Thursday, September 26, 2019

Pentecost 15C

Amos 8:4-6, 11

4Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
5saying, "When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?

We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
6buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat."

11The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.

Today we're considering a reading from the prophet Amos. We find Amos in the Book of the Twelve [prophets] sometimes called the Minor Prophets, but they're minor only in length, definitely not in impact and import. Along the lectionary way we've heard readings from former prophets that include Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Amos probably is the earliest of the writing prophets. He lived and prophesied during the eighth century, not long before 1st Isaiah [1-39], Hosea, and Micah, all of whom generally come under the "eighth century prophet" category. I tend to say words like probably, maybe, possibly, most likely a lot, because we're constantly discovering more about the historical and cultural background of the scriptures.

Especially when we recently discussed the major prophet Jeremiah, we talked about the classic prophetic stance of speaking truth to power, words against the establishment, unsettling the status quo. A prophet announces God's expectations of justice, righteousness, mercy, and love, particularly toward marginalized people such as widows, orphans, immigrants, and chronically ill who are far from self-sufficient. The late Robert Farrar Capon used a memorable list of the "last, least, little, lost." Pro-pheteia literally means against the king or ruler. Like Jeremiah, Amos fits that expectation extremely well.

Although Amos lived in Judah, the southern Kingdom, God sent him to prophesy to the northern kingdom of Israel (Jacob, Samaria), where people worshiped at shrines of the tribal confederacies (Amos mentions Gilgal and Bethel) rather than the Jerusalem Temple that was central to the south.

By trade or profession, Amos was an urban forester, a vine-dresser, who tended sycamore (and likely other varieties of) trees. The sycamore was the national tree of Israel! Amos tells us he is not a professional prophet, which may seem a strange to us, but in sections of the OT you'll find guilds or groups of prophets for God's people and for neighboring religions, just as there also are professional priests. Notably, Amos brings us (what's probably, ha ha) the very earliest articulation of monotheism in scripture.

• In Amos 5:24 we find "Let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream," made ultra-famous by MLK.

• Amos 7:7 "...the Lord stood by a wall built true to plumb, with a plumbline in his hand," is another especially memorable image from Amos.

As cultural anthropology emphasizes and celebrates, humans are symbol-makers who tend to be adept at interpreting and giving meaning to objects, signs and symbols. In fact, written and spoken words themselves qualify as symbols.

God speaks through Amos with quite a few natural and other everyday, real-life symbols people easily would recognize and interpret. Cedars, oaks, locusts, fire, a plumbline, waters, rivers; immediately before today's selection there's a basket of summer fruit.

Back to today's reading:

Amos speaks judgment against merchants who are not dealing fairly. They didn't have coinage yet; ephah was a volume measurement, shekel (that later became the name of a coin) was a weight measurement. Markets or other locations where people sell, barter, use means of exchange to acquire goods they need to survive are totally legitimate by biblical or any other standard, and they've been necessary ever since humans stopped living as hunter-gatherers and foragers. Making a profit in excess of your asking price also is fair, just, and necessary, since sellers need to become buyers to acquire items that meet their needs. Back then in the 8th century BCE and now in the 21st century CE, problems arises when sellers misrepresent their offerings in terms of quality and quantity, and when they realize excessive profits.

The merchants Amos addresses also had no interest in keeping the commandment to observe Sabbath or in keeping other mandated religious festivals. They only wanted to return to making money and even exploiting people. Besides providing the gift of needed rest, Sabbath remains a time to trust God will provide for our needs; when we keep Sabbath we don't count, produce, (or ideally) even slice or dice or chop—or turn on a stove and cook.

Furthermore, "selling the sweepings of the wheat" refers to gleanings that didn't always get caught during harvest, and that scripture commands be left so people in need can pick them up and benefit from them.

We had a wonderfully interesting discussion about contemporary agricultural gleanings. Many local Trader Joes/TJs have become well-known for re-distributing quality produce and other food that hasn't sold by tag date. Someone told us about a nearby charity organization checking in to her supermarket that's part of a nationwide mega-chain and leaving most mornings with a truckload of mostly baked goods, sometimes fruits and veggies.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Pentecost 14C

Exodus 32:7-14

7The Lord said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt! 9The Lord said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation."

11But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, "O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.

13"Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, 'I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'" 14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Like last week's scripture reading from Deuteronomy, Exodus is part of the five books of the Pentateuch in the Old Testament /Hebrew Bible. We sometimes call those first five books Torah, God's law or rule that goes far beyond English-language stereotypes of law because it is flexible, malleable, insightful, responds to the current needs of humanity and of all creation.

God says, "Moses, your people" ... and Moses reminds God, 'God, your people.'" It's always both/and. Could God accomplish God's plans and desires without human agency? of course! As frequently happens, we again discussed ways our hands (feet, minds, creativity) can do God's work.

This conversation between Moses and God is only one of countless instances in scripture where God calls and in the power of the Holy Spirit enables humans to do God's work. I quickly sort of proof-texted a handful:

• In the garden of Eden, God gifts Adam and Eve land "to till it and to keep it," and tells the humans they may freely eat of everything in the garden except one particular tree (or type of tree). Genesis 2:15, 16

• God literally inspires Jeremiah, and then sends and appoints Jeremiah as prophet—someone who speaks truth to power, unsettles the status quo, lines out alternatives that include hope for a future that's different from today. Jeremiah 1:9-10

• Jesus tells his disciples (taught people) / apostles (sent people) he possesses "all authority in heaven and on earth" and charges them "therefore, go, make disciples, baptize, teach..." and promises his ongoing presence with them. Matthew 28:18

• Jesus tells his followers they are his witnesses (people who testify, have a testimony), and tells them to stay where they are in Jerusalem for now. Luke 24:49

• Still imagining the return of the reign of a Davidic king they trust will annihilate imperial Rome, the disciples famously ask pre-Ascension Jesus if now he finally will "restore the kingdom," and Jesus tells them (their question is wrong) to wait, and soon they will receive power on the day of Pentecost, and they will be Jesus' witnesses in Jerusalem, and to the ends of the earth, that we now know is a far more extensive expanse then they knew.

Since the dawn of creation, the reign of the Holy Spirit of life, the primacy of grace has pervaded earth, but since that Pentecost event in the upper room Spirit and Grace have been even more alive.

On Sunday most of us wore "God's Work / Our Hands" shirts for the denomination's God's Work / Our Hands weekend. The choir sang contemporary composer David Haas' anthem Christ Among Us, with text inspired by Teresa of Avila. I frequently remind everyone we're God's hands, feet, eyes, ears, voice, and the anthem took it further with thoughts, words, song, heart, touch, care, love, light, hope, strength, joy!

Sunday was the 18-year anniversary of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center twin towers. We spent some time remembering our original 9/11/2001 experiences and updating our emotions and intentions to remain God's presence wherever we go.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Pentecost 13C

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

15See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Today's first reading comes from the fifth and final book of the Pentateuch or Torah, Deuteronomy that roughly means a "second (deutero) law (nomen)" but really isn't because it articulates the same covenantal way as the rest of scripture. In today's passage we have God's "if – then" call to obedience via Moses. God's love always is unconditional, but God's promises mostly carry the necessary response of human obedience.

For several years we've been talking about neighborology: who is my neighbor? how can I be a good neighbor? That concept is particularly central in Deuteronomy, in Jeremiah, and in Luke's gospel, though it's always a concern for the people of God.

The compilation of the book of Deuteronomy was a long time coming, from events and written sources prior to the Babylonian exile, to events and sources afterwards during the rebuilding of Jerusalem, rebuilding community, restoration of worship, of Torah. Like this year's featured gospel of Luke, Deuteronomy is wide and expansive and inclusive. The entire bible is gospel, good news, but Deuteronomy just may be the most grace- and mercy-filled book of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible.

We need to stay aware the English word "law" can be a caricature of Torah. God's covenantal way of Torah is fluid, dynamic, and responds in love to the situation at hand. Deuteronomy reminds us to choose life by keeping the commandments, by considering the needs of the other person as at least as important as our own needs. That's neighborology!

The refrain "into the land" runs through Deuteronomy; stewardship of the gift of the land is a central aspect of God's call to keep covenant with God and with all creation. Rather than still depending on God for life-giving manna from the sky or water from the rock as in the exodus desert, after they crossed the Jordan River into Canaan, God gave, the people received, land to live on, ground (dirt, soil, sod, all the same word in Hebrew) that would offer life and sustenance if they cared for it well.

Related to today's reading from Deuteronomy 30, in 2 Kings 22 we find the narrative during the reign of King Josiah of Huldah's discovering the scrolls of Torah, the people in tears when they listened and heard. This happened after some of the people who'd been exiled to Babylon returned to Israel and Jerusalem, a historical time we refer to as "post-exilic." Although the texts had circulated in the dynamic oral tradition and gotten written down piecemeal, at that time those words started to be codified and canonized and the Israelites became a People of the Book—just as we Christians are People of the Book.

This passage from Deuteronomy actually narrates events from five or six centuries earlier when the people were getting ready to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land after the post-Egypt wilderness trek; here, close to the end of Deuteronomy, the people retell, recount, and remember their experiences of God's faithfulness. Remember is far more than passive recollection; re-member means to identify with, to live into past events so they became present to us and carry us into the future. We do the same thing when we celebrate Holy Communion! Part of most Eucharistic Prayers includes events from God's history with the people; by retelling those events, we claim them and place ourselves in the history of all God's people. We call that section of the communion liturgy anamnesis, or "remembering." Someone mentioned "Remember!" is the Gospel in a single word. Think about it!