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.

+   +   +

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

Bread for the journey

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Friday

1 Kings 19:1-8

1Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets [of Baal] with the sword.

The reading as appointed for this Sunday doesn’t include these words. It begins without explanation in verse 4 saying “[Elijah] went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree.” There was a time in which the average person in the pew knew the story of Elijah’s dramatic confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. They would have known that the northern kingdom of Israel’s king, Ahab, had married a Sidonian Princess, Jezebel, and she had undertaken a project to bring Israel’s ancient faith into the modern world, replacing its god of the exodus and wilderness with Baal, the god of rain – replacing the God of justice and mercy with the god of fertility and prosperity. The average parishioner would have known that a profound religious conflict was underway, that Jezebel was murdering the prophets of the LORD, and that God had declared through Elijah that if Israel wanted to worship the god who gives rain, God would show them who truly ruled and announced there would be no rain except at God’s word.

When the burden of the drought became unbearable, with the king plundering the resources of the countryside for his own table and horses, Elijah summoned the people and proposed a showdown with the prophets of Baal. Each would lay out a sacrifice but neither would bring fire. Each would pray for their god to send down fire from heaven. The prophets of Baal did their ecstatic prayers all day as Elijah stood by taunting them to shout louder suggesting Baal “is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”  Then, to demonstrate the truth of the LORD, Elijah drowns his altar with water before offering his prayer. Fire promptly descends and consumes everything: offering, altar and the surrounding ditch of water.

An uprising occurs where Elijah orders the murder of the pagan prophets. The queen, however, is enraged and unconverted. She solemnly vows to kill Elijah who flees into the wilderness; his triumphant cultural revolution has failed. There, in his exhaustion, fear and despair, he lies down and prays to die.

There was a time everyone hearing our small portion of the reading would have known all this backstory, but no longer. And maybe the language of murderous religious strife is too toxic for our day. But without the backstory, the power and drama of the meal eludes us. Wondrous bread in the wilderness is one thing; bread when all hope is lost is another.

The God who feeds Elijah is the God who again and again delivers when hope is lost. From the very first narrative of Adam and Eve evicted from the Garden, or Cain with the blood of his brother on his hands, God provides a future when the future is lost. A new beginning is given to a world engulfed in violence through Noah. The line of Shem ends with Abraham and a barren wife, yet a child is promised and given. Jacob is sold into slavery, imprisoned by a lie and lost in the dungeons of Egypt, but rises to rule. Israel is in bondage but God opens the Red Sea. In the wilderness without food or water, a rock yields a river and the heavens rain manna. When Jerusalem is destroyed and the people in exile without hope, God announces a new exodus: make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” It is the central narrative of the scripture.

There is so much more in our little narrative than a wondrous heavenly meal given to an ancient prophet. It is the gift of hope, the promise of a future, a journey worth taking into the presence of God.

We hear this story as people who see the painful wounds of the world and the terrible capacities of the human heart. In every sanctuary is a cross – testimony to the brutal reign of human empire in the nails and pierced side of Jesus. We hear this story in the midst of our personal journeys to fearful places. But the grave is empty. And from the wounded hands of a risen lord we, like Elijah, are fed with bread for the journey.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:N.D._de_la_Chapelle_812.jpg By Michel wal [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Choose your kingdom; choose your king

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“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

File:Alexandr Ivanov 015 - variation.jpg

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

File:Bartholomeus Breenbergh - Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath - WGA3154.jpg

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

File:Widowsmite.png

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