The true breaker of chains

File:Hitda-Codex-Healing of a man with a withered hand.jpgWatching for the Morning of June 3, 2018

Year B

The Second Sunday after Pentecost

The Sabbath command takes center stage on Sunday. We hear Moses recall the commandment in his sermon to the Israelites before they cross the Jordan to enter Canaan. They are not to be an enslaved or enslaving people: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”

The psalm also speaks of God’s deliverance from bondage: “I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your hands were freed from the basket. In distress you called, and I rescued you.” But law intended to free can also be used to bind, and so conflict erupts between Jesus and the Pharisees. The disciples dare to pluck a few grains of wheat to snack on as they walk through the fields and the Pharisees accuse them of doing the work of “harvesting” on the Sabbath. Then comes a man with a withered hand into the synagogue. To the Pharisees this is a chronic condition and Jesus nothing but a village healer, so the “work” of doctoring can wait until the Sabbath is over. But to Jesus the Sabbath is God’s deliverance from bondage and deliverance ought not wait. Nothing is more appropriate to the Sabbath than freeing those who are bound. The Lord of the Sabbath is come. In Jesus the reign of God, our true Sabbath rest, is at hand.

It is a claim to so radical, so profoundly challenging to “what everybody knows,” so powerfully transformative of “the way things are,” that it cannot go unanswered: “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

We can turn Christianity into a new set of velvet lined manacles – or we can trust and show allegiance to the true breaker of chains.

The Prayer for June 3, 2018

Gracious God,
whose will it is to gather all creation into your eternal peace,
send forth your Spirit
that we may ever dwell in your healing presence.

The Texts for June 3, 2018

First Reading: Deuteronomy 5:12-15
“Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.” – The book of Deuteronomy is composed as an exhortation from Moses to the people at the end of their journey through the wilderness. He reminds this new generation of their covenant with God and the commands God has given – including this Sabbath command. The God who freed slaves intends they stay free and commands a day of rest for all.

Psalmody: Psalm 81:1-10
“It is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.”
– The community is called to worship and reminded of God’s deliverance and commands.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:5-12
“We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” – Paul writes to the conflicted congregation in Corinth reminding them that his ministry – and the struggles he has endured – have been for their sake, that life in Christ may be made known to them

Gospel: Mark 2:23-3:6
“Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent.”
– Conflict erupts with the Pharisees over Jesus apparent violation of the Sabbath command.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hitda-Codex-Healing_of_a_man_with_a_withered_hand.jpg See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Garden

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“Say what you want about ‘all the killing in the Bible’, the Bible begins with two narratives about relationship with God and relationship with one another and a world in perfect peace.” – from today’s sermon.

We looked at Genesis 2 in worship this morning, the narrative about the creation of Adam and Eve. What follows is the content of the booklet that was handed out following worship explaining the images used in our sanctuary today. The sermon series is designed to help us understand what Jesus was telling his followers on the road to Emmaus about the fundamental witness of the scripture to the sacrificial, redemptive love of God.   (For more information about this series, see the explanation in the post for week 1.)

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

 

Genesis 2:4-25


“The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”


File:Épaule musée archéologique de Naples.jpg

The creation narrative in the first chapter of Genesis is a sweeping and majestic portrait of a God who speaks and whose speaking brings order, goodness and beauty, calling all things into being. The creation story in this second chapter gives a more intimate portrait of a God whose first creation is a human. Where Genesis 1 views humanity as the crown of God’s creating, Genesis 2 presents humanity as God’s first thought. Where God speaks with a royal we in chapter 1, and like a great king his word effects what he speaks, in chapter 2 we meet an artisan forming humanity from the earth and breathing into him the breath of life.

And since the Hebrew word means both ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’, something is happening that is far more than mere respiration. Again we are in the realm of intimacy. God is not just our creator; God is our breath. And we are bound together even as God’s speaking (in Genesis 1) begets relationship.

Marbre antique, détail, épaule, musée archéologique de Naples
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A%C3%89paule_mus%C3%A9e_arch%C3%A9ologique_de_Naples.jpg By photogestion [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“The Lord God planted a garden in the east, in Eden;
and there he put the man he had formed.”


File:Araucárias ao fundo Parque Nacional da Serra da Bocaina - denoise.jpg

Having formed a human, God plants a garden to provide him a home. There are notions of a royal garden in this image. This is a place where God will walk in the cool of the evening (3:8) and the human creature is given the responsibility “to till it and keep it”. We are the royal gardeners, granted the right to sustain ourselves from the fruit of the garden. But we are not hired hands; we are bearers of the divine breath and companions of God.

Sunrise with Paraná pines as seen at the Serra da Bocaina National Park, Brazil..
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AArauc%C3%A1rias_ao_fundo_Parque_Nacional_da_Serra_da_Bocaina_-_denoise.jpg By Heris Luiz Cordeiro Rocha (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground
trees that were pleasing to the eye…


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…and good for food.”


File:Cornucopia of fruit and vegetables wedding banquet (cropped).jpg

God provides for the human all the goodness and beauty of the earth. It is God’s first act of faithfulness and love.

Capitol Hill Cherry Blossoms
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACapitol_Hill_Cherry_Blossoms_-_Flickr_-_treegrow_(14).jpg By Katja Schulz from Washington, D. C., USA (Capitol Hill Cherry Blossoms) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
A wedding cornucopia
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACornucopia_of_fruit_and_vegetables_wedding_banquet_(cropped).jpg By Jina Lee [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“A river watering the garden flowed from Eden.”


File:Manavgat waterfall by tomgensler.JPG

Four great rivers find their headwaters in the garden – the rivers on whose banks human society will find life: the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Nile (Gihon), and a fourth whose identity we no longer know (though there are satellite images suggesting an ancient river across the Arabian peninsula.) Perhaps it’s just as well we do not know this river: now all the rivers of the world can be seen as arising in the garden.

And it does not matter that these rivers don’t connect with one another. That is not our author’s message. The garden is the source of life for the world. Even when the garden is lost to us, its waters continue to flow, bringing their fertility and abundance to human society.

It is an image taken up by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 47) when he describes a life-giving river flowing from the new temple, by Jesus when he declares that he is the source of the water of life (John 4:13-14; 7:37-38), and by the author of Revelation when the river of life flows from the throne of God and the Lamb in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22).

Waterfall at Manavgat (Turkey).
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AManavgat_waterfall_by_tomgensler.JPG By Thomas Gensler (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“It is not good for the man to be alone.”


File:Louis Rémy Mignot Solitude.jpg

Amidst all the beauty and abundance of the garden, it is not yet ‘good’, perfect, complete. Humans are meant for relationship. It is not good for this human creature to be alone. It is a fundamental truth. It is part of what is meant by the image of God. For there to be love, there must be an other, a beloved. We are meant for community.

Solitude, Louis Rémy Mignot
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALouis_R%C3%A9my_Mignot_Solitude.jpg Louis Rémy Mignot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them.”


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And so God continues to create, bringing to the human all the other creatures of the earth.

The creatures of the earth are part of our community, part of our connectedness. We know this in our pets, but also in the birds we hear singing in the morning or watch around a feeder. There is an intake of breath when we stumble across a rabbit or a deer. There is something familiar in sounds of the frogs in the pond or the sight of a lizard sunning on a rock. We talk to them without thinking about it. They are part of our community. And so the sight of a starving polar bear grieves us, or a wounded bird that has hit our picture window.

The creatures of the earth are part of our community, but in all these creatures there is not a companion equal to that first human.

The King James Version translated this as “an help meet for him.” It would have benefited us if they had added a comma after the word ‘help’, (an help, meet for him) for what popularly turned into a single word, ‘helpmeet’, actually means a helper “equal to him”, or “matching him”.

So God takes a portion from the first human and from it makes another.

Adam naming the animals, Folio 5 recto from the Aberdeen Bestiary.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAberdeenBestiaryFolio005rAdamNamesAnimalsDetail.jpg Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man
he made into a woman.”


File:Tracy Caldwell Dyson in Cupola ISS.jpg

The woman is not made for the first human but from him. She is separate, but she is of the same stuff as he. She is not made like the animals are made. She is unique. And they are uniquely connected.

The Hebrew words here are tricky to translate comfortably into English. The creature God makes is an ‘adam’. It is a word that refers to human beings. There are other words to refer to male and female. And there are ordinary words for a man and a woman.

Clearly the Biblical writers imagined the first human as a male, but women are also “humankind”. In Genesis 5:1-2 it says: “When God created humankind (‘adam’), he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them “Humankind” (‘adam’) when they were created.” It is only with the appearance of this other that humanity emerges as ‘man’ and ‘woman’.

Self portrait of Tracy Caldwell Dyson in the Cupola module of the International Space Station observing the Earth below during Expedition 24.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATracy_Caldwell_Dyson_in_Cupola_ISS.jpg By NASA/Tracy Caldwell Dyson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”


File:Adam Eve Storonov.JPG

Now come the words for ‘man’ (‘ish’) and ‘woman’ (‘ishah’). These are not the words for ‘male’ and ‘female’; they are words that speak of relationship, words that evoke the connection of men and women in family and community. We are made for one another, even as we are made to be in relationship with God.

Adam and Eve, sculpture by Oscar Stonorov
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAdam_Eve_Storonov.JPG By Smallbones (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
© Text by David K. Bonde, Los Altos Lutheran Church, 2017

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

The sweetness that will not perish

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Sunday Evening

Isaiah 35:1-10

10 Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

I wish I could capture the joy of watching our children present the Christmas story. Or, for that matter, the exquisite beauty of the High School choral group that sang for our Christmas party/luncheon after worship. The little girl who played Mary also wanted to be an angel, so we had a little costume change in the middle of the service. And her swaddling of the baby Jesus became somewhat legendary last year – carefully spreading out the blanket and then plunking the doll used for Jesus down with a thunk to wrap him up tight.

I sat with a young man from the choral group – they joined us for the luncheon – and when I said that the children had presented the Christmas story in worship that morning, he asked, “What story is that?” Though he sang these exquisite carols and choral pieces, he didn’t know the story.

There is such power in this story for those raised in the church. Watching the children in their costumes, reciting the words, and singing the carols takes us all back through the generations to our own childhoods. The stable, the shepherds, the angels saying “Hark!”, Gabriel before Mary and Mary’s song (the Magnificat, the heart of this third Sunday of Advent) – it’s hard to explain how profoundly it all reverberates through our lives. For a moment, all is right with the world.

But this bright, talented young man didn’t know the story.

And then, when I got home today there was news of the bombing of the Coptic cathedral in Cairo.

All is not right with the world. And yet it is. Bombs are falling, but children are singing. The bodies of innocents lie in the rubble, but a child rests in a manger. The Roman authorities will degrade and destroy this Jesus, but he lives. The cathedral is in ruins, but the song goes on.

The sweetness of children dressed as angels and shepherds is far more than sweetness. It is a profound confession that sweetness has touched the earth, that sweetness abides, that sweetness will endure – that sweetness will triumph. Truth, mercy, justice, compassion, generosity, fidelity, courage, hope, laughter, joy – these are the things that are enduring. These are the elements of our true humanity. These are the things for which there are no regrets. Bombs may scar the world, but God works to heal it.

I told the young man the Christmas story in its brief outline. I thought, at the very least, he should understand the origin of these songs he was singing. But what I really wished was that I could have invited him into the wonder and awe of that story, and into the sweetness that will not perish.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACreche_de_noel.jpeg By KoS (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Perfect mercy

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Once more about last Sunday

Luke 7:11-17

13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”

The account just before this episode about the widow of Nain was the Centurion who showed greater faith than all in Israel, for he recognized and trusted the authority of Jesus to dispense God’s healing with a simple command. This story, where Jesus raises the son of the widow, happens without any request on her part or any show of faith. It is pure gift. Unexpected. Unearned. Unimagined. If the Centurion shows perfect faith, this shows God’s perfect compassion.

The true nature of Christianity lies here at this junction of perfect mercy and perfect faith. Where we accent the importance of faith we diminish mercy. Where we exult in God’s complete compassion we lose discipleship. Faith does not merit mercy; it is produced by God’s mercy. But mercy produces fidelity. Like the flower from the seed, like the fruit from the flower, mercy produces fidelity. And where fidelity does not flower, something is seriously wrong. Birds, maybe. Or thorns. Or footpaths and trodden seed.

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Things happen that hinder perfect mercy from bearing the fruit of perfect faith. I think of a woman I knew who loved church, hungered for church, but could not escape the shadow of a pastor who, when she was a teen, crossed boundaries that should not have been crossed. The seed was trodden underfoot. I think of families I have known who were driven to bitterness by gossip and pettiness. The seed was choked by thorns. And I think of people who were different in some way, and the congregation did not welcome them. The seed was given no place to take root.

We usually think the message of the parable of the sower and the seed is that we should be good soil. Maybe it means we shouldn’t be birds and weeds and boots.

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The injunction in the parable of the sower and the seed is not that we should be good soil. Soil is what soil is. The promise of the parable is that a great harvest comes despite all adversity, despite the church’s failings, despite the world’s allures. Though seed is plucked and stomped and strangled, there will be a harvest a hundredfold. It is a parable of perfect mercy.

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And the joy of the parable is the sower’s extravagance; he casts the seed abundantly, recklessly, daringly, wildly, confidently.

Perfect mercy.

It was this reckless, abundant mercy that made whole the life of a widow who never asked, who couldn’t have imagined the possibility of such mercy.

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She was a widow with an only begotten son. There is a story yet to come in Luke’s Gospel about an only begotten son, and a place outside the city wall, and a widowed mother left childless. That, too, is a story of perfect mercy.

And perfect faithfulness.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChristuss%C3%A4ule_8.jpg By Bischöfliche Pressestelle Hildesheim (bph) ([1]) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

One heart

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For Thursday

John 10:22-30

30The Father and I are one.”

It’s not an ontological statement. Jesus is not talking about the nature of reality. It is not a claim that he, himself, is divine. It is a claim familiar from ordinary life that to deal with the son is to deal with the father. They are united in mind and purpose. Jesus conforms perfectly to the will of his father.

This is not to take away anything from the later theological formulations of the church. With these I do not disagree. But there is something more important in this text than the doctrine of the Two Natures of Christ or the doctrine of the Trinity. Doctrines engage the mind; Jesus engages my life. Doctrines want me to speak precisely; Jesus wants me to love well. Doctrine matters. It matters profoundly. But first we need to deal with the Jesus before our eyes saying that he and the Father are united in mind and purpose.

Do you want to know what God does? Consider what Jesus did. He healed the sick, welcomed the outcast, and raised the dead. He broke bread with sinners and tax collectors. He challenged the pious. He confronted the hypocrisy of the elite. He braved the self-interest of the privileged. He laid down his life for the sheep.

He forgave sins. He offered new birth – birth from above. He opened blind eyes. He gave life to the dead.

Anything else you want to say about God has to begin here – with a Jesus who claims to be one in mind and heart and will with the Father.

We don’t trust such people in our time. They are cult leaders and crusaders who do much more harm than good. We resist all absolute claims. Life is complicated. Nuanced. There’s not much room for someone who says they know the will of God.

But here is this Jesus. He says he does.

And we trust him, because there is no selfish agenda in him. He is not using us to prop up an ideology. He is not using us to fight his battles. He does not look upon us a fodder. He lays down his life for the sheep. He comes that we may have life, and have it abundantly. He comes that we may never perish.

So here is Jesus. And we can’t argue theology. We can’t discuss doctrines. We have to decide if he is one in heart with the father. And if so, then we have to join our hearts with his.

 

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

Faithful

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Sunday Evening

John 20:19-31

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

I wish it had not been translated “Do not doubt.” The Greek word uses the negative prefix ‘a’ (as we see in the word ‘apathetic’, ‘a-’, ‘without’, ‘pathos’, ‘compassion’) with the word for faith. “Do not be without faith but with faith.” Or, better, considering the relational content of the word ‘faith’: “Do not be faithless but faithful.”

The issue here is not the modern, rational concern for what is possible within the laws of physics and human experience. The issue is Thomas’ allegiance to Jesus as the face of God, to Jesus as the bread of life, the living water, the new wine, the light of the world. Crucifixion seems to belie all that.

It is no small thing to show allegiance to someone who was crucified, condemned as the ancient equivalent of a terrorist. Would you show allegiance to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? Remember what happened to his friends?

This is why the disciples are in hiding. It is why the women went to the tomb. For the men to go would have been an act of public allegiance to a condemned insurrectionist. But women could pass freely. It was risky for Peter to go to the tomb on Mary’s witness; the safe thing was to stay in hiding.

So Thomas needs something more than the disciples’ word about a shared vision if he is going to risk his life in a show of allegiance to this crucified Jesus. He needs his own encounter with the living Lord.

Thomas is not alone. We, too, need more than the apostolic witness. We need to see something of the risen Lord. We need to see something of his mercy. We need to see something of his love. We need to hear his voice. We need to experience his life.

The Biblical witness, the report of the first believers, is able to do this – but it is not done by the dry words on a page: it happens when the words of Jesus are lived and spoken to us.

The followers of Jesus are sent with a news that does goodness, that releases captives, opens eyes, heals lives, forgives sins. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

There are not sent with just words – they are sent with the Spirit and the authority to forgive. They are sent to do the message. They are sent to be the word of grace and mercy. They are sent to shine forth the light that darkness cannot overcome.

 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALight_in_darkness_foto_di_L._Galletti.JPG  By Galletti Luigi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The God who promises

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Thursday

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

5“Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

We are a people who live by a promise. It means our faces are fundamentally turned towards the future, for a promise, by nature, is about what I will do not what I have done.

The genesis of human religious practices is the desire to maintain the world: to be sure that the sun comes back after the winter solstice, to be sure the rains come in the spring, to validate and sustain the values and structures of the past – to keep things the same. Kings and priests go together.

Prophets, on the other hand, are about the present and future. What God is doing, what God will do, where the people should go – where they must go lest tragedy overtake them. And, when ruin comes, the prophets speak of grace to come, God’s promise of new beginnings.

We are a people who live by a promise. We are not a people upholding conventional morality; we are a people speaking a new morality: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”

We are not a people defending the monarchy’s divine right; we proclaim a new kingdom, the reign of God.

We are a people who tell of a God who overthrows the established social order of Egypt to set slaves free. We are a people who tell of a God who overthrows his own king and temple in the name of justice and care for the poor. We are a people who tell of a God who overthrows death itself.

We are a people who live by a promise, whose eyes are toward the future. We do not forget the past. The past is our witness to this God of the future. The scriptures and practices and traditions of the past keep us pointed toward this God of promise. But the God we worship, the Lord we follow, is a God who leads us into the future.

Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

And it is the courage to trust that promise that represents true ‘righteousness’ – true fidelity to God and others.

 

Photo: © Dietmar Rabich, rabich.de [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

That your love may overflow

File:Strickland Falls Shadows Lifted.jpgSaturday

Philippians 1:3-11

“This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight”

On Thanksgiving it might seem more natural to pick the opening words of our reading for Sunday: “I thank my God every time I remember you.” But Paul is not just exulting in his warm and treasured relationship with his congregation at Philippi; Paul wants them to fulfill their calling.

Christians don’t have a great reputation in the popular imagination these days. We have been seen as judgmental, even hateful. Scandals among the clergy have eroded public respect for ecclesiastical institutions. Protestors with hateful signs have fed the negative perception of Christians. And when people from other religious traditions kill in the name of God, all religious life gets discredited.

Paul is deeply attached to the community in Philippi. Though they are poor and have endured opposition, they have supported his ministry and contributed generously to his appeal for the churches in Judea suffering from famine. They have manifested the life of the Spirit that flows from an encounter with the grace of God.

But Paul is not interested in simply blessing the warm fellowship of the congregation. He aspires for them to grow ever deeper in their manifestation of the love and generosity of God. He wants love to overflow.

Congregations can become content – with their friendship with one another, with the congregational program and activities, with the worship experience and preaching – and forget to overflow to the world around them. Perhaps it is the natural drift of the human heart. Perhaps it is a misunderstanding of the faith itself. Maybe this is why Paul says love should overflow “with knowledge and full insight” – or, perhaps better, “with clear understanding and discernment.”

We need to see truly.

In a society where Christian faith tends to be seen as a means of personal enrichment rather than an enrichment of the world, it’s important to hear Paul speak about overflowing love. And though Paul talks about being “pure and blameless” in the day of Christ, it would be a mistake to think of that as a personal and private moral propriety. Pure and blameless means pure and blameless in our fidelity to God and one another.

We need to see truly. We need love to overflow. We need to let the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus.The world desperately needs a people who live in and from the mind of Christ. The world needs people in whom and through whom God is touching the world with love.

For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

 

Picture: By JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Living the giving

File:Felicidade A very happy boy.jpgSunday Evening

Mark 12:38-44

42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.

The children’s sermon was a simple idea. I used a Harry Potter pillowcase as a trick or treat bag. Unfortunately, none of these kids were into Harry Potter, but the sound of some candy in the bottom of the bag did lead them to guess what it was. So I held out my bag to each of them and said “trick or treat!” The confused looks on their faces were choice.

When it was apparent they had no candy to give, I reached into my bag and gave them each some. Then I looked them each in the eye and said again “Trick or treat!” I confess I was surprised that they each gave their candy back.

Then I asked my simple question: “Which is more like God, the one who gives or the one who takes?”

That answer they knew.

At the end, I gave them each a piece of candy again (some little package of a fruit rollup type thing the youth director had graciously provided), and then came the most delightful moment of the morning: The kids went running back down the aisle rejoicing, “We got candy!!”

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The first question is important for the adults, too: “Which is more like God?” But there is a related question for us: “Which should be more like God’s people?”

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Christian life is not about following a set of rules; it is about embodying the character of God. It is living the values of the kingdom. It is about living the giving.

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The preaching today (both the “children’s” message and the “adult” sermon) was rooted in Jesus’ warning about the scribes and his remark about the widow giving her last two pennies. I’ve posted the text of the sermon here, but here are some highlights.

The story isn’t about the woman; it is about the scribes and the temple. It is about the scribes who, as Jesus says in our text, “devour widow’s houses.” It is about the temple system that is making the rich richer and the poor poorer. The religious system that the scribes are advocating doesn’t embody the justice and mercy of God. It doesn’t share bread with the hungry. It doesn’t clothe the naked. It doesn’t shelter the homeless. It doesn’t free those in debtor’s prison. It doesn’t welcome the outcast and the stranger. It doesn’t heal the sick or free those bound by unclean spirits. It doesn’t forgive as we have been forgiven.

So Jesus has warned his followers about the temple system that bleeds widows dry – and then points across the courtyard to a widow giving her last two cents. The text says to us simply: “Don’t be that.” … Don’t be the church of any age, rich in gold while people hunger. Don’t be the church of the self-satisfied and self-righteous. Don’t be the church aligned with the rich and powerful against the poor and dispossessed.

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The question in the children’s message was simple: “Is God more like the giver or the taker?” Learning to truly inhabit the realm of God’s giving is the challenge.

 

Photo: By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga Commons)(Lmbuga Galipedia) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons