Bible and Newspapers: 2 Kings 17

A Homily for ADOTS Morning Prayer, 30 Oct 2020

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“Preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other” is an axiom attributed to theologian Karl Barth.  I don’t know that he said exactly that, but he did say something like it:

“Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both.  But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”

That sounds good and reasonable and faithful, and it is; but what it’s not is easy.  It is a theological and homiletical tightrope, greased at that.  Only those whose balance is unshakable, whose instincts are honed and sure, whose wisdom matches their knowledge should risk stepping out on that wire.  Which means that I shouldn’t.  Which means that I’m getting ready to anyway.

Here are the twin problems, the equal and opposite dangers, that a preacher faces when holding Bible and newspaper together.  Either he reads the Scripture through the lens of what is most culturally current and pressing, which is, to some extent almost unavoidable, or else he imports and applies ancient words and norms to a modern circumstance that is not equivalent and to which they may not apply directly.  One error  uses the newspaper to misinterpret Scripture, and the other error falsely uses Scripture to bludgeon the newspaper.  I’ll probably commit both errors in what follows.

Samaria, the northern kingdom, has fallen.  Its sins were many:

2 Kings 17:14–18 (ESV): 14 But they would not listen, but were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the Lord their God. 15 They despised his statutes and his covenant that he made with their fathers and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the Lord had commanded them that they should not do like them. 16 And they abandoned all the commandments of the Lord their God, and made for themselves metal images of two calves; and they made an Asherah and worshiped all the host of heaven and served Baal. 17 And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger. 18 Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight. None was left but the tribe of Judah only. 

Here, I’m tempted to pick up the newspaper and make comparisons with Scripture,  Samaria to the United States:  both stubborn, both wayward and unbelieving, both disobedient to God’s statutes, both pluralistic, both idol worshippers, both sacrificing children to false gods.  Then, I would be almost forced to conclude that the Lord is very angry with the United States and is poised to remove this nation out of his sight.  And that may be, but the truth is that the United States is not Samaria.  God has neither called the United States as he called Israel, nor made covenant with this nation as he did with Israel.  God has not explicitly given the United States the same vocation as he did Israel:  to be a holy people, a kingdom of priests, and to be the instrument through whom God would redeem the world and make his blessing redound to all nations.  The United States in not Israel, which means the United States is not Samaria.  These words in 2 Kings were not written about the United States, though certainly they were written for it and for all other nations:  cautionary tales to which this nation should pay attention.  If Israel was to be a light to the nations, then we should see ourselves by that light and avoid the same dark places that made Samaria stumble and fall.

Here’s where I begin to see more direct comparisons between our newspaper and this biblical text:

2 Kings 17:24–26 (ESV): 24 And the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the people of Israel. And they took possession of Samaria and lived in its cities. 25 And at the beginning of their dwelling there, they did not fear the Lord. Therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them. 26 So the king of Assyria was told, “The nations that you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the law of the god of the land. Therefore he has sent lions among them, and behold, they are killing them, because they do not know the law of the god of the land.” 

The United States is not Samaria, and our citizens are not, by ethnicity, God’s covenant people.  We are much more like this ragtag band from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sephar, brought in to populate and tend a land not our own.  And, we’ve brought with us, or in many cases together we’ve created, our own gods.

2 Kings 17:30–32 (ESV): The men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, the men of Cuth made Nergal, the men of Hamath made Ashima, 31 and the Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak; and the Sepharvites burned their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim. 32 They also feared the Lord and appointed from among themselves all sorts of people as priests of the high places, who sacrificed for them in the shrines of the high places.

These are strange names and strange gods.  Ours are much more familiar, with common names, but no less idolatrous for all that:  Power, Wealth, Pleasure, Freedom, Tolerance, Race, Party, and a host of gods to whom we sacrifice our children — Choice, Debt, Busy-ness, Irreconcilable Differences.  And, each of these gods has its priests and priestesses, its temple prostitutes, its high places and shrines.  God sent lions among the new inhabitants of Samaria to kill some as a warning to all.  Have we no lions, no warning signs ravaging our land?  What of divisions along racial, economic, and party lines; violence in our streets;  economic collapse; plague; natural disasters?  I don’t know if any of these are from God; I’m no prophet.  More likely they are from the false gods that we worship:  spiritual and natural consequences for our rebellion against the God who created us, the Saviour who redeemed us, and the Advocate who would sanctify us, if we but let him.  The false gods are not impotent; first they deceive, then they destroy.

When the king of Assyria heard about the lions he perceived that the god of the land — he presumed that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was merely a localized deity over geographic Israel — he perceived that the god of the land was punishing the people for not including him in their pantheon.  

2 Kings 17:27–28 (ESV): 27 Then the king of Assyria commanded, “Send there one of the priests whom you carried away from there, and let him go and dwell there and teach them the law of the god of the land.” 28 So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and lived in Bethel and taught them how they should fear the Lord. 

So, let’s pull this together and wrap it up.  We are that priest — we, the Church — sent to our land, sent among the worshippers of the gods we see on every page of the newspapers, in every CNN and FOX News broadcast, sent to dwell among all the peoples brought hither to populate and tend this land.  We are that priest sent to dwell among this people to teach them the law — the Gospel — of the God of this and every land:  the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the ruler of all creation, and the head of the Church, to whom be glory now and unto the ages of ages.  We are that priest sent to tell them not of another god to add to their pantheon alongside their idols, but to call them to renounce their idols and embrace the one God, living and true, from before time and for ever.  We are that priest sent to proclaim that one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.  We are that priest sent here to cast down every idol, to root out even the mention and memory of their names, to destroy every pagan altar — first in our lives, in the lives of our families, and then, please God, in our communities and towns, our states and our nation.  This will not happen in my lifetime.  It will not happen in yours.  My daughter will not see the work complete.  It is the ongoing work of every generation until Jesus comes again on the last great day to judge the living and the dead.  But it must be done, and done by each us.  That is the priesthood of all believers.

Bible and newspapers:  that’s the story they tell.  Amen.

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Saints Simon and Jude, Apostles

Saints Simon and Jude, Apostles of the Lord

(Deut 32:1-4 / Ps 119:89-96 / Eph 2:13-22 / John 15:17-27)

Collect

Grant, O God, that as your apostles Simon and Jude were faithful and zealous in their mission, so we may with ardent devotion make known the love and mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today, I feel a special affinity for St. Andrew, first called of the Apostles of our Lord.  It’s all about Jesus’ feeding of the multitude.  On the hillside before him sit five thousand men, maybe upwards of ten thousand people when women and children are numbered, too.  Jesus tells the Apostles to give the people something to eat (Lk 9:13).  Andrew, at a loss for how to do this, looks around and finds a young boy with five loaves and two fish.  He takes this lunch, a pitiful little offering but all that he has, to Jesus and asks, even as he presents it, “What is this among so many?”

You know the rest.  Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and has the Apostles give it away.  Of course, this is an image of the Eucharist and of the Gospel, in which bread, and the Bread of Life, is taken, blessed, broken, and given away for the life of the world.  Then Jesus does the same with the fish.  Everyone eats.  Everyone is satisfied.  There are even twelve baskets full left over.

So, back to my affinity with St. Andrew.  I am presented with the Feast of Saints Simon and Jude today in the Church calendar and asked to give the people — you — something to eat, some word and wisdom to feast on.  And, I’ve got nothing.  So I look around for a kid with five loaves and two fish, and this is all I find:  Simon was known as the Zealot and Jude may also have been named Thaddeus.  Some think that Jude/Thaddeus also wrote the Epistle of Jude, but that’s highly questionable and disputed among scholars.  So, that’s it; that’s about all we know about these two:  their names and that they were Apostles.  I’m supposed to feed you on that pitiful fare.  Well, not unless Jesus takes it, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it away.

Let’s pray that he does just that.

The Lord be with you.

And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, who turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana and who fed the multitudes with fives loaves and two fish:  where you are present, there is abundance.  Take, bless, break, and give back to your people the small offering we have this day, that all may be filled and may take that which is left over into the world to feed others; to the glory of your name.  Amen.

Some of the Apostles did great things.  Peter first confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God.  He was given the keys to the kingdom and was made the chief shepherd of the Twelve.  John was the disciple whom Jesus loved.  He authored the most theologically rich and reflective of the Gospels, and he received his great Revelation while in exile on Patmos.  John’s brother James was the first of the Apostles martyred for the faith.  Matthew composed a record of Jesus’ life and teachings especially for the Jewish people, to present Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophets and as Israel’s messiah.  Great things, all.

But Simon and Jude — what did they do?  No one knows.  Oh, there are a few pious legends, but those are sketchy and highly uncertain.  So we are left with a blank, not even five loaves and two fish to work with.  What we do know — and really all we know with certainty beyond their names — is that these men were Apostles:

Luke 6:12–16 (ESV): 12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. 

Matthew adds that Jesus gave these twelve “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction” (Mt 10:1b), and that Jesus sent them out, first instructing them:

Matthew 10:5–15 (ESV): , “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. 9 Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff, for the laborer deserves his food. 11 And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. 12 As you enter the house, greet it. 13 And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14 And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. 15 Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.”

Jesus also warned them:

Matthew 10:16–23 (ESV): 16 “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. 19 When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. 20 For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22 and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” 

Simon and Jude took their part in this ministry and shared these hardships no less than Peter, James, and John.  They were not in the “inner three” but there is no reason to believe they were “inferior,” second-rate Apostles.  They were with Jesus from his baptism in the Jordan until his ascension and were witnesses of his resurrection (cf Acts 1:21 ff).  They were filled with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and, so we suppose, they went and made disciples of the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that Jesus had commanded them (cf Mt 28:19 ff).  

That’s what we really know about Simon and Jude:  that Jesus wanted them and chose them, that Jesus empowered them to act with his authority and in his name, that Jesus commissioned them and sent them out to proclaim the Gospel, and that they were faithful in their day.  The Church confesses that these two laid hands on faithful men consecrating them as bishops in Apostolic succession empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue the apostolic work in the next generation, and in the next, down to our own generation.  Simon and Jude were crucial links in the chain of faith and played their part in preserving it and passing it along unbroken and undefiled.  And that’s no small thing.  They did faithfully what Jesus asked of them, though no one remembers the details of what that was.

These are the Apostles for the rest of us, for ordinary people like me, and perhaps like you.  I’m no Peter, James, or John, no Matthew.  I’m just an ordinary follower of Christ trying to be faithful in my day.  No one will ever hear of me.  I’ll likely leave no record behind.  Years from now someone may well come across my name in the church records or see my name plaque on the columbarium and wonder why it’s there, what this person did or why he was important enough to even name.  And then they’ll get on about more important business.  But the fact is, like Simon and Jude, Jesus wanted me, want each of us and chose each of us.  He filled us with his Spirit and empowered us to act with his authority and in his name.  He commissioned us to go out into the world to do the work he has given us to do, to love and serve him as faithful witnesses, to pass on the Gospel whole and true to the next generation.  And that’s no small thing.

There is a passage in the apocryphal book of Sirach that means a lot to me and is fitting on this day, I think:

Sirach 44:1–10 (NRSVCE): Let us now sing the praises of famous men,

our ancestors in their generations.

2 The Lord apportioned to them great glory,

his majesty from the beginning.

3 There were those who ruled in their kingdoms,

and made a name for themselves by their valor;

those who gave counsel because they were intelligent;

those who spoke in prophetic oracles;

4 those who led the people by their counsels

and by their knowledge of the people’s lore;

they were wise in their words of instruction;

5 those who composed musical tunes,

or put verses in writing;

6 rich men endowed with resources,

living peacefully in their homes—

7 all these were honored in their generations,

and were the pride of their times.

8 Some of them have left behind a name,

so that others declare their praise.

9 But of others there is no memory;

they have perished as though they had never existed;

they have become as though they had never been born,

they and their children after them.

10 But these also were godly men,

whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten…

Of others there is no memory…but these also were godly men.  This is true of Simon and Jude:  of these two there is little human memory, but they were also godly men.  And, most importantly, they are not forgotten by God.  When we read the description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21, we find:

Revelation 21:12–14 (ESV): 12 It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed— 13 on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. 14 And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. 

Simon’s name is there, and Jude’s, carved into the very foundation stones of the heavenly city.  While our names likely adorn no heavenly cornerstones, no pillars or posts in New Jerusalem, they are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.  And that’s enough and more than enough.  Amen.

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James the Just, Bishop of Jerusalem, Brother of our Lord

Collect

Grant, O God, that, following the example of your apostle James the Just, kinsman of our Lord, your Church may give itself continually to prayer and to the reconciliation of all who are at variance and enmity; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Can you imagine growing up as Jesus’ brother?  Just picture an adolescent James with some sibling jealousy shooting off his mouth to Mary.  “Yeah, right Mom, Jesus can do no wrong.  I’ll bet he walks on water.  You treat him like he’s God’s gift to humanity!”  I don’t know about first century Jewish teenagers – whether they would have talked like that or not – but you could imagine that today, couldn’t you?  And, if James had the good sense not to speak up, I’ll bet he still thought it.

Now, I mean this humorously, but not flippantly.  The truth is that James – and the rest of the family – had some concerns that Jesus might not be in his right mind all the time.  On at least one occasion, the family attempted an intervention to bring Jesus home, fearing that he was “beside himself.”  James certainly didn’t believe in Jesus’ messianic pretensions, nor did the rest of Jesus’ siblings.  They even taunted Jesus to provoke him to go to the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, knowing full well that the Jewish authorities wanted to arrest him there.  There was a certain level of animosity in the household.

I suspect it got worse as tension escalated between Jesus and the rulers of the Jews.  If Jesus was slightly unorthodox, perhaps even radical, by established religious standards – he did play fast and loose with the Sabbath and associate with sinners – James did just the opposite; James was a Jew’s Jew who earned the nickname The Just by observing the letter of the Law, by praying for hours on end and by living as a devout and holy Israelite in whom there was no guile.  Having Jesus as a brother might well have sullied that reputation.

And then Jesus finally took things too far with his kingly procession into Jerusalem and that spectacle in the Temple.  He publicly, symbolically, challenged both Rome and the Sanhedrin; did he expect them to sit back and do nothing?  Was it really a surprise when he was arrested?  I wonder how James felt about all this.  Angry at the insult of Rome once again imposing its will on Israel?  Vindicated by the Jewish authorities’ rejection of Jesus?  Worried that the rest of the family might be drawn into this trouble?  Perhaps secretly glad that Jesus would be taught a lesson – until he learned the severity of that lesson, of course?

But crucifixion:  that almost certainly changed things.  Crucifixion was intentionally the most brutal, degrading, and humiliating form of punishment the Romans had devised.   And, in Judaism, anyone hung on a tree – and crucifixion is surely the most extreme example of that – was considered cursed by God.  Regardless of what James thought and felt about Jesus, the shame of crucifixion would redound to the whole family.  Could they even have returned home after that?

And, there must have been other worries.  Jesus wasn’t the first Messianic claimant in those days, nor the last.  When one of these died – was killed – the mantle of group leadership typically fell to the eldest sibling.  Was that James?  In the list of brothers – James, Joses, Jude, and Simon – James is listed first; he was probably the eldest.  Was he worried Rome would come for him next?

It could not have been easy being Jesus’ brother, either during Jesus’ life or at his death.

But, if James thought the story was over – that the cross ended things once for all – he was mistaken.  We have this from Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:  that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles (1 Cor 15:3-7, ESV).

And there you have it.  Jesus appeared alive again to James, and that changed everything.  Can you imagine James talking to his mother Mary after this?  “Jesus could do no wrong.  He did walk on water, didn’t he?  And he is God’s gift to humanity.”  This is a family whose dynamic was forever changed — changed by the resurrection.

So what became of James now that he had seen the resurrected Lord Jesus, now that he was forced to believe?  We next encounter James in Jerusalem, in the church, where he is the presiding elder – what we would call the bishop of the Jerusalem Church:  not one of the inner three – not Peter, James or John the sons of Zebedee – but James, the brother of Jesus.  Why James?  His choice as bishop may have been, in part, familial honor; Jesus is gone, so his next-of-kin is chosen to assume leadership of the group.  It may have been because of James’ good reputation and connections in the upper levels of Jewish hierarchy.  At this early point in its development, the church was sect of Judaism; certainly the Jerusalem Church was Jewish in ethnicity and character.  James might have been the perfect choice to induce other Jews to recognize Jesus as Messiah.

Because the Jerusalem Church was seen as the mother Church of the faith, it had influence far beyond the city.  When a controversy arose about Paul preaching to Gentiles and telling them the Gospel of Jesus was as much for them as for Jews, and that they need not keep the Jewish Law to be followers of Jesus, the opposing parties appealed to the Jerusalem Church to sort out the mess.  It fell to James to speak on behalf of the Church – not just the Jerusalem Church, but from the Jerusalem Church on behalf of the whole Church.  It was James who authored the letter to the Church in Antioch – which would be read throughout all the evangelized regions – expressing the will of the Spirit and the mind of the Church.  Gentiles need not keep the Mosaic Law in its entirety, but they do need to avoid sexual immorality, refrain from eating strangled animals, and remember the poor.  So, James the Just, the faithful and righteous Jew, sided with the Gentiles while still recognizing Jewish morality and culture.

But, it is in the epistle bearing his name that we best encounter James, I think:  his understanding of the faith, what was important to him.  His letter also provides a window into the early Church while it still bore its Jewish imprint, and yet it is as current as today.

In his greeting, James identifies himself not as “the Just,” nor as the bishop of the Jerusalem church, nor even as the brother of Jesus, but rather as “James a servant [slave] of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1a).  A slave of Jesus:  what a turnaround that is, and what humility it shows.

There are many important themes in James; a good homily might be simply to read the entire letter without comment.  It wouldn’t take long, and I certainly commend that to you on this feast day of St. James.  But, I’ll focus briefly on three major themes in the epistle, themes that the church needs to grapple with in every generation, not least in our own:  (1) the sin of partiality and the disparity between rich and poor, (2) the fallacy of faith alone, and (3) the destructive nature of human speech.

We have an ever widening gap between rich and poor in our world, in our country, and perhaps even in our churches.  It was the same in James’ experience, and he challenged the churches on this issue.  Are the poor welcome in our churches – really welcomed, not just as objects of pity and opportunities to show mercy, but also as equal brothers and sisters in Christ?  Is there any partiality shown to the rich, any favoritism?  Are the rich guilty – either actively or passively – in the oppression or neglect of the poor?  Do we exercise a preferential option for the rich, when God exercises a preferential option for the poor?  Listen to James.

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.  For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?  Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.  But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors (James 2:1-9).

In the church, we are called to impartiality, or perhaps even preference for the poor, whom God has chosen to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom.  Poor lives matter:  not just because all lives matter, but because poor lives are especially tenuous.

James was also concerned about the relationship between faith and works, as was Paul, as were the Reformers, though all of them were probably talking past each other about slightly different things.  Faith is essential – make no mistake about that – and James agreed.  But he also distinguished between living faith and dead faith, about faith which accomplishes something and faith which is empty and powerless.  Let’s hear James speak again.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?  So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:14-17). 

So where the Reformers say that we are saved by faith alone, James offers a firm corrective:  we are saved by living faith alone which shows its vitality in the work it does.  It is work that reveals the genuineness and living nature of one’s faith.  Notice again the particular example of faithful work that James uses:  feeding and clothing the poor Christian brother or sister.

Lastly, as if James were reading our newspapers, watching our television, and monitoring our social media, he condemns abuses of speech.  Beware the evil of the tongue.  James writes:

If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.  Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.  So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.  For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so (James 3:3-10).

This is enough to give you a sense of James and of his approach to the faith:  very down to earth, very pragmatic, and, might I say, very Jewish in its emphasis on mitzvot (righteous deeds).  We can get too abstract.  We can center the faith too much in our heads and maybe even in our hearts.  James reminds us that our resources, our hands, and our mouths are important too.

So, what became of James?  I’ll answer from the book Lesser Feasts and Fasts (2000):

James’ success in converting many to Christ greatly perturbed some factions in Jerusalem.  According to Hegesippus [2nd century Christian historian], they begged him to “restrain the people, for they have gone astray to Jesus, thinking him to be the Messiah … we bear you witness that you are just … Persuade the people that they do not go astray … we put our trust in you.”  They then set James on the pinnacle of the temple, bidding him to preach to the multitude and turn them from Jesus.  James, however, testified for the Lord.  Thereupon, they hurled him from the roof to the pavement, and cudgeled him to death.

James had a remarkable, cruciform life:  from disbelieving brother of Jesus to faithful slave of Christ and bishop of the Church; from staunchly Orthodox Jew to advocate for Gentiles; from taunting Jesus to risk death to his own martyrdom for the Lord Jesus Christ.  Thanks be to God for the witness of his life and death.  Amen.

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Nobodies

A Homily for ADOTS Morning Prayer:  16 October 2020

(2 Kings 7)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I’m Nobody! Who are you? 

Are you—Nobody—Too?

Then there’s a pair of us!

Don’t tell! they’d advertise—you know!

How dreary—to be—Somebody!

How public—like a Frog—

To tell one’s name—the livelong June—

To an admiring Bog!

That’s by my poet friend Emily Dickinson.  I like her work because it’s simple enough that I can understand it and rich enough that I can ponder it.  I like this particular poem for a couple of reasons.  First, because I’m a nobody like she thought she was.  I’ve faced it long ago:  ten years after my death, few will speak of me; fifty years after my death, few — if any — will even remember me:  a nobody.  Second, because she gives dignity to us nobodies.  And that reminds me that nobody is a nobody in God’s eyes.  If you can’t handle the double negatives, that means that everybody is somebody to God — even us nobodies.

If you want a new perspective on Scripture, follow the nobodies in the stories:  the slaves, the outcasts, the foreigners, the women, the poor, and — especially in our Old Testament reading this morning — the lepers.  Remember what St. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church:

1 Corinthians 1:26–29 (ESV): 26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 

God apparently has a special place in his heart, a special place in his purpose for the nobodies of this world — so much so that when the Word became flesh to dwell among us, he came as a nobody:  a redneck hillbilly from Galilee, a nobody from Nazareth.  

The story begins, as it almost always does, with the powerful.  The nobodies are lurking in the shadows; they come in later.

2 Kings 6:24–31 (ESV): 24 Afterward Ben-hadad king of Syria mustered his entire army and went up and besieged Samaria. 25 And there was a great famine in Samaria, as they besieged it, until a donkey’s head was sold for eighty shekels of silver, and the fourth part of a kab of dove’s dung for five shekels of silver. 26 Now as the king of Israel was passing by on the wall, a woman cried out to him, saying, “Help, my lord, O king!” 27 And he said, “If the Lord will not help you, how shall I help you? From the threshing floor, or from the winepress?” 28 And the king asked her, “What is your trouble?” She answered, “This woman said to me, ‘Give your son, that we may eat him today, and we will eat my son tomorrow.’ 29 So we boiled my son and ate him. And on the next day I said to her, ‘Give your son, that we may eat him.’ But she has hidden her son.” 30 When the king heard the words of the woman, he tore his clothes—now he was passing by on the wall—and the people looked, and behold, he had sackcloth beneath on his body— 31 and he said, “May God do so to me and more also, if the head of Elisha the son of Shaphat remains on his shoulders today.” 

The mighty, the powerful, the dreaded Ben-hadad, king of Syria, comes against Israel and lays siege to its capital Samaria.  The siege lasts so long and is so devastating that the people are reduced to cannibalism.  As always, when the powerful eat sour grapes, it is the nobodies’ teeth that are set on edge.  The king of Israel — It is fascinating that he is not named in this account; the king has actually become a nobody:  powerless, helpless, nameless. — the king of Israel blames God for this trouble, God in the person of his representative Elisha the prophet, whose head the king plans to remove from its neck.

The king sends messengers — and probably an executioner — to Elisha; apparently the king’s personal assistant, his captain, leads the delegation.  Elisha bars the door to his house and shouts out to them:

2 Kings 7:1–2 (ESV): “Hear the word of the Lord: thus says the Lord, Tomorrow about this time a seah of fine flour shall be sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley for a shekel, at the gate of Samaria.” 2 Then the captain on whose hand the king leaned said to the man of God, “If the Lord himself should make windows in heaven, could this thing be?” But he said, “You shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall not eat of it.” 

It’s easy to get lost in the units of measure and currency, but here’s what it all means.  Elisha says that the food which is scarce — nonexistent — today will be abundant and dirt cheap tomorrow and will be on sale in the open gate of the city.  In other words, the siege will be broken and the threat eliminated.  The captain — another powerful but unnamed figure — scoffs; not even the Lord himself could pull this off.  “Oh, the Lord will,” Elisha tells him, “but you won’t live to see it.”

Now remember, we’re waiting for the nobodies in the story, for the lepers.  It’s time for their scene in the play.  I love these guys; they are absolutely logical fatalists, caught between the proverbial rock and the hard place.  They almost serve as comic relief.  They are exiled outside the city through all this business, hemmed between the city gates and the Syrian army, with no food.  And, finally one looks at the others and says — pardon the paraphrase — “This is stupid.  Are we just going to stay here and starve to death?”  

“Well, what are our options?” the group asks.  “It’s not like we can go into the city.  They won’t let us in and even if they did there’s no food there either.  We’d be no better off.”

“Then let’s go to the Syrian camp where we know there’s food,” the first leper says.  “They may kill us, but, hey, we’re gonna die sitting here, and we can’t die twice.  Quick Syrian sword or slow starvation?  I’ll take the sword.”

And that’s just what they do; they march toward the Syrian camp hoping for scraps of food but expecting death.  They sneak in after dark and — and there’s nobody there.  Notice how the powerful king Ben-Hadad and his dreaded army have become nobodies as the lepers take center stage:  something about the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

Now the narrator breaks into the action to tell us what has happened, how the Lord confused the Syrian army and made the soldiers flee for their lives, tails tucked between their legs as we might say in the South.  But get this:  they fled so quickly that they left all their provisions behind, a whole armies’ worth of tents, horses, donkeys, silver, gold, clothing…and food!  And nobody there but the nobody lepers.  It’s Christmas and Santa has been good.  The lepers eat and drink and carry off gold and silver to hide it.  Then they eat and drink some more.  Can you blame them?

That’s the fun part of the story, but here’s the beautiful part.  The lepers begin to feel guilty about keeping all this bounty to themselves while their city — the very people who cast them out, remember — while their city starves.

2 Kings 7:9–10 (ESV): 9 Then they said to one another, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news. If we are silent and wait until the morning light, punishment will overtake us. Now therefore come; let us go and tell the king’s household.” 10 So they came and called to the gatekeepers of the city and told them, “We came to the camp of the Syrians, and behold, there was no one to be seen or heard there, nothing but the horses tied and the donkeys tied and the tents as they were.” 

So the city is saved by God acting through a bunch of nobodies, which shows that God is the true and only power that matters and that the nobodies are actually the somebodies in the story.  And now it’s time to tip my hand, to tell you what lies behind this homily.  It’s this that the nobody lepers say:

“This day is a day of good news.  If we are silent…”.  Now, help me out here, Ms. Dickinson:

I’m Nobody! Who are you? 

Are you—Nobody—Too?

Then there’s a pair of us!

Brothers and sisters, we are nobodies, all of us.  We are starving lepers who have stumbled upon a banquet.  We are sinners saved by grace.  We are enemies made sons and daughters.  We are paupers invited to the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.  We are nobodies, but we are the children of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ because our powerful God acted through his nobody Son to save all nobodies everywhere.  This day is a day of good news.  Isn’t that phrase beautiful?  This day is a day of Gospel.  If we are silent, the city, the state, the country, the world might well starve when a banquet — the banquet — is there for the asking.

The lepers took their lives in their hands — and probably some food, too — and went back to the city.  These nobodies brought salvation with them.  What will we do?  

Amen.

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Thoughts on the Election

No one has sought pastoral counsel from me as the election looms.  That does not surprise me.  The Roman Catholic faithful seem to value the spiritual guidance of their clergy on such matters:  not so Anglicans.  Ironically, the very body who united church and state under the monarch of England, seems most willing to divorce the two in our current milieu.  Perhaps that is uniquely American.

So, no one need read what follows since no one asked for it.  It is likely of limited value, if any at all.  I am writing it primarily for myself; writing helps me sort my thoughts.  I post it on the off chance that it might help another think through these difficult issues.

We must begin with hard truths, ones which we often dismiss to the detriment of clear, biblical thinking.  The United States is not Israel, our President (whoever that may be) is not the son of David, and our god(s) is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  We are not one nation under God — the motto notwithstanding — but are diverse and separate peoples under many gods and no gods at all.  If we do not understand this, we will not understand the nature of governance required of us.

Israel was, from its inception, a theocracy, a people ruled by God.  There were many vice regents:  patriarchs, priests, prophets, kings.  But God was the monarch.  This has never been the case with the United States, and it is not now.  We can argue over the extent to which the founders envisioned a nation influenced by the Judeo-Christian ethos and ethic, but this always has been a nation under law, under the Constitution, not under God in any meaningful sense.  Our most recent Supreme Court nominee is at least clear about that when she insists that her rulings will be based upon a strict, originalist reading of the Constitution and not upon her personal Christian faith.

Further, the multitude of churches notwithstanding, the United States is religiously pluralistic.  I would go so far as to say idolatrous.  Four gods share sovereignty in our national pantheon:  Mars, the god of power and violence; Mammon, the god of wealth and greed; Eros, the god of unbridled sensuality; and Moloch, the god most associated with child sacrifice.  We are not Israel and we are not the Kingdom of God; we are a pagan nation in which many Christians live.

What follows from these truths as Christians enter the polling place with fear and trembling?

First, we are exiles — resident aliens — in a foreign and pagan land.  Perhaps the most direct instruction on how we are to live as such is found in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles:

Jeremiah 29:4–7 (ESV): 4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Live.  Increase and do not decrease.  Seek the welfare of the city/nation.  Pray to the Lord on its behalf.  I do not believe that either Jeremiah or the exiles held out hope of converting Babylon, of somehow uniting that nation and its people to Israel as god-fearers.  Rather, they sought to live undisturbed lives, to worship their God, and to contribute to the welfare of their families and their communities.  The rest they left to God.  I suggest that this is the way we are to live, though we are also called to proclaim the Gospel not only with our lips, but in our lives.

This is perhaps the most we can expect from our nation now:  to leave us alone, to allow us to practice our faith, and to make possible our welfare and the welfare of our communities — all communities.  These modest — though challenged — goals will inform my voting.  I do not expect — though I pray for — a revival that turns our nation to God.  We have had great revivals, of course, but we have always remained a nation under law (Constitution) and not under God.  I do not look to a President or a party to lead or promote religious revival.

Perhaps the best we can hope for now is that our nation becomes a righteous pagan nation.  What would that look like?  It would look like equal justice for all people; care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger; restraint in the use of power; sexual morality; recognition of the deceit of our false gods; respect for and protection of all lives; and freedom for the people of God to practice their faith.  It would look like all that Egypt was not before God came in judgment and delivered his people.  It would look like all that Babylon will not be at the end.

No one candidate for President and no one political party embodies all these characteristics, promises all these blessings.  We live in Babylon (or Egypt) and not Israel.  Our President is representative of a political party and not a vice regent of God.  And so election decisions are difficult and complex.  Many faithful Christians will “get it wrong” in the voting booth — whatever that means — though none of us can say with certainty which ones those will be.  Prayer, humility, and faith are required going into the booth.  Prayer, humility, and faith are required coming out of the booth.  And grace — the grace to accept that faithful Christians seeking to honor God in their votes may reach a different decision than us on which candidate and party will guide the United States in becoming a more righteous pagan nation.

In the end, the nations of the earth — all Egypts, all Babylons — will be judged; Revelation 18 is a sobering prophecy.  The United States need not think itself exempt.  But, in the end beyond the end — in the end that is no end — there is yet hope for the healing of the nations:

Revelation 21:22–22:2 (ESV): 22 And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25 and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

22:1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 

Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

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Samuel Joseph Isaac Schereschewsky, Bishop of Shanghai

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Recently I’ve tried to disentangle myself from some of the Anglican Facebook groups, at least the ones that are hotbeds of controversy, discord, and acrimony, which is to say most of them.  Still, occasionally for reasons I don’t understand, a post from one of those discontinued groups pops up and catches my attention.  Recently, it happened; someone posted this question:

What is the most disappointing aspect of Anglicanism?

You see what I mean?  This question treats a hornets’ nest like a piñata; it is absolutely designed to be incendiary.  So, I just scrolled on by without reading any more, without engaging at all.  But, weak willed and weak minded as I am, I obviously did engage, because here I am talking about it.  And clearly I’ve been thinking about it.

There are so many possible answers to that question.  Don’t get me wrong:  Anglicanism is my home — the place where God has prepared me a room — and I love it.  But, the old home place does need some repair:  walls need painting, the garden could stand weeding, the roof leaks here and there, and crazy Uncle Ed needs a good talking to.  So it is in every part of God’s kingdom here on earth.  Still, the question hangs in the air:

What is the most disappointing aspect of Anglicanism?

I don’t know; there are so many possible answers.  A strange one came to my mind, and I’d like to offer it, not as the most disappointing aspect of Anglicanism, but as — well I think — a serious deficiency of piety nonetheless.  Now, I will acknowledge that many of the great minds of Anglicanism would disagree with what I am about to say:  Cranmer, Jewell, Law, Lewis, Wright.  Nevertheless, I think this is a deficiency of Anglicanism:  its refusal to make saints.  I don’t mean that Anglicanism lacks the power to form people into saints:  hardly.  Anglicanism has produced saints aplenty, and not a few right here among us.  I mean the refusal to recognize the saints it has produced.  Anglicanism lacks a process for canonizing saints.  Have you noticed that the saints we recognize at our Noon Eucharists are all pre-Reformation saints, which means they come from the time before the Great Schism (AD 1054) or else they are Roman Catholic or Orthodox saints:  not a single uniquely Anglican saint among the group.  We honor many modern Anglicans, but we do not call them saints.  Why not?  And, why do I think this is a deficiency?

The Why not? is pretty straightforward, I think.  Anglicanism formed in opposition to the accretions to the faith and abuses of the faith in the medieval Roman Catholic Church, not least the undue emphasis on the saints marked by pilgrimages, relics, and prayers to the saints.  Fair enough.  But surely the baby doesn’t have to be thrown out with the bath, though it often was.  Surely, there is a valid place for saints in the life of the Church.

Here’s why I think that’s important.  Saints bear witness to the truth and power of the Gospel.  The life of a saint is so countercultural — to all cultures of all times — so unexpected and unusual, that it makes no sense unless the person is mad or the Gospel is true.  And even the greatest critics of the Church can’t argue that all our saints are mad.  You’ve heard the old saying, I’m sure:  Truth is stranger than fiction.  Or, as Mark Twain said, “The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.”  That is the essence of the life of a saint:  it is a stranger than fiction; it makes no sense — unless the Gospel is true.

I thought of this as I reflected on the life of Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky (6 May 1831- 15 October 1906).  Here’s a man that few have ever heard of — of whom I had never heard until recently — who should be acknowledged as an Anglican saint simply because nothing but the truth of the Gospel can explain his life.

Our story starts in Russian Lithuania on 6 May 1831 where a son was born into a pious Jewish family, a son they named Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky.  Joseph was orphaned at a young age and raised by an elder half-brother.  This brother recognized Joseph’s promise as a student and provided him with a good education, preparing Joseph to become a rabbi.  While Joseph was in rabbinical school someone — God knows his name — gave Joseph a copy of the New Testament in Hebrew from the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews.  Why Joseph even read it only God knows, but as he read it, gradually his certainty grew that this Jesus he met on its pages was the fulfillment of the hope of Israel, that this Jesus he met on its pages was the Messiah for whom he longed.  

After further study in Frankfurt, Germany — where he added German to the Yiddish, Polish, and Russian he already spoke — and after two more years of study at the University of Breslau, Joseph emigrated to the United States in 1854.  A year later he was baptized and began to worship with a Baptist congregation.  He then continued his studies for a time at the Western Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania before joining the Episcopal Church and transferring to the General Theological Seminary.  His planned two years of study in the seminary didn’t materialize.  Instead, he volunteered for missionary work in China and, upon his ordination to the diaconate in 1859 he shipped out for Shanghai.  Do you begin to see why this story is too strange to be fiction:  a Lithuanian Jew studying for the rabbinate, is converted to Christianity by reading a Hebrew New Testament, travels to the United States for further study, becomes an Anglican, and interrupts his study to travel to China for missionary work?  You can’t make this stuff up; no one would believe it.

Joseph was ordained to the Anglican priesthood in China, transferred to Peking, and in 1861 began translating the Bible into Chinese.  Can you see why he might do that?  It was a New Testament in his own language — Hebrew — through which the Spirit worked for his conversion.  He started his translation with the Psalms, a good Anglican thing to do, and later translated The Book of Common Prayer into Mandarin.

In 1875, Joseph returned to the States for health reasons.  After two years there, Joseph was consecrated as Anglican Bishop of Shanghai (though he had frequently refused consecration) on the condition that the Episcopal House of Bishops would support him in the building of a college in Shanghai.  Two years after his return to Shanghai he founded St. John’s College.  He served as Bishop of Shanghai for six years until he felt compelled to resign for health reason; he had suffered a stoke in 1881.  He returned to the United States with the understanding that, when his health permitted, he would return to China to complete his translation of the Bible.

His health never recovered, but he returned to China regardless in 1895.  Now, get this:  following his stroke he was almost completely paralyzed and his power of speech was all but gone.  Yet, for twenty years — in the States, in China, and in Japan — he continued and completed his work of translating the Old Testament into Mandarin, typing out some two thousand pages with the middle finger of one crippled hand.  Not satisfied with this, he also translated the whole Bible into another traditional Chinese dialect, wenli.  Four years before his death, Joseph said of these efforts, “I have sat in this chair for over twenty years.  It seemed very hard at first.  But God knew best.  He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted.”  This doesn’t make sense to me, unless the Gospel is true.

In 1897 Schereschewsky relocated to Tokyo where he died on 15 October 1906.

I think, just maybe, Anglicanism needs a way to canonize such a man.  His life, like the lives of all saints, bears unimpeachable witness to the truth of the Gospel, because there is no other reasonable explanation for his life.  Schereschewsky’s life, in many ways, parallels the life of another great saint:  Saul of Tarsus.  Both were trained rabbis.  Both were struck down and changed by the word of God:  Paul by the spoken word of Jesus and Joseph by the written word of the New Testament.  Both gave themselves unreservedly to a people not their own for the sake of the Gospel.  Both suffered physical hardships and both recognized God’s providential care in and through what they suffered.  Both served the written word of God:  Paul by writing it and Joseph by translating it.  If Paul is a saint, then why not Joseph?  And, if these men can be, then why not us?

Let us pray.

Collect

O God, in your providence you called Joseph Schereschewsky from his home in Eastern Europe to the ministry of this Church, and sent him as a missionary to China, upholding him in his infirmity, that he might translate the Holy Scriptures into languages of that land.  Lead us, we pray, to commit our lives and talents to you, in the confidence that when you give your servants any work to do, you also supply the strength to do it; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.  Amen.

(Information taken from Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2000 and from Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Isaac_Joseph_Schereschewsky, accessed 10 October 2020.)

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Jumpin’ Jehosephat

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Jumpin’ Jehosephat!  That’s the way I said it when I was a kid, because that’s the way Yosemite Sam said it on the Saturday morning cartoons:  Jumpin’ Jehosephat!  I had no idea then what it meant.  It was just a big word that sounded cool, and you could use it pretty much whenever and however you wanted.  Surprised?  Jumpin’ Jehoseohat!  Angry?  Jumpin’ Jehosephat!  Happy?  Jumpin’ Jehosephat!

It was years before I learned that Jehoshaphat was a ninth century B.C. king of Judah, a good king — which was pretty rare — and one who followed in the righteous ways of his ancestor David and his father Asa.  But the Jumpin’ part?  Well, I’ve never really figured that out.  I’ve read the biblical texts closely looking for something that might explain it, but to no avail.  There’s no running, dancing, or jumping to be found in Jehoshaphat’s story.

So, here recently, I did what you do when you are stumped:  I googled it.  The first recorded use of Jumpin’ Jehosephat is from an 1866 adventure tale — Headless Horseman — written by British author Mayne Reid.  It appears as an exclamation with no particular explanation of its origin.  Somehow it caught on and entered the culture, particularly the pop culture of television sitcoms.  It’s most likely a euphemistic way of implicitly invoking the divine name without explicitly encroaching on its dignity:  “Jumpin’ Jehosephat” instead of “Jesus Jehovah,” much like “O Gosh” instead of “O God” or “Jiminy Cricket” instead of “Jesus Christ.”

I’ve been thinking about all of this recently since our Daily Office readings have camped us out in the life of King Jehoshaphat of Judah.  The preacher in me, wanting to find some good sermon hook, wants to make something out of Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat:  a jump is like a leap and maybe Jehoshaphat made some great leap of faith that I can glom onto for a homily.  But, no:  Jehoshaphat lived a steadily faithful life — a long obedience in the same direction as Eugene Peterson described such a life.  His father Asa had followed the Lord, mainly — not fully, but substantially enough to be considered one of the few righteous kings of Judah.  He had even taken action against his own mama for making “a detestable image of Asherah” (ref 2 Chron 15:16).  At the very end of his life, Asa went off the rails a bit, looking to Syria for protection instead of the Lord and jailing the seer Hanani for reproving him.  And, when he grew seriously ill, Asa refused to call upon the Lord and looked to physicians instead.  So, he died.  Asa’s latter day failures become something of a cautionary tale for his son Jehoshaphat.  

Jehoshaphat begins his reign well:

2 Chronicles 17:3–6 (ESV): 3 The Lord was with Jehoshaphat, because he walked in the earlier ways of his father David. He did not seek the Baals, 4 but sought the God of his father and walked in his commandments, and not according to the practices of Israel. 5 Therefore the Lord established the kingdom in his hand. And all Judah brought tribute to Jehoshaphat, and he had great riches and honor. 6 His heart was courageous in the ways of the Lord. And furthermore, he took the high places and the Asherim out of Judah. 

He appointed officials to take the Book of the Law throughout all the cities of Judah and to teach the people from it.  In an act of discernment Jehoshaphat sought out a true prophet of the Lord, even though he then failed to heed the prophet’s warning.  He established godly justice.

2 Chronicles 19:5–10 (ESV): He appointed judges in the land in all the fortified cities of Judah, city by city, 6 and said to the judges, “Consider what you do, for you judge not for man but for the Lord. He is with you in giving judgment. 7 Now then, let the fear of the Lord be upon you. Be careful what you do, for there is no injustice with the Lord our God, or partiality or taking bribes.” 

8 Moreover, in Jerusalem Jehoshaphat appointed certain Levites and priests and heads of families of Israel, to give judgment for the Lord and to decide disputed cases. They had their seat at Jerusalem. 9 And he charged them: “Thus you shall do in the fear of the Lord, in faithfulness, and with your whole heart: 10 whenever a case comes to you from your brothers who live in their cities, concerning bloodshed, law or commandment, statutes or rules, then you shall warn them, that they may not incur guilt before the Lord and wrath may not come upon you and your brothers. Thus you shall do, and you will not incur guilt. 

This is a good man:  not perfect, but a good man, a righteous king.  As I read his story, though, I keep waiting for the shoe to drop, for Jehoshaphat to go wrong in the end, as his daddy did.  And the opportunity comes, just as it had come for Asa.

2 Chronicles 20:1–3 (ESV): After this the Moabites and Ammonites, and with them some of the Meunites, came against Jehoshaphat for battle. 2 Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, “A great multitude is coming against you from Edom, from beyond the sea; and, behold, they are in Hazazon-tamar” (that is, Engedi). 3 Then Jehoshaphat was afraid…

This is the moment of decision, the moment in which his father Asa had failed and had sought help from Syria instead of from the Lord.  What will the son do?  We pick up the story:

2 Chronicles 20:3–4 (ESV): Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. 4 And Judah assembled to seek help from the Lord; from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the Lord. 

Jehoshaphat prayed a great prayer — you heard it in our reading this morning — a great prayer remembering the faithfulness of God, confessing his own absolute dependence upon God, and calling out for deliverance from God.  And God answered through the words of a Levite prophet:

2 Chronicles 20:15–17 (ESV): Thus says the Lord to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s. 16 Tomorrow go down against them. Behold, they will come up by the ascent of Ziz. You will find them at the end of the valley, east of the wilderness of Jeruel. 17 You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.’ Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed. Tomorrow go out against them, and the Lord will be with you.” 

And so it was that Jehoshaphat learned from the failure of his father.  And so it was that Jehoshaphat looked to the Lord.  And so it was that the battle was indeed the Lord’s — that Jehoshaphat’s part was to fast and pray and look on in wonder as the Lord fought for his people.  I love the way Jehoshaphat stood before the enemy armies:

2 Chronicles 20:20–22 (ESV): And they [Jehoshaphat and the army of Judah] rose early in the morning and went out into the wilderness of Tekoa. And when they went out, Jehoshaphat stood and said, “Hear me, Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem! Believe in the Lord your God, and you will be established; believe his prophets, and you will succeed.” 21 And when he had taken counsel with the people, he appointed those who were to sing to the Lord and praise him in holy attire, as they went before the army, and say, 

  “Give thanks to the Lord, 

for his steadfast love endures forever.” 

22 And when they began to sing and praise, the Lord set an ambush against the men of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah, so that they were routed. 

This is even better than following bagpipes and drums into battle!  The singers in holy attire — the choir! — led the way.  And it was when they began to sing and praise that the Lord acted to deliver his people.

So, what do I make of this story?  Taken together, the story of father and son, Asa and Jehoshaphat, lays before us the two ways that Scripture and the Fathers so often talk about:  the way of righteousness and the way of disobedience, the way of life and the way of death.  And that poses the challenge:  choose you this day which way you will walk.  Speaking as an elder in the faith myself — that is, as someone who is no longer young — I find it significant that this decision comes to both father and son in the waning days of their reigns and lives, at a time when power may be fading, when personal resources are diminishing.  What will you do as your time grows short?  When your own power and options are ebbing, can you acknowledge your absolute dependence upon the Lord?  Can you believe that, just as he has always been faithful, he will be faithful to the end and beyond?  This is an old man’s story and challenge.

But, there’s more here than that.  There is the response of leader and people when confronted with insurmountable threat.  Well, you can see where I might take this, right?  Our country, our world, is a mess.  Frankly, the difficulties we face seem to me insurmountable:  global pandemic, racism and violence, political and social divisions, economic downturn, natural disasters, climate change, international tensions, and the list goes on.  I have never been more pessimistic about the state of the world than I am now; of course, I’ve never been as old as I am now, and this story suggests that might have something to do with my attitude.  Don’t get me wrong:  I’m pessimistic that humans, in their own power and wisdom, have any chance to solve these problems.  That Enlightenment ship has sailed and sunk.  But, I am hopeful — as much or more than ever — because Christ is risen victorious and the battle is the Lord’s.  Now look:  I don’t expect our President — Donald Trump now and whoever will be elected in November — to call for national prayer and fasting and to humble himself publicly before the Lord.  Not going to happen.  But, I do expect the Church to do these things.  I do expect the Church to lead the way, to sing to the Lord and to praise him in holy attire, to go before the nations and say:

Give thanks to the Lord,

     for his steadfast love endures forever.

And, when we begin to sing and praise, to bow down and worship, the Lord just might act to deliver us — if not from our problems, then at least in and through them and out the other side.  He will act; he has acted.  The battle is his, and he is faithful.  In fact, we might even be surprised at the wonders we see.  Jumpin’ Jehosephat!

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I’m Tired, Boss

A Homily for ADOTS Morning Prayer:  25 September 2020

(Hebrews 13:1-5)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“I’m tired, boss. Tired of being on the road, lonely as a sparrow in the rain. I’m tired of never having me a buddy to be with to tell me where we’s going to, coming from, or why. Mostly, I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. I’m tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world…every day. There’s too much of it. It’s like pieces of glass in my head…all the time. Can you understand? …”

You may recognize that as a quote from the Stephen King character, John Coffey, in the novel and film The Green Mile.  Coffey is a giant of a black man:  simple-minded, gentle, gifted with miraculous powers, and awaiting execution for a brutal crime he did not commit.  I can’t understand the tiredness he felt, but something deep within me resonates with his sentiment:  “I’m tired, boss…Mostly, I’m tired of people being ugly to each other.”  

“Being ugly” is a Southern colloquialism; others may use it, but it’s ours.  It has nothing to do with looks and everything to do with behavior.  Pretty people can be ugly and often are, as if their good looks give them the privilege and right to be nasty to other people.  That’s what being ugly means:  being nasty or hateful or rude or mean or dismissive or any of a number of other unpleasant behaviors.  And like John Coffey, I’m tired of people being ugly to each other.

Recently, I left an Anglican Facebook group because I got tired of people being ugly to each other over things both grand and small, important and trivial, relevant and arcane — really over everything and nothing at all.  Now, I’m not saying I am morally superior to any of them.  I felt the pull toward being ugly myself and left the group — hopefully — before I gave in to that temptation.  I’m tired of people being ugly to each other.

I’m tired of people being ugly to each other over whether to wear a mask or not.

I’m tired of people being ugly to each other over issues of racial justice and which lives matter.

I’m tired of Trump and Biden and Pelosi and McConnell being ugly to each other — and to all of us — and I’m tired of their supporters and political parties being ugly to each other.

I’m tired of CNN being ugly to conservatives and Fox being ugly to liberals.

I’m tired of Protestants being ugly to Catholics and Catholics being ugly to Protestants.

I’m tired of Reformed Anglicans being ugly to Anglo-Catholics and both those groups being ugly to Charismatic Anglicans.

I’m tired, boss.  Mainly, I’m tired of people being ugly to each other.  Can you understand?

I’m tired because this is not the way it’s supposed to be.  I’m tired because it goes against the grain of the Spirit within each us, even as it gratifies the darker impulses within each of us.  I’m tired because this is not the better way, the true way of Christ.  But this is:

Hebrews 13:1–5 (ESV): Let brotherly love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. 3 Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. 4 Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. 5 Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” 

If there is an opposite virtue to the vice of being ugly, it must be showing brotherly love.  Saint Paul, or whoever wrote this epistle, doesn’t waste any time telling us about the nature of brotherly love; he assumes we know.  Most of us do.  Most of us have a sibling or a friend closer than a brother, someone who is like a second self to us, someone who could ask anything of us and it not be too much:  a Jonathan to David, a Mary and Martha to Lazarus.  Think about that person.  Can you imagine yourself being ugly to him, to her?  Perhaps, because we are fallen creatures.  But how it would grieve you until you had made amends and restored the relationship.  So, Paul, or whoever wrote this epistle, wastes no time describing brotherly love.  He simply says, “Let brotherly love continue.”  This is the characteristic he’s interested in:  the persistence, the resilience, the relentlessness of brotherly love.  Let brotherly love continue.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.  Now, we move outward from those who are like brothers to us, to those we don’t know, to those who might become brothers.  Such hospitality is a solemn duty in Benedictine monasteries; St. Benedict included it in his Rule, in Chapter 53:

Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, 

for He is going to say, 

“I came as a guest, and you received Me” (Matt. 25:35).

And to all let due honor be shown,

especially to the domestics of the faith and to pilgrims.

How can we be ugly to the one in front of us, if we are obliged to receive him or her as Christ himself, especially if that one belongs to the household of faith?  Mother Teresa considered and treated the destitute of Calcutta as if they were Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor.  That’s true Christian hospitality:  showing the stranger, the outcast, the despised the same care you would show Christ himself.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.

Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them.  I doubt that Saint Paul, or whoever wrote this epistle, had murderers, rapists, drug dealers, thieves, and other assorted miscreants in mind.  He was probably thinking about those who were imprisoned for the faith.  I could be wrong about this, but in context I think it makes sense.  Remember them.  Remember doesn’t mean simply to call to mind after a state of forgetfulness.  When God remembered the Hebrews in Egypt he delivered them from their captivity.  Remember means to take whatever action you can to deliver, restore, and comfort.  In Paul’s day it meant to send food to the prisoners, to visit them, to supply their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.  In our day it might look like supporting organizations that work on behalf of persecuted Christians, writing letters to petition governments for release of wrongly incarcerated Christians, lobbying our own government to allow immigration of persecuted Christian minorities.  In every day it means praying for those in prison as we would pray for ourselves if we were there with them.  And, I really might be wrong about the murderers and rapists.  I know a group in Knoxville — KnoxCAM, the Knoxville Christian Arts Ministries — who takes the love of God into regional correction facilities by proclaiming the Gospel through art and drama and music and dance.  Prisoners have become brothers and sisters in Christ through that ministry.  These artists, too, are remembering those who are in prison, as though in prison with them. 

Let marriage be held in honor…for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.  What’s the big deal about sex?  Why does God seem so interested in what goes on between consenting adults in the privacy of their bedrooms?  Because, as Saint Paul tells us, marriage is an icon of the relationship between Christ and the Church:  husbands loving their wives with the self-sacrificing love of Christ for the Church and wives being solely devoted to their husbands as the Church must be solely devoted to Christ.  In this allegorical image, sexual immorality is idolatry or apostasy.  But, there’s something else, too.  One of the worst ways of being ugly to a person is to use that person, to treat that person as something less than a person.  Sexual immorality does precisely that:  pornography, casual sex (whatever that means), coerced sex, prostitution — all of these treat the other, an image bearer of God, as a body to be used for one’s own ends.  Sexual immorality holds true commitment, full self-giving, at arm’s length.  It may, in some cases, seem beautiful, but it masks ugliness.

Keep your life free from love of money.  One of the memes of this time of Covid-19 says, We’re All In The Same Boat.  That’s a lie.  We’re all in the same flood, perhaps, but not in the same boat.  The rich are riding out the flood in yachts, the middle class on pontoon boats, and the poor are clinging to debris in the water just trying not to drown.  But, the poor are drowning by the score anyway.  They are the low-paid essential workers who must risk their health and the health of their families to serve the rest of us.  They are the ones most at risk of eviction, the ones most likely to have no health insurance, the ones infected at the highest rates, and the ones least likely to survive.  Here is the truth we all know, the truth that is crystal clear at the moment:  our society is based on love of money; that is the nature of capitalism.  It must not be so among us, not in the Church.  Keep your life free from the love of money.

“I’m tired, boss. Tired of being on the road, lonely as a sparrow in the rain. I’m tired of never having me a buddy to be with to tell me where we’s going to, coming from, or why. Mostly, I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. I’m tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world…every day. There’s too much of it. It’s like pieces of glass in my head…all the time. Can you understand? …”

Are you tired of people being ugly to each other?  There’s a better way.  Amen.

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Feast of Saint Matthew

Collect

Lord Jesus, you called Matthew from collecting taxes to become your apostle and evangelist:  Grant us the grace to forsake all covetous desires and inordinate love of riches, that we may follow you as he did and proclaim to the world around us the good news of your salvation; for with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Have you ever known someone who jumps on every bandwagon, who embraces every new fad that comes along, who always acts quickly and apparently without deep thought — a person with little concept of stability? “This is the greatest thing,” he/she says, and you’re thinking, “Yeah, the greatest thing since the last greatest thing you found and before the next greatest thing you’ll move on to.”  Change:  in our modern, first-world setting, we can do change; change is easy because we have expansive options.  Don’t like your boss?  Quit:  there are other jobs out there.  Tired of your wife or husband?  Try a no-fault divorce — irreconcilable differences or some such thing.  Disappointed in your church?  Leave.  There’s a church on every corner; you might even want to try a totally different denomination or even a new faith to see what it has on offer.

This ability to change and to choose — at least readily and easily — is relatively new to the human experience, yet another mixed blessing of the Enlightenment.  Even now it’s limited in scope and extent; the developing world knows little of it, nor do those burdened under totalitarian regimes.  It is primarily a Western, first world, democratic phenomenon. It seems natural to us, a self-evident truth: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Perhaps this is even the lens through which we read the calling of Matthew:

Matthew 9:9 (ESV): As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. 

Jesus’ bandwagon rolls by and Matthew jumps on it.  Is that it?  Is it as simple as that?  “I’ll try this for awhile, see what Jesus has to offer.  If he’s not the real deal, I can always find another job or maybe even go back to collecting taxes.”  Hardly.  Not in the Roman world Matthew inhabited.  This was the end of life as he knew it, and there was no going back.  Options did not abound for someone like Matthew.  Choosing was not something a tax collector did, and change was not really a viable option.  And yet Matthew did choose; he chose Jesus.  Matthew did change, did exchange the economic stability of the tax booth for the vagaries of discipleship.  That’s no small thing, and we are left wondering why he did it.  I don’t intent to play biblical psychologist and try to unearth Matthew’s emotional state or psychic motivations.  But his own writing — its structure and organization — does give us some important insight to this change.

Consider the way Matthew orders his account.  Chapters 5-7 present the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ great manifesto of the Kingdom of God.  For depth and breadth, for truth and beauty, there was nothing like it before and nothing like it since.  Jesus is the fulfillment of Moses and this is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.  

Chapter 8 focuses on Jesus’ power to heal and on his authority to command nature.  It begins with a leper:

Matthew 8:1–3 (ESV): When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. 2 And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” 3 And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. 

As a physical condition, leprosy was devastating.  But — you know this — it was also devastating from social and spiritual perspectives.  A leper was an outcast from society and could not enter the Temple to worship.  Notice what the leper says to Jesus:  “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”  I don’t want to make more of this than is warranted, but the leper did not ask to be healed; he asked to be made clean, which would allow him to go home, allow him to go to Temple.  Of course that required healing, but it was being made whole socially and spiritually that he longed for.  Is Matthew telling us something here?  Is he explaining his own motivation?  As a tax collector he was a social pariah in his community.  He could go to Temple, but his welcome was uncertain.  Remember the Pharisee in the Temple treasury who thanked God aloud that he was not like this tax collector.

Then, still in chapter 8, comes the tale of the Centurion who asks Jesus to heal his servant:

Matthew 8:5–12 (ESV): When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, 6 “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” 7 And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8 But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 10 When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. 11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Once again, this is the story of an outsider who is brought inside through his faith and the Lord’s mercy, an outsider whose faith exceeds that of Israel.  And notice the parable Jesus employs:  the outsider is invited to feast at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom, while the insiders are thrown out into the darkness.  Hold that parable in mind.

In chapter 9, some people bring a bed-ridden paralytic to Jesus.  Before anyone speaks, Jesus takes the initiative and says, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.”  Outrageous, blasphemous unless true.

Matthew uses these stories — the Sermon on the Mount, the cleansing of the leper, the welcome of the Centurion to the patriarchal banquet, and the forgiveness of the paralytic — Matthew uses these stories as prelude to his own call:

Matthew 9:9 (ESV): As Jesus passed on from there [from the healing of the paralytic], he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

In structuring his Gospel this way, I wonder if Matthew is trying to explain himself to his readers.  I wonder if he is trying to tell us that his decision to follow Jesus wasn’t impetuous or foolhardy.  I wonder is he is saying something along these lines:

I wanted some truth and some beauty — something beyond the power and greed of Rome, something beyond my own power and greed — something like the Sermon on the Mount.

I wanted to be cleansed like the leper, to be part of a community again, to be able to worship again.

I wanted to be welcomed at table in the kingdom of God, just like that foreigner, the Centurion.

I wanted to be forgiven just like the paralytic.

Matthew 9:9 (ESV): As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

Now, if I read the Gospel right, here’s a clue.  What’s the very first thing Matthew did upon following Jesus?  He hosted a banquet.  He sat down at table with Jesus in the kingdom of God, as someone who had heard the truth, as someone who had been cleansed and welcomed into community, as someone whose sins had been forgiven, as an outsider welcomed to Abraham’s table.

The account of that banquet is telling:

Matthew 9:10–13 (ESV): And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” 

Who receives an invitation?  Tax collectors and (other) sinners.  Who is excluded?  The Pharisees, the self-styled sons of the kingdom.  This is Jesus’ parable enacted, Jesus’ parable incarnate:  “Many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness” (Mt 8:11-12).

This is Matthew’s story as he told it himself.  I think he wanted us to know his story, and I think he wanted us to know that this could be our story, as well.

Looking for truth and beauty?  Follow Jesus.

Looking for true community, true fellowship, true worship?  Follow Jesus.

Looking to sit at table in the kingdom of God?  Follow Jesus.

Looking to have your sins forgiven?  Follow Jesus.

Matthew 9:9 (ESV): As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

Amen.

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Slave Labor

   In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The Bible is a difficult book:  complex, confounding, challenging.  Anyone who tells you differently has never read it, never understood it, or never taken it seriously.  It will bring you to your knees in repentance, and it will raise you to your feet in outrage.  There are passages that I wish had never made it past the editor, and there are passages to which I can only respond with great difficulty, “Thanks be to God.”  And yet, these very passages are the ones that I need to cast down the idols I have created, to destroy the  false images of God I have cobbled together from my favorite highlighted and underlined verses.  These difficult texts reveal some aspect of the nature of God or some depth of human sin that I would miss without them.  They are needful even if unwelcome.

The morning reading from 1 Kings is a case in point:

15 And this is the account of the forced labor that King Solomon drafted to build the house of the LORD…

20 All the people who were left of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, who were not of the people of Israel — 21 their descendants who were left after them in the land, whom the people of Israel were unable to devote to destruction — these Solomon drafted to be slaves, and so they are to this day (1 Kings 9:15a, 20-21, ESV throughout).

Solomon’s Temple, the House of the Lord, the meeting place of heaven and earth where God’s presence dwelt among his people, was built with slave labor:  with slave labor.  Do you find that disturbing?  I do.  And, the story grows even darker if you follow it back in time some two centuries.  These enslaved peoples — the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites — were the remnant, were all who were left, of the seven Canaanite tribes devoted for absolute destruction during Joshua’s conquest of Canaan:  genocide for the fathers, slavery for their children.  Do you find that disturbing?  I do.

Go further back still into the age of pre-history and you will find the origin of this antipathy toward the Canaanites.

Genesis 9:18–25 (ESV): The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) 19 These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the people of the whole earth were dispersed.

20 Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. 21 He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. 23 Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. 24 When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said,

“Cursed be Canaan;

a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”

And there it is:  Noah’s son Ham dishonored his father and the fate of seven nations was sealed:  genocide and slavery.  Do you find that disturbing?  I do.

If you don’t find this story disturbing, then nothing that follows is likely to make sense to you.  If you do find the story disturbing, what follows may still not make sense to you, but I think it is a biblical answer — at least a partial answer — to a few of the difficult questions this story raises.

Let’s start here:  genocide and slavery are the results of human sin, always and everywhere they appear.  There was no place for them in God’s good creation and there will be no place for them in God’s renewed creation.  There is no place for them now in the Kingdom of God.  That God commanded the destruction of the Canaanites is a confusing example of God drawing straight with the crooked lines of human sin, of God using fallen men and women in their fallen ways to nonetheless accomplish his good and perfect will of the restoration of all things.  I do not know how this will happen.  But, as Dostoevsky writes in The Brothers Karamazov:

I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.

I might nuance some fine points of Dostoevsky’s theology, but the heart of his statement is correct:  God will redeem this story of the Canaanites, will put to rights both the genocide and the slavery, not by condoning them or by dismissing them but by repudiating them, judging them, and redeeming them.  I believe this, in part, because this redemption has already begun.

The morning reading from Hebrews points the way forward.  The earthly tent of meeting — whether it was the Tabernacle wrought through the inspired craftsmanship of Bezalel and Aholiab or Solomon’s Temple exacted from the labor of post-genocidal slaves — the earthly tent of meeting spoke of the presence of God among his people, yes, but it shouted of the separation of God from his people.

6 These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section [the Holy Place], performing their ritual duties, 7 but into the second [the Most Holy Place] only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people.  8 By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (Heb 9:6-8). 

The way into the presence of God is not open as long as the former Tabernacle, the former Temple is still standing.  These served only as a reminder of the sin of Israel.  No  house built with slave labor is a fit meeting place for God and man.  And that means that no house built with human hands is a fit meeting place for God and man because all those who build it are slaves to sin.  Every human place of worship was built by slaves to sin as a reminder of sin.  But:

Hebrews 9:11–14 (ESV): But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. 

Through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) Christ entered once for all into the holy places.  The more perfect tent, the more perfect dwelling place of God with man, was Christ himself whose person was not made with hands, whose divine nature was not created.  And here images rush together and intersect to create a matrix of symbolic meaning beyond full human comprehension.  I’ve argued that no temple built by slave labor could be a fitting meeting place for God and man.  And yet, in the divine irony of God, his Son comes as that perfect meeting place — God with us — but, get this, he comes in the form of a slave, humbling himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (cf Phil 2:7 ff).  A divine slave comes to destroy the Temple built by slave labor so that we might have access to God the Father through him, freed from our slavery to sin.  This is judgment against genocide and slavery and the sin that gave rise to them.  This is the inauguration of Dostoevsky’s vision of the healing of all human suffering and the eternal harmony to be revealed in Christ at the world’s finale.

I want to speak beautifully, compellingly of this, but my words are too small.  I just know that there’s something here — someone here — and that that Someone is Christ, to whom be the glory and honor now and unto the ages of ages.  Amen.

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