With what shall I come?

File:Offering to the Ganges, Varanasi.jpg

Friday

Micah 6:1-8

6“With what shall I come before the Lord?”

In the student union every Friday during my senior year in college, the students from the botany department sold flowers from their greenhouse. This was significant because I attended school in Minnesota where the snows lasted from Thanksgiving to April. For the price of a soda I could get one sweetheart rose to take to my girlfriend. I enjoyed giving the gift; it was sincere, not mercenary. But we all understand that arriving with a gift, however small, makes the other more favorably inclined to you.

And so the prophet asks: “With what shall I come before the Lord?” What gift will make God favorably inclined to us? What gift will generate a smile as you stand knocking at the door?

Even people who are not religious will cry out to God in times of great distress. Promises get made. We offer ourselves to save our children. I have heard the prayers that promise to go back to church or to make some sacrifice. I understand. It is an almost instinctual cry, as if God could be bought by some favor.

So the prophet poses our question: “With what shall I come before the Lord?” What will make God inclined to hear my prayer? To grant my request? But it doesn’t work that way. God isn’t interested in purchasing our trust and fidelity as if we were mercenaries. Jesus said that God sends rain on the just and the unjust.” The mercies of God are open to all.

Standing with a rose at the door of my girlfriend’s place wasn’t an attempt to barter for favor. It was a gift to please, a gift that shows she matters to me, a gift spontaneously given because I want her to be happy. And what is the gift that pleases God? Is it our church attendance? Is it our donations? Is it our volunteering? The answer, consistently, throughout scripture is that it is not our sacrifices.

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

No, the answer is always about lives of compassion and faithfulness to the human community. We see it in our psalm this Sunday. And we hear it from the prophet:

8He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Justice and mercy will not make God concede to our prayers, but it does make the heart of the universe smile.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AOffering_to_the_Ganges%2C_Varanasi.jpg By J Duval ([1]  Uploaded by Ekabhishek) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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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

Blessings

File:Harvest (13429504924).jpg

Saturday

Psalm 67

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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.

Scandal and praise

Watching for the Morning of September 6, 2015

Year B

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 18 / Lectionary 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prayer for September 6, 2015

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

The Texts for September 6, 2015

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

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

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

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

 

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

The royal table

Saturday

Psalm 23

File:Cava (5303223614).jpg5Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.

The wine flows freely at God’s banquet.

And it is good wine.

The poet switches metaphors in the middle of his psalm, but both are royal images: God as shepherd and God as banquet host. They are themes that weave throughout the scriptures going back to the exodus when God led the people out from slavery and provided them food in the wilderness.

The leaders of the nation are condemned through the prophets because they feed off the people rather than protect and provide for them.

2Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. (Ezekiel 34:2-3)

And in the face of such worthless shepherds God promises both that God will raise up a righteous shepherd and that God himself will be our shepherd. Promises that get woven together in Christ who declares: “I am the good shepherd.”

The message of Jesus was that the reign of God was at hand, and in him we see and hear that reign. The sick are healed. The outcasts are gathered in. Sins are forgiven. Grace abounds. All are fed at God’s bounteous table. Five thousand from five small “loaves” (it’s hard to call a flat bread the size of your hand a “loaf”) and two small dried fish – with twelve baskets left over. Water is turned to overflowing wine, wine strained clear.

It is what the prophet declared:

6On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make
for all peoples
a feast of rich food,
a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow,
of well-aged wines strained clear.
7And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
8Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 25:6-8)

And we hear it in the Gospel this Sunday: “He had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things…”

He began to teach them, because it is not just about bread; it is about joy and deliverance and the way of being human. It is about living the compassion of God. It is about forgiving one another and loving our neighbor and having the burden of humanity’s shame lifted away. We who are all created in the image of God have lived war and greed and cruelty. We have ben Cain rising against Abel. We have been Abraham protecting himself rather than his hosts. We have been Sodom and Gomorrah, abusing others in our power. We have been Job’s self-righteous friends. We have been Jonah fleeing from our mission. We have been the man building bigger barns rather than sharing God’s bounty. We have been Peter denying. And this incomprehensible burden of shame, our dishonoring of God, has been carried away by a royal pardon, a king who bears it all.

“He began to teach them,” teach them about God’s mercy, God’s abundance, and our true path. He is indeed our shepherd. And he invites us to his table where grace abounds like wine, and all are fed, and goodness and steadfast love don’t just follow us – the Hebrew word means to pursue – God’s goodness keeps chasing us. Forever.

 

Photo: By cyclonebill from Copenhagen, Denmark (Cava  Uploaded by FAEP) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

From Shittim to Gilgal

Wednesday

Micah 6

5O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

File:PikiWiki Israel 29616 Jordan River.jpg

Jordan River (Lehava Activity 2013 Pikiwiki Israel [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

The translators of the New International Version break this verse into two sentences, adding again the verb ‘remember’ plus the words ‘your journey’ to clarify the meaning of the third line so that it reads: “Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal.”

I like that line.  I also like the Hebrew that just hangs out there “from Shittim to Gilgal.”  It is one of those little phrases that the hearer understands.

Shittim was the last encampment after 40 years in the wilderness.  From there they crossed the Jordan River and made their first encampment in the Promised Land at Gilgal.  From Shittim to Gilgal represents the fulfillment of God’s promise.  It is like saying “the grave is empty” – you don’t have to explain whose grave, when and where; we know what this means.

From Shittim to Gilgal.  Israel had been led out from Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea.  With the Egyptian army behind them and the sea in front of them it seemed as though their journey to freedom would fail.  But the breath/wind of God blew through the night and at morning there was a path.  They crossed on dry ground.

Forty years later, Israel is again at the edge of its promised future.  King Balak of Moab, the kingdom east of the Jordan River, fearing this great host, hires the holy man/prophet Balaam to pronounce a curse on this people.  Words are power; they create what they speak.  It is a powerful weapon.  But every time Balaam opens his mouth, out comes a blessing. God has chosen to bless.

But the Jordan is at flood stage.  God tells the priests to lead the way and stand in the river holding the Ark of the Covenant, the sign of God’s promise and presence.  God promises that, again, they shall cross on dry land.  As the priests step into the river, the flow of water ceases – and the deliverance from Egypt is lived anew as the people enter in to the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise.  Slaves are free.  The homeless receive a home.  The landless receive a land of milk and honey.

From Shittim to Gilgal.  But there is a wound in this story.  For at Shittim the Israelites were seduced into worshipping the god of Moab, the Ba’al of Peor.  After all God had done, after the 40 years wandering due to their faithlessness, in sight of the fulfillment of God’s promise, they are led astray to bow to other gods.  They are faithless – but God is faithful.

From Shittim to Gilgal.  From Good Friday to Easter.  From our frailty to God’s unfathomable faithfulness.  Remember.  The prophet says these two words: from_Shittim to_Gilgal, and the whole story of faithlessness and faithfulness is spoken.  And the people of Micah’s day are asked to remember – and to return: to return to the path of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with their faithful God.

Remembering God’s goodness

Friday

Psalm 33

13 Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord

I have been avoiding this verse all week.  It irritates me because it has been used by conservative evangelicals in support of their dream of a “Christian America.”  It’s sad when texts of scripture become entangled in and polluted by political causes of left or right.  It’s like great music tarnished by an unforgettable association with a television ad.  Disney’s Fantasia was amazing, but now “The Nutcracker Suite” makes me think of dancing hippos and I can’t hear “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” without seeing Mickey Mouse and broomsticks carrying water.

So my eyes rush past this verse, but the scriptures stand firm, waiting for us to listen.

There are so many things wrong with the use of this verse by the religious right.  There were no “nations” in the modern sense of the word; the idea here is a people or tribe – as is evidenced by the parallelism in the next line: “the people whom he has chosen as his heritage.”  The clan being discussed here is the people of Israel, not any modern state; the descendants of Abraham, not the inheritors of the Pilgrims, are the people God has chosen.  This is a song of joy and celebration – “how happy are we that the Lord has shown us favor” – not an argument for social transformation.

In the impulse to skip past this verse I recognize the inherent challenge in listening to scripture: I don’t want to react to scripture; I want to hear it.  I want to let it speak to me, but not forget it wasn’t first spoken to me.  I am reading someone else’s mail.  In it I hear the voice of my heavenly Father.  As he speaks, I am shaped by his words.  But I must not collapse the distance between that time and my own as if words like “nation” – or even “happy” – had the same meaning then as now.  And I must always beware of making the text serve me.  My job is to listen, to hear God’s voice, and to let that voice work its work in me.  I am the one who is supposed to do the serving.

Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord,

The psalm is a hymn, a song of praise and thanksgiving to God for God’s goodness.  It sings of God as creator and summons all creation to join the song.  It exults in the privilege Israel has received to have been chosen by this God, the Lord.  It declares that he governs the destiny of the peoples of the earth – not their kings and armies.  And it declares the allegiance of this people to God: “We set our hope on the Lord.”

“Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord.”  Happy, contented, at peace, are those whom God has chosen “to be his own,” whom God has rescued from bondage and guided through the wilderness and taught by his Word.

There are so many things that disquiet us.  There is a restless hunger in the human heart and the communities we inhabit.  Schools and companies and congregations are buffeted by competing convictions of what “they” should do.  Relationships are stressed by our demands on one another.  We accuse our own selves for our limitations and failures.

The psalm bids us stop and ponder the privilege of belonging to a God who is good.  We inhabit a beautiful earth fashioned in goodness.  We are the beneficiaries of a boundless grace.  We are cared for.

There are things to do.  There are things that should change.  There are times of trial and days when God seems not to be watching.   But the psalm calls us to stop and remember.

Happy are those whose God is the Lord.  There is a peace to be found in remembering that this gracious, faithful God is our God.

And there is a song to be sung.