The true breaker of chains

File:Hitda-Codex-Healing of a man with a withered hand.jpgWatching for the Morning of June 3, 2018

Year B

The Second Sunday after Pentecost

The Sabbath command takes center stage on Sunday. We hear Moses recall the commandment in his sermon to the Israelites before they cross the Jordan to enter Canaan. They are not to be an enslaved or enslaving people: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”

The psalm also speaks of God’s deliverance from bondage: “I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your hands were freed from the basket. In distress you called, and I rescued you.” But law intended to free can also be used to bind, and so conflict erupts between Jesus and the Pharisees. The disciples dare to pluck a few grains of wheat to snack on as they walk through the fields and the Pharisees accuse them of doing the work of “harvesting” on the Sabbath. Then comes a man with a withered hand into the synagogue. To the Pharisees this is a chronic condition and Jesus nothing but a village healer, so the “work” of doctoring can wait until the Sabbath is over. But to Jesus the Sabbath is God’s deliverance from bondage and deliverance ought not wait. Nothing is more appropriate to the Sabbath than freeing those who are bound. The Lord of the Sabbath is come. In Jesus the reign of God, our true Sabbath rest, is at hand.

It is a claim to so radical, so profoundly challenging to “what everybody knows,” so powerfully transformative of “the way things are,” that it cannot go unanswered: “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

We can turn Christianity into a new set of velvet lined manacles – or we can trust and show allegiance to the true breaker of chains.

The Prayer for June 3, 2018

Gracious God,
whose will it is to gather all creation into your eternal peace,
send forth your Spirit
that we may ever dwell in your healing presence.

The Texts for June 3, 2018

First Reading: Deuteronomy 5:12-15
“Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.” – The book of Deuteronomy is composed as an exhortation from Moses to the people at the end of their journey through the wilderness. He reminds this new generation of their covenant with God and the commands God has given – including this Sabbath command. The God who freed slaves intends they stay free and commands a day of rest for all.

Psalmody: Psalm 81:1-10
“It is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.”
– The community is called to worship and reminded of God’s deliverance and commands.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:5-12
“We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” – Paul writes to the conflicted congregation in Corinth reminding them that his ministry – and the struggles he has endured – have been for their sake, that life in Christ may be made known to them

Gospel: Mark 2:23-3:6
“Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent.”
– Conflict erupts with the Pharisees over Jesus apparent violation of the Sabbath command.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hitda-Codex-Healing_of_a_man_with_a_withered_hand.jpg See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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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

Remember not the former things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

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

Forward into life

File:Crepuscular ray sunset from telstra tower edit.jpgWatching for the Morning of April 15, 2018

Year B

The Third Sunday of Easter

We have a resurrection appearance from Luke at the center of our readings this Sunday, and the elements are familiar: the sudden appearance, the fear, the word of peace, the revealing of the hands and feet. And eating. The risen Jesus eats. So much for imagining the life to come as if we were to be spirit beings rather than embodied ones.

There is much to think about in the fact that the risen Christ bears on his hands and feet the scars of his earthly life. The scars identify him, but the do not define him. He is the one who suffered this inhuman brutality – but he is not a victim. He is a life bringer. The life bringer.

This risen Jesus, this bringer of life, this bearer of heaven’s gifts, this source of healing and grace, lives. And he continues to be present to the world through his followers. They dispense the gifts that Christ dispensed. Peter and John are entering the temple when confronted by a lame man begging. They don’t have silver and gold to give; they have healing and life.

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.” Writes the author of 1 John. We are children of God now. What we will be in that day when the new creation dawns in full we cannot comprehend, but we are God’s children now. And as God’s children, we live God’s love.

The psalmist will pray for God to answer his plight – and immediately turn to rebuke those who “love vain words, and seek after lies.” He is able to “lie down and sleep in peace” because he knows God is the life-bringer. God is the faithful God who blesses the world with abundance and calls us forward into life.

The Prayer for April 15, 2018

Gracious Heavenly Father,
as the risen Lord Jesus opened the minds of his disciples
to understand the scriptures,
open our hearts and minds
that, hearing your voice,
we might walk with you in newness of 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 April 15, 2018

First Reading: Acts 3:1-21 (appointed 12-19)
“You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” – By the name of Jesus, Peter and John heal a lame beggar at the temple and then witness to the crowd that God has raised Jesus from the dead and appointed him as Israel’s messiah, calling them to turn and show allegiance to God’s work of restoring the world in Jesus.

Psalmody: Psalm 4
“I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.” – A individual petition for help from God. The author declares his confidence in God’s help and warns his opponents to choose God’s path.

Second Reading: 1 John 1:1-3 (appointed: 1 John 3:1-7)
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”
– The author affirms that we are already members of God’s household, and though we do not understand the nature of resurrected life, we know that we will be “like him.” Since we are God’s children now, destined to be “like him”, we should live faithfully now.

Gospel: Luke 24:36-53 (appointed 36b-48)
“While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” – Jesus appears to his followers on Easter Evening, opens their minds to understand the scripture, and commissions them as witnesses of what God has done and is doing in and through Christ.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Crepuscular_ray_sunset_from_telstra_tower_edit.jpg fir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.au [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

If we will look

File:Staff at Sunset.jpgWatching for the Morning of March 11, 2018

Year B

The Fourth Sunday of Lent

Bitter, poisonous talk leads to venomous serpents in the first reading on Sunday. Israel is in the wilderness, having failed to trust God to give them the land of Canaan (when the spies came back saying giants inhabited the land and the people lost confidence in God’s ability to fulfill God’s promise). Now they are marching back they way they’ve come toward Egypt in order to travel up the inland road. They have been condemned to wander the wilderness for forty years. Bitterness breaks out, and the consequence of their venomous talk is venomous snakes. But God provides a way to be healed – by turning their eyes to a bronze image of a serpent impaled(?) on a pole. It will become an image of Christ impaled on the cross, and the promise that in looking to him we will be healed.

We are learning something of the consequences of venomous talk in our country. Bitter unrest abounds. Hateful speech. Unfriendly news is called “fake.” Lies abound. Facts are denied, ignored and invented. Goodness and life seem far away. Where is the sign from God to which we may turn our hearts and find healing?

The psalmist will sing of God’s deliverance: “Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction.” “They cried to the LORD in their trouble,” and God “sent out his word and healed them.”

The author of Ephesians will say we were dead through the trespasses and sins,” living “in the passions of our flesh.” “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”

And then we will hear Jesus speaking to Nicodemus that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Those who look to the crucified one, who put their trust in and show fidelity to Christ Jesus, will possess even now the life of the age to come.

There is healing for us. If we will turn and look. If we will put our trust not in power and might, but in sacrificial love. It is there to see on the cross. If we will look.

This Sunday we continue our Lenten series on Baptism. “Through the Waters” offers an introduction to the Lenten theme. Daily Bible verses and reflections are posted at Holy Seasons as well as the sermons so far in the series.

The Prayer for March 11, 2018

Almighty God, Holy and Merciful,
source of all healing and life,
in love you sent your Son into the world,
not to condemn the world, but to save it.
Draw us to the light of your Son, Jesus,
that we may ever be found in you;
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 March 11, 2018

First Reading: Numbers 21:4-9
“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’” – Having failed to trust God in God’s first attempt to lead them into the land of Canaan, the Israelites must turn back towards the Red Sea to come to the land by another way. Their words become poisonous as they turn against God and against Moses. Met by poisonous snakes, they cry out to God and God answers – and in trusting God’s word (to look upon the bronze serpent) they are saved.

Psalmody: Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
“Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction… Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress.” – A psalm of praise for God’s faithfulness to his covenant, shown in his acts of deliverance.

Second Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10
“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”
– By God’s Grace we have been brought from death into life.

Gospel John 3:7-21 (appointed, verses 14-21)
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” – Jesus speaks with Nicodemus about being born “from above” and testifies that he alone has come from above (the heavens, the realm of God) and returns there. Just as seeing the bronze serpent “lifted up” brought healing and life to the Israelites in the wilderness, looking to Jesus “lifted up” grants the life of the age to come.

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

Ash Wednesday

Watching for Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Tomorrow we begin our long journey to Jerusalem where Jesus will wash feet, break bread, pray in Gethsemane, get kissed by Judas and abandoned by his followers, be abused by the thugs who snatched him in the night and tortured by Roman Soldiers in the full light of day. And he will not fight back. He will raise no army. He will lift no sword. He will call for no chariots of fire. There will be no joining of earthly and heavenly armies to slay the imperial troops of Rome. There will be hammer and nails and a tomb with its entrance barred by a stone.

And in the darkness of that final night will shine the light of a divine mercy that envelops the whole world in grace. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian observance of Lent, a forty day period of fasting, sharing and serving, a time of spiritual renewal that will bring us to that day when the women find the tomb empty and see a vision of angels declare that God has raised Jesus from the dead.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. And our evening begins with the burning of the palm fronds from Palm Sunday last year and the ancient practice of anointing ourselves with ashes.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – it is partly about remembering our mortality. More profoundly it remembers that death came when humanity turned away from God. And so it is a day of repentance, of turning back to God. It begins a period of forty days of intentional turning towards God, an intentional deepening of our spiritual lives, an intentional deepening of compassion, faith, hope, and joy.

Our signs of repentance are not merely personal. We ask God’s forgiveness on behalf of the whole human race. And there is much to confess. The deceit and destruction loose in our world, the greed and over-consumption, the violence, the warring. There is much to confess. And we will stand with the victims of all our evil. With those ashes we stand with the abused and forgotten, the hungry and homeless, the refugees unwanted, the fearful and grieving. We stand with them all, daring to name our human brokenness, knowing that Jesus will share that brokenness and bear the scars in his hands and feet.

We dare to name it all, because God is mercy. Because God is redemption. Because God is new life. Because God is new creation. Because God is eager for us to turn away from our destructive paths into the path of life.

So with ashes on our foreheads we will renew the journey that leads to the empty tomb, the gathered table, and the feast to come.

The Prayer for Ash Wednesday

Almighty God, Holy and Immortal,
who knows the secrets of every heart
and brings all things to the light of your grace.
Root us ever in your promised mercy
that, freed from every sin and shame,
we may walk the paths of your truth and love.

The Texts for Ash Wednesday

First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-12 (appointed: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17)
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” –
After the return from exile in Babylon, life was hard and Jerusalem and its temple continued to lie in ruins. The people complained that God did not respond to their prayers. The prophet challenges the meaning of such prayers when the people fail to embody the life of justice and mercy to which God called them.

Psalmody: Psalm 103:8-14
“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.” – In our parish, we use the appointed Psalm 51 (the famous cry of repentance by David after he has been confronted by the prophet Nathan over the murder of Uriah and the taking of Bathsheba ) in the confession at the beginning of our liturgy. When we come to the time for the psalm we hear the poet speak of the tender love and faithfulness of God who has “removed our sins from us” “as far as the east is from the west.”

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:1 (appointed: 5:20b-6:10)
“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
– Paul calls his troubled congregation to live within the reconciling work of God in Christ.

Gospel Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” – Jesus declares at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount that, in order to enter into God’s dawning reign, our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Now, having spoken about the meaning of the commandments (in contrast to the way they are taught by the scribes) Jesus turns to the acts of piety for which the Pharisees were known. Our prayer, fasting and charity must be done not for public acclaim but to please God.

Named and known

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Friday

Psalm 147

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

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

But what did the ancients see?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raised for the world

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Watching for the Morning of February 4, 2018

Year B

The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

There are echoes in our Gospel reading for Sunday that are not fully apparent in English. Our translation says that Peter’s mother-in-law was in bed and Jesus lifted her up, but the Greek word will be used for the resurrection. The word order has been changed in the English as well – the act of raising her stands at the head of the sentence. The word that the fever left her – departed from her – is the word used for forgiveness. And the statement that “she began to serve them” uses that important Greek word that is the basis of the English word deacon. It is the word we find in Mark 10 when Jesus describes the character of Christian life:

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Jesus who teaches with authority – an authority confirmed by his command of evil spirits – raises us from death into life as servants to the world.

We need to let that sentence linger in the air for a moment: Jesus who teaches with authority – an authority confirmed by his command of evil spirits – raises us from death into life as servants to the world.

And he himself is such a servant. When all come to the door of Peter’s home they are healed. And, in the morning, when the disciples want Jesus to come back to Capernaum, he declares he must go on to other towns and cities.

Sunday will summon us to hear the magnificent words of the prophet Isaiah declaring “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.” And that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles.” They shall be raised up – we would understand in light of Jesus – raised up for service.

And our psalm will have us sing of our God who “heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.” And Paul will speak to us of his service to bear the message of Christ to all saying, “though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” It is not a manipulative missionary strategy; it is a life freely given to bear the grace of Christ to all.

This Jesus who teaches with authority – an authority confirmed by his command of evil spirits – raises us from death into life as servants to the world.

The Prayer for February 4, 2018

Almighty God, healer of all our sorrows,
grant that we might not seek to possess you for ourselves,
but joyfully bear your word and grace to all people;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for February 4, 2018

First Reading: Isaiah 40:21-31
“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” – The prophet addresses the exiles with a promise that the God who laid the foundations of the earth has not forgotten this people but will restore them:

Psalmody: Psalm 147:1-11 (appointed 1-11, 20c)
“Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises to our God.”
– A psalm of praise proclaiming God’s power and grace as revealed in God’s work of creation and in his mercy to Israel.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
“I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” – In the middle of Paul’s response to the question whether believers can partake of meat that has been offered in sacrifice to other gods – a response that begins with the necessity of not acting in a way that derails another person’s faith – Paul offers himself as an example of serving others in love.

Gospel: Mark 1:29-39
“Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
– Having summoned Simon, Andrew, James and John, and astounded the crowds in Capernaum with his teaching and authority over the unclean spirits, Jesus dispenses the gifts of God, healing Peter’s mother-in-law and many others in the community. The next morning he announces that they must take this message and ministry to all the towns and villages in Israel.

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Image: Healing Peter’s Mother-in-law, from a 13th century manuscript from the Athos monasteries, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAthos-Evangeliar_Heilung_der_Schwiegermutter.jpg See page for author [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

Hell’s gate

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Watching for the Morning of August 27, 2017

Year A

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 16 / Lectionary 21

Sunday brings us to Peter’s confession when Jesus asks the question “But who do you say that I am?” It is the passage that contains the remarkable declaration: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

It is a play on the name ‘Peter’ (in Greek, ‘petros’) and ‘rock’ (in Greek, ‘petra’), but the words of Jesus have been swallowed up by arguments about the form of the church as an institution in the world rather than as a community of student/disciples comprising a beachhead of God’s reign in the world.

So we argue about precisely what is ‘the rock’ upon which Jesus builds. Is it Peter’s faith, his confession, his show of allegiance, his person or his office? But the punch line is not that Jesus is building a ‘church’ (the Greek word ‘ecclesia’ refers to an association of people) but that the gates of ‘hell’ (literally ‘hades’, the realm of the dead) cannot hold against this motley crew who hold the ‘keys of the kingdom’.

I have always heard that phrase about the gates of hell used in a way that suggests the church is the community under siege, that Satan is set to attack and destroy whatever is good. A wise, elderly black woman in a particularly poor section of Detroit warned us young, bright, optimistic (and white) pastors that the devil would try to destroy whatever goodness we tried to accomplish in the city. And we did eventually learn to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. But this is not what Jesus is saying. In this metaphor, it is the realm of the dead that is under attack, that is on the defensive, that is encircled by hostile armies determined to force it to give up its victims.

People worry about the fabled “War on Christmas” – and while churches are facing many obstacles in our modern world, Jesus is declaring that it is death that is under assault by those who have been given the “keys of the kingdom.” We hold in our hands the keys to the storehouses of heaven. We hold in our hands the authority to dispense the gifts of God. We have been given the privilege of serving as God’s agents. Grace and mercy and healing and life are ours to dispense. The realm of shadows cannot defend itself against the kingdom of light.

We live in a time of such dispiritedness. So many feel helpless against the evils of the world. Hate and violence seem to be on the rise. Ruthless greed seems ascendant. Ignorance flourishes. Love, mercy, compassion, generosity seem frail responses to the virulent infections to the human spirit. But here is Jesus, with a simple word to a ragtag band from Galilee of all places – they have the keys to set people free and nothing death might do can stop it.

Love wins.

And so this Sunday we will hear the prophet proclaim God’s message: “my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.” And we will join with the ancient community that sang: “ The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.” And Paul will remind us that “we, who are many, are one body in Christ,” and urge us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice” – not one that is burned upon the altar but one that lives in and from the fire of God’s love. Finally, we will hear the promise that death’s dark realm cannot defend itself against the followers of Jesus who have at their disposal the boundless generosity of God. It’s what gives this image of Peter such a crazy little smile.

The Prayer for August 27, 2017

Eternal Father,
creator and redeemer of the world,
who shatters every bar and chain that binds;
grant us faith to see and courage to confess Jesus as your beloved Son,
and to be faithful stewards of your grace and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 27, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 51:1-6
“A teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples.”
In the years after the destruction of Jerusalem, the prophet’s voice rises to declare that the relationship of God and this people is not at an end. From Abraham and Sarah God brought forth a great nation, so God’s purpose in Israel to bring God’s law to the nations shall not fail.

Psalmody: Psalm 138
“The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.” – a song of praise at God’s deliverance, extolling the certainty of God’s mercy.

Second Reading: Romans 12:1-8
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” – Paul’s begins the third portion of his letter, exhorting the community to faithfulness in their life together as a people gathered by the grace of God.

Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” – Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed of God, and the disciples receive the promise and commission to serve as God’s agents in the world.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASimon_Pierre_Rouen_jnl.jpg By Jean-noël Lafargue (Own work (Own photography)) [FAL], via Wikimedia Commons.