Boundless mercy

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Watching for the Morning of September 17, 2017

Year A

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 19 / Lectionary 24

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

It’s an unpayable debt.

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

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

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

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

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

The Prayer for September 17, 2017

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

The Texts for September 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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Of cisterns and crosses and imperishable life

File:Iran, désert - Yakhchal inside - intérieur d'une glacière - persian cooler (9246947525).jpg

Watching for the Morning of September 3, 2017

Year A

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 17 / Lectionary 22

Faithfulness, suffering, deliverance – troubling truths rattle through the texts for this Sunday. Jeremiah, who experienced great opposition, shame and humiliation for his message, cries out against God at what feels like God’s betrayal or abandonment. The poet of our psalm declares his innocence in his call for God’s deliverance. And Jesus lays out the path before him through torture and crucifixion, asserting that all who would be his followers must also take up the cross.

What does it say about us as human beings that we should be so resistant to the voice of the eternal? Why does a simple call to love God and neighbor evoke such passionate hostility from a nation’s leaders? Why do we so clutch at privilege, power or position that we would throw a prophet into the mud at the bottom of a dry cistern? Why does Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call to nonviolence end with a bullet? How is it possible to wish to purge Europe of its Jewish citizens and enlist nations in the enterprise, driving the trains, guarding the gates, issuing the orders, carrying them out?

Why does the call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked evoke scorn and derision? I remember my stepfather exploding in derision and anger after I related a high school church retreat that involved a trust walk. Would I let a black panther lead me? He would lead me out into the street before a speeding car. I was a fool for imaging there was goodness in others, that they wouldn’t harm the vulnerable. Maybe I was. It’s quite clear that we as human beings have the capacity to plunder the weak. It might be hard to do face to face; but not so hard from a distance. Yet even still, consider how many men, women and children are bruised and battered by their most intimate companions.

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So there is a cross to carry for those who would live compassion and faithfulness to neighbor. There is a scorn to endure. There are cisterns waiting. There are Golgothas. It is sweet to hear Paul say: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good,” but he doesn’t stop there.

14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

It is a noble life. But it is not simply a noble ideal; it is our true humanity. It is the life for which we were created and the life of the age to come. It is what Jesus means about being born from above. But there are hammers and nails waiting for those who dare to be so “weak.”

Only this is not weakness. It is courageous and difficult work to live such a life. We do so – or try to do so – because of the promise that “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” We do so because this life is eternal. We do so because we have felt the breath of the Spirit. We do so because, on the third day, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found it empty.

The Prayer for September 3, 2017

Gracious God,
the mystery of your redemption is revealed
in the life, death and resurrection of your Son.
Grant us the will and desire to follow where you lead
and to give our lives in the service of your perfect love;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 3, 2017

First Reading: Jeremiah 15:15-21
“Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.”
– Faced with persecution and imprisonment for his prophetic word, Jeremiah cries out against God, and God answers with a promise: “If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth…I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you.”

Psalmody: Psalm 26:1-8
“Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity.” – The poet prays for deliverance and declares his innocence.

Second Reading: Romans 12:9-21
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” – Paul continues his exhortation to the community in Rome, urging them to faithfulness in their life together.

Gospel: Matthew 16:21-28
“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” – Following Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed of God, Jesus begins to teach them of the destiny that awaits him in Jerusalem. His followers, too, must be prepared to take up the cross, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AIran%2C_d%C3%A9sert_-_Yakhchal_inside_-_int%C3%A9rieur_d’une_glaci%C3%A8re_-_persian_cooler_(9246947525).jpg By Jeanne Menj [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AColina_de_las_Cruces%2C_Lituania%2C_2012-08-09%2C_DD_12.JPG Diego Delso [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, 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.

Butterflies, June bugs and the Kingdom of God

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Shenandoah National Park

“So Jesus declares that it is the things you say and do that make you unclean, not your ritual purity. And then a Canaanite woman shows up.”

A reflection on Matthew 15:10-28

Several summers ago, as I drove over interstate 80 on my way to my Father’s house in Colorado, I came to a section of the road near the crest of the Sierras where the air was thick with butterflies. It was amazing to see, except that the poor creatures were splatting across my windshield. I was saddened that so many of these creatures were meeting their demise on my car. But there was nothing I could do. There was no way to avoid them, no way to get across the mountains without going through this cloud of butterflies.

Driving across Nebraska at night, on the other hand, I don’t feel any regret about the bugs that splat against my windshield. I wish they didn’t because my windshield wipers just smear the goop around and it takes forever to clean them off the windshield when you stop at a gas station.

So what’s the difference between the insects at the top of the Sierra’s and those in Nebraska?

We think of butterflies as pretty, and June bugs and grasshoppers as pests. Fireflies are lovely on a summer’s evening. Mosquitos are not. The praying mantis we saw in my father’s yard in Virginia were cool. The horde of bugs occupying a Louisiana gas station bathroom late one August night was disgusting.

If a butterfly landed on your hand, you wouldn’t feel an impulse to wash your hand. But if a roach ran across, you probably would.

Some things are ‘clean’ and some things are ‘unclean’.

We’ve talked about purity rules before. And I can’t remember what stories I have told, so I hope you’ll bear with me. But this notion of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’, of ‘pure’ and ‘impure’, is deeply important. And it is very instinctive. It seems automatic within us. We care about butterflies. We don’t care about June bugs.

But this is important to recognize: although the notion of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ is instinctive, the things we identify as ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ are cultural. They are learned. When I was a kid and loved to fish, I wouldn’t think of eating a rainbow trout raw. That’d be disgusting. But I love pickled herring. Pickled herring is part of our family tradition. It is part of being Danish. It connects with big family dinners and special lunches with my dad. It connects me with my father’s parents, Farmor and Farfar, and all those memories of Uncle Erik and Aunt Betty and Uncle Dan and cousin Jim – and my daughter, Anna – who loved it. They are all gone, now, we have laid them all in the grave, but the pickled herring is part of us. We are all still connected.

The ideas about purity are about our identity. It defines who we are. It declares to whom we belong. Megan came home from school in the third grade distressed at having learned that people in China ate dog meat. “What kind of people can do that?” she wailed. They are not us. They are them. And we are not even sure they are human. “What kind of people can do that?”

What kind of person can drive a car through a crowd of pedestrians? Our president said he’s “an animal.” He isn’t really human. He’s not one of us.

Of course, the whole thing in Charlottesville was about who is ‘them’ and who is ‘us’. Who are ‘clean’ and who are ‘unclean’. Who are ‘acceptable’ and who are not. And the problem is that we are not talking about whether certain behaviors are acceptable; we are talking about whether the other side shares in our humanity.

Rules of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ define us. They convey a sense of identity. Sometimes there is goodness in this. Having a Saturday lunch of herring and sardines and aromatic cheeses with my father touches something deep in my dad. And the Danish cookies and the frikadellar and the hakkebøf and the cucumber salad and the red cabbage and the pickled red beets they are all part of my connection to my family.

So when you marry into the family we set before you the family foods. We teach you how to make the toasts and drink the akvavit. It makes you part of us. When you’re born into the family we set before you all these things. When Anna was two years old, at the end of a big family dinner, she was sitting on her mother’s lap and reached out to the table, grabbed an empty akvavit glass, and stuck her tongue in to lick its last drop. When she did that everyone laughed and cheered: Anna was truly one of ‘us’.

For Israel, all those purity rules about foods and blood and dead bodies – they not only reflected the culture, but they helped to preserve Israel from the idolatry of the cultures around them. If pigs are a sacrificial animal in the cultures around you, but you think pork is unclean, then you won’t participate in the worship of those gods. You won’t lose your identity as a people who have been brought out from bondage in Egypt and called to live justice and mercy.

But there’s a dark side to purity rules: it’s when we think that people who don’t share our rules aren’t really human. “What kind of people can do that?”

We turn our enemies into animals so that we can kill them. If Nazi’s are animals, then we don’t have to care about them. It’s why slavery was defended as an institution: these people aren’t really people. It’s why Jim Crow laws were enacted: these people are unclean. We can’t share a bus seat. We can’t share a water fountain. We can’t share a swimming pool or a public park or a hospital – or our neighborhood.

One of the pictures I considered for the bulletin cover was a photograph of a large, elegant sign from Shenandoah National Park – built in that handsome style of all the other national park signs indicating entrances, park boundaries and special areas. This sign reads “Lewis Mountain” and beneath that, in large letters, it says “NEGRO AREA”. The next line says “Coffee Shop & Cottages” and beneath that “campground picnicground” (sic). At the bottom is the word “entrance” inside an arrow pointing the way.

It’s a nice sign. And I’m sure it’s a nice area. But what the sign really says is that “you people are unclean.” “You are less than.” “You can’t mix with us.”

I read an article about the life of James Fields, Jr., the young man who drove his car into the crowd in Charlottesville. I felt sorry for him. His life has been troubled for a long time. It doesn’t make his actions any less hateful, any less a crime, but his story makes him a human being instead of an animal.

We shouldn’t do to them what they do to others. We shouldn’t forget their humanity. We should be trying to help us all remember our humanity.

It’s so easy to forget. So easy to fail. We curse an idiot driver on the road. We look away from a homeless person on the street. We look disapprovingly at a mother who has taken her young child with her to the grocery store at 11:00 at night. We roll our eyes at a clerk in the store who is moving too slowly. We yell at family members. It is so easy to forget the humanity of others. So easy to abandon our own humanity.

Jesus’ attack on the purity system in Judea was fierce. What renders you unclean, Jesus declares, is how you treat other people, not whether you have done the proper ritual pouring of water over the hands before you eat. The good Samaritan is willing to touch the bleeding body of the victim at the side of the road because – unlike the priest and Levite – he isn’t concerned with outward ritual purity but with the well-being of the wounded man.

Jesus is willing to heal on the Sabbath because mercy and compassion are more important than an outward purity. Jesus is willing to touch a leper because true purity is fulfilling our obligations to one another rather than protecting our own purity. Jesus touches the dead girl to lift her up to life. Jesus touches the bier of the dead young man to give him back to his widowed mother. Jesus eats at the home of Zacchaeus because he sees his humanity. He sees him as a brother.

Jesus is willing to forgive your sins because he sees your humanity.

In the world of Jesus, we are the outsiders. We are the ‘them’. Few, if any of us, are descendants of Abraham by blood and soil – but we are the descendants of Adam and Eve.

We have become descendants of Abraham because we are descendants of Abraham’s faith. We are descendants of Abraham’s trust in and allegiance to the God who fashioned us all, and redeems us all, and calls us all to lives of compassion and faithfulness to one another.

So Jesus declares that it is the things you say and do that make you unclean, not your ritual purity. And then a Canaanite woman shows up.

She’s not just a gentile; she’s one of those people God warned the Israelites about. One of those people who polluted the land twelve centuries ago and made the land vomit them out. One of those people that Israelites were not supposed to marry lest their hearts be led astray to worship the Canaanite gods. One of those people like Jezebel who would teach greed and injustice in the name of her gods. And, if you are offended by what Jesus says to the Canaanite woman, you should be. It is deeply offensive. It is tribal. She is one of ‘them’, not one of ‘us’. God owes her nothing. She has no right to ask. You cannot take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs – the dirty mongrel dogs scrounging the wastes of society.

The woman is unclean. But she understands that God is a god of mercy. She sees that God is a god of all. She clings to the confession that God is god who will show faithfulness to his whole creation. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

She understands that what renders you unclean is what you say and do, not what you eat, or what you touch – or who your parents were.

And Jesus says, “Here is faith.” “Here is great faith.” Here is true allegiance.

And lest we miss the implications of this encounter: if what renders us unclean is what we say and do, then none of us is clean. None of us is pure. None of us is deserving.

If what renders us unclean is what we say and do, then all of us are dependent on God’s mercy.

If what renders us unclean is what we say and do, then none of us is welcome at God’s table – except that God has welcomed us in his love and mercy.

And maybe that’s our avenue back to our humanity. It’s when we think we are clean and others are unclean that lines get drawn. It when we think we are “better than” that others become “less than”. It’s when we think we are the good people and others are not that evils happen.

But when we can see that we are welcomed only by God’s mercy – maybe then we can see others with mercy.

Sermon from Sunday, August 20, 2017
Proper A 15, Lectionary A 20
Los Altos Lutheran Church

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALewis_Mountain_Negro_Area.jpg By National Park Service (http://www.nps.gov/shen/images/20070117113507.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Purity

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“Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (Matthew 15:10-11)

Watching for the Morning of August 20, 2017

Year A

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 15 / Lectionary 20

I chose the picture above for our bulletin cover several weeks ago, but it gains added poignancy by the events in Charlottesville last week. The Gospel account is the Canaanite woman, the foreigner, the outsider, the “unclean”, whose request for healing Jesus dismisses with a curt and offensive “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It is a statement worthy of any white nationalist. What is ours is ours. God owes us his benefices. They are not part of us. To which she responds with that compelling assertion of God’s abundant and universal mercy: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

It is important to include with this narrative Jesus’ challenge to the ruling authorities about the nature of ritual purity: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Purity is measured by our treatment of others. Purity is measured by whether we live compassion and faithfulness. Purity is not an outward category of things or people; it is manifest in word and deed.

Jesus embodies the promise spoken through the prophet Isaiah in our first reading this Sunday that God would welcome in his temple all those previously excluded as unclean –eunuchs (the physically deformed or maimed) and foreigners. The psalmist celebrates the harvest and a sees in God’s abundance the invitation for all nations to see God’s goodness and sing God’s praise. And the apostle Paul writes of God’s purpose and plan to have mercy on all.

We keep using religion to draw lines between “us” and “them” – whoever “them” might be. But Jesus relentlessly erases those lines. He understands that the Biblical story begins and ends with a single human family.

The Prayer for August 20, 2017

O God, who hears the cries of all in need,
grant us confidence in your mercy
and persistence in our prayer
that, trusting your goodness,
we might know your saving grace;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 20, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 56:1-8 (appointed, Isaiah 56:1, 6-8)
“My house shall be…a house of prayer for all peoples.” – The prophet proclaims that all those who were unclean – eunuchs and foreigners – and previously excluded from the temple will be welcomed by the God who will gather not only the outcasts of Israel, but all people.

Psalmody: Psalm 67
“Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.” – A song of thanksgiving at the harvest that summons all people to rejoice in God’s goodness.

Second Reading: Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
“God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” –
addressing the problem of why so many Judeans have not received Paul’s message of God’s grace in Jesus with trust and allegiance, Paul affirms the certainty of God’s call and election, but sees in their “disobedience” God’s purpose to have mercy on all.

Gospel: Matthew 15:10-28 (appointed, 15:[10-20] 21-28)
“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” – Matthew pairs Jesus’ challenge to the ruling authorities’ understanding of purity as ritual purity (rather than justice and mercy in fidelity to God’s command) with the account of the Canaanite woman who shows great faith in God’s mercy: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWe_want_white_tenants.jpg By Arthur S. Siegel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A cup of water

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Watching for the Morning of July 2, 2017

Year A

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 8 / Lectionary 13

A cup of cold water. That’s all it takes to be remembered in heaven: a cup of cold water. The simplest gesture of hospitality to the ambassadors of heaven’s reign will be rewarded.

After all that Jesus has said to his followers about their mission, after the instructions to give freely, to take no provisions, to carry no beggar’s bag, to stay with whomever will receive them; after the warnings that they are going out like sheep among wolves and will be dragged before the authorities; after the warnings that they will be betrayed even by members of their own family and hated by all because of Jesus name – they should expect, after all, no different treatment than their master received – after the declaration that those who will not take up the cross are not worthy of him comes this sweet and simple promise that “whoever welcomes you welcomes me.”

We are emissaries of the new kingship that is come to the world. We go out as runners to announce that the old empire is falling and a new empire marching towards them – an ‘empire’, a dominion, that heals the sick and raises the dead and gathers the outcast and sets free the oppressed.

The world of greed and violence and slaveries will not surrender easily; but a new dominion marches through the land, and all who show welcome to that reign shall stand forever in the king’s radiance.

We don’t live in the world of rival claimants to the throne waging war and summoning every town and village to declare their allegiance, but we know enough about the dark side of politics and international affairs to understand. There is risk in siding with the insurrection. And risk should you choose wrongly. The inertia is with what is known not what might be. But we are called to be children of what might be. We are called to be emissaries of the one who heals and blesses and gathers and forgives. We are sent as agents of compassion and mercy and truth. We are sent to be healers and reconcilers in a world of death and division.

And though the old regime will not surrender easily, the war is decided. The grave is empty. What might be, will be. And the simplest hospitality to the messengers of that kingdom will be remembered and rewarded.

The Prayer for July 2, 2017

Almighty God,
you send your followers into the world
to proclaim your justice and mercy,
promising that every act of kindness shown to them
will be honored in heaven.
Grant us courage to go forth as your faithful people
bearing witness to your light and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 2, 2017

First Reading: Jeremiah 28:1-9 (appointed: 5-9)
“As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.” –
Jeremiah confronts the prophet Hananiah who has declared that God is about to set Judah free from the hand of Babylon – a message in conflict with the warnings God has spoken through his prophets in the past.

Psalmody: Psalm 89:1-4, 15 (appointed: 1-4, 15-18)
“I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.” – In a prayer that will cry out to God in distress over the loss of the Davidic kingship, the poet here sings of God’s faithfulness and his promise to David.

Second Reading: Romans 6:8-23 (appointed: 12-23)
“Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.”
– Countering the objection that justification by faith (restoration to a right relationship with God by trust in and fidelity to God’s work and promise) leads to lawlessness, Paul argues that if we have come under the reign of God in baptism, it makes no sense that we should continue to yield ourselves in service to the dominion of sin and death. The “wages” for serving sin is ultimately death (death came into the world because of Adam’s sin); whereas the “wages” of serving God is the free gift of the life of the age to come.

Gospel: Matthew 10:40-42
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” – Jesus concludes his instructions to his followers on their mission as heralds of the reign of God by affirming that they go as his emissaries. Christ is present to the world in and through their witness, and no gesture of hospitality shown to them shall go unrewarded.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Small_Cup_LACMA_AC1997.253.17.jpg, public domain.

A priestly people

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“Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.””

Watching for the Morning of June 18, 2017

Year A

The Second Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 6 / Lectionary 11

The First Lesson on Sunday declares that if Israel abides by God’s teaching, they shall be a priestly people. In the Gospel reading, Jesus sends his followers out as heralds and agents of God’s reign. Though the language is different, the substance is the same: a priest mediates the connection between people and God. In the Old Testament this was about the reconciliation (forgiveness) and fellowship with God established through the sacrificial system. In the New Testament it is mediated through allegiance to Christ and participation in the Spirit/reign of God.   In both you are restored to a community bound together in praise and service of God. And in both there is a word spoken that announces the reality of reconciliation and fellowship – a priestly/prophetic word, spoken on God’s behalf, that the sacrifice has been accepted, that reconciliation is at hand, that the hearer now abides in the grace and life of God. “The grace in which we stand”, says Paul in the reading from Romans for Sunday. The debt has been forgiven. Reconciliation has occurred. Peace that has been established. This is our calling. This is our identity. We are a priestly people – or, at least, meant to be a priestly people reconnecting the world with the source and goal of life. Every cup of cold water. Every healing hand. Every kind word. Every confession heard. Every kindness lived.

It is a great honor to be a priestly people. In a world where so much is torn and divided, we have the privilege of joining the realm of heaven with the realm of earth.

Preaching Series: Abram

The narrative of the flood last Sunday set before us the mystery that though the earth is filled with violencebecause of human beings, God suffers for his world and delivers it. But the people that get off the ark are no different than those who got on. And now we will hear how humanity’s rebellion continues in the building of the tower of Babel. But then come the first notes of a new mystery that follows the line of Seth down to Abram. It is a line that seems to dead end with Sarai’s barrenness – but God speaks a strange and wonderful promise that, from the line of Abraham, God will bring blessing to the world.

The Prayer for June 18, 2017

Gracious God,
you bid us pray for laborers to be sent into your harvest,
to a world in need of your healing and life.
Help us to fulfill our calling as intercessors for your world
and bearers of your grace;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 18, 2017

First Reading: Exodus 19:2-8a
“If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” – Brought out of Egypt and now before God at Mt. Sinai, the people hear and accept God’s covenant: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.”

Psalmody: Psalm 100
“Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his.” – A hymn of praise as the community enters into the temple courts and are summoned to acknowledge and serve God.

Second Reading: Romans 5:1-8
“God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” –
having established that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and that God justifies all by faith – by their trust in God’s promise – Paul declares that “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Gospel: Matthew 9:35 – 10:8 [9-23]
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” – The twelve are appointed for the first mission: to be heralds of the dawning reign of God in the towns and villages of Israel. “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHarvest_(13429504924).jpg By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (Harvest) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], 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

Before the mystery of life

first-lutheran-sanctuary

Sunday Evening

Matthew 4:12-23

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

I sat alone in worship this morning. I am staying with my father this week following the death of my stepmother. A marriage of nearly 61 years. He wasn’t up to worship.

But I could go. No one here would really recognize me. There would be none of the gestures of sympathy that create awkwardness to those who are trying to keep control of their emotions. But emotions there are. I buried my grandfather from this church years ago. I know where I sat that day. I remember my young cousin sitting on my lap in the car as we rode away from the church in what seemed like darkness, though it couldn’t have been. I buried that same cousin from here not too long ago.

We buried my grandmother from here. More recently we have buried my uncle, the father of that cousin who sat tearfully in my arms as we left my grandfather’s funeral. Maybe what I remember is the funeral home. That would explain the darkness.

Whatever the case, this space has been associated with too much grief of late. I was baptized here before I can remember, but I was a participant in none of those other joyous occasions when children were brought to be baptized or weddings might have been celebrated. So it’s just memories of where Farmor sat and where I have sat with my father and stepmother on the occasional Sunday while visiting.

The night she died, Gloria asked me to do her service. If today was any indication, it won’t be easy. Tears floated in my eyes making it hard to see the hymnal, let alone sing. The sermon was kind. I was grateful to be at the table. But after, in the silence back in the pew, I could feel the sorrow welling up. So I ducked out before the benediction to avoid the crowd of friendly people eager to make me feel welcome at their church.

Only it is also my church, in a way. And the day is coming when we will set Gloria’s ashes on the table near the rail and try to honor her memory and somehow find our way through the complicated realities of an extended family that tends to see church as a cultural thing, not the promise and presence of that power at the heart of the universe that is the source and goal of life and the font and perfection of love.

first-lutheran-sanctuary-windows-2It would be nice if we could just say the ancient words and all be carried along by their familiar comfort. But they aren’t familiar to us anymore. And they are tainted by the negative perceptions of all religion as partisan and judgmental and even hateful and violent, despite the fact that Jesus was not the founder or reformer of religion but its victim.

Yet in him was the face of the eternal. In him was courage and truth and mercy and life. In him was the balm for our sorrows and the summons to live as his hands and heart in the world. In him is a life that will not perish.

Hymns and traditions and rituals have grown up around Jesus’ words and deeds, but the hymns and traditions are not the point; they are meant to help us hear and see him, meant to connect us to the Spirit that was in him, meant to empower us to live the strength and compassion and grace that was in him, meant to embrace us in our sorrows and stand together before the mystery of life with hope.

Photos by dkbonde

Lavish mercy

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Last Sunday

Luke 17:11-19

13Ten lepers approached him…saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Attendance was small on Sunday. When I began the announcements, there were only a few people scattered among the pews in the back half of the sanctuary. It’s always something of a shock when the crowd is especially small. Pastors can’t help but take it at least a little bit personally; attendance is one of the few numbers you can track easily and it is hard not to perceive it as at least some measures of success – which is challenging when you live in a culture that worships success. Ironically, the gospel reading on Sunday concerned the ten lepers who were healed but only one came back to give God praise. Jesus wasn’t exactly satisfied that only one came back, but I suppose there is some comfort in that though the numbers in our congregation were small yesterday, we did better than one out of ten.

You can find the message from Sunday at Jacob Limping and on this blog site among the “recent sermons.” It speaks to the heart of this powerful and important text. But, like most passages of scripture, there are other things to see in the narrative, not least of which is this: Jesus dispensed the healing of God freely and widely, without asking anything of those in need of God’s gifts.

We tend to be so concerned whether those who ask for help deserve it. I remember the story of the ants and the grasshopper from my childhood. The grasshopper played all summer while the ants worked diligently. Consequently, the ants had food for the winter and the grasshopper did not. Because he had not planned for the future, the grasshopper deserved what he got.

I understand the need to encourage responsibility. But I also recognize what a deadly spiritual disease it is to imagine that we deserve what we receive from God.

On a human level, there are consequences to our actions – though much too often those consequences fall on innocent bystanders. None of those who perished in the devastating railroad tanker fire in Quebec were responsible for the brakes that had not been properly set. The children of Aleppo are not responsible for the warfare that surrounds them. But responsibility does matter for so many ordinary things: driving responsibly, fidelity in marriage, spending quantity and quality time with our children, nourishing a spiritual life.

But we should not fail to recognize that the mercy of God is given freely and lavishly to the nine as well as the one. It is the character of God to cast the seed with abandon though some falls on the path or among the rocks. It is the character of God to make the sun shine on the just and the unjust (on those who show fidelity to God and to others and those who fail to show such fidelity.) When the disciples ask Jesus of the man born blind “Who sinned, this man or his parents,” the answer is neither.

God does not give what we deserve; God gives because it is God’s nature to give. It is part of what the scripture means when it says “God is love” and that “the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases.” God’s fidelity to the world is not conditional. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” “The Good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

In the healing of the ten lepers we should not miss the lavish mercy of God. And we who call Jesus our brother and lord should live with eyes and heart open to recognize and live that mercy.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAll-Saints.jpg By Sampo Torgo at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons