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

The river of life

File:Río Dynjandisá, Vestfirðir, Islandia, 2014-08-14, DD 118-120 HDR.JPG

Watching for the Morning of August 21, 2016

Year C

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 16 / Lectionary 21

How arid has faith become when you resent a person being healed on the Sabbath? How barren when we are so committed to the form of religion that we have lost its life breath?

And do not think this is a problem of those archenemies, the Pharisees. It is the problem of every religious tradition.

We have all been in that place where we resent the attention someone is getting, when we can feel the ground of our position, authority or respect weakened. Our innate tendency in such moments is to see the other’s faults – and point them out. We diminish the other in whatever way is available to us. We mark their errors. We minimize their accomplishments. We sneer and snicker, gripe and complain. We murmur. On a human level, we understand the Pharisees.

But however understandable it may be, humanly speaking, it is dark and haunted spiritually. Before us stands the anointed of God dispensing the gifts of that ultimate Sabbath rest when all heaven and earth are united in peace, when God’s spirit of grace and life governs every heart, and all that has gone wrong since Eden has been left behind with the grave clothes in the tomb.

Before us stands a foretaste of the final Sabbath – and in our resentment we see instead some upstart, untrained, Nazarene who should be working the construction site not presuming to speak for God. We don’t see healing; we see work that could have waited a day. We don’t see deliverance; we see doctoring. We don’t see salvation manifesting itself in our midst; we see the mundane. We miss the wondrous and dwell in the ordinary. Without realizing it, we have abandoned the rich green land of promise for the dry grass of a spiritual desert.

This Sunday, through the prophet, the poet, the author of Hebrews and by the voice of Jesus, God calls us to renewal: to reenter the promised land, to drink again from the river of the water of life, to feast on the bread of heaven and sing anew: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.”

The Prayer for August 21, 2016

God of healing,
bring your reign of light and life
to all who are broken or bound,
touching us with foretaste of that feast where all are fed,
every wound healed
and every tear wiped away.

The Texts for August 21, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 58:9b-14
“If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” – In the difficult years after the return from exile in Babylon, when Jerusalem still lay in ruins and faith had grown lackluster before the trials of daily existence, the prophet calls the people to renewed faithfulness.

Psalmody: Psalm 103:1-8
“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.” – A hymn of praise, celebrating God’s abundant mercies.

Second Reading: Hebrews 12:18-29
“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.”
– Having concluded his great recital of those who put their trust in the promise of God, the author contrasts the threats and fear experienced with the giving of the Law at Sinai with the promise and grace of life in Christ – urging us not to miss such a gift.

Gospel: Luke 13:10-17
“Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.” – Jesus frees a bound woman on the Sabbath, incurring the hostility of the religious leaders. But Jesus was not “doctoring” on the Sabbath; he was bringing the Sabbath rest of God.

 

Reflection adapted from 2013. Follow this link for other reflections on the texts for this Sunday.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AR%C3%ADo_Dynjandis%C3%A1%2C_Vestfir%C3%B0ir%2C_Islandia%2C_2014-08-14%2C_DD_118-120_HDR.JPG by Diego Delso [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Changing direction

Watching for Ash Wednesday, February 10, 2016

File:Spoilt for Choice^ - geograph.org.uk - 640101.jpgAsh Wednesday takes us into territory that we, as Americans, don’t travel much. It is a season of repentance. We have a hard time acknowledging our sins, much less feeling bad about it. Nor do we like to think about our mortality and the frailty of life. But there is no wisdom without these.

Our instinctive national answer to the tragedy in the Middle East is to blame and send more troops, not to ask how we ended up here and whether there is another path we should take. We do not like to consider whether there are stains on our hands.

There is something to be said for the forward view of American culture. We are a people who do not feel bound by the past. Its blessing is our inventiveness. Its curse is that we do not learn well from the past.

We do not have time for navel-gazing; there are things to do. We do not believe in abstinence; the economy depends upon impulse purchases. Even Santa, after all, we now know, ditches his sleigh for the much more pleasurable experiences of delivering present in his bright red Mercedes.

Ash Wednesday tells us to be still. To remember we are mortal. To consider the realm of the spirit. To let go of some generally simple pleasures (that we imagine we cannot live without) and turn our attention to those who are in need of life’s most basic necessities like food and shelter. Or friendship. Or kindness. Or a listening ear.

So Wednesday we will hear the traditional texts from Joel calling us to return to the LORD, and the David’s psalm crying out to God after being confronted with the abuse of his royal power to take Bathsheba and rob Uriah of his life. We will hear Paul urge us to be reconciled with God. And we will hear Jesus talk about the difference between acts of public piety and a life that embodies the mercy of God.

Forty days is much to long to feel sad about our sins. But both the Greek and Hebrew words translated as repentance mean changing our direction, not feeling guilty.

We need occasionally to stop, and look, and turn away from the well-worn path into that other path that is true life.

We call it Lent.

It takes us to Easter.

The Prayer for Ash Wednesday

Almighty God, Holy and Immortal,
who knows the secrets of every heart
and brings all things to the light of your grace.
Root us ever in your promised mercy
that, freed from every sin and shame,
we may walk the paths of your truth and love.

The Texts for Ash Wednesday

First Reading: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.” – Facing a terrible plague of locusts, the prophet calls for the people to turn to God, marking themselves with dust and ashes and rent hearts that God may see their desperate plight and come to their aid.

Psalmody: Psalm 103:8-14
“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.” – In our parish, we use the appointed Psalm 51 (the famous cry of repentance by David after he has been confronted by the prophet Nathan over the murder of Uriah and the taking of Bathsheba ) in the confession at the beginning of our liturgy. When we come to the time for the psalm we hear the poet speak of the tender love and faithfulness of God who has “removed our sins from us” “as far as the east is from the west.”

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:1 (Appointed: 5:20b-6:10)
“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
– Paul calls his troubled congregation to live within the reconciling work of God in Christ.

Gospel Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” – Jesus declares at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount that, in order to enter into God’s dawning reign, our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Now, having spoken about the meaning of the commandments (in contrast to the way they are taught by the scribes) Jesus turns to the acts of piety for which the Pharisees were known. Our prayer, fasting and charity must be done not for public acclaim but to please God.

 

Image: John Bennett [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

What comes from within

Watching for the Morning of August 30, 2015

Year B

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 17 / Lectionary 22

File:Yemenite boy washing hands, December 5, 1949.jpgThe voice of Moses in the reading from Deuteronomy on Sunday will call us to “give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe.” But Deuteronomy calls us to more than an outward observance; it calls us into the spirit of God’s instructions and commands. It celebrates the wisdom and justice of God’s law. And it understands that the life of the community depends on observing this law, of living within God’s will for justice and mercy.

The psalmist joins that song, describing those who are welcome in God’s holy house not in terms of ritual purity, but in language of fidelity to neighbor: those who speak truth, do justice, and show mercy to the poor.

James, too, sings of the life lived in accordance with God’s word: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

It is so easy for religion to slide into a narrow legalism, by which we are able to imagine ourselves faithful without ever actually living by the Spirit of God: the spirit of compassion, generosity, kindness, justice, truth, courage. Jesus is attacked because some of his followers haven’t observed the ritual washing of hands before eating. This is not a real hand washing related to concerns about germs, but a ritual pouring of water over the hands with an accompanying prayer. It is like someone eating without saying grace. Is the ritual blessing of a meal a measure of the true Christian or are we summoned to live within the spirit of thanksgiving that receives all things as gift from God? Outward forms have their importance in teaching and sustaining the inner life – but the point is the inner life. And by inner life it is important that we recognize we are speaking not only of the individual, but of the spirit that abides in the community. One generous person is good. A community of generosity is the intent of God.

The question what is truly means to be “clean” – to be acceptable before God, to be worthy to enter God’s presence – is deeply important. And Jesus will not let us narrow the definition to ritual practice. He insists that we recognize the will of God for a community that honors God in all things – from the food we eat to the food we share from hearts that are at least seeking to be loving and true.

The Prayer August 30, 2015

Father of lights,
with whom there is no variation or shadow of change:
be our lamp in the darkness
and our eternal rock,
that we may worship you rightly
with lives of compassion and truth;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 30, 2015

First Reading: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
“What other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” – Deuteronomy is presented as a sermon of Moses to the people of Israel at the end of the forty years in the wilderness in which the community is urged to observe God’s wise and just laws.

Psalmody: Psalm 15
“O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?”
– The poet asks who is worthy to enter the holy precinct of the temple – and answers it not in terms of ritual purity, but the just and faithful treatment of others.

Second Reading: James 1:17-27
“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
– The author reminds the community that God calls for our inner and outward lives to be aligned and in harmony with the message we have hear from God.

Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
“There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” – The religious leaders challenge Jesus because some of his followers didn’t observe the ritual washing before eating. It prompts his teaching on purity – not as on outward observance, but the words and deeds that flow from the heart.

 

Image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Yemenite_boy_washing_hands,_December_5,_1949.jpg

The LORD watches over the way of the righteous

Wednesday

Psalm 1

File:RISD Rodin Hand of God.JPG

August Rodin, The Hand of God

6The LORD watches over the way of the righteous.

I believe this, though my daughter was righteous in the rich Biblical sense of that word – faithful to God and to others – just, honest, true, compassionate, generous, kind – yet when she was 19 her car was struck by a driver who had been drinking and she was killed. Two others in the car with her were also killed, and two terribly injured in body and spirit.

I think about this because today is her birthday.

The LORD watches over the way of the righteous.

I do believe this. And it is not just the desperate clutching at faith in the presence of despair.  It is not born of denial but trust. God watches over the way of the righteous. I do not think this means that God guarantees anything. It is certainly not a guarantee of a happy and prosperous American-style life. It is a promise that God watches. God sees. God knows. God guides. God protects – not absolutely, but protects from those truly fearful things: a life made shallow by possessions, pride, privilege. A life made ugly by bitterness or hate. A life where hope, or compassion or joy has been crushed.

As a parent who wishes to hear his daughter’s laugh again, I certainly wish God protected from every stubbed toe. But I know that such a protection ultimately corrupts. As hard as it is, you have to let your children struggle and suffer sometimes, for spiritual poverty is a much more terrible disaster.

Could I have endured it if Anna became vain and selfish? Could I have born the burden if she had grown thoughtless or cruel? No, God watched over her.

The LORD watches over the way of the righteous.

I still pray for protection when I drive. I ask to be guarded against all manner of ordinary ills. I want safety and surety for my surviving daughter, myself and all my extended family. But I understand that beneath my prayer for safety is a much more important petition: that God will guard our spirits. And in such protection I believe and trust.

 

Photo by Ad Meskens. [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RISD_Rodin_Hand_of_God.JPG