Burdens heavy and light

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The “work” of scripture

Once more from last Sunday

Last Sunday was warm – not as warm as it has been, but it was the weekend following the fourth of July, so it seemed right to begin the sermon by saying:

On a hot summer day it seems hard to say more than “God loves you; go in peace.” We should be at the beach with our toes in the sand. We should be at a lake in the mountains, or on the back porch listening to the ball game with an iced-tea in our hands. We should be holding hands in a movie where the theater is cool. Or visiting a friend with air-conditioning and children the same age running around the back yard. Hot summer days don’t seem like the days for work.

But scripture is work. It asks something of us. It bids us listen. It asks us to see. It calls for self-examination and an open heart. It summons us to generosity and compassion and the hard work of reconciliation.

Scripture is work. But scripture is also promise. It comes to heal. To comfort. To reassure. To encourage. It comes to free what is bound and restore what is broken. It comes to gather what is scattered and unite what is divided. Scripture is work, but it is also promise. It bids us bend the knee, and yet raises us in an eternal embrace.

If you would like to read the whole sermon, it is posted here. It is rooted in the Gospel text for Sunday that includes harsh words of judgment against the cities of Jesus’ day and the sweet word of invitation:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Here are two other thoughts from the sermon:

People wouldn’t listen to John because he was too freakishly religious, and they won’t listen to Jesus because he’s not religious enough. At least, he’s not their kind of religion. But this is the deal. We don’t get to pick the god we want. We have to deal with the God who is.

+     +     +

There is a yoke here. There is a life of service to be lived. It is not an easy yoke in the sense that it doesn’t ask much of us; it asks very much indeed. But it is light because the work of mercy and grace lifts the heart and frees the Spirit and leads to joy and life.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKom%C3%A1rom554.JPG By Szeder László (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Fall

File:Metz (57) cathédrale St Etienne 36.jpg

“Why does Jesus have to tell us to love one another if we have been made in the image of God whose very being is faithfulness and love?”

This question from last Sunday’s sermon led us into the narrative of humanity’s turn away from God and their plucking the fruit of the tree that brings the knowledge of “good and evil”, of life’s joys and sorrows.

What follows is the information in the booklet we handed out following worship explaining the images used in our sanctuary last Sunday. The sermon series is designed to help us understand what Jesus was telling his followers on the road to Emmaus about the fundamental witness of the scripture to the sacrificial, redemptive love of God.   (For more information about this series, see the explanation in the post for week 1.)

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Metz_(57)_cath%C3%A9drale_St_Etienne_36.jpg By Jacques CHAZARD (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

 

Genesis 3


In the middle of the garden were the tree of life
and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.


File:Shaki khan palace interier.jpg

In the garden is the tree of life. We are mortal creatures, but we are not made for death. There is a food that grants life. The tree of life shows up in Revelation. Christ has opened the way to the tree of life. It bears fruit in every month “and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

But there is also a tree that will give the knowledge and experience of life’s sorrows, the knowledge of what is beautiful and what is brutal, what is kind and cruel, what is joyful and grievous. Here are the tears of life from which God would protect us. And so the command: every tree but this one.

Painting of life tree in interoer of Shaki Khan palace, Azerbaijan National Art Museum, Usta Gambar Garabagi
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AShaki_khan_palace_interier.jpg By Urek Meniashvili (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 


“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”


File:Adam and snake sculpture, Iskola Promenade, 2016 Dunakeszi.jpg

Trouble comes already with the question. Humans are free to choose to trust God’s word or to trust their own judgment. Until now they live in a perfect trust: they are “naked and not ashamed,” vulnerable but not fearful, open to one another and to God not turned in on themselves, living in perfect love of God and one another.

But then comes the question: “Did God say…?” It is the kind of question that plants doubt and uncertainty. Instead of trusting God’s word they question it. It is like a remark to a woman or a man, “Are you sure your husband/wife is working when they come home so late?” The question plagues the hearer and the harmony of the relationship is torn.

Now comes the decision whether to abide in God’s word or turn aside. And suddenly they are listening to the serpent deny the consequences of turning away from God’s word. Now they are hearing the serpent insinuate that God is trying to preserve his privilege and position as the knower of these things. Now they are deciding for themselves: it looks delicious, it tastes sweet, and it’s good to be wise. And the deed is done. They reach for the fruit.

Sculpture group at 10-12 Iskola Promenade, Dunakeszi, Pest County, Hungary.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adam_and_snake_sculpture,_Iskola_Promenade,_2016_Dunakeszi.jpg By Globetrotter19 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

When the woman saw that the tree was good for food,
and that it was a delight to the eyes,
and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise,
she took of its fruit and ate.


File:Adam and Eva by Eugeny Kolchev.jpg

Adam and Eve. Skulpture of Eugeny Kolchev. 2003, bronze. Gallery La-Sandr Art, Minsk.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adam_and_Eva_by_Eugeny_Kolchev.jpg Eugeny Kolchev [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

She also gave some to her husband, who was with her,
and he ate.


Adam was with her. Though he will try to blame this on the woman – and God who gave him the woman – he was with her. He was a partner in this act.

And even if he were only a follower, there is shame here, too. It shows something dark and troubling about the human heart. We follow too easily down pathways we ought not tread. We go with the crowd. We surrender to hates and fears and wars. We yield to peer pressure and social convention. We are silent when we should speak. We go along.


Then the eyes of both were opened,
and they knew that they were naked.


File:Adam and Eve. Downfall.jpg

Their communion with God is broken. Their communion with one another is broken. They hide (vainly) behind fig leaves from the eyes of one another. They hide (vainly) in the bushes from the gaze of God. Alienation. Pretense. Secrets. Shame. They know sorrows.

Adam and eve. The fall of man. 2012. Oil on canvas. 60×60. Artist A.N. Mironov
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAdam_and_Eve._Downfall.jpg   By Andrey Mironov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Lord God called to the man, and said to him,
“Where are you?”


File:Adam Listening to the Voice of God the Almighty. John Martin.jpg

The first question is not asked because God doesn’t know where the humans have gone. The question is asked because they need to see that they are hiding. It is a hard question, but a gracious one. Where are you? What is the truth of your life? What has come of the human race? What sorrows do we wreak? We need to see the hammer and nails in our hands.

John Marton. Oil on canvas. circa 1823-1827. Victoria and Albert Museum – London (United Kingdom – London)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adam_Listening_to_the_Voice_of_God_the_Almighty._John_Martin.jpg   John Martin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“The woman you gave me…”


The finger pointing is comical, but so true about us. But God gives the humans the right explain themselves. He listens. The God who speaks listens.

Do hear ourselves? Do we recognize the human heart, willing to deflect and excuse and blame even God for our choices and deeds? Do we hear the voice of God ask that simple question, “What have you done?” not as an accusation, but an invitation to choose to live in the truth?

But nevertheless, the action has consequences.


“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers.”


File:Crotalus atrox diamantklapperschlange kopf.jpg

Enmity. It’s not only the relationship between God and humans, and the relationships between humans, that have been disrupted; humanity’s relationship with the natural world now involves fear. There are snakes. Where we lived in harmony with the natural world, now it is a stranger. There are things that creep in the night. There are lions that roar. Dogs that bite. The deer turn back into the forest and the turtle pulls into his shell. There is fear.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Ulm, Germany, Zoological Garden.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Crotalus_atrox_diamantklapperschlange_kopf.jpg By H. Krisp (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken.”


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Sweat. What was work now becomes labor. What was good becomes mixed with struggle. Childbirth is now labor pains. The ground gives weeds with the wheat. There are worms in the apples and crows in the field. Gentle rains become storms, and an unseasonal freeze can kill the oranges. The joy of work remains, but it is mixed with sweat. The joy of childbirth remains, but it too is mixed with sweat. We turned from trusting God’s word. We chose to know sorrow.

And ultimately the ground from which we came will take us again.

Parc Tivoli, Mulhouse: statue of a perspiring worker (1905)
Cropped version of https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASchweissdissi.jpg By M.Strīķis (Parc Tivoli) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

At the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim,
and a sword flaming and turning
to guard the way to the tree of life.


File:The Expulsion from Paradise. Christian Rohlfs - 1933.jpg

“The serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die.’” It was a lie, of course.

Yes, death didn’t come immediately. God didn’t strike them down. But death came. They lost the garden. And with the garden they lost the tree of life. Now the death-free life that had been provided for them is lost. They go out into the world of sorrows.

There is grace here, however. It is a kindness not to live forever in our sin. Imagine if every Hitler and abuser were eternal? Imagine if we lived forever knowing betrayal? Or infirmity? Or shame? There is a hidden grace here.

And there is a visible grace: God clothes them in animal skins. There is no killing, yet. Leaves and grass were all they would have had as they went forth from the garden. But God provides them with clothing to keep them warm, to protect them, to provide some cover to soften their shame.

There is a curse on the land and the serpent, but not on the humans. Life has been thrown off kilter, but the rivers still flow to water the earth. There is sorrow – and more sorrows to come – but God continues to care for his creatures. There is still goodness. There is still beauty. We are not cursed. Innocence is lost, but we can still choose faithfulness and love.

The Expulsion from Paradise. Christian Rohlfs – 1933
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Expulsion_from_Paradise._Christian_Rohlfs_-_1933.jpg   Christian Rohlfs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cover Image: misericord from St. Etienne cathedral of Metz (France)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Metz_(57)_cath%C3%A9drale_St_Etienne_36.jpg By Jacques CHAZARD (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
© Text by David K. Bonde, Los Altos Lutheran Church, 2017

Honoring the prophets

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Friday

Isaiah 58:1-12

1 Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.

I pity the prophets. Who really wants this assignment? It’s a lot more rewarding to be able to speak a word of grace to those who are broken than to be assigned the task of pointing out sins no one wants to acknowledge.

Of course there are always those who seem to delight in pointing out sins…and mistakes and imperfections…and pretty much anything with which they disagree or disapprove. There is a heady intoxication in moral outrage. Our public airwaves are filled with it at the moment. But it’s one thing to rant at the powers that are far away. A very different thing to be assigned the task of pointing out sins close at hand. It got Jeremiah thrown in jail. Elijah had to hide out for safety. And we don’t know what happened to Isaiah, but those later chapters have enough potent poetry about God’s suffering servant that I suspect its author knew something about suffering first hand.

So I pity the prophets. But I honor them deeply. What they did was a great sacrifice, paid with tears and despair at the hardness of heart of the people and their leaders.

The way to honor the prophets, of course, is to not let their words fall to the ground. The way to respect their courage and sacrifice is to let these words find root in our hearts and lives, to take seriously the command to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. The way to honor the prophets – and the God who sent them – is to live the way of justice and mercy:

6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? …
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday…
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AProphets_from_Ferapontov02_(Kirillo-Belozersk).jpg By Anonymous (own photo by shakko) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The days ahead

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Watching for the Morning of November 13, 2016

Year C

The Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 28 / Lectionary 33

The end of the church year looks towards the horizon of human history. In this second to last Sunday, the Gospel reading always draws from Jesus’ prediction of the fall of the temple and the question it elicits from his followers about the end of the age. They cannot imagine an end to the temple apart from the end of this age and the dawn of the new, so one leads to the other. But Jesus recognizes the cataclysm that is coming upon Israel, torn as it is between the entrenched power of the elite priestly families, the passion of the zealots who would cast off Rome, and the eschatological fervor of those who expect heavenly armies to join the battle to liberate the land and temple. It will be a time of distress for his followers. They will be hated by Romans and rebels alike. But this is not the end. Not yet. There is work to be done. There is a message to be proclaimed. The reign of God does not involve swords and spears or priestly rule but a new creation.

So Sunday we will hear the prophet Malachi declaring a day of judgment upon “the arrogant and all evildoers” but “for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” The psalm rejoices that “the LORD…is coming to judge the earth” and calls all the earth to sing God’s praise. And Jesus warns us not to be led astray by the traumas of our age and those who claim to be our savior. Circling this conversation about the end of this age is the reading from 2 Thessalonians where the author speaks of our obligations to one another as a community of the age to come that is already dawning in Christ Jesus.

Elites want to maintain the order of things and terrorists want to force a new order. The followers of Jesus simply try to live God’s new order, assured it is the reality that is coming.

The Prayer for November 13, 2016

O God who stands at the beginning and the end of time,
you have promised truth, justice and life for the world.
Grant that we may not be deceived by falsehood,
seduced by injustice,
or turned from the path of life,
but set our hope fully upon your Word;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for November 13, 2016

First Reading: : Malachi 4:1-2a
“See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble…But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”
– the prophet warns the community of God’s judgment on “the arrogant” who think God will not hold them accountable for their actions and promises God’s blessing on those who show themselves faithful.

Psalmody: Psalm 98
“Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.” – A hymn celebrating God’s reign, calling all creation to exult in his deliverance and his fidelity in bringing justice and righteousness to the world.

Second Reading: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
“We hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.”
– For a community that shared resources, and whose central act of worship was a shared meal, the letter rebukes those who make no commitment to help provide for the common good.

Gospel: Luke 21:5-19
“When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” – Jesus warns his followers about events to come (the national convulsion that culminates in the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, but also the perennial warring of nations and distressing tragedies), cautioning them not to be led astray by those who claim to be God’s anointed, urging them to faithfulness in their witness, and assuring them of God’s ultimate deliverance.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AVictoria%2C_BC_-_Christ_Church_Cathedral_-_stained_glass_28_-_Chapel_of_the_New_Jerusalem_(20623905782).jpg Joe Mabel [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Panting on the heights

File:3 khulan am Wasser Abend.jpg

Jeremiah 14:1-9

5 Even the doe in the field forsakes her newborn fawn
because there is no grass.
6
The wild asses stand on the bare heights,
they pant for air like jackals;
their eyes fail
because there is no herbage.

The creation suffers because of human sin. We can smugly say that the ancients were ignorant of modern science and didn’t understand the nature of weather patterns and naturally occurring droughts. And it might be that the ancients had a simplistic view of the weather as directly controlled by the gods – Baal, after all, is the storm god, god of the rain and therefore of prosperity and fertility. And we moderns may sneer at Texas Governor Rick Perry leading a prayer service for rain. But there is a deep spiritual insight in these ancient texts.

Our actions affect the world around us. When we tear down a mountain we affect the wind patterns. When we destroy wetlands we worsen the damage of storms. When we build on cliffs with beautiful ocean views we make ourselves vulnerable to the shore’s natural erosion. When we create acid rain we change ecosystems. When we pollute water systems we jeopardize health. When we pump water and chemicals into the oil fields we awaken old earthquake faults. The natural world changes when we kill off the top predators or cut down the forests or fill the air with chemicals that destroy the ozone or raise the greenhouse effect.

Our actions affect the world around us, for good or ill. When our actions are wanton and greedy, when they are thoughtless and self-absorbed, there is a price to pay. It gets paid by starving polar bears and algae blooms. It gets paid by dying reefs and perishing species. It gets paid by narwhal young when the melting of the arctic ice grants killer whales access to narwhal birthing sites.

So the prophet is not wrong when he sees “the doe in the field forsakes her newborn fawn” and the wild assess panting “for air like jackals,” and recognizes these as symptoms of a society whose people are greedy for luxury and not for justice.

There is no simple answer to the drought in the West and its accompanying sorrows. But there is occasion for repentance: for self-examination as a community and as individuals to consider whether we have exercised the care for the earth God assigned us or whether we have bowed down to other gods. It is an opportunity for “turning” (the meaning of the word repentance): for changing direction, changing our attachments, showing a proper fidelity to God and the world entrusted to our care.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A3_khulan_am_Wasser_Abend.jpg By Kaczensky at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, from 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

“I have come to bring fire”

File:Deerfire high res edit.jpg

Watching for the Morning of August 14, 2016

Year C

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 15 / Lectionary 20

It hardly seems like the world needs more fire as cities like Aleppo crumble and drought stricken regions in the west are ablaze. Fiery rhetoric incites political violence. Weapons fire echoes through our cities and nations.   We need Jesus to say he is bringing peace, not more conflict. But here are the words: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

There is challenge in the texts for this Sunday: Jeremiah cries out against false prophets. In the psalm, God sits in judgment of the nations for their failure to do justice. Hebrews bears witness to those faithful who “suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment,” calling us to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” And Jesus declares “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”  The most important social bonds of the ancient world will be torn asunder because of Jesus.

But we need peace and reconciliation. We need an end to war and division. We need words that heal and bind up not rend and tear. So what can you possibly mean, Jesus?

File:Diwali Festival.jpgJesus is talking about discipleship, about living the kingdom in a world that is not yet redeemed, about being agents of peace in a decidedly unpeaceful world. Those who take up the cause of peace will be cannon fodder. Those who work mercy may well inherit cruelty. In a world scrambling for the seats of honor, those who invite the lame and the poor to their banquets are betrayers of their social class, breaking barriers the elite do not want to see broken.

The world will divide over this Jesus. But the hate of the world will not last. Read the signs. The empty tomb is on the horizon. The one who “endured the cross, disregarding its shame…has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The Prayer for August 14, 2016

You call us to faithfulness, O God,
in times of trial and in times of peace.
Grant us courage to speak your word boldly
and to live with daring your teaching,
until that day when all the earth is ablaze
with the fire of your Holy Spirit.

The Texts for August 14, 2016

First Reading: Jeremiah 23:23-32
“Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off?” – God challenges the false prophets who claim to speak for God but speak only their own hopes and dreams.

Psalmody: Psalm 82
“God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” – God gathers the ‘gods’ of the nations and speaks judgment for they have failed to protect the weak and the needy.

Second Reading: Hebrews 11:29-12:2
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
– The conclusion of the great recital of those who put their trust in the promise of God and the call to model their faithfulness

Gospel: Luke 12:49-56
“”I came to bring fire to the earth.” – The message of Jesus will provoke division, even within families.

 

Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADeerfire_high_res_edit.jpg By John McColgan – Edited by Fir0002 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADiwali_Festival.jpg By Khokarahman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

How shall we pray?

Thursday

Genesis 18:16-32

16“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?”

File:AbrahamIcon.JPGThe assigned reading from the Old Testament for Sunday omits these first two verses, but they are the verses upon which the whole story pivots:

16Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. 17The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

The visitors have come. Abraham has feted them properly. They have spoken the promise that by next year Sarah will have a son. And Sarah has laughed. This is, after all, quite preposterous, given their age and the truths of biology. But, asks God, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” And that question haunts the story to come.

So Abraham escorts the three visitors (God and two angels?) on their way and God pauses to tell Abraham that he is on his way to discern the truth of the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah. The implication is that, if true, God will execute his judgment. But in light of the wondrous grace of God that gives to withered Abraham and Sarah a future, a son, Abraham asks whether grace is not also possible for Sodom.

We do not pray easily for the wicked. We are children of vengeance. No one grieves for the man who drove the truck in Nice, or the shooters in Paris, Dallas or Orlando. We do not even count them among the dead. No tears are lost on suicide bombers.

But the truth is a human life was lost long before they armed themselves and decided to kill. A soul perished. A human with the capacity for love and kindness and joy and generosity was extinguished by ideology or poverty or violence or rage. No one defends their actions. But do we pray for their destruction? Is this the god we serve, a god who smites?

The story of Abraham isn’t about whether God is a god who smites. It is about whether Abraham will live up to his calling to be an agent of blessing in the world. Will Abraham who is blessed by God’s grace do grace? Will we who live by grace live grace?

It is a haunting question, knowing as we do our capacity for righteous indignation and wrath. But we stand before the one who saved Noah from the flood and forgave his executioners. We live in the knowledge of the mystery that “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son.”

So, God stands with us on the hill looking down over the wicked city, the wounds on his hands visible in the breaking of the bread, and how shall we pray?

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAbrahamIcon.JPG See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fire from heaven

File:Lightning8 - NOAA.jpg

Wednesday

Luke 9:51-62

54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

Personally I am not interested in the LeBron James, muscular, slam-dunk, in-your-face, power basketball. I like the grace of the high arching shot of Steph Curry. I choose David over Goliath. But it doesn’t mean I don’t want my teams to crush certain opponents. If next year’s Michigan-Ohio State score is 55-0 Michigan, I will enjoy every minute. We have endured their superior attitude too long (OSU has won four straight and 13 of the last 15 in this most intense of football rivalries, first played in 1897).

There is something of an innate thrill at the obliteration of your enemies. I understand why James and John wanted their journey to Jerusalem to be a victory march. God’s anointed is coming to the holy city to set the world right, and we could do with a little slam-dunk lightning against those who stand in God’s way. Make those Romans quake in their boots. Give em a taste of their own medicine.

It seems it’s always the innocent who get struck down by lightning. Orlando. San Bernadino. Sandy Hook. Syria beneath barrel bombs. The Janjaweed striking with impunity in Darfur. The devastation done with machetes in Rwanda and with gas in Nazi occupied Poland.

Maybe that’s why we love the David story: a giant finally got knocked down. We could use some well-placed lightning in the world.

But who will be the one to call the targets?

For all that James and John have seen, for all they have heard, despite their call to be fishermen gathering people into the net of God’s embrace, they want lightning against God’s enemies.

They don’t get what they want. We don’t get what we want. In fact, it is the anointed one, the Messiah/Christ, who will take the lightning strike that should fall on us.

The disciples have seen great acts of mercy. They have already been sent out on a mission to announce the dawning reign of God and bring God’s healing. They have returned to witness a remarkable meal, five thousand seated together in peace. But they haven’t quite figured out that the kingdom doesn’t come with thunderbolts; it comes with mercy and truth and the opening of graves.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lightning8_-_NOAA.jpg Public domain

God is still God

File:Paris psaulter gr139 fol136v.jpg

Nathan confronts King David / David in prayer and fasting with worried servants watching

Wednesday

2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:10, 13-20

15 The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill. 16 David therefore pleaded with God for the child; David fasted, and went in and lay all night on the ground.

The prayer of a parent for a child is desperate. Even when death is certain, the cry rises. Seven days the king lies on that floor. Seven days without food. Seven days in urgent petition. Hoping against hope. Pleading with God.

We all know of David’s sin with Bathsheba – he abuses his royal power to take another man’s wife and then arrange the husband’s death to hide the crime. But the crime is not hidden. God sees. And God sends Nathan to confront David.

The consequences of David’s sin are brutal: A lasting legacy of violence will plague David’s house. A son will take all David’s concubines in full view of all. And this child will die.

The death of children is common in David’s time – but the prophet makes sure that David knows that the death of this child rests solely on himself. If there were no sin, there would be no child to perish.

Other kings have slain prophets for such a message, but David acknowledges his sin.   And David prays. Seven days. Hoping against hope. Desperate prayer. Tears. Against the greatest fear of every parent. Maybe God will work a miracle? But no miracle comes.

David knows God is a God not only of judgment but of mercy, so David begs for mercy. For the child. For the mother. For God to erase the consequences of his deed. But sometimes there is no recovery from the consequences of our deeds.

And then our text says:

19 But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, he perceived that the child was dead; and David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” They said, “He is dead.” 20 Then David rose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes. He went into the house of the Lord, and worshiped.

David worships. He comes before the altar. He offers his sacrifice. He hears the prayers and the song. He remembers this God of the Exodus. He acknowledges this God of Sinai. He communes, partakes of the holy meal. He goes forward. Life will not be easy, but God is still God.  And there is yet mercy.

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For other reflections on the texts for this Sunday from this and previous years, follow this link Lectionary C 11, or Proper C 6

Image: Paris psalter gr139 fol136v  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paris_psaulter_gr139_fol136v.jpg  public domain