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.

The authority to speak

File:Backhuysen, Ludolf - Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee - 1695.jpg

Ludolf Backhuysen, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1695

Watching for the Morning of June 21, 2015

Year B

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 07 / Lectionary 12

The stilling of the storm is one of those troubling stories that challenges our modern understanding of what is possible given the laws of nature. But Jesus’ command of the wind and waves is not only conceivable to the people of his time; it is filled with dramatic significance.

Out of the stormy chaos of a raging sea, mighty wind, and darkness, God speaks to create the world. At the time of Noah, God opens the floodgates in the heavens to allow the sea that destroys all life to pour in. God drives back the waters of the Red Sea by a mighty wind, and by his word sets limits the sea cannot pass. God even sends a storm to oppose Jonah in his flight from his ministry in Nineveh.

We hear some of this in Sunday’s other readings.  When God breaks his silence and questions Job, God asks Job where was he when God constrained and set limits for the sea. The psalmist sings of Gods deliverance of sailors at sea. They cry out in terror before God stills the waves. All of this reverberates through this narrative of Jesus rising from sleep to command the sea.

What confronts the followers of Jesus, struggling in their frail boat, is the authority of Jesus to speak God’s word of command over the primal forces of chaos. It is not a “miracle”, a dramatic show of Jesus’ divine power. It is the authoritative proclamation of one commissioned to speak on behalf of the God who called all things into being. And we are as the disciples in the boat: He who has authority to speak God’s word to the sea, speaks God’s word also to us.

The Prayer June 21, 2015

God of all creation,
who brought forth the earth and all its creatures
and set the bounds of the sea,
come to the aid of your church, beset by storms and danger,
granting us faith that your will and purpose to redeem all things cannot be overthrown;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 21, 2015

First Reading: Job 38:1-11
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” – God responds to Job’s persistent demand for God to explain his innocent suffering.

Psalmody: Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
“Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.”
– The psalmist sings of the steadfast love of God who delivers those in distress.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 6:1-13
“We urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.”
– The ministry of Paul was attacked in Corinth by new teachers who came after he left, saying he lacked the proper credentials and his teaching was self-serving. Paul urges the community in Corinth not turn away from the message he brought them – and the favor of God to which it testifies – and cites his endurance despite many trials as evidence of the worth and validity of his teaching.

Gospel: Mark 4:35-41
“A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion.” – The disciples, though experienced sailors, are terrified by a hostile wind, while Jesus is at peace, asleep. Their loyalty to Jesus and his message of the dawning reign of God is shaken by this attack, but Jesus rises to command the sea to be still.

The mustard seed and vulture kings

Wednesday

Mark 4:26-34

File:Cedars02(js).jpg

Cedar trees in the Cedars of God nature preserve on Mount Lebanon, Lebanon.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

At least Mark properly calls the fruit of the mustard seed a ‘bush’. Matthew records Jesus saying: it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, and Luke also records that it grew and became a tree.” Why would they make such a mistake? Because this isn’t about taxonomy, it is about the promise in Ezekiel 17 of a righteous king.

Judah’s involvement in imperial politics went poorly for the nation. When Babylon rose to power and marched on the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, Pharaoh Neco came to Assyria’s aid to prevent Babylon’s domination of the region. Josiah, the righteous king in whom the author of Samuel & Kings puts his hope, marched out to prevent the Egyptian advance and was killed in the valley of Megiddo. Jehoahaz, the royal son, aged 23 and now become king, goes to submit to Pharaoh, but is seized and taken to Egypt as a hostage. Pharaoh installs his brother, Jehoiakim, on the throne. Jehoiakim wisely switches side when Neco falls to Nebuchadnezzar, but when the Babylonian invasion of Egypt fails – and Nebuchadnezzar must withdraw to quell a rebellion at home – Jehoiakim betrays his new master.

Nebuchadnezzar, however, deals quickly with the insurrection at home and marches back to Jerusalem and besieges the city. The help Jehoiakim expects from Egypt never materializes and the rebel king dies during the siege (a curiously timed and unexplained death). On taking the throne, his son, the 18-year-old Jehoiachin, surrenders. He is taken in chains to Babylon with a host of other captives from the elite families of the city, and Nebuchadnezzar installs his uncle, Zedekiah, as king. Ezekiel is among these first captives carried into exile in 597/6 BCE.

Jeremiah and Ezekiel, speaking on God’s behalf, are the lone voices of sanity, urging the king to submit to Babylonian rule. The royal prophets – the talking heads and tea leaf readers who dine at the king’s table – urge him to action, promising success, telling the king what he wants to hear. Zedekiah reaches out to Egypt for support and breaks his covenant/treaty with Babylon. But, again, Egyptian help does not materialize and Jerusalem, the monarchy, the temple and priesthood are all brutally and thoroughly destroyed. A second deportation begins Judah’s long exile.

Ezekiel embodies these troubling events in his parable of the great eagle/vulture* (Babylon/Nebuchadnezzar) who plucks a sprig from the Forest of Lebanon (the royal hall in Jerusalem) and carries it off to “a city of merchants” (Babylon). Then he takes “a seed from the land” (Zedekiah) and plants it in fertile soil where it grows into a vine – a vine, not a great tree; low, not exalted. But the vine does not send its roots towards the first eagle; instead it looks for strength and help from “a second eagle” (Egypt). And then, the prophet asks, what that first eagle will do? Will he not come and tear up the vine, rip up its roots, and leave it to wither beneath the hot desert winds?

The prophet’s fears are realized. But this word of doom is not all that the prophet has to say to us. God himself – not an eagle/vulture – will take a tender sprig and plant it on Mt. Zion where it will become a great tree in which “every kind of bird will live”. God promises a true king – not these rapacious vulture kings, nor the lowly vine, but a great cedar that shelters all.

This is why the insignificant mustard seed becomes a shelter for the birds. It is why Matthew and Luke call it a tree, lest we miss the allusion. This Jesus is the lowly twig become a great cedar. This Jesus is the shelter for all peoples. This Jesus is the promised ruler who will free God’s world from the vultures and provide a safe home for all.

*Note: the word translated ‘eagle’ also means vulture as can be seen in the allusion to shaved heads in Micah 1:16. (This Hebrew word is used also for a scavenging bird in Proverbs 30:17 and Hosea 8:1). The eagle is a noble national symbol to the United States, but an unclean bird to Israel.
Photo: By Jerzy Strzelecki (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Trees, parables, and the dominion of God

File:Csontváry Kosztka, Tivadar - Pilgrimage to the Cedars of Lebanon - Google Art Project.jpg

Pilgrimage to the Cedars of Lebanon, Csontváry Kosztka, Tivadar (1853 – 1919)

Watching for the Morning of June 14, 2015

Year B

The Third Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 06 / Lectionary 11

Perhaps the farmer in Jesus’ parable of the growing seed is a lazy and worthless farmer, sleeping instead of tending his fields, but though he sleeps, the seed wondrously grows and a harvest will come. Just so the mustard seed seems like nothing, but it will become a great shrub sheltering the birds of the air. Jesus may seem like nothing, now, a peasant preacher and wonder worker in a land occupied by a great empire – but the reign of God comes.

The parable evokes the promise of God in our reading from Ezekiel about a twig that will grow to become a great cedar in which “every kind of bird” will find shelter – the promise of a just king in whom all nations will rest.

And the image of the noble tree is taken up by the psalmist to declare that the righteous – those who show fidelity to God and to others – are like the noble cedar whose beautiful, aromatic wood lines the temple of God, and like the date-palm whose fruit adds sweetness and joy to life, year after year.

Enriching such reflection are the words of Paul in our second reading declaring that Christ “died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” In Christ the new creation is at hand, the dawning of God’s realm of grace and life, the reconciliation of heaven and earth.

The Prayer June 14, 2015

Lord of All,
your reign of grace and life moves towards its consummation
when all shall find shelter in your arms.
Increase in us faith and hope
that we may live and serve you with joy;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 14, 2015

First Reading: Ezekiel 17:22-24
“I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar.” – Building on the metaphor of the lowly vine planted by Nebuchadnezzar (the king of Judah) who broke his covenant with Babylon and brought destruction on the nation, the prophet proclaims God’s promise of a great cedar, a noble king, in whom all the nations will find shelter.

Psalmody: Psalm 92:12-15 (Appointed: 92:1-4, 12-15)
“The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.”
– Those who are faithful towards God and others are compared with the long-lived and noble trees: the cedar that adorns the temple, and the date-palm that brings sweetness.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:14-17 (Appointed: 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17)
“if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
– All things have changed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The new age is at hand, the creation set free from sin and death, and those who are in Christ are part of that new creation.

Gospel: Mark 4:26-34
“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” – Jesus uses the metaphor of the sown seed growing towards harvest and the mustard seed become a great shrub to give insight into the mystery of the reign of God. What is now hidden moves inexorably towards its fulfillment.

 

Image: By Csontváry Kosztka, Tivadar (1853 – 1919) (Hungarian) (Painter, Details of artist on Google Art Project) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons