A fire in the bones

File:Charbon - charcoal burning (3106924114).jpg

Watching for the Morning of June 25, 2017

Year A

The Third Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 7 / Lectionary 12

The prophet cries out against God, accusing God of having duped him, called him to his ministry on false premises. He was sent out to declare the word of the LORD, but no one has listened. Indeed, he is met with scorn and derision. In an era of prosperity, all he sees is the bitterness of God’s pending judgment. The sins of the nation are ever before him, its folly abundantly clear – they are on a path to destruction while the leadership of the nation imagines only glory.

The prophet’s preaching has achieved nothing. But every attempt to hold his peace ends with a burning passion:

If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.

The word demands to be spoken.

Jesus doesn’t hide anything from his followers. He tells them that their message will face opposition. “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!” It’s not really the best strategy for recruiting followers. We rather prefer the message of the American prosperity Gospel: God wants you to be successful and wealthy. But the healing and redeeming work of Jesus leaves scars on his hands. And we are sent to carry on that work.

We are sent, as we heard last week, to proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’We are sent to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” We have “received without payment” and we are to “give without payment.” We are to dispense the gifts of God, to scatter abroad the benefactions of the new governance dawning among us. The reign of heaven, the dominion of God, the rule of the Spirit, the new creation – this is the gift we carry to the world.

But the world rather likes its bloodletting and grasping, and not everyone will rejoice at the dawning of grace and faithfulness.

So we are sheep amidst wolves. We are bearers of the cross. The message will heal and it will anger. It will unite and also divide. There will be hostility, mockery, even violence. But the God who is mindful of even the sparrows is mindful of every hair on our heads. And “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.”

The fields are ripe for the harvest. The world is ready for grace to reign.

The Prayer for June 25, 2017

Gracious God, Your word divides as well as heals;
it closes ears as well as opens hearts.
Grant us courage to be faithful in our witness
and diligent in our service
that, with boldness and joy in your promise,
your grace and mercy may be revealed to all people;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 25, 2017

First Reading: Jeremiah 20:7-13
“O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed.” – The prophet raises a lament towards God for assigning him a message of judgment and destruction that has resulted in nothing but hostility and persecution. And when he tries to be silent, God’s message burns like a fire within him.

Psalmody: Psalm 69:7-10, 16-18
“Zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” – The poet cries out to God in the midst of persecution and trouble.

Second Reading: Romans 6:1b-11
“Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!”
– In the course of setting forth his message that all are justified (in a right relationship with God) by grace (God’s merciful action) through faith (trusting God’s promise), Paul anticipates the objections of his opponents that if our sin shows how great is God’s mercy, why not continue to sin? Such a notion is rejected because joined with Christ in baptism we have entered into a new reality. We have come under Christ’s dominion, being transferred from the realm of sin and death and living now in the realm of grace and life.

Gospel: Matthew 10:24-39
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” – the path of discipleship is not an easy one. The world will resist God’s claim on life, but the followers of Jesus are sent as agents of God’s transforming justice and mercy.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACharbon_-_charcoal_burning_(3106924114).jpg By Serge Melki from Indianapolis, USA (Charbon – charcoal burning) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“A man against his father…”

Sunday Evening

Matthew 10

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A man with his grandson in East New Britain, Papua New Guinea, by Taro Taylor

35I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

It’s worth noting, in passing, that the father / son-in-law relationship is not mentioned. In the world of Jesus, a woman comes to live in the family home of the man. The new wife takes orders from her mother-in-law and the husband’s first allegiance is to his family. It is why the mother-son relationship is so crucial in the ancient near east, for a son not only raises the wife’s honor within the family; he is her security and her primary ally in the family network.

Even still, to rend any relationships within a family, to set a man against his father or a daughter against her mother, is a scandalous thought. Remember that the killing of the fatted calf by the prodigal father is an effort to appease the community and prevent violence against the rebel son for his heinous affront to social values. For Jesus to suggest, as he does here, that he has come to rend these most fundamental social bonds is shocking.

Pastors don’t get away with shocking. I was criticized by the senior pastor in my first parish for using the word ‘whore’ in a sermon – it was too crude. Jesus may love prostitutes, but loving whores sounds too shocking. Except it was shocking. Eating with tax collectors is familiar to us, but Jesus went into the homes and shared table fellowship with filthy (ritually unclean), thieving, collaborators in service of the occupying army. He crossed boundaries (healing the Canaanite woman, talking with the Samaritan woman at the well). He broke the Sabbath traditions. He “made himself equal to God” by forgiving sins. He wandered the countryside when good moral people stayed home. He told some outrageous stories, did some outrageous things – and suffered a disgraceful end.

But it’s not that Jesus was being provocative for the perverse pleasure of it. He was trying to right the ship, to call the community back to its radical God. A God who set slaves free and set rules to protect the poor. Who said bread should be shared and neighbors loved. All neighbors. Even enemy neighbors, in provocative and challenging ways like volunteering to carry his pack an extra mile.

So don’t be surprised, says Jesus, when you go out to spread the word about the reign of God and people reject you – when even your family rejects you. We shouldn’t live in fear of people; but fear of God. Ultimately, God’s opinion is the only one that matters.

Like most pastors, I don’t want to be shocking. We all hope for the respect and affection of our congregations. But I do want people to be able to recognize how shocking is Jesus. How daring the life he lived. How courageous his path. And to understand that his daring little band of followers, seeking to live the reign of God, outlasted Rome and every other human empire.

In many places in our world people take great risks – and risk the favor of their families – to show allegiance to this Jesus and his reign of grace. We should be wise, but we shouldn’t fear. We may be sheep among wolves, but the hairs of are head are counted.

Knives

Saturday

Matthew 10

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Roman Dagger, photocredit: Michel wal

34“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

Everything depends upon hearing a text in its right context. Cut this verse away from its place in Matthew’s Gospel, cut it away from the life and ministry of Jesus, cut it away from the Biblical witness as a whole, and we have justification for violence. Or, if not violence, justification for whatever commotion causing things we want to do. Place this word of Jesus on their march up to Jerusalem, with Jesus astride a donkey and the people waving palm fronds (symbols of kingship) and you have a very different message than its place here in the missionary discourse. We have to be careful about the way we use scripture. Indeed, the central question is always, “Are we using scripture or is scripture using us?” It’s not an easy question to answer. It takes a continual listening. There is a reason Jesus talks about abiding in his word.

So Jesus brings a sword, but this cannot be a sword of armed struggle; after all, Jesus rebukes his followers saying, “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.” And how should we love our enemies and take up the sword at the same time? This is not the sword born by gladiators; this is the knife that divides. It is not the long sword used by troops in combat; it is the short sword, the dagger, used for everything from personal protection to cooking. It is the boning knife used in Hebrews for the Word of God that “divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow.” It is the priestly knife used in sacrifice.

How differently we would hear this verse if we translated it, “I have not come to bring peace, but a scalpel.” Jesus is, after all, in the business of heart surgery. Only his surgery is not just on the individual human heart; he comes to operate on the whole human community. There is surgery to be done. The warlords and drug lords and patrons of young victims of human trafficking. The abusive parents and abusive governments. The active and passive participants is communal violence. There is surgery to be done. And we should not imagine than when power is challenged, when individuals and “businesses” that profit from evils are confronted, there will not be resistance. Fierce resistance. Many miners were beaten and killed in their attempt to stand up to the coal companies. Many young men and women were assaulted, slandered and murdered for their resistance to Jim Crow – even some children. There is heart surgery to be done. There is truth to be spoken. There is compassion to be waged. Neighbors oppose the building of churches and soup kitchens. It is illegal to baptize in many countries. Congregation’s themselves resent the changes new people bring. Our hearts, too, need the surgeon’s scalpel.

And what if we translate the text, “I have not come to bring peace, but a knife of sacrifice”? What will such words say to us as we listen to Jesus declare that the fields are waiting for harvest? When he sends us out to cast out demons and heal and declare the reign of God?

Jesus doesn’t bring a quiet and peaceable life. He brings the peaceable kingdom. He brings the dawning of that day when swords are beaten into plowshares – a day that won’t come easily, given our great faith in the power of violence.

There is surgery to be done, so don’t be surprised when Jesus says, “I have come with knives.”

Dust covered pilgrims

Friday

Jeremiah 20

File:SPRY(1895) p098 OUR COMPANIONS EN ROUTE TO MECCA.jpg7O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.

I love this prayer of Jeremiah. I love the outrage, the sense of betrayal, the anger at God. God has summoned him to be a prophet. What greater privilege can there be than to deliver God’s message to God’s people. What greater honor? What a treasure to be on such intimate terms with God that he should become a vessel of God’s choosing? But the message is dark. It is warning and judgment. God is ready to destroy the city and his holy temple. Armies draw near; death and hunger and disease – the horsemen of the apocalypse. Yet even these bitter words are sweet, for they are God’s words. But the people want none of it. The believers are few. The priestly officials and royal house conspire against him. The king tosses the scroll of prophetic words into the warming fire. And there is no relief; when Jeremiah would walk away, God’s message burns within him. So Jeremiah does what we all do; he cries out against God. “You cheated me.”

We call it ‘burnout’.

There was a moment when even Moses lost it.

It doesn’t only afflict prophets and leaders. It afflicts all of us in those times when frail, ordinary Christian sinners show themselves to be less than we hoped. Churches must take the charge seriously when non-Christians see them acting in not very Christian ways. But the more troubling reality happens inside congregations. We so often come hoping for the shining city and find instead dust covered pilgrims. The taste of that dust can be bitter in our mouths and we lose hope and walk away.

But we are pilgrims; we are not yet what we should be, we are on the road. We are not yet as compassionate as we should be, but we are on the road. We are not yet as generous as we should be, but we are on the road. We are not yet as welcoming as we should be, but we are on the road. We are not yet as bold and courageous and daring and encouraging as we should be, but we are on the road. We are not as kind as we should be, but we are on the road.

At least we should be on the road. Sometimes believers settle down comfortably at some watering hole and forget they are pilgrims. Sometimes they even arm themselves to defend their settlement. Then God has to go searching for an army to make them break camp and resume their journey.

Jeremiah had the misfortune of bringing such a word to his people. The Lord found an army in Babylon. And Jeremiah is weary of bearing this message. He is in anguish for the sorrow coming on his community. Like Jacob, he wrestles with God and goes away limping – but he remembers: “the Lord is with me like a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail.” It is not a promise of personal success or vindication; it is a reminder of the message God spoke to him in the beginning:I am watching over my word to perform it.And Jeremiah’s lament ends in praise – “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers” – because, in his struggle, he is reminded that the purpose of the Lord is to bring his pilgrims to the land of promise.

“The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: See, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me?” (32:26-27)

Not one sparrow

Thursday

Matthew 10

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photocredit: Hans Hillewaert

29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.

My first pet was a sky-blue parakeet named ‘Ky’ because my little brother couldn’t yet say ‘sky’. I have always loved birds. As a child I fantasized about being able to transform into a bird and soar on the winds. I couldn’t quite figure out what kind of bird I would become. I wanted to fly like the seagulls, and toyed with that image, until I thought about what seagulls eat.

I will never forget a nighthawk I met in the empty church parking lot one evening. I could see she was hurt. I stepped towards her in compassion, and she spluttered away, broken wing dragging. I ached for her and tried to approach her ever so gently. She led me, bit by bit, to the far end of the parking lot before launching herself into the sky and flying back to the hatchlings from which she had so artfully led me away. I am excited whenever I see one of those beautiful sharp winged birds – and so clever.

Certain birds we value more than others. The cardinals in Michigan were stunning. I never again let my cat out of the house after catching her stalking a cardinal. The finches were lovely in their summer plumage, but it was the less common birds I looked for: Nuthatches upside down on the tree trunk, the Junco’s as they passed through each spring and fall, a flicker and a downy woodpecker – and the tufted titmouse.

No one pays much attention to the sparrows.

Except God.

“Not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.”

We are easily distracted by the rare and the beautiful. We know the statistics that attractive people get paid more than ordinary folks. They are thought to be smarter, more successful. Amazing how much weight we put on what is precious in the eyes of the world. But not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from God.

I have tried to understand why sparrows are for sale in the time of Jesus. My first thought was how little meat was on those tiny bones, how impoverished would be those who buy them. Then I found a reference in a Hellenistic text that said sparrows were the Viagra of the ancient world. They were thought to be exceptionally fecund little critters. There are images of Venus, the goddess of love, riding a chariot pulled by a flock of sparrows. But Viagra wouldn’t be selling two for a penny. Consider the price of powdered rhino horn.

There is a reference in Job 41:5 to the sparrow as a children’s toy, tied to a string. But is that market big enough for them to be a target of the fowlers? (In both these verses, the Greek Old Testament uses the word ‘sparrow’.)

So I end up back with the thought that these are a thin meal for the poor, and the images that come to mind are those desperately hungry and forgotten in slums and barren places across the world who pick through garbage or hope to spear a rat.

Not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from God. Nor do any of us. Any of us.

Into thirsty sands

Wednesday

Romans 6

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Benin Baptism, By Ferdinand Reus from Arnhem, Holland

 4 We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life

I don’t know exactly what it is about this picture of a woman being baptized in Benin that I find so compelling, but compelling it is. Perhaps it is the posture of kneeling. Perhaps it is the gentleness of the hands pouring water over her head. Perhaps it is the white robe. Perhaps it is the expression upon this woman’s face. Maybe even her simple beauty. Somehow all these elements together move me deeply.

Baptism is a remarkable thing. It declares a majestic holiness and tenderness of God that gathers us from far and wide and brings us near to him who is the center of all things. It speaks of homecoming, of welcome, of center, of peace. It speaks of limping from brokenness into wholeness. It speaks of answered longing and belonging. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”

Baptism also speaks to us of dying and rising, of old and new, of what is left behind and what is embraced ahead. No longer are we bound in the realm of life’s sorrows and struggles; now we have entered into the realm of grace and life. Yes, we must all get up and go home and deal with the challenges each day presents. Yes we must work the day’s labor in the sweat of our brow. But we have been embraced by the holy, our shame set aside, washed away into the sands. We have become citizens of heaven even as we dwell on earth, citizens of the age to come even as we live out this present age.

In world of violence we have become part of the realm of peace. Buried as frail, mortal creatures we rise to walk in newness of life. All this is present in that kneeling figure, in the gentle hands, in the simple splash of water, in the white robe, the bowed head and the thirsty sands.

The field waits for harvest

Watching for the morning of June 22

Year A

The Second Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 7 / Lectionary 12

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By Faísca from Lisboa, Portugal

With this Sunday we pick up again in the main body of Matthew’s Gospel. Unfortunately, because of the odd choices of the Common Lectionary, we have skipped over much of Matthew’s Gospel. Before the seasons of Lent and Easter we were reading in the Sermon on the Mount. Now we have jumped from chapter 5 to chapter 10, into the middle of what is referred to as the “missionary discourse.”

Matthew has arranged the teaching of Jesus into five large blocks of material, evoking the five books of the Torah (the first five books, Genesis through Deuteronomy, ascribed to Moses.) The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is the first of these blocks of teaching; the missionary discourse, (Matthew 10) is the second.

What we have skipped in Matthew is the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, stressing the importance of following Jesus’ teaching (the narrow and wide gates, the fools who build on sand v. those wise who build on rock, and the declaration: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (7:21)

Chapters 8-9 show Jesus healing and stilling the storm at sea and the storm within the possessed men (whose demons went into the pigs). He forgives and heals the paralyzed man, calls Matthew the tax gatherer to follow, heals the slowly hemorrhaging woman and raises the dead daughter of a ‘ruler’. He opens the eyes of the blind, frees a possessed man to speak, and laments that the people are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” In the face of this great need (“The harvest is plentiful”), Jesus urges us to pray for God to send workers out to bear God’s healing and grace into the world.

This Sunday we take up the middle portion of Jesus’ instructions to his followers whom he sends into the world to announce the reign of God and make it visible by healing the sick and releasing people from bondage. Having warned the disciples of the hostility and persecution that will encounter, he now urges them (and us) not to be afraid, nor to turn back. In Matthew’s Gospel, we have heard Jesus’ call to live the reign of God, and seen the fruit of God’s dawning governance in the healing and rescue of the people. Now we are sent to participate in that mission. Like workers standing in a field ripe for harvest, there is opportunity to be agents of God’s grace and mercy wherever we turn. But when we face resistance and rejection we should not be surprised, for we know how the rulers of this world treated our teacher – nor should we fear, for we know God’s faithfulness.

The Prayer for June 22, 2014

Gracious God,
you have sent us into the world
to bear witness to your way and your promise.
Grant us courage to be faithful in our witness
and to stand confidently in your promise
that though the world may reject you, you will not turn from us,
but have declared your lordship even over the hairs of our head

The Texts for June 22, 2014

First Reading: Jeremiah 20:7-13
“O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed.” – The prophet raises a lament towards God for assigning him a message of judgment and destruction that has resulted in nothing but hostility and persecution. And when he tries to be silent, God’s message burns like a fire within him.

Psalmody: Psalm 69:7-10 [11-15] 16-18
“Zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” – The poet cries out to God in the midst of persecution and trouble.

Second Reading: Romans 6:1b-11
“Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!”
– In the course of setting forth his message that all are justified (in a right relationship with God) by grace (God’s merciful action) through faith (trusting God’s promise), Paul anticipates the objections of his opponents that if our sin shows how great is God’s mercy, why not continue to sin? Such a notion is rejected because joined with Christ in baptism we have entered into a new reality. We have come under Christ’s dominion, being transferred from the realm of sin and death and living now in the realm of grace and life.

Gospel: Matthew 10:24-39
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” – the path of discipleship is not an easy one. The world will resist God’s claim on life, but the followers of Jesus are sent as agents of God’s transforming justice and mercy.