Remember Zacchaeus

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Psalm 26:1-8

1 Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity,
…..and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.

The eight verses assigned for us to sing or read on Sunday describe the poet’s righteousness. “Your steadfast love is before my eyes,” he declares, “and I walk in faithfulness to you.” The portrait he paints is noble:

4 I do not sit with the worthless,
…..nor do I consort with hypocrites;
5 I hate the company of evildoers,
…..and will not sit with the wicked.
6 I wash my hands in innocence,
…..and go around your altar, O Lord,
7 singing aloud a song of thanksgiving,
…..and telling all your wondrous deeds.

But there is an unpleasant aftertaste in these words.

I always get a little nervous around those who are a little too certain they are righteous. And it’s not just because Lutherans as a whole have a pretty skeptical view of the possibility of our righteousness. The notion of “alien righteousness”, a righteousness that comes from somewhere else, that is not our own but given to us, is pretty deep in Lutheran piety. We are righteous because, amazingly, graciously, wondrously, when God looks at us he sees Christ’s righteousness not our own. We are pretty sure if he saw our own it would resemble a dilapidated storefront in an abandoned urban area. It has walls and a roof, the appearance of a building, but the windows are broken and the roof surely leaks. Thankfully, God is like an overly enthusiastic realtor who sees what should be and will be rather than what is.

In Lutheranland, we are all fixer uppers. So when we encounter someone who is a little too certain they live in a fine neighborhood, we are uncomfortable. Surely they must be denying there is something musty in the basement or mice droppings in the attic.

Nevertheless, this Sunday we are asked to say these words:

4 I do not sit with the worthless,
…..nor do I consort with hypocrites;
5 I hate the company of evildoers,
…..and will not sit with the wicked.
6 I wash my hands in innocence,
…..and go around your altar, O Lord,

It’s a complicated moment. First of all, it requires us to remember that these words are a prayer. The poet is in trouble and offering the kind of prayer we have all offered: “I don’t deserve this…come rescue me…” Like the prayers of our ancestors, our prayers may not be noble, but God does listen.

Secondly we have to remember that these words, like all the words of scripture, reach their fullest truth in Jesus. He was righteous, faithful to God and to others, but his righteousness did not set him apart from the wicked; it placed him in their living rooms. Remember Zacchaeus. I wish I could find a way to put those two words into the six or seven letters of a vanity license plate. That’s one I might consider buying.

Remember Zacchaeus. His righteousness comes after Jesus has shocked the righteous by coming to dine at his home. His righteousness is entirely a response to the presence of Christ. He makes no claim to goodness or holiness; it is brought forth by Christ’s goodness and holiness. Zacchaeus does nothing but agree to let Christ come to his home – and then the spirit of Christ works its work in him. Suddenly he is giving away half his possessions to the poor and setting right his wrongs.

So we will pray the poet’s prayer on Sunday. And the words will come awkwardly. But hopefully we will remember Zacchaeus and, perhaps, all those other prayers that are a little too full of ourselves will be filled with Christ.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChapiteau_de_St-Nectaire_-_Le_Christ_et_Zach%C3%A9e.jpg By Tangopaso (Self-photographed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Wide-eyed wonder

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Sunday Evening

Matthew 14:13-21

19Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled.

The children’s sermon was very sweet this morning. We had just one little girl and as she came forward I went down to meet her, took her hand and we walked to the back of the sanctuary where the bread donated for communion this morning waited to be brought forward with the offering. Together we peeked under the purificator (the napkin, church life is still shaped by the thousand years of Latin) and I invited her to count the number of small flat loaves.

One, two, three, four, five. I asked her if she knew why there were five and then told her about the story we would read today when Jesus took five loaves like these and fed five-thousand families. The wide-eyed amazement in her eyes was truly priceless. That I got to see it was one of the precious privileges of being a pastor. Would that we could all come to the table wide-eyed at the wonder and mercy of God.

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From Sunday’s Sermon

Matthew is brilliant in the way he constructs his narrative, because the story right before this is the story of Herod’s banquet, where there is no mention of food shared with the women and children, where Herod does the unthinkable and disgraceful thing of allowing his daughter to dance before men who are not part of his immediate family, and where Herod shows himself without honor by allowing himself to be aroused by the dancing of a woman – let alone his daughter – and loses self-control, promising to giver her anything she wants. Then, rather than losing face before his courtiers, he grants the request to have the prophet, John, beheaded.

Herod’s banquet is a banquet of greed and lust that ends in death. Jesus’ banquet is a banquet of compassion that gives life. Herod’s banquet is a banquet for a few; Jesus’ banquet is a banquet for all. Herod’s banquet is a banquet for the rich and mighty; Jesus’ banquet is a banquet for the poor and powerless. The one leads to death and the other leads to life.

If you would like to read the whole sermon, it is posted here entitled: Five Loaves. An audio version should show up here on the church website.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWorld_Fair_New_Orleans_Rain_Child.jpg By Christopher Porché West (originally posted to Flickr as Rain Child) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Burdens heavy and light

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The “work” of scripture

Once more from last Sunday

Last Sunday was warm – not as warm as it has been, but it was the weekend following the fourth of July, so it seemed right to begin the sermon by saying:

On a hot summer day it seems hard to say more than “God loves you; go in peace.” We should be at the beach with our toes in the sand. We should be at a lake in the mountains, or on the back porch listening to the ball game with an iced-tea in our hands. We should be holding hands in a movie where the theater is cool. Or visiting a friend with air-conditioning and children the same age running around the back yard. Hot summer days don’t seem like the days for work.

But scripture is work. It asks something of us. It bids us listen. It asks us to see. It calls for self-examination and an open heart. It summons us to generosity and compassion and the hard work of reconciliation.

Scripture is work. But scripture is also promise. It comes to heal. To comfort. To reassure. To encourage. It comes to free what is bound and restore what is broken. It comes to gather what is scattered and unite what is divided. Scripture is work, but it is also promise. It bids us bend the knee, and yet raises us in an eternal embrace.

If you would like to read the whole sermon, it is posted here. It is rooted in the Gospel text for Sunday that includes harsh words of judgment against the cities of Jesus’ day and the sweet word of invitation:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Here are two other thoughts from the sermon:

People wouldn’t listen to John because he was too freakishly religious, and they won’t listen to Jesus because he’s not religious enough. At least, he’s not their kind of religion. But this is the deal. We don’t get to pick the god we want. We have to deal with the God who is.

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There is a yoke here. There is a life of service to be lived. It is not an easy yoke in the sense that it doesn’t ask much of us; it asks very much indeed. But it is light because the work of mercy and grace lifts the heart and frees the Spirit and leads to joy and life.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKom%C3%A1rom554.JPG By Szeder László (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

Prisoners of hope

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Saturday

Zechariah 9:9-12

12Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.

We can take apart the grammar and poetry of this sentence. We can discuss the cultural context from which these words derive their meaning. But I want first to simply relish them. I love the unexpectedness of the phrase “prisoners of hope.”

Jesus was a master of the unexpected. The parables, so familiar to us now, are masterful at the sudden twist, the startling comparison, the shocking example. The prophets, too, are brilliant at this: Jeremiah’s underwear. Walking around the temple court wearing a yoke. Ezekiel telling a lurid tale of sexual betrayal. The scriptures are full of the shocking. And they need to be. We are such complacent, rutted people. It is not easy to make us see ourselves differently. Not easy to make us see others differently. Not easy to make us see God differently. And how hard it is to make us behave any differently!

The scriptures need to catch us up side the head. There’s no other way to get through to us.

So how many of us are prisoners of hope? How many of us are bond-servants of a wondrous promise? How many of us are truly captives to the vision of a world made whole as if it were a conquering hero returning from the battlefield with prisoner/slaves in tow?

How many of us wake up each morning and run to serve the promise of a world where peace reigns? We go to bed in despair. We wake up in fear. Hurry to work. Hurry to school. Hurry to coffee and traffic. The alarm clock makes us groan. Dinner is a chore farmed out to whatever I can pick up on the way home. We eat on the run……or we eat alone. Something frozen. Maybe cereal from a box after too much wine. There is no family at the table, no prayer of blessing, no song of joy.

We are, most of us, I suspect, captives to the pressures of daily life rather than prisoners of hope.

And the people of Judea were captives to the daily struggle and shame of a once glorious city still littered with rubble and now under Persian rule.

So the prophet points to the horizon and promises a king – a king no one believes is coming. But he will come. Hidden in a Galilean peasant. Speaking words of grace and challenge. Touching the world with healing and freeing it from evil. Enduring the shame and degradation of the cross, but leaving behind an empty tomb and a hundred and twenty prisoners of hope. They will become millions.

And shall we break off the shackles of hope for the shackles of mammon? Will we break off the ties of mercy, compassion and kindness for the sour belief that these shall not prevail? Shall we surrender to the thump of weapons as our true hope? Is it only death and taxes that are certain, not grace and life? Shall we forfeit joy?

No. I will come to the table that promises a world gathered to speak the blessing. I will sing the song, and feast the feast. And I will willingly extend my hands to the thongs of hope.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AName-Keftiu-at-Abydos-Ramses-Temple.jpg By HoremWeb (Own work) [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

The ordinary

Sunday Evening

I wish there was something special to write about worship this morning, but it was all quite ordinary. Yes, we watched the slideshow from our summer program and thanked our youth director for her extraordinary work – so there were images of happy kids and crafts and tales of chimes and songs. And, yes, we had an accordionist for our special music this morning, taking up hymns and songs we are likely to hear this week of the Fourth of July. And, yes, there was laughter and heartfelt prayer and children for the children’s message and wonder of God’s invitation to come to his table and share the bread that is the sign and promise and dawning reality of that day when all creation shall be gathered to one table.

But it was also ordinary. A simple summer service in which the community gathers for a host of different reasons: some because of friends, some because of habit, some because they have found a new congregation with a message that speaks to them, some because they had tasks to do – from working the sound board to making coffee.

Worship is ordinary. And yet is also extraordinary. It is like the roses in the flowerbeds around the patio near the parish office. Always there. Always blooming. Always ordinary yet wondrous in their beauty if you stop and see.

Its not just that there is beauty in the ordinary. It is that all existence is extraordinary. The brilliance of the clouds against the sky. The courage and faithfulness of a blind and deaf dog. The love of his family for an animal of no economic value. The laughter of children. The kindness of strangers. The sharing of the peace. Ancient texts that still speak to our human condition and the divine promise. The aroma of morning coffee. The pleasure of a simple dinner. The crickets in the evening. Fresh corn on the cob. The smell of fresh basil. Rosemary. Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. The sound of a child plinking out the melody line of Jesus Loves Me on the piano.

We are surrounded by extraordinary goodness. We don’t really need fireworks. We need to feel the grass between our toes and the ocean lapping at our feet. We need to feel the cool breeze in the evening and the hand of a loved one in our own. We need the connection of family and friends and the reminder that such bonds should tie the whole human family.

Even where terrors seem to govern, there is goodness waiting. If we will see it. If we will be open to it. If we will live it.

Worship is ordinary. But it is oh so much more than ordinary, for it bids us to see that love and life reverberate through all existence and summons us to join the song.

Photo: dkbonde

In the breaking of the bread

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Watching for the morning of April 30, 2017

Year A

The Third Sunday of Easter

A resurrection appearance still dominates the readings for Sunday. This is the week we hear Luke tell us of the disciples who encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus.

The narrative is pregnant with meaning for a community known as “the way” – literally, “the road”. The unseen Christ walks with us. Through him the scriptures are opened to us. In the broken bread we recognize him. It is the story not only of the first believers but of every generation.

Where else can we turn to make sense of this unexpected ending to the one who opened the gates for us to see and taste the kingdom? In his words the scriptures were alive. In his teaching was the Spirit of God. In his work was mercy for the margins and a daring challenge to the ruling center. In his hands crowds were fed, sinners welcomed, a new path set before us. And in that moment when the old empire should fall, he is stolen away. Where else can we turn to understand? And as we reread the ancient words they shine with a new light. The suffering servant of Isaiah. The humble king of Zechariah. The faithful one of the psalms. Suddenly the scriptures seem to explode with new insight.

And then there is the bread – the promised feast in Isaiah, the five loaves and two fish, the last supper, and now the bread and wine. All the threads of scripture, all the hope of a world made whole, weave into this moment when bread is broken like his body was broken – and shared freely as he shared himself freely for the sake of the world.

In the teaching, in the bread, they see him. They recognize his presence. They see the perfect love. They see the dawning of the promise – a world governed by this wondrous and holy Spirit.

Now the vision is complete. Christ is gone but not gone. And they race back to share the vision, to proclaim the news, to rejoice in the wonder of God.

So Sunday we will hear Peter declare the promise is for all and invite them to turn and show allegiance to this crucified one whom God has made both Lord and Messiah. And the psalmist will sing of deliverance from death and Peter writes that we “have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.”

The new creation is dawning. We hold the bread of the great feast in our hands.

The Prayer for April 30, 2017

Gracious God,
as Jesus revealed himself to his disciples in the breaking of the bread,
and opened their minds to understand the scriptures,
continue to reveal yourself to us
that we may live in the joy and freedom of your grace,
and bear witness to your redeeming love;
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 April 30, 2017

First Reading: Acts 2:14a, 36-41
“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” – Peter bears witness to the crowds at Pentecost, urging them to turn and show allegiance to Christ Jesus whom God has vindicated and revealed as Lord by his resurrection.

Psalmody: Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
“What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?” – a prayer of thanksgiving for deliverance from a threat to his life.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 1:17-23
“You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.” –
a homily on baptism, here urging the believers to remain faithful to their new life.

Gospel: Luke 24:13-35
“Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus.” – Jesus appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, opening to them the scriptures and revealing himself in the breaking of bread.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATand%C4%B1r_bread.jpg By jeffreyw (Mmm…pita bread Uploaded by Fæ) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Palms and Passion

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Watching for the Morning of April 9, 2017

Palm Sunday / Sunday of the Passion

A noble dying, a shameful death. A royal claim upon the city, and a rejection of that claim. The cries of Hosanna are not sounds of praise, but pleas for aid and deliverance made to the passing king – but then the crowd will cry for blood. Sunday is both. Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. The festive gathering and procession to church with palm fronts waving and the fabulous hymn “All Glory Laud and Honor,” and the gut-wrenching story of a mob in the night and fleeing disciples and Rome determined to show this royal claimant the true power and might of empire.

Our Lenten season is nearing its end. And though Easter is coming, the light that shines on Easter morning shines against the dark background of the human enterprise. We are a long way, yet, from living as children of God.

But the story is not only about human violence and power; it is also about the faithfulness of God and the fidelity of Jesus. He is willing to go to his death without breaking faith in the promise of God that the Spirit of God shall prevail. The reign of God shall dawn. The human heart shall be transformed. Grace and mercy shall govern all creation. Death shall give way to life.

So Sunday is joy and pensiveness and wonder. Sunday is celebration and mystery and thankfulness. Sunday begins with palms in our hands and then brings us to the table to receive the bread – the foretaste of the feast that will come.  It is a good and proper way to prepare us for the observance of the three days that carry us from Maundy Thursday into the first light of Easter.

(I apologize to those who follow this blog regularly that, during this season of Lent, it has been somewhat erratic. I have been focused primarily on the daily devotions for Lent we publish on the church website and at our Lent site.)

The Prayer for April 9, 2017

Almighty God, Holy and Wondrous;
trusting your promise, Jesus entered Jerusalem
knowing the path that lay before him.
Grant us a share of his Spirit
and the courage to follow his way of love;
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 April 9, 2017

Procession with Palms Reading: Matthew 21:1-11
“The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” – Matthew’s account of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem.

Processional Psalm: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
“Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord… The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” – A song of salvation from an ancient festival in Israel as the community enters through the gates into the temple, rejoicing in God’s deliverance.

Reading from the prophets: Isaiah 53:1-6
“He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole.” – Isaiah’s vision of the suffering servant who bears the sins of the people.

Passion Reading: Matthew 26:1 – 27:61
“Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” – The passion narrative according to Matthew.

Readings as appointed for Passion Sunday

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a
“I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” – One of the ‘servant songs’ from Isaiah describing a teacher who suffers, but trusts completely in God’s vindication.

Psalmody: Psalm 31:9-16
“I hear the whispering of many– terror all around!– as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.” – A cry from one who faces the threat of a violent death, yet expresses his complete trust in God. It echoes with themes of the passion.

Second Reading: Philippians 2:5-11
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”
– An early Christian hymn reciting the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus. It is used by Paul to remind the community of the mind of Christ and to call them to abide in his Spirit.

Gospel: Matthew 26:14 – 27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAssisi-frescoes-entry-into-jerusalem-pietro_lorenzetti.jpg By Pietro lorenzetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Children of Light

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Watching for the Morning of March 26, 2017

The Fourth Sunday in Lent

We hear the story of Samuel journeying to Bethlehem to anoint one of the sons of Jesse in the first reading this Sunday. It is a narrative fraught with danger, since Israel already has a king, and Saul has shown himself more interested in preserving his rule and his house than attending to God’s commands. Saul was the tallest in Israel. Strong, able, he looked the part of a kingly warrior. And the eldest of Jesse’s sons also looked the part – as, presumably, did the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth. But God sees the heart. And God saw fidelity in the heart of David – fidelity to God and to the people. (Yes, David sins when he murders Uriah to hide his infidelity with Uriah’s wife but, unlike nearly all later kings, he repents – he turns back to God and to the people.) This faithfulness of David is reflected in the familiar psalm for the day.

It’s not clear why this story of David is paired with the account of the man born blind in Sunday’s gospel except, perhaps, for the idea of seeing. The leaders of Israel are unable to see what is happening in Jesus, but the blind man comes to see.

Light and darkness are the theme of the reading from Ephesians. There we are exhorted to eschew the “unfruitful works of darkness” and “live as children of the light.”

For the ancients, darkness was not the absence of light; it was a substance. Light was something that was within and went out through the eyes to perceive the world. Those who are blind, therefore, had darkness within; what came out through their eyes was darkness. Jesus has filled the blind man with light. He has washed away the mud. And Jesus has not only filled him with a physical, material light, he has filled him with a spiritual light. So, if we are filled with this true light, this light of God, that light will go out not only to see clearly the gracious hand of God in the world around us, it will do the works of grace. On the other hand, if the ‘light’ within us is darkness, what will come forth from us are the works of darkness.

Why do we come to worship? Why do we set ourselves before the Word? Why do we take into our hands the bread of life? That we may be filled with light. Look around, the world sorely needs children of the light.

As We Forgive
Our focus on a portion of the catechism during Lent takes us into the Lord’s Prayer this year. Sunday we will consider the fifth petition: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We pray not only to be forgiven but, with that prayer, we choose to live the grace we desire.

Reflections on the themes of each week and brief daily devotions related to those themes can be found on the blog site for our Lenten devotions.

The Prayer for March 26, 2017

Almighty God, Holy and True,
who opened the eyes of the man born blind
that he might see and know you:
Remove from us all blindness of heart and spirit
that we might truly follow you in lives of faith, hope and love;
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 March 26, 2017

First Reading: 1 Samuel 16:1-13
“The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” – Saul has proven himself unworthy of the monarchy and God commissions Samuel to go to Bethlehem to anoint one of the sons of Jesse as king. All Jesse’s sons look the part of a king, but God chooses the youngest, David, who is out guarding the sheep.

Psalmody: Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” – David’s famous psalm acknowledging God as his ruler and protector.

Second Reading: Ephesians 5:8-14
“Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.”
–Writing to the believing community in Ephesus, Paul (or someone writing on Paul’s behalf or in his name) urges the community to live faithfully the life into which they have been called in Christ.

Gospel: John 9:1-41
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” – Jesus heals a man born blind who is subsequently investigated by the authorities and evicted from the synagogue for his affiliation with Jesus.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWindow_Shadows_on_Ceiling_of_Sagrada_Fam%C3%ADlia_2010.JPG By Patrick Pelletier (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Leave your gift

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Thursday

Matthew 5:21-37

23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

When we hear the word gift and altar we cannot help but think of the offering plate and a church altar. It’s hard to imagine a religious institution teaching that you should not make an offering if you are at odds with someone. Every organization dependent upon donations is normally trying to remove any obstacles to giving, not adding one. But then, the mission of the church is not to encourage offerings; it is to make disciples of Jesus.

In the traditional liturgy of the church, just such a moment happens before for the offerings are gathered. The presiding minister declares “The peace of the Lord be with you” and, following the congregation’s response, “and also with you,” bids the community to share the peace with one another. God has made peace with us in Christ Jesus – now, before you give an offering, before you come to the table, we are summoned to make peace with one another.

I wonder how the community would react if we spoke more bluntly: “Don’t come to the dinner table divided from one another.” “You can’t be reconciled to God if you won’t be reconciled to one another.” “God doesn’t want your money if you’re not going to walk the walk.”

Jesus and his hearers, of course, are not imagining people in pews with ushers passing offering plates. They are imagining the massive temple platform surrounded by its grand colonnades. They are imagining the inner courtyards: for Gentiles (beyond which no gentile could go); for women (beyond which no woman could go); and for men (beyond which only priests could go). In the walled and colonnaded courtyard that is open only to ritually pure Jewish men there is a gate that leads further in to the temple courtyard with its great altar and the smoke of the rising offerings. Beyond that altar stands the temple proper, covered in gold, its giant pillars guarding huge closed doors. What could be seen only over the top of the enclosing walls is now revealed in full glory. To that gate a man brings his calf or lamb (or doves, if he is poor) where it is slaughtered and the priest takes it to the altar for the gift to be burned in part or in whole.

By the time you had completed the rituals, passed through the courts, and stood in line with your animal – to be told to leave the creature there and run out in order to be reconciled with some adversary… now we can hear the startling point Jesus is making.

God is in the world to reconcile. God is in the world to heal the human community. God is working to restore the torn fabric of life. It is not just murder that rends the human community, but every word of insult and anger. It is not just the act of adultery that tears at society, but the passions willing to violate the integrity of another family. We ought not think, says Jesus, that our moral behavior and religious acts mean anything if they are not joined to the reconciling work of God.

Tough words. Important words. Life-giving words.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASecond_Temple_view1.jpg By Ariely (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

With what shall I come?

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Friday

Micah 6:1-8

6“With what shall I come before the Lord?”

In the student union every Friday during my senior year in college, the students from the botany department sold flowers from their greenhouse. This was significant because I attended school in Minnesota where the snows lasted from Thanksgiving to April. For the price of a soda I could get one sweetheart rose to take to my girlfriend. I enjoyed giving the gift; it was sincere, not mercenary. But we all understand that arriving with a gift, however small, makes the other more favorably inclined to you.

And so the prophet asks: “With what shall I come before the Lord?” What gift will make God favorably inclined to us? What gift will generate a smile as you stand knocking at the door?

Even people who are not religious will cry out to God in times of great distress. Promises get made. We offer ourselves to save our children. I have heard the prayers that promise to go back to church or to make some sacrifice. I understand. It is an almost instinctual cry, as if God could be bought by some favor.

So the prophet poses our question: “With what shall I come before the Lord?” What will make God inclined to hear my prayer? To grant my request? But it doesn’t work that way. God isn’t interested in purchasing our trust and fidelity as if we were mercenaries. Jesus said that God sends rain on the just and the unjust.” The mercies of God are open to all.

Standing with a rose at the door of my girlfriend’s place wasn’t an attempt to barter for favor. It was a gift to please, a gift that shows she matters to me, a gift spontaneously given because I want her to be happy. And what is the gift that pleases God? Is it our church attendance? Is it our donations? Is it our volunteering? The answer, consistently, throughout scripture is that it is not our sacrifices.

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

No, the answer is always about lives of compassion and faithfulness to the human community. We see it in our psalm this Sunday. And we hear it from the prophet:

8He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Justice and mercy will not make God concede to our prayers, but it does make the heart of the universe smile.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AOffering_to_the_Ganges%2C_Varanasi.jpg By J Duval ([1]  Uploaded by Ekabhishek) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons