Do not be faithless

File:The confession of Saint Thomas (icon).jpgWatching for the Morning of April 8, 2018

Year B

The Second Sunday of Easter

Thomas dominates the readings on Sunday – not a story of intellectual doubt, but a story of allegiance and fidelity. None of us understands what happened to Jesus, but will we be faithful to him?

So the first reading tells us of that early faithful community that held all things in common. They “loved one another”; they showed fidelity to one another as members of a common household. We don’t divide up the refrigerator in our homes to say this food belongs to Dad and this to Mom, and the kids can eat what’s on the bottom shelf, as if we were strangers rooming together in college. Neither did those first followers of Jesus. They lived the new creation. They lived the Spirit. They lived and heralded the reign of God that Jesus brought.

The psalm will sing of the goodness “when kindred live together in unity.” It is the shape of the world before Cain rose up against Abel or Jacob stole Esau’s blessing. It is the world of the Good Samaritan and the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. It is the world of those to whom it will be said, “As you did it to the last of these you did it to me.”

The author of 1 John will speak of “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” and the ‘fellowship’ it creates. ‘Fellowship’ is that wonderful word, ‘koinonia’, that gets used in the New Testament to speak of ‘fellowship’ with God, ‘partnership’ (NIV) in the gospel, and the ‘contribution’ Paul gathers for the saints suffering from famine in Judea. It is the ‘communion’ in Paul’s benediction: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you,” and the ‘sharing’ or ‘participation’ in the body and blood of Christ that happens in the cup and bread. Such fellowship isn’t coffee and donuts after church, but the mutual care and support of lives bound together in and with Christ.

And so we come to Thomas. What happens to those who have not shared in the apostolic vision of the risen Christ? Will they show faithfulness? Will the testimony of others be enough to bind them to Christ and the community? “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet are faithful.”

The translation of Jesus’ word to Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe,” is misleading to modern ears where doubt and belief concern cognitive assent. The Greek is better translated as “Do not be faithless but faithful.”

The Prayer for April 8, 2018

Gracious Lord Jesus,
in your mercy you did not leave Thomas in his unbelief,
but came to him, revealing your hands and your side,
and calling him into faith.
So come to us wherever we are in doubt and uncertainty
and by your word reveal yourself to us anew as our living Lord,
who with the Father and Holy Spirit lives and reigns,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for April 8, 2018

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

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

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

Gospel: John 20:19-31
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” – Jesus appears to his followers on Easter Evening and commissions them with the gift of the Holy Spirit, then appears again, the following Sunday, to summon Thomas into faithfulness.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AThe_confession_of_Saint_Thomas_(icon).jpg  Dionisius [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Promise and trust

File:Miroslav-zámek2015o.jpg

Watching for the Morning of February 25, 2018

Year B

The Second Sunday of Lent

Sunday is another step towards Jerusalem and our celebration of the events that happened there in an upper room, at Gethsemane, in the home of the High Priest and before Pilate. Our season walks towards a hill outside the walls called Golgotha, and to a nearby tomb and a vision of angels.

The covenant with Abram opens our readings on Sunday. He is ninety-nine. Sarai is ninety. The promise is spoken and they receive new names. Abram is changed to Abraham, understood to mean “father of a multitude.” Sarai becomes Sarah, “princess” – not in the sense that my stepfather called my little sister “princess”; she is to be the royal mother of a great nation.

We know the story. Sarah is barren and beyond childbearing. Yet they receive again a promise. They are even given the name they shall call their child to be: “Isaac” from the word to laugh. Maybe because Abraham laughed. Maybe because Sarah laughed. Maybe because, at his birth, they laughed with joy. A future is given to them. A promise sustains them.

Paul will talk of this promise in Romans. Abraham was reckoned as righteous because he trusted the promise. It is Paul’s argument that righteousness comes from such faith not works of the law.

Trust in God sustains the poet in our psalm. This is the psalm Jesus will recite from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  We do not read the lament section this Sunday, however, only the concluding song of trust.

Promise and trust. And so Jesus begins to teach his followers about the cross that awaits him and the cross we must take up to follow him. The cross is the ultimate tool of imperial power. But Jesus brings another empire, a greater kingdom, a truer reign – a reign of life. Shall we trust it?

How can we not?

This Sunday we continue our Lenten series on Baptism. “Through the Waters” offers an introduction to the Lenten theme. Daily Bible verses and reflections are posted at Holy Seasons as well as the first sermon in the series, “A great and terrifying promise.”

The Prayer for February 25, 2018

Almighty God, Holy and Faithful,
whose promise to Abraham was sure;
grant us courage to follow where you lead
and to take up the cross for the sake of your Gospel;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for February 25, 2018

First Reading: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
“No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” – God establishes a covenant with Abram and Sarai giving them new names, Abraham and Sarah, an indicator of their new destiny.

Psalmody: Psalm 22:23-31
“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.” – At the conclusion of this lament (that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,”) the poet’s prayer for deliverance turns to praise and thanksgiving that God has not let him perish.

Second Reading: Romans 4:13-25
“The promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”
– Paul argues that just as Abraham was declared righteous for his trust in God’s promise (a promise that he would become the “father of many nations”), so we (the members of those ‘many nations’) are made righteous not by the law but by trusting God’s promise.

Gospel Mark 8:31-38
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” – Jesus teaches his followers “openly” that he will be rejected in Jerusalem and killed, but Peter disavows such an idea. Jesus spurns Peter and declares that fidelity to the reign of God means his followers will share in that same shaming rejection by the governing powers: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMiroslav-z%C3%A1mek2015o.jpg By Ben Skála, Benfoto (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

And Jesus alone remains

File:Israel hermon (5330547343).jpg

The reading begins “Six days later”: six days after Jesus first told his followers that he would be rejected in Jerusalem, crucified and raised; six days after Peter has rebuked Jesus for such a thought and been himself rejected; and six days after Jesus taught that they must take up the cross for “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Mark 9:2-9: Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

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I found myself struggling to find a story to tell this morning, something that could pull out the drama of this text, something with which we could connect. The problem is that the Gospel story itself is so unreal to us. We are not a people who have visions – or, if we do, we tend not to talk about them. They aren’t considered normal. If we told someone we saw things like this they might think we are a little crazy.

Other cultures put great importance on visions. We know, for example, that certain indigenous societies had a rite of passage sometimes referred to as a vision quest. Such visions provided profound guidance for their lives. But we don’t do visions. We don’t listen to dreams. We don’t hear God’s voice. Our spiritual lives are often neglected and impoverished.

I am not suggesting that you go on a vision quest. There is a rich spirituality within the Christian tradition, and I would invite you to see what is to be seen: To see Christ in the water, washing you with grace. To see Christ in the bread, joining his life to yours. To see Christ in the cross that walks in our midst. To see Christ in the glory of the flowers that decorate our space. To experience Christ in the beauty of the music. To see Christ in your neighbor, to feel Christ’s hand in yours at the passing of the peace, and to feel your hand become Christ’s hand as you extend peace to others.

But to go back to our text: This is a strange story to us because it speaks in a language we don’t really understand. And because we don’t understand the language, it’s easy for us to get it wrong.

This is my story about imagining Jesus to be kind of like Superman. When I heard this story as a child, I imagined that this event showed us the real Jesus, that the story gave us a glimpse inside the phone booth. Clark Kent pulls back his shirt and there we see the bright red S. Jesus is God and the disciples are getting a glimpse of it.

But that’s not what’s happening here. Jesus is not Superman. Jesus is not God masquerading as a human being; he is a human being just as we are. He doesn’t know things we don’t know – he just sees more clearly than we see. He hears the voice of God better than we hear. He feels the breath of the Spirit more profoundly than we feel it. He sees into the human heart more honestly and courageously than we see.

We are not seeing the true Jesus on the mountain; we see the true Jesus on the cross. We see the true Jesus protecting his disciples when the mob comes with torches and weapons. We see the true Jesus extending the hand of compassion to the leper, and to the synagogue ruler whose daughter has died. We see the true Jesus invite himself to the home of Zacchaeus and call Matthew, the tax gatherer, to be a disciple. We see the true Jesus driving out deceit and falsehood and all those spirits that corrode and debilitate human life. We see the true Jesus in the outrage at what’s happening in the name of God at the temple, and in the tears at the death of his friend Lazarus.

The real Jesus is the human being.

But Peter, James and John are given a vision. They see for a moment beyond the ordinary reality of everyday life into deep and profound things of God. For a moment that bread in their hands radiates with an overpowering grace. For a moment the word of forgiveness at the beginning of the service seems to thunder. For a moment they are grasped by an infinite truth.

The nature of visions, however, is that they not only give, they also take. They give us truth, but they also take away falsehood. They grant us a new vision of God and ourselves, but that means that old ideas get left behind.

We have all had these moments when we think that a person or a situation is one thing, and then we have one of those “Oh, my goodness” moments when we see everything differently. Once your perception has changed, there is no going back.

Sometimes that process is sudden and dramatic. More often it takes time. The vision is granted and then the person must ponder the vision to understand what it means.

So these followers of Jesus are granted this vision of Jesus made radiant by the presence of God. They see all the glory of God shining upon him. Jesus is the perfect mirror of God.

And they see Jesus on par with Moses and Elijah, the great heavenly figures that are the pillars of Israel’s faith and life: Moses the giver of God’s law and Elijah the prophet, empowered by God’s Spirit, working wonders, the living voice of God.

They see, but they don’t yet understand. And so Peter says, “Let us build three dwellings”.

Our text repudiates Peter by saying: “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”

I used to think that Peter was a doofus who put his foot in his mouth by saying the first thing that came to mind. That he couldn’t think straight because he was so terrified at what he saw. But Peter wasn’t babbling. His suggestion was based upon what he thought he was seeing.

He has seen Jesus destroying the citadels of Satan’s power. He has seen Jesus casting out demons, cleansing lepers, healing the sick and raising the dead. He has seen Jesus commanding the wind and the waves and walking on the sea, the remnant of the primordial chaos.

Now here are Moses and Elijah. Now here are the heavenly figures who fought God’s battles in ancient times and who disappeared into the heavens without anyone ever finding their bodies. Here is Moses who stood on the mountain and held up his hands and – when his hands were raised, the Israelites triumphed over their enemy. Here is Elijah who stood on the mountain and won victory over all the priest and prophets of Baal. I don’t think Peter is terrified at the presence of God as much as he is terrified by the moment: the heavenly armies are about to appear. The battle of good and evil is beginning, the cosmic battle that will overthrow all tyranny and oppression and bring God’s new creation. It’s happening now!

And Peter is proposing that they set up three tents by which these three commanding generals can witness the battle when all evil is overthrown.

But Peter didn’t know what he was talking about. Peter wasn’t seeing what was there to be seen. The vision wasn’t over. The cloud of God’s presence envelops them and God speaks: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And then Moses and Elijah disappear and Jesus alone remains.

The rebirth of the world isn’t coming with the battle of heavenly armies; it is coming with Jesus crucified. It is not by victorious conquest, but by deeds of love and mercy. It is not by strength and power but by service. It is not by judgment but by grace. It is not by purifying the world of the faithless but by gathering the outcast. It is not by gaining the world but by remaining faithful to Jesus even at the cost of one’s life.

“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” says the voice from heaven. And then Moses and Elijah disappear and Jesus alone remains.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AIsrael_hermon_(5330547343).jpg By Yoni Lerner from Tel Aviv, Israel (hermon) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

An immeasurable mercy

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Watching for the Morning of January 21, 2018

Year B

The Third Sunday after Epiphany

Jonah opens our readings from the scripture on Sunday. The great fish has vomited him onto the shore and God tries again to send him to warn the Assyrians that God is about to destroy them for their wickedness. Unless they repent. Every prophetic warning includes the possibility of repentance. It’s why Jonah tried to run away when he was first commissioned. He was afraid the people would turn from their wickedness and God would forgive them. They didn’t deserve forgiveness.   Of course, none of us do. Some of us certainly seem like saints. Some of us certainly are saints. But living well and living faithfully doesn’t put God in our debt. We are still frail creatures, still caught in our selves. The true saints know this. It fills them with compassion for sinners. The rest of us less complete saints want a little credit. It makes us a little judgmental. Those people should know better, behave better, try harder, make better choices. And if they don’t, they don’t deserve God’s mercy. But mercy isn’t earned; it’s given.

So we will hear of Jonah half-heartedly marching into Nineveh and the people hearing and repenting. And God forgives, just as Jonah feared.

Jonah resists the call of God. Tries to, anyway. But the call of God doesn’t let us get away. It pounces on us in unexpected ways – as it did to Peter and Andrew, James and John as they were tending their nets. Suddenly the summons is there and a lifetime of fishing is suddenly turned in a new direction. They will be gathering the world into the arms of mercy, the “fishnet” of heaven’s grace.

The summons is compelling. There is no resisting the eternal voice. Christ stands before them and calls them to follow. And what shall we say? We have work to do? No, we have mercy to do. The world awaits the embrace of God. The world awaits healing and life. The world awaits care and compassion. The world awaits the message that a new kingdom is at hand, a new spirit, a new governance of the human heart.

To choose hardness of heart in such a moment seems unthinkable, though we do make that choice. Often, it seems. Our hardness of heart becomes unrecognizable to ourselves. We cheer what we should not cheer. We trust what we should not trust. We show allegiance to things we ought not serve. Jesus will have things to teach – even as God tried to teach Jonah. The cross and resurrection will be the final lesson: it’s not about what we deserve; it’s about an immeasurable mercy.

It will be sung in the psalm on Sunday. Paul will speak of it in the reading. And Jesus will name names. We are summoned by mercy. We are summoned to live mercy.

The Prayer for January 21, 2018

Almighty God,
as Jesus summoned Simon and Andrew, James and John,
to leave their nets and follow,
you summon all people to lives of faith and love.
Grant us courage to follow where you lead,
and confidence to cast wide the net |
that gathers all people into your gracious embrace;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for January 21, 2018

First Reading: Jonah 3:1-10
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’” – In this delightful tale of Jonah fleeing God’s call to bring warning to Nineveh, choosing death (tossed into the sea) rather than repentance until he is swallowed by a great fish and vomited onto the land, he now finds himself compelled to accept his commission and the thing he feared happens: the wicked city repents and God forgives.

Psalmody: Psalm 62:5-12
“For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.”
– Speaking to the community more than to God, the poet expresses his confidence in God and calls the people (warns his opponents?) to also put their trust in God.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
“From now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning.” – Paul concludes his guidance on matters of sex and marriage by reminding the community that they live in the light of the dawning reign of God and their lives should be defined by the age to come not the age that is passing away.

Gospel: Mark 1:14-20
“Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’”
– Jesus summons Simon and Andrew, James and John, to join him in gathering the nation and instigating a new era of faithfulness.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFisherman_in_Myanmar.jpg By Pupuce22 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Fidelity and anticipation

File:Montreal - Plateau, day of snow - 200312.jpgWatching for the Morning of December 31, 2017

Year B

The Sunday in Christmas

Fidelity. The Sunday in Christmas shows us more of the faithful in Israel: Joseph and Mary fulfilling all that the law requires. Simeon and Anna waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise. But even now the texts begin to move towards Epiphany. “The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory,” says the prophet – and though the prophet is speaking of the restoration of Jerusalem, all the nations shall see God’s saving work. Righteousness and praise shall spring up as certainly as the seeds sown in the garden.

And so Simeon sings – sings of God’s dawning salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples…a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” And Anna praises God and testifies to this child “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Fidelity and anticipation. Something big is happening. Something dramatic is occurring. God is fulfilling his promises. The wise elders see. The longed for day is come. The lowly are hearing good news proclaimed.

Much of the Midwest is under a thick blanket of snow. It was reported that Erie, Pennsylvania, received over five feet. Spring seems like an unthinkable promise when you are shoveling through such depths. But Simeon and Anna have eyes to see. And they testify to us of God’s faithfulness. The season has turned. The days are growing longer. The light is come.

The Prayer for December 31, 2017

Gracious God,
by whose word we live
and whose promises all come to fulfillment:
we give you thanks for those faithful among your people
who, like Simeon and Anna, have eyes to see your dawning work among us.
Grant that, with them, we might see where your hand is working
and share in its joy.

The Texts for December 31, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3
“The Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” –
In the years after the return from exile, the prophet speaks to a discouraged and weary people of a vindication to come.

Second Reading: Galatians 4:4-7
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son.” – Paul recites the core message of what God has done in Christ for these Galatians, making them members of God’s household and heirs of God’s promise through the gift of the Spirit in Christ.

Gospel: Luke 2:21-40 (appointed: 22-40)
“When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.”
– The narrative of Jesus’ birth continues with Mary and Joseph’s faithful obedience and the recognition and reception of Jesus by Simeon and Anna, representatives of faithful Israel.

For the psalm on the Sunday in Christmas we sing a Christmas carol. The appointed Psalm is: Psalm 148 – “Praise the Lord from the heavens… Praise the Lord from the earth… He has raised up a horn for his people.”

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Montreal_-_Plateau,_day_of_snow_-_200312.jpg

But there are others

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Watching for the Morning of October 29, 2017

Reformation Sunday

Sunday is the 500th anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses, and names like Martin Luther, Philip Melancthon, and Katherine von Bora (Katy Luther) will surely get the major share of attention.

But there are others.

There are others like Justus Jonas who was dear friend to Luther, and Bugenhagen, and Frederick the Wise of course, without whom none of us would remember Luther except as another heretic committed to the flames. And there is John the Steadfast who became the Elector of Saxony after his brother Frederick and stayed the course despite its ultimate cost. (Saxony was defeated by Emperor Charles V in 1547 and the lands, title and privileged vote as Elector were stripped away and given to the Duke of Saxony who had betrayed the Protestant cause.)

But there are others.

Luther and his colleagues in Saxony were protected by Elector Frederick. So, too, those in other sympathetic German states. But the emperor had direct control in the Low Countries and enforced his Edict of Worms declaring Luther outside the protection of the law, forbidding anyone to provide any food, clothing, protection or assistance to Luther, and authorizing the confiscation of the property of any sympathizers, supporters, patrons, or followers.

Johann Esch, Heinrich Voes, and Lampertus Thorn were among the monks in the Augustinian monastery in Antwerp arrested for supporting Luther’s ideas. The prior and others recanted, but these three refused. On July 1, 1523, Esch and Voes were burned at the stake. Thorn died in prison.

So we will read these wonderful texts for Reformation Day, this Sunday, and sing with trumpets the stirring hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” and for some it will be like singing the old college fight song – a stirring tribute and remembrance of our team. But it is not about our team. It is about this compelling and dangerous word of Jesus that sets free and makes true disciples. It is about the promise of God through Jeremiah to establish with God’s frail and corrupt humanity a new covenant. It is about this message that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” but “are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” It is about the work of God to fashion a new creation and our trust in and allegiance to that work.

Even when it may lead to the flames.

The Prayer for Reformation Sunday, October 29, 2017

Gracious and eternal God,
who by your Word called all things into being,
and by your Spirit sustains and renews the earth,
send forth your Word and your Spirit upon your church,
that ever renewed they may bear faithful witness to your grace and life.

The texts for Reformation Sunday, October 29, 2017 (assigned for Reformation Day)

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
– Though the covenant formed between God and the people at Sinai lies broken (what God’s people promised they have failed to do and kingship and temple have perished) God’s promise abides and God will establish a new covenant where God’s teaching/commands are written on the heart.

Psalmody: Psalm 46
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” – A hymn proclaiming the power of God to protect and preserve the people and expressing their confident trust in God’s saving work. It provided the inspiration for Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28
“Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” – Paul’s classic expression of his understanding of the function of law and gospel and the idea that we are brought into a right relationship with God (justified) not by the law, but by the free gift of God (by grace) apprehended by our trust in that gift (through faith). This phrase “Justification by grace through faith” becomes a summary statement of the 16th century reforming movement and subsequent Lutheran churches.

Gospel: John 8:31-36
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” – This promise of freedom in Christ – freedom from authorities or powers that would prevent their living in service of God – is spoken to followers who do not abide in Jesus’ teaching, and his challenge will reveal their true heart.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALucas_Cranach_d.%C3%84._(Werkst.)_-_Martin_Luther_und_Philipp_Melanchthon_(1543).jpg workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

70 years

Sunday Evening

Sunday was delightful. A couple in the congregation were celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary (yes, 70, it’s not a typo). Her dress decorated the fellowship hall along with photos from the day. The tables for our usual coffee hour now had linens and flowers in colors keeping with their day. A tree of cupcakes and wedding type goodies added to the simple but festive celebration.

We presented them with corsages to wear at the beginning of the service and escorted them out to a wedding recessional while the congregation filled the air with those little wedding bubbles. It was sweet and wonderful.

When I began to write the sermon, I started by explaining why I didn’t want to preach about marriage. Nevertheless, by the time I had finished drafting the message, a full third of it concerned marriage. It surprised me how the topic fit with Isaiah’s searing indictment of a nation that yielded bitter grapes, and Jesus excoriating the leaders of Jerusalem with a parable about tenants who refused the fruit due to their lord.

It’s worth pondering the fact that marriage stands at the beginning and end of scriptures. It is there in the garden when God takes the flesh of Adam to form a companion equal to him. And it is there in the vision of Revelation 21 when it describes the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. The human story begins in perfect faithfulness and communion with God and one another, and our story reaches its fulfillment with all creation restored to perfect faithfulness and communion. Marriage embodies the memory of the garden and the promise of the new creation.

Marriage is meant to be life-giving and life-sustaining and the perfection of joy and intimacy. But we are no longer in the garden. And we are not yet in the New Jerusalem. And since we live in a broken world, marriage isn’t simple. Love and forgiveness must be practiced.

And what it is true of marriage is true also of faith and life: “We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – so love and forgiveness must be practiced. Kindness and compassion must be practiced. Hope and joy must be practiced. Mercy and truth must be practiced. Generosity and humility must be practiced. Patience and understanding must be practiced.”

In a day both delightful and overshadowed by the terrible events of this last week in Las Vegas, celebrating enduring faithfulness was refreshing and important.

(The sermon was posted in this blog as “The stone the builders rejected”)

The stone the builders rejected

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Isaiah 5:1-7:
Let me sing for my beloved

my love-song concerning his vineyard…

Psalm 80:7-15:
“…You brought a vine out of Egypt;

you drove out the nations and planted it.…”

Matthew 21:33-46:
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard…”

Proper 22, Lectionary 27, Year A
(and a 70th wedding anniversary celebration)

I thought about taking this occasion to preach about marriage. But, in some ways, that’s a scarier topic to me than to preach those texts where Jesus talks about divorce. It’s like talking about money; it’s a subject in which all of us are deeply invested. Marriage is something that we have hoped for and never found, or something we have found and lost, or something we have found and struggled through – sometimes successfully, and sometimes less so. Marriage is something that begins with radiant hopes and often suffers under the weight of unfulfilled desires. It is dangerous ground for preaching – easy to preach about in a way that is shallow or sentimental or a little too confident that the preacher knows what is good for everyone else.

There is also a problem because marriage in the scripture is a different thing than marriage in the modern west. Our understanding of what marriage is supposed to be has changed a lot since the Adam and Eve story was written down 3,000 years ago. But it is still a remarkable story and I don’t hesitate to call it inspired. It is far more profound than the story told in the cultures around ancient Israel.

The element of the Biblical witness that is remarkable is the notion that marriage is something holy and sacred, not because of its connection to sex and procreation, but because it is a covenant. It is a relationship created and sustained by a promise and a trust in that promise. Marriage is made of the same stuff as faith: a relationship created and sustained by a promise and a trust in that promise.

Marriage is holy not because sex is mystical and primal and crosses into the generative realm of the gods; marriage is holy because it is about promises – trust in and fidelity to those promises. This is why, when the prophets talk about idolatry, they speak of it as adultery: Israel betraying its covenantal relationship with God.

We see this in our first reading, today. But before we go there I want also to say this: It’s worth pondering the fact that marriage stands at the beginning and end of scriptures. It is there in the garden when God takes the flesh of Adam to form a companion equal to him. And it is there in the vision of Revelation 21 when it describes the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. The human story begins in perfect faithfulness and communion with God and one another, and our story reaches its fulfillment with all creation restored to perfect faithfulness and communion. Marriage embodies the memory of the garden and the promise of the new creation.

Marriage is meant to be life-giving and life-sustaining and the perfection of joy and intimacy. But we are no longer in the garden. And we are not yet in the New Jerusalem. And since we live in a broken world, marriage isn’t simple; love and forgiveness must be practiced.

Again this is just like faith and living a Christian life. We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – so love and forgiveness must be practiced. Kindness and compassion must be practiced. Hope and joy must be practiced. Mercy and truth must be practiced. Generosity and humility must be practiced. Patience and understanding must be practiced.

But we are not alone. The Spirit of God is given. God is leading and guiding and teaching and exhorting and challenging and summoning us to lives that are holy and true.

So I want to speak briefly about the passage in Isaiah and then we’ll look at the parable of Jesus and try to hear what’s there.

You saw in the psalm that Israel is compared to a vine that God brought out of Egypt, planted in the land and tended and cared for it. The psalmist is writing after the nation has been destroyed and crying out for God to see and come to their aid. The protective wall has been torn down, as it were, and the vineyard ravaged by the wild animals. This notion of Israel as God’s vine is important. When Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard, he is talking about the nation.

The song that the prophet Isaiah sings – the poetry he recites in the public square – is a masterful piece of preaching. He stands up to sing a song about his beloved. And when he begins, the crowd understands that he is singing about his best friend. And as soon as the prophet begins his story about his friend’s vineyard, the crowd knows that this is a song about his friend’s marriage. It has the hint of a scandalous tale. It causes the crowd to lean in just like we lean in to any juicy gossip.

So this friend has done everything he can for his vine, but he has gotten nothing but wild, wanton, bitter grapes. His wife has been unfaithful. And the poet/prophet summons the crowd for their opinion, their judgment. What more could he have done? He declares that he will reject his vineyard, strip away its protection, and let the wild beasts have it.

At this moment when he has won the sympathy and support of the crowd, the prophet says, “You are God’s vineyard.” This is not a story of a friend with an adulterous wife, but of God and God’s faithless people who have gone off to embrace other gods. They have chosen gods of wealth and power, gods of injustice, gods who devour and destroy.

7For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
…..is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
…..are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
…..but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
…..but heard a cry!

The power of this poetry we can’t begin to capture in the translation. God expected ‘mishpat’ and got ‘mispach’. God looked for justice – faithfulness – and look, only bloodshed and violence. God looked for ‘tsĕdaqah’ and got ‘tsa`aqah’. He looked for righteousness but behold, only the cry of the poor.

The people draw near to hear what they think will be a lascivious story – and there they are met with the voice of God revealing their faithlessness. The people were God’s vine from whom God expected good fruit, and God has gotten bitter deeds.

When Jesus tells his parable, he is standing in the aura of these great prophetic texts. And Jesus does the same thing that Isaiah does. He tells a story that suckers his audience. Jesus is speaking to the wealthy elite in Jerusalem. We are no longer traveling the countryside; Jesus has come to Jerusalem. He has ridden in on a donkey and the crowds have shouted hosanna and waved their palm branches before him. He is standing in the temple square. He has already kicked over the tables and declared that they have turned God’s house into a den of thieves. He has declared that the leadership of the nation is like a good son who says, “Yes, father,” but doesn’t do what his father asks – such a person is regarded as a good son in that culture because he doesn’t shame his father in the eyes of the community. But Jesus has declared that the good son is the one who, though he had shamed his father by saying “no”, changes his mind and does what the father asked. The good sons are the poor and outcast who have embraced the way of justice and mercy, and the Jerusalem leaders are bad sons who give honor to God but don’t do what God asks.

Now, today, Jesus tells this parable about an absentee landlord to people who are absentee landlords. They own all this land in Galilee that they have taken against God’s command because the people fell under the crushing burden of debt. In this story of an absentee landlord with rebellious tenants who foolishly imagine that they could kill the son and take the vineyard for themselves, he asks what the landlord in the story will do knowing full well what these landlords would do. They are quick to answer: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Then Jesus says, “You are the tenants.”

It is a parable that is full of poignancy, because Rome will come in less than 40 years and tear down the city wall and put all its rebel residents to death.

It is a parable full of poignancy because these rebel tenants will kill Jesus thinking it will gain them the vineyard; but it is God’s vineyard and their actions ensure they will lose it.

I didn’t choose the bulletin cover because of Ann and Paul’s anniversary. I choose it because of the text this morning:

Have you never read in the scriptures,” says Jesus,
“The stone that the builders rejected
…..has become the cornerstone.”

Jesus, whom they rejected, is the foundation that keeps the whole building true.

Justice and mercy, Love of God and neighbor, faithfulness to our obligations to God and one another, this is the foundation stone the builders reject. But it is the only true and lasting stone. It is the only stone that can ensure that the walls rise square and true.

And so we are back where we began. We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – but we are headed there. So love and forgiveness must be practiced. Kindness and compassion must be practiced. Hope and joy must be practiced. Mercy and truth must be practiced. Generosity and humility must be practiced. Patience and understanding must be practiced. We must give God the fruit God seeks. We must build on the stone that is steadfast love and faithfulness. We must build on the stone that was rolled away. We must build on him who is the cornerstone – the one who died and rose and will come again.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Heart-shaped_stone.JPG By Sylda31 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The song of all creation

 

File:Western Meadowlark singing.jpgI started writing yesterday morning at my dining table with a cup of fresh coffee. Maybe it’s because I was writing a sermon that I was so mindful of what a privilege it is to have a cup of good coffee. Coffee beans don’t grow here. The label on my coffee says it is from small family farms in Nicaragua, Peru and the highlands of Chiapas in southern Mexico.

Between those family farms and the cup of coffee on my table there is a vast network of people. It is not just about those who harvest the beans and whoever roasts them, but there are people who must transport those beans, and people who arrange for those beans to come to my Trader Joe’s. There are people who make the cans the coffee comes in. There are people who design and print the label. There are people who build the trucks or ships or planes or however it is that it gets here – and people who drive them. There are people who are loading and unloading boxes. There are people who are filling out orders and stockings shelves and running registers. There are people who made the bags I bring to the store in which to carry it home.

Somehow there is water in my kitchen sink that is clean enough for me to use for coffee. And I know there is a host of people involved in building the dams and infrastructure required to bring that water to me – and cleaning up whatever gets dumped down the drain.

Somehow, too, there is electricity so that I can heat the water with which to make my coffee. And that means there are people running power stations and tending power lines and growing trees that can be chopped down to make utility poles. There are people digging the copper out of the ground for the wires, and others who refine it and shape it.

Someone made the coffee filters I use. Someone made the little plastic device that holds the filter for my coffee. And to make that plastic thing, someone had to find oil and get it out of the ground and ship it somewhere where it got processed somehow to make whatever it is that becomes plastic.

Someone had to make the grinder I use to grind the beans. And there are people working in that little store on Main Street where I bought it. In between those makers and that store there are more trucks and drivers and all that goes with it – the gas stations and the truck companies and the road builders and the police officers to patrol them.

There are also people who will pick up the coffee grounds when I am through with them and take them somewhere to compost them. And there are people who make those trucks, too, and keep them repaired and running.

And, of course, all these people need clothes and food and health care to do all that needs to be done so that I can have a cup of coffee when I sit down to write this sermon.

This is so hard for us to remember, so hard for us to acknowledge, but we are all part of a vast, intricate, interconnected web of life. John Donne was right when he wrote, “No man is an island.” None of us stands alone. We didn’t come into the world alone and we won’t go out alone – and we certainly don’t live alone.

My life is connected to all those people. Unless they prosper, I cannot prosper.

Every now and then something in the system goes wrong. Some field worker who doesn’t have access to a bathroom pees in a field and a plant from that field ends up in a salad bar thousands of miles away and suddenly all kinds of people are sick. We are connected for good or for ill. What we do affects others. What they do affects us.

Part of the pain in Puerto Rico is what happens when that complex and intricate web gets so profoundly disrupted. Which makes it all the more necessary to remember that what happens to the least of these happens to me. We are connected.

And what is true of human society is true of the whole interconnected web of life on this planet. We are not alone; we are connected.

We are here today because it’s Sunday, and on this first day of the week, in the early morning, the women came to the tomb of Jesus and found it empty. Every week we remember Easter. Every week we remember the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Every week we remember the whole sweep of the world’s history from its origins in the heart of God to its destiny in the heart of God. We come to hear the story and, with the sharing of the bread, enact the promise of a world made new, where the lion lies down with the lamb and all people are gathered at one table in peace (Isaiah 11:1-9, Isaiah 25:6-8).

We are here, today, because it’s Sunday. And we have brought our pets today not just that they might receive a blessing, but that we might remember that they share with us in the blessing. They share with us in the goodness of the creation that God has given, and they share with us in the promise of a world made new, a world made whole, a world set free from our brokenness. They share with us in the promise of a world brought under the reign of God’s Spirit – the world where swords are beaten into plowshares and there is none to make them afraid (Micah 4:1-4).

We bring our pets to receive a blessing, but the truth is our lives have been blessed by them. Something deep and profound happens with the animals in our lives. In our shared lives there is something of the goodness of the Garden in the world’s first morning. And because there is a taste of the goodness of the creation, there is a taste also of the promised fulfillment of a world renewed and restored.

St. Francis is remembered for far more than pets. He is remembered for seeing this profound web that binds all things together. And so, in our first hymn this morning, he sings of the sun and moon praising God. He sings of the wind and clouds singing God’s praise. He sings of the sunrise and the waters and the earth itself as part of that great chorus that proclaims God’s praise.

What we hear from St. Francis is a reminder of what we find in the scriptures – that all creation draws its life from God and for God. The song of the meadowlarks is beautiful to our ears, but it is also beautiful to God’s ears. The rhythm of the waves speaks God’s praise. The sound of a mountain brook. The strange sound of the wind over the sands. The chorus of frogs early in summer and crickets late in summer. The wind in the Aspens. It all sings God’s praise. It testifies to the beauty and wonder and majesty and marvel of all that is around us. It testifies to the intricate web in which all life is united.

Francis not only showed love and faithfulness to the wild creatures of the earth, but his love and faithfulness to the poor and needy was cut from the same cloth. We are connected. We are meant for lives of compassion and generosity, kindness and faithfulness. We are meant for lives of praise to the one who is the source of all life. We are meant to join the song of all creation.

The love we have for our pets is a small portion of that great song that vibrates through all of creation. And the love they have for us is part of that song. So we come here week after week to remember the song. And on this day we bring our animals to remember that they, too, are part of that song.

As torn as the world is by false and discordant notes, as torn as we are by anger and greed, as torn as we are by killing and sorrow, these are not our true song. These are not our final song. Christ is risen. Christ is present among us. And Christ will bring the fulfillment of God’s promise of a world renewed, of every heart beating in rhythm with God’s heart, of every voice in harmony with God’s voice.

Amen

A print version of this reflection from Sunday, October 1, 2017, is available here.

The text and pictures from Psalm 104 from Sunday is available here.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWestern_Meadowlark_singing.jpg  By Alan Vernon (Western Meadowlark singing,) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The strange and wondrous truth of God

File:Afghan day laborers help Marines fill sandbags (5224388587).jpg

Afghan day laborers filling sandbags outside Forward Operating Base Geronimo, Helmand province, Afghanistan, July 14, 2010

Watching for the Morning of September 24, 2017

Year A

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 20 / Lectionary 25

Sunday we are jumping ahead to chapter 20 of Matthew’s gospel. We are skipping the Pharisees’ challenge about the legality of divorce and the strange saying about being eunuchs for the kingdom. We are skipping past the disciples’ harsh words to those who would bring their children to receive a blessing from Jesus – and Jesus’ welcome of those children. We are skipping past the words of Jesus to the young man seeking the life of the age to come, telling him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, and past the disciples’ astonishment that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”   All of which leads us once again to the truth that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” The reign of God is a profound reversal of the way of the world.

And so, Sunday, we come to the story of a landowner hiring day laborers for his vineyard and the remarkable choice to pay even those who worked but one hour a full day’s wage. It is not the act of an accountant; it is the act of a patron taking care of those who depend upon him. Except these day workers are not his people. He has no long and established relationship with them. He is not their patron. But he chooses to be.

And what shall we do with this portrait of a God who chooses to treat all people as their patron? What shall we do when our long and historic fidelity to God gains no privilege? What shall we do with a God who shows faithfulness to those who deserve none? The landowners’ final words are painful: “Are you envious because I am generous?” The Greek is literally “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

We don’t understand mercy. We don’t understand the breadth and depth of the compassion of God. We don’t even truly understand the notion that God is the god of all. We claim to be monotheists, but we are more likely to think that God is our god and he can be your god too, if you become one of us. But the truth is there is no ‘us’ and ‘them; we are all ‘them’. We have no claim on god’s mercy; it is gift given to all. Rich, abundant, overflowing, fidelity to a world as corrupt and violent, greedy and cruel as ours. Yes, we are capable of great kindness and generosity – but we are also fully capable of its opposite. We are not God’s people. Not really. We are strangers to the reign of God. We don’t really understand the language or culture of heaven. Nevertheless, God comes to us. Nevertheless, he speaks. Nevertheless, he shows faithfulness. Steadfast love.

So Sunday we will hear once again that “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” We will listen as Jonah wrestles angrily with God because God chooses to forgive the cruel and barbarous Ninevites. We will sing with the psalmist in praise of God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” We will listen as Paul exhorts us to live our lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” And we will once again shift in our seats as Jesus speaks of the just injustice of a landowner who is generous to all, pushing us to see something of the strange and wondrous truth of God.

The Prayer for September 24, 2017

Wondrous God,
whose mercy knows no bounds,
and whose salvation is offered to all:
renew us by your Holy Spirit
that we may walk in the paths of your kindness
and bear your grace to the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 24, 2017

First Reading: Jonah 3:1 – 4:11 (appointed: 3:10 – 4:11)
“When God saw what [the people of Nineveh] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. 4:1But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”
– Jonah sought to avoid his mission to the Assyrian capital for fear God would forgive the city that had destroyed Israel. Now, when this has happened, God seeks to help Jonah understand God’s compassion for its people.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:1-8
“I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.” – Psalm 145 is an acrostic hymn, each line beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet, in which the poet sings God’s praise “from A to Z.”

Second Reading: Philippians 1:21-30
“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
– In prison in Rome, Paul is faced with the possibility of his execution and writes to his beloved congregation in Philippi to encourage them to remain faithful to their Lord, living “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” – As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, he tells this story comparing the reign of God with a vineyard owner who chooses to relate to his workers not on the basis of what they deserve, but on the basis of his goodness.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAfghan_day_laborers_help_Marines_fill_sandbags_(5224388587).jpg By Marines from Arlington, VA, United States (Afghan day laborers help Marines fill sandbags) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons