Sunday, July 26, 2015

Ninth Sunday of Pentecost
Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 136:1-9
Ephesians 3:14-21
Mark 6:45-56

Oh give thanks unto Jehovah; for he is good; For his lovingkindness endureth for ever.

Their hearts were hardened. This statement about the disciples from today's Gospel lesson amazes me. How could they have lived and worked and walked with Jesus for so long, probably about two years, and not believe Jesus could do miraculous things? The passage ties their hard hearts with their misunderstanding about the feeding of the five thousand. What did they believe happened on that hillside that day? Did they, like so many in today's world, simply downplay the miracle because they could not explain it?

See, there are some, even in the Church, who have suggested that Jesus did not really feed more than five thousand people with just five loaves and two fish, but that those who were there added to the meal food that they were carrying with them, sharing what they had among all the people. In this way all were fed; they claim there is no reason to make this story supernatural in character. Perhaps the disciples had a similar mindset. It doesn't explain how they ended up with twelve full baskets of leftovers, though.

This miracle is so outside our natural experience that it isn't surprising that we moderns want to diminish the miraculous aspects of the Jesus story because we have a more thorough understanding of science and the world. Intellectually we know that five loaves and two fish cannot feed more than five thousand people. We also know that a church potluck dinner can be miraculous in the way a crowd is left stuffed and satisfied because everyone contributes to the meal, so why not believe this could be the answer?

The trouble with this, as Mark tells us in today's passage, is that their misunderstanding (whatever it was) of Jesus' miraculous feeding of the five thousand left them unable to believe that Jesus could do other miraculous things. They were frightened by Him when He came to them on the water. They were amazed when the winds died down after He got into the boat. They had a hard time believing the things they were experiencing with Jesus; their hearts were hardened.

We often think of hard hearts in terms of rejection, not just unbelief. Take, for example, the story of Pharaoh. His heart was hardened against the God of Moses, but not just that he didn't believe, but that his hard heart caused him to do harm to God's people. We have a hard time thinking that the disciples had hard hearts because they continued to follow Him. They didn't reject Him, they simply did not know what to believe. We have similarly hard hearts when it comes to God's miraculous work in our lives, often finding some physical, earthly explanation for the miraculous rather than believing that God could and would do such a thing for us. In this way we are no different than those who opposed Jesus in those days, who argued against Jesus' work because it did not fit their understanding of the world.

We won't see the next part of the story for a few weeks (in August we will focus on John's bread texts) but beginning at Mark 7:1, the Pharisees come to argue that Jesus could not be who He says He is because He does not fit into their understanding of what the Messiah should be and do. His disciples don't follow the right rules. Jesus answers their questions with a quote from Isaiah about honoring God with lips but not hearts. They have lost sight of the One they claim to worship because they don't believe in the One He sent.

We eventually see that though the disciples do not fully understand what was happening around them in and through Jesus, their hearts are softened in the only way possible, by the power of the Holy Spirit. We have that same indwelling Spirit that was gifted to them at Pentecost, and now we join them in learning how to see God's hand in the miraculous as well as in the everyday. God's lovingkindness endures forever.

God's lovingkindness endures forever. It was this verse (repeated over and over again in today's psalm) that set me off on a websurfing adventure of discovery. I was curious about the word that is translated 'lovingkindness' and quickly discovered that many have been equally as curious. See, it seems to make sense in the nine verses that have been selected for today's Psalm reading, but it gets a little iffy if you more of the passage. The psalmist goes on to talk about smiting the first born of the Egyptians, and then smiting and slewing kings. He is telling the story of how God moved Israel's enemies and oppressors out of the way so that He could lead His people to the Promised Land, but smiting and slewing doesn't sound very loving and kind.

As it turns out, the Hebrew word used in this passage is 'hesed' (there are multiple ways of spelling it) and it is not fully understood by any of the experts because it isn't used outside the limited religious literature of the ancient world. Most of our translations of it are based on the Greek translation of the Hebrew texts, the Septuagint, and somehow in the process the Greek focused on this idea of lovingkindness. That understanding continued with further translations. This was not just true of those translations done by Christians; many of the Jewish translations also use the idea of lovingkindess for 'hesed.'

The ASV (which is the version I use in this writing because it is public domain) translates it lovingkindness, but 'hesed' can be translated in other ways: love, kindness, unfailing love, great love, mercy, loving, kindnesses, unfailing kindness, acts of devotion, devotion, favor, approval, devout, faithful, faithfully, glory, good favor, grace, kind, kindly, loving-kindness, loyal, merciful, well. These all give us a sense of the word, but it leaves out something important. It is actually a loving loyalty based on a covenantal relationship. God's 'hesed' (lovingkindness) comes to us because He has established a bond between Himself and His people. When we share that 'hesed' (lovingkindness) with others, we do so because we are in a relationship with them, but even more so because we are in a relationship with Him.

The other thing I discovered about this passage is that there is no Hebrew word there to be translated to 'endures.' The word was probably added to give some clarification to the ongoingness of God's lovingkindness. It is not something that will fail, it will continue no matter what else happens.

So, I found a bible scholar who retranslated the passage, "God's lovingkindness endures forever," as "Because forever is His loyalty." God will do what He has said He will do because He has established us as His people in a covenantal relationship. He is the God of gods, the Lord of lords. He has done good things for His people. He created the heavens and the earth, the sun and the moon. He kept His promise to Abraham by saving His people from Egypt. He delivered them into the Promised Land, just as He promised. He remembers His people, saves us from our adversaries, and provides for us. He is good and He deserves our thanks and praise. This is a matter of trust; we can trust God because forever is His loyalty. God's lovingkindness endures forever.

'Hesed' is about the covenantal relationship between God and His people. We, of course, look to Mt. Sinai for this, but God made multiple covenants with His people. The first of them is found in today's Old Testament passage from Genesis. In this passage we tend to focus on the rainbow and the promise that it signifies, but let us always remember that this is an unconditional promise from God never to destroy all earthly life with some natural catastrophic event. In this covenant, God establishes a relationship between Himself and all of His creation. We know that there are still floods in this world, sometimes catastrophic floods, but we can trust that God will keep this promise and we are reminded about His faithfulness each time we see the rainbow in the clouds.

I wanted to note the use of the word lovingkindness in one more passage, even though it was not part of today's lectionary. In Exodus 34:6-7, Moses is receiving the second set of tablets. See, had already climbed to the top of Mt. Sinai and received the first set, but when he went back to the people in the camp he discovered that they had stopped trusting in God. Their hearts were hardened when they thought that Moses was lost forever and they turned to the golden calf for comfort. Moses smashed the first set of tablets in anger; the people did not deserve God's great gift of the Commandments that bound Him with them forever. Many of the Israelites died by sword and by plague at the bottom of that mountain.

The worst part of this story is that God told Moses to leave the foot of the mountain with all the people that remained. He told them that they would be led to the Promised Land by an angel, but that He would not go with them. "…for I will not go up in the midst of thee, for thou art a stiffnecked people, lest I consume thee in the way." The people were frightened and began to mourn this judgment against them and they begged Moses to seek God's mercy. Moses reminded God of His covenant promise with Israel, and He relented. "My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest." Moses went up on the mountain with new tablets and God came down out of the cloud and wrote the words of the commandments on the new tablets for His people.

In doing so, God reestablished the Sinaitic covenant. "And Jehovah passed by before him, and proclaimed, Jehovah, Jehovah, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness and truth, keeping lovingkindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation." Even though His people had not remained faithful, even though their hearts were hardened, God remembered His promise to Abraham and was lovingly loyal to them based on that covenant. We are part of that covenant, adopted as His people through faith in Jesus Christ.

We see God's lovingkindness in the relationship Jesus has with His disciples. They have hard hearts in today's Gospel lesson, just like the Pharisees, but that doesn't stop Jesus from showing them who He is. He doesn't abandon them because they don't quite understand. He continues to pull them in His wake, knowing that they will one day have the Holy Spirit to make all this clear. He continues to let them witness His power as He heals the sick.

I find it interesting that in this story the people recognize Him, and then run throughout the region to call those who are sick into His presence. People were drawn to Him wherever He went, laying their sick in His path so that they would be healed. Many even believed that all they needed was to touch the edge of His cloak (as we saw in the old woman a few weeks ago) and they begged Him to let them do so. "And as many as touched Him were made whole." They seem to believe better than Jesus' own disciples.

God does not cast us away. Jesus continued to walk with the disciples at His side, loving them even though they did not really know Him. That lovingkindness, that 'hesed,' is not conditional. There is nothing we can do to earn it or expect it from God. It is given freely because God has made a covenant with us. He loves us and we are bound to Him because of that covenant, not because we have done anything to deserve it. He offers Himself for us to know, to love, to trust and we are called as His people to respond to His 'hesed' with joy and praise.

The passage from Paul's letter to the Ephesians is a prayer for God's people, that they who bear His name will experience the love of God fully and completely as He transforms our lives and makes us whole. In this passage, the word for love is the Greek word 'agape.' While there are similarities between these words, the love of God found in and through Jesus Christ is an even deeper, more permanent word. It is a word that calls us to more than trust. It calls us to a self-sacrificing love of God and neighbor. It calls us to an active life of trusting God.

We are comforted by the story of the disciples because we see God's faithfulness even when we are not faithful. And while we do see the crowds flocking to Jesus, seeking His grace, we know that many of them did not continue to walk with Him to the cross. The disciples, that rag-tag bunch of misunderstanding misfits, may have had hard hearts in this story, but they stayed the course and followed Jesus anyway. They trusted Him long enough to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit so that they might know Jesus and experience His lovingkindness in a very real way. May we stay on that same course, trusting that He will always be lovingly loyal because we are part of His covenant people, experiencing His grace in ways that will continue to heal us and make us whole.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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