Like a shrub in the desert

File:Tree trunk at Deadvlei, Namibia (2017).jpgWatching for the Morning of February 17, 2019

Year C

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

From the mountain where he has prayed and appointed twelve apostolic witnesses, Jesus now descends to the plain to speak to the crowds who have come in search of healing. We know these words as “Blessed are you…” and “Woe to you…” but their meaning is better expressed by something like “How honored are you…” and “How shameful are you…”

It is about wealth and poverty – but wealth and poverty in a very specific context that concerns far more than money. It is a society that thinks about all things as a limited and fixed supply. It is like land: for someone to gain more someone else must lose. The ‘poor’ are those who have been unable to protect what was theirs, whether possessions or lands or family name. The ‘rich’ are those who have used their power to acquire what belonged to others. They are inherently regarded as thieves. (This is different, however, from those who prosper by natural means such as an exceptional harvest or fruitful flock – though such gifts from God require sharing with those not so fortunate.)

We understand something of this. We regard the auto mechanic who takes advantage of a traveler on the road as a thief, as are the pharmaceutical companies that jack up the price of life-saving medications – or those who pushed the sale of opiates. It is shameful to take advantage of the weak or vulnerable. It is shameful to steal from the elderly. It is shameful to abuse children. “Woe to you who are rich…Woe to you who are full now… Woe to you who are laughing now…” It is not a threat of punishment so much as a declaration that such people are shameful in God’s eyes and have no place in God’s reign.

No one is lucky to be poor. No one is fortunate to be powerless. There is no inherent good in being a victim (though good can come if it incites us not to victimize others, if it creates allegiance to the reign of God). The vulnerable are favored in God’s eyes because God has always been their advocate and defender, and now the reign of God has drawn near in Jesus the anointed. But what is expected of the poor – as also of the powerful, though they tend to refuse – is that they embrace this reign where bread is shared and sins forgiven and the human community made whole.

Jesus’ words on Sunday are full of grace to the beaten down, but they challenge the privileged – even as Jeremiah and the psalm contrast the tree drawing life from a stream with the dry shrub in the desert.

The Prayer for February 17, 2019

God of Mercy,
Redeemer of the world,
bring your healing to us and to all
that, transformed by your Grace,
all may know your justice and mercy.

The Texts for February 17, 2019

First Reading: Jeremiah 17:5-10
“Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals.” – The prophet condemns the king whose confidence in power politics has led him to an alliance with the king of Egypt to rebel against Babylon, a course of action that will lead to the destruction of the nation. The timelessness of the wisdom saying is pointedly applied to the nation’s leadership.

Psalmody: Psalm 1
“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked…but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.”
– The psalm, written in the singular (“Blessed is the one”) opens the Hebrew psalter with an affirmation of the importance of individual fidelity to God.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:12-20
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” – Paul challenges those in Corinth who deny bodily resurrection.

Gospel: Luke 6:17-26
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.’” – Having ascended a mountain to pray and then chosen his twelve apostolic witnesses, Jesus comes down to teach a great crowd of his followers, beginning with these declarations of those who are honored and shameful in God’s sight.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tree_trunk_at_Deadvlei,_Namibia_(2017).jpg Olga Ernst & Hp.Baumeler [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

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Rage and redemption

File:Smoldering ruins of African American's homes following race riots - Tulsa Okla 1921.jpg

Aftermath of the Tulsa Riot that destroyed the homes and businesses in the black community of Greenwood, killing more than 100.

Watching for the Morning of February 3, 2019

Year C

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

An outbreak of communal violence is an ugly thing. We shouldn’t think first of the mindless behavior of hometown fans when their team wins the final game. Nor should we think first of the violence that rocks nations when oppressed communities respond to state violence with outrage. We need to think about lynchings: the angry, outraged mobs that insist on immediate vengeance for some fundamental violation of communal norms.

And we need to think about our stories, not what’s happening in some other country.

Emmett Till was 14, visiting from Chicago, when he encountered 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant at the small country store she owned with her husband in Money, Mississippi. He may have whistled at her; he may have whistled to his friends; he may have whistled softly to himself as he had been taught in order to control his stuttering. He was taken from the home where he was staying with his great-uncle in the middle of the night by Carolyn’s husband and his half-brother. Emmett’s naked, shot, and brutally beaten body was fished from the Tallahatchie River three days later, barbed wire wrapped around his neck and attached to a weight.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice records that “more than 4400 African American men, women, and children were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.”

What happened to Stephen in Acts 2 is this same kind of outbreak of communal violence. A mob outraged by his claim to see Jesus at the right hand of God rose up in violent revenge. It happened repeatedly to the apostle Paul – indeed Paul participated in the murder of Stephen and was dedicated to arresting followers of Jesus when the risen Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. The arrest that led to Paul’s eventual execution in Rome followed a riot begun with a rumor that he had desecrated the Jerusalem temple by bringing a gentile into the inner court.

Communal violence is an ugly thing. The crucifixion of Jesus was a deliberate act of the governing families in Jerusalem allied with the Roman imperium. It was an act of state violence. But what happened to Jesus in Nazareth after his sermon was a more visceral outbreak of rage. We paint pictures of Jesus with children and lambs and it takes some work to understand what part of his message was so offensive his hearers rose in fury to kill him.

Jesus has laid claim to be the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel. He is the embodiment of God’s reign to rescue the poor and release the captive. But such a claim is a scandal in a culture where every

Jesus is uppity, acting out of his station in life. Jesus calls the people on their implicit rejection of his ministry – and then he dares to say that God’s reign is not for Israel but for all people. The people assert his obligation is to care for his family and village, but Jesus points to Elijah and Elisha who dispensed God’s favors to a poor widow and an afflicted leper among Israel’s enemies. This is what leads to rage, to the ugliness of communal violence. Jesus might as well have whistled at a white woman.

It is deep within us, this conviction God should care for us more than others. Donald Trump milked and manipulated it into the presidency. It took Jesus to the cross. But in the empty tomb God declared Jesus the one who speaks the truth.

So Sunday we will hear about Jeremiah’s prophetic call and God’s command he should speak fearlessly. The psalmist will declare God is his rock and his fortress. Corinthians will speak to us about the ultimate importance of love – not romantic love, but fidelity and care for all people. And then comes the abortive attempt on Jesus’ life. They will not get him this day; they will not get him in the end, for we follow one whose love is not silenced by hate.

The Prayer for February 3, 2019

Almighty God,
through your Son Jesus you revealed your gracious rule
to bind up the wounded and set free the captive.
Let us not fail to understand your will and your way,
but grant us willing hearts to receive your word and live your kingdom;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for February 3, 2019

First Reading: Jeremiah 1:4-10
“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” – God calls Jeremiah to his prophetic ministry.

Psalmody: Psalm 71:1-6
“In you, O Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame.”
– The psalm writer cries out to God for protection “from the hand of the wicked.”

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” – Paul continues to teach his conflicted congregation in Corinth about the gifts of God’s Spirit and their life together as a community. All gifts serve the community and the greatest gift is love – concern for and fidelity to one another

Gospel: Luke 4:21-30
“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”
– The message Jesus announces in Nazareth that the age to come is dawning even as Jesus speaks is met with hostility and a murderous attempt on his life.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Smoldering_ruins_of_African_American%27s_homes_following_race_riots_-_Tulsa_Okla_1921.jpg Alvin C. Krupnick Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Beloved

File:Mural - Jesus' Baptism.jpgWatching for the Morning of January 13, 2019

Year C

The Baptism of Our Lord

1But now thus says the Lord,
….he who created you, O Jacob,
….he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
….I have called you by name, you are mine.
2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
….and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you… (Isaiah 43)

No sweeter word could have been spoken to the descendants of Jacob in the 6th century bce than these words of the prophet. For a people destroyed, scattered and deported in chains to Babylon, the prophet takes up the language of the creation and exodus to declare that God will gather God’s scattered people. A new creative and redemptive work is at hand.

The prophet’s words form the backdrop for the dramatic moment when the heavens are opened and the Spirit descends upon Jesus. This is a divine commissioning for God’s saving act. The language “You are my Son,” is royal language: Jesus is the one who brings the reign of God. He is the presence of God’s justice and mercy. He is the one empowered to deliver God’s people. He is the dawning of the new creation.

This descent of the Spirit upon Jesus is more than Samson inspired in the moment to burst the bonds that hold him or to tear down the temple of the Philistines. It is more than Gideon filled with courage to summon Israel to battle. Jesus is the one, as John has told us, who washes the world in the Spirit of God.

And so, on Sunday, we will hear not only the voice of the prophet, but sing with the psalmist of the voice of God that thunders over the waters and hear from the book of Acts about the Spirit poured out upon Samaria, and we will know the dramatic hand of God is at work.

And we will ponder the mystery that, in the waters of baptism in which all are washed, we too have heard the divine voice proclaim us God’s beloved, and felt the breath of the Spirit that makes all things new.

The Prayer for January 13, 2019

Heavenly Father, Eternal God, Holy and Gracious One:
in the waters of the River Jordan
you anointed Jesus with your Holy Spirit
and declared him your beloved Son.
Make all the earth radiant with your glory
and pour out upon all your children
the abundance of your Holy Spirit.

The Texts for January 13, 2019

First Reading: Isaiah 43:1-7
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” – with language that evokes the creation and exodus and promises their return from exile, the prophet declares God’s abiding faithfulness to the people.

Psalmody: Psalm 29
“The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.” – Using the imagery of a thunderstorm coming off the Mediterranean Sea and crashing upon the slope of Mount Hermon, the poet proclaims the power of God’s Word.

Second Reading: Acts 8:14-17
“Then Peter and John laid their hands on them [the new believers in Samaria], and they received the Holy Spirit.” – When the Greek speaking (Hellenized) Judeans are driven from the city following the communal violence against Stephen, they carry the message of Jesus to Samaria. The message is received with faith and representatives from Jerusalem are sent to affirm that this surprising development is of the Holy Spirit.

Gospel: Luke 3:15-22 (appointed 15-17, 21-22)
“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.”
– The prophetic ministry of John comes to its conclusion with his arrest, and the baptized and praying Jesus is anointed with the Spirit.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mural_-_Jesus%27_Baptism.jpg David Bjorgen [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Like showers watering the earth

File:08152 Bukowsko (powiat sanocki).jpgWatching for the Morning of January 6, 2019

The Epiphany of Our Lord

6He will be like rain falling on a mown field,
like showers watering the earth.

We will read Psalm 72 on Sunday from the old 1984 translation of the New International Version because that version presents the psalm as promise rather than wish. The current NIV reads “May he be like rain falling on a mown field,” and the New Revised Standard Version reads similarly. ‘May’ is too soft a verb. It robs the prayer of passion. In our time, in our conflicted politics, it sounds more like a sigh than a song.

I understand the translators’ choice. But the text is not just a relic of an ancient coronation rite; it is now deep in the canon of scripture. It now bears the divine word to a broken world. It preaches. It declares what kings and presidents ought to be – and what the reign of God will be. It stands against those who use their office to bless themselves and proclaims the promise of God to all creation. It summons us to live the faithfulness that is coming, to be participants in the blessing of the world.

When we gather in worship and set this song next to the child of Bethlehem, the magi, and the murderous king, the song soars. We hear the yearning and joy of all heaven and earth: in the outstretched arms of Jesus is God’s true and lasting reign and the healing of the world. To him belongs the obeisance of the nations. To him belong the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In him is the end of every murderous regime. In him is the silencing of every deceitful tongue. In him is the end of the whip and the lash, the nails and the wood, the taunts and the dying. In him the grave is powerless. In him is the soft rain that brings life to the earth.

Sunday we read this song that is prayer and promise and proclamation. We hear of the magi kneeling before the child of Bethlehem, and of the kings of this earth with the blood of children on their hands to prevent his rising. The voice of the prophet declares: “Arise, shine; for your light has come.” It is the feast of the epiphany, the feast of Christ revealed to the nations, the feast of light shining in the darkness. The wondrous grace of Christmas Eve blazes across the skies.

And, yes, the shadow of the cross lies across the day: Herod echoes Pharaoh’s murderous attempt upon the children of Israel. But the child will live. The child will come forth out of Egypt. The child will settle in Nazareth. And in his outstretched arms all creation is born of God.

The Prayer for January 6, 2019

Gracious God,
by a sign in the heavens
you proclaimed to all the earth
the advent of your son Jesus,
who would receive the throne of David
and reign in justice and righteousness over a world made new.
May he reign in us and in our world bringing his perfect peace.

The Texts for January 6, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” – In the years after the return from exile, the prophet heralds a restoration of the nation: though Jerusalem and the temple are now only a pale reflection of their former glory, the Glory of God shall be upon them, the sons and daughters of Israel scattered throughout the ancient world shall return, and the people of all nations will make pilgrimage to “proclaim the praise of the LORD”.

Psalmody: Psalm 72 (appointed 1-7, 10-14)
“Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness.” – A royal psalm, likely composed to celebrate the ascension of a new king, has become a promise of the anointed of God (Messiah/Christ) in whom all creation is made new.

Second Reading: Ephesians 3:1-12
“This grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ.” – Paul is privileged to proclaim God’s plan, once hidden from our eyes but now revealed, to gather all people into one body in Christ.

Gospel: Matthew 2:1-23 (appointed 1-12)
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Judeans?”
– the visit of the magi, representing the nations coming to bow before the dawning reign of God in Christ, and his rejection by Herod and the Jerusalem elite who plot to murder the infant king.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:08152_Bukowsko_(powiat_sanocki).jpg Silar [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

“And he shall be the one of peace”

File:Bicci di Lorenzo - The Nativity - WGA2160.jpgWatching for the Morning of December 23, 2018

Year C

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)

This word from a prophet of Israel’s God some 2,700 years ago shapes our gathering on Sunday. It is not a prediction; that’s never what prophecy was. It is a message, a sermon, a warning, a promise.

The words are old, very old, spoken in an ancient tongue and an alien culture. And yet it was spoken in this world, to humans very much like us, warring, greedy, loving, bitter, doubtful, hopeful, kind, cruel.

We are not much changed since then; only our technology has changed: bullets kill faster and better than swords. But war’s desolation we know. We see the rubble, even if we don’t have to live in it. We see the broken bodies, the mass graves, the fiery explosions, the children gasping for breath or searching for bread. And we know the hope for peace: peace in our world, peace in our homes, peace in our hearts.

Sunday we will sing the words of the prophet Isaiah about swords beaten into plowshares. We will hear Paul encourage us to set our minds on what is true, honorable and just, knowing that “the God of peace will be with you.” And we will hear the words of the Angel Gabriel to Mary about the child to be born who “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” In that promise we will find the fulfillment of the prophet Micah: a divine and royal presence come to breathe a new governance into the human heart – “and he shall be the one of peace.” (Micah 5:5)

These aren’t the appointed texts for this final Sunday of Advent this year, but they are ones that bear the Advent promise of a world made new, and prepare us to ponder again the child of the manger and the peace he brings.

The Prayer for December 23, 2018

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Fill our hearts with your Spirit,
and guide our steps in the way of that day
when Christ shall reign in every heart
and all creation shall dwell in your peace;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for December 23, 2018

(We rearranged the readings in Advent to accommodate our children’s Christmas program. As a result, we read the story of the visitation last week and have added the story of the annunciation to our Advent this year.)

First Reading: Micah 5:2-5a
“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.”
– Amidst the words of judgment in the 8th century BCE are also words that promise a new future for the nation. This is the famous passage, quoted by Matthew, promising a king from the royal line of David who will “be the one of peace.”

Psalmody: Isaiah 2:2-5
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” – As Assyrian power rises in the 8th century BCE, the prophet reverses the call to arms, and summons the nation to walk in God’s way of peace.

Second Reading: Philippians 4:8-9
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure … think about these things.” – Though Paul is in prison facing the possibility of death, he urges his community to abide in all that is true and honorable.

Gospel: Luke 1:26-33
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.” – Following the announcement to Zechariah that Elizabeth would bear a child who would be the forerunner of God’s anointed, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary.

The texts as appointed for 4 Advent C

First Reading: Micah 5:2-5a

Psalmody: Luke 1:46-55, the Song of Mary, the Magnificat (alternate: Psalm 80:1-7)
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” – In response to her encounter with Elizabeth, Mary sings with joy of God’s coming to set right the world.

Second Reading: Hebrews 10:5-10
“Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.’” – In the midst of the author’s gathering of the scriptural witness to the superiority of Christ, he points to this passage and the words “I have come to do your will, O God” to speak of the new work of God in Christ Jesus that replaces the pattern of temple sacrifices.

Gospel: Luke 1:39-45
“As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” –Having heard from the angel Gabriel that her kinswoman, Elizabeth, is also wondrously with child, Mary comes to greet her. Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit, and the child in her womb (John the Baptist) leaps for joy.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bicci_di_Lorenzo_-_The_Nativity_-_WGA2160.jpg Bicci di Lorenzo [Public domain]

The journey towards the neighbor

File:Maximilien Luce - Le bon samaritain.jpg

The Gospel from last Sunday, the 2nd Sunday in Advent in 2018, was Luke 3:1-18, combining the Gospel readings for both the second and third Sundays in Advent. For an introduction to this Sunday see the post “And us? What should we do?

I want us to keep in mind, this morning, where we are in Luke’s Gospel. The passage we just read is from chapter three when John and Jesus are now adults. It begins the main section of Luke’s account of God’s work in Jesus.

I would remind you that Luke didn’t write his work in chapters. The chapter breaks were added at the beginning of the 13th century and the verse numbers don’t appear until the 16th century. For Luke this is one continuous account. It was meant to be read as a whole and not cut up into little pieces like we tend to do.

Reading the Gospels in these little fragments needs to be like an old movie you have watched again and again. When you know a movie so well, it’s possible to talk about just one scene, because you know where we are in the whole movie. If you don’t know the movie, the scene may be compelling, but we don’t understand all that it means.

I like the image of saying that somewhere along the way, we broke up the pearl necklace of the gospel into a box of pearls and lost track of its overall beauty. To make matters worse, we had four beautiful necklaces and lumped all the pearls and precious stones into one big box. The problem with the metaphor, of course, is that it still tends to look at the gospel stories as separate pieces when they are better understood as part of a whole – like scenes in a movie.

Because we have four “movies” of Jesus, when we talk about one of these individual scenes we sometimes loose track of which movie we are talking about. So I want to remind you where we are now in Luke’s “movie”. Luke’s story is the one with Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem. It tells the story of the shepherds and all heaven singing (it doesn’t tell us the story of the magi, the wise men). Luke is the Gospel with the story of the Good Samaritan. It’s in Luke that Jesus tells us the story of the Prodigal Son. It’s in Luke we hear about the rich man who ignored Lazarus at his gate. Luke is the Gospel where Jesus on the cross prays for the soldiers saying, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” It’s Luke who tells us about the women who followed Jesus. And it’s Luke who tells us not only about the mission of the twelve during the life of Jesus, but the mission of the seventy.

And Luke’s story doesn’t stop with the resurrection; he tells us of the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and the mission of those first followers. He tells us about the baptism of Samaritans and the Ethiopian Eunuch and the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. He tells us how Paul participated in the murder of Stephen for blasphemy, and was then met by the risen Lord on his way to Damascus. It tells the story of Paul’s journeys to spread the message about Jesus throughout the Mediterranean world, and his eventual arrest in Jerusalem and transfer to Rome to have his case heard by the emperor

This is the movie we are talking about. It’s a powerful movie. And I want to emphasize again that it’s in this movie from Luke that we get the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and Lazarus and the Rich Man. It’s also here we get this message from John when his listeners ask him “What then shall we do?” and John says: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

As I wrote in the blog post at Watching for the Morning earlier this week, “The journey towards God is a journey towards the neighbor. The dawn of grace requires we learn to live grace.”

So, where are we are we, today, in Luke’s Gospel? Luke has opened his narrative with the account of the wondrous events that reveal God’s hand in the birth of Jesus. Zechariah is a priest who is chosen by lot to go into the temple and tend the candles and the incense. In the scriptures, things that happen through the religious practice known as casting lots are understood to have been directed by God. So Zechariah is chosen by God to go into the interior of the temple. There he is met by the heavenly messenger, Gabriel, who tells him that his wife, Elizabeth, will have a child. This is a wondrous thing, because Zechariah and his wife are old and barren – and so Luke’s story begins like the Old Testament with the story Abraham and Sarah and the promise of a child. The story of Jesus is going to fulfill the story of Israel. And this is one of the deep themes of the scripture: When it seems like there is no future, God creates a future.

Zechariah, however, doesn’t trust the message of the angel and asks for a sign. The sign the angel gives him is that he will not be able to speak until the child is born. (The song we sang today, by the way, are those first words Zechariah said after the child is born and Zechariah obeys the angel by naming him John.)

Six months after Elizabeth gets pregnant, Gabriel comes again – this time to Mary and announces that she will have a child and she is to name him Jesus. “He will be great,” says the angel, “and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary trusts the angel’s message an offers herself to God’s service.

Gabriel also tells Mary that Elizabeth is pregnant and Mary goes to visit her. At their encounter, Elizabeth’s child leaps for joy in her womb, and Mary sings that beautiful song we know as the Magnificat (that’s the song we will sing next week). In that song, Mary talks about God’s righting of the world. The powerful will be cast down from their thrones and the poor lifted up. The hungry will be filled with good things and the rich elites sent away empty.

After this, John is born and Zechariah sings his prophetic song. (Poetry in the ancient world was understood to be divinely inspired.) Then Jesus is born and the heavens sing and the good news is proclaimed to lowly shepherds. This child is for the poor.

Mary and Joseph go up to the temple to keep their religious obligations after the birth of Jesus. When they arrive, Simeon is guided to them by the Holy Spirit and he sings a song: “Lord, now let you servant go in peace according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” This child is for the whole world.

The 84-year-old prophetess, Anna, sees the child and begins “to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” That word redemption is important. It says the city and nation have become prisoner to greed, wealth and power – and God will buy it back, God will gain it’s freedom, God will make it God’s own again. Indeed it is the whole world that God has come to reclaim.

The child, Jesus, grows “full of wisdom and the favor of God,” and we get one story that gives evidence of Jesus’ destiny: at the age of twelve, Jesus travels with the family to Jerusalem for Passover (remember it’s at Passover when Jesus is crucified and raised). When the village caravan leaves, Jesus is left behind. His parents go back to find him, and they find him after three days! Jesus is in the temple among the teachers, and he answers his parent’s fear and anxiety by saying: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

The whole narrative to this point is filled with anticipation, with signs from God, with prophetic words, with grace to the poor and promises of the healing and transformation of the world. And then we hear our text for this morning: Into this world ruled by Imperial Rome and its client kings, priests, and rulers, God’s mighty, transformative Word comes to John in the wilderness. Beyond the Jordan, in the wilderness where long ago Israel had been made ready to enter the Promised Land, John calls the people to a new allegiance to God’s reign.

I was tempted to talk about who all these people are and what these names represent to Luke’s hearers – but it’s enough to just say this: Luke’s people live in the aftermath of the Judean war with Rome and these names all represent the people and powers that led them to destruction. Rome is not the great and glorious empire; it is the oppressive regime that crushed the nation. Annas and Caiaphas are not great spiritual leaders, but the high priests who were in bed with Rome and held a vice grip on power and wealth in Jerusalem for half a century. Into this broken world the Word of God comes to announce the dawning of a new governance.

John announces “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” a washing in the river Jordan to signify a new beginning for Israel. It is a baptism of ‘repentance’ meaning a washing that signifies a new allegiance to God. And it is a baptism for ‘the forgiveness of sins’ meaning that God foregoes God’s right to seek satisfaction for all their offenses against God.

The imagery is of Israel starting over, going out into the wilderness and coming anew into the promised land. But with this new beginning, John warns the people to bear the fruit that is appropriate to God’s reign.

These words of John are not just about John and the people out there at the Jordan River. These are words for all of us. This is what it means to show allegiance to God’s transformation of the world. This is what it means to be ready for the Christ. “The journey towards God is a journey towards the neighbor. The dawn of grace requires we learn to live grace.”

And the journey toward the neighbor is not only sharing bread; it is about love of neighbor. It is about seeing others as members of your own household. It is about seeing their humanity, about seeing your connection with one another and living out that connection.

I want to tell you again a story about two soup kitchens in Detroit. One was at a large, beautiful old church on Jefferson Avenue on the East Side of Detroit. It was a very blighted area at the time, yet right on the edge of a very wealthy suburb called Grosse Pointe.

The members of that congregation wanted to serve their community so they set up a soup kitchen. The members of the congregation were all white; the people they were feeding were all African–Americans. The doors of the building were locked while they cooked the food and set the tables. At the appointed time they opened the doors and the people filed in down the stairs into the basement. White folks stood behind the counter and dished out the food. The black folks sat down at the tables, ate it, and filed out.

It was important; people were getting fed. But on the other side of town there was another soup kitchen where they opened the doors in the afternoon when the first person arrived to start cooking. People from the neighborhood would drift in and help in the kitchen and set up chairs and tables, and have coffee as others came. When it was time to eat everyone sat down together and ate as one community. The second soup kitchen was a community meal where they knew each other’s names – or had the chance to learn them.

The journey to God is a journey to the neighbor. And the journey to the neighbor is not just an outward act of care; it is about seeing all others as members of your own household. It is about knowing that people have names and a story that matters.

There was a third soup kitchen in Detroit. The woman who was the heart of this soup kitchen was virtually blind. She was in the kitchen in the church basement preparing that night’s soup when she heard a terrific roar. The roof of the church had collapsed in on the sanctuary above her. After they dug her out, she said, “I knew something happened and figured you’d find me, so I just kept making soup.” They hauled out the tables from the basement and served soup for the community on the sidewalk. And in the days after they continued to cook in the basement and eat out on the sidewalk.

“The journey towards God is a journey towards the neighbor. The dawn of grace requires we learn to live grace.” The woes of the world are many, but we just keep making soup.

Amen

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If you’d like to know or follow up on some of the references in the message from Sunday, here are some of the links:

Because we have four “movies” of Jesus, when we talk about one of these individual scenes we sometimes loose track of which movie we are talking about. So I want to remind you where we are now in Luke’s “movie”. Luke’s story is the one with Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem. It tells the story of the shepherds and all heaven singing (it doesn’t tell us the story of the magi, the wise men). Luke is the Gospel with the story of the Good Samaritan. It’s in Luke that Jesus tells us the story of the Prodigal Son. It’s in Luke we hear about the rich man who ignored Lazarus at his gate. Luke is the Gospel where Jesus on the cross prays for the soldiers saying, Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” It’s Luke who tells us about the women who followed Jesus. And it’s Luke who tells us not only about the mission of the twelve during the life of Jesus, but the mission of the seventy.

And Luke’s story doesn’t stop with the resurrection; he tells us of the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and the mission of those first followers. He tells us about the baptism of Samaritans and the Ethiopian Eunuch and the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. He tells us how Paul participated in the murder of Stephen for blasphemy, and was then met by the risen Lord on his way to Damascus. It tells the story of Paul’s journeys to spread the message about Jesus throughout the Mediterranean world, and his eventual arrest in Jerusalem and transfer to Rome to have his case heard by the emperor.

This is the movie we are talking about. It’s a powerful movie. And I want to emphasize again that it’s in this movie from Luke that we get the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and Lazarus and the Rich Man. It’s also here we get this message from John when his listeners ask him “What then shall we do?” and John says: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

As I wrote in the blog post at Watching for the Morning earlier this week, “The journey towards God is a journey towards the neighbor. The dawn of grace requires we learn to live grace.”

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maximilien_Luce_-_Le_bon_samaritain.jpg Maximilien Luce [Public domain]

 

And us? What should we do?

File:Humanitarian aid OCPA-2005-10-28-090517a.jpgWatching for the Morning of December 9, 2018

Year C

The Second Sunday of Advent

Sunday we combine the assigned Gospel texts for the next two weeks because of the children’s Christmas program on the 16th. This gives us the chance to hear Luke’s account of the ministry of John the Baptizer in a single reading: The word of God comes into the brutal world of Rome and its client kings, announcing God’s righting of the world and the coming of the one who will wash the world in a holy Spirit. And what does it mean to prepare for this wondrous act of God? It is to bear fruit befitting God’s reign: to share your bread with the hungry and your clothes with the naked, to show faithfulness to others rather than plundering them to your benefit.

The journey towards God is a journey towards the neighbor.

The dawn of grace requires we learn to live grace.

So there are warnings on Sunday, the ax poised to strike the fruitless tree, and the winnowing fork sifting the chaff for the fire; heritage doesn’t count for anything, only fidelity. But there is also promise of a dawning salvation: a world set right and a human community awash in the Spirit. It is time, says John, to take sides. Choose the one to whom you will show allegiance: the world of rulers and empire, or the reign of grace.

Sunday we will hear the prophet Malachi speak of God’s messenger who prepares the way for God to come to his temple. His task is to purify the priestly clan of Levi, that their offerings may please rather than offend God. And in this warning of a refiner’s fire we will recognize that it is not only the preachers and priests who must have the dross burned away, but a people who must become faithful.

In the shadow of that warning we will sing the prophetic song of Zechariah that rejoices in God’s favor and the fulfillment of God’s promises, describing the mission of his son, John, to “Go before the Lord to prepare his way.” There are barriers of heart and mind that must be torn down. There are hearts that must be changed, relationships to be reconciled, wounds to be healed, love to be lived.

And we will hear Paul exhort his beloved congregation to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” in the promise that “it is God who is at work in you.”

It is a season of hope, but also a season for living the kingdom.

The Prayer for December 9, 2018

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Lead us in the way of your kingdom
that we may walk in paths of faith, hope and love;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for December 9, 2018

First Reading: Malachi 3:1-4
“I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.”
– The prophet known as Malachi spoke to a people who complained of God’s absence, but neglected their offerings and worship of God. He declares that God will come to this people, but warns he will come as a purifying fire.

Psalmody: Luke 1:68-79 (The Benedictus)
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” – On this Sunday when we hear of the ministry of John the Baptist, we sing the song known as the Benedictus (from its first words in Latin). This prophecy is sung by Zechariah when he regains his voice after following the divine command to name his son John. He glorifies God for God’s work of deliverance and declares that John “will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.

Second Reading: Philippians 2:12-16 (appointed: Philippians 1:3-11)
“Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” –Paul writes from prison, urging his beloved congregation to faithfulness in their life together. (Our congregation read Philippians 1:3-11 last week.)

Gospel: Luke 3:1-18 (appointed: Luke 3:1-6)
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” – We combine the Gospel readings for 2 and 3 Advent this Sunday where John is located in the midst of the ruling powers but speaks of the ruler to come – and calls the community to a life in keeping with the dawning reign of God.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Humanitarian_aid_OCPA-2005-10-28-090517a.jpg Technical Sergeant Mike Buytas of the United States Air Force [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tears shared and wiped away

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Resurrection of Lazarus by Mauricio García Vega

Watching for the Morning of November 4, 2018

Year B

All Saints Sunday

Sunday gives us the famous Biblical verse composed of two words: “Jesus wept” – though for some reason I cannot understand our translation changes it from its simple aspect to a continuous one: “Jesus began to weep.” Perhaps that decision was driven by the context, but I hate to mess with the Biblical text. And there is something true and important about a more timeless recognition that Jesus wept. Jesus knows tears. He does not walk above the sorrows of the world but in them. Whatever theological points we wish to make about him as the incarnation of the divine, he shares our humanity. He wept.

Isaiah will also speak to us about tears. We will hear of the banquet God will prepare “for all peoples” when death is swallowed up and God “will wipe away the tears from all faces.” And John of Revelation will convey to us the vision of “a new heaven and a new earth,” when “death will be no more,” and we are released from all “mourning and crying and pain”.

These are appropriate texts for the day we remember those who have gone before us, who wait with us for that day when the graves give back their dead and the world rises into the fullness of life. And these texts are full of grace for us in days when we see too many tears and wonder what future awaits us. We live by a promise that God’s work is to heal the world: to unite what is divided, to build up what is torn down, to free what is bound, to open eyes that do not see, to grant us hearts of flesh not stone, to call us to come forth from the dominion of death into the realm of grace and life.

The Prayer for November 4, 2018 (for the observance of All Saints)

Almighty God, Lord of Life,
as Jesus summoned Lazarus
you call us forth from the grave
that in you we should find that life that shall not perish.
Unbind us from every shroud of death
that, freed from its shadow,
we might live now in the joy of the banquet to come.

The texts for November 4, 2018 (for the observance of All Saints)

First Reading: Isaiah 25:6-9
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”
– The prophet announces to a war torn people that God shall gather all nations to one table and wipe away every tear.

Psalmody: Psalm 24
“Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.” – Words from an ancient liturgy in which God is received as king, perhaps when the Ark of the Covenant is brought to the temple.

Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-6a
“And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” – John of Patmos reaches his great concluding vision of a world restored to God, where the heavenly counterpart to the earthly city of Jerusalem comes to earth and God dwells among us in a world made new.

Gospel: John 11:17-44
“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’” – Jesus comes to raise Lazarus from the grave.

Sunday we will also make reference to the assigned Gospel for the Sunday from October 30 to November 5:

Appointed Gospel for Proper 26 B: Mark 12:28-34
“One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” – When asked which commandment governs all the rest, Jesus cites Deuteronomy and Leviticus – to love God with all our heart and soul and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

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Follow these links for other posts on All Saints or All Saints in year B.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:001Resurrecci%C3%B3n_de_L%C3%A1zaro.jpg By Mauricio García Vega (Painting and photograph of Mauricio García Vega) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Would that God’s Spirit were on all of us

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“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

Watching for the Morning of September 30, 2018

Year B

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 21 / Lectionary 26

It doesn’t seem right to read the second half of psalm 19 about the goodness of God’s law without having read the beginning of the psalm that declares “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” The beauty, harmony and order we see in the stars is found in God’s ordering of human life by the Torah/teaching/“law” given to Israel: “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul… making wise the simple… rejoicing the heart… enlightening the eyes… enduring forever.” God’s commands to live faithfulness and mercy are “sweeter also than honey” and more desirable than gold.

Into the chaos of this last week, and the wrenching trauma of sexual assault, raging anger, and bitter partisanship, comes this sweet word about God’s gracious ordering of the world.

But our readings, Sunday, start with bitter complaint. Israel is in the wilderness craving meat and imagining that life had been wonderful in the old days. They dream of melons and cucumbers, forgetting that Pharaoh made life bitter and sought to kill their children. Moses, too, cries out in bitterness that God has entrusted him to care for such a people. God answers with the commission of the seventy elders upon whom a share of the Spirit is given. But it is the story of Eldad and Medad to which the narrative drives. They were not with the others when the Spirit was given. They were still in the camp. Joshua would have Moses silence them. But Moses answers instead: “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”

Where Joshua would seek to control and limit God’s work; Moses wants to see it spread. And so then we hear Jesus with disciples who also want to control and limit God’s work: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” He wasn’t on our team. He wasn’t one of us. We can’t allow him to succeed – even though he was freeing people from demons.

We are living in the sorrows of partisanship. And Christians have been brutally successful at tribalism through the ages. Pretty disgraceful given that our Lord welcomed all. Pretty disgraceful given that our Lord said it was better to have a millstone tied around your neck and be cast into the sea rather than cause anyone to waver in their allegiance to Jesus. And it is better to cut off your hand or tear out your eye – the punishment for lawbreakers still in some parts of the world – than betray God’s reign of mercy and life.

Moses was right. Would that God’s Spirit were upon all of us.

The Prayer for September 30, 2018

Holy and Gracious God,
before whom the least of your children bear an eternal name,
season us with your Spirit
that we may never drive away those whom you call near;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 30, 2018

First Reading: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
“Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders.” – Moses cries out to God about the burden of caring for this rebellious people, and God puts his Spirit upon seventy elders to share the leadership. Two of the elders, Eldad and Medad, are not present with the others on Mount Sinai and begin prophesying in the camp. Moses’ aid, Joshua, wants Moses to silence them. Moses wants all God’s people to possess the Spirit.

Psalmody: Psalm 19:7-14
“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.”
– The psalm sings of God’s wondrous ordering of the world, beginning with the majesty of creation, and then the gift of God’s law.

Second Reading: James 5:13-20
“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them.”
– The author urges the Christian community to mutual care and absolution.

Gospel: Mark 9:38-50
“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” – The disciples show their failure to understand the reign of God present in Jesus and he summons them to the radical commitment that the reign of God requires: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Statue_tripping.jpg By Bianca Bueno (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The scalpel of God

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“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Mark 9:37)

This is the message from last Sunday, September 23, 2018, on which the congregation celebrated the 40th anniversary of my ordination. The sermon is related to that anniversary, but rooted in the assigned readings: Mark 9:30-37, Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, and James 3:13-4:8a,

Mark 9:30-37: They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

You see, O God,
the struggle of the human heart for privilege and honor
and set before us the betrayed and crucified body of your Son.
May he who was servant of all teach us his way;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

It’s hard to believe I have been doing this for 40 years. It’s stunning to wake up one morning and realize how long it’s been. On the other hand, it’s amazing to think back to all the people and places I’ve known. I have lots of memories – though not as many as I wish. I regret not having kept a journal of my experiences through the years.

A friend wrote me last week about a dramatic graveside service in the rain. It was Wisconsin, so I’m assuming there had been a thunderstorm. I wrote back about a graveside service on a cold November day in Toledo, grey skies, the trees stripped of their leaves, in a little old country cemetery now surrounded on three sides by an oil refinery. I stood at the head of a casket before a small huddle of people, amid the pungent aromas of the refinery and the sounds of its clangs and whistles and whooshes, reading the ancient texts and speaking the promise of a new creation. I wish I knew who that was.

I wish I remembered the name of the person whose funeral I conducted one Good Friday. I had buried his wife four days earlier. He went home after the service, climbed up in his closet and got down an old pistol. Now their adult children were before me once again.

In those days when the heavens seem silent, it falls to the preacher to speak, to break that wall of silence, to let the voice of God be heard in its fearful sweetness.

I never understood the wife of a colleague of mine who was a minister in the United Church of Christ. For her, the sermon was only one member of the community sharing their thoughts for the rest of the community – thoughts the community could take or leave as they saw fit. I don’t know if that’s true of her whole church body; I just know she didn’t share this deep conviction that somewhere in the weeds of the preacher’s words would be hiding the voice of the eternal with all its power to wound and heal.

When I was interviewed here, downstairs in the Fireside Room, I was asked to lead a devotion at the beginning of the meeting. I don’t remember if the call committee had forgotten to tell me they wanted me to do this, or if it was part of the test to see what I might do at the last moment. I turned to the passage in Hebrews (4:12) about the Word of God being sharper than any two-edged sword and talked about the fact that the word ‘sword’ there was the word for the small dagger possessed by a soldier, not the big sword. That dagger was used for fine cutting. It’s more of a knife than a sword, and I suggested we should understand the Word of God as a scalpel with which God does surgery on our hearts.

We are in need of surgery. The Bible is not a book of doctrines and policies; it gives very few absolute answers beyond loving God and neighbor with all your heart and soul and mind. But what the Bible does do is convey to us these stories, events, poems and preaching that have the power, like a scalpel, to set us free from the fears and sins that bind us and shape us into the creatures we were meant to be.

Let us imagine for a moment that Kavanaugh did this thing of which he is accused. And let’s clear away for a moment all the partisan politics and ideologies that are clamoring for power. Let us just imagine that a person is suddenly confronted with a fact from the past saying, “You did this to me, and this is what it cost me.”

It is a fearful thought. Maybe it was forgotten in a haze of alcohol, maybe it was a memory suppressed, maybe it was one of those things you never thought anything about because it was ordinary in the world in which you lived, I don’t know. But suddenly here is this word with its long bony finger pointed at you. This is the story of David and the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 11:1-12:23). David is swept away by the beauty of Uriah’s wife bathing in the moonlight. He sends for her. She gets pregnant. He brings Uriah home from the front hoping to cover his crime. Uriah is too honorable to enjoy the comforts of his home and bed while his men are in the field. David gives secret orders to put Uriah in the front lines and pull away. He is killed. The King’s crime is covered and forgotten. But then comes Nathan with a story of a poor man and his single beloved lamb. The lamb lies in the poor man’s lap like one of our comfort animals. The rich man with many flocks has a visitor arrive and takes the poor man’s lamb to serve his guest for dinner. David is incensed. “The man deserves to die,” he shouts. And then Nathan points his long bony finger and says: “You are the man.”

The word of God is a scalpel. But it points at David not to condemn and destroy, but to free and heal him.

So here we are with this story about Kavanaugh. The response we see around us is to destroy him or to destroy her, and in that instinctive reaction it is not Kavanaugh’s sins that are on display nor his accusers; it is our sins. We are not looking for healing; we are looking for triumph. One way or the other, one side or the other, we want to win. We want to crush our enemies. And we are willing to order Kavanaugh or Ford to the front lines and pull back.

So there is a story about the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 6:8-23). The king of Aram (what is now Syria) is at war with Israel. But God keeps telling the prophet what the king of Aram is doing, where he is moving his troops, where he is planning to attack, and the King of Israel keeps escaping his grasp. The King of Aram is enraged, convinced that one of his generals is betraying him by leaking his plans to the enemy. They all plead innocence. None of them is the betrayer; it is the prophet who whispers to the King of Israel the King of Aram’s private thoughts. So the King of Aram sends his army to seize the prophet. They come at night and surround the city.

In the morning, the prophet’s servant looks out and sees the town surrounded by an army of horses and chariots and cries out in fear. His story is about to end at the point of a spear. But the prophet prays for God to open his servant’s eyes, and he looks up to see the angelic armies of God encircling the city. “Those who are with us,” says the prophet, “are more than those who are with them.”

God strikes the enemy troops with a blindness, a confusion, a fog. As they come into town, the prophet says “Oh you have the wrong town. I’ll show you the way.” And he leads them to the King of Israel. The prophet prays for God to open their eyes and they find themselves surrounded in the capital city. And here is the punch line: The king asks the prophet what he’s supposed to do with the enemy now in his hand. “Shall I kill them, my father? Shall I kill them?” All his enemy’s soldiers are in his power. He has the chance to destroy them completely. But the prophet says instead that he should feed them. The king sets before them a banquet. They sit down to a table of peace. They are reconciled.

We want to win. We want to crush our enemies. “Shall I kill them, my father?” But the scalpel of God tells a story about reconciliation, repentance, transformation, love of God and neighbor.

I have a deep sympathy for Ford; I know something about sexual assault. I also have a deep sympathy for Kavanaugh; I know something about having your life turned upside down in a moment – and I know something about the sins of our youth. Perhaps mostly, I have a deep sorrow for the nation, because we are so far from the kingdom and rushing in the wrong direction. We are a people who do not know how to repent, and the sins of our past – from greed and slavery and genocide to our everlasting faith in winning at all costs – keep haunting us. Our good deeds can’t make the old deeds go away. David was faithful in almost everything. Yet this murder of Uriah needed to be confessed or it would all go wrong.

So there’s another story (1 Kings 21). King Ahab married the daughter of the Sidonian king (1 Kings 16:31). Her name was Jezebel. We don’t name our kids Jezebel anymore.

Ahab grows up in a world where God is God. God has given the land to the people, divided it among every tribe and family. The land is not my possession; it is a gift of God to my family. It is my responsibility to care for it; it is not my privilege to dispose of it. The law says I can’t sell it. If I have to, I can sell the right to use the land until the next sabbatical year. I can sell the next so many harvests, but I can’t sell it permanently.

Ahab is king. He has a palace. He wants the vineyard that belongs to Naboth in order to grow vegetables. Naboth is scandalized by the idea that he should sell his patrimony. He says no. Ahab is depressed and goes to bed. Jezebel is disgusted. She will teach him how a king uses power. She gives a banquet. She invites Naboth to sit at the high table. She hires two scoundrels to sit next to him. In the middle of the dinner they stand up and accuse Naboth of cursing God and the King. They take him out and stone him to death. Jezebel goes to Ahab and says, “Go get your garden.”

Except God has a prophet. God has a servant with God’s heavenly scalpel. And the prophet is standing there in the garden when Ahab shows up to claim it. This is not the kingship God wants, says the prophet, Ahab’s kingdom will fall by the same violence Ahab used.

And so the scalpel of God comes to us. Will we choose violence or faithfulness? Will we choose victory or redemption? Will we choose wealth, power and conquest or justice, mercy and reconciliation?

Story after story, preached word after preached word, songs and poems and history and even erotic poetry – it’s all here in this book – and lurking in it all is this God with a scalpel who would heal our hearts.

So, in the texts we heard today: Jeremiah is a prophet. He holds the scalpel of God. And the word of judgment he speaks against a corrupt regime creates enemies. The king doesn’t want to hear what Jeremiah has to say. Jeremiah will send the king a copy of everything God had said, and the king will burn it all, page by page, in the brazier standing next to him to keep him warm. (Jeremiah 36)

Jeremiah is a priest. His hometown is a village of priests. They all have a stake in the temple and the monarchy. They have a good life. They don’t want Jeremiah mucking it up for them. They see treason in him, not the divine scalpel. They plot to kill him. And so we hear Jeremiah crying out to God in the words we read this morning: “I was like a lamb led to the slaughter.” And we know there is in us a piece of this village of Anathoth that wants to hold on to what we have even if it means silencing the prophet. Even as Jerusalem rose up against Jesus.

The book of James wields the divine scalpel against the passions that drive our hearts and lead us to betray the divine will. Submit yourselves therefore to God,” he writes, “resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. The disciples are thinking: “Our time is coming! We are going to win. We are going to rule.” And they argue over which of them is the top dog.

“What were you talking about?” asks Jesus. He knows full well what they were talking about. Arguments in the Middle East are never quiet.

“What were you talking about?” And suddenly they are silent. Jesus is holding the divine scalpel in his hand. It’s not a sword, though; it’s just a scalpel. It is always just a scalpel, meant to heal and not to harm. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And Jesus puts a child in their midst.

Now we have to get this right. In our society, if you don’t have enough food, you feed the children first. In the time of Jesus, you feed the adults first. Children are loved, but they are at the bottom of the totem pole. They are valued. They are blessings from God. Hopefully they will become adults and take care of their aging parents. But the odds are they won’t make it to adulthood. The death toll is too high. The calories have to go to those who can work the fields.

If we really want to understand what Jesus is saying to his followers, we need to imagine Jesus taking a refugee, or a homeless person, or an addict, whomever we think matters least, and setting him or her in the midst of us, putting his arms around him or her and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

It is the scalpel of God.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Syriske_flyktninger_(8184618433).jpg By Norsk Folkehjelp Norwegian People’s Aid from Norway (Syriske flyktninger) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons