A new beginning of the world

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A reflection on Mark 1:1-11 on the Baptism of Our Lord.

King David is, for Israel, like George Washington is for us. He is the noble leader that represents the best of his country. We don’t really want any dirty laundry about George Washington. We like the story about the boy who could not tell a lie and the young man strong enough to throw a silver dollar across the Potomac. We don’t really want to know that they didn’t have silver dollars in his day and that, even if they did, a dollar was worth a lot in those days and George wouldn’t have thrown that kind of money away – nor do we want to know that the original story is about chucking rocks across the Rappahannock.

We like the myth rather than the reality, because the myth has an important function. The word ‘myth’, in its best sense, doesn’t mean a false or made up story; it means a story that embodies and communicates some important truth. Our first president was indeed strong and honest, concerned about what was good for the republic rather that what might profit himself. And the ‘myth’ of the cherry tree lifts up these important qualities that embody core values of our national identity. The stories are meant to inspire us to our best selves.

The myth is important, but we do not deny reality. We know, for example, that Washington owned slaves. Though technically they belonged to his wife, he would have had the authority to free them had he chosen to do so. So we value the ‘myth’ for what it says to us, but we also acknowledge the truth.

David is the hero of Israel. And the story about Goliath sounds remarkably like one of those cherry tree stories. We respect the story about David’s courage and his trust in and fidelity to God. But the scripture is also willing to tell us that David conspired to order the death of his noble warrior, Uriah, in order to hide David’s crime of taking Uriah’s wife that would have been exposed when Bathsheba she got pregnant.

What makes David a hero, by the way, is that, when confronted with his crime, he confesses and repents. He doesn’t deny and obfuscate and lie and blame. He turns back to God.

But there were consequences to David’s crime. He had allowed power to corrupt him and lead him to betray God and the people by taking what belonged to another – and then to a cover-up that ended in violence. The result would be that his family would be troubled by corruption and violence.

So the scripture tells us that David’s eldest son, Amnon, lusted after his half-sister, Tamar, and after manipulating her into his bedchamber by pretending to be sick, he took her – by force – and then discarded her.

Tamar’s brother, Absalom, quietly plotted against his half-brother and two years later took his vengeance and murdered him. Absalom fled Jerusalem, but David refused to hold him accountable and eventually allowed him to return, though he would not allow Absalom to come to court.

Absalom got tired of that and sent for Joab who was the head of the army and one of David’s closest advisors. Joab, however, wouldn’t come so Absalom set Joab’s fields on fire to force him to come. Absalom then pressured Joab into making a way for him to return to the king’s presence. At which time, Absalom began to plot to seize the throne. He told the people that they wouldn’t get justice from David but that they could get justice from himself if he were king.

Eventually, Absalom arranged a coup and David and his advisors were forced to flee Jerusalem. (Absalom set up a tent on the roof of the palace for all to see and went in to sleep with his father’s concubines. What David had done in secret to Uriah, Absalom did to him in public.)

War ensued – and now I am getting close to my point. David gave instructions to his commanders that they were not to hurt his son, Absalom. But Joab, his leading commander, knowing the kind of threat Absalom posed, disobeyed the order and killed him. When the battle was over, a young man named Ahimaaz wanted to run back to the king to deliver the good news that his forces had been victorious. Joab tried to discourage him and sent someone else, knowing that the king would be dismayed by the news and would not reward the runner.

The Greek translation of the original Hebrew uses the word ‘euanggelion’ for the “good news” of victory. ‘Euanggelion’ is the word that comes into English as ‘gospel’. That Greek root gives us the family of words like ‘evangelism’ and ‘evangelical’. And it is the Greek word in our Gospel reading today that is translated as ‘good news’.

This is a very long introduction to the fact that the Greek word we translate as ‘gospel’ is a very ordinary word. It is not a religious word. And it has two basic semantic fields. The one is the story I have just told: the news of victory from the battlefield. The other idea at work in this word is that of a royal proclamation. When a new king arises, he issues a proclamation to the citizens of his new lands declaring amnesty and announcing his benefactions to the people.

So this document that is before us from an unknown author who, by tradition, we call Mark – this document presents itself as a royal proclamation and news of victory from the battlefield.

The translation “good news” doesn’t seem like it has enough gravitas to be an effective translation of this word. But we don’t have a word in English that will accomplish all that this Greek word conveys. So we have to remember that the Gospel that is proclaimed to us is like the announcement of peace at the end of World War II that has people cheering in the streets and a sailor sweeping a nurse off her feet with a kiss.

The Gospel that is proclaimed to us is like the emancipation proclamation of Abraham Lincoln to the three million enslaved people in the South. It is royal amnesty, a word that we are released from every debt.

This story of Jesus is ‘gospel’. It is ‘euanggelion’. It is incredible news. It is the end of war and emancipation. God has come to reclaim his world. God has come to drench us in the Spirit. God has come to wipe away the whole history of human sin that began with Adam and Eve. God has come to shatter the gates of hell and set all its prisoners free. God has come to break the grip of fear and guilt and sorrow and death.

This is the ‘gospel’. And when we call ourselves an Evangelical Lutheran Church we mean we are bearers of this proclamation.

Now if someone were hearing this ‘gospel’ for the first time, they would naturally ask, “Who is this Jesus that he should be making a royal proclamation?”

Mark tells us that this Jesus is “Son of God”, which means that he is the person God has authorized to act on God’s behalf. He is the one appointed to reign. This is a culture in which to speak to the son is to speak to the father. To hear Jesus is to hear the Father. This is a society in which the kings of Israel were referred to as “son of God”. They weren’t gods, but they reigned on God’s behalf.

This Jesus is the Christ, the anointed of God.

This Jesus is the one to whom the prophets bear witness.

This Jesus is the one upon whom the Spirit of God has descended. The heavens have been torn open. A breach has been made in the vault of heaven and the mighty wind and holy breath of God has invaded the world and courses through this Jesus.

Through this Jesus the whole world will be flooded with this Spirit of God.

This Spirit that is upon Jesus is upon us.

And God is delighted. “With you,” says the voice from heaven, “I am well pleased.” This is such a pale translation of powerful words. This is good in God’s eyes. It echoes the creation story when God looks upon what God has created and declares it good.

This is a new beginning of the world.

It doesn’t matter to Mark that armies are marching and it seems like the world is coming apart. It doesn’t matter to Mark that he has seen Rome’s brutal power impale this Jesus to a cross. He has seen the empty tomb. He has seen the sick healed and the lame walk and the blind see. He has seen sinners forgiven and outcasts restored and withered hands made whole. He has seen the unclean made clean and heard demons cry out and flee. This is a new beginning of the world.

This is a new beginning of the world.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AF_Mochi_Bautismo_de_Cristo_1634_P_Braschi.jpg Francesco Mochi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

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Awash in the Spirit

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Watching for the Morning of January 14, 2018

Year B

The Baptism of Our Lord

(See the note below on why we are celebrating The Baptism of Our Lord this Sunday)

The heavens were torn open.

As he was coming up out of the water “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” It is the word that will show up again in Mark when the curtain of the temple will be torn from top to bottom. Mark doesn’t use a subtle word to describe what happens at the banks of the Jordan. Mark is rarely subtle. His story is urgent, compelling. Something powerful has burst into the world, tossing demons aside and healing all who come near. Bursting the bonds that bind. Tearing open the heavens to bring all heaven’s gifts down. This Jesus is the coming one, the promised one, who will flood the world with God’s Spirit.

So Sunday’s texts will take us to the beginning, when God’s spirit/breath/wind blew over the face of the great deep and God called forth light for the world. And the psalm will proclaim the mighty voice of God that shakes the wilderness and shatters the cedars of Lebanon. And the book of Acts will tell us of the believers in Ephesus who had not yet heard of the Holy Spirit, but will receive it in abundance. And we will hear again of John the Baptist and the promise of the Spirit, and we will see Jesus come and the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending.

And in our liturgy we will remember what it means to be a people awash in the Spirit, to be witnesses of a world forever changed, to be agents of that Spirit, a people empowered, the body of this Christ in the world.

The Prayer for January 14, 2018 (for the Baptism of Our Lord)

Heavenly Father, Eternal God, Holy and Gracious One:
in the waters of the River Jordan
you anointed Jesus with your Holy Spirit
and declared him your beloved Son.
Make all the earth radiant with your glory
and pour out upon all your children the abundance of your Holy Spirit.

The Texts for January 14, 2018 (for the Baptism of Our Lord)

First Reading: Genesis 1:1-5
“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.” – The opening words of that profound vision of God creating a good and ordered world, assembled by a people who have lived through the chaos of war, social disintegration, famine and the destruction of their nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 29
“The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.” – Using the imagery of a thunderstorm coming off the Mediterranean Sea and rising over Mount Hermon, the poet proclaims the power of God’s Word.

Second Reading: Acts 19:1-7
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” – Paul connects with disciples in Ephesus who knew only the baptism of John.

Gospel: Mark 1:1-11
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
– The Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus in his baptism and God declares him God’s ‘Son’.

As noted the last two weeks, our parish departs from the appointed texts for the Christmas season in order to present the birth narratives with some integrity: reading Luke 2:1-20 on Christmas Eve (and John 1 on Christmas morning), then the reception of the child by Simeon and Anna on the Sunday in Christmas. The second Sunday after Christmas (nearest January 6) is celebrated as the Sunday of the Epiphany and provides us with Matthew’s account of the Magi and Herod’s attempt to kill the infant Messiah.

Occasionally, as in this year, this puts us out of sync with the appointed lectionary. So this Sunday, the first after our celebration of the Epiphany, we will celebrate as the Baptism of our Lord and next Sunday we will skip to the texts for the third Sunday after the Epiphany.

A post about the Second Sunday after Epiphany in year B and its readings from 2015 can be found here. For other comments on the readings for Epiphany 2 B follow this link.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACaban-coch_dam_overflowing_-_geograph.org.uk_-_148870.jpg Mark Evison [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Flooded with Joy

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Watching for the Morning of December 17, 2017

Year B

The Third Sunday of Advent

“The LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus uses our first reading for this Sunday as the text in his sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth. The message will be simple: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It is the language of the jubilee year when every debt is wiped away and all things restored. It is, in the mouth of the prophet, a promise of the return from exile and the rebuilding of their life in the land. It is, in the life of the church, a promise of that day when all things are made new. Everlasting joy.

Joy ripples through our worship this Sunday. It is the day once known as “Gaudete Sunday” from the ancient introit: “Gaudete in Domino semper…,” “Rejoice in the Lord always” from Philippians 4:4-6. We will hear similar words in our second reading that begins with the exhortation to “Rejoice always.” We will hear joy in the song of Mary, the Magnificat. And it is reverberates through the proclamation with which Mark begins his account of Jesus: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The runner has come from the battlefield to announce that the city is saved. The enemy is fallen. Our long awaited king comes to wash us in the Spirit.

Every translation of which I am aware says that the one who is coming will ‘baptize’ us in the Spirit. And, yes, the Greek word in the text is taken into English to give us the word ‘baptism’. But, for us, the word ‘baptism’ is almost exclusively a church word. We might refer to a baptism by fire, but we would never say that drowning sailors are being baptized. The Greek word was not a religious word, and if we take it out of the religious realm for a minute, we might hear something of the true drama of this promise: The coming one will wash us in the Spirit. The coming one will immerse us in the Spirit. The coming one will drown us in the Spirit. The coming one will drench us in the Spirit. The coming one will flood us with the Spirit. The coming one will shower the spirit upon us.

In a world often immersed in hate and fear, violence and deceit, here is the promise that we will be immersed in the Spirit of God. We will be awash in grace. We will be showered with compassion. Good news will be announced to the poor. Liberty will be proclaimed to the captive. We will be flooded with joy.

The Prayer for December 17, 2017

Eternal God, Breath of Life,
Font of Hope, and our Eternal Joy;
Open the doors of our hearts, and the gates of your mercy
to come into our world and our lives,
and fill us with the joy of your presence.

The Texts for December 17, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 61.1-11 (appointed: 61.1-4, 8-11)
“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” –
The prophet describes his ministry as announcing a jubilee year, when all debts are forgiven and all lands restored.

Psalmody: Luke 1:46-55, the Song of Mary (the Magnificat)
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” – Mary sings with joy of God’s coming deliverance when she is greeted by Elizabeth whose unborn child already recognizes their coming Lord.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
– Paul concludes his letter to the believers in Thessalonica with a series of exhortations about their life together as they wait for Christ’s return and the consummation of God’s dawning reign.

Gospel: Mark 1.1-8
“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” – Mark begins his Gospel with the language of royal decree and the prophetic words of John pointing to the one who will wash the world in the Holy Spirit.

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The appointed texts for December 17, 2017

Psalm: Psalm 126, (Luke 1:46-55 is an alternate for the psalm)
“Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
– The poet remembers the joy of their restoration to the land, and prays now that God would refresh the land anew with rain and abundant harvest.

Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” – The wealthy and powerful leaders in Jerusalem send representatives to discern whether John represents a threat to revolt against their rule, and seem satisfied that he is “only” a prophetic voice. They fail to hear his message that the coming one is already here.

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During Advent our parish departs from the appointed psalms and sings Isaiah 51:4-11, the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and Isaiah 12 on the four Sundays. We also adjust the readings between the Sundays to allow for the celebration of a children’s Christmas program during worship in Advent. Next Sunday we will read Mark’s account of John the Baptist that is assigned for today.

During Advent we provide daily verses and brief reflections that can be found by following this link to Advent 2017.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALeather_bucket_of_a_well.jpg By Neogeolegend (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Water and Kings and New Creation

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Watching for the Morning of January 15, 2017

The Baptism of Our Lord

(See the note below on why we are celebrating The Baptism of Our Lord this Sunday)

Sunday the Feast of Epiphany lingers in the air as the voice from heaven declares: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” As the star in the east proclaimed a new king to all with eyes to see and understand, the voice from heaven affirms his royal title (“Son of God”) and divine favor.

But the direction is all forward now, into the words and deeds of this mighty one. The Spirit has come to empower him. Heaven has anointed him. He is the one who washes the world in the Spirit. Next Sunday we are summoned from our nets to follow and learn what it means to gather all into the net of divine love. And from there we start through the Sermon on the Mount: the declaration of what is honorable in God’s sight and how we are summoned to live as sons and daughters of the kingdom. This is not a picnic at the Jordan River; we are packing bags for a journey that ultimately takes us to a hill outside Jerusalem and a gravestone rolled away.

So Sunday the waters are divided and the Spirit comes and light shines to the nations. The prophet will speak of God’s servant who “will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.” The psalmist will speak of the powerful voice of the LORD that shakes the earth. Peter will preach to Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, and his family declaring that all people are welcome at God’s table. And then there is Jesus, the embodiment of the story of Israel, the faithful son, sharing the waters of repentance in solidarity with a fallen human race, and rising to live in and by the Spirit of God – the destiny of all creation.

Water and Spirit and light to the nations – and suddenly we are aware of our own baptism into Christ. A dying and rising. A new creation. An anointing with the Spirit. A commission to bear the light of grace to the world.

The Prayer for January 15, 2017 (for the Baptism of Our Lord)

Heavenly Father, Eternal God, Holy and Gracious One:
in the waters of the River Jordan
you anointed Jesus with your Holy Spirit
and declared him your beloved Son.
Make all the earth radiant with your glory
and pour out upon all your children the abundance of your Holy Spirit;
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 January 15, 2017 (for the Baptism of Our Lord)

First Reading: Isaiah 42:1-9
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights… I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.” – The prophet proclaims that this people, wounded by exile, is the servant chosen by God to bring justice to the earth. (For the followers of Jesus, he embodied and fulfilled this suffering servant of God.)

Psalmody: Psalm 29
“The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.” – Using the imagery of a thunderstorm coming off the Mediterranean Sea and crashing upon the slope of Mount Hermon, the poet proclaims the power of God’s Word.

Second Reading: Acts 10:34-43
“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” –
Peter’s conveys the message about Jesus to the household of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius, after God has shown him in a vision in that God has declared all people ‘clean’.

Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17
“John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’” – After John has called Israel to a new allegiance to God’s way and announced that one is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, Jesus comes to the Jordan and we hear God declare “This is my son.”

As noted the last two weeks, our parish departs from the appointed texts for the Christmas season in order to present the birth narratives with some integrity: reading Luke 2:1-20 on Christmas Eve (and John 1 on Christmas morning), then the reception of the child by Simeon and Anna on the Sunday in Christmas. The second Sunday after Christmas (nearest January 6) is celebrated as the Sunday of the Epiphany and provides us with Matthew’s account of the Magi and Herod’s attempt to kill the infant Messiah.

Occasionally, as in this year, this puts us out of sync with the appointed lectionary. So this Sunday, the first after our celebration of the Epiphany, we will celebrate as the Baptism of our Lord and next Sunday we will skip to the texts for the third Sunday after the Epiphany.

The appointed readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 15, 2017, and comment on them from 2014 can be found here.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARavenne_baptistere_de_neon_coupole.JPG By Velvet (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

True sons and daughters

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Watching for the Morning of October 30, 2016

Reformation Sunday / Rite of Confirmation

Sunday in our parish we will celebrate the confirmation of three young people who will rise to affirm their intention to continue in the covenant God established with them at their baptism. It brings an added joy and celebration to the tradition of observing Reformation Sunday – a day to remember the insights that lie at the heart of the 16th century Reformation, and the principle that the church is always being reformed by the Spirit of God through the Word read, proclaimed, sung and feasted.

Among the great insights of the Reformation was the recognition that God is not served by the performance of religious works, but by the love of neighbor embodied in the work of daily life. When I create a medicine to save lives I serve God by serving my neighbor. It does not have to have a religious hashtag. But when I buy a medicine and manipulate its price to maximize profit for executives and shareholders the ground gets considerably shakier. Perhaps serving shareholders is serving neighbor, but the truth of that statement would ring truer if the officers and board weren’t themselves major shareholders – and if it weren’t the sick, the “weaker members”, who bear the burden.

This idea of vocation not as a calling from God to serve the institutional structure of the church but as a calling to serve one’s neighbor is one of many profound religious insights from the Reformation that dramatically reshaped the path of western society and the history of the world. Unfortunately we didn’t always embody the genius of those insights. Too many religious wars and burnings at the stake followed in the Reformation’s train. Not that these were new to the human community, but the genius of the Gospel should have called out more from us than changing the team colors and fight song.

But the confirmands who come forward this Sunday rise not to pledge themselves to “the church” – they rise to pledge themselves to the God who calls them to be church, to be a people of God living in the world for the sake of the world, to be a people in whom God’s law/teaching/will is written on the heart. Heaven knows earth has enough religion; we need true sons and daughters of God.

The Prayer for Reformation Sunday, October 30, 2016

Gracious and eternal God,
who by your Word called all things into being,
and by your Spirit sustains and renews the earth,
send forth your Word and your Spirit upon your church,
that ever renewed they may bear faithful witness to your grace and life.

The texts for Reformation Sunday, October 30, 2016 (assigned for Reformation Day)

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
– Though the covenant formed between God and Israel at Sinai lies broken (what God’s people promised they have failed to do and kingship and temple have perished) God’s promise abides and God will establish a new covenant where God’s teaching/commands are written on the heart.

Psalmody: Psalm 46
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” – A hymn proclaiming the power of God to protect and preserve the people and expressing their confident trust in God’s saving work. It provided the inspiration for Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28
“Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” – Paul’s classic expression of his understanding of the function of law and gospel and the idea that we are brought into a right relationship with God (justified) not by the law, but by the free gift of God (by grace) apprehended by our trust in that gift (through faith). This phrase “Justification by grace through faith” becomes a summary statement of the 16th century reforming movement and subsequent Lutheran churches.

Gospel: John 8:31-36
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” – This promise of freedom in Christ – freedom from authorities or powers that would prevent their living in service of God – is spoken to followers who do not abide in Jesus’ teaching, and his challenge will reveal their true heart.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Confirmation_blessing.jpg

Loving and beloved

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Watching for the Morning of May 22, 2016

Year C

The Feast of the Holy Trinity

Two weeks ago I celebrated a baptism of a small child at a local park. Why is another conversation. Baptism belongs in the worshipping community, but this seemed the right thing to do. It was a lovely spot, beneath a sculpted arbor, shaded by old trees, with a pond behind us and a fountain in the distance. It was a place that invited hands to be joined, lovers to kiss, vows to be spoken, and those long together to pause in tender affection. How perfect that we should gather as a small community in that peaceful spot to hear God claim this child as God’s own – an inheritor of God’s promised new creation and participant in God’s mission to the world.

Three times we poured water over the head of the child “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Not three names; one name. One name identifying the God upon whom we called as the one who brought forth the world in love, became incarnate of the maiden Mary, and breathed upon the followers of Jesus to empower their witness to the world. One name linking creation and redemption and sanctification. One name known to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to Moses and Miriam, to Hannah and Samuel, to Ruth and David as LORD. One name who breathed into humanity the breath of life and by the breath of the Spirit summons us back to himself. One name, One God, Triune but one. Begetter and Begotten. Loving and beloved in God’s very being. Mystery to us. But lover of us. Calling us to live in that divine love.

The texts for Sunday go several different directions. Proverbs relates wisdom, the underlying order of the world, personified and summoning us to feast at her table. The Psalm speaks of God’s creating, and the honor shown humanity: a little lower than the angels but entrusted to exercise God’s dominion, God’s care over all the earth. Romans exults in the peace with God wrought in Christ, and the Spirit’s presence as one through whom “God’s love has been poured into our hearts”. And Jesus, in John’s Gospel, again declaring the gift and work of the Spirit.

The texts point several directions, but are tied together by this mystery of the Trinity: the God who is beyond conception but is known by a work and a name: “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

The Prayer for May 22, 2016

O God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,
of Moses and Miriam,
of Ruth and David,
of Mary and Joseph;
God wrapped in mystery and wonder,
who breathed life into our first parents
and your Holy Spirit into all creation;
God who loves and fathers and sends
and is loved and begotten and sent;
help us to praise you rightly,
love you fully
and walk with you faithfully.

The Texts for May 22, 2016

First Reading: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
“The Lord created me at the beginning of his work.” –
Wisdom, the knowledge of the fundamental truths of existence, is personified as a teacher and speaks of its role in the formation of all things.

Psalmody: Psalm 8
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them?”
– A song of praise marveling at God’s care for human beings and their role as stewards of God’s creation.

Second Reading: Romans 5:1-5
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”

Gospel: John 16:12-15
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth”

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADetail_kazuifel_J.L._Str%C3%A4ter_drie-eenheid.jpg By Marikevanroon20 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%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

Righteousness

File:Heavens Above Her.jpg

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

Heading home from the manger

File:Adorazione dei Magi by Gentile da Fabriano - Predella.jpg

Looking back to Sunday

So we gather in the season of Christmas. We hear the promise of peace in the child of Bethlehem. We sing “Silent Night” and “Away in the Manger” and light candles in the dark. We hear the story of the peasant mother on a cold winter’s night. If we are fortunate, we go home to family gatherings that are warm and joyful and a taste of all that is good in life. Then somewhere in the days that follow, perhaps after some family tension or evening news account, we lament that the peace doesn’t last.

It is then, in these days after, that it is important for us to hear the words of our second reading yesterday morning:

12As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:12-17)

There is baptismal imagery working in this word of encouragement. You can almost hear the elder admonishing the newly baptized – who have put off their old clothes and renounced their previous gods before going down into the water, rising up out of the opposite end of the pool to put on a new, clean garment – you can almost hear the elder admonishing them to put one Christ, to clothe themselves with all the qualities of Christ, to adorn themselves with the way of life that accords with God’s redeemed creation.

12As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

Then comes the exhortation to let Christ govern in our hearts – in the place where thought and desire turns into choice and action “let the peace of Christ rule.” This leads to the appeal to let the Christ’s teaching dwell within and among us and concludes with the practice of gratitude.

This is the shape of the believer’s life: to be clothed in Christ, to live forgiveness, to be governed by our harmony with God and infused with God’s teaching, to be thankful.

This is the life with which we seek to cloak ourselves as we journey home from our visit to the manger.

 

Image: By Gentile da Fabriano (Petar Milošević) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.  See https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAdorazione_dei_Magi_by_Gentile_da_Fabriano_-_Predella.jpg

The unholy made holy

Friday

Acts 8:26-40

File:Menologion of Basil 006.jpg36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

It’s not an abstract question for the Ethiopian; it’s a highly personal one. He has just come from Jerusalem where the fact that he is a eunuch bars him from the temple. He is fundamentally flawed and not acceptable in God’s presence.

There is something to be said for the notion of holiness, that what we bring before God should be whole. Lame animals show no honor or respect for the Lord of all. Moldy grain, rancid oil – we ought not imagine making such gifts at the altar. God deserves our best. There is even something to be said for the notion that sinners ought to stand far off and not parade to the front, that we should come with humility, that we should approach God with care. But it is a far different thing for me to hold myself back than for others to make that judgment. It is for me to recognize God’s holiness, not for others to defend it. I should know my unworthiness rather than have someone point it out to me.

But Christ was crucified. He was made unholy. Outside the walls of the holy city, his death was hastened lest he pollute the holy days, while those who arranged his death went up to the altar with hands they regarded as clean. Pilate had to go out to the high priests as they conspired to murder Jesus, lest they pollute themselves by entering a gentile’s house.

The holy one – the truly holy one – was made unholy that we, the truly unholy, might be made holy in him. And now, what religious people excluded in order to defend God’s honor, God gathers in order to show his glory: the lame man at the temple, the Samaritans, the Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius the centurion, gentiles in Antioch.  The stories of Acts follow the seeds Jesus sowed: the Syrophoenician woman, Matthew the tax collector, the woman with the flow of blood, sinners and tax collectors.

“What is to prevent me from being baptized?” asks the Ethiopian eunuch. Marred in the flesh by men, rendered unholy by the mighty, he is now made holy in Christ by the Almighty. As are we.

It is not our job to defend God’s honor. God will take care of himself. It is for us to be mindful of God’s honor and enter into his presence with humbleness – and joy.

 

Image: Menologion of Basil II, Menologion of Basileiou – 11th century illuminated byzantine manuscript with 430 miniatures, now in Vatican library.  Photo by Мастер Георгий (http://www.pravenc.ru/text/149805.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons