The strange and wondrous truth of God

File:Afghan day laborers help Marines fill sandbags (5224388587).jpg

Afghan day laborers filling sandbags outside Forward Operating Base Geronimo, Helmand province, Afghanistan, July 14, 2010

Watching for the Morning of September 24, 2017

Year A

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 20 / Lectionary 25

Sunday we are jumping ahead to chapter 20 of Matthew’s gospel. We are skipping the Pharisees’ challenge about the legality of divorce and the strange saying about being eunuchs for the kingdom. We are skipping past the disciples’ harsh words to those who would bring their children to receive a blessing from Jesus – and Jesus’ welcome of those children. We are skipping past the words of Jesus to the young man seeking the life of the age to come, telling him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, and past the disciples’ astonishment that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”   All of which leads us once again to the truth that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” The reign of God is a profound reversal of the way of the world.

And so, Sunday, we come to the story of a landowner hiring day laborers for his vineyard and the remarkable choice to pay even those who worked but one hour a full day’s wage. It is not the act of an accountant; it is the act of a patron taking care of those who depend upon him. Except these day workers are not his people. He has no long and established relationship with them. He is not their patron. But he chooses to be.

And what shall we do with this portrait of a God who chooses to treat all people as their patron? What shall we do when our long and historic fidelity to God gains no privilege? What shall we do with a God who shows faithfulness to those who deserve none? The landowners’ final words are painful: “Are you envious because I am generous?” The Greek is literally “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

We don’t understand mercy. We don’t understand the breadth and depth of the compassion of God. We don’t even truly understand the notion that God is the god of all. We claim to be monotheists, but we are more likely to think that God is our god and he can be your god too, if you become one of us. But the truth is there is no ‘us’ and ‘them; we are all ‘them’. We have no claim on god’s mercy; it is gift given to all. Rich, abundant, overflowing, fidelity to a world as corrupt and violent, greedy and cruel as ours. Yes, we are capable of great kindness and generosity – but we are also fully capable of its opposite. We are not God’s people. Not really. We are strangers to the reign of God. We don’t really understand the language or culture of heaven. Nevertheless, God comes to us. Nevertheless, he speaks. Nevertheless, he shows faithfulness. Steadfast love.

So Sunday we will hear once again that “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” We will listen as Jonah wrestles angrily with God because God chooses to forgive the cruel and barbarous Ninevites. We will sing with the psalmist in praise of God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” We will listen as Paul exhorts us to live our lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” And we will once again shift in our seats as Jesus speaks of the just injustice of a landowner who is generous to all, pushing us to see something of the strange and wondrous truth of God.

The Prayer for September 24, 2017

Wondrous God,
whose mercy knows no bounds,
and whose salvation is offered to all:
renew us by your Holy Spirit
that we may walk in the paths of your kindness
and bear your grace to the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 24, 2017

First Reading: Jonah 3:1 – 4:11 (appointed: 3:10 – 4:11)
“When God saw what [the people of Nineveh] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. 4:1But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”
– Jonah sought to avoid his mission to the Assyrian capital for fear God would forgive the city that had destroyed Israel. Now, when this has happened, God seeks to help Jonah understand God’s compassion for its people.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:1-8
“I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.” – Psalm 145 is an acrostic hymn, each line beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet, in which the poet sings God’s praise “from A to Z.”

Second Reading: Philippians 1:21-30
“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
– In prison in Rome, Paul is faced with the possibility of his execution and writes to his beloved congregation in Philippi to encourage them to remain faithful to their Lord, living “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” – As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, he tells this story comparing the reign of God with a vineyard owner who chooses to relate to his workers not on the basis of what they deserve, but on the basis of his goodness.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAfghan_day_laborers_help_Marines_fill_sandbags_(5224388587).jpg By Marines from Arlington, VA, United States (Afghan day laborers help Marines fill sandbags) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Choose your kingdom; choose your king

File:Tomato vender at the Covington Farmer's Market in Covington, LA.jpg

“You that have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isaiah 55)

Watching for the Morning of August 6, 2017

Year A

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 13 / Lectionary 18

I live in a place and time where there has always been food in the grocery store. I understand that privilege. And even in the years I lived in a place that is now referred to as an urban “food desert”, I had a car with which to reach the suburban stores where milk and meat were fresh, and bread and fruit plentiful. I understand the privilege.

I have seen parts of the world where privilege is lacking. I have sat in a board meeting discussing whether we should help a companion church body in a region of the world where, after multiple years of drought, they had no seed corn. It disturbs me still, as it disturbed me then, that there was any hesitation. (We did commit to send the funds immediately, prior to the effort to raise them.)

The scripture is full of stories about famine. Famine takes Jacob (Israel) and his family to Egypt. Drought and famine had Elijah hiding in the wilderness and taking refuge with the widow of Zarephath. Famine takes Naomi to Moab where Ruth becomes her daughter-in-law (and David’s great-grandmother). Locusts (and the subsequent famine) are the occasion for the prophet Joel’s message. Subsistence farmers lead a precarious life, especially in the years of Jesus when the burden of taxes took nearly half the crop, and the necessity of keeping seed and feed left landowners with maybe 20% for food – far less for tenant farmers.

Hunger is a constant companion for too much of the world through too much of human history. And it is those who have known the anxiety and uncertainty of daily bread who recognize the full drama and grace of that day when five loaves feed five thousand.

It is food for today. And it is the bread of tomorrow. It is bread for those who hunger and a taste of a world without hunger. It is manna in the wilderness and a foretaste of the feast to come. It is the prophetic promise made present. It is a world reordered, a world set right, a world born from above. As Mary sang, “the hungry are filled with good things.

In contrast to Herod’s banquet, where Salome will dance for strangers, where the king’s daughter is used to inflame the king’s consorts, where plots conspire and the king’s vanity and shamelessness ends with the head of John on a platter – in contrast to Herod’s banquet is the banquet of Jesus where the people are healed and fed, with an abundance left over.

Choose your kingdom. Choose your king.

+       +       +

Sunday we hear of the feeding of the five thousand. And the backdrop assigned for this narrative is the prophet of Isaiah 55 giving voice to God’s offer for all who are hungry to come and eat: bread freely given, wine and milk overflowing, the voice of God that is true life. And the psalm will speak of God’s gracious providing, “The LORD” who “upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down”:

15The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
16You open your hand,
satisfying the desire of every living thing.

Sunday we will also hear Paul willing to be cursed for the sake of God’s people. And in that sentiment we recognize the spirit of the one who took the curse for our sake. The one who opened the grave. The one who poured out the Spirit. The one who brings the feast without end.

Choose your kingdom. Choose your king.

The Prayer for August 6, 2017

Almighty God,
through your Son Jesus you set a table
for all the world to come and feast.
Grant us hearts that are eager to hear your word,
share in your banquet,
and live your reign of mercy and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 6, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 55:1-5
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” – After the return from exile, the prophet calls to the community like a vendor in the marketplace, inviting them to “feast” on God’s promise that the eternal covenant once established with David is now transferred to the whole nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
“The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.” – A psalm of praise and thanksgiving for God’s grace and bounty.

Second Reading: Romans 9:1-5
“I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.”
– Having laid out his message of God’s reconciling grace apart from the law, Paul now takes up the problem that God’s people have largely ignored the message of Christ Jesus. He begins with an expression of his great grief that Israel has not received this fruit of all their promises.

Gospel: Matthew 14:13-21
“All ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” – Following the parables of chapter 13, Matthew tells of Herod’s banquet where all act corruptly and John is beheaded, and of Jesus’ banquet on the mountain where he has compassion for all.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATomato_vender_at_the_Covington_Farmer’s_Market_in_Covington%2C_LA.jpg By Saint Tammany [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Like children in the marketplace

File:Mayan girls playing sack race on the market of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.JPG

Watching for the Morning of July 9, 2017

Year A

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 9 / Lectionary 14

There’s a sweet word coming in the Gospel text for Sunday. Jesus is going to say those familiar and comforting words: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” And God knows, we are weary: Weary of the cacophony in Washington. Weary of the rush of modern life. Weary of the challenges of health. Weary of the press of finances. Weary of the drumbeats of war. Weary of the fear that seems to seep into every corner of our lives.

But before we get to that promise, there is a rebuke: we are like children in the marketplace pouting that we don’t get our way. Maybe Jesus is quoting something like a nursery rhyme. Maybe he is just acknowledging the taunts that get made when people won’t go along with the game. But it is clear Jesus is rebuking those whose excuse for not listening to John the Baptist was that he was too rigorous and demanding. But they won’t listen to Jesus because he isn’t rigorous enough. He laughs. He tells jokes. He teases. He dines with sinners and tax collectors. They mocked John because he lived on locusts and wild honey and Jesus because he didn’t.

Hypocrisy comes pretty naturally to us. Trump makes a career of denying the validity of Obama’s birth certificates and then accuses the media of being “fake news”. McConnell says his highest priority is to deny Obama a second term and then accuses the Democrats of being obstructionists. I tell my children they can only have two cookies but, when they go to bed, I help myself. Jesus did say something about not worrying about the splinter in my neighbor’s eye when I have a log in my own – but we do.

Hypocrisy is pretty natural to us. It allows us to do and say what we want without the work of self-examination or amendment of life. It’s comfortable to make excuses for ourselves but grant no grace to others. So Jesus has blunt words for the self-righteous before offering rest to the weary: If Sodom and Gomorrah had seen what you’ve seen, they would never have been destroyed.

The ‘righteous’ are hard to reach; it is the poor and burdened who can see the joy and freedom of serving Christ.

So Sunday we will hear the prophet Zechariah speak of the coming king who comes humbly on a donkey and sets prisoners free. And we will sing with the psalmist of God’s gracious deeds. And we will struggle to understand the latest section of Paul’s letter to Romans – but resonate to the word of thanks to God for delivering us from the bondages of our human condition. And we will hear Jesus welcome the weary and speak of the yoke of service that is not always simple, but lifts the heart.

The Prayer for July 9, 2017

Gracious God,
in Jesus you invite all people into the path of your teaching and life.
By your Holy Spirit, open our hearts and lives to your message,
that following your Son, we may find true rest for our souls;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 9, 2017

First Reading: Zechariah 9:9-12
“Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” – In the weary years after Babylon has fallen but Judah is a poor backwater of the Persian empire, comes a prophetic message from the book of Zechariah promising a king who shall arrive like the kings of old and command peace to the nations” and reign “from sea to sea.”

Psalmody: Psalm 145:8-14
“Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.” – A hymn of praise to God who reigns as earth’s just and faithful king.

Second Reading: Romans 7:14-25
“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” – Paul uses the image of possession (compelled to act against our own will) to expound his notion that the death of Christ has freed us from our bond-service to sin and made us servants of God.

Gospel: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” – Jesus rebukes the fickle crowd (who criticized John for his asceticism and Jesus for being a libertine) and praises God for opening the eyes of the poor and marginalized to see and take up the yoke of God’s reign of grace and life.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMayan_girls_playing_sack_race_on_the_market_of_Quetzaltenango%2C_Guatemala.JPGright By Erik Albers (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The world’s true lord

Saturday

Psalm 145:10-18

File:De barmhartige Samaritaan Frank Letterie Dorpsstraat Putten.jpg14The LORD upholds all who are falling,
and raises up all who are bowed down.

The Tanakh translation by the Jewish Publication Society translates this verse as:

The LORD supports all who stumble,
and makes all who are bent stand straight.

Without casting aspersions on our economic system, I want to simply point out the contrast: Our system rewards those who do not stumble, who stand tall. In the same way, our society rewards the beautiful not the plain. Donald Trump makes the evening news for saying the same racist things as the shooter at the Lafayette theater, but Trump is on the news because he is rich, powerful and famous while the other is a nutcase.

In contrast to our social context – in contrast to the ‘gods’ of our society (money, sex and power, the things in which we put our hope and trust) – is the God to whom the scriptures bear witness:

The LORD upholds all who are falling,
and raises up all who are bowed down.

The stumbling, groping, uncertain, struggling – the mother of three with two jobs, the unemployed man at 55, the children in violent neighborhoods, the uncared for – these are the ones to whom the mighty and majestic power of the universe reaches out his hands.

And it is important that we remember that those hands carry the marks of nails.

The god we worship is not the god of success and power. The god before whom we bow is not the conqueror of nations. The god to whom we stretch out our hands is the one who revealed himself to Moses the murderer when he was in exile. The god who stretches out his hands to us is the one who gathered a people out of bondage and gave them commands to care for one another that none may go hungry. The god to whom we show allegiance is the one who takes widows and orphans into his shelter, who speaks for the poor, who binds up the wounded, who gathers the scattered, who touches the unclean.

The LORD upholds all who are falling,
and raises up all who are bowed down.

The god we worship is the one who paddles upstream against the current of human affairs. He is the god of refugees and grieving mothers. He is the god of compassion and mercy. He is the god of healing and grace. He is the god who revealed himself not with legions of angels but upon a cross speaking words of grace: “Father, forgive them.”

We inhabit a world of terrible injustices and cruelties that we have learned to take for granted. But there is a god who camps with the homeless, who walks the mean streets, who dwells in the troubled homes. This, we proclaim, is the world’s true lord. This, we proclaim, is the one who called all creation into being and breathes into each of us the breath of life. This, we proclaim, is the one who will be history’s final word. By him will all things be measured. For him will all things exist. With him will all creation dine.

The LORD upholds all who are falling,
and raises up all who are bowed down.

 

Sculpture “De barmhartige Samaritaan” (the Good Samaritan) by Frank Letterie in 1976, placed in 1997 at the square at the Dorpsstraat/Kerkweg in Putten.  Image by Brbbl (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

One bountiful table

Watching for the Morning of July 26, 2015

Year B

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 12 / Lectionary 17

File:Pan asturiano.JPGSunday we begin a five-week excursion through the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John that relates the feeding of the five thousand and the subsequent conversations about the meaning of that sign. As we have been reading through Mark’s Gospel, the next portion would have been the feeding of the crowds (who were like sheep without a shepherd). But the lectionary pauses in order to hear the rich development of this event in the Gospel of John.

So Sunday is about God’s wondrous providing. During a time of famine, a poor man brings to Elisha his offering of first fruits (barley is the food of the poor, since it grows on poorer soil). Though these twenty small loaves would not normally feed even twenty, it is more than enough to satisfy a hundred. The psalm sings of God’s faithfulness in his care for those in need and his gracious providing for all. And Jesus takes up the five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand with twelve baskets left over.

Providing a kind of soaring descant to these wonderful texts is the majestic prayer by the writer of Ephesians that we may “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,” and “be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Each of the gospel writers pick and choose which stories to tell in order to reveal the meaning of God’s work in and through Jesus. In a rare unity, all four of them include this story of the five loaves and two fish. It is not a story about Jesus’ wonder-working power; it is a witness to the dawning reign of God when our wounded earth is healed, all war and divisions overcome, and all people gathered to one bountiful table.

This is why this story is paired with the account of Jesus walking on water. For the God who spoke over the primal sea and brought forth his good and bountiful creation has spoken again in Christ to restore the life of the world. As we will hear in John these next Sundays, God has provided not just our daily bread, but the bread of life for the world.

The Prayer July 26, 2015

Merciful Father,
you stretch forth your hand to feed those who hunger,
grant us a share in the banquet that is to come,
and the faith to live according to your promise;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 26, 2015

First Reading: 2 Kings 4:42-44
“A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to Elisha, the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack.” – Elisha feeds a hundred people with twenty small loaves with food left over.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:10-18
“The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.”
– The poet praises God for his goodness and faithfulness in providing for all.

Second Reading: Ephesians 3:14-21
“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
– The author prays for the community to be rooted in the love of Christ and the power of the Spirit.

Gospel: John 6:1-21
“’There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’” – The feeding of the five-thousand with twelve baskets left over.

 

Photo: By Tamorlan (Photo taken by Tamorlan) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Ripples

Sunday Evening

Psalm 145

Ripples from a loon on a Minnesota lake

Ripples from a loon on a Minnesota lake

4 One generation shall laud your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.

Every Sunday should end with a barbecue, a band of four accordions and a tuba, and the delightful laughter of a little girl in a bouncy house.

The picnic today was great fun. The Boy Scouts were selling popcorn and showing off the Eagle Scout project of a prayer labyrinth. There was a display of Los Altos in 1954, the year our congregation was organized. There were pictures of our youth ministry and confirmation pictures from those 60 years. It was a delightful celebration of our anniversary and a delightful reminder of the many dimensions of ministry that take place in and around a congregation.

The NA group set up a table to share information about the twelve step ministries that happen in our fireside room. A quartet from the community choir sang when the band went to eat, and had a display of information about their group that meets in our music room. Even the local flower club that meets in our fellowship hall brought plants and a display about their group.

The ministry of the parish is not only on Sunday morning, though that is certainly our most visible ministry. But there are also all those parts of our congregational life from Sunday school to choirs to youth group. There are friendships created that sustain people in times of trial and share times of joy. There are works of service that plant within us and within our young people the importance of giving. There are Christmas boxes for children assembled and shipped overseas, quilts made for the homeless, clothing collected for Lutheran World Relief. There are missions and schools that get supported: people making a difference in troubled parts of the world. Food is gathered for those in and near our community. Support is given to the shelter for women. If we begin to think carefully about all the ripples of kindness that have gone out from this place in the last 60 years we would be amazed.

And there are joys celebrated: weddings and baptisms and anniversaries. There is support given in times of tragedy and sorrow. There are hands held in times of anxiety, and a quiet presence as a family waits for a loved one in surgery.

A parish is ever changing as new people come and others move away. But the ripples continue to extend outward wherever people go.

Sometimes there are wounds, too; that’s the reality of human communities. We are far from perfect. But we pray that, according to his promise, God will work in such places to heal and reconcile and draw us into a walk more fully shaped by God’s own Spirit.

The fountain at the heart of all this is the story about Jesus – and the larger narrative about creation and exodus and Israel’s experience of a God determined to bless the world. The Spirit of Jesus is quickened in us by that story. That story calls us together for worship; creates in us faith, hope and love; sustains us in trial; and sends us out as agents of grace in the world. Consider every life that has been touched by everyone who has been nurtured here on the notion that life is about faithfulness to God and love of neighbor.

Emperor Julian (known as “Julian the Apostate” because he was not a Christian and tried to revive paganism in the empire) commanded the pagan temples to care for the sick and the poor in the way that the Christians did. He was unsuccessful. It was not part of the culture of the ancient temples. It is part of our culture.

The story of Jesus ripples on throughout history. We see it light the night sky now and again in a figure like Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr. or a Mother Teresa. The story of Jesus, percolating through South Africa, provided that nation the chance to chart a path or reconciliation rather than revenge.

But mostly the story of Jesus ripples on in simple acts of kindness and the promise that we can be better than our worst. It ripples on in persistent hope for a better world. It ripples on in the ideal of forgiveness and love of neighbor. It ripples on in the idea that the world is entrusted into our care for us to tend like Eden. It ripples on in the belief that sins can be forgiven and life can start over. It ripples on in myriad ways, great and small, towards that promised day when swords are beaten into plowshares and every tear wiped away: a good world healed and restored.

There is much more going on in a barbecue than tasty food, fun music and a nostalgic look at the past. There is a reminder that God made all things good. And he’s not done working.

Slow to anger

Thursday

Psalm 145

File:Clusone, Oratorio dei Disciplini, Interior frescos 19.JPG

The prophet Jonah, Frescos in the interior of Oratorio dei Disciplini, Clusone. Photocredit: Mattana

8 The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Considering that most gods were easy to enrage, this is a remarkable confession by ancient Israel. Slow to anger. In the Babylonian myth, the gods created humanity from the blood of the chaos monster (as servants) and then regretted their decision because humans were too noisy. I don’t know the myth well-enough to say whether it was the cacophony of human enterprise, the shrill cries of violence and war, or the incessant chatter of humanity’s petitions – their endless cries for daily bread – but like irritated elites, the gods sent a flood to silence them. Noah, of course, outwitted the gods – sailing for safety to the mountain of the gods – a cleverness for which he was rewarded with immortality.

Against that backdrop, the Biblical writers told a remarkably different story – of a humanity whose wickedness knew no bounds (“every imagination of the thoughts of the hearts was only evil continually”) but where God’s mercy rescued humanity, warning Noah, gathering the animals, and gently closing the door of the ark.

Slow to anger.

We have perhaps taken that mercy for granted. In a world marred by death camps and death marches and a vast improvement upon the little first-generation bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed some 100,000 people at a single stroke, and again as many in the months following – the fact that we argue such weapons were necessary to prevent even greater loss of life is only evidence for how far we have fallen from God’s vision for us. This week a friend sent me information about a home raided by authorities were the bodies of dead infants (perhaps stillborn fetuses, if the mother is to be believed) were found beneath the littered and fetid mess of unwashed children, garbage and piles of diapers. The news is preoccupied with the brutal behavior of NFL players, and the beheadings of foreign journalists in the Middle East has roused us to new levels of bombing.

Slow to anger.

Maybe God is too slow to anger. Maybe we would rather a God who would storm from the heavens and throw a few lightening bolts at our butchery and hate. Jonah is certainly enraged by God’s decision to forgive Nineveh, that great city whose empire had brought such suffering to the world, the people who had conquered and dispersed forever the ten northern tribes of Israel. Jonah can’t quite understand why God should care about such people. Jonah can’t bring himself to see them as God’s children. We don’t either, or we wouldn’t be so quick to war.

Slow to anger.

Slow to anger because God’s purpose is not to punish evil but reclaim his rebel world. Slow to anger, because God’s purpose is not to whip a recalcitrant humanity into line – fear can do that if you are willing to be ruthless enough. Slow to anger because God hopes eternally to help us recover our lost humanity.

And so Jesus on the cross doesn’t hurl invective against those evil few who have conspired against him or who have followed orders to torture him to death. He calls on no army of angels. He summons no firebolts. He speaks instead words of kindness, trust in God, and forgiveness.

God is not ignoring the evil that is done. And God is by no means excusing our evil. But he is calling to us. Calling for us to see the work of our hands.  Calling for us to change direction. Calling for us to see the enemy as people for whom God cares. Calling for us to live the steadfast love God shows.

We are grateful for such love and mercy when it is shown to us; we just have trouble understanding why God shows it to others. And until we do, we will continue to build our little arsenals of hate and fear.

8 The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Remarkable grace

Watching for the morning of September 21

Year A

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 20 / Lectionary 25

File:Byzantine agriculture.jpg

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Byzantine Gospel of 11th century, BnF, Cod. gr. 74 Paris, National Library

We have jumped to the 20th chapter in Matthew and we are now just a few verses away from Jerusalem. We skipped Jesus’ talking (again) about divorce, his embrace (again) of children, and Jesus (again) talking about wealth – this time his encounter with the rich man (“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor…then come, follow me.”) Now Jesus is talking once more about God’s radical grace that goes out to all people, not just those who deserve it.

The first reading, from the short story about the runaway prophet, Jonah, provides the conclusion to the narrative when God forgives the wicked city and Jonah pouts in anger. Still, by means of Jonah’s sympathy for a plant, God seeks to invite him to recognize God’s compassion for all people – even Israel’s most brutal enemies.

The psalmist sings praise to this God of mercy for his abundant goodness – perhaps, like the rest of us, without realizing the full impact of what he is saying.

And Paul, writing to his beloved congregation in Philippi, as he faces the possibility of his death, invites us to live a life worthy of Christ, the incarnation of divine mercy.

It should be a Sunday full of the sweetness of God’s compassion and kindness, but “God’s ways are not our ways,” and we are often troubled by the notion that God does not deal with us according to some system of wages, but according to his own goodness.

There are times that this comes to us as great news. But sometimes we are much more like Jonah, or the workers who have borne the heat of the day, and think we deserve more than others. May God be as persistent with us as he was with Jonah.

The Prayer for September 21, 2014

God of Grace,
your mercy knows no bounds;
your salvation is offered to all.
Renew us by your Holy Spirit
that we may walk in the paths of your mercy
and bear your grace to the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 21, 2014

First Reading: Jonah 3:10 – 4:11
“When God saw what [the people of Nineveh] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. 4:1But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.” – Jonah sought to avoid his mission to the Assyrian capital for fear God would forgive the city that had destroyed Israel. Now, when this has happened, God seeks to help Jonah understand his compassion for its people.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:1-8
“I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.” – Psalm 145 is an acrostic hymn, each line beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet, in which the poet sings God’s praise “from A to Z.”

Second Reading: Philippians 1:21-30
“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
– In prison in Rome, Paul is faced with the possibility of his execution and writes to his beloved congregation in Philippi to encourage them to remain faithful to their Lord, living “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” – As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, he tells this story comparing the reign of God with a vineyard owner who chooses to relate to his workers not on the basis of what they deserve, but on the basis of his goodness.

“All ate and were filled”

Watching for the morning of August 3

Year A

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 13 / Lectionary 18

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Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha, Israel. The mosaic on the floor marks the stone where Jesus was thought to have multiplied the loaves and fishes. The mosaic is from the fifth century church destroyed in 615, but rediscovered and excavated in 1892.

Manna in the wilderness, the bounty of creation, the banquet of God towards which all creation moves, the table of the Lord around which we gather every Sunday – they all weave together in the readings for Sunday. The central narrative on Sunday is the feeding of the multitudes. It is perhaps the single most important story in the Gospels other than the passion. It is told by all the gospel writers – and by Matthew and Mark twice: feeding 5,000 and then again 4,000.

We have lost something of the meaning of family dinner. It lingers on for many in the celebration of Thanksgiving. We almost always seal a wedding with the sharing of a meal. We know that the sharing of food binds us to one another. It is the most fundamental of all acts of human kindness.

I have a picture of my first born in a high chair, learning to feed herself, offering us a cheerio with her gummy fingers. Food is to be shared. It binds a mother and child in the most intimate communion. It binds God and ourselves in the most intimate communion. God the provider. God the eternal parent who gives his life for his children. God the prodigal father who kills the fatted calf to bind together a fractured world.

So the prophet cries out like a merchant in the marketplace bidding all to come and “buy” the sustaining food offered at God’s stall for free. So the poet sings of God’s open hands to provide his bounty for all living things. So Jesus takes the five loaves and two fish and provides the Sabbath meal for all creation. And even Paul’s passionate cry that he is willing to be eternally cut off from God that his people might receive God’s gift in Christ Jesus, reflects that eternal love that comes to us in the bread and wine.

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Picture of the mosaic noted above.

The Church’s act of communion is not a religious ritual; it is the most profound participation in Christ. We who eat this bread are present in the wilderness receiving the manna. We who share this loaf are transported to the hillside with the five thousand. We who gather together at this table are given a taste of the wedding banquet that has no end. The world to come has come in Jesus. Lives are healed. Sins are forgiven. The estranged are reconciled. The dead are made alive.

The Prayer for August 3, 2014

Almighty God,
through your Son Jesus you set a table
for all the world to come and feast.
Grant us hearts that are eager to hear your word,
share in your banquet,
and live your reign of mercy and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 3, 2014

First Reading: Isaiah 55:1-5
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” – After the return from exile, the prophet calls to the community like a vendor in the marketplace, inviting them to “feast” on God’s promise that the eternal covenant once established with David is now transferred to the whole nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
“The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.” – A psalm of praise and thanksgiving for God’s grace and bounty.

Second Reading: Romans 9:1-5
“I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.”
– Having laid out his message of God’s reconciling grace apart from the law, Paul now takes up the problem that God’s people have largely ignored the message of Christ Jesus. He begins with an expression of his great grief that Israel has not received this fruit of all their promises.

Gospel: Matthew 14:13-21
“All ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” – Following the parables of chapter 13, Matthew tells of Herod’s banquet where all act corruptly and John is beheaded, and of Jesus’ banquet on the mountain where he has compassion for all.

What kind of king?

Watching for the morning of July 6

Year A

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 9 / Lectionary 14

A wooden sculpture of Jesus Christ on a donkey (c. 1378), Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, Germany.

A wooden sculpture of Jesus Christ on a donkey (c. 1378), Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, Germany.

“Lo, your king comes to you… humble and riding on a donkey.” Zechariah promises a king who will ride to Jerusalem upon a donkey. It is the ancient rite of accession in Jerusalem – the king coming in humility and as a symbol of peace. But the prophet is not promising window dressing and political posturing. He proclaims God’s living promise for a people who have known too much war.

The psalmist, too, speaks of kingship this Sunday, celebrating the God of mercy and steadfast love whose dominion endures forever, and who lifts up the downtrodden.

It is an interesting coincidence on this weekend our nation celebrates the anniversary of its founding document. What should governance be? What does true kingship look like? In a world of tyrants and self-serving rulers, our true king comes to us “humble and riding on a donkey.”

The elite members of Judean society criticized John for being too severe – and Jesus for being a glutton. They dismissed John’s prophetic voice because he fasted excessively – and Jesus because he didn’t fast enough: comfortable excuses for ignoring their message that the God of justice and mercy was coming to reign among them.

But there are those who hear. Those who enter into this reign of God. Those who take up this yoke that is not a brutal burden of tribute and taxation, but a glorious and gentle rule of grace and life. A sharing of bread. A forgiving of debts. A lifting up of the downtrodden. A healing of the sick and freeing of the bound. A dawning of the Spirit of God.

The Prayer for July 6, 2014

Gracious God,
in Jesus you invite all people into the path of your teaching and life.
By your Holy Spirit, open our hearts and lives to your message
that, following your Son, we may find true rest for our souls.

The Texts for July 6, 2014

First Reading: Zechariah 9:9-12
“Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” – A prophetic message from the book of Zechariah promises a king to come – not as conqueror upon a warhorse, but as prince of peace upon a donkey. It comes to us in the weary years after Babylon has fallen, but Judah is a poor backwater of the Persian empire.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:8-14
“Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.” – A hymn of praise to God who reigns as earth’s just and faithful king.

Second Reading: Romans 7:14-25
“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” – Paul uses the image of possession (compelled to act against our own will) to expound his notion that the death of Christ has freed us from our bond service to Sin and made us servants of God.

Gospel: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” – Jesus rebukes the fickle crowd (who criticized John for his asceticism and Jesus for being a libertine) and praises God for opening the eyes of the poor and marginalized to see and take up the yoke of God’s reign of grace and life.