Too Eager to Become Babylonians

The Hebrew Bible is a mirror that can help us discern if we are faithful to God’s calling as His holy people.

Marc Chagall, Isaiah

When I was younger, I would often get frustrated reading the First Testament. It was upsetting to see so much faithlessness, idolatry and sheer stubbornness. The older I get, the more I see myself. I begin to discern my own lack of faith, idolatry and yes, how I often insist that I am right when I am clearly not.

I find it interesting that in the New Testament, so many of Paul’s ethical arguments begin with baptism (i.e., Col 2:20). When Paul wants to argue that we are not living lives worthy of the Gospel, he reminds us of our death, burial and resurrection with Christ.

Because of the hardness of their hearts, Judah was taken off to exile in Babylon. God had not abandoned His purposes for them but they had to learn the hard way what it meant to be His people, to be a light for the nations. But this time, they had to be taught this lesson far away from home.

They were tempted, as they had always been, to want to be like the other nations. They envied their apparent prosperity and their forms of government. Numerous times God warned them that they were better off being God’s people among the nations. Their uniqueness was part of God’s promise to them and part of God’s blessing to the nations.

It seems that even in exile they had not learned their lesson. God warned them through His prophet Isaiah:

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon
(55:6–7 NRSV).

In his Lenten meditations, Walter Brueggemann writes:

“These verses are a familiar call to worship or a call to repentance, not a bad accent for Lent. . . . The imperative is around four verbs, ‘seek, call, forsake, return,’ good Lenten verbs. But this is not about generic repentance for generic sins. I believe, rather, the sin addressed concerns for Jews too eager to become Babylonians, too easy to compromise Jewish identity, Jewish faith, Jewish discipline — in order to get along in a Babylonian empire that had faith in other gods with other disciplines. The imperatives are summons to come back to an original identity, an elemental discipline, a primal faith.”

Brueggemann continues his meditation of this prophetic text and makes observations about the American church. He could have easily been writing about the Latin American or European church.

“I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.

“The good news for the church is that nobody, liberal or conservative, has high ground. The hard news is that the Lenten prerequisite for mercy and pardon is to ponder again the initial identity of baptism . . . ‘child of the promise,’ . . . ‘to live a life worthy of our calling,’ worthy of our calling in the face of false patriotism; overheated consumerism; easy, conventional violence; and limitless acquisitiveness. Since these forces and seductions are all around us, we have much to ponder in Lent about our baptismal identity.”

Maybe we’ve missed the mark trying to be something we’re not. Maybe we’ve forgotten that our sole allegiance belongs to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Quite possibly the narrative that most excites us and rises our blood pressure is that which appears on the nightly news and not that which we read from Genesis to Revelation.

I certainly do not have all the answers. But repentance, turning back to God and away from false identities and loyalties is always a good place to start.

A Coronavirus Prayer

A prayer by Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann. Virus as Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Anxiety. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020.

The Giver of Bread and Fish
Walter Brueggemann

Matthew 7:7–11

We do “thoughts and prayers” easily and glibly;
we do “thoughts” without thinking;
we do “prayers” without praying.

We commit that glib act
because it is what we know how to do with an anemic god, or
because we are embarrassed to do more, or
because it is convenient and costs us nothing.

Now, however, we are driven to unthinkable thoughts, about
all that is ending, and
all this we have lost, and
all that leaves us with a sinking feeling.

Now, however, we are driven, some of us, to unutterable prayers.
We are driven to such prayer
by awareness that our usual reliabilities are gone.
We are driven to you, the abiding God
when other helpers fail and comforts flee.

Thus we are bold to pray:

We are bold to ask, because it will be given!
So we pray for the end of this virus,
for the health of the neighborhood,
for the recovery of the economy.

We are bold to seek, because you will be found!
We seek your mercy and your goodness and your generosity,
so let yourself be found by us.

We are bold to knock, because it will be opened.
We know many doors slammed shut,
doors of health and safety and comfort and fun.
Open to us the door of life, and love, and peace, and joy.

Here we are in your presence:

We ask for bread:
the bread of life,
the bread of abundance,
the bread of neighborly sharing.
Do not give us a stone or a crumb.

We ask for fish:
the fish of a good diet,
the fish of your abundant waters,
the fish that signs the gospel,
Do not give us a snake or the hiss of poison.

We dare to pray, not because we are at our wits end,
but because you are at the center of our life.
Our hope is in no other save in thee alone!
So hear, heal, save, restore!
Be the God you have promised to be. Amen.

Swept to Big Purposes

A subversive prayer by Walter Brueggemann

Hosea & Jonah by Raffaello — prophets with odd callings and vocations

Swept to Big Purposes

You call and we have a vocation.
You send and we have an identity.
You accompany us and we are swept to
big purposes: 
chosen race,
royal priesthood,
your own people,
receiving mercy.

But we, in our restlnesness, 
do not want to be so peculiar.

We would rather be like the others, 
eager for their wealth,
their wisdom,
their power. 
Eager to be like them, comfortable,
beautiful, 
young,
free.

We yearn to be like the others, 
and you make us odd and peculiar and different.

Grant that we may find joy in our baptism,
freedom in our obedience,
delight in our vocation.

The same joy, freedom, and delight
that so market our Lord
whom we follow in oddness.

— Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2008.