Promise and trust

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Watching for the Morning of February 25, 2018

Year B

The Second Sunday of Lent

Sunday is another step towards Jerusalem and our celebration of the events that happened there in an upper room, at Gethsemane, in the home of the High Priest and before Pilate. Our season walks towards a hill outside the walls called Golgotha, and to a nearby tomb and a vision of angels.

The covenant with Abram opens our readings on Sunday. He is ninety-nine. Sarai is ninety. The promise is spoken and they receive new names. Abram is changed to Abraham, understood to mean “father of a multitude.” Sarai becomes Sarah, “princess” – not in the sense that my stepfather called my little sister “princess”; she is to be the royal mother of a great nation.

We know the story. Sarah is barren and beyond childbearing. Yet they receive again a promise. They are even given the name they shall call their child to be: “Isaac” from the word to laugh. Maybe because Abraham laughed. Maybe because Sarah laughed. Maybe because, at his birth, they laughed with joy. A future is given to them. A promise sustains them.

Paul will talk of this promise in Romans. Abraham was reckoned as righteous because he trusted the promise. It is Paul’s argument that righteousness comes from such faith not works of the law.

Trust in God sustains the poet in our psalm. This is the psalm Jesus will recite from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  We do not read the lament section this Sunday, however, only the concluding song of trust.

Promise and trust. And so Jesus begins to teach his followers about the cross that awaits him and the cross we must take up to follow him. The cross is the ultimate tool of imperial power. But Jesus brings another empire, a greater kingdom, a truer reign – a reign of life. Shall we trust it?

How can we not?

This Sunday we continue our Lenten series on Baptism. “Through the Waters” offers an introduction to the Lenten theme. Daily Bible verses and reflections are posted at Holy Seasons as well as the first sermon in the series, “A great and terrifying promise.”

The Prayer for February 25, 2018

Almighty God, Holy and Faithful,
whose promise to Abraham was sure;
grant us courage to follow where you lead
and to take up the cross for the sake of your Gospel;
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 February 25, 2018

First Reading: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
“No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” – God establishes a covenant with Abram and Sarai giving them new names, Abraham and Sarah, an indicator of their new destiny.

Psalmody: Psalm 22:23-31
“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.” – At the conclusion of this lament (that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,”) the poet’s prayer for deliverance turns to praise and thanksgiving that God has not let him perish.

Second Reading: Romans 4:13-25
“The promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”
– Paul argues that just as Abraham was declared righteous for his trust in God’s promise (a promise that he would become the “father of many nations”), so we (the members of those ‘many nations’) are made righteous not by the law but by trusting God’s promise.

Gospel Mark 8:31-38
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” – Jesus teaches his followers “openly” that he will be rejected in Jerusalem and killed, but Peter disavows such an idea. Jesus spurns Peter and declares that fidelity to the reign of God means his followers will share in that same shaming rejection by the governing powers: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMiroslav-z%C3%A1mek2015o.jpg By Ben Skála, Benfoto (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A priestly people

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“Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.””

Watching for the Morning of June 18, 2017

Year A

The Second Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 6 / Lectionary 11

The First Lesson on Sunday declares that if Israel abides by God’s teaching, they shall be a priestly people. In the Gospel reading, Jesus sends his followers out as heralds and agents of God’s reign. Though the language is different, the substance is the same: a priest mediates the connection between people and God. In the Old Testament this was about the reconciliation (forgiveness) and fellowship with God established through the sacrificial system. In the New Testament it is mediated through allegiance to Christ and participation in the Spirit/reign of God.   In both you are restored to a community bound together in praise and service of God. And in both there is a word spoken that announces the reality of reconciliation and fellowship – a priestly/prophetic word, spoken on God’s behalf, that the sacrifice has been accepted, that reconciliation is at hand, that the hearer now abides in the grace and life of God. “The grace in which we stand”, says Paul in the reading from Romans for Sunday. The debt has been forgiven. Reconciliation has occurred. Peace that has been established. This is our calling. This is our identity. We are a priestly people – or, at least, meant to be a priestly people reconnecting the world with the source and goal of life. Every cup of cold water. Every healing hand. Every kind word. Every confession heard. Every kindness lived.

It is a great honor to be a priestly people. In a world where so much is torn and divided, we have the privilege of joining the realm of heaven with the realm of earth.

Preaching Series: Abram

The narrative of the flood last Sunday set before us the mystery that though the earth is filled with violencebecause of human beings, God suffers for his world and delivers it. But the people that get off the ark are no different than those who got on. And now we will hear how humanity’s rebellion continues in the building of the tower of Babel. But then come the first notes of a new mystery that follows the line of Seth down to Abram. It is a line that seems to dead end with Sarai’s barrenness – but God speaks a strange and wonderful promise that, from the line of Abraham, God will bring blessing to the world.

The Prayer for June 18, 2017

Gracious God,
you bid us pray for laborers to be sent into your harvest,
to a world in need of your healing and life.
Help us to fulfill our calling as intercessors for your world
and bearers of your grace;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 18, 2017

First Reading: Exodus 19:2-8a
“If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” – Brought out of Egypt and now before God at Mt. Sinai, the people hear and accept God’s covenant: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.”

Psalmody: Psalm 100
“Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his.” – A hymn of praise as the community enters into the temple courts and are summoned to acknowledge and serve God.

Second Reading: Romans 5:1-8
“God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” –
having established that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and that God justifies all by faith – by their trust in God’s promise – Paul declares that “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Gospel: Matthew 9:35 – 10:8 [9-23]
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” – The twelve are appointed for the first mission: to be heralds of the dawning reign of God in the towns and villages of Israel. “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHarvest_(13429504924).jpg By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (Harvest) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The promised blessing

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Jesus and Nicodemus

Watching for the Morning of March 12, 2017

The Second Sunday in Lent

Sunday our focus turns to the Gospel of John and the visit of Nicodemus. In the background is the promise to Abraham that through him God will bring blessing to the earth. The earth is in travail. The flood has purged the land but not cleansed the heart of humankind. They denied the command of God to fill the earth and tried instead to storm the gates of heaven by building their ziggurat in Babel. A confusion of languages followed, a deep and fundamental disruption of humanity’s most remarkable achievement: words. With words we can storm the heavens and land people on the moon, but with words we also lie and steal and sow division and hate. With words we can connect on the most intimate level, and with words we can rend beyond repairing. In the face of this fragmented world, God speaks a promise to Abraham: in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

And now Nicodemus stands before Jesus failing to understand these words about being born from above, born of the Spirit, born of God, born of the promised blessing. He wonders what sense it makes to talk of coming forth from the womb a second time. He doesn’t understand the metaphor of the wind. He comes to Jesus “by night”; he is in darkness.

But Jesus does not drive this thickheaded lunk away. He speaks, and in his word is life. He bears witness to the majesty of God’s love, to the sacrifice such love will make, to the redemption that is at hand, to the new creation that is dawning.

Nicodemus will linger near this Jesus. He will defend him to his accusers. He will come with spices fit for a king to give this Jesus an honored burial. He senses there is something of God here, something of that longed for blessing of all creation.

Abraham was in a right relationship to God by faith, argues Paul, by fidelity to God’s promise, for Abraham was declared “righteous” hundreds of years before the law was given. The psalmist speaks of his confidence in God as he looks at the pilgrim road rising through the dangerous hills to Jerusalem. It is such a trust and allegiance that is being born in Nicodemus. And it is such a trust and allegiance that is being born in us who come Sunday to hear the words and share in the one loaf and taste the promised blessing.

Your Name Be Holy

Our focus in Lent on a portion of the catechism, the basic teachings of the faith, takes us into the Lord’s Prayer this year. Sunday we will consider the first petition: “Holy be your name.” What honors God’s name? And what shames it? And what, exactly, are we asking God to do? There is much to ponder in this simple prayer.

Reflections on the themes of each week and brief daily devotions related to those themes can be found on the blog site for our Lenten devotions.

The Prayer for March 12, 2017

Almighty God, Holy and Gracious,
who met Nicodemus in the darkness
and called him into your light:
Grant us to be born anew of your Spirit
that, with eyes turned towards Jesus,
we might live your eternal life;
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 March 12, 2017

First Reading: Genesis 12:1-4a
“The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” – Following God’s halt to the tower of Babel and the scattering of the nations, God calls Abraham to venture out to a new land trusting only in God’s promise so that, through Abraham, God’s blessing may come to the world.

Psalmody: Psalm 121
“I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” – A pilgrim song, expressing the people’s trust in God as they journey up towards the hills of Jerusalem.

Second Reading: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
“For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
– Paul argues that Abraham was righteous not by his keeping of the law but by his trust in God’s promise.

Gospel: John 3:1-17
“just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’” – Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the darkness, unable to comprehend the new birth of which Jesus speaks.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHenry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_Study_for_Jesus_and_Nicodemus.jpg Henry Ossawa Tanner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ten

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Friday

Genesis 18:16-32

“For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.”

There are so many wonderful lines in the readings for Sunday. This is one of them. In the face of the terrible violence of Sodom and Gomorrah – a violence that will be revealed when the men of the town encircle Lot’s house and demand to have his visitors turned over to them that they might abuse, demean and rape them, a show of their dominance and power in the ancient world. In the face of that community renowned in the ancient world for its arrogance, wealth and power, God declares that if he finds ten “righteous”, ten people who show faithfulness to others, he will not destroy the city.

It’s a powerful indictment of the city that God could not find ten. But, more importantly, it is a powerful declaration of the power of goodness.

It is not hard to catalog the ills of our world. There have been some terrible examples of terroristic violence. Nice. Istanbul. Orlando. Brussels. Paris. Santa Bernardino. Thanks to the ubiquity of cell phones, we have all become witnesses of police violence. What these communities have always known is now visible to all. And we have also become witnesses to revenge killings in Dallas and Baton Rouge. David Duke feels emboldened by the times to run for senate. The upcoming games in Rio have revealed some of what is being dumped into the seas. Flint reminds us of the terrible consequences of our neglect of the poor. The noble art of governance is reduced to name-calling.

The news coverage tries to “balance” all this distress with an occasional feel-good story of individual triumph or kindness, but those stories don’t offset the litany of woes that begin the hour.

But then comes this simple line: “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.”

Ten good people living ordinary lives is enough to save a city. Ten.

We often feel helpless before the onslaught of the news. But God declares that ten good people is enough. Such is the power of mercy, compassion, kindness, generosity, courage, hope. Ten will save a city. Our small acts of kindness are not lost. They are lights in the darkness. Contagious lights. Inextinguishable lights. Lighted by the one who is the light that enlightens all the world, the one who embodied God’s mercy, the one who showed God’s faithfulness, the one who shines like the sun.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHoly_Embers.jpg By Eric Vernier from France (Holy Embers) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

How shall we pray?

Thursday

Genesis 18:16-32

16“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?”

File:AbrahamIcon.JPGThe assigned reading from the Old Testament for Sunday omits these first two verses, but they are the verses upon which the whole story pivots:

16Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. 17The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

The visitors have come. Abraham has feted them properly. They have spoken the promise that by next year Sarah will have a son. And Sarah has laughed. This is, after all, quite preposterous, given their age and the truths of biology. But, asks God, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” And that question haunts the story to come.

So Abraham escorts the three visitors (God and two angels?) on their way and God pauses to tell Abraham that he is on his way to discern the truth of the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah. The implication is that, if true, God will execute his judgment. But in light of the wondrous grace of God that gives to withered Abraham and Sarah a future, a son, Abraham asks whether grace is not also possible for Sodom.

We do not pray easily for the wicked. We are children of vengeance. No one grieves for the man who drove the truck in Nice, or the shooters in Paris, Dallas or Orlando. We do not even count them among the dead. No tears are lost on suicide bombers.

But the truth is a human life was lost long before they armed themselves and decided to kill. A soul perished. A human with the capacity for love and kindness and joy and generosity was extinguished by ideology or poverty or violence or rage. No one defends their actions. But do we pray for their destruction? Is this the god we serve, a god who smites?

The story of Abraham isn’t about whether God is a god who smites. It is about whether Abraham will live up to his calling to be an agent of blessing in the world. Will Abraham who is blessed by God’s grace do grace? Will we who live by grace live grace?

It is a haunting question, knowing as we do our capacity for righteous indignation and wrath. But we stand before the one who saved Noah from the flood and forgave his executioners. We live in the knowledge of the mystery that “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son.”

So, God stands with us on the hill looking down over the wicked city, the wounds on his hands visible in the breaking of the bread, and how shall we pray?

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAbrahamIcon.JPG See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Lord, teach us to pray

File:Saint Margaret of York Catholic Church (Loveland, Ohio) - stained glass, Holy Spirit.jpg

Watching for the Morning of July 24, 2016

Year C

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 12 / Lectionary 17

Sunday we read of the disciples coming to Jesus and asking him to teach them to pray. Prayer was a part of every day for the descendants of Abraham. It is not as though they had not learned the prayers for the blessing of bread and fields and the dead. It is not as though they did not know the prayers said on entering or leaving the house, or the Sabbath prayers as the family gathered at table. They knew the forms of prayer, the words, the spirit of prayer. They are asking Jesus for a prayer that marks them as his followers – “as John taught his disciples.”

Jesus gives them what we now call the Lord’s Prayer. It hasn’t yet settled into the fixed and somewhat richer form that will be used in worship and among the faithful for generations to come, but its core is there: “Your kingdom come.” The prayer Jesus teaches is a prayer for God to come and rule in our hearts and in our world. It is a prayer for God’s name to be regarded as holy as it will be in that day when all things are made new. It is a prayer for God’s will to be done as it will in that day when the lion and the lamb lie down together. It is a prayer for the bread of that day to be given us now as it will be when all are gathered to God’s banquet on Mt. Zion. It is a prayer for forgiveness to reign in us and for us to be delivered in the great tribulation, the birth pangs of the new creation when the world rises up against God’s dawning grace and truth. It is a prayer for God’s tomorrow to come, God’s new day. Today. Here. In us.

Every religious tradition has prayers for the god or gods to grant some favor or protection or to ward off some evil or enemy. There are prayers for healing, for rain, for the fields and the harvest. There are prayers for childbirth and marriage and the time of death. They all seek to garner some favor, some benefit, some mercy from the heavens for the petitioner. But the prayer Jesus teaches is for God’s healing of the world to come. It connects with my worries and needs; but it is bigger than them. It is mindful of the needs of the world. It is a prayer for the whole fabric of our existence to be changed, for the imperishable day to dawn. So, in the way Christ teaches us to pray, when we pray for some specific need – a healing, for example – we are asking for a share of the healing that awaits all creation to come now into the life of the one for whom we pray. A taste today of the bread of tomorrow.

It is this quality that make’s the Lord’s Prayer so enduring, so transcendent, so sacred. It asks for what we would not think to ask, as focused as we are on our selves and our needs. The prayer itself changes us. Recreates us. Heals and transforms us. The prayer carries us into the presence of God and into the truth proclaimed by the cross and empty tomb.   The prayer brings God’s reign of peace and life.

So Sunday Jesus will talk not just about God’s eagerness to hear and answer our prayer, but God’s eagerness to answer with the Holy Spirit (God’s spirit reigning in us). And we will hear the psalmist’s joy at answered prayer and ponder the great wonder and example of Abraham who dared to challenge the Almighty by interceding on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah. And we will hear the author of Colossians remind us to live our lives in Christ in whom we are raised to newness of life.

The Prayer for July 24, 2016

Faithful God,
you teach us to call upon you in every time of need,
as a child speaking to a dear father,
and promise to answer us with the gift of your Spirit.
Give us confidence in prayer
and hearts that seek for your kingdom to come
and your will to be done
in our lives and in our world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 24, 2016

First Reading: Genesis 18:16-32 (appointed: 18:20-32)
“Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” –
Abraham has hosted the three visitors and now, as he escorts them on their way, God informs Abraham of his intention to discern the truth of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham intercedes on their behalf, urging God to save the cities for the sake of the righteous who dwell there.

Psalmody: Psalm 138
“On the day I called, you answered me” – The poet praises God for answering his prayer.

Second Reading: Colossians 2:6-19
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit.” –
The author moves to a central theme of the letter, urging the community in Colossae not to be led astray by teachings other than the message of Christ they received.

Gospel: Luke 11:1-13
“One of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’”
– Jesus teaches his followers about the content of prayer, giving them what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. Then he urges them to faithfulness in prayer assuring them of God’s eagerness to respond to their cries with the gift of God’s Holy Spirit.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASaint_Margaret_of_York_Catholic_Church_(Loveland%2C_Ohio)_-_stained_glass%2C_Holy_Spirit.jpg By Nheyob (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Righteousness

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He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”

Friday

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

1After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

Abraham was 75 when he left Haran, taking his wife, Sarah, and nephew, Lot, and leaving his father behind. He left, according to the narrative, in obedience to God who promised he would be the father of a great nation through which all families on earth would be blessed.

He went to Shechem, then to Bethel, then by stages to the Negev. During a famine he went down into Egypt and eventually returned, moving again in stages from the Negev back to Bethel. Tension between his household and the household of Lot caused them to separate, and Lot to move into the Jordan Valley and took up his fateful residence in Sodom. Lot became the victim of a war between the “kings” (chieftains of city-states) of the region and Abraham went to rescue him. After all this, “some time later” according to the text, we find him still childless.

“O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

Three times he has heard the promise of descendants, and three times nothing has happened but the ongoing vicissitudes of life.

“O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

I appreciate the frankness of his conversation. He can see no future but that his steward will end up with the estate. God, however, explains nothing. What God does is simply repeat the promise. And Abraham trusts it.

Trust is not a substitute for righteousness. Righteousness means fidelity to God and to others. Abraham has shown fidelity to Lot. Now he shows fidelity to God. He accepts God’s word.

Few of us have a vision such as Abraham’s. What we have is the promise of God mediated to us through the text of scripture and embodied in the water of baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion. They are the equivalent of the smoking pots: God’s covenantal promise made visible: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood…shed for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins.”

We don’t know how we will get to the fullness of the promise of the world brought into the blessing of God. But we accept and live by the promise. And it is righteousness.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHeavens_Above_Her.jpg By Ian Norman (http://www.lonelyspeck.com) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Abram to Abraham

Thursday

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

File:Tissot God's Promises to Abram.jpg

God’s Promises to Abram, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot

“No longer shall your name be Abram.”

I can’t quite get my head around what that would be like to get a new name. This is not just a nickname. This is a new identity. He who was Abram is now the ‘father of a multitude’. Albino Luciani becomes John Paul. Karol Józef Wojtyła becomes John Paul II. Jorge Mario Bergoglio becomes Francis I. Whoever they might have been, they are now someone new. Kings take throne names. A woman (once not so long ago here, and still in many places) took the name of her husband and became Mrs. ___. She was once one person and became another, an identity and destiny now derived form her husband’s family not her own. Norma Jean Mortenson becomes Marilyn Monroe; it is a new identity, a new destiny.

No longer shall your name be Abram, the 90-year-old childless one. You will be Abraham, the ‘father of a multitude’.

And Sarai, no longer will she be Sarai; she will be Sarah, ‘princess’. And a child is coming whose name will be laughter. Joy. Delight. Descendants like the stars. The father and mother of nations. Those who had no future are given a future.

“No longer shall your name be Abram.”

No longer shall you be David; you shall be David, child of God. No longer are my children Anna and Megan, but Anna, child of God, member of the household of heaven, and Megan, daughter of heaven. “Once you were no people but now you are God’s people.”RSV

Of course, those from elite families have no desire to give up their names. Who would surrender a name like Rockefeller or Kennedy for the appellation “child of God”?

Those who would save their life.

A new world in the making

Watching for the Morning of March 1, 2015

File:Three Crosses monument at sunset (8178234419).jpgThe Second Sunday of Lent

Sunday the texts point us towards Jerusalem. That is where we are headed this Lenten season, to that hill outside Jerusalem where three crosses await, and the open tomb containing none but angels. Jesus has troubling words for us about taking up the cross, about finding life in laying it down, that fidelity to the kingdom of God means we cannot avoid the hostility of the kings of this world. But they are not dark words, unless you stop listening before you hear Jesus say “and be raised.” A new world is about to be born.

It is a world where a homeless, childless couple receive the promise that they shall be the parents of many nations. It is a world where the psalmist crying out in despair at death’s door now stands and calls all people to praise God. It is a world where people of every nation are gathered to God by trust in his promise, not by birth or merit.

It is to such a world made new that we are called to show fidelity, to endure the mockery and hate of the powers that be, to take up the shame of the cross, for a new day is dawning. The tomb will be opened.

And so we are not far from the core of Lent, the season of spiritual renewal, the season when we are called to let God renew faith, renew relationships, renew families, renew communities, renew the world.

(For our daily Lent devotion from Los Altos Lutheran Church, and for sermons and other information on Lent, see our Lent site.)

The Prayer for March 1, 2015

In steadfast love, O God,
you bound yourself to Abraham by your promise,
and came among us bearing the cross.
Watch over us,
renewing our lives and the ties that bind us to others
that, following in your footsteps,
we may prove faithful to you and to all;
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 March 1, 2015

First Reading: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
“No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” – God establishes a covenant with Abram and Sarai giving them new names, Abraham and Sarah, an indicator of their new destiny.

Psalmody: Psalm 22:23-31
“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.” – At the conclusion of this lament (that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,”) the poet’s prayer for deliverance turns to praise and thanksgiving that God has not let him perish.

Second Reading: Romans 4:13-25
“The promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”
– Paul argues that just as Abraham was declared righteous for his trust in God’s promise (a promise that he would become the “father of many nations”), so we (the members of those ‘many nations’) are made righteous not by the law but by trusting God’s promise.

Gospel Mark 8:31-38
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” – Jesus teaches his followers “openly” that he will be rejected in Jerusalem and killed, but Peter disavows such an idea. Jesus spurns Peter and declares that fidelity to the reign of God means his followers will share in that same shaming rejection by the governing powers: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

 

Photo: By Guillaume Speurt from Vilnius, Lithuania [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Two very different kinds of religion

Thursday

Genesis 12

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The last lifeboat off the Titanic, by a passenger on the Carpathia

3 “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Everything hinges on what we hear in this statement to Abraham.  Some translations understand these words to say, “by you all families shall bless themselves,” meaning that Abraham shall be the paradigm of good fortune: “May we be as prosperous as Abraham.” Other translations hold, as the NRSV above, that somehow Abraham is the agent or conduit of God’s blessing.

This is a fundamental divide in the hearing of scripture.  Is God the god of Abraham, watching out for him and his descendants, providing, guiding, protecting, directing and blessing them?  Or is God the god of the whole earth, working through Abraham and his descendants to bring God’s blessing to the world?  Is God working to reclaim his lost creation or working to prosper and save a privileged few – or even a privileged many?  As we said, everything hinges on our answer to that question.

You get two very different kinds of religion depending on your answer.

If God is the god of Abraham, then the story we hear in the Old Testament is a story of God’s unmerited love and providential care for Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob.  God watches over Joseph and rewards his faithfulness.  God rescues his people from slavery and fulfills the promise of a rich and abundant land.  When they are faithful, things go well; when they are not faithful, God punishes them to bring them back to himself.  The door is always open for others to join the community of Israel.  And that’s what happens in Jesus.  Gentiles are welcomed into the community of the blessed – if they repent and believe.  At the culmination of history humanity is judged and the reward of heaven is given to God’s chosen ones.

If God is the god of the whole world, then the story we hear is also of unmerited love and providential care – but God’s work in Egypt is not partisan.  God works through Joseph not only to deliver the sons of Jacob, but also Egypt and the surrounding peoples (“You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good.”) God delivers both Israel and Egypt from the system of bondage, for the enslaved and the enslaving are both captive and far from God’s plan and purpose for human life.  God doesn’t punish Egypt with ten plagues; he provides them ten opportunities to turn from their slaveholding ways.  That they resist to the bitter end is part of the human tragedy, and a telling warning for the rest of us.  But God’s determination is greater than ours.  God will liberate his broken and captive world.  “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

If God is the god of the whole world, then the law given to Israel at Sinai is not just about Israel – but about a servant people embodying God’s justice and mercy in the world.  Then the emphasis in the law is not purity, but care for the poor and the stranger.  Then the law is not a means to placate God or merit grace; it is a set of concrete examples revealing the character of God and the life to which all humanity is called.  Then purity is a means to preserve Israel as a witness to the God of justice and compassion, and food laws and customs are not binding on GentilesThen Jesus is not giving us new commandments, but revealing the depth of meaning in the old ones.  Then Paul’s declaration that love is a fulfilling of the law doesn’t abrogate the law but hears it truly.

If God is the God of the whole world, then loving your neighbor doesn’t make you worthy of heaven – it follows as fruit from the vine because you have been made a citizen of heavenWe are not saved by works – but works follow as truly as the mustard “tree” from the seed, the raised loaf from a little yeast, and the harvest from the sowing.

If God is God of the whole world, then the work of God is to come and reign in every heart and we are witnesses of these things: healing the sick, welcoming the outcast, forgiving sins and declaring good news to the poor.  If God is the god of Abraham, then the work of God is to create and prosper a holy people and our mission is to get others to join the community of the blessed.

Everything hinges on what we hear in these words: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  Are we agents of blessing or simply partakers/inheritors of it?

PS 

If you are not sure which is the right answer – consider that when Abraham lied about Sarah to protect himself, he endangered Abimelech’s life.  When Abraham was faithful, he sought to save even Sodom and Gomorrah.  The argument is there in Genesis that Abraham and his descendants were to be instruments of blessing not its paradigm.

On this question churches will rise or fall.  Those who see themselves as agents of blessing to the community around them will bear much fruit.  Those who see themselves as the passengers in the lifeboat from a sinking world may pull in a few stragglers, but they are salt that has lost its ability to help the fire of God burn brightly.

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By Dungodung (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons