The strange and wondrous truth of God

File:Afghan day laborers help Marines fill sandbags (5224388587).jpg

Afghan day laborers filling sandbags outside Forward Operating Base Geronimo, Helmand province, Afghanistan, July 14, 2010

Watching for the Morning of September 24, 2017

Year A

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 20 / Lectionary 25

Sunday we are jumping ahead to chapter 20 of Matthew’s gospel. We are skipping the Pharisees’ challenge about the legality of divorce and the strange saying about being eunuchs for the kingdom. We are skipping past the disciples’ harsh words to those who would bring their children to receive a blessing from Jesus – and Jesus’ welcome of those children. We are skipping past the words of Jesus to the young man seeking the life of the age to come, telling him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, and past the disciples’ astonishment that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”   All of which leads us once again to the truth that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” The reign of God is a profound reversal of the way of the world.

And so, Sunday, we come to the story of a landowner hiring day laborers for his vineyard and the remarkable choice to pay even those who worked but one hour a full day’s wage. It is not the act of an accountant; it is the act of a patron taking care of those who depend upon him. Except these day workers are not his people. He has no long and established relationship with them. He is not their patron. But he chooses to be.

And what shall we do with this portrait of a God who chooses to treat all people as their patron? What shall we do when our long and historic fidelity to God gains no privilege? What shall we do with a God who shows faithfulness to those who deserve none? The landowners’ final words are painful: “Are you envious because I am generous?” The Greek is literally “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

We don’t understand mercy. We don’t understand the breadth and depth of the compassion of God. We don’t even truly understand the notion that God is the god of all. We claim to be monotheists, but we are more likely to think that God is our god and he can be your god too, if you become one of us. But the truth is there is no ‘us’ and ‘them; we are all ‘them’. We have no claim on god’s mercy; it is gift given to all. Rich, abundant, overflowing, fidelity to a world as corrupt and violent, greedy and cruel as ours. Yes, we are capable of great kindness and generosity – but we are also fully capable of its opposite. We are not God’s people. Not really. We are strangers to the reign of God. We don’t really understand the language or culture of heaven. Nevertheless, God comes to us. Nevertheless, he speaks. Nevertheless, he shows faithfulness. Steadfast love.

So Sunday we will hear once again that “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” We will listen as Jonah wrestles angrily with God because God chooses to forgive the cruel and barbarous Ninevites. We will sing with the psalmist in praise of God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” We will listen as Paul exhorts us to live our lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” And we will once again shift in our seats as Jesus speaks of the just injustice of a landowner who is generous to all, pushing us to see something of the strange and wondrous truth of God.

The Prayer for September 24, 2017

Wondrous God,
whose mercy knows no bounds,
and whose salvation is offered to all:
renew us by your Holy Spirit
that we may walk in the paths of your kindness
and bear your grace to the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 24, 2017

First Reading: Jonah 3:1 – 4:11 (appointed: 3:10 – 4:11)
“When God saw what [the people of Nineveh] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. 4:1But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”
– Jonah sought to avoid his mission to the Assyrian capital for fear God would forgive the city that had destroyed Israel. Now, when this has happened, God seeks to help Jonah understand God’s compassion for its people.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:1-8
“I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.” – Psalm 145 is an acrostic hymn, each line beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet, in which the poet sings God’s praise “from A to Z.”

Second Reading: Philippians 1:21-30
“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
– In prison in Rome, Paul is faced with the possibility of his execution and writes to his beloved congregation in Philippi to encourage them to remain faithful to their Lord, living “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” – As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, he tells this story comparing the reign of God with a vineyard owner who chooses to relate to his workers not on the basis of what they deserve, but on the basis of his goodness.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAfghan_day_laborers_help_Marines_fill_sandbags_(5224388587).jpg By Marines from Arlington, VA, United States (Afghan day laborers help Marines fill sandbags) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Reconciliation

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Watching for the Morning of September 10, 2017

Year A

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 18 / Lectionary 23

Our first reading on Sunday sets the wrong background for the words of Jesus we will hear. The prophet takes up the image of a sentinel. If a sentinel gives warning of raiders sweeping down upon the land and the people ignore the warning, the people are responsible for whatever losses come. But if the sentinel fails to give warning, and the people are unprepared for the invaders, it is the sentinel who bears responsibility: “their blood I will require at the sentinel’s hand.” As so often with the prophets, Ezekiel has the crowd’s attention. They are nodding in assent, when suddenly the prophet turns the tables and Ezekiel himself is the sentinel warning the people of impending doom. Suddenly the sins of the nation are at issue; destruction is bearing down on them because of their failure to keep God’s way of justice and mercy. If they do not repent, their blood is on their own hands.

Such a word of warning is far different than the injunction given by Jesus that begins with the words: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault.” It sounds the same, perhaps, but it is not. Jesus is not calling us to warn the sinner; he is speaking to the one who has been sinned against. And the sins at stake here are not the failure to live God’s care for the neighbor; they are the assaults on the honor of another. Jesus inhabits a culture where every insult or dishonor must immediately be met with a corresponding insult – all very public – in order to right the balance. A person’s job was to defend his honor and the honor of his family in the eyes of the community. Any insult must be matched. Any challenge met directly and immediately. Jesus is not worried about a fellow believer’s transgressing of a moral code; he is concerned that we understand what it means that we have become members of the household of God. We are a single household in Christ. Any insult must be dealt with privately, as in a family.

But it is not the honor of the community that must be maintained. This is the trap into which churches fall when they sweep grave sins beneath the rug in the name of protecting the church. It is the tie between us that matters. It is reconciliation that is the goal, not honor. Secrets are not being kept; relationships are being mended.

Jesus isn’t concerned with the system of honor rankings; he seeks reconciliation. This is where this whole chapter began. The disciples came to Jesus to ask who was the greatest. And then Jesus is putting a child in the midst and talking about taking up the lowest station. He is talking about plucking out your eye rather than diminishing another. He is talking about the shepherd going after the one and leaving the ninety-nine. And in the verses that follow, that we will read next Sunday, he is talking about 77-fold forgiveness rather than 77-fold revenge.

We are not sentinels for one another – or for society. We are brothers and sisters seeking to live reconciliation. We don’t demand that our honor be restored when offended, we want our relationship to be restored. It is a challenging path. And so we will pray with the psalmist “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes…Give me understanding… Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain.” And we will hear Paul write that all the commandments “are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” And we will realize that, while sentinels matter, reconciliation is the kingdom.

The Prayer for September 10, 2017

Almighty God,
you call us to walk as children of the light
and set before us the command to love one another.
Turn us back when we stray
and lead us in your pathways
that, clothed in Christ, we might bear your grace to the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 10, 2017

First Reading: Ezekiel 33:1-11
“As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” – God compares the prophet to a watchman against hostile enemies and charges him not to remain silent when God has given him a message of warning for the nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:33-40
“Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.” – Another segment of this magisterial psalm celebrating the gift of God’s Law/Teaching.

Second Reading: Romans 13:8-14
“The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
– Paul urges his hearers to live the life to which they have been called in Christ where love (the solidarity of regarding others as members of your own family/kin) is the heart of God’s commands.

Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20
“If another member of the church sins against you…” – Following the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the declaration that God does not want any to be lost, Jesus instructs is followers on seeking reconciliation in the community.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AForgiveness_0001.jpg By scem.info [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Marching towards the new birth of the world

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Saturday

Matthew 16:21-28

21From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

We call this a passion prediction – a prediction of his suffering and death. It doesn’t require any special divine foreknowledge. It’s reasonable to think that Jesus was astute enough to recognize that the things he was saying and doing would eventually bring him into conflict with the Judean authorities – and that the outcome of that would be his death. But Jesus adds “and on the third day be raised.”

For a long time I rather ignored this portion of the prediction. Scholarship rightly understands the Gospels as works of the church, the faith community of Jesus’ followers. Jesus didn’t write the Gospels; his followers did. But scholars tend to then make a distinction between what they think came from Jesus and what came from “the church”.

So Jesus could have foreseen his death, but who could imagine his resurrection? The first part may have belonged to Jesus, but the second part surely belongs to the early church. They are the ones who added that Jesus would be raised, because they had seen it.

It’s a reasonable thought, I guess, though it requires a certain audacity on the part of his followers to put words into the mouth of Jesus. Moderns think ancients are willing to do that (and in many cases they were), but that we wouldn’t (though we do). I am always in support of a little humility about what we are certain we “know”.

For a long time, then, I saw in this text the passion prediction and just kind of ignored the resurrection prediction. But the truth is the resurrection prediction is a key element of Jesus’ prophetic word. Indeed, the entire bulk of the Biblical prophets is to warn of pending judgment and destruction, but then to affirm grace and restoration. The Biblical story is a story of sin and redemption. The wicked world drowns at the time of Noah, but from destruction a new creation rises. Israel is condemned to wander in the wilderness but a new generation rises to enter in to the promised land. Jerusalem is destroyed, but the prophet declares that springs will flow in the desert and a highway lead the people home.

The whole Biblical story is about death and resurrection, judgment and grace, suffering and redemption. So why couldn’t Jesus have trusted that his death would lead to resurrection? His message is about the dawning of the age to come, the reign of God where lives are healed and blind eyes opened and tears wiped away. Resurrection is at the heart of this ministry. Jesus is herald of the new. The dead shall give up its prisoners. The gates guarding the realm of the dead shall not stand. Life is at hand.

So I understand the skepticism of the scholars. And it is important to resist the notion that Jesus was some kind of superman who had powers greater than the rest of us mere mortals. Jesus was fully human. This is the ancient and persistent confession of the church. But the Spirit is upon him. He trusts God fully. He knows the sacred writings intimately. He understands God is a God who delivers – even from the wrath of Jerusalem’s elite. Even from the grave.

And because God is a god who delivers – he sets his sights on Jerusalem. Courageously, faithfully, obediently, he marches towards the new birth of the world.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAivazovsky_-_Descent_of_Noah_from_Ararat.jpg Ivan Aivazovsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hell’s gate

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Watching for the Morning of August 27, 2017

Year A

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 16 / Lectionary 21

Sunday brings us to Peter’s confession when Jesus asks the question “But who do you say that I am?” It is the passage that contains the remarkable declaration: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

It is a play on the name ‘Peter’ (in Greek, ‘petros’) and ‘rock’ (in Greek, ‘petra’), but the words of Jesus have been swallowed up by arguments about the form of the church as an institution in the world rather than as a community of student/disciples comprising a beachhead of God’s reign in the world.

So we argue about precisely what is ‘the rock’ upon which Jesus builds. Is it Peter’s faith, his confession, his show of allegiance, his person or his office? But the punch line is not that Jesus is building a ‘church’ (the Greek word ‘ecclesia’ refers to an association of people) but that the gates of ‘hell’ (literally ‘hades’, the realm of the dead) cannot hold against this motley crew who hold the ‘keys of the kingdom’.

I have always heard that phrase about the gates of hell used in a way that suggests the church is the community under siege, that Satan is set to attack and destroy whatever is good. A wise, elderly black woman in a particularly poor section of Detroit warned us young, bright, optimistic (and white) pastors that the devil would try to destroy whatever goodness we tried to accomplish in the city. And we did eventually learn to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. But this is not what Jesus is saying. In this metaphor, it is the realm of the dead that is under attack, that is on the defensive, that is encircled by hostile armies determined to force it to give up its victims.

People worry about the fabled “War on Christmas” – and while churches are facing many obstacles in our modern world, Jesus is declaring that it is death that is under assault by those who have been given the “keys of the kingdom.” We hold in our hands the keys to the storehouses of heaven. We hold in our hands the authority to dispense the gifts of God. We have been given the privilege of serving as God’s agents. Grace and mercy and healing and life are ours to dispense. The realm of shadows cannot defend itself against the kingdom of light.

We live in a time of such dispiritedness. So many feel helpless against the evils of the world. Hate and violence seem to be on the rise. Ruthless greed seems ascendant. Ignorance flourishes. Love, mercy, compassion, generosity seem frail responses to the virulent infections to the human spirit. But here is Jesus, with a simple word to a ragtag band from Galilee of all places – they have the keys to set people free and nothing death might do can stop it.

Love wins.

And so this Sunday we will hear the prophet proclaim God’s message: “my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.” And we will join with the ancient community that sang: “ The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.” And Paul will remind us that “we, who are many, are one body in Christ,” and urge us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice” – not one that is burned upon the altar but one that lives in and from the fire of God’s love. Finally, we will hear the promise that death’s dark realm cannot defend itself against the followers of Jesus who have at their disposal the boundless generosity of God. It’s what gives this image of Peter such a crazy little smile.

The Prayer for August 27, 2017

Eternal Father,
creator and redeemer of the world,
who shatters every bar and chain that binds;
grant us faith to see and courage to confess Jesus as your beloved Son,
and to be faithful stewards of your grace and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 27, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 51:1-6
“A teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples.”
In the years after the destruction of Jerusalem, the prophet’s voice rises to declare that the relationship of God and this people is not at an end. From Abraham and Sarah God brought forth a great nation, so God’s purpose in Israel to bring God’s law to the nations shall not fail.

Psalmody: Psalm 138
“The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.” – a song of praise at God’s deliverance, extolling the certainty of God’s mercy.

Second Reading: Romans 12:1-8
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” – Paul’s begins the third portion of his letter, exhorting the community to faithfulness in their life together as a people gathered by the grace of God.

Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” – Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed of God, and the disciples receive the promise and commission to serve as God’s agents in the world.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASimon_Pierre_Rouen_jnl.jpg By Jean-noël Lafargue (Own work (Own photography)) [FAL], via Wikimedia Commons.

Choose your kingdom; choose your king

File:Tomato vender at the Covington Farmer's Market in Covington, LA.jpg

“You that have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isaiah 55)

Watching for the Morning of August 6, 2017

Year A

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 13 / Lectionary 18

I live in a place and time where there has always been food in the grocery store. I understand that privilege. And even in the years I lived in a place that is now referred to as an urban “food desert”, I had a car with which to reach the suburban stores where milk and meat were fresh, and bread and fruit plentiful. I understand the privilege.

I have seen parts of the world where privilege is lacking. I have sat in a board meeting discussing whether we should help a companion church body in a region of the world where, after multiple years of drought, they had no seed corn. It disturbs me still, as it disturbed me then, that there was any hesitation. (We did commit to send the funds immediately, prior to the effort to raise them.)

The scripture is full of stories about famine. Famine takes Jacob (Israel) and his family to Egypt. Drought and famine had Elijah hiding in the wilderness and taking refuge with the widow of Zarephath. Famine takes Naomi to Moab where Ruth becomes her daughter-in-law (and David’s great-grandmother). Locusts (and the subsequent famine) are the occasion for the prophet Joel’s message. Subsistence farmers lead a precarious life, especially in the years of Jesus when the burden of taxes took nearly half the crop, and the necessity of keeping seed and feed left landowners with maybe 20% for food – far less for tenant farmers.

Hunger is a constant companion for too much of the world through too much of human history. And it is those who have known the anxiety and uncertainty of daily bread who recognize the full drama and grace of that day when five loaves feed five thousand.

It is food for today. And it is the bread of tomorrow. It is bread for those who hunger and a taste of a world without hunger. It is manna in the wilderness and a foretaste of the feast to come. It is the prophetic promise made present. It is a world reordered, a world set right, a world born from above. As Mary sang, “the hungry are filled with good things.

In contrast to Herod’s banquet, where Salome will dance for strangers, where the king’s daughter is used to inflame the king’s consorts, where plots conspire and the king’s vanity and shamelessness ends with the head of John on a platter – in contrast to Herod’s banquet is the banquet of Jesus where the people are healed and fed, with an abundance left over.

Choose your kingdom. Choose your king.

+       +       +

Sunday we hear of the feeding of the five thousand. And the backdrop assigned for this narrative is the prophet of Isaiah 55 giving voice to God’s offer for all who are hungry to come and eat: bread freely given, wine and milk overflowing, the voice of God that is true life. And the psalm will speak of God’s gracious providing, “The LORD” who “upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down”:

15The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
16You open your hand,
satisfying the desire of every living thing.

Sunday we will also hear Paul willing to be cursed for the sake of God’s people. And in that sentiment we recognize the spirit of the one who took the curse for our sake. The one who opened the grave. The one who poured out the Spirit. The one who brings the feast without end.

Choose your kingdom. Choose your king.

The Prayer for August 6, 2017

Almighty God,
through your Son Jesus you set a table
for all the world to come and feast.
Grant us hearts that are eager to hear your word,
share in your banquet,
and live your reign of mercy and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 6, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 55:1-5
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” – After the return from exile, the prophet calls to the community like a vendor in the marketplace, inviting them to “feast” on God’s promise that the eternal covenant once established with David is now transferred to the whole nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
“The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.” – A psalm of praise and thanksgiving for God’s grace and bounty.

Second Reading: Romans 9:1-5
“I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.”
– Having laid out his message of God’s reconciling grace apart from the law, Paul now takes up the problem that God’s people have largely ignored the message of Christ Jesus. He begins with an expression of his great grief that Israel has not received this fruit of all their promises.

Gospel: Matthew 14:13-21
“All ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” – Following the parables of chapter 13, Matthew tells of Herod’s banquet where all act corruptly and John is beheaded, and of Jesus’ banquet on the mountain where he has compassion for all.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATomato_vender_at_the_Covington_Farmer’s_Market_in_Covington%2C_LA.jpg By Saint Tammany [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Where the pious pout

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Watching for the Morning of July 30, 2017

Year A

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 12 / Lectionary 17

A mustard seed doesn’t become a tree. It can be a big bush, but not a tree. And it was improper to plant mustard in your garden. It had something to do with the mixing of kinds and the unruliness of mustard. God’s commands to ancient Israel were to keep such things separate. But it’s not like Matthew doesn’t understand this. Matthew does indeed. There is a scandal, here. Like leaven hidden. You don’t ‘hide’ leaven in the loaf unless it’s not supposed to be there. Like maybe someone intentionally desecrating the Passover bread.

Flaunting boundaries. Jesus has been doing this all along. Not just welcoming outcasts, but laying hands on the dead and touching lepers and not observing the fasts, and eating with unwashed hands and sharing the gifts of God with a Canaanite woman (well, those last two stories come after this one, but we who hear the text know something about the audacity of Jesus).

So why does Matthew let Jesus call the mustard shrub a tree? So that Jesus can say that “the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” It is an allusion to the prophetic word in Ezekiel about the splendid cedar that will rise from the broken twig God will plant.

We are still proclaiming the wondrous and unexpected harvest that will certainly come. God’s scandalous kingdom where sinners are welcomed and the dead are raised and the pious pout and fume. But those who see and hear will sell all to possess it. The priceless pearl. The surprise treasure. The dawn of grace.

So Sunday we hear Solomon ask for wisdom and receive all things. We will hear the psalmist sing of the glories of God’s teaching and hunger to hear what is now proclaimed in Jesus. And Paul will describe the creation groaning for that day when the promise is made complete and exult that nothing can separate us from the love of God. And Jesus will tell us that the reality dawning in this audacious Jesus is worth selling everything to possess.

The Prayer for July 30, 2017

O God, whose promises never fail
and whose purpose for the world
will be brought to its fulfillment in Christ Jesus:
grant us wisdom to recognize the riches of your grace
and to live now the joy that awaits us;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 30, 2017

First Reading: 1 Kings 3:5-12
“At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” – After David’s death, Solomon gains the throne and comes to worship at the ancient holy site of Gibeon where he asks God for wisdom.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:129-136
“The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” – In a majestic tour de force in praise of God’s law/teaching/word, the poet celebrates the guiding commands of God in twenty-two eight-line strophes that proceed from Aleph to Taw (A to Z) with each of the eight lines in every strophe beginning with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Second Reading: Romans 8:22-23, 26-39 (appointed 8:26-39)
“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?”
– Paul’s argument that God has reconciled us to himself through Christ by God’s favor (grace) apprehended by our trust in his promise (faith) now culminates in an ecstatic declaration that nothing in the heavens or on earth can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Gospel: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field.” – From unlikely beginnings – a tiny seed, a bit of yeast – comes an extraordinary end, so it is with the reign of God. What is sown looks frail and powerless – a Galilean rabble and a crucified ‘messiah’ – but from it will come an exceptional harvest. Like a merchant finding a priceless pearl or a farmer finding a great treasure, the wise will do all in their power to obtain it.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APouting_boy_in_Shamar%2C_Iraq.jpg See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The feuding farmers

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Watching for the Morning of July 23, 2017

Year A

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 11 / Lectionary 16

We call it the parable of the wheat and the tares, but it should perhaps be called the parable of the feuding farmers. A householder sows good seed. He is raising wheat, which means he has good land, not the poorer land hospitable only to barley. It is a high quality product.

Feuding is the reality of life in ancient honor-shame societies. “Enemies” are inherited adversaries, families contending for status in their communities. The back and forth between feuding families provides the substance of village entertainment. In this man’s good field with good seed, his adversary has sown a weed whose telltale signs don’t appear until the wheat begins to put forth its berries. When it does, the farmer looks the fool, as though he were conned into purchasing poor seed – or was unable to see that the seed he had preserved from the previous year was laced with weeds.

He is a laughingstock. Honor is diminished. And the social pattern calls for revenge. But whereas any other might weed his field, this man lets the thatch grow. Though the village snickers, in the end he gathers not only a fine harvest of wheat, but fuel for his fires. The tables are turned; it is the enemy who now looks the fool.

It is with the kingdom as it is with feuding farmers. Despite the hostility of an enemy, a rich harvest comes.

Patient endurance and the certainty of God’s promised reign weave through our readings this Sunday. Through the prophet, God assures a troubled people that they shall see renewal: “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants…Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses!”  The psalmist trusts in God’s faithfulness as he cries for help against those who threaten his life. Paul speaks of the creation waiting “with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” saying, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”  And then we hear of the feuding farmers and the wisdom of the one who waits knowing that the good seed shall certainly bear forth a great and abundant harvest.

The Prayer for July 23, 2017

Gracious and eternal God,
whose will it is to draw all things into your grace and life:
Grant us confidence in your promise
and joy in your Spirit
that we may be faithful to what seems right,
and suffer with patience what seems evil,
until that day when your goodness reigns over all;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 23, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 44:1-8 (appointed 44:6-8)
“You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one”
– To a people in exile in Babylon, the legacy of the nation’s folly and a fifty-year-old war that left their homeland in rubble, the prophet speaks of God’s faithfulness and the certainty of God’s promised future.

Psalmody: Psalm 86:11-17
“O God, the insolent rise up against me” –
the poet recalls God’s words of promise and seeks God’s help in trouble.

Second Reading: Romans 8:12-25
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us”
– Paul speaks of the Spirit bearing witness that we are children of God and inheritors of the promise.

Gospel: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field”
– with the parable commonly referred to as the wheat and the tares, Jesus bear witness to the wisdom of patient endurance and confidence in the dawning of God’s reign.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAEL_Saemann_und_Teufel_-_zweite_Fassung.jpg Albin Egger-Lienz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Extravagant mercy

File:Starlight sower (1) by artist HAI KNAFO 2011 inspired by Or Zaruaa.jpg

Once more from last Sunday

Matthew 13:1-9

8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty

From Sunday’s sermon

The punch line in the story is the incredible harvest. Though seeds fall on the path and are gobbled up by birds, and seeds fall on bad soil and gain no root, and seeds fall among thorns and never bear fruit – though all kinds of seeds are wasted and lost in the act of sowing, yet the seeds that find good soil erupt in overwhelming plenty. A normal harvest was about four-fold. A good harvest maybe five. But this harvest is 30, 60 and 100 fold!

This is as if a man goes to the casino with a bucketful of nickels, and some get spent on drinks, some are given as tips and, in his drunken state, coins fall to the floor and then, behold, the alarm bells go off and he wins a million dollars!

Why is this like the kingdom?

Do you feel the awkwardness? A little bit of outrage? This is not fair. He doesn’t deserve it. It makes you want to argue with the parable. “But, but, but…”

But there are no buts. The kingdom is like this. And before we start talking about the moral qualities of the various soils, we have to deal with the extravagance of the undeserved.

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Jesus is tossing out the gifts of God like clowns casting candy to children at a small town Fourth of July parade. They are not meted out one at a time to the deserving; they are tossed freely and recklessly to all. Abundant graces.

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The reign of God is extravagant mercy. It will be tossed out on Samaritans and Ethiopians and Gentiles. It will be tossed out upon Roman Centurions and Synagogue elders. It will be tossed out on friend and foe alike. It will be cast like a net into the sea that hauls up a boatload of fish. Jesus will feast at the home of tax-gatherers. He will touch lepers and feed five thousand from five small bits of bread. Women of questionable reputation will burst into the house to weep at his feet.

The reign of God is extravagant mercy. The men who worked only an hour will receive a full day’s wage like all the rest. The sons who shamed their father and betrayed their family will be welcomed home. The sins of the whole world will be lifted away – the deserving and the undeserving.

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Extravagant mercy. Reckless, wanton, unmerited mercy. Mercy scattered upon the deserving and undeserving that results in a world filled to overflowing with grace and kindness and justice and joy.

And what shall we do with such a kingdom?

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If you would like to read the whole sermon, it is posted here entitled: The extravagance of the undeserved. An audio version should show up here on the church website.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AStarlight_sower_(1)_by_artist_HAI_KNAFO_2011_inspired_by_Or_Zaruaa.jpg By Carmel avivi-green (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

A wondrous harvest

File:PikiWiki Israel 38203 Swimming in Wheat Pool.jpg

Watching for the Morning of July 16, 2017

Year A

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 10 / Lectionary 15

An unstoppable harvest. An unstoppable word. A song of praise at God’s bounty. And the wondrous declaration that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Grace abounds this Sunday. It abounds every Sunday. From the opening words of the confession and absolution to the final words, “Go in peace,” grace abounds every Sunday. But the texts this week are rich beyond measure. “There is no condemnation,” writes Paul. Through the prophet, God declares: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven” without failing to work their work of giving life to the world, “so shall my word be.” Forgiveness will work its work. God “will abundantly pardon,” and you “shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace.” The psalmist sings of God’s bounty: “the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.” “Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs.”

And then we hear the words of Jesus promise an incomprehensible harvest. The reign of God will come. Though so much seed seems to be wasted – the birds, the weeds, the rocky soil – kindnesses abused, charities neglected, healings taken for granted – yet the harvest will be a hundredfold. Even the thinnest soil will yield many times what could ever be imagined. Grace is pouring out on the world in abundance.

We need to be reminded of this in those times when all we seem to see are the weeds of riches choking the world and evil snatching away the good. When the news seems perennially despairing, when violence and lies abound, when kindness and mercy seem scarce, when anxiety seeps in like unwanted moisture through the basement walls, making the air musty and damp, we need to be reminded that God’s word does not fail. God’s kingdom comes. Mercy abounds. And wherever it is sown, it will reap a wondrous harvest.

The Prayer for July 16, 2017

Gracious God,
you lavish your grace and life upon a world
where it is often trampled underfoot,
yet where your Word takes root the harvest overflows.
Let your Word take root in our lives
and bear fruit abundantly in love for you and our neighbor;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 16, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 55:6-13
“You shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace.” – Like the rain that waters the earth to bring forth its bounty, God’s promise of forgiveness and return to the land shall not fail to achieve its purpose.

Psalmody: Psalm 65:5, 8-13
“You visit the earth and water it.” – A hymn of praise to God who provides abundantly for the world.

Second Reading: Romans 8:1-11
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
– God creates a faithful people not through the commands of the law, but through the working of his Spirit.

Gospel: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
“Listen! A sower went out to sow.” – Jesus provides a parable declaring that it is with the reign of God as it is with a harvest: though the seed grain is gobbled up by birds and strangled amidst weeds, the fruitful harvest comes. Only this harvest is wondrous beyond imagining!

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APikiWiki_Israel_38203_Swimming_in_Wheat_Pool.jpg Aran Yardeni Pikiwiki Israel [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Prisoners of hope

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Saturday

Zechariah 9:9-12

12Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.

We can take apart the grammar and poetry of this sentence. We can discuss the cultural context from which these words derive their meaning. But I want first to simply relish them. I love the unexpectedness of the phrase “prisoners of hope.”

Jesus was a master of the unexpected. The parables, so familiar to us now, are masterful at the sudden twist, the startling comparison, the shocking example. The prophets, too, are brilliant at this: Jeremiah’s underwear. Walking around the temple court wearing a yoke. Ezekiel telling a lurid tale of sexual betrayal. The scriptures are full of the shocking. And they need to be. We are such complacent, rutted people. It is not easy to make us see ourselves differently. Not easy to make us see others differently. Not easy to make us see God differently. And how hard it is to make us behave any differently!

The scriptures need to catch us up side the head. There’s no other way to get through to us.

So how many of us are prisoners of hope? How many of us are bond-servants of a wondrous promise? How many of us are truly captives to the vision of a world made whole as if it were a conquering hero returning from the battlefield with prisoner/slaves in tow?

How many of us wake up each morning and run to serve the promise of a world where peace reigns? We go to bed in despair. We wake up in fear. Hurry to work. Hurry to school. Hurry to coffee and traffic. The alarm clock makes us groan. Dinner is a chore farmed out to whatever I can pick up on the way home. We eat on the run……or we eat alone. Something frozen. Maybe cereal from a box after too much wine. There is no family at the table, no prayer of blessing, no song of joy.

We are, most of us, I suspect, captives to the pressures of daily life rather than prisoners of hope.

And the people of Judea were captives to the daily struggle and shame of a once glorious city still littered with rubble and now under Persian rule.

So the prophet points to the horizon and promises a king – a king no one believes is coming. But he will come. Hidden in a Galilean peasant. Speaking words of grace and challenge. Touching the world with healing and freeing it from evil. Enduring the shame and degradation of the cross, but leaving behind an empty tomb and a hundred and twenty prisoners of hope. They will become millions.

And shall we break off the shackles of hope for the shackles of mammon? Will we break off the ties of mercy, compassion and kindness for the sour belief that these shall not prevail? Shall we surrender to the thump of weapons as our true hope? Is it only death and taxes that are certain, not grace and life? Shall we forfeit joy?

No. I will come to the table that promises a world gathered to speak the blessing. I will sing the song, and feast the feast. And I will willingly extend my hands to the thongs of hope.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AName-Keftiu-at-Abydos-Ramses-Temple.jpg By HoremWeb (Own work) [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