The Reflectionary – Week of December 8, 2019

Advent 3

Text: Ezra 1:1-4, 3:1-4, 10-13

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing:

“This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: 

“‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’” 

———————-

When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled together as one in Jerusalem. Then Joshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening sacrifices. Then in accordance with what is written, they celebrated the Festival of Tabernacles with the required number of burnt offerings prescribed for each day.

———————-

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the Lord, as prescribed by David king of Israel. With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the Lord: 

“He is good;
his love toward Israel endures forever.”
 

And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.

Reflection

When I think back on Advent and Christmas as a child, I remember a sense of magic to it. I get this deep sense of sentimental nostalgia, where I wish I could relive this season now just as I remember experiencing it as a child. But no matter how I try, there is no going back. For me, that day has passed (though I now find joy in the season in different ways.)

I imagine that you, also, have experienced something like this. It might not be about Christmas, but perhaps it is about a time gone by. Maybe you look back to a time in your life when you were young, or your children were young. Maybe it was a time when everything in your life just felt so right. Maybe you look back to a time when the church was full, or when everyone knew their neighbors. Maybe you look longingly back at the time when you could let your children play outside without having to supervise them and you could leave your doors unlocked. We look back, and we long for those days, but no matter how we try, there is no going back.

In this passage from Ezra, we see some of the older priests, Levites, and family heads who experience this deep longing and grief for what once was. As we have been reminded in texts from previous weeks, the exile that the Kingdom of Judah experienced under Babylon was incredibly significant and disruptive to the life of the people of Israel. Though the exile was not particularly long, it challenged the people in major ways. The Temple built by King Solomon had been destroyed. Many people had been taken from the land. They had to figure out what it meant to worship God away from Jerusalem and without a Temple. It was HARD.

But now, the Persian king, Cyrus, had allowed the exiled people of Israel to return home. He allowed them to rebuild the Temple. For many, it was, in fact, a time of celebration. Rebuilding the Temple was a fulfillment of God’s promises. So why wasn’t everyone rejoicing?

For those who remembered the days of the first Temple, this new Temple paled in comparison. The first temple was built under the powerful and autonomous Kingdom of Israel. It was built with the great wealth of Solomon. It was the Temple of the “Golden Age.” This new Temple was built only under the auspices of the Persian king. It was built with much more meager resources. It could not compare to the Temple of days gone by. And so, the elders grieved. They had lived long enough to remember what once was, and they longed for it. They wept because they know no matter how hard they tried, there was no going back.

While we can relate to this passage as individuals, I think we can also relate to this passage as the Church. There is a general sense among those who have been Christian for a long time that we have long left behind the “Golden Age” of the church in America. Among many, perhaps yourself included, looking to the future does not bring about shouts of joy or a sense of excitement, but instead deep lament over what has been lost or left behind.

Moving into the future can be scary. It can be overwhelming. Change always brings some kind of loss. While the rebuilding of the Temple was certainly a time for celebration for many as God’s promises were being lived out in a new way, it was also a time of grief for others. This passage speaks to a new beginning and a new expression of the shared life of the people of Israel, but shouts of praise could not be distinguished from the sound of weeping. The sound and the deep emotions behind both are to be honored.

So know this today: if you are excited and thankful for new expressions of Church that are taking place in our midst, you are heard. But also know, if you are weeping and longing for what once was, you also are heard. And in it all, God is with you.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   Where do you look back longingly in your own life?
o   Where do you look with excitement or anticipation of the future?

Challenge

Identify a change that has taken place in your life where you are now grieving the loss that has come through that change. Name it. Validate it.

And/or

It’s easy to get caught up thinking about days gone by. Sit down and make a list of things that you are grateful for in the present, and things you are hopeful for in the future. Give thanks to God for them all.

Prayer

Lord God, you are the giver of hope and new life. You constantly bring about the new and the good in me and in the world around me. I give you thanks for what you have done in the past, and I ask you now to help me look to the present and the future, and to find hope even in the midst of loss and change. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of December 1, 2019

Advent 2

Text: Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
 

A voice says, “Cry out.”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
 

“All people are like grass,
and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.”

You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.

Reflection

I have never experienced an earthquake, and I hope I never do – but there are millions of people around the world who have gone through the devastating impact of the earth literally moving beneath their feet. An earthquake is no less than a earth-shattering event. It drastically alters everything. In particularly bad earthquakes, buildings are reduced to rubble. Lives are lost. The world is undone.

In today’s text, Isaiah speaks of a world undone. Of mountains being laid low and valleys being raised up. Of the crooked being made straight. He speaks of nothing less than an earth-shattering event. But here, unlike in an earthquake, the reversal of fortune is a good thing.

The people of Israel had known great misfortune throughout their history. They had endured slavery, violence, oppression, captivity. They experienced deep grief, deep lament, and deep anger. Their world had come undone time and again – even as they had willingly deviated from God’s parameters and faced the consequences.

As we’ve moved through the Hebrew Bible over these last few months, we’ve heard the story of God’s people – of promise, of sin, of oppression, of forgetting what it means to worship God. We’ve seen what happens when God’s people go terribly astray.

And yet, all along the way, even as doom and gloom bears down on God’s people, there is always grace. God’s final words are never words of hopelessness, death, or destruction. They are always words of hope. They are always words of new life. They are always words of restoration.

Today, I’m thinking about those who have entered into this season of Advent with deep grief. I’m thinking about those who have lost loved ones and are facing this time of year for the first time without them. I’m thinking about those who have been cut off from their families. I’m thinking about children who are without their parents. I’m thinking about those who are facing violence and upheaval. I’m thinking about all those who have gone through or are going through earth-shattering experiences.

For many, this Advent season, it feels like the earth is moving underneath their feet, and all they know is falling away or being reduced to rubble. We cannot and should not try to skip through these seasons of grief and darkness when they come. But this text reminds us that grief and darkness are not the last word. God gives us a promise that one day, things will be different. One day, the darkness will turn to light. One day, we will, in fact, experience the fullness of the good news.

Jan Richardson, an artist, writer, and United Methodist minister knows what it is to experience grief after losing her husband during Advent in 2013. She writes,

“Comfort, O comfort my people, we hear God cry out in an Advent text from Isaiah (40:1). If, in this life, I cannot do away with grief, then I pray that I will at least enter into it with a heart open to this comfort, this solace that is one of the greatest treasures God offers us in the landscape of this season. This comfort is no mere pablum, no saccharine wish. And though it is deeply personal, it is not merely that; solace does not leave us to our own solitude. True comfort opens our broken heart toward the broken heart of the world and, in that opening, illuminates a doorway, a threshold, a connection. It reveals to us a place where, in the company of heaven and earth, we can begin anew, bearing forth the solace we have found” (This Luminous Darkness: Searching for Solace in Advent and Christmas).

May the words of Isaiah speak comfort and hope to you here and now, especially if you or someone you love are struggling with grief this Advent season.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   Where are you experiencing grief or struggle presently?
o   How do you move through and with grief?

Challenge

Maybe this is a difficult season for you that overwhelms with all of the expectations, all of the people, all of the cultural noise around Christmas. Cultivate space in your life. Make time for silence, for prayer, for working with your hands. Make time for a meal with a loved one. Perhaps seek out a counselor if you need help processing your grief. Disengage from all of the extra noise. You don’t have to buy into it.

And/or

Notice those around you who may be having a difficult time. Don’t force cheerful words upon them. Be with them in their struggle. You don’t need the right words. Just be present. Share a meal, write a card, be with them. Allow them to speak to their grief if they need to.

Prayer 

Lord Jesus Christ, you are the Man of Sorrows. You know grief and suffering. Walk with me as I struggle. Be with me in the darkness. And even in the darkness, may I experience sparks of your light this Advent season. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of November 24, 2019

Advent 1

Text: Jeremiah 33:14-18

“‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.

“‘In those days and at that time
I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
he will do what is just and right in the land.
In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Savior.’

For this is what the Lord says: ‘David will never fail to have a man to sit on the throne of Israel, nor will the Levitical priests ever fail to have a man to stand before me continually to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings and to present sacrifices.’”

Reflection

This text for the first Sunday of Advent is short and sweet. In it, the prophet Jeremiah speaks these hope-filled words of God – words of promise that God’s people do, in fact, have a future. As Christians, we read these words as ones that anticipate the coming of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh. As Christians, we have the gift of hindsight. But Jeremiah? Jeremiah writes these words in the midst of what looked like an impossible situation.

The previous chapter sets the scene. In it, we learn that Jeremiah is being imprisoned by Zedekiah, who was the king of Judah, the southern kingdom. At the same time, the Babylonian Empire, the most powerful empire yet to be seen, was in the midst of laying siege on Jerusalem. Things were not looking good. Jeremiah knew what had happened to the northern kingdom of Israel when Assyria came in and took them captive, and the ten northern tribes had been essentially scattered to the winds. Jeremiah had been warning Zedekiah of Judah’s impending similar fate, which angered the king and consequently led to his captivity.

As Jeremiah was held in confinement, Judah’s fall was imminent. The people would be expelled from the land. They would be driven into exile.

And then a strange thing happens. A relative of Jeremiah comes to him with a proposition – to buy the field at Anathoth. God tells Jeremiah to do so. Jeremiah does. So what’s so strange about this transaction?

Remember, Jerusalem is currently besieged by the most powerful empire they’d yet seen. The city’s fall was all but inevitable at this point. Why in the world would Jeremiah invest in property that was about to be lain to waste? It would be like someone saying in the midst of the Syrian civil war, “I think I’d really like to invest in property in Aleppo.” Or maybe like someone else saying, “Gaza is where I’d like to buy land.” It just makes no sense given the current reality of violence and destruction in those regions.

But Jeremiah buys the field and takes the deed to the land and preserves it in a clay jar. Then he awaits the utter destruction of Jerusalem and of the kingdom of Judah at the hands of Babylon.

To buy the field is an act of complete trust and hope in God’s grace. It is to look squarely in the face that which seems to be the end of the world and to say, “God’s not done with us yet.” It is to see that the death that is surely coming is not the last word. And so, Jeremiah’s act of buying the field leads us into these words of hope in Jeremiah 33:14-18. The fall of Jerusalem and Judah is not, in fact, the end for God’s people!

This passage reminds us that God’s grace is always at work. It reminds us that God’s work is never finished. It reminds us that God is never, ever, done with God’s people. Even when it feels like there is no hope, like death is closing in, or like there is no escape from the darkness and brokenness we are experiencing, God gives life.

Jeremiah trusts so fully in this promise that he invests in land that is about to be destroyed. He sees life, even when faced with death. I don’t know about you, but I long to be able to see with Jeremiah’s eyes, and to trust with Jeremiah’s heart. I long to be able to have that kind of unreserved faith in the promises of God.

This season of Advent that we are entering into is a season where we look expectantly to the promises of God in Jesus Christ. I challenge you to look to those promises with the eyes and the heart of Jeremiah.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   Where, in your life, have you or are you struggling to find hope?
o   Where have you witnessed God’s faithfulness in your life?
o   What words do you need to hear from God today?

Challenge

Acquaint yourself with the practice of the Ignatian Examen. You can find many resources online, but here is one simple one: https://jesuits.org/Assets/Publications/File/The_Daily_Examen.pdf Each day this week, consider these two questions before going to bed: When, today, did I feel most disconnected from God? When, today, did I feel most aware of God’s grace?

And/or

Think of someone in your life who might need some encouragement – someone who might need to be reminded of God’s promises. Write a card, give a phone call, take them out for coffee, go visit. Remind them that God has more for them.

Prayer

God, you are the one who speaks life in the midst of death. You are the one who brings light in the midst of darkness. You are the one who brings healing in the midst of brokenness. Speak life, and light, and healing into my life and into the lives of those around me. Help me to utterly trust in your promises through Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of November 17, 2019

Text: 2 Kings 22:1-23:3

Josiah was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem thirty-one years. His mother’s name was Jedidah daughter of Adaiah; she was from Bozkath. He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and followed completely the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left.

In the eighteenth year of his reign, King Josiah sent the secretary, Shaphan son of Azaliah, the son of Meshullam, to the temple of the Lord. He said: “Go up to Hilkiah the high priest and have him get ready the money that has been brought into the temple of the Lord, which the doorkeepers have collected from the people. Have them entrust it to the men appointed to supervise the work on the temple. And have these men pay the workers who repair the temple of the Lord—the carpenters, the builders and the masons. Also have them purchase timber and dressed stone to repair the temple. But they need not account for the money entrusted to them, because they are honest in their dealings.” 

Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the Lord.” He gave it to Shaphan, who read it. Then Shaphan the secretary went to the king and reported to him: “Your officials have paid out the money that was in the temple of the Lord and have entrusted it to the workers and supervisors at the temple.” Then Shaphan the secretary informed the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read from it in the presence of the king.

When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. He gave these orders to Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Akbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king’s attendant: “Go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the Lord’s anger that burns against us because those who have gone before us have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us.” 

Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Akbor, Shaphan and Asaiah went to speak to the prophet Huldah, who was the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe. She lived in Jerusalem, in the New Quarter.

She said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the man who sent you to me, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and aroused my anger by all the idols their hands have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched.’ Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says concerning the words you heard: Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people—that they would become a curse and be laid waste—and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I also have heard you, declares the Lord. Therefore I will gather you to your ancestors, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.’” 

So they took her answer back to the king.

Then the king called together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. He went up to the temple of the Lord with the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests and the prophets—all the people from the least to the greatest. He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which had been found in the temple of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord—to follow the Lord and keep his commands, statutes and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, thus confirming the words of the covenant written in this book. Then all the people pledged themselves to the covenant.

Reflection

Kings, kings, kings. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah had each had their fair share of kings, and most of them were not very good kings. But the king of today’s text was not like most kings. Josiah, who ruled the southern kingdom of Judah from 640-609 BC, was known as the reformer. As Josiah ascends to the throne, he inherits a kingdom that is in bad shape. His predecessor, Amon had a short reign, being assassinated only two years after becoming king. Amon’s father Manasseh, however, reigned for approximately fifty years, and in that fifty years, he did a lot of damage.

While the kings of Israel and Judah were not particularly known for their fidelity to the God of Israel, Manasseh is reckoned by the narrative of 2 Kings to be the worst of all of the kings of Judah. Much like Ahab in the north, Manasseh allowed, and perhaps even encouraged the practice of worshipping foreign gods. Whether his motivations were political or personal, we can’t really know. What we do know is that Manasseh was the poster child for forfeiting the distinctive character and requirements of the people of the covenant in order to accommodate other powers and principalities.

This is the kingdom Josiah inherited – a kingdom whose powerful couldn’t have cared less about worshipping the God of Israel. Paying lip service to God was fine, but what really mattered was political expediency and pragmatism. The ends justified the means. In today’s text, however, we see in Josiah a king who is resolved to be a different kind of king than Manasseh.

He became king at eight years old, and he “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.” While the text does not explicitly say what that means here, we can infer that Josiah was not only a king who truly worshipped God rather than foreign gods, but that he was also a just king.

In the eighteenth year of his reign, a significant event happened – a Torah scroll was found in the Temple that had presumably been lost for a long period of time (perhaps because it had fallen into disuse under the laxness of previous kings). The text says that when the king heard the words of the Torah, he tore his robes. Clearly, this was not only a personally moving moment for Josiah – it was a moment that called him to repentance on behalf of his kingdom. Why? Because perhaps for the first time in his life, he was hearing the words that spoke to the heart of Israel’s identity. He was likely hearing the words from Deuteronomy that call the people of Israel to live in a very particular and distinctive manner, identifying themselves as a people of the covenant. He was hearing words that gave the moral, ethical, and religious vision to his people.

Josiah called his people to repentance and renewal. He spent the remainder of his reign tearing down altars to false gods, continually calling his people to worship the God of Israel as the only God. And yet… even as Josiah earnestly sought to worship God with all of his heart, soul, and mind, it wasn’t enough. Judah had become too entrenched in accommodating false gods in the name of political expediency. Exile was not too far off.

Though we live in a very different time and place, we, too, face the struggle of remaining faithful to the vision of the kingdom of God that Jesus Christ gives to us. We, too, live in a time and place where the Church has made all kinds of accommodations to false gods of wealth and power. We face the temptation of living in such a way that says “the ends justify the means.” Like Josiah, we might not be able to change everyone around us, but we, ourselves, can hear God’s words, tear our robes, repent and renew our commitment, and seek to live out the vision God gives to us.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   Where do you see us making accommodations to false gods today?
o   What vision of the kingdom has God given to you? How might you help make that kingdom a reality here and now?

Challenge

Spend some time meditating on the vision of God’s kingdom. If you would like Scripture to meditate on, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is a very good place to start.

And/or 

Sometimes one of the best ways to think about the vision of God’s kingdom is to consider the faithful witness of those who have gone before us. Take some time to learn about one or several saints of the Church. Read their stories, and listen for God’s testimony through them.

Prayer

God, you are the only one worthy of worship. Give me a vision of your kingdom, and then help me to live in it, here and now. Make me a faithful witness and hearer of your words. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of November 10, 2019

Text: Isaiah 5:1-7; 11:1-5

I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.

“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it.”

The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

_______________________________

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
 

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

Reflection

I was recently listening to NPR when they were doing a story on how the wildfires in California were impacting vineyards and the production of wine. Naturally, wildfires are a huge threat to productivity, when they can completely wipe out a vineyard. But as I listened, I also learned a little bit more about the care and management of vineyards. Cultivating healthy grape vines is actually quite a fine art that takes a lot of care, patience, wisdom, and, of course, cooperative weather/soil/environment, etc. There are many things that can go wrong in the process that can lead to a failure to produce good, healthy, and flavorful grapes. I imagine that it must be highly stressful work to be a vintner. You have to work hard to manage the “just right” conditions, and even if you do everything according to plan, wildfires (among other things) can still come along and mess everything up.

In the Isaiah 5, the prophet begins to sing a song about a vineyard and a vintner. This vintner loved his vineyard and put everything he had into it. He managed to get the “just right” conditions. He built a watchtower so he could see and protect the vineyard from anything that threatened to come in a wipe it out. The vintner did everything according to plan. And then… and then… the time came for the crop. The grapes should have been perfect. But the grapevines yielded only bad fruit. It was all sour grapes.

In v. 3, the text shifts from the prophet singing a song about a vineyard and a vintner to God speaking in the first person. We realize that the vintner is God, and God is angry about the failed crop of the vineyard that he so carefully and attentively cultivated. God is ready to destroy the vineyard. He’s ready to let the proverbial wildfires come in and make it a wasteland where only briars and thorns can be found. In v. 7, we find out that the vineyard is representative of the southern kingdom of Judah (which is where Isaiah did his prophetic work).

But what exactly was the “bad fruit” of Judah? What was it that made God so angry with his people? The prophets in both the northern and southern kingdoms tended to have two main criticisms that they articulated over and over again: the people needed to stop worshipping idols and the people needed to stop inflicting injustices upon the vulnerable. In this instance, the accusation against the people of Judah falls in line with the second of the two criticisms: where there should justice (mishpat), there is bloodshed (mispakh), and where there should be righteousness (tsedaqah), there are cries of distress (tse’aqah).

Justice here does not simply mean appropriate punishment for wrongdoings. Justice, in the biblical sense, has a much greater breadth of meaning. Justice is about the world being as it should. It is about wrongs being made right. It is about a vision of a society where the vulnerable are no longer vulnerable, and rather than exploitation, there is equity. Justice is about a social order where all of God’s people flourish.

Similarly, righteousness also has a social component. While the word “righteousness” for us often connotes a sort of personal purity and piety, in the biblical sense, righteousness is also relational. It has a connotation of “doing right” by one another.

If justice is about creating a right order where all people can flourish, righteousness is about each person looking out for their neighbors. That sounds like the kind of world I want to be a part of. That is certainly the kind of world God hoped his people would work to create. But instead of finding justice and righteousness, God finds bloodshed and cries of distress. He finds manipulation, exploitation, and everyone only looking out for number one. Let the vineyard be destroyed, God declares.

But then, a few chapters later, we shift metaphors, but we see that God does not leave God’s people to be destroyed, after all. Instead, we find God proclaiming anew the vision of justice and righteousness that God has for God’s people. God has not given up hope!

Some days, when I look at the world around me, I become overwhelmed. On those days, I become pessimistic at best, and nihilistic at worst. I get angry at all of the ways in which we, as human beings hurt one another. I feel rage at the evil we commit. I feel like I understand Isaiah’s vineyard song.

But God doesn’t leave us with the vineyard song. God leaves us with the image of the shoot that comes out of the stump of Jesse. God leaves us with new life coming out of that which appears to be dead. God leaves us with the vision of his kingdom – the kingdom of Jesus Christ, which is good news to the poor and needy. It’s good news to those who are crushed beneath the wheels of injustice. It’s good news to those who are trampled by unrighteousness. God leaves us with the vision of his kingdom – one that comes into existence through the gift of the Spirit. As you meditate today upon these words of Scripture, may God instill in you the vision of the kingdom and courage of the Spirit to work toward its reality.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   Where, in our world, do you see injustice and unrighteousness?
o   Where do you catch glimpses of God’s kingdom being made a reality? What can you do to be a part of that?

Challenge

Enjoy some grapes, or fruit, or other type of food that comes from the ground. As you eat and taste the sweetness of the food, meditate on this passage again. As you think on it while engaging your senses in this different way, pay attention to what new insights or thoughts God might be showing you.

And/or 

Consider an injustice that is occurring in your own community. It might be related to food security, access to medical care, or any number of things. Identify one thing that you can immediately do about it, and then do it. It may be as simple as taking food to a neighbor who sometimes goes without or driving a friend to a doctor’s appointment. It could be volunteering with an organization that directly addresses social needs. It might even be working to change or create laws that care for the most vulnerable.

Prayer

God, you are the great vintner and you continue to nurture your vineyard. You want your vineyard to be a place where all vines can flourish. You want your vineyard to be a place where all may find the sweetest of fruit. Cultivate me, that I might be a vine rooted in Jesus Christ. Prune me, that I might bear the good fruit of justice and righteousness. Through your Spirit, may I work with you, as you give me a vision of your world. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

 

Letter to a Wayward Church

This letter began as an exercise as I was meditating on Hosea 11:1-11 in preparation for preaching this coming Sunday. It quickly morphed into a piece inspired by the Hosea text, the Good Friday Reproaches, and Luke 15:11-32, among other things. I imagined this from the perspective of God, and while traditionally, God is referred to as Father (even though God is not actually gendered), I chose to sign the letter as “Mama,” since as I was writing I couldn’t help but to tap into my own love for the toddler who calls me “mama.”

My Beloved Church,

When you were a child, dear Church, I loved you. Out of bondage I called you. From worldly institutions I freed you. When the categories of Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free mattered for where you stood, I rendered them void. You were my own beloved child, the center of my heart. I brought you up sitting at my dinner table. At my table there was no superior or inferior. From the margins and from the center, I brought you in and gave you a new vision of the world.

When Caesar saw fit to lay the yoke of oppression upon you, I gave you a kingdom far more beautiful and expansive than the Pax Romana could ever provide. When death cornered you, I opened up the door to life that can never be extinguished.

I touched the lame, the leper, the bleeding woman. I called them by name, just as I call you by name. I gave the outcast the seat of honor at my banquet. I showed you that you do not have to live by the rules of the world – the rules that keep the rich in power and keep the poor down and out. I showed you that the categories you place upon one another don’t mean a thing in my home.

When you were a child, dear Church, I dreamed that you would grow and start a revolution of grace and love – of care for your neighbor, just as I taught you and showed you how to do. I dreamed that my kingdom would spread on earth – not through conquest or the use of forced conversion, but through the abundant love you would give to everyone created in my image.

Remember how you would call upon my name? How you would only have eyes for me? Remember the zeal the Spirit put within you at the start? To you I was like the one who would lift you to my cheek and then gleefully run with you in the field, as you experienced the freedom from the constraints of empire.

To you, I was like the one who held your hand as you learned to take your first steps of your fledgling faith and community. I picked you up when you stumbled and comforted you when you were afraid.

But soon, you were walking on your own. And then you were running. And before I knew it, I found that you preferred the company of emperors and kings to mine. Before I knew it, you had traded in your white robe and basin for the imperial purple and a scepter. You made friends with the war hammer and sword, with the crossbow and battle axe. You carried them in my name. You used my cross as a symbol of dominance rather than sacrificial love.

As you strayed further afield, all while keeping the name I gave you, the name of Church, you forced baptisms of peoples under threat of death – not so they could know my grace, but so that you could make them pliable citizens of your earthly kingdom. How quickly did you forget the ways that I raised you!

Oh, you had moments where you remembered your true self. There were moments where those voices from within you tried to call you back to justice, to mercy, to reach out for my hand and walk with me. But all too quickly, you silenced those voices.

There were other times when I thought you might be finding your way back to me. When I thought your vision was clearing and you were remembering the joy of your life in my home. But you were still so entrenched in the power systems of the world that you could not or would not fully untie yourself.

You forgot that I had rendered null and void the categories of master and slave when you embarked on a centuries-long endeavor to buy and sell human beings as chattel, to prop up the economic systems that kept you powerful, all while invoking my name and twisting my words to justify it. Did you forget that I broke you free from these very things when I gave birth to you, my Church? Why, oh why, do you keep going back?

You tore people from their land, land you claimed “for me.” You brutally ravaged a people you called uncivilized savages. You forgot that they, too, were my children. You, my Church, acted the savage!

You watched and even helped as my firstborn, Israel, was rounded up and sent to death camps. You used the words of my holy book to embolden and enflame hatred against them. You forgot that you are not my only child and that I love my firstborn as much as I love you!

Why, my beloved Church have you strayed so far? Why have you set up flaming crosses and lynching trees? Why do you continue to worship the god of nationalism and white supremacy? Why do you still trample my children who don’t look like you or behave like you do? Why have you tried so hard to hold on to riches and power? Why do you endlessly debate the worth of any of my children? Why do you fight so hard to protect unjust institutions? Why do you build walls, when on the cross, I tore them all down? Do you not remember the true nature of my kingdom? Do you not remember that the last shall be first?

What shall I do with you, my Church? Shall I leave you to your own devices? Shall I wash my hands of you? I should leave you to your own destruction. I should let your rage and fear tear you apart. I’ll turn my back and leave you out in the cold. Not that you would even notice. It has been so long since we’ve truly shared life in the home I made for you. I should disown you and be done with it. I’m sick and tired of watching you live this way. It breaks my heart every time I think of how I’ve loved you. I am heartsick over you, my wayward Church.

I should lock my door and take away your place at my dinner table. I should close your bedroom door and let your things collect dust as I put you out of my mind. I should stop standing at the end of the road, hoping to catch a glimpse of you. You are too far gone. You are not the same child I once loved. You are never coming back.

But O, how can I give you up, my child?
How can I hand you over, my Church?
How can I treat you as one long dead?
How can I make you as a distant, closed off memory?
My heart will not let me. You are mine, and always will be.
How I love you still! How I will always long for you!
My heart will never grow weary of waiting for you.
There will always be a place for you at my dinner table.
Every day I will go to the end of the road, waiting to catch a glimpse of you.
Every day I will call out for you.
Every day I will sing the songs I sang to you as an infant, hoping the song will reach your ears;
Hoping the song will remind you of your true home.
I will keep on singing the songs of justice, of mercy, of love.

One day you will hear. One day, they will bring you out of your palaces, out of your stupor, out of yourselves. One day they will bring you back down the highway, the road, and then the narrow path to my home – to your home. You’ll find the door open and the table set.

My child, my beloved Church, I dream of this day. Please, let it be soon.

With Love Always,
Mama

The Reflectionary – Week of November 3, 2019

Text: Hosea 11:1-11

“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
But the more they were called,
the more they went away from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals
and they burned incense to images.
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
it was I who healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts
a little child to the cheek,
and I bent down to feed them.
 

“Will they not return to Egypt
and will not Assyria rule over them
because they refuse to repent?
A sword will flash in their cities;
it will devour their false prophets
and put an end to their plans.
My people are determined to turn from me.
Even though they call me God Most High,
I will by no means exalt them.

“How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboyim?
My heart is changed within me;
all my compassion is aroused.
I will not carry out my fierce anger,
nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man—
the Holy One among you.
I will not come against their cities.
They will follow the Lord;
he will roar like a lion.
When he roars,
his children will come trembling from the west.
They will come from Egypt,
trembling like sparrows,
from Assyria, fluttering like doves.
I will settle them in their homes,”
declares the Lord.

Reflection

Several generations have passed since the rule of King Ahab and the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Even more generations have passed in the kingdom of Israel (the northern kingdom comprising of 10 tribes) since it broke off from the southern kingdom of Judah, under the leadership of their first king, Jeroboam. In Hosea’s time, another Jeroboam has risen to power as king – Jeroboam II.

According to archeological findings, the rule of Jeroboam II had brought the northern kingdom of Israel to the greatest prosperity it had known. Of course, that meant prosperity for the wealthy and powerful. It meant prosperity for the king. It also meant a yoke of oppression and exploitation of the poor in the kingdom. Jeroboam II was a king who was skilled in negotiating trade (especially with Egypt and Assyria, who were much larger, more powerful, and potential threats to Israel), but he was also a king given to excessive shows of wealth and amusements. He also continued the practices of worship at the altars Jeroboam I had set up in Dan and Bethel. In other words, the practices of idol worship had been continuing for these many generations under the kings of Israel.

Hosea and his contemporaries (Joel and Amos), were prophets during this time. They criticized two main things: the continued idol worship and the exploitation and oppression of the poor. Much of the book of Hosea are pronouncements of judgment and doom upon God’s unfaithful people, but especially upon the powerful who lead those in their kingdom astray. Hosea, himself, in fact, marries an unfaithful woman named Gomer, whom he still loves despite her unfaithfulness. Hosea sees his own marriage as symbolic of God’s relationship with Israel.

In this particular passage today, however, we see not the doom and the gloom we find in most of Hosea. Instead, we find God wrestling with his love for his people even as they are unfaithful to him. Notice the tender and affectionate language of the opening verses. Notice the language of nurture and of care for Israel as a vulnerable but beloved little child. In these words, I can recognize my affection and tenderness towards my own son, my little toddler, who still relies so fully on me. I think of the many times I lift him to my cheek in an embrace. Maybe you can recognize your own love in these words for your children when they were tiny, or your grandchildren.

Then the text takes a bit of a turn, as God looks at them like a parent of a rebellious teenager heading down a destructive path. We see God express frustration and downright anger that the beloved child is making these choices. We get the sense that God is getting so fed up with his child that he’s about to wash his hands of Israel. It’s time for tough love. It’s time to leave Israel to his own doom. My child is still a toddler, but I know the teenage and young adult years are coming, and a wonder (and fear) what they might bring. Maybe you, as a parent or grandparent know the anguish that God is expressing here.

But then, the text takes yet another turn, and it is almost as if we are overhearing a conversation that God is having with himself. He wants to be done with dealing with Israel. He wants to just cut his child off. But then, it as if God stops, and comes back to himself, and we hear the voice of the tender parent again: “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?… My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.” In this text, we are reminded of the character of God. God’s very nature is one of compassion. Of forgiveness. Of second chances. God has always been thus. From the very beginning through the full realization and expression of that compassion in Christ Jesus, this is WHO GOD IS.

Remember, ancient Israel’s story was one of chronic unfaithfulness to God’s covenant. The leaders were constantly causing or at least enabling people to turn away and worship false gods. The powerful were constantly oppressing the vulnerable they were charged to shepherd and care for. This had been going on for a long, long time. God had every right to be angry, to be frustrated, to be ready to cut them off. That is, after all, how any human parent would probably feel under the same circumstances. Maybe you, yourself, have been there. But here, we are reminded that God is not, in fact human. God is holy. God is compassion. Alexander Pope’s words come to mind: “To err is human; to forgive is Divine.” Thanks be to God!

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   In what ways do you relate to God in this passage? In what ways do you relate to Israel?
o   Where have you experienced forgiveness and compassion in your life, whether from God or from others?

Challenge

Sometimes the hardest thing is recognizing the sin or pain that exists within ourselves. Take time this week to engage in the spiritual practice of journaling. Don’t think too hard about what to write, or grammar, or sentence structure. Just simply write, asking God to open up parts of your heart that need to be opened up.

And/or

Think about a time when you experienced compassion and forgiveness and what that did for you. Write a letter of gratitude to the person who offered it, or to God. If you are able to send the letter to the person, do so. It might be just what they need to hear.

Prayer

God, your love for me is beyond all comprehension. You bend over to lift me up to your cheek again and again. You hold me like a mother holding her newborn child, with tenderness and deep love. You always make room for me to sit down at your table, even when I run off and forget you, or worse, snub you and disown you. Thank you for never disowning me, even when you might have every reason. God, whose name is Love, soften my heart. May I hear your “roar” that always calls me home.  In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+