“We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us”

So runs the most famous quotation from the comic strip “Pogo” that appeared in newspapers of my youth. Like its somewhat later contemporary “Doonesbury,” it was written on two levels, a surface level of light-hearted humor and a deeper level of often trenchant political critique. If anything, I confess that, as a young adult, I had more trouble penetrating what was going on with Walt Kelly’s animals in the swamp (Pogo and friends) than with Garry Trudeau’s send-up of campus culture at Yale in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, featuring Michael Doonesbury et alii.

Still, it is Pogo’s famous quotation that has been trolling around in my brain for the better part of a week now. Ever since we’ve been “sheltering in place,” I have been concerned about the degree to which coronavirus and COVID-19 have shoved nearly all other issues off our literal and psychological front pages. My greatest worry has been that, just as the world seemed on the verge of seriously confronting some approaching “tipping points” associated with climate change—that is, with realistic projections of dates after which our ecosystem will have been irreparably harmed by human action—that just then we all got distracted. Greta—you know, the Swedish kid—what was her last name again—what was she so exercised about?

Then, in the course of the last week or so, I’ve been reading articles in various newspapers and magazines about a remarkable phenomenon. No, climate change has not suddenly reversed itself. But some other negative epiphenomena resulting from human excess have done so. With the sudden, massive decrease in vehicle usage and industrial activity, urban skies are blue again. Streams are clear that have not been so for many a year. What irony!

I don’t mean to wax anthropomorphic about “Mother Earth” catching its breath while we’ve been staying indoors. Nor is it fair (or nice) to those who have put their lives on the line to resist the coronavirus (or who have suffered in its wake) to suggest that somehow the virus has proved a sort of symbiotic blessing with the non-human world by putting humanity out of action for a while. But it does not seem to me a stretch to recognize a moment’s pause in what Saint Paul described as “the whole creation . . . groaning” under the burden of human selfishness (Romans 8:22).

Of course, we humans tend to be slow learners, and it remains to be seen what lessons, if any, we shall collectively take from this experience. Recently, I ran across a sonnet expressive of what I hope we may avoid—or at least postpone beyond our pre-March trajectory. It was written by a friend of the nineteenth-century British romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, namely, Horace Smith, in a friendly poetic contest for which Shelley wrote his famous “Ozymandias.” But it is Smith’s poem (also titled “Ozymandias”) that has left me pondering our coming choices and their consequences:

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
The wonders of my hand.”— The City’s gone,—
Naught but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

“In Accordance with the Scriptures”

In the one truly ecumenical (i.e., worldwide) Christian creed, that is, the Nicene Creed, the church confesses that “on the third day [Jesus] rose again in accordance with the Scriptures.” The “Scriptures” referred to here can be none other than what Christians call the “Old Testament,” as there were no other Scriptures at the time of the first Easter. The Creed is claiming that Christ’s resurrection had been in the works, so to speak, for a very long time. Specifically, it is somehow essential for Christians to agree that the Old Testament has something to say about how we understand what was going on in the life, death, and life of Jesus.

Yet you would never know it from the Bible readings that many churches use during the Easter season. Ever since the liturgical reforms that grew out of the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church in the mid-1960s and the concurrent liturgical renewal in many Protestant churches, the lectionary, or prescribed set of readings for Sunday worship, has belied what the Creed claims to be so important. For Lutherans, the relevant reforms were driven by the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship (ILCW) in the late 1960s and included the development of a three-year series of readings, centered largely on the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) to replace the one-year cycle that had prevailed heretofore. In many respects, this change was, in my fallible opinion, a wholesome one. It exposed the “person in the pew” to a much larger portion of the Bible than was possible with a one-year series. But I have always taken strong exception to one major decision: during the Easter season (that is, Easter through Pentecost, fifty days later) readings from the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles are designated as the “First Reading,” replacing what is, for the rest of the year, a selection from the Old Testament. That is, during Christianity’s holiest and most celebratory season, the Old Testament is discretely pushed aside.

This decision was not without reason. Those who designed the three-year lectionary were trying to make the point that Easter marks a decisive moment in the dealings of God with humanity. If Easter be considered a rock dropped in the pond of human history, then the subsequent development of the church as ripples in human affairs is best considered a direct consequence of Easter’s transformation of Death’s wall into a door to fuller Life. This story is most fully told, at least within the Christian Bible, in the book of Acts.

But still I think it was a mistake. First, it can only contribute to an ongoing Christian problem, known by the fifty-cent term “supersessionism,” that is, the idea that, in the plan of God, Christians have replaced Jews as God’s chosen people. The horrific history of the treatment of Jews over the centuries of Christian predominance in the West need not be spelled out, I trust. Moreover, supersessionism is not even a necessary element of either biblical teaching or the Christian faith. See Romans 9-11 and the decree of the Second Vatican Council Nostra Aetate for details.

But secondly and arguably even worse, the omission of Old Testament readings from the Easter season ignores the claims of the core Christian creed, as noted above. Christians who confess the Nicene Creed without a second thought really need to ask, in what sense was Jesus’s resurrection “in accordance with the [Old Testament] Scriptures”? It’s not an easy question to answer. Nowhere does the Old Testament explicitly state that the Messiah (or Christ) will be killed OR be raised on the third day. Rather, living with the biblical witness over a lifetime, as I have been privileged to do, can lead one to a realization that, over the history of his people, Israel, God developed a modus operandi—a way of operating—that consistently leads to God’s bringing greater good out of evil than would have happened without the evil (see Genesis 50:20), indeed, that it is God’s habit to bring life out of death.

That is at least the claim that I am making in a five-week series of adult education conversations that I shall be leading during the present Easter season. Given present realities, those conversations are happening via ZOOM meetings, hosted by the president of Feast of Victory Lutheran Church in Acme, Michigan, where I am a member and my wife serves as pastor. Last Sunday, we talked about “Easter as Exodus,” with a focus on Exodus 14-15. This coming Sunday, we’ll look at “Easter in Jonah” (see Matthew 12:38-42 for why). If you’re interested in participating, send your name and e-mail to office@feastofvictory.net. You’re welcome.

“Wherefore Ye Must Needs Be Subject”

The pastor who saw to my confirmation instruction was not a sadist. But he did decide that, over and above requiring me to memorize the “six chief parts” of Luther’s Small Catechism (as was required of my classmates), I was also to learn by heart the “Table of Duties” appended to the work. This “Table” consists of a long collection of biblical passages, organized by various human vocations (a key Lutheran concept), including “Of Civil Government” and “Of Subjects.”

Since the edition of the Small Catechism that I was using included its biblical citations from the King James Version of the Bible, there were a few instances of archaic language included. One that remains prominent in my mind to this day from “Of Subjects” is a quotation from Romans 13:5-7 (check it out in a more recent translation, if this makes no sense):

“Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For, for this cause pay ye tribute also; for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom, to whom custom; fear, to whom fear; honor, to whom honor.”

This quotation came to mind recently, as I read through a Facebook exchange, in which some held what I recognized as a common, traditional Lutheran position: that whatever the faults of the present administration in Washington, the current president’s presence in office is “ordained by God” and must be respected as such. The most commonly cited text is Romans 13:1-7, although also noted is 1 Peter 2:13-17, especially v. 13: “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution.” The arguments to the contrary were utterly predictable: how about Hitler? The counterarguments to the contrary arguments were also utterly predictable: Hitler’s office was ordained by God, although God was not responsible for what Hitler made of it.

I confess that I grow tired of theological debates in the form of Japanese Kabuki theater, that is, rehashes of age-old arguments and “proofs” for them. I have my own opinions regarding the performance of President Trump and his associates, but such is not my present focus. Rather, I resist the attempt of some to privilege selected biblical passages that advocate for the assumption of divine support for the current powers-that-be (at least if one agrees with them), above all Romans 13 as often read by Lutherans.

The fact is that there are varied voices within the Christian Bible with respect to human authority. Traditional interpretations are correct that there is what I shall term a “historical” point of view, not merely in Romans 13 and 1 Peter, but also in the Old Testament, where Israel’s kings are “God’s anointed” and then especially in the prophet Isaiah, who identifies current, earthly powers as temporary devices under the sovereignty of God. Isaiah speaks of Assyria as “the rod of my anger” in judging Israel in Isa 10:5. Then Babylon serves a similar role (Isa 39:6). Then Persia, specifically in the person of “my messiah” Cyrus, fits the bill (Isa 45:1). The powers of any given time are but tools in the hands of God.

But there is another perspective that is equally biblical. Call it the “apocalyptic” view. Found especially in Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation, this vantage holds that all earthly rulers are agents of evil. All will have their time, but at a time and place of God’s choosing, all will be judged and overthrown. In their place, God will establish his direct rule and reign.

The “apocalyptic” perspective clearly emerged at times of persecution and peril for God’s people: the Babylonian exile in the 500s BC, the Seleucid attempts at Hellenization of the Jews in the 100s BC, and the Roman cult of the emperor as the “patriotism” of its day in the first through third centuries AD. The latter is seen above all in the final book of the Christian canon, which obviously (albeit in code) identifies Rome and its emperor as emblematic of Evil (hint: the Hebrew letters that spell out “Caesar Nero” add up to 666!). The message to God’s oppressed: “Be thou faithful unto death, and I shall give thee the crown of life” (2:10, again using the King James Version).

Moreover, New Testament scholars are increasingly finding anti-imperial voices all over the place. Working from the perspective of what has come to be called “Empire Studies,” such scholars have identified numerous places, especially in the gospels, that call for resistance to, if not replacement of, the powers-that-be with the Kingdom of God. To cite but one example, read the Passion Narrative of John with care: note that time and again, the trial and execution of Jesus are presented as the coronation of a new emperor. Jesus is in charge throughout, and the imperial Roman governor, Pilate, is but his unwitting lackey. Thus, when Pilate famously tells the crowd, “Ecce homo” (“Behold the man”) in John 19:5, he is but quoting the Greek translation of Samuel’s words by which he presented Saul to Israel as their God-appointed king over a thousand years earlier (1 Sam 12:13 LXX).

So which applies to us at this moment? Much hangs on how one answers this question. There is no question that “Christendom” as a cultural phenomenon that established Christianity as the cultural (if not legal) default in the West since the fourth century of our era (under Constantine) is no longer the norm. But there are some who continue to speak of a “Christian America” as an entity to be preserved against enemies within and without.

Yet the Bible itself allows another point of view: in its most extreme form, that all human powers are expressions of evil, opposed to God. For what it is worth, none among us have advocated for this model so consistently as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

So which is it to be? As a Lutheran, my theological genes incline me toward both/and, rather than either/or. But what does both/and look like? Perhaps this: governmental authority is indeed part of God’s design for human existence, as a curb against the chaos of each against all. As such, it deserves our support in principle. At the same time, it is inevitable that specific instances of governmental authority will fall short of the God-pleasing and may, in fact, on the whole tend away from what St. Augustine termed “the City of God.” The upshot is that the Christian must remain fully engaged in citizenship and governance, but always as what the British call “the loyal opposition.” That is, the best we can hope for is imperfection or even the lesser-of-evils, always subject to critique from the perspective of the Kingdom of God (and with the upfront acknowledgment that such a critique, in turn, is offered by imperfect observers).

That’s not a ringing endorsement of politics, and I’d hope for better from us all and specifically from those called to that vocation. But it may also be cold-eyed reality in anno Domini 2020.

Trudging through the Triduum

Well, OK, the title is only funny if you pronounce the last word as I was taught: TRI-djoo-oom. But seriously, it’s going to be a different kind of journey for us all this year. The Great Three Days (or “Triduum”) that lie at the heart of the Christian Year usually offer the opportunity for God’s people to gather and to walk with Jesus and with one another from the Upper Room to Skull Hill to the Empty Tomb, that is, to reprise the core events of the faith. But not this year. In anno Domini 2020 we shall do so via technology, if at all.

At the moment, my thoughts are focused most fully on the first of the three days, Maundy Thursday, since I have been asked to offer the homily for the congregation that my wife serves as pastor. I checked my sermon file (that’s the “barrel” for those in the trade), and found, as I expected, sermons mostly on the Old Testament lesson from Exodus 12, where God instructs Moses and Aaron on the particulars of the Passover meal that his people are to observe for all generations. One sermon, in fact, from very early in my ministry was offered on a Maundy Thursday when I had first led the congregation through a Passover seder meal (taken almost word-for-word from Jewish sources, as I am not a fan of Christianized seders). The sermon was set at the beginning of the service and made a deliberate pivot from the meal of the Old Covenant (the Passover) to that of the New (the Eucharist that Jesus first established at a Passover seder). My focus was on similarities, not differences, in an attempt to lead the good folk of Cheshire Lutheran Church in Connecticut, where I served as assistant pastor during my doctoral studies in Old Testament, to recognize the deep roots of the Christian faith in both testaments (and, not incidentally, to see our immense debt to our older siblings, the Jews, of whom Jesus was one for his entire life).

But what is to say on a Maundy Thursday when we shall not be sharing The Meal? I shall digress but for a moment and say that, in my fallible opinion, attempts at a technology-mediated “virtual communion” being offered these days by some Christian congregations are a non-starter for me. I have no interest in picking a fight. In fact, my main objection lies not on theological grounds but on historical ones: most of the points that I have heard offered in favor of the practice (by which everyone on the ZOOM call or whatever shares bread and wine—or some other food and drink—after the pastor’s online consecration) smack of what historians call “presentism,” the belief that we live in a time unique in human history that requires, in turn, interventions from scratch. Hard as it is for a Boomer to admit that he does not live in a time like no other, not so: there have indeed been times when Christ’s people have had to do without the Eucharist for awhile. Enough said.

So what’s to say this Thursday? It is worth noting that the prescribed Gospel lesson is from John, the only one of the four gospels that does not feature a “Last Supper,” because, by John’s reckoning, Passover that year began on Friday night, not Thursday night (as in the other three gospels). Permit me, please, to pass over (as it were) that discrepancy in silence. What John does make a great deal of is two points. First, he recounts Jesus’s presentation of a “new commandment” (or mandatum novum in Latin—the source of our “Maundy”), that his disciples should love one another. Second, he explicitly reaches beyond those gathered that night to later generations, as Jesus prays “not only on behalf of these [present there with him], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word [i.e., all later generations of Christians]” (John 17:20).

The bottom line is that it is no act of theological acrobatics to affirm that we today (and Christians of all ages and places) were present in a way more true than historical in the Upper Room that night—in the mind of Christ. The Gospel according to John says so. At this moment, in a way more real than literal, we receive together the New Commandment directly from Jesus’s lips. At this moment, when love requires that we remain apart, we are called to serve others. If we cannot touch and wash others’ feet (as Jesus did to model what he meant that night), we can do what we can do. And for that purpose, all our technological toys are fair game, say I.

With Passion

Words fascinate me. For one thing, they are the tools of my trade as a teacher/scholar of theology. I have always been attracted to etymologies, homonyms, and, yes, puns. The latter delight finally led my daughter to admonish our family: “Don’t even groan. It just encourages him.”

Of particular interest to me are words that have come to mean both what they mean, as it were, and also the opposite. Take, for example, the verb “to stone.” It can mean to apply stones, sometimes with considerable force (as in the method of execution prescribed in some biblical passages). But it can also mean to remove stones, as in the somewhat old-fashioned, but still-used sense of taking the pit out of a piece of fruit. Or there is “to cleave,” whether it means to divide (as with a “cleaver”) or to cling to (as in the King James Version [KJV] of Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and cleave to his wife . . .”). One that I actually used as the organizing device in a sermon on Luke’s Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican was the development of the verb “to prevent.” Originally, it meant to come before someone, from the Latin prae (before) + venire (to come), as in Psalm 88:13 (KJV again): “In the morning shall my prayer prevent thee.” Yet now it means very nearly the opposite, to stop a meeting (like a collision) that might otherwise occur. (My point, in a nutshell, was that each man “prevented” God, but in a different way: one pushing him to the side; the other drawing near to him.)

I got to mulling on this small collection as I began thinking about this coming Sunday. Traditionally known as Palm Sunday, many Christian churches now begin with the story of Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, but then pivot to hear the story of his suffering and death that happened at the end of the week. So, it is also now known in those churches as Passion Sunday.

“Passion” is another one of those strange words. It comes from the Latin (and ultimately the Greek) meaning to suffer or, more literally yet, to receive suffering (think “passive”). But today we use it far more often in the sense of what we most love or aspire to, often in a sexual sense. For several years, the motto of the Lyric Opera in Chicago was “Long Live Passion,” and, despite the often gruesome endings of their performances, I doubt that the marketing department had suffering in mind. Nor do guidance counselors or faculty advisors have such a focus, when they ask students, “What is your passion?”

Yet these two senses of “passion” do come together in the events described at the end of all four New Testament Gospels. There is plenty of suffering at the climax of each: as one New Testament scholar put it, “To state the matter somewhat provocatively, one could call the Gospels passion narratives with extended introductions.” Yet in, with, and under all of the suffering is the utter determination of Jesus to see his mission through to the end. He is, in the most modern sense of the word, “passionate” to set things right between God and humanity.

As distracted as I am (and likely many others are) these days with all manner of concerns about things present and yet to come, it gladdens me to know that we have a God who is “passionate” about each and all of us in the senses both of cost and goal.

“Jesus Wept”

I’ve been kidding with my wife lately (who is a practicing parish pastor) that recent Sundays’ Gospel lessons seem designed to build up the endurance of congregants’ legs to stand through the mammoth reading of the entire Passion account next week on Palm (or Passion) Sunday, April 5th. First, we had 38 verses of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well from John 4 on Lent 3, then 41 verses of Jesus and the man born blind from John 9 on Lent 4, and now (tomorrow) 45 verses of Jesus and the raising of Lazarus from John 11 on Lent 5. Too bad that it will all be for naught this year, as most every congregation will not congregate, but make do with (no, make the most of) an online service in the comfort of their several “shelters.”

Ironically enough, within tomorrow’s long reading is the shortest verse in the entire Christian Bible, John 11:35, traditionally rendered as “Jesus wept.” The traditional understanding of why Jesus was crying is that this is a fulsome demonstration by the evangelist with the most elevated Christology that Jesus was fully human. His friend Lazarus was dead and buried, and he was simply joining the deceased’s family and other mourners in grief. Such a reading seems supported by the immediately following verse: “So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’” (NRSV here and following).

But things are seldom entirely as they seem in John’s Gospel. The verse right after that one sounds a dissonant note: “But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’” In fact, a holistic reading of the chapter to this point suggests that nobody but nobody was “getting it.” The disciples mistake his reference to Lazarus’s “sleeping” as, well, his sleeping (v. 12). Martha mistakes Jesus’s assurance that her brother will rise again for a reference to the resurrection of all at the End of All Things (v. 24). Mary gently chides Jesus for not preventing her brother’s death by making a little more haste to be there in time (v. 32). The effect of all the weeping makes its mark on Jesus: “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (v. 33). So, we are told, “Jesus wept.”

A teacher of mine long ago suggested that his weeping may well have been above all in sorrow and even frustration at the accumulation of so many wrong frames of understanding, even among his very closest friends and followers. If so, this occasion may or may not have been the first: we are told that Jesus wept over Jerusalem’s refusal of a long line of prophets up to and including himself, but Matthew places the event after his final entrance into Jerusalem (23:37), while Luke places it well before (13:34).

I would not put it past John in the least to have intended both what I shall call sympathy and head-banging on the part of Jesus. All of which makes me wonder at how much we have given Jesus to weep over in the years since. Yet still he weeps with us, for us, and over us, and in that I take a certain comfort.

Welcome to my blog!

This is a new adventure for me. But there are many new adventures these days. A year ago, in May 2019, I retired from a thirty-five year career in Lutheran higher education, split nearly in half between service as a senior administrator (vice president, then president) and a teacher/scholar in my chosen field of Old Testament studies. Retirement has brought the gift of time to pursue from new angles my life’s vocation, to serve as a small bridge-builder between the world of biblical scholarship and the “real world” of people seeking meaning and some small measure of joy. These days I am doing so as a member of Feast of Victory Lutheran Church in Acme, Michigan (on Mount Hope Road off of MI-72, just a block east of US-31).

What I aim to share in this blog are reflections on the intersection of the Christian Scriptures (both Old and New Testaments) and life. I’ll aim for the “seam in the zone” between the academic and pastoral, doubtlessly falling now toward one and then toward the other.

Before I let you go, let me add a couple of personal notes. First, I am the husband of one and the father of two and grateful for all. My wife serves as pastor of Feast of Victory Lutheran Church. Our two grown (and thoroughly above-average) children live in Boston and Saint Paul, and we get nowhere near enough time with either.

Secondly, I’ll add a word about my car’s license tag (which almost became the title for this blog): “PONTMIN” on Michigan’s Mackinac Bridge plate option. OK, it’s a (kidding on the straight) joke from Latin. Roman emperors and later the popes styled themselves “Pontifex Maximus” or “great bridge builder” between heaven and earth. Go to Rome today, and you’ll see numerous architectural wonders inscribed with the name of a pope, followed by “PONT MAX.” I aspire to something more modest, to be a Pontifex Minimus, or “little bridge builder.” For my entire adult life, I have sought to build bridges among Lutherans, among Christians, and among people, across all the categories by which we divide ourselves into “insiders” and “outsiders.” If this blog can serve in some small way to advance the work of that vocation, that will be, as Shakespeare’s Prospero said of his library in The Tempest, “dukedom large enough.”