When the fire of love no longer burns brightly

File:Salt from Timbuktu.jpg

Watching for the Morning of February 9, 2020

Year A

The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Three years ago, I wrote that Jesus spoke these words about being salt and light to the “poor”:

Jesus is talking to rural villagers, not the Jerusalem elite.  He is talking to those who are poor, mourning and hungering for the world to be set right.  He is talking to refugees in the camps when doors are shut.  He is talking to mothers and children scratching out their existence in the rubble of wars.  He is talking to those in fear of uniforms unrestrained by any law.  He is talking to those who know hunger and thirst.  “You are the salt that burns bright the fire of God.  You are the light that is set on a stand.”

I wonder, now, how those words should be heard among those on the other end of the social pyramid.  Is there grace here, or only judgment?  Is Jerusalem the city set on a hill that cannot be hid?  Is it from the judgment of God the governing authorities cannot hide?  Jerusalem was not a shining beacon of hope; it had become the center of an unjust and impoverishing rule.  Jesus’ scathingly condemns the governing elite in Matthew 23, weeping over the city before predicting its fall.  The authorities choose Rome over the promised kingdom of God and hand Jesus over as a terrorist.

The salt of which Jesus speaks is the salt slab used at the base of an earthen oven that burns dung as fuel.  Salt serves as a catalyst for the fire, letting it burn hot enough to bake the bread that sustains the poor.  Eventually, the slab loses its ability to catalyze the fire.  It doesn’t “lose its taste,” as our translation suggests.  The literal meaning of the Greek word means for the salt to become ‘foolish’.  We should translate it as ‘insipid’ or ‘worthless’, not ‘tasteless’.  A people in whom the fire of divine grace and mercy no longer burns brightly are useful for nothing but stepping stones in the mud.  Those who would hide the justice of God as a lamp beneath a basket are the truly foolish.

To call someone a fool is a serious charge in the biblical world.  It means they have ignored the fundamental truths of existence.  As someone who ignores gravity is a fool, so is the one who ignores the moral and spiritual realities of human life.

“The fool speaks folly, and his mind plots iniquity: to practice ungodliness, to utter error concerning the LORD, to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied, and to deprive the thirsty of drink.” (Isaiah 32:6)

When the psalmist says: “The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God’” (Psalm 53:1), the point has little to do with religious observances; it concerns the failure to recognize the divine imperative to do justice and mercy.  The ‘fool’ doesn’t ignore church but our essential humanity.

The ‘fool’ doesn’t see Lazarus at the gate.  The ‘fool’ builds bigger barns and stores up riches rather than sharing with those in need.  The ‘fool’ doesn’t care for the sick or feed the hungry or clothe the naked.

The ‘fool’ corrupts the courts.   The ‘fool’ chooses revenge.  The ‘fool’ embraces lies and deceit.  “Like one who binds the stone in the sling is he who gives honor to a fool,” says Proverbs 26:8.  Honoring a fool is like handing over a loaded gun.

What shall we say to the foolish who would hide the justice of God as a lamp beneath a basket?

The grieving parent recognizes the folly of war, the dispossessed the folly of greed, the abused the folly of injustice, the hungry the folly of hardened hearts.  All these understand that you don’t put a lamp under a bushel, and that there is no other place but the mud for a slab that does not help the fires of love burn brightly.

The Prayer for February 9, 2020

Gracious God,
you have appointed your people to be in the world
as the fire and light of your justice and mercy.
Fill us with your Holy Spirit,
and shape our lives by your Word,
that through lives of faith, hope, and love
we may bear witness to your reign;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for February 9, 2020

First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-12
“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?” – In the hardscrabble life after the return from Exile, God confronts the complaint of the people that God has not answered their prayers by challenging the goal of those prayers.  They have sought advantage for themselves rather than to live God’s justice and mercy.

Psalmody: Psalm 112:1-10
“Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.” –  A description of the righteous who rest securely in God and the blessing they bring to the world, giving freely to the poor and conducting “their affairs with justice.”

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 2:1-12
“Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom.” –
Having challenged the Corinthians desire for human eloquence and wisdom, Paul writes of the wisdom of God that is so different from the wisdom of this age – the truth of sacrificial love hidden in Christ crucified

Gospel: Matthew 5:13-16 (appointed: Matthew 5:13-20)
“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” – Comparing his followers with salt and light, Jesus summons the community of Israel (and his disciples) back to their calling as the medium through which God brings blessing/healing to the world.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Salt_from_Timbuktu.jpg Robin Elaine [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

Dirt

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Pharisees and the Saduccees Come to Tempt Jesus (Les pharisiens et les saducéens viennent pour tenter Jésus) - James Tissot - overall.jpgThe message from last Sunday, September 2, 2018, based on the assigned Gospel reading:

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23: Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
….but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
….teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”… 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

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So we have come back to the Gospel of Mark for our appointed texts. I always like to keep track of the big picture, so I’ll remind you that there are assigned readings for each of the Sundays and festivals of the year. These are used by the majority of the mainline denominations with the purpose of creating a measure of unity across the churches and exposing us to the breadth of the Biblical witness.

The lectionary has a three-year cycle – one year in Matthew, one in Mark and one in Luke. Readings from John are scattered through all three years, mostly during Easter and festival days.

We have just finished five weeks on the 6th chapter of John that told the story of the feeding of the five thousand and talked about the meaning of that sign. Now we are back in Mark’s Gospel.

We left off in Mark’s Gospel right before the account of the feeding of the five thousand so that, instead of reading that story in Mark, we read it in John. The feeding of the five thousand is followed in both Gospels with Jesus walking upon the sea – and we touched on the meaning of that narrative a few weeks ago when we noted that Jesus walks on the sea he doesn’t walk on water. Walking on water is a suspension of the laws of physics. Walking on the sea is a demonstration that Jesus strides above every spiritual power on heaven and earth. The sea was thought to be governed by a god or spirit – and the narrative declares that Jesus is not subject to such spirits; they are subject to him.

You remember how Trump violated protocol when he was late to his meeting with the Queen of England, making her wait, then walked in front of her when they viewed the troops. It could have been nothing, but it gave the appearance that he was claiming to be more important than the queen. The story of Jesus walking upon the sea is like this. It proclaims that Jesus ranks above the spirits that govern the sea.

In Mark’s Gospel, these two stories of the feeding of the five thousand and walking upon the sea proclaim that Jesus is the one who stands above every other power with the authority to dispense the gifts of God. John, of course, sees something even more profound in that narrative. John sees that Jesus is the fulfillment of the story of Moses leading the people through the sea out from bondage into freedom. The bread that feeds the crowd is like the manna from heaven – though the true manna from the realm of God is Jesus himself. Jesus is the embodiment of the voice of God that Israel heard at Sinai. Jesus is also the sacrificial meal that the elders of Israel ate in God’s presence on Mount Sinai. Jesus death is the sacrifice that reconciles heaven and earth. And Jesus is the living word of God present in the bread and wine of communion to teach, heal and redeem us and all creation.

Mark doesn’t explore all of this in his telling of the story. He just tells the story and lets it proclaim Jesus’ authority to dispense to us and to the world all the gifts of God. Thus Mark ends his account with the people from the whole region bringing all who were sick to Jesus and all were healed. This is the setup for our reading this morning. Wherever Jesus goes, people bring to him all those who are sick and they are healed.

It is important for us to remember that what is being told to us here is not that Jesus has magic power over the biomechanics of disease, but that he dispenses the gifts of God. Secondly, the word we translate as ‘sick’ is actually the word ‘weak’. These are people who have lost their power. It can mean everything from those who have lost the strength of their legs or eyesight to those who have lost their courage and hope. It’s talking about those who have lost their place in their communities and their ability to assert their proper role.

This is like the word ‘poor’ in the scriptures, which isn’t a measure of economic wealth, but a measure of honor and place. So widows are described as ‘poor’ even if they have money, because they have lost their place in the community. We reflect this idea, too, when misfortune of any kind has happened and we say “that poor woman,” or “that poor man,” or “that poor child.”

People are bringing to Jesus those who are weak and vulnerable and dislocated. They are bringing those who have lost their power and their place. These are the people who live in fear or uncertainty. These are the people who live with pain. These are the people trodden down by the power of Rome. These are people who have lost their land or livelihood. And from Jesus there is healing; there is power. Through Jesus the face of God shines upon them. Through Jesus the life of God touches them. Through Jesus the power of the Spirit lights upon them. They are healed even from simply touching the fringe of his cloak.

The word we translate as ‘healed’ is actually the word ‘to save’. In Jesus they are saved. It doesn’t mean they get to go to heaven; it means their lives are made whole. Their life, their power, their place is restored. Salvation is food on your table and a roof over your head and respect in your community. Salvation is peace in your family and well-being in your home. Salvation is reconciliation with God and the face of God shining upon you. It is peace with God and one another. It is fidelity to God and one another.

And the word ‘to save’ is used in the imperfect tense. In Greek, the imperfect tense describes a continuous action, so being ‘saved’ is not a single event but an ongoing reality. It should be translated “they were being saved.” A new reality was at work in their lives. The reign of God had come to them.

All these people are brought to Jesus and the grace and power of God is restoring and transforming them. They are being filled with hope. They are receiving a future. They are being restored to their communities. Their lives are being made whole. But – and here’s the troubling and fearsome turn – the response of those in power is to challenge Jesus, declaring that he can’t be a holy man because some of his people don’t keep the tradition of the elders. In their eyes this can’t be the one who dispenses the gifts of God because some of his followers don’t follow the rules developed over the ages concerning purity.

It is important we recognize this about our narrative, today. This is not a story about tradition; it is a story about purity. And it is a profound debate about what lies at the heart of Biblical faith. What does God want from us? Does God want purity or justice?

I hope I can convey to you why this is such an earth shattering question – and it is at the very center of Jesus.

The question that is asked in our psalm today is:

1O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
….Who may dwell on your holy hill?

This is a question posed as people are entering into the holy precincts of the temple. You know that there are rules about how women have to be dressed when they go into the Vatican to see the fabulous art that is there. And at an amusement park there is a sign that you have to be this tall to ride the ride. What are the rules for entering into God’s presence in the temple courts?

The answer the psalmist gives is:

2Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
….and speak the truth from their heart;
3who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends,
….nor take up a reproach against their neighbors…
who stand by their oath
….even to their hurt;
5who do not lend money at interest,
….and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

True purity is about our care for one another. Those who are acceptable in God’s presence are those who have shown care and faithfulness to others, who have followed God’s command to do justice and mercy.

The answer the Pharisees give is to take the purity rules in Leviticus and elevate them as the central focus of God’s law. Leviticus contains the command “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), and the Pharisees read the law as the means to create a holy people. Jesus, however, sees the center of the law in the command – also from Leviticus – to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).  Jesus sees at the heart of scripture the command to do justice and mercy. He stands in line with the prophets like Micah who said so famously, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

The whole temple complex at the time of Jesus is about ritual purity. Have you touched a dead body? Have you touched blood? Have you eaten the right foods? Did you use the right plates? Did you pour water over your hands before eating? These rules might seem silly to us because they our not our rules, but this is a very important idea – and Biblical faith stands or falls on whether you choose purity or justice.

Every society has notions of what is clean and unclean, what is acceptable and not acceptable. These apply to foods, behaviors, and physical spaces. In the United States we don’t eat dogs or horses or cockroaches. The thought fills us with an almost instinctive aversion. It doesn’t have anything to do with actual cleanliness or uncleanliness, even though we imagine it does; it is a perception learned by growing up in a community.

This notion of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ is related to things being in their proper place. Dirt in the garden is soil; it belongs there. But soil in the kitchen is dirt; it doesn’t belong there. When things are out of place, they render the place “dirty”. Soil on the kitchen floor makes the kitchen dirty. When things, places and people become “unclean” there are rituals to make them “clean” again. In the case of the kitchen, a sweeping and mopping. It’s not enough to get the dirt back into the yard; the kitchen has to be cleansed.

And the thing about purity is that it only works one way. Drop your toast on the floor and the “dirty” floor – however clean it might be – the “dirty” floor renders the toast unclean. The ‘clean’ toast doesn’t make the floor ‘clean’.

“Dirt” is contagious. That’s why it has to be kept in its place. And that’s why people who are “dirty” have to be kept in their place. What’s at stake in this conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees is not that some of Jesus’ followers are lax about the rules. Some of Jesus’ followers are “dirty”. They don’t belong. So Jesus must be “dirty” too.

The problem with purity rules is the way they intersect with the human community. There are some who cannot keep all these rules. And there are those from outside our community who have a different set of rules.

These rules divide the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’, between those we perceive as ‘clean’ and those who we perceive as ‘unclean’, those who are “good people” and those who are not “good people”; those who are “normal” and those who are not; those who are “acceptable” and those who are not; those who belong and those who don’t.

Trump rose to prominence claiming that Obama wasn’t one of us. He wasn’t born here. He wasn’t like us. He was out of his proper place. He wasn’t “clean”. And so the country had to be purged of everything he touched.

Ugly things happen when we apply these rules of purity to the human community – especially when we think God is on the side of purity. Then you are not just unacceptable in my eyes; you are unacceptable in God’s eyes.

People with money are better able to keep purity rules. They can wear the right clothes, maintain the right appearance, avoid the wrong side of the tracks. In the time of Jesus, people with money had better access to clean water – and had servants to carry the water – for use in the rituals of cleansing by pouring water over your hands before eating. The poor are not so fortunate. They don’t have the resources. And they get stuck with the jobs that are ritually unclean – like working in a tax booth as did Matthew, or tending the pigs for some Gentile master like the prodigal son. The poor tend to be perpetually unclean measured by the standards of privileged society. And some of these are the people who are following Jesus.

“What kind of person are you, Jesus, to allow such people in your group?” Jesus is being disgraced and discredited as a teacher because he doesn’t make everyone observe the rules of purity. Jesus isn’t a defender of the moral sensibilities of the privileged.

It is a much more profound challenge than we might imagine, because our own purity rules are largely unconscious, and those rules that belong to other societies often seem silly to us. Besides, as Americans, we tend to rebel against social rules and traditions and want to be free of them. But the challenge is serious – and Jesus’ response is an even more profound challenge.

Whether a person is ‘clean’ and acceptable in God’s sight is not determined by the rules of ritual purity, but by the things that come out of the ‘heart’ – our words and actions. We are rendered ‘unclean’ by our failure to care for the well-being of others. We are rendered ‘unclean’ by the falsehoods we hold, the lies we tell, the envy we harbor. We are rendered ‘unclean’ when we take advantage of others in the marketplace.   We are rendered ‘unclean’ by the callous things we say and the dirty looks we give to those who are different than us.

We are rendered ‘unclean’ when we fail to “do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God.”

We are rendered ‘unclean’ not by our pots and absent rituals, but by our very real thoughts and deeds.

But here, before us, is the one who brings the gifts of heaven. Here, before us, is the one who comes to heal and make whole. Here, before us, is the one who comes to forgive and reconcile. Here, before us, is the one who feeds us with the true bread of life and grants us new birth as God’s children. Here, before us, is the one who welcomes us, ‘unclean’ as we may be, and summons us to follow God’s way of justice and mercy.

© David K Bonde, 2018, All rights reserved.

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Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Pharisees_and_the_Saduccees_Come_to_Tempt_Jesus_(Les_pharisiens_et_les_saduc%C3%A9ens_viennent_pour_tenter_J%C3%A9sus)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall.jpg James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Purity

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“Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (Matthew 15:10-11)

Watching for the Morning of August 20, 2017

Year A

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 15 / Lectionary 20

I chose the picture above for our bulletin cover several weeks ago, but it gains added poignancy by the events in Charlottesville last week. The Gospel account is the Canaanite woman, the foreigner, the outsider, the “unclean”, whose request for healing Jesus dismisses with a curt and offensive “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It is a statement worthy of any white nationalist. What is ours is ours. God owes us his benefices. They are not part of us. To which she responds with that compelling assertion of God’s abundant and universal mercy: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

It is important to include with this narrative Jesus’ challenge to the ruling authorities about the nature of ritual purity: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Purity is measured by our treatment of others. Purity is measured by whether we live compassion and faithfulness. Purity is not an outward category of things or people; it is manifest in word and deed.

Jesus embodies the promise spoken through the prophet Isaiah in our first reading this Sunday that God would welcome in his temple all those previously excluded as unclean –eunuchs (the physically deformed or maimed) and foreigners. The psalmist celebrates the harvest and a sees in God’s abundance the invitation for all nations to see God’s goodness and sing God’s praise. And the apostle Paul writes of God’s purpose and plan to have mercy on all.

We keep using religion to draw lines between “us” and “them” – whoever “them” might be. But Jesus relentlessly erases those lines. He understands that the Biblical story begins and ends with a single human family.

The Prayer for August 20, 2017

O God, who hears the cries of all in need,
grant us confidence in your mercy
and persistence in our prayer
that, trusting your goodness,
we might know your saving grace;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 20, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 56:1-8 (appointed, Isaiah 56:1, 6-8)
“My house shall be…a house of prayer for all peoples.” – The prophet proclaims that all those who were unclean – eunuchs and foreigners – and previously excluded from the temple will be welcomed by the God who will gather not only the outcasts of Israel, but all people.

Psalmody: Psalm 67
“Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.” – A song of thanksgiving at the harvest that summons all people to rejoice in God’s goodness.

Second Reading: Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
“God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” –
addressing the problem of why so many Judeans have not received Paul’s message of God’s grace in Jesus with trust and allegiance, Paul affirms the certainty of God’s call and election, but sees in their “disobedience” God’s purpose to have mercy on all.

Gospel: Matthew 15:10-28 (appointed, 15:[10-20] 21-28)
“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” – Matthew pairs Jesus’ challenge to the ruling authorities’ understanding of purity as ritual purity (rather than justice and mercy in fidelity to God’s command) with the account of the Canaanite woman who shows great faith in God’s mercy: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWe_want_white_tenants.jpg By Arthur S. Siegel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Live the mercy

 

Thursday

Deuteronomy 30:1-14

File:Musée du Petit Palais Petit Palais n09.jpg1When all these things have happened to you, the blessings and the curses that I have set before you, if you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2and return to the Lord your God, and you and your children obey him with all your heart and with all your soul, just as I am commanding you today, 3then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the Lord your God has scattered you. 4Even if you are exiled to the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will bring you back.

These words are not part of the assigned text for the first reading on Sunday, but they should be. They set the context for the promise of prosperity and for the declaration that “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you.”

The story starts in exile. The exhortation begins in mercy. This is a word of hope. When all is lost, there is yet a future. If we turn back, God will restore. And what God asks is “not too hard” for us. It is not esoteric. The life God wants for us is within our reach.

Justice and mercy are simple things. We may not want to give them, but they are simple and straightforward. God’s commands are not like the tax code. You do not need a legal expert to make them intelligible. You do not need a hero to discern them. God’s commands are really pretty modest: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

At first glance, Jesus seems to make the commands tougher: You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times…but I say to you… But what Jesus is asking is that we keep the spirit of God’s law not simply its outward form. There is a lust of the heart not just of the body, and an anger that rends the human community though it does not murder.

God has commanded us to love our neighbor. Jesus just wants us to stop limiting mercy. Mercy is not hard. Compassion is not hard. It is our hearts that can be hard.

There are a thousand reasons not to stop and help the wounded man. The priest will be defiled and have to return to Jerusalem to undergo purification. The Levite, too, is surely on some important business and has good cause not to get involved. But this is not a situation that calls for nuanced interpretation of legal obligations; this is a situation that calls for us to live the mercy of God. Pretty simple: Live the mercy of God.

11Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 13Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 14No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMus%C3%A9e_du_Petit_Palais_Petit_Palais_n09.jpg By jean-louis Zimmermann from Moulins, FRANCE [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Fruitless

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Saturday

Luke 13:1-9

6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.

Several years ago when I was serving an inner city parish in Detroit, I was on a committee that had to decide what to do with one of the other parishes in the city. Partly this was about the allocation of mission dollars: should we continue to support this parish or let it die?

I was pretty passionate about the closing city parishes. Detroit at the time was in the midst of a terrible recession. The Lutheran church had once had many thriving parishes in the city, but as white flight occurred in the 60’s and 70’s, congregations moved – or closed up shop as their people moved. One congregation went from 1,500 to 500 members in the single year of 1967.

Detroit was dotted with buildings that had once been Lutheran congregations. My local precinct was one of “ours” that had closed up and sold its building to a Baptist church. I drove by another every time I came off the freeway. There was a former Danish church I passed regularly whose distinctive Danish architecture was a painful reminder every time I saw it. I read somewhere that the old Roman rite for closing a parish required the bishop to take an ax to the altar and thought were should make our bishop do the same every time he or she closed a parish – to make visible the wound to the body of Christ and its ministry in that place.

But then there was this parish we were examining. We recognized the blow to the ministry of this congregation when half the homes in its parish were bulldozed to create a freeway, but that was not the only problem. As we examined the life of the congregation itself, we came to the simple realization that “there were no fruits of the Spirit there.” There were a few people (bickering people), and regular worship, but no love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,” no feeding of the hungry and clothing of the naked and care for the sick.

“For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’”

We closed the parish. It was the right decision…just painful to admit.

Jesus is looking at the leadership of the nation – a fig tree sucking up the nutrients from the soil of God’s vineyard and giving back nothing. Jesus could see the future of a city that failed to live God’s reign, that failed to do justice and mercy, to show fidelity to God and one another. He could see that Rome would come and blood would flow in the temple, even as the Galileans had been struck down. He could see that the towers would fall when Rome breached the walls and thousands would perish. He weeps for a city that rejects God’s voice.

God looks for fruit from his fig tree. God looks for fruit from his vineyard. God looks for his harvest from the tenants of his vineyard. God looks for justice and mercy from his church. God looks for justice and mercy from all people.

The warning that Jesus gave to Jerusalem abides. Those who take up the soil without returning fruit abide on dangerous ground. Jesus our gardener, pleads for more time, but now is the time to turn to the life where God’s Spirit rules.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Old_fig_tree.JPG#file

What large stones

File:Reconstruction model of Ancient Jerusalem in Museum of David Castle.jpg

Thursday

Mark 13:1-8

1As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

We like to build monuments. From our first wooden blocks, it seems, we have the impulse to build – and to build higher. “Look Mom,” we crow. How deep can you dig a hole at the beach? How high can you build your castle of sand? Humanity’s first construction project was the tower from which to storm the gates of heaven. A tower that will make a name for ourselves.”

And so we have Trump Tower with Trump’s name not only on the building but every sweatshirt for sale in the lobby is artfully folded so that it shouts “Trump” and every book is turned so Trump’s face shines.

We are builders. Big or small we are builders. We want to build a home, a family, a legacy. We build churches. Glorious churches.

I would not give up any of them. I am inspired by their soaring heights, their ancient foundations, their simple beauty. But God didn’t send us into the world to build temples and monuments. God sent us to build communities of justice and mercy.

One of the most profound transformations that happens in Christ is the notion that the community is the temple. 1 Peter writes:

2:4 Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5 like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

The temples we build are temporary things. The temple God builds is a people. And that temple endures into eternity.

19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (Ephesians 2:19-22)

 

Image: Водник at ru.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons