The river of life

File:Río Dynjandisá, Vestfirðir, Islandia, 2014-08-14, DD 118-120 HDR.JPG

Watching for the Morning of August 21, 2016

Year C

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 16 / Lectionary 21

How arid has faith become when you resent a person being healed on the Sabbath? How barren when we are so committed to the form of religion that we have lost its life breath?

And do not think this is a problem of those archenemies, the Pharisees. It is the problem of every religious tradition.

We have all been in that place where we resent the attention someone is getting, when we can feel the ground of our position, authority or respect weakened. Our innate tendency in such moments is to see the other’s faults – and point them out. We diminish the other in whatever way is available to us. We mark their errors. We minimize their accomplishments. We sneer and snicker, gripe and complain. We murmur. On a human level, we understand the Pharisees.

But however understandable it may be, humanly speaking, it is dark and haunted spiritually. Before us stands the anointed of God dispensing the gifts of that ultimate Sabbath rest when all heaven and earth are united in peace, when God’s spirit of grace and life governs every heart, and all that has gone wrong since Eden has been left behind with the grave clothes in the tomb.

Before us stands a foretaste of the final Sabbath – and in our resentment we see instead some upstart, untrained, Nazarene who should be working the construction site not presuming to speak for God. We don’t see healing; we see work that could have waited a day. We don’t see deliverance; we see doctoring. We don’t see salvation manifesting itself in our midst; we see the mundane. We miss the wondrous and dwell in the ordinary. Without realizing it, we have abandoned the rich green land of promise for the dry grass of a spiritual desert.

This Sunday, through the prophet, the poet, the author of Hebrews and by the voice of Jesus, God calls us to renewal: to reenter the promised land, to drink again from the river of the water of life, to feast on the bread of heaven and sing anew: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.”

The Prayer for August 21, 2016

God of healing,
bring your reign of light and life
to all who are broken or bound,
touching us with foretaste of that feast where all are fed,
every wound healed
and every tear wiped away.

The Texts for August 21, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 58:9b-14
“If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 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.” – In the difficult years after the return from exile in Babylon, when Jerusalem still lay in ruins and faith had grown lackluster before the trials of daily existence, the prophet calls the people to renewed faithfulness.

Psalmody: Psalm 103:1-8
“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.” – A hymn of praise, celebrating God’s abundant mercies.

Second Reading: Hebrews 12:18-29
“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.”
– Having concluded his great recital of those who put their trust in the promise of God, the author contrasts the threats and fear experienced with the giving of the Law at Sinai with the promise and grace of life in Christ – urging us not to miss such a gift.

Gospel: Luke 13:10-17
“Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.” – Jesus frees a bound woman on the Sabbath, incurring the hostility of the religious leaders. But Jesus was not “doctoring” on the Sabbath; he was bringing the Sabbath rest of God.

 

Reflection adapted from 2013. Follow this link for other reflections on the texts for this Sunday.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AR%C3%ADo_Dynjandis%C3%A1%2C_Vestfir%C3%B0ir%2C_Islandia%2C_2014-08-14%2C_DD_118-120_HDR.JPG by Diego Delso [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Sabbath rest

Sunday Evening

Isaiah 58

13 if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable…
14then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;

We don’t worship God on the Sabbath, we worship God for his Sabbath.  The Sabbath is not a day; it’s a time.  It’s not an item on the calendar; it is a reality to be lived and enjoyed.  Christmas is not just a day; it is a state of mind and heart.  Thanksgiving is not just a date; it is – at its best – a time of family and goodness, of bounty and welcome strangers.  Sabbath is not Saturday or Sunday; it is our participation in the peace of God.  It is rest, and joy, and the treasure of God’s word of peace.

Yes, there is the commandment to observe Sabbath each week.  Yes, there is the command to rest and give rest.  But Christians gather on Sunday because it is the day of resurrection.  It is the eighth day, the day of new creation.  We come to hear the voice from heaven that does not shake the mountain but opens the grave.

We come to break the bread and sing the songs of heaven.  We come to lay our burdens down for a time, to leave the struggle of life aside for a morning, to step away from our rush.  We come to bless the LORD and forget not his benefits.

All this is lost when Sabbath is regarded as a rule rather than a gift: what must be done rather than what has been given.  Christmas can become this – the obligation of purchasing presents rather than the joy of giving.  This is why Christians center Christmas around the gift of the child rather than the paper and bows.  The presents and the tree and the meal take their spirit from the child; they are not an end in themselves.  Just so, Sabbath takes its spirit from the God who creates and redeems in love and speaks to his troubled, rebellious world a word of grace and peace.

Who would not come to Christmas dinner?  And what could keep us from this our Sunday dinner?  It is the long table set on the lawn beneath the shade with fresh corn and apple pie and children giggling as they run with cousins.  It is a remembrance of all God has given and all that is yet to come.  It is a time when God’s Sabbath draws near and burdens are lifted, the stranger welcomed, the broken embraced, the bent stand upright, and our hearts and lives are refreshed.

18You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, 19and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. 20(For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” 21Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”) 22But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12).

Unbent

Saturday

Luke 13

English: Tree near Chilton Taken from the new ...

English: Tree near Chilton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

11 Just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.

Eighteen years.  We bear our burdens for a long time.  Grief.  Shame.  Fear.  Such things do not go away easily.

I will never forget the elderly woman who called me one day with a plaintive request that I come hear her confession.  It was a powerful moment, a wrenching story during the depression when there was not enough food to feed her children.  Now, late in life, unable to escape the memory, she cried out for mercy.  The story poured forth, lingered in the prayer of David’s psalm, to be swept away by that precious word of absolution.  For the first time in 50 years she stood free.  But a few days later I received another phone call.  She had a confession to make, would I come.  The word of grace had been forgotten, and the shame had returned.

I understood, then, there were issues of memory at work.  But I grieved for her – her memory of guilt was greater than her memory of grace.  She lived bent over, not 18 years but more than 50.

The miracle of healing is not what happens in our bones; it is what happens in our hearts.  It is what happens when a wounded and bent life is brought under the reign of grace.  It is not in the text, the text says he laid hands on her, but I imagine Jesus reaching out to lift this woman’s face – and in lifting her face, straightening her whole life.

Lifting our face is the hardest thing to do when we are ashamed, hard to do when we are carrying secrets.  Every impulse is to curl up, to look down, to look away, to slump over, to hide behind whatever masks or duty is at hand.  But there is that strong, tender hand of Jesus, lifting our face to his, meeting our shame with his healing light and freeing us to stand upright.

Each day we may call, and each day he will come back, until our memory of grace is stronger than our memory of shame.

2 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits–
3 who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,  (Psalm 103)

 

All

Friday

Psalm 103

Innocence Is Bliss

Innocence Is Bliss (Photo credit: drp)

1 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me, bless his holy name.

All.  Every fiber of my being. Every ache and longing.  Every fear and sorrow.  Every joy and happiness.  Every labor of my hands.  Every affection of my heart.  God is to the soul as spring drawing us outdoors into the warm sunshine after a long winter.  God is to the human heart like the rains after the dry season, bursting the desert into bloom.  Children run barefoot in the grass.  Even the dowdiest adults take off their shoes and wiggle their toes in the fresh cool green.  God is as a cold lake after a long day’s backpacking.  God is as the aroma of fresh baked bread – real bread that rewards a day’s labor and patience.  God is as grandmother’s welcome embrace.  God is as mother with a cool washcloth to a child’s fever.  God is as the laughter of a happy thanksgiving table.  God is the source and goal of all good.

There is nothing in this psalm that imagines life is easy or free of pain.  It knows God is our healing balm not an eternal inoculation.  So we see bodies laid out after the chemical attack in Syria, and a mother gently tucking her child in as though he were bedding down for the night.  There is no end to sorrow in life, but God is as the tender mother’s caress.  God is as the bread freely given in scarcity.  God is as the unexpected kindness from a stranger on the road.  God is as the voice of truth to those denied it.  God is as the day of release to those unjustly imprisoned.  God is the surprising mercy, the unforeseen help, the peace in trial, the calm bequeathed by strong and able arms.

And so ever fiber rejoices in him.

If you cannot sense this, find some fresh grass for your toes.

Sabbath

Thursday

Isaiah 58

13If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
… I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth.

English: the 4th Commandment on Nash Papyrus &...

English: the 4th Commandment on Nash Papyrus “Remember the Sabbath” row 9, words 5-8. in Hebrew script: “zahor et yom ha’shabat”. similar to Exodus 20:7 Egypt, 2nd century CE עברית: הדיבר הרביעי מעשרת הדברות בפפירוס נאש, “זכור את יום השבת” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Keeping Sabbath is one of the ten words.  For those who would boil the rich and wonderful legal codes of the Torah down to ten commandments, the Sabbath is one of these ten essentials.  No matter how you number them, breaking Sabbath is in the same select list as murder, kidnapping, elder abuse and violating another’s marriage.

At first glance it doesn’t seem to match up.  Keeping Sabbath looks to us like a ritual obligation.  All those that follow are filled with deep ethical dimensions that affect the well being of society by governing the way we treat one another.  Keeping Sabbath seems like an obligation towards God.  In our society, such a religious obligation seems clearly secondary to the “higher” ethical norms concerning the treatment of others.  Why then does the prophet equate keeping Sabbath with such fundamental humanitarian concerns as feeding the hungry and caring for the poor?

For most of human history we have enslaved one another.  Binding another to serve one’s will seems endemic to human nature.  There have been formal institutions of slavery, encoded in law, and many informal and indirect ones.  There is a serfdom that binds you to the land, but also a serfdom that binds you with debt – the coal miners living in mining towns paid in script only good at the mining stores.  There is the slavery that binds by law, and the enslavement that binds by fear we see in human trafficking and the conscription of child soldiers (join us or we kill your family).  The bent woman before Jesus in Sunday’s gospel is spiritually enslaved.

It is easy to hear the exodus story as God’s triumph over the mighty empire of Egypt, but why then would God need ten plagues?  Wouldn’t one or two massive exercises of power have sufficed, just as the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought Japan to surrender?  Why start with a silly trick of turning your staff into a serpent?  Why begin with a few days of polluted water?  Because this is not about power; it is about redemption.  The Nile was the source of life for Egypt and God is declaring that he is the author of life.  The serpent was a symbol of royal power in Egypt and God is the one who holds Pharaoh and his kingdom in his hand.  God’s purpose was not just to save Israel, but also to save Egypt.  It didn’t take ten assaults to break Israel free; God provided ten opportunities for pharaoh to repent, to turn away from the prison of slaveholding.  Pharaoh behaved like us all: only as the price became more and more unbearable did he finally relent.

With the Sabbath command, the God who delivered Israel and Egypt from the house of bondage takes his stand against all enslavement.  The commandment isn’t just that I should rest on the Sabbath, it is that I must give rest to others.

Humans were not created for work.  In the Babylonian myth, humans were created to serve the gods.  In the Genesis narrative humans were created to walk with God.

When I “trample on the Sabbath,” I trample on my neighbor.  If I cannot turn off my wants and needs, if I cannot for one day set aside my “own interests” for the sake of others, then the life of all is degraded.

I understand the “modern economy,” but when I want to be able to go to the grocery store in the middle of the night, that choice affects not only me and my household, but all who must work in order that the store might be open at my convenience.  And when the demands of work encroach ever further into our lives, children and families and neighborhoods are undermined.  It may be the way of the world, but the way of God gives Sabbath.

So the Pharisees were right – Jesus needed to honor the Sabbath.  They just didn’t understand that is exactly what he was doing: the woman was being set free from her bondage.

Foundations

Wednesday

Isaiah 58

9bIf you remove the yoke from among you,
     the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10if 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.
11The Lord will guide you continually,
     and satisfy your needs in parched places,
     and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
     like a spring of water,
     whose waters never fail.
12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
     you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
     the restorer of streets to live in.
13If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
     from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
     and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
     serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
14then you shall take delight in the Lord,
     and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
     for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

English: Avdat: view from top of Tell Avdat to...

English: Avdat: view from top of Tell Avdat to the Negev Photo by Uri Juda (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The city still lies in ruins.  Lamentations declares it has become the haunt of jackals.  With the city sacked and its people taken into captivity or scattered among the surrounding countries, wildlife came to scavenge and take shelter among the rubble.  The plaintive cry of the owl echoes through abandoned streets at night.  By the time the prophet speaks, it has been at least 50 years.

The first returning exiles cleared the rubble from the place where the altar of burnt offerings once stood and built a new one, but how much more?  Perhaps they cleared the steps that led up to the temple doors, though the doors themselves had been stripped of their bronze and burned.  The rich and fragrant cedar-lined walls of the temple are but ash long washed away by the rains.  When the beams burned, the roof caved in and walls collapsed   Do the two great pillars that guarded the door lie in pieces behind the altar?

No one could gather to offer sacrifices without being reminded of all that had been lost.  And it is not only the house of God that is crumbled, but the palace, the homes of the great families, the city walls and gates, the public pools and markets.  It is a city haunted by the cries of its dead and the lost hopes and dreams of a people.

It is not easy to speak in such a time.  No one is interested in cheap promises.  No one wants to hear blame for what brought them to such an end.  For many, talk of God is best left unsaid, filled as it is with unanswerable questions and broken hopes.

The word given to the prophet speaks a sweet and gentle promise, guiding them back to the basics.  God doesn’t ask the people to be optimistic; he asks them to be faithful: to feed the hungry, care for those in need, and honor the Sabbath.

Later prophets will challenge the people to rebuild the city walls and the temple, but first God speaks of spiritual foundations.  From unfaithfulness, the city came to ruin.  From faithfulness, a new city shall arise on its ancient foundations.

Then your light shall rise in the darkness
      and your gloom be like the noonday…
12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
      you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
      the restorer of streets to live in.

Of wastelands and the water of life

Watching for the morning of August 25

Year C

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 16 / Lectionary 21

(Photo credit: dkbonde)

(Photo credit: dkbonde)

How arid has faith become when you resent a person being healed on the Sabbath?  How barren when we are so committed to the form of religion that we have lost its life breath?

And do not think this is a problem of those archenemies, the Pharisees.  It is the problem of every religious tradition.

We have all been in that place where we resent the attention someone is getting, when we can feel the ground of our position, authority or respect weakened.  Our innate tendency in such moments is to see the other’s faults – and point them out.  We diminish the other in whatever way is available to us.  We mark their errors.  We minimize their accomplishments.  We sneer and snicker, gripe and complain.  We murmur.  On a human level, we understand the Pharisees.

But however understandable it may be, humanly speaking, it is dark and haunted spiritually.  Before us stands the anointed of God dispensing the gifts of that ultimate Sabbath rest when all heaven and earth are united in peace, when God’s spirit of grace and life governs every heart, and all that has gone wrong since Eden has been left behind with the grave clothes in the tomb.

Before us stands a foretaste of the final Sabbath – and in our resentment we see instead some upstart, untrained, Nazarene who should be working the construction site not presuming to speak for God.  We do not see healing; we see work that could have waited a day.  We do not see deliverance.  We do not see salvation manifesting itself in our midst.  We have let go of the realm of heaven to dwell in this world of our wants and resentments.  Without realizing it, we have abandoned the rich green land of promise for a spiritual wasteland.

This Sunday, through the prophet, the poet, the author of Hebrews and by the voice of Jesus, God calls us to renewal: to reenter the promised land, to drink again from the river of the water of life, to feast on the bread of heaven and sing anew: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.”

The Prayer for August 25, 2013

God of healing,
bring your reign of light and life
to all who are broken or bound,
touching us with a foretaste of that feast
where all are fed,
every wound healed
and every tear wiped away

The Texts for August 25, 2013

First Reading: Isaiah 58:9b-14
9bIf you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10if 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.” – In the difficult years after the return from exile in Babylon, when Jerusalem still lay in ruins and faith had grown lackluster before the trials of daily existence, the prophet calls the people to renewed faithfulness.

Psalmody: Psalm 103:1-8
“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.” – A hymn of praise, celebrating God’s abundant mercies.

Second Reading: Hebrews 12:18-29
“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.”
– Having conclude his great recital of those who put their trust in the promise of God, the author contrasts the threats and fear experienced with the giving of the Law at Sinai with the promise and grace of life in Christ – urging us not to miss such a gift.

Gospel: Luke 13:10-17
“Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.  And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.” – Jesus frees a bound woman evoking the hostility of the religious leaders.  But Jesus was not “doctoring” on the Sabbath; he was bringing the Sabbath rest of God.