The un-rending

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Watching for the Morning of February 12, 2017

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

The Law, the Torah, God’s teaching/instructions for our life as a faithful community, stand front and center in our readings this coming Sunday. From Deuteronomy, written as a sermon by Moses to the people as they stand at the edge of the promised land setting forth again the commands and instructions of God, we will hear the challenge that before us stands a choice between life and death. Blessing will follow if we remain faithful to God and walk in God’s ways; curses will follow if we do not.

The appointed verses from Psalm 119 for Sunday is the opening strophe of the majestic acrostic hymn celebrating the gift of God’s Torah from Aleph to Taw, beginning with the affirmation: “Happy are those…who walk in the law of the Lord.”

Paul is writing about the Corinthian congregation as mere babes, still living on milk rather than solid food, bound as they are in the ways of the world around them rather than living the way of God.

And then Jesus takes up the commandments. After his stunning opening in the beatitudes and the declaration that the poor are not only honored in God’s sight but are light for the world, Jesus dramatically transforms the commandments from a safe and secure legal code (don’t kill, don’t commit adultery) to a summons to live the reign of God:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

We will hear the same summons in the commandments about adultery and vows (and then, in Matthews Gospel, about revenge, acts of mercy, prayer and fasting). More is expected of the human race – and of God’s people – than to refrain from killing, though even that has proven itself far beyond our willingness to obey. But the kingdom chooses to rip no tear in the fabric of the human community, to rend no relationship. Jesus is driving towards that stunning command: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

We are in the presence of the dawning of God’s reign, the lifting of every burden, the setting right of the world, the un-rending of the fabric of life. And we are summoned into its bold and daring and imperishable life.

The Prayer for February 12, 2017

Gracious God,
in love you made the world and laid its foundations,
giving your gracious order to the creation.
In love you revealed your law to a people you brought out from bondage,
showing them the path of life.
Renew in us your vision for human life
and make us faithful in our calling to live as children of your kingdom;
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 February 12, 2017

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
“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.” – Moses addresses the people as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, urging them to remain faithful to God, for their life in the land depends on following God’s commands.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:1-8
“Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.” – In a magisterial acrostic psalm setting forth the wonder of God’s law/teaching, the poet expresses the wondrous ordering reality God brings to life.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
– Speaking to his divided congregation, Paul says they are yet babes in Christ who must be fed with milk, having failed to learn the basic truth of how they are to live in Christ.

Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… But I say to you…” – Jesus takes up the commandments about murder, adultery and swearing oaths, revealing the depth of their meaning in bringing human life under the governance of God’s Spirit.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWTC_Julia_DSCF1149.JPG By J. Lane (Wikipedia Takes Coventry participant) (Uploaded from Wikipedia Takes Coventry) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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Lynching: A hometown response to Jesus

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Watching for the Morning of January 31, 2016

Year C

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 4:21-30

28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

Jesus has dared to suggest that the grace and mercy of God are not the possession of God’s people but are God’s gift to all. It nearly gets him killed. We take our religion pretty seriously. We want to hear that God is on our side, that God’s wants us to be happy, healthy and wise, that God will protect us in the day of famine or disease and not someone from our hated enemies.

Jesus’ problem is twofold. First, he acts like a prophet when he is just a construction worker. He’s too big for his britches. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” is just a snarky way to say “Who does he think he is?!” and to begin the process of cutting him down to size. This is what leads to the second accusation: “What does he think he’s doing spreading God’s gifts around! Charity begins at home. He should be doing his healing here among his own people, not wasting them on people from other towns and villages.” And so we are into the argument and Jesus is confronting them with reminders about Elijah and the widow of Zarephath and Elisha healing Namaan the Syrian.

Jesus seems pretty rude in this exchange. But he is exposing the poison in their hearts. He is lancing the boil. He is provoking them to reveal their hardness of heart. And they oblige – wanting to throw him from the brow of the hill.

This story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry foreshadows the end – the cross and resurrection. For they will indeed kill Jesus, but he will “pass through their midst.”

So Sunday we hear of corrupt religion and the violence it can engender. And we hear that God’s work is not stopped by it. And we will hear of Jeremiah’s call to preach God’s message – for which he will be afflicted, but God’s word will do its work. And we hear the psalmist cry out for protection against enemies. And in the background of all this embattled preaching is Paul singing about faith, hope and love enduring forever – and the greatest of these is love. This is the life to which these followers of Christ have been brought. Here we are invited into the dawning of that new age that Jesus has told us is fulfilled in himself.

The Prayer for January 31, 2016

Almighty God,
through your Son Jesus you revealed your gracious rule
to bind up the wounded and set free the captive.
Let us not fail to understand your will and your way,
but grant us willing hearts to receive your word and live your kingdom;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for January 31, 2016

First Reading: Jeremiah 1:4-10
“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” – God calls Jeremiah to his prophetic ministry.

Psalmody: Psalm 71:1-6
“In you, O Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame.”
– The psalm writer cries out to God for protection “from the hand of the wicked.”

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” – Paul continues to teach his conflicted congregation in Corinth about the gifts of God’s Spirit and their life together as a community. All gifts serve the community and the greatest gift is love – concern for and fidelity to one another

Gospel: Luke 4:21-30
“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”
– The message Jesus announces in Nazareth that the age to come is dawning even as Jesus speaks is met with hostility and a murderous attempt on his life.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Angry_mob_of_four.jpg by Robert Couse-Baker (Flickr: angry mob) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Drinking the cup

Saturday

Mark 10:32-45

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/archive/5/56/20140424150355%21Ignatius_of_Antiochie%2C_poss._by_Johann_Apakass_%2817th_c.%2C_Pushkin_museum%29.jpg39Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

Today is the feast day of St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch and Martyr of the Church. He was from the first generation after Jesus, born near the time of Jesus’ death and dying at the beginning of the 2nd century. As he was taken to Rome to be fed to the lions in the Coliseum, he wrote letters to the churches in the region through which he passed. Seven survive.

The word ‘bishop’ has gathered a lot of extra weight traveling through the centuries. Ignatius would have been the head of the household of faith – spiritual leader, teacher, symbolic representative of the whole community – but also a link to the beginnings. He had been formed in the faith by John the Evangelist.

The value of such an historical link has not always been recognized in American society. Yet we often will convey the chain of custody for some eyewitness account. “Bill heard it from Mary who heard it from Jean who saw it happen.” And though we have all played the telephone game and know how messages can get distorted, the first generation wasn’t playing the telephone game. They were sitting at a teacher’s feet, learning the stories, learning their significance, reading the letters of Paul and – by the generation of Ignatius – writing down the narratives as Gospels.

Ignatius was a witness carefully taught by the witnesses. And that chain of teaching continues through the centuries. But authority in the church is not from that chain of succession alone. It is a balance between the tradition handed down through the office of the elder, the text of the Scriptural witness, and the living work of the Spirit.

Ignatius had all three.

It is hard to imagine the violence of a society that makes sport out of feeding people to the lions, watching people die in innumerable creative ways. Crucified upside down. Dressed as enemies and cut down by gladiators. Buried up to the neck in the track of the chariot race. Limbs chained to each of four horses set running in opposite directions. Dipped in pitch and set alight as torches.

It evokes the image of lynching when towns came out to vent their hate as if it were a Sunday picnic – and went away with souvenir pieces of the body.

Into this world came a teacher who yielded himself to violence in the name of peace. John heard him. And Ignatius sat at John’s feet. And we sit at their feet, a people learning to be faithful to the one who taught us to love all people – even, and especially, in the face of hate.

 

Image: Ignatius of Antioch By Иоанн Апакасс (?) (File source Official museum page) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons  Page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ignatius_of_Antiochie,_poss._by_Johann_Apakass_%2817th_c.,_Pushkin_museum%29.jpg

Around a single table

Lutheran Altar

Altar at the Castle Church in Torgau

Sunday Evening

Mark 4:35-41

38 They woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

I don’t know whether it was the mood of the whole worshipping assembly today or just mine, but the tragedy in South Carolina seemed to hang over worship. It rattled around in the sermon about Jesus stilling the storm. Perhaps I should have spoken directly about the violence that invaded Emanuel Church where nine laid down their lives – or had them stolen away – but I was not ready.   Nevertheless, it was there when we talked about the power of God’s word that brought order, beauty and goodness out of the chaos of the primeval waters – a word that Jesus had authority to speak. It was there when I talked about the storm at sea through which God obstructed Jonah’s flight from God’s command to bring God’s word to the hated Ninevites. Jonah would rather perish than carry to Assyria a message that might save Israel’s enemy. It’s a comical story with a profound message – a message Jesus takes up when he declares:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43-45)

We don’t really want to hear that God loves everyone. And, like Jonah, there is a part of us that runs from that assignment. Who wants to bear witness to skinheads and white supremacists? Who wants to challenge bigoted and prejudicial speech? The safety of our like-minded churches is much to be preferred. Or, at least, what we thought was safety.

All hate is linked. We need to get this through our heads and hearts and souls. All hate is linked. We cannot disseminate vitriolic emails about Muslims, Obama, Democrats or Republicans, or climate change supporters or deniers, without adding to the level of hate and intolerance in the country. We cannot oppose the building of a mosque without adding to the desecration of all religious traditions. We may enjoy the snarky remarks, exaggerations and falsehoods on the news channel of our choice, but we are adding to the spiritual pollution of our time.

All hate is linked. And it is linked over time. We are not far in time from lynching as a public festival, with children in their Sunday best watching a body in flames. We are not far in time from segregated schools and segregated buses and segregated workforces. We are not far in time when persons of color died because a white hospital would not treat them. We are not far in time when a white woman’s word sealed the fate of a black man, any black man. We are not far in time when white sheriffs picked up black men for ‘vagrancy’ and ‘hired’ them out to work in the orange groves. We are not far in time when a black child with a toy gun is shot on sight.

All hate is linked. And it is linked over time. We have hated “Commies”. We have hated the Japanese before them. Interestingly, we tended to hate Nazi’s rather than Germans, but made no such distinction about imperialist Japan. We have hated the native peoples who occupied this land. We have hated the Irish when they first came to this land and, at various times, Italians and Jews and most other migrant groups in their time. We have allowed our hates to morph and shift rather than choose the path that Jesus’ proposed – well, actually, commanded.

The sin lies in all of us. And repentance doesn’t mean feeling guilt. It means changing our allegiance, changing our path, changing our loyalty from self-interest to the well being of our neighbor. It means changing from the spirit of our age to the Spirit of God. It means truth telling about our story and listening with care to the stories others tell. It means restraining our greed and considering well the welfare of the whole community. It means restraining our speech. As St. James records:

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” (1:26)

It means taking to heart what James declares when he says that the tongue is

a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. (3:8-12)

All hate is linked. But the eternal source of life, who commanded the sea to be still and brought forth the world of beauty and goodness, has come among us in this Nazarene. And he gathers us still, week after week, around a single table to remind us of his promise to gather all nations into the banquet of perfect peace. And he has made us his witnesses that our lost humanity can be restored.

Jonah

Saturday

Jonah 3

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Prophet Jonas in Augsburg Cathedral, stained glass window, early 12th century

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

It was incomprehensible to Jonah that God could pardon Nineveh. Nineveh was the city at the heart of the Assyrian Empire. Nineveh was the city that sent its armies to smash the northern kingdom of Israel and subject Judah. Nineveh was the city whose policy was the extermination of subject peoples: the people of Israel were scattered across the empire and others brought in to take their place. It is because of Nineveh that there are ten lost tribes of Israel, lost to history, lost among the nations. Nineveh was renowned in the ancient world for their cruelty and brutality – rare fame in a cruel and brutal era.

It was unthinkable that they could be forgiven. And yet Jonah knew God would – if they repented, if they turned and changed. It’s why Jonah would rather leave his home and people and flee to the furthest most end of the earth than deliver God’s warning to Nineveh. And it is why Jonah would rather be tossed into the sea than go back to deliver God’s message.

But God, in this beloved and delightful tale, does his fish trick and three days later Jonah is vomited onto the land. Three days and life is given, again. Jesus will talk about the sign of Jonah. But there, in the muck on the shore, “the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” God is determined.

When Jesus talks about loving our enemies, it’s not a new thought in the Biblical tradition. It’s not like hate and violence were okay and then God changed his mind. God reasoned with Cain before he murdered his brother – and God guarded Cain’s life from the threat of revenge after his fearful deed. Vengeance was not permitted to Israel – it was God’s to avenge. Tubal-cain, the father of modern weapons, is not a hero of the text. The prophet speaks of swords beaten into plowshares because we were not created for swords. David is forbidden to build the temple because he was a man of blood – necessary blood, the blood of those who sought to destroy Israel – but still blood. Before Israel entered into its struggle against the corrupt cities of Canaan, every man had to make an offering, a sacrifice. Even though they were on a divinely authorized mission – they needed to atone for the violence they were to commit. It was not until Noah that God even conceded to humanity the right to kill animals for food – but with that concession, he still required that humans not eat the blood, the life. They must pour it on the ground, a gesture to acknowledge that only God has the right to take life – even when he permits it of us.

Jonah is afraid that God will show love to the Ninevites. And he is right. What he fears comes to pass: the unforgiveable enemy turns and is forgiven.

We are not far from Jonah. We all have enemies we will not forgive. It is why God says through the prophet “My ways are not your ways.” God will do what we will not. For God’s work in the world is the redemption of the human community, not the defense of ‘his people’. ‘His people’ are the voice like the prophet, instruments to bear witness to God’s redemption of the earth. We are Jonah.

And we are like Jonah. The teacher who hurt us, the boss who ruined us, the friend who violated us, the spouse who betrayed us, the enemy from forgotten wars, the terrorist with a bomb, there are plenty of people we have good reason to hate. But God does not share our passions. His passion, his suffering, is for all, to be reunited with all, to reclaim his lost planet hurtling through hate and greed towards destruction. We made a bomb by splitting the atom, for heaven’s sake, a bomb that poisons the sea and air and land, and twists the genes in those who survive to kill them later. Whether it was necessary is not the point; the existence of such weapons of unspeakable violence points to the dark reality of the human heart.

But, truthfully, we don’t want the god made in our own image, the god Jonah wants, the god who fights on our side. We need the God who loves the whole world – even those we must fight, even those we don’t and ought not trust. We need the God who loves them all, because otherwise we have only endless war: us and our god against you and your god. To this there is no happy end. It is the world of Tubal-cain who exults: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, I am avenged seventy-seven fold.”

Jonah cannot stand the thought that God would do anything but destroy Nineveh. We have all prayed those prayers. Thankfully, God does not answer them they way we desire.

And the story of Jonah, delightfully and teasingly told, now haunts us with the truth that we are the called and sent messengers of the God who loves all, the God who would forgive all.

Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.”

 

By Hans Bernhard (Schnobby) (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

Mosul

Saturday

Jonah 3

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Rembrandt, The Prophet Jonah before the Walls of Nineveh, c. 1655

10When 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.

The ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh lie across the river from Mosul. Situated on the Tigris, it is one of the most ancient cities in the world, in the heart of the Fertile Crescent where humans first domesticated crops and created cities and empires. It was the greatest city in the world for 50 years before it was weakened by civil war and fell in 612 BCE to the rebel forces from which emerged the Babylonian empire.

At its height, the Assyrian Empire stretched from Egypt to Central Turkey to the Persian Gulf. We recognize the names of Assyrian kings like Shalmaneser, Tiglath-Pileser, Sargon, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and Ashurbanipal though we seldom know where or when to locate those names.

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Lamassu (Human-headed winged bull) heading left. Relief from king Sargon II’s palace at Dur Sharrukin in Assyria (now Khorsabad in Iraq), ca. 713–716 BC

This was also the empire that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and subjugated Judah.

While Jonah would have gladly declared God’s judgment on the city, he refused to go lest the people repent. He feared that God would forgive them if they did so.

And he was right.

At least, that is the story told in this little short story of Jonah.

Jonah wanted the city to pay for its sins; God wanted the city to come back to himself. Between these two desires is the central religious struggle. Do we really want the God of the whole earth, or just a god for ourselves. Do we really want a God of mercy, or a god who will take our side.

Few of us weep at the destruction being wrought in Mosul. Perhaps few of us even recognize that this city has been hit recently by French and U.S. airstrikes. It’s just part of that mess. Most of us celebrated when Sadam was found in his spider hole and when Bin Laden was killed and dumped into the sea. We generally share Jonah’s conviction that God should come down against our enemies.

The great mercy of God is that he does not let Jonah run away from his mission. And even when Jonah pouts, God seeks to stir Jonah’s heart to understand the true compassion of God: if Jonah can care for a mere plant, should God not care for all the inhabitants of this great city?

Just as God wanted Nineveh to repent, so he wanted Jonah to repent. He wanted Jonah to share his compassion.

And what God wants of Jonah, God wants of us.

From the fig tree

Wednesday

Acts 1

File:Fig Tree (5967272441).jpg7 “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”

But it doesn’t stop us from thinking we can know.

This is one of those things I find most interesting about the human creature – that those who believe in God – and believe in Jesus – and believe in God’s word – even those who believe in the inerrancy of God’s word – can take a clear, indisputable verse like this one and turn it inside out. We claim to know what Jesus says we can’t know.

How many great tragedies go back to this simple reality – that we claim to know what we do not know, can’t know, never will know. Still, we play God.

Judge not lest ye be judged,” but we judge anyway – and think ourselves righteous in our judgment. “Love your enemies,” but we gladly hate and make war and think ourselves righteous. “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me,” but we turn and give them the evil eye when they make noise during worship. “Love you neighbor as yourself,” “Give to anyone who has need,” “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult,” “Vengeance is mine saith the LORD” but we are adept at it. Righteous in it.

Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church,” “Keep your lives free from the love of money,” “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations.” All clear commands we ignore or reverse: “husbands rule your wives,” “God will make you rich,” and, well, when was the last time you made a disciple? We worry more about getting our children into college than into the kingdom.

We do not know and will not know and cannot know the days or seasons. The lesson of the fig tree is to bear fruit, to understand the consequences of not recognizing the time when God comes to me seeking fruit. Everyone wants to imagine that this is the time when God’s kingdom will come in its fullness – and God’s answer is simply that this is the time to be God’s kingdom. Every time is the time to be God’s kingdom. Every time is the time to bear Christ into the world. Every time is the time to heal and forgive. Every time is the time serve and love. Every time is the time to let light shine.

We stand looking up into heaven and God points us to our neighbor. There is work to be done. There is mercy to share. There is compassion to do. There are prayers to be offered, strangers to be welcomed. There are hymns and spiritual songs to be sung. There is bread to be broken.

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

No. But this is the time when the kingdom of God will come to all if we live it.

The measure of our humanity

Thursday

Acts 17

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Epidemic Cross from the Musée archéologique de La Diana

30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31He has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

The notion of a judgment day is both frightful and appealing.

I like this phrase “the times of human ignorance.” For all our exquisite knowledge, we are still profoundly ignorant. We can build fabulous machines to search for the Higgs boson or peer back to the beginnings of time. We can reconstruct the languages of lost cultures and read the layers of geographical time. But we don’t know how to escape fear and bigotry. We can’t stop war. We have trouble sustaining a marriage.

What is the measure of human existence? When we stand humanity up against the doorframe and with a tissue box and pencil measure how far we have grown, what is the height that would mark our full maturity? The notion that the world will be judged by Jesus is less about dishing out rewards and punishments and much more about our lives being measured against his.

What will we say when we stand before eternity next to his example?

This we do not want. We want the judge who will punish the wicked, who will hold all the violent and brutal and thieving to account. We want someone to freeze Judas, Cassius and Brutus in a lake of ice. We rather like Dante’s vision of the torments of hell where all the lying, thieving congressman and bankers can get their due, and the authors of every terror be repaid.

But to have our humanity measured by Jesus’ humanity…to have our faithfulness measured by his faithfulness…to have our compassion measured by his compassion…to have our truthfulness measured by his…such thoughts lead only to humble silence.

The times of ignorance are past. The measure of humanity has been revealed. Seventy-sevenfold forgiveness is not the goal but the standard. Loving your enemies is not the hope but the requirement. Caring for Lazarus at the gate is not a noble charity but a necessary humanity.

So we come to that word ‘repent’: “God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” God is not asking us to feel bad for how poorly we measure up; he is calling us to grow up, to walk a different path, to show a different allegiance, to leave our ignorance behind.

All of us.

A strange and different messiah

Wednesday

Matthew 21

2011 Palm Sunday Procession 29The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

We are not very good at enacting the excitement of that first Palm Sunday. What is supposed to be a raucous crowd of pilgrims shouting acclamations full of messianic hopes as they throng the road to Jerusalem on the occasion of their great national celebration of deliverance becomes a relatively polite and orderly reading of assigned lines by people trying to walk and read their bulletins at the same time, while looking to get their usual pew.

It’s different for us, of course. We don’t come to this day with the same fervent hope for revolution. We do not have enemy soldiers watching the crowds. We do not have an enemy garrison at the corner of the church lot. We do not have a story of miraculous deliverance – we have a national story of brave men and clever citizen soldiers fighting from behind trees with truth and justice and providence on their side. Our Fourth of July is a time for beer and picnics and fireworks. It doesn’t have the expectancy of the big game. It isn’t fueled by present tyranny. We do not anticipate angelic armies with drawn swords to appear by our side.

Nor do we live in a time when this simple acclamation “Hosanna!” is provocation enough for the riot police to start smashing heads.

So I will forgive a little lack of enthusiasm in our Palm Sunday procession. What will happen next is not fueled by uncertainty and possibility. We know the story. The soldiers will crack heads. Or they would, if Jesus had not chosen to go quietly and give us time to flee. Jesus, however, will get cracked. Brutally. More brutally than we can imagine. Give humans a machete and a reason to hate and you will be horrified to discover the things of which we are capable.

The purpose of the Palm Sunday liturgy is not to get us geeked up as on that original day. It is to let us worship with our hands and feet and well as our heart and mind, to give us a chance to step outside the ordinary and to physically walk into this extraordinary story where messianic hope is radically rewritten. No longer is it about the power to crack heads (cracking the “bad guys’ heads”); suddenly it is about the refusal to crack heads, the refusal to answer violence with violence, the decision to love even those with batons and spears and a hammer and nails.

It is a strange and different messiah. A sacrificial lamb. A footwasher. A man of prayer. An embodiment of grace and truth. An innocent laying down his life that others may be freed from the self-righteousness and violence that lurks in the darkness of the human heart. An innocent through whom God will raise a new people, a new community, a new world to life.

Hosanna.  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

The strange journey

Sunday Evening

Matthew 5

File:Pair of Candlesticks LACMA M.62.46.41a-b.jpg44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

The teaching of Jesus is pretty clear: everyone is to be seen and treated as a member of your own family.  What is not so clear is its application.  What does it mean to love an Osama bin Laden?  Was Dietrich Bonheoffer correct when he participated in the plot to kill Hitler?  You can certainly make the argument that love of neighbor trumps the love of Hitler and calls for a necessary violence, but what about this command to love your enemies?

The argument that love of neighbor trumps love of enemy is the same argument that justifies violence in the protection of one’s family.  Though we must admit this is often just a mask for protecting what matters to me – my stuff, my people.

What would it look like, face to face with a burglar, to love him?  What does love require?  What does it mean to regard him or her as a brother or sister?

I would not let my child steal from another.  It is certainly not in my child’s best interest to allow such behavior.  To stand by, to not stop her, would not be an act of love toward her.  If I would not let a family member do such a thing, I should not let any others do so.  There are parents who report their children to the police because they know their child must be held accountable.  Yet, in Les Miserables, when Valjean has been captured running from the bishop’s home with the bishop’s treasured silver, and thrown down at the Bishop’s feet by the policeman Javert with the unlikely story that the silver was a gift, the Bishop says, “My friend, you left in such a hurry you forgot the candlesticks.”  It is an act of generosity and grace that transforms Valjean’s life.

The path Jesus lays out for us, the path of creative and radical response to the brokenness of the world in hopes of healing, is not black and white.  It’s not a simple list of rules.  It is a much more complicated journey of compassion and wisdom, creativity and courage – like giving up your cloak and going home naked or insisting your adversary treat you with honor by striking your left cheek.  It is a journey shaped by a vision of the world made whole – the world made perfect – the world reconciled and transformed.  It is a journey shaped by nothing less that God’s own Spirit.

Such a journey can easily be sidetracked by our ability to deceive ourselves and rationalize our desires if it is not governed by a serious attention to the voice of God that comes down to us through the law and prophets – and by participation in a community of faith listening together to that Word.  Rules are so much simpler.  But if rules were enough, Moses would have been enough.  We need also the story of the cross (the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep) the resurrection (God’s vindication of Jesus) and the ascension (that this Jesus, crucified and risen, is the governing truth of all existence, the bread and water of life, the light and life of the world).

The Bishop understands the power of love, the sacrificial gift, and the creative response to life’s brokenness.  Javert couldn’t grasp such a world of radical and reckless grace.  But it is the true journey to wholeness.