Who is God?

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Friday

Psalm 146

8The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down

Who is God? Who is the God who promised Abraham descendants when he and Sarah were barren? Who is the God who wrestled with Jacob at the river Jabbok when he was fleeing his father-in-law with nowhere to go but back towards the brother who had sworn to kill him? Who is the God who met Moses at the burning bush? Who is the God who demanded that Egypt give up its slaves and brought down the army that sought to hold them? Who is the God that encountered those freed slaves at Sinai? What is the nature of ultimate reality, of the source of all life, of the ground of all existence?

If we are to take the scriptures seriously we must recognize that the source of life is justice, shared bread, liberty, and care for the vulnerable.

5Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
….whose hope is in the LORD their God,
6who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them;
….who keeps faith forever;
7who executes justice for the oppressed;
….who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
….8the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
….the LORD loves the righteous.
9The LORD watches over the strangers;
….he upholds the orphan and the widow,
….but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

And, yes, what we see in Jesus is a sacrificial death on the cross. There is redemption here, and forgiveness of sins, and the promise of imperishable life. But everything else Jesus said and did was about justice, shared bread, liberty, and care for the vulnerable. He welcomed the stranger, the unclean, the outcast. He was willing to touch the leper. He received with grace an anointing by an unknown woman. He called Zacchaeus down from the tree. He treated the scorned and broken woman at the well as a member of his own family.

Justice, shared bread, liberty, and care for the vulnerable. Jesus embodied the work and word of God. All people are ‘neighbor’, members of our own tribe. Enemies are loved, shown the faithfulness extended to members of our own household. And we are to do as he did, to be as he was, to breathe his Spirit.

Sunday’s psalm brilliantly declares that the font of life is faithfulness and care for the stranger, the weak, the poor. And what shall we do with the little phrase “the LORD loves the righteous” in the middle of this litany of care for the often forgotten and neglected? Can “the righteous” be anything other than those who show all that the psalm has proclaimed?

“The way of the wicked” cares for something other than the weak…and its end is ruin.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Humanitarian_aid_OCPA-2005-10-28-090517a.jpg By Technical Sergeant Mike Buytas of the United States Air Force [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dirt

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Pharisees and the Saduccees Come to Tempt Jesus (Les pharisiens et les saducéens viennent pour tenter Jésus) - James Tissot - overall.jpgThe message from last Sunday, September 2, 2018, based on the assigned Gospel reading:

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23: Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
….but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
….teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”… 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

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So we have come back to the Gospel of Mark for our appointed texts. I always like to keep track of the big picture, so I’ll remind you that there are assigned readings for each of the Sundays and festivals of the year. These are used by the majority of the mainline denominations with the purpose of creating a measure of unity across the churches and exposing us to the breadth of the Biblical witness.

The lectionary has a three-year cycle – one year in Matthew, one in Mark and one in Luke. Readings from John are scattered through all three years, mostly during Easter and festival days.

We have just finished five weeks on the 6th chapter of John that told the story of the feeding of the five thousand and talked about the meaning of that sign. Now we are back in Mark’s Gospel.

We left off in Mark’s Gospel right before the account of the feeding of the five thousand so that, instead of reading that story in Mark, we read it in John. The feeding of the five thousand is followed in both Gospels with Jesus walking upon the sea – and we touched on the meaning of that narrative a few weeks ago when we noted that Jesus walks on the sea he doesn’t walk on water. Walking on water is a suspension of the laws of physics. Walking on the sea is a demonstration that Jesus strides above every spiritual power on heaven and earth. The sea was thought to be governed by a god or spirit – and the narrative declares that Jesus is not subject to such spirits; they are subject to him.

You remember how Trump violated protocol when he was late to his meeting with the Queen of England, making her wait, then walked in front of her when they viewed the troops. It could have been nothing, but it gave the appearance that he was claiming to be more important than the queen. The story of Jesus walking upon the sea is like this. It proclaims that Jesus ranks above the spirits that govern the sea.

In Mark’s Gospel, these two stories of the feeding of the five thousand and walking upon the sea proclaim that Jesus is the one who stands above every other power with the authority to dispense the gifts of God. John, of course, sees something even more profound in that narrative. John sees that Jesus is the fulfillment of the story of Moses leading the people through the sea out from bondage into freedom. The bread that feeds the crowd is like the manna from heaven – though the true manna from the realm of God is Jesus himself. Jesus is the embodiment of the voice of God that Israel heard at Sinai. Jesus is also the sacrificial meal that the elders of Israel ate in God’s presence on Mount Sinai. Jesus death is the sacrifice that reconciles heaven and earth. And Jesus is the living word of God present in the bread and wine of communion to teach, heal and redeem us and all creation.

Mark doesn’t explore all of this in his telling of the story. He just tells the story and lets it proclaim Jesus’ authority to dispense to us and to the world all the gifts of God. Thus Mark ends his account with the people from the whole region bringing all who were sick to Jesus and all were healed. This is the setup for our reading this morning. Wherever Jesus goes, people bring to him all those who are sick and they are healed.

It is important for us to remember that what is being told to us here is not that Jesus has magic power over the biomechanics of disease, but that he dispenses the gifts of God. Secondly, the word we translate as ‘sick’ is actually the word ‘weak’. These are people who have lost their power. It can mean everything from those who have lost the strength of their legs or eyesight to those who have lost their courage and hope. It’s talking about those who have lost their place in their communities and their ability to assert their proper role.

This is like the word ‘poor’ in the scriptures, which isn’t a measure of economic wealth, but a measure of honor and place. So widows are described as ‘poor’ even if they have money, because they have lost their place in the community. We reflect this idea, too, when misfortune of any kind has happened and we say “that poor woman,” or “that poor man,” or “that poor child.”

People are bringing to Jesus those who are weak and vulnerable and dislocated. They are bringing those who have lost their power and their place. These are the people who live in fear or uncertainty. These are the people who live with pain. These are the people trodden down by the power of Rome. These are people who have lost their land or livelihood. And from Jesus there is healing; there is power. Through Jesus the face of God shines upon them. Through Jesus the life of God touches them. Through Jesus the power of the Spirit lights upon them. They are healed even from simply touching the fringe of his cloak.

The word we translate as ‘healed’ is actually the word ‘to save’. In Jesus they are saved. It doesn’t mean they get to go to heaven; it means their lives are made whole. Their life, their power, their place is restored. Salvation is food on your table and a roof over your head and respect in your community. Salvation is peace in your family and well-being in your home. Salvation is reconciliation with God and the face of God shining upon you. It is peace with God and one another. It is fidelity to God and one another.

And the word ‘to save’ is used in the imperfect tense. In Greek, the imperfect tense describes a continuous action, so being ‘saved’ is not a single event but an ongoing reality. It should be translated “they were being saved.” A new reality was at work in their lives. The reign of God had come to them.

All these people are brought to Jesus and the grace and power of God is restoring and transforming them. They are being filled with hope. They are receiving a future. They are being restored to their communities. Their lives are being made whole. But – and here’s the troubling and fearsome turn – the response of those in power is to challenge Jesus, declaring that he can’t be a holy man because some of his people don’t keep the tradition of the elders. In their eyes this can’t be the one who dispenses the gifts of God because some of his followers don’t follow the rules developed over the ages concerning purity.

It is important we recognize this about our narrative, today. This is not a story about tradition; it is a story about purity. And it is a profound debate about what lies at the heart of Biblical faith. What does God want from us? Does God want purity or justice?

I hope I can convey to you why this is such an earth shattering question – and it is at the very center of Jesus.

The question that is asked in our psalm today is:

1O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
….Who may dwell on your holy hill?

This is a question posed as people are entering into the holy precincts of the temple. You know that there are rules about how women have to be dressed when they go into the Vatican to see the fabulous art that is there. And at an amusement park there is a sign that you have to be this tall to ride the ride. What are the rules for entering into God’s presence in the temple courts?

The answer the psalmist gives is:

2Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
….and speak the truth from their heart;
3who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends,
….nor take up a reproach against their neighbors…
who stand by their oath
….even to their hurt;
5who do not lend money at interest,
….and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

True purity is about our care for one another. Those who are acceptable in God’s presence are those who have shown care and faithfulness to others, who have followed God’s command to do justice and mercy.

The answer the Pharisees give is to take the purity rules in Leviticus and elevate them as the central focus of God’s law. Leviticus contains the command “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), and the Pharisees read the law as the means to create a holy people. Jesus, however, sees the center of the law in the command – also from Leviticus – to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).  Jesus sees at the heart of scripture the command to do justice and mercy. He stands in line with the prophets like Micah who said so famously, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

The whole temple complex at the time of Jesus is about ritual purity. Have you touched a dead body? Have you touched blood? Have you eaten the right foods? Did you use the right plates? Did you pour water over your hands before eating? These rules might seem silly to us because they our not our rules, but this is a very important idea – and Biblical faith stands or falls on whether you choose purity or justice.

Every society has notions of what is clean and unclean, what is acceptable and not acceptable. These apply to foods, behaviors, and physical spaces. In the United States we don’t eat dogs or horses or cockroaches. The thought fills us with an almost instinctive aversion. It doesn’t have anything to do with actual cleanliness or uncleanliness, even though we imagine it does; it is a perception learned by growing up in a community.

This notion of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ is related to things being in their proper place. Dirt in the garden is soil; it belongs there. But soil in the kitchen is dirt; it doesn’t belong there. When things are out of place, they render the place “dirty”. Soil on the kitchen floor makes the kitchen dirty. When things, places and people become “unclean” there are rituals to make them “clean” again. In the case of the kitchen, a sweeping and mopping. It’s not enough to get the dirt back into the yard; the kitchen has to be cleansed.

And the thing about purity is that it only works one way. Drop your toast on the floor and the “dirty” floor – however clean it might be – the “dirty” floor renders the toast unclean. The ‘clean’ toast doesn’t make the floor ‘clean’.

“Dirt” is contagious. That’s why it has to be kept in its place. And that’s why people who are “dirty” have to be kept in their place. What’s at stake in this conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees is not that some of Jesus’ followers are lax about the rules. Some of Jesus’ followers are “dirty”. They don’t belong. So Jesus must be “dirty” too.

The problem with purity rules is the way they intersect with the human community. There are some who cannot keep all these rules. And there are those from outside our community who have a different set of rules.

These rules divide the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’, between those we perceive as ‘clean’ and those who we perceive as ‘unclean’, those who are “good people” and those who are not “good people”; those who are “normal” and those who are not; those who are “acceptable” and those who are not; those who belong and those who don’t.

Trump rose to prominence claiming that Obama wasn’t one of us. He wasn’t born here. He wasn’t like us. He was out of his proper place. He wasn’t “clean”. And so the country had to be purged of everything he touched.

Ugly things happen when we apply these rules of purity to the human community – especially when we think God is on the side of purity. Then you are not just unacceptable in my eyes; you are unacceptable in God’s eyes.

People with money are better able to keep purity rules. They can wear the right clothes, maintain the right appearance, avoid the wrong side of the tracks. In the time of Jesus, people with money had better access to clean water – and had servants to carry the water – for use in the rituals of cleansing by pouring water over your hands before eating. The poor are not so fortunate. They don’t have the resources. And they get stuck with the jobs that are ritually unclean – like working in a tax booth as did Matthew, or tending the pigs for some Gentile master like the prodigal son. The poor tend to be perpetually unclean measured by the standards of privileged society. And some of these are the people who are following Jesus.

“What kind of person are you, Jesus, to allow such people in your group?” Jesus is being disgraced and discredited as a teacher because he doesn’t make everyone observe the rules of purity. Jesus isn’t a defender of the moral sensibilities of the privileged.

It is a much more profound challenge than we might imagine, because our own purity rules are largely unconscious, and those rules that belong to other societies often seem silly to us. Besides, as Americans, we tend to rebel against social rules and traditions and want to be free of them. But the challenge is serious – and Jesus’ response is an even more profound challenge.

Whether a person is ‘clean’ and acceptable in God’s sight is not determined by the rules of ritual purity, but by the things that come out of the ‘heart’ – our words and actions. We are rendered ‘unclean’ by our failure to care for the well-being of others. We are rendered ‘unclean’ by the falsehoods we hold, the lies we tell, the envy we harbor. We are rendered ‘unclean’ when we take advantage of others in the marketplace.   We are rendered ‘unclean’ by the callous things we say and the dirty looks we give to those who are different than us.

We are rendered ‘unclean’ when we fail to “do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God.”

We are rendered ‘unclean’ not by our pots and absent rituals, but by our very real thoughts and deeds.

But here, before us, is the one who brings the gifts of heaven. Here, before us, is the one who comes to heal and make whole. Here, before us, is the one who comes to forgive and reconcile. Here, before us, is the one who feeds us with the true bread of life and grants us new birth as God’s children. Here, before us, is the one who welcomes us, ‘unclean’ as we may be, and summons us to follow God’s way of justice and mercy.

© David K Bonde, 2018, All rights reserved.

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Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Pharisees_and_the_Saduccees_Come_to_Tempt_Jesus_(Les_pharisiens_et_les_saduc%C3%A9ens_viennent_pour_tenter_J%C3%A9sus)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall.jpg James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Remember Zacchaeus

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Psalm 26:1-8

1 Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity,
…..and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.

The eight verses assigned for us to sing or read on Sunday describe the poet’s righteousness. “Your steadfast love is before my eyes,” he declares, “and I walk in faithfulness to you.” The portrait he paints is noble:

4 I do not sit with the worthless,
…..nor do I consort with hypocrites;
5 I hate the company of evildoers,
…..and will not sit with the wicked.
6 I wash my hands in innocence,
…..and go around your altar, O Lord,
7 singing aloud a song of thanksgiving,
…..and telling all your wondrous deeds.

But there is an unpleasant aftertaste in these words.

I always get a little nervous around those who are a little too certain they are righteous. And it’s not just because Lutherans as a whole have a pretty skeptical view of the possibility of our righteousness. The notion of “alien righteousness”, a righteousness that comes from somewhere else, that is not our own but given to us, is pretty deep in Lutheran piety. We are righteous because, amazingly, graciously, wondrously, when God looks at us he sees Christ’s righteousness not our own. We are pretty sure if he saw our own it would resemble a dilapidated storefront in an abandoned urban area. It has walls and a roof, the appearance of a building, but the windows are broken and the roof surely leaks. Thankfully, God is like an overly enthusiastic realtor who sees what should be and will be rather than what is.

In Lutheranland, we are all fixer uppers. So when we encounter someone who is a little too certain they live in a fine neighborhood, we are uncomfortable. Surely they must be denying there is something musty in the basement or mice droppings in the attic.

Nevertheless, this Sunday we are asked to say these words:

4 I do not sit with the worthless,
…..nor do I consort with hypocrites;
5 I hate the company of evildoers,
…..and will not sit with the wicked.
6 I wash my hands in innocence,
…..and go around your altar, O Lord,

It’s a complicated moment. First of all, it requires us to remember that these words are a prayer. The poet is in trouble and offering the kind of prayer we have all offered: “I don’t deserve this…come rescue me…” Like the prayers of our ancestors, our prayers may not be noble, but God does listen.

Secondly we have to remember that these words, like all the words of scripture, reach their fullest truth in Jesus. He was righteous, faithful to God and to others, but his righteousness did not set him apart from the wicked; it placed him in their living rooms. Remember Zacchaeus. I wish I could find a way to put those two words into the six or seven letters of a vanity license plate. That’s one I might consider buying.

Remember Zacchaeus. His righteousness comes after Jesus has shocked the righteous by coming to dine at his home. His righteousness is entirely a response to the presence of Christ. He makes no claim to goodness or holiness; it is brought forth by Christ’s goodness and holiness. Zacchaeus does nothing but agree to let Christ come to his home – and then the spirit of Christ works its work in him. Suddenly he is giving away half his possessions to the poor and setting right his wrongs.

So we will pray the poet’s prayer on Sunday. And the words will come awkwardly. But hopefully we will remember Zacchaeus and, perhaps, all those other prayers that are a little too full of ourselves will be filled with Christ.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChapiteau_de_St-Nectaire_-_Le_Christ_et_Zach%C3%A9e.jpg By Tangopaso (Self-photographed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

He will reign

Saturday

Psalm 72

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Christ Pantocrator (ruler of all) in the dome of “St John the Precursor” in Bratsigovo, Bulgaria

1 Endow the king with your justice, O God,
the royal son with your righteousness.

The question is whether the psalm is a prayer or a promise. The translation in the 1984 New International Version declares:

He will judge your people in righteousness,
your afflicted ones with justice.

But the 2011 revision of the NIV changes it to:

May he judge your people in righteousness,
your afflicted ones with justice.

So does the next line say “The mountains will bring prosperity to the people,”(1984) or “May the mountains bring prosperity to the people.”(2011)

Does verse 8 declare “He will rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth,” or “May he rule…”?

And does it mean “to the ends of the earth” or to the ‘end’ of the land where soil gives way to sea? The Hebrew word ‘earth’ is the same as in the phrase ‘land of Israel’. So does “sea to sea” mean Red Sea to Black Sea (or Caspian Sea?), and “from the River to the ends of the earth” mean the Euphrates to the Mediterranean – an exaggerated version of the furthest extent of David’s kingdom? (Or, alternately, Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean and Euphrates to land’s end at the Red Sea?)

There are two different ways to hear the psalm. The one is the psalm in its original context, the accession of a new king and the prayer that he will rule justly over a great empire. The other is to hear the psalm with the people of God looking back through the long history of kingship with all its terrible frailties and hear in the psalm the promise of a new kind of king, one endowed with God’s own judgments, one who reigns over all creation, who brings God’s vindication for the poor, whose reign is never ending, and before whom all earthly kings show obeisance.

When we read or sing this song in worship, it is no longer about an earthly king on the throne of David; it is now about the eternal king, incarnate from heaven, reigning over all creation, breathing into all existence his holy spirit. And so, on Sunday, we will use the old NIV that does not pray “May he defend the afflicted among the people” but declares: “He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy.” He will come. He will reign. “He will endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations.” He will “save the needy from death.” He will gather our broken world under his just governance.

Indeed he has come.

And, with the Magi, we come to kneel before him.

Image: Spiritia [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

 

Was it not necessary?

Sunday Evening

Luke 24

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17th Century Russian Icon of St. Luke

26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

The more I read the Gospels the more I am amazed at the literary skill with which they are crafted. Luke is an especially talented writer. He is not simply giving us a record of events, he is weaving a narrative that brings the reader into the presence of the risen Christ – that makes our hearts burn within us – and, hopefully, makes us see the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread.

Luke begins his Gospel with those finely crafted narratives we call the nativity stories. But calling them nativity stories, and turning them into Christmas plays, divorces those narratives from the composition of Luke’s Gospel. It is as if you were to cut off all the scenes in Hobbiton from the start of the Lord of the Rings. Those events at Bilbo’s birthday party are essential to the larger narrative, setting up themes about the goodness of growing things that are crucial to the larger story.

This first volume of Luke’s two-volume work, his narrative of the words and deeds of Jesus, begins and ends in the temple. It opens with Zechariah serving in the temple and concludes with the followers of Jesus “continually in the temple blessing God.”  An archangel appears to Zechariah and to Mary and the risen Christ encounters the disciples on the road to Emmaus and in Jerusalem.  Mary trusts the promise of God – but the disciples are slow of heart to trust.  Angels bear witness to the shepherds and angels encounter the women at the tomb.  A rock-hewn tomb holds the body of Jesus as a manger holds the infant.  The shepherds come to see “this thing that has taken place” even as the women come to the tomb.  Simeon and Anna, looking for the redemption of Israel, recognize the Christ child and the two disciples at Emmaus recognize the risen Lord in the breaking of the bread.  The 12-year-old Jesus teaches in the temple just after the beginning of the narrative even as Jesus teaches there just before the end.

There is layer upon layer of rich and wonderful work by Luke knitting his account together. And in that great sweep of the whole narrative we are overwhelmed by the marvel of God’s work, the certainty of God’s hand in all these events, and wonder at the ancient witness of the scriptures fulfilled in all that has taken place.

This is not chance; it is “the plan and foreknowledge of God,” as Peter will say at Pentecost (Acts 2:23).   It is the work of a God determined to redeem his world, to gather it back to himself, to lift away the burden and shame of all its sins, and bring it to its ultimate goodness and glory.

Hearing the whole story of these remarkable events leaves you breathless. And this is only the first volume of Luke’s work. The story of Jesus continues with the outpouring of God’s Spirit, the gathering in of Samaritans, the Ethiopian Eunuch and the Roman Centurion. The whole world is drawn into Christ as we follow these witnesses across the ancient Roman world to the heart of the empire itself. In the place where Caesar Augustus proclaimed himself “Savior of the whole world” by the force of his armies, the band of Jesus’ followers proclaim earth’s true savior. The imitation of “peace” created by the threat of Roman force – by the brutality of the cross – yields to the true peace brought by the crucified and risen one. He is God’s anointed, creation’s true lord, earth’s true redeemer.