From grace into grace

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Saturday

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

3“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

I have laughed at the petulance of the people in the wilderness. It’s a comfortable position of moral superiority – as if I would not have been among the grumblers.

It’s an easy thing for a pastor to do, faced as we are with grumblings in our congregations and people whose eyes sometimes seem to be less concerned with the Promised Land than the fleshpots of Egypt. It’s oh so seductive, as you read the story, to imagine that you occupy the sandals of Moses. But such a hearing of the text, however delicious, is not only presumptuous, but altogether too shallow. It makes caricatures of the people of Israel as well as the members of our congregations.

The people of Israel have seen wondrous deeds, though I suspect the wondrousness has been exaggerated in the retelling. There are hints in the text that the events at the Red Sea (technically, the Sea of Reeds) weren’t like the Cecil B. DeMille drama. In fact, most of the Biblical “miracles” are really pretty ordinary events – but events that were wondrous in their timing. That the wind blew all night to dry up the marshland enabling the Israelites to escape is wondrous in its timing if not spectacular to behold.

So these people have been rescued by what moderns would likely call “good fortune” (a phrase that explains nothing and refers to an ancient deity in the Greco-Roman pantheon) and now they are hungry and thirsty in the wilderness. They are refugees in flight, not a triumphant victory parade. And there, in the barren lands of the Negev, the thought of perishing slowly in the desert makes the suffering of Egypt seem preferable. It is a choice we all often make. The long road to freedom requires a great deal more courage and sacrifice than most of us muster easily. We can put up with a great deal of tyranny for a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs.

I know that the larger sweep of the Biblical narrative is a story about a broken covenant and rebellious people. So from the perspective of the generation assembling the narrative in exile in Babylon with Jerusalem in ruins, the story is about the persistent faithfulness of God in spite of our faithlessness – even as it yet summons us anew to faithfulness.

But as I ponder the story, as I consider all the different layers in the narrative, I begin to see something other than petulance; I see grief. They didn’t ask to die in their beds; they wished that God had slain them in Egypt. This verse is the corporate equivalent of Jeremiah declaring that God should have killed him in the womb or Job lamenting the day of his birth. It is the cry of despair born of grief. It is the parent or lover who wish they could have died in place of their beloved.

Job has lost all his family. Jeremiah is forced to witness the folly of his nation as it plunges towards destruction and the terrible suffering of siege. Israel in the wilderness was not a happy march into freedom. This was a people who had lost a life, however harsh. Yes, they have fled the suffering of their bondage. But they had also fled in fear for Moses had made this people a stench in the nostrils of Pharaoh. They were blamed for Egypt’s troubles. They had become the object of the nation’s hate. There is language in the story that they were driven out of Egypt. However cruel and harsh life in Egypt had been, they had lives and homes there. Now it is gone and they are in a cruel desert: weary, hungry, thirsty, and far from a home of any kind. We can see why they would say it would have been better to have died in Egypt.

What they find in the wilderness is mercy. However easy it may be to mock their faithlessness after the wonders they have seen, this is a story about mercy. God saw. God heard. God provided. There is language in the story about faithlessness and testing, but first we find mercy.

God does not provide them with riches. What God gives is bread enough for the day. But it is enough. And slowly it leads them forward. Step by step it leads them towards their encounter with God at Sinai. Day by day it sustains them until they find rest in a new land.

Those little pieces of bread we receive each Sunday morning are a far cry from the feast envisioned by Isaiah or celebrated in the vision of the New Jerusalem. But they are enough for the day. They are sufficient for the journey. They witness to God’s persistent faithfulness. They call us to journey on. And in that bread and wine we find the promise of life and a world borne forward from grace into grace.

+   +   +

This post is adapted from the post From Grace into Grace in 2015.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWeltchronik_Fulda_Aa88_103r_detail2.jpg By Anonymous (Meister 1) (Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tested

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Watching for the Morning of February 14, 2016

Year C

The First Sunday in Lent

We are reading Luke out of order now that we have entered the festal season of Lent, going back and jumping forward (and even adding a Sunday from John) to capture themes for this season that leads us to the three days from the Last Supper on the evening of Maundy Thursday through the cross and resurrection. So where we had been reading about Jesus in Nazareth, we jumped forward to the Transfiguration last Sunday (to match the words from Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of the previous season) and now, on this first Sunday in Lent, we are looking back to the narrative of Jesus tested in the wilderness.

It’s a little disorienting and leads to the perception that the Gospels are like bags of marbles rather than dramas with a beginning, middle and end that bear a message for a time and a place. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is not a collection of sayings from the time of the Salem Witch Trials; it is a narrative for a nation in the midst of the anticommunist witch-hunts of the McCarthy era.  It intends to help us see ourselves and our time.  It intends to change our hearts – and so, too, the Gospels.

So as we hear the Gospel read on Sunday we need to remember where we are in the story: We’ve heard of the wondrous birth of John, the angel’s message to Mary, the promise of a kingdom without end, Mary’s song of the righting of the world, John’s exhortation to begin now to live the life of the coming kingdom, and Jesus, baptized, anointed with the Spirit, with the voice from heaven declaring: “You are my son.” It is a claim that must be tested, and tested it is. The devil comes to urge him to be less than he is – to be like God’s people who clamored for bread, bowed down before the golden calf, and tested God in the wilderness.

But Jesus proves true. He does not break faith. He trusts fully in God’s word.

Created

File:Heavens Above Her.jpgDuring Lent each year our parish focuses upon one portion of the catechism – this year, the Apostles’ Creed. The themes of the coming five Sundays are: Created, Redeemed, Called, Gathered, Enlightened.

“God has created me and all that exists” is the line from Luther’s Small Catechism that guides our first week. The genius in Luther’s brief explanation to the first article of the creed is the word ‘me’. The creed does not set out a doctrine of God; it is proclaims a relationship. God has created me. God has surrounded me with all the bounty of creation. God provides me with all I need for no reason other than God’s goodness. It is all gift – and that proclamation leads to the recognition: “Therefore I surely ought to thank and praise, serve and obey him.”

It misses the point to argue creation versus evolution. What the faith confesses is not a theory of origins; the faith confesses a loving presence to whom I belong, to whom I owe fealty, to whom I owe praise and thanksgiving.

The Prayer for February 14, 2016

In the mystery of your love, O God,
you called forth the world
and formed us from the dust of the earth and the breath of your Spirit.
In the wonder of your Son, Jesus,
you show the pattern of true faithfulness.
Make us ever true to your Word
and confident of your mercy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for February 14, 2016

First Reading: Deuteronomy 26:1-11
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…” – When Israel enters into the land, they are to bring an offering of the first fruits, recite the story of what God has done for them, and celebrate God’s goodness.

Psalmody: Psalm 91 (appointed: 91:1-2, 9-16)
“You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
– The psalmist proclaims the protective love of God (a psalm the devil quotes in testing Jesus).

Second Reading: Romans 10:8b-13
“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” – Paul is arguing that we are restored to a right relationship with God not by outward acts of obedience to the law, but by trusting allegiance to God’s promise.

Gospel: Luke 4:1-13
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”
– Following the outpouring of God’s Spirit upon Jesus and the declaration from God “This is my Son”, the devil tests Jesus, seeking to show him unworthy of such a title.

 

Image: Briton Rivière – The Temptation in the Wilderness [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHeavens_Above_Her.jpg  By Ian Norman (http://www.lonelyspeck.com) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

From grace into grace

File:Weltchronik Fulda Aa88 103r detail2.jpg

Saturday

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

3“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

I have laughed at the petulance of the people in the wilderness. It’s a comfortable position of moral superiority. As if I would not have been among the grumblers.

It’s an easy thing for a pastor to do, faced as we are with grumblings in our congregations and people whose eyes sometimes seem to be less concerned with the Promised Land than the fleshpots of Egypt. It’s oh so seductive, as you read the story, to imagine that you occupy the sandals of Moses. But such a hearing of the text, however delicious, is not only presumptuous, but altogether too shallow. It makes caricatures of the people of Israel as well as the members of our congregations.

The people of Israel have seen wondrous deeds, though I suspect the wondrousness has been exaggerated in the retelling. There are hints in the text that the events at the Red Sea (technically, the Sea of Reeds) weren’t like the Cecil B. DeMille drama. In fact, most of the Biblical “miracles” are really pretty ordinary events – but events that were wondrous in their timing. That the wind blew all night to dry up the marshland enabling the Israelites to escape is wondrous in its timing if not spectacular to behold.

So these people have been rescued by what moderns would likely call “good fortune” (a phrase that explains nothing and refers to an ancient deity in the Greco-Roman pantheon) and now they are hungry and thirsty in the wilderness. They are refugees in flight, not a triumphant victory parade. And there, in the barren lands of the Negev, the thought of perishing slowly in the desert makes the suffering of Egypt seem preferable. It is a choice we all often make. The long road to freedom requires a great deal more courage and sacrifice than most of us muster easily. We can put up with a great deal of tyranny for a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs.

I know that the larger sweep of the Biblical narrative is a story about a broken covenant and rebellious people. So from the perspective of the generation assembling the narrative in exile in Babylon with Jerusalem in ruins, the story is about the persistent faithfulness of God in spite of our faithlessness – even as it yet summons us anew to faithfulness.

But as I ponder the story, as I consider all the different layers in the narrative, I begin to see something other than petulance; I see grief.

“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

They didn’t ask to die in their beds; they wished that God had slain them in Egypt. This verse is the corporate equivalent of Jeremiah declaring that God should have killed him in the womb or Job lamenting the day of his birth.

Cursed be the day on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, saying,
“A child is born to you, a son,” making him very glad.
Let that man be like the cities that the Lord overthrew without pity;
let him hear a cry in the morning and an alarm at noon,
because he did not kill me in the womb;
so my mother would have been my grave,
and her womb forever great.
Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow,
and spend my days in shame?

It is the cry of despair born of grief.

Job has lost all his family. Jeremiah is forced to witness the folly of his nation as it plunges towards destruction and the terrible suffering of siege. Israel in the wilderness was not a happy march into freedom. This was a people who had lost a life, however harsh. Yes, they have fled the suffering of their bondage. But they had also fled in fear for Moses had made this people a stench in the nostrils of Pharaoh. They were the cause of Egypt’s troubles. They had become the object of the nation’s hate. There is language in the story that they were driven out of Egypt. They had lost their life and their homes there, however cruel and harsh it had been.

But now they are in a cruel desert. Weary, hungry, thirsty, far from a home of any kind.

“God should have just killed us when we were still in Egypt.”

It is hard to hold to a promise in such times, hard to keep putting one foot in front of the next. Hope doesn’t come easily to the grieving. We see only what is lost not what might be.

In grief we tend to lose the thread of our story. The imagined future that has shaped our lives is lost to us. I remember a widowed woman in a nursing home, in a room she had shared with her husband, bitter that he had left her. “We were supposed to go together.”   They had been a couple without children or friends, but they had always had each other. Now she had lost the story line that had shaped her life.   It is the same with the death of a child or a sibling. One of my daughter’s early comments at the death of her sister was: “She was going to be my maid of honor.” It is the anguish of divorce, the crisis of a lost job or career.

In grief we lose the thread of our lives. The days become a wilderness through which we stumble, because we no longer know where we are going. My mother wanted to trade her life for my daughter’s. We all would have.

The wilderness is still wilderness. What was is no more and what will be is not yet. The people grieve – and God provides. Day by day there is bread enough for the day. And water is found in unexpected places.

There is a layer in this story of faithlessness and testing. But there is also a story of mercy. God provides. God leads. God upholds them even when they wish they had never been born. And the Promised Land comes. Not easily. Not quickly. But it comes.

Those little pieces of bread we receive each Sunday morning are a far cry from the feast envisioned by Isaiah or celebrated in the vision of the New Jerusalem. But they are enough for the day. They are sufficient for the journey. They witness to God’s persistent faithfulness. They bear witness to the promise. They call us to journey on. And in that bread and wine we find the thread of a new story, of a life and a world borne forward from grace into grace.

 

Image: By Anonymous (Meister 1) (Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The power to heal

Friday

Numbers 21:4-9

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Brazen Serpent Sculpture by Giovanni Fantoni atop Mount Nebo

8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

There is no magic in the bronze serpent. No power in the image. The power is in the promise of God and their trust in that promise.

I suppose God could have said, “stand on your head and you will be healed,” and it could have functioned in the same way, as an act of trust. But that would have been more magical than looking at the bronze serpent. For the bronze serpent is an image not only of the plague, but their own bitter, poisonous words. The bronze serpent is the truth of who they have become and what has happened to them. To look on the bronze serpent is to take the first step in rehab: to admit they are powerless over their addiction. It speaks the truth about themselves.

We are vipers. We are a brood of snakes. We have become the offspring of the cursed one who turned our first parents from trusting God. And if the limp and broken body of the holy incarnation of God is not enough to convince you of this, then consider the masses of humanity that have been hacked, shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, hanged, gassed, poisoned, irradiated and burned to a crisp in the last century – or just allowed to perish from starvation. They are all present in the body of the crucified one.

We are vipers. We are crucifiers. Healing and confession go together. There is no healing without truth.

There is no requirement that the people feel badly about their bitter words against God. Confession is not about the feelings of guilt – it is about the objective reality of guilt. This is who they are. This is what they have done. Speaking that truth opens the door for God’s healing.

But in the bronze serpent they are not only looking at the truth of their bitter tongues. They see not only the consequence of their rebellion. They see also the promise of God to forgive. God does not hold their sin against them. God wants to heal them. God wants to create faith and trust and fidelity in them.

And in us.

And so we can see why Jesus says he must be lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness. We, too, must see the fruit of our rebellion from God. We must see the truth of the violence in the heart of humankind. We must acknowledge the bitter poison on our tongues. We must recognize our distance from our true humanity. We must see the truth.

But there, in the crucified one, we see also the promise of God to heal and forgive.

There is no magic, here. The power is in that promise – and our trust in that promise.

 

By JoTB (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Around Edom

Wednesday

Numbers 21

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View of Eilat and Edom Mountains. Photo by Alexey Sergeev

4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom.

Most of us just skip over place names when reading in scripture. They do not ring any bells for us. They are just strange places far away. But this simple reference to Israel’s journey around Edom is poignant. Edom blocks their way into the land of Canaan. Edom, the land of Esau, the brother from whom Jacob stole the blessing. It occupies the region south and east of the Dead Sea and they will not let the descendants of Jacob pass through. The only way to go around is to go back toward the Red Sea and then far out into the desert.

There had been another choice, of course – to go straight up through the Negev into the southern hill country. But before venturing into the promised land, they sent in spies who came back with stories of giants – powerful enemies born of the gods. All the spies except Joshua said they would never be able to overcome them, and the people refused to go forward along the path God set before them.

So although they stand at the edge of the promised land, they must now go back – back towards the Red Sea – and start over. A longer journey. A journey in which the faithless generation must die off before a new generation rises up to take possession of God’s rich promises. Forty years in the wilderness.

4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom.

They’ve been on the road a long time, and now they are headed back the way they came. And so comes the grumbling, the murmuring, the poisonous speech against God, blaming God for their troubles. Blaming Moses. Remembering as rich and abundant their lives in the land that had kept them in bondage and sought to destroy their sons. Faithless, bitter speech that corrodes a community. Toxic speech full of death and not life. The bread of heaven has become tasteless in their mouths: “we detest this miserable food.”

Their poisonous speech comes back upon them in the form of poisonous snakes.

And what shall save them? What shall save this people who did not trust that the God who defeated pharaoh’s army and parted the sea could fulfill his promise of the land?

Once more they are asked to trust a promise. They are asked to turn their eyes to an image of their bitter poison and see there the healing work of God. “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

And so we are invited to turn our eyes to the bitter fruit of our human violence and see in the cross the healing work of God who bears upon himself the sins of the world. To see there a God who does not respond to violence with violence, who does not answer hate with hate. To see there the God who chooses forgiveness and suffering love. To see and to trust this God to make us whole.

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.