ADVENT 4 / We Were Gathered

This year, for the four weeks of Advent, we are doing the #RendTheHeavens devotion at both The Featherblog as well as Psalm 10 Ministries.


And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matthew 24:31 ESV)

Is it a good thing or a bad thing to be gathered?

Memory dims and fade, but I still remember intensely that beautiful Tuesday morning in September, 2001, when the ordinary gave way to the extraordinary, when death rained from the sky, when men and women tumbled to their deaths, when smoke turned the sun to blood and toxic dust filled the air.

We the elect, those unfortunate enough to have been there that day, were gathered, a mob of humanity, under giant towers slated for destruction, watching, helpless, while people died.

Nameless. Faceless. Placeless. No distinction between us mattered. Unable to protect. Unable to be protected. All equal as we stared at the end of the world.

Is it a good thing to hear the trumpet, to feel the wind, to know that heaven is being folded up and we are, all of us, being brought to one place? To face death knowing we can do nothing? The we have done absolutely nothing?

Is it a good thing, in the face of death, to hear the voice of Jesus speak: “My love is all that matters.”? To know that as the world falls down around you, something bigger is present, and has spoken, and means it?

Is it a good thing or a bad thing to be gathered?

JOSHUA Remember Where You’ve Been

1 When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, 2 “Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, 3 and command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests ’feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight. ’” 4 Then Joshua called the twelve men from the people of Israel, whom he had appointed, a man from each tribe. 5 And Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, 6 that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you? ’ 7 then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever. (Joshua 4:1–7 ESV)

Not long before I left Dubai, I sat on an ‘abra عبرة — one of the little motor boats used to cross Dubai creek, the inlet that separates Bur Dubai from Deira Dubai — looking at the sky and crystal clear water of the creek, smelling to city, watching the sun set over Bur Dubai, having paid the boatman my dirham, thinking to myself

Remember this place always. Remember that you were once here.”

Six years later, on the morning of September 11, 2001, I stood on the bow of a New York Waterways ferry, on the last Tuesday of my employment with a company whose death at the hands of the bankruptcy laws was set for that Friday, feeling the spray of the Hudson River on my feet, the late summer breeze in my hair, and watching the sun rise over The World Trade Center, and thinking as I beheld it

Remember this sight always. For you will not have it with you much longer.”

Israel here is beginning something. It will celebrate the first Passover in Canaan, and soon the conquest of the promised land will begin. But this is also an end. The manna, that miraculous bread from heaven which God sustained Israel during its long and arduous sojourn in the wilderness, will soon stop falling.

Just as God parted the waters of the Red Sea so that Israel could escape into the wilderness, God parts the waters of the Jordan so that Israel may leave its time of wandering, confident rather than fearful, going into something rather than running from something.

But God commands Joshua to tell 12 Israelites to gather stones from the dry riverbed, and stack them on the other side (and in the river itself), as a reminder — this is where you have walked, this is what God has done for you.

This comes at the end, and not the beginning, of Israel’s long and sometimes pointless wanderings. While Israel is to remember the Passover — the night of terror in which death swept over Egypt — and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the sea, the memorial marks the completion of their journey, not the beginning. “The journey is done,” God is telling Israel. “Remember who you are, where you’ve been, because tomorrow, the real work begins.”

This is not the end of Israel’s calling. Another struggle is beginning, one that will fully establish God’s people in the land of promise while at the same time failing utterly to faithfully accomplish the work God commanded them to.

I have a few souvenirs of Dubai — some dirhams, a map, a big visa stamp in a long-expired passport. And I still have a few NY Waterway tickets to remind myself of that last ferry trip across the Hudson, and a few bits and pieces left over from a long-dead company.

But I’ve no pile of stones to mark the place where the wilderness wandering has ended. And maybe that’s because … it hasn’t.

LENT God is Always With Us

1 When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, 2 “Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, 3 and command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests ’feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight. ’” 4 Then Joshua called the twelve men from the people of Israel, whom he had appointed, a man from each tribe. 5 And Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, 6 that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you? ’ 7 then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.”

8 And the people of Israel did just as Joshua commanded and took up twelve stones out of the midst of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, just as the Lord told Joshua. And they carried them over with them to the place where they lodged and laid them down there. 9 And Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the covenant had stood; and they are there to this day. 10 For the priests bearing the ark stood in the midst of the Jordan until everything was finished that the Lord commanded Joshua to tell the people, according to all that Moses had commanded Joshua. (Joshua 4:1–10 ESV)

I remember, just as I was preparing to leave Dubai a little more than 20 years ago, sitting on an ‘abra crossing Dubai Creek, feeling the wind in my hair, seeing the spray from the crystal blue waters of the creek, watching the pilot of the boat as he demanded our dirhams to cross, and seeing the sun set over the Arabian Gulf — “Remember always that you were here. Because this memory is all you will take with you.”

I had the same feelings in the days before September 11, 2001, as BridgeNews came to its inglorious end and Jennifer and I would leave New York, to always remember. Again, on a boat, this time crossing the Hudson, seeing the sun rise over southern Manhattan, gazing at the shadow cast in the sky by the twin towers of the World Trade Center, asking myself to remember — “Because this sight will not always be with you.”

Gather up some stones, save them, and then tell your children, and their children, the story of where you came from.

Israel is about to embark upon the conquest of Canaan. After a long wandering, made longer because Israel was afraid — afraid of fighting to take a land already full of people, afraid God had given them a task that was insurmountable, that they would be on their own to do it. And now, Israel crosses a dry river bed, their way to Jericho made clear by the God who has led them and fed them and cared for them during their long and miserable wanderings.

Gather up some stones, and tell your children, the story of where you come from. The story of who you are, and the story of whose you are.

We will need that story, in the days to come, in the generations that follow. We will need these artifacts, these remembrances, to remind us. To give us courage. Strength. Patience. And hope. That God is with us.

God is with us — in slavery, in the wilderness, in the conquest, in the comfort of a home graciously given, in peace and plenty, in war, in suffering, and in exile. God is always with us.

The Lectionary This Week (Part 1): Why Not Zebedee?

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Epiphany 3, 25 January 2014 (Year B)

  • Jonah 3:1-5, 10
  • Psalm 62:5-12
  • 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
  • Mark 1:14-20

Today’s gospel passage is a fairly typical synoptic “call story” — Jesus calls someone to follow, and immediately (καὶ εὐθὺς) they drop everything and follow. Jesus is baptized, and now he begins his proclamation of “good news” (τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ) to the world:

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” 16 Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him. (Mark 1:14-20 ESV)

Jesus is calling a bunch of rough, hardscrabble fishermen (ἁλιεῖς) to become “fishers of men” (ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων). Fishermen he meets along the way. There’s a couple of ways we can tell this story, bare of detail as it is in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus has been busy proclaiming the fulfillment of time, the on-handedness of the Kingdom of God (yeah, it’s awkward), and calling on those who hear to repent and believe in this good news. He’s been doing this long enough that everyone, or nearly everyone, has seen him doing this strange thing. They’ve heard him. So, when he gets past the preliminaries, and starts calling folks to follow him, this isn’t so strange. They know who he is, they’ve heard him preach, they are primed and ready for that command: “Follow me.” Maybe they’ve even been subconsciously waiting for it. Or … They don’t really know who Jesus is or what he’s said. And he just walked into their lives, unannounced, with the command to follow. The response is still the same — Jesus calls, and we follow. Throughout the synoptic gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — when Jesus calls, we follow. And Jesus does just walk into our lives. He chooses us. We do not choose him. And this is true regardless of which reading we follow. Even if they’d watched and listened to Jesus, and talked about him (“No good can come of him,” I suspect was one reaction, and may have even been Simon’s), and considered him from afar, they were still not ready for that moment when he walked up to them and said: “Follow me.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. That’s how you respond to the call of Jesus. Except, well, not everyone does. Jesus sees John and James, the two sons of Zebedee, and he calls them, and they leave their father and the hired men in the boats and followed. Zebedee and the hired men are left behind. Are they not called? Do they not respond to Jesus? And why not? Why not Zebedee? The name Zebedee makes four appearances in Mark’s gospel, two of them in this chapter. Aside from these two references, where he stands silently in the family boat and watched while his sons leave the family business for the utterly unrewarding career of preaching the Good News (think about it — it ends badly for just about everybody), the name Zebedee never appears except to note that John and James are brothers. It’s used to mark the identities of James and John, and really, nothing more. But why not Zebedee? Why is he left standing there holding a fishing net? Why doesn’t leave the boat as well? Why don’t the hired men follow? Partly, this is an acknowledgement of the very subjective nature of the experience of God, even when we meet Jesus. (Perhaps especially when we meet Jesus.) Not everyone hears the call the same way, and as stunning as it sounds, not everyone hears the call at all, and not everyone drops everything to follow. This isn’t some deep theological point (such theological conversations make my head hurt), but an appreciation of reality — God calls some and not others. We can speculate all we want about the nature of the call of God, about why God called me, and not you, or them, and not those others, or why we seemed to respond in this way to the call, but you did not, but all of that is attempting to reason our way out of something overwhelmingly subjective. God called us, and we followed. What others do, or do not, is not in our control and, in the end, not really our concern. We were called to follow. And so, we left everything. And followed. (One of the things I’m looking forward to as my book makes its way out into the world is — did anyone else at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, meet Jesus there?) So, in the end, we cannot know why Zebedee watched his sons abandon the family business. We could say, well, Jesus knew someone needed to stay and take care of the family business, but what about Andrew and Simon a couple of verses earlier? Did they have family dependent on their efforts? Was anyone left on their boats? So, we cannot really justify or even explain what happened here that way. We have no explanation. Just the encounter with the incarnate divine. Just a call, a command to follow. And the realization that we who are called cannot say “no.”