The sweetness that will not perish

File:Creche de noel.jpeg

Sunday Evening

Isaiah 35:1-10

10 Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

I wish I could capture the joy of watching our children present the Christmas story. Or, for that matter, the exquisite beauty of the High School choral group that sang for our Christmas party/luncheon after worship. The little girl who played Mary also wanted to be an angel, so we had a little costume change in the middle of the service. And her swaddling of the baby Jesus became somewhat legendary last year – carefully spreading out the blanket and then plunking the doll used for Jesus down with a thunk to wrap him up tight.

I sat with a young man from the choral group – they joined us for the luncheon – and when I said that the children had presented the Christmas story in worship that morning, he asked, “What story is that?” Though he sang these exquisite carols and choral pieces, he didn’t know the story.

There is such power in this story for those raised in the church. Watching the children in their costumes, reciting the words, and singing the carols takes us all back through the generations to our own childhoods. The stable, the shepherds, the angels saying “Hark!”, Gabriel before Mary and Mary’s song (the Magnificat, the heart of this third Sunday of Advent) – it’s hard to explain how profoundly it all reverberates through our lives. For a moment, all is right with the world.

But this bright, talented young man didn’t know the story.

And then, when I got home today there was news of the bombing of the Coptic cathedral in Cairo.

All is not right with the world. And yet it is. Bombs are falling, but children are singing. The bodies of innocents lie in the rubble, but a child rests in a manger. The Roman authorities will degrade and destroy this Jesus, but he lives. The cathedral is in ruins, but the song goes on.

The sweetness of children dressed as angels and shepherds is far more than sweetness. It is a profound confession that sweetness has touched the earth, that sweetness abides, that sweetness will endure – that sweetness will triumph. Truth, mercy, justice, compassion, generosity, fidelity, courage, hope, laughter, joy – these are the things that are enduring. These are the elements of our true humanity. These are the things for which there are no regrets. Bombs may scar the world, but God works to heal it.

I told the young man the Christmas story in its brief outline. I thought, at the very least, he should understand the origin of these songs he was singing. But what I really wished was that I could have invited him into the wonder and awe of that story, and into the sweetness that will not perish.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACreche_de_noel.jpeg By KoS (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Strengthen the weak hands”

File:Walker1.jpg

This reflection is a reprint from three years ago (though with a different title and picture).

Isaiah 35:1-10

3Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.

It is hard not to hear in this line the many I have known over the years whose walk into church was compromised. The decision to let me bring them communion in their pew does not come easily. It is like giving up the car keys. I have watched people labor to kneel at the altar rail, and tried to persuade them that the more ancient practice was to stand. I have sat at hospital bedsides while contraptions kept a new knee moving – and when a hip replacement had gone horribly wrong. It is not easy to watch age advance on people you have come to love. I give thanks for the wonders of modern medicine, but I have also had to wrestle with its limits.

There is a promise in the words of the prophets that “sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” God’s day shall come when the blind shall see and the lame walk, when our mortal bodies put on immortality. As hard to comprehend as that promise is, we all share the yearning for our vitality to be restored.

But the promise in this text is not about worn cartilage. This promise speaks to lost courage, lost hope, lost faith. The next line of the poetic proclamation is:

4Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!

The prophet speaks of a highway through the desert, of lush vegetation where thirst once reigned, of safe passage where highwaymen and wild beasts once ruled. The prophet speaks of a pathway home to people who know that home is lost to them, people so used to their bondage they cannot imagine freedom.

A highway through the desert. A pathway so well marked that no one will lose their way. A road filled with joy and song. And those who hear the words of the prophet shake their heads and walk away. “Dreamer,” they say.

How do you convince people that God has a future for them? How do you proclaim it in a way that doesn’t sound like wishful thinking and fantasy? We know life’s limits so well. It is hard to imagine a God who parts the seas or prepares a safe road through the wilderness. Even on Easter morning, with the empty tomb in front of us, people are afraid to step away from old patterns and follow God’s pathway. “I am the way” (the path, the road, the highway) – “I am the way, the truth and the life,” says Jesus. But we don’t risk it.

Strengthen the weak hands. Make firm the feeble knees. Dare to hold the living bread in your hands. Dare to step out on the pathway of faith and hope and love. Dare to practice forgiveness, generosity, compassion. Dare to speak the prayers of your heart. Dare to listen. Dare to trust the one who turns water into wine. Dare to bear witness to the living water and bread of life. Dare to walk the royal highway.

3Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
4Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!

10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Waters Shall Break Forth

The promise of Joy

File:Wasserspiele2.jpgWatching for the Morning of December 11, 2016

Year A

The Third Sunday of Advent

There are fragments of memory that stick in your head like a photograph. One of mine is of a young boy on a hot summer day in downtown Detroit, standing under a large fountain with clearly cold water pouring over his shivering and delighted body.

We got the city to block the streets and turn on the fire hydrant outside the church one sticky summer day. And while I remember the great arc of water shooting across the street and the screams and giggles of the young people from our summer program, no one child stands out like that boy under the fountain.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

Some years ago, in the spring following a winter when it had rained there, Death Valley bloomed. That dry and desolate valley filled with the blossoms of plants that had waited years to show forth their glory. I wanted to play hooky to go see it, but it is hard for a pastor to travel at Easter.

But even just writing those words, “Death Valley bloomed,” is delicious. The vale of death has become a valley of life.  It reminds me of Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones living. Or his vision of a river flowing from the temple making the Dead Sea live.

It is the truth that underlies all scripture: God is a god of life. God makes Death Valley bloom. God opens a road through the wilderness and fills the land with pools of water. And the people come singing. It is not dust and ashes on the heads of those who suffered the devastations of war, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and the years of exile; it is everlasting joy.

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

Sunday we will hear the prophet’s song of salvation. And we will sing with Mary the song of deliverance. And, in our parish, the children will present again that joyous story of the child in the manger. And for those who read the Gospel, they will hear Jesus answer John’s question “Are you the one?” by pointing at all they have seen: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Everlasting joy.

The Prayer for December 11, 2016

Gracious God,
who called forth the first morning of the world
and brings all things to their final end when all night is vanquished,
make us ever mindful of our journey homeward,
and grant us eyes to see your life giving work,
that your joy may break forth upon 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 11, 2016

(Because of the children’s participation in our worship this morning presenting the nativity story, our parish will read only the first reading and sing the Magnificat)

First Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad.”
– The prophet announces that God will come to save the people in exile in Babylon, making springs abound in the wilderness and establishing a highway through the desert to bring the people home.

Psalmody: Luke 1:46-55
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” – In place of the appointed Psalm 146:5-10, our parish will sing the Magnificat, the prophetic song Mary sings about God’s righting of the world when she greets Elizabeth

Second Reading: James 5:7-10
“Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” –
The author of James exhorts the Christian community to steadfastness and hope.

Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
– John sends his followers to Jesus to inquire whether he is the awaited one, and Jesus points him towards the works that have been accomplished among them.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWasserspiele2.jpg By Peng (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A wounded angel

Sunday Evening

See also the page at the Finnish National Gall...

See also the page at the Finnish National Gallery website. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The angelic herald in the children’s Christmas pageant during worship today was sidelined by one of those small childhood tragedies.  She caught her finger in the stepladder she was unfolding to set the stage for her announcement from “on high.”  Apparently the finger is not broken, but quite black and blue.  We sang the opening song a second time to give her a chance to recover – but it was not enough.  She needed the comfort of her parents.  One of the Sunday School teachers took a tinsel halo and stepped in for her.  It’s hard for an angel to deliver glad tidings of great joy through tears.

But I like the image of a wounded angel.  It’s food for interesting thoughts about our wounded Messiah, our suffering God, the joy and grace of the incarnation – and its terrible price.

Mostly, though, I like the image of a wounded angel because we are all wounded messengers.

We bear into the world a message of grace knowing full well our own need for that grace.  We speak of hope even when we struggle privately with despair.  We speak of joy though we sorrow, of mercy though there are things in us and in others we cannot forgive.  We are clay vessels.  Imperfect witnesses of perfect love.  Wounded messengers of perfect healing.

An angel with tears is an angel we can understand.  One who has walked our path, shared our journey.  One who knows life’s sorrows but nevertheless can point us to perfect joy.

Such is the miracle of the incarnation.  God does not sit above the trials of life; he shares them with us.  He knows the cold of a refugee camp.  He knows the terror of violence.  He knows the fear of enemies marching through the streets.  He knows the ache of loneliness and loss, the tears and fears of the night.  He knows the cross of love betrayed.  He knows hunger and shame and the sting of cruelty. Yet he bears witness to a transformative grace.  He bears witness to love of neighbor and love of enemies.  He is a messenger of redeeming love.

He is redeeming love.

And he chooses to dwell within us.  Making us his wounded angels, proclaiming glad tidings of great joy even through tears.

Blessed

Saturday

Luke 1

Visitation by Fra Angelico

Visitation by Fra Angelico (Photo credit: Edith OSB)

46 “My soul magnifies the Lord,
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

As a child, it never sounded quite right to me.  It seemed that Mary rejoiced in God because she would be famous forever.  That’s the disease of our modern world.  People stand behind television news cameras and wave, excited to be on TV.  A group of young men commit brutal acts and post it on you-tube.  We all write blogs.  We seem to be a generation that wants the whole world to watch us.  People are famous for being famous.  People like Einstein and John Glenn used to be the most famous names in the country, not Honey Boo Boo or some housewife from the Jersey shore.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

But Mary is not exulting in her newfound celebrity.  She is exulting in the work that God has chosen to do.  All generations will call her blessed because God will work an incomprehensible grace through her son.  She is not glad to be famous; she is glad that God is coming to save.

Simeon will remind us that “a sword will pierce” her heart.  It is no small thing to watch your child impaled on a cross and to see him pierced by the lance of an occupation soldier.  It is no small thing to see the crowd in his hometown synagogue want to throw him off a cliff.  Of course she comes with her boys to collect him, to save him from himself, to save him from the crowds.  She is not a saint; she is a mother, full of a mother’s fears.  And a mother’s tears.

But she rejoices.  She magnifies God.  Maybe on this night when she has been greeted by Elizabeth with such joy, maybe on this night she doesn’t yet see the sorrows to come.  Maybe on this night it is about joy and motherhood and God’s promised salvation.  Maybe on this night she can hear the laughter of those who no longer hunger.  Maybe on this night she hears the joyful cries of lepers healed and outcasts brought home.  Maybe on this night she hears the songs of the angels that heaven and earth are reconciled.  But she rejoices not in her new position; she rejoices in God.

Perhaps on those other days to come, the days of sorrow, her heart will not be quite so full.  But she will still magnify God, because her eyes are not on her self, but on the fulfillment of God’s promise to right the world.

Daring the royal highway

Friday

Isaiah 35

Yellowstone3Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.

It is hard not to hear in this line the many I have known over the years whose walk into church was compromised.  The decision to let me bring them communion in their pew does not come easily.  It is like giving up the car keys.  I have watched people labor to kneel at the altar rail, and tried to persuade them that the more ancient practice was to stand.  I have sat at hospital bedsides while contraptions kept a new knee moving – and when a hip replacement had gone horribly wrong.  It is not easy to watch age advance on people you have come to love.  I give thanks for the wonders of modern medicine, but I have also had to wrestle with its limits.

There is a promise in the words of the prophets that “sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”  God’s day shall come when the blind shall see and the lame walk, when our mortal bodies put on immortality.  As hard to comprehend as that promise is, we all share the yearning for our vitality to be restored.

But the promise in this text is not about worn cartilage.  This promise speaks to lost courage, lost hope, lost faith.  The next line of the poetic proclamation is:

4Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!

The prophet speaks of a highway through the desert, of lush vegetation where thirst once reigned, of safe passage where highwaymen and wild beasts once ruled.  The prophet speaks of a pathway home to people who know that home is lost to them, people so used to their bondage they cannot imagine freedom.

A highway through the desert.  A pathway so well marked that no one will lose their way.  A road filled with joy and song.  And those who hear the words of the prophet shake their heads and walk away.  “Dreamer,” they say.

How do you convince people that God has a future for them?  How do you proclaim it in a way that doesn’t sound like wishful thinking and fantasy?  We know life’s limits so well.  It is hard to imagine a God who parts the seas or prepares a safe road through the wilderness.  Even on Easter morning, with the empty tomb in front of us, people are afraid to step away from old patterns and follow God’s pathway.  “I am the way” (the path, the road, the highway) – “I am the way, the truth and the life,” says Jesus.  But we don’t risk it.

Strengthen the weak hands.  Make firm the feeble knees.  Dare to hold the living bread in your hands.  Dare to step out on the pathway of faith and hope and love.  Dare to practice forgiveness, generosity, compassion.  Dare to speak the prayers of your heart.  Dare to listen.  Dare to trust the one who turns water into wine.  Dare to bear witness to the living water and bread of life.  Dare to walk the royal highway.

3Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
4Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!

10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Magnificat

Thursday

Luke 1

Hungry

Hungry (Photo credit: Torbein)

53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

The song of Mary begins with an exclamation of joy and wonder at the divine favor shown to her, a peasant girl, that she should bear into the world the one who would “reign over the house of Jacob forever,” and of whose kingdom there would be no end. (Luke 1:33)  But then it shifts into a song of salvation, rejoicing that God is turning the wheel of fortune that raises the lowly and casts down the mighty.

We hear the exaltation theme; we tend not to hear that the rich are sent away empty.

It is a song of salvation, not a threat.  Mary lives in a world where most eke out their existence close to the edge of hunger, and the rising of a king who will fill the hungry with good things rather than extract the abundance of their fields and labor is and will always be met with great joy.  These are not notes of vengeance but celebrations of justice, of salvation, of the liberation of life and a righting of the world.

But the words are still there: “He has scattered the proud in their vain conceits.” “He has cast the mighty down from their thrones.”  “He has sent the rich away empty.”

The scriptures are hard on the wealthy.  Yes, there is a kind of prosperity that is a blessing from God – a natural prosperity from the fields and livestock rather than a profit made at the expense of your neighbor.  But the accumulation of wealth and lands in the hands of the few was never God’s intention for Israel – or for the world.  The land was divided among all as they came out of the wilderness.  A family’s land was not to be sold, but only to be leased if they fell into hardship.  The obligation to redeem the field – or to return it in the year of jubilee – was part of the fabric of God’s vision of a just society.  “There will be no poor among you,” says Moses, if the people will follow God’s commands (Deuteronomy 15:4-5)  When Jesus says “the poor you always have with you,” it is more an indictment than a casual observation.  (Matthew 26:6-13)

But human societies tend to veer towards inequality.  As some become powerful and wealthy, they naturally skew the playing field to gain yet more power and wealth.  The prophets attacked this transformation of Israelite society into rich and poor, the privileged elite and a peasant mass.  God sentenced it to destruction.  First the Assyrians and then the Babylonians represented God’s “no” on the injustice/unfaithfulness of Israelite society.  But by the time of Jesus the pattern had repeated itself yet again.  Power and wealth were concentrated in the hands of a few, and the temple and the name of God were used to legitimate their privilege.

Mary sings of the fulfillment of the prophetic hopes, the coming of a just king, the transformation of human society, the lifting of the poor from the dust, the hungry filled with good things.  Salvation means a profound reorientation of the human community.  Jesus calls it the Kingdom of God.

Somewhere, in the light of this social transformation, is a call for the wealthy to live differently.  For those with two coats to share with the one who has none.  For those with food to share with the one who hungers.  For love of God to be matched by love of neighbor.  We hear it from John.  We will hear it also from Jesus.  It’s not revenge; it is the joy of participating in God’s kingdom.  And those who heed the call to enter this new reality will find it the path of life.

“Are you the one?”

Wednesday

Matthew 11

JUDAEA, Herodians. Herod Antipas. 4 BCE-39 CE....

JUDAEA, Herodians. Herod Antipas. 4 BCE-39 CE. Æ 18mm (4.98 g). Dated year 34 (30 CE). Palm branch; L LD (date) across fields / Legend in two lines within wreath. Hendin 517; RPC I 4926. VF, black patina with reddish earthen deposits, a little rough. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3 “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

John is in prison.  Herod Antipas has tried to silence him.  Herod Antipas is one of the sons of Herod the Great, a ruler of a fourth of Herod’s kingdom, hence the title Tetrarch. (Rome was skittish about allowing people to all themselves kings – including Jesus.)  Antipas governed Galilee and Perea from his capital city of Tiberias – named for the Roman Emperor, of course.  Client kings had always to curry favor with those who had power to elevate or depose them.

John is in prison.  He has criticized Antipas for violating Jewish law by divorcing his wife and (this is the problem) marrying Herodias, the former wife of his brother.  Such marriages always lead to problems in the human community, and this one fed a war.   Eventually his nephew, Agrippa I, will accuse him of conspiracy against Caligula and he will be sent into exile – with Agrippa gaining his lands and dominion.  But before then he will behead his critic, John.  Politics is a brutal sport.

In this era of brutal and corrupt rule, John hears of the deeds of Jesus.  Messianic deeds.  Things that the awaited one was expected to do: heal the sick, open blind eyes, release debtors, proclaim good news to the poor.  He hears of these deeds and sends his followers to ask, “Are you the coming one?”

Jesus simply points to the deeds.  They speak.

Jesus is not simply a healer.  He is not a wonderworker.  His deeds have a special ring about them.  They are the deeds spoken of by the prophets, the works that God’s anointed would do in that day when God draws near to reclaim his world.

We see the tumult and sorrow of the world around us.  We hear of the tragic violence that tears families and communities.  We know of the refugees on the Syrian border and the hunger in North Korea – though the leaders are safe and well fed.  We listen to the corruption of truth that comes from the mouths of politicians throughout the world – and from their media.  We see the power of large corporations to control governing authorities.  We know that people go hungry while others discard unused food.   We experience the gap between marriage as it is and marriage as we hoped it would be.  Even those at the top of privilege’s ladder feel the tension between what is and what might be, should be, could be.

3 “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Are you the one who rights the world?  Are you the one who restores life?  Are you the one who renews the face of the earth?

We have an instinctive longing for the world to be put right.  We have an innate hunger for justice.  An inborn yearning for peace, goodness, righteousness.  And we see the things Jesus is doing.  And, with John, we wonder.   Are you the one?

Jesus simply puts the question back on us.  What do you see?  Do you dare to trust your eyes?

He is the one.

 

Rejoice

Watching for the morning of December 15

Year A

The Third Sunday of Advent

An antiphonary from the first Sunday of Advent...

An antiphonary from the first Sunday of Advent to the end of Lent by Zanobi Strozzi, ca. 1410. On display at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. L08.75.7 1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We sing the song of Mary on this third Sunday of Advent, a Sunday once known as Gaudete Sunday, from the ancient collect that began with the Latin word “rejoice.”  Advent was once a season of repentance, like Lent, and this Sunday presented a break in the Advent fast.  We do not fast much, anymore.  We are part of a culture that does not believe in denying our impulses, whether they are for food, love or sexual pleasure.  In the midst of our carnal world, the Christian community remembers that we are more than our impulses – or at lest we should be.

But our Advent fast has shifted from self-denial to sharing.  This is the season of giving – sharing food and sharing the joy that is ours in the advent of the Christ.  This is a good shift.  And it represents the texts of this season that speak of the day when God gathers all people to rejoice at a common table.

This Sunday, in our parish, we will hear the children present their Christmas program.  And in their young voices we will hear the voice of the angels declare peace on earth.  Peace is far from us – and yet it has come near in this child of Bethlehem.  And it is the destiny towards which we move.  Christ the crucified is risen, and he shall restore all things.

So we sing the songs of hope and joy.  We hear the prophets speak of lions lying down with lambs.  And we seek to live the world that is coming.

The Prayer for the Third Sunday of Advent, 2013

Gracious God,
who called forth the first morning of the world
and brings all things to their final end when all night is vanquished,
make us ever mindful of our journey homeward,
and teach us to see and rejoice in your life-renewing work;
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 the Third Sunday of Advent, 2013

(Because of the Children’s Christmas Program this Sunday, we will read only the first reading and sing the Magnificat)

First Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad.”
– The prophet announces that God will come to save the people, making springs abound in the wilderness, and creating a highway through the desert to bring the people home to the promised land.

Psalmody: Luke 1:46-55 (The Song of Mary, the Magnificat)
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary sings of God’s righting of the world, bringing down the high and raising up the lowly  – in place of the appointed Psalm 146:5-10.

Second Reading: James 5:7-10
“Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” –
The author of James exhorts the Christian community to steadfastness and hope.

Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
– John sends his followers to Jesus to inquire whether he is the awaited one, and Jesus points him towards the works that have been accomplished among them.