Jesus and the fabric of creation

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Pieces from last Sunday

St. Francis, the blessing of the animals, the creation of Eve, and Jesus on divorce: it all weaves together in our worship and message last Sunday. On the lawn with our pets, in the days after the bitter conflict over Brett Kavanagh, around a table where bread is shared, we speak the reminder that we were not made for division, the promise that the torn fabric of the world shall be mended, and the call to live from that promised future rather than our failed past.

The whole message from Sunday can be found here.

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When we ask God to bless the animals we bring with us this morning, we are talking not just about these individual animals, but also our relationship with them – and we are talking about the whole complex web of life. We want God to bless it all.

We want the world to thrive. We want the whole creation around us to vibrate with life. We want the rains to be gentle and the winds soft and the sunlight warm. We want the crops to grow in season and the fruit of the earth to be bountiful and nourishing. We want the human community, also, to be whole and good, to be gracious and generous, to be kind and compassionate, to be creative and rewarding, to be joyful and peaceable. We want God to bless it all.

And we want that blessing because we know that the fabric of creation has been ruptured.   This, too, goes back to a story about us as humans. This is the story about the “apple.” It’s our fault that the world has been thrown off kilter. It’s on us that the fabric of the world is torn by violence and war, poverty and injustice. It was not God’s purpose that that the human family should be torn by divorce. It was not God’s purpose that societies like ours should be bitterly riven over a president, a senate, and a judge.

When Jesus is asked about divorce, his opponents know full well that divorce is discussed in the Biblical law. Maybe they think Jesus, the Galilean peasant, is too ignorant to know his scripture. But more likely they are trying to frame Jesus. This is a question that will get him in trouble with the king. It got John the Baptist killed because he condemned the king’s illicit marriage to his brother’s wife…

Jesus’s answer to his opponents is brilliant. He dodges the political trap and confronts us with the existential one. It is because of our brokenness, our “hardness of heart”, that all this conflict and division exists in the world. Jesus doesn’t cite the legal code; he points us back to our beginnings. He points us back to a time before the world was torn in pieces and we were divided from one another. He points us back to God’s purpose for us – and, in so doing, he points us forward to the day when the Spirit of God breathes in every breath.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AberdeenBestiaryFolio005rAdamNamesAnimalsDetail.jpg See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Jesus, divorce, and our moment in time

File:Studio per Vulcano e Venere.jpgSaturday

Mark 10:1-16

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

We are in a unique moment in the United States, confronted as we are by profound and troubling divide over sexual assault, the treatment of women, the allegations about Brett Kavanaugh and his elevation to the Supreme Court. The words of Jesus on divorce echo profoundly in our time, not as legal precept, but as commentary on our divisions. What follows is a posting from 2015.

Cuckold. It is a verb that describes what one man has done to another by being intimate with his wife. Committing adultery in the Biblical world was about cuckolding. It was something a man did to another man. Sex outside of marriage wasn’t the issue. Adultery was shaming a man by taking what was his – or shaming the woman’s father and brothers.

We tend to think about adultery as a matter of personal morality, a measuring of ourselves against a personal standard of conduct, not altogether so different from measuring our Body Mass Index or how fast we can run the mile. In the Biblical world, adultery is a betrayal of your neighbor and a rupture of the human community.

This was also the problem with divorce. Marriage was arranged by the parents. It involved an alliance of two families (or a bond within an extended family, since the ideal marriage was with a cousin or second cousin). For the groom’s family to dismiss the woman and send her home told the whole village there was some defect in her. It brought shame to her father and brothers. It led to feuding. It tore the fabric of the community.

So adultery and divorce are part and parcel of the same problem – human communities at war. Betrayal. Dishonor. Revenge. Feuding. It is a world awry. It is a world sundered from God and one another. The world where Cain kills Abel and we assassinate with everything from words to barrel bombs. It is the world where Jesus will be crucified.

Divorce isn’t really authorized in the Old Testament law; it is merely acknowledged. What is in the law are some restrictions to limit the destructiveness of divorce.

But, of course, that is the essential nature of the law. It seeks to limit our destructiveness. The concern is always our neighbor. The commandment not to steal, kill – or commit adultery – is not about my personal moral integrity; it is about protecting my neighbor. So the scripture limits revenge, limits greed, limits our treatment of the natural world, limits our wars and slavery and all the other realities of a broken world.

But God intends more for us than just that we be a little less cruel, a little less violent. God wants the law to be written on our hearts. God wants our lives to be governed by God’s own Spirit. God wants us to be new creatures in a renewed creation.

So, when asked about divorce, Jesus talks about the beginnings, about God’s intention, about Eden, about all that marriage could and should and will yet be when the stone is rolled away and the Spirit given and the new world begun.

We need to do more than limit the harm we do. We need to be born anew. We need to journey with Christ through the death of our old self into the resurrection of the new. The argument here isn’t whether divorce is “right” or “wrong”, but whether I am right or wrong. And the unspoken but precious promise here, as Jesus and his followers head towards Jerusalem, is that Christ will set me and us and all things right.

It seems to me that the words of Jesus should put the Christian community on the side of reconciliation and the healing of the human community rather than the pursuit of political triumph.  They also put us on the side of hope.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Studio_per_Vulcano_e_Venere.jpg Tintoretto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Rending and restoring

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Watching for the Morning of October 7, 2018

Year B

The Commemoration of St. Francis and The Blessing of the Animals

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 22 / Lectionary 27

This Sunday we worship out on the lawn, commemorating the feast of St. Francis (October 4) with the blessing of the animals. We will, however, use the assigned readings for Sunday. They fit the occasion, in their odd way. From Genesis 2 we will hear the account of the creation of the animals and the forming of Eve. Psalm 8 will marvel at God’s handiwork in forming humanity. And then Jesus’ opponents will challenge him with a question about divorce.

It is the divorce question that seems out of place for a day when we sit happily on the lawn with our pets. Yet this challenge to Jesus brings before us the wonder and goodness of the creation, its tragic brokenness, and the promise of the creation made whole.

Jesus is confronted by opponents trying to shame him. They want to know his ruling on divorce – most likely to expose his presumed ignorance (he is, after all, just a village faith healer from Galilee). But Jesus isn’t interested in apodictic law; he is announcing the dramatic and transformative reign of God. He turns the question back on his accusers and uses their answer to name the hardness of our hearts. The Torah recognizes divorce and seeks to limit some of its potential harm, but Jesus doesn’t go to the text in Deuteronomy to respond to his opponents. He takes us to the creation story: we were made for unity not division.

We who gather Sunday to hear this word about the profound goodness of the union of man and woman in an Edenic world are painfully aware of the brokenness of the relationship between the sexes. The words of Christine Blasey Ford are in our ears, as are the cries of Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher, the two women at the elevator challenging Senator Flake to see and hear them. Social media is full of #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport stories. Others are confused – if not bitter – at the perceived threat to young men. Some dismiss all this as the follies of youth in a wayward culture. Others see attitudes of privilege that betray our human obligation to care for the vulnerable. Some see a brilliant mind worthy of the Supreme Court; others a failure of compassion that should not be allowed near it. This tear, this divorce, in the body politic is deep and troubling.

Into this cacophony comes this word about our humanity: it is not good that the human creature should be alone. Sorrows multiply in our alienation from one another. Families are torn. Communities are divided. We assault the dignity of one another, sometimes with tragic consequences. And we assault the natural world around us.

We are created for relationship. We are designed for community. For this reason God brings forth all the creatures of the world. And when none of these prove equal to the first human, a piece of him is taken that, in the other, we might find our wholeness. God makes a companion and partner equal to him.

But the human heart turns from Eden. The relationships for which we were made are ruptured. We end up with broken hearts and broken marriages and people of all ages who fail to recognize the humanity of the other who is before – or beneath – them. We are capable of laughing as their dignity is stripped away.

But Jesus has not come to give new rules to limit the destructive consequences of our hardness of heart; he has come to give us new hearts. He has come to bring the new creation when God reigns in every heart. So, once again Jesus is welcoming children into his presence. Once again he blesses – inviting us to receive his blessing like these children.

The Prayer for October 7, 2018

Holy Father,
who holds all creation in your loving arms,
guard and keep us,
that we may not rend what you unite,
nor reject whom you receive;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 7, 2018

First Reading: Genesis 2:15, 18-24 (appointed: Genesis 2:18-24)
“Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” – When all the animals of the world will not do, God creates an equal to the first human.

Psalmody: Psalm 8
“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
– The psalm sings of the wonder of creation and the mystery of humanity’s place as those “a little lower than the heavenly beings” into whose care the world is given.

Gospel: Mark 10:1-16 (appointed: Mark 10:2-16)
“Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” – Jesus is back in public, teaching, when he is faced with a challenge from the Pharisees and turns the table from what is allowed in scripture because of our hardness of hearts to what God will create in us.

Second Reading as appointed: Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12)
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and v arious ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.”
– We begin to read from Hebrews where the author assembles a rich witness to Christ from the Hebrew scriptures.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:L%27alba_di_San_Francesco_-_Convento_Frati_Cappuccini_Monterosso_al_Mare_-_Cinque_Terre.jpg By GIANFRANCO NEGRI [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

The scalpel of God

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“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Mark 9:37)

This is the message from last Sunday, September 23, 2018, on which the congregation celebrated the 40th anniversary of my ordination. The sermon is related to that anniversary, but rooted in the assigned readings: Mark 9:30-37, Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, and James 3:13-4:8a,

Mark 9:30-37: They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

You see, O God,
the struggle of the human heart for privilege and honor
and set before us the betrayed and crucified body of your Son.
May he who was servant of all teach us his way;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

It’s hard to believe I have been doing this for 40 years. It’s stunning to wake up one morning and realize how long it’s been. On the other hand, it’s amazing to think back to all the people and places I’ve known. I have lots of memories – though not as many as I wish. I regret not having kept a journal of my experiences through the years.

A friend wrote me last week about a dramatic graveside service in the rain. It was Wisconsin, so I’m assuming there had been a thunderstorm. I wrote back about a graveside service on a cold November day in Toledo, grey skies, the trees stripped of their leaves, in a little old country cemetery now surrounded on three sides by an oil refinery. I stood at the head of a casket before a small huddle of people, amid the pungent aromas of the refinery and the sounds of its clangs and whistles and whooshes, reading the ancient texts and speaking the promise of a new creation. I wish I knew who that was.

I wish I remembered the name of the person whose funeral I conducted one Good Friday. I had buried his wife four days earlier. He went home after the service, climbed up in his closet and got down an old pistol. Now their adult children were before me once again.

In those days when the heavens seem silent, it falls to the preacher to speak, to break that wall of silence, to let the voice of God be heard in its fearful sweetness.

I never understood the wife of a colleague of mine who was a minister in the United Church of Christ. For her, the sermon was only one member of the community sharing their thoughts for the rest of the community – thoughts the community could take or leave as they saw fit. I don’t know if that’s true of her whole church body; I just know she didn’t share this deep conviction that somewhere in the weeds of the preacher’s words would be hiding the voice of the eternal with all its power to wound and heal.

When I was interviewed here, downstairs in the Fireside Room, I was asked to lead a devotion at the beginning of the meeting. I don’t remember if the call committee had forgotten to tell me they wanted me to do this, or if it was part of the test to see what I might do at the last moment. I turned to the passage in Hebrews (4:12) about the Word of God being sharper than any two-edged sword and talked about the fact that the word ‘sword’ there was the word for the small dagger possessed by a soldier, not the big sword. That dagger was used for fine cutting. It’s more of a knife than a sword, and I suggested we should understand the Word of God as a scalpel with which God does surgery on our hearts.

We are in need of surgery. The Bible is not a book of doctrines and policies; it gives very few absolute answers beyond loving God and neighbor with all your heart and soul and mind. But what the Bible does do is convey to us these stories, events, poems and preaching that have the power, like a scalpel, to set us free from the fears and sins that bind us and shape us into the creatures we were meant to be.

Let us imagine for a moment that Kavanaugh did this thing of which he is accused. And let’s clear away for a moment all the partisan politics and ideologies that are clamoring for power. Let us just imagine that a person is suddenly confronted with a fact from the past saying, “You did this to me, and this is what it cost me.”

It is a fearful thought. Maybe it was forgotten in a haze of alcohol, maybe it was a memory suppressed, maybe it was one of those things you never thought anything about because it was ordinary in the world in which you lived, I don’t know. But suddenly here is this word with its long bony finger pointed at you. This is the story of David and the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 11:1-12:23). David is swept away by the beauty of Uriah’s wife bathing in the moonlight. He sends for her. She gets pregnant. He brings Uriah home from the front hoping to cover his crime. Uriah is too honorable to enjoy the comforts of his home and bed while his men are in the field. David gives secret orders to put Uriah in the front lines and pull away. He is killed. The King’s crime is covered and forgotten. But then comes Nathan with a story of a poor man and his single beloved lamb. The lamb lies in the poor man’s lap like one of our comfort animals. The rich man with many flocks has a visitor arrive and takes the poor man’s lamb to serve his guest for dinner. David is incensed. “The man deserves to die,” he shouts. And then Nathan points his long bony finger and says: “You are the man.”

The word of God is a scalpel. But it points at David not to condemn and destroy, but to free and heal him.

So here we are with this story about Kavanaugh. The response we see around us is to destroy him or to destroy her, and in that instinctive reaction it is not Kavanaugh’s sins that are on display nor his accusers; it is our sins. We are not looking for healing; we are looking for triumph. One way or the other, one side or the other, we want to win. We want to crush our enemies. And we are willing to order Kavanaugh or Ford to the front lines and pull back.

So there is a story about the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 6:8-23). The king of Aram (what is now Syria) is at war with Israel. But God keeps telling the prophet what the king of Aram is doing, where he is moving his troops, where he is planning to attack, and the King of Israel keeps escaping his grasp. The King of Aram is enraged, convinced that one of his generals is betraying him by leaking his plans to the enemy. They all plead innocence. None of them is the betrayer; it is the prophet who whispers to the King of Israel the King of Aram’s private thoughts. So the King of Aram sends his army to seize the prophet. They come at night and surround the city.

In the morning, the prophet’s servant looks out and sees the town surrounded by an army of horses and chariots and cries out in fear. His story is about to end at the point of a spear. But the prophet prays for God to open his servant’s eyes, and he looks up to see the angelic armies of God encircling the city. “Those who are with us,” says the prophet, “are more than those who are with them.”

God strikes the enemy troops with a blindness, a confusion, a fog. As they come into town, the prophet says “Oh you have the wrong town. I’ll show you the way.” And he leads them to the King of Israel. The prophet prays for God to open their eyes and they find themselves surrounded in the capital city. And here is the punch line: The king asks the prophet what he’s supposed to do with the enemy now in his hand. “Shall I kill them, my father? Shall I kill them?” All his enemy’s soldiers are in his power. He has the chance to destroy them completely. But the prophet says instead that he should feed them. The king sets before them a banquet. They sit down to a table of peace. They are reconciled.

We want to win. We want to crush our enemies. “Shall I kill them, my father?” But the scalpel of God tells a story about reconciliation, repentance, transformation, love of God and neighbor.

I have a deep sympathy for Ford; I know something about sexual assault. I also have a deep sympathy for Kavanaugh; I know something about having your life turned upside down in a moment – and I know something about the sins of our youth. Perhaps mostly, I have a deep sorrow for the nation, because we are so far from the kingdom and rushing in the wrong direction. We are a people who do not know how to repent, and the sins of our past – from greed and slavery and genocide to our everlasting faith in winning at all costs – keep haunting us. Our good deeds can’t make the old deeds go away. David was faithful in almost everything. Yet this murder of Uriah needed to be confessed or it would all go wrong.

So there’s another story (1 Kings 21). King Ahab married the daughter of the Sidonian king (1 Kings 16:31). Her name was Jezebel. We don’t name our kids Jezebel anymore.

Ahab grows up in a world where God is God. God has given the land to the people, divided it among every tribe and family. The land is not my possession; it is a gift of God to my family. It is my responsibility to care for it; it is not my privilege to dispose of it. The law says I can’t sell it. If I have to, I can sell the right to use the land until the next sabbatical year. I can sell the next so many harvests, but I can’t sell it permanently.

Ahab is king. He has a palace. He wants the vineyard that belongs to Naboth in order to grow vegetables. Naboth is scandalized by the idea that he should sell his patrimony. He says no. Ahab is depressed and goes to bed. Jezebel is disgusted. She will teach him how a king uses power. She gives a banquet. She invites Naboth to sit at the high table. She hires two scoundrels to sit next to him. In the middle of the dinner they stand up and accuse Naboth of cursing God and the King. They take him out and stone him to death. Jezebel goes to Ahab and says, “Go get your garden.”

Except God has a prophet. God has a servant with God’s heavenly scalpel. And the prophet is standing there in the garden when Ahab shows up to claim it. This is not the kingship God wants, says the prophet, Ahab’s kingdom will fall by the same violence Ahab used.

And so the scalpel of God comes to us. Will we choose violence or faithfulness? Will we choose victory or redemption? Will we choose wealth, power and conquest or justice, mercy and reconciliation?

Story after story, preached word after preached word, songs and poems and history and even erotic poetry – it’s all here in this book – and lurking in it all is this God with a scalpel who would heal our hearts.

So, in the texts we heard today: Jeremiah is a prophet. He holds the scalpel of God. And the word of judgment he speaks against a corrupt regime creates enemies. The king doesn’t want to hear what Jeremiah has to say. Jeremiah will send the king a copy of everything God had said, and the king will burn it all, page by page, in the brazier standing next to him to keep him warm. (Jeremiah 36)

Jeremiah is a priest. His hometown is a village of priests. They all have a stake in the temple and the monarchy. They have a good life. They don’t want Jeremiah mucking it up for them. They see treason in him, not the divine scalpel. They plot to kill him. And so we hear Jeremiah crying out to God in the words we read this morning: “I was like a lamb led to the slaughter.” And we know there is in us a piece of this village of Anathoth that wants to hold on to what we have even if it means silencing the prophet. Even as Jerusalem rose up against Jesus.

The book of James wields the divine scalpel against the passions that drive our hearts and lead us to betray the divine will. Submit yourselves therefore to God,” he writes, “resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. The disciples are thinking: “Our time is coming! We are going to win. We are going to rule.” And they argue over which of them is the top dog.

“What were you talking about?” asks Jesus. He knows full well what they were talking about. Arguments in the Middle East are never quiet.

“What were you talking about?” And suddenly they are silent. Jesus is holding the divine scalpel in his hand. It’s not a sword, though; it’s just a scalpel. It is always just a scalpel, meant to heal and not to harm. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And Jesus puts a child in their midst.

Now we have to get this right. In our society, if you don’t have enough food, you feed the children first. In the time of Jesus, you feed the adults first. Children are loved, but they are at the bottom of the totem pole. They are valued. They are blessings from God. Hopefully they will become adults and take care of their aging parents. But the odds are they won’t make it to adulthood. The death toll is too high. The calories have to go to those who can work the fields.

If we really want to understand what Jesus is saying to his followers, we need to imagine Jesus taking a refugee, or a homeless person, or an addict, whomever we think matters least, and setting him or her in the midst of us, putting his arms around him or her and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

It is the scalpel of God.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Syriske_flyktninger_(8184618433).jpg By Norsk Folkehjelp Norwegian People’s Aid from Norway (Syriske flyktninger) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons