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.

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Fidelity and anticipation

File:Montreal - Plateau, day of snow - 200312.jpgWatching for the Morning of December 31, 2017

Year B

The Sunday in Christmas

Fidelity. The Sunday in Christmas shows us more of the faithful in Israel: Joseph and Mary fulfilling all that the law requires. Simeon and Anna waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise. But even now the texts begin to move towards Epiphany. “The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory,” says the prophet – and though the prophet is speaking of the restoration of Jerusalem, all the nations shall see God’s saving work. Righteousness and praise shall spring up as certainly as the seeds sown in the garden.

And so Simeon sings – sings of God’s dawning salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples…a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” And Anna praises God and testifies to this child “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Fidelity and anticipation. Something big is happening. Something dramatic is occurring. God is fulfilling his promises. The wise elders see. The longed for day is come. The lowly are hearing good news proclaimed.

Much of the Midwest is under a thick blanket of snow. It was reported that Erie, Pennsylvania, received over five feet. Spring seems like an unthinkable promise when you are shoveling through such depths. But Simeon and Anna have eyes to see. And they testify to us of God’s faithfulness. The season has turned. The days are growing longer. The light is come.

The Prayer for December 31, 2017

Gracious God,
by whose word we live
and whose promises all come to fulfillment:
we give you thanks for those faithful among your people
who, like Simeon and Anna, have eyes to see your dawning work among us.
Grant that, with them, we might see where your hand is working
and share in its joy.

The Texts for December 31, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3
“The Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” –
In the years after the return from exile, the prophet speaks to a discouraged and weary people of a vindication to come.

Second Reading: Galatians 4:4-7
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son.” – Paul recites the core message of what God has done in Christ for these Galatians, making them members of God’s household and heirs of God’s promise through the gift of the Spirit in Christ.

Gospel: Luke 2:21-40 (appointed: 22-40)
“When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.”
– The narrative of Jesus’ birth continues with Mary and Joseph’s faithful obedience and the recognition and reception of Jesus by Simeon and Anna, representatives of faithful Israel.

For the psalm on the Sunday in Christmas we sing a Christmas carol. The appointed Psalm is: Psalm 148 – “Praise the Lord from the heavens… Praise the Lord from the earth… He has raised up a horn for his people.”

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Montreal_-_Plateau,_day_of_snow_-_200312.jpg

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

A doorway to hope

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A message for the first Sunday in Advent, shared this morning at Los Altos Lutheran Church.  (The primary texts were Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13.24-37).

We talked about hope last week when Miriam remembered for me the words of Emily Dickenson’s poem, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” I have to admit that when I heard her recite the poem, it seemed more substantial and profound than I had expected. But the point we were making is that Biblical hope is not a wish or desire for things to get better; it is rather a confidence rooted in a promise.

So when the prophet this morning cries out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” he is not expressing a wish, he is praying for God to come and deliver the people. The prophet is living in a time when faith has grown cold. Life is hard. God seems far away. And, with God seeming distant, the people have grown callous and no longer bother to call upon God or follow God’s way. It is why the prophet prays for God to come with a new act of deliverance. It is why the prophet reminds God that this people are his people. God is the potter and the people are God’s clay. God needs to claim his people and come make something holy and good of them.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”

At the heart of the Advent season is God’s answer to this profoundly human and universal prayer. Advent is about God tearing open the barrier between earth and heaven and coming to reign – coming at the consummation of history, coming to us now in the joys and sorrows of our lives, and coming into the world in the child of Bethlehem.

The color for Advent is blue. The history of why it’s blue is less important than the fact that blue is a color of hope. It represents the darkness of the night giving way to the light of day. And this brings us to the other visual image of this season: the dawning of light into the world – in the full blaze of glory on that day when fear and darkness are forever banished, when the light of God comes to our lives in moments of fear and darkness, and in the incarnation when the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. As Advent moves towards Christmas, it moves towards the message in the Gospel of John that we read on Christmas morning:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. … 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

These are not just religious words. It is a deep and profound human experience that God enters into the world and into our lives in ways that are radiant with grace and life. It always seems to surprise us, but it shouldn’t, because it is promised to us. God is a god who, however much he may sometimes seem absent, keeps showing up.

God comes in ways that are often unexpected and surprising. He shows up at Cain’s door when he is bitter with revenge towards his brother. He shows up in a burning bush when Moses has fled into the wilderness and is tending sheep. He shows up to Gideon when he is trying to thresh his wheat in secret so that the Philistines who plunder his country won’t take it. God shows up in surprising and unexpected places – to persecuted Hannah when she is weeping and praying at the doorway of the tabernacle and the priest thinks she’s drunk. To childless Zechariah when he is serving in the temple. To Ezekiel when he is standing along the canal in exile in Babylon. To Peter when he is mending his fishnets. And, of course, to Mary when she has not yet gone to live with her husband, Joseph. God keeps showing up.

Advent is about this God who comes. It’s why we have images of doors in the sanctuary alcoves. And over the season, watch the alcoves and you will see doors opening and the light continually increasing until we get to Christmas. (Of course, you have to come on Sunday morning, December 24th, to see all the doors open.)

So the Gospel text that is before us this morning is from Mark 13. We have been reading Matthew all last year and for the next year we will be reading primarily from Mark. Mark is composed during the Judean revolt when armies are marching and Jerusalem will be destroyed. Jesus declares that the temple will be destroyed. The marriage of power and politics and wealth and religious leaders and the use of the name of God at the top of Judean society will be torn down. Jesus warns his followers not to be led astray by those who are proclaimed as saviors or messiahs when that convulsion happens. And he urges us to be awake and watchful like members of a household waiting for the head of the family to come.

(It is important that we understand this about the use of the word slaves waiting for their master. Slavery was very different in the ancient world than in the American experience. Slaves were members of the household. They were understood to be – and understood themselves to be – part of the extended family. These are not hired hands afraid of being caught goofing off, these are household members eager for the head of the house to return.)

When I was a senior at Palo Alto High School there was a student strike to protest the war in Vietnam. There was a grass courtyard enclosed on several sides by buildings and by a colonnaded walkway on the rest. The students were sitting on the grass and speakers were addressing them at the far end of the courtyard. My math teacher from my junior year was standing in the colonnade watching and I came and stood near him. We loved him and, in fact, Deb and I invited him to our wedding. He drank a milkshake every day at lunch and walked through the amphitheater observing the students in ways that would show up as math problems the next day. He seemed to know who was going with whom and what was happening among us all.

As Mr. Parker watched the strike, he turned to me and said something about having a cabin in the Sierra’s. He wasn’t by any means a survivalist, but in that moment I could see in his eyes that he thought the fabric of society was coming apart.

I watched a lot of adults in those years look upon the profound troubles of that era – the riots, the assassinations, the protests, the convulsions in society – and feel deeply fearful about the future. Dad said that flying out of what was then Washington National Airport over the District of Columbia following the riots there, reminded him of flying over bombed out Berlin after the war. Mother called the city in fear when city workers came out and began to dig up the sidewalk late one afternoon, and then left for the day with the rubble still in place. She feared those chunks of concrete could become weapons and, as I remember it, made the city come pick them up that day.

The Symbionese Liberation Army, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, the National Guard being called out to escort children to school as crowds of white adults shouted curses at the children. George Wallace declaring “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” and winning five states plus an elector from North Carolina in the 1968 presidential election. The bombings of military recruitment stations and defense contractors. The murder of Medgar Evers by white supremacists. The brutal torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till.

They were fearful times. They are not the only fearful times in our country’s history. I have heard stories of those who lived through the depression. My father remembers the dust storms in eastern Colorado. We have seen the famous photographs of the displaced persons taken by Dorothea Lange.

And if we could go back, there was the convulsion of the whole country over slavery that ended with a million dead (in a nation of 30 million of whom 4 million were slaves). There were tumults because of massive immigration before and after the civil war. There was the corruption of Tammany Hall, the terrorist bombing of Wall Street in 1920, President Harding sending the Army to fight on behalf of the coal companies against coal miners in West Virginia (The Battle of Blair Mountain), and the Teapot Dome corruption scandal.

Fear comes. We want life to be safe, but it rarely is. Or, at least, it seems like it doesn’t stay safe for long.

It doesn’t surprise me that the convulsions of the 60’s led to Hal Lindsey and the idea that we were the last generation before the coming of the Lord. Social upheaval always begets apocalyptic ideas. At one point Luther thought that he, too, lived in the final generation.

And so did the people in Mark’s congregation. They were living in the midst of war, hostility, and fear. In verse 12, before the portion we read this morning, Jesus says:

Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.

Mark reminds his community that Jesus said that the temple would fall and advised his followers to flee the city when the time came. He reminds them that Jesus understood that times of trouble would come. And he reminds them that Jesus warned them not to be led astray. Others would be acclaimed as messiahs and saviors and we shouldn’t be deceived.

These are all helpful words for us when we are in distress: Don’t lose our way. Don’t lose our hope. Remember what he has told us: “Keep watch, I will come.”

Keep watch, I will come. Expect me to show up when you are in fear. Expect me to show up when you are in distress. Expect me to show up in the most ordinary of moments, when you are washing dishes, or doing laundry, buying groceries. Watch for me. Watch for me in the kindness of strangers. Watch for me in the opportunity to be kind. Watch for me in the lonely nights or when trouble seems to surround. Watch for me. Expect mercy.

See not only what is dark, but what is light. See not only what is cruel, but what is kind. See not only confusion, but clarity. Hear not only the harsh and angry words, but the calm and wise ones.

Watch for God to come to you in the bread and wine and the words “given for you.” Watch for God to come in the daily scripture verses. Watch for God to come in the first breath of the morning and the last sigh of the night. Watch for God to open doors to meet you.

Remember God has already opened the heavens and come down.

Remember the door of the tomb has been rolled away.

Remember that the New Jerusalem is a city where the gates never close.

Watch, for God will come.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEmporio_(4494560043).jpg By Klearchos Kapoutsis from Santorini, Greece (Emporio Uploaded by Yarl) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Doorways

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Watching for the Morning of December 3, 2017

Year B

The First Sunday of Advent

I had a profound dream many years ago that involved the discovery of a door. I was living (in the dream) in a small one room mountain cabin that seemed very much like a suburb with paved streets, an ordinary driveway and garbage pick up at the curb. But in the dream I realized there was a door behind the refrigerator which, when I succeeded in moving the refrigerator, opened into a large room with giant picture windows looking down over a sweeping vista of a clear blue mountain lake, surrounded with virgin forest.

Doorways are about discovery. Lucy Pevensie, in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe discovers a doorway into the wondrous world of Narnia in the back of a wardrobe. Daniel Jackson figures out how to open the stargate. Mary opens the door to The Secret Garden. In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo Baggins counsels his nephew saying “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” And, of course, the women discover angels at the door of the empty tomb. It sweeps the world off its feet.

A doorway to a new world. Advent looks through the doorway into the reign of God to come when the lion lies down with the lamb – and through that doorway Christ comes to us at the consummation of human history, in the present time of our lives, and in the child of Bethlehem.

So Sunday we begin our Advent journey. The sanctuary will be decorated with images of light and the blue of hope, of the night sky turning to day. And there will be photographs of doors waiting to be opened – and opened already that we might find our way to the hope, peace, joy and light that never ends.

On this first Sunday of the new church year we will hear the prophet Isaiah’s plea for God to open the heavens and come down to save. We will sing with the prophet of the everlasting joy of God’s redeeming work. We will hear Paul remind us that “are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And we will listen as Jesus warns us to be awake and aware, like servants waiting to greet their Lord.

Behold I stand at the door and knock,” says Jesus. Open it and life will never be the same.

The Prayer for December 3, 2017

Eternal God, Breath of Life,
Font of Hope, and our Eternal Joy;
Open the doors of our hearts,
and the gates of your mercy
to come into our world and our lives,
and bring us to that day
when all the earth is redeemed by your presence.

The Texts for December 3, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” – The prophet speaks the lament of the people in the years after the return from exile, when life is hard and the former glory of the nation is absent. He calls upon God to relent and forgive their sins.

Psalmody: Isaiah 51:4-11 (appointed: Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19)
“The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads, sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
Our parish departs from the appointed psalm to sing this song of salvation from the prophet Isaiah.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1.3-9
“You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” –
Paul opens his letter to the believers in Corinth referring to the matter of spiritual gifts that has divided the community, setting them in their proper context as gifts of God to the whole body as they prepare for the consummation of God’s dawning reign.

Gospel: Mark 13.24-37
“Keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come.” – Having spoken of the destruction of the temple and what is to come for the community of believers, Jesus affirms that the Son of Man will come to gather his elect. For that day they should be awake, doing the work that they master of the house has entrusted to them.

During Advent our parish departs from the appointed psalms and sings Isaiah 51:4-11, the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and Isaiah 12 on the four Sundays. We also adjust the readings between the Sundays to allow for the celebration of a children’s Christmas program during worship in Advent. This occurs on the second Sunday of Advent this year.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASur_le_chemin_cotier_a_cancale_-_panoramio_(4).jpg chisloup [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

We will go forth in hope

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Watching for the Morning of November 19, 2017

Year A

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 28 / Lectionary 33

There will be thanksgiving in the service on Sunday, but it will not be enough to set our hearts at ease. We do not feel like the world is safe. We see divisions and threats. We are uncertain about the future. We are not confident that a turkey on every table is the truth of the country. We don’t see bounty and peace.

The first thanksgiving was not the meal of bounty and peace we have rehearsed in grade school plays, but we want that myth, the truth embodied in that story. It seemed inevitable, once, our manifest destiny: prosperity for all. We appear to have replaced it with uncertainty for all.

So it will be an act of faith when we offer prayers of thanksgiving on Sunday. We will dare to assert that God is good, that God is generous, that God is rich with mercy and love. We will dare to believe in generosity. We will dare to act on the notion that a table is to be shared, that kindness is to be shown, that truth is to be spoken – and can be spoken in love.

And we will do this even as we listen to texts of terrifying judgment. The prophet is so carried away with the ferocity of God’s coming wrath he sees the whole earth consumed “in the fire of his passion.” The poet ponders the brevity and frailty of life and declares: “Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.” And Jesus will use the image of a ruthless and vindictive rich man casting his worthless slave into the outer darkness, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” to tell us about God and the living of God’s reign.

In this season of harvest, when days grow short, darkness grows long, and leaves fall to the ground, when we draw near to the end of the church year and ponder the end of all things, there is a certain dread in the air. But we will cling to the promise in our reading from Paul, “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,” and with courage remember all for which we give thanks. And we will go forth in hope.

The Prayer for November 19, 2017

Almighty God, Lord of all,
you summon us to lives of faith and love
and stand as judge over all things.
Renew us in your mercy that, clothed in Christ,
we may live as children of the day
that is dawning in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for November 19, 2017

First Reading: Zephaniah 1 (appointed: 1:7, 12-18)
“Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is at hand.” – During the reign of Josiah, in as era that seems like a period of great national revival (though not far in time from the Babylonian conquest), the prophet exposes the underlying faithlessness of that generation. His portrait of the coming cataclysm is cosmic in scope.

Psalmody: Psalm 90:1-12
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” – This opening prayer of the fourth ‘book’ (section) of Psalms, reflects on the brief and fragile nature of human life, and the ever present threat of God’s “wrath” – God’s opposition to our ‘sin’, our rebellion from and resistance to the fidelity to God and one another for which God fashioned us.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.” –
Having assured the community in Thessalonica that those who have died will share in the coming transformation of the world, he urges them to be awake and aware of God’s dawning reign of grace, living as faithful children of the light.

Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30
“It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.” – Jesus uses a salacious example of a greedy and ruthless man entrusting his affairs to his underlings in a parable summoning us to understand the nature of God and God’s dawning reign.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AReligi%C3%B3n_en_Isla_Margarita%2C_Valle_del_Esp%C3%ADritu_Santo.jpg By The Photographer (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

All Saints

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Watching for the morning of November 5

Year A

All Saints Sunday

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal
…..Have mercy and hear us.
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace, Lord of Life,
…..Be our hope and consolation.
First born of the dead, breath of the eternal,
…..Be our calling and our faithfulness.

With those words we will begin our service on Sunday, a day that remembers all those who have died in the previous year, a day that hears the song of all the saints gathered around the throne of heaven, a day the remembers this great mystery of the body of Christ gathered from all times and peoples, joined as one.

I do not understand completely the rich liturgy of the orthodox churches, but I recognize the power of that iconostasis, showing all the saints looking down on the gathered assembly, representing the heavenly host with whom we are united in our worship. The barrier between heaven and earth grows thin in worship, and saints below are united with saints above in a single song of praise.

Every Sunday does this. But the rhythm of worship through the year is a little bit like a symphony where the theme is taken up by different instruments at different times and brought to the fore to be given special notice. So this Sunday brings to the fore the mystery of life and death and the life that transcends it all. There is a radiance brighter than the sun. There is a wonder surpassing the miracle of a newborn child. There is a majesty greater than the highest mountain peaks. There is a peace beyond the soft rhythm of a calm sea. There is a beauty beyond the most brilliant butterfly. There is a glory beyond the most vivid sunset. There is a song beyond the tears and aches of our frail days. There is a love more tender than the deepest intimacy. There is a life that rolls away the stone and ends forever the grave.

So Sunday we will hear the prophet speak of the song of the saints and martyrs around the throne of God. And we will sing with the psalmist of the goodness of the Lord.   And we will hear the elder say “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God,” and remind us that though our vision now is limited, the promise is certain: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

Sunday we will name the names that have joined that heavenly chorus, and sing with them the song that knows no end.

The Prayer for November 5, 2017 (for the observance of All Saints)

Eternal God, source and goal of all things,
founding the world in your goodness and renewing it by your Holy Spirit,
creating us in your image, redeeming us in your Son,
and uniting us in one great company from every race and nation,
who sing your praise and bear your word and work to the world,
fill us with that confidant hope, born of the empty tomb,
that frees us to live as your faithful people, now and forever.

The Texts for November 5, 2017 (for the observance of All Saints)

First Reading: Revelation 7:9-17
“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”
– The prophet’s vision turns from the woes of earth (as the seals are opened that draw the earth to that day when the reign of the slain-yet-risen lamb is everywhere acknowledged) to the heavens where he sees the faithful gathered around the throne of God.

Psalmody: Psalm 34:1-10, 22
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” – A song of praise for God’s deliverance that celebrates God’s care for the poor vulnerable and describes those who are honored in God’s sight.

Second Reading: 1 John 3:1-3
“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 belong already to the household of God, inheritors of the age to come, and declares that, though we cannot comprehend the future that awaits us, “we shall be like him” – sharing in the resurrection.

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12
““Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – The Gospel for All Saints takes us back to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount and the foundational teaching about those who are honored in God’s sight.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADeir_Mar_Musa_04.jpg By Bernard Gagnon (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The stone the builders rejected

File:Heart-shaped stone.JPG

Isaiah 5:1-7:
Let me sing for my beloved

my love-song concerning his vineyard…

Psalm 80:7-15:
“…You brought a vine out of Egypt;

you drove out the nations and planted it.…”

Matthew 21:33-46:
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard…”

Proper 22, Lectionary 27, Year A
(and a 70th wedding anniversary celebration)

I thought about taking this occasion to preach about marriage. But, in some ways, that’s a scarier topic to me than to preach those texts where Jesus talks about divorce. It’s like talking about money; it’s a subject in which all of us are deeply invested. Marriage is something that we have hoped for and never found, or something we have found and lost, or something we have found and struggled through – sometimes successfully, and sometimes less so. Marriage is something that begins with radiant hopes and often suffers under the weight of unfulfilled desires. It is dangerous ground for preaching – easy to preach about in a way that is shallow or sentimental or a little too confident that the preacher knows what is good for everyone else.

There is also a problem because marriage in the scripture is a different thing than marriage in the modern west. Our understanding of what marriage is supposed to be has changed a lot since the Adam and Eve story was written down 3,000 years ago. But it is still a remarkable story and I don’t hesitate to call it inspired. It is far more profound than the story told in the cultures around ancient Israel.

The element of the Biblical witness that is remarkable is the notion that marriage is something holy and sacred, not because of its connection to sex and procreation, but because it is a covenant. It is a relationship created and sustained by a promise and a trust in that promise. Marriage is made of the same stuff as faith: a relationship created and sustained by a promise and a trust in that promise.

Marriage is holy not because sex is mystical and primal and crosses into the generative realm of the gods; marriage is holy because it is about promises – trust in and fidelity to those promises. This is why, when the prophets talk about idolatry, they speak of it as adultery: Israel betraying its covenantal relationship with God.

We see this in our first reading, today. But before we go there I want also to say this: It’s worth pondering the fact that marriage stands at the beginning and end of scriptures. It is there in the garden when God takes the flesh of Adam to form a companion equal to him. And it is there in the vision of Revelation 21 when it describes the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. The human story begins in perfect faithfulness and communion with God and one another, and our story reaches its fulfillment with all creation restored to perfect faithfulness and communion. Marriage embodies the memory of the garden and the promise of the new creation.

Marriage is meant to be life-giving and life-sustaining and the perfection of joy and intimacy. But we are no longer in the garden. And we are not yet in the New Jerusalem. And since we live in a broken world, marriage isn’t simple; love and forgiveness must be practiced.

Again this is just like faith and living a Christian life. We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – so love and forgiveness must be practiced. Kindness and compassion must be practiced. Hope and joy must be practiced. Mercy and truth must be practiced. Generosity and humility must be practiced. Patience and understanding must be practiced.

But we are not alone. The Spirit of God is given. God is leading and guiding and teaching and exhorting and challenging and summoning us to lives that are holy and true.

So I want to speak briefly about the passage in Isaiah and then we’ll look at the parable of Jesus and try to hear what’s there.

You saw in the psalm that Israel is compared to a vine that God brought out of Egypt, planted in the land and tended and cared for it. The psalmist is writing after the nation has been destroyed and crying out for God to see and come to their aid. The protective wall has been torn down, as it were, and the vineyard ravaged by the wild animals. This notion of Israel as God’s vine is important. When Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard, he is talking about the nation.

The song that the prophet Isaiah sings – the poetry he recites in the public square – is a masterful piece of preaching. He stands up to sing a song about his beloved. And when he begins, the crowd understands that he is singing about his best friend. And as soon as the prophet begins his story about his friend’s vineyard, the crowd knows that this is a song about his friend’s marriage. It has the hint of a scandalous tale. It causes the crowd to lean in just like we lean in to any juicy gossip.

So this friend has done everything he can for his vine, but he has gotten nothing but wild, wanton, bitter grapes. His wife has been unfaithful. And the poet/prophet summons the crowd for their opinion, their judgment. What more could he have done? He declares that he will reject his vineyard, strip away its protection, and let the wild beasts have it.

At this moment when he has won the sympathy and support of the crowd, the prophet says, “You are God’s vineyard.” This is not a story of a friend with an adulterous wife, but of God and God’s faithless people who have gone off to embrace other gods. They have chosen gods of wealth and power, gods of injustice, gods who devour and destroy.

7For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
…..is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
…..are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
…..but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
…..but heard a cry!

The power of this poetry we can’t begin to capture in the translation. God expected ‘mishpat’ and got ‘mispach’. God looked for justice – faithfulness – and look, only bloodshed and violence. God looked for ‘tsĕdaqah’ and got ‘tsa`aqah’. He looked for righteousness but behold, only the cry of the poor.

The people draw near to hear what they think will be a lascivious story – and there they are met with the voice of God revealing their faithlessness. The people were God’s vine from whom God expected good fruit, and God has gotten bitter deeds.

When Jesus tells his parable, he is standing in the aura of these great prophetic texts. And Jesus does the same thing that Isaiah does. He tells a story that suckers his audience. Jesus is speaking to the wealthy elite in Jerusalem. We are no longer traveling the countryside; Jesus has come to Jerusalem. He has ridden in on a donkey and the crowds have shouted hosanna and waved their palm branches before him. He is standing in the temple square. He has already kicked over the tables and declared that they have turned God’s house into a den of thieves. He has declared that the leadership of the nation is like a good son who says, “Yes, father,” but doesn’t do what his father asks – such a person is regarded as a good son in that culture because he doesn’t shame his father in the eyes of the community. But Jesus has declared that the good son is the one who, though he had shamed his father by saying “no”, changes his mind and does what the father asked. The good sons are the poor and outcast who have embraced the way of justice and mercy, and the Jerusalem leaders are bad sons who give honor to God but don’t do what God asks.

Now, today, Jesus tells this parable about an absentee landlord to people who are absentee landlords. They own all this land in Galilee that they have taken against God’s command because the people fell under the crushing burden of debt. In this story of an absentee landlord with rebellious tenants who foolishly imagine that they could kill the son and take the vineyard for themselves, he asks what the landlord in the story will do knowing full well what these landlords would do. They are quick to answer: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Then Jesus says, “You are the tenants.”

It is a parable that is full of poignancy, because Rome will come in less than 40 years and tear down the city wall and put all its rebel residents to death.

It is a parable full of poignancy because these rebel tenants will kill Jesus thinking it will gain them the vineyard; but it is God’s vineyard and their actions ensure they will lose it.

I didn’t choose the bulletin cover because of Ann and Paul’s anniversary. I choose it because of the text this morning:

Have you never read in the scriptures,” says Jesus,
“The stone that the builders rejected
…..has become the cornerstone.”

Jesus, whom they rejected, is the foundation that keeps the whole building true.

Justice and mercy, Love of God and neighbor, faithfulness to our obligations to God and one another, this is the foundation stone the builders reject. But it is the only true and lasting stone. It is the only stone that can ensure that the walls rise square and true.

And so we are back where we began. We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – but we are headed there. So love and forgiveness must be practiced. Kindness and compassion must be practiced. Hope and joy must be practiced. Mercy and truth must be practiced. Generosity and humility must be practiced. Patience and understanding must be practiced. We must give God the fruit God seeks. We must build on the stone that is steadfast love and faithfulness. We must build on the stone that was rolled away. We must build on him who is the cornerstone – the one who died and rose and will come again.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Heart-shaped_stone.JPG By Sylda31 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Peace and dismay

Sunday was a delightful service. People were gathered with their pets on the lawn in the shade of great trees, warm sun and a soft breeze. The service began with a prayer and a reading of Psalm 104 illustrated with beautiful photographs of this wondrous creation entrusted into our care. The sermon hit the right note of our connectedness to one another and all things. The pets that evoke such strong emotions from us are at our side to receive a blessing. We share in the prayer of St. Francis: “Lord make me an instrument of your peace.”

And then I wake up the next morning to the news of the shooting in Las Vegas.

For a moment all seemed right with the world. Now all seems wrong.

This is the strange position of the Christian community. We live in the borderlands between two worlds: this age of sorrows and the age of joy, this age where the lamb dare not lie down with the lion and the age to come where a little child shall lead them. We are a crucified people, yet risen. We are sinners, yet forgiven. Christ is present, but we await his coming. Eden is lost to us, but the new creation is at hand.

Tragedies like Las Vegas will call forth great acts of courage and compassion. And they will also call forth more hate and invective. It is the strange and saddening reality of our human condition. But next Sunday we will gather at the table yet again. Next Sunday we will hear the promise, yet again. Next Sunday we will dare to trust that this age is passing away and a new one dawning. And next Sunday we will taste it in the bread, in the sharing of the peace, in the words of grace, in the singing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and in the commission to “Go in peace. Serve the Lord.”

Image: dkbonde

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