The word that breaks in.

photo by Katherine Brown
Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name; worship the LORD in holy splendor.
The voice of the LORD is over the waters; 
the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.
The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; 
and in his temple all say, "Glory!"
The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.
May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!

Psalm 29; psalm for Sunday, January 10, 2021

Newness is not to be grabbed.  It is gift to be received, to be grasped-by. So I sit upstairs at my desk to read and write and look and listen.  I am given the particular text; I am given the particular time.  I work to connect the two, and I pray for newness to come.

It is a grey day.  The light is low.  The sky is soft, folds of greys, ranging from creamy-pale to a subtle violet.  The trees are black against its ground.  Their bare branches stretch tall, seem to reach, bend and sway as the wind blows.

An aptness at the outset connects text and days, liturgical and political.  Psalm 29 is the text given for Sunday.  The day I sit to it is Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, the celebration of the arrival of the Magi — ‘three kings’ in tradition’s claim — who follow a star and ask King Herod where to find the child born king.   The focus of Epiphany is usually on the Magi, and their miracle star.  At stake is a clash of kingships, and of kingdoms.  And on this very day, Congress meets to ceremoniously process the tally of Electoral College votes so to effect the ideal of peaceful transfer of power according to the people’s will. 

I read Psalm 29.  The cedared height of Lebanon skips like a calf in my mind’s eye as the trees outside my window dance in the wind.  I imagine a forest flinging itself around in some mad jig.  At first there’s a playfulness to the picture.  Then I re-read and realize:  the forest is flung.  The trees don’t dance of their own accord but as the wind takes them.  As the voice of the LORD thunders and breaks and flings and flashes, convulses the wilderness, whirls oaks and strips the forest bare.

As the voice of the LORD makes be.  

Give glory to the LORD, O heavenly beings, the psalm begins.  Give to the LORD ‘the glory of his name’ — a definite glory, peculiarly God’s own, not to be confused or conflated with the glory or strength of any other being.  Give glory to the LORD whose voice sounds with terrible power through the rest of the psalm — over the waters, through the forests, upon the mountains, within the wilderness, until all who see and hear and feel God’s power cry out ‘Glory!’

‘The LORD sits enthroned as king forever.’  

At stake in the psalm — as in the day, liturgical and political — is the clash of kingships.  Heavenly beings are not to set themselves above the LORD, nor is anything on earth.  The imagery is violent.  Creation itself is overwhelmed.  The voice of the LORD has a destructive power.  Its end, though, is not chaos but the conquering of chaos.  The voice of the LORD does not destroy for destruction’s sake but for the sake of life, for shalom — that is peace, and more than peace, wholeness.

‘The LORD sits enthroned as king forever.’   

I hear helicopters passing over. I wonder if they are headed downtown, if they carry news crews or the National Guard.  The morning’s planned ‘protest’ of Congress’s ceremonial attestation has morphed into a mob action.  I leave my desk for updates.  I see photos and videos of the crowd streaming onto the Capital grounds, surging up the steps, smashing doors and windows, swarming through the hallways.  They bear American flags and Confederate flags.  They bear massive banners emblazoned with Trump’s name.  They bear banners that say ‘Jesus Saves’ and ‘God Wins.’  The relative sizes suggest that Trump is the senior member of this trinity.  I text friends.  I turn on the television to flip through the news updates.  The aptness of the psalm is unnerving — its claims of God’s sovereignty are literally contradicted on the streets, Trump and God conflated in the signage borne.  The psalm reminds of what’s at stake: ‘The LORD sits enthroned as king forever.’   Kingships clash.

Day turns toward dusk, and flash-bangs light up the Capitol.  Dusk turns to dark, and events continue to unfold.  Congress is back in session.  Senators speechify and commentators opine.  I talk back to the television, in fervent response to the violence itself and to the sanctimony of the belated disavowal of such mayhem.  I am angry with those whose dismay seems self-serving.  I am angry with those whose words seem sincere yet dangerously mistaken.  ‘This is not the America I know,’ they say, as if their experience is the sum of national identity.  ‘This is not who we are,’ they offer, as if history effectively contradicted the claim.

This is us.  Conflating the unholy with the holy.  Confusing the dominion delegated to us with our own will. Shrinking our conception of neighbor to the one near us.  Excluding the other.  Grabbing after power.  Trying to save ourselves alone. We articulate other ideals, even strive to live them.  But this is who we live.  This is who we are. Name it truly.  This is not who we want to be; this is not who we are called to be.  Tell the truth; make space for transformation.

I want to write flames and thunder and trumpets.  I want words that blaze high enough to light the dark, brass that rings clear amid the din.   I am shocked at my own urgency.   It is not my anger alone that takes me aback but my intense desire to word it.  Why bother?  Why add more words to the myriad already spoken and texted and posted and published?  Where are such words to be found?  What difference do they make?

‘The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters. …  The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.  The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness.’

Words do things.  Words divide.  Words incite.  

‘The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”’  

Words strengthen and words bless.  Words have power to make things be.  

I am given these words — already aflame — that acclaim as king the LORD, God who will not suffer any other to share the glory of his name or throne.  Feel their force stripping away false claims.  Let myself be grasped and moved by their power.  Add my voice to the throng saying ‘Glory!’  The chorus praying peace that is healing and wholeness for all lives, not some, that words and voice together may further that end.

Birth breaks the world open. We are broken of our own doing. Pray birth, now, of God’s own in-breaking.

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.