Fear of God

Saturday

Psalm 112

English: Statue "Fear of the Lord" b...

English: Statue “Fear of the Lord” by Karin Jonzen at Guildford Cathedral (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1 Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.

The phrase “those who fear the Lord” has as its parallel “those who delight in his commandments.”  This is not the fear that hides in basements before a storm or walks children to school and home again.  This is not the fear of soldiers before battle or children who hear their parents shouting in the night.  Those who “fear the Lord” are those who delight in God’s commandments, those who show honor and respect to God’s gracious ordering of life.   Yes, there is an element of honest concern for the consequences of disobedience, but this is not fear as we know it.  It is the “fear” we have of parents who will “kill us” if we cut school or used drugs – fear not born of their cruelty, but of their love.  It is the “fear” of disappointing or betraying them.

We have much we fear.  We fear for our future.  We fear losing our jobs.  We fear for our health.  We fear failure.  We fear for shame should our secrets come to light.  We can fear success, too, sometimes – especially those who have spent little time in the realm of success.  And in the same way fear healthy relationships, settling instead for what is familiar.  We fear leaving the safety of the known for the unknown.  And then there are the fears that have gotten out of control and manifest themselves in conditions we call disorders.

We have much we fear.  But the fear of the Lord is different.  It is that fundamental respect for and attention to the foundational elements of life: care for your neighbor, kindness, charity, justice, the needs of the poor.  Such a fear is not a manifestation of anxiety and uncertainty; it is a groundedness in ultimate reality.  It is certainty and confidence, and assurance of the path of life.

Those who “fear the Lord” are not timid, but live in the world with confidence and courage.  “They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful, and righteous.”  They lend generously and “conduct their affairs with justice.”  “They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor.”

This is not a fear that limits, but a respect and trust that empowers.  It is a confident recognition of life’s true path.  We are not groping in the dark, uncertain of what to do.  The will of God is set before us: and in that will we find our life.

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“As though you”

Friday

Hebrews 13

Prison...♪♫

Prison…♪♫ (Photo credit: кiт-кaтн Halкeтт)

3Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

Do we need to say more?

Yes, the author of Hebrews probably had in mind those members of the Christian community who were in prison.  Yes, those who were being tortured – the standard form of questioning used on the non-elite members of society – were likely affiliated with the believers.  Yes this evokes all that Paul says about the Christian community using the metaphor of a body: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”  It’s not just your toe that suffers when you smack it against a chair, nor your lips only that are thrilled at the first kiss.

But if God meant for us to care only about our own, the Torah would not have provided for the poor or protected the powerless and the stranger; Ruth, the Moabite, would not have been remembered as the grandmother of David; Jonah would not have been compelled to go to Nineveh; and Jesus would not have taken the commandment to love your neighbor and made it clear it applied to everyone.

3Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

What is true of the body of Christ is true also of the body politic.  We are connected not only in Christ our redeemer; we are connected in God our creator.  All people are created in the image of God.  All are recipients of God’s providential care.  All are beneficiaries of Christ’s saving work.  All are invited into the reality of God’s grace and life.  “For God so loved the world…”

We are connected.  All of us.

  “As though you were in prison with them… as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

Compassion, “to suffer with,” is the fundamental character of the righteous: to sense the cold of the unsheltered, to recognize the loneliness of the isolated, to appreciate the sorrow of the grieving,  to feel the hunger of the hungry (it’s why we fast, why fasting is a tool of spiritual formation).  And compassion means not only to share the burdens of the troubled, but to “rejoice with those who rejoice,” to celebrate all that is good in life wherever and to whomever it happens.

Compassion is the fundamental character of the righteous, because compassion is the fundamental character of God, the God of creation and incarnation, the God who walks with us, the God who loves his world.  All of it.

Watching

Thursday

Luke 14

Corcovado jesus

Corcovado jesus (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

1On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

The religious people are watching, too.  Watching Jesus closely. Only they aren’t trying to see into the heart of Jesus or the truth of the moment – they are waiting for him to fail, waiting for him to show some ignorance or violation of the commands of God.  They are watching, sifting every glance for evidence that they themselves are the men of God and Jesus the ignorant interloper and fraud.

Jesus does not disappoint.  The verses we skip in the reading this Sunday set the scene for the banquet that follows: on the Sabbath Jesus heals a man with the swollen limbs of a terrible edema.

As with the crippled woman we read a few Sundays ago, this is not emergency medicine; it is a medical treatment that could have waited a day.  The religious people get what they want, the excuse they need: “He is no prophet.  He is no rabbi.  No teacher of Israel would be so ignorant of God’s law.”

But there is another question that lingers in the wake of Jesus’ healing: “Would a teacher of Israel not know God’s will to save?  Noah.  Abraham.  Isaac.  Jacob.  Joseph.  Moses.  Joshua.  Gideon.  David.  What happens in all these stories?  Should not a leader among God’s people know God’s will to save?”

We see what we want to see: Jesus the country healer ignorant of the law or Jesus the prophet who recovers the law’s true meaning; Jesus the threat to public order or Jesus the hope of Israel and the world.

They were watching, and they saw what they wanted to see.  But Jesus was watching, too.  He doesn’t walk away.  He tries to take them on a journey into the heart of God whose honored guests are “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

The words of Jesus continue to speak.  They illumine the whole of scripture that it, too, might call us into the journey from the lost garden to the New Jerusalem, from the world of sweat and tears to the world of grace and life, from the scrabble for worldly honor to the banquet that welcomes the poor, the outcast, the stranger, from the realm of power and its many forms of violence to the realm where all our violence is absorbed into the body of God.

Those who considered themselves righteous were watching Jesus to have their suspicions confirmed.  But Jesus was watching them to diagnose the soul.

He does not shrink back from the prescription.  To see the kingdom of God you must see “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” feasting at the places of honor at the table of God.  To see the kingdom of God you must join the banquet.  Jesus suggests his examiners start at the lowest place.  It is wise advice for us all.  Difficult, but wise.

The table of God

Wednesday

Luke 14

Banquet Table

Banquet Table (Photo credit: saaby)

7When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.

Jesus is watching.  He is not dropping timeless truths; he is speaking to moments in time.  He is not speaking in abstract principles; he is speaking to specific people.  He is watching as those invited come to a banquet and pick out their seats.  He sees – and he has something to say to them, even as he had something to say to the woman he observed at the well outside of town during the heat of the day.  He saw her shame.  He sees our love of honor.

Jesus is watching.  And he speaks.  But he doesn’t speak directly; he speaks in parables.  He doesn’t say, “Shame on you”; he gathers us into the story.  He takes us alongside.  He gets us involved, until suddenly we are talking about inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”  What we do then will determine whether we are among those who weep at the cross or jeer.

Everyone knows the proverb about exercising care in the king’s presence.  Much better to be brought forward to a more honorable place, than to presume honor and be shamed at being sent down.  To this point, Jesus has not said anything they don’t know – they just don’t realize they are in the king’s presence.

The first warning that the conversation is turning away from the comfortably familiar comes with the conclusion: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”  On the face of it, it matches what has been said.  It just has an ominous tone to it – as if Jesus is suggesting that we are those who honor themselves.

And then comes the startling surprise:  When you give a banquet invite the poor beggars who cannot repay you.  The “poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” are the humble being exalted by the king.  “You who squabble over seats of privilege should hear and consider,” says Jesus, “and go and do likewise.”

So, shall we weep or jeer?  Shall we smile indulgently, mock outrightly, ignore blatantly, or weep with joy for we, the broken – we the spiritually poor, emotionally crippled, ethically lame and blind to truth – are invited to banquet at the table of God, though we cannot repay him?

Righteousness

Watching for the morning of September 1

Year C

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 17 / Lectionary 22

Righteousness has become an uncomfortable word for us, connected as it is in the public mind with self-righteousness.  No one likes a goody-two-shoes.  We want our heroes to have a few flaws lest they seem to good to be true.  At the same time, we all recognize there are some who are just good people: kind, generous, faithful, courageous when necessary to defend others or to defend what is right.  The kind who will take you to the airport in the middle of the night, come rescue you if your car breaks down, or show up to sit with you in the surgical waiting lounge.  There is in them something more than friendship, because you know they will do all this even for a stranger.

Righteousness is not about ritual or moral purity; it is living the values of God who is gracious and merciful, just and true: who rescues those in bondage, who provides for those in need, who is faithful to his promises, who defends the widow and orphan.

There is a humility to such good people, a humility born of the encounter with the boundless love of God.  They are not preoccupied with looking good or even with being good; they simply live in and from and for the goodness of God.

Such “righteousness” weaves through the readings this week, expressed directly in the psalm and second reading, but underlying also the first reading and gospel: the righteous are those who embody the governance of God in the human spirit.

The Prayer for September 1, 2013

Gracious God,
you have given us a place at your own table,
feeding us with all your gifts of mercy and life.
Turn our eyes away from what is treasured by others
to what is treasured by you: humility, justice and kindness to all.

The Texts for September 1, 2013

First Reading: Proverbs 25:6-7
“Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great;
for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” – This proverb from the wisdom tradition in Israel about wise behavior at court sets the background for today’s Gospel.

Psalmody: Psalm 112
“Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.” – The poet celebrates the character of the righteous and the fruit that come from faithfulness to God’s commands.

Second Reading: Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
“Let mutual love continue.”
– The author’s call for renewal now moves to a series of exhortations that touch on key elements in the shape of Christian life.

Gospel: Luke 14:1, 7-14
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Observing the behavior of those gathering for a banquet, Jesus taps into the ancient proverbs about proper conduct at a banquet, then transforms it with the call to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” who bring you no advantage in moving up the social or economic ladder, but make you children of the kingdom of heaven.

Sabbath rest

Sunday Evening

Isaiah 58

13 if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable…
14then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;

We don’t worship God on the Sabbath, we worship God for his Sabbath.  The Sabbath is not a day; it’s a time.  It’s not an item on the calendar; it is a reality to be lived and enjoyed.  Christmas is not just a day; it is a state of mind and heart.  Thanksgiving is not just a date; it is – at its best – a time of family and goodness, of bounty and welcome strangers.  Sabbath is not Saturday or Sunday; it is our participation in the peace of God.  It is rest, and joy, and the treasure of God’s word of peace.

Yes, there is the commandment to observe Sabbath each week.  Yes, there is the command to rest and give rest.  But Christians gather on Sunday because it is the day of resurrection.  It is the eighth day, the day of new creation.  We come to hear the voice from heaven that does not shake the mountain but opens the grave.

We come to break the bread and sing the songs of heaven.  We come to lay our burdens down for a time, to leave the struggle of life aside for a morning, to step away from our rush.  We come to bless the LORD and forget not his benefits.

All this is lost when Sabbath is regarded as a rule rather than a gift: what must be done rather than what has been given.  Christmas can become this – the obligation of purchasing presents rather than the joy of giving.  This is why Christians center Christmas around the gift of the child rather than the paper and bows.  The presents and the tree and the meal take their spirit from the child; they are not an end in themselves.  Just so, Sabbath takes its spirit from the God who creates and redeems in love and speaks to his troubled, rebellious world a word of grace and peace.

Who would not come to Christmas dinner?  And what could keep us from this our Sunday dinner?  It is the long table set on the lawn beneath the shade with fresh corn and apple pie and children giggling as they run with cousins.  It is a remembrance of all God has given and all that is yet to come.  It is a time when God’s Sabbath draws near and burdens are lifted, the stranger welcomed, the broken embraced, the bent stand upright, and our hearts and lives are refreshed.

18You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, 19and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. 20(For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” 21Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”) 22But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12).

Unbent

Saturday

Luke 13

English: Tree near Chilton Taken from the new ...

English: Tree near Chilton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

11 Just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.

Eighteen years.  We bear our burdens for a long time.  Grief.  Shame.  Fear.  Such things do not go away easily.

I will never forget the elderly woman who called me one day with a plaintive request that I come hear her confession.  It was a powerful moment, a wrenching story during the depression when there was not enough food to feed her children.  Now, late in life, unable to escape the memory, she cried out for mercy.  The story poured forth, lingered in the prayer of David’s psalm, to be swept away by that precious word of absolution.  For the first time in 50 years she stood free.  But a few days later I received another phone call.  She had a confession to make, would I come.  The word of grace had been forgotten, and the shame had returned.

I understood, then, there were issues of memory at work.  But I grieved for her – her memory of guilt was greater than her memory of grace.  She lived bent over, not 18 years but more than 50.

The miracle of healing is not what happens in our bones; it is what happens in our hearts.  It is what happens when a wounded and bent life is brought under the reign of grace.  It is not in the text, the text says he laid hands on her, but I imagine Jesus reaching out to lift this woman’s face – and in lifting her face, straightening her whole life.

Lifting our face is the hardest thing to do when we are ashamed, hard to do when we are carrying secrets.  Every impulse is to curl up, to look down, to look away, to slump over, to hide behind whatever masks or duty is at hand.  But there is that strong, tender hand of Jesus, lifting our face to his, meeting our shame with his healing light and freeing us to stand upright.

Each day we may call, and each day he will come back, until our memory of grace is stronger than our memory of shame.

2 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits–
3 who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,  (Psalm 103)

 

All

Friday

Psalm 103

Innocence Is Bliss

Innocence Is Bliss (Photo credit: drp)

1 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me, bless his holy name.

All.  Every fiber of my being. Every ache and longing.  Every fear and sorrow.  Every joy and happiness.  Every labor of my hands.  Every affection of my heart.  God is to the soul as spring drawing us outdoors into the warm sunshine after a long winter.  God is to the human heart like the rains after the dry season, bursting the desert into bloom.  Children run barefoot in the grass.  Even the dowdiest adults take off their shoes and wiggle their toes in the fresh cool green.  God is as a cold lake after a long day’s backpacking.  God is as the aroma of fresh baked bread – real bread that rewards a day’s labor and patience.  God is as grandmother’s welcome embrace.  God is as mother with a cool washcloth to a child’s fever.  God is as the laughter of a happy thanksgiving table.  God is the source and goal of all good.

There is nothing in this psalm that imagines life is easy or free of pain.  It knows God is our healing balm not an eternal inoculation.  So we see bodies laid out after the chemical attack in Syria, and a mother gently tucking her child in as though he were bedding down for the night.  There is no end to sorrow in life, but God is as the tender mother’s caress.  God is as the bread freely given in scarcity.  God is as the unexpected kindness from a stranger on the road.  God is as the voice of truth to those denied it.  God is as the day of release to those unjustly imprisoned.  God is the surprising mercy, the unforeseen help, the peace in trial, the calm bequeathed by strong and able arms.

And so ever fiber rejoices in him.

If you cannot sense this, find some fresh grass for your toes.

Sabbath

Thursday

Isaiah 58

13If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
… I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth.

English: the 4th Commandment on Nash Papyrus &...

English: the 4th Commandment on Nash Papyrus “Remember the Sabbath” row 9, words 5-8. in Hebrew script: “zahor et yom ha’shabat”. similar to Exodus 20:7 Egypt, 2nd century CE עברית: הדיבר הרביעי מעשרת הדברות בפפירוס נאש, “זכור את יום השבת” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Keeping Sabbath is one of the ten words.  For those who would boil the rich and wonderful legal codes of the Torah down to ten commandments, the Sabbath is one of these ten essentials.  No matter how you number them, breaking Sabbath is in the same select list as murder, kidnapping, elder abuse and violating another’s marriage.

At first glance it doesn’t seem to match up.  Keeping Sabbath looks to us like a ritual obligation.  All those that follow are filled with deep ethical dimensions that affect the well being of society by governing the way we treat one another.  Keeping Sabbath seems like an obligation towards God.  In our society, such a religious obligation seems clearly secondary to the “higher” ethical norms concerning the treatment of others.  Why then does the prophet equate keeping Sabbath with such fundamental humanitarian concerns as feeding the hungry and caring for the poor?

For most of human history we have enslaved one another.  Binding another to serve one’s will seems endemic to human nature.  There have been formal institutions of slavery, encoded in law, and many informal and indirect ones.  There is a serfdom that binds you to the land, but also a serfdom that binds you with debt – the coal miners living in mining towns paid in script only good at the mining stores.  There is the slavery that binds by law, and the enslavement that binds by fear we see in human trafficking and the conscription of child soldiers (join us or we kill your family).  The bent woman before Jesus in Sunday’s gospel is spiritually enslaved.

It is easy to hear the exodus story as God’s triumph over the mighty empire of Egypt, but why then would God need ten plagues?  Wouldn’t one or two massive exercises of power have sufficed, just as the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought Japan to surrender?  Why start with a silly trick of turning your staff into a serpent?  Why begin with a few days of polluted water?  Because this is not about power; it is about redemption.  The Nile was the source of life for Egypt and God is declaring that he is the author of life.  The serpent was a symbol of royal power in Egypt and God is the one who holds Pharaoh and his kingdom in his hand.  God’s purpose was not just to save Israel, but also to save Egypt.  It didn’t take ten assaults to break Israel free; God provided ten opportunities for pharaoh to repent, to turn away from the prison of slaveholding.  Pharaoh behaved like us all: only as the price became more and more unbearable did he finally relent.

With the Sabbath command, the God who delivered Israel and Egypt from the house of bondage takes his stand against all enslavement.  The commandment isn’t just that I should rest on the Sabbath, it is that I must give rest to others.

Humans were not created for work.  In the Babylonian myth, humans were created to serve the gods.  In the Genesis narrative humans were created to walk with God.

When I “trample on the Sabbath,” I trample on my neighbor.  If I cannot turn off my wants and needs, if I cannot for one day set aside my “own interests” for the sake of others, then the life of all is degraded.

I understand the “modern economy,” but when I want to be able to go to the grocery store in the middle of the night, that choice affects not only me and my household, but all who must work in order that the store might be open at my convenience.  And when the demands of work encroach ever further into our lives, children and families and neighborhoods are undermined.  It may be the way of the world, but the way of God gives Sabbath.

So the Pharisees were right – Jesus needed to honor the Sabbath.  They just didn’t understand that is exactly what he was doing: the woman was being set free from her bondage.

Foundations

Wednesday

Isaiah 58

9bIf you remove the yoke from among you,
     the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10if you offer your food to the hungry
     and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
     and your gloom be like the noonday.
11The Lord will guide you continually,
     and satisfy your needs in parched places,
     and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
     like a spring of water,
     whose waters never fail.
12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
     you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
     the restorer of streets to live in.
13If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
     from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
     and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
     serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
14then you shall take delight in the Lord,
     and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
     for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

English: Avdat: view from top of Tell Avdat to...

English: Avdat: view from top of Tell Avdat to the Negev Photo by Uri Juda (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The city still lies in ruins.  Lamentations declares it has become the haunt of jackals.  With the city sacked and its people taken into captivity or scattered among the surrounding countries, wildlife came to scavenge and take shelter among the rubble.  The plaintive cry of the owl echoes through abandoned streets at night.  By the time the prophet speaks, it has been at least 50 years.

The first returning exiles cleared the rubble from the place where the altar of burnt offerings once stood and built a new one, but how much more?  Perhaps they cleared the steps that led up to the temple doors, though the doors themselves had been stripped of their bronze and burned.  The rich and fragrant cedar-lined walls of the temple are but ash long washed away by the rains.  When the beams burned, the roof caved in and walls collapsed   Do the two great pillars that guarded the door lie in pieces behind the altar?

No one could gather to offer sacrifices without being reminded of all that had been lost.  And it is not only the house of God that is crumbled, but the palace, the homes of the great families, the city walls and gates, the public pools and markets.  It is a city haunted by the cries of its dead and the lost hopes and dreams of a people.

It is not easy to speak in such a time.  No one is interested in cheap promises.  No one wants to hear blame for what brought them to such an end.  For many, talk of God is best left unsaid, filled as it is with unanswerable questions and broken hopes.

The word given to the prophet speaks a sweet and gentle promise, guiding them back to the basics.  God doesn’t ask the people to be optimistic; he asks them to be faithful: to feed the hungry, care for those in need, and honor the Sabbath.

Later prophets will challenge the people to rebuild the city walls and the temple, but first God speaks of spiritual foundations.  From unfaithfulness, the city came to ruin.  From faithfulness, a new city shall arise on its ancient foundations.

Then your light shall rise in the darkness
      and your gloom be like the noonday…
12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
      you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
      the restorer of streets to live in.