Who is God?

File:Humanitarian aid OCPA-2005-10-28-090517a.jpg

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

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Before the mystery of life

first-lutheran-sanctuary

Sunday Evening

Matthew 4:12-23

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

I sat alone in worship this morning. I am staying with my father this week following the death of my stepmother. A marriage of nearly 61 years. He wasn’t up to worship.

But I could go. No one here would really recognize me. There would be none of the gestures of sympathy that create awkwardness to those who are trying to keep control of their emotions. But emotions there are. I buried my grandfather from this church years ago. I know where I sat that day. I remember my young cousin sitting on my lap in the car as we rode away from the church in what seemed like darkness, though it couldn’t have been. I buried that same cousin from here not too long ago.

We buried my grandmother from here. More recently we have buried my uncle, the father of that cousin who sat tearfully in my arms as we left my grandfather’s funeral. Maybe what I remember is the funeral home. That would explain the darkness.

Whatever the case, this space has been associated with too much grief of late. I was baptized here before I can remember, but I was a participant in none of those other joyous occasions when children were brought to be baptized or weddings might have been celebrated. So it’s just memories of where Farmor sat and where I have sat with my father and stepmother on the occasional Sunday while visiting.

The night she died, Gloria asked me to do her service. If today was any indication, it won’t be easy. Tears floated in my eyes making it hard to see the hymnal, let alone sing. The sermon was kind. I was grateful to be at the table. But after, in the silence back in the pew, I could feel the sorrow welling up. So I ducked out before the benediction to avoid the crowd of friendly people eager to make me feel welcome at their church.

Only it is also my church, in a way. And the day is coming when we will set Gloria’s ashes on the table near the rail and try to honor her memory and somehow find our way through the complicated realities of an extended family that tends to see church as a cultural thing, not the promise and presence of that power at the heart of the universe that is the source and goal of life and the font and perfection of love.

first-lutheran-sanctuary-windows-2It would be nice if we could just say the ancient words and all be carried along by their familiar comfort. But they aren’t familiar to us anymore. And they are tainted by the negative perceptions of all religion as partisan and judgmental and even hateful and violent, despite the fact that Jesus was not the founder or reformer of religion but its victim.

Yet in him was the face of the eternal. In him was courage and truth and mercy and life. In him was the balm for our sorrows and the summons to live as his hands and heart in the world. In him is a life that will not perish.

Hymns and traditions and rituals have grown up around Jesus’ words and deeds, but the hymns and traditions are not the point; they are meant to help us hear and see him, meant to connect us to the Spirit that was in him, meant to empower us to live the strength and compassion and grace that was in him, meant to embrace us in our sorrows and stand together before the mystery of life with hope.

Photos by dkbonde

With the Holy Spirit and fire:

The promise of the Spirit

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Watching for the Morning of December 4, 2016

Year A

The Second Sunday of Advent

As always, the second Sunday in Advent takes us to the Jordan River and the fiery preaching of John the Baptist. He is the wild man, the challenger of the social order, the prophet who walks away from life in the land and calls the nation out into the wilderness. “We must begin again,” he says. “We must start over from the beginning when God first led us from the wilderness through the Jordan into the Promised Land.” “Repent,” he says, “choose again the God of the exodus and Sinai, the God who gives manna in the wilderness and calls us to lives of justice and mercy.” The urgency of that call is shaped by the promise that the long awaited one is near, the one who is greater, whose sandals he is not worthy to touch, who washes us in the Spirit and fire.

Is it the fire of judgment or the fire of passion? Is it the fire that rained down destruction on wicked Sodom and corrupt Gomorrah or is it the fire of God’s presence as at Sinai? Is this thunderbolts or the fire and Spirit of Pentecost? The sound of the ax can be heard. The old order, the fruitless tree, is coming down. Now is the time for allegiance. Now is the time for fidelity. Now is the time for all the world to be aflood with the Spirit.

The fiery preaching of John awaits us on Sunday – but now it is wrapped in blue. It is folded into the season of hope. The coming of the Spirit is not threat but gift, filled with the promise of a world under new management, a world governed by the breath of God, a world we have seen in the mercy of Jesus and the end of death’s dominion.

And so, on Sunday, we will hear the promise of a shoot from the stump of Jesse. The fallen royal line, named from David’s father, shall bloom again. The Spirit will be upon him and, under his reign, “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

We will hear Paul pray that “the God of hope” may fill the Christian community in Rome “with all joy and peace in believing,” so that they may “abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit”

And we will recognize in John the Baptizer the one promised in Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”

And we will await the fire.

The Prayer for December 4, 2016

Gracious God, who called forth the first morning of the world
and brings all things to their final end when all night is vanquished,
make us ever mindful of our journey homeward
and wash us in the fire of your Spirit,
that the reign of Christ might dawn among us;
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 December 4, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
– like new growth from the stump of a felled tree, a new king shall arise from the fallen line of David, a king filled with the Spirit of God, who will govern in righteousness and bring all creation to peace.

Psalmody: Luke 1:68-79 (The Benedictus)
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” – In place of the appointed Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, we sing the song of Zechariah, sung at the birth of his son, John, whom we know as John the Baptist, praising God and predicting his role as the one who “will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.

Second Reading: Romans 15:4-13
“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” –
Speaking to that fundamental divide between observant Judeans and those who had become thoroughly enmeshed in the culture of the Greek world, between ‘Jew’ and ‘Gentile’, Paul calls for the believers to live the reconciliation that has occurred in Christ, giving multiple examples from the Scriptures in support of God’s mission to gather all nations.

Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
– John comes as a prophet of old, heralding the dawning of God’s reign and calling all people to ‘repent’, to turn and show allegiance to God.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGalunggung.jpg By R. Hadian, U.S. Geological Survey (image from NOAA website) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

He did not despise

Friday

Psalm 22:1, 16-28

File:Peter Paul Rubens The Three Crosses.jpg24 For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted.

There is a deep underlying tension between our human religiousness and the God of the exodus and Calvary. Our religious impulse is towards what is pure and perfect. Temples and cathedrals of every land are works of extraordinary beauty. We set rules for who is worthy to enter, who is considered pure enough, sacred enough, to come into the presence of the divine.

Every culture needs its rules of purity. They create a measure of social cohesion and identity. They define boundaries. They give a measure of order to the world.

We eat turkeys but not vultures (who feed on the dead) or eagles (who symbolize the nation). Fish eat worms. We eat fish. It is the order of things. (It is what made Chinatown so interesting to me as a child, for there were things hanging in the market windows I never saw in my town’s grocery.)

Fish are “clean” (when they have been cleaned) and worms are “dirty” and belong in the dirt. And what is true of everyday things is true especially of religious things. As children we took baths every Saturday night and wore our “Sunday best” to church.

We have an attraction, as human beings, to what is perfect and pure. An ice skater is “pure grace”. A runner “pure speed”. We exult in the “perfect game”. We are drawn to the beautiful, the pure, the innocent, the brilliant, the exceptional. We turn away from what is corrupt, ignoble, defeated. And we think the heavens must think as we think.

But what, then, shall we do with Jesus? He started so well and ended in such disgrace: bloody, broken, stripped, shamed, mocked, despised. Ugly. Unholy. Defeated. Defiled.

He doesn’t match our human religious impulse. The only way we can hold on to him is by transforming the cross into an act of heroic courage or stripping the body from the cross and focusing on resurrection – ultimate victory!

But it was the crucified who was raised. The shamed who was honored. The debased who was exalted. We see him now through the radiance of the resurrection and the glory of Easter, but on that Friday when the disciples fled, God “did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted.”

Jesus embodied this truth of God. He did not despise the leper he touched and healed. He did not despise the bleeding woman who touched him through the crowd. He did not despise the despised woman at the well. He did not despise Matthew, the tax collector or Simon, the Pharisee. He did not despise the widow’s dead son. He did not despise the thief on the cross. He did not despise his disciples who denied him.

Our human religious impulse clashes with this God of slaves and the crucified. But in the day of our need, we find a life-saving mercy. He does not “despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted.” He does not despise the sick or the lost. He does not despise the broken or the bitter. He does not despise the saint or the sinner.

Our hearts may be turned to love what is pure and holy, but the heart of God is turned to love us. And hopefully, we will learn to follow the command to love as he loves.

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For other reflections on the texts for this Sunday from this and previous years, follow this link Lectionary C 12, or Proper C 7

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APeter_Paul_Rubens_The_Three_Crosses.jpg  by Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“When a foreigner comes”

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Wednesday

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43

42When a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, 43then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name.

If you are cynical, you will hear Solomon praying that his temple might be the greatest on earth – and his god the most renowned. And maybe that’s all that Solomon had in mind – or all that the author who composed Solomon’s prayer imagined. But there is a seed, here, a deep and profound seed, that will grow into Christ gathering all nations into the peace of God.

This happens often in life where a chance word is later seen to have much deeper truth lying within. It’s why psychologists and psychiatrists pay attention to random associations. It’s why we catch a spouse or a friend saying, “See, that’s what you really mean.” It’s why a song I wrote the week before my wedding seemed to portend things I didn’t consciously understand until the marriage dissolved. It turns out I did know what I was getting into; I just didn’t know I knew.

So even if Solomon’s noble prayer is shallow with self-interest – the depths are there. And scripture can’t escape them. God is the God of all. Not just Israel. Not just the church. Not just the believing. Not just any subset of humanity. God hears the prayers of all.

Of course, the other shallow water to be avoided is the notion that it doesn’t really matter what you call God because there is only one God of all. But it does matter what you call God, because what you say of God shapes our encounter with God. So Solomon doesn’t pray to a nameless divine power, but to the God whose name is LORD, who walked with Abraham promising to bring blessing to the world. This God named LORD wrestled with Jacob and inspired Joseph and called Moses to lead a people out from bondage. This God named LORD spoke laws that may seem archaic to us, but were radical justice and mercy in their day (and still today for those with ears). This God named LORD raised up prophets and a king named David who sought a world at peace and planned for a temple where all came to pray and rejoice.

And we can look at it all and imagine it self-serving, but the words remain and their depths emerge and the prophets push the insight further, and then a child is born who is called Son of David and Son of God who pushes the boundaries yet further, gathering the outcast and the foreigners. And God vindicates this Son of David, reversing his death sentence, and his Spirit flows out upon his followers and they are baptizing Samaritans and an Ethiopian Eunuch and Gentiles, beginning with a Centurion named Cornelius. Paul takes the Gospel to the center of the Mediterranean world – embodying the commission to make students to Jesus of all nations.

And we still fight, in our frail and unredeemed humanity, about who should be allowed in and kept out, but the truth is that whether Solomon realizes it or not, he is praying that God will hear every prayer and all the earth will sing God’s praise. We build walls, but God builds an altar where all may be fed – and a holy city where the light never fails. And again and again God bids us all come to pray and to learn and to feast at God’s table.

 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKing-Solomon-Russian-icon.jpg By 18 century icon painter (Iconostasis of Kizhi monastery, Russia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Who are we?

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Thursday

Psalm 8

4What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
5Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,

The psalmist stands before the majesty and wonder of the world and asks the question, “Who are we, that you should show such care for us? Who are we that you should crown us with glory? Who are we that you should entrust all this into our hands, that you should grant us the honor of exercising your care of your creation?”

The poet is exulting in the wonder of human existence. We are the ones who get to peer into the farthest reaches of the universe. We are the ones who get to climb earth’s highest mountains and plumb its greatest depths. We are the ones who get to study the mysteries of DNA and the flight of the bumblebee. We are the ones who can breed wolves into sheep dogs and retrievers and fluffy little white things to sit in our laps. We are the ones who train a grape vine to grow on a trellis and dance with the joy of wine. We are the ones to take cows milk and turn it into Gruyere and Gorgonzola. We are the ones who master fire and the atom. We paint the Sistine Chapel and the murals of Diego Rivera. We are the ones who turn mold into penicillin and learn to purify water.

Yet you have made us but a little lower than gods!

But we are not gods. If only we could get that right. We are not gods. We were given the privilege of exercising God’s care of the earth. It is ours to tend, not ours to rape and pillage. It is ours to treasure not to plunder. We were given the animals to name not to slaughter. We were given one another to love not to wound and kill.

We are privileged above all other creatures. But we lose our way when we lose wonder and praise…when we turn from the one who made us…when we forget all this is a trust…when we reach for God’s throne…when we forget who we are.

 

image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMount-Yamnuska2-Szmurlo.jpg by Chuck Szmurlo [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Singing harmony

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Wednesday

Psalm 148

3Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars!

I switched my major from Math to Medieval Studies my second year in college, much to the surprise and bewilderment of parents who wondered how I was going to earn a living with that! But I was enamored with the medieval vision of the harmony of the spheres. (I also needed to fulfill a language requirement and German wasn’t working for me. Fortunately Latin did: it was a math problem on paper rather than a conversational challenge. My eyes are better than my ears.)

The medieval world imagined the skies as a series of concentric spheres, crystal clear, in which were embedded the planets and stars. As they rotated around the earth they sang like a finger on crystal wine glasses, and together lifted up a song of rich and wondrous harmony. Amidst the cacophony of the world and the grief of my brother’s death, such harmony was alluring.

It still is.

I joined the church choir because I have always wanted to learn to sing in harmony. It’s work for me. Fortunately our music director is gracious and patient. But every now and then I get it and it’s wonderful.

I watched a bit of a nature show on PBS last evening. Nature is pretty brutal up close. A crow ate all the eggs of the sage grouse the filmmaker followed. And there was a pretty graphic but amazing shot of a small eaglet working to wolf down a whole ground squirrel. It may not be exactly a dog-eat-dog world but it is an everybody-eats-somebody world. Ruthless even in its beauty.

But there is this vision in our psalm of a world singing in harmony. There is this Biblical vision of a world conceived in love and established as a garden – a world that got broken but will be remade, renewed, redeemed. This is the culminating vision in the Book of Revelation: Out of the world’s chaos and terrors will be born a Jerusalem in which the light never fails and the gates are never shut. It is the world of the empty tomb, and the word of grace, and the shared table, and the holy bath, and the Spirit of God poured into every heart, and the eternal song of joy – a song our eternal choir director, long-suffering and patient, never gives up trying to teach us.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASavault_Chapel_Under_Milky_Way_BLS.jpg  By Benh LIEU SONG (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The LORD reigns

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Wednesday

Psalm 99

1The LORD is king;
let the peoples tremble!

I’m not sure why some translators render this line as “The LORD is king” while others as “The LORD reigns.” I do not know whether there is some evidence for that decision or it is purely a stylistic choice. The Hebrew text is pointed as a verb, though that pointing was added centuries later.

I prefer the translation “The LORD reigns.” That God is king seems like a static notion. I do not much care who sits on the throne; I care very much indeed who is doing the governing.

It is important to declare that God is king. The world’s turmoil and trouble seems rooted in the notion that we are the masters of the world – a notion that leaves many bodies in the earth and few fish in the sea. If we were mindful that God is king we might act with a little more humility, a little less warring, a little more care of the neighbor and care of the earth.

But, as I said, sitting in the White House is one thing; running the country is something else.

I need to hear that God is actually reigning. I need to hear it proclaimed to me that we are not living in a lawless and godforsaken fringe of the empire. I need the voice of God in the scriptures to declare that there is some accountability happening in this world for those who murder young girls or shoot up a holiday party. I need to be assured that the breath of God is blowing through our affairs to frustrate the plans of the wicked and stir up the compassion of the righteous.

I need the promise that God will reign in me.

I know the psalm has its origin in some great public liturgy where God is acclaimed as king in Israel. But the psalm is also now word of God. It is now not just praise but proclamation. It is a word for us that God does indeed reign.

 

Image: Chora church in Istanbul.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChora_Christ_south_coupole.jpg.  By No machine-readable author provided. Neuceu assumed (based on copyright claims). [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

Bringing us home

Saturday

Isaiah 43:1-7

File:Heading Home, Yemen (9702169604).jpg6“Bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth.”

I can’t hear that voice without thinking about my daughter Anna. She was killed nearly 15 years ago. It is hard to imagine it has been so long. She is still and will ever be the bright, talented, compassionate, deeply spiritual young woman of 19 that she was the day a driver under the influence robbed the world of her life and the life of her friends.

The prophet is thinking about the Israelites scattered by war throughout the region of the Middle East. But I know there are more exiles than those in Babylon. There are more that are far from home than the children of the diaspora.

War is brutal in its impact upon the social fabric. The ties that bind family and community to a place and to one another are shredded. Hopes and beliefs are destroyed along with fields and buildings. Sons and daughters are lost. Fear and sorrow replace joy and trust. That sense of home and belonging perishes.

But it is not only war that separates us from one another, not only marching armies that decimates community. The modern world has made many rootless as they are moved from place to place. Divorce rends the ties of friendship and family. Poverty decimates neighborhoods and cities. Death and disease tear hearts and homes. Even our busyness separates us from one another, providing the illusion of a meaningful life but too often absent its real joys. We form new ties, build new lives, but we are scattered children and exiles. We have lost both village and faith that locates us in the world.

To a world in which it is possible to be homeless literally and spiritually, God speaks:

6I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth–
7everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”

God is in the business of reconciliation, of gathering the scattered, of restoring the broken, of uniting the separated. God is in the business of ending our exile and bringing us home.

 

Photograph: By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia (Heading Home, Yemen) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Fear not

File:Ikona na Arhangel Gavril vo Sv. Blagoveštenie Prilepsko.jpg

Friday

Isaiah 43:1-7

5Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.

We are not worthy of this. But this is about God, not us. God is faithful to his promise. However far we may wander. However great our destruction. However profound our exile. God remains faithful to us. It is the character of God.

(I looked at this paragraph for three days and decided there was nothing more to add.  Peace to you.)

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AIkona_na_Arhangel_Gavril_vo_Sv._Blagove%C5%A1tenie_Prilepsko.jpg.   Public domain via Wikimedia Commons