Where the pious pout

File:Pouting boy in Shamar, Iraq.jpg

Watching for the Morning of July 30, 2017

Year A

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 12 / Lectionary 17

A mustard seed doesn’t become a tree. It can be a big bush, but not a tree. And it was improper to plant mustard in your garden. It had something to do with the mixing of kinds and the unruliness of mustard. God’s commands to ancient Israel were to keep such things separate. But it’s not like Matthew doesn’t understand this. Matthew does indeed. There is a scandal, here. Like leaven hidden. You don’t ‘hide’ leaven in the loaf unless it’s not supposed to be there. Like maybe someone intentionally desecrating the Passover bread.

Flaunting boundaries. Jesus has been doing this all along. Not just welcoming outcasts, but laying hands on the dead and touching lepers and not observing the fasts, and eating with unwashed hands and sharing the gifts of God with a Canaanite woman (well, those last two stories come after this one, but we who hear the text know something about the audacity of Jesus).

So why does Matthew let Jesus call the mustard shrub a tree? So that Jesus can say that “the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” It is an allusion to the prophetic word in Ezekiel about the splendid cedar that will rise from the broken twig God will plant.

We are still proclaiming the wondrous and unexpected harvest that will certainly come. God’s scandalous kingdom where sinners are welcomed and the dead are raised and the pious pout and fume. But those who see and hear will sell all to possess it. The priceless pearl. The surprise treasure. The dawn of grace.

So Sunday we hear Solomon ask for wisdom and receive all things. We will hear the psalmist sing of the glories of God’s teaching and hunger to hear what is now proclaimed in Jesus. And Paul will describe the creation groaning for that day when the promise is made complete and exult that nothing can separate us from the love of God. And Jesus will tell us that the reality dawning in this audacious Jesus is worth selling everything to possess.

The Prayer for July 30, 2017

O God, whose promises never fail
and whose purpose for the world
will be brought to its fulfillment in Christ Jesus:
grant us wisdom to recognize the riches of your grace
and to live now the joy that awaits us;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 30, 2017

First Reading: 1 Kings 3:5-12
“At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” – After David’s death, Solomon gains the throne and comes to worship at the ancient holy site of Gibeon where he asks God for wisdom.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:129-136
“The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” – In a majestic tour de force in praise of God’s law/teaching/word, the poet celebrates the guiding commands of God in twenty-two eight-line strophes that proceed from Aleph to Taw (A to Z) with each of the eight lines in every strophe beginning with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Second Reading: Romans 8:22-23, 26-39 (appointed 8:26-39)
“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?”
– Paul’s argument that God has reconciled us to himself through Christ by God’s favor (grace) apprehended by our trust in his promise (faith) now culminates in an ecstatic declaration that nothing in the heavens or on earth can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Gospel: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field.” – From unlikely beginnings – a tiny seed, a bit of yeast – comes an extraordinary end, so it is with the reign of God. What is sown looks frail and powerless – a Galilean rabble and a crucified ‘messiah’ – but from it will come an exceptional harvest. Like a merchant finding a priceless pearl or a farmer finding a great treasure, the wise will do all in their power to obtain it.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APouting_boy_in_Shamar%2C_Iraq.jpg See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Something so small

Sunday Evening

Matthew 13

File:Sequoiadendron giganteum MHNT.BOT.2004.0.191.jpg

Cones and seed of a Giant Sequoia, by Didier Descouens

31He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

I brought a hammer, pliers and screwdriver for the children’s message on Sunday. For each I had asked, “What is this for?” and received the expected answers, “to pound nails,” to “turn bolts,” to turn screws.”

I then pulled from my bag a seedpod from a liquidambar tree. It’s a little smaller than a golf ball, with spikey tendrils that snag easily in fur to help disperse the seeds far and wide. They used to get so tangled in the feathers of my childhood cocker spaniel that I had to cut them free with scissors. Jeremy identified them as “those things in the playground my sister hates.” They hurt when you step on them.

I then pulled out a small redwood seed cone, and from the cone a small redwood seed. I told him it was from the redwood trees outside, but he asked “what trees?” so we ducked out the vestry door to look at the five majestic spires. If you only come into the sanctuary from the direction of the parking lot, you may not notice them. But there, beneath the towering redwoods, Jeremy gave the remark that is the heart and soul of the parable of the mustard seed: “It’s amazing something so big could come from something so small.”

There was nothing more to say, really, though I had planned to. We walked back inside and I took the Bible from the lectern (properly called an ambo, it serves as both lectern and pulpit) and asked whether the Bible was more like the tools or the seed. And he answered without any hesitation, “the seed.”

I forget, sometimes, how clearly children see.

The Word of God is not a tool we use to craft objects or people of our own design; it is a seed that grows into the object of God’s design.

From the seed of God’s word grows hope, compassion, justice, mercy, patience, truthfulness, integrity, joy. From the seed of God’s word grew St. Patrick’s courage and compassion to go back as a missionary to the people who had captured and held him captive as a slave. From the seed of God’s word grew the courage to sit at lunch counters and to stand before fire hoses. From the seed of God’s word has grown a multitude of orphanages, clinics and hospitals and wells to bring clean water in remote places. From the seed of God’s word come millions of simple acts of kindness. From the seed of God’s word hearts are healed and lives grow into the image of Christ.

Scripture can be used as a tool to build a house of slavery; but the seed of the word grows into a community of freed people.

And “It’s amazing something so big could come from something so small.”

Choosing well

Wednesday

1 Kings 3

File:Solomon (Kirillo-Belozersk).jpg

Icon of King Solomon in the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery

5At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night.

When we in the modern West hear an opening sentence like this, it sounds to us like “Once upon a time.” It is the introduction to a fairy tale.

We don’t trust dreams. They are not, for us, windows into the divine. They may be windows into the inner workings of our psychology, they may be voices of the subconscious, but they are not the voice of God.

Most of us don’t remember our dreams. Few of us pay attention to them. But most cultures do. Joseph, the favored son of Jacob, dreamt dreams that revealed the future. And Joseph, husband of Mary, dreamt dreams that saved the life of the child Jesus. We may hear them as children’s stories, but the ancients did not. Solomon has an authentic encounter with the divine – and what comes from that encounter is of great import.

5At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.”

There at the climax of the swiftly moving events surrounding David’s death, there in the tumult and political machinations over which of David’s many sons will gain the throne, Solomon emerges victorious. Nathan the prophet plays a part. Bathsheba plays a crucial role. Her son Solomon is not the eldest son. She is not the first wife. But racing to install him as king before Adonijah seizes the crown, they succeed in setting Solomon on the throne.

And why? Why should the kingdom go to another? For the next 400 years in Judah the crown will go to the eldest son. In the northern kingdom of Israel it will be different. There, coups and counter coups, rivalries and butcheries will be the pattern of power. But not in the southern kingdom. There it will be more or less orderly.

But David chooses Solomon. And where will God come down in this succession struggle? Will he side with the younger son, or will God side with the claims of heritage and social norms?

“Ask what I should give you.”

Much hangs on this question. Will Judah’s kingship pursue the familiar quest for glory, wealth and power? Or will Judah’s kingship journey towards a different goal?

Will God stand with Solomon if he chooses wealth and power? Or will God turn from David’s line as God turned away from Saul?

In this night Solomon is being tested, probed, questioned. Who will he show himself to be? What path will he choose? It is another narrative like Jacob wrestling God at the river Jabbok, or Abraham taking Isaac to the mountain. This is not royal propaganda; the heart of Solomon is being weighed. And the fate of the nation lies in the answer.

We are all tested. At some time or another choices have to be made, prayers are offered, a path chosen. And what shall I choose? What goal do I pursue? To what end do I lay down my life?

Solomon chooses wisdom; he chooses the care of his neighbor; he chooses the path that begins with the fear of the LORD.

The point of the story isn’t that Solomon got his cake and ate it, too; the point is that Solomon, who could have chosen anything, chose wisdom. He was tested at Gibeon and chose well.

Such a story doesn’t simply praise Solomon; it pries into our own hearts and asks how we have chosen – inviting us to choose anew today.

The wise see

Watching for the morning of July 27

Year A

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 12 / Lectionary 17

File:Mustard seedling.jpg

Mustard seedling. Photocredit: Tess Watson

What you see now is a mere seed, but from the smallest of seeds, a surprising end awaits.

Jesus was not much to look at. He was not a member of any ruling family. He had no noble blood or title. He was a carpenter’s son, after all, perhaps a stonemason; he worked construction. What few could see was that he would be building a new world, a living temple, a true humanity.

We think of Solomon in all his glory – 500 wives and concubines and the wealth of the nations. But his prayer was for wisdom. Wisdom to rule wisely. Wisdom to understand the world God had fashioned. Wisdom to understand the meaning of life. Wisdom that begins in the commands of God.

Perhaps the narrative of Solomon at Gibeon is nothing more than political propaganda, but if so, it is propaganda that has become scripture. The king who follows David, the king who will carry forth the plan of building a holy nation and temple, should ask above all for wisdom. Kingships stand or fall on whether they seek the glory of the king or the glory of God – justice and mercy and care for the poor. Should Solomon seek wealth and power or a just nation that attends to God’s commands?

And so the psalmist adds his voice to these texts for Sunday, singing praise of that true wisdom which God has embodied in the Torah: God’s law, God’s teaching, God’s path for the people.

Wisdom sees what is of true value: the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field, the home for the birds that shall grow from the tiniest seed, the reign of God that is hidden in humble beginnings of the man from Nazareth. Those who are wise will give everything to gain it.

The Prayer for July 27, 2014

O God, your promises never fail
and your purpose for the world
will be brought to its fulfillment in Christ Jesus.
Grant us wisdom to recognize the riches of your grace
and to live now the joy that awaits us;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 27, 2014

First Reading: 1 Kings 3:5-12
“At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” – After David’s death, Solomon gains the throne and comes to worship at the ancient holy site of Gibeon where he asks God for wisdom.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:129-136
“The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” – In a majestic tour de force in praise of God’s law/teaching/word, the poet celebrates the guiding commands of God in 22 8-line strophes that proceed from Aleph to Taw (A to Z) with each of the 8 lines in every strophe begin with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Second Reading: Romans 8:26-39
“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?”
– Paul’s argument that God has reconciled us to himself through Christ by God’s favor (grace) apprehended by our trust in his promise (faith) now culminates in an ecstatic declaration that nothing in the heavens or on earth can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Gospel: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field.” – From unlikely beginnings – a tiny seed, a bit of yeast – comes an extraordinary end, so it is with the reign of God. What is sown looks frail and powerless – a Galilean rabble and a crucified ‘messiah’ – but from it will come an exceptional harvest. Like a merchant finding a priceless pearl or a farmer finding a great treasure, the wise will do all in their power to obtain it.