The View from the Bleachers

THROUGH THE WRITER of the letter to the Hebrews we will be learning this month how the spiritual environment that upholds us as agents of God’s reign is richly, magnificently peopled. Entering into the spirit of this letter is like finding oneself worshiping in a great Byzantine church, in which the walls are blazing with frescoes and mosaics depicting the history of salvation and the saints in all their glorious variety. The writer extols the lineage of witnesses to God down the ages. We are asked to recognize them all as a crowd of supporters cheering us on. The writer insists that we live in vibrant awareness of the great and all-embracing community that God is forging. “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 12:22-24).

This is the antithesis of the bizarre theory that “religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness,” as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead claimed. God is communion, as we try to express it in the doctrine of the Trinity. Life is interrelatedness. The baptismal creed of the church commits us to belief in the communion of saints because God recruits us for the struggle to build, sustain, and nurture community-where-God-reigns here on earth, as it is in heaven.

Martin L. Smith is an Episcopal priest, author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ August 4]
'To You, O Lord!'
Hosea 11:1-11; Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

AS A STUDENT I once spent a vacation working in the woodlands belonging to a small band of contemplative monks. I’ll never forget a conversation we had during a tea break. One of them asked, “How would you sum up the Christian life in just one phrase?” The brothers gave various answers to the riddle. I found myself choosing the response that the people sing at the end of the litanies that punctuate the Orthodox liturgy: “To you, O Lord!” The question had triggered memories of worshiping in Russian churches during the darkest days just before decades of persecution ended. This urgent prayer of turning, facing, yearning, reaching out to God seemed to say it all. Faith is life lived turned toward God.

The words that stand out in this week’s story of the rich fool are, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). Only what can be turned towardGod is of value. If we tried to turn selfishly accumulated wealth toward God, its real meaning would be starkly exposed. Our reading from Colossians names it: “greed (which is idolatry)” (3:5). It is the result of fatefully misdirected worship, worship turned inward. The skill of Jesus’ storytelling is seen in the pseudo-spiritual dialogue that the rich man has with himself. He seems to pray as he addresses his own soul, taking inventory of his assets. He reviews (in 12:19) the privileged lifestyle to which he entitles himself, “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years: Relax! Eat, drink, be merry!” The religion of self.

The letter to the Colossians urges them to sustain a radical stance of being turned toward God-and-the-Risen-Christ. “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (3:1). This is not a dreamy other-worldliness, but the way to sustain our new identity, a new humanness that has been liberated from the trap of self-referential anxiety.

[ August 11 ]
Exposing Religiosity
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

THE PARABLE OF the watchful slaves in Luke 12 probes our preparedness to be surprised by God, who artfully springs into our lives to overturn our expectations. The real surprise is that the owner who returns unexpectedly from his trip to a marriage feast does not immediately round up his staff to get them to dance attendance on him, as we would have predicted. “Truly, I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them” (verse 37). The parable points to the Last Supper, and the way the One who came not to be served but to serve, washes the disciples’ feet. Judgment hinges on our preparedness to receive Christ’s offering of himself to us, as Peter learned when he tried to prevent him.

Receptivity to the self-giving of God is the key to a life of generosity, hunger for justice to be done, and commitment to the forging of the beloved community. Our self-giving in the service of justice issues from joy in being given the kingdom. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms ... For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:32-34).

The opening verses of the prophecy of Isaiah tear off the mask of religiosity to expose the hollowness behind. The prophet excoriates his contemporaries because their heart was not in the covenant that committed them to seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, pleading for the widow. The claims of the vulnerable fall on deaf ears when people are invested instead in the gratifications of religion and the absorbing satisfaction of participating in spectacular rites.

[ August 18 ]
Christ the Arsonist
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

CHRIST AS GOD’Sarsonist! Christ the instigator of division! If we were faithful to the gospel passage that confronts us this week we would use these titles boldly. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled ... Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 12:49-51). Those who “know how to interpret the present time” (verse 56) will respond to the crisis by taking stands that offend and scandalize those who are committed to the status quo and domestic security in a familiar world. Families especially will try to deter them and reclaim them. Faithfulness to Christ will involve cutting through the ties that would bind us to conventional values. Jesus invokes oracles of Micah to prove that loyalty to God will mean rejection by one’s closest kin.

The passage from Hebrews represents the opposite pole of the paradox of the life of faith. Loyalty to the reign of God means separation from relationships that would hold us back from participating in it, but it also integrates us into a new web of relationships that is rich beyond imagination. The writer names generations of prophets and martyrs who had suffered for God’s covenant, but this is no mere list of past figures. All these women and men are truly alive and gathered around us like the crowd in a stadium. They are our fans, on the edge of their seats cheering us on now that our turn has come in the relay race of faith. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses ... let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith ...” (12:1-2).

[ August 25 ]
Restored to Joy
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

AS WE KNOW from the parable of the strong man fully armed in Mark 3, one of the images Jesus used for interpreting his vocation was that of a champion fighter with the strength to beat Satan and liberate human beings held in Satan’s bondage. In Luke’s story of Jesus healing the crippled woman, we learn that Jesus’ understanding of that captivity included every kind of diminishment that robbed people of the ordinary joys of life. The woman, just by being freed to stand tall, is set free from bondage.

I remember once preaching spontaneously on this scripture. In giving voice to the woman’s gratitude as she listed all the things she could now enjoy, I found myself exclaiming, “Wait till I get home to my husband! What a difference this is going to make to our sex lives!” which took both the congregation and myself rather by surprise. But it was true to the spirit of the healing miracles of Jesus, which restore basic human joys to those who had been robbed of them by crippling limitations.

The opening chapter of the prophecy of Jeremiah speaks of God’s power to liberate us from inhibitions that can hobble us in our prophetic ministry. The enormity of the vested interests that hold masses of human beings in deprivation is so great we feel that our words and actions are futile. We feel puny, as the young Jeremiah did. “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them” (1:7-8). We can take strength from the mysterious truth that our witness to God’s reign is not a task we choose but a vocation for which the Eternal One consecrates us. The Lord said to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” (verse 5). 

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