The honorable/blessed


Matthew 5

File:Codex Manesse 113v Hesso von Reinach.jpg3Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

When Anna and Megan were little, bedtime prayers were a simple litany of all those people in our lives: “God bless Farfar and G.G., Grandma Dorothy and Grandma Norma, their teachers at school, their pets, anyone at church whose trouble they knew, and a general concern for those who were hungry or cold.  I was moved by their sensitivity to the wounds of the world around them, and how easily strangers, family members and pets could all fit into the circle of their concern.

When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit,” he is not using the word for blessing as in those simple prayers.  In both Hebrew and Greek, one word is used for conveying favor; another carries the sense of an existing state.  “Bless me Father, for I have sinned,” asks for grace to be given.  The Blessed Virgin Mary exists in a state of grace and honor; it is a quality of her being.  So, here, in the beatitudes, the word carries that second sense.

Sometimes you will see this word translated as “happy” though that hardly seems weighty enough.  “How honorable are those who are poor in Spirit,” gets us closer to the meaning.  It describes a state of being that is in a right relationship with God, with others and with oneself; a life in proper harmony with all these; a life that is the true meaning of a good life.  We are not fortunate to be poor, grieving or hungry.  Nor are we lucky to be in such a state because we have some great reward coming.  The people of whom Jesus speaks are those in an honorable state of harmony with the way of God.  They are tuned to the Sprit.  They live already the dawning reign of God.

The “poor in spirit,” “those who mourn,” the “meek” and “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” are not four different kinds of people getting four different rewards.  These are four different images from different angles of those who lives are attuned to the compassion and justice of God.  They do not vaunt themselves over God; they grieve for the broken and the brokenness of the world, their sails are filled with the wind/breath of God, they hunger and thirst for the transformation of the world.

These honorable/blessed ones share already in the kingdom of God – notice the present tense of that first verse: “Theirs is the kingdom of God.”  And they shall see the fulfillment of God’s promise to heal/redeem the earth.  They shall be comforted.  They shall inherit the earth.  Their hunger shall be fully satisfied.

There is a second section to these makarisms.  How honorable are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers.  Those in tune with the kingdom of God live it.  We will have to come back to this saying about persecution that takes such a central place in the series – living the way of God will have consequences – but first we need to hear these first eight sayings end as they began: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  The Spirit of God is found here, the reign of God has begun here, in these in whom God’s justice and mercy abides.  They will be acknowledged as true children of God.

Dirt, dirty, clean, holy


Psalm 15

Tetrapylon, Palmyra in Syria

1 O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

It’s an uncomfortable question.  We want to move quickly to the grace of God, the welcoming embrace, the overflowing forgiveness.  We don’t want to ask who is worthy to dwell in God’s presence.

The question of cultic purity was an important one in the ancient world.  There was a vivid sense of the sacred around each shrine.  To bring what was profane into the presence of the holy was a dangerous act, offending the god of that place.  It invited wrath just as an offense against a king invited wrath.

There is behavior appropriate to a football game that isn’t appropriate in court.  To speak out of turn in a legal proceeding, to violate the norms of the court, can land you in jail for contempt.  We make these distinctions all the time.  We raise our hands at school but such behavior would be out of place – or intentionally offensive – if it happened at the dinner table.  When I was a child, I had to wear a coat and tie to church; we had to wear our best in God’s presence.  Saturday night required a bath because you couldn’t go to church unclean.  These are only vague hints of the demands of an ancient shrine.  Paul was almost murdered by a mob of worshipers because of a rumor that he had desecrated the temple by bringing a Gentile into the inner court – and saved only because they had to drag him out of the courtyard before killing him lest his blood desecrate the temple and, as the mob was dragging him out, soldiers stepped in to arrest him.  Purity was exceedingly important.

Many cultures leave their shoes at the door to keep the outer impure world from desecrating the inner realm of the home.  It’s not just about keeping literal dirt outdoors.  The whole concept of ‘dirt’ is symbolic of something out of its proper place.  Dirt in the field isn’t dirt; it’s soil.  It only becomes dirt if you try to bring it into the kitchen where it doesn’t belong.  There is a boundary at the threshold of the house.  Just so, there is a boundary at the threshold of the shrine – a boundary between the heavens and the earth, between the realm of the gods and the world of the common, between the sacred and the profane.  You cannot bring what is unclean into the realm of the holy.

So who can enter into God’s sacred shrine?  Who can enter into the presence of the holy?  There are extensive descriptions regarding purity in the Torah, and the rituals to restore it.  But in answering this question of who may come onto God’s holy hill, our poet does not speak about abstaining from sex, ritual washings, or avoiding contact with blood and what is dead.  The true measure of purity is our treatment of others: refusing to take advantage of a person’s need by charging interest; refusing to speak ill of another; speaking the truth; keeping one’s oath even to your own detriment.  Those who are welcome in God’s holy city are those who do justice and mercy, who live on earth the justice and mercy that is the mark of heaven.

God is a God of grace.  There is welcome for the sinner.  He has made us worthy by wrapping us in Christ.  Yet the true measure of holiness remains: not personal purity but the care of our neighbor.

From Shittim to Gilgal


Micah 6

5O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

File:PikiWiki Israel 29616 Jordan River.jpg

Jordan River (Lehava Activity 2013 Pikiwiki Israel [CC-BY-2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

The translators of the New International Version break this verse into two sentences, adding again the verb ‘remember’ plus the words ‘your journey’ to clarify the meaning of the third line so that it reads: “Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal.”

I like that line.  I also like the Hebrew that just hangs out there “from Shittim to Gilgal.”  It is one of those little phrases that the hearer understands.

Shittim was the last encampment after 40 years in the wilderness.  From there they crossed the Jordan River and made their first encampment in the Promised Land at Gilgal.  From Shittim to Gilgal represents the fulfillment of God’s promise.  It is like saying “the grave is empty” – you don’t have to explain whose grave, when and where; we know what this means.

From Shittim to Gilgal.  Israel had been led out from Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea.  With the Egyptian army behind them and the sea in front of them it seemed as though their journey to freedom would fail.  But the breath/wind of God blew through the night and at morning there was a path.  They crossed on dry ground.

Forty years later, Israel is again at the edge of its promised future.  King Balak of Moab, the kingdom east of the Jordan River, fearing this great host, hires the holy man/prophet Balaam to pronounce a curse on this people.  Words are power; they create what they speak.  It is a powerful weapon.  But every time Balaam opens his mouth, out comes a blessing. God has chosen to bless.

But the Jordan is at flood stage.  God tells the priests to lead the way and stand in the river holding the Ark of the Covenant, the sign of God’s promise and presence.  God promises that, again, they shall cross on dry land.  As the priests step into the river, the flow of water ceases – and the deliverance from Egypt is lived anew as the people enter in to the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise.  Slaves are free.  The homeless receive a home.  The landless receive a land of milk and honey.

From Shittim to Gilgal.  But there is a wound in this story.  For at Shittim the Israelites were seduced into worshipping the god of Moab, the Ba’al of Peor.  After all God had done, after the 40 years wandering due to their faithlessness, in sight of the fulfillment of God’s promise, they are led astray to bow to other gods.  They are faithless – but God is faithful.

From Shittim to Gilgal.  From Good Friday to Easter.  From our frailty to God’s unfathomable faithfulness.  Remember.  The prophet says these two words: from_Shittim to_Gilgal, and the whole story of faithlessness and faithfulness is spoken.  And the people of Micah’s day are asked to remember – and to return: to return to the path of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with their faithful God.


Watching for the morning of February 2

Year A

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

File:Domus Galilaeae Hebrew Sermon on the Mount.jpg

By Itai (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This Sunday we hear Jesus speak.  We have heard Matthew tell us of Jesus’ honored lineage.  We have heard the witness of scripture to this child of Bethlehem and seen wise men from the East kneel before him.  Angels have appeared to protect him from Herod’s murderous envy and to return him to the land of Israel.  The Voice of God has testified of him at his baptism in the Jordan and he has withstood all the challenges of the evil one in the wilderness.  Then, last Sunday, we saw him arise and summon us to follow him, to join his movement to right the world, and heard him declare the reign of God is dawning.  Now we hear him speak.

His voice echoes with the sounds of the prophets like Micah describing the faithfulness and mercy God desires from us.  His voice echoes with the sound of the psalmist describing the character of true righteousness.  His message begins with the sweet notes of the Beatitudes: it is the poor, the grieving, the merciful, the peacemakers who are honored in God’s sight.  These are the one who reflect the character of God’s kingdom.  These are the ones who live the way of God.  And these are the ones who shall receive the promised inheritance of a world transformed by the Spirit of God.

The Prayer for February 2, 2014

Lord of Life,
by your word and deed you overturn the values of our world,
declaring honorable what is often despised:
the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers.
Help us to hear your Word,
and in hearing to trust,
and in trusting to live as you call us to live.

The Texts for February 2, 2014

First Reading: Micah 6:1-8
8He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” – Through the prophet God brings charges against his people, summoning the surrounding hills to hear God’s case and render judgment.  God has done great things for this people and asked for justice and mercy, but the people have been faithless.

Psalmody: Psalm 15
“O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” – The poet describes the one who is worthy to enter the temple precinct in terms of faithfulness to others rather than ritual purity.  Where we expect to her about ‘clean hands’, we hear instead about justice and mercy.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” –
The values of ‘the world’, the things honored and treasured by a humanity that has lost its harmony with God, are shown to be foolish and empty by God’s revelation of himself in Christ crucified.

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – The beatitudes begin Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ first of five blocks of teaching in Matthew’s Gospel.  Jesus declares what is honorable in God’s sight and promises God’s favor.


New birth

Sunday Evening

Matthew 4

File:Fishing on the Sea of Galilee.jpg

By OSU Special Collections & Archives (Fishing on the Sea of Galilee) [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen.

Peter and Andrew, James and John: their lives were arranged by the facts of the families into which they were born.  As their fathers were, so would they be.  They would live as adults in the place they were children.  They would marry most likely from second cousins and bring their bride to a room added to their parent’s home. Their children would be fishermen after them.  Their lives were predictable – until they met Jesus.

They would say these prayers.  They would argue these texts at the Jewish community center.  They would show proper deference to any passing Roman soldiers.  They would pay their taxes and make their pilgrimages and get their information from Fox News or CNN as had their fathers before them.

Until they met Jesus.

They were not likely to be strangers to Jesus before that day when he called them to follow.  They had certainly heard him making his arguments at the synagogue.  They probably regarded him as a friend.  They might have considered Jesus a little strange perhaps; he had not grown up in Capernaum – he had moved here from an outlying village.  Nor was he a fisherman, as they were.  He was a construction worker, perhaps a stone mason, as had been his father.  There was sure to be plenty of employment for Jesus at Sepphoris.  But Jesus will never mention Sepphoris, that modern Greek city.  Jesus will travel to other places, and other Greek cities, just not Sepphoris.  Jesus is arguing for an old way – a way of compassion and justice, of care of the neighbor and trust in God – not the modern way of a Sepphoris.

But this day Jesus is on the march.  And his friends are summoned to come.  It will take Peter on a surprising journey to betrayal and redemption and the home of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, an enemy whom he will baptize!  It will take Peter to jail and a mystical escape.  It will take Peter across the sea to Rome where he will consider himself unworthy to die as Jesus did upon the cross – so the soldiers will oblige him and crucify him upside down.  (Unlike Paul, a Roman citizen, who therefore had the privilege of being beheaded.)

Peter’s life would have been entirely predictable – apart from all the normal uncertainties of storms and droughts and infant mortality.  But then Jesus came and said, “Come with me.”

Peter could have stayed with his nets.  But he didn’t.  And the world was changed.

We, too, can stay with our nets…

But before us stands the one who bids us join him in giving new birth to the world…

The hand of God


Matthew 4


By Purnima Koli (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.

We don’t know why Jesus went back to Galilee after John was arrested.  We just know how it looks.  If Herod Antipas had turned against John and his followers, it was going to be safer to leave the area and go back to Galilee.

It’s not the picture we have of Jesus: that he would worry about his personal safety.  But he has not yet begun his march on Jerusalem. He is still just a construction worker, deeply interested in the scriptures and attracted to John’s message.  But John has been seized.  The Tetrarch didn’t like John’s criticism of his marriage to his brother’s wife.  For the tetrarch, John was a threat to social order – which means that John was a threat to Antipas’ rule, his dominion – and thus a threat to Rome’s dominion.  Rome hated instability, and it was the Emperor who had given Antipas his title and lands.

So maybe it’s just time for Jesus to move on, to go back home – though he doesn’t go back to Nazareth; he moves to Capernaum.

Whatever reasons might have rattled around in Jesus’ mind, Matthew sees the scriptures in the background.  Matthew remembers the ancient prophecy

15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”

For Matthew this is the hand of God.  Jesus is not retreating.  The promise of God is drawing closer to flower. Places long dominated by the Gentile world are about to see the light of God.  People long in darkness are about to be graced with light.  The shadow of death is about to be dispersed.

There are all kinds of plain and ordinary reasons why our life took this course rather than that one, why we are here rather than there.  And you can be content with that rational explanation.  But Matthew sees the hand of God working.  In so simple a thing as moving to a new town, the divine is at work calling, guiding, breathing his Spirit upon our choices and chances.

Sometimes it feels like we might have made an utterly wrong turn; but Matthew would bid us wonder if God is not working even there to do something within or around us that leads further into grace and life.  And perhaps just the act of looking for how God might be present in this is enough for us to find him there.

The Word which is the Cross


1 Corinthians 1

File:Callisto Piazza Da Lodi - Nailing of Christ to the Cross - WGA17411.jpg

[Callisto Piazza Da Lodi – Nailing of Christ to the Cross

18For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

It’s not “the message about” the cross; it is the word ofthe cross.  It is not information about the cross but the cross proclaimed that is the dynamite of God.

Let’s be honest.  The cross is a shattering declaration.  It is a devastating “No!” to all human achievement.  The empires we build crucify God!  The majesty of Roman power, the phenomenal achievements in architecture, in military strategy, in control of vast and far-flung lands, is revealed as a God-killer, a murderous crushing of the divine.  All human pride is silenced by the cross.  We want to shout “But… but…!” But there stands the cross: silent, powerful witness to our fallenness.  Our noblest achievements bear a dark and cruel underside.

Those who are perishing, those enwrapped in the false glory of the human enterprise, those privileged by their place atop privilege, consider it folly.  They cannot hear God’s “No!”  They cannot imagine that God should side with the crushed.  They cannot imagine that God would be more interested in a crucified criminal – a terrorist! – than the glory of Caesar.  It is folly to them – and they are the ones lost in folly.

For the power of the divine is declared in suffering, in bearing the burdens of the burdened, in sharing the sorrows, in carrying the sins of the world.  God sits in the dust with Job.  With the children of the favelas.  With the grieving mother, the broken father.  With those who bear the tattoos of the death camps.  With those whose waters are poisoned by the industries about them – industries that hold them in thrall, because they can take away the jobs.

The power of the divine is shown in the tender conversation with the woman at the well, with Lazarus at the rich man’s gate, with the Syrophoenician woman asking only for crumbs from the table.  The power of the divine is shown in the choice of Matthew, a tax collector, in the embrace of a prodigal father for his senseless son, in the silent defense of the woman thrown at Jesus feet by those who would condemn her adultery.

The cross is a “No!” and a “Yes!”  A “Yes!” to all who hunger for redemption, for mercy, for justice.  A “Yes!” to all who hunger for grace.  To all who hunger for life.

It is not a “message about the cross; it is “the word of the cross exploding in power into our broken world, hauling it towards salvation, dragging it kicking and screaming into its healing, into the reign of God.  Summoning us, like that other Lazarus, out of our grave cloths into the light of life.

They followed


Matthew 4File:Gandhi during the Salt March.jpg

20Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

On March 12, 1930, Mahatma Ghandi arose from spinning Khādī at his ashram in Ahmedabad and started walking toward the sea.  By the time he arrived in Dandi, 240 miles away, a crowd of followers described as a “river of white” two miles long were with him.  Though the British Empire claimed a monopoly on salt, Gandhi and those with him went to the shore and began to evaporate the seawater to make salt.

This act of civil disobedience to the British claim on a fundamental necessity of life sparked a massive resistance to British rule and led ultimately to the collapse of the British Empire in India.  4,000 people came to hear him at the end of his first day’s march.  50,000 24 days later when he arrived at Dandi.

This is the image that should come to mind when we hear Jesus arise at the beginning of the dry season in Galilee and set off along the lakeshore, summoning Peter, Andrew, James and John.  This is the beginning of a movement, not the beginning of a church – or, alternately, the church is (or should be) a movement.

The behavior of Jesus was recognizable in Jesus’ culture not as a teacher gathering students but as an aggrieved individual gathering a throng to go with him to settle some conflict.  The message that Jesus proclaims is the reign of God is at hand.  The ‘grievance’ is the corruption of Israel’s life, the coopting of faith and society by the Empire of Rome.  The nation needed to be reclaimed for the way of God.

Jesus is Rosa Parks deciding not to move to the back of the bus.  That act sparked a movement.  It was a decision to resist an unjust system.  The churches became training grounds in nonviolent resistance.  The goal was social transformation – but not just an outward transformation.  The creation of the just community was an act of salvation, delivering all from a system that destroyed our true humanity.

We have made faith in Jesus a personal opinion rather than the sweeping power of a movement that intended to bring God’s redemption, God’s Spirit, God’s reign to the human community.

Listen carefully to what Jesus teaches.  The way of God is more than a way of personal piety and morality; it is a path of social transformation: loving our enemies, making peace with our accusers, sharing our bread, renouncing revenge, choosing forgiveness, welcoming the outcast.

The modern equivalents to the ancient empires are content to let Christians have a private piety and hope of heaven.  Should we ever rise up and discover Christianity as a movement of justice and mercy, healing and reconciliation, forgiveness and love, we may well discover that the cross and the fire hoses were each manifestations of the same resistance of privilege and power to true human transformation.

Christ divided


1 Corinthians 1:10-18

File:Säntis - 29.07.01 0091.JPG

By Roland zh (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

11It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

“Has Christ been divided?” Every translation of which I am aware has this as a question, but the Greek manuscripts don’t have punctuation marks and it’s possible that this is simply a statement:  “Now I say this: because each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ ‘But I belong to Apollos,’ ‘But I belong to Cephas,’ ‘But I belong to Christ,’ Christ been divided!”

I don’t wish to go against the consensus of scholarship, but I am curious how reading the text this other way heightens the impact of Paul’s words.  It is not just that it is wrong to divide the Christian community; it divides Christ.  Division into parties within the church is more than unhelpful; it pushes the saving work of Christ off the stage in favor of the prestige of the church’s various preachers.  Christianity becomes a school of thought, rather than a way of life.  We choose up sides rather than take up the ongoing work of Christ in the world.  We claim superiority in our teaching or tradition and are more invested in being Lutherans or Catholics or Baptists than we are in being Christ in the world – or we claim to be superior to all that because we are non-denominational.

The Corinthian congregation had twisted the faith so it was about me and my spirituality rather than about Christ and the world.  When I make the faith about me, Christ is divided, chopped up into little pieces and worthless to the world.

And it is not just about the big divisions between church bodies.  It is about all those groups within the church who want this or that style of worship, this or that sanctuary design, this or that program emphasis, this or that focus for our mission support or this or that stance on some issue of public or church policy.  Such balkanization of the congregation robs the world of the message of the cross.  It robs the world of the redemptive and transformative work of God.

Nothing in Paul’s letter suggests we ought not have differences of opinion, only that our disagreements cannot be about ourselves.  We are not groups competing for attention and privilege in the church; we are Christ in the world.  When we are divided, Christ is divided.  When we are not united in the mind of Christ, we are lost in our own minds.  We become rags flapping in the wind rather than a sail filled by the wind of the Spirit; we become waves tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine.

A human body that is “divided” – that has open wounds or sores – is ‘unclean.’   It cannot serve the purpose for which it was made.  And so a community that is divided is unclean, unfit for God’s use, unable to fulfill the purpose for which it has been set aside.  But a community that is whole, that shares the mind of Christ, that is united in its service to the world, such a body is ‘clean,’ ‘holy,’ an acceptable vessel to bear Christ to the world.

Disagree we will; divide we cannot without dividing Christ.

Follow me

Watching for the morning of January 26

Year A

The Third Sunday after EpiphanyFile:Я дверь овцам. Картина XXI века.jpg

Though the sounds and images of the Christmas season linger as we sing the song of the angels, “Glory to God in the highest,” and hear of light shining in the darkness, the Gospel takes us to the dawning days of Jesus’ public ministry with the summoning of Peter, Andrew, James and John from their nets.

Fishing in the Sea of Galilee was licensed by the Emperor.  As rough and hardy as they may be, these are not independent working stiffs, but men caught up in the imperial rule of Rome.  Jesus summons them to serve a different empire, a kingdom that frees rather than enslaves.  In the irony of the image, to become fishers for people is not a summons to ensnare people into service of God, but to liberate them from the nets that falsely claim their lives.

The Prayer for January 26, 2014

Gracious God,
you call us to follow your Son Jesus in lives of witness and love.
Form our hearts and minds by your Holy Spirit
that we may ever rejoice in the freedom of your grace
and be faithful in our calling as your voice and hands in the world.

The Texts for January 26, 2014

First Reading: Isaiah 9:1-4
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” – In the aftermath of war, the prophet speaks to announce the dawning of a new day when “the rod of their oppressor” has been broken.

Psalmody: Psalm 27:1, 4-9
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” – A song of confident trust in God.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” –
Paul takes up the problem of a community divided into parties defined by various teachers, centering them instead in the message of the cross.

Gospel: Matthew 4:12-23
“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” – Matthew describes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Capernaum as a fulfillment of the Isaiah text for Sunday, then relates the summoning of Andrew, Peter, James and John.

(Attribution for the image above: By Andrey Mironov (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons