culture of death
The Seventh Sunday After Trinity
Hosea 14, Psalm 138, Romans 6:19-23, St. Mark 8:1-9
I remember driving through an incinerated mountainscape, erect black sticks standing in ranks like sentinels at the gates of hell. It must have been a wizard’s stagecraft. The blaze had charred every tree and devoured every blade. A nuclear blast, I thought, could not have visited a darker holocaust.
But looking a bit closer, I saw tiny shoots of green protruding from the blackened carpet, and even dots of blue and yellow, wildflowers the more resplendent for the desolation that engulfed them . . . but could not annihilate them.
Life is a stubborn thing.
God makes all things new. He creates life and re-creates life. He gives life more abundantly. He gives Himself away.
St. Mark reports for us today on our Lord’s second great feeding miracle. This Jesus has Himself known hunger. The devil tempted Him in the wilderness, where He went without food or drink for 40 days and 40 nights. The devil invited Him – after all, He was the Son of God, was He not? – to do a little razzle-dazzle, to turn stones into loaves of bread.
And our Lord responded, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
Is He God? As the Father filled Him with the word of life, He fills the multitude with His every word. He has taught them for three days in this desolate place.
Is He God? As the Father provided the tribes of Israel with an abundance of manna in the wilderness, the Son supplies this multitude with more bread than they can eat.
Is He God? He breaks the bread as He will allow His body to be broken to feed His church. He is the bread of life. The eucharistic language allows no room for doubt: In giving away the bread He is giving away Himself. Listen to the echo of the Lord’s Supper: “He took the seven loaves and, having given thanks, He brake them . . . And they had a few small fish, and having given thanks, He blessed . . .” (William L. Lane: The Gospel of Mark, 270 nn 3-4)
Is He God? He is the Living Word and the Bread of Heaven; He is the Life of the World.
And after the people ate and were filled, His disciples picked up the leftovers. This Lord Jesus gives of Himself in such abundance that we can never consume all He offers. He bids us feast on Him . . . not nibble.
This second feeding miracle, perhaps done in gentile country, confirms and reinforces the first. It is less about the miracle than the One who performs it.
Is He God? The answer appears plain, but His apostles attended the former miracle and they seem to have wiped their memory banks clean. They moan, “How can one satisfy these people with bread here in the wilderness?”
But more about them later. What about us?
Our cup runneth over, our life is a riot of God’s grace. It blankets the ground around us like clover, crams the sky like stars on a crisp northern night. We are awash in grace. But what appears a treasure trove may be a trap.
The rich man who tormented Lazarus gorged on savory foods every day – and turned his earthly paradise into an everlasting spiritual desert. In another story, those invited twice to the great banquet had more than they needed, enough to buy land and livestock and to marry, blessing upon blessing, yet they insulted the Host and spurned His call to the feast that has no end.
And us? I fear we know not the spiritual feast until we have seen spiritual starvation. I have seen it.
In the old Silk Road city of Tashkent, an American woman named Connie insisted I visit Orphanage No. 1 with her. She told stories of children stuffed into straitjackets and bound to beds. I thought she must be hysterical. Finally, I agreed to go, and then I could no longer dismiss her tales as fantastic.
Orphanage No. 1 warehouses handicapped children. The grounds have trees and even the odd blade of grass. On the outside, it looks benign. On the inside, each floor has a number of wards, each with 15 to 20 beds.
The children divide according to age and sex. It matters not what their disability is. The warders toss those with learning disabilities and those with physical handicaps like lettuce and tomatoes.
Outside each ward, in a dark hallway, a babushka hunkers on a chair by the door. She sits and she stares at the wall, entering the room only when the schedule demands that she do a feeding or a change of soiled clothing.
The children, many of them lashed to the beds or in straitjackets, just as Connie had described, lie and stare at the ceiling. Some whimper, some cry. That’s all they do, except in a few rooms where a privileged few, the tamest ones, are allowed to move around a little as long as they’re quiet.
Connie said every few months a couple of kids die of systematic starvation that thins the numbers, lessens the burden on the state. The bureaucracy shuffles those who survive until age 18 to an institution for adults. The mortality rate there is much higher.
Some children suffer from severe disabilities, but others show only minor mental retardation. Many young ones in Orphanage No. 1 are not truly orphans. A parent, a father in most cases, has put them out because he could not bear the shame of having a “damaged” child in his home.
One memory I cannot shake, a decade-and-a-half later: At the end of each hallway are shelves on which boxes of brand new toys, still in their cellophane wrappers, rest in neat stacks. Foreigners have donated them but the orphanage workers have never taken them out of the boxes. It’s not in their job description.
This is what sin has done. This is the culture of death. Everywhere, people die, but this is quite a different thing, a place where people never live. Our Lord Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
God and life are bound so tightly that to deny God is to forfeit life. In lands where no one calls on His holy name, the angel of death wields his scythe like a drunk on a blood binge.
This is the wilderness. Scarcely any feast on the word of God, consume the bread of life. Few know either temporal or spiritual blessing. And this is the vast expanse of the world few of us see. Peering into this hell of death, I gained a keener understanding of life. Our temporal abundance shrouds it from us.
Life is an existence dedicated to loving God. And to love God is to love our neighbor.
Like Jesus’ disciples, we must open our eyes and name His grace for what it is. In our passage, His original disciples would not see His first miracle as evidence of His divinity. As a result, they did not recognize the second. How often do we ask God for blessing and, receiving it, treat is as the fruit of our own labors or as happenstance?
Yet despite their doubts and dismal failings, Jesus continues to bestow the privilege of service upon these disciples. After He has given thanks for the bread and blessed the fish, He leaves it to them to distribute the food, to serve up His blessings to the multitude.
He forgives us our weakness over and again and allows us to serve Him by serving all those He has made in His image, whether with food for the body or food for the spirit. Should gratitude for His love that secures out salvation not propel us to do His will?
St. Augustine, who had been forgiven much, said of this passage, “In expounding the holy Scriptures, I am, so to speak, now breaking bread for you. If you hunger to receive it, your heart will sing out with the fullness of praise.
“And if you are thus made rich in your banquet, why would you then be niggardly in good works and deeds of mercy?”
We cannot consume all He provides — but we should not leave many leftovers. As He pours out His abundance on us, the more we eat, the more we know Him.
In these stories of the feeding miracles, we find our Lord modeling for us the life He would have us live. It begins with compassion, an abiding concern for those in need. And not only for those of His flock.
Among the “very great” multitude are many gawkers who would turn out for any itinerant sorcerer, any “holy man” with a good yarn to spin. The Lord who knows the hearts of all men knows that only the poor in spirit will accept the sacrifice He will offer.
He knows that most will fall away when He says, “Feed on Me.” They will eat His bread that sustains physical life but turn away from the Bread of Life everlasting.
Their destiny hangs on what they receive from the Lord and how they receive it. So does yours and mine – and that of all He pulls into our orbits. The serpent told Eve that if she ate of the forbidden fruit, “You will not surely die.” She and Adam spat out God’s words and feasted on death. The last Adam made “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” His sustenance and His banquet.
Think again of the Parable of the Great Banquet. The invited guests revile both the host and the feast he offers. They will not eat. In the feeding miracles, all eat of the bread and fish for which He has given thanks, but many eat unworthily. They eat judgment on themselves.
Yet Jesus would weep over their sin. This is a sign of true grace in those who follow Him, this pity for unconverted sinners. King David displayed it: “I beheld the transgressors, and was grieved.”
In the days of the Prophet Ezekiel compassion for the lost gripped the godly ones: “They sighed and cried out for the abominations done in the land.”
St. Paul said, “I have great heaviness and continual sorrow for my brethren.”
God pours the mind of Christ into His people, His conduit, and it flows forth from them. Should it be different for us?
We see once more that with God all things are possible. And if He supplies the physical needs of the many, how much more will He bless spiritually those who put their trust in Him? We should stand at the ready to do good to all men; we cannot know when God the Holy Spirit will appear to this one or that one, to call his name and touch his heart.
C. S. Lewis understood. He came to view his former state as an atheist as one of spiritual hunger.
“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists,” he wrote in “Mere Christianity.” “A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water . . .
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud.
“Probably, earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.”
Like the apostles, like so many of us, like me, Lewis had been slow to come to saving faith. The apostles, of course, spent three years with the Lord. Bear with me for a minute and track the way St. Mark weaves his story.
He picks up the language of the prophets who berated God’s people Israel for their hardness of heart and refusal to see. He applies it to the apostles, who show no more understanding of Jesus’ words than do the masses.
After the feeding of the 4,000, in the boat, they will realize that they have brought only one loaf of bread for the journey across the lake. They will hurl accusations at one another for the lapse. Is the author telling us they still fail to understand that Jesus is the one true loaf?
Yet both Isaiah and the Psalmist had declared that God would make the deaf to hear, the dumb to speak, the blind to see. After the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus heals a deaf and dumb man; after the feeding of the 4,000 He heals a blind man.
In the first case, the apostles, astonished, break out in a hymn: “He has done all things well. He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” A glimmer of light on the horizon. In the second, St. Peter, the spokesman for the 12, confesses, “Thou art the Christ.” A yet imperfect understanding, but the dawn is breaking.
This confession of faith comes in Caesarea Philippi, a part of Palestine in which many Romans have settled. They live there among the Jews. This Jesus is Lord of all.
This is the center of St. Mark’s gospel. Jesus now turns toward Jerusalem, toward the Last Supper, where He will give thanks to the Father for the bread and wine and command these apostles to consume them as His body and blood, which give life.
In Tashkent, today the capital of the corrupt and decayed old Soviet state of Uzbekistan, Connie grieved in something like the way her Lord had grieved for the helpless and hopeless. And, like Him, she did not stop there. One of the children in Orphanage No. 1 touched her deep down in her soul.
His name was Farhat and he was perhaps 10 years old. He spoke neither Uzbek nor Russian and, of course, no one could provide a biography.
His smile went through her like a shaft of white light. She convinced herself that he was only mildly retarded, the sort of child who might have moved into the mainstream with the sort of special education so ready available in America. In the ward, he was one of the privileged ones allowed to move about.
He rarely tried to speak, but he smiled at her whenever she visited. Somehow, he seemed to have descended into hell and found peace. One way or another, Connie knew, the state would strip it off of him like a soiled diaper. In a land that denies Christ, peace evaporates like cheap vodka spilt by the drunks sleeping one off on the burning sidewalks.
Connie obtained permission to take Farhat home for a few days now and then even though, in fact, she had little time for him. She had five children of her own and she ran a guest house for missionaries passing through the capital.
Mostly, Farhat spent his time on the little patch of green grass under the clothesline in the courtyard behind Connie’s house. Locked in a world only he could see, he walked around, even danced once in a while, always smiling.
I brought back a picture of him, grinning out from among red and yellow balloons on his birthday. In that moment, he was far away from the hurt and the want. Connie gave him unwrapped toys, hand-me-downs but treasures to him, and spoke kindly to him.
She provided what she could. It would have been a stale crust for us; it was a banquet for him. May we see the spiritual bounty our Lord rains down on us for what it is. Amen.
The First Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 28:14-22, Psalm 50, Romans 13:8-14, St. Matthew 21:1-13
A vast and inky blackness is coalescing over the people of God. Political forces are gathering and shifting. Power ebbs here and flows there. The people seek an omen, any sign that hints at their Lord’s presence with them.
The menace grows like a mythical dragon in the east, its tail ever lengthening and lashing, but this peril is as real as the plague. The enemy has already loosed cataclysm and tumult, and with every tribe and nation he swallows he grows more ravenous. It seems nothing will sate his lust for spoil.
Will God never reveal Himself? His people have His promise but not His presence. What is the former worth without the latter? A promise and a couple of coins might get you enough bread to tide you over. Without the coins, what have you got?
Wars and rumors of war rend the peace of a sunny afternoon. Women scream and men moan, dying. Children are sons and daughters in this instant, orphans in the next . . . those who survive. The enemy has sown his seed well.
Close the borders! Clamp on the curfews! News metastasizes: Terror will strike this city again, rampage through that one next. Chaos can skip over mountains, vault oceans, drill a hole through strong ramparts. No one is safe . . . no, not one.
Where is our God?
It is late in the eighth century B.C. Assyria is ascendant in the east and no force on earth can check her. The world has never known a horde as fearsome as this one. Among the ancients, savagery is a game and the Assyrians are all-stars.
Isaiah has held his prophetic office during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham and Ahaz, kings of Judah. Now Hezekiah sits upon the throne. The prophet has thundered against the unfaithfulness and disobedience of the covenant people, but he has not ceased to hold out hope: Even now, a repentant Israel can reclaim God’s favor.
The urgent matter is one of trust. The menace that is Assyria must be countered. Inaction is suicide. Will Judah place her trust in her own political skill and cunning and in alliance with a more powerful protector? Or will she invest her faith in Yahweh as her champion?
Recent history colors the decision. In 735 B.C., during the reign of Ahaz, the northern kingdom of Israel that broke away from Judah in the time of Solomon’s son Rehoboam addressed the Assyrian threat by entering a treaty with Syria.
Those two tried to coerce Judah into joining their pact. Isaiah counseled Ahaz to trust Yahweh to honor His commitment to preserve the Davidic throne in Jerusalem. The king instead made league with the Assyrians against his fellow Jews to the north and the Syrians.
In the process, he abandoned the sovereignty of the Davidic throne – on which Yahweh had declared that David’s successor the Ruler of all the nations would one day sit – to a nation hostile to Israel and to her God.
God’s anointed one placed the Davidic monarchy under pagan protection.
The anti-Assyria alliance buckled. Syria fell in 732 and Israel 10 years later. The Assyrians carried into bondage all of the Jews who might be of use to them and repopulated the territory with their own people, who intermarried with the Jews who remained, resulting in the race called the Samaritans.
By 701, the Assyrians, drunk with greater power still, have shredded their pact with Judah like yesterday’s newspaper. With Hezekiah now on the throne, the Jews again scorn the aid of their God – where is He? – and this time align themselves with Egypt to the west for protection.
Even after Hezekiah has handed over the wealth of Judah to the Assyrians, stripped the gold from the Jerusalem temple to appease them, Sennacharib king of Assyria lays siege to Jerusalem . . . and his official mocks the Jews for looking to Egypt for aid. He laughs them to scorn:
“Now look! You are trusting in the staff of this broken reed, Egypt, on which if a man leans, it will go into his hand and pierce it. So is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him” (2 Kings 18:21).
On that count, at least, he is right. When the people of God turn their backs on God for their protection, Pharaoh and his army will be of as much use as the Cub Scouts.
Now comes Isaiah again to call his people to account. “Hear the word of the LORD, you scornful men,” he tells Israel’s leaders. These are the scoffers, and the scoffers are the most to be reviled; scoffing is the opposite of faith. These have not ignored Yahweh’s counsel, they have despised it.
They have made “a covenant with death.” The term refers specifically to the pact with Egypt, which cannot save them . . . which can only bring them death. Having made lies their refuge, they court destruction by their delusion.
There was in the world then, there is in the world now, a covenant with death in a more expansive sense. Most of you have not seen it. I have seen it.
Oh, we have among us the depraved, the predators. They use the weak and the vulnerable for their own vile purposes without regret or remorse. But they are anomalies. We have among us the horror of abortion, the genocide of 55 million. Yet we have not erased our national conscience completely. Some continue to cry out for mercy for the unborn.
In the cultures of death I have seen, abortion is the standard means of birth control, undertaken as casually as a haircut. In the cultures of death I have seen, a woman suspected of holding hands with a suitor goes away into the mountains with her father and brothers, never to be seen again. In the cultures of death I have seen, disabled children are cast out to be constrained in straitjackets, some to be systematically starved to death.
A culture of death does not appear randomly. Men create it by covenant. Death is the choice of those who refuse to place their trust in the God of life.
Even now, even after all the idolatry and perversion in the nation, the bottomless patience of Israel’s God remains. Turn away from your scoffing and make a covenant with life:
“Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stone for a foundation, a tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation; whoever believes will not act hastily.
“Also I will make justice the measuring line, and righteousness the plummet; the hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters will overflow the hiding place. Your covenant with death will be annulled, and your agreement with Sheol will not stand . . .”
Judah’s diplomats scurry in haste between Jerusalem and Pharaoh’s court, frantically thatching together a treaty that will offer the protection of papyrus. They fling themselves into the frenzied negotiation of the moment.
Do you see them beaming, waving their treaty like party favors, celebrating their covenant with death in the city of life? Rather than trusting in the precious cornerstone that will remain eternally in place, the sure foundation that will never be shattered?
Do they see Christ in that cornerstone? They cannot. Their cornerstone is the promise of Yahweh, Father of Christ, and His faithfulness. This is the Lord who rose up and delivered victory over the Philistines to Israel at Mount Perazim, over the Amorites to His people in the Valley of Gibeon.
Where is the Lord? Where He has ever been, defending and protecting those who call on Him in faith.
And yet their cornerstone is more than that still; we shall return to it.
And what of us? Do we see Christ as a cornerstone? Indeed we do. St. Peter wrote:
“Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ
“Therefore it is also contained in the Scripture, ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a chief cornerstone, elect, precious, and he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame’” (1Peter 2:4-6).
A vast and inky blackness is coalescing over the people of God. Paris: An explosion shatters the still of an autumn afternoon, and another and another. Scornful men have made a covenant with death, and death they are reaping. Tumult tumbles out and engulfs them.
Too long have they chased after idols, sought after sordid pleasures, paraded their perversions. Now comes the reckoning. The day is far spent . . . but still time remains. Our God’s patience is like a rubber band . . . not yet quite to the point of snapping.
Where will we place our trust? In alliances with fickle friends? In secret pacts with suspect allies? Or in the precious cornerstone who will never be moved? Where will we turn for protection?
Where will our leaders lead us?
Every Sunday I urge you to pray for wisdom and strength for our leaders. We must have strong leadership to withstand the assaults of the enemy.
When the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was an oil executive, he and his wife lived in Paris for five years. His affection for the city made the recent terrorist attacks there that killed 130 people especially painful for him.
Welby told a reporter for a BBC program called “Songs of Praise” that the jihadis’ brutality left him with a sense of profound sadness and with a question: Why?
“Saturday morning,” he said, “I was out and as I was walking I was praying and saying: ‘God, why – why is this happening? Where are you in all this?’ and then, engaging and talking to God, I concluded, ‘Yes, I doubt.’”
Here is the titular head of a body of tens of millions of Christians, scoffing at God.
In World War II, 60 million people –3 per cent of the world’s population – died. Among them were millions of defenseless Jews. The atrocities stimulated the wartime archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, to meet evil head-on.
“My chief protest,” he said at the time, “is against procrastination of any kind. The Jews are being slaughtered at the rate of tens of thousands a day on many days . . .
“It is always true that the obligations of decent men are decided for them by contingencies which they did not themselves create and very largely by the action of wicked men. The priest and the Levite in the parable were not in the least responsible for the traveller’s wounds as he lay there by the roadside and no doubt they had many other pressing things to attend to, but they stand as the picture of those who are condemned for neglecting the opportunity of showing mercy.
“We at this moment have upon us a tremendous responsibility. We stand at the bar of history, of humanity and of God.”
But the current archbishop, Justin Welby? All he can do is doubt. When the “Songs of Praise” reporter put the question to him directly, “Did you doubt God?” Welby answered, “Oh, gosh, yes.”
The Rev. Dr. Peter Mullen, a Church of England priest and as such one of Welby’s minions, considered that response.
“I confess that I sometimes doubt the existence of the Archbishop of Canterbury,” he wrote. “You may think this perverse of me for, after all, there is a great accumulation of evidence for his existence.
“He looks every inch an Archbishop. I mean, by the size of his cross and the spread of his grin, you can tell he is no rank and file clergyman. And the content of his speeches is so far up the Richter scale of inanity that any lingering doubts about his archi-episcopal credentials must be immediately dispelled.
“I admit it is feeble of me to continue to doubt, but I cannot stop sceptical thoughts from entering my head. For example, if there really is a genuine Archbishop of Canterbury, why is the Church of England in such a mess?
“And, when I see this Archbishop-like apparition opening and closing his mouth, why do I hear no concurrent theological sense? I am long past hoping that the Archbishop might be a competent theologian, but at least we might expect him to be of Sunday School standard?
“Alas, he is not even that. For example, he says today that the Paris massacres made him doubt God. But the youngest girl in Sunday school would have been able to tell him that the atrocities were not God’s fault and that the terrorists were entirely to blame for them.
“The question of where God was in all that suffering would be readily answered by your average Confirmation candidate: ‘God was suffering with the victims.’
“Given the massive religious incompetence of the Welby-like personage, when asked if I ever doubt the existence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, I have to say, ‘Oh gosh, yes!’”
Dr. Mullen is, I submit, an Isaiah for our day, uttering a primal scream welling up from the anguish of watching the leaders of God’s covenant people abdicate responsibility and desert their posts. The chief cornerstone rested solid as Gibraltar 29 centuries ago and He has not budged since.
No serious Christian can take seriously a caricature such as Justin Welby. I scoff at him, for he scoffs at my cornerstone.
On that subject I have one more thing to say.
The people of God of Isaiah’s day could not have known Jesus Christ as cornerstone. Even then, they had the pledge of the Seed of the woman who would crush the head of the seed of the serpent, but they could not have known Him as we know Him.
What could they have known?
They could have known the cornerstone as the entirety and the unity of God’s promises, of God’s faithfulness and His call upon them to answer His love with their faith.
They could have seen the devastation of the northern kingdom as the necessary condition of Yahweh’s rebuilding program, of His starting over once again to construct a community of people who would put their trust in Him.
Of an action that grieved His great heart but was mandated not by His wrath but by His people’s disaffection.
And they could have seen the cornerstone as that little knot of true believers who huddled round the prophet and believed the promise God offered through him. Who invested their faith not in the flimsy schemes of human ambassadors but in the solid rock of God’s covenant.
The Scriptures have a term for such as these: the faithful remnant. And they were indeed the cornerstone because it was from them the One St. Peter calls the “chief cornerstone” would come.
May that be us, beloved. Revival has swept across America before. I am no prophet; I know not what is to come. I do know that, on balance, Hezekiah was a righteous king in Judah and because he was Yahweh did not lift His judgment from Judah . . . but He did delay it. Our role is to be faithful; the Lord’s role is to pass judgment.
May we be the ones . . . the ones who shrug off the hasty designs of self-important men who have lived without the Lord so long they know not where to seek Him. May we be the ones who trample upon the covenant of death our culture has executed with the enemies of life.
May we be the ones who turn away in disgust from those kings and priests who, asked if they doubt, respond, “Oh, gosh, yes.” May we be the ones who fall to our knees and place all of our hope in the chief cornerstone who will never be shifted.
As the Psalmist sang, “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever” (125:1).
May we be the faithful remnant. Amen.