Saturday, September 30, 2023

Pentecost 18A

Exodus Desert
Exodus 17:1-7

1 From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 The people quarreled with Moses, and said, "Give us water to drink." Moses said to them, "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?" 3 But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" 4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me."

5 The 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. 6 I 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."

Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, "Is the Lord among us or not?"
Exodus 17:6
Strike the rock, and water
will come out of it, so that
the people may drink.
Exodus 17:6

Journeys in Stages

Today's reading is from fairly early days in Israel's extensive wilderness narratives that detail Israel's departure from Egypt, through their sojourn at Sinai where they received the gift of the Ten Words/ Ten Commandments, and on through their arrival at the edge of the Jordan River that marked the border of the Promised Land.

I blogged this Exodus passage as recently as Lent 3 in March 2023, but why not again? The lectionary scheduled it for this weekend; deserts are one of my favorite topics and the exodus one of my favorite scriptural events.

17:1 The Israelites journeyed by stages…

The "journeyed by stages" tradition says it took about forty years after leaving Egypt to reach the Jordan River and cross into Canaan. It may have been a few years more or less, but forty equals two generations—long enough for people to start forgetting and stop longing for their former lives, long enough to learn to trust God's daily provision.


Water / Moses' Staff

Today's Water from the Rock segment comes from a water-related series:

• they leave the Sea of Reeds (sometimes called "Red Sea") and travel through the wilderness of Shur – Exodus 15:22…
• and arrive at Marah, where God asks Moses to sweeten the bitter waters with a piece of wood – Exodus 15:23-26
• from Marah they go to Elim, where they find twelve springs of water – Exodus 15:27
• from Elim it's onto the wilderness of Sin, where God first provides manna – Exodus 16:1-36 (only for reference; the text doesn't mention water)
• from Sin to Rephidim, the setting for today's experience of water from a rock.

When Moses threw wood into the bitter water at Marah, it became sweet. When Moses struck the rock at Rephidim with his staff, water poured out. Moses' obedience helped awaken resources already there.

And from a series that features Moses' staff:

• Exodus 4:1-5; Exodus 7:8-10 – God turns Moses' shepherd's staff into a snake to convince the people God had heard their cries of pain and would redeem them.
• Exodus 7:17-21 – Moses' staff turns the Nile River into a stream of blood.
• Exodus 14:16 – "Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground." Moses' staff becomes an icon of deliverance.
• Exodus 17:5-6 God tells Moses to take his staff and "strike the rock" at Horeb with his staff he used to strike the Nile.


Event, Incident, Occasion Titles…

…Branding?

Exodus 17:7 Massah means testing; Meribah is quarreling or striving. Moses gave a name or title to this event so the people wouldn't forget their earlier distrust, and also remember God's grace-filled response:

As you reflect on your own, your family's, your congregation's, maybe your city or town's life stages, would it help you to name some of them? If you scrapbook or journal, you may have done some titling.


Sukkot

This year for the week from Friday 29 September through Friday 06 October Succoth/Sukkot, also known as the Festival of Booths or Feast of Tabernacles commemorates God's presence and protection during Israel's forty years in the exodus desert. As a Festival of Double Thanksgiving, it also offers gratitude for the autumn harvest. You can find it in Exodus 23:16, "You shall observe the Festival of Harvest, of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall observe the Festival of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor;" and in Leviticus 23:33-43.

Remember, O Lord, thy tender mercies
and thy lovingkindnesses;
for they have been ever of old.
Psalm 25:6

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Pentecost 17A

psalm 145L5,8
I will speak of the glorious honour
of thy majesty,
and of thy wondrous works.
The Lord is gracious,
and full of compassion;
slow to anger, and of great mercy.
Psalm 145:5,8

Acts 16:9-15

9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us."
10 When he had seen the vision, we [Paul and Timothy] immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate to a riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.

14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us.

Riverways, Lifeways

Most major cities originated and then grew up alongside a river; waterways are strategic nodes of communication, commerce, immigration, and exchange of ideas. The early church always baptized in the flowing water of a river; a river is a dynamic, open system. How about our walk by faith? If you've been baptized in the Los Angeles (San Diego, Amstel, Cumberland, Chicago) River, why not identify with the city beside the river banks, especially seeking the well-being of that river and that place?

If you haven't lived in your current town or city forever, it's still possible to claim the nearby river, stream, or estuary, pray for its well-being, participate in its cleanup days. Visit the river as a friend!

In addition, does the river with its water of ever-changing composition, potability, and overall usefulness form a valid model for our daily lives? With the cascading variety of plants and animals its deeps and its banks host? As humans we're not healthy, ultra-productive, and "on" all the time. We absolutely aren't always in a position to be hospitable to persons, ideas, and tasks. Think about it!


Church Planting in Philippi

Today's second reading comes from Paul's letter to the nascent church at Philippi. I love envisioning its serendipitous start that Acts 16 describes. Paul and Timothy went to Roman colony Philippi in Macedonia, then to the river on the sabbath, hoping to find an ad hoc synagogue. If there was no local synagogue, Jews would gather at the river to form a minyan or at least to pray together. They met Purveyor of Purple Cloth Lydia by the riverbank, finally they baptized Lydia and her entire family. Aside from God's reign of grace, did you know verse 15, When she and her household were baptized… is one of the scriptures cited for infant baptism?

I appreciate scholarly ambiguity regarding Lydia's social and economic status. Because purple dye came from rare and therefore costly seashells, they used to assume Lydia's vending anything purple indicated wealth, yet recent historical evidence has revealed that wasn't necessarily so.

Philippians 1:21-30

21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25 Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26 so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.

27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28 and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation.

And this is God's doing. 29 For God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— 30 since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

Paul as Pastor

The lectionary schedules readings from Philippians four weeks in a row.

Paul/Saul of Tarsus was founding pastor of the Philippian assembly—probably along with Timothy, his probably younger sidekick. Although travels took him away from being with them in person, after leaving them he continued – virtually as we'd say – as mission developer and as a lovingly concerned shepherd. The apostle Paul wrote this letter from jail or prison or (most probably) house arrest. Philippians is his "epistle of joy" to that church in that colony where the Roman caesar was the default divinity. Philippians uses the word joy 16 times, Christ 50 times.

In 1:27, Paul counsels the Philippian Christians to live out their baptism via their public, political lives "in a manner worthy of the gospel" as witnesses to Jesus' death and resurrection, and not to Rome's death-dealing imperialism. How about us? As I frequently observe, even the smallest actions add up to big ones; they're synergistic: more than the sum of their individual parts.
Philippians 1:27
Live your life in a manner worthy
of the gospel of Christ, so that I will know
that you are standing firm in one spirit,
striving side by side with one mind
for the faith of the gospel.
Philippians 1:27

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Pentecost 16A

Psalm 103:8
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding
in steadfast love.
Psalm 103:8

Exodus 14:13-31

13 But Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still."

15 Then the Lord said to Moses, "Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. 16 But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground.

17 Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. 18 And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers."

19 The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. 20 It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided. 22 The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23 The Egyptians pursued and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh's horses, chariots, and chariot drivers.

24 At the morning watch the Lord, in the pillar of fire and cloud, looked down on the Egyptian army and threw the Egyptian army into a panic. 25 He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, "Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt."

26 Then the Lord said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers." 27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29 But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

30 Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31 Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.

• My reflection for Pentecost 3 this past June relates to this one.


Central Stories

This is one of the required scriptures at the Easter Vigil when we recite and reenact the world's history with God who creates, redeems, and sustains. It's interesting placement that with Advent a little over two months away, today's first reading brings us Israel's primary narrative and experience of salvation.

When the exiles returned to Jerusalem from Babylon and compiled this Sunday's passage (as well as most of what we know as the Old Testament canon), they interwove more than one original source. The Exodus or departure event is so important that mentions of rescue from Egyptian slavery thread throughout the prophets and the New Testament scriptures. Israel's liberation from empire and its demands parallels Jesus Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension for Christians.


Identity Formation

However, the end of Egypt was far from the end of empire for Israel. Egypt may have been in their rearview mirror (it was), but Babylon, Persia, Rome, Spain, Great Britain, et al, waited in the wings.

You know about those forty sparse years in the hot, dry desert before Israel crossed the Jordan River into the land of promise. To paraphrase the late poet and songwriter Rich Mullins, "Israel and Yahweh rendezvoused in the desert," with the give and take, the questions, the conversations, the rebellions, that lead to reliable relationship. God's grace-filled gift of the Covenant at Sinai steered Israel toward the kind of concern for the neighbor that would let God's people remain free. As scripture explains, the "neighbor" or the other was not only the native-born, not simply the ethnic Israelite. Neighbor meant everyone.

The point in time physical departure from Egypt became the liberation story they told their children and their children's children, but identity as God's people was ongoing—always subject to increased understanding and better response.


Bringing History to Life

Serendipitously again this week, the one-word Five Minute Friday prompt fit Sunday's reading well. Riffing on escape I wrote:

Escape from slavery in Egypt as well as from death-dealing demands, outrages, excesses, and dehumanizations of the countless empires that hold us hostage. Escape from the worst of our own pasts—including wrongs we've done and sins committed against us. Escape from hopelessness and from those griefs that refuse to escape from us. Forgiveness unlocks the doors. Easter catapults us from past deaths into wide open futures.

Escape into dreaming and possibilities. For myself. For my community. For the world. "Redemption" is one of the theological words. God fights for us and literally redeems us. God buys back our life, re-establishes our identity. God frees us for service to our neighbors, to strangers, to family, to creation, and to ourselves.

Just as physically departing from Egypt was the start of Israel's identity journey, emerging from the waters of baptism is a central point in time and space for each of us and for the community that claims us. Then we journey still wet behind the ears, retelling the story, reenacting redemption in our current time and place.

In his Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, farmer and poet Wendell Berry offers a list of countercultural ways of being and acting. How about creating your own list of ways to practice resurrection as the last line of the poem reminds us?

Exodus 14:13-14
But Moses said to the people,
"Do not be afraid, stand firm,
and see the deliverance that the Lord
will accomplish for you today.
The Lord will fight for you, and you have
only to keep still." Exodus 14:13-14

Saturday, September 09, 2023

Pentecost 15A

Psalm 119:35
Lead me in the path
of your commandments,
for I delight in your way.
Psalm 119:35

Romans 13:8-14

8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet," and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself." 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Law and Gospel

When we interpret scripture, we sometimes contrast law and gospel, but God's law and God's gospel both are gifts of grace that mirror each other.

"Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law." Romans 13:8

Almost every time the apostle Paul uses the word law, it's about ceremonial-sacrificial-ritual law and not about the Ten Words [decalogue] or Commandments of the Sinai Covenant; but this time, he definitely means the commandments. He even specifies four of them!

All the words translated "love" in these verses are agape in Greek. Agape love is God-like, grace-filled, unconditional, life-giving care not based on emotion or whims. Agape love guides and fills the Ten Words that were God's gift to the people after their liberation from Pharaoh's Egypt, yet before they crossed the Jordan River into land where they'd settle and farm, where they'd live amidst people who practiced a very different religion and lifestyle that didn't acknowledge or honor the God of Israel.

Can you name some political, economic, consumerist, and other types of empires in our contemporary Western context? Entities that are in your face most of the time and that come close to demanding our allegiance and obeisance? Both visible and invisible structures that amount to very different religions and lifestyles?


Economics

Economics is the guiding principle or law (nomos) of the household (oikos). Scripture is full of information and counsel about money, wages, payments, and related obligations.

Today's second reading tells us we owe each other only love!

Rather than barter or trade, a cash economy as the primary means of payment and exchange evolves when a population becomes large enough. To get through every day, we necessarily think and act in transactional ways. How much do I owe on my car note? Do debits and credits on this spreadsheet balance—or not? Can I afford this purchase or would it be wise to compromise by getting a less expensive similar version or not buying anything at all?

In the world of the bible, debt and sin essentially were synonymous. As God's agent, Moses lead God's people out of slavery to the Egyptian empire, yet Jesus walked, talked, and taught in a world colonized by the Roman empire, where regular people constantly got slammed by imperial taxes, where most of the little people owed their souls to the company store.

Today's second reading tells us we owe each other only love!


This Time / This Now

The bible has two different "time" words: chronos on clocks and calendars situate an action at a measurable point—our regular appointment every Thursday at 3:00, another day, another dollar on October 25th are chronos or chronological time. So is your annual birthday celebration!

Kairos is unrepeatable, life-transforming—the birth of your child on a particular Wednesday at 6:32am; the Declaration of American colonial Independence from Britain on 04 July 1776 are major kairos punctuation (exclamation!) marks within the chronology of normal days.

"Besides this, you know what time [season / kairos] it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers." Romans 13:11

In this short reading, Paul says this right now, this very moment, is the right kairos time to practice love for everyone. Don't wait! Just do it!


You Are What You Eat / We Are What We Wear

"Put on the Lord Jesus Christ." Romans 13:14

This literally is "Clothe yourself in Christ," the same word as putting on clothing. Your attire (at least partly) reveals who you are. Some professions have a distinctive uniform that announces the worker's identity and mission. Other workplaces and situations have more flexibility. Is today work, play, gardening, hiking, or something else? Which of my identities will I mostly rock? What's the weather forecast?

Baptism clothes us in Christ; "dresses us up" in the Holy Spirit of creation, redemption, and sanctification. Baptized into the Trinity we wear a life of agape love that regards every human, critter, and natural neighbor as infinitely valuable and not as objects to be used, exploited, and discarded. Agape love regards everyone and everything as created in the divine image.

Romans 13:8
Owe no one anything
except to love one another
for any one who loves another
has fulfilled the law.
Romans 13:8

Saturday, September 02, 2023

Pentecost 14A

Psalm 28:6
O Lord, I love the house
in which you dwell,
and the place where your glory abides.
Psalm 26:8

Romans 12:9-21

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.
11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.

13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." 20 No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.


This Week

Some other year the lectionary assigns these texts, I'll teach or blog a deft Girardian presentation of the gospel reading, Matthew 16:21-28, but as dense as Romans generally is, it still feels simpler than attempting to navigate mimesis, skandalon, and other non-transactional cross talk.

Besides, the Apostle Paul's paranetic exhortations or encouragements are in-your-face, can lead to endless discussion possibilities, and they provide great content for three months into the season of Pentecost. With all of its instances of "you" being second person plural, this passage provides a long list of ideas for our attitudes in Christ, our behaviors within the community of the church and later as we continue our eucharistic lifestyle out in the world during the week.


Pauline Lists

The apostle Paul loves to make lists! His most famous list may be the Fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." These are the words the NRSV uses; check out other translations! In a list that precedes that one, he contrasts these desirable qualities with what he calls works of the flesh. In several places Saint Paul lists his own credentials and qualifications.


Today's Second Reading

With this type of list it's easy and helpful to compare different translations, and to compare the English with the original Greek. How about defining these traits for yourself and/or describing situations where drawing on them would be life-giving to yourself and the people around you?

Here's a random comparison – a list! – of a few words in New American Standard Bible (NASB), New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition (NRSVUE), King James Version (KJV), and The Message (MSG). Every translation is an interpretation, even when there's a clear word-to-word parallel. Although others have called it a paraphrase or a remix, the late Pastor Eugene Peterson insisted his Message Bible was a translation he originally made to contextualize scripture for the congregation he was serving.


Love and Other Words

Greek has at least four words for love; today's reading includes 3 of those 4 kinds of love!

• agape – God-like, grace-filled, unconditional, life-giving care not based on emotion or whim
• storge – instinctive, familial- and familiarity-type affection
• philia – friendship, love in action with everything that implies. This Romans passage says "philadelphia" a word we know well from the Pennsylvania City of Brotherly Love, so philia means "Love ya like a brother or a sister. Like my own sibling." Although this is the only place Paul uses the word philadelphia, you can research and discover it in at least six other places in the NT.
• eros – root of erotic and erotica, the meaning goes far beyond simply sexual to any pleasure or affinity that involves any of our senses

• verse 9a
love = agape
Greek is un-or anti-hypocritical [love]
NASB is most literal, "without hypocrisy"
NRSV genuine
KJV without dissimulation
MSG love from the center of who you are; don't fake it

• 9b
hate, abhor evil
MSG="run for dear life from" evil

• 10a
Greek is philadelphia
NASB be devoted to one another in brotherly love
NRSV love one another with mutual affection
KJV kindly affectionate with brotherly love = literal philadelphia
MSG be good friends who love deeply

• 10b
Greek is philo (brotherly, sisterly, sibling love) + storgoi
NASB give preference to one another in honor
NRSV outdo one another in showing honor
KJV in honor preferring one another
MSG practice playing second fiddle

• 11a
NASB not lagging behind in diligence
NRSV do not lag in zeal
KJV not slothful
MSG don't burn out

• 11b
serve, serving the Lord. Greek is doulos (slave) rather than diakonos (servant, where we get "deacon")

• 12
NASB devoted to prayer
NRSV persevere in prayer
KJV continuing instant in prayer (different use of instant them we have for "be there in an instant," instant pudding, instant gratification, instant oatmeal)
MSG pray all the harder

• 13
hospitality – another "phil" root word. MSG advises us "be inventive in hospitality." What examples of inventive hospitality can you imagine?

• 15
Feeling what the other person feels = empathizing

• 17b
Greek approximately says put the best construction on everything
KJV provide things honest
MSG discover beauty in everyone

• 18
peace here is irenic absence of conflict that can be the start of friendship and cooperation
KJV as much as lieth in you, live peaceably
MSG If you've got it in you, get along with everybody

• 19
beloved / be-loved has the agape love root
Greek orge equals English anger, indignation, avenging, vengeance, revenge. It may or may not relate to English "orgy" that didn't connate licentious excess until a couple of centuries ago.

• 20
feed, water [clothe, house] your actual enemies in all four versions. I'll add in people you have serious differences with.

• 21
The final flourish, "overcome evil with good" is identical in the first three translations.
MSG wonderfully advises us, "Don't let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good."

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Pentecost 13A

For the Lord will comfort Zion
He will comfort all her waste places
And will make her wilderness like Eden
Her desert like the
Garden of the Lord
Isaiah 51:3
Isaiah 51:1-5

1 Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. 2 Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.

3 For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.

4 Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples. 5 I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope.

Listen! Look! Remember!

This week's first reading comes from chapters 40 through 55, or 2nd Isaiah, who spoke God's hope to many of God's people who had been exiled to Babylon.

Prior to this, they'd crossed the Jordan into the promised land after a 40-years long trek through the exodus desert after being liberated from Egypt. They'd made Canaan home by sinking deep agricultural, familial, religious, occupational, and commercial roots. Please note: the events in these verses cover a very long timeline, and all of it could not have been part of the living memory of any one person.

However, everyone would have resonated with Isaiah's imagery because they would have frequently remembered, retold, and relived salvation history.

Isaiah reminds the exiles of their experience with God's extraordinary faithfulness. In Hebrew, listen and hear are the same word...

Righteousness, the Exodus rock, Abraham, Sarah, mount Zion, wilderness, Eden, desert, garden, justice, deliverance, salvation, hope. Plus singing and thanksgiving! God's arm—God's power, presence, strength, deliverance from death to life. Any of these would make an illuminating word study. Also, most of this is geographical and physical.

Notice what God has done and trust that same God's promises for your future. Notice where you've been, how far you've traveled, how you got to where you are, and because of it, claim hope for God's future.

To remember means to reassemble something that has been broken apart, torn apart, dismembered, dissembled into multiple pieces. It's no longer an integral whole.


Remembering Into Hope

Listen to God, pay attention and hear what God proclaims and teaches. Look to our source and our deep roots in God's life and God's actions. Remember.

You've probably heard:

(1) If you keep looking back you won't see where you're going; and
(2) If you don't look back, you won't learn from the past and you'll make those same mistakes. Both are true.

• What family memories are especially important to you? Why?
• Any family memories you'd like to forget? Why?
• What memories of your current place of worship and service are especially important to you?
• What memories of your entire history with the church and churches you've been part of are particularly important to you?
• What story of stories from scripture have special meaning for you?

Remember where you've been in order to gain hope for your future.

• How does remembering the past give us post-911, post-January 6th, post-Covid pandemic hope? (Covid still is with us, but it's become endemic.)
• How do we best remember?! Narrating the timeline? Talking with people who've been there with us? Looking at photographs and scrapbooks? If you keep a journal, reading your past entries? Reading the bible? Some other way?

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Pentecost 12A

Los Angeles Cathedral
Los Angeles Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels

Isaiah 56:1-2, 6-8

1 Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. 2 Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil.

6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. 8 Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.

Isaiah Outline

The 66 chapters long book of Isaiah comes from three different eras and three primary authors:

• 1st Isaiah – 1-39 before the Babylonian exile

• 2nd Isaiah – 40-55 during the Babylonian exile

• 3rd Isaiah – 56-66 after the exile, mostly addressed to people who returned to Jerusalem to rebuild city, temple, infrastructure, and community. Some deportees remained in Babylon; per God's instructions via Jeremiah, they continued to "seek the good" of the city where they'd landed.

Despite probably distinct authorship of each section, all three include material whose overall style doesn't accord with the rest because it's almost definitely from another writer or writers.

All of Greater Isaiah brings us inclusive universalism that's not vapid, sweet, contentless New Age, but reveals a God who reaches out with love and mercy to all people and all creation everywhere. Together with his eighth century counterpart Amos, 1st Isaiah brings us the earliest articulation of true monotheism.


Today's Reading…

…reminds us of the holy demands of a holy God to do justice, rock righteousness, and to keep Sabbath. It also reveals a God who loves, includes, and embraces everyone—including Israel's enemies!

This passage easily can be misunderstood as it begins with God telling the people to act with justice and righteousness and then redemption – "deliverance" in the NRSV – will arrive. Along with some others, this scripture reading may appear as if grace is conditional and happens as a result of our behaviors (works-righteousness), but with God that's never the case.

Related to December holidays of Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanzaa, people sometimes talk about "exchanging gifts" or a workplace "gift exchange" but an exchange is an economic transaction, and by definition a gift cannot be earned or paid for. On those holidays we either give presents or performs transactions; it cannot be both.

From Isaiah 56:7, the cornerstone of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles announces "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations." This is ecumenical cooperation between very different, quite similar, and closely related Christian denominations—it's also interfaith, just as it was during Third Isaiah's sixth century.


Sabbath

The official Sabbath day never changed from setting apart the hours from Friday sundown through Saturday sundown, but we often expand the word "sabbath" to describe any time of rest (shabbat means "rest") from productive activity, for any time specifically for God, for worship, for family, for not conceding to the demands of empire. Maybe ironically, when an academic goes on a sabbatical year or semester they expect to study and produce, but it still is a refreshing time away from normal expectations and involvement.

Because of Jesus' resurrection on Sunday, Christians typically worship and whenever possible refrain from paid work and unnecessary busyness on Sundays, but that's not possible for everyone. Most Sundays most pastors are on the clock! Employment slots obviously need to be filled every day by health care, police, fire, transportation, and other essential personnel. Retailers that stay open on Sundays need to stay staffed. (Is retail shopping always "unnecessary busyness?") However, human bodies and spirits require regular time away from being busy, time to simply be, and scheduling a regular time of sabbath is necessary for mental and physical wellness.

How do you typically find rest, refreshment, and renewal? Have you heard or read about recreational or restorative activities (I had to use that action word) or options that sound like a good fit for your style and that you'd like to try?

baptismal font looking toward chancel
Baptismal font looking toward chancel at LA Cathedral

Offertory Table
Offertory table at LA Cathedral

Campanile at LA cathedral
Campanile at LA Cathedral

Friday, August 11, 2023

Pentecost 11A

three boats on water by eddie fouse
Original boat photograph by eddiefouse via pixabay.com

Matthew 14:22-33

22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, …

24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning Jesus came walking toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear.

27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I {I am}; do not be afraid." 28 Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." 29 He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when Peter noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!"

31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."


So Far

We come to today's nautical scene after the violent death of Jesus' cousin John the Baptist, followed by last week's account of Jesus and his disciples feeding a throng of 5,000+++ hungry, needy people late in the day in a lonely locale.

Mark 6:45-52 and John 6:15-21 describe very similar versions of Jesus walking on water, but only Matthew includes Peter's attempt to walk on water at Jesus' invitation.


Walk on Water

Walking on water is a well-known buzz phrase. What does it mean to you? I usually think of Neil Diamond's:

Walk on water, ain't it like her
She leads the children
Ain't it right
And ain't it wondrous
The way she does it
Gives love and loves it…

How do these words connect with this gospel reading?

Walking on water / Peter afraid again is another one we've heard countless times. It's good to move deeper than "you need to get out of the boat if you want to walk on water … you need to keep your eyes on Jesus all the time" interpretations to more substance, although those behaviors are essential.

From the angel instructing Joseph (1:23) to name the baby Emmanuel, "God with us," (although verse 25 says Joseph named him Jesus), to the risen Christ's promise always to be with us (28:20) at the end of his gospel, God's presence is one of Matthew's pervasive themes.

14:27 Most translations tell us Jesus said something like "it is I; this is me," yet the Greek reports he only announced "I am." Ego ami duplicates Yahweh's response when Moses asked, "Who shall I tell my people sent me? What shall I say your name is?" (Exodus 3:13-14) Moses needed to know because there apparently was a new god he didn't recognize in town. Jesus echoes and he identifies with the God of the exodus, God of freedom, of promise, God of unmediated presence.

It's fascinating that Matthew uses Mark's typical connector word "immediately" several times in this passage. We also get a qualifying "but" a few times


Where We Live

In the ancient near east, untamed water was an symbol of disarray, chaos, and absence of divine oversight. You recall Genesis 1 when God's Word and Spirit tamed chaos into an orderly, interdependent world.

A familiar metaphor views the church as a boat. Many worship areas have been constructed in the shape of an upside-down ship. We even refer to the section of the sanctuary where worshippers sit as the nave—same source as the word "navy."

Chapters earlier, in Matthew 8:23-27, Jesus is in the same boat as the disciples, stilling the waters and the storm: "Who is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!" That incident and today's both demonstrate Jesus as Lord of creation. They reveal Jesus acting in ways God usually acts.

As people formed in God's image, what about our loving care and stewardship of water? Do you visit your nearest river, lake, or ocean? Do you know your watershed? The Environmental Protection Agency's How's My Waterway can help you locate it and connect you with water-related resources. With water covering about 70% of planet earth's surface, our everyday lives are ongoing nautical enterprises.

A few weeks ago we heard Romans 8:19, "For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God." Creation yearns for humans who reflect and embody their divine image by caring for the natural world the same way God does. God calls us to cherish and protect creation, even in ways that help reverse climate change and prevent more species extinction.

"Keep your eyes on Jesus," is simple yet remains essential. Jesus gave us the church as a ship with all of us in the boat together. With its "I believe," the Apostle's Creed is the baptismal statement of faith, but then we live we, us, our, and ours as the baptismal pronouns.
wind and waves

Friday, August 04, 2023

Pentecost 10A

"This is a deserted place,
and the hour is now late."
Matthew 14:15
Matthew 14:13-21

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves." 16 Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." 17 They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish." 18 And he said, "Bring them here to me."

19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking 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.

20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Feeding Five Thousand+++

Every scriptural instance of water isn't about baptism; every reference to grain or grape isn't about the Lord's Supper, but gifts of creation always remind us of God's provision and God's call to steward creation. Today's story of five loaves of bread and two fish is amazing on many counts—among them the fact all four gospels include it.

Mark 6:35-44

Luke 9:12-17

John 6:1-14

All of them end with 12 (twelve) baskets of leftovers!

• Psalm 78:19b "Can God spread a table in the wilderness?" Can we spread a table in this wilderness?

We sometimes parallel Jesus and his disciples (verse 16, "you give them something to eat") feeding hungry people in this desolate, late in the day landscape with God feeding the Exodus desert wanderers.

The Old Testament makes abundant food the icon of the fullness of the Messianic time. As creatures who bear God's image, we recognize food as the primary symbol of hospitality as it responds to our needs for physical sustenance and social connection. Whatever person or group is the apparent end giver, food is a gift from heaven.


What Is More

Gathering 5,000 people was an act of sedition punishable by crucifixion; 5,000 formed a military battalion.

This loaves and fishes event happened during the grain harvest, close to Passover. John's account says the loaves were barley, which likely was the case. Barley was the poor person's grain because the wealthy got most of the costlier wheat, but to its advantage, barley is ready for harvest earlier than wheat, and barley grows well in ground that's not as nutrient-rich as wheat requires. Barley also was one of the seven agricultural gifts of the Promised Land! Most of Jesus' disciples were fishers by trade; in that part of the world, fish was a food of the gods. In the initialism ichthys, letters of the Greek word for "fish" become the first letters of Jesus Christ Son of God Savior.

Similar to food insecurity worldwide and in our backyards, food scarcity was an indignity of imperial Roman occupation. Equally indignant is the fact most metropolitan areas in this country have food deserts, with no healthy food available within a reasonably walkable radius.

• Psalm 78:19b "Can God spread a table in the wilderness?" Can we spread a table in this wilderness?

Current scholarship questions that loaves and fishes multiplied out of nowhere. We can assume those who had food with them would have wanted to hang on tightly to it and not share. Five loaves and two fish was all the disciples could see offhand through that large crowd. Many of the 5,000+ had no food, "So Jesus, send them away to buy food elsewhere" (that might or might not have been an option).

"At the very end of that day," there really was enough food to go around, and… twelve baskets of leftovers. We frequently hear there's enough food worldwide to feed everyone, but very few behave as if they believed it.

• How about you? How about me? Do we act in ways that show trust in "enough?"

• What does grace taste like?


Living with Others

The world has seen an unending series of imperial governments. Food production has assumed an imperial force of its own. Exactly like national and colonizing political regimes, Big Ag runs on greed and exploitation. Individuals and corporations who keep the profits externalize costs. Debt on every level downstream of the very top is the foundation of any imperial economy.

We are what we eat and literally embody everything we consume. We embody labor of people who grow, produce, transport, process, prepare, and serve our food. We embody actions that contribute to ruining the land and the environment. We embody the disease and death Big Ag has caused farmers, farmlands, and farmhands. With packaging, transportation, and distribution prices not necessarily lower, organic certification doesn't negate those costs.

• We can move away from imperial forms of production and distribution to covenantal methods sourced from our kinship and our common wealth. Or can we?

• Psalm 78:19b "Can God spread a table in the wilderness?" Can we spread a table in this wilderness?

• Besides shopping at farmers markets, eating low on the food chain, and planting gardens, what can we do?


Living for Others

Matthew 14:19 Jesus looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

At many points in Jesus' ministry we recognize his "taking – thanking – breaking – giving" as a eucharistic action that like our own, participates in the redemption of all creation. In Holy Communion, food no longer is an imperial commodity to be traded or sold, but a gift to be received. Formally and theologically, the sacrament is in the remembering, the blessing, the giving, and the receiving—in the relational interconnectedness. Apart from those "together" words and actions, bread is simply bread. Fruit of the vine? Simple wine. Reflecting this, the Methodist Book of Discipline tells us the concept of transubstantiation "overthroweth the nature of a sacrament."

We often feel the best communion bread is baked locally by confirmation students in the church kitchen, a member in their own bakery, as a intergenerational family project, but can our feasting around the Lord's table transform and redeem breads and vines from Big Ag? Maybe we purchased or bartered for ingredients or an already baked loaf, but what if "the buck stopped" there and as we gathered around God's Table, receiving them became the only required payment for the bread and the fruit of the vine? What if we extended that cost-free inclusion beyond the assembly gathered around Word and Sacrament on a Sunday or feast day?

• How can we spread a table in the wilderness and provide nutritious food at the crossroads of empire and covenant? Or can we?

The sacraments form models for our interactions after "the church leaves the building." The Old Testament makes abundant food the touchstone of full redemption. Our Christian eucharistic feast is a foretaste of the New Creation … when the world won't need sacraments.

Eating together nourishes spirits and relationships.
Eating together heals individual and social bodies.
Food is essential—community equally so. An old transit poster reminded travelers, "loneliness can kill people."

• What are some of your best memories of sharing food or something else you already had and that someone else needed?

• In addition to life-giving ministries of prayer, community gardens, and food pantries, what can we do?
• What do we already have with us that we can share to help the worlds outside our doors?
• Do our votes for political leaders and ballot propositions really get counted? Do they actually help lead to change?

• Psalm 78:19b "Can God spread a table in the wilderness?" Can we spread a table in this wilderness?

Everyone reading this could write or talk paragraphs of food-related experiences of disappointment, surprise, and redemption.

• What does exclusion feel like?
• What does grace taste like?
Ban mi sandwich with fish and crusty baguette
Original Banh mi picture by Alan Levine

Friday, July 28, 2023

Pentecost 9A

Romans 8
"Neither death, nor life, nor angels,
nor rulers, nor things present,
nor things to come, nor powers,
nor height, nor depth, nor anything else
in all creation, will be able
to separate us from the love of God
in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Romans 8:38-39

Romans 8:26-39

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

36 As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered." 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Reviewing

Romans is the seventh and the latest of Paul's undisputed epistles. "Undisputed" means they carry strong evidence of his authorship (grammar, sentence structure, syntax, vocabulary), although all of these letters probably garnered edits and additions as they circulated round-robin style to various churches. We sometimes refer to Romans as Paul's systematic theology. Systematics is the philosophical-style theology that presents ideas about God with definitions, outlines, logic, and structure. By standards of people like Augustine and Barth, Romans isn't particularly systematic, but it still gives us Paul's mature, well-developed theology. More than one person has observed if Paul wrote only Romans 8, he'd forever be remembered as a high level theologian.


Today in the Church's Year of Grace

Although I wrote about Jacob last week, six years ago I blogged about Romans 8:12-25 and referred to the "interwoven interdependence" of humans and the rest of creation. That was long before Covid, and rather than attempting a semi-coherent weekly essay, I copied the notes I used for teaching and inserted any interesting class discussion material I remembered.

In today's second reading we hear about the constant presence of the Trinity in our lives, especially in our prayer lives—especially the Holy Spirit. This scripture is packed full of profound Trinitarian theology. You can discover reliable commentaries and helpful devotionals that relate well to it, yet we can take much of it at plain "what you see is what you get" face value. However, because of the famous and well-known words in this passage we need to listen and hear very carefully.


Where We Live

This Sunday we hear God's promise we will be formed into the image of Jesus Christ; according to the section immediately before this one (18-25), all creation waits and hopes for humans to act more fully in our in-God-created imago dei (image of God): "interwoven interdependence!" Verse 23 says we humans wait for adoption. In a logical continuation from earlier in Romans, our baptism into Jesus' death and resurrection births us as Jesus' sisters and brothers, offspring of God. Paul's most famous baptismal essay is in Romans 6:1-11.

Verse 29 assures us Jesus is firstborn of many siblings in "a large family" that includes each of us. At the start of this epistle, Romans 1:4 says God appointed Jesus son of God at his resurrection, but please note carefully, this is not the heresy of adoptionism.

On desert spirit's fire, the long-running blog I started mid-July 2002, I've written about home and homecoming at least one hundred times—and counting. I can't imagine any individual feeling totally "at home" absolutely everywhere and with everyone, but the simple head knowledge of our relatedness in Jesus Christ can help take the edge off at least some strangeness and alienation.

On several occasions I've mentioned checking into a summer hostel in L├╝beck, Germany long ago. While the only other person in the room and I got to talking, she told me about the incredible confidence and freedom she lived with because her parents chose her in adoption. We live with that same confidence and freedom because God chooses us, elects us, adopts us in Jesus Christ.