My Father is still working

File:Cornus florida 02 by Line1.jpgA reflection on John 5:1-9 and Revelation 21:9-10, 22-22:5 (the texts for Easter 6 C) on the occasion of my grandson’s first Sunday in worship and the first step towards his baptism.

There are a couple things I need to say about our texts before I share with you what I have written for this morning.  This passage from John is an amazing narrative.  The man has suffered for 38 years.  When asked whether he wishes to be made whole, he answers by saying he has no one to help him into the water.  The legend held that an angel would occasionally descend and stir the water and the first person into the pool would be healed.  But this man has no one.  His answer expresses brokenness and despair.  He has no hope of healing.  He has no community, no family, no friends, no one to care for him – until Jesus finds him.  And Jesus does find him. 

The leadership of the nation responds to this wondrous healing by criticizing the man for carrying his mat on the Sabbath.  We didn’t read this part.  We should have, but that would have required us to read the whole chapter.  But it is important to note this because religious people are often this way.  We respond to God’s wondrous work with nitpicking and legalism.  He’s not supposed to work on the Sabbath and carrying your mat is defined as work.

The conflict over the Sabbath is the central element of this narrative.  When Jesus, himself, is criticized for working on the Sabbath, he answers by saying, among other things, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.”  The leadership of the nation imagined God’s work of creating was over.  God had created for six days and now God was ‘resting’.  But Jesus declares that God is still at work.  God is still creating — and God’s work is a work of healing.  God is working to make us whole.  God is working to make the world whole.

Sometimes it needs to be said that God is still at work.

Our second reading was the vision of the New Jerusalem given to John of Patmos.  It is a vision of the world made healed and restored.  At the time John writes, the earthly city has been destroyed by rebellion and war.  Rome has crushed it.  But at the consummation of human history, in that day when all human rebellion is overcome and all things are made new, in that day the heavenly counterpart of the earthly city descends to earth.  And though we don’t get the measurements of the city in our portion of the reading, the city is a giant cube some 1,200 to 1,500 miles across and high. The reason it measures as a perfect cube is that the holy of holies inside the temple, where God was present, was a perfect cube.  The world is now the holy of holies where God dwells.  The consummation of human history is God coming to dwell with us.

Sometimes it needs to be said that God is still at work – and that God’s purpose is to dwell in our midst.

*   *   *

As you know, my daughter and her husband are here this morning and we are doing a rite of blessing in anticipation of a baptism that will happen later where they live.

There are things I want to tell Finn, but he is not ready to hear them.  I want to tell him about the beauty and grandeur of the world around us.  I want to tell him about the Grand Canyon and the waterfalls at Yosemite in springtime.  I want to take him to the Monterey Aquarium and talk about the mysteries of the deep.  I want him to gaze into the wonder of those tiny flowers in the grass outside and the supple lines and color of a rose.  I want him to watch with wonder the flight of a swallow and the migration of the monarchs and to hear crickets in the evening.  I want him to see how seed turns to sapling turns to towering tree.  I want him to walk among redwoods and see dogwoods in the spring. 

I want him to know the beauty of the world.  I want him to know its goodness before he learns its sorrows.  I want him to play in a soft summer rain before he feels the power of a storm.  I want him to see the wonder of a bird’s nest before he learns that other animals would prey on the babies.  I want him to delight in bunnies in the yard before he worries about hawks overhead.  I want him to know human kindness before he learns of human cruelty.

I want to tell Finn this story we have received of a world conceived in love, of a creation called into being by a divine Word and that God saw and declared all things good and noble and beautiful.  I want to tell him this story that he is made of the dust of the earth and the breath of God.  I want him to know that he was made to live in God’s presence and tend God’s garden – that he was made to live in harmony with all things.

I want Finn to know the goodness before he learns what happened in that garden, how humanity broke faith with God and broke the ties that bind all things together. 

I want Finn to know the beauty of the earth before he tastes its tears.  I want him to know the goodness of family before he learns about Cain and Abel and the bitter envy that tears the human family apart.

And I want Finn to hear the voice of God speaking to Cain, telling him that we can choose kindness and faithfulness.  I want him to know we can choose to listen to the breath of God rather than the murmurings of bitterness and revenge.

There are so many things I want to tell Finn.  I want to tell him of Abraham’s courage in trusting God’s promise, of Isaac’s love for Rebekah, of Jacob the cheat burning all his bridges and wrestling with God at the river Jabbok.  I want to tell him of Joseph who forgave his brothers and Moses who stood before the burning bush.  I want to tell him about Pharaoh’s hardness of heart and God’s determination to bring freedom to both the oppressors and the oppressed.  I want to tell him about Sinai and the wilderness and the radical notion that God is a god who travels with us, that God is not a god of rock and stream but a God of love and mercy.  

I want to tell him of the prophets.  I want to tell him of the psalms of joy and the cries of lament.  I want to tell him of the faithfulness of Ruth and the courage of Esther.  I want to tell him about the gifts and call of God.  And I want to tell him about the child of Nazareth, the song of the angels and the message given to shepherds.  I want to tell him about the boy Jesus in the temple and the grown man at the Jordan.  I want to tell him about the words he spoke and the things he did.  I want to tell him about Zacchaeus in the tree and the woman at the well and the banquet in the wilderness that fed five thousand families with twelve baskets left over.

I want to tell him about the empty tomb and the gift of the spirit and the dawn of God’s new creation in the world and in us.  

I want him to know about the women at the tomb and Mary, the first witness.  I want him to know about the boldness of Philip baptizing the Ethiopian Eunuch and Peter trusting the voice of heaven and baptizing a Roman centurion and family.  I want Finn to know of Lydia and the Philippian jailor bending to wash feet.  I want Finn to know the healing of the world is at hand.

I want to tell Finn about the courage and faithfulness of Perpetua and her companion, Felicity, who were martyred in the arena, and how she guided the executioner’s hand when he faltered.  I want to tell him about Francis of Assisi and Katy Luther and how Bach wrote “Soli Deo Gloria” – wholly to the Glory of God – on all his music.  I want to tell him of all the courageous men and women of faith and this wondrous mystery of the church gathered from every nation on earth to bear witness to the grace and mercy of God.

And I want to tell him about the promise of his baptism and the promise of the table.

I want to know that there is mercy in our sorrows and strength in our challenges and hope, always hope, for the grave is empty and the arms of God are open to us and to all.

I want Finn to know all this.  Even more, I want his parents to tell him these stories.  And I want all of us to tell him these stories.  I want the community of God’s people to uphold him in his journey and to uphold one another as we try to live Christ for the world.  I want us to sing and to pray and to labor side by side in hope and faithfulness, 

I want Finn to hear with us and understand with us this story of Christ and the man at the pool of Beth-zatha.  I want him to know Christ as healer and to know that this is the work of God.  I want him to know the power and promise of Jesus’ statement: “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” 

And I want Finn to hear and understand with all of us the power of this vision of the New Jerusalem, a city without fear, a city whose gates never close, a realm that gathers all that is good and noble of every culture and people, a city shaped like the most holy place – a world that has become the dwelling place of God.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cornus_florida_02_by_Line1.jpg Liné1 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D

The moments I treasure

“Harry” at the Blessing of the Animals in 2017

Looking back on Sunday

Psalm 8

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them?”

The moments I treasure as a pastor are not the big things: a great worship service, a program that succeeds, a rousing concert or delightful children’s program.   What vibrates sweetly in my heart are the small things: A gesture of compassion and generosity from someone in the parish that you learn about later. Coming to make a visit and finding a mom with a guitar, her two small children, and three of her children’s friends singing to a shut-in. Or arriving at the home of a sickly and self-obsessed woman to find a member of her same age on her knees washing the kitchen floor.

Last Sunday was our commemoration of St. Francis and the Blessing of the Animals. We hold our service on the front lawn and this year we were short of our usual number of volunteers to help bring out chairs and set up the space for worship. At the Oktoberfest celebration the evening before, I asked a young man if he could help, but he had tickets and was taking his sister to a 49’rs game in the morning. To go get his sister, he couldn’t make worship. Nevertheless he came early on Sunday and helped us set up.

Simple things. It’s in the simple things that goodness shines. It’s in the simple things that all the preaching and teaching seems not to be in vain.

It’s a tough time to be church. All of us are affected when evidence of clergy abuse surfaces or hateful messages are broadcast. All of us are affected when the news talks continually about churches and preachers wedded to Trumpism. The Christian witness to compassion and sacrifice doesn’t resonate when Twitter is alive with rage and outrage. Sunday worship seems a pale form of entertainment to an entertainment culture. And the church’s respect and ties to the faith, prayers and hymns of the ages don’t resonate with a society focused on novelty.

It’s a tough time to be church. And most preachers don’t know how the faith is shaping the daily life of its members. We don’t see bedtime prayers or soup taken to a neighbor. We don’t see acts of courage that stand up against hatefulness. We don’t see acts of compassion to strangers or generosity to those in need. We hope the voice of Christ is echoing through our members’ lives, but we don’t always know. So those moments when we get to see little acts of kindness and generosity are very sweet.

It makes up for the bug that flew up my nose during the blessing of the bread.

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Images: Carl S. Gutekunst, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Remember Zacchaeus

File:Chapiteau de St-Nectaire - Le Christ et Zachée.jpg

Psalm 26:1-8

1 Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity,
…..and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.

The eight verses assigned for us to sing or read on Sunday describe the poet’s righteousness. “Your steadfast love is before my eyes,” he declares, “and I walk in faithfulness to you.” The portrait he paints is noble:

4 I do not sit with the worthless,
…..nor do I consort with hypocrites;
5 I hate the company of evildoers,
…..and will not sit with the wicked.
6 I wash my hands in innocence,
…..and go around your altar, O Lord,
7 singing aloud a song of thanksgiving,
…..and telling all your wondrous deeds.

But there is an unpleasant aftertaste in these words.

I always get a little nervous around those who are a little too certain they are righteous. And it’s not just because Lutherans as a whole have a pretty skeptical view of the possibility of our righteousness. The notion of “alien righteousness”, a righteousness that comes from somewhere else, that is not our own but given to us, is pretty deep in Lutheran piety. We are righteous because, amazingly, graciously, wondrously, when God looks at us he sees Christ’s righteousness not our own. We are pretty sure if he saw our own it would resemble a dilapidated storefront in an abandoned urban area. It has walls and a roof, the appearance of a building, but the windows are broken and the roof surely leaks. Thankfully, God is like an overly enthusiastic realtor who sees what should be and will be rather than what is.

In Lutheranland, we are all fixer uppers. So when we encounter someone who is a little too certain they live in a fine neighborhood, we are uncomfortable. Surely they must be denying there is something musty in the basement or mice droppings in the attic.

Nevertheless, this Sunday we are asked to say these words:

4 I do not sit with the worthless,
…..nor do I consort with hypocrites;
5 I hate the company of evildoers,
…..and will not sit with the wicked.
6 I wash my hands in innocence,
…..and go around your altar, O Lord,

It’s a complicated moment. First of all, it requires us to remember that these words are a prayer. The poet is in trouble and offering the kind of prayer we have all offered: “I don’t deserve this…come rescue me…” Like the prayers of our ancestors, our prayers may not be noble, but God does listen.

Secondly we have to remember that these words, like all the words of scripture, reach their fullest truth in Jesus. He was righteous, faithful to God and to others, but his righteousness did not set him apart from the wicked; it placed him in their living rooms. Remember Zacchaeus. I wish I could find a way to put those two words into the six or seven letters of a vanity license plate. That’s one I might consider buying.

Remember Zacchaeus. His righteousness comes after Jesus has shocked the righteous by coming to dine at his home. His righteousness is entirely a response to the presence of Christ. He makes no claim to goodness or holiness; it is brought forth by Christ’s goodness and holiness. Zacchaeus does nothing but agree to let Christ come to his home – and then the spirit of Christ works its work in him. Suddenly he is giving away half his possessions to the poor and setting right his wrongs.

So we will pray the poet’s prayer on Sunday. And the words will come awkwardly. But hopefully we will remember Zacchaeus and, perhaps, all those other prayers that are a little too full of ourselves will be filled with Christ.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChapiteau_de_St-Nectaire_-_Le_Christ_et_Zach%C3%A9e.jpg By Tangopaso (Self-photographed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The ordinary

Sunday Evening

I wish there was something special to write about worship this morning, but it was all quite ordinary. Yes, we watched the slideshow from our summer program and thanked our youth director for her extraordinary work – so there were images of happy kids and crafts and tales of chimes and songs. And, yes, we had an accordionist for our special music this morning, taking up hymns and songs we are likely to hear this week of the Fourth of July. And, yes, there was laughter and heartfelt prayer and children for the children’s message and wonder of God’s invitation to come to his table and share the bread that is the sign and promise and dawning reality of that day when all creation shall be gathered to one table.

But it was also ordinary. A simple summer service in which the community gathers for a host of different reasons: some because of friends, some because of habit, some because they have found a new congregation with a message that speaks to them, some because they had tasks to do – from working the sound board to making coffee.

Worship is ordinary. And yet is also extraordinary. It is like the roses in the flowerbeds around the patio near the parish office. Always there. Always blooming. Always ordinary yet wondrous in their beauty if you stop and see.

Its not just that there is beauty in the ordinary. It is that all existence is extraordinary. The brilliance of the clouds against the sky. The courage and faithfulness of a blind and deaf dog. The love of his family for an animal of no economic value. The laughter of children. The kindness of strangers. The sharing of the peace. Ancient texts that still speak to our human condition and the divine promise. The aroma of morning coffee. The pleasure of a simple dinner. The crickets in the evening. Fresh corn on the cob. The smell of fresh basil. Rosemary. Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. The sound of a child plinking out the melody line of Jesus Loves Me on the piano.

We are surrounded by extraordinary goodness. We don’t really need fireworks. We need to feel the grass between our toes and the ocean lapping at our feet. We need to feel the cool breeze in the evening and the hand of a loved one in our own. We need the connection of family and friends and the reminder that such bonds should tie the whole human family.

Even where terrors seem to govern, there is goodness waiting. If we will see it. If we will be open to it. If we will live it.

Worship is ordinary. But it is oh so much more than ordinary, for it bids us to see that love and life reverberate through all existence and summons us to join the song.

Photo: dkbonde

Garden

File:Nevuas.jpg

“Say what you want about ‘all the killing in the Bible’, the Bible begins with two narratives about relationship with God and relationship with one another and a world in perfect peace.” – from today’s sermon.

We looked at Genesis 2 in worship this morning, the narrative about the creation of Adam and Eve. What follows is the content of the booklet that was handed out following worship explaining the images used in our sanctuary today. The sermon series is designed to help us understand what Jesus was telling his followers on the road to Emmaus about the fundamental witness of the scripture to the sacrificial, redemptive love of God.   (For more information about this series, see the explanation in the post for week 1.)

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ANevuas.jpg By Géder Abrahão (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Genesis 2:4-25


“The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”


File:Épaule musée archéologique de Naples.jpg

The creation narrative in the first chapter of Genesis is a sweeping and majestic portrait of a God who speaks and whose speaking brings order, goodness and beauty, calling all things into being. The creation story in this second chapter gives a more intimate portrait of a God whose first creation is a human. Where Genesis 1 views humanity as the crown of God’s creating, Genesis 2 presents humanity as God’s first thought. Where God speaks with a royal we in chapter 1, and like a great king his word effects what he speaks, in chapter 2 we meet an artisan forming humanity from the earth and breathing into him the breath of life.

And since the Hebrew word means both ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’, something is happening that is far more than mere respiration. Again we are in the realm of intimacy. God is not just our creator; God is our breath. And we are bound together even as God’s speaking (in Genesis 1) begets relationship.

Marbre antique, détail, épaule, musée archéologique de Naples
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A%C3%89paule_mus%C3%A9e_arch%C3%A9ologique_de_Naples.jpg By photogestion [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“The Lord God planted a garden in the east, in Eden;
and there he put the man he had formed.”


File:Araucárias ao fundo Parque Nacional da Serra da Bocaina - denoise.jpg

Having formed a human, God plants a garden to provide him a home. There are notions of a royal garden in this image. This is a place where God will walk in the cool of the evening (3:8) and the human creature is given the responsibility “to till it and keep it”. We are the royal gardeners, granted the right to sustain ourselves from the fruit of the garden. But we are not hired hands; we are bearers of the divine breath and companions of God.

Sunrise with Paraná pines as seen at the Serra da Bocaina National Park, Brazil..
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AArauc%C3%A1rias_ao_fundo_Parque_Nacional_da_Serra_da_Bocaina_-_denoise.jpg By Heris Luiz Cordeiro Rocha (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground
trees that were pleasing to the eye…


File:Capitol Hill Cherry Blossoms - Flickr - treegrow (14).jpg


…and good for food.”


File:Cornucopia of fruit and vegetables wedding banquet (cropped).jpg

God provides for the human all the goodness and beauty of the earth. It is God’s first act of faithfulness and love.

Capitol Hill Cherry Blossoms
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACapitol_Hill_Cherry_Blossoms_-_Flickr_-_treegrow_(14).jpg By Katja Schulz from Washington, D. C., USA (Capitol Hill Cherry Blossoms) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
A wedding cornucopia
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACornucopia_of_fruit_and_vegetables_wedding_banquet_(cropped).jpg By Jina Lee [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“A river watering the garden flowed from Eden.”


File:Manavgat waterfall by tomgensler.JPG

Four great rivers find their headwaters in the garden – the rivers on whose banks human society will find life: the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Nile (Gihon), and a fourth whose identity we no longer know (though there are satellite images suggesting an ancient river across the Arabian peninsula.) Perhaps it’s just as well we do not know this river: now all the rivers of the world can be seen as arising in the garden.

And it does not matter that these rivers don’t connect with one another. That is not our author’s message. The garden is the source of life for the world. Even when the garden is lost to us, its waters continue to flow, bringing their fertility and abundance to human society.

It is an image taken up by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 47) when he describes a life-giving river flowing from the new temple, by Jesus when he declares that he is the source of the water of life (John 4:13-14; 7:37-38), and by the author of Revelation when the river of life flows from the throne of God and the Lamb in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22).

Waterfall at Manavgat (Turkey).
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AManavgat_waterfall_by_tomgensler.JPG By Thomas Gensler (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“It is not good for the man to be alone.”


File:Louis Rémy Mignot Solitude.jpg

Amidst all the beauty and abundance of the garden, it is not yet ‘good’, perfect, complete. Humans are meant for relationship. It is not good for this human creature to be alone. It is a fundamental truth. It is part of what is meant by the image of God. For there to be love, there must be an other, a beloved. We are meant for community.

Solitude, Louis Rémy Mignot
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALouis_R%C3%A9my_Mignot_Solitude.jpg Louis Rémy Mignot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them.”


File:AberdeenBestiaryFolio005rAdamNamesAnimalsDetail.jpg

And so God continues to create, bringing to the human all the other creatures of the earth.

The creatures of the earth are part of our community, part of our connectedness. We know this in our pets, but also in the birds we hear singing in the morning or watch around a feeder. There is an intake of breath when we stumble across a rabbit or a deer. There is something familiar in sounds of the frogs in the pond or the sight of a lizard sunning on a rock. We talk to them without thinking about it. They are part of our community. And so the sight of a starving polar bear grieves us, or a wounded bird that has hit our picture window.

The creatures of the earth are part of our community, but in all these creatures there is not a companion equal to that first human.

The King James Version translated this as “an help meet for him.” It would have benefited us if they had added a comma after the word ‘help’, (an help, meet for him) for what popularly turned into a single word, ‘helpmeet’, actually means a helper “equal to him”, or “matching him”.

So God takes a portion from the first human and from it makes another.

Adam naming the animals, Folio 5 recto from the Aberdeen Bestiary.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAberdeenBestiaryFolio005rAdamNamesAnimalsDetail.jpg Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man
he made into a woman.”


File:Tracy Caldwell Dyson in Cupola ISS.jpg

The woman is not made for the first human but from him. She is separate, but she is of the same stuff as he. She is not made like the animals are made. She is unique. And they are uniquely connected.

The Hebrew words here are tricky to translate comfortably into English. The creature God makes is an ‘adam’. It is a word that refers to human beings. There are other words to refer to male and female. And there are ordinary words for a man and a woman.

Clearly the Biblical writers imagined the first human as a male, but women are also “humankind”. In Genesis 5:1-2 it says: “When God created humankind (‘adam’), he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them “Humankind” (‘adam’) when they were created.” It is only with the appearance of this other that humanity emerges as ‘man’ and ‘woman’.

Self portrait of Tracy Caldwell Dyson in the Cupola module of the International Space Station observing the Earth below during Expedition 24.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATracy_Caldwell_Dyson_in_Cupola_ISS.jpg By NASA/Tracy Caldwell Dyson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”


File:Adam Eve Storonov.JPG

Now come the words for ‘man’ (‘ish’) and ‘woman’ (‘ishah’). These are not the words for ‘male’ and ‘female’; they are words that speak of relationship, words that evoke the connection of men and women in family and community. We are made for one another, even as we are made to be in relationship with God.

Adam and Eve, sculpture by Oscar Stonorov
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAdam_Eve_Storonov.JPG By Smallbones (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
© Text by David K. Bonde, Los Altos Lutheran Church, 2017

Doing the good

File:Maximilien Luce - Le bon samaritain.jpg

Thursday

Galatians 6:1-16

9So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.

I don’t know why this translation chose “doing what is right” instead of “doing the good”. Yes the word can mean what is right and proper and good, but the phrase “doing what is right” tends to make me think about rules, whereas “doing the good” makes me think about people and relationships. “Doing what is right” is about social and ethical norms. “Doing the good” is about being a gracious and healing presence in the world.

Paul has spent his whole letter arguing against the a definition of righteousness based on the observance of social and legal norms. He has argued fiercely that it is fidelity to the mercy of God and a life governed by the Spirit to which we are called. In this very passage he declares that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!”  Social customs and laws belong to the tribe of Israel. Fidelity to the God of Mercy and Life belongs to us all.

It’s very important that we not get confused about what God seeks. Even the Mosaic Law is more a collection of examples and precedents for the just and faithful life than a legal code. Legal codes invite us to parse and define them. So we read that we are to love our neighbor and set off on a discussion about who, exactly, falls in that category of neighbor. Are people from the next village neighbor? Are the elite families in Jerusalem neighbor? Are the Romans neighbor? Are the Samaritans neighbor? And we know how Jesus answers this question – or rather steps beyond it. He tells the story of the Good Samaritan and simply asks who showed himself a neighbor.

The translation “doing what is right” is grammatically acceptable – maybe even grammatically proper. But it is theologically misleading. Our responsibility as human beings is not to be right, but to be good.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMaximilien_Luce_-_Le_bon_samaritain.jpg  Maximilien Luce [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The LORD watches over the way of the righteous

Wednesday

Psalm 1

File:RISD Rodin Hand of God.JPG

August Rodin, The Hand of God

6The LORD watches over the way of the righteous.

I believe this, though my daughter was righteous in the rich Biblical sense of that word – faithful to God and to others – just, honest, true, compassionate, generous, kind – yet when she was 19 her car was struck by a driver who had been drinking and she was killed. Two others in the car with her were also killed, and two terribly injured in body and spirit.

I think about this because today is her birthday.

The LORD watches over the way of the righteous.

I do believe this. And it is not just the desperate clutching at faith in the presence of despair.  It is not born of denial but trust. God watches over the way of the righteous. I do not think this means that God guarantees anything. It is certainly not a guarantee of a happy and prosperous American-style life. It is a promise that God watches. God sees. God knows. God guides. God protects – not absolutely, but protects from those truly fearful things: a life made shallow by possessions, pride, privilege. A life made ugly by bitterness or hate. A life where hope, or compassion or joy has been crushed.

As a parent who wishes to hear his daughter’s laugh again, I certainly wish God protected from every stubbed toe. But I know that such a protection ultimately corrupts. As hard as it is, you have to let your children struggle and suffer sometimes, for spiritual poverty is a much more terrible disaster.

Could I have endured it if Anna became vain and selfish? Could I have born the burden if she had grown thoughtless or cruel? No, God watched over her.

The LORD watches over the way of the righteous.

I still pray for protection when I drive. I ask to be guarded against all manner of ordinary ills. I want safety and surety for my surviving daughter, myself and all my extended family. But I understand that beneath my prayer for safety is a much more important petition: that God will guard our spirits. And in such protection I believe and trust.

 

Photo by Ad Meskens. [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.  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RISD_Rodin_Hand_of_God.JPG

From darkness into light

Wednesday

Genesis 1

Original painting by C. O'Neal

Original painting by C. O’Neal

1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

A storm at sea on a black night is perhaps the most terrifying thing a desert people could imagine. Perhaps one doesn’t need to be a desert people; storms are frightening even on land.

I wasn’t used to the summer thunderstorms of the Midwest when I began seminary. I had endured the winters, but gone back to California in the summers of college. But seminary started with summer Greek, three hours a day in a room with many young men (at the time, still men – could it be? It hardly seems possible now) and no air conditioning. The hot humid summer air gave fuel for dramatic evening storms. Our apartment was on the third floor, on top of a hill that dropped down to a freeway beneath our west facing windows. We could see the storms coming, and they hit us full blast. Growing up in California we rarely had lightning – certainly not thunderheads or tornadoes. That first year we ate dinner several times hiding in the small hallway of our apartment with all the doors closed. Add water and total darkness and you have true terror.

Jerusalem had known true terror. The Babylonian armies encircling the city. The signal fires of all the surrounding towns extinguishing one by one. The growing famine in the city. The desperate fear. The siege works. The break in the walls. The raging troops. The blood. The tears. The fire. The desolation. The chains. The long march to Babylon.

But there in Babylon they composed this narrative of total chaos – and then God speaks. Light comes to the darkness. And the light is gathered to form a day and the darkness restricted to a night. Into chaos comes a gracious order: day and night.

Again, God speaks. And the waters are divided. Limits are set. The dome of the sky is established. More limits are set. The water yields to land. And then vegetation, fruit trees, seeds and grains, the lush countryside, the grass covered hills, the cedars of Lebanon, the mighty oaks, the transcendent redwoods, the brilliant flowers, cherry blossoms, dogwood, redbud, trout lilies, day lilies, trillium, lavender, onions, garlic, barley, wheat, raspberries, thimbleberries, pomegranates, an explosion of goodness where there had once been only chaos.

In the dome of the sky a vast array of twinkling lights – and a big light and a little light. No names are used because the names for sun and moon and stars are the names of gods. These are not mighty powers, just an umbrella of beauty over a good world.

It is a remarkable composition. A wondrous affirmation in the midst of war and chaos and evil: “God saw all that he had made, and behold, it was very good.”

And humans. Humans, the authors know, are capable of such horror. But they are not evil. They are fashioned in the image of God. And God blesses them. And God entrusts them to one another and entrusts to them his wondrous creation.

This is not a creation story. It is certainly not written as a textbook. This is a great and profound confession of faith by those who had known unimaginable chaos and sorrow: the journey of the world is not into the darkness – but from darkness into light.

We are right to say that it is inspired.

The song lingers

Sunday Evening

Isaiah 51 (as sung in the psalmody today)

File:Western Meadowlark.jpg

Western Meadowlark. Kevin Cole from Pacific Coast, USA

11 “The ransomed of the Lord will return,
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads;
sorrow and sighing will flee away.”

The hymns from this morning linger in my mind. I find myself humming or singing or just hearing in my mind the words “A-a-a-le-lu-u-jah, A-a-a-le-lu-u-jah, A-a-a-le-lu-u-jah, Christ the-e Lord [something] comes to reign.” (I had to go find my hymnal and look it up. That uncertain line is “Christ the Lord returns to reign.”)

At different times in the day different phrases from that hymn has rattled through my mind.

Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain

But, since I don’t know this hymn very well, after these few words I resort to the “dah, dah, dah”s. Still, the music of the hymn, the majesty and – not quite joy, but ‘uplift’? – of the hymn I remember. It is like an echo coming back across a broad valley, or the aroma from yesterday’s bread that reveals itself when I return to my apartment.

Worship is meant to do this, to linger. The words spoken, the readings, the songs, the prayers, the actions of standing and sitting, giving an offering, and coming to the table, the sharing of the peace – they are all meant to work not only on our conscious mind but our subconscious. The peace is meant to linger. The sense of our lives being connected to something greater than ourselves is meant to ripple through our day, our week. A warmth of human connection, a hug, a smile, a gesture as simple as sharing a bulletin, may waft through our day with positive emotions. Of course, a harsh word, a cold shoulder can also haunt the day. This is the risk we take in being with others.

The liturgy didn’t go smoothly this morning. It was storming outside. Between the storm and the holiday weekend, the gathered community was small. The Assisting Minister didn’t show up, nor the acolyte. I had forgotten I agreed to get someone to sing the verse of “Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel” that transitioned us from announcements into the lighting of the Advent Wreath before the entrance hymn. And I didn’t know who, if anyone, was prepared to light the wreath – the person assigned to that task was late arriving. Then the printer wouldn’t work for my sermon. We weren’t quite prepared for the beginning of this Advent season that is about preparation. Ah, well.

We do enter God’s presence stumbling. We do not arrive with manicured nails and tailored suits; we arrive as we are: frail in our best times, capable of great ugliness in our worst. We come as representatives of a humanity that is rioting in Ferguson, shooting children with toy guns in the assumption they are criminals; bombing cities, kidnapping children, assaulting women for indecent clothing. We come disillusioned by fallen heroes – the world has lost some of its remaining innocence with the revelations about Bill Cosby. And the missing football player is added to a tragic list of suicides. We come as members of a human community that has profoundly betrayed our creator’s intention for us – and yet also as members of a human community capable of remarkable generosity. Who could imagine Bloods and Crips standing together to protect another’s property? For every one who throws a rock there are others helping to clean up. For every killing marred by racism there are acts that transcend the most fundamental human divides. For every act of violence, manifold kindness.

We come together to sing our frail song and, somehow, God in his infinite grace transforms our song into true praise – into a meadowlark’s evening call, into the sound of wind in the aspens, into the harmonies of the spheres.

Our small words become vessels of God’s words, our bit of bread a vehicle of Christ’s presence, our prayers draw eternity to us and us to the eternal.

It is truly wondrous. And, in spite of ourselves, the tune lingers.

And it was good

Wednesday

Genesis 1

File:Monreale creation earth.jpg

Creation of the sun and moon, 12th century Byzantine mosaic in Monreale

1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void

It’s hard to convey in English the two Hebrew words rendered here as “formless void.” It is the nightmare of the storm upon the sea. The chaos of a raging sea. The presence of that thick darkness that closes in upon you. It is a world without a shoreline, a chaos without a boundary, emotions that know no limit. It is the rubble of war. The numbed emptiness of grief. The walls of the city torn down. Priest and prophet slain. Temple looted and burned. The taunting of a brutal enemy and the chains marching them into exile.

We do not know when the words were composed, but they came together in this form in Babylon, in the aftermath of Judah’s destruction, the brutality of which defies our imagination despite what we have seen in the last hundred years – or the last few. School children. Really? School children? So the poet cries out to God about the desolation of Jerusalem: “Look, O LORD, and see! Should women eat their offspring, the children of their tender care?” (Lamentations 2:20RSV)

It is the survivors of 9/11 and the Boston Marathon who write, “And God said, ‘let there be light, and there was light.’” It is the families in Syria beneath the barrel bombs and chemical weapons who write, “And God saw that the light was good.” It is the parents of the school children in Newtown who write seven times in this narrative “It was good.”

It is the parents of the young schoolgirls in Nigeria who write, “God separated the light from the darkness,” and gave them the names ‘Day’ and ‘Night’. The friends and relatives of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, who write, “God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome,” bringing borders and limits to the primeval chaos. It is the communities terrorized by lynching who write, “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so.” A divine order pushes back the chaos and draws a line it shall not cross. It is the families of the victims of the factory collapse in Bangladesh who write, “God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas.” The primal chaos is domesticated; it has a name. “And God saw that it was good.”

Such a confession of faith and hope and trust is this first chapter of Genesis, an act of defiance in the face of meaninglessness. We will not go gently into that good night. We will declare that this broken world is not the world God made. This is our brokenness, not God’s. This is our fault, not God’s. We make the wars. We make the idols. We make the warring idols and the idols warring. We strip the forests and the fields to feed the marching armies, but those who starved write, “Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.”

These are words of courage, declaring the goodness of God and the goodness of life in the face of life’s insanities. We were not made for tears, but for dancing in the presence of God. We were not made for cursing, but for song. We were not made to wield weapons but plowshares and pruning hooks. And when we will stand quietly before the world around us, when we will see with our eyes and hear with our ears, and breathe in the fragrance of the natural world, we will know its beauty and goodness.

And then we will decide whether we will join the cacophony, or live for the goodness.

“God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” And then God blessed them.

For a time we lived the blessing. And even now the blessing lingers. It takes courage and faith to confess it. Courage and faith to live it. But we can be the ones who write, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”