Monday, September 21, 2020

Complaining about Complaining


Matthew 20:1-16

Proper 20 / Year A

Moses said to the people, “Draw near, for the Lord has heard your complaining.” 

If there is one thing connecting today’s two readings it is a deep sense of dissatisfaction.  I know complaining when I hear it because I can complain with the best of ‘em.  According to a website aimed at people in their sixties, these are seven things people my age complain about the most:

·       The weather.

·       Other drivers.

·       Waiting on hold.

·       Little aches and pains.

·       Professionals who don’t act professionally.

·       “Kids these days…”

·       The cost of food, gasoline, and just about everything else.

Somehow complaining about what the neighbors across the street are doing in our church parking lot failed to make the list!

Another site suggests there are three different kinds of complainers.  First, there are chronic complainers – the folks who are never satisfied… ever.  Cognitive research has discovered perpetual negativity actually re-wires a person’s brain so that every experience is filtered with a slant toward what is wrong with it.

The second type of complainer is the venter.  They express dissatisfaction in order to garner attention and receive validation in the form of sympathy.  Vesting tends to release energy building up inside, but at a cost.  Once the energy is dispelled, so is the drive to fix whatever one finds so frustrating.  And often the energy doesn’t just go away, it gets transferred to the person listening who must now carry the venter’s emotional baggage.  As an anonymous wag put it, “I think some people enjoy complaining almost as much as they enjoy doing nothing about it.”

The final type is known as the “instrumental” complainer.  This person takes the complaint to source of dissatisfaction, names what is wrong, describes its impact, stresses the importance of change, and cooperates in appropriate ways to make it happen.  There is an old saying that holds, “The pessimist complains about the wind.  The optimist expects it to change.  The realist adjusts the sail.”

One of the striking features of Israel’s forty years in the wilderness is how passive the people are.  They want, they need, and they expect God to do everything for them… the kinds of things most of us do for ourselves.  A predicable pattern emerges: God provides and the people complain.  The manna is tasteless.  The water has a funny taste.  What’s for dinner tonight?  Don’t tell me.  Let me guess.  Quail! 

Some 750 years later God’s people undertake a second kind of Exodus; this time leaving exile in Babylon to return to Jerusalem.  Although they were exiled, they where not enslaved like those who left Egypt.  These Jews become part of an advanced civilization, rise up in the ranks of society, and mingle with other exiles; exposing them to new ideas and possibilities.  They don’t need God to deliver them.  They simply go to the king and ask his permission to return home.  And when they get to Jerusalem they find its walls breached, gates burned, and the Temple destroyed.  What do they do?  Under the leadership of Ezra, they roll up their sleeves and rebuild the Temple.  Under the leadership of Nehemiah they repair the wall and construct new gates.  They don’t complain to God.  They get to work.

If you know your Virginia history you know the Jamestown settlement struggled mightily its first few years.  Thirteen years later the colony in Plymouth was equally challenged.  Both began as collectivist efforts where everyone worked for the common good of all.  Shortages and deprivation were common.  You should not be surprised to learn both enterprises reversed their fortunes and began to thrive after allocating a parcel of land to each to each individual.  The work each person put into his/her field benefitted him/her personally.  It seems in life either we work hard to make for ourselves the kind of life we want or we abdicate this duty to someone else and complain about the results. 

Jesus’ parable about the day labors in the vineyard can just as easily be called the Parable about the Responsible Employer.  By paying a full day’s wage to those who do not work the full day he ensures each laborer (and each laborer’s family) will have enough to get by on for that day.  Short of a day’s wage, those workers who started later in the day would be in real trouble.

There wouldn’t be much a story here if Jesus had changed one little detail in how he tells it.  He could have had the owner pay first those who had worked the longest.  They would have walked away content with the pay they had agreed to work for.  Then Jesus could have had the owner pay those who did not work as long and no one would be the wiser… but it wouldn’t nearly be as interesting of a story. Jesus has those who worked the most watch those who worked the least get paid the same amount.  It doesn’t sit well with them and we get it.  It does not seem fair.

Barbara Brown Taylor raises an interesting question about this parable.  Why is it, she asks, as we listen to this story we so closely identify with those who worked the hardest rather than with those who worked the least?  Why are we drawn to the moral outrage of those who get shorted as opposed to the gratitude of those who get more than they deserve?  If we are honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge we have each caught our share of the breaks, been blessed beyond what we merit, generally have it better than 99% of the people who have ever lived. 

Of course Jesus’ story is not about business practices and social responsibility.  It is a story about God and about you and me.  God blesses each one of us not because we earned it, not because we worked for it, and not because we deserve it.  God blesses of us because God loves us.  God knows we need the daily bread of justice, mercy, and forgiveness.  God knows each of needs to feel loved, valued, and accepted.  God gives to me as God gives to you as God gives to the people parking in our lot, working on their cars, and (on occasion) dumping their trash. 

So here is a hard, but important truth… the person you complain about the most… well God loves this person just as much as God loves you.  It may not seem fair.  It may not seem right.  But it is the way it is because it is the way God is.

Monday, September 14, 2020

77: Turning Violence into Suffering


Matthew 18:21-35

Proper 19 / Year A

On October 2, 2006, Carl Roberts walked into a one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County, PA, and took hostages.  He dismissed the boys and several adults before lining up ten girls along a chalkboard.  He then shot eight of the children, killing five, before taking his own life.  It was an Amish school and, as you may know, the Amish community deeply values the practice of forgiveness.  Within hours of the tragedy, members of the Amish community reached out to Roberts’ widow Marie, his mother and father, and other members of his family, reportedly holding them in their arms for hours while they sobbed.  Thirty members of the community attended Roberts funeral and Marie Roberts was one of the few outsiders invited to attend the funeral of one of the victims. 

This horrific incident gave the world a window into how the Amish practice their faith.  I remember having discussion after discussion with many good and faithful members of the church I served at the time, each wondering how anyone could ever find it in their heart to forgive such an act.  No one thought the Amish were doing wrong, quite the contrary.  We simply recognized we did not have it in us to do something so powerful and profound.

If you remember last week’s reading from Matthew you will recall Jesus set out a process for how to confront a person who wrongs you – speak privately, then, if this does not work, take two or three others with you, and, if this does not work, bring the matter out into the open in the entire community.  Well, today’s reading comes right on the heels of this.  Listening to Jesus, Peter asks a very natural question: How many times should I forgive a person who wrongs me?  By offering the number seven as a possibility, Peter thinks himself to be pretty generous indeed, but Jesus turns this extravagance upside down and inside out – “Seventy-seven.”  And no, Jesus is not saying you don’t have to forgive the 78st offense.  He is saying you are to forgive all things… all the time.   

The bible contains a number of different metaphors for forgiveness: a debt, a stone, a robe/ring/sandals/feast, a hug, a kiss, paralysis ended, illness healed, blindness cured, table manners, and exotic perfume applied with tears and kisses.  Whatever the image, when a wrong occurs a burden is created it must be borne either by the offender (we call this justice) or by the victim (we call this forgiveness).

Our Christian tradition holds repentance consists of three dimensions – remorse, restitution, and renewal.  Remorse is the sign of genuine sorrow for one’s actions, restitution is an effort to restore to the degree possible what has been damaged, and renewal involves making changes in one’s life so that a new and healthy relationship can emerge.  Some commentators argued it was inappropriate for the Amish community to forgive Carl Roberts because this three-fold pattern had not emerged. 

Perhaps the best defense for the Amish comes from the French philosopher Simone Weil who wrote, “the false god changes suffering into violence; the true God changes violence into suffering.”  I Peter 2:24 tells us “Jesus himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” not because an angry God needed to be appeased by a blood sacrifice, but in order that we might be reconciled with God.  In the Cross we see the ultimate demonstration of God’s willingness to bear the burden of our offenses, offering forgiveness and release us from the justice we deserve.  If we are going to live into how you are created in God’s image you also must forgive – seventy times seven if necessary.

A person’s capacity to forgive finds its roots in something human and in something spiritual.  We learn forgiveness as infants and children from our parents as they model consistently acceptance and forgiveness, no matter what we do.  If a parent returns destructive responses in response to a child’s destructive impulses, the child reacts to this with frustration and retaliation.  If the parent responds in kind the two behaviors reinforce one another.  From this the child constructs a worldview holding all people and things and moments are as explosive as the feeling in his or her interior life.  The child comes to believe the world will treat him or her in the exact same way he or she would like to lash out at it.  But, when a parent offers love, acceptance, and forgiveness in response to a child’s destructive actions, the child begins to assimilate this “good parent” into his or her interior life.  Healing and restoration become possibilities as opposed to frustration and guilt.  All of this is to say, we learn how to forgive by being forgiven… and forgiven over and over and over again.

This is the human formation part of developing a capacity to forgive, but there is also a spiritual component.  Another memorable act of forgiveness took place in 1981 after Pope John Paul II survived an assassination attempt.  Shot four times by Mehmet Ali Agca, while recovering the Pope told the world he forgave the person who tried to take his life.  John Paul visited with Mehmet in prison, developed a friendship with his family, and advocated for his pardon and release in 2020. 

Sure, we might think, the Pope is supposed to do this kind of thing, but not me.  I am not a super-Christian.  But I don’t think John Paul asked himself “How do I, as victim find it within me to forgive the person who has violated me?”  I think he paused and prayed and pursued a more spiritual question: “How do I open myself to the mercy of God welling up in my own life, and where does it lead me?”  You see, spiritually speaking, forgiveness is not something we do, it is something we discover. 

And, as we discover it, it becomes and balm and blessing in our broken world.  Marie Roberts wrote this an open letter to the Amish people who reached out to her and embraced her so compassionately: 

“Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need.  Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe.  Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”

In response to this one commentator stated, “the Amish willingness to forgo vengeance does not undo the tragedy or pardon the wrong, but rather constitutes a first step toward a future that is more hopeful.”  I think this is what Jesus has in mind as he responds to Peter.  Every wrong creates a burden that will be carried either by the perpetrator (which we call justice) or the recipient (which we call forgiveness).  Either we turn our suffering into violence or we turn violence into suffering.  Seventy-seven times.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

The Biggest We Can Be


Matthew 18:15-20

Proper 18 / Year A

Jesus said, “When two or three are gathered together in my name I will be in the midst of them.”  Gathering has changed a great deal since mid-March.  We don’t gather often and when we do we keep our distance and we keep it brief.  Physical gathering has given way to on-line gathering.  Zooms and live-streams are now the norm.  I am grateful these are available to us and in some ways they have expanded our ability to be together.  Folks who are homebound and folks who have moved out of town and folks who have left town for the long holiday weekend still can participant in today’s service. 

When two or three are gathered... we have been hearing this a lot of late through our regular use of the Prayer of St. Chrysostom.  This morning we learn the original context of the saying is not worship, but rather conflict.  (As an aside, St. Paul’s great chapter on Love – I Corinthians 13 – is not about marriage, but conflict as well.  Paul’s description of love is meant to set the bar for how those who disagree are to treat one another.) 

In today’s reading Jesus lays out a strategy for addressing a situation when a person has wronged you.  First, go to the person privately and speak privately.  If the person hears and sincerely apologizes, the bonds of your friendship will be restored.  If the person refuses, then you are to speak with one or two others and the three of you go and meet with the person.  It is in this context Jesus promises to be present, working in and through your words and the words of the witnesses.  If this does not resolve the matter, it is to be brought before the community – the church – and made public.  If the person does not listen to the community, he or she is to be shunned and banished.

In one form or another, over the course of my ministry, I have seen this third phase fail time and again and it is always painful.  It may be brought on by political differences, personal differences, or church polity differences.  It and involve the priest and a parishioner, or it may involve two parishioners, or it may involve family members.  When one goes and one stays no one wins.  The one who leaves losses the church.  The one who stays losses a friend.  And the church losses a bit of itself it will never get back. 

Thankfully, more times than not, the first or the second phase of Jesus’ teaching results in resolution.  Several years ago Betty Ann Kyle lit into John Rector for coming into church toward the end of the service and receiving communion.  I mean she lit into him… in the Narthex… with a dozen people around.  It hurt John and he decided to write her a letter explaining the situation and elaborating on his feelings.  Good for him.  And good for Betty Ann because she read the letter and apologized to John and let it be known in the church she had been in the wrong.  Betty Ann, who is now telling the Lord how to run things in heaven, was a wonderful person and a deeply faithful Christian.  She turned what was one of her worst moments in her into one of her best.   I was grateful for how Jesus was in their midst when they gathered together.

A lot can go wrong at the initial step of speaking in private.  If you have been offended, it takes a certain amount of tact to state your case.  Years ago, at the end of what had been a wonderful parish retreat, a woman came up to me and said, “Can I tell you something about today’s worship service?”  “Yes,” I said (we had held it at Shrine Mont’s outdoor chapel).  “You are the least spiritual priest I know and I can’t image why they allowed you to be ordained.”  I was devastated, standing in front of this woman while I held my two-year-old by the hand with one hand and her tricycle with the other. 

Before the service began I prepared the altar, in part, by filling the chalice with wine and water.  Because I had to bring these with me from the church I had to find something to contain them safer than the Altar Guild’s fancy and fragile glass cruets, which were being used in the service back at the church for those not at the retreat.  Scrounging around for something that would work, I found some small syrup pitchers in the parish kitchen.  Perfect, I thought, but I didn’t want them front and center just prior to the Great Thanksgiving, hence the reason I prepared the altar prior to the service.  Well, this woman was sitting on a chapel bench at the time and was insulted by these containers.  She also told me she was offended that I did not wear any of the church’s beautiful chasubles.  Well, they were the personal property of the previous rector and he took them with him. 

“You are the least spiritual priest I know.”  I can’t imagine a less helpful way to approach a person in a situation like this.  It still hurts when I think about it, but I also had enough experiences with this person to be able to consider the source.  The Senior Warden talked with her and she half-heartedly apologized to me, but the damage was done.  In hindsight, I recognize this as the moment when my wife began to pull back from church life and began to realize she didn’t enjoy being married to a priest.

So, how you present your case will go a long way in helping or hindering it.  It is equally true, should someone come to you with a complaint, how you receive it will go a long way in determining if it will be resolved.  When a person comes to me to make me aware of something I have done (or failed to do), I try to calm myself and listen.  I want to understand the situation as the other person sees it.  I don’t want to be defensive, although this does not mean I can’t put up a defense to explain myself.  And I certainly don’t want to go on the attack; you know, “If you are going to accuse me of X, then I am going to accuse you of Y and Z.”  Y and Z can wait until another time.  Right now the issue is X and I need to understand my role in it.  I try to humble myself and keep open the possibility I just might have done something intentionally or unintentionally counter to who I am and what I value.  It requires great personal and spiritual discipline to listen openly when another person calls you to task.  And, from my experience, it requires strength and courage, rather than weakness and self-loathing, to own up to your fault. 

None of us is ever bigger than when we apologize.  None of us is more Christ-like than when we forgive.

Bud Bilanich, businessman and career mentor, says this:

It takes a big person to forgive and forget.  It takes a bigger person to apologize.  Yet, forgiveness and apologies are the marks of interpersonal competence.  They help you build strong relationships and to resolve conflict with minimal disruption to your relationships.

When you forgive, forget and apologize you are saying to the other person, “I value you and our relationship.  We may have some differences, but our relationship is more important to me than those differences.  Let’s go on in spite of them.”

And when two people learn to value their relationship more than their differences they soon discover Christ is in the midst of them.  You see Christ is present not just when we are in conflict, but as we live in harmony and, as John Chrysostom said, as we pray.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

I see. I hear. I understand. I act.


Exodus 3:1-12

Proper 17 / Year A

“God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”

If the bible was a play, its main character has been off stage for some time.  God’s last lines consisted of a brief dialogue with Jacob.  When the scene of Joseph’s life comes to a close, Act I of the biblical drama (the Book of Genesis) concludes and the curtains close.  Act 2 picks up the story some 400 years later.  The Hebrews, who prospered in Egypt for generations, are now enslaved by those who fear their success and power.  With the Pharaoh’s edict to kill every male Hebrew at birth the oppression reaches the unthinkable level of systematic genocide. 

One baby eludes this death sentence and grows up raised by the Pharaoh’s own daughter.  He is given the name Moses, one who is drawn out (an allusion to his being found adrift in a basket in the Nile River).  Raised as an Egyptian prince until as an adult he learns of his heritage, Moses flees after killing a taskmaster while defending a Hebrew slave.  He ends up in Midian (a land on the eastern side of the Gulf of Aqaba), marries, and becomes a lowly shepherd.  For reasons unknown, Moses leads the flock into the Saini wilderness (on the western side of the gulf) and takes them up Mt. Horeb; a massive, foreboding rock outcrop known as the Mountain of God.  It is here God makes a dramatic return to the stage. 

A theophany is the appearance of a deity to a human being and the burning bush is no doubt the quintessential example of this.  The text seems to reflect the progression of Moses’ discernment.  He moves from fascination (how can a bush be on fire without being consumed?) to sensing the presence of an angel to the realization he is standing before the HOLY ONE; an event so potent the dirt beneath his feet is transformed into sacred ground.

God, as a character, introduces himself to Moses.  “I am the God of your father (most likely a person Moses never knew), the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (legendary figures from the distant past whose status puts them on whatever is the ancient Hebrew equivalent of Mt. Rushmore).  Moses, overcome with awe, hides his face, afraid even to look at the visible manifestation of God.

God’s next lines tell us much about who God is.  They will define God throughout the second act (the Exodus story), for the rest of the biblical drama, and into our own day and time:

“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.  Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.”

I see the misery.  I hear the cries.  I understand the suffering.  I am going to do something about it.  I act.  Seeing, hearing, understanding, acting: this is how God describes the divine nature.  God may have been off stage for while, but this does not mean God is unaware of how the drama has been unfolding.  And now when the people have lost hope God is front and center once again.

As God tells Moses of the plan to deliver the Hebrew people from bondage and to bring them to a “good and broad land, flowing with milk and honey” the script gives Moses no lines of dialogue.  How does he take this news?  Is he thrilled, puzzled, doubtful?  We don’t know.  But surely you can imagine the look on his face when God says, “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Israel.”  However supportive he was of God’s intended action, Moses is now in panic mode: “But who am I that I should do this?”  “Don’t worry,” God responds, “I will be with you.” 

And then Moses asks, “What if the people ask me what your name is?  What shall I tell them?”  Up until this point in the bible, God has been identified either as ‘Elohim (God) or Yahweh (the Lord).  Both are used throughout today’s reading.  In answering Moses God (‘Elohim) says ‘Ehyeh ‘Asher ‘Ehyeh, most often is translated as “I AM WHO I AM”.  But the phrase is very cryptic and can be rendered as “I am that which I am” or “I am what I shall be” (conveying the meaning of “You’ll find out who I am”).  ‘Asher, the middle word, hints at causing to become, making happen, or taking action.  Given this, the name could be “I am who I will be” or “I am that I am” or “I am one who brings things into being.”  How much simpler it would have been if the Lord has said, “My name is Harold”!

One thing is clear about the name I AM, there is something in the original Hebrew suggesting action.  I see.  I hear.  I understand.  I act or I will act.  And as God acts, Moses is enlisted as God’s partner.  God always acts in this way, be it speaking through a prophet or becoming incarnate in a virgin’s womb.  And the faithful always try to discern God’s desire in their age and ponder what God would have them do.  God still sees, still hears, still understands, and still acts; most often by enlisting our full participation.  And here is a second motif running from the beginning of the biblical drama to its final scene, God is decidedly on the side of the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable.  We read it in today’s story and we see it reflected in St. Paul’s beautiful stained glass window “I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.”  As the saying goes, God’s heart resides with the least, the last, and lonely. 

Our hearts break again this week as we see yet another black man shot by a police officer… seven times… in the back.  It is an outrage, and far from being an appropriate response, destructive rioting only serves to shift the focus from the initial wrong onto itself.  Two days after Jacob Blake was shot, armed “militia” began to patrol the streets and a seventeen-year-old shot and killed two people while wounding another.

Peaceful protests are going to continue until people sense something is being done.  I’d like to see our president form a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Here is an oft-cited definition of what this work is all about:

“A truth commission (1) is focused on the past, rather than in ongoing events; (2) investigates a pattern of events that took place over a period of time; (3) engages directly and broadly with the affected population, gathering information on their experiences; (4) is a temporary body, with the aim of concluding with a final report; and (5) is officially authorized or empowered by the state under review.”

The first such commission was organized in Uganda in 1974 to investigate the crimes of Idi Amin.  The most famous and perhaps most effective was organized in South Africa in 1996 after the end of apartheid and was chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  I think we need something like this because people in the black community need to know their voices are being heard, their experiences understood, and yes, their lives matter (as do Blue Lives and All Lives!).

I had tickets for the 1981 Cleveland Browns football season.  Eight white men in the row behind mine were also season ticket holders.  The two seats next to mine were game day sales and one bitter cold November Sunday were occupied by two black men.  The white men behind them uttered racial insults, kneed them in the back, and eventually one of the black men stood up, turned around a swung a heavy thermos at the person behind.  You can only imagine the fight that ensued.  I don’t remember how it was broken up, but security took away the two black men and three of the white men.  Within half an hour the three white men returned to the cheers of their friends.  They sat down and shared their story.  “We flashed our badges to the security officials and they believed our story.”  The people who provoked this ugly and unnecessary fight were police officers. 

God sees.  God hears.  God understands.  God acts.

I am confident that the overwhelming majority of police officers in our country are decent men and women who joined the force to make a positive difference in the communities they serve.  They too see.  They too hear.  They too understand.  They too act, at times putting their lives on the line.  But positions of power have a way of drawing to them people who should never be entrusted with power or authority.  It is as true of the police as it is of the clergy.  And this very small percentage does a great deal of damage, especially to people of color.  And good and faithful officers are tainted by the actions of a few.

It is possible for us to address the pain and injustice experienced by so many while at the same time supporting and thanking good police officers for the fine job they do.  It is not one or the other.  We can do both things and say rioting, violence, and destruction are not appropriate or tolerable.

I sense once again God is ready to come back on the stage of our country and God’s well rehearsed lines will not have changed much from those spoken to Moses:  “I hear the cries.  I see the injustices.  I understand the pain.  I am going to act to bring all people to a better place.”  And then God says to each one of us, “I need you to go to the Pharaoh and tell him things have to change.”  Me?  I have a role and responsibility in this?  “Don’t worry,” God says, “I will be with you.”

Monday, August 24, 2020

God on Our Side


Psalm 124

Proper 16 / Year A

Let Israel now say, If the Lord had not been on our side when our enemies rose up against us they would have swallowed us alive.

Bob Dylan’s 1964 album The Times They are a-Changin’ contains a song titled With God on Our Side.  The light, hummable melody played on an acoustic guitar belies the blistering criticism of the song’s lyrics:

Oh my name it is nothin’

My age it means less

The country I come from

Is called the Midwest

I’s taught and brought up there

The laws to abide

And that the land that I live in

Has God on its side

Oh the history books tell it

They tell it so well

The cavalries charged

The Indians fell

The cavalries charged

The Indians died

Oh the country was young

With God on its side

Subsequent verses speak of the Spanish-American War, the Civil War, two World Wars, the Cold War, and the threat of nuclear annulation; all with God on our side.  The final verse puts forward this idea…

So now as I’m leavin’

I’m weary as Hell

The confusion I’m feelin’

Ain’t no tongue can tell

The words fill my head

And fall to the floor

If God’s on our side

He’ll stop the next war

What do we mean when we say God is on our side? 

During the Civil War someone asked Abraham Lincoln if he thought God was on his side.  The President responded, “My concern is not whether God in on our side.  My concern is whether we are on God’s side, for God is always on the side of right.”  Though the word changes may be subtle, the meaning it conveys is anything but.  It rejects any thinking and theology assuming it is God’s duty to bless and prosper everything we undertake and places responsibility on us to ponder, prayer for, and then pursue what is just, right, and good.  Sometimes this path may in fact call for military engagement, but I sense for far too many people God-on-our-side thinking is far too cozy and far less challenging than it should be.

The 124th Psalm is one of the Psalms of Ascent we talked about last week.  Pilgrims said or sang it as they walked to Jerusalem to attend a religious festival.  In terms of its theology, it sits at a mid-point in Israel’s thinking.  At the time of the Exodus, God was not only on Israel’s side, God was entirely responsible for the people’s welfare.  God provided food, water, direction, protection, everything.  The people were passive and not always pleased.

Written hundreds of years later, the psalms reflect a different reality.  The people are now engaged and responsible for their well-being.  God’s role has shifted from provider to partner.  Israel acts and God assists.  The people expect God to be on their side and are grateful for it.  And the psalm’s confession “Our help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth” remains a central tenant of our prayer life to this day.

Late in the development of the Old Testament another new kind of thinking begin to emerge called Wisdom literature.  Found most prominently in the Book of Proverbs, it holds God’s help is woven into the very fabric of creation.  The wise perceive it, live according to it, and typically prosper because of it.  The lazy and the ignorant do not look for God’s wisdom, live by their own will and whim, and generally come to disaster. 

If you purchase a new car you have two choices.  Either you can maintain it in the way recommended by the automaker or you cannot.  If you change the oil when you are supposed to, have the appropriate servicing done at the appointed time, and operate your car in a safe manner, you can expect it will provide reliable transportation for a long time.  This ‘wisdom’ is built into the nuts and bolts of the car.  If you never change the oil, don’t have it serviced, and drive like a maniac your car is going to need more than God’s help in short order. 

This is analogous to the theology of the bible’s wisdom tradition.  Our help is in the name of the Lord and we receive it not because God is obligated to give it to our side, but because we look for it in order to live by it. 

Where do you see yourself in this progression?  Is it up to God to provide for your every need?  There are times when this may be appropriate, like when you as so sick or so broken you don’t have the ability to care for yourself.  In times like this God’s help is real and it will get you through the moment and guide you to a better place.  Or, do you live life on your own terms, expecting God to be there to back you up?  There may be times when this too is appropriate, like when you feel it is necessary to take a risk and do something daring – perhaps changing your career or setting out to college for the first time.  The possibility of failure is real, but God’s help will be there no matter what.  Or, do you put your trust in who God is and how God has made this world and how God’s will is expressed in God’s word and seek to live in harmony with it?  I suspect this is how most of us try to live out our faith most of the time.

New Testament thinking develops this progression one step further.  It does not extol a God who is on our side, it speaks of a God who is on the inside.  At each baptism we proclaim this reality as we bid the Holy Spirit to come into the life of the infant, child, or person.  This Spirit on the inside comforts, strengthens, encourages, instructs, inspires, empowers, and generally seeks to animate everything about us as we live and move and have our being in God. 

The Spirit manifests itself in different people in different ways.  Some became charismatic holy rollers while others listen for the Spirit’s still, small, calming voice.  No matter where you fall on this continuum, how do you sense your help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth?  How and when do you sense and seek this help?  Do you feel the Spirit more present in your heart or in your head?  How is God on the inside manifested on the outside?

Sunday, August 16, 2020

It's about Us!


Psalm 133

Proper 15 / Year A

If you were a pilgrim walking to Jerusalem to attend one of it’s many yearly religious festivals, you passed the time saying or singing what are known as the Psalms of Ascent.  These fifteen psalms (numbers 120-134 in our prayer book) speak to a variety of situations pilgrims encounter during their journey. 

Imagine getting your first sight of Jerusalem after several days of walking.  You are tired, but it is built on top of a mountain and you have got to make the climb.  Perhaps the words of the 121st Psalm will help:

I lift up my eyes to the hills,

 from where is my help to come?

My help comes from the Lord,

  the maker of heaven and earth.

Once you get there, you and your companions might want to sing 122nd Psalm:

I was glad when the said to me,

  “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”

Now our feet are standing

  within your gates, O Jerusalem.

Maybe during your travels you reflect on past events and times when you came up short.  Psalm 130 would be of comfort:

If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss,

  O Lord, who could stand?

For there is forgiveness with you;

  therefore you shall be feared.

With [the Lord] there is plenteous redemption,

  and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

One of the Psalms of Ascent – Psalm 133 – is appointed to be read in response to today’s first lesson.  It begins with this marvelous statement:

Oh, how good and pleasant it is,

  when brethren live together in unity!

It is an fitting choice to pair it with the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers.  Like Esau forgiving Jacob for cheating him out of his birthright and stealing his blessing, Joseph pardons his brothers for selling him into slavery years earlier.  It is not at all what we expect from a person so deeply wronged who now has risen to power.  We expect him to exact revenge, but Joseph surprises us by going in a different and more generous direction.  The unity he creates (as the psalm says) is “good and pleasant.”

The psalm uses two images to describe what unity is like: oil and dew.  Each holds special meaning for pilgrims.

Oil from olives was an important commodity in the dry climate of the ancient Near East and it was poured on the head for one of two reasons.  The more common use related to hair and skin care.  It was mixed with sweet smelling spices and drizzled on the head.  When a guest entered a house, the host poured some oil on the person to offer comfort and relief (Think about the 23rd psalm: “thou annointest my head with oil”).  Oil was also used to enthrone kings and consecrate priests, so it is significant that the psalm references Aaron, Moses’ brother, who was Israel’s first priest.  The oil runs down to his beard and to the collar of his robe.  Aaron’s priestly vestments include a necklace with twelve stones.  On each stone is written the name of one of the twelve tribes of Israel.  Oil poured so abundantly on Aaron’s head – whether it be as an act of hospitality or as a sign of consecration – falls symbolically on all God’s people, unifying us as we share in its meaning.

The psalm also likens unity to dew.  Very little rain falls in the Holy Land from April through October, but Mt. Hermon, located some 125 miles north of Jerusalem, was known to have heavy dew throughout the year, even in the dry seasons.  This moisture refreshed the region and kept it green during a time when vegetation in other areas withered.  The image of dew suggests unity has a way of refreshing and preserving those who live under its blessings.

Pilgrims singing this psalm as they travel to a religious festival often do so among members of their extended families.  The psalm reminds them of unity’s blessing when shared among siblings (brethren), but also within kindred relationships.  Once in Jerusalem its message and meaning extend to all people living under God’s covenant.  That Christians say this psalm on Maundy Thursday, at the institution of the Lord’ Supper, suggests to us the blessing of unity is to be shared among all people of faith.

If you have been joining us for Morning Prayer over the last two weeks, you know our assigned readings from the Old Testament have been taken from the Book of Judges.  We have heard one brutal, violent story after another and I struggle to find a single redeeming feature in any of them.  Israel’s understanding of what it means to inherit and then inhabit the Promised Land goes through some major changes over the centuries covered in the bible.

·    In the Book of Genesis God promises this land to Abraham.  It then tells his story and the stories of his immediate descendants.

·    Exodus and subsequent books tell the story of deliverance from bondage in Egypt and wondering 40 years in the wilderness, eventually reaching the outskirts of the Promised Land.

·    In the Book of Joshua Israel understands God wants them to kill all the indigenous people living in the Promised Land because there is no way for them to coexist peacefully without being corrupted.

·    In the Book of Judges God’s people share the land, but local conflicts are frequent.  When a gentile group prevails, Israel understands this to be punishment for sin.  Eventually, God raises up a judge who rallies the people to defeat the enemy.

·    This period gives way to the era of the kings – Saul first, then David, followed by Solomon, and so forth.   Israel now controls the Promised Land with gentiles living in their midst.  Israel understands it must remain pure by being true to its covenant with God.

·    The era of the kings ends with the destruction of Jerusalem and exile in Babylon.  Here Israel learns how to be God’s people without the Temple and without the Promised Land.

·    Upon returning from exile, Israel begins to understand God wants her to be a “light to the nations.”  Israel is to teach foreigners about God and be a living example of what God desires for all people.

It is a story of God’s people in transformation, discerning over time who God is and what God requires.  The understanding of the notion of unity is a part of this process.  It’s progression looks something like this:

·       It’s all about me.

·       It’s me and not you.

·       It’s me against you.

·       It’s me showing you God’s love.

And, once Jesus introduces Kingdom of God…

·       It’s about us.

Oh, how good and pleasant it is,

  when people live as us!

Throughout this progression, the notion of unity and its blessings expands from siblings to extended family to clan to tribe to nation to all people.  We sense the blessing of unity when it is present in our family, in our church, in our community, in our nation, and in our world.  Conversely, we feel great pain when any of these circles is fractured or fragmented.  There is nothing good or pleasant about discord. 

And there is a lot of discord in our country right now.  We are not united in our politics, in our response to the pandemic, or in the call for social change.  Where do you see yourself and how you are approaching those who differ from you:

·       It’s all about me.

·       It’s me and not you.

·       It’s me against you.

·       It’s me showing you God’s love.

·       It’s about us.

The pilgrims didn’t walk to Jerusalem to pick a fight.  They wanted to experience the blessing of peace.   Joseph forgave his brothers and this act of kindness restored his place in the family and in his father’s life.    Where in your life is unity lacking and what might you be able to do to foster it?