Yesterday, today and forever

Sunday Evening

Hebrews 13

Jesus Christ Pantocrator - an icon, Historic M...

Jesus Christ Pantocrator – an icon, Historic Museum in Sanok, Poland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

8Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

I never cared very much for this line from scripture until the day my daughter was killed.  Those who quoted the text seemed to use it to close the doors of the church to change.  It seemed to end debate rather than infuse it with a sense of the ever-abiding presence of Christ in the world.  It silenced questions.  It halted efforts to speak the gospel in fresh ways for a changing world.

But early in the morning of March 17, 2001, in the days before ubiquitous cell phones, while I was with a group of young people on retreat, my pager buzzed.  My youngest daughter sent a code, 911, that meant I needed to call her immediately.  I trudged over the hill through new fallen snow to where our cars were parked – where one had a car phone – and called Megan.  She was in tears and couldn’t speak.  A second later I heard a man’s voice identifying himself as a police officer, apologizing for telling me this on the phone, but my eldest had been killed in a collision.

She was 19.

There is no way to describe the disorientation that followed.  I was without emotion – or rather, so flooded with emotion that my whole emotional system had crashed.  I walked back over the hill to meet the youth group at breakfast in the camp’s dining hall and tell them I would be leaving.  I was terribly blunt.  I had no feelings with which to handle it more pastorally.

As I entered that dining hall I saw on the far wall a large painting of the laughing Jesus with the words: “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever.”  I remember looking at the words and thinking they were important.  But I had no emotions with which to process them.  I couldn’t feel what they meant.  For that matter, I couldn’t think what they might mean.  But I remembered them.  And I remembered they mattered.

In the days that followed I came to understand their message: The God I had known in the past, the God who had met me and called me and walked with me, who had shown himself a God of grace and compassion, hope and life, was the same God on this terrible day and would be the same in the days to come.  This crushing tragedy doesn’t invalidate the past; the past undergirds the present and upholds the future.  Jesus will still be Jesus tomorrow.

This is not a text that speaks of unchanging ideas and institutions.  Through it we hear the voice of God, embodied in Christ Jesus, promise his imperishable love: yesterday, today and forever.

For this precious word we keep coming Sunday after Sunday.

Fear of God

Saturday

Psalm 112

English: Statue "Fear of the Lord" b...

English: Statue “Fear of the Lord” by Karin Jonzen at Guildford Cathedral (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1 Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.

The phrase “those who fear the Lord” has as its parallel “those who delight in his commandments.”  This is not the fear that hides in basements before a storm or walks children to school and home again.  This is not the fear of soldiers before battle or children who hear their parents shouting in the night.  Those who “fear the Lord” are those who delight in God’s commandments, those who show honor and respect to God’s gracious ordering of life.   Yes, there is an element of honest concern for the consequences of disobedience, but this is not fear as we know it.  It is the “fear” we have of parents who will “kill us” if we cut school or used drugs – fear not born of their cruelty, but of their love.  It is the “fear” of disappointing or betraying them.

We have much we fear.  We fear for our future.  We fear losing our jobs.  We fear for our health.  We fear failure.  We fear for shame should our secrets come to light.  We can fear success, too, sometimes – especially those who have spent little time in the realm of success.  And in the same way fear healthy relationships, settling instead for what is familiar.  We fear leaving the safety of the known for the unknown.  And then there are the fears that have gotten out of control and manifest themselves in conditions we call disorders.

We have much we fear.  But the fear of the Lord is different.  It is that fundamental respect for and attention to the foundational elements of life: care for your neighbor, kindness, charity, justice, the needs of the poor.  Such a fear is not a manifestation of anxiety and uncertainty; it is a groundedness in ultimate reality.  It is certainty and confidence, and assurance of the path of life.

Those who “fear the Lord” are not timid, but live in the world with confidence and courage.  “They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful, and righteous.”  They lend generously and “conduct their affairs with justice.”  “They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor.”

This is not a fear that limits, but a respect and trust that empowers.  It is a confident recognition of life’s true path.  We are not groping in the dark, uncertain of what to do.  The will of God is set before us: and in that will we find our life.

“As though you”

Friday

Hebrews 13

Prison...♪♫

Prison…♪♫ (Photo credit: кiт-кaтн Halкeтт)

3Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

Do we need to say more?

Yes, the author of Hebrews probably had in mind those members of the Christian community who were in prison.  Yes, those who were being tortured – the standard form of questioning used on the non-elite members of society – were likely affiliated with the believers.  Yes this evokes all that Paul says about the Christian community using the metaphor of a body: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”  It’s not just your toe that suffers when you smack it against a chair, nor your lips only that are thrilled at the first kiss.

But if God meant for us to care only about our own, the Torah would not have provided for the poor or protected the powerless and the stranger; Ruth, the Moabite, would not have been remembered as the grandmother of David; Jonah would not have been compelled to go to Nineveh; and Jesus would not have taken the commandment to love your neighbor and made it clear it applied to everyone.

3Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

What is true of the body of Christ is true also of the body politic.  We are connected not only in Christ our redeemer; we are connected in God our creator.  All people are created in the image of God.  All are recipients of God’s providential care.  All are beneficiaries of Christ’s saving work.  All are invited into the reality of God’s grace and life.  “For God so loved the world…”

We are connected.  All of us.

  “As though you were in prison with them… as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

Compassion, “to suffer with,” is the fundamental character of the righteous: to sense the cold of the unsheltered, to recognize the loneliness of the isolated, to appreciate the sorrow of the grieving,  to feel the hunger of the hungry (it’s why we fast, why fasting is a tool of spiritual formation).  And compassion means not only to share the burdens of the troubled, but to “rejoice with those who rejoice,” to celebrate all that is good in life wherever and to whomever it happens.

Compassion is the fundamental character of the righteous, because compassion is the fundamental character of God, the God of creation and incarnation, the God who walks with us, the God who loves his world.  All of it.

Watching

Thursday

Luke 14

Corcovado jesus

Corcovado jesus (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

1On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

The religious people are watching, too.  Watching Jesus closely. Only they aren’t trying to see into the heart of Jesus or the truth of the moment – they are waiting for him to fail, waiting for him to show some ignorance or violation of the commands of God.  They are watching, sifting every glance for evidence that they themselves are the men of God and Jesus the ignorant interloper and fraud.

Jesus does not disappoint.  The verses we skip in the reading this Sunday set the scene for the banquet that follows: on the Sabbath Jesus heals a man with the swollen limbs of a terrible edema.

As with the crippled woman we read a few Sundays ago, this is not emergency medicine; it is a medical treatment that could have waited a day.  The religious people get what they want, the excuse they need: “He is no prophet.  He is no rabbi.  No teacher of Israel would be so ignorant of God’s law.”

But there is another question that lingers in the wake of Jesus’ healing: “Would a teacher of Israel not know God’s will to save?  Noah.  Abraham.  Isaac.  Jacob.  Joseph.  Moses.  Joshua.  Gideon.  David.  What happens in all these stories?  Should not a leader among God’s people know God’s will to save?”

We see what we want to see: Jesus the country healer ignorant of the law or Jesus the prophet who recovers the law’s true meaning; Jesus the threat to public order or Jesus the hope of Israel and the world.

They were watching, and they saw what they wanted to see.  But Jesus was watching, too.  He doesn’t walk away.  He tries to take them on a journey into the heart of God whose honored guests are “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

The words of Jesus continue to speak.  They illumine the whole of scripture that it, too, might call us into the journey from the lost garden to the New Jerusalem, from the world of sweat and tears to the world of grace and life, from the scrabble for worldly honor to the banquet that welcomes the poor, the outcast, the stranger, from the realm of power and its many forms of violence to the realm where all our violence is absorbed into the body of God.

Those who considered themselves righteous were watching Jesus to have their suspicions confirmed.  But Jesus was watching them to diagnose the soul.

He does not shrink back from the prescription.  To see the kingdom of God you must see “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” feasting at the places of honor at the table of God.  To see the kingdom of God you must join the banquet.  Jesus suggests his examiners start at the lowest place.  It is wise advice for us all.  Difficult, but wise.

The table of God

Wednesday

Luke 14

Banquet Table

Banquet Table (Photo credit: saaby)

7When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.

Jesus is watching.  He is not dropping timeless truths; he is speaking to moments in time.  He is not speaking in abstract principles; he is speaking to specific people.  He is watching as those invited come to a banquet and pick out their seats.  He sees – and he has something to say to them, even as he had something to say to the woman he observed at the well outside of town during the heat of the day.  He saw her shame.  He sees our love of honor.

Jesus is watching.  And he speaks.  But he doesn’t speak directly; he speaks in parables.  He doesn’t say, “Shame on you”; he gathers us into the story.  He takes us alongside.  He gets us involved, until suddenly we are talking about inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”  What we do then will determine whether we are among those who weep at the cross or jeer.

Everyone knows the proverb about exercising care in the king’s presence.  Much better to be brought forward to a more honorable place, than to presume honor and be shamed at being sent down.  To this point, Jesus has not said anything they don’t know – they just don’t realize they are in the king’s presence.

The first warning that the conversation is turning away from the comfortably familiar comes with the conclusion: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”  On the face of it, it matches what has been said.  It just has an ominous tone to it – as if Jesus is suggesting that we are those who honor themselves.

And then comes the startling surprise:  When you give a banquet invite the poor beggars who cannot repay you.  The “poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” are the humble being exalted by the king.  “You who squabble over seats of privilege should hear and consider,” says Jesus, “and go and do likewise.”

So, shall we weep or jeer?  Shall we smile indulgently, mock outrightly, ignore blatantly, or weep with joy for we, the broken – we the spiritually poor, emotionally crippled, ethically lame and blind to truth – are invited to banquet at the table of God, though we cannot repay him?

Righteousness

Watching for the morning of September 1

Year C

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 17 / Lectionary 22

Righteousness has become an uncomfortable word for us, connected as it is in the public mind with self-righteousness.  No one likes a goody-two-shoes.  We want our heroes to have a few flaws lest they seem to good to be true.  At the same time, we all recognize there are some who are just good people: kind, generous, faithful, courageous when necessary to defend others or to defend what is right.  The kind who will take you to the airport in the middle of the night, come rescue you if your car breaks down, or show up to sit with you in the surgical waiting lounge.  There is in them something more than friendship, because you know they will do all this even for a stranger.

Righteousness is not about ritual or moral purity; it is living the values of God who is gracious and merciful, just and true: who rescues those in bondage, who provides for those in need, who is faithful to his promises, who defends the widow and orphan.

There is a humility to such good people, a humility born of the encounter with the boundless love of God.  They are not preoccupied with looking good or even with being good; they simply live in and from and for the goodness of God.

Such “righteousness” weaves through the readings this week, expressed directly in the psalm and second reading, but underlying also the first reading and gospel: the righteous are those who embody the governance of God in the human spirit.

The Prayer for September 1, 2013

Gracious God,
you have given us a place at your own table,
feeding us with all your gifts of mercy and life.
Turn our eyes away from what is treasured by others
to what is treasured by you: humility, justice and kindness to all.

The Texts for September 1, 2013

First Reading: Proverbs 25:6-7
“Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great;
for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” – This proverb from the wisdom tradition in Israel about wise behavior at court sets the background for today’s Gospel.

Psalmody: Psalm 112
“Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.” – The poet celebrates the character of the righteous and the fruit that come from faithfulness to God’s commands.

Second Reading: Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
“Let mutual love continue.”
– The author’s call for renewal now moves to a series of exhortations that touch on key elements in the shape of Christian life.

Gospel: Luke 14:1, 7-14
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Observing the behavior of those gathering for a banquet, Jesus taps into the ancient proverbs about proper conduct at a banquet, then transforms it with the call to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” who bring you no advantage in moving up the social or economic ladder, but make you children of the kingdom of heaven.