The un-rending

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Watching for the Morning of February 12, 2017

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

The Law, the Torah, God’s teaching/instructions for our life as a faithful community, stand front and center in our readings this coming Sunday. From Deuteronomy, written as a sermon by Moses to the people as they stand at the edge of the promised land setting forth again the commands and instructions of God, we will hear the challenge that before us stands a choice between life and death. Blessing will follow if we remain faithful to God and walk in God’s ways; curses will follow if we do not.

The appointed verses from Psalm 119 for Sunday is the opening strophe of the majestic acrostic hymn celebrating the gift of God’s Torah from Aleph to Taw, beginning with the affirmation: “Happy are those…who walk in the law of the Lord.”

Paul is writing about the Corinthian congregation as mere babes, still living on milk rather than solid food, bound as they are in the ways of the world around them rather than living the way of God.

And then Jesus takes up the commandments. After his stunning opening in the beatitudes and the declaration that the poor are not only honored in God’s sight but are light for the world, Jesus dramatically transforms the commandments from a safe and secure legal code (don’t kill, don’t commit adultery) to a summons to live the reign of God:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

We will hear the same summons in the commandments about adultery and vows (and then, in Matthews Gospel, about revenge, acts of mercy, prayer and fasting). More is expected of the human race – and of God’s people – than to refrain from killing, though even that has proven itself far beyond our willingness to obey. But the kingdom chooses to rip no tear in the fabric of the human community, to rend no relationship. Jesus is driving towards that stunning command: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

We are in the presence of the dawning of God’s reign, the lifting of every burden, the setting right of the world, the un-rending of the fabric of life. And we are summoned into its bold and daring and imperishable life.

The Prayer for February 12, 2017

Gracious God,
in love you made the world and laid its foundations,
giving your gracious order to the creation.
In love you revealed your law to a people you brought out from bondage,
showing them the path of life.
Renew in us your vision for human life
and make us faithful in our calling to live as children of your kingdom;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for February 12, 2017

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” – Moses addresses the people as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, urging them to remain faithful to God, for their life in the land depends on following God’s commands.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:1-8
“Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.” – In a magisterial acrostic psalm setting forth the wonder of God’s law/teaching, the poet expresses the wondrous ordering reality God brings to life.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
– Speaking to his divided congregation, Paul says they are yet babes in Christ who must be fed with milk, having failed to learn the basic truth of how they are to live in Christ.

Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… But I say to you…” – Jesus takes up the commandments about murder, adultery and swearing oaths, revealing the depth of their meaning in bringing human life under the governance of God’s Spirit.

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Counting the Cost

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Watching for the Morning of September 4, 2016

Year C

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 18 / Lectionary 23

Jesus’ relentless challenge of the social order continues this week as he spells out to the crowd the consequences of enjoining the privileged to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind to their banquets. Banquets functioned to maintain the social fabric through ties of kinship and friendship and by reinforcing the honor status of the host and guests. Jesus’ teaching to invite those on society’s margins jeopardized the safety and security of the family by bringing shame on the family, undermining their position in society and incurring the hostility of their social class.   ‘Love’ and ‘hate’ are words expressing attachment and detachment. Those who would follow Jesus must detach from the social system of this world in order to show allegiance to the new order that is dawning in Christ. The reign of God welcomes all, feeds all, forgives all. One cannot live the kingdom and yet maintain the ties of security through family position and wealth. “Count the cost,” Jesus says, “Count the cost.”

With this radical challenge comes the preaching of Moses declaring that God’s way is not too hard for you,” but is in fact the way of life. We hear the psalmist describe the one who shows fidelity to God (and neighbor) as a tree planted by streams of water,” drawing in the water of life in contrast to “the wicked” (those who lack fidelity to God and neighbor) who are “like chaff that the wind drives away.” And we hear Paul writing to Philemon, setting before him the need to welcome his runaway slave, Onesimus, (whom Philemon had the legal right to punish even to death) as a brother in Christ.

The world will staunchly defend the social order, but Jesus calls us to be a new creation, citizens of the age to come when all creation is reconciled to the Lord and Giver of Life. There is a cost to discipleship – but a greater cost for ignoring so great a salvation.”

The Prayer for September 4, 2016

Lord to whom our lives belong,
grant us courage to follow where you lead,
bearing the burdens of a broken world,
daring to speak the word of hope,
and living the love that lays down its life
for the sake of the world.

The Texts for September 4, 2016

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:11-20
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
– In a sermon set in the mouth of Moses, speaking to the Israelites as they prepare to enter the promised land, the preacher sets before them the choice of faithfulness and life or disobedience and all its consequences.

Psalmody: Psalm 1
“They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season.” –With this psalm that opens the psalter, the poet speaks of the enduring quality of the righteous (those faithful to God and neighbor) in contrast to the ephemeral existence of the wicked who are like chaff swept away by the wind.

Second Reading: Philemon 1-21
“Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.”
– Paul writes to Philemon on behalf of a runaway slave who has come to Paul and become a follower of Christ. Paul is sending him back to his master with instructions for Philemon to receive him as a brother.

Gospel: Luke 14:25-33
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” – The words love and hate convey a different sense to the first century than to ours, but the words were shocking then as now. The kingdom of God, the reign of grace, requires our ultimate allegiance. We should count the cost.

 

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Live the mercy

 

Thursday

Deuteronomy 30:1-14

File:Musée du Petit Palais Petit Palais n09.jpg1When all these things have happened to you, the blessings and the curses that I have set before you, if you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2and return to the Lord your God, and you and your children obey him with all your heart and with all your soul, just as I am commanding you today, 3then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the Lord your God has scattered you. 4Even if you are exiled to the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will bring you back.

These words are not part of the assigned text for the first reading on Sunday, but they should be. They set the context for the promise of prosperity and for the declaration that “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you.”

The story starts in exile. The exhortation begins in mercy. This is a word of hope. When all is lost, there is yet a future. If we turn back, God will restore. And what God asks is “not too hard” for us. It is not esoteric. The life God wants for us is within our reach.

Justice and mercy are simple things. We may not want to give them, but they are simple and straightforward. God’s commands are not like the tax code. You do not need a legal expert to make them intelligible. You do not need a hero to discern them. God’s commands are really pretty modest: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

At first glance, Jesus seems to make the commands tougher: You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times…but I say to you… But what Jesus is asking is that we keep the spirit of God’s law not simply its outward form. There is a lust of the heart not just of the body, and an anger that rends the human community though it does not murder.

God has commanded us to love our neighbor. Jesus just wants us to stop limiting mercy. Mercy is not hard. Compassion is not hard. It is our hearts that can be hard.

There are a thousand reasons not to stop and help the wounded man. The priest will be defiled and have to return to Jerusalem to undergo purification. The Levite, too, is surely on some important business and has good cause not to get involved. But this is not a situation that calls for nuanced interpretation of legal obligations; this is a situation that calls for us to live the mercy of God. Pretty simple: Live the mercy of God.

11Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 13Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 14No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

 

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A holy revolution

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Watching for the Morning of July 10, 2016

Year C

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 10 / Lectionary 15

Jesus is a revolutionary; he turns things around. He turns us around. And if we don’t like the political associations of that word, the “religious” synonym is repentance. Only Biblical repentance isn’t about moral regret. It is about changing directions. Turning around. Jesus is a revolutionary, bent on turning us around, bent on turning the world around.

The encounter with Jesus in this reading for Sunday starts as an attack by an expert in the interpretation and application of God’s law. Maybe it’s a personal attempt to make himself look good in the eyes of the crowd by upstaging this peasant healer. Maybe he wants to tear Jesus down as a potential threat to the established order. Either way, his question is intended to show that Jesus doesn’t know the scriptures or understand the tradition. But Jesus is a revolutionary; he turns the tables on the expert, showing that this “expert” knows all the right words and nothing of their significance.

The story Jesus tells is full of shock and awe. The Samaritan is an unexpected character in the story and he behaves in a startling way. Since the wounded man is stripped and beaten, the Samaritan cannot know whether he is “one of ours” or “one of theirs”. The touch of a Samaritan, his wine and oil, are all unclean to a Judean, as likely to elicit rage as gratitude.

The expert knows the answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” A neighbor is a fellow Israelite. This expert is not looking for information; he is scrambling to save face, hoping still to show Jesus as ignorant. But Jesus is a revolutionary; he turns the question around from “Who is my neighbor?” to “Who showed himself to be a neighbor?” Now we are not talking about who the other person is, but “Who am I?”

What does it mean to be God’s people? What does it mean to be a citizen of God’s reign? What does it mean to be a human being, created in the image of God?

A Samaritan! A hated Samaritan is the example of our true humanity! Our divine calling! Just like the Roman Centurion was an example of true faith! This Jesus who welcomes sinners…he is a revolutionary, bent on turning us all around.

So Sunday we will be confronted again by Jesus telling this familiar but challenging story. And we will hear the preaching of Deuteronomy call us to fidelity. And the psalmist will pray for God to teach us his paths. And the author of Colossians will pray that we may lead lives worthy of the Lord – reminding us that God has “rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”  A holy revolution.

The Prayer for July 10, 2016

Lord of mercy,
who gathers up a broken world in the arms of your grace,
teach us to live as you live,
to love as your love,
and to see all people as members of a single human family;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 10, 2016

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:1-14 (appointed: 9-14)
“Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you” –
To a people who have experienced the trauma of exile comes the promise of restoration and renewal and the exhortation to “turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”

Psalmody: Psalm 25:1-10
“Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths” – A prayer of faith for God’s continuing mercy, protection and guidance.

Second Reading: Colossians 1:1-14
“We have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.” – The salutation and blessing at the beginning of the letter to the Colossians that anticipate the central concerns of the letter.

Gospel: Luke 10:25-37
“But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”
– Jesus answers a lawyer’s challenge with the story we know as the parable of the Good Samaritan.

 

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Fruit

Thursday

Deuteronomy 30

English: Fruit stall in a market in Barcelona,...

English: Fruit stall in a market in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

9The Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil.

This is one of those places where it is important to read the scriptures carefully, especially those of us living in the United States where we worship prosperity and use it as a measure of success.

The prosperity God promises is fruit: fruit of the body, livestock and soil – to which I think we should also add the fruit of the Spirit.

If my fields yield an abundant harvest, no one else in the human community has lost anything.  It is not gained by cleverness in business.  It is not gained by taking advantage of anyone’s need.   A rich harvest is not gained by pushing wages down and moving jobs overseas.  It is not gained by creating obscure derivatives and paying others to rate them highly.  It is not gained by underselling the competition until I have a monopoly.  It is not gained by taking advantage of insider information or manipulating the market.  The Biblical image of divine blessing is rooted in the natural world, not the socio-economic one.

This is not an attack on capitalism, only a caution.  We slip so easily into the worship of wealth and power that we can lose sight of Biblical values.  It’s not good business to leave the margins of your fields unharvested – but it is good for the poor.  It’s not good business to leave your fields ungleaned – but it is good for those in need.  It is not good business to give away the first tenth of your harvest – but it is good for the human community.  It is not good business to pick up a beaten man at the side of the road and provide him free health care (unless you can get good media attention from it) – but it is good for the human spirit.

The market does not care about the well-being of my neighbor.  But God expects me to do so.

9For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. (Colossians 1, our second reading for Sunday)

Defenseless

Wednesday

Deuteronomy 30

An illustration of the Parable of the Good Sam...

An illustration of the Parable of the Good Samaritan from the Rossano Gospels, believed to be the oldest surviving illustrated New Testament. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

11Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.

When I was a child the confession at the beginning of the worship service said I am “sinful and unclean.”  When our church body adopted a new hymnal the language was changed to declare that we are “in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.”  I understand theologically what the confession was stating.  I also understand why no one wanted to think we were not in control of our own righteousness and salvation.

It is part of my innate rebellion against God to wrench the title “savior” from God’s hands and claim it for myself.  We are all Little Jack Horner wanting to declare, “What a good boy am I.”  The parade of self-conceit in politics, news, business and religion is tiring.  Like the lawyer whose challenge to Jesus prompts the story of the Good Samaritan, we are all eager to claim we are the righteous.  Watch any family argument and you will see a battle of self-justification.  We are not naturally inclined towards the truth but to self-preservation.  And part of that self-preservation is the denial of our sinfulness.  Oh we will acknowledge that we are imperfect, but hiding behind that statement is the conviction that, graded on a curve, we are still better than average, good enough to be welcomed into the eternal habitations.

But the old prayer that we are “unclean,” didn’t mean we were vile; it meant we were unworthy to stand in God’s presence.  We are not “holy.”  And “sinful” didn’t mean we were wholly corrupt, but that deep within we are turned towards ourselves rather than towards God and our neighbor.  The desire to be our own savior, to be the judge who declares us worthy, is prime evidence of that inward turn.  Like a car repaired after a collision, we may look fine on the outside but, hidden from view, the frame is bent.

If we are honest, we must acknowledge that something is off-kilter in the human heart.  Were it not, peace and harmony would be the norm rather than conflict and resentment.  But in that wondrously talented way we have of twisting things, even our “bondage to sin” becomes a rationalization and excuse: “I’m only human.”  And there it is again, our self-justification.  Psychological studies confirm that it is much more important for us to be able to claim innocence than to be innocent.

To this human heart that wants to excuse itself comes this word that God’s commands are not esoteric or difficult.  God’s will for us does not require heroic effort.  The voice of God through this verse from Deuteronomy strips away our excuses.  It is not that hard to be faithful to God and our neighbor.  It is not that hard to be mindful of the poor, to honor our parents and our neighbor’s marriage.  It is not hard to guard the possessions and life of others.  We just don’t want to.  And there is our bondage.  We can’t give up the self-justifying self, so we trim and edit the commands of God to suit our needs.  Like the legal expert before Jesus, we limit our obligation by limiting who is regarded as our neighbor – and labeling some as our enemies.

Between Jesus and Deuteronomy we are defenseless.  God’s commands are not hard, but we are addicted to self.  And so we are back to the core question: who gets to be God?  Who will be Savior?  In whom shall we trust? And, therefore, how will we live?  Mercy, justice, compassion, are not heroic tasks; they are simple deeds – if only we will let God be God.

Watching for the morning of July 14

Year C

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 10 / Lectionary 15

This coming Sunday we will hear the psalmist pray for God to teach him God’s way, not holding against him the folly of his youth.  The “lawyer” who comes to Jesus is not seeking God’s way.  After all, he’s an expert in the application of God’s law; he already knows what God requires.  As a friend of mine says of similar people, he’s “on the answer committee.”  This expert in the application of God’s law to the various circumstances of life comes to show off his knowledge and reveal Jesus’ ignorance.  Unfortunately for him, Jesus wins.  But Jesus is not interested in simply winning the verbal battle.  With the story of the Good Samaritan, he tries to open the heart and mind of this religious expert and call him into the way of God’s kingdom.

Whether we seek God’s truth or not, God seeks us, setting before us the path of life and bidding us to follow.

Prayer for July 14, 2013

Lord of mercy,
who gathers up a broken world
in the arms of your grace,
teach us to live as you live,
to love as your love,
and to see all people as members
of a single human family.

The Texts for July 14, 2013

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:9-14
11Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you” – An exhortation in the mouth of Moses urging the people to abide by God’s will made known in the laws given at Sinai.

Psalmody: Psalm 25:1-10
 “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths” – A prayer of faith for God’s continuing mercy, protection and guidance.

Second Reading: Colossians 1:1-14
2To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae:” –
The salutation and blessing at the beginning of the letter to the  Colossians

Gospel: Luke 10:25-37
“But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”  – Jesus answers a lawyer’s challenge with the story we know as the parable of the Good Samaritan.