It was prayer

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Sunday

The assisting minister fought back tears as she struggled to offer the prayers of the people on Sunday. Her family is in Puerto Rico, in the desolation left behind by hurricanes Irma and Maria. Information has been spotty. The phone line that let her know they had gathered in her parents’ home and survived the storm is now dead. Text messages get through occasionally. The neighborhood of her family’s congregation is underwater. The roof of her parish church has blown away. The whole island is without power.

I had planned to have her husband give us an update during the announcements before we began worship, but I didn’t write it down on my list and the moment passed.   So, after the Prayer of the Day, when the children come forward for the children’s message, I brought the traveling mike to Paul to tell us how things were going for their family. I realized, after Paul finished, that it belonged there inside the service. It belonged there when we had begun to sing and we had begun to pray and the cross was in our midst. This was not an announcement like the activities in the parish and upcoming concerts. These were people we knew. These were about profound human experiences. It belonged inside the service.

And so did the prayers that Iris struggled to offer. Our prayers are meant to be the cries of our hearts. Liturgical prayers sometimes come across as formal and vaguely homiletical – things we ought to care about rather than those things that ache within. But Sunday, the prayers spoke with profound truth. Here, God, here are our broken hearts. Here are our fears and tears. Here are our hopes and needs. Here are those cries and sighs too deep for words.

We are often embarrassed by “losing control” and expressing our emotions in public. I tried to tell Iris that what happened Sunday was perfect. I suspected she might later regret it, so I told her husband also. It was perfect. It was true. It was prayer.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABerl%C3%ADn_orante_05.JPG By Miguel Hermoso Cuesta (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Remember Zacchaeus

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Psalm 26:1-8

1 Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity,
…..and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.

The eight verses assigned for us to sing or read on Sunday describe the poet’s righteousness. “Your steadfast love is before my eyes,” he declares, “and I walk in faithfulness to you.” The portrait he paints is noble:

4 I do not sit with the worthless,
…..nor do I consort with hypocrites;
5 I hate the company of evildoers,
…..and will not sit with the wicked.
6 I wash my hands in innocence,
…..and go around your altar, O Lord,
7 singing aloud a song of thanksgiving,
…..and telling all your wondrous deeds.

But there is an unpleasant aftertaste in these words.

I always get a little nervous around those who are a little too certain they are righteous. And it’s not just because Lutherans as a whole have a pretty skeptical view of the possibility of our righteousness. The notion of “alien righteousness”, a righteousness that comes from somewhere else, that is not our own but given to us, is pretty deep in Lutheran piety. We are righteous because, amazingly, graciously, wondrously, when God looks at us he sees Christ’s righteousness not our own. We are pretty sure if he saw our own it would resemble a dilapidated storefront in an abandoned urban area. It has walls and a roof, the appearance of a building, but the windows are broken and the roof surely leaks. Thankfully, God is like an overly enthusiastic realtor who sees what should be and will be rather than what is.

In Lutheranland, we are all fixer uppers. So when we encounter someone who is a little too certain they live in a fine neighborhood, we are uncomfortable. Surely they must be denying there is something musty in the basement or mice droppings in the attic.

Nevertheless, this Sunday we are asked to say these words:

4 I do not sit with the worthless,
…..nor do I consort with hypocrites;
5 I hate the company of evildoers,
…..and will not sit with the wicked.
6 I wash my hands in innocence,
…..and go around your altar, O Lord,

It’s a complicated moment. First of all, it requires us to remember that these words are a prayer. The poet is in trouble and offering the kind of prayer we have all offered: “I don’t deserve this…come rescue me…” Like the prayers of our ancestors, our prayers may not be noble, but God does listen.

Secondly we have to remember that these words, like all the words of scripture, reach their fullest truth in Jesus. He was righteous, faithful to God and to others, but his righteousness did not set him apart from the wicked; it placed him in their living rooms. Remember Zacchaeus. I wish I could find a way to put those two words into the six or seven letters of a vanity license plate. That’s one I might consider buying.

Remember Zacchaeus. His righteousness comes after Jesus has shocked the righteous by coming to dine at his home. His righteousness is entirely a response to the presence of Christ. He makes no claim to goodness or holiness; it is brought forth by Christ’s goodness and holiness. Zacchaeus does nothing but agree to let Christ come to his home – and then the spirit of Christ works its work in him. Suddenly he is giving away half his possessions to the poor and setting right his wrongs.

So we will pray the poet’s prayer on Sunday. And the words will come awkwardly. But hopefully we will remember Zacchaeus and, perhaps, all those other prayers that are a little too full of ourselves will be filled with Christ.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChapiteau_de_St-Nectaire_-_Le_Christ_et_Zach%C3%A9e.jpg By Tangopaso (Self-photographed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With what shall I come?

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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

Even Gloria

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Looking back to last Sunday

Isaiah 42:1-9

9See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.

It’s several days, now, since we celebrated the Baptism of Our Lord, but it is the first opportunity for me to look back. I got the phone call on Saturday that my stepmother was in critical condition and the flight I found meant that I would have to duck out of worship early on Sunday. The plan was to slip out after the blessing of the bread and wine, but the service went long and I slipped out at the sharing of the peace.

It is strange not to be able to be present as the service reaches its fulfillment at the table. Something is unfinished. We have heard the word. We have sung some of the music. We have even prayed the prayers. But the big prayer, the Eucharistic Prayer that recites the great history of God’s saving work from creation to this moment that is embodied in bread and wine – that prayer has gone unspoken. At least by me. I have not seen the bread broken as Christ was broken. I have not tasted the bread or caught that brief whiff of the wine that tells me that I, even I, am part of the great communion of heaven and earth begun in this Jesus.

And so as I flew to Colorado, as I rode to the hospital, as I entered the room to my stepmother’s bright eyes and delighted smile – and my own tears – it is as though we are still in the middle of worship. The service is not reached its fulfillment. The bread we await is yet coming. The new creation is ahead of us.

And as I join in the family gathering, as we weep the tears and tell the stories and take turns sitting at her side to hold her left hand (Dad had a firm, sometimes too firm, grip on her right hand), the feast to come awaits. Somehow living and dying are part of worship, part of the offering of all life back to God, part of the living in the light of grace and being sustained by the promise that the coming feast is come and yet coming. We are God’s children now. What we shall be is not yet revealed, but we are God’s children now. And Sunday I will stand among the congregation at the church where I once stood with Gloria and my father. And Gloria will be among the communion of saints in a manner beyond my comprehension. But the bread will be there. And the wine. And the promise. And the hope. And the mystery that all things are God’s and will be God’s forever. Even Gloria. Even we who weep.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALoojangu_v%C3%A4rvid_2.jpg By Kristoffer Vaikla (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

God’s strange and wonderful notion of righteousness

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Watching for the Morning of October 23, 2016

Year C

The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 25 / Lectionary 30

A Pharisee and a publican – a tax gatherer – stand near one another in the temple and we hear the prayers they offer. The Pharisee gives God thanks that he is not like others; the tax gatherer asks for mercy.  The Pharisee has been a religious man, dutifully offering to God his acts of devotion. The tax-gatherer has lacked the privilege of living a holy life. He is not one of those among the wealthy elite who contracts with Rome to administer the collection of taxes (paying the taxes up front and gaining a free hand to recover all that he can); he is one of the hirelings at the tollbooths rummaging through the carts and extorting what he must from the peasants bringing their goods to market. He is the one who daily faces the hostility of people forced to pay their foreign overlords and local rulers. He is the symbol of betrayal and oppression. He is the social outcast. And, for all his rummaging among farm goods, he is perpetually ritually unclean. He is one of those “sinners” Jesus welcomes into the household of God.

He knows he is immersed in a broken world and yearns for God to come and make it whole. He yearns for a world free from the grind of poverty and oppression. He yearns for a world where no one is cast off as unclean. He yearns for God’s transformation of all things. It is his prayer, says Jesus, that God hears, not the prayer of the self-satisfied. It is he, says Jesus, who goes down to his home in a right relationship with God.

Such prayer for mercy is also heard this Sunday in the reading from the prophet Jeremiah. The nation is on a downward course. It has turned from God’s justice and mercy and hastens towards judgment and destruction at the hands of Babylon. Afflicted already by God’s judgment in the form of a terrible drought, the prophet cries out for mercy, for God’s deliverance, for God not to hold their sin against them.

The prayer of the palmist, Sunday, is the joyful face of the prayer for mercy.   The pilgrims’ long journey is nearly over. From a distance, they behold the temple rising above the holy city and they are filled with anticipation and joy at coming into God’s presence there. And the reading from 2 Timothy is also an expression of such joyful anticipation. Though Paul, in prison in Rome, faces the possibility of death, his eyes are raised to his ultimate deliverance. God’s strange and righteous healing of the world is near at hand. Indeed, we taste its first fruits in this one who speaks in parables.

The Prayer for October 23, 2016

We have no good, O God, except at your hand.
Make us ever mindful of your bounty
that we may receive all things with humility and gratefulness;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 23, 2016

First Reading: Jeremiah 14:1-9 (appointed 14:7-10, 19-22)
“Although our iniquities testify against us, act, O Lord, for your name’s sake.”
– The prophet cries out to God for deliverance during a time of devastating drought.

Psalmody: Psalm 84:1-7
“How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord.” – A song of praise as the pilgrim finally draws near to Jerusalem and gazes upon the temple.

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” – The concluding sections of a letter from Paul, or in Paul’s name, to his protégé Timothy from prison in Rome as Paul faces his pending execution.

Gospel: Luke 18:9-14
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” – Having spoken of the necessity of praying always, Jesus tells a parable about the proper shape of prayer, and God’s pending transformation of the world.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APharisien_et_publicain.jpg By Rvalette (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The angels are dancing

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Wednesday

Exodus 32:7-14

7The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely…”

Much about this story is delightful. The people have acclaimed the golden calf as the divine power that brought them out of Egypt – and God responds by saying these are Moses’ people whom he brought out of Egypt. It’s a little like one parent saying to the other “Do you know what your son did?” as if the child were not his or her own child as well. God tells Moses to get out of his way so he can destroy them, and Moses intercedes saying, “What will the neighbors think?” (More literally, and more darkly, that the Egyptians will think God lacked the power to give the Israelites the promised land, so he killed them in the wilderness – or that he intended to kill them all along!)

We have trouble letting God appear to be so “human”, infected as we are with later notions of God as omniscient, omnipresent, and unmoved. But the narrative isn’t trying to tell us about God’s inner being; it is trying to make clear how great is the divide created by Israel’s idolatry. To give glory to the divine through the image of a bull, in keeping with the religious ideas and imagery of the ancient near east (virility, power), is to betray the relationship created at Sinai. “I will be your God and you will be my people,” said the LORD, but neither has been either. Israel has been like a newlywed bedding down someone encountered on their honeymoon.

This is not about Israel transgressing a commandment; it is about Israelites betraying the one who was paid the price to claim them as his own.

And this is not just about Israel. This is about the reality of all our idolatries. They are not errors and mistakes; they are adulteries. They are relationship destroying. When we put our faith, hope and trust in anything other than God we are no longer God’s people. The covenant lies broken, like the tablets of the commandments shattered upon the ground.

And there are so many suitors wanting to claim that throne – possessions, family, work, health, all claiming to be the source of life’s goodness and joy, life’s meaning and purpose, life’s true center. And we give our allegiance away so freely. There is a reason the prophets will come back again and again to images of adultery to explain the destruction of the nation. Those who had been delivered from bondage in Egypt found bondage in Babylon.

The genius of the text is the genius of the whole Biblical narrative. The betrayal that deserves abandonment is met with mercy. Moses understands. Moses reminds God of his own nature. He intercedes.

We are much too willing to step aside hoping God will, in fact, destroy sinners and enemies. But we are called to be Moses, interceding for God to show mercy. We are called to be Abraham, pressing God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah. We are called to be Jesus, forgiving those who crucify him. We are called to be children of the Spirit, children of the Resurrection, children of the reign of God when sinners and outcasts are gathered and all are fed from the tree of life.

It’s in the light of that day, dawning in Jesus, that the heavens are full of joy and the angels are dancing.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAngels_dancing_sun_Giovanni_di_Paolo_Cond%C3%A9_Chantilly.jpg  Giovanni di Paolo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

How shall we pray?

Thursday

Genesis 18:16-32

16“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?”

File:AbrahamIcon.JPGThe assigned reading from the Old Testament for Sunday omits these first two verses, but they are the verses upon which the whole story pivots:

16Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. 17The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

The visitors have come. Abraham has feted them properly. They have spoken the promise that by next year Sarah will have a son. And Sarah has laughed. This is, after all, quite preposterous, given their age and the truths of biology. But, asks God, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” And that question haunts the story to come.

So Abraham escorts the three visitors (God and two angels?) on their way and God pauses to tell Abraham that he is on his way to discern the truth of the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah. The implication is that, if true, God will execute his judgment. But in light of the wondrous grace of God that gives to withered Abraham and Sarah a future, a son, Abraham asks whether grace is not also possible for Sodom.

We do not pray easily for the wicked. We are children of vengeance. No one grieves for the man who drove the truck in Nice, or the shooters in Paris, Dallas or Orlando. We do not even count them among the dead. No tears are lost on suicide bombers.

But the truth is a human life was lost long before they armed themselves and decided to kill. A soul perished. A human with the capacity for love and kindness and joy and generosity was extinguished by ideology or poverty or violence or rage. No one defends their actions. But do we pray for their destruction? Is this the god we serve, a god who smites?

The story of Abraham isn’t about whether God is a god who smites. It is about whether Abraham will live up to his calling to be an agent of blessing in the world. Will Abraham who is blessed by God’s grace do grace? Will we who live by grace live grace?

It is a haunting question, knowing as we do our capacity for righteous indignation and wrath. But we stand before the one who saved Noah from the flood and forgave his executioners. We live in the knowledge of the mystery that “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son.”

So, God stands with us on the hill looking down over the wicked city, the wounds on his hands visible in the breaking of the bread, and how shall we pray?

 

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

Lord, teach us to pray

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Watching for the Morning of July 24, 2016

Year C

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 12 / Lectionary 17

Sunday we read of the disciples coming to Jesus and asking him to teach them to pray. Prayer was a part of every day for the descendants of Abraham. It is not as though they had not learned the prayers for the blessing of bread and fields and the dead. It is not as though they did not know the prayers said on entering or leaving the house, or the Sabbath prayers as the family gathered at table. They knew the forms of prayer, the words, the spirit of prayer. They are asking Jesus for a prayer that marks them as his followers – “as John taught his disciples.”

Jesus gives them what we now call the Lord’s Prayer. It hasn’t yet settled into the fixed and somewhat richer form that will be used in worship and among the faithful for generations to come, but its core is there: “Your kingdom come.” The prayer Jesus teaches is a prayer for God to come and rule in our hearts and in our world. It is a prayer for God’s name to be regarded as holy as it will be in that day when all things are made new. It is a prayer for God’s will to be done as it will in that day when the lion and the lamb lie down together. It is a prayer for the bread of that day to be given us now as it will be when all are gathered to God’s banquet on Mt. Zion. It is a prayer for forgiveness to reign in us and for us to be delivered in the great tribulation, the birth pangs of the new creation when the world rises up against God’s dawning grace and truth. It is a prayer for God’s tomorrow to come, God’s new day. Today. Here. In us.

Every religious tradition has prayers for the god or gods to grant some favor or protection or to ward off some evil or enemy. There are prayers for healing, for rain, for the fields and the harvest. There are prayers for childbirth and marriage and the time of death. They all seek to garner some favor, some benefit, some mercy from the heavens for the petitioner. But the prayer Jesus teaches is for God’s healing of the world to come. It connects with my worries and needs; but it is bigger than them. It is mindful of the needs of the world. It is a prayer for the whole fabric of our existence to be changed, for the imperishable day to dawn. So, in the way Christ teaches us to pray, when we pray for some specific need – a healing, for example – we are asking for a share of the healing that awaits all creation to come now into the life of the one for whom we pray. A taste today of the bread of tomorrow.

It is this quality that make’s the Lord’s Prayer so enduring, so transcendent, so sacred. It asks for what we would not think to ask, as focused as we are on our selves and our needs. The prayer itself changes us. Recreates us. Heals and transforms us. The prayer carries us into the presence of God and into the truth proclaimed by the cross and empty tomb.   The prayer brings God’s reign of peace and life.

So Sunday Jesus will talk not just about God’s eagerness to hear and answer our prayer, but God’s eagerness to answer with the Holy Spirit (God’s spirit reigning in us). And we will hear the psalmist’s joy at answered prayer and ponder the great wonder and example of Abraham who dared to challenge the Almighty by interceding on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah. And we will hear the author of Colossians remind us to live our lives in Christ in whom we are raised to newness of life.

The Prayer for July 24, 2016

Faithful God,
you teach us to call upon you in every time of need,
as a child speaking to a dear father,
and promise to answer us with the gift of your Spirit.
Give us confidence in prayer
and hearts that seek for your kingdom to come
and your will to be done
in our lives and in our world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 24, 2016

First Reading: Genesis 18:16-32 (appointed: 18:20-32)
“Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” –
Abraham has hosted the three visitors and now, as he escorts them on their way, God informs Abraham of his intention to discern the truth of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham intercedes on their behalf, urging God to save the cities for the sake of the righteous who dwell there.

Psalmody: Psalm 138
“On the day I called, you answered me” – The poet praises God for answering his prayer.

Second Reading: Colossians 2:6-19
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit.” –
The author moves to a central theme of the letter, urging the community in Colossae not to be led astray by teachings other than the message of Christ they received.

Gospel: Luke 11:1-13
“One of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’”
– Jesus teaches his followers about the content of prayer, giving them what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. Then he urges them to faithfulness in prayer assuring them of God’s eagerness to respond to their cries with the gift of God’s Holy Spirit.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASaint_Margaret_of_York_Catholic_Church_(Loveland%2C_Ohio)_-_stained_glass%2C_Holy_Spirit.jpg By Nheyob (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

God is still God

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Nathan confronts King David / David in prayer and fasting with worried servants watching

Wednesday

2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:10, 13-20

15 The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill. 16 David therefore pleaded with God for the child; David fasted, and went in and lay all night on the ground.

The prayer of a parent for a child is desperate. Even when death is certain, the cry rises. Seven days the king lies on that floor. Seven days without food. Seven days in urgent petition. Hoping against hope. Pleading with God.

We all know of David’s sin with Bathsheba – he abuses his royal power to take another man’s wife and then arrange the husband’s death to hide the crime. But the crime is not hidden. God sees. And God sends Nathan to confront David.

The consequences of David’s sin are brutal: A lasting legacy of violence will plague David’s house. A son will take all David’s concubines in full view of all. And this child will die.

The death of children is common in David’s time – but the prophet makes sure that David knows that the death of this child rests solely on himself. If there were no sin, there would be no child to perish.

Other kings have slain prophets for such a message, but David acknowledges his sin.   And David prays. Seven days. Hoping against hope. Desperate prayer. Tears. Against the greatest fear of every parent. Maybe God will work a miracle? But no miracle comes.

David knows God is a God not only of judgment but of mercy, so David begs for mercy. For the child. For the mother. For God to erase the consequences of his deed. But sometimes there is no recovery from the consequences of our deeds.

And then our text says:

19 But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, he perceived that the child was dead; and David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” They said, “He is dead.” 20 Then David rose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes. He went into the house of the Lord, and worshiped.

David worships. He comes before the altar. He offers his sacrifice. He hears the prayers and the song. He remembers this God of the Exodus. He acknowledges this God of Sinai. He communes, partakes of the holy meal. He goes forward. Life will not be easy, but God is still God.  And there is yet mercy.

+   +   +

For other reflections on the texts for this Sunday from this and previous years, follow this link Lectionary C 11, or Proper C 6

Image: Paris psalter gr139 fol136v  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paris_psaulter_gr139_fol136v.jpg  public domain

“When a foreigner comes”

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Wednesday

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43

42When a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, 43then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name.

If you are cynical, you will hear Solomon praying that his temple might be the greatest on earth – and his god the most renowned. And maybe that’s all that Solomon had in mind – or all that the author who composed Solomon’s prayer imagined. But there is a seed, here, a deep and profound seed, that will grow into Christ gathering all nations into the peace of God.

This happens often in life where a chance word is later seen to have much deeper truth lying within. It’s why psychologists and psychiatrists pay attention to random associations. It’s why we catch a spouse or a friend saying, “See, that’s what you really mean.” It’s why a song I wrote the week before my wedding seemed to portend things I didn’t consciously understand until the marriage dissolved. It turns out I did know what I was getting into; I just didn’t know I knew.

So even if Solomon’s noble prayer is shallow with self-interest – the depths are there. And scripture can’t escape them. God is the God of all. Not just Israel. Not just the church. Not just the believing. Not just any subset of humanity. God hears the prayers of all.

Of course, the other shallow water to be avoided is the notion that it doesn’t really matter what you call God because there is only one God of all. But it does matter what you call God, because what you say of God shapes our encounter with God. So Solomon doesn’t pray to a nameless divine power, but to the God whose name is LORD, who walked with Abraham promising to bring blessing to the world. This God named LORD wrestled with Jacob and inspired Joseph and called Moses to lead a people out from bondage. This God named LORD spoke laws that may seem archaic to us, but were radical justice and mercy in their day (and still today for those with ears). This God named LORD raised up prophets and a king named David who sought a world at peace and planned for a temple where all came to pray and rejoice.

And we can look at it all and imagine it self-serving, but the words remain and their depths emerge and the prophets push the insight further, and then a child is born who is called Son of David and Son of God who pushes the boundaries yet further, gathering the outcast and the foreigners. And God vindicates this Son of David, reversing his death sentence, and his Spirit flows out upon his followers and they are baptizing Samaritans and an Ethiopian Eunuch and Gentiles, beginning with a Centurion named Cornelius. Paul takes the Gospel to the center of the Mediterranean world – embodying the commission to make students to Jesus of all nations.

And we still fight, in our frail and unredeemed humanity, about who should be allowed in and kept out, but the truth is that whether Solomon realizes it or not, he is praying that God will hear every prayer and all the earth will sing God’s praise. We build walls, but God builds an altar where all may be fed – and a holy city where the light never fails. And again and again God bids us all come to pray and to learn and to feast at God’s table.

 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKing-Solomon-Russian-icon.jpg By 18 century icon painter (Iconostasis of Kizhi monastery, Russia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons