The one who is wise understands

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Watching for the Morning of September 18, 2016

Year C

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 20 / Lectionary 25

Wealth and poverty and the ethics of the kingdom are again in the forefront of the readings this coming Sunday. The prophet Amos excoriates the northern kingdom of Israel whose economic injustices betray a complete denial of the covenant at Sinai. The call to justice and mercy, the command to leave the gleanings for the poor and to maintain just weights, the injunction to observe Sabbath as a day for even the work animals to rest has all been overthrown in the quest for wealth and power that makes Israel indistinguishable from the other kingdoms of the world.

The psalmist provides a startling contrast to the prophet’s word as it sings of God who lifts up the poor and makes them equal to “princes” – the elites of Israelite and Judean society.

And then Jesus tells his story about the corrupt steward that leads to the familiar and fateful declaration: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

In a society that clearly serves wealth, such words makes us restless. We want to tame them – or dismiss them. But they will not be tamed.

They cannot be tamed, not honestly. They speak something at the heart of the faith. The human community is one; what lifts my brother lifts me; what diminished my sister diminishes me. Such ideas underlie the words of 1 Timothy that God wants all people to be saved. God wants all people to be gathered into the redeemed community. God wants all to share in the goodness of God’s creation. God wants all people to know the wholeness of life. Salvation doesn’t mean that even the wretched of the earth should gain access to a heaven after death. It means that the human community should be healed. The outcast gathered in. The sinners reconciled. The hungry welcomed to the wedding feast. It means the forces of chaos should be stilled like the sea, and the human spirit made whole like the man at Gerasa/Gadara. It means, ultimately, that every tear is wiped away and every tomb undone.

Serving wealth sets us against one another. It makes the ephah small and the shekel great, manipulating the market with deceptive weights and measures. It sells even the sweepings of the wheat. But the one who is wise understands that the time is at hand to use wealth to embody the kingdom, to unite rather than divide, to heal rather than steal, to bring the redeemed community to life.

The Prayer for September 18, 2016

Almighty God,
you have shown yourself the defender of the poor
and protector of the weak.
Come to the aid of those in need,
and reveal to all the folly of putting our hope and trust in wealth.
Grant us wisdom in dealing with our possessions
that we may receive from your hand life’s true riches;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 18, 2016

First Reading: Amos 8:4-7
“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land.”
– The prophet Amos is sent to the northern kingdom of Israel to speak God’s word of judgment upon a people who have turned from God’s way and chosen wealth and privilege over the wellbeing of the poor.

Psalmody: Psalm 113
“He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap.” – God is praised for his sovereign rule over all creation and his care for the poor and vulnerable.

Second Reading: 1 Timothy 2:1-7
“There is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.”
– The letters to Timothy are penned by Paul or in his name as parting words of advice to his protégé, Timothy. Here Paul speaks about prayer for the governing authorities and God’s will to gather all people into the new reality that is Christ.

Gospel: Luke 16:1-13
“‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’” – A corrupt manager acts decisively in the face of his dismissal to save himself: a lesson for Jesus’ hearers on how they should handle their wealth/possessions.

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

Counting the Cost

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Watching for the Morning of September 4, 2016

Year C

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 18 / Lectionary 23

Jesus’ relentless challenge of the social order continues this week as he spells out to the crowd the consequences of enjoining the privileged to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind to their banquets. Banquets functioned to maintain the social fabric through ties of kinship and friendship and by reinforcing the honor status of the host and guests. Jesus’ teaching to invite those on society’s margins jeopardized the safety and security of the family by bringing shame on the family, undermining their position in society and incurring the hostility of their social class.   ‘Love’ and ‘hate’ are words expressing attachment and detachment. Those who would follow Jesus must detach from the social system of this world in order to show allegiance to the new order that is dawning in Christ. The reign of God welcomes all, feeds all, forgives all. One cannot live the kingdom and yet maintain the ties of security through family position and wealth. “Count the cost,” Jesus says, “Count the cost.”

With this radical challenge comes the preaching of Moses declaring that God’s way is not too hard for you,” but is in fact the way of life. We hear the psalmist describe the one who shows fidelity to God (and neighbor) as a tree planted by streams of water,” drawing in the water of life in contrast to “the wicked” (those who lack fidelity to God and neighbor) who are “like chaff that the wind drives away.” And we hear Paul writing to Philemon, setting before him the need to welcome his runaway slave, Onesimus, (whom Philemon had the legal right to punish even to death) as a brother in Christ.

The world will staunchly defend the social order, but Jesus calls us to be a new creation, citizens of the age to come when all creation is reconciled to the Lord and Giver of Life. There is a cost to discipleship – but a greater cost for ignoring so great a salvation.”

The Prayer for September 4, 2016

Lord to whom our lives belong,
grant us courage to follow where you lead,
bearing the burdens of a broken world,
daring to speak the word of hope,
and living the love that lays down its life
for the sake of the world.

The Texts for September 4, 2016

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:11-20
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
– In a sermon set in the mouth of Moses, speaking to the Israelites as they prepare to enter the promised land, the preacher sets before them the choice of faithfulness and life or disobedience and all its consequences.

Psalmody: Psalm 1
“They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season.” –With this psalm that opens the psalter, the poet speaks of the enduring quality of the righteous (those faithful to God and neighbor) in contrast to the ephemeral existence of the wicked who are like chaff swept away by the wind.

Second Reading: Philemon 1-21
“Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.”
– Paul writes to Philemon on behalf of a runaway slave who has come to Paul and become a follower of Christ. Paul is sending him back to his master with instructions for Philemon to receive him as a brother.

Gospel: Luke 14:25-33
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” – The words love and hate convey a different sense to the first century than to ours, but the words were shocking then as now. The kingdom of God, the reign of grace, requires our ultimate allegiance. We should count the cost.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWTC_Hub_July_2014_vc.jpg By JasonParis from Toronto, Canada [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Words we do not mean

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Thursday

Psalm 19

7 The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;

I asked the question yesterday whether we will mean it on Sunday when we say, while reading this psalm, that God’s Word, God’s commands, are “more to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold.” But we don’t have to mean it on Sunday; we have to say it.

We don’t have to mean these words and others like them; we have to say them. We have to say them again and again. We have to say these words so they can nestle down into some corner of our souls so that, in the day when wealth fails us – for surely it will. Wealth is fickle, and frail, and cannot sustain us in the face of life’s sorrows. No one yearns on their death beds to be reconciled with neglected bank accounts or visited by lost possessions – we say these words so that, in the day that wealth fails us, these words will be there, ready to fill the empty space left by our failed hope in money’s power to bless.

The church is routinely criticized for saying words we do not live. Those criticisms are fair; they just don’t understand the nature of the words we speak. None of us are saints yet (in the common understanding of that term). We are all far from the fullness of the kingdom. We do not love as we ought to love. We do not trust in God as we ought to trust. We are frail human beings limping toward the promised land. So we say words we do not mean, or do not mean perfectly, because we are planting those words in our souls that they may sprout and grow and – in the days when all the other things in which we hope and trust fail us – carry us into the presence of God.

Our parents made us practice saying “Thank you” when we received a gift from Aunt Sarah for which we were not thankful, and to say “I’m sorry” to a sibling we have punched when we were not at all sorry. They were not teaching us to practice insincerity. They were teaching us such words in hopes that thankfulness and compassion would find root and grow in us.

A day will come when God’s promise to me will be more important than the largest lottery prize, but I am not ready for that test yet. There is a reason the devil offered Jesus all the wealth and power of the world. Thankfully, Jesus chose God’s word.

So Sunday we will read aloud the words of Psalm 19, we will sing songs of praise we may not feel, we will pray prayers and hear stories we may not believe in. Not yet. Or not completely. But we will come that the word may be planted in us and bear its fruit in its season.

 

Image: By Dbxsoul (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

More than much fine gold

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Wednesday

Psalm 19

10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;

The country went crazy last week because the lottery jackpot had grown to over a billion dollars. People stood in line for hours, the news media told us, as they added their voice to the hype. It says something about our culture when the millionaire broadcasters are buying tickets. We believe in money. Despite all our disavowals that “money doesn’t buy happiness,” we have a deep and abiding faith in the power of wealth to bless us.

Sunday we will read together Psalm 19 that speaks of God’s wondrous ordering of the natural world around us – and then testifies to God’s wondrous ordering of what we might call the spiritual and moral universe:

7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.

And then comes the verse above: “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold.”

God’s word, God’s instruction, God’s wisdom and guidance for life, God’s promise and our loyalty to that promise, is worth more than the lottery prize.

And the interesting question as we recite these words on Sunday is whether we will regard them as true or as a pious fiction.

 

Image: By Ian and Wendy Sewell [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Free to do the right thing

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Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath

Thursday

1 Kings 17:8-16

10When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.”

It seems like such a simple little request. But it is during a three-year drought. Water itself is scarce. Who knows whether Zarephath still had easy access to fresh water? Dry sticks, on the other hand, are sure to be available.

The prophet is in foreign territory. The widow refers to the LORD as “your god.” Her god – or, at least, the god of her people – is the god Ba’al. The worship of Ba’al is the source of all this trouble. He is the Canaanite storm god. The bringing of the winter rains. The source of water for the community and for the fields. The source of prosperity and abundance. Israel has adopted the worship of Ba’al. They have become part of the modern world. Tyre and Sidon are great cosmopolitan cities. They are the home not just of foreign trade and the rich abundance of this world’s goods; they are the home of art and culture. It is from Tyre that Solomon hires workmen to build him a temple – though Solomon at lead dedicated his temple to the LORD.

The king of Israel has married the daughter of the King of Sidon. She has come and brought modern sensibility to this backward nation in the hill country. They have built a temple to Ba’al and she has brought with her 450 prophets of Ba’al (and 400 prophets of the goddess Asherah).

She has also tried to stamp out the backward religion of this God of the desert who commands justice for all.

Few girls are named Jezebel today.

Jezebel is the one who schooled king Ahab in the use of ruthless power, taking Naboth’s vineyard – land God gave to Naboth’s family that now belongs to the king even as Naboth now lies in the grave.

So here is the prophet in the homeland of the queen. And he has asked for a drink. The widow shows hospitality to this stranger and goes to get him some water.

And then he asks for a bit of bread.

A bit is all she has. Her last handful of meal. Enough for one last small cake to enjoy with her son, and then nothing awaits her but death. It is why she is gathering sticks. Fuel for the fire to bake the one last small bit of bread.

The woman is faced with a challenge. Hospitality is the supreme value of the age. To feed the hungry is not only noble, but the one true thing. But this is her last bread. This her final meal.

She protests. She explains to this foreign prophet what she intends to do. “That’s fine,” he replies. “But first make some for me.”

First do the right thing.

And to this he adds an incredible promise: the jar of meal will not fail until the drought is over.

She is a hero of the faith. She dares to trust the promise of a foreign prophet and his strange desert God. She dares to do the right thing though it costs her everything. And she is sustained. She and her son and the prophet live from that small bit of never failing daily bread.  The gods of prosperity have failed her; the LORD, the God of justice and mercy has not.

It is a story like the manna in the wilderness: enough for today, trusting God for tomorrow.  It may seem like a hard way to live. But it is actually quite liberating. Let God worry about tomorrow. Let us be free to do the right thing today.

Image: Bartholomeus Breenbergh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Only one pedigree

Friday

Mark 8:22-38

File:Nave of Salisbury Cathedral, with Sibirica Minor II in foreground - geograph.org.uk - 188287.jpg34“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

The adult leaders of our youth group wrote this verse in a small Bible they gave to me as I went off to college. It was one of those words that haunts – a word that continues to return, helping to shape your life at many points along the way.

It is by no means the only reason I accepted a call to an inner city parish in Detroit, but it was part of it, this notion that the Christian life is not what you can gain but what you can give, that courageous faith is willing to take great risks, that Christian faith is about radical discipleship.

But this word of Jesus isn’t really about individual, heroic faith. Nor is it about self-denial in the way we might imagine personal sacrifice. It is about the community we dare to choose.

In the world of the scriptures, a person is defined by the facts of their birth – by family and clan, by their village, by their people. When invited to meet Jesus, Nathanael says: Can anything good come out of Nazareth? and everyone in that day would have understood that the answer was “No.” Matthew and Luke go to some length to explain that Jesus is really from Bethlehem, the city of David, and not from Nazareth – because royalty comes from Bethlehem, but nothing good from Nazareth. When his opponents want to dismiss Jesus they say, Isn’t this Joseph’s son? He is a carpenter, nothing more.

To deny yourself is to turn away from the social fabric that gives you your identity and take up a new identity in a new community, a new household, a new family, a new people.

Once you were no people,” writes the author of 1 Peter, “but now you are God’s people.” To deny yourself is to deny your social identity and receive a new one as a citizen of the kingdom of God, as a member of the community that follows Jesus.

When Ananias and Sapphira bring only part of their offering, the problem is not that they gave only half, or that they lied about their gift, but that they were unwilling to “deny themselves”, unwilling to let go of their old identity and enter fully and unreservedly into the community of disciples.

It is an interesting question for us who tend to derive our identity from our accomplishments, our work, our children, our possessions. Jesus is not saying that you must let all that go. He is saying that our identity, our sense of self, our commitment and belonging, is in Christ and his band of followers. We are citizens of the City of God not citizens of Rome or any of its lookalikes.

This is why Jesus talks about hating mother and father. This is why he says you cannot serve God and possessions.” This is why No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is is fit for the kingdom of God. We can have only one pedigree: either the one that comes from the world around us, or the one that bears the name of Jesus.

 

Image: font and nave of Salisbury Cathedral.  Peter Facey [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The right use of possessions

Watching for the morning of September 22

Year C

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 20 / Lectionary 25

Prophet Amos, old Russian Orthodox icon

Prophet Amos, old Russian Orthodox icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Luke’s description of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem follows a careful pattern echoing, in the second half of this section, themes from the first half.  So on Sunday we once again hear about possessions.

Amos speaks about the greed that pushes aside both the commands of God and the well-being of the poor.  The psalm rejoices in this God who reigns over all, but cares for the poor and needy.  Though the passage from 1 Timothy starts with social order – praying for the emperor – it wraps that prayer in the hymn about the radical and revolutionary generosity and selflessness of Jesus.  Finally we hear Jesus praise the corrupt manager (dishonest steward) because he understood what he should do with wealth in order to secure his salvation.

The Prayer for September 22, 2013

Almighty God,
you have shown yourself the defender of the poor
and protector of the weak.
Come to the aid of those in need,
and reveal to all the folly
of putting our hope and trust in wealth.
Grant us wisdom in dealing with our possessions
that we may receive from your hand life’s true riches

The Texts for September 22, 2013

First Reading: Amos 8:4-7
“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land.”
– The prophet Amos is sent to the northern kingdom of Israel to speak God’s word of judgment upon a people who have turned from God’s way and chosen wealth and privilege over the wellbeing of the poor.

Psalmody: Psalm 113
“He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap.” – God is praised for his sovereign rule over all creation and his care for the poor and vulnerable.

Second Reading: 1 Timothy 2:1-7
“There is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.”
– The letters to Timothy are penned by Paul or in his name as parting words of advice to his protégé, Timothy. Here Paul speaks about prayer for the governing authorities and God’s will to gather all people into the new reality that is Christ.

Gospel: Luke 16:1-13
“‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’” – A corrupt manager acts decisively in the face of his dismissal to save himself: a lesson for Jesus’ hearers on how they should handle their wealth/possessions.