The path of life

File:GNM - Fußwaschung.jpgWatching for the Morning of May 19, 2019

Year C

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

The arc of the Easter season moves from the empty tomb towards Pentecost. Last Sunday we turned from the appearances of Jesus whom God has raised to life, to the Good Shepherd who brings life to the world. This Sunday the life-giving shepherd gives his followers the new-life commandment: to love one another. From here we will talk about the Spirit that empowers such love and wait for that mighty breath of God that launches the followers of Jesus out into the world.

Jesus has washed his followers feet. He has shown them the path of life. He has shown them the path he will travel. It is a path that leads from the garden to the tomb to the right hand of God. And he bids us follow: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

The command to love is paired this Sunday with Peter’s account of his vision of the net when the heavenly voice declares: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” ‘Profane’ is an accurate but overly nice a translation. We humans have no trouble regarding others as ‘unclean’. We divide the world easily. Even when we don’t call those who differ from us ‘dirty’, we often treat them as vaguely contagious. So, yes, the word means ‘ritually unclean’, but this isn’t about ritual. It is about those whom we regard as acceptable to God and those who are not. But God welcomes all. Arms wide, robes flapping in the wind, God welcomes all into the divine embrace.

Jesus understands this perfectly. And so he does the ‘unclean’ thing. He takes the ‘unclean’ place. He bends to wash feet. While the followers of Jesus worry about their place at the table, Jesus takes the lowest place. He shows us the path of life. He shows us love of all. He bids us follow.

The second reading sees the promise of God fulfilled. John of Patmos is given a vision. Peering into the heavens, he sees the heavenly Jerusalem descending to earth. The city Rome destroyed is replaced by its perfect counterpart. Radiant and whole, like a bride adorned, the city without tears comes. The earth is become the dwelling place of God and all is made new.

Jesus has washed our feet. He has shown us the path of life. He bids us live the holy city. And with the psalmist, he calls all creation to joy and wonder.

The Prayer for May 19, 2019

Gracious God,
whom all creation praises,
and whose will it is to gather all things into your wide embrace,
pour out upon us your Spirit of love,
that we may follow where you lead
and obey what you command.

The Texts for May 19, 2019

First Reading: Acts 11:1-18
“If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” – Peter faces criticism over his baptism of the Gentile, Cornelius, by recounting the sequence of events leading to his visit and God’s outpouring of the Spirit.

Psalmody: Psalm 148
“Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens.” – The psalmist calls upon all creation to sing God’s praise.

Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-6
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
– In this culminating vision of the Book of Revelation, the prophet sees the earth made new and the heavenly Jerusalem coming to dwell on earth.

Gospel: John 13:31-35
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – On the night of the last Supper, Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment: to love one another.

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Encountered by Jesus

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Sunday Evening

John 13:31-35

34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

I wish it were possible to say how cute Steffan was, today. It’s unusual for a child to come forward for the children’s sermon the first time they come to worship – especially on a day when, it turns out, none of our other young people were present. But having only a single child who is new not only to me and to the parish but to the concept of a children’s message – and even to church itself – made the children’s time a challenge.

I am aware how much we take for granted when we use words like ‘God’ and ‘church’ and ‘Jesus’, let alone concepts like ‘grace’ and ‘love’ and ‘forgiveness’ and faith’. These are words with meaning inside the community of faith, but what do they mean to those who are strangers to the church?

Maybe the task of the children’s sermon is only to say, “God loves you,” and to make children feel welcome in worship.

And maybe it’s not just about children – maybe the task of the children’s sermon is to make adults feel welcome, too. It is something simple and cute and unscripted that makes church feels not quite so churchy.

But I want there to be something more, here. I think the children’s sermon should be like gathering and laying foundation stones for a spiritual life that is rooted in the experience of love and the importance of kindness, courage and hope. I want them to know something about Jesus. And I want them to be part of the worshipping community: they should know whatever it is that Jesus might be talking to us about that day in the Gospel reading.

None of us are here only to be feel welcome and loved. We are also here to encounter this Jesus and let his words and deeds work their work in us. We are here to hear what he has to say and to see what he does. It’s part of why I try so hard to explain what Jesus’ words and actions meant in their time.

I love the power, grace, rich imagery and, at its best, the beauty and transcendence of the theological and liturgical tradition of the church. But in the end it is not about any of this; it is about Jesus. Everything else is only meant to put us in a place and time where Christ may encounter us and call us into his grace and life.

I am not interested in the kind of preaching that tells people what they already know and believe. Nor am I a spiritual version of a self-help guru with keys to a better life. I am interested in this Jesus and the prophets and all the words of scripture that challenge what we think we know, and summon us not to be mere practitioners of religious ritual, but to seek and find our truest and best humanity – to be children of God, sons and daughters of light, citizens of the age to come when our shames and sorrows are left behind.

So I hope Steffan felt good about his little encounter with me and with church this morning besides the coffee hour cookies and the toys in the nursery where he played after worship. I hope there was something for him of the radiant love of God and the Christ who gives the new commandment that we should love one another.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKunibertZinnerVolksschuleSeitenstetten1951.11A.JPG By Anton-kurt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Dragged into the kingdom

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Saturday

Acts 11:1-18

1Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

It doesn’t surprise me that Peter would face criticism; criticism is one of the most wearying aspects of congregational life. What surprises me is that Peter explained what happened and “When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God.” It’s easier for me to believe that Jesus walked on water than that Peter’s congregation was turned so easily from criticism to praise.

I want to believe that those first believers were as open and perceptive to the work of the Spirit as Luke describes, but I know that the question whether Gentile’s could be baptized into the community of Christ without first becoming a member of the Jewish community was a deeply challenging issue for the early church.

It is difficult to be certain exactly what the terms ‘Jew’ (Greek = ‘Judean’) and ‘Gentile’ (Greek = ‘the nations’) signified in the first century, but they clearly represent a deep cultural divide between those in the Judean community who define themselves as separate from the Hellenistic world and those who are thoroughly acculturated to that world. How do you have table fellowship – or any fellowship – with those who do not share the same mores, food laws and sense of purity?

To welcome “those people” is always a profound challenge for any community, and it was especially significant for the developing Christian movement. Luke goes into great detail in telling this story – and then has Peter relate the events again. Paul’s ministry to the nations is under constant attack and three times Luke relates Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord and his call to go to the nations. The problem of “Jew” and “Gentile” is the subject of the apostolic delegation to Antioch, Paul’s confrontation with Peter, and the so-called Jerusalem Conference. This issue of “them” and “us” didn’t go away and, in the end, led to the riot in the temple, Paul’s arrest and his eventual execution.

Change is not an easy thing. And it is especially difficult to bridge those cultural boundaries between different social and ethnic groups. But this is the wondrous thing about Jesus. He reaches out to tax collectors and parties with Zacchaeus and his outcast friends. Women travel in his company and he welcomes them as disciples. He converses with the Samaritan woman, treating her as a member of his family – and she brings her whole Samaritan village to him.

The Spirit empowers the believers at Pentecost to proclaim God’s praise in every language. Hellenized Judeans living in Jerusalem take up the Gospel and, when they are scattered by communal violence, share it freely with Samaritans. Philip declares there is no impediment to baptism for the Ethiopian Eunuch (who cannot enter the temple because, as a eunuch, he is ritually unclean). Peter baptizes Cornelius. Antioch welcomes Greeks. Paul and Barnabas are sent to the nations.

Despite ourselves, the heart of the Christian message transcends culture. Christ welcomes all peoples. Indeed, transcending tribalism is at the core of the Christian proclamation that the healing and redemption of all creation is at hand in Jesus. And so Paul declares:

“In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

This is a far more profound creation of a new community than the modern liberal notion of inclusiveness. It is the kingdom of God.

And though I love Luke’s picture of a Christian community open to the movement of God’s Spirit to gather all into Christ, and I still hope for a congregation that welcomes all and can recognize the movement of the Spirit with joy and praise – the more profound truth is that we are usually dragged into that kingdom kicking and screaming.

But God’s kingdom comes. To us, and for us, and in spite of us, God’s kingdom comes.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASeabee_Olympics_at_Joint_Base_Pearl_Harbor-Hickam_150304-N-WF272-056.jpg  By Petty Officer 2nd Class Diana Quinlan (https://www.dvidshub.net/image/1797950) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Witnesses

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Friday

John 13:31-35

35“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It is what the world wants from Christians, and why so many are so angry with the church. We have, for the most part, been defenders of middle class morality (or, more recently, defenders of an educated elite class morality) rather than witnesses to and participants in God’s new creation.

Mark and Luke have Jesus declaring that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Matthew uses the phrase Kingdom of Heaven to speak of God’s drawing near to reign in every human heart. And John uses the phrase “eternal life” – the life of the age to come. This age is our present world torn and troubled by the warring of nations and peoples, hunger and disease. The age to come is the world made new, when sin and death and the greeds and passions of the human heart no longer rule.

But Jesus did not let that age to come be a pious hope for life after death, or life in some distant future. He said this life has come to us now. The kingdom is dawning amidst us. We are called to live the kingdom now. Eternal life is a present reality not just a promised future.

This is why we get all these stunning challenges in Jesus to forgive not seven but seventy-seven times, to love our enemies, to transform our encounters with the occupation forces by carrying the backpack an extra mile. This is why the poor, the meek, and those who hunger for righteousness are honored now. This is why Jesus speaks of the true shepherd as one who dies for the people not the other way round. This is why the vineyard owner pays all his workers a full day’s wage and why the king gathers street urchins to his wedding banquet. This is why Jesus opens blind eyes, and banquets with sinners and Pharisees alike. This is why Jesus touches lepers and lays hands on the dead to raise them to life. The world is being set right. The world God created is being restored. The age of righteousness – when all people are faithful to God and one another – is upon us.

All of this is connected to the redemptive work of Jesus. Humanity has a lot of explaining to do for its long legacy of death and destruction. How do you make it right with God for the death camps? How do you make it right with God for the fire-bombing of Dresden or the treatment of prisoners in Japanese prisoner of war camps? How do you make it right with God for the children traumatized and even murdered by parents, let alone friends and strangers? How do we make it right with God for all those throughout history who have been sold into slavery? How do we make it right for every act of disdain, every word of gossip, every malicious or salacious thought?

Something profound must change for the world to be born anew. Something deep in the human heart must perish and be reborn. And even then, there is no hope for us but in God’s choice to wipe away the unpayable debt. It is a transformative act. Humbling. Wondrous. The kind that should make us weep tears of gratitude and joy and dry his feet with our hair.

So loving one another is not about being a little more kind to our neighbors. It is about the kingdom itself, the new world God is creating. We have seen it in Jesus. He has laid down his life. He has breathed out his Spirit. The door to the kingdom is open. We are summoned to the banquet.

The world hungers to see hope, to see a future, to see some witness to the triumph of love. We are sent to be that witness.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Evstafiev-bosnia-cello.jpg  By Mikhail Evstafiev (Mikhail Evstafiev) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Singing harmony

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Wednesday

Psalm 148

3Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars!

I switched my major from Math to Medieval Studies my second year in college, much to the surprise and bewilderment of parents who wondered how I was going to earn a living with that! But I was enamored with the medieval vision of the harmony of the spheres. (I also needed to fulfill a language requirement and German wasn’t working for me. Fortunately Latin did: it was a math problem on paper rather than a conversational challenge. My eyes are better than my ears.)

The medieval world imagined the skies as a series of concentric spheres, crystal clear, in which were embedded the planets and stars. As they rotated around the earth they sang like a finger on crystal wine glasses, and together lifted up a song of rich and wondrous harmony. Amidst the cacophony of the world and the grief of my brother’s death, such harmony was alluring.

It still is.

I joined the church choir because I have always wanted to learn to sing in harmony. It’s work for me. Fortunately our music director is gracious and patient. But every now and then I get it and it’s wonderful.

I watched a bit of a nature show on PBS last evening. Nature is pretty brutal up close. A crow ate all the eggs of the sage grouse the filmmaker followed. And there was a pretty graphic but amazing shot of a small eaglet working to wolf down a whole ground squirrel. It may not be exactly a dog-eat-dog world but it is an everybody-eats-somebody world. Ruthless even in its beauty.

But there is this vision in our psalm of a world singing in harmony. There is this Biblical vision of a world conceived in love and established as a garden – a world that got broken but will be remade, renewed, redeemed. This is the culminating vision in the Book of Revelation: Out of the world’s chaos and terrors will be born a Jerusalem in which the light never fails and the gates are never shut. It is the world of the empty tomb, and the word of grace, and the shared table, and the holy bath, and the Spirit of God poured into every heart, and the eternal song of joy – a song our eternal choir director, long-suffering and patient, never gives up trying to teach us.

 

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

A New Commandment

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Watching for the Morning of April 17, 2016

Year C

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Peter does what many regard as unthinkable when he chooses to baptize Cornelius and his family. Cornelius is a centurion in the Roman army, a commander of the occupying forces. Though he is a good man, he is outside the community of Israel. And so begins the conversation that decides whether Jesus is the Messiah of Israel or the Redeemer of all the earth.

Is Jesus the anointed one who frees Judah or the anointed one who beings the day when all heaven and earth are reconciled. Does Jesus make us better Jews or citizens of the age to come when death no longer holds dominion over God’s creation?

For Peter, he had no option. God had decided this question by giving these Gentiles the gift of God’s Spirit – the gift of the age to come. If they had the baptismal gift; Peter needed to finish the job with water. It was in keeping with the prophets and the words and deeds of Jesus. The grave was empty. The dawn of the world gathered to God was underway.

John of Patmos describes it for us as the heavenly Jerusalem descending to earth and all heaven and earth made new. The voice of the psalmist joins the refrain calling upon all creation to sing God’s praise. And at the center of our worship on Sunday will be the words of Jesus giving the new commandment – the commandment that characterizes the age to come – the commandment to love one another. Such love reveals that we are student/followers of Jesus. Such love bears witness to ultimate triumph of God’s love.

The Prayer for April 24, 2016

Gracious God,
whom all creation praises,
and whose will it is to gather all things into your wide embrace,
pour out upon us your Spirit of love,
that we may follow where you lead
and obey what you command;
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 April 24, 2016

First Reading: Acts 11:1-18
“If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” – Peter faces criticism over his baptism of the Gentile, Cornelius, by recounting the sequence of events leading to his visit and God’s outpouring of the Spirit.

Psalmody: Psalm 148
“Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens.” – The psalmist calls upon all creation to sing God’s praise.

Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-6
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
– In this culminating vision of the Book of Revelation, the prophet sees the earth made new and the heavenly Jerusalem coming to dwell on earth.

Gospel: John 13:31-35
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – On the night of the last Supper, Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment: to love one another.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWashing_the_feets_(1420s%2C_Sergiev_Posad).jpg  By Workshop of Daniel Chorny and Andrey Rublev (http://www.icon-art.info/group.php?lng=&grp_id=9) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday Evening of April 28

The water has been carried away, the table cleared, the baptismal font moved back from the center of the worshiping community to the entrance aisle – but the joy of the celebration lingers:  the darling baby, the big crowd, the tender affection of all towards this child and her family.

And the words of Jesus linger: “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.”  “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

I don’ t know what will become of the washcloths handed out to the children in the children’s sermon.  I do know I won’t forget the wonderfully expressive look of shock from one child at the idea of washing feet.

It was shocking what Jesus did.  (That’s why Peter tried to stop him.)  But it spoke to his point.   God’s world, God’s kingdom, God’s reigning is different than this world.  And now Sara has become a citizen of God’s world living in the midst of this one.  People will know that she is a student of Jesus if she lives his love.

Watching for April 28, 2013

Year C

The 5th Sunday of Easter

The Prayer of the Day

Gracious God,
whom all creation praises,
and whose will it is to gather all things into your wide embrace,
pour out upon us your Spirit of love,
that we may follow where you lead
and obey what you command.
(DKB, May 1, 2007)

The Texts for April 28, 2013 

First Reading:  Acts 11:1-18 (Peter tells how God gave the Holy Spirit to Cornelius)
Psalm: Psalm 148 (Praise the Lord … he has raised up a horn for his people.)
Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-6 (A new heaven and a new earth)
Gospel: John 13:31-35 (Jesus gives his followers a new commandment)