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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The un-rending

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Watching for the Morning of February 12, 2017

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

The Law, the Torah, God’s teaching/instructions for our life as a faithful community, stand front and center in our readings this coming Sunday. From Deuteronomy, written as a sermon by Moses to the people as they stand at the edge of the promised land setting forth again the commands and instructions of God, we will hear the challenge that before us stands a choice between life and death. Blessing will follow if we remain faithful to God and walk in God’s ways; curses will follow if we do not.

The appointed verses from Psalm 119 for Sunday is the opening strophe of the majestic acrostic hymn celebrating the gift of God’s Torah from Aleph to Taw, beginning with the affirmation: “Happy are those…who walk in the law of the Lord.”

Paul is writing about the Corinthian congregation as mere babes, still living on milk rather than solid food, bound as they are in the ways of the world around them rather than living the way of God.

And then Jesus takes up the commandments. After his stunning opening in the beatitudes and the declaration that the poor are not only honored in God’s sight but are light for the world, Jesus dramatically transforms the commandments from a safe and secure legal code (don’t kill, don’t commit adultery) to a summons to live the reign of God:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

We will hear the same summons in the commandments about adultery and vows (and then, in Matthews Gospel, about revenge, acts of mercy, prayer and fasting). More is expected of the human race – and of God’s people – than to refrain from killing, though even that has proven itself far beyond our willingness to obey. But the kingdom chooses to rip no tear in the fabric of the human community, to rend no relationship. Jesus is driving towards that stunning command: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

We are in the presence of the dawning of God’s reign, the lifting of every burden, the setting right of the world, the un-rending of the fabric of life. And we are summoned into its bold and daring and imperishable life.

The Prayer for February 12, 2017

Gracious God,
in love you made the world and laid its foundations,
giving your gracious order to the creation.
In love you revealed your law to a people you brought out from bondage,
showing them the path of life.
Renew in us your vision for human life
and make us faithful in our calling to live as children of your kingdom;
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 February 12, 2017

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” – Moses addresses the people as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, urging them to remain faithful to God, for their life in the land depends on following God’s commands.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:1-8
“Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.” – In a magisterial acrostic psalm setting forth the wonder of God’s law/teaching, the poet expresses the wondrous ordering reality God brings to life.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
– Speaking to his divided congregation, Paul says they are yet babes in Christ who must be fed with milk, having failed to learn the basic truth of how they are to live in Christ.

Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… But I say to you…” – Jesus takes up the commandments about murder, adultery and swearing oaths, revealing the depth of their meaning in bringing human life under the governance of God’s Spirit.

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More than much fine gold

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Wednesday

Psalm 19

10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;

The country went crazy last week because the lottery jackpot had grown to over a billion dollars. People stood in line for hours, the news media told us, as they added their voice to the hype. It says something about our culture when the millionaire broadcasters are buying tickets. We believe in money. Despite all our disavowals that “money doesn’t buy happiness,” we have a deep and abiding faith in the power of wealth to bless us.

Sunday we will read together Psalm 19 that speaks of God’s wondrous ordering of the natural world around us – and then testifies to God’s wondrous ordering of what we might call the spiritual and moral universe:

7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.

And then comes the verse above: “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold.”

God’s word, God’s instruction, God’s wisdom and guidance for life, God’s promise and our loyalty to that promise, is worth more than the lottery prize.

And the interesting question as we recite these words on Sunday is whether we will regard them as true or as a pious fiction.

 

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“A second is like it”

Wednesday

Matthew 22

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Hebrew Sefer Torah Scroll, photocredit: Bejinhan

36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

The text says that they were trying to “test him.” It is not a sincere question. His interrogators already know the answer – or, at least, think they do. Their purpose is to show that Jesus is ignorant of the law and the complex arguments that go into weighing all the different commands and prohibitions God has given in the Torah, the covenant law found in Exodus through Deuteronomy. There is a rule that you must corral your neighbor’s ox or donkey if it wanders off – but there is a rule not to work on Sabbath. What if the animal upon which your neighbor’s life depends wanders off on Sabbath? Which command is more important? The task of ranking the 613 commandments is a complicated one. And which lies at the top? Which is most important of all? This is the question the Pharisees set before Jesus. It is a question designed to disgrace him in the eyes of others, to show his ignorance, to show he is not worthy to be followed.

But Jesus gives a prompt and knowledgeable answer. He cites Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the daily recitation of all faithful: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” And then he adds a second that is ‘like it’ from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

A lot hinges on that phrase ‘like it.’ First of all the sentence begins with the disjunctive conjunction ‘but’ or ‘now’ rather than the normal ‘and’. The word of Jesus sounds much different if he says “but a second is like it.” It suggests that there is some surprise in that added element.

What exactly does Jesus mean that it is ‘like it’? Is loving one’s neighbor ‘like’ loving God? Or is loving one’s neighbor ‘like’ the other in that they are of equal weight, both are the chief command?

Is Jesus giving a conventional answer and then adding a challenge: “But a second is equal to it”?

It is a conflict situation, and I think that requires us to hear this second part of his answer as if Jesus were striking back at his opponents. He has not only shown that he knows the scripture – but he is attacking their central weakness. These are a people he will accuse of tithing their garden herbs in a scrupulous attention to the commandments, while neglecting the weightier matters of justice and mercy.

You cannot separate love from God from love from neighbor. The religious people think they love God faithfully, honoring him in their scrupulous observance of the purity laws and temple rituals, but they ignore the hungry and burdened at their doorstep. They are indifferent to the suffering of those losing their land under the burden of imperial rule. And they haven’t even begun to consider the radical idea that all people are their neighbor, that all people must be regarded with the same concern and attachment as members of a common household or clan.

There is a rebuke in Jesus’ answer, a rebuke we should hear carefully.

A life-giving river

Wednesday

Exodus 17

Overflowing river beneath Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite Photo credit: dkbonde

Overflowing river beneath Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite
Photo credit: dkbonde

5The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.”

Do we need to know that the limestone rocks of Mt. Sinai drip with ground water, and striking it could open a porous layer containing water?  The narrative does not describe a small band at Sinai poking the rocks in order to survive.  The narrative announces that by the command of God and the hand of Moses a river flowed from Mt. Sinai (here called Mt. Horeb) down to Rephidim and watered the whole people.

The story has roots in the ancient experience of the people.  They know there is water to be found in the wilderness if you know where to look – just as they know there is that strange stuff manna, secreted by bugs and falling to the ground like frost.  But the story is no longer about a small band surviving in the desert – it is about a great people for whom Sinai becomes a fountain of a river of life.

It is not story grown into legend, it is memory grown into proclamation.  A refugee people found in the word of God a life-sustaining reality.  So the descendants of Jacob, now in exile in Babylon, lost in a new wilderness, can hear the message that the word of God will be their sustaining power.  It will preserve them from perishing.  It will give them life.

Numbers 1:46 gives the number of males 20 and older as precisely 603,550 identifying exactly how many came from each tribe (Exodus 12:37 rounds it off to 600,000).  We do not know what the number means or where it comes from.  We do know what it preaches: God is able to supply all our needs!

No matter how many people are carried away into exile, no matter how many people are scattered among the nations, no matter how many of God’s people find themselves under the lash of slavery, under the sorrow of hunger, in danger of perishing from thirst, God is able to deliver his people.  God is able to provide.

And the life-giving, sustaining, renewing, joyous gift that enlivens us flows from Sinai, flows from the place where God will speak and God’s law be given.  There the instructions for the tabernacle/temple will be laid out.  There the commands to love God and neighbor.  There the teaching on faithfulness.  There the warnings against turning to idols.  This is our river of the water of life.

And then John will tell us that this Word has become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.  And this Jesus will turn water into wine, cleanse the temple, open blind eyes, give bread to the 5,000 and offer the woman at the well living water – water that will overflow abundantly within her in an imperishable life.  True freedom will come, says Jesus, “if you abide in my word.”

The people cry out against God, accusing God of bringing them out into the wilderness to destroy them.  But Moses will take the leaders on to Sinai and release this water that is our joy and our life forever.

An eye for an eye

Wednesday

Matthew 5

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Fossilized shark tooth

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”

Before we hear what Jesus is going to say about revenge, it is important to recognize that the Old Testament doesn’t teach revenge.  It teaches a form of communal justice that was intended to stop the spiral of revenge.  The responsibility for enforcing “an eye for an eye” is taken away from the injured party (and his or her kin group) and given to the community.  They are to act to balance the equation when harm has been inflicted.  In a social context without a police force and jails, revenge is the normal method of policing: you hurt us; we hurt you.  And in a world where the strong get away with injuring the weak (of which there are many stories, not least Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Israelites) Israel was called to a different pattern of justice – one that does not favor the rich or powerful.  Instead of individual retribution, God declares that “Vengeance (holding others accountable) is mine.”  Where justice needed to be enforced, where the scales needed to be set right, God entrusted the exercise of that accountability to the community as a whole.

So before we yield to the common prejudice of a barbaric Old Testament, we should recognize that where effective policing is absent in our own communities, we typically find people taking the law into their own hands and gangs operating on the principle of intimidation and revenge.  However tough some of the Old Testament laws may first appear to us, they are in fact preferable to gang warfare and extortion.  And it is worth noting that even our society, with a more or less effective legal/policing system, still controls behavior with the threat of revenge in the form of a lawsuit – and our lawsuits include punitive damages!  There is no room among ‘moderns’ for an attitude of superiority.

Human beings find ways to hurt back.  By nature, we want to even the score.  Even children on the playground know that cheating leads to cheating, and excessive roughness to ever increasing violence.  Our problem is that our sense of ‘fairness’ always tips slightly towards ourselves.  We all want the last licks, so we take the phrase, “an eye for an eye” out of context and use it to justify our acts of revenge that often start a cycle of escalating conflict.  When Jesus takes up the law of revenge, he returns it to its original core – reconciling the community.  If I refuse to start down the path of revenge, I leave open the possibility of reconciliation.  Jesus is not suggesting that we (as a community) not resist evil, only that we (as individuals) turn back from the path of Cain and Abel and not create enemies.

One human family

Watching for the morning of February 23

Year A

The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

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Sunday we continue with Jesus’ exposition of the Torah, God’s commands and teaching for Israel’s life together.  We hear the rich legacy of Leviticus that calls Israel to be a holy people as God is holy, a proper vessel for God’s presence among them – and for God’s witness to the world.  Again we hear from the magisterial psalm 119 celebrating God’s law, listening to the voice of the psalmist yearn for God to lead him in God’s way.  Paul reminds us that the Christian community is the temple of God, the dwelling of God on earth.  And Jesus extends the command to love your neighbor to all people, even enemies.  Such love is not a sentimental emotion, but a courageous determination to regard all people as members of your own household – and to help them see you in the same way.

The Prayer for February 23, 2014

Gracious God,
you call us to love not just our friends but our enemies,
to show kindness not just to family but to strangers,
to see all people as members of one human family
even as you have look upon us all as your children.
May our hearts be shaped by your heart,
and our spirits by your Spirit,
that we might be truly human
as your Son Jesus was truly human.

The Texts for February 23, 2014

First Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” From this section of Leviticus known as the Holiness Code God calls the people to be a community that reflects the character of God, showing justice and mercy.  Here, Jesus finds the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Psalmody: Psalm 119:33-40
Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.” – As we continue with the Sermon on the Mount, we read again from the magisterial acrostic psalm 119 that celebrates the Torah/law/teaching of God

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
 Paul continues his re-education of his troubled congregation about the fundamental importance of their life as a community.

Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” – Jesus continues his exposition of the commandments, taking up the command in Leviticus to “love your neighbor” and transforming the law of revenge.