With what shall I come?

File:Offering to the Ganges, Varanasi.jpg

Friday

Micah 6:1-8

6“With what shall I come before the Lord?”

In the student union every Friday during my senior year in college, the students from the botany department sold flowers from their greenhouse. This was significant because I attended school in Minnesota where the snows lasted from Thanksgiving to April. For the price of a soda I could get one sweetheart rose to take to my girlfriend. I enjoyed giving the gift; it was sincere, not mercenary. But we all understand that arriving with a gift, however small, makes the other more favorably inclined to you.

And so the prophet asks: “With what shall I come before the Lord?” What gift will make God favorably inclined to us? What gift will generate a smile as you stand knocking at the door?

Even people who are not religious will cry out to God in times of great distress. Promises get made. We offer ourselves to save our children. I have heard the prayers that promise to go back to church or to make some sacrifice. I understand. It is an almost instinctual cry, as if God could be bought by some favor.

So the prophet poses our question: “With what shall I come before the Lord?” What will make God inclined to hear my prayer? To grant my request? But it doesn’t work that way. God isn’t interested in purchasing our trust and fidelity as if we were mercenaries. Jesus said that God sends rain on the just and the unjust.” The mercies of God are open to all.

Standing with a rose at the door of my girlfriend’s place wasn’t an attempt to barter for favor. It was a gift to please, a gift that shows she matters to me, a gift spontaneously given because I want her to be happy. And what is the gift that pleases God? Is it our church attendance? Is it our donations? Is it our volunteering? The answer, consistently, throughout scripture is that it is not our sacrifices.

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

No, the answer is always about lives of compassion and faithfulness to the human community. We see it in our psalm this Sunday. And we hear it from the prophet:

8He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Justice and mercy will not make God concede to our prayers, but it does make the heart of the universe smile.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AOffering_to_the_Ganges%2C_Varanasi.jpg By J Duval ([1]  Uploaded by Ekabhishek) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Where ladies are dressed

File:Maler der Grabkammer des Zeserkerêsonb 001.jpg

Thursday

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

27“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”

Paul is not confirming the power of ignorance. It is not a diatribe against learning. Paul, himself, is well schooled and knowledgeable. This is a challenge of the “wisdom of the world”: the everyday realities accepted by all as “the way things are” – and the way God wants them. These are the realities of the ancient world where a few elite families hold positions of power and prestige granted by the emperor or passed down through the ages by a noble family line. Inherited wealth. Inherited power. Inherited privilege. The “wisdom of the world” is the world of Downton Abbey where ladies are dressed by maids and servants stand at attention while the family dines and the upper class doctor is believed over the village physician. This is the world where Rome rules by decree and those granted Roman citizenship are subject to a different law than the rest (so Peter is brutally crucified but Paul, the citizen, is granted a quick and clean beheading). This is the world that has always been and the gods confirm.

But this strange God of Abraham and Isaac chose Jacob, the younger, over Esau the elder. This strange God summoned the murderer, Moses, at the burning bush and chose a people in bondage. And when the time came, God didn’t choose the palace but the peasant home. God didn’t choose finery but a manger. God didn’t choose the priestly cast but the construction trade. God didn’t choose the literate students of the city rulers but fishermen and a tax collector.

It looks like folly to the privileged – but this is not about rejecting knowledge. It is about the nature of God’s kingdom where honor doesn’t go to the fine houses at the top of the hill by the temple, but to those poor and meek who live the justice and mercy God desires.

“Can anything good come from Nazareth?” asks Nathanael when he is urgently summoned by Philip. “Of course not,” we all know. But, surprise, what is honored in God’s sight is not happening in Jerusalem; it is happening in Nazareth and Capernaum Sychar and wherever bread is shared and outcasts welcomed and tears shed for the world to be made new.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMaler_der_Grabkammer_des_Zeserker%C3%AAsonb_001.jpg By Maler der Grabkammer des Zeserkerêsonb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What does the LORD require?

File:Volunteers of America Soup Kitchen in Washington, D.C..gif

Watching for the Morning of January 29, 2017

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Sunday takes us to the Sermon on the Mount and the familiar words of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are the meek…Blessed are the merciful.” They are great and powerful declarations about what is honored in God’s sight.

We sometimes miss the meaning of these potent declarations. They sound gentle and kind to us – at least until we get to the one about persecutions – but these are thunderclaps, imperial proclamations reversing the values of all the kingdoms that have come before.

Words like ‘meek’ and ‘blessed’ convey something different in a modern western society than in the ancient Mediterranean. Jesus is not talking about those who are fortunate in life, but those who are honored in God’s sight. Honor belongs to those at the bottom of the heap, not those who have climbed to the top. Honor belongs to those who embody God’s mercy and faithfulness, not those who lead the parade. Those working in the soup kitchens of the District of Columbia this last week are the nobility of God’s kingdom, not those ushered about in limousines.

So Sunday we listen as the prophet Micah utters those famous words: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” And the psalmist will sing that those who are welcome in God’s presence are not the ritually clean but those who live faithfully towards their fellow human beings. And Paul sets out his opening gambit in the first letter to the Corinthians talking about the folly of “the wisdom of the world” versus the wisdom of the folly of God.

And then we will hear the beatitudes. They are not the “be-happy-attitudes”; they are the broad sweeping scythe that cuts down all that is exalted in the empires of this world and raises up those of generous heart and kind spirit, who weep at the walls and weapons we build, who hunger for a world of mercy and peace. Their prayers will be answered. Their prayers are being answered, even now, as Jesus speaks.

The Prayer for January 29, 2017

Lord of Life,
by your word and deed you overturn the values of our world,
declaring honorable what is often despised:
the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers.
Help us to hear your Word,
and in hearing to trust,
and in trusting to live as you call us to live;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for January 29, 2017

First Reading: Micah 6:1-8
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” – Through the prophet, God brings charges against his people, summoning the surrounding hills to hear God’s case and render judgment. God has done great things for this people and asked for justice and mercy, but the people have been faithless.

Psalmody: Psalm 15
“O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” – The poet describes the one who is worthy to enter the temple precinct in terms of faithfulness to others rather than ritual purity. Where we expect to her about ‘clean hands’, we hear instead about justice and mercy.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” –
The values of ‘the world’, the things honored and treasured by a humanity that has lost its harmony with God, are shown to be foolish and empty by God’s revelation of himself in Christ crucified.

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – The beatitudes begin Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the first of five blocks of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus speaks of what is honorable in God’s sight and declares God’s favor.

The comments from this and previous years on this Sunday of the church year can be found under the list of Sundays or by clicking here.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AVolunteers_of_America_Soup_Kitchen_in_Washington%2C_D.C..gif By Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Blessed are you

Sunday Evening

Matthew 5

The British ship Mataroa bringing 1,204 refugees from Nazi persecution to port at Haifa

11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

The switch from the third person to the second person is one of those moments when any prophetic word pounces.  Before this, the beatitudes have been general statements that intrigue us, touch us, draw us closer – then they attack.  Suddenly we ourselves are in the crosshairs.  God is not talking about somebody; God is talking to me.

Few of us in the United States are truly persecuted because of our loyalty to Jesus.  Our neighborhoods don’t erupt into communal violence over interpretations of the scriptures that depart from the social norm – though they have in the past.  The bomb tossed into the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was one such occasion.  The riot that led to the murder of Joseph Smith in the Carthage, Illinois, jail was another.

Matthew’s community understood such potential for violence.  They understood the hostility of family, friends and neighbors to their belief that Jesus was God’s anointed, God’s messiah/christ, the bringer of God’s redemption to all the earth.  The book of Acts bears witness to such violence erupting against Paul and other believers – just as the story of the apostle Paul begins with the mob violence against Stephen who claimed he had a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

Of course, the members of Matthew’s community are not persecuted for an idea; they are persecuted for the lives they lived on the basis of that idea.  They are persecuted for living the kingdom.  They are persecuted for welcoming to their table Jew and Gentile, clean and unclean, male and female together. They are persecuted for daring to enact the feast portrayed in Isaiah when all nations are gathered on God’s holy mountain.  They are persecuted for acts of healing in the name of a condemned criminal, for welcoming the outcast, for loving the enemy, for the betrayal of communal values.

The beatitudes are not a gentle promise of God’s mercy and comfort.  They are not a “pie in the sky” promise of reward in heaven.  They are a word about us, now, living members of the body of Christ through whom God’s new creation is beginning, God’s justice and mercy dawning, God’s Spirit poured out, God’s reign of grace and life arising. At least such things are supposed to be happening among us.

And if we are a living embodiment of God’s transformation of the world, we should not be surprised by blowback from those who do not want the world to change – but that is no shame.  Indeed it is a great honor: it puts us in the glorious company of the prophets.

Blessed are the centered?

Saturday

Matthew 5

Alexander riding Bucephalus

5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

In his work Ethics, Aristotle defines the Greek word we translate as ‘meek’ as the median between recklessness and cowardice.  Anger is a powerful emotion, and knowing how to use it wisely and in proper proportion was considered ‘meekness’.

The word can mean ‘mild’ or ‘gentle’.  It is used of a tame animal and suggests the notion of a person who has tamed their emotions.  I heard, once, that a warhorse was considered ‘meek’ that was not frightened by the battle raging around it.  I have not been able to confirm this, but it fits with the idea of meekness in Aristotle.

The point is that the ‘meek’ are not doormats.  They are those people we would describe as ‘centered’, in that calm space of knowing who they are and who God is and seeing everything in light of the big picture.  Firm yet gentle, confident of the grace and power of God, steadfast.

Moses was described as meek.  Yet he was clearly courageous both before Pharaoh and the rebellious people in the wilderness.  Jesus describes himself as meek – “Take my yoke upon you for I am gentle…” – and we know he drove the moneychangers from the temple, that he was angered at the death of Lazarus, that he was steadfast before Pilate and forgiving towards his torturers.

The ‘meek’ are honored by God.  The zealots took up arms against Rome and by their rage and zeal brought destruction on Jerusalem and the temple.  They tried to seize the land by force and lost it.  The ‘meek’ were not driven by passions but governed by the Spirit of God.  They were the peacemakers, the merciful – and probably the persecuted – but they are honored by God for they embodied God’s reign of grace and life.  The land shall be their inheritance.

The honorable/blessed

Friday

Matthew 5

File:Codex Manesse 113v Hesso von Reinach.jpg3Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

When Anna and Megan were little, bedtime prayers were a simple litany of all those people in our lives: “God bless Farfar and G.G., Grandma Dorothy and Grandma Norma, their teachers at school, their pets, anyone at church whose trouble they knew, and a general concern for those who were hungry or cold.  I was moved by their sensitivity to the wounds of the world around them, and how easily strangers, family members and pets could all fit into the circle of their concern.

When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit,” he is not using the word for blessing as in those simple prayers.  In both Hebrew and Greek, one word is used for conveying favor; another carries the sense of an existing state.  “Bless me Father, for I have sinned,” asks for grace to be given.  The Blessed Virgin Mary exists in a state of grace and honor; it is a quality of her being.  So, here, in the beatitudes, the word carries that second sense.

Sometimes you will see this word translated as “happy” though that hardly seems weighty enough.  “How honorable are those who are poor in Spirit,” gets us closer to the meaning.  It describes a state of being that is in a right relationship with God, with others and with oneself; a life in proper harmony with all these; a life that is the true meaning of a good life.  We are not fortunate to be poor, grieving or hungry.  Nor are we lucky to be in such a state because we have some great reward coming.  The people of whom Jesus speaks are those in an honorable state of harmony with the way of God.  They are tuned to the Sprit.  They live already the dawning reign of God.

The “poor in spirit,” “those who mourn,” the “meek” and “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” are not four different kinds of people getting four different rewards.  These are four different images from different angles of those who lives are attuned to the compassion and justice of God.  They do not vaunt themselves over God; they grieve for the broken and the brokenness of the world, their sails are filled with the wind/breath of God, they hunger and thirst for the transformation of the world.

These honorable/blessed ones share already in the kingdom of God – notice the present tense of that first verse: “Theirs is the kingdom of God.”  And they shall see the fulfillment of God’s promise to heal/redeem the earth.  They shall be comforted.  They shall inherit the earth.  Their hunger shall be fully satisfied.

There is a second section to these makarisms.  How honorable are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers.  Those in tune with the kingdom of God live it.  We will have to come back to this saying about persecution that takes such a central place in the series – living the way of God will have consequences – but first we need to hear these first eight sayings end as they began: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  The Spirit of God is found here, the reign of God has begun here, in these in whom God’s justice and mercy abides.  They will be acknowledged as true children of God.

Dirt, dirty, clean, holy

Thursday

Psalm 15

Tetrapylon, Palmyra in Syria

1 O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

It’s an uncomfortable question.  We want to move quickly to the grace of God, the welcoming embrace, the overflowing forgiveness.  We don’t want to ask who is worthy to dwell in God’s presence.

The question of cultic purity was an important one in the ancient world.  There was a vivid sense of the sacred around each shrine.  To bring what was profane into the presence of the holy was a dangerous act, offending the god of that place.  It invited wrath just as an offense against a king invited wrath.

There is behavior appropriate to a football game that isn’t appropriate in court.  To speak out of turn in a legal proceeding, to violate the norms of the court, can land you in jail for contempt.  We make these distinctions all the time.  We raise our hands at school but such behavior would be out of place – or intentionally offensive – if it happened at the dinner table.  When I was a child, I had to wear a coat and tie to church; we had to wear our best in God’s presence.  Saturday night required a bath because you couldn’t go to church unclean.  These are only vague hints of the demands of an ancient shrine.  Paul was almost murdered by a mob of worshipers because of a rumor that he had desecrated the temple by bringing a Gentile into the inner court – and saved only because they had to drag him out of the courtyard before killing him lest his blood desecrate the temple and, as the mob was dragging him out, soldiers stepped in to arrest him.  Purity was exceedingly important.

Many cultures leave their shoes at the door to keep the outer impure world from desecrating the inner realm of the home.  It’s not just about keeping literal dirt outdoors.  The whole concept of ‘dirt’ is symbolic of something out of its proper place.  Dirt in the field isn’t dirt; it’s soil.  It only becomes dirt if you try to bring it into the kitchen where it doesn’t belong.  There is a boundary at the threshold of the house.  Just so, there is a boundary at the threshold of the shrine – a boundary between the heavens and the earth, between the realm of the gods and the world of the common, between the sacred and the profane.  You cannot bring what is unclean into the realm of the holy.

So who can enter into God’s sacred shrine?  Who can enter into the presence of the holy?  There are extensive descriptions regarding purity in the Torah, and the rituals to restore it.  But in answering this question of who may come onto God’s holy hill, our poet does not speak about abstaining from sex, ritual washings, or avoiding contact with blood and what is dead.  The true measure of purity is our treatment of others: refusing to take advantage of a person’s need by charging interest; refusing to speak ill of another; speaking the truth; keeping one’s oath even to your own detriment.  Those who are welcome in God’s holy city are those who do justice and mercy, who live on earth the justice and mercy that is the mark of heaven.

God is a God of grace.  There is welcome for the sinner.  He has made us worthy by wrapping us in Christ.  Yet the true measure of holiness remains: not personal purity but the care of our neighbor.

From Shittim to Gilgal

Wednesday

Micah 6

5O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

File:PikiWiki Israel 29616 Jordan River.jpg

Jordan River (Lehava Activity 2013 Pikiwiki Israel [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

The translators of the New International Version break this verse into two sentences, adding again the verb ‘remember’ plus the words ‘your journey’ to clarify the meaning of the third line so that it reads: “Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal.”

I like that line.  I also like the Hebrew that just hangs out there “from Shittim to Gilgal.”  It is one of those little phrases that the hearer understands.

Shittim was the last encampment after 40 years in the wilderness.  From there they crossed the Jordan River and made their first encampment in the Promised Land at Gilgal.  From Shittim to Gilgal represents the fulfillment of God’s promise.  It is like saying “the grave is empty” – you don’t have to explain whose grave, when and where; we know what this means.

From Shittim to Gilgal.  Israel had been led out from Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea.  With the Egyptian army behind them and the sea in front of them it seemed as though their journey to freedom would fail.  But the breath/wind of God blew through the night and at morning there was a path.  They crossed on dry ground.

Forty years later, Israel is again at the edge of its promised future.  King Balak of Moab, the kingdom east of the Jordan River, fearing this great host, hires the holy man/prophet Balaam to pronounce a curse on this people.  Words are power; they create what they speak.  It is a powerful weapon.  But every time Balaam opens his mouth, out comes a blessing. God has chosen to bless.

But the Jordan is at flood stage.  God tells the priests to lead the way and stand in the river holding the Ark of the Covenant, the sign of God’s promise and presence.  God promises that, again, they shall cross on dry land.  As the priests step into the river, the flow of water ceases – and the deliverance from Egypt is lived anew as the people enter in to the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise.  Slaves are free.  The homeless receive a home.  The landless receive a land of milk and honey.

From Shittim to Gilgal.  But there is a wound in this story.  For at Shittim the Israelites were seduced into worshipping the god of Moab, the Ba’al of Peor.  After all God had done, after the 40 years wandering due to their faithlessness, in sight of the fulfillment of God’s promise, they are led astray to bow to other gods.  They are faithless – but God is faithful.

From Shittim to Gilgal.  From Good Friday to Easter.  From our frailty to God’s unfathomable faithfulness.  Remember.  The prophet says these two words: from_Shittim to_Gilgal, and the whole story of faithlessness and faithfulness is spoken.  And the people of Micah’s day are asked to remember – and to return: to return to the path of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with their faithful God.

Blessed

Watching for the morning of February 2

Year A

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

File:Domus Galilaeae Hebrew Sermon on the Mount.jpg

By Itai (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This Sunday we hear Jesus speak.  We have heard Matthew tell us of Jesus’ honored lineage.  We have heard the witness of scripture to this child of Bethlehem and seen wise men from the East kneel before him.  Angels have appeared to protect him from Herod’s murderous envy and to return him to the land of Israel.  The Voice of God has testified of him at his baptism in the Jordan and he has withstood all the challenges of the evil one in the wilderness.  Then, last Sunday, we saw him arise and summon us to follow him, to join his movement to right the world, and heard him declare the reign of God is dawning.  Now we hear him speak.

His voice echoes with the sounds of the prophets like Micah describing the faithfulness and mercy God desires from us.  His voice echoes with the sound of the psalmist describing the character of true righteousness.  His message begins with the sweet notes of the Beatitudes: it is the poor, the grieving, the merciful, the peacemakers who are honored in God’s sight.  These are the one who reflect the character of God’s kingdom.  These are the ones who live the way of God.  And these are the ones who shall receive the promised inheritance of a world transformed by the Spirit of God.

The Prayer for February 2, 2014

Lord of Life,
by your word and deed you overturn the values of our world,
declaring honorable what is often despised:
the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers.
Help us to hear your Word,
and in hearing to trust,
and in trusting to live as you call us to live.

The Texts for February 2, 2014

First Reading: Micah 6:1-8
8He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” – Through the prophet God brings charges against his people, summoning the surrounding hills to hear God’s case and render judgment.  God has done great things for this people and asked for justice and mercy, but the people have been faithless.

Psalmody: Psalm 15
“O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” – The poet describes the one who is worthy to enter the temple precinct in terms of faithfulness to others rather than ritual purity.  Where we expect to her about ‘clean hands’, we hear instead about justice and mercy.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” –
The values of ‘the world’, the things honored and treasured by a humanity that has lost its harmony with God, are shown to be foolish and empty by God’s revelation of himself in Christ crucified.

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – The beatitudes begin Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ first of five blocks of teaching in Matthew’s Gospel.  Jesus declares what is honorable in God’s sight and promises God’s favor.