Archives for September 2014

Psalm 105:1-7; Judges 16,17; Luke 22:14-23

Psalm 105:1-7: It’s really too bad we don’t sing (or at least read) the Psalms at Saint Matthew any more. They really cry out to be read aloud. And the opening verses of this psalm beg to be spoken or sung:

Acclaim the LORD, call out His name,
make His deeds known among the peoples.
Sing to Him, hymn to Him,
speak of all His wonders.
Revel in His holy name.

Acclaim. Call out. Sing. Hymn. Speak. All involve the use of our voices, not just our eyes. For how can we keep God’s magnificence to ourselves? And then, what’s next? Revel. Have a party; get up and dance.

And what are we acclaiming, calling out, singing, hymning, speaking about? God’s deeds and God’s wonders. “Deeds” means that God is in action among his people. Again and again in the psalms, not to mention the narrative of the Old Testament and the Gospels, Acts and, I think, Revelation, God is active among us. If we look we can see the evidence everywhere in changed lives, in evil that is transformed to good. This is not to be pollyannish about the state of the world; there is still plenty of evil out there. But imagine how dark would be a world where a Living God was not active.

And then, God’s wonders. This is what the preceding psalm was all about: the wonders of God’s creation from beneath the earth and seas up through the rivers, mountains and valleys and out to the stars. From the tiniest insect to humankind itself. There’s indeed plenty to sing, hymn, acclaim. And to revel in.

Judges 16,17: So, what can we say about this famous story of Samson and Delilah? There’s probably no better story that illustrates the relational dynamic of man and woman where God has been ignored. Samson has “fallen in love” and the Philistines know they can use Samson’s sexual weakness to their advantage and Delilah seems to be an enthusiastic member of the plot. There is no true love here, only intended betrayal (by pieces of silver!) to employ Delilah’s raw sexuality accompanied by her clever and incessant wheedling. Samson’s “secrets” (the bowstrings, the rope, being held down with the web) are his less-than-clever attempts to show off in front of his enemies.

Samson’s moral weakness leads directly to his physical weakness. And that’s the lesson here for us. Our exterior gifts and abilities must be rooted in moral and spiritual strength. And those come only from God. But this is also a story of God’s faithfulness. Even though Samson abandoned God, God did not abandon him and was there to answer Samson’s final prayer, “Lord God, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O God,” (16:28)

As for the story of Micah and his mother, I am fairly befuddled as to why it’s here or what its deeper meaning might be, other than as an example of “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” (17:6)  The connection to the preceding story must be the 1100 pieces of silver given to Delilah to betray Samson suggests that Micah’s mother was Delilah, but the text gives no other indication. Micah has stolen his mother’s money, admits to her that he’s taken it and returns it to you. His mother promptly uses it to have an idol cast out of some of the silver.

An itinerant Levite comes along, and if we are looking for an example demonstrating that the priestly clan drifted as far from God as everyone else, we have it here. The Levite becomes the “priest” for the idol. Lesson? Just because someone has been ordained or is thought to be “holy” does not make them so. Alas, so many contemporary examples abound.

Luke 22:14-23: The familiar words of the institution of the Last Supper are bookended by two remarkable statements by Jesus: First, he says, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer;” (15), saying he won;t be dining with them until “it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” (16) By this time, the disciples have surely figured out that the political kingdom they assumed was coming probably wasn’t and now their leader, whom they loved, was apparently abandoning them. Then the familiar words. “My blood?” “New covenant?” I know if I were there I would be befuddled, confused and starting to get angry. Surely, these had to be the feelings of the disciples.

Then, after saying the words we know well, Jesus announces that one of them will betray him. And a verse I’ve never really seen before: “But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table.” (21) Was only Judas’ hand on the table or did some or all of them have their hands on the table? The fact that “they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this” suggests there were many hands on the table when Jesus made his statement. 

So, we could take two meanings out of Jesus’ cryptic announcement. Yes, Judas had his hand on the table and would indeed betray Jesus and “woe to him”. But also, the other hands on the table were disciples–surely Peter–who would betray their Lord in other ways. Denial and cowardice to be sure. And “woe to us.” I think the subtext here is that Jesus is telling us that everyone of us will all deny him in one way or the other. Not just the other disciples, but all of us. Yet, through grace, we will always be invited back to his table. As we are every week.

Psalm 104:31-35; Judges 14,15; Luke 22:1-13

Psalm 104:31-35: The final verses of this psalm are like the cadenza in a concerto: a final flourish of virtuosity that leaves the listener–or in this case, the reader–breathless. The psalmist uses every faculty he possesses to praise God: “Let me sing to the LORD while I live, / let me hymn to my God while I breathe. / Let my speech be sweet unto Him.” (33,34a) Sing, “hymn,” speak. All to one glorious end: “As for me, I rejoice in the LORD.” (34b)

The penultimate verse is one wish: “Let offenders vanish from earth and the wicked be no more.” (35) Since nowhere has this psalm dealt with “offenders” or the wicked, it seems almost as if it was added in to the original psalm by an editor to make sure all the theological bases were covered. Nevertheless, it is only a momentary pause in the crescendo that ends this wonderful hymn to God’s munificence of His creation: “Bless, O my being, the LORD, Hallelujah!” A segue to Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus would seem appropriate here.

Judges 14,15: For me, Samson is one of the most puzzling and, yes, annoying figures in the OT. He has been given remarkable gifts by God, andGod clearly is directing important aspects of his life, such as marrying a Philistine woman. His imbued by the Holy Spirit with both courage and strength: “The spirit of the Lord rushed on him, and he tore the lion apart barehanded as one might tear apart a kid.” (14:6) But his human qualities are problematic at best and revolting at worst.

He is secretive and doesn’t tell his parents about his encounter with the lion. He is arrogant, taunting the Philistines with his famous riddle. He is stubborn, refusing to tell his wife the answer to the riddle. But he can be manipulated, “and because she nagged him, on the seventh day he told her” (14:17) the answer.

He is given to rage: “…and he went down to Ashkelon. He killed thirty men of the town, took their spoil, and gave the festal garments to those who had explained the riddle.” (14:19). He abandons his wife and comes home to his parents to sulk.

He is vindictive. When he comes back and tries to reclaim his wife, which her father denies, he destroys the father’s farm with burning foxtails. And he is vengeful, “Then he found a fresh jawbone of a donkey, reached down and took it, and with it he killed a thousand men.” (15:15)

Finally, he is a complainer, complaining to God, “ Am I now to die of thirst, and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised?” (15:18). And God inexplicably, IMO, gives him water.  The “Spirit of the Lord” is in Samson and he judges Israel for 20 years. But, frankly, I find him to be a repulsive human being. Proof, I guess, that God’s ways are indeed mysterious. Proof, also, that God can use people who are arrogant, stubborn, vindictive, rage-filled, and complainers–among other attractive qualities. And of course Samson demonstrates that we don’t have to be treacly wimps to be useful to God!

Luke 22:1-13: So we come to the third Passion narrative since the beginning of this year. Luke carefully constructs the multiple plot elements that will all shortly collide. He gives us the motivation of the Temple hierarchy: “The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Jesus to death, for they were afraid of the people.” (2) Luke positions Judas as their perfect plot device because “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve.” Does that mean that because Judas was possessed and really didn’t act on his own will? Is Luke letting Judas of the hook? Is “Satan” the evil side in all of us?

Interestingly, Luke, ever the detailed historian doesn’t give us the amount about the payoff to Judas, but keeps his primary focus on the Chief Priests and scribes, “They were greatly pleased and agreed to give him money.” Judas is basically a minor player in the plot.

Yet, Luke gives us a tantalizing detail in the preparation for Passover in the Upper Room, “Listen,” he said to them, “when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters  and say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” (10,11) Who was this guy with the jar of water and why did Jesus know about him? It’s a reminder that history, where God is involved, hangs on the tiniest detail. What if the disciples had found two men carrying water? What then? It’s also a reminder that even performing the simplest, most mundane task can have profound consequences.

Psalm 104:24-30; Judges 13; Luke 21:29-38

Psalm 104:24-30: In this long peaen to God and His creation, the author praises its marvelous riches and order. “The lions roar for prey, / seeking from God their food.” (21) But then return to their dens as “Man goes out to his work and to his labor until evening.” (23) Even though lions and men are natural enemies, they both operate in creation by the diurnal pattern God has instilled in them.  This is just one example, as the psalmist writes, “How many Your deeds, O LORD/, all of them You do in wisdom./ All the earth is filled with Your riches.” (24)  It is the same at sea as on land: “There the ships go, / this Leviathan You fashioned to play with.” (26) Because of God’s wisdom man and Leviathan can coexist in the same creation.

All of creation, including ourselves, is dependent on God:God provides for every creature: “All of them look to You / to give them their food in its season.” (28)  But there will be times when it appears God has deserted His creation, and panic and death ensue: “When You hide Your face, they panic, / You withdraw their breath and they perish, and to the dust they return.” (29) But even after the hardest times, there will always be renewal: “When You send forth Your breath, they are created, / and You renew the face of the earth.” (30)

Death and renewal: the endless cycle. But when we are faced with hardship and trials and disease, and God seems to have “hidden His face,” there is always the promise of renewal. This psalm of course is also a metaphor for Jesus’ work for all of humankind. Death and then not just renewal, but Resurrection.

Judges 13: Then, there is the other endless cycle: “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of the Philistines forty years.” (1) Then, Israel repents and returns to God until the nation drifts away form God once again. Each cycle seems to last 40 years, which can be taken literally or symbolically, 40 being the number for a long time. 

In a remarkable parallel to the Abraham-Sarah story, and a presaging of words we will hear at the Annunciation, there is a barren woman in the tribe of Dan. “And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son.” (3)  Unlike the other stories, there are clear instructions about what to to: “Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean… No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth. (4,5) Even better, there is a wonderful promise, “It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”  (6)

The wife goes to her husband, who unlike many of his neighbors, is still a man of God. He prays, asking for the angel to return, “O Lord, I pray, let the man of God whom you sent come to us again and teach us what we are to do concerning the boy who will be born.”  Eventually the man and his wife meet up with the angel, who gives them instructions, but not his name “because it is too wonderful.”  The grateful couple, still unaware that their visitor is an angel, ask him to stay for lunch, but the declines, suggesting they offer the goat as a sacrifice to God.

When they do, the angel ascends to heaven on the flames. The man, Manoah, fears they will die for having seen God, but his wife points out if that was God’s plan, they would already be dead.

This wonderful story of a still-faithful couple being visited by an “angel unaware” is a marvelous promise to us: God can come to us in a lot of ways, and turn our lives inside out. We may not understand why a particular event or person or even illness comes our way, but as this couple from the tribe of Dan discovered, it may indeed have come from God. God is always full of surprises.

 Luke 21:29-38: My NRSV Bible has subject headers, and this one says, “The Lesson of the Fig Tree.” So what exactly, is the lesson of the fig tree? Is it an eschatological statement? Perhaps. Jesus points to the fig leaves and talks about things happening “before this generation passes away,” and an unbelievable thing certainly did happen later that week.  But I think the lesson of the fig tree is also once again about being prepared, about being alert, and about having our priorities straight.

For me, Jesus’ central statement is, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” (34) In other words don’t waste your time on the things we’d expect Jesus to tell us not to waste our time doing: “dissipation and drunkenness.” OK, but then and for me, more importantly, don’t waste our time on “the worries of life.”

Jesus admonition about not worrying is paramount and becoming more so as I grow older. The topics to worry about seem endless: Will my cancer come back? What happens when Susan can’t walk? Will we have enough money for retirement? Will Geoff get tenure? What kind of world will our grandkids grow up into? Will there be enough water in California? What will happen geopolitically? The list is endless. As Jesus points out, it’s got to be a conscious act to decide not to worry.

But we also need to remember that “not worrying” does not mean becoming clueless to what’s going on. That’s why Jesus is also telling us to stay alert. Staying alert but not worrying by placing our trust in God.  In fact, I think that’s a spiritual discipline I would do well to keep practicing.