One came back

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Watching for the Morning of October 9, 2016

Year C

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 23 / Lectionary 28

Healing comes to the fore this Sunday, but much more than healing. Namaan, the Syrian general, enemy of Israel, yet sufferer, is told by a slave girl, captured from Israel, that there is a prophet in Israel who can heal him. The story is filled with humor and irony and the radical ways of God who is not impressed with the trappings of wealth and power but simple obedience. A God of grace beyond Israel’s borders, though Namaan himself is still bound by the idea that Israel’s God is like all the others: powerful only on his own specific bits of land.

And the psalmist sings of the mighty works of God – though he, too, doesn’t yet seem to fully understand that God’s mighty works are not just for his people, but for all.

The author of 2 Timothy knows that “the word of God is not chained”, yet his focus is on “the elect” not on the vast sweep of humanity – indeed of the created world, itself.

And so we come to Jesus. Ten sufferers stand far off, crying out from a distance because they are unclean and unworthy to come near to anyone but their fellow sufferers. They cry for mercy and Jesus sends them to the priests who are the ones appointed by God to judge whether anyone is “clean” and may go home. They scamper off, but one returns. One is captured by the grace he has received. One is driven to his knees in gratefulness and praise. And he is a Samaritan, a foreigner, one to whom God is thought to have no obligation or concern.

But Jesus knows this God of the creation and the exodus and the water turned to wine is the God of all: the sinners and the saints, the outcast and the inner circle, the broken and the whole, the lost and the found.

The nine scamper off to resume their lives – and who can blame them? But the one who turned back, the one with his face to the ground, the one with tears in his eyes and a heart bursting, knows that something much more than a village healer has come.

The Prayer for October 9, 2016

God our healer and redeemer,
stretch forth your hand,
touch us with your spirit
that, cleansed and made whole,
we may live lives of gratefulness and praise;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 9, 2016

First Reading: 2 Kings 5:1-19a (appointed, 5:1-3, 7-15)
“Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram… suffered from leprosy.”
– The commander of Israel’s hostile neighbor is told by a captured Israelite maid that there is a prophet in Israel who can heal him.

Psalmody: Psalm 111
“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart.” – An acrostic hymn singing the praise of God from Aleph to Tau (A to Z).

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 2:8-15
“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David–that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.” – Written by Paul (or, as some scholars think, in Paul’s name) from prison to his protégé Timothy, the author speaks to the next generation of leadership urging faithfulness to the teaching they have received.

Gospel: Luke 17:11-19
“Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?’” –As Jesus approaches a village he is met by ten people suffering from a dreaded skin affliction that excludes them from their families and community. They are sent on their way healed, but only the Samaritan in the group returns to acknowledge Jesus and give thanks to God.

The poor shall eat and be satisfied

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Thursday

Psalm 22:1, 16-28

25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.

It is because of God’s deliverance that the poet sings God’s praise (“From you comes my praise”). And because the poet survived his desperate illness, he is able to complete the vows he made on his sick bed. These are sacrifices made “in the great congregation”, at the temple in the presence of Israel’s faithful (“before those who fear him”).

The sacrifices the psalmist offers are sacrifices, thanksgiving sacrifices and fellowship offerings that provide a banquet not just for the man and his family, but for the poor of the city: “The poor shall eat and be satisfied.” It is the nature of the sacrificial meal. When David brings the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, the sacrifices provide food for all.

The gifts we give to God are not for ourselves alone. They are shared that all may rejoice. The joy of the healed poet becomes joy for many. The grace of his healing becomes grace for others.

In my first parish, the people referred to their offerings as their dues. But we are not members of a club who must each pay our share to keep the club going. We are recipients of God’s mercy who bring our offerings that others might share the joy.

Yes, there are bills to pay. Heat and lights and water. The cost of musicians and secretary and staff. The pastor’s time and training not only to preach and teach but to visit the sick and comfort the grieving. There are bills to pay, everything from the wine for communion to the coffee for coffee hour. But the gifts are not dues. They are tithes and offerings given that all might share in the joy of God’s love.

It’s easier to understand dues. But ‘dues’ makes it about me, about what I get from the church and what I must pay to continue to receive it? The much more profound questions is what do I receive from God? And how do I pay it forward?

What is the offering appropriate for the sunrise? What is the gift that matches the gift of the world around us? What sacrifice can possibly reflect the sacrifice Jesus made? Whatever that gift is, it must be a gift that brings some measure of mercy and grace to the world. It must be a gift through which “The poor shall eat and be satisfied.”

 

Image:https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHand_carved_offering_plate_-_West_Virginia_-_ForestWander.jpg http://www.ForestWander.com [CC BY-SA 3.0 us (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/us/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A sweet little verse

Thursday

2 Kings 4:42-44

File:Roti-obaid.jpg42A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to Elisha, the man of God

This is one of those sweet little verses in the scriptures pregnant with meaning easily overlooked. First, it is a time of famine, but this unnamed man still gives away the first fruits of what little harvest he has. There is not enough in the harvest for himself or his family, but that first portion still belongs to God and he will not dishonor himself or God by keeping it for himself. His allegiance to God and God’s commands trumps even his hunger.

Second, he gives an offering of first fruits. However small his drought stricken harvest, he will give thanks to God for what he receives from the ground. Everything that grows, even when it is not enough, he sees as gift from God.

Third, he is from a town with the word ‘baal’ in the title. None of my study Bibles explains the meaning of this name. The word ‘baal’ can mean husband, lord or master, but it is also the name of the god of the thunderstorm, the god of fertility and abundance worshipped by the wealthy city-states of Tyre and Sidon. King Ahab built for Queen Jezebel a temple to Baal. It was the official royal cult for a period, the progressive modern faith of the time, a worship of prosperity and power. Jezebel worked to extinguish the culturally backward faith in the LORD. So while the allegiance of the larger culture has turned towards mammon, this man from Baal-shalishah is bringing his offering to a prophet of the LORD. Fidelity against the cultural tide. Allegiance to God over allegiance to the times. Generosity over acquisitiveness. Taking care of others rather than possessing for oneself. As I said, a sweet little verse.

A nameless faithfulness, a nameless generosity, a nameless courage, remembered forever.

And then there is Elisha, who trusts that what could not feed ten will feed a hundred.

And finally there are leftovers. This does not mean they were stuffing things into plastic containers and stashing them in the refrigerator for a late night snack or tomorrow’s dinner. What the men do not eat is given to the women and children. What the women and children do not eat is given to the poor. That there are leftovers means that everyone along the way remembered the needs of others, just like the man from Baal-shalishah.

As I said, a sweet, sweet verse full of meaning easily overlooked – and a faithfulness that ought not be.

Photo: By Obaid Raza (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A community of grateful praise

Friday

Colossians 3:15-17

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Saronno, Santuario della Beata Vergine dei Miracoli, Concert of Angels, fresco, 1535

With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.

We tend to think about ourselves as individuals, but this verse is spoken to a community. There is science to back up the importance of living in gratitude, and it is a valuable practice to make note in a journal or conversation or prayer the things for which we are grateful each day. But our author is speaking to a congregation, an assembly of believers.

With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.

Individual gratitude tends to look upon the material realm – gratitude for our children, for friends, for partners, for something good that happened in the day, for a kindness we were able to give or receive, for a reassuring health report, for finding a job, solving a problem, completing a task. All of this is important, but the community is responding to something far different than a good day; it is singing the praise of God for God’s redeeming work in Christ. The community sees not only God’s individual mercies, but God’s cosmic mercies. It sees faithfulness and love written into the fabric of all existence. It sees grace and life as life’s ultimate truth and the creation’s destiny. It hears the harmony of the spheres. It hears the angel choirs. It hears the trees of the forest singing and the sea roaring its praise.

The Christian congregation is a community of grateful praise.

When we come together on that first day of the week in which Mary and the women found the grave empty, we come to sing and dance in the light of creation’s new morning. We come to rejoice that heaven has come near to earth, that the city in the heavens that corresponds to the Jerusalem on earth is “coming down” to earth like a bride adorned. The realm of life is joining this realm on earth where fear and death struggles mightily to reign. When Jesus casts out demons and heals the sick he is not working individual gracious miracles, he is bringing that realm where demons cannot dwell and sorrow and sighing flee away.

I certainly praise God and am full of gratitude for every good thing – the privilege of a morning cup of coffee, the delight of good bread, the goodness of a nice wine, the joy of a family gathering, the warmth of the sun, and the possibility of a hot shower, however brief it may be in a time of drought. This is why Christians have a practice of saying grace with their meals. Even if breakfast is no more than a piece of toast eaten on the run, we give God thanks.

But the most important work of the Christian community is to sing together, to sing with gratitude, to remember and live and bear witness to the grace and life that is the heart of all things.

 

Image: Gaudenzio Ferrari [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Into his presence with thanksgiving

Thursday

Psalm 95

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Piligrims riding on the outside of a train after a three-day Sunni Muslim festival in the ancient city of Multan, Pakistan

2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving.

A few years ago I met my brother and his son in Berkeley for the Big Game between Stanford and Cal. It was the first time I went to see this game on enemy territory. Stanford was the home team when we were growing up. Palo Alto’s main street is University Avenue. The Stanford stadium was across the street from my high school. Our high school played its big rivalry game at Stanford Stadium and though our small crowd looked silly rattling around a 90,000 seat stadium, this was the big time! Playing in Stanford Stadium!

Going to the game in Berkeley with my brother and his son was my first foray into the enemy’s camp across the Bay. I rode up on a BART train (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and joined the throng walking up the hill to the stadium. As the crowd ascended it grew ever bigger and the energy level grew ever higher. The mounting excitement was contagious. Songs and cries and chants broke out continually. We might as well been led by the marching bands. (The infamous marching band story we won’t get into.)

I think of that day when I hear these invitatory psalms calling the community to worship – the throngs of people ascending the temple mount to stand in the presence of God and acclaim him as their lord and king, their rock and deliverer.

It’s too bad we can’t recreate that energy as people walk from the parking lot to the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. We get a taste of that pilgrim excitement on Christmas Eve when the place will be full and people come early for seats. There is a taste in the energy of the children eager for Christmas morning. There is a taste in the walkway bordered with luminaries and the buildings adorned with lights. There is a taste in the beauty of the sanctuary, the special music as people arrive, and the moment the congregation rises to sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” As children, we waited all year for that moment at the end of the service when the lights are extinguished, candles distributed and the warm, flickering candlelight spreads through the room, passed from one person to the next, until we all lift up our candles singing “Silent night, Holy night.”

We don’t generally see that excited expectancy on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost or in the cold or wet winter days of the 4th Sunday after Epiphany. But this is true of all of life. I am much more likely to duck out for the restroom or refreshments in the middle of the fifth inning at AT&T Park than the bottom of the ninth.

2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving sings the psalmist to the crowds ascending the hill of Mt. Zion. There is excitement and energy in the crowd because it is a national festival like Christmas. The city is full of pilgrims for the holy season. But the psalm does more than capture the excitement of the day – as we can tell from the warning in the second half of the psalm. We won’t read those words on Sunday, but the thought shapes the meaning of the call to enter God’s presence.

We are not coming in the excitement of the festival to celebrate our team. We are coming to honor the God who promised a homeland to Abraham, who gathered a people from bondage in Egypt, who taught a new way to live, who guided his motley crew of former slaves through an arid wilderness and brought them to a rich and abundant land. We are coming to honor the God who revealed himself in the words of the prophets and in the words and deeds of Jesus his anointed. We are coming to bow down before the one who bears the brokenness of the world in his hands and side, and deals with us according to his goodness not our deserving.

2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving. The singers of the psalm are not serving as cheerleaders or the marching band to geek up the crowd. They are reminding us that our only proper response to God is a profound gratitude.

He is the creator who lifted up the mountains and governs even the depths of the earth. He is Lord of all, setting limits to the chaotic seas and forming the land upon which all life depends. He is master over every spiritual reality and has made us his own. Shouts of joy are appropriate, but above all we come into his presence with thankfulness.

“Always”

Saturday

Philippians 4

Newspapers B&W (4)

Newspapers B&W (4) (Photo credit: NS Newsflash)

4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

No one wants to be told to be thankful.  I only know it works.  I wish I practiced it better.

Years ago someone sent me a newspaper clipping from the local paper about what a wonderful priest had come to a neighboring church.  Of course this was sent to me anonymously.  It stung.  I heard it as criticism – although exactly what I was being criticized for was not so clear.  But I could hear in my spirit that terrible sentence that begins “Why can’t you be more like…”

As I stood there, clipping in my hand, I realized I had a choice.  I could react with hurt and anger, or I could try this peculiar advice to “Rejoice in the Lord always,” to “Give thanks in all circumstances”

I chose the latter.

It was a strange prayer coming out of my mouth: “Thank you Jesus for this.”  But suddenly I wasn’t wondering who had sent it or what they didn’t like about me, I was wondering what there was in this article that could help me.

I have been in a lot of places where it is exceedingly difficult to be thankful.  I have plenty of fears and anxieties to keep me awake at night.  I live in the shadow of a telephone call with a policeman on the other end telling me my child is dead.  I hate it when the phone rings.  I know there is evil.  I will not tell anyone they should be thankful.  But I also know that when I remember to give thanks, I am different.  The world seems far less dark, emotions far less troubling, and the day far more inviting.  Problems become challenges and tasks, not indictments of character or proof of misfortune.

It sounds terribly rosy.  I dare not say it to others in trouble.  And I, myself, would mock it, if I didn’t always find it true.

16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
(1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

It’s not easy work, but it’s good work.  There’s a reason we call it a spiritual discipline.  But there is healing in it, for it teaches us to look for God’s grace everywhere.

And we find it.

Singing the fight song

Thursday

Psalm 100

English: A photo of Michigan Stadium.

English: A photo of Michigan Stadium. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.

It’s a psalm sung at one of the great national festivals when the air is filled with excitement, like walking up the hill to the stadium for the big game.  The drum corps is rapping out dynamic rhythms.  Hawkers are selling food and trinkets.  People are meeting friends with glad cries.   Strangers are calling out to strangers with shouts and chants united by their common allegiance.  You can hear the band playing already in the stadium.  Just the crowd itself fills you with joy and energy.  Everything seems good.  Worries are forgotten, at least for a moment.  You sing the fight song as you climb the stairs into the stadium.

Church is a lot more fun when people come expecting great things.  But we aren’t coming like crowds to a game.  We are coming like workers arriving home from the fields at the end of a long day.  We come with tardy children and cranky adults waiting for them in the car.  We come weary from the week or bleary from the party the night before.  We come with walkers when we would rather walk.  We come with sorrows we would rather leave behind.  We come with regrets from the week – or regrets from that very morning.  We come disillusioned or lonely or worried about medical bills or grown children into whom we can talk no sense.

As teenagers we criticized the church because people returned from Holy Communion with such somber faces.  This was a moment of great joy, this was a taste of the eternal banquet, this was the declaration that all our sins had been forgiven.  They should come back “walking and leaping and praising God,” we thought.  We didn’t yet understand that thankfulness and praise could be complicated, could look more like tears than laughter, more like the grateful recipients of a soup line than the members of a marching band.  Priceless gifts don’t inspire joy as much as deep humility and gratefulness, especially the bread of life given to the weary.

Still, this is a foretaste of the feast to come.  We hear the promise of boundless mercy.  We see the image of suffering and know that the tomb is empty.  We are aware of the presence of fellow pilgrims on this journey.  We may not be headed into a crowded arena but we should, nevertheless, enter these gates with thanksgiving, and these courts with praise.

Remembering the source of life

Wednesday

Deuteronomy 26

Thanksgiving Landscapes

Thanksgiving Landscapes (Photo credit: Christopher S. Penn)

1 When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.  3You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say…

For agrarian societies, all life depends on the harvest.  Indeed for every society all life depends on the harvest, but for industrialized societies that dependence is not so immediately evident.  It is no longer my fields upon which my life in the next year rests.

For all their work, the harvest is not under the farmers’ control.  They cannot make it rain, nor can they keep it from raining too much or at the wrong times.  They cannot control the locusts, the birds or the blight, so they turn naturally to prayer.  They ask for the kindness of the gods.  As Israel came from foraging in the wilderness, following a god of the desert, to dwelling on farm land, the cultural pressure was to follow the practices of those who had farmed the land before – to turn to the gods of field and fertility and rain.  The hidden powers that dwell in the forests and streams and fields need to be appeased and supplicated lest they do harm in their anger.

The playoff beard, the refusal to touch the division championship trophy on the way to the Stanley Cup, the routines on the bench and in the locker room and on the day of the game are not just superstitions; they are rituals that affect our mental state, rituals that shape whether we are “in the zone,” rituals that tap into transcendent realities.  When you join the team, you join their rituals.  So it was only natural that Israel would be tempted to take refuge in the practices of the Canaanites.

But God is a jealous god.  Not jealous in human terms, of course.  Not jealous out of insecurity or possessiveness.  Jealous like a music teacher who doesn’t want her students learning incorrect finger positions from some other instructor.  God has a vision and a purpose for us, a vision and a purpose for Israel’s life. They are to be a community of justice and compassion; gods of fertility and riches will lead them in other directions.

Israel will come to understand – later, unfortunately, rather than sooner – that there are no other gods, no other source of life and blessing than the one who opened the Red Sea, the one who stands at the beginning and end of time, the one who acts in history not just in nature, the one who speaks, the one – Christians will add – who bears the sins of the world.

So Israel is commanded to bring the first fruit of the land, the first fruit of the field and vine, the first fulfillment of nature’s promise and the first sign of life in the year to come – Israel is commanded to return to God who is the source of life that first fruit of life.  And as they do so, they are to tell the story how they were in Egypt and God delivered them from the house of bondage and brought them to this good land.  They are to connect the God of the desert with the powers in the fields, the God of history with the fruitfulness of the land.  They are to remember.

The Sunday offering is not about the necessary but vaguely tainted task of gathering money to pay the heat and lights.  It is that moment in the liturgy when we bring the first fruits of our labor and remember that all things come from God, even the breath we breathe.  When the offering plate comes by, this is the moment we say, “A wandering Aramean was my father” and give thanks to God for all life.

A way of life

Watching for the morning of November 24

A Sunday of Thanksgiving:
Thanksgiving, year C

The First Thanksgiving, painting by Jean Louis...

The First Thanksgiving, painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(In our parish this year we celebrated Christ the King a week early in order to have a Sunday of Thanksgiving.)

Thanksgiving is a cultural celebration and a family event.  Thanksgiving is also a way of life.  It can be one day in the year when we count up all the “blessings” we have (usually things or people), or it can be a continual awareness that we are surrounded by gift.

It is hard to say we are surrounded by gift when the news is occupied with the devastating affects of terrible storms – just as it is hard to say when struggling with disease or loss.  But something is profoundly different for those who remember that the abundance of the world around us is gift.  We cannot create the sun or rain or morning dew.  We cannot make the trees bud or turn their radiant hues.  We do not raise the mountains or create the rich soils of the valleys.  We tend crops, not manufacture them – and what we do manufacture comes from stuff given within the earth.

Those who see the lavish goodness of the creation, who remember the remarkable charity that underlies all existence, see a great spiritual truth that teaches us to live more charitably.

It is worth taking a day, not to count our possessions, but to acknowledge the generosity of God and hear the call to thanksgiving as a way of life.

The Prayer for a Sunday of Thanksgiving, 2013

God of compassion and bounty,
you pour forth your abundance upon our world,
calling us to receive all things with thankfulness and praise.
Help us trust your wise providing,
share your gifts freely,
and rejoice always in your goodness,
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for a Sunday of Thanksgiving, 2013

First Reading: Deuteronomy 26:1–11
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor”
– Moses exhorts the people to bring the first fruits of the land they are about to enter to present them to God with a recitation of all that God has done for them.

Psalmody: Psalm 100
“Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.” – A hymn of thanksgiving as the community gathers for worship.

Second Reading: Philippians 4:4–9
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” –
An exhortation to rejoice in the Lord always and set our minds on all that is good and true.

Gospel: John 6:25–35
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
– The crowds seek out Jesus after the feeding of the 5,000 and he challenges them not to seek the bread that perishes, but the bread that endures into eternal life.