A wondrous harvest

File:PikiWiki Israel 38203 Swimming in Wheat Pool.jpg

Watching for the Morning of July 16, 2017

Year A

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 10 / Lectionary 15

An unstoppable harvest. An unstoppable word. A song of praise at God’s bounty. And the wondrous declaration that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Grace abounds this Sunday. It abounds every Sunday. From the opening words of the confession and absolution to the final words, “Go in peace,” grace abounds every Sunday. But the texts this week are rich beyond measure. “There is no condemnation,” writes Paul. Through the prophet, God declares: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven” without failing to work their work of giving life to the world, “so shall my word be.” Forgiveness will work its work. God “will abundantly pardon,” and you “shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace.” The psalmist sings of God’s bounty: “the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.” “Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs.”

And then we hear the words of Jesus promise an incomprehensible harvest. The reign of God will come. Though so much seed seems to be wasted – the birds, the weeds, the rocky soil – kindnesses abused, charities neglected, healings taken for granted – yet the harvest will be a hundredfold. Even the thinnest soil will yield many times what could ever be imagined. Grace is pouring out on the world in abundance.

We need to be reminded of this in those times when all we seem to see are the weeds of riches choking the world and evil snatching away the good. When the news seems perennially despairing, when violence and lies abound, when kindness and mercy seem scarce, when anxiety seeps in like unwanted moisture through the basement walls, making the air musty and damp, we need to be reminded that God’s word does not fail. God’s kingdom comes. Mercy abounds. And wherever it is sown, it will reap a wondrous harvest.

The Prayer for July 16, 2017

Gracious God,
you lavish your grace and life upon a world
where it is often trampled underfoot,
yet where your Word takes root the harvest overflows.
Let your Word take root in our lives
and bear fruit abundantly in love for you and our neighbor;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 16, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 55:6-13
“You shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace.” – Like the rain that waters the earth to bring forth its bounty, God’s promise of forgiveness and return to the land shall not fail to achieve its purpose.

Psalmody: Psalm 65:5, 8-13
“You visit the earth and water it.” – A hymn of praise to God who provides abundantly for the world.

Second Reading: Romans 8:1-11
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
– God creates a faithful people not through the commands of the law, but through the working of his Spirit.

Gospel: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
“Listen! A sower went out to sow.” – Jesus provides a parable declaring that it is with the reign of God as it is with a harvest: though the seed grain is gobbled up by birds and strangled amidst weeds, the fruitful harvest comes. Only this harvest is wondrous beyond imagining!

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APikiWiki_Israel_38203_Swimming_in_Wheat_Pool.jpg Aran Yardeni Pikiwiki Israel [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Violence

File:Bouguereau-The First Mourning-1888.jpg

Last Sunday took us to the fourth in our Sunday preaching series on the sweep of the Biblical narrative and how it points to the truth of sacrificial love embodied in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The God who called a good and beautiful world into being by his word (week 1: Creation), who breathed into the first humans his breath/spirit and set them in a garden (week 2: Garden), endured their broken relationship and continued to protect and care for them (week 3: Fall). Now God speaks with Cain about the murderous jealousies of the human heart, urging humanity to choose reconciliation over revenge.

Below are the pictures and text from the booklet we handed out following worship last Sunday. This coming Sunday, Pentecost, takes us to the Holy Spirit that is our first breath and ultimate life.

Image: William Adolphe Bouguereau, The First Mourning, 1888
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bouguereau-The_First_Mourning-1888.jpg  William-Adolphe Bouguereau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Genesis 4


Now Abel was a keeper of sheep,
and Cain a tiller of the ground.


File:Wechselburg Lettner detail 05.jpg

File:Wechselburg Lettner detail 04.jpg

One of the oldest divisions in human society is between ranchers and farmers, those who tend flocks and those who till the ground. The mere mention of this brings a haunting note to the opening of the narrative.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wechselburg_Lettner_detail_04.jpg https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wechselburg_Lettner_detail_05.jpg Photo by: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


The LORD had regard for Abel and his offering,
but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.


Each offers the first fruits of their labor to God. The story says nothing about the qualities of the two brothers. There is no discerning of the heart, no judging of moral worthiness. God picked the aroma of the roasting lamb over the roasting grain. God smiled on Abel’s gift, but on Cain’s gift he did not smile. It does not say that the gift was defective. It does not say that the gift was rejected. It only says that God favored Abel’s gift.

We get ensnared in the symbolism of things. That God liked Abel’s offering more than Cain’s becomes in our minds –and apparently in Cain’s mind – that God liked Abel more than Cain. Children think they can read this in the faces of their parents. It’s a pretty universal sentiment that the parents favored one over the others. It often leads to petty vindictiveness, sabotage, striving for attention. But we have no reason to say that God loved Abel more. Maybe Abel taunted his brother. Maybe he claimed that God liked him more. The text tells us none of this because the emphasis is not on Cain or Abel but on God’s choice and how Cain will respond.

All the conversation in this story occurs between God and Cain. This is a story about these two, God and Cain, not Cain and Abel. It is not a story about a good man and an evil one; it is a story about choices, and sin, and redemption.


“Why are you angry,
and why has your countenance fallen?

If you do well, will you not be accepted?”


There are so many resentments born out of the randomness of life’s favors. “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise,” observes the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, “time and chance happen to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). There are inequalities to life. Injustices. Randomness. One prospers another fails. One is born to privilege another to poverty. And what shall we do with life’s vicissitudes. Resentment, bitterness, revenge is one choice. It is not the only choice.

If you do well, will you not be accepted? If you do what is right. If you do goodness. God’s favor roots in the choices we make not the sacrifices we offer, not the liturgies we sing, not the customs we follow. If you do right towards your neighbor, if you show justice and faithfulness, if you care for the sick and comfort the afflicted, will you not be honored?


“Sin is lurking at the door;
its desire is for you, but you must master it.”


File:Serengeti Loewin2.jpg

The death of Abel is not inevitable. Neither are any of the other woes we inflict upon one another. The angry word. The hateful speech. The stolen chances. The cheats and deceits. The crimes of passion and despair. The decisions of war. They are choices. The dragon crouches like a tiger waiting to pounce. But we must master it.

A Lioness (Panthera leo) in Serengeti
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Serengeti_Loewin2.jpg By Ikiwaner (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Cain said to his brother Abel,
“Let us go out to the field.”


The field is Cain’s space. He is a man of the soil. He knows dirt. He knows what it will hide. What he does not know is that blood soaked ground will turn against him. The words of God are ignored in his anger, resentment, envy. Perhaps it is even God with whom he is angry. God chose his brother. God favored his offering. He cannot bear the presence of the favored one. And now there is violence.

File:Gera Abel.jpg

File:Bernau KainundAbel3.JPG

There is a weight on Cain, a burden, a crushing burden of resentment. Cain is the firstborn. To Cain belongs the privilege. But God has chosen the second born, the unlikely.

God has a troubling habit of choosing without regard for the rules. He chooses the younger Jacob over the elder Esau. He chooses Abraham and promises blessing for no apparent reason. Moses was not the only child cast into the Nile, but he is the boy who lived. God takes up the cause of the foreigner, the outsider. Elijah provides for a widow of Zarephath, not Israel. Jesus invites himself to banquet at the home of Zacchaeus the tax-gatherer. He rescues the woman caught in adultery and treats the shunned Samaritan woman as a woman of his own house. And God has favored Abel’s gift.

Sculpture Abel by Karl-Heinz Appelt; Gera, Germany, 1983
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gera_Abel.jpg By Steffen Löwe (Self-photographed) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Bronze sculpture Cain and Abel , Bernau bei Berlin, sculptor: Michael Klein, 1994
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bernau_KainundAbel3.JPG By Catatine (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.


Then the LORD said to Cain,
“Where is your brother Abel?”


God keeps asking this question, “Where?” He asks our first parents “Where are you?” when they have eaten the fruit and are hiding in the bushes. And now he asks Cain, “Where is your brother?”

These are the two most fundamental questions God asks of the human race: “Where are we?” and “Where is our brother? Where is our sister?” If we cannot speak the truth of ourselves we will not be able to care for others. They will be “others” rather than brothers. They will not be part of us. Women will be trophies and toys not sisters. Children will be seen and not heard. The poor will be “the poor” rather than people whose names and stories we know and whose lives matter. Then it will be “every man for himself,” rather than strength in numbers.

And if we cannot speak the truth concerning our neighbor, we will not know the truth of ourselves. We were made for community, but community is broken.


He said, “I do not know;
am I my brother’s keeper?”


Yes. It is what brother means. You are created to belong. You are bound together. You are made to care and be cared for.


“Listen;
your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”


God’s statement to Cain should be punctuated with a colon not a semi-colon. The cry of his brother’s blood is what Cain is summoned to hear, the consequences of his deed what he must see.   The sufferings of the abandoned, the sorrows of the neglected, the cries of the wounded: Listen!


“When you till the ground,
it will no longer yield to you its strength.”


File:Agropyron repens on field after winter ploughing.JPG

The strength of Cain over his brother has planted blood into the ground. Now the strength of the ground will profit him not. There are no riches to be harvested from this field; the dirt itself resists him. There are no riches to be gained from the destruction of Aleppo. There is no strength to be gained from weapons of mass destruction. There is no life to be gathered from ground that is ravaged or the community plundered.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Agropyron_repens_on_field_after_winter_ploughing.JPG By Agronom (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


“My punishment is greater than I can bear!”


File:Paris Tuileries Garden Facepalm statue.jpg

“Punishment is not quite the right word. These are consequences, the harvest of violence: alienation, exile, shame, isolation, a lost ground, a lost life.

Caïn venant de tuer son frère Abel, by Henry Vidal in Tuileries Garden in Paris, France
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paris_Tuileries_Garden_Facepalm_statue.jpg    By Alex E. Proimos (http://www.flickr.com/photos/proimos/4199675334/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


“I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”


File:Esprit nomade.JPG

The ground was Cain’s life. Now he is cutoff from it. And he is cutoff from the face of God. He is rootless. He is without community. He is vulnerable in a world made dangerous.

Tuareg on the dune of Timerzouga, place named Tadrart in the town of Djanet, wilaya of Ilizi 20km from the Algerian-Libyan border (Cultural Park of Tassili).
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Esprit_nomade.JPG By Hamdanmourad (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


The LORD put a mark on Cain,
so that no one who came upon him would kill him.


It is not a mark of shame; it is a mark of protection. He wears no scarlet M for murder; he wears a reminder that even Cain the killer bears the image of God. God will be his family to protect him. God will be his redeemer to save him. God will be his advocate to avenge him.

So why do we dance at the death of the murderers? Why do we boast of the death of Bin Laden? Ought we not weep that those for whom God weeps have perished so far from God’s presence?

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ashenda_Girl,_Tigray,_Ethiopia_(15363919671).jpg By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia (Ashenda Girl, Tigray, Ethiopia) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons. [cropped]


Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD,
and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.


File:Syrian Desert (5079180729).jpg

East of Eden. Away from the garden of God. Away from the rich and abundant soil, the life-giving rains, the well watered garden. Away from the sacred forest. Away from the tree of life. Away from the community of family. Away from the fellowship of the familiar. Away from the presence of the Lord.

And there he builds a city. Cain builds the first city: a gathering of the scattered, a place not of soil or pasture but iron and fire. A place of creativity and life but also destruction and death, human inventiveness for good and for evil.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Syrian_Desert_(5079180729).jpg By yeowatzup from Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany (Syrian Desert) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Zillah bore Tubal-cain,
who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools.


File:Migrant worker of china.jpg

In the city tools are made. Smithing. Bronze. Iron. Tools to plow the ground and weapons to wound.

File:Apa Schwerter.jpg

File:J2500x1661-05540.jpg

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Migrant_worker_of_china.jpg   By 枫彩 (http://cc.nphoto.net/view/2008/11733.shtml) [CC BY 2.5 cn (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/cn/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Bronze Age swords
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Apa_Schwerter.jpg By Dbachmann
M1A2 on the streets of Baghdad.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:J2500x1661-05540.jpg  By Lukethornberry (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.


The world’s first poetry is a celebration of violence, a trumpeting of strength and power, a vaunting of the self even over God, a fearless disregard of God’s command not to kill.


“If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”


File:Fear of Terrorism.jpg

Violence multiplies. Fear and intimidation become part of the social fabric. Overwhelming revenge becomes the rule. “Hit me and I’ll hit you harder.” It’s not yet Mutually Assured Destruction, but that is the path. At least until Jesus dares to answer Peter’s question, “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” by saying “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

File:US Navy 090418-F-7923S-023 A Haitian woman waits her turn for treatment at the Killick medical clinic site during a Continuing Promise community medical service project.jpg

At some point we run out of words for the sorrows that we wreak on one another. The pictures could multiply of the bodies of children neglected in the streets, the triumphant march of military parades, the weeping mothers, the angry fathers, the disconsolate siblings, the shocked neighbors who never had a clue, the bombastic threats of politicians seeking to profit, and the lawyers running to claim a prize.

At some point we run out of words for the sorrows of the world where bones creak and diseases waste and drought devours. At some point we run out of words for the favelas and slums and the distorted bodies of the starving. At some point we run out of words for the raped and abused. At some point we run out of words.

We can understand if God should desire to wipe clean the face of the earth. It is the way the ancient cultures around Israel told the story. But our story tells us of a child: Seth. There is no great saving destiny appointed to Seth. He is just a child. Babbling, cooing, clinging, crying, sweet with the aroma of newness, abounding in curiosity, smiling, laughing, tasting everything with his mouth, studying faces, clinging to fingers, sucking feverishly at the breast, gazing into his mother’s eyes, tender, warm, connection, grasping for language, striving to crawl and then to walk. A child. New life. Image of God. Child of sorrow. Hope of tomorrow.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fear_of_Terrorism.jpg By Dolat khan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US_Navy_090418-F-7923S-023_A_Haitian_woman_waits_her_turn_for_treatment_at_the_Killick_medical_clinic_site_during_a_Continuing_Promise_community_medical_service_project.jpg By U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Benjamin Stratton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Adam knew his wife again,
and she bore a son and named him Seth,

for she said, “God has appointed for me another child.”


God is not done with us. God continues to give life. This is not a replacement for Abel or for Cain. But he is new life. He is grace.


To Seth also a son was born


And then grandchild. Joy. Continuity.


At that time people began to invoke the name of the Lord.


The LORD. The name that will be revealed to Abraham as the one who gives a future. The name that will be revealed to Moses as the one who delivers from bondage. God is not just creator; He is redeemer.

+     +     +

A reminder about the nature of the Biblical text: There are problems if you read the text literally. How can Abel offer a sacrifice of a lamb when humans have not yet received permission to kill? (This doesn’t happen until after the flood.) Why is Cain afraid of being killed when there are yet no other people? But the narrative is not history; it is commentary on human existence. And it is preaching. It bears to us the voice of God who asks these terrible, haunting questions: “Where is your brother?” Where is your sister? “What have you done?” What have you failed to do?

But this God of the haunting questions is also the God who does not abandon his troubled creation. God is faithful and continues to provide and protect and call us into the life and love for which we were created.

Biblical text: New Revised Standard Version
© Text by David K. Bonde, Los Altos Lutheran Church, 2017

Holy Spirit

Watching for the Morning of June 4, 2017

Year A

The Festival of Pentecost

Into a world filled with many destructive and deceitful spirits, God lavishes his life-giving, creative and transforming Spirit on the world. It is a holy spirit, unlike the spirits of anger, intolerance, revenge, desire, greed and hate that divide the world and fill it with violence and invective. It gathers a community of all nations. It speaks to the core of our hearts in our native tongue. It summons us to step onto the shores of the new creation, to be washed in the Spirit, to be participants in the life of the age to come. It is a spirit that bears the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

It is a spirit that inspires and empowers fidelity to God and neighbor. It is a spirit that teaches manifold forgiveness and love of enemies. It is a spirit that leads us to lives of service and sacrifice. It is a spirit that binds and heals, a spirit that sings and rejoices, a spirit that prays and praises, a spirit that speaks grace to the world.

We have seen it in Moses and the prophets. We have seen it in the skill of Bezalel. We have seen it in the courage of Gideon, the poetry of David, the song of Mary. We have seen it in the fidelity of Simeon and witness of Anna. We have seen it the forgiveness of Stephen and the generosity of Barnabas. We have seen it in the boldness of Philip and the obedience of Peter. We have seen it in the lives of those recognize as saints and martyrs. We have seen it in the kindness and generosity and faithfulness of any number of people who have touched our lives with grace and truth.

We have seen it wherever love prevails.

It is a holy spirit. The holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit that shall govern every heart in that day when swords are beaten into plowshares and the river of the water of life washes over the world.

It is the Spirit given to us in Christ now.

It is the Spirit by which we are called to live.

(For those who follow this blog regularly, I apologize for the paucity of recent posts. Writing time has been taken up by the special preaching series underway in our parish.)

The Prayer for June 4, 2017

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 June 4, 2017

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, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” – 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: Numbers 11:24-30
“The Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to [Moses], and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders.” – When the burden of hearing every complaint of the people in the wilderness becomes too great for Moses, God has him appoint seventy elders to receive a share of the spirit. The text contains the prophetic remark of Moses Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

Psalmody: Psalm 104:24-31 (assigned: 104:24-34, 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: 1 Corinthians 12:1-13 (assigned: 12:3b-13)
“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” –
Paul teaches the troubled Corinthian congregation about the gifts of the Spirit, emphasizing that they are given for God’s purpose to the benefit of others.

Gospel: John 7:37-39
“‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive – During the celebration that prays for the autumn rains and remembers Ezekiel’s promise of a life-giving river flowing from the temple, Jesus calls those who are thirsty to come to him.

(Our parish uses the alternate Gospel reading for Pentecost because the text from John 20 was used on the second Sunday of Easter.)

John 20:19-23
“‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this he breathed on them and said ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” – On the evening of that first day of the week, the risen Christ commissions his followers and anoints them with the Spirit.

Image: Unidentified, may have been made by Hardman and Co.. Spirit with Sevenfold Gifts, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55828 [retrieved June 1, 2017]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/paullew/5827717752/.

With glad cries of deliverance

File:Esprit nomade.JPG

Saturday

Psalm 32

7 You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

It’s a sweet verse, a memory verse, the kind you might keep in your pocket through the day or find inscribed in a cross-stitch on the wall. It’s the kind of promise added to photos of mountains and sunsets and sent around the Internet or posted on the overhead screen at church. We need such verses. We need the promise. We need the reminder. “You surround me with glad cries of deliverance.”

But the verse doesn’t stand alone in this psalm. The author has just finished describing his distress, declaring that: “Day and night [God’s] hand was heavy upon me.” The poet’s life had become arid and brittle: “my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer”.

Though he now finds himself surrounded by joy, he has seen affliction. He has walked those paths where the life of the Spirit withers. Where some bitterness, anger or sorrow occupies the heart, where some hidden sin or open defiance pushes us away, where misfortune darkens the spirit, or where the ordinary burdens of life suck us dry.

The poet finds the root of his particular spiritual wasteland in himself. He is the one who has closed himself from God. He is the one in whom some unacknowledged defect of character or fault of conduct has robbed him of life’s goodness and joy. But he exults that the God of mercy has brought him back. So he sings and sings rightly that God surrounds him with deliverance.

It is important to keep in mind the whole of this psalm and not just the one verse of triumph. The American adoration of success often makes it seem like the Christian life should be an endless stream of victories, but the journey of life is a complicated one. Things happen. Sometimes terrible things. Sometimes we bring these upon ourselves. Sometimes not, as Job knows so well.

We live entangled in a fallen world, but the poet reminds us not to be swallowed by it. These great and precious promises of deliverance stand side by side with the acknowledgment of arid days. They do not judge us when we fail; they call us toward the light. And they remind us that even the driest days and months and years are yet surrounded by the joyful cries of creation’s first light and the empty tomb.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEsprit_nomade.JPG By Hamdanmourad (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In the most unexpected places

File:Cristo de Guadix 123.JPG

Watching for the Morning of November 20, 2016

Year C

Christ the King / Reign of Christ
Proper 29 / Lectionary 34

Sunday is climax of the church year. What began twelve months ago with a look to the horizon of human history sees that horizon again on Sunday in the royal pardon of a crucified man. The one we await as Lord of All is present in the brokenness of the cross, dispensing mercy and grace. It is the oddity at the heart of Christian faith: honor hidden in shame, glory hidden in lowliness, truth hidden in rejection, triumph hidden in defeat, life hidden in death. God shows up in the most unexpected places.

The more we ponder this strange, incomprehensible truth, the more we discover its depths. The thief on the cross is not deserving of mercy, but he receives it. We want to find him meritorious for his defense of Jesus, for his allegiance, his faith and trust. But he speaks the truth when he declares that he and his compatriot are condemned justly. He is not innocent. He is not deserving. Yet he sees a man dying and glimpses a transcendent truth: this is the face of God. Not wrath. Not vengeance. Not heaven’s roar against a world become vile. But mercy, compassion, fidelity, redemption. In a world where hate seems triumphant, a man of hate pledges himself to the king of peace.

This Sunday, established in the 1920’s in response to the rise of fascism, communism and ideologies claiming our allegiance, continues to speak to a world forever caught up in the conflict of powers wreaking division and death, reminding us that our lives belong only to this king: the crucified who lives. We will hear the words of Jeremiah about the shepherds of this world who destroy and scatter the flock in their care – and the promise of a new shepherd, a new king, who will reign in faithfulness. And we will hear the psalmist sing of the one who makes wars to cease to the end of the earth. And we will hear the author of Colossians sing that we have been rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son. And we will hear the king speak mercy to the thief, to us, to all.

It will be paradise.

The Prayer for November 20, 2016

O God who reigns as Lord of all,
creating and sustaining the universe,
and drawing all things to your eternal embrace,
pour out upon us your Holy Spirit,
that pondering the mystery of the cross and resurrection of your Son, Jesus,
we may be met by him who is our true Lord and King;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The Texts for November 20, 2016

First Reading: Jeremiah 23:1-6
“Woe to the shepherds
who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” – As the nation spirals towards destruction by rebelling against Babylon, God speaks a word of judgment upon the leaders of the people and declares that he will gather his scattered people and give them a righteous king of the house of David.

Psalmody: Psalm 46
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble… He makes wars cease to the end of the earth.” – A hymn celebrating the reign of God who overcomes the chaotic forces of nature and the warring tumult of human history.

Second Reading: Colossians 1:11-20
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or power.” –
Christ is the ‘image’, the living sign and presence of God’s reign. We have been reclaimed from the death’s dominion and brought under the reign of Christ in whom and for whom all things exist.

Gospel: Luke 23:33-43
“One of the criminals
who were hanged there…said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” – Jesus crucified is degraded by the governing elite as powerless to save, but one of those crucified with him puts his faith in him.”

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACristo_de_Guadix_123.JPG  By No machine-readable author provided. Aguijarroo assumed (based on copyright claims). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Quivering with joy

File:US Navy 091112-N-9860Y-007 Lt. Luke Brown is greeted by his German shepherd, Smokey, at the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island flight line.jpg

Friday

Psalm 51:1-12

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

A clean heart. A new spirit. A right spirit. A willing spirit. These are the work of God. These are the fruit of God’s holy spirit. They quiver with the joy of God’s salvation.

I saw a small dog forlornly tied to a bicycle rack today. As I walked up the sidewalk, a man came out of a store and the little dog began to tremble, wave his paws, and then, as the man drew near, jump a little leap of joy – not the kind of jump that might earn a scowl or rebuke, just an expression of delight. As the man untied the leash from the rack, a pure joy settled over the dog.

A clean heart. A new spirit. A right spirit. A willing spirit. The holy spirit. The joy of God’s salvation.

I don’t know whether people are able any longer to appreciate this language of sin and reconciliation in the scriptures. We have dulled our consciences, taking as normal language in the public square and to our most intimate companions that is cold or harsh or even cruel. Accepting greed and self-interest as normal if not noble motives. Denying what we don’t want to believe and believing what we don’t want to deny. Betrayal has become normal. I read an obituary this summer in the Longmont, Colorado paper that listed among the surviving loved ones “her husband, Peter; and her boyfriend, Jim.” I don’t know the story; I just recognize that such a casual public post reflects our changing times. Trump declares we should have seized Iraq’s oil as a spoil of war and the notion of enriching ourselves by brute force hasn’t filled us with shock and horror. He calls it “strong leadership,” and we don’t recoil. He honors Putin who seized Crimea (and is working on the Ukraine) and we seem to have no memory of the Anschluss, the Sudetenland, or the terrible price paid to try to set right the world. A playboy model takes a photo of a naked older woman in a gym locker room and notions of respect for others or simple kindness never enter her mind as she posts it onto the internet. We are so surrounded by brutality and cruelty and the rapacious use of land and sea and other human beings that we seem not to be shocked anymore. We are a dog tied to a bike rack that imagines itself free – bound on the street having forgotten we ever had a home and one who loves us.

But a clean heart. A new spirit. A right spirit. A willing spirit. The holy spirit. The joy of God’s salvation. These things still await us.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AUS_Navy_091112-N-9860Y-007_Lt._Luke_Brown_is_greeted_by_his_German_shepherd%2C_Smokey%2C_at_the_Naval_Air_Station_Whidbey_Island_flight_line.jpg  By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tucker M. Yates [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The angels are dancing

File:Angels dancing sun Giovanni di Paolo Condé Chantilly.jpg

Wednesday

Exodus 32:7-14

7The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely…”

Much about this story is delightful. The people have acclaimed the golden calf as the divine power that brought them out of Egypt – and God responds by saying these are Moses’ people whom he brought out of Egypt. It’s a little like one parent saying to the other “Do you know what your son did?” as if the child were not his or her own child as well. God tells Moses to get out of his way so he can destroy them, and Moses intercedes saying, “What will the neighbors think?” (More literally, and more darkly, that the Egyptians will think God lacked the power to give the Israelites the promised land, so he killed them in the wilderness – or that he intended to kill them all along!)

We have trouble letting God appear to be so “human”, infected as we are with later notions of God as omniscient, omnipresent, and unmoved. But the narrative isn’t trying to tell us about God’s inner being; it is trying to make clear how great is the divide created by Israel’s idolatry. To give glory to the divine through the image of a bull, in keeping with the religious ideas and imagery of the ancient near east (virility, power), is to betray the relationship created at Sinai. “I will be your God and you will be my people,” said the LORD, but neither has been either. Israel has been like a newlywed bedding down someone encountered on their honeymoon.

This is not about Israel transgressing a commandment; it is about Israelites betraying the one who was paid the price to claim them as his own.

And this is not just about Israel. This is about the reality of all our idolatries. They are not errors and mistakes; they are adulteries. They are relationship destroying. When we put our faith, hope and trust in anything other than God we are no longer God’s people. The covenant lies broken, like the tablets of the commandments shattered upon the ground.

And there are so many suitors wanting to claim that throne – possessions, family, work, health, all claiming to be the source of life’s goodness and joy, life’s meaning and purpose, life’s true center. And we give our allegiance away so freely. There is a reason the prophets will come back again and again to images of adultery to explain the destruction of the nation. Those who had been delivered from bondage in Egypt found bondage in Babylon.

The genius of the text is the genius of the whole Biblical narrative. The betrayal that deserves abandonment is met with mercy. Moses understands. Moses reminds God of his own nature. He intercedes.

We are much too willing to step aside hoping God will, in fact, destroy sinners and enemies. But we are called to be Moses, interceding for God to show mercy. We are called to be Abraham, pressing God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah. We are called to be Jesus, forgiving those who crucify him. We are called to be children of the Spirit, children of the Resurrection, children of the reign of God when sinners and outcasts are gathered and all are fed from the tree of life.

It’s in the light of that day, dawning in Jesus, that the heavens are full of joy and the angels are dancing.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAngels_dancing_sun_Giovanni_di_Paolo_Cond%C3%A9_Chantilly.jpg  Giovanni di Paolo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An insulting mercy

File:Ras Dejen, shepherd's children.JPG

Watching for the Morning of September 11, 2016

Year C

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 19 / Lectionary 24

Luke 15:1-10

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

Jesus can be wickedly insulting. He is not, of course, trying to be mean. He is trying to make clear what we do not want to see: that God has chosen to deal with the world with mercy rather than revenge, that God is seeking to reconcile the human community not purge it.

We have such a sweet, pastoral picture of the good shepherd with the lamb around his shoulders, but for a host of reasons “good shepherd” (or “noble shepherd”) was a contradiction in terms for the first century. To the Pharisees with whom Jesus is speaking, shepherds were despised and considered unclean and without honor. So when Jesus says “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep…” he is comparing these pharisaic paragons of piety with the unclean and cast out. It is such sweet irony, for they are attacking Jesus for precisely this reason: that he welcomes the unclean and cast out. And Jesus would receive the Pharisees, if only they were willing… Even as he would receive us, if only we were willing…

Although Jesus stops short of the ultimate insult, choosing not to say “which woman among you…”, the parallel is clear and the example of a woman seeking a coin lost from its place (probably a necklace) bristles with offense. But women are welcome in Jesus’ presence (though the Pharisees would keep them out). And Jesus would receive the Pharisees, if only they were willing… Even as he would receive us, if only we were willing… The banquet of God is at hand, if only we are willing…

The question of what God should do with a sinful and unclean humanity rattles through Sunday’s texts. God threatens to destroy the Israelites as they dance around the golden calf, but Moses intercedes on their behalf, calling God to turn from vengeance and show mercy. David prays for God’s mercy in the psalm, in words attributed to him after he has slept with the wife of Uriah and then, unable to get Uriah to betray his men in the field by going home to enjoy her comfort, arranges his murder to hide the sure-to-be-a-scandal pregnancy. First Timothy contains words attributed to Paul, naming his own scandalous sin and God’s scandalous mercy. And then we hear Jesus talking about the joy of heaven over the sinner who repents, the outcast who returns to the community.

The angels in heaven are dancing at the healing of the world, and we are invited to join the dance.

The Prayer for September 11, 2016

God of all joy,
the heavens resound with song
where the wounds of the broken are tended
and the lost and alone are gathered in.
Help us to rejoice in what pleases you,
and to know the joy of your reconciling love.

The Texts for September 11, 2016

First Reading: Exodus 32:7-14
“The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.”
– Moses is on Mt. Sinai receiving God’s commands when the Israelites begin to worship the golden calf. God threatens to destroy them and create a new people from Moses’ descendants, but Moses intercedes on their behalf.

Psalmody: Psalm 51:1-12  (appointed vv. 1-10)
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.” – This exquisite prayer of confession is attributed to David after the prophet Nathan exposed David’s sin with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband.

Second Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17
“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.”
– The letters to Timothy are penned by Paul or in his name as parting words of advice to his protégé, Timothy. Here Paul speaks of the mercy he received though he initially persecuted the church.

Gospel: Luke 15:1-10
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” – The first two of three parables speaking of God’s joy in gathering the outcast and restoring the community of Israel – indeed the whole human community.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARas_Dejen%2C_shepherd’s_children.JPG By Florian Fell (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Carrying the cross

File:Gelati Gospels MSS (2).jpg

Thursday

Luke 14:25-33

27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

When I was twelve or so I learned how to tie a hangman’s nose. I don’t know why it interested me. Perhaps it was due to the westerns I had watched on TV. Perhaps it was because my cousin, who showed it to me, invested it with a certain emotional energy – it was ‘cool’. Perhaps it’s just because the knot itself was an interesting puzzle. As a white boy in the California suburbs it had no other meaning to me. It did not speak of terrorism, of the brutal realities of Jim Crow segregation, of the violence we would come to see thanks to Bull Connor and his dogs, billy clubs and fire hoses. The knot had the vague numinous power of something associated with death, but it did not fill me with the fear of lynching for failing to respect the strict social requirements of the dominant culture. It is only later that I learned that this knot was a symbol of terror and oppression.

Such was the cross in Roman hands. It was an instrument of subjugation, a brutal demonstration of power and the consequences of challenging that power. Any sign of resistance on the part of a slave towards his master, any rebellion against the social order, was answered with this bloody instrument.

We wear crosses of gold and silver, now, adorned sometimes with precious jewels. We put them on bumper stickers and doorknockers and give them as wedding gifts for a new couple to put on their living room wall. Imagine giving a newly married African American couple in the 1950’s a hangman’s noose for their wall.

The cross has been robbed of its power. For the generation threatened with crucifixion in the arena, fed to the lions, or used as the ancient equivalent of cannon fodder for mass entertainment – for this generation the meaning of the cross was quite clear. They had taken the symbol of oppression and used it as a symbol of liberation. They took the instrument of Roman dominion and used it to proclaim God’s dominion. The symbol of Rome’s power became a witness to the ultimate triumph of the reign of God.

To take up the cross was to endure the hostility of the world for the sake of the world to come, the world God was creating, the world where all imperial powers are thrown down, all injustice overthrown, where debts are released and prisoner’s freed, where neighbors are loved and bread is shared, where the honored are not those who rule but those who serve.

Those who live in “the real world” mock the “starry-eyed dreamers.” But Jesus was not a dreamer. He saw the world clearly. He knew his fate. Yet all the might of imperial Rome could not silence his witness that a world in which the Spirit of God governed was coming – indeed, was already present. Sins were forgiven, the sick healed, the scattered gathered, the dead raised. Bread was already being shared, the light shining, a new creation dawning.

Those who would follow in Jesus’ footsteps must be clear-eyed, too. It’s not a requirement to give up everything to follow him; it’s just a fact. You can’t hold on to a dying world and participate in a new one. You can’t hold on to hate and follow love. You can’t hold on to fear and follow faith. You can’t hold on to wealth, power and privilege and follow hope, mercy and service.

The dying world doesn’t go away easily. Hate and fear, violence and shame abound in us and around us. And the dying world resists the birth of the new. Always. But the new is come. And those who would be disciples should recognize that we are not on a pilgrimage to the old Jerusalem (after which we all go home to our same old lives); we are on a pilgrimage to the New Jerusalem, the city God creates, the world God governs, the community where the fruits of the Spirit reign: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGelati_Gospels_MSS_(2).jpg By Anonymous (Center of MSS (Tbilisi, Georgia)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Forgiven

File:Forgiveness 0001.jpg

Watching for the Morning of June 12, 2016

Year C

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 6 / Lectionary 11

This Sunday forgiveness takes center stage. We hear the prophet Nathan confront King David about his murder of Uriah to cover David’s crime with Bathsheba. It is a brilliant effort, using a story of a poor man’s treasured sheep, seized and killed by his wealthy neighbor, to get David to condemn himself.

It is not clear whether Jesus has as much success with Simon the Pharisee, who invites Jesus to a banquet but shows him none of the honor due a guest. In scandal after scandal, a woman bursts in on the scene, washes Jesus feet with her tears and dries them by unbinding her hair. Simon concludes that Jesus is no prophet; a prophet would know this woman is a “sinner”. But Jesus knows both her and Simon, and with a story of two debtors gets Simon to acknowledge that the forgiveness of a great debt creates great love. Then, like Nathan saying to David, “You are the man!”, comes the piercing revelation of Simon’s lack of hospitality and hardness of heart.

We will hear of David’s repentance, but not of Simon’s, and the psalm will talk about these two responses: describing how the heart shrivels when sin is not acknowledged, and how life is restored when it is confessed and forgiven.

Sunday, our second reading continues in Galatians, where we hear Paul speaking to the congregation in Galatia asserting again that it is not the observance of Judean custom and ritual that makes us acceptable to God, but our trust in and allegiance to the God who raised Jesus from the dead. It is a message that leads him to joyfully proclaim:

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

The Prayer for June 12, 2016

Gracious God,
whose infinite mercy should prompt in us an infinite love,
help us to taste and see your goodness
and to share that banquet with all;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 12, 2016

First Reading: 2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:10, 13-20 (appointed 2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:10, 13-15)
“Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man!’” –
The prophet Nathan confronts David on his murder of Uriah to hide his crime with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah – and David repents.

Psalmody: Psalm 32
“Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”
– The psalmist tells of the corrosive power of unconfessed sin, and the liberating mercy of God when he acknowledges his fault.

Second Reading: Galatians 2:15-21
“We have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.”
– Having shown that his Gospel was not delivered on behalf of any human authority but through his encounter with the risen Christ, Paul reasserts his teaching that we are not made acceptable to God by the observance of Judean ritual and customs, but by trust and loyalty to the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

Gospel: Luke 7:36-8:3
“‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’” –
Jesus is invited to feast at the home of Simon, a Pharisee, but is shown none of the proper hospitalities. A woman breaks into the dinner and washes Jesus feet with her tears and anoints them with a perfumed oil. Jesus’ acceptance of her confirms Simon’s presumption that Jesus is not a prophet – but Jesus shows prophetic insight and speaks to Simon with a parable about two debtors and what is shown by great love.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AForgiveness_0001.jpg By scem.info [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons