A Journey towards God

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From last Sunday

The First Sunday of Advent, 2018, Year C

The children were given binoculars on Sunday – as we look on this Sunday to the horizon of history. The theme for the day was “A Journey towards God,” and the texts for Sunday can be found with the post: “The season of hope.” These are a few passages from the day’s sermon. The full message can be found here.

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When we describe this first Sunday in Advent as being about our Journey towards God, we aren’t just talking about my individual spiritual journey, but the journey of the whole world to its re-creation.

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We are moving towards a creation made new. We are moving towards the day when the Spirit of God reigns in every heart. This means we are fundamentally and profoundly people of hope. We don’t look on the sorrows of the world around us with despair. We don’t lay our dead in the ground imagining this is the end. We don’t see the triumph of lies and deceptions and hate as the end of civilization.   It may be the end of our civilization, but it is not the end of God’s work with the world. It’s not the end of the human story.

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What is present to us in Jesus is a new birth of the world. And the followers of Jesus are the messengers of Jesus carrying that new birth to the world.

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We are not waiting with dark pleasure at the thought that the wicked are finally going to get their due. We are rejoicing in the rebirth and transformation of the world. We are sowing the seeds of mercy and light. We are living our reconciliation. We are bearing witness to the mercy of God. We are bold in the face of death, for death has lost its sting. We belong to God. The world belongs to God. And we are headed toward life. Even if it were possible for heaven and earth to pass away, says Jesus, his promise will not pass away.

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The shaking of the powers of the heavens doesn’t mean literal changes to the physical universe – the reference is to the governing powers that oppress human life. The powers that are shaken are hate and fear and racism. The powers that are shaken are tribalism, greed and falsehood. The powers that are shaken are all the tyrants that rule – because a new king is coming: one who reigns in justice and righteousness, one who fills all creation with faithfulness to God and one another, one who sets right the world.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2014041_465556_21255545_161244.jpg Suvendra.nath [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

The season of hope

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Watching for the Morning of December 2, 2018

Year C

The First Sunday of Advent

Jeremiah survived the Babylonian attack on the city of Jerusalem. He watched as the defenders tore down the houses of its wealthy inhabitant to buttress the walls against the Babylonian siege works. He watch starvation take the city. He saw young and old perish in the streets. He saw the plundering, raping soldiers and the burning fires. He saw the holy treasures of the temple carried off to the royal treasury of Babylon. He saw it all.

And he saw it coming. But his cries for the nation to change its course went unheeded. His prophetic words dismissed as treason. He was arrested and thrown into a cistern.

Jeremiah saw it all. But he also saw into the heart of God. He heard God’s rage at the corruption and injustice, idolatry and faithlessness of his time. But he also heard God’s determination. God would not forsake this people. God would not forsake this world. God would redeem it. God would fulfill God’s promises. And so Jeremiah stood in the rubble of the abandoned city and saw happy brides and feasting families. He surveyed the desolation and heard the song of temple singers rising in praise. He heard laughter and joy. He saw abundance. He saw flocks adorning the hillsides. He saw a just king and faithful priests and a faithful people. Where others saw only destruction and despair, Jeremiah saw the creative and redeeming hand of God bring the broken city to new life.

It doesn’t take great prophetic insight to see a nation careening towards catastrophe. But it takes great sight to see beyond the sorrow. And it takes great courage to speak it. Who should believe such words amidst the rubble? They sound like fantasy. Vain imagination. Denial.

Who could foresee resurrection? In the broken body of Jesus, stripped and shamed, beaten and bloody, who could foresee the creative act of God to make all things new?

It is God’s work to redeem the world, to bring it to new birth. So evn as we read the texts of the apocalyptic woes – the death throes of a fallen world – Jesus summons us to raise our heads. To look, for “your redemption is drawing near.” He urges us to remain faithful. To continue to gather the outcast and forgive the sinner and welcome the stranger. To continue to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. To continue to love God and neighbor as ourselves. To continue to sing God’s praise and gather at God’s table. For the day we await is an empty tomb, a world made new, a creation resurrected.

Sunday’s texts are from Jeremiah promising “a righteous Branch to spring up” from the fallen line of David and from Isaiah 51 promising justice to the nations. Paul will speak of his confidence “that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” And Jesus will tell us to raise our heads, “because your redemption is drawing near.” It is Advent. The season of hope.

The Prayer for December 2, 2018

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Make us ever mindful that our lives move towards your Grace,
that we might be faithful children of hope;
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 2, 2015

First Reading: Jeremiah 33:14-16
“In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
– In the aftermath of the national catastrophe, when Babylon’s armies came and crushed the nation, destroying Jerusalem and the temple of its God, the prophet rises, daring to declare that the LORD’s promise to Israel is not voided. That God will yet fulfill his promise under the banner of a true and faithful king.

Psalmody: Isaiah 51:4-11 (appointed: Psalm 25:1-10)
“The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads, sorrow and sighing will flee away.” – In place of the appointed psalm, our parish sings the song of salvation from Isaiah 51 where the prophet declares that the faithfulness of God is more enduring than earth and sea and heralds the return from exile in “everlasting joy.”

Second Reading: Philippians 1:3-11 (appointed: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13)
“This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more… so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless.” – Though Paul writes from prison, his eyes are on the fulfillment of God’s promise to establish his reign of grace and life and writes his beloved congregation, rejoicing in their faith and urging them to faithfulness.

Gospel: Luke 21:25-36
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” – Reading now in Luke at the beginning of a new church year, we start with eyes turned toward the horizon of human history and the promise of the ultimate dawning of God’s reign over all creation.

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Devotional verses and reflections for the Advent season can be found at Holy Seasons

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LA2_juleljus.jpg LA2 [CC SA 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/sa/1.0/)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Heaven and earth

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Glancing back to Sunday

Luke 21:25-36

33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

Heaven and earth won’t pass away. That’s not the meaning of Jesus’ words. The meaning of this expression in the ancient Mediterranean is simple: as impossible as it is for heaven and earth to pass away, it is more impossible for my words to pass away.

What will pass away is this age when children are found lying lifeless in the surf, and infants are buried beneath rubble. What will pass away is the world of tribal animosities and racism. What will pass away is the slash and burning of the rainforest. What will pass away at the cruel words spoken in homes and streets. What will pass away are the tears of the bereaved.

Heaven and earth won’t pass away. Neither will the words of Jesus. The words that call us to love our neighbor as ourselves. The words that speak mercy and forgiveness. The words that call for the sharing of bread and the welcoming of the outcast. The words that say “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (not “Go and make church members,” or “Go and make Christians,” but “Go and make disciples, students, followers of the way of Christ.”)

Jesus’ words will endure, the words that say “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” This age will end. This age of warring and grasping, of greeds and sorrows, of lusts and shames – this age will pass. But the heavens and earth will endure, the handiwork of the eternal: the rising and setting of suns, the swift motion of planets, the wash of waves upon shores, the cry of the wild, the beauty of the natural world, the mystery of life, the wonder of love, the laughter of children, the bonds of affection, the truth of goodness and the goodness of truth, it will endure.

This age will pass and all its discordant cries. But the creation will endure. And Jesus’ words will endure. They speak things that are eternal. They speak harmony. They speak life.

 

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

That your love may overflow

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Philippians 1:3-11

“This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight”

On Thanksgiving it might seem more natural to pick the opening words of our reading for Sunday: “I thank my God every time I remember you.” But Paul is not just exulting in his warm and treasured relationship with his congregation at Philippi; Paul wants them to fulfill their calling.

Christians don’t have a great reputation in the popular imagination these days. We have been seen as judgmental, even hateful. Scandals among the clergy have eroded public respect for ecclesiastical institutions. Protestors with hateful signs have fed the negative perception of Christians. And when people from other religious traditions kill in the name of God, all religious life gets discredited.

Paul is deeply attached to the community in Philippi. Though they are poor and have endured opposition, they have supported his ministry and contributed generously to his appeal for the churches in Judea suffering from famine. They have manifested the life of the Spirit that flows from an encounter with the grace of God.

But Paul is not interested in simply blessing the warm fellowship of the congregation. He aspires for them to grow ever deeper in their manifestation of the love and generosity of God. He wants love to overflow.

Congregations can become content – with their friendship with one another, with the congregational program and activities, with the worship experience and preaching – and forget to overflow to the world around them. Perhaps it is the natural drift of the human heart. Perhaps it is a misunderstanding of the faith itself. Maybe this is why Paul says love should overflow “with knowledge and full insight” – or, perhaps better, “with clear understanding and discernment.”

We need to see truly.

In a society where Christian faith tends to be seen as a means of personal enrichment rather than an enrichment of the world, it’s important to hear Paul speak about overflowing love. And though Paul talks about being “pure and blameless” in the day of Christ, it would be a mistake to think of that as a personal and private moral propriety. Pure and blameless means pure and blameless in our fidelity to God and one another.

We need to see truly. We need love to overflow. We need to let the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus.The world desperately needs a people who live in and from the mind of Christ. The world needs people in whom and through whom God is touching the world with love.

For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

 

Picture: By JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The ransomed of the Lord shall return

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Wednesday

Isaiah 51:4-11

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

We are grateful for the remarkable recovery from brain surgery of a child in the parish. Every day seems an answer to prayer. But even as we celebrate his recovery, there are parents in the congregation whose children did not recover.

I think of them as we provide each status update. I know the complicated emotions of gratefulness for others even as you grieve your own loss. When my daughter was killed, I knew the land of bitterness was nearby. There’s a story of my brother crawling through the fence on my grandparents’ farm into the pasture where the bull grazed. I can feel my mother’s fear even now as she tells that story. The land of bitterness is like that field. It’s an easy fence to cross but a terrible place to go.

Advent is for those parents whose children didn’t come home. It is for those whose hips are mending in a hospital bed. It is for those whose homes are empty or cold or absent. It is for those who flee their homeland – and those unable to flee. It is for the parents of Alan Kurdi whose body will continue to lie in the surf as long as his image endures in our memory.

Advent is a simple promise: the sorrow of the world shall not endure. The gulf that separates the perfect realm of heaven from the troubled realm of earth will be overcome. God will come to dwell with us. Indeed, God has come to us already in the child of Nazareth, the crucified and living one.

Advent is for the parents whose children didn’t come home, and the parents whose children won’t come home, and the children who have reason to not go home. But it is also for the families that do come home, that have enjoyed in some small measure the goodness God intended for us in families. Yet even the best of families have known the ache of our fallen world. And so all are recipients of the promise that shapes this season: “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.

Lift up your heads

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Watching for the Morning of November 29, 2015

Year C

The First Sunday of Advent

So much of our imagery of the end of the world seems to describe “the end of the world.” We get stuck on the four horsemen of the apocalypse and forget that the whole narrative of Revelation drives towards the vision of the New Jerusalem – the making new of the world. Maybe that’s because “the end of the world” is so common in our experience. The loss of parents, the loss of a spouse, the loss of a marriage, the loss of a job – they all contain elements of a life that will never be the same, life that seems irrecoverable, life that seems at an end.

I remember how often I tried to remind my girls that some catastrophe at school or at home – a broken relationship, a broken toy or spilled milk on a report – was not “the end of the world.” But even there, “the end of the world” is equated with disaster – just a bigger one than whatever misfortune has just occurred.

Though Christianity recognizes how deep and stubborn is the rebellion in the human heart, how prolonged the labor pains might be in the birthing of God’s new world, it is about God’s world made new – restored, freed, healed, redeemed, saved. Those are all the words at the center of Christian faith, not the dark woes of apocalypticism.

There is a stunning realism in this religion accused of being “pie in the sky” – a realism about the darkness that lurks in human societies, and the wastes and wraths of our sorrows. Kings go to war, bombing villages and destroying ancient communities, disrupting food and water supplies, leading to disease and death long after the sword has passed through. Leading to the suffering of children and innocents. Leading to the birthing of hate and revenge. Leading to the birthing of despair. There is realism in Christianity.  The central story we tell is about a brutal torture and execution of an innocent man.

But the end is not the grave. The world belongs to God and not to suffering and death. We were created for joy not sorrow, for meaningful work not slave labor, for union not divorce, for a life with God in the garden not hiding in the bushes. We were created for life not death. And though we yield so easily and completely to the powers of death (revenge, hate, neglect, cruelty, greed, bitterness, and the darkest nihilism) we are creatures born of the breath of God in whom we can also see all that is glorious about our made-in-the-image-of-God humanity: love, tenderness, laughter, play, kindness, care of strangers, sharing of bread, coming to the aid of those in need.

So on the first Sunday of the year our eyes are on the horizon – not because the world ends in whimpering and silence, but because it ends in joy. And the God who comes on the horizon of history is the one who has already met us lying in a manger, and at a breakfast barbecue on the shore of Galilee.

The prayer for November 29, 2015

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Make us ever mindful that our lives move towards your Grace,
that we might be faithful children of hope;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The texts for November 29, 2015

First Reading: Jeremiah 33:14-16
“In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
– In the aftermath of the national catastrophe when Babylon’s armies came and crushed the nation, destroying Jerusalem and the temple of its God, the prophet rises, daring to declare that the LORD’s promise to Israel is not voided. That God will yet fulfill his promise under the banner of a true and faithful king.

Psalmody: Isaiah 51:4-11 (appointed: Psalm 25:1-10)
“The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads, sorrow and sighing will flee away.” – In place of the appointed psalm, our parish sings the song of salvation from Isaiah 51 where the prophet declares that the faithfulness of God is more enduring than earth and sea and heralds the return from exile in “everlasting joy.”

Second Reading: Philippians 1:3-11 (appointed: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13)
“This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more… so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless.” – Though Paul writes from prison, his eyes are on the fulfillment of God’s promise to establish his reign of grace and life and writes his beloved congregation, rejoicing in their faith and urging them to faithfulness.

Gospel: Luke 21:25-36
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” – Reading now in Luke at the beginning of a new church year, we start with eyes turned toward the horizon of human history and the promise of the ultimate dawning of God’s reign over all creation.

 

Image: Filippino Lippi, Archangel Gabriel in the fresco of the Annunciation, Carafa chapel.  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.