October 12 2014, Seventeenth After Trinity
Jeremiah 13:15-21, Psalm 25, Ephesians 4:1-6, St. Luke 14:1-11
Joel B. Pollak is a Jew who grew up in Skokie, Ill. From second through eighth grade he attended the Solomon Schechter Day School. It was there, he reports, that he “first felt a personal connection to Zionism, Israel, and the Hebrew language.”
He returned to the campus recently and visited the school that has replaced the one he attended. The Muslim Community Center Academy now fills that space.
One reason Pollak’s old school closed is that many Chicago-area Jews have migrated to suburbs farther north. Another is that the majority of American Jews, who are non-Orthodox, no longer contribute to Jewish education.
They give, often generously, to other causes, but for them Talmud study and Jewish rituals are as irrelevant as a kosher kitchen.
A former principal of the Schechter School observed – not without a trace of bitterness – that Jews were donating millions to the nearby Illinois Holocaust Museum while withholding their dollars from the education of young Jews today.
Pollak shares her concern. On his visit he walked “the hallways where Israeli flags once flew alongside the Stars and Stripes.” He looked “into the classroom where we had built clay models of the Holy Land and memorized the dates of Israel's wars, hearing the echoes of Hebrew songs and the Zionist anthem, Hatikvah, in the gymnasium.”
He recalled “the way the upright piano (still there!) resounded to Mrs. Epstien's percussive style as she led American and Israeli folk songs at assembly.”
Neither he nor the former principal is opposed to remembering. Neither would argue that Jews should not keep alive memories of the Holocaust. The problem to which they point is one of balance.
“What has happened,” Pollak writes, “is that the non-Orthodox Jewish community invested more in an identity rooted in memories of prejudice and persecution than in an identity rooted in faith, study, (and) practice and left.” He continues:
“I am often asked why many Jews vote liberal, despite Democrats' ambivalence about Israel and opposition to many traditional Jewish values (or even secular Jewish values like hard work, meritocracy and free enterprise). The explanation lies partly in the story of Skokie -- how the community opened a museum but closed a school.”
“Show me Your ways, O LORD; teach me Your paths,” the poet pleads in Psalm 25. “Lead me in Your truth and teach me, for You are the God of my salvation; on You I wait all the day.”
Our psalm for today is of the genre of wisdom poetry. It speaks of guiding and showing, of paths and ways, of God showing me His ways.
The Psalmist, once again, is David and, as usual, he has a problem or two on his hands. The first is his foes, who are making it difficult for him and his people to live in peace in the land of promise. The second is – for the first time in the Psalter – his own sin, which obscures the path of righteousness.
David sends up a passionate, personal plea: He must know and follow the ways of his Lord. But in the final verse he generalizes it: “Redeem Israel, O God. Out of all their troubles!”
A sterling sentiment, we might agree. But where? When? How? If the Jewish school is closed, will the next generation and the next and the next and the next grow up in the way of righteousness?
God teaches – indeed He does! – but it might be better to say, “God has taught.” He has given His people His covenant and His law. In Torah is the wisdom of God as He has conveyed it. He does not supplement it by emanations from outer space.
His people are to make phylacteries – little leather pouches – and encase in them Scriptures and bind them to their foreheads and their wrists. Each father is to train his children in the righteous way, to raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
O but Preacher, hold your horses. In this day and age it’s not that simple.
Indeed not. If Dad’s on the road and Mom’s at work, who will instruct the young? Those bright, well-trained teachers at the school, of course. But if the school is closed . . .
God’s people owe their Creator an obligation to teach their children the ways of the Lord. How else will they keep the faith alive?
The poet sets out our psalm in three parts – a prayer followed by a creed and then a closing prayer. Through it all runs a theme of obedience to God’s will. David learned some hard lessons about toeing the divine line. He’s an authority on the subject.
And he would have his people – and us – know that our Lord is not much interested in our figuring out what He has not revealed but keen to see us take in and act out what He has revealed. Signs and omens are for pagans.
God makes His will and His way known through covenant terms, not sorcerer’s tricks. Those terms are grounded in the Creator’s character . . . and reveal it to us.
"The secret things belong to the LORD our God,” we read in Deuteronomy 29:29, “but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
The opening prayer is a plea for protection and instruction:
To You, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
2 O my God, I trust in You; let me not be ashamed; let not my enemies triumph over me.
3 Indeed, let no one who waits on You be ashamed; let those be ashamed who deal treacherously without cause.
4 Show me Your ways, O LORD; teach me Your paths.
5 Lead me in Your truth and teach me, for You are the God of my salvation; on You I wait all the day.
6 Remember, O LORD, Your tender mercies and Your lovingkindnesses, for they are from of old.
7 Do not remember the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions; according to Your mercy remember me,
For Your goodness' sake, O LORD.
Remember me, O Lord, the poet prays, but separate the sinner from his sins. Remember Your covenant love. Yes, I have Your word in the Scriptures . . . but the world, the devil and especially my flesh obscure your path from my sight.
If my enemies prevail against me their victory will discredit not only me personally but my public profession that a man must live by God’s word and not his own wits. The one who waits on you will be vindicated in the end.
Perhaps David is recalling the great failure of his predecessor. King Saul did not trust God enough to wait for his priest to offer a sacrifice but, weak-kneed, hastened to slaughter and burn the offering himself. A man who does not believe in God enough to wait on God will meet an unwholesome end.
Next, David sets out his statement of belief, his creed.
8 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore He teaches sinners in the way.
9 The humble He guides in justice, and the humble He teaches His way.
10 All the paths of the LORD are mercy and truth, to such as keep His covenant and His testimonies.
11 For Your name's sake, O LORD, pardon my iniquity, for it is great.
12 Who is the man that fears the LORD? Him shall He teach in the way He chooses.
13 He himself shall dwell in prosperity, and his descendants shall inherit the earth.
14 The secret of the LORD is with those who fear Him, and He will show them His covenant.
I believe that if I am humble and contrite He will guide me. He will reveal the way to me but He will not unveil His purpose; He sets forth His covenant with His people, not His plan. My need is not information but mercy.
With humility, obedience, persistence and reverence, my faculties will discern good from evil and I will find the path of righteousness.
The final section is a prayer for pardon, for relief from the burden of sin.
15 My eyes are ever toward the LORD, for He shall pluck my feet out of the net.
16 Turn Yourself to me, and have mercy on me, for I am desolate and afflicted.
17 The troubles of my heart have enlarged; bring me out of my distresses!
18 Look on my affliction and my pain, and forgive all my sins.
19 Consider my enemies, for they are many; and they hate me with cruel hatred.
20 Keep my soul, and deliver me; let me not be ashamed, for I put my trust in You.
21 Let integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for You.
My enemies will try to sever my relationship with my Lord and so I must protect it. The solvent for guilt is covenant grace. God is ever so merciful, but His mercy is not that of an indulgent father. It is meant to produce uprightness in His covenant people.
I will take my stand on integrity and uprightness; I will not be drawn out into the world and take up its weapons of treachery and hatred. I will fight on my terms, which are my Lord’s terms, and no other.
The way of righteousness is no smooth road. Setting out on the proper path is not enough. Enemies abound . . . and the enemy within is fiercer still. Doubts claw at me. My old sins plague me; they try to make me deviate from the course I have set.
Without God’s friendship I will veer off into oblivion. I pause, knowing I cannot turn back . . . but unsure of how to proceed. My sins would blind me. But I have God’s promise; in that is my salvation. The pilgrim’s progress hangs on that promise and that alone.
So says David, a man whose counsel serves us well.
But we have not quite finished with Joel Pollak, the Jew from Skokie. After deploring the negligence of liberal Jews in maintaining their identity and locating at least part of the reason in their refusal to invest in distinctly Jewish education, he offered one more trenchant observation.
“Jews,” he wrote, “are not unique in that regard: much of Western Christendom is neglecting its old institutions as well.”
And so we are. In an age when many “spiritual people” are seeking an unmediated relationship with God on their own little mountaintop, Christian institutions are shrinking while Muslim institutions are expanding.
Institutions matter. They equip and mobilize adherents; starry-eyed individuals do not.
Cock an ear to the Psalmist’s voice and you’ll detect the qualities the church and her schools have taught for 2,000 years and more . . . which are precisely the qualities the lone wolf “spiritual person” abhors.
Observance of God’s will does not come without obedience to His word and there is no obedience without humility . . . humility before the Lord and His church.
You may think an archbishop is a big noise indeed. If that’s what you think, you’re absolutely right. He is the primate, the numero uno in a national church. But what do you suppose took place last week at the investiture of our new archbishop in the Anglican Church of North America, Foley Beach?
He swore an oath to serve the Lord’s church first as a deacon. A deacon is a servant. And next as a priest. A priest is a shepherd, and shepherding is humble and humbling work. And then as a bishop. A bishop is an overseer, one who bears the burdens of many congregations.
And only then as archbishop. If the Most Reverend Foley Beach is not faithful to God as a servant, a shepherd and an overseer he will fail utterly as primate. Each and every one of us needs the church – we need each other – to summon the humility to serve our Lord obediently.
Crumbling institutions are not a problem we can lay at the feet of them dang liberals in Denver or the East Coast or the Pacific Northwest. Right here in Durango, the Christian high school locked its doors for keeps earlier this year. Muslims have not taken it over . . . so far.
That school closed in no small measure because an embarrassing percentage of the churches in our town would not support it.
Who now will train the coming generations in the way of righteousness? Fewer and fewer parents have the requisite knowledge for the task. And their apostate churches will train children in their apostate ways.
In David’s day, the covenant people did not abandon God; they demoted Him to one deity among many . . . in distinct violation of the first commandment. Under Solomon syncretism intensified and in the divided kingdoms it continued to mushroom until at last a merciful but disheartened Father sent all 12 tribes into exile.
In our own time, the apostate churches may have outdone Israel in bowing down before false gods. When Christ’s church gussies herself up to make herself appealing to the world, when she becomes like the world to woo the world, she strips off her robe of holiness and stands naked and ashamed.
To be holy is to be set apart for a sacred purpose. The church must be in the world but when she is of the world she is the church not of the Lord but of the world.
Because we are not crying out to God in desperation, our institutions are crumbling as the enemy gathers force. If we do not begin today, we will find ourselves stripped bare when the assault comes.
“Lead me in Your truth and teach me, for You are the God of my salvation; on You I wait all the day . . .” Amen.