Once again

File:Jozefow Chrystus H Macik.JPGYesterday was a festival day in our church, but as I put on my red chasuble for the service it felt like I should be dressing myself in black for mourning. I shared that sentiment with the congregation before the beginning of our service and, indicating I had divided the sermon into two parts, began with these remarks.

This morning we gather once again in the aftermath of troubling news. It would have been troubling enough if our only concern were the bombs sent through the mail to those who were perceived to be political enemies of the president, but now we are dealing with the violent attack upon a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

I want very much to write this off as an aberration, the demented actions of a troubled and misguided man, but the statistics are troubling. As you may have heard by now, FBI statistics show that hate crimes rose 5% in 2016 and 10% since 2014. The FBI identified 1,273 of these crimes as motivated by religious hatred, about 20 percent of the total. Half of these were against Jews.

The Anti-Defamation League reports that there were 1,986 reported anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017, including acts of vandalism as well as physical violence. The number of these incidents increased by 35% from 2015 to 2016, and by 57% from 2016 to 2017.

We saw the young men marching with torches and chanting Nazi slogans in Charlottesville. You remember them: “Blood and soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!” The gunman yesterday reportedly said, “All Jews must die,” and had written online that “Jews are the children of Satan.”

Something is wrong in us. Fear, despair, hate, anger, prejudice, hardness of heart, seem to be loose among us.

Dylan Roof said he hoped to start a race war when he murdered the members of a Bible study at Emanuel Church in Charleston, North Carolina. In the journal he wrote in prison, that was read into the record at his trial, he wrote, “I would like to make it crystal clear, I do not regret what I did,” and “I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”

Such events are nothing like the millions killed by official state policy under Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot; those marched to their deaths by the Turks or Andrew Jackson; or those slaughtered with machetes in Rwanda. But what is happening in our country is still deeply troubling. On the weekend when Matthew Shepard’s ashes were relocated to the National Cathedral we are reminded that hate has no bounds.

We want to think our country is better than this. But the history of ugliness and hate is deep and long. And such ugliness and hate are deep not just in our country but in the whole human experience. There is a reason the first story scripture tells us after humanity is given a good and perfect world only to turn from God and lose the garden is the story of one brother murdering the other. All those early stories in Genesis testify to the spread of violence through the creation. And the pivotal story for us as Christians tells of the torture and murder of the one who came to us as the embodiment of God’s love.

We want to deny the reality of sin, but we cannot. It is a deeply broken world. And the human heart is profoundly bent out of shape. We are capable of things that should be unimaginable.

When First John writes that “God is love,” those words are not a cheap sentimentality. They are the daring proposition that despite all we see around us, the power at the heart of all things is love and faithfulness and compassion and mercy and care for the other. God is love, and looks upon a world as sorrowful as ours and chooses to love.

We come together as a Christian community – indeed we exist as a Christian community – to proclaim that message, and to let that message work in our hearts that we might be people who live for the healing of the world rather than its division.

We dare to say with John and Jesus and the whole witness of scripture that there is a power and presence at the heart of all things that is faithfulness, compassion, mercy, and life. At the heart of all things is a God who is able to free the bound, heal the broken, and raise the dead. At the heart of all things is a God who takes upon himself the sorrows of the world and frees us to live his love.

This is why we begin our worship with confession and forgiveness. Our first act is to acknowledge our brokenness and the brokenness of the world, and hear God’s word of mercy and life. It is a moment and a message that is meant to bring us again from the world of hate, violence and revenge into the realm of God. It is a moment and a message that is meant to release us from our brokenness and gather us to the table of God. It is a moment and a message that gives us a taste of the resurrection and the world where the lion lies down with the lamb. It is a moment and a message that prepares us to hear God’s voice and receive God’s gifts. It is a moment and a message that frees us to sing God’s praise.

In our confession we bring before God the crucified bodies of the eleven killed yesterday and the twisted hearts of the shooter and bomber. We bring before God the refugees fleeing violence across our world and the twisted hearts of those who would deny their humanity. We bring before God our own sins and sorrows and hear the promise that Christ has freed us to come and live in God’s presence.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jozefow_Chrystus_H_Macik.JPG By Hubert Mącik [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

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Forgiven

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Watching for the Morning of June 12, 2016

Year C

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 6 / Lectionary 11

This Sunday forgiveness takes center stage. We hear the prophet Nathan confront King David about his murder of Uriah to cover David’s crime with Bathsheba. It is a brilliant effort, using a story of a poor man’s treasured sheep, seized and killed by his wealthy neighbor, to get David to condemn himself.

It is not clear whether Jesus has as much success with Simon the Pharisee, who invites Jesus to a banquet but shows him none of the honor due a guest. In scandal after scandal, a woman bursts in on the scene, washes Jesus feet with her tears and dries them by unbinding her hair. Simon concludes that Jesus is no prophet; a prophet would know this woman is a “sinner”. But Jesus knows both her and Simon, and with a story of two debtors gets Simon to acknowledge that the forgiveness of a great debt creates great love. Then, like Nathan saying to David, “You are the man!”, comes the piercing revelation of Simon’s lack of hospitality and hardness of heart.

We will hear of David’s repentance, but not of Simon’s, and the psalm will talk about these two responses: describing how the heart shrivels when sin is not acknowledged, and how life is restored when it is confessed and forgiven.

Sunday, our second reading continues in Galatians, where we hear Paul speaking to the congregation in Galatia asserting again that it is not the observance of Judean custom and ritual that makes us acceptable to God, but our trust in and allegiance to the God who raised Jesus from the dead. It is a message that leads him to joyfully proclaim:

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

The Prayer for June 12, 2016

Gracious God,
whose infinite mercy should prompt in us an infinite love,
help us to taste and see your goodness
and to share that banquet with all;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 12, 2016

First Reading: 2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:10, 13-20 (appointed 2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:10, 13-15)
“Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man!’” –
The prophet Nathan confronts David on his murder of Uriah to hide his crime with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah – and David repents.

Psalmody: Psalm 32
“Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”
– The psalmist tells of the corrosive power of unconfessed sin, and the liberating mercy of God when he acknowledges his fault.

Second Reading: Galatians 2:15-21
“We have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.”
– Having shown that his Gospel was not delivered on behalf of any human authority but through his encounter with the risen Christ, Paul reasserts his teaching that we are not made acceptable to God by the observance of Judean ritual and customs, but by trust and loyalty to the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

Gospel: Luke 7:36-8:3
“‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’” –
Jesus is invited to feast at the home of Simon, a Pharisee, but is shown none of the proper hospitalities. A woman breaks into the dinner and washes Jesus feet with her tears and anoints them with a perfumed oil. Jesus’ acceptance of her confirms Simon’s presumption that Jesus is not a prophet – but Jesus shows prophetic insight and speaks to Simon with a parable about two debtors and what is shown by great love.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AForgiveness_0001.jpg By scem.info [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Answered and unanswered prayer: Two thoughts on Psalm 116

Wednesday

Psalm 116:1-9

File:What will the day bring? (5124379114).jpg1 I love the Lord,
because he has heard my voice
and my supplications.

There are many for whom there is no deliverance. Many whose loved ones perish. Many whose pleas fall to the ground. Many whose days are spent in want. Many whose nights are spent in darkness. This is the problem with answered prayer. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of those whose prayer has not been answered.

It is bittersweet when the friends of the childless become pregnant. It is bittersweet when the unloved see couples kiss. It is bittersweet when the abandoned see others embraced.

Perhaps bittersweet is all we can hope for, trapped as we in a broken world, trapped as we tend to be inside our own selves. “I am glad for you” even as I feel the pang of my own disappointment. Maybe this is why we find it easier to speak our needs in church rather than our thanksgivings; we don’t want anyone to feel badly when the prayers of another are answered.

But isn’t this what the rite of confession means when it says, “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves”? We are prisoners to our selves. I filter your good news through my own bad news, and it robs you of your joy and God of the glory due his name.

Grace happens. Some prayers do get answered. Some are healed. Some are saved. Some are given work and families and joy.

And to whom shall we give credit? Luck? Fortune? Chance? Is God not the author of all grace? Is it right to be silent when such a gift is given? Is it right not to praise the one who is the author of such sweetness?

No, the problem is mine, that I am trapped within myself. I need a deliverer to call me out of myself into the joy of God wherever the world is touched by the life and grace of God.

Psalm 116:1-9

3The snares of death encompassed me;
the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered distress and anguish.
4Then I called on the name of the Lord:
“O Lord, I pray, save my life!”

I don’t know whether this translation carries enough emotional power for the poet’s complaint. ‘Snares’ and ‘pangs’ and ‘Sheol’ make it all seem a little distant, a little abstract, a little theoretical. I wonder if we shouldn’t be talking about the bony hand of death dragging us down. The fearful shadows swallowing all hope. Drowning in despair.

There are moments when you get tired of fighting, when you are ready to surrender, ready to give up and slip beneath the waves. And then comes the fear, the fight, the will to live, the desperate prayer for help, and the hand plunging beneath the water to haul you up again into the air.

The poet’s song is a deep and profound praise. God is not a god who helps those who help themselves; God is the LORD who reaches down to snatch us back from the grave. God is not the patron of the privileged who do not have to wrestle with demons; God is the LORD who joins us in battle. God is light – not so much the radiant peace as the flaming sword to deliver us from the eternal night.

There are people who fight terrible spiritual battles. Some survive. Some do not. But all are saved. And if some did not survive to give God the praise, then we would not know this God who empties the grave, this God who yanks us back from the realm of sorrow into joy, from the realm of shame into grace, from the realm of death into life.

It is because of the testimony of some, like this psalmist, that we can see light upon our path and the joy of surprising grace. It is because of those whose prayers are answered that we know that all such prayers shall ultimately be answered. Healing awaits us.

 

Photocredit: By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia (What will the day bring?  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The power to heal

Friday

Numbers 21:4-9

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Brazen Serpent Sculpture by Giovanni Fantoni atop Mount Nebo

8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

There is no magic in the bronze serpent. No power in the image. The power is in the promise of God and their trust in that promise.

I suppose God could have said, “stand on your head and you will be healed,” and it could have functioned in the same way, as an act of trust. But that would have been more magical than looking at the bronze serpent. For the bronze serpent is an image not only of the plague, but their own bitter, poisonous words. The bronze serpent is the truth of who they have become and what has happened to them. To look on the bronze serpent is to take the first step in rehab: to admit they are powerless over their addiction. It speaks the truth about themselves.

We are vipers. We are a brood of snakes. We have become the offspring of the cursed one who turned our first parents from trusting God. And if the limp and broken body of the holy incarnation of God is not enough to convince you of this, then consider the masses of humanity that have been hacked, shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, hanged, gassed, poisoned, irradiated and burned to a crisp in the last century – or just allowed to perish from starvation. They are all present in the body of the crucified one.

We are vipers. We are crucifiers. Healing and confession go together. There is no healing without truth.

There is no requirement that the people feel badly about their bitter words against God. Confession is not about the feelings of guilt – it is about the objective reality of guilt. This is who they are. This is what they have done. Speaking that truth opens the door for God’s healing.

But in the bronze serpent they are not only looking at the truth of their bitter tongues. They see not only the consequence of their rebellion. They see also the promise of God to forgive. God does not hold their sin against them. God wants to heal them. God wants to create faith and trust and fidelity in them.

And in us.

And so we can see why Jesus says he must be lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness. We, too, must see the fruit of our rebellion from God. We must see the truth of the violence in the heart of humankind. We must acknowledge the bitter poison on our tongues. We must recognize our distance from our true humanity. We must see the truth.

But there, in the crucified one, we see also the promise of God to heal and forgive.

There is no magic, here. The power is in that promise – and our trust in that promise.

 

By JoTB (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Wounded but made whole

Thursday

Genesis 32

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

24Jacob was left alone.

Jacob has taken Rachel and Leah, Zilpah and Bilhah, and all their children through the ford at the River Jabbok.  His possessions he has already sent ahead, first with a series of lavish gifts for his brother Esau, and then his flocks and herds.  With Esau advancing with 400 men, Jacob hopes his brother’s sworn vengeance will be appeased by the gifts – or, at least, that his thirst for revenge may be slaked by the slaughter long before he gets to his family.  Now he has helped his family across that dangerous border into the land of Esau.  But he remains behind one last night.

He is alone.  Without possessions.  Without family.  Without friends.  In the ancient world, it is a situation of complete vulnerability.  No one to come to his aid.  No one to avenge him if he should be harmed.  No possessions with which to purchase safety.  He is in the same position as when he fled from home and laid down to sleep with his head upon a stone.  He is the same person who fled.  He has gained flocks and herd and family, but he is the same, fleeing once again, and alone.

In that last night before he is to meet the consequences of his past, he is attacked by “a man.”  God or God’s messengers have appeared before in the narrative in human form.  There is nothing strange in this; it will make sense when revealed.  But as Jacob wrestles, the identity of his attacker is left ambiguous.  Unlike the great art of this encounter, Jacob feels no wings in this battle.  All he knows is that he is in a desperate struggle for his life, a struggle that requires remarkable endurance.  All night the deadly encounter rages.

Jacob cannot throw off his attacker; but neither does his attacker prevail until he touches him on the thigh to dislocate his hip.  Yet even then, Jacob refuses to let go until he receives a blessing.

There is an element of the heroic here.  This forefather, this namesake of the people, triumphed over his enemies and battled God to a standstill.   But there is also a profound message about God’s work in us and in our world.

God asks Jacob his name.  God knows his name; it is Jacob who must understand his name, who must recognize who he is, who he has been.  He was given that name because he was grasping at the heel of his brother.  From the womb he sought to supplant his brother.  He is a grasper, a taker, a conniver, seeking to grasp the blessing of God, like Adam and Eve grasping the fruit of the tree.  Now he is forced to acknowledge his name.  Only when he, exhausted and wounded from his struggle, acknowledges who he has been, can he be given a new name, a new identity.  He is named Israel.

Now he is ready to meet his brother.  Now he is ready for reconciliation.  When he has faced the truth of his soul, he is ready to live in the promise of God.

Walking from the river with a limp, Jacob knows that it is by the mercy of God he lives, for he has been face to face with God.  Wounded but made whole, he has become a receiver of God’s blessing and no longer a grasper.

He also understands he has never been alone.

Unbent

Saturday

Luke 13

English: Tree near Chilton Taken from the new ...

English: Tree near Chilton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

11 Just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.

Eighteen years.  We bear our burdens for a long time.  Grief.  Shame.  Fear.  Such things do not go away easily.

I will never forget the elderly woman who called me one day with a plaintive request that I come hear her confession.  It was a powerful moment, a wrenching story during the depression when there was not enough food to feed her children.  Now, late in life, unable to escape the memory, she cried out for mercy.  The story poured forth, lingered in the prayer of David’s psalm, to be swept away by that precious word of absolution.  For the first time in 50 years she stood free.  But a few days later I received another phone call.  She had a confession to make, would I come.  The word of grace had been forgotten, and the shame had returned.

I understood, then, there were issues of memory at work.  But I grieved for her – her memory of guilt was greater than her memory of grace.  She lived bent over, not 18 years but more than 50.

The miracle of healing is not what happens in our bones; it is what happens in our hearts.  It is what happens when a wounded and bent life is brought under the reign of grace.  It is not in the text, the text says he laid hands on her, but I imagine Jesus reaching out to lift this woman’s face – and in lifting her face, straightening her whole life.

Lifting our face is the hardest thing to do when we are ashamed, hard to do when we are carrying secrets.  Every impulse is to curl up, to look down, to look away, to slump over, to hide behind whatever masks or duty is at hand.  But there is that strong, tender hand of Jesus, lifting our face to his, meeting our shame with his healing light and freeing us to stand upright.

Each day we may call, and each day he will come back, until our memory of grace is stronger than our memory of shame.

2 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits–
3 who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,  (Psalm 103)

 

“When I kept silence”

Psalm 32web.dkb.dust devil.small

1 Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.

This is one of those places where the desire to keep the text gender neutral dulls its meaning.  Our translation shifts the psalm from the singular “Happy is he…” to the plural “Happy are those…”  But the psalmist is speaking of the individual here, not the community.  It is the forgiveness of one man that matters, not that of all people.  Yes, he is making a generic statement about forgiveness, but the story is a decidedly personal one.  Our poet is the man the LORD has not held in his guilt.

And “happy” is hardly adequate for the joy and peace this forgiven man has experienced.  It is altogether too shallow and cheap a word in our time.  The poet speaks rather of that sense of wholeness, peace, contentment – at one with the self and God and the world – that seems oh so rare in our time.

We are a restless bunch.  Not only outwardly, but inwardly.  We are not just running from work to soccer to market to school and back to work, but running from fears and anxieties, running from silence, running from self-examination.  We are worried about health and food and money and war.  We are struggling to make an imperfect world perfect, straining the gnat and swallowing the camel, looking for pocket knives despite the evidence that when security agents look for knives they miss bomb parts.

We are restless, thinking that one more thing, one more experience, one more accolade will make life better, more complete and silence the unrest within.  But peace cannot come from the marketplace.  It comes from being in harmony with the creator – a harmony that comes from acknowledging we are far from home and hearing God say he has made his home with us – a harmony that comes when broken relationships are mended, starting with our tie to the center of life.

“When I kept silence,” our poet says, “my body wasted away.”  Unable or unwilling to speak the truth of his soul, his soul withered.  “My strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.”  But then he found his voice:

“I said ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’
     and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” 

Repentance is not feeling guilty; it is recognizing I am off the path and turning to find it.  It is the courageous truth telling about the state of my soul and changing direction. It is not God who holds our past against us – we do.  Consciously or unconsciously the wounds and wants, fears and failings of the past bind us.  Being free starts with being true – and absorbing the word that God holds none of it against us.

9 Do not be like a horse or a mule,
     without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
     else it will not stay near you.
10 Many are the torments of the wicked,
     but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.