We will go with him

 

Watching for the Morning of February 23, 2020

Year A

The Feast of the Transfiguration

Sunday is the last of the Alleluias.  By tradition, they are omitted during Lent; we do not sing them again until the cry goes out: “Christ is risen!” and the darkness turns to light in that night that dawns into Easter morning.

Sunday we are on the mountain peak.  The cloud of God’s presence surrounds Jesus and he is made radiant by God’s glory.  It is a vision that confirms the word spoken at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”  It is a vindication of all that Jesus has said and will yet say.  “Listen to him,” the heavenly voice says.  Listen to him.  Dare to hear what he says about the cross and resurrection.  Dare to follow him to Jerusalem.  Dare to see the arms stretched wide and the blood outpoured.  Dare to trust the word of the women who will see the vision of angels and the empty tomb.  Dare to trust and live the redemption of the world that happens here where shame is suffered and mercy given.  Listen to him.

Sunday we are made ready for our Lenten journey.  In our first reading we are reminded of Moses ascending into the cloud of God’s presence at Sinai.  In the psalm, we hear the divine voice say of the king “You are my son; today I have begotten you,” words that gain their fullest meaning as they are spoken of the lamb who shall reign over a world made new.  We hear the author of 2 Peter testify to their vision: “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”  And we will hear Matthew’s account of that moment, and how Jesus came and touched Peter, James, and John, telling them not to be afraid.

There is a path ahead that is full of wonder and mystery that Jesus’ followers will not fully understand until the Spirit beats in every heart.  But we are made ready for the journey.  This is God’s beloved.  And we will go with him from death into life.

The Prayer for February 23, 2020

Holy and Wondrous God,
hidden in mystery yet revealed in your Son, Jesus,
of whom the law and prophets bear witness
and upon whom your splendor shines:
Help us to hear his voice
and see your glory in his outstretched arms;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.
Amen

The Texts for February 23, 2020

First Reading: Exodus 24:12-18
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.’” – God speaks to Moses from the cloud on Mt. Sinai.  Both the cloud as a symbol of God’s presence and the tradition that Moses’ face shone from speaking to God face to face lie in the background of today’s Gospel narrative of the transfiguration of Jesus.

Psalmody: Psalm 2
“Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?” – A royal psalm that contains a declaration by God to the king “You are my son; today I have begotten you” similar to that spoken by God to Jesus in the story of the transfiguration.

Second Reading: 2 Peter 1:16-21
“He received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
– The author of 2 Peter alludes to the events on the Mount of the Transfiguration.

Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9
“He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” – After Peter has confessed Jesus as the Christ only to be told that the Messiah must suffer and be killed, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on the mountain where they have a visionary experience of Jesus transfigured by the radiant presence of God.

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Image: dkbonde

When the fire of love no longer burns brightly

File:Salt from Timbuktu.jpg

Watching for the Morning of February 9, 2020

Year A

The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Three years ago, I wrote that Jesus spoke these words about being salt and light to the “poor”:

Jesus is talking to rural villagers, not the Jerusalem elite.  He is talking to those who are poor, mourning and hungering for the world to be set right.  He is talking to refugees in the camps when doors are shut.  He is talking to mothers and children scratching out their existence in the rubble of wars.  He is talking to those in fear of uniforms unrestrained by any law.  He is talking to those who know hunger and thirst.  “You are the salt that burns bright the fire of God.  You are the light that is set on a stand.”

I wonder, now, how those words should be heard among those on the other end of the social pyramid.  Is there grace here, or only judgment?  Is Jerusalem the city set on a hill that cannot be hid?  Is it from the judgment of God the governing authorities cannot hide?  Jerusalem was not a shining beacon of hope; it had become the center of an unjust and impoverishing rule.  Jesus’ scathingly condemns the governing elite in Matthew 23, weeping over the city before predicting its fall.  The authorities choose Rome over the promised kingdom of God and hand Jesus over as a terrorist.

The salt of which Jesus speaks is the salt slab used at the base of an earthen oven that burns dung as fuel.  Salt serves as a catalyst for the fire, letting it burn hot enough to bake the bread that sustains the poor.  Eventually, the slab loses its ability to catalyze the fire.  It doesn’t “lose its taste,” as our translation suggests.  The literal meaning of the Greek word means for the salt to become ‘foolish’.  We should translate it as ‘insipid’ or ‘worthless’, not ‘tasteless’.  A people in whom the fire of divine grace and mercy no longer burns brightly are useful for nothing but stepping stones in the mud.  Those who would hide the justice of God as a lamp beneath a basket are the truly foolish.

To call someone a fool is a serious charge in the biblical world.  It means they have ignored the fundamental truths of existence.  As someone who ignores gravity is a fool, so is the one who ignores the moral and spiritual realities of human life.

“The fool speaks folly, and his mind plots iniquity: to practice ungodliness, to utter error concerning the LORD, to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied, and to deprive the thirsty of drink.” (Isaiah 32:6)

When the psalmist says: “The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God’” (Psalm 53:1), the point has little to do with religious observances; it concerns the failure to recognize the divine imperative to do justice and mercy.  The ‘fool’ doesn’t ignore church but our essential humanity.

The ‘fool’ doesn’t see Lazarus at the gate.  The ‘fool’ builds bigger barns and stores up riches rather than sharing with those in need.  The ‘fool’ doesn’t care for the sick or feed the hungry or clothe the naked.

The ‘fool’ corrupts the courts.   The ‘fool’ chooses revenge.  The ‘fool’ embraces lies and deceit.  “Like one who binds the stone in the sling is he who gives honor to a fool,” says Proverbs 26:8.  Honoring a fool is like handing over a loaded gun.

What shall we say to the foolish who would hide the justice of God as a lamp beneath a basket?

The grieving parent recognizes the folly of war, the dispossessed the folly of greed, the abused the folly of injustice, the hungry the folly of hardened hearts.  All these understand that you don’t put a lamp under a bushel, and that there is no other place but the mud for a slab that does not help the fires of love burn brightly.

The Prayer for February 9, 2020

Gracious God,
you have appointed your people to be in the world
as the fire and light of your justice and mercy.
Fill us with your Holy Spirit,
and shape our lives by your Word,
that through lives of faith, hope, and love
we may bear witness to your reign;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for February 9, 2020

First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-12
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” – In the hardscrabble life after the return from Exile, God confronts the complaint of the people that God has not answered their prayers by challenging the goal of those prayers.  They have sought advantage for themselves rather than to live God’s justice and mercy.

Psalmody: Psalm 112:1-10
“Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.” –  A description of the righteous who rest securely in God and the blessing they bring to the world, giving freely to the poor and conducting “their affairs with justice.”

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 2:1-12
“Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom.” –
Having challenged the Corinthians desire for human eloquence and wisdom, Paul writes of the wisdom of God that is so different from the wisdom of this age – the truth of sacrificial love hidden in Christ crucified

Gospel: Matthew 5:13-16 (appointed: Matthew 5:13-20)
“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” – Comparing his followers with salt and light, Jesus summons the community of Israel (and his disciples) back to their calling as the medium through which God brings blessing/healing to the world.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Salt_from_Timbuktu.jpg Robin Elaine [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

He saw two brothers casting a net into the sea

File:COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Een visser uit Konga gereed voor het uitwerpen van zijn net TMnr 60007344.jpg

Watching for the Morning of January 26, 2020

Year C

The Third Sunday after Epiphany:

John is arrested.  When Jesus hears, he moves from Nazareth to Capernaum.  His move ties him yet again to the prophetic word. “In the former times,” reads the text from Isaiah,

“the Lord brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.”

Nazareth is in Zebulun; Capernaum in Naphtali.  These are the tribal regions that, in the time of Isaiah, first felt the tramping boots of the Assyrian army and were led away into exile beneath the smoke from the fires of war. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” writes the prophet.

Christ comes.

Then, walking along the shore, he summons four fishermen to come with him.

Demonstrations arise easily in that culture, and a complaint is strengthened by a crowd.  But Jesus isn’t on the march to redress some wrong.  Jesus is on the march to change the world.  Peter and Andrew, James and John, will still be fishermen, only now they are not hauling in nets of the captured, they are setting the world free: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

Sunday we hear the familiar call story at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  But the story begins in Isaiah with the prophetic declaration “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”  This is the season of light, of Christ made manifest to the nations.  The star and the magi linger.  So we will hear the prophet, and with the psalmist we will sing: “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” and Jesus will meet us at our nets and issue his summons to follow as God sets right the world.

And alongside this dawning light, alongside this call to join the movement, Paul will warn us about divisions and point us to the proclamation of the cross – a message that may look like foolishness but is “the power of God,” the healing of the world.

The Prayer for January 26, 2020

Gracious God,
you call us to follow your Son Jesus in lives of witness and love.
Form our hearts and minds by your Holy Spirit
that we may ever rejoice in the freedom of your grace
and be faithful in our calling as your voice and hands in the world.

The Texts for January 26, 2020

First Reading: Isaiah 9:1-4
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” – In the aftermath of war, the prophet speaks to announce the dawning of a new day when “the rod of their oppressor” has been broken.

Psalmody: Psalm 27:1-6 (appointed:  Psalm 27:1, 4-9)
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” – A song of confident trust in God.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” –
Paul takes up the problem of a community divided into parties defined by various teachers, centering them instead in the message of the cross.

Gospel: Matthew 4:12-23
“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” – Matthew describes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Capernaum as a fulfillment of the Isaiah text for Sunday, then relates the summoning of Andrew, Peter, James and John.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:COLLECTIE_TROPENMUSEUM_Een_visser_uit_Konga_gereed_voor_het_uitwerpen_van_zijn_net_TMnr_60007344.jpg  Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.

File:Z cyklu Podivuhodné krajiny - Japonsko (1989).jpg

Watching for the Morning of December 8, 2019

Year A

The Second Sunday of Advent

Stunning words come to us this Sunday.  Our reading from Isaiah will proclaim that “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse.” The fallen royal line, named from David’s father, shall bloom again.  “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him.”  He will be filled with wisdom and girded with faithfulness to God and the people.  And then come those sweet, ecstatic, words that under his governance:

6The wolf shall live with the lamb,
….the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
….and a little child shall lead them.
7The cow and the bear shall graze,
….their young shall lie down together;
….and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
….and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9They will not hurt or destroy
….on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD 
….as the waters cover the sea.

A world without violence.  A world like Eden.  A world restored to its primal innocence.  A creation made new.

We look at the bloodshed on earth, the betrayals of allies, the enduring hatreds of ancient animosities, the violence of speech and thought, the violence that manifests itself even in schools and churches, and such words are sweet indeed.  We can escape all this.  There will be a day…

From Isaiah we will turn to the Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah at the birth of his son, John – who we know as John the Baptist.  We will hear Zechariah’s joy at the coming fulfilment of God’s promise.

68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
….for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69He has raised up a mighty savior for us
….in the house of his servant David,
70as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

Zechariah will then sing of his son’s calling:

you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
….for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77to give knowledge of salvation to his people
….by the forgiveness of their sins.
78By the tender mercy of our God,
….the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
….to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Salvation, healing, wholeness, peace – God’s shalom is coming.

And we will hear John preach in the Gospel for the day.  Coming in fulfillment of the prophetic promises, dressed like a prophet of old, out in the wilderness beyond the Jordan where Israel once waited to enter the promised land, John will call the nation to new beginnings, to preparation, to living in anticipation of that day when all things are made new.

It will carry the sound of warning.  The ax is ready.  Trees that bear no fruit will be cut down.  But also promise.  God is able to raise faithful children even from stones.  The world is about to be awash in the Spirit.

The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.

The Prayer for December 8, 2019

Holy and Gracious God,
our breath of life and everlasting joy,
who gathers all things into your eternal embrace:
fill all creation with the light of your love
and the knowledge of your will;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for December 8, 2019

First Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
– Like new growth from the stump of a felled tree, a new king shall arise from the fallen line of David, a king filled with the Spirit of God, who will govern in righteousness and bring all creation to peace.

Psalmody: Luke 1:68-79 (The Benedictus)
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” – In place of the appointed Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, we sing the song of Zechariah, sung at the birth of his son, John, whom we know as John the Baptist, praising God and predicting his role as the one who “will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.

Second Reading: Romans 15:4-9 (appointed, verses 4-13)
“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” –
Speaking to that fundamental divide between observant Judeans and those who had become thoroughly enmeshed in the culture of the Greek world, between ‘Judean’ and ‘Gentile’, Paul calls for the believers to live the reconciliation that has occurred in Christ, giving multiple examples from the Scriptures in support of God’s mission to gather all nations.

Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
– John comes as a prophet of old, heralding the dawning of God’s reign and calling all people to ‘repent’, to turn and show allegiance to God.

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(If you are interested, daily reflections for this season are posted at Holy Seasons)

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© David K. Bonde
Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Z_cyklu_Podivuhodn%C3%A9_krajiny_-_Japonsko_(1989).jpg  Zdeněk Thoma [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

The bright vision

Watching for the Morning of November 3, 2019

Year C

All Saints Sunday

(I’m returning from a sabbatical this week, driving home from my Father’s into a state I know is aflame.  This reflection from 2013 fits the texts for Sunday even though, at first blush, it seems perhaps a little too cheerful.  Or simplistic.  But there is nothing simplistic about biblical faith.  It knows we live in a broken world, sometimes stumbling but generally fleeing its maker.  Biblical faith is not surprised by famine or flame.  It is not surprised by marching armies or hateful speech.  It is not surprised when religious leaders defend the king against God.  Biblical faith understands the fallen world.  But still it sings – for it also understands the faithfulness of God.)

There is a thread running through the readings this Sunday: a line in Daniel that the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom; a line in the psalm that God adorns the humble with victory; a portion of the Ephesians reading ending with the hymnic declaration that God has put all things under Christ’s feet; and the promise of God’s blessing upon the poor, the hungry and the grieving.  The texts, as diverse as they are, share a confidence in the purpose of God to rescue God’s fallen world and restore all things.

But there are troubling things in these texts, too: notes of judgment, sounds of vengeance, reflecting a world divided between a wealthy few and a powerless and hungry many, a world of mighty empires and suffering peasants.  In the case of Daniel, it is an empire determined to rid Israel of traditional faith and practice.  People were put to death for circumcising their children, or not eating pork, or keeping Sabbath.

The feast day of All Saints started out like a tomb of the unknown soldier, a day to remember the nameless martyrs tortured and killed by Rome for holding to a faith that claimed there was some other Lord than Caesar.  It would become a day to honor all those saints who did not have their own feast day on the Christian calendar.  Ultimately, for Reformation churches, it became a day to remember all the faithful who had passed into glory, all those who had held fast to a hope in a God who comes to the aid of those in need and sets right the world.

All Saints looks blinkingly on the bright vision of God’s ultimate triumph over sin and death and echoes with the joy of heaven.  It sustains those still engaged in the struggle to bear faithful witness to the way of God in our broken and troubled world.  And it reminds us all that we are not alone: “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witness.”  Like the crowd cheering runners in a great race, the saints above cheer us on.

The Prayer for All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2019

You are our beginning, O God, and you are our end;
You are our hope and you are our path.
Sustain us in your grace that we may live as children of your kingdom
until that day when all heaven and earth are joined
in a single song of praise.

The texts for All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2019 (assigned for All Saints Day, November 1)

First Reading: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
“Four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever.”
 – Writing to the time of the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes IV, the author uses the Daniel traditions to call the community to faithfulness.  Four terrible beasts represent four beastly empires, but these will be judged and “one like a son of man,” a humane empire, God’s empire, will dawn.

Psalmody: Psalm 149
“Let Israel be glad in its Maker; let the children of Zion rejoice in their King.” –  A hymn celebrating God as king, freeing God’s “humble” people and vanquishing the kings of earth.

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:11-23
“That…you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.”
– The author’s prayer for the fledgling believers near Ephesus celebrating the work of God in Christ.

Gospel: Luke 6:20-31
“Blessed are you who are poor… woe to you who are rich.” – Jesus declares the poor honored in God’s sight and the wealthy elite shameful and calls on his followers to live out the values of God’s reign: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”

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Image: dkbonde: Desert light, Stansbury Mountains, Utah

The heart of the universe is calling our name

File:Sagrada Familia, interior (21) (31130118082).jpg

This message was given on the Sunday after Easter.  The text was John 20:19-31, telling of Jesus’ appearance to his followers on Sunday evening and, because Thomas was absent and refused to accept the testimony of the others, Jesus’ appearance the subsequent Sunday evening when Thomas was present.  But the message also looks back to the reading from Easter Sunday, John 20:1-18, concerning the discovery of the empty tomb and Jesus’ encounter with Mary.

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Before I begin this morning, it’s important to say that it’s hard to talk about anything in John’s Gospel without talking about everything.  The themes of John’s Gospel weave in and out, forming an amazing tapestry. What happens at the end is connected to the beginning and flows through everything in between.  This is not a collection of stories about Jesus, but a single, large, wondrous canvas seeking to portray for us the face of the infinite.

The open door

The text we have before us this morning from the Gospel of John is the second half of the story we began to read last Sunday on Easter morning, so I want to go back a bit and talk about what has already happened.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is given a royal burial.  Joseph of Arimathea gets permission from Pilate to take up the body of Jesus, and Nicodemus brings a hundred pounds of a perfumed oil with which to anoint the body. Remember the small jar that Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, used to anoint Jesus’ feet?  It was worth a year’s wages.   Nicodemus has a hundred pounds!  This is a burial fit for a king!

So, Jesus receives a royal burial in a new tomb in a garden. (On Good Friday, we mentioned the significance of John calling this a ‘garden’, because the biblical story begins in a garden.)  This burial happens on Friday before sunset.  Now, at Sunday dawn, while everyone is still “in the dark” about Jesus, Mary comes to the tomb.  John wants us to just focus on Mary.  He has pared away all the other elements of the story.  She has not brought spices, there are no other women, there is just Mary and the open tomb.

There is something here we struggle to put into words.  John is always aware there is a surface meaning to his narrative and a deeper one; how shall we articulate that deeper reality this moment represents?  Mary is standing alone before the mystery at the heart of the universe: here where death reigns, a door stands open.  What does she see?

By stripping away all the other elements, John is placing each of us in that garden facing the majesty and mystery of the cosmos.  We each stand before that open door.  We each stand before the silence.  We each stand before the darkness of the tomb.  And what do we see?

Matthew, Mark and Luke all choose to say that the stone was ‘rolled’ away – and that is the way these tombs are built.  They carve out a cave and provide a small opening wih a large, wheel-shaped stone that rolls into a slot to seal the tomb.  John, however, says the stone was ‘lifted’.  No words are used casually in John, and this word ‘lifted’ is the word John used at the beginning of his Gospel when John the Baptist says of Jesus, Here is the Lamb of God who takes away (literally, ‘lifts away’)the sin of the world!

Something has been lifted off the back of human existence. The shame of all humanity has been lifted. The shroud of death is lifted. Our sins are lifted. The fierce grip of death has been broken.  The tears that define us are wiped away.  The new wine of the wedding feast stands ready.  The lame walk.  The blind see.

At the heart of the universe is Life.  God is the open door, the new creation, the font of grace, the imperishable Life.

Only the ordinary

Something happens as Mary stands there before the tomb.  Something happens as we stand there before the face of the eternal.

But then we are pulled back to the ordinary.  Mary doesn’t “see” what stands before her.  She doesn’t understand.  She runs to Peter and the beloved disciple saying: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  It is, for Mary, as it was for Nicodemus in the night.  When Nicodemus heard Jesus say that he must be born anew, he was stuck in the ordinary.  He could only imagine a physical birth.  He knew there was something deep and profound in Jesus, he was groping towards that truth, but then his mind pulled him back to earth.  “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  In the same way here, Mary falls back into the ordinary; the physical body of Jesus has been removed: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

John doesn’t tell us who she thinks has taken the body.  Presumably she thinks it is the leadership that arranged for Jesus’ death, but that information would lead us away from the mystery into the realm of the ordinary, so John doesn’t distract us with that information.  We just have Mary and the lifted stone and the mystery.

So Mary sees the stone lifted but falls back onto the ordinary.  She goes to Peter and the other disciple and they race to the tomb. The beloved disciple is portrayed as quicker afoot – and quicker to see and believe – but Peter is given his due as the first one into the empty tomb.  They find the linen wrappings, but John tells us they do not yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead.

“Why are you weeping?”

After the two men leave, Mary remains.  She is weeping.  The body is missing.  Jesus has been robbed of the possibility of resurrection on that final day when all the dead are raised.  The obligation to bury the dead is supreme in the ancient world because the bones provide the frame God uses for the resurrection.  Your bones retain your identity, your personality, your story. The idea of scattering the bones of your conquered enemy is to destroy them completely, so they cannot rise at the resurrection.  Without the bones there is no future.

Without the bones there is no future.  Mary is stuck in the ordinary.

Then Mary bends to look into the tomb and, through her tears, sees two angels who ask the penetrating question: “Woman, why are you weeping?”

Questions in John’s Gospel are meant to push us towards insight.  And this is a profound question: “Why are you weeping?”   It is not just a question posed to Mary; it is posed to us all.  It is not a question about the natural human emotion of grief.  It is an existential question about our understanding of the world.

Is Mary weeping because she has lost a friend and teacher?  Does she not understand who Jesus is?  Does she not understand that he is the embodiment of the eternal word? Does she does not understand that he is the source and goal of all life?  (He is “the way, the truth and the life.”)  Does she not understand that all things belong to Life?

Do we not understand the power of life that vibrates through all things?  Do we not understand that matter itself is, rather literally, vibrating energy.  All around us the universe pulses with life.  Go, stand outside, and look.  The grass, the ground beneath it, the trees above it, the air around it – it all vibrates with life.)

“All things came into being through him,”says John at the beginning of his Gospel, “and without him nothing was made.”  “In him was life and the life was the light of all people.”  “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” “We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only son of the Father.” 

Do we not see?

“What are you looking for?” 

Mary answers the angels in a very mundane way: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  She is stuck, like Nicodemus, on the surface of things.  And so she does not recognize Jesus until he calls her name.

She doesn’t realize the risen Christ is present.  She imagines she is talking to a gardener.  And Jesus asks the same double-edged question, “Woman, why are you weeping?”But then Jesus adds: “Whom are you looking for?”

This question takes us back to the beginning of John’s Gospel and the very first words Jesus speaks: two disciples of John the Baptist hear him say that Jesus is the Lamb of God, (the lamb of God who liftsaway the sin of the world) and they follow him.  Jesus turns and asks them: “what are you looking for?”

This is the fundamental human question.  “What do you seek?”  “What are you looking for?”  “Towards what is your life oriented?”  “What path are you following?”  And here, in the garden, Jesus changes the question to “Whom do you seek?”  It’s not a thing we need; it’s a person, a presence, a life.

But Mary is still stuck in the ordinary, and so she answers,“Sir, if you have carried him away [if you have liftedhim!], tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  She is stuck in the literal that cannot imagine a birth from above. She is stuck in the literal that cannot see how water is transformed into wine or tears into joy.  She is stuck in the literal that cannot understand a blind man seeing or a lame man walking. She is stuck in the literal that cannot imagine that there is anything more in the feeding of the five thousand than five thousand full bellies.  She doesn’t see the bread of life and the healing of the world.

Outside the tomb, Mary knows only her grief, her loss, the cruelty of events, the limits of the ordinary, the finality of death.  She does not see the divine presence; she does not see a world radiant with life – until Jesus calls her name.

“Mary”

What is it that we hope happens in worship?   Why do we persist in reading these words and telling these stories and helping them connect with our lives?  Because the heart of the universe is calling our name.  We are here to see the divine presence; the power, the life that vibrates through all existence.  We want the world to see grace, to see mercy cast upon the world like a sower sowing seed. We want all creation to see the extravagance of God, to taste the bounty of God.  We want all existence to see, even in the darkest days, that we are immersed in light.

We come to hear God call our name.

This is not like school where we are shrinking down in our seats hoping not to get called upon. This is not like a parent calling for us to do some chore or account for some wrong.  This is the most gentle of kisses.  It is the calling of our name that brings us back into the arms of love. It is the calling of our name that fills our hearts with light and life.

“Mary,” says Jesus. Jesus speaks her name, and immediately she is drawn into Christ.

Thomas

So now it is evening and Jesus appears and shows himself.  He speaks peace.  He brings peace.  He conveys peace.  And he breathes out his Spirit upon his followers.  They are sent.  They are now in the world as the living presence of Jesus.  They are now light and life in the world.  They are grace and mercy.  They are truth and compassion.  They are fidelity and hope.

They are not an army sent to conquer the world.  They are the voice sent to speak every name.

But Thomas is not there. He did not see the hands.  He did not hear the word of peace.  He did not feel the breath of God.  He is bound in the realm of the ordinary.  And how can he show allegiance to light and life when he cannot see it.  How can he show allegiance to grace and peace when all he sees is the shame and sorrow of the cross? How can he show allegiance to loving one another when he sees only brutality and suffering?  How can he live the life that is eternal when he sees only death?

Thomas was not there. But Jesus does not leave him behind. Jesus comes again the next Sunday. He speaks the word of peace.  And then he turns to Thomas.  He offers his hands and his side.  He summons him to not be faithless, but faithful.  And Thomas hears his name.  He sees.  He yields his life.  He recognizes his risen lord and the face of the divine.

Us

We are here to see the wounded hands in the bread.  We are here to stand before the great mystery of existence.  We are here to bend and look into the empty tomb and answer the questions why we weep and what we seek.  We are here to see that all existence radiates with grace and life. We are here to hear the voice of the divine call our name.

Amen

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https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sagrada_Familia,_interior_(21)_(31130118082).jpgRichard Mortel from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

Like those who lift infants

During my sabbatical I have the chance to be present in worship as a hearer rather than the preacher. It’s not always easy to stay quiet…

jacob_limping

“I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.” (Hosea 11:4)

Sunday, I just wanted to crawl back into bed.  I was haunted, Saturday, by the news of the shooting in El Paso, and woke, Sunday, to the news of the shooting in Dayton.  It still weighs heavily on my heart – for the victims, for their families, for the shooter’s family, for the spiritual poverty of the nation, for the brokenness of the world.  If I hadn’t already made a plan to attend a neighboring church, I wouldn’t have had the resolve to find a place to worship; I would have gone back to bed.

It felt good to sit down in the pew.  It was good to see the altar, the reading desk, the familiar elements of traditional churches. This is a place where grace happens. This is a place where the cries of the heart are…

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My Father is still working

File:Cornus florida 02 by Line1.jpgA reflection on John 5:1-9 and Revelation 21:9-10, 22-22:5 (the texts for Easter 6 C) on the occasion of my grandson’s first Sunday in worship and the first step towards his baptism.

There are a couple things I need to say about our texts before I share with you what I have written for this morning.  This passage from John is an amazing narrative.  The man has suffered for 38 years.  When asked whether he wishes to be made whole, he answers by saying he has no one to help him into the water.  The legend held that an angel would occasionally descend and stir the water and the first person into the pool would be healed.  But this man has no one.  His answer expresses brokenness and despair.  He has no hope of healing.  He has no community, no family, no friends, no one to care for him – until Jesus finds him.  And Jesus does find him. 

The leadership of the nation responds to this wondrous healing by criticizing the man for carrying his mat on the Sabbath.  We didn’t read this part.  We should have, but that would have required us to read the whole chapter.  But it is important to note this because religious people are often this way.  We respond to God’s wondrous work with nitpicking and legalism.  He’s not supposed to work on the Sabbath and carrying your mat is defined as work.

The conflict over the Sabbath is the central element of this narrative.  When Jesus, himself, is criticized for working on the Sabbath, he answers by saying, among other things, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.”  The leadership of the nation imagined God’s work of creating was over.  God had created for six days and now God was ‘resting’.  But Jesus declares that God is still at work.  God is still creating — and God’s work is a work of healing.  God is working to make us whole.  God is working to make the world whole.

Sometimes it needs to be said that God is still at work.

Our second reading was the vision of the New Jerusalem given to John of Patmos.  It is a vision of the world made healed and restored.  At the time John writes, the earthly city has been destroyed by rebellion and war.  Rome has crushed it.  But at the consummation of human history, in that day when all human rebellion is overcome and all things are made new, in that day the heavenly counterpart of the earthly city descends to earth.  And though we don’t get the measurements of the city in our portion of the reading, the city is a giant cube some 1,200 to 1,500 miles across and high. The reason it measures as a perfect cube is that the holy of holies inside the temple, where God was present, was a perfect cube.  The world is now the holy of holies where God dwells.  The consummation of human history is God coming to dwell with us.

Sometimes it needs to be said that God is still at work – and that God’s purpose is to dwell in our midst.

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As you know, my daughter and her husband are here this morning and we are doing a rite of blessing in anticipation of a baptism that will happen later where they live.

There are things I want to tell Finn, but he is not ready to hear them.  I want to tell him about the beauty and grandeur of the world around us.  I want to tell him about the Grand Canyon and the waterfalls at Yosemite in springtime.  I want to take him to the Monterey Aquarium and talk about the mysteries of the deep.  I want him to gaze into the wonder of those tiny flowers in the grass outside and the supple lines and color of a rose.  I want him to watch with wonder the flight of a swallow and the migration of the monarchs and to hear crickets in the evening.  I want him to see how seed turns to sapling turns to towering tree.  I want him to walk among redwoods and see dogwoods in the spring. 

I want him to know the beauty of the world.  I want him to know its goodness before he learns its sorrows.  I want him to play in a soft summer rain before he feels the power of a storm.  I want him to see the wonder of a bird’s nest before he learns that other animals would prey on the babies.  I want him to delight in bunnies in the yard before he worries about hawks overhead.  I want him to know human kindness before he learns of human cruelty.

I want to tell Finn this story we have received of a world conceived in love, of a creation called into being by a divine Word and that God saw and declared all things good and noble and beautiful.  I want to tell him this story that he is made of the dust of the earth and the breath of God.  I want him to know that he was made to live in God’s presence and tend God’s garden – that he was made to live in harmony with all things.

I want Finn to know the goodness before he learns what happened in that garden, how humanity broke faith with God and broke the ties that bind all things together. 

I want Finn to know the beauty of the earth before he tastes its tears.  I want him to know the goodness of family before he learns about Cain and Abel and the bitter envy that tears the human family apart.

And I want Finn to hear the voice of God speaking to Cain, telling him that we can choose kindness and faithfulness.  I want him to know we can choose to listen to the breath of God rather than the murmurings of bitterness and revenge.

There are so many things I want to tell Finn.  I want to tell him of Abraham’s courage in trusting God’s promise, of Isaac’s love for Rebekah, of Jacob the cheat burning all his bridges and wrestling with God at the river Jabbok.  I want to tell him of Joseph who forgave his brothers and Moses who stood before the burning bush.  I want to tell him about Pharaoh’s hardness of heart and God’s determination to bring freedom to both the oppressors and the oppressed.  I want to tell him about Sinai and the wilderness and the radical notion that God is a god who travels with us, that God is not a god of rock and stream but a God of love and mercy.  

I want to tell him of the prophets.  I want to tell him of the psalms of joy and the cries of lament.  I want to tell him of the faithfulness of Ruth and the courage of Esther.  I want to tell him about the gifts and call of God.  And I want to tell him about the child of Nazareth, the song of the angels and the message given to shepherds.  I want to tell him about the boy Jesus in the temple and the grown man at the Jordan.  I want to tell him about the words he spoke and the things he did.  I want to tell him about Zacchaeus in the tree and the woman at the well and the banquet in the wilderness that fed five thousand families with twelve baskets left over.

I want to tell him about the empty tomb and the gift of the spirit and the dawn of God’s new creation in the world and in us.  

I want him to know about the women at the tomb and Mary, the first witness.  I want him to know about the boldness of Philip baptizing the Ethiopian Eunuch and Peter trusting the voice of heaven and baptizing a Roman centurion and family.  I want Finn to know of Lydia and the Philippian jailor bending to wash feet.  I want Finn to know the healing of the world is at hand.

I want to tell Finn about the courage and faithfulness of Perpetua and her companion, Felicity, who were martyred in the arena, and how she guided the executioner’s hand when he faltered.  I want to tell him about Francis of Assisi and Katy Luther and how Bach wrote “Soli Deo Gloria” – wholly to the Glory of God – on all his music.  I want to tell him of all the courageous men and women of faith and this wondrous mystery of the church gathered from every nation on earth to bear witness to the grace and mercy of God.

And I want to tell him about the promise of his baptism and the promise of the table.

I want to know that there is mercy in our sorrows and strength in our challenges and hope, always hope, for the grave is empty and the arms of God are open to us and to all.

I want Finn to know all this.  Even more, I want his parents to tell him these stories.  And I want all of us to tell him these stories.  I want the community of God’s people to uphold him in his journey and to uphold one another as we try to live Christ for the world.  I want us to sing and to pray and to labor side by side in hope and faithfulness, 

I want Finn to hear with us and understand with us this story of Christ and the man at the pool of Beth-zatha.  I want him to know Christ as healer and to know that this is the work of God.  I want him to know the power and promise of Jesus’ statement: “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” 

And I want Finn to hear and understand with all of us the power of this vision of the New Jerusalem, a city without fear, a city whose gates never close, a realm that gathers all that is good and noble of every culture and people, a city shaped like the most holy place – a world that has become the dwelling place of God.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cornus_florida_02_by_Line1.jpg Liné1 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D

Do you want to be made whole?

File:Christhealingthesick.jpgWatching for the Morning of May 26, 2019

Year C

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

The imagery in the reading from Revelation this Sunday is vivid with hope – not the I-wish-it-could-happen hope, but the this-is-what’s-promised confidence. Imagery is imagery. It is a vision not a photograph. It is hope enfleshed in words drawn from human experience. It is a redemption beyond imagining towards which we point with what we can imagine: a city of light, beckoning all peoples; a city whose gates are never closed; a world without darkness or any remnant of the primordial chaos; a realm without war or threat of violence; a gathering of all that is good and noble of every land: “People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.”

We know from elsewhere in the text that the city is 12 times 1,000 stadia on a side (somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 miles wide, long, and high). The city is a perfect cube because the holy of holies was a perfect cube. The city has become the most holy place where God dwells.

The new creation is a city – not an imperial city formed by conquest and plunder, but a human community where people live in peace. From the throne of God flows the river of the water of life, and along its banks grows the tree of life whose leave “are for the healing of the nations. It is a vision of the world made whole. The human heart made whole. The human community restored.

The question Jesus poses to the man at the pool of Beth-Zatha is translated in our text as “Do you want to be made well?” The language is of infirmity and wholeness, of weakness and strength, not the modern idea of disease and healing. We would do well to translate it: “Do you want to be made whole?”

It is a question that should be posed to each of us. Do we want to be made whole or are we satisfied with this world where hearts and bones ache, where families are torn and separated, where hunger and violence stalk? Do we want to be made whole or are we satisfied with a world of tyrants and deceivers great and small? Do we want to be made whole or are we adapted to a world that devours hope?

Do we want to be made whole or are we accustomed to the failings and limitations of our own souls?

Do we want to be made whole or are there comforts enough to dull our conscience?

“Do you want to be made whole?” The man at the pool can imagine no such future. Perhaps we can imagine no such future. But then Christ speaks – and bids us take up our pallet and walk.

The Prayer for May 26, 2019

God of all healing and life,
turn our eyes to your Son Jesus,
our crucified and risen Lord,
that we may receive through him
that life which cannot perish.

The Texts for May 26, 2019

First Reading: Acts 16:6-15 (appointed: vv. 9-15)
“During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” – On his second missionary journey, the plans of Paul and his companions are blocked until they find themselves in the port city of Troas where Paul’s vision leads them across the Aegean to Philippi where they are received by Lydia.

Psalmody: Psalm 67
“May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations.” – A harvest song calling upon all nations to praise God

Second Reading: Revelation 21:9-10; 21:22 – 22:5 (appointed: vv. 21:10; 21:22 – 22:5)
“And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.”
– In the culminating vision of the Book of Revelation, when all things are made new, the prophet sees the heavenly counterpart of the earthly city of Jerusalem descending to replace the city Rome destroyed. From the throne of God flows the river of life, and the tree of life brings healing to the nations.

Gospel: John 5:1-9
“Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids–blind, lame, and paralyzed.” The lame man waits in vain for that moment when the waters of the pool are touched by an angel and the first one in is healed. He has no family or friends to help him into the water. But Jesus finds him.

For the other appointed Gospel for this Sunday, John 14:23-29, see Easter 6 C in 2016.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christhealingthesick.jpg Carl Bloch [Public domain]

The path of life

File:GNM - Fußwaschung.jpgWatching for the Morning of May 19, 2019

Year C

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

The arc of the Easter season moves from the empty tomb towards Pentecost. Last Sunday we turned from the appearances of Jesus whom God has raised to life, to the Good Shepherd who brings life to the world. This Sunday the life-giving shepherd gives his followers the new-life commandment: to love one another. From here we will talk about the Spirit that empowers such love and wait for that mighty breath of God that launches the followers of Jesus out into the world.

Jesus has washed his followers feet. He has shown them the path of life. He has shown them the path he will travel. It is a path that leads from the garden to the tomb to the right hand of God. And he bids us follow: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

The command to love is paired this Sunday with Peter’s account of his vision of the net when the heavenly voice declares: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” ‘Profane’ is an accurate but overly nice a translation. We humans have no trouble regarding others as ‘unclean’. We divide the world easily. Even when we don’t call those who differ from us ‘dirty’, we often treat them as vaguely contagious. So, yes, the word means ‘ritually unclean’, but this isn’t about ritual. It is about those whom we regard as acceptable to God and those who are not. But God welcomes all. Arms wide, robes flapping in the wind, God welcomes all into the divine embrace.

Jesus understands this perfectly. And so he does the ‘unclean’ thing. He takes the ‘unclean’ place. He bends to wash feet. While the followers of Jesus worry about their place at the table, Jesus takes the lowest place. He shows us the path of life. He shows us love of all. He bids us follow.

The second reading sees the promise of God fulfilled. John of Patmos is given a vision. Peering into the heavens, he sees the heavenly Jerusalem descending to earth. The city Rome destroyed is replaced by its perfect counterpart. Radiant and whole, like a bride adorned, the city without tears comes. The earth is become the dwelling place of God and all is made new.

Jesus has washed our feet. He has shown us the path of life. He bids us live the holy city. And with the psalmist, he calls all creation to joy and wonder.

The Prayer for May 19, 2019

Gracious God,
whom all creation praises,
and whose will it is to gather all things into your wide embrace,
pour out upon us your Spirit of love,
that we may follow where you lead
and obey what you command.

The Texts for May 19, 2019

First Reading: Acts 11:1-18
“If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” – Peter faces criticism over his baptism of the Gentile, Cornelius, by recounting the sequence of events leading to his visit and God’s outpouring of the Spirit.

Psalmody: Psalm 148
“Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens.” – The psalmist calls upon all creation to sing God’s praise.

Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-6
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
– In this culminating vision of the Book of Revelation, the prophet sees the earth made new and the heavenly Jerusalem coming to dwell on earth.

Gospel: John 13:31-35
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – On the night of the last Supper, Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment: to love one another.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GNM_-_Fu%C3%9Fwaschung.jpg