The strange and wondrous truth of God

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Afghan day laborers filling sandbags outside Forward Operating Base Geronimo, Helmand province, Afghanistan, July 14, 2010

Watching for the Morning of September 24, 2017

Year A

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 20 / Lectionary 25

Sunday we are jumping ahead to chapter 20 of Matthew’s gospel. We are skipping the Pharisees’ challenge about the legality of divorce and the strange saying about being eunuchs for the kingdom. We are skipping past the disciples’ harsh words to those who would bring their children to receive a blessing from Jesus – and Jesus’ welcome of those children. We are skipping past the words of Jesus to the young man seeking the life of the age to come, telling him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, and past the disciples’ astonishment that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”   All of which leads us once again to the truth that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” The reign of God is a profound reversal of the way of the world.

And so, Sunday, we come to the story of a landowner hiring day laborers for his vineyard and the remarkable choice to pay even those who worked but one hour a full day’s wage. It is not the act of an accountant; it is the act of a patron taking care of those who depend upon him. Except these day workers are not his people. He has no long and established relationship with them. He is not their patron. But he chooses to be.

And what shall we do with this portrait of a God who chooses to treat all people as their patron? What shall we do when our long and historic fidelity to God gains no privilege? What shall we do with a God who shows faithfulness to those who deserve none? The landowners’ final words are painful: “Are you envious because I am generous?” The Greek is literally “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

We don’t understand mercy. We don’t understand the breadth and depth of the compassion of God. We don’t even truly understand the notion that God is the god of all. We claim to be monotheists, but we are more likely to think that God is our god and he can be your god too, if you become one of us. But the truth is there is no ‘us’ and ‘them; we are all ‘them’. We have no claim on god’s mercy; it is gift given to all. Rich, abundant, overflowing, fidelity to a world as corrupt and violent, greedy and cruel as ours. Yes, we are capable of great kindness and generosity – but we are also fully capable of its opposite. We are not God’s people. Not really. We are strangers to the reign of God. We don’t really understand the language or culture of heaven. Nevertheless, God comes to us. Nevertheless, he speaks. Nevertheless, he shows faithfulness. Steadfast love.

So Sunday we will hear once again that “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” We will listen as Jonah wrestles angrily with God because God chooses to forgive the cruel and barbarous Ninevites. We will sing with the psalmist in praise of God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” We will listen as Paul exhorts us to live our lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” And we will once again shift in our seats as Jesus speaks of the just injustice of a landowner who is generous to all, pushing us to see something of the strange and wondrous truth of God.

The Prayer for September 24, 2017

Wondrous God,
whose mercy knows no bounds,
and whose salvation is offered to all:
renew us by your Holy Spirit
that we may walk in the paths of your kindness
and bear your grace to the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 24, 2017

First Reading: Jonah 3:1 – 4:11 (appointed: 3:10 – 4:11)
“When God saw what [the people of Nineveh] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. 4:1But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”
– Jonah sought to avoid his mission to the Assyrian capital for fear God would forgive the city that had destroyed Israel. Now, when this has happened, God seeks to help Jonah understand God’s compassion for its people.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:1-8
“I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.” – Psalm 145 is an acrostic hymn, each line beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet, in which the poet sings God’s praise “from A to Z.”

Second Reading: Philippians 1:21-30
“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
– In prison in Rome, Paul is faced with the possibility of his execution and writes to his beloved congregation in Philippi to encourage them to remain faithful to their Lord, living “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” – As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, he tells this story comparing the reign of God with a vineyard owner who chooses to relate to his workers not on the basis of what they deserve, but on the basis of his goodness.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAfghan_day_laborers_help_Marines_fill_sandbags_(5224388587).jpg By Marines from Arlington, VA, United States (Afghan day laborers help Marines fill sandbags) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Boundless mercy

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Watching for the Morning of September 17, 2017

Year A

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 19 / Lectionary 24

164,383 years and 205 days – that’s how long it would take the servant in Sunday’s gospel to pay back his debt if he received the standard daily wage, worked 7 days a week and never spent a penny. Since this would include something like 41,095 leap years, but also 411 leap centuries, he would have this debt worked off sometime around August 3rd, in the year 166,286. It’s hard to think of that as an actual date. It’s 164,269 years from now. All of human recorded history is a mere 5,000 years.

It’s an unpayable debt.

If we tried to convert 10,000 talents to an 8-hour day at $15.00/hour, it would amount to some $7.2 billion. The hundred denarii debt he is owed, by contrast, would be a mere $12,000. $12,000 is a lot of money to people working for $15 an hour, but these are not common laborers. This is a story about a king and his agents plundering the colonies for taxes and tribute – and to be short $7.2 billion means we are probably talking about friends placed in power who live too large and pay too little attention to the running of a province.

There is hyperbole here, of course, but it’s closer to reality than we might expect. Ancient empires were talented at bleeding their dominions. Modern ones, too. And the wealthy houses were talented at spending.

What is disturbing in the parable is the hypocrisy or callousness of receiving great mercy and giving none. It makes a mockery of the faithfulness of the king who does not treat the servant as he deserves, but as a friend. It brings shame upon the king. It makes him look as though he has been played. He is made the fool. Honor requires mercy – but honor also requires that he throw the merciless servant into prison.

As a parable it works brilliantly, drawing the crowd along in mockery of the corruption and folly of the powerful. But then, suddenly, the light shines on our own lives and the dire warning about making mockery of a generous and merciful God.

So we should shift in our seats, a little this Sunday, as we hear Joseph forgive the brothers who sold him into slavery, as we sing the psalm of praise to God who “does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities,” as we hear Paul remind us of the practical realities that must flow from our “continuing debt to love one another,” and as we hear Jesus tell us to live boundless mercy.

The Prayer for September 17, 2017

Holy and Gracious God,
you choose to deal with a fallen world by your Word of Grace.
Wrap us in your mercy
that, abiding in your Grace,
we may live the forgiveness we have received;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 17, 2017

First Reading: Genesis 50:15-21
“Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’” – Doubting the sincerity of Joseph’s forgiveness, his brothers concoct a scheme invoking their father’s name. But Joseph reassures them and declares, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good”

Psalmody: Psalm 103:1-13
“[The Lord] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” – A hymn of praise for God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Second Reading: Romans 14:1-12
“Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” – Paul speaks of life in the community.

Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35
“Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” –
The parable of the forgiving king and the unforgiving servant.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMessenger_of_Milky_Way.jpg By Q-lieb-in (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Reconciliation

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Watching for the Morning of September 10, 2017

Year A

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 18 / Lectionary 23

Our first reading on Sunday sets the wrong background for the words of Jesus we will hear. The prophet takes up the image of a sentinel. If a sentinel gives warning of raiders sweeping down upon the land and the people ignore the warning, the people are responsible for whatever losses come. But if the sentinel fails to give warning, and the people are unprepared for the invaders, it is the sentinel who bears responsibility: “their blood I will require at the sentinel’s hand.” As so often with the prophets, Ezekiel has the crowd’s attention. They are nodding in assent, when suddenly the prophet turns the tables and Ezekiel himself is the sentinel warning the people of impending doom. Suddenly the sins of the nation are at issue; destruction is bearing down on them because of their failure to keep God’s way of justice and mercy. If they do not repent, their blood is on their own hands.

Such a word of warning is far different than the injunction given by Jesus that begins with the words: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault.” It sounds the same, perhaps, but it is not. Jesus is not calling us to warn the sinner; he is speaking to the one who has been sinned against. And the sins at stake here are not the failure to live God’s care for the neighbor; they are the assaults on the honor of another. Jesus inhabits a culture where every insult or dishonor must immediately be met with a corresponding insult – all very public – in order to right the balance. A person’s job was to defend his honor and the honor of his family in the eyes of the community. Any insult must be matched. Any challenge met directly and immediately. Jesus is not worried about a fellow believer’s transgressing of a moral code; he is concerned that we understand what it means that we have become members of the household of God. We are a single household in Christ. Any insult must be dealt with privately, as in a family.

But it is not the honor of the community that must be maintained. This is the trap into which churches fall when they sweep grave sins beneath the rug in the name of protecting the church. It is the tie between us that matters. It is reconciliation that is the goal, not honor. Secrets are not being kept; relationships are being mended.

Jesus isn’t concerned with the system of honor rankings; he seeks reconciliation. This is where this whole chapter began. The disciples came to Jesus to ask who was the greatest. And then Jesus is putting a child in the midst and talking about taking up the lowest station. He is talking about plucking out your eye rather than diminishing another. He is talking about the shepherd going after the one and leaving the ninety-nine. And in the verses that follow, that we will read next Sunday, he is talking about 77-fold forgiveness rather than 77-fold revenge.

We are not sentinels for one another – or for society. We are brothers and sisters seeking to live reconciliation. We don’t demand that our honor be restored when offended, we want our relationship to be restored. It is a challenging path. And so we will pray with the psalmist “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes…Give me understanding… Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain.” And we will hear Paul write that all the commandments “are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” And we will realize that, while sentinels matter, reconciliation is the kingdom.

The Prayer for September 10, 2017

Almighty God,
you call us to walk as children of the light
and set before us the command to love one another.
Turn us back when we stray
and lead us in your pathways
that, clothed in Christ, we might bear your grace to the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 10, 2017

First Reading: Ezekiel 33:1-11
“As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” – God compares the prophet to a watchman against hostile enemies and charges him not to remain silent when God has given him a message of warning for the nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:33-40
“Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.” – Another segment of this magisterial psalm celebrating the gift of God’s Law/Teaching.

Second Reading: Romans 13:8-14
“The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
– Paul urges his hearers to live the life to which they have been called in Christ where love (the solidarity of regarding others as members of your own family/kin) is the heart of God’s commands.

Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20
“If another member of the church sins against you…” – Following the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the declaration that God does not want any to be lost, Jesus instructs is followers on seeking reconciliation in the community.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AForgiveness_0001.jpg By scem.info [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Marching towards the new birth of the world

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Saturday

Matthew 16:21-28

21From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

We call this a passion prediction – a prediction of his suffering and death. It doesn’t require any special divine foreknowledge. It’s reasonable to think that Jesus was astute enough to recognize that the things he was saying and doing would eventually bring him into conflict with the Judean authorities – and that the outcome of that would be his death. But Jesus adds “and on the third day be raised.”

For a long time I rather ignored this portion of the prediction. Scholarship rightly understands the Gospels as works of the church, the faith community of Jesus’ followers. Jesus didn’t write the Gospels; his followers did. But scholars tend to then make a distinction between what they think came from Jesus and what came from “the church”.

So Jesus could have foreseen his death, but who could imagine his resurrection? The first part may have belonged to Jesus, but the second part surely belongs to the early church. They are the ones who added that Jesus would be raised, because they had seen it.

It’s a reasonable thought, I guess, though it requires a certain audacity on the part of his followers to put words into the mouth of Jesus. Moderns think ancients are willing to do that (and in many cases they were), but that we wouldn’t (though we do). I am always in support of a little humility about what we are certain we “know”.

For a long time, then, I saw in this text the passion prediction and just kind of ignored the resurrection prediction. But the truth is the resurrection prediction is a key element of Jesus’ prophetic word. Indeed, the entire bulk of the Biblical prophets is to warn of pending judgment and destruction, but then to affirm grace and restoration. The Biblical story is a story of sin and redemption. The wicked world drowns at the time of Noah, but from destruction a new creation rises. Israel is condemned to wander in the wilderness but a new generation rises to enter in to the promised land. Jerusalem is destroyed, but the prophet declares that springs will flow in the desert and a highway lead the people home.

The whole Biblical story is about death and resurrection, judgment and grace, suffering and redemption. So why couldn’t Jesus have trusted that his death would lead to resurrection? His message is about the dawning of the age to come, the reign of God where lives are healed and blind eyes opened and tears wiped away. Resurrection is at the heart of this ministry. Jesus is herald of the new. The dead shall give up its prisoners. The gates guarding the realm of the dead shall not stand. Life is at hand.

So I understand the skepticism of the scholars. And it is important to resist the notion that Jesus was some kind of superman who had powers greater than the rest of us mere mortals. Jesus was fully human. This is the ancient and persistent confession of the church. But the Spirit is upon him. He trusts God fully. He knows the sacred writings intimately. He understands God is a God who delivers – even from the wrath of Jerusalem’s elite. Even from the grave.

And because God is a god who delivers – he sets his sights on Jerusalem. Courageously, faithfully, obediently, he marches towards the new birth of the world.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAivazovsky_-_Descent_of_Noah_from_Ararat.jpg Ivan Aivazovsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Remember Zacchaeus

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Psalm 26:1-8

1 Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity,
…..and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.

The eight verses assigned for us to sing or read on Sunday describe the poet’s righteousness. “Your steadfast love is before my eyes,” he declares, “and I walk in faithfulness to you.” The portrait he paints is noble:

4 I do not sit with the worthless,
…..nor do I consort with hypocrites;
5 I hate the company of evildoers,
…..and will not sit with the wicked.
6 I wash my hands in innocence,
…..and go around your altar, O Lord,
7 singing aloud a song of thanksgiving,
…..and telling all your wondrous deeds.

But there is an unpleasant aftertaste in these words.

I always get a little nervous around those who are a little too certain they are righteous. And it’s not just because Lutherans as a whole have a pretty skeptical view of the possibility of our righteousness. The notion of “alien righteousness”, a righteousness that comes from somewhere else, that is not our own but given to us, is pretty deep in Lutheran piety. We are righteous because, amazingly, graciously, wondrously, when God looks at us he sees Christ’s righteousness not our own. We are pretty sure if he saw our own it would resemble a dilapidated storefront in an abandoned urban area. It has walls and a roof, the appearance of a building, but the windows are broken and the roof surely leaks. Thankfully, God is like an overly enthusiastic realtor who sees what should be and will be rather than what is.

In Lutheranland, we are all fixer uppers. So when we encounter someone who is a little too certain they live in a fine neighborhood, we are uncomfortable. Surely they must be denying there is something musty in the basement or mice droppings in the attic.

Nevertheless, this Sunday we are asked to say these words:

4 I do not sit with the worthless,
…..nor do I consort with hypocrites;
5 I hate the company of evildoers,
…..and will not sit with the wicked.
6 I wash my hands in innocence,
…..and go around your altar, O Lord,

It’s a complicated moment. First of all, it requires us to remember that these words are a prayer. The poet is in trouble and offering the kind of prayer we have all offered: “I don’t deserve this…come rescue me…” Like the prayers of our ancestors, our prayers may not be noble, but God does listen.

Secondly we have to remember that these words, like all the words of scripture, reach their fullest truth in Jesus. He was righteous, faithful to God and to others, but his righteousness did not set him apart from the wicked; it placed him in their living rooms. Remember Zacchaeus. I wish I could find a way to put those two words into the six or seven letters of a vanity license plate. That’s one I might consider buying.

Remember Zacchaeus. His righteousness comes after Jesus has shocked the righteous by coming to dine at his home. His righteousness is entirely a response to the presence of Christ. He makes no claim to goodness or holiness; it is brought forth by Christ’s goodness and holiness. Zacchaeus does nothing but agree to let Christ come to his home – and then the spirit of Christ works its work in him. Suddenly he is giving away half his possessions to the poor and setting right his wrongs.

So we will pray the poet’s prayer on Sunday. And the words will come awkwardly. But hopefully we will remember Zacchaeus and, perhaps, all those other prayers that are a little too full of ourselves will be filled with Christ.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChapiteau_de_St-Nectaire_-_Le_Christ_et_Zach%C3%A9e.jpg By Tangopaso (Self-photographed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Of cisterns and crosses and imperishable life

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Watching for the Morning of September 3, 2017

Year A

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 17 / Lectionary 22

Faithfulness, suffering, deliverance – troubling truths rattle through the texts for this Sunday. Jeremiah, who experienced great opposition, shame and humiliation for his message, cries out against God at what feels like God’s betrayal or abandonment. The poet of our psalm declares his innocence in his call for God’s deliverance. And Jesus lays out the path before him through torture and crucifixion, asserting that all who would be his followers must also take up the cross.

What does it say about us as human beings that we should be so resistant to the voice of the eternal? Why does a simple call to love God and neighbor evoke such passionate hostility from a nation’s leaders? Why do we so clutch at privilege, power or position that we would throw a prophet into the mud at the bottom of a dry cistern? Why does Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call to nonviolence end with a bullet? How is it possible to wish to purge Europe of its Jewish citizens and enlist nations in the enterprise, driving the trains, guarding the gates, issuing the orders, carrying them out?

Why does the call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked evoke scorn and derision? I remember my stepfather exploding in derision and anger after I related a high school church retreat that involved a trust walk. Would I let a black panther lead me? He would lead me out into the street before a speeding car. I was a fool for imaging there was goodness in others, that they wouldn’t harm the vulnerable. Maybe I was. It’s quite clear that we as human beings have the capacity to plunder the weak. It might be hard to do face to face; but not so hard from a distance. Yet even still, consider how many men, women and children are bruised and battered by their most intimate companions.

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So there is a cross to carry for those who would live compassion and faithfulness to neighbor. There is a scorn to endure. There are cisterns waiting. There are Golgothas. It is sweet to hear Paul say: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good,” but he doesn’t stop there.

14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

It is a noble life. But it is not simply a noble ideal; it is our true humanity. It is the life for which we were created and the life of the age to come. It is what Jesus means about being born from above. But there are hammers and nails waiting for those who dare to be so “weak.”

Only this is not weakness. It is courageous and difficult work to live such a life. We do so – or try to do so – because of the promise that “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” We do so because this life is eternal. We do so because we have felt the breath of the Spirit. We do so because, on the third day, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found it empty.

The Prayer for September 3, 2017

Gracious God,
the mystery of your redemption is revealed
in the life, death and resurrection of your Son.
Grant us the will and desire to follow where you lead
and to give our lives in the service of your perfect love;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 3, 2017

First Reading: Jeremiah 15:15-21
“Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.”
– Faced with persecution and imprisonment for his prophetic word, Jeremiah cries out against God, and God answers with a promise: “If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth…I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you.”

Psalmody: Psalm 26:1-8
“Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity.” – The poet prays for deliverance and declares his innocence.

Second Reading: Romans 12:9-21
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” – Paul continues his exhortation to the community in Rome, urging them to faithfulness in their life together.

Gospel: Matthew 16:21-28
“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” – Following Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed of God, Jesus begins to teach them of the destiny that awaits him in Jerusalem. His followers, too, must be prepared to take up the cross, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AIran%2C_d%C3%A9sert_-_Yakhchal_inside_-_int%C3%A9rieur_d’une_glaci%C3%A8re_-_persian_cooler_(9246947525).jpg By Jeanne Menj [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AColina_de_las_Cruces%2C_Lituania%2C_2012-08-09%2C_DD_12.JPG Diego Delso [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The gates of Hell (2)

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Matthew 16:13-20

18“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

2 Samuel 12 contains the bittersweet truth: I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” It is David speaking after the death of his child, conceived in the illicit union with the wife of his noble warrior Uriah. When the prophet reveals the consequences of David’s abuse of power, foretelling the death of the child, David weeps and fasts in prayer, refusing to rise from his bed. His servants are afraid to tell him when the child finally dies – but he hears their whispers and intuits the cause. To their surprise, he then rises, washes, and eats. It’s not the behavior you expect in grief. But David had prayed for the child’s life, and now that life is over. There is no prayer yet to be offered: “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” There is no return from the grave.

It’s the finality of death that wounds so deeply.   Never again will I hear my daughter’s laughter or see her smile. Never again will I see daisies in her hair – only the ones I placed there before they closed the casket. And never again will I see the feisty twinkle in my grandmother’s eye or my grandfather with his handkerchief keeping his bald head warm. Never again will I hear my cousin Jim’s deep guttural guffaw and shining eyes. I will go to them, but they will not return to me.

It is a simple fact that the boat only goes one way across the river Styx. The “witch of Endor” could call up the spirit of Samuel, but it is only a shadow of the man whose eternal sleep has been disturbed. “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”

So it is easy to declare that shame and grief and guilt and all death’s weapons cannot hold us. But there is a deeper mystery, here. It is not only that the living will go free; the grave itself will surrender its prisoners. The Biblical metaphor is not that we will be rejoined with loved ones in heaven; it is that we will walk again on the earth. The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth. Whatever that might mean, it means that this life is not a shadow of what is to come. This is the life for which we were made and it shall not ultimately be taken away from us.

God is in the business of restoring his world. Healing it now; healing it forever. Delivering it from its bondage. Breaking down not just the walls of hate and fear, violence and neglect, but breaking down the gates that bar the dead from the fullness of life. The Biblical metaphor is that we shall feel again the grass beneath our feet. We shall drink again from clear mountain streams. We shall hear the surf pound upon the shore but not feel it waste our homes and cities. We shall feel the gentle rain and not fear floods. We shall hear the rumble of lightning far away and not smell the ozone or fear its fires. We shall know the joy of a child’s hand in ours without having to fight the anxiety that wraps around our hearts. We shall know the tenderness of love with out the strain of our brokenness. We shall feast on Zion and no one shall make us afraid. The gates of hell cannot withstand the work of God to open the grave.

The church’s teaching about resurrection is the hardest for our rational minds to comprehend. We are as David. We know that “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” But before us is the promise that the gates that enclose the realm of the dead shall not withstand the Spirit of God. And before us is the witness of Mary and Peter, the twelve and the five hundred that the grave is empty. The crucified one lives.

We know the promise Jesus makes about the gates of hell means we are not bound by our sins; there is grace and deliverance for all. But it also means that God’s project in calling forth the world will not be sidetracked by the horrors spawned by our primal rebellion. A new creation awaits. A birth from above. A healing. A feast. An inexpressible and glorious joy.

And even now we taste this. The Spirit is given. The breath of Christ Jesus is upon us. The life of the age to come is ours to be lived now. The keys of the kingdom are in our hands. The iron gates shall not hold.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AYuma_Territorial_Prison_cell_doors.jpg Jerry Stratton / http://hoboes.com/Mimsy, via Wikimedia Commons

Hell’s gate

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Watching for the Morning of August 27, 2017

Year A

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 16 / Lectionary 21

Sunday brings us to Peter’s confession when Jesus asks the question “But who do you say that I am?” It is the passage that contains the remarkable declaration: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

It is a play on the name ‘Peter’ (in Greek, ‘petros’) and ‘rock’ (in Greek, ‘petra’), but the words of Jesus have been swallowed up by arguments about the form of the church as an institution in the world rather than as a community of student/disciples comprising a beachhead of God’s reign in the world.

So we argue about precisely what is ‘the rock’ upon which Jesus builds. Is it Peter’s faith, his confession, his show of allegiance, his person or his office? But the punch line is not that Jesus is building a ‘church’ (the Greek word ‘ecclesia’ refers to an association of people) but that the gates of ‘hell’ (literally ‘hades’, the realm of the dead) cannot hold against this motley crew who hold the ‘keys of the kingdom’.

I have always heard that phrase about the gates of hell used in a way that suggests the church is the community under siege, that Satan is set to attack and destroy whatever is good. A wise, elderly black woman in a particularly poor section of Detroit warned us young, bright, optimistic (and white) pastors that the devil would try to destroy whatever goodness we tried to accomplish in the city. And we did eventually learn to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. But this is not what Jesus is saying. In this metaphor, it is the realm of the dead that is under attack, that is on the defensive, that is encircled by hostile armies determined to force it to give up its victims.

People worry about the fabled “War on Christmas” – and while churches are facing many obstacles in our modern world, Jesus is declaring that it is death that is under assault by those who have been given the “keys of the kingdom.” We hold in our hands the keys to the storehouses of heaven. We hold in our hands the authority to dispense the gifts of God. We have been given the privilege of serving as God’s agents. Grace and mercy and healing and life are ours to dispense. The realm of shadows cannot defend itself against the kingdom of light.

We live in a time of such dispiritedness. So many feel helpless against the evils of the world. Hate and violence seem to be on the rise. Ruthless greed seems ascendant. Ignorance flourishes. Love, mercy, compassion, generosity seem frail responses to the virulent infections to the human spirit. But here is Jesus, with a simple word to a ragtag band from Galilee of all places – they have the keys to set people free and nothing death might do can stop it.

Love wins.

And so this Sunday we will hear the prophet proclaim God’s message: “my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.” And we will join with the ancient community that sang: “ The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.” And Paul will remind us that “we, who are many, are one body in Christ,” and urge us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice” – not one that is burned upon the altar but one that lives in and from the fire of God’s love. Finally, we will hear the promise that death’s dark realm cannot defend itself against the followers of Jesus who have at their disposal the boundless generosity of God. It’s what gives this image of Peter such a crazy little smile.

The Prayer for August 27, 2017

Eternal Father,
creator and redeemer of the world,
who shatters every bar and chain that binds;
grant us faith to see and courage to confess Jesus as your beloved Son,
and to be faithful stewards of your grace and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 27, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 51:1-6
“A teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples.”
In the years after the destruction of Jerusalem, the prophet’s voice rises to declare that the relationship of God and this people is not at an end. From Abraham and Sarah God brought forth a great nation, so God’s purpose in Israel to bring God’s law to the nations shall not fail.

Psalmody: Psalm 138
“The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.” – a song of praise at God’s deliverance, extolling the certainty of God’s mercy.

Second Reading: Romans 12:1-8
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” – Paul’s begins the third portion of his letter, exhorting the community to faithfulness in their life together as a people gathered by the grace of God.

Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” – Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed of God, and the disciples receive the promise and commission to serve as God’s agents in the world.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASimon_Pierre_Rouen_jnl.jpg By Jean-noël Lafargue (Own work (Own photography)) [FAL], via Wikimedia Commons.

Butterflies, June bugs and the Kingdom of God

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Shenandoah National Park

“So Jesus declares that it is the things you say and do that make you unclean, not your ritual purity. And then a Canaanite woman shows up.”

A reflection on Matthew 15:10-28

Several summers ago, as I drove over interstate 80 on my way to my Father’s house in Colorado, I came to a section of the road near the crest of the Sierras where the air was thick with butterflies. It was amazing to see, except that the poor creatures were splatting across my windshield. I was saddened that so many of these creatures were meeting their demise on my car. But there was nothing I could do. There was no way to avoid them, no way to get across the mountains without going through this cloud of butterflies.

Driving across Nebraska at night, on the other hand, I don’t feel any regret about the bugs that splat against my windshield. I wish they didn’t because my windshield wipers just smear the goop around and it takes forever to clean them off the windshield when you stop at a gas station.

So what’s the difference between the insects at the top of the Sierra’s and those in Nebraska?

We think of butterflies as pretty, and June bugs and grasshoppers as pests. Fireflies are lovely on a summer’s evening. Mosquitos are not. The praying mantis we saw in my father’s yard in Virginia were cool. The horde of bugs occupying a Louisiana gas station bathroom late one August night was disgusting.

If a butterfly landed on your hand, you wouldn’t feel an impulse to wash your hand. But if a roach ran across, you probably would.

Some things are ‘clean’ and some things are ‘unclean’.

We’ve talked about purity rules before. And I can’t remember what stories I have told, so I hope you’ll bear with me. But this notion of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’, of ‘pure’ and ‘impure’, is deeply important. And it is very instinctive. It seems automatic within us. We care about butterflies. We don’t care about June bugs.

But this is important to recognize: although the notion of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ is instinctive, the things we identify as ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ are cultural. They are learned. When I was a kid and loved to fish, I wouldn’t think of eating a rainbow trout raw. That’d be disgusting. But I love pickled herring. Pickled herring is part of our family tradition. It is part of being Danish. It connects with big family dinners and special lunches with my dad. It connects me with my father’s parents, Farmor and Farfar, and all those memories of Uncle Erik and Aunt Betty and Uncle Dan and cousin Jim – and my daughter, Anna – who loved it. They are all gone, now, we have laid them all in the grave, but the pickled herring is part of us. We are all still connected.

The ideas about purity are about our identity. It defines who we are. It declares to whom we belong. Megan came home from school in the third grade distressed at having learned that people in China ate dog meat. “What kind of people can do that?” she wailed. They are not us. They are them. And we are not even sure they are human. “What kind of people can do that?”

What kind of person can drive a car through a crowd of pedestrians? Our president said he’s “an animal.” He isn’t really human. He’s not one of us.

Of course, the whole thing in Charlottesville was about who is ‘them’ and who is ‘us’. Who are ‘clean’ and who are ‘unclean’. Who are ‘acceptable’ and who are not. And the problem is that we are not talking about whether certain behaviors are acceptable; we are talking about whether the other side shares in our humanity.

Rules of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ define us. They convey a sense of identity. Sometimes there is goodness in this. Having a Saturday lunch of herring and sardines and aromatic cheeses with my father touches something deep in my dad. And the Danish cookies and the frikadellar and the hakkebøf and the cucumber salad and the red cabbage and the pickled red beets they are all part of my connection to my family.

So when you marry into the family we set before you the family foods. We teach you how to make the toasts and drink the akvavit. It makes you part of us. When you’re born into the family we set before you all these things. When Anna was two years old, at the end of a big family dinner, she was sitting on her mother’s lap and reached out to the table, grabbed an empty akvavit glass, and stuck her tongue in to lick its last drop. When she did that everyone laughed and cheered: Anna was truly one of ‘us’.

For Israel, all those purity rules about foods and blood and dead bodies – they not only reflected the culture, but they helped to preserve Israel from the idolatry of the cultures around them. If pigs are a sacrificial animal in the cultures around you, but you think pork is unclean, then you won’t participate in the worship of those gods. You won’t lose your identity as a people who have been brought out from bondage in Egypt and called to live justice and mercy.

But there’s a dark side to purity rules: it’s when we think that people who don’t share our rules aren’t really human. “What kind of people can do that?”

We turn our enemies into animals so that we can kill them. If Nazi’s are animals, then we don’t have to care about them. It’s why slavery was defended as an institution: these people aren’t really people. It’s why Jim Crow laws were enacted: these people are unclean. We can’t share a bus seat. We can’t share a water fountain. We can’t share a swimming pool or a public park or a hospital – or our neighborhood.

One of the pictures I considered for the bulletin cover was a photograph of a large, elegant sign from Shenandoah National Park – built in that handsome style of all the other national park signs indicating entrances, park boundaries and special areas. This sign reads “Lewis Mountain” and beneath that, in large letters, it says “NEGRO AREA”. The next line says “Coffee Shop & Cottages” and beneath that “campground picnicground” (sic). At the bottom is the word “entrance” inside an arrow pointing the way.

It’s a nice sign. And I’m sure it’s a nice area. But what the sign really says is that “you people are unclean.” “You are less than.” “You can’t mix with us.”

I read an article about the life of James Fields, Jr., the young man who drove his car into the crowd in Charlottesville. I felt sorry for him. His life has been troubled for a long time. It doesn’t make his actions any less hateful, any less a crime, but his story makes him a human being instead of an animal.

We shouldn’t do to them what they do to others. We shouldn’t forget their humanity. We should be trying to help us all remember our humanity.

It’s so easy to forget. So easy to fail. We curse an idiot driver on the road. We look away from a homeless person on the street. We look disapprovingly at a mother who has taken her young child with her to the grocery store at 11:00 at night. We roll our eyes at a clerk in the store who is moving too slowly. We yell at family members. It is so easy to forget the humanity of others. So easy to abandon our own humanity.

Jesus’ attack on the purity system in Judea was fierce. What renders you unclean, Jesus declares, is how you treat other people, not whether you have done the proper ritual pouring of water over the hands before you eat. The good Samaritan is willing to touch the bleeding body of the victim at the side of the road because – unlike the priest and Levite – he isn’t concerned with outward ritual purity but with the well-being of the wounded man.

Jesus is willing to heal on the Sabbath because mercy and compassion are more important than an outward purity. Jesus is willing to touch a leper because true purity is fulfilling our obligations to one another rather than protecting our own purity. Jesus touches the dead girl to lift her up to life. Jesus touches the bier of the dead young man to give him back to his widowed mother. Jesus eats at the home of Zacchaeus because he sees his humanity. He sees him as a brother.

Jesus is willing to forgive your sins because he sees your humanity.

In the world of Jesus, we are the outsiders. We are the ‘them’. Few, if any of us, are descendants of Abraham by blood and soil – but we are the descendants of Adam and Eve.

We have become descendants of Abraham because we are descendants of Abraham’s faith. We are descendants of Abraham’s trust in and allegiance to the God who fashioned us all, and redeems us all, and calls us all to lives of compassion and faithfulness to one another.

So Jesus declares that it is the things you say and do that make you unclean, not your ritual purity. And then a Canaanite woman shows up.

She’s not just a gentile; she’s one of those people God warned the Israelites about. One of those people who polluted the land twelve centuries ago and made the land vomit them out. One of those people that Israelites were not supposed to marry lest their hearts be led astray to worship the Canaanite gods. One of those people like Jezebel who would teach greed and injustice in the name of her gods. And, if you are offended by what Jesus says to the Canaanite woman, you should be. It is deeply offensive. It is tribal. She is one of ‘them’, not one of ‘us’. God owes her nothing. She has no right to ask. You cannot take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs – the dirty mongrel dogs scrounging the wastes of society.

The woman is unclean. But she understands that God is a god of mercy. She sees that God is a god of all. She clings to the confession that God is god who will show faithfulness to his whole creation. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

She understands that what renders you unclean is what you say and do, not what you eat, or what you touch – or who your parents were.

And Jesus says, “Here is faith.” “Here is great faith.” Here is true allegiance.

And lest we miss the implications of this encounter: if what renders us unclean is what we say and do, then none of us is clean. None of us is pure. None of us is deserving.

If what renders us unclean is what we say and do, then all of us are dependent on God’s mercy.

If what renders us unclean is what we say and do, then none of us is welcome at God’s table – except that God has welcomed us in his love and mercy.

And maybe that’s our avenue back to our humanity. It’s when we think we are clean and others are unclean that lines get drawn. It when we think we are “better than” that others become “less than”. It’s when we think we are the good people and others are not that evils happen.

But when we can see that we are welcomed only by God’s mercy – maybe then we can see others with mercy.

Sermon from Sunday, August 20, 2017
Proper A 15, Lectionary A 20
Los Altos Lutheran Church

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALewis_Mountain_Negro_Area.jpg By National Park Service (http://www.nps.gov/shen/images/20070117113507.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Purity

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“Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (Matthew 15:10-11)

Watching for the Morning of August 20, 2017

Year A

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 15 / Lectionary 20

I chose the picture above for our bulletin cover several weeks ago, but it gains added poignancy by the events in Charlottesville last week. The Gospel account is the Canaanite woman, the foreigner, the outsider, the “unclean”, whose request for healing Jesus dismisses with a curt and offensive “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It is a statement worthy of any white nationalist. What is ours is ours. God owes us his benefices. They are not part of us. To which she responds with that compelling assertion of God’s abundant and universal mercy: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

It is important to include with this narrative Jesus’ challenge to the ruling authorities about the nature of ritual purity: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Purity is measured by our treatment of others. Purity is measured by whether we live compassion and faithfulness. Purity is not an outward category of things or people; it is manifest in word and deed.

Jesus embodies the promise spoken through the prophet Isaiah in our first reading this Sunday that God would welcome in his temple all those previously excluded as unclean –eunuchs (the physically deformed or maimed) and foreigners. The psalmist celebrates the harvest and a sees in God’s abundance the invitation for all nations to see God’s goodness and sing God’s praise. And the apostle Paul writes of God’s purpose and plan to have mercy on all.

We keep using religion to draw lines between “us” and “them” – whoever “them” might be. But Jesus relentlessly erases those lines. He understands that the Biblical story begins and ends with a single human family.

The Prayer for August 20, 2017

O God, who hears the cries of all in need,
grant us confidence in your mercy
and persistence in our prayer
that, trusting your goodness,
we might know your saving grace;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 20, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 56:1-8 (appointed, Isaiah 56:1, 6-8)
“My house shall be…a house of prayer for all peoples.” – The prophet proclaims that all those who were unclean – eunuchs and foreigners – and previously excluded from the temple will be welcomed by the God who will gather not only the outcasts of Israel, but all people.

Psalmody: Psalm 67
“Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.” – A song of thanksgiving at the harvest that summons all people to rejoice in God’s goodness.

Second Reading: Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
“God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” –
addressing the problem of why so many Judeans have not received Paul’s message of God’s grace in Jesus with trust and allegiance, Paul affirms the certainty of God’s call and election, but sees in their “disobedience” God’s purpose to have mercy on all.

Gospel: Matthew 15:10-28 (appointed, 15:[10-20] 21-28)
“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” – Matthew pairs Jesus’ challenge to the ruling authorities’ understanding of purity as ritual purity (rather than justice and mercy in fidelity to God’s command) with the account of the Canaanite woman who shows great faith in God’s mercy: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWe_want_white_tenants.jpg By Arthur S. Siegel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons