God sees

File:Jakarta slumhome 2.jpg

Thursday

Jeremiah 23:23-32

23Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?

It is a question that will have great power in the years that follow Jeremiah’s preaching, when Jerusalem has been destroyed and its citizens carried off in chains to exile in Babylon.

Is God with them in this far off land? Or do they now inhabit another’s realm? Can we end up so far from home that God is not with us? When we are broken, is God present? Or is God a god who prefers greatness, who stands with those on the victory platform?

It seems that way, sometimes. The stories of some Christian communities are so filled with success and answered prayers that those who walk through the valley imagine God walks only with others.

But the Biblical story is that God is god even in exile, even in Egypt, even in the wilderness. The shining light at the heart of Christianity is a cross: Christ among the degraded, Christ among the broken. God among the exiles.

Yes, God is present.

But Jeremiah’s challenge is spoken to a nation and a leadership enamored with the voices of prophets who speak their own thoughts and passions and dreams: “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name,” says the LORD.

Yes, God is present in the valley. But God is also present on the stage where the name of Jesus is whipped around in support of ideologies and bigotries and zealous agendas. God is present where nations are led to the adoration of might and away from the adoration of the true. God is present where peoples are led to the worship of success and not to the honoring of mercy, where people are enamored with promises of glory and not justice. God is present – to judge, as the divine representatives of the nations gathered before God in the psalm will hear.

23 “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? 24Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” says the Lord.

God sees.

The word is comfort to the fallen, great comfort. But the word is danger to our idolatries.

God sees.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJakarta_slumhome_2.jpg By Jonathan McIntosh (Own work) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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A crimson cord

File:Red thread.jpg

Wednesday

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

31By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

Her life hung by a thread, a length of crimson cord.

Joshua sent two spies into Jericho. The text says they took lodging at the house of Rahab, a prostitute – presumably the line between a public house and a brothel was thin in those days as in many others. When the king of the city learned of their presence, he sent word demanding Rahab bring them out, but she hid the spies and sent the soldiers on a chase saying the men had already left the city. Her house was built into the city wall and in the night she let the men down by a rope, having asked for them to reciprocate her loyalty. They told her to gather her people into the house and mark it with a crimson cord. When the city was taken and sacked, it would be her protection.

The brutality of the slaughter is for another time. What haunts me is that in the midst of the cries of chaos and confusion, the screams and blood, all her hope rests on a promise made visible by a crimson cord.

When Abraham went out from Haran he left with nothing more than a promise. When Joseph languishes in prison, he is sustained by nothing more than the promise given by God in dreams he received in his youth. Amidst the wails and sorrows of that night when death struck Egypt, the hope of the Israelites rested on a promise made visible by the blood of a lamb upon the doorpost.

Faith is not my own inner conviction; it is clinging to the promise we have received. Amidst the cries and cruelties of our broken world, all our hope is in a crimson cord and a promise: a splash of water and the promise that our death is taken by Christ and his life given to us.

Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Rahab – this great litany of saints – are lifted up to us by the author of Hebrews as examples not for their great deeds or holiness, but because they entrust their lives to the promise of God.

We who gather at the table of the Lord trust our lives to the promise incarnate in a bit of bread that all debts are lifted. We trust our lives to promise that the world belongs to the God who rescues the enslaved and opens the grave. We trust our lives to the God who promises that mercy, kindness, compassion, forgiveness are the destiny of the world.

All our hope is in a crimson cord and a promise, in a lamb slain who lives and shares his imperishable life with us.

1Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

 

This reflection is slightly edited from that for Propers C 15 in 2013.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARed_thread.jpg By Saurabh R. Patil (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

“I have come to bring fire”

File:Deerfire high res edit.jpg

Watching for the Morning of August 14, 2016

Year C

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 15 / Lectionary 20

It hardly seems like the world needs more fire as cities like Aleppo crumble and drought stricken regions in the west are ablaze. Fiery rhetoric incites political violence. Weapons fire echoes through our cities and nations.   We need Jesus to say he is bringing peace, not more conflict. But here are the words: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

There is challenge in the texts for this Sunday: Jeremiah cries out against false prophets. In the psalm, God sits in judgment of the nations for their failure to do justice. Hebrews bears witness to those faithful who “suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment,” calling us to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” And Jesus declares “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”  The most important social bonds of the ancient world will be torn asunder because of Jesus.

But we need peace and reconciliation. We need an end to war and division. We need words that heal and bind up not rend and tear. So what can you possibly mean, Jesus?

File:Diwali Festival.jpgJesus is talking about discipleship, about living the kingdom in a world that is not yet redeemed, about being agents of peace in a decidedly unpeaceful world. Those who take up the cause of peace will be cannon fodder. Those who work mercy may well inherit cruelty. In a world scrambling for the seats of honor, those who invite the lame and the poor to their banquets are betrayers of their social class, breaking barriers the elite do not want to see broken.

The world will divide over this Jesus. But the hate of the world will not last. Read the signs. The empty tomb is on the horizon. The one who “endured the cross, disregarding its shame…has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The Prayer for August 14, 2016

You call us to faithfulness, O God,
in times of trial and in times of peace.
Grant us courage to speak your word boldly
and to live with daring your teaching,
until that day when all the earth is ablaze
with the fire of your Holy Spirit.

The Texts for August 14, 2016

First Reading: Jeremiah 23:23-32
“Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off?” – God challenges the false prophets who claim to speak for God but speak only their own hopes and dreams.

Psalmody: Psalm 82
“God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” – God gathers the ‘gods’ of the nations and speaks judgment for they have failed to protect the weak and the needy.

Second Reading: Hebrews 11:29-12:2
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
– The conclusion of the great recital of those who put their trust in the promise of God and the call to model their faithfulness

Gospel: Luke 12:49-56
“”I came to bring fire to the earth.” – The message of Jesus will provoke division, even within families.

 

Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADeerfire_high_res_edit.jpg By John McColgan – Edited by Fir0002 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADiwali_Festival.jpg By Khokarahman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Working the high wire

Sunday Evening

Jeremiah 23

high wire 2

high wire 2 (Photo credit: _gee_)

25I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name.

Such words make me tremble.  Being a pastor is working the high wire without a net.  Into our hands is committed the responsibility to give public witness to the message/Word/Gospel of God. It is our task to help the scripture speak, to open the text so that it can work its work in its hearers. The congregation trusts us to help them hear the text as God would have them hear it.  Yes we have in our hands this brilliant record of God’s speech through the ages.  Yes we have behind us the intense education of seminary and the ongoing value of our own study. Yes we have available to us the work of many scholars through many ages and the witness of the saints and the confessions and creeds of the church. But when I rise to speak on Sunday morning there is no one there to tell me whether I have rightly captured the encounter between God and these people through this text.  And I will be held to account.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1 nrsv  )

I will be held to account not for the size of the Sunday attendance, the success of the youth ministry, nor whether we ended the year in the black, but for whether I have spoken God’s message rather than the imaginations of my own heart, whether I have spoken God’s words or my dreams.

Whether the Gospel bears fruit in the lives of the hearers is the work of the Holy Spirit.  For that Holy Spirit I cry as I prepare, and upon that Holy Spirit I depend in speaking.  I trust that God, in his grace, can help people hear what they should hear whether or not I have said it.  But still, the Bible is in my hands and the responsibility on my shoulders.

The church is not a playground for my religious imagination. My dreams do not belong here.  My words do not carve rock from the mountains.  God’s word alone is the fire and hammer.

And when I sit in the pew as a listener, I must turn off that part of my mind that wants to think about the quality of the sermon and struggle, as we all do, to listen for God’s voice in what is said.  If God can speak to the prophet through a donkey, he can certainly use whatever preacher is in the pulpit, even me.

This is, after all, the miracle of God’s presence in the world: he uses our voices, our hands, our hearts, our kindness, our compassion, our outrage at injustice, our defense of the widow and the orphan, our speaking the word of Grace, our sharing of bread.  God is present through means: bread, wine, human words, human lives.  In that encounter between one person and another is the mystery of the divine.

In the midst of the gods he holds judgment

Saturday

Psalm 82

Roman ruins and arch at Bosra, Syria.

Roman ruins and arch at Bosra, Syria. (Photo credit: isawnyu)

1 God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
2 “How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
5 They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
6 I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
7 nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.”

The God of Glory thunders.  Before him are gathered all the gods of the nations, the heavenly embodiment of the earthly kingdoms: “Ashtoreth of the Sidonians, Chemosh of the Moabites, Molek of the Ammonites” (1 Kings 11:33) the gods of Egypt, Babylon and Assyria, the gods of the desert peoples and the sea peoples.  The image is taken from the court: the king surrounded by his nobles.  They are all summoned to account for the governance of their lands.  All are judged, found wanting, and condemned to die as mere mortals.  Their nations have not shown justice, they have not protected the weak and needy, they have not maintained the rights of the poor.  Their wealthy and powerful trample the poor.

We should not be astonished that the poet asserts God’s jurisdiction over all the earth – though it is helpful to remember: God stands above country, not alongside it.  It is not God and country that claims our allegiance, but God then country.

God is Lord of all the nations and peoples.  He is Lord where he is acknowledged and where he is not.  He is Lord where he is given lip service and where such service is true.  He calls nations into being and casts them down.  We should be warned by the fact that every nation will be held accountable for its treatment of the poor and powerless.

But there is also comfort here: all the ideologies and nationalisms that rise up to rule human societies will perish.  They claim ultimacy.  They claim to be the source of blessing.  They demand our service and submission.  They seize our wealth and property.  They take our young men and women for the battlefield.  They serve wealth and power and reach for immortality only to be condemned.  They are mortal.  Only one is eternal – and he has shown his rule in healing, freeing, forgiving, suffering, dying and rising.  He has shown his rule in bread shared, and wine poured out, and the word of peace proclaimed.

Like fire and a hammer

Friday

Jeremiah 23

The Knesset Menorah, Jerusalem (detail - The p...

The Knesset Menorah, Jerusalem (detail – The prophet Jeremiah) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

23Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?

We have been raised in a culture that thinks of God as omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent – all knowing, all powerful and everywhere present.  So the question God asks through Jeremiah doesn’t stun us.  But in a world of petty kingdoms and tribal leaders, in a world where most people lived their whole lives within a few miles of the place they were born, in a world where the fate of other people was unknown to you and you cared only for the bounty of this field and the surety of that well, gods were local, too.  When neighboring tribes or cities went to war against one another, they each called on their gods for victory, and the battle was a battle of spirits as well as bodies.  As kingships claimed larger territories, their gods might be adopted by conquered peoples (they were more powerful, after all) or given a public place as a sign of submission to the new ruler while local deities continued to provide for local needs.  That there were lots of gods was obvious since their were many primal forces in the world and many peoples.  Gods, like kings, were limited in their knowledge, scope and power.  So when Jeremiah stands up and declares “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?” it is a word that provokes.

Is the God of Israel limited?  Are there things he cannot see?  Is he a God of Israel only?  Is he bound to this land?  Can he be fooled?  Does he not know what is being said and done in his name?  Does he not know the evils that are perpetuated on earth?  Is he unaware of human bigotry and fear?  Does he not see what is done in secret in Washington and Wall Street – or what is done in plain view on some of our city streets?  Is he unaware of those who make bombs in the Middle East and strap them to women and children?  Is he unaware of the working conditions of the poor in sweatshops?  Does he not see the poisons added to infant formula or lead added to children’s toys?  What is hidden from us is not hidden from God.

  “‘Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?’ says the Lord. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ says the Lord.” 

Of course, it also means he sees every cup of cold water given to a stranger, every simple kindness, every marriage living in tender fidelity, but that is not what prompts God’s message through Jeremiah.  What has God incensed are those who use his name for their own dreams and agendas.  God rises in judgment against those who claim a prophetic office but whose message leads the people away from God not closer.

27They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal.

The elite members of small societies tend to copy the elites of wealthier and more powerful ones. When Solomon built the temple he hired the craftsmen and designers from the wealthy cities of Tyre and Sidon.  The treaties with foreign rulers that brought Solomon’s many wives to Jerusalem also brought their gods.  When Assyria rose to power and Judah became a client state, King Ahaz of Judah built an altar copied from the one he saw when he went to kneel before Tiglath-pileser in Damascus.  Progressive religion always wants to move beyond the cultural backwater of tradition into the bright shiny world of the modern.  So the prophets spoke their dreams; Jeremiah spoke of the God of Exodus and Sinai whose old fashioned commands protected the poor and captive rather than the worldly elite.

Do you imagine, the prophet cries, that God is some backwater God, some local deity bound by the past?  Do you think God does not see you are speaking the imagination of your own hearts not the Word which divided the Red Sea and claimed a people?  Do you think God does not see you enamored with your own cleverness rather than the Voice that spoke on the mountain?

The voice of the LORD is not archaic religion; it is the hammer and fire that carves the massive building stones upon which the city rests.  It speaks God’s justice and mercy without which the city will surely fall.

And fall it did.

28Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.  What has straw in common with wheat? says the Lord.  29Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?

“I came to cast fire on the earth”

Thursday

Luke 12

(Photo by David K. Bonde)

(photo credit: dkbonde)

49“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!

Fire destroys.  Fire cleanses.  Fire purifies.  Forests are ravaged, homes demolished, lives lost.  But the soil is replenished, and new life springs forth.

Fire is also power and heat and light.  It drives our cars, warms our homes, lightens our darkness.

And by fire dross is consumed and gold and silver made pure.

What does Jesus means when he says he has come to cast fire on the earth?  Is there not enough suffering and purging already in life?  There are 1.8 million homeless in Syria from tyranny, rebellion and war built on ancient hatreds.  There are 600,000 homeless and 17.2 million “food insecure” households in this, the land of plenty.  On the beaches of Normandy, in the fields of Flanders, beneath the earth of Gettysburg, in the ashes of Nagasaki, in the frozen ground of Siberia lie countless graves – and these only a few of the many from just the last few generations.

What fire does Jesus cast upon the earth?  Is this the fire of revolution, peasants rising up against the wealthy? The powerless rising up against the might of Rome?  The nationalists rising up against their foreign invader?

Such talk of fire makes us all nervous – at least those of us who profit in some way from the way things are.  We linger with the meek and mild Jesus who everyone would like to have as a neighbor, a source of endless good deeds and kindness whose lawn is always trim and poses no danger to property values.  But Jesus did suffer the punishment reserved for rebels.

“I came to cast fire on the earth.  How I wish it were already ablaze.”

What fire would you bring, Jesus?  What purging of the human heart?  What cleansing of our public life?  What transformation of our cities?  What smelting of our churches?

Would we rise up to put it down?  Gather the brigades to drown that transformative flame?  Is that what happened in Jerusalem that fateful night when soldiers came to seize you?  Silence the prophetic voice!  Silence the call to do justice and mercy.  Silence the claim that God had drawn near to the poor and outcast.  Silence the voice that broke not the bruised reed.  Silence the voice that shamed the righteous elders and freed the shamed woman.  Silence the indecent voice that spoke to the outcast woman at the well – a woman not his kin! – and alone!

Would we silence this voice that would feed all with shared bread?  Would we silence this voice that violates ancient religious tradition and law, healing on the Sabbath those who could well wait a day? Would we cast out the blind man who said this Jesus made him see?

What fire do you bring, Jesus?

We want to be warmed, not purified.  We want to be comforted not driven to new life.  We want you safely in the ground or at the right hand of the Father, not here pushing and challenging and cleansing and sending, claiming this world and our lives as your own.

What fire do you bring?

A crimson cord

Wednesday

Hebrews 11

Red Rope

Red Rope (Photo credit: Auntie P)

31By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

Her life hung by a thread, a length of crimson cord.

Joshua sent two spies into Jericho.  The text says they took lodging at the house of Rahab, a prostitute – presumably the line between a public house and a brothel was thin in those days as in many others.  When the king of the city learned of their presence, he sent word demanding Rahab bring them out, but she hid the spies and sent the soldiers on a chase saying the men had already left the city.  Her house was built into the city wall and in the night she let the men down by a rope, having asked for them to reciprocate her loyalty.  They told her to gather her people into the house and mark it with a crimson cord.  When the city was taken and sacked, it would be her protection.

The brutality of the slaughter is for another time.  What haunts me is that in the midst of the cries of chaos and confusion, the screams and blood, all her hope rests on a crimson cord and a promise.

When Abraham went out from Haran he left with nothing more than a promise.  When Joseph languishes in prison, he is sustained by nothing more than the promise given to him in his dreams.  Amidst the wails and sorrows of that night when death struck Egypt, the hope of the Israelites rested on the blood of a lamb upon the doorpost and a promise.

Faith is not my own inner conviction; it is clinging to the promise we have received.  Amidst the cries and cruelties of our broken world, all our hope is in a crimson cord and a promise: a splash of water and the promise that our death is taken by Christ and his life given to us.

Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Rahab – this great litany of saints – are lifted up to us by the author of Hebrews as examples not for their great deeds or holiness, but because they entrust their lives to the promise of God.

We who gather at the table of the Lord trust our lives to the bit of bread and the promise that all debts are lifted.  We trust our lives to promise that the world belongs to the God who rescues the enslaved and opens the grave.  We trust our lives to the God who promises that mercy, kindness, compassion, forgiveness are the destiny of the world.

All our hope is in a crimson cord and a promise, a lamb slain who lives and shares his imperishable life with us.

1Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

The Word that divides

Watching for the morning of August 18

Year C

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 15 / Lectionary 20

Map of Israel Drainage divide

Map of Israel Drainage divide (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a call to faithfulness in the texts for Sunday.  Jeremiah challenges the king’s prophets who speak only what the king wishes to hear, yet who claim to speak in the name of God.  The psalm speaks a word of judgment against the nations for failing to protect the poor and powerless.  Hebrews continues its recital of the great examples of faithfulness from Israel’s past.  And Jesus talks about families divided over him, the deepest bond of allegiance in the ancient world wrenched in two.

Those who don’t know the anguish of rent families can get carried away with enthusiasm and heroism – us against the world – but these are troubling matters.  It’s easy in hindsight to know that Jeremiah was the true prophet, but how easy would it have been at the time?  His message calling Judah to submit to Babylonian rule did sound like he was working for the enemy.  Heretic and traitor are easier to see in hindsight – though we throw the words around easily enough.

But the word of God does provoke and challenge.  It rends even as it heals.  And there are times that people are called to step up and stand against the tide.  Jesus’ message of Gods reign is wonderful news for the poor and indebted, but it is a profound challenge to the way of the world – and a risk to those who follow.

The Prayer for August 18, 2013

You call us to faithfulness, O God,
in times of trial and in times of peace.
Grant us courage to speak your word boldly
and to live with daring your teaching,
until that day when all the earth is ablaze
with the fire of your Holy Spirit.

The Texts for August 18, 2013

First Reading: Jeremiah 23:23-29
“Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off?” – God challenges the false prophets who claim to speak for God but speak only their own hopes and dreams.

Psalmody: Psalm 82
“God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” – God gathers the ‘gods’ of the nations and speaks judgment for they have failed to protect the weak and the needy.

Second Reading: Hebrews 11:29–12:2
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
– The conclusion of the great recital of those who put their trust in the promise of God and the call to model their faithfulness

Gospel: Luke 12:49-56
“”I came to bring fire to the earth.” – The message of Jesus will provoke division, even within families.