A Man under Authority


Luke 7:8

“I also am a man set under authority.”

Historical re-enactor wearing replica equipmen...

Historical re-enactor wearing replica equipment of a late 1st-century centurion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A lot is hiding in that little word ‘also’.

The centurion is a man under authority, but this does not simply mean he is a soldier in a chain of command; he is a link in the chain of patronage that starts with the emperor and ends with the village.  He is able to bring the resources of the emperor to bear for the community.  They look to him for help.  They offer their obedience and obeisance to Rome and he brings the emperor’s gifts to build the synagogue.

The centurion sees that Jesus, also, is a man under authority.  Jesus is a link in the chain that starts with God and ends with God’s people Israel.  He brings God’s gifts.  They show respect and honor to God.

The centurion has not come himself because he has no right to expect anything of Jesus.  He is not part of this particular chain of patronage.  He is not part of Israel.  But the synagogue leaders are part of Israel; they can ask.  So the centurion sends them on his behalf hoping that Jesus will grant this favor to the leaders resulting in the healing of his servant.

If Jesus were a mere healer, a wonder worker, there would be no question of authority, only the techniques of a folk healer manipulating the spiritual realities by means of prayer and incantation.  Such a man the centurion could easily hire or command.  But the centurion doesn’t see a faith healer; he sees a man who, like himself, is under authority.  He sees God’s agent authorized to dispense the gifts of God.

This is why no ritual is needed.  No laying on of hands.  No incantations.  No incense or sacred objects of numinous power.  Jesus doesn’t even need to show up in person.  Jesus need only say the word.  He need only give the nod of the head that opens heaven’s treasury.

This is the faith – the trust and allegiance – that Jesus commends.  The centurion sees truly: the crowd sees a healer, but he sees the agent of God.

So what do we see in Jesus when we come to be met by him on Sunday?  A healer? A helper?  A wonder worker?  A spiritual guide?  Or the authorized agent of God?

The Prayers of All


1 Kings 8

Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes…

English: Toldos Avraham Yitzchok Rebbe during ...

English: Toldos Avraham Yitzchok Rebbe during morning prayers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Solomon asks God to hear the prayers of those beyond the borders of Israel.  I do not know if Solomon understood all the ramifications of that prayer – we seldom do.  I imagine he had in mind that Israel would be glorified if foreigners could find healing from Israel’s God.  His kingdom would be richer, greater, grander.  There is that in the church: people want the congregation to grow so more people can help pay the bills, so that we will look successful, so that we can be proud of our little club.

But God is not a god of a club.  He is Lord of all nations.  Which means he will hear the prayers of all people, whether they are Christians or not, whether they are our kind of Christians or not, whether they are deserving or not.

English: A Muslim raises his hands in Takbir, ...

English: A Muslim raises his hands in Takbir, marking the beginning of his prayers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

God hears the prayers of Obama and Rush Limbaugh alike.  God hears the prayers of Christian and Muslim alike.  God hears the prayers of those who do not pray – or do not know that they pray.  God hears the cry of every human heart.  God hears what is spoken and unspoken.  God hears what is noble and ignoble.  God hears.

And God answers.  Those who are not looking for God’s hand are not likely to see it, of course – or to see it only dimly.  And God’s answers are seldom what we imagine they should be.  But God breathes his Spirit into every corner of the world calling us into his grace and life.  Unfortunately, in too many places, in too many homes, in too many hearts, it is shouted down by fear and greed and despair and chaos and confusion and the constant blare of angry voices.

God answers.  Not as we hoped.  Rarely as we hoped, it seems, for so often our prayers are much too selfish and shortsighted.  But God answers.  Opening doors to bring us into the light of grace.  Opening doors to bring us into the light of truth.  Opening doors to bring us into the goodness of human community.  Opening doors to bring us into service of our neighbor.  God provides the moments if we will but dare to follow.

We, the church, are not God’s people.  We are people God has called to be about his work to serve his people in the world.  To speak the word of grace and life.  To bind up the broken.  To break down walls of bigotry and oppression.  To break down the barriers between people and nations.  To bear witness to the work of God in Jesus.  To fill our sails with the wind of the Spirit.

Christians praying in Goma, DR of Congo.

Christians praying in Goma, DR of Congo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Solomon doesn’t realize all that he asks for.  He doesn’t realize all that God has in mind in answering this prayer.  God sees the lame welcomed, the outcast gathered in, the stranger received as brother and sister.  God sees the Ethiopian eunuch baptized and Cornelius and his family endowed with the Spirit.  God sees the mission of Paul among the nations – and the mission of each succeeding generation.  God sees Pentecost and the witness of God’s people in every language.  God sees the New Jerusalem gathered and all people breaking bread on the mountain of God.

And God sees the gifts of God given to a Centurion in service of the empire of Rome.  And Jesus calling him a model of true faith.

Raised Hands

1 Kings 8

stranger 7/100 abdul hoque

stranger 7/100 abdul hoque (Photo credit: HasinHayder)

22Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven.

This is the ancient stance of prayer: arms lifted up to heaven.  I don’t know when we changed it to heads bowed and hands folded.  I have my suspicions.

This ancient stance of prayer with arms lifted is why the pastor or priest holds out his or her arms when saying the prayer over the bread and wine.  There is something expansive about that posture, something especially appropriate to that great recital of God’s creative and redeeming work that culminates in the supper where the Christ of Nazareth and Capernaum and Jerusalem comes to us here. That prayer echoes God’s work of creating, his deliverance of Israel from Egypt, his ongoing address of humanity through the prophets, and his encounter with the world in Jesus.  It speaks the promise of a world redeemed, a world freed from its violence and gathered at one table.  A world where the human community is restored and bread is shared.  It is an expansive story.  It is right for our hands to be raised.

Folded hands and bowed heads embody a very different set of emotions: introspection rather than praise, humility rather than joy, the self rather than the world.

Kneeling for communion in an often windowless room has us looking down, looking inward; such a moment is personal, between God and myself.  Communion standing in a circle beneath a great canopy of trees – or the vaulted ceiling of a Gothic cathedral – gives you a very different experience, especially if the community is holding hands as they await the bread.  Better yet if they are also singing.

It’s true that Communion is about God and me; God has something important to say to each of us in that moment the bread is placed in our hands.  But communion is also about God and us. And, most importantly, it is about God and the world.  This bread and wine are not only a promise of the forgiveness of my sins; they promise the forgiveness of the world.  It speaks of my redemption and our redemption.  I am invited to share God’s table; but God is also casting his nets into the world to gather all creation to his banquet of life.

Watching for the morning of June 2


Year C

The Second Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 4 / Lectionary 9

The festal season (Lent/Easter) is over and we return to reading through the main body of Luke.

The front side of folios 13 and 14 of a Greek ...

The front side of folios 13 and 14 of a Greek papyrus manuscript of the Gospel of Luke containing verses 11:50–12:12 and 13:6-24, P. Chester Beatty I (Gregory-Aland no. P 45 ). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Because of the odd construction of the Revised Common Lectionary, we have skipped from Luke 4 (where we left off on the 4th Sunday after Epiphany) to Luke 7.  We heard then Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth where he reads from Isaiah “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” and the community rejects his role as a prophet and ultimately tries to throw him from a cliff.  The shadow of the cross and the mission beyond the borders of Israel lies across the very beginning of Luke’s narrative.  Now we take up the Centurion, another outsider beyond the boundary of those for whom the God of Israel was thought to care.

We have skipped over the silencing of the evil spirit in the synagogue at Capernaum and the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law – and all who were brought to him.  We have skipped the calling of the disciples from their nets, the healing of a man with “leprosy” and the paralyzed man let down through the roof.  Levi the tax gatherer has been called; Jesus has said that new wine requires new wineskins and claimed authority over the Sabbath, appointed the twelve, and given what is referred to as the Sermon on the Plain – similar to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount – ending with the metaphor of fools who build their houses on the sand.

As we pick up Luke’s narrative, the Centurion is one of those “enemies” Jesus has just commanded us to love.  And he is an example of the wise builder who, trusting and obeying the word of Jesus, builds his house upon the rock.

Prayer for June 2, 2013

Heavenly father,
who names all nations as your own,
grant us confidence in your word of grace,
trust in your commands,
and faithfulness to the way of your kingdom.

The Texts for June 2, 2013

First Reading: 1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43 (Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the temple asking God to hear the prayers of all who come – including the prayers of foreigners.)
Psalmody: Psalm 96:1-9 (“Sing to the Lord a new song.  Declare his glory among the nations.”)
Second Reading: Galatians 1:1-12 (The opening of Paul’s letter where he moves immediately to his defense of his ministry declaring there is no other Gospel than the one he preached to the believers in Galatia.)
Gospel: Luke 7:1-10 (Jesus acknowledges the great faith of a centurion who trusts the power of Jesus’ word, confident that all Jesus need do to heal his servant is give the order.)

The Evening of Holy Trinity

Sunday Evening

Andrei Rublev's Trinity, representing the Fath...

Andrei Rublev’s Trinity, representing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a similar manner. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


“We come here each Sunday morning to take off our shoes and remember the ground.”

(From today’s sermon, “The Ground of our Being” – posted in Recent Sermons)

Majesty and Mystery.  We don’t always find that in every worship service.  Some are joyful and fun.  Some are thoughtful and profound.  Some are, it must be said, a little routine. It’s like family dinner.  Sometimes, when the tomatoes are finally ripe, it’s homemade BLTs and vanilla milkshakes.  Sometimes it’s a hearty ragu.  Sometimes it’s broccoli and rice.  They all have their place – Christmas dinner and a simple warm soup in the winter – and in each of them God touches us … even, and perhaps especially, in the ordinary.

Today touched something profound.  Something of the vastness of God – and yet at the same time, the goodness of God.  Majesty and mystery.  Appropriate for this day when we speak of the One God, Father Son and Spirit.

The Most Holy Trinity


English: A Chiton magnificus

English: A Chiton magnificus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some years ago while camping with my youngest daughter along the Lost Coast in northern California we found the shell of what looked like a trilobite on a rock on this remote and isolated shore.  Not a fossil, mind you, but something recently living, a deep red color, the strange ancient look of armored plates.  It had an unearthly quality to it.  Out of place and time.  It was strangely disconcerting.  Something I had not seen before.

It was not a trilobite, of course.  But in those days before the internet I couldn’t find someone who knew that it was a chiton, a marine mollusk with a snail like foot rather than the legs of a horseshoe crab, the true descendants of trilobites.

It’s hard to describe that sensation of being in the presence of something that seemed not to belong to this world: a mix of wonder and awe and dread.

We talk so easily about God.  We invoke God’s name with such confidence.  We imagine we know.  What has become of the wonder, awe and dread the ancients felt before the transcendent power of the universe?  Some of this is the fruit of the Christian message that God is love.  Jesus taught us to call the eternal one “Father”.  Jesus made God seem more human, approachable, loveable.  This is good, of course, important to say to those who live in fear or who feel alone in the world.  But what happens when we lose that sense of God’s otherness?

Tomorrow is not just Trinity Sunday; it is Holy Trinity.  In the Roman calendar it is officially the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.  And we should not rush past that word holy, for that is the word that speaks of God’s otherness, that declares we are in the presence of something beyond our experience.

God should be unsettling.  Sinai was unsettling – the people begged for God not to speak to them directly, but through the human voice of Moses.  The things Jesus said and did were unsettling – they got him crucified.  The cross itself is profoundly unsettling, Jesus hanging there in anguish, abandoned, and God silent where we would expect the rage of heaven to rain down fire.  The empty tomb is unsettling, beyond all human experience. Pentecost is unsettling – the roar of a mighty wind and flames of fire and the ecstatic proclamation in every language – people leaving home and country to go out around the world to herald God’s reign.  None of this is familiar to us except we have made it so by telling the story so many times.  Even the message of forgiveness should be unsettling, for such is not the world we know.

The Most Holy Trinity.  The strange and unsettling power at the heart of the universe that creates and loves and redeems.  There is a reason Isaiah falls on his face in the temple when the seraphim sing “Holy, Holy, Holy.”  We should too.

Does not Wisdom call?


Proverbs 8

1Does not wisdom call,
     and does not understanding raise her voice?

It is not God’s way to leave us in our ignorance.  We may choose to stop learning, but God never ceases to call.  God never ceases to invite.  The creation around us, the Spirit of God woven into the fabric of existence, begs for us to understand.  The little child asks “Why?” and every answer engenders a new “Why?”  Sometimes it drives us crazy and we resort to that authoritative parental “Because” – or, “Because I said so” – but the questioning, the seeking, the searching for understanding, is woven into the warp and woof of our being.

I don’t know why we stop seeking and growing and learning, but some people do.  “I know what I believe, do not confuse me with the facts.”   We have made it easier in our time to get the “facts” you want from the news you want.  There’s a channel or a magazine or a website for everyone now.  Think tanks used to think, now they advocate for a position already decided upon.  And pat religious answers seem to stop all intelligent thought about the wonder and mystery of God and life.

Maybe there is something in our DNA that inclines us to stop thinking, stop learning, stop growing.  If so, it is not from God.  Wisdom calls to us.  The universe sends out its siren voice summoning to understand.  There is truth awaiting us.

And we have a choice whether or not to listen.

From before time


Grand Canyon, from South Rim near Visitor Center

Grand Canyon, from South Rim near Visitor Center (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

25Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth–

The layers of rock go down through centuries, through millennia, to times when the continents crashed together and moved apart, times when seas covered what are now mountains and mountains covered what are now seas.  There are coastal redwoods now turned to stone on the top of the Rockies.  To hike down from the rim of the Grand Canyon is to travel 1.84 billion years back in time.

Before the time when those redwoods flourished, before the time when the Appalachians where higher than Everest and joined the Atlas Mountains in Africa, before the time when the earth was an ice planet, before the time when the earth was without water, before the time when the earth was without oxygen, before the time when the earth was yet interstellar dust, there was what Israel called Wisdom and the Greeks called the logos.  There was the inner logic of all things, the rational principle woven into the fabric of all existence.

It came from God. And it was God.  Through it all things were made.  And it became flesh. And we have beheld his glory, says the author of John.

That inner logic, that order, that foundational “wisdom” was not just Planck’s constant, and the laws that govern the weak force and the strong force and the behavior of quarks.  Love is woven into the fabric of existence.  The love of the Father for the Son.  The love of the Son for the Father.  The love of the Spirit that binds them.  The love of the one God for all existence.  The love of the one God for you and I.  It was there in the beginning.  Before time.  Before space.  In the heart of God.

As hard as it is for us to comprehend the Trinity – this much we can grasp.  That love is part of the being of God.  And for there to be love there must be a beloved.  God in himself is lover and beloved while still being one.

We do not understand it.  But it means God is able to love us.  And in this love we live and move and have our being.

The dance of wonder


Psalm 8

3When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

Milky Way

Milky Way (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The earth is 4.5 billion years old.  Humanity’s time upon the earth is a mere breath.  Our solar system speeds at 124 miles per second around the center of a galaxy with 200–400 billion stars stretching across 100,000–120,000 light-years.  Numbers beyond comprehension.  Our galaxy is 13.2 billion years old, surprisingly close to the 13.82 billion years since the “big bang.”  It is but one of an estimated 176 billion.

We don’t need the numbers to recognize that we are small and fragile creatures in the vastness of the cosmos.  I will never forget seeing replicas of the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery, the three ships that brought the Jamestown colony to the shores of what would be Virginia.  I was small, and they seemed small even to me.  I couldn’t believe they had crossed the vast expanse of the ocean in what were little more than rowboats. I feel small enough looking over the ocean from shore; imagine being in the middle of the Atlantic beneath a 360 degree horizon of the most brilliant night sky?

It is either the height of hubris or the wonder of all wonders that God cares for us.

Of course, if it were hubris, the poet would not be wondering how it could possibly be true.  Nor would we.

True faith is not childish narcissism; it is humble wonder, gratefulness and adoration.  And if the heart of the universe is turned towards us in love – then the very least I can do to join the dance: the dance of delight in God, and the dance of compassion for others.

Watching for the morning of May 26

Year C

The Holy Trinity:
First Sunday after Pentecost

Is it the doctrine of the Trinity we come to celebrate, or the mystery of God?  Do we honor a teaching or a God who in ways we cannot comprehend is Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

It is easy to say this Sunday is about doctrine.  But doctrine is not an end in itself.  Doctrine both guards and opens the door to a right encounter with the divine.

We are too often preoccupied with the regulatory function of doctrine.  What I appreciate about eastern liturgies is that they recognize the doxological function of doctrine.  If I am to praise my wife, it is good and necessary to praise her truly.  If I exult in something she is not, the relationship we have is fundamentally false.

So we praise a God who is source of all – not just a construction engineer, but the architect in whom the cosmos was conceived.  And we praise a God who is present, whose breath and life force are here, opening hearts and lives to the mysteries and powers of the divine.  And we praise a God who is visible in the man from Nazareth, who weeps, who sleeps, who prays, who suffers, who lives.  And all this is one God, somehow, so that each part is all, and there is no all without each part.

We praise a God whose very essence is relational, whose essence involves not only “self” but “others,” whose essence makes meaningful the declaration that “God is love”.

This is far more than doctrine.  It is mystery.   It is wonder.  It is the source and goal of our praise.

Prayer for May 26, 2013

O God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,
of Moses and Miriam,
of Ruth and David,
of Mary and Joseph;
God wrapped in mystery and wonder
who breathed life into our first parents
and your Holy Spirit into all creation;
God who loves and fathers and sends
and is loved and begotten and sent;
Help us to praise you rightly,
love you fully
and walk with you faithfully.

The Texts for May 26, 2013

First Reading: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 (“The Lord created me at the beginning of his work.” Wisdom, the knowledge of the fundamental truths of existence, is personified as a teacher and speaks of its role in the formation of all things.)
Psalmody: Psalm 8 (“What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” A song of praise marveling at God’s care for human beings and their role as stewards of God’s creation.)
Second Reading: Romans 5:1-5 (“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”)
Gospel: John 16:12-15 (“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth”)