Archives for May 2015

Psalm 61; Proverbs 2:9–3:20; 1 Corinthians 12:12–26

Psalm 61: This David psalm of prayerful praise includes four famous metaphors of God’s protection juxtaposed in just two verses:

For You have been a shelter to me,
a tower of strength in the face of the foe.
Let me dwell in Your tent for all time,
let me shelter in Your wings’ hiding-place. (4,5)

The shelter that God provides is not just a escape from the woes of the world, but protection from our enemies. Although the enemies referred to in the Psalms are primarily other people–and that was certainly the case for David–I like to think there are other enemies from which God protects us, including ourselves. I have been protected these past six years from the potential ravages of cancer. Yes, medical science has played an enormous role in that protection, but so has God’s shelter–especially emotionally and  spiritually.

This psalm is about more than protection; it is about being grateful that God is with us at all times. Speaking of David, the psalmist writes, “May he ever abide in the presence of God./ Steadfast kindness ordain to preserve him.” (8) To me, this means not just the simple reality that God abides with his, but that we be conscious of God’s presence. For it is in this consciousness that we will do as the psalmist does, “So let me hymn Your name forever/ as I pay my vows day after day.” (9) Each new day is a gift; the awareness of, and our joyful response to, God’s abiding and protecting presence is how we should begin each day.

Proverbs 2:9–3:20: The recurrent leitmotiv of Proverbs is ho following God will bring wisdom to us and we will thereby avoid the snares and traps of daily life: “wisdom will come into your heart,/ and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul;” (2:10)

If we have wisdom, it will “save you from the way of evil,” specifically from companions “who speak perversely,/ who forsake the paths of uprightness/ to walk in the ways of darkness” and above all, from those “who rejoice in doing evil” and worse, those “who rejoice in doing evil.” (2:13,14) There’s little question in my mind that when we are surrounded by those who “rejoice in doing evil,” that we are likely to follow them. Which for me, anyway, explains the behavior of mobs and riots. It just takes one or two to inflame a crowd.

Then, there’s an explicit statement that if we’re wise, “You will be saved from the loose woman,/ from the adulteress with her smooth words…” (2:16). However, is it the man who is led astray by the woman? My guess it that the opposite is equally, if not more frequently, true.

In chapter 3, the theme turns to wealth and how we should use our resources, including the classic verse for a stewardship Sunday sermon:

“Honor the Lord with your substance
    and with the first fruits of all your produce;
then your barns will be filled with plenty,
    and your vats will be bursting with wine.” (3:9, 10)

Will we always reap more than what we give? If we give because our motivation is to reap, then I think the deal’s off. We’re trying to control God. But if we give willingly without a thought to what will happen, then I really agree with the poet and our figurative barns will be filled–and often in ways we did not expect.

Then, there’s psychic reward of wisdom itself: “Happy are those who find wisdom,…/for her income is better than silver, / and her revenue better than gold.” (3:13, 14) As I age I’m beginning to actually understand this: there is far greater satisfaction and yes, reward, in seeing the fruits of wisdom than in worldly goods.

1 Corinthians 12:12–26: This is Paul’s famous e pluribus unum speech about how wildly different people with wildly different skills and gifts are congealed into a cohesive community by the power of the Holy Spirit. Even though many modern and post-modern pundits and politicians think they invented the concept of diversity, it’s right here in Paul’s almost 2000-year old letter.

But it’s diversity to the glory of God, to a far greater purpose than I think how modern American culture society defines ‘diversity.’ Diversity must have a goal beyond mere inclusion or achieving some government-mandated level of racial and cultural variety. True diversity happens only when it is bound together by a common purpose–and there is no greater purpose than to worship together and then go into the world together as tangible evidence of the incredible love of God.

The other key theme here in Paul’s message is that to our eyes some gifts appear to be greater than others. That the gifted preacher is somehow more greatly esteemed by Christ than the janitor who cleans the pews after the service. We may think more highly of the preacher than the janitor, but that is assuredly not how Jesus Christ sees it.

And there are pernicious effects to disparate esteem given (or not given) to different members of the Body of Christ. The preacher begins to believe all the wonderful things people are telling him, and he/she becomes self-centered, even narcissistic. In the absence of kind words, the janitor may see his duties as worthless and suffer the consequences of believing he himself is worthless.

No wiser words have ever been written about the real purpose of diversity in the church: “ If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (26). If we are neither suffering nor rejoicing together, we are only pretending to be a community in Christ.

 

Psalm 58; Job 40; 1 Corinthians 10:23–11:2

Psalm 58: Alter warns us that with the exception of verses 7 and 11, the text of this psalm is “badly mangled,” so we have his translational conjecture–which would be true of all other translations as well.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that the psalmist is angry by the sarcastic tone of his opening question, “Do you, O chieftains, indeed speak justice,/ in rightness judge humankind?” (2) He then accuses them of not only of falsity in their judicial role, but of using their power to execute wicked acts, “In your heart you work misdeeds on earth,/ weigh a case with outrage in your hands.” (3)

Our poet goes on to execrate their very being: “They have venom akin to the serpent’s venom,/ like the deaf viper that stops up its ears.” (6a)

And then, some of the most ferocious and angry verses in Psalms as the poet calls upon God, “God, smash their teeth in their mouth.” (7) and “Let them melt away, like water run off.” (8) We’ve talked about these “shaking your fist at God” verses previously and again it’s crucial to observe that the psalmist is asking God to take vengeance on his enemies, not that he will do the deed himself. (A crucial distinction that Islamic radicals seem to have missed as they take it upon themselves to shed blood of those they disagree with.)

And finally, perhaps the most gruesome image we encounter in the Psalms: “The just man rejoices when vengeance he sees, / his feet he will bathe in the wicked one’s blood.” Yet, as before it is vengeance he sees, not vengeance he takes.

Job 40: God challenges Job to reply: “Anyone who argues with God must respond.” (2) Jobe refuses to speak, arguing, “I have spoken once, and I will not answer;/ twice, but will proceed no further.” (5)

God is not pleased,and tells Job what many fathers have told their sons down through the ages: “Gird up your loins like a man;/ I will question you, and you declare to me.” (7) In short, Job is given no choice but to respond. And perhaps the greatest challenge is that God asks if Job will accuse God of unrighteousness in order to justify himself: “Will you even put me in the wrong?/ Will you condemn me that you may be justified?” (8)

God’s question is for all of us. Do we condemn God in order to justify ourselves? The answer seems obvious: when we endeavor to be in control of our lives and deny God we are in effect condemning God to justify our own actions and our own sense of being in control. Of course, those who have denied the existence of God altogether are doing the same, just blissfully unaware of consequences down the road.

In the remainder of this chapter God makes it clear once again who is Creator and who (and what) is created: “It is the first of the great acts of God—/ only its Maker can approach it with the sword.” (19)

1 Corinthians 10:23–11:2: Here we encounter the famous “All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.” (23) Nevertheless, Paul advises, “if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I mean the other’s conscience, not your own.” The bottom line here is relationship with others; this is simply Paul’s take on “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

In his conclusion, we hear Paul’s take on the second half of the Great Commandment: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” If we evaluate our decisions in the light of the “glory of God,” then I think we will make the right decision more often than the wrong one.

In the final verse of today’s text, Paul says, “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.” (11:2). I wish I knew the Greek here, because “traditions” in and of themselves are simply that: traditions. If they are traditions that honor God, then they must be maintained at all costs, e.g., good order in Word and Sacrament. But if they are human or social traditions such as musical style or women wearing hats in church, I’m more wary of Paul’s advice. Tradition is essential to continuity, but I also believe that human and social traditions are subject to evolution.

Psalm 57:7–11; Job 39; 1 Corinthians 10:11–22

Psalm 57:7–11: The psalmist uses two powerful images of physical entrapment–the net and the pit–to describe his enemies machinations against him: “A net they set for my steps,/…they dug before me a pit.” (7). Even when we may not necessarily have actual enemies pursuing and trying to trap us, the image certainly evokes feelings of being trapped by circumstances.

We hear the psalmist’s feeling satisfied justice at the next line when “they themselves fell into it” (the pit, that is.) Which is true for many conspiracies. In the end, truth will out and the plotting collapses in on itself.

Having been rescued from the pit, the psalmist turns to praise: “Let me sing and hymn.” (8) In fact his joy is so great that he wants others playing instruments to join him: “Awake, O lyre,/ Awake, O lute and lyre.” Rescue brings true joy: “I would waken the dawn.” (9) And all for one overwhelming reason: “For Your kindness is great to the heavens/ and to the skies Your steadfast truth.” (11)

The challenge for us is do we even really realize how many times God has saved us from the net and the pit. If we reflected more on how we’ve been rescued, I suspect we would experience much the same joy as the psalmist does in these concluding verses.

Job 39: God’s voice out of the whirlwind continues, turning to the miracle of animal life with an amazingly comprehensive bestiary, all focused on what God is able to do in the animal kingdom–and by implication what man cannot. The opening verses begin with birth and youth:

2Can you number the months that they fulfill,
    and do you know the time when they give birth,
when they crouch to give birth to their offspring,
    and are delivered of their young?

The inventory is extensive: the wild ass, the wild ox, an ostrich, the horse, the hawk. All of them have skills and abilities–and weaknesses (“God has made it forget wisdom,/ and given it no share in understanding.”) that are beyond the ken and wisdom of mankind.

God is making it very clear just who is in charge of creation.

1 Corinthians 10:11–22: Paul continues his disquisition on the issues surround idols and what does or does not constitute worshipping idols. Here, he turns to the issue of the Eucharist and the danger of conflating libations made to an idol with partaking of the body and blood of Christ. If we partake of the cup of blessing, “is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?” (16) Therefore, we can do one or the other, but not both. The reason is simple: “I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons.” (20). Paul is at his logical best: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”

The challenge here, of course, is what kinds of choices do we make? Do go places and do things that has us consorting with demons–or as I’ll take it here, evil. This is certainly a prohibition against witchcraft and tampering with dimensions that are beyond the four we inhabit.

I also think this section is also one of the roots of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. The language can certainly be taken at the either the literal or metaphorical level: “ The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” (16).  I’m generally in the metaphorical camp, but there’s no question that the sacrament of communion is far more than metaphor and much more than just “in remembrance of me.”

 

Psalm 57:1–6; Job 38; 1 Corinthians 10:1–10

Psalm 57:1–6: The superscription of this psalm is dedicated to David “when he fled from Saul in the cave.” The cave as hiding place is reflected in the first verse as David speaks, “Grant me grace, God, grant me grace,/ for in You I have taken shelter.” The psalmist doubles down on the idea of shelter with the imagery of David as a small bird (Alter informs us this is a common theme in Psalms): “…and in Your wings’ shadow do I shelter/ until disasters pass.” (2)

The remainder of this section reflects the assurance that Go brings when we shelter “under his wings.” First, “He will send from the heavens and rescue me” (4) But not only rescue. With rescue, “God will send his steadfast kindness.” (4b).  God’s rescue and kindness creates courage such that “I lie down among lions/ that pant for human beings./ Their fangs are spear and arrows,/ their tongue a sharpened sword.” (5)

These metaphorical lions are clearly an image of Saul’s pursuing army (“spear and arrows”) as well as the evil things that Saul has said about David, (“Their tongue a sharpened sword”). But God’s kindness trumps all of these perils. And God brings not just rescue, kindness and courage, but he turns the tables on David’s enemies: “A net they set for my steps/…they dug before me a pit–/ they themselves fell into it.” (7)

I think it’s significant that it is David’s enemies own deeds–the pit they’ve dug–that becomes a trap for them. David did not have to do anything beyond praying for rescue; it was all God’s doing. This is something to remember in the ongoing culture wars when Christians feel oppressed and want to lash back out at their enemies. Eventually, the pit that enemies dig in order to capture us becomes their own undoing. The lesson is clear: God will take care of it. We are to pray for rescue and God will deliver his kindness. And be patient.

Job 38: God finally speaks “out of the whirlwind” in one of the most brilliant and powerful pieces of poetry ever written.

The author is specific: “God speaks to Job,” so we don;t know if his companions hear God’s speech or not. I suspect it was not unlike Paul’s Damascus road experience, where only he heard Jesus.

God opens with an accusation: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” and tells Job “Gird up your loins like a man.” Job will need all the courage he can muster because Job is standing in the dock as a witness in God’s courtroom: “ I will question you, and you shall declare to me.” (3)

God’s opening argument is that Job is the creature not the Creator: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?/ Tell me, if you have understanding.” (4) There is sarcasm: “Who determined its measurements—surely you know!” (5) God asks question after question to the silent Job as he describes this activities in creation: “Or who shut in the sea with doors,” (8); “Have you commanded the morning since your days began,” (12); “Have the gates of death been revealed to you,/ or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?” (17). God’s question range from earth into the heavens: “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades,/ or loose the cords of Orion?” (31)

For me, the key question is, “Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,or given understanding to the mind?” (36). In today’s materialist world, the belief is that humankind is an evolutionary happenstance; that our minds have evolved into a sufficiently large collection of neurons to allow us to pose the questions. But in the end, the materialist can only conclude, “Nothing. It’s all a happy coincidence.”

In reflecting on these verses we may know about the physical mechanisms that operate within nature, but in a world that has excluded God, we cannot answer the biggest question of all: Why are we here anyway? Will God speak to us out of the whirlwind?

1 Corinthians 10:1–10: Paul turns to Israel’s own history as he addresses, I assume, the Jewish Christians at Corinth.  In a remarkable interpretation of the water emanating from the rock in the wilderness, he turns it into a metaphor, “For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” (4). But even having drunk from the Rock that is Christ, many of them still turned to evil and “God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.” (5)

Just to make sure his listeners get the point, Paul amplifies, “these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did.” (6). This is a strong warning indeed. Referring specifically to the accusations that others have made, Paul cautions, “Do not become idolaters as some of them did,” (7) and “We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.”

Idolatry and immorality are the bane of our present culture–as they have been through history. We have set ourselves up as our own idols and worship the creation of our hands, which today are certainly the products and services of technology. Like the Corinthians, we constantly put Christ to the test. Will idolatry and immorality within the church–often expressed in seemingly benign ways such as self-centeredness and a “I know it all attitude” (especially by leadership) bring the serpents of destruction upon us?

Paul’s warning still stands: do not play at church without transforming your behavior. Do not put Christ to the test. Alas, something we seem to do skillfully and with indifference to the consequences.

Psalm 56:9–13; Job 36:27–37:24; 1 Corinthians 9:12b–27

Psalm 56:9–13: Our psalmist moves from supplication to praise in the assurance that “Then shall my enemies turn back on the day I call/ This I know that God is for me.” (10) For me, there is real resonance in both language and meaning in the simple phrase of monosyllabic words, “This I know, that God is for me.” Surely, this verse was in Paul’s mind when he posed his rhetorical question in Romans 8:31: “If God is for us, who is against us?”

From assurance again there is logical movement to praise as he repeats the refrain of verse 5: “In God, Whose word I praise,/ in the Lord Whose word I praise,” And from praise again to trust that banishes fear: “In God I trust, I shall not fear.” (12)

And if God is for us, the psalmist asks, “What can man do to me?” (13) Surely there are Christian martyrs down through the ages to these very days that have uttered this psalm as they died for Jesus Christ.

Finally, gratitude piled upon upon gratitude: “For You saved me from death,/ yes my foot from slipping,/ to walk in God’s presence/ in the light of life.” We can ask–and be granted–nothing greater than this. And for us, all this through the salvific power of Jesus Christ.

Job 36:27–37:24: Elihu reflects on the unfathomable power of God: “Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds,/ the thunderings of his pavilion?” (36:29) But then he conflates nature’s power with Go’d anger at sin: “Its crashing tells about him;/ he is jealous with anger against iniquity.” (33). That God expresses his anger through nature is a widespread belief even today when we ask questions like, “Why did God do this?”

Elihu’s theology may be suspect but there’s no question there’s real power in his poetry as he describes God’s speech in the thunder and his power in lightning:

“At this also my heart trembles,
    and leaps out of its place.
Listen, listen to the thunder of his voice
    and the rumbling that comes from his mouth.
Under the whole heaven he lets it loose,
    and his lightning to the corners of the earth.” (37:1-3)

For Elihu, God is actively at work in nature, be it snow (6), wind (9), ice (10), clouds (11). And whatever God does, it is completely bound to his emotion and judgement: “Whether for correction, or for his land,/ or for love, he causes it to happen.” (13) Of course the psalms are packed with verses describing how God speaks and acts through nature and Paul certainly picks up that theme at Romans 1:20: “ Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”

So, Elihu tells Job, “ stop and consider the wondrous works of God.” (14) God is inscrutable and unknowable: “The Almighty—we cannot find him;/ he is great in power and justice,” (23). So, Elihu advises Job that our role as creatures is to fear God, not to try to figure God out: “Therefore mortals fear him;/he does not regard any who are wise in their own conceit.” (24). And Elihu certainly has a point. But that does not stop Job–and us–from trying.

1 Corinthians 9:12b–27: Paul continues his discourse n the appropriateness of being paid for his services, arguing that “those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is sacrificed on the altar.” (13) But he points out, (somewhat defensively, IMHO), that “I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this so that they may be applied in my case,” (15)  suggesting that the psychic and spiritual reward of preaching the Gospel is preferable to mere remuneration: “What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.” (18)

Then he reveals his preaching strategy: to identify with the group to whom he is ministering: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews.” (20a) And to Gentiles, “outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law.” (21) In short, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” (22). And he does “it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” (23)

So what are we as lay people to make of this? The issue for us in not being paid, but of identifying with the group to whom we are ministering, in effect becoming one of them. The tragedy of 19th century missionary efforts is that the white men (and they were almost all white men) came in to Africa with a sense of cultural superiority, that Western mores and ways were better. Paul’s sense of identifying and being was ignored.

So, we come to the homeless and the ill and dying with humility not with “fixes.” For it is only in an honest one-to-one relationship that the Gospel will shine through us, not from us. That is how Paul shared its blessings–and so should we.