, its current setting? Well, it means, for one thing, that history is not just that which is dusty, dead and gone, seen only in the dim light of our metaphorical rear-view mirror. History is not just that which we must dig up from the buried past, translate, and put into some sort of relevant modern-day dress. History is where we are, and the Word of God is with us all the time. The Word of God is not limited because it was first spoken by a Jew on the other side of the world 2,500 years ago.
Whether it’s Hezekiah, or Esther, or David that’s the original speaker or setting for this Psalm, one thing is certain: you and I are now the setting. You and I are now making history. You and I now must call on the Lord in the long hours of weeping, for truly his joy does come in the morning.
You see, here we are, getting older by the minute, my life is shorter now than when I woke up this morning, as is yours, but you and I are here as newborn eternal beings, by virtue of being in the body of Christ.
Listen to that last verse and hear the utter facticity of what it says. It is no exaggeration. It is not preacher talk. It’s a simple fact. “O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.”
Forever. That’s what awaits you. And if you’ve ever thought about eternity very hard, you’ve probably started to worry. Not whether or not you will be there, though perhaps that has worried you. Rather what are we going to do there, FOREVER? Will there be Netflix? Can I take my Kindle? We think Eternity’s a long time, but it’s not. It’s not time at all. You know how time flies when you’re having fun? You ever notice that when you’re the busiest, the day just flies by?
Eternity is like nothing we’ve ever known. How would we? “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”
Psalm 30 tells us the truth and transcends time and the past. William Faulkner spoke truly when he said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
It keeps speaking, it keeps pushing the present into the future, just like this Psalm has now been spoken into your heart. Today.
You see,m the way to read this Psalm, to perform this Psalm, is to hold it up like a mirror. Haven’t you ever cried yourself to sleep? Haven’t you ever thought, like in verse 6, “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’”
Cast your mind back to February. Oh, those Chinese have got themselves in a pickle again. Another Bird Flu. Another virus. When will they ever learn?
You didn’t think it would affect you, or your family, or your country. I mean, how would that happen?
Most of us think, or have thought in the past, since we’re old enough to have learned by now, that we’ve got it all figured out. We know how to navigate. I don’t have to worry about this, or that. I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing. It’s worked so far.
“But then you hid your face, O Lord, and I was overwhelmed. To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication. Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be thou my helper!”
Ellen Charry takes this psalm apart and puts the verses in an order, beginning with the good times of verse 6, which then leads to the Psalmists crisis, and then to the turn to God, who then hears his prayer, restores him and the Psalmist sings his praises.
She puts it in emotional order, in the way things might have happened. Verse 6 reminds me of Paul’s statement in I Corinthians 10, “Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” It sounds like a proverb, but I haven’t been able to find it elsewhere.
What it does support is the universality of sin. Let anyone who thinks he stands. We overestimate ourselves, our strength, our virtue. Ellen Charry translates verse 6 as “When life was easy, I said, “Nothing will bother me.”
Psalm 30 is not specific about what went wrong for the Psalmist, for by the time we read this Psalm, by the time it has become “canonical,” a part of the scriptures, it has been universalized. It fits us all whether we have yet seen and experienced its truth.
This is why Soren Kierkegaard, a man much given to depression, talked about despair in a strange way. He said the person who doesn’t experience their own despair, is the only person who truly is in despair. For with Kierkegaard, a profoundly devout Lutheran Danishman of the 19th century, his struggles threw him into the arms of God. He saw the carefree successes of those who took no thought for God and his call, as people living in a dungeon of success.
The heart that is wrung by pain and suffering knows how to love and prize the love of God. The heart that remembers the weeping of the nighttime can comfort those who cannot see or believe that the morning comes, it always does.
For whatever direction this life takes, and whatever life takes away from us, there is one thing that cannot be taken away, the sure and certain hope of resurrection from the grave. “ You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.”
The Psalmist sings the future into your heart. When you know the tune and the singer, the darkness slips away and the morning dawns, and light fills the world.
The believer has something to hold onto. Think of your faith as the rock you’ve built your house on that the storm cannot wash away. Think of your faith as the rock from which the springs of water gush in the desert. Think of your faith as the stone which the world’s builders rejected, but which became the chief cornerstone. Think of your faith as the stone of stumbling, which had you not stumbled upon, you would not have seen it.
7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it.’
Luke 7:1-10 Sermon Sunday, July 26th
I’ve been trying to think of a contemporary equivalent to the Roman Centurion, especially in terms of how much the population hated them in particular. As divided as this country is politically, it’s hard to settle on possibility that’s not hated by half and loved by half. There are Americans who love Donald Trump and hate him. There are Americans who love Joe Biden and hate him. So that won’t work. It’s like that with a lot of folks. Colin Kaepernick, Tucker Carlson, Rachel Maddow, Drew Brees. Even someone like Anthony Fauci has his army of supporters and detractors.
It’s hard to find someone in our world exactly equivalent to a Roman Centurion in Jesus’ world. I thought maybe a Tax Auditor for the IRS might qualify, a type of person loved only by their family. But even the IRS agent is just trying to do his or her job, trying to earn a living. And where would our country be without income taxes? Well, don’t answer that.
A Roman Centurion was the face of oppression in many of the lands governed or occupied by the Romans for several centuries. Not all regions were occupied by the Army; it depended on their governability. A Centurion might be equivalent to the modern-day rank of a Captain or Major in the US Army. He would be the command officer for 80-200 soldiers, depending on the assignment and the circumstances.
There are probably similarities between the way Iraqis viewed American field officers from 2003 forward. Suffice it to say the representatives of the greater nation that has weapons and power that you don’t have are viewed with suspicion, hostility and hatred. But notice that in this story we have a different circumstance.
The wealth disparity between the Jews of Capernaum and the officers of the Roman Army must have been substantial because v. 5 has the Jewish leaders saying to Jesus “he built us our synagogue.” This Centurion seems to be more along the lines of a “kinder, gentler” sort of occupying Army, putting into practice, with more success, something similar to the generally unsuccessful, Hearts and Minds campaign of the Vietnam War, if you remember that.
It was the local leaders who said to Jesus, ““He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5 for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” So the Centurion seems to be remarkable in many ways, particularly for the way he stands out in contrast with the bad reputation of other Roman officials.
It’s also important to see the context within Luke, for sometimes we see these chapter designations as hard breaks between topics when they’re not. The very existence of chapter designations in the Bible is only 500 years old, and so not in the original text.
Right after this story of the Centurion is the raising from the dead of the widow’s son in the town of Nain. What’s worth pointing out is the way Luke gives a nod to the knowledgeable reader by saying of Jesus, after the young man was restored to life, “And he gave him to his mother.”
In I Kings 17, during the famine sent by God because of the wickedness of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, Elijah, at God’s direction, is staying with the widow of Zarephath, whom Jesus referenced in Luke 4 during his very unpopular inaugural sermon.
The widow’s son dies and Elijah stretches himself out on the body three times, cries out to the Lord in anguish and the boy is restored to life.
In Luke, Jesus says to the young man on his way to the cemetery, “Young man, I say to you, Arise.” A simple word of Command. No prayers, no cries of anguish. He does not, as Elisha does in a parallel story in 2 Kings 4, stretch himself out upon the child repeatedly and even seem to give him mouth to mouth resuscitation.
Nothing but: Arise. Jesus speaks, Jesus commands, and Life returns.
It’s interesting that the words of Luke are exactly the same as the words of the narrator in I Kings, when he said, “And he gave him to his mother.” Precisely the same, word for word, letter for letter in the Greek translation of the OT in use at the time, the Septuagint.
Many NT allusions and references are similar, but few are exact copies of the source, like this phrase. It’s like a little flag sticking out, or somebody made a notation in the margin: remember Elijah? Remember Elisha? Look at the differences between their power and that of Jesus. “Arise.”
Jesus spoke as one who had authority. They said that about him in Matthew, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. And that’s also where this story of the Centurion is placed in Luke’s organization of his gospel, right after that iconic sermon, similar to what Matthew reported in the Sermon on the Mount.
In ch. 6, right before we get to the Centurion, Jesus is asserting his identity by teaching the crowds. In this version of Luke’s, we have the blessings and the woes.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you[d] on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
You’ve heard something like this before: “37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven;”
As well as: 43 “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit.”
And finally: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? 47 I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. 48 That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.[j] 49 But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”
Who says things like that? Build your very existence, organize your life, on my words, my teaching, my commands. Counselors and psychologists don’t. “Well, I can’t give you advice, of course. That’s a decision you’ll have to make. This is an issue for you to decide.”
Jesus says, Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly. Live like me; everything about your life should follow the pattern I lay down. The nerve. 47 I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. 48 That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.”
And our lesson begins with a reference to that sermon: “After Jesus[a] had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum.” And in this section we have a, normally, despised Centurion, a slave who is ill, Jewish synagogue elders speaking on behalf and in favor of the Roman oppressor, and Jesus.
All Jesus says in the whole episode, is words of approval for the Centurion. ““I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” We then read that the Friends of the Centurion, for he and Jesus never meet, find the slave already healed when they return home.
Luke does not even claim that Jesus healed the slave, in so many words. The whole episode of ten verses elevates the Centurion to a role of the faithful man under authority trusting Jesus. He receives, this uncircumcised, pig-eating man of violence, he receives the highest accolade from Jesus. ““I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
Clearly, if you read this in context, the point is to focus on the Gentile. The Gentile has faith. Jesus applauds him. Jesus heals his slave. Jesus so approves of this man he compares him favorably to all Israel. All Israel!
There were many episodes in Jesus’ life, says the gospel of John, that were not written down and included in the gospels. The editorial decision to include one like this shows us the importance of the Gentile question still 30-50 years after the crucifixion.
But is that a live issue for you? Do you think there’s a problem with Gentiles being approved by God, admitted to the people of God solely on faith in Jesus?
For most of us it’s not really a burning issue today, since we’re all Gentiles after all, as are 99% of Christians. That is to say, non-Jewish.
So what does Luke 7 mean? Well, that’s the wrong question. Asking what something “MEANS” is a common way to go astray when interpreting the scriptures.
Meaning can be a misleading category, especially when dealing with moral/ethical questions, though this episode is not that. The question to bring is how does this text speak to me today. God said, Let there be light, and there was light. God said that, and it was. What does this text do, or accomplish? Where and when and why is it relevant?
The truth is, asking about “meaning” is a very limiting question that is sometimes used to put Jesus in a box and nail the lid shut. Here’s what it means. NO here’s what it means. You figure it out and then, you forget about it. You solved the problem. You know what it means.
But when you reframe the question, you see with different eyes, and hear with different ears. I like to hear the Centurion’s vigorous honesty and self-examination. ““Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof;” This is a man with clear sight and unclouded vision, an awareness of who he is. This is what leads to salvation. Do you see that? Do you hear that?
Health/wholeness is provided to the sick slave. Jesus is asked at one remove to heal the slave of a man he doesn’t meet, and he never even needs to speak the words, or command the healing. Jesus doesn’t even say anything. “I’m not worthy,” are the words of power in this story. These are the performative words. The house is swept and clean and made ready for the Spirit of God. “I’m not worthy.” What is the Centurion saying? I know who you are, I know who I am. I know our unequal relationship. “I’m a high-ranking representative of the most powerful empire in history with hundreds of soldiers at my command, and you’re an unshaven, fanatical wandering preacher with no job, no home, no income.”
But I’M not worthy to have YOU come under MY roof. Do you hear what’s happening there? Jesus heard it and he immediately knows with whom and what he’s dealing: “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
It’s the truly lowly who is exalted. IT’s the sick who are healed. I have come for the lost, and yet he has found me. Now, Jesus says, have this taste of heaven, for the true home of life and health is the New Creation.
When the Son of Man comes, again, will he find faith on earth? Will he find you watching, with your lamps trimmed and filled with oil?