Casting wide the net of mercy

File:A fisherman casting a net neat Kozhikode Beach.jpgA reflection on the call of Jesus’ disciples from Sunday, January 21, 2018 (the Third Sunday after Epiphany)

Mark 1:14-20: 14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

+       +       +

Before we begin this morning, I want to make two comments about the text. First, the text begins “Now after John was arrested.” The word that is translated ‘arrested’ here means to be betrayed or handed over. It is the word used of the betrayal and capture of Jesus. When we hear the word ‘arrested’ we think of a police force and a judicial process, but that’s not the world of the first century. ‘Seized’ is probably a better word. And the reason this matters is that here, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, is the shadow of the cross.

Second, I want to remind you that the phrase “repent and believe” is the exact same phrase used when the Roman General defeated Josephus when he was part of the Judean rebellion that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 ce. As a member of the upper class, Josephus was given the choice to change sides and show allegiance to Rome. Jesus comes announcing the reign of God and calling us to change sides and show allegiance to the reign of God. These are not religious words about regret and moral regeneration; they are words about the fundamental commitment of our lives.

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

The 16th chapter of the book of Jeremiah contains a brutal prophetic word. God tells Jeremiah that he is not to take a wife or have children as a sign to the people of his day that a terrible judgment is coming upon the nation, a destruction so fierce that the bodies of children and their parents will lie unburied and unwept. They will become food for the buzzards and wild dogs.

Jeremiah is not to attend any funeral, or console any grieving parent, because no one shall lament those who perish in God’s coming judgment. Jeremiah is not to attend any wedding or celebration because the sound of joy is about to be banished from the land. Indeed, God is sending for a horde of fishermen and hunters to search every cave and cove to haul this people from every hiding place to their destruction.

It is a dark and devastating word from God.

What’s interesting about this Biblical text, however, is that somewhere along the line – either when the words of Jeremiah were being written down or when they were being copied and passed on to the next generation – someone along the way felt compelled to pluck two verses of hope from somewhere else in Jeremiah’s preaching and set these words into this declaration that God was sending out fishermen with nets to gather the people for judgment.

Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt’, but ‘As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.’ For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their ancestors. (Jeremiah 16:14-15 // Jeremiah 23:7-8)

By setting this passage inside the other, the net of judgment becomes ultimately a net of grace.

God’s purpose for the nation does not end with their being scattered from the land where they were supposed to do justice, to show faithfulness to God and to one another, to care for the poor and weak – a faithfulness they failed to show. But God’s purpose ends with the scattered people being gathered.

There are many words of woe in the Biblical text, many words of warning about what will happen if we fail to live God’s justice and mercy. But the prophets do not stop there. It is easy to preach disaster. There are a lot of things that can go wrong when a society fails its most fundamental obligation to care for one another and the earth upon which we live. But God never stops with judgment. God always pushes on to reconciliation, to restoration, to hope. One of the most fundamental elements of the Biblical story is that when all hope for the future is lost – God gives us a future.

Abraham and Sarah have no child. He is 100 and she is 90. The promise of descendants seems at an end. But God is not finished with Abraham or with the world he has promised to save through Abraham’s line.

At the time of Noah, the whole earth has become “corrupt in God’s sight…and filled with violence.” (Genesis 6:12), that “every imagination of the thoughts of their hearts is only evil continually”! (Genesis 6:5RSV) But God is not done with his creation. He grants it a new birth.

Israel is in bondage in Egypt. They have been there for 430 years! (Remember, we are less than 250 years from the declaration of independence.) Pharaoh no longer remembers how Joseph saved the country. Pharaoh fears all these foreigners and instructs the midwives that every male child is to be killed at childbirth – and, when that fails, he issues an edict that every male child should be thrown into the Nile. But God saves a little child named Moses as he is being carried down the river out to sea.

When Moses leads the people out of Egypt, they become trapped between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army and all seems lost – there is no hope – but during the night a wind blows and creates a path through the sea.

The people are without water in the desert, but God brings forth a river of water from the rock.

The people are without food and want to go back to Egypt and their slavery, but in the morning there is manna upon the ground.

Jerusalem is destroyed and the people scattered throughout the world. Many are taken as prisoners to Babylon. But fifty years later, Cyrus overthrows Babylon and lets all its captured people go home. And Jerusalem is rebuilt.

God is a god of mercy. God is a god who works reconciliation and restoration. God is a god who creates a future. God is a god who opens the grave.

So the editor of Jeremiah can’t let those words of judgment stand unanswered. And he reminds us that God’s purpose is to gather the scattered. The nets of judgment become nets of grace.

When Jesus walks along the shore of Galilee and sees those fishermen working there, he sees nets of grace. And he calls those fishermen to the work of gathering all creation into the arms of God.

It’s important we understand this. Our defining task as a Christian community is to gather all creation into the arms of God. The risen Jesus will breathe his Spirit on his followers and say As the father sent me, I sent you.” The last words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew are: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Disciples. Students. Followers. Practitioners. Citizens of the dawning age. Participants in the new creation.

Our tendency is to hear those words in a vaguely institutional sense of making new church members – or at least new Christians. But the vision is of a world brought under the reign of God’s spirit. The vision is a world pulled back from bondage into freedom, from death into life. The vision is a world gathered in the nets of mercy.

Our defining task as a Christian community, as followers of Jesus, is to gather all creation in the nets of mercy.

Now there are some things about this story that I want to be sure we also hear. The text says Jesus is walking along the shore. Jesus is walking on the boundary between the land and the sea. Boundaries are places of spiritual importance in the world of the scripture. All the conversation about clean and unclean in the Bible is about boundaries. What are the boundaries between what is holy and what is not holy?

I don’t have time to go into detail on this, so I hope you will trust me. But the shore is a boundary between the land – where we are safe – and the sea – where there is danger. When God began to create, the sea was a chaos and God set boundaries to the water. He created the dome of heaven to divide the waters above from the waters below, and he divided the sea to allow dry land to appear. He set boundaries that the sea could not cross (cf. Jeremiah 5:22). When Jesus stills the storm or walks on the sea, he is commanding the sea as God commanded the primordial chaos. When Jesus casts the demons out of the man in Gerasa, the demons go into the pigs and what do the pigs do? They run into the sea. The depths of the sea is the realm of chaos and darkness, the realm of evil spirits.

When Jesus walks along the shoreline and calls his followers to be fishers of people, part of the imagery rattling around in the background is the sea as a realm of chaos and evil. We are being called to gather humanity out from the realm of bondage into the realm of freedom. We are being called to cast wide the nets of God’s mercy, to gather the world out from darkness into light, from despair into hope, from death into life.

The second thing I want you to remember is that something is lost when we read this story clipped from the larger narrative. Yes, this is a great story on its own. Yes, it is a classic Sunday school story. But this story is still at the beginning of the very first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. And, as we talked about last week, Mark’s gospel is filled with intensity.

‘Immediately’, it says, they left their nets. (v. 18) ‘Immediately’ Jesus called them (v. 20). The word ‘immediately’ is used twelve times by Mark in this first chapter alone – that averages better than one in every fourth verse. It will get used thirty more times in this short little Gospel. The story Mark tells is full of urgency. It begins with a bang.

Jesus’ summons of followers is part of this incredible dynamic power of Jesus. He is the mighty one who will drench the world in the Spirit of God. He is the one for whom the heavens are torn open. He is the one on whom the Spirit descends. He is the one of whom God will say, “This is my Son, the beloved.” This is the one who will be immediately tested by Satan and be waited on by angels. This is the one who declares that the time has come; God’s reign is begun. He summons people to come and they leave everything to follow him. Next Sunday we will hear how demons cry out and immediately he silences them. We will hear how the sick are brought to him and he heals them. In the Sundays to come we will hear how he reaches out and touches a leper and renders him clean, and how he will announce a crippled man to be forgiven and then tell him to take up his mat and walk.

This story about Peter, Andrew, James and John is not really a story about us; it is a story about Jesus. We are called to discipleship. We are called to follow. We are called to cast wide the nets of mercy. But the story is not about us. It is about Jesus who walks fearlessly on the boundary between earth and sea, between heaven and hell, between death and life to rescue the world.

This is the Jesus who encounters us in the waters of the font. This is the Jesus who embraces us in his mercy and feeds us at his table. This is the Jesus who speaks to us words of life and breathes his Spirit upon us. This is the Jesus who commissions us as his agents and summons us to cast wide the net of mercy.

In a world so deeply entangled in passions and desires and hates and hostilities, in a world so deeply fractured as our own, in a world where judgment looms over our brokenness and sin, God is casting his net of mercy. He bids us follow.

Amen

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AA_fisherman_casting_a_net_neat_Kozhikode_Beach.jpg By Aswin Krishna Poyil (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Advertisements

An immeasurable mercy

File:Fisherman in Myanmar.jpg

Watching for the Morning of January 21, 2018

Year B

The Third Sunday after Epiphany

Jonah opens our readings from the scripture on Sunday. The great fish has vomited him onto the shore and God tries again to send him to warn the Assyrians that God is about to destroy them for their wickedness. Unless they repent. Every prophetic warning includes the possibility of repentance. It’s why Jonah tried to run away when he was first commissioned. He was afraid the people would turn from their wickedness and God would forgive them. They didn’t deserve forgiveness.   Of course, none of us do. Some of us certainly seem like saints. Some of us certainly are saints. But living well and living faithfully doesn’t put God in our debt. We are still frail creatures, still caught in our selves. The true saints know this. It fills them with compassion for sinners. The rest of us less complete saints want a little credit. It makes us a little judgmental. Those people should know better, behave better, try harder, make better choices. And if they don’t, they don’t deserve God’s mercy. But mercy isn’t earned; it’s given.

So we will hear of Jonah half-heartedly marching into Nineveh and the people hearing and repenting. And God forgives, just as Jonah feared.

Jonah resists the call of God. Tries to, anyway. But the call of God doesn’t let us get away. It pounces on us in unexpected ways – as it did to Peter and Andrew, James and John as they were tending their nets. Suddenly the summons is there and a lifetime of fishing is suddenly turned in a new direction. They will be gathering the world into the arms of mercy, the “fishnet” of heaven’s grace.

The summons is compelling. There is no resisting the eternal voice. Christ stands before them and calls them to follow. And what shall we say? We have work to do? No, we have mercy to do. The world awaits the embrace of God. The world awaits healing and life. The world awaits care and compassion. The world awaits the message that a new kingdom is at hand, a new spirit, a new governance of the human heart.

To choose hardness of heart in such a moment seems unthinkable, though we do make that choice. Often, it seems. Our hardness of heart becomes unrecognizable to ourselves. We cheer what we should not cheer. We trust what we should not trust. We show allegiance to things we ought not serve. Jesus will have things to teach – even as God tried to teach Jonah. The cross and resurrection will be the final lesson: it’s not about what we deserve; it’s about an immeasurable mercy.

It will be sung in the psalm on Sunday. Paul will speak of it in the reading. And Jesus will name names. We are summoned by mercy. We are summoned to live mercy.

The Prayer for January 21, 2018

Almighty God,
as Jesus summoned Simon and Andrew, James and John,
to leave their nets and follow,
you summon all people to lives of faith and love.
Grant us courage to follow where you lead,
and confidence to cast wide the net |
that gathers all people into your gracious embrace;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for January 21, 2018

First Reading: Jonah 3:1-10
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’” – In this delightful tale of Jonah fleeing God’s call to bring warning to Nineveh, choosing death (tossed into the sea) rather than repentance until he is swallowed by a great fish and vomited onto the land, he now finds himself compelled to accept his commission and the thing he feared happens: the wicked city repents and God forgives.

Psalmody: Psalm 62:5-12
“For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.”
– Speaking to the community more than to God, the poet expresses his confidence in God and calls the people (warns his opponents?) to also put their trust in God.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
“From now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning.” – Paul concludes his guidance on matters of sex and marriage by reminding the community that they live in the light of the dawning reign of God and their lives should be defined by the age to come not the age that is passing away.

Gospel: Mark 1:14-20
“Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’”
– Jesus summons Simon and Andrew, James and John, to join him in gathering the nation and instigating a new era of faithfulness.

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFisherman_in_Myanmar.jpg By Pupuce22 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A new beginning of the world

File:F Mochi Bautismo de Cristo 1634 P Braschi.jpg

A reflection on Mark 1:1-11 on the Baptism of Our Lord.

King David is, for Israel, like George Washington is for us. He is the noble leader that represents the best of his country. We don’t really want any dirty laundry about George Washington. We like the story about the boy who could not tell a lie and the young man strong enough to throw a silver dollar across the Potomac. We don’t really want to know that they didn’t have silver dollars in his day and that, even if they did, a dollar was worth a lot in those days and George wouldn’t have thrown that kind of money away – nor do we want to know that the original story is about chucking rocks across the Rappahannock.

We like the myth rather than the reality, because the myth has an important function. The word ‘myth’, in its best sense, doesn’t mean a false or made up story; it means a story that embodies and communicates some important truth. Our first president was indeed strong and honest, concerned about what was good for the republic rather that what might profit himself. And the ‘myth’ of the cherry tree lifts up these important qualities that embody core values of our national identity. The stories are meant to inspire us to our best selves.

The myth is important, but we do not deny reality. We know, for example, that Washington owned slaves. Though technically they belonged to his wife, he would have had the authority to free them had he chosen to do so. So we value the ‘myth’ for what it says to us, but we also acknowledge the truth.

David is the hero of Israel. And the story about Goliath sounds remarkably like one of those cherry tree stories. We respect the story about David’s courage and his trust in and fidelity to God. But the scripture is also willing to tell us that David conspired to order the death of his noble warrior, Uriah, in order to hide David’s crime of taking Uriah’s wife that would have been exposed when Bathsheba she got pregnant.

What makes David a hero, by the way, is that, when confronted with his crime, he confesses and repents. He doesn’t deny and obfuscate and lie and blame. He turns back to God.

But there were consequences to David’s crime. He had allowed power to corrupt him and lead him to betray God and the people by taking what belonged to another – and then to a cover-up that ended in violence. The result would be that his family would be troubled by corruption and violence.

So the scripture tells us that David’s eldest son, Amnon, lusted after his half-sister, Tamar, and after manipulating her into his bedchamber by pretending to be sick, he took her – by force – and then discarded her.

Tamar’s brother, Absalom, quietly plotted against his half-brother and two years later took his vengeance and murdered him. Absalom fled Jerusalem, but David refused to hold him accountable and eventually allowed him to return, though he would not allow Absalom to come to court.

Absalom got tired of that and sent for Joab who was the head of the army and one of David’s closest advisors. Joab, however, wouldn’t come so Absalom set Joab’s fields on fire to force him to come. Absalom then pressured Joab into making a way for him to return to the king’s presence. At which time, Absalom began to plot to seize the throne. He told the people that they wouldn’t get justice from David but that they could get justice from himself if he were king.

Eventually, Absalom arranged a coup and David and his advisors were forced to flee Jerusalem. (Absalom set up a tent on the roof of the palace for all to see and went in to sleep with his father’s concubines. What David had done in secret to Uriah, Absalom did to him in public.)

War ensued – and now I am getting close to my point. David gave instructions to his commanders that they were not to hurt his son, Absalom. But Joab, his leading commander, knowing the kind of threat Absalom posed, disobeyed the order and killed him. When the battle was over, a young man named Ahimaaz wanted to run back to the king to deliver the good news that his forces had been victorious. Joab tried to discourage him and sent someone else, knowing that the king would be dismayed by the news and would not reward the runner.

The Greek translation of the original Hebrew uses the word ‘euanggelion’ for the “good news” of victory. ‘Euanggelion’ is the word that comes into English as ‘gospel’. That Greek root gives us the family of words like ‘evangelism’ and ‘evangelical’. And it is the Greek word in our Gospel reading today that is translated as ‘good news’.

This is a very long introduction to the fact that the Greek word we translate as ‘gospel’ is a very ordinary word. It is not a religious word. And it has two basic semantic fields. The one is the story I have just told: the news of victory from the battlefield. The other idea at work in this word is that of a royal proclamation. When a new king arises, he issues a proclamation to the citizens of his new lands declaring amnesty and announcing his benefactions to the people.

So this document that is before us from an unknown author who, by tradition, we call Mark – this document presents itself as a royal proclamation and news of victory from the battlefield.

The translation “good news” doesn’t seem like it has enough gravitas to be an effective translation of this word. But we don’t have a word in English that will accomplish all that this Greek word conveys. So we have to remember that the Gospel that is proclaimed to us is like the announcement of peace at the end of World War II that has people cheering in the streets and a sailor sweeping a nurse off her feet with a kiss.

The Gospel that is proclaimed to us is like the emancipation proclamation of Abraham Lincoln to the three million enslaved people in the South. It is royal amnesty, a word that we are released from every debt.

This story of Jesus is ‘gospel’. It is ‘euanggelion’. It is incredible news. It is the end of war and emancipation. God has come to reclaim his world. God has come to drench us in the Spirit. God has come to wipe away the whole history of human sin that began with Adam and Eve. God has come to shatter the gates of hell and set all its prisoners free. God has come to break the grip of fear and guilt and sorrow and death.

This is the ‘gospel’. And when we call ourselves an Evangelical Lutheran Church we mean we are bearers of this proclamation.

Now if someone were hearing this ‘gospel’ for the first time, they would naturally ask, “Who is this Jesus that he should be making a royal proclamation?”

Mark tells us that this Jesus is “Son of God”, which means that he is the person God has authorized to act on God’s behalf. He is the one appointed to reign. This is a culture in which to speak to the son is to speak to the father. To hear Jesus is to hear the Father. This is a society in which the kings of Israel were referred to as “son of God”. They weren’t gods, but they reigned on God’s behalf.

This Jesus is the Christ, the anointed of God.

This Jesus is the one to whom the prophets bear witness.

This Jesus is the one upon whom the Spirit of God has descended. The heavens have been torn open. A breach has been made in the vault of heaven and the mighty wind and holy breath of God has invaded the world and courses through this Jesus.

Through this Jesus the whole world will be flooded with this Spirit of God.

This Spirit that is upon Jesus is upon us.

And God is delighted. “With you,” says the voice from heaven, “I am well pleased.” This is such a pale translation of powerful words. This is good in God’s eyes. It echoes the creation story when God looks upon what God has created and declares it good.

This is a new beginning of the world.

It doesn’t matter to Mark that armies are marching and it seems like the world is coming apart. It doesn’t matter to Mark that he has seen Rome’s brutal power impale this Jesus to a cross. He has seen the empty tomb. He has seen the sick healed and the lame walk and the blind see. He has seen sinners forgiven and outcasts restored and withered hands made whole. He has seen the unclean made clean and heard demons cry out and flee. This is a new beginning of the world.

This is a new beginning of the world.

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AF_Mochi_Bautismo_de_Cristo_1634_P_Braschi.jpg Francesco Mochi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Awash in the Spirit

File:Caban-coch dam overflowing - geograph.org.uk - 148870.jpg

Watching for the Morning of January 14, 2018

Year B

The Baptism of Our Lord

(See the note below on why we are celebrating The Baptism of Our Lord this Sunday)

The heavens were torn open.

As he was coming up out of the water “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” It is the word that will show up again in Mark when the curtain of the temple will be torn from top to bottom. Mark doesn’t use a subtle word to describe what happens at the banks of the Jordan. Mark is rarely subtle. His story is urgent, compelling. Something powerful has burst into the world, tossing demons aside and healing all who come near. Bursting the bonds that bind. Tearing open the heavens to bring all heaven’s gifts down. This Jesus is the coming one, the promised one, who will flood the world with God’s Spirit.

So Sunday’s texts will take us to the beginning, when God’s spirit/breath/wind blew over the face of the great deep and God called forth light for the world. And the psalm will proclaim the mighty voice of God that shakes the wilderness and shatters the cedars of Lebanon. And the book of Acts will tell us of the believers in Ephesus who had not yet heard of the Holy Spirit, but will receive it in abundance. And we will hear again of John the Baptist and the promise of the Spirit, and we will see Jesus come and the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending.

And in our liturgy we will remember what it means to be a people awash in the Spirit, to be witnesses of a world forever changed, to be agents of that Spirit, a people empowered, the body of this Christ in the world.

The Prayer for January 14, 2018 (for the Baptism of Our Lord)

Heavenly Father, Eternal God, Holy and Gracious One:
in the waters of the River Jordan
you anointed Jesus with your Holy Spirit
and declared him your beloved Son.
Make all the earth radiant with your glory
and pour out upon all your children the abundance of your Holy Spirit.

The Texts for January 14, 2018 (for the Baptism of Our Lord)

First Reading: Genesis 1:1-5
“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.” – The opening words of that profound vision of God creating a good and ordered world, assembled by a people who have lived through the chaos of war, social disintegration, famine and the destruction of their nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 29
“The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.” – Using the imagery of a thunderstorm coming off the Mediterranean Sea and rising over Mount Hermon, the poet proclaims the power of God’s Word.

Second Reading: Acts 19:1-7
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” – Paul connects with disciples in Ephesus who knew only the baptism of John.

Gospel: Mark 1:1-11
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
– The Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus in his baptism and God declares him God’s ‘Son’.

As noted the last two weeks, our parish departs from the appointed texts for the Christmas season in order to present the birth narratives with some integrity: reading Luke 2:1-20 on Christmas Eve (and John 1 on Christmas morning), then the reception of the child by Simeon and Anna on the Sunday in Christmas. The second Sunday after Christmas (nearest January 6) is celebrated as the Sunday of the Epiphany and provides us with Matthew’s account of the Magi and Herod’s attempt to kill the infant Messiah.

Occasionally, as in this year, this puts us out of sync with the appointed lectionary. So this Sunday, the first after our celebration of the Epiphany, we will celebrate as the Baptism of our Lord and next Sunday we will skip to the texts for the third Sunday after the Epiphany.

A post about the Second Sunday after Epiphany in year B and its readings from 2015 can be found here. For other comments on the readings for Epiphany 2 B follow this link.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACaban-coch_dam_overflowing_-_geograph.org.uk_-_148870.jpg Mark Evison [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

We come to kneel

I posted the Christmas Eve message on Jacob_Limping

jacob_limping

File:Guido Reni - São José.jpgThis is the message from our Christmas Eve service.  Links to the texts for the evening can be found at the blog post:Great mercies for a world in need of mercy.

Every time I sit down to work on my Christmas Eve sermon I think of my daughter Megan who lives now in New York. Pretty much every year on Christmas Eve she sends me an irate text message about the sermon she has just heard while going to church with her husband’s family and asking me to send mine. I think, too, about my daughter Anna’s observation about the preaching she heard in another church that she described as three stories from Reader’s Digest and a “Yea God!”

I feel a lot of pressure on Christmas Eve to get this right. And while it’s probably true that as long as I don’t say something offensive, you would go…

View original post 1,670 more words

Fidelity and anticipation

File:Montreal - Plateau, day of snow - 200312.jpgWatching for the Morning of December 31, 2017

Year B

The Sunday in Christmas

Fidelity. The Sunday in Christmas shows us more of the faithful in Israel: Joseph and Mary fulfilling all that the law requires. Simeon and Anna waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise. But even now the texts begin to move towards Epiphany. “The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory,” says the prophet – and though the prophet is speaking of the restoration of Jerusalem, all the nations shall see God’s saving work. Righteousness and praise shall spring up as certainly as the seeds sown in the garden.

And so Simeon sings – sings of God’s dawning salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples…a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” And Anna praises God and testifies to this child “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Fidelity and anticipation. Something big is happening. Something dramatic is occurring. God is fulfilling his promises. The wise elders see. The longed for day is come. The lowly are hearing good news proclaimed.

Much of the Midwest is under a thick blanket of snow. It was reported that Erie, Pennsylvania, received over five feet. Spring seems like an unthinkable promise when you are shoveling through such depths. But Simeon and Anna have eyes to see. And they testify to us of God’s faithfulness. The season has turned. The days are growing longer. The light is come.

The Prayer for December 31, 2017

Gracious God,
by whose word we live
and whose promises all come to fulfillment:
we give you thanks for those faithful among your people
who, like Simeon and Anna, have eyes to see your dawning work among us.
Grant that, with them, we might see where your hand is working
and share in its joy.

The Texts for December 31, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3
“The Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” –
In the years after the return from exile, the prophet speaks to a discouraged and weary people of a vindication to come.

Second Reading: Galatians 4:4-7
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son.” – Paul recites the core message of what God has done in Christ for these Galatians, making them members of God’s household and heirs of God’s promise through the gift of the Spirit in Christ.

Gospel: Luke 2:21-40 (appointed: 22-40)
“When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.”
– The narrative of Jesus’ birth continues with Mary and Joseph’s faithful obedience and the recognition and reception of Jesus by Simeon and Anna, representatives of faithful Israel.

For the psalm on the Sunday in Christmas we sing a Christmas carol. The appointed Psalm is: Psalm 148 – “Praise the Lord from the heavens… Praise the Lord from the earth… He has raised up a horn for his people.”

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Montreal_-_Plateau,_day_of_snow_-_200312.jpg

But Christ can see

File:Bonfeld - Evangelische Kirche - Kanzelwand und Weihnachtsbaum 2015 - 1.jpg

Christmas Eve

I tried to stand well away from the altar, tonight, as I said the Eucharistic Prayer – the prayer that surrounds the words of institution (“In the night in which he was betrayed…”) for communion. Yesterday I was knocked down by a terrible cold and I didn’t want to touch the bread or get near to anyone lest I pass on my germs. So the assisting minister held the bread aloft at the proper moment, then the wine, then broke them for the distribution and served the bread for me.

I missed this opportunity to serve the community the gifts – or to share the peace before we come to the table – or to shake their hand and greet them after the service. I have been here 15 years, now, and there are people who come faithfully at Christmas. There are young people who have grown up and moved away but are back for the holiday. There are grandchildren and visiting aunts and uncles and siblings I have met through the years. It is hard to stand apart and wave at them from a distance after the service.

There is something wonderful about the power of this night to gather people together. Something warm and enduring about the ties that stretch over time. Something mystical about the power of this story of the child of Bethlehem and the beauty of a darkened room with the Christmas trees shining and every hand holding high a lighted candle as we sing of a silent and holy night. It speaks of peace, a peace that we remember, a peace we can imagine, a peace for which we hope.

It is our answer to the torchlight march last August in Charlottesville. It is our prayer for a world where too much is vile and violent. It is our yearning for what the world could be.

And it is our confession of what the world shall be. The babe of Bethlehem, the man from Nazareth, the healer and teacher, the embodiment of mercy and life, the good shepherd who lays down his life for the world, the crucified one is risen and comes to breathe his spirit upon us. He comes to touch us with grace and life. He comes to heal and renew the world. He comes to gather us to one table. He comes to reconcile heaven and earth.

Not everyone who comes to sing “Silent Night” can see all the way to Good Friday and Easter, to Pentecost and the New Jerusalem. But Christ can see. And the Spirit leads. And the song is begun.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABonfeld_-_Evangelische_Kirche_-_Kanzelwand_und_Weihnachtsbaum_2015_-_1.jpg By Roman Eisele (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Great mercies for a world in need of mercy

File:Lacura2.JPGWatching for the Feast of the Nativity 2017

Christmas Eve / Christmas Day

Light for our darkness will echo through our service on Christmas Eve. We will hear the great prophetic word of Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” and be reminded of the promise that “all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”

We will hear also from Isaiah that “A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,” a new king from the line of David. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” The peace of his reign that will find the lion eating straw like the ox and all the earth will be filled with “the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

Of course, the central story of the night is the remarkable birth during the imperial reign of the victorious Octavian – Caesar Augustus who was acclaimed as son of a god (son of the divine Julius Caesar) and savior of the world. Only this birth does not happen in Rome, but in a peasant home in Judea.

Two kingdoms clash – not a game of thrones like Octavian’s Victory over Antony and Cleopatra, but two profoundly different claims upon the world: one a rule of might, the other of grace. Augustus will claim all things for himself – and Jesus will give himself for all. The “census” was a listing of all properties when Rome took over a region so Caesar could claim what he wished. It led to riots and brutal repression under Quirinius. But in a manger in Bethlehem lies a true prince of peace, a true light for our darkness.

On Christmas Day we will hear John declare that the divine word that called the world into being“became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth.” We will hear the prophet speak of God’s word that does not return empty but “shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” And the author of Hebrews will confirm that “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”

Light for our darkness. Peace for our world. The mystery of the incarnation. The wonder of “God with us”. Rich and abundant themes. Great mercies for a world in need of mercy.

The Prayer for December 24, 2017

Holy God, eternal light,
source and goal of all creation:
in the wonder of this night,
you came to us in the child of Bethlehem,
seeking your lost and wounded world,
granting light for our darkness,
hope amidst doubt,
joy amidst sorrow.
Let your grace shine upon us
that we may receive you with open hearts
and know the fullness of your presence.

The Texts for December 24, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7,
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” – the prophet promises the end of war and the birth of a royal son in whom will come peace.

Second Reading: Isaiah 11:1-9
“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
– The prophet heralds a coming king who shall bring perfect peace to the world.”

Gospel: Luke 2:1-20
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” – Into the world of Roman dominion and power, a new Lord is born.

The Prayer for December 25, 2015

Almighty and ever-living God,
in the mystery of the incarnation
you have entered into the fabric of our world
to find what is lost,
to gather what is scattered,
to unite what is broken,
to illumine what is darkened,
to heal what is wounded,
to bring to life what is bound in death.
Grant us wisdom, courage and faith
to receive your Son as he comes to us as your Word made flesh:
child of Bethlehem;
prophet and teacher of Nazareth;
crucified and risen Lord;
Immanuel, God with us.

The Texts for December 25, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 55:10-12
“You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.” – Like grain sown into the soil, God’s promise will bear fruit: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty.”

Second Reading: Hebrews 1:1-3a
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”
– The opening of the book of Hebrews proclaiming the work of God in Christ.

Gospel: John 1:1-14
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John’s Gospel begins with a rich and wondrous hymn that identifies Christ Jesus with

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALacura2.JPG By Lacura (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Pregnant with what is to come

File:Any day now (3423098686).jpg

Watching for the Morning of December 24, 2017

Year B

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Sunday presents us with a morning service for the fourth Sunday in Advent – and then, that evening, the Christmas Eve service. After worship on Sunday morning we will have to flip all the decorations from Advent blue to the gold and white of Christmas. But already the harpsichord and other instruments will be in place, already the angel will look down upon Mary as she kneels in waiting before the altar, already Joseph will stand in watch – as if the morning were pregnant with what is to come.

Such is the Advent season: pregnant with what is to come. And such is Christian faith: pregnant with what is to come. You can hear the heartbeat of the reign of God. We have a sonogram with a fuzzy image of the life we await. There are changes already in the appearance of the world. Our lives are being restructured by the day to come.

Sunday morning we will hear Nathan speak God’s promise to David that Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” It is a promise that ran into the hard realities of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. For nearly 600 years the royal line was all but gone. There was no palace, no throne, no royal court. A few governors at first, Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel, but the kingship was gone. There were brief flashes of independence, but not the line of David. The Hasmoneans were priests, and though Herod the Great was called a king, he wasn’t even from Judah. He was Idumean.

But now here is Gabriel speaking to a peasant woman not yet gone to live with her husband, telling of a child to be born who “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Birth pangs are upon the world. The day of grace is coming.

The Prayer for December 24, 2017

Eternal God, Breath of Life,
Font of Hope, and our Eternal Joy;
Open the doors of our hearts, and the gates of your mercy
to come into our world and our lives,
and bring your radiance to all creation.

The Texts for December 24, 2017

First Reading: 2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16
“Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’” – When David seeks to build a temple for God, God declares he has it backwards: it isn’t David who builds a house for God, but God who builds a house (a dynastic line) for David.

Psalmody: Isaiah 12:2-6, (appointed: Luke 1:46-55 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26)
“With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”
– the prophet sings a song of thanksgiving, anticipating the day of God’s redemption.

Second Reading: Romans 16.25-27
“Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ.”
– A hymnic conclusion to Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome celebrates the mystery now revealed of God’s purpose to gather all people into Christ.

Gospel: Luke 1:26-38
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph.” – The angel Gabriel invades Mary’s home and presents her with the news that she will give birth to the heir of David’s throne.

+   +   +

During Advent our parish departs from the appointed psalms and sings Isaiah 51:4-11, the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and Isaiah 12 on the four Sundays. We also adjust the readings between the Sundays to allow for the celebration of a children’s Christmas program during worship in Advent. Next Sunday we will read Mark’s account of John the Baptist that is assigned for today.

During Advent we provide daily verses and brief reflections that can be found by following this link to Advent 2017.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAny_day_now_(3423098686).jpg By Aurimas Mikalauskas from Paliūniškis, Lithuania (Any day now) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Flooded with Joy

File:Leather bucket of a well.jpg

Watching for the Morning of December 17, 2017

Year B

The Third Sunday of Advent

“The LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus uses our first reading for this Sunday as the text in his sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth. The message will be simple: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It is the language of the jubilee year when every debt is wiped away and all things restored. It is, in the mouth of the prophet, a promise of the return from exile and the rebuilding of their life in the land. It is, in the life of the church, a promise of that day when all things are made new. Everlasting joy.

Joy ripples through our worship this Sunday. It is the day once known as “Gaudete Sunday” from the ancient introit: “Gaudete in Domino semper…,” “Rejoice in the Lord always” from Philippians 4:4-6. We will hear similar words in our second reading that begins with the exhortation to “Rejoice always.” We will hear joy in the song of Mary, the Magnificat. And it is reverberates through the proclamation with which Mark begins his account of Jesus: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The runner has come from the battlefield to announce that the city is saved. The enemy is fallen. Our long awaited king comes to wash us in the Spirit.

Every translation of which I am aware says that the one who is coming will ‘baptize’ us in the Spirit. And, yes, the Greek word in the text is taken into English to give us the word ‘baptism’. But, for us, the word ‘baptism’ is almost exclusively a church word. We might refer to a baptism by fire, but we would never say that drowning sailors are being baptized. The Greek word was not a religious word, and if we take it out of the religious realm for a minute, we might hear something of the true drama of this promise: The coming one will wash us in the Spirit. The coming one will immerse us in the Spirit. The coming one will drown us in the Spirit. The coming one will drench us in the Spirit. The coming one will flood us with the Spirit. The coming one will shower the spirit upon us.

In a world often immersed in hate and fear, violence and deceit, here is the promise that we will be immersed in the Spirit of God. We will be awash in grace. We will be showered with compassion. Good news will be announced to the poor. Liberty will be proclaimed to the captive. We will be flooded with joy.

The Prayer for December 17, 2017

Eternal God, Breath of Life,
Font of Hope, and our Eternal Joy;
Open the doors of our hearts, and the gates of your mercy
to come into our world and our lives,
and fill us with the joy of your presence.

The Texts for December 17, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 61.1-11 (appointed: 61.1-4, 8-11)
“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” –
The prophet describes his ministry as announcing a jubilee year, when all debts are forgiven and all lands restored.

Psalmody: Luke 1:46-55, the Song of Mary (the Magnificat)
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” – Mary sings with joy of God’s coming deliverance when she is greeted by Elizabeth whose unborn child already recognizes their coming Lord.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
– Paul concludes his letter to the believers in Thessalonica with a series of exhortations about their life together as they wait for Christ’s return and the consummation of God’s dawning reign.

Gospel: Mark 1.1-8
“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” – Mark begins his Gospel with the language of royal decree and the prophetic words of John pointing to the one who will wash the world in the Holy Spirit.

+   +   +

The appointed texts for December 17, 2017

Psalm: Psalm 126, (Luke 1:46-55 is an alternate for the psalm)
“Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
– The poet remembers the joy of their restoration to the land, and prays now that God would refresh the land anew with rain and abundant harvest.

Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” – The wealthy and powerful leaders in Jerusalem send representatives to discern whether John represents a threat to revolt against their rule, and seem satisfied that he is “only” a prophetic voice. They fail to hear his message that the coming one is already here.

+   +   +

During Advent our parish departs from the appointed psalms and sings Isaiah 51:4-11, the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and Isaiah 12 on the four Sundays. We also adjust the readings between the Sundays to allow for the celebration of a children’s Christmas program during worship in Advent. Next Sunday we will read Mark’s account of John the Baptist that is assigned for today.

During Advent we provide daily verses and brief reflections that can be found by following this link to Advent 2017.

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALeather_bucket_of_a_well.jpg By Neogeolegend (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons