SERMON Not Just For Us

This is the sermon I preached, more or less, this Sunday at First Reformed Church in Chatham, New York.

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany / Lectionary 4

  • Jeremiah 1:4–10
  • Psalm 71:1–6
  • 1 Corinthians 13:1–13
  • Luke 4:21–30

16 And [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself. ’ What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.” 24 And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. 25 But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, 26 and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. 29 And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. 30 But passing through their midst, he went away. (Luke 4:16–30 ESV)

I’m honestly not sure what Jesus does that angers the crowd at the Nazareth synagogue the most here.

Sure, they are probably happy that the local boy has gained some renown by preaching and teaching in towns far and wide. Luke writes that following his baptism, “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him out through all the surrounding country. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.” He’s preaching and teaching the word — maybe exactly what he does today — and the folks who hear what Jesus says like what they hear. Have a lot of good things to say about him.

Because they know the promise of God when they hear it. And maybe they even know the fulfillment of God’s promise when they see it.

Maybe.

So, Jesus finally comes to preach to his hometown crowd, to the people who know him best, who have seen him grow up, know his family, know him not just as a preacher or a teacher, but as a human being, with a life, a character, a past. He is familiar to them. Yes, he is God incarnate — sinless and perfect — but he’s also fully human, with all that means. They watched him grow up, saw whatever problems and issues he may have had (Jesus was, after all, a young man with all that entails), they know him well. Or they think they do.

They’ve also heard what he does. Miracles! Hearings! Casting out demons! Whodathunk that Joseph’s son was so talented? So, they’ve probably come expecting a show. Something they’ve never seen before, and certainly wouldn’t expect the local boy to do!

All they get today, though, are words.

And they’ve heard these words if Isaiah, from chapter 61, words of promise, words of restoration. The promise of God that Israel will be restored, that strangers and foreigners will make their way and — instead of conquering, plundering, and dominating Israel — serve the people of God by, as God says through Isaiah, tending their flocks, plowing their fields, and dressing their vines. God speaks through Isaiah:

Instead of your shame, there shall be a double portion;
Instead of dishonor [the nations] shall shall rejoice in their lot;
Therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion;
They shall have everlasting joy.

God makes a promise to Israel, that Israel shall rule the nations. And for their part, the nations will accept their “conquest.” They will accept God’s rule. And Israel’s position.

This is what it means that good news is given to the poor, the brokenhearted made whole, the captive are set free, and the proclamation of the Lord’s favor is at hand. This is what it means when Jesus reads from this part of Isaiah.

And if you are an Israelite, barely struggling to live under Roman occupation, this reversal of roles that God promisers is comforting. The conquered shall becomes conquerors, the ruled shall become rulers, the plunderers shall live upon the wealth of those who have plundered. For the oppressed, it is the perfect promise.

However, I also suspect a lot of Israelites, as familiar as they likely were with Isaiah’s promise, probably selectively understood it. Yes, foreigners and strangers will come and serve Israel. And Israel will live off the wealth of the world. But a lot of this passage also deals with the covenant God will make with the nations that come. They get their recompense — a double portion even — but it isn’t wrath. It’s blessing. They shall be blessed.

But then Jesus has the audacity to say: Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise. Not just to Israel, but to the nations, all of the peoples of the world who are NOT Israel.

Still, Luke says they all speak well. Maybe they aren’t mad at all. Maybe they really do think this promise is all for them. And maybe, just maybe, they really do believe that Jesus is setting them free, and that is the source of their wonder. “Is this not Joseph’s son?”

But then … Jesus reminds them exactly what this promise to the nations, to the peoples of the world, really means. The profligate love of God, the double portion, isn’t just theirs. It is not solely the patrimony or the property of Israel. It now belongs to all.

Jesus relates a couple of Old Testament stories. First, he tells of the widow of Zarapeth, a town far north of Israel in what is now Lebanon. It was likely on the northern edges of what used to be Solomon’s great empire. It is not as Israelite town. The land has been struck be a great drought, there is no water, and surely there is a lot of suffering and death everywhere you look. She is ready to take the last of her flour and oil, make a simple meal for herself and her son, and then she will lie down and die. Because it is that hard for her.

Elijah tells her, “Do not be afraid,” and the flour and the oil — enough only for one, final meal — last for weeks. For months. “Many days” is all scripture says, which could even mean years.

There were many hungry widows in Israel, Jesus tells the assembly at Nazareth, but God sent Elijah to feed and care for a foreigner. To be fed and cared for by a foreigner.

And then Jesus adds insult to injury by telling the story of Naaman the leper who was healed by Elijah’s successor Elisha. Now, you need to remember something — Naaman is not just another leper (because Jesus was right, Israel was full of lepers in need of healing), but he was the commander of the Syrian army. The enemy army. What would eventually be, long after Elisha passed from the scene, the conquering army.

And Elisha does this, heals Naaman, not to convert him to the God of Israel (though that does happen), or persuade hime to surrender or even to get him to switch sides (that doesn’t happen), but to show Naaman “that there is a God in Israel.”

This is the profligate promise of God: plenty in a time of drought and famine for someone who is not an Israelite, healing and wholeness for the leader of an army that is the enemy of God’s people.

No wonder the crowd was angry and filled with wrath and wanted to push Jesus off a cliff. They lived surrounded by foreigners, occupiers, enemies, people who could take, could compel, could even do violence — and it was all perfectly proper and lawful. They didn’t want their conquerors and occupiers blessed — they wanted God to smite them and drive them into the sea! They wanted to pillage, loot, and plunder, and make flutes from the bones of their children. They wanted to be free of their enemies. They didn’t want them blessed.

We don’t either.

But that’s what God promises. And that’s what Jesus does. Remember, this promise — this covenant for the peoples of the world — is fulfilled. As Jesus read the words of Isaiah. Fulfilled. His life. His teaching. His healing. His breaking bread and pouring wine with his disciples, all of it is fulfillment. Of this promise.

We don’t own God’s blessing, as much as we might think we do and as much as we might want to. It isn’t just for us, to be kept to ourselves, in a box on a high shelf, within the walls of this place, confined to the community of like-minded believers. It belongs to the whole world. It’s given to the whole world. And we who are God’s people must remember that. In a time when we consider the future of the church, especially in a secular culture that grows increasingly hostile or even simply confused about our confession of faith, we need to remember God’s love and God’s grace are not simply for us. Jesus shows that — in his life, his teaching, his healing, the bread that he breaks and the wine that he blesses, in his redeeming death and resurrection. Jesus lives out this stunning reality of a God who showers his blessings far and wide, not just on Israel and its lost children, but on the just and unjust, on strangers and foreigners and enemies too.

“Love Me and Do Not Leave Me…”

It’s been a while since I’ve deal with an actual book in this blog. Mostly that has been because Jennifer and I have been poor and unsettled, and because of that, we’ve not had the time and the energy to focus on real books. Plus, to be honest, the Internet has gotten in the way.

A pastor friend, however, recently gave me a copy of Mira Rothenberg’s Children With Emerald Eyes: History of Extraordinary Boys and Girls, I think because of the ministry I have been called to with young people who dwell (or have dwelt) in darkness. To walk into hell with the wounded, to rescue the lost and then find our way back out.

Jesus did it. In that time between he gave up his spirit and rose from the tomb. That gives Jennifer and me the confidence to know we too can walk into hell and carry out the lost.

This is both a hard book to read and an invigorating one. By that, it is helpful to have someone professionally trained (Rothenberg was a clinical psychologist who began working with wounded and troubled kids in the 1950s, a time we can half-romanticize because treating kids, as opposed to medicating them and returning shareholder value, was actually appreciated) confirm a great deal of what I have observed and concluded.

I’m going to let this long passage about Rothenberg’s introduction to her time at the Katy Kill Falls residential treatment center in upstate New York speak for itself. Because I can add nothing to it.

Katy Kill.

Children: Labels. Categories.

Rape, assault, murder; some reached out to the world in this fashion.

Withdrawal, inaction, regression; others removed themselves, withdrew into their shells, and waited—waited for the world reach out to them. They reached out in this fashion.

The ones in-between; they did both.

Katy Kill. Always erupting or ready to erupt. Seething with greed from so much deprivation, with hate from so little love, with rage from needing and not getting, with love hidden deep and yet right on the surface. Seething with terror. Seething with sorrow deep and pain so potent that when the eruption comes, it has the howl of pain that it is driven by, rather than of the rage that it expresses itself through.

Katy Kill. Have you ever heard the sound of rage when it seems noiseless? It roars with an intensity. It grumbles with a desicating rhythm. Its voice is dry and throaty. Sometimes it sounds like hell. And its color is white.

Have you heard the sound of terror when it is noiseless? It rustles helplessly, like a leaf in a hurricane. It breaks hard, like the thunder. And it has a smell, a smell that shrivels your skin, a smell that makes you break out in a sweat so cold it freezes you. And its color is blue—deep, dark blue.

Have you ever heard the sound of pain when it is noiseless? It howls the loudest and it whines the quietest. It sounds as if it comes from the deepest bowels of the earth—that is you. It shakes with intensity and trembles with its own resonance over oceans of nothingness. And its color is black.

Have you ever heard the sound of loneliness when it is noiseless? It has a blast of thousands of trumpets. It has the howling of hyenas waiting for their prey. It has the howl of herds of starving wolves. Its melody is neither nice nor pretty. And it is gentle and full of fury. It is deep and somber, threatening and pleading. And its color is gray.

It shouts and echoes over all of eternity. It reverberates over the whole world and echoes in every cave, cavern, and mountain. It has a frightful sound; it has a howl. And the plea is: “Love, come to me.” Its basic ingredient is: “Give, give to me.” And the other ingredients are pain and terror, hate and rage, anger and tears, and: “Do not leave me, love me, and oh, it hurts so much.”

And the search. Have you ever seen the search for “that” which one no longer knows by any rightful name, but “that” or “what” or “Oh, God, help me!” or then no longer even that, but the burning ashes of a long, long, long ago fire?

Have you ever seen and felt and smelt and heard them all together? They have cold, sweaty hands. And eyes that sometimes burn and sometimes weep, red-rimmed, sleepless, hopeless. Eyes that try to hide deep into the sockets of the head, and finding the futility in this, just stare—nowhere. And the body, no matter straight or bent, or fat or skinny—something just about the shoulders—a little tilt, which in spite of of all its bravura and all its bravado in a very, very small voice asks: “Protect me.”

A child. Any child when abandoned. But all these children feel abandoned. It is the world versus the child. The child versus the world. In all, the impotence of both. In all, the fear of both.

And sometimes this loneliness of theirs takes you by the shoulders and says, “You are going to give.” And sometimes it kills because you didn’t give. And sometimes it kills because that it is a giving too: their giving. And sometimes it just withdraws and waits till you come and give, and in its waiting often dies. It stops. It doesn’t talk and doesn’t walk, and sometimes doesn’t move. It waits. It often dies, and in its strange perverted way it makes you give.

Sometimes there is sex to fill the voice. And the sex is then strange. There is little giving, but there is taking, there is devouring of you and whatever you can give to fill this voice. The exquisite giving and taking is no longer. The balance is disjointed. Because it is to take, to calm, to quiet this awful howl of loneliness and the hunger that derives from loneliness. To feed, so that for once, for this one short while, the need, the plea, the want is filled.

One doesn’t cry, with tears.

One doesn’t sob, with sobs.

One doesn’t ask, with please.

One waits, one watches. One is ready. One is tough. One pushes away. Except in the dream. One doesn’t talk about the dreams. That is the way to be, out there in the world that is a jungle. One hurts. One fights. One kills. So that one does not get hurt, get killed, one withdraws. In order not to get refused, one doesn’t ask.

The price of the ticket for a lifetimes is high. One pays. But one sees to it that everyone else will pay too. (p. 68-70)

I have never seen it described any better, with such force, power, and clarity, as Rothenberg has here (save maybe by Andrew Vachss). There isn’t a single thing I can add to this.

Not a thing.

This is What the Wrath of God Looks Like

Today is that day set aside in the church’s calendar to mark the conversion of Saul — his being struck down by Jesus on the way to Damascus to persecute the church, and instead becoming the risen Christ’s “chosen instrument” for brining the reconciling promise of God to the Gentiles. As Paul later described his own conversion in Galatians, chapter 1:

11 For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12 For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. 20 (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me. (Galatians 1:11–24 ESV)

I like the version of the story Luke tells in Acts 9 (and has Paul retell again in Acts 22 and 26) because it has drama. Jesus, reaching out, knocking Saul blind and senseless, and speaking to him — “Rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” — and putting Saul in a position of utter dependence on the people he had come to persecute.

And putting them in a position of complete power. All they had in common between them was Jesus.

The conversion of Saul is a new thing. Once, the wrath of God came upon a sinful world, flooding it completely and killing nearly everyone in it. Then it came upon a sinful city in the form of fire from heaven, destroying the entire city and nearly all who lived in it. Then the vengeance of God came as the armies of Assyria and Babylon, to fight, to defeat, to conquer, and to exile God’s wayward, faithless, and disobedient people.

But now, God’s vengeance is something different. Something new. It isn’t defeat, destruction, and exile. It’s resurrection. It’s conversion. Saul, the enemy of the church, fierce opponent of Christ, is met in the midst of his “ordinary” life (just as Peter and his brothers, or Matthew/Levi, met Jesus as they were simply going about their ordinary business) and yanked from it. He is now Christ’s servant, to do Christ’s business, at Christ’s bidding.

Jesus even seems to reassure Ananias that Saul “will suffer much,” though it will no longer be a punishment for wrongdoing, but a real consequence of preaching the Good News of Jesus in a world hungry to hear it. Because the powers that be don’t want this Good News preached.

So Paul will suffer. And die.

But not as an enemy of God. Not as a consequence of his sin. Rather, he will die a beloved disciple. With the rising of Christ, suffering and death goes from a sign of the wrath of God to a mark of God’s favor. It is no longer a consequence of our faithlessness, but of our faithfulness.

Resurrection and conversion, not death and destruction, are God’s final words on our sin. On our rage. On our anger. Our murderous desires. Jesus went there first, and invited us to follow.

Some he called softly and tenderly. Maybe even many. But some, he struck blind, and drug them (okay, us) kicking and screaming all the way to the foot of the cross, to the empty tomb. Where we could see what a love that claims us utterly and completely really looks like.

And how it is little different than wrath. And because of that, God’s wrath does’t matter anymore.

All that matters is God’s all-consuming, all-claiming, and all-encompassing love.

SERMON The Joy of the Lord is Your Strength

I did not preach this Sunday. Instead, I’m working all day. Because I need to work the occasional Sunday. If I had preached, it would have been something like this.

However, I am preaching next Sunday, January 31, at First Reformed Church in Chatham, New York. Worship starts at 10:00 a.m., so if you are in the area, come and hear the gospel. You might even meet Jesus!

Third Sunday after Epiphany / Lectionary 3 (Year C)

  • Nehemiah 8:1–12
  • Psalm 19
  • 1 Corinthians 12:12–31a
  • Luke 4:14–21

1 And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. 2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. 4 And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. 6 And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. 8 They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 11 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” 12 And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them. (Nehemiah 8:1–12 ESV)

 

14 And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. 15 And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.
16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:14-21 ESV)

Long before today’s reading, as the waning decades of the Kingdom of Judah are related in 2 Kings, the word of the Lord — the teaching of God to Moses — was found. By accident, in a dusty corner of temple. It was being cleaned out so Israel could hold something of a great garage sale to raise money to repair the temple. Hilkiah, the high priest of Israel, has found a scroll while rummaging around. A book. The teaching. The torah.

The law of God, the teaching to Israel through Moses, had been lost in the temple, amidst the banners and the silverware and the broken images of false gods. I suspect King Hezekiah had a few “now where did we put the torah?” moments during his reign. And so Hilkiah tells Josiah, the King of Judah, that a book of the law has been found.

“When the king heard the words of Book of the Law, he tore his clothes,” the authors of 2 Kings tell us. Josiah, a good king committed to following God’s teaching and having his people follow that teaching as well, then instructs his priests to go ask God whites in store next for his kingdom. He’s heard the words of the teaching, and he knows just how much Israel has deviated from that teaching.

“For great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.” (2 Kings 22:13)

He expects doom, the doom that has fallen upon faithless Israel to the north, which was conquered and resettled by Assyria because the kings of Israel — and its wayward people — worshiped golden calves, and other idols, including the false and foreign gods of the Assyrians. He tears his clothes, and he fears the worst.

But a woman, Hulda the Prophet, tells the king that his faithfulness has saved Judah, and has delayed the disaster forecast in the book:

19 because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the Lord. 20 Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place.” (2 Kings 22:19–20 ESV)

By repentance and a promise to be faithful, the coming disaster has been delayed, but not avoided. Judgment will still come upon Judah, Upon God’s faithless people. But this turning will push it back a little. Those who are faithful, will see a reward — in their lives — for their faithfulness.

I’m telling the story of the rediscovery of the law under King Josiah, and his commitment to keeping the law, to contrast it with both our Gospel reading and the passage we heard from Nehemiah. And with our understanding as well.

We have gathered today, probably not as many as many people here in the place as gathered that day when Nehemiah read the law to Israel in the square before the Water Gate, to hear the word read. Not the whole Book of Deuteronomy — I doubt many today would have patience for that — but our simple and short readings from Nehemiah, Luke, and Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.

King Josiah was sad, and even afraid, when the book of the law was read to him. He knew how he, and Israel, had fallen short — and what God had in store for Israel. In Deuteronomy, God promises famine, disease, conquest, defeat, exile, and slavery in response to Israel’s faithlessness. God does promise an eventual restoration, if Israel remembers its relationship with God. But failure on Israel’s part to live out the covenant meant doom.

And Josiah saw that doom. He’d seen how it overtook the northern portion of God’s divided people. And he knew it was coming for Judah. For Jerusalem.

And so he weeps. He mourns. He tears his clothes.

Nehemiah tells Israel something different. In part, because Nehemiah is reaping something of the promised regathering. Israel has come home from exile in Babylon, has started rebuilding the long-abandoned city of Jerusalem, and has seen the beginning of its redemption. So Ezra the priest reads the law, and if all Israel gathered at the Water Gate is moved to weep, and mourn, and tear their clothes, and fast — remember the king of Nineveh’s command to his people upon hearing the news of Jonah’s short sermon of doom — Nehemiah, the governor of the province of Judea (because remember that Judah is merely a province of the Persian Empire at this point) has told his people to remember that this day is holy, and they are not to mourn. They are not to fast. They have heard the words of the teaching, and while they know the sinfulness and faithlessness of their fathers, Nehemiah understands they live in the promise.

1 “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. (Deuteronomy 30:1–3 ESV)

So feast, Nehemiah says, east and drink and remember who you are. Remember whose you are. “Do not be sad, and do not weep, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Celebrate. The time for weeping will come — it comes in the next chapter, when Israel as a people tells its and story confesses its sin and its miserable position. Even with the end of the exile, Israel understands, just how precarious and contingent their existence as a people really is. Because they aren’t truly free.

36 Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. 37 And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress. (Nehemiah 9:36–37 ESV)

Still, even as Ezra reads the law to regathered Israel, Nehemiah tells them to celebrate. To feast. To take joy. They may not be free, may not yet live in the fully realized promise of God. But they have that promise. That is worth celebrating.

In our gospel reading, we have Jesus proclaiming, as he reads from the book of the Prophet Isaiah — the captivity of God’s people is over. Good news has come, for the poor, the blind, and the captive. There will be enough for all, the blind will see, and the captive will be set free. And rolling up the scroll, with all eyes fixed upon him, Jesus proclaims — “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus walks into the synagogue in Nazareth and says God’s promise is real and realized. Because Jesus himself is the fulfillment of this promise. His person, his life, his ministry, his coming death, and his resurrection — this is the promise of God made real. He is the freedom Israel yearned for when they confessed their sin to Nehemiah and Ezra. He is the freedom Isaiah promised.

His freedom is ours. He invites us in to it, makes it part of us, makes us part of him. We are free. He sets us free.

There are times to weep and mourn when we hear to clear teaching of God in the torah, when we know how we have failed to keep our end of the covenant with God and face the very real consequences. Josiah was right to tear his clothes, and Israel was right gather in sackcloth and ashes to confess their sin before their leaders and before the Lord their God. When we hear the teaching that convicts us, reminds us, forces us to go to God knowing that God, his promise, his grace, and his redemption, are all we have.

But Nehemiah reminds us that there are times when we hear the words of God and we are to celebrate, to be glad, to feast, to remember that the joy of the Lord is our strength. God’s own joy is is our strength, our protection! We are to eat and drink, and be glad. We have God’s own good news! We can see! We have been set free! So come to the Lord’s table, eat and drink, and remember God rejoices over you! Our days of living in fear and uncertainty, weeping over our fate, our exile, our dispossession, are over.

Because today, the promise of God is fulfilled in our midst.

It Will Never Be Morning in America Again

Over at The Week, Michael Brendan Dougherty has the best — and most accurate — analysis of the phenomenon of Donald Trump that I have yet seen. Trump is channeling the late Sam Francis, paleo-conservative advisor to the Pat Buchanan campaign and white nationalist, according to Dougherty. Trump’s no conservative … he’s simply a patriot and a nationalist.

To simplify Francis’ theory: There are a number of Americans who are losers from a process of economic globalization that enriches a transnational global elite. These Middle Americans see jobs disappearing to Asia and increased competition from immigrants. Most of them feel threatened by cultural liberalism, at least the type that sees Middle Americans as loathsome white bigots. But they are also threatened by conservatives who would take away their Medicare, hand their Social Security earnings to fund-managers in Connecticut, and cut off their unemployment too.

Dougherty goes on to quote Francis from a 1996 piece in Chronicles:

Middle American forces, emerging from the ruins of the old independent middle and working classes, found conservative, libertarian, and pro-business Republican ideology and rhetoric irrelevant, distasteful, and even threatening to their own socio-economic interests. The post World War II middle class was in reality an affluent proletariat [emphasis mine CHF], economically dependent on the federal government through labor codes, housing loans, educational programs, defense contracts, and health and unemployment benefits. All variations of conservative doctrine rejected these…

Yet, at the same time, the Ruling Class proved unable to uproot the social cultural, and national identities and loyalties of the Middle American proletariat, and Middle Americans found themselves increasingly alienated from the political left and its embrace of anti-national policies, and counter-cultural manners and morals.

An affluent proletariat. More importantly, an affluent proletariat that understood how dependent they were on the New Deal (and post WWII) welfare state for their affluence and economic security. Beginning with Nixon, they voted for Republicans not because they embraced GOP economic policies (Nixon was still a Roosevelt/Truman liberal in that sense anyway) but because they saw “welfare” as extended by the Johnson Administration as breaking the implied social contract. The welfare state that supported this affluent proletariat was a welfare state one worked for and earned in. You paid into Social Security for decades before receiving your pension, you achieved something with your educational benefits (such as better paying work), you cared for your family and invested in the future with a government-backed home loan, you contributed to the defense of the country and its overall security by working on defense contracts. All of the “benefits” of the FDR/Truman welfare state were linked to participation in the workforce and in civil society, while too many of the “benefits” of the Kennedy/Johnson welfare state were seen to go to people who did not work for them, who did not hold up their end of the societal bargain that state and social benefits require something from the one who receives.

It’s true that the New Deal, and Truman’s Fair Deal, were largely and purposefully designed to benefit white, male labor. But this is how welfare states, even in Scandinavia (perhaps especially in Scandinavia) work — to receive, one is also expected to give, if only their best effort. Successful welfare states require a great deal of shared cultural cohesion, expectations, and a common sense of obligation and responsibility — something almost utterly lacking in the America of today. Something that began to unravel in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

I come from these people, grew up in their midst, both as a child in the Army and then in the suburbs of Southern California. And I think Francis explains why the conservatism of this this group of people made no real sense to me. Because it wasn’t an ideological conservatism, but rather a cultural and communal tribalism that easily and readily condemned “dependence” on government while at the same time defending and promoting military services (and military pensions), government employment, the GI Bill, VA and HFA home loans, and the like. None of those things were “dependence” because they all involved honest labor, a sense they were earned through work, and were a contribution to the greater good of the community.

The affluent proletariat was racist — as American nationalists almost always have been — but was more than willing to accept non-whites into their midst if those non-whites “earned” and “secured” the same benefits they did through the same labor they did.

These folks voted Republican not because they believed in supply-side economics, or wanted the New Deal repealed. They voted their social and cultural resentments and hoped Republicans would restore the FDR/Truman social and economic order (something Republicans always hinted at in promises) — an order in which security and stability were tied to honest work and participation in community and society.

And that’s where the deal has unraveled. For nigh on 50 years, this affluent proletariat has voted its cultural resentments, hoping for some restoration of social and economic order and getting only economic and social chaos and destruction in return.

But the response of the predominantly-white class that Francis was writing about has mostly been one of personal despair. And thus we see them dying in middle age of drug overdose, alcoholism, or obesity at rates that now outpace those of even poorer blacks and Hispanics. Their rate of suicide is sky high too. Living in Washington D.C., however, with an endless two decade real-estate boom, and a free-lunch economy paid for by special interests, most of the people in the conservative movement hardly know that some Americans think America needs to be made great again.

In speeches, Trump mostly implies that the ruling class conducts trade deals or the business of government stupidly and weakly, not villainously or out of personal pecuniary motives. But the message of his campaign is that America’s interests have been betrayed by fools.

It would have been interesting to see what would have happened in 1992 had Pat Buchanan followed Sam Francis’ advice. It would have made a difference then. Such a campaign, based on resentment and fear, in unlikely to work now, largely because demographic change makes their victory unlikely, even as plurality. I have little sympathy for Trump and his supporters (I will likely not be voting in this year’s general election), because he is a crude, boastful, and ignorant candidate leading a crude, boastful, and ignorant flock, but I do appreciate what happens when a people — the people I come from — understand that for too long, they have been told by elites and the underclass alike: “Lie down and die. You are inconvenient and in the way. Your lives and your wellbeing don’t really matter.”

This has a political consequence. The message of Black Lives Matters, of those seeking “safe spaces” on campuses, is largely the same — Black lives matter, brown lives matter, queer lives matter, and we will no longer accept a political and social order that treats us as less than human, gives us anything less than dignity and acknowledges our rights as human beings and as Americans, denies us safety and security. We will not accept this anymore. The Trump movement is, I think, something similar, the rage of a formerly (but precariously) privileged people who also see their lives as having little or no social or political value. And who are tired of voting for politicians who throw away their livelihoods and their well-being for ephemeral ideological reasons. Whether it’s true or not (it possesses elements of truth, especially in economically and socially shattered parts of the country where life and economic flourishing was always tenuous to begin with), it’s how many in this affluent proletariat appear to see things today. That makes it a force to be reckoned with.

But this is 2016 and 1992, and Trump’s movement will likely lose. And lose badly. What is going on in America is something akin to civil war, as a changing demographic forces the country to alter the implied social contract in ways our founding ideals (this includes the New Deal) don’t easily allow for. I always think of Lebanon when I think of demographic change. The Lebanese National Pact of the early 1940s carved in stone the power and privilege of the then-majority Maronite Christians. But rising birth rates among Sunni and Shia Muslims, and an influx of Palestinian refugees, strained the country’s power relationships, and 15 years of bloody communal war ensued. The Maronites responded with a slide into communal fascism, and supporting the Israelis when they invaded and occupied the country — never a wise move for a nationalist, even an ethnic one. As I understand it, Lebanon’s national pact has never been formally altered, even as Sunnis — and then the country’s relatively poor Shia — were unofficially acknowledged as the majority.

No ruling majority gives up power and privilege without a fight.

Whites still constitute a solid majority of Americans, but are very divided politically. And the appeal of Trump to America’s growing non-white population is tiny. Anything is possible, but some outcomes are more likely than others, and it is unlikely the Trump “coalition” will win. This is the first of what will be many — and likely many very ugly — dying gasps of a people whose America has long passed from the scene. People who will fear more than hope. There was something noble and wonderful about FDR/Truman America, especially if you were white (both sets of my grandparents lived very well in that America), but that day is gone. The sun began to set 40 years ago.

And no amount of braggadocio, no amount of deal making, no amount of bluster, can ever bring it back.

Tradition Versus

I meant to write about this earlier, but the week has been a busy one — I was invited to speak to a theological gathering in Iowa this week, and drove 2,100 miles in four days to get there and back! — and so this has gotten away from me. And I need to be at work soon, so I’ll have to make quick work of this.

Conservative Catholic New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has made much of the yawning gap between progressive Christians and Conservatives, especially their vastly different approaches to the weight given to the historic teaching of the church. Douthat writes that it is always “Year Zero” for progressive Christians (a reference to the Khmer Rouge and their desire to completely reconstruct Cambodian society based on a terrifying amalgam of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist theory and an appeal to “traditional” values of Cambodia’s imagined rural and small town past) who look both to the aboriginal Christian community and to modern times but seem to want to ignore the accumulated centuries of Christian experience, thought, and teaching — especially on sex and marriage.

And again: part of the point of being Catholic, I would have thought, is that we don’t have to keep having these arguments anew in every generation, like a megachurch in the midst of a succession crisis or coping with a superstar pastor’s theological drift; rather, we can treat past teaching as essentially reliable, and indeed treating past teaching as reliable is essential to what being Catholic means.

Now yes, not every question can be settled by precedents, the church must sometimes think and act anew, and other criteria, likes the ones that Martens invokes, can matter for present-day debates.

But the point that conservative Catholics keep pressing in the current moment, without a satisfactory response, is that when the precedents line up the way they do in the case of marriage and divorce, there is a very heavy burden of moral-theological proof resting on the innovators, one that can’t just be answered with appeals to the signs of the times and the movement of the spirit.

Otherwise Catholicism would basically be left in a perpetual year zero, in which just about any change would be possible … and, for that matter, any past development could be simply undeveloped when the time seemed ripe.

Part of the revolutionary/liberationist way of viewing the world is to see the urgency and immediacy of now. “If not us, then who? And if not now, then when?” There’s justice to be done and people to be liberated. The conservative rightly asks — what if we are not the people, and what if now is not the time? Because human history — especially modern secular history — is filled with this fierce anticipation of the ultimate now, and the need to work purposefully toward history’s ultimate end or perfect justice, and in virtually every circumstance the human actors seeking some kind of final resolution to the human condition have been utterly and completely wrong.

Douthat, however, fails in a couple of key ways.

First, he has reduced the church (at least here) solely to its teachings, as if it were nothing else. It is not a mystical body, a called-out community, it is not a place where the Holy Spirit can and will work in a amazing and strange ways. Where new things are done. It not a community of people that is the object of God’s attention and affection. The church in Douthat’s understanding is a subject, with God and the teaching as objects we grasp and comprehend.

I can understand why anyone would reduce the church to a set of supposedly unchanging teachings — this is conceptually easy to handle, and makes faith the acceptance and embrace of certain propositions that confer moral status on acts and actors — and this is some of the church. It it reasonable and well ordered. But this is most definitely not the whole of the church. There is that encounter with God, in which we are grasped and comprehended, where we are not actors, but are acted upon. Where reason does us little good.

In this understanding, we are not a people defined and read by (and into) the story of Israel — we are rules bound and rules setting committee where the teaching never or rarely ever changes. This is a church more reliant on Aquinas and the councils than it is Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Second, there is that simple fact that so much of what the church teaches seems so out of whack with what actually happens in the story of Israel in scripture. From war to sex to marriage to even abortion, scripture itself provides us with examples that do not work in concert with what the story of scripture — or even the torah itself — teach. For example, I am very sympathetic and even somewhat supportive of the anti-abortion position, and that it is coherent with a New Testament and early church ethic of life reflected in the Didache and supported elsewhere in scripture. But I have never heard anyone who is pro-life deal with the test for marital infidelity in Numbers 5, a test mandated by God to Moses which appears to induce a miscarriage — an abortion— in a woman guilty of “defiling herself” by lying “with some man other then [her] husband,” though it is hard to tell exactly what happening because verses 5:20–22 are so very steeped in euphemism (womb swelling and thighs falling away).

I could go on, and I have elsewhere. Now, the church catholic and apostolic believes — and rightly so — that is has a divine mandate to teach, and much of the teaching has sources other than scripture. But that is half the problem. Yes, there are sources of wisdom and knowledge other than scripture, because all scripture really tells us is the story of how much God loved Abraham that God made promises to Abraham’s descendants — promises held on to despite failure, defeat, conquest, and exile — and not so much how to live or organize our communities. This is what it means for the church to consider its history as “Israel shaped.” Even the law given in the torah itself is not followed by Israel in scripture, and while that has consequences for God’s people, God never abandons and never fails to love, care for, or remember his people. We may have a great teaching designed to encourage human flourishing, but God is God and the promises of God are true no matter what condition we find ourselves in.

Finally, there is the matter of God himself vacating his teaching without actually undoing it. The gold standard here is the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. According to the teaching of God to Moses in Deuteronomy 23:1, eunuchs are not allowed to be part of the assembled people of God:

No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 23:1 ESV)

No reason is given here. It is just proclaimed. We are free to contemplate the reason, but in the end, God gives none.

So when Philip found himself facing an Ethiopian eunuch who has been reading the words of the Prophet Isaiah, and to whom he had just preached the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” Philip — and the readers of Acts — likely knew the law. Knew that the Ethiopian was simply forbidden from being one of the called out people of God because God himself had said so.

That was the immutable teaching of God, to Moses — even better than anything a medieval doctor of the church had contrived.

Philip could have simply said no. He could have said “let me think about it” or “let me go to Jerusalem and talk it over and then we’ll do a study about it.” He could have fallen back on the clear and direct teaching of God.

But he doesn’t. Philip commands the chariot to stop, they go down into the water, and the eunuch is baptized. He acts. Because he knows that God has acted.

God doesn’t rescind the teaching. The words given to Moses in Deuteronomy still stand. And yet, God brought to Philip a man who by all rights he could exclude from the assembly and instead, Philip made him part of the body of Christ. Because the Holy Spirit demanded it. Because God put Philip there, in the right place at the right time, to meet someone whose faithfulness could now matter to the assembled community of God’s people. Because sometimes, God does do something new. Because sometimes, now really is the time, and we really are the people.

Douthat (and other conservatives) are correct that too many liberal and progressive Christians have been thoughtlessly tossing away the historic teaching of the church, and have been doing that for some very frivolous reasons — equality and freedom — reasons that will likely not stand the test of time. (Progressives and liberals, for their part, are too busy trying to reason their way through or around or out of things that are not reasonable, because no one wants to be a sinner in need of repentance and penance, and few have looked at Acts 8 and been willing or able to live with the tension of a practice that seems unfaithful to the teaching.) There is wisdom and the Holy Spirit in the accumulated teaching of the centuries, and we are fools to discard it for the vagaries of sentiment and social science. But it would be wise to remember those teachings, however valuable and wise they may be, are also the products of human endeavor, informed by the prejudices of time, place, and culture. They may have lasted the centuries. But they are not infallible. And likely not God’s last word.

Because even divine teaching is sometimes undone by divine acts. By a neighbor, faithfully seeking, right in front of us. Touched by God’s grace.

No Theology of Marriage

Matthew Lee Anderson over at Mere Orthodoxy notes something important about the nature of Protestants — particularly evangelical protestant, but not not exclusively — and their relationship with the state and politics:

For the past thirty years, evangelicals have sowed an anti-political wind, and now in 2016 they are reaping the Trump whirlwind. Having stoked the affections of alienation and disenfranchisement, evangelical leaders have this cycle scrambled to prevent the laity from voting on them. But those political passions have deep roots, which is why popular evangelical support for Trump has not (yet) diminished. In 2010, James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World argued that the Religious Right’s political approach has been shaped by a Nietzschean will to power, which aims to enforce its will through “legal and political means or to threaten to do so,” rather than persuading others or negotiating compromises. This interdependence between the evangelical world and the government has a long history in American life: From Prohibition to the Comstock Laws, evangelicals have been particularly keen to pursue legal remedies for moral problems. Paradoxically, then, while evangelical Protestants have made much in recent years about maintaining a sphere of life beyond the reach of the state (the family, the church, and so on), they themselves have been an instrumental part of the politicization of everything.

This is particularly evident in how Protestant churches approach marriage.

On marriage, the recent source of so much consternation within the evangelical world, the problem of how the church and state interact is particularly acute. As University of Chicago legal theorist Mary Anne Case has observed, evangelical Protestants are uniquely dependent upon the State for their marital practices. As they do not have their own formal divorce or annulment proceedings and courts, evangelicals have outsourced such statuses to the states. Such intimate integration of the church and state, Case argues, has a historical lineage: The Puritans themselves viewed marriage as a political contract, rather than a sacrament, to the extent that in some cases preachers were not present so as to not confuse the church and the state.

Protestants have no proper theology of marriage that does not involve the civil magistrate. “[W]eddings and the married estate are worldly affairs, [so] it behooves those of us who are ‘spirituals’ or ministers of the church in no way to order or direct anything regarding marriage, but instead allow every city and land to continue their own customs that are now in use,” wrote Martin Luther in his Marriage Booklet for Simple Pastors (1529), with an exchange of vows in front of (and not in) the church. Because of this, the Protestant understanding of marriage as solely a civil and worldly affair (though one ordained by God and one which men and women should take very seriously), demands that the church and the state sing in close harmony from the same hymnal, so to speak.

Anderson also notes what happens when this arrangement goes awry:

This narrow identification between the religious community and the political order, however, has generated a strong sense of grievances at the shifts in political opinion, grievances that the Roman Catholic community and Black Protestant churches do not feel as acutely given their long history as outsiders. As Case writes, for evangelicals, marriage law “could be put in service of sectarian ends by groups that substituted capture of the state institution for development of their own clearly religious alternatives.” When those institutions were lost (as the public schools were in the 1960s), an acute but understandable sense of oppression gripped the evangelical political life. Hunter’s analysis concurs, identifying ressentiment as the corollary of the political will to power. For evangelicals,“injury—real or perceived—leads the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on whom they see as responsible.”

Protestants need what Catholics and Orthodox already have — a theology of marriage that pays no heed to the civil order. That can pronounce a “marriage” absent any legal declaration that a marriage exists. Lutheranism, the confession to which I still rather begrudgingly belong, has the tools to do this if Lutherans so chose. Philip Melanchthon, in his systematic theology Loci Communes, came close to pronouncing marriage a sacrament. And this would have helped Protestants think more clearly on the subject. Protestants treat marriage as if it were a sacrament (“it has God’s word on its side,” Luther wrote), but do so largely for sentimental, and not solidly theological, reasons.

(Though to be fair, you can find a lot of tawdry sentimentality about marriage among conservative Catholics as well.)

One of the reasons I am not convinced much of Protestantism will survive its encounter with Modernity is that Protestantism identifies too closely with the means and ends of the nation-state and with liberalism, the governing ethos of the nation-state. (Even the illiberal nation-state.) Protestants seem unable of conceiving of a social order in which they are not active, meaningful, and even powerful participants. In doing this, Protestants have surrendered any understanding of church that is separate from nation and state (this led 19th and 20th century Protestant theologians to focus exclusively on society and state as God’s agents in history, relegating the church to mere social club in mass democratic society, a meaningless relic from a bygone age in which divine agency in history passed to those more powerful than the church), and even as they herald a separation of church and state (at least from the standpoint of governance), they still need the state in ways Catholics and Orthodox don’t — because the churches of Rome and Constantinople created their own governing institutions (to either rule, as Rome did, or to survive conquest, as the Orthodox did). And Protestants fight for the state, for their influence and control.

Because they are theologically lost without it.