The strange and wondrous truth of God

File:Afghan day laborers help Marines fill sandbags (5224388587).jpg

Afghan day laborers filling sandbags outside Forward Operating Base Geronimo, Helmand province, Afghanistan, July 14, 2010

Watching for the Morning of September 24, 2017

Year A

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 20 / Lectionary 25

Sunday we are jumping ahead to chapter 20 of Matthew’s gospel. We are skipping the Pharisees’ challenge about the legality of divorce and the strange saying about being eunuchs for the kingdom. We are skipping past the disciples’ harsh words to those who would bring their children to receive a blessing from Jesus – and Jesus’ welcome of those children. We are skipping past the words of Jesus to the young man seeking the life of the age to come, telling him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, and past the disciples’ astonishment that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”   All of which leads us once again to the truth that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” The reign of God is a profound reversal of the way of the world.

And so, Sunday, we come to the story of a landowner hiring day laborers for his vineyard and the remarkable choice to pay even those who worked but one hour a full day’s wage. It is not the act of an accountant; it is the act of a patron taking care of those who depend upon him. Except these day workers are not his people. He has no long and established relationship with them. He is not their patron. But he chooses to be.

And what shall we do with this portrait of a God who chooses to treat all people as their patron? What shall we do when our long and historic fidelity to God gains no privilege? What shall we do with a God who shows faithfulness to those who deserve none? The landowners’ final words are painful: “Are you envious because I am generous?” The Greek is literally “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

We don’t understand mercy. We don’t understand the breadth and depth of the compassion of God. We don’t even truly understand the notion that God is the god of all. We claim to be monotheists, but we are more likely to think that God is our god and he can be your god too, if you become one of us. But the truth is there is no ‘us’ and ‘them; we are all ‘them’. We have no claim on god’s mercy; it is gift given to all. Rich, abundant, overflowing, fidelity to a world as corrupt and violent, greedy and cruel as ours. Yes, we are capable of great kindness and generosity – but we are also fully capable of its opposite. We are not God’s people. Not really. We are strangers to the reign of God. We don’t really understand the language or culture of heaven. Nevertheless, God comes to us. Nevertheless, he speaks. Nevertheless, he shows faithfulness. Steadfast love.

So Sunday we will hear once again that “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” We will listen as Jonah wrestles angrily with God because God chooses to forgive the cruel and barbarous Ninevites. We will sing with the psalmist in praise of God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” We will listen as Paul exhorts us to live our lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” And we will once again shift in our seats as Jesus speaks of the just injustice of a landowner who is generous to all, pushing us to see something of the strange and wondrous truth of God.

The Prayer for September 24, 2017

Wondrous God,
whose mercy knows no bounds,
and whose salvation is offered to all:
renew us by your Holy Spirit
that we may walk in the paths of your kindness
and bear your grace to the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 24, 2017

First Reading: Jonah 3:1 – 4:11 (appointed: 3:10 – 4:11)
“When God saw what [the people of Nineveh] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. 4:1But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”
– Jonah sought to avoid his mission to the Assyrian capital for fear God would forgive the city that had destroyed Israel. Now, when this has happened, God seeks to help Jonah understand God’s compassion for its people.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:1-8
“I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.” – Psalm 145 is an acrostic hymn, each line beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet, in which the poet sings God’s praise “from A to Z.”

Second Reading: Philippians 1:21-30
“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
– In prison in Rome, Paul is faced with the possibility of his execution and writes to his beloved congregation in Philippi to encourage them to remain faithful to their Lord, living “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” – As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, he tells this story comparing the reign of God with a vineyard owner who chooses to relate to his workers not on the basis of what they deserve, but on the basis of his goodness.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAfghan_day_laborers_help_Marines_fill_sandbags_(5224388587).jpg By Marines from Arlington, VA, United States (Afghan day laborers help Marines fill sandbags) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Mosul

Saturday

Jonah 3

File:Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn - The Prophet Jonah before the Walls of Nineveh, c. 1655 - Google Art Project.jpg

Rembrandt, The Prophet Jonah before the Walls of Nineveh, c. 1655

10When God saw what [the people of Nineveh] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. 4:1But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.

The ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh lie across the river from Mosul. Situated on the Tigris, it is one of the most ancient cities in the world, in the heart of the Fertile Crescent where humans first domesticated crops and created cities and empires. It was the greatest city in the world for 50 years before it was weakened by civil war and fell in 612 BCE to the rebel forces from which emerged the Babylonian empire.

At its height, the Assyrian Empire stretched from Egypt to Central Turkey to the Persian Gulf. We recognize the names of Assyrian kings like Shalmaneser, Tiglath-Pileser, Sargon, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and Ashurbanipal though we seldom know where or when to locate those names.

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Lamassu (Human-headed winged bull) heading left. Relief from king Sargon II’s palace at Dur Sharrukin in Assyria (now Khorsabad in Iraq), ca. 713–716 BC

This was also the empire that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and subjugated Judah.

While Jonah would have gladly declared God’s judgment on the city, he refused to go lest the people repent. He feared that God would forgive them if they did so.

And he was right.

At least, that is the story told in this little short story of Jonah.

Jonah wanted the city to pay for its sins; God wanted the city to come back to himself. Between these two desires is the central religious struggle. Do we really want the God of the whole earth, or just a god for ourselves. Do we really want a God of mercy, or a god who will take our side.

Few of us weep at the destruction being wrought in Mosul. Perhaps few of us even recognize that this city has been hit recently by French and U.S. airstrikes. It’s just part of that mess. Most of us celebrated when Sadam was found in his spider hole and when Bin Laden was killed and dumped into the sea. We generally share Jonah’s conviction that God should come down against our enemies.

The great mercy of God is that he does not let Jonah run away from his mission. And even when Jonah pouts, God seeks to stir Jonah’s heart to understand the true compassion of God: if Jonah can care for a mere plant, should God not care for all the inhabitants of this great city?

Just as God wanted Nineveh to repent, so he wanted Jonah to repent. He wanted Jonah to share his compassion.

And what God wants of Jonah, God wants of us.

“Living is Christ”

Friday

Philippians 1

Sunflower.medium21For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.

“Living is Christ.”

Paul is in prison in Rome. We do not know for sure whether, at this point, he is under a form of house arrest as described in Acts or whether he is in a more brutal custody, but he is facing the reality that he may be near his end.

He has been in prison a long time now. He was arrested in Jerusalem after a riot broke out in the temple when it was rumored he had desecrated the temple by bringing a gentile into the inner court. The arresting officer had assumed he was an insurrectionist, advocating armed rebellion against Rome, and started to flog him before Paul’s status as a Roman citizen came to light. Still, the hostility against Paul was intense. His message that we are reconciled to God in Christ Jesus by grace apart from the law was reported as teaching Judeans to abandon the Law of Moses. A plot to murder him was discovered and he was secreted out of Jerusalem by armed guard to Caesarea. There he was kept in custody for two years because his case was too incendiary to release him. Eventually, fearing that he would be sent back to Jerusalem for trial, Paul exercised his right to appeal to the Roman Emperor. Unfortunately the Emperor was Nero.

Traveling late in the shipping season against his advice, they were driven by a violent storm for many days before wrecking off the island of Malta.  It was three months before they were able to sail again for Rome.

Paul’s advocacy of Jesus had prompted communal violence and prison before, but this time, as Paul writes to Philippi, things don’t seem to be turning towards his freedom. Acts reports that he was in custody for at least two years in Rome. Though the New Testament never tells us, he is eventually beheaded in Rome – beheaded because, as a Roman citizen, he could not be tortured to death on a cross.

For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.

Should he be martyred, his death would unite him with Christ Jesus. After more than four years in chains, it is not hard to understand why he would see that as to his personal advantage. But “living is Christ.”

It is not just that living allows his service of Christ to continue, but “living is Christ.” Christ is present in the world in the community of believers.

Christ is present in the world in us. In our living as children of hope. In our witness to the Resurrection of Jesus. In our service of our neighbor. In our love.

“Living is Christ.”

It is common for people to say that Christ is life. Jesus the crucified and risen one is indeed the embodiment of the creator, the source of life. He is the embodiment of heaven’s mercy. He is the embodiment of the truth. He is the embodiment of forgiveness. He is the embodiment of life.

And now he is embodied in us.

“Living is Christ.”

My life. My frail, hesitant, troubled attempt to live by God’s spirit and grace, my living is Christ. My halting efforts to forgive as I have been forgiven, to love as I have been loved, to speak as Christ would speak, to serve as Christ would serve – my halting labor is Christ in the world.

Now the words of Jesus echo in my ears, “”You are the salt of the earth,” “You are the light of the world.” I know full well that Christ and Christ alone is the light of the world, but “Living is Christ.”

These hands, this mouth, these eyes and ears are the presence of Christ in the world. Christ is not present as some ethereal presence, some disembodied spirit; Christ is embodied in us. “Living is Christ.”

Such thoughts fill me with awe and shame and courage all at the same time, for I so easily discount the significance of my life. But “living is Christ.”

Slow to anger

Thursday

Psalm 145

File:Clusone, Oratorio dei Disciplini, Interior frescos 19.JPG

The prophet Jonah, Frescos in the interior of Oratorio dei Disciplini, Clusone. Photocredit: Mattana

8 The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Considering that most gods were easy to enrage, this is a remarkable confession by ancient Israel. Slow to anger. In the Babylonian myth, the gods created humanity from the blood of the chaos monster (as servants) and then regretted their decision because humans were too noisy. I don’t know the myth well-enough to say whether it was the cacophony of human enterprise, the shrill cries of violence and war, or the incessant chatter of humanity’s petitions – their endless cries for daily bread – but like irritated elites, the gods sent a flood to silence them. Noah, of course, outwitted the gods – sailing for safety to the mountain of the gods – a cleverness for which he was rewarded with immortality.

Against that backdrop, the Biblical writers told a remarkably different story – of a humanity whose wickedness knew no bounds (“every imagination of the thoughts of the hearts was only evil continually”) but where God’s mercy rescued humanity, warning Noah, gathering the animals, and gently closing the door of the ark.

Slow to anger.

We have perhaps taken that mercy for granted. In a world marred by death camps and death marches and a vast improvement upon the little first-generation bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed some 100,000 people at a single stroke, and again as many in the months following – the fact that we argue such weapons were necessary to prevent even greater loss of life is only evidence for how far we have fallen from God’s vision for us. This week a friend sent me information about a home raided by authorities were the bodies of dead infants (perhaps stillborn fetuses, if the mother is to be believed) were found beneath the littered and fetid mess of unwashed children, garbage and piles of diapers. The news is preoccupied with the brutal behavior of NFL players, and the beheadings of foreign journalists in the Middle East has roused us to new levels of bombing.

Slow to anger.

Maybe God is too slow to anger. Maybe we would rather a God who would storm from the heavens and throw a few lightening bolts at our butchery and hate. Jonah is certainly enraged by God’s decision to forgive Nineveh, that great city whose empire had brought such suffering to the world, the people who had conquered and dispersed forever the ten northern tribes of Israel. Jonah can’t quite understand why God should care about such people. Jonah can’t bring himself to see them as God’s children. We don’t either, or we wouldn’t be so quick to war.

Slow to anger.

Slow to anger because God’s purpose is not to punish evil but reclaim his rebel world. Slow to anger, because God’s purpose is not to whip a recalcitrant humanity into line – fear can do that if you are willing to be ruthless enough. Slow to anger because God hopes eternally to help us recover our lost humanity.

And so Jesus on the cross doesn’t hurl invective against those evil few who have conspired against him or who have followed orders to torture him to death. He calls on no army of angels. He summons no firebolts. He speaks instead words of kindness, trust in God, and forgiveness.

God is not ignoring the evil that is done. And God is by no means excusing our evil. But he is calling to us. Calling for us to see the work of our hands.  Calling for us to change direction. Calling for us to see the enemy as people for whom God cares. Calling for us to live the steadfast love God shows.

We are grateful for such love and mercy when it is shown to us; we just have trouble understanding why God shows it to others. And until we do, we will continue to build our little arsenals of hate and fear.

8 The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Remarkable grace

Watching for the morning of September 21

Year A

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 20 / Lectionary 25

File:Byzantine agriculture.jpg

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Byzantine Gospel of 11th century, BnF, Cod. gr. 74 Paris, National Library

We have jumped to the 20th chapter in Matthew and we are now just a few verses away from Jerusalem. We skipped Jesus’ talking (again) about divorce, his embrace (again) of children, and Jesus (again) talking about wealth – this time his encounter with the rich man (“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor…then come, follow me.”) Now Jesus is talking once more about God’s radical grace that goes out to all people, not just those who deserve it.

The first reading, from the short story about the runaway prophet, Jonah, provides the conclusion to the narrative when God forgives the wicked city and Jonah pouts in anger. Still, by means of Jonah’s sympathy for a plant, God seeks to invite him to recognize God’s compassion for all people – even Israel’s most brutal enemies.

The psalmist sings praise to this God of mercy for his abundant goodness – perhaps, like the rest of us, without realizing the full impact of what he is saying.

And Paul, writing to his beloved congregation in Philippi, as he faces the possibility of his death, invites us to live a life worthy of Christ, the incarnation of divine mercy.

It should be a Sunday full of the sweetness of God’s compassion and kindness, but “God’s ways are not our ways,” and we are often troubled by the notion that God does not deal with us according to some system of wages, but according to his own goodness.

There are times that this comes to us as great news. But sometimes we are much more like Jonah, or the workers who have borne the heat of the day, and think we deserve more than others. May God be as persistent with us as he was with Jonah.

The Prayer for September 21, 2014

God of Grace,
your mercy knows no bounds;
your salvation is offered to all.
Renew us by your Holy Spirit
that we may walk in the paths of your mercy
and bear your grace to the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 21, 2014

First Reading: Jonah 3:10 – 4:11
“When God saw what [the people of Nineveh] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. 4:1But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.” – Jonah sought to avoid his mission to the Assyrian capital for fear God would forgive the city that had destroyed Israel. Now, when this has happened, God seeks to help Jonah understand his compassion for its people.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:1-8
“I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.” – Psalm 145 is an acrostic hymn, each line beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet, in which the poet sings God’s praise “from A to Z.”

Second Reading: Philippians 1:21-30
“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
– In prison in Rome, Paul is faced with the possibility of his execution and writes to his beloved congregation in Philippi to encourage them to remain faithful to their Lord, living “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” – As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, he tells this story comparing the reign of God with a vineyard owner who chooses to relate to his workers not on the basis of what they deserve, but on the basis of his goodness.