An unending jar of mercy

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Thursday

1 Kings 17:17-24

18“What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”

Some translations at least make it a question: “Have you come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son?!” Of course, others put it more bluntly, “that you should kill my son?”

It’s a remarkable turn for this woman, the widow of Zarephath, who has been sustained through the brutal drought and famine by the prophet’s promise that her jar of meal and of oil would not fail until the rains return. One moment she is the beneficiary of a wondrous divine mercy and now accuses God of petty vindictiveness. None of us are without sins, and the hazard of taking in a holy man, is that he draws the eye of God – and what may have once passed by in obscurity, is now revealed to the royal master. And he is swift to punish. Or so she thinks.

It is sad that she has not learned from God’s mercy that God is merciful.

I understand the fear that seizes her when her son stops breathing. I know these thoughts come. I know they blurt out in our frightful anxiety. But still, everything she has known about the God of Israel is generosity and compassion.

I have had these conversations, in the hospital, at a bedside, in grief. Years and years of worship, years and years of the word of grace and the feast at God’s holy table, yet in fear comes the question, “Why is God doing this?” “What did I do to deserve this?”

We do not learn well. God is not robbing us of life’s goodness; he brings true goodness. He brings true life. God heals. God delivers. God forgives. God rescues. God transforms. God brings new birth. God brings his kingdom. God brings the Spirit. God brings the New Jerusalem. God opens the grave.

And so now, when my child lies breathless, my cry is not about guilt and shame. My prayer is for mercy, yes. My plea is desperate, yes. But my cry is for God to show God’s goodness because I know God is good. Like the widow, I want my child to live, I will cry out for my child to live – but I know God will bring goodness, even if the price is tears.

There are things that happen because of choices I have made. I endure those as best I can. And there are things that happen because of choices the world around me makes. And I endure those as best I can. And there are things that just happen. I praise God for the times I am protected. And I look for God’s goodness in those things I suffer. For I know that the God who provides our daily bread from his unending jar of meal is the bringer of a true and imperishable life.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AElijahByLouisHersent.JPG by Louis Hersent [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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Every good and perfect gift is from above

Saturday

James 1:17-27

File:Chartres JBU09.JPG17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

This seems like an awkward translation to me. The verse I remember is from the old RSV is “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above,” and the NIV has simply “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” There are two words being used for gift and the first can mean either the act of giving or the gift itself (thus the NRSV translation above), but the adjective is ‘good’ and I am reluctant to restrict that to ‘generous’. “good giving” isn’t very poetic, but fits the point is that all that comes from God is both good and gift.

Our appointed reading for Sunday picks up in the middle of a thought. The author of James has begun by talking about rejoicing in trials and declared No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God.” God doesn’t send evil; what comes from God is good and gift.

Evil, trial, temptation, all has its roots in us not in God. God is the author of good; we are the authors of what is not.

One is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.

God is not like the gods. The gods are fickle, jealous, impulsive, willing to cast thunderbolts and storms, willing to throw down as easily as they raise up. God is not so. God is “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

People outside the tradition – and sometimes those within – read the Old Testament (and the book of Revelation) and see a god of thunderbolts, sanctioning war, capital punishment and terrors. Perhaps this is what comes naturally to us as frail creatures beset by forces beyond our control. Hurricanes and tragedies become, in our minds, “acts of God.” But it is a false reading of the record. The plagues that come upon Egypt are the consequences of a society founded on injustice and slavery. Each natural crisis is an opportunity to repent, to change their ways. It is not a story about the vindictiveness of God; it is a story of our persistence in sin and its terrible price. And it is a story of a God determined to bring justice to the world.

God is a giver of good and perfect gifts. The scripture does not shrink back from telling horrifying stories – but they are stories about our warring passions, our cruelty, our callousness, our brokenness. In the face of the corruption of the world God remains perfect goodness.

So we are not, says James, to attribute our trials to God but to ourselves and to our place within a fallen human community. What we are to do is remember that “he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” We are to be “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” We are to “look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act.” We are, in other words, to live in and from the perfect goodness and generosity of God.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChartres_JBU09.JPG
By Jörg Bittner Unna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The question “Why?!”

Friday

Ezekiel 18

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Michelangelo, the prophet Ezekiel on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

4Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.

The translators’ use of the words ‘parent’ and ‘child’ distorts the meaning of the Hebrew ‘father’ and ‘son’. It makes us think of families and small children rather than adults of different generations. We react instinctively with aversion to any talk of God taking the life of a child. But the sins the prophet has in mind are listed in verses we skip in the assigned reading: violence, murder, rape, robbery and usury. These are hardly the sins of children. They are crimes we ourselves think deserve death, even if we don’t support capital punishment.

4Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.

Still, the words sound harsh to us because our attention is drawn to the judgment that “the person who sins…shall die.” It suggests an image of a punishing God, striking people down. Since so many people seem so ready to take up that task on God’s behalf we rightly shirk from these ideas. But, again, the sins of which we are speaking are crimes that all would recognize as violating others and debasing their common life.

It is true that the prophet names idolatry with these crimes against persons. There was not a line between ‘religious’ acts and civic life and this can confuse us because we think of religion as private thoughts separate from public acts. But this is too narrow and too modern a notion of religion. The gods of our day often ask for child sacrifice; they simply disguise their claim. We are not spilling the blood of a child at the foundations of a city gate; we are neglecting or aborting them in the name of success, happiness, or as the price of our addictions. Or we are sending them off to war putting our faith, hope and trust in the power of violence. The character of Francis Underwood in the show “House of Cards” commits murder (and a host of other sin/crimes) because his ultimate faith is in power. The thing we worship is the fountain of the things we do.

In the time of the prophet, people took it for granted that the price of such fundamental betrayals of God and neighbor was death. In a society without prisons, what other punishments could be rendered? Compensation may apply for crimes of property, and cities of refuge could justly answer an accidental death – but how else can a community restrain violence? And where a community cannot hold people accountable, God must.

This is not to say that God strikes people down like Zeus throwing thunderbolts, but it does mean that such people are cut off from God, the source of life. It means that the consequences of their deeds come back upon their own heads. So the surprising word in this text, the word that is meant to engage us, is not the word ‘die’ but the word ‘only’: “only the person who sins that shall die.”

At a time and place when the people are blaming their troubles on the deeds of the previous generations (the parents ate the sour grapes and the children got the sour taste), God speaks a simple “No.” It doesn’t mean that every tragedy is God’s judgment on the victim. It means that these particular people at the dawn of the 6th Century BCE must take responsibility for the actions that have led them into exile. They are not the helpless victims of a judgment for the sins of others; they are responsible adults – and since their troubles are their own doing, their future is also in their own hands. They can change the direction of their lives: 31Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!”

God takes no pleasure in watching us suffer the consequences of our misplaced faiths, hopes and trusts. Indeed this is the anguished cry God in the prophet’s words “Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.”

It is God who, in the face of human sorrows, is asking the question “Why?!”

Questions

Thursday

Ezekiel 18

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Alek Rapoport. Angel and Prophet (Ezekiel 2:10)

25You say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?

If we could hear well, how many of our conversations with God would go like this? Everyone wants to know how God can let bad things happen, when God is sure to ask us how we can let bad things happen. We human beings are the authors of our wars. We human beings text and drive. We human beings assign to the poor the Lower Ninth Ward (the lands most likely to flood should the levies we build fail when the wetlands we destroyed can no longer protect the land from the sea).

“Is it not your ways that are unfair?”

We may ask God why he tolerates evil, but God will turn that question back on us. We humans allowed the rise of Jim Crow and the National Socialists and sold the machetes to Rwanda. God didn’t set the Cuyahoga River on fire or bury toxins in Love Canal.

It’s dangerous to ask such questions of God.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? God asks Job. Job is lucky God didn’t ask where was Job when any of the human tragedies of history were wreaked.

Where are you? is the question God asks of Adam and Eve in the garden after they have tasted the forbidden fruit and spawned their alienation from God and one another. It’s not that God doesn’t know they are hiding in the bushes, vainly trying to cover their shame with leaves. But God needs our first parents to recognize the truth of what they have become, now that they have chosen rebellion from God.

“Where are you?” is God’s first question of us. And then he will ask, as he does of Cain, Where is your brother?

“You say, ‘The way of the Lord is unfair.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?”

The voice of God through the prophet has no interest in blaming, only in our confession of the truth of the human heart. For only there will humanity stop blaming God, chance and others (as Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent). Only there will we learn to say “Here I am.” Only there is the door opened for us to get 31“a new heart and a new spirit.”

We don’t want to talk about sins unless we are discussing the sins of others (typically, the ones that we don’t think apply to us). But there is no true liberty except in the grace of God, no true life except in the resurrecting breath of the eternal who summons us to 32“turn and live.”

Toys in a bathtub

Wednesday

Psalm 104

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Pieter Mulier II, Storm at Sea, 17th century

26There the ships go to and fro,
and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.

Leviathan is not just the great sea monster of Moby Dick fame. Leviathan is the mythological serpent from whose slain body – so said the Babylonians – the world was made. It is the chaos monster. The god of the roaring seas, relentless, changing, destroying, able to rise up in a moment and swallow a ship and all her cargo. Chaos. Chaos that afflicts societies. Chaos that afflicts the human heart. Warring emotions. Warring thoughts. Warring, unregulated, ungoverned. Wild. Dangerous. Fearful. Uncontrolled.

He is God’s plaything. A kitten in God’s home. A frolicking creature in God’s ocean.

He is God’s plaything. For all our fear of the uncontrolled – Leviathan is God’s plaything. Like a child with toys in a bathtub.

All that we fear. All that threatens to devour us. All the chaos that could rip life apart. They are shadows on the wall. The creaking of an old house in the wind. Playthings in God’s garden.

I know the terror of these. I know the terror of the sudden and unforeseen that suddenly shatters life. I have buried a brother. I have buried a daughter. 19. Traveling with friends to volunteer in an inner city grade school. Struck down on a curve by a driver who had been drinking. If they hadn’t turned the wrong way out of the gas station 20 minutes before, they would not have been on the road at that moment. Had they not forgotten their CD player and turned back, they would have been safe in bed at Sally’s home. But they were still on the road when Brandon came around the curve on the wrong side of the freeway, appearing suddenly, as the semi in front of them lurched away into the right lane. And there they were. And there was Brandon. 80 mph. No time. Chance. Chaos. Death and sorrow.

But the chaos monster is no monster, just a plaything in God’s bathtub.

A monster to me. But not to the voice that called the stars into being. A monster to me, but not to the voice that brought forth life on this barren rock. A monster to me, but not to the Lord of all time. A monster to me, but a plaything to God. Not that God doesn’t know the sorrow. Just that God knows the end of the play. There is a song at the end. Like Les Mis, all the characters are back on stage singing the song that has no end.

Chaos, grief, sorrow, evil, real human evil, tragedy, all that is unexpected from our point of view, they are as playthings before the Almighty. They will not reign. They will not endure. Compared to the majesty of love these are no great evil. Compared to the majesty of life, of grace, of truth: a plaything, no more.

26There the ships go to and fro,
and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.

Inauguration Day

Thursday

Acts 1

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Chora church in Istanbul.

9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

We do not live in the conceptual world of the first century, though we still think of ‘heaven’ as ‘up’ (and ‘hell’ as ‘down’) – or at least we use the language of heaven as ‘up’.

And though we confess that God is everywhere – ‘omnipresent’ is the great word Church Latin gave us – we don’t think in theological terms, we think in images. Our tendency in the West is not to see God in every blade of grass but to imagine God dwelling in ‘heaven’. Or, again, that is at least the language we use. Our ‘spirits’ or our ‘souls’ (some invisible part of ourselves – but that locus of our sense of self) ‘go’ to ‘heaven’ when we die. Our language can’t really escape this ancient inheritance where God dwells in the sky and looks down on the affairs of the world.

Today is Ascension Day, the 40th day after Easter. In Acts, Luke tells us that the risen Jesus appeared for forty days then ascended to the right hand of God. For Luke, Jesus went into the sky.

So, in that curious ability we have as humans, we speak of Ascension Day and “heaven above” knowing full well that there is no dome called ‘sky’ but an endless expanse of space and stars. The metaphor persists, though the logic of it has evaporated.

And I am perfectly comfortable with the metaphor. There is grace in the idea that God observes the affairs of the world and our own lives. We want God to know life’s injustices and our daily needs. What’s more, heights inspire and depths chill us. It makes me weak in the knees to look down the cliff face of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison – even to think of it – but it inspires me to look up the face of Half Dome. So God should inspire and hellish things should chill us. The metaphor has its uses.

But Ascension Day says much more than that Jesus has gone to be with God above. We would do better to call it Enthronement Day. All those great Orthodox churches with Christ Pantocrator looking down from the central dome have it right. Christ has ascended to the dome of heaven where he reigns as Lord of All.

The great wonder at the climax of the Gospels is not the resurrection, but the ascension. This Jesus of Nazareth has been installed as Lord of All.

We often struggle with such language because we think of God’s reign in terms of causality – God authoring every event – and this creates our intractable struggle with why bad things happen. But the just king is the source of every blessing even while remnants of rebellion are still at work in the land – remnants over which the just king will eventually triumph. Psalm 72 is a wonderful celebration of such a kingship.

So today is Enthronement Day, Coronation Day, Inauguration Day – and we should be going to a succession of inaugural balls, for the world has been restored to its true and proper king. We are not subjects of sin and death; of war, violence and tragedy; of hunger, sorrow and suffering. We are citizens of heaven, subjects of the kingdom of God, residents of the true and enduring realm of grace and life. Every remnant of our primal rebellion will be quelled, every knee shall bow, and of his kingdom there shall be no end.