Perfect mercy

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Once more about last Sunday

Luke 7:11-17

13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”

The account just before this episode about the widow of Nain was the Centurion who showed greater faith than all in Israel, for he recognized and trusted the authority of Jesus to dispense God’s healing with a simple command. This story, where Jesus raises the son of the widow, happens without any request on her part or any show of faith. It is pure gift. Unexpected. Unearned. Unimagined. If the Centurion shows perfect faith, this shows God’s perfect compassion.

The true nature of Christianity lies here at this junction of perfect mercy and perfect faith. Where we accent the importance of faith we diminish mercy. Where we exult in God’s complete compassion we lose discipleship. Faith does not merit mercy; it is produced by God’s mercy. But mercy produces fidelity. Like the flower from the seed, like the fruit from the flower, mercy produces fidelity. And where fidelity does not flower, something is seriously wrong. Birds, maybe. Or thorns. Or footpaths and trodden seed.

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Things happen that hinder perfect mercy from bearing the fruit of perfect faith. I think of a woman I knew who loved church, hungered for church, but could not escape the shadow of a pastor who, when she was a teen, crossed boundaries that should not have been crossed. The seed was trodden underfoot. I think of families I have known who were driven to bitterness by gossip and pettiness. The seed was choked by thorns. And I think of people who were different in some way, and the congregation did not welcome them. The seed was given no place to take root.

We usually think the message of the parable of the sower and the seed is that we should be good soil. Maybe it means we shouldn’t be birds and weeds and boots.

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The injunction in the parable of the sower and the seed is not that we should be good soil. Soil is what soil is. The promise of the parable is that a great harvest comes despite all adversity, despite the church’s failings, despite the world’s allures. Though seed is plucked and stomped and strangled, there will be a harvest a hundredfold. It is a parable of perfect mercy.

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And the joy of the parable is the sower’s extravagance; he casts the seed abundantly, recklessly, daringly, wildly, confidently.

Perfect mercy.

It was this reckless, abundant mercy that made whole the life of a widow who never asked, who couldn’t have imagined the possibility of such mercy.

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She was a widow with an only begotten son. There is a story yet to come in Luke’s Gospel about an only begotten son, and a place outside the city wall, and a widowed mother left childless. That, too, is a story of perfect mercy.

And perfect faithfulness.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChristuss%C3%A4ule_8.jpg By Bischöfliche Pressestelle Hildesheim (bph) ([1]) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

Joy cometh

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For Friday

Psalm 30

5Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.

I don’t know where I was exposed to the American Standard Version of 1901, but as far as I know, that’s the one that seems to match the verse in my memory:

Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy cometh in the morning.

Or maybe what’s in my memory is a compilation of sources. For I would have sworn that the second line was “joy cometh with the morning” – and ‘with’ matches the RSV that was the Bible of my upbringing.

The poetry matters. Without poetry the text gets flat, pale, pedestrian. It gives a nice honest fact, but loses something of its timeless truth, its eternal promise: We were not made for tears; we were made for joy. Tears come; but there is a morning where tears are wiped away.

I have wept many tears that did not surrender to joy with the calendar morning. But Easter…Easter…Easter does far more than fill one day with the scent of lilies and the sound of great hymns. Easter beckons even as I stand at the graveside. Easter beckons as I comfort the broken. Easter beckons as I stand before brutal injustice. Easter beckons as I witness the devastations of war. Easter presents itself before me with the promise of a morning bedecked with joy. A morning when burdens are lifted and night flees. A morning where light and life reign.

So I prefer the poetry. This verse is not a statement of fact; it is a song of promise. A promise in which I stand. A promise the gives birth to joy. Even in the nights of weeping.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASunrise_Bodrum_05459_05465.jpg by Nevit [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

An unending jar of mercy

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Thursday

1 Kings 17:17-24

18“What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”

Some translations at least make it a question: “Have you come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son?!” Of course, others put it more bluntly, “that you should kill my son?”

It’s a remarkable turn for this woman, the widow of Zarephath, who has been sustained through the brutal drought and famine by the prophet’s promise that her jar of meal and of oil would not fail until the rains return. One moment she is the beneficiary of a wondrous divine mercy and now accuses God of petty vindictiveness. None of us are without sins, and the hazard of taking in a holy man, is that he draws the eye of God – and what may have once passed by in obscurity, is now revealed to the royal master. And he is swift to punish. Or so she thinks.

It is sad that she has not learned from God’s mercy that God is merciful.

I understand the fear that seizes her when her son stops breathing. I know these thoughts come. I know they blurt out in our frightful anxiety. But still, everything she has known about the God of Israel is generosity and compassion.

I have had these conversations, in the hospital, at a bedside, in grief. Years and years of worship, years and years of the word of grace and the feast at God’s holy table, yet in fear comes the question, “Why is God doing this?” “What did I do to deserve this?”

We do not learn well. God is not robbing us of life’s goodness; he brings true goodness. He brings true life. God heals. God delivers. God forgives. God rescues. God transforms. God brings new birth. God brings his kingdom. God brings the Spirit. God brings the New Jerusalem. God opens the grave.

And so now, when my child lies breathless, my cry is not about guilt and shame. My prayer is for mercy, yes. My plea is desperate, yes. But my cry is for God to show God’s goodness because I know God is good. Like the widow, I want my child to live, I will cry out for my child to live – but I know God will bring goodness, even if the price is tears.

There are things that happen because of choices I have made. I endure those as best I can. And there are things that happen because of choices the world around me makes. And I endure those as best I can. And there are things that just happen. I praise God for the times I am protected. And I look for God’s goodness in those things I suffer. For I know that the God who provides our daily bread from his unending jar of meal is the bringer of a true and imperishable life.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AElijahByLouisHersent.JPG by Louis Hersent [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Life restored

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Watching for the Morning of June 5, 2016

Year C

The Third Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 5 / Lectionary 10

We said last week that “the festal season may be over but the festal age is at hand,” meaning that though the liturgically richer Sundays from Advent through Pentecost are over, Easter has dawned for all creation. The reign of God is at hand, the grave is open and the Spirit given. The grace and mercy, healing and life of the age to come is at work in us and among us now.

We see the fruit of God’s reign again this week as the life of a widow is restored through the raising of her son. The realm of life has broken into this realm of death. But this is nothing new to God; the scripture reverberates with God’s life-giving. At Elijah’s intercession, life is restored to the son of the widow of Zarephath. The poet sings of God’s restoring mercy in delivering him from death’s door. And Paul gives his testimony how he was turned from a life that, in his zeal, brought death as he persecuted the followers of Jesus and was given a message that gave life to all – a message that does not come any human authority but from an encounter with the crucified but risen Lord.

The reign of God is present in this Jesus as the sick are healed, sinners forgiven, and life restored. The festal age is come. As the crowd will say in response to this stunning act, “God has visited his people!”RSV so we exult with the psalmist:

You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. (Psalm 30:11)

The Prayer for June 5, 2016

Gracious God,
you have not dealt with us
according to our sin and brokenness
but out of your great compassion.
As you restored the life of the widow and her son,
be at work within and among us
to restore us to the fullness of life in you;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 5, 2016

First Reading: 1 Kings 17:17-24
“He stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.’” –
Elijah’s plea for the life of the child of the widow of Zarephath is granted.

Psalmody: Psalm 30
“O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.”
– The psalmist praises God for his healing from an illness that brought him near to death.

Second Reading: Galatians 1:11-24
“I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin.”
– Paul recounts the story of his life, declaring that the message he brought to the Galatians was not rooted in human authority but his encounter with the risen Lord.

Gospel: Luke 7:11-17
“Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain.” –
Following his encounter with the Centurion in Capernaum, Jesus meets a funeral procession and restores the life of a widow’s son.

 

Image:  Voroneţ Monastery, Romania. The church is one of the Painted churches of northern Moldavia listed in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites.  File: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AVoronet_murals_2010_64.jpg  By Man vyi (own photo) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Do we really want a God who does not get angry?

Psalm 30

5 his anger is but for a moment;

Noah's ark

Noah’s ark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We don’t like to talk about God’s anger.  Rightly so.  There have been generations governed by fear that, if they stepped out of line, God would be there to whack them down.  The all seeing eye, watching, waiting, ruler in hand.  And even if some, convinced of their own righteousness, think they have no reason to fear, they have been willing to use it as a tool for governing others.  It is good to leave such behind.  It is not consistent with the scriptures that tell of a god who waits to be gracious (Isaiah 30:18).

But can it be that God is not angry when school children are gunned down, when workers are crushed in a poorly constructed building, when communities are poisoned by industrial waste, when tyrants rule by terror and armies rape and pillage?  Can it be that God is not angry with the authors and bystanders of death camps and gulags and killing fields?  Can it be that God is not angry at the infected blankets given to native peoples or the slaughter of their women and children?  Is God unaffected by torture or human trafficking?  Is God unmoved by young girls forced into prostitution? Do we really want a God who does not get angry?

The question is not whether God gets angry, but what God does with his anger.  Same question for us, of course, and generally what we do with our anger is not pleasant.  Yet we feel justified in expressing our anger but horrified should God do so.

I would be horrified if God gave vent to his anger – not because God has not the right, but because there is much for which we should be afraid, starting with starving children.  Lazarus at the gate.

5 For his anger is but for a moment;
       his favor is for a lifetime.

The point is not that God’s anger is short-lived and his love eternal – that sounds too much like an abusive parent – but that God’s anger is governed by his favor.  Love governs wrath.

What God does with his anger is Jesus.  God does not strike back.  God does not strike down.  God steps forward.

We have this message in the story of Noah, too, when God steps back from his anger and hangs up his archer’s bow vowing he will not make war on humanity, despite the fact “that every imagination of the human heart is only evil continually.”  Though evil follows the flood, God steps forward with a promise to Abraham to bring blessing to the world.

No sentence is more powerful in scripture than the one Jesus speaks to his torturers: “Father forgive them, they know not what they do” – not meaning that these soldiers don’t know they’re killing someone important, but that we don’t see what has become of the human spirit: that we can mock and spit and pound nails and leave someone to die slowly while the ravens peck out their eyes.  We do not know that we have lost God and our humanity.

But God steps forward.  God has hung up his weapons of war.  God has shouldered humanity’s ugliness.  When Jesus commands us to love our enemies, he knows of what he speaks.  It is the choice God made.

Not just some miracle worker

Luke 7

12He was his mother’s only son,

My Crucifix 3Only begotten.

Three times Luke speaks of an only begotten child: this son of the widow of Nain, the 12-year old daughter of Jairus, and the boy with a convulsing Spirit whom the disciples could not heal.

There is great pathos in the loss of an only child.  And perhaps it is only a storyteller’s device to heighten the wonder of Jesus’ work.  But there is something you should know.  In Psalm 22, the famous psalm that begins “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me”; the psalm pregnant with meaning in light of the crucifixion – “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads,” “They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing” – this psalm, in the Greek version read by the first followers of Jesus verse 20 has the word ‘only begotten’:  “Deliver my life from the sword, my only begotten from the power of the dogs.”

The Gospel of John begins with the declaration “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us; full of grace and truth.  We have seen his glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father.” (1:14)

So now this act of mercy to the widow of Nain echoes with the story of Jesus: the only begotten whom God raises from the dead.

Three stories of an only begotten, three days in the tomb, perhaps it is only chance.  Or perhaps it is meant to remind us that Jesus is not just some miracle worker; he is the only begotten who bears away the sins of the world.

“Why?”

1 Kings 17

Grief

(Photo credit: tombellart)

18 She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”

“Why?”  It is the most relentless and agonizing of questions in the face of sudden and unexpected death.  I have heard a woman grieve bitterly at the death of her child, though he was 68.  “It is not right for a mother to bury her son,” she wept, “The son is supposed to bury the mother.”  And then that troubling and persistent cry, “Why?”

Facing that question, the heart trembles at the thought that God might be punishing me.  It may be only a fleeting thought, but it haunts the shadows.  I push it away from me, but I know it lies in wait.

And so the widow of Zarephath speaks bitterly to Elijah: the prophet’s presence has brought her to God’s attention and for her past sins God has struck down her son.  Or so she fears.

Elijah is not a pastor that needs to shepherd her soul away from guilt towards the message of God’s grace, goodness and love.  He can take the child and draw down the power of heaven, beseeching God to restore the child’s life.  The breath/spirit of God is powerful in Elijah and it breathes upon the unbreathing and he is restored.  But I, I am left with the grieving mother – and my own grieving heart.

Faith is not believing so much as trusting.  I cannot persuade my head that God is not against me – I can only trust his promise that he is for me.  To the grieving widow I can only speak that same promise one more time.  These are not empty words designed to silence the grieving, nor mere platitudes of a funeral; they are words of power calling us to live in the promise proclaimed to us in Christ Jesus:

31What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?

33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.

35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:31-39)

It can be for us about the healing of the world.

Luke 7Casket

13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.

I have seen people brought back from death’s door; I have never seen anyone brought back through it.

If the scriptures are to be for us the truth of God and not a pious fairy tale, we have to acknowledge this.  What is being described here, if taken at literal face value, is impossible.  We have brought people back whose heart has stopped.  We have brought people back who have been immersed in frigid waters.  But there is a big difference between restarting a stalled heart and restoring life to the dead.

If we hear this text as a story of divine power we may find grace in it, for there are few of us who have not needed that reassurance in time of some distress.  God is a God who can transform hopeless situations. But there are also few of us who have not wept and prayed for God to do just this over the body of a child, a parent, a spouse or friend – and none of them have been raised once that breath is gone.

In those anguished moments, what can such a text say?  That God has no compassion for me in my sorrow?  That my prayer is not worthy of such an answer?  It is a painful road to travel.  And it usually ends with a disjunction between the world of the Bible and my world.  Such things happened then, but no longer.  Once upon a time…

But there is another way to hear the text – not as a text about the power of God but as a text about the compassion of God.  And this is what our sisters and brothers in the first century heard.

For them, raising the dead was a wonder, but it was not impossible. They did not stumble over that portion of the story.  What they heard was the word of compassion.  What they saw was that the God of heaven and earth, who gives the breath of life to all things, had come near to save.  The day when the veil of tears would be lifted was dawning.  The people who walked in darkness were seeing the first light of dawn.

A world of injustice was being turned towards justice.  A world of hunger was being turned towards the sharing of bread.  A world of violence was being turned towards peace, a world of hate towards love.  A world where humanity’s impossible debt to the honor of God was being erased and new life dawning.  A world governed by death was being governed by an unconquerable life.

We can see that in the text, too.  It doesn’t have to be for us about the power of God to do the impossible.  It can be for us instead about the healing of the world.

Watching for the Morning of June 9

Year C

The Third Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 5 / Lectionary 10

Death and life weave through the texts for this week.  Through Elijah, God raises the son of the widow of Zarephath.  Through Jesus, God raises the son of the widow of Nain.  The psalmist rejoices that God has delivered him from death.  Only Galatians stands outside this theme, telling of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus and after – making clear that his message did not come from any human authority but from the risen Christ Jesus.

We struggle in ways the ancients did not with the idea that someone could be raised from death.  Our task, however, is not to get sidetracked looking for explanations, but to hear the witness of these texts that God is a god who brings life.  God is in the business of resurrection, of renewing and restoring life.  This is God’s mission and purpose in the world – to free us from death’s power and restore all creation to the life God intended.

And though it’s not the central point Paul is making, what happened to him on that Damascus road was also a deliverance from the realm of death into the realm of life.

Prayer for June 9, 2013

Gracious God,
you have not dealt with us according to our sin and brokenness
but out of your great compassion.
As you restored the life of the widow and her son,
be at work within and among us
to restore us to the fullness of life in you

The Texts for June 9, 2013

First Reading: 1 Kings 17:17-24  (God answers Elijah’s prayer for the life of the son of the widow of Zarephath to be restored.)
Psalmody: Psalm 30  (A prayer of thanksgiving from a person who was brought back from death’s door.)
Second Reading
: Galatians 1:11-24 (Paul did not get his message from any human authority but from Christ)
Gospel
: Luke 7:11-17 (The raising of the son of the Widow of Nain.)