Tag Archive | Brueggemann

First Sunday in Lent, 2017

First Sunday in Lent, year A (preached 3/5/17)

first reading:  Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

Psalm 32

second reading:  Romans 5:12-19

Matthew 4:1-11

I’ve never liked the story of the “Fall.”  It holds up an ugly mirror for me, and for us all.  One commentator I was listening to this week said he didn’t like calling this event the “Fall” because that makes it easier to let ourselves off the hook.  We see it as a one-time event rather than as a story unfolding throughout time, that includes US, indeed is fundamentally about US.

He preferred to call this a story about our ongoing rebellion against God.  THIS is the ugly mirror.

We are all Adam – following someone else’s actions without much thought, then blaming our behavior on that person.

We are all Eve – led astray by grand promises, without examining if they’re even feasible.  And then again, blaming our behavior on someone else.

This story is a mess of ugliness.  But it doesn’t start out that way.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes that in verses 15-17 a perfect order is set up by God.  In verse 15 human beings are given work to do – a vocation – to “till” and “keep” the garden.  In verse 16 we are given permit.  God gives the man and woman permission to “freely eat.”  And in verse 17 there is prohibition – the one thing they cannot do.

Brueggemann states, “These three verses together provide a remarkable statement of anthropology. Human beings before God are characterized by vocation, permission and prohibition…. Any two of them without the third is surely to pervert life.”¹

Our rebellion comes about when we think we can have a healthy relationship with God while neglecting any of the three.

Each of us is given a vocation in this life.  It may not be our “job” necessarily – vocation is more than just what we do to make a living.  Vocation is what we do with our life.  How we go about operating in the world.  The kind of person we are in and out of the specific jobs we’ve been given.

For Adam and Eve, their vocation was to “till,” to work the land, but it was also to “keep,” or care for it, which is more than simply plowing the fields.

And each of us is given tremendous freedom by God in our lives – permission.  We are not puppets.  God is not some puppeteer manipulating us like marionettes.  The man and woman were permitted to eat from any tree in the garden, and free to “till” and “keep” the garden however they wanted.

And we all live with prohibition.  There are certain things which are not good for us or for the community. We all need boundaries to keep us safe.  We all know the prohibition faced by Adam and Eve.  That’s where we almost always focus our attention – on what they could NOT do.

When we go against the grain of our vocation, when we abuse our freedom, when we neglect to follow boundaries – we find trouble – SIN.

That certainly happened for the man and the woman.  Their rebellion against God’s prohibition caused disruption even in their freedom and vocation.  Instead of following their vocation to “keep” the garden, they tore up plants to make coverings for themselves.  Instead of enjoying their freedom, in verse 8 they’re hiding from God because of their nakedness.

What tempted them?  We can never know Adam’s motives, but for Eve it was knowledge and power.  “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Those seem like good things to me, but the truth remains that the act crossed a boundary they were not allowed to cross.  They had a relationship of trust and obedience with God, and now the trust and obedience were crushed.

Brueggemann writes, “They had wanted knowledge rather than trust.  And now they have it.  They now know more than they could have wanted to know.  And there is no place to run.”²

Have you ever done something, and the second you’ve done it, you regret it?  I know I have.  And I can imagine that’s how Adam and Eve felt, but there was no going back.

Adam and Eve committed no “special” sin that caused God to send them out of the garden.  Their sin was not unlike sin that you and I are tempted with every day.  And like them, we lose.  We act in ways that do NOT reflect God to whom we belong.

We betray our vocation as Christians every time we put someone or something before God, every time we pass by a person who needs help, every time we harbor negative thoughts about any race or class of person who God created.

God has given us permission to enjoy creation and our fellow creatures.  But often we are just lazy.  Not only that, we also abuse our freedom through our mistreatment of creation AND our fellow creatures.

And none of us like rules.  Any kind of prohibition makes us bristle.  We don’t like being told what we cannot do. Never mind that most of the time prohibitions are there for our safety and for the safety of others.

In the Ash Wednesday liturgy we are each invited to special repentance, fasting, prayer and works of love – the discipline of Lent.  Today’s reading from Genesis invites us to see in Adam and Eve’s rebellion, our own rebellion.

Adam and Eve call us to reflect upon the ways in which we rebel against the vocation, permission and prohibition that characterize our relationship with God.  And to repent.  Not to point blame.  But to stand naked before God and say, “I’m sorry.  I confess.”

And then we experience a new and amazing freedom.  A freedom so profound it defies words – but the closest word we have to describe it is – GRACE.


Adam and Eve, by Deeda

Adam and Eve, by Deeda

¹Genesis.  Interpretation:  A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching.  Walter Brueggemann.  John Knox Press, Atlanta; 1982, p. 46

²ibid, p. 49.



This is the final post, part five, of my reflections on Walter Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet.  If you would like to read the other posts you can click on the numbers for part one, two, three and four.  You’re certainly invited to read the previous posts, but it’s not necessary in order to follow this one!

Brueggemann begins the final chapter of Finally Comes the Poet* by sharing with the reader what the previous chapters have told us about the character of God.  God resolves the residual ache we experience when what we’ve done isn’t enough.  God breaks cycles of alienation and rage that come from our subjective or objective views of the world.  Thirdly, God commands, and in our obedience of those commands, we surprisingly find freedom and new life (p. 111).  And as we learn about God’s character we also learn something about our own character as God’s creatures.  The human person is:

  • A creature who is finally and fully forgiven
  • One who is invited to communion
  • One who is summoned to obedience and life-giving listening

“Human persons are creatures, created and recreated, claimed and reclaimed, according to the power of the gospel” (p. 112).  Our world, with all its reductionisms in secular and even in faith life, seeks to suck our personhood away from us.  It seeks to reduce us simply to what we can “do.”  It tempts us to make God in OUR image, by putting God neatly in a box that we can control and mold to our liking.  It seeks to separate us from our neighbors by making us self-centered individualists.

It’s important for us to remember, however, that individuality and personhood are NOT the same thing. Individuality is important, but it will only get us so far.  There is more in the universe than just me.  I am unique and precious, finally and fully forgiven – but I am also invited to communion – into community with God and my fellow creatures.  PERSONHOOD respects individuality, but also that we are part of a community – it gives us our IDENTITY. Who am I?  I am a wife, mother, pastor, daughter and friend.  But I am fundamentally more.  First and foremost, before any of those things, I am a child of God – THAT is my primary identity; it is from THAT starting point I meet the world.  “It is in the reality of being loved and reloved, treasured, trusted, summoned, and gifted, that we become free enough to be the children of God – freed for life with God” (p. 113).

Brueggemann examines the story of Daniel to give us an example of what human personhood looks like. The book of Daniel, as apocalyptic literature, is concerned with giving hope in the midst of persecution.  “In our own cultural context, our crisis of identity concerns not persecution, but seduction into false notions of self….  The Daniel stories… Model an alternative personal identity that was crucial in that ancient persecution and is crucial in our contemporary seduction” (p. 114).  “The issue of personhood is one of hope in the face of the powers of despair and defeat” (p. 115).

Daniel is prominent in the empire and flying under its radar at the same time.  He is willing to comply with requests that don’t conflict with his personhood – with his identity as a creature of God.  While there are those around him who will conform in order to save themselves, “Daniel will resist the empire for the sake of saving his self.  Daniel knows that he needs to risk his life if he is to have a life” (p. 118).  Notice that Daniel doesn’t resist simply to be rebellious.  He’s not itching for a fight.  But when asked to conform in a way that goes against his personhood (his individuality AND who he is as a member of his community) he chooses his personhood.

Nebuchadnezzar does not know that “…Daniel is an utterly free man, living life on his own terms, nourished by his own faith, guarded and advanced by his own God” (p. 120). Nebuchadnezzar, as the head of the empire, “embodies human arrogance that imagines it is accountable to none and so is free to do whatever it wants…. The premise of such autonomy is that we do not have to do with God” (p. 125). Nebuchadnezzar is in charge, or so he would like to think.  However, his ultimate insecurity comes out in his dreams.  In his sleep he is confronted with his fears of being out of control.  Daniel, the servant, the one with no outward control, is able to not only sleep well, but interpret for the King.  In the end, the tables are turned and we see that it is Daniel who is free, and Nebuchadnezzar who has been trapped! “Both Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar act for an alternative way in the world, resolute Daniel by daring resistance, chastened Nebuchadnezzar by yielding doxology” (p. 139).

“How odd, how inescapably true, that our yearning for God requires both the resistance of Daniel and the relinquishment of Nebuchadnezzar… we are always both Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar:  like Daniel tempted to submit and called to resist, like Nebuchadnezzar, tempted to autonomy and called to relinquish” (p. 140).

This is our life.  We are constantly needing to discern between resistance and relinquishment.  For while we’d like to see ourselves as Daniel, (standing against the system), many times we are also Nebuchadnezzar, wanting to be in charge, believing we can do it all ourselves, seeing no need for obedience to God.  It’s the continual pull of the world, to drift away from God toward a sickening individualism that has nothing to do with our identity and everything to do with burying our it.  We think we’re being our own person, but we are really only obeying a different master – giving our obedience to the world that traps, instead of to the God who frees.  Conforming to the empire that wants to mold us into what it wants us to be, instead of living who we ARE.  And many times we have conformed without even realizing it.

When the preacher addresses , both the character of God, and the character of the human person, challenging the reductionisms that want to separate us from God and each other, what the preacher is doing is allowing the “reappearance of a faithful self” (p. 112).  The preacher reminds us of our fundamental personhood – our true self. The self that is precious to God.  The self that is forgiven.  The self that has communion.  The self that finds freedom through listening and obedience to God.  It’s SO easy for our personhood to be swallowed up – dead and buried.   In hearing the Word proclaimed and in our communal worship we are reminded of the promise of resurrection that brings us back to life.  We are reminded who we are, by remembering whose we are (p. 112).

questions to ponder:

  • Is it hard for you to see yourself as a child of God before anything else?  Why might it be important to see that as first before all else?
  • How can our individuality enhance our personhood rather than stifle it?
  • How might worship help us to remember and bring us back to our personhood?

*Finally Comes the Poet:  Daring Speech for Proclamation.  Walter Brueggemann, Augsburg Fortress:  Minneapolis, 1989.

Obedience gives Freedom?

This is part four of my reflection on Walter Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet.*  You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.  While the parts relate to one another, they can be taken separately, so it’s not necessary to read the other posts as a prerequisite to this.

imageOBEDIENCE is a nasty word.  We like to be in control of our lives, of our destiny.  No one likes to be told what to do.  Our life of faith, however, IS a life of obedience – of listening, paying attention to the One who has called us to life.  “In the Bible, obedience takes the form of listening.  The obedient life is one in which Israel listens, attends to, and responds to the voice of God”(p. 81).  Most of what WE call listening is really just being quiet as we form our next sentence and wait to speak it.  Real listening is hard.  And listening for the purpose of obedience is even harder.  Our culture pushes against it.   Again, we like to be the ones in control.  “The preacher, in speaking about obedience, speaks against our modern ways of knowing and controlling.  [It] violates the way we think and know and believe in our culture”(p. 82).

The other reason listening is difficult for us is because we are “greedy children of disproportion, caught in an ideology of acquisitiveness”(p. 82).  That’s a mouthful.  Brueggemann explains, “…social good, social access, and social power are not equally distributed.  Some have too little.  Some have too much.  That some have too much is intimately related to the fact that some have too little….  This economic reality among us impinges on our capacity to hear and respond when we are addressed by God’s voice of command”(p. 82).  We are socialized to always want more and to rigorously protect what we have, so as not to lose it.  This requires a lot of energy on our part.  This energy, this desire to constantly acquire, makes us restless and anxious.

This greed pits us against one another, because it impacts on our ability to make sure that everyone has enough.  Our current political climate reeks with the arguments of those who “have much” not wanting to give anything to make sure that those who “have nothing” can have a little more.  The rich see the poor as lazy and undeserving of more, while the poor see the rich as hoarders (of money, power and opportunity) and themselves as stuck.  Both of these groups of people fill the pews – sometimes even together.  “The congregation addressed by the preacher is thus a strange assembly.  It includes those who guard the disproportion as benefactors.  It also includes those who suffer from the disproportion as victims”(p. 84).   How do we encourage listening when speaking of obedience, knowing it is problematic for all who gather in this “strange assembly?”

Pointing-Blame-Finger pointing isn’t helpful and actually discourages real conversation and listening.  What is perceived as a command, “YOU MUST DO THIS!” only serves to have folks “dig in” and shut down, a pushback against losing control.  Brueggemann reflects, “I have found myself discovering that mostly I do not need more advice, but strength, I do not need new information, but the courage, freedom, and authorization to act on what I already have been given in the gospel”(p.84).  I think what Brueggemann is trying to say here is that rather than having the preacher stand in the pulpit, point a finger and say, “This is what you SHOULD do!” it is more constructive, more conducive to listening, more empowering to say, “This is what you CAN do through God who strengthens you!”

Preachers are to extend an invitation to imagine a life beyond the restlessness and greed, beyond the disproportion.  Both the hoarders and those in want come seeking hope that God has provided a better way.  Because left to their own devices, without the listening that forms obedience, both groups (ALL of us) will die.  Those trapped in restless greed will work themselves to death, not realizing it’s NOT the acquiring of things that will give them peace.  Those who have “too little” will die from neglect.  In the gospel we hear that God is freeing us from that bondage!  When we are able to listen and understand that this is God’s Will for us to be freed from our restlessness and our greed, into a life that has much deeper meaning, we are joyfully and willingly obedient.

Since I used the word bondage above, I will take the time to point out that bondage and willing obedience are NOT the same thing.  Bondage is a forced obedience – the obedience of a slave or prisoner.  Willing obedience is listening, attending and responding to that which we trust will give us peace.  Brueggemann asserts that this call to obedience is rooted in baptism – “Baptism that renounces the old ways of death and embraces a new life,” and, “all our talking and listening is out of baptism and into baptism.  We are a people that is every day summoned to die ‘to the vain glories of the world,’ and to be raised to new life”(p. 85-86).

Brueggemann then takes a look at two of the Ten Commandments (only for space/time constraints, NOT because they other eight don’t apply!).  His treatment of Sabbath and coveting are wonderful, but rather than focus on his always impeccable scholarship, I want to focus on the grander theme of the Commandments as they relate to obedience.  So many times people look at the Commandments as prohibitions, plain and simple.  “THOU SHALT NOT.”  They sound so authoritative, so stifling!  When viewed that way, they certainly are.  God becomes big brother.  Obedience is an oppressive burden in such a mindset.  But when we think of the Commandments as rules that bring order, peace and harmony to our relationships with God and one another, then obedience can become something we desire.


The Commandments create a community in which our priorities regarding the importance of divine and human things are well defined, where there is balance between work and rest, and where there is a culture of respect and honor between neighbors.  We respect and honor our neighbor’s very lives, their spouses, property and reputations.  We respect and honor our parents and our spouses.  And because we not only HAVE neighbors, but ARE neighbors – OUR lives and property and reputations are respected and honored, and our spouses and children honor and respect US.  We love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind, and love our neighbors as ourselves(Matthew 22: 34-41).  What freedom this obedience gives – the freedom for our neighbors thrive, and for us to thrive as well!

questions to ponder:

  • What can I do to contain my greed so that I am less afraid/restless and can live more freely?
  • How does serving my neighbor help me fight my greed?
  • What are some guidelines that help us distinguish between obedience and bondage?
  • Does my view of the Ten Commandments change when I see them as rules that create freedom instead of simply things I “can’t do”?


*Finally Comes the Poet:  Daring Speech for Proclamation.  Walter Brueggemann, Augsburg Fortress:  Minneapolis, 1989.

Restoration of Communion

This is part three of my reflection on Walter Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet.*  You can find part one here, and part two here.  While the parts relate to one another, they can be taken separately, so it’s not necessary to read the other posts as a prerequisite to this.

People come to worship.  These people are you and me.  We come with our residual ache, with our guilt and alienation.  We come with what Brueggemann sees as two forms of religious reductionism, that keep us from letting go of our residual ache and experiencing communion** with God and one another (p. 48).

The first reductionism is what he calls extreme subjective consciousness (p.48).   There is ONLY me.  The world revolves around ME.  This is especially true in the United States culture where we pride ourselves on our independence.  We can do it ourselves, thank you very much.   Although we are capable of caring for others, everything is about me, what I want, what I feel, what I perceive as important should be important to everyone.  The sense of community is greatly diminished.  We live in neighborhoods where we don’t know each other.  There is little thought of the greater good, the greatest value is what’s good for ME.  This reductionism leads us to build walls between us and our neighbors.


The second reductionism he calls extreme objective consciousness (p. 48).  There is ONLY God.  God is all powerful and always right.  There can be no dissent because God is almighty.  Because God is always right, if we disagree then we must be WRONG.  If we disagree we must deny ourselves and submit.  Injustice and pain are to be denied because this is the way God made things and we just need to accept it.  If God didn’t want the status quo then God would’ve changed it.  Because we are in compete submission to God, we cannot act to change circumstances because that would be unfaithful.  Because we are forced to deny our feelings and experiences, this reductionism leads us to anger and rage at God.

image.phpSome might balk at the idea that submissiveness is wrong.  Of course God is always right!  We should never challenge God!  But Brueggemann gives many examples where the faithful have challenged God.  The Psalms are filled with challenges to the way God has set things up.  Brueggemann reminds us of Abraham and Moses speaking out or challenging God’s decision-making (Gen. 18:23ff and Exodus 32:1-14, 33:13-16, 34:8-9, Num. 11:10ff).  “Conversations of serious engagement with God are not conversations in which God must always respond on our terms,” but that doesn’t mean they’re forbidden or that God doesn’t take them seriously (p. 60).  It is CRUCIAL for us to bring our sufferings, our hurts, our pleas, our displeasure, our COMPLAINTS even about God TO God.

“The preaching task is to guide people out of the alienated silence of exaggerated self, and out of the silence of denial and rage of an exaggerated God, into a serious, dangerous, subversive, covenantal conversation, a conversation that is the root form of communion.  Communion is not possible where speech is destroyed either by selfishness or by submissiveness”(p. 49).

Then, “Praise happens… when the isolation and alienation and denial of rage are overcome enough to permit speech”(p. 68).  Feeling heard is an indispensable part of any relationship.  Even when things don’t go our way, being heard helps us maintain our relationship with the other.  Praise is our ultimate destination, but when we’re in the midst of suffering praise is not easy.  When we’re expressing our anger with God praise is not easy.  It’s a journey, and sometimes that journey is L O N G.  But by staying in conversation/communion with God and with one another we are carried through to praise.  Staying in communion allows us to eventually get there.

“The sermon must be a modeling of a conversation in which all partners speak:  the speech of good friends, the speech of parent and child, the speech of sovereign and subject, the speech of creator and creature…. The initiative for a new conversation cannot simply begin with the voice of God, for God is already eliminated in alienation or too large in suppressed rage.  The new saving conversation must begin ‘from below’ in the cry of the oppressed, the grief of emptiness, the hurt of being forgotten”(p. 75).

I bristle at the idea that humanity must initiate this conversation/communion.  What I think is that God is open to us the whole time, but our acknowledgment and verbalization of our alienation or rage finally enables us to see God, to hear what God has been saying to us all along – opens us to finally realize it.  Like when the disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:35).

I completely agree with Brueggemann that the sermon is a place for the modeling of a conversation.  Once people see the pastor struggling with God, they can give themselves permission to do the same.  Once people see the pastor struggling with his/her selfishness, it gives them permission to do the same.  I’m not saying the pastor is to lay out all their burdens from the pulpit – that’s inappropriate – what the pastor verbalizes are common human conditions, allowing people to recognize that wrestling with God is ok, that confronting our own selfishness is ok, once in a while giving a suitable personal example when it fits.   As a pastor, it’s my honor and privilege to help folks to start this conversation, this communion, with God and one another, and to keep it going.  It’s not always easy, in fact sometimes it’s quite difficult and frightening, but always important.  Even in the most loving relationships there are tough times.  But it is essential to keep talking…

questions to ponder:

  • Do I see myself as having an extremely subjective consciousness or an extremely objective consciousness?
  • How can I confront my selfishness?
  • Am I able to acknowledge when I disagree with God?  When I’m angry with God?  How do I express it?
  • How have I experienced God in conversation with me?  Have I felt heard?  How am I in conversation with God?  How does God hear me?

*Finally Comes the Poet:  Daring Speech for Proclamation.  Walter Brueggemann, Augsburg Fortress:  Minneapolis, 1989.

**Brueggemann gives a meaning to the word communion that is wider than its common use in the Church.  In liturgical traditions, communion almost always means “Holy Communion,” the Mass or the Eucharist.  But Brueggemann sees preaching as a verbal making of communion with preacher, listener and God.


God’s work and Human work

This is part two of my reflection on Walter Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet.*  You can find part one here.

It is vitally important that we come to acknowledge our residue of ache, so that we can come to a place of real healing.  Without acknowledging that guilt and alienation (residual ache) color our relationships with one another and with God, we live in denial – a denial that keeps us from experiencing the full joy (that is also the hard work) of giving and receiving love from one another and God.

We try to pretend that everything is “ok.”  We put our best efforts forward in front of other people and on social media.  I do it too.  Very seldom (if ever!) do we post pictures of our kids fighting, messy rooms,  or write about the emotional wreck we are after a fight with our spouse, the worries we have that a loved one is drinking too much, that we are spending above our means etc…  We also are loathe to admit when we have been in the wrong, when we feel unworthy, when we can’t measure up.  This pressure to present ourselves as perfect leads to guilt – not just over sin(s), but about EVERYTHING!  No, everything is not ok.  No I am NOT fine.  How often have we longed to say that, but stifle ourselves?

“It is folly to imagine that modern people do not struggle with the reality of guilt and the yearning for healing” (p. 31).

Dr. Brueggemann asserts that residual ache can only be dealt with once we acknowledge the following (p. 32):

  1. God notices our sin
  2. God takes it seriously and responds with anger and indignation
  3. God takes it seriously and is grieved and is “beset by profound disappointment”
  4. reparations are required


“The residue of ache is dealt with by sacramental action that mediates to us God’s own life given toward us”(p. 32)


1.  Try as we may to hide our sins and imperfections from others, try as we may to carry on as usual as if everything is fine – we can’t fool God.  God SEES.  God notices.  God knows us better than we know ourselves.

2 & 3.  In some traditions it might seem strange to think of God as angry with us, in other traditions it might seem strange to think that God can be grieved/disappointed/sad.  I see that both characteristics flow from God’s immeasurable love.  God can certainly be angry with us – but this is not God as an angry judge itching to condemn – this is God angry because God loves us and wants more for us than sin.  I love my husband and children with all my heart, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get angry with them.  But because I love them, my anger is accompanied by disappointment and sadness.  If I didn’t love them, I simply wouldn’t care.  God is sad/disappointed/grieved, because God LOVES.  When we focus only on God’s anger, we miss God’s compassion.  When we focus only on God’s grief and sadness, we miss God’s power and righteousness.  Brueggemann stresses that God’s anger and anguish always go together (p. 32).

4.  Brueggemann looks at Matthew 5:23-26,

“So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and then remember that your brother [or sister] has something against you, leave your gift before the altar and go, first be reconciled to your brother [or sister] and then come and offer your gift.”

“Jesus asserts that the making of reparations precedes offering to God.  Neighbor is the prerequisite for communion with God”(p. 34).  This is a serious statement.  It packs a punch.  It tells us we cannot sweep our actions towards our neighbors under the rug.  Jesus says, “FIRST be reconciled,” THEN come.  Notice Jesus DOESN’T say, “When YOU have something against your brother, go and make THEM do the reconciling.”  This isn’t about the wronged demanding justice.  This is about the guilty stepping forward and saying, “I did it, I’m sorry.  What can I do to make it better?”  Wow.

5.  Then Brueggemann looks at Hebrews 19:19-23.  The prelude to this text is realizing that no amount of human reparation will ever be enough.  We are left hopeless to make it better.  “Therefore GOD must intercede.  It is God’s self-giving love, God’s yearning, God’s care that deals with the residue of human ache”(p. 35).  God intercedes by the “blood of Jesus”(Heb. 19:19).  Jesus “does what we cannot do for ourselves”(p. 35).  “God’s way with us emerges out of God’s deep love that cannot stand by while we die of the poison” of guilt and sin(p. 36).  This comes as a huge relief because in the end we cannot possibly make reparations for all the wrong we’ve done to one another and to God.  We all “fall short”(Rom. 3:23).  If reparations were the complete prerequisite for relationship with God, then we’d all be doomed.  Oh, how we need the blood of Jesus – the One whom we proclaim to be “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”(John 1:29) – the lamb sacrificed for our sins on the cross.

However, the fact that we are ultimately driven to the cross does not excuse us from reparation.  God’s divine work does not “get us off the hook” from the human work of reconciliation.  It is dangerous to emphasize one at the expense of the other.  Brueggemann warns of “cheap grace” and “works righteousness.”

“Unless this news is artistically presented, the ideology of liberals will only hear social responsibility and reparations.  Unless there is artistry in articulation, the ideology of conservatives will only hear ‘blood atonement’…. I propose, then, that good preaching must address the quarrelsome contradiction among us concerning worship and ethics, priest and prophet, worldliness and sacrament…”(p. 38-39).

It’s a daunting task to try to balance these two in preaching.  There is work we must do, yet we can’t do it all – so we cling to the cross and beg for mercy.  But receiving mercy doesn’t excuse us from doing the work we can.  We must, we can’t, we beg.  We need all three. (Lutherans can be particularly vulnerable because of our emphasis on “grace alone.”  It’s true we can’t earn our way to heaven, but even Luther taught that good works were an indispensable part of the Christian life.)  Human work does not save us, but human work is what we are called to do through divine mercy.

Each Christian expression has their own sacramental actions that help mediate God’s action in Jesus.  In more liturgical traditions there is baptism, Holy Communion and Confession.  Through these actions we acknowledge numbers 1, 2, and 3 above – then God’s love and grace and mercy are proclaimed in word and deed.  We leave these sacramental actions freed and made new.

questions to ponder:

  • How can I make reparations for particular actions/things about which I feel guilty?
  • How can I bring the rest to God?
  • How do the sacramental actions in my tradition help me to let go of residual ache?

*Finally Comes The Poet:  Daring Speech for Proclamation.  Walter Brueggemann, Augsburg Fortress:  Minneapolis, 1989.

Residual Ache

I confess I don’t read as much as I should.  Pastors should be readers – readers of the news to help with prayer, readers of theology that challenges and asks questions, because we need to be prepared for the questions our people are asking, and be able to address them in their struggles, readers of the gospel for obvious reasons (I hope!), and readers of contemporary culture so that we understand the context in which we live and minister.  So feeling the lack of reading input lately, I decided that I would read (or rather re-read) a favorite of mine for Lent.

poetWalter Brueggemann is a giant to me.  I discovered him in seminary and find his reading to be easily accessible and down to earth.  Theology can be so “heady” at times, and I’m a much more practical person – I need to find a way to apply something in my life, or understand how it can apply in the lives of others for me to find it interesting.  One of Dr. Brueggemann’s books has been swirling in my head for a while.  I remember it had a HUGE impact on me the first time around, but hadn’t looked at it in YEARS.  So, I decided it was time to look at it anew.  And I have not been disappointed.

If you haven’t read Finally Comes The Poet, and you’re a preacher (not that you have to be a preacher to appreciate it), put it on your list NOW.  Published by Augsburg Fortress in 1989, it’s as current today as it was then, because it speaks to universal timeless needs for people to hear from preaching.  If you read it a while back, I implore you to re-read it as I’m doing now.

One of the human conditions he explores in the book is the reality of what he calls “residual ache.”  Part of righting the wrong of sin is dealing with guilt and alienation  – feeling “bad” and separated from the one we’ve sinned against.  Brueggemann states, “…even when hidden, the alienation remains powerful and destructive,” and that, “Guilt, unaddressed, will finally kill” (p. 16&17).  How do we address the guilt?  How do we stop denying the hurt we have caused both God and neighbor?  There are two things.  Brueggemann uses Leviticus 6:4-5 as a guide for the first action.  He comments, “Guilt requires not simply equity and an even balance, but gift beyond affront.  It requires surplus compensation”(p. 25).  Reparation, pure and simple.  We need to pay back what we’ve taken, and then some.  The second action is “more difficult, because we cannot do it ourselves.  It must be done for us.  There is a weighty residue of ache that one cannot dispel by one’s own actions“(p. 26).   He goes on, “What remains unresolved is underneath guilt; it is more like taintedness, uncleanness”(p. 26).

Brueggemann then looks at Leviticus 6:6-7, which details the “guilt offering” of an animal.  He comments, “This remarkable text may sound strangely archaic to us.  In matters of guilt, however, we are archaic creatures who have not ‘outgrown’ the need for action outside ourselves…. What the priests in ancient Israel know is that the ache that is left from guilt, even after reparations, cannot be overcome by good works, by willpower, by positive thinking, or by romantic psychology.  The ache can be removed only by entry into the sphere of the holy… Such guilt requires the self-giving of God”(p. 27-28).

It’s just that simple – but just that HARD.  I think we suffer from the unwillingness to do both.

  • Either we don’t want to do the dirty work of reparation – thinking an “I’m sorry” is good enough, (or for some of us in the protestant tradition, thinking reparations sound too much like the Roman Catholic practice of “making satisfaction”), or we’re too proud to admit our sin or say “I’m sorry.”  It requires humility to admit we’re not perfect or need to make up for wrongs.
  • Or we don’t think we need God, that we CAN work it out on our own.  It’s hard enough to submit ourselves to another person to make things right, but many people just can’t stomach the idea of placing themselves at God’s mercy.  This requires intense humility, because while reparations are within our control, mercy and forgiveness are NOT.

In Lent, a special focuses for observers is repentance.  Admitting we act in ways contrary to God’s Will, and making changes to “turn around.”  Turning away from sin and to God.  I think Brueggemann’s diagnosis of residual ache is important for us as we go about our practice of repentance.  Residual ache weighs us DOWN, keeps us from true healing, prevents us from experiencing true joy in the Lord and with our neighbor.

I look forward to sharing more observations with you as I move through the book.  Till next time, a thought to ponder:  how do you see residual ache in your own life?