The trail with wondrous views

File:جبال لسانت كاثرين.jpgWatching for the Morning of December 30, 2018

Year C

The Sunday in Christmas

Sometimes we are worn out by Christmas rather than revived. The holiday shopping, the decorations, the family gatherings, the incessant pressure to be happy (“happy holidays”) and merry (“Merry Christmas) – there is a part of us that is glad to take the tree down and be done with it.

Such weariness can mislead us, as if one wanders off the hiking trail and finds oneself trudging through high brush and regretting the journey when there is a path nearby that offers a wondrous view.

Easter is joy and spring and bunnies – but for those anywhere near the church, Easter is also Good Friday and Maundy Thursday. It is the mystery of redemptive suffering, of sacrificial love, of the heart of the universe willing to be broken that the human heart may be made whole.

These themes are present at Christmas, too. Simeon sings of the sword that shall pierce Mary’s heart, and Mary sings of the convulsing of the world when the mighty are cast down from their thrones. Herod is willing to slaughter babies when the magi come looking for a king. Even this Sunday, when the boy Jesus stays behind in the temple, there is not only the ordinary and very human fear for the safety of a child; there is the foreshadow that Jesus’ last days will be in that temple square – and these teachers and elders will hand him over to his death by Rome. But these anticipations of a fate yet to come, while important, cannot push aside the simple joy of a God who has come, who has entered into the fabric of our lives in grace and mercy to shine as light in the darkness.

Christmas is dominated by the gift of the child rather than the death and resurrection of the man. It is a season that relishes in the goodness of our createdness. The finite is capable of bearing the infinite. The eternal comes to dwell in time. As unholy as we may be, the holy one can wear our skin, rest in our homes, be held in our arms. Flesh and blood are worthy of the divine.

We cannot forget the incredible significance of the incarnation. It means every life matters.

So in these days of the Christmas season we continue to sing the carols and let the lights shine. We read the stories that are full of hope and try to abide in the peace that endureth. We listen with wonder and a sigh of relief, as when the guests are gone and we sit down with a cup of tea in a still house while the tree still shines with memories of Christmas’s past and the goodness of living. God has not shunned mortal existence; God has blessed it. God has reminded us of its radiance. God is come, raising us into the fullness of life.

On this Sunday in Christmas we will read of Jesus’ faithful parents fulfilling every religious obligation, presenting the newborn Jesus in the temple and coming each year for Passover. And we will see young Jesus staying behind in the temple among the teachers and surprising all with his insight. This reading from Luke follows the story of Samuel’s parents coming each year to worship. And just as “the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people,” so we will hear the child of Bethlehem growing “in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” And as we hear of these two growing in grace, we will be reminded by the author of Colossians that this, too is our journey:

12As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

And if we are among those out trudging in the weeds, the songs and readings will, by grace, lead us back to the trail and the full glory of its wondrous views.

The Prayer for December 30, 2018

Gracious God, Eternal Father, source and goal of life,
in the mystery of the incarnation you have revealed yourself to the world
in the face of a child,
a boy filled with your wisdom,
and a man faithful to your will.
By his word and work create us in new and faithful hearts
that, trusting always in your promise,
we may recognize our place in your house.

The Texts for December 30, 2018

First Reading: 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26,
“The boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the LORD and with the people.” – Luke’s nativity story echoes with themes and language from the birth of the prophet Samuel who led Israel and anointed David as king.

Second Reading: Colossians 3:12-17
“Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
–This exhortation from Colossians beautifully summarizes the shape and character of life in Christ.

Gospel: Luke 2:21-24, 39-52 (appointed, Luke 21:42-52)
“Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” – The infant Jesus is presented in the temple and greeted by Simeon and Anna, representatives of faithful Israel. Then Luke tells us of Jesus as a young man, after observing Passover, staying behind in the Jerusalem temple when his family departs (traveling with the crowd of extended family and neighbors from their village).

Psalmody as appointed: Psalm 148
“Praise the LORD!
Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights!”

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%D8%AC%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%84_%D9%84%D8%B3%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%AA_%D9%83%D8%A7%D8%AB%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%86.jpg Abdulrhman Salem [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

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“Is Jesus a monster?”

File:Christ Icon Sinai 6th century.jpg

Sunday Evening

Christ the King / Reign of Christ 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will we live the new creation?

File:Altarraum-Kreuz in Taizé.jpg

A sermon from the festival Sunday of Pentecost (May 20, 2018) that celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ followers fifty days after Easter as described in Acts 2:1-21.

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

I want to invite you to think back to how we have come to this day. This day in which we hear again about how the Spirit was poured out upon the followers of Jesus and they were empowered to proclaim the wonderful work of God in all the languages of the earth – this day happens after Easter. It is the culmination of this Easter season. What began in the empty tomb, what was born in the encounter with the risen Christ, reaches its logical end with the Christian community bearing witness to the world.

But before the empty tomb came Good Friday. Before Easter was the harsh judgment of power that tried to break Jesus with torture and shame. But Jesus did not break. He did not weep and cry for mercy. He did not rage at God or his betrayers. He did not pray for vengeance upon the Romans or the Judean leaders or the soldiers who had impaled him upon the cross. He lived even with pierced hands the mercy he taught.

We are here on Pentecost because of Easter and Good Friday.

And before Good Friday was Maundy Thursday, that night in which Jesus ate his last supper with his followers – the meal we still eat together with Jesus every Sunday. At that meal Jesus embodied everything he had taught his disciples about the way of God by taking a towel and assuming the role of the lowliest slave to wash their feet. The reign of God is not about reaching the top of the social ladder but kneeling before those at the bottom.

We are here on Pentecost saying that God has given us the Holy Spirit because of what we have seen about that Holy Spirit on Easter and Good Friday and Maundy Thursday.

And we didn’t get to Maundy Thursday without the long journey through the season of Lent – the season that walks with Jesus towards Jerusalem, the season that talks about spiritual renewal, and care of the poor, and a deeper walk of faith.

It was a season that began with Ash Wednesday – a day of repentance, of turning anew towards God, of renewing our allegiance. That day at the start of Lent remembers our mortality, the inheritance of our turn away from the source of life, summoning us to turn back. We are but dust and ashes, but with the breath of God we are living beings, able to love and be loved, able to hear God’s word and sing God’s praise, able to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.

Before we come to this day celebrating the Spirit, we came through Easter and the God who gives life to the dead, and we came through the 40 days of the wilderness, and the reminder that apart from God’s spirit we are but dust.

And before Ash Wednesday and Lent was the season that lives in the light of the epiphany – the season that begins with the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan and the heavens opened and the Spirit coming down and the voice of God saying, “This is my beloved son,” – the season that ends on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus and his followers and the cloud of God’s presence and the voice of God declaring again that this Jesus is God’s beloved, telling us to listen to him.

Before our Lenten journey to Jerusalem was Jesus revealed to us and to the world as God’s beloved and the voice of God telling us to listen to him.

So we are here on this day, listening to the fulfillment of the promise of the Spirit being poured out on the world because of Easter and Good Friday and the broken bread and common cup of Maundy Thursday and the journey to Jerusalem and the radiant vision of the Spirit of God upon this Jesus.

And before that were the magi, representing all the nations of the world, kneeling before the child. And before that Simeon and Anna singing God’s praise when they see the infant in the temple, the fulfillment of all God’s promises of redemption. And before that were the shepherds hearing the heavens sing and coming to kneel before the mystery of the Word made flesh.

And before the wonder of Christmas was the season of Advent, of hope and expectation that God would fulfill God’s promise to make the world whole.

Six months ago we were talking about God’s promise to make the world whole, and here we now stand with the gift of the Spirit and the work of Jesus’ followers to go out into the world to declare that hope is fulfilled, the world has a new captain.

What began with the promise of the prophets has been fulfilled.

I know that we gather today in the aftermath of yet another school shooting. I know that within twenty minutes of that shooting, fake Facebook accounts began to spew lies and division about the shooting – showing the suspected shooter with a Hilary 2016 hat and linking him with Antifa, the anti-fascist group.

I know that there are people stoking fear and division among us, sowing the spirits of hate, intolerance, bigotry, and fear. But the promise of the prophets has been fulfilled.   There is a holy Spirit poured out.

I know that there are spirits of greed and callousness loose in the world. I have heard about the racist rant of the lawyer caught on tape and the president calling people ‘animals’ and saying, “These aren’t people.” And it doesn’t matter if he was only talking about gang members; we are becoming accustomed to the dehumanizing language that has been used in every act of genocide and violence. But the promise of the prophets has been fulfilled.   There is a holy Spirit poured out.

I know that they are spirits of deceit and falsehood loose in the world, but the promise of the prophets has been fulfilled.   There is a holy Spirit poured out.

I know there are spirits of bitterness and despair loose in the world, but we are here because the promise of the prophets has been fulfilled.   There is a holy Spirit poured out. And it has been poured out upon us.

And the choice we make every morning is whether we will live in this holy Spirit, or in those other spirits loose in the world. Will we live healing or division? Will we live compassion or hardness of heart? Will we live kindness or neglect? Will we live forgiveness or revenge? Will we live hope or despair?

Will we live the Holy Spirit? Will we live what God is creating? Will we live the shared table? Will we live the mystery of the font and a life turned away from self to neighbor? Will we live at the culmination of this journey that began with the promise of Advent and the wonder of Christmas and journeyed to Good Friday and Easter and this day of Pentecost? Will we live the new creation?

Amen

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

The face of God

(A reflection published with the pictures used in our sanctuary from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday 2018)

The events of Jesus’ death and resurrection are seared into the memory of the first followers of Jesus – even as they are in the hearts of the whole Christian community. Jesus comes to Jerusalem in what appears to be a wave of public support, only to be crushed by the ruling elite in Jerusalem. He is betrayed by a member of his inner circle. His followers flee. His “rock,” Peter, publicly disavows that he knows him. He is shamed and degraded and impaled upon a cross, powerless before the might of Rome and the machinations of the temple authorities.

But here, says the Christian community, we see the face of God.

We keep ascribing power to God. And there is plenty of testimony in scripture to God’s mighty acts. But what remains unmistakable in the Biblical text are two much more important truths: the suffering of God and the work of God to do the unexpected and unimagined: to open closed doors, to make a path through the sea, to bring Israel home from Babylon, to open blind eyes and heal palsied limbs, to resurrect the dead. God makes a way when there is no way.

God suffers with and for God’s people. God suffers their faithlessness. God suffers the tragedies that befall them. No matter how justified are their self-inflicted wounds, God’s heart cries out and comes to their deliverance.

What happened to Jesus is the story of Israel: destroyed but brought back from the dead. It is also the promised story of the human race. God will not allow God’s creation to perish, but calls it back into fidelity and life. God will bring us to the New Jerusalem. God will set before all creation a table. God will restore the harmony of the world. Righteousness and peace shall kiss, the greeting of eternal friends. Swords shall be beaten into plowshares. The lion shall lie down with the lamb.

The resurrection is testimony to the truth of all Jesus said and did. It is testimony to God’s redemptive purpose in the world. And we who have heard the testimony of those who saw the empty tomb, who have heard the word of grace, who have experienced the healing power of God, who have tasted the Holy Spirit and the life of the age to come – we are those sent in wonder and joy to witness to this loving, suffering, redeeming God.

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Each day of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, the pictures in the sanctuary showed the larger arc of the story of the passion through to Mary speaking with the angels at the empty tomb – though the collection varied each day with images relating to that specific day.  For the Easter Vigil and Easter morning, the pictures portrayed people from the passion story – each representing differing responses to Jesus.  All the pictures used over these days are shown below.  (The days here reflect the day of the action in the picture, rather than the selections used that day in worship.)

Palm Sunday

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Lord Wept (Le Seigneur pleura) - James Tissot.jpg

Jesus enters Jerusalem

Maundy Thursday

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Washing of the Feet (Le lavement des pieds) - James Tissot.jpg

Jesus washes the feet of the disciples

File:Brooklyn Museum - You Could Not Watch One Hour With Me (Vous n'avez pu veiller une heure avec moi) - James Tissot.jpg

The disciples fall asleep while Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane

File:Judas and with Him a Great Multitude.jpg

Judas leads the mob to seize Jesus

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Kiss of Judas (Le baiser de Judas) - James Tissot.jpg

Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss

File:Brooklyn Museum - Annas and Caiaphas (Anne et Caïphe) - James Tissot.jpg

Annas and Caiphas, the High Priest

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Sorrow of Saint Peter (La douleur de Saint Pierre) - James Tissot.jpg

Peter fleeing in grief after denying Jesus (following the cockcrow)

Good Friday

File:Jesus Before Pilate, First Interview.jpg

Jesus before Pilate

File:Brooklyn Museum - Behold the Man (Ecce Homo) - James Tissot.jpg

“Behold the man!” Pilate shows the tortured Jesus to the crowd

File:Brooklyn Museum - Herod (Hérode) - James Tissot - overall.jpg

Jesus is sent to Herod

File:Barabbas (James Tissot).jpg

The crowd asks for Barabbas to be released rather than Jesus

File:Brooklyn Museum - Jesus Meets His Mother (Jésus rencontre sa mère) - James Tissot.jpg

Jesus bearing the cross

File:Brooklyn Museum - The First Nail (Le premier clou) - James Tissot.jpg

Jesus nailed to the cross

File:Brooklyn Museum - "I Thirst" The Vinegar Given to Jesus ("J'ai soif." Le vinaigre donné à Jésus) - James Tissot.jpg

“I thirst.” Jesus offered sour wine

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Death of Jesus (La mort de Jésus) - James Tissot.jpg

The women witness the crucifixion

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Confession of Saint Longinus (Confession de Saint Longin) - James Tissot.jpg

The Centurion’s confession, “Truly this was the son of God.”

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Holy Virgin Receives the Body of Jesus (La Sainte Vierge reçoit le corps de Jésus) - James Tissot.jpg

Taking the body of Jesus for burial

File:Brooklyn Museum - Joseph of Arimathaea (Joseph d'Arimathie) - James Tissot.jpg

Joseph of Arimathea gets permission from Pilate to bury Jesus

Easter Sunday

File:Brooklyn Museum - Mary Magdalene Questions the Angels in the Tomb (Madeleine dans le tombeau interroge les anges) - James Tissot.jpg

Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, met by a vision of angels

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Images:

Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Lord_Wept_(Le_Seigneur_pleura)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Jesus washes the feet of the disciples: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Washing_of_the_Feet_(Le_lavement_des_pieds)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

The disciples fall asleep while Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_You_Could_Not_Watch_One_Hour_With_Me_(Vous_n%27avez_pu_veiller_une_heure_avec_moi)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Judas leads the mob to seize Jesus: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Judas_and_with_Him_a_Great_Multitude.jpg

Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Kiss_of_Judas_(Le_baiser_de_Judas)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Annas and Caiphas, the High Priest: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Annas_and_Caiaphas_(Anne_et_Ca%C3%AFphe)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Peter fleeing in grief after betraying Jesus: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Sorrow_of_Saint_Peter_(La_douleur_de_Saint_Pierre)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Jesus before Pilate: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jesus_Before_Pilate,_First_Interview.jpg“Behold the man!”

Pilate shows the tortured Jesus to the crowd: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Behold_the_Man_(Ecce_Homo)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Jesus is sent to Herod: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Herod_(H%C3%A9rode)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall.jpg

Barabbas: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barabbas_(James_Tissot).jpg

Jesus bearing the cross: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Jesus_Meets_His_Mother_(J%C3%A9sus_rencontre_sa_m%C3%A8re)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Jesus nailed to the cross: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_First_Nail_(Le_premier_clou)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

“I thirst.” Jesus offered sour wine: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_%22I_Thirst%22_The_Vinegar_Given_to_Jesus_(%22J%27ai_soif.%22_Le_vinaigre_donn%C3%A9_%C3%A0_J%C3%A9sus)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

The women witness the crucifixion: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Death_of_Jesus_(La_mort_de_J%C3%A9sus)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

The Centurion’s confession, “Truly this was the son of God”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Confession_of_Saint_Longinus_(Confession_de_Saint_Longin)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Taking the body of Jesus for burial: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Holy_Virgin_Receives_the_Body_of_Jesus_(La_Sainte_Vierge_re%C3%A7oit_le_corps_de_J%C3%A9sus)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Taking the body of Jesus for burial: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Holy_Virgin_Receives_the_Body_of_Jesus_(La_Sainte_Vierge_re%C3%A7oit_le_corps_de_J%C3%A9sus)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, met by a vision of angels: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Mary_Magdalene_Questions_the_Angels_in_the_Tomb_(Madeleine_dans_le_tombeau_interroge_les_anges)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Text: © David K. Bonde

Like bread dipped in wine

File:Brooklyn Museum - Mary Magdalene Questions the Angels in the Tomb (Madeleine dans le tombeau interroge les anges) - James Tissot.jpgA single picture in the sanctuary will stay the same from Palm Sunday through to Easter morning: the picture of Mary Magdalene peeking into the tomb and seeing angels.

The paintings we are using beginning with Palm Sunday are by James Tissot, a 19th century French artist who, in the last decade and a half of his life, painted 365 works depicting the life of Christ, and then began a series on the Old Testament, exhibiting 80 works before his death. The collection was purchased by the Brooklyn Museum. It’s on my list for the next time I go visit my daughter.

The images will shift as we move from Palm Sunday, through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and then to Easter. They accent different parts of the passion story, yet always preserving the larger narrative arc from the Garden of Gethsemane to the empty tomb. Only one painting is in all four sets, the resurrection, because this narrative is not ultimately about Judas’ betrayal or Pilate’s sentence, or Peter’s denial, or the jeering crowds at the cross. This story is about the resurrection. The death, yes, but the death that leads to life.

When we arrive at Easter, it would be tempting to have all the pictures represent the risen Christ, but this is a place where we run out of images. We don’t know how to paint the resurrection. We don’t know how to portray heavenly messengers. The betraying and dying are part of our human experience. What happened next is not.

To what shall we compare it? We are forced to use stylized images – angels with wings, for example, or haloes and shimmering light.

File:Grudziądz Polyptych 12.jpgThe resurrection can’t be painted like Peter fleeing the cockcrow. The empty tomb can be painted, but Jesus climbing out of a grave is a concept, an idea, not something we have ever seen.

We are up against the limits of human experience. And yet, we know something about death and life. For our Lent midweek services in Michigan one year we invited people to share something of their faith journey. One man came and told of the day he was on patrol in the jungles of Vietnam and heard the click of a landmine beneath his foot. He froze, then told all the rest of his platoon to move away to safety. This was his end. He faced it. But when he finally lifted his foot, the explosive didn’t go off. He was dead, but now he lives.

We can’t picture the resurrection of Jesus in our minds, but losing life and receiving it back again we do understand. We have been there, most of us, one time or another. Maybe more than once. Caught between the army of pharaoh and the Red Sea, when suddenly a path appears. Barren and too old for the promise to be fulfilled, but then there is a child. Carried into exile for fifty years, the city left behind in ruins, and then comes the royal decree opening the way to go home. Again and again in scripture and in life, the unexpected happens, hopelessness is turned to joy, prison doors are opened, ruptured lives are healed, broken ties restored.

We can’t paint it. But we know it. We know what it feels like. We know what it tastes like. It looks like an empty tomb. It tastes like bread dipped in wine.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Mary_Magdalene_Questions_the_Angels_in_the_Tomb_(Madeleine_dans_le_tombeau_interroge_les_anges)_-_James_Tissot.jpg James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGrudzi%C4%85dz_Polyptych_12.jpg Master of the Třeboň Altarpiece [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ash Wednesday

Watching for Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Tomorrow we begin our long journey to Jerusalem where Jesus will wash feet, break bread, pray in Gethsemane, get kissed by Judas and abandoned by his followers, be abused by the thugs who snatched him in the night and tortured by Roman Soldiers in the full light of day. And he will not fight back. He will raise no army. He will lift no sword. He will call for no chariots of fire. There will be no joining of earthly and heavenly armies to slay the imperial troops of Rome. There will be hammer and nails and a tomb with its entrance barred by a stone.

And in the darkness of that final night will shine the light of a divine mercy that envelops the whole world in grace. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian observance of Lent, a forty day period of fasting, sharing and serving, a time of spiritual renewal that will bring us to that day when the women find the tomb empty and see a vision of angels declare that God has raised Jesus from the dead.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. And our evening begins with the burning of the palm fronds from Palm Sunday last year and the ancient practice of anointing ourselves with ashes.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – it is partly about remembering our mortality. More profoundly it remembers that death came when humanity turned away from God. And so it is a day of repentance, of turning back to God. It begins a period of forty days of intentional turning towards God, an intentional deepening of our spiritual lives, an intentional deepening of compassion, faith, hope, and joy.

Our signs of repentance are not merely personal. We ask God’s forgiveness on behalf of the whole human race. And there is much to confess. The deceit and destruction loose in our world, the greed and over-consumption, the violence, the warring. There is much to confess. And we will stand with the victims of all our evil. With those ashes we stand with the abused and forgotten, the hungry and homeless, the refugees unwanted, the fearful and grieving. We stand with them all, daring to name our human brokenness, knowing that Jesus will share that brokenness and bear the scars in his hands and feet.

We dare to name it all, because God is mercy. Because God is redemption. Because God is new life. Because God is new creation. Because God is eager for us to turn away from our destructive paths into the path of life.

So with ashes on our foreheads we will renew the journey that leads to the empty tomb, the gathered table, and the feast to come.

The Prayer for Ash Wednesday

Almighty God, Holy and Immortal,
who knows the secrets of every heart
and brings all things to the light of your grace.
Root us ever in your promised mercy
that, freed from every sin and shame,
we may walk the paths of your truth and love.

The Texts for Ash Wednesday

First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-12 (appointed: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17)
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” –
After the return from exile in Babylon, life was hard and Jerusalem and its temple continued to lie in ruins. The people complained that God did not respond to their prayers. The prophet challenges the meaning of such prayers when the people fail to embody the life of justice and mercy to which God called them.

Psalmody: Psalm 103:8-14
“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.” – In our parish, we use the appointed Psalm 51 (the famous cry of repentance by David after he has been confronted by the prophet Nathan over the murder of Uriah and the taking of Bathsheba ) in the confession at the beginning of our liturgy. When we come to the time for the psalm we hear the poet speak of the tender love and faithfulness of God who has “removed our sins from us” “as far as the east is from the west.”

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:1 (appointed: 5:20b-6:10)
“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
– Paul calls his troubled congregation to live within the reconciling work of God in Christ.

Gospel Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” – Jesus declares at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount that, in order to enter into God’s dawning reign, our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Now, having spoken about the meaning of the commandments (in contrast to the way they are taught by the scribes) Jesus turns to the acts of piety for which the Pharisees were known. Our prayer, fasting and charity must be done not for public acclaim but to please God.

We push on

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Saturday

John 20:19-31

21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

Easter drives towards Pentecost.

Christmas drives towards Easter. The wonder of the incarnation pushes towards its destiny in Jerusalem. Every step along the way, the baptism of Jesus, the temptation, the opening of blind eyes, the rejection at Nazareth, the conflict with the Pharisees, the healing of the sick, the lifting of sins, it pushes towards the cross and resurrection.

The Lord of heaven and earth has come to dwell with us. But we are not ready. We are not ready for the world to be healed. We are not ready for the reign of the Spirit. We are not ready for the triumph of mercy. We are not ready to see all people as members of our own household. We are not ready for the love that kneels to wash feet. And so the incarnation ends where it had to end: in rejection, in violence, in the cross.

But that’s not where it ends for God. The incarnation pushes towards Easter. It drives towards the empty tomb, towards the risen Christ, towards the kneeling of Thomas, towards the breaking of bread at Emmaus.

But this is not the end of the matter. The reason God came to dwell among us was to dwell among us. Our rejection of the incarnation and God’s vindication of Jesus hasn’t yet resolved the matter of God dwelling with us. And so we push on towards Pentecost. We push on towards the outpouring of the Spirit. We push on to the mission of this community who have heard the words and seen the work of God in Christ, who have seen the witness to the reign of God, who have seen the cross and the risen Lord, who have seen Christ ascend and promise to come again to dwell among us. Indeed who dwells among us now, already, by the Spirit and in the community gathered.

We push on toward Pentecost. To the breath of God roaring like a mighty wind that gives witness in every language to all the earth. To the breath of God breathed upon the student/followers that makes them bold in witness and full of grace. Stephen dies at the hands of a mob, praying for God to forgive those throwing stones. And Paul, who holds the cloaks that day while the mob works its rage, will himself be counted dead by stoning yet rise again to continue his witness that God has reconciled all things.

It is Easter, but we push on toward Pentecost. We push on towards that day when the Spirit reigns in every heart and all are gathered at God’s table. We push on toward that day when the bridegroom comes and heaven and earth are wed – when at last we are ready for God to dwell among us and the holy city stands with gates wide open, filled with never-ending light.

We push on. And Sunday, on this 8th day since the empty tomb was discovered, we hear already of Pentecost, of the breathing out of God’s breath upon us, and the sending of God’s little community to bear witness to the new creation, the forgiving of every debt and healing of every heart.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APushing_van_together.jpg By Clear Path International (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A fountain in my house

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Wednesday

1 Peter 1:3-9

“In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials.”

“Even if.”

There is a joy that transcends the trials of life.

I know this is easy for me to say. I have clean water from a fountain in my house (well, really it’s just a spigot in an apartment, but think about it: I have three rooms, a kitchen sink, two bathroom sinks, a bathtub and a shower). I have a refrigerator (however small) that keeps fresh foods cool and a freezer in which I can even make ice cubes. I have a continuous supply of electricity (less the interruptions from the occasional Pacific storm), and natural gas piped into my apartment to heat it if I get cold. I am, by all the standards of the world, living in luxury. I complain, of course. My neighbors make too much noise. I feel closed in with no garden to enjoy. I cannot keep a pet, use a barbecue, or light a candle. But I have fresh, potable, water and access to a grocery store with unimaginable abundance. So it’s pretty easy to talk about joy that transcends the trials of life. I have not fled violence. I do not occupy a refugee camp. I am not crushed by a collapsing pile of garbage. I do not have to search the garbage for sustenance. I do not watch my children perish from Sarin gas or hunger. I do not have to breathe air so thick you cannot see far beyond you. I am not the object of racial or ethnic hatred. I worship freely. I walk the streets freely. I am among the most privileged.

So who am I to speak of joy in trials?

There are some, of course. I am a human being. There are loved ones I grieve. There are people for whom I fear. There are aches and loneliness and the little cruelties humans inflict upon one another. But these hardly count compared to what others bear.

But I have seen others bear such trials. Deep, deep wounds. Great guilts and sorrows. Great fears and pains. Great tragedies. I have walked with many through the depths. And I seen in these others a joy that transcends their trials.

There is a joy that involves human connection. There is a laughter that still rings. There is a delight in a hug or the presence of a child’s hand in yours. And beyond all this there is a song that sings. A promise that rings. A truth proclaimed. A grave that is empty. A new creation coming. A grace abounding. A love immeasurable. A forgiveness unimaginable.

There is a joy that transcends the trials of life, “an indescribable and glorious joy.”

“Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASwann_Fountain-27527.jpg By Ken Thomas (KenThomas.us (personal website of photographer)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Joy cometh

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For Friday

Psalm 30

5Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.

I don’t know where I was exposed to the American Standard Version of 1901, but as far as I know, that’s the one that seems to match the verse in my memory:

Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy cometh in the morning.

Or maybe what’s in my memory is a compilation of sources. For I would have sworn that the second line was “joy cometh with the morning” – and ‘with’ matches the RSV that was the Bible of my upbringing.

The poetry matters. Without poetry the text gets flat, pale, pedestrian. It gives a nice honest fact, but loses something of its timeless truth, its eternal promise: We were not made for tears; we were made for joy. Tears come; but there is a morning where tears are wiped away.

I have wept many tears that did not surrender to joy with the calendar morning. But Easter…Easter…Easter does far more than fill one day with the scent of lilies and the sound of great hymns. Easter beckons even as I stand at the graveside. Easter beckons as I comfort the broken. Easter beckons as I stand before brutal injustice. Easter beckons as I witness the devastations of war. Easter presents itself before me with the promise of a morning bedecked with joy. A morning when burdens are lifted and night flees. A morning where light and life reign.

So I prefer the poetry. This verse is not a statement of fact; it is a song of promise. A promise in which I stand. A promise the gives birth to joy. Even in the nights of weeping.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASunrise_Bodrum_05459_05465.jpg by Nevit [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

The glory and end of the church

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Saturday

John 14:8-17, 25-27

26 The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

The rehearsal this morning and all the food in the kitchen fills me with anticipation for tomorrow (there’s a barbecue after worship). Sometimes I wish the culture had some connection to Pentecost like it does to Christmas and Easter. I would love there to be a big crowd tomorrow with the energy that comes from a crowd and a holiday. But, at the same time, I am glad that this holy day hasn’t been coopted by the culture. It still belongs to the church.

So the sanctuary is ablaze in red and candles. The bells will lead a festive procession. We will hear people reading in a host of different languages. We will be invited to come for a laying on of hands and a prayer for the Spirit to heal and renew. And this is the Sunday the bread and wine are brought down and blessed in our midst with an adaption of the ancient anaphora of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church attributed to John, the son of Zebedee.

It is a unique worship service in the year, the third of the three great festivals of Christian faith: Christmas, Easter, Pentecost; the mystery of the incarnation, the wonder of the resurrection, the miracle of the Spirit given.

The festivals are linked, of course. The birth of Jesus would be little remembered but for the cross and empty tomb. The Spirit poured out on Pentecost is the Spirit present in Jesus. And the gift of the Spirit to all nations is connected to the dawning of the new creation in the resurrection.

The world is being reborn. The Spirit of God is given. Death is losing its hold. The scattered are gathered. The broken made whole. The dead raised. The corrupt judged. The hungry fed. The peacemakers inheriting the world. The world may war around us, but the day is begun when swords are beaten into plowshares. And we are inspirited to live that new creation.

It is common for people to say that Pentecost is the birthday of the church. But it is more accurate to say that Pentecost bears witness to the end of the church, to the day when every heart is filled with the Spirit and preachers and teachers are no longer needed.

No longer shall they teach one another,
or say to each other, “Know the Lord,”
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord.

 

Picture: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A2004_orford_03.JPG  By Ziko-C (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