Shall I play for you?

News 2 reported on Thursday that the extreme cold has killed 10 people in Nashville within the last month. According to Dr. Li, the Chief Medical Examiner for Nashville, that number could grow because 15 people were found dead outside in the cold, and they are still investigating 5 of those cases. The majority of the people he has examined are homeless.[1]

I’m sharing this sad statistic because no other news outlet in our city has reported it. I’m also sharing it to remind us again that opening the doors to our Fellowship Hall on a cold night is a life-saving ministry. On behalf of the whole congregation, I thank those of you who gave of your time to host a group of fourteen Room in the Inn guests on Wednesday. The most precious gifts we have to offer are our time and attention, and I’m grateful for each of you. Hosting fourteen guests for one night may feel insignificant in a city where thousands of men, women, and children are homeless but it matters greatly to those fourteen and to each of you who prepared meals, made beds, and created a place of warm welcome for them. Yes, we need more affordable housing options in Nashville, and they will only be built when more of us understand how great the need truly is. But it’s not just a matter of civic responsibility; it’s about worship.

A few years ago, a man was found dead early one morning in East Nashville. Temperatures that night had dipped into the mid 20s, and police said he most likely died from hypothermia. His name was James Fulmer, and he was 50 years old. The man who notified police of his death, was also homeless and had just met him the night before. “He had no blanket, no nothing,” he said. “I went … to the Family Dollar store to buy a blanket to cover him up with, cause that’s what the good Lord says to do, you know.”[2] His name was Wilford Gold. Wilford went to the Family Dollar store to buy a blanket for James, something to cover him up with. Cause that’s what the good Lord says to do. With that simple, beautiful gesture, Wilford Gold extended the kingdom of the good Lord.

There’s a song we hear in the malls during the weeks before Christmas, the song of the little drummer boy. We hum along as he sings, “I have no gift to bring, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum, that’s fit to give the king, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum…” And eventually the boy asks, “Shall I play for you?” And of course it’s all about for whom we choose to play. It’s all about which king we honor with our song and our time and attention, and whose kingdom we choose to serve with our gifts.

A long, long time ago, in the days of king Solomon, Jerusalem was the capital of a great kingdom. Solomon’s fame had spread far and wide, even to the coasts of Africa. The Queen of Sheba came to Jerusalem with caravans of camels bearing spices, gold, and precious stones. And not just her, traders and merchants, all the kings of Arabia and the governors of the land brought gifts and tribute to Solomon, the great king who excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom.[3]

Generation after generation, Israel’s children sat in the laps of their parents and grandparents, begging them to tell them stories about good king Solomon, the wise king. And for hundreds of years, the stories became richer in detail and fuller in color, because wise kings were rare, and because for centuries the kings of the nations didn’t come to Jerusalem to bring treasure, but to carry it away.

And then came the day, when there was nothing left to take away. The king of Babylon and his armies looted and destroyed the city, and took many of the people into exile. For two generations in exile, Jerusalem was only a memory. Then the first groups began to return, after the king of Persia had conquered the Babylonian empire. But it wasn’t the great homecoming they had envisioned.

The once proud nation was now but a tiny province on the fringe of yet another empire, this time Persia, and many of its people still lived far away by the rivers of Babylon. Most buildings in the city were destroyed, the economy was in a shambles, the temple lay in ruins, and the community was divided. Who would repair the city walls? Who would rebuild the temple? And who would pay for it? The initial excitement about the possibilities of a new beginning soon wore off, but then the words of the prophet summoned them from despair to hope:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. … Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. … the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. … they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.[4]

There are two quite distinct ways to hear these lines from Isaiah. One way is to hear that the tables are finally starting to turn: Jerusalem had been small, weak, and poor for so long, but now, now they would be great, they would be strong, they would be rich they would be greater, stronger and richer than all the other nations. Now their city would be a hub of the global economy; sky-high office towers, business headquarters, and hotels would line the streets of downtown, and wealth would flow to the city from the ends of the earth: the whole world would be centered in Jerusalem.

The other way to hear the prophet’s words follows the same script, but with a different voice and a different hope: Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Let your life together reflect this glory. Shine with hope, and the nations will be drawn to your light  the whole world will gather to be part of God’s future.

It matters greatly how we envision a kingdom of peace and prosperity. Matthew tells us that in the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem. We don’t know much about them, these visitors from far away lands who came to Jerusalem to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews. And because we know almost nothing about them, we have long let our imaginations take wing.

Matthew gave us an almost blank canvas, and we gladly filled it with rich, colorful detail. First we looked at the map, and we listed all the lands East of Jerusalem – Arabia, Babylon, Persia, India, China – from how far East did they come, these wise ones? Then we looked at the gifts they brought – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Very expensive gifts, not the kind of stuff you can pick up at the market on your way but didn’t Isaiah sing about gold and frankincense, and didn’t he sing about kings? That was when, in our imagination, they began to look like kings, royal visitors bearing royal gifts, and because three gifts are mentioned, we determined that there must have been three of them. That was when we started singing songs like We Three Kings From Orient Are, but our hunger for detail wasn’t satisfied yet. How did they get from the East to Jerusalem? Certainly they did not walk all the way but wait, didn’t Isaiah sing of a multitude of camels? Sometime in the Middle Ages, we named the three Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, and we saw them riding high on their camels, with more camels carrying their treasure chests. With passing centuries, the stories of the wise men from the East became ever more colorful and elaborate – and all because of the child whose star they had observed and followed. This child arouses in us a holy extravagance of story, image, song, and gift. The nations are coming to the light that has dawned, and the travelers from the East represent all of them we come from Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and the Americas: the whole world is gathering to pay homage to the newborn king. Matthew gives us but a hint or two, and we let our imagination run and leap, because this child is the good Lord, born to bring us all together in the kingdom of God, in a city where no man, woman, or child is left outside.

What about the other king? Imagine King Herod’s face when his staff informed him that visitors of considerable wealth and status were entering the city. He already liked hearing his underlings refer to him as Herod the Great, but imagine the satisfaction in his eyes and the regal pace with which he made his way to the palace window to see his own majesty and greatness reflected in the very important visitors from far away. They had come from distant lands to meet him and pay homage, to admire the magnificent building projects under way in the city he was Herod the Great, King of the Jews, the most important person in the realm, the greatest of kings since Solomon, was he not? Imagine his face when they asked him where they might find the newborn king of the Jews. To say it fell would be a gross understatement. The glory of God had risen, not upon Herod’s palace, but a little ways to the south, upon a dusty little hill town called Bethlehem.

You see, the story is not about three kings, but about two, Herod and Jesus. The contrast between their kingdoms runs through the whole gospel, all the way to this year and this city and our life in it. It matters greatly which king we honor with our song and our time and attention. It matters greatly whose kingdom we choose to serve with our gifts. Wilford Gold brought a blanket to honor the good Lord. The gospel is all about which king you will ask, with reverence and hope, “Shall I play for you?”

 

[1] http://wkrn.com/2018/01/04/10-died-of-hypothermia-over-past-month-in-nashville/

[2] http://www.wsmv.com/story/20493488/body-found-in-east-nashville

[3] See 1 Kings 10:1-25

[4] Isaiah 60:1-6

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A new day

The days are getting longer now, they say. Ten days ago was the shortest day, and now the nights are getting shorter. I can’t see it yet, it’s still getting dark too early in the afternoon, but I trust those who have observed the courses of sun and moon and stars and determined that we are indeed tilting and circling toward spring. Every afternoon, for a few more weeks, I’ll be telling myself, ‘The days are getting longer now; hang in there.’ It’ll be a little while before the bright day when George Harrison’s ode to the sun will start playing in my soul and I’ll again sing along,

Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right …

I don’t know how they celebrate Christmas in Australia, Chile or Zimbabwe where it’s the beginning of summer now – to me, it seems just perfect to celebrate the birth of Christ, the birth of the light and life of the world, when the nights are long and cold, and the days are short. All of nature surrounds us with metaphors to express our deepest longing: for the sun of righteousness to rise, for God’s mercy to melt our frozen hearts, for the Spirit of life to light up our imagination.

I remember hearing an astronomer on the radio, talking about New Year’s Day and how totally random it is. It’s just a random moment on Earth’s journey around the Sun, with no relation whatsoever to anything astronomically significant like a solstice or an equinox. This astronomer also mentioned that as a graduate student he once spent an entire New Year’s Eve party locked in a closet by himself, in protest against the sheer arbitrariness of the occasion. I hope somebody brought him a glass of champagne at midnight and gave him a kiss. It’s good to mark and celebrate beginnings together. We’ll be in 2017 for just a few more hours, and then we’ll count down the seconds to the start of 2018. We wish each other a year of good health and prosperity, peace and happiness, and we resolve to do or quit doing all kinds of things. We know, of course, that every day is a new day and that we can decide to become a better version of ourselves any waking moment but New Year’s Day is like a global reset button: let’s all start over and let’s make it our best year yet.

It was probably the Moravians who began the tradition of Watch Night. They got together on New Year’ Eve, hours before midnight, and standing on the threshold between the years, they recalled the previous year’s events and thanked God; and turning from memory to the unknown they prayed for God’s protection and guidance in the new year. Watch Night was an exercise in prayerfully receiving the gift of years from God and returning them with gratitude. The practice was adopted by the Methodist church, and it gained particular significance in the African Methodist Episcopal church. You see, astronomically, January 1 may well be a completely random spot on the Earth’s journey around the Sun, but historically, it marks a great moment.

When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all the slaves in the Confederate States, it was to become law on January 1, 1863. And on December 31, 1862, African Americans, slave and freed, all over the United States, gathered together in their churches and homes, watching and waiting for their freedom to arrive at midnight. They and their ancestors had been captured in Africa, kidnapped, bound, and locked in chains. Whole families, even villages, disappeared. Husbands and wives, parents and children were separated, never to see each other or their homes again. Shackled and packed into the holds of cargo ships, they were taken to the Americas and sold into slavery sold into a lifetime of violent oppression, forced labor and every kind of abuse.

And now it was Watch Night. What did they do in the South? Speak of their hope with hushed voices, whisper their prayers, holding their breath while their lips yearned to burst into song? Might not their masters descend on them at any moment? After all, President Lincoln’s declaring their freedom didn’t make it so in the eyes of their owners. And the Civil War would drag on for another three years.

But this was Freedom’s Eve, the darkness before dawn. This was the night of their passover, their journey from the house of slavery to the promised land. And so Frederick Douglass, the pioneer abolitionist, declared, “We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree.” December 31, 1862, Freedom’s Eve: the prayers of generations finally answered, the long darkness before dawn finally illumined by first light.[1]

After the joyful testimony of the angels and shepherds at the birth of Jesus, Luke takes us to Jerusalem, to the temple, where Mary and Joseph have brought their child to present him to the Lord. And here we meet Simeon and Anna whose entire life has been Watch Night. Simeon, a righteous and devout man, has lived his years looking forward to the consolation of Israel. And Anna, a widow of a great age, has devoted most of her life to fasting and prayer. The two have shaped their lives around the promise and the presence of God.

They are bent by the years, I imagine. Their backs hurt, their swollen joints hurt, climbing stairs demands all their strength, and on their way across the temple courtyard they stop several times to catch their breath. They are bent by the years, but only outwardly; inwardly they live on tiptoe. They are Advent people, open to God’s promise, open with anticipation, open to the guidance of God’s Spirit. Their eyes and ears may no longer be what they used to be, but they have been watching and waiting for the Lord’s Messiah, they have been looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem, and their whole being has become receptive to the presence and the deeds of God. And when Mary and Joseph bring in the child Jesus, Simeon is there to take him in his arms and he praises God.

Picture the old man with the baby. Notice his joy, the way he gazes at the little one; you can’t tell if his laughing or crying.

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.

But what has he seen, really? It’s just a little child he’s cradling in his arms. Whatever salvation this baby might work is still only a promise and a hope; whatever teaching he might offer will remain hidden for many years. Nothing has happened yet. The world looks as it did before. It’s business as usual in the houses of the mighty and the makeshift camps of the poor. But Simeon stands there in grateful wonder. He knows, the long Watch Night is over. His whole being is illumined by first light. He is cradling the consolation of Israel in his arms. He is looking at the salvation of God, he is touching it with his hands. He can die in peace. And then Anna, a prophet, also approaching the end of her days, adds her own joy and praise to the moment. She’ll be telling all who are watching and waiting for the redemption of life about this child.

By the time the grown-up Jesus begins his ministry, Simeon and Anna will be long dead. So will most of those shepherds who went with haste to see the child in the manger. Thirty years or more will pass before the gospel story resumes with the baptism of Jesus. In the meantime the ones who saw the baby, who knelt at his bed of hay, and who made known what had been told them about this child, would not know what became of him. They would know only what they had heard and seen back then.

We too are people who have seen something but not its full unfolding. What we have, in a sense, is hardly more than they had. We have the scriptures that school us in hope and attentiveness. We have stories and testimonies. We have the memory of moments, when the tender compassion of our God has come close enough for us to see and feel. We have something like the shepherds would have had, recalling all their lives a night of mysterious glory.

And we have the rest of the gospel story. We know what happened to the man the baby grew up to be. We know his radical compassion. We know his teaching and the pattern of his passion and vindication. We have sat at his table. We have seen and tasted the promised future. Like Simeon and Anna, we may not get all the way to his future ourselves, not in this life but we have seen it, and because we have seen it, we can go in peace, knowing that the kingdom and the power and the glory of God have come in Jesus. [2]

It’s a new day, a new beginning, not because our planet has almost completed another circle around the sun, but because the Lord has come to set creation free from all bondage. Thanks be to God.

 

[1] See https://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-artika-r-tyner/celebrating-the-153rd-ann_b_8882614.html and https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/watch-night-of-freedom

[2] My thanks to John K. Stendahl, “Holding promise,” The Christian Century 119, no. 25 (December 4, 2002), 17.

 

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Turn and return

There are no shepherds keeping watch by night in Mark, no angels announcing the child’s birth, no star-gazing visitors bearing gifts from distant lands, no ox and ass, no baby in the manger. Mark’s story jumps right into the Jordan with John the baptizer. The story begins as it is written in the prophet Isaiah, with a voice crying out in the wilderness: John preparing the way of Jesus by proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Mark’s story jumps right into the Jordan with John after opening with something like a headline, “The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Many have wondered why he didn’t just write, “The Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” instead of ‘the beginning.’ Many have checked the closing chapter to see if perhaps the story concluded with a similar line on the final page, “The End of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It doesn’t. Why ‘the beginning’ of the good news of Jesus Christ?

Some have heard here echoes of the opening of Genesis, the beginning of creation, suggesting that the good news of Jesus Christ is as good and grand as the story of life itself. It is the beginning of life’s redemption from the powers that keep it from flourishing. It is the beginning of God’s promised future in the midst of this beautiful, but broken, world.

Others have suggested that Mark calls the story he wrote ‘the beginning of the good news’ because it is meant to unfold in the lives of all who hear it, because it is meant to continue in lives of faith and discipleship while all of creation awaits its completion. Mark’s story is just the beginning, because the good news continues with us and for us and for all, in all the countless ways that we hear it and live it and tell it.

So here we are, at what Mark has identified as the beginning of this great story, at the Jordan with John. It was at the Jordan that Israel gathered after escaping from slavery and after forty long years of wilderness wanderings, and where they crossed over into the promised land. The river marks the border between promise and fulfillment, between expectation and arrival. It was at the Jordan that Elijah was taken up into heaven, the great prophet who was expected to return before the day of the Lord to prepare God’s people and Mark’s quick portrait of John suggests more than a resemblance between the two. Clothed with camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and living on a diet of locusts and wild honey, John speaks of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.[1] His lifestyle embodies complete dependence on God: he only eats what the earth produces on its own, without the work of human hands. His proclamation also invites our complete dependence on God: in the light of God’s mercy we are to look at ourselves and our world with open eyes and honesty, and name what we see, name what is missing, lament what is missing, and repent turn from what we have made of ourselves and of the world; turn away from our complicity with the old order of things and turn toward the fullness of life in the kingdom of God; turn away from abusing God’s creation, and return to the promise of a new creation where righteousness is at home; turn away from the dead ends in which we have trapped ourselves, and return to the way of the Lord.

John calls us to repent, to turn and return to the mercy of God. He calls us to prepare the way of the Lord by becoming an Advent community, a community of the repentant and expectant who await the fullness of all that has entered the world with Christ’s coming. The old order is still marked by sin, idolatry, injustice, and violence; but with Christ the faithfulness, forgiveness, justice, and peace of the God of Israel have embraced the nations with the promise of salvation. Yes, we live in a world that aches under the weight of sin, but it also echoes with the promises of God and resonates with the movement of the Spirit. We are far from alone in the struggle for the new order of shalom.

We meet John at the Jordan, in the borderlands between what is and what shall be, between the promise and the coming true. In the wilderness of these days, when the arrogant trample without shame on decency and dignity, we know the temptation to lower our sights to more manageable hopes, small things within our reach but with diminished hope comes diminished life. God calls us, particularly in Advent, to live lives of bold hope, to expect nothing less than the complete renewal of all things in Christ, to stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near.[2]

In frustration we sometimes raise, not our heads, but our voices and our hands to the heavens, crying out, “Where are you? Do you see what’s going on? What is taking you so long? Nothing has changed!”And like an echo, only without the exasperation, sounds the voice from heaven, a voice of great kindness and patience:“Where are you? Do you see what’s going on? What is taking you so long? Everything has changed – when will you repent?”[3]

Mark quotes and interprets words from Isaiah to introduce John.The words come from a pivotal passage. Prior to chapter 40 of Isaiah, the words spoken in the name of the Lord are words of judgment. The people have rebelled against God. They have lived at the expense of their neighbors, putting their own desires above the needs of others. The people of Jerusalem in particular have prospered through wickedness, oppression, lies and injustice, refusing to heed the prophets’ calls to repent. In 39 chapters, Isaiah consistently confronts the people with their idolatry and their habit of putting their trust in things that are not God, causing them to see the world and themselves in utterly distorted ways: “Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Ah, you who are wise in your own eyes, and shrewd in your own sight! ... for they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.”[4] In 587 BC the troops of the Babylonian Empire conquered and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. The leaders and a significant part of the population were marched off into exile to Babylon. Home was no more; the promised land a thing of the past, and the Jerusalem prophets made it quite clear that the loss was God’s punishment.

In the book of Lamentations, the city is personified as Daughter Zion who bewails her fate:

She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.

Her downfall was appalling, with none to comfort her. “O Lord, look at my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed!”

For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my courage; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.

Zion stretches out her hands, but there is no one to comfort her;[5] for more than a generation, Daughter Zion receives no response to her tears. But then a new word comes to her and her children:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

And then a voice cries out, sounding like the boss of a road construction crew,

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

The Lord would once again lead God’s people from captivity to the promised land, in a new exodus, for the whole world to see. And then a voice says, “Cry out!” and the prophet responds, “What shall I cry? The people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.” And the voice replies, “Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” The faithfulness of God’s people may wither and fade, but God’s faithfulness to God’s people is firm. That is our hope. That is why John, in the wilderness of our days, continues to call us to repent, to turn and return, again and again, until all of us know in body and soul the faithfulness of God.

Take a moment to call to mind some of the things you wish to turn away from in order to turn your life more fully toward God. I invite you to write them down on small pieces of paper Greg and I will pass out in a moment. You will have noticed the three bowls. We will fill them with water from the baptistery, and when you come forward to share the Lord’s Supper, we invite you to drop your piece of paper in one of the bowls. Don’t be surprised if it simply disappears. In the great faithfulness which we have come to know in the love of Christ, God has overcome all that might separate us from that love, all that might separate us from the fullness of life for which God has created us.

 

[1] See 2 Kings 1:8

[2] Luke 21:28

[3] See Romans 2:4

[4] Isaiah 5:20-21, 24

[5] Lamentations 1:2,9,16,17

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Eating the bread of fulfillment

Brother Will once told a group of pastors how, after he became eligible for AARP membership, he used to take an herbal supplement that was to help him remember things – until he noticed how often he forgot to take it.[1] Memory is fickle.

“How could you forget that?” your spouse exclaims, your friend, your child, and they’re clearly disappointed, hurt. And you feel terrible, and all you can say is, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to forget it, I just did… I wish I knew why I remember the most random, useless stuff and forget things that actually mean a lot to me and to you.” Memory is fickle and strangely selective.

On their journey from Egypt to the promised land, the Israelites complained in the desert, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”[2] In hindsight, Egypt began to look like the never-ending lunch buffet on a dream cruise, “Remember the fish we used to eat for nothing?” Nibbling flakes of manna in the wilderness, they didn’t remember the bread of affliction and oppression, nor did they remember how they used to toil for nothing in Pharaoh’s service no, in the golden glow of memory, it was all one big, free lunch, every day, in the house of slavery.

For the people of God, forgetfulness is high on the list of challenges to living as people of God. Hence the commandments, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”[3] Hence the festivals, the stories, the rituals, the prayers, the songs, the liturgies:

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (…) Take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.[4]

Take care that you do not forget to whom you belong, whose world you inhabit and whose life you are living. The entire chapter eight of Deuteronomy is dominated by the threat of forgetting and the urgency of remembering.

Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.[5]

Bread is life, but bread alone is not enough for living. Bread without the word that comes from the mouth of the Lord is bread without memory, bread without obedience, bread without justice.

The Israelites had eaten the bread of affliction and they had eaten the bread of freedom, and now they were about to taste the bread of fulfillment. By the banks of the Jordan river, the wilderness behind them, and before them the land of promise, Moses said to the people,

The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you. Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God.[6]

Bread without scarcity. Land of abundance. The gifts of God for the people of God, to be received and enjoyed. You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you. Receive the gift and bless the Giver.

There was great joy in Moses’ naming of the good land’s abundance of water and produce, but there was also an underlying anxiety: how would the wilderness-tested relationship between God and the people change in prosperity? Would the great acts of divine generosity in turn receive the people’s glad response of obedient gratitude?

When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (…). Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God...[7]

Prosperity, Moses warned the people, easily leads to amnesia and self-congratulation. When you eat the bread of fulfillment without memory and without blessing, you will get more than a little full of yourself. “If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish,” Moses warned them.[8] When your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, forgetfulness may set in and you may begin to serve and follow other gods, gods that command that you live and think in terms of “me” and “more” and “now.” My land, my bread, my wealth, my power, my strength, my life — Moses saw it coming, Jesus resisted it: bread without memory; eating bread without blessing the Giver will quickly turn into the assumption that the land’s abundance is mine for the taking. In the wilderness, bread clearly was a daily gift, and the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.[9] But in the land of abundance, Moses worried, forgetfulness might separate the gifts from the Giver, and soon there would be among God’s people those who had too much and those who had too little.

Bread is life, but bread alone is not enough for living. When we talk about bread, we talk about all the ways we relate to one another and how we relate to God. Bread contains our relationship to the land, to the farmer, the miller, the baker, the grocer, and the hungry neighbor. When we talk about bread, we talk about justice. Without justice, our relationship to the land becomes death-dealing instead of life-giving; our relationship to the farmer, the miller, the baker, the grocer, and the hungry neighbor all those relationships become oppressive and abusive, death-dealing instead of life-giving. Bread without memory becomes the bread of affliction.

Somebody said, “The whole of nature is a conjugation of the verb to eat, in the active and passive.”[10] I eat. You eat. He/she/it eats. We eat. You eat. They eat. I am eaten. You are eaten. He/she/it is eaten. All living things eat. Active and passive. Past, present, and future. For any creature to live, other creatures must be its food. Plants absorb nutrients from the soil, animals eat plants and other animals, and microbes and fungi eat animals and plants and return them to the soil. And we humans are part of the cycle, no matter how hard we try to pretend we are not. All flesh is grass, and all grass is soil. And without soil, the land is merely lifeless rock, gravel, sand, and dust.

Our God created and ordered life so that every living thing must eat. For us, human beings made in the image of God, the question bread poses is how we eat: yes, we are plowing, sowing, reaping, grinding, mixing, baking, buying, selling, breaking – but are we receiving or devouring? Those who receive know life as a gift that is given to be shared in communion. Those who devour know life only as a hunger for more that can never be satisfied. Wendell Berry, Kentucky farmer and writer, said it beautifully in his essay, The Gift of Good Land, almost forty years ago,

To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.[11]

Life devoured in insatiable consumption is a desecration, life received and shared in communion is a sacrament. We are only beginning to understand that the whole world is God’s promised land for humanity; a land where we may eat bread without scarcity, where we will lack nothing; where we shall eat our fill and bless the Lord our God for gift after gift after gift.

On Thursday, most of us, I hope, will gather around tables of thanksgiving with family and friends to break bread and bless the Giver. And today as we prepare to gather once again around the table of Christ, the table where we taste and see and practice life shared in communion today we bless God the faithful Giver of all good gifts with the gifts of food that we bring to the table; we bring them with thanksgiving and with prayers for our hungry neighbors who have too little.[12] So bring now the boxes, cans, jars and bags of food and let us set the table.

 

[1] Will Willimon, former Dean of the Chapel at Duke and Bishop of Northern Alabama for the United Methodist Church.

[2] Num 11:4-6

[3] Ex 20:2-3

[4] Dtn 6:6-9, 12

[5] Dtn 8:2-3

[6] Dtn 8:7-11

[7] Dtn 8:12-14, 17-18

[8] Dtn 8:19

[9] 2 Cor 8:15; see Ex 16:18 “Those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.”

[10] William Ralph Inge as quoted in Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul (New York: Free Press, 1994), 17.

[11] Wendell Berry, “The Gift of Good Land,” in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (New York: North Point Press, 1997), 281.

[12] We had a special offering of food for The Little Pantry that Could that Sunday at Vine Street.

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To be the Lord's praise

I’m partial when it comes to veterans. I’m particularly grateful for the men and women who shipped out to Europe to fight the Nazis. They fought and died not just for their country, but for mine too, and for a future where all people live in freedom. When white supremacist groups announced their rally in Shelbyville, one of many reasons I had to go there to protest was to honor the sacrifice of the men and women who gave their lives to end Hitler’s reign of terror.

Burning_Synagoge_Kristallnacht_1938.jpg

"Kristallnacht"

Many synagogues burned throughout the night in full view of the public and of local firefighters, who had received orders to intervene only to prevent flames from spreading to nearby buildings.

To me, it’s a blessed coincidence that every year Veterans Day follows the anniversary of Kristallnacht, that night of terror and destruction on November 9 and 10, 1938, when rioters in the streets of Germany and Austria destroyed synagogues, shattered the windows of thousands of Jewish-owned businesses, and looted their wares. Many synagogues burned throughout the night in full view of the public and of local firefighters, who had received orders to intervene only to prevent flames from spreading to nearby buildings. The pogrom claimed the lives of 91 Jews, and as it spread, units of the SS and Gestapo arrested up to 30,000 Jewish males and transferred most of them from local prisons to concentration camps in Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, and other towns. On the following Sundaythe liturgical calendar called for observance of the annual Day of RepentanceHelmut Gollwitzer stood in the pulpit of a church in Berlin-Dahlem and said,

Who then on this of all days still has a right to preach? Who then should be preaching repentance on such a day? Have not our mouths been muzzled on this very day? Can we do anything but fall silent? What good has all the preaching and the hearing of sermons done us and our people and our church? How, following all the years and centuries of preaching, have we come to this place where we find ourselves today and as we find ourselves today? What good has it done that God has allowed our people to have so much success? What good has the great gift of peace done that we received with such joy just two months ago [he was referring to the Munich agreement between Hitler and Chamberlain, September 29-30, 1938], so that today each of those Ten Commandments that we have just heard has struck us like a hammer blow right in the face and has knocked us to the ground? What a short blink of an eye separates that report of peace and this Day of Repentance! Back then we told ourselves in this very place that the new peace opens a new space for repentance — and now, so few weeks later, how’s it going? How have we used this period of time? What do we expect God to do, if we come to him now singing, reading our Bibles, praying, preaching, and confessing our sins as if we can really count on his being here and on all this being more than empty religious activity? Our impertinence and presumption must make him sick. Why don’t we at least just keep our mouths shut? Yes, that might be the right thing to do. What if we just sat here for an entire hour without saying a word, no singing, no speaking, just preparing ourselves silently for God’s punishment, which we have already earned? And when that punishment becomes obvious and visible, we will know better than to go running around screaming and railing against it wondering, “How can God let something like this happen to us?” Yet how many of us will do just that and in our blindness not see the connection between that which God allows and that which we have done and brought upon ourselves? We really should prepare ourselves so that we can say when it comes upon us: “O Lord, our sins have earned us this” (Jer. 14:7).[i]

Gollwitzer did preach a fine sermon that Sunday, ending it saying,

Now just outside this church our neighbor is waiting for us — waiting for us in his need and lack of protection, disgraced, hungry, hunted, and driven by fear for his very existence. That is the one who is waiting to see if today this Christian congregation has really observed this national day of penance. Jesus Christ himself is waiting to see.[ii]

Gollwitzer’s sermon was part of a long tradition going back all the way to the prophet Amos, a tradition insisting that the integrity of our worship is determined not by how closely we follow the lectionary or the rubrics or the unwritten rules of whatever we consider to be proper liturgy, not by any of thatthe integrity of our worship is determined by our actions outside the sanctuary.

I hate, I despise your festivals, [says the Lord,] and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos accused the leaders, including the priests of the king’s sanctuary, of perverting justice and cheating the poor in the marketplace. And in the context of such oppression, he told them, their worship, though religiously presented, was no fragrant offering of praise but only ugliness, noise and stench. “The cumulative image of these [lines of Amos’s speech] is God’s holding the nose, shutting the eyes and closing the ears to Israel’s ceremonies.”[iii] Justice and righteousness characterize the God of Israel, and they are to characterize the life of God’s people. Without justice and righteousness, our worship is not worship of the Lord God, but a celebration of religious fantasies. In God’s house, attention to the liturgy must go hand in hand with attention to the well-being of the poor. Without attention to the order of life in the city and beyond, attention to the order of worship is religious distraction at best, and idolatry at worst.

In Samaria, where Amos proclaimed the coming of God’s judgment, the citizens came to the sanctuary bearing gifts and dressed in their Sunday best, but they had forgotten how to live as God’s people. You trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, Amos cried. You push the afflicted out of the way, you oppress the poor, and crush the needy. You hate the one who reproves in the gate and abhor the one who speaks the truth. You trample on the poor, afflict the righteous, and push aside the needy at the gate.[iv] You think of yourselves as worshipers of God, but you are tramplers, haters, oppressors, and crushers. You do not see past your own well-being, your own security, and the pleasures of your own lifestyle. Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

In 1935, when the German government’s rhetoric and actions against Jewish citizens was growing increasingly hateful and violent, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Only those who cry out for the Jews may also sing Gregorian chant.”[v] Too few were paying attention; too many kept singing their beloved hymns on Sunday morning, folding their hands and bowing their heads in prayer, only to fall silent as soon as they stepped from the sanctuary into the streets where hate and fear ruled. People were grateful for the comforts of a familiar liturgy and the hymns they had known since childhood, but only very few did speak out or stand up on behalf of their persecuted neighbors. The terror didn’t last; the liberators came, but millions had been killed and Europe lay in ruins.

“Liturgy in the absence of justice does not please God; it nauseates God,” writes Nicholas Wolterstorff. Gregorian chants, Genevan psalms, Lutheran chorales, Anglican anthems, Orthodox troparions, Baptist revival songs, and non-denominational praise chorusses can be the most beautiful expressions of worship, but sung in the presence of injustice they disgust God. “Liturgy is for giving voice to life, to lives of faith.”[vi] In our lives, we seek to obey God, individually and collectively; and in the liturgy we praise the one whom we seek to obey, and we confess our failings. In our lives, we show our love of God in all that we do; and in the liturgy we bless and praise the God we love. In our lives, we strive to be like God: holy, merciful, just. And in the liturgy we intercede with God to be our holiness, our mercy, and our justice. But if in our daily lives we do not do what we can for the feeding of the hungry and peace with our neighbors, then interceding with God for the hungry and for peace on earth is a disgusting religious performance. If in our daily lives we do not actively imitate the divine longing for justice and righteousness, then professing devotion to God in worship is a disgusting religious performance. Without connection to lives ordered by God’s love and the demands of that love, worship nauseates God.[vii]

Love demands that we honor our veterans, especially the wounded warriors and those who have come home no longer knowing what it was they were sent to fight for. Love demands that we give them not just medals, but the best medical care our country has to offer, jobs that pay a living wage, and affordable housing. And love demands that we don’t just let them do our fighting for us, but that we give ourselves with courage to the struggle for a better tomorrow for all.

I want to close with a brief quote from one of the church fathers. Sing to the Lord a new song! was the text for one of Augustine’s sermons. He said, “You tell me, ‘I am singing!’ Yes indeed, you are singing. You are singing clearly, I hear you. But make sure that your life does not contradict your words. Sing with your voices, your lips, and your lives. … If you desire to praise [the Lord], then live what you express … and you yourselves will be [the Lord’s] praise.”[viii] Sing with your lives, and you yourselves will be the Lord’s praise.

 

[i] Hellmut Gollwitzer (November 16, 1938) in Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich, ed. Dean G. Stroud (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 130.

[ii] Gollwitzer, 138.

[iii] Jannie Du Preez, “Let justice roll on like...”: some explanatory notes on Amos 5:24.” Journal Of Theology For Southern Africa no. 109 (March 1, 2001) 95.

[iv] See Amos 2:7; 4:1; 5:10,12.

[v] My translation; quoted from memory. See Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Eine Biographie (München: Kaiser, 1983) 685.

[vi] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Justice as a condition of authentic liturgy,” Theology Today 48, no. 1 (April 1, 1991), 17.

[vii] See Wolterstorff, 17.

[viii] Sermon 34, 5-6.

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Brother Martin

On October 31, 1517, the story goes, an Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther was on the university faculty, the church was the university chapel, and its door was commonly used as a bulletin board. Posting the theses was a public invitation to debate, but this wasn’t merely an academic exercise. Luther challenged the power of the papacy, and he probably had no idea what a massive earthquake he triggered that day.

He chose October 31 to post his theses because it was the day before All Saints Day, and the meaning and role of saints was at the heart of Luther’s argument with the church leaders. The church taught that certain believers were saints, and the argument went that the saints were so good, so perfect in belief and obedience, that they accumulated more righteousness than they needed to enter the gates of heaven. So there was excess righteousness sitting around in heavenly storage, as it were, and somebody in Rome came up with the clever idea to make that surplus available to common sinners. The Vatican issued documents called indulgences, the purchase of which allowed sinners to build up their heavenly account of righteousness, reducing the time they would have to spend in purgatory and expediting their journey to the glorious assembly of the righteous. As an added bonus, people could purchase indulgences not only for themselves but for family members and friends who had already died.

Men and women carried heavy burdens of fear in those days, and the church, or rather those called to lead the church, knew how to turn forgiveness into a lucrative business. In the early sixteenth century, Rome sent out a sales force all across Europe to peddle indulgences—and the campaign was very successful: St. Peter’s basilica in Rome was completed with revenue from the sale of salvation.

Luther wanted to debate that practice. He understood Holy Scripture to teach that salvation is God’s gracious gift to humanity in Jesus Christ, a gift we do not deserve and cannot earn, let alone purchase, but only need to gratefully embrace in faith. To us today it may sound obvious, but at the time it was a revolutionary idea: The Christian faith is not about accumulating righteousness points in one’s heavenly savings account, but about living in gratitude to God for the gift of God’s grace.

The abuses of the corrupt hierarchy meant that talk of saints and the whole concept of sainthood became suspicious and eventually disappeared almost completely from Protestant life. But only almost, because many of the New Testament writings not only mentioned the saints, but were literally addressed to them. The apostle Paul wrote his letters to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi; to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints; to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, including all the saints throughout Achaia; etc. And the apostle wasn’t writing to the few, the proud, the shining stars among God’s people, awaiting their introduction into the Discipleship Hall of Fame, no, he was writing to all who had found new life through faith in Jesus Christ.[1]

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,[2] that we are not alone in this adventure called church. Those who have gone before us, surround us; and to me it’s a beautiful thing to imagine them watching us and cheering us on as we continue the journey toward the kingdom. Saints, Frederick Buechner wrote are not “plaster statues, men and women of such paralyzing virtue that they never thought a nasty thought or did an evil thing their whole life long. Saints,” Buechner says, “are essentially life givers. To be with them is to become more alive.”[3] They are the men and women who told us the good news of God’s love for the world; who reminded us of our freedom in Christ as sons and daughters of God; who modeled for us what faithful living might mean; who inspired and encouraged us. Some of them may still be around, others have joined the church in heaven. Some of them you may have known in person, others you may have heard or read about. They are your saints, the people through whom God shaped you and made you who you are and continues to shape who you will be. Most likely they are not faith celebrities but ordinary people whose lives showed extraordinary courage and integrity in response to God’s grace, particularly in trying times. They moved forward in hope, trusting the promise and presence of God.

I know I wouldn’t be standing here talking about keeping the faith through these tumultuous days without the example of my grandfather or the courage of Bonhoeffer or the women and men who told me the stories of Jesus when I was a kid. And you know who those people are in your own life: your parents, perhaps, or your grandparents whose love continues to be a palpable presence for you, or a sister, a brother, a teacher who saw in you what, at the time, you could not see in yourself. People of life-giving generosity, kindness, and faithfulness—and they may not even have known it, they simply lived it.

Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, with a firework of adjectives, “What makes a saint is extravagance—excessive love, flagrant mercy, radical affection, exorbitant charity, immoderate faith, intemperate hope, inordinate love.”[4] What makes a saint is extravagance of faith responding to God’s extravagance of grace. And extravagance of faith has nothing to do with ostentatious piety.

Jesus said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” Oh, we know what he’s talking about, we know that’s not limited to scribes and Pharisees. The preachers preach forgiveness, and struggle with living it. The teachers teach being kind to others, and yell at the driver in front of them. Parents get to the end of their rope and tell their kids, “Do as I say, not as I do.” We know that’s something we all have to work on, not just scribes and Pharisees.

But there’s another layer to this. Jesus said, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” The phylacteries Jesus referred to are small leather boxes with passages of scripture in them. To this day, many Jewish men strap them around the arm and on the forehead during morning prayer. The practice goes back to a passage in the book of Deuteronomy:

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.[5]

The boxes and straps remind those who wear them of the sacred obligation to keep God’s commandments: the one on the arm, a reminder to let all their actions be determined by God’s commandments; and the one on the forehead, a reminder to let God’s commandments guide their outlook and thinking. Jesus accused his opponents of making their phylacteries broad, of wearing them not as reminders to follow God’s commandments, but as objects displayed to impress others with their wearers’ piety, as status symbols of religious conviction and achievement.

Extravagance of faith has nothing to do with ostentatious piety, and everything with keeping the words of God in our heart; words that have the power to awaken faith in us and love. I’m grateful to Luther and many other leaders of the Reformation for redirecting the church’s attention to the word of God and the centrality of faith, but I don’t think celebrating tribal identities with a Reformation Sunday is a good idea. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer and all the others are part of the great cloud of witnesses, watching us and cheering us on as we journey toward the kingdom, and we honor them together with the others.

One Protestant pastor argued that we should change how we celebrate Reformation Sunday rather than bury it. He wrote,

True, we’ve set our liturgical calendar to commemorate the date on which Brother Martin posted his 95 theses for public consideration. However, one could (and I believe should) point out that there have been moments like this throughout the church’s history, all of which are worthy of being called reformation moments, moments where the church has been re-oriented toward the gospel, moved away from the many, many roads down which our distracted, narcissistic minds can take us.[6]

Reformation moments, I like that. Moments where the church has been re-oriented toward the gospel, I like that a lot. But why set aside one Sunday for that? We need every single Sunday the good Lord gives us, not to celebrate past reformation moments, but rather to ask God to re-orient us toward the gospel today, because there are indeed many, many roads down which our distracted, narcissistic, confused, and anxious minds can take us.

Luther himself was horrified when he heard people referring to themselves as “Lutherans.”

I ask that my name be left silent and people not call themselves Lutheran, but rather Christians. Who is Luther? … St. Paul in 1 Cor. 3:4-5 would not suffer that the Christians should call themselves of Paul or of Peter, but Christian. How should I, a poor stinking bag of worms, become so that the children of Christ are named with my unholy name? It should not be dear friends. … I have not been and will not be a master. Along with the church I have the one … teaching of Christ who alone is our master. Matt. 23:8.[7]

When I heard the news of the deadly truck attack in New York city, my heart broke and it broke again when I read about the victims of the attack, particularly the group of guys from Argentina who had planned this big reunion trip for thirty years to celebrate their friendship.

My heart broke for them and for us, for all the violence, the hatred, the fear, the stupidity, the callousness, the recklessness and hopelessness that flood in on us relentlessly from every side, threatening to undo us.

At some point I remembered a line from a medieval chant, In the midst of life we are surrounded by death. The line just kept playing in my head; and then I remembered Brother Martin who stared down hell and all devils and declared the gospel truth, “In the midst of death we are surrounded by life.”[8]

May God grant us grace to believe it and live it: In the midst of death we are surrounded by life.

 

[1] Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Phil 1:1

[2] Hebr 12:1

[3] Wishful Thinking, 102.

[4] Weavings, September – October 1988, p. 34

[5] Dtn 6:6-9

[6] http://nachfolge.blogspot.com/2011/10/why-we-should-celebrate-reformation.html

[7] Admonition Against Insurrection, 1522

[8] See Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), 330.

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Love your Nazi neighbor?

Somebody in the Jewish community, hundreds of years ago, sat down to count all the commandments of God. We don’t know who it was, or when and where, nor how long it took, but the count became part of Rabbinic teaching: there are 613 commandments.[1] Somebody else determined that there are 365 you-shall-not’s (one for each day of the year) and 268 you-shall’s (one for each bone of the human body), and the numbers don’t add up, but the numbers aren’t the point. We are to know God’s will and word in our bones, head to toe, with our whole being, and we are to live God’s commandments faithfully every day of our life.

When I try to visualize 613 commandments I don’t see some 120 tablets of stone, I see a tree. I see a big tree with a massive trunk, thick branches, tender twigs, and leaves in various shapes and shades of green. I see a tree, rooted in the heavens, with its branches reaching into the remotest corners of the earth, touching every imaginable moment of human life – birth and death, food and drink, what to wear, when to work and rest, how to worship, how to raise children, all of it. But who can remember all 613? And who can apply them faithfully in every circumstance?

Teachers and sages were often asked to summarize the commandments in a succinct teaching: What is the essence of our faithfulness to God?[2] Is there one commandment that represents the trunk of the tree? Can we identify one commandment in which all the others come together? Is there a way to comprehend God’s will in its entirety by embracing the tree near its root?

Rabbi Aqiba said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself; this is the great principle of Torah.”[3] The Apostle Paul makes a similar statement in his writings. In his letter to the Galatians we read, “The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”[4] And in Romans, Paul declares, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”[5] The whole law summed up in a single commandment is the trunk of the tree from which all other branches emerge. Many Jewish and Christian teachers gave similar answers, identifying the demands love makes on us as the heart of God’s law. Other voices urged greater caution, insisting that all commandments were of equal importance and that any attempt to rank or summarize them was presumptuous. What did Jesus say?

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.[6]

Every last little detail of the law and the prophets matters, he insists, but he also calls his opponents hypocrites for giving to God a tithe of every herb from their kitchen garden, but neglecting the more important matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith.[7] Even the smallest stroke of a pen in the law matters, but woe to us if our attention to honoring God with our dill, mint and parsley keeps us from addressing injustice in our communities and the great hunger for mercy and faith.

When we ask Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” he doesn’t name just one. There are two, and the two are one. They are different, and yet they belong inseparably together: Love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself. The tree that is rooted in the heavens has the love of God pulsating through it. Love flows through the trunk and into every branch, into every twig and sprig and leaf: every commandment, even the smallest letter and stroke of a pen pulses and beats with that love. As creatures made in the image of God and called to live in covenant with God we are to know this love in our bones and live it every day in every aspect of our life.

How can I know this love in my bones? How do I love someone whom I can neither see nor touch? I trust the word, I trust the promise, I trust the One who made it. I come to know myself and every human being made in the image of God as God’s beloved. I come to know the world in its brokenness as embraced and held by God’s faithful, unsentimental, unrelenting, and vulnerable love. Loving God is our free response to the One who made us in love together with all things, who is redeeming us in love, and who is bringing all of life to completion in one community of love. Loving God involves our whole being – our wonder, our trust, our intellect, our will, our desire, our hands and feet, our neighbor – yes, our neighbor, because we cannot be who we are made to be without each other. Douglas Hare writes,

Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that [the commandment to love God] demands of us but rather stubborn, unwavering commitment. Similarly, to love our neighbor, including our enemies, does not mean that we must feel affection for them. To love the neighbor is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously.[8]

How do you love your Nazi neighbor? I have asked myself for years. How do you love angry white men with their arms raised, giving the Hitler salute, shouting ‘blood and soil’ in the streets of Charlottesville and Shelbyville? David Brooks wrote on Monday about a series of experiences over the past two weeks that left the impression that everybody on earth is having the same conversation: How do you engage with fanatics? There was the guy at a baseball game, unleashing a 10-minute profanity-strewn tirade at Brooks and his family. Then there were the students at the University of North Carolina at Asheville debating whether extremists should be allowed to speak on campus. Then he went to Madrid, where a number of Spaniards told him that the leaders of the Catalan independence movement were so radical there was no way to reason with them. Then he went to London where he was with pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit activists trying to have a civil conversation with one another. Everywhere he went, the scenes were so very similar. The only way to confront fanaticism, Brooks wrote — agreeing with an argument Stephen Carter made in a book twenty years ago — the only way to confront fanaticism is with love.[9]

It’s not a twenty-year-old argument; the commandment is much older. Jesus said in the sermon on the mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[10]

How do you love a fanatic? When you have a chance to talk to one, do it. Save your arguments, you won’t convince him. Listen to what he has to say, ask questions, hear him out, give him a sense that you heard him. On my way home from Shelbyville yesterday, the TED radio hour was on WPLN, and I was listening to a conversation Guy Raz was having with Celeste Headlee, a radio host and author from Georgia.

“We need to start actually talking to one another, not at one another,” she said.

And Raz asked, “At this point in our history, a lot of people have a hard time talking, and exchanging ideas and hearing other points of view. So where do you even start?”

And Headlee responded, “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. There have been people who were able to have productive, and respectful, and human, warm conversations with others whose views were absolutely repugnant to them.” And then she talked about Xernona Clayton and Calvin Craig. Xernona Clayton, a civil-rights activist, and Calvin Craig, a grand dragon in the KKK. They met, and over the course of months, they would just have conversations, and then he announced — he had a press conference and said, “I’m leaving the KKK; my mind has been changed by Xernona Clayton.”

Headlee said, “I’ve spoken with Xernona a few times, and she said, ‘I didn’t try to change his mind; I just listened to him.’”[11]

There were some two hundred Nazis in Shelbyville yesterday, which changes the conversation significantly. Hope and I and a good number of colleagues weren’t there to listen to their hateful chants and repugnant slogans. But we weren’t there to drown out their shouts with even louder, angrier ones either. And so we stood across the street from them and we sang.

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine… Here in Shelbyville, I’m gonna let it shine… Murfreesboro too, I’m gonna let it shine… Everywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine…

We sang for two hours. Soon and very soon. Jesus loves the little children. O come, O come Emmanuel. Be thou my vision. I’ll fly away. We are one in the spirit. Marching to Zion. Victory in Jesus. Come thou fount of every blessing. And many more hymns and songs. We sang for two hours; we sang until they left. We sang of God’s vision of life amid the shouting; that’s how we loved our Nazi neighbors.

God loves the world, broken as it is by the power of sin, and it is God’s will that the world be whole. We grow up and live in this world, broken as it is by the power of sin. We are made in the image of God, but the world has a way of shaping us in its own distorted likeness and convincing us that this is who we are. And so we don’t know who we are, who we really are, until we know that we are loved and made for love of God and neighbor, every last one of us. Until we are all recreated in the image and likeness of Christ and nothing but the steady heartbeat of God’s love shapes our life together.

 

[1]Tanhuma 16b: “R. Simlai has said: Six hundred and thirteen commandments were spoken to Moses on Sinai; then David came and brought them to eleven [Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath even to their hurt; who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved (Psalm 15:2-5)]; Isaiah brought them to six [Those who walk righteously and speak uprightly, who despise the gain of oppression, who wave away a bribe instead of accepting it, who stop their ears from hearing of bloodshed and shut their eyes from looking on evil, they will live on the heights (Isaiah 33:15)]; Micah brought them to three [What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)]; Amos brought them to two [Seek me and live; but do not seek Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal or cross over to Beer-sheba (Amos 5:4)]; Habakkuk brought them to one [Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith. (Habakkuk 2:4)].”

[2] Sometimes the question was frivolous: Once a heathen came to R. Shammai and said to him, “I’ll become a convert if your can teach me the whole of Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai became angry and drove him off with a tool he had in his hand [I hope it was a pen and not a hatchet!]. He came to R. Hillel with the same proposition. Hillel said to him, “Whatever you dislike, do not do to others. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and study [i.e., learn the commentary]” (b. Sabb. 31a).

[3] Kedoshim 4:12

[4] Galatians 5:14

[5] Romans 13:10

[6] Matthew 5:17-20

[7] See Matthew 23:23

[8] Douglas Hare, “Matthew,” Interpretation Commentaries, p. 260.

[9] David Brooks in the NYT Oct 23, 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/23/opinion/engaging-fanatics.html

[10] Matthew 5:43-44

[11] http://www.npr.org/2017/10/17/560195583/celeste-headlee-how-can-we-have-civil-conversations-with-the-other-side

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Underdressed?

Howard Jacobson writes about fashion for a British newspaper. This is from a recent column of his:

At the opera the other day, I was suddenly struck by my conspicuousness: I was the only man there wearing a suit and tie. Or at least the only man in my row wearing a suit and tie. I checked out the other men during the [intermission] and, yep, only me.

Just so there’s no confusion, this was an evening performance (not a rehearsal) at a major opera house (not the back of a pub) of a major opera – Mozart, for God’s sake! – in early autumn. So, no special pleading on the grounds of heat. … What excuse did they have for not wearing suits?

I accept that I happen to like wearing suits … but this is about more than what a man happens to like himself in. This is about the efforts one should make to commemorate the specialness of an occasion, to ensure that every hour of the day is not like every other. Dressing up, we call it. Up. The preposition tells you all you need to know. We dress up not to succumb to down.

The curse that’s fallen on men’s tailoring is leisurewear. I won’t lie: I didn’t see a single man wearing a tracksuit, exactly, but I did see several wearing [sneakers]. So here’s a question: why, where the men were companioned by women, hadn’t the women forbidden them to leave home until they’d changed into something more celebratory both of the occasion and of them? For the women hadn’t come to the opera looking as though they’d just rolled in from losing again at the [soccer match]. No, they strutted in their feather shrugs, glimmered in their silky maxi dresses, towered on their killer heels. They were perfumed. They were bejewelled. They quivered in every sequin to the music. The only bum fashion note they struck was the man on their arm.[1]

Jacobson suggested they take a lesson from Lysistrata and withhold certain pleasures from the man on their arm. He didn’t suggest that the ushers bind the t-shirt-wearing offenders hand and foot and throw them into the outer darkness where there’s no Mozart, only weeping and gnashing of teeth.

In chapter 6 of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches,

Do not worry about your body, what you will wear. Is not the body more than clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith?[2]

Jesus teaches us of little faith not to worry but to trust God who knows us and loves us to provide for us. I don’t know how to square that with the question from chapter 22, where the king turns to one of the guests at the wedding banquet and says, “Friend” — and it doesn’t sound friendly at all — “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” What happened to “consider the lilies”? Are the guests supposed to come to the king’s banquet dressed like Solomon in all his glory after all? “Do not worry about your body, what you will wear…” — I don’t know, I’m a little bit worried, I’m as speechless as the underdressed fellow at the wedding. In the parable, the kingdom of heaven is compared to a wedding hall full of people, and then the king comes in and notices one guest who is not wearing the proper attire – how can you hear that and not worry, “That poor fellow, why wouldn’t that be me?” And could somebody please tell me what I’m supposed to wear to the wedding banquet of the king’s son?

I love the part of the story where the servants go out on the streets, all the way to the ends of the realm, and they invite everyone to come, good and bad, and I love the king’s generosity in inviting people like us, people who had never dreamed of being included in this kind of a party — but whereas before we never had to worry about how to get in, now we fret and agonize over what to wear so as not to get thrown out! Instead of trusting God who will clothe those of little faith, we worry about the dress code for the great kingdom banquet. What could it be? The hairshirt of penance? The mantle of prophecy? The robe of righteousness? The sweaty T-shirt from last year’s mission trip? The servant’s towel, still wet from washing feet, wrapped around the waist? You are looking at a closet full of options, but you don’t know what to wear.

Perhaps you heard the story about 9-year-old Cady Mansell from St. John, Indiana. Like Howard Jacobson, she likes suits, and she proudly wears her them, complete with suspenders and a bow tie, for school pictures, daddy-daughter dances, and to mass every Sunday. But when it was time for her first Holy Communion, the priest told her parents that Cady could not participate if she wore a suit. Cady’s mom felt the newly issued dress code requiring all girls to wear long sleeve white dresses was created to single her daughter out. “He said we’re raising our daughter wrong for not making her dress in a feminine way,” Mansell said. “Cady just wants to wear pants while worshipping the Lord and receiving the Eucharist with her classmates.” But when the first communion ceremony began, Cady was not allowed to participate.[3] She was excluded for not wearing the right kind of outfit — but at least she knew exactly what the dress code was, wrong as it was.

Some readers of Matthew have suggested that the wedding robe is a metaphor for acts of justice and compassion in which the faith of those who have been called to enter the kingdom becomes visible and tangible. They point to passages like Matthew 7:21 where Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” But that doesn’t change the fact that in the story we heard today worries threaten to overshadow the joy of having been invited to the great banquet.

We’re just three weeks away from the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. Luther famously was worried sick about how there could ever be enough cloth to cover himself, let alone dress up, if the material of the wedding robe were his own deeds of righteousness. In his worries, the shadows of the outer darkness eclipsed the light of joyful expectation. The happy shout from Psalm 30, “You have clothed me with joy!” — no longer remembered. Forgotten the joyful assurance in the words of the prophet, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God, for [you have] clothed me with the garments of salvation, [you have] covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”[4]

Perhaps you noticed that one key character in the story remains entirely invisible and silent. The story is about a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son, but the son never makes an appearance. Matthew tells us the good news of Jesus Christ as the story of Immanuel, God is with us, but in the parable of the wedding banquet, Jesus Immanuel is nowhere to be seen.[5] Where is Jesus in this frightful story? If the Jesus we know from the gospel of Matthew showed up at this wedding banquet, where would you look for him? You know he’s not at the bar with his friends, blissfully unaware of what is going on or just not interested – that’s not the Jesus we know. You know he’s not sitting at the head table, smiling, chatting with the in-laws, and waiting for the guests to take their seats and the banquet to begin. There is only one place in this story where the Jesus we know would be found: by the side of the poor bloke who was seriously underdressed and didn’t know what to say. We would find Jesus right next to him, so close that you could barely tell the two apart. And Jesus would take off his own robe and place it on the shoulders of the speechless guest. The Jesus we know is the one who was himself stripped and thrown into the outer darkness while the soldiers cast lots for his clothes at the foot of the cross.[6]

The truth is, we all stand naked before the living God. But just as God made garments for Adam and Eve and clothed them before they had to leave the garden, so God has provided a robe for us to wear as we enter the kingdom. We are not called to the closet to choose the outfit that is just right for the occasion. We are chosen to wear the precious robe Christ has woven for us with his life, with grace and truth, forgiveness, freedom, and the challenge of ever wider, fearless love. We are called and chosen to come to the feast dressed in Christ, head to toe. Paul says it quite concisely in his letter to the Galatians, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”[7] And in the letter to the Colossians the fabric is described with great love for detail,

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meakness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other (…) Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.[8]

We come to the great banquet, dressed in the love of Christ.

Nothing less will do, nothing more is needed.

 

[1] Howard Jacobson https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/14/howard-jacobson-suits-leisurewear-curse-opera-dressing-up

[2] See Matthew 6:25-29

[3] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/indiana-church-denies-first-communion-little-girl-who-wore-suit-n810496

[4] Isaiah 61:10

[5] See Matthew 1:23

[6] Matthew 27:27-37

[7] Galatians 3:27

[8] Colossians 3:12-14

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Violence in the vineyard

Five years ago, it was in December, a young man entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT and killed twenty children and six adults. It broke our hearts. We had no words for the pain and grief that gripped our hearts. They were so young, only six or seven years old. We had no words, but I remember many of us still had some hope that perhaps semi-automatic weapons would be taken off the market or that use of large capacity clips would be limited to the military. For twenty-six weeks, every Sunday, we lit a candle and remembered one of the victims, spoke their names in God’s house, so our hearts’ attention wouldn’t just be a reflection of the news cycle. But nothing happened with regard to the country’s gun laws. Last summer, a gunman killed 49 people and injured 58 in an Orlando nightclub, making it the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. But nothing happened, and the sad record lasted only a year. On Monday in Las Vegas, a gunman killed 58 people and injured more than 500. I want to say, I can’t believe it, but I can. I have witnessed it again and again: the heart-breaking news, followed by hollow statements that “now is not the time to talk about gun control measures,” followed by inaction and the next outrage pushing the topic from the headlines. I expect we will soon have to thank the NRA for letting our lawmakers ban open sale of bump stocks that allow a semi-automatic weapon to fire at nearly the rate of a machine gun.[1]

Every day this past week, the words kept playing in my head, though I could only whisper them,

Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light:
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

And when I whisper, “lead me on, lead me home” I don’t mean just me, but all of us in this very troubled country, in this very troubled world. The violence, the fear, the deluge of devastating news are draining our souls, and we crave the life-giving spirit of God to fill us anew.

The gospel reading for this Sunday doesn’t look like the place to go at first or even at second glance. Matthew has painted a scene of growing tension between Jesus and the religious leadership in Jerusalem. Jesus has just told them that tax collectors and prostitutes were going into the kingdom of God ahead of them because tax collectors and prostitutes understand the meaning of repentance. And now he says, “Listen to another parable,” and he tells them the story of a landowner who planted a vineyard. It’s a story they know from Isaiah, except that Jesus adds a twist by adding tenants.

In Isaiah’s vineyard song, the landowner’s frustration grew because the choice vines he had carefully planted and maintained didn’t produce the kind of fruit he expected. Instead of justice, Israel produced bloodshed, instead of righteousness, the cries of the poor. Isaiah’s vineyard song was a love song turned into an angry lament of disappointed hope, with the careful, creative actions of digging, planting and building being replaced by the destructive actions of devouring, trampling, and laying waste.

In Jesus’ version of the old story, the owner leased the vineyard to tenants. And when it was time to gather the fruit, and he sent his slaves to collect his produce, violence erupted. The tenants seized the slaves, beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Just about everybody in Jesus’ audience knows that he is talking about the prophets who came looking for the fruit of righteousness among God’s people. The chief priests and elders are familiar with words like these by the prophet Jeremiah,

From the day that your ancestors came out of the land of Egypt until this day, I have persistently sent all my servants the prophets to them, day after day; yet they did not listen to me, or pay attention, but they stiffened their necks. They did worse than their ancestors did.[2]

The owner in Jesus’ parable sent other slaves, more than the first, and the tenants treated them the same. It is the old story of the people and their leaders refusing to heed the warnings of the prophets and repent. Finally the owner sent his son – and here the story becomes transparent as an allegory of Jesus’ own fate in Jerusalem. The son is thrown out and killed by the tenants who imagine themselves as future owners of the vineyard.

This is where Jesus steps out of the story and asks the temple leaders, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” And without missing a beat, they respond, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.” Violence is woven into the fabric of this little story, turn by turn, as it is woven into the fabric of history.

“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

“He will put those wretches to a miserable death,” the leaders reply with firm conviction, with the ancient logic of violence against violence, woven into the fabric of human history, turn by turn, ever since Adam and Eve left God’s garden, where they were meant to be tenants to till it and keep it.

When Matthew told this story, the fledgling Christian community was beginning to separate from mainstream Jewish life. In the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans, both groups tried to make sense of the traumatic experience, and Matthew saw the violent devastation as divine punishment for the temple leadership’s role in Jesus’ death – and that perspective colored how he told the stories of Jesus’ conflict with the leaders. Some of the scenes, including this one, sound like he’s not only talking about Jesus’ debates with the chief priests and elders, but just as much about the tensions between his own small Christian community and the Pharisees who tried to rebuild Jewish life after the loss of the temple. They were separating, and we don’t tell our best stories about each other when we are going through a separation.

Matthew has Jesus tell the chief priests and Pharisees, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom,” and the people he appears to have in mind are the believers in his small Christian community, made up of Jews and Gentiles. He seems to relish the moment when Jesus tells the leaders who saw themselves as having a God-given right to enter the kingdom of God that tax collectors and prostitutes were going into the kingdom ahead of them. And he seems to relish even more when Jesus tells the Jewish leaders that any prerogative they thought they had to inherit the kingdom would be taken away from them and given to a people that actually produces the fruits of God’s reign. That was an empowering thought for a small community of Jesus followers who suffered hardship, rejection and perhaps even persecution by the majority but when the Christian movement went from underdog to most-favored-cult status in the Empire, these words took on a very different flavor. Now they began to be heard as saying, “The kingdom of God has been taken away from the Jews and given to the church.” And that kind of thinking, the idea that the church had succeeded and replaced Israel as the people of God, led to centuries of violence against Jews, all the way to the Nazi extermination camps and the fruit of terror, death and ashes.

“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

“He will put those wretches to a miserable death,” the leaders replied, perhaps because they couldn’t imagine any other response, just like we often cannot imagine a different response in a society saturated with violence.

But there is a way that leads out of the trap. The most interesting character in this parable is the owner of the vineyard. He doesn’t say much; his only line is, “They will respect my son.” But the tenants didn’t; we didn’t. For as long as we can remember, we have looked for ways not to be God’ tenants with sacred responsibilities toward the land, its owner, and toward our fellow tenants, but rather to be owners ourselves.

The parable ends with the death of the son, and then the Son asks us who have heard him tell it, to imagine what the owner of the vineyard might do. But the owner is free to write his own ending. And he has done so by raising Jesus from the dead. God’s response to our violence is not more violence overwhelming and inescapable violence, imagined to forever put an end to all violence but life; God’s response to our violence is life in the distinct shape of Jesus. God invites us to follow the path of repentance. God invites all whose hearts thirst for God’s life-giving spirit to follow Jesus.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, he has told us, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.[3]

Take my hand, precious Lord, take us home.

 

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/10/04/us/bump-stock-las-vegas-gun.html

[2] Jeremiah 7:25-26; see also 1 Kings 19:10; Nehemiah 9:26.

[3] Matthew 5:3,5.

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To the tune of grace

Oliver Sacks believed that the brain is the most incredible thing in the universe. He was a neurologist and a prolific writer who told us about The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and other wondrous tales from the world inside our heads. I was clicking through some websites on music and memory, and in an article about dementia and the magic of iPods, the author quoted Sacks:

The past which is not recoverable in any other way seems to be sort of ‘embedded in amber,’ if you will, in music. Having severe dementia means one can remember very little of one’s past. But one will always remember familiar songs that one has listened to and sung. The parts of the brain that respond to music are very close to the parts of the brain concerned with memory, emotion, and mood … In amnesia, whether or not in Alzheimer’s, you lose your life. You have lost your past; you have lost your story; you have lost your identity to a considerable extent. You can at least get some feel of it and regain it, for a little while, with familiar music. People can regain a sense of identity, at least for a while.[1]

The story was about a social worker in New York, his name is Dan Cohen, who created personalized iPod playlists for people in elder care facilities, hoping to reconnect them with the music they love. Some of you may have seen the short video of Henry, an elderly Alzheimer’s patient in a nursing home it has been viewed over 2 million times. He starts out slumped over and unresponsive but undergoes a remarkable transformation as he listens to music on a pair of headphones, music from when he was a young man. He starts humming along; he sits up in his  wheelchair, and his arms, his head, his entire upper body is dancing; his eyes are wide open, he sings along and when the music ends, he is able to answer questions and talk about his youth. Cohen calls it an “awakening response.”[2] Awakening to who you are amid the thick fog of memory loss. Of course I thought immediately about going to work on my nursing home playlist, just to make sure nobody would try to help me get in touch with myself by playing Bee Gees or Boney M – that could trigger a serious meltdown in old Thomas.

I wanted to know more about music and memory, because Psalm 78 is a song about remembering. “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart,” we read in Deuteronomy.[3] Remembering is essential for God’s people in order to be God’s people, and so is telling the story and singing the song.

Psalm 78 is a remarkable song, because it is largely about memory loss and forgetting. And it’s a long song, the second longest in the book, we only heard a snippet from it and we only heard it read, we didn’t sing it. And I wonder if we will remember, if we don’t sing the song, but only hear talk about snippets of the lyrics… Psalm 78 is a long song recalling the wilderness tests in a recurring pattern: there are the great deeds of God’s liberation and wonders of God’s provision; then there is the failure of the people to respond with trust and faithfulness to God’s faithfulness; which stirs God’s anger and yet in the end, at the conclusion of each of the glorious and sorry episodes, the singers recall the triumph of God’s compassion.

“We failed the wilderness test,” the singers of the psalm confess, “what was in our hearts was lack of trust and greed, and what poured out was grumbling and complaining.”

Psalm 78 a remarkable song, because the ancestors who started writing its lyrics didn’t photoshop the desert scenes to make themselves look a little better.

“We failed the test,” they sang and taught the next generation to sing. We forgot what God had done, and the miracles the Lord had shown us, who divided the sea and let us pass through it and made the waters stand like a heap; who led us in the daytime with a cloud, and through the night with a fiery light; who split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave us drink abundantly as from the deep, making streams come out of the rock and causing waters to flow down like rivers.[4] We failed the test. The promises were new and we had everything to learn then; everything to learn. What did we learn, you ask? We learned to sing of the faithfulness of God. We learned to tell, one generation to the next, the praiseworthy deeds and power of the Lord, the wonderful works God has done. We learned the song for ourselves and for them so they would put their trust in God, and not forget the deeds of God, but keep God’s commandments and not be like their ancestors, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, and whose spirit was not faithful to God.[5]

It is a humbling exercise to pass on a tradition that includes yourself and your generation among those who failed it, but such honesty may well be the most profound proclamation of God’s faithfulness. Israel’s parents and teachers didn’t tell their young ones, “We did everything just right back in the day, and you must learn to do the same.” No, they told them, “We have failed again and again in living as God’s people, but God has been faithful. We failed to remember God’s promise, we failed to obey the commandments of life, we failed to do justice, we didn’t love kindness, we didn’t walk humbly with our God, we didn’t remember when it mattered most but the One whose steadfast love endures forever remembered us.”

Psalm 78 is a maskil of Asaph, a teaching song written and composed by Asaph; but while it may have been born in the choir room, in a corner of the temple, it was conceived in a long struggle for freedom and against oppression, a struggle against hunger and thirst, against fear and despair, a struggle to live as God’s people. Israel’s trust in God was found at the bottom of all they could imagine, at the end of their strength, and at the very edge of what they could bear: nothing left to lean on but the promise of God. “The desert is only the real desert when it is too big for you,” wrote Mary Boulding, “when you do not know your way and have no reliance except God.”[6] When you live on water from a rock and bread from heaven and the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey.

The Hebrew slaves who followed Moses into the wilderness were pioneers of faith who went into the unknown much like their ancestors Abraham and Sarah who left all that was familiar to them in response to God’s promise. The promise was new then and it is new for every generation as we begin and continue the journey with our God. They set out and began to sing the song, every generation adding a line about their own shaky fidelity and the wondrous faithfulness of God.

One of the lines is a question, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?”[7] It sounds innocent enough, like the kind of question a child might ask after drinking water from a rock in the desert. But the ancestors knew it wasn’t wide-eyed wonder that gave rise to the question; it was greed; it wasn’t hunger, but the desire for more; it wasn’t lack, but the craving of never enough. The ancestors remembered a banquet of overabundance and overindulgence that turned into a horrifying afterparty of wrath and death.[8]

“Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” The line stuck with me because these days the whole world seems lost in the wilderness. It struck a chord when I read Oliver Sacks’s words,

In amnesia, whether or not in Alzheimer’s, you lose your life. You have lost your past; you have lost your story; you have lost your identity to a considerable extent.

It’s like we’re all waiting for someone to put a headset on our ears and play the song that will help us remember who we are and awaken us. It’s like we’re all waiting for someone to prepare a table for us in the wilderness to bring us together and teach our hearts to fear and not be afraid, to trust and sing and move on together. Someone to prepare a table for all of us who have failed each other so many times in all our loveless ways, in the merciless wilderness of a world our sins have made.

The song is older than any of our billboard charts. The lyrics are the stories of our lives and wanderings, the stories of our getting lost and getting stuck, and verse after verse, the last word is the triumph of grace. God prevails against our faithlessness. The cross shows us how far God is willing to go to embrace us in love, to suffer our violent rejection, and forgive us – all to reclaim sinful and forgetful humanity. God has spread a table in the wilderness, for us and for all, that we may taste and see life in fullness, and remember to sing the song to the tune of grace.

 

[1] http://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/012113p18.shtml

[2] http://www.npr.org/2012/04/18/150891711/for-elders-with-dementia-music-sparks-great-awakenings; see also https://musicandmemory.org/

[3] Deuteronomy 8:2

[4] See Psalm 78:11-16

[5] Psalm 78:7-8

[6] Mary Boulding, The Coming of God, 38.

[7] Ps 78:19

[8] Ps 78:21-31

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