Grace in the wilderness

A message from Easter morning

The Resurrection of Our Lord, year A

April 12, 2020

Jeremiah 31:1-6: At that time, says the LORD, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.
Thus says the LORD:
The people who survived the sword
….found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
….the LORD appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
….therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
….O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines,
….and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
Again you shall plant vineyards
….on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
….and shall enjoy the fruit.
For there shall be a day when sentinels will call
….in the hill country of Ephraim:
“Come, let us go up to Zion,
….to the LORD our God.”
(NRSV)

Matthew 28:1-10: After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (NRSV)

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A note as we begin: Often, as I read the text, I notice things that I’d like to stop and point out.  One of these, this morning, is this word ‘greetings’.  The Greek word for ‘greetings’ is ‘rejoice’, and I have to think that might have been a better translation in this particular instance when the risen Lord greets the women as they run to tell the others. 

Matthew’s text is a wonderful accounting of the resurrection.  It conveys the earth-shattering nature of what has happened in Christ Jesus.  The earth quakes at Jesus’ death and, now, a shaking earth accompanies his resurrection.  That notion of the earth convulsing at the death and resurrection of Jesus, of all creation being changed, is a wonderful part of Matthew’s proclamation of the resurrection.

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

The reading from Jeremiah, today, contains one of my favorite verses:

The people who survived the sword
….found grace in the wilderness.

There is much in this passage from Jeremiah that is sweet.  It is a promise of a future for the people when all seems lost.  But this verse, in particular, carries profound sweetness for me.  It is the simple promise that we will find grace in the wilderness.

Jeremiah spent much of his life preaching against the leadership of his nation.  God gave the prophet a task of warning the people they were heading towards disaster.  They had turned away from God’s fundamental commands to do justice and mercy.  Greed and power dominated the leadership of the country.  The leaders listened to house prophets who told them everything was great, the king was wonderful, that everything he did would prosper, and the only thing awaiting them was blessing.  These house prophets were fed at the king’s table.

The independent prophets God raised up, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, were perceived as a thorn in the side of the king and an enemy of the country.  Jeremiah was called a traitor, people wanted to kill him and, at one point, was thrown into the mud at the bottom of an empty cistern.

When Jeremiah was banned from the temple courtyards, he had his secretary, Baruch, write down all the prophetic messages he had received from God, and had Baruch go read them.  There were faithful people in the palace who succeeded in getting the prophet’s message before the king but, as they read from the scroll Jeremiah had dictated, the king took his knife, sliced off each ‘page’ of the scroll as the reader finished, and tossed it into the fire burning next to him for warmth.

The nation was living on an illusion that nothing could hurt them.  The leadership had a vain and exalted image of themselves.  And the incompetence and folly of the king and leading wealthy families led ultimately to the destruction of the nation.

Perhaps, the most chilling story is that even after all that Jeremiah had warned came to pass, after the Babylonians had destroyed the temple and palace and carried off the ruling citizens in chains, there were zealots willing to murder the good and faithful person the Babylonians appointed as governor for being a collaborator.

In the chaos after the collapse of the nation, a group of refugees came to Jeremiah, acknowledging that they hadn’t listened to God’s warnings and promising that they would now do whatever God told him they should do.  Jeremiah went off in prayer and returned with a word from God that the people should stay in the land.  But they accused Jeremiah of lying and wanting to harm them.  Taking Jeremiah captive, they fled to Egypt as they had wanted to do.

Jeremiah watched his nation come apart, watched his people ignore all that God said to them about justice and mercy and care for those in need, watched the Babylonian armies come not once but twice – ultimately killing all the king’s sons, looting and destroying the temple, burning it to the ground, tearing down the city walls, and carting off thousands in chains as prisoners and slaves.

Caught up in their vanity and idolatry, the leadership of the nation failed profoundly and persistently.  They ignored God’s commands to keep sabbath, to care for the poor, to protect the vulnerable, to seek justice and live mercifully.  Filled with arrogant folly, they drove the nation off a cliff.

War came.  Marching armies and brutal siege brought devastating hunger followed by devastating slaughter and bottomless despair.  But when tragedy struck, God’s message turned to grace and hope, and “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness.”

There would yet be mercy for them.  There was hope.  There was a word from God that said, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.”

“I have loved you with an everlasting love.”  Dancing will come again.  Vineyards will be planted and they will enjoy the fruit.  It will not be plundered by an enemy.  It will not be sucked dry by drought.  They will sing again and they will dance.

The scripture tells the human story without any varnish.  Years of piety tend to shine things up, but the scripture paints a pretty sad – and sometimes graphic – portrait of human folly and sin and the sufferings and desolation we can face.  Yet this book is also persistent in proclaiming that a new life will come.  We will find grace in the wilderness.

The hate and lies that dominate our public square will not endure.  The world doesn’t belong to tyrants and kings.  It doesn’t belong to emperors.  The world has its beginning in God and it will have its ending there.  The world that began in goodness and life will be brought back to goodness and life.

The death and resurrection of Jesus is part of this story of human folly and divine faithfulness.  We will find favor in the wilderness.  When everything seems lost, there God will be found gathering the dry bones and breathing into them new life.  There God will take hearts of stone and turn them into hearts of flesh.  There God will make a new covenant when we have broken the old.  There God will gather us to God’s table and set before us the finest banquet.

The people who survived the sword
….found grace in the wilderness.

God loves with an everlasting love.  God’s faithfulness abides.  The time of singing will come.  Tambourines await.

Whatever sorrows life may bring, Christ is risen.  Whatever wilderness we must traverse, Christ is risen.  Whatever fear and uncertainty we confront, Christ is risen.  Human greed and violence and sin and incompetence shall not prevail.  Death does not win.  Grace wins.  Goodness wins.  Life wins

The leadership of Jesus’ day may have called him a liar and a deceiver and a threat to the public good.  But God has overturned their decision.  God has proclaimed Jesus faithful and true.

What he taught is from God.  What he did is from God.  There is grace for the thief on the cross.  There is grace for the woman caught in adultery. There is grace for Zacchaeus the tax collector.  There is grace for the deranged man living among the dead.  There is grace for the synagogue ruler and blind Bartimaeus and the woman who reached through the crowd to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe.  There is Grace for all.  And there is grace for you.

The people who survived the sword
….found grace in the wilderness.

Amen

File:M25A9895.jpg

Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg,
(so named because it was built on the site where the Russian
Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881).
(a wide view of the previous image).

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© David K Bonde, 2020, All rights reserved.

Photos: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%D0%9F%D0%BE%D1%82%D0%BE%D0%BB%D0%BE%D1%87%D0%BD%D0%B0%D1%8F_%D0%BC%D0%BE%D0%B7%D0%B0%D0%B8%D0%BA%D0%B0.jpg  Timin Ilya / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0) [cropped].

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:M25A9895.jpg   Timin Ilya / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Stay with us

File:Duccio di Buoninsegna - Road to Emmaus - WGA06821.jpg

Watching for the Morning of April 26, 2020

Year A

The Third Sunday of Easter

Jesus won’t stay.  He sits down for the breaking of the bread with the disciples at Emmaus, but then he is off.  There are others who need to see him.

That sense of mission persists in the resurrection narratives.  The work is not over.  There is a world in need of healing, a world in need of peace, a world that needs to be met by the risen Christ.  Sunday we will hear Peter finish his message to the crowds on Pentecost and they will ask to be washed in the Spirit of God.  From there they will gather around the broken bread and preached word.  The poet of the psalm will cry out to God for deliverance from a deadly disease.  Healed, he lifts up “the cup of salvation” and proclaims they mercy of God.  The letter of 1 Peter will speak of how they have been born anew “through the living and enduring word of God.”

Jesus has spent hours rooting his followers in the scriptures and explaining how his life, death, and resurrection embody the whole witness of scripture to a God who calls us forth into life and delivers us again and again when the future seems lost.  It is not just a few passages about a suffering servant and a promised Messiah that his followers must learn, but the message of a God who calls forth a good and beautiful world from the primal chaos, who protects our first parents when they have betrayed God and lost the garden, who delivers the creation at the time of Noah and blesses it anew, who gives Abraham and Sarah a child when the promise of blessing to the world seems hopeless, who delivers a people from bondage and leads them through the wilderness despite their faithlessness, who remains faithful even when Jerusalem and its temple falls.  When all hope fails, God is there to lead us back to God’s will and way.  Deserts bloom and a highway opens in the wilderness.  The stone is rolled away and the emptiness of the grave is seen.

In the word and the breaking of the bread Christ is present.  But then he is away.  There is a world to heal, a new creation to dawn.

The Prayer for April 26, 2020

Gracious God,
as Jesus revealed himself to his disciples in the breaking of the bread,
and opened their minds to understand the scriptures,
continue to reveal yourself to us
that we may live in the joy and freedom of your grace,
and bear witness to your redeeming love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.
Amen

The Texts for April 26, 2020

First Reading: Acts 2:14a, 36-42 (appointed, 2:14a, 36-41)
“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” – Peter bears witness to the crowds at Pentecost, urging them to turn and show allegiance to Christ Jesus whom God has vindicated and revealed as Lord by his resurrection.  Many respond and are baptized, joining the community around the word and breaking of the bread.

Psalmody: Psalm 116:1-4, 12-14 (appointed: Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19)
“What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?  I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” – a prayer of thanksgiving for healing.  The poet is delivered from death and feasts in the Lord’s presence.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 1:17-23
“You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.” –
a homily on baptism urging the believers to remain faithful to their new life.

Gospel: Luke 24:13-35
“Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus.” – Jesus appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, opening to them the scriptures and revealing himself in the breaking of bread.

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I apologize to those who follow this blog for my absence during the last several months.  My time was taken up with daily devotions for Lent at our Holy Seasons site.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_-_Road_to_Emmaus_-_WGA06821.jpg  Duccio di Buoninsegna / Public domain

We will go with him

 

Watching for the Morning of February 23, 2020

Year A

The Feast of the Transfiguration

Sunday is the last of the Alleluias.  By tradition, they are omitted during Lent; we do not sing them again until the cry goes out: “Christ is risen!” and the darkness turns to light in that night that dawns into Easter morning.

Sunday we are on the mountain peak.  The cloud of God’s presence surrounds Jesus and he is made radiant by God’s glory.  It is a vision that confirms the word spoken at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”  It is a vindication of all that Jesus has said and will yet say.  “Listen to him,” the heavenly voice says.  Listen to him.  Dare to hear what he says about the cross and resurrection.  Dare to follow him to Jerusalem.  Dare to see the arms stretched wide and the blood outpoured.  Dare to trust the word of the women who will see the vision of angels and the empty tomb.  Dare to trust and live the redemption of the world that happens here where shame is suffered and mercy given.  Listen to him.

Sunday we are made ready for our Lenten journey.  In our first reading we are reminded of Moses ascending into the cloud of God’s presence at Sinai.  In the psalm, we hear the divine voice say of the king “You are my son; today I have begotten you,” words that gain their fullest meaning as they are spoken of the lamb who shall reign over a world made new.  We hear the author of 2 Peter testify to their vision: “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”  And we will hear Matthew’s account of that moment, and how Jesus came and touched Peter, James, and John, telling them not to be afraid.

There is a path ahead that is full of wonder and mystery that Jesus’ followers will not fully understand until the Spirit beats in every heart.  But we are made ready for the journey.  This is God’s beloved.  And we will go with him from death into life.

The Prayer for February 23, 2020

Holy and Wondrous God,
hidden in mystery yet revealed in your Son, Jesus,
of whom the law and prophets bear witness
and upon whom your splendor shines:
Help us to hear his voice
and see your glory in his outstretched arms;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.
Amen

The Texts for February 23, 2020

First Reading: Exodus 24:12-18
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.’” – God speaks to Moses from the cloud on Mt. Sinai.  Both the cloud as a symbol of God’s presence and the tradition that Moses’ face shone from speaking to God face to face lie in the background of today’s Gospel narrative of the transfiguration of Jesus.

Psalmody: Psalm 2
“Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?” – A royal psalm that contains a declaration by God to the king “You are my son; today I have begotten you” similar to that spoken by God to Jesus in the story of the transfiguration.

Second Reading: 2 Peter 1:16-21
“He received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
– The author of 2 Peter alludes to the events on the Mount of the Transfiguration.

Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9
“He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” – After Peter has confessed Jesus as the Christ only to be told that the Messiah must suffer and be killed, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on the mountain where they have a visionary experience of Jesus transfigured by the radiant presence of God.

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Image: dkbonde

Faithless and faithful

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St. Thomas. Tradition holds that he was martyred by being pierced with spears.

Watching for the Morning of April 28, 2019

Year C

The Second Sunday of Easter

Sunday tells the story of “Doubting Thomas,” but faithless and faithful are better words for understanding the Biblical idea than faith and doubt or belief and unbelief.

What does it mean for the followers of Jesus to stand on this side of Good Friday? What does it mean to have seen the one they revered as good and true be judged wicked and false? What does it mean to have seen the one in whom they hoped be revealed as weak and helpless? Is their allegiance to his vision, his promise, his teaching about a world renewed and a faithfulness towards all now a fool’s errand? Does power rule? Does the world belong to cruelty and violence? Are the terrorists correct that we should fight fire with fire? Or the Pharisees, that God will not come to deliver us until we become a ritually pure people? Can you remain faithful to a man who was such a spectacular failure?

The women at the tomb say yes. Those gathered behind locked doors on that first Easter evening are encountered by one who lives, whose word abides, whose work is accomplished, who is revealed as true.

But Thomas wasn’t there. And we weren’t there. We haven’t seen the wounded hands and side. We haven’t shared the vision. We haven’t heard the word of peace or felt the breath of his Spirit.

Or have we?

Have we not seen his presence? Have we not felt his Spirit? In the community gathered, in the acts of kindness, in the work of healing, in the grace of the table? Have we not heard his word and seen his wounds in the sorrows of the world? Have we not recognized him in acts of courage and lives of faithfulness?

We have not seen what those first disciples saw; but we have seen. And we continue to see. And like Thomas we are drawn into faithfulness.

So Sunday we will hear the followers of Jesus, threatened by the ruling powers who murdered Jesus, declaring boldly “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” We will sing with the psalmist about the rock the builders rejecting becoming the chief cornerstone. And we will hear the prophet John begin his letter with its collection of visions, greeting us “from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead.” The crucified one is the living one. He is the faithful witness to the heart of God and he comes to breathe upon us his Spirit and call us ever into faithfulness.

The Prayer for April 28, 2019

Gracious Lord Jesus,
in your mercy you did not leave Thomas in his unbelief,
but came to him, revealing your hands and your side,
and calling him into faith.
So come to us wherever we are in our doubt and uncertainty
and by your word reveal yourself to us anew as our living Lord,
who with the Father and Holy Spirit lives and reigns,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for April 28, 2019

First Reading: Acts 5:21b-32 (appointed: 5:27-32)
“We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” – Having been arrested for saying that God had raised Jesus (and thus condemning the rulers for condemning him), the apostles are released from prison by an angel and told to return to the temple to preach. There they are arrested again and brought before the ruling council.

Psalmody: Psalm 118:14-16, 22-23, 26-27, 29 (appointed: Psalm 118:14-29)
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” – We continue in this foundational psalm that was so influential for the early Christian community in interpreting what happened to Jesus. The psalm celebrates the king, returning in triumph from an unexpected victory.

Second Reading: Revelation 1:4-8
“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come… and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”
– The opening salutation of the Book of Revelation (written in the form of a letter).

Gospel: John 20:19-31
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” – Jesus appears to his followers on Easter Evening and commissions them with the gift of the Holy Spirit, then appears again, the following Sunday, to summon Thomas into faithfulness.

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My apologies to those who follow this site and have missed the last several weeks. During the season of Lent I was writing and posting reflections for the Lenten Season at Holy Seasons.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_Tour-St_Thomas.jpg Georges de La Tour [Public domain]

Rage and redemption

File:Smoldering ruins of African American's homes following race riots - Tulsa Okla 1921.jpg

Aftermath of the Tulsa Riot that destroyed the homes and businesses in the black community of Greenwood, killing more than 100.

Watching for the Morning of February 3, 2019

Year C

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

An outbreak of communal violence is an ugly thing. We shouldn’t think first of the mindless behavior of hometown fans when their team wins the final game. Nor should we think first of the violence that rocks nations when oppressed communities respond to state violence with outrage. We need to think about lynchings: the angry, outraged mobs that insist on immediate vengeance for some fundamental violation of communal norms.

And we need to think about our stories, not what’s happening in some other country.

Emmett Till was 14, visiting from Chicago, when he encountered 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant at the small country store she owned with her husband in Money, Mississippi. He may have whistled at her; he may have whistled to his friends; he may have whistled softly to himself as he had been taught in order to control his stuttering. He was taken from the home where he was staying with his great-uncle in the middle of the night by Carolyn’s husband and his half-brother. Emmett’s naked, shot, and brutally beaten body was fished from the Tallahatchie River three days later, barbed wire wrapped around his neck and attached to a weight.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice records that “more than 4400 African American men, women, and children were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.”

What happened to Stephen in Acts 2 is this same kind of outbreak of communal violence. A mob outraged by his claim to see Jesus at the right hand of God rose up in violent revenge. It happened repeatedly to the apostle Paul – indeed Paul participated in the murder of Stephen and was dedicated to arresting followers of Jesus when the risen Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. The arrest that led to Paul’s eventual execution in Rome followed a riot begun with a rumor that he had desecrated the Jerusalem temple by bringing a gentile into the inner court.

Communal violence is an ugly thing. The crucifixion of Jesus was a deliberate act of the governing families in Jerusalem allied with the Roman imperium. It was an act of state violence. But what happened to Jesus in Nazareth after his sermon was a more visceral outbreak of rage. We paint pictures of Jesus with children and lambs and it takes some work to understand what part of his message was so offensive his hearers rose in fury to kill him.

Jesus has laid claim to be the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel. He is the embodiment of God’s reign to rescue the poor and release the captive. But such a claim is a scandal in a culture where every

Jesus is uppity, acting out of his station in life. Jesus calls the people on their implicit rejection of his ministry – and then he dares to say that God’s reign is not for Israel but for all people. The people assert his obligation is to care for his family and village, but Jesus points to Elijah and Elisha who dispensed God’s favors to a poor widow and an afflicted leper among Israel’s enemies. This is what leads to rage, to the ugliness of communal violence. Jesus might as well have whistled at a white woman.

It is deep within us, this conviction God should care for us more than others. Donald Trump milked and manipulated it into the presidency. It took Jesus to the cross. But in the empty tomb God declared Jesus the one who speaks the truth.

So Sunday we will hear about Jeremiah’s prophetic call and God’s command he should speak fearlessly. The psalmist will declare God is his rock and his fortress. Corinthians will speak to us about the ultimate importance of love – not romantic love, but fidelity and care for all people. And then comes the abortive attempt on Jesus’ life. They will not get him this day; they will not get him in the end, for we follow one whose love is not silenced by hate.

The Prayer for February 3, 2019

Almighty God,
through your Son Jesus you revealed your gracious rule
to bind up the wounded and set free the captive.
Let us not fail to understand your will and your way,
but grant us willing hearts to receive your word and live your kingdom;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for February 3, 2019

First Reading: Jeremiah 1:4-10
“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” – God calls Jeremiah to his prophetic ministry.

Psalmody: Psalm 71:1-6
“In you, O Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame.”
– The psalm writer cries out to God for protection “from the hand of the wicked.”

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” – Paul continues to teach his conflicted congregation in Corinth about the gifts of God’s Spirit and their life together as a community. All gifts serve the community and the greatest gift is love – concern for and fidelity to one another

Gospel: Luke 4:21-30
“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”
– The message Jesus announces in Nazareth that the age to come is dawning even as Jesus speaks is met with hostility and a murderous attempt on his life.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Smoldering_ruins_of_African_American%27s_homes_following_race_riots_-_Tulsa_Okla_1921.jpg Alvin C. Krupnick Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The season of hope

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Watching for the Morning of December 2, 2018

Year C

The First Sunday of Advent

Jeremiah survived the Babylonian attack on the city of Jerusalem. He watched as the defenders tore down the houses of its wealthy inhabitant to buttress the walls against the Babylonian siege works. He watch starvation take the city. He saw young and old perish in the streets. He saw the plundering, raping soldiers and the burning fires. He saw the holy treasures of the temple carried off to the royal treasury of Babylon. He saw it all.

And he saw it coming. But his cries for the nation to change its course went unheeded. His prophetic words dismissed as treason. He was arrested and thrown into a cistern.

Jeremiah saw it all. But he also saw into the heart of God. He heard God’s rage at the corruption and injustice, idolatry and faithlessness of his time. But he also heard God’s determination. God would not forsake this people. God would not forsake this world. God would redeem it. God would fulfill God’s promises. And so Jeremiah stood in the rubble of the abandoned city and saw happy brides and feasting families. He surveyed the desolation and heard the song of temple singers rising in praise. He heard laughter and joy. He saw abundance. He saw flocks adorning the hillsides. He saw a just king and faithful priests and a faithful people. Where others saw only destruction and despair, Jeremiah saw the creative and redeeming hand of God bring the broken city to new life.

It doesn’t take great prophetic insight to see a nation careening towards catastrophe. But it takes great sight to see beyond the sorrow. And it takes great courage to speak it. Who should believe such words amidst the rubble? They sound like fantasy. Vain imagination. Denial.

Who could foresee resurrection? In the broken body of Jesus, stripped and shamed, beaten and bloody, who could foresee the creative act of God to make all things new?

It is God’s work to redeem the world, to bring it to new birth. So evn as we read the texts of the apocalyptic woes – the death throes of a fallen world – Jesus summons us to raise our heads. To look, for “your redemption is drawing near.” He urges us to remain faithful. To continue to gather the outcast and forgive the sinner and welcome the stranger. To continue to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. To continue to love God and neighbor as ourselves. To continue to sing God’s praise and gather at God’s table. For the day we await is an empty tomb, a world made new, a creation resurrected.

Sunday’s texts are from Jeremiah promising “a righteous Branch to spring up” from the fallen line of David and from Isaiah 51 promising justice to the nations. Paul will speak of his confidence “that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” And Jesus will tell us to raise our heads, “because your redemption is drawing near.” It is Advent. The season of hope.

The Prayer for December 2, 2018

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Make us ever mindful that our lives move towards your Grace,
that we might be faithful children of hope;
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 December 2, 2015

First Reading: Jeremiah 33:14-16
“In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
– In the aftermath of the national catastrophe, when Babylon’s armies came and crushed the nation, destroying Jerusalem and the temple of its God, the prophet rises, daring to declare that the LORD’s promise to Israel is not voided. That God will yet fulfill his promise under the banner of a true and faithful king.

Psalmody: Isaiah 51:4-11 (appointed: Psalm 25:1-10)
“The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads, sorrow and sighing will flee away.” – In place of the appointed psalm, our parish sings the song of salvation from Isaiah 51 where the prophet declares that the faithfulness of God is more enduring than earth and sea and heralds the return from exile in “everlasting joy.”

Second Reading: Philippians 1:3-11 (appointed: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13)
“This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more… so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless.” – Though Paul writes from prison, his eyes are on the fulfillment of God’s promise to establish his reign of grace and life and writes his beloved congregation, rejoicing in their faith and urging them to faithfulness.

Gospel: Luke 21:25-36
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” – Reading now in Luke at the beginning of a new church year, we start with eyes turned toward the horizon of human history and the promise of the ultimate dawning of God’s reign over all creation.

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Devotional verses and reflections for the Advent season can be found at Holy Seasons

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LA2_juleljus.jpg LA2 [CC SA 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/sa/1.0/)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

“Is Jesus a monster?”

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Sunday Evening

Christ the King / Reign of Christ 2018

“Is Jesus a monster?” she asked with the rising inflection that indicates both surprise and a struggle to understand. I had brought to the children’s sermon an icon of Jesus and asked them who it was. When we settled on Jesus, one little boy announced “Jesus is dead.” I answered “Yes, Jesus died, but God made Jesus alive again.” When he then asked if Jesus would die again, I said “No, God made Jesus alive in a way that would never die.” That’s when the eyes of the little girl grew puzzled as she confronted the thought that Jesus was a zombie.

I hadn’t intended to talk about the resurrection. Last Sunday was the final Sunday of the church year celebrated in our tradition as Christ the King. I was showing the children a famous icon of Jesus where one half of his face doesn’t match the other. Two faces have been painted together. It has an interesting effect as you look at it. You see one face, but it gives you this strange experience that there is more here. And so it is with Jesus. He is fully and completely human, yet we sense there is more here. The face of God is present here with this human face. The hands of God with these human hands. The voice of God in these human words.

File:Composite christ pantocrator.pngAll I wanted to talk about was that sense of something more in Jesus. Something of God comes to us in him. But then the little boy said Jesus was dead, and now we were speaking of an even greater mystery than the incarnation. Now it is Easter without the bunnies and flowers. Now it was just the raw, unvarnished mystery that he who died is not dead, and the promise that we too shall live in God. Hard concepts for children. Even harder for adults.

I tried to rescue the conversation by talking about how much they love their parents and their parents love them. Their parents would never want to be separated from them. In the same way God loves us so much that God never wants to be separated from us. It’s a mystery how this happens, but the love of God is sure.

I don’t know whether it worked. But I tried.

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Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christ_Icon_Sinai_6th_century.jpg Saint Catherine’s Monastery [Public domain]

Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Composite_christ_pantocrator.png JustinGBX (me) created the composite. “anonimus” uploaded the original photograph. Painter is from the 6th century so clearly public domain. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Serious business

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Watching for the Morning of October 21, 2018

Year B

The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 24 / Lectionary 29

“They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.”

The text as appointed for Sunday doesn’t include these words, but we will read them. They are laden with the fateful truth about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Jesus leads. It is his decision, his determination to walk into the lion’s den. And those who follow are amazed and afraid – amazed at his boldness, afraid at its consequences. Afraid not just for him for them all.

Following Jesus is serious business.

So Jesus will again tell his students about his fate in Jerusalem: “they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” And they will understand none of it. James and John will make their request to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in his glory – and the rest of the disciples will be outraged, presumably because they didn’t ask first. And again we will hear about living as servants in the world rather than masters, and Jesus will remind us that, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Following Jesus is serious business.

We will begin with Isaiah on Sunday, speaking of a suffering servant who “was wounded for our transgressions” with all it’s troubling implications that we are not, in fact, the noble human beings we want to believe we are, but immersed in a human community deeply flawed and turned from God and neighbor. And we will read the psalm together that speaks a promise we know cannot be true, for we are not always delivered from the snare of the fowler. And even if the psalm that once exalted Israel’s king now speaks of Jesus, we know that the angels will not bear him up lest he strike his foot against a stone. Thorns and nails await. And the mystery of God’s deliverance is much more profound than a simple protection from life’s harms.

Following Jesus is serious business.

But then, before we listen to Jesus’ fateful words, we will hear the author of Hebrews write: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

These are serious things. Eternal things. Undying. Imperishable. And perfect.

The Prayer for October 21, 2018

You are our refuge, O God,
and our holy habitation.
Grant that, dwelling in you,
our lives may honor him who gave his life as our ransom:
your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 21, 2018

First Reading: Isaiah 53:4-12
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” – In the 6th century BCE, the prophet speaks of a servant of God who suffers on behalf of the people, and “by his stripes we are healed.”

Psalmody: Psalm 91 (appointed 91:9-16)
“You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
– The poet sings of God’s faithfulness.

Second Reading: Hebrews 5:1-10
“You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”
– Christ is our true high priest, appointed by God, who mediates our reconciliation.

Gospel: Mark 10:32-45 (appointed 10:35-45)
“Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” – James and John approach Jesus looking for positions of honor in the new administration and Jesus has to once again explain that the kingdom of God inverts the values of the world.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Duccio_Maesta_detail3.jpg Duccio di Buoninsegna [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The heartbeat of the world

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Watching for the Morning of August 19, 2018

Year B

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Wisdom weaves through our first two readings and the psalm this Sunday, but they aren’t the right texts to go with this Gospel. They work. They are good texts. Jesus is talking about the bread of life and the bread of life is certainly the teaching, the wisdom, the word embodied in this Jesus. But the portion from John 6 before us this week shows another facet of the sign of the loaves and fishes. Jesus uses graphic language about munching on his flesh and blood – language sure to reveal that the crowd around him doesn’t “see”, doesn’t “believe”, doesn’t “come” to this bread from heaven who brings true life to the world. It is offensive language to people for whom eating blood – or meat with the blood still in it – is strictly forbidden by God. The ancient texts declare that the blood is the life, and must be poured back into the earth from which all life comes.

This language, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” echoes with more than the wisdom of God and the teaching of Jesus. It is language we hear in the other Gospels during the night in which Jesus is betrayed, when takes up the bread saying, “This is my body,” and the cup, saying, “This is my blood.”

Jesus’ words on Sunday are part of the turn in this chapter towards the death of Jesus, his sacrifice upon the cross, his giving of his blood and flesh. This is the language of sacrifice when the people would offer to God the blood, to the priest a portion of the meat, and take the rest for a feast that signifies reconciliation and table fellowship with God. In place of Jesus’ real flesh, this “lamb of God” offers to us bread and wine as body and blood. The blood, the life, that belonged only to God, is now given also to us.

The sign of the feeding of the five thousand is all these things. It is receiving the life that comes to us from the realm of God: it is about Jesus teaching, his way of life, his deeds of grace and mercy, his command to love, his sacrifice, his presence in the community, his gift of the Spirit. This bread from heaven is content and relationship and the feast to come. It is a participation now and forever in the reality that is Christ Jesus, the embodiment of all God’s Word, God’s speaking to us that lies at heart of creation and is the essence of God’s encounter with the world.

So we will hear, this Sunday, wisdom personified, calling like a patron summoning guests to banquet at her table. And we will sing the psalm that invites us to come and learn the way of the LORD. And we will hear the author of Ephesians call us to live “not as unwise people but as wise.” But the Gospel will invite us not just into Jesus’ teaching, but into the table fellowship where heaven and earth are united and our hearts are joined to the true heartbeat of the world.

The Prayer for August 19, 2018

Eternal God,
in the body and blood of Christ Jesus, broken and shed,
you have opened for us the way of everlasting life.
Grant us faith to trust your gift
and live your love for the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 19, 2018

First Reading: Proverbs 9:1-6
“Wisdom…has sent out her servant girls, she calls from the highest places in the town…’Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.’” – Wisdom is personified as a hostess calling the people to come to her banquet and feed on her teaching.

Psalmody: Psalm 34:9-14
“Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.”
– The poet calls his hearers to learn the way of God.

Second Reading: Ephesians 5:15-20
“Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.”
– The author continues the exhortation for our life together, encouraging us to be filled with the Spirit.

Gospel: John 6:51-58
“‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’” – the reflection on the meaning of the sign of the feeding of the 5,000, continues with Jesus provoking the crowd with graphic language about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Altarraum-Kreuz_in_Taiz%C3%A9.jpg By Christian Pulfrich [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Bread for the journey

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Friday

1 Kings 19:1-8

1Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets [of Baal] with the sword.

The reading as appointed for this Sunday doesn’t include these words. It begins without explanation in verse 4 saying “[Elijah] went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree.” There was a time in which the average person in the pew knew the story of Elijah’s dramatic confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. They would have known that the northern kingdom of Israel’s king, Ahab, had married a Sidonian Princess, Jezebel, and she had undertaken a project to bring Israel’s ancient faith into the modern world, replacing its god of the exodus and wilderness with Baal, the god of rain – replacing the God of justice and mercy with the god of fertility and prosperity. The average parishioner would have known that a profound religious conflict was underway, that Jezebel was murdering the prophets of the LORD, and that God had declared through Elijah that if Israel wanted to worship the god who gives rain, God would show them who truly ruled and announced there would be no rain except at God’s word.

When the burden of the drought became unbearable, with the king plundering the resources of the countryside for his own table and horses, Elijah summoned the people and proposed a showdown with the prophets of Baal. Each would lay out a sacrifice but neither would bring fire. Each would pray for their god to send down fire from heaven. The prophets of Baal did their ecstatic prayers all day as Elijah stood by taunting them to shout louder suggesting Baal “is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”  Then, to demonstrate the truth of the LORD, Elijah drowns his altar with water before offering his prayer. Fire promptly descends and consumes everything: offering, altar and the surrounding ditch of water.

An uprising occurs where Elijah orders the murder of the pagan prophets. The queen, however, is enraged and unconverted. She solemnly vows to kill Elijah who flees into the wilderness; his triumphant cultural revolution has failed. There, in his exhaustion, fear and despair, he lies down and prays to die.

There was a time everyone hearing our small portion of the reading would have known all this backstory, but no longer. And maybe the language of murderous religious strife is too toxic for our day. But without the backstory, the power and drama of the meal eludes us. Wondrous bread in the wilderness is one thing; bread when all hope is lost is another.

The God who feeds Elijah is the God who again and again delivers when hope is lost. From the very first narrative of Adam and Eve evicted from the Garden, or Cain with the blood of his brother on his hands, God provides a future when the future is lost. A new beginning is given to a world engulfed in violence through Noah. The line of Shem ends with Abraham and a barren wife, yet a child is promised and given. Jacob is sold into slavery, imprisoned by a lie and lost in the dungeons of Egypt, but rises to rule. Israel is in bondage but God opens the Red Sea. In the wilderness without food or water, a rock yields a river and the heavens rain manna. When Jerusalem is destroyed and the people in exile without hope, God announces a new exodus: make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” It is the central narrative of the scripture.

There is so much more in our little narrative than a wondrous heavenly meal given to an ancient prophet. It is the gift of hope, the promise of a future, a journey worth taking into the presence of God.

We hear this story as people who see the painful wounds of the world and the terrible capacities of the human heart. In every sanctuary is a cross – testimony to the brutal reign of human empire in the nails and pierced side of Jesus. We hear this story in the midst of our personal journeys to fearful places. But the grave is empty. And from the wounded hands of a risen lord we, like Elijah, are fed with bread for the journey.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:N.D._de_la_Chapelle_812.jpg By Michel wal [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons