Remember not the former things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

+   +   +

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

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Seeing death and life

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Watching for the Morning of March 13, 2016

Year C

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

The passion draws near. Next Sunday is Palm/Passion Sunday and the following week are the three days of the Paschal Triduum: Maundy Thursday, the night of the Last Supper when Jesus washed feet and broke bread and, after, was grabbed by the mob in the night; Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion; and Saturday evening, the Great Vigil of Easter when by the celebration/renewal of baptism we journey with Christ from the realm of death into the realm of life.

This Sunday the Gospel reading anticipates all that is to come when Mary anoints Jesus with oil in a prophetic anticipation of his death. The others don’t see the death coming, so they complain about the “waste” of this expensive perfume. But Jesus sees.

They are in Bethany among the sick – near to the temple but out of sight by law. They are in Bethany where Lazarus was raised. They are at Bethany where Jesus ascends. They are in the place where our need for healing is manifest – and where Christ reigns.

So on this day we hear the prophet Isaiah declare that something greater than the exodus is coming. And the psalmist sings of the wheat sown into the soil with tears and rising into abundance with joy. And Paul writes of his Judean credentials, which he willingly casts aside for the sake of gaining Christ. Like an athlete training that he or she might ascend the dais for the laurel wreath, I press on,” writes Paul, “toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Enlightened

File:36e rencontres internationales de Taizé Strasbourg 31 décembre 2013 11.jpgThis week we are conclude our congregation’s Lenten series rooted in the Apostles’ Creed. Last Sunday centered on a phrase in Luther’s Small Catechism He gathers me into the Body of Christand that is the subject of our daily devotions. This Sunday we will continue in the third article of the creed with the theme: “He enlightens me by his word and Spirit.”

There are many elements of the creed – and especially of the third article of the creed – that could occupy our attention. The five we chose were: Created, Redeemed, Called, Gathered, Enlightened. And on this fifth Sunday in Lent our focus is on that word ‘Enlightened’. We see the world differently in the light of Christ. We see not only conflict but peace. We see not only revenge but forgiveness. We see not only greed but a shared table. We see not only death but life. The world isn’t changed, but we are changed. By the word and Holy Spirit eyes are opened to see. Light shines in the darkness. Light shines in our hearts.

The Prayer for March 13, 2016

In the mystery of your love, O God,
you breathe upon us your Spirit
and open our minds to understand your Word.
Grant us wisdom and understanding
that we may not walk in darkness but in the light of life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for March 13, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 43:16-21
“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” – Through the prophet God announces a new exodus: God will bring the people through the wilderness back from their exile in Babylon.

Psalmody: Psalm 126
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”
– Using images of death and resurrection, the poet sings of God’s wondrous deliverance and prays for God to again “restore our fortunes.”

Second Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14
“I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” –
Paul warns the Philippians about those who would compel them to keep circumcision and the Judean traditions. Though his ‘credentials’ in that tradition are impeccable, he wants only “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings.”

Gospel: John 12:1-8
“Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.”
– The Jerusalem council has determined to put Jesus to death. Now, as Passover approaches, Jesus has come out of hiding to the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, where Mary anoints him for his burial.

Enlightened: Though Sunday takes us to the next section of the creed, our daily devotions during Lent are still reflecting on the theme for week 3 from the third article of the creed: Week 4: Gathered.” We invite you to join us at the Lent website or through our congregation website.

 

Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A125ed-magdalena2bunge2bpies2bde2bjesus.jpg  By 125ed-magdalena2bunge2bpies2bde2bjesus [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Image 2 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A36e_rencontres_internationales_de_Taiz%C3%A9_Strasbourg_31_d%C3%A9cembre_2013_11.jpg  By Photo Claude TRUONG-NGOC (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Bringing us home

Saturday

Isaiah 43:1-7

File:Heading Home, Yemen (9702169604).jpg6“Bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth.”

I can’t hear that voice without thinking about my daughter Anna. She was killed nearly 15 years ago. It is hard to imagine it has been so long. She is still and will ever be the bright, talented, compassionate, deeply spiritual young woman of 19 that she was the day a driver under the influence robbed the world of her life and the life of her friends.

The prophet is thinking about the Israelites scattered by war throughout the region of the Middle East. But I know there are more exiles than those in Babylon. There are more that are far from home than the children of the diaspora.

War is brutal in its impact upon the social fabric. The ties that bind family and community to a place and to one another are shredded. Hopes and beliefs are destroyed along with fields and buildings. Sons and daughters are lost. Fear and sorrow replace joy and trust. That sense of home and belonging perishes.

But it is not only war that separates us from one another, not only marching armies that decimates community. The modern world has made many rootless as they are moved from place to place. Divorce rends the ties of friendship and family. Poverty decimates neighborhoods and cities. Death and disease tear hearts and homes. Even our busyness separates us from one another, providing the illusion of a meaningful life but too often absent its real joys. We form new ties, build new lives, but we are scattered children and exiles. We have lost both village and faith that locates us in the world.

To a world in which it is possible to be homeless literally and spiritually, God speaks:

6I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth–
7everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”

God is in the business of reconciliation, of gathering the scattered, of restoring the broken, of uniting the separated. God is in the business of ending our exile and bringing us home.

 

Photograph: By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia (Heading Home, Yemen) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Fear not

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Friday

Isaiah 43:1-7

5Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.

We are not worthy of this. But this is about God, not us. God is faithful to his promise. However far we may wander. However great our destruction. However profound our exile. God remains faithful to us. It is the character of God.

(I looked at this paragraph for three days and decided there was nothing more to add.  Peace to you.)

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AIkona_na_Arhangel_Gavril_vo_Sv._Blagove%C5%A1tenie_Prilepsko.jpg.   Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The new and better wine

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Watching for the Morning of January 10, 2016

The Baptism of Our Lord

The voice from heaven and the gift of the Holy Spirit are moved away from John’s hands in Luke’s telling of Jesus’ baptism. What Mark and Matthew tell us happened as Jesus was coming up out of the water, now happens while he is praying. It is a subtle thing, but Luke wants to be sure this story is not about John’s magic hands, but the wondrous work of God to pour out his Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is important to Luke. It has inspired the prophetic utterings of Zechariah, Mary, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna. The angel says that John will be filled with the Spirit before he breathes his first breath, and John declares that the coming one will immerse us in the Spirit. Now the Spirit comes upon Jesus so powerfully it evokes the fluttering descent of a dove. Jesus will be full of the Spirit when he departs from the Jordan and comes to Galilee and the scripture he will read in the synagogue in Nazareth is “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”. It is the Holy Spirit that is the Father’s good gift to his children, and the gift of the Holy Spirit that provides the opening drama and center stage all through the book of Acts. Jesus is the one in whom the promise is fulfilled that the Spirit will be poured out on all people. The day has come when all creation shall be governed by the life-breath of God.

So Sunday is not a simple remembrance of the event that began Jesus’ public ministry. It is the Gospel condensed in all its exquisite flavor like a fine chocolate truffle. The reign of God, the Spirit’s governance of the world, the dawning of the age to come, the restoring of the world’s lost innocence, the power that drives out every evil is at hand. It is not just Jesus who is washed in the Jordan, but all of us. The creation is made holy. The new and better wine has come.

Of course, Luke has already told us that the Spirit’s reclamation of the world will be opposed. A struggle is underway. But the new and better wine has come in abundance.

(Yes, the transformation of water into wine at the wedding in Cana is next week’s text – but it’s hard to open only one Christmas present when the tree is so full.)

The Prayer for January 10, 2016

Heavenly Father, Eternal God, Holy and Gracious One:
in the waters of the River Jordan
you anointed Jesus with your Holy Spirit
and declared him your beloved Son.
Make all the earth radiant with your glory
and pour out upon all your children the abundance of your Holy Spirit;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for January 10, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 43:1-7
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” – with language that evokes the creation and exodus and promises their return from exile, the prophet declares God’s abiding faithfulness to the people.

Psalmody: Psalm 29

“The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.” – Using the imagery of a thunderstorm coming off the Mediterranean Sea and crashing upon the slope of Mount Hermon, the poet proclaims the power of God’s Word.

Second Reading: Acts 8:14-17
17Then Peter and John laid their hands on them [the new believers in Samaria], and they received the Holy Spirit.” – When the Greek speaking (Hellenized) Judeans are driven from the city following the communal violence against Stephen, they carry the message of Jesus to Samaria. The message is received with faith and representatives from Jerusalem are sent to affirm that this surprising development is of the Holy Spirit.

Gospel: Luke 3:15-22 (appointed 15-17, 21-22)
“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.”
– The prophetic ministry of John comes to its conclusion with his arrest, and the baptized and praying Jesus is anointed with the Spirit.

 

Image: Icon in the John the Baptist Church at the Jordan River.  Photo by David Bjorgen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons