And Jesus alone remains

File:Israel hermon (5330547343).jpg

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

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Raised for the world

File:Athos-Evangeliar Heilung der Schwiegermutter.jpg

Watching for the Morning of February 4, 2018

Year B

The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prayer for February 4, 2018

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

The Texts for February 4, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus the destroyer

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Watching for the Morning of January 28, 2018

Year B

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

A demon comes forth this Sunday. It rises up in the middle of church – in the middle of the sermon – as the crowds are marveling already at this lowly laborer’s audacity to preach – and cries out “What are you to us, Jesus? Have you come to destroy us?!” Or maybe that first expression means “What are we to you?”

“Why are you bothering us, Jesus? What have we done to deserve this? Keep on preaching like this and you will destroy us for sure.” You don’t have to think him demon possessed for such thoughts. Jesus’ challenge of the existing order is exactly why the leaders will put him to death. Mark alludes to it (11:18). John lays it out clearly: “So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” (John 11:47-48)

How ironic it is that Jesus is accused of endangering the nation, when it is the Judeans themselves who rebel from Rome and rain destruction on their nation.

But there is a spiritual battle going on. The demon calls Jesus by name and reveals his identity: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” It is a standard notion that to possess the name of a spiritual being (god or demon) is to be able to control it. But the demon is helpless before Jesus. And the crowds are amazed – not by the presence of a possessed man (such people were common) but by the teaching. Jesus’ presumption of the authority to teach is confirmed by his command of evil spirits. He must rank above them to rule over them. Here is a ‘tekton’, a construction worker, but he has supreme authority over those powers that possess, drive and govern human life. It confirms his authority to teach. And the crowd is blown away: A teaching with new power. A teaching with new focus not on purity and law but compassion and fidelity to all.

So Sunday we will hear Deuteronomy promise a prophet like Moses who will bear God’s word to us. And the psalm will sing that God “has shown his people the power of his works.” And Paul will speak of the “one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” And the amazement of the crowds at the authority of Jesus will linger in the air and bid us to recognize that we are in the presence of a supreme authority. His teaching ranks above every other.

The Prayer for January 28, 2018

God of power, God of grace,
you have spoken by your prophets and in your Son Jesus,
to call us out from death into life,
from despair into hope,
from sin into forgiveness.
Deliver us from all that binds the human spirit
and free us to live in you for the sake of the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for January 28, 2018

First Reading: Deuteronomy 18:9-20 (appointed 15-20)
“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.”
– Moses addresses the people after their forty-year journey through the wilderness, just before they enter the land, warning them not to imitate the religious practices of the Canaanites. Then, in a passage that will come to be heard as a promise of the Messiah, Moses declares that God will raise up a prophet for them.

Psalmody: Psalm 111
“I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart.”
– A psalm of praise that exalts the faithfulness and mighty deeds of God.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
“Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” – Paul continues to attack the distorted notion of freedom in the Corinthian congregation that fails to recognize the obligations of the members of the congregation to one another as the body of Christ.

Gospel: Mark 1:21-28
“Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’”
– Having summoned Simon, Andrew, James and John, Jesus enters the town and begins to teach in the synagogue, astounding the community with his authority to teach and to command the spirits.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChristus_heilt_einen_Besessenen.jpg See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Casting wide the net of mercy

File:A fisherman casting a net neat Kozhikode Beach.jpgA reflection on the call of Jesus’ disciples from Sunday, January 21, 2018 (the Third Sunday after Epiphany)

Mark 1:14-20: 14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

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Before we begin this morning, I want to make two comments about the text. First, the text begins “Now after John was arrested.” The word that is translated ‘arrested’ here means to be betrayed or handed over. It is the word used of the betrayal and capture of Jesus. When we hear the word ‘arrested’ we think of a police force and a judicial process, but that’s not the world of the first century. ‘Seized’ is probably a better word. And the reason this matters is that here, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, is the shadow of the cross.

Second, I want to remind you that the phrase “repent and believe” is the exact same phrase used when the Roman General defeated Josephus when he was part of the Judean rebellion that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 ce. As a member of the upper class, Josephus was given the choice to change sides and show allegiance to Rome. Jesus comes announcing the reign of God and calling us to change sides and show allegiance to the reign of God. These are not religious words about regret and moral regeneration; they are words about the fundamental commitment of our lives.

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

The 16th chapter of the book of Jeremiah contains a brutal prophetic word. God tells Jeremiah that he is not to take a wife or have children as a sign to the people of his day that a terrible judgment is coming upon the nation, a destruction so fierce that the bodies of children and their parents will lie unburied and unwept. They will become food for the buzzards and wild dogs.

Jeremiah is not to attend any funeral, or console any grieving parent, because no one shall lament those who perish in God’s coming judgment. Jeremiah is not to attend any wedding or celebration because the sound of joy is about to be banished from the land. Indeed, God is sending for a horde of fishermen and hunters to search every cave and cove to haul this people from every hiding place to their destruction.

It is a dark and devastating word from God.

What’s interesting about this Biblical text, however, is that somewhere along the line – either when the words of Jeremiah were being written down or when they were being copied and passed on to the next generation – someone along the way felt compelled to pluck two verses of hope from somewhere else in Jeremiah’s preaching and set these words into this declaration that God was sending out fishermen with nets to gather the people for judgment.

Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt’, but ‘As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.’ For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their ancestors. (Jeremiah 16:14-15 // Jeremiah 23:7-8)

By setting this passage inside the other, the net of judgment becomes ultimately a net of grace.

God’s purpose for the nation does not end with their being scattered from the land where they were supposed to do justice, to show faithfulness to God and to one another, to care for the poor and weak – a faithfulness they failed to show. But God’s purpose ends with the scattered people being gathered.

There are many words of woe in the Biblical text, many words of warning about what will happen if we fail to live God’s justice and mercy. But the prophets do not stop there. It is easy to preach disaster. There are a lot of things that can go wrong when a society fails its most fundamental obligation to care for one another and the earth upon which we live. But God never stops with judgment. God always pushes on to reconciliation, to restoration, to hope. One of the most fundamental elements of the Biblical story is that when all hope for the future is lost – God gives us a future.

Abraham and Sarah have no child. He is 100 and she is 90. The promise of descendants seems at an end. But God is not finished with Abraham or with the world he has promised to save through Abraham’s line.

At the time of Noah, the whole earth has become “corrupt in God’s sight…and filled with violence.” (Genesis 6:12), that “every imagination of the thoughts of their hearts is only evil continually”! (Genesis 6:5RSV) But God is not done with his creation. He grants it a new birth.

Israel is in bondage in Egypt. They have been there for 430 years! (Remember, we are less than 250 years from the declaration of independence.) Pharaoh no longer remembers how Joseph saved the country. Pharaoh fears all these foreigners and instructs the midwives that every male child is to be killed at childbirth – and, when that fails, he issues an edict that every male child should be thrown into the Nile. But God saves a little child named Moses as he is being carried down the river out to sea.

When Moses leads the people out of Egypt, they become trapped between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army and all seems lost – there is no hope – but during the night a wind blows and creates a path through the sea.

The people are without water in the desert, but God brings forth a river of water from the rock.

The people are without food and want to go back to Egypt and their slavery, but in the morning there is manna upon the ground.

Jerusalem is destroyed and the people scattered throughout the world. Many are taken as prisoners to Babylon. But fifty years later, Cyrus overthrows Babylon and lets all its captured people go home. And Jerusalem is rebuilt.

God is a god of mercy. God is a god who works reconciliation and restoration. God is a god who creates a future. God is a god who opens the grave.

So the editor of Jeremiah can’t let those words of judgment stand unanswered. And he reminds us that God’s purpose is to gather the scattered. The nets of judgment become nets of grace.

When Jesus walks along the shore of Galilee and sees those fishermen working there, he sees nets of grace. And he calls those fishermen to the work of gathering all creation into the arms of God.

It’s important we understand this. Our defining task as a Christian community is to gather all creation into the arms of God. The risen Jesus will breathe his Spirit on his followers and say As the father sent me, I sent you.” The last words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew are: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Disciples. Students. Followers. Practitioners. Citizens of the dawning age. Participants in the new creation.

Our tendency is to hear those words in a vaguely institutional sense of making new church members – or at least new Christians. But the vision is of a world brought under the reign of God’s spirit. The vision is a world pulled back from bondage into freedom, from death into life. The vision is a world gathered in the nets of mercy.

Our defining task as a Christian community, as followers of Jesus, is to gather all creation in the nets of mercy.

Now there are some things about this story that I want to be sure we also hear. The text says Jesus is walking along the shore. Jesus is walking on the boundary between the land and the sea. Boundaries are places of spiritual importance in the world of the scripture. All the conversation about clean and unclean in the Bible is about boundaries. What are the boundaries between what is holy and what is not holy?

I don’t have time to go into detail on this, so I hope you will trust me. But the shore is a boundary between the land – where we are safe – and the sea – where there is danger. When God began to create, the sea was a chaos and God set boundaries to the water. He created the dome of heaven to divide the waters above from the waters below, and he divided the sea to allow dry land to appear. He set boundaries that the sea could not cross (cf. Jeremiah 5:22). When Jesus stills the storm or walks on the sea, he is commanding the sea as God commanded the primordial chaos. When Jesus casts the demons out of the man in Gerasa, the demons go into the pigs and what do the pigs do? They run into the sea. The depths of the sea is the realm of chaos and darkness, the realm of evil spirits.

When Jesus walks along the shoreline and calls his followers to be fishers of people, part of the imagery rattling around in the background is the sea as a realm of chaos and evil. We are being called to gather humanity out from the realm of bondage into the realm of freedom. We are being called to cast wide the nets of God’s mercy, to gather the world out from darkness into light, from despair into hope, from death into life.

The second thing I want you to remember is that something is lost when we read this story clipped from the larger narrative. Yes, this is a great story on its own. Yes, it is a classic Sunday school story. But this story is still at the beginning of the very first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. And, as we talked about last week, Mark’s gospel is filled with intensity.

‘Immediately’, it says, they left their nets. (v. 18) ‘Immediately’ Jesus called them (v. 20). The word ‘immediately’ is used twelve times by Mark in this first chapter alone – that averages better than one in every fourth verse. It will get used thirty more times in this short little Gospel. The story Mark tells is full of urgency. It begins with a bang.

Jesus’ summons of followers is part of this incredible dynamic power of Jesus. He is the mighty one who will drench the world in the Spirit of God. He is the one for whom the heavens are torn open. He is the one on whom the Spirit descends. He is the one of whom God will say, “This is my Son, the beloved.” This is the one who will be immediately tested by Satan and be waited on by angels. This is the one who declares that the time has come; God’s reign is begun. He summons people to come and they leave everything to follow him. Next Sunday we will hear how demons cry out and immediately he silences them. We will hear how the sick are brought to him and he heals them. In the Sundays to come we will hear how he reaches out and touches a leper and renders him clean, and how he will announce a crippled man to be forgiven and then tell him to take up his mat and walk.

This story about Peter, Andrew, James and John is not really a story about us; it is a story about Jesus. We are called to discipleship. We are called to follow. We are called to cast wide the nets of mercy. But the story is not about us. It is about Jesus who walks fearlessly on the boundary between earth and sea, between heaven and hell, between death and life to rescue the world.

This is the Jesus who encounters us in the waters of the font. This is the Jesus who embraces us in his mercy and feeds us at his table. This is the Jesus who speaks to us words of life and breathes his Spirit upon us. This is the Jesus who commissions us as his agents and summons us to cast wide the net of mercy.

In a world so deeply entangled in passions and desires and hates and hostilities, in a world so deeply fractured as our own, in a world where judgment looms over our brokenness and sin, God is casting his net of mercy. He bids us follow.

Amen

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

Awash in the Spirit

File:Caban-coch dam overflowing - geograph.org.uk - 148870.jpg

Watching for the Morning of January 14, 2018

Year B

The Baptism of Our Lord

(See the note below on why we are celebrating The Baptism of Our Lord this Sunday)

The heavens were torn open.

As he was coming up out of the water “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” It is the word that will show up again in Mark when the curtain of the temple will be torn from top to bottom. Mark doesn’t use a subtle word to describe what happens at the banks of the Jordan. Mark is rarely subtle. His story is urgent, compelling. Something powerful has burst into the world, tossing demons aside and healing all who come near. Bursting the bonds that bind. Tearing open the heavens to bring all heaven’s gifts down. This Jesus is the coming one, the promised one, who will flood the world with God’s Spirit.

So Sunday’s texts will take us to the beginning, when God’s spirit/breath/wind blew over the face of the great deep and God called forth light for the world. And the psalm will proclaim the mighty voice of God that shakes the wilderness and shatters the cedars of Lebanon. And the book of Acts will tell us of the believers in Ephesus who had not yet heard of the Holy Spirit, but will receive it in abundance. And we will hear again of John the Baptist and the promise of the Spirit, and we will see Jesus come and the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending.

And in our liturgy we will remember what it means to be a people awash in the Spirit, to be witnesses of a world forever changed, to be agents of that Spirit, a people empowered, the body of this Christ in the world.

The Prayer for January 14, 2018 (for the Baptism of Our Lord)

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.

The Texts for January 14, 2018 (for the Baptism of Our Lord)

First Reading: Genesis 1:1-5
“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.” – The opening words of that profound vision of God creating a good and ordered world, assembled by a people who have lived through the chaos of war, social disintegration, famine and the destruction of their nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 29
“The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.” – Using the imagery of a thunderstorm coming off the Mediterranean Sea and rising over Mount Hermon, the poet proclaims the power of God’s Word.

Second Reading: Acts 19:1-7
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” – Paul connects with disciples in Ephesus who knew only the baptism of John.

Gospel: Mark 1:1-11
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
– The Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus in his baptism and God declares him God’s ‘Son’.

As noted the last two weeks, our parish departs from the appointed texts for the Christmas season in order to present the birth narratives with some integrity: reading Luke 2:1-20 on Christmas Eve (and John 1 on Christmas morning), then the reception of the child by Simeon and Anna on the Sunday in Christmas. The second Sunday after Christmas (nearest January 6) is celebrated as the Sunday of the Epiphany and provides us with Matthew’s account of the Magi and Herod’s attempt to kill the infant Messiah.

Occasionally, as in this year, this puts us out of sync with the appointed lectionary. So this Sunday, the first after our celebration of the Epiphany, we will celebrate as the Baptism of our Lord and next Sunday we will skip to the texts for the third Sunday after the Epiphany.

A post about the Second Sunday after Epiphany in year B and its readings from 2015 can be found here. For other comments on the readings for Epiphany 2 B follow this link.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACaban-coch_dam_overflowing_-_geograph.org.uk_-_148870.jpg Mark Evison [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But Christ can see

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Christmas Eve

I tried to stand well away from the altar, tonight, as I said the Eucharistic Prayer – the prayer that surrounds the words of institution (“In the night in which he was betrayed…”) for communion. Yesterday I was knocked down by a terrible cold and I didn’t want to touch the bread or get near to anyone lest I pass on my germs. So the assisting minister held the bread aloft at the proper moment, then the wine, then broke them for the distribution and served the bread for me.

I missed this opportunity to serve the community the gifts – or to share the peace before we come to the table – or to shake their hand and greet them after the service. I have been here 15 years, now, and there are people who come faithfully at Christmas. There are young people who have grown up and moved away but are back for the holiday. There are grandchildren and visiting aunts and uncles and siblings I have met through the years. It is hard to stand apart and wave at them from a distance after the service.

There is something wonderful about the power of this night to gather people together. Something warm and enduring about the ties that stretch over time. Something mystical about the power of this story of the child of Bethlehem and the beauty of a darkened room with the Christmas trees shining and every hand holding high a lighted candle as we sing of a silent and holy night. It speaks of peace, a peace that we remember, a peace we can imagine, a peace for which we hope.

It is our answer to the torchlight march last August in Charlottesville. It is our prayer for a world where too much is vile and violent. It is our yearning for what the world could be.

And it is our confession of what the world shall be. The babe of Bethlehem, the man from Nazareth, the healer and teacher, the embodiment of mercy and life, the good shepherd who lays down his life for the world, the crucified one is risen and comes to breathe his spirit upon us. He comes to touch us with grace and life. He comes to heal and renew the world. He comes to gather us to one table. He comes to reconcile heaven and earth.

Not everyone who comes to sing “Silent Night” can see all the way to Good Friday and Easter, to Pentecost and the New Jerusalem. But Christ can see. And the Spirit leads. And the song is begun.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABonfeld_-_Evangelische_Kirche_-_Kanzelwand_und_Weihnachtsbaum_2015_-_1.jpg By Roman Eisele (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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

Reconciliation

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Watching for the Morning of September 10, 2017

Year A

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 18 / Lectionary 23

Our first reading on Sunday sets the wrong background for the words of Jesus we will hear. The prophet takes up the image of a sentinel. If a sentinel gives warning of raiders sweeping down upon the land and the people ignore the warning, the people are responsible for whatever losses come. But if the sentinel fails to give warning, and the people are unprepared for the invaders, it is the sentinel who bears responsibility: “their blood I will require at the sentinel’s hand.” As so often with the prophets, Ezekiel has the crowd’s attention. They are nodding in assent, when suddenly the prophet turns the tables and Ezekiel himself is the sentinel warning the people of impending doom. Suddenly the sins of the nation are at issue; destruction is bearing down on them because of their failure to keep God’s way of justice and mercy. If they do not repent, their blood is on their own hands.

Such a word of warning is far different than the injunction given by Jesus that begins with the words: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault.” It sounds the same, perhaps, but it is not. Jesus is not calling us to warn the sinner; he is speaking to the one who has been sinned against. And the sins at stake here are not the failure to live God’s care for the neighbor; they are the assaults on the honor of another. Jesus inhabits a culture where every insult or dishonor must immediately be met with a corresponding insult – all very public – in order to right the balance. A person’s job was to defend his honor and the honor of his family in the eyes of the community. Any insult must be matched. Any challenge met directly and immediately. Jesus is not worried about a fellow believer’s transgressing of a moral code; he is concerned that we understand what it means that we have become members of the household of God. We are a single household in Christ. Any insult must be dealt with privately, as in a family.

But it is not the honor of the community that must be maintained. This is the trap into which churches fall when they sweep grave sins beneath the rug in the name of protecting the church. It is the tie between us that matters. It is reconciliation that is the goal, not honor. Secrets are not being kept; relationships are being mended.

Jesus isn’t concerned with the system of honor rankings; he seeks reconciliation. This is where this whole chapter began. The disciples came to Jesus to ask who was the greatest. And then Jesus is putting a child in the midst and talking about taking up the lowest station. He is talking about plucking out your eye rather than diminishing another. He is talking about the shepherd going after the one and leaving the ninety-nine. And in the verses that follow, that we will read next Sunday, he is talking about 77-fold forgiveness rather than 77-fold revenge.

We are not sentinels for one another – or for society. We are brothers and sisters seeking to live reconciliation. We don’t demand that our honor be restored when offended, we want our relationship to be restored. It is a challenging path. And so we will pray with the psalmist “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes…Give me understanding… Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain.” And we will hear Paul write that all the commandments “are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” And we will realize that, while sentinels matter, reconciliation is the kingdom.

The Prayer for September 10, 2017

Almighty God,
you call us to walk as children of the light
and set before us the command to love one another.
Turn us back when we stray
and lead us in your pathways
that, clothed in Christ, we might bear your grace to the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 10, 2017

First Reading: Ezekiel 33:1-11
“As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” – God compares the prophet to a watchman against hostile enemies and charges him not to remain silent when God has given him a message of warning for the nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:33-40
“Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.” – Another segment of this magisterial psalm celebrating the gift of God’s Law/Teaching.

Second Reading: Romans 13:8-14
“The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
– Paul urges his hearers to live the life to which they have been called in Christ where love (the solidarity of regarding others as members of your own family/kin) is the heart of God’s commands.

Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20
“If another member of the church sins against you…” – Following the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the declaration that God does not want any to be lost, Jesus instructs is followers on seeking reconciliation in the community.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AForgiveness_0001.jpg By scem.info [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Remember Zacchaeus

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Psalm 26:1-8

1 Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity,
…..and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.

The eight verses assigned for us to sing or read on Sunday describe the poet’s righteousness. “Your steadfast love is before my eyes,” he declares, “and I walk in faithfulness to you.” The portrait he paints is noble:

4 I do not sit with the worthless,
…..nor do I consort with hypocrites;
5 I hate the company of evildoers,
…..and will not sit with the wicked.
6 I wash my hands in innocence,
…..and go around your altar, O Lord,
7 singing aloud a song of thanksgiving,
…..and telling all your wondrous deeds.

But there is an unpleasant aftertaste in these words.

I always get a little nervous around those who are a little too certain they are righteous. And it’s not just because Lutherans as a whole have a pretty skeptical view of the possibility of our righteousness. The notion of “alien righteousness”, a righteousness that comes from somewhere else, that is not our own but given to us, is pretty deep in Lutheran piety. We are righteous because, amazingly, graciously, wondrously, when God looks at us he sees Christ’s righteousness not our own. We are pretty sure if he saw our own it would resemble a dilapidated storefront in an abandoned urban area. It has walls and a roof, the appearance of a building, but the windows are broken and the roof surely leaks. Thankfully, God is like an overly enthusiastic realtor who sees what should be and will be rather than what is.

In Lutheranland, we are all fixer uppers. So when we encounter someone who is a little too certain they live in a fine neighborhood, we are uncomfortable. Surely they must be denying there is something musty in the basement or mice droppings in the attic.

Nevertheless, this Sunday we are asked to say these words:

4 I do not sit with the worthless,
…..nor do I consort with hypocrites;
5 I hate the company of evildoers,
…..and will not sit with the wicked.
6 I wash my hands in innocence,
…..and go around your altar, O Lord,

It’s a complicated moment. First of all, it requires us to remember that these words are a prayer. The poet is in trouble and offering the kind of prayer we have all offered: “I don’t deserve this…come rescue me…” Like the prayers of our ancestors, our prayers may not be noble, but God does listen.

Secondly we have to remember that these words, like all the words of scripture, reach their fullest truth in Jesus. He was righteous, faithful to God and to others, but his righteousness did not set him apart from the wicked; it placed him in their living rooms. Remember Zacchaeus. I wish I could find a way to put those two words into the six or seven letters of a vanity license plate. That’s one I might consider buying.

Remember Zacchaeus. His righteousness comes after Jesus has shocked the righteous by coming to dine at his home. His righteousness is entirely a response to the presence of Christ. He makes no claim to goodness or holiness; it is brought forth by Christ’s goodness and holiness. Zacchaeus does nothing but agree to let Christ come to his home – and then the spirit of Christ works its work in him. Suddenly he is giving away half his possessions to the poor and setting right his wrongs.

So we will pray the poet’s prayer on Sunday. And the words will come awkwardly. But hopefully we will remember Zacchaeus and, perhaps, all those other prayers that are a little too full of ourselves will be filled with Christ.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChapiteau_de_St-Nectaire_-_Le_Christ_et_Zach%C3%A9e.jpg By Tangopaso (Self-photographed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Butterflies, June bugs and the Kingdom of God

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Shenandoah National Park

“So Jesus declares that it is the things you say and do that make you unclean, not your ritual purity. And then a Canaanite woman shows up.”

A reflection on Matthew 15:10-28

Several summers ago, as I drove over interstate 80 on my way to my Father’s house in Colorado, I came to a section of the road near the crest of the Sierras where the air was thick with butterflies. It was amazing to see, except that the poor creatures were splatting across my windshield. I was saddened that so many of these creatures were meeting their demise on my car. But there was nothing I could do. There was no way to avoid them, no way to get across the mountains without going through this cloud of butterflies.

Driving across Nebraska at night, on the other hand, I don’t feel any regret about the bugs that splat against my windshield. I wish they didn’t because my windshield wipers just smear the goop around and it takes forever to clean them off the windshield when you stop at a gas station.

So what’s the difference between the insects at the top of the Sierra’s and those in Nebraska?

We think of butterflies as pretty, and June bugs and grasshoppers as pests. Fireflies are lovely on a summer’s evening. Mosquitos are not. The praying mantis we saw in my father’s yard in Virginia were cool. The horde of bugs occupying a Louisiana gas station bathroom late one August night was disgusting.

If a butterfly landed on your hand, you wouldn’t feel an impulse to wash your hand. But if a roach ran across, you probably would.

Some things are ‘clean’ and some things are ‘unclean’.

We’ve talked about purity rules before. And I can’t remember what stories I have told, so I hope you’ll bear with me. But this notion of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’, of ‘pure’ and ‘impure’, is deeply important. And it is very instinctive. It seems automatic within us. We care about butterflies. We don’t care about June bugs.

But this is important to recognize: although the notion of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ is instinctive, the things we identify as ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ are cultural. They are learned. When I was a kid and loved to fish, I wouldn’t think of eating a rainbow trout raw. That’d be disgusting. But I love pickled herring. Pickled herring is part of our family tradition. It is part of being Danish. It connects with big family dinners and special lunches with my dad. It connects me with my father’s parents, Farmor and Farfar, and all those memories of Uncle Erik and Aunt Betty and Uncle Dan and cousin Jim – and my daughter, Anna – who loved it. They are all gone, now, we have laid them all in the grave, but the pickled herring is part of us. We are all still connected.

The ideas about purity are about our identity. It defines who we are. It declares to whom we belong. Megan came home from school in the third grade distressed at having learned that people in China ate dog meat. “What kind of people can do that?” she wailed. They are not us. They are them. And we are not even sure they are human. “What kind of people can do that?”

What kind of person can drive a car through a crowd of pedestrians? Our president said he’s “an animal.” He isn’t really human. He’s not one of us.

Of course, the whole thing in Charlottesville was about who is ‘them’ and who is ‘us’. Who are ‘clean’ and who are ‘unclean’. Who are ‘acceptable’ and who are not. And the problem is that we are not talking about whether certain behaviors are acceptable; we are talking about whether the other side shares in our humanity.

Rules of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ define us. They convey a sense of identity. Sometimes there is goodness in this. Having a Saturday lunch of herring and sardines and aromatic cheeses with my father touches something deep in my dad. And the Danish cookies and the frikadellar and the hakkebøf and the cucumber salad and the red cabbage and the pickled red beets they are all part of my connection to my family.

So when you marry into the family we set before you the family foods. We teach you how to make the toasts and drink the akvavit. It makes you part of us. When you’re born into the family we set before you all these things. When Anna was two years old, at the end of a big family dinner, she was sitting on her mother’s lap and reached out to the table, grabbed an empty akvavit glass, and stuck her tongue in to lick its last drop. When she did that everyone laughed and cheered: Anna was truly one of ‘us’.

For Israel, all those purity rules about foods and blood and dead bodies – they not only reflected the culture, but they helped to preserve Israel from the idolatry of the cultures around them. If pigs are a sacrificial animal in the cultures around you, but you think pork is unclean, then you won’t participate in the worship of those gods. You won’t lose your identity as a people who have been brought out from bondage in Egypt and called to live justice and mercy.

But there’s a dark side to purity rules: it’s when we think that people who don’t share our rules aren’t really human. “What kind of people can do that?”

We turn our enemies into animals so that we can kill them. If Nazi’s are animals, then we don’t have to care about them. It’s why slavery was defended as an institution: these people aren’t really people. It’s why Jim Crow laws were enacted: these people are unclean. We can’t share a bus seat. We can’t share a water fountain. We can’t share a swimming pool or a public park or a hospital – or our neighborhood.

One of the pictures I considered for the bulletin cover was a photograph of a large, elegant sign from Shenandoah National Park – built in that handsome style of all the other national park signs indicating entrances, park boundaries and special areas. This sign reads “Lewis Mountain” and beneath that, in large letters, it says “NEGRO AREA”. The next line says “Coffee Shop & Cottages” and beneath that “campground picnicground” (sic). At the bottom is the word “entrance” inside an arrow pointing the way.

It’s a nice sign. And I’m sure it’s a nice area. But what the sign really says is that “you people are unclean.” “You are less than.” “You can’t mix with us.”

I read an article about the life of James Fields, Jr., the young man who drove his car into the crowd in Charlottesville. I felt sorry for him. His life has been troubled for a long time. It doesn’t make his actions any less hateful, any less a crime, but his story makes him a human being instead of an animal.

We shouldn’t do to them what they do to others. We shouldn’t forget their humanity. We should be trying to help us all remember our humanity.

It’s so easy to forget. So easy to fail. We curse an idiot driver on the road. We look away from a homeless person on the street. We look disapprovingly at a mother who has taken her young child with her to the grocery store at 11:00 at night. We roll our eyes at a clerk in the store who is moving too slowly. We yell at family members. It is so easy to forget the humanity of others. So easy to abandon our own humanity.

Jesus’ attack on the purity system in Judea was fierce. What renders you unclean, Jesus declares, is how you treat other people, not whether you have done the proper ritual pouring of water over the hands before you eat. The good Samaritan is willing to touch the bleeding body of the victim at the side of the road because – unlike the priest and Levite – he isn’t concerned with outward ritual purity but with the well-being of the wounded man.

Jesus is willing to heal on the Sabbath because mercy and compassion are more important than an outward purity. Jesus is willing to touch a leper because true purity is fulfilling our obligations to one another rather than protecting our own purity. Jesus touches the dead girl to lift her up to life. Jesus touches the bier of the dead young man to give him back to his widowed mother. Jesus eats at the home of Zacchaeus because he sees his humanity. He sees him as a brother.

Jesus is willing to forgive your sins because he sees your humanity.

In the world of Jesus, we are the outsiders. We are the ‘them’. Few, if any of us, are descendants of Abraham by blood and soil – but we are the descendants of Adam and Eve.

We have become descendants of Abraham because we are descendants of Abraham’s faith. We are descendants of Abraham’s trust in and allegiance to the God who fashioned us all, and redeems us all, and calls us all to lives of compassion and faithfulness to one another.

So Jesus declares that it is the things you say and do that make you unclean, not your ritual purity. And then a Canaanite woman shows up.

She’s not just a gentile; she’s one of those people God warned the Israelites about. One of those people who polluted the land twelve centuries ago and made the land vomit them out. One of those people that Israelites were not supposed to marry lest their hearts be led astray to worship the Canaanite gods. One of those people like Jezebel who would teach greed and injustice in the name of her gods. And, if you are offended by what Jesus says to the Canaanite woman, you should be. It is deeply offensive. It is tribal. She is one of ‘them’, not one of ‘us’. God owes her nothing. She has no right to ask. You cannot take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs – the dirty mongrel dogs scrounging the wastes of society.

The woman is unclean. But she understands that God is a god of mercy. She sees that God is a god of all. She clings to the confession that God is god who will show faithfulness to his whole creation. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

She understands that what renders you unclean is what you say and do, not what you eat, or what you touch – or who your parents were.

And Jesus says, “Here is faith.” “Here is great faith.” Here is true allegiance.

And lest we miss the implications of this encounter: if what renders us unclean is what we say and do, then none of us is clean. None of us is pure. None of us is deserving.

If what renders us unclean is what we say and do, then all of us are dependent on God’s mercy.

If what renders us unclean is what we say and do, then none of us is welcome at God’s table – except that God has welcomed us in his love and mercy.

And maybe that’s our avenue back to our humanity. It’s when we think we are clean and others are unclean that lines get drawn. It when we think we are “better than” that others become “less than”. It’s when we think we are the good people and others are not that evils happen.

But when we can see that we are welcomed only by God’s mercy – maybe then we can see others with mercy.

Sermon from Sunday, August 20, 2017
Proper A 15, Lectionary A 20
Los Altos Lutheran Church

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALewis_Mountain_Negro_Area.jpg By National Park Service (http://www.nps.gov/shen/images/20070117113507.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons