Named and known

File:Messenger of Milky Way.jpg

Friday

Psalm 147

4 He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.

What did the ancients think they were seeing when they looked up into the night sky? I marveled at the vast canopy of the night sky a few years ago, standing in awe when camping at ten thousand feet at Great Basin National Park. Yet, wondrous as was the night sky, my eyes saw what I knew: these are bright shining suns, some new, some old, some red, some blue, some galaxies of stars – all massive fires of primal matter.

But what did the ancients see?

They know there are creatures of the sea, and creatures of the earth – so these must be creatures of the air. And if creatures of the air, they must be made of light. These are the spirit-beings who meddle on earth – some in service of God, some not.

God’s place in the pantheon of heaven is revealed by this simple phrase: “he gives to all of them their names.” Who has the right to name? Only the one who called the light ‘day’ and the darkness ‘night’, who called the expanse ‘sky’ and the dry land ‘earth’, the one who fashioned all and reigns over all.

Is it just metaphor when the poet of Job says that at the creation the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” Is it only imagery when Deborah sings her song of victory and declares that: The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera? And in 1 Corinthians 15, when Paul says that heavenly bodies are different from terrestrial ones, he is not referring to planetary bodies, but creatures with bodies of fire. He doesn’t mean they have different degrees of luminosity when he says they have different degrees in glory; he is speaking of the ranks of angels.

For the ancient world, the sky is filled with these embodied spirit-beings even as the earth and seas with mortal beings. Officially, Israel refutes that notion. The creation story in Genesis 1 refuses to use the words ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ since they are the names of deities and simply refers to them as greater and lesser lights. The stars are mentioned as if an afterthought. But this is, by no means, the only reference in scripture. There are others that speak of these stars as gods or “sons of God” or blessed or malevolent forces.

So what does it mean to our psalmist and his hearers when he says God gives them their names? Is God simply naming objects in the sky – Betelgeuse, Sirius and Alpha Centauri – or is he naming living things?

For us, the stars are just stars – not gods, not angels, not powers working weal and woe upon our lives. But we do know that there are spiritual forces at work in the world, ideas and ideologies that govern our lives, working for good and for ill.

4 He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.

All these powers and realities that shape and govern human existence, from the lies and deceits that are taken for truth in politics and economics, to the ugly terrors of racism and tribal violence, God names them, knows them, and has ultimate authority over them.

There is something reassuring in such affirmations. The racism and rage that show up in Ferguson, the hate and fear and hardness of heart that burns a man to death, the injustices that are named just, the greed that is blessed as righteous, the violence done in a home or elevator because “You just make me so mad, baby” – and the violence that is accepted as if it were love. God has named it, identified it, exposed it.

Maybe the psalmist doesn’t mean all this when he sings. Maybe he has in mind only that God knows the angels by name. Maybe he sees the stars as he sees the mountains and trees, cattle and creatures: just part of a creation born in the heart and will of God. But even this has its power: Everything is named. Everything is known. No secrets are hid. And no power surpasses God’s own.

It’s a message worth remembering when deceit and hate seem to rule the day, when tragedy befalls, when war rises, when all manner of human suffering persists. They are all named and known. And God yet reigns – he who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds,” “he who lifts up the downtrodden [and] casts the wicked to the ground,” he who bids us follow where he has led the way.

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMessenger_of_Milky_Way.jpg By Q-lieb-in (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Amazing grace

Thursday

Mark 10:32-45

File:Francisco de Zurbarán 020.jpg43Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

Again and again Jesus keeps coming back to this theme. The realm of God is not about power, honor and glory; it is about service, suffering and love. It is about showing honor. It is about taking the lowest place at the banquet. It is about sharing one’s goods not amassing them. It is about forgiveness not revenge. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” not “Blessed are the victorious.” Our teacher and lord has bent to wash our feet. The anointed of God bears our sins. The Messiah suffers rather than strikes down. Jesus eats with sinners; he doesn’t parade with the righteous – though he eats with the righteous, too, and seeks no revenge when they treat him without respect.

Mary is welcome at his feet as a disciple. Mary Magdalene is the first to see him risen. He does not shame the woman at the well, or the woman who weeps over his feet, or the woman who reaches through the crowd to touch the hem of his robe. He does not shame the family that lacks sufficient wine, but blesses the wedding with wonder. He touches the leper. He gathers the children in his arms. He lays down his life for the world.

It is shocking to hear Jesus say: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him.” And if it weren’t so familiar to us, we would be shocked, too.

And this declaration doesn’t end by Jesus saying “But I will get my revenge!” It doesn’t end with the threat of hell fire. It ends simply: “and after three days he will rise again.”

God’s answer to human evil is not to punish it, but to give life. God’s answer to hate is love. God’s answer to offense is forgiveness. God’s answer to greed is generosity. God’s answer to pride is humility. God’s answer to his squabbling disciples’ quest for honor is a towel, a basin and a job for only the lowliest foreign-born slave. Our central act as a church is to break bread and hear Jesus say, “my body is broken for you.”

We are like James and John. We have a long ways to go before we inhabit this realm of grace.

But it is an amazing realm.

 

Image: Francisco de Zurbarán [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Extortion and robbery

Sunday Evening

Psalm 62

File:Chocolate Eggs.jpg10 Put no confidence in extortion,
and set no vain hopes on robbery.”

Perhaps it’s because I was one of those kids that is timid about departing too far from the rules, but I have a hard time imaging that someone would put their “confidence in extortion” and their “hopes on robbery.”

But maybe extortion is too big a word, for there are all kinds of ways that we pressure one another to do or say something that benefits us rather than the one so pressured. I learned this lesson the hard way at nine when my fourteen-year-old brother persuaded me that trading my small speckled Easter eggs for his large brightly colored ones was a great deal. They were so much bigger in size he was doing me a favor – at two of mine for one of his. It turned out these big ones were disgusting and those little ones the real prize in our baskets. It’s not exactly extortion or robbery, but it does reveal how early and easily we learn to use one another to gain for ourselves.

“Put no confidence in extortion, and set no vain hopes on robbery.”

We have a notion that the free market means that we are trading fairly with one another, but the truth is darker. There are plenty of products cheaply made in order to gain our money – and plenty of employee behaviors taking advantage of their employers. I had a part-time job during seminary where they rounded your time card to the nearest quarter hour. My associates there showed me how to linger on the way to the time clock in order to punch out at 8 minutes after the hour rather than 7 and gain the extra fifteen minutes’ pay.

“Put no confidence in extortion, and set no vain hopes on robbery.”

The truth is we put a great deal of confidence in taking advantage of others. It’s a path to success. It’s a secret to wealth. Buy low, sell high. A little shoe polish makes the photo of the hamburger look all that more delicious. There’s a reason they hire attractive women in shiny dresses to stand by the shiny cars at the Detroit Auto Show.

We don’t have to be thugs on the street to use power to our advantage. This is the heart of K Street and the corruption of our political system. It is why the scripture looks so negatively on wealth/riches – wealth that is not from God in the form of abundant harvests, but gained at the expense of others. There are harsh warnings about buying and selling with false weights. There would be no need for such warnings if it didn’t come naturally to us.

So maybe the injunction in this psalm isn’t so odd.

The psalm is both an expression of faith and a warning: the poet declaring his confidence in God and warning his opponents of the danger of trusting their power.

11 Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this:
that power belongs to God,
12 and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.
For you repay to all according to their work.

There are consequences depending on in whom – or what – we place our trust and hope.

Yet another reason to seek out the God of mercy, and to follow when he calls.

 

Photo: By Kris de Curtis from Maddaloni, Italy (and Now .. Chocolate Eggs to Everyone!) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A belated post on the importance of celebrating Epiphany

File:Gotland-Grotlingbo Kyrka Taufstein 04.jpg

Grötlingbo Kyrka auf Gotland. Taufstein von Meister Sigraf ( 1200 ): Heilige Drei Könige

Epiphany. Shining. Manifest. Revealed. Made known. Antiochus IV called himself ‘Epiphanes’ – the manifestation of God on earth. He was the king who attempted to stamp out the strange, exclusive, unmodern faith of Israel and sparked the Maccabean revolt.

He is hardly the first human ruler to consider himself the manifestation of God in human form – nor the last. Few would remember him had he not tried to install an image of himself in the temple of Jerusalem, among a people who passionately opposed all such images and all other gods.

It is an affliction for all those with great wealth and power to believe that they rule by the modern equivalent of divine right: the myth of the free market means they have merited their wealth – no matter how crooked the game – that they are, therefore, by definition, superior humans, fit to tell other humans how to live, fit to decide who prospers and who falls, fit to decide who lives and who dies. War for bananas, war for oil, war for political influence, war for a fit of pique, it matters little. Britain went to war upon China because China didn’t want the British importing opium. But there was profit to be made. Big profits. The bankers crashed the economy because they thought they were smarter than everyone else and above the rules. (And we let them get away with it, so they are off on their divine right quest again. Thanks to riders slipped into the “CRomnibus bill” in return for their huge donations, they are able again to gamble with the government insured deposits or ordinary people.)

But it is not just the big muckety-wumps who think they are gods. We have all had teachers who acted this way, and bosses, and neighbors. Even clergy: why else would someone feel they have the right to put their hand down a little boy’s pants?

And there is a little tyrant in all of us.

It was bold of ancient Israel to declare we were made in the image of God rather than born of the blood of the chaos monster. The evidence seems to go the other way.

Epiphany. This day that seems like an afterthought to the sweet story of the baby Jesus, this day is desperately important. We are not the manifestation of God on earth; he is. He is our true humanity. He is our true unbroken spirit – our uncorrupted spirit. Unbent. Untwisted. Un-curved in upon itself. He is the faithful son humanity has failed to be. He is the love for which we were fashioned. He is the light that shines in our world of false lights. He is our redeeming grace, our hope for rebirth.

Like Noah he turns away the wrath of God and offers the world a new beginning. He is the one, true epiphany, the one, true manifestation of the face of both God and man.

Photo: By Wolfgang Sauber (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“But the fat and the strong I will destroy”

Friday

Ezekiel 34

File:US Capitol Building.jpg16I will seek the lost,
and I will bring back the strayed,
and I will bind up the injured,
and I will strengthen the weak,
but the fat and the strong I will destroy.

It’s such a sweet verse until you get to that last part about the fat and the strong. It is like eating sweet grapes and then biting into a sour one. It is the kind of language that troubles us about the Old Testament. But there is a story behind these words.

We don’t typically hear this shepherding imagery as political speech. We think of Psalm 23 and the parable of the shepherd searching out the lost sheep. We see the paintings of Jesus as the good shepherd with the lamb around his neck. We hear these words as sweet assurances of God’s care in times of trouble – and the last line doesn’t seem to fit.

But this is tough, prophetic language, spoken in a time when the leadership of the nation had engaged in policies that inevitably brought the nation to destruction. The royal house and wealthy families had caused this people to be scattered, wounded and impoverished. The words of the prophets in their time sound more like God declaring, “I, myself, will run the Fed, and lead the banks, and manage the economy,” in the years when the banking system nearly failed because of the criminal greed and manipulations of the banking houses. “I myself will refinance mortgages, and provide loans to Main Street, and hire the unemployed.”

Jerusalem had set a course that betrayed the justice and mercy God had commanded of the people, that worshiped at the altars of fertility gods and rain gods – gods of prosperity, gods of sex and power and wealth.

When God declares I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed,” the reference is to those refugees of war and famine that had fled the country – and looks back 200 years to the collapse of the northern kingdom for the same reasons and to the Assyrian resettlement policy that scattered the Israelites across the ancient world.

“I will bind up the injured,” speaks to those cut down by sword and spear. “I will strengthen the weak,” evokes those at the edge of starvation, like the liberated captives of the concentration camps. The siege of Jerusalem had been beyond brutal.

When God declares, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep,” it is a roaring voice from heaven that God will take back the reins of power and rescue his shattered people.

In such a context we can recognize the words “but the fat and the strong I will destroy” as words of grace. Those who ruled with power and greed will be erased from the nation, no more to inflict their damage upon the people of God.

I like the sweet hearing of the text. I like the picture of a tender God taking up the grieving, the lonely, the struggling, the wounded of life into his tender care. But there is also a word of the mighty God in this text – a God passionate for his people and his world – a God of power willing and able to undo the damage of human misrule. In the face of the continual violence erupting throughout the world, and the perpetual devastations of economic greed and power, there is warning and also great grace in these words – including those words at the end.

Wicked tenants

Friday

Matthew 21

File:Hubacker mit Turm.JPG

photo credit: Symposiarch

33There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.

It’s interesting to me that this story is often referred to as the parable of the wicked tenants. The tenants are certainly wicked in the eyes of the landlord, but I suspect that the peasants in the crowd, reduced to poverty through tenancy, are cheering for these daring rebels.

Some have suggested that the story is a warning by Jesus about the need for land reform. I don’t doubt that Jesus had things to say about land reform – but this is an argument about scripture rather than politics. What did God require of Israel? What fruit did God seek? What is the harvest God expects? The Torah was clear about land: it was a gift from God to a people rescued from slavery, a people without land. It was God’s land entrusted to them. It was not to be sold and acquired, but protected and preserved – and occasionally redistributed – that all might have access to life’s necessities.

Misfortunes leading to debts were not to drag a family down forever. “There will be no poor among you.”

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. I say “of course” only because of the reality of our resistance to the way of God in favor of the way of self.

The zealot answer was resistance and rebellion. It was the seizing of the temple and the burning of the debt records. (How profound is that symbolism that the temple served as the bank and kept record of debts?! Religion wedded to wealth and power rather than sharing and service.) And Rome’s answer to resistance and rebellion was crucifixion and destruction. A cycle of violence we continue to witness.

Jesus talked about forgiveness of debts, love of enemies, living the way of God. This is not land reform for the sake of land reform. This is land reform for the sake of our essential humanity, for being the reconciled and renewed sons and daughters of God. Faithful. Giving to God the fruit for which he looks.

So, like the prophet Isaiah, Jesus tells a vineyard story. Like the prophet, Jesus draws the crowd of listeners into his tale. Rebel tenants. The high priestly families that hold precisely such tenant vineyards are outraged by the behavior of these tenants. They cannot help declare that the owner will come with an army to destroy such rebels! And it’s only then, when they are fully engaged in the narrative – perhaps ready to do battle, expecting Jesus to defend the tenants – that Jesus let’s their own words condemn themselves: 41They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

To which Jesus answers, after quoting Psalm 118 about the stone the builders rejected:

43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom

The leaders of Jerusalem are the tenants. The ones in bed with Roman wealth and power. The ones who have neglected justice and mercy. The ones who built, in the name of God, a system God said they should never build.

This parable becomes dark with memory after the son, the crucified, is laid into a tomb. It morphs from parable into allegory: God is the landowner; the prophets are the servants sent to gather the “fruit”, the obedience owed to God; the rebel tenants are faithless Israel; the new tenants are the sinners and tax collectors and ultimately the gentiles who will give to God God’s due.  And the dark, dark memory of Jerusalem destroyed.

But it is not a tale of how we have gotten the vineyard. It is a tale about the consequences of not giving God what God has required of us: our love, our compassion, our generosity, our mercy, our fidelity – God’s way of sharing and service.

“Have you never read in the scripture?” Jesus asks. And it is much more than a question about that one verse where God takes the rejected stone to build his true temple.

The desire for more

Thursday

Luke 12

English: Goat Church, chapter house - seven de...

English: Goat Church, chapter house – seven deadly sins: ape, avaritia (greed) Deutsch: Todsünde: Geiz – Affe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

15And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.”

The problem with using the word greed in the translation of this verse is that none of us think we are greedy.  Greed is a negative thing, whereas enjoying the finer things in life is a sign of culture and status.  We don’t imagine ourselves to be gluttons; we have a discerning palate or a hearty appetite.  We don’t lust; we admire the beauty of the male or female form.  And since we live around people like ourselves – and there is always someone with more money than we have – it is not hard to persuade ourselves our possessions are ‘normal’.

The same thing is true if translate this verse with the word ‘covetousness’ or ‘acquisitiveness.’  We quickly and easily distance ourselves from those qualities.  We are slippery devils, always dodging or domesticating the words of Jesus.

But we can translate Jesus’ comment much more neutrally: “Watch out.  Guard against the desire to gain more than your share.”  Such a translation is harder to dodge.

Like most households, we had a rule growing up that if my brother or I cut the cake in two, the other got to choose his piece first.  That desire for the larger slice, the better parking spot, the nicer car, the larger house, the richer fields, the bigger paycheck, lies naturally within us all – but this is dangerous spiritual ground.  It is the realm of “me first,” though we have been called into the realm of a God who came to serve not to be served and who lays down his life for the sake of the world.

Research shows that those who get the bigger piece believe they deserve it.  Even when they know the game is rigged, they attribute their success to their own merits.  Again, this is dangerous spiritual ground, leading us away from God’s vision for human life, for we therefore tend to protect our privilege rather than the poor when God declares he is concerned for the opposite.

Jesus lived in a different economy than ours, but he lived with the same human heart.  So his first word is a warning against traveling that seductive and instinctive path that differs from the one to which God calls us.  Beware of wanting more.  Beware of the big piece.  Beware of the clever deal.  Beware of the shrewd move.  Beware of the inside trade.  Beware of taking advantage of another.  Beware of that desire to win.  The one with the most toys doesn’t.

My big brother always wanted to trade Halloween or Easter candy with me.  I learned pretty quickly that I was going to lose in that deal.  He had the bug, the desire for more, the hope of advantage, the goal of prospering at other’s expense.  I learned the hard way, and it made me mad, but it didn’t stop me from trying the same thing with my younger brother.

“Beware of the desire for more.”

Consider God’s will as it was revealed to Israel:  the many commands not to use faulty weights in measuring out the grain you sell or buy, not to harvest to the edge of your property but to leave the margins for those without land to come and harvest, not to glean your fields but to leave it to the poor, not to go back should a sheaf of wheat fall off the wagon but to leave it for the poor, not to show preference to the wealthy in the courts.  Consider the prohibition from selling land – for the land is a gift from God to be divided to all in Israel – the provision for the regular release from debts, the command that when someone is forced to become a slave/servant they can serve only seven years and then you must send them out with enough resources to get on their own feet again, the obligation to give a tithe for the poor.

God moves in the direction of providing for all.  The manna from heaven went to all, and those who tried to gather more got only what they needed, and those who tried to hoard it for the future found it full of worms the next day.

God moves in the direction of providing for all.  To travel in the direction of gaining more than others leads us away from the kingdom of God. Jesus has much more to say about wealth, but he starts with this simple warning: “Beware the desire for more.”

*   *   *

PS  Isn’t it interesting that the medieval image for greed was an ape – a creature like humans, but lacking humanity.