The song lingers

Sunday Evening

Isaiah 51 (as sung in the psalmody today)

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Western Meadowlark. Kevin Cole from Pacific Coast, USA

11 “The ransomed of the Lord will return,
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads;
sorrow and sighing will flee away.”

The hymns from this morning linger in my mind. I find myself humming or singing or just hearing in my mind the words “A-a-a-le-lu-u-jah, A-a-a-le-lu-u-jah, A-a-a-le-lu-u-jah, Christ the-e Lord [something] comes to reign.” (I had to go find my hymnal and look it up. That uncertain line is “Christ the Lord returns to reign.”)

At different times in the day different phrases from that hymn has rattled through my mind.

Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain

But, since I don’t know this hymn very well, after these few words I resort to the “dah, dah, dah”s. Still, the music of the hymn, the majesty and – not quite joy, but ‘uplift’? – of the hymn I remember. It is like an echo coming back across a broad valley, or the aroma from yesterday’s bread that reveals itself when I return to my apartment.

Worship is meant to do this, to linger. The words spoken, the readings, the songs, the prayers, the actions of standing and sitting, giving an offering, and coming to the table, the sharing of the peace – they are all meant to work not only on our conscious mind but our subconscious. The peace is meant to linger. The sense of our lives being connected to something greater than ourselves is meant to ripple through our day, our week. A warmth of human connection, a hug, a smile, a gesture as simple as sharing a bulletin, may waft through our day with positive emotions. Of course, a harsh word, a cold shoulder can also haunt the day. This is the risk we take in being with others.

The liturgy didn’t go smoothly this morning. It was storming outside. Between the storm and the holiday weekend, the gathered community was small. The Assisting Minister didn’t show up, nor the acolyte. I had forgotten I agreed to get someone to sing the verse of “Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel” that transitioned us from announcements into the lighting of the Advent Wreath before the entrance hymn. And I didn’t know who, if anyone, was prepared to light the wreath – the person assigned to that task was late arriving. Then the printer wouldn’t work for my sermon. We weren’t quite prepared for the beginning of this Advent season that is about preparation. Ah, well.

We do enter God’s presence stumbling. We do not arrive with manicured nails and tailored suits; we arrive as we are: frail in our best times, capable of great ugliness in our worst. We come as representatives of a humanity that is rioting in Ferguson, shooting children with toy guns in the assumption they are criminals; bombing cities, kidnapping children, assaulting women for indecent clothing. We come disillusioned by fallen heroes – the world has lost some of its remaining innocence with the revelations about Bill Cosby. And the missing football player is added to a tragic list of suicides. We come as members of a human community that has profoundly betrayed our creator’s intention for us – and yet also as members of a human community capable of remarkable generosity. Who could imagine Bloods and Crips standing together to protect another’s property? For every one who throws a rock there are others helping to clean up. For every killing marred by racism there are acts that transcend the most fundamental human divides. For every act of violence, manifold kindness.

We come together to sing our frail song and, somehow, God in his infinite grace transforms our song into true praise – into a meadowlark’s evening call, into the sound of wind in the aspens, into the harmonies of the spheres.

Our small words become vessels of God’s words, our bit of bread a vehicle of Christ’s presence, our prayers draw eternity to us and us to the eternal.

It is truly wondrous. And, in spite of ourselves, the tune lingers.

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No one knows

[The second of two posts that belonged to, but weren’t quite ready for] Saturday

Mark 13

Sunlight illuminating the forest floor.  Photo credit: dkbonde

Sunlight illuminating the forest floor. Photo credit: dkbonde

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Okay. Now we have to talk moderately. We do not know when Christ will come. But we live in the light of his coming. We live in the light of his words and deeds, his life death and resurrection, and we live in the light of his promise to gather all things to himself in God’s great act of recreation. Christ is the Alpha and omega, he is our beginning and our end. He is the self-expression of God in whom all things were created and he is the goal toward which all things move. Our beginning was in God and our End is in God – God revealed in the self-giving love of Christ Jesus.

We do not know when Christ will come, when the kingdom will dawn in the full brightness of eternal day, when the New Jerusalem descends like a bride, when the lion lies down with the lamb, when every heart kneels is service and adoration of the perfect faithfulness of God.

We have no schedule, no timetable, no outline, no sequences of steps, just a promise that the risen Christ is “seated at the right hand of God,” is the governing truth of all existence. And that his “kingdom” shall come; he shall reign in every heart.

We do not know when Christ will come, but we live in the light of his coming. We live in the light of his reign. We live under the governing influence of his Spirit. We live in the promise and hope that all things are fulfilled in him.

So we do not know when he shall come; but we know that he comes. And we are called to live as his faithful bondservants. We are called to be awake – not searching the skies for him to come, not searching the earth for the latest tragedies that might point to his pending arrival – but awake and doing the tasks he has given us: to show steadfast faithfulness to God and to all others.

We have seen in Christ Jesus the new leaves of an eternal spring. We have seen in Christ Jesus lives made whole. We have seen in Christ Jesus sins forgiven and enemies loved. We have seen the grave unable to hold him prisoner. We have felt the warmth of that spring in our own lives – mending what was broken, healing what was torn, restoring what was lost. We have seen it in the lives of others around us. We have seen the equivalent of the blind seeing and the lame man in the temple leaping for joy.

We are awake and watchful – not obsessed with signs of the end – but obsessed with the task of living and sharing this Gospel: the news has a come back from the battlefield and God is victorious. Sin and death and the devil are defeated. War and violence and bitterness of soul, despair and greed, these are all thrown down. They will not reign. They will not enslave. They will not bind the earth in sorrow.

No one knows when Christ will come – except that he has come and he continues to come and he will come and my heart and every heart shall belong perfectly to him.

A rant

[The first of two posts that belonged to, but weren’t quite ready for] Saturday

Mark 13

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photo credit: Julian Osley

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Please note: Pastors – at least most pastors – are always trying to be careful not to step on toes. Well put on your steel-toed work boots. I’m tired of being careful about this subject.

“About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” If Jesus doesn’t even know, why do we pay any attention to people who say they do??!!

To claim to know the time of Jesus’ return is to show yourself a false prophet. Period. The members of such a congregation should promptly leave. But we love listening to these schemas. It’s like listening to Oliver Stone talk about the magic bullet. It’s a religious form of the conspiracy theory: we know, you don’t, aren’t we special?

You’re not special! Well, you are special in God’s eyes, special enough to be called to become a servant of God and humanity. But that’s different. You want to be “in the know”. It’s the same seductive power as gossip. I know secrets and it makes me feel special. This is where those who remember should hear the voice of the church lady: “Well aren’t we special?!”

No one knows.

No one knows.

How many times does Jesus have to say it?! He doesn’t even know!

Now about this nonsense of the fig tree (people saying that they aren’t predicting the day, they’re just reading the signs like the greening fig tree): We see the buds because we have seen Jesus, not because we see armies marching in the Middle East. We know spring is coming because Christ has come, not because there are big earthquakes around. There have always been earthquakes since Adam and Eve snatched the apple. Just like there are wars and rumors of wars. No one knows.

I knew a clown years ago, speaking to impressionable teens, who whispered to us on a rooftop as we stared at the stars that Jesus said we wouldn’t know the day or the hour – but he didn’t say we wouldn’t know the month and the year. He told me – it was back in March of ‘72 I think. No one knows!

No one knows. So quit working out your schemas and get back to work. There are people who haven’t heard the gospel. There are people who need the stuff we do know about Jesus, not the stuff we don’t know! There are people who are hungry and homeless. There are people who are huddled in refugee camps. There are children on your block who are neglected and abused. Be the kingdom. And if you want to look for Christ anywhere, look for him in the face of the hungry, the poor, the imprisoned, the sick. That’s where he said he was.

So, if I’ve spoken immoderately, if I’ve stepped on your toes, I’m sorry.

BUT NO ONE KNOWS!!!

The long dry spell

Friday

Isaiah 64

The Great Basin.  Photo credit: dkbonde

The Great Basin. Photo credit: dkbonde

1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,

It’s strangely comforting to know that a prophet must struggle through those times when God seems remote. The cry, “Where are you, God?” is not just the cry of the moments of tragedy; it is also the cry of the long dry spell – the season when God seems far removed, when the consolations of God’s presence and peace are absent.

I took a group of high school students on a canoe trip down the Au Sable River in Michigan one summer. I don’t remember precisely why one of the youth leaders and I put in late. I assume it was because we had ferried one of the cars to the first night’s campground – or, perhaps, to the place where we would take out on the last day. I just remember that the group had gone ahead and the two of us had to paddle intensely to catch up. We knew what we were doing and worked together well, staying with the current to maximize our speed as the river wove down its course. Unfortunately, we spent all our energy where the current was strong, only to catch the group where the river spread out in a broad still section of flat water. Floating with the current is pleasant. You feel the progress of your movement; there is shade overhead; and the murmur of the water is always with you. The flat water is beautiful, too, but the current has left you and paddling is work. Here, among the reeds and grasses you bear the heat of the day. There is no pleasant song of the stream. And the way is uncertain as the water makes several paths through the meadowlands.

The people of Israel are in one of these times when people are tired of paddling and uncertain of the way. They remember the glories of the temple – and the heady hopes of the days of the return from exile. But what is before them is hard work and the heat of the day. The city is largely abandoned and the walls in ruins. They have constructed an altar, but no temple has arisen. Harvests have not been abundant and so offerings have been meager. People have been reluctant to offer their first and best. Malachi will excoriate them for offering lame animals. It’s like eating a scrawny old chicken at Thanksgiving, because the turkey is still vigorous enough to bear young.

This spiritual malaise is a communal malady as well as an individual one. When one person acts selfishly others follow suit. Why should I donate generously when others aren’t pulling their weight? (Why should I give my turkey when others are bringing the leftovers from last year’s potatoes?) When such weariness strikes a community, Joy withers. Praise diminishes. Our faithfulness to God and one another fades.

The prophet recognizes that God is not fickle; this is a legacy of their sins (v. 4b). God was justified in tossing them away like a used menstrual cloth (v. 6). But, the prophet reminds God that he is their father (v. 8); they are the clay and he the potter – God is the one who formed them and can recreate them.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,

“It’s time, God,” says the prophet. “It’s time for you to show yourself. It’s time to drawn near. It’s time to tear open the heavens and come down to us.”

There are no answers here in this text, no “Ten steps to greater spiritual energy,” just the fellowship of the prophet in our own hard times and the example of his prayer.

But this is the Advent season. And we know that God has opened the heavens and come down.   We have seen the child of Bethlehem. And even in those times when God seems absent; he remains “Immanuel, God with us”.

Everlasting joy

Thursday

Isaiah 51

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by Meghana Kulkarni from Pune, India

11 “The ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

In the song of the prophet proclaiming the return from exile we hear the song of all creation looking to the day of our redemption: the day when every marching army is disbanded, when every hate-filled voice runs out of words, when every angry passion is stilled; the day when every table has food to share, and every family overflows with kindness; the day when the name of God is invoked with joy rather than venom and lies; the day when children are safe and neighborhoods are safe and nations are safe; the day when our exile from the garden is over and perfect reconciliation reigns.

No more tears. No more weeping from hunger. No more weeping from fear. No more weeping for stolen children. No more weeping from bitter words.

No more shall the creation groan in travail.   No more shall it long for God’s children to become true children of God.

No more shall the holy be profaned, and the profane be regarded as holy.

We shall come to Zion. We shall come to the city of God. We shall come to the place where heaven and earth are joined. The New Jerusalem is described in Revelation as a vast perfect cube – thousands of miles on a side. A perfect cube, like the holy of holies, the most holy place of the temple. Humanity gathered shall be the sacred abiding place of God.

We shall come to Zion with singing. Our exile is over. God has come in the child of Bethlehem. In the man from Nazareth. In the risen and ascended Lord. In the Holy Spirit outpoured. God has done more than reach across time and eternity; he has traveled across it to dwell with us, to lead us to Zion with singing. Our exile is over. We can go home.

I love Thanksgiving. I love the family gatherings. I love the aroma of roasting turkey and homemade bread. I love the taste of gravy and mashed potatoes and the laughter of memory and story and wine freely poured. I love the football game (though today’s late game was painful) and the noise of children and the clacking of the old hockey game with the twirling men on the end of those sliding metal rods.

I know that not every family’s Thanksgiving is a day of joy – there are scars and fractures and immoderate words – and that even our best thanksgiving gatherings cannot escape the occasional sight or sound of bitter wounds. But that to which Thanksgiving aspires has been promised to us: “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

And in the joy of that day we find our true freedom and life.

Falling stars

Wednesday

Mark 13

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Falling Stars, Mihály Zichy

24“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

“After that suffering.” We can’t read the whole Gospel at once – at least not on a Sunday morning. The readings in the liturgy are mere fragments of a story the community is supposed to know. When you hear the piece you ware supposed to remember what comes before and what comes after and how the pieces all fit together. As if you could pick up a small jigsaw puzzle and at first glance know where it fits.

We can’t read the whole Gospel at once, because of the time constraints of worship, but those who have heard this Gospel recited talk about how incredible is the experience. Mark was an oral Gospel, told to the community – preached to the community in the best sense of that word – proclaimed, and only later written down. It is full of the urgency of a breathless witness.   I think of my brother about 10, giving my mother a blow-by-blow rendition of “the best movie ever!” She is struggling to get groceries in from the car; he is oblivious to everything but the story.

“After that suffering.” It is a haunting reference to the struggle the community has endured. Mark’s is not a nice rural or suburban congregation in Middle America. It is like a refugee community on Syria’s border, surrounded by war and its aftermath.

Since the death of Jesus, his followers have suffered violence for their perceived betrayal of communal values – think about Paul participating in the stoning of Stephen, and he himself victimized, including by stoning, for the message he preached. He is nearly murdered by a mob in the temple and escapes an organized plot against his life only by being secreted out of Jerusalem at night by a detachment “of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen.” (Acts 23:23)

Conflict within the Judean community in the city of Rome, apparently involving hostility against the followers of Jesus, led to their expulsion in AD 49. Judeans return to the city, but the Christians become numerous and identifiable enough to get blamed by Nero for the burning of Rome in 64. Among the tortures they endured, some were dipped in pitch and set alight as torches for the emperor’s parade route. Then in 66 the Judean revolt began. The leaders of that revolt were acclaimed as the anointed of God – in Hebrew, ‘Messiah’, in Greek, ‘Christ’. When Jesus warns about false Christs, Mark’s community knows their names. The followers of Jesus are perceived as enemies of Romans and rebels alike. Those who fled Jerusalem were captured by the Romans and crucified in a circle around the city, facing the wall so that all inside could know the fate that awaited them.

In the first year of that war, as Vespasian marched through Galilee, refugees flooded the city. They would later starve or perish in the zealot reign of terror. There is a reason Jesus tells his followers to flee to the hills.

So when Jesus continues his discourse with this simple phrase: “After that suffering,” the crowd listening to Mark tell the story of Jesus knows the suffering of which he speaks. It is the suffering of their community squeezed on all sides.

But Jesus doesn’t offer them consolation; he speaks a promise: “After that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

The sun, moon and stars are divine beings in the ancient world, spirit beings inhabiting the realm of the air. We would think of them as forces, spiritual realities that drive human existence, like ideologies and isms. We see these forces at work on a grand scale in the clashing and mutually incomprehensible perceptions and experiences of the world between Palestinian and Jew or black and white in Ferguson. Fascism, Communism, Capitalism, Fundamentalism, Racism – these are forces that seem beyond human control, but wreak their wrath upon people and children, communities – even on the earth itself as carbon dioxide levels rise far beyond anything earth has known in 90,000 years, changing not just the weather but ecosystems and the chemistry of the ocean. Polar ice melts and orca now plunder the once protected nurseries of the narwhal and bowhead. Polar Bear are reduced to eating seaweed and trying to learn how to fish for salmon.

Before such transcendent powers Mark’s community seems helpless. But their story doesn’t end with suffering. “After that suffering” these powers will be thrown down. The Son of Man, the crucified and risen one, will come with power and great glory.

It is not pie in the sky. It is very far from pie in the sky. It is faith and courage and hope and continuing testimony in the face of great powers – born of the confidence that they are witnesses of a far greater power.

This is Mark’s urgent and compelling and liberating story. The unimaginable has happened: the true Messiah has been crucified but made alive by God – and he is coming to reign.

Fling Wide the Door

Watching for the morning of November 30

Year B

The First Sunday of Advent:

Doorway

Open doorway at the San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission. Photo credit: dbkonde

Sunday begins a new church year. The cycle that runs from Advent through Christmas to Lent and Easter and then from Pentecost to the end of the year resets itself – only now our Gospel readings are drawn mostly from Mark.

The church year does strange things to our reading of the gospels. It means we pick up the next writer’s story almost at the end, when Jesus is in Jerusalem predicting the fall of the city – and the Jerusalem leaders are making plans to arrest and destroy him. We don’t start at the beginning; we start at the end. We start with Jesus speaking about the events when history draws to its close.

Maybe it’s not altogether inappropriate.

In our time and place we generally like narratives to being at the beginning and explain all the complex psychological states of the adult from the traumas and experiences of youth. But we will not find that here. Quite the opposite. From the remarkable achievements of the adult – the ancients’ reasoned – there must have been a remarkable childhood. If you became a great king, there must have been signs in the heavens and wonders on earth to anticipate it.

But that’s not where our reading of these ancient narratives begins. We begin with the promise Christ will come on the clouds and the warning to keep awake. It’s where we ended the year, pointing to Christ as our true king.

Christianity begins and ends not with the manger or the cross and resurrection, but the promise that “The kingdom of God is at hand.” These are the first words of Jesus in Mark and the testimony of the angel at the empty tomb. God is drawing near to reign. God is drawing near to restore the connection between heaven and earth. God is drawing near to raise this broken world from its bondage to sin and death. God is drawing near to establish the just faithfulness of God. And that day is begun amongst us. The dead are raised. Sins are forgiven. The outcasts gathered in. The sick made whole. The possessed set free. Blind eyes opened.

That dawning reign of God began in Jesus. It continues among us. And it will come in fullness. For that day we watch and wait. Our Father is coming; and we are staying awake to jump into his arms with joy and delight when the door swings open.

The Prayer for November 30, 2014

Mighty God,
who stands at the beginning and end of time,
grant us wisdom to recognize the hour in which we live
and courage to remain faithful,
that we may greet you with joy at your coming;
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 November 30, 2014

First Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” – The prophet speaks the lament of the people in the years after the return from exile, when life is hard and the former glory of the nation is absent. He calls upon God to relent and forgive their sins.

Psalmody: Isaiah 51:4-11
“The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads, sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Our parish departs from the appointed psalm to sing this song of salvation from the prophet Isaiah.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1.3-9
“You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” –
Paul opens his letter to the believers in Corinth referring to the matter of spiritual gifts that has divided the community, setting them in their proper context as gifts of God to the whole body as they prepare for the consummation of God’s dawning reign.

Gospel: Mark 13.24-37
“Keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come.” – Having spoken of the destruction of the temple and what is to come for the community of believers, Jesus affirms that the Son of Man will come to gather his elect. For that day they should be awake, doing the work that they master of the house has entrusted to them.

“But the fat and the strong I will destroy”

Friday

Ezekiel 34

File:US Capitol Building.jpg16I will seek the lost,
and I will bring back the strayed,
and I will bind up the injured,
and I will strengthen the weak,
but the fat and the strong I will destroy.

It’s such a sweet verse until you get to that last part about the fat and the strong. It is like eating sweet grapes and then biting into a sour one. It is the kind of language that troubles us about the Old Testament. But there is a story behind these words.

We don’t typically hear this shepherding imagery as political speech. We think of Psalm 23 and the parable of the shepherd searching out the lost sheep. We see the paintings of Jesus as the good shepherd with the lamb around his neck. We hear these words as sweet assurances of God’s care in times of trouble – and the last line doesn’t seem to fit.

But this is tough, prophetic language, spoken in a time when the leadership of the nation had engaged in policies that inevitably brought the nation to destruction. The royal house and wealthy families had caused this people to be scattered, wounded and impoverished. The words of the prophets in their time sound more like God declaring, “I, myself, will run the Fed, and lead the banks, and manage the economy,” in the years when the banking system nearly failed because of the criminal greed and manipulations of the banking houses. “I myself will refinance mortgages, and provide loans to Main Street, and hire the unemployed.”

Jerusalem had set a course that betrayed the justice and mercy God had commanded of the people, that worshiped at the altars of fertility gods and rain gods – gods of prosperity, gods of sex and power and wealth.

When God declares I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed,” the reference is to those refugees of war and famine that had fled the country – and looks back 200 years to the collapse of the northern kingdom for the same reasons and to the Assyrian resettlement policy that scattered the Israelites across the ancient world.

“I will bind up the injured,” speaks to those cut down by sword and spear. “I will strengthen the weak,” evokes those at the edge of starvation, like the liberated captives of the concentration camps. The siege of Jerusalem had been beyond brutal.

When God declares, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep,” it is a roaring voice from heaven that God will take back the reins of power and rescue his shattered people.

In such a context we can recognize the words “but the fat and the strong I will destroy” as words of grace. Those who ruled with power and greed will be erased from the nation, no more to inflict their damage upon the people of God.

I like the sweet hearing of the text. I like the picture of a tender God taking up the grieving, the lonely, the struggling, the wounded of life into his tender care. But there is also a word of the mighty God in this text – a God passionate for his people and his world – a God of power willing and able to undo the damage of human misrule. In the face of the continual violence erupting throughout the world, and the perpetual devastations of economic greed and power, there is warning and also great grace in these words – including those words at the end.

Into his presence with thanksgiving

Thursday

Psalm 95

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Piligrims riding on the outside of a train after a three-day Sunni Muslim festival in the ancient city of Multan, Pakistan

2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving.

A few years ago I met my brother and his son in Berkeley for the Big Game between Stanford and Cal. It was the first time I went to see this game on enemy territory. Stanford was the home team when we were growing up. Palo Alto’s main street is University Avenue. The Stanford stadium was across the street from my high school. Our high school played its big rivalry game at Stanford Stadium and though our small crowd looked silly rattling around a 90,000 seat stadium, this was the big time! Playing in Stanford Stadium!

Going to the game in Berkeley with my brother and his son was my first foray into the enemy’s camp across the Bay. I rode up on a BART train (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and joined the throng walking up the hill to the stadium. As the crowd ascended it grew ever bigger and the energy level grew ever higher. The mounting excitement was contagious. Songs and cries and chants broke out continually. We might as well been led by the marching bands. (The infamous marching band story we won’t get into.)

I think of that day when I hear these invitatory psalms calling the community to worship – the throngs of people ascending the temple mount to stand in the presence of God and acclaim him as their lord and king, their rock and deliverer.

It’s too bad we can’t recreate that energy as people walk from the parking lot to the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. We get a taste of that pilgrim excitement on Christmas Eve when the place will be full and people come early for seats. There is a taste in the energy of the children eager for Christmas morning. There is a taste in the walkway bordered with luminaries and the buildings adorned with lights. There is a taste in the beauty of the sanctuary, the special music as people arrive, and the moment the congregation rises to sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” As children, we waited all year for that moment at the end of the service when the lights are extinguished, candles distributed and the warm, flickering candlelight spreads through the room, passed from one person to the next, until we all lift up our candles singing “Silent night, Holy night.”

We don’t generally see that excited expectancy on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost or in the cold or wet winter days of the 4th Sunday after Epiphany. But this is true of all of life. I am much more likely to duck out for the restroom or refreshments in the middle of the fifth inning at AT&T Park than the bottom of the ninth.

2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving sings the psalmist to the crowds ascending the hill of Mt. Zion. There is excitement and energy in the crowd because it is a national festival like Christmas. The city is full of pilgrims for the holy season. But the psalm does more than capture the excitement of the day – as we can tell from the warning in the second half of the psalm. We won’t read those words on Sunday, but the thought shapes the meaning of the call to enter God’s presence.

We are not coming in the excitement of the festival to celebrate our team. We are coming to honor the God who promised a homeland to Abraham, who gathered a people from bondage in Egypt, who taught a new way to live, who guided his motley crew of former slaves through an arid wilderness and brought them to a rich and abundant land. We are coming to honor the God who revealed himself in the words of the prophets and in the words and deeds of Jesus his anointed. We are coming to bow down before the one who bears the brokenness of the world in his hands and side, and deals with us according to his goodness not our deserving.

2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving. The singers of the psalm are not serving as cheerleaders or the marching band to geek up the crowd. They are reminding us that our only proper response to God is a profound gratitude.

He is the creator who lifted up the mountains and governs even the depths of the earth. He is Lord of all, setting limits to the chaotic seas and forming the land upon which all life depends. He is master over every spiritual reality and has made us his own. Shouts of joy are appropriate, but above all we come into his presence with thankfulness.

Sheep or goats?

Wednesday

Matthew 25

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A Nubian (aka Anglo-Nubian) goat attempts to eat their prize ribbon at a Scottish fair. By John Haslam from Dornoch, Scotland

32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,

Jesus calls them “my brothers,” the sick, the imprisoned, the hungry. If we could just pause here long enough, we might begin to understand the true power of the parable. We might begin to understand the true power of Jesus. He has claimed those that others have scorned.

Some have argued that the word ‘brother’ means a follower of Jesus, that the nations will be judged by their treatment of the disciples of Jesus. The suggestion is that the ‘nations’ are Judeans scattered throughout the Hellenistic world, and their response to the oppressed and persecuted witnesses of Jesus will reveal whether they are sheep or goats.

The other possibility is that Jesus has declared these ‘least’ are members of his family. If you ask me, this latter sounds much more like Jesus. He had that pesky idea that everyone was our neighbor, not just people like us – and therefore you should welcome the outcast and show steadfast love even to enemies.

We call this parable the Last Judgment, but it is not a judgment scene. It is a sorting. No lives are being weighed. No actions are being evaluated. The mass of humanity is simply being sorted out. Some are sheep. Some are goats. The sheep go over here. The goats over there.

Jesus’ hearers understand this idea: goats need to be kept warm at night; sheep can remain outside. The flocks are taken out together during the day to graze the hills, but at night they must be sorted.

So we shall be sorted.

Sheep don’t have much symbolic significance for me. I haven’t known any. I have known a couple goats. They were cute. At a motel years ago, high in the Rockies with my daughters, there was a couple with some baby fainting goats. They were adorable just gamboling around. But when you clapped your hands, they fell over. They passed out. Kerplunk. No twitching. No stumbling. At a loud noise they just fell right over. It was hysterical. And darling. Anna wanted one. Anna really wanted one. So, to me, goats are cute and sheep are just sheep.

But just as we invest animals with a certain symbolic character, so did the ancients. When we call a man a ‘dog’ it has a strong cultural meaning – so, too, if we call him a ‘puppy dog.’ Or a ‘lion’. Or a ‘fox’. And calling a man a ‘fox’ has a different meaning than calling a woman a ‘fox’.

To Jesus’ audience, sheep were honorable; goats were not. Sheep symbolize honor, virility and strength; goats are unrestrained and lascivious. (This was my experience of my friend’s goat – entertaining, but always into trouble). An honorable man will protect the honor of his family. In particular, he will defend his wife from the sexual advances of others. A ram will not allow anyone but himself to approach one of his ewes; goats, apparently, have no such compunction. A cuckolded man was called a goat. Zeus and noble Apollo were associated with the Ram; Pan looks and behaves like a goat.

This sorting of humanity into sheep and goats is more than just sorting buttons. It is a gathering of the honorable and a setting aside of the dishonorable. It evokes the parable of the weeds and wheat that grew side by side until the harvest.

It is not a judgment scene; it is a sorting – a sorting by whether we have acted honorably towards the poor, the outsider, the needy. What a surprise if American Christians are to be sorted by the hospitality shown to Muslims! Did we extend our protection to the stranger? Did we give water to the thirsty and bread to the hungry? Did we tend the sick or send them back to Liberia? I understand the fear, but the church’s first response to AID’s was not particularly honorable. We could probably come up with an uncomfortable list.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him.”   No books are opened. No witnesses are heard. No records are examined. The Lord knows who have treated others with the grace of heaven and those who have not.

We need to do more than pray for mercy.

There is grace here. The shameful will not govern the earth forever. The faithful will be gathered. This is a great promise and a profound assurance in a world with too much evil.

But there is also a challenge. And the question is not whether we will pass inspection, whether we have the right religious heritage or the right religious experience – the question is whether we have lived hospitality and compassion towards the poor and the outcast. Have we shown ourselves to be sheep or goats?