A box filled with plowshares

File:Old agricultural tools.jpg

Thursday

Ephesians 3:1-12

8This grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, 9and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things;

Most modern scholars don’t think Paul wrote this letter to the Ephesians, but that doesn’t take anything away from its authority as scripture. It is part of the canon not because Paul wrote it, but because the community of faith recognized the voice of God in it. It bears witness to the character and work of God.

It’s not my purpose to review the academic argument, only to point out that what we listen for in these ancient writings is the living voice of God. These writings are not dictated by God as an authoritative legal code or historical record; they are inspired, “inspirited,” breathing the breath of God, encountering us with God’s creating and redeeming speech that brought forth the world, reveals the heart of God and draws us into his will and purpose.

Paul is a servant of that word, that message, that living speech of God that calls our name and bids us follow, that forgives our sins and draws us into the realm of grace, that nourishes us through the wilderness of this world like manna in the desert and water from the rock.

Whether these words are from Paul, Paul’s secretary, Paul’s friend, Paul’s disciple, or someone writing in Paul’s memory doesn’t matter. These words have their origin in the Holy Spirit and continue to be a vessel of that Spirit. They bear witness to the mystery of God’s purpose in the world: 6the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

It doesn’t seem strange to us now to think that God is the God of all, that we are – and are meant to be – a single human family. But it was radical news at the time. And we still have trouble with it – not with the concept of one God, Lord of all, but with the reality of receiving all people as sisters and brothers.

We are wired to put things into categories: these are apples, these are oranges, these a bananas. They are all fruits. They are not meat. They are not vegetables. These are edible. These are not. Pennies go in a gumball machine; they don’t go in your mouth. Gum goes in your mouth, but you don’t swallow it. Oak leaves are pretty in the fall, so are poison oak leaves – but they go in different categories.

We are wired to put things into mental boxes. The mystery of which Paul speaks is that there is one box labeled ‘people’. There are not separate boxes for tall people and short people, fat people and skinny people, dark complexion and light. There are not separate boxes for liberals and conservatives, sinners and saints, Christians, Muslims and Jews. There is just one box: all God’s children.

The church is meant to be the sign that there is one box, a community of all kinds of people across language and culture and time. We are also the bearers of the message that there is only one box – a box filled with “the boundless riches of Christ.” A box filled with grace. A box filled with compassion. A box filled with love of neighbor. A box filled with plowshares and pruning hooks.

 

Image: agricultural tools used in Ferizaj.  By Diamant Hetemi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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They will call him blessed

File:074 Frontal d'altar de Mosoll, els Reis d'Orient.jpg

Watching for the Morning of January 3, 2016

The Sunday of the Epiphany

The appearance of the magi is both majestic and terrifying. In a world where Herod killed his own children in fear they conspired to seize his throne, the obeisance of the magi before the child of Bethlehem is not only a threat to the current regime, it imperils the holy family – and, as we shall hear, every child in Bethlehem.

A thousand years before, the village elders of Bethlehem quaked when the prophet, priest, and kingmaker, Samuel, arrived. They knew his presence could well expose them to the wrath of Saul; prophets have a habit of acclaiming new kings. But Samuel masked his secret mission as a public sacrifice, and anointed David in the privacy of his father’s house (after God rejected all his strapping older brothers and they had to fetch David from the fields).

The clash of kings – only this is not one king against rivals, but human kingship against divine kingship. So the first reading and psalm soar with the vision of God’s just and righteous reign over all creation. Isaiah proclaims Israel’s restoration and exaltation, that “nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” bringing gold and frankincense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD. And the psalmist declares that the just and righteous king “will rule from sea to sea.” All nations will bow before him, “for he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help,” and the kings of this earth will kneel “and present him gifts.” (This is why the magi become kings in the tradition.)

Sunday is about the clash of kingships. And the gathering of the nations in Christ is witness that this is the dawning of God’s righteous reign when “all nations will be blessed through him; and they will call him blessed.”

The Prayer for January 3, 2016

Gracious God,
by a sign in the heavens
you proclaimed to all the earth
the advent of your son Jesus,
who would receive the throne of David
and reign in justice and righteousness over a world made new.
May he reign in us and in our world bringing his perfect peace;
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 January 3, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” – In the years after the return from exile, the prophet heralds a restoration of the nation: though Jerusalem and the temple are now only a pale reflection of their former glory, the Glory of God shall be upon them, the sons and daughters of Israel scattered throughout the ancient world shall return, and the people of all nations will make pilgrimage to “proclaim the praise of the LORD”.

Psalmody: Psalm 72 (appointed 1-7, 10-14)

“Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness.” – A royal psalm, likely composed to celebrate the ascension of a new king, has become a promise of the anointed of God (Messiah/Christ) in whom all creation is made new.

Second Reading: Ephesians 3:1-12
“This grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ.” – Paul is privileged to proclaim God’s plan, once hidden from our eyes but now revealed, to gather all people into one body in Christ.

Gospel: Matthew 2:1-23 (appointed 1-12)
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Judeans?”
– the visit of the magi, representing the nations coming to bow before the dawning reign of God in Christ, and his rejection by Herod and the Jerusalem elite who plot to murder the infant king.

 

Image: Altar frontal from Mosoll.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A074_Frontal_d’altar_de_Mosoll%2C_els_Reis_d’Orient.jpg  By Enfo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Heading home from the manger

File:Adorazione dei Magi by Gentile da Fabriano - Predella.jpg

Looking back to Sunday

So we gather in the season of Christmas. We hear the promise of peace in the child of Bethlehem. We sing “Silent Night” and “Away in the Manger” and light candles in the dark. We hear the story of the peasant mother on a cold winter’s night. If we are fortunate, we go home to family gatherings that are warm and joyful and a taste of all that is good in life. Then somewhere in the days that follow, perhaps after some family tension or evening news account, we lament that the peace doesn’t last.

It is then, in these days after, that it is important for us to hear the words of our second reading yesterday morning:

12As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:12-17)

There is baptismal imagery working in this word of encouragement. You can almost hear the elder admonishing the newly baptized – who have put off their old clothes and renounced their previous gods before going down into the water, rising up out of the opposite end of the pool to put on a new, clean garment – you can almost hear the elder admonishing them to put one Christ, to clothe themselves with all the qualities of Christ, to adorn themselves with the way of life that accords with God’s redeemed creation.

12As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

Then comes the exhortation to let Christ govern in our hearts – in the place where thought and desire turns into choice and action “let the peace of Christ rule.” This leads to the appeal to let the Christ’s teaching dwell within and among us and concludes with the practice of gratitude.

This is the shape of the believer’s life: to be clothed in Christ, to live forgiveness, to be governed by our harmony with God and infused with God’s teaching, to be thankful.

This is the life with which we seek to cloak ourselves as we journey home from our visit to the manger.

 

Image: By Gentile da Fabriano (Petar Milošević) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.  See https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAdorazione_dei_Magi_by_Gentile_da_Fabriano_-_Predella.jpg

Basking in joy

File:Matka Boza Dzikowska - nieznany autor ludowy.jpg

Watching for the Morning of December 27, 2015

The Sunday in Christmas

We are not done with Christmas. We are not done with this season of joy. Twelve days is short, compared to the 50 days of Easter, but that has something to do with the vagaries of history rather than their theological importance.

We casually talk about Christmas as the birthday of Jesus, but this isn’t a birthday celebration. We are celebrating the work of God to enter into the fabric of human existence. We are celebration the incarnation. We are celebrating the whole mystery of the fact that God became an infant in the womb, a child in a manger, a young man in the temple – and a mature man who mediated to us the words and deeds of God: he healed and preached. And he was a man who suffered and died. The whole gamut of human existence.

We are celebrating this mystery that God hasn’t remained safely in the heavens shaking his head at the woes of earth; God has come to walk with us, talk with us, teach us, heal us, forgive us, bear witness to us of the perfect love of God.

So this Sunday and next we will continue to celebrate Christmas. We will read more of the nativity story from Luke and then, on the Sunday of the Epiphany, read the story from Matthew – stories that bear witness to this strange and wonderful and unexpected thing that has happened.

Though the world around us imagines that Christmas is over, we know that it has just begun. Indeed, we know that God’s dwelling with us continues and will come to perfection.

But for now, we are just basking in the joy.

The Prayer for December 27, 2015

Gracious God, Eternal Father, source and goal of life,
in the mystery of the incarnation you have revealed yourself to the world
in the face of a child,
a boy filled with your wisdom,
and a man faithful to your will.
By his word and work create us in new and faithful hearts
that, trusting always in your promise,
we may recognize our place in your house;
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 December 27, 2015

First Reading: 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26,
“The boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.” – Luke’s nativity story echoes with themes and language from the birth of the prophet Samuel who led Israel and anointed David as king.

Second Reading: Colossians 3:12-17
“Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
–This exhortation from Colossians beautifully summarizes the shape and character of life in Christ.

Gospel: Luke 2:21-24, 39-52 (appointed, Luke 21:42-52)
“Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” – The infant Jesus is presented in the temple and greeted by Simeon and Anna, representatives of faithful Israel. Then Luke tells us of Jesus as a young man, after observing Passover, staying behind in the Jerusalem temple when his family departs (traveling with the crowd of extended family and neighbors from their village).

 

Image: See page for author: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMatka_Boza_Dzikowska_-_nieznany_autor_ludowy.jpg via Wikimedia Commons

The end of stomping

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1985-1216-524, Paris, Wachablösung.jpgThursday

Isaiah 9:2-7

File:CaligaSeptimiusSeverusBogen2.jpg5All the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

The Tanach translation of this passage begins:

Truly, all the boots put on to stamp with
And all the garments donned in infamy
Have been fed to the flames,

I love the way it subtly shifts the focus from the destruction of military gear to an end of the human propensity to stomp one another.

I find it ironic that on the night of peace that brought even the German and British armies to a temporary truce during World War I, CBS is advertising a football game as if it were some great contribution to your celebration of the holiday (remember ‘holiday’ means ‘holy day’).

The world continues to spin on its axis, the planet races around the sun, and the sun races around the galactic center – and even the galaxy itself is racing, someday to collide with its neighbor. Babies will be born (my mother is a Christmas baby and my daughter, Christmas eve). First responders will be on duty. Nurses will tend patients. And most of life will continue.

But in a world where violence is widespread and ritually enacted in combat sports, including football, some of us will gather to celebrate the child of peace and to join the angels’ song announcing “Peace on earth.”

The Christmas Eve service may bring a moment’s peace, but its true importance is in pointing towards peace, pointing towards the harmony that should be but is so seldom, pointing towards the peace that is far more than an end to the gunfire but the sharing of a table. We shouldn’t have to be reminded that peace is God’s purpose in the world, but it seems we do.

I watch football, but I am aware that it is ritual combat. Its underlying metaphor is that life is about conquest and victory. Tonight, in churches across the world, we will be reminded that life is about the ties that bind us to one another, to the creation, and to Him who is the heart of the universe. The Christ child comes to restore those ties.

 

Images:
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1985-1216-524 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
By Rabax63 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Greeted with a kiss

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And she laid him in a manger

Wednesday

Luke 2:1-20

20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

I don’t know what people say as they leave worship on Christmas Eve. Probably, hopefully, that it was a nice service. Probably, hopefully, that they liked the music. Who doesn’t enjoy the change to sing Silent Night by candlelight? Maybe there is a sense of community, or perhaps nostalgia – or, possibly, just eagerness to get home to dinner or to presents.

I wish they went home “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen,” – meaning not the worship service, but the news that “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

That’s the stunning news. God’s anointed has come. The one who will deliver us and reign in righteousness is born. And not just born into the world but he lies in a manger! And the news is given to us, mere shepherds!

We should disabuse ourselves of any romantic notion of the shepherds. And maybe we can oversell how low on the social totem pole they stood – but they were clearly nowhere near the top. The Christ is born among the many, not the few. And he is proclaimed to the many, not the few. He is born among and proclaimed to those who lack status in the eyes of the world. Their twitter feed is followed by 6 not 6 million.

The Messiah is announced to those who tend the gardens and clean the homes and care for the sick. The Messiah is born among Uber drivers trying to make ends meet, and greeters at Walmart hoping to stretch their limited retirement income. The Messiah is born among those working the night shift pretty much anywhere. The Christ is born among the truckers on the road, away from family. Perhaps that’s the image we should ponder: Christ born at a truck stop and laid in a packing crate.

But we cannot work this image too strongly. We want to be sure that we don’t put the baby Jesus out there among “them”; he is born among us. In our homes with their secret sorrows and joys. In our homes with their struggles and successes. In our homes with our stresses and fears. In our homes with our sins and mercies.

Christ is born here, with us, where he is unexpected. To us the angels’ sing. We are the ones invited to see. We are the ones who should go home rejoicing. For this night the world is changed. Heaven has bent to earth and greeted it with a kiss.  Heaven has bent to us and greeted us with a kiss.

 

Image: By DFID – UK Department for International Development [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Truly magical

Singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve at Los Altos Lutheran Church (2012)

Singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve at Los Altos Lutheran Church (2012)

Watching for the light of the new morn

Christmas Eve / Christmas Day

Christmas Eve and Christmas morning are wonderful and magical moments – even though there are no children or family around my tree. As a cultural celebration, I am one of those who finds this season difficult. But as a worship service, I find this night and this morning exquisitely wonderful. They speak to me more profoundly even than the wonderful drama of Holy Week. For this is about the mystery of the God who comes to us. Its focus is not God’s suffering love or life-giving power. It’s not the world’s rejection of Jesus and God’s stunning vindication of all that he said and did. This is about God becoming one of us, of God crossing the great divide between heaven and earth and showing up on our doorstep, in all our human vulnerability and frailty. He is helpless in Mary’s arms. There is no magic that can wave his arms and make their home warm and bright. There is no magic that carries away the stench of the sheep or shepherds. There is no magic that keeps him from soiling whatever was the ancient equivalent of diapers and crying for relief. There is no magic that keeps him from hunger. He is as we are.

God is not a palace god; he is a god of the peasant home. God is not a god of Greenwich, Connecticut or Bethesda, Maryland, he is a god of Baltimore and Ferguson. God is not a god of success and prosperity, but a god who comes to dwell in my living room, with my clutter and torn couch and worn carpet.

God is a god of the peasant home, the god of the exiles far from home, the god of the slaves in Egypt without a home. God is a god of the leper calling out “unclean”. God is a god of the despised Zacchaeus in the tree. God is a god of blind Bartimaeus crying out for mercy. God is the god of the Syrophoenician woman asking only for crumbs. God is a god of the woman at the well shunned by her town. God is a god of the man at the pool of Bethesda with no one to help him get healed.

God is a god of Kobani, and the homeless camps. He sits with the parents of Alan Kurdi. He works as a nurse in the underground bunkers dug in Syria for hospitals. He picks up refuse among the untouchables in India. He huddles with those beneath the overpass on a bed of cardboard.

God makes his home among us, in the places we live, in the places we hurt, in the places of which we are ashamed. He can dwell there because he comes as one of us. Because he throws no stones.

God makes himself flesh and, by doing so, he makes all flesh holy. He makes all createdness sacred. We are capable of bearing the infinite. We are worthy of the divine. To use the metaphor of the Biblical story, as God walked with Adam and Eve in the dawn of creation, he walks with us again. This is not just about the birth of a child; the whole world is reborn.

This is a great and wondrous mystery. I have trouble holding on to it in the press and sorrows of daily life. But every year this day comes and we light the candles in the dark and sing Silent Night and tell the story of the manger and the angel choir singing to shepherds. In the morning we read how the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. And it is truly magical.

The Prayer for December 24, 2015

Holy God, eternal light,
source and goal of all creation:
in the wonder of this night,
you came to us in the child of Bethlehem,
seeking your lost and wounded world,
granting light for our darkness,
hope amidst doubt,
joy amidst sorrow.
Let your grace shine upon us
that we may receive you with open hearts
and know the fullness of your presence;
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 December 24, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7,
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” – the prophet promises the end of war and the birth of a royal son in whom will come peace.

Second Reading: Titus 3:4-7
“When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy.”
–We were slaves to our passions but have been freed in Christ by his mercy.

Gospel: Luke 2:1-20
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” – Into the world of Roman dominion and power, a new Lord is born.

The Prayer for December 25, 2015

Almighty and ever-living God,
in the mystery of the incarnation
you have entered into the fabric of our world
to find what is lost,
to gather what is scattered,
to unite what is broken,
to illumine what is darkened,
to heal what is wounded,
to bring to life what is bound in death.
Grant us wisdom, courage and faith
to receive your Son as he comes to us as your Word made flesh:
child of Bethlehem;
prophet and teacher of Nazareth;
crucified and risen Lord;
Immanuel, God with us;
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 December 25, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 55:10-12
“You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.” – Like grain sown into the soil, God’s promise will bear fruit: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty.”

Second Reading: Hebrews 1:1-4
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”
– The opening of the book of Hebrews proclaiming the work of God in Christ.

Gospel: John 1:1-14
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John’s Gospel begins with a rich and wondrous hymn that identifies Christ Jesus with God’s word in whom all things are created.

 

“Come, let us walk…”

File:IRIA soldiers marching in formation (1).jpg

Sunday Evening

Isaiah 2:2-5

5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

This is the concluding line of the beautiful prophecy we sang as our psalm, today:

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

It is a beautiful passage, vivid, memorable, timeless in its aspiration for peace. But we miss something of the power of this text because of that timelessness. The prophet was speaking to a specific time – a nation in the run-up to war. Assyria is on the horizon. Fear is rampant. Neighboring kingdoms are assembling against Judah. The king is beefing up defenses, marshaling troops, forging alliances. It is a time of muscular rhetoric and bravado, not unlike our own. The talking heads in the royal court all declare that God is on their side. They possess the temple: God will never let his holy house fall.

Now stands the prophet. He declares that the day shall come when Jerusalem will be the center of peace. All nations will come to learn the way of God. And while everyone is nodding their heads in assent at this acclamation that they are the greatest nation on earth comes the final line, the punch line: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”

“Let us walk…”

It is wonderful to hear the promise of peace. But Isaiah lived in a time of war fever. While everyone is marching to war, he summons us to walk in the way of peace.

Isaiah met King Ahaz as he was inspecting the defensive ramparts of Jerusalem and challenged him to put his trust in God’s power not his own. He promises the king a sign, any sign, whatever the king might ask for. But the king demurs. He puts on a polite religious front, but has no interest in the word of the LORD. This is that famous passage where the prophet says, “If you won’t choose a sign, God will choose one for you. A woman shall conceive and bear a son and they shall call his name ‘Immanuel’.” The king’s trust and hope are in his preparations for war, not the path of peace.

We tend to think that the way to peace comes through conquest: hurt me and I’ll hurt you worse. It is the way of the nations. Take what you can. Give back only what you must. Rule by fear and threat or overwhelming military or economic force. But these very nations, says the prophet, will come to Jerusalem to learn the way of peace. They will come to learn the Word of the LORD, the commands that require justice and mercy.

And what the whole earth will do one day, says the prophet, we should do now: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”

 

Image: Islamic Republic of Iran Army soldiers marching during Sacred Defense Week parade. By Reza Dehshiri (http://www.ypa.ir/media/k2/galleries/280/02.jpg) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It is his promise

File:Tractor Teamwork - geograph.org.uk - 545872.jpgSaturday

Isaiah 2:2-5

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

Personally, I think this message in Isaiah is so priceless and profound it deserves to stand without comment; our comments can never be worthy of it. Yet here I am, wanting to be sure we are captured by this promise.

I don’t know if it’s true that Jerusalem is the most contested pieces of land in human history, but it will do as a symbol of our warring. We call it the city of peace, but peace has been difficult to find.

On the spot where the holy temple once stood now stands a holy mosque, and those who pray in the mosque are divided from those who pray at the base of the foundation stones. Nearby are holy churches – churches that also pray separately.

We will come here, says the prophet, to this holy embattled ground, to learn God’s way of peace. We will come here, to the place where the holy body of Jesus lay slain, to learn to beat swords into plowshares.

That nations will come, says the prophet, to this land where armies have marched for thousands of years – Assyria, Babylon, Medea, Persia, Egypt, Rome, the Umayyads, Abbasids, Seljuks, Fatimids, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, Germans, Great Britain. And how shall we describe the bloodletting since?

Tiglath-Pileser, Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander, Pompey, Titus, Saladin – many have marched here. They shall come, says the prophet, not for conquest, but to learn the way of peace.

It is important to let the text say what it says – we will learn God’s ways. This will not be the triumph of one religious people over every other religious people; it will not be the triumph of one tradition over every other tradition or one law over every other law; it will be the “triumph” of God over our fallen humanity: our selfish humanity, our warring humanity, our “us against them” humanity, our divided-into-holy-camps humanity, our bent and broken image-of-God humanity.

We who were made in the image of the creative, life-giving presence at the heart of all existence have become creators of the tools of violence and death: club, knife, sword, catapult, bow, rifle, cannon, bomb, bigger bomb, nuclear bomb, hydrogen bomb, missile, RPG, drone. Ever more clever. Ever more deadly. And when big is not available to us, then suicide vests and swords for beheading and kids turning pressure cookers into death and maiming.

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord…
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”

Christians say that the nature of this God who will teach us his ways is revealed most profoundly in Jesus of Nazareth who did not take up the sword to protect himself. When one of Jesus’ followers drew his sword to protect Jesus (John says it was Peter), Jesus rebuked him saying, All who take the sword will perish by the sword.” When Peter offered to forgive seven times, Jesus made it seventy-seven times and, when he hung upon the cross, prayed for God to forgive his torturers.

When Jesus eats at the house of Zacchaeus, when he eats at the house of Simon the Pharisee, when he eats with his followers on the night he is snatched in the dark, when he welcomes women as disciples, when he forgives the lame man or heals the leper or defends the woman caught in adultery, when he speaks to the woman at the well as if she were a member of his own household or welcomes Matthew the tax collector – all these are part and parcel of the way of God who is teaching us the way of peace.

Most of us go to church to feel better. But God’s purpose there is to summon us to be better. Again and again we hear the stories. Again and again God speaks forgiveness. Again and again God gathers us to one table. By word and example God teaches, though we learn poorly.

God wants us to be better – not better, as in trying harder, but better as the doctor wants us to be better. God wants to recover in us our true humanity. God wants to straighten what is bent and heal what is wounded. God wants to cast out what is harmful and give birth to what is good. God wants us to live and breathe the way of peace, the way of mercy, the way of compassion, the way of truth, the way of life. God wants us to live and breathe his Spirit. God wants us to live and breathe his love.

And all this is not just God’s desire; it is his promise.

 

Image:Pauline Eccles [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Keep on

Thursday

Philippians 4:8-9

File:Rembrandt.Self-portrait as apostle Paul.jpg

Rembrandt, Self-portrait as the apostle Paul

9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

I am fine with this verse until you get to the words “in me”. I want to urge all my folks to keep on doing the things they have “learned and received and heard and seen” – the things they have learned about Christ Jesus, the things they have received from the Holy Spirit, the message of grace and life they have heard, the examples of God’s love and mercy they have seen in others and in their own lives. I want all the people of my parish to keep on doing these things.

It’s the phrase “in me” that gets me.

I don’t want to be an example. I am too aware of my frailties and failings. Too often, those who have put themselves forward as examples have turned out to be hypocrites. Hypocrisy is a charge that sticks easily to the church. I don’t want to go with Paul, here. I want to go with John the Baptist who points to Jesus and says, He must increase, but I must decrease.” Or maybe the words of Paul when he writes that he is a world class sinner and unfit to be an apostle.

No, I don’t want to point anyone to myself. I want to point them to Christ. And to saints I have known whose lives were worth emulating: the people I discovered in a neighboring church kitchen turning a dozen loaves of bread into sandwiches to take down to the Cass Corridor – that section in downtown Detroit where everyone warns others not to go. Turns out, they did this every week. They took Jesus at his word when he spoke about feeding the hungry and acts of mercy and kindness. Let me point to them, not to myself.

Or to Jim who would drop anything to go to someone’s aid. He offered to drive me from Detroit to Springfield Illinois when he heard that my daughter had been killed there. Or to Gubby who could always be found washing dishes behind the scenes. Or to the elderly woman I found washing the kitchen floor of one of the most selfish and disagreeable people I have ever me. I learned she brought groceries each week and cleaned M’s kitchen because her husband had been a friend of M’s husband.

These are saints. These are holy men and women. These are living examples of God’s love. But me…I am just a sinner trying to live by grace, trying to stay rooted in God’s love and mercy.

And maybe that’s what Paul means when he says, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.” I hope so. For I do know that it is there, when we inhabit the realm of grace, when we live in the light of God’s measureless kindness, that the rest of that sentence makes sense – for there the God of peace is with us.

 

Image: Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons