Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Reading Ramblings – December 6, 2020

November 29, 2020

Date: Second Sunday in Advent, December 6, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85, 2 Peter 3:8-14, Mark 1:1-8

Context: The further we move into Advent, the more we turn our eyes from the horizon and Jesus’ promised return and back towards his first advent. This week we are still rather firmly fixed towards the future, though. But unlike the prophetic readings the last few Sundays of the Church year, there is a sense now of anticipation. The language is far less harsh and dark. Certainlyt here is a recognition of the transience of our earthly lives, but also a hope that there is more than this, and greater as well. And that more and greater is not sourced in ourselves but in our God. We also get our first look at the other figure most prominently associated with Christmas – John the Baptist.

Isaiah 40:1-11 – Isaiah 40 marks the second major section of Isaiah, and a change of gears from the opening third of the book. A major theme is the restoration of God’s peopleand land after a prophesied exile, an event fulfilled over a century later when the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem and take her population into exile. Isaiah conveys the Lord’s revelation that the restoration of Jerusalem and Judea will be a real and actual historical event, but it will also serve as a foreshadowing, a sneak preview of a complete and total reconciliation and restoration of all creation, something begun and accomplished in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, and yet to be fully revealed in his anticipated return. The language in this chapter is then both prophetic and now historical, accomplished in the reign of Cyrus after his defeat of the Babylonian empire. But it is also a reminder of what we look forward to, and the comfort spoken to the people of Jerusalem and Judea in exile a century after his death is a comfort spoken to all God’s people who have lived and died waiting for the final restoration of all things. This restoration will not be accomplished by his people but by God himself coming to his people.

Psalm 85 – The sons of Korah descend from the Korah of Numbers 16. He and his immediate family suffered an unhappy fate due to disobedience but his sons survived (Numbers 26:11) and became wardens at the Tent of Meeting and later doorkeepers to the First Temple built by Solomon in Jerusalem. Somehow this eventually evolves into a role as song writers or performers, and eleven of the psalms are credited to them. This psalm is a petition for help, beginning with a faithful recounting of God’s mercy and help in the past (vs.1-3) followed by the formal petition for help now (vs. 4-7). At verse 8 the voice changes from the communal voice (likely recited by the entire congregation) to an individual voice (the chanter or leader), who says he will listen for God’s response, knowing that God will respond and respond favorably while warning the people to obedience. Verses 10-13 are a poetic description of how things will be when God has answered his people’s prayer, and the extensiveness of the language leads us to understand it to be a depiction of how things will ultimately be when God answers ultimately the prayers of his people in sending his Son back in glory to manifest his victory over sin, Satan and death.

2 Petter 3:8-14 – Very important verses that remind us God’s judgment and vision are infinitely better than our self-centered, sinful and broken perspectives. God has in view all of creation history from beginning to end and therefore his timing is always perfect and always ultimately towards our benefit, even if we don’t feel it be so in the moment. Peter concludes by hearkening back to the imagery Jesus himself used to describe the last day in all it’s incredibleness and unexpectedness. We are therefore to be constantly in a state of waiting, but also waiting in peace. If we trust God’s timing is perfect we can endure the difficulties of the moment, the losses and the joys in their proper perspective and without allowing them to become idols. Only when our perspective is properly aligned with an eye constantly on the horizon can we hope our vision of the current moment will be more clear.

Mark 1:1-8 – Mark echoes Isaiah’s words, and in doing so sets the stage for his entire Gospel, a stage already set in verse 1where Mark clearly states that Jesus is in fact not only the long-awaited Messiah but the incarnate Son of God.. John the Baptist is the first piece of that puzzle, fulfilling the role Isaiah mentions and Malachi (4:5) prophesies. John the Baptist is the first indication of the Messiah’s imminent arrival, an Old Testament style prophet the likes of which haven’t been heard of since Malachi’s day. Instituting a new practice in Judaism, baptism. John not only sounds the part of the prophet he looks like it, reminiscent of Elijah’s attire (2 Kings 1:8), and the people recognize that something big is going on as not just the city folks in Jerusalem but all of Judea goes out to not only listen to him and see him but to confess their sins and receive his baptism.

John the Baptist is often quickly dealt with or overlooked entirely in many churches today, but he remains a crucial element of prophetic fulfillment and evidence that something larger was going on, orchestrated by God himself. Jesus will later attest that John the Baptist is the next most important person in all of salvation history (Matthew 11:11), a claim that surely should cause us to marvel just as much as the Judeans did 2000 years ago.

Book Review – Common Lectionary: The Lectionary Proposed by the Consultation on Common Texts

November 28, 2020

Common Lectionary: The Lectionary Proposed by the Consultation on Common Texts

I use the Revised Common Lectionary nearly every Sunday as the basis not only for the readings in worship but the sermon. This has been my habit since entering the ministry. I rationalize that it keeps me honest to some degree, rather than focusing on texts that I like. It forces not just my parishioners but me to come into a wider range of Scripture than I might opt for left to my own devices, though at other times I realize it probably limits my range of Scripture choices. But it also is a point of unity within the larger body of Christ, and it’s always good when someone else says they had the same readings at their church or the church they were visiting.

All that being said, my knowledge of how these particular readings were selected is not all that deep. Sometimes it’s frustrating where they start or stop the readings. It’s like stumbling into a conversation without knowing what came before. So I keep my eye out for explanations on this process and how we ended up with the readings we have, so when I found this booklet online I ordered it ASAP.

It’s basically the notes behind the Common Lectionary, a first effort at harmonizing the reading selections of various Protestant denominations, each based off the Roman Catholic Church’s Ordo Lectionum Missae of 1969. Though the Catholics got the ball rolling, various Protestant groups modified the original 3-year reading cycle to fit various theological emphases or doctrinal matters. So an effort was made to provide a single lectionary option acceptable to a diverse range of Christian denominations. The Common Lectionary would result in the early 80’s, and it would be further adapted into the Revised Common Lectionary that my denomination uses today.

This booklet clocks in at just over 100 pages, but provides background information as to the three major considerations that went into the formation of the Roman Catholic lectionary – Calendar (having to do with the liturgical church year and the relation of each Sunday and other special days to the overall calendar and to one another); Cult (having to do with understandings of worship, such as the historic understanding that worship centers around the proclamation of Jesus Christ in the Word and the receiving of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist); and finally Canon (having to do with which sources to choose from, which includes not just the issue of utilizing the Apocryphal writings or not, but also which Old Testament readings to include and how they are used both in their own context as well as in service to the Gospel reading for the day).

It then provides the full listing of recommended texts for each of the three years of readings, and indicates whether the agreement on those particular texts was a real, virtual, or near consensus. There are then explanatory notes for every single set of readings across all three years, indicating very briefly why these verses were seen as appropriate in light of the liturgical season as well as in relation to one another. Fantastic! A great reference for me each Sunday of each year of the lectionary cycle, particularly if I’m having trouble seeing the links for myself. I’ll probably start incorporating tidbits of this into the Ramblings I post here each Sunday as well.

Definitely a great resource if you’re interested in the readings of the Revised Common Lectionary. It’s not an exhaustive resource, more like the quick notes somebody would have taken during various meetings and discussions, and then organized.

Book Review: What If Everything You Were Taught About the Ten Commandments Was Wrong?

November 23, 2020

What If Everything You Were Taught About the Ten Commandments Was Wrong? by Erick Tokajer

A parishioner gave this to me to read and I was immediately captivated by the title. Not that I really expected I was going to find out that 3500 years of understanding about the Ten Commandments was incorrect, but still. What a curious assertion, at the very least! The back cover info on the author only increased my curiosity. Tokajer is a rabbi in Florida and apparently a Messianic Jew – a Jew who believes Jesus is the promised Messiah of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). I believe this strongly influences his hypothesis and goal. He interprets the Sinai event that start at Exodus 19 in terms of prophecy regarding The Messiah/Jesus. This seems to be his primary purpose, to show how Jesus is the prophesied fulfillment of all the Law and in particular the portion of the Law indicated as the Ten Commandments.

He begins be referencing what he calls Biblical Fables – false ideas or impressions people improperly credit Scripture with. Facts that aren’t actually in Scripture at all but have been repeated for so long many believers are convinced are in Scripture. This premises his basic assertion – the Ten Commandments as we have come to know them are wrong, and another Ten Commandments are actually the right ones. That’s a pretty strong assertion – here’s how he lays out his argument.

Chapter 1 – Tokajer claims the only reason Exodus 20 is associated with the Ten Commandments is because of the helpful headers most Bibles have, quickly summarizing what happens in the following section. These are different than the chapter and verse designations. These headers are not part of the Biblical text, but are added by publishers to make it easier to read through the text. He argues the actual text of Exodus 20 nowhere uses the Hebrew for ten commandments (or more accurately, ten words). This is the crux of his theory – the text doesn’t designate what we know of as the Ten Commandments (vs. 1-17) or otherwise set these instructions aside as special or unique in any way. Therefore, we have been incorrect in doing so.

It’s an interesting approach. True, Exodus 20 doesn’t – in the text itself – specify or designate or separate vs. 1-17 as the Ten Commandments linguistically. However the structure of Exodus 20 does. Verses 1-17 are the only words God the Father speaks directly to the people of Israel. At the end of this section the people freak out and ask God to just talk to Moses and have Moses tell them what was said because they can’t handle the power and majesty of the presence and voice of God the Father. The remainder of God’s instructions to his people are carried through Moses, not voiced directly from God to the people. This is a pretty interesting separation of vs. 1-17, the traditional Ten Commandments, without designating them as such textually.

Chapter 2 – Tokajer here deals with (somewhat) what I just pointed out above. Going back to chapter 19 (based on how Chapter 20 begins, with the English equivalent of then – meaning what follows is directly tied to or a continuation of what happened before. He notes how God is calling the people together to enter into a covenant with them, and that this process is interrupted by the people themselves because of their fear. God then continues through 31:18 sharing with Moses what to say to the people, and concludes at verse 18. Nowhere is there any textual indication of the Ten Commandments, but rather this forms the beginning of 613 commandments, roughly organized into commandments, judgments and ordinances (p.23). Tokajer doesn’t see the break at v.18 as significant to the uniqueness of vs. 1-17. Verses 1-17 are simply the beginning of a very long list, according to Tokajer.

Chapter 3 – The major point here is two different sets of covenant terms and tablets. In Exodus 24:1-4 Moses reads to the people of Israel what God has spoken to him and writes it all down. Then again it is read in 24:7. In both cases, the people of Israel unanimously agree to abide by the terms stipulated there.

However in 24:12 God invites Moses up to the mountain to give him additional information – tablets of stone written by the finger of God. These are referred to as the Tablet of Testimony as distinct from the Torah or the Book of the Covenant, which is what Moses read to the people in 24:1-4 and 24:7. Tokajer goes off course at the end of the chapter, linking to Revelation 13:8ff.

Chapter 4 – Tokajer now goes on to 34:1 and a discussion about the second set of tablets God provides to Moses after Moses smashes the first set in Exodus 32:19 during the Golden Calf incident. Tokajer rightly points out the grace of God in providing this second set. Unlike the first set, which God provided both the stone and the writing for, Moses will provide the stone for the second set and then God writes his words on them again – the same words that He inscribed the first/smashed stones with.

It is here, 34:14-28, Tokajer argues, that God lays out the terms of the covenant relationship – the real ten commandments as indicated in the text itself. In 34:1 God indicates that what is to follow is the same as what was said before, and in 34:28 God uses the term Ten Commandments/Words for the first and only time. In other words, everything from vs. 14-27 are the real Ten Commandments as indicated by God, rather than a Bible publisher trying to make the text easier for people to read.

These commandments are:

  • You shall have no other gods/idols
  • You must keep the Feast of Matzah (Passover)
  • You must redeem your firstborn sons
  • You must keep the Sabbath
  • You must observe the Feast off Sukkot and the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost)
  • You must assemble all the men before God three times a year
  • You must not offer the blood offering with yeast
  • You must not have leftovers from the Passover meal
  • You must honor God with your firstfruits
  • You must not boil a kid in it’s mother’s milk

Just a little different than what we’re used to thinking of as the Ten Commandments!

Chapter 5 – Tokajer now goes into these Ten Commandments in a bit more depth, and particularly from the prophetic aspect. He sees each of the commandments as pointing towards the Messiah, and links each command to New Testament verses to create connections he feels validates his interpretation. While I question some of his exegesis, it’s a curious path to wander down.

The first command against other gods boils down to a marital fidelity command, in Tokajer’s interpretation. 34:14 says don’t worship other gods and 34:15ff specifies not entering into covenants with pagans. Tokajer asserts the type of covenant meant here is a marriage covenant, and this is important because the covenant God enters into with Israel at Sinai is a marriage covenant. Israel is already married to God, and therefore is not eligible for a marriage relationship with anyone else. He then connects Revelation 19:6-10 to this passage, with the marriage celebration of the Lamb foreshadowed in this command.

Tokajer doesn’t bother to substantiate his interpretation of the covenant language in Exodus 34 or Exodus 19-24 being marital in nature. Perhaps it is, but I haven’t seen other literature that would bear out this assertion and therefore hold it as suspect. He jumps through a lot of hoops in order to link this command prophetically to the Messiah, but this is hardly necessary as the very command against worshiping another God presumes God exists and is more than adequate to provide for his people, including providing salvation.

The second commandment also points forward to the Messiah, Tokajer argues, because Jesus was executed on the Passover Sabbath.

He links the third commandment to Jesus as the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15). While this is true, of course, it seems like a thin stretch.

The fourth commandment is linked to Hebrews 4:4-11.

For the fifth commandment he links the feast of Shavuot to Jeremiah 31:30-32 and Hebrews 8:8-10 that speak of a new covenant (the Feast of Shavuot [Pentecost] is celebrated as the day God gave the covenant to Israel). However he doesn’t at all attempt to find explanations for why the feast of Sukkot is also included in this command.

The sixth commandment he claims is linked directly to the pilgrimage requirements to appear in Jerusalem at the Temple for the three major festivals each year. Of course, there is no Temple and Jerusalem won’t be conquered and made into the capital of God’s people for another 500 years or so, but the fact this isn’t dealt with in the text doesn’t cause Tokajer nearly as much difficulty as the words the Ten Commandments not appearing in the text in Exodus 19-20.

For the seventh commandment Tokajer goes to 1 John 3:5 to show that yeast represents sin and therefore this commandment is a prophecy regarding the sinless nature of Jesus. It is true that Scripture sometimes refers to yeast or leaven as a metaphor for sin. But this ignores the reality that Jesus in Luke 13 and Matthew 13 uses leaven as a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven. So perhaps Tokajer is stretching here in his interpretation.

The eighth commandment has significance because it prophesies how Jesus’ body would be taken down before the end of Passover and the beginning of the Passover Sabbath.

The ninth commandment is symbolic of how Jesus is the greatest firstfruit of all.

The tenth commandment is a reinforcement of the first commandment, acccording to Tokajer, who asserts boiling a kid in it’s mothers milk was a pagan fertility ritual designed to help a young woman become pregnant. Again, I haven’t heard this before so I can’t verify whether it’s true.

Finally, Tokajer succinctly summarizes the purpose and point of his hypothesis at the end of the book (p.63): I believe that these Tablets of Testimony and the real Ten Commandments were not intended to be a list of things to do or not do. The Ten Commandments and the entire Torah was given to us for the purpose of leading us to Messiah Yeshua.

It’s an interesting theory. But what to make of it. I have two primary challenges to his hypothesis.

When Jesus encounters the rich young man who wants to know how he must earn salvation (Mark 10, Matthew 19), Jesus quotes the Law to him first, and it’s the Law as provided in Exodus 20. Jesus quotes nearly the entire second table of the Law – those laws pertaining to how we deal with one another (no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no false witness) as opposed to the first table of the Law which deals with our relationship to God (no other gods, don’t use the Lord’s name improperly, observe the Sabbath). No mention of firstfruits or pilgrimages or leaven or most of the other ten commandments as Tokajer defines them.

The fact that Jesus goes to Exodus 20 rather than Exodus 34 is a pretty major argument that we haven’t gotten the Ten Commandments wrong all these years.

My second objection is a linguistic/textual one, since this is the basis for Tokajer rejecting the traditional Ten Commandments. In Deuteronomy 10:3-5 Moses is reminding the Israelites about what happened back in Exodus 19-34. And in v.4 Moses describes the contents on the tablets as the Ten Commandments that the Lord had spoken to you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of assembly. And as Tokajer correctly noted, the words God spoke to the general assembly – as opposed to directly to Moses – were the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20:1-17, not the ten commandments of Exodus 34. So if the tablets contained the words God had spoken to all the people, and those were the Ten Commandments, then Exodus 20:1-17 is not just the traditional source for that material, it’s the correct source.

His premise is interesting but has very little support in my opinion, either textually or, more importantly, in Scripture as a whole.

Reading Ramblings – November 29, 2020

November 22, 2020

Date: First Sunday in Advent, November 29, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

Context: We begin as we ended, in anticipation. We begin the liturgical church year awaiting our Lord’s return just as we ended the last liturgical year (over the past few weeks) considering our Lord’s return and reign. Advent is not so much an artificial anticipation of a 2000-year old birth, but the recognition that as God fulfilled his promises with the Incarnate birth of the Son of God 2000 years ago, we can trust God the Father to fulfill his promise to send his Son again as the end of all things and the beginning of all things, the alpha and the omega. Now that we are back in a festival season of the church year, all three of the readings (and the psalm) should coordinate with one another, amplifying a central thematic thread each week as well as through the entire season of Advent. During this Advent of COVID, we have a firm reminder in the Word of God that we await far more – and far better – than simply a vaccine or an end to a pandemic. We wait for the return of the King of Glory and the beginning of an eternity of celebration of his victory on our behalf. Come Lord Jesus, Come!

Isaiah 64:1-9 – Close to the end of Isaiah’s prophetic writings and you can hear the eagerness,the impatience in his voice. When indeed, O Lord? When will you come to purify your creation, broken and sinful as it is? To claim your sinful but repentant people? To display your glory to those who mock, those who chase after feeble divine imaginings and cobble together cold comfort from spiritual smorgasboards? Truly our God alone is an awesome God who has and does and will continue to display his glory in unparalleled ways. And when He does come, though there will be fear and darkness and trembling for some, those who put their trust in him have no need of fear, and can trust his anger has been turned away through the work of his Incarnate Son. Verse 9 is so simple and eloquent. We are indeed his people, all of us the creation of his hands though not all willing to acknowledge such. These verses move from anticipation to an assertion of the Lord’s glory to the unavoidable recognition of our own sinfulness, only to end on a plaintive note of hope, of pleading. May God be merciful, just as He has promised.

Psalm 80:1-7 – I was struck by what appears to be a contrast in terms in vs. 1-2. God is addressed first as Shepherd, but the language quickly morphs into royal language of enthronement and might. Are these incompatible images, the lowly shepherd and the mighty ruler? We might be inclined to think so. Conditioned, no doubt, by our familiarity with speaking of God as our shepherd and we as his sheep, I think we are apt to consider God as a guide and protector. But to an actual sheep, the differences between a shepherd and a king would be rather non-existent (or even pointless, but let’s ignore that for a moment!). The shepherd rules his sheep. He does not make suggestions, he orders and they obey. When they disobey they are brought back into compliance, perhaps with a sound whack on their backsides from his staff. The sheep don’t necessarily pause to consider whether the shepherd has the right to order them around – it’s his job to, and they are designed to obey. There’s much we could learn from sheep, perhaps. We who value our vaunted rights and freedoms and democratic processes! All of these things tend to draw us away from obedience to our God and into a grey realm where we consider whether or not we like the King’s orders and whether He has the right to issue them and how much we ought to obey. Thanks be to God that He is the Good Shepherd and therefore is gracious and merciful and forgiving to his hard-headed sheep, even as He disciplines and corrects us!

1 Corinthians 1:3-9 – Paul writes to a congregation in turmoil and before correcting them reassures them of their identity in Jesus Christ. They have received his grace and peace. They have been enriched through his gifts. They are waiting for Jesus to return. They are in fellowship with the Son of God. They just need to know what that looks like here and now. In our fractious culture we are moved to quickly unfriend or unsubscribe or block or otherwise move people in and out of groups based on how we feel about them at the moment. Thankfully God does not do this with us! He is patient! We cling imperfectly to his promises in Jesus Christ but our sins are forgiven all the same, for the sake of that small mustard seed gifted to us by God the Holy Spirit. We should be more cautious in deciding who is in and out of the Church of God, trusting the Holy Spirit’s desire and ability to guide people out of ignorance and rebellion and back to faithfulness. We ought to be more quick to affirm our unity in the body of Christ rather than drive distinctions and emphasize divisions between us.

Mark 13:24-37 – As we begin the new liturgical year we move from Matthew as the predominant Gospel to Mark. Mark is widely considered in more liberal theological circles to be the first Gospel, based primarily on it’s brevity and the assumption that since there are many similarities with it in Matthew and Luke, they probably copied from Mark. This is hardly a necessary deduction, however, and the historic assertion of the Church is that in fact Matthew’s Gospel is the oldest. Mark’s is distinctive for the action-oriented tone, the emphasis on immediacy. It’s a Gospel more suited to the action-oriented, CGI dominated imaginations of American Christians who may more easily tire of the extended monologues and dialogues in the other Gospels.

The assigned reading (the one I opted for, as opposed to the alternative option of 11:1-10 (Palm Sunday) continues the theme of the past few weeks in terms of the suddenness and unexpectedness of our Lord’s return. We are to be watchful without being foolish enough to think we will know when the precise day and time of his arrival will be. Most if not all of the signs cited in these verses are true and real here and now, but also have been for the last 2000 years and before. The net effect is that we are to be always watchful and expectant because truly it can’t be said that the conditions are not right for his arrival!

We do not wait fearfully. We are God’s people, as St. Paul reminds us in the Epistle reading, and as such we can come to God in expectation of his grace and mercy as indicated in the psalm and Old Testament reading. The firm hope and promise of his return should be our foremost expectation and hope, and should be a beam of light in the midst of whatever struggles – personal or communal – we experience. Satan can attempt to torture us here and now with all manner of sin-related and death-oriented focuses. But we can and should remind him that his future is certain just as ours is, but for very different reasons and with very different results!

Book Review: Come In, We Are Closed

November 17, 2020

Come In, We Are Closed by Tyrel Bramwell

I’m a bad philosopher. By which I mean I dislike the Socratic method, where you allegedly reach truth via conversation. It’s not really that I dislike it, but rather dislike reading it. Whether I’m reading Plato’s Euthyphro or Come In, We Are Closed, what sounds like a good idea and methodology – and can be in person – turns into a terrible read. Terrible not because of the ideas expressed but because invariably one person does all the talking and the other person agrees or pitches perfect slow, arcing soft balls to get hit over the stands and out of the park.

So it isn’t that this book is bad, it’s just bad as a conversation. For me. This book is great in that it provides many of the essential arguments for close(d) Communion in a very easy to read and digest format. The problem is that none of the reasons for open Communion are discussed, or are discussed barely as straw men arguments easily dismissed.

I believe and agree with close(d) Communion. I’d just like to see the discussion deal with the arguments raised against it by other denominations. Otherwise, the reader walks away now convinced by the book, until they happen to run into someone who doesn’t hold the same opinion and presents their arguments.

In this book, the entire seen of a diner with a waitress and a carafe of coffee and other customers is pointless. I wondered if he was going to draw a new metaphor or something from this elements of the story, but he doesn’t. I wondered if there was a reason for the old man’s disheveled and decrepit appearance, but there really wasn’t one offered. In the end these narrative bits were a distraction and then a disappointment from the theological content.

For me. Because, as I’ve often confessed here, I’m a jerk.

So, if you’re not me, read this book. I’m considering ordering copies of it for all of my parishioners because it does that good a job of presenting the Biblical evidence in support of the doctrine and practice of close(d) Communion. I wish he had included a short outline that consolidated all of the Biblical references, but that will be easy enough for me to create. Granted if you don’t hold to close(d) Communion you likely may not appreciate the arguments made here, but in that case I hope you’ll touch base and recommend an equally good and sound writing summarizing the arguments against it!

Book Review – Cannery Row

November 16, 2020

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Reading a great writer, reading for fun, is one of the best joys in life. Relatively inexpensively you can travel across geography and culture and time itself. I’ve loved Steinbeck since I encountered him in junior high and high school, but never read this particular work. Cannery Row is an enjoyable character study of a community and some of it’s specific inhabitants. Centered around a cluster of unlikely characters united by a place and one another, this reads like a series of very short stories and sketches. Having lived in California for the last 13 years it is fun to not only try to picture Cannery Row as Steinbeck knew it, but to hear other familiar place names.

This isn’t a great book in terms of some gradiose theme, but rather, as Steinbeck aptly does, a celebration of smaller stories and the people who never make the history books, but without whom the history books would have nothing to say.

Reading Ramblings – November 22, 2020

November 15, 2020

Date: Last Sunday of the Church Year – Christ the King Sunday – November 22, 2020

Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 95:1-7a; 1 Corinthians 15:20-28; Matthew 25:31-46

Context: The Feast of Christ the King was instituted in 1925 under Pope Pius XI for the final Sunday in October, and took up its current date of the last Sunday of Ordinary Time and the last Sunday of the liturgical Church year in 1970. It celebrates what is implicit in every Sunday of the year – Christ reigns over all things. This is not simply his future reign in fullness and perfection but his current reign now, even though our experience of that reign is impeded and imperfect by our continued sinfulness and the sinfulness of creation prior to Christ’s return and Final Judgment. This reign is not only over the powers of this earth we may not care for, but over our own hearts and lives, something it is easier (and more convenient) to forget. Our faith and trust in Christ’s return and the judgment He brings will be evident to some degree (known best by God) in our lives and actions.

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 – What begins as a comforting assurance of the Son of God as the Lord of the Church who will seek out and find his lost and strayed sheep ends with a rebuke to some of those sheep that contributed to other sheep straying. Some of Christ’s sheep do not act as they should towards their fellow sheep, but rather are abusive to the point they drive other sheep off. There will be judgment for this. Perhaps not eternal condemnation, but certainly judgment, yet another call to the importance of unity within the body of Christ and sober self-examination and openness to honest and loving words from brothers and sisters in Christ. The Church remains imperfect today and until the Good Shepherd returns to directly lead and guide his flock. His rescue will not only be from the external enemies of the Church, but internal threats and misguided behaviors. It is to his glory that all imperfection and sin will be expunged, so that we are truly safe to join together as the people of the God for the first time since The Fall.

Psalm 95:1-7a – This passage is often referred to as Venite, the opening section of traditional Catholic Matins, the first service of the day. Some speculate it is the psalm monks were expected to recite privately to themselves as they assembled for Matins, and it began to be incorporated formally into the service as the monks waited for those who were running late. This makes some sense as it functions literarily more as a call to worship for those who are not there yet and less as a worship piece for those already assembled. The psalm is literally a call to assemble for praise and worship of God based on his identity as the Creator of all things. But He is not an impassive Creator, an unconcerned creator as Deism often imagines him. Rather, He is our God, and we are the people of his pasteur and the sheep of his hand. The language is both transcendent in terms of God as Creator of all things, but also immanent as God is present with and for his Creation and creatures. The call to worship is personal because the relationship to the Creator is personal.

1 Corinthians 15:20-28 – We’ve had readings from 1 Corinthians already this Church year – the first few weeks of Ordinary Time back in January and February as well as Holy Week and Easter Sunday. For some reason though we didn’t continue with it when Ordinary Time resumed in June, and instead come back to it today. Of course today is not just lectio continua, but rather an intentional use of the passage for the theme of Christ the King, intended to work with the other readings for this morning to accent this theme. Certainly we see Christ reigning here. Christ’s reign as King of Kings is predicated upon his sinless incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension. His role as King of Kings is grounded in his absolute and perfect obedience to God the Father despite what continues to appear to many today as foolishness, conquering through death and sacrifice rather than brute force. The proper relationship of God the Son and God the Father (as well as God the Holy Spirit though St. Paul is not concerned about that in this passage) continues into eternity. Jesus as King of Kings does not mean Jesus in rebellion against or contrariness to the will of God the Father. It is the Father’s good pleasure that the Son should rule all things. Chaos is not reintroduced with some sort of usurping of the Father’s power by the Son.

Matthew 25:31-46 – Jesus has been preaching and teaching the coming kingdom of heaven since the opening of Chapter 24. He has not talked about the qualities of the kingdom of heaven as He has elsewhere in Matthew’s account, but rather how it will come suddenly and unexpectedly. In our reading today we see the first event to follow his glorious arrival – judgment. All of humanity separated into sheep and goats, those destined for eternal fellowship with and those destined for eternal separation from God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Oh, and one other category of humanity typically overlooked in contemporary explanations of this passage – the brothers of Christ. The 20th century saw the novel but pervasive interpretation of this teaching of Jesus as applying to all the poor and misfortunate of creation. This interpretation claims the primary demonstration of Christian faith or life is in caring for the poor and marginalized wherever and whoever they might be. The poor in general. But this is a novel interpretation and likely an incorrect interpretation of Jesus’ more obvious teaching here even if care for the marginalized remains a Biblically important theme in both the Old Testament and New Testament.

Rather, this passage has historically been understood to mean that what separates the blessed from the accursed is their reception of the Gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ as brought to them by men and women who are referred to broadly in this passage as brothers. Jesus does this elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel – 12:46-50, for instance, as well as 28:10. Jesus does refer to brothers in a more generalized sense elsewhere in Matthew, but a strong argument can be made (and traditonally has) that this term is particularly used by Jesus to describe his followers.

This passage then, (not really a parable, but an actual teaching of Jesus) leads us to see that what separates the blessed from the accursed is what Scripture always says it is – faith. And faith is not simply an inward attitude of the heart but also an expresssion in practical ways in how we live our lives. In Matthew 10 Jesus sends his disciples out and tells them to rely on the hospitality of those who hear and receive the message they bring. This means those who carry the gospel in some official manner are dependent on the faithful to tend to their needs. Those who refuse the message they bring refuse to assist them and care for them. The two cannot be separated. Abuse the messenger and you are ultimately abusing the message. Abuse the messenger and you are abusing the one who sent the messenger (Matthew 10:40, 18:5).

This is not works righteousness because of the role of the brothers in this teaching. A basic human kindness towards others as may be practiced by Buddhists or atheists or Muslims is not what is being referenced in this passage. Rather, an outpouring of love and care to those who share the Gospel, because of the Gospel that has been received is the point at play. It is not the works themselves that save but the faith that demands and facilitates such works, and a false faith or false belief will not make the works equally pleasing to God. Only in right relationship to God can our works of love to our neighbors or even specifically our Christian neighbors or pastors or missionaries or teachers be termed good.

Reading Ramblings – November 15, 2020

November 8, 2020

Date: 24th Sunday after Pentecost – November 15, 2020

Texts: Zephaniah 1:7-16; Psalm 90:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Context: One more week until the start of the new liturgical calendar and we continue our focus on the coming Day of the Lord. And the language remains troubling overall. Personally, it is a reminder to me that judgment is coming. It’s one thing not to fear God’s wrrath because of faith in the promises of Jesus Christ, but I find myself increasingly ill at ease with judgment of any kind. Influenced heavily by medial bombardment and social and cultural trends towards disavowing personal responsibility at a variety of levels, such passages strike me as more and more frightening and, if I’m honest, perhaps unfair. Do I trust the judgment of God, or do I presume my sympathies and empathies are more accurate? These passages remind me and call me back to faithful trust in the Creator of the universe who alone knows best the hearts of every one of his creatures, and loves us more than we can even love ourselves let alone others.

Zephaniah 1:7-16 – Zephaniah is one of the latter Hebrew prophets (often called one of the minor prophets – a problematic term at best!). We know nothing more about him than is provided in the brief superscription to his prophetic writings. We are uncertain if he is actually the descendant of King Hezekiah, and arguments both for and against this are compelling but ultimately fruitless. If he is descended from a king, then 1:8 would have additional force! Josiah reigns from 640BC – 609BC, providing a date for Zephaniah’s ministry. Knowing that just a few years after this Judah and Jerusalem will be obliterated by the Babylonians adds force to his prophetic words. The Day of the Lord then takes on dual meaning – the day of the Lord’s judgment against his complacent people through the Babylonians but also the Day of the Lord, the day of Jesus’ return, the day of Judgment. The two days overlap and intertwine in Zephaniah’s vision and words. And his words are harsh, a warning, a shaking of the complacent and the half-hearted. Those who cheat and presume God is none the wiser or not even interested will very disappointed on that day of judgment! God’s people must be roused to the seriousness of the times – times they cannot know for certain and should not live in disdain for!

Psalm 90:1-12 – This psalm is credited to or at least written in from the perspective of Moses, the only such psalm. Could it be a writing of Moses passed down, whether in writing or in oral form? Perhaps. It could also be intended to provide the reader/hearer with a context or perspective. As such the psalm is beautiful, knowing how much of Moses’ life was spent homeless, yet always at home (v.1). Reference to a flood in v.5 brings to mind images of the Red Sea closing in on the Egyptian army. He watches the children of Israel die in the wilderness under God’s judgment, a perspective poignant as well as beautiful. The perspectives of a man grown old in the service of his Lord, who watches the fleeting passions and trials of life come and go as people are born, mature, age, and die. The impact of v.12 is powerful. Life is not forever. Youth is not forever. We move from beginning to end, and our days should reflect this journey and our understandings of our eternal dwelling place here and now as well as in eternity.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-13 – Paul writes to encourage, responding to questions the Thessalonians have raised regarding those who die in faith prior to our Lord’s return, and now about the Lord’s timing. Paul reiterates the teachings of Jesus as well as his language (Matthew 24, Luke 12). The Lord’s timing is uncertain but not a surprise, just as a pregnant woman knows she’s going to give birth, even if she isn’t exactly sure when labor will begin. Those who are not mindful of this are as foolish as a pregnant woman who thinks she will not give birth! But the Thessalonians are wiser. They do not fear the dark of night because they live in the light of Christ. They are ready for his arrival because his coming will not, for them, mean destruction but rather life. We know what we have inherited through faith in Jesus Christ, and our lives should reflect that rather than being embodied with the sinful behaviors done under cover of darkness. We should encourage one another with this hope – the hope that our Lord will come and that we need not fear that day!

Matthew 25:14-30 – A fascinating parable with many various interpretations. Unlike some of Jesus’ other parables, this one is addressed to his disciples and followers, as Jesus continues his teachings not about the kingdom of heaven in general but in terms of the kingdom of heavens’s coming, a topic since the beginning of chapter 24. To understand this parable, we must know that Jesus is the master. With that piece of information in place we can better understand the events which might otherwise frighten us or make us uncertain. There are three servants here, but for all intents and purposes there could just be two – the first two servants are almost identical in every respect except the amounts entrusted to them and returned to the master. They are, effectively, a single servant, contrasted with the third servant who acts very differently than the other two.

The story is therefore not a matter of degrees. It isn’t a story about percentages, or about making enough use of the master’s resources. It isn’t intended to make us doubt whether we could do more for Jesus or not – of course we could! However it is intended to demonstrate two basic types of servants – those who trust their master and trust what he’s entrusted to them and use it wisely, and the servants who believe their master to be untrustworthy, dishonest, harsh, and therefore make no effort whatsoever. The third servant doesn’t do less than the other two servants – he does nothing. And then attempts to justify his refusal to treat his master’s gifts well by blaming the master himself.

Who do we say the master is? What is his character? While some might wonder about this, if we presume Jesus is the master then we know the answer to that question and how to make sense of the third servant’s response. The departure and long absence correspond to Jesus’ upcoming ascension to the right hand of the Father. The master’s return refers to Jesus’ second coming, and the settling of accounts with the first two servants corresponds to the reward of eternal salvation to the faithful, and the judgment against the unfaithful servant corresponds to the final condemnation and banishment of evil.

No, we aren’t to worry about whether we’ve done enough with the gifr of our life we’ve been given by our master. The answer will always be no, and that has already been forgiven in the death and resurrection of Christ. We will undoubtedly confess that we have not been as productive as we could, this will not be a source of judgment for us. We will be welcomed into the master’s eternal joy! But for the ones who can only conceive of and experience (or deny) the master as harsh, cruel, unfair, dishonest – essentially evil – they will stand condemned in their blasphemy eternally (Mark 3:28-30).

Reading Ramblings – November 8, 2020

November 1, 2020

Date: 23rd Sunday after Pentecost – November 8, 2020

Texts: Amos 5:18-24; Psalm 70; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Context: The final three Sundays of the Church year are all part of Ordinary Time, but traditionally they make up their own mini-liturgical season, culminating on the last Sunday of the Church year, known as Christ the King Sunday. These three Sundays focus on Jesus’ return, and provide a transitional period into Advent, which is an anticipation of Jesus’ return based on his Incarnation. God the Father fulfilled his promise to send the Messiah, therefore we trust his promise this Messiah will return. This dual focus on what all Christians are called to actively wait and look for and anticipate is particularly helpful and necessary when we are so easily distracted both by the mundanities of everyday life and the long elapsed period of time since Christ’s ascension.

Amos 5:18-24 – For those in Christ, we await our Lord’s return in joyful expectation. But for evil, the return of our Lord holds dark promise. Is there anywhere evil will be able to hide on that day? Any place where sin will not be pulled into the light and judged? God’s judgment will be final and absolute. And in light of this, his people here and now should be sources of justice and righteousness, an imperfect foretaste of the perfect justice and righteousness of God. Those in Christ need not fear that justice and righteousness for we have the mercy of Christ in faith, the forgiveness of God the Father in the propitiation of his Son, as St. Paul asserts in Romans 3:21-25. There is no place for fear in Christ, but rather an opportunity to reflect his grace and glory to those around us, allowing the Holy Spirit to create opportunities thereby for sharing our hope and peace in Christ, despite the uncertainty and disquiet of the rest of the world around us.

Psalm 70 – Our hope is in God the Father at all times and in all circumstances. We seek his continued sustenance and favor each day, while also keeping our eyes fixed on the horizon in anticipation of the glorious return of his Son and our Lord. We pray for his protection against those who would prey on us or take advantage of us, even as we affirm our God as a source of joy and comfort for those who trust in him. And we can and should pray for the return of our Lord. The refrain of the Church for centuries, Come Lord Jesus, Come! remains true today. We should pray for that return, trusting in the grace and mercy and peace of God to execute his righteous judgment perfectly and without error.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 – We didn’t get much of 1 Thessalonians because of the intervening celebrations of Reformation Sunday and All Saints Day, which is unfortunate as Paul has some very wise counsel on how to deal with people who seek to take advantage of the Body of Christ for their personal ease and comfort. But this passage is one of the most detailed we have about the events of the Last Day, the Day of our Lord’s return, and the condition of those who die before that Day. This is apparently an area of concern for the Thessalonians, prompting Paul (guided by the Holy Spirit) to provide this response.

Paul provides comfort for those who have already lost loved ones. Grief is natural but for the Christian grief is tempered with hope. Just as Jesus was raised from the dead, so all people will be raised from the dead, and those who died with faith in Jesus Christ will be raised to join him. Paul reiterates this is not speculation, but divine inspiration. Perhaps Paul also means to say that Jesus himself taught this – either to his disciples or directly to Paul as part of his conversion, but this is speculative. Paul speaks God’s Word not his own. The faithful dead will not miss out on Christ’s return. The Thessalonians undoubtedly understood the dead would be raised, but were perhaps worried this would occur after Christ’s return and they would miss out on his glorious arrival. Not the case. The dead in Christ will be brought to meet him in the air, just as the faithful living will be caught up with him as well. Our communion in Christ – which we remembered last Sunday on All Saints Day – will be experienced directly not first in judgment but in reunion with our Lord and one another. Nobody will miss out on anything! The celebration will begin in earnest with everyone at the party right on time – nobody will be late because of missed directions or even death itself! This should be our encouragement. Death is a hard thing – whether we are the one dying or whether we are burying a loved one. But death is only a temporary separation. It is not a final condition or state.

Matthew 25:1-13 – Our Lord is returning, and his instructions to us are to wait and be prepared. We could be foolish, assuming He is returning very soon and so no thought needs to be made for tomorrow or next week or next year. We might also be foolish to assume He won’t come in our lifetime, so we have time to live our lives the way we’d prefer to (or the way the world tellls us to) presuming we’ll have time to come to Jesus before we die. Both are foolish assumptions. Both are actually not waiting at all, an assumption there is no need to wait because either Jesus will return quickly or not at all.

The Christian life is properly one of waiting, and this means making provision for today and tomorrow without losing sight of the approaching horizon. Making our decisions today in light of what we believe could happen tomorrow. This parable leads us towards this understanding while itself being full of perplexities without explanation – there’s no bride in this parable and no clear understanding of what the oil in the lamps is supposed to stand for.

It likely might vary from person to person. The point of the parable is to be ready, and the fact that when Jesus does return, not everyone will be, including those we presume to be Christian and part of his Church. If the ten virgins represent God’s people, it’s a rather stunning assertion that half of them might not be ready when Christ returns, and therefore will miss out on an eternity of joy and bliss! It should serve as a call to self-examination for every member of the Church. Do I really believe all of this? Does my life reflect it? Am I indeed waiting for my Lord’s return, and is there a difference in how I live my life if I am? What tangible steps would indicate I am waiting for him?

The goal of such examination should not be despair and doubt, but rather a more confident clinging to the promises of Christ rather than the conventions of the world.

Book Review: The Hammer of God

October 28, 2020

My knowledge of Lutheran literature (as opposed to doctrinal or theological texts) is pretty scant. I stumbled upon Garrison Keillor in my late teens and didn’t progress much beyond that. Astute readers will realize Keillor isn’t even Lutheran, but he mentions Lutherans and seems to understand us. For lack of other options, he fit the bill of Lutheran fiction for me. Cultural references to Lutherans are a bit…scant.

Then in seminary we were asked forced to read The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz. What I didn’t know until just now is that Giertz has authored some 600 titles, but this one is his best known, at least in English-speaking circles. And Lutheran circles, probably.

This is a novel in a technical sense. It’s really doctrine in dialogue, a theological treatise with a narrative thread. As such at times it’s dense. Not as dense as Ayn Rand’s ideology as fiction by any means, but still. It’s a thinly disguised theological two by four, at best. Not an unpleasant disguise, but thin.

The book is set in three parts spaced out over perhaps 150 years or more – it’s hard to be exactly sure and frankly it doesn’t really matter. It relates the experiences of three different clerical novices assigned to a rural Swedish parish, there to be schooled in theology and pastoral ministry by various direct or indirect veteran pastors. Their important moments of growth are Christocentric, when they learn to quit focusing on themselves and their personal piety and holiness and focus rather on the atoning work of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection. Coming to grips with this theological reality and how it applies in their own lives and the lives of their parishioners is the center of each of the three sections.

The thin veneer of fiction does help make the theological material both relevant and more approachable. And for those studying for pastoral ministry it helps contextualize why doctrine matters, and the sorts of surprising situations where doctrinal grounding is not only helpful but essential.

It’s not a difficult read and if you’re looking for Lutheran literature, well, Giertz isn’t really Lutheran either, but it’s a good explanation of why what you believe matters, especially if you’re going to be leading God’s people.