Plowing Ahead

‘A hand to the cultivator’ (we don’t have a plow). (c) Katherine Brown

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 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.

To sojourn in God’s story, to plow forward along God’s way, means making time for our work in this world, recommitting ourselves to ‘resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,’ recognize the sacred worth of all, and ‘to seek for every individual opportunities and freedom to love and be loved, to seek and receive justice, and to practice ethical self-determination.’

‘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.

Psalm as Snow Day

photo by Katherine Brown

‘Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them….

‘The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.’

Psalm 111:2, 7, from Psalm 111, lectionary psalm for Jan. 31, 2021

Every week, I read the text — whichever text it is — a first time.  I will read it again and I will do research and I will read it yet again, seeking the spark that arcs across from the ancient word to my own world.  Sometimes flame flares so swift and strong and bright that words flow without much effort.  Sometimes the spark catches but smolders; there is something there, but I struggle to know it.  Sometimes there seems no spark at all, and I think I’ve chosen the wrong text of the lectionary four.  I worry at the words like a dog worrying at a bone, working that a spark might fly, worrying that this time none will.

Every week — or two — I read the text a first time.  Looking to see a light to see by.

The week I read Psalm 111, I immediately knew v.7 was the intended spark:  ‘The works of his hands are faithful and just.’  The works of God’s hand.  This is a phrase I’ve studied much and know well.  Humans are God’s handiwork.  This is where I would spend the week:  pondering my identity as a made-creature, my calling to be faithful and just.  With a sigh of satisfaction, I read the rest of the psalm, turned out the light, and settled to sleep, secure that verse 7 would spark.  I would gather the tinder — translations and lexicons and what commentaries I have — strike the text, watch it flare, tend the flame, and write the fire.

The tinder didn’t catch.  Because the text did not spark.  Because in the Hebrew, the predicate in v.7 is a pair of nouns:  ’The works of his hands truth and justice.’  The meaning shifted in my mind.  Not that God’s handiwork — otherwise unnamed — has the quality of being faithful or just but that God makes truth, God makes justice.  Truth.  Justice. These themselves are the works of the LORD.  The lexical study surprised.  I checked multiple translations hoping one would give me back the adjectives of the NRSV.  None did.  I felt bereft.  I had thought myself spoken of, or to, reminded of being God-made; reminded to be faithful and just.  ‘The works of his hands truth and justice.’  I felt as if a door had closed and shut me out of the psalm entirely.  I circled the psalm again.  Noting the way ‘works’ ties it together:  ‘works’ are great, are studied and delighted in; ‘works’ have power, are shown; ‘works’ are truth and justice; God’s instructions are ‘worked’ in truth; those who ‘work’ them gain understanding.  ‘Works’ are a definite thread; but do they connect to me?

Sunday snow came.  Monday snow came.  The ground was covered over.  The air moved with the falling of the flakes.  The world was transformed.  I had a snow day — entirely unexpected.  Entirely unexpected as well was the way the snow drew me out and into it.  Crunching across the ice-glazed, snow-covered grass.  Wanting to see and hold in my mind’s eye a picture of just snow and sky and trees.  Shades of gray, white to near-black.  Wanting to go deeply in.  Apart.  No houses, no cars, no wires, none of the messy interconnectedness that is human life in this close-in suburb.  Wanting to see the world that is not-us — deep green holly, dark cool evergreen, bare tree branches stretched out and up — all overlaid by this grace of snow — its shape and shading at once stark and soft, striking and subtle.  Other.

Snow day as Sabbath unexpectedly imposed, unexpectedly allowed.  Snow shifting the quality of the light.  I’d been reading for a spark to summon me to examination of self and world, to whatever next-work is needed (and so much next-work is needed).  I’d been following the thread in search of a knot to keep it from pulling loose.  Snow shifted my sight to show psalm and snow day were the same gift.  Stop tugging at the thread, stop worrying for a word of exhortation.  Stop.  Experience a word of wonder.  This psalm is about the LORD.  It is a summons to sit and study honor and majesty and greatness and power and mercy and grace and truth and justice. Stand.  Snow cold underfoot.  Snow coming down.  Listen.  Snowfall has a sound of its own even as it makes all the other sounds different.  Look with open eyes, soft gaze.  Snow light changes sight. 

Look to see the LORD whose work I am.  Only then can I see the work I am made to be.

This is wisdom; this is delight: wonder in the LORD. 

The LORD is my shepherd

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD.  Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD.   Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.  I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.

Jer 23:1-4; excerpt from lectionary text for Nov. 24, Jer 23:1-6.

I spent the week coming down with a cold, although I didn’t know it till Friday when it bloomed unmistakably and I realized what had been the problem of the prior days.  I also spent the week pondering the ‘wrong’ text — that is, the lectionary text for Sunday November 24.  I blamed the calendar mixup on whatever virus had been percolating, decided that the text was scheduled right for my life, and pondered it anyway.

The start of the week, I had been focused on the middle line of this passage, the transition where the LORD commits to shepherd the sheep.  Psalm 23 and John 10 are too familiar for me not to read this text in resonance with their rhythms.  Nor will I resist the comfort of the LORD God-self being my Good Shepherd, whose voice I know and follow to pastures green and waters still.

Yet by week’s end, it wasn’t just my cold that had bloomed.  As national investigations moved to a new phase, the opening verses loomed larger in my mind.  Their renewed-to-me prominence sharpened my sense of the shocking premise of the central promise.

Jeremiah is not speaking just of the last kings of Judah in the opening verses.  Jeremiah is speaking the LORD’s word against any ‘who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages’ (Jer 22:13).  The denunciation is scathing.  ‘Are you a king because you compete in cedar?’ (22:15).  Kingship is not living in a ‘spacious house’ — whether multi-winged and white or cedar-paneled and vermillion-painted (22:14) — but doing justice and righteousness, hearing the cause of the poor and needy (22:16).  The word of the LORD is against any who imagines that sheep exist just so that he can be shepherd and does not realize that he is shepherd because there are sheep to herd.

Except that, actually, sheep are gathered and led and watered for the sake of the shepherd.  Whatever may have been the wild origin of the family ovine, sheep were domesticated so that humans could benefit from their fleece and their milk and their meat.  In that sense, the sheep are meant to benefit the shepherd.  The crime of the leaders of Judah is that they imaged that the sheep were meant to benefit them; they did not see that their duty to the nation was their duty to the LORD.  ‘My flock,’ the LORD says, ‘sheep of my pasture.’  The flock — the kingdom — is not the possession of its leaders, to use as they see fit.  The flock is God’s own.  The leaders are merely stewards, charged to husband the flock they hold in trust for the LORD.  

What, then, accounts for the LORD’s commitment to shepherd the flock God-self?  The reference is relatively slight in this particular passage but recurs elsewhere.  God will shepherd God’s flock, seeking the lost, and binding up the injured, and feeding them with justice (Ezek 34:11-16).  For whose sake does God do this?  To whom are those sheep owed that the LORD — God whose arm rules, whose palm has held the waters and marked the heavens — should lead them so gently, and carry the lambs (Isa 40:10-12)? 

It is easy enough to juxtapose the news and the word.  The world is still rife with leaders who imagine the position is about power rather than about service, who do not recognize the obligation owed to others.  The LORD has a word for that.  But that word reveals a puzzle:  that the LORD should so dearly desire the proper shepherding of God’s flock as to undertake shepherd work.  Does the LORD owe this to God-self?  (Far be it from you, the Judge of all the earth, to act unjustly, Abraham argues with God in Gen 18:25; Remember the oath you swore by your own self, Moses reminds the LORD at Sinai in Exod 32:13.). Does the LORD owe it to us, made in God’s own image and likeness, enlivened by the LORD’s own breath (Gen 1:26-27; 2:7)? Or is this but the same obligation, twice-stated:  the LORD shepherds the sheep not only because we are God’s own possession but because in some way we are part of God-self, God’s children, first-born and dearly-beloved (Exod 4:22; Hos 11:1; John 1:12).  Love the LORD your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, God commands (Deut 6:4-5; Mark 12:29-30).  Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18; Mark 12:31).

Maybe the LORD shepherds us because God loves us as we are to love our neighbors, as God loves God’s own self:  with all God’s heart and mind and soul and strength.  Maybe the LORD shepherds us as invitation into God’s own love, for the sake of ourselves and of each other and for God’s sake too.