“All the nations will be gathered before him.”

Watching for the morning of November 23

Year C

Christ the King:
Proper 29 / Lectionary 34

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Original statue of Christ the King with the globe. Preserved in the palais du Tau in Reims (Marne, France).

For all our concern about language and gender equality there is something primal, archetypal, about the notion of kingship. When the true, just and wise king is on the throne all is well in the land. When the usurper rules, all is corrupted.

The just king cares for the lowly. The just king sees what is done in his lands. The just king rights wrongs and in the presence of his justice, the people prosper.

Power corrupts. Those who lust for power, who seize power, are corrupted and corrupting; they are not the source of gracious order but insecurity and instability. Those who do not seek it, to whom power and authority are entrusted, are able to rule with the light touch and just hand that are required.

So the young King Arthur, when just a squire, pulls the sword from the stone unknowing. George Washington is prevailed upon to accept the presidency – and refuses a third term lest it become a lifetime appointment. King David is a shepherd boy, offended by Goliath, not an aspirant to the throne. (Until Bathsheba comes along, anyway.) Jesus is the just and righteous king who saves his sheep. He does not, like the Jerusalem leaders confronted by Ezekiel, feed on them.

In this modern era when have witnessed fascisms and tyrannies of terrible stripe, when kings and leaders and rebels slaughter the sheep rather than protect them, when people are thought to serve the state (or the economy, ideology, movement, company or religion) rather than the state serving the people – in such an epoch as ours, the church wisely declares that Christ is King. Only Christ Jesus can claim our lives without taking them. Only Christ Jesus can summon our service without stealing our humanity. Only Christ Jesus is the just and righteous one. Only Christ Jesus is our true king.

Sunday is the feast of Christ the King and the final Sunday of the church year. We will read more words about judgment, but the dominant note is the just and faithful reign of God in Christ. Ezekiel will blast the leaders of his day but make the strange dual promise that God will be our shepherd – and give us a new shepherd. The psalm sings thanksgiving, summoning us to kneel before our maker, “a great King above all gods,” for “we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” Ephesians will speak of Christ ascended and all things placed under his feet. And Matthew records for us that great and profound parable about the sorting of humanity like sheep from goats.

In a world with a myriad voices demanding we kneel before earthly dominions and rulers, we come to kneel before the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep and declares as his family “the least of these”: the hungry, the stranger, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned.

The Prayer for November 23, 2014

Eternal God, Lord of all,
before you every human community and every human life must stand,
and by the example of your Son, Jesus, be measured.
Grant us an abundance of his Spirit,
that as he brought your grace to the fallen and your healing to the broken,
we too may be agents of your compassion;
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 23, 2014

First Reading: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
“I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.” – God speaks a word of judgment upon the shepherds of Israel (the leaders of the nation) who take care of themselves rather than the people in their care. God will be their shepherd and gather his scattered flock. He will judge between the fat and the lean sheep and appoint a new David to govern them.

Psalmody: Psalm 95:1-7a
“O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” – In these opening verses of Psalm 95, the poet calls the community to acclaim God, the creator of all, as their king.

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23
“He has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things.” –
With soaring poetry, the author of Ephesians offers his prayer for the community – prayer that rises into praise of God who raised Christ Jesus “above all rule and authority” and placed all things under his feet.

Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory… All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” – The final parable of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel is this vivid declaration that the nations will be judged by their treatment of “the least of these” with whom the Son of Man identifies himself: “as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.”

“But wait for me.”

Saturday

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/09/Ghanians_wait_for_visiting_USN_medics_-b.jpg

Ghanians waiting for medical care from U.S. Navy medics

 

Zephaniah 1

12At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
and I will punish the people
who rest complacently on their dregs,
those who say in their hearts,
“The LORD will not do good,
nor will he do harm.”

When we hear the word ‘punish’, much that is wrong about the common perception of religion comes to mind. There are two familiar stereotypes of God: one that God is love, perfect love, embracing everyone with compassion regardless of our choices or actions. Everyone gets to travel the tunnel of light to a land of reunion and bliss.

The other stereotype is that God is the author and defender of “the rules”.   The exact rules differ from place to place or people to people. For some, these are social rules and boundaries, often involving sex and property. God may be forgiving, but there are rules about that, too. There is a way in which forgiveness must be sought and given – either in a ritual or in a specific attitude of mind and heart: true repentance and amendment of life. And there is a price that must nevertheless be paid by someone – God cannot just forgive; Jesus must die.

There is power and wisdom and truth in the biblical words about the majesty of God’s love and the reality of sin, grace and redemption; it’s just not all one or the other. And the important thing is it’s not a ‘system’; it’s a relationship. It’s not a set of rules; it’s a God who engages the world in a dynamic give and take. God is not the watchmaker who creates the clockwork and sets the world running. God is the parent seeking reconciliation with rebellious children. It’s why the Old Testament has no problem suggesting that God changes his mind. It’s why God can promise David an endless line upon the throne of Jerusalem – yet bring Babylon to tear it down when that becomes necessary to save his people and his world. “The gifts and call of God are irrevocable,” yet God is free. I will always be my Father’s son, but that does not mean I will always get the keys to the car – or, for that matter, that I will always find an open door. God’s purpose is to save us not protect the rules. God’s purpose is to restore his creation not preserve the system.

So back to the word ‘punish’. God will ‘punish’, not because Judah broke the rules, but because Judah betrayed its relationship with God. This is about a people, not individuals. Lightning isn’t striking one person for his or her sin; the thunderstorm is advancing upon a nation that has betrayed its identity, its reason for being. This is about a people, and it is about a long pattern not a single transgression. It is the outcome of a path they have pursued for generations – a path that leads them ever further from God, a path that leads them to an inevitable cliff.

These are the children of the Exodus. These are the descendants of those who saw God give Pharaoh ten opportunities to repent, ten plagues, ten awe-filled manifestations of a world gone wrong, until those who tried to kill God’s first born (the people of Israel) lost their first born. These are the descendants of those who saw pharaoh’s army defeated by the returning waters of the Nile. These are the descendants of those who were fed manna from heaven and water from the rock, who heard God’s voice at Sinai and vowed to be ever faithful. These are the descendants of a people who were led through the wilderness and given a land, the dream of the homeless, the fulfilled promise to Abraham and Sarah. And now these children of God say: “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm.” They believe there is no reward in righteousness, no consequence for disobedience. They think God is powerless to affect our lives – or God simply doesn’t care. It is another way of saying “God is dead.”

There are consequences when you have reached the place where there is no right and wrong only power. Believing this, they will now see what power will do. Babylon is coming and they will “search Jerusalem with lamps”:they will capture every man in hiding; they will seize every woman; they will steal every horde hidden away; they will strip the temple of its gold and bronze; they will leave nothing but rubble. Such is the way of power.

This is not punishment for breaking rules; it is the consequence of the total rupture of their right relationship with God and one another. They have chosen a path with no happy ending.

The prophet’s words are powerful and chilling. And, of course, they are ignored – for this is a people who have come to believe there is no God, no reality, other than themselves. But, for God, this is a relationship. It means God suffers with and for this people. God suffers with and for this world. And after the prophet’s devastating words of judgment, exposing all this people’s betrayal, we hear in chapter 3 verse 8 this sweet, sweet word: “But wait for me.” God is not through with this people. God is not through with us. After this utter destruction, God will yet arise and this people shall be reborn – the world shall be reborn, born from above, born of God’s own Spirit. In chapter 3 verse 15 the prophet bids the broken people to rejoice for “The LORD has annulled the judgment against you.” After death comes resurrection.

God is not the taskmaster with a ruler waiting to smack our knuckles; God is the parent willing to lock the door and let the child go to prison if he will not enter rehab. A terribly painful choice. But a redeeming one. One that will, eventually, bring the child home.

“Wait for me,” says the LORD, “Wait for me.”

A full and terrible end?

File:Prophets from Ferapontov01 (Kirillo-Belozersk).jpg

Icon of the prophets Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Jonah and Moses

Friday

Zephaniah 1

18A full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.

A lot depends upon translation. Different words evoke entirely different images. The word translated as ‘earth’ also means ‘land’.  “He will make a terrible end of all the inhabitants of the land” is far different than “he will make a terrible end of all the inhabitants of the earth.” The one disaster is local; the other sounds cosmic. The one is about Judea; the other is about all of us. The one is about the Babylonian onslaught in 586 BCE; the other is about the apocalyptic end.

Of course, the devastation of war – the hunger, the violence, the ruined buildings, the disease that follows in its train, the dead, the violated, the captives taken into slavery, the lost national treasures, the lost identity, the lost hope – there is no other way to describe it than as “the end of the world.”

And, still, we speak of even personal tragedies and crises as “the world crashing down.”

We understand the prophet. Berlin after the war, Dresden, Auschwitz, Stalingrad, Hiroshima, Iwo Jima, the killing fields of Cambodia, Aleppo – only apocalyptic language can tell the horror.

This language of the prophets will be taken up by others, especially by the Revelation to John. It will come to speak of that final catastrophe when humanity persists in rebellion from God until every plague has been suffered. Yet even that allusion to the plagues of Egypt, the plagues that were the consequence of Pharaoh thinking he was master of all and resisting to the end God’s purposes for the world – even those plagues are about redemption, setting both Israel and Egypt free from the bondage of slavery. So, too, are the disasters of humanity’s ultimate resistance to God. They are the birth pangs of a redeemed world.

God will make an end of all the inhabitants of the earth. God will make an end to the brutality of war. God will make an end to the sufferings of injustice. God will make an end to the corroding reality of poverty.

God will make an end to our violence and fear. God will make an end to our guilt and sorrow.   God will make an end to our pride and pettiness. God will make an end to our thirst for revenge. God will make an end to the coldness of our hearts and the disorders of our passions. God will make an end to our rebellion, one way or the other.

And though it cost us our life, it will give Life.

The LORD’s sacrifice

Thursday

Zephaniah 1

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Look photographic assignment: Chicago city of contrasts. Stanley Kubrick [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

7 The LORD has prepared a sacrifice,
he has consecrated his guests.

I am ever amazed at the skill and audacity of the prophets. Here, with a half dozen words, a terrible and frightful image is set before the nation. God is getting ready to offer a sacrifice and he has called upon his guests to prepare themselves. “Take up your knife and fork. Say the table blessing. I am setting before you a feast. I myself will draw the knife and lay the carcass upon the fire. You need only come and dine.” The guests are the nations around them. Jerusalem is the fatted calf.

With five words (in the Hebrew text) any attempt to envision God as a partisan God, hawking and defending the glories of the nation, is shattered. God is not interested in Jerusalem for Jerusalem’s sake; God is seeking a people of justice and mercy. God is not interested in a temple bigger and more glorious than other gods; God is interested in a holy people, a people who walk God’s holy way, a people who honor the poor and speak the truth in testimony and do not pervert justice with bribes. A people who do not cut down the fruit trees for instruments of war, who do not take the mother bird with the eggs, who give a Sabbath even to their own oxen, who leave the margins of their fields for the poor to come and harvest. God is not looking for powerful armies, but humble kings. God is not looking ritual purity but spiritual fidelity.

And this nation, that bears God’s holy name, that sings God’s holy songs, that offers God’s holy sacrifices – this nation God will bind and lay upon the altar, a feast for all the nations to come and gorge themselves.

It is chilling. I feel like a beggar asking my congregation for scraps compared to this daring herald of God. “Please be a little nicer…” rather than “Thus saith the LORD…”

But I am not a prophet; I am a preacher. I point to the prophet’s words. I try to help those words come off the page and speak to us. I pray for God’s Spirit to grant us ears to hear. But I have a privilege Zephaniah does not have.

I am glad not to be a prophet. I envy their skill, but to I do not want their burden. I know what happened to the prophets. I know their laments. I know their sufferings.

But I am glad, not just because I do not want their sorrows. As a preacher I have this other treasure, of a child born, a man awash in the Spirit, an anointed one bearing witness to God’s ultimate governance of this earth. I have this other treasure of sins forgiven, bodies healed and spirits delivered. I have this other treasure of bread shared and feet washed and a life laid down. I have this treasure to announce of an empty tomb and an ascended Lord.

The words of judgment stand. God has prepared a sacrifice. God will pull down his own temple when it serves injustice. God will scatter his own people when they abandon mercy. But God does not abandon mercy. The knife is drawn across his own throat. He himself is the lamb that reconciles us to heaven and one another.

The prophets are fearless and bold. They speak brilliantly. And even their songs of hope are exquisite. But I get to point to a man who is the prophets’ word made flesh, who is God’s voice incarnate, who is slain but lives, and who summons us to live in him.

Consider the mob boss

Wednesday

Matthew 25

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Paulamaria Walter: Die anvertrauten Pfunde, Betonrelief, 1963, Wege zur Kunst

26 ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.

It is hard for us to hear this parable as the crowd around Jesus would have heard it. We give our children savings accounts at an early age and teach them the value of accrued interest. If my girls didn’t spend their allowance right away, I paid them interest on their “savings”. I wanted to encourage the practice of delayed gratification. We share something of the mythology of the banker as the most trusted man in town – reinforced by images of Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey.

Of course, in recent years, we have discovered that bankers can be unscrupulous, selling us worthless stocks and taking a government bailout while paying themselves huge bonuses. Yet, still, we tend to make a distinction in our minds between these “Investment Bankers” or “Wall Street Bankers” and our local banker. So we have conflicting sentiments about banking, our memory of the home town banker contrasting with the impersonal megabanks charging outrageous fees, while giving the wealthy preferential treatment.

The only reason bankers pay lower taxes than I do is because, instead of paying taxes for the common good, they bought legislators who granted them special privilege. But I’m not bitter…

The ancients were bitter. They lived in a world where charging interest was forbidden by God – but bankers then, like today, found ways to manipulate or evade the rules. Charging interest was seen as taking advantage of those in need. Debt led to foreclosure, led to lost family lands, led to indentured servanthood, led to ever deeper poverty – or to landlessness and death.

So to “invest” with “bankers” in our parable is akin to investing with loan sharks. It is not honorable. It preys on human misery and multiplies it. The man who buries the talent entrusted to him is the only person in the story who acts honorably. He is the only person in the narrative for whom the crowds would feel sympathy. But they would also recognize he is a fool. You can’t swim with the sharks and not be one. He knows his master is ruthless – he should act accordingly.

And this is the strange power of the narrative. It takes a scene out of The Godfather and uses it to speak about our Father God. God’s servants should live like their master. It is dangerous folly to fail to recognize who God is and what he expects. If we are smart enough to recognize the inevitable outcome of this foolish man with one talent; we should be smart enough to recognize the inevitable outcome of those who fail to live God’s reign of mercy.

But we must remember this is a parable. It does not say God is a mob boss. It says servants are fools not to live in keeping with their master. The purpose of this story, like all the parables, is to open our hearts and minds to see and live a new way.

Talents aren’t talents

Watching for the morning of November 16

Year C

The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 28 / Lectionary 33

File:Fanefjord Judgment day.JPG

Fanefjord Church, Møn, Denmark. Fresco of the Day of Judgment

A talent is a measure of weight and a unit of money. It is unfortunate that it is a homonym for natural gifts and abilities; it tempts us to mishear the text.

Judgment day, the end of all things, the final accountability of all creation to its maker, these are the deep bass notes rumbling the floor of the theater this Sunday. There is sweetness in these texts. There is beauty and poetry. But the vibrations in that cup sitting in the console indicate the thumping steps of approaching danger.

Through the prophet Zephaniah, God declares that a day is coming when God will make “a full, a terrible end…of all the inhabitants of the earth.” The prophet’s rich, wonderful poetry carry devastating words:

The great day of the Lord is near,
near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter,
the warrior cries aloud there.

15
That day will be a day of wrath,
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
16
a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
and against the lofty battlements.

And the apostle Paul, writing to Thessalonica, declares:

The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!”

In the Gospel the ‘worthless servant’ is cast “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Even in the psalm we hear this note of judgment:

7 For we are consumed by your anger;
by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
8 You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your countenance.

But we are a long way from fire and brimstone, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” This is about that moment when the laboring mother changes her mind and decides she doesn’t want to have a baby. There is no stopping the inevitable. A new world will be born. And the only question is whether we are ready and waiting for it.

The Prayer for November 16, 2014

Almighty God, Lord of all,
you summon us to lives of faith and love
and stand as judge over all things.
Renew us in your mercy that, clothed in Christ,
we may live as children of the day
that is dawning in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for November 16, 2014

First Reading: Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
“Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is at hand.” – During the reign of Josiah, in as era that seems like a period of great national revival (though not far in time from the Babylonian conquest), the prophet exposes the underlying faithlessness of that generation. His portrait of the coming cataclysm is cosmic in scope.

Psalmody: Psalm 90:1-12
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” – This opening prayer of the fourth ‘book’ (section) of Psalms, reflects on the brief and fragile nature of human life, and the ever present threat of God’s “wrath” – God’s opposition to our ‘sin’, our rebellion from and resistance to the fidelity to God and one another for which God fashioned us.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.” –
Having assured the community in Thessalonica that those who have died will share in the coming transformation of the world, he urges them to be awake and aware of God’s dawning reign of grace, living as faithful children of the light.

Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30
“It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.” – Jesus uses a salacious example of a greedy and ruthless man entrusting his affairs to his underlings in a parable summoning us to understand the nature of God and God’s dawning reign.

Running to the table

Sunday Evening

File:Running Samburu Boy.jpg

By Erik (HASH) Hersman (Flickr: Running Samburu Boy) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I apologize that there was no meditation for Saturday. Late Saturday evening, when I finally had my blog composed the way I wanted it, my hard drive crashed. I lost the blog entirely – and my sermon for this morning.

To be honest I didn’t regret the loss of the sermon as much as the loss of the blog. The sermon I wasn’t yet happy with – though I needed the hours I spent fixing my laptop. The blog, on the other hand, was finalized. I was just adding the text links and getting ready to post it.

So I had to “wing it” somewhat with Sunday’s sermon. I knew the texts. I knew what I wanted to say. I just had to do it without the reassurance of having composed the words ahead of time, so that I said what I wanted to say. I call it “working without a net” – nothing to catch me if I lose my train of thought or get off track and end up in a cul-de-sac. (You could also call it depending on the Spirit, though I know I am depending on the Spirit when I write my manuscript.)

A manuscript also helps me stay within a reasonable time frame. (Years ago, on my first try, when I felt the need to try preaching without a manuscript, I preached for 40 minutes – about twice what is customary in our churches.)

Some church services are a sermon with a little bit of music. Lutheran services are sometimes music with a little bit of preaching – though the tradition calls for equal attention between the liturgy of the Word (readings and preaching) and the liturgy of Holy Communion.

We are creatures who need liturgy. We need the power that comes with symbolic acts. An engagement ring is a symbolic act. Thanksgiving dinner is a symbolic act. A retirement dinner, a housewarming, graduation, bringing flowers to your daughter after her performance in the school play, these are all symbolic acts. They mark the moment. I could have given my daughter a picture of my high school play (though I was not on stage) but the tradition is to give flowers – so we give flowers. It has a culturally defined meaning – just like candy or roses on Valentines’ Day.

That small bit of bread and sip of wine are one such symbolic act with a culturally defined meaning. Only this meaning is defined by the promise of the prophets, the actions of Jesus, the last supper, and the whole history of the church. It means we are welcome at God’s banquet table – we are accepted, we are loved, we are forgiven, we are joined to of God’s people, we are joined with God in Christ, we have a share in the feast to come, and we bear Christ’s body into the world.

Ask a child and they may not be able to tell you all this. But this morning, as communion was being served, the children were late coming from Sunday School (they go to a lesson after the children’s message, during the time of the readings and sermon, and return to participate in the Lord’s Table). As I served the ushers and the organist – usually the last to be served before the assisting minister and me – I could see out the back door that the children were running to get to the table in time. I was more than happy to wait.

Running to the table. Eager to participate in this stylized action that symbolizes all God’s promise for the human community – that we will eat together at one table in that day of perfect peace, when every wound is healed and every debt forgiven. A promise that we are called to live now, knowing it is the destiny for which we were made.

These small children could not likely have explained any of this, but they were running to be there.  They know what it is to be included with everyone else in something that is very special.

As do we who imagine ourselves rational adults.

“Let justice roll down”

Friday

Amos 5

Yosemite Falls in the spring.  Photo credit: dkbonde

Yosemite Falls in the spring. Photo credit: dkbonde

24But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

That little word ‘but’ matters. It reminds us that this sentence is in contrast to what is going on in Israel in these years before the Assyrian advance destroys the northern kingdom and subdues Judah.

I visited Yosemite this summer. It’s a drought year in California, one in a series of drought years. The snowpack in the mountains was only a small fraction of what it should have been.

Yosemite is difficult to describe to anyone who hasn’t been there. Those who have will understand why I use the word holy. Standing on the valley floor and looking up at the granite walls carved smooth by glaciers, soaring high into the sky – it overwhelms and inspires like a gothic cathedral. Indeed, one portion of the valley wall is called the Cathedral Spires. Half Dome, El Capitan, even the nameless walls, fill the human spirit with awe and wonder.

Yosemite Valley floor in spring.  Photocredit: dkbonde

Yosemite Valley floor in spring. Photocredit: dkbonde

Added to the firm soaring granite is water. The Merced River winds through a great, lush green meadow on the valley floor, fed by water pouring down from dozens of falls: Bridal Veil Falls, casting its mist along the cliffs and above the trees like a veil; Yosemite Falls, floating through the air from great heights; the long climb to Vernal falls that surrounds you with mist and roar. In the spring, water flows down from every direction to the valley floor, cool, thundering, trickling, streaming, life-giving.

Children explore among the boulders beneath a dry Yosemite Falls.  Photocredit: dkbonde

Children explore among the boulders beneath a dry Yosemite Falls. Photocredit: dkbonde

It’s not uncommon for the falls to grow thinner as the summer proceeds, fed as they are by the high mountain snowpack. But when I was there this year the falls were entirely dry. All of them. Not a drop. My nieces climbed down onto dry rocks from the footpath bridge that crosses over the river beneath Yosemite Falls. Every other time I have been there, the mist was overwhelming and the river rushing. Now there was nothing. No water in the river. No dampness in the soil. The girls walked up among house-sized boulders to the very base of the falls.

It was stunning. I wanted to tell the foreign visitors who had traveled thousands of miles to see these falls what an amazing sight it was. But they were not looking for rocks; they were seeking the overwhelming thunder and drenching mist of the falls in their fullness.

“Let justice roll down like waters.”

The language suggest the prophet has seen the falls that tumble from Mount Hermon, where the Jordan River begins, bringing life to the river valley. People who live in arid lands know the joy of thundering falls and the precious gift of a steady, ever-flowing river. Without water, the land withers. Without water, we perish.

Bridal Veil Falls in Yosemite.  Photo credit: dkbonde

Yosemite’s Bridal Veil Falls in the spring. Photo credit: dkbonde

“Let justice roll down like waters.” Let fidelity flow, an unending source of life. Let faithfulness to God and to one another be our constant, abundant stream. Let it not be a matter of chance whether you will find justice. Let there be no dry season for compassion, no drought of mercy. Let no one struck down by chance or illness go without home and care. Let no one lose their ancient inheritance, their family lands. Let brother come to the aid of brother. Let truth be spoken in the public square and love spoken in every home. Let us not draw from the stale water of private cisterns, but revel in ever-flowing public fountains.

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

A dust devil in California's Central Valley.  Photo credit: dlbonde

A dust devil in California’s Central Valley. Photo credit: dlbonde

It is amazing to look upon drought, to stand in a dry riverbed, to walk beneath barren falls. But I was a tourist, a visitor; I did not have to live there where water was scarce and the threat of disastrous fire so dangerously high.

A drought of justice and faithfulness to one another is not the life God envisioned for his creation. It is not the life God seeks for his world. It is not the path God would have us walk.

Alive in Christ

Thursday

1 Thessalonians 4

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Icon of the Second Coming of Christ. Greece ca. 1700

13We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.

It doesn’t say Christians won’t grieve; it says we grieve in hope. And before we decide how literally we want to take the imagery of this whole passage, we should be clear about the purpose of Paul’s words: “so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”

Grief is hard work. Even when we grieve together, it tends to be a lonely road. We pull in to ourselves and away from others. Not on purpose, it’s just the nature of pain. We are not far from the wounded animal that looks for some safe hole in which to curl up and lick its wounds.

Grief is hard work for those who care for the grieving, too. It hurts us to see them in pain.

And grief is not simple. It is not one wound, but many. There are all those complicated emotions lurking in the shadows of loss: feeling like you have been abandoned by your loved one; guilt for feeling abandoned; anger that you have been abandoned; guilt over the anger. And then there is just plain guilt: for some part you have played in your loss or some things you have failed to do – or simply that you survived. And then, sometimes, there is relief – even gladness – that the person is gone. And, of course, we feel guilty about that.

Grief is not simple. And there are all those spiritual and theological questions that arise. Doubt. Anger at God. Feelings that God, too, has betrayed us. Despair whispers in our ear, “Life is meaningless. There is no hope.”

But mostly there is just that ache at the hole in your life.

Grief is what comes to my mind when I hear the psalmist speak of the valley of the shadow of death. Grief is the wilderness where the devil must be fought, like Israel traveling towards the Promised Land, or Jesus after his baptism.

Paul’s purpose is to reassure. “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”

The promise is not that Jesus comes floating on the clouds; the promise is that Jesus comes in the power and presence of God – this is what the clouds have always signified in the scriptures. The clouds, the trumpet blast, were elements from Israel’s encounter with God at Sinai and in the temple. Yes, Paul and the first believers may have taken this imagery pretty literally. They inhabited a world of spiritual beings dwelling in the realm of the air. But we are not being asked to share their worldview; we are being asked to share their faith. We are invited to trust the promise they trust – that Christ shall come in the power of God and gather all things to himself…whatever that may mean, however that may happen. It is a daring, life-shaping trust that “nothing can separate us from the love of God,” as Paul writes in Romans.

There is a multiplicity of images in scripture for the age to come. These are signs and pointers not tech manuals. It takes some work to weave them together as the prophet does in the Revelation to John. But even he cannot weave them all into a single narrative. And he doesn’t try. The point isn’t the details; the point is the promise. This age of man’s inhumanity is not the final word on human existence; there is healing ahead of us.

There is a world ahead of us where we have not eaten every fish in the ocean, where we have not killed every elephant for ivory trinkets, or every tiger for increased manliness. There is a world where we do not make ashtrays of gorilla’s hands. There is a world ahead of us where violence does not tear a home or a people. There is a world where compassion reigns, not greed. There is a world where reconciliation replaces revenge.

And the dead in Christ shall be there. And even those of us whose hearts are still beating shall, with them, be made alive in Christ.

Wise or Foolish?

Wednesday

Matthew 25

File:Schadow,FW-Die klugen und törichten Jungfrauen-3.JPG

Tending the flame: Close up of Friedrich Wilhelm von Schadow, The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins

8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’

I was always troubled as a child by the fact that the five didn’t share. It seemed like the kind of thing Jesus would expect us to do. After all, weren’t we told to share our food with the hungry poor? The blessed of the Father hear Jesus say, I was hungry and you gave me food in the parable of the sheep and goats. The rich man is in torment for not sharing with Lazarus at the gate. And then there is John declaring: “Let him who has two coats share with him who has none.”

But this parable is not about sharing. It is about wisdom and folly, about understanding the times, about serving your lord.

If we change the parable so that it is a CEO delayed in returning from takeover negotiations, and ten junior execs waiting with last minute spreadsheets – we wouldn’t expect the five to share data with those who were not prepared. We would nod our heads and acknowledge that the prize goes to the prepared.

Or ten people waiting for rush seats to the theater – should the five who left the line to use the restroom, grab a sandwich and get their coat expect to have their place preserved?

The prize goes to the prepared.

The bridesmaids are not friends of the bride from school; they are like an honor guard, young maidens of client families come to honor their patron. They have come to give him and his bride a grand candlelight reception. Their families depend upon the bridegroom’s favor. He is their guardian in civil matters. He is their security net in time of crisis. They are eager to serve him however they can, for he is their benefactor.

For the bridesmaids to show up unprepared for whatever he may need is folly. And disrespect. The five wise know whom they serve, and how much he means to them. They are prepared.

So the parable asks a simple but discomfiting question. Are we wise or foolish? Are we prepared for service or nonchalant? Are we awake and watchful or dulled by the lures of the world? Are we eager and prepared to serve our Lord? Do we recognize what is asked of us? Will our master say of us, I was hungry and you gave me food”?