Of royal weddings

File:Wedding Supper - Martin van Meytens - Google Cultural Institute.jpg

Watching for the Morning of October 15, 2017

Year A

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 23 / Lectionary 28

Politics makes for strange bedfellows, so the saying goes. Those running for office often find themselves on stage or at dinners with political adversaries. Some invitations are fraught with difficulty. If I accept, I alienate this portion of the voting public; if I don’t accept, I alienate others. Invitations are not always simple.

The wedding invitation in the Gospel reading for this Sunday is not simple. It comes from the king. To refuse the king is dangerous. To refuse the king is an act of rebellion. You would only dare such a refusal if you thought he was no longer powerful enough to take revenge. You would refuse only if you had betrayed your king and given your allegiance to another.

Matthew’s account is much more overt than the story in Luke. Here the host is a king and the rebellion open and defiant. Jesus says not only that the invitees “made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business,” but that “the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.”

We are talking about Judea, now, and Jerusalem, and the murder of the prophets – and the murder of Jesus. The slaughter of the rebels and burning of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 CE now echoes through the parable. There are consequences to rebellion. Destruction follows when you misjudge who is the true king, when you misjudge who truly holds power.

The invitation to feast at God’s table is not simple. It is full of grace, but it means giving up wealth and privilege. It means embracing all as your neighbor. It means taking up the cross, risking all for the path of peace.

This is not a partisan parable – as if God were going to get “those people” who are “not like us” in the end. This is a prophetic warning to the leaders of the nation. This is a prophetic warning to us all. We are invited to the table of peace. The welcome is given to all to come to the feast that knows no end. But an invitation is not a simple thing. Refusal is rebellion. And the consequences are fateful.

So Sunday we will hear God’s great promise in Isaiah to prepare a banquet for all people. And we will sing with the psalmist that the LORD (the LORD alone) is our shepherd/king. And St. Paul will urge Euodia and Syntyche to choose reconciliation – and for the community to help them – and to keep their minds on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise. And the parable of Jesus will warn us not to take lightly the gift of God or dare to show up at the wedding feast to come without being clothed in Christ.

An invitation is a great gift. But is not a simple thing. It bids us choose to whom we will show allegiance.

The Prayer for October 15, 2017

Gracious God, shepherd and guardian of our souls,
keep us from the folly that would spurn your grace
and grant that, clothed in Christ,
we may know the joy of the eternal wedding feast;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 15, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 25:1-9
“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines.” – Following a section of the book of Isaiah containing words of judgment against the nations surrounding Judah and Israel, we are given an oracle of salvation declaring a day when God will gather all people to a feast on Mt. Zion.

Psalmody: Psalm 23
“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” – The language of shepherds is used for kings in ancient Israel – but here the poet declares that God is the one who guides, protects and prepares for him God’s royal banquet.

Second Reading: Philippians 4:1-9
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
– Paul begins his concluding remarks to the believers in Philippi with a series of exhortations about their life together both to specific individuals and to the community as a whole.

Gospel: Matthew 22:1-14
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” – With a story about a royal wedding and the vassals of the king who declare their rebellion by refusing the king’s invitations and abusing his messengers, Jesus presses his attack against the leadership of the nation who have aligned themselves with the empire of Rome rather than the reign of God.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWedding_Supper_-_Martin_van_Meytens_-_Google_Cultural_Institute.jpg Martin van Meytens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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70 years

Sunday Evening

Sunday was delightful. A couple in the congregation were celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary (yes, 70, it’s not a typo). Her dress decorated the fellowship hall along with photos from the day. The tables for our usual coffee hour now had linens and flowers in colors keeping with their day. A tree of cupcakes and wedding type goodies added to the simple but festive celebration.

We presented them with corsages to wear at the beginning of the service and escorted them out to a wedding recessional while the congregation filled the air with those little wedding bubbles. It was sweet and wonderful.

When I began to write the sermon, I started by explaining why I didn’t want to preach about marriage. Nevertheless, by the time I had finished drafting the message, a full third of it concerned marriage. It surprised me how the topic fit with Isaiah’s searing indictment of a nation that yielded bitter grapes, and Jesus excoriating the leaders of Jerusalem with a parable about tenants who refused the fruit due to their lord.

It’s worth pondering the fact that marriage stands at the beginning and end of scriptures. It is there in the garden when God takes the flesh of Adam to form a companion equal to him. And it is there in the vision of Revelation 21 when it describes the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. The human story begins in perfect faithfulness and communion with God and one another, and our story reaches its fulfillment with all creation restored to perfect faithfulness and communion. Marriage embodies the memory of the garden and the promise of the new creation.

Marriage is meant to be life-giving and life-sustaining and the perfection of joy and intimacy. But we are no longer in the garden. And we are not yet in the New Jerusalem. And since we live in a broken world, marriage isn’t simple. Love and forgiveness must be practiced.

And what it is true of marriage is true also of faith and life: “We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – so love and forgiveness must be practiced. Kindness and compassion must be practiced. Hope and joy must be practiced. Mercy and truth must be practiced. Generosity and humility must be practiced. Patience and understanding must be practiced.”

In a day both delightful and overshadowed by the terrible events of this last week in Las Vegas, celebrating enduring faithfulness was refreshing and important.

(The sermon was posted in this blog as “The stone the builders rejected”)

The stone the builders rejected

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Isaiah 5:1-7:
Let me sing for my beloved

my love-song concerning his vineyard…

Psalm 80:7-15:
“…You brought a vine out of Egypt;

you drove out the nations and planted it.…”

Matthew 21:33-46:
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard…”

Proper 22, Lectionary 27, Year A
(and a 70th wedding anniversary celebration)

I thought about taking this occasion to preach about marriage. But, in some ways, that’s a scarier topic to me than to preach those texts where Jesus talks about divorce. It’s like talking about money; it’s a subject in which all of us are deeply invested. Marriage is something that we have hoped for and never found, or something we have found and lost, or something we have found and struggled through – sometimes successfully, and sometimes less so. Marriage is something that begins with radiant hopes and often suffers under the weight of unfulfilled desires. It is dangerous ground for preaching – easy to preach about in a way that is shallow or sentimental or a little too confident that the preacher knows what is good for everyone else.

There is also a problem because marriage in the scripture is a different thing than marriage in the modern west. Our understanding of what marriage is supposed to be has changed a lot since the Adam and Eve story was written down 3,000 years ago. But it is still a remarkable story and I don’t hesitate to call it inspired. It is far more profound than the story told in the cultures around ancient Israel.

The element of the Biblical witness that is remarkable is the notion that marriage is something holy and sacred, not because of its connection to sex and procreation, but because it is a covenant. It is a relationship created and sustained by a promise and a trust in that promise. Marriage is made of the same stuff as faith: a relationship created and sustained by a promise and a trust in that promise.

Marriage is holy not because sex is mystical and primal and crosses into the generative realm of the gods; marriage is holy because it is about promises – trust in and fidelity to those promises. This is why, when the prophets talk about idolatry, they speak of it as adultery: Israel betraying its covenantal relationship with God.

We see this in our first reading, today. But before we go there I want also to say this: It’s worth pondering the fact that marriage stands at the beginning and end of scriptures. It is there in the garden when God takes the flesh of Adam to form a companion equal to him. And it is there in the vision of Revelation 21 when it describes the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. The human story begins in perfect faithfulness and communion with God and one another, and our story reaches its fulfillment with all creation restored to perfect faithfulness and communion. Marriage embodies the memory of the garden and the promise of the new creation.

Marriage is meant to be life-giving and life-sustaining and the perfection of joy and intimacy. But we are no longer in the garden. And we are not yet in the New Jerusalem. And since we live in a broken world, marriage isn’t simple; love and forgiveness must be practiced.

Again this is just like faith and living a Christian life. We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – so love and forgiveness must be practiced. Kindness and compassion must be practiced. Hope and joy must be practiced. Mercy and truth must be practiced. Generosity and humility must be practiced. Patience and understanding must be practiced.

But we are not alone. The Spirit of God is given. God is leading and guiding and teaching and exhorting and challenging and summoning us to lives that are holy and true.

So I want to speak briefly about the passage in Isaiah and then we’ll look at the parable of Jesus and try to hear what’s there.

You saw in the psalm that Israel is compared to a vine that God brought out of Egypt, planted in the land and tended and cared for it. The psalmist is writing after the nation has been destroyed and crying out for God to see and come to their aid. The protective wall has been torn down, as it were, and the vineyard ravaged by the wild animals. This notion of Israel as God’s vine is important. When Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard, he is talking about the nation.

The song that the prophet Isaiah sings – the poetry he recites in the public square – is a masterful piece of preaching. He stands up to sing a song about his beloved. And when he begins, the crowd understands that he is singing about his best friend. And as soon as the prophet begins his story about his friend’s vineyard, the crowd knows that this is a song about his friend’s marriage. It has the hint of a scandalous tale. It causes the crowd to lean in just like we lean in to any juicy gossip.

So this friend has done everything he can for his vine, but he has gotten nothing but wild, wanton, bitter grapes. His wife has been unfaithful. And the poet/prophet summons the crowd for their opinion, their judgment. What more could he have done? He declares that he will reject his vineyard, strip away its protection, and let the wild beasts have it.

At this moment when he has won the sympathy and support of the crowd, the prophet says, “You are God’s vineyard.” This is not a story of a friend with an adulterous wife, but of God and God’s faithless people who have gone off to embrace other gods. They have chosen gods of wealth and power, gods of injustice, gods who devour and destroy.

7For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
…..is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
…..are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
…..but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
…..but heard a cry!

The power of this poetry we can’t begin to capture in the translation. God expected ‘mishpat’ and got ‘mispach’. God looked for justice – faithfulness – and look, only bloodshed and violence. God looked for ‘tsĕdaqah’ and got ‘tsa`aqah’. He looked for righteousness but behold, only the cry of the poor.

The people draw near to hear what they think will be a lascivious story – and there they are met with the voice of God revealing their faithlessness. The people were God’s vine from whom God expected good fruit, and God has gotten bitter deeds.

When Jesus tells his parable, he is standing in the aura of these great prophetic texts. And Jesus does the same thing that Isaiah does. He tells a story that suckers his audience. Jesus is speaking to the wealthy elite in Jerusalem. We are no longer traveling the countryside; Jesus has come to Jerusalem. He has ridden in on a donkey and the crowds have shouted hosanna and waved their palm branches before him. He is standing in the temple square. He has already kicked over the tables and declared that they have turned God’s house into a den of thieves. He has declared that the leadership of the nation is like a good son who says, “Yes, father,” but doesn’t do what his father asks – such a person is regarded as a good son in that culture because he doesn’t shame his father in the eyes of the community. But Jesus has declared that the good son is the one who, though he had shamed his father by saying “no”, changes his mind and does what the father asked. The good sons are the poor and outcast who have embraced the way of justice and mercy, and the Jerusalem leaders are bad sons who give honor to God but don’t do what God asks.

Now, today, Jesus tells this parable about an absentee landlord to people who are absentee landlords. They own all this land in Galilee that they have taken against God’s command because the people fell under the crushing burden of debt. In this story of an absentee landlord with rebellious tenants who foolishly imagine that they could kill the son and take the vineyard for themselves, he asks what the landlord in the story will do knowing full well what these landlords would do. They are quick to answer: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Then Jesus says, “You are the tenants.”

It is a parable that is full of poignancy, because Rome will come in less than 40 years and tear down the city wall and put all its rebel residents to death.

It is a parable full of poignancy because these rebel tenants will kill Jesus thinking it will gain them the vineyard; but it is God’s vineyard and their actions ensure they will lose it.

I didn’t choose the bulletin cover because of Ann and Paul’s anniversary. I choose it because of the text this morning:

Have you never read in the scriptures,” says Jesus,
“The stone that the builders rejected
…..has become the cornerstone.”

Jesus, whom they rejected, is the foundation that keeps the whole building true.

Justice and mercy, Love of God and neighbor, faithfulness to our obligations to God and one another, this is the foundation stone the builders reject. But it is the only true and lasting stone. It is the only stone that can ensure that the walls rise square and true.

And so we are back where we began. We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – but we are headed there. So love and forgiveness must be practiced. Kindness and compassion must be practiced. Hope and joy must be practiced. Mercy and truth must be practiced. Generosity and humility must be practiced. Patience and understanding must be practiced. We must give God the fruit God seeks. We must build on the stone that is steadfast love and faithfulness. We must build on the stone that was rolled away. We must build on him who is the cornerstone – the one who died and rose and will come again.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Heart-shaped_stone.JPG By Sylda31 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Fruit

File:Grenache grapes on the vine.jpg

Watching for the Morning of October 8, 2017

Year A

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 22 / Lectionary 27

Somewhere along the way we seem to have imagined that Jesus’ parables are sweet little agrarian stories about the love of God and the importance of kindness and mercy. At least that was the impression I gained from Sunday School as a child. It’s hard for us, raised on a piety of the tender good shepherd, to hear Jesus’ blunt and brutal attacks upon the leadership of the nation. But here we are. Chapter 21 has brought Jesus to Jerusalem and he fully stands in the tradition of the prophets and their powerful critiques of those in authority. He drives the moneychangers from the temple. He heals the blind and lame (powerless). He curses the fig tree for bearing no fruit (a symbol of the nation). He rebuffs those who challenge his authority by trapping them in their cynicism and self-preservation. He gets them to condemn themselves with the parable of the two sons. And now, this Sunday, we will hear him again get the leaders of the people to condemn themselves with their own words by the parable of the rebel tenants: “‘When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’”

The poor and the outcast that Jesus has gathered around him, however, hear a word of grace: “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you [the leaders] and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom [the poor and outcast who embrace the justice and mercy of God’s reign].”

We are in for a rough and tumble ride these last Sundays of the church year. Fortunately there are some festivals scattered in: Reformation Sunday and All Saints (and last Sunday’s blessing of the animals).

But judgment is always mercy. There is grace for the poor and lame. There is the possibility of repentance (changing our ways and showing allegiance to God’s justice and mercy). And there is the knowledge that though the powers judged Jesus a heretic, God proclaimed him true. We who come to stand before these stories know the crucified one was raised.

Sunday we will hear the prophet Isaiah’s brilliant use of a tawdry tale of infidelity to proclaim judgment on the nation (see “Scandal”). The poet will also use this imagery of Israel as God’s vineyard to plea for God’s aid. And Paul will count all his worldly claims for honor and righteousness to be but rubbish. Christ alone matters: sharing in the resurrection, participating in the life of the age to come, living the realm of God already manifest in Christ, bearing the fruit our master requires.

The Prayer for October 8, 2017

God of mercy, Lord of all,
you have made us to be your vineyard, your field,
your heart and hands and voice in the world.
Govern our hearts and minds by your Holy Spirit,
that our lives might bear forth the fruit of your kingdom;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 8, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7
“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard.” – The prophet sings of his “beloved” who tenderly cared for his vineyard only to have it yield bitter grapes and invites the people of Judah to judge whether he is not justified in tearing it down.

Psalmody: Psalm 80:7-15
“You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it… Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?” – The psalm uses the image of Israel as a vine, brought out of Egypt and planted in a good land, and laments that the vineyard has been breached and ravaged by the wild beasts – a metaphor for the destruction of the nation.

Second Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14
“I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
– Paul declares that he considers all his righteousness under the law as worthless compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus and his righteousness.

Gospel: Matthew 21:33-46
“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.” – Taking up the conventional imagery of Israel as God’s vineyard from Isaiah and the psalms, Jesus tells a story of an absentee landlord whose tenants refused to give to their master the fruit they owed him. The tenants rebel and kill the son in order to claim the vineyard for themselves, but are ultimately destroyed and the vineyard given to others.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGrenache_grapes_on_the_vine.jpg By Josh McFadden (originally posted to Flickr as IMG_3272) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Peace and dismay

Sunday was a delightful service. People were gathered with their pets on the lawn in the shade of great trees, warm sun and a soft breeze. The service began with a prayer and a reading of Psalm 104 illustrated with beautiful photographs of this wondrous creation entrusted into our care. The sermon hit the right note of our connectedness to one another and all things. The pets that evoke such strong emotions from us are at our side to receive a blessing. We share in the prayer of St. Francis: “Lord make me an instrument of your peace.”

And then I wake up the next morning to the news of the shooting in Las Vegas.

For a moment all seemed right with the world. Now all seems wrong.

This is the strange position of the Christian community. We live in the borderlands between two worlds: this age of sorrows and the age of joy, this age where the lamb dare not lie down with the lion and the age to come where a little child shall lead them. We are a crucified people, yet risen. We are sinners, yet forgiven. Christ is present, but we await his coming. Eden is lost to us, but the new creation is at hand.

Tragedies like Las Vegas will call forth great acts of courage and compassion. And they will also call forth more hate and invective. It is the strange and saddening reality of our human condition. But next Sunday we will gather at the table yet again. Next Sunday we will hear the promise, yet again. Next Sunday we will dare to trust that this age is passing away and a new one dawning. And next Sunday we will taste it in the bread, in the sharing of the peace, in the words of grace, in the singing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and in the commission to “Go in peace. Serve the Lord.”

Image: dkbonde

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

The gates of Hell (2)

File:Yuma Territorial Prison cell doors.jpg

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

File:Name-Keftiu-at-Abydos-Ramses-Temple.jpg

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