The Feeding of the 5000 mis-reported?: The significance of numbers in God’s Word

During this week’s bible study in which we prepare for the upcoming week’s worship by praying and discussing Sunday’s lections, (this Sunday, The Feast of the Transfiguration though our parish will hear Proper 13 instead)a parishioner was taken aback at my comment that the gospel story from Matthew  (14:13-21) has been mis-named as ‘The Feeding of the 5000.’  I was making the point that the number, in actuality, was probably closer to 10,000 or even above, because 5000 referred only to the men.

21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

The feeding was far more than 5000.

But the parishioner was taken aback because she considered the number 5000 simply symbolic of ‘a large crowd’ stating, who cares?  Why does it matter? Surely there weren’t even 5000 present – probably closer to a few hundred.  Do you really believe that numbers in scripture are anything other than symbolic?  

The discussion brought to mind the recent Inauguration and the story put forward by the incoming administration regarding crowd size – the largest ever, they claimed – citing numbers that were later invalidated.  It was a typically large crowd so what was the point of a head-count and drawing comparisons with previous Inaugural events?  It seemed to me the administration’s attempt was revisionist history in the making, believing that the largest crowd ever story line if recorded would somehow legitimize the new President’s purported popularity in a way that the general election hadn’t – at least in his mind’s eye. The storyline put out by the Administration worked at cross purposes and rather than elevating and instilling confidence in him as our country’s leader, his fragile ego now exposed introduced a tone of insecurity and suspicion that would shade all future stories coming from the Oval Office regarding leadership.

Numbers and head counts work differently in scripture.  Accuracy and symbolism are powerfully connected.  Yes, I replied to the parishioner – yes I believe that the crowd was enormous and may have even topped 5000. By calling the miracle the Feeding of the 5000 I suggested we miss the opportunity to talk about the significance of the number beyond the impression that a large crowd was fed.  Matthew was breaking with convention by reporting not only an actual number – instead of a phrase ‘a large crowd’ but also reporting that number didn’t include everyone present. The accepted practice of head counting a crowd by men only was not adequate to report the number of people who followed Jesus. Jesus broke all records so that even the record keeping methods had to be changed when the gospels were written.  And, the number had a deeper significance related to history and the Hebrew Scriptures[1].  I am not going to go down that bunny trail right now but suffice to say that all numbers found in the Bible have a deeper significance than we often pay attention to or acknowledge.

Both and.  Numbers are symbolic and they are literal, too.  Which brings me – finally – to today’s readings and the spot where the Holy Spirit paused me to wonder.  It was in the Hebrew Scriptures and the passage from 2 Samuel that recounts David’s anointing and kingship over Israel. My first thought was how the passage was populated with numbers – numbers that felt familiar even though I do not know David’s story in a familiar way. I know the outlines of his story, but the duration of his kingship, his age, the time he spent fighting the Philistines, I haven’t studied him enough to know these details.  Details which felt familiar but associated with Jesus, not David.

That was the pause.  The story line found in 2 Samuel about David’s anointing and Kingship over Israel align perfectly, number-wise, with Jesus’.  David was 30 years old – as Jesus was the start of his public ministry and served for 40 years (7 in one place, 7 a holy number, and 33 in another, 33 the age Jesus was at his crucifixion).  A total of 40 years. We all know the significance of ’40’  – those years in exile, those nights Jesus spent in the desert.  Here is the passage:

5Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, ‘Look, we are your bone and flesh. 2For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.’ 3So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. 4David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned for forty years5At Hebron he reigned over Judah for seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah for thirty-three years.

So.  Personal application?  Simply to appreciate the depth of God’s Word.   To pause and mine the depths and appreciate that each word, each number is given to us for a reason, as my favorite cartoonist (and I believe, theologian) Dan Piraro illustrates here.

Numbers are significant in scripture not simply to symbolize, but to connect and legitimize and have us take seriously, even literally at times, the truth of Jesus Christ.

The evangelists weren’t weaving some story together to make their guy look good, look like a leader. They were reporting actual events, actual numbers, and connecting the story of Jesus to the Hebrew Scriptures and to history.

Praise God from whom all blessings – and crowd sizes – flow.

Friday Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm 69:1-23(24-30)31-38; PM Psalm 73 
2 Samuel 5:1-12
Acts 17:1-15Mark 7:24-37

[1] 5000: The officers of the Levites gave 5000 from the flock (2 Chr. 35:9); 5000 men sent into ambush on the west of Ai (Josh. 8:12); 5000 men of Benjamin were overtaken (Judg. 20:45); 5000 fed (Matt. 14:21; Matt. 16:9; Mark 6:44; Mark 8:19); 5000 men (Luke 9:14; John 6:10); about 5000 men believing (Acts 4:4); 5400 articles of gold and silver (Ezra 1:11).

 

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‘State of Anglican Communion’ an issue of the institution, not God’s church

Last night at the church where I serve we wrapped up a Newcomer’s Series on The Episcopal Church.  In addition to covering the final chapters of the study guide, we committed to answering questions posed at the beginning of the series that old timers and newcomers alike had posed.  A variety from ‘what is a Senior Warden,’ to ‘when are we to stand or kneel or sit’ in worship? ‘ to ‘what does apostolic succession mean? were discussed.

I addressed questions about TEC history and the current state of the Anglican Communion in the world – who was in, who was out – and why.  The broken state of the Anglican Communion has been an unsettling reality for our church for over a decade.  In recounting the history to these new Episcopalians, I was aware of how ‘institutional’ of an issue this was and is – meaning much ado about how we ‘do’ church and not much at all to do with the church God planted on the day of Pentecost.

And it occurred to me last night, and again this morning at the reading of Acts, how the institutional church has been beleaguered by this  question – who is in, who is out – and this kind of judgmental thinking since the church was born by the power of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

For the past weeks the Sunday gospel readings have had God’s people – and God’s church – thinking about what it means to be a follower of Jesus and about kingdom living on earth.  Jesus has used one parable after another to describe kingdom living – not as a destination but as a way of living in the here and now, transforming the world one stalk of wheat at a time.  We’ve heard much about – seeds of it, who sows it, where it falls, wheat and tares.  We have learned to look at the soil of our own faith lives to see how well prepared it was for the seed to grow, we have been encouraged to be patient, to trust the Lord’s way, and to not judge our neighbors, but to love them. Darnel (tares, weeds) looks pretty much like the wheat it grows alongside, the wheat that would be weakened should the weeds be torn out too soon, if at all.

I have found the Daily Office Readings from the Book of Acts a nice complement to the Sunday’s gospel from Matthew.  Both speak to our individual lives as Christians but also our lives as part of God’s church, part of community.  Both are speaking to how we live in community with one another – loving and not judging, growing stronger, being God’s person and church in the world.

The Book of Acts describes in part the formation of God’s church – how the seed was scattered, where it has landed and which people received, who sowed, who rejected, who watered.  And when it – the church – will be harvested and who will separate the wheat from the tares.  Spoiler alert – not us.

This is what Peter gets at in today’s passage from Acts – we cannot do the sorting.  Seeds were scattered and planted in places and in people none of us could of imagined.  And the Word has taken root in many of those places.

The way of circumcision and obedience to the Law of Moses to distinguish the wheat from the tares – who was in, who was out – no longer has agency. But it was how the Pharisees thought, asserting their priestly authority to make a judgment on worthiness based on what they observed.  From the Book of Acts in today’s reading:

5But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.’

It seems to me that church leaders through all time up to and including ours have been far too eager to make judgment calls as the Pharisees attempted on the composition of God’s church. Like hard-nosed, eager beaver, self-righteous Lucy, here.  

I think of all the groups that have ‘broken away’ from mainline institutional churches and I see eager beaver Lucy types.  Righteous or Evil?  I can make that call.  In or out?  You bet, I know the wheat from the tares!  Teaching and worship aligned with God’s Word?  Yep, it’s black and white, I know!

Except you don’t.  Anymore than the Pharisees thought they did. That call there?  That is God’s call. He is the one ‘who says‘.  God’s the one who knows. That burden – that judgment yoke has not been put upon any of us –  Pharisee or not, Episcopalian or not.

I didn’t have this passage from Acts to refer to last night as I was explaining to these new Episcopalians why some believers have left the Anglican Communion, suggesting a weakening of our presence in the world.  It would have been a good one to put in context the exit of a few, helping us all to see how God’s church is not impacted, and the institutional church only temporarily thwarted by the self-righteous,

…Peter stood up and said to them, ‘My brothers,* you know that …God, who knows the human heart, testified to (the Gentiles) by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.

10Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’

We – us, them – all in God’s church – are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

Thursday Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm 50; PM Psalm [59, 60] or 8, 84 
1 Samuel 28:3-20Acts 15:1-11Mark 5:1-20

 

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The Happy Sower

Mark 4:1 Again he began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. 2He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them:3‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. 6And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. 7Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ 9And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’

Today’s gospel reading from Mark was heard in God’s church just two weeks ago on Sunday, July 16, though read from Matthew’s gospel (13:1-23).  This passage known as ‘The Parable of the Sower’ is familiar enough, but on that Sunday it was the first time I heard the story from the sower’s perspective.  Through the years I have read and heard commentaries that have a lot to do with the seeds – where they land and how they grow or not – but very little about the sower, himself.  Even in one of my favorite of Van Gogh’s painting entitled, “The Sower”, it is the land and light that garner attention – a crop ready for the seed being thrown.  

I live in a region of the country that is peppered with crops of grapes, hops, apples, walnuts, almonds, olives and assorted grains.  Though I have never actually seen any of these crops ‘sowed’ – today by machine, not hand – I have seen all the preparation that takes place beforehand. The soil loosened and amended, weeds (tares) removed, furrows dug to specific depths, watered just enough to soften the growing space for the new seeds. And every few years, the crops dug up or the trees cut down so the soil can be restored, the crops fallowed. And all this takes place in certain seasons and specific times of the calendar year, adjusted when conditions such as drought and climate change manifest. Bottom line, the soil gets a lot of attention when it comes to growing rightly the seed of choice.

But, really, bottom line it comes down to the sower doesn’t it?  All that preparation means nothing if the sower has thrown the seed willy nilly into the soil, amended, watered, fallowed or otherwise.

The parable Jesus tells us has the sower throwing the seed – God’s Word – everywhere; rocks, paths, cropland – here, there, everywhere – and not carefully cultivated and prepared fields. Surely the seed won’t yield fruit if aimlessly scattered, just as birds aren’t grown from the seed as depicted in the ‘Bizarro‘ panel by Dan Piraro inserted here.

Maybe we should look at the seed the sower throws differently.  Not as a word that doesn’t take root in some places and with some people, but as a gift from one who shows no partiality – who wants the good news scattered and the Word to be given freely to the world – to places and people most would say has no chance of taking root let alone yielding fruit.

Seeing this parable through the eyes of the sower – the one who throws the seed – and not through the eyes of the particular land or people on which the seed lands – helps me see God’s heart for all of us. The sower gifts the word, gifts grace, gifts faith – throws it out season after season, joyfully and hopefully.  “Here, loved one, here, take this.  Baptized?  Take this seed of faith and grow it, live it.  Imprisoned unjustly Jean Valjean? Take this seed, my Word, and let it grow in you and transform you. And here you in the desert lands of North Korea, here’s my Word of hope for you.”  

A happy scatterer, our Lord God is.  Season after season, in one craggy or soil enriched place after another, he sows.

Praise God on whom all blessings, seeds and words flow.

Monday Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm 41, 52; PM Psalm 44
1 Samuel 24:1-22Acts 13:44-52Mark 4:1-20

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Long winded, unedited ‘word’ on Sunday’s ‘hot’ gospel: Churchgoer or disciple?

Third Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 7 Year A

Genesis 21:8-21
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

Matthew 10:24-39

Jesus said to the twelve disciples, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

This latest sermon was given June 26, 2017.  Once again I was scribbling thoughts late into Saturday night and on into Sunday morning on my drive into worship having unintentionally procrastinated in favor of travel.  Sigh.  Oh well.  It is the thought  – the one the Lord brings to us when we ask – that counts, right?

This audio version is from the 8 AM.  I did some heavy duty editing by the next two services, but did not record.  I thank God for the disciples attending 8 AM who patiently listened to the words of my mouth so that the meditations of all our hearts might have been acceptable to our Lord, God – our strength, our redeemer.

Onward. As a disciple in training. Ever stronger by and in him.

From the ‘hot’ gospel, the heated words of the one we follow: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

 

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Psalm 80: A thousand words from the English countryside

One of my great pleasures while traveling is to visit both art galleries and markets in hopes of discovering a picture of the area that captures some dimension or moment of my experience in the place. This last trip to England was so full of experiences that I wasn’t sure I would locate or land on just one piece.  I was touring English gardens in the Royal Berkshires, historic gardens in Hampshire and in London, and all along the way, worshiping and visiting a variety of the Church of England’s rural parishes in the countryside and large, urban congregations in London –  St. Paul’s Cathedral, St Martin-in-the-Fields and Holy Trinity at Sloan Square.  Interspersed with the pastorally-focused visits, I spent time in history museums I hadn’t been to in a few years (Victoria & Albert, Tate, the National Portrait Gallery, Kew Gardens, Kensington Palace and Westminster Abbey). Needless to say my dance card was full of experiences, insights, and aha moments that would be hard to reduce to just one picture – worth a thousand words or not.

On one of my last shopping days at Portobello Road market, I found it – or it found me. Seek and ye shall find.  Hanging in a very small, dingy and dark stall amongst a slew of 19th century pictures was this lovely little painting (shown here on my wall).  It was easily overlooked given the maritime theme showing forth from the puzzle-like stall wall. Apparently Fanny, the dealer, had just purchased a lot from a distinguished estate on the English coast. Each quite fine, but none that harkened me to an experience or moment of this particular trip.

The English countryside is a common enough theme for 19th century paintings but on this day it was one of only three in Fanny’s stall.  Yet, no meek bystander was this little picture!  It nearly jumped out to grab me – my attention, at least –  stopping me in my tracks to shout out over the din of the marketplace,

“Look over here – here where the sheep are together, lead by the shepherd, through the gate, on the path, clouds of witnesses overhead and the light of the shepherd and the sky illuming the sheep.  And oh, yea – in case you were thinking this isn’t THE picture for you to take home to memorialize this trip, this gospel story is depicted in the English countryside you have just visited!”

Truly, it was like that.  This little painting spoke to me – whispered, reminded, touched me deeply, delighted my senses and my heart.  

Sheep and shepherds, light and witness are all threads woven into the narrative fabric of the lections this past week. Just yesterday we heard from Jesus, again how God aches for his sheep – those that are without a shepherd, those that are scattered – not entirely lost – but aimless and anxious. And this morning, another reminder in the morning psalm (Psalm 80) that we, God’s church, God’s people, are scattered and aimless without our shepherd, without his light shining down on us, saving us, leading us through the gates, the narrow ones that he opens for us to make way for us on his way,

1 Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; *
shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim.

2 In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, *
stir up your strength and come to help us.

3 Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

16 Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, *
the son of man you have made so strong for yourself.

17 And so will we never turn away from you; *
give us life, that we may call upon your Name.

18 Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Is your shepherd within sight?  Do you hear his voice?  Is his light illuming your path this day? While my little painting may not have stopped you in your tracks or spoken to you like it did me, I trust God’s Word will harken you to his voice and that today, this day, you find yourself on his path, illumined by the light of his countenance.

Onward, praising God.

Monday Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm 80; PM Psalm 77, [79]
1 Samuel 1:1-20; Acts 1:1-14; Luke 20:9-19

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I am old and gray-headed, O God, do not forsake me, * till I make known your strength to this generation and your power to all who are to come.

I’ve been away from ministry for awhile and the distance I’ve felt from the work has been unsettling, though during my travels I was blessed with opportunities to pastor and even lead a liturgy and prayers in one of the places I was visiting.  Returning home and to the worship communities I have been assigned has been welcome, but I have felt out of sync. More than jet lag, I have felt no energy for jumping through the hoops that remain for me to serve God’s church as an ordained priest.  I have been on this path for such a long time, and the time away gave me time to see how the call to ministry in this church might be lived out differently.

Yesterday during the Eucharist with Healing Prayers, I stepped forward for healing prayers – something I do regularly but almost always on behalf of others.  I ask God to send strength or patience or wellness to those who are in sickness, trouble or any adversity, but only occasionally has it occurred to me to receive anointing and healing for my own troubles – physical, emotional or otherwise.  But yesterday, even though the needs of others were on my heart, I sort of blurted out – “Energy – please join me in petitioning God for energy to serve God’s church.”  My friends laid hands on me, my pastor anointed me with oil saying,

“I lay my hands upon you and anoint you.  Receive Christ’s gift of healing especially for energy. May the power of the Savior who suffered for you wash over you that you may be raised up in peace and inward strength. Amen.”

I was grateful for the prayers, but truth be told – I was not at all sure I wanted to receive any new energy for serving that the Lord might send.  I have begun to envision life differently following my travels.  When I left for the day I took note of how burdened I was still feeling, my heart heavy, my countenance drawn downwards.  Rather than being renewed and strengthened I felt flat out drained and whispered to myself, “nothing left in the tank” as I concurrently made a mental note of all the things I am required to do in the coming weeks to keep on track for ordination.

On that drive home I reviewed in my mind’s eye my recent travels and recollected how energized I had been throughout.  In both island locations, I was able to revisit worshiping communities that I had at one time or another been a part of in recent years.  In the tropical island location I witnessed a joyful spirit – the Holy Spirit – infusing the worship and God’s people with the gentleness and grace of swaying palm trees and Aloha hospitality.  I was energized and delighted at the prospect of leading such a worship one day.  And later in the month on the island across the pond, the natural beauty of England’s gardens and landscapes combined with the historic beauty of stone church buildings complemented by contemporary expressions of the Holy Spirit, and undergirded by a tradition dating back to the apostolic days,  I was likewise energized as I considered with humility the possibility of being a priest in this little corner of God’s church.

Yet while gone I was very aware of how my faith practices fell to the wayside – the discipline of starting the day with the Daily Office and in God’s Word, of reflecting with others either here in this blog or in community at bible studies or worship or with a colleagues.  Those practices I have found foundational to parish ministry preparing me to experience and encounter everything from traffic jams to news of the death of a parishioner to one national crisis or another through the lens of God’s will and word.

Though my practices fell away, God’s presence was never more near.  All I had to do was look up from my phone, the newspaper, the meal, my computer, out the window, into the eyes of another.

A few years ago as I was driving cross country to summer chaplaincy program in Maine, I found myself looking up to the skies – to the clouds – through my windshield and sensing not only God’s presence hovering in front and above, but also God’s hand – gently pulling me forward along the path he ordained in order that I might live my story for his glory. Ever since, wherever I may be, I look to the skies to affirm and confirm God’s presence in a particular moment or place.  A pause button of sorts – a tool, a way of being present to God’s presence.  I’ve written before how the action of lifting my eyes from scripture as I read the passages of the Daily Office is the signal – to me – that the Spirit has something to teach me.

And so it was.  This morning I was determined to begin my day as I have for years with the Daily Office – grounding the day in God’s will and word –  as if I was in full-time ministry, as if I was enjoined to one worshipping community and not yet in a transient, temporary, state, as if I had the energy and enthusiasm for serving God’s church that prompted me to board the ship to Nineveh by way of Tarshish so many years ago, as if…

And there it happened, again.  Not just God’s presence felt, but his hand pulling me up and out of myself – leading me back to the path he called me to.  Prayer answered with one simple lift of my eyes – upward – at theses verses from the appointed psalm, Psalm 71:

12 O God, be not far from me; *
come quickly to help me, O my God.

This was my prayer yesterday! Albeit a more poetic and earnest petition than my utterance “Energy – I’m praying for energy….

be not far from me – let me sense you.  Energize me, animate my movements, my thoughts, my breath.  And quick – make it quick, please!  Or not…in fact, maybe not. Maybe I don’t want the energy – maybe the lack of it is a good excuse to do this ministry thing differently.”

The psalm’s verses continued to speak to me – showing me the way back to that engaged spot I occupied before leaving the daily practice of ministry in God’s church.  Start with the beginning, dear one, the psalm suggested – just begin to recount God’s story – his mighty acts and saving deeds and do this all day long – all year long, through all the years you have been blessed to live.  

Each word of the psalm energizing me, showing me a way back to the path and a way forward at the same time.

15 My mouth shall recount your mighty acts
and saving deeds all day long; *
though I cannot know the number of them.

16 I will begin with the mighty works of the Lord God; *
I will recall your righteousness, yours alone.

17 O God, you have taught me since I was young, *
and to this day I tell of your wonderful works.

18 And now that I am old and gray-headed, O God, do not forsake me, *
till I make known your strength to this generation
and your power to all who are to come.

19 Your righteousness, O God, reaches to the heavens; *
you have done great things;
who is like you, O God?

20 You have showed me great troubles and adversities, *
but you will restore my life
and bring me up again from the deep places of the earth.

21 You strengthen me more and more; *
you enfold and comfort me,

It has taken a big chunk of my time today to record these thoughts, but I sorta kinda had to just do it and get ‘er done.

My story, His glory.  And His energy.  Thanks be to God.

Onward.

Thursday Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm [70], 71; PM Psalm 74

Ecclus. 44:19-45:5; 2 Cor. 12:1-10; Luke 19:28-40

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Blindness, the War on Cancer, and the Seven Dwarves – Thinking about Sin

John 9:1 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ 3Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.

In 1971 President Richard Nixon signed into law the National Cancer Act authorizing the spending of $1.5 billion of research funds over the next three years to wage a war on cancer. The initiative for the Act had been funded, in part, by medical philanthropist, Mary Lasker, once quoted as saying, “I am opposed to heart attacks and cancer the way one is opposed to sin.”

The scientific community was not ready for this war – they did not know the enemy – the cancer cell – how it operated or from whence it came.  As researcher, physician and author Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote in his book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer:

In scientific terms…the war was disastrously premature… in the early 1970s, there really wasn’t a science of cancer. Researchers still did not understand what makes cells turn malignant. Now that they were so much in the spotlight, and in the money, they fell into bickering, demoralized, warring factions.

Science has learned much since this time recovering from the ill-suited framework of  ‘waging a war’ because of the work of researchers focused on understanding the enemy. In the past few decades lab scientists worked out the genetics of cancer, and traced the molecular sequence of jammed accelerators and missing brakes that release those first rebel cells. “Beating cancer now is a realistic ambition because, at long last, we largely know its true genetic and chemical characteristics.

How akin is Sin to cancer?  The gospel gives us a peek at how mis-understood Sin was (and in some places, still is ) to God’s people.  Like Cancer, we have so often been wrong about its origins, how it manifests – whether or not it is a condition within or is it some external thing – discrete – that visits us, can be excised?  And if there are no outwardly signs of Sin, are we without?  And what does Sin actually look like – how is it outwardly manifested?

Certainly not in blindness.  Blindness was  – is – no sin, but a condition, a broken part some are born with.  The broken part not caused by someone else and not a bad moral choice. No one chooses broken parts.  We are all born with broken parts.  (In my sometimes sort of twisted mind’s eye I thought of this panel from Dan Piraro’s Bizarro comic that illustrates the difference between broken physical condition and Sin). 

Scientists now know cancer cells reside within all of our bodies and that we don’t ‘get’ cancer, we provoke cancer, as Dr. Oz and others will say.

I think the same is true of Sin.  Sin resides within each of us and it is called the Flesh.  Part of how we are wired as human beings that seeks not God, but self.  And we are all vulnerable to Satan’s relentless invitation to Sin (as a cancer cells unchecked relentlessly reproduce) – to step away from God and towards self.

Being opposed to cancer and heart attacks  – as Mary Lasker equates with her aversion to sin  – fueled her and research partner Dr. Sidney Farber to incite a frenzied ill-fated ‘war on cancer’ with the sponsorship of the National Cancer Act.  It set too many doctors and researchers against one another and treated patients more as ‘specimens’ and bodies that harbored the enemy, than as people with cancer.

We are all opposed to Sin – our Father in Heaven, most of all.  But we have no more capacity for eradicating it from the ourselves – our own bodies – than the war-on-cancer researchers did by thinking of it as something outside, some discrete thing that can be attacked by human-made weapons.  Only with God’s help, with grace, forgiveness are we enabled to wage any kind of war against the sin within.

Understanding Sin for what it is and what it is not – understanding the enemy, its origins, how it attacks, how to combat – is pretty important to get right, to think about, to pray it – and to preach about, it seems to me. How many of God’s people have been judged by fellow Christians as unworthy because of a wrongly held belief about Sin and its origins?

Praise God.

Monday Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm 31; PM Psalm 35
Jer. 24:1-10; Rom. 9:19-33; John 9:1-17

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John 11:1-45: Locating Jesus in a ‘Where’s-Waldo-like’ story


John 11:1-45

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

Fifth Sunday of Lent Readings:

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Romans 8:6-11

John 11:1-45

Psalm 130

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Be pleased o God, to deliver…baby, today?

Psalm 70: 1 Be pleased, O God, to deliver me; *
O Lord, make haste to help me.

2 Let those who seek my life be ashamed
and altogether dismayed; *
let those who take pleasure in my misfortune
draw back and be disgraced.

3 Let those who say to me “Aha!” and gloat over me turn back, *
because they are ashamed.

4 Let all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; *
let those who love your salvation say for ever,
“Great is the Lord!”

5 But as for me, I am poor and needy; *
come to me speedily, O God.

6 You are my helper and my deliverer; *
O Lord, do not tarry.

I had to smile at the opening verses of today’s morning psalm as I could almost hear it on the lips of a family member who is expecting – expecting her first baby.  We – all the family and my church community have been praying in earnest that things get underway soon.

This psalm, of course, is anything but about labor and delivery of a blessing – a child.  This is a petition to be saved – delivered – from enemies. Not my favorite of topics or biblical themes because of the dichotomy such psalms and much of the Hebrew scriptures often sets up – the us-them narrative that leaves little room for Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies.  Perhaps this is why I have recorded no reflections on Psalm 70 in the scriptural journal I began to keep in earnest in 2009.  Though I was surprised to find not one pause recorded through the years, I was grateful for the reminder – the reminder of how important the discipline of recording “whispers”, thoughts, questions has been to me – to keep me on track, to dwell in God’s Word and allow the Word to read me.

So, though finding no reflection specifically on Psalm 70, I was made aware that I haven’t avoided altogether the sentiment and petition expressed (also found nearly word for word in Psalm 40 (11-17) ), having often reflected on its application in my personal life and the life of God’s church. Sentiments and themes like Deliver me, Lord. You are my only helper. Don’t tarry – God’s time. 

Yep.  True that.  Though my loved one has been open to trying all sorts of things to trigger delivery – acupuncture, long walks a couple of times a day, some distinct foods – she has left the praying to me (and my fellow prayer warriors).  We talked last night at the news that another friend due at the same time, had delivered in the morning.  As happy as she was for Laura, she felt discouraged.  Trying to dissuade her from being discouraged and to cheer her up, I offered that many of our friends and family had predicted a Friday delivery – St Pat’s Day – because, well…her favorite color is green, her great-grandfather’s bday is March 17, the date corresponds with her wedding date…yada yada yada.  She’d have none of it.  “Ugh!  Please pray for this baby to come now – not Friday – that’s two days away!”

So that was my prayer last night.  But by midnight, baby was still snug as a bug in utero.  So, my first thought this morning was to pray baby comes, today, March 16.  Which brings me full circle to this psalm and the opening couplet.

I am once again just awed at God’s Word at how it speaks to us in our own particularities over and over and through time.  A living word – day in day out.  Any other time, any other day, I would have skipped over this reading to get past another “us-them” psalm.  But today I was paused by the Holy Spirit and blessed to receive the exact words I need for the prayers and petitions I am offering for my loved one this day.  A prayer for “deliverance.”

Will you join your prayers to mine for my expecting loved one?  Here’s what I’m praying,

Be pleased, O God, to deliver her baby; *
O Lord, make haste to help her.
“Great is the Lord!”
…as for her, she is poor and needy; *
come to her speedily, O God.
You are her helper and her deliverer; *
O Lord, do not tarry.

In Jesus’ name, I pray, Amen.

In “due” time I’ll let you know when this new child of God’s makes his or her way home.

Until then,

Praise God.

Thursday Daily Office Readings: M Psalm [70], 71; PM Psalm 74
Jer. 4:9-10,19-28; Rom. 2:12-24; John 5:19-29

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Lent as Eton, not Waterloo

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