The angels are dancing

File:Angels dancing sun Giovanni di Paolo Condé Chantilly.jpg

Wednesday

Exodus 32:7-14

7The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely…”

Much about this story is delightful. The people have acclaimed the golden calf as the divine power that brought them out of Egypt – and God responds by saying these are Moses’ people whom he brought out of Egypt. It’s a little like one parent saying to the other “Do you know what your son did?” as if the child were not his or her own child as well. God tells Moses to get out of his way so he can destroy them, and Moses intercedes saying, “What will the neighbors think?” (More literally, and more darkly, that the Egyptians will think God lacked the power to give the Israelites the promised land, so he killed them in the wilderness – or that he intended to kill them all along!)

We have trouble letting God appear to be so “human”, infected as we are with later notions of God as omniscient, omnipresent, and unmoved. But the narrative isn’t trying to tell us about God’s inner being; it is trying to make clear how great is the divide created by Israel’s idolatry. To give glory to the divine through the image of a bull, in keeping with the religious ideas and imagery of the ancient near east (virility, power), is to betray the relationship created at Sinai. “I will be your God and you will be my people,” said the LORD, but neither has been either. Israel has been like a newlywed bedding down someone encountered on their honeymoon.

This is not about Israel transgressing a commandment; it is about Israelites betraying the one who was paid the price to claim them as his own.

And this is not just about Israel. This is about the reality of all our idolatries. They are not errors and mistakes; they are adulteries. They are relationship destroying. When we put our faith, hope and trust in anything other than God we are no longer God’s people. The covenant lies broken, like the tablets of the commandments shattered upon the ground.

And there are so many suitors wanting to claim that throne – possessions, family, work, health, all claiming to be the source of life’s goodness and joy, life’s meaning and purpose, life’s true center. And we give our allegiance away so freely. There is a reason the prophets will come back again and again to images of adultery to explain the destruction of the nation. Those who had been delivered from bondage in Egypt found bondage in Babylon.

The genius of the text is the genius of the whole Biblical narrative. The betrayal that deserves abandonment is met with mercy. Moses understands. Moses reminds God of his own nature. He intercedes.

We are much too willing to step aside hoping God will, in fact, destroy sinners and enemies. But we are called to be Moses, interceding for God to show mercy. We are called to be Abraham, pressing God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah. We are called to be Jesus, forgiving those who crucify him. We are called to be children of the Spirit, children of the Resurrection, children of the reign of God when sinners and outcasts are gathered and all are fed from the tree of life.

It’s in the light of that day, dawning in Jesus, that the heavens are full of joy and the angels are dancing.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAngels_dancing_sun_Giovanni_di_Paolo_Cond%C3%A9_Chantilly.jpg  Giovanni di Paolo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

God sees

File:Jakarta slumhome 2.jpg

Thursday

Jeremiah 23:23-32

23Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?

It is a question that will have great power in the years that follow Jeremiah’s preaching, when Jerusalem has been destroyed and its citizens carried off in chains to exile in Babylon.

Is God with them in this far off land? Or do they now inhabit another’s realm? Can we end up so far from home that God is not with us? When we are broken, is God present? Or is God a god who prefers greatness, who stands with those on the victory platform?

It seems that way, sometimes. The stories of some Christian communities are so filled with success and answered prayers that those who walk through the valley imagine God walks only with others.

But the Biblical story is that God is god even in exile, even in Egypt, even in the wilderness. The shining light at the heart of Christianity is a cross: Christ among the degraded, Christ among the broken. God among the exiles.

Yes, God is present.

But Jeremiah’s challenge is spoken to a nation and a leadership enamored with the voices of prophets who speak their own thoughts and passions and dreams: “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name,” says the LORD.

Yes, God is present in the valley. But God is also present on the stage where the name of Jesus is whipped around in support of ideologies and bigotries and zealous agendas. God is present where nations are led to the adoration of might and away from the adoration of the true. God is present where peoples are led to the worship of success and not to the honoring of mercy, where people are enamored with promises of glory and not justice. God is present – to judge, as the divine representatives of the nations gathered before God in the psalm will hear.

23 “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? 24Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” says the Lord.

God sees.

The word is comfort to the fallen, great comfort. But the word is danger to our idolatries.

God sees.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJakarta_slumhome_2.jpg By Jonathan McIntosh (Own work) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

That stubborn claim

Friday

Acts 4:1-13

File:Villamblard église vitrail choeur détail.JPG1While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, 2much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. 3So they arrested them…

I don’t know whether ‘annoyed’ is quite the right term for the anger of the Jerusalem leaders towards the apostles, but it is helpful to recognize in this simple sentence what ancients and the poor understand about authority: it serves the powerful.   They didn’t like what the apostles were saying so they arrested them. This is not a world in which people have rights.

But why should the preaching of these two from Galilee come to the attention of the Jerusalem leadership, and why should it offend them? It is common for people to suggest, because the Sadducees are named and the Sadducees didn’t find resurrection in the Torah, that the problem is the Sadducees didn’t like that the disciples were teaching the doctrine of the resurrection. But the resurrection was a common idea in Judea and Galilee and there were members of the high council that themselves held this opinion. The problem isn’t a doctrinal dispute. The problem is that Peter and John are preaching that Jesus was raised from the dead – the Jesus that these leaders executed for blaspheming God. To suggest that God resurrected this Jesus is to say that God was on the side of Jesus and not the leadership of the nation. Indeed, it says the leadership of the people has betrayed and forfeited their office for they rejected God’s anointed one.

To proclaim that the high priest no longer represents God is good reason for the high priest to have you arrested.

This is the same thing that gets believers in trouble when they declare that Jesus is Lord. When Caesar claims to be lord of all, he will not tolerate anyone declaring that someone else is Lord.

This is the joy and dilemma of Christian faith in every age. When Rome passes a law requiring every woman to be married and bear children, a woman’s choice of virginity becomes a declaration that her body does not belong to the state but to God. So St. Lucy is put to death. When the amorous advances of a suitor are spurned, he betrays her to the state. In the same way, the martyrs of Uganda perish when they reject the sexual predations of their king. Hitler made it the duty of every German woman to bear children for the Reich. Our culture now mocks virginity and considers our sexual self-expression essential to our humanity. A lot of money is being made selling sex, beauty, and little blue pills, but on that altar many of our young people are being sacrificed.

When St. Francis walks away from his father’s wealth to embrace a life of poverty, he is rejecting the implicit claim of wealth and privilege to supremacy. When Christians do such a simple thing as tithe, giving away the first portion of their income, they testify that wealth and possessions are not our master. Our cultural masters need us to buy more stuff – even at peril of the creation itself – for it serves the bottom line. But we do not belong to the economy; we belong to God.

The dark side of the argument in support of Charlie Hebdo is the idolatry of personal freedom – the belief that I am my own master, that no one can tell me what to do. To this Christianity must say “No, not quite.” There is another to whom your life belongs. He alone gives true freedom.

This is why Christians ought not equate “God and Country”. The two don’t quite match up. I may choose to serve my neighbor by serving my country, but my country is not my Lord.

Nor does God and prosperity quite match up – despite the numbers that Joel Osteen and ilk attract. Jesus kept saying things like “You cannot serve God and Mammon,” and “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God, the things that are God’s.” Jesus is standing in line with Joshua (“Choose this day whom you will serve,”) and Elijah (“How long will you go limping with two different opinions,”) Deuteronomy (“There is no God besides me,”) and Isaiah (“Besides me there is no god”). God and Asherah, God and Baal, God and wealth, God and sex, God and country, don’t match up.

There is a stubborn claim in the heart of Christian faith that life belongs to God alone. He alone is Lord. It is a claim that “annoys” civil, cultural and corporate leaders. It lands Peter and John in prison – and many after them – and many still today.

But God has raised the Jesus this world crucified – and to him all creation belongs.

 

Photo: By Père Igor (Own work) [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.

The question “Why?!”

Friday

Ezekiel 18

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Michelangelo, the prophet Ezekiel on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

4Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.

The translators’ use of the words ‘parent’ and ‘child’ distorts the meaning of the Hebrew ‘father’ and ‘son’. It makes us think of families and small children rather than adults of different generations. We react instinctively with aversion to any talk of God taking the life of a child. But the sins the prophet has in mind are listed in verses we skip in the assigned reading: violence, murder, rape, robbery and usury. These are hardly the sins of children. They are crimes we ourselves think deserve death, even if we don’t support capital punishment.

4Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.

Still, the words sound harsh to us because our attention is drawn to the judgment that “the person who sins…shall die.” It suggests an image of a punishing God, striking people down. Since so many people seem so ready to take up that task on God’s behalf we rightly shirk from these ideas. But, again, the sins of which we are speaking are crimes that all would recognize as violating others and debasing their common life.

It is true that the prophet names idolatry with these crimes against persons. There was not a line between ‘religious’ acts and civic life and this can confuse us because we think of religion as private thoughts separate from public acts. But this is too narrow and too modern a notion of religion. The gods of our day often ask for child sacrifice; they simply disguise their claim. We are not spilling the blood of a child at the foundations of a city gate; we are neglecting or aborting them in the name of success, happiness, or as the price of our addictions. Or we are sending them off to war putting our faith, hope and trust in the power of violence. The character of Francis Underwood in the show “House of Cards” commits murder (and a host of other sin/crimes) because his ultimate faith is in power. The thing we worship is the fountain of the things we do.

In the time of the prophet, people took it for granted that the price of such fundamental betrayals of God and neighbor was death. In a society without prisons, what other punishments could be rendered? Compensation may apply for crimes of property, and cities of refuge could justly answer an accidental death – but how else can a community restrain violence? And where a community cannot hold people accountable, God must.

This is not to say that God strikes people down like Zeus throwing thunderbolts, but it does mean that such people are cut off from God, the source of life. It means that the consequences of their deeds come back upon their own heads. So the surprising word in this text, the word that is meant to engage us, is not the word ‘die’ but the word ‘only’: “only the person who sins that shall die.”

At a time and place when the people are blaming their troubles on the deeds of the previous generations (the parents ate the sour grapes and the children got the sour taste), God speaks a simple “No.” It doesn’t mean that every tragedy is God’s judgment on the victim. It means that these particular people at the dawn of the 6th Century BCE must take responsibility for the actions that have led them into exile. They are not the helpless victims of a judgment for the sins of others; they are responsible adults – and since their troubles are their own doing, their future is also in their own hands. They can change the direction of their lives: 31Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!”

God takes no pleasure in watching us suffer the consequences of our misplaced faiths, hopes and trusts. Indeed this is the anguished cry God in the prophet’s words “Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.”

It is God who, in the face of human sorrows, is asking the question “Why?!”

Here I am! Here I am!

Thursday

Isaiah 65:1-9

with open arms 両手を広げて

with open arms 両手を広げて (Photo credit: jessleecuizon)

1I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
      to be found by those who did not seek me
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
      to a nation that did not call on my name.

The prophet’s poetry is exquisite; the cry of God plaintive.  A God eager to be found.  A God of fabulous promises and great mercy.  A God who brought the people back from exile in Babylon, home again to the land once promised to their ancestor Abraham.  A God with outstretched arms, both here and on the cross.  “Here I am!  Here I am!”  But we do not call on his name.

2I held out my hands all day long
      to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
      following their own devices;
3a people who provoke me
     to my face continually,
sacrificing in gardens
      and offering incense on bricks;
4who sit inside tombs,
     and spend the night in secret places;
who eat swine’s flesh,
     with broth of abominable things in their vessels;
5who say, “Keep to yourself,
      do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.”
These are a smoke in my nostrils,
      a fire that burns all day long.

Fabulous, brutal poetry, speaking the truth of a people who look everywhere for prosperity and goodness except to the one who has already given it, the one who holds out his hands and cries “Here I am!”

Our constant worship of the gods of security and profit, the sacrifices offered in the bodies of the poor for the clothing we covet at bargain prices, the sacrifices offered in the lives of our children who are sexualized before their time, the sacrifices we offer of family life to the gods of work and wealth.  “Here I am!  Here I am!” cries the one who is the bread of life, the living water, the light of all creation.

We think we are special, elite, ‘holy’, when our honoring of such gods is an acrid scent before heaven: a face full of diesel exhaust on an urban street, the inescapable smoke in the eyes that follows you round a campfire.

I will measure into their laps
      full payment for their actions.

There will be consequences.  We suffered some with the greed that led to our last economic near collapse – and many suffer still.  We have laid many in the ground for our trust in violence to bring peace.  Sexual diseases repay our worship of sex.  But God is not done with us or the world.

8Thus says the Lord: As the wine is found in the cluster,
      and they say, “Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,”
so I will do for my servants’ sake,
      and not destroy them all.
9I will bring forth descendants from Jacob,
      and from Judah inheritors of my mountains;
my chosen shall inherit it,
      and my servants shall settle there.

Português: Igreja da Misericordia, Pernes,Portugal

Português: Igreja da Misericordia, Pernes,Portugal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The God who gathers, the God who blesses, the God who redeems the earth, the God who loves without limit, who remains faithful despite all human faithlessness, will bring joy from sorrow, goodness from evil, life from death.

Here I am!  Here I am!  Waiting to be found.