Walking towards hope

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The Fourth Sunday of Easter, year A (Good Shepherd Sunday)

May 3, 2020

Sunday’s Readings:

Psalm 23 (NRSV):

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff
they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
for ever.

John 10:1-10: “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He   his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a strang, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.  7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (NRSV)

Sunday’s Prayer of the Day:

Gracious God,
 guardian and shepherd of our souls,
keep us in your Word
that, hearing and following your voice,
we may know your abundant life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever

Sunday’s Message:

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

The hymn at the end of our service this morning is simple, but very sweet:

Have no fear, little flock;
Have no fear, little flock,
For the Father has chosen
To give you the Kingdom;
Have no fear, little flock!

Have good cheer, little flock;
Have good cheer, little flock,
For the Father will keep you
In his love forever;
Have good cheer, little flock!

Praise the Lord high above;
Praise the Lord high above,
For he stoops down to heal you
Uplift and restore you;
Praise the Lord high above!

Thankful hearts raise to God;
Thankful hearts raise to God,
For he stays close beside you
In all things works with you;
Thankful hearts raise to God!

The hymn is full of tenderness and compassion and the living presence of God in our lives to comfort and sustain us.

Neither the hymn nor its author shows up in Wikipedia, nor in any of several reference books on hymns.  It doesn’t have the theology of sophisticated reflection or the music of great composition.  It is a simple song of faith – a faith that, in its simplicity, is, in fact, deep and profound.

Our readings this morning, and today’s theme of Christ as the Good Shepherd, take us to an odd place.  It brings us to a little oasis in a world that has become strange and fearful.  It takes us to a place where there are still waters and good pastures and a shepherd who knows our name.  It takes us to a safe place where we can lie down and sleep in peace.  It is tender and calm.  We are not locked in fear in the upper room but at home in a sheepfold with a good shepherd.

But even as it takes us there, David’s psalm speaks about sitting at table surrounded by enemies, and Jesus speaks of thieves and bandits who climb over the wall “to steal and kill and destroy.”

How we hold these two elements together is the challenge of the day.  We live in a dangerous world with corrupt leaders – but Christ is risen and in our midst, and Sin and Death lie beneath his feet.

There is a kind of sweet, innocent faith that has never been tested.  It speaks easily of God’s guidance and protection because it has never faced real danger.

There is also a kind of disillusionment when innocent faith is knocked down.  It may lead to feelings of abandonment and betrayal.  Or it may move towards cynicism and hardness of heart, even professions of unbelief and mockery of those who remain faithful.

And then there are those who have walked through the darkest valleys and crossed the wilderness into a deeper faith, a more profound trust.

I’ve heard all of these in the hospital and in funeral homes: Deep faith that knows the presence of God even in the midst of trial, naïve faith thrown down into bitterness because tragedy has come, and innocence that has not yet been challenged – or lives in a kind of determined denial.

And, of course, we see all of this in the scripture, too.  The Bible is very much a real and terribly honest book about the human spirit.

Pastors walk a tricky line.  Profound faith and naïve faith often sound the same, but they are very different creatures.

A friend and colleague in Michigan died from a medical mistake that turned an ordinary procedure into significant suffering and weeks in the hospital from which he never returned.  The text he wanted to hear from those who visited was Psalm 91:

1 You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
….who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
2 will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
….my God, in whom I trust.”
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
….and from the deadly pestilence;
4 he will cover you with his pinions,
….and under his wings you will find refuge;
….his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
….or the arrow that flies by day,
6 or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
….or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

7 A thousand may fall at your side,
….ten thousand at your right hand,
….but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes
….and see the punishment of the wicked.

9 Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
….the Most High your dwelling place,
10 no evil shall befall you,
….no scourge come near your tent.

11 For he will command his angels concerning you
….to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
….so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder,
….the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.

14 Those who love me, I will deliver;
….I will protect those who know my name.
15 When they call to me, I will answer them;
….I will be with them in trouble,
….I will rescue them and honor them.
16 With long life I will satisfy them,
….and show them my salvation. (NRSV)

As my friend neared the end, it was hard to read without tears.

Jim’s faith was not naïve.  He knew his condition was perilous and likely fatal.  But he heard in the words of this psalm something far more than a naïve promise that he would be protected from harm.  He heard in the text the profound awareness that, no matter what sorrows come, the hands of God hold him.  “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” says our psalm today, “I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”

There is a reality greater than disease, suffering, and death.  None of us want to face any of these things.  But God will still be God.  And God’s promise abides.  Christ knows our name.  We know his voice.  He guides us toward good pasture.  He brings us to still waters.  Such faith may look naïve, but it is born in the crucible.

The language about shepherds in the scripture is about leadership and those who govern.   Jesus takes up the image of the good shepherd as he confronts the pharisees who hold positions of leadership but have showed themselves to be bad shepherds.  Jesus uses sharp and unmistakable words when he talks about thieves and bandits who come to steal, kill and destroy.  He is saying the leaders of his nation steal life rather than give it.  They bring sorrow and division rather than protection and peace.

Jesus had just healed a man who had been born blind, but the leaders turned out to be the ones who could not see.  They first denied that the man had been born blind.  Then they tried to force this man who had been healed to say Jesus was a sinner.  They said they didn’t know where he came from, implying – not so subtly – that Jesus was from the devil.  When the man responded that such an idea was amazing, since only someone from God could open they eyes of a man born blind, the leaders said he was born in utter sin and cast him out of the synagogue – which meant casting him out of the community. But Jesus found him and welcomed him.

In an exchange with these leaders, Jesus declares that they are the ones who cannot see and are bound in sin.  It leads to these words about thieves and bandits sneaking into the sheepfold – and about himself as the good shepherd who gives life rather than steals it, who lays down his life for the sheep.

As I began drafting this sermon on Friday, the number of people in the United States who have died from Covid-19 had grown by 11,000 since last Sunday.  As of Friday, the number (66,230) now exceeded the combined population of Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, and half of Cupertino.  By yesterday, 1,200 more had died, and the evidence is mounting that many more have died from this disease than have been counted.  80 more will perish while we are gathered here.  As the minutes pass, lives tick away because, when the wildfires began to burn, the fire chief said it would burn itself out and didn’t sound the alarm or call out the firefighters.

In three months, we have surpassed the total number of American dead in all 38 of the wars and military conflicts in which the U.S. has been involved since end of the Korean War.

I keep thinking about the monuments I saw in Europe constructed to petition God to deliver the people from the plague, or built in thanksgiving when the plague ended.  I keep thinking about the farmland that returned to forest and all the other consequences of the plague in the Medieval era.  I think about Luther who, when he went to join the monastery, was required to spend the first month in isolation to be sure he didn’t bring the plague into the community.  I think about the gripping account in Daniel Defoe’s novel, A journal of the Plague Year, about the London plague in 1665.  I think about Angel Island where we quarantined Chinese immigrants because of plague.  I think about my mother, as a child, who was quarantined with her family when her brother caught scarlet fever – and the church choir came and sang from the middle of the street.  And I remember lining up at school to get the sugar cube with the polio vaccine.

The human story is full of great sorrows.  And disease is only one small part of human suffering.  I have read John Hersey’s account of the suffering in his book, Hiroshima.  I have read Eli Wiesel’s narrative of the death camps in his book Night.  I have read Richard Wright and many others about the experience of being black in America.  I have stood and pondered the blood in the soil beneath my feet at Antietam, and walked through the Marietta National Cemetery in Marietta, Georgia, where lie the 10,000 Union dead from Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign.  I have also walked through the other cemetery in Marietta, where Confederate flags still fly.

The human story is full of great sorrows.  And every life bears its own personal sorrows. Jesus’ death is witness to the cruelties of which human beings are capable.  He is also witness that God does not turn away from any of us in our time of shame or sorrow.

Indeed, from the grave comes life.

Jesus is the good shepherd.  He has walked every battlefield.  He has walked every death camp.  He has walked every lonely road on the fight for freedom.  He has walked with every grieving family.  He has held the hands of every patient dying alone.  And life is given in his touch.

Nothing about this is naïve faith.  It is a deeply profound one.  It has heard the agony.  It has looked upon the wounded hands.  It has seen the pierced side.  It has gazed into the empty tomb and dares to trust that Christ is risen and in our midst, and Sin and Death lie broken beneath his feet.

Such faith walks towards hope in the midst of despair.  It believes in joy even through tears.  It persists in kindness when kindness seems wasted.  It lives with open arms for it knows the open arms of the Good Shepherd.

Amen

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© David K Bonde, 2020, All rights reserved.

Image:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PikiWiki_Israel_30576_Wildlife_and_Plants_of_Israel.jpg
lehava nazareth  Pikiwiki Israel / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)

Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

 

Thieves and bandits

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Watching for the Morning of May 3, 2020

Year A

The Fourth Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday)

It’s not hard to look at the leadership of our country, whether in politics or business, and see thieves and bandits.  Large corporations scooping up huge swaths of the federal Paycheck Protection Program’s forgivable loans is only the latest evidence that, too often, profit trumps decency.  Profiteering from personal protection equipment, profiteering from inside information of the pending collapse of the stock market, profiteering from friends in high places hawking your unproven medication, manipulation of public opinion for personal gain…thieves and bandits.  Only Jesus isn’t looking at Judea’s Roman overlords he is looking at synagogue leaders who insist the man born blind was conceived in utter sin and that his healer, too, is an obvious sinner.

The sheep recognize the voice of their shepherd, says Jesus.  The true shepherd is the one who doesn’t need to sneak into the sheepfold or come to plunder; the true shepherd enters through the gate and leads them to goodness.  The sheep follow him.  They know his voice.  He knows their names.

The fourth Sunday of Easter every year takes us to John 10 and Psalm 23.  It evokes songs and prayers about Jesus the Good Shepherd.  Pictures rise in our minds of lambs around the shoulders of Jesus, still waters, green meadows, and peace.  But Jesus is in a struggle with the leadership of the nation.  The grace and mercy of the Good Shepherd is true, but the text before us is more pointed.  Jesus is the gate – the door – to rich pastures; Jesus is the path to wholeness.  Jesus is the bringer of an overflowing life.  But all this is asserted in response to pharisees who claim to see, but see nothing.  All this is asserted when leaders have no love for the sheep, when leaders take life rather than lay it down for others.  When the man who now sees is cast out, Jesus is the open door to life.

Sunday we will hear about the life that follows in the train of Jesus as the book of Acts describes the community gathered around word and table, living in faithfulness to one another.  We will recite Psalm 23 with its portrait of the bountiful faithfulness of God even amidst the ruthless scheming of the royal court.  We will hear 1 Peter reminds us “you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls,” and we will ponder again the mystery of the true shepherd who is also the gate to a life awash in mercy, faithfulness, and joy.

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The Prayer for May 3, 2020

Gracious God,
guardian and shepherd of our souls,
keep us in your Word
that, hearing and following your voice,
we may know your abundant life;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for May 3, 2020

First Reading: Acts 2:42-47
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” – Luke presents one of his summary descriptions of the early Christian community, an ever-expanding community manifesting God’s faithfulness and love.

Psalmody: Psalm 23
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” – a song of trust born of reflection upon God’s gracious care and providence through the challenges and trials of life.  In the midst of the dangerous intrigues of the royal court, God is the true shepherd who has guarded and guided the poet’s way.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 2:19-25
“Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” –
this portion of 1 Peter is presumably appointed for Good Shepherd Sunday for its line: “you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls,” but this section of the homily speaks to the pattern of enduring suffering given by Jesus.

Gospel: John 10:1-10
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.  The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.” – Several metaphors from the world of shepherding are taken up as parables of the access to ‘Life’ found in Jesus.

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Images: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sch%C3%A4ferei083.jpg Rainer Halama / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:S_Buckingham_Glass_1.JPG  Mjbhoney / Public domain

An audacious challenge

File:Loews Protest - Against GOP Retreat.jpgWatching for the Morning of April 22, 2018

Year B

The Fourth Sunday of Easter / Good Shepherd Sunday

The shepherds of Israel are under attack in the first reading this Sunday. The priestly class are under indictment by the preaching of Peter and John. The governing elites judged Jesus a liar about God and a threat to the nation and sentenced him to death. Peter and John are saying that God voided that sentence and declared Jesus innocent. The year-long purgation of the rotting corpse that marked the removal of sin from our mortal bodies was unnecessary for Jesus. God raised him from the dead.

It might sound esoteric to our ears, but it was a direct confrontation in that day. Peter and John are saying this in the temple, in the home-court of the high priestly families. What’s more, the name of this Jesus is being used to heal the sick and lame. This Jesus is the rejected stone that God has made the cornerstone. This Jesus is the source of God’s healing and life. Healing won’t come from the rich and powerful house of Annas that possesses a firm hold on the high priestly office. Those who are supposed to be the shepherds of Israel are false shepherds who failed to recognize the true shepherd.

And so on Sunday we will join the psalmist to sing “The LORD is my shepherd.” And the Gospel of John will have Jesus say to us, “I am he good shepherd” – the true and noble who does not abandon the flock but lays down his life for them. And the words that seem so sweet and comforting will echo with an audacious challenge to all those rulers of the earth who claim authority but only fleece the sheep.

And in the presence of this bold challenge to the way of the world will come the urging of the author of 1 John: “We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

The Prayer for April 22, 2018

Gracious Heavenly Father,
Christ Jesus our good shepherd laid down his life for our sake
that he might gather one flock from all the nations of the earth.
Be at work within us
that we might hear and respond to his voice,
and follow him in lives of service and love.

The Texts for April 22, 2018

First Reading: Acts 4:1-13 (appointed 5-12)
“This man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.” – Peter and John are examined by the authorities after having been arrested for preaching that God raised Jesus from the dead (a message that invalidates the authority of the High Priestly leadership because it declares that God has reversed their judgment against Jesus.)

Psalmody: Psalm 23
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” – The famous song of trust in God that reverberates with social, political and religious meaning in a world where the king (or ruler) was regarded as the shepherd of the people.

Second Reading: 1 John 3:16-24
“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
– The author encourages his community to remain faithful to God and one another despite the departure of a schismatic group from their community.

Gospel: John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” – The middle section of chapter 10 where Jesus employs metaphors drawn from shepherding. Here he identifies himself as the true shepherd who cares for the sheep, freely laying down his life for the people.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Loews_Protest_-_Against_GOP_Retreat.jpg By Seth Goldstein [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

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

But Christ can see

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Christmas Eve

I tried to stand well away from the altar, tonight, as I said the Eucharistic Prayer – the prayer that surrounds the words of institution (“In the night in which he was betrayed…”) for communion. Yesterday I was knocked down by a terrible cold and I didn’t want to touch the bread or get near to anyone lest I pass on my germs. So the assisting minister held the bread aloft at the proper moment, then the wine, then broke them for the distribution and served the bread for me.

I missed this opportunity to serve the community the gifts – or to share the peace before we come to the table – or to shake their hand and greet them after the service. I have been here 15 years, now, and there are people who come faithfully at Christmas. There are young people who have grown up and moved away but are back for the holiday. There are grandchildren and visiting aunts and uncles and siblings I have met through the years. It is hard to stand apart and wave at them from a distance after the service.

There is something wonderful about the power of this night to gather people together. Something warm and enduring about the ties that stretch over time. Something mystical about the power of this story of the child of Bethlehem and the beauty of a darkened room with the Christmas trees shining and every hand holding high a lighted candle as we sing of a silent and holy night. It speaks of peace, a peace that we remember, a peace we can imagine, a peace for which we hope.

It is our answer to the torchlight march last August in Charlottesville. It is our prayer for a world where too much is vile and violent. It is our yearning for what the world could be.

And it is our confession of what the world shall be. The babe of Bethlehem, the man from Nazareth, the healer and teacher, the embodiment of mercy and life, the good shepherd who lays down his life for the world, the crucified one is risen and comes to breathe his spirit upon us. He comes to touch us with grace and life. He comes to heal and renew the world. He comes to gather us to one table. He comes to reconcile heaven and earth.

Not everyone who comes to sing “Silent Night” can see all the way to Good Friday and Easter, to Pentecost and the New Jerusalem. But Christ can see. And the Spirit leads. And the song is begun.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABonfeld_-_Evangelische_Kirche_-_Kanzelwand_und_Weihnachtsbaum_2015_-_1.jpg By Roman Eisele (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“Salvation belongs to our God”

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A message for All Saints, shared this morning at Los Altos Lutheran church

I want to focus on a single verse from our first reading this morning. It is from verse 10:

They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

To set the context for that verse, however, we need to begin with verse 9:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

It is hard for us to fully appreciate the words we are hearing. This is a society in which the image of the emperor is on every coin, with images and titles that are just like this. The emperor was acclaimed as the savior of the world. He’s the bringing of peace. He’s the source of prosperity. The emperor sits on a throne with choirs and crowds attending him. The emperor had temples built and cities named in his honor. The emperor’s word had the power to free or condemn a person, a city, or a whole people.

Among the Judeans, however, there was a current of deep resistance to such claims of divine honors for the emperor. It led to the revolt that broke out under Judas Maccabeus in the 2nd century BCE when the Seleucid King, Antiochus IV – who called himself ‘Epiphanes’, the manifestation of God on earth – put a statue of himself inside the temple of Jerusalem. And it led, ultimately, to the revolt against Rome in 66 CE that resulted in the emperor to be, Titus, marching his armies through the land in desolation and slaughter. They built an arch in Rome to honor his victory that shows Judeans being led away as captured slaves, and the temple treasures carried to Rome by triumphant soldiers. The wealth of the temple would pay to build the coliseum where Christians and others would be crucified and fed to the lions for spectacle entertainment. Rome seemed to have won the argument over whether or not Rome ruled the world.

But in his vision, the prophet John, exiled to the island of Patmos, would see people from all over the world gathered around a different throne, waving palm branches and singing: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

We live in a society where we tend to hear these words as religious language and to imagine that they are separate from political speech, but they are not. “Salvation belongs to God” means that kingship belongs to God. Authority, power, glory – these all belong to God and not the emperor.

The second thing that we should recognize in these verses is that this proclamation is being announced by people of every nation, tribe, and language. The emperor presented himself as ruler of the whole world. Of course, the Roman Empire wasn’t anything like the whole world, but it was the whole Mediterranean and it was big. It dominated the world from England to the Persian Gulf and from the Caucuses to all of North Africa. The Emperor ruled many nations, tribes and languages – but the prophet sees all these nations singing the praise of God not Caesar.

The third thing we should recognize here is that the people gathered around the throne of God are from every nation, tribe, and language – which is to say that God is the god of every nation, tribe, and language. God is not the god of Judeans only. God is the god of the whole world. God is not our god; God is the salvation of every nation, tribe, and language. God is the redeemer of the whole world. God is god of all creation.

Ancient society was even more ethnically divided than our own. You have to think back to that time when the neighborhoods in our cities were divided by language: Irish neighborhoods and Italian neighborhoods, and Jewish neighborhoods, and African-American neighborhoods. In East Toledo there was a Hungarian neighborhood where, when I was there, the priest still did the mass in Hungarian. The Lutherans in the German neighborhoods had given up German services because of the war, but they were still German churches. There was an Hispanic neighborhood which the Germans told me was okay because those people knew their place. And there was a Dutch neighborhood where, not so long ago, they wouldn’t speak to the new wife of a man who married outside his community.

But gathered around the throne of God are people of every nation, tribe, and language. The followers of Jesus fought this battle and recognized that Samaritans were welcome and eunuchs were welcome, and that God insisted they break bread with Gentiles.  Every nation, tribe, and language. God is the god of all. And we are many peoples who gather together as one people.

When we gather to worship, we are joining the chorus of heaven that declares that God is our salvation not any human ruler. We are joining the chorus of heaven that declares that God is the God of all people. We are joining the chorus of heaven that gathers us as one people – all that divides the human community is washed away in Christ.

What is it that divides us? Is it not our sin that divides us? Does it not all come back to our fears and greeds and hates and tribalism? It is washed away in Christ.

And finally, the one who is seated on the throne is the lamb: the lamb who was slain but lives. The lamb who was sacrificed to save the world from bondage but was made alive again. The lamb who was sacrificed to save Isaac from the knife. The lamb who is the good shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep. The lamb who is the good shepherd, who brings us to lie down in good pasture and leads us beside still waters. The lamb who stands at the beginning and end of time and makes all things new. The lamb who is the world’s true lord, reigning not by power and the sword but by grace and truth – who opens blind eyes, who heals the sick, who gathers the outcast and reconciles the divided. The one who welcomes sinners to his table, and washes away our sins in the font. The one who is our light and our life, now and forever.

Amen

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

He goes ahead

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Wednesday

This is a reposting of a reflection for Good Shepherd Sunday in 2014

John 10:1-10

4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

Palestinian shepherds are different than most shepherds worldwide. Most places in the world the shepherds come behind, driving their flock. In Palestine they walk ahead and the sheep follow.

This contrast alone makes this chapter of John priceless. How much religion consists of people being driven? Driven by guilt, by rules, by demands, by self-righteousness, by the psychological needs of the leadership, by history, by desire. Most of life is driven. Driven by our need to provide, our need to succeed, our need to feel safe. Driven by our fears, our wants, our restless sense that we are missing something. Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden in their shame. The prodigal son is driven home by his desperate hunger – but the prodigal father runs to welcome his son with open arms.

Jesus leads his flock. He goes before. He goes ahead. And though that often results with us running to catch up, it means we are not going anywhere that Jesus has not already been. Every sorrow he has tasted first. Even the grave. But also the resurrection.

He is our elder brother. He goes ahead. He paves the way. He opens the door. He does not ask us to wash feet before he has washed our feet. He does not ask us to take up the cross before he has taken up his cross. He does not ask us to give what he has not given. He does not ask us to walk where he has not walked. He does not ask us to love anyone he has not loved or forgive anyone he has not forgiven.

There is all the difference in the world between the command to go and the invitation to “Come with me.”

My brother got me to do all kinds of things by doing them first. I learned to swim because my brother went first. I learned to ski because he went first. I learned to hold a pigeon, I walked the streets of Brussels, I picked up a live crab, I left home for college. And there were some things I didn’t have to do because he did them, battles he fought I didn’t have to fight.

God does not sit on a throne spouting orders; he has come as our elder brother, leading the way. There are commands in the scripture, to be sure. We know of the ten, even if we can’t name them all. Jesus himself gave a new commandment – and tightened the others. He talked about forgiving seventy-seven times. But he went first. He goes ahead. He calls our name and bids us walk with him.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APikiWiki_Israel_19308_Settlements_in_Israel.JPG ארכיון עין השופט [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Overflowing

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Watching for the Morning of May 7, 2017

The Fourth Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday)

The fourth Sunday of Easter each year takes us to the tenth chapter of John and the 23rd psalm. In John 10 Jesus uses several metaphors rooted in the care and keeping of sheep, leading ultimately to the declaration “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” His claim that he has the power to lay his life down and take it up again leads to the accusation that he is demon possessed and an attempted stoning.

We should not let sweet images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd with a lamb around his neck obscure the fact that such words nearly get him killed. The language of shepherds and sheep is deep in the Biblical tradition for the relationship of Israel’s leaders to the people. His claim to be the good shepherd means that the Jerusalem leaders are not good shepherds. Indeed, in these opening words, Jesus asserts that they are thieves and robbers. Ironic words given that they will crucify Jesus for being an insurrectionist (here translated as ‘robber’).

These thieves and robbers have no true claim to the sheep – they sneaked over the wall to plunder the sheep. But the sheep (the crowds) hear Jesus’ voice and follow. And whereas the leaders of the nation are thieves and robbers, Jesus is the gate through which the sheep go out to rich pasture.

Jesus is the source of true life, not the pale imitation of life offered by the nation’s elite; but the true life of God’s people, an overflowing life, the good and imperishable life God intended for his creation.

So we hear Peter speak of Jesus, “the shepherd and guardian” of our lives. And we sing with David that the Lord is our shepherd who guides us through death’s vale and grants us rest in good pasture. And we hear Luke, the author of Acts, tell us of this remarkable community living with “glad and generous hearts,” who “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Among them none went hungry.

Abundant life. Life to the full. Life overflowing. Life that was meant to be.

Preaching Series: Genesis 1, The Life-giving Word

Last week we heard how, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus took his followers through the whole of scripture to see how it bears witness to God’s self-giving love fulfilled in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Sunday we begin our own survey with a look at the brilliant and courageous work we know as the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis. Written following the chaos of a terrible war, in a time when Jerusalem was destroyed and the people in exile, the author bears witness to the God who brings order to the stormy primal sea and makes all things good, beautiful, noble. In Babylon, where the world was said to be created from the slain body of the chaos monster – and humans fashioned from its blood – Biblical faith bears witness to a good world called into being by a God who speaks and whose word creates.

The Prayer for January 22, 2017

Gracious God,
guardian and shepherd of our souls,
keep us in your Word
that, hearing and following your voice,
we may know your abundant life;
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 January 22, 2017

First Reading: Acts 2:42-47
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” – Luke presents one of his summary descriptions of the early Christian community, an ever expanding community manifesting God’s.

Psalmody: Psalm 23
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” – a song of trust born of reflection upon God’s gracious care and providence through the challenges and trials of life. In the midst of the dangerous intrigues of the royal court, God is the true shepherd who has guarded and guided the poet’s way.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 2:19-25
“Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” –
this section of 1 Peter is presumably appointed for Good Shepherd Sunday for its line: “you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls,” but this section of the homily speaks to the pattern of enduring suffering given by Jesus.

Gospel: John 10:1-10
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.” – Several metaphors from the world of shepherding are taken up as parables of the access to ‘Life’ found in Jesus.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChampagne_tower.jpg By ori2uru (originally posted to Flickr as champagne tower) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

An insulting mercy

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Watching for the Morning of September 11, 2016

Year C

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 19 / Lectionary 24

Luke 15:1-10

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

Jesus can be wickedly insulting. He is not, of course, trying to be mean. He is trying to make clear what we do not want to see: that God has chosen to deal with the world with mercy rather than revenge, that God is seeking to reconcile the human community not purge it.

We have such a sweet, pastoral picture of the good shepherd with the lamb around his shoulders, but for a host of reasons “good shepherd” (or “noble shepherd”) was a contradiction in terms for the first century. To the Pharisees with whom Jesus is speaking, shepherds were despised and considered unclean and without honor. So when Jesus says “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep…” he is comparing these pharisaic paragons of piety with the unclean and cast out. It is such sweet irony, for they are attacking Jesus for precisely this reason: that he welcomes the unclean and cast out. And Jesus would receive the Pharisees, if only they were willing… Even as he would receive us, if only we were willing…

Although Jesus stops short of the ultimate insult, choosing not to say “which woman among you…”, the parallel is clear and the example of a woman seeking a coin lost from its place (probably a necklace) bristles with offense. But women are welcome in Jesus’ presence (though the Pharisees would keep them out). And Jesus would receive the Pharisees, if only they were willing… Even as he would receive us, if only we were willing… The banquet of God is at hand, if only we are willing…

The question of what God should do with a sinful and unclean humanity rattles through Sunday’s texts. God threatens to destroy the Israelites as they dance around the golden calf, but Moses intercedes on their behalf, calling God to turn from vengeance and show mercy. David prays for God’s mercy in the psalm, in words attributed to him after he has slept with the wife of Uriah and then, unable to get Uriah to betray his men in the field by going home to enjoy her comfort, arranges his murder to hide the sure-to-be-a-scandal pregnancy. First Timothy contains words attributed to Paul, naming his own scandalous sin and God’s scandalous mercy. And then we hear Jesus talking about the joy of heaven over the sinner who repents, the outcast who returns to the community.

The angels in heaven are dancing at the healing of the world, and we are invited to join the dance.

The Prayer for September 11, 2016

God of all joy,
the heavens resound with song
where the wounds of the broken are tended
and the lost and alone are gathered in.
Help us to rejoice in what pleases you,
and to know the joy of your reconciling love.

The Texts for September 11, 2016

First Reading: Exodus 32:7-14
“The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.”
– Moses is on Mt. Sinai receiving God’s commands when the Israelites begin to worship the golden calf. God threatens to destroy them and create a new people from Moses’ descendants, but Moses intercedes on their behalf.

Psalmody: Psalm 51:1-12  (appointed vv. 1-10)
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.” – This exquisite prayer of confession is attributed to David after the prophet Nathan exposed David’s sin with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband.

Second Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17
“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.”
– The letters to Timothy are penned by Paul or in his name as parting words of advice to his protégé, Timothy. Here Paul speaks of the mercy he received though he initially persecuted the church.

Gospel: Luke 15:1-10
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” – The first two of three parables speaking of God’s joy in gathering the outcast and restoring the community of Israel – indeed the whole human community.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARas_Dejen%2C_shepherd’s_children.JPG By Florian Fell (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

97,000

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Sunday Evening

John 10:22-30

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

File:Rom, Titusbogen, Triumphzug 3.jpgIt’s hard to know how many people perished when Judea rose in revolt and Titus came to crush the rebellion. Josephus says 1.1 million died in Jerusalem and 97,000 were carried off to slavery. We see their image carved into the Arch of Titus in Rome. They are in chains and the temple treasures held high as booty. It paid for the construction of the Roman Coliseum, where many more Jews and Christians would lose their lives.

When John’s community listens to this set of images about the good shepherd, the thieves and bandits, and the hirelings, Jerusalem’s tragic story is not that many years behind them.

‘Perish’ is a soft translation for a word that typically means to kill or destroy utterly. ‘Snatch’ seems like trying to grab something off my brother’s desk when I was ten, rather than the 97,000 taken away by force.

The hirelings are the Jerusalem elite who saved their skins. The thieves and bandits are the rebels acclaimed as messiahs (or condemned as terrorists) who seized control of the city and led the revolt. And the wolf is the Roman Army that came “to steal, kill and destroy.”

The history is brutal as revolutions often are. Consider the reign of terror in Paris or the ruthlessness of the Russian Revolution or the killing fields of Pol Pot or the ISIS beheadings in the ancient Roman theater in Palmyra. The Judean revolt was not different. But it ended with utter destruction and slavery.

Caiaphas will say that “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (11:50) Yet the truth of the matter is that the path followed by Caiaphas and the nation led to destruction. The path offered by Jesus would have led to life.

And still that path is offered to us every Sunday around a table with broken bread. But the path of wars and crusades seems too alluring. Compassion, mercy, justice, faithfulness – they don’t rouse the crowd like anger, hate and claims of divine approval. But they are life. Imperishable life.

Followers of Jesus where crucified and slain in the chaos of that war. Some by Rome and its allies. Some by their fellow countrymen. But they knew true life. And no one can ever snatch them from Jesus’ hand.

 

Image of the Arch of Titus: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARomeArchofTitus02.jpg By Alexander Z. (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Closeup of the Arch: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARom%2C_Titusbogen%2C_Triumphzug_3.jpg  By Dnalor 01 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 at (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/at/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons