Stalked by life

Friday

Isaiah 25:6-9

File:Rossakiewicz Angel.jpg7And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.

There is more to say about this word swallow. The word translated ‘destroy’ in the first half of the line is the same word as ‘swallow’ in the second half. And while it sounds odd to say God would swallow the shroud, it makes perfect sense to say he will destroy death.

This word swallow brings some interesting images to bear on the message of the text. Pharaoh’s dream has the thin heads of grain ‘swallowing’ the fat ones. When the Egyptian priests mimic the trick of Aaron’s staff turning into a snake, Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.” In the song of Moses, when the people sing of the Egyptian army drowned in the sea, they declare: You stretched out your right hand, the earth swallowed them.” And in this phrase we begin to hear the link between swallowing and destroying.

The earth opens up to ‘swallow’ the followers of Korah’s rebellion, and a careful look at the text reveals that they were ‘swallowed’ not just by dirt, but by the realm of the dead:

32The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households—everyone who belonged to Korah and all their goods. 33So they with all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly.” (Numbers 16:32-33)

So when the prophet declares that God “will swallow up death” it begs the question – is death itself being taken down into the realm of death, or is death being taken into the realm of life? Is death itself being engulfed in the life of God?

We know death as an enemy. We experience it not merely as the cessation of biological processes, but as a power that pursues and steals and destroys. My cousin battled a brain cancer. His surgery involved three teams of doctors and nearly 24 hours to dislodge the tentacles woven around his spinal column and into his brain. When he recovered from that surgery, he was given a reprieve. He seemed free for a while. But then the symptoms returned – and the treatments – until his speech and thought began to be disrupted. It was as if death stalked him.

I had a friend in seminary who persuaded me to join him in his running at the local track. One day he confided that he didn’t run for fun; he was afraid to die. Death in the form of heart disease stalked his family.

Death stalks all of us. It is too scary a thought, so we push it out of our consciousness or flippantly resign to it. But we know it is there waiting to claim us. Those who live among barrel bombs and refugees know its presence. Perhaps the prevalence of zombie shows reflect our fear that death stalks us. We fear what’s in our foods or in our carpets or radiating through our walls. We fear cancers and strangers. We fear our fears.

But to us, the fearful, comes this remarkable promise that a feast is coming and God will swallow up death. A kind or reverse sinkhole. Instead of our being sucked down into the realm of the dead, the realm of the dead is sucked up into the realm of heaven, into the realm of grace and life, into the world of dry bones made alive and the hopeless filled with hope, into the realm of the lost found and the forsaken embraced. Into the world of sins forgiven and bodies raised to life. Into the realm of water turned to wine and tears to joy. Into the world of resurrection.

We are invited to live this promise. To live as those who know that what is lost will be found, what is given will be gained, what is laid down will be taken up. Even death is to be engulfed in life.

We are not stalked by death; we are sought by him who is the resurrection and the life.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rossakiewicz_Angel.jpg
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He will swallow death

Thursday

Isaiah 25:6-9

File:A destroyed iraqi main battle tank on the Highway of Death.JPEG6On this mountain
the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food,
a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow,
of well-aged wines strained clear.
7And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.

The choice of that word ‘swallow’, “he will swallow up death forever,” is haunting when laid alongside the promise of a banquet where all people shall come to eat in peace. We will drink well-aged wines. We will eat choice meats. God will eat death. God will devour the devourer.

It has been a very long time in this country since war stole food from the mouths of the innocent. Sherman’s march to the sea is infamous for its intentional policy of destroying food stocks. It was not the Confederate soldiers who would go hungry when Union soldiers burned the fields and stole the livestock. War has always been hard on civilians. There is a reason that social chaos (a blood red horse), famine (a black horse) and pestilence (a pale, jaundiced horse) ride behind the white horse of imperial conquest at the opening of the first of the seven seals in Revelation 6. Refugees, hunger, disease, the suffering of women and children, the aged and infirm, follow in the train of war.

To the people desolated by war and destruction, God speaks a promise: God will prepare a feast – and God will ingest the death.

God will take the sword. God will take the bullet. God will take the crown of thorns and the nails. God will take the spittle and the lance. God will take the grave – and God will devour the devourer.

The bread and wine of Holy Communion is a reminder of this promised banquet. It proclaims to us that God will gather all creation to dine at his table: a world at peace, a world made new, a world rescued, redeemed, healed. Our hearts rescued, redeemed, healed. But that small bit of bread and taste of wine also remind us what Jesus ate.

It is complicated that Eucharistic meal. It is the bread of heaven and the bread of tears. It is joy and fearful sorrow. It is gift and oh so terrible a price. It is our promised future brought to us today – but also that past alive again. We are at the table where feet were washed. We are at the table where promises of fidelity were made only to be broken. And we are at the shore where Jesus has breakfast waiting and reconciles us to himself.

It is complicated, this Eucharistic meal. And it is complicated, this feast of All Saints. There is joy and sorrow. There is the song of heaven and the sound of tears from wounds still raw. There is the vision of the New Jerusalem even as we remember those who died this last year. There is the promise of the resurrection even as the ashes of loved ones sit on the mantel or in little niches at the cemetery. There is a vision of a redeemed human community while we witness the death of refugees abandoned at sea in leaky boats. There is life even as we know death.

But death has been swallowed up. The stone rolled away. The veil lifted. And so we sing. Sometimes through our tears, but still we sing. For we are held in the promise: Death has been swallowed up in victory.

 

Photo: A destroyed iraqi main battle tank on the Highway of Death.  By Master Sgt. Kit Thompson (DF-ST-92-08142) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

All the saints

Watching for the Morning of November 1, 2015

Year B

File:Fra Angelico - Predella of the San Domenico Altarpiece - WGA00447.jpg

All Saints Sunday

Note: All Saints and All Souls are combined in Lutheran tradition, remembering not only the saints who have no appointed day of their own, but remembering all the people of God who are gathered around the throne of God.

From the celebration of God’s work of renewing the church last Sunday (Reformation Sunday) we come now to the celebration of All Saints with its vision of the great company of saints gathered around the throne of God.

The readings for Sunday are rich with promise. Isaiah sings of the day when the shroud of war and sorrow that lays across the nations will be lifted and all gathered to share at one table on Mount Zion. The city now bitterly divided shall become the city of peace. The poet declares that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it,” and announces that the Lord has come to claim his royal abode and reign as king. John of Patmos in his ultimate vision bears witness of the earth and heaven made new, where the heavenly Jerusalem becomes the earthly city and God again dwells with us, wiping away every tear. And in the Gospel reading the true and enduring work of God in Christ is revealed in the raising of Lazarus from the grave.

Though we remember the dead, death does not haunt the community this Sunday. The vision is not of lost loved ones, but saints who have gone before and join with us now as one great company singing the praise of God. Together the saints on earth and the saints in heaven are one body living by and for that day of new creation, singing God’s praise for he has deposed death and begun his reign as our true Lord and king.

The Prayer for All Saints, November 1, 2015

Almighty God, Lord of Life,
as Jesus summoned Lazarus
you call us forth from the grave
that in you we should find that life which shall not perish.
Unbind us from every shroud of death
that, freed from its shadow,
we might live now in the joy of the banquet to come;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The texts for All Saints, November 1, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 25:6-9
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”
– The prophet announces to a war torn people that God shall gather all nations to one table and wipe away every tear.

Psalmody: Psalm 24
“Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.” – Words from an ancient liturgy in which God is received as king, perhaps when the Ark of the Covenant is brought to the temple.

Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-6a
“And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” – John of Patmos reaches his great concluding vision of a world restored to God, where the heavenly counterpart to the earthly city of Jerusalem comes to earth and God dwells among us in a world made new.

Gospel: John 11:17-44
“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’” – Jesus comes to raise Lazarus from the grave.

 

Image: Predella of the San Domenico Altarpiece Fiesole, ca. 1423, by Fra Angelico.  see https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Pala_di_Fiesole_%28Angelico%29

I missed serving today

Sunday Evening

LALC.img_9473-breadI couldn’t serve communion today and I missed it. I am at the tail end of a cold and didn’t want to risk coughing with bread in my hands and people’s open hands before me. But I wanted to serve today. It is not a task to me; it is a privilege. The word of grace in the sermon, the song of praise in the prayers, the grace made visible in the bread, it is all part of the movement of God to embrace us and draw us into his grace and life. So to preach the sermon and say the prayers but not serve the meal is a sacrifice for me.  The only metaphor I can think of is getting the present and wrapping the present, but not being there to see it opened. But it is deeper than that, more profound. Something about the link between heaven and earth and all creation that is present in the bread.

So I sat at the side and watched, which is wonderful, too. The collection of people. The children who run forward and the seniors who walk cautiously. The hesitation about whether there is still room at the rail to kneel. Families that try to be together as they receive.

I don’t understand it all. I just know it is there. Deep and abiding. All the best power of ritual – an act that connects us through time and space with one another and something larger than ourselves.

And all the rich layers of meaning. Story upon story are woven into the sharing of bread. Israel receiving manna in the wilderness. The five loaves and two fish feeding five thousand. The bread broken at the Last Supper. Elijah nourished by the angel on his journey to Sinai. Abraham beseeching the three heavenly visitors. Moses and the seventy breaking bread with God on Mount Sinai. There are more stories than we can name.

And all the rich layers of human experience that are tied up in the sharing of bread. Family meals at Thanksgiving, festive banquets at birthday parties, a sandwich purchased for a homeless man, a lunch shared in the second grade, first dates at an ice-cream parlor, wedding banquets be they elegant or baked ziti in a VFW hall – it is all woven into this moment where the promise that God will bring the day when all are gathered at one table is made visible, and the call to live in and from that promise is spoken in a message deeper than words.

Something profound happens with the giving and receiving of this bread, something more than I can explain. There is no other word to use than ‘holy’. What happens is sacred.   Even when we don’t see it.

But I know it’s there. And I missed not being able to serve.

Like Christmas morning

Christmas Tree and gifts

Friday

Romans 3:19-28

There is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,

I was baptized in a Lutheran congregation as a child, in the church where my father had been raised. My mother was raised in a Lutheran congregation. Their parents were all from Scandinavia, so of course they belonged to Lutheran churches. I made my confirmation in a Lutheran church; I attended a Lutheran college; I went to a Lutheran Seminary. But it was in my fourth year of seminary that I became a Lutheran.

I was one of those students who would ask the provocative question. I was never content to take notes and regurgitate answers; I wanted to understand, to push through to the heart of the matter. So one day, when my required World Missions class had a guest speaker from the Lutheran Church in Thailand, I raised my hand and asked “Why do you, a person from (then) 20th century Thailand, identify with a 16th century German monk?”

Without being phased at all, he answered me: “I don’t identify with a 16th century German monk; I identify with his understanding of the Gospel.”

In that moment all the light bulbs went off and I became a Lutheran. The Lutheran expression of Christian faith isn’t about the culture of church music, hymns, coffee and potluck suppers. It is about an idea. One central, unshakeable idea: God has come to make us his own for no reason but his own goodness. God has come to give salvation as a gift. God has come to heal a broken world, forgive an indebted world, deliver a captive world, redeem a world in bondage. God is the physician who does not ask whether her patient is worthy of her ministrations; she simply works to save the life of the patient before her. God is the lifeguard who does not ask what kind of idiot swims out beyond their depth. God is the fireman rushing up the World Trade Center without asking if its safe; there are people to be rescued and a fire to be extinguished.

Lutherans call it grace. The official phrase the 16th century reformers used to summarize all this is: justification by grace through faith. We are brought into a right relationship with God by his free gift and favor, a relationship that is a relationship of faith, of trusting the gift that is given.

There are other things to talk about in Christian faith. What does it mean for us to live as sons and daughters of the Most High? What is our mission in the world? What does the scripture mean when it calls us to holiness of life? Lutherans can argue about all manner of things – and usually do: sexual ethics, capital punishment, worship and liturgy, gender neutral language, the authority of bishops, whether we should even call them bishops. But none of this defines us. What defines us – or should define us – is this idea of grace.   We defend that idea like a dog with a bone.

It’s not grace and works. It’s not grace and a certain spiritual experience. It’s not grace and a doctrine. It’s not grace and democracy or capitalism or liberalism or anything. It is just grace. Life is gift. Redemption is gift. Forgiveness is gift. The life of the age to come is a gift. It is not the only doctrine, but it is the font of all other doctrines.

Yes it’s a gift that is of no use unless you receive it. But the receiving of it is no credit to us. No one stands around on Christmas morning to say, “Oh, look how well you opened that gift!” They ooh and aah at the gift.

Sunday morning is, and should always be, a kind of Christmas morning, oohing and aahing at the gift.

And Christian life is living every day as Christmas day.

 

Photo: dkbonde

Making space

File:Moving Mess.jpgWednesday

John 8:31-36

31“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

It doesn’t sound like an insult to us. It sounds like a promise. But we are not a society that makes a sharp social distinction between those who are freeborn and those who are manumitted. Jesus’ hearers take offense at the suggestion that they need to be made free and respond indignantly: “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

This little exchange reveals much. These Judeans have pledged their allegiance to Jesus; they have ‘believed’ in him. But Jesus is doubtful and tests their fidelity.

John’s Gospel is full of examples where Jesus is speaking of a spiritual reality and his hearers are stuck in a literal meaning. Nicodemus is told he must be born ‘from above’, but the word also means ‘a second time’ and he puzzles over how it is possible to enter back into the womb. Jesus tells the woman at the well that if she knew who it was that asked her for a drink, she would ask him for living water (which also means fresh, running water), but she responds that Jesus has no bucket. So here, Jesus speaks of freedom and his hearers think only of the institutions of slavery and bond-service. All by itself, this opening exchange reveals that there is something lacking in the professed faith of these Judeans.

The dialogue will get worse. Jesus will question their parentage. He will announce that their deeds show they are not children of God but children of the devil. “There is no place in you for my word,” says Jesus.

The Greek word means to make space. Imagine moving in with a new spouse who makes no room in the closet for your clothes, no shelf in the bathroom for your sundries, no space in the living room for your family photos. These pseudo-disciples have made no space in their lives for Jesus’ teaching, his word, his Spirit.

There is a reason that Christians spend time in the scriptures, in worship, in books that deepen the life of faith. They are trying to make room for the things that Jesus says. They are trying to make room for the Spirit’s gifts. They are moving out old furniture and clearing out closets in order to make room for God.

They want to know true freedom.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMoving_Mess.jpg, By Steve Ryan from Groveland, CA, USA (Moving Mess – Day 4) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

At great cost

Watching for the Morning of October 25, 2015

Year B

Reformation Sunday

Photo credit: dkbonde

Martin Luther was a pious monk, pastor and Bible professor. He did not set out to start a revolution. He wanted only to correct some abuses he saw happening in the hands of the indulgence preachers.

Naïvely, Luther thought (or at least claimed to think) that Prince Albert and the Pope would want to know what was being said in their name and would want to correct it. He wasn’t looking for excommunication and the threat of burning at the stake.

Luther seemed to think that if he just had the opportunity to explain himself, everything would be straightened out – but the more he explained, the deeper grew the hole. The message of the grace of God he found in scripture didn’t blend with the amount of money and power that was at stake in the indulgence controversy or the renaissance papacy.

So when the long sought opportunity to discuss (so he thought) his teaching finally arrived in 1521 at the Diet of Worms (the governing body of the Holy Roman Empire, now presided over by Emperor Charles V), Luther was not prepared for the outcome. He was given no chance to defend himself, only asked whether the books were his and whether he was ready to recant. A parliamentary maneuver requesting a night to think it over allowed him to say a little more the next day than a simple “yes” or “no” – but not much more, only a recognition that some of his writings were statements from scripture and he could not in good conscience recant those. He needed to be shown what in his writings was false.

Luther’s prince, Elector Frederick, was better at reading the tea leaves and arranged for a band of armed men to kidnap Luther and take him into hiding to the Wartburg castle. Luther was condemned by the council – and anyone who aided him liable to forfeiture of all their lands and titles. But there, in the Wartburg, Luther – needing something to keep busy – set about translating the New Testament into German. Thanks to the invention of the printing press, the Bible began to became available to all.

Eventually, Luther could stay on the sidelines no longer and returned to take control off the chaotic reformation underway in Wittenberg. When Katie offered to marry him, Luther was still under sentence as an outlaw of the empire, though the Emperor was unable to enforce it until he seized Electoral Saxony in 1547, a year after Luther had died.

We forget, sometimes, the price that some of our sisters and brothers have paid for confessing Christ – a price that people are still paying in various places in our world.

And we forget, sometimes, that God’s free grace did not come without price to God.

Reformation Sunday takes us into the scriptures (as it should) and takes us into prayer for the Spirit to work its reforming and renewing work in and among us (as it should) – but this day also takes us back to remember and honor those of the 16th century whose rich insights into the Gospel, fought for at great personal risk, are our privilege to inherit. And it bids us remember all those who even now confess the grace of God at great personal cost.

The Prayer for Reformation Sunday, October 25, 2015

Gracious and eternal God,
who by your Word called all things into being,
and by your Spirit sustains and renews the earth,
send forth your Word and your Spirit upon your church,
that ever renewed they may bear faithful witness to your grace and life.

The texts for Reformation Sunday, October 25, 2015 (assigned for Reformation Day)

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
– Though the covenant formed between God and Israel when God’s law was given at Sinai lies broken, God will create a new covenant relationship, where God’s teaching/commands are written on the heart.

Psalmody: Psalm 46
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” – A hymn proclaiming the power of God to protect and preserve the people and expressing their confident trust in God’s saving work. It provided the inspiration for Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28
“Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” – Paul’s classic expression of his understanding of the function of law and gospel and the idea that we are brought into a right relationship with God (justified) not by the law, but by the free gift of God (by grace) apprehended by our trust in that gift (through faith). This phrase “Justification by grace through faith” becomes a summary statement of the 16th century reforming movement and subsequent Lutheran churches.

Gospel: John 8:31-36
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” – This promise of freedom in Christ – freedom from authorities or powers that would prevent their living in service of God – is spoken to followers who do not abide in Jesus’ teaching, and his challenge will reveal their true heart.

 

Photocredit: The Wartburg, dkbonde

Drinking the cup

Saturday

Mark 10:32-45

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/archive/5/56/20140424150355%21Ignatius_of_Antiochie%2C_poss._by_Johann_Apakass_%2817th_c.%2C_Pushkin_museum%29.jpg39Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

Today is the feast day of St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch and Martyr of the Church. He was from the first generation after Jesus, born near the time of Jesus’ death and dying at the beginning of the 2nd century. As he was taken to Rome to be fed to the lions in the Coliseum, he wrote letters to the churches in the region through which he passed. Seven survive.

The word ‘bishop’ has gathered a lot of extra weight traveling through the centuries. Ignatius would have been the head of the household of faith – spiritual leader, teacher, symbolic representative of the whole community – but also a link to the beginnings. He had been formed in the faith by John the Evangelist.

The value of such an historical link has not always been recognized in American society. Yet we often will convey the chain of custody for some eyewitness account. “Bill heard it from Mary who heard it from Jean who saw it happen.” And though we have all played the telephone game and know how messages can get distorted, the first generation wasn’t playing the telephone game. They were sitting at a teacher’s feet, learning the stories, learning their significance, reading the letters of Paul and – by the generation of Ignatius – writing down the narratives as Gospels.

Ignatius was a witness carefully taught by the witnesses. And that chain of teaching continues through the centuries. But authority in the church is not from that chain of succession alone. It is a balance between the tradition handed down through the office of the elder, the text of the Scriptural witness, and the living work of the Spirit.

Ignatius had all three.

It is hard to imagine the violence of a society that makes sport out of feeding people to the lions, watching people die in innumerable creative ways. Crucified upside down. Dressed as enemies and cut down by gladiators. Buried up to the neck in the track of the chariot race. Limbs chained to each of four horses set running in opposite directions. Dipped in pitch and set alight as torches.

It evokes the image of lynching when towns came out to vent their hate as if it were a Sunday picnic – and went away with souvenir pieces of the body.

Into this world came a teacher who yielded himself to violence in the name of peace. John heard him. And Ignatius sat at John’s feet. And we sit at their feet, a people learning to be faithful to the one who taught us to love all people – even, and especially, in the face of hate.

 

Image: Ignatius of Antioch By Иоанн Апакасс (?) (File source Official museum page) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons  Page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ignatius_of_Antiochie,_poss._by_Johann_Apakass_%2817th_c.,_Pushkin_museum%29.jpg

Life even in death

File:Voronet murals 2010 64.jpg

Friday

Psalm 91

11For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.

In the account of the temptation of Jesus in Matthew and Luke the devil uses this text to deflect Jesus from his path. The temptation is simple enough: “God has given a promise; test it to be sure. Why would you dare walk into the future without knowing for sure that God will catch you?” But Jesus’ asks for no proof of God’s faithfulness. He knows it. He trusts it.

It is a wonderful psalm, rich in faith

1You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
2will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”

and rich with promise of God’s protecting hand.

5You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
6or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
7A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.

A colleague and friend of mine read this to her dying husband – also a colleague and friend. He was the victim of a medical mistake. A stupid, senseless mistake.

He should have come home from the hospital. He should have rejoined our text study. He should have stood again at the altar to celebrate the wondrous gifts of God. He should have proclaimed to us again the faithfulness and mercy of God. But he did not. Instead he lay perishing in the hospital as his wife read these words: “You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.”

It was the psalm for which he asked.

He saw no contradiction between the promise of the text and the reality of his suffering. He saw the promise as something so much larger than a promise of physical protection that these words were only comfort. He heard in the psalm the assurance “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The devil hears none of this in the text. He sees only a promise God cannot possibly keep. Life is full of tragedy and woe. We are driven by our fears and sins. Sometimes we harm ourselves. Sometimes we harm others. Sometimes it’s the simple mistake of a nurse’s aid. Sometimes we live. Sometimes we die. Sometimes we live wounded. Life is random. God’s promise of protection is silly in the devil’s ears.

But those who know the goodness of God hear nothing silly. They hear boundless love. They hear faithfulness despite our unfaithfulness. They hear strength greater than our weakness, mercy greater than our imagining, forgiveness beyond limit. They hear life even in death.

 

Image from the Murals of the Voroneţ Monastery, Romania. Photo: By Man vyi (own photo) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Amazing grace

Thursday

Mark 10:32-45

File:Francisco de Zurbarán 020.jpg43Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

Again and again Jesus keeps coming back to this theme. The realm of God is not about power, honor and glory; it is about service, suffering and love. It is about showing honor. It is about taking the lowest place at the banquet. It is about sharing one’s goods not amassing them. It is about forgiveness not revenge. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” not “Blessed are the victorious.” Our teacher and lord has bent to wash our feet. The anointed of God bears our sins. The Messiah suffers rather than strikes down. Jesus eats with sinners; he doesn’t parade with the righteous – though he eats with the righteous, too, and seeks no revenge when they treat him without respect.

Mary is welcome at his feet as a disciple. Mary Magdalene is the first to see him risen. He does not shame the woman at the well, or the woman who weeps over his feet, or the woman who reaches through the crowd to touch the hem of his robe. He does not shame the family that lacks sufficient wine, but blesses the wedding with wonder. He touches the leper. He gathers the children in his arms. He lays down his life for the world.

It is shocking to hear Jesus say: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him.” And if it weren’t so familiar to us, we would be shocked, too.

And this declaration doesn’t end by Jesus saying “But I will get my revenge!” It doesn’t end with the threat of hell fire. It ends simply: “and after three days he will rise again.”

God’s answer to human evil is not to punish it, but to give life. God’s answer to hate is love. God’s answer to offense is forgiveness. God’s answer to greed is generosity. God’s answer to pride is humility. God’s answer to his squabbling disciples’ quest for honor is a towel, a basin and a job for only the lowliest foreign-born slave. Our central act as a church is to break bread and hear Jesus say, “my body is broken for you.”

We are like James and John. We have a long ways to go before we inhabit this realm of grace.

But it is an amazing realm.

 

Image: Francisco de Zurbarán [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons