A fistful of dollars


Mark 6:1-13

File:American Cash.JPG5And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6And he was amazed at their unbelief.

If you are standing on a street corner trying to hand out one-hundred-dollar bills and no one trusts you, you are going to have a lot left over at the end of the day.

Jesus is in Nazareth – though Mark tells us that he came to his people, his father’s place. So, yes, Jesus is in Nazareth, but the story is a parable about all God’s people. (Not “the Jews” mind you, but you and I, all who consider themselves God’s people.) Jesus has come to the place of his father. He is there in the power of the Spirit. He is proclaiming that God’s day of new creation, the reign of God, is at hand. And they say 3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”

It is not a puzzled inquiry. It is a rejection. “We know this guy. He’s a carpenter. What’s he doing talking like this? Who does he think he is?” They are words designed to cut this uppity peon down to size.  “You are no better than us, Jesus.”

And he could do no mighty work there.

Jesus has a fistful of one-thousand-dollar bills and no takers.

Why is it so hard for us to receive the gifts of God? Is there something intrinsic to religious life that closes us off to the life of the Spirit? Do we spend so much time going to the golf club for lunch that we think we are golfers and never go out to play the game?  Do we hang out in the faculty lounge and think that we are scholars and have no reason to study anymore?  Are we “Republicans in name only” (or Democrats, or pick-your party/organization) and think we need never donate our time and money?  Do I give to the World Wildlife Fund and have their little sticker on my car, and think that makes me an environmentalist, without ever setting foot in the woods or taking thought for my carbon footprint?

We are like this in many ways.

And when our kids come home and challenge our lifestyle we say things like “Who do you think you are? This is what paid for your college education?”

“Who do you think you are Jesus. You are no different than we are. You are a common laborer. Don’t imagine that you are worthy of greater honor than us.” Of course, in our time, it comes out more like: “That’s all very well and good, Jesus, but we live in the real world.”

Does it break the heart of God when he sends prophets and teachers to those who name themselves as God’s people and they want none of it? “I like my religion my way, thank you.”

And Jesus has his fistful of one-hundred-thousand-dollar bills and no takers.


Image: By Revised by Reworked (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Unwelcome prophets

Watching for the Morning of July 5, 2015

Year B

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 9 / Lectionary 14

File:Nicolás Francés - The Twelve Apostles - Google Art Project.jpg

Nicolás Francés – The Twelve Apostles

Following the healing of the woman with the twelve year infirmity and the raising of Jairus’ twelve year old daughter, Jesus goes to his ‘hometown’. But Mark doesn’t say he went to Nazareth; the word Mark uses is something more like ‘fatherland’. This is not just about Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth; it hints at his rejection by the twelve tribes of Israel he has come to heal.

Prophets are not welcome in their hometown. We hear his townspeople respond with a kind of “Who does he think he is?” attack on a member of the community who acts outside his station. It is the same attack made by the leadership of the nation.

Prophets have not been well received in Israel – despite their huge influence on the shape of the Biblical tradition. Jeremiah was imprisoned, his message callously thrown into the fire by the king, page by page as it was read to him. Amos was accused of treason and told to go home and ply his trade in Judah when God sent him to warn the northern kingdom of Israel. But Amos was not one of the professional prophets – the talking heads who assured the king of God’s favor.

Sunday we hear of Ezekiel’s call to deliver God’s message – though he is sent to a house of rebels who will not hear. Though the psalm will claim that the people are attentive to God, like a servant watching the master’s hand, both the reading from Ezekiel and the Gospel text will suggest otherwise. We are a stubborn people wanting to hear what we want to hear rather than what God has to say. And so God’s power to heal is not welcomed in Nazareth – and too often lost to us.

But God is not deterred. Jesus sends his twelve – twelve to represent the whole community of believers – to announce God’s dawning reign and dispense God’s gifts of healing and life. And where they go, the realm of Satan is driven back.

Outside the theme – yet obliquely connected – is Paul’s struggle to defend his ministry and his acknowledgment of a “thorn in the flesh.” Whatever it might be, it reminds him that the power is in God not himself. He is not a victorious crusader; he is one of the wounded who knows the wondrous grace God.

The Prayer July 5, 2015

O God, whose will it is to gather all people into your eternal embrace,
make us ever mindful of your call,
and ever fruitful in our task,
to bear witness to your reign of grace and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 5, 2015

First Reading: Ezekiel 1:28b – 2:5 (appointed 2:1-5)
“I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me.” – Having received his overwhelming vision of God, the prophet is summoned to speak God’s message to the rebellious people of God.

Psalmody: Psalm 123
“As the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God.”
– A pilgrim song, the poet imagines the people as an attentive servant awaiting the master’s kindness.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 (appointed 12:2-10)
“To keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh.”
– Paul must defend his ministry by “boasting” of his gifts, yet fully aware that all is by God’s grace.

Gospel: Mark 6:1-13
“He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” – Rejected at Nazareth, Jesus continues and expands his mission, sending out his followers as heralds of God’s kingdom.


Image: Nicolás Francés [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Restoring life

File:Felix Pfeifer00.jpg

Watching for the Morning of June 28, 2015

Year B

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 8 / Lectionary 13

There is a distinction to be made between curing a disease and healing. Healing is always much more than a restoration of bodily function; it is a restoration of life. We are aware of the complex interplay of body and mind in our modern understanding of disease. Nevertheless, our dominant image of illness is a biomechanical one, whereas the ancient world would have seen illness as social and spiritual. The woman with the flow of blood, who reaches out to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, is not only physically ill but ritually unclean. She has an infirmity that robs her of her place in the community. Though she was a person of means (able to afford doctors) yet she is “poor” for she is disconnected from life. What God does for her through Jesus is not fundamentally different than what God does for the daughter of Jairus. Both are “saved” – restored to life.

The God who restores life is the hope of the poet of Lamentations who cries out the grief and desolation of a people who have lost everything at the hands of the Babylonian armies. If a future exists for this people, it comes only from this God of life.

And in the psalm for Sunday, the God who restores life is praised by the author who sings of his wondrous healing.

This God who restores life is the one proclaimed by Paul – the God who opened the grave and exalted Jesus and in him brings us from death into life. So Paul urges the brothers and sisters in Corinth to share in the offering he is gathering for the brothers and sisters in Judea in the midst of famine. In Christ Jesus, who became poor that we might become rich, we have both the model and inspiration to give of ourselves for those in need – the model and inspiration to share in God’s life-giving work.

When we speak of healing, we are speaking of God’s work to make whole: to make whole our hearts, our lives, our communities, our world. It is a work begun in us now, and it is a work we are confident will be brought to completion for us and for all creation – for the grave is empty.

The Prayer June 28, 2015

Faithful God, whose steadfast love never fails
and whose mercy never comes to an end,
may your healing hand be ever upon us,
to renew and restore our life as your faithful people;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 28, 2015

First Reading: Lamentations 3:19-33 (appointed 3:22-33)
“The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.” – In the midst of his profound expression of grief over the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, the poet recalls the fragments of Israel’s worship that express their hope in God’s faithfulness and love.

Psalmody: Psalm 30
“O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.”
– The psalmist gives thanks and praise to God for delivery from a deathly illness.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 8:7-15
“You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
– Paul appeals to the Corinthians to fulfill their promise to participate in the offering for the believers in Jerusalem during their time of need.

Gospel: Mark 5:21-43
“One of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” – Following the stilling of the storm at sea and the restoration of the man among the tombs, Jesus brings healing to a woman and restores the life of the daughter of Jairus.


Sculpture by Felix Pfeifer – “Genesung” (healing, restoration) in Rosengarten in Dresden. Photo by By Franziska Bauer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Around a single table

Lutheran Altar

Altar at the Castle Church in Torgau

Sunday Evening

Mark 4:35-41

38 They woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

I don’t know whether it was the mood of the whole worshipping assembly today or just mine, but the tragedy in South Carolina seemed to hang over worship. It rattled around in the sermon about Jesus stilling the storm. Perhaps I should have spoken directly about the violence that invaded Emanuel Church where nine laid down their lives – or had them stolen away – but I was not ready.   Nevertheless, it was there when we talked about the power of God’s word that brought order, beauty and goodness out of the chaos of the primeval waters – a word that Jesus had authority to speak. It was there when I talked about the storm at sea through which God obstructed Jonah’s flight from God’s command to bring God’s word to the hated Ninevites. Jonah would rather perish than carry to Assyria a message that might save Israel’s enemy. It’s a comical story with a profound message – a message Jesus takes up when he declares:

“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, 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. (Matthew 5:43-45)

We don’t really want to hear that God loves everyone. And, like Jonah, there is a part of us that runs from that assignment. Who wants to bear witness to skinheads and white supremacists? Who wants to challenge bigoted and prejudicial speech? The safety of our like-minded churches is much to be preferred. Or, at least, what we thought was safety.

All hate is linked. We need to get this through our heads and hearts and souls. All hate is linked. We cannot disseminate vitriolic emails about Muslims, Obama, Democrats or Republicans, or climate change supporters or deniers, without adding to the level of hate and intolerance in the country. We cannot oppose the building of a mosque without adding to the desecration of all religious traditions. We may enjoy the snarky remarks, exaggerations and falsehoods on the news channel of our choice, but we are adding to the spiritual pollution of our time.

All hate is linked. And it is linked over time. We are not far in time from lynching as a public festival, with children in their Sunday best watching a body in flames. We are not far in time from segregated schools and segregated buses and segregated workforces. We are not far in time when persons of color died because a white hospital would not treat them. We are not far in time when a white woman’s word sealed the fate of a black man, any black man. We are not far in time when white sheriffs picked up black men for ‘vagrancy’ and ‘hired’ them out to work in the orange groves. We are not far in time when a black child with a toy gun is shot on sight.

All hate is linked. And it is linked over time. We have hated “Commies”. We have hated the Japanese before them. Interestingly, we tended to hate Nazi’s rather than Germans, but made no such distinction about imperialist Japan. We have hated the native peoples who occupied this land. We have hated the Irish when they first came to this land and, at various times, Italians and Jews and most other migrant groups in their time. We have allowed our hates to morph and shift rather than choose the path that Jesus’ proposed – well, actually, commanded.

The sin lies in all of us. And repentance doesn’t mean feeling guilt. It means changing our allegiance, changing our path, changing our loyalty from self-interest to the well being of our neighbor. It means changing from the spirit of our age to the Spirit of God. It means truth telling about our story and listening with care to the stories others tell. It means restraining our greed and considering well the welfare of the whole community. It means restraining our speech. As St. James records:

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” (1:26)

It means taking to heart what James declares when he says that the tongue is

a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. (3:8-12)

All hate is linked. But the eternal source of life, who commanded the sea to be still and brought forth the world of beauty and goodness, has come among us in this Nazarene. And he gathers us still, week after week, around a single table to remind us of his promise to gather all nations into the banquet of perfect peace. And he has made us his witnesses that our lost humanity can be restored.

God answered Job


Job 38

Mojave Dust Devil1The LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:

I love this text, but every attempt to write a reflection on it this week has seen the comment grow too long.

The book of Job was a puzzle to me when I was young. In my early adulthood, I didn’t have the patience or experience to appreciate the struggle behind the poem. But my appreciation for the skill of the poetry has improved with age. My perspective on the conversation between God and the satan has changed. And my understanding of Job’s complaint has grown as I have tasted some of life’s bitterness.

I see now that the text overflows with grace. Yet I know many people may have trouble seeing that, so let me offer just this one sweet word: “The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.”

God answered Job. God is under no obligation to answer our cries and complaints. God owes us no explanation. God is, after all, God, and we are not. (The book of Job puts it so much more graciously and beautifully than that, but that is the substance of God’s answer.) God owes Job nothing. But God answers.

God answers. God answers our cries in the night. God answers our grief. God answers our bewilderment at the inhumanity in our world. God answers our rage at injustice. God answers our despair and hopelessness. God answers when we are full of ourselves and empty of ourselves. God answers. The immortal and timeless one speaks to us mortal and ephemeral creatures.

God speaks. God speaks words that lift our sorrows, that carry our burdens, that forgive our sins. God speaks words that raise our spirits that they may soar like the eagle. God speaks words that cut to the heart like a dagger. God speaks to our vanity and to our brokenness. God speaks to our hate and to our experience of hate. God speaks.

God does not remain aloof in the heavens. We are a people with a book through which God speaks. We are a people with a worship through which God speaks. We are a people with a community through whom God speaks. We are a people to whom God speaks even in the silence.

“The Lord answered Job.”

And he answers us. Not with explanations, not with principles and doctrines and rules, but with words of love, fidelity, assurance, hope, promise. Words that call us out from ourselves and back into relationship with God. What happened to Job in his complaint was that he was cut off from God by his complaint. Demanding God give an account of himself makes God a stranger. When one person demands that of another, whatever trust was between them, whatever sympathy of spirit, is ruptured.

But God does not ignore Job. God does not condemn Job. God answers. He speaks. And by his speaking God calls Job back into a relationship of trust. He draws him back into God’s fidelity and love.

This is the font of all grace in this wondrous poem: God answers Job.

And he bends to speak to us.


Photo: adapted from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mojave_DustDevil.jpg  By Jeff T. Alu (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The authority to speak

File:Backhuysen, Ludolf - Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee - 1695.jpg

Ludolf Backhuysen, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1695

Watching for the Morning of June 21, 2015

Year B

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 07 / Lectionary 12

The stilling of the storm is one of those troubling stories that challenges our modern understanding of what is possible given the laws of nature. But Jesus’ command of the wind and waves is not only conceivable to the people of his time; it is filled with dramatic significance.

Out of the stormy chaos of a raging sea, mighty wind, and darkness, God speaks to create the world. At the time of Noah, God opens the floodgates in the heavens to allow the sea that destroys all life to pour in. God drives back the waters of the Red Sea by a mighty wind, and by his word sets limits the sea cannot pass. God even sends a storm to oppose Jonah in his flight from his ministry in Nineveh.

We hear some of this in Sunday’s other readings.  When God breaks his silence and questions Job, God asks Job where was he when God constrained and set limits for the sea. The psalmist sings of Gods deliverance of sailors at sea. They cry out in terror before God stills the waves. All of this reverberates through this narrative of Jesus rising from sleep to command the sea.

What confronts the followers of Jesus, struggling in their frail boat, is the authority of Jesus to speak God’s word of command over the primal forces of chaos. It is not a “miracle”, a dramatic show of Jesus’ divine power. It is the authoritative proclamation of one commissioned to speak on behalf of the God who called all things into being. And we are as the disciples in the boat: He who has authority to speak God’s word to the sea, speaks God’s word also to us.

The Prayer June 21, 2015

God of all creation,
who brought forth the earth and all its creatures
and set the bounds of the sea,
come to the aid of your church, beset by storms and danger,
granting us faith that your will and purpose to redeem all things cannot be overthrown;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 21, 2015

First Reading: Job 38:1-11
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” – God responds to Job’s persistent demand for God to explain his innocent suffering.

Psalmody: Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
“Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.”
– The psalmist sings of the steadfast love of God who delivers those in distress.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 6:1-13
“We urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.”
– The ministry of Paul was attacked in Corinth by new teachers who came after he left, saying he lacked the proper credentials and his teaching was self-serving. Paul urges the community in Corinth not turn away from the message he brought them – and the favor of God to which it testifies – and cites his endurance despite many trials as evidence of the worth and validity of his teaching.

Gospel: Mark 4:35-41
“A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion.” – The disciples, though experienced sailors, are terrified by a hostile wind, while Jesus is at peace, asleep. Their loyalty to Jesus and his message of the dawning reign of God is shaken by this attack, but Jesus rises to command the sea to be still.

Compelled by love

File:Christ - Google Art Project.jpgSaturday

2 Corinthians 5:14-17

14 The love of Christ urges us on.

Does Paul mean that Christ’s love for the world urges us on? Or does he mean our love for Christ urges us on? This is an inherent problem with the genitive case. And the grammar alone cannot solve what is, at heart, a theological question.

Is my witness to others a fruit of my devotion to Christ? Or is it the fruit of my participation in Christ’s love for the world?

Do I tell you about Jesus because I love Jesus? Or do I tell you about Jesus because Jesus has planted within me something of his love for you?

Normally, I wouldn’t make a big deal out of this distinction, but we live in a time when we can see the terrible consequences of religious zealotry.

It’s not my job to defend the honor of Christ – Christ can defend his own honor. Rather, I am called to live in and from the love of Christ for the world.

And there is evidence for such an understanding in the text. This word our translator renders ‘urges on’ is a Greek word with a variety of uses, but an underlying concept about ‘holding together’. With this word you can constrain a prisoner, be hemmed in by a crowd, be gripped by fever, seized with anxiety, or – as here – compelled by the love of Christ.

Grammatically, it could still be that love for Christ has a grip on me, but it is far more likely it is love’s embrace that presses me outward towards others.

Zeal serves the self: I get to be the hero who accomplishes great things for God. But a life held captive by love serves the neighbor.

And this is what we have seen in that man from Nazareth who invites us to be born of God.


Image: Portion of a 7th – 8th century Byzantine Icon of Christ by unknown artist [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christ_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Full of sap

File:Dahab Egypt Phoenix dactylifera.JPG

Date Palm in Egypt


Psalm 92:12-15

12The righteous flourish like the palm tree,
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
13They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
14In old age they still produce fruit;
they are always green and full of sap,

“In old age they still produce fruit.”

We have a much different prejudice about the elderly. And, perhaps, they themselves think they no longer have an obligation to live charitably and fruitfully.

There was a wonderful, elderly Norwegian woman at my parish in Detroit everyone called Tanta Hanna.   She was not so much the sweet, kind grandmother as a sharp, delightful character. She announced at a circle meeting – in theory a women’s group for Bible study and service, but long since become a monthly meeting of friends – elderly white women in a congregation whose neighborhood had long since become poor and black – she announced, after a remark that was more blunt than polite conversation usually permitted – announced, “I’m 90 now and can say whatever I want.” The rest of the group laughed and said “Tanta, you’ve always said whatever you wanted!”

We do seem to have a stereotype in our culture that the elderly are past their prime, no longer able to make a contribution, and are expected to be – and somewhat excused for, or at least dismissed for – being crotchety and bigoted.

It is not so in the scripture: In old age they still produce fruit.”

I have known and continue to know people like this, people who, late in life, are still rich with the fruits of the Spirit. Long ago there was an elderly woman in a nursing home I went to see whenever I felt discouraged. She had everything about which to complain, but was a wondrous, grace-filled presence. I can still see the nursing center in my mind. The fact that I can picture the front of the building and the interior path to her room, reminds me of how great an impact she continued to have on the world around her.

“In old age they still produce fruit.”

I knew another gentleman.  The clergy in the inner city tended to laugh at him. He was, in a way, comical. He was hospitalized at the end of his life for some period of time – and the nurses all came to his funeral. He had filled that hospital wing with joy. Visitors ended up singing hymns. No one on the floor escaped his kindness, joy or faith.

“In old age they still produce fruit.”

I have heard people say “I did my time,” referring to their work in the life of the congregation, “Now it’s time for someone else to do the work.” I understand. But the remark often makes it sound like the work of a congregation was an obligation and a burden, and now it is their time to be served rather than serve. “It shall not be so among you.”

“In old age they still produce fruit.”

I also know people who, in their old age, are still growing and learning and bearing rich and abundant fruit. I pray I may be one of them.

Photo: By B. Simpson Cairocamels (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The mustard seed and vulture kings


Mark 4:26-34


Cedar trees in the Cedars of God nature preserve on Mount Lebanon, Lebanon.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

At least Mark properly calls the fruit of the mustard seed a ‘bush’. Matthew records Jesus saying: it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, and Luke also records that it grew and became a tree.” Why would they make such a mistake? Because this isn’t about taxonomy, it is about the promise in Ezekiel 17 of a righteous king.

Judah’s involvement in imperial politics went poorly for the nation. When Babylon rose to power and marched on the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, Pharaoh Neco came to Assyria’s aid to prevent Babylon’s domination of the region. Josiah, the righteous king in whom the author of Samuel & Kings puts his hope, marched out to prevent the Egyptian advance and was killed in the valley of Megiddo. Jehoahaz, the royal son, aged 23 and now become king, goes to submit to Pharaoh, but is seized and taken to Egypt as a hostage. Pharaoh installs his brother, Jehoiakim, on the throne. Jehoiakim wisely switches side when Neco falls to Nebuchadnezzar, but when the Babylonian invasion of Egypt fails – and Nebuchadnezzar must withdraw to quell a rebellion at home – Jehoiakim betrays his new master.

Nebuchadnezzar, however, deals quickly with the insurrection at home and marches back to Jerusalem and besieges the city. The help Jehoiakim expects from Egypt never materializes and the rebel king dies during the siege (a curiously timed and unexplained death). On taking the throne, his son, the 18-year-old Jehoiachin, surrenders. He is taken in chains to Babylon with a host of other captives from the elite families of the city, and Nebuchadnezzar installs his uncle, Zedekiah, as king. Ezekiel is among these first captives carried into exile in 597/6 BCE.

Jeremiah and Ezekiel, speaking on God’s behalf, are the lone voices of sanity, urging the king to submit to Babylonian rule. The royal prophets – the talking heads and tea leaf readers who dine at the king’s table – urge him to action, promising success, telling the king what he wants to hear. Zedekiah reaches out to Egypt for support and breaks his covenant/treaty with Babylon. But, again, Egyptian help does not materialize and Jerusalem, the monarchy, the temple and priesthood are all brutally and thoroughly destroyed. A second deportation begins Judah’s long exile.

Ezekiel embodies these troubling events in his parable of the great eagle/vulture* (Babylon/Nebuchadnezzar) who plucks a sprig from the Forest of Lebanon (the royal hall in Jerusalem) and carries it off to “a city of merchants” (Babylon). Then he takes “a seed from the land” (Zedekiah) and plants it in fertile soil where it grows into a vine – a vine, not a great tree; low, not exalted. But the vine does not send its roots towards the first eagle; instead it looks for strength and help from “a second eagle” (Egypt). And then, the prophet asks, what that first eagle will do? Will he not come and tear up the vine, rip up its roots, and leave it to wither beneath the hot desert winds?

The prophet’s fears are realized. But this word of doom is not all that the prophet has to say to us. God himself – not an eagle/vulture – will take a tender sprig and plant it on Mt. Zion where it will become a great tree in which “every kind of bird will live”. God promises a true king – not these rapacious vulture kings, nor the lowly vine, but a great cedar that shelters all.

This is why the insignificant mustard seed becomes a shelter for the birds. It is why Matthew and Luke call it a tree, lest we miss the allusion. This Jesus is the lowly twig become a great cedar. This Jesus is the shelter for all peoples. This Jesus is the promised ruler who will free God’s world from the vultures and provide a safe home for all.

*Note: the word translated ‘eagle’ also means vulture as can be seen in the allusion to shaved heads in Micah 1:16. (This Hebrew word is used also for a scavenging bird in Proverbs 30:17 and Hosea 8:1). The eagle is a noble national symbol to the United States, but an unclean bird to Israel.
Photo: By Jerzy Strzelecki (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Trees, parables, and the dominion of God

File:Csontváry Kosztka, Tivadar - Pilgrimage to the Cedars of Lebanon - Google Art Project.jpg

Pilgrimage to the Cedars of Lebanon, Csontváry Kosztka, Tivadar (1853 – 1919)

Watching for the Morning of June 14, 2015

Year B

The Third Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 06 / Lectionary 11

Perhaps the farmer in Jesus’ parable of the growing seed is a lazy and worthless farmer, sleeping instead of tending his fields, but though he sleeps, the seed wondrously grows and a harvest will come. Just so the mustard seed seems like nothing, but it will become a great shrub sheltering the birds of the air. Jesus may seem like nothing, now, a peasant preacher and wonder worker in a land occupied by a great empire – but the reign of God comes.

The parable evokes the promise of God in our reading from Ezekiel about a twig that will grow to become a great cedar in which “every kind of bird” will find shelter – the promise of a just king in whom all nations will rest.

And the image of the noble tree is taken up by the psalmist to declare that the righteous – those who show fidelity to God and to others – are like the noble cedar whose beautiful, aromatic wood lines the temple of God, and like the date-palm whose fruit adds sweetness and joy to life, year after year.

Enriching such reflection are the words of Paul in our second reading declaring that Christ “died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” In Christ the new creation is at hand, the dawning of God’s realm of grace and life, the reconciliation of heaven and earth.

The Prayer June 14, 2015

Lord of All,
your reign of grace and life moves towards its consummation
when all shall find shelter in your arms.
Increase in us faith and hope
that we may live and serve you with joy;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 14, 2015

First Reading: Ezekiel 17:22-24
“I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar.” – Building on the metaphor of the lowly vine planted by Nebuchadnezzar (the king of Judah) who broke his covenant with Babylon and brought destruction on the nation, the prophet proclaims God’s promise of a great cedar, a noble king, in whom all the nations will find shelter.

Psalmody: Psalm 92:12-15 (Appointed: 92:1-4, 12-15)
“The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.”
– Those who are faithful towards God and others are compared with the long-lived and noble trees: the cedar that adorns the temple, and the date-palm that brings sweetness.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:14-17 (Appointed: 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17)
“if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
– All things have changed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The new age is at hand, the creation set free from sin and death, and those who are in Christ are part of that new creation.

Gospel: Mark 4:26-34
“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” – Jesus uses the metaphor of the sown seed growing towards harvest and the mustard seed become a great shrub to give insight into the mystery of the reign of God. What is now hidden moves inexorably towards its fulfillment.


Image: By Csontváry Kosztka, Tivadar (1853 – 1919) (Hungarian) (Painter, Details of artist on Google Art Project) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons