Watch the Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes Jr.’s Sermon on Psalm 23 and Luke 8: 40-55 as he explores seemingly minor details in the text that, upon further investigation, hold surprising spiritual power and significance.
There is something we all need before we die, if our last day might approach not as debilitating necessity or worse, an evil night meddling with all our days long before they are full. If you have attended a funeral where memories of the deceased kindled intense gratitude and admiration, you might say we need to live in a way that lights such fires in others. That could be a lovely aim, but not a universal one. There is something far more fundamental to our existence than warming many hearts as we go.
We need first to come to peace with all that is undone. I do not mean “resign ourselves” to the fact that our work will be interrupted. No, I mean real peace now; peace that no part of us or our work is ever done. Everything we are and everything we do which is worthy of the names “being” and “doing” is never full, never perfect. Everything is partial. Death is not at the cause of our partial performance, as if our life were a play of several acts whose curtain falls before the performance is finished. No, the cause of our partial performance is that we have no end. We are an infinitude of ends. We are an open mouth of yearning and desiring and need.
Ecclesiastes says that “God has put eternity into the mind, yet so that we cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end.” Our eye is set on a far thing. If our yearning is base, we call it covetousness. If it is high-minded, the philosophers call it “transcendent” – a fancy word whose roots mean “climbing beyond.” We are always climbing beyond ourselves. It is our nature. Sometimes it seems plain that we cannot finally arrive at anything worth climbing after, but we mostly do not live in peace about this. In fact, all our wars, from the most private torments to the most appalling acts of violence, are driven by the endlessly open mouth of human nature. A Christian’s faith, by contrast – if it is faith and not more duty or a point of pride in climbing over others – mostly shows up as peace in “a passion for the partial.”
You don’t need to be a bible scholar to find out that the prophet Isaiah did not say that “a virgin shall conceive.” Ancient Hebrew has a word for “virgin,” but Isaiah used a different word, meaning “young woman.” And he spoke not of “a” young woman but “the young woman,” which suggests that he knew the woman of whom he spoke. If it’s your guess that the young woman he had in mind was his own wife, you may feel the need of a bible scholar to back you up. You can find them by the dozens.
When I went to seminary, I felt a passion to get to the bottom of questions like this. I had seen that Matthew made a new meaning of the ancient Isaiah oracle, and I felt troubled that most Christians seemed unaware or even in denial about this. I was eager for the tools of the historical-critical method. In that first fall of my study, we read scholars who quickly laid things bare.
About 750 B.C., the northern kingdom of Israel made an alliance with its traditional enemy to the east, Syria. Together, they attacked Jerusalem, hoping to get rid of King Ahaz and compel his army to join their rebellion against the empire of Assyria. King Ahaz was terrified. Isaiah wrote that “his heart and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.” Ahaz wanted miliary aid to fight off Israel and Damascus. He was ready to make a pact with the Assyrian empire to get the needed help.
Whoever means to be serious about the possibility that there is a God somewhere needs to be serious about the possibility that the way we worship is no good. Please don’t hear me wrong. This word is not a secret message I want to pass around to some Riversiders about some aspects of worship here. No, this word is for all churches everywhere, and therefore for our church, too. It is a waking word, a buzzing, persistent word come down from the prophets like locusts on the field at harvest. It is a word which, after centuries of silence, shivered again to life in Prophet Jesus, who would not relent from uttering woe on the way they worshiped.
Now Christians have an easy out if they want it. They can always claim that the prophets and Jesus had in mind Temple worship, and that Christian worship is not Temple worship, but true worship, and so we’re in the clear. But that is plain denial. Isaiah presses the point to the flesh.
Quit your worship charades. I can’t stand your religious games: weekly Sabbaths, meetings, meetings, meetings – I can’t stand one more! I hate them! You’ve worn me out! . . . Do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody. Go home and wash up. Clean up your act. Say no to wrong. Learn to do good. Work for justice. Help the down-and-out. Stand up for the homeless. Go to bat for the defenseless. Come. Sit down. Let’s argue this out.
The apostle Paul was a good fund-raiser. In this part of his letter to the Corinthians, he was encouraging them to take part in a campaign underway in all the new churches of the Mediterranean. He called the campaign “the ministry to the saints.” Can’t you see the four-color posters? The goal was to bring a big gift of money to Jerusalem to support the mother church. Now, Paul had had a serious fight with that mother church some time back as to whether God’s promises covered Christians who weren’t Jews. Jerusalem said No, they don’t. Paul said Yes they do – and eventually they were persuaded to support his mission. But surely it did not hurt to bind up the wounds from that dispute with real money. The saints in Jerusalem were poor. The saints in the cities of the empire had plenty. The need of the one and the abundance of others were balanced in acts of generosity.
Paul is brilliant. He is perceptive and practical and persistent. Here he favors them with comparisons to other churches; there he stings them with doubts about their failing zeal, which might embarrass all with a meager gift. Here, as elsewhere in the letter, he has them putting something aside every week. It is a wise counsel. Which of you could give in one week from your income the whole sum you offer in the course of a year? If you can, then your giving is not yet spiritually significant. Paul teaches to give regularly. He calls this practice “being ready.” He teaches giving proportionally, according to means. Then he lightens up. “You must give only as your heart leads you, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Then he pours again and again from the pitcher of spiritual assurance. “God who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity.”
Forty years ago, in the wake of the rebellion at Attica Prison, Rev. Robert Polk of the Riverside clergy founded the Riverside Prison Ministry. Throughout this past weekend, the Prison Ministry has been celebrating this anniversary by anchoring a year-long campaign to bring light and change to life-destroying parole practices in this state and in this society.
Forty-one years ago, in response to that rebellion at Attica, a Rochester man named Steere began a ministry at Attica prison. It still goes on. Volunteers and men inside join each week in a conversation about one thing only, what it is like to be in your own skin, with your own burdens, and how you learn from it. From what I learned and experienced during ten years with that program, I have brought you a number of things over the years.
Forty years of ministry is a good thing. But let’s let that number, “forty years,” seep into our skin alongside the ancient scriptures we have just heard, for our societies haven’t much to show for long exposure to the word of God; and in these United States, the last forty years have looked more like years of wilderness wandering with no Moses and no true law at all. Since those terrible days at Attica, the criminal American justice system has multiplied its prison population sixfold, from 350,000 to more than two million. Those being watched by parole and probation exceed five million men and women. They are blocked from public housing or help with the price of food. “The box” blocks them from working. It’s that box on employment applications – “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” States block the formerly incarcerated from voting, ever, as if to say you will never have a place among us. It seems that society aims to destroy them.
As this November marches on, the news will be noting well the ways by which we have come. On the 22ndof the month come ’round fifty years since that day in Dallas when Pres. Kennedy lay dead from a bullet. On Nov. 19th, we mark 150 years since Pres. Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg, Penna. for the dedication of this country’s first national cemetery. The 278 words of his speech, which Lincoln supposed the world would “little note nor long remember,” cut a new channel for the constitution of the young nation. His theme was the meaning of “these honored dead.” Late this month, we will celebrate Thanksgiving. Perhaps we will be reminded of the holiday’s origin, not with Pilgrims but with Pres. Lincoln, for it was just one week after his speech at Gettysburg that Americans first celebrated the national Thanksgiving holiday. Lincoln’s proclamation read, in part:
It has seemed to me fit and proper that . . . the gracious gifts of the Most High God . . . should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens . . . to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father . . . And I recommend to them that . . . they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged . . .
In a word, Thanksgiving was established for a country dealing with death. Now here we are at All Saints, having remembered our beloved dead, with all the saints who from their labors rest. In a moment, we will share in the Lord’s Supper, and once more “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.” From every angle, the mask of death regards us. Usually we turn from it. Yet surely it is a gift of faith in God to face what is real. Death is real. Indeed, every piston in the engines of culture and personal aspiration is driven by our relationship with death. Death is real. Let us turn and look.
In the first pages of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, the reader confronts a Columbus quite different from the one we learned in school. Some may be aware that he sailed on condition of receiving a large share in the profits from his gold-seeking adventure, but everyone knows that early on October 12, 1492, a sailor finally sighted land.
Columbus’ ship was met by Arawak Indians swimming out to greet the visitors. In his journal, the explorer wrote of these Indians:
They are well-built, with good bodies and handsome features. . . [They] are so naïve and free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say No. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone… They do not bear arms and do not know them. . . They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… They would make fine servants… With fifty men, we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want .. .
Last Sunday, leaning in close to the prayer of Psalm 91, we felt after an answer to the questions: how does God protect, how does God save? Our thoughts hung close to the personal experience. We said little of our self in relation to any community, or to larger joined purposes in the world. Yet now, hearing the words of Lamentations – How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!- we are exposed to grief of a most public kind, the destruction of a nation’s home and purpose. If for many generations Americans of a certain class have been spared such absolute, public grief, America has not spared other nations from feeling this. Need we name them?
In the psalms and the prophets, salvation – the hope for it, the need of it – was always this public personal thing; never only a personal promise, but peace on earth. When today a Jew is puzzled by the Christian claim that the Messiah has already come, mostly the puzzlement is that the world still suffers, and do we not see? Where is the Messiah’s “peace on all my holy mountain?” Do we Christians prefer to shun, starve, or destroy the world’s billions in order to lay claim to salvation as a personal prize? We need that Jewish judgment on the meaning of salvation. After all, it is Jesus’ judgment, too.
Are you saved? ( – Psst! Did I hear the preacher right? Did he just ask if we are ‘saved’? We don’t talk like that here.) In a church of the liberal Protestant stripe, if a preacher never spoke of salvation, few would notice, for it has become ecclesiastically incorrect to talk about salvation. Long ago, a parishioner asked me whether we could just not use the word “sin” anymore in Sunday worship. He was a gay man into whose skull churchmen had planted the word “sin” like a billy club so many times, it hurt him just to hear it. I got that, and I hurt for him. Still, I said we would not delete the word “sin” from our service because our people would always be hearing the word in the world out there, and if we left its meaning to mean people, our people would not be strengthened in the Word. “Salvation” is similar. So many talk of it glibly and it is certainly in the Bible. We can’t just leave the meaning of salvation to be annexed as their domain by by religious ideologues. Are you saved?
The word “salvation” has become toxic for lots of reasons. One is that the question,Are you saved?implies that someone might not be. We liberals devote such heart to resisting themaldistribution of earthly goods, we cannot countenance the possibility of maldistribution of heavenly goods. If someone isn’t saved – someone who needs it and wants it but won’t get it – then, we reason, the goods of God are not good. And, we reason, God would not make the evil mistake that we make, withholding what people need – medical care, education, food, jobs. Therefore, in the compassion of God, we reason, it must be that everyone is saved. And if that is so, then there is no need to talk about it, for the deal is done.