“I kept that promise.”

File:Verso l'infinito - Convento Frati Cappuccini Monterosso al Mare - Cinque Terre.jpgSunday

It’s hard to describe what happened to me at the altar during the prayers of the church, yesterday. Typical Lutheran congregations don’t have a shared vocabulary for discussing personal spiritual experiences. Other communities of which I have been a part find it easier to say that God spoke to them. They know we are not talking about any kind of auditory experience, but a kind of intuition, a sense of some truth breaking into our consciousness.  A truth that comes from somewhere beyond us. Or deep within us.  Though it does seem almost audible at times.

It typically comes with the force of deep conviction. It carries a certainty, though we seldom think of it as if it were absolute. If the intuition doesn’t work out, we are willing to let it go. We misheard. Or it’s something whose truth is waiting its time.

Anyway, I had one of those moments in worship Sunday morning.  It came to me as if a voice, saying “I kept that promise.”

The reference is to the story of the synagogue ruler’s daughter, where Jesus comes in answer to the father’s prayer for her healing only to be met by the wail of mourners. On the way, the little girl had died.

It is that story with the words “Talitha cumi”, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

I have read that text in worship many times since I laid my daughter’s body in the ground. The text from Mark comes around in the assigned lectionary every three years, as does the account in Matthew, and we have been through the cycle five times, now. It is always bittersweet to give voice to those words before the congregation.  I recognize the message of the text. I understand the grace of Jesus’ work. I also know the parents’ grief. There has always been a certain kind of hole in my heart that Jesus wasn’t there to say those words to Anna on the night her life was taken.

It’s been 16 years. And, for some reason, this morning I was finally ready to hear Jesus whisper to me: “I kept that promise.”

He had spoken those words. Beyond my hearing, in ways far more profound than I can understand, he kept the promise. He spoke to Anna saying, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

I know it sounds like pie in the sky, a pious fiction, a denial of death’s dark realty.  And anytime in the last 16 years it would have sounded that way to me, too. I have fought fiercely – sometimes unfortunately fiercely – to be truthful about the reality of death. I resist all the pious platitudes about God’s plan and loved one’s in heaven. Death is death. It rips from our arms those we love. It rends the human community. It is an invader in God’s good creation. And even in those times when it comes as a relief after long suffering, it is still death, still a thief, a bandit, a terrorist, stealing life from the world – whether sucking it away slowly and snatching it away all at once.

The wonder of Easter is not that it minimizes death’s power. The wonder of Easter is that it proclaims that death is a pretender. It does not own our lives. It could not silence Jesus. It could not stop God’s redeeming work. There is a making whole of this rent world that awaits us. Somehow. Beyond our understanding. But real enough for us to trust. Real enough for us to live.

Why, today, I don’t know. It wasn’t our assigned reading. The text hasn’t been on my mind. I wasn’t experiencing a moment of grief – though the grief of Anna’s death is never all that far away. It wasn’t particularly related to the prayers being offered or the sermon I had just preached. But there it was. And today, for whatever reason, I was ready to hear: God was faithful. He spoke the words. He kept the promise.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Verso_l%27infinito_-_Convento_Frati_Cappuccini_Monterosso_al_Mare_-_Cinque_Terre.jpg By GIANFRANCO NEGRI (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

97,000

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Sunday Evening

John 10:22-30

27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.

File:Rom, Titusbogen, Triumphzug 3.jpgIt’s hard to know how many people perished when Judea rose in revolt and Titus came to crush the rebellion. Josephus says 1.1 million died in Jerusalem and 97,000 were carried off to slavery. We see their image carved into the Arch of Titus in Rome. They are in chains and the temple treasures held high as booty. It paid for the construction of the Roman Coliseum, where many more Jews and Christians would lose their lives.

When John’s community listens to this set of images about the good shepherd, the thieves and bandits, and the hirelings, Jerusalem’s tragic story is not that many years behind them.

‘Perish’ is a soft translation for a word that typically means to kill or destroy utterly. ‘Snatch’ seems like trying to grab something off my brother’s desk when I was ten, rather than the 97,000 taken away by force.

The hirelings are the Jerusalem elite who saved their skins. The thieves and bandits are the rebels acclaimed as messiahs (or condemned as terrorists) who seized control of the city and led the revolt. And the wolf is the Roman Army that came “to steal, kill and destroy.”

The history is brutal as revolutions often are. Consider the reign of terror in Paris or the ruthlessness of the Russian Revolution or the killing fields of Pol Pot or the ISIS beheadings in the ancient Roman theater in Palmyra. The Judean revolt was not different. But it ended with utter destruction and slavery.

Caiaphas will say that “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (11:50) Yet the truth of the matter is that the path followed by Caiaphas and the nation led to destruction. The path offered by Jesus would have led to life.

And still that path is offered to us every Sunday around a table with broken bread. But the path of wars and crusades seems too alluring. Compassion, mercy, justice, faithfulness – they don’t rouse the crowd like anger, hate and claims of divine approval. But they are life. Imperishable life.

Followers of Jesus where crucified and slain in the chaos of that war. Some by Rome and its allies. Some by their fellow countrymen. But they knew true life. And no one can ever snatch them from Jesus’ hand.

 

Image of the Arch of Titus: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARomeArchofTitus02.jpg By Alexander Z. (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Closeup of the Arch: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARom%2C_Titusbogen%2C_Triumphzug_3.jpg  By Dnalor 01 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 at (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/at/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Peace

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Appearance of Christ at the Cenacle (Apparition du Christ au cénacle) - James Tissot.jpg

Saturday

John 20:19-31

19When 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.”

The sanctuary was rich with the aroma of lilies this morning as the family gathered for a small private funeral. It was not the Easter of the crowded sanctuary and eager children. It was not the Easter of the organ and trumpet, bells and choir. It was the Easter of a family traveling the road towards Emmaus, from pain and confusion towards the presence of the risen Christ.

The first word out of Jesus’ mouth when he appears to his followers in John’s Gospel is the word of peace. It is also the second word he speaks. We don’t have the normal “Stop being afraid” that we get with a heavenly encounter; we have the dominical word that does not simply offer peace but brings it. “Peace to you.” It’s not a wish or a hope, but the gift of the risen Lord.

Peace eludes us. Not just in the face of death, but in all the stress and challenge of ordinary life. We are concerned for our children, concerned for our parents, concerned about work, concerned about finances, concerned about the care of the house, concerned for our health, our sleep, our future, our past.

And whether we recognize it or not, we are concerned about matters of the spirit. We often think we are seeking happiness, but we are seeking peace. Wholeness. Connection. Meaning. A sense of harmony within ourselves and with the world around us. We are seeking peace. Shalom.

Peace eludes us. But where we do not expect it, peace comes. In the breaking of bread. In the recognition of wounded hands. In the presence of the risen Christ. In the breath of the Holy Spirit.

Where we do not expect it, peace comes. In a quiet sanctuary and the scent of lilies and the paschal candle burning: Christ the risen one, Christ the light of the world, Christ the light in my darkness, Christ the wounded one, Christ the living one, Christ who gathers us into his peace.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABrooklyn_Museum_-_The_Appearance_of_Christ_at_the_Cenacle_(Apparition_du_Christ_au_c%C3%A9nacle)_-_James_Tissot.jpg  James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Finally made whole

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Wednesday

Philippians 3:17-4:1

21He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

One of my early experiences in ministry was with a woman who died of cancer. I remember few details now, only that it eventually spread to her brain. She was a lovely young woman with children at the end of high school and beginning of college.

I watched as she slowly deteriorated, and knew that the end was drawing near. But the doctors in those days were all geared to keeping spirits up rather than telling the truth, and she slipped into a coma before her parents or children could make their goodbyes. I alone had that chance.

There have been children in my parish who struggled with cancer, an infant who died from a ruptured appendix, many who have struggled with deteriorating joints, failing hearts, livers and lungs. And then there are those who struggled with dementia and mental illness. I can still feel the distress of one woman in a nursing home who begged me to help her escape, certain she had been kidnapped, and others for whom the room swirled with voices.

Paul lives in a world without any of the benefits of modern medicine. The bones of archaeological digs show people suffering from numerous afflictions. Life was painful and short. But even though physicians can now do wondrous things, our bodies are frail, limited, failing.

It sounds fanciful, perhaps even delusional, to say that Christ “will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory,” that our frail bodies, lying under the sentence of death, shall be transformed into resurrected bodies like that of Christ Jesus. But you cannot deny the power of such a hope.

We tend to settle for a kind death and an end to the pain. And/or we adopt the Greek notion of an immortal soul free from a body altogether. But Christian faith persists in the notion that the world was not intended to be suffering and sorrow and that the author of the universe will fulfill the promise of delivering his creation from death’s dominion. I cannot conceive what this means except by metaphor. It’s why I appreciate the remark by the elder in 1 John: Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

I don’t know what we shall be, but I live in the light of the promise that the work is begun in us and shall be brought to completion, that we shall be like Christ risen: finally made whole, finally made fully and truly alive.

 

Photo: By Malene Thyssen (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Lift up your heads

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Watching for the Morning of November 29, 2015

Year C

The First Sunday of Advent

So much of our imagery of the end of the world seems to describe “the end of the world.” We get stuck on the four horsemen of the apocalypse and forget that the whole narrative of Revelation drives towards the vision of the New Jerusalem – the making new of the world. Maybe that’s because “the end of the world” is so common in our experience. The loss of parents, the loss of a spouse, the loss of a marriage, the loss of a job – they all contain elements of a life that will never be the same, life that seems irrecoverable, life that seems at an end.

I remember how often I tried to remind my girls that some catastrophe at school or at home – a broken relationship, a broken toy or spilled milk on a report – was not “the end of the world.” But even there, “the end of the world” is equated with disaster – just a bigger one than whatever misfortune has just occurred.

Though Christianity recognizes how deep and stubborn is the rebellion in the human heart, how prolonged the labor pains might be in the birthing of God’s new world, it is about God’s world made new – restored, freed, healed, redeemed, saved. Those are all the words at the center of Christian faith, not the dark woes of apocalypticism.

There is a stunning realism in this religion accused of being “pie in the sky” – a realism about the darkness that lurks in human societies, and the wastes and wraths of our sorrows. Kings go to war, bombing villages and destroying ancient communities, disrupting food and water supplies, leading to disease and death long after the sword has passed through. Leading to the suffering of children and innocents. Leading to the birthing of hate and revenge. Leading to the birthing of despair. There is realism in Christianity.  The central story we tell is about a brutal torture and execution of an innocent man.

But the end is not the grave. The world belongs to God and not to suffering and death. We were created for joy not sorrow, for meaningful work not slave labor, for union not divorce, for a life with God in the garden not hiding in the bushes. We were created for life not death. And though we yield so easily and completely to the powers of death (revenge, hate, neglect, cruelty, greed, bitterness, and the darkest nihilism) we are creatures born of the breath of God in whom we can also see all that is glorious about our made-in-the-image-of-God humanity: love, tenderness, laughter, play, kindness, care of strangers, sharing of bread, coming to the aid of those in need.

So on the first Sunday of the year our eyes are on the horizon – not because the world ends in whimpering and silence, but because it ends in joy. And the God who comes on the horizon of history is the one who has already met us lying in a manger, and at a breakfast barbecue on the shore of Galilee.

The prayer for November 29, 2015

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 November 29, 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.

 

Image: Filippino Lippi, Archangel Gabriel in the fresco of the Annunciation, Carafa chapel.  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Stalked by life

Friday

Isaiah 25:6-9

File:Rossakiewicz Angel.jpg7And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.

There is more to say about this word swallow. The word translated ‘destroy’ in the first half of the line is the same word as ‘swallow’ in the second half. And while it sounds odd to say God would swallow the shroud, it makes perfect sense to say he will destroy death.

This word swallow brings some interesting images to bear on the message of the text. Pharaoh’s dream has the thin heads of grain ‘swallowing’ the fat ones. When the Egyptian priests mimic the trick of Aaron’s staff turning into a snake, Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.” In the song of Moses, when the people sing of the Egyptian army drowned in the sea, they declare: You stretched out your right hand, the earth swallowed them.” And in this phrase we begin to hear the link between swallowing and destroying.

The earth opens up to ‘swallow’ the followers of Korah’s rebellion, and a careful look at the text reveals that they were ‘swallowed’ not just by dirt, but by the realm of the dead:

32The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households—everyone who belonged to Korah and all their goods. 33So they with all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly.” (Numbers 16:32-33)

So when the prophet declares that God “will swallow up death” it begs the question – is death itself being taken down into the realm of death, or is death being taken into the realm of life? Is death itself being engulfed in the life of God?

We know death as an enemy. We experience it not merely as the cessation of biological processes, but as a power that pursues and steals and destroys. My cousin battled a brain cancer. His surgery involved three teams of doctors and nearly 24 hours to dislodge the tentacles woven around his spinal column and into his brain. When he recovered from that surgery, he was given a reprieve. He seemed free for a while. But then the symptoms returned – and the treatments – until his speech and thought began to be disrupted. It was as if death stalked him.

I had a friend in seminary who persuaded me to join him in his running at the local track. One day he confided that he didn’t run for fun; he was afraid to die. Death in the form of heart disease stalked his family.

Death stalks all of us. It is too scary a thought, so we push it out of our consciousness or flippantly resign to it. But we know it is there waiting to claim us. Those who live among barrel bombs and refugees know its presence. Perhaps the prevalence of zombie shows reflect our fear that death stalks us. We fear what’s in our foods or in our carpets or radiating through our walls. We fear cancers and strangers. We fear our fears.

But to us, the fearful, comes this remarkable promise that a feast is coming and God will swallow up death. A kind or reverse sinkhole. Instead of our being sucked down into the realm of the dead, the realm of the dead is sucked up into the realm of heaven, into the realm of grace and life, into the world of dry bones made alive and the hopeless filled with hope, into the realm of the lost found and the forsaken embraced. Into the world of sins forgiven and bodies raised to life. Into the realm of water turned to wine and tears to joy. Into the world of resurrection.

We are invited to live this promise. To live as those who know that what is lost will be found, what is given will be gained, what is laid down will be taken up. Even death is to be engulfed in life.

We are not stalked by death; we are sought by him who is the resurrection and the life.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rossakiewicz_Angel.jpg

He will swallow death

Thursday

Isaiah 25:6-9

File:A destroyed iraqi main battle tank on the Highway of Death.JPEG6On this mountain
the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food,
a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow,
of well-aged wines strained clear.
7And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.

The choice of that word ‘swallow’, “he will swallow up death forever,” is haunting when laid alongside the promise of a banquet where all people shall come to eat in peace. We will drink well-aged wines. We will eat choice meats. God will eat death. God will devour the devourer.

It has been a very long time in this country since war stole food from the mouths of the innocent. Sherman’s march to the sea is infamous for its intentional policy of destroying food stocks. It was not the Confederate soldiers who would go hungry when Union soldiers burned the fields and stole the livestock. War has always been hard on civilians. There is a reason that social chaos (a blood red horse), famine (a black horse) and pestilence (a pale, jaundiced horse) ride behind the white horse of imperial conquest at the opening of the first of the seven seals in Revelation 6. Refugees, hunger, disease, the suffering of women and children, the aged and infirm, follow in the train of war.

To the people desolated by war and destruction, God speaks a promise: God will prepare a feast – and God will ingest the death.

God will take the sword. God will take the bullet. God will take the crown of thorns and the nails. God will take the spittle and the lance. God will take the grave – and God will devour the devourer.

The bread and wine of Holy Communion is a reminder of this promised banquet. It proclaims to us that God will gather all creation to dine at his table: a world at peace, a world made new, a world rescued, redeemed, healed. Our hearts rescued, redeemed, healed. But that small bit of bread and taste of wine also remind us what Jesus ate.

It is complicated that Eucharistic meal. It is the bread of heaven and the bread of tears. It is joy and fearful sorrow. It is gift and oh so terrible a price. It is our promised future brought to us today – but also that past alive again. We are at the table where feet were washed. We are at the table where promises of fidelity were made only to be broken. And we are at the shore where Jesus has breakfast waiting and reconciles us to himself.

It is complicated, this Eucharistic meal. And it is complicated, this feast of All Saints. There is joy and sorrow. There is the song of heaven and the sound of tears from wounds still raw. There is the vision of the New Jerusalem even as we remember those who died this last year. There is the promise of the resurrection even as the ashes of loved ones sit on the mantel or in little niches at the cemetery. There is a vision of a redeemed human community while we witness the death of refugees abandoned at sea in leaky boats. There is life even as we know death.

But death has been swallowed up. The stone rolled away. The veil lifted. And so we sing. Sometimes through our tears, but still we sing. For we are held in the promise: Death has been swallowed up in victory.

 

Photo: A destroyed iraqi main battle tank on the Highway of Death.  By Master Sgt. Kit Thompson (DF-ST-92-08142) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

All the saints

Watching for the Morning of November 1, 2015

Year B

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All Saints Sunday

Note: All Saints and All Souls are combined in Lutheran tradition, remembering not only the saints who have no appointed day of their own, but remembering all the people of God who are gathered around the throne of God.

From the celebration of God’s work of renewing the church last Sunday (Reformation Sunday) we come now to the celebration of All Saints with its vision of the great company of saints gathered around the throne of God.

The readings for Sunday are rich with promise. Isaiah sings of the day when the shroud of war and sorrow that lays across the nations will be lifted and all gathered to share at one table on Mount Zion. The city now bitterly divided shall become the city of peace. The poet declares that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it,” and announces that the Lord has come to claim his royal abode and reign as king. John of Patmos in his ultimate vision bears witness of the earth and heaven made new, where the heavenly Jerusalem becomes the earthly city and God again dwells with us, wiping away every tear. And in the Gospel reading the true and enduring work of God in Christ is revealed in the raising of Lazarus from the grave.

Though we remember the dead, death does not haunt the community this Sunday. The vision is not of lost loved ones, but saints who have gone before and join with us now as one great company singing the praise of God. Together the saints on earth and the saints in heaven are one body living by and for that day of new creation, singing God’s praise for he has deposed death and begun his reign as our true Lord and king.

The Prayer for All Saints, November 1, 2015

Almighty God, Lord of Life,
as Jesus summoned Lazarus
you call us forth from the grave
that in you we should find that life which shall not perish.
Unbind us from every shroud of death
that, freed from its shadow,
we might live now in the joy of the banquet to come;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The texts for All Saints, November 1, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 25:6-9
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”
– The prophet announces to a war torn people that God shall gather all nations to one table and wipe away every tear.

Psalmody: Psalm 24
“Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.” – Words from an ancient liturgy in which God is received as king, perhaps when the Ark of the Covenant is brought to the temple.

Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-6a
“And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” – John of Patmos reaches his great concluding vision of a world restored to God, where the heavenly counterpart to the earthly city of Jerusalem comes to earth and God dwells among us in a world made new.

Gospel: John 11:17-44
“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’” – Jesus comes to raise Lazarus from the grave.

 

Image: Predella of the San Domenico Altarpiece Fiesole, ca. 1423, by Fra Angelico.  see https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Pala_di_Fiesole_%28Angelico%29

Life even in death

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Friday

Psalm 91

11For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.

In the account of the temptation of Jesus in Matthew and Luke the devil uses this text to deflect Jesus from his path. The temptation is simple enough: “God has given a promise; test it to be sure. Why would you dare walk into the future without knowing for sure that God will catch you?” But Jesus’ asks for no proof of God’s faithfulness. He knows it. He trusts it.

It is a wonderful psalm, rich in faith

1You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
2will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”

and rich with promise of God’s protecting hand.

5You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
6or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
7A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.

A colleague and friend of mine read this to her dying husband – also a colleague and friend. He was the victim of a medical mistake. A stupid, senseless mistake.

He should have come home from the hospital. He should have rejoined our text study. He should have stood again at the altar to celebrate the wondrous gifts of God. He should have proclaimed to us again the faithfulness and mercy of God. But he did not. Instead he lay perishing in the hospital as his wife read these words: “You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.”

It was the psalm for which he asked.

He saw no contradiction between the promise of the text and the reality of his suffering. He saw the promise as something so much larger than a promise of physical protection that these words were only comfort. He heard in the psalm the assurance “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The devil hears none of this in the text. He sees only a promise God cannot possibly keep. Life is full of tragedy and woe. We are driven by our fears and sins. Sometimes we harm ourselves. Sometimes we harm others. Sometimes it’s the simple mistake of a nurse’s aid. Sometimes we live. Sometimes we die. Sometimes we live wounded. Life is random. God’s promise of protection is silly in the devil’s ears.

But those who know the goodness of God hear nothing silly. They hear boundless love. They hear faithfulness despite our unfaithfulness. They hear strength greater than our weakness, mercy greater than our imagining, forgiveness beyond limit. They hear life even in death.

 

Image from the Murals of the Voroneţ Monastery, Romania. Photo: By Man vyi (own photo) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Come, Lord Jesus

For last Thursday

I wrote this post after the funeral last Thursday, but waited to get approval from the family before posting it. The sermon from that day, “We have seen the chariots of fire”, is posted at my site for occasional reflections: Jacob Limping (named from Jacob’s encounter with God that ends with him limping toward the promised land – wounded yet blessed).

I didn’t get the posting for Wednesday done on time yesterday; my heart and mind was on the sermon for today. We buried a child of the congregation. 26. Bright. Talented. Loved. Addicted. Somewhere there is a drug lord prospering from selling tainted heroin. In our parish we weep.

The church was beyond full. People squeezed together into the pews, filled the balcony, brought chairs from the fellowship hall, and then stood in the back. There was so much we wanted to say. And words were so hard to find. We wanted to say how great he was. And we wanted to say how angry we were. Angry at him. Angry at the world. Angry at God. Frustrated. Wounded. Seven times he had been in treatment. Seven times he had slipped. Not because he was weak. By no means. Perhaps because he was so talented, so smart, so much a winner, he thought he could control it. Perhaps because the dragon is so deceptive.

Perhaps because the disease is so virulent.

So words fail. How do you capture the sweet boy working our Bible school, idolized by the kids, and the betrayer of friends he ditched to go buy drugs? How do you capture the acolyte bearing the cross with the young man bearing a terrible cross. How do you speak of the talented young man with a bright, bright future and the lifeless body on the floor of his apartment bedroom?

How do you speak of the charming, sincere smile and the stormy conflicts that must have occurred in the home? You can’t say all that. So the remembrances were more of a choked tears than joyful celebration. But there was the boy we loved. The young man we loved. And the tragedy we all felt.

Come Lord Jesus. It is the most ancient prayer of the church. Come, Lord Jesus. Come set right our world. Come heal the wounded, free the bound, raise the dead. Come bring that perfect reign of light and life. Come raise the world from its brokenness into your perfect light. Come.

And come to the family. Bear their burden – you who have borne the burdens of all. Surround them with grace, as you have brought grace to all. Heal their hearts, as you will heal the hearts of all. Take us back through the eastern gate, past the flaming sword, that we may eat again of the tree of life and dwell in your perfect garden.