Tag Archives: Trust

Faith in Matthew’s Gospel

Jesus Healing the Blind From 12th Century Basilica Catedrale di Santa Maria Nouva di Monreale in Sicily.

 

Faith, believing, and unbelief are frequently used terms in Matthew, all originating with the Greek pistis. When modern people use terms like faith or belief they typically are referring to some type of cognitive assent-I believe certain things to be true, but the frequent usage of faith related terms in Matthew indicates definitions closer openness or trust than some type of cognitive assent to certain beliefs. There is a certain elasticity to how Matthew employs these terms but when we think about faith in Matthew it is not belief in the dogmatic sense.

As I’ve alluded to several times while discussing portions of Matthew that we view the world differently than the people that Matthew’s gospel is written to. I still find one of the more helpful ways to think of this difference comes from the philosopher Charles Taylor in his work A Secular Age where he differentiates between our ‘disenchanted’ world and the ‘enchanted’ world of our ancestors. Most ancient cultures, and the readers of Matthew’s gospel certainly fit within this characterization, believed there were times, places and individuals where the spiritual side of reality permeated their reality. Divine and demonic forces were actively at work in the world and responsible for sickness, famine, war, acts of nature and could be at work for or against the individual living in this enchanted world. Demons might cause a person to be mute or have a seizure, they might cause a storm to come upon the sea or the crops to fail. God or another deity might bring a bountiful harvest or hold back the rains as a judgment on the lack of ‘faithfulness’ of the chosen people. Ritual, when done by the priests, or magic, when done by others, often tapped into these people, times, and places where the spiritual world drew close to our own.

The gospel of Matthew is written from the perspective that the spiritual realm of the LORD the God of Israel, the Kingdom of Heaven, has now drawn near and turning towards the approaching Kingdom of Heaven is the proper response. (Matthew 4: 17) Although this is a minimalistic way of putting things, in Jesus we have a person where the spiritual side of reality associated with the God of Israel is able to act upon the earth and against the demonic forces that enslave, the sin that condemns and the lack of holiness that excludes. Faith or belief in Matthew’s gospel seems to reflect an openness or an awareness of this reality that some have while others do not. Some, like the centurion and the Canaanite woman, seem to perceive this reality in Jesus without having the background of the Jewish scriptures and practices, but instead use their own frameworks to understand who Jesus is and what Jesus means.

A special usage of this term, oligopistoi, what I’ve translated ‘little faith ones’ is always used in relation to Jesus’ disciples. They may not demonstrate the moments of clarity or openness that those coming to Jesus requesting a healing or exorcism may, but their faith is enough to recognize the call that Jesus extends to them. Traditionally translators and commentators have viewed ‘little faith’ as a criticism but Jesus, even asked to increase the disciples’ faith in Matthew 17: 20 (after they were unable to exorcize the demon of the son the father brings to them) tells that if they have ‘faith the size of a mustard seed’ they can command mountains to move. Being a ‘little faith one’ is not a crisis, for indeed these little faith ones will be sent out with the authority to heal and cast out demons and carry out the mission in chapter ten as emissaries of the kingdom and workers in the harvest. Jesus seems to be indicating that those with a small amount of faith can still do incredible things. As Mark Allan Powell can state,

So, Jesus seems to be saying, the amount of faith is not what’s important; you just need to know what to do with the faith you have. Quit worrying about whether you have enough faith and start asking, “Which mountains does God want me to move?” (Powell, 2004, p. 112)

Jesus may be able to expound about people like the Canaanite woman or the centurion that they have ‘great’ faith (in contrast to the little faith of the disciples) and they may simply have a greater openness to what God is doing in the world. This is not limited to Jesus’ time. There are many who are outside of organized religion who demonstrate a greater openness to God’s action than those who have been shaped by congregations. That doesn’t mean that faith and understanding cannot coexist, merely that they are not the same thing. I do think when Matthew invites the disciples who come to hear his gospel into the world of Jesus, he is also trying to invite us into a world where God’s kingdom is active and present, where in Jesus we meet the ‘God who is with us’ and to invite us, whether our faith is great or little, to hear about the people whose faith enabled them to see in Jesus the opportunity for God’s healing, forgiveness, and even resurrection.

Psalm 34 The Experienced Faithfulness of God

Psalm 34

Of David, when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.
1 I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
2 My soul makes its boast in the LORD; let the humble hear and be glad.
3 O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together.
4 I sought the LORD, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.
5 Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.
6 This poor soul cried, and was heard by the LORD, and was saved from every trouble.
7 The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.
8 O taste and see that the LORD is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.
9 O fear the LORD, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want.
10 The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.
11 Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD.
12 Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good?
13 Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit.
14 Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.
15 The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry.
16 The face of the LORD is against evildoers, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.
17 When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears, and rescues them from all their troubles.
18 The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.
19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all.
20 He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken.
21 Evil brings death to the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
22 The LORD redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

Psalm 34 is another acrostic poem (each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew Alphabet) where the teacher passes on a robust life of trust in God’s faithfulness and presence. Its form points to the psalm being an A to Z (or Aleph to Taw) exposition of what a whole life under God’s care looks like. Faith becomes something passed on from the speaker to the hearer as they impart the wisdom they have learned from their experience of life. What they are handing on is not a naïve faith that cannot endure heartbreak, struggle and disappointment but a fully embodied faith which learns to trust in the LORD’s seeing, hearing, and action in the difficult times.

The beginning begins in blessing, a blessing that comes continually from the poet’s mouth. The blessing is not conditional upon the feelings of the moment, nor is the psalmist’s faith dependent upon never enduring hardship. Praise is the appropriate action for the one who trusts and fears the LORD. They can praise based on their experience of God’s dependability. The faithful one has learned to boast in the LORD, and it is God’s strength and power that is their foundation. As Psalm 33 reminds us it is not armies, or strength, or military might that is the place where we are to put our trust but instead we magnify the LORD and exalt his name. This places the speaker and hearers in a place where they can acknowledge, “Praise does not make God greater, but it acknowledges that God is greater than I.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 324) The life of faith learns peace by trusting in the strength and protection and trustworthiness of their God.

The poet invites those hearing into their experience of faith. Faith has an experiential component, and here the psalm can look back upon times where the speaker cried out and they were heard. The psalmist trusted in the LORD and feared the LORD and the LORD extended protection around them. Taste and see that the LORD is good, one of my favorite lines of this psalm, is an invitation to come and experience, or in the words of the lectionary gospel reading from John for this week, to “come and see.” (John 1: 46) This may have originated as a portion of a sacrifice of thanksgiving where the invitation to taste and see the blessings of God may have been an invitation to the table. There is value in taking the time to reflect upon the provision of God throughout our lives and, whether at times like Thanksgiving or simply as a portion of a prayer before a meal, to be reminded that the things that we taste and see are ways in which God has provided for us. Happiness resides in being able to accept the things that one has as a gift rather than something one is entitled to.

The young lions, those beasts which are the strongest and seem to be able to seize their security for themselves, suffer want and hunger in contrast to the faithful ones who trust in the LORD’s provision. The continual call of instruction to those who are hearing, like a parent to a child, of what it means to fear, love and trust God above all things becomes the center of handing on this embodied and experienced faith. Those desiring to experience a fullness of life throughout their days are encouraged to seek the paths of righteousness and faithfulness in contrast to the ways of deceit and evil. They are to depart from evil, seek peace and pursue it for the LORD will actively watch over the righteous.

This care of the LORD takes on the familiar human senses. The LORD will see since the eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, God will hear because God’s ears are open to their cry and the LORD’s face will be set against those who work against God’s ways. Being a faithful one does not guarantee a life free of heartbreak or affliction, yet the LORD is present amid those experiences and does not allow those experiences to separate the faithful on from God’s steadfast love. Even though the wicked may seem to prosper there is a trust that evil itself will bring down the wicked. Perhaps this is a part of arc of the moral universe bending towards justice that Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders could speak of. At the foundation of this faith is a belief that goodness ultimately triumphs over evil, that righteousness will persevere long beyond wickedness and that God’s will shall eventually be done on earth as it is in heaven. I’m going to close with a quote from Peter C. Craigie I found helpful in hearing this psalm:

The fear of the Lord establishes joy and fulfillment in all of life’s experiences. It may mend the broken heart, but it does not prevent the heart from being broken; it may restore the spiritually crushed, but it does not crush the forces that create oppression. The psalm, if fully grasped, dispels the naiveté of that faith which does not contain within it the strength to stand against the onslaught of evil. (NIB IV: 815)

Psalm 33 The Earth is Full of the Steadfast Love of God

Psalm 33

 1 Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous. Praise befits the upright.
2 Praise the LORD with the lyre; make melody to him with the harp of ten strings.
3 Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.
4 For the word of the LORD is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness.
5 He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD.
6 By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.
7 He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle; he put the deeps in storehouses.
8 Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
9 For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.
10 The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
11 The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations.
12 Happy is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage.
13 The LORD looks down from heaven; he sees all humankind.
14 From where he sits enthroned he watches all the inhabitants of the earth —
15 he who fashions the hearts of them all, and observes all their deeds.
16 A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
17 The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.
18 Truly the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love,
19 to deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine.
20 Our soul waits for the LORD; he is our help and shield.
21 Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name.
22 Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you.
 
This psalm is a majestic psalm of praise that takes the fundamental trust throughout the psalms that God will take care of the author and the faithful ones and extends that care to all of creation. If you read Psalm 32 and 33 together then this psalm becomes the shout for joy by the righteous ones (shout for joy in 32 and rejoice in 33 translate the same Hebrew verb). Martin Luther’s well-known explanation of the first commandment that we are to “fear, love and trust God above all things.” could explain the dynamic of many psalms, but we hear in this psalm why God is trustworthy and many of the things that seem to be powerful are not. The faithful one understands that the earth is full of the steadfast love of God and that the poet’s role is to praise this creative love of God which permeates everything.

Structurally the poem is designed to give a sense of completeness. The poem’s 22 lines, mirroring the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet even though the poem is not acrostic, speak a complete message of God’s power and trustworthiness in all of creation. (Actemeir, 1997, p. IV:809) The act of praise is an act of hope and faith, of speaking trust amid a world that trusts in other sources of power. It protests trusting in military might, physical strength, financial resources or political power. The Psalmist can rejoice because at its heart the world is full of the steadfast love of God that nothing can separate the poet from.

The LORD is described as committed to a stance of uprightness, faithfulness, righteousness and justice. The God of the psalmist is not an unmoving or unengaged deity, but one that chooses and defends those who attempt to live in accordance with God’s will for the world. Even though the word shalom (peace, harmony) is not mentioned in this new song the poet lifts before the LORD, it underlies the trust that the one who created and ordered the world protects and guards the one who lives in righteousness and faithfulness. The words of the LORD given through the law and the prophets echo the order that the LORD has spoken into creation itself.

Psalm 33 shares a common vocabulary with Genesis 1, where the creation comes into being and is given form by the word of the LORD. In the beginning when the LORD created the heavens and the earth reverberates as the heavens are created by the word of the LORD and the host are created by the breath of God. The limits for the oceans and sea become playfully like a bottle and the LORD has storehouses that can contain the immeasurable (at least at the time of the psalm’s composition) depths of the oceans. If the world itself is an act of imagination and speaking for the LORD and the seas and the stars find their place due to the word of the LORD, then the promises uttered passed on to the psalmist are a faithful foundation to build the poet’s trust and hope upon. If earth is full of the steadfast love of God, then the psalmist can rest in the comforting embrace of that love.

Philip Melanchthon, one of Martin Luther’s close associates in the reformation, once said, “to know Christ is to know his benefits rather than his natures…” and similarly Rolf Jacobson can parallel:

the Psalter bears witness that to know the Lord is to know the benefits of being in relationship with the Lord, rather than to know the Lord’s natures. In Psalm 33, the emphasis first of all upon the relationship with that the Lord forges with humanity through the act of creation (vv. 6-7, 9, 15) and also upon the special relationship that God forged through Israel through the election of the chosen people. (v.12) (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 319)

Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, who trusts in God rather than the military might, financial prosperity or political influence. Faith enables the individual and the faithful ones to see that the benefit of the LORD’s trustworthiness. I’ve said in other forums that I believe that the greatest idol in the United States is security and we are willing to sacrifice almost anything to that idol. We may inhabit a place where great armies and military technology can create incredible damage and vast amounts of death, but ultimately it is the LORD who looks down from heaven who can control the course of humanity. God sees all of humanity, fashions the hearts, observes the deeds, and the eyes of God watches those who trust in the LORD. Nothing can separate them from the seeing eyes and the pervading love of the LORD, not death and not famine nor anything else under the heavens.

The grace of God that can forgive sin and bring about peace and reconciliation is the same steadfast love of God that creates and fills the earth. The word of the LORD, whose utterance brought creation into being continues to shape the hearts of humanity and the course of the nations. Even though might and power may appear to reside in the strength of the military or the wealth contained within the vaults of banks or the political power of various groups these are ultimately illusions. The steadfast love of God fills the earth and faithful ones have learned to rest within this gracious presence of God’s creative might. This praise of the upright and new song of the faithful ones proclaim the trustworthiness of the LORD and stands among the blessed ones chosen for the joyous task of praising the LORD and knowing what the steadfast love of God is creating in their midst.

Exodus 16: A Crisis of Trust

James Tissot, The Gathering of Manna (between 1896 and 1902)

Exodus 16: 1-36

The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 2 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

 4 Then the LORD said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5 On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” 6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your complaining against the LORD. For what are we, that you complain against us?” 8 And Moses said, “When the LORD gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the LORD has heard the complaining that you utter against him — what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD.”

 9 Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.'” 10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud. 11 The LORD spoke to Moses and said, 12 “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.'”

 13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?”1 For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat. 16 This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.'” 17 The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. 18 But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. 19 And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over until morning.” 20 But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul. And Moses was angry with them. 21 Morning by morning they gathered it, as much as each needed; but when the sun grew hot, it melted.

 22 On the sixth day they gathered twice as much food, two omers apiece. When all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, 23 he said to them, “This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy sabbath to the LORD; bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.'” 24 So they put it aside until morning, as Moses commanded them; and it did not become foul, and there were no worms in it. 25 Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. 26 Six days you shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is a sabbath, there will be none.”

 27 On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, and they found none. 28 The LORD said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions? 29 See! The LORD has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.” 30 So the people rested on the seventh day.

 31 The house of Israel called it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey. 32 Moses said, “This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Let an omer of it be kept throughout your generations, in order that they may see the food with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.'” 33 And Moses said to Aaron, “Take a jar, and put an omer of manna in it, and place it before the LORD, to be kept throughout your generations.” 34 As the LORD commanded Moses, so Aaron placed it before the covenant,1 for safekeeping. 35 The Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to a habitable land; they ate manna, until they came to the border of the land of Canaan. 36 An omer is a tenth of an ephah.

The title ‘a crisis of trust’ which I gave to this section reflects on two different directions. On one hand, there is a crisis of trust in the people of Israel for the LORD their God. They quickly revert to their default position of accepting their identity as slaves who had food and water as preferable to their current identity as a free people of God whose food supply is in question at the beginning of this chapter. As they enter the appropriately named (even though the name is simply a transliteration of the Hebrew letters) wilderness of Sin the people have a crisis of trust in the LORD their God and Moses and Aaron the representatives of God. On the other hand, the crisis creates the question of trustworthiness. Crises bring about questions of faith, questions of identity and ultimately can lead the person undergoing the trial to question God’s involvement in their life and in the crisis.

People who are dealing with hunger, and more generally with poverty, often make poor choices. Yet, it is far too easy to blame those who are poor or hungry for the bad choices that they make when a person is sitting in comfort and not having to make choices under the same conditions of scarcity as those struggling. Recent studies have found that people suffering with poverty can have their IQ decline as much as 13 points, comparable to the effects of chronic drinking or sleep deprivation on decision making. The experience of scarcity can lead us to make poor decisions, to revert to unhealthy behaviors and not to trust those who may be able to aid.

As the congregation of the Israelites, the first time they are given this title, moves from the oases of Elim into the wilderness of Sin they encounter the challenges of scarcity. The lack of food creates a crisis of faith. They imagine a return into slavery, to their oppression in Egypt where they remember having their fill of food. Memory in times of crisis can be particularly unreliable and lead to all kinds of poor decisions based on idealistic representations of the past. Here the congregation of Israel turns on its leaders, Moses and Aaron, and ultimately complains about the provision of the LORD on this stage of their journey. The easy position and an interpreter would be to blame the congregation of Israelites for their lack of faith after the LORD has through many signs led them out of Egypt, through the sea and into their journey, but here (in contrast to the parallel scene in Numbers 11) the LORD does not get angry but instead provides for their need in an abundant way.

The name of the wilderness of Sin gives an opportunity to reflect upon the way in which a vision of scarcity in contrast to God’s promise of provision can be an appropriate way to talk about sin. Sin, as Saint Augustine, Martin Luther and later Karl Barth could all refer to it is a state of homo incurvatus in se (the human turned inwards on oneself). A belief that there are a finite number of goods and that one must secure one’s own portion at the expense of the neighbors’ portions and that one’s own needs are more important than the neighbors’ needs leads to hoarding and the consolidation of wealth and power. This is the system that the people of Israel have left behind in Egypt, a pyramid scheme (pardon the pun) where the deprivation of the many allows for the abundance of the privileged few. Here in the provision of manna and the declaration of the sabbath the LORD begins to point to another way of imagining the world and our relationship with our neighbors.

In the Lord’s prayer the petition, “Give us this day our daily bread” refers to the foundational idea in both Judaism and Christianity that God provides for us the things that we need each day. Faith allows a person to receive the food, drink, clothing, job, home, relationships and more as a gift from God to be thankful for and to trust that God will continue to provide. Even in difficult times it provides a way to trust that the LORD will provide enough to help the person of faith in their journey through the wilderness. Here in the wilderness of Sin with the provision of manna this theological concept is given a practical narrative. The journey in the wilderness will be a journey of learning to trust in the LORD’s provision for the congregation of the Israelites in a land that would not normally support them.

The people in the wilderness still operate out of a scarcity mindset, when the manna appears some go out and gather more, others little. Some try to save some of the daily bread for the next day only to find it rotten and infested with worms. Whether they gather much or a little they all end up with the roughly two quarts (omer) per person they needed. This time of testing is a time of learning to imagine the world through a different lens, through the lens of God’s provision. It will be natural to revert to the ways of Pharaoh, to the lessons of their time of enslavement and oppression. Perhaps if we want to use the language of an original Sin, it is the natural state of seeking out for one’s own interest and hoarding resources and providing for one’s own future rather than trusting in God’s provision. It is far too easy for the formerly oppressed to become the oppressor and to construct their own pyramid schemes.

Sabbath becomes a way of enacting this trust in the LORD’s provision as well. There is no theological reason given for the sabbath here (it will be linked to creation in Genesis 2 and in the ten commandments in Exodus 20 and to the experience of being slaves in Egypt and the LORD’s liberation in Deuteronomy 5) Perhaps obedience comes before understanding, sabbath as a practice begets sabbath as a theological concept. Practice gives rise to meaning, or in Prosper of Aquitaine’s phrase lex orandi, lex credenda (the rule of worship leads to the rule of faith). For former slaves the idea of a day of rest would have been foreign, yet now it was to become a part of their life and a weekly practice of trust in the provision of their LORD.

Tamarisk tree near Revivim, Israel, Picture taken by Michael Baranovsky. Shared under creative commons 3.0

Finally, there will be many people who look for a natural explanation of the manna in the wilderness. For example, some people will claim the manna was the resin of the Tamarisk tree or a form of lichen based on the descriptions provided in Exodus and elsewhere. Even if manna is from one of these sources, and remember many of God’s signs throughout the book of Exodus use natural elements, it still doesn’t eliminate the LORD’s provision for the people. As a book of faith, the book of Exodus sees the LORD’s provision of quail and manna as a reflection of God’s provision for the people in the hostile wilderness. If the LORD uses natural phenomena to feed the people or whether the manna itself is an unknown and miraculous substance do not subtract from the provision of God for the people in their wilderness journey. Unfortunately, the omer of manna placed in a jar and kept as a remembrance has long been lost and we have only the story to remind us of the experience of the people in the wilderness. Yet, the story reminds us of the struggle we still face today to trust in God’s provision and to imagine a world where we are content with enough and instead of attempting to secure our own future we can imagine a world where we can ‘love our neighbor as ourselves.’

Psalm 23- The LORD as Shepherd, Host and Destination

Eastman Johnson, The Lord is My Shepherd (1863)

Eastman Johnson, The Lord is My Shepherd (1863)

Psalm 23

<A Psalm of David.>
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
 
To attempt to write about the best-known Psalm and one of the most loved pieces in all the scriptures is a challenge because of these words have such an emotional resonance in my memory and the memory of many others. Yet, sometimes slowing down to meditate upon these words that I and many others know by heart can be beneficial. These words of trust have been spoken, prayed and meditated on for millennia and the image of the LORD as shepherd and generous host echoes in many places in the bible, in art and in song.

The metaphor of the LORD being one’s shepherd resonates in multiple ways. Primarily the images evoke the literal pastoral image of a shepherd guiding and watching over the sheep and the words of the Psalm (at least in the first four verses) are told from the sheep’s perspective. In the more literal reading of the metaphor the shepherd is the one who continually provides for the needs of the sheep as it seeks food, water, and safety. The shepherd seeks out an environment where the sheep may thrive and provides protection from the threat of enemies (either wild beasts or men). If, as the Psalm indicates in its attribution, this is a Psalm of David it makes sense that the pastoral image would be a readily available metaphor as David himself begins as a shepherd. Yet, within the world of the bible the shepherd also has a metaphorical linkage to those entrusted as rulers and kings. Jeremiah 23:1-7 and Ezekiel 34, for example, can use this metaphor as a condemnation of the rulers who have not cared for the people they ruled and then later in John 10 Jesus can pick up this language by claiming ‘I am the good shepherd’ which would have both the pastoral image as well as the kingly image.

The LORD leading the sheep into an environment where they might prosper for ‘his name’s sake’ reflects upon a long tradition of honoring the name of the LORD the God of Israel. While the Hebrew people lifted the honoring of God’s name as a commandment it also was used as a claim upon God’s identity. For example, in Psalm 79:9 the Psalmist can cry out, “Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake.” To call upon the name of the LORD is to call upon the character of God. In many ways, this Psalm, and many other Psalms and prayers, call upon the name of the LORD to ask God to act in a way that is in the character of God’s provision and care for the sheep of the LORD’s field and the people under the LORD’s care.

One of the most memorable parts of the Psalm is the darkest valley, or as I remember it growing up ‘the valley of the shadow of death.’ God’s presence amid the dark and difficult moments of our life is both a source of great comfort for the sufferer and a challenge to many simplistic theologies that can only find a place for God in the times of joy and prosperity. God’s presence provides security in every part of our lives and the faithful one can lean upon the protective rod and staff in a time of insecurity. The journey of the follower will not always be a time in green pastures and still waters and yet they shepherd leads the sheep through the dangerous and scary places to places where the flock can once again thrive.

In the final two verses the metaphor shifts from the LORD as shepherd to the LORD as host. The follower becomes one welcomed into the LORD’s hospitality, and as one extended hospitality the host also provides protection. In this way, a banquet table can be spread even when one’s enemies may be nearby for the host provides the security which allows the feast to be peaceful. The traveler is welcomed, anointed with oil and given food to eat and rich drink. Goodness and mercy become personified and follow the traveler, pursuing them throughout their life to provide a safe harbor.

Ultimately the one who has led the sheep/follower throughout life is finally the destination. Dwelling in the house of the LORD is far more than just residing there as a priest, but ultimately goodness and mercy have pursued the Psalmist and the LORD has led the Psalmist like a shepherd back to the LORD’s house. St. Augustine’s famous words, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you” resonates with Psalm 23. As the book of John loves to use a set of images in John 10: I am the gate for the sheep (10:7); I am the gate (10:9) and I am the good shepherd (10: 11, 14) can ultimately lead in chapter 14:6 to “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Just as John can develop the imagery of the Psalm in a way that points ultimately to Jesus being the destination of the journey for Christians, the Psalm can point back to the LORD the God of Israel being both shepherd, host and destination for the Psalmist and those who would echo these words.

Psalm 11: Confident Faith in the Midst of Trouble

Giovanni Francesco Barberi (il Guercino), King David (1651)

Giovanni Francesco Barberi (il Guercino), King David (1651)

Psalm 11

To the leader. Of David.
1 In the LORD I take refuge; how can you say to me,
“Flee like a bird to the mountains;
 2 for look, the wicked bend the bow,
they have fitted their arrow to the string,
to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart.
 3 If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”
 4 The LORD is in his holy temple;
the LORD’s throne is in heaven.
His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind.
 5 The LORD tests the righteous and the wicked,
and his soul hates the lover of violence.
 6 On the wicked he will rain coals of fire and sulfur;
a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.
 7 For the LORD is righteous;
he loves righteous deeds;
the upright shall behold his face.

This is another Psalm where we do not know the threat that David (Psalm 11 is attributed to David) faces, yet the advice to flee like a bird to the mountains because of the strength of those opposing the speaker poetically evokes a mortal threat. Yet there is a defiance in the initial line which sets the tone for the rest of the Psalm, “In the LORD I take refuge.” The Psalmist trusts that, even in the midst of a life threatening situation, the LORD sees and will act. This Psalm, like many of the Psalms, revolves around the active move to take refuge in the LORD and to trust that the LORD will act. It means relinquishing control over one’s future and to stand in the trust that even in the midst of the speaker’s powerlessness that God can indeed act on behalf of the righteous and against the wicked.

This defiant stance, of trusting the LORD in the presence of danger, is a frequent theme of the Psalmist. For the writers of the Psalms they trust that God does see, act and judge. That God sustains the righteous and will in time punish the wicked. The author’s trust in God enables them to place themselves into the position of danger even when they may feel powerless. This poetic approach to faith that trusts in the midst of crisis has been a balm for many of the faithful across the generations. Luther’s ‘A Mighty Fortress’, which is inspired by Psalm 46 is an echo of this type of faith. Yet, the Psalms are poetic and not dogmatic and just because the poet is able to appeal to the LORD in the midst of their situation does not condemn a person who may flee in a different situation.

In 1527, during the early reformation at Wittenberg, a case of Bubonic plague was discovered. The students were sent home but Luther remained in the city and was busy with pastoral and practical care of the sick. Late in the year Luther wrote an open letter on ‘Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague’ where Luther can endorse the type of faith that is stated here in the Psalm, because in times of death someone must stay: doctors, nurses, preachers and others necessary to care for the afflicted. But Luther also allows that there will be those whose faith is not at this place and they should be allowed to flee and that those who are unnecessary may be acting on a natural tendency, implanted by God to flee death and save one’s life. (Luther, 1989, pp. 736-755) Luther’s caution was not to condemn those whose walk of faith allowed them to flee like a bird to the mountains nor those who for the sake of the neighbor walked into the place where death seemed to reign.

What I Learned About Myself, Life and God from My Divorce: Part 2

Apophysis-Betrayal (1footonthedawn at deviantart.com)

Apophysis-Betrayal (1footonthedawn at deviantart.com)

4. The Language of Woundedness– Growing up, in seminary and even through the first several years of my ministry I never really knew what to do with much of the language of the prophets in the bible. At times it is visceral, offensive, painful and harsh and even though I had done many things through my life to challenge myself physically and mentally I didn’t realize what a sheltered life I had lived. It was only in the time before and after my divorce, where I found myself emotionally shattered and dealing with a deep emotional and spiritual wound that I found that this was the language of emotional pain. Those who have been following my writing know I’ve been writing quite a bit on Jeremiah, and Jeremiah is full of this language of woundedness-of a wounded God and the wounded prophet who are working through an intense feeling of betrayal by the very people they committed themselves to. I’ve come to understand that this language, although harsh and painful and often unheard by anyone else is a part of the healing process. It is a way that we try to make sense of the deep brokenness that we feel on the inside and to let go of the relationship, dreams, trust, love and eventually move towards forgiveness. For me, many times, these were words that were said in the car alone, in the shower when nobody could hear, and rarely before anyone except a couple close friends who I trusted deeply as well as some of my conversations with God (which both the Psalms and the Prophets model). It is the language of our emotional self crying out in desperation as it tries to re-establish itself and it needs the place to be vented, and yet it is not where we want to remain. It is a wilderness of anger that I had to move through on my journey of healing, but I have also know people who have established their residence there and allowed their identity to remain wounded. This is one of those things that there is a season for, a season for woundedness and anger and a season of healing and new beginnings.

5. Letting Go of Dead Dreams-This took some time, probably close to two years for me. Many people will immediately try to re-establish a relationship to take the place of the relationship they lost but I didn’t. I did date some over my first couple years but was never able to place myself fully into the relationships because I was still holding on to what had been in the past. For two years of dating and thirteen years of marriage I had seen my life always being connected to my ex-wife’s and there was a time, even after divorce where I dreamed the relationship could be reestablished, my family could be joined back together and the dream I had held onto for years could be realized. The crazy part is that I was holding onto this dream precisely when I was also dealing with the most extreme pain and hurt. Eventually I did reach a point where I was able to say that the relationship was truly over, the dream was dead, that I had come to the point where there was no going back, where I could be honest with myself about the number of things I had given up over the previous years to make the relationship work and I could see some of the flaws. For me this was a part of letting go and beginning to wonder what might happen in the future and making space for the present. It also allowed me to accept the gift of myself and hopefully in the future be ready for the gift of somebody else.

6. The Relational Currency of Trust-I had the opportunity as I was going through my divorce to do some coursework on Marriage and Family Therapy which has been invaluable going forward in my life and in the counseling I do as a pastor. At a fundamental level, when you love someone else you open yourself up to the possibility of being hurt-there is no love without this possibility. This is why a person’s death can be so difficult and why betrayal within any relationship can be so devastating. In my own experience I know there were times when I may have known what was going on but I didn’t want to admit that someone I had opened up to so deeply could possibly be willing to betray that trust. The reason that betrayal is so deadly to marriages (and this can come in many forms, affairs both emotional and physical, addictions, lying, hiding of financial struggles or resources, undisclosed legal struggles and the list could go on) is that it violates trust. Trust allows us to risk opening ourselves up, and once trust is broken it is painful and it takes a lot for another person to grant that trust again. In my case I was willing to open myself up again in the hope of saving the relationship and I ended up being wounded again, but it was the right decision for me to make in the long run. If trust has been broken it can be rebuilt, but it takes a lot of time and work.

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Living a Godly Life-A Sermon on Trusting

sparrow
“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
“Therefore I tell you, not to worry about your life, what you will eat, or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life. And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for these things and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. Matthew 6: 24-34
I really wrestled with this during the week, mainly because I had to get to the point where I could hear this graciously. Where I started out hearing it was in a condemning way, bringing up all the shortcomings in the places where I was trusting God, and I found myself placing a heavier and heavier burden on my shoulder. I began to feel like Martin Luther before the reformation when he was struggling with an image of God who placed heavy burdens on people’s shoulders that they couldn’t lift and then condemned them for it. I also had to reach my breakthrough moment when I could realize that God’s grace was there all along, but I didn’t start out there.
When I listened to this the first time I found myself struggling against it, my muscles got tighter as I read it, I found myself becoming a little anxious, and I honestly found myself angry at these words. I know Martin Luther said we are to “fear, love and trust God above all things.” And on one level I know I desperately have tried to live my live where I do trust God above all things, but I have to be honest—this passage is both terrifying and comforting at the same time because I find myself caught between two worlds. I live with one foot in this world and one foot in the kingdom of God. In this harsh way of hearing this I acknowledge that I live in a world where roughly 20% of my income goes to taxes, 25% goes to housing, 15% goes to other debts, 10 % goes to the church, another 10% goes to things like phone, cable, insurance and so on a good month I have 20% to spend on gas, groceries, the pants for my son who seems to continually be outgrowing everything I buy him and if there is anything left, maybe something I wanted to buy, and while there may be (and have already been) things that I’ve cut the reality is that as much as I don’t like it I am dependent on receiving a paycheck twice a month. I may not like it but if that paycheck didn’t come in, it would change a lot of things in my life very quickly. I also have to be honest that I have always been on the more meticulous side of how I dressed, and even though I don’t spend very much money on clothes each year for I try to make myself look as good as I can because I legitimately like to look and dress well. Maybe it is the time I spent in the Army and the family I grew up in, but I am still one of these people who tries to make sure my shirts are pressed and my shoes are polished, and that as much as I can, that I look good. And for whatever reason I was coming up against this text and I was hearing, “Don’t worry about how you dress” and “Don’t worry about where your next meal is going to come from” and I wanted to say back to God, “God how much more do you want?” I mean God when you called me to give up a really good paycheck as an officer in the army, doing something I enjoyed to go to for four years in seminary where I wasn’t going to have much of an income, or when I accepted first call well below the guideline for compensation for a pastor and then when I was going through the difficulties with my last call and divorce, giving up that position (even though it was killing me) and trusting that somehow it would work. I began thinking “What more do you want me to give up?” and yet that wasn’t what Jesus was trying to say to me, I was loading that upon my own shoulders. Yet, I think it is very natural for us to slip back into this image of a God who is a harsh taskmaster, who continues to demand more and more out of us, and I think this text can very easily be heard in this way and sometimes English doesn’t help because something as simple as the translation saying “you of little faith” which is hard to hear any way other than condescending, or as in some translations, like the NLT “why do you have so little faith”, but what is there is my little faith ones. It is a different tone, even though the words are the same. It may be nitpicking, but how you hear and read something matters, if you hear Jesus coming off harsh and condemning it affects the way you receive this, so much of communication is more than just words, even on paper we assign emotion to words. Yet the entire section is set within the words of “don’t worry” and when I hear this it is Jesus coming to us and saying in a comforting was, “God takes care of the sparrows and you’re more important than they are, and the wildflowers which only last a season, God cares more about you than them.”
Jesus is speaking primarily to people who are not very wealthy. Most of the people hearing this will go back to their fields, or fishnets, or households. They will plant their crops, drop their nets, bake the bread for their families, and Jesus is not telling them, at least not most of them, to abandon their fields and farms, to give up their boats and fishnets, to turn away from their families. There may be other points where people like Peter and James and John walk away from their boats, and Matthew away from his job as a tax collector, but most people will hear him, and they like his disciples will be little faith ones in the midst of the world. I think the point in the midst of this “who are you?” Ultimately we are God’s little faith ones, we are people marked with the sign of the cross and sealed with the Holy Spirit in our baptism, we are precious to God, more precious than sparrows or flowers, we are people who God has placed value on, and God will watch over us. Yet in the midst of our lives things change. I’m forty, and so I can still do many of the things I did when I was twenty, I just pay for them more. And I know there are things that if I make it to eighty, that I will not be able to do that I do now. Or maybe you lose a job, or a house burns down, or a thief breaks in and steals something precious, or you go through a divorce, or you lose a parent or a child, or something else happens in your life and it feels like it changes everything. And we invest a lot of our lives in our jobs and our relationships, but if the job goes away are you anything else? When things around us change, can we realize that who we are is ultimately children of God, people who are precious to God, more valuable than sparrows and flowers and that God will take care of us? In the times of feast and the times of famine God walks with me. I’ve been through both the experience of losing a job and losing a divorce, and in that time you don’t have to say, “this is where I’ll be six months from now.” No where you are is in that moment. We live in a society where anxiety and depression are rampant, and there is no magic wand that makes it all better, but sometimes we find ourselves living so much in the fears of the futures that may come that we lose the joy of the moment that we are living in. Or you get plugged into the 24 hour new cycle and you let it depress you, because even though the news will not tell you this, there is a lot that is right in the world. We can and will go through a lot of changes throughout our life, but in God’s eyes who we are hasn’t changed. God may not be calling us to seek these things out, but when they happen we can realize that who we are in God’s eyes has not changed. God never promises to make it easy, just possible, and we will have what we need to eat, or drink, or wear…not always what we want, but what we need.
I know when I was going through seminary, and I am a proud person, and I had to use WIC or the food pantry I didn’t like it, I didn’t like that I needed help even when it was available-I didn’t want to feel like I was somehow a drain on the system. And when I look back on that time, it was a time in my life when I had the least, but I was the happiest because I was surrounded by a community of people who were my friends who were sharing the same experience and we were all learning to trust God together.
And Jesus throughout the scriptures cautions people about money, and we hear today that you cannot serve God and money, and one of the things money can do to us is that it affects our relationships. There have been numerous stories, for example, about lottery winners whose lives were ruined because their relationships became defined by their new found wealth. Everybody wanted them to buy something for them, or lend them $5,000 or $10,000. And I know a lot of people yearn for this type of fame, but I couldn’t imagine being someone like Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift where everything you do is watched, and you can’t go to the grocery store without someone taking pictures or wanting an autograph. I couldn’t imagine being the president where you need a large security detail everywhere you go to separate you from everyone else. Yet in the midst of all the distractions it can be so easy to forget who we are, that we are precious, that God has claimed us and named us in the waters of baptism and that we are precious in his sight. Even when everything else around us changes, that does not.
Throughout this time of lent we have been talking about things that have to do with trust. Giving relies on trusting that there will be enough, prayer allows us to grow into the relationship with the loving God who wants us to come to him as loving and trusting children and it is in that communication with God that we build trust. Forgiving involves trusting, because it opens you up to the possibility that you may be hurt again in the relationship, but there is no way to continue a relationship without forgiveness, and as we forgive others we begin to understand God’s forgiveness. I talked about fasting last week, and that involves a deep level of trust, for I struggle against my most basic urge, to eat, so that I may learn that I am more than just a consumer. And we walk along this journey and God continues to shape and mold us to be people who can live in trust. I wrestle with this just like everyone else, I also have to hear for myself that I am precious and loved, I have to get beyond my own tendency to judge myself as unworthy and hear once again that I don’t need to worry, for God has called me God’s own.

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