Choose your kingdom; choose your king

File:Tomato vender at the Covington Farmer's Market in Covington, LA.jpg

“You that have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isaiah 55)

Watching for the Morning of August 6, 2017

Year A

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 13 / Lectionary 18

I live in a place and time where there has always been food in the grocery store. I understand that privilege. And even in the years I lived in a place that is now referred to as an urban “food desert”, I had a car with which to reach the suburban stores where milk and meat were fresh, and bread and fruit plentiful. I understand the privilege.

I have seen parts of the world where privilege is lacking. I have sat in a board meeting discussing whether we should help a companion church body in a region of the world where, after multiple years of drought, they had no seed corn. It disturbs me still, as it disturbed me then, that there was any hesitation. (We did commit to send the funds immediately, prior to the effort to raise them.)

The scripture is full of stories about famine. Famine takes Jacob (Israel) and his family to Egypt. Drought and famine had Elijah hiding in the wilderness and taking refuge with the widow of Zarephath. Famine takes Naomi to Moab where Ruth becomes her daughter-in-law (and David’s great-grandmother). Locusts (and the subsequent famine) are the occasion for the prophet Joel’s message. Subsistence farmers lead a precarious life, especially in the years of Jesus when the burden of taxes took nearly half the crop, and the necessity of keeping seed and feed left landowners with maybe 20% for food – far less for tenant farmers.

Hunger is a constant companion for too much of the world through too much of human history. And it is those who have known the anxiety and uncertainty of daily bread who recognize the full drama and grace of that day when five loaves feed five thousand.

It is food for today. And it is the bread of tomorrow. It is bread for those who hunger and a taste of a world without hunger. It is manna in the wilderness and a foretaste of the feast to come. It is the prophetic promise made present. It is a world reordered, a world set right, a world born from above. As Mary sang, “the hungry are filled with good things.

In contrast to Herod’s banquet, where Salome will dance for strangers, where the king’s daughter is used to inflame the king’s consorts, where plots conspire and the king’s vanity and shamelessness ends with the head of John on a platter – in contrast to Herod’s banquet is the banquet of Jesus where the people are healed and fed, with an abundance left over.

Choose your kingdom. Choose your king.

+       +       +

Sunday we hear of the feeding of the five thousand. And the backdrop assigned for this narrative is the prophet of Isaiah 55 giving voice to God’s offer for all who are hungry to come and eat: bread freely given, wine and milk overflowing, the voice of God that is true life. And the psalm will speak of God’s gracious providing, “The LORD” who “upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down”:

15The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
16You open your hand,
satisfying the desire of every living thing.

Sunday we will also hear Paul willing to be cursed for the sake of God’s people. And in that sentiment we recognize the spirit of the one who took the curse for our sake. The one who opened the grave. The one who poured out the Spirit. The one who brings the feast without end.

Choose your kingdom. Choose your king.

The Prayer for August 6, 2017

Almighty God,
through your Son Jesus you set a table
for all the world to come and feast.
Grant us hearts that are eager to hear your word,
share in your banquet,
and live your reign of mercy and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 6, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 55:1-5
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” – After the return from exile, the prophet calls to the community like a vendor in the marketplace, inviting them to “feast” on God’s promise that the eternal covenant once established with David is now transferred to the whole nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
“The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.” – A psalm of praise and thanksgiving for God’s grace and bounty.

Second Reading: Romans 9:1-5
“I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.”
– Having laid out his message of God’s reconciling grace apart from the law, Paul now takes up the problem that God’s people have largely ignored the message of Christ Jesus. He begins with an expression of his great grief that Israel has not received this fruit of all their promises.

Gospel: Matthew 14:13-21
“All ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” – Following the parables of chapter 13, Matthew tells of Herod’s banquet where all act corruptly and John is beheaded, and of Jesus’ banquet on the mountain where he has compassion for all.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATomato_vender_at_the_Covington_Farmer’s_Market_in_Covington%2C_LA.jpg By Saint Tammany [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Honoring the prophets

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Friday

Isaiah 58:1-12

1 Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.

I pity the prophets. Who really wants this assignment? It’s a lot more rewarding to be able to speak a word of grace to those who are broken than to be assigned the task of pointing out sins no one wants to acknowledge.

Of course there are always those who seem to delight in pointing out sins…and mistakes and imperfections…and pretty much anything with which they disagree or disapprove. There is a heady intoxication in moral outrage. Our public airwaves are filled with it at the moment. But it’s one thing to rant at the powers that are far away. A very different thing to be assigned the task of pointing out sins close at hand. It got Jeremiah thrown in jail. Elijah had to hide out for safety. And we don’t know what happened to Isaiah, but those later chapters have enough potent poetry about God’s suffering servant that I suspect its author knew something about suffering first hand.

So I pity the prophets. But I honor them deeply. What they did was a great sacrifice, paid with tears and despair at the hardness of heart of the people and their leaders.

The way to honor the prophets, of course, is to not let their words fall to the ground. The way to respect their courage and sacrifice is to let these words find root in our hearts and lives, to take seriously the command to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. The way to honor the prophets – and the God who sent them – is to live the way of justice and mercy:

6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? …
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday…
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AProphets_from_Ferapontov02_(Kirillo-Belozersk).jpg By Anonymous (own photo by shakko) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Something more than all

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Watching for the Morning of June 26, 2016

Year C

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 8 / Lectionary 13

Jerusalem. The city that slays the prophets. Jesus sets his face for the holy city and his destiny there. But Jesus does not follow the normal route from Galilee, going down to the Jordan River, traveling south around Samaria, then back up to Jerusalem. Jesus goes straight through Samaria, hostile country though it be. He has set his face.

He is not received in Samaria. He is a pilgrim going to Jerusalem – why should they help? Jesus and his followers are not part of their family, tribe or community. No hospitality is required of enemies – though hospitality would be required for God’s anointed. For this affront, the disciples are ready to call down fire. Like Elijah on the hill when soldiers came to seize him. Like wrath upon Sodom and Gomorrah.

How far the disciples still are from the reign of God. How far from the peace of God that silences the wind and waves and warring of the human heart. And from Jesus we hear not only rebuke, but the uncompromising demand of discipleship: “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” There is a message to be proclaimed. There is healing to be brought to the world. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

So Sunday we hear of Elijah summoning Elisha to follow – Elisha slaughters his oxen and sacrifices them, using the wood of the plow for the fire. He leaves all to follow his new master. We hear the psalmist declaring his complete allegiance, refusing to participate in the sacrifices to any other God. And we hear the apostle Paul summoning the Galatians to live by the Spirit and not the desires of our fallen nature.

We tend to be uncomfortable with Jesus speaking in such uncompromising terms. We expect “welcome for the sinner, and a promised grace made good.” And while there is, indeed, grace for the sinner, for the disciple there is a mission. “‘Tis not all we owe to Jesus; It is something more than all.”*

The Prayer for June 26, 2016

Heavenly Father, Lord of All,
you call people of every age to walk in your paths and herald your kingdom.
Grant us courage to follow where you lead,
go where we are sent,
and bear witness to your love,
that all may know your reign of grace and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 26, 2016

First Reading: 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
“So [Elijah] set out from there, and found Elisha son of Shaphat, who was plowing.” –
Elijah is commissioned to anoint Elisha as his successor and summons him to follow. Elisha sacrifices his oxen, using the wood of the plow for the fire, and goes to serve Elijah.

Psalmody: Psalm 16
“I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” – The poet declares his allegiance to the LORD and his refusal to partake in offerings to any other god.

Second Reading: Galatians 5:1, 13-25
“Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh” – Paul calls the community to live by the Spirit and contrasts the works of our fallen nature (the ‘flesh’) with with the fruit of the Spirit

Gospel: Luke 9:51-62
“Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
– Passing through Samaria with his face set towards Jerusalem, Jesus is refused hospitality by a Samaritan town and James and John are ready to call down the fire of God’s judgment. This is coupled with three sayings on the radical requirements of discipleship: “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

 

*quoted from the hymn: “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy”

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AErlangen_Burgberggarten_Heinrich_Kirchner_Schlanke_Gestalt_001.JPG By Janericloebe (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Life restored

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Watching for the Morning of June 5, 2016

Year C

The Third Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 5 / Lectionary 10

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

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

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

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

The Prayer for June 5, 2016

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

The Texts for June 5, 2016

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

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

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

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

 

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

Radiant with Heaven’s glory

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Watching for the Morning of February 7, 2016

Year C

The Feast of the Transfiguration

As we stand at the threshold of Lent and its journey to Jerusalem and the cross and resurrection, this final Sunday after Epiphany takes us to the Mount of Transfiguration. There, the chosen one of God, anointed with the Spirit, and declared God’s “Son” at his baptism, is made radiant by the presence of God. It is a story sandwiched between two passion predictions. Jesus is pointing his followers to his destiny: he will suffer and die and on the third day be raised.

This teaching is beyond anyone’s comprehension. No one has imagined such a destiny for the Messiah. The disciples don’t understand. We don’t understand. God should fix things not suffer them, right wrongs not endure them. God should vanquish enemies, not be their victim.

This is why, if you read the extended version of the appointed text, you will hear Jesus say: “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” (And if you are reading the extended version, you should go all the way through their incomprehension in verse 45.)

Jesus is the crowning revelation of God. Like Moses at Sinai and Elijah in the cleft of the rock, Jesus climbs up the mountain into the cloud of God’s presence. But Moses and Elijah appear not as Jesus’ equals, but to bear witness to him. They discuss his “departure”, his coming death and resurrection (literally his “exodus”), and in the end Jesus stands alone and the voice of God declares to the sleepy-but-startled-into-wakefulness, terrified-in-the-presence-of-God disciples: “This is my Son (a royal title), my Chosen; listen to him.”

Following Jesus is not for the faint of heart. And yet it is for the weary and heavy laden. It is demanding, yet full of grace. It promises life, but asks us to lay ours down. It forgives, but requires us to forgive. It loves, but requires us to love. It shows Jesus mighty against the demonic realm but helpless upon the cross. But even on the cross exercising kingly mercy.

It’s no wonder the disciples are confused. This is not the kind of Messiah for whom they have hoped. The Romans are forgiven not judged, enemies to be loved not conquered. Hundreds of years of foreign oppression goes unavenged, replaced by a mission to gather them all into the wide net of God’s mercy and grace. How can it be?

So here, in Sunday’s Gospel, we see Jesus bathed in the light of God’s presence. And here, with Peter, James and John on the mountain, God summons us to attend, to listen, to hear, to devour Jesus’ teaching and understand his deeds.

It is a vision meant to sustain us through Good Friday so that we are still in Jerusalem on Easter morn, ready to witness the eighth day, the day of new creation.

The Prayer for February 7, 2016

Holy and Gracious God,
wrapped in mystery, yet revealed in your Son Jesus.
Renew us by the radiant vision of your Son;
make us ever attentive to his voice and worthy of your service;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for February 7, 2016

First Reading: Exodus 34:29-35
“As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” – Moses’ face shines from the radiance of God’s presence.

Psalmody: Psalm 99 (Psalm 2 is the appointed psalm; Psalm 99 the option)
“The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble!”
– The psalmist sings of God as ruler of all, and of Moses and Aaron with whom God spoke.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2
“We act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside.” – Paul, writing to defend his ministry and to be reconciled with the Corinthian congregation, uses the image of Moses covering his shining face as a metaphor of the fading glory of the covenant at Sinai compared to the more glorious covenant in Christ.

Gospel: Luke 9:28-36 (Optional: Luke 9:28-43)
“Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
– In a narrative rich with imagery from Moses on Mt. Sinai, three disciples see Jesus radiant with the Glory of God and consulting with Moses and Elijah. They hear God’s voice declare again that Jesus is “my Son”, bidding them to listen to him.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAlexandr_Ivanov_015_-_variation.jpg by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Free to do the right thing

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Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath

Thursday

1 Kings 17:8-16

10When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.”

It seems like such a simple little request. But it is during a three-year drought. Water itself is scarce. Who knows whether Zarephath still had easy access to fresh water? Dry sticks, on the other hand, are sure to be available.

The prophet is in foreign territory. The widow refers to the LORD as “your god.” Her god – or, at least, the god of her people – is the god Ba’al. The worship of Ba’al is the source of all this trouble. He is the Canaanite storm god. The bringing of the winter rains. The source of water for the community and for the fields. The source of prosperity and abundance. Israel has adopted the worship of Ba’al. They have become part of the modern world. Tyre and Sidon are great cosmopolitan cities. They are the home not just of foreign trade and the rich abundance of this world’s goods; they are the home of art and culture. It is from Tyre that Solomon hires workmen to build him a temple – though Solomon at lead dedicated his temple to the LORD.

The king of Israel has married the daughter of the King of Sidon. She has come and brought modern sensibility to this backward nation in the hill country. They have built a temple to Ba’al and she has brought with her 450 prophets of Ba’al (and 400 prophets of the goddess Asherah).

She has also tried to stamp out the backward religion of this God of the desert who commands justice for all.

Few girls are named Jezebel today.

Jezebel is the one who schooled king Ahab in the use of ruthless power, taking Naboth’s vineyard – land God gave to Naboth’s family that now belongs to the king even as Naboth now lies in the grave.

So here is the prophet in the homeland of the queen. And he has asked for a drink. The widow shows hospitality to this stranger and goes to get him some water.

And then he asks for a bit of bread.

A bit is all she has. Her last handful of meal. Enough for one last small cake to enjoy with her son, and then nothing awaits her but death. It is why she is gathering sticks. Fuel for the fire to bake the one last small bit of bread.

The woman is faced with a challenge. Hospitality is the supreme value of the age. To feed the hungry is not only noble, but the one true thing. But this is her last bread. This her final meal.

She protests. She explains to this foreign prophet what she intends to do. “That’s fine,” he replies. “But first make some for me.”

First do the right thing.

And to this he adds an incredible promise: the jar of meal will not fail until the drought is over.

She is a hero of the faith. She dares to trust the promise of a foreign prophet and his strange desert God. She dares to do the right thing though it costs her everything. And she is sustained. She and her son and the prophet live from that small bit of never failing daily bread.  The gods of prosperity have failed her; the LORD, the God of justice and mercy has not.

It is a story like the manna in the wilderness: enough for today, trusting God for tomorrow.  It may seem like a hard way to live. But it is actually quite liberating. Let God worry about tomorrow. Let us be free to do the right thing today.

Image: Bartholomeus Breenbergh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Devouring widows

Watching for the Morning of November 8, 2015

Year B

The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 27 / Lectionary 32

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A bronze Widow’s Mite or Prutah, minted by Alexander Jannaeus, King of Judaea, 103 – 76 B.C.

Sunday returns us to “ordinary time” (the numbered Sundays of the year) after the festivals of the last two Sundays. Jesus is now in Jerusalem. Our narrative has jumped over the entry to Jerusalem (which we read on Palm Sunday) and the cleansing of the temple (which we read in Lent from the Gospel of John). We have skipped Mark’s description of the heightening conflict with the Jerusalem elite and Jesus’ stories of God’s pending judgment on the city. What remains before the account of the passion is this Sunday’s text and Jesus’ teaching about the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the age.

The church calendar is shaped by the northern hemisphere. This is the season of harvest, or reaping and winnowing. And the texts and tone of worship at the end of the church year turns towards the notion of the final harvest, even as the Gospel narrative itself reflects the growing crisis between Jesus and the authorities.

So this Sunday Jesus warns his followers about the scribes who love the seats of honor and the show of pious prayer, but “devour widows’ houses.” Although the words are directed to his followers, we should not imagine that this is a private conversation. It is a challenge of the Jerusalem elite for all to hear. And no sooner are these words out of Jesus’ mouth then he is able to point to a widow giving her last pennies into the temple treasury. Here is concrete evidence that instead of doing justice and mercy, the temple system bleeds the poor.

No wonder they want to kill him.

We have been taught to hear Jesus as if he were praising the woman for her dedication, but the context shows that his words are a lament. He wants his disciples to see that this is a murderous system. And the haunting realization for the hearers of Mark’s Gospel is that the murderous system is about to turn on Jesus. Jesus is about to give his last two farthings, his last full measure of devotion. The priests and scholars of the privileged elite in Jerusalem will devour Jesus to maintain the temple – but it is the temple that will be destroyed and Jesus who will be raised. God will cast down the mighty and raise up the poor. Mary will find the tomb empty and Jesus the crucified will meet them in Galilee. God’s kingdom, God’s reign, is dawning and earthly kingdoms are falling.

So Sunday we will hear of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. When drought afflicts the nation that has turned away from the God of justice and mercy to the gods of prosperity, from the LORD of the Exodus and Sinai to the Ba’al of the storm, God provides for the prophet and a poor widow and her child with a never-failing source of life.

Sunday’s psalm will bear witness to this God of justice and mercy, declaring that he “executes justice for the oppressed,” “gives food to the hungry,” and “sets the prisoners free.”

And the author of Hebrews will continues his argument for the uniqueness and superiority of Christ over every human priest, declaring that Christ has not gone into an earthly temple to make the annual atonement for the people with the blood of goats and bulls, but he has ascended into the heavens and stands before the throne of God to intercede on our behalf. The God of justice and mercy. The God who does not devour widows, but gives life.

The Prayer for November 8, 2015

Guardian of the weak, protector of the powerless, Lord of all:
send forth your Holy Spirit
that your people may not seek the places of honor,
but stand with Jesus alongside the broken and poor.
May we be among those whose lives are given wholly to your service;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The texts for November 8, 2015

First Reading: 1 Kings 17:8-16
“The word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, ‘Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’”
– As the drought grows ever more severe after God has declared no rain will fall on the kingdom of Israel when it has turned to worship the rain god Ba’al, God provides for Elijah through the faithfulness of a widow already at the edge of starvation.

Psalmody: Psalm 146
“Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God…who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.” – The psalmist sings of the character of God (in contrast to human princes).

Second Reading: Hebrews 9:24-28
“Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” – Arguing for the superiority of Christ, our true high priest, over earthly priests, the author declares that Christ Jesus has not entered an earthly temple to intercede for us, but stands before the throne of God in the heavens.

Gospel: Mark 12:38-44
“A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.” – Jesus warns his followers about the way of the scribes who “devour widows’ houses” and then witnesses a widow placing her last two halfpence into the temple offering.

 

Photo: By Randy Benzie (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Contributions/Randy_Benzie) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Widowsmite.jpg) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

“The prudent will keep silent”

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Early Christian Martyrs: Polycarp, Vincent of Saragossa, Pancras of Rome, and Saint Chrysogonus

Sunday Evening

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

10They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor the one who speaks the truth….
13Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.

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Early Christian Martyr, St. Perpetua

We all know there are times its best to keep your mouth shut. And though the United States has a tradition of a more or less free speech – free speech we don’t tolerate well when it burns flags, or criticizes the nation, speaks up about injustice or opposes a war – we understand the principle, at least. Monarchies and dictatorships have much less room for unregulated speech. Jeremiah’s message gets him ‘arrested’ and thrown into a the mud at the bottom of an empty cistern – ‘arrested’ in quotes because it implies a judicial procedure rather than the SS knocking at your door in the night…or, rather, not knocking.

There are times to keep your mouth shut: when the powers that be are against you, when the mood of the country is against you, when the nation has set itself on a destructive path (The March of Folly), when “it is an evil time”.

But listening to this reading in worship this morning I realized the irony that though the prophet declares he lives in a time when “the prudent will keep silent”– he, himself, is not silent. He dares to name the injustice of his day. He dares to challenge the ruling powers. He dares to challenge the dominant ideology, declaring that God is not on their side.

After David has contrived to murder Uriah to cover his affair with Bathsheba, Nathan comes to the king with a parable that incites the king’s wrath at an injustice by a man of wealth and power – and then points his long bony finger at the king and says, “You are the man.” It is evidence of David’s sincere faith that Nathan survives.

When the worship of Baal (god of the storm) became the practice of the monarchy in Israel, Elijah announced that the LORD would send no rain. During the famine, Elijah was forced to hide in the wadi of the river Jabbok – and then outside the country in the home of the widow of Zarephath. The king called him “my enemy” and accused him of being the source of the nations trouble. The Queen sought to kill him (and all the prophets of the LORD).

At the command of the king, Zechariah was stoned to death in the temple courtyard.

And, of course, Jesus is crucified.

So, when Jesus bids us take up the cross, there is a rich lineage of prophets and martyrs to share our journey, from Polycarp and Perpetua & Felicity to Martin Luther King, Jr. Speaking the truth in love, decidedly. But daring to speak truth nonetheless. They recognized the time, but answered the call to not be prudent.

 

Polycarp, Vincent of Saragossa, Pancras of Rome, and Saint Chrysogonus.  Image: By at Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.  Pagelink:https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APolycarp%2C_Vincent%2C_Pancras_and_Chrysogonus.jpg
Perpetua: Image: By onbekende Venetiaanse kunstenaar. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.  Pagelink: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APerpetua.jpg

Majesty and Mystery

Watching for the Morning of May 31, 2015

Year B

Holy Trinity

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Hildegard of Bingen, Miniature of the Holy Trinity

We come this Sunday to the day known as Holy Trinity, and every pastor thinks he or she must try to explain the doctrine of the trinity and will likely use some frail and heretical illustration like ice, steam and liquid water, or the person who is a Father, a son, and a husband. The trinity is a doctrine over which the church fought for hundreds of years and is fighting still, but Trinity Sunday is not about a doctrine – it is about the God who has revealed himself by the name, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” declares the risen Lord, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Among all the gods of the ancient world – and all the gods of the modern world – only one is known as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” and that is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Exodus and Sinai, the God of justice and mercy, the God of David and the prophets, the God of the exile and return, the God of creation and new creation, the God who came among us as Jesus of Nazareth, the God who suffered and died and rose, the God who is present in and among us by his Holy Spirit, the sign and seal of the age to come.

“Father, Son and Holy Spirit” identifies the God of whom we speak as this God – not a god of prosperity, not a God of power, not the rain god Ba’al, or any of the gods and goddesses of fertility, not the gods of power and conquest, but the one God, the true God, the God of the cross and resurrection, the God of reconciliation and New Life.

The doctrine of the Trinity is important. Very important. But it is important only because it protects the identity of the God of whom we speak and to whom we pray as this God no other.

So Sunday we come together in awe and wonder and fear and praise to sing of this God and to hear the word of this God, the one we acclaim and confess as earth’s true Lord.

The Prayer for May 31, 2015

One God, Holy and Eternal,
before whom all heaven sings,
and to whom belong the praises of all the earth;
you have made yourself known by the name Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Let your Word shake the wilderness,
bringing new birth to all creation
and gathering all things into your eternal song;
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 May 31, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.” – When an earthquake shakes the temple, Isaiah (a priest) has a vision of God on his throne and is called to his prophetic ministry.

Psalmody: Psalm 29
“The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.”
– The psalmist uses the imagery of a powerful thunderstorm arising off the Mediterranean Sea and crashing over the Lebanese mountains to describe the majestic power of God’s voice/word.

Reading: 1 Kings 19:4-13 (added by our parish to worship this Sunday)
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” – Following the stunning showdown with the prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel, the queen is unimpressed and vows to slay Elijah. He flees to Sinai where God encounters him, not in the power of wind, earthquake or fire, but in a silent stillness.

Second Reading: Romans 8:12-17
“You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ”
– In this climactic chapter of Paul’s letter laying out his preaching and teaching we come to the central proclamation that we are no longer bound to our humanity in its fallenness, but bound to the Spirit of God, adopted as sons and daughters, heirs of all the gifts and bounty of God – heirs of the dawning reign of God.

Gospel: John 3:1-17
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” – Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night trying to understand this strange yet wondrous prophet. Jesus speaks to him about being born ‘from above’, but Nicodemus misunderstands and cannot understand how it is possible to be born ‘again’.

 

Photocredit: By The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We have seen the Chariots of Fire

Wednesday

2 Kings 2

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Fiery ascension of prophet Elijah. Russian icon (Novgorod school), Late 1400’s

1Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.

The opening words of our first reading for Sunday troubled me as I met with colleagues to study the upcoming texts. It took me a while to put my finger on it. I thank them for their patience and tolerance as I groped for what felt wrong.

The use of a temporal clause sets the stage for a story; it doesn’t announce the story. If I begin, “When 9-11 happened,” you know the story isn’t going to be about 9-11; it’s going to be about something in which 9-11 serves as the backdrop, the context for the story. If you start, “When King was killed,” I know that you are certainly not telling me what happened to Martin Luther King, Jr. You assume I know. What I don’t know is the piece you are about to add.

So this isn’t a story about Elijah being taken up in a whirlwind. The writer assumes everyone knows that story. It’s just the background for the story the author wants to tell. So the text isn’t about Elijah; it’s about Elisha. It’s not about the whirlwind or the chariots of fire; it’s about Elisha. And maybe it’s not even about Elisha; maybe it’s about what happens to the prophetic voice in Israel. When Elijah perishes, who will speak? Will the prophetic voice continue?

Elijah has been a great champion of the LORD. He has fought the king (and his lovely bride, Jezebel) for the faith of the nation. Will they worship a prosperity God, Baal, or the God who rescues the poor from slavery? If you are the king, which narrative do you want to be the national narrative: Freedom for slaves or prosperity for all? Care of the poor or letting loose the constraints on the wealthy? Sabbath observance (a day off even for slaves) or markets open for business?

What will happen to this prophetic voice that fought tirelessly for the desert God who parts rivers and gives land to the landless, strength to the faint, hope to the poor?

Elijah keeps telling Elisha to “Stay here.” “Go back. Go back and hang with the rest of the prophets who praise the LORD and serve the people but have not fought with kings. Go back to your place. Go back to your brotherhood. Go back to a quiet and peaceable life. Go back.”

But Elisha is determined. Elisha will not be left behind. He will go wherever his teacher/master goes. He will not be separated from him until he obtains the inheritance: a double share. As a double share falls to the eldest son, he would be the eldest son, the successor to Elijah.

But it is not Elijah’s to give. It can only come from God. And what will God do? This is the tension that builds in the narrative. Will the prophetic voice endure? Will God, the LORD, speak? Will God, the LORD, continue to challenge kings? Will God, the LORD, continue to part the sea to rescue his people? Everybody knows Elijah is going; what will remain?

What will happen to the voice of truth, to the call for justice, to the cry for mercy? What will happen to the weak and the widowed and the poor? Will God, the LORD, speak or will the voice of Baal triumph?

God gave us a prophet in Martin Luther King Jr. I did not realize at the time what a rare gift it was for the voice of the voiceless to find a national stage. And what will happen now? Are we doomed to have the airwaves filled with self-serving politicians and billionaires? Are we doomed to prosperity preachers getting rich off the sheep?

That is the haunting question that isn’t answered until Elijah sees the Chariots of Fire, until he picks up the prophet’s mantel, until he strikes the water and parts the river.

But it is answered.

It is answered in the time of Elijah and Elisha. It is answered in the time of Nathan who stood before David with pointed finger. It is answered in the time of Jeremiah who was thrown into the cistern. It is answered in the time of Isaiah and Ezekiel and Micah and so many others. It is answered in John the Baptist whom Herod killed.

And it is answered in the Word made flesh whom Rome silenced but God raised.

Thanks be to God.  We have seen the Chariots of Fire.

 

Image: By Anonymous artist from Novgorod (http://www.bibliotekar.ru/rusIcon/2.htm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons