My Father is still working

File:Cornus florida 02 by Line1.jpgA reflection on John 5:1-9 and Revelation 21:9-10, 22-22:5 (the texts for Easter 6 C) on the occasion of my grandson’s first Sunday in worship and the first step towards his baptism.

There are a couple things I need to say about our texts before I share with you what I have written for this morning.  This passage from John is an amazing narrative.  The man has suffered for 38 years.  When asked whether he wishes to be made whole, he answers by saying he has no one to help him into the water.  The legend held that an angel would occasionally descend and stir the water and the first person into the pool would be healed.  But this man has no one.  His answer expresses brokenness and despair.  He has no hope of healing.  He has no community, no family, no friends, no one to care for him – until Jesus finds him.  And Jesus does find him. 

The leadership of the nation responds to this wondrous healing by criticizing the man for carrying his mat on the Sabbath.  We didn’t read this part.  We should have, but that would have required us to read the whole chapter.  But it is important to note this because religious people are often this way.  We respond to God’s wondrous work with nitpicking and legalism.  He’s not supposed to work on the Sabbath and carrying your mat is defined as work.

The conflict over the Sabbath is the central element of this narrative.  When Jesus, himself, is criticized for working on the Sabbath, he answers by saying, among other things, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.”  The leadership of the nation imagined God’s work of creating was over.  God had created for six days and now God was ‘resting’.  But Jesus declares that God is still at work.  God is still creating — and God’s work is a work of healing.  God is working to make us whole.  God is working to make the world whole.

Sometimes it needs to be said that God is still at work.

Our second reading was the vision of the New Jerusalem given to John of Patmos.  It is a vision of the world made healed and restored.  At the time John writes, the earthly city has been destroyed by rebellion and war.  Rome has crushed it.  But at the consummation of human history, in that day when all human rebellion is overcome and all things are made new, in that day the heavenly counterpart of the earthly city descends to earth.  And though we don’t get the measurements of the city in our portion of the reading, the city is a giant cube some 1,200 to 1,500 miles across and high. The reason it measures as a perfect cube is that the holy of holies inside the temple, where God was present, was a perfect cube.  The world is now the holy of holies where God dwells.  The consummation of human history is God coming to dwell with us.

Sometimes it needs to be said that God is still at work – and that God’s purpose is to dwell in our midst.

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As you know, my daughter and her husband are here this morning and we are doing a rite of blessing in anticipation of a baptism that will happen later where they live.

There are things I want to tell Finn, but he is not ready to hear them.  I want to tell him about the beauty and grandeur of the world around us.  I want to tell him about the Grand Canyon and the waterfalls at Yosemite in springtime.  I want to take him to the Monterey Aquarium and talk about the mysteries of the deep.  I want him to gaze into the wonder of those tiny flowers in the grass outside and the supple lines and color of a rose.  I want him to watch with wonder the flight of a swallow and the migration of the monarchs and to hear crickets in the evening.  I want him to see how seed turns to sapling turns to towering tree.  I want him to walk among redwoods and see dogwoods in the spring. 

I want him to know the beauty of the world.  I want him to know its goodness before he learns its sorrows.  I want him to play in a soft summer rain before he feels the power of a storm.  I want him to see the wonder of a bird’s nest before he learns that other animals would prey on the babies.  I want him to delight in bunnies in the yard before he worries about hawks overhead.  I want him to know human kindness before he learns of human cruelty.

I want to tell Finn this story we have received of a world conceived in love, of a creation called into being by a divine Word and that God saw and declared all things good and noble and beautiful.  I want to tell him this story that he is made of the dust of the earth and the breath of God.  I want him to know that he was made to live in God’s presence and tend God’s garden – that he was made to live in harmony with all things.

I want Finn to know the goodness before he learns what happened in that garden, how humanity broke faith with God and broke the ties that bind all things together. 

I want Finn to know the beauty of the earth before he tastes its tears.  I want him to know the goodness of family before he learns about Cain and Abel and the bitter envy that tears the human family apart.

And I want Finn to hear the voice of God speaking to Cain, telling him that we can choose kindness and faithfulness.  I want him to know we can choose to listen to the breath of God rather than the murmurings of bitterness and revenge.

There are so many things I want to tell Finn.  I want to tell him of Abraham’s courage in trusting God’s promise, of Isaac’s love for Rebekah, of Jacob the cheat burning all his bridges and wrestling with God at the river Jabbok.  I want to tell him of Joseph who forgave his brothers and Moses who stood before the burning bush.  I want to tell him about Pharaoh’s hardness of heart and God’s determination to bring freedom to both the oppressors and the oppressed.  I want to tell him about Sinai and the wilderness and the radical notion that God is a god who travels with us, that God is not a god of rock and stream but a God of love and mercy.  

I want to tell him of the prophets.  I want to tell him of the psalms of joy and the cries of lament.  I want to tell him of the faithfulness of Ruth and the courage of Esther.  I want to tell him about the gifts and call of God.  And I want to tell him about the child of Nazareth, the song of the angels and the message given to shepherds.  I want to tell him about the boy Jesus in the temple and the grown man at the Jordan.  I want to tell him about the words he spoke and the things he did.  I want to tell him about Zacchaeus in the tree and the woman at the well and the banquet in the wilderness that fed five thousand families with twelve baskets left over.

I want to tell him about the empty tomb and the gift of the spirit and the dawn of God’s new creation in the world and in us.  

I want him to know about the women at the tomb and Mary, the first witness.  I want him to know about the boldness of Philip baptizing the Ethiopian Eunuch and Peter trusting the voice of heaven and baptizing a Roman centurion and family.  I want Finn to know of Lydia and the Philippian jailor bending to wash feet.  I want Finn to know the healing of the world is at hand.

I want to tell Finn about the courage and faithfulness of Perpetua and her companion, Felicity, who were martyred in the arena, and how she guided the executioner’s hand when he faltered.  I want to tell him about Francis of Assisi and Katy Luther and how Bach wrote “Soli Deo Gloria” – wholly to the Glory of God – on all his music.  I want to tell him of all the courageous men and women of faith and this wondrous mystery of the church gathered from every nation on earth to bear witness to the grace and mercy of God.

And I want to tell him about the promise of his baptism and the promise of the table.

I want to know that there is mercy in our sorrows and strength in our challenges and hope, always hope, for the grave is empty and the arms of God are open to us and to all.

I want Finn to know all this.  Even more, I want his parents to tell him these stories.  And I want all of us to tell him these stories.  I want the community of God’s people to uphold him in his journey and to uphold one another as we try to live Christ for the world.  I want us to sing and to pray and to labor side by side in hope and faithfulness, 

I want Finn to hear with us and understand with us this story of Christ and the man at the pool of Beth-zatha.  I want him to know Christ as healer and to know that this is the work of God.  I want him to know the power and promise of Jesus’ statement: “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” 

And I want Finn to hear and understand with all of us the power of this vision of the New Jerusalem, a city without fear, a city whose gates never close, a realm that gathers all that is good and noble of every culture and people, a city shaped like the most holy place – a world that has become the dwelling place of God.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cornus_florida_02_by_Line1.jpg Liné1 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D

Violence

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Last Sunday took us to the fourth in our Sunday preaching series on the sweep of the Biblical narrative and how it points to the truth of sacrificial love embodied in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The God who called a good and beautiful world into being by his word (week 1: Creation), who breathed into the first humans his breath/spirit and set them in a garden (week 2: Garden), endured their broken relationship and continued to protect and care for them (week 3: Fall). Now God speaks with Cain about the murderous jealousies of the human heart, urging humanity to choose reconciliation over revenge.

Below are the pictures and text from the booklet we handed out following worship last Sunday. This coming Sunday, Pentecost, takes us to the Holy Spirit that is our first breath and ultimate life.

Image: William Adolphe Bouguereau, The First Mourning, 1888
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bouguereau-The_First_Mourning-1888.jpg  William-Adolphe Bouguereau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Genesis 4


Now Abel was a keeper of sheep,
and Cain a tiller of the ground.


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File:Wechselburg Lettner detail 04.jpg

One of the oldest divisions in human society is between ranchers and farmers, those who tend flocks and those who till the ground. The mere mention of this brings a haunting note to the opening of the narrative.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wechselburg_Lettner_detail_04.jpg https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wechselburg_Lettner_detail_05.jpg Photo by: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


The LORD had regard for Abel and his offering,
but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.


Each offers the first fruits of their labor to God. The story says nothing about the qualities of the two brothers. There is no discerning of the heart, no judging of moral worthiness. God picked the aroma of the roasting lamb over the roasting grain. God smiled on Abel’s gift, but on Cain’s gift he did not smile. It does not say that the gift was defective. It does not say that the gift was rejected. It only says that God favored Abel’s gift.

We get ensnared in the symbolism of things. That God liked Abel’s offering more than Cain’s becomes in our minds –and apparently in Cain’s mind – that God liked Abel more than Cain. Children think they can read this in the faces of their parents. It’s a pretty universal sentiment that the parents favored one over the others. It often leads to petty vindictiveness, sabotage, striving for attention. But we have no reason to say that God loved Abel more. Maybe Abel taunted his brother. Maybe he claimed that God liked him more. The text tells us none of this because the emphasis is not on Cain or Abel but on God’s choice and how Cain will respond.

All the conversation in this story occurs between God and Cain. This is a story about these two, God and Cain, not Cain and Abel. It is not a story about a good man and an evil one; it is a story about choices, and sin, and redemption.


“Why are you angry,
and why has your countenance fallen?

If you do well, will you not be accepted?”


There are so many resentments born out of the randomness of life’s favors. “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise,” observes the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, “time and chance happen to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). There are inequalities to life. Injustices. Randomness. One prospers another fails. One is born to privilege another to poverty. And what shall we do with life’s vicissitudes. Resentment, bitterness, revenge is one choice. It is not the only choice.

If you do well, will you not be accepted? If you do what is right. If you do goodness. God’s favor roots in the choices we make not the sacrifices we offer, not the liturgies we sing, not the customs we follow. If you do right towards your neighbor, if you show justice and faithfulness, if you care for the sick and comfort the afflicted, will you not be honored?


“Sin is lurking at the door;
its desire is for you, but you must master it.”


File:Serengeti Loewin2.jpg

The death of Abel is not inevitable. Neither are any of the other woes we inflict upon one another. The angry word. The hateful speech. The stolen chances. The cheats and deceits. The crimes of passion and despair. The decisions of war. They are choices. The dragon crouches like a tiger waiting to pounce. But we must master it.

A Lioness (Panthera leo) in Serengeti
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Serengeti_Loewin2.jpg By Ikiwaner (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Cain said to his brother Abel,
“Let us go out to the field.”


The field is Cain’s space. He is a man of the soil. He knows dirt. He knows what it will hide. What he does not know is that blood soaked ground will turn against him. The words of God are ignored in his anger, resentment, envy. Perhaps it is even God with whom he is angry. God chose his brother. God favored his offering. He cannot bear the presence of the favored one. And now there is violence.

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There is a weight on Cain, a burden, a crushing burden of resentment. Cain is the firstborn. To Cain belongs the privilege. But God has chosen the second born, the unlikely.

God has a troubling habit of choosing without regard for the rules. He chooses the younger Jacob over the elder Esau. He chooses Abraham and promises blessing for no apparent reason. Moses was not the only child cast into the Nile, but he is the boy who lived. God takes up the cause of the foreigner, the outsider. Elijah provides for a widow of Zarephath, not Israel. Jesus invites himself to banquet at the home of Zacchaeus the tax-gatherer. He rescues the woman caught in adultery and treats the shunned Samaritan woman as a woman of his own house. And God has favored Abel’s gift.

Sculpture Abel by Karl-Heinz Appelt; Gera, Germany, 1983
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gera_Abel.jpg By Steffen Löwe (Self-photographed) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Bronze sculpture Cain and Abel , Bernau bei Berlin, sculptor: Michael Klein, 1994
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bernau_KainundAbel3.JPG By Catatine (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.


Then the LORD said to Cain,
“Where is your brother Abel?”


God keeps asking this question, “Where?” He asks our first parents “Where are you?” when they have eaten the fruit and are hiding in the bushes. And now he asks Cain, “Where is your brother?”

These are the two most fundamental questions God asks of the human race: “Where are we?” and “Where is our brother? Where is our sister?” If we cannot speak the truth of ourselves we will not be able to care for others. They will be “others” rather than brothers. They will not be part of us. Women will be trophies and toys not sisters. Children will be seen and not heard. The poor will be “the poor” rather than people whose names and stories we know and whose lives matter. Then it will be “every man for himself,” rather than strength in numbers.

And if we cannot speak the truth concerning our neighbor, we will not know the truth of ourselves. We were made for community, but community is broken.


He said, “I do not know;
am I my brother’s keeper?”


Yes. It is what brother means. You are created to belong. You are bound together. You are made to care and be cared for.


“Listen;
your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”


God’s statement to Cain should be punctuated with a colon not a semi-colon. The cry of his brother’s blood is what Cain is summoned to hear, the consequences of his deed what he must see.   The sufferings of the abandoned, the sorrows of the neglected, the cries of the wounded: Listen!


“When you till the ground,
it will no longer yield to you its strength.”


File:Agropyron repens on field after winter ploughing.JPG

The strength of Cain over his brother has planted blood into the ground. Now the strength of the ground will profit him not. There are no riches to be harvested from this field; the dirt itself resists him. There are no riches to be gained from the destruction of Aleppo. There is no strength to be gained from weapons of mass destruction. There is no life to be gathered from ground that is ravaged or the community plundered.

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


“My punishment is greater than I can bear!”


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“Punishment is not quite the right word. These are consequences, the harvest of violence: alienation, exile, shame, isolation, a lost ground, a lost life.

Caïn venant de tuer son frère Abel, by Henry Vidal in Tuileries Garden in Paris, France
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paris_Tuileries_Garden_Facepalm_statue.jpg    By Alex E. Proimos (http://www.flickr.com/photos/proimos/4199675334/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


“I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”


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The ground was Cain’s life. Now he is cutoff from it. And he is cutoff from the face of God. He is rootless. He is without community. He is vulnerable in a world made dangerous.

Tuareg on the dune of Timerzouga, place named Tadrart in the town of Djanet, wilaya of Ilizi 20km from the Algerian-Libyan border (Cultural Park of Tassili).
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Esprit_nomade.JPG By Hamdanmourad (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


The LORD put a mark on Cain,
so that no one who came upon him would kill him.


It is not a mark of shame; it is a mark of protection. He wears no scarlet M for murder; he wears a reminder that even Cain the killer bears the image of God. God will be his family to protect him. God will be his redeemer to save him. God will be his advocate to avenge him.

So why do we dance at the death of the murderers? Why do we boast of the death of Bin Laden? Ought we not weep that those for whom God weeps have perished so far from God’s presence?

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ashenda_Girl,_Tigray,_Ethiopia_(15363919671).jpg By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia (Ashenda Girl, Tigray, Ethiopia) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons. [cropped]


Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD,
and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.


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East of Eden. Away from the garden of God. Away from the rich and abundant soil, the life-giving rains, the well watered garden. Away from the sacred forest. Away from the tree of life. Away from the community of family. Away from the fellowship of the familiar. Away from the presence of the Lord.

And there he builds a city. Cain builds the first city: a gathering of the scattered, a place not of soil or pasture but iron and fire. A place of creativity and life but also destruction and death, human inventiveness for good and for evil.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Syrian_Desert_(5079180729).jpg By yeowatzup from Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany (Syrian Desert) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Zillah bore Tubal-cain,
who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools.


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In the city tools are made. Smithing. Bronze. Iron. Tools to plow the ground and weapons to wound.

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https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Migrant_worker_of_china.jpg   By 枫彩 (http://cc.nphoto.net/view/2008/11733.shtml) [CC BY 2.5 cn (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/cn/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Bronze Age swords
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Apa_Schwerter.jpg By Dbachmann
M1A2 on the streets of Baghdad.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:J2500x1661-05540.jpg  By Lukethornberry (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.


The world’s first poetry is a celebration of violence, a trumpeting of strength and power, a vaunting of the self even over God, a fearless disregard of God’s command not to kill.


“If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”


File:Fear of Terrorism.jpg

Violence multiplies. Fear and intimidation become part of the social fabric. Overwhelming revenge becomes the rule. “Hit me and I’ll hit you harder.” It’s not yet Mutually Assured Destruction, but that is the path. At least until Jesus dares to answer Peter’s question, “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” by saying “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

File:US Navy 090418-F-7923S-023 A Haitian woman waits her turn for treatment at the Killick medical clinic site during a Continuing Promise community medical service project.jpg

At some point we run out of words for the sorrows that we wreak on one another. The pictures could multiply of the bodies of children neglected in the streets, the triumphant march of military parades, the weeping mothers, the angry fathers, the disconsolate siblings, the shocked neighbors who never had a clue, the bombastic threats of politicians seeking to profit, and the lawyers running to claim a prize.

At some point we run out of words for the sorrows of the world where bones creak and diseases waste and drought devours. At some point we run out of words for the favelas and slums and the distorted bodies of the starving. At some point we run out of words for the raped and abused. At some point we run out of words.

We can understand if God should desire to wipe clean the face of the earth. It is the way the ancient cultures around Israel told the story. But our story tells us of a child: Seth. There is no great saving destiny appointed to Seth. He is just a child. Babbling, cooing, clinging, crying, sweet with the aroma of newness, abounding in curiosity, smiling, laughing, tasting everything with his mouth, studying faces, clinging to fingers, sucking feverishly at the breast, gazing into his mother’s eyes, tender, warm, connection, grasping for language, striving to crawl and then to walk. A child. New life. Image of God. Child of sorrow. Hope of tomorrow.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fear_of_Terrorism.jpg By Dolat khan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US_Navy_090418-F-7923S-023_A_Haitian_woman_waits_her_turn_for_treatment_at_the_Killick_medical_clinic_site_during_a_Continuing_Promise_community_medical_service_project.jpg By U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Benjamin Stratton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Adam knew his wife again,
and she bore a son and named him Seth,

for she said, “God has appointed for me another child.”


God is not done with us. God continues to give life. This is not a replacement for Abel or for Cain. But he is new life. He is grace.


To Seth also a son was born


And then grandchild. Joy. Continuity.


At that time people began to invoke the name of the Lord.


The LORD. The name that will be revealed to Abraham as the one who gives a future. The name that will be revealed to Moses as the one who delivers from bondage. God is not just creator; He is redeemer.

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A reminder about the nature of the Biblical text: There are problems if you read the text literally. How can Abel offer a sacrifice of a lamb when humans have not yet received permission to kill? (This doesn’t happen until after the flood.) Why is Cain afraid of being killed when there are yet no other people? But the narrative is not history; it is commentary on human existence. And it is preaching. It bears to us the voice of God who asks these terrible, haunting questions: “Where is your brother?” Where is your sister? “What have you done?” What have you failed to do?

But this God of the haunting questions is also the God who does not abandon his troubled creation. God is faithful and continues to provide and protect and call us into the life and love for which we were created.

Biblical text: New Revised Standard Version
© Text by David K. Bonde, Los Altos Lutheran Church, 2017

A fountain in my house

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Wednesday

1 Peter 1:3-9

“In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials.”

“Even if.”

There is a joy that transcends the trials of life.

I know this is easy for me to say. I have clean water from a fountain in my house (well, really it’s just a spigot in an apartment, but think about it: I have three rooms, a kitchen sink, two bathroom sinks, a bathtub and a shower). I have a refrigerator (however small) that keeps fresh foods cool and a freezer in which I can even make ice cubes. I have a continuous supply of electricity (less the interruptions from the occasional Pacific storm), and natural gas piped into my apartment to heat it if I get cold. I am, by all the standards of the world, living in luxury. I complain, of course. My neighbors make too much noise. I feel closed in with no garden to enjoy. I cannot keep a pet, use a barbecue, or light a candle. But I have fresh, potable, water and access to a grocery store with unimaginable abundance. So it’s pretty easy to talk about joy that transcends the trials of life. I have not fled violence. I do not occupy a refugee camp. I am not crushed by a collapsing pile of garbage. I do not have to search the garbage for sustenance. I do not watch my children perish from Sarin gas or hunger. I do not have to breathe air so thick you cannot see far beyond you. I am not the object of racial or ethnic hatred. I worship freely. I walk the streets freely. I am among the most privileged.

So who am I to speak of joy in trials?

There are some, of course. I am a human being. There are loved ones I grieve. There are people for whom I fear. There are aches and loneliness and the little cruelties humans inflict upon one another. But these hardly count compared to what others bear.

But I have seen others bear such trials. Deep, deep wounds. Great guilts and sorrows. Great fears and pains. Great tragedies. I have walked with many through the depths. And I seen in these others a joy that transcends their trials.

There is a joy that involves human connection. There is a laughter that still rings. There is a delight in a hug or the presence of a child’s hand in yours. And beyond all this there is a song that sings. A promise that rings. A truth proclaimed. A grave that is empty. A new creation coming. A grace abounding. A love immeasurable. A forgiveness unimaginable.

There is a joy that transcends the trials of life, “an indescribable and glorious joy.”

“Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASwann_Fountain-27527.jpg By Ken Thomas (KenThomas.us (personal website of photographer)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With glad cries of deliverance

File:Esprit nomade.JPG

Saturday

Psalm 32

7 You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

It’s a sweet verse, a memory verse, the kind you might keep in your pocket through the day or find inscribed in a cross-stitch on the wall. It’s the kind of promise added to photos of mountains and sunsets and sent around the Internet or posted on the overhead screen at church. We need such verses. We need the promise. We need the reminder. “You surround me with glad cries of deliverance.”

But the verse doesn’t stand alone in this psalm. The author has just finished describing his distress, declaring that: “Day and night [God’s] hand was heavy upon me.” The poet’s life had become arid and brittle: “my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer”.

Though he now finds himself surrounded by joy, he has seen affliction. He has walked those paths where the life of the Spirit withers. Where some bitterness, anger or sorrow occupies the heart, where some hidden sin or open defiance pushes us away, where misfortune darkens the spirit, or where the ordinary burdens of life suck us dry.

The poet finds the root of his particular spiritual wasteland in himself. He is the one who has closed himself from God. He is the one in whom some unacknowledged defect of character or fault of conduct has robbed him of life’s goodness and joy. But he exults that the God of mercy has brought him back. So he sings and sings rightly that God surrounds him with deliverance.

It is important to keep in mind the whole of this psalm and not just the one verse of triumph. The American adoration of success often makes it seem like the Christian life should be an endless stream of victories, but the journey of life is a complicated one. Things happen. Sometimes terrible things. Sometimes we bring these upon ourselves. Sometimes not, as Job knows so well.

We live entangled in a fallen world, but the poet reminds us not to be swallowed by it. These great and precious promises of deliverance stand side by side with the acknowledgment of arid days. They do not judge us when we fail; they call us toward the light. And they remind us that even the driest days and months and years are yet surrounded by the joyful cries of creation’s first light and the empty tomb.

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

Joy cometh

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For Friday

Psalm 30

5Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.

I don’t know where I was exposed to the American Standard Version of 1901, but as far as I know, that’s the one that seems to match the verse in my memory:

Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy cometh in the morning.

Or maybe what’s in my memory is a compilation of sources. For I would have sworn that the second line was “joy cometh with the morning” – and ‘with’ matches the RSV that was the Bible of my upbringing.

The poetry matters. Without poetry the text gets flat, pale, pedestrian. It gives a nice honest fact, but loses something of its timeless truth, its eternal promise: We were not made for tears; we were made for joy. Tears come; but there is a morning where tears are wiped away.

I have wept many tears that did not surrender to joy with the calendar morning. But Easter…Easter…Easter does far more than fill one day with the scent of lilies and the sound of great hymns. Easter beckons even as I stand at the graveside. Easter beckons as I comfort the broken. Easter beckons as I stand before brutal injustice. Easter beckons as I witness the devastations of war. Easter presents itself before me with the promise of a morning bedecked with joy. A morning when burdens are lifted and night flees. A morning where light and life reign.

So I prefer the poetry. This verse is not a statement of fact; it is a song of promise. A promise in which I stand. A promise the gives birth to joy. Even in the nights of weeping.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASunrise_Bodrum_05459_05465.jpg by Nevit [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The ransomed of the Lord shall return

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Wednesday

Isaiah 51:4-11

The ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

We are grateful for the remarkable recovery from brain surgery of a child in the parish. Every day seems an answer to prayer. But even as we celebrate his recovery, there are parents in the congregation whose children did not recover.

I think of them as we provide each status update. I know the complicated emotions of gratefulness for others even as you grieve your own loss. When my daughter was killed, I knew the land of bitterness was nearby. There’s a story of my brother crawling through the fence on my grandparents’ farm into the pasture where the bull grazed. I can feel my mother’s fear even now as she tells that story. The land of bitterness is like that field. It’s an easy fence to cross but a terrible place to go.

Advent is for those parents whose children didn’t come home. It is for those whose hips are mending in a hospital bed. It is for those whose homes are empty or cold or absent. It is for those who flee their homeland – and those unable to flee. It is for the parents of Alan Kurdi whose body will continue to lie in the surf as long as his image endures in our memory.

Advent is a simple promise: the sorrow of the world shall not endure. The gulf that separates the perfect realm of heaven from the troubled realm of earth will be overcome. God will come to dwell with us. Indeed, God has come to us already in the child of Nazareth, the crucified and living one.

Advent is for the parents whose children didn’t come home, and the parents whose children won’t come home, and the children who have reason to not go home. But it is also for the families that do come home, that have enjoyed in some small measure the goodness God intended for us in families. Yet even the best of families have known the ache of our fallen world. And so all are recipients of the promise that shapes this season: “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

He will swallow death

Thursday

Isaiah 25:6-9

File:A destroyed iraqi main battle tank on the Highway of Death.JPEG6On 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.
7And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.

The choice of that word ‘swallow’, “he will swallow up death forever,” is haunting when laid alongside the promise of a banquet where all people shall come to eat in peace. We will drink well-aged wines. We will eat choice meats. God will eat death. God will devour the devourer.

It has been a very long time in this country since war stole food from the mouths of the innocent. Sherman’s march to the sea is infamous for its intentional policy of destroying food stocks. It was not the Confederate soldiers who would go hungry when Union soldiers burned the fields and stole the livestock. War has always been hard on civilians. There is a reason that social chaos (a blood red horse), famine (a black horse) and pestilence (a pale, jaundiced horse) ride behind the white horse of imperial conquest at the opening of the first of the seven seals in Revelation 6. Refugees, hunger, disease, the suffering of women and children, the aged and infirm, follow in the train of war.

To the people desolated by war and destruction, God speaks a promise: God will prepare a feast – and God will ingest the death.

God will take the sword. God will take the bullet. God will take the crown of thorns and the nails. God will take the spittle and the lance. God will take the grave – and God will devour the devourer.

The bread and wine of Holy Communion is a reminder of this promised banquet. It proclaims to us that God will gather all creation to dine at his table: a world at peace, a world made new, a world rescued, redeemed, healed. Our hearts rescued, redeemed, healed. But that small bit of bread and taste of wine also remind us what Jesus ate.

It is complicated that Eucharistic meal. It is the bread of heaven and the bread of tears. It is joy and fearful sorrow. It is gift and oh so terrible a price. It is our promised future brought to us today – but also that past alive again. We are at the table where feet were washed. We are at the table where promises of fidelity were made only to be broken. And we are at the shore where Jesus has breakfast waiting and reconciles us to himself.

It is complicated, this Eucharistic meal. And it is complicated, this feast of All Saints. There is joy and sorrow. There is the song of heaven and the sound of tears from wounds still raw. There is the vision of the New Jerusalem even as we remember those who died this last year. There is the promise of the resurrection even as the ashes of loved ones sit on the mantel or in little niches at the cemetery. There is a vision of a redeemed human community while we witness the death of refugees abandoned at sea in leaky boats. There is life even as we know death.

But death has been swallowed up. The stone rolled away. The veil lifted. And so we sing. Sometimes through our tears, but still we sing. For we are held in the promise: Death has been swallowed up in victory.

 

Photo: A destroyed iraqi main battle tank on the Highway of Death.  By Master Sgt. Kit Thompson (DF-ST-92-08142) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Answered and unanswered prayer: Two thoughts on Psalm 116

Wednesday

Psalm 116:1-9

File:What will the day bring? (5124379114).jpg1 I love the Lord,
because he has heard my voice
and my supplications.

There are many for whom there is no deliverance. Many whose loved ones perish. Many whose pleas fall to the ground. Many whose days are spent in want. Many whose nights are spent in darkness. This is the problem with answered prayer. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of those whose prayer has not been answered.

It is bittersweet when the friends of the childless become pregnant. It is bittersweet when the unloved see couples kiss. It is bittersweet when the abandoned see others embraced.

Perhaps bittersweet is all we can hope for, trapped as we in a broken world, trapped as we tend to be inside our own selves. “I am glad for you” even as I feel the pang of my own disappointment. Maybe this is why we find it easier to speak our needs in church rather than our thanksgivings; we don’t want anyone to feel badly when the prayers of another are answered.

But isn’t this what the rite of confession means when it says, “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves”? We are prisoners to our selves. I filter your good news through my own bad news, and it robs you of your joy and God of the glory due his name.

Grace happens. Some prayers do get answered. Some are healed. Some are saved. Some are given work and families and joy.

And to whom shall we give credit? Luck? Fortune? Chance? Is God not the author of all grace? Is it right to be silent when such a gift is given? Is it right not to praise the one who is the author of such sweetness?

No, the problem is mine, that I am trapped within myself. I need a deliverer to call me out of myself into the joy of God wherever the world is touched by the life and grace of God.

Psalm 116:1-9

3The snares of death encompassed me;
the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered distress and anguish.
4Then I called on the name of the Lord:
“O Lord, I pray, save my life!”

I don’t know whether this translation carries enough emotional power for the poet’s complaint. ‘Snares’ and ‘pangs’ and ‘Sheol’ make it all seem a little distant, a little abstract, a little theoretical. I wonder if we shouldn’t be talking about the bony hand of death dragging us down. The fearful shadows swallowing all hope. Drowning in despair.

There are moments when you get tired of fighting, when you are ready to surrender, ready to give up and slip beneath the waves. And then comes the fear, the fight, the will to live, the desperate prayer for help, and the hand plunging beneath the water to haul you up again into the air.

The poet’s song is a deep and profound praise. God is not a god who helps those who help themselves; God is the LORD who reaches down to snatch us back from the grave. God is not the patron of the privileged who do not have to wrestle with demons; God is the LORD who joins us in battle. God is light – not so much the radiant peace as the flaming sword to deliver us from the eternal night.

There are people who fight terrible spiritual battles. Some survive. Some do not. But all are saved. And if some did not survive to give God the praise, then we would not know this God who empties the grave, this God who yanks us back from the realm of sorrow into joy, from the realm of shame into grace, from the realm of death into life.

It is because of the testimony of some, like this psalmist, that we can see light upon our path and the joy of surprising grace. It is because of those whose prayers are answered that we know that all such prayers shall ultimately be answered. Healing awaits us.

 

Photocredit: By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia (What will the day bring?  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Shouldering her burden in joy

Friday

Luke 1

File:Ikona na Blagoveštenieto vo Sv. Blagoveštenie Prilepsko.jpg

Icons from the treasury of the Church of the Holy Annunciation in Prilep

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

It is such a sweet verse to those who know the story, shaped by the celebration of Christmas filtered so many Christmas services and pageants, through songs like “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger”, and through storybooks about the cattle in the barn or the little drummer boy.

There are times for Christmas Candy. But we need more than candy to live.

When we strip away the glossy and sentimental layers of the story, we find a different kind of narrative. It is still a narrative that intentionally echoes the literary style of old Biblical stories like the wondrous birth of Samuel, with Hannah’s desperate prayer and the song of joy at her conception (wondrous births are a standard part of God’s repertoire). It is as if Luke wrote his narrative in the language of the King James Bible. But the old language doesn’t eliminate the dramatic content of the story.

Mary is betrothed. A marriage contract has been negotiated – this is normally done by the mothers and confirmed by the fathers – but this is not a plan for a coming event; it is signed and sealed. Money has changed hands. Mary has not yet been taken into Joseph’s house, but to break the marriage contract requires divorce. Such an action would bring shame on the families and likely lead to generations of enmity between the families that were to be united but are now divided.

The reference to the betrothal tells us that Mary is a married woman, yet young – still at the home of her parents and under their careful guard. Encounters between men and women are tightly controlled and supervised, lest the woman’s virginity or reputation be compromised. That Mary finds herself alone with an angel in a private interior of the house is a potentially scandalous encounter. (In Hellenistic culture, the gods frequently sleep with women, and the relations between angels and human women is one of the scandals that leads to the flood at the time of Noah.)

For us to appreciate the emotional impact of the story we may need to imagine Mary confronted on a dark street by a stranger far larger and stronger than she. Only it’s not Mary’s personal safety that is at risk, but the honor of her whole family.

Into this tense moment comes the word of the angel: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

On a dark street, we would be “much perplexed”, too – though ‘perplexed’ is hardly a strong enough translation. The verb is a form of the word used for Pharaoh’s anguish over his nightmares; of Joseph overcome with emotion when he meets up with his brothers; of David weeping for his murdered son Absalom; for the woman pleading with Solomon for the life of her infant when he commands that it be cut in two, giving half to each of the two women claiming it as their own. The author of Lamentations uses the same root word for grief over the brutal destruction of Jerusalem. Mary is not ‘perplexed’ as though faced with the New York Times crossword puzzle; she is shaken, overwhelmed, overturned.

And the message does not ease her fear. For a married woman to become pregnant apart from her husband is social death. And the declaration that her son will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David,” wouldn’t necessarily bring comfort given the likelihood of violence by the ruling powers against any potential claimants to the throne.

But against this shattering encounter with the divine is the costly vision of a world transformed, of high powers thrown down and the poor lifted up, of grasping greed sent away empty and the hungry fed, of justice and mercy replacing power and privilege.

It is always humbling to ponder the cost to Mary of bearing the earth’s redeemer. She submits to the divine purpose despite the personal cost in shame and grief. The promise of God trumps her natural impulse to self-protection. Not that she could have done anything about it. God isn’t asking her permission; he is thrusting her onto the world stage.

But Mary shoulder’s her burden – not in obligation but in joy, trusting the promise that the price of her humiliation will be a far greater good: the redemption of God’s earth.

Toys in a bathtub

Wednesday

Psalm 104

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Pieter Mulier II, Storm at Sea, 17th century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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