The scalpel of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is the scalpel of God.


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Image: By Norsk Folkehjelp Norwegian People’s Aid from Norway (Syriske flyktninger) [CC BY 2.0 (, 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: By Janericloebe (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A sweet little verse


2 Kings 4:42-44

File:Roti-obaid.jpg42A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to Elisha, the man of God

This is one of those sweet little verses in the scriptures pregnant with meaning easily overlooked. First, it is a time of famine, but this unnamed man still gives away the first fruits of what little harvest he has. There is not enough in the harvest for himself or his family, but that first portion still belongs to God and he will not dishonor himself or God by keeping it for himself. His allegiance to God and God’s commands trumps even his hunger.

Second, he gives an offering of first fruits. However small his drought stricken harvest, he will give thanks to God for what he receives from the ground. Everything that grows, even when it is not enough, he sees as gift from God.

Third, he is from a town with the word ‘baal’ in the title. None of my study Bibles explains the meaning of this name. The word ‘baal’ can mean husband, lord or master, but it is also the name of the god of the thunderstorm, the god of fertility and abundance worshipped by the wealthy city-states of Tyre and Sidon. King Ahab built for Queen Jezebel a temple to Baal. It was the official royal cult for a period, the progressive modern faith of the time, a worship of prosperity and power. Jezebel worked to extinguish the culturally backward faith in the LORD. So while the allegiance of the larger culture has turned towards mammon, this man from Baal-shalishah is bringing his offering to a prophet of the LORD. Fidelity against the cultural tide. Allegiance to God over allegiance to the times. Generosity over acquisitiveness. Taking care of others rather than possessing for oneself. As I said, a sweet little verse.

A nameless faithfulness, a nameless generosity, a nameless courage, remembered forever.

And then there is Elisha, who trusts that what could not feed ten will feed a hundred.

And finally there are leftovers. This does not mean they were stuffing things into plastic containers and stashing them in the refrigerator for a late night snack or tomorrow’s dinner. What the men do not eat is given to the women and children. What the women and children do not eat is given to the poor. That there are leftovers means that everyone along the way remembered the needs of others, just like the man from Baal-shalishah.

As I said, a sweet, sweet verse full of meaning easily overlooked – and a faithfulness that ought not be.

Photo: By Obaid Raza (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

We have seen the Chariots of Fire


2 Kings 2


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 ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Listen to him”

Watching for the morning of February 15

Year B

The Feast of the Transfiguration

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The Transfiguration of Jesus (and Last Supper) in the Floreffe Bible, 12th Century

Sunday we come to the end of this season after the Epiphany with the Feast of the Transfiguration. God announced, “This is my beloved Son,” at the beginning of this season (Baptism of our Lord) and now these words are heard again when Jesus ascends the mountain with Peter, James and John and they see him radiant with the divine splendor.

Moses and Elijah appear, speaking with Jesus, but the three are not equals. In the end there is only Jesus, and the voice of God declaring not simply “This is my Son,” but adding: “Listen to him.”

“Listen to him.” Moses and the prophets bear witness to Jesus, but he fulfills them. He embodies them. He is the ultimate manifestation of heaven’s voice. He is the Word made flesh, God’s creating, redeeming, transforming speech in human form. He is the one to whom we should listen.

Many Biblical texts and images rattle around in the background to this event. Images of cloud and fire evoke Old Testament texts like our psalm, where the God who appeared before Israel in fire and cloud at Sinai now appears in judgment over Mt. Zion. In the first reading Elisha doggedly pursues the privilege of inheriting Elijah’s spirit (and ministry) and along the way we hear of the Chariots of Fire that reveal the divine presence and, like a whirlwind, sweep Elijah away. Even Paul speaks from 2nd Corinthians about the Glory of God revealed in the face of Jesus.

Mountains, fire, clouds, fear, radiance, it’s all here: images with which we speak and imagine the presence of God. But the buzz isn’t the vision. The buzz is that final word: “Listen to him.”

Pay attention to what Jesus says and does – not what we think he should say or do. Pay attention to the one who goes to Jerusalem with frail friends not a heavenly army. Pay attention to the one who goes to Jerusalem in fidelity to God to take the cup he does not want to take. Pay attention to the Jesus who goes to Jerusalem and does not raise his hands in violence – either to take the throne or to defend himself – but like a sheep before the shearers is silent. Pay attention. “Listen to him.”

It’s too easy to see in the transfiguration the man of power we want, rather than the man of peace we have – aah, here is the true kick-ass Jesus hiding behind his peasant robes. Nope. Same Jesus. Troubling Jesus. Crucified Jesus. Shouldering the debt of humanity Jesus. Revealing how degraded is the image of God in humanity Jesus: Look, we are crucifying people. We are burning them alive in cages. We are beheading beautiful, kind smiles. Look. And listen.

“Listen to him.” Not to the chattering class. Not to the tracking polls. Not to “all your friends.” Not to your passions and desires. “Listen to him.” “To him.”

Before that simple word all the wind and fire and cloud pale. And we rightly fall down in awe.

The Prayer for February 15, 2015

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 your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for February 15, 2015

First Reading: 2 Kings 2:1-14 (appointed vv. 1-12)
“Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.” – As Elijah heads toward his end in the whirlwind, Elisha seeks a “double share” of Elijah’s spirit, an expression drawn from the inheritance that goes to the eldest son.

Psalmody: Psalm 50:1-6
“Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him.”
– With the imagery of a storm over Jerusalem the poet speaks of the majesty of God who comes to speak to his people.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 3:17-4:6 (appointed 2 Corinthians 4:3-6)
“It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” – Paul expounds on the story of Moses, whose face radiated with the glory of God after God spoke to him in the tent of meeting.

Gospel: Mark 9:2-9
“He was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”
– Peter, James and John serve as witnesses when God appears to Jesus (and, like Moses, his appearance is transformed) and testifies that he is God’s beloved son to whom we should listen.


Image: By Anonymous (the British Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Beggars before the divine mercy


2 Kings 5

English: Royal procession of Raja Sunman Singh...

English: Royal procession of Raja Sunman Singh of Indergarh, National Museum, New Delhi. Indergarh Thikana, Kotah, Rajasthan, circa A.D. 1800, paper, 45 x 32.5 cm. Français : Procession royale de Sunman Singh de Indergarh, National Museum, New Delhi. Indergarh Thikana, Kotah, Rajasthan, vers 1800, papier, 45 x 32.5 cm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

12Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?

Naaman is incensed at his treatment at the hands of Elisha.  Here is this high royal official from Israel’s neighbor to the north, traveling with his retinue, laden with gifts: ten talents of silver (660 pounds!), six thousand shekels of gold (126 pounds!), and ten handmade suits from London’s Savile Row – or whatever is now the height of fashion and luxury.

He parades first up to the King of Israel and asks to be healed, for a captured slave girl has told her mistress, Naaman’s wife, that there is a man of God in Israel who can heal him.  The King of Israel despairs, assuming this is a pretext for the incessant conflict with their hostile and more powerful neighbor to break out into open war.  But Elisha sends a note “Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”  The message, of course, infers that Naaman might learn what Israel’s king has not.

So the semi-royal procession moves to Elisha in the ancient equivalent of a presidential motorcade, and Elisha doesn’t even bother to come to the door.  There is no great public ritual.  No honoring of his esteemed guest.  No show of power, only a servant sent out with the message to go wash in the Jordan seven times.

Elisha has sent him away as if he were a beggar.

And are we not all beggars when it comes to the divine mercy?

Naaman storms away in a rage until his servants persuade him to do as the prophet said.  Had he been commanded to do a Herculean task, he would certainly have done so.  But to humble yourself is a far greater challenge.

Naaman is healed.  And when he returns with his great riches to make payment for the services of the prophet, he is sent away again.  It is a gift.  We are all as beggars before the divine mercy.

Watching for the morning of June 30

Year C

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 8 / Lectionary 13

To follow after Jesus is to leave something behind.


ARADO ROMANO (Photo credit: titoalfredo)

The texts for Sunday speak about the cost of God’s call.  Elisha burns his plow, letting go of his former life in order to follow Elijah – a story that echoes in three discipleship sayings of Jesus, including the declaration: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

To embrace the kingdom of God is to let go of the embrace of the world.  This doesn’t mean we become monks and nuns; It means we choose to live in God’s forgiveness and let go of bitterness and revenge.  It means we choose to live in God’s generosity and let go of our innate self-centeredness.  It means we choose to build one another up rather than tear one another down.  It means we choose to be servants of God’s will and purpose for the world rather than servants of our wants and desires.  It may cost us, when we stand up for what is right rather than yield to the crowd, but we are leaving behind the realm of zombie-life (where the spiritually dead use and devour one another) and entering into the realm of imperishable life.

Prayer for June 30, 2013

Heavenly Father, Lord of All,
you call people of every age
to walk in your paths
and to 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.

The Texts for June 30, 2013

First Reading: 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21

“He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” – the call of Elisha by Elijah.

Psalmody: Psalm 16

“You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy” – a song of trust in and fidelity to God.

Second Reading: Galatians 5:1, 13-25

“You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for “the flesh” [our innate self-focused desires], but serve one another through love.” – the works of our fallen nature are contrasted with the fruit of the Spirit)

Gospel: Luke 9:51-62

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  – three sayings about the cost of following Jesus.