Psalm 40 A New Song

…we wait in traffic, wait for things to get better, or wait in the waiting room. We are no good at waiting. We want to get moving, we can’t bear wasting time, and the clock is ticking while we just don’t know what will unfold next. Patience is listed by Paul as a “fruit of the Spirit,” which means it must be for somebody, somewhere, but not me, or at least not yet. I can’t muster it; maybe a miracle will dawn.

I like the way the New English Bible translates Psalm 40.  It’s earthy, human-ey,. personal and visual- here goes:

I waited, waited for the Lord, he bent down to me and heard my cry.  He brought me up out of the muddy pit, out of the mire and the clay; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm footing; and on my lips he put a new song, a song of praise to our God.  Many when they see will be filled with awe and will learn to trust in the Lord:

Happy is the man who makes the Lord his trust, and does not look to brutal and treacherous men.

Great things thou has done, O Lord my God; thy wonderful purposes are all for our good; none can compare with thee; I would proclaim them and speak of them, but they are more than I can tell.

If thou hast desired sacrifice and offerings thou wouldst have given me ears to hear.  If thou had asked for whole-offerings and sin offering I would have said. ‘Here I am.’  My desire is to do thy will, O God, and thy law is in my heart.

In the great assembly I have proclaimed what is right, I do not hold back my words, as thou knowest, O Lord.  I have not kept  thy goodness hidden in my heart;  I have proclaimed thy faithfulness and saving power and not concealed thy unfailing love and truth from the great assembly. Thou, O Lord, dost not withhold thy tender care from me; thy unfailing love and truth for ever guard me.

For misfortunes beyond counting press on me from all sides; my iniquities have overtaken me, and my sight fails; they are more than the hairs of my head, and my courage forsakes me;  Show me favor, O Lord, and save me; hasten to help me, O Lord.  Let those who seek to take my life be put to shame and dismayed one and all; let all who love to hurt me shrink back disgraced; let those who cry ‘Hurrah!’ at my downfall be horrified at their reward of shame.

But let all those who seek thee be jubilant and rejoice in thee;  and let those who long for the saving help ever cry, ‘All glory to the Lord!’

But I am poor and needy; O Lord, think of me.  Thou art my help and my salvation; O my God, make no delay.

Walter Brueggemann refered to Psalm 40 and those like it as “psalms of reorientation (or new orientation).”   They are the songs of praise that are sung by those who have walked the darkest valleys, stood in the midst of the shaking mountains, experienced life when the bottom drops out. They “bear witness to the surprising gift of new life just when none had been expected.”1 They recognize that the ship has sailed through the storm and a new shore has been reached. But having sailed through the flood and the hurricane, there is no going back to a naive harbor childlike “orientation.” These psalms speak for those who have been brought through a deep crisis. As such, they know that faith that speaks the truth can never pretend that all will always be well and that all is as it should be. And yet, they have experienced new life and grace — so they know that despair is not all powerful and evil does not have the last word.

Sylvia Purdie calls the 40th Psalm the Mud Psalm.  For her, David is recalling an actual event from his days on the lam from Saul when he got stuck in quicksand.  In most versions the opening verse is badly mistranslated. It should not say, “I waited patiently.” The prayer for help cries out, “How long?!”  “I waited and waited” is both a more literal and more faithful translation. And when the opening line gets translated “I waited patiently for the Lord” it misunderstands both the situation and David.  David was never known for his patience. “Help me” he calls out. Then the waiting began, trying not to struggle with panic rising in his chest.  If you fight the mud it will claim you.  It is the fear you must fight and keep still.  The most you can do is to cry for help.  And in her retelling the story, his friends come and extricate him from the mire. And David has never been so grateful.

But then, who among us can with any candor say or sing “I waited patiently for the Lord”? When did I ever wait for anything at all without frustration or anxiety?  It’s not a typical human response.  You take your life in your hands when you drive Maple or Ash with people ignoring the speed signs imagining they are driving the NASCAR circuit.  But, we wait in traffic, wait for things to get better, or wait in the waiting room. We are no good at waiting. We want to get moving, we can’t bear wasting time, and the clock is ticking while we just don’t know what will unfold next. Patience is listed by Paul as a “fruit of the Spirit,” which means it must be for somebody, somewhere, but not me, or at least not yet. I can’t muster it; maybe a miracle will dawn.

His whole life long David remembered being stuck in that bog.  Later,  when enemies encircled him, when stress threatened to overwhelm him, he remembered his cry for help. “Save me, rescue me, oh please hurry!  And he remembered the reality of the help. He brought me up out of the muddy pit, out of the mire and the clay; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm footing; and on my lips he put a new song, a song of praise to our God . He remembered bursting with joy.  “I will tell of all you have done.” he promises You are beyond compare. I will sing of you. I will not hide your saving help within my heart. Thou art my help and my salvation; O my God, make no delay.  Everyone must know! Great is the Lord.

For many years the rock band U2 ended most concerts singing, “I will sing, sing a new song.” Today, it is the most famous version of Psalm 40.  The “new song” from the Hebrew is most likely a “song of thanksgiving” — a song that is sung after the psalmist has been delivered by the Lord from the jaws of some crisis.

This Psalm must have been a favorite of the prophets, with the talk of God not wanting burnt offerings. What God wants is “an open ear,” and a “delight” in doing God’s will. The Hebrew for this “open ear” means literally “ears you have dug out for me,” as if our ears are jammed with gunk and wax, and only if God can bore it all out can we actually hear God! What fills your ears so you can’t hear God? And is the doing of God’s will a chore? A duty? Or is it a delight? Young lovers take great delight in doing any little favor for the beloved; can we be as eager and gleeful to do favors for God?

The message of this psalm is that it calls for testimony time. David says: “I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation” (verse 10). When we receive God’s aid, the “thank you note” that God desires isn’t the sacrifice of animals but that we tell others where they, too, can find God. This Psalm isn’t a prayer so much as a report on a prayer. In Bible times, if you were under duress, you would pray and ask others to pray — and then later you would share what it was like, what transpired, and what God had done. If God does something good for us, can we find the words to share?  Could our experience be of help to someone else who is struggling, and might even make us more solid in our sense of God’s goodness. The good that God does may not be precisely what we might have asked for, but that is no barrier to testimony.

The songs of thanksgiving are reorientation psalms because they are the songs of praise that are sung by those who have walked the darkest valleys, stood in the midst of the shaking mountains, experienced life when the bottom drops out.  Life will never be the same. But God met these sufferers in the depths of their sufferings. And they have a simple message: God bent down and p ulled me out of the mire.  Praise the Lord.

Bob Wiese, accompanied by Wade Schwartz, continued our worship is sharing “A New Song” a rendition of Psalm 340 by U2.

 

 

 

 

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Psalm 27 A Psalm of Trust

Worship on Sunday, June 21st, Father’s Day, became focused the attack by a young, self proclaimed, white supremacist on the participants of a Bible Study in an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.  The message from Psalm 27, which follows, was substituted for a discussion of divisiveness and diversity in the experience of the Church.

Susan Gray shared her passion for working with the League of Women Voters.

Psalm 27;

Last Sunday we visited a Psalm of lament.  That Psalm that was a prayer for help when the bottom drops out, which for everyone it happens hopefully not all that often.  Very similar to the prayers for help, there are psalms of trust that are prayed from a situation of severe crisis. What Psalm 27 calls the time when “evildoers assail me” (27:2), or Psalm 46 calls the times when “waters roar and foam” and the “mountains tremble” (46:3). These psalms are very, very clear that life in God’s creation isn’t safe. There are very clear and present dangers.

The major difference between the prayers for help and the psalms of trust is the dominant mood. Both types of psalm depend on God. Both types of psalm at least imply a request for help. And both types of psalm include expressions of trust. But whereas the prayers for help strike the dominant note of fear and desperation, the psalms of trust hit the chord of trust.

For this reason, while the psalms of trust have one foot in the camp of “disorientation” because they are spoken in the midst of crisis, they also have the other foot firmly planted in the camp of reorientation – that’s that note of hope rather than terror.

An interpreter might imagine the prayers for help amidst crisis as the prayers of those who are younger, who are going through their first times of crisis. While the psalms of trust are the words of those who aren’t in their first traffic accident or the first death of some beloved person. This crisis isn’t these psalmists’ first rodeo. They’ve been thrown before, had the floor fall out from beneath them before. And even though the crisis is horrible, they are able to trust on the basis of past experience that a brighter tomorrow will soon dawn.

The first phrase of Psalm 27 — “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” – is wildly optimistic.  For some of us, when the bottom has dropped out, it has helped us get through a long night of the soul. I’ve known people who have lost limbs and sight, essential organs, children and spouses to un expected tragic situations.  They never got back what they lost but the testified to the experience that God, my light and my salvation, was there throughout and when they emerged from the darkness.  There is no question, life can be dangerous and deadly.  But these words of trust from those who’ve been there before us, people for whom the bottom has dropped out, and who ‘cried to the Lord’ found God’s very present help in time of trouble.

Psalm 27

1The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

2When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall.

3Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.

4One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

5For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.

6Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

7Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!

8“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek.

9Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!

10If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.

11Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.

12Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.

13I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

14Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

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I’m Drowning Here…and you’re describing the water.

 

This Psalm and its’ prayers help us give voice to the deepest expressions of human pain, crisis and doubt.  But it does so in a way that claims the promise of God’s presence in the middle of our suffering and also the promise that the God who is with us will preserve us.

 

 

I’m Drowning Here….

 

Next to Psalm 22, Psalm 69 is most quoted psalm in the New Testament.  It is quoted in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and also in Acts and Romans. And beyond that there are many references to it. When you read it you’ll see why.

Psalm 69

 

1Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.

2I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.

3I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.

4More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; many are those who would destroy me, my enemies who accuse me falsely. What I did not steal must I now restore?

5O God, you know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.

6Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me, O Lord God of hosts; do not let those who seek you be dishonored because of me, O God of Israel.

7It is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that shame has covered my face.

8I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children.

9It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.

10When I humbled my soul with fasting, they insulted me for doing so.

11When I made sackcloth my clothing, I became a byword to them.

12I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me.

13But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me. With your faithful help

14rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters.

15Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me.

16Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.

 

What a great opening line. “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.”

This brought several things came to my mind: the recent flooding in that part of Texas where I grew  up; the whole discussion about ‘water boarding’ as an acceptable form of interrogation; and several years ago when Susan and I tried to take our inflatable boat out of the Spokane river and I learned about the sheer power of that current. I can identify with the literal “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.”

No image better than that of flooding waters captured for the ancient Israelites what it feels like when the bottom drops out. That image is prevalent in the Psalter’s prayers of lament. Psalm 130 begins with the famous cry, “Out of the depths, I cry to you.” Psalm 42/43 “all your waves and your billows have passed over me” (42:7). And Psalm 88 cries out, “Your dread assaults … enclose me like a flood” (verses 16b-17a).

As a metaphor, the image still speaks to us with surprising force. When have you felt like you were “up to your neck” and couldn’t take any more? When have you felt like you were simply “drowning” in stress or crisis? It’s part of our every day vocabulary.

The third verse that reads: I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. recalls to my mind scenes from the1997 movie As Good As It Gets.  I don’t know whether you remember it but it was about how the world of an obsessive compulsive novelist is turned upside down by a brutal assault on his homosexual neighbor, a waitress with a sick child and an endearing little dog. Jack Nicholson portrays Melvin, this offensive person who can’t help but say insulting things without thinking but who finds himself taking care of his neighbor’s dog.

At one point Melvin remarks of his own life: “I’m drowning here.  And you’re describing the water”.

Carol the waitress asks Siimon, Melvin’s neighbor, “How are you? He answers: “Don’t ask. I’m tired of my own complaints.”

Late one evening Melvin takes his neighbor a container of Chinese soup.  Sharing a bench with the neighbor the neighbor says to Melvin: “Is this fun for you?  You lucky devil.  It just keeps getting better and better doesn’t it?  I’m losing my apartment, Melvin. And Frank, he wants me to beg my parents, who haven’t called me, for help. And I won’t.  And…I… I don’t want to paint any more. So the life that I was trying for, is over.  The life that I had is gone, and I’m feeling so damn sorry for myself that it’s difficult to breathe.”  That’s Psalm 69.

This Psalm and its’ prayers help us give voice to the deepest expressions of human pain, crisis and doubt.  But it does so in a way that claims the promise of God’s presence in the middle of our suffering and also the promise that the God who is with us will preserve us.  We have a God who listens to us in our crisis. Who hears us when we pray.

Psalm 69 speaks of the alienation of the psalmist from “those who hate me”, from “my kindred” and “my mother’s children”, from the psalmist’s own body, and most importantly from God.   Remember the children’s song? Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, Guess I’ll go eat worms… Well, that’s Psalm 69.  The psalmist nevertheless pleads “do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me without cause”. And it does so because it believes that the Lord’s very heart is made up of steadfast love and faithfulness: “Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good” .

The Psalmist admits that life is not as well-ordered as a simple Sunday school faith may pretend. He acknowledges that life is really messy, and even protests to heaven that things should not be as they are. But, through prayer, his evoking action from God – it enables us to move to a new place. It give us words for the deepest, darkest nights of our lives — when the bottom drops out, when the pain seems too much to bear. It tell us that God is big enough for everything we’ve got — our pain, our anger, our questions, our doubts. It even suggest that genuine biblical faith is comfortable challenging God. And that God is present with us precisely when it feels like God isn’t there.

 

1Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.

2I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.

3I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.

4More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; many are those who would destroy me, my enemies who accuse me falsely. What I did not steal must I now restore?

5O God, you know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.

6Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me, O Lord God of hosts; do not let those who seek you be dishonored because of me, O God of Israel.

7It is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that shame has covered my face.

8I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children.

9It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.

10When I humbled my soul with fasting, they insulted me for doing so.

11When I made sackcloth my clothing, I became a byword to them.

12I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me.

13But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me.

 

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Paying Close Attention to that of which God Pays Close Attention

“We need to pay close attention to the things to which God pays close attention.”

Psalm 113

1Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord; praise the name of the Lord.

2Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time on and forevermore.

3From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the Lord is to be praised.

4The Lord is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens.

5Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high,

6who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?

7He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap,

8to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people.

9He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the Lord!

 

There is an important spiritual principle that should make a big difference in our life and faith.  It sounds like a statement of the obvious – but in our great busyness it’s something we dare not overlook.  It’s this: “We need to pay close attention to the things to which God pays close attention.” It’s in this Psalm and also a part of what we learn from the prophet Amos.  In the 8th chapter he contends that God pays close attention to what happens to the poor and needy – and – God pays close attention to our response to the poor and dispossessed.

This is what the Lord God showed me—a basket of summer fruit. 2He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then the Lord said to me, The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. 3The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” says the Lord God; “the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!”

4Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, 5saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, 6buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” 7The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. 8Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt? 9On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. 10I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.

11The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. 12They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.

 

The difficulty is that we don’t want to keep a watchful eye on the things on which God keeps a watchful eye.  The poor and the homeless are kept at a distance. We don’t want low income housing too close to our neighborhood and homeless shelters are best kept well out of sight of our shelter. The alliteration NIMBY is all too often employed (it means “not in my back yard”). And as for the extreme poverty of some parts of the third world – well that’s a “world away” – so to speak.  Are we really so focused on our own survival and well being that we have neither time, energy or resources to spare? So focused that we avoid confronting the political and economic interests that perpetuate keeping others is disparate circumstances?

In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan the priest and Levite passed by on the other side of the road. It strikes me as interesting that perpetrator of the crime isn’t the focus in the parable. What a bad guy he must be.  Maybe we need to pass a law against ambush and then have a long debate on whether to adequately fund enforcement. That’s seems to be our preferred solution today.  Not so in the parable.  We get it loud and clear that God was not only watching the poor man who had been beaten and robbed, he was also watching those who encountered the victim. In the story it is the perpetrators of the misery of the poor that God promises to remember. “Surely, I will never forget any of their deeds.”

I admit it.  For most of us, it is not a matter of consciously victimizing those who are poor. We are not, in Amos’ words, “…buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.” We are not hiding in the weeds on the Jericho road waiting to pounce on some poor unsuspecting traveler. But we are aware that there is a dangerous Jericho road out there and in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “We’ve got to do something about that Jericho road.”

Psalm 113 is a call to the people of God to remember who God is and what God has done. The creator of all that is and ever will be is somehow concerned with the ordinary activities of people.  It seems a huge challenge to us to consider just how radically unique is our God.  There is nothing in all creation that can be compared to this God, and yet this God is concerned about people.

What does this God do?  God watches over people, raises the poor, lifts the needy, equalizes power relationships, and provides security to the most vulnerable, in the Psalmist’s language raising the status of childless women to full humanity. The equalization of humankind that the psalmist extols calls into question contemporary disparities between wealthy and poor, powerful and powerless, elite and excluded.

The psalmist calls into question the practices of people toward those who suffer in three categories: poverty, need, and vulnerability. If we take Amos seriously we should expect that God will turn the tables on those who aren’t paying attention to that which God is paying attention. Those who participate in activities that push people toward poverty, drive people into places of need, and exclude the vulnerable from circles of security and friendship are reminded that this is not consonant with God’s care for people. Instead, the psalmist affirms for those languishing in the ash heaps and dust piles of despair that they will be lifted up. Their experience will not be forever. They will have a day of grace, a day where economic and power laden fields are leveled. Their day of despair will not prevail. A day of praise shall break forth.

 

 

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Owning One Another’s Ministries and Passions Psalm One

Sharing Our Ministries and Our Passions  Lois Kieffaber and Linda Tuinstra

Spokane Community Mental Health Chaplaincy

People with mental illness are just like us, only more so.”

There are three parts to the program:

  • To organize a congregational mental health team and companionship group
  • To educate pastors, pastoral care staff and students of ministry about mental illness, recovery, and persistent mental health issues.
  • To train ordinary members of congregations to be companions in the healing journey of families facing severe and persistent mental health challenges.

Linda Tuinstra and Lois Kieffaber are involved in the third program componen

Companionship is a relationship between two equal human beings.  It is marked by mutuality.  We are neighbors in a relationship that responds to suffering, supports recovery, and is safe for both parties.  The model is that of the Good Samaritan, someone who comes alongside someone who is suffering.   However, the suffering may be internal rather than overtly physical, as in trauma, serious mental illness, substance abuse, issues of aging/dementia, or insecurity about housing or employment. A good example is our participation in Family Promise.  We are not pastors or psychiatrists or social workers.  We simply accompany people during hard times.

 4 Steps in Healing Care

  1. Awareness  A smile or a nod may be enough, an acknowledgment that another human being is present.             “What do you like to be called?”
  2. Companionship   Frameless relationships, common space, present moment, common time.  (Frames:  education, kids, jobs, politics, where we live)
  3. Partnership          Circle of care    Side-by-side:  looking at the world with  different perspectives, collective wisdom
  4. Mutuality           (I have problems too)

Listening – the core practice of companionship

  1. Listening is a gift
  2. Listen for themes/feelings
  3. Take care with responses: “How so?”   “Please tell me more”   “What does that mean?”    “Help me understand”
  4. Listen over time and in community, listen for words of hope, love, possibility, we hold hope for each other
  5. Listen for soul stories: each has its own arc, developing over time

Time commitment:  One hour per week. No guiding, no fixing, lay down judgment.  Go with, send a note, phone call, hold in thought, in prayer, make room in your heart.

 

Psalm 1 King James Version (KJV)

1 Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

2 But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.

3 And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.

4 The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.

5 Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.

6 For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.

 

From the very onset of Psalm 1, we can guess that it is a description of opposites: blessed is the one who doesn’t do this, but instead does this. We are clearly encouraged to take the road less traveled. First the psalmist gives us a clear picture of what will happen if we don’t. The ungodly traveler, when we first encounter him, is walking along his ungodly path. And then, if you can be a bit playful with the text, he is no longer moving, he is standing in the way of sinners. Sounds like a good way to get run over. And then he is no longer walking or standing, he is sitting in the seat of the scornful, like a disappointed and brooding child.

And as if you thought he couldn’t get any lower, in verse 4 he becomes like chaff, a tossed-aside bit of fluff with no substance.  In a few short verses, this traveler has gone from purposeful walking to purposeless chaff, human to dandelion fluff.

On the other hand the righteous one is like a tree planted by the waters. She sinks her roots deep into the soil. Her branches grow up, bearing fruit in due season. While the path of the ungodly leads ultimately nowhere, the righteous one finds growth in all directions- down, out, and up.

The psalmist’s message is clear: walk the way of righteousness, it is the way to growth and health.

Fascinating, isn’t it, that after some 2,500 years we are still thinking about and talking about happiness. For the psalmists, the primary subject is not the human being, but rather God! So, happiness is not about what we human beings feel, desire, or accomplish. Happiness is not about doing what we want to do. Rather, happiness is about doing what God wants done.

There are some things I found helpful to the study of this first Psalm. The traditional translation “law” in the second verse is quite misleading and has led to very negative assessments of Psalm 1. You’ve missed the point the psalmist is trying to make if you see it as legalistic and about retribution.  We’ve been conditioned to think that the word Torah means ‘law’. It means “teaching” or ‘instruction and in the broadest sense, it suggests God’s will.  Contrary to some commentators, verses 4-5 do not portray a system of retribution through which  God punishes “the wicked.” Rather, by their own choice, “the wicked” separate themselves from God. Verse 5 could be translated, “The wicked do not stand up for justice.” Why? Because, unlike “the righteous,” they do not attend to God’s torah. In other words, God does not exclude “the wicked” from “the congregation of the righteous.” Rather, “the wicked” choose not to be there. To be sure, one may conclude that the consequences of this choice are “punishing.” But if so, this is not a punishment that God intends.

So, Psalm 1 does not mean that happiness can be reduced to a mechanical process of following a set of rules, for which you reap a rewarded. Instead, happiness is a dynamic process that requires meditating on what God wants. The Psalmist says “day and night” to emphasize the need to be constantly open to what God would have us do in any and every situation. In short, as Jesus would later summarize the Torah, happiness grows out of discerning what it means to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind … And … your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39.)

There are two things in the third verse that I found important.  The first is that the tree is only expected to produce fruit in its season.  That takes away some of the pressure, a built in Sabbath.  Verse three also includes the word  “prosper”.  In English it almost inevitably speaks of money or material wealth.  It suggests the promise of a reward for obedience — even a material reward.  A better translation is “thrives”. “..whatsoever he doeth shall thrive”  I like that a lot better.  If there is a reward involved, that reward is the stability and strength which comes from a connectedness to God that offers the opportunity to grow and bear fruit.

Psalm 1 invites a choice — our choice. There are clearly two contrasting ways with sharply different consequences.   Will we choose God’s way, which promises life? Or will we choose to go our own way, which promises nothing more than a dead end?  The promise of Psalm 1, reinforced by Jesus and Paul, is that the God-directed and neighbor-oriented way is the most rewarding and happiness-producing life possible. If there is a law involved, it is the law of love. The choice is ours.

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Pentecost 2015

Pentecost  2015  …it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you;

When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

”I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.

Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.            John 15:26 – 16:15

                                   

With the experience of the Ascension of Jesus, which we explored last week, and now contemplating the story of Pentecost from the pen of John the Evangelist we have to come to grips with the idea that Jesus has left the building.  John reports Jesus saying “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.                            

How can that be?  You probably want to protest and exclaim “Wait! Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere. Isn’t he present with his church? Isn’t he here, present in our hearts?”  Well that may be a comforting thing to think and a consoling thing to say.  But how dare we say it?  To take John’s gospel seriously it’s more the case that we’ve lost a loved one from the very center of our lives, the source of our joy.  According to what we’ve just read, the fundamental crisis of the early church was the departure of Jesus. He is the source of our lives, like the vine that pumped life into the branches. We did not choose Jesus; he chose us, and appointed us to be faithful followers. Yet he is gone. It started with the Easter message: “He is risen!” Remember, the angel saying, “he is not here.” It continued with the story of Jesus’ ascension and now with Pentecost faith seeks to make sense of that absence. Our Christian faith is an attempt to answer the question “How are we going to live without Jesus?

In the fourth Gospel, Jesus speaks at length with his disciples before his death and resurrection. He washes their feet on his last night with them. He tells them at length that he is leaving them. He prays for them before he returns to the Father. Then comes the actual departure. Fred Craddock wrote  in his commentary on John, “Before the departing Christ, the disciples had been as children playing on the floor, only to look up and see the parents putting on coats and hats. The questions are three (and they have not changed): Where are you going? Can we go? Then who is going to stay with us?”

Where are you going? “I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer” (John 16:10). Can we go? “Where I am going, you cannot come” (John 13:33). Then who will stay with us? “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf” (John 15:26).                          

According to the Gospel of John the answer to the question “How are we going to live without Jesus?” lies in the presence of the Holy Spirit. John calls that presence the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, the Paraclete. The word Paraclete refers to someone called in to help.  In the absence of Jesus, his presence draws near to his followers. Since Jesus has departed, once and for all, the Holy Spirit comes now to dwell with us.

It’s a hard truth to accept: for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.  If he had not left us, the Spirit could not have come.  We find it hard to talk about much less embrace what John tells us. Everything we know of the physical universe argues against the possibility of a  self aware yet disembodied life. It’s easier to try and hold onto a physical Jesus and keep telling ourselves that Jesus hasn’t left us if we just follow his directions. There was this young couple I met in the hospital when their long awaited infant was still borne. I recall allowing them to hold the child, to keep the child as long as they needed too. It’s so understandable. We want to hold onto Jesus in that same way. But, of course, over time and with changing conditions and shifts in social conventions that doesn’t necessarily mean we hold his values or extend his impact.                                         Albert Frederick Arthur George, the second son of King George the Fifth, at the abdication of his brother, accedes to the British throne as George the VI. The movie ‘The Kings Speech’  is about the fact that King George the VIth is a stutterer.  At the urging of his wife he starts working with an Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue.  Logue teaches his patient relaxation and breathing techniques while probing at the underlying roots of the stuttering.  Eventually the King tells how his nanny preferred his brother over him and would pinch him to get him to cry at the daily presentation to his parents and he would be sent away, that she wouldn’t feed him which resulted in him not being a healthy child and that they forced him, a lefty, to write with his right hand.

We struggle in the church to wait for the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit, to live by the Spirit who has many things to tell us that we cannot yet bear to hear. It is difficult to wait for a Spirit whom we can neither touch nor see. No wonder, then, that sometimes in our impatience we turn to flesh and blood.  One of the things we have done is we’ve created a Nanny Church to look after us and to whom we give extraordinary authority.  And in response our Nanny provides us a list of what we should and should not do.  It fills the vacuum we feel when we don’t embrace the gift we’ve been given in the Holy Spirit.  We allow the institution to fill the absence of Jesus with its own false certainties and pretention that it has all the answers. And not unlike Prince Albert’s nanny this very human institution, driven robotically to protect it’s status quo, is given to pinch into tears and even starve the very ones for whom it has been charged to nurture.

I read an interesting story about a pastor who while looking for a Bible commentary in a religious book store was approached by an earnest faced man. “How are you doing, sister? Isn’t this a beautiful day the Lord has made? Praise the Lord! Let’s say Amen together.” She ignored him. Unfortunately that made things worse. He said, “Maybe you didn’t hear me when I said, ‘Praise the Lord!’ Listen, sister, I want to hear you say a good word for Jesus.” He continued to annoy her. Finally she turned to him and said, “I’m a pastor. I’m shopping for a Bible commentary. When I find the book I’m looking for, I will use it to write a sermon in which I will say a lot of good words for Jesus. In the meantime, please leave me alone.”                                                                 “You can’t be a pastor,” he said. “My Bible won’t allow women to be pastors.” She reached into her wallet, pulled out a business card, and handed it to him. Then she turned back to her shopping. “No, listen,” he said, “the Bible doesn’t say anything about women becoming preachers. You’re wrong. Your whole life is a sin.”  “Well,” she replied, “why don’t we let the Holy Spirit decide, since it was the Holy Spirit who called me into the ministry? In the meantime, I found my book and I’m going to pay for it now. Good-bye.”  “I can’t let you go yet,” he said. “Your salvation is at stake. You’re a woman and you don’t know your place. Worse than that, you don’t know the Bible. I’m worried about your soul. If you should die tonight, you would go to hell. I would be held accountable if I didn’t tell you the truth.”

Somehow she found the strength to speak to him. She said, “If you’re so concerned with truth, let me tell you what I know. In life and death, I belong to God. God called me to serve him, regardless of whether or not that’s written down in your Bible. My ‘place’ was choosing to obey him. I believe the Holy Spirit led me into this truth, and I trust the Holy Spirit will sort it out.” Then she added, “As far as hell is concerned, that is God’s decision, not mine nor yours. If it were up to me, hell would be full of people who cling to a Bible they never think about, and heaven would be full of people who trust in a God they cannot see.”              Christian faith is just that: faith in Christ. We trust what we have heard him say through nature and the scriptures, yet we remain open to hear him still speak through the Holy Spirit. In the end, we trust God will sort everything out, for the primary role of the Spirit is to point to Jesus’ revelation to us of God and to guide us into his truth. The Spirit of Christ will lead us into the life that Christ has come to give. The Spirit will teach us; the question is whether we are willing to learn.

What is required is a new openness to the Spirit. God is free to speak, even if the words are not yet written down in our ancient Bibles. God is able to save the world, far beyond our capacity to manage the bureaucratic inconsequentialities. Faith requires us to remain open to any act of God. That, it seems to me, is how we live without Jesus. That is how we live by the Holy Spirit. Like the wind, the Spirit blows when and where it wills. We have no control over what God is doing in the world. But if we open our arms like a cross-mast, if we set our sails and wait for the Spirit to blow and propel us, we find ourselves directed into the deep waters of grace.

It is difficult to trust God like that. Sometimes it is easier to look elsewhere for our security and approval. “When the Spirit of truth comes,” said Jesus, “he will guide you into all the truth.” That is the instruction we need, and that is what Christ promises. It is in that light Quakers hold that “Christ has come to teach his people himself.”  The institutional church is vested in the social conventions of previous generations and is unable, without dependence on Christ’s spirit to do what followers of the way have always been challenged to do – make the gospel accessible to each new generation.  At some point it’s necessary to discharge the Nanny church when she decides who are her preferred charges and who it’s her duty to pinch or starve.

…it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  

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Jesus Has Left the Building…

 

Through the activity of the Holy Spirit, the living Christ, God’s activity within creation continues. God’s reliance upon us to act is not an abdication of God’s responsibility but an invitation to partner with God. We do not have to understand how that occurs or even accurately discern what God is doing. We can know that our work of reconciliation will ultimately prevail because God works with us.

Christian teachings about the New Testament story of Jesus’ ascension are uncomfortably problematic. An event in salvation history that is, at least, on par with the Resurrection is given short shrift by many or actually not acknowledged.  Yet, for Quakers who have, from our beginnings, embraced the notion of the gifting of the church with the Holy Spirit, Christ’s promised and continuing presence, it is an essential piece of the whole story.  Put in contemporary terms, the ascension means that ‘‘Jesus has left the building.”
Some Roman Catholics pray to Mary in the belief that a mother has leverage with her son and then the Heavenly Father has a warm spot in his heart for the desires of The Son.  It’s an effective way to get your prayers answered.  Others only pray to God, even to the point of argument and debate.  Despite Jesus’ teaching his followers to pray “Out
Father…” many I know pray to Jesus and envision him walking along side or even carrying them through tough times.  Does the message of Jesus’ ascension change how you address your prayers?  The text says that with Jesus no longer earth bound we are accompanied on our spiritual journey by the promised comforter and guide.

The Gospel of Matthew has no mention of the Ascension.  In his version there is no spectacular escape from the bondage of earth. The last words of his Gospel reads: 16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

What a promise, “and remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”!  Here there is no heavenly “ascension”, rather a promise of spiritual accompaniment.

Mark’s approach is different and, actually, dangerous.  He tells his version at the end of his resurrection narrative:  Later he (Jesus) appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.15And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. 16The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. 17And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”19So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. I’m going to suggest that it might be a bit presumptuous to test Mark’s notion of the security of the believer.

Luke’s is the preferred reading from the Gospels.  After Jesus voices a last lecture the very last lines from this Gospel read: Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

The reading from the ascension story in Luke’s sequel to his Gospel is a bit longer and a bit more detailed.   Acts 1:1-11. In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

In Isaiah 6 we get a picture of what Jesus’ followers had to have in their minds as the place to which Jesus went.  In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

This is quintessential first century Judaism.  Mark and Luke, first in his Gospel and then in the book of Acts are certain that this is the heavenly place to which Jesus goes.

The question presented to us is Was Jesus’ ascension an historical fact or a well-informed and intentioned attempt to frame Jesus’ story in language and metaphors widely known and understood in first century Palestine?  People of our generation know, from reading from other cultures that the image of a king ascending to heaven, there to be worshipped by his former subjects was not unique to Christianity.  Romulus, the twin who with his brother Remus founded Rome was believed to have ascended to heaven and became the popular god Quirinus.  And of course we know of Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament and beyond that the ancient figures of Hercules, Empedocles, and Alexander the Great. Of course we shouldn’t leave Mohammad standing on the rock in Jerusalem or Mary, the mother of Jesus, having left bodily remains on earth.

The idea of Jesus ascending to heaven from Palestine evokes continuing conflict between religion and science.   Taken literally the pervasive imagery requires a flat earth dependent on a questionable view of the solar system.  And to think that heaven is a physical place – necessary if one believes in a physical resurrection – poses the additional difficulty of locating it in the physical cosmos.

Ancient mapmakers placed Jerusalem at the center of creation similar to the way map makers today tend to present the earth with their own nation at the center.  The imagery subtly suggests that earth is at the center of creation. I’m afraid that Hubble has quieted that argument. Earth is far from the cosmos’ center and humans are not necessarily the high point of creation.

Does the image of Jesus ascending to heaven imply that heaven is better than earth or that the future is preferable to the present? Yet God created heaven and earth. Valuing heaven more highly than earth requires a considerable amount of human arrogance: who are we to assess God’s handiwork? If, as the Church has long taught, God determines the number of a person’s days, then being where God wants you to be – earth or heaven – is best for that person at that moment.

The New Testament repeatedly states that God is at work reconciling all creation to God. Widespread emphasis on heaven as the locus of life after death not only devalues the earth but also causes the Church and Christians largely to ignore the importance of caring for all creation. God calls human beings to join God in the work of reconciling all creation (and not just fellow humans!) to God.

Jesus says that he must leave the disciples but promises the gift of the Spirit to his disciples as a guide and advocate in his absence. The Church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

So what can Christians meaningfully say about Jesus’ ascension?

First, Ascension reminds us to understand our theology metaphorically, to hold even the most cherished concepts gingerly, tentatively. Like the early Christians, we do well to frame our experience of God in the language and metaphors of our time and culture, always aware that these are, at best, earthen vessels. And after all, these earthen vessels are all that we have.

Second, struggling with Ascension’s problems offers a helpful antidote to our tendency to arrogance and our inclination to evaluate reality exclusively in terms of human values. Thinking about Ascension can remind us that although God created humans and crowned us with glory and honor, God’s love has a breadth and depth that encompasses all life and the whole cosmos. Ascension, rightly understood, emphasizes God’s reliance upon us as partners rather than passive participants in creation’s renewal. Jesus is not here; we are; therefore, God relies upon us to act.

Through the activity of the Holy Spirit, the living Christ, God’s activity within creation continues. God’s reliance upon us to act is not an abdication of God’s responsibility but an invitation to partner with God. We do not have to understand how that occurs or even accurately discern what God is doing. We can know that our work of reconciliation will ultimately prevail because God works with us. Jesus’ ascension is a sign of hope. This hope is Ascension’s real message.

 

 

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“Therefore…” at the chapter break

… justice is often an excuse for certain ‘zealous’ people to condemn others. Christians haven’t been appointed to bring justice to the world but ‘rather to ask for mercy for the world, to keep vigil for the salvation of all, and to partake of everyman’s suffering, both the just and the sinners.” He challenged us as he challenged his readers in the seventh century to ‘put the lover of justice to shame by your compassion’.

 

In 1205 Cardinal Stephen Langton created chapter divisions in the Latin Vulgate. Three hundred years later, at the same time that the verses in each chapter were numbered, these divisions were laid over the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Unfortunately the division of the Bible into chapters and verses often divides the text in incoherent ways or at inappropriate points, and it encourages citing of passages out of context.  It gives some people license to stop reading a favorite text at a point that favors their point of view.

For today, I’ve an example where stopping one’s reading at a chapter break can cause the reader to miss the point being made by the author.  It is in Apostle Paul’s introduction of himself to the church in Rome. The passage starts right after Paul says that he had often planned to come to Rome but so far has been unsuccessful.  He says his purpose is to achieve something in the meeting in Rome that he had achieved in other parts of the world. That’s when he constructs this wonderful sentence saying ‘For I am not ashamed of the Gospel’.  We need to be particularly careful to not rely on our contemporary definitions of what gospel means because he defines gospel for himself.  He says “It is the saving power of God for everyone who has faith…”  We talked about that last week. He goes on and adds “…here is revealed God’s way of righting wrong, a way that starts from faith and ends in faith…”

The next fifteen verses are a scalding attack on immorality of every sort and over which we typically skim, unless of course it spurs our prurient interests and empowers us to wag our tongue at the misbehavior of someone else.

I’ll be reading from the New Revised Standard Version of the New Testament. This particular translation breaks three of Paul’s long sentences into thirteen.  Hang on…here goes…

18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.

19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. 24Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 26For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. 28And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 

That’s where chapter one ends.  Paul is face to face with a world in which the vices he lists are rampant and because religion and morality seem to hang together he rightly connects these aberrant and destructive behaviors to pagan religion. He contends that if nothing else, nature itself should have saved them from such ignorance and misconceptions of God.

For many of us, this is like reading this morning’s newspaper or listening to any number of television’s religious celebrities, pundits or political wan’a bes.  “The world is going, maybe has already gone, to hell in a hand basket…”. From Paul’s list we have our favorites and tend to cherry pick what we find most sacrilegious and blasphemous in the behaviors of others.  Paul concludes saying: 29They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  And then here is his last word on the subject 32They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them…”

Yeah, Right! Those insolent, deceitful, ruthless people…they deserve to die… Paul’s on a roll, can this get even better?

Paul started this tirade in chapter 1 with this idea: 8For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  That is, God has taken steps to ensure that people, you and me, know better than we do.

Chapter two begins with the word ‘therefore’ linking what was just described and the consequences that follow.  This is where I lament the chapter break.  So, hang on, here is where chapter two begins: Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. 2You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” 3Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? 4Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. 6For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: 7to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. 9There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.11For God shows no partiality.

Paul points out how easy it is to forget that the same principle on which one person is condemned the one who judges, in spite of having better knowledge, also condemns himself. To give assent to the moral impeachments of verses 18-32 of chapter 1 brings about one’s own condemnation.  No, it’s not that he does the same thing, but the conduct is the same.  The sin of the one was the same but the particular sins were not.  Let’s work on that a bit more.  Those who see themselves in the privileged position of being the more moral, who believe that they have arrived spiritually having been granted superior revelation, are like the servant in Matthew 3 who knew his Lord’s will and on whom his judgment will be most rigorous if it is neglected.

The fourth verse of this second chapter has a real sting in it because it asks do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?  It is a forbearance which suspends judgment, a patience which waits long before it interposes. Paul holds up the grace of God and says that to judge others amounts to contempt of God’s goodness, magnified if God’s grace is ignored.

Alvin Rapien recently gave us a look into St. Isaac of Syria’s Theology of Hell. For Christians of many traditions hell is a place where the wicked experience pure punishment and where God’s love and mercy no longer constrain God’s justice. Isaac rejected the notion that mercy and justice should be held in such tension because he believed that the mercy of God trumps justice. For him it is mercy, not justice,  that describes God’s attitude toward humanity. It is God’s design to restore humanity thus hell is a place of God’s love.  He contends that the ‘torment of Gehenna is bitter regret’.  God’s intention for punishment stems from love “seeking to make whole his image.”  Those who turn away from God suffer as ‘a friend suffers from a friend.’ twisting the heart and torturing the mind.  This pain is rooted in the sinner’s response to love.

What does it mean to believe that God is love.  Is justice an acceptable category when discussing God’s interaction with the world.  Is hell where God pours out his wrath or can we believe that God’s love pervades all things, including hell?

Isaac contends that ‘Justice does not belong to the Christian way of life and there is no mention of it in Christ’s teaching.”  He points to the story of the same day’s wage given to all the laborers. He asks “how can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living?” Justice is ‘equality of an even scale, for it gives to each as he deserves”.  Were God truly just then all would be doomed to death. “Remember” he said “Christ’s death was an act of mercy, not justice.”

Isaac  says that justice is often an excuse for certain ‘zealous’ people to condemn others. Christians haven’t been appointed to bring justice to the world but ‘rather to ask for mercy for the world, to keep vigil for the salvation of all, and to partake of everyman’s suffering, both the just and the sinners.” He challenged us as he challenged his readers in the seventh century to ‘put the lover of justice to shame by your compassion’.

 

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the gospel…it is the power of God

You may have missed the event when George Fox out did Robin Hood.  He converted the Sheriff of Nottingham!  The first thing the sheriff did was to confess and make restitution to a woman he had cheated.  Then he went into the market place to preach repentance to people. Fox’s letters emphasize purity of life and called people ‘out of the world’s evil ways, words, worships, customs and fashions’.  Here is the ethical aspect of the Gospel.  God’s power, felt in one’s life enables us to change, to throw off the bondage of contemporary culture and live lives pleasing to God. 

Romans 1:.

I found myself working this week in the Book Romans. That material is two thousand years old. We no longer take a three story universe seriously. The early Quaker material that I was reading is nearly 400 years old.  Some of my preparation required reading some of Rufus Jones’ work.  He did his best work between the two world wars and with the generation most effected by Darwin and continental Biblical Criticism which tore Denominations apart in this country.  We really can’t understand what these writers were attempting to impart to us when we read what they wrote through twenty first century lenses.
The Apostle Paul began his letter to the church Rome introducing himself.  He begins :Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I’ve got to tell you that our contemporary translations have been badly watered down.  For instance  in this passage Paul identifies himself as a “slave”, not “servant.”  Those who have a real feel for the times in which Paul wrote understand that Paul sees himself completely at the discretion of his master. In our time it’s easier to understand servant – the concept of slave is beyond us to imagine. He is his master’s envoy.  Where Paul says that he is ‘set apart’  the Greek reads “separated”, actually it’s even more severe than that.  The better translation is “severed” into the Gospel of God.  Remember that the Greek word for the church is ‘ecclesia’ – the called out ones.  You might wonder, called out from what? called out for what? 

In the sixteenth verse of the first chapter Paul wrote:  For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God… for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

Ever thought about that phrase before?  It is from this passage that George Fox based his ministry. He wrote:  The Gospel it is the Power of God to Salvation, for he that believes receives the Power, receives the Gospel, by which Life and Immortality is come to Light, And the Power of God expels away that which Darkens Life, and Immortality from People; and Captivates their Souls, Spirits and Minds, & keeps them in bondage, which Power of God expels that away, and sets them at Liberty, and gives them Dominion over that which burthened them, and to feel and see before that was, which Darkens Life and Immortality from them; And through this Power of God, Life and Immortality shines over that, in which the Saints Fellowship, the Church Fellowship, wherein they come to be Heirs of the Power of God, Heirs of the Gospel, Heirs of the Fellowship, Church Members, Members one of another in the Power of God (the Gospel) that was before the Power of Darkness was.

The Gospel is the power of God.  The Gospel isn’t a message about the power of God.  You see, our confusion comes from thinking that we know what a gospel is.  It is a message of good news.  But that isn’t Fox’s meaning. When Fox says, with Paul, the “gospel of God is the power of God” they are not describing what most of us what call ‘a gospel’.  When Fox was asked ‘what is the gospel’ here was his answer.  “The priest told me Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the Gospel.  I told him the Gospel was the power of God.”  In Fox’s  8 volume set of his works Fox uses the word ‘gospel’ about 1800 times and 429 of those times he explicitly equates the Gospel with the power of God.   Never does he uses the phrase ‘gospel  message’ and never says that a proposition or a message is the power of God or that preaching  a particular message will release into the world God’s power.

When Fox does speak of preaching the Gospel you  might think this gospel was a message.  But it becomes quickly clear that there is no proposition to be proved or debated.  What is the power of God? Fox answers “Friends … know the power in one another and in that rejoice: for then you rejoice in the Cross of Christ…which Cross is the power of God to all them that are saved.  So you know the power and feel the power, you feel the cross of Christ, you feel the gospel, which is the power of God unto Salvation to everyone that believeth.”  So instead of a proposition it is a power which can be felt in one’s self and  in others; it works  to save believers; it is one with the cross of Christ.  It’s work is liberation.  He wrote  the Power of God expels away that which Darkens Life, and Immortality from People; and Captivates their Souls, Spirits and Minds, & keeps them in bondage, which Power of God expels that away, and sets them at Liberty…”  Now that sounds like good news to me.

Let me try this one more way.  For Fox, the gospel is not a verbal thing.  He wrote: For the Jews that heard not, and saw not within, stood against the gospel: and Christ said , ‘their ears were stopped and their eyes were closed;’ and so they heard words but the gospel, the power of God, they could not hear, … so none hear but they that hear within….”

Robert Barclay, the scholarly contemporary of George Fox  quotes the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:16 in his attempt to contrast the Quaker understanding of the gospel with the conventional one.  He wrote: For the gospel is not a mere declaration of good things, being “the power of God unto salvation to all those that believe” (Rom 1:16).  Though the outward declaration of the gospel be taken sometimes for the gospel; yet it is but figuratively, and metonymy. For to speak properly the gospel is the inward Power and Life which preacheth glad tidings in the hearts of all men, offering salvation unto them and seeking to redeem them from their iniquities, and therefore it is said to be preached in ‘every creature under heaven” …

Fox’s hearers knew that they were being called, not merely to preach a message, but to change their way of life, and that was immediately.

You may have missed the event when Fox out did Robin Hood.  He converted the Sheriff of Nottingham.  The first thing the sheriff did was to confess and make restitution to a woman he had cheated.  Then he went into the market place to preach repentance to people. Fox’s letters emphasize purity of life and called people ‘out of the world’s evil ways, words, worships, customs and fashions.  Here is the ethical aspect of the Gospel.  God’s power, felt in one’s life enables us to change, to throw off the bondage of contemporary culture and live lives pleasing to God.

As Friends went out they were not content to make this proclamation in a passive manner.  They believed that they were to make this proclamation in a way that challenged the existing order and called all men and women to come out of it.  Fox wrote:

All husbandmen, and dealers about husbandry whatsoever, cattle, or ground, to you all this is the word of the Lord God: do rightly, holily, justly, honestly, plainly, and truly to all men and people, whomsoever ye have to deal withal; wrong not any in any case, though it be never so much to your advantage. Deny yourselves, and live in the cross [Luke 9:23] of Christ, the power of God [1 Cor 1:24], for that destroys injustice; and ‘without holiness none can ever see the Lord [Heb 12:14]; and out of righteousness there is no true peace.’ Therefore all, of what sort soever, or what calling soever, do justly, (whether ye be masters or servants, fathers or mothers, sons or daughters,) to one another, and to all, do that which is just and righteous, uprightly and holily; in that you will have peace, and see God. . . . For ‘the kingdom of God stands in righteousness, peace, and joy in the holy ghost [Rom 14:17].

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No Partiality

“Peter declares that Jesus was about the business of changing people’s lives. He sums up Jesus’ ministry by saying that he “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil”. Evil diminishes life for individuals and communities. It can dominate our will and remove the freedom to live in ways that are life-sustaining. It is seen in addictions and compulsions that drive the lives of individuals and the systems of abuse from which families and societies cannot seem to break free. The Gospels tell us that Jesus overcame what was killing people in order to restore them to life.”

 

Acts 10:34-43 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

To appreciate the importance of these verses you need to understand its context. Cornelius is a Roman spit and polish soldier currently posted to the Empire’s headquarters in Caesarea. We are told that, though not a Jew he reveres God and contributes generously to meet the needs of people in the community. Because of his faithfulness Cornelius has a vision in which he is directed to summon Simon Peter to his home. At the time Peter is in Joppa, thirty miles away rooming with a Simon the tanner.

Tanning is considered one of the world’s dirtiest occupations. It wasn’t that tanners were ritually unclean, but there was a social repugnance for tanners because of their stench and filth. It was said for a tanner to look for a wife any place other than the family of another tanner was a waste of time. Simon the tanner may have stunk to high heaven but, from Peter’s point of view he was a Jew. The picture we are given is that Peter is living and breathing the smells of the tanning operation when he goes up on the roof top, probably for a breath of fresh air.

While there, like Cornelius, Peter has a vision. He sees a sheet full of unclean animals come down from heaven. A voice commands Peter to kill and eat these animals, but he refuses since, according to Jewish law, they are ritually unclean. Then the voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane”. When the messengers from Cornelius arrive, Peter realizes that the vision wasn’t at all about unclean food, it was about how Jews were prejudiced against gentiles, that is non-jews. There is an Old Testament story with which Peter would have been familiar that happened in Joppa. Remember Jonah. God called him to preach to Gentiles and he decided he’d rather run away or die.

Peter thinks better of it and goes with Cornelius’ servants and enters his house. That’s important. Cornelius is a Gentile, an official in the occupying Roman army and he is from another nation. He may revere God and give alms generously, but he is a Gentile, not a member of the people of Israel. Does he belong to the people of God as Peter does, or not? Peter says to Cornelius ‘I need not tell you that a Jew is forbidden by his religion to visit or associate with anyone of another race. Yet God has shown me clearly that I must not call anyone profane or unclean…” I don’t know if you caught the irony in the story but Peter was much more comfortable staying in the stench and filth of Simon’s home than in the luxury of a Roman officials home. It makes you wonder how we make choices.

Later in our text find Peter begins his sermon saying “God shows no partiality,” for “in every nation anyone who fears and does what is right is acceptable to him.” To say that “God shows no partiality” means that belonging is not matter of one’s ethnic background. The issue is faith and the kind of life that flows out of faith.

In his message Peter declares that Jesus was about the business of changing people’s lives. He sums up Jesus’ ministry by saying that he “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil“. Evil diminishes life for individuals and communities. It can dominate our will and remove the freedom to live in ways that are life-sustaining. It is seen in addictions and compulsions that drive the lives of individuals and the systems of abuse from which families and societies cannot seem to break free. The Gospels tell us that Jesus overcame what was killing people in order to restore them to life. It says that Jesus healed those who had been tyrannized by others. In simply theological language, Jesus’ goal was to release people from what made them captives. The Greek word usually translated “forgiveness” literally means “release.” Living destructively brings people to a point where the pattern of destruction defines the present and limits the future. For a person to have a different life, such behavior must no longer define us. This is what forgiveness means. It means that the grace of God brings release from the continuing to live destructively so that through a word of grace there can be a different future.

Do we live according to the words of Peter’s experience. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. Of course the question for us today is whether we embrace such grace for ourselves or others.

 

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