The one who is wise understands

File:Seeking human kindness.JPG

Watching for the Morning of September 18, 2016

Year C

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 20 / Lectionary 25

Wealth and poverty and the ethics of the kingdom are again in the forefront of the readings this coming Sunday. The prophet Amos excoriates the northern kingdom of Israel whose economic injustices betray a complete denial of the covenant at Sinai. The call to justice and mercy, the command to leave the gleanings for the poor and to maintain just weights, the injunction to observe Sabbath as a day for even the work animals to rest has all been overthrown in the quest for wealth and power that makes Israel indistinguishable from the other kingdoms of the world.

The psalmist provides a startling contrast to the prophet’s word as it sings of God who lifts up the poor and makes them equal to “princes” – the elites of Israelite and Judean society.

And then Jesus tells his story about the corrupt steward that leads to the familiar and fateful declaration: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

In a society that clearly serves wealth, such words makes us restless. We want to tame them – or dismiss them. But they will not be tamed.

They cannot be tamed, not honestly. They speak something at the heart of the faith. The human community is one; what lifts my brother lifts me; what diminished my sister diminishes me. Such ideas underlie the words of 1 Timothy that God wants all people to be saved. God wants all people to be gathered into the redeemed community. God wants all to share in the goodness of God’s creation. God wants all people to know the wholeness of life. Salvation doesn’t mean that even the wretched of the earth should gain access to a heaven after death. It means that the human community should be healed. The outcast gathered in. The sinners reconciled. The hungry welcomed to the wedding feast. It means the forces of chaos should be stilled like the sea, and the human spirit made whole like the man at Gerasa/Gadara. It means, ultimately, that every tear is wiped away and every tomb undone.

Serving wealth sets us against one another. It makes the ephah small and the shekel great, manipulating the market with deceptive weights and measures. It sells even the sweepings of the wheat. But the one who is wise understands that the time is at hand to use wealth to embody the kingdom, to unite rather than divide, to heal rather than steal, to bring the redeemed community to life.

The Prayer for September 18, 2016

Almighty God,
you have shown yourself the defender of the poor
and protector of the weak.
Come to the aid of those in need,
and reveal to all the folly of putting our hope and trust in wealth.
Grant us wisdom in dealing with our possessions
that we may receive from your hand life’s true riches;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 18, 2016

First Reading: Amos 8:4-7
“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land.”
– The prophet Amos is sent to the northern kingdom of Israel to speak God’s word of judgment upon a people who have turned from God’s way and chosen wealth and privilege over the wellbeing of the poor.

Psalmody: Psalm 113
“He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap.” – God is praised for his sovereign rule over all creation and his care for the poor and vulnerable.

Second Reading: 1 Timothy 2:1-7
“There is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.”
– The letters to Timothy are penned by Paul or in his name as parting words of advice to his protégé, Timothy. Here Paul speaks about prayer for the governing authorities and God’s will to gather all people into the new reality that is Christ.

Gospel: Luke 16:1-13
“‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’” – A corrupt manager acts decisively in the face of his dismissal to save himself: a lesson for Jesus’ hearers on how they should handle their wealth/possessions.

image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASeeking_human_kindness.JPG By Enver Rahmanov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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Quivering with joy

File:US Navy 091112-N-9860Y-007 Lt. Luke Brown is greeted by his German shepherd, Smokey, at the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island flight line.jpg

Friday

Psalm 51:1-12

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

A clean heart. A new spirit. A right spirit. A willing spirit. These are the work of God. These are the fruit of God’s holy spirit. They quiver with the joy of God’s salvation.

I saw a small dog forlornly tied to a bicycle rack today. As I walked up the sidewalk, a man came out of a store and the little dog began to tremble, wave his paws, and then, as the man drew near, jump a little leap of joy – not the kind of jump that might earn a scowl or rebuke, just an expression of delight. As the man untied the leash from the rack, a pure joy settled over the dog.

A clean heart. A new spirit. A right spirit. A willing spirit. The holy spirit. The joy of God’s salvation.

I don’t know whether people are able any longer to appreciate this language of sin and reconciliation in the scriptures. We have dulled our consciences, taking as normal language in the public square and to our most intimate companions that is cold or harsh or even cruel. Accepting greed and self-interest as normal if not noble motives. Denying what we don’t want to believe and believing what we don’t want to deny. Betrayal has become normal. I read an obituary this summer in the Longmont, Colorado paper that listed among the surviving loved ones “her husband, Peter; and her boyfriend, Jim.” I don’t know the story; I just recognize that such a casual public post reflects our changing times. Trump declares we should have seized Iraq’s oil as a spoil of war and the notion of enriching ourselves by brute force hasn’t filled us with shock and horror. He calls it “strong leadership,” and we don’t recoil. He honors Putin who seized Crimea (and is working on the Ukraine) and we seem to have no memory of the Anschluss, the Sudetenland, or the terrible price paid to try to set right the world. A playboy model takes a photo of a naked older woman in a gym locker room and notions of respect for others or simple kindness never enter her mind as she posts it onto the internet. We are so surrounded by brutality and cruelty and the rapacious use of land and sea and other human beings that we seem not to be shocked anymore. We are a dog tied to a bike rack that imagines itself free – bound on the street having forgotten we ever had a home and one who loves us.

But a clean heart. A new spirit. A right spirit. A willing spirit. The holy spirit. The joy of God’s salvation. These things still await us.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AUS_Navy_091112-N-9860Y-007_Lt._Luke_Brown_is_greeted_by_his_German_shepherd%2C_Smokey%2C_at_the_Naval_Air_Station_Whidbey_Island_flight_line.jpg  By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tucker M. Yates [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Inhabiting joy

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Thursday

Luke 15:1-10

10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

The angels are not singing because morality has been restored. They are singing because some small part of the torn fabric of life has been mended. Reconciliation has happened. Those long separated are reunited. The coin is back with its sisters. The sheep back with the flock. The brother back with his family.

Yes there has been repentance. But we have to be careful with that word. In what way does a coin repent? No, it gets found and restored to its place. And no sheep repents: sheep, when they discover that they are lost, lie down helplessly and cry. It’s why the shepherd must carry it. And carry it home he does. The “sinner” who “repents” is the rejected one who is reconciled, who is carried towards home, who finds himself embraced in the arms of the father – and who, in that moment of embrace, yields to the love that holds him. No games, no pride, no rationalization, no manipulations, just the overwhelming truth of overwhelming love.

When the prodigal son shows up on the edge of town he isn’t looking for restoration, he is hoping to be a slave in his father’s household. Perhaps, with years enough of service, he could repay his debt. But grace finds him. The debt is forgotten. The ring thrust on his finger before he can deliver his well-planned speech.

We don’t read the prodigal son story this Sunday – the third of three parables about being lost and found – just the first two. And it’s good that we don’t, because we jump so quickly towards that idea of moral reform. But the story isn’t about reform. It is about stunning, even senseless grace and the invitation to the whole village to rejoice at being made whole. The lost son is back – even as the coin is found and the sheep returned.

It is God’s purpose to heal the torn and tattered fabric of his creation. We were not made to hide from one another – or to hide from God in the shrubbery. We were not made to stain the earth with blood. We were not made to build weapons of war and towers to the sky. We were created to inhabit a good garden together.

We are created for connection, and whenever the angels see any part of God’s garden restored, they sing for joy.

And we, we are invited to inhabit that joy.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHappy_face_makes_us_happy.jpg  By Meghana Kulkarni from Pune, India (Happiness) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The angels are dancing

File:Angels dancing sun Giovanni di Paolo Condé Chantilly.jpg

Wednesday

Exodus 32:7-14

7The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely…”

Much about this story is delightful. The people have acclaimed the golden calf as the divine power that brought them out of Egypt – and God responds by saying these are Moses’ people whom he brought out of Egypt. It’s a little like one parent saying to the other “Do you know what your son did?” as if the child were not his or her own child as well. God tells Moses to get out of his way so he can destroy them, and Moses intercedes saying, “What will the neighbors think?” (More literally, and more darkly, that the Egyptians will think God lacked the power to give the Israelites the promised land, so he killed them in the wilderness – or that he intended to kill them all along!)

We have trouble letting God appear to be so “human”, infected as we are with later notions of God as omniscient, omnipresent, and unmoved. But the narrative isn’t trying to tell us about God’s inner being; it is trying to make clear how great is the divide created by Israel’s idolatry. To give glory to the divine through the image of a bull, in keeping with the religious ideas and imagery of the ancient near east (virility, power), is to betray the relationship created at Sinai. “I will be your God and you will be my people,” said the LORD, but neither has been either. Israel has been like a newlywed bedding down someone encountered on their honeymoon.

This is not about Israel transgressing a commandment; it is about Israelites betraying the one who was paid the price to claim them as his own.

And this is not just about Israel. This is about the reality of all our idolatries. They are not errors and mistakes; they are adulteries. They are relationship destroying. When we put our faith, hope and trust in anything other than God we are no longer God’s people. The covenant lies broken, like the tablets of the commandments shattered upon the ground.

And there are so many suitors wanting to claim that throne – possessions, family, work, health, all claiming to be the source of life’s goodness and joy, life’s meaning and purpose, life’s true center. And we give our allegiance away so freely. There is a reason the prophets will come back again and again to images of adultery to explain the destruction of the nation. Those who had been delivered from bondage in Egypt found bondage in Babylon.

The genius of the text is the genius of the whole Biblical narrative. The betrayal that deserves abandonment is met with mercy. Moses understands. Moses reminds God of his own nature. He intercedes.

We are much too willing to step aside hoping God will, in fact, destroy sinners and enemies. But we are called to be Moses, interceding for God to show mercy. We are called to be Abraham, pressing God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah. We are called to be Jesus, forgiving those who crucify him. We are called to be children of the Spirit, children of the Resurrection, children of the reign of God when sinners and outcasts are gathered and all are fed from the tree of life.

It’s in the light of that day, dawning in Jesus, that the heavens are full of joy and the angels are dancing.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAngels_dancing_sun_Giovanni_di_Paolo_Cond%C3%A9_Chantilly.jpg  Giovanni di Paolo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An insulting mercy

File:Ras Dejen, shepherd's children.JPG

Watching for the Morning of September 11, 2016

Year C

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 19 / Lectionary 24

Luke 15:1-10

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

Jesus can be wickedly insulting. He is not, of course, trying to be mean. He is trying to make clear what we do not want to see: that God has chosen to deal with the world with mercy rather than revenge, that God is seeking to reconcile the human community not purge it.

We have such a sweet, pastoral picture of the good shepherd with the lamb around his shoulders, but for a host of reasons “good shepherd” (or “noble shepherd”) was a contradiction in terms for the first century. To the Pharisees with whom Jesus is speaking, shepherds were despised and considered unclean and without honor. So when Jesus says “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep…” he is comparing these pharisaic paragons of piety with the unclean and cast out. It is such sweet irony, for they are attacking Jesus for precisely this reason: that he welcomes the unclean and cast out. And Jesus would receive the Pharisees, if only they were willing… Even as he would receive us, if only we were willing…

Although Jesus stops short of the ultimate insult, choosing not to say “which woman among you…”, the parallel is clear and the example of a woman seeking a coin lost from its place (probably a necklace) bristles with offense. But women are welcome in Jesus’ presence (though the Pharisees would keep them out). And Jesus would receive the Pharisees, if only they were willing… Even as he would receive us, if only we were willing… The banquet of God is at hand, if only we are willing…

The question of what God should do with a sinful and unclean humanity rattles through Sunday’s texts. God threatens to destroy the Israelites as they dance around the golden calf, but Moses intercedes on their behalf, calling God to turn from vengeance and show mercy. David prays for God’s mercy in the psalm, in words attributed to him after he has slept with the wife of Uriah and then, unable to get Uriah to betray his men in the field by going home to enjoy her comfort, arranges his murder to hide the sure-to-be-a-scandal pregnancy. First Timothy contains words attributed to Paul, naming his own scandalous sin and God’s scandalous mercy. And then we hear Jesus talking about the joy of heaven over the sinner who repents, the outcast who returns to the community.

The angels in heaven are dancing at the healing of the world, and we are invited to join the dance.

The Prayer for September 11, 2016

God of all joy,
the heavens resound with song
where the wounds of the broken are tended
and the lost and alone are gathered in.
Help us to rejoice in what pleases you,
and to know the joy of your reconciling love.

The Texts for September 11, 2016

First Reading: Exodus 32:7-14
“The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.”
– Moses is on Mt. Sinai receiving God’s commands when the Israelites begin to worship the golden calf. God threatens to destroy them and create a new people from Moses’ descendants, but Moses intercedes on their behalf.

Psalmody: Psalm 51:1-12  (appointed vv. 1-10)
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.” – This exquisite prayer of confession is attributed to David after the prophet Nathan exposed David’s sin with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband.

Second Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17
“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.”
– The letters to Timothy are penned by Paul or in his name as parting words of advice to his protégé, Timothy. Here Paul speaks of the mercy he received though he initially persecuted the church.

Gospel: Luke 15:1-10
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” – The first two of three parables speaking of God’s joy in gathering the outcast and restoring the community of Israel – indeed the whole human community.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARas_Dejen%2C_shepherd’s_children.JPG By Florian Fell (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Carrying the cross

File:Gelati Gospels MSS (2).jpg

Thursday

Luke 14:25-33

27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

When I was twelve or so I learned how to tie a hangman’s nose. I don’t know why it interested me. Perhaps it was due to the westerns I had watched on TV. Perhaps it was because my cousin, who showed it to me, invested it with a certain emotional energy – it was ‘cool’. Perhaps it’s just because the knot itself was an interesting puzzle. As a white boy in the California suburbs it had no other meaning to me. It did not speak of terrorism, of the brutal realities of Jim Crow segregation, of the violence we would come to see thanks to Bull Connor and his dogs, billy clubs and fire hoses. The knot had the vague numinous power of something associated with death, but it did not fill me with the fear of lynching for failing to respect the strict social requirements of the dominant culture. It is only later that I learned that this knot was a symbol of terror and oppression.

Such was the cross in Roman hands. It was an instrument of subjugation, a brutal demonstration of power and the consequences of challenging that power. Any sign of resistance on the part of a slave towards his master, any rebellion against the social order, was answered with this bloody instrument.

We wear crosses of gold and silver, now, adorned sometimes with precious jewels. We put them on bumper stickers and doorknockers and give them as wedding gifts for a new couple to put on their living room wall. Imagine giving a newly married African American couple in the 1950’s a hangman’s noose for their wall.

The cross has been robbed of its power. For the generation threatened with crucifixion in the arena, fed to the lions, or used as the ancient equivalent of cannon fodder for mass entertainment – for this generation the meaning of the cross was quite clear. They had taken the symbol of oppression and used it as a symbol of liberation. They took the instrument of Roman dominion and used it to proclaim God’s dominion. The symbol of Rome’s power became a witness to the ultimate triumph of the reign of God.

To take up the cross was to endure the hostility of the world for the sake of the world to come, the world God was creating, the world where all imperial powers are thrown down, all injustice overthrown, where debts are released and prisoner’s freed, where neighbors are loved and bread is shared, where the honored are not those who rule but those who serve.

Those who live in “the real world” mock the “starry-eyed dreamers.” But Jesus was not a dreamer. He saw the world clearly. He knew his fate. Yet all the might of imperial Rome could not silence his witness that a world in which the Spirit of God governed was coming – indeed, was already present. Sins were forgiven, the sick healed, the scattered gathered, the dead raised. Bread was already being shared, the light shining, a new creation dawning.

Those who would follow in Jesus’ footsteps must be clear-eyed, too. It’s not a requirement to give up everything to follow him; it’s just a fact. You can’t hold on to a dying world and participate in a new one. You can’t hold on to hate and follow love. You can’t hold on to fear and follow faith. You can’t hold on to wealth, power and privilege and follow hope, mercy and service.

The dying world doesn’t go away easily. Hate and fear, violence and shame abound in us and around us. And the dying world resists the birth of the new. Always. But the new is come. And those who would be disciples should recognize that we are not on a pilgrimage to the old Jerusalem (after which we all go home to our same old lives); we are on a pilgrimage to the New Jerusalem, the city God creates, the world God governs, the community where the fruits of the Spirit reign: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGelati_Gospels_MSS_(2).jpg By Anonymous (Center of MSS (Tbilisi, Georgia)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons