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A story based on Isaiah 64:1-9 and 1 Corinthians 1: 1-9

“Oww,” yelped Caleb. He sidestepped away from the single story stucco building and stood in the middle of the alley, straining to see the figure moving ahead of him in the moon and star lit night.

“Caleb?” the man said. “Is that you Caleb? Answer me.”

“Yes, it’s me. Is that you Zechariah?”
“Of course, it is. Who else would they send to come and get you and bring you back to watch the flock? Again.

”Hmm. You’re right.” Caleb said as he stepped into the main road through the village. “Aaron does always seem to pick you.”

“Yeah and I wonder what I did wrong to deserve it. So, why did you go off this time?” Zechariah asked.

“I’m looking for the light.” Caleb said, turning to peer down the narrow lane across from them.

“Light? Like a lamp?”

“No. Not a lamp. God’s light.” Caleb whispered.

“God’s light? Really? God’s light?”

“It’s you know, like the ancient story about the beginning of life. You remember. The world as we know it begins with Or Ein Sof, pure being, the Infinite, the Ultimate source of the world, the light of life of God. Well, somehow the vessel holding the Or Ein Sof, the light of God, shatters into tiny shards and the Or Ein Sof, the light of God is scattered throughout the entire universe into an infinite number of holy sparks. These countless sparks of holiness are hidden deep in every person and everything. And, what we are to do, Zechariah, is find these sparks of light and restore the world to its original wholeness, so everyone might experience the presence and love of God as close as your breath or heartbeat.”

“Right! How are we supposed to do this?”

“Well, every person and everything is a container like a lamp for holding oil only we are the container for the hidden spark of holiness and we are supposed to free that hidden spark of holiness by acts of loving kindness and compassion. Each act of loving kindness, no matter how big or small, repairs the world. This is what the wise ones say is the Tikkun Olam- the repairing and restoring of the world and all we have to do are these acts of loving kindness and compassion, then the world be a place of peace.”

“And that,” Zechariah said, rolling his eyes,”is why you came here in the middle of night.”
“Yes, you see I did such an act of loving kindness, but I didn’t see the light. So, I thought maybe the light is here in this village because I was nearby to the village when I did the act of loving kindness. But I have searched and searched this entire village from one end to the next and I still haven’t found what I’m looking for, the light of God.”

“So, it’s not in this village. Let’s go back to the sheep and do what we are supposed to be doing.” Zechariah said.

“No, it has to be in this village.”

“Why?”

“Because of that star,” Caleb turned Zechariah to see the biggest, brightest star in sky. It was the biggest and brightest star Zechariah had ever seen. “That is a once in a generation star and I thought it was pointing me to come here, but maybe I was wrong.” Caleb sighed.

Zechariah smiled and clapped Caleb’s shoulder, “Maybe, you’re just in the wrong village. Look, the star is way over the horizon. Maybe, we just have to walk over that way. As a matter of fact we’ll be heading over that way in the days to come.”

“Really!” Caleb said his eyes wide and feet stamping a dance step in dirt.

“Maybe. Of course, it could just be we’re looking in the wrong place for the wrong thing and will have to wait a while longer to see the light of God.”

“The wrong place?” Caleb said.

“Yeah. Maybe, God isn’t the one who is hidden or lost like the prophet Isaiah said. Maybe, it’s us and maybe, it isn’t so much about us not finding God’s light, but about we haven’t found ourselves being found by God. Maybe, we are the ones who are lost..”
“Oh, Oh like in the days before the great flood.” Caleb said. “You know, before Noah built the ark, when people were so lost in eating and drinking, in marrying and giving away in marriage and all the other stuff God didn’t want people to be so caught up in doing.”

“Right. Maybe people get so caught up in trying to the good life..”

“Like Aaron always going on and on about buying land with his portion of the flock.” Caleb said.

“Sort of like that. Always thinking we’re pursuing the good life and trying to get more and more of it, except it never ends because there always something we don’t have.” Zechariah said.

“Never seeing the blessings right in front of us.” Caleb said.

“Never being awake to the joy and peace we have now and realizing God hasn’t left us alone, like so many people think, but has been here, is here and will be here.” Zechariah said.

“Maybe, we have to let ourselves be found by God wherever we are?”

“Maybe, we’re always looking in the wrong place for the wrong thing. Maybe, God will come to us when we least expect and in a way that is really unexpected.” Zechariah sighed.

“Maybe, that’s the reason I haven’t found the light because maybe it’s not just my one act of loving kindness, but we need a long chain of lots of acts of loving kindness and compassion, like God’s hesed. You know, just doing it all the time. Maybe, we need to wake up to the truth that every place and every moment contains a hidden spark of holiness, of God’s light of being.” Caleb said.

“And, every place and every moment is part of eternity, so that past, present and future all altogether now, because God is the beginning and end of all life.”
“You know for someone who doubts so much, Zechariah, you seem to think deeply about God.”

“Well, maybe that’s because I hang around with you looking after the sheep and staring up at the stars.”

“Maybe I’m rubbing off on you.” Caleb smiled.

“Hmm, or it’s because I’m always looking for you, my little lost sheep. C’mon, let’s go. If we get back soon maybe, Aaron won’t have us up all night watching over the sheep.”

“Yeah, maybe.” They turned to walk out of the village toward the hills where the sheep and the other shepherds stood watch, “I still wish I could just find what I was looking for.”

As the two shepherds passed the last building in the village, a small light shone through the cracks of the stable door. The sound of wind or beating wings rose up from the village.

Pray with me, “Creator of all life, you came, you come and you will come to us in Jesus Christ, unexpectedly just as the coming of your Spirit upon Mary was unexpected. May we be as inspired as she was to welcome the One who is her child and her lord and be willing to say with Mary, let it be with us your servants. May your light of life open our eyes to the gift already given us in Christ. Forgive us our restless searching for your light of life devised from our expectations of what we think you will do or be and when and where you will come to us. Instead may we become part of an endless chain of your hesed, your loving kindness and compassion as we begin this Advent journey to Bethlehem, hoping to find ourselves being found by you. Tame our ambitions, granting us the humility to act for your agenda and not our own, so it is your will that is done, not ours. May we, in the blessing of this day, see every moment as eternity and every person as holding a spark of holiness, holding your light of life within them. Amen.”

 

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The pool of water was still. Only the humming sound of a honeybee across the pool in the tangle of wisteria and willow on the edge of the water and the murmuring wheeze of the old man’s breathing broke the silence.

“Been comin’ here a long time.” The old man whispered to the man sitting next to him. The old man looked up at the sky. It was clear and cobalt. The sun shone like a gold plate reflecting light. “Good day ta be here.” His companion nodded his head in agreement.

“Yes sir. A good day! You know, I think I just might be ready. I know by the look on your face you’re wondering’ ready for what?’ Well, I’ll tell ya. I’m ready for the train to take me home. Finally, I am ready for the train. It took me a long while, but I’m finally ready. I’ve spent my whole life trying to get ready, but I never felt really ready. When Myrna died, what…three years ago….I wasn’t ready.

I was foolin’ myself still. Myrna, she was ready. She was ready near her whole life. Not a better woman around. She lived the good news. She knew it and she lived it! She took care of folks when they were sick. Baked bread for the new wives arriving in town. Helped people when they were down and out. Had me build a house for those young Murphys when they first came here. Didn’t have a nickel, but sure did have babies. Myrna made me find him a job. She was wonderful. She made us go to church every Sunday.  She said, God gave us over a hundred hours a week, we could praise the Lord for at least two of ’em. Praise him, she said. That’s what we did, too. I..I never really understood her until now. Now, I know what she meant, when she said she was ready. Be ready at anytime. Nothin’ ta fear if you’re ready, she said. Now, I know. I’m ready!”

The old man saw the expression on the face of the man sitting next to him, “You have no idea what I’m talkin’ about do you?  Well, I don’t know how ta explain it, but let me try this way.

You see, a man and a woman stood on the platform at the train station. The day was beautiful with the deep blue sky, wispy clouds floatin’ overhead, and a soft, warm breeze ruffling their clothes and coolin’ the heat of the day down to a comfortable 75 degrees.

The man stepped close ta the woman and said, “Are you waiting for the train?”

“Yes, I am.” she said and inched away.

“So am I.” He said without moving. “Have you been waiting long?”

“Not very long,” she said and smiled at him.

“Me either. Do you know when the train will be here?”

“No,” she said, “I am not sure when it will be here.”

“Maybe I should go and ask the ticket seller.”

“If you want, you may, but I’m not worried about it. I know it will be here sooner or later.” She shrugged and walked away to sit down on one of the green painted benches under a wooden canopy.

The man shuffled off ta see when the train would be there. When he came back to the platform, the woman was still sitting on the bench under the canopy. He marched over ta the bench next to her and plopped down with a “humph” and unzipped his jacket.

“Well, the ticket seller was not very helpful. He had no idea when the train would be here. Said it was delayed somewhere. Might be a long time.” The man said.

“Oh. No matter,” said the woman. “It will be here. The time is not really important.” She closed her eyes and leaned back on the bench.

“You seem very calm about all of this.” She did not answer him or open her eyes. “Don’ t you want ta catch the train and be on time?”

“Of course. I already have my ticket and I cannot be late because the train has a schedule to keep, so I know it will arrive here when the time is right.”

“Why did you get your ticket so soon? There’s plenty of time ta git the ticket.” He looked around the near empty train station. “There’s not exactly a lot of people here.”

“Yes,” she sighed heavily, “but it is better to be prepared, so when the train comes one can board it immediately.”

“Why? I can’t imagine seating is a big problem.”

“The train does not stay in the station very long because it has many other stops to make along the way. If one is not ready to board it, one risks being left behind.”

The man frowned and half-turned away, “Poppycock! I can git my ticket and still make the train. Anyway, we’ve got plenty of time.” The man lay down on the bench and fell asleep. The woman fell asleep too.

The daylight faded into darkness. The lights of the canopy shown down on the two sleeping figures as other lights in the train station broke the darkness into circles of light. In the distance, a whistle blew. The shrill sound woke the woman. She heard the stationmaster shout, “Train is comin’. Train is comin’.” She shook her herself awake and stood up. She glanced at the man still sleeping. She reached down and shook the top of his shoulder.

“The train is coming into the station. You should get up.” She said as she shook him. The man woke with a start. He wiped his mouth and sat upright. “The train is coming.” She said as she walked to the edge of the platform.

“Uh. What?” The man said. “Oh. The train. The train is comin’.” He jumped up and ran to the woman. “How far out is it?”

“I do not know exactly, but I see a light down the tracks.” She said over her shoulder.

“Oh. Oh. Do I…”he glanced toward the station “Do I have time to get a ticket?” The woman shrugged. “How about you. Did you get an extra ticket? Can I get on board with you?”

“No. Everyone needs their own ticket, their own life. I only have one. You better go and get your own.”

“Yeah,” The man dashed off.

“And, you better hurry. The train is almost here.” She shouted after him.

The great diesel train whooshed into the station. The great silver and black compartments gleaming in the circles of light. The train stopped and a door opened in front of the woman. She smiled at the conductor, handed him her ticket, and boarded the train. As soon as she was inside and sitting comfortably in a compartment, the train roared and whooshed off.

The man came running out of the station house toward the train. “Wait! Wait! he shouted. The train roared down the tracks into the darkness. He stood at the edge of the platform. He crumbled his ticket in his hand and threw it down on the tracks. He turned round and walked back to the bench under the canopy.

Somewhere in the darkness an old gospel song played, “Are you ready? Are you ready?  Are you ready to sit by throne? For the Lord is comin’ to carry you home.”

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Where, O God, can I flee from you?

Where, O God, can I go hide from you?

These are the psalmist’s questions in Psalm 139 reflecting a radical monotheism that is relational. This is a song of a relationship between psalmist and God that covers the entire breadth of human existence in terms of God’s presence, knowledge and power, the giving and nurturing of an awareness of the Lord as the total environment of life as well as the teaching and confessing that “my times, O God, are in your hands,” according to James Mays’ commentary. This intensely personal devotional song portrays the human self in the light of the work of God as well as God’s work and person as the foundation for the human person’s life. This is not an abstract or systematic writing about who God is and what God does, rather it is the intimate relationship where the psalmist is completely known by God. The Hebrew word translated as “know” indicates this knowledge of God is intimate and deep from the moment of being formed in the womb through birth and into the long daily routines of awakening and sleeping, going out from home and coming back home, working and resting and eating. Nothing is hidden from God and there is nowhere to go to get away from God. The psalmist is never free of God; however neither is he a prisoner of God. Rather he is free to live for and with God, as Mays describes this relationship.

Reading this personal psalm of God being the totality of a person’s life and the encompassing environment for all life contrasts and highlights the foolishness of Jonah, who goes to great lengths to hide from God because he refuses to be the prophet to Nineveh that God has called him to be. Instead, he runs in the opposite direction, tries to hide from God aboard a boat, then in the middle of storm convinces the crew that they can calm the storm by throwing him overboard into the sea, which they do. Then, in the sea he is swallowed by a great fish, as described in Hebrew. It is while he is in the great fish that Jonah prayers a prayer of thanksgiving to God for saving his life, which is humorous because he has been trying to hide from God, trying to hide from the Creator of the Universe. Of course, Jonah’s prayer is answered and the great fish vomits him up onto shore where he begins walking to Nineveh to be the prophet God has called him to be, although he complains to God throughout his time of ministry in Nineveh.

So, when Jesus couples Jonah’s story with Jesus’ death and resurrection it is a sign that God’s transformative love is a call to remember how near we are to God’s love and remember the power of God to transform life as well as remembering the unconditional nature of God’s love to forgive and embrace those who change the direction of their life even if it means God seeking us in the depth of our sorrows and our desire to hide ourselves away from everything and everyone, including God, to lift us up out of our miry bog to place us on a dry, level plain to continue to live for and with God in a greater awareness of God’s encompassing presence and trusting God to sustain life now and for eternity.

What the psalmist is also calling us to realize with the focus on geography, the focus on God being the total environment of life and the focus on God’s participation in our own personal creation is that all life is sacred and connected to each other in relationships of interdependence where what happens to one member of creation impacts and influences other members of creation.

This is profoundly true in our relationship with the land that we are tasked by God to till, tend, and protect and to care for, so it remains able to nurture life and sustain life and which various passages of scripture point out is often a mirror of our relationships within families and within whole communities.

Cain’s slaying of his brother Abel is, but one example of this mirroring effect. Cain and Abel are the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain is the oldest and is a farmer while his younger brother Abel is a keeper of sheep. They both bring to God offerings from their respective vocations. Abel’s is accepted by God while Cain’s is rejected by God. Cain is angry, dejected and is warned by God that “sin is prowling like a wild animal waiting to overcome you, but you must master it.” Thus, Cain has a choice either master sin or be mastered by sin. Still feeling the rage of his anger, Cain invites his brother into a field and kills him, then walks away. However, the voice of the dirt that absorbed Abel’s blood cries out to God with its own sorrow and grief for the blood spilled in violence because anger, resentment, and rejection had all grown to such overwhelming proportions that Cain could not master sin, but instead sin mastered him. It mastered even his response to God’s question, “where is your brother?” and his retort, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Keeper, the word has more meanings than one who keeps. It means “to exercise loving care for, to watch over, to guard, to preserve, to protect, to tend to the needs of another, to save a life, to sustain life.”

This was the same word “shamar,” in the Hebrew, used in Genesis earlier to describe God’s expectations for the man and woman and their descendants to keep the garden, keeping it able to be fruitful by their serving the land and all creation as they tend to the land’s needs and protecting the land from those elements that might destroy it, making the land unable to be productive and unable to sustain life.

Now, as the land that absorbed the Abel’s blood cries out in sorrow and grief, the fractured and broken relationship of the brothers was, also, given voice as the land’s pollution from violence mirrored the pollution of sin Cain experienced. In the same way that the mark on Cain signified his identity as one who ended life, the infertility of the sacred land, scarred by the blood seeping into it, identifies it as land unable to nurture life or sustain life.

Similarly, Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar and theologian, makes this same point about land mirroring the broken and fractured relationships within families and within the community in his work “The Land: Place as Gift, Promise and Challenge in Biblical Faith” using the themes of contamination of the land, of excluding people from the land and possessing land to fulfill selfish economic actions without regard to the community, and of the defilement of the land. He begins, of course, with Moses’ farewell speech about faithfully living God’s teachings and God’s way of life as the foundation for staying long in the land promised and given to the Hebrews while being unfaithful to God’s way is the basis for the Israelites being exiled from the land and losing the land. Thus, the way the community lives its daily life in all their various relationships impacts what happens with the land.

I doubt that we are strangers to this conversation if we consider how brown field industrial sites have physically divided communities and economically divided communities into those who have more than they need for life and those who do not even have the basic necessities needed to sustain life, not to mention making the contaminated land unable to be used for the nurturing of life and sustaining of life and then reflect about how this violates the command to love your neighbor as yourself and violates God’s call to keep the land. Or, perhaps we might consider the way “mountaintop removal and the accompanying filling up of valleys with the debris from mountain top  is the most destructive way to mine coal, creating unhealthy living conditions for people in nearby communities, eliminating not only  forests and streams but altering a whole ecosystem that can never be restored and forever changing the communities where people live,” according to Kentuckians for Commonwealth. How does this action comport with loving our neighbors or keeping, tending, or lovingly caring for creation as God has called humankind to do?

How do any of the environmental disasters we have witnessed whether from the BP oil spill, the Exxon Valdez, Love Canal, the Chernobyl or the Three Mile Island disasters, or the pollution of rivers by coal mining companies, to name just a few, square with an understanding of our responsibility for the keeping and caring and protecting of the land given to us by God, not to mention the psalmist’s declaration that God is the total environment for life?

As the Seasons of the Spirit commentary reminds us, our choices have consequences for the land. Sacred ground can become scarred ground, whether by shedding blood or by poisoning the soil. So the question for Christians today in light of climate change, Arctic permafrost melting and rising ocean levels is, will we hear the voice of the land crying out to us or will we keep pouring the blood of human violence, contamination, defilement and greed into its mouth, so that we do not have to hear the land’s voice crying out to us or hear God teaching us the way for life to be nurtured and sustained?

How we answer that question will have consequences for how much longer the land will nurture and sustain life for us, our children and all future generations.

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