Serious business

File:Duccio Maesta detail3.jpg

Watching for the Morning of October 21, 2018

Year B

The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 24 / Lectionary 29

“They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.”

The text as appointed for Sunday doesn’t include these words, but we will read them. They are laden with the fateful truth about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Jesus leads. It is his decision, his determination to walk into the lion’s den. And those who follow are amazed and afraid – amazed at his boldness, afraid at its consequences. Afraid not just for him for them all.

Following Jesus is serious business.

So Jesus will again tell his students about his fate in Jerusalem: “they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” And they will understand none of it. James and John will make their request to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in his glory – and the rest of the disciples will be outraged, presumably because they didn’t ask first. And again we will hear about living as servants in the world rather than masters, and Jesus will remind us that, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Following Jesus is serious business.

We will begin with Isaiah on Sunday, speaking of a suffering servant who “was wounded for our transgressions” with all it’s troubling implications that we are not, in fact, the noble human beings we want to believe we are, but immersed in a human community deeply flawed and turned from God and neighbor. And we will read the psalm together that speaks a promise we know cannot be true, for we are not always delivered from the snare of the fowler. And even if the psalm that once exalted Israel’s king now speaks of Jesus, we know that the angels will not bear him up lest he strike his foot against a stone. Thorns and nails await. And the mystery of God’s deliverance is much more profound than a simple protection from life’s harms.

Following Jesus is serious business.

But then, before we listen to Jesus’ fateful words, we will hear the author of Hebrews write: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

These are serious things. Eternal things. Undying. Imperishable. And perfect.

The Prayer for October 21, 2018

You are our refuge, O God,
and our holy habitation.
Grant that, dwelling in you,
our lives may honor him who gave his life as our ransom:
your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 21, 2018

First Reading: Isaiah 53:4-12
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” – In the 6th century BCE, the prophet speaks of a servant of God who suffers on behalf of the people, and “by his stripes we are healed.”

Psalmody: Psalm 91 (appointed 91:9-16)
“You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
– The poet sings of God’s faithfulness.

Second Reading: Hebrews 5:1-10
“You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”
– Christ is our true high priest, appointed by God, who mediates our reconciliation.

Gospel: Mark 10:32-45 (appointed 10:35-45)
“Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” – James and John approach Jesus looking for positions of honor in the new administration and Jesus has to once again explain that the kingdom of God inverts the values of the world.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Duccio_Maesta_detail3.jpg Duccio di Buoninsegna [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Drinking the cup

Saturday

Mark 10:32-45

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/archive/5/56/20140424150355%21Ignatius_of_Antiochie%2C_poss._by_Johann_Apakass_%2817th_c.%2C_Pushkin_museum%29.jpg39Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

Today is the feast day of St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch and Martyr of the Church. He was from the first generation after Jesus, born near the time of Jesus’ death and dying at the beginning of the 2nd century. As he was taken to Rome to be fed to the lions in the Coliseum, he wrote letters to the churches in the region through which he passed. Seven survive.

The word ‘bishop’ has gathered a lot of extra weight traveling through the centuries. Ignatius would have been the head of the household of faith – spiritual leader, teacher, symbolic representative of the whole community – but also a link to the beginnings. He had been formed in the faith by John the Evangelist.

The value of such an historical link has not always been recognized in American society. Yet we often will convey the chain of custody for some eyewitness account. “Bill heard it from Mary who heard it from Jean who saw it happen.” And though we have all played the telephone game and know how messages can get distorted, the first generation wasn’t playing the telephone game. They were sitting at a teacher’s feet, learning the stories, learning their significance, reading the letters of Paul and – by the generation of Ignatius – writing down the narratives as Gospels.

Ignatius was a witness carefully taught by the witnesses. And that chain of teaching continues through the centuries. But authority in the church is not from that chain of succession alone. It is a balance between the tradition handed down through the office of the elder, the text of the Scriptural witness, and the living work of the Spirit.

Ignatius had all three.

It is hard to imagine the violence of a society that makes sport out of feeding people to the lions, watching people die in innumerable creative ways. Crucified upside down. Dressed as enemies and cut down by gladiators. Buried up to the neck in the track of the chariot race. Limbs chained to each of four horses set running in opposite directions. Dipped in pitch and set alight as torches.

It evokes the image of lynching when towns came out to vent their hate as if it were a Sunday picnic – and went away with souvenir pieces of the body.

Into this world came a teacher who yielded himself to violence in the name of peace. John heard him. And Ignatius sat at John’s feet. And we sit at their feet, a people learning to be faithful to the one who taught us to love all people – even, and especially, in the face of hate.

 

Image: Ignatius of Antioch By Иоанн Апакасс (?) (File source Official museum page) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons  Page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ignatius_of_Antiochie,_poss._by_Johann_Apakass_%2817th_c.,_Pushkin_museum%29.jpg

Life even in death

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Friday

Psalm 91

11For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.

In the account of the temptation of Jesus in Matthew and Luke the devil uses this text to deflect Jesus from his path. The temptation is simple enough: “God has given a promise; test it to be sure. Why would you dare walk into the future without knowing for sure that God will catch you?” But Jesus’ asks for no proof of God’s faithfulness. He knows it. He trusts it.

It is a wonderful psalm, rich in faith

1You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
2will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”

and rich with promise of God’s protecting hand.

5You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
6or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
7A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.

A colleague and friend of mine read this to her dying husband – also a colleague and friend. He was the victim of a medical mistake. A stupid, senseless mistake.

He should have come home from the hospital. He should have rejoined our text study. He should have stood again at the altar to celebrate the wondrous gifts of God. He should have proclaimed to us again the faithfulness and mercy of God. But he did not. Instead he lay perishing in the hospital as his wife read these words: “You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.”

It was the psalm for which he asked.

He saw no contradiction between the promise of the text and the reality of his suffering. He saw the promise as something so much larger than a promise of physical protection that these words were only comfort. He heard in the psalm the assurance “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The devil hears none of this in the text. He sees only a promise God cannot possibly keep. Life is full of tragedy and woe. We are driven by our fears and sins. Sometimes we harm ourselves. Sometimes we harm others. Sometimes it’s the simple mistake of a nurse’s aid. Sometimes we live. Sometimes we die. Sometimes we live wounded. Life is random. God’s promise of protection is silly in the devil’s ears.

But those who know the goodness of God hear nothing silly. They hear boundless love. They hear faithfulness despite our unfaithfulness. They hear strength greater than our weakness, mercy greater than our imagining, forgiveness beyond limit. They hear life even in death.

 

Image from the Murals of the Voroneţ Monastery, Romania. Photo: By Man vyi (own photo) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Amazing grace

Thursday

Mark 10:32-45

File:Francisco de Zurbarán 020.jpg43Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

Again and again Jesus keeps coming back to this theme. The realm of God is not about power, honor and glory; it is about service, suffering and love. It is about showing honor. It is about taking the lowest place at the banquet. It is about sharing one’s goods not amassing them. It is about forgiveness not revenge. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” not “Blessed are the victorious.” Our teacher and lord has bent to wash our feet. The anointed of God bears our sins. The Messiah suffers rather than strikes down. Jesus eats with sinners; he doesn’t parade with the righteous – though he eats with the righteous, too, and seeks no revenge when they treat him without respect.

Mary is welcome at his feet as a disciple. Mary Magdalene is the first to see him risen. He does not shame the woman at the well, or the woman who weeps over his feet, or the woman who reaches through the crowd to touch the hem of his robe. He does not shame the family that lacks sufficient wine, but blesses the wedding with wonder. He touches the leper. He gathers the children in his arms. He lays down his life for the world.

It is shocking to hear Jesus say: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him.” And if it weren’t so familiar to us, we would be shocked, too.

And this declaration doesn’t end by Jesus saying “But I will get my revenge!” It doesn’t end with the threat of hell fire. It ends simply: “and after three days he will rise again.”

God’s answer to human evil is not to punish it, but to give life. God’s answer to hate is love. God’s answer to offense is forgiveness. God’s answer to greed is generosity. God’s answer to pride is humility. God’s answer to his squabbling disciples’ quest for honor is a towel, a basin and a job for only the lowliest foreign-born slave. Our central act as a church is to break bread and hear Jesus say, “my body is broken for you.”

We are like James and John. We have a long ways to go before we inhabit this realm of grace.

But it is an amazing realm.

 

Image: Francisco de Zurbarán [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Shamed

Wednesday

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Isaiah 53:4-12

9They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

When we remember the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, where the first line is restated by the second line, we see the words ‘grave’ and ‘tomb’ in parallel and that makes sense. But then we see the words ‘wicked’ and ‘rich’ in parallel.

Christians move so quickly in the hearing of this text to Jesus laid in a rich man’s tomb that we seldom pause to recognize that the word ‘rich’ is regarded as a synonym for ‘wicked’.

From the perspective of the oppressed poor, burial among the rich and mighty is a scandal for a prophet. Political candidates work hard to wear plaid shirts and drink beer like one of the guys (or gals). This is odd when you consider that they are applying for the post of representing our country among the leaders of the world. We don’t want our president wearing plaid shirts to have a face to face with Putin or Merkel or Xi Jinping. We want him wearing his fiercest power suit.

But there is a suspicion about the rich and powerful that’s different than those who prosper from hard work and good fortune. People who get rich by clever schemes that leave homeowners underwater are not regarded as much more than thieves. So the president wears plaid shirts.

But this poor prophet is condemned to burial among the rich elite, as if all his words had fallen on deaf ears. The prophets call for justice. They stand with the poor, the victims, the faithful of the land trying to do right by God and their neighbor. They do no not hobnob with the men or women wearing hundred thousand dollar suits or watches or pearls or yachts. They might as well be sitting on the porch with the leader of the Crips.

And then, in our text, ‘violence’ and ‘deceit’ become parallel to ‘rich’ and ‘wicked’. The prophet lies in state among the ‘wicked’ even though he did no violence and told no lies!

Guilt by association. Shamed completely. “We accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.” We regarded his fate as just. We thought God had given him his due. We did not see that he was wounded for our transgressions,” that God made “his life an offering for sin.”

Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” says the Baptist. Behold the lamb whose blood marks the doors of the Israelites to save them from death. Behold the lamb who dies at the hour the Passover lambs were sacrificed.

Behold. See. See truly. See deeply. Recognize the face of God beneath that crown of thorns. Recognize the hands of mercy pierced. Recognize the faithfulness of God who does not strike back, but bears our violence and sin.

Behold the one shamed; it is our shame.

9They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

But the prophet does not stop there, for then God speaks: “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous.” The disgraced one was faithful – and will make us faithful.

So we are summoned no only to see, but to follow. And the faithful one tries once again to help us understand: Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

 

Painting: Agnus Dei, Francisco de Zurbarán [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ransomed

Watching for the Morning of October 18, 2015

Year B

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 24 / Lectionary 29

File:Abbatiale Saint-Pierre d'Orbais-l'Abbaye (51) Verrière de la Rédemption2.jpgThe coming passion still dominates this section of Mark’s gospel as we hear for the third time that Jesus will be shamed and killed in Jerusalem, but “after three days he will rise.” The disciples are still uncomprehending that the Messiah could suffer, and James and John boldly make a play for the premier positions of power and honor at Jesus’ right and left hand “in his glory”. But we who hear this Gospel know that at Jesus’ right and left hand will be the two thieves.

So once again Jesus teaches his disciples about the shape of life in the kingdom. Those who would be great must be servants. Those who have the position of honor at the banquet of God are bearing to others the baskets of bread as if they were the slaves. And then comes the punch line: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Suddenly we have this word ransom. When members of elite families are captured in war their families must purchase their freedom. Christ is come to purchase our freedom. Christ is come to free us to serve. Christ is come to free us for our true humanity. Christ has come to heal and redeem our world.

The idea of ransom reconnects us with the passion prediction that begins our Gospel reading. It also takes us into the first reading where we hear the prophet declare:

he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole.

‘Ransom’ is the heart of our reading from Hebrews where the author portrays Christ Jesus as the true and perfect High Priest, declaring: “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

And this theme of redemption is embodied in the rich and wonderful imagery of the psalm that promises God’s protection: “With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.” The language seems hyperbolic – A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.” – until we remember that we are talking about the ransoming of the world and the dawning of the new creation.

The Prayer for October 18, 2015

You are our refuge, O God, and our holy habitation.
Grant that, dwelling in you, our lives may honor him
who gave his life as our ransom:
your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 18, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 53:4-12
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” – In the 6th century BCE, the prophet speaks of a servant of God who suffers on behalf of the people, and “by his stripes we are healed.”

Psalmody: Psalm 91 (appointed 91:9-16)
“You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
– The poet sings of God’s faithfulness.

Second Reading: Hebrews 5:1-10
“You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”
– Christ is our true high priest, appointed by God, who mediates our reconciliation.

Gospel: Mark 10:32-45 (appointed 10:35-45)
“Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” – James and John approach Jesus looking for positions of honor in the new administration and Jesus has to once again explain that the kingdom of God inverts the values of the world.

 

Photo: By GO69 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.  Page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abbatiale_Saint-Pierre_d’Orbais-l’Abbaye_%2851%29_Verri%C3%A8re_de_la_R%C3%A9demption2.jpg