August 26, 2009

Preparing for the Gift

by Ragan Sutterfield
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

A good farmer is one who knows what he can do and what he can’t. He can work the soil, build compost, mulch, but the growth of healthy plants is always at the mercy of conditions beyond him—the right amount of rain, the right weather at planting time, the right conditions at the harvest. The good farmer knows that a healthy crop is always both the product of hard work and a gift beyond any system of exchange.

We are brought to this paradox of gift and work by the lectionary readings for this Sunday as we wrestle with our relationship with God, the Law, and our hearts.

In Deuteronomy we begin this struggle as Israel is called to follow the “statutes and ordinances” of God. This is the work they must do in order to receive the gift of entering the promise land. But the work is not an abstract following of rules—it is the concrete witness of God’s presence with Israel. As Deuteronomy 4:6-7 says:

You must observe [the statutes] diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say,“Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people.” For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him.

By following the Law, Israel is preparing the ground for God’s presence and bearing witness to the gift of that presence. But Moses is well aware of the possibility that the gift will be forgotten and that Israel will think only of the work of keeping statutes, like dead taboos that have lost their meaning.

It is for this reason that Moses tells Israel to “take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life.” It is by recollecting themselves to the gift of God’s presence, and what that has looked like in their lives, that they can continue to bear witness to that gift through following the Law.

David echoes this in Psalm 15 as he asks God “who may abide in your tent?” Who can live in God’s presence? His answer is those who “do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart.” Those who are righteous in this way, David tells us, “stand by their oath even to their hurt” and “do not lend money at interest.” This commitment to generosity is more, I believe, than simply a following of the statutes of the Law. It is a response to the gift of God’s presence; a gift that we cannot begin to repay.

This gift seems to have been forgotten as Jesus and his disciples meet the scribes and Pharisees in Mark 7. The scribes and Pharisees see some of the disciples eating without washing their hands and they go to Jesus to ask him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” Their question is centered solely on the maintenance of ethnic identity through purity laws that have become little more than exclusionary taboos. Jesus returns the emphasis to God by saying to the scribes and Pharisees, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” It is the heart, the deeper reality behind the Law, that gives it its meaning. Without that, the law becomes meaningless and the gift goes unrecognized. The conditions that prepare for the gift then become at best the monotonous preservation of the way things have always been or at worst a short cut to the benefits of the gift. Here the statutes of Israel become the markers of Israel’s ethnic identity rather than markers of the gift of God’s presence.

James rounds out the lectionary readings by again reminding us that “Every generous act of giving, every perfect gift, is from above.” It is our role to prepare our hearts for this gift so that from the ground of our hearts God can grow righteousness. In order to prepare our hearts James tells us that we need to do some weeding by ridding ourselves of the “rank growth of wickedness.” This weeding allows our hearts to become fertile soil so that we can “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”

This receptiveness, recognizing that it is God who gives us every perfect gift, is then reflected in our lives by living in a new economy, an economy of the gift. We are poor in spirit, out of power, owing everything and owning nothing. And yet because all we have are gifts we are able to openly share those gifts by caring for “orphans and widows in their distress,” giving and caring and sharing with those who are most vulnerable in our society. In this way we are recollected to all that God has done for us, the Egypts he has brought us out of. In gratitude we respond to his call, marking ourselves as members of his kingdom and economy, by keeping to the rules of his system of exchange.


August 19, 2009

What to Wear in Battle

by Doug Lee
1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

The culmination to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians has ample capacity either to thrill or repulse us. For those who already envision themselves locked in a mortal struggle against enemies of various stripes, Paul’s use of militaristic imagery fits and heartens. But for those who find the very thought of warfare hateful, even or especially against the demonic, this text chills and embarrasses.

But perhaps, in both cases, we get off on the wrong foot with Paul’s battlefield imagery. We begin with instincts formed by the kind of power that dominates our world instead of the power that fires Paul’s imagination. We can hear Paul’s exhortations to “be strong in the Lord” and to “put on the whole armor of God” much as we might hear admonitions from TV car ads that promise us that their vehicle will help us feel “safe in an unsafe world.” In this vein, Paul merely calls us to be strong in the way that we already know to be strong and to engage in more of the self-protective patterns we already practice. Since God was the one who provided us with our leverage, it follows that we must employ these sources of strength in our struggle.

But what I have often missed amid the more dramatic language of flaming arrows and cosmic powers is that the one who speaks of being strong is not an American whose life is secured by an empire or the economy. He is instead “an ambassador in chains.”

Ever since Inauguration Day, the American public has been fed a steady stream of images of Hillary Clinton jetting around the world and meeting heads of state and their populaces. From Baghdad to Mumbai to Abuja, she has announced the new administration’s message of change with a mixture of seriousness, charm, and moral superiority. But try imagining Hillary trading in her trademark pantsuits for a orange jumpsuit and her global jetsetting for house arrest, and what you get is an absurdity. Diplomats can’t project American power if they are prisoners. You can only talk softly when you carry a big stick, not when you are handcuffed.

But if this ambassador in chains commends being strong in the Lord to a frail and numerically unimpressive, socially marginalized 1st century Church, then he must calling into question our forms of strength.

Critical to hearing Paul is the fact that the armor is not merely supplied by God; it is the armor worn by God and His Messiah. Paul borrows images from Isaiah to depict how the Church is to clothe herself with the very character of God. Thus, the belt the Church fastens around her waist is none other than the belt of truth worn by the Messiah in battle. This is the truth revealed in the gospel that announces the end of the dark age of deceitful scheming and deluding lusts. To put on the belt of truth and the rest is to be clothed with the new self created in the likeness of God. To wear the whole armor of God is not to be strong in the way that we already know to be strong but to be strong in the way that the Jesus is strong.

Even more to the point, Paul’s exhortation to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power” can only be heard in light of the power God employed in raising Christ from the dead and exalting him to His right hand. This is clearly not power in an any visible form we possess. It is nonetheless the power at work in the Church.

Perhaps when we try to appreciate that the power of the Resurrection is at work in fallible people like us and our fellow congregation members, we ascribe this power to the realm of the “spiritual” or “heavenly” because we cannot imagine how such power can be at work among earthy creatures like us.

Once again, Paul does not allow us to reach for what we are already so certain of. In mystery, this cosmic battle is taking place even as we engage in earthly, fleshly conduct. The battlelines drawn by Paul in the rest of Ephesians run through our everyday speech and relationships. The new self (a.k.a. the whole armor of God) we are to be clothed with looks a lot like telling the truth, sharing with the needy, and building up others through our speech. It looks like living in unity and reconciliation within our communities. The cosmic imagery at the end of Ephesians cannot be divorced from the earthiness of what precedes it.

Can such mundane and ordinary practices as speaking and acting graciously really be the expressions of cosmic power?

In an age of anxiety, we feel more subject to invisible forces than ever before and can instinctively reach for every available layer of armor and insulation we can. But the gospel Paul proclaims identifies our acts of self-protection as works of darkness, which ultimately do not make us safe. Though the powers and principalities seek to intimidate the Church into forsaking her holy calling, she can testify in the deceptively small acts of peace and generosity that these powers will not stand. Humility, gentleness, and patience look pretty feeble in a post-9/11 world until we recognize that these were the same armaments worn by our Risen Lord.


August 13, 2009


by Kyle Childress
I Kings 2: 10-12, 3: 3-14; Psalm 111 or Psalm 34: 9-14; Ephesians 5: 15-20; John 6: 51-58

The Old Testament reading this week culminates the summer-long focus on the David cycle throughout I and II Samuel. We’ve followed David from his anointing by old Samuel while David was a young shepherd boy through his confrontation and victory over Goliath, his rivalry with and eventual succession of King Saul, his consolidation of power and making Jerusalem his capital, bringing the Ark of the Covenant to the city and his ecstatic dancing before it, to his adulterous and murderous relationship with Bathsheba, his confrontation with the prophet Nathan, to the death of his son Absalom while trying to overthrow his father. Finally, this week, we read the verse “Then David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the city of David” (I Kings 2:10). Wow! What a story.

Now we turn to Solomon and the transitional materials marking the move from David’s kingship to Solomon’s and the move into the decline of this kingship which will continue throughout the rest of I and II Kings. To read all of the first two chapters of I Kings is like reading a political novel full of power, intrigue, manipulation, and violence. Perhaps more than a novel it is like reading a newspaper if we could read what goes on behind the scenes of what newspapers usually print. The first two chapters are shocking in their brutal honesty of how Solomon consolidates his throne over against his older brother Adonijah. One thing about the Bible, it doesn’t hold back on telling us the truth about power. This is not “Sunday School religion.”

Walter Brueggemann remarks that I and II Kings are written from the perspective of those sympathetic with the prophets. In other words, we’re not reading the press releases from the palace; we’re reading sermons from the pulpits out on the margins. From the perspective of the prophets and their plumb-lines rooted in Torah, Brueggemann suggests that the book of Kings might more appropriately be entitled “Kings?” Kings with a question mark implies that this is the story of how the kings lost their legitimacy. This is the story of the decline and fall of Israel. Like David’s story, these stories continue to ask us how much of these are our stories.

Then, also like reading today’s newspaper reports, we come to chapter 3 and Solomon’s prayer asking not for power or riches but for wisdom. We see a different side of Solomon; one marked by humility and honesty. This is the Solomon known best in Sunday School: the wise and humble king whom God blessed and made the richest man in the world.

So what do we do with Solomon and his prayer? The same Solomon who genuinely submits himself before God at the beginning of his kingship is the same Solomon who ruthlessly seizes power; the same Solomon who loves God also loves many foreign women. Do we cynically dismiss his prayer as an attempt to manipulate God just as he manipulates everyone else? The text, in all its honesty, is not skeptical about Solomon’s submissive prayer. Do we understand Solomon’s ruthless manipulations of power as blessed by God and that Solomon seeks to use ruthless means in order to rule for godly ends? Perhaps a surface reading of the text leans in that direction. But if we read it with “Kings?” in mind, it allows us to see a complex story of a real man, a real king, who both sincerely loves God and wants to do God’s will as well as having no qualms about ruthlessly using power. Maybe we are at a watershed moment in this great and tragic story of a king who will either become the ruler God calls him to be, one who follows the Torah and takes care of God’s people, or become a king who is like all the kings of the other nations, who makes and follows his own rules of power.

At this point in this story, we don’t know how Solomon will turn out. New administrations all start out with high ideals and a profound sense of vocation. But all administrations find out too that power is seductive and that goodness is not always as clearly defined as they once thought.


August 05, 2009

An Offer You Can’t Refuse

by Brian Volck
1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:41-51

Declining an offer of hospitality is, in traditional cultures at least, an insult. Elijah, on the lam from Ahab and Jezebel, prefers to die under the shade of his broom tree, but he knows not to insult God’s messenger. In John’s gospel, however, “the Jews” (a troubling Johannine formulation – what was Jesus if not Jewish? – in light of later Christian anti-Semitism) stop short when Jesus offers himself as the Bread of Life.

Jesus tells his questioners to stop complaining (the wording echoes the “murmuring tradition” of the people of Israel in Exodus through Numbers), stating the difference between the bread he offers and the manna “your ancestors ate in the wilderness, and they died.”

He says, “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." This isn’t some friendly conversation, but one of those edgy gospel encounters preachers and commentaries usually smooth over, defanging the inherent, unsettling challenge. (At least here, the Greek still uses the verb phagein (to eat); a few verses later, it becomes trogein (to gnaw), raising the confrontation, in Jewish context, exponentially higher.)

Setting aside whatever Eucharistic implications your tradition reads in this passage, consider what Jesus is offering here: Himself. Rendering his person in the symbol of bread (metaphor is much too weak a word here) is at once homely and urgent. Bread is the commonest of foods in the West (the East might substitute rice, I suppose) as well as the “Staff of Life.” When eaten, bread not only gives us energy, it becomes our bodies. We are, after all, what we eat.

The God incarnate in Jesus, then, is a terribly messy God, mingling human and divine in unfathomable, unsettling ways, incorporating us into his body. Jesus’ insistence on the gift of life-giving flesh further dispenses with the notion that the Incarnation was a task taken up with reluctance, at arm’s length, with the Divine nose firmly held. As the Athanasian Creed has it, “…although he be God and Man, yet he is not two, but one Christ; One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the manhood into God.” God, in the Incarnation, delights in magnanimity.

Who, then, are we to refuse him? Why do we, in word and action, continue to decline such overwhelming hospitality?

(Note: The Revised Common Lectionary offers 2 Samuel 18 as an alternate first reading. While this has some continuity with the Davidic story of the past few weeks’ Old Testament readings, it’s largely unconnected to the John 6 “bread of life discourse.” Furthermore, the Catholic lectionary features the reading from Kings. For those who, like me, find the Absalom story emotionally compelling, I apologize. To make up partially for this, I recommend listening to Pierce Pettis’ heartrending song, “Absalom, Absalom,” on his CD, “Making Light of It.”)