The middle school does not have its own auditorium, so concerts are held at the high school. Tonight’s concert is chorus and orchestra. The auditorium is a cacophony of noise; talking, laughing. Students cavort; parents visit. Odd squeaks sound as one instrument is bowed, then another – individuals rehearsing the awkward bits, each of them alone, not yet in concert. Punctuating the chaos comes the tinkle of piano keys as the accompanist runs through the songs, adding a spritely rhythm to the random-patterned, rising-falling noise.
The chorus director gathers her brood onto the risers. There is some awkward stomping and giggling but no crashes. She sketches a movement with her hands, and the chorus begins to sing a scale – soft voices, vulnerable. On the other half of the stage, the orchestra director sets the beginning strings to tune; they scratch and squeak. The advanced orchestra waits, clustered in little groups, some kneeling backwards in their seats, chatting and laughing.
The concert begins with the chorus, continues with beginning strings. Then the advanced orchestra moves onto the stage.
The performers take their seats. They settle sheet music on the stands; they ready instruments. After a pause, a dark-haired girl — the first violinist – stands, tucks her violin under her chin, and draws her bow across its strings. A single note sings solitary. Is then joined by others, as bows are drawn across violins and cellos and a bass. The notes come in slightly different times and keys until the wavering dissonances are resolved and merge. The director enters, bows, lifts his baton, motions the music to begin.
I love that initiating note … the others that join…. The potential of all the music to come is held in that long-drawn not-quite-chorded note. There will be carols and dances and a concerto by Liszt. But first there is this note, offered up, fragile and tenuous and pregnant with possibility. As small and frail and potent as a baby born God-With-Us. A note begun sweet and solitary. A note rehearsed year after year, across seasons and generations, in different keys and rhythms, until all the instruments are added, and the dissonances drawn together, and the music swells in full power and one song.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see or decide by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge for the poor and decide with equity for the oppressed of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
It is the seeming rejection of sense perception that catches me when I read Isa 11. Not the ‘wolf living with the lamb’ or any of the peaceable kingdom images. Not the ‘shoot’ coming from the ‘stump of Jesse,’ the ‘little child’ leading; the promised ’root’ Paul claims as Christ [Rom. 15:12]. It’s the fact that this coming one shall not judge by his eyes nor decide by his ears [Isa 11:3].
That forswearing of senses strikes at odds with the prophet’s earlier proclamation to ‘Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes’ [Isa 6:10]. If sensory deprivation is prophesied as the LORD’s judgment, and restoration of vision and audition is prophesied as the LORD’s coming grace [Isa 35:5-6], then how am I to understand the mission of this promised shoot? The one who ‘shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear’ but will judge with righteousness and decide with equity [Isa 11:3-4]? Isaiah 11 sets sight and sound in opposition to righteousness and equity, complicating the idea of a simple progression from blindness to sight. This text describes vision and audition as senses whose usefulness is suspect.
I compare translations; consult lexicons; search scholarly articles. The shoot from the stump of Jesse shall ‘delight in the fear of the LORD,’ or perhaps shall ‘sense’ in the fear of the LORD (as the JPS translation suggests). ‘Fear of the LORD’ is the sixth of the spirit-gifts which shall rest upon him: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge and fear of the LORD [Isa 11:2]. A variety of values (near-synonyms?) for that which should undergird right judgment. Not the seeing of eyes nor the hearing of ears but fear of the LORD, the ‘beginning of wisdom’ [Prov. 9:10].
Does it seem backwards to describe knowledge as a spirit-gift, rooted in reverence? Do we trust what is taught or do we conceive of learned interpretation as less reliable than direct perception? Sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. Our senses are how we apprehend the world around. Our senses are the basis of our witness of and in the world. We know what we saw, we declare, we know what we heard.
Except we don’t. Not really. Sight is interpretation. When we look at light and dark, lines set on a page or shapes shifting in the world around, we don’t just see but interpret the form and the movement. More than that, until we learn it, we may not even see it.
This is what I learned from learning Syriac. Syriac script is consonantal. Vowels are written as tiny marks added around the consonants like some sort of decorative surround. Syriac vowel shapes are varied, and when first I encountered them they seemed to me random squiggles. They were to me literally indecipherable. I consistently floundered in my guesses as to which vowel was which until finally the professor said, Can you not see the letters? She enlarged the pages double-sized so that the squiggles stood out clear to my sight. Only then could I see: each was distinct, had a different shape, stood for a different sound. I had to learn the details writ large before I was able to see them writ small.
I couldn’t see them until I knew them.
We don’t know what we see; we see what we know.
We cannot judge by our own sight until we are taught how to see.
The prophet does not reject sense perception so much as require its right re-ordering, calling us to learn righteousness and equity. Instruction is promised; the Word will flow from Zion [Isa 2:1-5]; calling people to walk God’s holy highway and to sing joy [Isa 35:8-10].
The sprig sprung from Jesse’s line is like the ‘child who has been born for us’ [Isa 9:6] or the ‘servant’ whose tongue is taught [Isa 50:4]. The church reads these as Jesus, who told those who asked to ‘Go and tell what you hear and see’: blind eyes seeing, deaf ears hearing [Matt 11:4-6]. (Jesus’ juxtaposition of sense terms suddenly makes me wonder if he thought by his answer to open the ears and eyes of those who had asked!)
The sprig sprung from Jesse’s line may be read as Jesus. Yet reading Jesus in this text does not exhaust its possibilities. It promises not only ultimate judgment and ultimate restoration, but also proposes a way to wait in the meanwhile. I cannot see and hear and study to save myself. But I can be reminded that my sight and hearing are limited by what I know and re-called to look and listen and study to be in relationship with the world. Copy righteousness and equity over and over until their shapes are fixed in my hand and my eye. Recite fear of the LORD with my lips and mouth. Walk God’s instruction with my feet. Practice sight and hearing and pray sense enlarged with ‘the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea’ [Isa 11:9].
[Jesus said:] ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’
Are we there yet?’ It’s a familiar phrase. Perhaps heard by some of us as we braved the highways for Thanksgiving reunions. Along with its close relation, ‘How much longer?’ Or our own family’s peculiar version: ‘How many more ‘Almosts’? As in, ‘Are we Almost There, or almost Almost There, or …?’ When our girls were small, the Almost was a variable measurement, not directly correlated to miles or time, although obviously linked to both and affected by traffic. Besides this, the Almost adjusted to accommodate conditions inside the car: shorter tempers could mean shorter intervals between Almosts, as the quicker countdown suggested swifter progress towards the goal. On the other hand, the official Almost tracker (me) was known to deliberately hold a particular Almost an inordinately long time when the question was asked just-too-often.
The disciples in Matthew’s gospel ask their own version. ‘Tell us,’ they say privately to Jesus, ‘when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ (Matt 24:3). That is the question that Jesus answers in the beginning of this passage when he says, ‘But about that day and hour no one knows.’
Actually, Jesus’ speech is longer than that. The disciples’ question is back at verse 3, and Jesus talks for 33 verses, telling of false messiahs and heavenly portents, of betrayal and suffering and steadfast commitment, of the birthpangs of the world, before looping back to their query with a response that is not really an answer. ‘When?’ they had asked. ‘No-one knows,’ Jesus replies. I suspect it’s not the answer desired; I trust it is the answer needed.
The disciples are on a journey with Jesus. They have repeatedly re-calibrated time-till-arrival. They ask ‘When’ and want to hear ‘Almost’ because they don’t want the ‘Now’ they’re living to continue as it is.
We know that. ‘How long?’ we ask when our present is being endured, rather than enjoyed. We can face the journey if we’re actually almost there. Or almost Almost There. When we are fully present, connected, immersed in the experience — sharing meals or telling stories or singing songs along the way — then we look up, surprised at how the time has flown, and we say ‘Already?’ rather than ‘When?’
‘When?’ the disciples ask. Because life in an occupied land is hard. Because they are tired of oppressive division and injustice. Because they are eager to see God’s promises of salvation realized. Because it is so close. Isn’t it? Matthew’s gospel is 28 chapters long, and the disciples are already in chapter 24 — they must be Almost There!
Some 2,000 years on, Jesus’ disciples still live in a time of uncertainty and uneasiness, of oppressive division and injustice, still read tribulation and know pain and cry out in protest. When are you coming to make it all plain, Lord? When are you coming to save?
‘About that day and hour no one knows,’ Jesus replies, re-timing our attention from ‘that hour’ to this one.
This is the hour we are to heed; this is the hour we are to live.
We are not invited to endure this time — waiting with breath held, jaw clenched, fists gripping so tight our knuckles pale — nor to escape it — reverting to some fictional past, dreaming of a pie-in-the-sky future.
Jesus invites us to know this time. Eating and drinking and marrying. Working in the field and in the house. Or the office or the school. Living in the here and in the now. Busy with and alongside of others. Jesus does not just re-direct attention to this must-be-lived present, he describes a busy-ness that joins people together. Dividing lines are not drawn until the ‘when’ of which Jesus does not tell us. That end comes in God’s time, at God’s judgment, in fulfillment of God’s goal of intimate presence and ultimate salvation (Matt 1:21-23). Meanwhile, there is work to do. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, welcome the stranger (Matt 25:31-46)
Are we there yet? No. Christ’s return will be unexpected but as unmistakable as lightning streaking across the sky, as irresistible as a flood that comes or a thief that breaks in to take.
Maybe that’s why God doesn’t tell. Because we are too small to bear it rightly. Because we can’t live just counting down to the future, holding on until it comes. We have to live in the present. Deeply. Devotedly.
Devoted to God. Devoted to our neighbor. The neighbor I know and love, and the one I don’t yet know or don’t yet love. Not drawing lines that divide but sharing burdens among — seed time and harvest, grinding and baking. Feeding the hungry. Tending the sick. Welcoming the stranger. Working diligently and watching vigilantly until that day.
How many more Almosts? Fewer than when Matthew first wrote. ‘Therefore you also must be ready.’ And awake.
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
‘Bound for eighteen long years,’ he said (Luke 13:16). She heard, and she paused in her praise. Had really been so long. From when would she count it? From when her body’s bearing had become fixed contortion? Or had the binding begun farther back, when the first spider-thread of unease ensnared her? She had dismissed the twinge, whenever it was. Told herself the day’s load had been too heavy, she’d twisted something trying to keep up. But she kept twisting herself trying to accommodate each next sure-to-pass-soon circumstance. Not denying the ache, exactly, but ignoring it. And each day she kept going, that day’s thread twisted together with its fellow until she’d found herself bound by a sticky, wrist-thick rope that kept her hunched in the world, bent over by the spirit’s weight.
When had she last stood straight before this day? The crowd rejoiced at the wonder they had seen. And she in the midst of their sounding joy, was suddenly cast back in her memory.
A goldfinch had caught her eye, and she’d turned her head to follow its flight into the thicket. She’d lost sight of it then. Stood herself still and peered closely until she glimpsed its lemon yellow deep within the tangled branches. A smile had spread wide across her face. She’d had to share the wonder. ‘See!’ she pointed out to passersby. ‘See! A finch, right there!’ Two had paused their own progress and followed her pointing finger with their own eyes. They did not see. She watched their expressions turn from expectancy to puzzlement, then a slight withdrawal towards doubt. ‘See! There!’ she repeated, as if words alone could make it visible. Her insistence kept them there a beat longer, but neither her words nor her pointing finger made them see. The bird was too well hidden to be noticed if you hadn’t already known where it was. Then the goldfinch moved, and its motion made it visible. ‘Oh!’ they all exclaimed together as it flew up from the bush. Another finch flew too, two small brightnesses flitting around each other, darting through the air. ‘Look!’ they exclaimed, “See!’ The sound of their delight drew another from the doorway to see its reason, and so it spread.
How long since she had seen a flying brightness that made her smile? She had walked hunched in the world, bent over by the spirit’s weight, her gaze on her own feet moving along the dusty road. She hadn’t thought of birds. But maybe a tiny thing with feathers had been set within her own soul, too hidden to be noticed unless you knew it there, yet in its own subtle way resisting the rope that had bound her so firmly, working to unwind even one cobweb thread. For she had come here this Sabbath, as she had before, treading the path worn by others’ feet before ever her own had started their journey of persistence.
She had not come asking or expecting birds. She had come in fidelity to the unsuspected feathered thing hidden in the thicket of her own self. The insistence of habit had drawn her there without her knowing why. Then hope had flown and shown itself. Had seen and called her over, pronounced her free and laid hands on her. It had felt as if one hand pulled on her shoulder and one hand pressed the small of her back and together the hands reshaped and stood her straight who had not stood straight for eighteen long years.
She stood now in the midst of the crowd’s sounding joy. Wonder was among them — a bird darting up from the constriction of cares quotidian and extraordinary, delighting with its brightness and its airy flight, delighting even she herself who was its sign, re-awakening her to its presence and its power. A smile spread wide across her face. She had been waked again to demand. ‘See!’ she said, ‘See!’ She had been waked again to the promise that there is something to demand.
Demand the vision. Demand the movement that makes visible hope and joy and life — on the Lord’s day and every day.
Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus], “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
‘Life is short,’ the worship leader reminds us. Her benediction is a summons to lovingkindness and a statement of blessing. ‘Amen,’ we say, and stand as the family recesses with the urn that bears their mother’s remains.
Life is short. It turns in a moment. I study the gospel text. Inheritance and division. Abundance laid up for future years. The expectation of ease. It’s almost too apt. This morning’s funeral. Others before it. Death come after illness; death come in an accident. I’m turning the age my mother died. Our house is filled with things brought here from our parents’ households and things we accumulated ourselves.
I read Jesus’ parable carefully. The rich man sees the abundant harvest and imagines his future settled. Now he will enjoy the fruit of his husbanding, the bounty his fields have produced. (Notice the phrasing. The fields have produced this plenty, not the man, however diligent his efforts.) The man speaks to himself, tasting already the delights of further speech with himself, ‘I will say to my soul, Soul… Psuchē … Life …’
Then God interrupts his intimate anticipation: ‘Fool! This very night your psuchē they ask back from you.’ That’s the literal translation of the Greek. ‘They demand’ the man’s psuchē, his soul [12:19], his life [12:20]. ‘They…’ — third-person plural — ‘… demand’ — present tense.
Who are the demanding ‘they’? Perhaps the undefined pronoun is a substitute for the passive: ‘Your life is demanded of you,’ a circumlocution for divine action, for God recalling the life-breath given but for a time on this earth. God is, after all, the speaker. God’s next word may suggest that ‘this night’ marks a transition from present tense to eternity: ‘And what you have prepared, to whom will it be?’ All the possessives the man had gloated over — my crops, my barns, my grain, my goods, my soul — suddenly untethered from identity in relationship to him. Whose will they be?
Or reconsider the question. Who belongs to whom? Is the man the one who possesses or the one who is possessed? The Greek allows the possibility that the things prepared are the insistent ‘they’ which ‘this night’ demand? The man preoccupies himself with projecting prodigious barns as if abundant harvest and gathered goods demand this planning, as if it is not undertaken for himself alone but is exacted of the possessor of such abundance.
I try to hear the tone in God’s interrupting ‘Fool!’ Does God thunder judgment, the man’s overnight demise, or does God’s mouth twist wryly as he recalls the man’s attention (our attention) to the present that very moment unfolding? Listen to the rich man’s gloating over abundance and recognize its skimpiness. The man speaks to and of himself and construes his self as possession (‘my psuchē’). God’s interjection recalls the man to relationship — the relationship that actually is (the rich man and his riches), the relationship being constructed (the possessor possessed) by the attention absorbed.
Life is short. It turns in a moment, and it comprises all those moments’ turnings. The preoccupations of our days. The plans we turn over in our minds and those put to action with our hands. Each of these moments demands of me my life. God’s interjection recalls me to this. Not just eternity in-breaking overnight, with the shrill of a telephone bell, but eternity unfolding in all those incremental turnings. My life is demanded of me. This very night, and tomorrow, and the night and the morning after. Resist the preoccupations that increasingly diminish the self of me. (Building bigger barns for my own soul only.) Turn towards those that risk the possibility of self opened and enlarged, enriched towards God.
Life is short. Life’s brevity is vast. Let me be increased as experience and expectation interleave to ground myself in this very now. Ask what it demands of me. Attend to its answer. Listen for the word that tugs me forward to meet it, then go to meet and be met by the presence in the summoning present.
And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”
Luke 11:5-8, excerpt from Luke 11:1-13, lectionary gospel for July 24, 2022
‘The Lord’s Prayer.’ We title it a stand-alone piece, but it comes enmeshed in story, a pattern of request and response. The disciple asks for words, the neighbor for bread, the child for good gifts.
A warm evening in July. It is too hot to sit outside, but we do. The air is close, the garden lushly grown. It’s a Thursday night, and there are few others on the patio. The friendly waitress brings us menus and ice water. We order drinks and bites. The light is quiet, the air calm. The sky glows, then sinks into dusk. We eat and drink and talk and laugh. And if sometimes the talk is sarcastic, well, we hear the ache behind the snark, know the tears that lie just the other side of that brittle laugh. We’ve been meeting for 13 years, since seminary, through endings and beginnings and children coming on for grown.
I have not written, I tell. Again. Still. My excuses were various, some even good, but all now expired, and I have not written. I start to feel sick when I contemplate the work. “There’s sin in that,” Gini says, “some power of darkness.” Cynthia and Lydia agree. They lean forward as if to confront and to comfort both at once. “I’ve cleared a table as an office corner in the basement,” I say, “maybe ….” “We will come and bless the space,” the ladies decide. Gini recalls the liturgy used to consecrate St. John’s; Cynthia recalls the blessing of her new house. “Powerful,” she says. “Let us come,” Lydia urges. I demur: “I don’t have a bookcase yet. The space isn’t ready to be blessed ….” What has blessing to do with this my problem, my failure, my fault, I feel. “We will come,” they promise. Maybe. We part – as always – with hugs.
“Teach us to pray,” Jesus’ disciple asks. It’s like this, Jesus explains, “if one of you will have a friend,” and having implicated his hearers with the introducing “you,” Jesus tells the parable in third person, “and he will go to him at midnight, and he will say to him….” It is awkward to read all the third-person masculine singulars: one in the house, wanting to sleep; one outside it, knocking, asking, “Lend me some bread….”
Then comes the puzzle: “Even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence, he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” The referents are unclear: who is “his friend,” the breadless neighbor or the one abed? Whose is the “persistence”? And what is this “persistence”? It’s an odd word in the Greek, less perseverance than shamelessness. Is the critical audacity that of the breadless neighbor, who knocks and knocks and will not give up? or is it that of the one abed, who rises, if only for the sake of honor, that bread may be set before the guest?
Why choose, I decide. Let the audacity belong to both of them. Ponder the practice of persistent boldness forming and re-forming each in relationship with the other.
I get a used blue bookcase and fill it with heavy texts. I hang a tea towel as a curtain for the small window. I sit in my office corner. And after yet another day of not-writing, I take a picture of the space and send it to my friends. “I have a bookcase,” I type. We will bless it, they reply.
And they do. Gini comes with her clerical collar and an aspergillum of holy water, which we sprinkle on table and chair and bookcase. She blesses my head and hands and heart with oil, prays for the work and the worker. Cynthia comes later, lays hands on the table, wraps arms around me, and talks to God on my behalf. Lydia is on the road, but emails blessing liberally strewn with emojis that I construe as midnight knocking and bold cry, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread.”
And me? I am that not-quite-forgotten third: the traveler so far from home and wholeness that she cannot even beg bread for herself. Yet the audacious persistence of my friends and my God conspire together to set bread before me. Enough to sustain me for the night, so that I can rise for the next day’s prayer. And I write: “Give us each day our daily bread.”
*This devotion was originally written July 2016, and emailed then to the ladies named. Six years on, our children are more grown, and we’re still meeting. As the lectionary cycles back to this text from Luke, I’m posting this devo if only as a reminder to myself that being prayed for is also a prayer discipline.
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at Jesus’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks, so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her, then, to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, but few things are needed—indeed only one. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Oh, God, it’s Luke’s version of Martha and Mary again. I like the sisters, truly I do, but I prefer John’s portrait of them to Luke’s. John presents them as a pair, friends to Jesus, loved by Jesus [John 11:5], whom they call ‘Lord’ and welcome to their home.
Luke’s depiction sets the sisters at odds with each other. Or so it seems. Or so it often is read. One is either ‘a Martha’ or ‘a Mary,’ and Mary’s heart takes the posture preferred. Sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to what he says. Mary utters not a word in Luke’s telling. Which suddenly makes me wonder whether the story is about her. Mary’s listening silence triggers Martha’s complaint. Does that make it the point of Jesus’ response?
Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem. And on the way, he is welcomed by Martha. Sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, but Martha is ‘distracted’ by ‘much serving.’ Not the plural ‘many tasks,’ as the English has it, but a singular ‘much.’ ‘Much,’ singular, ‘diakonia,’ service or ministry, singular. ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me alone to serve?’ Martha asks, and Jesus replies, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things.’ ‘Many.’ Jesus does not repeat the narrator’s singular ‘much’ but shifts to the plural form, ‘many.’ Is this an accident of idiom or might the number matter?
‘Mary has chosen the good part,’ Jesus tells Martha, ‘which will not be taken away from her.’ Is Mary’s portion ‘good’ or ‘better’? The Greek can be read either way. Why prefer ‘better’ if it’s not required by the grammar? What is there in us that measures the worth of Mary’s choice in relationship to Martha’s. Is ‘the good’ only good when and if it is ‘better’? Cannot the worth of both works be seen and known? Does the definite article (‘the good’) mean there is one good for all people at all times or is Jesus responding to Martha’s charge about Mary’s choice at this place in this time, when Jesus is paused to be welcomed on his way to Jerusalem.
Maybe had Martha’s effort stayed single — ‘much service’ — it would have been affirmed. She started well enough, receiving Jesus. But Martha herself, distracted, introduces the comparison in asking Jesus to re-instruct her sister. Maybe this is why the text shifts to plural: Martha is no longer set only to her singular service but has become anxious and troubled about something else as well, her own work in relationship to Mary’s. Jesus’ plural (‘many things’) draws attention to this. I listen to Jesus’ words. Does he say that Martha chose poorly or that Mary chose well? Is ‘Martha, Martha’ a caution about Martha’s own diakonia or about her judgment of Mary’s? Mary’s choice wasn’t about Martha; Martha’s choice should not be about Mary. ‘The good portion’ — the right diakonia — is about God.
What is my right diakonia? Or yours or ours? What is the single end — even comprising multiple smaller works, just as setting supper requires procurement and preparation and presentation, whether the meal is one pot or many small-plates — what is the single end, however much of a muchness, that calls? Resist worry over others’ portions, as if their worth lessens mine, as if worth is finite. God’s promise is not cut up into shares made smaller with each soul counted in. There is work for all, a work for each. Sometimes our tasks overlap in obviously mutual support; sometimes they seem so separate that their common end must be taken on trust. Sometimes the service is of long and steady sameness; sometimes it shifts in response to the spirit’s blowing.
Resist the comparison. My worth with another’s. Today’s work with yesterday’s, or last year’s, or next’s. Embrace, instead, the company. All of us aimed towards God’s common end, a grace that is greater than the sum of our varied works.
Here, you sit and listen to the talk. I will overhear the conversation as I move in and out of the kitchen, set the table to the sound of voices. I can set myself to my portion as you set yourself to yours. And when I am caught by a word or phrase suddenly rising to the surface of the talk, I will look across to you and see you looking across to me — sisters’ eyes catching — and together we will feel smiling love looking on us both. We will realize that in welcoming the kingdom-coming, we have been welcomed by its presence now.
‘When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.‘
Luke 9:51; excerpt from 9:51-62, lectionary gospel for June 26, 2022
Friday the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The news was not unexpected. Even so, the decision hit hard. Vulnerabilities hoped historical were re-presenced in language that anticipated further erosion of protections; the rhetoric of power was spun in a way that inverts the reality of its exercise. It all feels too much. News on news on news, all slowly churning into history. And in the face of my enervating discouragement, Luke gives me Jesus’ face, set for Jerusalem.
‘When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up’ — that’s what starts this passage: the imminent completion of Jesus’ days. Jesus does not journey of his own inclination but of necessity. It’s an imperative connected to the fulfillment, of his mission.
‘… he set his face to go to Jerusalem’ — the phrase rings with a flint-firmness of purpose that will not be swayed to the left or to the right, but persists because its end is already known, and its end is new beginning. Luke’s telling has taken a turn. Jesus knows it. He’s the one who’s set his face, turning the story forward. We know it — we’re told it in this verse.
It may not be so clear to those within Luke’s gospel. Even just in Luke 9, the story swings wildly from the disciples’ joys of proclamation [Luke 9:1-6] and healing and feeding [9:10-17], of recognition [9:18-20] and transfiguration [9:28-36] to the shocks of Jesus predicting his passion [9:21-22, 44], a thing they do ‘not understand’ and are ‘afraid to ask’ [9:45]. They argue over which of them is the greatest [9:46-48] and are jealous of others claiming Jesus who do not follow Jesus ‘with’ them — as if their discipleship is the sole measure [9:49-50]. Their story-middle is messy. They may not know what we know: that a new turn in the story has been told. That Jesus has set his face towards his exodus [9:31], his being taken up [9:51], his accomplishment of what he had been sent to do: bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and declare the year of the Lord’s favor [Luke 4:18-19].
Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem. Which doesn’t mean he no longer has time for this world — he teaches and heals, tells parables and utters woes, shares meals with friends and Pharisees and tax-collectors the whole ten-chapter journey. It doesn’t mean Jesus no longer has time for this world. It does mean that Jesus does not forget his goal. That Luke does not let us forget it either, reminding us more than once along the way that Jesus is journeying to Jerusalem.
Samaritans will not receive Jesus because his face is set towards Jerusalem [9:52-53]? Jesus remembers why he has come. James and John might lose sight of the goal, imagining glories of revenge, fire from heaven [9:54]. Jesus’ singleness will not be scattered. He rebukes his disciples; they move on [9:55-56].
Three would-be followers approach — two offer themselves; one is invited. In each interaction, there’s a word of warning, a reminder of what’s at stake. No settled den or nest but an ongoing sojourning [9:57-58]. Kingdom proclamation a work more urgent than the highest of filial responsibilities [9:59-60]. A plow that must be pushed on forward so that the ground may be furrowed to receive the seed [9:61-62].
Jesus’ face is set. His hand is put to the plow. He will not turn back.
There will be opposition. There will be discouragement. There is both of those things.
This middle in which we live feels messy, even scary. We’re not sure where we are in the story. We’ve been mistaken before — and may be again. We’ve had moments when we knew ourselves authorized and empowered, when we went out and did amazing things for God. Fed the hungry; housed the homeless. Wrapped rainbows and hung signs and stood in witness. We’ve exulted in progress and been stunned at its retreat. The journey may be marked by our dates and occasions — 1964 or 1968; 2008 or 2016; 1973 or 2022 — but it is not measured by them, because this is not our story. It is God’s story. We cannot stop it nor turn it back. No one can. Because God has set God’s own face to bring God’s kingdom in.
‘When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.’
Flint-faced certainty that the kingdom is come near. That’s what resonates. That’s what we’re called to — this singleness of purpose, aiming through all the incidents and accidents of the world towards the world’s full re-creation in liberation and in love.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
‘… The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.’
Four full weeks I’ve been stuck at this text, getting no forwarder.
The first week I came to it — again for the first time — the news of the mass shooting at the Buffalo Tops market was still fresh. Added to news of rising COVID cases, the war in Ukraine, the leaked draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, investigation of the January 6 insurrection, the banning of books from schools and libraries and bookstores, and increasing inflation.
Amid all of that, I sat at my desk aware of needing healing, and I read of a tree whose leaves are for healing. The phrase felt a balm, not just in the promise implied in the purpose stated, but in the universality of the need. The nations — the ethne, the peoples — all of us needing healing, and these leaves are for that end.
I read it again: the tree of life in the middle of the street of the city; the tree of life on either side of the river. The spatiality is unclear, as if the crystal bright stream rises from roots as vast as tree-trunks and widely spaced, a cathedral vault under which the street itself runs. Reading, I could nearly see it. Closed my eyes to let the vision open in my mind. Saw it as precise and fine as a Chinese penjing, one of those scenes of wild nature fixed in miniature scale: rocks set to suggest mountains, petite trees shaped as if blown by continual winds, sometimes even a tiny teahouse or figure included as an invitation to make myself small so to enter in.
‘… The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.’
Four full weeks I’ve been stuck at this text, getting no forwarder.
That first week, I read and thought but there seemed too much in the world to write. The second week came the shooting in Uvalde. A fresh round of violent horror; tender bodies broken, innocence exploded. Writing, then, of a tree seemed so pointless as to be an offense. So I didn’t. ‘I am stuck,’ I texted friends. Or maybe they texted first. We texted each other. Some solace in our mutual stuckness. But none, then, in a text-told tree, however precise and fine its shaping. The picture was too fixed and diminutive to hold.
More weeks, more news, more life, more weight. Four full weeks I’ve been stuck at this text, and each week on there seems more too muchness in the world. I cannot push against its heaviness. I close my eyes, seeking to see again the tree, wishing to make myself small to enter into the picture, to live in the safety of an image fixed so fine.
Except that opening my eyes to read again, I realize the image is not static. The tree of life is a growing thing, producing fruit, each month offering that month’s gift. The water of life is a flowing thing, a crystal river going out from the throne. There’s motion in these images; a process of healing and ongoing life.
The text’s constancy is not its fixedness but its continual flow.
Four full weeks I’ve been stuck at this text because four full weeks I’ve been stuck in the world. Overwhelmed at the impossibility of opposing it; burdened with brokenness both public and personal. Frustrated by speech that conflates ignorance with innocence and innocence with ultimate value. (What message, then, to those whom life has not allowed this luxury?) Angry at hands grasping power while professing the posture is one of caring prayer. Knowing illness and division. Aching loss.
Four full weeks I’ve been stuck at this text. Not forgetting, exactly, its promise but unable to will myself to read it with the whole of my heart and mind and soul and strength, unable to realize hope. But … Here it is. Not a ‘nice book,’ safe to sink into for easeful escape, but a good book. A book that does not deny the world’s horrorsnor despair in the face of them. A book that promises joy and insists on praise. A book of life. Leaves for healing, telling a flowing story of salvation.
The invitation is not to make myself small enough to hide inside the text but to take into myself this word that is large enough to encompass the world entire. Let the word enlarge my sight. See the places where light already glimmers. Remember that the end is already known. Lend my weight to where turning’s begun.
The river flows from the throne and down the middle of the street, and on either side of river is the tree, each month produces its fruits. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations, the peoples, all of us in need, which is all of us indeed.
And when he opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those slaughtered because of the word of God and because of the witness which they had. And they cried out in a great voice saying, “Until when, O Master, holy and true, do you not judge and vindicate our blood on the ones dwelling upon the earth?” And it was given to them each a white robe, and it was said to them that they would rest yet a little time until they would be fulfilled also their fellow-servants and their brothers the ones who were about to be killed as even they.
The lectionary text is Rev. 7:9-17, but I’m sitting with 6:9-11. I’m cheating on the lectionary because there is something in me that wants to protest with the souls under the altar and is not yet ready to skip ahead to praise. Besides, notes from Rev. 6 resonate in Rev. 7: white robes (6:11; 7:9, 14), slaughter and tribulation (6:9; 7:14), a great-voiced cry (6:10; 7:9-10). In Rev. 7, the multitude cry praise; in Rev. 6, the souls cry plaint. The protest comes first. The text itself requires it. The fifth seal must be opened (6:9) before the sixth (6:12).
The first four seals have called out four horses, white and red and black and pale green, and death rides the pale green horse (6:1-8). No additional rider nor convulsion of earth or sky occurs when the fifth seal is opened. Instead, the opening discloses something that seems to be ongoing, ‘tas psuchas’ are already underneath the altar. Psuchē, here translated ‘soul,’ is a term that suggests life and animate existence. Yet these psuchēs have been ‘slaughtered’ for the ‘word of God’ and ‘witness they had’ (6:9)
What ‘witness’ did they have? What does it have to do with the arc of the action: the insistent demand, the reported response? And why is ‘witness’ — of all of the details in this tight-packed pericope — the note that calls me, when I had been so sure ‘protest’ was the summoning tone?
Witness is a significant motif throughout Revelation, as noun and as verb, ‘testimony’ and ‘testify.’ John declares he ‘witnessed to the word of God and the witness of Jesus (1:2). This word and witness is the reason John is on Patmos (1:9), though it’s unclear whether John is there because of John’s witness to Jesus or the faithful witness (1:5) Jesus’ own witness. It’s unclear whether the souls were slaughtered because they witnessed to Jesus or because they held Jesus’ faithful witness. Maybe these two possibilities are the same, a holding fast to the one who is ‘holy and true’ (6:10) with such sublime assurance of that one’s faithfulness that great protest can be cried. ‘Until when…!’ The souls have suffered the gulf between earth’s justice and the Lord’s, yet they have glimpsed God’s reign and cannot un-see it nor refrain from saying what they have seen. They cry out for vindication as if vindication of them is vindication of God. God’s faithfulness can be demanded because God is faithful.
‘Until when!’ It’s not a request for information but an insistence on response. Response is given: a white robe and the instruction to ‘rest yet a little time,’ an implicit promise not only of nearness but of purpose in the reference to unnumbered others still to be ‘fulfilled.’ That word resonates with implications of an expectation satisfied, an end accomplished. The one called ‘holy and true’ is also ‘faithful witness,’ seeing and hearing the souls whose witness led to their slaughter, and insisting on response, insisting in response that fulfillment is near. And it comes — at least in part — through the tenacity of this mutual witness work.
I came to this text identifying with protest because I am tired. Each hopeful turn in time seems uncurled by the next day’s news. I came to this text identifying with protest because protest seems the dominant note in every day’s news— yet protest defined in bullhorn-blared absolutes that brook no dissent on either side. I know the exact same urge to cry out. I need another model of demand. I came to this text identifying with protest, and I leave the text carrying its insistence on identity in relationship, reiterated cry and reply. Faithful witness as protest that speaks to the other in expectation of answer; faithful witness as heeding protest and giving reply (the white robe, the promise words); faithful witness as protest that receives that response and moves forward through it towards an end, holy and true.
I witness to God’s righteousness not by blaring it trumpet-loud at another but by living it with another. In discussion and dialogue and, yes, argument, so long as it’s argument with, not at. I witness to God’s righteousness by living it in relationship with God’s word and with my neighbors’ words, a conversation that calls all of us to account for how we occupy the spaces in-between and how we acknowledge all the in-between-ness of our inherently partial discernment of God’s absolute being.
I witness to God’s righteousness as I navigate the present gap between word and world in the way of the faithful witness, who was dead and is alive: seeing and hearing and knowing this world, suffering its brokenness, loving it dearly, speaking and working to lift it toward life. ‘Until when, O Master, holy and true…?