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 Fourth 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

File:Meister der Predigten des Mönchs Johannes Kokkinobaphos 002.jpg

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?

File:Offering to the Ganges, Varanasi.jpg

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

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

Together

File:Palmyra Ark at night.JPG

Sunday Evening

A look back to last Sunday, the Sunday in Christmas, January 1, 2016

Isaiah 52:7-10

9Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem.

I don’t know why that little word ‘together’ affects me so much, but it does. The fallen stones of Jerusalem are summoned to sing together. The ruined city is to be a choir.

We think so strongly of the faith as a personal affair. There is a whole tradition in American Christianity that asks whether you have accepted Christ Jesus as your personal Lord and savior. I understand the need for personal faith, but we could use a little more corporate faith.

Our gathering on Sunday was small, as was expected. It was New Year’s Day, after all. The culture is busy recovering from other things. And there was the final decisive week of the NFL. Children are off school. People are traveling – some to family, others to vacation. I begrudge no one their observance of the Christmas break. But the stones sing together. The stones that comprise the once holy city, akimbo, broken, aged, disconnected, scarred by fire and sword, the stones are summoned to sing together.

First Peter calls us living stones of God’s holy temple. Paul calls us the body of Christ, and spends a chapter of his letter to the Corinthians on this idea. Ephesians declares:

You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:19-21)

We are far from perfect stones for God’s holy temple. And I rather like the notion that we are hardly more than the rubble of a ruined city. But through the prophet God calls us to join our voices in praise, for God has drawn near to build such stones as these into his holy dwelling-place.

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

For all the boots

File:Boots, Boots, To Go Up and Down in Africa- the Salvage and Repair of Army Boots, Somerset, England, 1943 D13198.jpg

Isaiah 9:2-7

5For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

I saw a news item last year about people making jewelry out of the shell casings left behind from the Vietnam war. That’s not exactly beating swords into plowshares, but it is on the same track.

My nephew wants to be a marine. I respect him. I respect him a great deal. I think I understand why such a life appeals to him. He wants to be a guardian of the peace. But I can’t shake the shadows of war. It’s been haunting me since the nightly news showed images and gave body counts each evening from Vietnam. It haunts me since reading All Quiet on the Western Front in high school. It haunts me since reading John Hersey’s Hiroshima. It haunts me since seeing footage of the Nazi concentration camps. It haunts me since my father’s war stories stopped being adventure stories. It was an adventure for him as a young man. It was a long ways from shoveling sugar beets on a Colorado farm. It involved the thrill of flying when you navigated by following roads rather than computer readouts. But I recognize that my father ttold it as an adventure story because that helps hide the reality of the friends he lost and the bombs he dropped.

We spend more than 1.6 billion dollars a day in this country for war and the preparations for war. We call it defense, because that, too, hides some of the horror. We unfurl giant flags in patriotic displays at football games and cheer our soldiers when they come home to greet unsuspecting family because that, too, hides some of the horror. We honor their service, rightly, but old soldiers and authors and moviemakers keep reminding us that the underbelly of such adventure is blood and grief. And so we watch Aleppo and the Russians drooping bombs on hospitals and children covered in dust and blood pulled from the wreckage. A city that was great a thousand years before Abraham left Haran appears now as rubble.

When we read Isaiah on Christmas Eve it is pure promise, sweet and familiar, shadowed not by weeping mothers but Christmas trees and candlelight. But the words were first spoken to weeping mothers.

The music of Haydn rings in our ears as we hear these words. But this is not a noble aspiration for a sane and safe world; it is a promise. A promise that one shall come in whom is perfect peace. Peace will not come by bombing the heck out of our enemies, but by kneeling before the holy infant, by kneeling in allegiance to the one who is not only the child of Bethlehem but the teacher from Nazareth who chose not to call on the heavenly armies, but stretched wide his arms upon the cross.

I don’t know how we get there, given the warring heart of humanity. But that is why the promise stands forth with such power.

5For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABoots%2C_Boots%2C_To_Go_Up_and_Down_in_Africa-_the_Salvage_and_Repair_of_Army_Boots%2C_Somerset%2C_England%2C_1943_D13198.jpg By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons