Once again

File:Jozefow Chrystus H Macik.JPGYesterday was a festival day in our church, but as I put on my red chasuble for the service it felt like I should be dressing myself in black for mourning. I shared that sentiment with the congregation before the beginning of our service and, indicating I had divided the sermon into two parts, began with these remarks.

This morning we gather once again in the aftermath of troubling news. It would have been troubling enough if our only concern were the bombs sent through the mail to those who were perceived to be political enemies of the president, but now we are dealing with the violent attack upon a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

I want very much to write this off as an aberration, the demented actions of a troubled and misguided man, but the statistics are troubling. As you may have heard by now, FBI statistics show that hate crimes rose 5% in 2016 and 10% since 2014. The FBI identified 1,273 of these crimes as motivated by religious hatred, about 20 percent of the total. Half of these were against Jews.

The Anti-Defamation League reports that there were 1,986 reported anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017, including acts of vandalism as well as physical violence. The number of these incidents increased by 35% from 2015 to 2016, and by 57% from 2016 to 2017.

We saw the young men marching with torches and chanting Nazi slogans in Charlottesville. You remember them: “Blood and soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!” The gunman yesterday reportedly said, “All Jews must die,” and had written online that “Jews are the children of Satan.”

Something is wrong in us. Fear, despair, hate, anger, prejudice, hardness of heart, seem to be loose among us.

Dylan Roof said he hoped to start a race war when he murdered the members of a Bible study at Emanuel Church in Charleston, North Carolina. In the journal he wrote in prison, that was read into the record at his trial, he wrote, “I would like to make it crystal clear, I do not regret what I did,” and “I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”

Such events are nothing like the millions killed by official state policy under Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot; those marched to their deaths by the Turks or Andrew Jackson; or those slaughtered with machetes in Rwanda. But what is happening in our country is still deeply troubling. On the weekend when Matthew Shepard’s ashes were relocated to the National Cathedral we are reminded that hate has no bounds.

We want to think our country is better than this. But the history of ugliness and hate is deep and long. And such ugliness and hate are deep not just in our country but in the whole human experience. There is a reason the first story scripture tells us after humanity is given a good and perfect world only to turn from God and lose the garden is the story of one brother murdering the other. All those early stories in Genesis testify to the spread of violence through the creation. And the pivotal story for us as Christians tells of the torture and murder of the one who came to us as the embodiment of God’s love.

We want to deny the reality of sin, but we cannot. It is a deeply broken world. And the human heart is profoundly bent out of shape. We are capable of things that should be unimaginable.

When First John writes that “God is love,” those words are not a cheap sentimentality. They are the daring proposition that despite all we see around us, the power at the heart of all things is love and faithfulness and compassion and mercy and care for the other. God is love, and looks upon a world as sorrowful as ours and chooses to love.

We come together as a Christian community – indeed we exist as a Christian community – to proclaim that message, and to let that message work in our hearts that we might be people who live for the healing of the world rather than its division.

We dare to say with John and Jesus and the whole witness of scripture that there is a power and presence at the heart of all things that is faithfulness, compassion, mercy, and life. At the heart of all things is a God who is able to free the bound, heal the broken, and raise the dead. At the heart of all things is a God who takes upon himself the sorrows of the world and frees us to live his love.

This is why we begin our worship with confession and forgiveness. Our first act is to acknowledge our brokenness and the brokenness of the world, and hear God’s word of mercy and life. It is a moment and a message that is meant to bring us again from the world of hate, violence and revenge into the realm of God. It is a moment and a message that is meant to release us from our brokenness and gather us to the table of God. It is a moment and a message that gives us a taste of the resurrection and the world where the lion lies down with the lamb. It is a moment and a message that prepares us to hear God’s voice and receive God’s gifts. It is a moment and a message that frees us to sing God’s praise.

In our confession we bring before God the crucified bodies of the eleven killed yesterday and the twisted hearts of the shooter and bomber. We bring before God the refugees fleeing violence across our world and the twisted hearts of those who would deny their humanity. We bring before God our own sins and sorrows and hear the promise that Christ has freed us to come and live in God’s presence.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jozefow_Chrystus_H_Macik.JPG By Hubert Mącik [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Lavish mercy

File:All-Saints.jpg

Last Sunday

Luke 17:11-19

13Ten lepers approached him…saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Attendance was small on Sunday. When I began the announcements, there were only a few people scattered among the pews in the back half of the sanctuary. It’s always something of a shock when the crowd is especially small. Pastors can’t help but take it at least a little bit personally; attendance is one of the few numbers you can track easily and it is hard not to perceive it as at least some measures of success – which is challenging when you live in a culture that worships success. Ironically, the gospel reading on Sunday concerned the ten lepers who were healed but only one came back to give God praise. Jesus wasn’t exactly satisfied that only one came back, but I suppose there is some comfort in that though the numbers in our congregation were small yesterday, we did better than one out of ten.

You can find the message from Sunday at Jacob Limping and on this blog site among the “recent sermons.” It speaks to the heart of this powerful and important text. But, like most passages of scripture, there are other things to see in the narrative, not least of which is this: Jesus dispensed the healing of God freely and widely, without asking anything of those in need of God’s gifts.

We tend to be so concerned whether those who ask for help deserve it. I remember the story of the ants and the grasshopper from my childhood. The grasshopper played all summer while the ants worked diligently. Consequently, the ants had food for the winter and the grasshopper did not. Because he had not planned for the future, the grasshopper deserved what he got.

I understand the need to encourage responsibility. But I also recognize what a deadly spiritual disease it is to imagine that we deserve what we receive from God.

On a human level, there are consequences to our actions – though much too often those consequences fall on innocent bystanders. None of those who perished in the devastating railroad tanker fire in Quebec were responsible for the brakes that had not been properly set. The children of Aleppo are not responsible for the warfare that surrounds them. But responsibility does matter for so many ordinary things: driving responsibly, fidelity in marriage, spending quantity and quality time with our children, nourishing a spiritual life.

But we should not fail to recognize that the mercy of God is given freely and lavishly to the nine as well as the one. It is the character of God to cast the seed with abandon though some falls on the path or among the rocks. It is the character of God to make the sun shine on the just and the unjust (on those who show fidelity to God and to others and those who fail to show such fidelity.) When the disciples ask Jesus of the man born blind “Who sinned, this man or his parents,” the answer is neither.

God does not give what we deserve; God gives because it is God’s nature to give. It is part of what the scripture means when it says “God is love” and that “the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases.” God’s fidelity to the world is not conditional. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” “The Good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

In the healing of the ten lepers we should not miss the lavish mercy of God. And we who call Jesus our brother and lord should live with eyes and heart open to recognize and live that mercy.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAll-Saints.jpg By Sampo Torgo at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

The true vine redux

Watching for the Morning of May 10, 2015

Year B

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

File:Grapes growing in Valpolicella.jpgOur readings this Sunday continue those from last Sunday. Jesus is still talking about abiding. First John is still talking about love. Acts gives us another remarkable baptism that pushes back the boundaries of the church to welcome all. And in the psalm, all creation sings God’s praise.

There is a joke about a congregation whose deacons hired a new pastor. When the people came that first Sunday to hear him preach, they all agreed it was a wonderful sermon. At the door after service, everyone thanked him for the great message. They came the next Sunday with raised expectation, but were surprised to hear the same sermon again. They graciously tried to make excuses for him, imaging that other pastoral duties had consumed his time, but when they got the same sermon the third Sunday the deacons called him into the vestry: “Don’t you realize you’ve preached the same sermon three weeks in a row?!” “Yes,” he answered, “and when you start living that one, I’ll give you another.”

Jesus has one message, told again and again in myriad different ways, but always coming back to the same central point: God is steadfast love and faithfulness and we should show steadfast love and faithfulness to one another. God has not abandoned his creation, though we have turned from him. God is faithful though we are faithless. God has drawn near to us, the true light has come, the word has been made flesh, the new wine of the Spirit is poured out in abundance, the true bread from heaven lavished upon us with a dozen baskets left over. He comes to heal though we look for healing elsewhere. He opens blind eyes, though we remain unseeing. He is the living water, the new birth from above. The faithful God has come to us and been lifted up to gather all people to himself. The grave has been opened and the life of the age to come bestowed upon us. The Spirit is breathed upon us. All that waits is for us to abide in this great estate God has brought to us.

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”

“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”

“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

The Prayer for May 10, 2015

Gracious heavenly father,
you have chosen and appointed us to go and bear fruit,
abiding in your joy and love.
Make us faithful to your call and command
that we may love as you have loved us;
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 10, 2015

First Reading: Acts 10:44-48
“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” –While conveying to the Roman centurion Cornelius and his household what God has done in Christ Jesus, God pours out his Spirit, and Peter has no choice but to baptize them, for they have received the baptismal gift.

Psalmody: Psalm 98
“O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things… All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.” – A hymn from the ancient liturgies of the temple that celebrates the reign of God over all creation. It uses the imagery of a deliverer who frees the people from every foe and, acclaimed by the people, ascends the throne to reign in justice and righteousness.

Second Reading: 1 John 5:1-6
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.”
– the author of First John continues to weave together the themes of God’s love for us and the command and necessity to love one another while challenging the false teaching and practice of those who have denied the full humanity of the Christ.

Gospel: John 15:9-17
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” – Continuing the image of the vine and the branches, Jesus urges his followers to abide in his love and teaching.

 

Photo: By Ilares Riolfi (originally posted to Flickr as DSC_2286) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The martyr’s path

Thursday

1 John 4:7-21

File:Preparing to enter Ebola treatment unit (5).jpg16God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

I remember the dinner table argument with my stepfather after I came home from a high school youth retreat filled with joy and zeal. I talked about the “trust walk” where we divided into twos. One person was blindfolded and trusted the other to lead him or her through the wooded paths of our retreat center. It was a metaphor for trusting God, and a practical application of loving one another. But something in that story set my stepfather off, and pretty soon we were arguing whether I would let a member of the Black Panthers lead me blindfolded through the streets of Oakland. He was certain I was foolish, and the militant African-American foot soldier would lead me out into the middle of traffic.

I know better, now, that there is evil in the world. I also know that evil does not come easily. I stand by my argument that I would not have been harmed in Oakland; I am not sure if that would apply just now in the battlefields of ISIL

“God is love” can seem pretty simple-minded in the hard-nosed world. And my stepfather was right to think me naïve. But God is love. And loving as we are loved requires great strength of character. It is a far more difficult, costly, and sometimes dangerous, path than I imagined as a teen.

“God is Love.” God is steadfast fidelity to the world, to humanity, to each of us. God is a determined allegiance, a zealous choice to see each of us as members of his household despite the ways we use, abuse and defame him and one another. “Every imagination of the human heart was only evil continually,” is God’s observation at the time of Noah, yet God rescues Noah and his family – not because they were so righteous, but because God was faithful and would not abandon the world he had made. Humanity is no different when they descend from the ark. The disaster does not change them; but God is changed. God hangs his Kalashnikov in the heavens – pointing no longer at humanity but, if anywhere, at himself. God will take the bullet.

God is Love. Determined to create a world without slavery, he rescues Israel and Egypt. At great cost. Human willfulness does not die easily. Children were dying under slavery. In the end, God had to let all Egypt see the death they were dealing.

God is Love. Determined to create a just and merciful world. And the price has been terribly high. Not just the fall of the northern kingdom, nor the brutal siege and sacking of Jerusalem. Ultimately it comes to a cross outside Jerusalem where God lays his own life on the line. And still we persist. Still children perish. Still God confronts us with our terrible works: death camps, razed cities, nuclear weapons, impoverished communities, refugees, a child with a broken neck dragged into a police van. God makes us see all the crucified.

God is Love. We are slow to learn. There is a terrible price. But there are some who understand.

The martyr’s path is holy. Not the martyr’s path chosen by radical Islam – that is the great and wide path of violence. But the narrow path that risks all to feed the hungry, to teach the children, to tend the sick. The martyr’s path is holy, the path that sets aside the self for the sake of another. The path that treats a stranger as brother and sister. The path that gives what cannot be returned: tender love to the dying, faithful care to the troubled, friendship to the lonely.

This martyr’s path is holy. We tend to denigrate it. And the concept is often misused. But there is something sacred about those who sacrifice self for another, something that goes to the very heart of God. For God is love.

 

Photo:  Dr. Joel Montgomery, Team Lead for CDC’s Ebola Response Team in Liberia, adjusts a colleague’s PPE before entering the Ebola treatment unit (ETU), ELWA 3, operated by Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders.  By CDC Global (Preparing to enter Ebola treatment unit) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons