“I kept that promise.”

File:Verso l'infinito - Convento Frati Cappuccini Monterosso al Mare - Cinque Terre.jpgSunday

It’s hard to describe what happened to me at the altar during the prayers of the church, yesterday. Typical Lutheran congregations don’t have a shared vocabulary for discussing personal spiritual experiences. Other communities of which I have been a part find it easier to say that God spoke to them. They know we are not talking about any kind of auditory experience, but a kind of intuition, a sense of some truth breaking into our consciousness.  A truth that comes from somewhere beyond us. Or deep within us.  Though it does seem almost audible at times.

It typically comes with the force of deep conviction. It carries a certainty, though we seldom think of it as if it were absolute. If the intuition doesn’t work out, we are willing to let it go. We misheard. Or it’s something whose truth is waiting its time.

Anyway, I had one of those moments in worship Sunday morning.  It came to me as if a voice, saying “I kept that promise.”

The reference is to the story of the synagogue ruler’s daughter, where Jesus comes in answer to the father’s prayer for her healing only to be met by the wail of mourners. On the way, the little girl had died.

It is that story with the words “Talitha cumi”, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

I have read that text in worship many times since I laid my daughter’s body in the ground. The text from Mark comes around in the assigned lectionary every three years, as does the account in Matthew, and we have been through the cycle five times, now. It is always bittersweet to give voice to those words before the congregation.  I recognize the message of the text. I understand the grace of Jesus’ work. I also know the parents’ grief. There has always been a certain kind of hole in my heart that Jesus wasn’t there to say those words to Anna on the night her life was taken.

It’s been 16 years. And, for some reason, this morning I was finally ready to hear Jesus whisper to me: “I kept that promise.”

He had spoken those words. Beyond my hearing, in ways far more profound than I can understand, he kept the promise. He spoke to Anna saying, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

I know it sounds like pie in the sky, a pious fiction, a denial of death’s dark realty.  And anytime in the last 16 years it would have sounded that way to me, too. I have fought fiercely – sometimes unfortunately fiercely – to be truthful about the reality of death. I resist all the pious platitudes about God’s plan and loved one’s in heaven. Death is death. It rips from our arms those we love. It rends the human community. It is an invader in God’s good creation. And even in those times when it comes as a relief after long suffering, it is still death, still a thief, a bandit, a terrorist, stealing life from the world – whether sucking it away slowly and snatching it away all at once.

The wonder of Easter is not that it minimizes death’s power. The wonder of Easter is that it proclaims that death is a pretender. It does not own our lives. It could not silence Jesus. It could not stop God’s redeeming work. There is a making whole of this rent world that awaits us. Somehow. Beyond our understanding. But real enough for us to trust. Real enough for us to live.

Why, today, I don’t know. It wasn’t our assigned reading. The text hasn’t been on my mind. I wasn’t experiencing a moment of grief – though the grief of Anna’s death is never all that far away. It wasn’t particularly related to the prayers being offered or the sermon I had just preached. But there it was. And today, for whatever reason, I was ready to hear: God was faithful. He spoke the words. He kept the promise.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Verso_l%27infinito_-_Convento_Frati_Cappuccini_Monterosso_al_Mare_-_Cinque_Terre.jpg By GIANFRANCO NEGRI (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Violence

File:Bouguereau-The First Mourning-1888.jpg

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

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

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

Genesis 4


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


File:Wechselburg Lettner detail 05.jpg

File:Wechselburg Lettner detail 04.jpg

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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


File:Serengeti Loewin2.jpg

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

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


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


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

File:Gera Abel.jpg

File:Bernau KainundAbel3.JPG

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


File:Agropyron repens on field after winter ploughing.JPG

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

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


“My punishment is greater than I can bear!”


File:Paris Tuileries Garden Facepalm statue.jpg

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

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


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


File:Esprit nomade.JPG

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


File:Migrant worker of china.jpg

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

File:Apa Schwerter.jpg

File:J2500x1661-05540.jpg

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


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


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


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


File:Fear of Terrorism.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


To Seth also a son was born


And then grandchild. Joy. Continuity.


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


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

+     +     +

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

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

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

Creation

File:A break in the clouds - Flickr - rachel thecat.jpg

25Then he [Jesus] said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. (Luke 24:25-27)

When Jesus walks with his followers on the road to Emmaus, he takes them back through the scripture to help them understand the fundamental witness of the Biblical writings. He is not proof-texting the resurrection, but opening their eyes to see that the fundamental narrative of the scripture concerns the sacrificial love of God – love that has its fulfillment in the cross and resurrection.

So the sermon series in which our parish has embarked has as its purpose not only to tell these pivotal stories in scripture, but to show how they bear witness to the God whose face we see in Christ.

As we developed this idea, our sanctuary arts people proposed placing a series of pictures in the sanctuary that related to the story of the day. That led to the production of a booklet that summarized the story and identified the pictures.

Here is the text of the booklet from week 1 on Genesis 1.  This Sunday we will talk about Genesis 2.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AA_break_in_the_clouds_-_Flickr_-_rachel_thecat.jpg By rachel_thecat (A break in the clouds) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Genesis 1:1-2:3


“A wind from God swept over the face of the waters”


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At the beginning of God’s creating, there is nothing but the breath of God hovering over a storm tossed sea.

And then God speaks.

It is God’s word that brings order, beauty and life. Before God’s word, apart from God’s speaking, there is neither order, beauty or life.

Speech is relational. It connects. It creates. It enlivens. For God to speak, means that God is relational. (When the author of 1 John writes that “God is love”, he is describing the kind of relationship God has with the world: God is faithful to us.)

Though our words can also create division and harm, God’s word creates community, goodness and life.

The Biblical account is set down in this form when Jerusalem has been destroyed and the leadership of the nation carried off into exile in Babylon. Those surviving peasants who hadn’t fled the war were left to farm the land. They posed no threat of resistance or rebellion. But the people of the city now inhabit the ancient equivalent of a refugee camp. They live in the aftermath of the chaos of war: grief, suffering, disease, dislocation. The temple and priesthood, symbols of God’s presence are destroyed. The sacrifices that were the means of grace and connection to God are lost to them. They are a people in the darkness of a storm-tossed sea.

But the Spirit of God is present.

And then God speaks.

North Pacific storm waves as seen from the M/V NOBLE STAR
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWea00816.jpg by NOAA (http://www.photolib.noaa.gov/bigs/wea00816.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“God called the dome Sky”


File:Milky Way over Devils Tower.jpg

God’s first act is to create light and to separate the light from the darkness.

The ancient world imagined darkness as a thing in itself, rather than the absence of light. So into the stuff of the world which is darkness God calls into being a new stuff: light.

And the light is good.

God gathers the light together so we can live in the light. There is now day and night.

Next God speaks into existence the dome of the sky. Imagine a glass bowl upside down in the bathtub: water all around, but a bubble of air under the dome. God has made a space in the midst of the primal, chaotic waters where goodness and life can happen.

A panoramic image of the Milky Way galaxy stretching across the sky over America’s first national monument, Devils Tower. 
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMilky_Way_over_Devils_Tower.jpg by NCBrown (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“Let the earth put forth vegetation”


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Now, God gathers the water together so that land appears. And the land is summoned to bring forth all the living, growing stuff we see.

The text calls these ‘days’ though there is yet no sun or moon or stars to mark the days and seasons. But the cycle of day and night suggests images of labor, God is working to call forth his world. And the language of days suggests time; God is building something that takes time. And time itself is moving towards its completion, towards Sabbath.


“Let there be lights in the dome of the sky”


On the fourth ‘day’ God calls forth the lights that span the dome of the heavens and appoints them “for signs and for seasons and for days and years.”

The ancient words for ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ were the names of gods. The lights in the sky were considered spirit beings, creatures of fire and light rather than earth, divine beings to be adored and called upon for help. But the Biblical author doesn’t call them ‘Sun’ or ‘Moon’; these are but lanterns in the sky, placed there by the word of God. We use them only to count days.

It is a startling claim for a people whose god has been crushed in battle by the (presumably) more powerful gods of Babylon. The Lord could not protect his own house, his temple. The Lord could not protect his household staff, his people. Yet here our writer proclaims that these powerful so-called gods of Babylon are no gods at all.

Flower of an Indian Lotus
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALotus_flower_(978659).jpg by Hong Zhang (jennyzhh2008) [CC0 or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

“ Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind”


File:A butterfly feeding on the tears of a turtle in Ecuador.jpg

Now God begins to summons forth the creatures of the earth. The waters proliferate with creatures and birds fill the skies. It is good. And God utters a blessing: “Be fruitful and multiply.”

God will also speak this blessing over humans. They are among the living creatures. They are not creatures of the air. They are not spirit beings. They are part of the good world God calls forth in all its wondrous diversity.

The fish and birds are called into existence on the fifth ‘day’, creatures of the land and humans on the sixth day.

We are creatures. We are one with the creation and yet the crown of creation. The care of the earth is entrusted into our hands. We are blessed as the creatures are blessed. But we are also charged to exercise “dominion”, governance, stewardship, lordship. And the model of true lordship is not one of control and domination, but the God who provides and cares, and the lord who lays down his life for the sheep. St. Francis is correct when he speaks of the creatures of the world as our sisters and brothers.   The world is to be tended not plundered.

Two Julia Butterflies (Dryas iulia) drinking the tears of turtles (Podocnemis expansa?) in Ecuador. Turtles bask on a log as the butterflies sip from their eyes. This “tear-feeding” is a phenomenon known as lachryphagy.  
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AA_butterfly_feeding_on_the_tears_of_a_turtle_in_Ecuador.jpg amalavida.tv [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“In the image of God he created them”


File:Heavens Above Her.jpg

The word ‘image’ in the ancient Greek translation of Genesis comes into English as ‘icon’. An icon was an image that represented the presence of another – like the United States planting a flag on Iwo Jima to represent the authority and presence of the nation. Humans represent the presence of God. Or, at least, we are supposed to so represent. We are the agents and signs of God’s presence, the agents and signs of God’s care, the agents and sign of God’s love. Or at least, again, this was God’s intention. This is our calling. This is our true identity.

Perhaps the ancients thought we shared the same physical appearance as God. But the truth is we have no other language or imagery to talk about a loving, speaking being.

These humans are given fruit to eat. And the grazing animals grass. In the beginning we did not yet kill and eat each other. It’s why the prophets say that in the end, when God’s creation is finally restored, the lion can lie down with the lamb.

Milky Way lying above a lady’s silhouette, at Trona Pinnacles National Landmark, California.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHeavens_Above_Her.jpg by Ian Norman (http://www.lonelyspeck.com) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Sabbath Rest

“On the seventh day God finished the work that he had done.”


File:Paints of sunrise on Langtang National Park.jpg

So now we come to the final day, the consummate day, the goal toward which all things move: Sabbath. Rest. Completion. Perfection. Shalom. Peace. Wholeness. Harmony. This ‘day’ is holy, sacred, radiant with the divine. Jesus will call it “the reign of God.” St. John the Divine will call it the “New Jerusalem”.

The world is not complete in six days. It is complete with Sabbath.

And Jesus will declare that the reign of God is at hand, so it makes perfect sense for him to heal on the Sabbath. He is not working, doctoring; he is bringing that final Sabbath when all things are made new.

The Spirit of God that hovered over the face of the deep now breathes in all people. The promise of Joel is fulfilled (Joel 2:28-29). Pentecost has come (Acts 2). The Torah is written on every heart (Jeremiah 31:31). The heavenly banquet is begun (Isaiah 25:6-8). Swords are beaten into plowshares (Micah 4:1-3) and the lion eats straw like the ox (Isaiah 65:17-25).

It is all “very good.”

View from mountain pass Laurebina-la
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APaints_of_sunrise_on_Langtang_National_Park.jpg  by Q-lieb-in (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
 © Text by David K. Bonde, Los Altos Lutheran Church, 2017

An unending jar of mercy

File:ElijahByLouisHersent.JPG

Thursday

1 Kings 17:17-24

18“What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”

Some translations at least make it a question: “Have you come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son?!” Of course, others put it more bluntly, “that you should kill my son?”

It’s a remarkable turn for this woman, the widow of Zarephath, who has been sustained through the brutal drought and famine by the prophet’s promise that her jar of meal and of oil would not fail until the rains return. One moment she is the beneficiary of a wondrous divine mercy and now accuses God of petty vindictiveness. None of us are without sins, and the hazard of taking in a holy man, is that he draws the eye of God – and what may have once passed by in obscurity, is now revealed to the royal master. And he is swift to punish. Or so she thinks.

It is sad that she has not learned from God’s mercy that God is merciful.

I understand the fear that seizes her when her son stops breathing. I know these thoughts come. I know they blurt out in our frightful anxiety. But still, everything she has known about the God of Israel is generosity and compassion.

I have had these conversations, in the hospital, at a bedside, in grief. Years and years of worship, years and years of the word of grace and the feast at God’s holy table, yet in fear comes the question, “Why is God doing this?” “What did I do to deserve this?”

We do not learn well. God is not robbing us of life’s goodness; he brings true goodness. He brings true life. God heals. God delivers. God forgives. God rescues. God transforms. God brings new birth. God brings his kingdom. God brings the Spirit. God brings the New Jerusalem. God opens the grave.

And so now, when my child lies breathless, my cry is not about guilt and shame. My prayer is for mercy, yes. My plea is desperate, yes. But my cry is for God to show God’s goodness because I know God is good. Like the widow, I want my child to live, I will cry out for my child to live – but I know God will bring goodness, even if the price is tears.

There are things that happen because of choices I have made. I endure those as best I can. And there are things that happen because of choices the world around me makes. And I endure those as best I can. And there are things that just happen. I praise God for the times I am protected. And I look for God’s goodness in those things I suffer. For I know that the God who provides our daily bread from his unending jar of meal is the bringer of a true and imperishable life.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AElijahByLouisHersent.JPG by Louis Hersent [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

How majestic

File:Natural bridge in Bryce Canyon.jpg

For Wednesday

Psalm 8

9O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

God’s name is more than the four letters known as the Tetragrammaton, the four consonantal letters that are the name of God recorded as ‘LORD’ in most translations. God’s name is his history, his deeds, his words. Just as “making a name for oneself” is more than fame – it is ‘made’ by one’s accomplishments.

Frank Lloyd Wright made a name for himself with a few houses and buildings – exquisite works of genius – but still, rather limited in scope.* God formed the Tetons and the Snake River beneath it. God formed the glories of Bryce Canyon and the giant redwoods. God formed the Andes and the Amazon basin. God formed Victoria Falls and the islands of the Pacific.

God formed the majestic blue whale and the strange creatures of the deep. God formed the flocks of storks migrating between Europe and Southern Africa, and the bar-headed goose fighting its way over the Himalayas. God formed the roly-poly bugs and the lizards darting to and fro. God formed the chipmunk and the eagle, the salmon and the bison, the crocodile and the hippo, the rhinoceros and the tiger. God formed the honeybee and the monarch butterfly in its epic journey. God formed the Narwhal and the Great White. God formed the exquisite marlin and the jerboa; the beaver and the platypus; the mountain gorilla … and all this is just our one moment in time. We haven’t spoken of the wondrous creatures of the fossil record or the rise and fall of mountains and seas and the continents that came together and drifted apart.   And all this on one small planet near a small star on the fringes of a galaxy in the vast canopy of the heavens.

God’s name is majestic because God’s work is majestic – not just the work of creation but the work of freeing a people from bondage, teaching them justice and mercy, calling forth prophets, raising and casting down nations, suffering the sorrows of the world, and summoning the world to compassion and truth.

God’s name is majestic because God’s work is majestic: bending to take flesh, healing the sick, gathering outcasts, raising the dead, laying down his life to reconcile his rebellious world to himself.

God’s name is majestic because God’s work is majestic: pouring out God’s spirit, inspiring healers and reformers, researchers and leaders, builders and artists, singers and soldiers, all the plethora of ways we are able to serve one another and grant beauty and joy to the world.

God’s name is majestic because God’s work is majestic: inspiring the laughter of children, the ecstasy of lovers, the bonds of parent and child,

God’s name is majestic because God’s work is majestic: inspiring the prayer of the mystics and the charity of the saints and the courage of the martyrs.

God’s name is majestic because God’s work is majestic.   God’s love is majestic. God’s faithfulness to his wayward world is majestic.

9O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

*Note: Yes, Frank LLoyd Wright designed over a thousand building and did many other things – but still, compared to the heavens and the earth…
The photograph is in the public domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Natural_bridge_in_Bryce_Canyon.jpg

“In the shadow of your wings”

File:Love takes many forms. -penguins (14893159952).jpg

Saturday

Psalm 36:5-10

7How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.

I don’t know why our translator chooses the subjunctive to describe what might be. I don’t see it in the Hebrew, and other translations do not do so. It is a simple statement: “All people take refuge in the shadow of your wings.”

Perhaps our translator wanted to convey that the arms of God are big enough to embrace us all. And yes, the psalmist is not suggesting as a fact that all people do take refuge in God. He has begun this psalm with an excoriating review of the wicked who “flatter themselves in their own eyes” and think “their iniquity cannot be found out.” But once the author has begun to sing of God’s faithfulness, he can use only superlatives:

5 Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
6 Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
your judgments are like the great deep;
you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.

The wicked become little more than a foil against which to compare the majesty of God’s faithfulness.

So, yes, all people may take refuge in God – but, in fact, we all do. Whether we recognize it or not, whether we trust it or not, we live and move and have our being in the steadfast love of God who sends rain on the just and the unjust. But those with eyes to see recognize a world radiant with love, rather than a world contesting for table scraps. And we find both comfort and joy in the shelter of such wings.

 

Photo: Christopher Michel [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/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

One Child

Sunday Evening

I needed worship today. I needed to sing the hymns and hear the prayers and feel the presence of the community.   Maybe that’s why I had such a hard time finding the sermon. (“Finding” the sermon is my description of my process of studying and listening to the text to discern what it has to say to us on this occasion. I could always talk about the text, what’s going on in the story, the social context of the narrative, the structure of the narrative, etc, but worship isn’t Bible study. We aren’t there to learn about the text. We are there to hear the text, to let it speak to us, to let it draw us deeper into Christ, to let it shape our worship, to let it shape our lives. Sometimes we have to learn about the text in order to hear it, but the point is to hear God speaking to us through it.)

But I had trouble finding the sermon this week. When I rose to read the Gospel this morning I still hadn’t found it. When this happens to me I find that I need to come down and stand in the aisle. I need to get close to the gathered community. It helps, sometimes, to see real faces. Especially when I don’t know what I’m going to say. But, as I began to speak, I realized the problem was that this had been a very intense and personal week, but the texts were cosmic in scope. This was the feast of Christ the King. We read Daniel about the coming reign of God. We said a psalm about the kingship of God. The second reading from the opening chapter of Revelation spoke about Christ coming on the clouds. And our Gospel had Jesus before Pilate declaring his kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world.

But this wasn’t a week in which we were thinking about the grand sweep of history. This was a week in which a boy in our parish had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and rushed into surgery. He posted the brain scan on his Instagram account with the simple words “I have a brain tumor.” It scared the wits out of every adult in the parish.

Nations have been warring this week, and politicians spouting. But this had not been a week in which the nations and the consummation of human history mattered to me. What mattered was one child, one family, one desperate prayer for grace and healing. It has been a week of great international tragedies and fears, but our fear was for one boy.

It was only as I began to speak to the congregation that I found the message of the text for us. Fear is fear. Whether it is fainting with fear at what is coming on the world, or fainting before a very personal fear, fear is fear. And the message that God is God speaks to every fear. History is in God’s hands. And we are in God’s hands. And this child is in God’s hands. To our fear comes the promise that our world – and our lives – are God’s.

Jesus tells Pilate he comes as witness to the truth. The Greek version of the scriptures that was used by the nascent Christian community routinely translates the Hebrew references to the faithfulness of God with the Greek word ‘truth’. Truth is personal in the scriptures. Truth is not doctrine or propositions but the steadfastness, the faithfulness, the firmness of God. He is truth. Jesus is a witness to God’s faithfulness.

So whether our fear is at the roaring of the seas, the warring of the nations, or the very personal crises we face, God is faithful. He reigns. Not like the nations of the world. He reigns in love. And his reign is everlasting.

Let us hold fast

Saturday

Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25

Ryssby Church 223Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

There are too many bodies in the streets of Paris. Too many bodies in the towns and cities of Syria. Too many bodies in the streets of Iraq.

There are too many hungry children, too many infected with curable diseases, too many without clean water.

There are too many who live in fear, too many who face violence, too many imprisoned by hate.

There are too many.

We should be better than this. That’s part of it. We should be better than this. Our most fundamental humanity is the ability to love, to share, to laugh, to sing, to dance, to break bread together. To form bonds of friendship and fidelity. To show compassion. To help, to heal, to teach. To pray. To touch and be touched by what is holy and beautiful and good.

“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering,” writes the author of Hebrews, “for he who has promised is faithful.”

Let us hold fast. When bodies lie on the ground, let us hold fast. When fear runs rampant, let us hold fast. When anger stirs towards vengeance, let us hold fast. When outrage turns towards hate, let us hold fast.

For he who has promised is faithful. God is faithful. God has promised. God has born witness to the world he creates – a world of life not death, of mercy not revenge, of truth not falsehood, of love not hate. God is faithful to that promise. Let us hold fast.

“And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” Let us consider how to call one another into this world God creates. Let us consider how to prod one another to do the right thing, to be the right thing. Let us consider how to encourage one another to generosity, to compassion, to kindness, to care and to truth. Let us consider. Let us provoke.

And let us not neglect “to meet together, as is the habit of some.” For it is in meeting together, in seeing faces, in shaking hands, in sharing prayers, in singing praise, in breaking bread, in hearing the Word, that we are held fast in him who is the world’s true life.

I have also written a reflection on Paris, Jesus, violence, and the human heart entitled “With twelve baskets left over” at Jacob LimpingAnd I am part of those who meet together at Los Altos Lutheran Church. You are welcome to join us in body or spirit.

 

Photocredit:dkbonde

Life even in death

File:Voronet murals 2010 64.jpg

Friday

Psalm 91

11For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.

In the account of the temptation of Jesus in Matthew and Luke the devil uses this text to deflect Jesus from his path. The temptation is simple enough: “God has given a promise; test it to be sure. Why would you dare walk into the future without knowing for sure that God will catch you?” But Jesus’ asks for no proof of God’s faithfulness. He knows it. He trusts it.

It is a wonderful psalm, rich in faith

1You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
2will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”

and rich with promise of God’s protecting hand.

5You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
6or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
7A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.

A colleague and friend of mine read this to her dying husband – also a colleague and friend. He was the victim of a medical mistake. A stupid, senseless mistake.

He should have come home from the hospital. He should have rejoined our text study. He should have stood again at the altar to celebrate the wondrous gifts of God. He should have proclaimed to us again the faithfulness and mercy of God. But he did not. Instead he lay perishing in the hospital as his wife read these words: “You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.”

It was the psalm for which he asked.

He saw no contradiction between the promise of the text and the reality of his suffering. He saw the promise as something so much larger than a promise of physical protection that these words were only comfort. He heard in the psalm the assurance “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The devil hears none of this in the text. He sees only a promise God cannot possibly keep. Life is full of tragedy and woe. We are driven by our fears and sins. Sometimes we harm ourselves. Sometimes we harm others. Sometimes it’s the simple mistake of a nurse’s aid. Sometimes we live. Sometimes we die. Sometimes we live wounded. Life is random. God’s promise of protection is silly in the devil’s ears.

But those who know the goodness of God hear nothing silly. They hear boundless love. They hear faithfulness despite our unfaithfulness. They hear strength greater than our weakness, mercy greater than our imagining, forgiveness beyond limit. They hear life even in death.

 

Image from the Murals of the Voroneţ Monastery, Romania. Photo: By Man vyi (own photo) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons