Leave your gift

File:Second Temple view1.jpg

Thursday

Matthew 5:21-37

23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

When we hear the word gift and altar we cannot help but think of the offering plate and a church altar. It’s hard to imagine a religious institution teaching that you should not make an offering if you are at odds with someone. Every organization dependent upon donations is normally trying to remove any obstacles to giving, not adding one. But then, the mission of the church is not to encourage offerings; it is to make disciples of Jesus.

In the traditional liturgy of the church, just such a moment happens before for the offerings are gathered. The presiding minister declares “The peace of the Lord be with you” and, following the congregation’s response, “and also with you,” bids the community to share the peace with one another. God has made peace with us in Christ Jesus – now, before you give an offering, before you come to the table, we are summoned to make peace with one another.

I wonder how the community would react if we spoke more bluntly: “Don’t come to the dinner table divided from one another.” “You can’t be reconciled to God if you won’t be reconciled to one another.” “God doesn’t want your money if you’re not going to walk the walk.”

Jesus and his hearers, of course, are not imagining people in pews with ushers passing offering plates. They are imagining the massive temple platform surrounded by its grand colonnades. They are imagining the inner courtyards: for Gentiles (beyond which no gentile could go); for women (beyond which no woman could go); and for men (beyond which only priests could go). In the walled and colonnaded courtyard that is open only to ritually pure Jewish men there is a gate that leads further in to the temple courtyard with its great altar and the smoke of the rising offerings. Beyond that altar stands the temple proper, covered in gold, its giant pillars guarding huge closed doors. What could be seen only over the top of the enclosing walls is now revealed in full glory. To that gate a man brings his calf or lamb (or doves, if he is poor) where it is slaughtered and the priest takes it to the altar for the gift to be burned in part or in whole.

By the time you had completed the rituals, passed through the courts, and stood in line with your animal – to be told to leave the creature there and run out in order to be reconciled with some adversary… now we can hear the startling point Jesus is making.

God is in the world to reconcile. God is in the world to heal the human community. God is working to restore the torn fabric of life. It is not just murder that rends the human community, but every word of insult and anger. It is not just the act of adultery that tears at society, but the passions willing to violate the integrity of another family. We ought not think, says Jesus, that our moral behavior and religious acts mean anything if they are not joined to the reconciling work of God.

Tough words. Important words. Life-giving words.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASecond_Temple_view1.jpg By Ariely (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
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Come, Lord Jesus

For last Thursday

I wrote this post after the funeral last Thursday, but waited to get approval from the family before posting it. The sermon from that day, “We have seen the chariots of fire”, is posted at my site for occasional reflections: Jacob Limping (named from Jacob’s encounter with God that ends with him limping toward the promised land – wounded yet blessed).

I didn’t get the posting for Wednesday done on time yesterday; my heart and mind was on the sermon for today. We buried a child of the congregation. 26. Bright. Talented. Loved. Addicted. Somewhere there is a drug lord prospering from selling tainted heroin. In our parish we weep.

The church was beyond full. People squeezed together into the pews, filled the balcony, brought chairs from the fellowship hall, and then stood in the back. There was so much we wanted to say. And words were so hard to find. We wanted to say how great he was. And we wanted to say how angry we were. Angry at him. Angry at the world. Angry at God. Frustrated. Wounded. Seven times he had been in treatment. Seven times he had slipped. Not because he was weak. By no means. Perhaps because he was so talented, so smart, so much a winner, he thought he could control it. Perhaps because the dragon is so deceptive.

Perhaps because the disease is so virulent.

So words fail. How do you capture the sweet boy working our Bible school, idolized by the kids, and the betrayer of friends he ditched to go buy drugs? How do you capture the acolyte bearing the cross with the young man bearing a terrible cross. How do you speak of the talented young man with a bright, bright future and the lifeless body on the floor of his apartment bedroom?

How do you speak of the charming, sincere smile and the stormy conflicts that must have occurred in the home? You can’t say all that. So the remembrances were more of a choked tears than joyful celebration. But there was the boy we loved. The young man we loved. And the tragedy we all felt.

Come Lord Jesus. It is the most ancient prayer of the church. Come, Lord Jesus. Come set right our world. Come heal the wounded, free the bound, raise the dead. Come bring that perfect reign of light and life. Come raise the world from its brokenness into your perfect light. Come.

And come to the family. Bear their burden – you who have borne the burdens of all. Surround them with grace, as you have brought grace to all. Heal their hearts, as you will heal the hearts of all. Take us back through the eastern gate, past the flaming sword, that we may eat again of the tree of life and dwell in your perfect garden.

Slow to anger

Thursday

Psalm 145

File:Clusone, Oratorio dei Disciplini, Interior frescos 19.JPG

The prophet Jonah, Frescos in the interior of Oratorio dei Disciplini, Clusone. Photocredit: Mattana

8 The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Considering that most gods were easy to enrage, this is a remarkable confession by ancient Israel. Slow to anger. In the Babylonian myth, the gods created humanity from the blood of the chaos monster (as servants) and then regretted their decision because humans were too noisy. I don’t know the myth well-enough to say whether it was the cacophony of human enterprise, the shrill cries of violence and war, or the incessant chatter of humanity’s petitions – their endless cries for daily bread – but like irritated elites, the gods sent a flood to silence them. Noah, of course, outwitted the gods – sailing for safety to the mountain of the gods – a cleverness for which he was rewarded with immortality.

Against that backdrop, the Biblical writers told a remarkably different story – of a humanity whose wickedness knew no bounds (“every imagination of the thoughts of the hearts was only evil continually”) but where God’s mercy rescued humanity, warning Noah, gathering the animals, and gently closing the door of the ark.

Slow to anger.

We have perhaps taken that mercy for granted. In a world marred by death camps and death marches and a vast improvement upon the little first-generation bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed some 100,000 people at a single stroke, and again as many in the months following – the fact that we argue such weapons were necessary to prevent even greater loss of life is only evidence for how far we have fallen from God’s vision for us. This week a friend sent me information about a home raided by authorities were the bodies of dead infants (perhaps stillborn fetuses, if the mother is to be believed) were found beneath the littered and fetid mess of unwashed children, garbage and piles of diapers. The news is preoccupied with the brutal behavior of NFL players, and the beheadings of foreign journalists in the Middle East has roused us to new levels of bombing.

Slow to anger.

Maybe God is too slow to anger. Maybe we would rather a God who would storm from the heavens and throw a few lightening bolts at our butchery and hate. Jonah is certainly enraged by God’s decision to forgive Nineveh, that great city whose empire had brought such suffering to the world, the people who had conquered and dispersed forever the ten northern tribes of Israel. Jonah can’t quite understand why God should care about such people. Jonah can’t bring himself to see them as God’s children. We don’t either, or we wouldn’t be so quick to war.

Slow to anger.

Slow to anger because God’s purpose is not to punish evil but reclaim his rebel world. Slow to anger, because God’s purpose is not to whip a recalcitrant humanity into line – fear can do that if you are willing to be ruthless enough. Slow to anger because God hopes eternally to help us recover our lost humanity.

And so Jesus on the cross doesn’t hurl invective against those evil few who have conspired against him or who have followed orders to torture him to death. He calls on no army of angels. He summons no firebolts. He speaks instead words of kindness, trust in God, and forgiveness.

God is not ignoring the evil that is done. And God is by no means excusing our evil. But he is calling to us. Calling for us to see the work of our hands.  Calling for us to change direction. Calling for us to see the enemy as people for whom God cares. Calling for us to live the steadfast love God shows.

We are grateful for such love and mercy when it is shown to us; we just have trouble understanding why God shows it to others. And until we do, we will continue to build our little arsenals of hate and fear.

8 The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Blessed are the centered?

Saturday

Matthew 5

Alexander riding Bucephalus

5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

In his work Ethics, Aristotle defines the Greek word we translate as ‘meek’ as the median between recklessness and cowardice.  Anger is a powerful emotion, and knowing how to use it wisely and in proper proportion was considered ‘meekness’.

The word can mean ‘mild’ or ‘gentle’.  It is used of a tame animal and suggests the notion of a person who has tamed their emotions.  I heard, once, that a warhorse was considered ‘meek’ that was not frightened by the battle raging around it.  I have not been able to confirm this, but it fits with the idea of meekness in Aristotle.

The point is that the ‘meek’ are not doormats.  They are those people we would describe as ‘centered’, in that calm space of knowing who they are and who God is and seeing everything in light of the big picture.  Firm yet gentle, confident of the grace and power of God, steadfast.

Moses was described as meek.  Yet he was clearly courageous both before Pharaoh and the rebellious people in the wilderness.  Jesus describes himself as meek – “Take my yoke upon you for I am gentle…” – and we know he drove the moneychangers from the temple, that he was angered at the death of Lazarus, that he was steadfast before Pilate and forgiving towards his torturers.

The ‘meek’ are honored by God.  The zealots took up arms against Rome and by their rage and zeal brought destruction on Jerusalem and the temple.  They tried to seize the land by force and lost it.  The ‘meek’ were not driven by passions but governed by the Spirit of God.  They were the peacemakers, the merciful – and probably the persecuted – but they are honored by God for they embodied God’s reign of grace and life.  The land shall be their inheritance.

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.