Remember not the former things

File:Dülmen, Börnste, Waldweg -- 2015 -- 4649.jpg

The Third Sunday of Easter, Year B
April 15, 2018

Gracious Heavenly Father,
as the risen Lord Jesus opened the minds of his disciples to understand the scriptures,
open our hearts and minds
that, hearing your voice, we might be called into newness of life.
(Prayer for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, year B)

This was preached on the third Sunday after Easter in 2018. It is rooted in the texts for that day, particularly the Gospel reading that relates that the risen Jesus opened the minds of his followers to understand the scriptures.

When I was in college and the seminary, Biblical scholarship was predominantly occupied with dismantling the Bible as a book. This was a process that had begun years earlier, and was not without controversy, because many of the scholars who began to make these observations about the different authors and historical contexts of the various Biblical materials were perceived as dismantling the faith. There were just criticisms to be made. Some didn’t give enough care to the faith and piety of the church. We talked about the theology of John or the theology of Mark, but few wanted to talk about the book as a whole and its relationship to the faith of the church.

What happened in this country, in reaction to that scholarship, was the development of fundamentalism and a Biblical literalism that sought to hold on to the notion of the Bible as a single book, given by God, that it was true in all its parts. So a single verse about homosexuality, for example, is the end of all conversation. Each part is divinely authored and authoritative and final.

And while I agree with the statement that this book as a whole and in its parts is divinely inspired and authoritative, those words, “divinely authored and authoritative,” don’t mean for me – and shouldn’t mean for any of us – that the book dropped out of heaven as a whole. Even those who profess to take the Bible literally don’t really take it literally. They don’t imagine when David says, The Lord is my rock,” that God is literally a rock.

There are deep and real problems with literalism and fundamentalism. And it doesn’t matter whether we are talking about the Bible or Islam or economic theory, the second amendment to the constitution on the right to bear arms, Confederate monuments, or global warming. Fundamentalism says, in effect, that all that needs to be known is known and we can and should stop thinking and stop listening.

Such fundamentalism is inherently dangerous and – more importantly – it contradicts the Bible itself. The Bible is full of struggle and questioning. What is the book of Job, but 35 chapters of theological argument and struggle ending with Job bowing in silence before a God he cannot comprehend? There is a whole category in scripture of works we call “wisdom literature” – including Proverbs and Ecclesiastes – that struggles to understand the way God has fashioned the world.

The God who encounters us in the Bible is a god who leads us into a new and unexpected future. Through the prophet Isaiah God says,

18 Do not remember the former things,
….or consider the things of old.
19 I am about to do a new thing;
….now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:18-19)

The New International Version translates this as “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.” The Tanach translation says, “Do not recall what happened of old, Or ponder what happened of yore!”

The Biblical narrative is built around promises concerning the future. It is about what God is doing, where God is leading. It speaks of the human journey from the lost Garden of Eden to the promised City of God. Its foundational blocks tell of the journey of Abraham out from Haran towards the promise of God, of the journey of Israel out from bondage into freedom, of the journey into exile and home again. For the Christian community, the New Testament adds to these narratives the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem, the cross and the empty tomb, and the journey of Jesus’ followers to the ends of the earth. In the Book of Acts, on the day the risen Jesus ascends into the heavens, he says to his disciples: you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The rest of the book will tell the stories of the missionary journeys not only of Paul, but the whole Christian community.

And I need to say this: even the legal code in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, is not designed, at its core, to impose a category of right and wrong on the people, but to lead them towards a just society. There are things in there that certainly trouble us, but when we listen to them in their context, we see a profoundly different vision for human society than what was operative in the world around them. What we heard last week about the early Christians holding all things in common has its roots in the vision of the world reflected in the Law and the Prophets. As you have heard many times, Jesus gets the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself from the book of Leviticus. In the legal codes of the Old Testament, God is not trying to repristinate the past, but to call Israel into a radically new future.

So we betray the scripture wherever we cling to the past rather than walking with God faithfully towards God’s future. There are things to preserve, things to carry with us into the future, there is wisdom in the hymns and liturgy and insights of the past, but the focus of Christian faith is forward into a greater justice, a deeper compassion, a more faithful human community.

When Anna was first learning to walk, Deb would stand behind her helping to hold her up, and I would kneel down a little ways in front of her with arms open, inviting her to walk towards me. If you want a picture of God and the world, this is it. God stands behind us and before us. God helps us stand and go forward and God calls us to himself. God launches us and catches us. God calls us into God’s future, God’s reign, God’s kingdom. God calls us into the fullness of grace and the life of the Spirit.

The criticism of the gods of the ancient world that we find in scripture is that they couldn’t speak. They couldn’t call to us. They couldn’t change the world. They couldn’t save. They were gods of wood and stone, of gold and silver. They were powerless.

The gods of this world are gods of stability and order, who defend and justify the way of the world. The gods of this world defend the status quo. They are gods who support segregated schools and hospitals and bathrooms because that’s the way it’s always been. They are gods who support the wealth and power of kings and the poverty of peasants because that’s the way it’s always been. But the God who meets the world through the scriptures is a God who changes the world. He overturns unjust rule. He sets prisoners free. He forgives unpayable debts. He opens blind eyes and heals paralyzed limbs. He opens the grave. He leads us into newness of life.

In the Biblical story, when humanity rebels against God and loses the Garden of Eden, God posts a flaming sword that bars the way back to the garden. We cannot go back to Eden; we must go forward to the New Jerusalem. There is no refuge in the past – but there is hope in the future: the grave is empty.

The grave is empty. Christ is in our midst. He meets us in the supper. He opens our minds and hearts to the word. He gives us his Spirit. He sends us out with a commission and a promise to live and witness to the kingdom that is dawning.

There are deep and troubling problems with literalism and fundamentalism. And please understand, I am not just talking about religious fundamentalism. We are talking about a way of being in the world. Our political realm right now is shot through with rigid and absolutist ideas that are not open to any new facts or ideas. There’s no conversation. There’s no change. There’s no willingness to question or explore. What I disagree with or don’t like I reject as “fake news”.

This is not Biblical faith. And where the name of God is used to defend it, the commandment forbidding the misuse of God’s name is violated. When we say “God bless America” at the end of a sentence full of venom and falsehoods, we are asking God to destroy the country as God destroyed Israel when they did the same thing – when they betrayed God’s call and commission to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.

Christianity doesn’t work with hearts that are closed. It doesn’t work with closed doors and high walls. Christianity isn’t a castle to hold out the world; it is a journey in the world to the world’s new birth. It is a journey in the human heart to the heart’s new birth.

There is a reason Jesus talks to us about being the salt that makes the fire of love burn more brightly. There is a reason Jesus talks to us about a city set on a hill, a beacon for all to see. There is a reason Jesus gives to his followers the fundamental task of testifying to the reign of God and assigns us the work of healing and casting out dark and demonic spirits.

A faith that wants to defend the injustices of the world is not a Christian faith. A faith that will not walk alongside a changing world is not the Christian faith. A faith that does not walk in hope and joy is not the Christian faith.

Since the school shooting in Florida, Ken has been after me to condemn the NRA. Well, Ken, here it is. I’m not going to condemn it from a liberal perspective, I’m going to condemn it because it speaks and behaves as fundamentalists. There is no engagement of the world. There is no listening to the voices of others. It reduces complex realities to simple absolutes. It takes refuge in slogans and chants. It builds walls not bridges.

Should Christians belong to fundamentalist organizations? I don’t think there’s a simple, black and white answer. There is some truth in the argument that we need to be a part of such things in order to help change them. But there is also a danger that we get led astray by them.

And please understand, there are fundamentalisms of all kinds, on the left and the right and in the center. I understand fear and why fear makes us want to look backwards. Fear and anxiety born of change makes us want to put on the brakes and turn back and nail things down   But the way back is barred; we can only go forward. And we as Christians uniquely confess that the work of God is to raise the dead, to open the barren life, to heal the broken heart, to protect the vulnerable, to free the bound, to transform the world.

We need to recognize that this Biblical faith is not an American optimism. There are people who believe in the future because of the promises of politicians or science or the idea of human progress. These have been notoriously unreliable because they have little control over the future.

We don’t “believe in the future” we believe in the God who holds the future. We believe there is a power, a truth, a reality at the heart of all things that brought forth the world in love and calls it forth into love.

We put our hope, trust and allegiance in the one who calls us to himself.

Those scholars who began to take apart the Bible were correct. The Bible is not a single book. I have said to you that it is a library. It is a collection of books. The way Mark talks about Jesus is different than the way John talks about Jesus. Those two are different than the way the apostle Paul talks about Jesus. And all of those are different from the way the book of Revelation talks about Jesus.

It’s important for us to see this. The way Genesis talks about God and the journey of faith is different from Joshua. The book of Ruth is different from Ezra and Nehemiah. But scholarship got so preoccupied about looking at all the pieces it often forgot to pay attention to the whole. All these books add up to something. They don’t all say the same thing, but together they say something profoundly important. Together they are “divinely authored and authoritative.”

One of the other metaphors for the scripture I have used is to say that the Bible is a choir. It is made up of multiple voices. When the St. Olaf Choir sings F. Melius Christiansen’s exquisite arrangement of Beautiful Savior, some of the sopranos are soaring up here and some other sopranos are soaring over there, and some of the basses are traveling way down here and others are over here. They are not all singing the same note or the same words or at the same time, but together their voices exalt you up to the heavens.

The scripture is rich and wonderful and diverse. It is strange and foreign and yet deeply familiar. It has terrible stories and fearful images and soaring visions and profoundly sweet and comforting words. The various voices in the Bible are not all singing the same note or the same words or at the same time, but together their voices lift us up to the heavens – or, more accurately, together their voices bring heaven down to us.

Together their voices touch us with grace. Together their voices heal and renew. Together their voices call us into new paths of faithfulness and love. Together they call us into God’s tomorrow.

Amen

+   +   +

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:D%C3%BClmen,_B%C3%B6rnste,_Waldweg_–_2015_–_4649.jpg Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “Dülmen, Börnste, Waldweg — 2015 — 4649” / CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons

Advertisements

Named and known

File:Messenger of Milky Way.jpg

Friday

Psalm 147

4 He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.

What did the ancients think they were seeing when they looked up into the night sky? I marveled at the vast canopy of the night sky a few years ago, standing in awe when camping at ten thousand feet at Great Basin National Park. Yet, wondrous as was the night sky, my eyes saw what I knew: these are bright shining suns, some new, some old, some red, some blue, some galaxies of stars – all massive fires of primal matter.

But what did the ancients see?

They know there are creatures of the sea, and creatures of the earth – so these must be creatures of the air. And if creatures of the air, they must be made of light. These are the spirit-beings who meddle on earth – some in service of God, some not.

God’s place in the pantheon of heaven is revealed by this simple phrase: “he gives to all of them their names.” Who has the right to name? Only the one who called the light ‘day’ and the darkness ‘night’, who called the expanse ‘sky’ and the dry land ‘earth’, the one who fashioned all and reigns over all.

Is it just metaphor when the poet of Job says that at the creation the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” Is it only imagery when Deborah sings her song of victory and declares that: The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera? And in 1 Corinthians 15, when Paul says that heavenly bodies are different from terrestrial ones, he is not referring to planetary bodies, but creatures with bodies of fire. He doesn’t mean they have different degrees of luminosity when he says they have different degrees in glory; he is speaking of the ranks of angels.

For the ancient world, the sky is filled with these embodied spirit-beings even as the earth and seas with mortal beings. Officially, Israel refutes that notion. The creation story in Genesis 1 refuses to use the words ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ since they are the names of deities and simply refers to them as greater and lesser lights. The stars are mentioned as if an afterthought. But this is, by no means, the only reference in scripture. There are others that speak of these stars as gods or “sons of God” or blessed or malevolent forces.

So what does it mean to our psalmist and his hearers when he says God gives them their names? Is God simply naming objects in the sky – Betelgeuse, Sirius and Alpha Centauri – or is he naming living things?

For us, the stars are just stars – not gods, not angels, not powers working weal and woe upon our lives. But we do know that there are spiritual forces at work in the world, ideas and ideologies that govern our lives, working for good and for ill.

4 He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.

All these powers and realities that shape and govern human existence, from the lies and deceits that are taken for truth in politics and economics, to the ugly terrors of racism and tribal violence, God names them, knows them, and has ultimate authority over them.

There is something reassuring in such affirmations. The racism and rage that show up in Ferguson, the hate and fear and hardness of heart that burns a man to death, the injustices that are named just, the greed that is blessed as righteous, the violence done in a home or elevator because “You just make me so mad, baby” – and the violence that is accepted as if it were love. God has named it, identified it, exposed it.

Maybe the psalmist doesn’t mean all this when he sings. Maybe he has in mind only that God knows the angels by name. Maybe he sees the stars as he sees the mountains and trees, cattle and creatures: just part of a creation born in the heart and will of God. But even this has its power: Everything is named. Everything is known. No secrets are hid. And no power surpasses God’s own.

It’s a message worth remembering when deceit and hate seem to rule the day, when tragedy befalls, when war rises, when all manner of human suffering persists. They are all named and known. And God yet reigns – he who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds,” “he who lifts up the downtrodden [and] casts the wicked to the ground,” he who bids us follow where he has led the way.

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMessenger_of_Milky_Way.jpg By Q-lieb-in (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

One came back

File:Cleansing10.jpg

Watching for the Morning of October 9, 2016

Year C

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 23 / Lectionary 28

Healing comes to the fore this Sunday, but much more than healing. Namaan, the Syrian general, enemy of Israel, yet sufferer, is told by a slave girl, captured from Israel, that there is a prophet in Israel who can heal him. The story is filled with humor and irony and the radical ways of God who is not impressed with the trappings of wealth and power but simple obedience. A God of grace beyond Israel’s borders, though Namaan himself is still bound by the idea that Israel’s God is like all the others: powerful only on his own specific bits of land.

And the psalmist sings of the mighty works of God – though he, too, doesn’t yet seem to fully understand that God’s mighty works are not just for his people, but for all.

The author of 2 Timothy knows that “the word of God is not chained”, yet his focus is on “the elect” not on the vast sweep of humanity – indeed of the created world, itself.

And so we come to Jesus. Ten sufferers stand far off, crying out from a distance because they are unclean and unworthy to come near to anyone but their fellow sufferers. They cry for mercy and Jesus sends them to the priests who are the ones appointed by God to judge whether anyone is “clean” and may go home. They scamper off, but one returns. One is captured by the grace he has received. One is driven to his knees in gratefulness and praise. And he is a Samaritan, a foreigner, one to whom God is thought to have no obligation or concern.

But Jesus knows this God of the creation and the exodus and the water turned to wine is the God of all: the sinners and the saints, the outcast and the inner circle, the broken and the whole, the lost and the found.

The nine scamper off to resume their lives – and who can blame them? But the one who turned back, the one with his face to the ground, the one with tears in his eyes and a heart bursting, knows that something much more than a village healer has come.

The Prayer for October 9, 2016

God our healer and redeemer,
stretch forth your hand,
touch us with your spirit
that, cleansed and made whole,
we may live lives of gratefulness and praise;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 9, 2016

First Reading: 2 Kings 5:1-19a (appointed, 5:1-3, 7-15)
“Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram… suffered from leprosy.”
– The commander of Israel’s hostile neighbor is told by a captured Israelite maid that there is a prophet in Israel who can heal him.

Psalmody: Psalm 111
“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart.” – An acrostic hymn singing the praise of God from Aleph to Tau (A to Z).

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 2:8-15
“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David–that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.” – Written by Paul (or, as some scholars think, in Paul’s name) from prison to his protégé Timothy, the author speaks to the next generation of leadership urging faithfulness to the teaching they have received.

Gospel: Luke 17:11-19
“Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?’” –As Jesus approaches a village he is met by ten people suffering from a dreaded skin affliction that excludes them from their families and community. They are sent on their way healed, but only the Samaritan in the group returns to acknowledge Jesus and give thanks to God.

Free to do the right thing

File:Bartholomeus Breenbergh - Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath - WGA3154.jpg

Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath

Thursday

1 Kings 17:8-16

10When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.”

It seems like such a simple little request. But it is during a three-year drought. Water itself is scarce. Who knows whether Zarephath still had easy access to fresh water? Dry sticks, on the other hand, are sure to be available.

The prophet is in foreign territory. The widow refers to the LORD as “your god.” Her god – or, at least, the god of her people – is the god Ba’al. The worship of Ba’al is the source of all this trouble. He is the Canaanite storm god. The bringing of the winter rains. The source of water for the community and for the fields. The source of prosperity and abundance. Israel has adopted the worship of Ba’al. They have become part of the modern world. Tyre and Sidon are great cosmopolitan cities. They are the home not just of foreign trade and the rich abundance of this world’s goods; they are the home of art and culture. It is from Tyre that Solomon hires workmen to build him a temple – though Solomon at lead dedicated his temple to the LORD.

The king of Israel has married the daughter of the King of Sidon. She has come and brought modern sensibility to this backward nation in the hill country. They have built a temple to Ba’al and she has brought with her 450 prophets of Ba’al (and 400 prophets of the goddess Asherah).

She has also tried to stamp out the backward religion of this God of the desert who commands justice for all.

Few girls are named Jezebel today.

Jezebel is the one who schooled king Ahab in the use of ruthless power, taking Naboth’s vineyard – land God gave to Naboth’s family that now belongs to the king even as Naboth now lies in the grave.

So here is the prophet in the homeland of the queen. And he has asked for a drink. The widow shows hospitality to this stranger and goes to get him some water.

And then he asks for a bit of bread.

A bit is all she has. Her last handful of meal. Enough for one last small cake to enjoy with her son, and then nothing awaits her but death. It is why she is gathering sticks. Fuel for the fire to bake the one last small bit of bread.

The woman is faced with a challenge. Hospitality is the supreme value of the age. To feed the hungry is not only noble, but the one true thing. But this is her last bread. This her final meal.

She protests. She explains to this foreign prophet what she intends to do. “That’s fine,” he replies. “But first make some for me.”

First do the right thing.

And to this he adds an incredible promise: the jar of meal will not fail until the drought is over.

She is a hero of the faith. She dares to trust the promise of a foreign prophet and his strange desert God. She dares to do the right thing though it costs her everything. And she is sustained. She and her son and the prophet live from that small bit of never failing daily bread.  The gods of prosperity have failed her; the LORD, the God of justice and mercy has not.

It is a story like the manna in the wilderness: enough for today, trusting God for tomorrow.  It may seem like a hard way to live. But it is actually quite liberating. Let God worry about tomorrow. Let us be free to do the right thing today.

Image: Bartholomeus Breenbergh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The world’s true lord

Saturday

Psalm 145:10-18

File:De barmhartige Samaritaan Frank Letterie Dorpsstraat Putten.jpg14The LORD upholds all who are falling,
and raises up all who are bowed down.

The Tanakh translation by the Jewish Publication Society translates this verse as:

The LORD supports all who stumble,
and makes all who are bent stand straight.

Without casting aspersions on our economic system, I want to simply point out the contrast: Our system rewards those who do not stumble, who stand tall. In the same way, our society rewards the beautiful not the plain. Donald Trump makes the evening news for saying the same racist things as the shooter at the Lafayette theater, but Trump is on the news because he is rich, powerful and famous while the other is a nutcase.

In contrast to our social context – in contrast to the ‘gods’ of our society (money, sex and power, the things in which we put our hope and trust) – is the God to whom the scriptures bear witness:

The LORD upholds all who are falling,
and raises up all who are bowed down.

The stumbling, groping, uncertain, struggling – the mother of three with two jobs, the unemployed man at 55, the children in violent neighborhoods, the uncared for – these are the ones to whom the mighty and majestic power of the universe reaches out his hands.

And it is important that we remember that those hands carry the marks of nails.

The god we worship is not the god of success and power. The god before whom we bow is not the conqueror of nations. The god to whom we stretch out our hands is the one who revealed himself to Moses the murderer when he was in exile. The god who stretches out his hands to us is the one who gathered a people out of bondage and gave them commands to care for one another that none may go hungry. The god to whom we show allegiance is the one who takes widows and orphans into his shelter, who speaks for the poor, who binds up the wounded, who gathers the scattered, who touches the unclean.

The LORD upholds all who are falling,
and raises up all who are bowed down.

The god we worship is the one who paddles upstream against the current of human affairs. He is the god of refugees and grieving mothers. He is the god of compassion and mercy. He is the god of healing and grace. He is the god who revealed himself not with legions of angels but upon a cross speaking words of grace: “Father, forgive them.”

We inhabit a world of terrible injustices and cruelties that we have learned to take for granted. But there is a god who camps with the homeless, who walks the mean streets, who dwells in the troubled homes. This, we proclaim, is the world’s true lord. This, we proclaim, is the one who called all creation into being and breathes into each of us the breath of life. This, we proclaim, is the one who will be history’s final word. By him will all things be measured. For him will all things exist. With him will all creation dine.

The LORD upholds all who are falling,
and raises up all who are bowed down.

 

Sculpture “De barmhartige Samaritaan” (the Good Samaritan) by Frank Letterie in 1976, placed in 1997 at the square at the Dorpsstraat/Kerkweg in Putten.  Image by Brbbl (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Majesty and Mystery

Watching for the Morning of May 31, 2015

Year B

Holy Trinity

File:Meister des Hildegardis-Codex 003 cuted.jpg

Hildegard of Bingen, Miniature of the Holy Trinity

We come this Sunday to the day known as Holy Trinity, and every pastor thinks he or she must try to explain the doctrine of the trinity and will likely use some frail and heretical illustration like ice, steam and liquid water, or the person who is a Father, a son, and a husband. The trinity is a doctrine over which the church fought for hundreds of years and is fighting still, but Trinity Sunday is not about a doctrine – it is about the God who has revealed himself by the name, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” declares the risen Lord, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Among all the gods of the ancient world – and all the gods of the modern world – only one is known as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” and that is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Exodus and Sinai, the God of justice and mercy, the God of David and the prophets, the God of the exile and return, the God of creation and new creation, the God who came among us as Jesus of Nazareth, the God who suffered and died and rose, the God who is present in and among us by his Holy Spirit, the sign and seal of the age to come.

“Father, Son and Holy Spirit” identifies the God of whom we speak as this God – not a god of prosperity, not a God of power, not the rain god Ba’al, or any of the gods and goddesses of fertility, not the gods of power and conquest, but the one God, the true God, the God of the cross and resurrection, the God of reconciliation and New Life.

The doctrine of the Trinity is important. Very important. But it is important only because it protects the identity of the God of whom we speak and to whom we pray as this God no other.

So Sunday we come together in awe and wonder and fear and praise to sing of this God and to hear the word of this God, the one we acclaim and confess as earth’s true Lord.

The Prayer for May 31, 2015

One God, Holy and Eternal,
before whom all heaven sings,
and to whom belong the praises of all the earth;
you have made yourself known by the name Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Let your Word shake the wilderness,
bringing new birth to all creation
and gathering all things into your eternal song;
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 May 31, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.” – When an earthquake shakes the temple, Isaiah (a priest) has a vision of God on his throne and is called to his prophetic ministry.

Psalmody: Psalm 29
“The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.”
– The psalmist uses the imagery of a powerful thunderstorm arising off the Mediterranean Sea and crashing over the Lebanese mountains to describe the majestic power of God’s voice/word.

Reading: 1 Kings 19:4-13 (added by our parish to worship this Sunday)
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” – Following the stunning showdown with the prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel, the queen is unimpressed and vows to slay Elijah. He flees to Sinai where God encounters him, not in the power of wind, earthquake or fire, but in a silent stillness.

Second Reading: Romans 8:12-17
“You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ”
– In this climactic chapter of Paul’s letter laying out his preaching and teaching we come to the central proclamation that we are no longer bound to our humanity in its fallenness, but bound to the Spirit of God, adopted as sons and daughters, heirs of all the gifts and bounty of God – heirs of the dawning reign of God.

Gospel: John 3:1-17
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” – Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night trying to understand this strange yet wondrous prophet. Jesus speaks to him about being born ‘from above’, but Nicodemus misunderstands and cannot understand how it is possible to be born ‘again’.

 

Photocredit: By The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

That stubborn claim

Friday

Acts 4:1-13

File:Villamblard église vitrail choeur détail.JPG1While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, 2much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. 3So they arrested them…

I don’t know whether ‘annoyed’ is quite the right term for the anger of the Jerusalem leaders towards the apostles, but it is helpful to recognize in this simple sentence what ancients and the poor understand about authority: it serves the powerful.   They didn’t like what the apostles were saying so they arrested them. This is not a world in which people have rights.

But why should the preaching of these two from Galilee come to the attention of the Jerusalem leadership, and why should it offend them? It is common for people to suggest, because the Sadducees are named and the Sadducees didn’t find resurrection in the Torah, that the problem is the Sadducees didn’t like that the disciples were teaching the doctrine of the resurrection. But the resurrection was a common idea in Judea and Galilee and there were members of the high council that themselves held this opinion. The problem isn’t a doctrinal dispute. The problem is that Peter and John are preaching that Jesus was raised from the dead – the Jesus that these leaders executed for blaspheming God. To suggest that God resurrected this Jesus is to say that God was on the side of Jesus and not the leadership of the nation. Indeed, it says the leadership of the people has betrayed and forfeited their office for they rejected God’s anointed one.

To proclaim that the high priest no longer represents God is good reason for the high priest to have you arrested.

This is the same thing that gets believers in trouble when they declare that Jesus is Lord. When Caesar claims to be lord of all, he will not tolerate anyone declaring that someone else is Lord.

This is the joy and dilemma of Christian faith in every age. When Rome passes a law requiring every woman to be married and bear children, a woman’s choice of virginity becomes a declaration that her body does not belong to the state but to God. So St. Lucy is put to death. When the amorous advances of a suitor are spurned, he betrays her to the state. In the same way, the martyrs of Uganda perish when they reject the sexual predations of their king. Hitler made it the duty of every German woman to bear children for the Reich. Our culture now mocks virginity and considers our sexual self-expression essential to our humanity. A lot of money is being made selling sex, beauty, and little blue pills, but on that altar many of our young people are being sacrificed.

When St. Francis walks away from his father’s wealth to embrace a life of poverty, he is rejecting the implicit claim of wealth and privilege to supremacy. When Christians do such a simple thing as tithe, giving away the first portion of their income, they testify that wealth and possessions are not our master. Our cultural masters need us to buy more stuff – even at peril of the creation itself – for it serves the bottom line. But we do not belong to the economy; we belong to God.

The dark side of the argument in support of Charlie Hebdo is the idolatry of personal freedom – the belief that I am my own master, that no one can tell me what to do. To this Christianity must say “No, not quite.” There is another to whom your life belongs. He alone gives true freedom.

This is why Christians ought not equate “God and Country”. The two don’t quite match up. I may choose to serve my neighbor by serving my country, but my country is not my Lord.

Nor does God and prosperity quite match up – despite the numbers that Joel Osteen and ilk attract. Jesus kept saying things like “You cannot serve God and Mammon,” and “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God, the things that are God’s.” Jesus is standing in line with Joshua (“Choose this day whom you will serve,”) and Elijah (“How long will you go limping with two different opinions,”) Deuteronomy (“There is no God besides me,”) and Isaiah (“Besides me there is no god”). God and Asherah, God and Baal, God and wealth, God and sex, God and country, don’t match up.

There is a stubborn claim in the heart of Christian faith that life belongs to God alone. He alone is Lord. It is a claim that “annoys” civil, cultural and corporate leaders. It lands Peter and John in prison – and many after them – and many still today.

But God has raised the Jesus this world crucified – and to him all creation belongs.

 

Photo: By Père Igor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Children of God

Friday

1 John 3:1-7

File:Eyneburg 5.jpg

Stained glass (detail) in the Chappel of Eyneburg, Belgium

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.

There are things we don’t hear in this simple but wonderful sentence. We ordinarily use the term “children of God” somewhat loosely – or broadly – to refer to the whole human family. We use it as a natural corollary of calling upon God as Father. We use it in the baptismal liturgy – especially when we deemphasize the idea of dying and rising with Christ, or the washing away of sins, and focus instead on baptism as an adoption into the family of God.

But in the first century this is not a normal way of speaking. We may belong to the people of God, we may be children of Israel, but the phrase “children of God” implies something much more. It contains a grant of honor not unlike someone being named to the Daughters of the American Revolution or to Phi Beta Kappa. To be named a son or daughter of the emperor makes you a member of the noblest family on earth – second only to God. To be a child of God ranks you above the emperor.

Of course, these children of God are called to wash one another’s feet. Christ came among us as one who serves. We are sent as emissaries of God’s mission. But nevertheless this title “children of God” carries unimaginable honor.

The phrase “children of God” (“sons of God”) is used in the Old Testament for the members of the heavenly court (Genesis 6, Job). In Psalm 82 these are the gods of the other nations who serve like local kings at the consent of the conquering emperor. Failing to observe the high king’s policies of justice and mercy they are deposed from their thrones.

In the wonderful meditation of Psalm 8 the poet exults in the honor that God has bestowed on humanity, ranking them just beneath these heavenly beings:

3When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
4what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
5You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor

But now Jesus declares, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” And when pressed about the resurrection says of the resurrected, they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God.”

We who were once – in our best – a little lower than the angelic beings now, at the very least, are equal to them. We are members of the heavenly household.

It might be easier to imagine this to be true once we have passed over from death into the life of the resurrection, but our author of 1 John declares we are God’s children now. Whatever else the world may say about us, however much the world may despise us, however high or low we may rise or fall on the social scale – none of that has any enduring value. We are God’s children now.

To be named a member of God’s household is an incredible act of divine grace, faithfulness and love: “See what love the Father has given us.” We should exult in it. We should respond with praise and adoration. But we should also think twice, thrice and more about any word or deed or silence that betrays the honor or the mission of God’s house.

 

By User:Lusitana (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

To the author of life, all life belongs

Watching for the morning of October 19

Year A

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 24 / Lectionary 29

Creation stained glass“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus gives a brilliant answer to those who would trap him into open rebellion from Rome. But his answer is more than a clever dodge – it transforms their attack into the central question of human life: to whom do we belong? Whose image is upon us? What do we owe to the one who fashioned us and breathed into us the breath of life.

The texts vibrate with the notion that the LORD alone is God. The prophet declares that it is the LORD who has raised up the Persian king Cyrus and acclaimed him to be God’s anointed! (God’s ‘Messiah’ in Hebrew, God’s ‘Christ’ in Greek) God is the creator of all, and through Cyrus and his deliverance of Israel all the earth shall know “I am the LORD, and there is no other.”

The psalmist calls for us to “declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all peoples” for God alone made the heavens and all belong to him.

Paul’s thanksgiving for the believers in Thessalonica describes how they turned “from idols, to serve a living and true God.”

To the author of life, all life belongs.

But vibrating through our texts is much more than God’s claim over all life. It is God’s loving claim over all life. “He will judge the peoples with equity,” says the psalmist. He “rescues us from the wrath that is coming,” says Paul. God will go before Cyrus to “break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron,” declares the prophet. To God all life belongs – to the God who saves and delivers and draws all creation to “sing a new song” and “tell of his salvation from day to day.”

The Prayer for October 19, 2014

O God of all creation,
you formed us in your image
from the dust of the earth and the breath of your Spirit,
knitting each of us together in our mother’s womb,
and setting us to the task of caring for your world.
Help us to live as your faithful people,
serving you by serving our neighbor;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 19, 2014

First Reading: Isaiah 45:1-7
“Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped.” – The prophet declares that the Persian king Cyrus is God’s anointed whom God raises to power for the sake of Israel and so that all the world may know that God alone is God.

Psalmody: Psalm 96:1-10
“For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.” – The psalmist calls upon all nations to acknowledge the LORD alone as God.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
“The people of those regions [Macedonia and Achaia] report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God.”
– Paul begins his letter to the believers in Thessalonica giving thanks for their open reception of Paul and his message.

Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” – The leaders of Jerusalem seek to trap Jesus into declaring rebellion from Rome or alienating his followers, but Jesus turns their attack upon them, declaring that we who are made in the image of God must render our lives to God.

 

The name matters

Watching for the morning of June 15

Year A

The Festival of The Holy Trinity

File:Trinity-of-the-broken-body-1911.jpg

Robert Campin, Holy Trinity. 15th century. Gold, silver and silk embroidery, pearls, glass beads and velvet applique on linen. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

The doctrine matters, but it is not the doctrine we adore. The teaching of the Trinity is vitally important, but it is not the theological articulation about the character of the divine in which we put our faith, hope and trust. When we worship on Sunday we worship the God who has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Names are important. Names distinguish us from one another. Names make clear of whom we speak. Names identify whose authority stands behind a promise or a command. And the name of God is no less important. We live in a world with many gods – and many different ideas about God. We cannot use the word ‘God’ and assume everyone knows of whom we are speaking. The reality identified by the name Allah is not the same as that identified by the name “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Our ‘names’ for God are not frail approximations of a single ultimate reality – they are statements about the nature of that reality. They are identifiers. Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the god who has made himself known in Jesus of Nazareth, crucified, risen and ascended.

We use the word Kleenex as if it were a generic term for facial tissue – but all tissues are not the same. All coffees are not the same. All cars are not the same. All diamonds are not the same. Cut and clarity and color make some an expression of love and others an effective edge for an industrial tool.

‘God’ is a generic term. What we say about the ultimate transcendent reality of existence is revealed by the specifics. The names Kali and “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” say very different things about the divine.

The Festival of the Holy Trinity is not about the doctrine; it is about the one named “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. The God we worship and follow is the one revealed as the creator of all, who called Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by a promise, who delivered Israel from Egypt, who spoke through Moses and the prophets, who entered into human existence in Jesus, who brought the healing and life of the reign of God, who was the perfectly faithful son, who bore the burden of human sin was declared righteous and faithful by his resurrection, who pours out his abiding, empowering Spirit upon his followers, and will ultimately bring all things under his gracious rule.

All coffees are not the same. Some are better than others or there wouldn’t be a Starbuck’s on every block. Not everything said about God is faithful to the name “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Nor is every reference to ‘God’ speaking of the same reality. The name matters.

The Prayer for June 15, 2014

Almighty God, hidden in majesty and mystery
yet revealed to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit:
Grant us true and honest hearts
to worship you with reverence and awe,
trust confidently in your grace,
honor your commands,
and boldly proclaim your name

The Texts for June 15, 2014

First Reading: Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” – The first chapter of Genesis telling of the creation of all things by God’s word, God’s declaration that the creation is good, and God’s blessing of humanity and their commission to care for the earth.

Psalmody: Psalm 8
“What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him” – The psalm celebrates the majesty of God and marvels at the position of honor and responsibility God has given to humanity by entrusting his wondrous creation into their care.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 13:11-13
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” –
In his final greeting at the close of his letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul uses the familiar language that ultimately leads to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” – Following Pentecost we return to the Gospel of Matthew, resuming here at the end of the Gospel because of the Trinitarian name: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. With these concluding words, the risen Jesus declares his abiding presence among his followers and sends them to make disciples of all nations.