When Jesus says, “It is written, One does not live by bread alone,” he is quoting from Deuteronomy. There, an ancient author lyrically reimagines Moses offering a long, beautiful sermon just before his people enter the Promised Land. Moses promises that they are about to
eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that God has given you. . .When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them . . . and your silver and gold is multiplied . . . then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. . . Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you . . . by letting you hunger, then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors knew, to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8, selections)
To humble you and test you. . . by letting you hunger. Have you been there? Have you not been there? Who is “you” anyway? Just you-you, humbled and tested in your body, in your need? Or you-Riverside, hungering and testy, grumbling, wandering through a dry land, uncertain of the way forward? Or you-African-Americans, who have a story to tell the nations, what it was for hundreds of years to be humbled and tested, hungering and thirsting for righteousness in a land of plenty, of ignorance, of innocence, of evil? Is “you” America, a people not at all ready to be humbled and tested by more Sandys, be they Hooks or Hurricanes?
by: Stephen Phelps on February 19th, 2013 | Comments Off
“To gain control of the attention is the sole aim of all spiritual disciplines.” (Ramana Maharshi, d. 1950)
I am drawn to an idea set down by the Spanish philosopher Spinoza a long time ago. “Any thought not interrupted by another thought becomes action.” You can prove this. Hold your hand open. Think about closing it. If you think only that thought, you will close your hand. Otherwise, you will pass on to some other matter, more important. In other words, you will interrupt the thought; no action will follow. All action is composed of thought held like a flame until it catches the will in action. All inaction is composed of interruptions that douse the flames of thought.
In itself, seeing how thought becomes action will not heal us, for some thoughts are useless or evil, and it was our awful power to focus on them – our terrible obsession – that became an action we now so regret. Still, Spinoza’s rule holds: sometimes, no action is best and interruption is required. Yet sometimes, no action is no help at all. Do you wonder why a committee never gets anything done? Just watch how they let their thoughts get interrupted. Sometimes, no action was the worst thing we did. We knew what needed to be done, but we let interruptions come, and the hour of action was lost. How true like an arrow is the ancient prayer, “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against thee in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” Yes, true. But equally true is the reverse. “Most gracious God, we thank thee, for thou hast given us the attention, in thought and word, from which to choose our deeds, and to guard our attention from thoughts that yield bad deeds. Amen.”
It’s funny about Jonah. So many people make it out to be a fish story. All the talk, all the wonder, all the ridicule drives straight at the ridiculous notion a man in the ocean could really be saved by a whale. Or, to quote rather more famously, Oh Jonah, he lived in a whale [2x] / For he made his home in / That fish’s abdomen . . . but it ain’t necessarily so. The story of Jonah is not about that fish. And the book is so short, so easy to read – just four chapters – that we ought to wonder: Has church focused on the unbelievable word in the book in order to not hear the undesirable word of the book?
The undesirable word is very basic. Jonah, the Jew, does not want to preach repentance and release – Jubilee! – to the hated people of Nineveh; he hates them too much. He does all he can to avoid the divine command, but at length, he arrives in the great city of unbelievers, and begins preaching. He’s not very good at it. “Forty days, Nineveh shall be overthrown!” But sometimes, the leaders and their people don’t waste time on how bad they think the preacher is. Sometimes, people just believe God, and make the change. That’s what the infidel king and all Nineveh do, according to Jonah. They believe God and change. The hard word of this book is that sometimes God stops sending the Word to the chosen people. Sometimes God’s Word moves like rain over the land. If the chosen people are stiff and hard and sure of their tradition, the Word rolls right off the land and does them no good. If the chosen are frozen, the rain of God moves on until it falls on a people whose ground is warm and soft and ready, whose hearts and ears are open. Yes, says the book of Jonah, God loves other people – nations we hate, religions we ridicule – for sometimes, they have their ground plowed, ready for the seed. If we are crusted over with certainty and regulations, possessions and traditions, God moves on.
by: Stephen Phelps on February 1st, 2013 | Comments Off
At two o’clock today, over seven hundred people will gather here at Riverside Church to see the film “The Central Park 5.” This film proclaims release to the captives. It tells the terribly untold story of how in 1989, the City of New York – D.A., police, people, media, mayor, more – convicted five boys of a violent and bloody rape without any evidence except their own deceitfully forced confessions; and how, as grown men, the captives were released and finally exonerated in 2002, when the real rapist at last identified himself; and how, since 2002, our news media have showed no passion for the truth in any way matched to their former passion for the myth of evil boys out on a “wilding.” Our city has resisted paying these men any damages. Justice delayed is justice denied.
About all this, you can learn much more this afternoon – if you have a ticket. Here’s the point for this morning. I went to see The Central Park 5 at the Maysles Cinema in Harlem on a Sunday last December. Seven hundred thronged the small hall. This Sabbath afternoon, the church will be packed with people who don’t go in for church, but who will come here to hear proclaimed good news to the poor, release to the captives, and new eyes for the blind. The eyes of all will certainly be fixed on that film! Look, what Jesus felt impelled to say on his first day of work, and what thousands on thousands of our citizens long to hear proclaimed, are one and the same word. Release! But here this morning, we’re fewer than that throng will be this afternoon. What has the morning to learn from the afternoon about breaking through to the future? We’ll try an answer to that question presently, but first, let’s learn a little more from our Jewish brother Jesus.
Here in the beginning of the year, we are going to hear what might be called “the beginning of the gospel.” These are the voices of the New Testament’s first authors, Paul and Mark. Paul was writing 15-20 years before Mark. Mark, most experts say, set his gospel down about 70 A.D. – 10, 15, even 25 years before the other gospels, Matthew, Luke, andJohn. Listen now to the first words of Paul’s letter to the Romans…
Paul calls Jesus “Son of God.” This sounds familiar to Christian ears. Let’s listen closer. How do you get to be someone’s son? Usually, you’re born that way. But Paul knows nothing of Jesus’ birth. Not here nor in any of his letters does Paul show interest in Jesus’ birth. His life of Jesus is painted in a few bold strokes: “This is the gospel concerning God’s son, who was a descendant of David according to the flesh, and was declared Son of God, according to the Holy Spirit, by resurrection from the dead.” Let’s hear that even more simply. According to Paul, Jesus was born in the ordinary way, son of a mother and a father, one of whose thousands of great-great grandfathers was King David. And Jesus became God’s Son, says Paul, by divine declaration. How did God make that declaration? By resurrection. In other words, Jesus, a plain man, was adopted – at the crucifixion-resurrection.
When you hear Ezekiel letting God’s word pour down through him, crying Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! oh, but don’t you feel the thrill of his righteous anger, and feel it is as your own! “You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock; you do not bring back the strays.” The translation sounds out as plain politics. You eat the curds means you pay poverty wages to the poor and make a million off their backs. You clothe yourselves with their wool refers to the fine estates, the sumptuous feasts, the elegant clothes and the secure billions the topmost take from the wages of the bottommost to lay up in tax-free counting houses. You slaughter the choice animals: You run the people to bankruptcy with hospital charges and student loans. But you do not care for the flock or bring back the strays. You do not try to reduce the school dropout rate, or employ the unemployed, or end mass incarceration, or help drug users, but hound them to hell. When we hear Ezekiel’s word sounding the alarms for the fires of injustice, it seems they’ve been burning forever. But to whom did he call?
Remember Ezekiel’s time. Nearly 400 years after King David’s death, Ezekiel had lived through the destruction of Jerusalem. In the years before the disaster, he had watched his own leaders rule ruthlessly for their own gain. Now, after the sack of Jerusalem by the armies of the eastern empire, Ezekiel has seen his kings and their kingdom swept away. The prophet was allowed to travel back and forth from Jerusalem to the far away land to which the leaders of his nation were exiled. No doubt he saw still more unjust works. No doubt he grew exhausted from praying and hoping for justice at the hands of ordinary men inside ordinary time. At some point beyond exhaustion, a new word comes to him. No longer does he prophesy that such-and-such or so-and-so will finish a great work and all will be well. It is as if centuries of his people’s hope and despair, rolling wave on wave, have loomed up inside him in a tsunami of No! to ordinary politics in ordinary time.
by: Stephen Phelps on December 13th, 2012 | Comments Off
Jesus says There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. Really? A lot of people awfully excited by the “end of the Mayan calendar” sure think so. Why, last week, NASA sent out a de-bunking message in re: end-of-world to try to head off self-destructive excess, especially among youth. Will there be distress on the earth among the nations? Ask Greece. Ask Egypt. Ask Syria and Palestine. Will the people be confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves? That question stings. Go ask Sandy’s victims. Or Irene’s or Ivan’s or Katrina’s. Or climate change deniers. Last Friday, network news offered a kind of Global Warming 101 on the subject of ocean heat and hurricanes – a story which, just a few weeks back, no broadcaster would have dared to risk in terms so clear. Are people filled with foreboding at what is coming upon the world? They are! They don’t agree about just what is coming upon the world, but foreboding is selling at market highs.
Does this mean the Son of Man is coming in a cloud with power and glory . . . Now? Soon? Ever? If you mean coming on a certain day, so News Channel 7 can get a reporter on the scene – I don’t think so. I never have. Now, my belief doesn’t make me right nor those wrong who hold to a literal belief in Jesus’ return. But there are so many things that you’re liable to read in the Bible that –ain’t necessarily so . . . let’s be clear. In this fellowship, many do not take the Bible as a guide to astronomy, physics, geology, paleontology, meteorology, cosmology, biology, sociology. . . and that list could go on. The Bible is not for science. Very little did they understood about natural causes and effects. The biblical visions of things future are speculative and imaginative. Therefore, we let go of worry about predictions of the end of the world. It’s not what the Word is for. Even Jesus says so.
Very OFTEN, dear friends, have we told here the tale of Israel’s sorrow at the breaking of her city walls, the smashing of her temple, the forced marching out to exile of her nobles, her leaders, her men of law and letters, and all their families. Of how in a city far away they despaired of help from their God, how some defected to other gods, how some abandoned hope, and some heard a new song, to whose strains we listened again just now. Thus says the Lord, Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. For behold, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?
We tell this tale often for two reasons. One, because it’s much in the Bible. Isaiah intones it, Jeremiah joins it, Ezekiel’s bones bear it, 2 Kings will make you weep for the last day of Israel’s last king, who was brought before his captors, who slew his two young sons before his two eyes then scooped them both from their sockets and led him to Babylon with only visions of grief in his solitude. And the Psalms sing it. + By the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down / And there we wept when remembered Zion. One reason we tell this story over and again is that it’s all over the book.