Boundless mercy

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Watching for the Morning of September 17, 2017

Year A

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 19 / Lectionary 24

164,383 years and 205 days – that’s how long it would take the servant in Sunday’s gospel to pay back his debt if he received the standard daily wage, worked 7 days a week and never spent a penny. Since this would include something like 41,095 leap years, but also 411 leap centuries, he would have this debt worked off sometime around August 3rd, in the year 166,286. It’s hard to think of that as an actual date. It’s 164,269 years from now. All of human recorded history is a mere 5,000 years.

It’s an unpayable debt.

If we tried to convert 10,000 talents to an 8-hour day at $15.00/hour, it would amount to some $7.2 billion. The hundred denarii debt he is owed, by contrast, would be a mere $12,000. $12,000 is a lot of money to people working for $15 an hour, but these are not common laborers. This is a story about a king and his agents plundering the colonies for taxes and tribute – and to be short $7.2 billion means we are probably talking about friends placed in power who live too large and pay too little attention to the running of a province.

There is hyperbole here, of course, but it’s closer to reality than we might expect. Ancient empires were talented at bleeding their dominions. Modern ones, too. And the wealthy houses were talented at spending.

What is disturbing in the parable is the hypocrisy or callousness of receiving great mercy and giving none. It makes a mockery of the faithfulness of the king who does not treat the servant as he deserves, but as a friend. It brings shame upon the king. It makes him look as though he has been played. He is made the fool. Honor requires mercy – but honor also requires that he throw the merciless servant into prison.

As a parable it works brilliantly, drawing the crowd along in mockery of the corruption and folly of the powerful. But then, suddenly, the light shines on our own lives and the dire warning about making mockery of a generous and merciful God.

So we should shift in our seats, a little this Sunday, as we hear Joseph forgive the brothers who sold him into slavery, as we sing the psalm of praise to God who “does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities,” as we hear Paul remind us of the practical realities that must flow from our “continuing debt to love one another,” and as we hear Jesus tell us to live boundless mercy.

The Prayer for September 17, 2017

Holy and Gracious God,
you choose to deal with a fallen world by your Word of Grace.
Wrap us in your mercy
that, abiding in your Grace,
we may live the forgiveness we have received;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 17, 2017

First Reading: Genesis 50:15-21
“Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’” – Doubting the sincerity of Joseph’s forgiveness, his brothers concoct a scheme invoking their father’s name. But Joseph reassures them and declares, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good”

Psalmody: Psalm 103:1-13
“[The Lord] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” – A hymn of praise for God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Second Reading: Romans 14:1-12
“Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” – Paul speaks of life in the community.

Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35
“Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” –
The parable of the forgiving king and the unforgiving servant.

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

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The gates of Hell (2)

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Matthew 16:13-20

18“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

2 Samuel 12 contains the bittersweet truth: I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” It is David speaking after the death of his child, conceived in the illicit union with the wife of his noble warrior Uriah. When the prophet reveals the consequences of David’s abuse of power, foretelling the death of the child, David weeps and fasts in prayer, refusing to rise from his bed. His servants are afraid to tell him when the child finally dies – but he hears their whispers and intuits the cause. To their surprise, he then rises, washes, and eats. It’s not the behavior you expect in grief. But David had prayed for the child’s life, and now that life is over. There is no prayer yet to be offered: “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” There is no return from the grave.

It’s the finality of death that wounds so deeply.   Never again will I hear my daughter’s laughter or see her smile. Never again will I see daisies in her hair – only the ones I placed there before they closed the casket. And never again will I see the feisty twinkle in my grandmother’s eye or my grandfather with his handkerchief keeping his bald head warm. Never again will I hear my cousin Jim’s deep guttural guffaw and shining eyes. I will go to them, but they will not return to me.

It is a simple fact that the boat only goes one way across the river Styx. The “witch of Endor” could call up the spirit of Samuel, but it is only a shadow of the man whose eternal sleep has been disturbed. “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”

So it is easy to declare that shame and grief and guilt and all death’s weapons cannot hold us. But there is a deeper mystery, here. It is not only that the living will go free; the grave itself will surrender its prisoners. The Biblical metaphor is not that we will be rejoined with loved ones in heaven; it is that we will walk again on the earth. The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth. Whatever that might mean, it means that this life is not a shadow of what is to come. This is the life for which we were made and it shall not ultimately be taken away from us.

God is in the business of restoring his world. Healing it now; healing it forever. Delivering it from its bondage. Breaking down not just the walls of hate and fear, violence and neglect, but breaking down the gates that bar the dead from the fullness of life. The Biblical metaphor is that we shall feel again the grass beneath our feet. We shall drink again from clear mountain streams. We shall hear the surf pound upon the shore but not feel it waste our homes and cities. We shall feel the gentle rain and not fear floods. We shall hear the rumble of lightning far away and not smell the ozone or fear its fires. We shall know the joy of a child’s hand in ours without having to fight the anxiety that wraps around our hearts. We shall know the tenderness of love with out the strain of our brokenness. We shall feast on Zion and no one shall make us afraid. The gates of hell cannot withstand the work of God to open the grave.

The church’s teaching about resurrection is the hardest for our rational minds to comprehend. We are as David. We know that “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” But before us is the promise that the gates that enclose the realm of the dead shall not withstand the Spirit of God. And before us is the witness of Mary and Peter, the twelve and the five hundred that the grave is empty. The crucified one lives.

We know the promise Jesus makes about the gates of hell means we are not bound by our sins; there is grace and deliverance for all. But it also means that God’s project in calling forth the world will not be sidetracked by the horrors spawned by our primal rebellion. A new creation awaits. A birth from above. A healing. A feast. An inexpressible and glorious joy.

And even now we taste this. The Spirit is given. The breath of Christ Jesus is upon us. The life of the age to come is ours to be lived now. The keys of the kingdom are in our hands. The iron gates shall not hold.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AYuma_Territorial_Prison_cell_doors.jpg Jerry Stratton / http://hoboes.com/Mimsy, via Wikimedia Commons

Hell’s gate

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Watching for the Morning of August 27, 2017

Year A

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 16 / Lectionary 21

Sunday brings us to Peter’s confession when Jesus asks the question “But who do you say that I am?” It is the passage that contains the remarkable declaration: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

It is a play on the name ‘Peter’ (in Greek, ‘petros’) and ‘rock’ (in Greek, ‘petra’), but the words of Jesus have been swallowed up by arguments about the form of the church as an institution in the world rather than as a community of student/disciples comprising a beachhead of God’s reign in the world.

So we argue about precisely what is ‘the rock’ upon which Jesus builds. Is it Peter’s faith, his confession, his show of allegiance, his person or his office? But the punch line is not that Jesus is building a ‘church’ (the Greek word ‘ecclesia’ refers to an association of people) but that the gates of ‘hell’ (literally ‘hades’, the realm of the dead) cannot hold against this motley crew who hold the ‘keys of the kingdom’.

I have always heard that phrase about the gates of hell used in a way that suggests the church is the community under siege, that Satan is set to attack and destroy whatever is good. A wise, elderly black woman in a particularly poor section of Detroit warned us young, bright, optimistic (and white) pastors that the devil would try to destroy whatever goodness we tried to accomplish in the city. And we did eventually learn to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. But this is not what Jesus is saying. In this metaphor, it is the realm of the dead that is under attack, that is on the defensive, that is encircled by hostile armies determined to force it to give up its victims.

People worry about the fabled “War on Christmas” – and while churches are facing many obstacles in our modern world, Jesus is declaring that it is death that is under assault by those who have been given the “keys of the kingdom.” We hold in our hands the keys to the storehouses of heaven. We hold in our hands the authority to dispense the gifts of God. We have been given the privilege of serving as God’s agents. Grace and mercy and healing and life are ours to dispense. The realm of shadows cannot defend itself against the kingdom of light.

We live in a time of such dispiritedness. So many feel helpless against the evils of the world. Hate and violence seem to be on the rise. Ruthless greed seems ascendant. Ignorance flourishes. Love, mercy, compassion, generosity seem frail responses to the virulent infections to the human spirit. But here is Jesus, with a simple word to a ragtag band from Galilee of all places – they have the keys to set people free and nothing death might do can stop it.

Love wins.

And so this Sunday we will hear the prophet proclaim God’s message: “my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.” And we will join with the ancient community that sang: “ The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.” And Paul will remind us that “we, who are many, are one body in Christ,” and urge us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice” – not one that is burned upon the altar but one that lives in and from the fire of God’s love. Finally, we will hear the promise that death’s dark realm cannot defend itself against the followers of Jesus who have at their disposal the boundless generosity of God. It’s what gives this image of Peter such a crazy little smile.

The Prayer for August 27, 2017

Eternal Father,
creator and redeemer of the world,
who shatters every bar and chain that binds;
grant us faith to see and courage to confess Jesus as your beloved Son,
and to be faithful stewards of your grace and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 27, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 51:1-6
“A teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples.”
In the years after the destruction of Jerusalem, the prophet’s voice rises to declare that the relationship of God and this people is not at an end. From Abraham and Sarah God brought forth a great nation, so God’s purpose in Israel to bring God’s law to the nations shall not fail.

Psalmody: Psalm 138
“The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.” – a song of praise at God’s deliverance, extolling the certainty of God’s mercy.

Second Reading: Romans 12:1-8
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” – Paul’s begins the third portion of his letter, exhorting the community to faithfulness in their life together as a people gathered by the grace of God.

Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” – Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed of God, and the disciples receive the promise and commission to serve as God’s agents in the world.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASimon_Pierre_Rouen_jnl.jpg By Jean-noël Lafargue (Own work (Own photography)) [FAL], via Wikimedia Commons.

Prisoners of hope

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Saturday

Zechariah 9:9-12

12Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.

We can take apart the grammar and poetry of this sentence. We can discuss the cultural context from which these words derive their meaning. But I want first to simply relish them. I love the unexpectedness of the phrase “prisoners of hope.”

Jesus was a master of the unexpected. The parables, so familiar to us now, are masterful at the sudden twist, the startling comparison, the shocking example. The prophets, too, are brilliant at this: Jeremiah’s underwear. Walking around the temple court wearing a yoke. Ezekiel telling a lurid tale of sexual betrayal. The scriptures are full of the shocking. And they need to be. We are such complacent, rutted people. It is not easy to make us see ourselves differently. Not easy to make us see others differently. Not easy to make us see God differently. And how hard it is to make us behave any differently!

The scriptures need to catch us up side the head. There’s no other way to get through to us.

So how many of us are prisoners of hope? How many of us are bond-servants of a wondrous promise? How many of us are truly captives to the vision of a world made whole as if it were a conquering hero returning from the battlefield with prisoner/slaves in tow?

How many of us wake up each morning and run to serve the promise of a world where peace reigns? We go to bed in despair. We wake up in fear. Hurry to work. Hurry to school. Hurry to coffee and traffic. The alarm clock makes us groan. Dinner is a chore farmed out to whatever I can pick up on the way home. We eat on the run……or we eat alone. Something frozen. Maybe cereal from a box after too much wine. There is no family at the table, no prayer of blessing, no song of joy.

We are, most of us, I suspect, captives to the pressures of daily life rather than prisoners of hope.

And the people of Judea were captives to the daily struggle and shame of a once glorious city still littered with rubble and now under Persian rule.

So the prophet points to the horizon and promises a king – a king no one believes is coming. But he will come. Hidden in a Galilean peasant. Speaking words of grace and challenge. Touching the world with healing and freeing it from evil. Enduring the shame and degradation of the cross, but leaving behind an empty tomb and a hundred and twenty prisoners of hope. They will become millions.

And shall we break off the shackles of hope for the shackles of mammon? Will we break off the ties of mercy, compassion and kindness for the sour belief that these shall not prevail? Shall we surrender to the thump of weapons as our true hope? Is it only death and taxes that are certain, not grace and life? Shall we forfeit joy?

No. I will come to the table that promises a world gathered to speak the blessing. I will sing the song, and feast the feast. And I will willingly extend my hands to the thongs of hope.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AName-Keftiu-at-Abydos-Ramses-Temple.jpg By HoremWeb (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Like children in the marketplace

File:Mayan girls playing sack race on the market of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.JPG

Watching for the Morning of July 9, 2017

Year A

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 9 / Lectionary 14

There’s a sweet word coming in the Gospel text for Sunday. Jesus is going to say those familiar and comforting words: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” And God knows, we are weary: Weary of the cacophony in Washington. Weary of the rush of modern life. Weary of the challenges of health. Weary of the press of finances. Weary of the drumbeats of war. Weary of the fear that seems to seep into every corner of our lives.

But before we get to that promise, there is a rebuke: we are like children in the marketplace pouting that we don’t get our way. Maybe Jesus is quoting something like a nursery rhyme. Maybe he is just acknowledging the taunts that get made when people won’t go along with the game. But it is clear Jesus is rebuking those whose excuse for not listening to John the Baptist was that he was too rigorous and demanding. But they won’t listen to Jesus because he isn’t rigorous enough. He laughs. He tells jokes. He teases. He dines with sinners and tax collectors. They mocked John because he lived on locusts and wild honey and Jesus because he didn’t.

Hypocrisy comes pretty naturally to us. Trump makes a career of denying the validity of Obama’s birth certificates and then accuses the media of being “fake news”. McConnell says his highest priority is to deny Obama a second term and then accuses the Democrats of being obstructionists. I tell my children they can only have two cookies but, when they go to bed, I help myself. Jesus did say something about not worrying about the splinter in my neighbor’s eye when I have a log in my own – but we do.

Hypocrisy is pretty natural to us. It allows us to do and say what we want without the work of self-examination or amendment of life. It’s comfortable to make excuses for ourselves but grant no grace to others. So Jesus has blunt words for the self-righteous before offering rest to the weary: If Sodom and Gomorrah had seen what you’ve seen, they would never have been destroyed.

The ‘righteous’ are hard to reach; it is the poor and burdened who can see the joy and freedom of serving Christ.

So Sunday we will hear the prophet Zechariah speak of the coming king who comes humbly on a donkey and sets prisoners free. And we will sing with the psalmist of God’s gracious deeds. And we will struggle to understand the latest section of Paul’s letter to Romans – but resonate to the word of thanks to God for delivering us from the bondages of our human condition. And we will hear Jesus welcome the weary and speak of the yoke of service that is not always simple, but lifts the heart.

The Prayer for July 9, 2017

Gracious God,
in Jesus you invite all people into the path of your teaching and life.
By your Holy Spirit, open our hearts and lives to your message,
that following your Son, we may find true rest for our souls;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 9, 2017

First Reading: Zechariah 9:9-12
“Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” – In the weary years after Babylon has fallen but Judah is a poor backwater of the Persian empire, comes a prophetic message from the book of Zechariah promising a king who shall arrive like the kings of old and command peace to the nations” and reign “from sea to sea.”

Psalmody: Psalm 145:8-14
“Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.” – A hymn of praise to God who reigns as earth’s just and faithful king.

Second Reading: Romans 7:14-25
“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” – Paul uses the image of possession (compelled to act against our own will) to expound his notion that the death of Christ has freed us from our bond-service to sin and made us servants of God.

Gospel: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” – Jesus rebukes the fickle crowd (who criticized John for his asceticism and Jesus for being a libertine) and praises God for opening the eyes of the poor and marginalized to see and take up the yoke of God’s reign of grace and life.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMayan_girls_playing_sack_race_on_the_market_of_Quetzaltenango%2C_Guatemala.JPGright By Erik Albers (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

A fire in the bones

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Watching for the Morning of June 25, 2017

Year A

The Third Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 7 / Lectionary 12

The prophet cries out against God, accusing God of having duped him, called him to his ministry on false premises. He was sent out to declare the word of the LORD, but no one has listened. Indeed, he is met with scorn and derision. In an era of prosperity, all he sees is the bitterness of God’s pending judgment. The sins of the nation are ever before him, its folly abundantly clear – they are on a path to destruction while the leadership of the nation imagines only glory.

The prophet’s preaching has achieved nothing. But every attempt to hold his peace ends with a burning passion:

If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.

The word demands to be spoken.

Jesus doesn’t hide anything from his followers. He tells them that their message will face opposition. “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!” It’s not really the best strategy for recruiting followers. We rather prefer the message of the American prosperity Gospel: God wants you to be successful and wealthy. But the healing and redeeming work of Jesus leaves scars on his hands. And we are sent to carry on that work.

We are sent, as we heard last week, to proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’We are sent to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” We have “received without payment” and we are to “give without payment.” We are to dispense the gifts of God, to scatter abroad the benefactions of the new governance dawning among us. The reign of heaven, the dominion of God, the rule of the Spirit, the new creation – this is the gift we carry to the world.

But the world rather likes its bloodletting and grasping, and not everyone will rejoice at the dawning of grace and faithfulness.

So we are sheep amidst wolves. We are bearers of the cross. The message will heal and it will anger. It will unite and also divide. There will be hostility, mockery, even violence. But the God who is mindful of even the sparrows is mindful of every hair on our heads. And “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.”

The fields are ripe for the harvest. The world is ready for grace to reign.

The Prayer for June 25, 2017

Gracious God, Your word divides as well as heals;
it closes ears as well as opens hearts.
Grant us courage to be faithful in our witness
and diligent in our service
that, with boldness and joy in your promise,
your grace and mercy may be revealed to all people;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 25, 2017

First Reading: Jeremiah 20:7-13
“O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed.” – The prophet raises a lament towards God for assigning him a message of judgment and destruction that has resulted in nothing but hostility and persecution. And when he tries to be silent, God’s message burns like a fire within him.

Psalmody: Psalm 69:7-10, 16-18
“Zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” – The poet cries out to God in the midst of persecution and trouble.

Second Reading: Romans 6:1b-11
“Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!”
– In the course of setting forth his message that all are justified (in a right relationship with God) by grace (God’s merciful action) through faith (trusting God’s promise), Paul anticipates the objections of his opponents that if our sin shows how great is God’s mercy, why not continue to sin? Such a notion is rejected because joined with Christ in baptism we have entered into a new reality. We have come under Christ’s dominion, being transferred from the realm of sin and death and living now in the realm of grace and life.

Gospel: Matthew 10:24-39
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” – the path of discipleship is not an easy one. The world will resist God’s claim on life, but the followers of Jesus are sent as agents of God’s transforming justice and mercy.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACharbon_-_charcoal_burning_(3106924114).jpg By Serge Melki from Indianapolis, USA (Charbon – charcoal burning) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Above every name that is named

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Watching for the Morning of May 28, 2017

The Sunday of the Ascension (The Seventh Sunday of Easter).

I have always chosen Ascension Day hymns to begin and end this last Sunday in Easter before Pentecost, mostly because they are nice hymns and without an Ascension Day service there’s no opportunity to sing them. Ascension Day had little meaning for me as a child. Lutherans aren’t all that interested in adding extra weekday services once you get past Christmas Eve and maybe Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Early in my ordained ministry Ascension Day was something to note in passing. Maybe even something of an embarrassment when taken literally. Like with this picture:

File:Jesus ascending to heaven.jpg

We don’t live in a three-tiered universe anymore. We don’t imagine that Jesus needs to go “up” after he has been raised from the grave. So Ascension Day seemed vaguely awkward.

In Detroit it provided a defined date we could remember each year for our special joint service among all the city parishes when we set apart deacons at the end of their yearlong training. It was easier than trying to coordinate the calendars of multiple parishes.

But the narrative of the ascension is the closing event of the first volume of Luke-Acts and the opening narrative of the second volume. It gets told by Luke as the natural end of Jesus ministry, and again as the natural beginning to discuss the mission of the church. Matthew makes the same connection of ascension as the culmination of Jesus’ story and the beginning of the Jesus mission. Even John in his rich and complicated way weaves those threads together. What the disciples go to do after the outpouring of the Spirit is tied not to Jesus resurrection, but to his place at the right hand of God.

The “good news” announced to the world isn’t that Jesus isn’t dead anymore. It is that he reigns. He is the world’s true lord. He is the true emperor whose wishes shape every land and life.

To put it crudely: if the Jesus story is about the cross and resurrection, then death is defeated, the redemption price paid, and we get to go to heaven when we die. But if the story culminates in the ascension, then the point is not about our trip to heaven, but a new governance of earth.

If the story is about going to heaven, then being good or accepting Jesus becomes the important element in Christian life. If the story is about Christ as lord (the confession for which Christians have died and continue to die), then the important element is living God’s “kingdom” (which Jesus describes as “justice and mercy” and love of God and neighbor) until every earthly power is dethroned and the reign of God arrives in fullness.

Again, if the story is about going to heaven, then the purpose of the church is to call people to be good or to accept Jesus. If the story is about God reigning over the world, then the purpose of the church is to proclaim the good news that the world has come under new management (and inviting the world to live in that grace and life: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”)

The creation around us and all its people are not the sinking ship from which we must be saved into the lifeboats. The world is the lost and misdirected ship that has received a new captain.

So we are celebrating this Sunday as the Sunday of the Ascension. It means letting go of the prayer of Jesus that we might be one. But maybe in this time that seems to be an era of triumphant greed and neglect, it is worth bringing to the forefront the notion that this Jesus, the shamed and denounced and crucified, has taken the captain’s chair. He was tossed overboard as worthless and misguided, but God has lifted him out of the waters and raised him to the bridge.

And we are his crew.

The appointed readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 28, 2017, and comment on them from 2014 can be found here.

Preaching Series: Genesis 4: Violence

We come this week to the outbreak of violence. Offerings are made, divine favor granted unequally, and the first religious war breaks out between brothers. God speaks to Cain before the terrible deed is done, but the words do not prevent the coming violence. Cain goes on to found cities, the realm of the landless, the place of creativity that leads to weapons and Lamech’s boast of murdering a man who wounded him and his promise of seventy-seven fold revenge.

The turn away from God in Eden throws dark shadows across the human landscape. Yet still there is grace.

The Prayer for May 28, 2017 (for the celebration of Ascension)

Almighty God,
before whom all heaven and earth shall bow down
to acknowledge your gracious rule,
send forth your Spirit upon us,
that with our eyes upon Christ Jesus, risen from the dead,
we may proclaim your praise to all the world;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for May 28, 2017 (for the celebration of Ascension)

First Reading: Acts 1:1-11
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’” – The ascension account that is the culminating story in Luke (our Gospel for today) and the opening account of the Book of Acts.

Psalmody: Psalm 93
“The Lord is king…majestic on high is the Lord!” – A hymn of praise celebrating God’s reign over all the earth.

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23
“God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” –
A portion of the author’s opening salutation and prayer for the Ephesian community. It references the notion the ascension, and prays that they may know and live in the hope to which they have been called.

Gospel: Luke 24:44-53
“While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” – The ascension in Luke when once again Jesus opens their minds to understand the scriptures and declares that his followers will be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.

Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMeister_der_Predigten_des_M%C3%B6nchs_Johannes_Kokkinobaphos_002.jpg By Meister der Predigten des Mönchs Johannes Kokkinobaphos [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJesus_ascending_to_heaven.jpg John Singleton Copley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The un-rending

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Watching for the Morning of February 12, 2017

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

The Law, the Torah, God’s teaching/instructions for our life as a faithful community, stand front and center in our readings this coming Sunday. From Deuteronomy, written as a sermon by Moses to the people as they stand at the edge of the promised land setting forth again the commands and instructions of God, we will hear the challenge that before us stands a choice between life and death. Blessing will follow if we remain faithful to God and walk in God’s ways; curses will follow if we do not.

The appointed verses from Psalm 119 for Sunday is the opening strophe of the majestic acrostic hymn celebrating the gift of God’s Torah from Aleph to Taw, beginning with the affirmation: “Happy are those…who walk in the law of the Lord.”

Paul is writing about the Corinthian congregation as mere babes, still living on milk rather than solid food, bound as they are in the ways of the world around them rather than living the way of God.

And then Jesus takes up the commandments. After his stunning opening in the beatitudes and the declaration that the poor are not only honored in God’s sight but are light for the world, Jesus dramatically transforms the commandments from a safe and secure legal code (don’t kill, don’t commit adultery) to a summons to live the reign of God:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

We will hear the same summons in the commandments about adultery and vows (and then, in Matthews Gospel, about revenge, acts of mercy, prayer and fasting). More is expected of the human race – and of God’s people – than to refrain from killing, though even that has proven itself far beyond our willingness to obey. But the kingdom chooses to rip no tear in the fabric of the human community, to rend no relationship. Jesus is driving towards that stunning command: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

We are in the presence of the dawning of God’s reign, the lifting of every burden, the setting right of the world, the un-rending of the fabric of life. And we are summoned into its bold and daring and imperishable life.

The Prayer for February 12, 2017

Gracious God,
in love you made the world and laid its foundations,
giving your gracious order to the creation.
In love you revealed your law to a people you brought out from bondage,
showing them the path of life.
Renew in us your vision for human life
and make us faithful in our calling to live as children of your kingdom;
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 12, 2017

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” – Moses addresses the people as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, urging them to remain faithful to God, for their life in the land depends on following God’s commands.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:1-8
“Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.” – In a magisterial acrostic psalm setting forth the wonder of God’s law/teaching, the poet expresses the wondrous ordering reality God brings to life.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
– Speaking to his divided congregation, Paul says they are yet babes in Christ who must be fed with milk, having failed to learn the basic truth of how they are to live in Christ.

Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… But I say to you…” – Jesus takes up the commandments about murder, adultery and swearing oaths, revealing the depth of their meaning in bringing human life under the governance of God’s Spirit.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWTC_Julia_DSCF1149.JPG By J. Lane (Wikipedia Takes Coventry participant) (Uploaded from Wikipedia Takes Coventry) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

With what shall I come?

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Friday

Micah 6:1-8

6“With what shall I come before the Lord?”

In the student union every Friday during my senior year in college, the students from the botany department sold flowers from their greenhouse. This was significant because I attended school in Minnesota where the snows lasted from Thanksgiving to April. For the price of a soda I could get one sweetheart rose to take to my girlfriend. I enjoyed giving the gift; it was sincere, not mercenary. But we all understand that arriving with a gift, however small, makes the other more favorably inclined to you.

And so the prophet asks: “With what shall I come before the Lord?” What gift will make God favorably inclined to us? What gift will generate a smile as you stand knocking at the door?

Even people who are not religious will cry out to God in times of great distress. Promises get made. We offer ourselves to save our children. I have heard the prayers that promise to go back to church or to make some sacrifice. I understand. It is an almost instinctual cry, as if God could be bought by some favor.

So the prophet poses our question: “With what shall I come before the Lord?” What will make God inclined to hear my prayer? To grant my request? But it doesn’t work that way. God isn’t interested in purchasing our trust and fidelity as if we were mercenaries. Jesus said that God sends rain on the just and the unjust.” The mercies of God are open to all.

Standing with a rose at the door of my girlfriend’s place wasn’t an attempt to barter for favor. It was a gift to please, a gift that shows she matters to me, a gift spontaneously given because I want her to be happy. And what is the gift that pleases God? Is it our church attendance? Is it our donations? Is it our volunteering? The answer, consistently, throughout scripture is that it is not our sacrifices.

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

No, the answer is always about lives of compassion and faithfulness to the human community. We see it in our psalm this Sunday. And we hear it from the prophet:

8He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Justice and mercy will not make God concede to our prayers, but it does make the heart of the universe smile.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AOffering_to_the_Ganges%2C_Varanasi.jpg By J Duval ([1]  Uploaded by Ekabhishek) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Even Gloria

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Looking back to last Sunday

Isaiah 42:1-9

9See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.

It’s several days, now, since we celebrated the Baptism of Our Lord, but it is the first opportunity for me to look back. I got the phone call on Saturday that my stepmother was in critical condition and the flight I found meant that I would have to duck out of worship early on Sunday. The plan was to slip out after the blessing of the bread and wine, but the service went long and I slipped out at the sharing of the peace.

It is strange not to be able to be present as the service reaches its fulfillment at the table. Something is unfinished. We have heard the word. We have sung some of the music. We have even prayed the prayers. But the big prayer, the Eucharistic Prayer that recites the great history of God’s saving work from creation to this moment that is embodied in bread and wine – that prayer has gone unspoken. At least by me. I have not seen the bread broken as Christ was broken. I have not tasted the bread or caught that brief whiff of the wine that tells me that I, even I, am part of the great communion of heaven and earth begun in this Jesus.

And so as I flew to Colorado, as I rode to the hospital, as I entered the room to my stepmother’s bright eyes and delighted smile – and my own tears – it is as though we are still in the middle of worship. The service is not reached its fulfillment. The bread we await is yet coming. The new creation is ahead of us.

And as I join in the family gathering, as we weep the tears and tell the stories and take turns sitting at her side to hold her left hand (Dad had a firm, sometimes too firm, grip on her right hand), the feast to come awaits. Somehow living and dying are part of worship, part of the offering of all life back to God, part of the living in the light of grace and being sustained by the promise that the coming feast is come and yet coming. We are God’s children now. What we shall be is not yet revealed, but we are God’s children now. And Sunday I will stand among the congregation at the church where I once stood with Gloria and my father. And Gloria will be among the communion of saints in a manner beyond my comprehension. But the bread will be there. And the wine. And the promise. And the hope. And the mystery that all things are God’s and will be God’s forever. Even Gloria. Even we who weep.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALoojangu_v%C3%A4rvid_2.jpg By Kristoffer Vaikla (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons