Friday, October 22, 2021

November 7, 2021 - 24th Sunday after Pentecost

 Biblical Words                              [741]

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17;  Psalm 127;  Hebrews 9:24-28;  Mark 12:38-44.

The widows – and others in need – find redeemers, in spite of the pride and prejudices of the great. 

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17.   

The story of Ruth moves through its complications and dramatic climax – though our reading includes only a couple of key scenes. 

The two widows, an older wise one and a younger attractive one, have devoted themselves to finding a livelihood and some future prospect in Bethlehem.  Ruth has worked hard in the grain fields, gleaning with the other poor women.  By chance – or otherwise – she works in the field of Boaz, the one well-to-do relative of Naomi in Bethlehem.  Attracting Boaz’s attention leads to more and more favorable working conditions (developed in chapter 2), and Ruth prospers until the end of the grain harvest.  That is where our reading picks up. 

Naomi devises a daring plan.  She sends Ruth, scrubbed and perfumed, to sneak into Boaz’s bed that night after the harvest-end carousing is over.  She tells Ruth, When he discovers you, “he will tell you what to do” – that is, everything will be up to him! 

Our text does not elaborate, but here are the three possible outcomes of Naomi’s plan:  (1) he may throw you out as a slut, (2) he may take advantage of you and send you away in shame, or (3) he may grasp the opportunity you are offering him.  May God make it this last! 

Our selected reading does not narrate the outcome.  However, the details given in chapter 3 show Ruth improving her chances by telling Boaz about his distant kinship obligation to Naomi’s family.  Chapter 4 then shows us that Boaz chose door three:  he was wise and took Ruth as his wife. 

When Ruth has born a son, she fades into the background as grandmother Naomi takes over.  Naomi is grandly congratulated by the neighbor ladies of Bethlehem, who knew her back when, and the word goes out, “A son has been born to Naomi!”  Not to Ruth! 

One trusts that Ruth will also have her day – when she too becomes a grandmother, the grandmother of Jesse, father of the king-to-be, David. 

Psalm 127.  

The Psalm reading is a short wisdom or instruction piece, said to belong to Solomon.  (Psalm 72 also belongs to Solomon.)  The links to the Ruth story are not strong, but the psalm is about building houses and producing large families, especially numerous sons. 

The strong affirmation of the first part of the psalm is that unless a human enterprise is in harmony with God’s will, it won’t succeed.  This part concludes, almost with a smile, that anxiety and overwork will not help – which God demonstrates by giving his beloved one a good night’s sleep.  (This is the more likely meaning of verse 2b.) 

The second part of the psalm is a paean to having many sons.  We hear the values here of a tribal society in which the rights and opportunities of a tribe or clan depend on how many adult males are available to back its disputes.  The head of a large clan “shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate” (verse 5, NRSV). 

This is the society the Ruth story presupposes, and the widows are struggling throughout to have strong male advocates in the city gate.  Ruth’s descendant David, and especially Solomon (as portrayed in Psalm 72), represents the strong man who champions the rights of the weak and the poor – in God’s name, and under God’s ultimate supervision. 

Hebrews 9:24-28.  

The Epistle reading continues the climax in the presentation of the high priestly work of Jesus.  The passage emphasizes two things, the heavenly location of the completed work of Christ, and its once-for-all character.  The latter topic will be reiterated in next week’s Epistle reading, so only the first topic will be discussed here. 

“For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (verse 24, NRSV). 

The writer follows the hermeneutics of that time among Judeans of the Greek-speaking Diaspora:  the sacred text, which seems to speak about religious duties in the earthly world, is read as a guide to the non-earthly realities that make up true religion, and particularly the salvation from sin that all people seek. 

On the level of earthly realities, the high priest carried out the Day of Atonement rituals every year in Jerusalem, as prescribed in the Law of Moses.  On the level of the newly-revealed true religion, when Jesus died at Jerusalem on Good Friday, the earthquake that took place was a truly divine one:  it shook up relations between heaven and earth! 

The death, and then supremely the resurrection, opened the heavens for human approach to God in a way never before possible.  This death and resurrection of Jesus subsumed the old mechanism for forgiveness of sin.  On the level of earthly realities, the old religious practices are no longer needed; there is now a new access to the presence of God, the supreme heavenly reality. 

But the last part of our passage indicates that this great change is not just a heavenly reality:  it is an eschatological reality:  “…as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself” (verse 26).  There is still a stretch of time between this heavenly sacrifice of Jesus and the consummation of the age when Christ “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (verse 28). 

From a much later perspective, we are very interested in that interval.  How do the followers of Christ live through their remaining earthly realities after the heavenly sacrifice and before the end of the age?  Soon this becomes the Age of the Church, of course, and a wide world spreads out for the faithful who still await that consummation.  The writer really addresses this matter in the homilies on faith and on the pilgrimage from the holy mountain to the holy city, homilies which are given in chapters 11-13 (which appear as Lectionary readings for this season next year). 

Here, at the conclusion of Jesus’ high priestly work, we are sent forth to discover a new way in the world “outside the camp” (13:13), that is, outside the old familiar traditions and rituals of the ancestors. 

Mark 12:38-44.  

The Gospel reading presents a contrast between the pride of the self-righteous and the devotion of the poverty-stricken. 

First there is a brief but fierce condemnation of the scribes (verses 38-40).  In Matthew this will become the much longer litany marked by the cry, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites…” (Matthew 23:1-36).  As short as is Mark’s version, it summarizes the ways of self-important religious leaders:  wearing elaborate vestments, assuring that their titles are properly printed and correct protocols are observed in public events, taking pains to assure that seating and precedence are correct in services, and that the right people are placed at head tables at banquets (verses 38-39). 

In Jesus’ indictment, those who are so scrupulous about the etiquette of their ranks and prestige, maintain themselves by devouring widows’ houses.  After the bank in which he has stock has foreclosed the mortgage of a single-parent family now driven into homelessness, our hypocrite makes a point of leading the congregation in a particularly long prayer (verse 40). 

These are the mighty who cherish the ceremony more than the mercy. 

Having declared this condemnation of religious hypocrites, Jesus lifts up the poor widow’s offering as a supreme act of devotion to God (verses 41-44).  Here is another hard saying about wealth – hard especially for folks faced with getting church budgets to come out right about this time of year. 

Jesus acknowledges that many rich people put in large sums of money, but of the widow with her two cents he says, she “has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury” (verse 43).  In the eyes of God it is more, but it poses a dilemma for those paying the bills.  Jesus, it seems, would have no more patience with such concerns than he did about how the lilies grow and who feeds the birds. 

Speaking of feeding the birds, for a long time this poor widow has reminded me of the scene and the song of the Bird Woman in the musical “Mary Poppins.”  Outside the magnificent old marble towers and domes of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, seen in nocturnal shades and blue tints, the old woman sits selling grain for the pigeons – as Julie Andrews sings, “Feed the birds, feed the birds…”  There is something sentimental but radically right about the Bird Woman against the backdrop of the Cathedral, as there is about Jesus’ lifting up of the widow’s two cents. 

This scene contrasting the hypocritical mighty with the faithful poor stands at the end of Jesus’ public ministry.  There remain only the apocalypse (Mark 13) and the Passion (Mark 14-15). 

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

October 31, 2021 - 23rd Sunday after Pentecost

                                                       Biblical Words                                          [740]

Ruth 1:1-18; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34

Migrants and pilgrims, in old lands and new, find renewal and liberation in their journeys. 

Ruth 1:1-18. 

The reading from the Hebrew scriptures is the first part of the Book of Ruth.  This is one of the most familiar and beloved stories of the Bible – presenting personal lives touched by tragedy, deep feelings of attachment, and community relations of concern and support for the working poor. 

Ruth had linked her life to immigrants and herself became an immigrant. 

As a young woman in her native land, she had married an immigrant.  The marriage made her part of a family in which the men and the mother-in-law were foreigners living in her country, with only her sister-in-law Orpah a native of her own land.  Though their marriages lasted less than ten years and produced no children, they fostered strongly bonded relationships.  These relationships were tested after the death of the men, when the three women were left as widows, dependent on charity and without future hope. 

The drama of our reading is the parting of the women, and particularly Ruth’s refusal to leave Naomi, her mother-in-law.  Naomi must return to Bethlehem in Judah, where her only kinship connections are, and where she can live as a needy widow.  This is not a fate her daughters-in-law should have to share, and she sends them back to their mothers.  So far it is a normal, if tragic, story. 

What is extraordinary is Ruth’s refusal to part from Naomi.  Her vow of deathless attachment to Naomi (verses 16-17) is not ordinary.  This avowal makes her an immigrant, commits her to a new ethnic identify, to a new God, and to a new land, which will become her burial place.  Because of her love for Naomi, Ruth converts to a new people and faith, and ties her destiny inextricably to Naomi’s. 

Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah.
William Blake (1757-1827).  
Courtesy of Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

The grandeur of this love is breathtaking – and, as the book intends to show, makes Ruth a woman of destiny for her adopted land and its great king to come (David). 

Psalm 146. 

Reading Psalm 146 after the Ruth selection expands the horizons. 

This is a hymn of praise to the God to whom Ruth committed herself in her vow to Naomi.  The central parts of the psalm are a wisdom instruction (verses 3-4), a blessing on those who depend on the Lord (verses 5-7b), and a declaration of the character of this God (verses 7c-9).  Two points especially link with the situation of Ruth. 

First, the fallibility of human supports for life:  “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help” (verse 3, NRSV).  Why?  Because they are mortal:  “When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish” (verse 4).  Such was the situation of the three widows after their husbands had died in Moab.  Ultimate trust can only be placed in the Lord. 

Secondly, the particular objects of care and protection of this God are those such as Naomi and Ruth:  “The Lord watches over the strangers [gērīm, “sojourners,” immigrants], he upholds the orphan and the widow…” (verse 9).  In the story of Ruth it remains to be seen how such care from God may be worked out, but this declaration of faith is the sort of thing Naomi might have heard among the faithful around Bethlehem.  So, at least, these readings suggest. 

Hebrews 9:11-14. 

The Epistle reading approaches the most esoteric aspects of Jesus Christ as heavenly high priest and his sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins.  Rather than worry over the details of ritual involved in the argument, let’s take a broader perspective on the writer’s message. 

One of the priestly actions referred to in this passage is the annual Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) ritual.  (The instructions for Aaron – and subsequent high priests – to follow for this ritual are given in Leviticus 16.)  This was a series of ritual actions carried out on the 10th day of the seventh month at the Jerusalem temple on behalf of all Judeans everywhere in the world.  “This shall be an everlasting statute for you, to make atonement for the people of Israel once in the year for all their sins” (Leviticus 16:34, NRSV). 

Greek-speaking Judean scholars in Alexandria or Ephesus, or Aramaic-speaking scholars in Damascus or Babylon, even if they were never able to visit Jerusalem, knew that their relation to the Lord of the universe was restored by that atoning action of the priest in Jerusalem. 

This universalist perspective – that the action of the high priest in Jerusalem affected the well-being of all Judeans everywhere – is assumed in our writer’s statements about Jesus as high priest.  In this new revelation, another sacrifice has been made, in a way that fulfilled the old requirements but now also in a way that transcends the old limitations of time and place.  This unique cosmic sacrifice affects people scattered throughout the world. 

That once-for-all sacrifice opens new possibilities of living as pilgrims moving from Sinai to the new Zion of the promised land.  This new pilgrimage leaves behind old modes of religion and creates new communities of faith and mutual support.  The writer urges the hearers to recognize the vastness of this new salvation and to keep faith through the trials of their wilderness journey. 

Mark 12:28-34. 

The Gospel reading is one of the episodes by which Jesus’ authority as a teacher of the people is challenged and tested in Jerusalem between Palm Sunday and the Last Supper.  These tests are public encounters with, or pronouncements about, the Judean power structure or its representatives.  (The episodes from 11:15 through 12:44 make up this theme.) 

Our reading is remarkable because it is the one case where Jesus and a scribe come to complete agreement – and agreement about truly fundamental matters.  Jesus seals this outcome by saying, “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” and the Gospel writer comments, “After that no one dared to ask him any question” (12:34, NRSV).  The time of argumentative battle and testing was over. 

What Jesus and the scribe agree upon, of course, are the essentials of Judaism – the greatest commandment, and the one “like unto it.” 

The text is rather wordy, having Jesus quote the commandments fully, and then having the scribe, in agreement, summarize what Jesus has just said.  The scribe’s summary is interesting in its own right.  “…you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ – this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices”  (12:32-33).  That concluding statement is an addition:  Jesus had not mentioned the priority of the commandments over the obligation to bring sacrifices and offerings. 

We can be sure that the priestly families would not have agreed with this scribe’s summary. 

The basic premise of the Mosaic legislation is that there is one supreme holy place where every Israelite’s relation to God is focused and determined, and that place was an altar for animal sacrifices.  Scrupulous obedience to that legislation – with all its sacrifices, tithes, and holy times – is the absolute requirement for Israel’s hope of righteousness before the Lord. 

On the other hand, the agreement between Jesus and the scribe, as paraphrased by the scribe, offers a glimpse of a great prospect on the future for Judaism and Christianity. 

The religions of the word and of faith will replace the religions of blood sacrifices and exclusionary atonement rituals.  

On the side of Judaism, historical necessity – the permanent destruction of the Jerusalem temple – forced the break with the old priestly past.  On the side of Christianity, that break was made with the help of a new vision of sacrifice, producing such writings as the Letter to the Hebrews. 

A new age in human religiousness was emerging in the Hellenistic-Roman world, and this scribe – in agreement with Jesus – was naming the new reality. 

October 24, 2021 - 22nd Sunday after Pentecost

       Biblical Words                       [739]

Job 42:1-6, 10-17;  Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22);  Hebrews 7:23-28;  Mark 10:46-52.  

Through trials and tests, God finds new ways to bring mercy and to lead faithful
people toward a greater city. 

Job 42:1-6, 10-17. 

The final reading from the “wisdom” traditions of the Hebrew scriptures is the conclusion to the Book of Job. 

In the first (poetic) section of this reading (verses 1-6) Job makes his submission to God, first with a declaration of God’s all-powerfulness:  “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”  Then, in a more elaborate form, Job repeats, in his own words, what he heard Yahweh say to him at the beginning of the “answer”:  “Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?” (verse 3, quoting 38:2, NRSV). 

Job’s answer to this is abject admission that he, Job, spoke of awesome things that he, poor mortal, did not understand. 

Job’s conclusion here, beginning in verse 5, may be understood to mean that he has now heard God (in God’s speeches) and now he “sees” the truth.  Carol Newsome translates this verse, “I have listened to you with my ears, and now my eye sees you” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IV, p. 628).  There is apparently a comprehension of the vastness of things – and an awed acceptance of them. 

The rest of Job’s reply (verse 6) has caused much recent scholarly discussion of its correct interpretation and translation.  (Carol Newsome summarizes five interpretations, Ibid, pp. 628-29.)  Does Job say, “I despise myself and repent upon dust and ashes”; or does he say something like “I retract my words and repent of dust and ashes”?  On this latter reading he in fact retracts his repentance before God.  This latter interpretation is important to people who want Job to maintain his defiance to the bitter end, even if somewhat covertly and subtly. 

In general, the import of the whole passage suggests that Job fully submits and is not whispering something different under his breath.  However, as many scholars have pointed out, if the writer wanted to make unmistakably clear that Job was simply overwhelmed by God’s speeches, he could have said so in plain if poetic language.  Instead, we have real ambiguity. 

The ambiguity is there because the subject matter and the vision required it.  

(The part of our reading from the prose Epilogue, 42:10-17, omits the very problematic verses 7-9.  In those verses God condemns the “friends” and says that only Job spoke the truth.  This passage, accepted at face value by traditional interpreters, reduces the arguments of the book to complete confusion:  not only is the theory of rewards and punishments, which the friends defend, overthrown, but Yahweh’s lengthy and awesome “answer to Job” is reversed.  This late pious insertion is out of touch with what the rest of the book is really about.) 

In the prose Epilogue (42:10-17), Job has all his earlier losses restored, the goods doubled in quantity, the seven sons and three daughters replaced by new ones.  And as was fitting to the patriarchs of primordial times, Job lived one hundred and forty years and saw four generations of his descendants.  The happy ending is thus dutifully arranged. 

However, those who really sympathize with Job’s arguments and pleas in the long poetic Debate (chapters 3-27) have to find this entire ending (including Yahweh’s “answers”) utterly frustrating, and many scholars have made cases for the “angry” Job as truer than the “patient” Job.  (Among a vast collection, see David Penchansky, The Betrayal of God:  Ideological Conflict in Job, Westminster/John Knox, 1990.)

Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22). 

Perhaps this alphabetic acrostic Psalm (each verse starting with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet) is thought to be appropriate as a thanksgiving by the newly restored Job. 

“I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears” (the fourth letter daleth, in verse 4, NRSV). 

“This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble” (the seventh letter zayin, in verse 6). 

With his abundant goods and his wide family around – clearly the gifts of God to a righteous man – he says, “O taste and see that the Lord is good…” (the ninth letter teth, in verse 8). 

The spirit of the psalm is that the righteous one is summoned to endure through the hard times and move on toward the fullness of rewards.  “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all” (the twentieth letter resh,  in verse 19).  

And as if a quiet allusion to the sufferings of Jesus were also needed here, we hear in verse 20, God “keeps all his bones; not one of them will be broken,” a declaration applied to Jesus in the passion story of John (19:31-36). 

Hebrews 7:23-28.  

The reading from the Epistle presents the climax of the view of Jesus as the unique and divine high priest “after the order of Melchizedek.”  This divine priest is always accessible:  “He is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (verse 25, NRSV). 

Last week’s reading from Hebrews emphasized the humanity of the Anointed One.  This reading emphasizes his heavenly character, the effectiveness of his priestly activity “for all time,” and not just from day to day or year to year (as with human priesthoods).  Jesus’ priesthood is not limited by the lifetimes of human priests (verse 27), nor, we may understand, by the location of their activities at the temple in Jerusalem. 

This latter point raises one of the most important features of the argument in Hebrews:  all actual animal sacrifice is made obsolete.  

This writer clearly has never been deeply involved in the actual working temple in Jerusalem; he (or she) has not collected blood in basins at the alter, has not cut off hunks of cows or sheep to return to the offerors for their sacrificial banquet, has not had to oversee the removal of dung, skin, and scraps from the sacred area in the temple. 

This writer knows the sacrificial cult only from reading the Mosaic law in Greek.  She (Priscilla? Acts 18:26) or he has studied details of the Levitical legislation and found profound meanings for God’s new saving actions in it and in the Psalms, but she has never personally experienced a deep sense of holiness in the ritual killing of a domestic animal and the proper disposition of its blood and body parts. 

Like an increasing number of thoughtful and reverent people of Hellenistic times, she sees animal sacrifice as a proper observance for the ancestors, but no longer required, or even appropriate, for a true “approach” to God. 

This Letter, too, participates in the end of that age of religion (starting in the Neolithic period, about 10,000 BCE when animals were first domesticated) in which animal blood was a key bond between humans and God. 

Mark 10:46-52.  

The Gospel reading tells the colorful story of the healing of blind Bartimaeus.  The narrative gives a strong sense of the crowdedness of Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem.  It is set in Jericho, or on the road out toward the steep ascent to the Holy City. 

Bartimaeus is apparently stationed at his usual post for begging on a busy stretch of the road, but a ways back from the actual path of traffic.  Thus when he learns from someone in the crowd that Jesus is passing, he shouts loudly to be heard.  Because of the crowd, Jesus doesn’t speak directly to the beggar, perhaps can’t even see him where he sits.  But Bartimaeus’ shouting gets through; something strikes Jesus’ attention so that he “stood still” (verse 49) and had them bring the blind man to him.  

Bartimaeus comes as one long in exile because of his blindness, but hoping and crying out for the mercy of God spoken of so long ago by the prophets (“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened...” Isaiah 35:5).  “Let me see again,” he asks, and his faith gives him sight. 

Healing blind Bartimaeus is the last event in the Gospel of Mark before Jesus enters Jerusalem to the shouts of Hosanna!  This entry is foreshadowed by Bartimaeus’ language about Jesus:  “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (verse 47, NRSV).  He repeatedly calls Jesus Son of David. 

The ordinary patriotic meaning of “the Anointed One,” the Messiah, as a designation of Jesus, rises to a crescendo here.  Having given the poor man sight, Jesus goes to the City of David, where at first he will be acclaimed as the bringer of the Davidic kingdom, then will be betrayed and denied even by his own, before being tried and executed as “the King of the Jews.” 

Blind Bartimaeus – probably known or remembered by later Christians – was the last work of mercy before Jesus gave himself as the final “ransom for many” (10:45). 


Tuesday, October 5, 2021

October 17, 2021 - 21st Sunday after Pentecost

                         Biblical Words                      [738]

Job 38:1-7, (34-41); Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

Whether to Job or to Jesus in Gethsemane, God’s reply to prayer may be continued suffering and a life of serving. 

Job 38:1-7, (34-41). 

The next reading from the Scroll of Job is the opening part (and optionally a later section) of Yahweh’s answer to Job. 

NOTE:  It is Israel’s God – Yahwéh – who speaks here, not the generic deities El, Eloah, or Shaddai, which are the names for God used in the preceding debates between Job and his friends. 

The passage begins by saying that Yahwéh “answered” Job.  However, what follows certainly does not grant Job’s wish expressed in 23:3-7 (last week’s reading).  There Job had said, “Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?  No; but he would give heed to me.  There an upright person could reason with him and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.” 

Job’s hope is to bring God down to human scale, to secure from God the services of a good counselor and a friendly court.  

The “answer” to Job in chapters 38-41 rejects this possibility.  This response overwhelms the small scale of Job’s humanity, and never hints at issues of justice and morality.  (Only in 40:8-14 does God ironically invite Job to run the world in a way that would include punishing the wicked, but Job’s own innocence or righteousness is not addressed.) 

The content of God’s reply to Job in chapters 38-39 is seventeen questions (implied question in 39:13), of which our reading is the first (and the optional addition has the tenth and eleventh questions). 

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth…?” 

“Have you entered into the springs of the sea…?” 

“Can you hunt the prey for the lion…?” 

Each question is elaborated in the rest of its stanza (as laid out in the NRSV), often with sarcasm (“Surely you know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great!” 38:21).  Each question is a challenge to Job’s knowledge or power.  The questions are about the vastness, awesome power, intricacy, and mysterious diversity of the cosmic and animal worlds.  This vast panorama overwhelms a mere feeble human being.  (Note:  none of the questions has to do with the human social world.) 

There is a somewhat unconventional treatment of the Job scroll in my Study Bibles blog (Study Bibles blog – August, 2021, “The Job Project.”)  

God’s reply to Job, particularly the opening words that make up our reading, sets the vastness of the creation against Job’s personal concerns.  

We may get some feeling for this vastness from our modern knowledge of the physical universe – its incomprehensible distances and times. 

Randomly picked, the distance from our earth to the next closest galaxy, the Great Nebula in the constellation Andromeda, is 1.7 million light years.  (Preston Cloud, Cosmos, Earth, and Man, Yale University Press, 1980, p. 30.)  That means that light now reaching earth from that galaxy started before modern human beings even existed (traveling at the speed of light!).  And that’s only the closest galaxy! 

There are similar incomprehensible relationships in the minute structure of the atom.  (Cloud, “The Structure of Matter,” pp. 12-24.) 

Such distances and times are so vast or minute that nothing human has meaning in those perspectives.  Both the macrocosmic and the microcosmic worlds have no “space” for human meaning.  All causes of human right and wrong become meaningless against such immeasurable backdrops. 

Humans are “mesocosmic” creatures!  We cannot conceive our great injury – or our great sin – as marking a moment in the life of the total universe. 

Job's response is, "See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?  I lay my hand on my mouth." 

But perhaps God's “answer” to Job, and Job's humble response are not the last word of Biblical wisdom on human destiny and hope!

When I contemplate the universe as a whole, I come away with the conviction that the most incredible thing of all is the self.  Human self-awareness; the “I” of my inner monologue.  (Also, the ability, through language, to communicate meaningfully with other selves!)  How did everything since the “big bang” bring such a thing as self-consciousness into being?  This is the ultimate mystery of God's creativeness!

Rather than Job's submissiveness, I would prefer to respond to the overwhelmingness of the universe by singing the refrain from Carrie Newcomer's popular song, Gathering of Spirits, which was sung at my wife Pat's recent memorials:  

Let it go my love, my truest, let it sail on silver wings,
Life's a twinkling, that's for certain, but it's such a fine thing!
There's a gathering of spirits, there's a festival of friends, 
And we'll take up where we left off when we all meet again! 
(Lyrics by Alison Krauss; Carrie Newcomer's album of 2002, Philp/Rounder Records.)
[Familiar to University Church Chicago folks as strummed and sung by Andy Carter.] 

 Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c. 

The Psalm selection also describes the intricacy of God’s creation, particularly praising its harmony and design.  The whole psalm moves systematically from God’s personal dress downward to the harmony with which humans and wild animals share the open fields (verses 22-23), followed by broader praise for God’s wisdom and the psalmist’s urge to sing that praise. 

The selected reading focuses first on God in heaven:  putting on a robe of light, providing oneself a residence by erecting the heavens over the flood, and establishing various natural forces as ones transport and messenger services (verses 1-4). 

Next God turns to the earth, where the central work is water control.  At first the earth is covered with water, then at a great blast from God the waters hasten to separate, make dry land with clouds above mountains and springs in valleys, after which the waters assume their proper places within the boundaries set by God (verses 5-9). 

The psalmist celebrates and exults in God’s care for creatures through the created world.  How people fare in the social world, where the need for justice and mercy appears, is the theme of other psalms. 

Hebrews 5:1-10. 

The Epistle reading continues the announcement in Hebrews that Jesus is the great high priest who leads his followers to the throne of grace, “so that we may receive mercy and find grace…” (4:16, NRSV).  This Sunday’s passage emphasizes the humanity of the Anointed One, even though he was declared by God to be the Son and a priest “after the order of Melchizedek.” 

Reading this passage together with the Job situation leads especially to the description here of Jesus’ plea to be spared from death.  Jesus is portrayed as virtually groveling to escape his doom:  “with loud cries and tears” he begged to be spared death.  With what result?  “...and he was heard because of his reverent submission.  Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:7-8).  Note!  He “was heard,” but was sent on to his death anyway. 

The description seems to assume the story of Gethsemane, as we have it in Mark 14:32-36.  Jesus prayed to be spared death, but concluded his prayer, “yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36).  As a very part of his identity as Son of God, and as a carrying out of his unique, once-for-all, priesthood, Jesus accepts the human agony of giving himself as the sacrifice atoning for the sins of all who will follow his approach to the throne of grace. 

Jesus possesses one key thing that was lacking in Job’s situation:  an anointing and a priesthood, which turned Jesus’ suffering and death into a saving event of world significance. 

Mark 10:35-45. 

The Gospel reading presents Jesus’ teaching on leadership within the community of his followers. 

The keynote is struck by the fact that the whole passage moves from disciples looking forward to Jesus “in your glory” to the final word about the Son of Man who came to give up his life as “a ransom for many.”   The two things, Jesus in glory and giving up his life, are not incompatible, as this Gospel and the Letter to the Hebrews show.  However, when confronted by this strong reminder of the humanity of the disciples – their ambition to be Jesus’ right- and left-hand men when the kingdom comes in power – Jesus makes clear that for now leadership consists in diakonein, to serve, to do the menial tasks of the household. 

James and John seem to be activists (Jesus called them “Sons of Thunder,” Mark 3:17) and realists.  There is a time ahead when power is going to be exercised, and it is important that it be properly and well administered.  Jesus already has a cabinet, in the Twelve, but he will need number one and number two men to channel the decisions and handle the press.  They have thought ahead and have plans for how to exercise those positions. 

Jesus’ response is that the road to glory is not a straight line, not an expressway or freeway.  The road to glory goes through suffering and death, which Jesus euphemistically speaks of as “the cup” that he will drink and “the baptism” he will pass through.  Since James and John want to be his close companions in glory, they must – and will – pass through the suffering and death. 

James was executed by King Herod Agrippa about ten years after Jesus’ death, Acts 12:1-2, but John may have lived to a very old age, bearing testimony in Ephesus in the 90s CE.  As for sitting in the seats of power, when in fact that does come, it is God who will organize the staff rather then Jesus himself, and God already has a short list prepared (verse 42). 

The real clarification about the leadership, however, comes after the other ten disciples react to the request of the Sons of Thunder.  (There are no secrets in a close-knit staff.)  To all of them Jesus makes very clear that the foreseeable future of their leadership is to be “deacons” of the community.  They will not exercise power and management like all the other corporations around them, who have and use clearly defined authority structures and even tyrannize a bit over their subordinates.  In this new community, headed toward eventual glory, the “great” will be the servant, even “the slave of all.”  

The glory will take care of itself.