The true breaker of chains

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

Year B

The Second Sunday after Pentecost

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

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

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

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

The Prayer for June 3, 2018

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

The Texts for June 3, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

If we will look

File:Staff at Sunset.jpgWatching for the Morning of March 11, 2018

Year B

The Fourth Sunday of Lent

Bitter, poisonous talk leads to venomous serpents in the first reading on Sunday. Israel is in the wilderness, having failed to trust God to give them the land of Canaan (when the spies came back saying giants inhabited the land and the people lost confidence in God’s ability to fulfill God’s promise). Now they are marching back they way they’ve come toward Egypt in order to travel up the inland road. They have been condemned to wander the wilderness for forty years. Bitterness breaks out, and the consequence of their venomous talk is venomous snakes. But God provides a way to be healed – by turning their eyes to a bronze image of a serpent impaled(?) on a pole. It will become an image of Christ impaled on the cross, and the promise that in looking to him we will be healed.

We are learning something of the consequences of venomous talk in our country. Bitter unrest abounds. Hateful speech. Unfriendly news is called “fake.” Lies abound. Facts are denied, ignored and invented. Goodness and life seem far away. Where is the sign from God to which we may turn our hearts and find healing?

The psalmist will sing of God’s deliverance: “Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction.” “They cried to the LORD in their trouble,” and God “sent out his word and healed them.”

The author of Ephesians will say we were dead through the trespasses and sins,” living “in the passions of our flesh.” “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”

And then we will hear Jesus speaking to Nicodemus that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Those who look to the crucified one, who put their trust in and show fidelity to Christ Jesus, will possess even now the life of the age to come.

There is healing for us. If we will turn and look. If we will put our trust not in power and might, but in sacrificial love. It is there to see on the cross. If we will look.

This Sunday we continue our Lenten series on Baptism. “Through the Waters” offers an introduction to the Lenten theme. Daily Bible verses and reflections are posted at Holy Seasons as well as the sermons so far in the series.

The Prayer for March 11, 2018

Almighty God, Holy and Merciful,
source of all healing and life,
in love you sent your Son into the world,
not to condemn the world, but to save it.
Draw us to the light of your Son, Jesus,
that we may ever be found in you;
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 March 11, 2018

First Reading: Numbers 21:4-9
“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.’” – Having failed to trust God in God’s first attempt to lead them into the land of Canaan, the Israelites must turn back towards the Red Sea to come to the land by another way. Their words become poisonous as they turn against God and against Moses. Met by poisonous snakes, they cry out to God and God answers – and in trusting God’s word (to look upon the bronze serpent) they are saved.

Psalmody: Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
“Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction… Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress.” – A psalm of praise for God’s faithfulness to his covenant, shown in his acts of deliverance.

Second Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10
“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”
– By God’s Grace we have been brought from death into life.

Gospel John 3:7-21 (appointed, verses 14-21)
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” – Jesus speaks with Nicodemus about being born “from above” and testifies that he alone has come from above (the heavens, the realm of God) and returns there. Just as seeing the bronze serpent “lifted up” brought healing and life to the Israelites in the wilderness, looking to Jesus “lifted up” grants the life of the age to come.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AStaff_at_Sunset.jpg By JoTB (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Marching towards the new birth of the world

File:Aivazovsky - Descent of Noah from Ararat.jpg

Saturday

Matthew 16:21-28

21From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

We call this a passion prediction – a prediction of his suffering and death. It doesn’t require any special divine foreknowledge. It’s reasonable to think that Jesus was astute enough to recognize that the things he was saying and doing would eventually bring him into conflict with the Judean authorities – and that the outcome of that would be his death. But Jesus adds “and on the third day be raised.”

For a long time I rather ignored this portion of the prediction. Scholarship rightly understands the Gospels as works of the church, the faith community of Jesus’ followers. Jesus didn’t write the Gospels; his followers did. But scholars tend to then make a distinction between what they think came from Jesus and what came from “the church”.

So Jesus could have foreseen his death, but who could imagine his resurrection? The first part may have belonged to Jesus, but the second part surely belongs to the early church. They are the ones who added that Jesus would be raised, because they had seen it.

It’s a reasonable thought, I guess, though it requires a certain audacity on the part of his followers to put words into the mouth of Jesus. Moderns think ancients are willing to do that (and in many cases they were), but that we wouldn’t (though we do). I am always in support of a little humility about what we are certain we “know”.

For a long time, then, I saw in this text the passion prediction and just kind of ignored the resurrection prediction. But the truth is the resurrection prediction is a key element of Jesus’ prophetic word. Indeed, the entire bulk of the Biblical prophets is to warn of pending judgment and destruction, but then to affirm grace and restoration. The Biblical story is a story of sin and redemption. The wicked world drowns at the time of Noah, but from destruction a new creation rises. Israel is condemned to wander in the wilderness but a new generation rises to enter in to the promised land. Jerusalem is destroyed, but the prophet declares that springs will flow in the desert and a highway lead the people home.

The whole Biblical story is about death and resurrection, judgment and grace, suffering and redemption. So why couldn’t Jesus have trusted that his death would lead to resurrection? His message is about the dawning of the age to come, the reign of God where lives are healed and blind eyes opened and tears wiped away. Resurrection is at the heart of this ministry. Jesus is herald of the new. The dead shall give up its prisoners. The gates guarding the realm of the dead shall not stand. Life is at hand.

So I understand the skepticism of the scholars. And it is important to resist the notion that Jesus was some kind of superman who had powers greater than the rest of us mere mortals. Jesus was fully human. This is the ancient and persistent confession of the church. But the Spirit is upon him. He trusts God fully. He knows the sacred writings intimately. He understands God is a God who delivers – even from the wrath of Jerusalem’s elite. Even from the grave.

And because God is a god who delivers – he sets his sights on Jerusalem. Courageously, faithfully, obediently, he marches towards the new birth of the world.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAivazovsky_-_Descent_of_Noah_from_Ararat.jpg Ivan Aivazovsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Of cisterns and crosses and imperishable life

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

Watching for the Morning of September 3, 2017

Year A

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 17 / Lectionary 22

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

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

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

File:Colina de las Cruces, Lituania, 2012-08-09, DD 12.JPG

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

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

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

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

The Prayer for September 3, 2017

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

The Texts for September 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

With glad cries of deliverance

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Saturday

Psalm 32

7 You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

It’s a sweet verse, a memory verse, the kind you might keep in your pocket through the day or find inscribed in a cross-stitch on the wall. It’s the kind of promise added to photos of mountains and sunsets and sent around the Internet or posted on the overhead screen at church. We need such verses. We need the promise. We need the reminder. “You surround me with glad cries of deliverance.”

But the verse doesn’t stand alone in this psalm. The author has just finished describing his distress, declaring that: “Day and night [God’s] hand was heavy upon me.” The poet’s life had become arid and brittle: “my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer”.

Though he now finds himself surrounded by joy, he has seen affliction. He has walked those paths where the life of the Spirit withers. Where some bitterness, anger or sorrow occupies the heart, where some hidden sin or open defiance pushes us away, where misfortune darkens the spirit, or where the ordinary burdens of life suck us dry.

The poet finds the root of his particular spiritual wasteland in himself. He is the one who has closed himself from God. He is the one in whom some unacknowledged defect of character or fault of conduct has robbed him of life’s goodness and joy. But he exults that the God of mercy has brought him back. So he sings and sings rightly that God surrounds him with deliverance.

It is important to keep in mind the whole of this psalm and not just the one verse of triumph. The American adoration of success often makes it seem like the Christian life should be an endless stream of victories, but the journey of life is a complicated one. Things happen. Sometimes terrible things. Sometimes we bring these upon ourselves. Sometimes not, as Job knows so well.

We live entangled in a fallen world, but the poet reminds us not to be swallowed by it. These great and precious promises of deliverance stand side by side with the acknowledgment of arid days. They do not judge us when we fail; they call us toward the light. And they remind us that even the driest days and months and years are yet surrounded by the joyful cries of creation’s first light and the empty tomb.

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

Stirred not shaken

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The Seventy

Watching for the Morning of July 3, 2016

Year C

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 9 / Lectionary 14

I watched a James Bond move last week and learned that the designation ‘00’ was given to agents after two kills – when they have proved their hardness of heart. Maybe we need a designation for agents who have brought God’s healing to two lives and proved their tenderness of heart. Stirred, not shaken.

Sunday centers on Luke’s account of the sending of the seventy. Earlier, Luke had recorded Jesus sending the twelve ahead of him to heal and proclaim the reign of God. Now Jesus sends “seventy others.” The reading contains Jesus’ familiar phrase that “the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few, and the injunction that they are sent “like lambs into the midst of wolves.” The mission is urgent (don’t pack a bag) but God will provide through the hospitality of those who are “sons [and daughters] of peace.” Where they are welcomed, they should heal the sick and say, “The kingdom of God has come near you.” And where they are not welcomed, they should “shake off the dust” as a warning of God’s judgment for “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me.”

As a new king coming to claim the land sends out representatives to prepare for his arrival, dispensing his benefactions and warning those who resist – so the followers of Jesus are sent. And they return with joy. The realm of Satan was falling.

Our other readings on Sunday pick up the themes of deliverance and joy. The text from Isaiah contains a promise of that day when Jerusalem is restored and the world brought to peace. The psalmist sings God’s praise for his work of deliverance in the exodus from Egypt. And our reading in Galatians comes to its final chapter where Paul urges the community to remember that we will reap what we sow – urging them to sow to the Spirit (the new creation, the reign of God) and not to our “flesh” (the passions and desires of our fallen nature).

The mission of the seventy is not just for the seventy. It is the mission of the church, of the people, of each and all of us. Having gifts that differ we are sent as heralds of the kingdom, bearing the gifts of the kingdom. There are plenty of contentious, divisive, and angry voices rending lives and the body politic. But Christ has his agents, bringing healing and life.

The Prayer for July 3, 2016

Eternal Father,
whose heart is ever searching
to gather your world to yourself,
help us dwell in your mercy
and make us faithful in our calling to bear witness to your love;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 3, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 66:10-14
“As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you” –
A song of Salvation containing the promise that the nation, broken by war and exile, will be restored.

Psalmody: Psalm 66:1-8
“Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth” – a song of joy at God’s deliverance, recalling the exodus from Egypt.

Second Reading: Galatians 6:1-16
“Whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all.” – Exhortations from the closing section of Paul’s letter contrasting those things “sown to the flesh” (our “fallen” nature, our innate self-centeredness) with what is sown to the Spirit.

Gospel: Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
“”The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”
– Jesus sends out seventy as heralds of the reign of God and instructs them about their mission.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASeventy_Disciples.jpg  By anonimus ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The warring drums are silenced

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Watching for the Morning of June 12, 2016

Year C

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 7 / Lectionary 12

It is hard to hear the Gospel reading appointed for this Sunday of the man consumed with rage, alienated from civic life, and dwelling in death’s shadow, and not think of those young men who have taken up assault rifles and become servants of death. Jesus has just calmed the storm at sea (an assault by spiritual powers) and now he calms the storm within this anguished man among the tombs.

There is irony, even mockery, in the story. The demons do not wish to be sent into the abyss so they beg to be sent into a nearby herd of swine. But what they fear, they find – for the pigs plunge themselves into the deep.

The story is set against the background of warring armies, the rage of earthly kingdoms. Gerasa was founded by Alexander the Great on his march to conquer the world. And the demons are legion – as in the legions of the Roman Empire that enforce the Emperor’s will on a captive people. But the oppression and chaos endemic to the rulers of this world are cast out by the command of Jesus who brings the peace and reconciliation of God’s reign.

Sadly, the people of Gerasa choose the familiar world of violence and beg Jesus to leave.

The cry for deliverance – and the cry of God to a people who will not receive it – occupy our readings this Sunday. In the first reading from Isaiah, God reaches out to a people who will not draw near and perish in their idolatries. The psalm is the familiar cry for deliverance uttered by Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is a cry God answers. The possessed man among the tombs cries in anguish as the evil within is confronted with the presence of God in Christ, but deliverance comes. And in Galatians we hear Paul exulting in the new creation that has come in Christ: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

There is a battle raging in the world – not the battle between competing human empires or ideologies, but the battle between humanity’s wars of domination and God’s work of liberation, between our rage and God’s peace, between the forces of chaos and the grasping passions of the human heart, and the passion of God who suffers for the redemption of the world. For those who come together to hear these stories on Sunday, the warring drums are silenced, and we are brought together in peace at God’s table.

The Prayer for June 19, 2016

Gracious God,
like the man who lived among the tombs,
we are bound by our fears and wounds, sins and failings.
Restore and renew us by your word of Grace;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 19, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 65:1-9
“I was ready to be found by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me.” –
Through the prophet God cries out against a rebellious and idolatrous people.

Psalmody: Psalm 22:1, 16-28 (appointed, Psalm 22:19-28)
“For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.”
– This psalm associated with the passion of Jesus, that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” cries out to God for deliverance form affliction and becomes a song of thanksgiving.

Second Reading: Galatians 3:23-29
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” – Paul describes the Mosaic law as the servant/slave charged with escorting a child to school and correcting him with a rod, but now in Christ we have entered God’s new reality

Gospel: Luke 8:26-39
“Then Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him.”
– A man possessed by a legion of demons (as in the Roman legions) – consumed by rage, cut off from society, and dwelling among the dead – is restored by the dawning reign of God in Jesus.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFurienmeister.furie.jpg Master of the Furies [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Without fear

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Friday

Luke 1:68-79

69He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,…that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear.

In the aftermath of the shooting in San Bernardino, people are not only frightened of possible terror, Muslim Americans are frightened of their neighbors. I can’t imagine how I would feel if the situation were reversed: a minority Christian in a Muslim dominated country when some Christians are making bombs and proclaiming, “Jesus is Lord,” as they shoot up a crowd. If the majority culture knew little about Christianity, I would fear they would view all Christians as possible terrorists – or terrorist sympathizers. It disgraces the name of Christ. It would disgrace me.

Some Christians already disgrace me (and, I think, Christ), but there are enough of us around for people to recognize that shooting up abortion clinics, church prayer groups or black youth on the street isn’t intrinsic to Christianity. But if people didn’t know Christians or Christianity…

I would keep my head down. I would be on constant guard.

Living in fear is corrosive of the human spirit. It restricts our joy. It limits our freedom. We live in the shadows, even as children of an abusive parent find places to be out of sight and mind. It is not the life God intended for us. For any of us.

It takes courage to go on national television and speak of your shock and sadness when your brother has inflicted mass casualties. It takes even more courage to wear a headscarf. Hate is made easier when you are easily identifiable, when you look ‘different’.

69He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,…that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear.

I hear these words and think of the Judean experience under Antiochus Epiphanes IV who tried to stamp out what he and his cultured despisers regarded as a backward religious belief and practice that refused to embrace the values of the ruling powers. When there is the threat of death for circumcising your child – or soldiers going village to village with drawn swords demanding you eat pork – fear becomes your daily bread. It is a much different fear than the dominant culture’s fear of terrorism. It is a fear for your very being. The fear that makes you withdraw and hide.

When I served in Detroit, the kids in my parish made fun of white folks. But beneath the laughter was a buried fear. Away from their turf, an encounter, any encounter, with the dominant culture could go south quickly and unexpectedly. You needed to always be on guard. And they are not the only ones who live with such a low grade, chronic fear.

There is no want of fear in our world. It seeps into relationships and homes and communities and human hearts. It corrodes the human spirit. Compassion rusts. Tolerance wears thin. We divide. We arm ourselves. Then someone breaks into a school a workplace, a holiday party and starts firing. And then nations rise up and go to war.

To a fearful world Zechariah sings his song:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David.
70as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71that we would be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us.”

Maybe Zechariah was thinking about the occupying Roman forces. Maybe the song is older, from the days of Antiochus. But maybe Zechariah understands perfectly that the enemy from which we are delivered is not Muslims or jihadis, terrorists or troubled teens, but the brokenness of our own existence.

And into this world where our brokenness has wrought its evil for generation upon generation, into this world comes a child, his child, John who will be called “the baptizer”. This child he holds in his very own hands will open the door for the one in whom the world finally begins to change:

You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

To guide our feet, yours and mine, out of fear and darkness into the way of peace.

 

Image: By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia (Portrait of Refugee  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Michael shall arise

Wednesday

Daniel 12:1-3

File:Giovanni di Paolo - St Michael the Archangel - WGA09465.jpg1“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise.

We have a pretty good idea of the exact moment in which the Book of Daniel in its final form was distributed. Suddenly the exquisite detail of Daniel’s visions of the kings that rise and fall and the woes that come upon God’s people gets rather generic. The reign of Antiochus Epiphanes IV about which Daniel’s visions speak so precisely suddenly becomes vague. Our author knows what has brought the nation to its present moment in 164 BCE. He doesn’t know what lies ahead. But the purpose of his book remains. God knows. History is in God’s hands. The kings of the earth may take their stand against the Lord and his anointed, but God has them in derision. God knows his plans and purpose for the world. Michael shall arise.

God will not let his people fall. God will not let the earth fall. God will triumph over evil.

These are words of great courage spoken in a time of great tribulation. We confess them to be inspired. Inspired doesn’t mean that Daniel was an historical figure of the Persian era to whom God granted visions that would have no meaning for hundreds of years. Inspired means that God speaks through these words of hope (presented in the mouth of the cultural figure of Daniel) to summon us to faithfulness, to remind us that God is yet God, to proclaim to wavering hearts that the God who cast down pharaoh will establish his justice on earth. Somehow.

ISIS will not reign. Not ultimately. No injustice shall endure. Not ultimately. Mary sings of this at the visitation: God has cast the mighty down from their thrones and lifted up those of low degree. The psalmist declares that all nations shall come and bow down before God. The prophets proclaim that all the boots of the tramping warriors will be burned as fuel for the fire,” that “God’s word will go forth from Zion” to bring peace to the world.

God will not let his people fall. God will not let the earth fall. God will triumph over evil.

It is a hope hard to hold onto sometimes, when we see the bodies of children lying in the surf, when children are murdered by police, when nations war upon nations, when earthquakes shake the foundations of the earth.

It is a hope hard to hold onto sometimes when we see evil close to home, when death and tragedy strikes, when misfortune prevails.

But then comes the promise of Daniel: “At that time Michael… shall arise.” At that time. At the right time. The world will not be surrendered to evil. We will not be surrendered.

The author of Daniel confesses this even though he knows that many faithful have been slaughtered at the hand of imperial troops. He sees beyond our narrow horizons into the great mystery: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake.” Even death shall not prevent God’s deliverance.

The prophetic writer is not giving us a doctrine; he is giving us a promise – God’s promise. What we see is but a city surrounded by armies, but there is much more beyond our sight.

God will not let his people fall. God will not let the earth fall. God will triumph over evil. Michael shall arise.

 

Image: Archangel Michael, Giovanni di Paolo [Public domain], 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