Rich and Poor, Honor and Shame

File:I000073 (10704267663).jpgFile:Homes-LuxuryHome3-Bel Air California.jpg

This is the message from Sunday, February 17, 2019, based on Luke 6:17-26:

Jesus came down with the twelve and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
….“Blessed are you who are poor,
….….for yours is the kingdom of God.
….“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
….….for you will be filled.
…. “Blessed are you who weep now,
….….for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

….“But woe to you who are rich,
….….for you have received your consolation.
….“Woe to you who are full now,
….….for you will be hungry.
…. “Woe to you who are laughing now,
….….for you will mourn and weep.

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

+   +   +

Last week we talked about some of the material that comes between the portion of Luke’s Gospel we read last Sunday and our reading this morning. In the text last Sunday we heard about Jesus teaching from Peter’s boat, directing Peter to a wondrous catch of fish, then calling Peter and Andrew, James and John to follow him. We connected that story with a passage from Ezekiel to show that the focus of this story is on the wondrous catch of fish as a sign of the dawning of God’s reign. The summons to follow Jesus was a call to gather all people into this new creation, this dawning of God’s grace and life. Peter and Andrew, James and John, were not being asked to join a religious club, but to join God’s mission of reconciling all creation.

It was important, last week, to touch on the material between the wondrous catch and our reading today to better understand last Sunday’s text. And we need to do so again because we are jumping over sections of Luke’s gospel. Presumably we are skipping parts of Luke’s account because we read these stories from other Gospels in other years but, unfortunately, this means we can lose track of the thread of Luke’s narrative. So just as a reminder: Luke is the Gospel that gives us the familiar nativity story about Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem and the shepherds hearing the angels’ song. Luke is quite clear in his narrative about the presence of Roman imperial rule, but the poor and the powerless receive God’s promise and recognize in this child the fulfillment of God’s promise to come and reign.

Jesus is anointed with the Spirit of God and God declares that Jesus is God’s beloved ‘Son’ – a royal title indicating that Jesus is invested with the full authority to speak for God and to dispense the gifts of God. At this point, Luke inserts an amazingly honorable genealogy for Jesus that goes back through David and Abraham all the way to Adam and to God. When the devil attacks Jesus to show that he is unworthy of such honors, Jesus never breaks faith with God. Jesus is worthy of the title he has been given.

Jesus returns to Nazareth, but the people in his homeland are outraged when Jesus stops his reading of the prophet Isaiah without reference to God’s wrath on Israel’s enemies and they refuse to recognize Jesus as God’ s anointed. When he cites scripture to show that God’s grace and mercy are for all people, not just Judeans, they try to kill him. The story foreshadows what will happen in Jerusalem. Israel’s leaders will declare that Jesus is speaking falsely about God and seek to invalidate everything he has said and done by handing him over to be crucified. But, just as Jesus walked untouched through the murderous crowd at Nazareth, God will vindicate Jesus by raising him from the dead.

After Jesus leaves Nazareth, he comes to Capernaum where he is received as true, and great crowds are healed and delivered from evil spirits. When Jesus teaches by the shore of Galilee, and the crowd press in to hear him, he gets into Peter’s boat to teach. Jesus then demonstrates the dawn of God’s day of grace by the abundance of fish, and summons Peter and the others to follow him to gather all people into the nets of God’s mercy.

They leave everything to do that.

So the mission of God has been announced and disciples summoned to gather all into God’s grace. Jesus then goes on to embody and bear witness to this mission. He touches(!) and heals a man with leprosy; the man is an outcast and Jesus restores him to the community. While Jesus is teaching, the friends of a paralyzed man carry him to Jesus and, when they can’t get in the door, climb up on the roof, pull apart the branches shading the inner court, and lower the man down. Jesus releases him from the debt of all his sins. The Pharisees go crazy, but Jesus heals the man and he walks away restored to his life, his family and his community.

Jesus then calls Levi, a local tax gatherer, to be one of his disciples. Levi is a despised person, working for the imperial powers who are stealing the lifeblood of the community. By the very nature of his job, he is an unclean person.  But Jesus eats with him and his companions, gathering him back into the community of Israel.

Jesus is pressed by the Pharisees about the failure of his followers to observe the customary fasts and he declares that you cannot fast in the presence of the bridegroom. These are all signs that the day when all things are made new has begun in Christ. The reign of God is at hand – which, in Jesus, is a day of grace and not judgment, a gathering of all creation into the nets of God’s mercy.

The conflict with the Pharisees continues over the rituals of hand washing and Sabbath observance. When Jesus heals on the Sabbath, they begin to plot his destruction.

Jesus goes up on a mountain to pray and summons twelve of his disciples to be his apostles, to be sent as special witnesses of his mission. Jesus then begins to teach both them and the crowds about the nature of God’s reign – and this is where we pick up today.

Luke has gathered a collection of Jesus’ teachings and assembled them here. It is similar to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and is often referred to as the Sermon on the Plain (our translation said Jesus stood “on a level place”). Where Matthew imagined this moment as something like Moses at Mount Sinai giving God’s instructions, Luke envisions it as something more like Moses’ exhortation in the book of Deuteronomy when Israel was about to enter the land after their journey through the wilderness. It declares who God is, what God is about, and what it means to live God’s way. It announces the reign of God and teaches us how to live that reign.

Both Matthew and Luke start their account of Jesus’ teaching with a list of beatitudes, and it’s important that we understand what these words mean. We tend to talk about blessings as if they were the good things we have in life. We talk about our many blessings and we have in mind our children (maybe our grandchildren) and things like our family, our spouse, our home, our health – all those things we tend to mention around the thanksgiving table. Those are all great and wonderful blessings. We are fortunate if we have them. And all of us have something for which to give thanks. But the word Jesus uses here doesn’t refer to those kind of blessings, those things we refer to as good fortune.

There is nothing fortunate about being poor or hungry or grieving, and we do God and the scriptures a terrible disservice if we try to say that the poor are somehow fortunate. The woman in my parish in Detroit who needed to heat her house with a space heater attached to an extension cord that ran through a window from her neighbor’s house isn’t fortunate. The man who spent Michigan winters in a window well in downtown Detroit with newspapers for a blanket wasn’t fortunate. The mother who lost her son to suicide wasn’t fortunate. The young couple who lost their newborn to an asymptomatic ruptured appendix wasn’t fortunate. And the six-year-old girl who stole food from church to feed her grandmother and two younger siblings because her mother was a crackhead wasn’t fortunate.

There is nothing lucky about being poor or powerless. This word translated as “blessed” is speaking about honor. The poor and powerless are honored in God’s sight. The hungry and grieving are the recipients of God’s mercy.

And they are honorable because they receive and embrace the reign of God. They embrace the kingdom. They embrace the vision of shared bread. They do not steal what belongs to others. They do not reject those who are poor. They do not regard those who are sick as unclean. They embrace this dawning world of faithfulness to God and one another.

When the Bible talks about the rich and poor, these words are not fundamentally about material wealth. Honor is more important than money in the world of the scripture. Your reputation, your place in society, your family land and your family name, these are things that matter.

And in the Biblical world people understood all these things as fixed commodities. As I have said before, these are like land. There is a finite amount of land, so if someone is going to get more land then others are going to lose theirs. If someone is going to get more honor, then others are going to lose it. The most important thing in that society was for a family to protect what was theirs, whether it was their land or reputation. A person who lost their place or position or land was called ‘poor’. You could lose your position because you got sick and became an outcast, or because you were lame and couldn’t work, or because you lost your land and had to work as a tax gatherer, or because you were childless, or became a widow, or because you were a foreigner.

And what do we see Jesus doing? He is restoring people to their place in the community. He made Levi a disciple. He forgave a paralyzed man and returned him to his family. He touched and healed a leper, bringing him back inside the community. And he called Peter and his companions to help in this work.

The poor are honored in God’s sight. God’s mercy, God’s deliverance, has come to them. And they have embraced this kingdom where all are welcome, where all are cared for, where all are reconciled.

But how shameful are those who take instead of give, who do not embrace God’s way of grace, who take people’s lands, who take advantage of the powerless, who plunder the widow and ignore the orphan. How shameful those who do not share their food. How shameful those who live for the praise of others rather than the praise of God.

Amen

+   +   +

This message was from Sunday, February 17, 2019, based on the assigned Gospel reading for the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany in year C. The other readings on that Sunday helping to shape the message were Jeremiah 17:5-10, Psalm 1, and 1 Corinthians 15:12-20.

© David K Bonde, 2019. All rights reserved.

+   +   +

Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:I000073_(10704267663).jpg Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Homes-LuxuryHome3-Bel_Air_California.jpg Rackstorrocky [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

 

Advertisements

An audacious and generous love

File:Fog of War (18986349660).jpgWatching for the Morning of February 24, 2019

Year C

The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Having declared that the poor, the hungry, and the grieving are honorable in God’s sight (they embrace the values of God’s reign), and calling the rich shameful for enriching themselves at the expense of others, Jesus moves immediately to Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

Our obligation as participants in the reign of God is to live the way of God: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them… But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

A new administration has come, with a new set of values. These are not the values of empire that amasses great fortunes from conquered peoples; these are the values of a God who makes the makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous,” who anointed Jesus to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

At the heart of this new administration is showing to all people the fidelity and allegiance we show to our own people. Israel knew the command to love the neighbor, but who falls inside the circle? Who is one of us? Even the Roman soldiers, says Jesus, and foreign mercenaries marching through their lands, even the tax gatherers helping Rome and Judea’s elites to plunder the people, even the sinners pushed beyond the limits of proper behavior, even the pious full of self-righteousness and judgment.

And why such audacious and generous love? Because such is the love of God. Such is the reign of the Spirit. Such is the new world born in Jesus.

So Sunday we will hear about Joseph’s extravagant grace to the brothers who sought to kill him but settled for selling him into slavery and telling their father his favorite child was dead, dousing Joseph’s special coat in blood to show a lion got him. But Joseph will see beyond their vengefulness to the bounty of God, and will provide for them all during the five years of famine to come. And Sunday we will hear the poet remind us not to “fret because of the wicked…for they will soon fade like the grass.” “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath,” for “the wicked will be no more,” “but the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.”

…In abundant prosperity. In overwhelming grace. In an audacious and generous love.

The Prayer for February 24, 2019

God of truth,
make us attentive to the teachings of your Son
that in his words we may find the path of life.

The Texts for February 24, 2019

First Reading: Genesis 45:3-11, 15
“I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.” –
Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and receives them with grace.

Psalmody: Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40
“Do not fret because of the wicked…Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more…But the meek shall inherit the land.” – the poet meditates on the destiny of the corrupt who ignore our God-given obligations to one another and promises the fulfillment of God’s promise (the land) to those who remain faithful.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
“But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised?”
Arguing against those in Corinth who deny the bodily resurrection, Paul now attempts to convey the notion that the resurrected body is different than our present existence.

Gospel: Luke 6:27-38
“Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”
After opening Jesus’ teaching about the dawning reign of God with Jesus’ declaration of those who are honored and shameful in God’s eyes, Luke immediately sets forth Jesus teaching, “Love your enemies,” for this is the pattern of God’s action in the world.

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fog_of_War_(18986349660).jpg 1st Lt. Danielle Dixon [Public domain]

Like a shrub in the desert

File:Tree trunk at Deadvlei, Namibia (2017).jpgWatching for the Morning of February 17, 2019

Year C

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

From the mountain where he has prayed and appointed twelve apostolic witnesses, Jesus now descends to the plain to speak to the crowds who have come in search of healing. We know these words as “Blessed are you…” and “Woe to you…” but their meaning is better expressed by something like “How honored are you…” and “How shameful are you…”

It is about wealth and poverty – but wealth and poverty in a very specific context that concerns far more than money. It is a society that thinks about all things as a limited and fixed supply. It is like land: for someone to gain more someone else must lose. The ‘poor’ are those who have been unable to protect what was theirs, whether possessions or lands or family name. The ‘rich’ are those who have used their power to acquire what belonged to others. They are inherently regarded as thieves. (This is different, however, from those who prosper by natural means such as an exceptional harvest or fruitful flock – though such gifts from God require sharing with those not so fortunate.)

We understand something of this. We regard the auto mechanic who takes advantage of a traveler on the road as a thief, as are the pharmaceutical companies that jack up the price of life-saving medications – or those who pushed the sale of opiates. It is shameful to take advantage of the weak or vulnerable. It is shameful to steal from the elderly. It is shameful to abuse children. “Woe to you who are rich…Woe to you who are full now… Woe to you who are laughing now…” It is not a threat of punishment so much as a declaration that such people are shameful in God’s eyes and have no place in God’s reign.

No one is lucky to be poor. No one is fortunate to be powerless. There is no inherent good in being a victim (though good can come if it incites us not to victimize others, if it creates allegiance to the reign of God). The vulnerable are favored in God’s eyes because God has always been their advocate and defender, and now the reign of God has drawn near in Jesus the anointed. But what is expected of the poor – as also of the powerful, though they tend to refuse – is that they embrace this reign where bread is shared and sins forgiven and the human community made whole.

Jesus’ words on Sunday are full of grace to the beaten down, but they challenge the privileged – even as Jeremiah and the psalm contrast the tree drawing life from a stream with the dry shrub in the desert.

The Prayer for February 17, 2019

God of Mercy,
Redeemer of the world,
bring your healing to us and to all
that, transformed by your Grace,
all may know your justice and mercy.

The Texts for February 17, 2019

First Reading: Jeremiah 17:5-10
“Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals.” – The prophet condemns the king whose confidence in power politics has led him to an alliance with the king of Egypt to rebel against Babylon, a course of action that will lead to the destruction of the nation. The timelessness of the wisdom saying is pointedly applied to the nation’s leadership.

Psalmody: Psalm 1
“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked…but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.”
– The psalm, written in the singular (“Blessed is the one”) opens the Hebrew psalter with an affirmation of the importance of individual fidelity to God.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:12-20
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” – Paul challenges those in Corinth who deny bodily resurrection.

Gospel: Luke 6:17-26
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.’” – Having ascended a mountain to pray and then chosen his twelve apostolic witnesses, Jesus comes down to teach a great crowd of his followers, beginning with these declarations of those who are honored and shameful in God’s sight.

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tree_trunk_at_Deadvlei,_Namibia_(2017).jpg Olga Ernst & Hp.Baumeler [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

And us? What should we do?

File:Humanitarian aid OCPA-2005-10-28-090517a.jpgWatching for the Morning of December 9, 2018

Year C

The Second Sunday of Advent

Sunday we combine the assigned Gospel texts for the next two weeks because of the children’s Christmas program on the 16th. This gives us the chance to hear Luke’s account of the ministry of John the Baptizer in a single reading: The word of God comes into the brutal world of Rome and its client kings, announcing God’s righting of the world and the coming of the one who will wash the world in a holy Spirit. And what does it mean to prepare for this wondrous act of God? It is to bear fruit befitting God’s reign: to share your bread with the hungry and your clothes with the naked, to show faithfulness to others rather than plundering them to your benefit.

The journey towards God is a journey towards the neighbor.

The dawn of grace requires we learn to live grace.

So there are warnings on Sunday, the ax poised to strike the fruitless tree, and the winnowing fork sifting the chaff for the fire; heritage doesn’t count for anything, only fidelity. But there is also promise of a dawning salvation: a world set right and a human community awash in the Spirit. It is time, says John, to take sides. Choose the one to whom you will show allegiance: the world of rulers and empire, or the reign of grace.

Sunday we will hear the prophet Malachi speak of God’s messenger who prepares the way for God to come to his temple. His task is to purify the priestly clan of Levi, that their offerings may please rather than offend God. And in this warning of a refiner’s fire we will recognize that it is not only the preachers and priests who must have the dross burned away, but a people who must become faithful.

In the shadow of that warning we will sing the prophetic song of Zechariah that rejoices in God’s favor and the fulfillment of God’s promises, describing the mission of his son, John, to “Go before the Lord to prepare his way.” There are barriers of heart and mind that must be torn down. There are hearts that must be changed, relationships to be reconciled, wounds to be healed, love to be lived.

And we will hear Paul exhort his beloved congregation to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” in the promise that “it is God who is at work in you.”

It is a season of hope, but also a season for living the kingdom.

The Prayer for December 9, 2018

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Lead us in the way of your kingdom
that we may walk in paths of faith, hope and love;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for December 9, 2018

First Reading: Malachi 3:1-4
“I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.”
– The prophet known as Malachi spoke to a people who complained of God’s absence, but neglected their offerings and worship of God. He declares that God will come to this people, but warns he will come as a purifying fire.

Psalmody: Luke 1:68-79 (The Benedictus)
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” – On this Sunday when we hear of the ministry of John the Baptist, we sing the song known as the Benedictus (from its first words in Latin). This prophecy is sung by Zechariah when he regains his voice after following the divine command to name his son John. He glorifies God for God’s work of deliverance and declares that John “will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.

Second Reading: Philippians 2:12-16 (appointed: Philippians 1:3-11)
“Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” –Paul writes from prison, urging his beloved congregation to faithfulness in their life together. (Our congregation read Philippians 1:3-11 last week.)

Gospel: Luke 3:1-18 (appointed: Luke 3:1-6)
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” – We combine the Gospel readings for 2 and 3 Advent this Sunday where John is located in the midst of the ruling powers but speaks of the ruler to come – and calls the community to a life in keeping with the dawning reign of God.

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Humanitarian_aid_OCPA-2005-10-28-090517a.jpg Technical Sergeant Mike Buytas of the United States Air Force [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Would that God’s Spirit were on all of us

File:Statue tripping.jpg

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

Watching for the Morning of September 30, 2018

Year B

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 21 / Lectionary 26

It doesn’t seem right to read the second half of psalm 19 about the goodness of God’s law without having read the beginning of the psalm that declares “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” The beauty, harmony and order we see in the stars is found in God’s ordering of human life by the Torah/teaching/“law” given to Israel: “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul… making wise the simple… rejoicing the heart… enlightening the eyes… enduring forever.” God’s commands to live faithfulness and mercy are “sweeter also than honey” and more desirable than gold.

Into the chaos of this last week, and the wrenching trauma of sexual assault, raging anger, and bitter partisanship, comes this sweet word about God’s gracious ordering of the world.

But our readings, Sunday, start with bitter complaint. Israel is in the wilderness craving meat and imagining that life had been wonderful in the old days. They dream of melons and cucumbers, forgetting that Pharaoh made life bitter and sought to kill their children. Moses, too, cries out in bitterness that God has entrusted him to care for such a people. God answers with the commission of the seventy elders upon whom a share of the Spirit is given. But it is the story of Eldad and Medad to which the narrative drives. They were not with the others when the Spirit was given. They were still in the camp. Joshua would have Moses silence them. But Moses answers instead: “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”

Where Joshua would seek to control and limit God’s work; Moses wants to see it spread. And so then we hear Jesus with disciples who also want to control and limit God’s work: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” He wasn’t on our team. He wasn’t one of us. We can’t allow him to succeed – even though he was freeing people from demons.

We are living in the sorrows of partisanship. And Christians have been brutally successful at tribalism through the ages. Pretty disgraceful given that our Lord welcomed all. Pretty disgraceful given that our Lord said it was better to have a millstone tied around your neck and be cast into the sea rather than cause anyone to waver in their allegiance to Jesus. And it is better to cut off your hand or tear out your eye – the punishment for lawbreakers still in some parts of the world – than betray God’s reign of mercy and life.

Moses was right. Would that God’s Spirit were upon all of us.

The Prayer for September 30, 2018

Holy and Gracious God,
before whom the least of your children bear an eternal name,
season us with your Spirit
that we may never drive away those whom you call near;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 30, 2018

First Reading: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
“Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders.” – Moses cries out to God about the burden of caring for this rebellious people, and God puts his Spirit upon seventy elders to share the leadership. Two of the elders, Eldad and Medad, are not present with the others on Mount Sinai and begin prophesying in the camp. Moses’ aid, Joshua, wants Moses to silence them. Moses wants all God’s people to possess the Spirit.

Psalmody: Psalm 19:7-14
“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.”
– The psalm sings of God’s wondrous ordering of the world, beginning with the majesty of creation, and then the gift of God’s law.

Second Reading: James 5:13-20
“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them.”
– The author urges the Christian community to mutual care and absolution.

Gospel: Mark 9:38-50
“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” – The disciples show their failure to understand the reign of God present in Jesus and he summons them to the radical commitment that the reign of God requires: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Statue_tripping.jpg By Bianca Bueno (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The scalpel of God

File:Syriske flyktninger (8184618433).jpg

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

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

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

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

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

+   +   +

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is the scalpel of God.

Amen

+   +   +

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

As you treat this child

File:Syriske flyktninger (8184617191).jpg

Watching for the Morning of September 23, 2018

Year B

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus is back in Galilee. His journey beyond the margins of Israel near Tyre and Sidon and the region of the Decapolis is over and they are headed back to Capernaum and then on to Jerusalem. Jesus is still teaching them that he will be rejected in Jerusalem. The leadership of the city will rise up against this threat to civil order and his heretical notion that the reign of God is at hand and that God desires mercy and not sacrifice, that God is looking for faithfulness rather than ritual purity. So he is teaching his followers, trying to open their eyes.

But still his followers don’t understand. They are looking for victory in Jerusalem. For them, the reign of God is full of images of Rome cast out and Jesus on a throne. So as they head to the city and that glorious day, the scramble for power and influence begins. Who among them is greatest? Who will serve at his side? Who will share the reins of power?

But Jesus is trying to teach them. So, again, he gathers a child into their midst, a child who lacks all status and significance. Surrounding him in his embrace he says simply “As you treat this child you treat me.” The kingdom of God is upside down. It is not honor and privilege that matter but compassion and service.

In our first reading on Sunday we will hear that the people of Jeremiah’s hometown plot to kill him for his prophetic message. He challenges their power and privilege as a priestly community. In their eyes, he is a traitor for saying that God is coming to judge the nation. In the psalm we join in the words of an ancient petitioner who cries out “the insolent have risen against me, the ruthless seek my life,” yet confesses, “But surely, God is my helper.” The author of James will continue his exhortation, upending social norms by saying, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom,” and warning that “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”

The word of Jesus about taking up the cross lingers. The summons is to embrace the reign of God fully, to let the new world and it alone be our hope and path.

The Prayer for September 23, 2018

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

The Texts for September 23, 2018

First Reading: Jeremiah 11:18-20
“I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter.” – The prophet Jeremiah discovers a plot against his life by members of his own priestly clan who want to silence his message.

Psalmody: Psalm 54
“Save me, O God, by your name, and vindicate me by your might.”
– The poet prays for deliverance from murderous enemies.

Second Reading: James 3:13-4:8a (appointed: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a)
“Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”
– The author speaks to the Christian community about the chaos that comes from their passions and desires, urging them to “resist the devil” and submit themselves to God.

Gospel: Mark 9:30-37
“On the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.” – Jesus is again teaching his disciples about his coming death and resurrection in Jerusalem, but they are arguing who will get the seats of power when they get to Jerusalem.

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Syriske_flyktninger_(8184617191).jpg By Norsk Folkehjelp Norwegian People’s Aid from Norway (Syriske flyktninger) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Counting the Cost

File:WTC Hub July 2014 vc.jpg

Watching for the Morning of September 4, 2016

Year C

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 18 / Lectionary 23

Jesus’ relentless challenge of the social order continues this week as he spells out to the crowd the consequences of enjoining the privileged to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind to their banquets. Banquets functioned to maintain the social fabric through ties of kinship and friendship and by reinforcing the honor status of the host and guests. Jesus’ teaching to invite those on society’s margins jeopardized the safety and security of the family by bringing shame on the family, undermining their position in society and incurring the hostility of their social class.   ‘Love’ and ‘hate’ are words expressing attachment and detachment. Those who would follow Jesus must detach from the social system of this world in order to show allegiance to the new order that is dawning in Christ. The reign of God welcomes all, feeds all, forgives all. One cannot live the kingdom and yet maintain the ties of security through family position and wealth. “Count the cost,” Jesus says, “Count the cost.”

With this radical challenge comes the preaching of Moses declaring that God’s way is not too hard for you,” but is in fact the way of life. We hear the psalmist describe the one who shows fidelity to God (and neighbor) as a tree planted by streams of water,” drawing in the water of life in contrast to “the wicked” (those who lack fidelity to God and neighbor) who are “like chaff that the wind drives away.” And we hear Paul writing to Philemon, setting before him the need to welcome his runaway slave, Onesimus, (whom Philemon had the legal right to punish even to death) as a brother in Christ.

The world will staunchly defend the social order, but Jesus calls us to be a new creation, citizens of the age to come when all creation is reconciled to the Lord and Giver of Life. There is a cost to discipleship – but a greater cost for ignoring so great a salvation.”

The Prayer for September 4, 2016

Lord to whom our lives belong,
grant us courage to follow where you lead,
bearing the burdens of a broken world,
daring to speak the word of hope,
and living the love that lays down its life
for the sake of the world.

The Texts for September 4, 2016

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:11-20
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
– In a sermon set in the mouth of Moses, speaking to the Israelites as they prepare to enter the promised land, the preacher sets before them the choice of faithfulness and life or disobedience and all its consequences.

Psalmody: Psalm 1
“They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season.” –With this psalm that opens the psalter, the poet speaks of the enduring quality of the righteous (those faithful to God and neighbor) in contrast to the ephemeral existence of the wicked who are like chaff swept away by the wind.

Second Reading: Philemon 1-21
“Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.”
– Paul writes to Philemon on behalf of a runaway slave who has come to Paul and become a follower of Christ. Paul is sending him back to his master with instructions for Philemon to receive him as a brother.

Gospel: Luke 14:25-33
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” – The words love and hate convey a different sense to the first century than to ours, but the words were shocking then as now. The kingdom of God, the reign of grace, requires our ultimate allegiance. We should count the cost.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWTC_Hub_July_2014_vc.jpg By JasonParis from Toronto, Canada [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Even from stones

Thursday

Luke 3:1-18

File:Feofan predtecha.jpg

Icon of John the Baptist, the forerunner

8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

“Shape up or ship out.” That’s the way we usually hear this. We tend to equate repentance with moral reform. We see it as sorrow for the mistakes of our past and a determination to do better. Only Jesus never asks anyone to “do better.” He asks them to “follow me.”

And sometimes he asks them to “Go and tell how much the Lord has done for you.”

Jesus asks nothing of Zacchaeus, yet the simple act of inviting himself into Zacchaeus’ home brings Zacchaeus to stand up and declare that he will give away half and restore fourfold anyone he has cheated. That is not about moral reform. It is about a new orientation.

We talk a lot these days about sexual orientation, but the important topic is our spiritual orientation.

Repentance is not reform. It is a new orientation. A new direction. A new allegiance. Both the Greek word and its Hebrew antecedent means simply to ‘turn’. To travel a new direction. To bend the knee before a new Lord. To show fidelity to the reign of that new Lord.

So here is John, summoning the nation not to moral reform, but to a faithful allegiance to God’s way, God’s values, God’s justice and mercy.

It means sharing bread. And when we listen carefully, we will see that John doesn’t have in mind a few canned goods for the occasional food drive. He starts by saying, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.” The Greek word is tunic. Whoever has two garments must share with the one who has none.

This is not about sharing clothes we no longer wear. It is about a fundamental change in our orientation. It is about how we see our neighbor. It is about how we see God. I wouldn’t have two pair of shoes if my brother had none. The world God is creating, the world where the Spirit of God governs every heart, is a world where bread is shared. This is not a so-called communist idea. It is a world where all dance at the banquet of God. It is a world where joy abounds. It is a world set free from its hungers and fears. It’s a world where there are no shooters.

John’s call is for us to show allegiance to that world. John’s call is to live now the joy that is to come. And we shouldn’t worry about how we could ever become so compassionate or generous. For God is able to make joyful children of God even from stones.

 

Image: John the Baptist by Feofan Grek (Unknown) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Prepare the Way

File:Georgia Kintsvisi fresco.jpg

Watching for the Morning of December 6, 2015

Year C

The Second Sunday of Advent

This Sunday we shift our focus from the horizon of human history to the ministry of John the Baptist who announced the coming one. We are not turning our eyes in a new direction, just shifting the focus from the far horizon to the foothills. It is as in the movies when the camera shifts our focus from one character to another, revealing by that move something significant for the story.

The coming of “the Son of Man”, the “Day of Christ”, the “Kingdom of God” that was the subject of our readings last week are still part of this Sunday – only now we see John and hear the call to prepare the way for God’s advent. The kingdom is shared bread. The dawning reign does justice. It washes us in God’s Spirit. John calls us to begin to live the day that is coming.

Luke makes it clear that this reign of God dawns into a world ruled by empire: Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, Caiaphas – Luke names them all. Names that evoke powerful responses among the people. Names that do not speak of shared bread or justice.  Names linked to the death of Jesus and the imperial rule that crushed Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. Into this world of kings and empires comes a new empire, a new reign, a reign of God.

With Luke’s account of John this Sunday we hear Malachi speak of God’s advent in judgment and grace. We sing the song of Zechariah at the birth of his son, John, as he proclaims the advent of “a mighty savior.” And amidst this call to prepare for the dawning reign of God, Paul urges us to “work out [our] salvation”: to be and become the people of the age to come.

The prayer for December 6, 2015

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Teach us the way of your kingdom
that we may ever honor you with lives of faith, hope and love;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The texts for December 6, 2015

First Reading: Malachi 3:1-4
“I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.”
– The prophet known as Malachi spoke to a people who complained of God’s absence, but neglected their offerings and worship of God. He declares that God will come to this people, but warns he will come as a purifying fire.

Psalmody: Luke 1:68-79 (The Benedictus)
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” – On this Sunday when we hear of the ministry of John the Baptist, we sing the song known as the Benedictus (from its first words in Latin). This prophecy is sung by Zechariah when he regains his voice after following the divine command to name his son John, glorifying God for his work of deliverance and declaring that John is the one who “will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.

Second Reading: Philippians 2:12-16 (appointed: Philippians 1:3-11)
“Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” –Paul writes from prison, urging his beloved congregation to faithfulness in their life together. (Our congregation read Philippians 1:3-11 last week.)

Gospel: Luke 3:1-18 (appointed: Luke 3:1-6)
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” – We combine the Gospel readings for 2 and 3 Advent this Sunday where John is located in the midst of the ruling powers but speaks of the ruler to come – and calls the community to a life in keeping with the dawning reign of God.

 

Image: By uploader Koperczak (talk) 06:28, 24 March 2009 (UTC) [Public domain, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons