Walking on water

File:Bril Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee.JPG

Watching for the Morning of August 13, 2017

Year A

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 14 / Lectionary 19

We know it’s not possible to walk on water. At least for those of us in the modern western world, our perception of the nature of reality excludes that possibility. Tragically, we can therefore only see the story as nonsense or fairy tale (or, more charitably, as metaphor). But the ancients didn’t share our somewhat limited understanding of reality, and we will miss the power of this narrative if we focus on physics (or the suspension of physical laws). This is an account of a profound experience. Throughout the world and throughout history most people have understand visions and experiences such as this as decidedly real – more real than everyday life. We need to understand this possibility if the narrative is to work God’s work in us.

The followers of Jesus have an experience in the face of one of the sudden squalls that sweep powerfully across the lake. They inhabit a world in which such storms are the products of spiritual forces rather than material ones. These are forces and powers that are not subject to human control but reign over us. So they face a hostile wind, a malevolent spirit, a transcendent power threatening to drown them. Imperiled and fearful, they then see another spiritual reality: Jesus striding across the sea, untouched by this inimical power, treading it underfoot. But until they hear the voice of Jesus, they fear they see only some other spirit, a ghost.

Peter, recognizing that they see Jesus, asks to come to him. He trusts himself to Jesus’ authority over the powers that beset them. Stepping out of the boat, however, the wind grabs his attention and he loses confidence in Jesus’ mastery over the hostile forces at work in the world. He sinks, but the hand of Jesus takes hold of him. And now Jesus is with them in the boat upon a calm sea. The wind has yielded, and the disciples prostrate themselves declaring, “Truly you are the Son of God” – truly you are the anointed one who reigns at God’s right hand.

Like the account of Elijah at Mt. Sinai, this is an encounter with the truth of God. Above all the mighty forces threatening human life – above the storms of war, racism, hatred, fear, hunger, poverty, political instability, famine, rains and fires, sorrows and diseases and the troubles brought by shame and shamelessness – Jesus walks as Lord. And battered as we are by fear and doubt, he says to us, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

So Sunday we will hear God speak to Elijah in the stillness. The psalmist will sing about the God who speaks “peace to his people.” And the apostle Paul we will speak of this living message that calls us from the storms of life into the peace of God – all of us, across every boundary in human society, summoning us not by the words of a legal code, but the voice of the one who raised Jesus from the grave and leads the world out from bondage into freedom.

The Prayer for August 13, 2017

Gracious God,
in the storms of life you bid us come to you
and sustain us by your word.
Grant us confidence in your command,
and clarity in discerning your voice;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 13, 2017

First Reading: 1 Kings 19:9-18
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” – Threatened with death by Queen Jezebel for his attack on the cult of Baal, the prophet has fled to Sinai. There God encounters him in the silence and commissions him to the next stage of his prophetic ministry.

Psalmody: Psalm 85:8-13
“Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people.” – The poet expresses his confidence in God’s faithfulness and goodness.

Second Reading: Romans 10:8-15 (appointed: 10:5-15)
“There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.
For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” – It is through fidelity and trust in God’s mercy (manifest in Christ), called forth by the proclaimed message rather than by observance of the law, that all are saved.

Gospel: Matthew 14: 22-33
“Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’” – Following the wondrous provision of bread in the wilderness, Jesus comes to his disciples upon the sea – saving Peter when he begins to sink.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABril_Jesus_walking_on_the_Sea_of_Galilee.JPG Paul Brill [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Haunted

File:

“Christ and Nicodemus”

Saturday

John 3:1-17

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

The skeptical can look at the reported wonders wrought by Jesus and dismiss them easily enough. It is not possible to walk on water. The dead girl was just in a coma. The generosity of the boy with five loaves and two fish made all the rest of the crowd bring out their hidden lunch. It is possible to dismiss them all. But these reported deeds of Jesus are haunting. Here is a man who, for whatever reason, brings healing. Here is a man where sinners are forgiven, outcasts gathered in, the sick restored to their families, the human community restored. Here is a man untouched by the storms of life – who drives out those storms from the troubled. Here is a man who is reported to have forgiven even the foreign soldiers who tortured him to death. The stories haunt us. Even the most skeptical must admit that there was something there or such stories would never have been told.

The stories haunt Nicodemus, too. There is something of the presence of God in this Jesus or he could not do such signs. But this Jesus is so different than anything Nicodemus would have expected of a man of God. He is haunted by Jesus. Drawn to him, but confused. He hears Jesus’ words but doesn’t understand them.

Nicodemus is a moth to the flame. This Jesus is dangerous to him. He excites his imagination, but threatens his understanding of the order of the world. Nicodemus is a member of the ruling council. He is charged with a tradition about sacrifice and purity. He guards the temple, as it were. But here before him is this wondrous loose cannon who talks of a birth from above and a world reborn, who talks of the wind of the Spirit, of a new and better wine, of living water and a bread of life – who talks of the life of the age to come as if it were a present reality.

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…” Jesus haunts him. So Nicodemus will find himself trying to defend this Jesus when the plot is afoot to wipe him from the face of the earth. And Nicodemus will find himself carrying spices fit a king to give this Jesus an honorable burial.

Jesus haunts him. And he should haunt us, too, for there is something wondrous at work here, something that proclaims a profound and imperishable grace and truth and life.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A%22Christ_and_Nicodemus%22_-_NARA_-_559136.jpg By Unknown or not provided (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Faithful

File:Light in darkness foto di L. Galletti.JPG

Sunday Evening

John 20:19-31

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

I wish it had not been translated “Do not doubt.” The Greek word uses the negative prefix ‘a’ (as we see in the word ‘apathetic’, ‘a-’, ‘without’, ‘pathos’, ‘compassion’) with the word for faith. “Do not be without faith but with faith.” Or, better, considering the relational content of the word ‘faith’: “Do not be faithless but faithful.”

The issue here is not the modern, rational concern for what is possible within the laws of physics and human experience. The issue is Thomas’ allegiance to Jesus as the face of God, to Jesus as the bread of life, the living water, the new wine, the light of the world. Crucifixion seems to belie all that.

It is no small thing to show allegiance to someone who was crucified, condemned as the ancient equivalent of a terrorist. Would you show allegiance to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? Remember what happened to his friends?

This is why the disciples are in hiding. It is why the women went to the tomb. For the men to go would have been an act of public allegiance to a condemned insurrectionist. But women could pass freely. It was risky for Peter to go to the tomb on Mary’s witness; the safe thing was to stay in hiding.

So Thomas needs something more than the disciples’ word about a shared vision if he is going to risk his life in a show of allegiance to this crucified Jesus. He needs his own encounter with the living Lord.

Thomas is not alone. We, too, need more than the apostolic witness. We need to see something of the risen Lord. We need to see something of his mercy. We need to see something of his love. We need to hear his voice. We need to experience his life.

The Biblical witness, the report of the first believers, is able to do this – but it is not done by the dry words on a page: it happens when the words of Jesus are lived and spoken to us.

The followers of Jesus are sent with a news that does goodness, that releases captives, opens eyes, heals lives, forgives sins. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

There are not sent with just words – they are sent with the Spirit and the authority to forgive. They are sent to do the message. They are sent to be the word of grace and mercy. They are sent to shine forth the light that darkness cannot overcome.

 

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

Paradigm shift

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Watching for the Morning of April 3, 2016

Year C

The Second Sunday of Easter

The shock and awe of the first Easter morning gives way to celebration and even triumph as the apostles preach and John of Patmos exults in the risen Christ. The psalm celebrates the wondrous work of God: “This is the LORD’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.” And the followers of Jesus proclaim his resurrection to Thomas.

But in the texts lies also the tension between faith and unbelief. The Jerusalem leaders seek to silence the apostolic witness, and Thomas will not trust the testimony of those who have seen and heard.

When you look carefully at the Biblical record there is a lot of uncertainty. The apostles in Luke don’t believe the women returning from the tomb (24:11). The disciples on the road to Emmaus are unable to comprehend what has happened (24:25). and when Jesus appears to the whole community there respond with a mix of joy and disbelief (24:41). At the climactic scene in Matthew when Jesus ascends into the heavens, the evangelist records: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted” (28:17). And, of course, Mark ends his Gospel with the women in fear and silence (16:8).

The Easter message is not a simple one. No one expected the story to go like this. It takes some time to get their minds around it. It takes some time to get their hearts around it. This is far more than a spectacular comeback from a nearly defeated team. This asks us to recognize a different narrative of God and the world. The story is not about a world ending in a general resurrection and judgment with the righteous blessed and the wicked condemned. The story is about the new creation invading this world of tears and summoning us to live that new creation now. It is not a story of God judging the world but healing it.

It’s not easy to change one’s picture of God and the world. It takes some time – and the breath of the Spirit – and some searching of scripture – a rereading of the Biblical story – but, in the end, there is Jesus showing us his wounds and inviting us to join the story.  Thomas Kuhn called it a paradigm shift.* When you recognize that the earth goes around the sun, the world will never look the same.

The Prayer for April 3, 2016

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 you live and reign,
one God, now and forever

The Texts for April 3, 2016

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.

 

*Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASolar-system.png  By Dave Jarvis (http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/) [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

One heart

Watching for the Morning of April 12, 2015

Year B

The Second Sunday of Easter

File:Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles.jpgThis second Sunday in the Easter season always takes us to the story of Thomas. He was absent that first Easter evening when Jesus appeared to his followers as they hid behind locked doors. Thomas becomes an example of those who have not seen the risen Jesus and must decide whether to trust the apostolic witness.

We tend to hear this as an individual struggle between doubt and faith. And because we tend to hear faith as believing ideas rather than trusting a person, we often miss that the drama in this narrative is not only the relationship between Thomas and Jesus, but between Thomas and the community of believers. It’s not simply that he doesn’t believe Jesus has been raised – he doesn’t trust them. He doesn’t accept their testimony.

We tend to think it as honorable to want to see for ourselves. It’s good to see proof, to not follow the crowd. But this is not a nameless crowd; these are sisters and brothers in Christ. Even we understand that allegiance to family involves trusting what they tell us.

Thomas is not wrestling with an intellectual problem; he is wrestling with whether or not he is part of this community.

Though we think of this as the story of “Doubting Thomas”, this theme of the community is present at the beginning of the narrative when Jesus speaks his word that brings peace, and breathes on them the Holy Spirit/Breath of God. They are commissioned to exercise the authority of Jesus to declare the forgiveness of sins.

The other texts assigned in this year point us towards this notion of community. The first reading from Acts tells us the believers “were of one heart and soul” and contains the familiar words “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

And our psalm on Sunday declares, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” The word ‘kindred’ may not have quite the same emotional impact as ‘brothers’ (and sisters), but it is a psalm of ascent, a communal song of the believing community as they journey to Jerusalem for worship. It conveys the vision of a world enriched and enlivened by a deep and fundamental harmony in God.

In this same vein, 1 John speaks of our ‘fellowship’ with the Father and the Son and with one another, echoing all the language and imagery in John’s gospel about Jesus abiding in the Father and he and the Father abiding in us.

So the texts this year point us not towards Thomas’ personal struggle to believe, but to the work of God to form a community shaped and govern by God’s Spirit – a community bound together in love, a community shaped by the one who washes feet.

The Prayer for April 12, 2015

Gracious God, in the night of his resurrection,
Jesus breathed your Holy Spirit upon his followers
and sent them into the world.
Renew in us your Holy Spirit
that, in the joy and freedom of Christ risen from the dead,
we may bear faithful witness to your truth and life;
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 April 12, 2015

First Reading: Acts 4:32-35
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” – The author of Luke-Acts, commonly called Luke, summarizes the life of the first Christian community as a household, sharing goods and providing for one another. It represents a foretaste of the messianic age when all things are made new.

Psalmody: Psalm 133
“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” – A psalm of ascents sung as the community went up to Jerusalem for one of the annual pilgrimage festivals. A faithful people of God as a blessing upon the world.

Second Reading: 1 John 1:1-2:2
“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.”
– The author testifies to what they have seen and heard in Jesus – and to the fellowship they have with the Father, the Son, and one another.

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.

 

Image credit: Duccio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In that dawn’s first light

Friday

Matthew 28

File:Sunrise 09-07-11.jpg

Sunrise in Joshua Tree California, Jessie Eastland

17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

The bowed before him. The Greek word ‘worship’ means, more literally, to bend the knee. It is the act of falling to the ground in submission before the one to whom your life belongs.

“They bowed before him, but some doubted.” I have been trying to understand the Greek construction of this sentence, for it looks to me that it says something more like “They bowed before him, though they hesitated.” There are only three Greek words in the second half of this sentence: ‘but’ or ‘now’, a disjunctive conjunction; the 3rd person plural article ‘the’, ‘the’ somethings (the subject is absent); and the 3rd person plural aorist, ‘they doubted.’ (The aorist means a simple action in the past “they doubted”, rather than an ongoing action, “they were doubting”.) I know that we often leave out words in a sentence that the hearer fills in, so the article identifies a subject that is unspoken but understood – hence the translation ‘some’. But is it ‘some’ or should it be ‘they’, the disciples?

And ‘doubt’ doesn’t seem to be quite the right word, either. Doubt for us is a dispute about facts. But the fact is that Jesus is before them and they are on their faces. There is no disputing this fact. The Greek word translated ‘doubt’ is more like hesitancy, confusion, uncertainty. It is used in scripture only twice, both by Matthew: here, and when Peter, walking upon the water, sees the waves and wind and begins to sink. This is not our modern sense of doubt. This is not skepticism. This is not an intellectual problem whether they are really seeing Jesus. It is that uncertainty of being confronted with the new and unexpected. It’s that struggle to understand. “What’s going on?” “What does this mean?”

In the presence of the risen Jesus, the future has suddenly shifted. The hope of a Jerusalem theocracy was lost with the crucifixion. But, if Jesus was vindicated by God, if he has been raised from the dead, what now? Is the general resurrection underway? What is happening? What does this mean for us? – and these are certainly questions that must have befallen them all, not just some.

Matthew doesn’t spend any time on this doubt. Jesus doesn’t rebuke them as he rebuked Peter on the sea when he asked his sinking disciple “Why did you doubt?” (A sentence that also makes more sense if Jesus asked, “Why did you hesitate?”) On this mountain, the risen Jesus doesn’t even acknowledge their confusion; he just gets on with the assignment. “What does this mean?” This means all authority has been given to Jesus. It means his followers have a mission to teach the nations. Our uncertainty is answered by a command: “Go, therefore…” There is a world that needs to know the way of its true Lord.

But our hesitancy is also met with a promise: “I am with you always, until the end of the age,” though the Greek word isn’t really ‘end’, but the completion of this age, the finishing of God’s work, the coming together of all things under the reign of God’s spirit. We the confused, we the uncertain, we the struggling to comprehend all that God is doing, we have a promise: until the consummation of this age, until the age to come breaks forth into the full light of day – Jesus is with us. We dwell with him and in him. We live already in the day that is coming.

And baptizing and teaching, we gather others into the joyous light of that dawn.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined…

Seeing and believing

Watching for the morning of April 27

Year A

The Second Sunday of Easter

File:Doubting Thomas - geograph.org.uk - 990164.jpg

Doubting Thomas Figure above the south door of St.Thomas’ church. Portland Stone carving showing St.Thomas kneeling to the risen Christ, by Philip Pape in 1956

Every year on the Sunday after Easter we hear of Thomas – Thomas who was absent that first Easter evening and did not see; Thomas, for whom the witness of the others is unable to bring him to faithful allegiance; Thomas who, in his unbelief, nevertheless remains a part of the community, giving him the opportunity to see; Thomas whom the risen Christ sees; Thomas who comes to see.

This is not the only text to speak to us on Sunday. We hear a portion of Peter’s Pentecost message. We sing the psalm that Peter cites to bear witness to the resurrection. And we hear the opening of 1 Peter speak of our new birth and living hope. But Thomas is the gravitational center of the morning, for here is found the blessing upon us and every generation since that first: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Blessed, happy, honorable, at peace with God and the world, are those who have not seen (with their physical eyes) but yet truly see.

The Prayer for April 27, 2014

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 faithfulness.
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 you live and reign,
one God, now and forever

The Texts for April 27, 2014

First Reading: Acts 2:14a, 22-32
“This man… you crucified … But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” – Peter bears witness to the crowds at Pentecost who have been drawn by the sound of a mighty rushing wind.

Psalmody: Psalm 16
“You do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.” – a hymn of praise and trust in which the first witnesses of the resurrection found a prophetic word pointing to Jesus’ resurrection.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 1:3-9
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” –
a rich, beautiful homily on baptism offering a word of encouragement to the Christian community.

Gospel: John 20:19-31
“Then [Jesus] said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” – 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 faith.