The trail with wondrous views

File:جبال لسانت كاثرين.jpgWatching for the Morning of December 30, 2018

Year C

The Sunday in Christmas

Sometimes we are worn out by Christmas rather than revived. The holiday shopping, the decorations, the family gatherings, the incessant pressure to be happy (“happy holidays”) and merry (“Merry Christmas) – there is a part of us that is glad to take the tree down and be done with it.

Such weariness can mislead us, as if one wanders off the hiking trail and finds oneself trudging through high brush and regretting the journey when there is a path nearby that offers a wondrous view.

Easter is joy and spring and bunnies – but for those anywhere near the church, Easter is also Good Friday and Maundy Thursday. It is the mystery of redemptive suffering, of sacrificial love, of the heart of the universe willing to be broken that the human heart may be made whole.

These themes are present at Christmas, too. Simeon sings of the sword that shall pierce Mary’s heart, and Mary sings of the convulsing of the world when the mighty are cast down from their thrones. Herod is willing to slaughter babies when the magi come looking for a king. Even this Sunday, when the boy Jesus stays behind in the temple, there is not only the ordinary and very human fear for the safety of a child; there is the foreshadow that Jesus’ last days will be in that temple square – and these teachers and elders will hand him over to his death by Rome. But these anticipations of a fate yet to come, while important, cannot push aside the simple joy of a God who has come, who has entered into the fabric of our lives in grace and mercy to shine as light in the darkness.

Christmas is dominated by the gift of the child rather than the death and resurrection of the man. It is a season that relishes in the goodness of our createdness. The finite is capable of bearing the infinite. The eternal comes to dwell in time. As unholy as we may be, the holy one can wear our skin, rest in our homes, be held in our arms. Flesh and blood are worthy of the divine.

We cannot forget the incredible significance of the incarnation. It means every life matters.

So in these days of the Christmas season we continue to sing the carols and let the lights shine. We read the stories that are full of hope and try to abide in the peace that endureth. We listen with wonder and a sigh of relief, as when the guests are gone and we sit down with a cup of tea in a still house while the tree still shines with memories of Christmas’s past and the goodness of living. God has not shunned mortal existence; God has blessed it. God has reminded us of its radiance. God is come, raising us into the fullness of life.

On this Sunday in Christmas we will read of Jesus’ faithful parents fulfilling every religious obligation, presenting the newborn Jesus in the temple and coming each year for Passover. And we will see young Jesus staying behind in the temple among the teachers and surprising all with his insight. This reading from Luke follows the story of Samuel’s parents coming each year to worship. And just as “the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people,” so we will hear the child of Bethlehem growing “in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” And as we hear of these two growing in grace, we will be reminded by the author of Colossians that this, too is our journey:

12As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

And if we are among those out trudging in the weeds, the songs and readings will, by grace, lead us back to the trail and the full glory of its wondrous views.

The Prayer for December 30, 2018

Gracious God, Eternal Father, source and goal of life,
in the mystery of the incarnation you have revealed yourself to the world
in the face of a child,
a boy filled with your wisdom,
and a man faithful to your will.
By his word and work create us in new and faithful hearts
that, trusting always in your promise,
we may recognize our place in your house.

The Texts for December 30, 2018

First Reading: 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26,
“The boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the LORD and with the people.” – Luke’s nativity story echoes with themes and language from the birth of the prophet Samuel who led Israel and anointed David as king.

Second Reading: Colossians 3:12-17
“Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
–This exhortation from Colossians beautifully summarizes the shape and character of life in Christ.

Gospel: Luke 2:21-24, 39-52 (appointed, Luke 21:42-52)
“Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” – The infant Jesus is presented in the temple and greeted by Simeon and Anna, representatives of faithful Israel. Then Luke tells us of Jesus as a young man, after observing Passover, staying behind in the Jerusalem temple when his family departs (traveling with the crowd of extended family and neighbors from their village).

Psalmody as appointed: Psalm 148
“Praise the LORD!
Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights!”

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%D8%AC%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%84_%D9%84%D8%B3%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%AA_%D9%83%D8%A7%D8%AB%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%86.jpg Abdulrhman Salem [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

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“Is Jesus a monster?”

File:Christ Icon Sinai 6th century.jpg

Sunday Evening

Christ the King / Reign of Christ 2018

“Is Jesus a monster?” she asked with the rising inflection that indicates both surprise and a struggle to understand. I had brought to the children’s sermon an icon of Jesus and asked them who it was. When we settled on Jesus, one little boy announced “Jesus is dead.” I answered “Yes, Jesus died, but God made Jesus alive again.” When he then asked if Jesus would die again, I said “No, God made Jesus alive in a way that would never die.” That’s when the eyes of the little girl grew puzzled as she confronted the thought that Jesus was a zombie.

I hadn’t intended to talk about the resurrection. Last Sunday was the final Sunday of the church year celebrated in our tradition as Christ the King. I was showing the children a famous icon of Jesus where one half of his face doesn’t match the other. Two faces have been painted together. It has an interesting effect as you look at it. You see one face, but it gives you this strange experience that there is more here. And so it is with Jesus. He is fully and completely human, yet we sense there is more here. The face of God is present here with this human face. The hands of God with these human hands. The voice of God in these human words.

File:Composite christ pantocrator.pngAll I wanted to talk about was that sense of something more in Jesus. Something of God comes to us in him. But then the little boy said Jesus was dead, and now we were speaking of an even greater mystery than the incarnation. Now it is Easter without the bunnies and flowers. Now it was just the raw, unvarnished mystery that he who died is not dead, and the promise that we too shall live in God. Hard concepts for children. Even harder for adults.

I tried to rescue the conversation by talking about how much they love their parents and their parents love them. Their parents would never want to be separated from them. In the same way God loves us so much that God never wants to be separated from us. It’s a mystery how this happens, but the love of God is sure.

I don’t know whether it worked. But I tried.

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Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christ_Icon_Sinai_6th_century.jpg Saint Catherine’s Monastery [Public domain]

Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Composite_christ_pantocrator.png JustinGBX (me) created the composite. “anonimus” uploaded the original photograph. Painter is from the 6th century so clearly public domain. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The heartbeat of the world

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Watching for the Morning of August 19, 2018

Year B

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Wisdom weaves through our first two readings and the psalm this Sunday, but they aren’t the right texts to go with this Gospel. They work. They are good texts. Jesus is talking about the bread of life and the bread of life is certainly the teaching, the wisdom, the word embodied in this Jesus. But the portion from John 6 before us this week shows another facet of the sign of the loaves and fishes. Jesus uses graphic language about munching on his flesh and blood – language sure to reveal that the crowd around him doesn’t “see”, doesn’t “believe”, doesn’t “come” to this bread from heaven who brings true life to the world. It is offensive language to people for whom eating blood – or meat with the blood still in it – is strictly forbidden by God. The ancient texts declare that the blood is the life, and must be poured back into the earth from which all life comes.

This language, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” echoes with more than the wisdom of God and the teaching of Jesus. It is language we hear in the other Gospels during the night in which Jesus is betrayed, when takes up the bread saying, “This is my body,” and the cup, saying, “This is my blood.”

Jesus’ words on Sunday are part of the turn in this chapter towards the death of Jesus, his sacrifice upon the cross, his giving of his blood and flesh. This is the language of sacrifice when the people would offer to God the blood, to the priest a portion of the meat, and take the rest for a feast that signifies reconciliation and table fellowship with God. In place of Jesus’ real flesh, this “lamb of God” offers to us bread and wine as body and blood. The blood, the life, that belonged only to God, is now given also to us.

The sign of the feeding of the five thousand is all these things. It is receiving the life that comes to us from the realm of God: it is about Jesus teaching, his way of life, his deeds of grace and mercy, his command to love, his sacrifice, his presence in the community, his gift of the Spirit. This bread from heaven is content and relationship and the feast to come. It is a participation now and forever in the reality that is Christ Jesus, the embodiment of all God’s Word, God’s speaking to us that lies at heart of creation and is the essence of God’s encounter with the world.

So we will hear, this Sunday, wisdom personified, calling like a patron summoning guests to banquet at her table. And we will sing the psalm that invites us to come and learn the way of the LORD. And we will hear the author of Ephesians call us to live “not as unwise people but as wise.” But the Gospel will invite us not just into Jesus’ teaching, but into the table fellowship where heaven and earth are united and our hearts are joined to the true heartbeat of the world.

The Prayer for August 19, 2018

Eternal God,
in the body and blood of Christ Jesus, broken and shed,
you have opened for us the way of everlasting life.
Grant us faith to trust your gift
and live your love for the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 19, 2018

First Reading: Proverbs 9:1-6
“Wisdom…has sent out her servant girls, she calls from the highest places in the town…’Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.’” – Wisdom is personified as a hostess calling the people to come to her banquet and feed on her teaching.

Psalmody: Psalm 34:9-14
“Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.”
– The poet calls his hearers to learn the way of God.

Second Reading: Ephesians 5:15-20
“Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.”
– The author continues the exhortation for our life together, encouraging us to be filled with the Spirit.

Gospel: John 6:51-58
“‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’” – the reflection on the meaning of the sign of the feeding of the 5,000, continues with Jesus provoking the crowd with graphic language about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Altarraum-Kreuz_in_Taiz%C3%A9.jpg By Christian Pulfrich [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

And Jesus alone remains

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The reading begins “Six days later”: six days after Jesus first told his followers that he would be rejected in Jerusalem, crucified and raised; six days after Peter has rebuked Jesus for such a thought and been himself rejected; and six days after Jesus taught that they must take up the cross for “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Mark 9:2-9: Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

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I found myself struggling to find a story to tell this morning, something that could pull out the drama of this text, something with which we could connect. The problem is that the Gospel story itself is so unreal to us. We are not a people who have visions – or, if we do, we tend not to talk about them. They aren’t considered normal. If we told someone we saw things like this they might think we are a little crazy.

Other cultures put great importance on visions. We know, for example, that certain indigenous societies had a rite of passage sometimes referred to as a vision quest. Such visions provided profound guidance for their lives. But we don’t do visions. We don’t listen to dreams. We don’t hear God’s voice. Our spiritual lives are often neglected and impoverished.

I am not suggesting that you go on a vision quest. There is a rich spirituality within the Christian tradition, and I would invite you to see what is to be seen: To see Christ in the water, washing you with grace. To see Christ in the bread, joining his life to yours. To see Christ in the cross that walks in our midst. To see Christ in the glory of the flowers that decorate our space. To experience Christ in the beauty of the music. To see Christ in your neighbor, to feel Christ’s hand in yours at the passing of the peace, and to feel your hand become Christ’s hand as you extend peace to others.

But to go back to our text: This is a strange story to us because it speaks in a language we don’t really understand. And because we don’t understand the language, it’s easy for us to get it wrong.

This is my story about imagining Jesus to be kind of like Superman. When I heard this story as a child, I imagined that this event showed us the real Jesus, that the story gave us a glimpse inside the phone booth. Clark Kent pulls back his shirt and there we see the bright red S. Jesus is God and the disciples are getting a glimpse of it.

But that’s not what’s happening here. Jesus is not Superman. Jesus is not God masquerading as a human being; he is a human being just as we are. He doesn’t know things we don’t know – he just sees more clearly than we see. He hears the voice of God better than we hear. He feels the breath of the Spirit more profoundly than we feel it. He sees into the human heart more honestly and courageously than we see.

We are not seeing the true Jesus on the mountain; we see the true Jesus on the cross. We see the true Jesus protecting his disciples when the mob comes with torches and weapons. We see the true Jesus extending the hand of compassion to the leper, and to the synagogue ruler whose daughter has died. We see the true Jesus invite himself to the home of Zacchaeus and call Matthew, the tax gatherer, to be a disciple. We see the true Jesus driving out deceit and falsehood and all those spirits that corrode and debilitate human life. We see the true Jesus in the outrage at what’s happening in the name of God at the temple, and in the tears at the death of his friend Lazarus.

The real Jesus is the human being.

But Peter, James and John are given a vision. They see for a moment beyond the ordinary reality of everyday life into deep and profound things of God. For a moment that bread in their hands radiates with an overpowering grace. For a moment the word of forgiveness at the beginning of the service seems to thunder. For a moment they are grasped by an infinite truth.

The nature of visions, however, is that they not only give, they also take. They give us truth, but they also take away falsehood. They grant us a new vision of God and ourselves, but that means that old ideas get left behind.

We have all had these moments when we think that a person or a situation is one thing, and then we have one of those “Oh, my goodness” moments when we see everything differently. Once your perception has changed, there is no going back.

Sometimes that process is sudden and dramatic. More often it takes time. The vision is granted and then the person must ponder the vision to understand what it means.

So these followers of Jesus are granted this vision of Jesus made radiant by the presence of God. They see all the glory of God shining upon him. Jesus is the perfect mirror of God.

And they see Jesus on par with Moses and Elijah, the great heavenly figures that are the pillars of Israel’s faith and life: Moses the giver of God’s law and Elijah the prophet, empowered by God’s Spirit, working wonders, the living voice of God.

They see, but they don’t yet understand. And so Peter says, “Let us build three dwellings”.

Our text repudiates Peter by saying: “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”

I used to think that Peter was a doofus who put his foot in his mouth by saying the first thing that came to mind. That he couldn’t think straight because he was so terrified at what he saw. But Peter wasn’t babbling. His suggestion was based upon what he thought he was seeing.

He has seen Jesus destroying the citadels of Satan’s power. He has seen Jesus casting out demons, cleansing lepers, healing the sick and raising the dead. He has seen Jesus commanding the wind and the waves and walking on the sea, the remnant of the primordial chaos.

Now here are Moses and Elijah. Now here are the heavenly figures who fought God’s battles in ancient times and who disappeared into the heavens without anyone ever finding their bodies. Here is Moses who stood on the mountain and held up his hands and – when his hands were raised, the Israelites triumphed over their enemy. Here is Elijah who stood on the mountain and won victory over all the priest and prophets of Baal. I don’t think Peter is terrified at the presence of God as much as he is terrified by the moment: the heavenly armies are about to appear. The battle of good and evil is beginning, the cosmic battle that will overthrow all tyranny and oppression and bring God’s new creation. It’s happening now!

And Peter is proposing that they set up three tents by which these three commanding generals can witness the battle when all evil is overthrown.

But Peter didn’t know what he was talking about. Peter wasn’t seeing what was there to be seen. The vision wasn’t over. The cloud of God’s presence envelops them and God speaks: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And then Moses and Elijah disappear and Jesus alone remains.

The rebirth of the world isn’t coming with the battle of heavenly armies; it is coming with Jesus crucified. It is not by victorious conquest, but by deeds of love and mercy. It is not by strength and power but by service. It is not by judgment but by grace. It is not by purifying the world of the faithless but by gathering the outcast. It is not by gaining the world but by remaining faithful to Jesus even at the cost of one’s life.

“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” says the voice from heaven. And then Moses and Elijah disappear and Jesus alone remains.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AIsrael_hermon_(5330547343).jpg By Yoni Lerner from Tel Aviv, Israel (hermon) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Great mercies for a world in need of mercy

File:Lacura2.JPGWatching for the Feast of the Nativity 2017

Christmas Eve / Christmas Day

Light for our darkness will echo through our service on Christmas Eve. We will hear the great prophetic word of Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” and be reminded of the promise that “all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”

We will hear also from Isaiah that “A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,” a new king from the line of David. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” The peace of his reign that will find the lion eating straw like the ox and all the earth will be filled with “the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

Of course, the central story of the night is the remarkable birth during the imperial reign of the victorious Octavian – Caesar Augustus who was acclaimed as son of a god (son of the divine Julius Caesar) and savior of the world. Only this birth does not happen in Rome, but in a peasant home in Judea.

Two kingdoms clash – not a game of thrones like Octavian’s Victory over Antony and Cleopatra, but two profoundly different claims upon the world: one a rule of might, the other of grace. Augustus will claim all things for himself – and Jesus will give himself for all. The “census” was a listing of all properties when Rome took over a region so Caesar could claim what he wished. It led to riots and brutal repression under Quirinius. But in a manger in Bethlehem lies a true prince of peace, a true light for our darkness.

On Christmas Day we will hear John declare that the divine word that called the world into being“became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth.” We will hear the prophet speak of God’s word that does not return empty but “shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” And the author of Hebrews will confirm that “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”

Light for our darkness. Peace for our world. The mystery of the incarnation. The wonder of “God with us”. Rich and abundant themes. Great mercies for a world in need of mercy.

The Prayer for December 24, 2017

Holy God, eternal light,
source and goal of all creation:
in the wonder of this night,
you came to us in the child of Bethlehem,
seeking your lost and wounded world,
granting light for our darkness,
hope amidst doubt,
joy amidst sorrow.
Let your grace shine upon us
that we may receive you with open hearts
and know the fullness of your presence.

The Texts for December 24, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7,
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” – the prophet promises the end of war and the birth of a royal son in whom will come peace.

Second Reading: Isaiah 11:1-9
“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
– The prophet heralds a coming king who shall bring perfect peace to the world.”

Gospel: Luke 2:1-20
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” – Into the world of Roman dominion and power, a new Lord is born.

The Prayer for December 25, 2015

Almighty and ever-living God,
in the mystery of the incarnation
you have entered into the fabric of our world
to find what is lost,
to gather what is scattered,
to unite what is broken,
to illumine what is darkened,
to heal what is wounded,
to bring to life what is bound in death.
Grant us wisdom, courage and faith
to receive your Son as he comes to us as your Word made flesh:
child of Bethlehem;
prophet and teacher of Nazareth;
crucified and risen Lord;
Immanuel, God with us.

The Texts for December 25, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 55:10-12
“You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.” – Like grain sown into the soil, God’s promise will bear fruit: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty.”

Second Reading: Hebrews 1:1-3a
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”
– The opening of the book of Hebrews proclaiming the work of God in Christ.

Gospel: John 1:1-14
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John’s Gospel begins with a rich and wondrous hymn that identifies Christ Jesus with

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALacura2.JPG By Lacura (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Sweet, but so profound

File:02014 Krippenspiel in Sanok.jpg

Watching for the Morning of December 10, 2017

Year B

The Second Sunday of Advent

The children of the parish take center stage during the portion of the worship service called “the service of the word.” I don’t want to call it a “Christmas Pageant”, because it is not a little show stuck into the middle of the service, it is the vehicle through which the story is proclaimed to us of a wondrous God who comes to a world, frail and vulnerable as a child. A God who trust himself into our hands, though those hands will scourge and pound nails and press a crown of thorns into his head. Yet our hands will also reach out to touch the edge of his cloak, and his hands will touch and heal.

The message of the child in the manger is profound.   Sweet and terrible. It is fitting for children to tell it.

When I first held my daughter, I was overwhelmed not only by her vulnerability, but by my own. Suddenly my heart was thoroughly exposed. Here, indescribable joy and terror were woven together. I was attached to a child whose every wound would tear at my heart.

The story of the nativity is sweet, but so profound. Here is God risking all. Here is God come to dwell. Here is God desiring only to heal and redeem, whatever the cost to God’s own self.

So Sunday the children will tell the story. And because of that story we will adapt our service, hearing the prophet’s fabulous words that begin “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God,” then turning to the story of Zechariah in the temple learning that he and Elizabeth are to be given a son. They are to name him John. He will go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijahto make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” The last words of that story will invite us to sing with Zechariah that great prophetic song that begins: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; he has come to his people and set them free.” And then the children will speak to us the priceless story. And we will think it cute. We will laugh and smile and sing the carols.   And in between the sweetness will be the awe and wonder at such a God who shows our frail flesh a fit vessel of the holy, and fills all creation with light and life.

The Prayer for December 10, 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 grant us the peace of your kingdom.

The Texts for December 10, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 40.1-11
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” – A prophet is called to speak a word of comfort to the people in exile in Babylon. Forgiveness is at hand, and the cry goes forth to build a highway through the desert to bring God’s people home.

Gospel: Luke 1:5-20, 57-67 (“The angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.) The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah while he is serving in the temple to announce the birth of a son and, when the child is born and obediently named, Zechariah’s tongue is released and he sings the Benedictus:

Psalmody: Luke 1:68-79 (the Benedictus)
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” –
Zechariah sings a prophetically inspired song celebrating the mighty work of God and the special calling of his son, John

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The appointed texts for December 10, 2017

Psalm: Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13
“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.”
– The poet prays for renewal of Israel’s life in the land after the return from exile, acknowledging God’s previous help and expressing prayerful trust that God, in his faithfulness, will come to their aid.

Second Reading: 2 Peter 3.8-15
“The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” –
In the circular letter where we hear the familiar words “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” the author writes to encourage the fledgling Christian community to patience and faithfulness as they wait for the day of the Lord.

Gospel: Mark 1.1-8
“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” – Mark begins his Gospel with the language of royal decree and the prophetic words of John pointing to the one who will wash the world in the Holy Spirit.

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. Next Sunday we will read Mark’s account of John the Baptist that is assigned for today.

During Advent we provide daily verses and brief reflections that can be found by following this link to Advent 2017.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A02014_Krippenspiel_in_Sanok.jpg By Silar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%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

Where ladies are dressed

File:Maler der Grabkammer des Zeserkerêsonb 001.jpg

Thursday

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

27“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”

Paul is not confirming the power of ignorance. It is not a diatribe against learning. Paul, himself, is well schooled and knowledgeable. This is a challenge of the “wisdom of the world”: the everyday realities accepted by all as “the way things are” – and the way God wants them. These are the realities of the ancient world where a few elite families hold positions of power and prestige granted by the emperor or passed down through the ages by a noble family line. Inherited wealth. Inherited power. Inherited privilege. The “wisdom of the world” is the world of Downton Abbey where ladies are dressed by maids and servants stand at attention while the family dines and the upper class doctor is believed over the village physician. This is the world where Rome rules by decree and those granted Roman citizenship are subject to a different law than the rest (so Peter is brutally crucified but Paul, the citizen, is granted a quick and clean beheading). This is the world that has always been and the gods confirm.

But this strange God of Abraham and Isaac chose Jacob, the younger, over Esau the elder. This strange God summoned the murderer, Moses, at the burning bush and chose a people in bondage. And when the time came, God didn’t choose the palace but the peasant home. God didn’t choose finery but a manger. God didn’t choose the priestly cast but the construction trade. God didn’t choose the literate students of the city rulers but fishermen and a tax collector.

It looks like folly to the privileged – but this is not about rejecting knowledge. It is about the nature of God’s kingdom where honor doesn’t go to the fine houses at the top of the hill by the temple, but to those poor and meek who live the justice and mercy God desires.

“Can anything good come from Nazareth?” asks Nathanael when he is urgently summoned by Philip. “Of course not,” we all know. But, surprise, what is honored in God’s sight is not happening in Jerusalem; it is happening in Nazareth and Capernaum Sychar and wherever bread is shared and outcasts welcomed and tears shed for the world to be made new.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMaler_der_Grabkammer_des_Zeserker%C3%AAsonb_001.jpg By Maler der Grabkammer des Zeserkerêsonb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Christ is entered into the world

File:Simeon with the Infant Jesus Brandl after 1725 National Gallery Prague.jpg

This is a lightly edited reprint of a posting in 2014

Thursday

Luke 2

28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God

Christmas lingers. At least it should linger. Not because of the twelve day ecclesiastical season, but because the Christ is born. The Christ is entered into the world. The Christ of God, the anointed one, the embodiment of God’s Word – the embodiment of God’s self-expression, God’s communication, God’s voice that creates all things, that reveals God’s own heart and will and passion, that calls all creation into a living relationship, that gathers the creation to himself – is incarnate in this infant/child/man of Bethlehem and Nazareth, this infant/child/man of temple and town and wilderness, this infant/child/man of cross and empty tomb.

The Christ is entered into the world. The true and perfect son, who honors the Father with his every breath, is come. The son we should be but were not. The son we are in him.

The Christ is entered into the world. He cries as a hungry infant. He laughs as a delighted child, playing the ancient equivalent of “peek-a-boo.” He shouts as a rambunctious boy, sporting with friends. He labors as a man with sweat and satisfaction. He prays and ponders the holy writings as a child and as a man. He weeps at the sorrow of death in the village, and witnesses the reality of Roman might. He enjoys the village wedding feast and ponders the feast that has no end. He reflects on the bonds of friendship and the pains of betrayal. He recognizes the beauty of the world around him and the beauty of human kindness. He sees the brutality of the world around him and the human capacity for violence. He knows the joy of song and dance. He never has the privilege of chocolate, but he knows the sweetness of honey. He knows the wonder of the temple and the mystery hidden within. He watches prodigal sons perish at the gates of far away cities, and witnesses the shame of their parents. He knows the blind and lame who depend upon village charity, and sees those who give nothing. He watches foreign soldiers slap down old men on the road and shame their women. He sees those who collude and those who resist and the many who keep their heads down and hope against the knock in the night.

The Christ is entered into the world. And he abides in the world. Risen, yet embodied still in his people. Risen, yet present in the poor. “As you did to the least of these you did to me…”

Christ is entered into the world. He abides in this world where human creativity and craft have made weapons of unimaginable destruction. He abides in this world where some cannot breathe and others fail to understand. He abides in a world of mothers shielding children from bombs in the night. He abides in a world of vineyard weddings and children making sandcastles at the shore. He abides in a world where those who celebrate Christmas are threatened and abused and others worry over the cost. He abides in a world where fear creeps and violence claims authority. He abides in a world where some children rise carefree and others scrounge the trash heaps. He abides in us who weep and sing. He abides in us who are mindless and mindful of all that transcends.

The Christ is come. The voice at the beginning and end of time that, in love, calls a world into being and, in love, calls a world to new beginnings, speaks in human form and human actions and human words.

He calls the world into peace. He calls the world into joy. He calls the world into giving. He calls the world into love.

He calls us into peace, into joy, into giving, into love.

Christmas lingers. Christ lingers. And our adoration of the wondrous child lingers. For Christ is entered into the world.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASimeon_with_the_Infant_Jesus_Brandl_after_1725_National_Gallery_Prague.jpg By Janmad (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In the most unexpected places

File:Cristo de Guadix 123.JPG

Watching for the Morning of November 20, 2016

Year C

Christ the King / Reign of Christ
Proper 29 / Lectionary 34

Sunday is climax of the church year. What began twelve months ago with a look to the horizon of human history sees that horizon again on Sunday in the royal pardon of a crucified man. The one we await as Lord of All is present in the brokenness of the cross, dispensing mercy and grace. It is the oddity at the heart of Christian faith: honor hidden in shame, glory hidden in lowliness, truth hidden in rejection, triumph hidden in defeat, life hidden in death. God shows up in the most unexpected places.

The more we ponder this strange, incomprehensible truth, the more we discover its depths. The thief on the cross is not deserving of mercy, but he receives it. We want to find him meritorious for his defense of Jesus, for his allegiance, his faith and trust. But he speaks the truth when he declares that he and his compatriot are condemned justly. He is not innocent. He is not deserving. Yet he sees a man dying and glimpses a transcendent truth: this is the face of God. Not wrath. Not vengeance. Not heaven’s roar against a world become vile. But mercy, compassion, fidelity, redemption. In a world where hate seems triumphant, a man of hate pledges himself to the king of peace.

This Sunday, established in the 1920’s in response to the rise of fascism, communism and ideologies claiming our allegiance, continues to speak to a world forever caught up in the conflict of powers wreaking division and death, reminding us that our lives belong only to this king: the crucified who lives. We will hear the words of Jeremiah about the shepherds of this world who destroy and scatter the flock in their care – and the promise of a new shepherd, a new king, who will reign in faithfulness. And we will hear the psalmist sing of the one who makes wars to cease to the end of the earth. And we will hear the author of Colossians sing that we have been rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son. And we will hear the king speak mercy to the thief, to us, to all.

It will be paradise.

The Prayer for November 20, 2016

O God who reigns as Lord of all,
creating and sustaining the universe,
and drawing all things to your eternal embrace,
pour out upon us your Holy Spirit,
that pondering the mystery of the cross and resurrection of your Son, Jesus,
we may be met by him who is our true Lord and King;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The Texts for November 20, 2016

First Reading: Jeremiah 23:1-6
“Woe to the shepherds
who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” – As the nation spirals towards destruction by rebelling against Babylon, God speaks a word of judgment upon the leaders of the people and declares that he will gather his scattered people and give them a righteous king of the house of David.

Psalmody: Psalm 46
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble… He makes wars cease to the end of the earth.” – A hymn celebrating the reign of God who overcomes the chaotic forces of nature and the warring tumult of human history.

Second Reading: Colossians 1:11-20
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or power.” –
Christ is the ‘image’, the living sign and presence of God’s reign. We have been reclaimed from the death’s dominion and brought under the reign of Christ in whom and for whom all things exist.

Gospel: Luke 23:33-43
“One of the criminals
who were hanged there…said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” – Jesus crucified is degraded by the governing elite as powerless to save, but one of those crucified with him puts his faith in him.”

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACristo_de_Guadix_123.JPG  By No machine-readable author provided. Aguijarroo assumed (based on copyright claims). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons