The gates of Hell (2)

File:Yuma Territorial Prison cell doors.jpg

Matthew 16:13-20

18“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

2 Samuel 12 contains the bittersweet truth: I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” It is David speaking after the death of his child, conceived in the illicit union with the wife of his noble warrior Uriah. When the prophet reveals the consequences of David’s abuse of power, foretelling the death of the child, David weeps and fasts in prayer, refusing to rise from his bed. His servants are afraid to tell him when the child finally dies – but he hears their whispers and intuits the cause. To their surprise, he then rises, washes, and eats. It’s not the behavior you expect in grief. But David had prayed for the child’s life, and now that life is over. There is no prayer yet to be offered: “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” There is no return from the grave.

It’s the finality of death that wounds so deeply.   Never again will I hear my daughter’s laughter or see her smile. Never again will I see daisies in her hair – only the ones I placed there before they closed the casket. And never again will I see the feisty twinkle in my grandmother’s eye or my grandfather with his handkerchief keeping his bald head warm. Never again will I hear my cousin Jim’s deep guttural guffaw and shining eyes. I will go to them, but they will not return to me.

It is a simple fact that the boat only goes one way across the river Styx. The “witch of Endor” could call up the spirit of Samuel, but it is only a shadow of the man whose eternal sleep has been disturbed. “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”

So it is easy to declare that shame and grief and guilt and all death’s weapons cannot hold us. But there is a deeper mystery, here. It is not only that the living will go free; the grave itself will surrender its prisoners. The Biblical metaphor is not that we will be rejoined with loved ones in heaven; it is that we will walk again on the earth. The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth. Whatever that might mean, it means that this life is not a shadow of what is to come. This is the life for which we were made and it shall not ultimately be taken away from us.

God is in the business of restoring his world. Healing it now; healing it forever. Delivering it from its bondage. Breaking down not just the walls of hate and fear, violence and neglect, but breaking down the gates that bar the dead from the fullness of life. The Biblical metaphor is that we shall feel again the grass beneath our feet. We shall drink again from clear mountain streams. We shall hear the surf pound upon the shore but not feel it waste our homes and cities. We shall feel the gentle rain and not fear floods. We shall hear the rumble of lightning far away and not smell the ozone or fear its fires. We shall know the joy of a child’s hand in ours without having to fight the anxiety that wraps around our hearts. We shall know the tenderness of love with out the strain of our brokenness. We shall feast on Zion and no one shall make us afraid. The gates of hell cannot withstand the work of God to open the grave.

The church’s teaching about resurrection is the hardest for our rational minds to comprehend. We are as David. We know that “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” But before us is the promise that the gates that enclose the realm of the dead shall not withstand the Spirit of God. And before us is the witness of Mary and Peter, the twelve and the five hundred that the grave is empty. The crucified one lives.

We know the promise Jesus makes about the gates of hell means we are not bound by our sins; there is grace and deliverance for all. But it also means that God’s project in calling forth the world will not be sidetracked by the horrors spawned by our primal rebellion. A new creation awaits. A birth from above. A healing. A feast. An inexpressible and glorious joy.

And even now we taste this. The Spirit is given. The breath of Christ Jesus is upon us. The life of the age to come is ours to be lived now. The keys of the kingdom are in our hands. The iron gates shall not hold.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AYuma_Territorial_Prison_cell_doors.jpg Jerry Stratton / http://hoboes.com/Mimsy, via Wikimedia Commons

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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.

Walking on water

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Watching for the Morning of August 13, 2017

Year A

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 14 / Lectionary 19

We know it’s not possible to walk on water. At least for those of us in the modern western world, our perception of the nature of reality excludes that possibility. Tragically, we can therefore only see the story as nonsense or fairy tale (or, more charitably, as metaphor). But the ancients didn’t share our somewhat limited understanding of reality, and we will miss the power of this narrative if we focus on physics (or the suspension of physical laws). This is an account of a profound experience. Throughout the world and throughout history most people have understand visions and experiences such as this as decidedly real – more real than everyday life. We need to understand this possibility if the narrative is to work God’s work in us.

The followers of Jesus have an experience in the face of one of the sudden squalls that sweep powerfully across the lake. They inhabit a world in which such storms are the products of spiritual forces rather than material ones. These are forces and powers that are not subject to human control but reign over us. So they face a hostile wind, a malevolent spirit, a transcendent power threatening to drown them. Imperiled and fearful, they then see another spiritual reality: Jesus striding across the sea, untouched by this inimical power, treading it underfoot. But until they hear the voice of Jesus, they fear they see only some other spirit, a ghost.

Peter, recognizing that they see Jesus, asks to come to him. He trusts himself to Jesus’ authority over the powers that beset them. Stepping out of the boat, however, the wind grabs his attention and he loses confidence in Jesus’ mastery over the hostile forces at work in the world. He sinks, but the hand of Jesus takes hold of him. And now Jesus is with them in the boat upon a calm sea. The wind has yielded, and the disciples prostrate themselves declaring, “Truly you are the Son of God” – truly you are the anointed one who reigns at God’s right hand.

Like the account of Elijah at Mt. Sinai, this is an encounter with the truth of God. Above all the mighty forces threatening human life – above the storms of war, racism, hatred, fear, hunger, poverty, political instability, famine, rains and fires, sorrows and diseases and the troubles brought by shame and shamelessness – Jesus walks as Lord. And battered as we are by fear and doubt, he says to us, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

So Sunday we will hear God speak to Elijah in the stillness. The psalmist will sing about the God who speaks “peace to his people.” And the apostle Paul we will speak of this living message that calls us from the storms of life into the peace of God – all of us, across every boundary in human society, summoning us not by the words of a legal code, but the voice of the one who raised Jesus from the grave and leads the world out from bondage into freedom.

The Prayer for August 13, 2017

Gracious God,
in the storms of life you bid us come to you
and sustain us by your word.
Grant us confidence in your command,
and clarity in discerning your voice;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 13, 2017

First Reading: 1 Kings 19:9-18
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” – Threatened with death by Queen Jezebel for his attack on the cult of Baal, the prophet has fled to Sinai. There God encounters him in the silence and commissions him to the next stage of his prophetic ministry.

Psalmody: Psalm 85:8-13
“Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people.” – The poet expresses his confidence in God’s faithfulness and goodness.

Second Reading: Romans 10:8-15 (appointed: 10:5-15)
“There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.
For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” – It is through fidelity and trust in God’s mercy (manifest in Christ), called forth by the proclaimed message rather than by observance of the law, that all are saved.

Gospel: Matthew 14: 22-33
“Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’” – Following the wondrous provision of bread in the wilderness, Jesus comes to his disciples upon the sea – saving Peter when he begins to sink.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABril_Jesus_walking_on_the_Sea_of_Galilee.JPG Paul Brill [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The feuding farmers

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Watching for the Morning of July 23, 2017

Year A

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 11 / Lectionary 16

We call it the parable of the wheat and the tares, but it should perhaps be called the parable of the feuding farmers. A householder sows good seed. He is raising wheat, which means he has good land, not the poorer land hospitable only to barley. It is a high quality product.

Feuding is the reality of life in ancient honor-shame societies. “Enemies” are inherited adversaries, families contending for status in their communities. The back and forth between feuding families provides the substance of village entertainment. In this man’s good field with good seed, his adversary has sown a weed whose telltale signs don’t appear until the wheat begins to put forth its berries. When it does, the farmer looks the fool, as though he were conned into purchasing poor seed – or was unable to see that the seed he had preserved from the previous year was laced with weeds.

He is a laughingstock. Honor is diminished. And the social pattern calls for revenge. But whereas any other might weed his field, this man lets the thatch grow. Though the village snickers, in the end he gathers not only a fine harvest of wheat, but fuel for his fires. The tables are turned; it is the enemy who now looks the fool.

It is with the kingdom as it is with feuding farmers. Despite the hostility of an enemy, a rich harvest comes.

Patient endurance and the certainty of God’s promised reign weave through our readings this Sunday. Through the prophet, God assures a troubled people that they shall see renewal: “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants…Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses!”  The psalmist trusts in God’s faithfulness as he cries for help against those who threaten his life. Paul speaks of the creation waiting “with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” saying, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”  And then we hear of the feuding farmers and the wisdom of the one who waits knowing that the good seed shall certainly bear forth a great and abundant harvest.

The Prayer for July 23, 2017

Gracious and eternal God,
whose will it is to draw all things into your grace and life:
Grant us confidence in your promise
and joy in your Spirit
that we may be faithful to what seems right,
and suffer with patience what seems evil,
until that day when your goodness reigns over all;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 23, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 44:1-8 (appointed 44:6-8)
“You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one”
– To a people in exile in Babylon, the legacy of the nation’s folly and a fifty-year-old war that left their homeland in rubble, the prophet speaks of God’s faithfulness and the certainty of God’s promised future.

Psalmody: Psalm 86:11-17
“O God, the insolent rise up against me” –
the poet recalls God’s words of promise and seeks God’s help in trouble.

Second Reading: Romans 8:12-25
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us”
– Paul speaks of the Spirit bearing witness that we are children of God and inheritors of the promise.

Gospel: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field”
– with the parable commonly referred to as the wheat and the tares, Jesus bear witness to the wisdom of patient endurance and confidence in the dawning of God’s reign.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAEL_Saemann_und_Teufel_-_zweite_Fassung.jpg Albin Egger-Lienz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The gateways of the morning

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Wednesday

Psalm 65:5, 8-13

8 You make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.

We forget, sometimes, that the bulk of scripture is poetry. It is part of why we get in trouble if we read the scriptures too literally. When we point to the transcendent, we are inevitably in the realm of metaphor. And it is impossible to speak about things that truly matter without metaphor and simile. The truth of life can’t be told by an equation. My love isn’t actually “a red, red rose.” When we speak of God’s throne, or God’s right hand, or say that “the LORD is my rock” or “my shepherd” – they are all metaphors. We are creatures who think in images.

And the best images are the ones that make us see in new ways.

File:Gate in the evening - May 2012 - panoramio.jpg8 You make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.

The creation stands in awe. The furthest bounds of the East and West glory in the goodness of God. Where the first light of dawn breaks upon the world to the place where the last rays of the sun dip below the horizon, all the earth exults. It exults in the awesome deeds, the deliverance wrought by God: slaves set free, the homeless given a home, the hungry provided with land, the persecuted delivered, the lost gathered, the forsaken welcomed.

8 Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs.

Signs. Deeds and words that point to the deeper truth. The deliverance from Egypt points to a God who frees the bound. The path through the Red Sea is a sign pointing to the God who is the source and goal of every journey to freedom. The water in the wilderness, the manna from heaven – the daily rising and setting of the sun – point to the persistent, determined, faithful love of God.

You are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.

The farthest seas. Every place. Even in my place. In my home.   In my heart. Praise for God’s deliverance. Hope. Hope based on past actions. Hope based on the signs that point to the heart of God.

9 You visit the earth and water it.

At the end of the dry season, at the end of the long summer months without a wisp of cloud when the future stands in doubt, when the haunting question lingers: “Will there be rain? Will there be water for the cisterns and refreshment for the cattle? Will there be a sowing and harvesting to come? Will there be bread?

File:Overflowing Stream after prolonged rain - geograph.org.uk - 1481335.jpgYes.

“You visit the earth and water it.”

God’s saving grace comes. God’s redemption. God’s gift of a future. God’s abundant mercy. New wine and oil. New grain. New sowing and harvesting. New banquet and song. New sharing and compassion. New joy.

8 You make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.

The creation stands in awe. The whole human community is as a city, and at the eastern gate the song of joy arises to the sun and rain and care of God. And across the vast expanse of humanity to that western gate where the sun sets, there is joy.

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Images:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Canada_Geese_and_morning_fog.jpg By Brocken Inaglory (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gate_in_the_evening_-_May_2012_-_panoramio.jpg Forester2009 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Overflowing_Stream_after_prolonged_rain_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1481335.jpg John Darch [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Takhte_Jamshid.jpg By Omid Izanloo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A wondrous harvest

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Watching for the Morning of July 16, 2017

Year A

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 10 / Lectionary 15

An unstoppable harvest. An unstoppable word. A song of praise at God’s bounty. And the wondrous declaration that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Grace abounds this Sunday. It abounds every Sunday. From the opening words of the confession and absolution to the final words, “Go in peace,” grace abounds every Sunday. But the texts this week are rich beyond measure. “There is no condemnation,” writes Paul. Through the prophet, God declares: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven” without failing to work their work of giving life to the world, “so shall my word be.” Forgiveness will work its work. God “will abundantly pardon,” and you “shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace.” The psalmist sings of God’s bounty: “the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.” “Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs.”

And then we hear the words of Jesus promise an incomprehensible harvest. The reign of God will come. Though so much seed seems to be wasted – the birds, the weeds, the rocky soil – kindnesses abused, charities neglected, healings taken for granted – yet the harvest will be a hundredfold. Even the thinnest soil will yield many times what could ever be imagined. Grace is pouring out on the world in abundance.

We need to be reminded of this in those times when all we seem to see are the weeds of riches choking the world and evil snatching away the good. When the news seems perennially despairing, when violence and lies abound, when kindness and mercy seem scarce, when anxiety seeps in like unwanted moisture through the basement walls, making the air musty and damp, we need to be reminded that God’s word does not fail. God’s kingdom comes. Mercy abounds. And wherever it is sown, it will reap a wondrous harvest.

The Prayer for July 16, 2017

Gracious God,
you lavish your grace and life upon a world
where it is often trampled underfoot,
yet where your Word takes root the harvest overflows.
Let your Word take root in our lives
and bear fruit abundantly in love for you and our neighbor;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 16, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 55:6-13
“You shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace.” – Like the rain that waters the earth to bring forth its bounty, God’s promise of forgiveness and return to the land shall not fail to achieve its purpose.

Psalmody: Psalm 65:5, 8-13
“You visit the earth and water it.” – A hymn of praise to God who provides abundantly for the world.

Second Reading: Romans 8:1-11
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
– God creates a faithful people not through the commands of the law, but through the working of his Spirit.

Gospel: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
“Listen! A sower went out to sow.” – Jesus provides a parable declaring that it is with the reign of God as it is with a harvest: though the seed grain is gobbled up by birds and strangled amidst weeds, the fruitful harvest comes. Only this harvest is wondrous beyond imagining!

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APikiWiki_Israel_38203_Swimming_in_Wheat_Pool.jpg Aran Yardeni Pikiwiki Israel [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“I kept that promise.”

File:Verso l'infinito - Convento Frati Cappuccini Monterosso al Mare - Cinque Terre.jpgSunday

It’s hard to describe what happened to me at the altar during the prayers of the church, yesterday. Typical Lutheran congregations don’t have a shared vocabulary for discussing personal spiritual experiences. Other communities of which I have been a part find it easier to say that God spoke to them. They know we are not talking about any kind of auditory experience, but a kind of intuition, a sense of some truth breaking into our consciousness.  A truth that comes from somewhere beyond us. Or deep within us.  Though it does seem almost audible at times.

It typically comes with the force of deep conviction. It carries a certainty, though we seldom think of it as if it were absolute. If the intuition doesn’t work out, we are willing to let it go. We misheard. Or it’s something whose truth is waiting its time.

Anyway, I had one of those moments in worship Sunday morning.  It came to me as if a voice, saying “I kept that promise.”

The reference is to the story of the synagogue ruler’s daughter, where Jesus comes in answer to the father’s prayer for her healing only to be met by the wail of mourners. On the way, the little girl had died.

It is that story with the words “Talitha cumi”, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

I have read that text in worship many times since I laid my daughter’s body in the ground. The text from Mark comes around in the assigned lectionary every three years, as does the account in Matthew, and we have been through the cycle five times, now. It is always bittersweet to give voice to those words before the congregation.  I recognize the message of the text. I understand the grace of Jesus’ work. I also know the parents’ grief. There has always been a certain kind of hole in my heart that Jesus wasn’t there to say those words to Anna on the night her life was taken.

It’s been 16 years. And, for some reason, this morning I was finally ready to hear Jesus whisper to me: “I kept that promise.”

He had spoken those words. Beyond my hearing, in ways far more profound than I can understand, he kept the promise. He spoke to Anna saying, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

I know it sounds like pie in the sky, a pious fiction, a denial of death’s dark realty.  And anytime in the last 16 years it would have sounded that way to me, too. I have fought fiercely – sometimes unfortunately fiercely – to be truthful about the reality of death. I resist all the pious platitudes about God’s plan and loved one’s in heaven. Death is death. It rips from our arms those we love. It rends the human community. It is an invader in God’s good creation. And even in those times when it comes as a relief after long suffering, it is still death, still a thief, a bandit, a terrorist, stealing life from the world – whether sucking it away slowly and snatching it away all at once.

The wonder of Easter is not that it minimizes death’s power. The wonder of Easter is that it proclaims that death is a pretender. It does not own our lives. It could not silence Jesus. It could not stop God’s redeeming work. There is a making whole of this rent world that awaits us. Somehow. Beyond our understanding. But real enough for us to trust. Real enough for us to live.

Why, today, I don’t know. It wasn’t our assigned reading. The text hasn’t been on my mind. I wasn’t experiencing a moment of grief – though the grief of Anna’s death is never all that far away. It wasn’t particularly related to the prayers being offered or the sermon I had just preached. But there it was. And today, for whatever reason, I was ready to hear: God was faithful. He spoke the words. He kept the promise.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Verso_l%27infinito_-_Convento_Frati_Cappuccini_Monterosso_al_Mare_-_Cinque_Terre.jpg By GIANFRANCO NEGRI (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Prisoners of hope

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Saturday

Zechariah 9:9-12

12Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.

We can take apart the grammar and poetry of this sentence. We can discuss the cultural context from which these words derive their meaning. But I want first to simply relish them. I love the unexpectedness of the phrase “prisoners of hope.”

Jesus was a master of the unexpected. The parables, so familiar to us now, are masterful at the sudden twist, the startling comparison, the shocking example. The prophets, too, are brilliant at this: Jeremiah’s underwear. Walking around the temple court wearing a yoke. Ezekiel telling a lurid tale of sexual betrayal. The scriptures are full of the shocking. And they need to be. We are such complacent, rutted people. It is not easy to make us see ourselves differently. Not easy to make us see others differently. Not easy to make us see God differently. And how hard it is to make us behave any differently!

The scriptures need to catch us up side the head. There’s no other way to get through to us.

So how many of us are prisoners of hope? How many of us are bond-servants of a wondrous promise? How many of us are truly captives to the vision of a world made whole as if it were a conquering hero returning from the battlefield with prisoner/slaves in tow?

How many of us wake up each morning and run to serve the promise of a world where peace reigns? We go to bed in despair. We wake up in fear. Hurry to work. Hurry to school. Hurry to coffee and traffic. The alarm clock makes us groan. Dinner is a chore farmed out to whatever I can pick up on the way home. We eat on the run……or we eat alone. Something frozen. Maybe cereal from a box after too much wine. There is no family at the table, no prayer of blessing, no song of joy.

We are, most of us, I suspect, captives to the pressures of daily life rather than prisoners of hope.

And the people of Judea were captives to the daily struggle and shame of a once glorious city still littered with rubble and now under Persian rule.

So the prophet points to the horizon and promises a king – a king no one believes is coming. But he will come. Hidden in a Galilean peasant. Speaking words of grace and challenge. Touching the world with healing and freeing it from evil. Enduring the shame and degradation of the cross, but leaving behind an empty tomb and a hundred and twenty prisoners of hope. They will become millions.

And shall we break off the shackles of hope for the shackles of mammon? Will we break off the ties of mercy, compassion and kindness for the sour belief that these shall not prevail? Shall we surrender to the thump of weapons as our true hope? Is it only death and taxes that are certain, not grace and life? Shall we forfeit joy?

No. I will come to the table that promises a world gathered to speak the blessing. I will sing the song, and feast the feast. And I will willingly extend my hands to the thongs of hope.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AName-Keftiu-at-Abydos-Ramses-Temple.jpg By HoremWeb (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Violence

File:Bouguereau-The First Mourning-1888.jpg

Last Sunday took us to the fourth in our Sunday preaching series on the sweep of the Biblical narrative and how it points to the truth of sacrificial love embodied in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The God who called a good and beautiful world into being by his word (week 1: Creation), who breathed into the first humans his breath/spirit and set them in a garden (week 2: Garden), endured their broken relationship and continued to protect and care for them (week 3: Fall). Now God speaks with Cain about the murderous jealousies of the human heart, urging humanity to choose reconciliation over revenge.

Below are the pictures and text from the booklet we handed out following worship last Sunday. This coming Sunday, Pentecost, takes us to the Holy Spirit that is our first breath and ultimate life.

Image: William Adolphe Bouguereau, The First Mourning, 1888
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bouguereau-The_First_Mourning-1888.jpg  William-Adolphe Bouguereau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Genesis 4


Now Abel was a keeper of sheep,
and Cain a tiller of the ground.


File:Wechselburg Lettner detail 05.jpg

File:Wechselburg Lettner detail 04.jpg

One of the oldest divisions in human society is between ranchers and farmers, those who tend flocks and those who till the ground. The mere mention of this brings a haunting note to the opening of the narrative.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wechselburg_Lettner_detail_04.jpg https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wechselburg_Lettner_detail_05.jpg Photo by: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


The LORD had regard for Abel and his offering,
but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.


Each offers the first fruits of their labor to God. The story says nothing about the qualities of the two brothers. There is no discerning of the heart, no judging of moral worthiness. God picked the aroma of the roasting lamb over the roasting grain. God smiled on Abel’s gift, but on Cain’s gift he did not smile. It does not say that the gift was defective. It does not say that the gift was rejected. It only says that God favored Abel’s gift.

We get ensnared in the symbolism of things. That God liked Abel’s offering more than Cain’s becomes in our minds –and apparently in Cain’s mind – that God liked Abel more than Cain. Children think they can read this in the faces of their parents. It’s a pretty universal sentiment that the parents favored one over the others. It often leads to petty vindictiveness, sabotage, striving for attention. But we have no reason to say that God loved Abel more. Maybe Abel taunted his brother. Maybe he claimed that God liked him more. The text tells us none of this because the emphasis is not on Cain or Abel but on God’s choice and how Cain will respond.

All the conversation in this story occurs between God and Cain. This is a story about these two, God and Cain, not Cain and Abel. It is not a story about a good man and an evil one; it is a story about choices, and sin, and redemption.


“Why are you angry,
and why has your countenance fallen?

If you do well, will you not be accepted?”


There are so many resentments born out of the randomness of life’s favors. “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise,” observes the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, “time and chance happen to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). There are inequalities to life. Injustices. Randomness. One prospers another fails. One is born to privilege another to poverty. And what shall we do with life’s vicissitudes. Resentment, bitterness, revenge is one choice. It is not the only choice.

If you do well, will you not be accepted? If you do what is right. If you do goodness. God’s favor roots in the choices we make not the sacrifices we offer, not the liturgies we sing, not the customs we follow. If you do right towards your neighbor, if you show justice and faithfulness, if you care for the sick and comfort the afflicted, will you not be honored?


“Sin is lurking at the door;
its desire is for you, but you must master it.”


File:Serengeti Loewin2.jpg

The death of Abel is not inevitable. Neither are any of the other woes we inflict upon one another. The angry word. The hateful speech. The stolen chances. The cheats and deceits. The crimes of passion and despair. The decisions of war. They are choices. The dragon crouches like a tiger waiting to pounce. But we must master it.

A Lioness (Panthera leo) in Serengeti
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Serengeti_Loewin2.jpg By Ikiwaner (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Cain said to his brother Abel,
“Let us go out to the field.”


The field is Cain’s space. He is a man of the soil. He knows dirt. He knows what it will hide. What he does not know is that blood soaked ground will turn against him. The words of God are ignored in his anger, resentment, envy. Perhaps it is even God with whom he is angry. God chose his brother. God favored his offering. He cannot bear the presence of the favored one. And now there is violence.

File:Gera Abel.jpg

File:Bernau KainundAbel3.JPG

There is a weight on Cain, a burden, a crushing burden of resentment. Cain is the firstborn. To Cain belongs the privilege. But God has chosen the second born, the unlikely.

God has a troubling habit of choosing without regard for the rules. He chooses the younger Jacob over the elder Esau. He chooses Abraham and promises blessing for no apparent reason. Moses was not the only child cast into the Nile, but he is the boy who lived. God takes up the cause of the foreigner, the outsider. Elijah provides for a widow of Zarephath, not Israel. Jesus invites himself to banquet at the home of Zacchaeus the tax-gatherer. He rescues the woman caught in adultery and treats the shunned Samaritan woman as a woman of his own house. And God has favored Abel’s gift.

Sculpture Abel by Karl-Heinz Appelt; Gera, Germany, 1983
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gera_Abel.jpg By Steffen Löwe (Self-photographed) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Bronze sculpture Cain and Abel , Bernau bei Berlin, sculptor: Michael Klein, 1994
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bernau_KainundAbel3.JPG By Catatine (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.


Then the LORD said to Cain,
“Where is your brother Abel?”


God keeps asking this question, “Where?” He asks our first parents “Where are you?” when they have eaten the fruit and are hiding in the bushes. And now he asks Cain, “Where is your brother?”

These are the two most fundamental questions God asks of the human race: “Where are we?” and “Where is our brother? Where is our sister?” If we cannot speak the truth of ourselves we will not be able to care for others. They will be “others” rather than brothers. They will not be part of us. Women will be trophies and toys not sisters. Children will be seen and not heard. The poor will be “the poor” rather than people whose names and stories we know and whose lives matter. Then it will be “every man for himself,” rather than strength in numbers.

And if we cannot speak the truth concerning our neighbor, we will not know the truth of ourselves. We were made for community, but community is broken.


He said, “I do not know;
am I my brother’s keeper?”


Yes. It is what brother means. You are created to belong. You are bound together. You are made to care and be cared for.


“Listen;
your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”


God’s statement to Cain should be punctuated with a colon not a semi-colon. The cry of his brother’s blood is what Cain is summoned to hear, the consequences of his deed what he must see.   The sufferings of the abandoned, the sorrows of the neglected, the cries of the wounded: Listen!


“When you till the ground,
it will no longer yield to you its strength.”


File:Agropyron repens on field after winter ploughing.JPG

The strength of Cain over his brother has planted blood into the ground. Now the strength of the ground will profit him not. There are no riches to be harvested from this field; the dirt itself resists him. There are no riches to be gained from the destruction of Aleppo. There is no strength to be gained from weapons of mass destruction. There is no life to be gathered from ground that is ravaged or the community plundered.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Agropyron_repens_on_field_after_winter_ploughing.JPG By Agronom (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


“My punishment is greater than I can bear!”


File:Paris Tuileries Garden Facepalm statue.jpg

“Punishment is not quite the right word. These are consequences, the harvest of violence: alienation, exile, shame, isolation, a lost ground, a lost life.

Caïn venant de tuer son frère Abel, by Henry Vidal in Tuileries Garden in Paris, France
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paris_Tuileries_Garden_Facepalm_statue.jpg    By Alex E. Proimos (http://www.flickr.com/photos/proimos/4199675334/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


“I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”


File:Esprit nomade.JPG

The ground was Cain’s life. Now he is cutoff from it. And he is cutoff from the face of God. He is rootless. He is without community. He is vulnerable in a world made dangerous.

Tuareg on the dune of Timerzouga, place named Tadrart in the town of Djanet, wilaya of Ilizi 20km from the Algerian-Libyan border (Cultural Park of Tassili).
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Esprit_nomade.JPG By Hamdanmourad (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


The LORD put a mark on Cain,
so that no one who came upon him would kill him.


It is not a mark of shame; it is a mark of protection. He wears no scarlet M for murder; he wears a reminder that even Cain the killer bears the image of God. God will be his family to protect him. God will be his redeemer to save him. God will be his advocate to avenge him.

So why do we dance at the death of the murderers? Why do we boast of the death of Bin Laden? Ought we not weep that those for whom God weeps have perished so far from God’s presence?

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ashenda_Girl,_Tigray,_Ethiopia_(15363919671).jpg By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia (Ashenda Girl, Tigray, Ethiopia) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons. [cropped]


Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD,
and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.


File:Syrian Desert (5079180729).jpg

East of Eden. Away from the garden of God. Away from the rich and abundant soil, the life-giving rains, the well watered garden. Away from the sacred forest. Away from the tree of life. Away from the community of family. Away from the fellowship of the familiar. Away from the presence of the Lord.

And there he builds a city. Cain builds the first city: a gathering of the scattered, a place not of soil or pasture but iron and fire. A place of creativity and life but also destruction and death, human inventiveness for good and for evil.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Syrian_Desert_(5079180729).jpg By yeowatzup from Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany (Syrian Desert) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Zillah bore Tubal-cain,
who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools.


File:Migrant worker of china.jpg

In the city tools are made. Smithing. Bronze. Iron. Tools to plow the ground and weapons to wound.

File:Apa Schwerter.jpg

File:J2500x1661-05540.jpg

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Migrant_worker_of_china.jpg   By 枫彩 (http://cc.nphoto.net/view/2008/11733.shtml) [CC BY 2.5 cn (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/cn/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Bronze Age swords
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Apa_Schwerter.jpg By Dbachmann
M1A2 on the streets of Baghdad.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:J2500x1661-05540.jpg  By Lukethornberry (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.


The world’s first poetry is a celebration of violence, a trumpeting of strength and power, a vaunting of the self even over God, a fearless disregard of God’s command not to kill.


“If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”


File:Fear of Terrorism.jpg

Violence multiplies. Fear and intimidation become part of the social fabric. Overwhelming revenge becomes the rule. “Hit me and I’ll hit you harder.” It’s not yet Mutually Assured Destruction, but that is the path. At least until Jesus dares to answer Peter’s question, “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” by saying “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

File:US Navy 090418-F-7923S-023 A Haitian woman waits her turn for treatment at the Killick medical clinic site during a Continuing Promise community medical service project.jpg

At some point we run out of words for the sorrows that we wreak on one another. The pictures could multiply of the bodies of children neglected in the streets, the triumphant march of military parades, the weeping mothers, the angry fathers, the disconsolate siblings, the shocked neighbors who never had a clue, the bombastic threats of politicians seeking to profit, and the lawyers running to claim a prize.

At some point we run out of words for the sorrows of the world where bones creak and diseases waste and drought devours. At some point we run out of words for the favelas and slums and the distorted bodies of the starving. At some point we run out of words for the raped and abused. At some point we run out of words.

We can understand if God should desire to wipe clean the face of the earth. It is the way the ancient cultures around Israel told the story. But our story tells us of a child: Seth. There is no great saving destiny appointed to Seth. He is just a child. Babbling, cooing, clinging, crying, sweet with the aroma of newness, abounding in curiosity, smiling, laughing, tasting everything with his mouth, studying faces, clinging to fingers, sucking feverishly at the breast, gazing into his mother’s eyes, tender, warm, connection, grasping for language, striving to crawl and then to walk. A child. New life. Image of God. Child of sorrow. Hope of tomorrow.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fear_of_Terrorism.jpg By Dolat khan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US_Navy_090418-F-7923S-023_A_Haitian_woman_waits_her_turn_for_treatment_at_the_Killick_medical_clinic_site_during_a_Continuing_Promise_community_medical_service_project.jpg By U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Benjamin Stratton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Adam knew his wife again,
and she bore a son and named him Seth,

for she said, “God has appointed for me another child.”


God is not done with us. God continues to give life. This is not a replacement for Abel or for Cain. But he is new life. He is grace.


To Seth also a son was born


And then grandchild. Joy. Continuity.


At that time people began to invoke the name of the Lord.


The LORD. The name that will be revealed to Abraham as the one who gives a future. The name that will be revealed to Moses as the one who delivers from bondage. God is not just creator; He is redeemer.

+     +     +

A reminder about the nature of the Biblical text: There are problems if you read the text literally. How can Abel offer a sacrifice of a lamb when humans have not yet received permission to kill? (This doesn’t happen until after the flood.) Why is Cain afraid of being killed when there are yet no other people? But the narrative is not history; it is commentary on human existence. And it is preaching. It bears to us the voice of God who asks these terrible, haunting questions: “Where is your brother?” Where is your sister? “What have you done?” What have you failed to do?

But this God of the haunting questions is also the God who does not abandon his troubled creation. God is faithful and continues to provide and protect and call us into the life and love for which we were created.

Biblical text: New Revised Standard Version
© Text by David K. Bonde, Los Altos Lutheran Church, 2017

Like Living Stones

File:Cathedral of Toledo (6933231488).jpg

Friday

This is a reposting of a reflection for this fifth Sunday of Easter from three years ago. It connects also with our preaching theme for this week on Genesis 2. The anniversary of my daughter’s birth is this week also. I have written about it here. I have also changed the second photo of the Church of Saint Sava. You will see why.

1 Peter 2:2-10

5Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

I love the passive tense in this verse: “let yourselves be built.” We are not given a great task of building a cathedral. God is the builder; we need only let it happen.

Tuesday would have been my daughter’s 33rd birthday. Words don’t come easily this week. Sentences start, but can’t find their ending. Thoughts flit by, but don’t linger, don’t focus. I can’t find those strong threads that weave themselves into coherent messages. I read a blog entitled “I had a boy,” from a woman who had lost a child, and all I could respond was, “I had a girl…”

Grief is a strange thing. Did C.G., our cat, remember all her kittens that were given away? Was there some ache in her soul? Some remembrance? Some emptiness? If she did, I saw no days of lethargy and tears.

We are beings meant to connect. Meant to connect with others. Meant to connect with that heart of existence we call God. And when those connections are sundered, we are like amputees whose minds still envision their missing limbs and are at a loss to find them gone.

Simon and Garfunkel sang, “I am a rock. I am an island.” But, in the words of John Donne, “No man is an island.” We are living stones, meant to be built together into a living temple.

After setting the first human into a garden in the creation story of Genesis 2, God says, “It is not good that this human should be alone.”   It’s not just about marriage and family, it is about friendship and community. It is about our humanity.

Those ties between us are so constantly ruptured, riven by thoughts, words and deeds. The hunger for connection is so primal, but the reality so difficult to achieve. This is the first portrait of sin: Adam and Eve hiding from each other and from God behind fig leaves.

It will not be long before the years Anna has been gone will surpass the years she was here. But the torn threads of the rent human fabric linger. To them comes only the promise that God is building a living temple…and the exhortation to let ourselves be joined, bit by bit, into that crowning achievement where God and humanity dwell together.

File:Bělehrad, Vračar, chrám svatého Sávy v noci II.jpg

Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACathedral_of_Toledo_(6933231488).jpg By Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium (Cathedral of Toledo) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AB%C4%9Blehrad%2C_Vra%C4%8Dar%2C_chr%C3%A1m_svat%C3%A9ho_S%C3%A1vy_v_noci_II.jpg  This image is a work by Aktron / Wikimedia Commons.