The invitation bears our name

Saturday

Isaiah 2

Wedding

Wedding (Photo credit: 蓝上弦)

4they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;

It is not only about the warring of nations.  It is about the warring of families, the warring of political parties, the warring of ideologies, the warring of our own hearts.  There is no want of conflicts in the world.  Some make their way into the evening news.  Some are witnessed in the halls of schools and offices.  Some are tragically compelling.  Most are hidden.

And we use tools.  Weapons.  Guns.  Knives.  Dishes.  Words.  Words are often the worst, wounds that do not heal.  Weapons get turned upon ourselves.  I have buried both young and old from gun violence, both self-inflicted and not.

The United States spent $682.7 billion on the military in 2010, $2,200 for every man, woman and child.  Plus the blood of citizens.  And the blood of innocents.  I would not argue we do not need military.  I am only pointing out the sorrow of the human race.  Willingly or unwillingly, we spend our labor on tools to injure and kill.

It shall not last.

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;

It shall not last, this constant warfare.  It does not endure.  It is not eternal, our brokenness.  The ruptures of communities.  Ethnic hatreds.  Torn families.  Conflicted souls.  It shall not last.

Not because peace finally comes with death, but because death itself is defeated.  This marauding power with its grip on human joy and life, this thief in the night, this storm of violence, this caustic agent corroding life’s purpose, turning day to night for far too many – this invader in God’s good world has been defeated and will be silenced forever.  Death, and fear of death, and grief and sorrow, and guilt and regret – the whole corrosive reality born of our desire to be gods rather than let God be God – it has all been shattered by the hand of God reaching into the tomb of Jesus.

God took death upon himself and shattered death forever.  And with death, all that is tied to death – disease and fear and shame and sorrow, injustice and poverty, war and violence.  It is all defeated.  It is all undone.  It is all revealed as an imposter in God’s kingdom, a usurper claiming God’s throne.  It shall not last.

Swords shall be beaten into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks.  We will make tractors from our tanks.  Jungle gyms. Swing sets.  Rakes and hoes for the home garden.  Brass rings from brass casings to be used on the merry-go-round.  Poetry and song from the words once hurled in anger, prejudice and fear.  Stories that heal and bind up from words uttered callously or in shear stupidity.  The weeping of the wounded and grieving shall give way to the tears of joy at the wedding that has no end.  “The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

Advent looks to the future with hope.  It does not surrender to cynicism.  It does not yield to despair over the human condition, nor to hardness of heart.  It waits and watches for the wedding of heaven and earth.  It bids us see the wedding invitation bears our name.  It urges us to announce our RSVP.  And it invites us to put on the wedding garments of compassion and grace even now as we wait for the feast to begin in full.

2In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
5O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

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“Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying”

Watching for the morning of December 1

Year A

The First Sunday of Advent

First Sunday of Advent

First Sunday of Advent (Photo credit: Will Humes)

The Sundays of Advent ring with rich songs of hope.  From Isaiah, from Luke, from the hymnody of the church, we hear songs of deliverance and praise, of comfort and joy.  But these are not the only sounds of this season.  We hear the warnings to be awake and ready.  We hear John call us to bear fruits worthy or repentance – worthy of our shift of allegiance to the dawning reign of God.  This is a season of turning to one another in kindness and generosity, and turning to God in hope and expectation.

On this first Sunday the key word is “Watch.”  Though the consummation of all things comes unexpectedly, “as a thief in the night”, it comes not as threat but as promise.  God will reclaim his rebellious earth.  The ceaseless strife since Cain rose up to slay Abel will end and “sorrow and sighing will flee away.”  We who live in Christ live in the light of that dawning day.  And for this day, we wait and watch and work, bearing witness to our redeeming God.

The Prayer for the First Sunday of Advent, 2013

Gracious God,
who called forth the first morning of the world
and brings all things to their final end when all night is vanquished,
make us ever mindful of our journey homeward
and wake us to your presence among us,
that the day when swords are beaten into plowshares
may be alive in us now.

The Texts for the First Sunday of Advent, 2013

First Reading: Isaiah 2:1-5
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”
– In the midst of the wars and destructions as the Assyrian empire rises and crushes the kingdoms around Judah, Isaiah proclaims God’s ultimate rule: all nations will recognize and come to Zion to learn the ways of God.

Psalmody: Isaiah 51:4-11
“The heavens will vanish like smoke… but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.” – In place of the appointed Psalm 122, we sing the song of salvation from Isaiah 51.  The prophet declares that the faithfulness of God is more enduring than earth and sea and heralds the return from exile in “everlasting joy.”

Second Reading: Romans 13:11-14
“You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep … the night is far gone, the day is near.” –
Living in the confidence of Christ’s return and the full dawning of God’s reign of life, Paul exhorts the community to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light”.

GospelMatthew 24:36-44
“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
– Having spoken of the fall of Jerusalem and warned his followers about the troubles and persecutions they will face in the days to come – and particularly of the false messiahs who will claim that the Day of the Lord has come (in their violent revolt against Rome) – Jesus assures them that though the final day is unknown, they will not miss it when it comes.  In the face of the challenges to come they are to be ever awake and attending to the work of God.

Toward the light

Sunday Evening

Philippians 4

To the Light - Colorado Dawn (Photocredit: dkbonde)

To the Light – Colorado Dawn (Photocredit: dkbonde)

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Walking towards the light is easier than walking away from it.  I woke in the middle of the night while visiting my daughter.  She had left a night light on in the bathroom.  It was a small little light, but in the darkness was more than enough to guide me, so I didn’t bring my phone, my normal source of convenient illumination.  The path back to the hide-a-bed was trickier, however, with the light behind me rather than ahead of me.

It’s hard not to stop in the middle of the night and write down such a great metaphor for life in general: walking towards the light is easier than walking away from it.

Walking towards the source of love is easier than walking away from it.  Walking towards the source of healing is easier than walking away.  Walking towards mercy rather than away.  Not that there aren’t challenges.  Just that with the light in front of you, you are less likely to stub your toe on a chair from the kitchen table.

“Always”

Saturday

Philippians 4

Newspapers B&W (4)

Newspapers B&W (4) (Photo credit: NS Newsflash)

4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

No one wants to be told to be thankful.  I only know it works.  I wish I practiced it better.

Years ago someone sent me a newspaper clipping from the local paper about what a wonderful priest had come to a neighboring church.  Of course this was sent to me anonymously.  It stung.  I heard it as criticism – although exactly what I was being criticized for was not so clear.  But I could hear in my spirit that terrible sentence that begins “Why can’t you be more like…”

As I stood there, clipping in my hand, I realized I had a choice.  I could react with hurt and anger, or I could try this peculiar advice to “Rejoice in the Lord always,” to “Give thanks in all circumstances”

I chose the latter.

It was a strange prayer coming out of my mouth: “Thank you Jesus for this.”  But suddenly I wasn’t wondering who had sent it or what they didn’t like about me, I was wondering what there was in this article that could help me.

I have been in a lot of places where it is exceedingly difficult to be thankful.  I have plenty of fears and anxieties to keep me awake at night.  I live in the shadow of a telephone call with a policeman on the other end telling me my child is dead.  I hate it when the phone rings.  I know there is evil.  I will not tell anyone they should be thankful.  But I also know that when I remember to give thanks, I am different.  The world seems far less dark, emotions far less troubling, and the day far more inviting.  Problems become challenges and tasks, not indictments of character or proof of misfortune.

It sounds terribly rosy.  I dare not say it to others in trouble.  And I, myself, would mock it, if I didn’t always find it true.

16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
(1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

It’s not easy work, but it’s good work.  There’s a reason we call it a spiritual discipline.  But there is healing in it, for it teaches us to look for God’s grace everywhere.

And we find it.

Bread of Life

Friday

John 6

Freshly baked bread loaves being removed from ...

Freshly baked bread loaves being removed from an oven. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

26 “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.

There are two kinds of religious belief and practice.  One wants to use God to help me achieve or protect what is valuable to me.  The other wants to let God use me to achieve or protect what is valuable to God.  The former comes to us pretty naturally.   The latter comes harder.

Five thousand people have been fed on the hillside.  From a mere five “loaves” (think small pita rather than loaf pans) and two fish (again, think small dried fish – remember this is a child’s lunch) – from five loaves everyone has been fed.  However that happened, whether it was a miracle of loaves or a miracle of sharing, it was a sign.  It pointed to something.  Lunch was not an end in itself.

But we can make it the goal.  Especially for hungry peasant farmers, the prospect of unlimited bread is like striking the lottery.  No wonder they wanted to seize Jesus and make him king.  And we are no different.  All our presidential candidates have promised us prosperity.  We are motivated by ‘pocketbook issues’ – and, if not our pocketbook, then other things that tie to our wants and desires.

What is true in politics is true in religion.  I pray for God to keep my daughter safe.  I pray that she will have a rich life of faith; a loving, believing, faithful, life-long partner from a good family; a rich and abundant family life; and meaningful work – but first on that list is to keep her safe.

God is not against meeting us there, in the place of our need.  There are great mercies shown to us.  Especially in those early days of our walk with God – God will show himself faithful.  But the journey of faith is not about the power of God to supply all my needs; it is about the power of God to call me away from myself into love of neighbor – a journey that, oddly enough, is my real need, our true path, our true life, the life that partakes of all that is eternal.

Singing the fight song

Thursday

Psalm 100

English: A photo of Michigan Stadium.

English: A photo of Michigan Stadium. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.

It’s a psalm sung at one of the great national festivals when the air is filled with excitement, like walking up the hill to the stadium for the big game.  The drum corps is rapping out dynamic rhythms.  Hawkers are selling food and trinkets.  People are meeting friends with glad cries.   Strangers are calling out to strangers with shouts and chants united by their common allegiance.  You can hear the band playing already in the stadium.  Just the crowd itself fills you with joy and energy.  Everything seems good.  Worries are forgotten, at least for a moment.  You sing the fight song as you climb the stairs into the stadium.

Church is a lot more fun when people come expecting great things.  But we aren’t coming like crowds to a game.  We are coming like workers arriving home from the fields at the end of a long day.  We come with tardy children and cranky adults waiting for them in the car.  We come weary from the week or bleary from the party the night before.  We come with walkers when we would rather walk.  We come with sorrows we would rather leave behind.  We come with regrets from the week – or regrets from that very morning.  We come disillusioned or lonely or worried about medical bills or grown children into whom we can talk no sense.

As teenagers we criticized the church because people returned from Holy Communion with such somber faces.  This was a moment of great joy, this was a taste of the eternal banquet, this was the declaration that all our sins had been forgiven.  They should come back “walking and leaping and praising God,” we thought.  We didn’t yet understand that thankfulness and praise could be complicated, could look more like tears than laughter, more like the grateful recipients of a soup line than the members of a marching band.  Priceless gifts don’t inspire joy as much as deep humility and gratefulness, especially the bread of life given to the weary.

Still, this is a foretaste of the feast to come.  We hear the promise of boundless mercy.  We see the image of suffering and know that the tomb is empty.  We are aware of the presence of fellow pilgrims on this journey.  We may not be headed into a crowded arena but we should, nevertheless, enter these gates with thanksgiving, and these courts with praise.

Remembering the source of life

Wednesday

Deuteronomy 26

Thanksgiving Landscapes

Thanksgiving Landscapes (Photo credit: Christopher S. Penn)

1 When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.  3You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say…

For agrarian societies, all life depends on the harvest.  Indeed for every society all life depends on the harvest, but for industrialized societies that dependence is not so immediately evident.  It is no longer my fields upon which my life in the next year rests.

For all their work, the harvest is not under the farmers’ control.  They cannot make it rain, nor can they keep it from raining too much or at the wrong times.  They cannot control the locusts, the birds or the blight, so they turn naturally to prayer.  They ask for the kindness of the gods.  As Israel came from foraging in the wilderness, following a god of the desert, to dwelling on farm land, the cultural pressure was to follow the practices of those who had farmed the land before – to turn to the gods of field and fertility and rain.  The hidden powers that dwell in the forests and streams and fields need to be appeased and supplicated lest they do harm in their anger.

The playoff beard, the refusal to touch the division championship trophy on the way to the Stanley Cup, the routines on the bench and in the locker room and on the day of the game are not just superstitions; they are rituals that affect our mental state, rituals that shape whether we are “in the zone,” rituals that tap into transcendent realities.  When you join the team, you join their rituals.  So it was only natural that Israel would be tempted to take refuge in the practices of the Canaanites.

But God is a jealous god.  Not jealous in human terms, of course.  Not jealous out of insecurity or possessiveness.  Jealous like a music teacher who doesn’t want her students learning incorrect finger positions from some other instructor.  God has a vision and a purpose for us, a vision and a purpose for Israel’s life. They are to be a community of justice and compassion; gods of fertility and riches will lead them in other directions.

Israel will come to understand – later, unfortunately, rather than sooner – that there are no other gods, no other source of life and blessing than the one who opened the Red Sea, the one who stands at the beginning and end of time, the one who acts in history not just in nature, the one who speaks, the one – Christians will add – who bears the sins of the world.

So Israel is commanded to bring the first fruit of the land, the first fruit of the field and vine, the first fulfillment of nature’s promise and the first sign of life in the year to come – Israel is commanded to return to God who is the source of life that first fruit of life.  And as they do so, they are to tell the story how they were in Egypt and God delivered them from the house of bondage and brought them to this good land.  They are to connect the God of the desert with the powers in the fields, the God of history with the fruitfulness of the land.  They are to remember.

The Sunday offering is not about the necessary but vaguely tainted task of gathering money to pay the heat and lights.  It is that moment in the liturgy when we bring the first fruits of our labor and remember that all things come from God, even the breath we breathe.  When the offering plate comes by, this is the moment we say, “A wandering Aramean was my father” and give thanks to God for all life.

A way of life

Watching for the morning of November 24

A Sunday of Thanksgiving:
Thanksgiving, year C

The First Thanksgiving, painting by Jean Louis...

The First Thanksgiving, painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(In our parish this year we celebrated Christ the King a week early in order to have a Sunday of Thanksgiving.)

Thanksgiving is a cultural celebration and a family event.  Thanksgiving is also a way of life.  It can be one day in the year when we count up all the “blessings” we have (usually things or people), or it can be a continual awareness that we are surrounded by gift.

It is hard to say we are surrounded by gift when the news is occupied with the devastating affects of terrible storms – just as it is hard to say when struggling with disease or loss.  But something is profoundly different for those who remember that the abundance of the world around us is gift.  We cannot create the sun or rain or morning dew.  We cannot make the trees bud or turn their radiant hues.  We do not raise the mountains or create the rich soils of the valleys.  We tend crops, not manufacture them – and what we do manufacture comes from stuff given within the earth.

Those who see the lavish goodness of the creation, who remember the remarkable charity that underlies all existence, see a great spiritual truth that teaches us to live more charitably.

It is worth taking a day, not to count our possessions, but to acknowledge the generosity of God and hear the call to thanksgiving as a way of life.

The Prayer for a Sunday of Thanksgiving, 2013

God of compassion and bounty,
you pour forth your abundance upon our world,
calling us to receive all things with thankfulness and praise.
Help us trust your wise providing,
share your gifts freely,
and rejoice always in your goodness,
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 a Sunday of Thanksgiving, 2013

First Reading: Deuteronomy 26:1–11
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor”
– Moses exhorts the people to bring the first fruits of the land they are about to enter to present them to God with a recitation of all that God has done for them.

Psalmody: Psalm 100
“Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.” – A hymn of thanksgiving as the community gathers for worship.

Second Reading: Philippians 4:4–9
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” –
An exhortation to rejoice in the Lord always and set our minds on all that is good and true.

Gospel: John 6:25–35
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
– The crowds seek out Jesus after the feeding of the 5,000 and he challenges them not to seek the bread that perishes, but the bread that endures into eternal life.

 

Every child the Christ child

Sunday Evening of Christ the King

Colossians 1

Toposa mother and child in South Sudan

Toposa mother and child in South Sudan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

15He is the image of the invisible God,

Red triangles for political prisoners, green for “criminals”, black for “anti-social types” (prostitutes and gypsies), purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses, pink for homosexuals, blue for emigrants, yellow for Jews – plus a letter with their nationality, and a second, overlapping triangle making a six pointed star if they fit one of the other categories.  When Auschwitz was liberated the warehouses held 370,000 men’s suits and 837,000 women’s coats and dresses.  7.7 tons of human hair were packed and ready for shipment.  The hair was turned into felt.

Jesus wears a triangle that is red and green and black and purple and pink and blue and yellow.  He sits amid the rubble in the Philippines.  He is raped by the Janjawid.   He is sold into prostitution.  He lives in a refugee camp on the Syrian border.  He holds his dying child in his arms.  He waits for a father who will never come home from war.

“He is the image of the invisible God,” he, the broken, the wounded, the pierced one with a crown of thorns.  Yes, he is the remarkable voice of the Sermon on the Mount.  Yes, he is the clever debater trumping his opponents.  Yes, he is the tender man speaking graciously to the woman caught in adultery.  Yes, he is the kindness reaching the isolated woman at the well.  Yes, he is the healer enabling the lame to walk.  Yes, he is the Lord of All walking up on the sea.  But all these find their true meaning in the crucified.

God has entered into the fabric of the world, made all human flesh holy by taking it upon himself.  God has made even the fetid flesh of the homeless drunk holy.  However tarnished the image of God may be in us, however forgotten, however denied, Christ has claimed it.

God has made every ache and sorrow his own.  God has made us his own.  Patiently he calls us to see as he sees.  Patiently he calls us to live as he lives.  Patiently he calls us to love as he loves.  Patiently, persistently, Sunday after Sunday, he bids us make every triangle our own, every man our brother, every woman our sister, every child the Christ child.

“He is the image of the invisible God.”  He is the portal in which we glimpse the divine.  He is the face of our true humanity.  “Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

It is a priceless privilege and profound calling to share in his table.

The long straw

Saturday

Colossians 1

English: Cathedral-of-Christ-the-Saviour

English: Cathedral-of-Christ-the-Saviour (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

12giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.

I love the phrase “the saints in light.”  It is poetic, vivid, radiant with hope.  When I hear it, of course, I think of those who are already gathered to the throne of God, the communion of those loved ones who have gone ahead.  But I’m not sure this is what Paul meant.  Is he speaking of the faithful departed, or the holy beings around the throne of God – the angels?  The Greek says only ‘the holy [ones]’.

Paul talks elsewhere of the believers as saints, as those having been made holy in Christ, so it is understandable for our first thoughts to go to those who have died. It fits our common notion of heaven as a place you go (hopefully) when you die.  And then heaven is our inheritance because of Christ.  But that’s not quite what Paul is saying.

Part of the trouble is the word “inheritance” which has a distinct meaning in English tied to death and the transmission of property.  But the Greek word refers to a lot, as in casting lots.  From that it comes to mean portion: when the lots have been cast and your portion determined.  By extension it can refer to your allotted inheritance, that portion of the family land that falls to you.

In Christ, the lots have been cast.  In Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself.  By our baptism into Christ, God has attached us to Christ.  Our lot is Christ.  We have been given the ‘long straw’.  We have become sons and daughters of light – the light that is the portion granted to the angels.  Paul is not talking about an inheritance yet to come; he is talking about the portion, the gift, the gracious wonder we have received.

“He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

We no longer live in the realm of guilt and shame and death and the bondage they bring.  We live in the realm of grace and life.  We live in the realm of light.  We are not waiting to go home; we are already home.  It would be creepy if everyone showed up for worship in white robes – unfortunately, for there would be something profoundly true about it.  As broken and dusty as we are, we have been washed.  We have been given wedding garments for the feast that has no end.

Later in the letter Paul will tell us to act like children of the light.  But for now he is just building the foundation.  We are not going to be instructed in how to live in order to gain an inheritance to come; we will be instructed in how to live the gift we have received.