Grace Presbyterian Church
October 18, 2020, Pentecost 20A (recorded)
Who Do We Imitate?
One of the more talked-about and provocative books released on the subject of Christianity this year addresses the increasingly evident presence of what is commonly called “toxic masculinity” in many quarters of the church in the United States over the course of the past century. The book, by Kristin Kobes Du Mez of Calvin University in Michigan, traces this development as far back as the fascination with “muscular Christianity” of the early twentieth century, but particularly observes the post-WWII rise of a strain of thought in the church that claims particular privileges for men within Christianity.
This is hardly new in the church’s history. In this case, however, the results are terribly present with us today: a heavy degree of politization of church leaders; encouragement of aggressive or even potentially violent aspects of stereotypically “male” behavior; encouragement of behaviors among male church leaders that deny roles of leadership to pretty much anybody other than white males; justification or excusing of abusive or illegal behavior by those leaders; and reduction of women to roles of subservience to men. Along the way the book also notes occasional “role models” of this hypermasculine model of Christian manhood – oddly enough, not always men who practice any sort of Christianity. While Oliver North, he of the Iran-Contra scandal, or William Wallace, the Scottish warrior played by Mel Gibson in the movie Braveheart, turn up as well, the most prominent such figure cited by those studied in the book is the one who turns up in the book’s title alongside our actual Messiah: Jesus and John Wayne.
It is impossible to avoid drawing a sharp contrast here with a theme to which Paul alluded in the letter to the Philippians and which he states overtly here in the greeting of his first letter to the church at Thessalonica.
Somewhat like the church at Philippi, the Thessalonian community was still largely on good terms with Paul, and vice versa. We read in Acts 17 that Paul had a rough time on his visit to Thessalonica and had to be slipped out of town under cover of darkness. From that account we also learn that while a few members of the local synagogue heard and received the gospel, the number of “Greeks” (the city was located in Macedonia) who did so was apparently a good bit larger. As a result, the numbers in the Thessalonian community skewed far more towards Gentile converts, unlike other churches Paul founded in which the balance between Greek and Jewish believers was more even.
One thing this means is that many of the Thessalonians had in fact been literal worshipers of idols, to which Paul alludes in verse 9. He also notes in verse 6 that they had suffered attacks by others in the community, noted in Acts 17 when Paul’s host in the city, a man named Jason, had seen his home attacked and had been dragged with some others before the city authorities on false charges. Their faithfulness, both as new converts and in the face of outside agitation, had apparently built a reputation and endeared them to Paul particularly. The result is this particularly effusive greeting from Paul, along with his co-workers Silvanus and Timothy.
But back on the subject of idols for a moment. As noted a few moments ago, Thessalonica was in the region of Macedonia. Alert followers of ancient history might recognize that name: it was the home of no less a historical figure than Alexander the Great, who had taken his father Philip’s already substantial empire and expanded it as far as the Greek world could see. Even decades after his death, and even under the rule of Rome, Alexander’s fame and glorification still remained strong in his homeland, so to speak. Folks living in Macedonia had plenty of alternate role models, beyond the mere idols of wood or stone that were scattered throughout the cities.
It is against this backdrop that we read Paul’s greeting to the Thessalonians. Even for the standard letter greeting style of this period it is an effusively warm greeting, fulsome in its praise for the church at Thessalonica and giving a glowing report of its reputation not only with Paul and his co-workers, but among other churches of the region as observed in verses 8-9.
What is it that so exhilarates Paul about the Thessalonians? It is most succinctly described in verses 5-6: the gospel came among them not just in word, but “in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction,” and the Thessalonians “became imitators of us (Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy) and of the Lord.”
You know what? On the surface, to us moderns, this might not look all that impressive. What does it even mean to say that the message of the gospel came among them in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction? From the twenty-first century that sounds like religious platitudes more than anything else. And frankly, from our perspective in history talk about anything being “in the Holy Spirit” can frankly sound suspicious, polluted by decades of false preachers and con artists for which such talk is a way to bamboozle the easily fooled and to play folks for suckers.
And becoming imitators of Paul and his colleagues? We don’t know much about Silvanus and Timothy, but we’re painfully aware of Paul’s imperfections, both from his letters and from the accounts of his missionary journeys in Acts. There we see a man who, for all his successes, was extremely short-tempered, not quick to forgive (as demonstrated in the split with Barnabas over bringing John Mark back into the work in Acts 15), and just maybe given to whining a little bit about his difficulties on occasion.
The only thing that works here is that, for all their imperfections, the example that Paul and Silvanus and Timothy had set among the Thessalonians led them towards the imitation of the Lord.
Here is a point where we need to hold two seemingly contradictory truths in our heads and hearts:
- There is no one worthy of imitation for the Christian other than Jesus Christ.
- Our example will be observed and imitated, for good or bad.
Any parent can tell you about the latter phenomenon – being caught in, say, a slip of the tongue that gets endlessly copied by your child? There is but a small example of what happens when others, perhaps especially Christians still in formation, see us and strive to use us as an example. The other possibility, of course, is that our example might be seen as wanting and that those who see us might be dissuaded from the faith by our bad example.
But the former point is the one that sticks. There is really no other model for us to imitate besides the Jesus who is revealed to us in the gospels. Not Moses – ask that Egyptian who was murdered by him. Certainly not David – ask Bathsheba, or even more her husband Uriah the Hittite, left for dead by the army at David’s order. And no, not Paul. Not even John Wayne. If we’re going to claim to be followers of Christ, we must be imitators of Christ. And if you’re read the gospels, you know that’s a risky thing to do. Jesus made trouble. Jesus didn’t always play nice with the authorities. And Jesus paid the price for it.
And yet, being imitators of Jesus is about the only way we’re going to present the kind of example that caused Paul to gush so warmly about the Thessalonians. It’s about the only thing that will make folks stop and pay attention, and maybe draw them to Christ. It is all we can do.
And yes, it is our call.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #644, Give Thanks, O Christian People; #300, We Are One in the Spirit
 Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne. Published 2020 Liveright Publishing Corp, a division of W.W. Norton.
Grace Presbyterian Church
October 11, 2020, Pentecost 19A
Unlike letters such as those to the churches in Corinth and Rome, which served in the former case to address some major foul-ups in the church and to introduce Paul in the latter, this epistle to the church at Philippi is quite brief, and in fact we are coming to its end. As a result we now encounter some recapitulation of subjects Paul has already addressed in the letter, along with a few closing instructions, final greetings, and some reflection on Paul’s part (as well as words of thanks for the gift the Philippians had sent him). It’s a fairly typical way for Paul to end a letter, particularly in a situation where he is not having to clean up after some major conflict or trauma in the church in question.
What has long been interpreted as the conflict in question in Philippi comes up quickly in this passage, as Paul addresses to the congregation his concern that two of their members, Euodia and Syntyche, “be of the same mind in the Lord.” This is familiar language from the very beginning of the letter, as you may remember. Most interpreters argue that the two, whom Paul says “have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel,” have come into some sort of conflict or disagreement, one which (as modern churches know all too well) could cause division in the larger body.
Some interpreters, though, offer an alternate and quite opposite suggestion; Paul is offering up the two women leaders in the church as examples not of conflict, but of exactly that being “of the same mind.” Paul is recommending these leaders in the church (for that is what they are, to the dismay of those who don’t think women can do that) as being worthy of the members’ emulation and support in the work. I’m not biblical scholar enough to weigh in with any credibility, but in one sense it does make sense that their names be invoked here, in the wrap-up of the letter, rather than in the early part of the letter if they are being named as models for emulation rather than as sources of division. But I leave that for you to ponder.
As is also common in his letter conclusions, Paul starts to wax rhapsodic here, or at least seems to. The word “rejoice” becomes quite important rather suddenly in verse 4. That became the source of one of those simple repetitive songs* I was taught as a child – “rejoice in the Lord a-al-ways, and again I say rejoice!” or something like that – that had the unfortunate effect of making the verse impossible to think about in any kind of depth as I got older and especially as I got into this particular vocation. Listen to it again: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
*I have to say that it never sounded like that when I was a kid.
Seriously, Paul? Are you looking around at all? It is a statement that resounds with seeming tone deafness at a time like our current time. Rejoice in a pandemic? Rejoice with so much rampant injustice? Rejoice over an increasingly ruined climate spewing deadly weather all over? Rejoice, Paul?
Well, here’s another spot where we need to go back and remember from chapter 1 Paul’s situation as he writes this letter. Remember, he’s in prison. Being in a Roman prison wasn’t a hopeful situation to be in; most who entered a Roman prison didn’t leave alive. Back in that first chapter, Paul had noted how his imprisonment had opened up some new opportunities for witness to the gospel. Here, he seems more concerned to equip the Philippians for whatever kind of difficulty might be coming their way, at least partly so that their own witness in time of conflict or even persecution would be similarly fruitful.
For many readers, the verses that follow directly after verse 4 can seem rather like random bits of counsel being poured out before Paul runs out of parchment or ink. I’d like to suggest, though (hopefully under the prompting of the Holy Spirit), that these following verses are actually pointed towards enabling the Philippians to live up to that exhortation in verse 4? Rejoice? Now? How? Well, Paul says, doing these things will help.
“Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”
I can’t help but be reminded of a verse that stood out from that series in the book of Ecclesiastes several weeks ago: 9:17, “The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouting of a ruler among fools.” The blustering bullying of a so-called leader obsessed with looking “tough” or “manly” or “strong” really doesn’t impress the world when it comes from one who claims to be a follower of Christ. Gentleness, particularly to those who have been treated by the world with anything but gentleness, is a witness like no other. Living like those who know the Spirit is with us makes all kinds of difference in how the world hears us.
“Do not worry about anything…”
Here’s one where we really need to hear the whole thought: “…but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Living in anxiety does not solve those needs we have, but the rest of the verse doesn’t give us leave to quit caring about those needs once we have offered them to God, nor is it a prompting to break out in the old Bobby McFerrin hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” If our prayers don’t have feet in some way, they’re not worth the oxygen required to breathe them. And it is in this putting our needs before God that we are brought into the peace of God, which the Greek literally says will “stand sentinel over” our hearts and minds. What we don’t put before God cannot be guarded with the peace of God, and our ability to rejoice is cut short.
This list of virtues in verse 8 is perhaps one of the most well-known passages in the book, even if it can be challenging to keep them in your memory in the right order. One of the remarkable things about this list is that it is not necessarily distinctly “Christian” in its origin. Any ethicist of the Greco-Roman realm would have almost reflexively put forth these virtues as those that their students should learn and emulate.
Further, thinking on these things – things that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy – requires more than just thinking happy thoughts. This isn’t about some kind of Norman Vincent Peale positive thinking business, nor is it an excuse to break into a different song – “Accentuate the Positive” in this case. No, this is about a process of training and shaping our minds to know and recognize these virtues in ourselves and one another and the world around us. Other epistles, such as Galatians and Colossians, use the metaphor of clothing to make the same point – applied here, Paul might have said “clothe yourselves in what is true, honorable” and so forth, with the idea that in this case clothes really do make the wearer. Study these things, contemplate them deeply, reflect on them; these habits in turn make these virtues basic to your own thinking and reflecting on the world around you – both to spot the presence of these virtures and their absence. Paul then follows in verse 9 by again offering himself as an example, and again invoking that in doing these things “the God of peace will be with you.”
In short, these exhortations are about being made into followers of Christ able to “rejoice in the Lord always,” even in prison or pandemic. To quote Debie Thomas, an Episcopalian Christian educator and contributor to The Christian Century:
So I wonder whether these famous verses from Philippians are not about feeling good so much as they are about cultivating the inner life of the soul. In Paul’s view, peace and joy are not emotions we can conjure up within ourselves. They come from God, and the only way we can receive them is through consistent spiritual practice…
In short, these encouragements are not about simple happy thoughts, but the hard-but-necessary work of soul rehabilitation. Spiritual exercise, if you will. Thomas continues:
In other words, joy requires us to sidestep sentimentality and cynicism alike. It requires that we hold onto two realities at once; the reality of the world’s brokenness in one hand, and the reality of God’s love in the other. Joy is what happens when we daily live into the belief that God can and will bridge the gap between the world we long for and the world we see before our eyes.
This doesn’t happen easily. That trust is hard when the world we see before our eyes is cold and brutal and callous. Joy will shed some tears along the way. Joy won’t sit quietly in the face of injustice of any kind. But it is this cultivated discipline that makes joy – the real stuff – possible at all, and that in turn makes our lives able even a little bit to bear witness to the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The serious work of cultivating disciplined joy, practicing fierce gentleness, studying genuine virtue, and bearing real witness is not at all easy. Far from it, no matter how easily Paul seems to toss it off in the final flourishes of this letter. And yet, one more time, this is our call.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #821, My Life Flows On (How Can I Keep From Singing?); #852, When the Lord Redeems the Very Least
Grace Presbyterian Church
October 4, 2020, Pentecost 18A (recorded)
Honestly, there are times when Paul can be quite infuriating with his way of tossing off seemingly impossible challenges and instructions to his readers as if they were nothing.
Only two weeks ago, in the first chapter of this letter to the church at Philippi, we read Paul’s instruction to the Philippians to “only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel,” with Paul seeming to toss that off as if it were no big deal. The following instructions in chapters 1 and 2 continue in that vein, with Paul tossing out such instruction as “be of the same mind” and “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” remembering that “it is God who is at work in you.” Seriously, Paul, do you have any idea what you’re asking for?
As we come to the next step through this epistle, there is a slight shift in Paul’s address to this church. As would be expected in rhetorical practice of the time Paul puts himself forward as an exemplar of the instruction and exhortation he is giving. (Yes, in modern speech this would sound like pretty awful bragging, but not in first-century Greco-Roman rhetorical tradition.) One result is an answer to that last rhetorical question; to our exasperated do you have any idea what you’re asking for? comes the answer from Paul yes, yes I do, and here’s how it works.
A second, perhaps unintended result it that we get a moment of insight into Paul’s own view of his rather notorious past. Paul’s story takes up much of the book of Acts, including his first introduction as Saul, persecutor of those deceived followers of that scandalous crucified rabbi Jesus. The story of his Damascus road conversion into one of the most fervent of followers of that same scandalous crucified and resurrected Jesus and his subsequent life of missionary travel and preaching takes over Acts after a certain point. We can’t know for certain how much of this story the Philippians actually know by this time, but if they don’t already know they’re finding out.
What provokes this reflection is a warning from Paul about “the dogs … the evil workers … those who mutilate the flesh.” At this point in the church’s history one could say that this body of Christ-followers doesn’t even know what it is yet. Is it a subset of Judaism, which still required the ritual of circumcision for those men who became a part of it? Or is it something new and different, for which no such ritual act was or should be required?
There were plenty who held the first view that circumcision – that “mutilation of the flesh” to which Paul refers – was and should be required of all these new Gentile converts to the way of Jesus. Paul has had sharp disagreements with that party in different churches on his missionary circuit. His virulently negative response to them becomes an occasion to reflect on his own religious heritage, in which he was raised and trained, and at which – by his own account – he was quite successful:
- “circumcised on the eighth day” – raised and nurtured in the tradition from his birth;
- “a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews” – you might imagine someone in this country boasting that their ancestors came over on the Mayflower for a similar effect;
- “as to the law, a Pharisee” – not merely an average person, but sell-studied and well-taught in the whole corpus of Jewish law, and scrupulous about keeping it;
- “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church” – he was so passionate about his faith that he sought to “correct” those who deviated from it (and “correct” is an extremely mild way to put it!); we have a lot of that going around today in the modern church…and;
- “as to righteousness under the law, blameless” – all that law he had so studied? He kept it, down to the letter.
Paul, in short, needed to defer to no one in terms of having “lived right” according to the law those claimed who insisted on the circumcision of converts. He had them beat. And to him, all of that was nothing anymore.
Verses 7 and 8 use a pair of different words in translating what Paul writes here. First we read Paul has “come to regard as loss” all of those things, and then that he counts all those things as “rubbish.” This is far too mild a word for what Paul actually says. This is one of those cases where the old familiar King James Version comes closer with its word choice: “dung.” Yes, Paul really does use a word for what we moderns flush down the toilet to describe all that old righteousness.
The only righteousness that matters anymore to Paul is the righteousness that is Paul’s strictly through faith in Christ. Paul has done nothing to earn it (it comes by grace, though the word is not used here). It is no less than the gift of God, manifested in the love of Christ and ministered through the working of the Holy Spirit. And that is all that counts to Paul. What matters is to know Christ, to share in the suffering of Christ, to become like Christ even unto death, and (by the grace of God) to share in the resurrection of Christ.
And to that end, Paul describes, “I press on to make it my own.” He’s not there yet and he knows that. He can only say even this, as he says, “because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Even that is not of his own doing; he wasn’t looking for anything like what happened when the risen Jesus accosted him on that road to Damascus. He freely acknowledges he can do none of this on his own. All he can do, he says again, is “press on towards the goal.”
Even as we can see that Paul is making this claim for himself, we can’t help but feel how challenging such a declared goal is. Particularly at this moment, the idea of “pressing on” feels perhaps more like a death sentence than a promise of life. Living in a pandemic that only seems to get worse every time we yearn for a glimmer of hope, when cries for justice are met repeatedly with violence and threats, when it can become impossible to keep track of what day of the week it is and when six months ago seems like six years ago, “pressing on” just feels brutal. I’ll be honest with you; it feels an awful lot of the time right now as if I’ve lost my mind just trying to keep up with the routine things.
But in the end, what else is there? Perhaps we’ve lived long enough to know that any righteousness we think we’ve earned is even less than the stuff we flush down the toilet. Perhaps we’ve been reminded how little our own efforts really mean in this time.
Perhaps, if nothing else, living in this moment reminds us that the righteousness we have in Christ, solely by the grace of God, is the only thing worth boasting about. Perhaps we can now understand that only in this righteousness that is in Christ is the means to live even in this seemingly endless and mind-numbing season of out-of-the- ordinary Ordinary Time.
Still, it’s hard. Giving up on the idea that our own efforts – anything we can earn – will save us is frankly offensive, if we’re honest about it. But that is the challenge that is laid before us. Still, to learn to count it all as loss and to seek only Christ? That is our call.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #450, Be Thou My Vision; #223, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
Grace Presbyterian Church
September 27, 2020, Pentecost 17A
Despite the chapter break inserted many years later by those who came to edit the books of scripture into chapters and verses, today’s reading is a continuation of last week’s, particularly from verses 27-30 of the first chapter. The thought of this reading is continuous, in other words, from verse 27’s instruction to “only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…“. This current reading adds to and fills out this instruction, but itself also reminds us that sometimes in reading scripture, we need to bring other parts of scripture to bear on how we read the passage before us.
The first four verses of chapter 2 are in particular so pointed towards Paul’s theme, with their repeated invocation of the challenge to be of “the same mind” or of “one mind,” that many scholars suspect that there must have been some division in the church at Philippi after all, comparable to other churches in Paul’s missionary circuit. Later in this letter, Paul will speak to two particular members of the Philippian church, Euodia and Syntyche, using that same phrase – “be of the same mind in the Lord.”
Frankly, this passage would probably provoke less critical fretting if he had said that the first time. To insist on being of “one mind” or of “the same mind” can frankly sound anywhere from disturbing to offensive; what happened to diversity of thought? What about creativity, or even the basic ability to have a conversation (which never goes very far if the two conversants agree about everything)? At least the qualifying phrase “in the Lord” pushes us a little closer to the point here, which is not to enforce total and unrelenting unanimity on everything that is ever said or done or thought.
Let’s be blunt here: it is far too often demonstrated in history that the church can become quite maniacal about enforcing uniformity or conformity in the name of “unity.” Between the existence of fundamentalist impulses in the church in many corners, several crusades over several centuries, patters of exclusion, excommunication, shunning, shaming, and too many other enforcement mechanisms to count, the church has far too often resorted to enforcing conformity in lieu of, well, almost anything else, and on those outside the church as well as those within it.
We must be clear that this is not Paul’s instruction here. To be of “the same mind in the Lord” is not about some sort of lockstep march to doom. No. To be of “the same mind in the Lord” is to seek only one outcome, one which conforms only to God’s will – not to any human will. It is, as verse 4 reminds us, to care more about the well-being and sustaining of others than about our own satisfaction. To be concerned about the interests of others pretty much rules out trying to enforce anything on them.
With verse 5 we turn to understanding what exactly this “one mind” is supposed to be like. We get this in the form of what has become known as the “Christ hymn,” a poetic interjection that is, in the eyes of most scholars, a hymn (maybe by Paul himself, but likely not) that was apparently familiar enough to the Philippians (and quite likely other churches as well) for Paul to use it to demonstrate what the mind “that was in Christ Jesus” is like:
- “in the form of God” – the very nature of God; we express this idea in a slightly different context when we speak of the doctrine of the Trinity;
- “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” – did not cling to that nature to boost himself or to “lord it over” humanity;
- “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” – lowered himself far beyond his God-ness (without forsaking his God-ness) to be human at the same time;
- “humbled himself” – held himself of no status above any of the “least of these” he came to serve;
- “obedient to the point of death” – not even holding his life in any kind of regard, but willingly laying it aside. Paul adds that the death was “on a cross” – the most painful and humiliating kind of execution known at the time.
This is the pattern that being of “the same mind” is meant to take. It calls upon us to take up service as our only call and only goal. And this is the only kind of uniformity being demanded of the Philippians – or of any of Paul’s readers here.
After all, in another of Paul’s letters he will expend a great deal of ink on the very diversity of the gifts of the body of Christ, as he plays out the metaphor in fairly specific ways to point out that not all parts of the physical body have the same function or purpose, and neither do the parts of the body of Christ. All of those parts, however, are directed towards the same goal – the health of the physical body, or the service of the body of Christ. And we aren’t all forced to like, who knows, the same flavor of ice cream or have the same favorite verses of scripture or hymns or other such outer expression.
It isn’t all about being all the same – how boring that would be. It is about being of the same mind as Christ, having the same goal and purpose and ultimate calling (expressed as it is in distinct individual ways). It is, to use a more modern idiom, about pulling together, from all our different places, to get the job done.
There is one more challenge to address, one more point that requires interrogation by other scripture. Christ, as the hymn puts it, took “the form of a slave.” Squeamish terminology, to be sure, but unsparing. What we often forget to ask when reading this scripture is this: “taking the form of a slave” to who?
The reflexive answer might be “humanity,” but is that really so? There are numerous Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, law-teaches, priests and other religious authorities of the time who would roar with indignation at the idea that Jesus was in any way a “slave” or even “servant” to them. Jesus frankly did not show much submission to religious authority, or political authority for that matter. When Pilate asked Jesus a direct question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus’s answer might be best translated with the modern slang “If you say so, dude.” After that he clammed up. (See Mark 15, and similar passages in Matthew and Luke.) Jesus didn’t strike much of a servant pose before authority.
That’s because Jesus was “taking the form of a slave” to only one authority; only God, the one we call God the Father, the one who would exalt him and give him the “name that is above every name” so that all knees will bow and every tongue will confess.
And the same God, it should be noted, who is at work in us so that we “work out” our salvation – our being what God made us to be – “with fear and trembling.” God is the one who enables this service from us, this “same mind” service that in the life of Jesus entailed being servant to the least of these, to side always with the oppressed and never with the oppressor, and to follow and serve all the way to the end.
Pull together, for the only end that matters. Paul encourages us to this in such lofty language, even knowing where that was leading in his own life, and what it would mean to those folk who read or heard his letter and followed.
The end for Paul would be death, as it was for the Jesus he served. We don’t know what our end is when we serve those who make us uncomfortable and resist those who make us comfortable. And yet that is our call.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #264, At the Name of Jesus; #—, Take On the Mind of Christ
Grace Presbyterian Church
September 20, 2020, Pentecost 16A (prerecorded)
The Revised Common Lectionary offers an opportunity for a brief trip through a brief book of the New Testament, Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. This is, aside from perhaps the very short personal letter to Philemon, perhaps the most unique of Paul’s letters recorded in scripture in at least one very noteworthy way: there isn’t really a big problem going on in the church when Paul writes to it.
Consider: the situation with the Romans was fraught with the fact that Paul didn’t found or help found that church, and indeed had never even been there; why would they trust him? The letters to the Corinthians are full of Paul struggling to correct that church’s misconceptions about living as the body of Christ. The church at Thessalonica, recipient of Paul’s earliest letters, is growing concerned and perhaps even despairing as the anticipated quick return of Christ hasn’t happened and members are starting to die, forcing Paul to do some theology-on-the-fly to reassure them. As for the church in Galatia, their tendency to get hornswoggled by false apostles produces an epistle from Paul that very early (just six verses in) produces the sentence “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel… .” (Later in that same letter, 3:1, comes the terse exclamation “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?”)
By contrast, the folks at Philippi still held Paul in warmest regard, and had sent one of their own, Epaphroditus, to minister to him during his time of imprisonment (and had apparently sent some other support with him to Paul as well). There was no obvious schism or straying in the congregation, and if there was any upset among them it seemed to be more about their concern for Paul than about anything among themselves.
Perhaps as a result Paul seems to be more comfortable opening up to the folks at Philippi about where he was both physically (in prison again) and emotionally. It’s the kind of revealing that might have gotten Paul directed towards therapy if he were to have expressed it in such a fashion today. This first sentence, in verse 21, is more or less sound theology, even if it was still a formative idea at the time. The idea that death was anything other than endless nothingness or a blank space or even some kind of eternal torment was still being worked out among the early Christians, but the idea that there was something and even something good (think of Jesus’s words at the beginning of John 14, for example) was there for the struggling, and Paul is found here grappling with it. This statement itself is not the cause for concern.
What comes in the following verses, on the other hand, might have raised a few Philippian eyebrows. When Paul expresses his uncertainty between living and dying, or even that his desire was to “depart and be with Christ, for that is far better“…well, let’s just say that were I to write that in a letter to this congregation, I’d be hearing from somebody at the presbytery very soon, I suspect.
But Paul concludes quickly that his work on earth with the Philippians (and with other churches along his way, for that matter, though he does not say so here) is not done, and that he is bound to remain in the flesh, no matter the imprisonments or persecutions or other travails he might face. In fact, his purpose might be said to be bound up in those very troubles that he had encountered on his various journeys, including an imprisonment in Philippi itself recounted in Acts 16.
Philippi was described in that chapter as a “Roman colony.” That has a somewhat different meaning than we might think of in early American history, for example. Philippi existed to be many things in service of the Roman empire; a military garrison most likely, a home for retired soldiers, and a location more under the direct control and model of Rome than most other cities. It was a model city, so to speak, for the Roman Empire, with purposes both to demonstrate and perhaps to enforce the power of Rome.
In other words, it was not a good place to live if you were going to declare that anyone other than Caesar was Lord. And guess what the Philippians were called to do, just like Christians in other parts of that empire, just like Christians living today in this particular empire?
The resolution takes root and begins to set the tone for this letter in verse 27. For the Philippians, the relatively stress-free nature of their existence as a church belied their status as a Christian church situated in this Roman-colony city. To “live…in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” was going to come into conflict with a city expressly dedicated to the notion that Caesar was Lord and the Empire was above all. To say that Jesus is Lord is to deny that Caesar (any Caesar of any age) is Lord, and that’s going to get you into conflict inevitably.
Therefore, standing together and living in that way worthy of the Gospel was both a form of bearing witness to the Lordship of Christ and of resisting those who would deny it. But notice what Paul doesn’t say in this passage. There’s no talk of “holy war.” There’s no whipping up folks about raising up some kind of “warrior Christ” who would never be caught dead on a cross (literally, but also pun intended). There’s no talk of taking over the empire for Jesus or making sure to get the right judges or anything like that.
Instead there is the instruction to bear a good witness, to live worthy of the gospel, to be un-intimidated by those who opposed them, and to know that the struggle is coming.
One might recall Jesus’s instructions to his disciples in Matthew 10, including the bracing warning in verse 34 that he came “not to bring peace, but a sword.” Perhaps not much had happened yet to the believers in Philippi, though Paul’s own imprisonment there some time before had no doubt brought them much concern, and Paul’s current imprisonment elsewhere provoked worry again. But Paul knew, and made sure the Philippians knew, that to live as a follower of Christ in the teeth of the Empire was going to bring trouble – the “privilege of suffering for,” not just believing in, Christ. And the same holds true today, no matter what empire one is facing, whether would-be totalitarian government or would-be corporate monolith or would-be mass entertainment and sports complex or whatever seeks to claim our ultimate devotion that can only belong to Jesus.
“Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel…” Paul says it as if that’s such an easy thing to do. And yet that’s our call.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #846, Fight the Good Fight; #285, Like the Murmur of the Dove’s Song
Grace Presbyterian Church
September 6, 2020, Pentecost 14A (livestream)
The Life of Bread, The Bread of Life
I made fun of them so much when I first saw an ad for them, several years ago.
“The body of Christ, processed for you,” I cracked. “The recyclable, foil-sealed plastic cup of salvation.“
I am speaking of “pre-filled communion sets,” which consist of two small compartments attached to one another. The smaller one, typically on top, is just large enough for a small, thin wafer of the type frequently used for the Eucharist in some high-church liturgical traditions. The larger (but still small) container is filled with grape juice. (I have not seen any purporting to be filled with actual wine.)
When I first saw these advertised a few years ago, it seemed ridiculous. Even for taking communion to members of the church at home, it’s not hard to put together a small flask of juice, a few communion cups, and a small piece of bread. Paul Gillespie used to have a kit for exactly that purpose. Not hard. Breaking the bread and filling the cup worked just fine. What exactly was the point of these prefab sets?
Flash forward to present day, and these “pre-filled communion sets” are now probably the safest and least Covid-susceptible means of observing the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in person.
Don’t think the manufacturers and suppliers of these kits are unaware of this. The advertising has gotten so much more intense since the onset of the pandemic and necessary precautions surrounding it. Just this week such an advertisement from one supplier showed up in my email box with a new name for these kits: “The Miracle Meal.”
And for all that, whenever we are able to try to gather in person for worship and observe the sacrament, these kits will very likely be part of the meal.
The bread of life…broken for you.
The rice of life from heaven came
to bring true life from God above
Receive this gift; God’s mercy claim;
in joy and pain give thanks for love
Way back in Exodus, the wandering Israelites were in a hard way for food, and (as usual) had no problem letting Moses know about it. God heard their griping well before Moses did, and announced to Moses how he was going to deal with it. In the evening the camp was covered with quail just begging to be eaten, apparently. In the morning a fine dew covered the camp, and when the dew lifted, there was this … stuff. Verse 14 describes it as “a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.” Later, in verse 31, it is described as “like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.” The people looked around and said, “what is it?” That, in the form of the word “manna,” became the name of the bread of God’s provision. Each household gathered enough for that day, and on the sixth day each household gathered enough for two days, so that the Sabbath might be kept the next day. Each gathered just enough for that day, and no more (else it got all rotten and wormy). According to verse 35, the Israelites ate that “what is it?” for forty years, until they came to the land of Canaan.
The bread of life, given from heaven.
True rice the hungry world has fed,
the rice required for life below
Provide this gift, God’s mercy spread;
in weakness God’s compassion show
The folks who followed Jesus from the lakeside up to the mountain to which he had retreated knew all about the manna. The crowd is quick to bring that up to Jesus, once they’d finally tracked him down on the other side of the lake, after the truly miraculous meal in which five thousand had been fed from five loaves and two fish. Jesus, of course, knows what’s really going on with them; as he says in verse 26, they came looking for him because they got full, not because they saw what was happening. Then the crowd goes on to prove they didn’t get what was happening by asking for a sign, like the manna that had been given to the Israelites. It seems like some kind of serious gall to ask for a sign after five thousand people had just gotten fed from five loaves and two fish, but there it is.
There’s another story in the gospels where bread is part of a sign, so to speak. Luke’s gospel isn’t as big on the language of “signs” as John’s is, but what happens to those two disciples who met Jesus unawares on the road to Emmaus feels pretty sign-like. You remember, how those two didn’t recognize the risen Jesus from any of the teaching he did on the road, but recognized their Lord when he broke the bread?
It’s not hard to guess that bread provided a useful image for Jesus in his teaching and life not only because of that background story from Exodus, but also because bread was about as much a staple food as his people had. The harvesting and winnowing and grinding of grain was one of the most basic survival tasks of the culture in which Jesus lived and taught, and any reference to bread would quickly conjure up images and associations both historically theological and practical.
Perhaps it’s also not an accident that, in the time of pandemic-induced isolation that quickly spread through this country in the spring, one of the go-to “comfort activities” that started popping up all over the place was the baking of bread. I know my social media feed got overwhelmed with fresh-baked bread at times, and still does on occasion. Not only the staple comfort of bread itself, but the elemental labor of it – grain, yeast, liquid for mixing (I saw some interesting recipes for exactly what liquid might be involved in some cases), kneading and preparing, then the anticipation built into the act of baking.
So, for most of Jesus’s immediate audience, and many of those who have received this word across the centuries, bread is a captivating and meaningful way to speak of the word, to speak of God’s provision.
But is it that way for everybody?
The bread of life…given for who?
The rice of God for all is meant
No one who comes is turned away
Believe in Christ whom God has sent
In humble trust God’s will obey
Bread doesn’t conjure the same comforting and welcoming image for everybody. The kind of bread that seems homey and welcoming for many can be a difficult or even painful image, for example, for those who suffer from Celiac disease or other gluten-intolerance disorders. In awareness of that condition, the seminary I attended had instituted the use of a gluten-free bread for communion, with a recipe that managed to appeal to pretty much all tastes. I remember the bread being pretty good, although it could be a challenge to dip it in the cup without losing a chunk of the bread in the cup.
For some, the challenge of the image of bread is different. For some, it isn’t necessarily a difficult image, but one that just doesn’t have that much meaning.
J. Andrew Fowler, an American mission worker who served in Malaysia, found himself facing that kind of challenge. For the people among whom he served, bread simply was not a particularly important part of their diet. The true staple food, even the true comfort food, was rice. It was the food that connected families across generations, much the way a handed-down bread recipe might connect a family across generations (or even some recipe more varied, like Grandma’s secret method for making the best fried chicken). Rice was the stuff of life, to the point that a meal without rice, no matter how filling, simply was not satisfying.[i] The hymn that has been interspersed through this sermon was the result of this experience.
What such an interpretation does is bring us – bread-eaters or otherwise – to the ultimate point of Jesus’s saying in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life.” The point of such a saying is not to sacralize bread into some kind of idol-like mandatory representation of Christ or the word of God or whatever gift of God is being represented in the hymn or song or sermon. The point is not to heap shame upon those who can’t eat plain old wheat bread. The point is not to shove bread upon a culture that isn’t a big bread-eating culture as the only way to understand Jesus.
The point is this: Jesus is what sustains us. Jesus is like the food that keeps you satisfied, that keeps you alive. Not a “food” that destroys or ruins or brings illness or decay; the food that gives life.
The bread of life, that never leaves us hungry.
The food of life, that never leaves us hungry.
The living rice, for all a sign
Came down eternal life to give
Abide in Christ, the living vine
In Christ, with people die and live[ii]
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns: #460, Break Thou the Bread of Life; #500, Be Known to Us in Breaking Bread
[i] See Carl P. Daw, Jr., Glory to God: A Companion, 522.
[ii] “The Rice of Life,” Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, #524. Text: J. Andrew Fowler, 1983. Copyright 1990 Christian Conference of Asia (admin. GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission OneLicense #725345-A. Music: Tune BÍ-NîU, I-to Loh, 1984. Copyright 1980 GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission OneLicense #725345-A.
Grace Presbyterian Church
August 30, 2020, Pentecost 13A (livestream)
Psalm 26; Matthew 16:21-26
Don’t You Dare, Jesus!
It is very likely, even as a humble fisherman turned follower of itinerant rabbi, that Peter was at least somewhat familiar with the text we know today as Psalm 26.
Whether in the course of being in the synagogue on even a semi-regular basis, or as part of the education he received as a young Jewish boy, somewhere along the way Simon (as he would have been named) had likely encountered this text, one of pleading for understanding evidently in a time of struggle of some sort, whether of illness or oppression we cannot say for certain.
Psalm 26 as it is preserved for us, though, presents a challenge to read or hear with that theme in mind. On the surface, it looks, frankly, like a great big ol’ bragging session.
“Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering…“Look at me, God, see how good I’ve been? That’s not how it works, but you can see pretty quickly how it could be read that way, and you can darn sure bet that there are many who have read it exactly that way.
There’s no way, of course, to know if this psalm was somehow sneaking into the mind of Peter (as he was know known, as of a few verses ago) as he heard Jesus speaking to the disciples of his ultimate fate. Verse 21 opens with a significant shift in tone in Matthew’s gospel; the very words “From that time on” make clear that something is changing in the way that Jesus addresses and teaches his disciples (and by extension, we who read Matthew’s gospel); this man who Peter (again, only a few verses ago) had named as Messiah was to “undergo great suffering” and “be killed.”
This flew in the face of what Peter and his contemporaries had likely been taught to believe. Particularly under the occupation of the Roman Empire, understanding of the Messiah as read in prophetic literature had come to stress the belief that this promised one would be a forceful deliverer who would toss the Romans out and restore the throne of King David. It was a belief that was at least as much nationalist as it was religious, once that particular interpretation took root, but it was held no less passionately for that.
So when Peter hears Jesus teaching of his own suffering and tying (somehow it seems he didn’t pick up on the part where he would “on the third day be raised“), it flew in the face of everything he had known or been taught. And he reacted accordingly.
And for that, Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan!“
We should pause for a moment and remember that for Jesus to say this was no abstract insult. We need only to go back to the fourth chapter of this very gospel to hear Jesus use a very similar phrase – “Away with you, Satan!” in the face of a very similar temptation: the temptation to wield unchecked power, the exact kind of power to be expected of a messiah who was to throw out the hated Romans. Peter does what the tempter had done to Jesus? Peter gets called out the same way the tempter did.
Jesus follows up the epithet with a challenging set of instruction, beginning with the charge for those who would follow Jesus to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus is not a mascot to be used to fulfill our wishes, whether they be for political freedom or revenge or for holding on to our own privileged status in the world; those desires are inimical to taking up your cross and following Jesus, and Jesus won’t have it from Peter. Jesus has a work to do on earth; you can either get on board with it, or you can step off.
The next sentence intensifies and clarifies this claim Jesus demands of Peter. In the end your very life is the definition of your following. No doubt there have been countless souls over the centuries for whom the phrase “lose their life for my sake” has in the end been literal; the numbering of the names of the martyrs of the faith would be boundless. This is not, however, the only way such a charge can or should be read. Indeed, any conduct of one’s life that is based on “setting your mind on … human things” rather than “divine things” can be a way of “saving” one’s own life. Anything that pulls towards our own passions or prejudices or cravings, and away from the work to which Jesus calls us and leads us, can be a way of “saving” one’s life, only to lose it in the ultimate – to be cut off from and starved of life in Christ.
In the end, what Peter did, and what innumerable supposed followers of Christ have done since, is to hear Jesus’s call to take up your cross and deny yourself, to take up the lordship of a Jesus who submitted to suffering at the hands of those who despised him and death at the hands of those who feared him; to see and hear all that and to say, “don’t you dare!“
Don’t you dare, Jesus! You’re supposed to throw off the enemies who oppress us.
Don’t you dare, Jesus! You’re supposed to give me back what once was mine.
Don’t you dare, Jesus! You’re supposed to hate the same people we hate.
Don’t you dare, Jesus! You’re supposed to hold the same prejudices we hold.
Don’t you dare, Jesus! You’re supposed to give us power over our enemies.
Don’t you dare, Jesus! You’re supposed to exalt us and tear *them* down.
Don’t you dare, Jesus! You’re supposed to give me whatever I want, riches or fame or love or power or … anything but being a suffering and dying Messiah. Not that.
And Jesus’s answer to every such act of rebellion, as it always has been, is the answer he gave to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!“
To every clinging to power, to every clinging to hate, to every clinging to the things of the world, the answer returns: “Get behind me, Satan!“
It’s a temptation Jesus rejected long ago, and there’s no changing that. If we have not in some way foresworn those things in our claim to follow, our claim is hollow.
Particularly in a time given to the exaltation of greed and hate and power to abuse and destroy, there’s simply no room for anything but denying yourself and taking up your cross and following Jesus into whatever may come. And that’s the only way to find your life – to find a life worth the trouble and the struggle. The life we cling to is no life at all; the life found in Jesus is all life. The life “lost” for the sake of Jesus and the work of Jesus is the life that endures in fulfillment and truth and love and even joy, as strange a concept as that may seem. Anything else is but a pale, false shadow.
And so, in the end, the prescription it this: for Jesus’s sake, quit clinging to your old claims about what you want Jesus to do or be. For Jesus’s sake, don’t you dare become a stumbling block to the gospel. For Jesus’s sake, set your mind on divine things and leave those death-dealing human things behind.
For Jesus’s sake, lose your life.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #612, We Praise Thee, O God; #720, Jesus Calls Us
Grace Presbyterian Church
August 23, 2020, Pentecost 12A (livestream)
The Confession of Caesarea Philippi
Like many of the accounts of Jesus’ life in the gospel of Matthew, this story has a parallel in the gospel of Mark – or actually a predecessor, since it seems extremely certain that Mark’s gospel was written well before Matthew’s. In most cases the accounts are largely the same, but sometimes there are slight differences between the two, and sometimes those differences in wording or phrasing can be quite substantial in how the story gets read. This is one of those stories.
While Mark’s gospel describes the conversation recorded here as happening while Jesus and the disciples were on their way to Caesarea Philippi, Matthew records it as happening after they had arrived there – when they “came into the district of Caesarea Philippi” is how the NRSV renders it. For Mark, language of being “on the way” is frequent enough that it suggests an easy metaphor; the journey from one place to another becomes a representation of the journey of discipleship, the journey of following Jesus. For Matthew to place the discussion in Caesarea Philippi itself, similarly, comes freighted with meaning in a different way, having to do with the nature and history of that location itself.
The earliest history of this location seems to have been as what southerners might call a “stop in the road,” a location with a nearby spring for travelers on an important trade route between the port city of Tyre and the inland city of Damascus. The conquest of the region by Alexander the Great’s armies and the resulting “Hellenization” of the region added a new level of significance to that spring; it was quickly appropriated as a shrine to the Greek god Pan and the location given the name Paneas.
The subsequent occupation of the area by Rome added one more bit of significance. During the reign of Caesar Augustus, the local Roman puppet ruler Herod the Great (yes, both of those names are familiar from the Nativity story in Luke’s gospel) built a grand temple at the location in honor of his patron, the emperor (and perhaps also to overshadow the older Greek shrine). His son Philip expanded upon his father’s work, building a full-fledged city there. Thus the location became Caesarea Philippi – a city of Caesar belonging to Philip.
So this wasn’t just some anonymous town for Jesus and the disciples to stop for a rest. For Jesus to ask “who do you say that I am?” and for Peter to answer “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God” in this particular city of all places carried a weight of the words themselves – which are weighty and powerful enough, to be sure! But it’s one thing simply to say that “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God“, and another thing to do so in a location carrying the marks of three of the greatest obstacles to the human understanding of God:
- Empire – as the seat of political power in the area, Caesarea was as much the emblem of Rome as any city in Palestine.
- Idolatry – both the shrine to Caesar and the older shrine to Pan make the location an excellent stand-in for a whole host of “idols” seeking to detract from God – and remember, any religion can lapse into idolatry…and finally,
- Money – don’t forget that ancient history as a center on a trade route.
Given Matthew’s penchant for making everything in his gospel have some level of extra significance, it’s hard to believe he didn’t give extra emphasis to this conversation happening in this city. To claim Jesus, inevitably, is to reject these other claims on us.
On such an occasion it would be easy for someone like Peter to get a little puffed up and full of himself. Jesus’s words in response to Peter’s statement would go a long way towards getting Peter all puffed up, at least at first glance. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” Jesus says, and you can imagine Peter all flush-cheeked and waiting for Jesus to lay it on thick. But what comes next changes course a bit: “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Nice job, Rocky, but you didn’t come up with that all by yourself.
It’s a bit of humility we can all stand to take to heart. Even the ability to understand just a little bit, to catch just a flash of a moment of insight into what God is doing with us or in us or among us; even that is a gift of God, ministered by the Holy Spirit. This discourse from Jesus that follows, a part of the story not found in Mark’s version, becomes a necessary moment of instruction about our role in Jesus’s work in the world.
Peter made the good confession, yes. Literally across the centuries since then, Christians have sought to give words to the call of God upon the church, to put down, in that moment and in that place, what God was doing amongst them and how God was leading them. Many of those statements are found in our denomination’s Book of Confessions. Some of those confessions even reflect the place where they were written down – the Scots Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Declaration of Barmen, the Confession of Belhar, for example. In many ways Peter’s “Confession of Caesarea Philippi” is the forerunner of all of these, and Jesus’s disclaimer to Peter – “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you” – had better be true of any such statement that comes along, or it’s really not worth the trouble of writing it down. In the midst of all the idols the world offers for our adoration, it is the Spirit that gives us the answer, “Jesus is Lord.”
Verses 18 and 19 have frankly become lightning rods for disagreement within the larger scope of Christianity. For example, the statement of Jesus about “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” becomes a sticking point depending on what you decide about “this rock“; does it refer to Peter himself, an interpretation significant in Catholic thought and understanding of Peter as the forerunner of the papacy? Or does “this rock” refer to Peter’s declaration, a more widely held Protestant interpretation? All of what follows, about the authority represented in the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” and things being bound or loosed on earth, gets hung up in this particular thicket. And the final verse of this reading, one that is carried over from Mark wrapping up all of Matthew’s added material, makes less sense here than in Mark’s gospel, in which the so-called “Messianic secret” is a consistent theme. But perhaps it’s better to address that verse in next week’s message.
At any rate, the idols of Caesarea Philippi – empire, money, and even “religion” itself – still contend against the faith of those who would seek to follow Christ. And if we take nothing else away from this account of Peter’s confession, we must take this: we do not resist those temptations on our own, reliant on nothing but our brains or our heart or our emotional commitment or anything like that. We resist those idols because God gives, as God gave to Peter, the words to say and hear and do in order to follow faithfully and to live as Christ would have us live in a world that would rather us not.
For the good confession, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #321, The Church’s One Foundation; #—, Let Kings and Prophets Yield Their Name
Grace Presbyterian Church
August 16, 2020, Pentecost 11A (livestream)
Period. Full Stop. End of Discussion.
There’s a trope in Hollywood films – maybe not the most common, but frequent enough – that goes something like this: a person finds out they only have so long to live, and decides to throw all caution to the wind and live it up in the time they have remaining, possibly even checking off as many items from some so-called “bucket list” as possible along the way. In fact, one such movie was actually called The Bucket List, and it featured Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson as two cancer patients who…well, as the Internet Movie Database describes: “Two terminally ill men escape from a cancer ward and head off on a road trip with a wish list of to-dos before they die.”
As we come to the end of this little road trip through the book of Ecclesiastes, I have to suspect that Qohelet, our teacher/author on the way, would have two problems with that concept; perhaps the idea of a “bucket list” might be an example of misplaced priorities, but definitely the two men waited too long to enjoy life.
This final section of the book (not counting the epilogue that starts in 12:9) makes clear the most likely target audience for Qohelet’s teaching: like the preceeding book of Proverbs, the writings here are aimed at the young, though only here at the conclusion is that truly made explicit. One might in fact argue that 11:9 is the actual climax of the book and its teaching. All of the talk of “vanity” and “chasing after wind,” all of the words about toil and labor, all of the indignant complaint against the injustice of the world and the way the wicked get off easy, all of the urging to “eat and drink and enjoy your work“; it all comes together in the instruction of this verse:
Rejoice, young man, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.
Enjoy what God gives now, while you can, and go after what you want – but not to the harm and oppression and exploitation of others. It’s not the worst summary of Qohelet’s teaching, and it’s not the worst advice on living in this finite and fragmentary world, as long as that heart one follows is set on following and serving God.
The first verse of chapter 12 is another of those verses that might provoke the response “oh, I know that one, I didn’t know it was in this book.” Besides reiterating the counsel that has come, it marks a turning point: what follows is perhaps the most eloquently poetic and poignant prose in the book, even if it is incredibly sad and sometimes hard to interpret. The images that follow in verses 2-6 are wildly mixed and not at all uniform, and have provoked much spilling of ink by scholars seeking to pin down exactly what part of human decline is marked by which metaphor. Far be it from me to crack wise about the work of biblical scholars – that’s not my vocational path for good reason – but it seems pretty clear what Qohelet is about here, no matter what this metaphor or another specifically means. This is a poem of human decline and death, that thing that is awaiting us all, and which is never as far away as we are inclined to believe in the days of our youth. You might recognize some of those conditions described here, and some might be more unclear, but the force of this elegy is no mystery. We decline, and we die – or as verse seven puts it, “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.” Again, with Qohelet not interested in discussing afterlife or eternity in any form, this really is it, as far as his story goes. We live, we decline, we die. And that does seem the end of the matter.
Except of course for one more statement from Qohelet, a terribly familiar one by now: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.” Scholars who address this book describe this theme by reference to organ music, of all things. While the other themes of Qohelet’s teaching – enjoying what God gives, naming and calling out injustice and oppression, the unpredictability and inequity of life and others – sound out as melodies played by the organist, maybe in different registrations or manuals or with right hand or left, the “vanity” theme sounds as a constant throughout the book in the way a pedal point – a long, sustained note or a constantly repeated note, probably played on the organ’s pedals, played by the organist’s feet – sounds throughout a composition by Bach or some other organ master. The statement that “all is vanity” – all is fleeting, all is like a breath or a wisp or a fog or smoke, here one moment and gone the next – is the constant, against which all the other themes or ideas Qohelet sounds play out.
And for Qohelet, that’s really the last word. Apparently, though, somebody just couldn’t stand that.
Though a few scholars try to insist that the last six verses are really Qohelet’s own, the vast majority of scholarship regards verses 9-14 as an epilogue or afterword added by another, unidentified writer. There are good reasons for this: the writing style is quite different, the tone and use of language is not much like the rest of the book, and frankly this postlude sounds as if it doesn’t really like much of what has come before it. Little passive-aggressive remarks like the one comparing the words of the wise to “goads” or “nails firmly fixed” don’t suggest great comfort with what Qohelet has offered. The crack about the weariness of making many books and much study (to which every academic in the world replies “ya think???”) doesn’t come off as an endorsement; quite the opposite – it has the smack of “see where you end up if you think too much?” And most of verses 13 and 14 frankly sound like a attempt to put a more properly “churchy” spin on a troublesome book.
And on top of that, of all the gall, the anonymous epilogist tries to end all discussion with that phrase “the end of the matter; all has been heard.” Move along, folks, nothing to see here. No. Maybe “all has been heard,” but that’s hardly “the end of the matter.” Remembering that Qohelet doesn’t get to cancel out all the rest of scripture, we are also challenged to remember that all the rest of scripture doesn’t get to cancel out Qohelet and his thorny insistence on seeing things and naming things that don’t conform neatly to the boundaries of wisdom literature like Proverbs. Ecclesiastes isn’t going anywhere, and thank God for that. Having a voice in the wisdom literature that is willing to call out how human existence isn’t a sunny step-by-step guide to everyday perfection is a lifesaver on those days (or in these times) when life looks like a 5000-piece jigsaw puzzle with about 1000 missing pieces.
And for all that, Qohelet is a faithful book – perhaps one of the most faithful in scripture – in its dogged insistence on fearing God and enjoying what God gives in the face of all the “vanity.” In the face of a church that too often tries to force upon its people the idea that life is beautiful and sweet and perfect if you just have a little faith, Ecclesiastes offers only the harder and yet hopeful guidance: yeah, it stinks out there, especially right now. Have faith anyway.
For the hard, good words of Qohelet, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #819, Be Still, My Soul; #836, Abide With Me
Grace Presbyterian Church
August 2, 2020, Pentecost 9A (livestream)
Unpredictable Fate and Unwelcome Wisdom
In last year’s movie reworking of the 1976 classic Midway, one character asks another, a pilot who has already gained a reputation for unflappability under pressure, how he kept his cool in danger. The pilot in turn tells the story of a relative who worked for years as one of the crew helping complete the Empire State Building, in particular as one of those workers who regularly negotiated his way around and across exposed beams at heights of a thousand feet or more, without incidents or accident. That same relative, walking on a sidewalk, was killed when a cab lost control, jumped the curb, and “squooshed him like a bug.” The pilot wrapped up his story with the observation, “You don’t know what’s going to get you. So why worry about it?”
I doubt the character had today’s reading in mind, but it’s a pretty good summation of the eleventh and twelfth verses of this ninth chapter of Ecclesiastes.
If you were looking for Qohelet’s mood to turn more upbeat in this last half of the book, you’re going to be disappointed. If anything, the general outlook of the chapters turns bleaker at some points, particularly given Qohelet’s reluctance to consider anything beyond earthly life, or life “under the sun” to use a favorite phrase. Given Qohelet’s frequent observation of injustice and oppression from high places with no divine correction in sight, there seems little reason for hope. Corrupt people aren’t just going to stop being corrupt, and oppressors don’t just give up oppressing. Even ordinary folk tend towards wrong deeds (as in 8:11: “Because sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the human heart is fully set to do evil.”) Qohelet would look at today’s headlines and probably do little more than nod knowingly and resignedly.
Another change in this second half of the book is that much more time and space is given over to proverbs – short, contained wisdom sayings such as those characteristic of the preceding book of scripture that bears that name. The themes are frequently the same as those Qohelet has already addressed, but here are given in proverbs rather than discourses. They might make for quickly digestible instruction, but to be frank they’re not great sermon fodder. Hence you are invited to peruse them on your own time, especially sections such as the first half of chapter 7 and 10:1-11:4.
Chapter 9, though, does offer up a more extensive discourse on the futility (or “vanity“) of righteousness and wisdom. Nonetheless, Qohelet still insists that it is good and even needful to enjoy the gifts of God as they are given. In a passage that might be challenging to some folks living in pandemic isolation, Qohelet even seems to recommend dressing up nicely in 9:8 – “let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head.” – and enjoying life with your partner and enjoying the work your hands find to do, and to do that work “with might” in 9:10, a verse I’m pretty sure I had to memorize as a child.
Then comes perhaps one of the more recognizable passages of this book, opening up a brief reflection on life and its unpredictability – the one echoed by that pilot in the movie Midway. I suspect many folks have quoted or remembered some part of verse 11 without realizing where it came from – the elegant and somewhat wistful observation that the fastest and strongest doesn’t always win, and that wisdom, intelligence (notice how Qohelet gets that the two are not the same!), and skill don’t guarantee one any good thing. Our world fails to work that way, and we cannot know how “time and chance” will happen to us, and we still are reminded that “no one can anticipate the time of disaster.” Even with the greatest meteorological expertise in the world trained on this oncoming tropical storm (as it was when this was written), we still can’t know for absolute certain that it will or won’t make landfall in Florida, and we still can’t know for absolute certain that Florida will avert disaster even if it passes by. We’ve known sudden calamity before; we don’t doubt Qohelet’s words here.
What follows is a small parable with an apparent unwise translation choice in the NRSV Bibles found in our sanctuary. Where verse 15 is here rendered “he by his wisdom delivered the city,” the Hebrew is ambiguous enough that the translation might also be “he by his wisdom might have delivered the city,” which among other things would make more sense with the following verse. Times of calamity, when wisdom would be most valuable, in fact turn out to be the times when so many turn to fools and cheats and grifters and loud shrieking haters instead, and the calamity is multiplied. We see this all around us. Wisdom, particularly should it come from anywhere besides the rich and powerful, is disdained, mocked, and suppressed. And things get worse. To note verse 17’s proverb, we shush the quiet words of the wise and put all the microphones in the world in front of the shouting ruler enabled by fools.
You can see why Qohelet is down in so much of this book. Yet continually the counsel returns, as in verses 7-10 – eat your meals and enjoy doing so; drink your wine and enjoy that too (but don’t be stupid with that); get dressed up and do something with your hair even; enjoy your life with your partner; and do and enjoy your work with all the energy you’ve got. This is what we have before us, given of God, and all of the world’s foolishness should not take that away.
This should not, for us modern readers, be taken as an excuse to give up the things that the prophets and the law and the gospels compel us to pursue. We don’t get to ignore Amos’s thundering imperative to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a flowing stream“; we don’t get to forget Micah’s instruction to “do justice, …love kindness, and … walk humbly with your God“; and we certainly don’t get to dismiss Jesus’s parable-embedded warning about how what we do to “the least of these,” we do to Jesus. No. Ecclesiastes is not a one-way ticket to giving up, not as long as the rest of the Bible is still out there too. But it does remind us that to ignore what God does give us, the good provision of daily needs, the very creation in which we live and move and are part, the awareness of our finite place in God’s infinity; to ignore all of these is itself a form of foolishness, or of “vanity, and chasing after wind” – remembering also that letting God’s provision for us be enough also helps God’s provision for all to be enough for all.
Enjoy what God gives now, knowing that we do not know the hour of what calamity might come, and that “time and chance happen to … all.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #436, God of Compassion, In Mercy Befriend Us; #—, When Our Race Is Not the Fastest