Grace Presbyterian Church
November 10, 2019, Pentecost 22C
That’s Not How This Works
A few years ago, an insurance company ran a commercial set among a group of women who, we might say, would fit comfortably into the general age demographic of this congregation. One of the women was boasting about how, instead of mailing pictures of her vacation photos to all her friends, had saved herself time by posting them on her wall. Of course, a first thought to the social media-savvy might suggest she had posted them on social media of some sort, possibly Facebook or Instagram. Instead, the camera pans slightly and you see that the pictures are, literally, taped to the wall of her living room. One of the other women pipes up that she likes one in particular, but the third, one presumably more knowledgeable about such things, looks back and forth between the two incredulously. When the first woman boasts about having an insurance-related achievement in fifteen minutes, this third one retorts that she only needed half that time, to which the first responds, with a dramatic gesture, “I unfriend you.” Finally the third can’t take it anymore and, gesturing around the room, exclaims, “That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works!”
It would not at all have been out of line for Jesus to respond in exactly that same way to the question put to him by the Sadducees in today’s reading from the gospel of Luke.
The setting here is in Jerusalem, as we approach the climax of Jesus’s earthly life and ministry. It’s the type of scriptural text that the framers of the Revised Common Lectionary like to slip in toward the end of the liturgical year, a text that at least in some way looks forward to the life not of this earth but of eternity, or heaven or however one frames it.
In this case that particular framing comes from a faction in the religious society in which Jesus lived that didn’t even believe in such a thing. The Sadducees, a competing group to the Pharisees about whom we hear so much, are lingering on the edge of a conversation in which Jesus has just smacked down a group of scribes, or their lackeys as verse 20 suggests, with the response famous in its old King James rendering as “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” That group has beaten its hasty retreat, to the hooting and derision of the crowd, and this group of Sadducees steps up for its at-bat.
As verse 27 informs us straightaway, the Sadducees “say there is no resurrection.” This puts them at odds with the Pharisees, and is a product of their particular interpretation of what constituted “scripture.” While the Pharisees, for example, took the prophets and the Psalms as authoritative, the Sadducees only read the books of the Torah that way. The prophets and Psalms speak in at least some degree of resurrection, the Torah does not; therefore the Sadducees and Pharisees disagree. While Jesus butted heads with Pharisees often, on this point they were in agreement.
The Sadducees’ question is admittedly an absurd one, which relies on a particular allowance of Mosaic or Torah law. If a man died childless, his wife was expected to be married off to the next available younger brother, in theory as a means to provide for the widow, but frankly mostly so that the brother might produce a son to ensure the first brother’s legacy. In this trap question, the poor woman was put through seven brothers, each of whom failed to produce a son; when the hypothetical woman died, the Sadducees ostensibly wanted to know, whose wife would she be in the resurrection?
One could point out a lot of things about the beliefs inherent in such a question. One thing that cannot be overlooked is that it’s pretty clear that to these questioners a woman in such a situation is little more than a piece of property, more a subjected and captive character from The Handmaid’s Tale than a living, breathing human being and child of God and daughter of Abraham. The only thing that matters about her is whose possession is she for all eternity.
This all has to be qualified with words like “hypothetical” and “ostensibly” because in fact this batch of Sadducees weren’t really all that concerned with the answer. At the risk of including a second social media reference in the same sermon, they are trolling Jesus. The very asking of the question was its own end, namely mocking not even Jesus necessarily, but their Pharisee rivals and their oh-so-ridiculous beliefs about life after death.
The trouble is that these Sadducees, unlike modern social media trolls who can disappear in an instant and not be held accountable for the evil that they do, could not get away fast enough. In the end, they were just as humiliated as the scribes who got tripped up on the tax question. In the world of social media, one of the most common and usually best pieces of advice is “don’t feed the trolls,” or in other words don’t give anyone who is clearly engaging in bad faith attacks a forum for their lies. Jesus isn’t most people, of course, and he is quite well-equipped to drive these trolls back under the bridge.
First comes the harder lesson, one that we modern Christians might well have trouble with. This is where the potential “that’s not how this works, that’s not how any of this works” response comes in.
To sum up as best as possible, marriage is a mortal concern. People marry because for most folks, going through life with a partner is easier and more pleasant than going through life alone. That’s a pretty succinct nutshell argument for why marriage is a thing at all in the eyes of God, going all the way back to the Garden of Eden and God’s remark that it wasn’t a good thing for Adam to be alone. This matters because, to put it in as stark a term as possible, we’re going to die, all of us at some point, and such time as we have to endure on this earth go better if we can endure it with someone we love.
Those who share in the resurrection, on the other hand, are never going to die. Life is eternal in the presence of the Eternal One. The concerns of that old past mortality, worries about property and legacy and all that implied in the question, simply don’t matter. In that life the hypothetical woman is in fact a child of God and a daughter of Abraham, subject to no one else.
As much as we might not want to admit this, we don’t like the sound of this, not one bit.
Think about it. What kind of songs, for example, do we sing about Heaven? One example I can’t get out of my head is an old gospel number called “Mansion Over the Hilltop.” Perhaps you remember this one, maybe from Elvis’s version?
I’m satisfied with just a cottage below
A little silver, and a little gold
But in that city where the ransomed will shine
I want a gold one that’s silver lined
I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And someday yonder we will never more wander
But walk on streets that are purest gold
The second verse goes on to talk about wanting “a mansion, a harp, and a crown”. The question of what to do with a harp for all eternity aside, cue the lady from the commercial: That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.
The song does get one thing right; in that bright land we really will never grow old. Otherwise, the metaphor Jesus uses in John 14 (another King James concoction, the one about “In my father’s house are many mansions”), the one meant to communicate how the disciples do not have to worry about life after resurrection because all is provided and there’s room for everyone, gets hardened and fixed into a dogma that we can all pre-order our gold mansions for all eternity. I wish I were exaggerating more than I am, but I’ve seen it up close too many times.
All such things miss the point. Whether the Sadducees intended it or not, this encounter really is about the resurrection, and the resurrection is about God, and being in communion with God and with all who are in communion with God. The resurrection is not merely an extension of this life with better building materials; it is about being in resurrection with the God who has loved us and redeemed us in Christ. This is illustrated by the second part of Jesus’s response to the Pharisees, the one in which he uses their beloved Torah against them by citing the words of Exodus 3:6, right out of the Torah that the Sadducees cited as the only true scripture. When God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush, God doesn’t say “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob back when they were alive”; God puts it all in present tense. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Am. Present tense. Jesus elaborates that God is “God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” If God is their God, then they aren’t dead. Their lives are held in God, thus they live and shall live, and somehow that will hold true for us too.
How does that work? Beats me. Paul expended a lot of time and energy in his epistles trying to reassure the Thessalonians and the Corinthians about what resurrection meant and how it related to earthly life, which was to say not much. We get phrases like these from 1 Corinthians 15: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable”; or from “we shall not all die, but we shall all be changed”; or “for this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” How? Paul doesn’t even go there, nor does Luke, and I’m not going to either. But this is the work of God in us, redeeming us in Christ and preparing us through the Holy Spirit that when our time comes, when death comes upon us, it will not be the final word. What is mortal puts on immortality, and lives in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, really forever and for all time.
We human beings are wildly insecure. We have a terrible habit of substituting rigid belief for life-giving faith. We demand to know how it all works – witness all those preachers and pseudo-Bible scholars who insist on trying to calculate the date of the Rapture when even Jesus says he doesn’t know the day nor the hour. We don’t trust at all, when you get down to the heart of us. Are we ready to take Jesus seriously, and be “the living” that Jesus calls us to be now – to do Christ’s work in God’s world – and trust that our resurrection life is secured in God? Can we do that?
We are mortal creatures, subject to all the finitude and brokenness and decline that is the lot of all mortal creatures. But that is not our final fate, no matter whether we know how it works or not.
For the God of the living, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #353 My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less; #371, New Songs of Celebration Render (Psalm 98); #822, When We Are Living; #840, When Peace Like a River
Grace Presbyterian Church
November 3, 2019, Pentecost 21C (All Saints)
Ragged Saints and Right Gifts
Short people got no reason
Short people got no reason
Short people got no reason to live…
If it weren’t for the fact that Randy Newman didn’t write this minor novelty song until 1977, you might have to wonder if Zacchaeus heard this song one time too many in his life.
It’s not enough that Luke makes a big deal of Zacchaeus’s being a tax collector. In the culture Luke describes pretty much all along the way in Jesus’s life, being a tax collector was a surefire ticket to being hated and despised by, well, pretty much everybody. Even only a chapter before, in one of Jesus’s parables, we find a tax collector being lumped in with some pretty awful sinners – thieves, rogues, adulterers – by a super-righteous Pharisee. But that wasn’t enough; Luke had to tell the world Zacchaeus was so short he had to embarrass himself climbing a tree to see Jesus over the crowd.
But there’s something else true about tax collectors in Luke’s gospel; Jesus spends an awful lot of time with them. One of the first followers he calls is the tax collector Levi, the one known as Matthew in other gospels. After Levi is called, he gives a great banquet for Jesus, and a whole bunch of tax collectors show up. It becomes enough of a thing that the Pharisees complain about it; “why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” becomes their question as early as 5:30, and it apparently becomes a common enough complaint that Jesus refers to it in 7:34:
For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”
It actually works out pretty well for Zacchaeus to show up on this Sunday, both for the observance of All Saints’ Day in many churches and also as our own stewardship campaign approaches its climax. There is one hymn we could have sung today, the one that starts “I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true…” and goes on to describe just how wonderful and perfect those saints are as well as all the jobs they did (not to mention the one who “was slain by a fierce wild beast”!). You can go remind yourself of that hymn at #730 in your hymnal.
There’s just one problem, though; more often than not our saints have a ragged backstory to them, rather like our Zacchaeus here. When Luke tells you not only that Zacchaeus is a tax collector, but also that he’s rich, you’re being led fairly strongly to gather that those riches were ill-gotten, as was rather often the case with tax collectors of the era working for the Roman Empire.
The catch is, though, that Zacchaeus is hardly the only such saint in our heritage. We get a suggestion in the hymn we will sing after this sermon and before the Lord’s Supper, #506, “Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table!” Even as the “ancient followers appear” there in verse 2, we hear their own confessions of guilt and failure: “Peter tells of his denying Christ was ever in his sight; Paul relates his fruitless efforts to obliterate the light…” These are hardly the only such stories we could find in the Bible to demonstrate the clay feet upon which the saints walk. When we’re honest about it, we see that the saints in our own lives have their own feet of clay, and were, like we are, ragged sinners in need of forgiveness.
And as to that other occasion being marked today, isn’t it interesting that upon his encounter with Jesus, the first thing we hear Zacchaeus say is that he’s going to make right whatever financial wrong he has done? Or how, when Jesus called Levi, even as he gave that great banquet, he also walked away from all the wealth his tax-collector work provided?
It seems that when these ragged saints came face-to-face with Jesus, one of their first impulses was to know what was wrong with themselves in terms of wealth and possessions, and not only to know but to act on that understanding.
Those saints in our own lives, or more particularly those saints in the life of this church, seem to have been of similar mind. This is a small church, which I know pains many of you to hear, but it is not a poor church. The saints of Grace Presbyterian took care to leave behind a church that was well-supported and on a sound foundation. We would do well to follow their example.
That call to faithful stewardship also extends beyond the windows and walls of this church. Too many in our society have no chance, economically. When we go serve meals at Family Promise or St. Francis House, for example, many times meals need to be set aside for residents who haven’t gotten off work yet, sometimes from one of two jobs, and yet they’re homeless. We simply cannot hide behind some presumption that wealth equals virtue. Our resources must go out to meet those needs in the world, if we want to be able to face and follow Jesus at all with anything like Zacchaeus’s response.
Even the most ragged saints make their way to providing the right gifts. Whether or not we feel like saints, we can give like them. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #326, For All the Saints; #708, We Give Thee But Thine Own; #506, Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table!; #726 , Will You Come and Follow Me
Grace Presbyterian Church
October 27, 2019, Reformation
Decently and In Order
There are, in the broader life of the American church, two running jokes or maybe punch lines about Presbyterians. Or maybe three, if you count how quickly you can get a crowd of Presbyterians to call out “and also with you” just by saying “The Lord be with you” loudly enough for everybody to hear, but that happens in other denominations too. I know, it’s a little strange to think that there’s really anything funny about us, but hear me out.
One of the punch lines, more reflective of an “outsider” view of Presbyterians, is less a joke than a rather cold two-word description of us (supposedly). Maybe you’ve heard it? You know, how Presbyterians are all emotionless and unexpressive? That we’re … (wait for it) … the “frozen chosen”? Yeah, it’s an old one that somehow refuses to go away. Now if it meant we got special tickets for the big Disney movie premiere coming up about a month from now that might be something, but sadly that’s not how it works.
The other punch line, more of an “insider” view, might be regarded as a somewhat more kindly spin on the “frozen chosen” line. No, we’re not frozen, we might say, but we do believe in doing things “decently and in order.”
Hey, that sounds familiar. In fact, we just heard it in the last verse of our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. So we’ve got the Bible on our side after all.
All joking aside, churches in the Reformed tradition do in fact have a history of taking that particular fragment of scripture pretty seriously. It shows up in our form of governance, which was in fact a model for the organization of the different branches of government of the United States.
The order of worship today also reflects this concern for order. It is based on an order that was reconstructed about ten years ago to commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, the scholar and teacher who became the chief voice of theology in what came to be known as the Reformed tradition of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin was not the first such voice, far from it, but his formulation of ideas about theology and worship and the life of the church proved to be most influential and substantially accepted among voices in this tradition. (Reminder: it was John Knox, a Scottish student and follower of Calvin, who brought those ideas to Scotland, where they took root and grew into the tradition we now call Presbyterianism.)
Calvin certainly had ideas about worship, some of which have not been observed in our usage of today’s service. In the midst of searching for a new organist we’re not about to shut off the organ down for the day over a five hundred-year-old ban, for example, nor is the choir being shut down. Also, the songs we have sung in today’s service do mostly comply with his edict that only scripture was to be sung in worship, either psalms (as two of the songs we sang) or other appropriate selections (as the final song we will sing later). The one exception we are making there is, irony of ironies, for a text long attributed to John Calvin himself (although it’s not completely clear that he actually wrote it). To be fair, Calvin’s attitude about congregational singing did soften, just slightly, later in his career, but it is his early restrictiveness that endures as his reputation.
Otherwise note how much the service focuses on the word, or perhaps more accurately on words and on the person preaching them. It’s not clear that anyone besides the preacher presided in worship, so Clint got the day off from liturgy duties. Beyond the traditional use of the Apostles’ Creed, it was expected that the Ten Commandments were to be recited as well, either following the absolution from sin, as today, or after the creed itself. While we have spoken the Confession of Sin corporately and read the psalm in our usual responsive fashion, it’s not clear that either one would necessarily have been encouraged or expected in the churches of the early Reformed tradition. The preacher talked a lot, and everybody else…listened, and that was doing worship “decently and in order.” Oh, and one other thing; at least until the councils of Geneva nixed it, Calvin’s services would have included communion every week.
I guess choirs were considered disorderly? And really, that third song we sang earlier sounds awfully dance-like for a church all consumed with keeping order. For all of that, our more usual weekly worship is not dramatically different from this aside from the greater use of music. Things might be in a slightly different order, some elements are named differently, some things are missing, and the Ten Commandments have not persisted. (Personally, if I were starting a new tradition, I’d have gone with the Beatitudes – words of Jesus, after all – before the Ten Commandments, but that’s just me.)
But, if we’re going to get all excited about Paul’s words, maybe we should look at just what Paul was describing as doing worship “decently and in order,” right? It actually looks a bit different.
Look what is presented right away: “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation…” Whoa. Every person in this group somehow was expected to be prepared to contribute something to the worship of the gathered assembly. And it was not just about one person dragging in their favorite hymn every week and demanding that the assembly sing it every week. People were creating hymns or lessons for the assembly. These things – hymns, lessons, revelations, and so forth – were products of the Spirit’s work on the people on an ongoing and ever-renewing basis. Are you prepared for that?
Oh, and let’s get back to that “so forth” – tongues and interpretations, since Paul has a little more to say about that. If it happens, he says…no more than two, maybe three, and make sure they take turns properly – no one stepping all over another’s time. Frankly that’s good advice for speaking in a known tongue, much less an unknown one. And oh, yes, if there’s no one to provide an interpretation of what is to be spoken in tongues, then the potential tongues-speakers need to keep it to themselves (and God).
Then come the prophecies and revelations (we might think of sermons), and again it’s not meant to be a free-for-all. Two or three prophets might speak, one at a time, and the whole assembly – all the women and men, nobles and slaves gathered together – are charged to weigh and evaluate what is said. If one of the assembly is given a revelation by the Spirit in that moment, that one is apparently encouraged to speak, but otherwise even the prophets can take turns and wait for one to finish (and the assembly to weigh what is said) before another starts.
What kind of chaotic order is this?
The key, it seems, is found in verse 26 and verse 33; “Let all things be done for building up.” “For God is a God not of disorder, but of peace.” The gathering of the assembly for worship and instruction is not about who can come up with the best hymn this week, or who has the best revelation or fanciest tongue or cleverest interpretation. If these things are not offered all together for the purpose of building up the body of Christ, for instructing and encouraging and maybe admonishing as needed, then they are out of line. All the fuss about “order” is directed towards one purpose; allowing everybody gathered together the opportunity to hear, to reflect, to respond, and all in all to be edified. Jumbled discourse, one person piling on after another without any sense of order and organization, does not edify, and Paul figured that out.
This was apparently something the Corinthians struggled with. You might remember that elsewhere in this letter Paul has to reprimand the Corinthians for their conduct of the Lord’s Supper, which included a meal that some people got into early and ended up full and drunk and some ended up with nothing to eat – a pretty disordered way of doing such service. So being concerned with keeping things orderly and edifying makes sense in this case, and it’s not unreasonable that the church reformers of the sixteenth century would also be concerned about that.
We have to observe, however, that even the most orderly service does not necessarily edify or build up. An orderly service can be nothing more than ego-boosting for a power-hungry pastor, for example (and yes, those do exist). It can be a means of stifling any kind of individual thought in favor of hardened doctrine based on half-baked and hateful Bible-thumping and bad interpretation, which does happen sometimes. It can be, in the hands of the worst, a forum for emotional and spiritual abuse, with the obedient listeners being pounded repeatedly with their own awfulness and God’s unrelenting judgment, with no hint of God’s love or mercy.
Order isn’t everything. What the order is used to communicate matters. If order is nothing more than a synonym for “control,” then we are guilty of actively clamping down on the moving of the Holy Spirit. Seriously, if I (or any preacher) thinks that my words are all that matter in a service of worship, I need to quit. That’s not what this is for.
If our order is about anything other than building up, edifying, offering the opportunity to learn and pray and take in and respond and all of those things that equip us to be servants of Christ; if our worship is about anything besides that, we’re doing it wrong, and we should probably close up shop and head home. Chaos doesn’t edify anybody, but order itself is not the answer. What we say and do and sing matters, and matters intensely.
Obviously Calvin’s directives about worship eventually loosened up, even if only after his death. Eventually the church decided, for example, that hymns written by human beings inspired by God (you know, the way that human beings inspired by God wrote the Psalms) could be good for worship. Still, the Reformed tradtion maintains, for the most part, a concern for doing things “decently and in order,” and that’s all fine and good, as long as what we do with that order, and who we serve with it, matter more than the order itself.
For doing things “decently and in order,” and with love and mercy, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #624, I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art; #385. All People That on Earth Do Dwell; #261, Peoples, Clap Your Hands!; #545, Lord, Bid Your Servant Go in Peace
Grace Presbyterian Church
October 20, 2019, Pentecost 19C
Continuing a theme of hope found in last week’s reading from Jeremiah (even if not all of Jeremiah’s readers would have found it hopeful), the reading before us today speaks words of promise to the exiled people of Judea. And also as in last week’s reading, the words of hope are also words with an edge; in this case the hope comes with a renewed understanding of the responsibility of those with whom God chooses to be in relationship, and even to engage in the making of a new covenant.
In this passage, though, there’s a different wrinkle to be found, and it involves the odd little metaphor of old saying found in verses 29-30. It’s a curious metaphor that might not resonate well with us today, since by the time any grapes we get show up at the local supermarket we count on any bad ones having been weeded out long before. But the lesson of this old saying, which is being overturned in God’s message through Jeremiah, deserves a closer look.
In this old saying “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” we get a lesson on how this era viewed responsibility for generational sin. This particular bit of folk wisdom held that not only the generation that was unfaithful to God, but the generations that followed, were guilty of that unfaithfulness and subject to punishment for it. In this case the sin of the previous generation, the rampant infidelity to God and embrace of idols among the people of both Israel and Judah, had been stated many times over in Jeremiah’s prophecies up to this point, and his audience was living with the consequences of that infidelity in their Babylonian captivity.
But now, as Jeremiah proclaims, that old folk wisdom does not hold true. Just as God’s promise here includes bringing the land of Judah and Israel back to full life as in the first verses of this passage, so God’s promise sets the current generation free from being punished for the sins of the previous generation. You eat the sour grapes, your teeth are set on edge. This does not set any generation free from righting the wrongs of previous generations, mind you; no generation is ever immune from God’s mandate to do and demand justice and to make wrongs right, no matter who first perpetrated the injustice. But as far as responsibility goes for sins against God, you bear it for yourself.
And in this case, that “you” goes two ways. Never ignore that in the large majority of scripture “you” is a plural form of address. God speaks, through the prophets to all the people of Israel or Judah or both. Paul’s epistles are written to churches comprised of many people. Many of Jesus’s discourses are to full crowds following him around the countryside. You, as noted a few weeks ago, means “y’all.”
Here, though, there is an individual dimension. A nation or a generation, after all, is made up of individuals. It becomes the responsibility of each individual, therefore, to do her or his part for their nation or generation or church to live in fidelity to God and to the covenants God has made with the people of God.
That brings us to a word that comes up a good bit in scripture, but might bear a bit of exploration. “Covenant” gets defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “an unusually formal, solemn, and binding agreement,” or “a written agreement or promise usually under seal between two or more parties especially for the performance of such action.” Those are good modern definitions; the latter refers to the kind of covenant that shows up in the agreements found in your average HOA, for example. We can identify such covenant easily.
As it’s used in the Bible, however, that definition, particularly the first, is basically accurate but incomplete. The covenants found in scripture are certainly “formal, solemn, and binding agreements,” that much is true, but that hardly captures the full force and character of the covenants of God. What makes a difference in these biblical covenants, as opposed to modern, more legalistic definition of the word, is relationship.
Contemporary legal definitions of “covenant” do not necessarily imply any particular kind of relationship between the two parties involved. One nation, for example, does not have to be in any particular relationship with another to make a covenant not to go war with that nation. Legal contracts between individuals or companies don’t necessarily require those individuals or companies to be in any kind of relationship with one another beyond the basic execution of whatever is required in the contract. Do the job or complete the sale and then the two parties go their separate ways.
God’s covenant with God’s people is not like that. Whether it’s the covenant that God makes with Abraham way back, or the covenant God made with the Hebrew people and Moses in Egypt and at Sinai, or the covenant with David, one thing characteristic of all of these covenants is an ongoing relationship between God and God’s people. God stayed in relationship with Abraham through all manner of wanderings and searching; God stayed in relationship with the Hebrew people despite their complaining and rebellion; God stayed in relationship with David no matter how far he fell short as king and as person. Frankly, in every case the human party failed, and failed miserably at that, but the relationship didn’t end; God stayed.
So it shall be in this new covenant that Jeremiah proclaims to his readers. For one thing, it is a covenant with all of God’s children here.
Remember that the long-ago kingdom of Israel split many, many years before this exile into which Jeremiah speaks. After the death of King Solomon, his son and successor came under attack for his horrible leadership, and the one kingdom of Israel was soon split into two separate kingdoms, Israel to the north and Judah (including Jerusalem) to the south. Both of the kingdoms had been conquered by Babylon at different times. Jeremiah himself was of Judah, and worked primarily from Jerusalem; other prophets (Isaiah, for example) were based in the northern kingdom of Israel and spoke primarily to the people and rulers of Israel, whether locally or in exile.
Here, though, in an unusual move, Jeremiah addresses both Israel and Judah, promising in verse 31 that God will make a new covenant with both the “house of Israel and the house of Judah.” Old divisions don’t stand under this promised new covenant, it seems. So when verse 33 invokes the “house of Israel” in reference to this new covenant, it looks an awful lot like God is speaking inclusively of the two kingdoms, somehow reunited at least in the form of this covenant. The God who stays in relationship also restores broken nations and broken relations.
But there is something different about this covenant, or at least Jeremiah says there is – he does call it a “new” covenant, after all. There doesn’t seem to be anything different about the content of that covenant, however. There isn’t anything here that somehow suggests that the Law, all of that instruction and mandate that was so celebrated by the psalmist in today’s responsive reading, is going away or being modified in any way. What is apparently different is that somehow, in some way, this covenant is not an external thing, not about being a set of laws that are merely written down or carved on tablets. “I will put my law within them,” the Lord says, “and I will write it on their hearts.”
Even this, though, doesn’t seem completely new. Again, take a look at the psalmist and how the law is treated in that reading; “It is my meditation all day long … it is always with me … your decrees are my meditation.” Clearly the law is deeply ingrained in this individual. It isn’t about checking off a list of do’s and don’ts. It isn’t about passing muster with the outside world. God’s law clearly dwells within this person. The psalmist isn’t using the law as some kind of sadistic weapon to punish and brutalize others; the psalmist is living in the law.
Still, though, it’s hard not to wonder if this is one of those prophecies yet to be fulfilled. No matter how you define the “people of God,” do you really look around at the world and see people living as if God has written God’s law on their hearts? Even if you limit your search to the church, does that help? Do we really act like we know the Lord? On the large scale, not really. This just doesn’t seem to be a world with lots of people running around with God’s law written on their hearts. The psalmist would seem a bit out of place, really.
Still, the newness of this covenant matters because of that relationship. God is still in relationship with the people of God. And as you look at what Jeremiah describes here, this is a covenant that doesn’t have a provision for how we on the human end of it can even break it if we try. God is in for the duration with us, and we are still in relationship with God, no matter how unfaithful we may have been or ever will be.
Being in relationship with God, like it or not, also means being in relationship with each other. This whole business about “know the Lord” is, yet again, one of those plural things about scriptural instruction. We get a glimpse into it in today’s epistle reading in the instruction not only to remember what he learned but also from whom he learned it.
Even as we bear responsibility for our own comportment within our community, be it our own little church here or the larger church in the world or even our generation here on earth, we are also responsible to being in relationship with the God who continually keeps covenant with us. We instruct one another, at this point we still try to help each other to know the Lord, and we do this in ongoing and unbreaking relationship with the God who made us and who saves us and who continually redeems and sustains and refreshes us on the way. And we await the day when we truly will know the Lord.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #12, Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise; #53, O God, Who Gives Us Life; #833, O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go; #722, Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak
Grace Presbyterian Church
October 13, 2019, Pentecost 18C
Where You Live
In last week’s scripture, Psalm 137, we encountered an unvarnished portrait of grief, sorrow, and even rage penned from the perspective of one who had witnessed and possibly been carried off in the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and exile to that despised empire. We heard of course sorrow and even rage and burning desire for revenge upon those who had carried out the destruction of Jerusalem, the Holy City itself.
Today’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah comes from a long discourse directed for the most part to that same community; those who had been carried away into exile in Babylon, as we are told right there in the first verse of Chapter 29. Had we read verses 2-3, we would have been given a list of names of leading figures of Jerusalem who had been among those carried off into that exile, as if to confirm that Jeremiah knew exactly who he was talking to and exactly what their situation was. The prophet was going to leave no room for misunderstanding; this message, from God, is for you, there in Babylon.
It was probably important to make this clear, since the message Jeremiah was delivering here is one that his audience in exile absolutely did not want to hear one bit.
Since reading three or four chapters and then delivering a sermon on them seemed unwise, a little bit of context is warranted. Much of Jeremiah’s proclamation to Judah, both those in exile and those left behind in ruined Jerusalem, was one of those proclamations prophets were wont to give, and their hearers were wont to dislike: this is on you, you know. The prophet was incessant about reminding the people that their own infidelity, their constant turn to the idols and false gods of the peoples around Judah, planted the seed that blossomed into this disaster. Crying out for deliverance to the God the people had abandoned repeatedly and consistently was pretty rich, and Jeremiah didn’t hesitate to make that clear to the people of Judah. And let’s face it; nobody likes to hear this kind of thing, especially the more true and correct it is.
Another factor in the context of this message is that Jeremiah is not the only prophet speaking to the Judeans in exile. Among the number of those taken off to Babylon were in fact several prophets, particularly those who had been well-attached to the important people mentioned in verses 2-3. You might refer to them as “court prophets,” as they had a kind of official status not only in the Jewish religion but in the state of Judah as well. At the same time a number of similar prophets had remained behind – not taken into exile but still performing more or less the same function in the conquered and ruined remains of Jerusalem.
Those prophets, unlike Jeremiah, were almost unanimous in prophesying a quick and painless return for the exiles from Babylon. Of course, these prophets had been quick to dismiss the idea that the people’s faithlessness would have any consequences; God was gonna protect Jerusalem no matter what because we’re God’s favorites. Never mind all that whooping it up with pieces of wood or stone and calling them your gods, God is gonna step in and protect us no matter what. Of course, that hadn’t quite worked out, but that didn’t stop this particular batch of court prophets from doubling down on their failure and insisting that this would not last long; in fact one of the prophets in Jerusalem, a man named Hananiah, insisted that all this foolishness would be over and the exiles would be back within two years, tops. It was this kind of false prophetic stuff that Jeremiah was called out by God to rebut and denounce.
Actually, Hananiah makes a rather dramatic case study of the way those false prophets worked. Chapter 28 tells the story of how Hananiah came out with one of his prophetic statements, with the two-year window and all, directly to Jeremiah, and the scene is the kind of thing Lin-Manuel Miranda might set as a big rap battle in the mode of the cabinet meeting scenes from Hamilton. Now Jeremiah was something of a melodramatic fellow; he had taken to wearing a yoke on his neck and shoulders as a representation of the heavy yoke that was placed on the people of Judah by the Babylonian conquest and exile. When Jeremiah responded to Hananiah’s prophecy with, roughly, “I’ll believe it when I see it,” Hananiah took the yoke off Jeremiah’s neck (which couldn’t have felt good) and broke it before all those who were witnessing this prophetic battle. The Lord then instructed Jeremiah to tell Hananiah how wrong he had been and how bad the consequences were going to be both for the people of Judah and for Hananiah himself, and Jeremiah threw in that Hananiah wouldn’t survive the year. Sure enough, Hananiah was dead two months later.
All of this goes to emphasize that not only was Jeremiah proclaiming a message not in step with the prevailing prophetic current of the moment, not to mention out of step with what his hearers wanted to hear; Jeremiah was also doing this from a position of lesser status, an outsider to the power elites of Judah (such as they were at this point). Never mind how right he had been leading up to the conquest and exile; nobody liked him and nobody wanted to hear what he had to say. Power and influence were not his by any stretch.
Therefore, when Jeremiah came forward with the oracle recorded here in Chapter 29, what sounds so lovely and encouraging when picked and chosen as the lectionary does actually sounds pretty awful to those to whom it is directed. Build houses? Plant gardens? Here? In this godforsaken place? Get married, and marry off the kids? Are you nuts?
Now in verse 10, which we did not read, God delivers through Jeremiah his own timetable for the return of the exiles. However, it wasn’t (to the people) a terribly welcome one; the exiles would return only after seventy years. Seventy! How many of the exiles would even live that long? And then God has the audacity in verse 11 to say that he has plans for the people, for their good, even, a future with hope. Hope? Hope for after I’m dead?
Well, yes, hope for after you’re dead. Jeremiah’s oracle is, after all, not to any one individual. He is speaking God’s message to the whole people of Judah in exile. Build houses, and live in them, plant gardens and eat of their fruit, have families. How is that hope? Well, if the people in exile don’t do those things, will there be any people of Judah to return to Judah after all?
And let’s face it; the fact that the instructions that Jeremiah passes along are even possible says something about the situation of the exiles. They are in exile, and they are cut off from all they have known at least physically; they are in an unfamiliar land away from the comforts of home (given the religious infidelity of the people in advance of the conquest and exile, the strange temples and shrines around them should not be that much of a shock). But they could build houses. They could plant gardens. They could marry and raise families. They could live. And God told them to live. God also told them not only to live, but work for the success of the icky alien city in which they were to live. This is your hometown now, God says, you’d best work for its good, because your good depends on it.
There’s also another message going on underneath all this: don’t act like I’m not there. The people had become so accustomed to Jerusalem as the Holy City, the Temple as the seat of the Lord Most High, that they had fallen into the unwitting (or maybe even conscious) belief that God only lived in Jerusalem, only could be found in the Temple. The people needed to learn that being taken away from Jerusalem was no reason to talk about being cut off from the presence of God. God was still present to the people of Jerusalem, no matter how far from Jerusalem they were. In other words, the people of Judah in exile needed to learn God in a different way.
Take all this together, and there really is a message for us amidst all of it. Since I moved away from my hometown for good, I’ve not been settled in too many places. I lived about ten and a half years in Tallahassee (all but one of those with Julia) prior to a short stint in Lubbock, Texas, but only three years in West Palm Beach, four years in Lawrence, Kansas, and three and a half years in Richmond before coming here, where I’m about four and three-quarters years in. It’s hard to say that I’ve lived any one of those places long enough to feel like it changed out from under me, so to speak. I suspect it may be different for some of you. I’m guessing that there are some of you who have lived here for a very long time, and sometimes wonder if this is the same place you moved to. It’s possible to feel alienated in such a circumstance.
Christians have a tendency at times to react this way to the world. We are prone to lament the loss of an ideal time, say, when churches were full (but truthfully because it was socially mandatory to attend rather than for any great faith reason), when somehow everything seemed less crowded and less hurried in the world around us, and when everybody knew everybody (and everybody was alike, if we’re honest about it, which meant everybody was like us). It’s highly possible for churches to idealize and as a result fail to live in the world we live in, so to speak. We’re so past-minded that we’re no present good. We feel alienated and sometimes we proclaim that alienation proudly, in between yelling at the kids to get off our lawn.
The reading from Jeremiah doesn’t recommend that, and nor does today’s epistle reading. We have work to do, and work to do in order to prepare for that work. Our job, as this epistle reinforces, is to remain faithful, no matter the circumstance, to “endure everything,” and to prepare ourselves to give a good account of the Word we have been given. Our comfort in the world or the degree to which we feel like home isn’t a factor in our call. Minister anyway.
Minister anyway, and remember that no matter how much we might feel cut off or homeless or generally out of sorts, God is with us, leading us to keep living and calling us to remain faithful. You can’t ask for much more of a mandate than that, no matter where you live.
For the call to build and plant and live, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #41, O Worship the King, All Glorious Above; #54, Make a Joyful Noise to God! (Psalm 66); #39, Great Is Thy Faithfulness; #351, All Who Love and Serve Your City
Grace Presbyterian Church
October 6, 2019, Pentecost 17C
All Y’all. Even Them.
I won’t lie to you; for a long time I wondered why Psalm 137 was in scripture at all.
Oh, the first six verses are fine. It’s a beautiful evocation of the sorrow of those who had been carried away in exile after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. The images have become well known; the image of harps hanging on the willows, sitting down and weeping, or the lament “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” All of these at least sound familiar to us even if we’re not always certain where they come from. They are the kind of things you hear and say “I’m pretty sure that’s in the Bible…”
But those last three verses…yikes.
The image offered up there is horrifying, there’s no way around that. Also challenging is that unlike many other psalms of lament, this psalm never makes its way back to any kind of praise of God, or even any kind of acknowledgment of God’s mercy or goodness or greatness or even really any kind of acknowledgment of God at all. It just ends with that horrifying wish. This is not someone ready to hear the consolations offered up in our reading from Lamentations, this is clear.
And indeed, I’ve wondered why in the world this was included in the Psalms. Whoever compiled this collection could certainly have trimmed away those last three verses, right? How is this “divinely inspired,” exactly?
Sadly, the more I have to deal with news headlines, I think I might understand.
This lament is the voice of trauma. The singer of this psalm is a victim of whatever one might call the biblical-era equivalent of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Think of a New Yorker after 9/11 in 2001, or a citizen of Oklahoma City after the bombing of the Murrah building in 1995. The singer here, whether they are one of those carried into exile or one who was left behind in the destroyed city of Jerusalem, is living in that kind of trauma. Or maybe it’s a worse trauma, in that as much as New York and Oklahoma City were and are home to millions of people, neither one was a holy city. Neither was the site of God’s own Temple. The fall of the federal building or of the World Trade Center was traumatic, to be sure, but it wasn’t the locus of your faith that was being destroyed. Or one hopes not, anyway.
We’re only really beginning to understand how people are affected by such traumatic events. For example, the anxiety and fear of the days after 9/11 were found by researchers to have an effect on the children of that city, even those too young to understand the event itself. They knew, if nothing else, that their mommy or daddy wouldn’t let go of their hand anymore but kept clinging tightly if anyone was around at all; even that slight a change of behavior transmitted to children the emotional and psychological message something’s wrong.
While more research is still ongoing, some larger-scale horrors seem to affect not only direct victims, but the descendants of those victims, all the way down to the genetic level. Such an effect seems to have been found in the descendants of persons who survived the Holocaust. Now imagine how many such horrors might be leaving their mark of whatever kind on people in this world: more wars than we can count, the Armenian genocide of 1915, the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Or think of the descendants of the forced relocation of Native American peoples from the eastern US, including the brutal Trail of Tears forced march. Or think of the descendants of slavery. Traumas carried for generations, maybe not even fully understood by those who bear them.
That is the world in which we live, and that is the world with which Jesus calls us to share his table on this World Communion Sunday.
That kind of thing makes us uncomfortable, at minimum. We don’t know how to respond to it. We might be simply nervous, or possibly defensive, or simply unable to understand how they can’t just let go, as the council of the church too often offers up in glib unthinking.
Rev. Layton E. Williams, in the upcoming book Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save Us, writes:
…in our rush to put distance between ourselves and what troubles us, we end up putting distance between ourselves and other people whose realities make us uncomfortable. By refusing to see the full scope of their story we also fail to fully see them.*
We may be troubled or discomfited by the traumas of others for many reasons, but that cannot be a reason for pulling back from those who have known far greater or more insidious traumas than we can comprehend. It may be – in fact it’s entirely likely – that there is nothing we can do to alleviate the effects of whatever has traumatized the other; we just don’t have that kind of magic wand, and telling such people that everything would better if they just had more faith is a sin of the worst kind.
And maybe this is the lesson of Psalm 137; sometimes all you can do is be present. Be quiet. Listen. Maybe share the table of communion.
After all, if God can listen to this psalm, and not only listen but do whatever divine inspiring it took to get this psalm in the book, then it’s hard to see how we’re not called to listen as well.
For the most disturbing psalm ever, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #311, Here, O Lord, Your Servants Gather; #317, In Christ There Is No East or West; #525, Let Us Break Bread Together; #733, We All Are One in Mission
*Layton E. Williams, Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save Us (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2019), 111-12.
Grace Presbyterian Church
September 29, 2019, Pentecost 16C
Everything That Breathes
To this point we have given much attention to the practice of singing in worship, both by the choir and by the whole church. But as is the case in most churches, we do not rely solely on singing alone.
For fifteen years this church was graced by the work of Pat Roth at the organ, and sometimes piano. We are now searching for someone to take up that role in a time in which organists are somewhat scarce on the ground, while in the meantime Julia is stepping in to keep the instrument sounding and the choir accompanied. Both that organ and the piano are heard frequently in worship, whether in support of the choir or individually, and sometimes other instruments also make their sonic appearance in worship as well. The occasional tambourine or small drum or claves might sound in support of certain hymns; Jennifer might occasionally bring out a guitar for similar purposes; and verrrrrry occasionally Aidan Collins can be prevailed upon to play that fiddle in worship.
Of course, our church is hardly alone in this practice. Various congregations around our town support worship with organs and pianos of varying kinds, not to mention other instruments, possibly something approaching an orchestra in some cases, or some kind of smaller ensemble of instruments, or occasionally even a rock band. Go outside the boundaries of the United States, and you’ll find an even wider variety of instruments being played in support of the church’s song and in furtherance of its worship. In short, musical instruments tend to be common, if not outright prominent, in Christian worship.
It has not always been so.
In fact, there have been times in the church’s history when fearful church leaders actively forbade the use of instruments of any kind as a part of worship. Even the organ that has been so ubiquitous for centuries was disallowed in the earliest days of the established, post-Constantine church of the fourth century and a number of centuries thereafter. Later, once that had largely been overturned, reformers of the sixteenth century – not all, but some – sought again to banish instruments, even to the point of hacking to pieces magnificent organs that had been in place for centuries in churches that switched to the Protestant cause. Churches that followed Martin Luther’s lead were not among this number, as Luther was an enthusiastic supporter of music in worship, but sadly it must be acknowledged that Reformed churches in the tradition of John Calvin were among those who did forbid the use of instruments in support of worship.
How one could take such a view in the face of Psalm 150 is hard to fathom.
That instruments played a role in the worship of the Temple in Hebrew scripture is made clear enough by passages such as those from the books of Chronicles, whether the one we heard today from 1 Chronicles or the one from 2 Chronicles featured three weeks ago, both of which name harps, lyres, trumpets, and cymbals as instruments that were to be played, in today’s reading by “certain of the Levites” who were appointed to serve as “ministers” – that really is the word – before the Ark of the Covenant by playing those instruments.
It’s not an accident that those same instruments are named by the psalmist (The word translated in the psalm as “lute” would frankly have been more rightly translated as “lyre,” as it is elsewhere). It also seems likely that such a group of instruments represents in essence a full range of different instrument types – strings are represented by that lyre and harp, wind instruments by the trumpets, and cymbals represent the percussion. In essence, the psalmist is calling for an orchestra, or at least a full diversity of instruments.
That the psalm also throws in a couple of other instruments, tambourine and pipes, that are not mentioned in those ritual accounts in Chronicles is also interesting. The tambourine would have likely been most associated with dancing, as it is here, and similarly the pipes (what we would call flutes or recorders) were not associated with Temple ritual, typically. Along with the generic reference to strings, the inclusion of pipes and tambourine suggest that the psalmist is not merely interested in replicating the ensemble typically associated with Temple worship; this vision is far more expansive than mere tradition. It certainly seems that the psalm envisions every type of instrument available to humanity as being called forth for the worship and praise of God.
Such exuberant expansiveness seems to be reinforced by that last verse of the psalm, when at last even instruments are not enough and “everything that breathes” is invoked to praise the Lord. While one could argue that such a description really does apply to all those instruments in a sense, whether they generate sound by being blown upon like trumpets and pipes or by vibrations passing through the air like the others, ultimately there’s something much bigger at play. Our praise is situated not as a closed-off affair bound up in these walls; our worship and praise is but one small part of the praise of all creation, with every sound made by every creature of all of creation called forth in praise of its one and only Creator.
From such an expansive and all-encompassing perspective, the degree to which the variety of sounds of instruments in worship can seriously be limited is small indeed. Among other things, such an expansive view also helps explain why the organ became so typical of the music of the church; with its variety of stops and sounds available to the person using hands (and feet!) at the organ console, it is almost an orchestra unto itself. But indeed all of the instruments we can play can, used rightly, be employed in the worship and praise of God.
But what does that qualification mean – “used rightly”? Here it is useful to go back to those fearful old reformers, Calvin and his ilk, who sought to keep instruments out of worship. It is not to say that they had it right at all, but there is a caution to be heard that will always need to be remembered in the employment of all music in the church.
Calvin in particular echoed the fears about music in church that had long before been sounded by no less a figure than Augustine of Hippo, one of the leading intellectual lights of the early church. Augustine remembered how music affected him before he embraced the Christian faith, and feared that the power it had exerted over his emotions would be far too distracting or even overpowering were it to be used as part of worship.
They weren’t completely wrong to be cautious. Obviously humanity has come to believe that music, including music made on instruments, does have a kind of power to affect us in some fashion, even if not everyone is affected the same way by one instrument or combination or another. Let’s fact it, clearly we not only expect but enjoy the effect of an orchestra at its fullest, or the soaring tones of a jazz saxophone or trumpet, or the tight propulsion of a bluegrass band; otherwise we would not spend the money it typically costs to hear such an outfit whether live or on recording.
What then is our guard against such an effect in the music of the church? With sung music the text itself ideally steers our thoughts towards praise or instruction or admonishment, but what about instruments alone?
We actually can get a slight clue in that short excerpt from the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, a chapter we know is not about music at all but nonetheless makes an almost accidental point about the musical tones we make. This is of course Paul’s great discourse on love, but notice how he describes the absence of love in that very first verse:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
Paul is of course speaking about rhetorical power deployed without love, but note that the comparison he makes is to musical instruments, particularly instruments with the capacity to make a pretty significant noise. The one with all the rhetorical eloquence in the world speaking without love might as well be just somebody whanging away at that gong or smashing those cymbals with no rhyme or reason, just making noise. And let’s be clear, that is potentially extremely annoying.
However, in the context of, say, a big powerful symphony, those cymbals, say, become a powerful part of the effect of the whole orchestra deployed in the precise moment called for in the score. And so it is for the sound of the organ or piano or any other instruments played in worship; played within the context of worship in service to the liturgy and order of worship, they are good things. Blasting away only for the sake of their own sound, with no regard to the worship around them, those are less than good things.
The thing is that the same is true of the vocal parts of music in worship. If all we’re doing is singing just to hear ourselves sing, or to indulge in the sound of our voices or our favorites songs or styles or whatever, with no regard to the words of scripture or the prayers or all of the other components of worship, those songs are just as much noisy gongs or clanging cymbals as any sound any instrument makes.
In the end, then, what makes music in worship of any kind a good and even holy thing is the spirit and purpose in which it is offered. One might even borrow Paul’s idea that if indeed it is sounded without love, like Paul’s speaking in the tongues of angels, it is nothing.
As Paul will go on to say a chapter later, in 1 Corinthians 14:15, “I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also.” Our singing and our playing and our hearing aren’t random; they are given with full engagement of both soul and mind as a part of our praising God and worshiping God and teaching and admonishing one another. Singing and playing with the spirit and with understanding of what and why we sing; that’s when we truly are taking our part in the praise of God that sounds forth from “everything that breathes.”
For all the instruments, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): 645, Sing praise to God, who reigns above; 33, Praise the Lord! God’s glories show; 637, O sing to the Lord; 641, When in our music God is glorified