The kingship belongs to God

Sunday Evening

Psalm 89

white rose.charlie18For our shield belongs to the Lord,
our king to the Holy One of Israel.

The poet’s opening themes are God’s faithfulness and covenant promise to David that his royal line shall never fail. Then the poet sings of the host of heaven praising God’s faithfulness and might. He uses as his poetic image God victorious over Rahab, the primeval chaos monster of Canaanite myth. All creation, heaven and earth, the divine and the mundane, is the LORD’s.

But we, the listeners, know that the Davidic kingship has fallen; the poem will end with lament and plea for God to remember and act. Still, the poet sings that all heaven and earth belong to the LORD, that God’s “arm” is “endowed with might.” It is why the people who know the festal shout are happy.

And then this little verse peeps in:

18Our shield belongs to the Lord,
our king to the Holy One of Israel.

The king belongs to God. The kingship belongs to God. God made a promise, but the kingship belongs to God. The line of David shall continue as the sun and moon “established forever”, but the kingship belongs to God. If kings forsake God’s commands, God will punish, yet he will not take away his steadfast love – so God has spoken – but the kingship belongs to God.

There is a remarkable humility in the text. The promise is ever allowed to be a promise; the poet does not take it as a possession: the kingship belongs to God. God has promised it to them, but it belongs to God. It is gift. It is a sure and certain promise by the one whose faithfulness and might are sung by all creation. But the kingship belongs to God; it is not Judah’s possession. It is not something that can be clenched in their fists. It comes only as promise. It must be trusted.

God binds himself with a promise, yet God is free. We can trust the gift, but we don’t own it. The kingship is not ours; it is God’s.

Jerusalem got in trouble when they thought the city could never fall because they possessed God’s temple. They imagined God’s presence and protection as their possession. It disconnected them from trust. It no longer mattered what they did – or didn’t do. They became a city that didn’t follow in faith, didn’t live the life they had been given, didn’t abide in God’s teaching. And the city fell – with the temple and kingship.

God binds himself with a promise, yet God is free. We can trust the gift, but we don’t own it. The kingship, the city, the promise is not ours; it is God’s.

Salvation is gift. Grace is gift. The Holy Spirit is gift. The presence of Christ in the bread and wine is a sure and certain promise, but it remains a promise, not a possession. A promise must be trusted; a possession I own. A possession I control. A possession asks nothing of me.

Christ is gift, not possession. Grace is gift not possession. Salvation is gift, not possession. They come to us as promise and we receive them with trust. We are confident, we are bold, we build on rock not sand, but we are not in control. We are not the masters. The kingship is God’s.

In this great psalm of praise and lament, hope and plea, confidence and yet confusion, the genius of the poet weaves together in a deep and abiding trust all these various threads: the faithfulness of God, the surpassing might of God, the certainty of his promise, and yet the knowledge that God is free. God is still God. God is not bound by us; we are bound to him. Our right and proper response to God is humble trust in his promise. To the invitation to God’s holy table, to the gift of bread and wine, to the promise of forgiveness, to the participation in the body, we can only say thank you. It is and always remains gift and promise, not our possession.



Romans 6

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Mosaics in Mount of Beatitudes: QUAE SURSUM EST IERUSALEM “The Jerusalem above” (Gal 4:26)

12Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.

We don’t like to talk about sin these days, although I suspect that human beings have never liked to talk about sin – at least not our sins. Talking about other people’s sins has become a multi-billion dollar business we call the “News”, but that’s a different matter. I miss Walter Cronkite.

I suspect part of our problem in talking about sin is that we are working with a notion of sin that doesn’t match the world of the scripture. We tend to think of sin in terms of sins, specific thoughts and actions that are against God’s rules. But if we use that concept of sin, the opening line of Sunday’s reading makes no sense.

12Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.

Paul imagines sin as a governing power, capable of exercising dominion, capable of making us “obey their passions.” Whose passions? Sin’s passions? It confuses most of us.

Much ink has been spilled trying to explain Paul. Some of the problem is that we are listening to half of the conversation. Paul is arguing with people, but we are not privy to their objections. Some of the problem is that Paul leaves out important elements of the argument because both he and his listeners can fill in the blanks. We are not so fortunate. And part of the problem is that the world in which Paul lives is different than ours.

As a consequence of all this we tend to pick out the verses we understand “The wages of sin is death” and skip over the rest. But then we are reading in our own ideas rather than understanding his. And so we are back to the idea that sins are deeds and their result is death, but Jesus has endured the death in our stead so we are free.

That’s true as far as it goes; it’s just not quite what Paul is saying. Paul sees sin and death as a governing force in the world. It is an evil lord that thrives on misery. It keeps Narnia frozen in ice (C. S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe). It turns Eustace into a dragon (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). It binds and enslaves like an addiction. We chose to act in ways that harm ourselves and others, and yet we cannot choose otherwise. As Luther says so profoundly we are turned in on ourselves. We are born running from God. What we consider ‘free will’ is a will already bound to disobedience, a will that wants to be God rather than let God be God.

In our “natural” state we can serve only ourselves. An infant knows only its own wants, needs and desires. Parents sand off the rough edges of that self-centeredness – and the neighbor kids beat some it out of us (either you share the ball of they don’t let you play) – but it still lurks there in our inner selves.

Until Christ comes. Until we are encountered by selfless love. Until we are met by true generosity. Until we are Val Jean given the bishop’s precious silver with the surprising transforming grace: “you forgot the candlesticks.” (Victor Hugo, Les Miserables)

Such radical grace carries us into a different realm, a foreign territory – a realm Javert cannot comprehend. But there Paul’s comment begins to make sense: “Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies.” Do not let our innate rebellion rule. Do not submit yourselves to serve it as master. Submit yourselves to the one who has called you into his grace.

Choose to stay in the realm of life and not to submit again to death. Choose to abide in the realm of righteousness and not in the realm of sin. Choose to remain in the realm of grace and not law. Choose to dwell in the New Jerusalem not the old. Choose the realm of freedom and don’t go back to old chains.

There is choosing involved. I didn’t choose to journey to this foreign country – but once I have been carried here on the Samaritan’s donkey, then I have a choice whether I will stay or go home, whether I will bend the knee to serve Christ or submit myself back to the dominion of brokenness.

“Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies…You, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness….so now present your members as slaves to righteousness.”



Psalm 89

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Zarándoklás a cédrusokhoz Libanonban (Pilgrimage to the Cedars in Lebanon). by Tivadar Kosztka Csontvary, 1907

15Happy are the people who know the festal shout,
who walk, O Lord, in the light of your countenance;

A friend finds herself for the first time tending a loved one in that strange realm of tubes and monitors and the alien sights and smells of Intensive Care that is our modern version of the valley of the shadow of death. I do not expect that she will be anywhere else but riding the rollercoaster of emotions that attend such times of trial. But in the midst of a harrowing night, she found the hospital chapel. And there, for a moment, found also the peace of God.

15Happy are the people who know the festal shout.

This word ‘happy’ means more than happy. It used to be translated blessed, but these are slippery and changing words that now seem to distort the sense of the text. Blessed has come to mean ‘lucky’. “We are so blessed” translates to “We have been very fortunate” and, as contemporary Americans, such ‘blessings’ refer to material prosperity, security and health. But ‘happy’ or ‘blessed’ here means something more like ‘at peace with God, oneself and others.’ We use phrases like “I’m in a good place, now,” or a simple but heartfelt, “Life is good,” though even these don’t convey that sense that our lives rest securely on the Rock which is Christ – an awareness that can come to you even in a hospital chapel.

15Happy are the people who know the festal shout,
who walk, O Lord, in the light of your countenance;

Those who know the ‘festal shout’, who share in the great festive celebrations of the nation, who walk into the temple among the pilgrims with God’s face shining upon them, are in a good place. They are rightly aligned with God and others.

This word, ‘Festal shout’, is also used for the sound of the shofar, the ram’s horn, that is the nation’s call to worship, the reminder of God’s goodness, the trumpet blast of God’s victory. Happy are the people who know the sound of the shofar, who know the God who frees the bound and gives land to the landless. Happy the people who know the God who commands justice and mercy. Happy the people who know the God who guards the weak and vulnerable. Happy the people who know the shofar that sounded at Sinai and sounds in Zion and will herald a day when all things are made new. To know the ‘festal shout’ is not only to know the joy of the great festal services, it is to know the God worshipped in those liturgies.

Centered and whole are the people who know the Easter “Alleluia,”
who walk in the light of the resurrection.

Happy and at peace are the people who know the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

Happy and at peace are the people who know that the sins of the world are forgiven.

Like fruitful branches on the vine are the people who know that the world moves towards justice.

Like the stillness of dawn’s first light upon the lake are those who see God’s mercy and life in all things.

Exultant and joyful are those who find their place among the community of God’s pilgrim people.

Centered and whole, free and joyful, deep and steadfast, happy and at peace are the people who know the Easter “Alleluia,” who walk in the light of the resurrection even when they travel the darkness.

Praying in the dark


Psalm 89

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Hope gate, seen from outside, Quebec City, Quebec, Canada, circa 1871

1I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever;
with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.

It is not unusual for the lectionary to pick out the praise portions of a psalm for us to sing or say in Sunday worship, but much more is going on in this psalm that just these words of praise. There was a time when a line or two would call to mind for the worshipping assembly the whole of the psalm, but those days seem long past. We are no longer Abraham Lincoln learning to read by firelight with a copy of a Bible. We are not a biblically literate society anymore. When we hear the poet recite God’s promise: “I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations,” we do not hear also the cry that comes at the end of the psalm “Yet you have rejected, spurned and become enraged at your anointed. You have repudiated the covenant with your servant; you have dragged his dignity in the dust.” (39-40TNK)

The poet lives and prays in the tension between the promise of God and the apparent collapse of that promise.

This makes the opening words of the psalm poignant:

1I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever;
with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
2I declare that your steadfast love is established forever;
your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.

They are words of praise, but words overshadowed.

3You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to my servant David:
4‘I will establish your descendants forever,
and build your throne for all generations.’”

God promised forever, but now that lineage has perished. The sons of the king were executed by the Babylonians; the city walls torn down; the temple stripped, desecrated and consigned to flames. The kingship is no more.

What does he do with this tension? Is the future gone, or is the future to come in ways we have not conceived? Do we go forward trusting a hidden faithfulness, a grace greater than our sins? Or do we walk away, letting faith crumble into the dust along with the bones of the defeated?

The poet is not singing of God’s steadfast love in the bright shiny days full of hope and possibility; he is singing of God’s covenant faithfulness in the darkest night. It is not a religious self-delusion. It is not a blind faith. It is a deep faith. The very deepest of faith: faith that has seen into the heart of the eternal and knows mercy is not at an end. He dares to trust that “His compassions fail not”.

We see this in many places in the scripture. Faith that walks through the valley of the shadow of death trusting a promise whose fulfillment they cannot see.

17Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, 18yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. 19God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-190

This psalm is not a song of untested faith. This is faith that has seen hope crushed yet not lost hope. This is faith that has seen Good Friday but trusts an Easter to come.

The promise of God abides, even when we are in exile. The promise of God abides, even when the land of promise is far off. The promise of God abides even when Abraham is 100 and Sarah 90. The promise abides even when Joseph is sold by his brothers, betrayed by Potiphar’s wife, and forgotten in prison by the royal cupbearer. The promise abides. The steadfast love of the LORD never fails. It is a spring that flows in every arid day and becomes a river of life. From this promise to David a future shall come – a future whose mystery and majesty we have not yet begun to conceive.

But it is why the babe in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy. It is why Simeon and Anna rejoice. It is why all heaven sings, to the fearful surprise of shepherds. It is why Mary goes to the tomb even after hope is lost. The promise abides, and is fulfilled in ways that can only fill us with awe.

The poet expresses his lament, but he cries out because he knows the faithfulness of God. He prays in the darkness because he knows God is light.

The safer option, the wiser course


Jeremiah 28

Jeremiah weeping over Jerusalem, Rembrandt

9As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”

It’s easy to preach peace, easy to tell people what they want to hear, easy to tell kings and princes and peoples that God is on their side, that God will bless whatever they have chosen to do.

God gave Jeremiah eyes to see all that was wrong in the nation, how far they had departed from God’s purpose of justice and mercy, and that a nation so founded would not stand. God had summoned the mighty power of Babylon to reduce the city to servitude. Jeremiah sees that if they submit to Babylon, though the city will be humbled and the monarchy shamed, the nation will survive. So Jeremiah comes into the temple precinct and royal court wearing an ox yoke, announcing the nation must submit to the king of Babylon.

Of course, it is not received well by the king and his sycophants. Such words are treason: aid and comfort to the enemy.

It is four years after 597 BC. That’s when Babylon first arrived on the scene, deposed the king, carting him and his entourage – the leading citizens – off to Babylon where they would be his “guests” (hostages, in case the newly appointed puppet king installed by Babylon should entertain notions of rebellion or withhold the required tribute). Ezekiel, by the way, was in that first deportation; Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem. God had a voice in both places.

But now the king is entertaining thoughts of rebellion, and Hananiah shows up and breaks the wooden yoke from Jeremiah’s neck. “Two years,” he says, “Within two years God will bring the hostages and all the temple treasures back from Babylon.” God is on our side. God will bless us. God will protect us. We don’t have to change.

There is no call for repentance in Hananiah’s message. No need to change. No need to right the wrongs that have been inflicted upon the poor. No need to halt the corruption of power. No need to set slaves free or care for the needy or honor the Sabbath. God is on our side. God loves us just the way we are. We are the greatest nation on earth, God’s chosen people.

“I wish,” says Jeremiah. “May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles.” But this is not the message the prophets of God have been preaching. They have been calling for repentance. For humility. For a change in the direction of the nation. A turn away from their idolatries and faithlessness.

Deuteronomy says a prophet can be judged by whether or not his message comes true. But here’s the challenge: if a prophet gives a warning, we can change the outcome by changing our behavior now. If we wait to see whether the warning is true, we cannot avert the danger; it has already come. On the other hand, we can wait to see if a message of “peace” is true.

If we trust a prophet like Hananiah announcing prosperity and success, if we listen to the voices that say God is on our side and we need not change – and God isn’t on our side – then nothing but disaster awaits. At the very least, repentance is the safer option. Nothing bad follows from trying to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God. But if God is asking for repentance and we do nothing….

So let’s consider a contemporary example: In the Showtime series “Years of Living Dangerously” Washington State Governor, Jay Inslee, said, “We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.” If the scientists are all wrong and climate change has nothing to do with human activity, nothing bad comes from taking better care of the earth; but if they are right, ignoring the message brings many bad things.

Repentance, changing direction, caring for our neighbor, doing justice, tending God’s garden, defending the weak, providing opportunity for the poor, a little humility before the cosmos – these are now, as always, the wiser course.

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me”

Watching for the morning of June 29

Year A

The Third Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 8 / Lectionary 13

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13th Century Icon of Sts. Peter and Paul from Belozersk

June 29th is also the feast day of Sts. Peter and Paul, but we are just getting back to reading through Matthew’s Gospel, so we will continue with the texts for the Sunday rather than the festival.

We picked up in Matthew last Sunday in the middle of the “missionary discourse”, and this Sunday we will hear the sobering promise with which that discourse ends: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” We go forth into the world as emissaries of Jesus the emissary of God. The hospitality shown to a king’s messengers is hospitality shown to the king – hospitality every earthly king rewards. Just so, God will “reward” those who receive the messengers of heaven’s realm.

The issue here, of course, isn’t whether God deals with the world by a system of rewards; this is a parable drawn from the experience of the world: kings remember how their servants are treated. God will see and remember and respond in kind, for we are God’s servant/messengers.

We are often seduced into thinking that the goal of faith is our own happiness and peace of mind, perhaps our salvation, perhaps the prosperity and success of a Spirit led life or a life of obedience or devotion. But the goal of our allegiance to Christ Jesus is that Christ may reign in the world, that the justice, mercy, compassion and grace of God may exercise a true and liberating dominion over all.

So we are the citizen soldiers at Bunker Hill; we are the often unpaid and ill clad troops under Washington’s command. We are the visionaries and witnesses to a new world. We are the runners who go forth from the battlefield to announce Cornwallis’ defeat. The war may not yet be over, but the new day is at hand.

So villagers that pour out to welcome such messengers are a source of joy and pride to the new regime. And villages that shut their doors will be remembered as well.

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” It is a joyful promise – but sobering – sobering because it defines us first and foremost as messengers.

And so we find our way back to Sts. Peter and Paul, the iconic witnesses of the dawning reign of life.

The Prayer for June 29, 2014

Almighty God,
you send forth your people into the world
to proclaim your justice and mercy,
promising that every act of kindness shown to them
will be honored in heaven.
Grant us courage to go forth as your faithful people
bearing witness to your light and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 29, 2014

First Reading: Jeremiah 28:5-9
“As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.” – Jeremiah confronts the prophet Hananiah who has declared that God is about to set Judah free from the hand of Babylon – a message in conflict with the warnings God has spoken through his prophets in the past.

Psalmody: Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
“I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.” – In a prayer that will cry out to God in distress over the loss of the Davidic kingship, the poet here sings of God’s faithfulness and his promise to David.

Second Reading: Romans 6:12-23
“Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.”
– Countering the objection that justification by faith (restoration to a right relationship with God by trust in God’s work and promise) leads to lawlessness, Paul argues that if we have come under the reign of God in baptism, it makes no sense that we should continue to yield ourselves in service to the dominion of sin and death. The “wages” for serving sin is ultimately death (death came into the world because of Adam’s sin); whereas the “wages” of serving God is the free gift of the life of the age to come.

Gospel: Matthew 10:40-42
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” – Jesus concludes his instructions to his followers on their mission as heralds of the reign of God by affirming that they go as his emissaries. Christ is present to the world in and through their witness.

“A man against his father…”

Sunday Evening

Matthew 10


A man with his grandson in East New Britain, Papua New Guinea, by Taro Taylor

35I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

It’s worth noting, in passing, that the father / son-in-law relationship is not mentioned. In the world of Jesus, a woman comes to live in the family home of the man. The new wife takes orders from her mother-in-law and the husband’s first allegiance is to his family. It is why the mother-son relationship is so crucial in the ancient near east, for a son not only raises the wife’s honor within the family; he is her security and her primary ally in the family network.

Even still, to rend any relationships within a family, to set a man against his father or a daughter against her mother, is a scandalous thought. Remember that the killing of the fatted calf by the prodigal father is an effort to appease the community and prevent violence against the rebel son for his heinous affront to social values. For Jesus to suggest, as he does here, that he has come to rend these most fundamental social bonds is shocking.

Pastors don’t get away with shocking. I was criticized by the senior pastor in my first parish for using the word ‘whore’ in a sermon – it was too crude. Jesus may love prostitutes, but loving whores sounds too shocking. Except it was shocking. Eating with tax collectors is familiar to us, but Jesus went into the homes and shared table fellowship with filthy (ritually unclean), thieving, collaborators in service of the occupying army. He crossed boundaries (healing the Canaanite woman, talking with the Samaritan woman at the well). He broke the Sabbath traditions. He “made himself equal to God” by forgiving sins. He wandered the countryside when good moral people stayed home. He told some outrageous stories, did some outrageous things – and suffered a disgraceful end.

But it’s not that Jesus was being provocative for the perverse pleasure of it. He was trying to right the ship, to call the community back to its radical God. A God who set slaves free and set rules to protect the poor. Who said bread should be shared and neighbors loved. All neighbors. Even enemy neighbors, in provocative and challenging ways like volunteering to carry his pack an extra mile.

So don’t be surprised, says Jesus, when you go out to spread the word about the reign of God and people reject you – when even your family rejects you. We shouldn’t live in fear of people; but fear of God. Ultimately, God’s opinion is the only one that matters.

Like most pastors, I don’t want to be shocking. We all hope for the respect and affection of our congregations. But I do want people to be able to recognize how shocking is Jesus. How daring the life he lived. How courageous his path. And to understand that his daring little band of followers, seeking to live the reign of God, outlasted Rome and every other human empire.

In many places in our world people take great risks – and risk the favor of their families – to show allegiance to this Jesus and his reign of grace. We should be wise, but we shouldn’t fear. We may be sheep among wolves, but the hairs of are head are counted.



Matthew 10

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Roman Dagger, photocredit: Michel wal

34“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

Everything depends upon hearing a text in its right context. Cut this verse away from its place in Matthew’s Gospel, cut it away from the life and ministry of Jesus, cut it away from the Biblical witness as a whole, and we have justification for violence. Or, if not violence, justification for whatever commotion causing things we want to do. Place this word of Jesus on their march up to Jerusalem, with Jesus astride a donkey and the people waving palm fronds (symbols of kingship) and you have a very different message than its place here in the missionary discourse. We have to be careful about the way we use scripture. Indeed, the central question is always, “Are we using scripture or is scripture using us?” It’s not an easy question to answer. It takes a continual listening. There is a reason Jesus talks about abiding in his word.

So Jesus brings a sword, but this cannot be a sword of armed struggle; after all, Jesus rebukes his followers saying, “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.” And how should we love our enemies and take up the sword at the same time? This is not the sword born by gladiators; this is the knife that divides. It is not the long sword used by troops in combat; it is the short sword, the dagger, used for everything from personal protection to cooking. It is the boning knife used in Hebrews for the Word of God that “divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow.” It is the priestly knife used in sacrifice.

How differently we would hear this verse if we translated it, “I have not come to bring peace, but a scalpel.” Jesus is, after all, in the business of heart surgery. Only his surgery is not just on the individual human heart; he comes to operate on the whole human community. There is surgery to be done. The warlords and drug lords and patrons of young victims of human trafficking. The abusive parents and abusive governments. The active and passive participants is communal violence. There is surgery to be done. And we should not imagine than when power is challenged, when individuals and “businesses” that profit from evils are confronted, there will not be resistance. Fierce resistance. Many miners were beaten and killed in their attempt to stand up to the coal companies. Many young men and women were assaulted, slandered and murdered for their resistance to Jim Crow – even some children. There is heart surgery to be done. There is truth to be spoken. There is compassion to be waged. Neighbors oppose the building of churches and soup kitchens. It is illegal to baptize in many countries. Congregation’s themselves resent the changes new people bring. Our hearts, too, need the surgeon’s scalpel.

And what if we translate the text, “I have not come to bring peace, but a knife of sacrifice”? What will such words say to us as we listen to Jesus declare that the fields are waiting for harvest? When he sends us out to cast out demons and heal and declare the reign of God?

Jesus doesn’t bring a quiet and peaceable life. He brings the peaceable kingdom. He brings the dawning of that day when swords are beaten into plowshares – a day that won’t come easily, given our great faith in the power of violence.

There is surgery to be done, so don’t be surprised when Jesus says, “I have come with knives.”

Dust covered pilgrims


Jeremiah 20

File:SPRY(1895) p098 OUR COMPANIONS EN ROUTE TO MECCA.jpg7O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.

I love this prayer of Jeremiah. I love the outrage, the sense of betrayal, the anger at God. God has summoned him to be a prophet. What greater privilege can there be than to deliver God’s message to God’s people. What greater honor? What a treasure to be on such intimate terms with God that he should become a vessel of God’s choosing? But the message is dark. It is warning and judgment. God is ready to destroy the city and his holy temple. Armies draw near; death and hunger and disease – the horsemen of the apocalypse. Yet even these bitter words are sweet, for they are God’s words. But the people want none of it. The believers are few. The priestly officials and royal house conspire against him. The king tosses the scroll of prophetic words into the warming fire. And there is no relief; when Jeremiah would walk away, God’s message burns within him. So Jeremiah does what we all do; he cries out against God. “You cheated me.”

We call it ‘burnout’.

There was a moment when even Moses lost it.

It doesn’t only afflict prophets and leaders. It afflicts all of us in those times when frail, ordinary Christian sinners show themselves to be less than we hoped. Churches must take the charge seriously when non-Christians see them acting in not very Christian ways. But the more troubling reality happens inside congregations. We so often come hoping for the shining city and find instead dust covered pilgrims. The taste of that dust can be bitter in our mouths and we lose hope and walk away.

But we are pilgrims; we are not yet what we should be, we are on the road. We are not yet as compassionate as we should be, but we are on the road. We are not yet as generous as we should be, but we are on the road. We are not yet as welcoming as we should be, but we are on the road. We are not yet as bold and courageous and daring and encouraging as we should be, but we are on the road. We are not as kind as we should be, but we are on the road.

At least we should be on the road. Sometimes believers settle down comfortably at some watering hole and forget they are pilgrims. Sometimes they even arm themselves to defend their settlement. Then God has to go searching for an army to make them break camp and resume their journey.

Jeremiah had the misfortune of bringing such a word to his people. The Lord found an army in Babylon. And Jeremiah is weary of bearing this message. He is in anguish for the sorrow coming on his community. Like Jacob, he wrestles with God and goes away limping – but he remembers: “the Lord is with me like a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail.” It is not a promise of personal success or vindication; it is a reminder of the message God spoke to him in the beginning:I am watching over my word to perform it.And Jeremiah’s lament ends in praise – “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers” – because, in his struggle, he is reminded that the purpose of the Lord is to bring his pilgrims to the land of promise.

“The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: See, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me?” (32:26-27)

Not one sparrow


Matthew 10

File:Passer melanurus (2 males).jpg

photocredit: Hans Hillewaert

29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.

My first pet was a sky-blue parakeet named ‘Ky’ because my little brother couldn’t yet say ‘sky’. I have always loved birds. As a child I fantasized about being able to transform into a bird and soar on the winds. I couldn’t quite figure out what kind of bird I would become. I wanted to fly like the seagulls, and toyed with that image, until I thought about what seagulls eat.

I will never forget a nighthawk I met in the empty church parking lot one evening. I could see she was hurt. I stepped towards her in compassion, and she spluttered away, broken wing dragging. I ached for her and tried to approach her ever so gently. She led me, bit by bit, to the far end of the parking lot before launching herself into the sky and flying back to the hatchlings from which she had so artfully led me away. I am excited whenever I see one of those beautiful sharp winged birds – and so clever.

Certain birds we value more than others. The cardinals in Michigan were stunning. I never again let my cat out of the house after catching her stalking a cardinal. The finches were lovely in their summer plumage, but it was the less common birds I looked for: Nuthatches upside down on the tree trunk, the Junco’s as they passed through each spring and fall, a flicker and a downy woodpecker – and the tufted titmouse.

No one pays much attention to the sparrows.

Except God.

“Not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.”

We are easily distracted by the rare and the beautiful. We know the statistics that attractive people get paid more than ordinary folks. They are thought to be smarter, more successful. Amazing how much weight we put on what is precious in the eyes of the world. But not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from God.

I have tried to understand why sparrows are for sale in the time of Jesus. My first thought was how little meat was on those tiny bones, how impoverished would be those who buy them. Then I found a reference in a Hellenistic text that said sparrows were the Viagra of the ancient world. They were thought to be exceptionally fecund little critters. There are images of Venus, the goddess of love, riding a chariot pulled by a flock of sparrows. But Viagra wouldn’t be selling two for a penny. Consider the price of powdered rhino horn.

There is a reference in Job 41:5 to the sparrow as a children’s toy, tied to a string. But is that market big enough for them to be a target of the fowlers? (In both these verses, the Greek Old Testament uses the word ‘sparrow’.)

So I end up back with the thought that these are a thin meal for the poor, and the images that come to mind are those desperately hungry and forgotten in slums and barren places across the world who pick through garbage or hope to spear a rat.

Not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from God. Nor do any of us. Any of us.