“If you love me…”

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Exhortation to the Apostles (Recommandation aux apôtres) - James Tissot.jpg

Watching for the Morning of May 21, 2017

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Again, this Sunday, we hear Jesus speaking after supper on the night of his betrayal. Again we hear him providing for his little band as he faces what he knows will be his death. Again we hear him speak of the Spirit who will come, an ‘advocate’ who will turn the hearts of the crowd in their favor. Again we hear the promise that Jesus will come to his followers. Again we hear about love and fidelity and abiding. And again we hear about living out Jesus’ teaching: “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.”

Fidelity to Jesus will mean fidelity to his teaching.  We are not joining team Jesus against team Pharisees. We are not joining team Jesus against team Humanists. We are not joining team Jesus against team Hillary or Team Trump. We are disciples, students, of the one who redeems the world: the one who forgives sins, who heals families and communities, who restores the world to its true source and life.

All the other promises weave together with this one: faithfulness is seen in the doing. There is no faith in concepts, ideas or doctrines. Nothing is gained by believing in a six-day creation or a literal ark. Nothing is gained by nodding to the notion of forgiveness. Those who have looked into the eyes of grace will live grace. Those who have fed at his table will feed others. Those who have been touched by his healing hand will extend their hand to others.

When I was about ten my step-father allowed a friend to store his sports car in our garage. We sat in the driver’s seat and roared through the gears, drinking in the wonder of this machine. But make no mistake; we were not driving it.

So, Sunday, Paul will call the citizens of Athens to hear the message that the “unknown God” has been made known in this Jesus. And the author of First Peter will summon us to do what is good even if it brings suffering. And the psalmist will speak of faithfulness in the midst of trial. And the table will be set that welcomes all and the songs will be sung that hint of the harmony to come, and we will be drawn again into the redemptive love made visible in this Jesus who sends the Spirit and comes to abide with us and in us.

Preaching Series: Genesis 3: Fall

We are in the third week of our series going through key stories of the scripture to see, as Jesus showed his followers on the road to Emmaus, that the scriptures bear witness to the sacrificial and redeeming love of God that is manifest ultimately in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The story before us this week is the moment when the harmony of God’s good garden goes wrong, when humanity reaches out for the knowledge of life’s joys and sorrows and finds itself now alienated from the world, one another and God.

We are capable of imagining a world of perfect peace and harmony, but we know that the world is full of woe. We are capable of ugliness of spirit and act. We hate. We fear. We abuse. We wage war. We build ovens. We harm even those who are closest to us with words that should have gone unsaid. We know the beauty of the world; why must we also know its ugliness? “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars.”

The Prayer for May 21, 2017

Gracious God,
you have given us your Spirit as our advocate and guide
that we might abide in you and you in us.
Grant us courage and faith to follow where you lead,
to obey your commands,
to love as you love;
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 May 21, 2017

First Reading: Acts 17:22-31
“Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.’” – Paul, traveling by himself to avoid a conspiracy to murder him, comes to Athens where he seeks to engage the leaders of that city with the message of God, the creator all peoples.

Psalmody: Psalm 66:8-20
“Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard.” – The psalmist calls for all nations to praise God for his gracious deeds to deliver those in need.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:13-22
“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” –
The author’s continuing exposition on baptism, now touches on the Ascension: “Baptism…now saves you–not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” The author urges his hearers to remain faithful in the face of hostility, to do what is good and be ready to give account for the hope that is in them.

Gospel: John 14: 15-21
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” – Continuing last Sunday’s reading, Jesus makes provision for his followers in light of his impending death, promising that God will send the Holy Spirit (the ‘Paraclete’).

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABrooklyn_Museum_-_The_Exhortation_to_the_Apostles_(Recommandation_aux_ap%C3%B4tres)_-_James_Tissot.jpg James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The smoke of sacrifices

Sunday Evening

Psalm 66

13I will come into your house with burnt offerings;
I will pay you my vows,
14those that my lips uttered
and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.
15I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings,
with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats.

It would be interesting if the offerings we put into the offering plate gave off the aroma of roasting meats. Such aromas evoke summer barbecues and laughing children and whole neighborhoods gathered together for national holidays.

When we hear about burnt offerings it is easy to mentally skip over these ideas. Such sacrifices are not part of our experience. Truth be told, they seem a little brutish and bloody for us. And it is easy to think that those times were barbaric and we are more enlightened.

It was a bloody affair; butchering animals always is, but few of us have been to a slaughterhouse. Just because we buy meat wrapped in butcher paper doesn’t mean someone somewhere wasn’t involved in blood and the giving of a life.

I wonder if I would eat meat very often had I to raise and slaughter the animal myself. I suspect meat would become a rare and special treat, only for those occasions of large family celebrations like Thanksgiving and Christmas. And this is the way it was for people in the ancient world – at least for ordinary people.

The slaughter of an animal was a rare and special occasion – a feasting to which many were invited – a feasting that was shared also with the priest and with the poor. It was a costly affair; the offering of an animal was a great sacrifice. But it was also a time of joy.

The vow of which the poet speaks is the vow to sacrifice an animal. It is a promise to give God his most precious possession if God will come to his aid. It is not a vow that was taken lightly. These were no sick bed promises soon forgotten when the crisis was passed. These vows were kept – and they were times of great celebration, for the prayers had been answered, the life saved, and the whole community was invited to share in the joy.

I wish we had a better sense of this when we put our envelope into the offering plate. I wished we recognized that we were giving a gift of value in thanksgiving to God for all God’s mercies, a gift that was being shared by the whole community in the feast of song and Scripture and Holy Eucharist – the “sacred thanksgiving” – the shared bread and wine that embody the majesty of divine grace. The feast that accompanied the ancient sacrifice was a table fellowship not only of all the guests, but a table fellowship with God to whom the animal had been offered. And so is our feast. We gather in table fellowship with God and one another, filled with thanksgiving for heaven’s mercies, rejoicing in the peace with God that brings God and us to one table.

In a torn and divided world, it is a great and powerful sign of the world reborn. And all this from the simple sacrifice of a portion of our labor and bounty placed in the offering plate.

The offering is not a necessary collection to keep the lights on; it is not dues; it is not a gift to the budget. This is a sacrifice that all might gather to feast on and rejoice in the precious mercy of God.

And this is why the first portion of that gift is given away to those in need. The church tithes its offerings so that our joy might be shared, and our offerings be a sign of that feast to come when all the world is made new.

This is the aroma I wish we could smell as the offering plates are brought forward to the altar.

Into the darkness

Saturday

Acts 17

Aurlandsfjord, photo by Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho, creative commons

29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.

I know that Paul is talking about the various idols of the ancient world. This is pretty standard Biblical critique of the polytheistic cultures of the Mediterranean world. There are famous passages in the prophets that mock the stone and wood blocks carved and covered in gold and silver.

But if we leave it there, if this critique is only about images, we will miss something important. We not only create physical images; we create mental ones. And when we confuse the images formed by our imagination with the one who formed us, when we confuse our images with the truth to which they point, we tread on dangerous ground – ground that usually ends up with tears if not with killings.

Is the god that Boko Haram celebrates a product of eternity or of their own imagination? For that matter is the god invoked by most of us the holy and transcendent one, or a god of our imaginations?

It is not possible for us to think about God without thinking in images. We are creatures of time and space. We cannot imagine quarks. We picture atoms like little planets though we know they are not. We imagine molecules with images of tinker toys. We imagine foreign nations from the pictures on television or in National Geographic. We need images. We see faces in toast, for goodness sake. It is the way we are wired.

And the scripture is full of wondrous images: God as a great king surrounded by his royal court and an angelic army. God as a hovering eagle, a mother hen gathering her chicks, a father carrying a son. God as a husband rescuing a newborn abandoned to the wolves, raising her to be a beautiful young woman. God as a good shepherd, a rock, a fountain of living water. There are an endless variety of rich images – none of which are to be taken literally. God is not a chicken. We seem to understand that, but sometimes forget he is not a literal father. I love the book of Job, for Job is silenced by the majesty of a God he cannot comprehend.

We stand before the eternal, silenced by mystery and majesty, humbled by our inability to see beyond that horizon. Moses is said to have spoken with God “face to face”, but is the word ‘face’ to be taken literally? When Moses asks to see God’s face he is allowed only to see from behind as God goes ahead of him. We are watchers of the flame. Shadows on the wall. Hints and images.

But there are words and there are deeds of this eternal source of life. Deeds that rescue and deliver. Words that protect the poor and the orphan. Words and deeds that cast down the mighty and raise up the broken. Words of fierce anger that call for justice to roll down like waters. Words that forgive and point forward to an end to tears.

The God we preach is too often the god of our imaginations. Jesus the feminist. Jesus the revolutionary. Jesus the defender of the status quo (God and country Jesus). Jesus the source of prosperity and success. God the law-giver and a god who frees us from all law. God who forgives all and a god who will come in wrath to purge the world of the wicked.  These gods of our imaginations were invoked not only in defense of crusades and inquisitions and an imperial papacy, but in defense of abusive homes and churches and bigotries great and small – and endless self-righteousness.

“We ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.”

Sometimes this god of our imagination is what we want God to be, sometimes what we fear God to be, and sometimes a silly caricature that excuses our rejection of any transcendent claim on our lives, any accountability to a truth beyond us.

To a human creature perpetually wanting to fashion God in our image, God presents himself ever illusive, “I will be who I will be,” yet ever summoning us to hear, to see, to trust, to follow. He – this word, too, is a metaphor and trick of language – He summons us into the dark cloud of the holy mountain. He speaks from the whirlwind. And in the greatest mystery of all, he summons us to the cradle and the cross. This child of Bethlehem, son of Mary, a construction worker from Galilee of all ungodly places, this man from Nazareth is the true icon of God. Healing. Forgiving. Gathering. Suffering. Teaching. Summoning. Serving. Sending. Dying. Rising.

The gods of our imaginations are not worthy of our allegiance. We must dare to stand before the mystery. We must have courage to let God be God. We must acknowledge God will not fit in any of our boxes. And in humility, but with daring and discipleship, hold to the promise: “He who has seen me has seen the father.”

From one ancestor

Friday

Acts 17

File:Apollo 10 earthrise.jpg

Apollo 10 Earthrise

26From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth.

“From one ancestor.” This is not a conversation about genetics and evolution; it is simply a statement of our shared humanity. “From one ancestor he made all nations.” It is a message about our identity, not about science. “From one ancestor he made all nations.” It goes back to that experience of the little blue marble. We are in this boat together. And when some people are dropping explosives or shooting bullets or dumping toxins or perishing from hunger it affects us all. “From one ancestor he made all nations.” We divide ourselves. We imagine some are less than. But God keeps coming to us to say: “From one ancestor he made all nations.”

I wonder how many times God will have to say it? I wonder why we are so determined to plug our ears and wag our tongues to drown out the sound of his voice. “From one ancestor he made all nations.” We are members of one human family. We are members of one human family.

Why do we insist on disconnecting ourselves from one another? What do you have to turn off in the human soul to steal someone’s children? Or, what never got switched on? Why is there pleasure in hurting others? Why do we indulge in taunting one another? That clown from the Seattle Seahawks is different only in degree from the simplest “I told you so.”

Why is it so delicious to have power over others? You can watch politicians salivating when they have the chance to clip some words out of context and beat a member of the other party with them.

“From one ancestor he made all nations.”

“From one ancestor he made all nations.”

“From one ancestor he made all nations.”

What if our highest value was not winning but serving? What if our chief goal was not power but empowering?

“From one ancestor he made all nations.”

What if our primary concern was not ourselves but others? What if our priority was not our status but the status of others? Not our wealth but the wealth of others? Not our safety but the safety of others? Such a world that would be.

“From one ancestor he made all nations.”

So Jesus dared to believe this simple little line. He dared to live it. And the world may have crushed him, but God reversed that judgment. This “naïve” Jesus now sits at the right hand of God. This “starry-eyed” Jesus now reigns as Lord of all.

“From one ancestor he made all nations.”

The measure of our humanity

Thursday

Acts 17

File:Montbrison-La Diana-20110209-Croix d'épidémie.jpg

Epidemic Cross from the Musée archéologique de La Diana

30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31He has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

The notion of a judgment day is both frightful and appealing.

I like this phrase “the times of human ignorance.” For all our exquisite knowledge, we are still profoundly ignorant. We can build fabulous machines to search for the Higgs boson or peer back to the beginnings of time. We can reconstruct the languages of lost cultures and read the layers of geographical time. But we don’t know how to escape fear and bigotry. We can’t stop war. We have trouble sustaining a marriage.

What is the measure of human existence? When we stand humanity up against the doorframe and with a tissue box and pencil measure how far we have grown, what is the height that would mark our full maturity? The notion that the world will be judged by Jesus is less about dishing out rewards and punishments and much more about our lives being measured against his.

What will we say when we stand before eternity next to his example?

This we do not want. We want the judge who will punish the wicked, who will hold all the violent and brutal and thieving to account. We want someone to freeze Judas, Cassius and Brutus in a lake of ice. We rather like Dante’s vision of the torments of hell where all the lying, thieving congressman and bankers can get their due, and the authors of every terror be repaid.

But to have our humanity measured by Jesus’ humanity…to have our faithfulness measured by his faithfulness…to have our compassion measured by his compassion…to have our truthfulness measured by his…such thoughts lead only to humble silence.

The times of ignorance are past. The measure of humanity has been revealed. Seventy-sevenfold forgiveness is not the goal but the standard. Loving your enemies is not the hope but the requirement. Caring for Lazarus at the gate is not a noble charity but a necessary humanity.

So we come to that word ‘repent’: “God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” God is not asking us to feel bad for how poorly we measure up; he is calling us to grow up, to walk a different path, to show a different allegiance, to leave our ignorance behind.

All of us.

Orphaned

Wednesday

John 14

File:Baby squirrel (orphaned male) sleeping in human hand.jpg18“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.

‘Orphaned’ doesn’t seem to have quite the same emotional impact as ‘fatherless’. Maybe it’s my generation. Maybe it’s my own story. My brother was my surrogate father. Almost five years older, he was the one I looked to for connection, guidance, companionship. His were the footsteps I followed. I saw my real father holidays and summers; I loved him deeply. I love him deeply. But when I was small, the day to day fathering (and some bullying) came from Ken.

And then he died.

A brain aneurism a month before he turned 23. I was just 18, leaving home for college. Suddenly I felt like I was falling down stairs without walls or handrails. There was no guide. No listener. No one to say, “I remember when that happened to me.” No one to make all these new experiences normal. So I was alone, not only physically, away at school, but facing the future without any guide but one last letter, mailed the day before he died.

I cannot imagine the devastation of the cross for the followers of Jesus. Neither can I imagine the anxiety among John’s community as their teacher neared his end. He was an original witness. He had been their guide and teacher and leader for 50 years. How would they survive without him? What would hold them together? Who would keep them in the faith?

So John’s account of Jesus speaks not just of that time, long ago, when John received from Jesus the care of his mother. John’s account speaks of his own time as his final days draw near. And the word of Jesus he places before his community is this simple promise: “I will not leave you fatherless.”

“I am coming to you.” John puts the phrase in the present tense. Jesus is coming to us. It is his nature to come. Just as it is God’s nature to come. It is God’s nature to seek the lost, to gather the scattered, to bind up the wounded, to lead us to good pasture, to bring us into Life – to bring the whole creation to Life.

“I am coming to you.” Not just in scattered resurrection appearances, but in the Holy Spirit. In the abiding presence of the Father. In his own abiding presence in the community. In the bread and wine and word. In the love that he commanded.

“I am coming to you.” Again and again he comes, calling to mind all that he has said, reminding us of his promise, renewing in us his grace, summoning us into lives of witness and service.

Last words are things of power. I know how I clung to my brother’s last words. I know how his letter shaped me consciously and unconsciously. It led my path, ultimately to seminary and to the inner city.

And these last words of Jesus are words of power. Words that sustain. Words that comfort. Words that empower. Words that call forth the love he commanded. We are not orphaned. He is with us.

I am coming to you

Watching for the morning of May 25

Year A

The Sixth Sunday of EasterGolden Gate Bridge at night.lg

It is still Easter, though we draw near to the liturgical celebration of the ascension – 40 days after Easter according to Luke. Luke likes nice, tidy, maps. 40 days for the risen Jesus to appear (the counterpoint to 40 days in the wilderness at the beginning of the Gospel). Then 10 days of waiting and preparing for the promised Spirit on that 50th day when Luke has 120 believers together in Jerusalem and the roar of a mighty wind/breath/spirit summons God’s people to hear the mighty works of God.

But for John there are no such nice schemas; for John it is all part of the same drama. Jesus is the living presence of the Father. And the Spirit is the living presence of Jesus. And the Spirit is the living presence of the Father. The Father abides in the Son and the Son in the Father and the students of Jesus abide in Jesus and in the Father and in the Spirit who comes from the Father (at the Son’s request) as their advocate. There is a reason we end up with a doctrine of the Trinity. Though John is not talking about doctrine; he is talking about the living presence of God among this band who are now Children of God, abiders in the heavenly grace, appointed bearers of the divine mercy: “As the Father sent me, so I send you.”

And so John tells us that Jesus breathed his Spirit on his followers on Easter Evening, because Easter and Ascension and Pentecost are all part of the same new reality. Jesus says, in Sunday’s Gospel, “I am coming to you.” And the promise is answered by the resurrection (he returns to speak and eat with them) and by the Ascension (he tells Mary not to hold him until he has ascended to the Father, which has happened by that first Easter Evening when he invites the disciples to touch his wounds) and by the coming of the Spirit (on that first Easter evening when he breathes upon them his breath/spirit/life).

We are not alone. He has come. And is coming. Continually he comes. In the Spirit to comfort and empower. In the word and in the meal. He cooks breakfast on the Galilean shore, and his brief conversation with Peter pulls him once more away from their nets. The risen Jesus feeds us and suddenly there are ‘missionaries’ all over the world. Witnesses. Speakers of the word that frees. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.”

It is still Easter. But John knows it is also Pentecost. And for that matter it is Christmas and Epiphany, for the light and life of God is present in the world.

And we are sent.

The Prayer for May 25, 2014

Gracious God,
you have given us your Spirit as our advocate and guide
that we might abide in you and you in us.
Grant us courage and faith to follow where you lead,
to obey your commands,
to love as you love;
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 May 25, 2014

First Reading: Acts 17:22-31
“Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.’” – Paul, traveling by himself to avoid a conspiracy to murder him, comes to Athens where he seeks to engage the leaders of that city with the message of God, the creator all peoples.

Psalmody: Psalm 66:8-20
“Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard.” – The psalmist calls for all nations to praise God for his gracious deeds to deliver those in need.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:13-22
“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” –
The author’s continuing exposition on baptism, now touches on the Ascension: “Baptism…now saves you–not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.”

Gospel: John 14: 15-21
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” – Continuing last Sunday’s reading, Jesus makes provision for his followers in light of his impending death, promising that God will send the Holy Spirit (the ‘Paraclete’).