The mustard seed and vulture kings

Wednesday

Mark 4:26-34

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Cedar trees in the Cedars of God nature preserve on Mount Lebanon, Lebanon.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

At least Mark properly calls the fruit of the mustard seed a ‘bush’. Matthew records Jesus saying: it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, and Luke also records that it grew and became a tree.” Why would they make such a mistake? Because this isn’t about taxonomy, it is about the promise in Ezekiel 17 of a righteous king.

Judah’s involvement in imperial politics went poorly for the nation. When Babylon rose to power and marched on the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, Pharaoh Neco came to Assyria’s aid to prevent Babylon’s domination of the region. Josiah, the righteous king in whom the author of Samuel & Kings puts his hope, marched out to prevent the Egyptian advance and was killed in the valley of Megiddo. Jehoahaz, the royal son, aged 23 and now become king, goes to submit to Pharaoh, but is seized and taken to Egypt as a hostage. Pharaoh installs his brother, Jehoiakim, on the throne. Jehoiakim wisely switches side when Neco falls to Nebuchadnezzar, but when the Babylonian invasion of Egypt fails – and Nebuchadnezzar must withdraw to quell a rebellion at home – Jehoiakim betrays his new master.

Nebuchadnezzar, however, deals quickly with the insurrection at home and marches back to Jerusalem and besieges the city. The help Jehoiakim expects from Egypt never materializes and the rebel king dies during the siege (a curiously timed and unexplained death). On taking the throne, his son, the 18-year-old Jehoiachin, surrenders. He is taken in chains to Babylon with a host of other captives from the elite families of the city, and Nebuchadnezzar installs his uncle, Zedekiah, as king. Ezekiel is among these first captives carried into exile in 597/6 BCE.

Jeremiah and Ezekiel, speaking on God’s behalf, are the lone voices of sanity, urging the king to submit to Babylonian rule. The royal prophets – the talking heads and tea leaf readers who dine at the king’s table – urge him to action, promising success, telling the king what he wants to hear. Zedekiah reaches out to Egypt for support and breaks his covenant/treaty with Babylon. But, again, Egyptian help does not materialize and Jerusalem, the monarchy, the temple and priesthood are all brutally and thoroughly destroyed. A second deportation begins Judah’s long exile.

Ezekiel embodies these troubling events in his parable of the great eagle/vulture* (Babylon/Nebuchadnezzar) who plucks a sprig from the Forest of Lebanon (the royal hall in Jerusalem) and carries it off to “a city of merchants” (Babylon). Then he takes “a seed from the land” (Zedekiah) and plants it in fertile soil where it grows into a vine – a vine, not a great tree; low, not exalted. But the vine does not send its roots towards the first eagle; instead it looks for strength and help from “a second eagle” (Egypt). And then, the prophet asks, what that first eagle will do? Will he not come and tear up the vine, rip up its roots, and leave it to wither beneath the hot desert winds?

The prophet’s fears are realized. But this word of doom is not all that the prophet has to say to us. God himself – not an eagle/vulture – will take a tender sprig and plant it on Mt. Zion where it will become a great tree in which “every kind of bird will live”. God promises a true king – not these rapacious vulture kings, nor the lowly vine, but a great cedar that shelters all.

This is why the insignificant mustard seed becomes a shelter for the birds. It is why Matthew and Luke call it a tree, lest we miss the allusion. This Jesus is the lowly twig become a great cedar. This Jesus is the shelter for all peoples. This Jesus is the promised ruler who will free God’s world from the vultures and provide a safe home for all.

*Note: the word translated ‘eagle’ also means vulture as can be seen in the allusion to shaved heads in Micah 1:16. (This Hebrew word is used also for a scavenging bird in Proverbs 30:17 and Hosea 8:1). The eagle is a noble national symbol to the United States, but an unclean bird to Israel.
Photo: By Jerzy Strzelecki (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

These bones will live

Watching for the Morning of May 24, 2015

Year B

The Festival of Pentecost

File:Freska u kaloti krstionice, manastir Žiča, Srbija.jpgWhat will the future bring? Ezekiel preaches to a broken community in the aftermath of the Babylonian assault on Jerusalem. Every symbol of God’s favor – city, temple, priesthood, king – has been broken, slaughtered or captured. The people are dry bones. Hope is cut off. But there is life to come.

The reading from Romans speaks of the earth groaning in travail, longing for the day of God’s redemption, the day the earth is set free from its brokenness and sorrow and radiant with the Spirit of God. The day is begun, Paul reminds them. The Spirit intercedes for us. The Spirit has been given.

The Psalm speaks of the joy and wonder of the creation, abundant with life – yet all life dependent on the breath of life/spirit of God. Without it we are but dust.

And then Jesus speaks of the gift of the Holy Spirit – in the shadow of the cross, in his followers grief at his departure, comes the promised Spirit who will keep them in Jesus’ word, in the life and love of the Father.

This is the Sunday in which we read the story of the first Pentecost when, with the sound of a mighty wind and images of fire, the wondrous work of God in Christ is heard in every language – the work of God to raise the dead, to raise Jesus, to raise the world into the life of that age when God is all in all.

The Prayer for May 24, 2015

O God of every nation,
who by the breath of your Spirit gave life to the world
and anointed Jesus to bring new birth to all:
breathe anew upon us and upon all who gather in your name,
that in every place and to all people
we may proclaim your wondrous work;
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 24, 2015

Pentecost Reading: Acts 2:1-21
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind.” – With the sound of wind and the image of fire, evoking God’s appearance at Sinai and fulfilling the promise of Joel, God pours out the Holy Spirit upon the first believers.

First Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14
“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.” – Ezekiel speaks to a dispirited community in the wake of the Babylonian assault on Jerusalem. A field of bones, the remnant of devastating war, a people without hope of resurrection because their bones have been scattered, are dramatically restored and filled with God’s spirit/breath of life.

Psalmody: Psalm 104:24-33 (appointed 24-34, 35b)
“When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.”
– In a psalm celebrating the wonders of creation, the poet marvels at the manifold creatures of the world, and the breath/spirit of God that gives them life.

Second Reading: Romans 8:22-27
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
– Writing to the community of believers in Rome, a church he has not founded, Paul lays out his witness to God’s work in Jesus. Speaking of a world yearning to be freed from the burden of its alienation from God in the dawning of the age to come, Paul reminds the community of the work of God begun in them through the Spirit.

Gospel: John 16:12-15 (appointed John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15)
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” – Jesus promises his followers that he will sent the Spirit, who will call to mind all they have heard and learned in Jesus

 

Image: fresco in the conch of the baptistery, Zica Monastery, Serbia.  Photo by BrankaVV (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.  File:  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFreska_u_kaloti_krstionice%2C_manastir_%C5%BDi%C4%8Da%2C_Srbija.jpg

The question “Why?!”

Friday

Ezekiel 18

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Michelangelo, the prophet Ezekiel on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

4Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.

The translators’ use of the words ‘parent’ and ‘child’ distorts the meaning of the Hebrew ‘father’ and ‘son’. It makes us think of families and small children rather than adults of different generations. We react instinctively with aversion to any talk of God taking the life of a child. But the sins the prophet has in mind are listed in verses we skip in the assigned reading: violence, murder, rape, robbery and usury. These are hardly the sins of children. They are crimes we ourselves think deserve death, even if we don’t support capital punishment.

4Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.

Still, the words sound harsh to us because our attention is drawn to the judgment that “the person who sins…shall die.” It suggests an image of a punishing God, striking people down. Since so many people seem so ready to take up that task on God’s behalf we rightly shirk from these ideas. But, again, the sins of which we are speaking are crimes that all would recognize as violating others and debasing their common life.

It is true that the prophet names idolatry with these crimes against persons. There was not a line between ‘religious’ acts and civic life and this can confuse us because we think of religion as private thoughts separate from public acts. But this is too narrow and too modern a notion of religion. The gods of our day often ask for child sacrifice; they simply disguise their claim. We are not spilling the blood of a child at the foundations of a city gate; we are neglecting or aborting them in the name of success, happiness, or as the price of our addictions. Or we are sending them off to war putting our faith, hope and trust in the power of violence. The character of Francis Underwood in the show “House of Cards” commits murder (and a host of other sin/crimes) because his ultimate faith is in power. The thing we worship is the fountain of the things we do.

In the time of the prophet, people took it for granted that the price of such fundamental betrayals of God and neighbor was death. In a society without prisons, what other punishments could be rendered? Compensation may apply for crimes of property, and cities of refuge could justly answer an accidental death – but how else can a community restrain violence? And where a community cannot hold people accountable, God must.

This is not to say that God strikes people down like Zeus throwing thunderbolts, but it does mean that such people are cut off from God, the source of life. It means that the consequences of their deeds come back upon their own heads. So the surprising word in this text, the word that is meant to engage us, is not the word ‘die’ but the word ‘only’: “only the person who sins that shall die.”

At a time and place when the people are blaming their troubles on the deeds of the previous generations (the parents ate the sour grapes and the children got the sour taste), God speaks a simple “No.” It doesn’t mean that every tragedy is God’s judgment on the victim. It means that these particular people at the dawn of the 6th Century BCE must take responsibility for the actions that have led them into exile. They are not the helpless victims of a judgment for the sins of others; they are responsible adults – and since their troubles are their own doing, their future is also in their own hands. They can change the direction of their lives: 31Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!”

God takes no pleasure in watching us suffer the consequences of our misplaced faiths, hopes and trusts. Indeed this is the anguished cry God in the prophet’s words “Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.”

It is God who, in the face of human sorrows, is asking the question “Why?!”

Questions

Thursday

Ezekiel 18

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Alek Rapoport. Angel and Prophet (Ezekiel 2:10)

25You say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?

If we could hear well, how many of our conversations with God would go like this? Everyone wants to know how God can let bad things happen, when God is sure to ask us how we can let bad things happen. We human beings are the authors of our wars. We human beings text and drive. We human beings assign to the poor the Lower Ninth Ward (the lands most likely to flood should the levies we build fail when the wetlands we destroyed can no longer protect the land from the sea).

“Is it not your ways that are unfair?”

We may ask God why he tolerates evil, but God will turn that question back on us. We humans allowed the rise of Jim Crow and the National Socialists and sold the machetes to Rwanda. God didn’t set the Cuyahoga River on fire or bury toxins in Love Canal.

It’s dangerous to ask such questions of God.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? God asks Job. Job is lucky God didn’t ask where was Job when any of the human tragedies of history were wreaked.

Where are you? is the question God asks of Adam and Eve in the garden after they have tasted the forbidden fruit and spawned their alienation from God and one another. It’s not that God doesn’t know they are hiding in the bushes, vainly trying to cover their shame with leaves. But God needs our first parents to recognize the truth of what they have become, now that they have chosen rebellion from God.

“Where are you?” is God’s first question of us. And then he will ask, as he does of Cain, Where is your brother?

“You say, ‘The way of the Lord is unfair.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?”

The voice of God through the prophet has no interest in blaming, only in our confession of the truth of the human heart. For only there will humanity stop blaming God, chance and others (as Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent). Only there will we learn to say “Here I am.” Only there is the door opened for us to get 31“a new heart and a new spirit.”

We don’t want to talk about sins unless we are discussing the sins of others (typically, the ones that we don’t think apply to us). But there is no true liberty except in the grace of God, no true life except in the resurrecting breath of the eternal who summons us to 32“turn and live.”

In the rubble of Palm Sunday

Watching for the morning of September 28

Year A

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 21 / Lectionary 26

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Cecco del Caravaggio, Christ Expelling the Money Changers from the Temple

We have come to Jerusalem. Although we won’t hear again the narratives we read in Holy Week and Easter, these texts and parables that take us to the last Sunday of the church year (November 23 in 2014) are set by Matthew in that final week in Jerusalem and reflect the intense conflict between Jesus and the leaders of the people. They are stories in which, like last week, the guardians of the temple and city (the wealthy protectors of the status quo) have murder in their eyes.

In the Gospel reading this Sunday the leaders will attack Jesus for his public demonstration in the temple, when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and drove the animals and their sellers from the temple and declared that this ancient sacred site had become a hideout for thieves. But Jesus will get the better of them and press home the stunning and surprising question that asks not who honors their father in heaven, but who is doing his will.

This question is set for us against the backdrop of the prophet Ezekiel, who will not let his community blame their misfortunes on the sins of their parents generation, but makes each person accountable before God for his own deeds.

The psalmist gives a humble appeal for God to look mercifully upon him and Paul writes to the congregation in Philippi urging them to a life together that is shaped by the mind of Christ who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and was obedient unto death.

Obedience, faithfulness, repentance, the proper way to honor God, sinners and chief priests, the penitent and the righteous are all the topic of this week. And we come to be reminded both of the mercy of God who ever invites us to his table, and the earnestness of God who looks for far more from us than outward gestures of respect.

The Prayer for September 28, 2014

Gracious Heavenly Father,
you look for the fruits of righteousness in our lives,
the justice and mercy called forth by your word.
Create in us willing and obedient hearts
that know and do you will;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 28, 2014

First Reading: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
“What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?” – In 597 BCE, ten years before the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, it had surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar who carried off members of the leading families to Babylon as hostages against further rebellion (including Ezekiel). To a people who blamed their misfortunes on the sins of the preceding generations, the prophet declares that each is accountable to God for their own actions and the one who turns back to God will find life.

Psalmody: Psalm 25:1-9
“Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation.” – Psalm 25 is also an acrostic poem, each line beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet. Here the poet humbly asks God’s mercy.

Second Reading: Philippians 2:1-13
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” – In prison in Rome, Paul writes to his beloved congregation in Philippi to encourage them to remain faithful to their Lord, here urging the community to have “the same mind” as Christ Jesus.

Gospel: Matthew 21:23-32
“The chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’” – The morning after Jesus attacked the moneychangers and sellers in the temple, the chief priests come and attack him about his authority to do such things. Jesus deftly turns their attack back on them and, with a story about two sons, asks who is doing the will of the Father.

The watcher

Friday

Ezekiel 33

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Tower at Hatzor archaeological site in upper Galilee. Dr. Avishai Teicher Pikiwiki Israel

3 If the sentinel sees the sword coming upon the land and blows the trumpet and warns the people; 4then if any who hear the sound of the trumpet do not take warning, and the sword comes and takes them away, their blood shall be upon their own heads.

When we think of the American farm, we picture the farmhouse amidst a small cluster of farm buildings surrounded by its fields. The houses are scattered across the landscape, each on their own section or quarter section. Somewhere, on a hill, a farmer has donated land for the little white church with its steeple raising above the landscape. Somewhere else is a small town with the train tracks and the grain elevator where you can find a gas station and a grocer. There people go to live after they have handed the farm to the next generation. Such an arrangement is possible because life was safe. There were no raiders sweeping across the land to plunder your goods and steal your foodstocks.

It is, however, an unusual living arrangement. The more traditional pattern is the village where people live in community and go out into the fields each day to tend their crops. In times of social instability, it becomes a walled village. And in such times of depredations, a person is left behind upon the walls to watch while others go out to the fields. If raiders come, the watchman blows the horn, giving everyone time to run to the city and take shelter behind the safety of the walls.

If the watchman does not sound the warning, he is responsible for all the dead.

If, however, the watchman does sound the warning and some fail to take shelter, they bear the responsibility for their own deaths.

It is a simple truth.

God applies this truth to the prophet: If he is silent, if he fails to speak God’s message, if he fails to give warning, the people’s deaths are on his head. On the other hand, if he does proclaim God’s message and the people fail to take warning, then the prophet bears no blame.

I don’t know if this was meant to be a word of warning or a word of comfort to the prophet. Is God assuring Ezekiel, who preaches at a time when idolatry and injustice abound and the nation’s life is crumbling into destruction, that though the people do not listen to the message he delivers, the fault of their destruction lies only with themselves? Or is God warning the prophet lest he be silent? Is the prophet weary of preaching to those who do not listen? Or is he overburdened that he cannot get through to them?

I don’t know. Perhaps both. Like most scripture, it may well be warning and comfort at the same time.

The prophet’s job is to speak God’s message. He is not sent as a moral reformer or a crusader; he is sent as a spokesperson. He has a message to deliver. He has a trumpet to sound.

We are not prophets like Ezekiel, but we, too, have been sent with a message. Fortunately, we are not sent to warn of pending judgment; we are sent to announce God’s dawning governance of the world. We are sent to announce the triumph of life over death, of grace over wrath, or forgiveness over revenge. It is why healing the afflicted and dispelling the demonic are always coupled with the message of the kingdom. God is near. Grace and life await us. This is the message we are given. This is what we are sent to carry to the world.