Leave your gift

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Thursday

Matthew 5:21-37

23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

When we hear the word gift and altar we cannot help but think of the offering plate and a church altar. It’s hard to imagine a religious institution teaching that you should not make an offering if you are at odds with someone. Every organization dependent upon donations is normally trying to remove any obstacles to giving, not adding one. But then, the mission of the church is not to encourage offerings; it is to make disciples of Jesus.

In the traditional liturgy of the church, just such a moment happens before for the offerings are gathered. The presiding minister declares “The peace of the Lord be with you” and, following the congregation’s response, “and also with you,” bids the community to share the peace with one another. God has made peace with us in Christ Jesus – now, before you give an offering, before you come to the table, we are summoned to make peace with one another.

I wonder how the community would react if we spoke more bluntly: “Don’t come to the dinner table divided from one another.” “You can’t be reconciled to God if you won’t be reconciled to one another.” “God doesn’t want your money if you’re not going to walk the walk.”

Jesus and his hearers, of course, are not imagining people in pews with ushers passing offering plates. They are imagining the massive temple platform surrounded by its grand colonnades. They are imagining the inner courtyards: for Gentiles (beyond which no gentile could go); for women (beyond which no woman could go); and for men (beyond which only priests could go). In the walled and colonnaded courtyard that is open only to ritually pure Jewish men there is a gate that leads further in to the temple courtyard with its great altar and the smoke of the rising offerings. Beyond that altar stands the temple proper, covered in gold, its giant pillars guarding huge closed doors. What could be seen only over the top of the enclosing walls is now revealed in full glory. To that gate a man brings his calf or lamb (or doves, if he is poor) where it is slaughtered and the priest takes it to the altar for the gift to be burned in part or in whole.

By the time you had completed the rituals, passed through the courts, and stood in line with your animal – to be told to leave the creature there and run out in order to be reconciled with some adversary… now we can hear the startling point Jesus is making.

God is in the world to reconcile. God is in the world to heal the human community. God is working to restore the torn fabric of life. It is not just murder that rends the human community, but every word of insult and anger. It is not just the act of adultery that tears at society, but the passions willing to violate the integrity of another family. We ought not think, says Jesus, that our moral behavior and religious acts mean anything if they are not joined to the reconciling work of God.

Tough words. Important words. Life-giving words.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASecond_Temple_view1.jpg By Ariely (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
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The un-rending

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Watching for the Morning of February 12, 2017

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

The Law, the Torah, God’s teaching/instructions for our life as a faithful community, stand front and center in our readings this coming Sunday. From Deuteronomy, written as a sermon by Moses to the people as they stand at the edge of the promised land setting forth again the commands and instructions of God, we will hear the challenge that before us stands a choice between life and death. Blessing will follow if we remain faithful to God and walk in God’s ways; curses will follow if we do not.

The appointed verses from Psalm 119 for Sunday is the opening strophe of the majestic acrostic hymn celebrating the gift of God’s Torah from Aleph to Taw, beginning with the affirmation: “Happy are those…who walk in the law of the Lord.”

Paul is writing about the Corinthian congregation as mere babes, still living on milk rather than solid food, bound as they are in the ways of the world around them rather than living the way of God.

And then Jesus takes up the commandments. After his stunning opening in the beatitudes and the declaration that the poor are not only honored in God’s sight but are light for the world, Jesus dramatically transforms the commandments from a safe and secure legal code (don’t kill, don’t commit adultery) to a summons to live the reign of God:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

We will hear the same summons in the commandments about adultery and vows (and then, in Matthews Gospel, about revenge, acts of mercy, prayer and fasting). More is expected of the human race – and of God’s people – than to refrain from killing, though even that has proven itself far beyond our willingness to obey. But the kingdom chooses to rip no tear in the fabric of the human community, to rend no relationship. Jesus is driving towards that stunning command: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

We are in the presence of the dawning of God’s reign, the lifting of every burden, the setting right of the world, the un-rending of the fabric of life. And we are summoned into its bold and daring and imperishable life.

The Prayer for February 12, 2017

Gracious God,
in love you made the world and laid its foundations,
giving your gracious order to the creation.
In love you revealed your law to a people you brought out from bondage,
showing them the path of life.
Renew in us your vision for human life
and make us faithful in our calling to live as children of your kingdom;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for February 12, 2017

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” – Moses addresses the people as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, urging them to remain faithful to God, for their life in the land depends on following God’s commands.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:1-8
“Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.” – In a magisterial acrostic psalm setting forth the wonder of God’s law/teaching, the poet expresses the wondrous ordering reality God brings to life.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
– Speaking to his divided congregation, Paul says they are yet babes in Christ who must be fed with milk, having failed to learn the basic truth of how they are to live in Christ.

Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… But I say to you…” – Jesus takes up the commandments about murder, adultery and swearing oaths, revealing the depth of their meaning in bringing human life under the governance of God’s Spirit.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWTC_Julia_DSCF1149.JPG By J. Lane (Wikipedia Takes Coventry participant) (Uploaded from Wikipedia Takes Coventry) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Honoring the prophets

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Friday

Isaiah 58:1-12

1 Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.

I pity the prophets. Who really wants this assignment? It’s a lot more rewarding to be able to speak a word of grace to those who are broken than to be assigned the task of pointing out sins no one wants to acknowledge.

Of course there are always those who seem to delight in pointing out sins…and mistakes and imperfections…and pretty much anything with which they disagree or disapprove. There is a heady intoxication in moral outrage. Our public airwaves are filled with it at the moment. But it’s one thing to rant at the powers that are far away. A very different thing to be assigned the task of pointing out sins close at hand. It got Jeremiah thrown in jail. Elijah had to hide out for safety. And we don’t know what happened to Isaiah, but those later chapters have enough potent poetry about God’s suffering servant that I suspect its author knew something about suffering first hand.

So I pity the prophets. But I honor them deeply. What they did was a great sacrifice, paid with tears and despair at the hardness of heart of the people and their leaders.

The way to honor the prophets, of course, is to not let their words fall to the ground. The way to respect their courage and sacrifice is to let these words find root in our hearts and lives, to take seriously the command to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. The way to honor the prophets – and the God who sent them – is to live the way of justice and mercy:

6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? …
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday…
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AProphets_from_Ferapontov02_(Kirillo-Belozersk).jpg By Anonymous (own photo by shakko) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Salting the fire of the new creation

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Watching for the Morning of February 5, 2017

The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

References to light and darkness rattle through the readings for Sunday, but the heart of the Gospel reading is about fire: the fire of the earthen oven in the courtyard of the cluster of simple peasant homes that uses a salt slab as a catalyst for the burning of the dung patties the youngest girls in the extended family are assigned to make. When the slab has lost its value (not it’s taste) as a catalytic agent, it is taken out and used as a stepping stone for those days when rains turn the pathways to mud.

We are that necessary element to the oven without which no bread gets baked. We are the light shining in the peasant house without which no one can see, for there are no windows to lighten the room. Jesus is talking to rural villagers, not the Jerusalem elite. He is talking to those who are poor, mourning and hungering for the world to be set right. He is talking to refugees in the camps when doors are shut. He is talking to mothers and children scratching out their existence in the rubble of wars. He is talking to those in fear of uniforms unrestrained by any law. He is talking to those who know hunger and thirst. “You are the salt that burns bright the fire of God. You are the light that is set on a stand.”

Jesus must have seemed a little nuts.

Yet here is this compelling word of grace that among the broken dawns the reign of God. Among the wounded arises the day of God’s healing. Among the grieving rises the songs of joy. For the anointed has come dispensing the gifts of God’s reign. And among these people shines the fire and light of the dawning redemption of all the earth.

So Sunday we hear that great prophetic speech from the book of Isaiah declaring that the religious observance God wants to see is not a great public fast but for us “to loose the bonds of injustice,” and “let the oppressed go free,” to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless and clothe the naked. “Then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” And the psalmist sings of the righteous (the just, those faithful to God and others): “They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright.” And Paul writes of the wisdom of God that is so different from the wisdom of this age – an age that is passing away – the wisdom hidden in Christ crucified, the wisdom revealed through the Spirit: The mystery that the broken one is the risen one in whom all things are raised from the valley of the shadow of death into the realm of imperishable life.

The light shines. And we are the wick set upon a stand and the slab of salt that sustains the fire of the new creation.

The Prayer for February 5, 2017

Gracious God,
you have appointed your people to be in the world
as the fire and light of your justice and mercy.
Fill us with your Holy Spirit,
and shape our lives by your Word,
that through lives of faith, hope and love
we may bear witness to your reign;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for February 5, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-12
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” – In the hardscrabble life after the return from Exile, God confronts the complaint of the people that God has not answered their prayers by challenging the goal of those prayers. They have sought advantage for themselves rather than to live God’s justice and mercy.

Psalmody: Psalm 112:1-10
“Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.” – A description of the righteous who rest securely in God and the blessing they bring to the world, giving freely to the poor and conducting “their affairs with justice.”

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 2:1-12
“We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.” –
Paul’s message to the Corinthians was not dressed in the skills of rhetoric and human wisdom, but “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” Yet there is a wisdom in this message: the wisdom revealed by the Spirit regarding God’s work and purpose in the world.

Gospel: Matthew 5:13-20
“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” – Comparing his followers with salt and light, Jesus summons the community of Israel (and his disciples) back to their calling as the medium through which God brings blessing/healing to the world.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASalt_from_Timbuktu.jpg By Robin Elaine (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons