“Looking for Light in the Shadow of Death” A Sermon on Matthew 4:12-23

shadow

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

The “Shadow of Death.” That doesn’t sound very good, does it?

I asked Rabbi Josh Breindel of Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield about the phrase and he said it is quite literally “shadow of death” in Hebrew. He said it is a colloquial saying and means something like “mortal peril.” We are all acquainted with that image from the 23rd Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”

Two of the traditional themes for the Epiphany season are “light shining in the darkness” and the “calling to Christian discipleship,” and I hope to combine them today. Continue reading

Reflections on Living in a World with a Trump Presidency without Leonard Cohen

cohenSince the numbing election I’ve been imbibing in the music and poetry of Leonard Cohen. I didn’t start out on this road as some sort of masochistic exercise. I just wanted to reacquaint myself with the work of this troubled genius who juggled so many contradictions within himself and his art.

Cohen was God-haunted while denying any traditional understanding of God. He followed Buddhism “religiously” while he still never stopped being deeply informed by his Jewish identity. Much of his poetry and song verse bristles with Biblical imagery and apocalyptic vision. Continue reading

“The God of the Far Off” Toward the Ministry of Inclusion

Prodigal sonWhat an extraordinary week this has been for our country! The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth liked to admonish the church that it must read both the Bible and the newspaper, because we Christians live in the world.

And what a week of news it was! There were two historic Supreme Court decisions that will change our national life in significant, and in my opinion, profoundly positive, ways.

On Thursday, by a 6-3 decision, the Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, which makes health care available to all Americans.

And on Friday, by a 5-4 decision, Marriage Equality became the law of the land.

The reason I am here before you instead of our pastor Brent Damrow is that he is in Cleveland at the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, representing the Massachusetts Conference. I am sure he will have stories to tell about the celebrations taking place there, as our national church has been a long and tireless advocate for equal rights for the LGBT community and a supporter  of marriage equality.

I believe that these two historic Supreme Court decisions share a common idea, and that is the idea of “inclusion.”

And a third extraordinary event in our national life also happened on Friday. President Obama climbed into the bully pulpit in Charleston, South Carolina to give the eulogy for the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the Emmanuel AME Church who, along with eight of his congregants, was murdered by a gunman while attending a Bible study at the church on June 17.

President Obama gave a stirring eulogy for Pastor Pinkney, but he was addressing not only those present, but also the nation. I’d like to share with you some excerpts of his eulogy:

The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston . . . .the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond — not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.

Blinded by hatred, he (the alleged murderer) failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood — the power of God’s grace . . .

This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace . . .

According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other — but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.

Martha and I were driving to Onota Lake in Pittsfield for a walk on Friday when the President’s eulogy came on the radio. We got to the parking lot at the boat ramp, but we didn’t get out of the car. We sat in the car until it was over, and when it was over I had tears streaming from my eyes.

The President was addressing the painful facts of racial relations in today’s America. He mentioned that in response to the massacre at the church the Confederate flag had been taken down in the South Carolina capitol and elsewhere. That flag, he said, was a symbol of our nation’s “original sin,” slavery.

The president had both the Bible and the newspaper in mind as he gave this incandescent speech. I don’t know of such a theologically astute presidential address since Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural.

And once again I would argue that inclusion is the big idea that binds all these events together. Inclusion.

I believe in the power of ideas to shape societies, and, as my teacher, mentor and friend, Max Stackhouse taught me, to examine where they come from and what they mean. So I want to do a little bit of that with you today about the idea of inclusion. Continue reading

What I Love about the Gospel of Luke

St LukeFor our Lenten adult study we have been looking at each of the four Gospels and Brent (our pastor) has asked me to share briefly with you what I love about the Gospel of Luke.

Each of the Gospels has features about it I love. Like many Christians my idea of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a mixed-upped conflation in my mind of all four Gospels.

When I started studying the Bible as a young man I began noticing how each Gospel tells the story in a somewhat different way, and something about that bothered me. I wondered, “Where they differ what is the truth of the story?”

One of my teachers helped me with this by having me imagine a beloved mother with four children, and upon her death each child wrote a remembrance of her. Each child’s remembrance of their mother would be different, but they would all be true.

Another helpful analogy I heard was that the Gospel is like a diamond, when you turn the diamond the light catches different facets of the precious stone. Each of the four Gospels is a different facet of the one Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It was in the Christmas story where I first noticed the differences in the several Gospels. Mark and John say nothing about the birth of Jesus. Only in Matthew do we hear about the visit of the Magi, their meeting with Herod and his slaughter of the innocents, and Mary and Joseph’s flight to Egypt.

But it is especially Luke we think of most often at Christmas time. Only Luke has the annunciations to Elizabeth and Mary, Mary’s Magnificat, and only in Luke do we have the choir of angels addressing the shepherds.

And so these early chapters of Luke might be a good place for me to start to tell you what I especially love about Luke. Continue reading

“To Sing and Love as Angels Do”: Singing our Faith

Singing“To sing and love as angels do” is a line from one of Isaac Watts’ hymns (he wrote over seven hundred). I love the phrase. It places singing right up there with loving as one of those activities that pleases God. I have long pondered the central place singing holds in worship, and its importance to the worshiper. Here is an excerpt of an article I wrote about “the worshiping self:”

“In hymn singing the worshiping self experiences transcendence as one among many within a congregation. There, in worship, God the other is addressed by the singer, not in isolation, but as one voice among many others. The hymn singer uses the body as well as the intellect in an integrated act of worship engaging the whole self. Hymn singing also roots the worshiping self within the life of the congregation among whom the singer works and plays, rejoices and weeps. Since the congregation is the local embodiment of the church catholic (what P. T. Forsyth called “the great church”), the hymn singer is part, not only of the congregation physically present, but also the great congregation, both the ecumenical church in its geographical breadth, and the communion of saints in its temporal length across ages and generations.

Additionally, the hymn is a repository of the tradition of the great church, and the faithful learn scripture and doctrine from singing as much as they do from sermons and catechesis. Finally, and most significantly, the singer of hymns not only addresses God, but is, at the same time, addressed by God, so that hymn singing becomes an event of grace. The singer is addressed as a forgiven and justified sinner, and it is often in the singing of the hymns, that the worshiping self is able to experience the grace of justification, and respond with faith and obedience.” (“The Worshiping Self” in Persons in Community: Theological Voices from the Pastorate. Edited by William H. Lazareth. Eerdmans, 2004.)

I also believe that music in general and singing in particular can give us access to the divine presence as no other medium can, which is why even non-believers often are lovers of Bach’s great religious works. Even though my writing is primarily theological and devotional, I have sometimes turned to writing hymns because there is something I want to express that I can in no other way (to see some of my hymns go here.)

I recently wrote:

Singing can help faith, for sometimes we can sing words that we are not yet able to say. I have often noticed singers in choirs who would not call themselves believers belting out sacred music as if they meant it.

Perhaps they do mean it. Who is to say that a singer singing out “And he shall reign for ever and ever” in Handel’s Messiah is not expressing a faith and hope that he or she might have trouble putting into spoken words? (From my Still Speaking Daily Devotional, to see it all go here)

Singing binds us together and reminds us we are not alone. “Our personal faith may wax and wane, but the church’s faith goes on from generation to generation. I like to think of it as a great choir, where each part supports and strengthens every other part, creating something beautiful and harmonious. ”

(Photo: Easter Sunday, 2014, at the First Congregational Church UCC of Stockbridge, MA, where I am a member.)

Some Lenten Reflections on Forgiveness

Prodigal son by RembrandtThe idea of forgiveness is so ingrained in our cultural and religious traditions that it is easy for us to overlook what an extraordinary idea it is. Although we tend to separate out “forgiving” and “forgetting” the biblical notion of forgiveness is literally “a forgetting,” in that after the act of forgiveness “it is as if ” the grievance never happened.

It is only the aggrieved party who can do the forgiving, and the act of forgiveness “wipes away” the memory of the grievance so that it no longer has any influence on the relationship. So it is that the phrase “I will remember their sins no more” appears again and again in the Bible, for example, in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hebrews.

Before this idea of forgiveness took hold there was simply “revenge,” in which affronts were met with retribution, often disproportionate to the original wrong. These “family feuds,” if we want to call them that, could go on for generations, and still do, as we see sometimes, for example, in the Middle East, where memories of affronts are long.

A moral advance on such indiscriminate retribution was the lex talionis, the “law of retaliation,” which prescribed that the response had to be equal to the offense, as, for example, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

But the idea of forgiveness moves social relationships into a whole new key, and goes beyond mere justice. Indeed, forgiveness is an affront to justice, which is one of the perpetual accusations made against the Gospel by its critics.

Israel’s God is a god who forgives, but we may recall that the first covenant in the Bible is the covenant with Noah, and in that story God’s forgiveness has limits. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5)

So God does not forgive the people and punishes them with a flood. God shows some mercy, enough to save a remnant in the ark, the blameless Noah and his family, and the several species of animals. But God repents of his action, viewing it as a dry run (if you’ll excuse the pun), and promises never to do it again, laying down his arms (so to speak,) and leaving his bow in the sky to remind him.

In Exodus there’s a seeming change in the character and identity of God, in which mercy becomes a key quality. In preparing for today I took two volumes of the Anchor Bible Dictionary, the M volume for “mercy,” and the F volume for “forgiveness.” When I found the entry for “mercy” it said, “see LOVE.”

In Exodus we have a particularly important passage for subsequent Jewish and Christian understandings of God’s identity and character. It is Exodus 34:6-7, when God tells Moses to go up Mt. Sinai with two stone tablets. As you recall, God descended in the cloud, revealed the divine name to Moses, and then proclaimed to him:

“The Lord, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and fourth generation.”

Now this passage is really packed with things to ponder, but I want to highlight three for you.

1. First, this is a big moment in the history of God and his people. The revealing of the divine name tips us off to it, and right after this is the giving of the law and the Sinai covenant. To reveal one’s name is to be in relationship. God chooses to be in relationship with Israel, and renews the previous covenants.

2. Second, while we in our day tend to focus on the individual, and on individual sins, notice that here the emphasis is collective to the people as a people.

3. Third, the relationship is not only collective it is trans-generational, the promise applying across multiple generations.

I would guess that most of what we talk about in this Lenten study over the next few weeks will be about individual acts of forgiveness applied to willful, intentional sins. But the early understandings of forgiveness in the Bible were almost always collective, and almost always for inadvertent sinning.

So I need to say a word about why divine forgiveness was a necessary condition for God and Israel to be in relationship. This is a little hard for us to get our minds around because we tend to think of sin as a moral category, and it was also for Israel. But sin was frequently, perhaps even more frequently, thought about not as morality, but as purity.

God was understood to be holy and humans were not, the creator and the creatures were in different categories. And so we see the development of the elaborate holiness codes in Leviticus, which were designed to produce ritual purity in people so as not to offend God. Even so, it was impossible to keep all the myriad laws required.

Remember I said most sins that needed to be forgiven were inadvertent. So it wasn’t flagrant sinning like robbery, murder, or adultery, the ones we think of in moral categories, which needed to be forgiven so much as the infractions against ritual purity.

This is part of the backstory behind some of Jesus’ conflict with the scribes and the Pharisees who were zealous for the law, the maintaining of ritual purity.

I don’t think I am stating it too strongly to say that our very humanity makes us in need of forgiveness from the God who is holy. And that is why when God chooses to be a forgiving God it is a precondition for us to be in relationship with God at all.

And again, I think if we look at the grand arc of the whole Christian Story in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments we see how the very identity of God can be understood in terms of forgiveness, the fruits of mercy and love.  So much so that, after Good Friday and Easter, the early disciples of Jesus, all of them Jewish, as he was Jewish, came to call him “Lord,” the name previously reserved for God alone. It is quite remarkable. They saw in his love, mercy, and forgiveness congruence with the character and indenty of their God.

Before I move on to focus on the New Testament I need to mention something else relevant to the idea of forgiveness that will come into play later: that is that the priestly cult in Israel saw one way to blot out the memory of sins was through a blood sacrifice of an animal as an atonement or expiation. The people around Jesus’ had either participated, witnessed, or at least knew about such ritual blood sacrifices from the daily operations of the Jerusalem temple. So when we talk about Jesus’ death as atonement for sin, we are missing the original referent of the metaphor, which is partly why the idea is so hard for us. It’s a dead metaphor. I’ve written a book about all this if you want to know more (see When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement, Wipf and Stock, 2010)

All these understandings about God’s holiness get carried into the Christian era, so the New Testament also understands sin as an offense against God’s holy law or against another human being. As in the Old Testament forgiveness involves the wiping from memory of the offense by the one affronted so as restore harmony in the relationship.

The seriousness of sin is one of the chief preoccupations of the New Testament. Humans cannot by themselves avoid God’s condemnation. So Jesus says, in the Sermon on the Mount, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees you can not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) And St. Paul flatly declares in his letter to the Romans: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

This is the predicament of the human condition, and the context of Jesus’ ministry. In the retrospective look of the apostolic age it was understood that, as it says in 1Timothy 15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Our best example of forgiveness at work is in “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” (Luke 15:11-32) which I know some of you have been studying. One of the key features of that story is the father’s eagerness to restore his relationship with his lost son. Notice the father forgives the prodigal before the son even has time to deliver his little repentance speech. We should recall that the whole purpose of forgiveness is the restoration of the broken relationship. And in this parable the older brother, who didn’t leave, didn’t sin, and kept all the rules, thinks it is unfair that his deadbeat brother is restored. And it is unfair, because forgiveness is driven not by justice but by love. The older brother thinks he has earned his father’s love by his own achievements. But you don’t earn love. The father loves the prodigal not because he is good, but because he is his.

I’d like to quickly point to two more features of the New Testament idea of forgiveness. The first I have mentioned already: the death of Jesus, which in miniature focuses the whole gospel story. Here the sinless faithful Messiah, betrayed, denied, and abandoned by sinful humanity, obediently goes to his death with forgiveness on his lips, praying to his Father for forgiveness for those who killed him. It is a loving act of atonement.

The second feature, which will come up in our questions, is the way Jesus taught his disciples to pray about forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses (debts, sins), as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Here, and elsewhere, Jesus is saying that the capacity to receive forgiveness is somehow intimately connected to our capacity to forgive. In Matthew 5:23-24, for example, Jesus says, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” It is as if only those who can forgive can understand it enough to receive it.

( I gave this Lenten Study presentation on March 9, 2014, at the First Congregational Church (UCC), Stockbridge, Massachusetts.)

Picture: The Prodigal Son by Rembrandt

Is God’s Love Fair? Ruminations on The Prodigal Son Story

 

My late aunt never had children, but she doted on her nephews and niece, and one of her principles was fairness.  If she gave something to one of us, she would make sure she gave something equivalent to all of us.  We always all got the same birthday check.  She was fair.

There is a lot to be commended about fairness. We taught it to our children, and children learn to spot unfairness pretty quickly. “That’s not fair!” can be heard on any playground, and rightfully so, since fairness is an important part of what makes any society workable, be it the small society of a school playground or the large one of a nation.  Laws should be fair.  Fairness is akin to justice, and the world would be a better place if there were more of it.  We all want our fair share, and resent it if our neighbor is getting more than his.

In my first congregation I once preached on the story of the rich man and the beggar, also called Dives and Lazarus, which is also (and only) in Luke (16:19-31).  My church treasurer, a hard working Maine Yankee, got me trapped at the door and said, why didn’t Lazarus (the beggar) just go out and get a job?  Why should Dives have to help him?  “It isn’t fair!”

Which is one of the reasons this week’s Gospel (Luke 15:11-32) is such a scandal to us.  It isn’t fair.  The older son played by the rules, and the prodigal didn’t.  Yet the Father loves them both, even if their deserving is unequal.

Remember the parable of the workers in the vineyard?  Jesus says the ones who come late will get paid the same as the ones who worked all day.  “That’s not fair!”  Try explaining that policy to either union or management.

But in the divine economy it is all grace, which by definition is unfair because the recipient is undeserving.  “While we were still sinners Christ died for us.”  “That’s unfair!”  You bet it is, and it’s a good thing, too, because without that grace, who among us could stand?

There are many rich and insightful ways to approach this wonderful story.  But to me the best one is to see it as the Christian doctrine of atonement in miniature.

Gabriel Fackre’s writes,

“Jesus’ tale of the father’s welcome of the errant son is an anticipation of the Father’s embrace of the sinner on Calvary.  Neither the rigor of the earthly Semitic father nor the holiness of the heavenly Father can indulge the self-centered flight of the son/sinner. But the wrath over wasted substance does not descend on either prodigal. Where did it go? “There is a cross in the heart of God‘ said Charles Dinsmore. The broken heart of God is when the divine love absorbs the divine wrath (Luther) with its consequences, the suffering of God on the cross for the sins of the world. So too only the suffering love of the earthly father, mercy taking judgment into itself, can account for the rush forward to greet the returning prodigal.

What triggered the father’s response?  The Son’s return, of course.  But the father’s act was not evoked by a moral calculus- “he’s back because he’s sorry!“-for the father’s run and reach began without knowledge of the return’s rationale, while the son was “still far off.” Forgiveness is not dependent on good works here, no more than on the cross; agape is unconditional.

In both cases some human event is inextricable from the release of suffering love toward the sinner: a prodigal son in the human story, an obedient Son in the divine story. There is no proclamation of how the compassionate God came among us without the account of Jesus on the cross, any more than there is a story of the father’s embrace without the travel home of the prodigal. Finally, we are left with the narrative itself rather than a fully satisfying theory about it.” (Gabriel Fackre, Foreword to When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections of the Atonement.  Richard L. Floyd, Pickwick, 2000, Wipf and Stock 2010)

 

So even the laborers in the vineyard who show up late do need to show up to get their pay, even if they have little work to show for it.

And the prodigal son, who has taken his inheritance (which in those times was like telling your father to “drop dead!) and wasted it, still has to return.

We all come before God with empty hands, with nothing to show but our sins, and still God the heavenly Father, like the earthly father in the parable, has been waiting and watching for us all along.

Keep in mind that those who heard Jesus tell this story fell into two groups, the Pharisees (the older brother types) who knew they deserved God’s love, and the sinners, mostly  tax-collectors and prostitutes, (the younger brother types, like the prodigal son), who knew they didn’t.

Neither understood the amazing grace of Jesus’ story, and the radical invitation to come home.  As Herb Davis said this week in his sermon notes, “There is something worse than being dead, and that is being lost.”  Only those who have been lost really understand this.  The prodigal son understood, for he had hit bottom.

For most of the rest of us, whose lostness is less obvious, the story remains a scandal, as indeed, the whole Gospel is, especially the part about the cross.  Because “It’s just not fair!” No it isn’t.  It’s grace.  God’s love isn’t fair.

(Photo:  Rembrandt:  The Return of the Prodigal)