Archive for January 2010
Notes from Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, Old Testament Library, (Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1962).
Verse 5: Commit your ways to the Lord, trust and hope in God, who will do everything well.
German: Befiehl dem Herrn deine Wege, und hoffe auf ihn; er wird’s wohl machen.
Note the famous hymn by Paul Gerhardt:
“Befiehl du deine Wege“
was translated by John Wesley and can be found in the old red Service Book and Hymnal, #579
“Put thou thy trust in God.”
Psalm 37 strings proverbs together and is written as an acrostic using the consecutive letters of the Hebrew alphabet to begin every other verse. Citations from Weiser’s commentary follow:
We must not lose our temper [and become furious] with the wicked, but keep trusting in God (page 315).
True confidence consists in leaving the things which are not under [our] control, confidently and patiently to God, who has all things in hand; [we] on the other hand, have only to take care that we faithfully fulfill the task which is allotted to us and do so in the place that is assigned to us (page 317).
The godly, who let everything be irradiated by [their] delight in God, can, as their hearts are filled with that joy, look forward to the fulfillment of the deepest desires of their hearts (page 317).
The Old Testament is aware of the fact (cf. Isaiah 7:4; 30:15) that to be still and wait for God is not something that falls into [our] lap, but is the reward for the victory which we have gained in the struggle of our soul against our own assertive human self; it is aware that this keeping of silence and waiting for God consists in the bearing and enduring of that tension into which [one] is continually thrown whenever [one] would like to see what, in fact, cannot be seen and yet must be believed (page 318).
The blessing of God inspires the godly to acts of generosity and helpfulness, expressed in joyful giving (page 320).
A life lived with God is full of hope and strength; without God it is doomed to destruction (page 323).
(Note that the language has been updated: “we” for “man,” “one” for “he,” and “their” for “his”.)
Thomas Cahill is a popularizer, who does, however, come up with insights in the overview of early religion that he provides in The Gift of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, (New York: Nan A. Talese/ Anchor Books, a Division of Random House, Inc., 1998).
Abraham’s God is not anthropomorphic, in the sense of being a glorified ancestor or as a super-charged human being, writ large and complete with human flaws. You have, for example, Zeus filled with lust and Aphrodite, jealous and vengeful. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was not a cultural god, for the worship of beauty and art, sounding out merely distant concerns of fate, without taking a real relationship with humans. Abraham’s God tested him personally to the limit and required the complete reorientation of Sarah and his life.
His father, Terah, left Ur in Chaldea, left the Sumerian pantheon, the Annunaki presided over by An and Enlil, and especially, the Moon god, Sin and the fertility goddess, Ishtar. The raging human hormones must have distorted the image of both gods and humans. Cahill is not certain what the temple prostitutes did with the victims of their sexual rituals, whether or not they were sacrificed, as they think happened to a king of Uruk and his household. These rituals involved male prostitutes for the temple of Ishtar and female ones for the Temple of the Moon, Nanna-Sin. (I wonder if our word “sin” could be derived from the name of this moon god?)
Abraham, like Terah, his father, was being called by a God of seeing, unblinded, perhaps, by the sexual drive and the primordial fertility anxiety. Yet the issue with Abraham and Sarah is also one of fertility. Sarah calls Abraham’s God, “‘God of Seeing’ and ‘the Living-One-Who-Sees-Me'” (page 71). Thomas Cahill argues that Abraham and Sarah’s relationship with God becomes more intense and the father and mother of faith receive a sense of their own individuality, (even if it cannot yet reflect the self-knowledge of Socrates, I would add). Cahill continues that the flip side of incipient monotheism is the possibility of individual, interpersonal relationships (page 71-72).
To hark back to Sumerian polytheism: Thomas Cahill argues that the Great Mother goddess of the earth as the original god of humankind is almost certainly wrong. “Heaven and its spectacles were the first objects of devotion and deification (page 48). She “probably came to special prominence with the invention of agriculture” (also page 48).
Cahill’s rendition of the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the famous Sumerian epic piqued my interest. What was a wild man before taming? Taming would still relegate such a one to the wild animal world. Was Enkidu civilized by the woman, called a prostitute, Shamhat? It seems she just made him side with human beings, whereas before he had been one with the animals against them (page 27).
Gilgamesh himself is described as the son of Uruk, a goring wild bull and son of the lofty cow, the wild cow, Ninsun (page 22). It’s intriguing to think about the time when cows were still wild, because they are so domesticated today, even if we still fight bulls and bulls still represent a clear and present danger.
We know about breaking in a wild horse. Bull-riders have a little more trouble. But what a time it must have been, when cows were still lofty and wild. Enkidu is a wild man, who left the animals, because of Shamhat, but I wonder if he was civilized to any degree? I believe that even as for us, it was God calling Abraham to point out in which direction our real humanity lies.
Blogging my Thoughts after suicide bombers kill another 37 people and injure twice as many more:
Islamic extremists are succumbing to the powerful death wish and sucking many more completely vulnerable people into the vortex of the abyss of death around them. Where are the religious voices affirming life and strengthening faith, hope, and love? Where is a Fatwa against suicide bombers and all the lives they are tearing out of the land of the living? Where are the Christian voices that take a stand against the technological and secular infliction of death?
Faith becomes active in love. Our difference in faith does not negate the love required between Christians and the adherents of Islam and vice versa, the adherents of Islam for Christians.
The truth is the mother of love, while lies father violence.
Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 24th 2010
Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10 – Psalm 19 – 1 Cor. 12:12-31a – Luke 4:14-21
The Joy of the Lord is our Strength
This sermon is about reading the scriptures, but also reading the Book of Nature, because if God created this universe, then God also speaks to us through nature. But God’s Word issues into a new reality in which we experience the Gospel, which is that he joy of the Lord is our strength!
In Nehemiah, Ezra reads the book of the law to those gathered around the Water Gate of Jerusalem, a place where the impure were also allowed to gather, and the people wept because they had been unable to keep the law in exile. And Nehemiah and Ezra proclaimed sweet forgiveness:
Go your way, eat the fat – [a delicacy that even the children yearned for], and drink sweet wine and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to the Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength (Nehemiah 8:10).
I want to capture that last phrase: the joy of the Lord is your strength! That is the joy of the Gospel, because the people had returned from exile, slaves had been redeemed, and release had been proclaimed from the exile of sin.
That is the Gospel that Jesus proclaimed when he read from Isaiah in the synagogue. (Jesus read scriptures just like Marshall read them for you this morning.) Jesus was anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Oh Yes, the joy of the Lord is our strength!
I’ll return to Jesus’ reading of Isaiah, but look at the Psalm! The whole of nature can be considered a testament of scripture. Usually it is called the Book of Nature. The heavens declare the Glory of God; the vault of the sky is God’s handiwork. They declare the Word of God, because the Word of God brought the heavens and earth into existence: God spoke, and behold, they were created! So one day proclaims it to the next! What do the days proclaim? The Gospel: the joy of the Lord is our strength! One night whispers it to the next: the joy of the Lord is our strength! No speech, no word, no voice is heard, but the Good News goes out through all the earth! That is the Gospel proclaimed by God’s creation.
In the book of nature we have now, however, entered a disturbing chapter. What do we make of this message when earthquakes send shock waves through our souls? The concept of God’s continuous creation has helped me through this test of faith. The creation is not finished yet; it awaits Christ’s redemption. The Word of God will renew the face of the earth, make it people and child-proof, so none of God’s children get hurt. Then again the carnage that earthquake in Haiti perpetrated fills us with horror and foreboding. But the outpouring of heart-felt compassion reminds us of the Good News of Jesus Christ, for the joy of the Lord is our strength and Haiti’s redemption. The rescue teams enhanced by the help of those dogs are signs of the coming redemption, are expressions of the Gospel that Jesus proclaimed.
People were singing songs even while they were buried alive. But through the holes broken through to them, they found release, as they were pulled back out of their graves in the rubble they were buried under. They found the release Jesus proclaimed. (Have you experienced the release of the forgiveness of your sins that we pronounce for you every Sunday?) Christ is the anointed who proclaims good news to the poor, release to those trapped under the earth, recovery of their sight, and healing for their injuries.
The good news is that Jesus reigns and the sinful earth will be redeemed and someday even earthquakes will have to obey the Word of the Lord. When Jesus read from that scroll, he launched the year of the Lord’s favor, the time of God’s love and compassion for those captured by sin and released by forgiveness, because of all those who are sent on God’s mission as the anointed of God. It might be 2,000 years since Jesus launched the year of God’s favor, but his redemption has hardly begun. In his reign, we will experience the sunshine of God’s favor. God’s radiant face will shine on all those who have been released by forgiveness, set free for new life, and sent with the freedom to proclaim the wonderful works of the one who has called us out of the darkness and into God’s marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9), the Gospel realities of our new day.
The horror of seeing all those dead bodies loaded onto trucks to be buried unnamed in mass graves, thinking about all those souls who died under the rubble, and those who died before medical help could get to them, makes us ask, “How long, Oh Lord, How long until we are redeemed?” The planet earth itself is sinful and has not yet been released from its murderous destructive realities for the new heavens and the new earth, the new realities redeemed by Christ, who will make this planet a safe and loving home for all God’s children.
But human sin played a large role in Haiti’s incredible loss of life. Its government seems not to exist for the people and building codes could not have been enforced. Haiti has, however, also been sinned against. It is not only the sin of Haiti, but also our own sin in the evil of slavery and the racism of France and the United States. When the slave rebellion succeeded in Haiti from 1791 to 1803 and they had defeated three French and other armies, (even the Polish fought with the French against the slaves,) they became the first country in the Western Hemisphere to be ruled by people of African descent. They immediately abolished slavery from their shores. The United States shook in its boots, because they feared slave rebellions in the South. France charged Haiti 150 million francs as reparation for the slave-holders, from the former slaves, who had lost 100,000 lives in the struggle for their freedom and they had been worked to death in one of the most cruel systems of slavery in the West (and adding insult to injury), they had to pay reparations to the slaveholders and that reduced them to poverty.
It was Abraham Lincoln who finally recognized Haiti in 1863. That means it took 60 years for the United States to recognize a country ruled by Blacks. France and the United States continued to punish Haiti and they punished themselves with cruel dictators, propped up by countries that wanted to exploit them.
Had Haiti enjoyed a government of the people, by the people, and for the people it would not have experienced such a loss of life. The Loma Prieta earthquake that struck us here was also 7.0 on the Richter scale and only 63 people lost their lives, while in Haiti it is untold thousands. So it was the guilt of our sin and not only that of the earthquake.
But Christ reigns and will set the oppressed free. Look at the rescue teams, the nations coming to the rescue. They are a sign of the love and compassion of Christ, who brings release to the captives, literally from the holes in the rubble for those who were buried alive.
It came way too slowly, like New Orleans once again. But our President stood us proud. How the doctors and nurses are responding! How the armed forces are bringing food and water and medical supplies. Our soldiers are bringing life, not death, participating in an invasion of redemption. That is Gospel, the Good News that Jesus proclaimed so that the love and compassion that Jesus poured out in this world makes us proclaim: the joy of the Lord is our strength!
When Jesus finished reading the scroll, he sat down and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” We can see how it is being fulfilled today in Haiti. But is it being fulfilled today for us? Here today in Bethlehem? Have you been released from your captivity of sin? Have you been released from self-absorption? Have you been released from an addiction, if you suffer from one? Christ the anointed One of the Holy Spirit, who is to-us-from-Heaven-sent, can release you from captivity, set you free, and send you to proclaim the good news that you experienced in your personal life so that others can enter the time of God’s favor, too. That the Good News be fulfilled in our hearing is a matter of life and death. (Next week you will hear about the response of the people of Nazareth. They tried to throw Jesus down a cliff. They felt that he had way too high an opinion of himself. We are always up against resistance.)
What about us here in Bethlehem? Have we recovered the sight of our eyes? Is the old world bearing down on us and making us blind? Will the forces of death overcome this congregation, the forces that are trying to close its doors? The old world is always yearning to pull a congregation out of the reign of God into divisions and factions. It’s the old story, divide and overcome God’s reign.)
Christ is really present here in Bethlehem, not only when we worship here on Sunday morning, but the scripture has to be fulfilled in our hearing in Wednesday’s bible study, in the meetings of the Hagar circle, in our receptions after worship, in the office with Necosha, in the council trying to do God’s business. Shouldn’t the council be trying to do God’s ministry? I’m not sure business and God go together very well, because business runs on profit and following God costs us our lives.
Here in this place we also need to be set free by the Anointed, the Christ, who anoints us to be released from our sin, to bring Good News to the poor, the release of forgiveness for one another. When this congregation recovers its sight, it will see its mission and understand to whom it is sent. Has Bethlehem somehow become buried alive? Does Jesus have to pull us out of the rubble we have been buried in?
Well, today scripture is fulfilled in your hearing: in your opening up your ears, recovering your sight. I won’t attack the rentals Bethlehem hopes for and the fund-raisers that are so prominent in the congregation, but when will Bethlehem ever have a stewardship campaign? Let me quote Luther of old, “There are three conversions necessary: the conversion of the heart, the mind, and the wallet.” It may not mean that those on fixed income give more, but that the mission of this congregation bring untold contributions from people who want to participate in the Good News that Bethlehem is bringing into these streets and the lives that its mission targets. Ah, are our targets the big Whigs? The big Wigs no longer come to this church. Maybe, it’s a good thing or we would have to help Mayor Ron Dellums pay his taxes. But what are we, little Whigs? What are we, chopped liver? God sends us to the little people, those who are invisible to the world, but so precious in the sight of the Lord.
When is the last time that Bethlehem rolled up its sleeves and did evangelism? That is not only the new pastor’s job. Evangelism needs to be membership driven. Studies show that most new members come invited by other members and not by the pastor. Thank God, a young woman was here yesterday with Jennifer, testing the soil behind the Herzfeld Center, to see if it was good for a community garden. Christine was the only regular member from this neighborhood and now she has gone away to college. The community garden is a way to do evangelism and integrate people from this neighborhood with all of you who commute to this church. Or another model of mission, if you like: you have to hoist a flag, raise the cross here, so this whole city knows what Bethlehem is doing, and people come from far and wide to participate in Bethlehem’s mission.
Today scripture has to be fulfilled in your hearing. Christ is really present. You are the anointed. You are sent to proclaim the Good News in this place. Let the Gospel ring through our hearts, our pews, and our streets. The joy of the Lord is our strength! People here need rescue, need release, forgiveness; they need to hear about Christ and the year of God’s favor. +++++++Amen.
Communion Blessing: “Do not grieve, the joy of the Lord is your Strength!”
 See the Prayer of the Day: Blessed Lord God, you have caused the holy scriptures to be written for the nourishment of your people. Grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, comforted by your promises, we may embrace and forever hold fast to the hope of eternal life, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“There were giants in the earth in those days” (Genesis 6:4).
The giants, the Nephilim in Hebrew, were hero warriors of renown. You may have read the great novel Giants in the Earth by Edvart Rolvaag or heard the modern superstition that some planet would near the earth and from it the Nephilim would invade us – part of the 2012 mania. But there is another interpretation – perhaps close to Walter Wink and his interpretation of the powers and principalities.
A person can be a physical giant, but more importantly, a chieftain of a tribe or a king of a whole city-state. Now in some cases, like Gilgamesh or Nimrod, the mighty hunter before the Lord, they are giant strongmen, who also lead their collective, all of whom belong to them and live in their name.
So there is Jesus Christ, the God-Man from Nazareth; but there is also Christ Jesus, all who belong in his body.
Now corporations are covenanted under a name and can be considered modern day giants that bestride the earth. Think of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus and we petty men walk under his huge legs and peep about to find ourselves dishonorable graces” (Act 1.2.135).
Our democracy through our supreme court has bid us place our votes in the voting booth, between the legs of the giant corporations, who can easily hold us away at their great arms-length.
Still, as Martin Luther of old has us sing in “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” one little word can fell them. “The bigger they are the harder they fall.” So let them take counsel even with the powers of the earth: “God who sits in the heavens laughs and holds them in derision” (Psalm 2), because one little word can fell them: “You are my Son, this day I have begotten you!” (Psalm 2: 7). The Word is Jesus Christ, the Lord!
January 21, 2010
Does pragmatism mean the lack of a democratic backbone? The Republicans have clamored as if governmental power and decision making were their birthright. They are really full of bluff and the democrats should call their bluff. Remember how they were just going to privatize social security? Their principles oppose Medicare and they defend Medicare in order to stop the health care reform act.
The myopic self-interest and corporate special interests of Republicans should not be able to trump the common interests of the population of the whole country. With 51 seats in the senate and a contested election, the Republicans rolled over the Democrats. With 60 seats and a real mandate handed to the Democrats in the last election, they have again rolled over for the Republicans.
Our corporations are not economically democratic nor are they necessarily wedded to the interests of our country. The culture wars are used by that brand of politics to get people to vote against their common interests. The pharmaceuticals and health insurance corporations are the elephant in the room. When the CEO of Aetna Health Insurance on the NPR Lehrer News Hour states that he had to take 8 million people off Aetna’s health insurance rolls to make his company profitable once again, then I ask, what is wrong with this picture?
The Republicans are against reform of the unacceptable status quo. It is of course of Republican making in collusion with Democrats that at heart agree with Republican principles. Requiring the 60 senator supermajority really gives the power over the majority to the minority Republicans, who represent 10% of our population, while 90% have to sacrifice their interests for the wrong-headed 10%. Remember that the Dixiecrats went over to the Republican party, when L.B. Johnson passed our civil rights legislation.
Who got us into the Iraq war, making us sacrifice so much blood and substance? Who reduced diplomatic and multilateral possibilities to military tactical and strategic realities? Now even our military has to carry out diplomatic and nation building responsibilities. If war used to be diplomacy by other means, now war requires soldiers to fill the diplomacy vacuum and initiate the policies for nation building.
Massachusetts has universal health coverage and it elects a senator who wants to prevent the country from receiving it, preventing 40 million Americans in other states from the benefits that his state enjoys. That is self-contradictory and an unethical message that Massachusetts is delivering to the senate. Why are the Democrats now hesitant? They have already given up the democratic positions longing for single-payer system and the public health insurance option.
Even in Kindergarten we had to learn socialization skills. But the Republican party is taking an anti-social, myopic self-interested stand. Imagine the fix we would now have been in if the Republicans had been able to privatize social security? The Wall Street crash would have put our elderly, who paid for social security, into a new Republican poor house. Our government is more stable than the boom, bubble, and bust of a current economy. It’s dialectical, of course, in the long run, the government is also dependent on the economy.
Privatized utilities made the citizens of California lose their shirt. Enron in Houston, Texas, was the culprit, with Cheney’s secret energy summit, most probably behind it. Privatized schools, jails, armies! Forget it! We need a healthy public sector that stands as a guardian to our common interests. America needs more effective socialization. The invisible hand that translates self-interest into commonwealth, now seems to be about a Robin Hood in reverse, stealing from the poor to give it all to the rich. Where is the prosperity that the Bush tax-cuts were to deliver? Did the money get speculated in the derivative markets, insured by credit default swaps and take all our brokerage houses down, and would have taken our whole economy down as well, if our government had not saved them?
How can we allow health insurance to be employer based, when we now have 10% unemployment and no public option?
“That government is best which governs least” is an apt principle, if good government is internalized. I do not need to regulate my dog with a leash, if the dog has internalized the point of it: to stay near me and respond when I call to keep it out of harms way.
One more point. I believe the growing edge for Americans is socialization. We should not play off the individual principle against the magic that people can do when they are together, whether privately in corporations or publicly in the government. Like we need a healthy body in a sound mind, we need a healthy community with creative individuals who take initiatives. The individual and the group should not be played off against each other. In the words of Teilhard de Chardin, uniformity is a problem, but true unity differentiates, it does not confound.
Emil Durkheim insisted on the reality of social facts that could be studied like biological facts, even though they had an ontology of a higher order.
John Searle writes concerning “understanding the ontology of socially created reality” that observer-relative features of objects can provide epistemic objectivity, which for Searle is still a subjective ontology.  His example is that of a rock used as a paper weight. The latter is an observer-relative fact, while that it is a rock is an intrinsic ontologically objective fact. Because Searle adheres to tenets of naturalism, he states, “There could not be an opposition between culture and biology, because if there were, biology would always win.
Now Searle uses the concept of culture rather than society here, even though he is trying to understand the ontology of socially created reality. Sociological forces, however, are very real, in which natural forces play a small role, revolutions and wars, for example. Sociological realities can even play a large role in natural disasters, witness the weak institutions of Haiti ravaged by political and social turmoil and the resultant poverty.
These thoughts are intended as an explanatory preface to Durkheim’s moral critique of biological evolution that supposedly predominates so powerfully over culture and society.
 John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality (New York: the Free Press, 1995), see pages 12-13.
 Ibid., page 227. Compare this to George Herbert Mead’s citation. It is obvious why Mead is used to defend against biological reductionism in psychology and he is useful when it appears in philosophy, as well. Mead states, “Out of language emerges the field of the mind. It is absurd to look at the mind simply from the standpoint of the individual human organism; for although it has a focus there, it is essentially a social phenomenon; even its biological functions are primarily social.” George Herbert Mead, On Social Psychology, Anselm Strauss, ed., (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1956), p. 195.