Friday, August 31, 2012

Reflections from the Pastor – Song of Songs 2:8-13

Song of Love
Last week we concluded our series on King David with the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem by David’s son and successor, King Solomon (I Kings 8).  That temple stood for close to 400 years before it was completely destroyed by the Babylonians.  It was later rebuilt after the Persians conquered Babylon and the 2nd Temple stood for over 500 years before it was finally and permanently destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 (A.D.).  It is hard to overstate the importance of the Temple in the life of the people of Israel.  The Temple was the center of their religious and civic life.  You can see the centrality of the Temple just by reading through any of the Gospels.  Jesus’ final week was spent in and around the (2nd) Temple.  Jesus cleared the moneychangers from the Temple courtyard; Jesus taught in various parts of the Temple; Jesus’ trial before the Council of Elders (The Sanhedrin) was held in the residence of the High Priest Caiaphas, which was attached to the Temple.  Even today, the one part of the temple that remains – the western wall of the Temple complex, now known as the Wailing Wall – attracts visitors from all of the world around the clock.
Without the Temple the piety and worship of the people of Israel needed to change drastically, and this change led them to enter more and more into the text of the Old Testament.  In fact, shortly after the events of the year 70 that led to the destruction of the Temple, a group of Rabbis met at a place called Jamnia to decide the canon of the Old Testament.  One of the books that was debated was the Song of Songs, which is also known as the Song of Solomon in honor of Israel’s reputed greatest lover.  The book itself never mentions God once, but is rather a collection of beautiful love poetry, some of which is very suggestive and erotic.  For the most part it takes the form of a dialog between two lovers – a man and a woman.  But it is the beauty of the poetry that eventually led the Rabbis to accept this book.  In fact, in the absence now of the Temple and, specifically the Holy of Holies, where it was believed God’s presence resided, many of these Rabbis, and those who followed them, saw in the poetry itself an evocation of the Holy of Holies.  Rabbi Akiba, one of the Jamnia Rabbis, is quoted in the Mishna: “Though the visible Temple be destroyed, through the medium of the Song (of Songs) it is still possible for those who pray to enter the presence of ‘The King’” In other words, entering into the text and poetry of the Song of Songs is an experience of the very presence of God!
So how should we approach this beautiful book, which even in translation is both beautiful and suggestive?  There have traditionally been two ways that Christians have approached this book.  One way is to take the text at face value as a celebration of human love and specifically of physical love.  God pronounced the work of creation as being “very good”, Tov (in Hebrew) which literally mean fantastic and unbelievable; and part of that creation is the unique ability for humans to experience and express this love. 
This approach has made some readers and interpreters very uncomfortable, even in the liberated environment of our own modern society.  Some simply cannot accept that THAT is in the bible!  Which leads us to the 2nd approach – to interpret the book of Song of Songs as an allegory; that is, a book length metaphor of God’s love for human beings.  In the hands of the early Christian church fathers the Song of Songs was seen specifically as an allegory for Christ’s love for the church.  In fact, this understanding was so popular that the number of commentaries on passages from this book is higher than any other book in the Old Testament.  The 11th century French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux actually wrote 86 sermons on Song of Songs and barely got past chapter 2!
So our question then is how should we approach this book.  The poetry is incredibly beautiful, and in and of itself is, as Rabbi Akiba suggested, an experience of the holy.  But do we have to choose?  Do we have to make a choice between God’s love and human love?  Is it necessarily that one is good and the other is bad?  Do we need to make a choice between the spiritual self-giving love (agapĂ©) of Christ and the celebration of the gift of physical love (eros) that can develop between two human beings?  No, I don’t think we have to choose. I would like to suggest that this book itself shows us that the love of God and human love are related and interwoven.  Love in every form and manifestation is a creation and gift of God’s.
Not only that but love is also a transforming experience. Falling in love changes your life, it changes your priorities.  One minute you are (seemingly) in control of your life and then next minute love has changed everything.  We have all experienced this to some degree or another.  Literature, plays, movies and songs of all ages have expressed this exact same thing over and over and over again.  Human love is transformational – to say “I love you” is to give yourself to another, in a way that we might not be inclined to if we were to make a rational decision. But love is not rational. We don’t decide to fall in love (have you ever tried to make yourself fall in love?) It comes to us, often unexpectedly as a surprise and a gift.  In this way then is human love a “foretaste of the feast to come” for it reflects the love which God has for us; the extreme self-giving love shown to us by Christ. In our experience of human love we experience a taste of heaven!
To be in love with someone is to find your whole being tied up with the beloved, to want to be wherever the beloved is, to want good things for him or her. You can no more forget the one you love than you could forget your own name or forget that you are alive. No one else will do. You want to share yourself, all of yourself, with the beloved, and you want all of him or her in return. Separation is restless sorrow. In reunion the world seems complete again. Those who are caught up in such a love for another can catch a fragmentary, often fleeting glimpse of the love God has for God's beloved. God loves Israel that much. Christ loves the church that much. Christ loves each of us as if we were the only one. In the words of the human lover we can hear, if we are attentive, the deeper echoes of another invitation: "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away"1.
1. “Reveling in Romance” by Martin Copenhaver – Christian Century, August 1994.
 Thanks to Peace Lutheran Church is Sioux Falls, South Dakota for these wonderful graphics and permission to use them.
The sermon based on this text and outlined above was preached by me at Peace, on Sunday, September 2, 2012.  The audio for that sermon can be found and listened to on the media page at wartburgparish.com


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Reflections on I Kings 8 – “The Temple Is Dedicated”

Reflections on I Kings 8 – “The Temple Is Dedicated”
Well, we have come to the end of the story.  King David died last week and his throne has passed to his son Solomon.  Solomon then initiates a series of building projects, the most of important of which is to build the Temple to house the Ark.  When it is finally complete it is an amazing structure, encased in gold and utilizing only the most precious and expensive materials.  Built with slave labor the work is now complete and today the text today is a portion of the story of the dedication and a part of the public prayer that Solomon prays.
In many ways this text is a good summery of all that we have experienced over the summer.  Many of the themes that we have touched on in previous texts are lifted up in this text as well.  The narrator, for example, makes sure we see Solomon’s faults: his grasping for wealth, his extravagance in spending, his use of slave labor and his absolute power.  These things will simmer throughout his reign and ultimately will be the spark that re-ignites the civil war between the northern and southern tribes that will eventually lead to a split of the nation.  But this is way in the future.  For on the other hand we also see the faithful, devout, humble and thoughtful side of Solomon in this text.  He is sincerely awed by the presence of the Lord and the 7 petitions in his great prayer lift up the need for confession and forgiveness, the centrality of community, the importance of openness and inclusivity in the community and the importance of compassion – to name just a few of the themes he touches on.  It is amazing actually that at this very nationalistic event Solomon the King calls on the nation to be a nation of people who are open and faithful to God and who regularly reach out to God to ask for forgiveness; and at the same time a nation of people who are conscious of their being a part of a community, who recognize their responsibility for one another and, not only that, but a nation where this community sensitivity is extended to visitors and strangers and those who are not part of the nation.  In short, Solomon calls on the people to love God and love their neighbor; to set aside their natural inclination to selfishness and embrace compassion, and to be ready to ask for forgiveness when they fail.
It seems like we may have heard basically that same message in different words in the Gospels:
When the Pharisees heard that he (Jesus) had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  (Matthew 22:34-40 – pew bibles, NT p. 19)
We call this the “Great Commandment,” and it is a passage that I suspect you have all heard before in some form.  By the way, it is not called the “Great Suggestion.”  It is called the “Great Commandment.”  In other words this is a gift from God to us that gives us a foundation for living lives that are full and complete.  It is not yet another rule to check off the list, it is rather a path that Jesus sets before us for entering into the life of God.  But we can also see that this is not unique to Jesus, but that Solomon also understands this and, using different words, is lifting up the very same thing.  Set next to each other the words of Solomon and words of Jesus give us a very unique perspective.  It could be argued that Jesus was addressing individuals or at least groups of individuals, while Solomon is addressing the nation.  But in both cases the message is the same: Love God and love your neighbor (and let’s not forget that when asked to define neighbor Jesus tells a story – “The Good Samaritan” - that makes it clear that we are neighbors to the entire human family, regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation or anything else!)
In the public and political discourse of our great nation I have noticed a very disturbing trend.  Following the lead of an American 20th century atheist philosopher (Ayn Rand) selfishness is being redefined as a virtue, and compassion is denounced as a sign of weakness.  We are turning inward more and more and focusing on our own selfish wants and desires.  Anyone who disagrees with us is condemned and anyone who is different than us is shunned.  And not only that, but certain preachers have tried to repackage this as a form of Christianity.  It’s not.  It is the most insidious of heresies – that which causes us to block out others and the needs of others.  But Jesus says that if we want to experience the Kingdom of heaven we should not only look outside of ourselves to reach out to help and care for others; and that we need to embrace compassion and recognize that God’s number one priority is people – human beings!  Especially human beings who are in some kind of need – hungry, poor, hurting , grieving, lonely, sick and so on.  And this is not presented as an option – it is a commandment!  It is the Great Commandment!
And Solomon lifts up the same and presents it to the nation.  According to Solomon, we as a nation are a community who takes responsibility for each other and who has compassion and cares for one another.  And when we fail, as we no doubt will, Solomon entreats the people to turn to God looking for forgiveness and Solomon entreats God to forgive and send us forth again seeking to reach out of ourselves in love, selflessness and compassion. We would do well to heed these words!
There are so many of us who are searching for God.  I see this in social media, and I experience it in different ways each and every day.  But most of us seem to think that we will find God inside of ourselves, or in solitude in nature, or in a set of dos and don’ts, or in political positions of one sort or another.  “I can be spiritual by myself,” we tell ourselves.  So, who needs church?  The words of Solomon and especially of Jesus resound loudly today with an answer to these questions. Who needs Church?  You do – because it is that community which is the foundation of your life of service to your neighbor and to God.  And where do you find God?  You can find God everywhere, but you will find God most intently and profoundly in your neighbor! 
 Thanks to Peace Lutheran Church is Sioux Falls, South Dakota for these wonderful graphics and permission to use them.
The sermon based on this text and outlined above was preached by me at Peace, on August 26, 2012.  The audio for that sermon - along with the Psalm - can be found and listened to on the media page at wartburgparish.com .


Thursday, August 16, 2012

Reflections on Ends and Beginnings– I Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

We have come to the end of the story of David.  One might have expected David’s story to end in glory, but rather it ends with a bitter old man being manipulated by one political faction; and with David giving Solomon instructions for taking revenge on everyone who David considers an enemy.  It is not a very glorious end, David seems simply bitter and petty.  And for his part, Solomon’s start is not so glorious either. Solomon has to secure a lot of support in order to succeed to the throne, for he is not the next in line – his older brother Adonijah is the next in line.  So much of the text that surrounds today’s text is telling the story of how Solomon manages to outmaneuver Adonijah and then how Solomon eliminates all of his political opponents.  This part of the story is somewhat unpleasant and certainly is not very spiritually enlightening – or is it?  The fact is that God is still present with David as he ends his days and with Solomon as he begins his rule.  Both of these men are very flawed rulers; both of these men break the Law of Moses when it suits them; both of these men are very adept at playing politics.  But at the same time both father and son are sincerely committed to YHWH.
It is tempting for some believers to want to escape from the sinfulness of the world.  We have seen this down through the ages going all the way back even to the time of Jesus. Some have both believed and proclaimed that God is not to be found in the messiness of every day life; in the dirty processes of human life and interactions such as politics and interpersonal relations of all sorts; or in business or recreation.  So many people have attempted in escape this dirty world to a safe and secure and holy place like desert refuges or monasteries or enclosed communities of like believers.  And in these places people hope to find God.  The problem is that all too often the messiness of human life invades the holy places, and political intrigue, sinfulness and difficult interpersonal relations are just as prevalent in these escaped places. 
The modern version of this for a lot of us is to compartmentalize our lives – our work is there, our family is over there, our hobbies and sports go there and then in the corner we put God and church.  The difficulty with this compartmentalization is that it assumes that church and God are just one activity among others that we can pull down from the shelf when we need it.  Otherwise we try to keep the religious stuff from interfering too much with our lives, and we certainly try to keep our faith convictions apart from other activities.  At the root of all of this is the assumption that God is not interested in the human experience of life in all of its good and bad.  Like the people of old we want to relegate God to a special “holy” location and then lock God in there so God cannot interfere with our lives.
Every year at Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the savior of the world whom we proclaim to be God incarnate.  For Luther the doctrine of incarnation is a foundational for it teaches us that God cannot be relegated to “holy” places.  In fact, God is not interested in “holy” places.  God is interested in the dirty, messy and wonderful ups and downs and struggles and celebrations of human life.  In Jesus, God enters into human life in a profound way.  Of course, God has always been interested in the human experience as we have seen in our series on David. But in Jesus God enters into our world in a different way – through human birth.  And, not only that, in order to make the point even more obvious the Gospel of Mark has two important events which frame the Gospel story: 1:10 (pew bibles – NT pg. 27) and 15:38 (pew bibles – NT pg. 41).  In the first passage Jesus comes up from the water after his Baptism by John and the heavens are ripped apart;  in the 2nd passage Jesus breaths his last breath on the cross and at that very moment the curtain of the temple, which separates the holy of holies from the dirtyness of the world, is ripped apart!*  God is interested; God is involved; God is present in every dimension of human life. God is interested, involved and present in every dimension of your lives!  You cannot put God up on a shelf and bring God down when it is convenient.  God is calling you to embrace the fact that God is a part of every aspect of your lives; that God knows you better than you know yourself and that God loves you, cares for you, is committed to you and will never abandon you.
There is another part to the lesson for today.  It is, I’m afraid a whole other sermon.  But let me just point out that Solomon’s sincere prayer for wisdom is a prayer which acknowledges that God is a part of life and that the wisdom for which Solomon prays is not something he wants for himself – it is something he asks God to provide him for the sake of the people.  The gifts that God gives to us are not for me alone.  Whether your gift is leadership, wealth, insight, musical or artistic, teaching, care-giving and on and on – these are gifts you have been given to give to others. 
The people who were part of the church in Corinth did not understand this.  They thought that whatever was theirs was theirs and they felt no obligation to anyone else.  Paul writes a strong letter making it clear in no uncertain terms that we, who are members of the body of Christ, are all a part of one another and that the gifts that God has given to us individually are given to the community through us.  This is what stewardship is all about!  Solomon’s prayer is a prayer of stewardship.  It is not just about money – though money is a part of it – it is about all of the gifts which God has given to us and how we use those gifts for the community; and how we give them away in our life in the church and in our daily lives.  As we move closer to the fall, which is the traditional “stewardship” time, I leave you with this question to ponder – what gifts have you been given by God?  And how are you giving them away and using them for the benefit of others in your family, your church and your community? 
* Mark is not alone in framing his telling the Gospel story with the Incarnation and the promise of God’s never-failing presence.  Matthew begins his Gospel with announcing the name of the child to be born as “Immanuel – God with us” and he ends with the great Commission promise – “lo, I am with you always.”  Both Luke and John, in different ways, proclaim the Incarnation at the beginning of their Gospels and conclude with resurrection appearances that make it clear that Jesus is still with us.
 Thanks to Peace Lutheran Church is Sioux Falls, South Dakota for these wonderful graphics and permission to use them.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Reflections on "Nathan Condemns David" - II Samuel 11:26-12:15

Coram Deo – Ever Before God
This week we read the 2nd part of the sad and sordid story of David’s taking of Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah. To fully understand this climactic ending to the story we do need to review the first part of the story.  So, in a nutshell, here’s what happened last week:
1.     David does not accompany the army out to the field of battle but remains back at the palace.
2.     One afternoon, after getting up from his afternoon nap on his roof, he sees a woman, Bathsheba, engaging in the purification ritual bathing and he wants her.
3.     He takes her, uses her and discards her.
4.     She informs the King that she is pregnant.
5.     David summons her husband, Uriah, home from the front, plies him with wine and tries to get him to go home and sleep with his wife.
6.     Uriah refuses.
7.     David sends a note back to General Joab (with Uriah!) that Joab is to place Uriah on the front lines and see he doesn’t survive.
Then in verses 16 through 25 we get the story of how Uriah dies and David’s assuring Joab that everything is fine (apparently even Joab was displeased with this sordid business).  Bathsheba mourns her husband and then is taken as a wife by David and put into David’s harem of wives.
Ok – Good job!  The cover-up is successful. No one knows and everyone can just move on now!  “Don’t fret about Uriah,” David tells Joab.  "It’s too bad about poor Uriah, but get over it.  I got everything under control!"
Well not exactly.  It is not over yet for there are still terrible consequences to come, but to really get inside of this story a little more we need to focus on two Hebrew words that appear at crucial moments and are used in a dramatic way.  The first word is “send.”  David sends his servants to inquire and then to take Bathsheba; David sends for Uriah; David sends orders to Joab to have Uriah murdered; David sends for Bathsheba in order to make her his wife.  Ultimately, God sends the prophet Nathan to confront David.  David’s sending was an effort to keep his own hands clean, it was an effort to evade responsibility.  God’s sending calls David to account and forces him to see the enormity of what he has done.
The other key word is “take.”  David sends servants to take Bathsheba (11:4 – the English word in the translation is “get” but the Hebrew word there is “take” and is the same as the word used as follows).  In Nathan’s parable the rich man takes from the poor man (the word is used here twice); In God’s judgment of David, as pronounced by Nathan, the word is then used three times.  Think of a hammer crashing down and with each blow it gets louder and louder and louder.  1 – 2 – 3!
The late 18th century French playwright Beaumarchais composed a poem (in his play "The Barber of Seville") to describe how slander works.  It begins, he said through the slimy character of Basilio, as a whisper and slowly, slowly it gets louder and louder and louder and louder until it is a deafening as the sound of a cannon.  That is also the way Sin works.  Like David we also might think we can do things quietly in secret and no one will know.  But Sin against another often takes on a life of its own, it gets out of our control and will overwhelm us.  “You are the man!”  Nathan says to David.  “You are guilty!”  David had raped Bathsheba and murdered Uriah, because he could.  Jesus ups the ante from this and says to us that when we judge others, when we harbor anger we are just as guilty.  Nathan points at us as well – “You!”
How does David respond?  He confesses – “I have sinned against the Lord.”  “I am guilty.”  How do you respond? Are you inclined to make excuses or can you with David confess to God and ask for God’s mercy?
In many old manuscript copies of II Samuel it is interesting to note that the scribes placed a long space right between verses 13 and 14.  Why?  The tradition was that Psalm 51 was to be prayed here.  Have mercy upon me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my offenses.  This story as a whole, and the parable in particular provide us with an opportunity to take a close look at ourselves and to see how and in what ways we have failed and fallen short.  Have we been open to others, have we been patient and gracious to others or have we joined in the chorus of meanness and judgment that is so incredibly prevalent in our society, especially among those who call themselves Christians.  Leaders urge their followers to “take a stand for Jesus” and the result is judgment, rejection, pain and suffering – which is always what happens when we begin to presume to know the mind of God and ignore the Gospel of grace.  A popular saying a few years ago was to ask – “What would Jesus do?” – well, this question is still relevant.  And the answer is clear.  If you want to know “what would Jesus do” just look at the Gospels.  What does Jesus do?  He reaches out in love and grace to those rejected and judged by society – He feeds and feasts with the poor, hungry and the outcasts - He heals all those who reach out to Him and are in need of healing.  Most importantly, Jesus does not judge.  Remember the woman caught in adultery – Jesus’ response is “let the one among you who has no sin cast the first stone.”
Perhaps it is good for us to be reminded that we live our lives coram Deo – ever before God.  And that when we join in with the crowd judging or bullying others, and  while others of our group are slapping us on the back in approval, we need to remember that God is also watching.  With that in mind, ask yourselves - are you proud of what you have said or done? Or posted online? Is it Christ like? Is this how Jesus would have acted or responded?  Perhaps, like David, we all need a Nathan to point at us to remind us that we too are in need to repentance and reconciliation – with God and with others.  It is not up to us to judge – we are called to love!
David’s reaction to Nathan is perhaps the most important part of this story for us.  For David does not get defensive, or express denial or get angry or filled with self-rightousness or even have Nathan arrested.  David immediately repents!  And this gives us an insight into the true purpose of God’s judgment. “The mark of Nathan’s success is not that he tricks David into condemning David’s own actions. It is not even when Nathan cries out, “You are the man!” Instead, Nathan is successful when David confesses—for that is the true purpose of God’s judgment. God judges us not to condemn us, but to transform us by bringing about repentance. Whether the word “repent” is in Hebrew or in Greek, it means to “turn around” or “turn back.” Ultimately, that is God’s deepest desire: that we turn from our sinful ways and return to God. There may be consequences to our sinful acts, but God is always willing to put our sins aside and restore us to right relationship.”  (Pr. Shawnthea Monroe - "Pastoral Perspective" in the "Feasting on the Word series - supplement!)
Thanks to Peace Lutheran Church is Sioux Falls, South Dakota for these wonderful graphics and permission to use them.