Ain’t Gonna Study War No More

a sermon for the 1st Sunday of Advent on Isaiah2:1-5; Psalm122; Matthew24:36-44

 

I ain’t gonna study war no more.

It’s a line from an old antebellum spiritual. That neat word “antebellum” is just Latin for “before the war.” This song of not studying war was sung before the Civil War, our biggest domestic study in war. But for the depth of that study, I’m not sure how much we find that struggle edifying. What did we learn?

Yet the insistence of these notes—I ain’t gonna study!—with the cheery jangle propelling us away from war, is a song that echoes on, harmonizing words from our 1st reading where the prophet Isaiah envisioned the coming day when “neither shall they learn war anymore.”

We continue waiting and hoping for when we and all nations shall walk together in the paths of peace. I ain’t gonna study war no more.

 

I ain’t gonna study war no more.

This morning we practice putting those words in our mouths, and go on to speak peace, to proclaim peace, to offer the good news of peace. As the children lead us, we’ll hear and receive that declaration of peace. And shalom. And salaam.

Along with the maybe more familiar Hebrew word, the Arabic is kept in our mouths because it often seems muffled, choked back. Where shalom is announced as God’s intention for the world, the Arabic version almost sounding the same—salaam—somehow comes across as if it’s less desirable. If one seems prayerfully biblical and the other conjures terrorists, then we need to keep hearing and speaking. Salaam. Shalom. The Hebrew is not closer; the Arabic is not further. They need to speak and listen to each other for us to practice peace. I ain’t gonna study war no more.

 

I ain’t gonna study war no more.

Thinking about the salaam/shalom pairing also perhaps highlights our Psalm, on praying for the peace of Jerusalem, a meeting place of the tribes, coming together. “Jerusalem’s a city meant to be at peace with itself,” we read. This internationally cherished place is a holy city to three sibling religions, three squabbling siblings.

So how do those interactions go? On the Holy Land trip, we saw lots of M16 automatic weapons in that city. We saw people forced to wait through checkpoints to get in. We met people who were barred for life from going to the city because they were born outside of it, because they were male, because they were presumed and labeled violent, a prejudging unjust prejudice. Not at peace with itself.

Wandering the city, we heard of the powers, the armies, the empires, that controlled the city through history. Jesus lamented over it, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! If only you had known the things that make for peace.” We saw where the powers killed him, crucified him, Jesus who came with a word of peace, came in nonviolence. The way of empire doesn’t know peace. I ain’t gonna study war no more.

 

I ain’t gonna study war no more.

In Lutheran schools we visited, Christian and Muslim students study side-by-side. They have breaks for separate religious studies. But being able to study together paves the way of peace, from elementary school up.

It marks a striking contrast with those soldiers with the M16s. Almost all Israeli young adults serve two or three years. The settler we met was proud of his three children being trained to fight. He kept saying, “We want peace. It would be nice. But instead we have to be well trained to fight.”

It makes me think of Einstein saying “you can’t simultaneously prepare for and prevent war.” One side was preparing for war. The Lutheran schools were preparing for peace. How do we convince ourselves what to study, and with what aim?

I ain’t gonna study war no more.

 

I ain’t gonna study war no more.

Isaiah talks also of “beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks,” the effort to “transform the metal tools of death into the tools of life.” A recent book updating this idea says prophets like Isaiah “were provocateurs of the imagination. They weren’t trying to predict the future. They were trying to change the present. They invite us to dream of the world as it could be and not just accept the world as it is.”* This dreaming and imagining is a practice, then, of how we study.

You might know that the former pastor of this congregation, inspired by the book inspired by Isaiah, took a blacksmithing class, ironically studying under a guy with an NRA bumpersticker. Jeff took up an idea of transforming guns into garden tools, to melt down assault rifles and handguns, to take violence out of our hands, and rework it and forge it into tools for life.

That’s dramatic and beautiful. But more than guns, many of us might have wallets in hand. Maybe the transformation we want to pound out of the system, to melt down and bring out a new creation, is to change the huge portion of our taxes that go to the military and invest them instead in the Department of Agriculture. To support family farms. Into ELCA World Hunger. There’s a lot of possibility to dream and imagine. I ain’t gonna study war no more.

 

I ain’t gonna study war no more.

It can be a difficult resistance. When there is news about North Korea nuclear weapons and about shootings in schools, when we’re told to fear people who are different from us or trying to stay woke against racism, when we see semi-new news of unrest in Iraq or ignore Syria because it’s no longer news, when hate speech fills our ears and minds, when this bad news invades our lives, it can be demanding. It can seem like the only wise response to nukes is nukes. That a bad guy with a gun should be met by a good guy with a gun. That the world is scary, so we need to be prepared to defend ourselves

But is the study of war really helpful? Does it seem like it’s slowing the spread of violence? Do our lives feel safer? What if we responded not with threats and bigger barriers but with humanitarian care and an open hand and an olive branch? What do we not accept of the world as it is? What could be? I ain’t gonna study war no more.

 

I ain’t gonna study war no more.

This, of course, isn’t just international relations. It’s not just neighboring Palestinians and Israelis. It’s personal resentments and animosities, when it’s easier to complain and argue, those studied perspectives of looking askance at each other, looking down on, looking warily at. It’s the retrenched hardness around some Thanksgiving tables, or who was absent. It’s breaking retaliatory cycles by refusing hostility. It may feel like we need remedial coursework to continue this study of peace, the way of Jesus!

I ain’t gonna study war no more.

 

I ain’t gonna study war no more.

But if it’s mostly our work, of changing the federal budget, of changing our culture, of changing our family, of improving ourselves, I start to despair and my imagination gets overwhelmed.

So I look for good news. I remember this is God’s good news, that we will walk in the paths of the Lord. I take some confidence in Isaiah’s vision that all nations will stream to this postbellum future, and in Paul’s vision that sees the hour is now nearer.

And I listen to Jesus. His word subverts our usual patterns. When we want security and try to protect ourselves, when we are steeped in fear, when castle laws fake fortify us in our abodes, the notion of a thief breaking in is terrifying. It’s exactly the sort of image we would study systematically against.

But Jesus breaks in, perhaps coming to steal away our mis-education, to rob us of false notions of security, to burgle our self-pretension, to thieve the thinking that we can study war-into-peace.

After all, he steals our sin, leaving grace and peace instead. He replaces our shortsighted hatred with a vision of all people as siblings, all creation joined in loving sustenance. He breaks in to take death, and life and health come in its place. “Renew our lives again; Lord Jesus, come and reign!”

 

 

 

 

 

* p20-21, Beating Guns: Hope for People Who are Weary of Violence, Shane Claiborne and Michael Martin

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a funeral sermon

john-goltermannWith Thanksgiving for the Life of John Fredrick Goltermann

(4 June 1935 + 31 December 2016)

Ecclesiastes 3:1-13; Colossians 3:1-4; Luke 6:20-23; Psalm 23

 

While celebrating John’s life, I’ve also been lamenting—partly since I met him but more in the past two weeks that I didn’t really get to know him.

I’ve been his pastor for nearly the past year, but our visits had varying amounts of connection, though he was always congenial and direct, graceful and genuine. Sometimes my stop would be as brief as a couple sentences, when he’d answer my question about a visit with, “Yes, why don’t you come back another time.” Other times we chatted more, still with his answers nearly as brief, a short few word replies to my inquiries. It wasn’t easy to draw him out or learn about his life.

Making it even more difficult, once when he was most talkative, I later learned from Jean and Fred that the dementia had interfered and John wasn’t actually remembering the stories and details as they’d actually happened. Still, perhaps the main point of that visit and the thing that I don’t have any reason to doubt was his statement that he had to thank God for all of his blessings. Even as he wasn’t feeling up to getting out of bed, and even as dementia was robbing him of his life, he spoke of offering thanks.

That is why we’re here today, to be able to say thank you to God in honest and enormous ways, sometimes in spite of everything else. Today, we say thank you for the gift of life, for sharing it with John through the years. We say thank you for him, even though he could be difficult to know, and even in spite of sadness at his death. We give thanks because the promise of life from God overcomes all obstacles, even in this moment of sorrow and loss and finality.

Again, to back up a bit, I wish I’d gotten to know more of John. There was a sparkle in his eyes as he talked about his fundraising work and its many relationships and what that work meant for him. That delight fits with our first reading from Ecclesiastes, which concluded “that there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy [yourself] as long as [you] live; [and] moreover, it is God’s gift that all should take pleasure in their toil.” John discovered that pleasure in his toil, from what I’ve heard and learned. And I’m also told that he did pretty well at Ecclesiastes’ vision of being happy and enjoying himself, including old days of tennis and the move up to the U.P. and walks around town here and Eva’s reflections of dining in Chicago with her father and toasting a great nephew’s 21st birthday and his quick humor.

Still, along with that Bible reading, we realize it wasn’t all those good times and happy memories. As much as we’d wish for those things to continue, the best Ecclesiastes can tell us is that we can’t figure out why God put our times together how they are. There are times to be happy and times to mourn. A time for embracing, but also when that doesn’t happen. A time to be born and a time to die. We may wish otherwise. We may not have the faintest clue of why God has done it this way. But we easily observe that this is how life goes.

We heard this same reading from Ecclesiastes as one of our Bible readings in worship on New Year’s Day this year, in a service inviting us to look back at the past year and forward into the next and to discover God’s blessing amid all of it. In general, there may be plenty of discontent about 2016 and trepidation for 2017. More specifically, that was also the morning when I announced with our prayers that John had died the day before, on December 31st.

Perhaps that gave us reason to look into 2017 as a relief from John’s suffering, for not having to struggle any more with the diminishment of life from what it should have been. But we also have to admit we’re looking into this new year without John, and that makes something obviously not right.

That sense of wrong Ecclesiastes was content—or at least resigned—to leave to the uncertainty of God. But that isn’t always the faithful answer. Our faith, which discovers God most closely and importantly revealed for us in death on a cross, has a tendency to look in the obscurest places for blessing. One example is that core verse we read from the 23rd Psalm: we don’t only look for God’s presence and blessing amid full tables with overflowing cups or along still waters, verdant pastures, and right pathways, but the most vital verse and dearest for us in that Psalm declares the shepherd accompanies us through the darkest valleys when we’re overcome by the shadow of death. That assurance is far from Ecclesiastes’ sense of enjoying life, but is the heart of trust and hope in this faith we share.

The reading from Colossians also shares an unexpected assurance that seems appropriate for John. Describing John’s personality, I’d use terms like introverted or reserved or a man of few words, keeping to himself. Colossians labels it that his life was hidden. There were things we didn’t know or maybe couldn’t understand about him, about his choices or his illness. Well, this reading says that even what we think we know about each other or about ourselves isn’t the full reality. In fact, these details we claim for our identity—our families, our work lives, our shortcomings, the history we may have forgotten, our favorite sports teams—these are as good as dead amid the fullness we have of life in Christ, though that remains unseen and unknown. Who John was and who we are is hidden in Christ, and will only be fully known through that love and the glory of resurrected life. That’s an astounding word of promise.

One last example today is in the words of Jesus typically known as the Beatitudes. These are words of hidden blessing, of unexpected and surprising reversals that God’s grace always brings to us. With the sense of those words from Jesus, we could continue to expand our faithful vision of this unseen reality with Beatitudes especially for John today:

Blessed are those with memory loss, for they will be remembered.

Blessed are the hard to know, because in them we nevertheless know God.

Blessed are the introverted, for in them we will find humor.

Blessed are the reserved, for from them we appreciate honesty of compliments.

Blessed are the strong in body, for in them we witness gentleness of spirit.

Blessed are the hard-working, for they will be given rest and leisure.

Blessed are we who weep, for we will sing Alleluias.

Blessed are you in death, for then you have the assurance of eternal life in Christ Jesus. Amen

 

http://www.cressfuneralservice.com/obituary/170972/John-Goltermann/

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God Calls David

sermon on 1st Samuel 16:1-13
Picture this if you can: an elected leader has lost trust, leading to the conclusion that a farm kid from Nowheresville could probably do a better job.

The elected leader in this case is a king. He is elected, since the people said they wanted a king like other nations, even though God warned them that he’d misbehave, in taking their sons for wars, and taking their daughters for other things, and taking their property in taxes, and mainly looking out for his own ego.

That elected leader King Saul has, indeed, lost trust. So today’s reading is about that farm kid (or shepherd boy) from Nowheresville being chosen as a better possible leader. (We know the name of this little town of Bethlehem—even through the birth of Jesus—only because this farm kid was from there).

This reading, then, has a lot to do with the criteria for choice. Along with our Gospel window in your bulletins, where Jesus suggests we should judge with right judgment, there is the central line in our story, “The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” So our question may be how to judge in that godly way, how we might go about not seeing what we see with our own eyes, but look at the situation or person as God would, to look with God’s eyes.

Now, when Saul was chosen as the first king of these Israelite people, it seems his physical outward appearance did matter. Twice Saul is described as standing “head and shoulders” above the rest. Maybe that means he was imposing, or a big guy and ready to lead a struggling nation into battle. It also says there was not a man who was more handsome. All of that seemed to make him a crowd pleaser as he would rile up the troops and put on a spectacle.

So there would be good reason to suspect similar traits and trends as a replacement for Saul is being chosen. For his part, Samuel (who often had the role of speaking for the Lord and was frequently spoken to by the Lord and who maybe should’ve had some clue of the sort of God we have), Samuel went to anoint the successor, to mark the next one as chosen by God.

Going to the family of Jesse, and judging with society’s standards and not with God’s eyes, Samuel presumes he’s going to anoint the oldest. In a patriarchal system, he would be the one chosen, the one to receive more inheritance, through whom lineage was traced, the power player.

Still in our time, we make presumptions of birth order, that eldest children are the responsible ones, the overachievers, the brightest and best, the shining stars of the family. Of course, I say that as an eldest child myself! So my assessments and judgments of my place, staking out of turf, my presumptions of grandeur are not unbiased. If you’re also an oldest child, you may resonate with my bias.

But, of course, God doesn’t, and so in discernment moves past the eldest.

Neither is God impressed with the handsomest or the strongest, though that continues to contradict our societal standards. These two categories remain gender confines. Boys are supposed to be strong. Girls, to be pretty. These so frequently become defining markers of judgment for or against us, the criteria we bask in or struggle against. A favorite song, introduced to me by my friend Alissa, is from the Canadian band Barenaked Ladies and begins with these lyrics:

When I was born, they looked at me and said
what a good boy, what a smart boy,
what a strong boy.
And when you were born, they looked at you and said,
what a good girl, what a smart girl, what a pretty girl.

We’ve got these chains hangin’ ‘round our necks,
people want to strangle us with them before
we take our first breath.*

Now, we don’t know if the sons of Jesse felt like they were good and strong and smart and pretty. Maybe as the pageant paraded past Samuel, each son was confident he bore enough of those traits to be picked, to measure up well by those standards.

But, of course, each is passed by at this special worship service, until seven are done and gone and none is left. Except for the youngest, who was so far outside of possibility that he didn’t even bother to show up, didn’t do his makeup or get slicked up and gussied up, because he was too down and out. He was out with the sheep, out working on his ruddy tan in the wilderness, out and about, and not about to be chosen.

Except that Samuel called a halt to the worship service and sent those big brothers out to find the runt and bring him in, because God won’t be confined by the likes of our judgmental criteria.

When young David arrives, we must note he’s described as having “beautiful eyes” and handsome. That’s an interesting detail, since earlier God specifically bypassed the ones who were handsome, tall, etc. etc. I’d say the point is that none of those characteristics either qualify or disqualify a person as God’s choice. Though we often aim for and select such qualities, God doesn’t just choose the opposite.

So while not selecting the eldest son, neither did God choose David simply just because he was the youngest. After all, those of you who are the babies in your family may be used to being the favorites, so that wouldn’t break apart our criteria much, either.

A further distinction is also important: when it says God doesn’t judge by outward appearances but looks on the heart, we’re liable to label that as some sort of internal characteristic. We’d claim that God doesn’t care how big your muscles are but does care how big your heart is. Or that God chooses those of the right disposition, the caring and kind and passionate, and that your outlook and attitude should match God’s view.

I disagree. This isn’t saying David’s personality or perspective was more in line with God’s and that’s why God chose him. After all, in the next chapter this little David is eager to suit up for battle so he can try to become a hero by killing the giant Goliath. And it’s not too long before he’s a womanizer, eventually having one of his soldiers murdered so he can satisfy his lust for the man’s wife. David will get in bitter disputes not only with foreign enemies but with his own sons. He’ll have such a violent reign that God will forbid him from building the temple, since he has too much blood on his hands.

And yet he’s chosen.

Not because he’s so right, either on the outside or the inside, but simply because God chooses him. This story of choice is just to remind us that God chooses differently than we would. God chooses abundantly, gracefully, lovingly. God is so eager to operate in this way that that adulterous relationship of David’s won’t be swept under a rug but will remain obvious tracing down to his distant descendant Jesus. Yes, the family tree of Jesus explicitly points out his genealogy as the son of another man’s wife (Matthew 1:6). Because God won’t be confined or limited by our sense of propriety.

Similarly, this week in our book class on Trouble I’ve Seen, about “changing the way the church views racism,” we were discussing how “social hierarchy enables a…group to make their values and norms dominant” and define what a respectable life looks like. That in America is the “trinity of money, power, and respect,” and also says the way somebody wears their pants can be wrong, or if somebody says “ain’t,” or gets a criminal record, that skin color can disqualify from respectability.** But those ways we put others down and elevate ourselves are not how God sees things. These judgments even come in to affect our systems of justice, which unjustly see some people as inherently worse. That system is not only broken, it is by definition ungodly, anti-christ, against the perspective of our God who refuses to judge by appearances.

Again, those of you on Facebook have seen or been part of the #MeToo campaign in these days, following the news about Harvey Weinstein’s horrible misbehavior. But it’s not just him. This movement shows far too many women (and some men’s) experience of sexual harassment and abuse, that society’s standards for men results in dehumanizing effects and pushing into the shadows. #MeToo isn’t only for women to say, “I’ve also been hurt by predatory men” but saying “I also have voice, have value, have vitality.”

Though that should go without saying, with that, we remember that the way society elevates your status or has cast you out is not how God judges. Judging a gender as weaker or inferior, as objectifiable or as objectionable—these types of human disapproval cannot be in line with God’s view. Instead, in such desperately critical moments, the times of crisis and prejudices and judgment, you have the overwhelming guarantee and unconditional promise that God sees you. God loves you. God chooses you.

It is not, is never, based on what sort of income you have or the status of your job. It’s not the car you drive or the cleanliness of your house. It’s not how you look, when you feel that your appearance is wrong, unattractive, old, of less ability than you wish you had, not how you’re living up to your potential. It’s not based on power or prestige, your insecurities or what displeases you about yourself. It’s not what the neighbors think or what your parents would say or how well you rate. You have the guarantee that God sees you to the core. And when God sees you, God loves you. God chooses you.

As David was seen by God, loved by God, chosen by God, as he was anointed for a role, so also you have been anointed in baptism. Even perhaps from the time you were an infant, that mark of oil makes you a messiah, a christ, one chosen by God, loved by God, seen all the way to your heart and judged as just right for who God wants you to be. It isn’t that you’re waiting to measure up, to improve until your characteristics are of a higher quality. It’s not and never can be that you aren’t good enough, because you have already been judged rightly by God, with the judgment that ultimately matters. God sees you. God loves you. God chooses you.

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_i0yZTeTZ4Q

** Drew Hart, p132-137

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mini mini sermon for outdoor worship #3

Our theme is detours, and this mini mini sermon and our gathering itself take a detour, because of the press conference. In planning, we expected tonight to focus on how we find ourselves into or out of unexpected situations, and relating that to God’s story. Well, tonight provided us just such an unpredicted occasion.

So instead of a Bible story of Exodus travels, we ended up hearing God’s law for the people, a reminder of the dead end of slavery in Egypt, but how God surprisingly led to the land of the free. Knowing that history, we are told, should shape the treatment of foreigners, strangers, and immigrants, who are just as worthy of God’s intentions for life. God would not and will not tolerate exclusion. This is liberty and justice for all, and also grapes and olives and bread, and paychecks and a fair hearing. For All.

Maybe it reminds us that no dead ends are quite as dead as they seem, that no barriers are impermeable, that from God’s perspective what’s illegal is treating people as outlaws, that goodness shouldn’t be hoarded but is always to spread and be shared, and no sense of entitlement should close us off to each other, that foreign tongues can speak God’s blessing, that God loves you just as God loves all your neighbors.

(referencing this event: https://www.facebook.com/events/277205616370397/ )

14Don’t take advantage of poor or needy workers, whether they are fellow Israelites or immigrants who live in your land or your cities. 15Pay them their salary the same day, before the sun sets, because they are poor, and their very life depends on that pay, and so they don’t cry out against you to the Lord. That would make you guilty. 17Don’t obstruct the legal rights of an immigrant or orphan. Don’t take a widow’s coat as pledge for a loan. 18Remember how you were a slave in Egypt but how the Lord your God saved you from that. That’s why I’m commanding you to do this thing.
19Whenever you are reaping the harvest of your field and you leave some grain in the field, don’t go back and get it. Let it go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows so that the Lord your God blesses you in all that you do. 20Similarly, when you beat the olives off your olive trees, don’t go back over them twice. Let the leftovers go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows. 21Again, when you pick the grapes of your vineyard, don’t pick them over twice. Let the leftovers go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows. 22Remember how you were a slave in Egypt. That’s why I am commanding you to do this thing. (from Deuteronomy 24:14-22, Common English Bible adapted)

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lectionary 26b Care for Creation Commentary

19th Sunday after Pentecost in 2018

 

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

Psalm 19:7-14

James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

 

It’s not often a pleasant thing to admit, but I can relate to the complaining, whiny, grumbling, grousing character of the wilderness-wandering Hebrew people. It is a difficulty while traveling for knowing what can and should provide sustenance. I typically have my bag of sunflower seeds and a coffee thermos to keep me going, an ample supply of water, and…what? Peanut butter sandwiches will get me only so far. I wait for any fresh fruit or sliced veggies to turn bruised and slimy. As I try to keep putting on miles, covering ground and making distance, at some point I’m often faced with a difficult decision of what I can stop and purchase. When traveling with a group of youth from church, this whole process is greatly accelerated, and it’s often only a matter of minutes before somebody want to stop for a super-sized dose of fast food.

 

When travel happens along American interstate corridors or in the utopia (a word invented to mean “no-place”) of airports, the options are minimal and familiar. The same burgers and identical potatoes and soft drinks. Choices that are low in cost and low in nutrition and low in variety.

 

The people in Numbers have only recently left Mount Sinai. They’re still not even 14 months out of slavery in Egypt, not too much more than a year beyond that most special meal of remembrance and celebration and symbolic meaning, still fairly fresh from Passover, but they’re exhausted of traveling, with its limited food choices. It may have been a miracle that they had manna to eat day after day in ample quantity, but it may also be a miracle that I can find the same spice blend six chicken nuggets for a buck about every 15 miles at speeds that mean I have the opportunity nearly five times per hour.

 

Their complaining is introduced in a way that reminds us it’s an inappropriate response to grace: “The rabble among them had a strong craving, and wept again” (Numbers 11:4). They lament the loss of the Egyptian smorgasbord: free fish! Plus cucumbers, melons, leek, onions, garlic! It reminds me of the mouth-watering goodness and extravagance of the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box that is delivered to my house by my farmer! And—quite notably—that sounds nothing like the fast junk food that ends up in my belly when I’m traveling.

 

Of course, in our culture this isn’t only a distinction of being on the road versus arriving in the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey and with orchards and cattle on a thousand hillsides. Our whole lives are on the go and eating what does not satisfy (thinking in part of Isaiah 55:2). Or maybe we’re—again—more like the wilderness wanderers than we’d care to admit. In one of the verses cut out of this pericope, it says they would eat meat “until it comes out of your nostrils” (11:20). Maybe not exactly oozing out of our nose, still our infatuation with fatty fast foods has overflowed our body’s normal capacities, forgetting the delectable leeks and melons in a faraway foreign land.

That isn’t to say this passage is prompting us toward yet another dietary fad (“Healthy on the Go! Take the Egypt diet with you!”), but does prompt us toward reflection on how our bodies and interactions with food are part of our relationship with God and with creation, and perhaps on where our desires lie. In that way, even to rail against a certain kind of eating as detrimental to life expectancy may skew the focus of our faith.

 

This comes to bear perhaps more intensely with the 2nd reading. James assures us that “the prayer of faith will save the sick” (5:15). That may be a confounding or debilitating word for some who hear it, who have prayed fervently, who have asked to be added to the prayer chains in all their friends’ churches, who have had visits from their pastor, who have participated in rites of healing and been anointed with oil, who nevertheless remain sick.

 

The danger in this focus is the sense that if you don’t get what you want, it is because your faith is not strong enough. It’s certainly not only selfish concerns or individual matters of illness and disease. James goes on to tell the story of Elijah and the drought (5:17-18; see 1st Kings 17 & 18) as if it is only a matter of Elijah praying that determines whether or not rain will fall. (Note the distinction in the original that it is the word of the LORD that says there will be a drought, not the prophet’s own word.) If it were a matter of our fervent human prayers, then we ought to be able to pray hard enough to get rain for our crops or to stop forest fires; we should be able to pray for torrents to stop when they are causing flooding; we should be able to pray our way out of climate change.

 

One possible positive part of this difficult passage is this emphasis on community. Prayers are asked of and offered by the elders of the congregation (5:14), and there is something in the prayers for healing that is also (or perhaps even primarily) the healing of relationships (5:16). We need not read this passage to say that sickness is the result of sin; we can perhaps better understand it to say that sin and the breakdown of relationships is the sickness itself. As we forgive and seek healing together in community, we end the sickness. In light of the example of Elijah and the drought, we must observe this is not merely an individual’s prayer, but affects human relationships (including a widow and her son in 1st Kings 17) and also is a prayer of healing and relationship with the rest of creation—the air and weather patterns and crops and ravens and leaders of nations.

 

We might see an emphasis on those relationships in the Gospel reading, as well. Under a broad heading “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40), Jesus broadens our view of who is accepted into community. This includes wonder workers doing deeds of power who aren’t explicitly among the small group of followers or disciples of Jesus. It includes the “little ones,” often taken as among the references of Jesus’ concern for children, but also standing directly in contrast to last week’s Gospel reading request of John and James wanting to be the greatest; this is blessing for those who cannot see themselves as great, but as obscure and weak and ineffective or impotent and little. (See, for example, Donald Juel’s Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Mark: “The term ‘little ones’ is not restricted to children, though they are not excluded. The term applies to followers of Jesus who are to think of themselves not as great but as small.” p135) And—far from being able to call down rain from the heavens—Jesus promises reward for those who are able to offer or accomplish so little as sharing a cup of water.

 

It’s not about being thought so much better than others, if little people and little actions still share great blessing. It’s not about being in the right place at the right time (like Eldad and Medad who were not at the special ceremony but nevertheless receive a share of Moses’ spirit and prophesy, Numbers 11:26). It includes us, whether or not people follow us. It includes the sick and the sinful who are still part of the community (like in James).

 

If that is our measure and value, then it also invites what we can get rid of, what’s fit for the trash heap or the burn pile (to take a more literal reading of “Gehenna” as the ancient landfill outside Jerusalem, rather than extrapolating it into eternal fires of Hell). In Jesus’ words, we may pluck out eyes, sever hands, amputate feet when they threaten to lead us astray. Maybe we also think about these as parts of community, parallel in that way to Paul’s imagery of “the body of Christ” (see, for example, Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man on this).

 

Most productively, rather than pondering which of our individual body parts may be ready for surgical removal, or wondering which of the people in the pews around us we’d like to toss out to fester in the compost pile or extinguish from the assembly, maybe we best pay attention simply to what gets in the way. Do our fast food diets hurt relationships, with our selves, with God, with neighbor, with the rest of creation? When do our wants or enlarged appetites seem to take ultimate priority, and when do our special meals sustain us for the journey? What in the practices of our traditions obscure these relationships, when some of our classic hymns make it seem like God’s blessing is something only for another realm after death? How do our prayers not get diverted to salvation that happens in eternal heavenly clouds, but relate to the really present clouds of rainfall and a changing climate? For which relationships should we be seeking restoration? When would illness or concern about the effectiveness of our prayers preclude the larger wellbeing of God’s wholeness? When do our views of insiders vs. outsiders or our sense of morality and propriety obscure God’s larger work in the world? When are we so focused on quantity of life that we ignore how God really intends for us to live, to be alive?

 

In the end, these Bible passages remind us that God’s abundant and wonder-working Spirit is on the loose in the world, ahead of all of our presumptions, and we join for our small part in this miraculous ministry.

 

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