The scalpel of God

File:Syriske flyktninger (8184618433).jpg

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Mark 9:37)

This is the message from last Sunday, September 23, 2018, on which the congregation celebrated the 40th anniversary of my ordination. The sermon is related to that anniversary, but rooted in the assigned readings: Mark 9:30-37, Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, and James 3:13-4:8a,

Mark 9:30-37: They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

You see, O God,
the struggle of the human heart for privilege and honor
and set before us the betrayed and crucified body of your Son.
May he who was servant of all teach us his way;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

+   +   +

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

It’s hard to believe I have been doing this for 40 years. It’s stunning to wake up one morning and realize how long it’s been. On the other hand, it’s amazing to think back to all the people and places I’ve known. I have lots of memories – though not as many as I wish. I regret not having kept a journal of my experiences through the years.

A friend wrote me last week about a dramatic graveside service in the rain. It was Wisconsin, so I’m assuming there had been a thunderstorm. I wrote back about a graveside service on a cold November day in Toledo, grey skies, the trees stripped of their leaves, in a little old country cemetery now surrounded on three sides by an oil refinery. I stood at the head of a casket before a small huddle of people, amid the pungent aromas of the refinery and the sounds of its clangs and whistles and whooshes, reading the ancient texts and speaking the promise of a new creation. I wish I knew who that was.

I wish I remembered the name of the person whose funeral I conducted one Good Friday. I had buried his wife four days earlier. He went home after the service, climbed up in his closet and got down an old pistol. Now their adult children were before me once again.

In those days when the heavens seem silent, it falls to the preacher to speak, to break that wall of silence, to let the voice of God be heard in its fearful sweetness.

I never understood the wife of a colleague of mine who was a minister in the United Church of Christ. For her, the sermon was only one member of the community sharing their thoughts for the rest of the community – thoughts the community could take or leave as they saw fit. I don’t know if that’s true of her whole church body; I just know she didn’t share this deep conviction that somewhere in the weeds of the preacher’s words would be hiding the voice of the eternal with all its power to wound and heal.

When I was interviewed here, downstairs in the Fireside Room, I was asked to lead a devotion at the beginning of the meeting. I don’t remember if the call committee had forgotten to tell me they wanted me to do this, or if it was part of the test to see what I might do at the last moment. I turned to the passage in Hebrews (4:12) about the Word of God being sharper than any two-edged sword and talked about the fact that the word ‘sword’ there was the word for the small dagger possessed by a soldier, not the big sword. That dagger was used for fine cutting. It’s more of a knife than a sword, and I suggested we should understand the Word of God as a scalpel with which God does surgery on our hearts.

We are in need of surgery. The Bible is not a book of doctrines and policies; it gives very few absolute answers beyond loving God and neighbor with all your heart and soul and mind. But what the Bible does do is convey to us these stories, events, poems and preaching that have the power, like a scalpel, to set us free from the fears and sins that bind us and shape us into the creatures we were meant to be.

Let us imagine for a moment that Kavanaugh did this thing of which he is accused. And let’s clear away for a moment all the partisan politics and ideologies that are clamoring for power. Let us just imagine that a person is suddenly confronted with a fact from the past saying, “You did this to me, and this is what it cost me.”

It is a fearful thought. Maybe it was forgotten in a haze of alcohol, maybe it was a memory suppressed, maybe it was one of those things you never thought anything about because it was ordinary in the world in which you lived, I don’t know. But suddenly here is this word with its long bony finger pointed at you. This is the story of David and the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 11:1-12:23). David is swept away by the beauty of Uriah’s wife bathing in the moonlight. He sends for her. She gets pregnant. He brings Uriah home from the front hoping to cover his crime. Uriah is too honorable to enjoy the comforts of his home and bed while his men are in the field. David gives secret orders to put Uriah in the front lines and pull away. He is killed. The King’s crime is covered and forgotten. But then comes Nathan with a story of a poor man and his single beloved lamb. The lamb lies in the poor man’s lap like one of our comfort animals. The rich man with many flocks has a visitor arrive and takes the poor man’s lamb to serve his guest for dinner. David is incensed. “The man deserves to die,” he shouts. And then Nathan points his long bony finger and says: “You are the man.”

The word of God is a scalpel. But it points at David not to condemn and destroy, but to free and heal him.

So here we are with this story about Kavanaugh. The response we see around us is to destroy him or to destroy her, and in that instinctive reaction it is not Kavanaugh’s sins that are on display nor his accusers; it is our sins. We are not looking for healing; we are looking for triumph. One way or the other, one side or the other, we want to win. We want to crush our enemies. And we are willing to order Kavanaugh or Ford to the front lines and pull back.

So there is a story about the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 6:8-23). The king of Aram (what is now Syria) is at war with Israel. But God keeps telling the prophet what the king of Aram is doing, where he is moving his troops, where he is planning to attack, and the King of Israel keeps escaping his grasp. The King of Aram is enraged, convinced that one of his generals is betraying him by leaking his plans to the enemy. They all plead innocence. None of them is the betrayer; it is the prophet who whispers to the King of Israel the King of Aram’s private thoughts. So the King of Aram sends his army to seize the prophet. They come at night and surround the city.

In the morning, the prophet’s servant looks out and sees the town surrounded by an army of horses and chariots and cries out in fear. His story is about to end at the point of a spear. But the prophet prays for God to open his servant’s eyes, and he looks up to see the angelic armies of God encircling the city. “Those who are with us,” says the prophet, “are more than those who are with them.”

God strikes the enemy troops with a blindness, a confusion, a fog. As they come into town, the prophet says “Oh you have the wrong town. I’ll show you the way.” And he leads them to the King of Israel. The prophet prays for God to open their eyes and they find themselves surrounded in the capital city. And here is the punch line: The king asks the prophet what he’s supposed to do with the enemy now in his hand. “Shall I kill them, my father? Shall I kill them?” All his enemy’s soldiers are in his power. He has the chance to destroy them completely. But the prophet says instead that he should feed them. The king sets before them a banquet. They sit down to a table of peace. They are reconciled.

We want to win. We want to crush our enemies. “Shall I kill them, my father?” But the scalpel of God tells a story about reconciliation, repentance, transformation, love of God and neighbor.

I have a deep sympathy for Ford; I know something about sexual assault. I also have a deep sympathy for Kavanaugh; I know something about having your life turned upside down in a moment – and I know something about the sins of our youth. Perhaps mostly, I have a deep sorrow for the nation, because we are so far from the kingdom and rushing in the wrong direction. We are a people who do not know how to repent, and the sins of our past – from greed and slavery and genocide to our everlasting faith in winning at all costs – keep haunting us. Our good deeds can’t make the old deeds go away. David was faithful in almost everything. Yet this murder of Uriah needed to be confessed or it would all go wrong.

So there’s another story (1 Kings 21). King Ahab married the daughter of the Sidonian king (1 Kings 16:31). Her name was Jezebel. We don’t name our kids Jezebel anymore.

Ahab grows up in a world where God is God. God has given the land to the people, divided it among every tribe and family. The land is not my possession; it is a gift of God to my family. It is my responsibility to care for it; it is not my privilege to dispose of it. The law says I can’t sell it. If I have to, I can sell the right to use the land until the next sabbatical year. I can sell the next so many harvests, but I can’t sell it permanently.

Ahab is king. He has a palace. He wants the vineyard that belongs to Naboth in order to grow vegetables. Naboth is scandalized by the idea that he should sell his patrimony. He says no. Ahab is depressed and goes to bed. Jezebel is disgusted. She will teach him how a king uses power. She gives a banquet. She invites Naboth to sit at the high table. She hires two scoundrels to sit next to him. In the middle of the dinner they stand up and accuse Naboth of cursing God and the King. They take him out and stone him to death. Jezebel goes to Ahab and says, “Go get your garden.”

Except God has a prophet. God has a servant with God’s heavenly scalpel. And the prophet is standing there in the garden when Ahab shows up to claim it. This is not the kingship God wants, says the prophet, Ahab’s kingdom will fall by the same violence Ahab used.

And so the scalpel of God comes to us. Will we choose violence or faithfulness? Will we choose victory or redemption? Will we choose wealth, power and conquest or justice, mercy and reconciliation?

Story after story, preached word after preached word, songs and poems and history and even erotic poetry – it’s all here in this book – and lurking in it all is this God with a scalpel who would heal our hearts.

So, in the texts we heard today: Jeremiah is a prophet. He holds the scalpel of God. And the word of judgment he speaks against a corrupt regime creates enemies. The king doesn’t want to hear what Jeremiah has to say. Jeremiah will send the king a copy of everything God had said, and the king will burn it all, page by page, in the brazier standing next to him to keep him warm. (Jeremiah 36)

Jeremiah is a priest. His hometown is a village of priests. They all have a stake in the temple and the monarchy. They have a good life. They don’t want Jeremiah mucking it up for them. They see treason in him, not the divine scalpel. They plot to kill him. And so we hear Jeremiah crying out to God in the words we read this morning: “I was like a lamb led to the slaughter.” And we know there is in us a piece of this village of Anathoth that wants to hold on to what we have even if it means silencing the prophet. Even as Jerusalem rose up against Jesus.

The book of James wields the divine scalpel against the passions that drive our hearts and lead us to betray the divine will. Submit yourselves therefore to God,” he writes, “resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. The disciples are thinking: “Our time is coming! We are going to win. We are going to rule.” And they argue over which of them is the top dog.

“What were you talking about?” asks Jesus. He knows full well what they were talking about. Arguments in the Middle East are never quiet.

“What were you talking about?” And suddenly they are silent. Jesus is holding the divine scalpel in his hand. It’s not a sword, though; it’s just a scalpel. It is always just a scalpel, meant to heal and not to harm. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And Jesus puts a child in their midst.

Now we have to get this right. In our society, if you don’t have enough food, you feed the children first. In the time of Jesus, you feed the adults first. Children are loved, but they are at the bottom of the totem pole. They are valued. They are blessings from God. Hopefully they will become adults and take care of their aging parents. But the odds are they won’t make it to adulthood. The death toll is too high. The calories have to go to those who can work the fields.

If we really want to understand what Jesus is saying to his followers, we need to imagine Jesus taking a refugee, or a homeless person, or an addict, whomever we think matters least, and setting him or her in the midst of us, putting his arms around him or her and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

It is the scalpel of God.

Amen

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Syriske_flyktninger_(8184618433).jpg By Norsk Folkehjelp Norwegian People’s Aid from Norway (Syriske flyktninger) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Bread for the journey

File:N.D. de la Chapelle 812.jpg

Friday

1 Kings 19:1-8

1Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets [of Baal] with the sword.

The reading as appointed for this Sunday doesn’t include these words. It begins without explanation in verse 4 saying “[Elijah] went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree.” There was a time in which the average person in the pew knew the story of Elijah’s dramatic confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. They would have known that the northern kingdom of Israel’s king, Ahab, had married a Sidonian Princess, Jezebel, and she had undertaken a project to bring Israel’s ancient faith into the modern world, replacing its god of the exodus and wilderness with Baal, the god of rain – replacing the God of justice and mercy with the god of fertility and prosperity. The average parishioner would have known that a profound religious conflict was underway, that Jezebel was murdering the prophets of the LORD, and that God had declared through Elijah that if Israel wanted to worship the god who gives rain, God would show them who truly ruled and announced there would be no rain except at God’s word.

When the burden of the drought became unbearable, with the king plundering the resources of the countryside for his own table and horses, Elijah summoned the people and proposed a showdown with the prophets of Baal. Each would lay out a sacrifice but neither would bring fire. Each would pray for their god to send down fire from heaven. The prophets of Baal did their ecstatic prayers all day as Elijah stood by taunting them to shout louder suggesting Baal “is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”  Then, to demonstrate the truth of the LORD, Elijah drowns his altar with water before offering his prayer. Fire promptly descends and consumes everything: offering, altar and the surrounding ditch of water.

An uprising occurs where Elijah orders the murder of the pagan prophets. The queen, however, is enraged and unconverted. She solemnly vows to kill Elijah who flees into the wilderness; his triumphant cultural revolution has failed. There, in his exhaustion, fear and despair, he lies down and prays to die.

There was a time everyone hearing our small portion of the reading would have known all this backstory, but no longer. And maybe the language of murderous religious strife is too toxic for our day. But without the backstory, the power and drama of the meal eludes us. Wondrous bread in the wilderness is one thing; bread when all hope is lost is another.

The God who feeds Elijah is the God who again and again delivers when hope is lost. From the very first narrative of Adam and Eve evicted from the Garden, or Cain with the blood of his brother on his hands, God provides a future when the future is lost. A new beginning is given to a world engulfed in violence through Noah. The line of Shem ends with Abraham and a barren wife, yet a child is promised and given. Jacob is sold into slavery, imprisoned by a lie and lost in the dungeons of Egypt, but rises to rule. Israel is in bondage but God opens the Red Sea. In the wilderness without food or water, a rock yields a river and the heavens rain manna. When Jerusalem is destroyed and the people in exile without hope, God announces a new exodus: make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” It is the central narrative of the scripture.

There is so much more in our little narrative than a wondrous heavenly meal given to an ancient prophet. It is the gift of hope, the promise of a future, a journey worth taking into the presence of God.

We hear this story as people who see the painful wounds of the world and the terrible capacities of the human heart. In every sanctuary is a cross – testimony to the brutal reign of human empire in the nails and pierced side of Jesus. We hear this story in the midst of our personal journeys to fearful places. But the grave is empty. And from the wounded hands of a risen lord we, like Elijah, are fed with bread for the journey.

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:N.D._de_la_Chapelle_812.jpg By Michel wal [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from 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

Woe to you, Chorazin

Friday

Matthew 11

File:Korazim Old Synagogue2.jpg

Ancient Synagogue in Korazim Israel.

Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.

These verses are omitted by our assigned reading. They stand between Jesus’ remark about the fickle response of the people to those God has sent:

18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

and his prayer of thanks:

“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”

The Phoenician city/kingdoms of Tyre and Sidon were not the great military powers that threatened ancient Israel – they were the great cultural and economic powers, wealthy, prestigious, traversing the Mediterranean with the wealth of the nations.

It is Tyre that teaches Jerusalem how to build a proper palace and temple. It is Sidon that forms an alliance with Israel sealed by the marriage of Ahab to the Sidonian princess Jezebel. It is Jezebel who sets out to replace Israel’s archaic faith with a modern, progressive understanding of the gods – the worship of Ba’al, the god of the storm, the source of rain, the bringer of fertility and prosperity and his consort, Ashtoreth (Astarte). It is Jezebel who teaches Ahab about “modern” kingship and the use of power, arranging Naboth’s murder in order to seize his vineyard for a garden.

It is Jezebel who vows to murder Elijah after the great showdown on Mount Carmel that results in the people rising up to slaughter the priests of Ba’al.

Had these cities, symbols of idolatry, seen what the towns of Galilee had seen and heard in Jesus, they would surely have repented – changed their allegiance from gods of wealth and fertility to the LORD who rescues slaves, defends the poor and delivers the needy. They would have embraced the reign of God dawning in Jesus.

It’s a little like saying Wall Street and Washington would become models of piety and compassion, servants of justice and the poor.

Woe to us, how shameful, that we have seen the majesty and mystery of God in this Jesus and do not acknowledge that he is of God, that he speaks the eternal truths, shows the path of our true humanity, and brings to us God’s gifts of healing and life.

There is nothing here or elsewhere in the Scriptures that celebrates ignorance when it critiques “the wise and intelligent”; these words challenge the elites of society whose attachment is to the world they have created rather than to the world God is creating. They may be wise about war and politics and the manipulation of markets; but they are ‘fools’ when it comes to that which is eternal and enduring. Their allegiance is to Rome rather than the New Jerusalem, to their power and privilege rather than the justice and compassion of God.

But some have seen: the poor, the indebted, the enslaved, the wounded, the outcast – the powerless and inconsequential ‘infants’ of the day – they have seen and welcomed the dawning kingdom. And for these who see Jesus gives thanks to God. In the mystery of God’s working, these are the ones who change the world.

The God of justice

Thursday

Matthew 26

File:Jesus bearing the cross - Sagrada Familia - Barcelona 2014.JPG

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

59Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death

They needed an excuse. Not that they needed to justify their actions to themselves – they had good reasons, and they, after all, are the smart and intelligent leaders of the land who know what needs to be done and how to get it done. But there needs to be the appearance of propriety. Plausible deniability. Cover.

When King Ahab pouts because Naboth will not sell him his field, Jezebel, daughter of the Sidonian king, shows Ahab how power is exercised in the real world. She finds two willing witnesses, sets Naboth between them at a public liturgy, has her “witnesses” accuse him of cursing God and the king, and has him executed.

As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.

The leaders of Judea have become Naboth and Jezebel, adept at the exercise of power. They understand the real world of Rome. They know how to pull the levers of power. They have a dependent class of people to use as a rabble to cry out for Jesus’ death. The only thing to work out is the official story so Pilate will bring the terrible power of Rome crashing down on this uppity peasant who challenges their world.

They have abandoned the way of God for the way of the world.

It is not hard to rationalize their decision. If Jesus gains enough followers, if he becomes a threat to Rome, if his followers cause any political instability, Rome will quickly march in, depose them all and appoint someone else to rule the land. Romans want order. They want nothing to interfere with the flow of tribute to Rome.

These leaders in Jerusalem can’t control Jesus. He is a loose cannon. Talk of justice, talk of the reign of God – these are dangerous ideas. A few wondrous deeds, a healing, and suddenly people will think anything is possible. He must be silenced. And more than silenced – he must be neutralized completely. He must be crushed. He must be disgraced in the eyes of all.

It is the way of power. Whether with the skill of lobbyists in congress or lawyers in the courts – drag out the case for years until the poor suitor is penniless or exhausted – the advantage lies with the strong. They need only the thinnest veneer of respectability.

So the God of justice is served by the unjust. The protector of widows and orphans, the defender of the poor, the avenger of the alien with no one to protect him against predation – this God is preyed upon. 30 pieces of silver. An accusation that he has threatened the temple. A couple lackeys to say he claims the kingship. And Rome will smack him down.

But he doesn’t stay down. The God of justice arises. The defender of the poor defends his faithful one. Death must give back its victim and the power of this world is shown to be powerless.

So we watch the machinations of politicians and corporations; bankers, lawyers and lobbyists; clever manipulators of markets and social opinion. But the world belongs to the God of justice. Jerusalem was destroyed. Rome no longer exists. A succession of Romes have come and gone, but the followers of this Jesus are still here, passing on his words and deeds, and living by the knowledge that Ahab and Jezebel do not get the last word. It is spoken by the God of justice.