"You shall not covet your neighbor's house." Or, for that matter, your neighbor's "wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor." So end the Ten Commandments, on what may sound like a doubly sour note.
First, to state the obvious: there is nothing good to say about a list in which "wife" is included among possessions alongside oxen and donkeys. And while there were meaningful differences between slavery as practiced in the the ancient world and as it was practiced in the Americas starting in the 17th century, it is lamentable that slaves were likewise listed alongside livestock as possessions not to be coveted.
Second, and rather less obvious: how exactly are we to refrain from not stealing our neighbor's possessions, or slandering our neighbor to get them, or harming our neighbor to take them, but from wanting to have what is theirs? What kind of religion polices not just your actions but your desires like his?
Paul the Apostle, writing to the church in Rome, gives us an answer:
Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.
For Paul, God's mere act of naming the sin of covetousness shows him that he's doing it. And the more we focus on the disposition to want what is not ours, the more we find it. This, Paul insists, is why the grace of Jesus Christ is no necessary and overwhelming: because we cannot bear the Law in its infinite majesty on our own, we need a savior who will fulfill it for us, and impute his righteousness to us for the sake of faith in him.
Coveting is a very subtle sin. It's not coveting to say "I wish I had a nice house like my brother's," though that can be spiritually corrosive as well. It's coveting when we say to ourselves, "my brother's house should really be mine." Covetousness happens at a paradoxical intersection of resentment and admiration, hostility and envy. It can be worse than straightforward greed or acquisitiveness, because it involves telling a story about both ourselves and our neighbor. Not just "I want this" but "I deserve this;" not just "hers is nice" but "hers belongs rightly to me."
One of the unexpected ways this plays out in our world is in the controversial topic of Native American sports mascots. On one hand, people insist that a team name like "Redskins" or a mascot like Cleveland's Chief Wahoo is demeaning and offensive. On the other hand, defenders of the teams insist that no one names their team after something or someone they hate. And in a sense both are correct: the names and mascots are demeaning and admiring at the same time. Even in the 19th century Americans started to express a kind of nostalgia for the peoples our nation had conquered and replaced. The indigenous peoples of the Americas were identified with a noble simplicity, an authentic connection to nature, and all kinds of virtues we "modern" people had lost touch with. If you remember movies like Dances with Wolves or Little Big Man you may see what I'm talking about.
It is a very strange thing on its face to envy the people one conquers and even destroys. But that's how covetousness works: I want what I think you have, but I don't want you to have it.
By contrast, the parables we hear in this week's Gospel passage are about acquiring the Kingdom of Heaven in a much different way. A man finds treasure hidden in a field--by someone, at some time, for who knows what purpose--and instead of pilfering it he sells everything he owns to buy the field. A merchant searches for fine pearls and finds one so great that he gives up everything else to get it. The message of these parables seems to be that there is no shortcut to God's kingdom. You can't scheme it away or talk yourself into deserving it. It requires everything of us, without resentment or hostility, without envy or admiration for any human being. But instead of eating away at our souls, it makes us rich beyond compare.
After a two-week break for my pulpit exchange with Fr. Matt of St. Christopher's, we'll come back to the Ten Commandments. But first a word about the readings for Sunday, which are powerful and well worth your time to read and ponder in preparation for worship.
First, we're hearing from the Wisdom of Solomon, part of the Greek version of the Old Testament (sometimes called the Second Canon or the Apocrypha, which just means hidden or obscure writings). The full passage is here, though we're skipping verses 14-15 for some reason. I love the Wisdom of Solomon because it is both very philosophical in an ancient manner, influenced by Greek thought and culture, and very devout. This week we will hear about the way God's power and God's mildness interact:
For your strength is the source of righteousness,
"Your sovereignty over all causes you to spare all": God does not need to demonstrate strength or overcome any rivals, so God is free to judge with mercy. Just as the farm owner in the Gospel passage says to allow the field to grow together until the harvest, God's power is the power to be patient and merciful.
Our passage from Romans is about hope, among other things, and the creation groaning in travail until the delivery of the children of God. This is an image Christians have mulled and meditated over for many centuries. The creation has been subjected to futility, for the sake of hope--this is a strange thought. Our world of universal mortality is, in Paul's words, pregnant with something new, and we groan along with the world as we await our redemption. Indeed we "suffer with [Christ] so that we may be glorified with him." This hope, however, is a secret thing. If we hope for what is seen, Paul says, what kind of hope is that? We hope in the unseen--unseen but yet somehow known and sensed within this world of groaning.
Jesus, in a characteristic parable, puts this matter of hope in a very different way. A field is sown with wheat, and at night an enemy comes and sows it with tares. For many historical commentators and artists, this is the key moment in the parable: while the workers sleep, the enemy is at work, following, mimicking, and ultimately marring the work of God. God never builds a church but the Devil sets up a copy of it next door, as Luther put it (more or less). Modern commentators and preachers tend to focus more on what comes next:
The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’
The farm owner here is showing patience. It is often pointed out these days that wheat and tares are very hard to tell apart. The point of the parable being, then, that we do not know whether someone will turn out to be a wheat stalk or a tare. We don't know so we should allow God's patience to work and leave judgment to the end of the age.
But the early hearers of Matthew's Gospel may have been listening to something else in this. Yes, they had to contend with divisions in the church (and in the wider Jewish community of which they were still probably a part), which they understood to be the work of a demonic power. But they had no power to uproot the "weeds" around them, being a small and weak community. They needed to understand God's forbearance, and they needed to hope that they would ultimately be vindicated--that among the weeds of the world, they would not be finally choked out of existence.
I must admit that lately I have been struggling with hope as our Scriptures and theology use the term. I am not especially hopeful--using the term casually, I suppose--about the future course of the coronavirus pandemic or, for that matter, the unfolding crises of climate change that the pandemic seems to be mimicking in a miniature, sped-up way. I don't see a way that our institutions will address the problems adequately, our culture and expectations adapt to deep and enduring changes, and our networks of inter-dependence sustain us. I ask myself what my work or anyone else's will mean as we sail straight into what threaten to be major storms ahead.
So it helps to remember that Paul and, in a different way, Jesus are talking about hope in a sense that really excludes the possibility of envisioning its fulfillment. I am dissatisfied by my own preaching and writing when I am left using "hope" as a box stuffed with IOUs, or as a spot on a draft saying "[add more examples here]." Everything else I can talk about practicing or picturing--as something we can do or imagine. Hope is more like an acknowledgment of God's freedom--that God is active in history and in current events and in every detail of our lives, both good and bad, but also beyond them all in ways we cannot comprehend. And just as a cell in a body wracked with labor pangs does not know what will come, and just as an ephemeral flower at the end of its bloom does not know the place it has in a vast and mortal creation, we don't know what God has laid up for us.
Finally, we'll take a look this week at the seventh and eighth commandments: against stealing and bearing false witness against our neighbor. I find myself especially moved by Luther's explanation of the false witness prohibition:
We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.
I added the emphasis there because that bit is hard. Luther talks about using our words like a cloak to throw over the weakness of our neighbor. And I wonder how to do that while preserving, for example, a necessary accountability in relationships of trust (the condemnation of "gossip" has been used to keep plenty of abusive clergy in positions of power). But be that as it may: there is something here of hope, I think. We are to protect our (unworthy) neighbor's reputation because he, for all his flaws, may prove to be the wheat that must not be torn up before its time. We are told to value our neighbor in ways that go beyond what we can see and know, into the realm of trusting God's goodness when we do not see it at work in front of us. This is hard but it is, I must admit, a way to practice hope.
Worship and Preaching: It’s summertime, and contrary to the Gershwin song, the livin’ is very far from easy for most folks these days. But it’s at least a time to do things a little differently. In my first Texas summer I am learning the value of conserving effort! If you’ve been with us on the Sunday livestream, you may have noticed that we’ve removed a few optional elements from the liturgy for a simpler, shorter worship service. I’m also holding myself to sermons that are very brief by my standards. Starting last month and going through July, we’re talking about the Ten Commandments and the Small Catechism. This is a way for all of us to return and ponder some basic elements of our faith. Outdoor Holy Communion is set to start June 21 and will hopefully continue without incident on Sundays at 10:45 a.m. Stay tuned as we adapt to circumstances and do our best to extend God’s saving grace to our worshipers and community!
Simple and Dignified: Many thanks to Cheryl Kowalczik for securing new communion ware to replace our battered vessels. We’ve shared some photos of it on Facebook. Unpacking them was a strange joy for me, partly because it reminded me of my desire for the Sacrament which I have not received since Easter. But also because, even though communion vessels are not the most important part of the liturgy by any means, they express something important. The vessels we found are simple—not gaudy, ornate, or attention-seeking—but they are beautiful. They made me think about what I strive for in worship, that everything we do should point to Christ and not to ourselves. It should be clear and simple, rather than elaborate or showy, but it should be worthy and dignified, too.
Whose lives matter? Important and difficult conversations are happening right now in churches (and everywhere else) about our relationship to racial injustice. An editor recently asked me to write about the claim that the recent anti-police brutality protests had become “religious” in nature, even a new religion of its own. So I did my best. My short answer is that this not a new religion but it has some religious dimensions that we need to pay attention to. One of them is the “confessional” quality of certain phrases, especially “Black Lives Matter.” I’ve had friends and colleagues get hate mail or vandalism for putting these words on a church sign or website, which probably explains why people are so adamant about the importance of saying them. What we say often has a meaning beyond the literal sense of the words. This is a conversation we’ll be having, inside and outside of church, for some time to come—especially as the process of re-opening during a viral outbreak leads to greater and greater risks for more people whose lives matter but are at risk of being discounted.
Staying in touch: It’s been wonderful to hear from our community, whether you’re here in Dallas or sitting tight somewhere far away. Thank you for the emails, texts, phone calls, and messages. Please be in touch any time, and remember to keep in touch with each other!
Grace and peace,
Now that we're in the season after Pentecost, we're making Sunday worship a little shorter and easier for folks participating at home. And to do my part, I'm going to preach a little shorter too. For the next several weeks we'll be spending some time on the Ten Commandments. Until fairly recently, the Ten Commandments were a regular part of Lutheran worship. They were recited as part of Confession services, set to hymns in the Sunday liturgy, and frequently preached on.
In the Small Catechism we get brief, simple, and sometimes quite profound explanations of their meaning. "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God," goes the Second. What does this mean? Luther answers, "We are to fear and love God, so that we do not curse, swear, practice magic, lie, or deceive using God's name, but instead use that very name in every time of need to call on, pray to, praise, and give thanks to God." I have always loved that duality Luther finds in the commandments: fear and love; do not do this, but instead do that.
This week I'm going to talk about the first two commandments. It's important to recognize that the Commandments are not the Gospel. They do not reveal the grace and mercy of God to us, at least not directly. But we learn them and treasure them to understand who we are, what God requires of us, and how our actions can build up or damage the world around us.
Sisters and brothers grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Humble yourselves therefore under God's mighty hand so that in due time he may exalt you.”
When I was an intern at Bethel-Imani Lutheran Church on the Southside of Chicago I participated in a lot of funerals. And at pretty much every funeral the women's organization of the congregation read a resolution that they had approved that would be included in the permanent record of the church, a resolution of condolence and consolation and prayers for the family members and loved ones of the person who had died. In all of these resolutions the phrase that we just heard was included, in the King James style: Humble thyself under God's mighty hand so that in due course he may lift you up.
Sisters and brothers grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today is the festival of Pentecost and for the first time since all of this started I am finding myself slightly relieved to be preaching to a camera rather than to a full house of people. Pentecost is a festival that calls forth the stagecraft and the showmanship of pastors and worship committees.
Many years ago I was in a choir that processed into our sanctuary on Pentecost waving banners that had these ribbon things in red and orange to a hand drum beat as we processed down the aisle. I have been part of a choir when rubbing alcohol was ignited in a dish and as the choir sang our anthem we stood aside to reveal the flame leaping up behind us. I have recruited volunteers to speak in multiple languages that Acts reading that we just heard. The reader began reading it in our translation and someone popped up and started reading it in koine Greek and someone else popped up and continued in Chinese and in French and in German and in Spanish until there is a cacophony of languages happening in the sanctuary.
Sisters and brothers grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
We serve an awesome God. I maybe don't say that enough. We worship an awesome God. As my mentor used to say, a God who is so high you cannot get over God, a God so deep you cannot get under God, a God so wide you cannot get around God; a God who stepped out on nowhere and took hold of nothing and made himself a world.
And at the pinnacle of God's creation, God chooses to create a creature who would be capable of reflecting this greatness of God back into the universe—a creature capable of knowing and loving and creating in the image of God.
This coming Sunday is the festival of Pentecost, the day on which the Holy Spirit descends upon the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit doesn't get as much attention in our (ok, in my) preaching and theology as the Father and the Son, most often appearing as a means to some purpose or as the solution to a problem rather than as a co-equal Person of the Holy Trinity. But we do have this lovely festival, and with it the invitation to hear again what our own words and stories mean. Here's part of the passage from Acts we hear each year on this day:
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
A few verses down, the incredulous festival crowd mistakes the display of foreign tongues for drunkenness (though it's not in this passage, the English use of "spirit" for distilled liquor points to the close kinship of alcohol and inspiration). We hear this in a different way in Paul's letter to the Corinthians:
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit. Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
People in the ancient world understood that a variety of external powers spoke through human beings. The first lines of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the most important works of literature in the Graeco-Roman world, consist of the poet asking the "goddess" or the "muse" to tell the story that he will then relay to the audience. An "inspired" person wasn't digging up treasures from within her own mind, but speaking as a medium for something or someone else.
For Jews and early Christians, these "spirits" were typically hostile or deceptive powers. Consulting them was a dangerous business. So the coming of the Holy Spirit, or the Spirit of God, can be heard as a contest between these hostile (or "demonic") spirits and the power of God to produce truth, faith, and virtue in us. In Luther's version of the baptism rite, the pastor says "Depart, unclean spirit, and make way for the Holy Spirit." We aren't empty vessels waiting for God to fill us up; we're the site of many influences working through our words and actions.
Paul suggests something a little different. You were "led astray by idols that could not speak," he tells his hearers. The pagan gods aren't voices at all; they're silent blocks of wood and stone that human beings fill up with their own words and meanings. This is not a new idea (we see an entertaining version of this view in the Greek version of the Book of Daniel, in a story called 'Bel and the Dragon'). But it is a powerful one. People looking for a message from an oracle or a soothsayer will be willing to believe even the shoddiest human ventriloquism. By contrast, the Spirit of God reveals and confirms the truth, and activates "gifts" within the believer that she would not otherwise have. If the idols merely speak some version of human conventional wisdom back to us, the Holy Spirit speaks unexpected power.
So as we approach this festival, it's worth asking ourselves: what voices speak through us? It can be as simple and obvious as an internet 'meme' that we repeat or vary, pushing along a fragment of thought without weighing it ourselves. Or it can be as subtle and profound as a whole system of assumptions and stereotypes that we pick up little by little and often aren't even aware of. It may also be the voice of charity, mercy, and grace that we know comes from outside and beyond us--the Holy Spirit. And at the same time, we can ask what words do we seek from idols? What are we willing to believe? What gifts do we seek at hands other than God's?
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
So Peter tells us in today’s reading. We have many lovely images of Jesus as a shepherd. North American Lutherans seem to be particularly fond of this image. We named a lot of our churches “Good Shepherd” or “Shepherd of the Lakes.” It’s common in paintings and stained glass. And this image mostly comes from the passages we hear on this fourth Sunday of Easter, sometimes called “Good Shepherd Sunday.”
But to make any sense of the image of Christ as a shepherd, we need to think first about what it means that humans are sheep in this analogy. So a few relevant details about sheep:
God's Work. Our hands.