8.16 / 8.17.14 May God work the miracle
10 Pentecost 2014 August 16/17
In the name of the God of abundance: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s been a heavy week with heavy headlines in the Times. Here are a few that jumped out at me as I was trying to wake up:
At heart of Ebola outbreak, a village frozen by fear and death
F.B.I. steps in amid unrest after police kill Missouri youth
A Ukraine city under siege, ‘just terrified of the bombing’
Killings rise in Karachi as Taliban target police
And one that was pretty humorous, despite the discontent it reported: Grown-Ups head Upper West Side playground fight
Is it just me, or are we experiencing all around the world a lot more conflict than usual?
It’s because of the difficult “stuff” going on all over that I was drawn to today’s psalm:
Oh, how good and pleasant it is, *
when brethren live together in unity!
It is like fine oil upon the head *
that runs down upon the beard,
Upon the beard of Aaron, *
and runs down upon the collar of his robe.
It is like the dew of Hermon *
that falls upon the hills of Zion.
For there the LORD has ordained the blessing: *
life for evermore.
This psalm extols the blessings that accrue to families, communities, and individuals when people live in unity. It uses 2 interesting metaphors to describe what it’s like to live in unity—to live without deleterious conflict:
First, it’s like precious oil that runs down, that flows down on the head, the beard, and the collar of the robe. In the ANE people would anoint each other with oil as an extravagant sign of welcome—among other things. Oil was not cheap. It was a sign of plenty, a sign of abundance. And to use it to anoint the head of someone so that the oil actually runs on his beard and into his clothing is a sign of extravagance. The psalm invokes the anointing of Aaron, the brother of Moses, to be the high priest of the Israelites as they made the trek from Egypt to the Promised Land. So not only is there the connotation of abundance but also of holiness here.
The second image is that unity is so pleasant and good that it’s like the dew of Mount Hermon that falls upon the hills of Zion. This one takes a little more unpacking. Mount Hermon is in the far, far northern stretches of ancient Israel. It rises up over 9000 feet in elevation and it’s the highest mountain around. Its peak is covered in snow a lot of the time, and you can imagine at these high altitudes the air drops its moisture as dew when the nighttime temperatures dip. [That’s how dew forms: the air can’t hold as much humidity when it’s cool, so the humidity condenses on whatever is around, and we call it dew.]
Now, Mount Hermon, as I said, is at the far northern reaches of ancient Israel. Zion is the name for the temple mount of Jerusalem, which is a very long way away to the south, and located in a very dry area. So for the dew of Hermon to flow down on the arid hills of Zion is quite a feat and would represent, again, the height of abundance and extravagance. It is an unmistakable sign of blessing of the landscape and of its people.
When brothers and sisters—or brethren—or kindred (depending on the translation you’re using) live in unity the blessings abound. They are extravagant and abundant and even unlikely. They bring Life for evermore: the greatest blessing of all.
Unity presupposes mentally-healthy people, good communication, respect for the Other, and a willingness to recognize that there is, in fact, abundance—so that everyone can have what he or she needs. And when people sense that their needs and wants are being filled, fighting for resources or territory becomes unnecessary. Internal resources can be diverted to helping people, not hurting them.
Sounds like pie in the sky? You bet it does.
Disunity of brothers is a major theme in the Joseph story that we’re reading now in worship. These brothers who sold Joseph into slavery as a cocky, know-it-all teenager are now totally dismayed to find that he’s the one who has brought them to Egypt and saved them from starvation back home. They are dismayed and afraid, knowing that Joseph could seek revenge against them. But he doesn’t. He’s grown up, and he sees God’s hand in it all. The blessing comes: the relationships heal with time and life is made better.
Our gospel takes the longstanding animosity between Jews and Gentiles—between Israelites and Canaanites—and plays with it. By the end of the encounter Jesus himself seems to have grown enough to cross the boundary between the two groups and to treat the Canaanite woman as he would treat any other person. It’s an especially interesting story because we see Jesus learning and growing at the hands of this woman who is gifted with so much chutzpah. And again the blessing comes: healing and life.
This gospel story is especially poignant now as tensions between Israelis and Palestinians are so enflamed over Gaza.
When we were in Jerusalem 3 years ago we stayed in the part of the city that is the Palestinian part. It’s the neighborhood of East Jerusalem. We got to see firsthand the various cultural differences: we saw Palestinian Muslims streaming in and out of the Old City on Fridays in order to get to services in the mosques. We heard the calls to prayer blasting from the mosque loudspeakers all day, every day. We saw lots of men wearing the Yasser Arafat-style checkered headdresses there and in the West Bank.
And we saw Israelis who were very well dressed and stylish. Very western. And of course many of the men were wearing kippot and the women modern, long dresses and even head coverings. We bristled against the customs that virtually closed down services in parts of the city on Saturdays.
But the fact of the matter is that without these cultural and religious differences, Israelis and Palestinians are indistinguishable. Their genomes have been studied and it’s been found that they are essentially “blood brothers.” [www.epiphenom.fieldofscience.com]
And we can extrapolate backward to discover that humanity is one huge family. That’s one of the truths we learn in the Creation Stories in Genesis as well as from scientific investigation. We are all interrelated. Our links together are generally within “six degrees of separation,”
to use an overworked cultural trope.
And that makes all the conflicts nearby and far away even sadder. We are all one family. And we cannot seem to get along for very long.
So--what can we do? We can practice communication and respect with all the people we know. We can start to interact with people we don’t like—people who have brought us hurt in the past. We can meditate on the fact that we live in such an abundantly extravagant world, with an abundantly extravagant God. We can work harder to share what we have—to give it for the peace of the world and to the glory of God. And we can batter the gates of heaven with our prayers, not letting up, seeking to rouse God into extraordinary action to bring peace and unity. Because it’s clear we need help.