Lavish mercy

File:All-Saints.jpg

Last Sunday

Luke 17:11-19

13Ten lepers approached him…saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Attendance was small on Sunday. When I began the announcements, there were only a few people scattered among the pews in the back half of the sanctuary. It’s always something of a shock when the crowd is especially small. Pastors can’t help but take it at least a little bit personally; attendance is one of the few numbers you can track easily and it is hard not to perceive it as at least some measures of success – which is challenging when you live in a culture that worships success. Ironically, the gospel reading on Sunday concerned the ten lepers who were healed but only one came back to give God praise. Jesus wasn’t exactly satisfied that only one came back, but I suppose there is some comfort in that though the numbers in our congregation were small yesterday, we did better than one out of ten.

You can find the message from Sunday at Jacob Limping and on this blog site among the “recent sermons.” It speaks to the heart of this powerful and important text. But, like most passages of scripture, there are other things to see in the narrative, not least of which is this: Jesus dispensed the healing of God freely and widely, without asking anything of those in need of God’s gifts.

We tend to be so concerned whether those who ask for help deserve it. I remember the story of the ants and the grasshopper from my childhood. The grasshopper played all summer while the ants worked diligently. Consequently, the ants had food for the winter and the grasshopper did not. Because he had not planned for the future, the grasshopper deserved what he got.

I understand the need to encourage responsibility. But I also recognize what a deadly spiritual disease it is to imagine that we deserve what we receive from God.

On a human level, there are consequences to our actions – though much too often those consequences fall on innocent bystanders. None of those who perished in the devastating railroad tanker fire in Quebec were responsible for the brakes that had not been properly set. The children of Aleppo are not responsible for the warfare that surrounds them. But responsibility does matter for so many ordinary things: driving responsibly, fidelity in marriage, spending quantity and quality time with our children, nourishing a spiritual life.

But we should not fail to recognize that the mercy of God is given freely and lavishly to the nine as well as the one. It is the character of God to cast the seed with abandon though some falls on the path or among the rocks. It is the character of God to make the sun shine on the just and the unjust (on those who show fidelity to God and to others and those who fail to show such fidelity.) When the disciples ask Jesus of the man born blind “Who sinned, this man or his parents,” the answer is neither.

God does not give what we deserve; God gives because it is God’s nature to give. It is part of what the scripture means when it says “God is love” and that “the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases.” God’s fidelity to the world is not conditional. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” “The Good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

In the healing of the ten lepers we should not miss the lavish mercy of God. And we who call Jesus our brother and lord should live with eyes and heart open to recognize and live that mercy.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAll-Saints.jpg By Sampo Torgo at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Advertisements

Blessings

File:Harvest (13429504924).jpg

Saturday

Psalm 67

1May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
2that your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations.

We all want God to bless us. We want God to bless our homes and our children. We want God to bless our tables and our jobs. We want God to grant us prosperity and peace. We want God to protect us from all evil.

And when we are generous, we want God to bless every table – though the truth is we are more concerned with our own than those neighbors far away.

We think blessing is an end in itself, that it is good to be blessed, that it is good to have safety and security and abundance. We have a much harder time thinking of blessing as a means to an end. God intends to accomplish something through it. God is not just giving us an overflowing pantry. God is giving such a pantry that others might know God’s grace and power.

And it’s not this strange American perversion: “Look at me. I’m rich because of God. You can be rich, too.”   It’s rather, “Look at the abundance of God that there is plenty to share.”

There are two types of wealth in scripture. There is the wealth that comes from rich fields and timely rains. And there is the wealth that comes from profiting at the expense of others. The first is regarded as God’s blessing; the second as “unrighteous mammon”. But the wealth that comes from the fortune of good weather and land – wealth that is gift from God – is meant to be shared. If my fields prosper, I have the obligation to aid those whose fields did not. This is the failure of man in the parable of the rich fool. When his barns overflowed, he thought only of himself and not his obligation to his neighbors. He was at ease, but no one else. This is also the problem of the rich man with Lazarus at his gate.

So the psalm is a harvest song, calling upon all creation to recognize God’s goodness, God’s abundant generosity. The harvest is meant to bring joy to all – and give rise to praise from all. God’s blessing has a purpose: “that your way [God’s generosity and goodness and care for all] may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations.”

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHarvest_(13429504924).jpg By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (Harvest) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Lynching: A hometown response to Jesus

File:Angry mob of four.jpg

Watching for the Morning of January 31, 2016

Year C

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 4:21-30

28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

Jesus has dared to suggest that the grace and mercy of God are not the possession of God’s people but are God’s gift to all. It nearly gets him killed. We take our religion pretty seriously. We want to hear that God is on our side, that God’s wants us to be happy, healthy and wise, that God will protect us in the day of famine or disease and not someone from our hated enemies.

Jesus’ problem is twofold. First, he acts like a prophet when he is just a construction worker. He’s too big for his britches. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” is just a snarky way to say “Who does he think he is?!” and to begin the process of cutting him down to size. This is what leads to the second accusation: “What does he think he’s doing spreading God’s gifts around! Charity begins at home. He should be doing his healing here among his own people, not wasting them on people from other towns and villages.” And so we are into the argument and Jesus is confronting them with reminders about Elijah and the widow of Zarephath and Elisha healing Namaan the Syrian.

Jesus seems pretty rude in this exchange. But he is exposing the poison in their hearts. He is lancing the boil. He is provoking them to reveal their hardness of heart. And they oblige – wanting to throw him from the brow of the hill.

This story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry foreshadows the end – the cross and resurrection. For they will indeed kill Jesus, but he will “pass through their midst.”

So Sunday we hear of corrupt religion and the violence it can engender. And we hear that God’s work is not stopped by it. And we will hear of Jeremiah’s call to preach God’s message – for which he will be afflicted, but God’s word will do its work. And we hear the psalmist cry out for protection against enemies. And in the background of all this embattled preaching is Paul singing about faith, hope and love enduring forever – and the greatest of these is love. This is the life to which these followers of Christ have been brought. Here we are invited into the dawning of that new age that Jesus has told us is fulfilled in himself.

The Prayer for January 31, 2016

Almighty God,
through your Son Jesus you revealed your gracious rule
to bind up the wounded and set free the captive.
Let us not fail to understand your will and your way,
but grant us willing hearts to receive your word and live your kingdom;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for January 31, 2016

First Reading: Jeremiah 1:4-10
“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” – God calls Jeremiah to his prophetic ministry.

Psalmody: Psalm 71:1-6
“In you, O Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame.”
– The psalm writer cries out to God for protection “from the hand of the wicked.”

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” – Paul continues to teach his conflicted congregation in Corinth about the gifts of God’s Spirit and their life together as a community. All gifts serve the community and the greatest gift is love – concern for and fidelity to one another

Gospel: Luke 4:21-30
“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”
– The message Jesus announces in Nazareth that the age to come is dawning even as Jesus speaks is met with hostility and a murderous attempt on his life.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Angry_mob_of_four.jpg by Robert Couse-Baker (Flickr: angry mob) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Living the giving

File:Felicidade A very happy boy.jpgSunday Evening

Mark 12:38-44

42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.

The children’s sermon was a simple idea. I used a Harry Potter pillowcase as a trick or treat bag. Unfortunately, none of these kids were into Harry Potter, but the sound of some candy in the bottom of the bag did lead them to guess what it was. So I held out my bag to each of them and said “trick or treat!” The confused looks on their faces were choice.

When it was apparent they had no candy to give, I reached into my bag and gave them each some. Then I looked them each in the eye and said again “Trick or treat!” I confess I was surprised that they each gave their candy back.

Then I asked my simple question: “Which is more like God, the one who gives or the one who takes?”

That answer they knew.

At the end, I gave them each a piece of candy again (some little package of a fruit rollup type thing the youth director had graciously provided), and then came the most delightful moment of the morning: The kids went running back down the aisle rejoicing, “We got candy!!”

+   +   +

The first question is important for the adults, too: “Which is more like God?” But there is a related question for us: “Which should be more like God’s people?”

+   +   +

Christian life is not about following a set of rules; it is about embodying the character of God. It is living the values of the kingdom. It is about living the giving.

+   +   +

The preaching today (both the “children’s” message and the “adult” sermon) was rooted in Jesus’ warning about the scribes and his remark about the widow giving her last two pennies. I’ve posted the text of the sermon here, but here are some highlights.

The story isn’t about the woman; it is about the scribes and the temple. It is about the scribes who, as Jesus says in our text, “devour widow’s houses.” It is about the temple system that is making the rich richer and the poor poorer. The religious system that the scribes are advocating doesn’t embody the justice and mercy of God. It doesn’t share bread with the hungry. It doesn’t clothe the naked. It doesn’t shelter the homeless. It doesn’t free those in debtor’s prison. It doesn’t welcome the outcast and the stranger. It doesn’t heal the sick or free those bound by unclean spirits. It doesn’t forgive as we have been forgiven.

So Jesus has warned his followers about the temple system that bleeds widows dry – and then points across the courtyard to a widow giving her last two cents. The text says to us simply: “Don’t be that.” … Don’t be the church of any age, rich in gold while people hunger. Don’t be the church of the self-satisfied and self-righteous. Don’t be the church aligned with the rich and powerful against the poor and dispossessed.

+   +   +

The question in the children’s message was simple: “Is God more like the giver or the taker?” Learning to truly inhabit the realm of God’s giving is the challenge.

 

Photo: By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga Commons)(Lmbuga Galipedia) [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

Scandal and praise

Watching for the Morning of September 6, 2015

Year B

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 18 / Lectionary 23

File:Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib - Jesus and the Canaanite Woman - Walters W59243A - Full Page.jpgThey have no right to the gifts of God. They are not deserving. They are not God’s people. And when the woman asks for healing, Jesus speaks what everyone is thinking: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But the woman will not be dissuaded: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

It is so hard for us to understand the grace of God, so difficult to accept the magnitude of God’s mercy. Jesus has come to be the savior of the world – the whole world, not just us and people like us, not just believers, not just Christians, not just the baptized or the born again or the born again and really living it. The world. People in burkas and tattoos and unwashed jeans and unwashed lives. He sends rain on the just and the unjust(righteous and unrighteous). “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.’”

And Jesus is touching people, sick people, “unclean” people.

It is a visible illustration of the previous text where Jesus says that what makes a person unclean isn’t anything on the outside, but what comes from within: the way we treat others.

So the disciples might cheer when they hear Jesus speak harshly to the Gentile woman. But they do not understand the character of God – nor the scriptures like Sunday’s psalm that sings of God’s care of the vulnerable and poor, or the prophet who rejoices in God’s deliverance of exiles, or, for that matter, the reading from James that excoriates the Christian community for treating some people (elite members of society, people with money) differently than the peasant poor.

But the woman knows. And the man who can neither speak nor hear but feels Jesus’ hands upon him, he knows. And they join the poet’s song of praise.

And maybe, when we hear about Jesus opening ears, we can feel his hands opening ours.

The Prayer for September 6, 2015

Father of all,
whose ears are open to the cries of every people:
drive out every power of evil,
and open every ear to hear and abide in your Word of life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 6, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 35:3-7a (appointed: 4-7a)
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” – The prophet announces God’s impending deliverance of the nation from their exile in Babylon and their joyful journey home.

Psalmody: Psalm 146
“The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down…The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow.”
– The poet praises the LORD, a God who comes to the aid of those in need.

Second Reading: James 2:1-17
“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”
– The author challenges the community not to show favoritism, warning them that to break any part of the law is to be accountable for all of it.

Gospel: Mark 7:24-37
“A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” – Following his teaching about what does and doesn’t render a person “unclean”, Jesus travels in foreign territory and heals two who are “unclean”, outside the covenant of Israel: the daughter of a Syrophoenician and a man from the Gentile region of the Decapolis.

 

Jesus and the Canaanite woman, folio from Walters manuscript W.592  Credit: Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Every good and perfect gift is from above

Saturday

James 1:17-27

File:Chartres JBU09.JPG17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

This seems like an awkward translation to me. The verse I remember is from the old RSV is “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above,” and the NIV has simply “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” There are two words being used for gift and the first can mean either the act of giving or the gift itself (thus the NRSV translation above), but the adjective is ‘good’ and I am reluctant to restrict that to ‘generous’. “good giving” isn’t very poetic, but fits the point is that all that comes from God is both good and gift.

Our appointed reading for Sunday picks up in the middle of a thought. The author of James has begun by talking about rejoicing in trials and declared No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God.” God doesn’t send evil; what comes from God is good and gift.

Evil, trial, temptation, all has its roots in us not in God. God is the author of good; we are the authors of what is not.

One is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.

God is not like the gods. The gods are fickle, jealous, impulsive, willing to cast thunderbolts and storms, willing to throw down as easily as they raise up. God is not so. God is “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

People outside the tradition – and sometimes those within – read the Old Testament (and the book of Revelation) and see a god of thunderbolts, sanctioning war, capital punishment and terrors. Perhaps this is what comes naturally to us as frail creatures beset by forces beyond our control. Hurricanes and tragedies become, in our minds, “acts of God.” But it is a false reading of the record. The plagues that come upon Egypt are the consequences of a society founded on injustice and slavery. Each natural crisis is an opportunity to repent, to change their ways. It is not a story about the vindictiveness of God; it is a story of our persistence in sin and its terrible price. And it is a story of a God determined to bring justice to the world.

God is a giver of good and perfect gifts. The scripture does not shrink back from telling horrifying stories – but they are stories about our warring passions, our cruelty, our callousness, our brokenness. In the face of the corruption of the world God remains perfect goodness.

So we are not, says James, to attribute our trials to God but to ourselves and to our place within a fallen human community. What we are to do is remember that “he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” We are to be “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” We are to “look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act.” We are, in other words, to live in and from the perfect goodness and generosity of God.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChartres_JBU09.JPG
By Jörg Bittner Unna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons