Remember Zacchaeus

File:Chapiteau de St-Nectaire - Le Christ et Zachée.jpg

Psalm 26:1-8

1 Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity,
…..and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.

The eight verses assigned for us to sing or read on Sunday describe the poet’s righteousness. “Your steadfast love is before my eyes,” he declares, “and I walk in faithfulness to you.” The portrait he paints is noble:

4 I do not sit with the worthless,
…..nor do I consort with hypocrites;
5 I hate the company of evildoers,
…..and will not sit with the wicked.
6 I wash my hands in innocence,
…..and go around your altar, O Lord,
7 singing aloud a song of thanksgiving,
…..and telling all your wondrous deeds.

But there is an unpleasant aftertaste in these words.

I always get a little nervous around those who are a little too certain they are righteous. And it’s not just because Lutherans as a whole have a pretty skeptical view of the possibility of our righteousness. The notion of “alien righteousness”, a righteousness that comes from somewhere else, that is not our own but given to us, is pretty deep in Lutheran piety. We are righteous because, amazingly, graciously, wondrously, when God looks at us he sees Christ’s righteousness not our own. We are pretty sure if he saw our own it would resemble a dilapidated storefront in an abandoned urban area. It has walls and a roof, the appearance of a building, but the windows are broken and the roof surely leaks. Thankfully, God is like an overly enthusiastic realtor who sees what should be and will be rather than what is.

In Lutheranland, we are all fixer uppers. So when we encounter someone who is a little too certain they live in a fine neighborhood, we are uncomfortable. Surely they must be denying there is something musty in the basement or mice droppings in the attic.

Nevertheless, this Sunday we are asked to say these words:

4 I do not sit with the worthless,
…..nor do I consort with hypocrites;
5 I hate the company of evildoers,
…..and will not sit with the wicked.
6 I wash my hands in innocence,
…..and go around your altar, O Lord,

It’s a complicated moment. First of all, it requires us to remember that these words are a prayer. The poet is in trouble and offering the kind of prayer we have all offered: “I don’t deserve this…come rescue me…” Like the prayers of our ancestors, our prayers may not be noble, but God does listen.

Secondly we have to remember that these words, like all the words of scripture, reach their fullest truth in Jesus. He was righteous, faithful to God and to others, but his righteousness did not set him apart from the wicked; it placed him in their living rooms. Remember Zacchaeus. I wish I could find a way to put those two words into the six or seven letters of a vanity license plate. That’s one I might consider buying.

Remember Zacchaeus. His righteousness comes after Jesus has shocked the righteous by coming to dine at his home. His righteousness is entirely a response to the presence of Christ. He makes no claim to goodness or holiness; it is brought forth by Christ’s goodness and holiness. Zacchaeus does nothing but agree to let Christ come to his home – and then the spirit of Christ works its work in him. Suddenly he is giving away half his possessions to the poor and setting right his wrongs.

So we will pray the poet’s prayer on Sunday. And the words will come awkwardly. But hopefully we will remember Zacchaeus and, perhaps, all those other prayers that are a little too full of ourselves will be filled with Christ.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChapiteau_de_St-Nectaire_-_Le_Christ_et_Zach%C3%A9e.jpg By Tangopaso (Self-photographed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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The ordinary

Sunday Evening

I wish there was something special to write about worship this morning, but it was all quite ordinary. Yes, we watched the slideshow from our summer program and thanked our youth director for her extraordinary work – so there were images of happy kids and crafts and tales of chimes and songs. And, yes, we had an accordionist for our special music this morning, taking up hymns and songs we are likely to hear this week of the Fourth of July. And, yes, there was laughter and heartfelt prayer and children for the children’s message and wonder of God’s invitation to come to his table and share the bread that is the sign and promise and dawning reality of that day when all creation shall be gathered to one table.

But it was also ordinary. A simple summer service in which the community gathers for a host of different reasons: some because of friends, some because of habit, some because they have found a new congregation with a message that speaks to them, some because they had tasks to do – from working the sound board to making coffee.

Worship is ordinary. And yet is also extraordinary. It is like the roses in the flowerbeds around the patio near the parish office. Always there. Always blooming. Always ordinary yet wondrous in their beauty if you stop and see.

Its not just that there is beauty in the ordinary. It is that all existence is extraordinary. The brilliance of the clouds against the sky. The courage and faithfulness of a blind and deaf dog. The love of his family for an animal of no economic value. The laughter of children. The kindness of strangers. The sharing of the peace. Ancient texts that still speak to our human condition and the divine promise. The aroma of morning coffee. The pleasure of a simple dinner. The crickets in the evening. Fresh corn on the cob. The smell of fresh basil. Rosemary. Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. The sound of a child plinking out the melody line of Jesus Loves Me on the piano.

We are surrounded by extraordinary goodness. We don’t really need fireworks. We need to feel the grass between our toes and the ocean lapping at our feet. We need to feel the cool breeze in the evening and the hand of a loved one in our own. We need the connection of family and friends and the reminder that such bonds should tie the whole human family.

Even where terrors seem to govern, there is goodness waiting. If we will see it. If we will be open to it. If we will live it.

Worship is ordinary. But it is oh so much more than ordinary, for it bids us to see that love and life reverberate through all existence and summons us to join the song.

Photo: dkbonde

Garden

File:Nevuas.jpg

“Say what you want about ‘all the killing in the Bible’, the Bible begins with two narratives about relationship with God and relationship with one another and a world in perfect peace.” – from today’s sermon.

We looked at Genesis 2 in worship this morning, the narrative about the creation of Adam and Eve. What follows is the content of the booklet that was handed out following worship explaining the images used in our sanctuary today. The sermon series is designed to help us understand what Jesus was telling his followers on the road to Emmaus about the fundamental witness of the scripture to the sacrificial, redemptive love of God.   (For more information about this series, see the explanation in the post for week 1.)

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

 

Genesis 2:4-25


“The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”


File:Épaule musée archéologique de Naples.jpg

The creation narrative in the first chapter of Genesis is a sweeping and majestic portrait of a God who speaks and whose speaking brings order, goodness and beauty, calling all things into being. The creation story in this second chapter gives a more intimate portrait of a God whose first creation is a human. Where Genesis 1 views humanity as the crown of God’s creating, Genesis 2 presents humanity as God’s first thought. Where God speaks with a royal we in chapter 1, and like a great king his word effects what he speaks, in chapter 2 we meet an artisan forming humanity from the earth and breathing into him the breath of life.

And since the Hebrew word means both ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’, something is happening that is far more than mere respiration. Again we are in the realm of intimacy. God is not just our creator; God is our breath. And we are bound together even as God’s speaking (in Genesis 1) begets relationship.

Marbre antique, détail, épaule, musée archéologique de Naples
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A%C3%89paule_mus%C3%A9e_arch%C3%A9ologique_de_Naples.jpg By photogestion [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“The Lord God planted a garden in the east, in Eden;
and there he put the man he had formed.”


File:Araucárias ao fundo Parque Nacional da Serra da Bocaina - denoise.jpg

Having formed a human, God plants a garden to provide him a home. There are notions of a royal garden in this image. This is a place where God will walk in the cool of the evening (3:8) and the human creature is given the responsibility “to till it and keep it”. We are the royal gardeners, granted the right to sustain ourselves from the fruit of the garden. But we are not hired hands; we are bearers of the divine breath and companions of God.

Sunrise with Paraná pines as seen at the Serra da Bocaina National Park, Brazil..
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AArauc%C3%A1rias_ao_fundo_Parque_Nacional_da_Serra_da_Bocaina_-_denoise.jpg By Heris Luiz Cordeiro Rocha (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground
trees that were pleasing to the eye…


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…and good for food.”


File:Cornucopia of fruit and vegetables wedding banquet (cropped).jpg

God provides for the human all the goodness and beauty of the earth. It is God’s first act of faithfulness and love.

Capitol Hill Cherry Blossoms
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACapitol_Hill_Cherry_Blossoms_-_Flickr_-_treegrow_(14).jpg By Katja Schulz from Washington, D. C., USA (Capitol Hill Cherry Blossoms) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
A wedding cornucopia
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACornucopia_of_fruit_and_vegetables_wedding_banquet_(cropped).jpg By Jina Lee [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“A river watering the garden flowed from Eden.”


File:Manavgat waterfall by tomgensler.JPG

Four great rivers find their headwaters in the garden – the rivers on whose banks human society will find life: the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Nile (Gihon), and a fourth whose identity we no longer know (though there are satellite images suggesting an ancient river across the Arabian peninsula.) Perhaps it’s just as well we do not know this river: now all the rivers of the world can be seen as arising in the garden.

And it does not matter that these rivers don’t connect with one another. That is not our author’s message. The garden is the source of life for the world. Even when the garden is lost to us, its waters continue to flow, bringing their fertility and abundance to human society.

It is an image taken up by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 47) when he describes a life-giving river flowing from the new temple, by Jesus when he declares that he is the source of the water of life (John 4:13-14; 7:37-38), and by the author of Revelation when the river of life flows from the throne of God and the Lamb in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22).

Waterfall at Manavgat (Turkey).
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AManavgat_waterfall_by_tomgensler.JPG By Thomas Gensler (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“It is not good for the man to be alone.”


File:Louis Rémy Mignot Solitude.jpg

Amidst all the beauty and abundance of the garden, it is not yet ‘good’, perfect, complete. Humans are meant for relationship. It is not good for this human creature to be alone. It is a fundamental truth. It is part of what is meant by the image of God. For there to be love, there must be an other, a beloved. We are meant for community.

Solitude, Louis Rémy Mignot
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALouis_R%C3%A9my_Mignot_Solitude.jpg Louis Rémy Mignot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them.”


File:AberdeenBestiaryFolio005rAdamNamesAnimalsDetail.jpg

And so God continues to create, bringing to the human all the other creatures of the earth.

The creatures of the earth are part of our community, part of our connectedness. We know this in our pets, but also in the birds we hear singing in the morning or watch around a feeder. There is an intake of breath when we stumble across a rabbit or a deer. There is something familiar in sounds of the frogs in the pond or the sight of a lizard sunning on a rock. We talk to them without thinking about it. They are part of our community. And so the sight of a starving polar bear grieves us, or a wounded bird that has hit our picture window.

The creatures of the earth are part of our community, but in all these creatures there is not a companion equal to that first human.

The King James Version translated this as “an help meet for him.” It would have benefited us if they had added a comma after the word ‘help’, (an help, meet for him) for what popularly turned into a single word, ‘helpmeet’, actually means a helper “equal to him”, or “matching him”.

So God takes a portion from the first human and from it makes another.

Adam naming the animals, Folio 5 recto from the Aberdeen Bestiary.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAberdeenBestiaryFolio005rAdamNamesAnimalsDetail.jpg Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man
he made into a woman.”


File:Tracy Caldwell Dyson in Cupola ISS.jpg

The woman is not made for the first human but from him. She is separate, but she is of the same stuff as he. She is not made like the animals are made. She is unique. And they are uniquely connected.

The Hebrew words here are tricky to translate comfortably into English. The creature God makes is an ‘adam’. It is a word that refers to human beings. There are other words to refer to male and female. And there are ordinary words for a man and a woman.

Clearly the Biblical writers imagined the first human as a male, but women are also “humankind”. In Genesis 5:1-2 it says: “When God created humankind (‘adam’), he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them “Humankind” (‘adam’) when they were created.” It is only with the appearance of this other that humanity emerges as ‘man’ and ‘woman’.

Self portrait of Tracy Caldwell Dyson in the Cupola module of the International Space Station observing the Earth below during Expedition 24.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATracy_Caldwell_Dyson_in_Cupola_ISS.jpg By NASA/Tracy Caldwell Dyson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”


File:Adam Eve Storonov.JPG

Now come the words for ‘man’ (‘ish’) and ‘woman’ (‘ishah’). These are not the words for ‘male’ and ‘female’; they are words that speak of relationship, words that evoke the connection of men and women in family and community. We are made for one another, even as we are made to be in relationship with God.

Adam and Eve, sculpture by Oscar Stonorov
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAdam_Eve_Storonov.JPG By Smallbones (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
© Text by David K. Bonde, Los Altos Lutheran Church, 2017

Doing the good

File:Maximilien Luce - Le bon samaritain.jpg

Thursday

Galatians 6:1-16

9So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.

I don’t know why this translation chose “doing what is right” instead of “doing the good”. Yes the word can mean what is right and proper and good, but the phrase “doing what is right” tends to make me think about rules, whereas “doing the good” makes me think about people and relationships. “Doing what is right” is about social and ethical norms. “Doing the good” is about being a gracious and healing presence in the world.

Paul has spent his whole letter arguing against the a definition of righteousness based on the observance of social and legal norms. He has argued fiercely that it is fidelity to the mercy of God and a life governed by the Spirit to which we are called. In this very passage he declares that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!”  Social customs and laws belong to the tribe of Israel. Fidelity to the God of Mercy and Life belongs to us all.

It’s very important that we not get confused about what God seeks. Even the Mosaic Law is more a collection of examples and precedents for the just and faithful life than a legal code. Legal codes invite us to parse and define them. So we read that we are to love our neighbor and set off on a discussion about who, exactly, falls in that category of neighbor. Are people from the next village neighbor? Are the elite families in Jerusalem neighbor? Are the Romans neighbor? Are the Samaritans neighbor? And we know how Jesus answers this question – or rather steps beyond it. He tells the story of the Good Samaritan and simply asks who showed himself a neighbor.

The translation “doing what is right” is grammatically acceptable – maybe even grammatically proper. But it is theologically misleading. Our responsibility as human beings is not to be right, but to be good.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMaximilien_Luce_-_Le_bon_samaritain.jpg  Maximilien Luce [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The LORD watches over the way of the righteous

Wednesday

Psalm 1

File:RISD Rodin Hand of God.JPG

August Rodin, The Hand of God

6The LORD watches over the way of the righteous.

I believe this, though my daughter was righteous in the rich Biblical sense of that word – faithful to God and to others – just, honest, true, compassionate, generous, kind – yet when she was 19 her car was struck by a driver who had been drinking and she was killed. Two others in the car with her were also killed, and two terribly injured in body and spirit.

I think about this because today is her birthday.

The LORD watches over the way of the righteous.

I do believe this. And it is not just the desperate clutching at faith in the presence of despair.  It is not born of denial but trust. God watches over the way of the righteous. I do not think this means that God guarantees anything. It is certainly not a guarantee of a happy and prosperous American-style life. It is a promise that God watches. God sees. God knows. God guides. God protects – not absolutely, but protects from those truly fearful things: a life made shallow by possessions, pride, privilege. A life made ugly by bitterness or hate. A life where hope, or compassion or joy has been crushed.

As a parent who wishes to hear his daughter’s laugh again, I certainly wish God protected from every stubbed toe. But I know that such a protection ultimately corrupts. As hard as it is, you have to let your children struggle and suffer sometimes, for spiritual poverty is a much more terrible disaster.

Could I have endured it if Anna became vain and selfish? Could I have born the burden if she had grown thoughtless or cruel? No, God watched over her.

The LORD watches over the way of the righteous.

I still pray for protection when I drive. I ask to be guarded against all manner of ordinary ills. I want safety and surety for my surviving daughter, myself and all my extended family. But I understand that beneath my prayer for safety is a much more important petition: that God will guard our spirits. And in such protection I believe and trust.

 

Photo by Ad Meskens. [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RISD_Rodin_Hand_of_God.JPG

From darkness into light

Wednesday

Genesis 1

Original painting by C. O'Neal

Original painting by C. O’Neal

1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

A storm at sea on a black night is perhaps the most terrifying thing a desert people could imagine. Perhaps one doesn’t need to be a desert people; storms are frightening even on land.

I wasn’t used to the summer thunderstorms of the Midwest when I began seminary. I had endured the winters, but gone back to California in the summers of college. But seminary started with summer Greek, three hours a day in a room with many young men (at the time, still men – could it be? It hardly seems possible now) and no air conditioning. The hot humid summer air gave fuel for dramatic evening storms. Our apartment was on the third floor, on top of a hill that dropped down to a freeway beneath our west facing windows. We could see the storms coming, and they hit us full blast. Growing up in California we rarely had lightning – certainly not thunderheads or tornadoes. That first year we ate dinner several times hiding in the small hallway of our apartment with all the doors closed. Add water and total darkness and you have true terror.

Jerusalem had known true terror. The Babylonian armies encircling the city. The signal fires of all the surrounding towns extinguishing one by one. The growing famine in the city. The desperate fear. The siege works. The break in the walls. The raging troops. The blood. The tears. The fire. The desolation. The chains. The long march to Babylon.

But there in Babylon they composed this narrative of total chaos – and then God speaks. Light comes to the darkness. And the light is gathered to form a day and the darkness restricted to a night. Into chaos comes a gracious order: day and night.

Again, God speaks. And the waters are divided. Limits are set. The dome of the sky is established. More limits are set. The water yields to land. And then vegetation, fruit trees, seeds and grains, the lush countryside, the grass covered hills, the cedars of Lebanon, the mighty oaks, the transcendent redwoods, the brilliant flowers, cherry blossoms, dogwood, redbud, trout lilies, day lilies, trillium, lavender, onions, garlic, barley, wheat, raspberries, thimbleberries, pomegranates, an explosion of goodness where there had once been only chaos.

In the dome of the sky a vast array of twinkling lights – and a big light and a little light. No names are used because the names for sun and moon and stars are the names of gods. These are not mighty powers, just an umbrella of beauty over a good world.

It is a remarkable composition. A wondrous affirmation in the midst of war and chaos and evil: “God saw all that he had made, and behold, it was very good.”

And humans. Humans, the authors know, are capable of such horror. But they are not evil. They are fashioned in the image of God. And God blesses them. And God entrusts them to one another and entrusts to them his wondrous creation.

This is not a creation story. It is certainly not written as a textbook. This is a great and profound confession of faith by those who had known unimaginable chaos and sorrow: the journey of the world is not into the darkness – but from darkness into light.

We are right to say that it is inspired.

The song lingers

Sunday Evening

Isaiah 51 (as sung in the psalmody today)

File:Western Meadowlark.jpg

Western Meadowlark. Kevin Cole from Pacific Coast, USA

11 “The ransomed of the Lord will return,
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads;
sorrow and sighing will flee away.”

The hymns from this morning linger in my mind. I find myself humming or singing or just hearing in my mind the words “A-a-a-le-lu-u-jah, A-a-a-le-lu-u-jah, A-a-a-le-lu-u-jah, Christ the-e Lord [something] comes to reign.” (I had to go find my hymnal and look it up. That uncertain line is “Christ the Lord returns to reign.”)

At different times in the day different phrases from that hymn has rattled through my mind.

Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain

But, since I don’t know this hymn very well, after these few words I resort to the “dah, dah, dah”s. Still, the music of the hymn, the majesty and – not quite joy, but ‘uplift’? – of the hymn I remember. It is like an echo coming back across a broad valley, or the aroma from yesterday’s bread that reveals itself when I return to my apartment.

Worship is meant to do this, to linger. The words spoken, the readings, the songs, the prayers, the actions of standing and sitting, giving an offering, and coming to the table, the sharing of the peace – they are all meant to work not only on our conscious mind but our subconscious. The peace is meant to linger. The sense of our lives being connected to something greater than ourselves is meant to ripple through our day, our week. A warmth of human connection, a hug, a smile, a gesture as simple as sharing a bulletin, may waft through our day with positive emotions. Of course, a harsh word, a cold shoulder can also haunt the day. This is the risk we take in being with others.

The liturgy didn’t go smoothly this morning. It was storming outside. Between the storm and the holiday weekend, the gathered community was small. The Assisting Minister didn’t show up, nor the acolyte. I had forgotten I agreed to get someone to sing the verse of “Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel” that transitioned us from announcements into the lighting of the Advent Wreath before the entrance hymn. And I didn’t know who, if anyone, was prepared to light the wreath – the person assigned to that task was late arriving. Then the printer wouldn’t work for my sermon. We weren’t quite prepared for the beginning of this Advent season that is about preparation. Ah, well.

We do enter God’s presence stumbling. We do not arrive with manicured nails and tailored suits; we arrive as we are: frail in our best times, capable of great ugliness in our worst. We come as representatives of a humanity that is rioting in Ferguson, shooting children with toy guns in the assumption they are criminals; bombing cities, kidnapping children, assaulting women for indecent clothing. We come disillusioned by fallen heroes – the world has lost some of its remaining innocence with the revelations about Bill Cosby. And the missing football player is added to a tragic list of suicides. We come as members of a human community that has profoundly betrayed our creator’s intention for us – and yet also as members of a human community capable of remarkable generosity. Who could imagine Bloods and Crips standing together to protect another’s property? For every one who throws a rock there are others helping to clean up. For every killing marred by racism there are acts that transcend the most fundamental human divides. For every act of violence, manifold kindness.

We come together to sing our frail song and, somehow, God in his infinite grace transforms our song into true praise – into a meadowlark’s evening call, into the sound of wind in the aspens, into the harmonies of the spheres.

Our small words become vessels of God’s words, our bit of bread a vehicle of Christ’s presence, our prayers draw eternity to us and us to the eternal.

It is truly wondrous. And, in spite of ourselves, the tune lingers.

And it was good

Wednesday

Genesis 1

File:Monreale creation earth.jpg

Creation of the sun and moon, 12th century Byzantine mosaic in Monreale

1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void

It’s hard to convey in English the two Hebrew words rendered here as “formless void.” It is the nightmare of the storm upon the sea. The chaos of a raging sea. The presence of that thick darkness that closes in upon you. It is a world without a shoreline, a chaos without a boundary, emotions that know no limit. It is the rubble of war. The numbed emptiness of grief. The walls of the city torn down. Priest and prophet slain. Temple looted and burned. The taunting of a brutal enemy and the chains marching them into exile.

We do not know when the words were composed, but they came together in this form in Babylon, in the aftermath of Judah’s destruction, the brutality of which defies our imagination despite what we have seen in the last hundred years – or the last few. School children. Really? School children? So the poet cries out to God about the desolation of Jerusalem: “Look, O LORD, and see! Should women eat their offspring, the children of their tender care?” (Lamentations 2:20RSV)

It is the survivors of 9/11 and the Boston Marathon who write, “And God said, ‘let there be light, and there was light.’” It is the families in Syria beneath the barrel bombs and chemical weapons who write, “And God saw that the light was good.” It is the parents of the school children in Newtown who write seven times in this narrative “It was good.”

It is the parents of the young schoolgirls in Nigeria who write, “God separated the light from the darkness,” and gave them the names ‘Day’ and ‘Night’. The friends and relatives of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, who write, “God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome,” bringing borders and limits to the primeval chaos. It is the communities terrorized by lynching who write, “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so.” A divine order pushes back the chaos and draws a line it shall not cross. It is the families of the victims of the factory collapse in Bangladesh who write, “God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas.” The primal chaos is domesticated; it has a name. “And God saw that it was good.”

Such a confession of faith and hope and trust is this first chapter of Genesis, an act of defiance in the face of meaninglessness. We will not go gently into that good night. We will declare that this broken world is not the world God made. This is our brokenness, not God’s. This is our fault, not God’s. We make the wars. We make the idols. We make the warring idols and the idols warring. We strip the forests and the fields to feed the marching armies, but those who starved write, “Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.”

These are words of courage, declaring the goodness of God and the goodness of life in the face of life’s insanities. We were not made for tears, but for dancing in the presence of God. We were not made for cursing, but for song. We were not made to wield weapons but plowshares and pruning hooks. And when we will stand quietly before the world around us, when we will see with our eyes and hear with our ears, and breathe in the fragrance of the natural world, we will know its beauty and goodness.

And then we will decide whether we will join the cacophony, or live for the goodness.

“God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” And then God blessed them.

For a time we lived the blessing. And even now the blessing lingers. It takes courage and faith to confess it. Courage and faith to live it. But we can be the ones who write, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”

The heart will sing

Friday

Psalm 121

Sunrise in Colorado

Sunrise in Colorado

7 The Lord will keep you from all evil;

There is a certain song of faith, an overflowing joy born of the wonder of God’s goodness, that freely declares that God will protect you from all evil.  It is as natural an utterance as the declaration of lovers that nothing will ever stand between them.  We do, however, understand that disagreements come.  Disappointments, regrets, mistakes, sorrows – even betrayals.  But there is truth in the falling in love, even though life betrays it.

And there is truth in the declaration that “The Lord will keep you from all evil.”  Despite life’s sorrows.  Despite its haunting tragedies.  Despite those painful realities whose origin are probably much more in ourselves than in the stars.  Nations war.  Terrorists act.  Driver’s drink and innocents are struck down.  Sometimes evil happens.

But there is truth in the declaration that “The Lord will keep you from all evil.”  We would be wrong to deny it.  It’s not just that there is much that is hidden from our eyes, that there are days we arrive home safely without any knowledge how close we have come to disaster.  We stopped for coffee and missed a driver speeding through a red light – who could ever know?  What the hymnic declaration celebrates is the truth of God’s goodness.  Evil happens, yet it is not able to belie the surpassing kindness that embraces the creation – that embraces our own lives.  There are some who suffer terrible and unjust evils: children abused by parents, elders neglected, storms that sweep through homes and lives, stray bullets striking blocks away, crack babies – the list is not hard to compose.  But even those who endure such evils find unexpected goodness in the kindness of a stranger, in the warmth of an afternoon sun, in the thumping heartbeat of romantic love, in a kind ear or generous soul. There is darkness in the world, but it cannot overcome the light.  There is evil, but it cannot silence the kindness.  The truth of the psalmist’s song is not undone by evil.  The heart that knows the foundation of the world is love will sing.  “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

It is not “optimistic thinking”; it is not delusion; it is simple realism.  In the dark places of the world, love and kindness still shine.  And those who see life as pilgrimage to the holy are not overwhelmed by the detours.  They know that Easter trumps Good Friday.

So they sing:

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
8 The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.

Righteousness

Watching for the morning of September 1

Year C

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 17 / Lectionary 22

Righteousness has become an uncomfortable word for us, connected as it is in the public mind with self-righteousness.  No one likes a goody-two-shoes.  We want our heroes to have a few flaws lest they seem to good to be true.  At the same time, we all recognize there are some who are just good people: kind, generous, faithful, courageous when necessary to defend others or to defend what is right.  The kind who will take you to the airport in the middle of the night, come rescue you if your car breaks down, or show up to sit with you in the surgical waiting lounge.  There is in them something more than friendship, because you know they will do all this even for a stranger.

Righteousness is not about ritual or moral purity; it is living the values of God who is gracious and merciful, just and true: who rescues those in bondage, who provides for those in need, who is faithful to his promises, who defends the widow and orphan.

There is a humility to such good people, a humility born of the encounter with the boundless love of God.  They are not preoccupied with looking good or even with being good; they simply live in and from and for the goodness of God.

Such “righteousness” weaves through the readings this week, expressed directly in the psalm and second reading, but underlying also the first reading and gospel: the righteous are those who embody the governance of God in the human spirit.

The Prayer for September 1, 2013

Gracious God,
you have given us a place at your own table,
feeding us with all your gifts of mercy and life.
Turn our eyes away from what is treasured by others
to what is treasured by you: humility, justice and kindness to all.

The Texts for September 1, 2013

First Reading: Proverbs 25:6-7
“Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great;
for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” – This proverb from the wisdom tradition in Israel about wise behavior at court sets the background for today’s Gospel.

Psalmody: Psalm 112
“Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.” – The poet celebrates the character of the righteous and the fruit that come from faithfulness to God’s commands.

Second Reading: Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
“Let mutual love continue.”
– The author’s call for renewal now moves to a series of exhortations that touch on key elements in the shape of Christian life.

Gospel: Luke 14:1, 7-14
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Observing the behavior of those gathering for a banquet, Jesus taps into the ancient proverbs about proper conduct at a banquet, then transforms it with the call to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” who bring you no advantage in moving up the social or economic ladder, but make you children of the kingdom of heaven.