Dirt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The question that is asked in our psalm today is:

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

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

The answer the psalmist gives is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© David K Bonde, 2018, All rights reserved.

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

With what shall I come?

File:Offering to the Ganges, Varanasi.jpg

Friday

Micah 6:1-8

6“With what shall I come before the Lord?”

In the student union every Friday during my senior year in college, the students from the botany department sold flowers from their greenhouse. This was significant because I attended school in Minnesota where the snows lasted from Thanksgiving to April. For the price of a soda I could get one sweetheart rose to take to my girlfriend. I enjoyed giving the gift; it was sincere, not mercenary. But we all understand that arriving with a gift, however small, makes the other more favorably inclined to you.

And so the prophet asks: “With what shall I come before the Lord?” What gift will make God favorably inclined to us? What gift will generate a smile as you stand knocking at the door?

Even people who are not religious will cry out to God in times of great distress. Promises get made. We offer ourselves to save our children. I have heard the prayers that promise to go back to church or to make some sacrifice. I understand. It is an almost instinctual cry, as if God could be bought by some favor.

So the prophet poses our question: “With what shall I come before the Lord?” What will make God inclined to hear my prayer? To grant my request? But it doesn’t work that way. God isn’t interested in purchasing our trust and fidelity as if we were mercenaries. Jesus said that God sends rain on the just and the unjust.” The mercies of God are open to all.

Standing with a rose at the door of my girlfriend’s place wasn’t an attempt to barter for favor. It was a gift to please, a gift that shows she matters to me, a gift spontaneously given because I want her to be happy. And what is the gift that pleases God? Is it our church attendance? Is it our donations? Is it our volunteering? The answer, consistently, throughout scripture is that it is not our sacrifices.

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

No, the answer is always about lives of compassion and faithfulness to the human community. We see it in our psalm this Sunday. And we hear it from the prophet:

8He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Justice and mercy will not make God concede to our prayers, but it does make the heart of the universe smile.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AOffering_to_the_Ganges%2C_Varanasi.jpg By J Duval ([1]  Uploaded by Ekabhishek) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

What does the LORD require?

File:Volunteers of America Soup Kitchen in Washington, D.C..gif

Watching for the Morning of January 29, 2017

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Sunday takes us to the Sermon on the Mount and the familiar words of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are the meek…Blessed are the merciful.” They are great and powerful declarations about what is honored in God’s sight.

We sometimes miss the meaning of these potent declarations. They sound gentle and kind to us – at least until we get to the one about persecutions – but these are thunderclaps, imperial proclamations reversing the values of all the kingdoms that have come before.

Words like ‘meek’ and ‘blessed’ convey something different in a modern western society than in the ancient Mediterranean. Jesus is not talking about those who are fortunate in life, but those who are honored in God’s sight. Honor belongs to those at the bottom of the heap, not those who have climbed to the top. Honor belongs to those who embody God’s mercy and faithfulness, not those who lead the parade. Those working in the soup kitchens of the District of Columbia this last week are the nobility of God’s kingdom, not those ushered about in limousines.

So Sunday we listen as the prophet Micah utters those famous words: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” And the psalmist will sing that those who are welcome in God’s presence are not the ritually clean but those who live faithfully towards their fellow human beings. And Paul sets out his opening gambit in the first letter to the Corinthians talking about the folly of “the wisdom of the world” versus the wisdom of the folly of God.

And then we will hear the beatitudes. They are not the “be-happy-attitudes”; they are the broad sweeping scythe that cuts down all that is exalted in the empires of this world and raises up those of generous heart and kind spirit, who weep at the walls and weapons we build, who hunger for a world of mercy and peace. Their prayers will be answered. Their prayers are being answered, even now, as Jesus speaks.

The Prayer for January 29, 2017

Lord of Life,
by your word and deed you overturn the values of our world,
declaring honorable what is often despised:
the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers.
Help us to hear your Word,
and in hearing to trust,
and in trusting to live as you call us to live;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for January 29, 2017

First Reading: Micah 6:1-8
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” – Through the prophet, God brings charges against his people, summoning the surrounding hills to hear God’s case and render judgment. God has done great things for this people and asked for justice and mercy, but the people have been faithless.

Psalmody: Psalm 15
“O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” – The poet describes the one who is worthy to enter the temple precinct in terms of faithfulness to others rather than ritual purity. Where we expect to her about ‘clean hands’, we hear instead about justice and mercy.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” –
The values of ‘the world’, the things honored and treasured by a humanity that has lost its harmony with God, are shown to be foolish and empty by God’s revelation of himself in Christ crucified.

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – The beatitudes begin Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the first of five blocks of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus speaks of what is honorable in God’s sight and declares God’s favor.

The comments from this and previous years on this Sunday of the church year can be found under the list of Sundays or by clicking here.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AVolunteers_of_America_Soup_Kitchen_in_Washington%2C_D.C..gif By Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Live the mercy

 

Thursday

Deuteronomy 30:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The noble

File:SirReginaldAndLadyMohun.jpg

Friday

Psalm 16

3 As for the holy ones in the land,
they are the noble, in whom is all my delight.

Noble, lofty, majestic, glorious – even ‘famous’ – the underlying Hebrew word is like the English word ‘noble’. It can refer to someone who is honorable or to the elite members of society, the nobility.

Every culture has its ‘nobility’, those who by virtue of their wealth, family or fame occupy the upper echelons. These are the ones who govern, who set fashion, who occupy the big homes and public airwaves. These are the ones around whom the world seems to revolve. They run the central institutions of their time. And they are the ones the structures of society tend to serve. Laws favor them. They are the 1% – or the .1%.

In the modern west, the elite are a diverse lot. Some are artists who dominate the media. Some are the graduates of elite universities who occupy the elite corporate positions. Some become famous by chance. Some because of their skill at sport. Some because of their skill at politics. Some who are famous for being famous.

We buy their tennis shoes, listen to them on the talk shows, watch them on late night television. We follow them online. We name our children after them. We treat some of them as gods.

So who is it that our psalmist lifts up as the true nobility? “The holy ones.” The faithful. The pious. Those whose allegiance is to the God of the Exodus and Sinai. Those who observe the commands to care for the poor and honor parents. These are the ones with honest weights in the market and respect for the land and its creatures. They do not leave a donkey fallen under its load. They take a wandering animal back to its owner. They protect the livelihood of their neighbor and the integrity of their neighbor’s marriage and family. They do not cut down the fruit trees in time of war. They do not gather in the high places to worship gods of fertility and prosperity. They do not sacrifice their children to the hungers of the gods. They do not put their hope in fetishes, but in the promise of God. They honor the vows they speak. They bring their first and best to the LORD.

These are the true nobility of a country. Not those who are standing shirtless in their victory parade. Not those whose sex tapes burn up the internet. Not those whose charity is trumpeted for all to hear. But those who show faithfulness to God and neighbor. Those who do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

These are the ones we should honor. These are the ones we should treasure.

3 As for the holy ones in the land,
they are the noble, in whom is all my delight.

File:My Religion is very simple,My religion is Kindness.jpg

 

Top image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASirReginaldAndLadyMohun.jpg By http://www.historicalportraits.com/InternalMain.asp?ItemID=613 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Bottom image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMy_Religion_is_very_simple%2CMy_religion_is_Kindness.jpg  By Srinivasan Mandadi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

From Shittim to Gilgal

Wednesday

Micah 6

5O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

File:PikiWiki Israel 29616 Jordan River.jpg

Jordan River (Lehava Activity 2013 Pikiwiki Israel [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

The translators of the New International Version break this verse into two sentences, adding again the verb ‘remember’ plus the words ‘your journey’ to clarify the meaning of the third line so that it reads: “Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal.”

I like that line.  I also like the Hebrew that just hangs out there “from Shittim to Gilgal.”  It is one of those little phrases that the hearer understands.

Shittim was the last encampment after 40 years in the wilderness.  From there they crossed the Jordan River and made their first encampment in the Promised Land at Gilgal.  From Shittim to Gilgal represents the fulfillment of God’s promise.  It is like saying “the grave is empty” – you don’t have to explain whose grave, when and where; we know what this means.

From Shittim to Gilgal.  Israel had been led out from Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea.  With the Egyptian army behind them and the sea in front of them it seemed as though their journey to freedom would fail.  But the breath/wind of God blew through the night and at morning there was a path.  They crossed on dry ground.

Forty years later, Israel is again at the edge of its promised future.  King Balak of Moab, the kingdom east of the Jordan River, fearing this great host, hires the holy man/prophet Balaam to pronounce a curse on this people.  Words are power; they create what they speak.  It is a powerful weapon.  But every time Balaam opens his mouth, out comes a blessing. God has chosen to bless.

But the Jordan is at flood stage.  God tells the priests to lead the way and stand in the river holding the Ark of the Covenant, the sign of God’s promise and presence.  God promises that, again, they shall cross on dry land.  As the priests step into the river, the flow of water ceases – and the deliverance from Egypt is lived anew as the people enter in to the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise.  Slaves are free.  The homeless receive a home.  The landless receive a land of milk and honey.

From Shittim to Gilgal.  But there is a wound in this story.  For at Shittim the Israelites were seduced into worshipping the god of Moab, the Ba’al of Peor.  After all God had done, after the 40 years wandering due to their faithlessness, in sight of the fulfillment of God’s promise, they are led astray to bow to other gods.  They are faithless – but God is faithful.

From Shittim to Gilgal.  From Good Friday to Easter.  From our frailty to God’s unfathomable faithfulness.  Remember.  The prophet says these two words: from_Shittim to_Gilgal, and the whole story of faithlessness and faithfulness is spoken.  And the people of Micah’s day are asked to remember – and to return: to return to the path of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with their faithful God.

Blessed

Watching for the morning of February 2

Year A

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

File:Domus Galilaeae Hebrew Sermon on the Mount.jpg

By Itai (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This Sunday we hear Jesus speak.  We have heard Matthew tell us of Jesus’ honored lineage.  We have heard the witness of scripture to this child of Bethlehem and seen wise men from the East kneel before him.  Angels have appeared to protect him from Herod’s murderous envy and to return him to the land of Israel.  The Voice of God has testified of him at his baptism in the Jordan and he has withstood all the challenges of the evil one in the wilderness.  Then, last Sunday, we saw him arise and summon us to follow him, to join his movement to right the world, and heard him declare the reign of God is dawning.  Now we hear him speak.

His voice echoes with the sounds of the prophets like Micah describing the faithfulness and mercy God desires from us.  His voice echoes with the sound of the psalmist describing the character of true righteousness.  His message begins with the sweet notes of the Beatitudes: it is the poor, the grieving, the merciful, the peacemakers who are honored in God’s sight.  These are the one who reflect the character of God’s kingdom.  These are the ones who live the way of God.  And these are the ones who shall receive the promised inheritance of a world transformed by the Spirit of God.

The Prayer for February 2, 2014

Lord of Life,
by your word and deed you overturn the values of our world,
declaring honorable what is often despised:
the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers.
Help us to hear your Word,
and in hearing to trust,
and in trusting to live as you call us to live.

The Texts for February 2, 2014

First Reading: Micah 6:1-8
8He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” – Through the prophet God brings charges against his people, summoning the surrounding hills to hear God’s case and render judgment.  God has done great things for this people and asked for justice and mercy, but the people have been faithless.

Psalmody: Psalm 15
“O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” – The poet describes the one who is worthy to enter the temple precinct in terms of faithfulness to others rather than ritual purity.  Where we expect to her about ‘clean hands’, we hear instead about justice and mercy.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” –
The values of ‘the world’, the things honored and treasured by a humanity that has lost its harmony with God, are shown to be foolish and empty by God’s revelation of himself in Christ crucified.

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – The beatitudes begin Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ first of five blocks of teaching in Matthew’s Gospel.  Jesus declares what is honorable in God’s sight and promises God’s favor.