Blessing of the Animals

Watching for the morning of October 5

Year A

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 22 / Lectionary 27

Mom's DogAs the liturgical year draws to a close, the Gospel readings in this year of Matthew come from Jesus in Jerusalem. Matthew places quite a bit of material in this last week of Jesus’ life, most of it a bitter attack against the chief priests and Pharisees, the elite members of Jerusalem society who govern both temple and nation.

When Matthew assembles his Gospel it is after the city and temple have been destroyed. Between Jesus and these Judean leaders, two visions of Israel’s God and faith are clashing: one centered in the temple and ritual law; the other centered in justice and mercy and God’s healing of his creation.

It is difficult to be an “established church,” one of the mainline denominations, when Jesus is brutally confronting the betrayal of God’s will by those who claim God’s name. Such words are not directed at a false religion of the past, but what is false in our own religious institutions. We have a remarkable ability to turn this Gospel, this message of the dawning reign of God, the dawning transformation of the world, into a sturdy defense of conventional morality and piety.

But in the midst of this season of tough words confronting our tendency towards religious systems that maintain society rather than transform it, we take time in this first Sunday of October to remember St. Francis and the blessing of the animals.

We are not going to skip over the tough words of Jesus. But we are going to remember that these tough words are spoken on behalf of a God who formed the world in beauty and love and is calling us to abide in that beauty and love.

The Prayer of the Day for the Sunday of October 5, 2014 (proper 22/Lectionary 27)

God of mercy, Lord of all,
you have made us to be your vineyard, your field,
your heart and hands and voice in the world.
Govern our hearts and minds by your Holy Spirit,
that our lives might bear forth the fruit of your kingdom;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Prayer of the Day for the Blessing of the Animals

Gracious and eternal God,
who formed and fashioned a good and perfect world for us to share,
speak anew your word of blessing
and send forth your Spirit to renew the seas and the land and our hearts
that all creation might join in praise to you.

The Texts for the Sunday of October 5, 2014 (proper 22/Lectionary 27)

First Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7
“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard.” – The prophet sings of his “beloved” who tenderly cared for his vineyard only to have it yield bitter grapes and invites the people of Judah to judge whether he is not justified in tearing it down.

Psalmody: Psalm 80:7-15
“You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it… Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?” – The psalm uses the image of Israel as a vine, brought out of Egypt and planted in a good land, and laments that the vineyard has been breached and ravaged by the wild beasts – a metaphor for the destruction of the nation.

Second Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14
“I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
– Paul declares that he considers all his righteousness under the law as worthless compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus and his righteousness.

Gospel: Matthew 21:33-46
“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.” – Taking up the conventional imagery of Israel as God’s vineyard from Isaiah and the psalms, Jesus tells a story of an absentee landlord whose tenants refused to give to their master the fruit they owed him. The tenants rebel and kill the son in order to claim the vineyard for themselves, but are ultimately destroyed and the vineyard given to others.

Texts in the liturgy for the Blessing of the Animals:

Psalm 148
“Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps.”
– The poet calls all heaven and earth to join in praise of God

Isaiah 11:6-9
“The 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.’” – Isaiah’s vision of the earth healed and restored to the innocence of Eden, when “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”


A Cappella

Sunday Evening

Psalm 25

Church.web.pancake supper8 Good and upright is the Lord…
9 He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.

Our musician didn’t show up for worship today, so we had to do the service a cappella. It was kind of sweet. Fortunately it was a simple service – absent much of the fuller liturgy that shapes our worship in seasons like Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter. But there was something simple, even pure, in the music coming just from us.

Part of what made the service special was the member who volunteered to sing an offertory – the special music when our offerings are gathered. It was a gift of thanks to God, for she had been forbidden to sing by her doctor. Indeed, she had unable to speak for several months, and then allowed only one hour a day. This week she got clearance to sing again. Her vocal chords are healed.

We pray often and regularly for those in need, those in critical care, and those facing the end of life. We don’t so often lift up with joy answered prayers, gifts given – or, like this, gifts restored – to a woman who loved to sing.

What also made our worship sweet was the gentle reminder that worship is an act of a community. It is something we do together. It is not so much prepared for us by others, as if this were a restaurant; it is assembled by us more like a potluck. It is a combination of our voices, our prayers, our various acts of service, our gifts of ourselves to one another and to God – and God’s gifts to us.

PS Our musician is alive and well; it was not a disaster that kept him from us today.

The question “Why?!”


Ezekiel 18

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Michelangelo, the prophet Ezekiel on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

4Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.

The translators’ use of the words ‘parent’ and ‘child’ distorts the meaning of the Hebrew ‘father’ and ‘son’. It makes us think of families and small children rather than adults of different generations. We react instinctively with aversion to any talk of God taking the life of a child. But the sins the prophet has in mind are listed in verses we skip in the assigned reading: violence, murder, rape, robbery and usury. These are hardly the sins of children. They are crimes we ourselves think deserve death, even if we don’t support capital punishment.

4Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.

Still, the words sound harsh to us because our attention is drawn to the judgment that “the person who sins…shall die.” It suggests an image of a punishing God, striking people down. Since so many people seem so ready to take up that task on God’s behalf we rightly shirk from these ideas. But, again, the sins of which we are speaking are crimes that all would recognize as violating others and debasing their common life.

It is true that the prophet names idolatry with these crimes against persons. There was not a line between ‘religious’ acts and civic life and this can confuse us because we think of religion as private thoughts separate from public acts. But this is too narrow and too modern a notion of religion. The gods of our day often ask for child sacrifice; they simply disguise their claim. We are not spilling the blood of a child at the foundations of a city gate; we are neglecting or aborting them in the name of success, happiness, or as the price of our addictions. Or we are sending them off to war putting our faith, hope and trust in the power of violence. The character of Francis Underwood in the show “House of Cards” commits murder (and a host of other sin/crimes) because his ultimate faith is in power. The thing we worship is the fountain of the things we do.

In the time of the prophet, people took it for granted that the price of such fundamental betrayals of God and neighbor was death. In a society without prisons, what other punishments could be rendered? Compensation may apply for crimes of property, and cities of refuge could justly answer an accidental death – but how else can a community restrain violence? And where a community cannot hold people accountable, God must.

This is not to say that God strikes people down like Zeus throwing thunderbolts, but it does mean that such people are cut off from God, the source of life. It means that the consequences of their deeds come back upon their own heads. So the surprising word in this text, the word that is meant to engage us, is not the word ‘die’ but the word ‘only’: “only the person who sins that shall die.”

At a time and place when the people are blaming their troubles on the deeds of the previous generations (the parents ate the sour grapes and the children got the sour taste), God speaks a simple “No.” It doesn’t mean that every tragedy is God’s judgment on the victim. It means that these particular people at the dawn of the 6th Century BCE must take responsibility for the actions that have led them into exile. They are not the helpless victims of a judgment for the sins of others; they are responsible adults – and since their troubles are their own doing, their future is also in their own hands. They can change the direction of their lives: 31Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!”

God takes no pleasure in watching us suffer the consequences of our misplaced faiths, hopes and trusts. Indeed this is the anguished cry God in the prophet’s words “Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.”

It is God who, in the face of human sorrows, is asking the question “Why?!”



Ezekiel 18

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Alek Rapoport. Angel and Prophet (Ezekiel 2:10)

25You say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?

If we could hear well, how many of our conversations with God would go like this? Everyone wants to know how God can let bad things happen, when God is sure to ask us how we can let bad things happen. We human beings are the authors of our wars. We human beings text and drive. We human beings assign to the poor the Lower Ninth Ward (the lands most likely to flood should the levies we build fail when the wetlands we destroyed can no longer protect the land from the sea).

“Is it not your ways that are unfair?”

We may ask God why he tolerates evil, but God will turn that question back on us. We humans allowed the rise of Jim Crow and the National Socialists and sold the machetes to Rwanda. God didn’t set the Cuyahoga River on fire or bury toxins in Love Canal.

It’s dangerous to ask such questions of God.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? God asks Job. Job is lucky God didn’t ask where was Job when any of the human tragedies of history were wreaked.

Where are you? is the question God asks of Adam and Eve in the garden after they have tasted the forbidden fruit and spawned their alienation from God and one another. It’s not that God doesn’t know they are hiding in the bushes, vainly trying to cover their shame with leaves. But God needs our first parents to recognize the truth of what they have become, now that they have chosen rebellion from God.

“Where are you?” is God’s first question of us. And then he will ask, as he does of Cain, Where is your brother?

“You say, ‘The way of the Lord is unfair.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?”

The voice of God through the prophet has no interest in blaming, only in our confession of the truth of the human heart. For only there will humanity stop blaming God, chance and others (as Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent). Only there will we learn to say “Here I am.” Only there is the door opened for us to get 31“a new heart and a new spirit.”

We don’t want to talk about sins unless we are discussing the sins of others (typically, the ones that we don’t think apply to us). But there is no true liberty except in the grace of God, no true life except in the resurrecting breath of the eternal who summons us to 32“turn and live.”

Honor or obedience?


Matthew 21

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The Parable of the Two Sons, By Andrey Mironov 777

23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

Our Gospel reading this Sunday has us now in Jerusalem. The narrative we associate with Palm Sunday of Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem upon a donkey and “cleansing” the temple has just occurred and now, the next morning, Jesus returns to the temple where he is confronted by the temple authorities: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

It sounds to us like a question, but it’s not. They know full well that no officer in the nation has authorized this action. It’s a little like your parent asking, after some blatant infraction, “Just who do you think you are?!” There is no answer to the question and, normally, the person is condemned to silence and shame.

But Jesus has an authorization – he has a prophetic commission from God. Still, it is not a claim he can make on his own. To do so would be the height of hubris. Such an acclamation that he is an agent of God can only come from the community. So Jesus, instead of hanging his head, answers shrewdly: “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.”

So Jesus asks about John’s authority – and now the Jerusalem leaders must hang their heads in silence. They cannot say that John was a prophet without risking the question why they did not listen to him, nor can that say he was not a prophet without risking the wrath of the crowd. So they say nothing – and Jesus’ refusal to answer becomes not his shame but his victory.

The chief priests and elders, the elite rulers of the city and nation, now become the victim of a question from Jesus about two sons: one refused his father’s request but later changed his mind, the other said he would do as the father asked but didn’t. At this point, before Jesus poses his question, everyone in the crowd is siding with the second son. The first boy is shameful to defy his father in public; the second son is the good son.

In a society in which public honor is the highest value, a good son would never publicly refuse his father (and this is a society where everything is public).   Everyone knows that the good son is the one who says, “I will go” even if he has no intention of going. The good son upholds his father’s honor.

But Jesus doesn’t ask who was the good son. He doesn’t ask which son fulfilled the commandment to honor his father. He asks which did the father’s will! Jesus isn’t much interested in the rituals of honor; he declares that God is looking for justice and mercy. The Jerusalem elite give God great public honor – it is a magnificent temple and their rituals and sacrifices are grand – but it is the “sinners and tax collectors” who have heard the message of God’s kingdom and shown allegiance to the way of God. They are the ones who have shared their bread and forgiven one another and treated all as members of God’s house. They are the ones “entering the kingdom,” receiving and sharing the gifts of God, and taking their place at the banquet of God.

It is a teaching that takes us back to the beginning of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus says: Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Or again: Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

It’s the difference between a house built on sand and one built on rock.

In the rubble of Palm Sunday

Watching for the morning of September 28

Year A

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 21 / Lectionary 26

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Cecco del Caravaggio, Christ Expelling the Money Changers from the Temple

We have come to Jerusalem. Although we won’t hear again the narratives we read in Holy Week and Easter, these texts and parables that take us to the last Sunday of the church year (November 23 in 2014) are set by Matthew in that final week in Jerusalem and reflect the intense conflict between Jesus and the leaders of the people. They are stories in which, like last week, the guardians of the temple and city (the wealthy protectors of the status quo) have murder in their eyes.

In the Gospel reading this Sunday the leaders will attack Jesus for his public demonstration in the temple, when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and drove the animals and their sellers from the temple and declared that this ancient sacred site had become a hideout for thieves. But Jesus will get the better of them and press home the stunning and surprising question that asks not who honors their father in heaven, but who is doing his will.

This question is set for us against the backdrop of the prophet Ezekiel, who will not let his community blame their misfortunes on the sins of their parents generation, but makes each person accountable before God for his own deeds.

The psalmist gives a humble appeal for God to look mercifully upon him and Paul writes to the congregation in Philippi urging them to a life together that is shaped by the mind of Christ who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and was obedient unto death.

Obedience, faithfulness, repentance, the proper way to honor God, sinners and chief priests, the penitent and the righteous are all the topic of this week. And we come to be reminded both of the mercy of God who ever invites us to his table, and the earnestness of God who looks for far more from us than outward gestures of respect.

The Prayer for September 28, 2014

Gracious Heavenly Father,
you look for the fruits of righteousness in our lives,
the justice and mercy called forth by your word.
Create in us willing and obedient hearts
that know and do you will;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 28, 2014

First Reading: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
“What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?” – In 597 BCE, ten years before the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, it had surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar who carried off members of the leading families to Babylon as hostages against further rebellion (including Ezekiel). To a people who blamed their misfortunes on the sins of the preceding generations, the prophet declares that each is accountable to God for their own actions and the one who turns back to God will find life.

Psalmody: Psalm 25:1-9
“Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation.” – Psalm 25 is also an acrostic poem, each line beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet. Here the poet humbly asks God’s mercy.

Second Reading: Philippians 2:1-13
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” – In prison in Rome, Paul writes to his beloved congregation in Philippi to encourage them to remain faithful to their Lord, here urging the community to have “the same mind” as Christ Jesus.

Gospel: Matthew 21:23-32
“The chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’” – The morning after Jesus attacked the moneychangers and sellers in the temple, the chief priests come and attack him about his authority to do such things. Jesus deftly turns their attack back on them and, with a story about two sons, asks who is doing the will of the Father.


Sunday Evening

Psalm 145

Ripples from a loon on a Minnesota lake

Ripples from a loon on a Minnesota lake

4 One generation shall laud your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.

Every Sunday should end with a barbecue, a band of four accordions and a tuba, and the delightful laughter of a little girl in a bouncy house.

The picnic today was great fun. The Boy Scouts were selling popcorn and showing off the Eagle Scout project of a prayer labyrinth. There was a display of Los Altos in 1954, the year our congregation was organized. There were pictures of our youth ministry and confirmation pictures from those 60 years. It was a delightful celebration of our anniversary and a delightful reminder of the many dimensions of ministry that take place in and around a congregation.

The NA group set up a table to share information about the twelve step ministries that happen in our fireside room. A quartet from the community choir sang when the band went to eat, and had a display of information about their group that meets in our music room. Even the local flower club that meets in our fellowship hall brought plants and a display about their group.

The ministry of the parish is not only on Sunday morning, though that is certainly our most visible ministry. But there are also all those parts of our congregational life from Sunday school to choirs to youth group. There are friendships created that sustain people in times of trial and share times of joy. There are works of service that plant within us and within our young people the importance of giving. There are Christmas boxes for children assembled and shipped overseas, quilts made for the homeless, clothing collected for Lutheran World Relief. There are missions and schools that get supported: people making a difference in troubled parts of the world. Food is gathered for those in and near our community. Support is given to the shelter for women. If we begin to think carefully about all the ripples of kindness that have gone out from this place in the last 60 years we would be amazed.

And there are joys celebrated: weddings and baptisms and anniversaries. There is support given in times of tragedy and sorrow. There are hands held in times of anxiety, and a quiet presence as a family waits for a loved one in surgery.

A parish is ever changing as new people come and others move away. But the ripples continue to extend outward wherever people go.

Sometimes there are wounds, too; that’s the reality of human communities. We are far from perfect. But we pray that, according to his promise, God will work in such places to heal and reconcile and draw us into a walk more fully shaped by God’s own Spirit.

The fountain at the heart of all this is the story about Jesus – and the larger narrative about creation and exodus and Israel’s experience of a God determined to bless the world. The Spirit of Jesus is quickened in us by that story. That story calls us together for worship; creates in us faith, hope and love; sustains us in trial; and sends us out as agents of grace in the world. Consider every life that has been touched by everyone who has been nurtured here on the notion that life is about faithfulness to God and love of neighbor.

Emperor Julian (known as “Julian the Apostate” because he was not a Christian and tried to revive paganism in the empire) commanded the pagan temples to care for the sick and the poor in the way that the Christians did. He was unsuccessful. It was not part of the culture of the ancient temples. It is part of our culture.

The story of Jesus ripples on throughout history. We see it light the night sky now and again in a figure like Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr. or a Mother Teresa. The story of Jesus, percolating through South Africa, provided that nation the chance to chart a path or reconciliation rather than revenge.

But mostly the story of Jesus ripples on in simple acts of kindness and the promise that we can be better than our worst. It ripples on in persistent hope for a better world. It ripples on in the ideal of forgiveness and love of neighbor. It ripples on in the idea that the world is entrusted into our care for us to tend like Eden. It ripples on in the belief that sins can be forgiven and life can start over. It ripples on in myriad ways, great and small, towards that promised day when swords are beaten into plowshares and every tear wiped away: a good world healed and restored.

There is much more going on in a barbecue than tasty food, fun music and a nostalgic look at the past. There is a reminder that God made all things good. And he’s not done working.



Jonah 3

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Rembrandt, The Prophet Jonah before the Walls of Nineveh, c. 1655

10When God saw what [the people of Nineveh] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. 4:1But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.

The ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh lie across the river from Mosul. Situated on the Tigris, it is one of the most ancient cities in the world, in the heart of the Fertile Crescent where humans first domesticated crops and created cities and empires. It was the greatest city in the world for 50 years before it was weakened by civil war and fell in 612 BCE to the rebel forces from which emerged the Babylonian empire.

At its height, the Assyrian Empire stretched from Egypt to Central Turkey to the Persian Gulf. We recognize the names of Assyrian kings like Shalmaneser, Tiglath-Pileser, Sargon, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and Ashurbanipal though we seldom know where or when to locate those names.

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Lamassu (Human-headed winged bull) heading left. Relief from king Sargon II’s palace at Dur Sharrukin in Assyria (now Khorsabad in Iraq), ca. 713–716 BC

This was also the empire that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and subjugated Judah.

While Jonah would have gladly declared God’s judgment on the city, he refused to go lest the people repent. He feared that God would forgive them if they did so.

And he was right.

At least, that is the story told in this little short story of Jonah.

Jonah wanted the city to pay for its sins; God wanted the city to come back to himself. Between these two desires is the central religious struggle. Do we really want the God of the whole earth, or just a god for ourselves. Do we really want a God of mercy, or a god who will take our side.

Few of us weep at the destruction being wrought in Mosul. Perhaps few of us even recognize that this city has been hit recently by French and U.S. airstrikes. It’s just part of that mess. Most of us celebrated when Sadam was found in his spider hole and when Bin Laden was killed and dumped into the sea. We generally share Jonah’s conviction that God should come down against our enemies.

The great mercy of God is that he does not let Jonah run away from his mission. And even when Jonah pouts, God seeks to stir Jonah’s heart to understand the true compassion of God: if Jonah can care for a mere plant, should God not care for all the inhabitants of this great city?

Just as God wanted Nineveh to repent, so he wanted Jonah to repent. He wanted Jonah to share his compassion.

And what God wants of Jonah, God wants of us.

“Living is Christ”


Philippians 1

Sunflower.medium21For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.

“Living is Christ.”

Paul is in prison in Rome. We do not know for sure whether, at this point, he is under a form of house arrest as described in Acts or whether he is in a more brutal custody, but he is facing the reality that he may be near his end.

He has been in prison a long time now. He was arrested in Jerusalem after a riot broke out in the temple when it was rumored he had desecrated the temple by bringing a gentile into the inner court. The arresting officer had assumed he was an insurrectionist, advocating armed rebellion against Rome, and started to flog him before Paul’s status as a Roman citizen came to light. Still, the hostility against Paul was intense. His message that we are reconciled to God in Christ Jesus by grace apart from the law was reported as teaching Judeans to abandon the Law of Moses. A plot to murder him was discovered and he was secreted out of Jerusalem by armed guard to Caesarea. There he was kept in custody for two years because his case was too incendiary to release him. Eventually, fearing that he would be sent back to Jerusalem for trial, Paul exercised his right to appeal to the Roman Emperor. Unfortunately the Emperor was Nero.

Traveling late in the shipping season against his advice, they were driven by a violent storm for many days before wrecking off the island of Malta.  It was three months before they were able to sail again for Rome.

Paul’s advocacy of Jesus had prompted communal violence and prison before, but this time, as Paul writes to Philippi, things don’t seem to be turning towards his freedom. Acts reports that he was in custody for at least two years in Rome. Though the New Testament never tells us, he is eventually beheaded in Rome – beheaded because, as a Roman citizen, he could not be tortured to death on a cross.

For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.

Should he be martyred, his death would unite him with Christ Jesus. After more than four years in chains, it is not hard to understand why he would see that as to his personal advantage. But “living is Christ.”

It is not just that living allows his service of Christ to continue, but “living is Christ.” Christ is present in the world in the community of believers.

Christ is present in the world in us. In our living as children of hope. In our witness to the Resurrection of Jesus. In our service of our neighbor. In our love.

“Living is Christ.”

It is common for people to say that Christ is life. Jesus the crucified and risen one is indeed the embodiment of the creator, the source of life. He is the embodiment of heaven’s mercy. He is the embodiment of the truth. He is the embodiment of forgiveness. He is the embodiment of life.

And now he is embodied in us.

“Living is Christ.”

My life. My frail, hesitant, troubled attempt to live by God’s spirit and grace, my living is Christ. My halting efforts to forgive as I have been forgiven, to love as I have been loved, to speak as Christ would speak, to serve as Christ would serve – my halting labor is Christ in the world.

Now the words of Jesus echo in my ears, “”You are the salt of the earth,” “You are the light of the world.” I know full well that Christ and Christ alone is the light of the world, but “Living is Christ.”

These hands, this mouth, these eyes and ears are the presence of Christ in the world. Christ is not present as some ethereal presence, some disembodied spirit; Christ is embodied in us. “Living is Christ.”

Such thoughts fill me with awe and shame and courage all at the same time, for I so easily discount the significance of my life. But “living is Christ.”

Slow to anger


Psalm 145

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The prophet Jonah, Frescos in the interior of Oratorio dei Disciplini, Clusone. Photocredit: Mattana

8 The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Considering that most gods were easy to enrage, this is a remarkable confession by ancient Israel. Slow to anger. In the Babylonian myth, the gods created humanity from the blood of the chaos monster (as servants) and then regretted their decision because humans were too noisy. I don’t know the myth well-enough to say whether it was the cacophony of human enterprise, the shrill cries of violence and war, or the incessant chatter of humanity’s petitions – their endless cries for daily bread – but like irritated elites, the gods sent a flood to silence them. Noah, of course, outwitted the gods – sailing for safety to the mountain of the gods – a cleverness for which he was rewarded with immortality.

Against that backdrop, the Biblical writers told a remarkably different story – of a humanity whose wickedness knew no bounds (“every imagination of the thoughts of the hearts was only evil continually”) but where God’s mercy rescued humanity, warning Noah, gathering the animals, and gently closing the door of the ark.

Slow to anger.

We have perhaps taken that mercy for granted. In a world marred by death camps and death marches and a vast improvement upon the little first-generation bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed some 100,000 people at a single stroke, and again as many in the months following – the fact that we argue such weapons were necessary to prevent even greater loss of life is only evidence for how far we have fallen from God’s vision for us. This week a friend sent me information about a home raided by authorities were the bodies of dead infants (perhaps stillborn fetuses, if the mother is to be believed) were found beneath the littered and fetid mess of unwashed children, garbage and piles of diapers. The news is preoccupied with the brutal behavior of NFL players, and the beheadings of foreign journalists in the Middle East has roused us to new levels of bombing.

Slow to anger.

Maybe God is too slow to anger. Maybe we would rather a God who would storm from the heavens and throw a few lightening bolts at our butchery and hate. Jonah is certainly enraged by God’s decision to forgive Nineveh, that great city whose empire had brought such suffering to the world, the people who had conquered and dispersed forever the ten northern tribes of Israel. Jonah can’t quite understand why God should care about such people. Jonah can’t bring himself to see them as God’s children. We don’t either, or we wouldn’t be so quick to war.

Slow to anger.

Slow to anger because God’s purpose is not to punish evil but reclaim his rebel world. Slow to anger, because God’s purpose is not to whip a recalcitrant humanity into line – fear can do that if you are willing to be ruthless enough. Slow to anger because God hopes eternally to help us recover our lost humanity.

And so Jesus on the cross doesn’t hurl invective against those evil few who have conspired against him or who have followed orders to torture him to death. He calls on no army of angels. He summons no firebolts. He speaks instead words of kindness, trust in God, and forgiveness.

God is not ignoring the evil that is done. And God is by no means excusing our evil. But he is calling to us. Calling for us to see the work of our hands.  Calling for us to change direction. Calling for us to see the enemy as people for whom God cares. Calling for us to live the steadfast love God shows.

We are grateful for such love and mercy when it is shown to us; we just have trouble understanding why God shows it to others. And until we do, we will continue to build our little arsenals of hate and fear.

8 The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.