Returning with joy

Sunday Evening

Luke 10

Pray. Love. Serve.

Pray. Love. Serve. (Photo credit: Fr. Stephen, MSC)

17 The seventy returned with joy.

At the end of the service the congregation is sent out to their ministry in daily life with the words, “Go in Peace.  Serve the Lord.”  I know that for many of us these are just code words for “We’re done.  You can pick up your stuff and go.”  Kids race for the playground or the goodies at coffee hour.  Others look to connect with friends.  A few have jobs to do putting away the communion ware or packing up the flowers for the donor.  The ushers walk through to pick up abandoned bulletins.  The sound techs are putting away the microphones. Most people think church is over, when in truth it’s just beginning.

The true worship of God happens during the week.  It happens in the meals parents provide for their children, in the kindness shown to neighbors, in the quality of the work we do during the week (Does it serve the human community?  Is my neighbor’s life enhanced by the product or service I may create or sell?).  It happens in the way spouses love and respect one another.  It happens in the concern we show for those in need.  God is worshiped by the witness we make to the love of God.  God is served by our service of one another.

The service of God happens when the seventy go out and herald the kingdom as agents of healing in the world.  At the end of the week they come back with joy at the service they were able to render – at the work God was able to do through them.  The demons submitted.  Grace was added to the world.  Light shown in the darkness.  The Spirit of God laid claim to human hearts.  Prisoners were set free.

It ought to be that we come on Sundays in the joy of our week’s service.  We come to give thanks for God’s work in the week, to sing praise, to offer prayers, to rejoice that we are citizens of heaven and to savor the mystery and promise of God’s holy table.

I know that many come beaten down by the week, and Sunday serves to lift them up and set them back on the path.  I am happy that it does that.  But it would be nice if we came back as from a mission trip buzzing with joy and saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!”

Still Christ comes


Luke 10

English: Icon of Jesus in Veljusa Monastery, M...

English: Icon of Jesus in Veljusa Monastery, Macedonia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.

Jesus doesn’t send us to places where he is not going.

When I first walked into a hospital room as a seminary student, I had no idea what I was doing there.  It was a seminary requirement to work for a term with the hospital chaplain.  These were strangers.  They had not asked for a pastor.  I was not their pastor.  I was a student not a pastor.  What was I doing there?

I wish I had understood I was going where Christ would be going.

Yes, God is everywhere.  Yes, God was already there before I hesitantly stepped into the room.  But Christ the redeemer, Christ the reconciler, Christ the healer, was coming to visit that room.  If I had understood that, I would have understood why I was there.  I would have understood that I belonged there, whether the patient wanted me or not.  I would have had more courage.  I would have had more grace. And the realization that Christ was entering with me and in me would have helped me yield better to that strange, wondrous, centering, empowering, gracing Spirit of God.

I was a poor instrument; but still Christ came.  It wasn’t about my skill; it was about my presence.  The coming of Christ didn’t depend on finding the right words.  I didn’t have to have helpful spiritual or psychological insights.  I just needed to be present.  To listen.  To see.  To care.  I just needed to forget my anxieties and discomfort for a moment and let Christ be present through me.

It seems so simple in theory.  But it is hard to step aside and let Christ be present through us.  I remember coming to the bedside of a dying woman very early in my ministry.  The family was so glad I came, then they all stepped back to watch me do something meaningful, something pastoral.  I found myself so conscious that they were watching me that I couldn’t focus on this woman and this profound and complicated moment of her life.  A prayer needs to be a prayer, not a performance: a putting into words the fears and hopes of the person in that moment, a drawing of those praying into the presence of the eternal.  But my mind was preoccupied by the watching family, wondering if they approved, if they thought I was doing this rightly.

But still Christ comes.  Through me, and in spite of me, Christ comes.

He does not send us anywhere he is not going.  Whether the board room, the grocery store or the public park.  Whether the dinner table, the family room or the bedroom.  Whether into grief or fear or joy.

I don’t always remember this.  It’s easy to be overwhelmed by my own thoughts and emotions, but it is what I try to remember.  And it is what Christ continues to whisper to me.

“Even the demons submit”


Luke 10

Giotto - Legend of St Francis - -10- - Exorcis...

Giotto – Legend of St Francis – -10- – Exorcism of the Demons at Arezzo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

17 The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’

We don’t live in the world of the first century.  For us the air is not filled with spirit beings interacting with those who dwell on earth.  The sky is not a realm where spirits composed of fire reside, visible at night.  We see earthquakes, disease and storms as natural processes, not events caused by unseen personal agents that can and should be mollified and propitiated.   Our whole concept of a “natural world” is foreign to the first century and their concept of a spirit world foreign to us.

Yet the language of spirits is not without meaning for us.  We know that we are vulnerable to forces and realities beyond ourselves.  Our lives are affected by such strange things as the “national mood” (quantified as “consumer confidence”) and “political will”.  Forces like racism and sexism, wealth and poverty shape our lives and opportunities.  Handsome people get jobs easier, earn more money, and are treated more considerately than ordinary people.  Tall people are treated with more respect than short.  Brunettes are perceived as more intelligent than blondes, etc.

And there are things that seem evil, destructive, beyond explanation, as though the human heart had been taken over by something.  Lives can be dominated and controlled by fear, anger, cruelty, addiction.

The seventy were sent out to every place Jesus was going.  Sent to heal and to announce the dawning of God’s reign, they were given authority to exorcise these unclean spirits.  Where Christ comes, lives are made whole again, fears and addictions dethroned.  Where Christ comes, the burdens of shame and guilt are lifted.  Where Christ comes, relationships and communities are reconciled and restored.  In the work of these followers of Jesus, sent where Jesus was to come, the powers that divide and destroy were driven out.

Too often we quail before such powers.  To often we retreat in fear.  We avoid confronting evil.  We lack the courage to name and renounce what is destructive – or we lack the skill to speak and act with the necessary grace.

We need the witness of these unnamed 70.  We need to see their faithfulness.  We need to hear their joy.  We need to be reminded of the power that worked through them to bring healing to the places they were sent.  We need to breathe their Spirit.

And we need to hear anew the voice of the one who sent them:  “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”

The serpent’s head


Revelation 12


2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

9The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

What language shall we use to discuss the monstrosity of evil that rampages across our world?  The use of sarin gas on children in Syria, the slaughter of shoppers in a mall in Nairobi, the deluded hunter in the Navyl Yard, the hijacked airplanes flown into the twin towers, and whatever it is we should call the twisted reign in North Korea.

What language shall we use to describe the evils that erupt again and again in human history?  The pograms and death camps and slaughter of innocents?  The marching of peoples out into the desert to perish?  The torture of prisoners of war?  The bombing of churches and marketplaces.  The lynchings and disappearings?  The hidden crimes against children?

And what of those tragedies without evil intent that seem to overflow with human misery?  The famines and floods and earthquakes?  The forgotten brake on a train that engulfs a town in a holocaust?

How do such evils erupt in a world where most people are good neighbors and kind to animals and looking only for peaceful lives?  A dragon seems an apt metaphor, a serpent writ large that writhes across the sky and threatens to devour all that is good.

Our questions are not answered by a rational explanation of the wiring of the human brain and the functioning of human societies, or by a theological exposition on that nature of God, suffering and human will; they are not a quest for information but a cry of anguish and confusion and a hunger for hope.  Still our sighs and groanings do contain an important spiritual question, the answer to which requires the language of metaphor: there is a dragon, a dragon that must be slain.

Day after day, again and again, in every human heart, there is a dragon that must be slain.  I cannot yield myself to ignorance, to hate, to anger, to revenge, to tribalism, to the comfort of lies and illusions.  I cannot yield myself to pettiness, bitterness or despair.  I cannot yield myself to callousness of heart or soul.  There is a dragon that must be slain.  Drowned in the waters of heaven’s promise.  Cast from the throne that God alone may rule.

And to those who seek the better angels of our natures – as well as to those who think there are none – comes the news: the dragon is thrown down.  Purged from the heavens he storms about the earth breaking what he can.  Yet, it is but a child’s tantrum; his days are numbered, his defeat sure, his destiny is the pit.

In the garden of Gethsemane came the words “not my will but yours be done,” and the serpent’s head was crushed.  He lives now only by the life we give him, and even that shall come to an end.

The language is the language of metaphor, but the promise is sure.  There are many witnesses to the cross, the tomb, and the risen Christ.  And we feel the power of his Spirit.

The news has come from the battlefield: the victory is won, the lamb who was slain has begun his reign.  Captured, empowered and sustained by this word, we live with courage and joy and sing the song of heaven.

War in heaven


Revelation 12

Mchadijvari icon of Archangel Michael

Mchadijvari icon of Archangel Michael (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

7 War broke out in heaven.

It’s an unsettling image.  We hear the word heaven and imagine a realm of peace and light, untroubled by sorrow.  We think of longed for reunions with lost love ones and answers to life’s troubling questions.  We anticipate a realm where the aches and pains of age and disease are left behind.  We don’t want another war zone.

On the other hand, there is something strangely comforting in the notion that the struggles and terrors of earth are shared by the divine realm.  The clash of armies, the rage of tyrants, the unfathomable cruelty of some, the corruption of wealth, the perversion of sexuality, the wasting of human life by disease – these are not just matters of public policy, policing and medicine.  They are spiritual battles, battles of forces of life and death, kindness and cruelty, good and evil.

The marches and fire hoses were not just a struggle for political rights; they were spiritual battles for our humanity.  The political chaos of Washington is not just party politics and personal ambitions and animosities, but a spiritual conflict about wealth and power and the good of our neighbor.

God is not above the fray.  God is involved in the struggle.  God partakes in the battle.  God is fighting for his world.

This is not to endorse the crusading mentality equating my position with God’s will.  Rather it is a recognition of the importance of the spiritual dimensions of life and an assurance that there are powers at work in the world to combat evil.

God is fighting for his world, yet much of this struggle is quite hidden from us.  Who would have thought that one more crucifixion on the hill outside Jerusalem would be the decisive victory for the forces for life?   Who would have thought that moment of evil’s triumph would be its eternal defeat?  In the chaos of battle, who can tell which is the moment on which the war turns?  And who is to say that what seems like defeat may not bear the seeds of triumph?

And if there is a spiritual war going on, if a struggle is underway for truth and compassion and justice and life, then my every choice to speak truth, do compassion, act justly, and give life matters.  I may have little influence over Syria or Washington, but my thoughts, words and deeds are still part of the battle.

And in this battle we are not alone.

The dragon falls and heaven sings

Watching for the morning of September 29

St. Michael and All Angels

St Michael

St Michael (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

Michaelmas, the mass of St. Michael, falls on a Sunday this year and so we turn our attention to the hosts of heaven that serve as God’s messengers (the word angel is from the Greek word for messenger) and as the heavenly warriors in the spiritual battles that reflect the battles between good and evil on earth.

The scriptures do not indulge in the speculation about the ranks of heaven found in other works from the time.  The messengers of God cede the stage to the message of God.  Indeed, we are warned against such speculation.  This feast day focuses instead upon the grace and victory of God whose warriors battle on behalf of humanity and bear his word to us.  In one of the great metaphors of scripture, Michael and his angels fight against the dragon, the dragon and his messengers are thrown down, and heaven and earth bursts with song.  All that devours and destroys God’s precious world shall be forever defeated and Christ alone reign: the lamb who was slain but lives.

The Prayer for September 29, 2013

Almighty God,
before whom all heaven sings
and whose messengers do your bidding,
surround us with the song of heaven
and make us faithful as your servants;
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 September 29, 2013

First Reading: Daniel 10:10-14, 11:36, 12:1-3
“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise.”
– Writing to the time of the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes IV, the author uses the Daniel traditions to call the community to faithfulness.  In a series of visions the author has Daniel see the conflict that is upon Judea and the coming triumph of God.

Psalmody: Psalm 103:1-5, 20-22
“Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers that do his will.” –  In an exquisite hymn of praise the poet calls for all creation – and the hosts of heaven – to bless the Lord.

Second Reading: Revelation 12:7-12
“War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon.”
– Taking up the imagery from Daniel, the prophet describes the heavenly conflict between God and those that reject God’s reign, and their expulsion for the heavens.

Gospel: Luke 15:1-10
“The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’” – Jesus sends out 70 witnesses with the commission to heal the sick and cast out evil spirits.  As they return in joy, Jesus declares that, as they carried out their mission, he saw Satan’s kingdom crumbling.

Looking for more

Sunday Evening

“God is a generous giver, and for us to live otherwise is to deny the one whose name we bear.”

“The steward in our parable this morning isn’t shrewd; he is wise.  He understands that his master is a good man, and banks his whole life on that goodness.”

(From today’s sermon, “The Gamble” – posted in Recent Sermons)

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I don’t know whether it does any good to talk about money.  No one thanks you for a sermon that sets before us the witness of scripture about wealth and possessions and our need to give.  People say the church should have a stewardship program, but what they usually mean is they want the pastor to tell other people to support the church; we don’t want the pastor dipping into our pockets with the word of God.

Raising money for the club is a lot easier than raising disciples.   A dinner, perhaps.  A slide show about our great ministry.  A pep talk about our hopes and aspirations.  A form to fill out and put in the offering plate.  I understand the purpose of such things.  But God is looking for more.  God is looking for disciples.  God is looking for a community imbued with God’s own compassion and courage and generosity and determination to touch the world with grace.  God is looking for believers governed by God’s Spirit.

God has his eyes set on the horizon.  God has his eyes set on a world bubbling with random acts of kindness.  God has his eyes set on a world where hands and arms and hearts are open to one another.  God calls us to walk with him toward that world where swords are beaten into plowshares, and all humanity gathers at the table of peace.

God has his heart set on a world made whole.  God has his heart set on a world shaped by God’s own spirit.  And he looks for people to follow him now, to plant the seeds now, to work the works of kindness now, to feed the hungry and visit the sick and the imprisoned, and share a cup of cold water.  God yearns for witnesses to his transforming and rescuing work.

I wish everyone saw the church as a valuable place to invest their tithes and offerings.  I wish they regarded public worship and the proclamation of the words and deeds of Jesus as a ministry worth supporting.  But what I really want is lives made generous by the grace of God.  Lives generous with money will also be generous with time and compassion and prayer.  Such lives do not start with the thought, “What’s this going to cost me?”  They start with the thought, “What will this do for another?”  They don’t ask, “What do they deserve?”  They ask, “What can I do?”

All that Jesus has to say about wealth and possessions comes back to this: are we centered in ourselves or centered in others?  That’s why money is a spiritual issue.  It’s why Jesus talks about it so much.  It’s why it courses through the prophets.  It’s why it grounds the covenant law.  It marks the difference between heaven and hell.  It marks the difference between salvation and despair.  It marks the distinction between the wilderness and the Promised Land.

There is a reason a table stands in the center of the worshiping community.

St. Matthew

September 21

English: St. Matthew writing the Gospel with a...

English: St. Matthew writing the Gospel with an angel holding the volume., an Islamic miniature c.1530 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today is the feast day for St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist.  Though the Gospel does not name its author, it has been associated with Matthew the tax collector whom Jesus called from his toll booth (Matthew 9:9).

Nothing is known of his life, though several traditions of his martyrdom exist: in Ethiopia, at Tarrium in Persia and at Tarsuana, east of the Persian Gulf.  Though otherwise unknown, his witness to Jesus abides, shaping and sustaining the faith and life of the Christian community.

His feast day is celebrated in the west on September 21 and in the East on November 16.  In the traditional iconography of the four evangelists (Eagle, Ox, Man, Lion), Luke is represented by the man, often with an angel guiding his hand as he writes.

Almighty God, who through the hand of the evangelists bore witness to Jesus, your word incarnate, grant us ears to hear and hearts to receive their testimony, that in the hearing of your word we might be drawn into lives of true faithfulness and love.

“He raises the poor from the dust”


Psalm 113

English: Woman and child in Raisen district (B...

English: Woman and child in Raisen district (Bhil tribe), M.P., India. Français : Femme et enfant dans le district de Raisen (tribu Bhil), M.P., Inde. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

9 He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.

We react negatively to anything that seems to define a woman through childbearing, but we should not let this hinder us from hearing this sweet word of grace.  Those who have yearned for and been unable to have children know the sorrow that is addressed here.  But more than this grief is carried by these words.

The inability to conceive was regarded like a barren field.  This was not a couple’s problem; it was the woman’s problem.  It left the lingering suspicion that she was under a curse, that she was guilty of some grave sin.  It left her vulnerable, since the relationship of a mother and son was the strongest familial relationship – stronger than the marriage.  The eldest son would inherit a double share of the property, enabling him to care for his widowed mother.  He was her future security that no divorce could break.  And barrenness was cause for divorce.  She could and likely would be dismissed by her husband.  Presumably the woman at the well who had had five husbands had been dismissed by each for such a cause – and was unwelcome at the well in town because she was “cursed.”

The gift of a son is a redemption.  It is the gift of a future.  For a barren woman to be given a home – to become beloved when cast off – and to be blessed with children is no less than the gift of life restored.

God is a god who“raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap.”  God is a god who rescues, saves, restores.  God is a god who gives joy and life and laughter.  He is a home for the homeless, shelter for the exposed, a defender of the weak, a provider for the poor.  He turns five loaves and two fish into a banquet for 5,000.  He turns water into an abundance of wine at a wedding.  He is the bridegroom for whom the earth waits.  He is the dawning of grace.  He is the opening of the grave.

9 He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.

Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord;
      praise the name of the Lord.
2 Blessed be the name of the Lord
      from this time on and forevermore.
3 From the rising of the sun to its setting
      the name of the Lord is to be praised.


The slide towards greed


Amos 8

Balanza de la Justicia

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
     and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
5saying, “When will the new moon be over
     so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,

     so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
     and practice deceit with false balances,
6buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,
     and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
7The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
     Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.

The problem of poetry is that you can rarely retain the rhythm and sound of the text or the power created by a play on words in the original language.  Still, there is no escaping the force of this prophet’s words, no escaping God’s rage at a nation that sees God’s commands as nothing more than an archaic barrier to their profitmaking.  They chomp at the bit to be free of God’s command for a monthly festival at the new moon and a weekly day of rest for all workers.  They have learned the fine art of the finger on the scale to inflate the price of the produce they sell in the market.  God forbids the use of shaved weights – a heavy one so that when you purchase a pound of wheat from the farmer you get a little more than a pound, and a light one so that when you sell a pound you are giving a little less.  Such practices are universal.  The quart of ice cream looks the same and costs the same but now has less than a quart.  “Same Low Price!” advertises a product that weighs 10% less.  And I always wonder whether the gas station with that great low price has tweaked their pumps so that each gallon is slightly less – within the margin of error allowed by the state, perhaps, but who checks?  And why does the bank pay the biggest check, so that all the little ones bounce, each with their own $35 fee, rather than pay the little checks and bounce the one big one?  And what shall we say of Wall Streets cleverness with mortgages and derivatives and micro-trading?

God’s law was a gift to Israel to halt that inevitable slide towards greed and to be sure the poor were not left behind.  You were commanded not to harvest to the edge of your field, but to leave the perimeter for the poor to come harvest for themselves.  The land belonged to God, after all, and was only entrusted into their hands.  It had not belonged to them in the beginning.  It had been divided equally among them all.  They were not allowed to sell it outright, but only to purchase the number of harvests before the next jubilee, when debts were lifted and lands restored so that everyone had a chance to provide for their families.  Israel was not to become a nation like those around it – not to become a nation like ours where the top 1 percent own 42% of the financial wealth and the top 5% own 72%.  In the last 30 years 96% of the income gains have gone to the top 10% (all income growth in the past 10 years, while the income of the 90% has declined).

The task God gave to Israel was to protect the weak and vulnerable.  The command was to love your neighbor as yourself.  Instructions were given for the care of the poor, for the well-being of each was linked to the well-being of all.

At the end of the 8th century in the northern kingdom of Israel, as the nation is on its death spiral of arrogance, greed and the worship of false gods, the economy is booming and the wealthy leadership of the nation is casting off those ancient restraints given at Sinai.  So God speaks: “Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.”  Within a few years the northern kingdom of Israel, ten of the original twelve tribes, was gone and its people scattered among the nations.

So, back to the poetry, in case the prophet’s words still need more weight to speak to us – the word translated “bring to ruin” is a form of the word Sabbath.  They cause the poor “to cease” (meaning they destroyed the poor) because they no longer honor the command that all should cease from work one day. The accumulation of wealth reigns triumphant until Israel itself is measured in God’s balances – and those who destroy others end with their own destruction.