And I will raise them up

File:Fountain of Eternal Life (23140323736).jpg

Watching for the Morning of August 12, 2018

Year B

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Again we are in John 6 this Sunday. Again we hear Jesus declare, “I am the bread of life.” And again we are confronted with the inability of the crowd to understand what Jesus is talking about. Indeed, the conversation grows testy, this week. Jesus asserts that he has come from the Father to bring life to the world, but they reject his claim saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus retorts that their fathers ate the manna and died; it did not bring them true life. He is the living bread that brings true life – and then alludes to his death: “and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Our first reading on Sunday will tell the story of Elijah fed by an angel, a bread from heaven that sustains him on his forty day journey to Sinai. The psalmist will sing of God’s deliverance and invite us all to “taste and see that the LORD is good.” And the author of Ephesians will urge us to “put away…all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” All these texts will lead us back to the words of Jesus, the promise of the resurrection, and he who is the true source of life, the one who brings to the world the imperishable life of God.

The feeding of the five thousand was a sign pointing to the true bread that brings the true and enduring life. But the crowd has not seen in this Jesus the promise of the Exodus and Sinai fulfilled; they have seen only the gratification of their hungers and desires. They look for the bread that perishes rather than the gift of life born from above. They have crossed the sea and met Jesus on a mountain but failed to see in this Israel’s journey out from bondage, through the wilderness, to the mountain where they heard God’s voice and were shown the way of true life. They fail to see in Jesus the fulfillment of God’s work of liberating the world from its primal alienation from the source of life.

They are like their ancestors who died in the wilderness. But those who come to Jesus, who abide in the one sent by the Father, who live in and live out the Father’s faithfulness and love – they shall never perish. The life of the age to come is theirs even now: “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

The Prayer for August 12, 2018

O God of truth and life,
draw us to your self,
and feed us on the bread of life,
which is your Word, made flesh for us
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 12, 2018

First Reading: 1 Kings 19:1-8 (appointed 4-8)
“Then [Elijah] lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water.” –Jezebel has vowed to kill Elijah for his triumph over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel and he flees into the wilderness. There a heavenly messenger meets him and provides bread for his journey to Horeb (Mt. Sinai).

Psalmody: Psalm 34:1-8
“O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.”
– The poet calls upon the community to join him in his praise of God for all God’s goodness.

Second Reading: Ephesians 4:25-5:2
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
– The author speaks to their common life, urging them to live in love, recognizing that they are members of one another in Christ.

Gospel: John 6: 35-51 (appointed 35, 41-51)
“Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.” In the conversation that follows about the meaning of the sign of the feeding of the 5,000, the crowd rejects Jesus claim that he is the bread that comes down from heaven: “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus responds that the manna in the wilderness did not truly bring life, for the people died; Jesus gives life that shall never perish.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fountain_of_Eternal_Life_(23140323736).jpg By Erik Drost (Fountain of Eternal Life) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The bread of life

File:Flickr - Gaspa - Cairo, venditore di pane.jpg

Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life. (John 6:27)

The message from last Sunday, August 5, 2018, based on the assigned Gospel reading:

John 6:24-35: When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were beside the sea, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

25When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” 28Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ “ 32Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

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There are things we need to remember as we stand before this passage from John’s Gospel. Last Sunday, today, and for the next three weeks we are reading from this sixth chapter of John.   This chapter begins with the account of the feeding of the five thousand, then explores the meaning of what happened on that mountain.

When I was a rookie preacher, pastors would groan and roll their eyes at these five Sundays. They would joke about this being a good time to go on vacation or assign the preaching to an associate pastor or student intern. They would say things like, “How many times can you say that Jesus is the bread of life?” But the answer to that question, apparently, is “Not enough,” because as many times as we have heard it, we keep chasing after things that perish trying to fill the hunger of our souls.

John gives a whole chapter to this subject, one of only 21 chapters in his Gospel. And it’s not a short chapter; there are 71 verses here, only 11 fewer verses than John uses to tell the whole passion story. This chapter takes up nearly 10% of John’s Gospel. Clearly this subject is deeply important.

As we read through this chapter we see that the problem is that the people don’t understand what happened on the mountain. They don’t see what they’re supposed to see in the feeding of the five thousand.

This is not a narrative about some thickheaded people long ago and far away; this is a narrative about us. Jesus wants us to see, to perceive, to comprehend what happened on that mountain. John wants us to understand that Jesus is the bread that feeds us with true life. Unfortunately, like the crowd, we get preoccupied by our bellies.

Last Sunday we heard the account of the feeding of the five thousand. We can’t go over everything in that narrative, but there are a couple of pieces that are necessary to remember as we go forward. First it was near the time of Passover, the feast of unleavened bread. This is the time when Israel remembered and celebrated how God set them free from Egypt. It’s also the time when Jesus was lifted up on the tree of the cross.

This feast of unleavened bread was tied to the Passover story with the idea that the people had to leave Egypt in a hurry and didn’t have time to wait for their bread rise. But yeast is also associated with impurity, with falsehood, and this was a period when Israel was to purify itself of all falsehood. So Jesus is not just the bread from heaven; he is the true bread, the pure bread, the holy bread.

Second, in our story of the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus – and the people – have crossed the sea and gone to a mountain. You can’t use that language without remembering Israel’s fundamental story of being delivered from bondage and death by crossing the Red Sea and journeying into the wilderness to encounter God at Mt. Sinai.

The feeding of the five thousand is a fulfillment of the Exodus story. It is a reliving and transforming of Israel’s experience with God who fed them manna in the wilderness and made a covenant with them at Sinai. As God freed them, provided for them, taught them, and formed them to be God’s people in the wilderness so, again, Jesus is feeding, providing, teaching and forming us to live God’s true, imperishable life of mercy and love.

If the people Jesus fed had eyes to see, they would see all of this. They would see that Jesus is fulfilling that Passover, fulfilling God’s deliverance, giving God’s true bread in the wilderness, and embodying God’s word, the fullness of the living voice of God. They would see before them the fullness of life, the true life that God intended for us, the life of the garden and the age to come, the life that is enduring and eternal.

And this I need to say again and again: when we hear the words translated ‘eternal life’ in John’s Gospel we are not just talking about life after death – and we are certainly not talking about life in a heaven somewhere – we are talking about the life that is eternal, the life of God, the life for which we were created, the life of the age to come when the world is forever free from its bondage to sin and death, the life of the world healed and made whole – a life lived now that shares in this true, imperishable life of God.

It is a life of compassion and joy and truth and healing and wholeness. It is a life of the Spirit. It is a new wine at the wedding feast, it is a birth from above, it is living water. It is reconciliation and peace and hope and courage and truth and justice. It is the life that vibrates in harmony with God who creates the world in love.

If the people Jesus fed had eyes to see, they would see that Jesus is the fulfillment of Passover, the embodiment of God’s deliverance, the true manna from heaven, the incarnation of God’s word, the fullness of the living voice of God. They would see that what was before them was the fullness of life.

But the people didn’t see this. They saw someone who could fill their bellies.

These are a people who live with hunger. Ninety percent of the population are subsistence farmers. They are dependent upon the vagaries of nature for their existence. They need the rains at the right time and in the right amounts. They need their crops to survive pests in the fields and in the barns. If locusts sweep through the land they will eat the whole crop; you will have no food for the next year.

These are a people whose bellies never get enough. They don’t have a Safeway open 24 hours a day or fresh vegetables shipped in from all over the world. They drink wine because wine is a way to preserve grapes and has calories; they’re not worrying about vintage and labels.

There is no sugar or chocolate, ice cream or cookies, only dates in season. The loaves Jesus uses are made of barley – because barley grows on poor land. But barley has half the food value of wheat – that’s why it’s the food of the poor. We think of Peter as a fisherman, but he was catching fish under an imperial license as a contract laborer for fish that are turned into a luxury product for the Romans.

And these are people who give up to half their crop in taxes and rents – and from the rest they need to save seed for the next year. They live with hunger. What they saw on the mountain was that they could eat as much as they wanted and there were twelve baskets left over. What they see in Jesus is someone who can end their hunger. They say to themselves, “If this man were in charge we would never be hungry again,” and they want to make him king. Let’s have this guy instead of Herod and Rome.

They don’t see in this Jesus their true exodus, their true Sinai, their true bread of life. They see someone who could fill their bellies.

This is the human religious impulse. We understand that there are things beyond our control. Whether it’s fire or storm or the economy or the affairs of nations or the changes and chances of life – the unexpected disease, the sudden accident, the drunk driver, the thief, the stray bullet from a policeman’s gun, the tree that falls on someone out riding his bike. We understand the uncertainty of life and we turn to the realm of the divine for protection. When bad stuff happens the gods must be angry. When good stuff happens the gods must be pleased. So we do what we can to keep the gods happy with rituals and prayers and sacred stones and sacrifice. The most precious thing we have to give is life itself, so humans throughout history have offered up the lives of goats and bulls, captured enemies and even their children. There was a time people would come to church out of a vague sense that it pleased God and kept God on their side.

The human religious impulse is to get the gods to take care of us. And so we when we pray the Lord’s Prayer our attention is on our daily bread rather than God’s name being holy and God’s will being done. We pray for forgiveness and slide over the words about forgiving others. We are focused on ourselves. Our fears. Our hopes. Our desires. We don’t understand the truth to which this bread points us.

Let me be clear. It’s not that God doesn’t care about our fears, our hopes and our desires; it’s that there is so much more. This event on the mountain provides real bread for the hungry. There is real wine to rescue the family at the wedding in Cana. There is real healing for the man born blind. There is real life restored to Lazarus when he is called forth from the grave. But the thing to see is not the wonder of one life restored. The thing to see is the source of life who stands before us. There is true life in his teaching. There is true life in his example. There is true life in faithfulness to him.

If we see only our wants, needs and desires we will miss everything, so Jesus says:

27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.

When the people hear Jesus speak about working for the bread that endures for eternal life – and the word there is ‘into’ the bread that endures into eternity – they respond

“What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

They get stuck on the literal meaning of the word ‘work’ and want to know what are the tasks that God requires of them. What are the ritual obligations? What are the prayers that must be said? What are the deeds that must be done? They want to know what will please God and keep God on our side. But the answer is not about ritual obligations. The answer is a life of fidelity to Jesus. God’s favor does not have to be won, it needs only to be seen and entered and lived: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

Here, again, it is important that we remember that this word ‘believe’ doesn’t refer to giving assent to a set of ideas. It is about a life of trust and faithfulness: Daring to live the compassion of God. Daring to live the generosity of God. Daring to live the love of God. Daring to bend to wash feet. Daring to forgive those who sin against us. Daring to live God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. Daring to trust that goodness and mercy are the enduring truths of existence. Daring to believe that truth and care of neighbor is our true and imperishable life. Daring to trust and follow this Jesus as the true bread of life.

Amen

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Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flickr_-_Gaspa_-_Cairo,_venditore_di_pane.jpg By Francesco Gasparetti from Senigallia, Italy (Cairo: venditore di pane) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Bread from heaven

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Watching for the Morning of August 5, 2018

Year B

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

It takes three hours each day to grind by hand enough flour for a household of five or six. It is a burdensome task passed off to the lowest ranking (newest) daughter-in-law of a family compound. And this is only the last labor in the long chain of plowing, sowing, reaping, winnowing. Daily bread was the central occupation of ninety percent of the population.

And hunger was familiar. We need to remember the food insecurity of the ancient world when we hear about the feeding of the five thousand and all that follows in John’s Gospel. The Biblical narrative is full of references to famine. It is not just the backdrop for great stories like the widow of Zarephath or the journey of Jacob’s sons to Egypt for grain – a journey that has them bowing at the feet of the brother they sold into slavery in fulfillment of young Joseph’s prophetic dreams. Famine and hunger are persistent realities in the Biblical world. Drought, locusts, marching armies – a year’s hope can be lost quickly. And the tax burden at the time of Jesus and tenancy requirements of the landless took half of your crop. So when this Jesus is able to turn five small loaves into food for five-thousand (plus women and children) it is understandable they want to make him king. These were barley loaves – the food of the poor – and there were twelve baskets left over!

Now Jesus has to fight off the crowd. This bread was a sign pointing to something other than our bellies. There is a bread here that is eternal. There is a life here that is imperishable. The new and abundant wine, the living water, the birth from above, the word made flesh – it is here before us in the word and person of this Jesus, bearing to us the life that abides.

Sunday we listen to the first part of Jesus’ encounter with those who ate their fill. He will press us to see beyond our bellies, past our wants, needs and fears, past the perishable to the imperishable, to that life of loyalty to and trust in the embodied Word of God, the living incarnation of God’s voice, the way of compassion and truth and all that is eternal.

In preparation for this word of Jesus we will hear first the story of Israel murmuring in the wilderness, ready to abandon the way of God for the fleshpots of Egypt. We will sing the psalm about God’s faithfulness in providing manna even when the people showed no trust in God. And then, just before we hear the words of Jesus about the bread of life, we will hear the author of Ephesians urging us to live this transcendent life:

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…

Daily bread is life, but ordinary bread and the life it sustains perishes. Before us stands a bread from heaven, a love immeasurable, a truth enduring, calling us into his imperishable life.

The Prayer for August 5, 2018

Heavenly Father,
you sustained your people through the wilderness
with manna from heaven;
sustain us through the days of our lives
by the presence of him who is the true bread of life,
your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 5, 2018

First Reading: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” – Delivered from bondage in Egypt, but now running out of food in the wilderness, the people cry out that it would have been better to perish with full bellies than follow God into freedom.

Psalmody: Psalm 78:22-29 (appointed 23-29)
“He rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven.”
– The poet sings of the faithfulness of God who provided for the people in the wilderness.

Second Reading: Ephesians 4:1-16
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”
– The author begins his exhortation for the community to live in keeping with the grace of God they have experienced in Christ.

Gospel: John 6:24-35
“Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” – The crowds seek Jesus after the feeding of the five thousand, but Jesus challenges them to see that the true bread from heaven was not the manna God gave them in the wilderness. The true life-giving bread is present to them in Jesus.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Krzy%C5%BC_w_lesie_-_Grabarka.jpg By Kornelia Głowacka [CC BY-SA 3.0 pl (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/pl/deed.en)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

The true vine

File:NRCSCA06105 - California (1119)(NRCS Photo Gallery).tifWatching for the Morning of April 29, 2018

Year B

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”

There is a life at work in this Jesus, like the life that pushes into bloom every spring where deciduous trees bud and a carpet of wildflowers races the forest canopy to bloom. There is a life at work in this Jesus, like the drive within a child to learn and grow and master its world. There is a life at work in this Jesus that pushes and pulls all creation to its destiny in God: a push towards the light, a drive towards life, a reaching for truth, a quest for justice, a call into compassion, a persistent, haunting sense that we are meant for more than we are, that we are meant for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity…” all the fruits of the Spirit – that we are meant to love one another.

There is a life at work in this Jesus. It drives Philip towards the Ethiopian Eunuch. It reveals the strangely obscure yet obvious truth that all creation – even a eunuch – is welcome in Christ. It drives the psalmist to speak not only of the horrors of suffering (“a company of evildoers encircles me… They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots”) but of the work of God to gather all nations. It drives the author of First John to say again and again that God is love and lift up the privilege and command to live in and from that love.

There is a life at work in Jesus. A life that belongs to the age to come. A life that is eternal. A life that is divine. A life that reverberates through all things, for in him all things were made. A life that is an inextinguishable light in our darkness. A life made flesh and come among us. A life that cannot be held by death. A life breathed ever anew into us. A life working in us. A life that would bear abundant fruit in us.

He is the vine. We are the branches.

The Prayer for April 29, 2018

As the vine gives life to the branches, O God,
be our source of life.
Root us in your Word.
Sustain us in your Spirit.
Cleanse from us all that is dead and dying
that we may bear abundantly the fruit of your Spirit.

The Texts for April 29, 2018

First Reading: Acts 8:26-40
“As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’” – Philip is led by the Spirit to the Ethiopian eunuch struggling to understand the passage Like a sheep he was led to slaughter.” When Philip has told him about Jesus, the eunuch asks the potent question whether the condition that keeps him out of the temple keeps him away from Christ.

Psalmody: Psalm 22:25-31
“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.” – We are again reading/singing from that critical psalm that bespeaks the crucifixion. In this Sunday’s verses is the message that God shall gather all into his reign.

Second Reading: 1 John 4:7-21
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
– the author of First John continues to weave together the themes of God’s love for us and the command and necessity to love one another.

Gospel: John 15:1-8
“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” – Jesus uses the image of the grape vine to speak about the life of the believing community. It draws life from Jesus and his teaching and, abiding in him, bears abundant fruit.

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This reflection was previously posted on April 28, 2015 for the Fifth Sunday after Easter in 2015

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NRCSCA06105_-_California_(1119)(NRCS_Photo_Gallery).tif Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

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

Death and Life

File:Lámparas, Djemaa el Fna -- 2014 -- Marrakech, Marruecos.jpg

“Be on your guard…for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Watching for the Morning of July 31, 2016

Year C

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 13 / Lectionary 18

Death haunts our readings this Sunday – the power of death to render all our striving meaningless. It is the heart of the reflection in the book of Ecclesiastes from which we draw our first reading. It ripples through the Psalm. It makes mockery of the rich man’s attempt to store his abundance to live out his days in peace: “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” Even the reading from Colossians speaks of death – but here, it is the death of our inward-turned broken humanity, for there is a life available to us, a true life, a divinely redeemed and resurrected life, a life turned towards God and neighbor.

The rich man of our parable is a ‘fool’. He fails to understand life’s most fundamental truths: we are members of one another. The bounty of my fields provides for those whose harvests were poor so that, when my harvests are poor, their bounty may provide for me. Life, true Life, divine Life, the life for which we were created, the Life that does not perish is life connected, life in communion with God and others.

Such an understanding strains against the modern western notion of the individual. But the wise understand it is a deep and profound truth of all human existence. We are dependent on one another. We do not come into the world able to stand and flee from the predatory wolves. We cannot feed ourselves. We cannot protect ourselves. We are deeply and profoundly communal creatures. What helps the tribe helps me. What hurts the tribe hurts me. No man is an island. And the only meaningful question is who is our tribe? How big are we able to see? The rich man in Jesus’ parable cannot see beyond himself. He cannot see that his neighbors are his tribe.

And Jesus has already spoken to us about who are our neighbors.

The Prayer for July 31, 2016

O God, from whom all good things come,
you have called us to live with open hands,
sharing what you provide with those who are in need.
Grant us humility to receive your gifts with thanksgiving,
and the wisdom and compassion to share them freely with others;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 31, 2016

First Reading: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” – The poet reflects on the meaningless of life in the face of death that renders all human striving vain.

Psalmody Psalm 49:1-12
“When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others.” – The poet is not troubled by the threats of the wealthy and powerful, for their wealth cannot deliver them from the grave.

Second Reading: Colossians 3:1-11
“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” –
Paul writes for us to put to death the deeds of our fallen nature and clothe ourselves in Christ.

Gospel: Luke 12:13-21
“Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
– asked to arbitrate and inheritance dispute, Jesus warns about the corrupting power of possessions.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AL%C3%A1mparas%2C_Djemaa_el_Fna_–_2014_–_Marrakech%2C_Marruecos.jpg By I.Barrios & J.Ligero (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Witnesses

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Friday

John 13:31-35

35“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It is what the world wants from Christians, and why so many are so angry with the church. We have, for the most part, been defenders of middle class morality (or, more recently, defenders of an educated elite class morality) rather than witnesses to and participants in God’s new creation.

Mark and Luke have Jesus declaring that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Matthew uses the phrase Kingdom of Heaven to speak of God’s drawing near to reign in every human heart. And John uses the phrase “eternal life” – the life of the age to come. This age is our present world torn and troubled by the warring of nations and peoples, hunger and disease. The age to come is the world made new, when sin and death and the greeds and passions of the human heart no longer rule.

But Jesus did not let that age to come be a pious hope for life after death, or life in some distant future. He said this life has come to us now. The kingdom is dawning amidst us. We are called to live the kingdom now. Eternal life is a present reality not just a promised future.

This is why we get all these stunning challenges in Jesus to forgive not seven but seventy-seven times, to love our enemies, to transform our encounters with the occupation forces by carrying the backpack an extra mile. This is why the poor, the meek, and those who hunger for righteousness are honored now. This is why Jesus speaks of the true shepherd as one who dies for the people not the other way round. This is why the vineyard owner pays all his workers a full day’s wage and why the king gathers street urchins to his wedding banquet. This is why Jesus opens blind eyes, and banquets with sinners and Pharisees alike. This is why Jesus touches lepers and lays hands on the dead to raise them to life. The world is being set right. The world God created is being restored. The age of righteousness – when all people are faithful to God and one another – is upon us.

All of this is connected to the redemptive work of Jesus. Humanity has a lot of explaining to do for its long legacy of death and destruction. How do you make it right with God for the death camps? How do you make it right with God for the fire-bombing of Dresden or the treatment of prisoners in Japanese prisoner of war camps? How do you make it right with God for the children traumatized and even murdered by parents, let alone friends and strangers? How do we make it right with God for all those throughout history who have been sold into slavery? How do we make it right for every act of disdain, every word of gossip, every malicious or salacious thought?

Something profound must change for the world to be born anew. Something deep in the human heart must perish and be reborn. And even then, there is no hope for us but in God’s choice to wipe away the unpayable debt. It is a transformative act. Humbling. Wondrous. The kind that should make us weep tears of gratitude and joy and dry his feet with our hair.

So loving one another is not about being a little more kind to our neighbors. It is about the kingdom itself, the new world God is creating. We have seen it in Jesus. He has laid down his life. He has breathed out his Spirit. The door to the kingdom is open. We are summoned to the banquet.

The world hungers to see hope, to see a future, to see some witness to the triumph of love. We are sent to be that witness.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Evstafiev-bosnia-cello.jpg  By Mikhail Evstafiev (Mikhail Evstafiev) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The true shepherd

File:PikiWiki Israel 16624 The Shepherd.jpg

For Friday

John 10:22-30

22At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.

It was winter. It would not have been a Minnesota winter; it would have been a San Francisco one – that damp, penetrating chill. The note that he was in the portico suggests he was sheltered from the rain. It’s interesting to imagine Jesus under dripping, grey skies. We don’t think about the real texture of his life.

John puts him in the temple at the feast of the Dedication. We would recognize it as it Hanukah. It remembers when, after Antiochus Epiphanes IV desecrated the temple and the Maccabean revolt reclaimed the city and temple, they purified the temple. There was only enough oil to keep the lamps burning one day – and the process of preparing new oil took eight – but the lamps continued to burn for the eight days. The light never went out.

Maybe it’s the remembrance of Judas Maccabeus and the deliverance of the nation that leads the Judeans to press Jesus to declare himself openly as God’s anointed, God’s messiah. Were they hoping? Or were they already looking for evidence against him? Were they wanting to dispense with this voice that promised new wine and new birth? This voice that claimed to be the true shepherd unlike the thieves and bandits who bring death in their wake?   And unlike the hired hands who save themselves and let the sheep be scattered?

The words are certainly pregnant with meaning for John’s congregation listening to them in the years after 70 AD – for this is precisely what happened in the War against Rome when hundreds of thousands perished and the temple was destroyed.

Jesus is perceptive enough, perfectly attuned to the Spirit of God, to know the dangerous path the country is following. He answers deftly. “My sheep recognize my voice.” It’s neither a “yes” nor a “no” because he is not, as he will tell Pilate, a king like the kings of this world.   But what he does say is that he will not lose any of his sheep – unlike the shepherds who led the nation to ruin. The disaster they brought fell not just in Judea but throughout the region for, at the outbreak of the revolt, towns loyal to Rome rose up and murdered or drove out their Jews.

But the reign of God in Jesus gives life, the life that cannot be destroyed.

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

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APikiWiki_Israel_16624_The_Shepherd.jpg  Attribution: תורם התמונה: זינה שיך יוסף [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Heaven’s true bread

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Watching for the Morning of August 9, 2015

Year B

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 14 / Lectionary 19

So we have seen the sign of the bread (two Sundays ago) and heard the conversation that Jesus is the true manna from heaven (last Sunday), now we hear that this true manna from heaven gives life – not to sustain us for a day, but eternally.

Our readings this Sunday begin with Elijah fleeing for his life only to be met in the wilderness by a messenger of God who provides bead and water for his journey. As God gave Israel bread and water in the wilderness, God provides for Elijah to bring him to Horeb (Mt. Sinai) where he will be encountered by God.

With the psalmist we sing of God’s faithfulness and hear the exhortation to “taste and see that the LORD is good.”

In the reading from Ephesians we hear the call “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God,” with specific exhortations for our life together.

And then we come to the wonderful words of the Gospel that show the crowd murmuring like Israel in the wilderness, but speak of the life that Jesus, the true bread from heaven, gives through his death and resurrection.

I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

Unfortunately the references to death and resurrection are skipped in the appointed verses, but they need to be read, for they draw out the meaning of Jesus’ promise that “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  The manna kept the people of Israel alive for a day; the death and resurrection of Jesus will keep us alive forever.

 

The Prayer August 9, 2015

O God of truth and life,
draw us to your self, and feed us on the bread of life,
which is your Word, made flesh for us in Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 9, 2015

First Reading: 1 Kings 19:1-8
“Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water.” – Elijah is fleeing the queen, Jezebel, who has vowed to kill him for his triumph over the prophets of Baal. In the wilderness he is met by a heavenly messenger who provides him bread for his journey to Horeb (Mt. Sinai).

Psalmody: Psalm 34:1-8
“O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.”
– The poet calls upon the community to join him in his praise of God for all God’s goodness.

Second Reading: Ephesians 4:25-5:2
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
– The author speaks to their common life, urging them to live in love, recognizing that they are members of one another in Christ.

Gospel: John 6: 35-51 (appointed 35, 41-51)
“‘Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.’” Continuing the reflection on the meaning of the sign of the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus develops the idea that he is the true bread from heaven. The manna in the wilderness sustained the people for a day; through his death and resurrection, Jesus gives life that shall never perish.

 

Image: Filippo Lippi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALippi%2C_piet%C3%A0_del_museo_horne.jpg

It’s not about the bread

About last Sunday – and the ones to come

John 6:1-21

File:Raffaellino del garbo, moltiplicazione dei pani e dei pesci, da s.m. maddalena de' pazzi 09.JPG15When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

This is an important piece of information that shapes what will come next in John’s Gospel: the response of the crowd moves quickly from wonder to self-gratification.

The text says that they “saw the sign.” They recognized what this pointed to, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world,” but they became preoccupied with the bread. They looked at the physical and missed the spiritual. They saw bread. They saw full bellies. They saw a release from the labor and anxiety of the fields. They attended to the obvious and missed the profound.

It’s hard to blame them. We are all like them in a way, concerned about what we need from Jesus rather than what Jesus needs from us.

The five thousand gathered on the hillside around Jesus were people who were familiar with hunger. They were what we now call “food insecure.” It is a chronic concern of subsistence farmers, those dependent upon the rains and beneficence of nature for the crops that will sustain them through the year. And it was exacerbated in Galilee by the high portion of their crop that went to landowners and the temple and the state. But now, here is one who, with a boy’s lunch, can feed 5,000. You can almost hear the rumble through the crowd: “We will never be hungry again!”   It takes no special insight to understand that they would make him king.

But the bread is a sign. It points beyond itself. It points to the God who created a bountiful world. It points to the commandment that bread be shared – that the hungry would be fed, the sick tended, the poor aided. It points to the will of God in creating the world. It points to our true humanity. It points to the beneficence of God and the promise of a world restored to its true purpose. And it points to Jesus. It points to him who is the face of God, the witness to our true humanity, and the opening of the path to our re-creation – our being born from above.

Joel Osteen is coming to town and tickets are $15.00 a head. The capacity of AT&T Park is listed at 41,503 – so he starts with a gate well past half a million. He will tell everyone how God wants them to prosper. And it’s not untrue. It’s just that he has everyone looking at the bread and not at the sign.

Christian faith is not a technique for peace and prosperity. Nor is it a denial of death through a promise we will be with loved ones again. It is a witness to the truth of God, the truth of existence, and the truth of our humanity. It is a witness that this ultimate truth has dwelt among us. And it is a call to follow where he leads: to live now the life that is eternal.

God knows we all need bread. But the bread we truly need is the bread of life, the living bread, the living Word who breathes upon us his Spirit. We need our humanity – not our frail, broken, “everyone makes mistakes”, “we all have our dark side” humanity, but the humanity that is born of God.

 

Feeding the multitude by Raffaellino del Garbo.  Photo: By Sailko (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
For more of this artwork, see https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Feeding_the_multitude_by_Raffaellino_del_Garbo