The cloud

Friday

Exodus 24

File:Approaching mist.jpg16The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days;

The prophet Isaiah writes, “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself” (45:15RSV)Isaiah’s vision in the temple amidst the shaking foundations and smoke and fearful seraphim is but a glimpse of the hem of the robe of the heavenly king.  Ezekiel’s vision is of the “appearance of the likeness of the glory” (1:28) of the LORD.

Elijah encounters God in the silence, not in the wind, earthquake or fire.  Moses’ first encounter is with a God hidden in the burning bush.  Abraham dreams of a smoking fire pot.  In answer to the question “who shall I say sent me,” Moses gets an enigmatic name that probably means “I am who I am,” or perhaps, “I will be who I will be.”  Job is answered from a whirlwind.

Only Adam and Eve have a direct, unmediated encounter with God when he walks in the garden in the cool of the evening.  And then Moses, of whom it is said “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11) in the tent of meeting.  And yet, in that very same chapter of Exodus, Moses is only allowed to see Gods back: “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”  (Exodus 33:20)

The fact that the first Christians had no images of God led the Romans to call them atheists.  Deep in Hebrew and Christian faith is the sense that God is hidden, veiled, beyond our sight and comprehension.  So the dominant image of God’s presence is a cloud.

In a world that wants gods to be visible, God remains hidden.  We want visible; what we get is mystery.  Holiness.  Hiddenness.  The strange.  God behind a curtain.  Might and majesty hidden in the crucified.

And even Christianity’s notion that God has revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth – or the sacraments, the bread and wine and water – even there, God is visible only to the eyes of faith.  In other words, he is not visible at all, except that we trust the promise of his presence.  The bread still looks and tastes like bread.  The water still looks and acts like water.  Yet God is there.  So God promises.  So we “see,” see with the eyes of wonder and trust, see with a spiritual insight, not a physical one.

And at a hospital bedside; at a graveside; when food is shared with the hungry; when the unwelcome are welcomed; prisoners visited; when unexpected grace happens – there, too, we “see”.   See the God otherwise hidden from us – but the God made visible in love and sacrifice.  The God made strangely visible in the broken body with a pierced side.  The God who does not shun suffering and sorrow, but meets us there.

So when we read about clouds at the Mount of Transfiguration, we know it means God is present.  And when we hear that Jesus will come “on the clouds of heaven” we know it’s not a reference to the sky.  And when we are groping in a fog; it bears a far greater secret than mere confusion.

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Into the fire

Thursday

Exodus 24

File:High Park fire near Poudre Canyon, Colorado.jpg16On the seventh day [the LORD] called to Moses out of the cloud. 17Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain.

Presumably Moses can also see that the top of the mountain is “like a devouring fire,” but he goes up.  He was not a young daredevil ready to compete in an ancient X-games; according to Exodus 7 he was eighty years old when they left Egypt.  We can joke that the prospect of a fiery death seemed preferable to continuing to lead this contumacious people, but I marvel at the faith that walks into that unknown fire.  Even if the fire on the mountain is no more than lightning – the mountaintop is not where you want to be in a thunderstorm.

Moses had seen the fire of the burning bush, seen it blaze yet not consume.  And he had seen God’s power in the afflictions that came upon Egypt for their refusal to turn from oppression.  He had seen God’s act of deliverance through the sea.  He had seen the mystery and wonder of manna from heaven and water from the rock.  But there is nothing in human experience that could tell him what would be the outcome of answering the voice and walking into the cloud.

But he answers the call.

“Come up to me.”  Moses is not the only one God summons, though for all of us the fire is different.  Abraham was summoned to leave his home for a promise.  Joshua is summoned to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.  Gideon was summoned from his hiding place to save Israel from the Midianites.  The boy Samuel is summoned by the voice in the night calling his name.  Saul, David, Solomon, Elijah, the prophets, each is called to go forward into the unknown by a promise: Isaiah, with the ground shaking and the temple filled with smoke and the seraphim crying out “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

The stories that come to us are mostly the big stories, of kings and queens and prophets who received God’s call in crucial moments.  But all of us are summoned, summoned to enter into God’s presence, summoned to hear the voice of God, summoned into the Spirit’s fire, summoned to be servants of God in the world around us.

The faithfulness of Moses is not more important than the maid who speaks to her mistress, the wife of Namaan, about the prophet who could heal him – or Ruth, the Moabite, who shows faithfulness to her widowed and now childless mother-in-law.  But these “big” stories are told and remembered because they sustain us when we are called up the mountain, when we are summoned to draw near to God, when we are beckoned into the unknown.  These narratives encourage us when we get up each morning and face the coming day knowing not what may come, but trusting God to meet us there.  They help us go forward, even into the fire.

“Come up to me…and wait”

Wednesday

Exodus 24

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Mt. Sinai

12 The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there.

We read past this instruction to wait so quickly it is easily missed.  Moses spent six days waiting before God revealed the commandments he had summoned Moses to receive, six days before God gave his instructions for this people newly born into freedom: 16The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud.

Waiting plays an important role in the spiritual life.  When Anna was an infant and woke up hungry at night, she went from sound sleep to a demanding cry in an instant.  Children are not wired to wait; learning to wait is an important part of maturing.  Waiting for Christmas, waiting for your birthday, waiting for a friend to arrive, waiting for an answer from your parents (“I need to think about it.”  “Why?!”)  Learning to delay gratification, learning to surrender some of our selfishness (“You go first”), learning patience – it’s all an important part of spiritual formation.  Too often we want God to solve our problem now, to change our hearts now, to answer our questions now.

Waiting is not easy.  Surely Moses was in a hurry to get back down to the people – and he had good cause.  In his absence they made a golden calf and caroused around it declaring this was the god who delivered them from Egypt.  But God made Moses wait.

When the prophet Habakkuk cries out to God, impatient at the injustice and corruption around him, God’s answer is simply If [the vision] seems slow, wait for it.”  This is God’s central message: “Trust me.”  Trust that I am good.  Trust my promise.  Trust my commands.  Trust my justice.  Trust my mercy.  Trust my love.

Psalm 27 bids us Wait for the Lord,” and Psalm 37 to Be still before the Lord.   Isaiah declares that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint(40:31)“Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

If I wait for my father to pick me up from school, I wait because I trust him.  If I did not trust his promise to come, I would find some other way home.  Patience is the flip-side of faith.  It trusts the promise despite delays, despite fears, despite sorrows.  It’s not belief against evidence or denial of reality; it is enduring trust in the one who has made the promise.  Because we trust we wait.  And the fruits of faithful waiting are those related virtues: endurance, courage, steadfastness, and hope

So Moses must wait.

But there is also grace in the waiting.  He had six days to put behind him all the pressure and labor of leading that unruly crowd; six days to learn to “let go and let God,” six days to center himself, six days to enter into the peace of God.  And after six days he was finally ready to hear what God had so say.

And then God spoke.

My Son

Watching for the morning of March 2

Year A

The Feast of the Transfiguration

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These Sundays after the culmination of the Christmas season with the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, began with the account of Jesus baptism where the Spirit descended upon him and the voice from heaven declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved.”  Now at the end of this season we hear again the voice of heaven declare, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” adding the words “listen to him!”

“Listen to him” because he has just began to teach his followers about the cross and resurrection; he is going to Jerusalem to be rejected and killed – a very un-messiah like thing to do.  Indeed, by every common standard, to be crucified would prove he was not God’s chosen one.

We hold these two images in tension: Jesus broken and repudiated upon the cross, and Jesus radiant with the reflection of God’s glory.  It is precisely as the one who suffers that he reigns as Lord of all.  It is in the laying down of his life that the path of life is opened.  The faithful son is wounded but lives: dies but is raised.  He remains faithful to God, obedient unto the cross, and through him we who proved unfaithful receive the crown of life.

“Listen to him,” says God. “Listen to him.”

The Prayer for March 2, 2014

Holy and Gracious God,
wrapped in mystery, yet revealed in your Son Jesus.
Renew us by the radiant vision of your Son;
make us ever attentive to his voice;
and worthy of your service.

The Texts for March 2, 2014

First Reading: Exodus 24:12-18
“The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” – God speaks to Moses from the cloud on Mt. Sinai.  Both the cloud as a symbol of God’s presence and the tradition that Moses’ face shone from speaking to God face to face lies in the background of today’s Gospel narrative of the transfiguration of Jesus.

Psalmody: Psalm 2
“Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?” – A royal psalm that contains a declaration by God to the king “You are my son; today I have begotten you” similar to that spoken by God to Jesus in the story of the transfiguration.

Second Reading: 2 Peter 1:16-21
“He received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
– The author of 2 Peter alludes to the events on the Mount of the Transfiguration.

Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9
“He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” – After Peter has confessed Jesus as the Christ only to be told that the Messiah must suffer and be killed, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on the mountain where they have a visionary experience of Jesus transfigured by the radiant presence of God.

 

The strange journey

Sunday Evening

Matthew 5

File:Pair of Candlesticks LACMA M.62.46.41a-b.jpg44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

The teaching of Jesus is pretty clear: everyone is to be seen and treated as a member of your own family.  What is not so clear is its application.  What does it mean to love an Osama bin Laden?  Was Dietrich Bonheoffer correct when he participated in the plot to kill Hitler?  You can certainly make the argument that love of neighbor trumps the love of Hitler and calls for a necessary violence, but what about this command to love your enemies?

The argument that love of neighbor trumps love of enemy is the same argument that justifies violence in the protection of one’s family.  Though we must admit this is often just a mask for protecting what matters to me – my stuff, my people.

What would it look like, face to face with a burglar, to love him?  What does love require?  What does it mean to regard him or her as a brother or sister?

I would not let my child steal from another.  It is certainly not in my child’s best interest to allow such behavior.  To stand by, to not stop her, would not be an act of love toward her.  If I would not let a family member do such a thing, I should not let any others do so.  There are parents who report their children to the police because they know their child must be held accountable.  Yet, in Les Miserables, when Valjean has been captured running from the bishop’s home with the bishop’s treasured silver, and thrown down at the Bishop’s feet by the policeman Javert with the unlikely story that the silver was a gift, the Bishop says, “My friend, you left in such a hurry you forgot the candlesticks.”  It is an act of generosity and grace that transforms Valjean’s life.

The path Jesus lays out for us, the path of creative and radical response to the brokenness of the world in hopes of healing, is not black and white.  It’s not a simple list of rules.  It is a much more complicated journey of compassion and wisdom, creativity and courage – like giving up your cloak and going home naked or insisting your adversary treat you with honor by striking your left cheek.  It is a journey shaped by a vision of the world made whole – the world made perfect – the world reconciled and transformed.  It is a journey shaped by nothing less that God’s own Spirit.

Such a journey can easily be sidetracked by our ability to deceive ourselves and rationalize our desires if it is not governed by a serious attention to the voice of God that comes down to us through the law and prophets – and by participation in a community of faith listening together to that Word.  Rules are so much simpler.  But if rules were enough, Moses would have been enough.  We need also the story of the cross (the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep) the resurrection (God’s vindication of Jesus) and the ascension (that this Jesus, crucified and risen, is the governing truth of all existence, the bread and water of life, the light and life of the world).

The Bishop understands the power of love, the sacrificial gift, and the creative response to life’s brokenness.  Javert couldn’t grasp such a world of radical and reckless grace.  But it is the true journey to wholeness.

“Love your enemies”

Saturday

File:Racial theories about Jesus Christ.pngMatthew 5

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

To be fair, the scripture nowhere says, “hate your enemy” – though there are plenty of vindictive verses in the scriptures about one’s enemies.

In the aftermath of the brutal destruction of Jerusalem, the author of Psalm 137 is full of bitterness towards Edom and says of Babylon 9Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”  Although technically this is not so much hate as revenge; these outsiders brutally harmed his group and the poet wants them to pay.

The psalmist declares, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?” (139:21) – though again, to be fair, the word ‘hate’ in the Biblical world wasn’t an emotion infused hostility and desire to harm; it was more of a detachment, regarding the other as a person for whom one has no obligation, no group solidarity.  To ‘hate’ those who ‘hate’ God is to have no fellowship, no regard, no concern for those who show no allegiance to God.

The scribes have taught that the commandment in Leviticus to love your neighbor applies only to fellow Israelites.  You have no obligation to those who are not of your tribe.  No need to grant them either mercy or justice.  No need to clothe them when they are naked, shelter them when they are homeless, or feed them when they are hungry.

But, Jesus has declared that the kingdom of God is dawning.  He is teaching his followers to live as citizens of God’s kingdom.  And here Jesus points out the simple truth that God sends rain on all.  God shows faithfulness and solidarity to all humanity.  God regards all people as members of his kin group.  We are all God’s children.  And if we are all God’s children, then there are no enemies, there are none outside the circle of our concern, there are none we should not receive as family, none we should allow to go hungry or cold or without a sip of cool water.  None who should languish untended in prison.

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel we will hear that great story about the sheep and the goats with those memorable words: “as you have done to the least of these you have done it to me.”  Those who treat everyone as if they were members of their family are the true children of the kingdom – and they will be acknowledged and welcomed as members of the household of God.

Slapped

Friday

File:Meister der Reichenauer Schule 001.jpgMatthew 5

38  “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also”

The word here in Matthew should perhaps be translated better as ‘slap.’  We are not talking here about defending ourselves from violence; we are talking about assaults on our honor.  The key to this is the reference to the ‘right cheek’.  In order for a normally right-handed person to strike me on my right cheek he or she would have to strike me with the back of his or her hand.  A backhanded slap in every culture is an insult, dismissing me as worthless – a not uncommon experience for peasants.  Nor is it uncommon when enemy soldiers roam the land (or domestic soldiers serving an occupying enemy, Judean soldiers serving Rome!  Collaborators!!  The zealots wanted to knife them.).

What does it mean to stand up before someone who has slapped you down?

A slap on my right cheek can also be accomplished by a left-handed slap.  It was a great offense in Israel to even put your left hand on the table when eating.  The left hand was unclean.  You used your left hand to wipe yourself.  To extend the left hand, to touch someone with your left hand, was to treat them as dung.  Again, a not uncommon experience of the poor, the peasants, the oppressed.

What does it mean to stand up before someone who has dismissed you as dung and insist that they slap your left cheek?  To insist the treat you as an equal?!  To offer them the opportunity to see you as a fellow human being?  To offer them the opportunity to treat you with respect?  To offer them the opportunity to be reconciled?

When Jesus says not to resist one who is evil, he doesn’t mean we do not resist evil – but that we resist it in a unique and radical way: not with revenge, but with the hope of reconciliation, the hope that enemies can be transformed into friends, the hope that in this one small place the world might be made new, that into this ruptured relationship, this broken piece of the world, the kingdom of God might dawn.

“You shall be holy”

Thursday

Leviticus 19

File:Clover Apostolic Holiness Church sign.JPG1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy…

For much of American Christianity, holiness was imagined as a moral quality, an aversion to – or at least abstention from – those things that were regarded as sins: drinking, dancing, cursing, Sabbath breaking, sex outside of marriage, anger, pride, greed (the exact assortment depended on your tradition).  For others, holiness was a personal experience of regeneration (that led to the avoidance of the behaviors listed above).  For still others, holiness was attributed to things and places – a numinous quality of things that were instruments of the divine: holy water, relics, certain people (saints or those in religious vocations) and days.  In her childhood, my mother was not allowed to wear play clothes on Sunday; it was a holy day.  We have certainly given that up (and most of the others, it sometimes seems).

On the other hand, there are great portions of American Christianity that talk about holiness rarely if at all.  It’s an odd concept for Americans whose secular and democratic outlook doesn’t think of some people, places or behaviors as more special than others.  But in our reading for Sunday is the explicit command that Israel should be holy – and, by extension, that the “people of God”, Christians, should be holy.

What’s so interesting about the picture of holiness given in Sunday’s reading from Leviticus is the way in which the list moves so easily and naturally from honoring parents to sacrifices to the care of the poor.  Holiness is a way of being that involves not just things we think of as moral or religious, but above all involves justice and compassion.  So holiness means: 9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.

“You shall not steal” is followed immediately you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.”  Stealing is not about my personal integrity; it is about the needs of my neighbor.  Day laborers have to feed their family; I cannot take economic advantage of them.

It may seem obvious to us that “You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor,” but that is a radical idea even still in most of the world.  Ancient legal codes made clear distinction between the rules that governed elites and the rules that governed the lower classes.  Though it makes us uncomfortable, we all know that unofficially the justice system in our country works to the advantage of the wealthy.  Rob a liquor store and you will go to jail; manipulate the stock market and rob millions of people and you pay a fine. Nevertheless, we believe in the principle of equality before the law – a idea radical in its time that comes to us from texts like this in Leviticus – an idea born out of the injustice of bondage to Pharaoh – an idea described as holiness.

We shall be holy as God is holy.  And that’s the punch line: “as God is holy”.  We are not called to be holy as we think of holiness; we should be holy as God is holy.  And this holy God sets slaves free.  This holy God defends widows and orphans.  This holy God provides for the poor.  This holy God doesn’t treat the wealthy and powerful with deference – indeed he expects more of them.  This holy God shows steadfast love to all – and bids us do the same.

Jesus isn’t plowing new ground when he says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  He’s just making sure we understand it applies to all people.

An eye for an eye

Wednesday

Matthew 5

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Fossilized shark tooth

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”

Before we hear what Jesus is going to say about revenge, it is important to recognize that the Old Testament doesn’t teach revenge.  It teaches a form of communal justice that was intended to stop the spiral of revenge.  The responsibility for enforcing “an eye for an eye” is taken away from the injured party (and his or her kin group) and given to the community.  They are to act to balance the equation when harm has been inflicted.  In a social context without a police force and jails, revenge is the normal method of policing: you hurt us; we hurt you.  And in a world where the strong get away with injuring the weak (of which there are many stories, not least Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Israelites) Israel was called to a different pattern of justice – one that does not favor the rich or powerful.  Instead of individual retribution, God declares that “Vengeance (holding others accountable) is mine.”  Where justice needed to be enforced, where the scales needed to be set right, God entrusted the exercise of that accountability to the community as a whole.

So before we yield to the common prejudice of a barbaric Old Testament, we should recognize that where effective policing is absent in our own communities, we typically find people taking the law into their own hands and gangs operating on the principle of intimidation and revenge.  However tough some of the Old Testament laws may first appear to us, they are in fact preferable to gang warfare and extortion.  And it is worth noting that even our society, with a more or less effective legal/policing system, still controls behavior with the threat of revenge in the form of a lawsuit – and our lawsuits include punitive damages!  There is no room among ‘moderns’ for an attitude of superiority.

Human beings find ways to hurt back.  By nature, we want to even the score.  Even children on the playground know that cheating leads to cheating, and excessive roughness to ever increasing violence.  Our problem is that our sense of ‘fairness’ always tips slightly towards ourselves.  We all want the last licks, so we take the phrase, “an eye for an eye” out of context and use it to justify our acts of revenge that often start a cycle of escalating conflict.  When Jesus takes up the law of revenge, he returns it to its original core – reconciling the community.  If I refuse to start down the path of revenge, I leave open the possibility of reconciliation.  Jesus is not suggesting that we (as a community) not resist evil, only that we (as individuals) turn back from the path of Cain and Abel and not create enemies.

One human family

Watching for the morning of February 23

Year A

The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

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Sunday we continue with Jesus’ exposition of the Torah, God’s commands and teaching for Israel’s life together.  We hear the rich legacy of Leviticus that calls Israel to be a holy people as God is holy, a proper vessel for God’s presence among them – and for God’s witness to the world.  Again we hear from the magisterial psalm 119 celebrating God’s law, listening to the voice of the psalmist yearn for God to lead him in God’s way.  Paul reminds us that the Christian community is the temple of God, the dwelling of God on earth.  And Jesus extends the command to love your neighbor to all people, even enemies.  Such love is not a sentimental emotion, but a courageous determination to regard all people as members of your own household – and to help them see you in the same way.

The Prayer for February 23, 2014

Gracious God,
you call us to love not just our friends but our enemies,
to show kindness not just to family but to strangers,
to see all people as members of one human family
even as you have look upon us all as your children.
May our hearts be shaped by your heart,
and our spirits by your Spirit,
that we might be truly human
as your Son Jesus was truly human.

The Texts for February 23, 2014

First Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” From this section of Leviticus known as the Holiness Code God calls the people to be a community that reflects the character of God, showing justice and mercy.  Here, Jesus finds the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Psalmody: Psalm 119:33-40
Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.” – As we continue with the Sermon on the Mount, we read again from the magisterial acrostic psalm 119 that celebrates the Torah/law/teaching of God

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
 Paul continues his re-education of his troubled congregation about the fundamental importance of their life as a community.

Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” – Jesus continues his exposition of the commandments, taking up the command in Leviticus to “love your neighbor” and transforming the law of revenge.