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

The one who is wise understands

File:Seeking human kindness.JPG

Watching for the Morning of September 18, 2016

Year C

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 20 / Lectionary 25

Wealth and poverty and the ethics of the kingdom are again in the forefront of the readings this coming Sunday. The prophet Amos excoriates the northern kingdom of Israel whose economic injustices betray a complete denial of the covenant at Sinai. The call to justice and mercy, the command to leave the gleanings for the poor and to maintain just weights, the injunction to observe Sabbath as a day for even the work animals to rest has all been overthrown in the quest for wealth and power that makes Israel indistinguishable from the other kingdoms of the world.

The psalmist provides a startling contrast to the prophet’s word as it sings of God who lifts up the poor and makes them equal to “princes” – the elites of Israelite and Judean society.

And then Jesus tells his story about the corrupt steward that leads to the familiar and fateful declaration: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

In a society that clearly serves wealth, such words makes us restless. We want to tame them – or dismiss them. But they will not be tamed.

They cannot be tamed, not honestly. They speak something at the heart of the faith. The human community is one; what lifts my brother lifts me; what diminished my sister diminishes me. Such ideas underlie the words of 1 Timothy that God wants all people to be saved. God wants all people to be gathered into the redeemed community. God wants all to share in the goodness of God’s creation. God wants all people to know the wholeness of life. Salvation doesn’t mean that even the wretched of the earth should gain access to a heaven after death. It means that the human community should be healed. The outcast gathered in. The sinners reconciled. The hungry welcomed to the wedding feast. It means the forces of chaos should be stilled like the sea, and the human spirit made whole like the man at Gerasa/Gadara. It means, ultimately, that every tear is wiped away and every tomb undone.

Serving wealth sets us against one another. It makes the ephah small and the shekel great, manipulating the market with deceptive weights and measures. It sells even the sweepings of the wheat. But the one who is wise understands that the time is at hand to use wealth to embody the kingdom, to unite rather than divide, to heal rather than steal, to bring the redeemed community to life.

The Prayer for September 18, 2016

Almighty God,
you have shown yourself the defender of the poor
and protector of the weak.
Come to the aid of those in need,
and reveal to all the folly of putting our hope and trust in wealth.
Grant us wisdom in dealing with our possessions
that we may receive from your hand life’s true riches;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 18, 2016

First Reading: Amos 8:4-7
“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land.”
– The prophet Amos is sent to the northern kingdom of Israel to speak God’s word of judgment upon a people who have turned from God’s way and chosen wealth and privilege over the wellbeing of the poor.

Psalmody: Psalm 113
“He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap.” – God is praised for his sovereign rule over all creation and his care for the poor and vulnerable.

Second Reading: 1 Timothy 2:1-7
“There is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.”
– The letters to Timothy are penned by Paul or in his name as parting words of advice to his protégé, Timothy. Here Paul speaks about prayer for the governing authorities and God’s will to gather all people into the new reality that is Christ.

Gospel: Luke 16:1-13
“‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’” – A corrupt manager acts decisively in the face of his dismissal to save himself: a lesson for Jesus’ hearers on how they should handle their wealth/possessions.

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

Shamed

Wednesday

File:Francisco de Zurbarán 006.jpg

Isaiah 53:4-12

9They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

When we remember the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, where the first line is restated by the second line, we see the words ‘grave’ and ‘tomb’ in parallel and that makes sense. But then we see the words ‘wicked’ and ‘rich’ in parallel.

Christians move so quickly in the hearing of this text to Jesus laid in a rich man’s tomb that we seldom pause to recognize that the word ‘rich’ is regarded as a synonym for ‘wicked’.

From the perspective of the oppressed poor, burial among the rich and mighty is a scandal for a prophet. Political candidates work hard to wear plaid shirts and drink beer like one of the guys (or gals). This is odd when you consider that they are applying for the post of representing our country among the leaders of the world. We don’t want our president wearing plaid shirts to have a face to face with Putin or Merkel or Xi Jinping. We want him wearing his fiercest power suit.

But there is a suspicion about the rich and powerful that’s different than those who prosper from hard work and good fortune. People who get rich by clever schemes that leave homeowners underwater are not regarded as much more than thieves. So the president wears plaid shirts.

But this poor prophet is condemned to burial among the rich elite, as if all his words had fallen on deaf ears. The prophets call for justice. They stand with the poor, the victims, the faithful of the land trying to do right by God and their neighbor. They do no not hobnob with the men or women wearing hundred thousand dollar suits or watches or pearls or yachts. They might as well be sitting on the porch with the leader of the Crips.

And then, in our text, ‘violence’ and ‘deceit’ become parallel to ‘rich’ and ‘wicked’. The prophet lies in state among the ‘wicked’ even though he did no violence and told no lies!

Guilt by association. Shamed completely. “We accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.” We regarded his fate as just. We thought God had given him his due. We did not see that he was wounded for our transgressions,” that God made “his life an offering for sin.”

Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” says the Baptist. Behold the lamb whose blood marks the doors of the Israelites to save them from death. Behold the lamb who dies at the hour the Passover lambs were sacrificed.

Behold. See. See truly. See deeply. Recognize the face of God beneath that crown of thorns. Recognize the hands of mercy pierced. Recognize the faithfulness of God who does not strike back, but bears our violence and sin.

Behold the one shamed; it is our shame.

9They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

But the prophet does not stop there, for then God speaks: “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous.” The disgraced one was faithful – and will make us faithful.

So we are summoned no only to see, but to follow. And the faithful one tries once again to help us understand: Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

 

Painting: Agnus Dei, Francisco de Zurbarán [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Magnificat

Thursday

Luke 1

Hungry

Hungry (Photo credit: Torbein)

53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

The song of Mary begins with an exclamation of joy and wonder at the divine favor shown to her, a peasant girl, that she should bear into the world the one who would “reign over the house of Jacob forever,” and of whose kingdom there would be no end. (Luke 1:33)  But then it shifts into a song of salvation, rejoicing that God is turning the wheel of fortune that raises the lowly and casts down the mighty.

We hear the exaltation theme; we tend not to hear that the rich are sent away empty.

It is a song of salvation, not a threat.  Mary lives in a world where most eke out their existence close to the edge of hunger, and the rising of a king who will fill the hungry with good things rather than extract the abundance of their fields and labor is and will always be met with great joy.  These are not notes of vengeance but celebrations of justice, of salvation, of the liberation of life and a righting of the world.

But the words are still there: “He has scattered the proud in their vain conceits.” “He has cast the mighty down from their thrones.”  “He has sent the rich away empty.”

The scriptures are hard on the wealthy.  Yes, there is a kind of prosperity that is a blessing from God – a natural prosperity from the fields and livestock rather than a profit made at the expense of your neighbor.  But the accumulation of wealth and lands in the hands of the few was never God’s intention for Israel – or for the world.  The land was divided among all as they came out of the wilderness.  A family’s land was not to be sold, but only to be leased if they fell into hardship.  The obligation to redeem the field – or to return it in the year of jubilee – was part of the fabric of God’s vision of a just society.  “There will be no poor among you,” says Moses, if the people will follow God’s commands (Deuteronomy 15:4-5)  When Jesus says “the poor you always have with you,” it is more an indictment than a casual observation.  (Matthew 26:6-13)

But human societies tend to veer towards inequality.  As some become powerful and wealthy, they naturally skew the playing field to gain yet more power and wealth.  The prophets attacked this transformation of Israelite society into rich and poor, the privileged elite and a peasant mass.  God sentenced it to destruction.  First the Assyrians and then the Babylonians represented God’s “no” on the injustice/unfaithfulness of Israelite society.  But by the time of Jesus the pattern had repeated itself yet again.  Power and wealth were concentrated in the hands of a few, and the temple and the name of God were used to legitimate their privilege.

Mary sings of the fulfillment of the prophetic hopes, the coming of a just king, the transformation of human society, the lifting of the poor from the dust, the hungry filled with good things.  Salvation means a profound reorientation of the human community.  Jesus calls it the Kingdom of God.

Somewhere, in the light of this social transformation, is a call for the wealthy to live differently.  For those with two coats to share with the one who has none.  For those with food to share with the one who hungers.  For love of God to be matched by love of neighbor.  We hear it from John.  We will hear it also from Jesus.  It’s not revenge; it is the joy of participating in God’s kingdom.  And those who heed the call to enter this new reality will find it the path of life.