Sifting Shifting Witness

photo by Katherine Brown (color enhanced)
The mighty one, God the LORD,
 speaks and summons the earth
 from the rising of the sun to its setting. 
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
 God shines forth.  
Our God comes and does not keep silence,
 before him is a devouring fire,
 and a mighty tempest all around him. 
He calls to the heavens above
 and to the earth, that he may judge his people: 
“Gather to me my faithful ones,
 who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!” 
The heavens declare his righteousness,
 for God himself is judge. Selah  
Psalm 50:1-6, from Psalm 50, psalter for Transfiguration Sunday
Have mercy on me, O God,
 according to your steadfast love;
 according to your abundant mercy
 blot out my transgressions. 
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
 and cleanse me from my sin. … 
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
 and put a new and right spirit within me. 
Do not cast me away from your presence,
 and do not take your holy spirit from me. 
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
 and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Psalm 51:1-2, 10-12; from Psalm 51 for Ash Wednesday

‘The LORD speaks and summons the earth.’  The LORD calls the earth, cries out the earth, from the sun’s rise till its going in.  I read the line, and the LORD calls the earth to be, summons it to unfold itself, as if creation does not exist but for God’s daily re-call.  In my mind God’s speech unfurls rainbow banners across the heavens.  I look out the window and see pink glowing from sky to snow-ground.

This summons, though, is not to being but to judgment.  The LORD who flames from perfect-beauty Zion in fire and storm consuming, whose righteousness the heavens declare, calls a gathering ‘that he may judge his people.’  ‘For God himself is judge.’

This is where the lectionary selection for Transfiguration ends.  As if it is safe to summon the shining-bright LORD as judge and not recount the judgment.  As if it is honest or true to not read on to God’s arraignment of God’s own people.  As if the mountaintop was itself the end and not the transition (literarily, liturgically) into a next phase of relationship.  Lent.

Where am I in this psalm?  Who is God speaking to?  Who is the LORD speaking of?

Having called the earth as if to be, the LORD calls to heavens above and earth below to witness the charges.  I am not called as witness, however.  As I count myself among God’s own, numbered among God’s ‘faithful,’ I must count myself among those arraigned, against whom God testifies.  We are not invited to overhear God’s speech to others but to be addressed by God.  We are summoned to ‘Hear!’

What we hear is both censure and assurance.  God’s people — we, I — are arraigned not for our failures of worship but for something else.  Sacrifice as we practice it is not an inherent offense.  Nor is it needed by God.  All is already the LORD’s.  Who are we to set aside some portion only?  As if it all — as if we — are not already God’s own.  As if God has a hunger that can be slaked only by our burnt offerings.  The LORD rejects our offerings as necessary for God’s sake, yet the psalm continues on into exhortation:  sacrifice thanks; pay your promises; ‘call on me in the day of trouble.’  The LORD does not reject us or our offerings.  If there is rejection, it is of our ordering.  We are the ones who need this discipline taken on, that distraction given up.  The LORD, of grace, accepts our need as offering, and God promises to deliver.

But the psalm does not end there any more than it ended after that initial summons to judgment.  The LORD castigates the wicked.  How comforting it would be to think this address, at least, is against ‘others,’ and this is the part I can overhear.  These harsh words against those who ‘hate discipline’ and ‘cast my words behind you,’ who befriend thieves and adulterers, who speak evil and deceit and slander against their own kin — I would rather witness these words than take them to myself.

Except that these words, too, are addressed to those who carry God’s covenant on their lips.  These words, too, are addressed to those counted as kin, which is why their falsity is such an offense.  If I draw that line between, am I not risking the same slander?  It is the LORD who is not like us, not we who are not like each other.  I must see that if I am to see at all.

I need re-creation as much as anyone else.  To be ‘washed of my iniquity, cleansed from my sin,’ ‘restored to joy and sustained in willing spirit.’

I need not just to listen but to hear to bear God’s promise truly on my lips and know God’s word present in my heart, so that I may bear God’s name in the world.

Let me not forget you, LORD.  

Let me learn to see myself with your eyes that I may see you with my own.

Marking Mercy

Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near— 
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them
in ages to come. …
Yet even now, says the LORD, 
return to me with all your heart, 
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;  
rend your hearts and not your clothing. 
Return to the LORD, your God, 
for he is gracious and merciful, 
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, 
and relents from punishing. 

Joel 2:1-2, 12-13; text for Ash Wednesday March 6, 2019

A season of uncertainty.  I read the news of the world, of the nation, of the church.  Of disarmament, of immigration, of investigation, of exclusion, of dissolution.  The lack of shared vision unsettles.  The weather itself conspires to contribute to the sense of confusing variation.  We’re a week into March by the calendar but a month back towards winter by the weather, experiencing a reprise of unseasonable cold, even snow.

Lent begins this week.  Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the days that take us to Easter.  My thumb dipped in oil, pressed into ashes, marking the sign of the cross on someone’s forehead.  The cross signed on my own forehead.  Dust you were and to dust you shall return.  The murmured reminder sounded to each.  Skin touching skin; grease and ash between.  So many foreheads, each unique.  All of them smudged with the souvenir of our shared mortality.  Incongruous.  Unifying.

One year, late home from the evening service, I looked in the mirror and saw above my tired eyes, a question mark smudged on my forehead.  The sooty cross had shifted shape.  Did it tell the uncertainty of a passing season?  Did it signal a deeper mystery?

We know our near-term destination.  At the end of Lent, comes Holy Week, the church’s re-living of Jesus’ death and resurrection, undertaken in anticipation of our own.  The days can be counted, the steps marked in time as if on a map.  But so much we do not know.  Who or what will we encounter along our way?  What or who will encounter us?   Who will we be when we encounter Easter?  And who when Easter — God’s Easter, not the church’s — encounters us?

Jesus taught his disciples to pray:  ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt 6:10).  Yet the prophet Joel makes plain that God’s kingdom does not wait on our will.  The day of the LORD comes when God wills, with trumpets and in gloom.  The mystery of the prayer, the mystery of the season, is not that God waits for our cue but that we are tuned to God’s design, that we may greet our Lord trembling not with the terror of righteous judgment but with the joy of reconciliation, the grace of reunion, the amazement of love overwhelming  

‘Yet even now,’ says the LORD.  Even as the trumpet is sounding.  Even as gloom looms dark, obscuring the way.   Yet even now, there is time, there is direction, there is the promise and presence of LORD who is ‘gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.’

Abounding in steadfast love.  For us.

That mystery persists.  That mystery abiding has the power to sustain even in this uncertain season.

Cross or question, may the ash-mark upon my forehead be a gateway to the journey.