If you love me

File:Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles.jpg“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
John 14:15

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Gracious God,
you have given us your Spirit as our advocate and guide
that we might abide in you and you in us.
Grant us courage and faith to follow where you lead,
to obey your commands,
to love as you love.

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A message from Sunday morning

The Sixth Sunday of Easter, year A

May 17, 2020

John 14:15-21: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” (NRSV)

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

At first this was an emergency.  As the threat of this novel corona virus grew, we had to think through what we would do in worship to limit our risk.  Then, as the shut-down came, we had to quickly figure out a way to continue to worship online with the few resources we had.  It was a challenge, a puzzle to be solved.  And I was entirely focused on figuring out a way for us to worship – and then to do Holy Week and Easter online.  I didn’t have much time to do anything else.

But now, as the days drag on, I find myself grieving the loss of something that has been so important to me for the last 42 years.  I’ve been a pastor of the church.  And it’s been a great privilege.  I’ve been able to embrace those who grieve.  I’ve been able to hold hands and pray for those in need.  I’ve been able to lay my hands upon those in the hospital and say the blessing.  I’ve been able to lay hands upon the newly baptized, and upon confirmands at their confirmation, and upon the dying with the last rites.  I’ve been able to hold a child in my arms and walk her through the sanctuary following her baptism, introducing her to all those who now share in her spiritual life and growth.  Now all I have is this moment when I can see a few of you on the screen and talk to you about a text that seems far away from the realities of our daily life

I’m not able to invite you to be involved in care for others.  I’m not able to celebrate silly occasions like talent shows or youth dinners.  There are no confirmation retreats.  We can’t share a moment over a cup of coffee.  There are no delightful surprises that Tom has brought donut holes or that Elaine has made Kringle, or that Yolanda and Bill have made those amazing little sandwiches.  And I don’t see an end.

At some point it might happen that a few would begin to gather in the building and I could at least see faces – but those faces are likely to be covered by masks.  And we are going to have to sneak in and out without getting closer than six feet to each other.

We are reduced to waving at each other rather than shaking hands.

Jesus touched the man with leprosy.  He made mud and put it on the eyes of the man born blind.  He took the synagogue ruler’s daughter by the hand and raised her up.  He touched the bier upon which lay the body of the widow’s son.

Jesus broke bread.  He washed feet.  And shall I risk any of that?  I will not be able to sit with children for a children’s sermon.  I cannot take a child’s hand as we go outside to look at the tiny seeds of the Redwood trees and think about how they grow into giants.

I stand here on Sunday mornings and look out into an empty sanctuary.  I know you are there.  I know we are still connected in spirit.  I know we are still gathered around this wondrous book and a table set with bread and wine.  And I know we are keeping our physical distance because we care for one another.  But I would like to be in your living room or at your dining table or watching a football game together.  There are other words to be spoken, stories to be heard, lives to be shared.

I am struggling.  So many simple and ordinary joys are gone.  And I don’t want any more losses.

I want to sing the liturgy.  I want to feel the energy of an Easter crowd.  I want to see familiar smiles.  I want to share coffee and talk about the Sunday crossword puzzle.  I want to hear Natalie’s voice and see her face in the office.  I want to feel like this place is a sanctuary in all the best sense of that word.

I want to listen to the Swedish children’s choir singing in the next room when I’m here on a Saturday working on the sermon.  I want to hear the laughter of children on the playground during the week.  I want to chat with parents from the neighborhood who bring their children to play.  I want to pet the occasional dog being walked.  And, yes, there were times I needed to hide away in my basement office for some quiet uninterrupted time to study or write, but the music school was banging their drums in the next room, and there were children walking back and forth before my window with whom I could smile and wave.  I wasn’t just alone in my office.

I am frustrated, frustrated that all this social distancing was supposed to buy time for our leaders to put a plan in place – to get the equipment we needed, to get the testing we needed, to establish a process and hire the people that were necessary to trace and contain this virus.  But we have fumbled that effort.  We have wasted that time.  And it is the weak and the vulnerable and the poor who have born the worst of it.  Some are being forced to go back to work no matter how risky it is for them – or how fearful they might be – or how many children or seniors depend on their care – they are forced to go back or lose their unemployment coverage (if they’ve been able to get it).

On Saturday evening last week, the death toll from COVID-19 stood at 79,696.  Last night it was 89,420 – almost 10,000 more.  10,000 more families have lost loved ones in this last week despite the heroic work of doctors and health workers.  10,000 more have had to die alone, without a parent or a child or a partner to sit at their side and hold their hand.  And the best we can say is that maybe it will hold steady – not because we are helpless before this virus, but because we fumbled the ball and turned it over on the ten yard line.  We have more deaths than any country in the world.

10,000 more this week.  80,000 thousand people so far.  Each with family and friends and neighbors.  Each with lives they have touched.  Each with contributions they have made.  Each with stories to tell.     Each with sadness and loss left behind.

And for each of those 10,000, there are doctors and nurses whose hopes and spirits have been worn down because they couldn’t save them.

We raised an army and built ships and airplanes to fight fascism in Europe and imperialism in Japan.  We created a Marshall plan to rebuild Europe.  We kept Berlin alive with an airlift – planes taking off and landing every 90 seconds, night and day, when the Russians closed the rail lines.  We went to the moon.  We ended polio.  We ended smallpox.  We should have been able to fight this, not throw up our hands and say tests aren’t important and masks are a socialist plot.

I appreciate the fact that on Friday mornings the CBS morning news is beginning to show some of the people who are perishing.  We talk too often about numbers and not often enough about the people whose lives are being stolen away.  Five names, one day a week, however, is not enough when 10,000 are dying.

Paul and Iris shared with the council this week that their nanny’s sister has died from this Corona virus.  These are not numbers; these are real people.  We should not have to fight to have them recognized as such.

The children of Syrian refugee camps are also real people.  As are the children of the border detention centers.  As are the children of Flint, Michigan, and every other place where people are not only absent from our minds, but absent from our hearts.

When Jesus says to us this morning: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” he is asking an important question.

The way you express a conditional statement in Greek – an “if/then” statement – can tell you what you expect.  The grammar reveals whether the “if” part of the statement is true or not.  So, one way to express this in Greek says: “If you love me (and we know that you do), you will keep my commandments.”  Another way says: “If you love me (and we know that you don’t), you would keep my commandments.”  And the third possibility says: “If you love me (and we don’t know whether you do), you will keep my commandments.”

When Jesus says this to his followers, he uses this third way.  The statement doesn’t assume that we love Jesus.  Whether we do or not will be revealed by whether we keep his commandments.

The word ‘commandments’ is in the plural.  It refers to all that Jesus has taught.  But there is really only one commandment.  That is the commandment Jesus has just given moments before when he washed the disciples’ feet and said: “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.”

And let’s not be mistaken.  When Jesus talks about loving one another, he isn’t drawing that circle around a few close friends.  He is drawing that circle around the whole human community.

If you love me, you will show faithfulness to all I have taught.  If you love me, you will treasure and observe my teaching.  If you love me – if you feel an obligation and allegiance to me as if to a member of your own family – you will keep my commands, you will show faithfulness to all, you will treat every person as if they were family.

Jesus ends this passage with the same point he made at the beginning: “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.”  Fidelity to Jesus means fidelity to all.

Jesus will not leave us orphaned.  (I rather liked the old translation: “I will not leave you desolate,” but the word does mean ‘orphaned’.)  We are not abandoned.  We are not alone. Jesus is speaking to his disciples on the night he will be taken by the mob and thrust before Pilate and impaled upon the cross.  Jesus knows what is coming, but he will not leave his disciples abandoned and alone.  He will come to them.  It is a reference to that Sunday evening when Jesus revealed himself in their midst.  And Jesus will also come to them – come to us – in the Spirit that he breathed out upon his followers.

The Spirit is the living presence of Jesus in the community.  It is our ongoing teacher and guide.  It is the breath of life and font of grace.  It is the wonder of inspiration and the courage of love.  It is the comfort that comes to the downtrodden through simple acts of kindness and bold words of forgiveness – or simple words of forgiveness and bold acts of kindness.

The Spirit is the ongoing presence of Christ in our midst, the ongoing presence of Christ in the world.

It is a truthful Spirit.  It inspires no deceit, tells no lies, creates no illusions.  It doesn’t deceive or manipulate or confuse.  It does not lead to doubt or despair.  It inspires mercy and forgiveness and courage and truth.  It inspires love and patience and kindness.  It inspires hope and joy.  It carries us from the sorrows of the world to the joy of God’s table.  It carries us from the brokenness of the world to a new birth from above.  It carries us from a wedding that has run out of wine to the eternal wedding feast.  It carries us from our isolation into community.  It carries us from death into life.

Amen

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© David K Bonde, 2020.  All rights reserved

Image:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christ_Taking_Leave_of_the_Apostles.jpg  Duccio di Buoninsegna / Public domain.

Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

 

I am the way

File:Campion Hall Jesus.jpg

Watching for the Morning of May 10, 2020

Year A

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

John 14:1

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

Our hearts are troubled.  They are troubled by the fear of Covid-19.  They are troubled by the tears of those who have lost loved ones.  They are troubled by the cries of frustration from nurses and doctors.  They are troubled by the lies and incompetence of our leaders.  They are troubled by the injustices that weave through our land.  They are troubled by those who talk about freedom as the privilege to do as they please not the responsibility to do as they ought.  They are troubled that love of self seems to trump love of neighbor.

Our hearts are troubled.  And the words of Jesus seem weak to the task.  Should there not be prophetic outrage?  Should we not hear Jeremiah shouting: “They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds”! (14:14). Should we not tremble before the voice of God declaring “I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem.” (13:9)

Our hearts are troubled.  And what will the texts this Sunday speak?  Will we hear Stephen pray for his murderers as Jesus did?  Will we understand that Christ in us is to be Christ for the world?  Will we hear Peter say, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood,” and take up the mantle as those who bear Christ to the world?  Will we hear the poet speak the words that Jesus recited upon the cross, “Into your hand I commit my spirit,” and entrust ourselves so fully into the hands of God?

Will we understand what Jesus means when he says: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”?  Will we hear a triumphalist song of the superiority of our ‘team’ or the summons to walk the path Jesus walked?  Will we recognize that the way, the truth, and the life – the living face of God – is shown in the outstretched arms that bore the sins of the world and prayed that God would yet forgive a world so inured to the suffering and dying of others?  We are not gaining a privilege, but shouldering a cross.

Our hearts are troubled.  And maybe this is something we share with the disciples who sense something terrible is afoot with Jesus.  Some spectre haunts their night when Jesus will be betrayed and handed over.

Nothing is as it should be in this night.  But we are given words of assurance.  God is working in ways hidden but sure.  And we have work to do, a priestly people not called to privilege but sent as servants of our foot-washing, suffering, redeeming, teacher and Lord.

The Prayer for May 10, 2020

Let not our hearts be troubled, O God;
teach us to put our hope and trust in you.
Guide us in your way;
keep us in your truth;
enfold us in your life
that your works of love, justice and mercy
may be done in us and through us;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.
Amen

The Texts for May 10, 2020

First Reading: Acts 7:55-60
“While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’” – Stephen becomes a victim of communal violence for his preaching and teaching about Jesus, and in his dying embodies the faith and love Jesus modeled.

Psalmody: Psalm 31:1-5
“Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.” – A prayer of lament.  The trust in God embodied in the psalm is reflected in Stephen and quoted by Jesus on the cross.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 2:2-10
“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” –
Expounding on baptism, the author urges the believers to “grow into salvation” as living stones in a “spiritual house” (a spiritual temple).

Gospel: John 14:1-14
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” – Jesus makes provision for his followers in lieu of his impending death, urging them to remain faithful and assuring them that God’s resources are more than adequate to provide all their needs.

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Images: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Campion_Hall_Jesus.jpg Gownley at English Wikipedia / Public domain

Thieves and bandits

File:Schäferei083.jpg

Watching for the Morning of May 3, 2020

Year A

The Fourth Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday)

It’s not hard to look at the leadership of our country, whether in politics or business, and see thieves and bandits.  Large corporations scooping up huge swaths of the federal Paycheck Protection Program’s forgivable loans is only the latest evidence that, too often, profit trumps decency.  Profiteering from personal protection equipment, profiteering from inside information of the pending collapse of the stock market, profiteering from friends in high places hawking your unproven medication, manipulation of public opinion for personal gain…thieves and bandits.  Only Jesus isn’t looking at Judea’s Roman overlords he is looking at synagogue leaders who insist the man born blind was conceived in utter sin and that his healer, too, is an obvious sinner.

The sheep recognize the voice of their shepherd, says Jesus.  The true shepherd is the one who doesn’t need to sneak into the sheepfold or come to plunder; the true shepherd enters through the gate and leads them to goodness.  The sheep follow him.  They know his voice.  He knows their names.

The fourth Sunday of Easter every year takes us to John 10 and Psalm 23.  It evokes songs and prayers about Jesus the Good Shepherd.  Pictures rise in our minds of lambs around the shoulders of Jesus, still waters, green meadows, and peace.  But Jesus is in a struggle with the leadership of the nation.  The grace and mercy of the Good Shepherd is true, but the text before us is more pointed.  Jesus is the gate – the door – to rich pastures; Jesus is the path to wholeness.  Jesus is the bringer of an overflowing life.  But all this is asserted in response to pharisees who claim to see, but see nothing.  All this is asserted when leaders have no love for the sheep, when leaders take life rather than lay it down for others.  When the man who now sees is cast out, Jesus is the open door to life.

Sunday we will hear about the life that follows in the train of Jesus as the book of Acts describes the community gathered around word and table, living in faithfulness to one another.  We will recite Psalm 23 with its portrait of the bountiful faithfulness of God even amidst the ruthless scheming of the royal court.  We will hear 1 Peter reminds us “you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls,” and we will ponder again the mystery of the true shepherd who is also the gate to a life awash in mercy, faithfulness, and joy.

File:S Buckingham Glass 1.JPG

The Prayer for May 3, 2020

Gracious God,
guardian and shepherd of our souls,
keep us in your Word
that, hearing and following your voice,
we may know your abundant life;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for May 3, 2020

First Reading: Acts 2:42-47
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” – Luke presents one of his summary descriptions of the early Christian community, an ever-expanding community manifesting God’s faithfulness and love.

Psalmody: Psalm 23
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” – a song of trust born of reflection upon God’s gracious care and providence through the challenges and trials of life.  In the midst of the dangerous intrigues of the royal court, God is the true shepherd who has guarded and guided the poet’s way.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 2:19-25
“Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” –
this portion of 1 Peter is presumably appointed for Good Shepherd Sunday for its line: “you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls,” but this section of the homily speaks to the pattern of enduring suffering given by Jesus.

Gospel: John 10:1-10
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.  The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.” – Several metaphors from the world of shepherding are taken up as parables of the access to ‘Life’ found in Jesus.

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Images: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sch%C3%A4ferei083.jpg Rainer Halama / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:S_Buckingham_Glass_1.JPG  Mjbhoney / Public domain

We will go with him

 

Watching for the Morning of February 23, 2020

Year A

The Feast of the Transfiguration

Sunday is the last of the Alleluias.  By tradition, they are omitted during Lent; we do not sing them again until the cry goes out: “Christ is risen!” and the darkness turns to light in that night that dawns into Easter morning.

Sunday we are on the mountain peak.  The cloud of God’s presence surrounds Jesus and he is made radiant by God’s glory.  It is a vision that confirms the word spoken at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”  It is a vindication of all that Jesus has said and will yet say.  “Listen to him,” the heavenly voice says.  Listen to him.  Dare to hear what he says about the cross and resurrection.  Dare to follow him to Jerusalem.  Dare to see the arms stretched wide and the blood outpoured.  Dare to trust the word of the women who will see the vision of angels and the empty tomb.  Dare to trust and live the redemption of the world that happens here where shame is suffered and mercy given.  Listen to him.

Sunday we are made ready for our Lenten journey.  In our first reading we are reminded of Moses ascending into the cloud of God’s presence at Sinai.  In the psalm, we hear the divine voice say of the king “You are my son; today I have begotten you,” words that gain their fullest meaning as they are spoken of the lamb who shall reign over a world made new.  We hear the author of 2 Peter testify to their vision: “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”  And we will hear Matthew’s account of that moment, and how Jesus came and touched Peter, James, and John, telling them not to be afraid.

There is a path ahead that is full of wonder and mystery that Jesus’ followers will not fully understand until the Spirit beats in every heart.  But we are made ready for the journey.  This is God’s beloved.  And we will go with him from death into life.

The Prayer for February 23, 2020

Holy and Wondrous God,
hidden in mystery yet revealed in your Son, Jesus,
of whom the law and prophets bear witness
and upon whom your splendor shines:
Help us to hear his voice
and see your glory in his outstretched arms;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.
Amen

The Texts for February 23, 2020

First Reading: Exodus 24:12-18
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.’” – God speaks to Moses from the cloud on Mt. Sinai.  Both the cloud as a symbol of God’s presence and the tradition that Moses’ face shone from speaking to God face to face lie in the background of today’s Gospel narrative of the transfiguration of Jesus.

Psalmody: Psalm 2
“Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?” – A royal psalm that contains a declaration by God to the king “You are my son; today I have begotten you” similar to that spoken by God to Jesus in the story of the transfiguration.

Second Reading: 2 Peter 1:16-21
“He received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
– The author of 2 Peter alludes to the events on the Mount of the Transfiguration.

Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9
“He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” – After Peter has confessed Jesus as the Christ only to be told that the Messiah must suffer and be killed, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on the mountain where they have a visionary experience of Jesus transfigured by the radiant presence of God.

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Image: dkbonde

When the fire of love no longer burns brightly

File:Salt from Timbuktu.jpg

Watching for the Morning of February 9, 2020

Year A

The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Three years ago, I wrote that Jesus spoke these words about being salt and light to the “poor”:

Jesus is talking to rural villagers, not the Jerusalem elite.  He is talking to those who are poor, mourning and hungering for the world to be set right.  He is talking to refugees in the camps when doors are shut.  He is talking to mothers and children scratching out their existence in the rubble of wars.  He is talking to those in fear of uniforms unrestrained by any law.  He is talking to those who know hunger and thirst.  “You are the salt that burns bright the fire of God.  You are the light that is set on a stand.”

I wonder, now, how those words should be heard among those on the other end of the social pyramid.  Is there grace here, or only judgment?  Is Jerusalem the city set on a hill that cannot be hid?  Is it from the judgment of God the governing authorities cannot hide?  Jerusalem was not a shining beacon of hope; it had become the center of an unjust and impoverishing rule.  Jesus’ scathingly condemns the governing elite in Matthew 23, weeping over the city before predicting its fall.  The authorities choose Rome over the promised kingdom of God and hand Jesus over as a terrorist.

The salt of which Jesus speaks is the salt slab used at the base of an earthen oven that burns dung as fuel.  Salt serves as a catalyst for the fire, letting it burn hot enough to bake the bread that sustains the poor.  Eventually, the slab loses its ability to catalyze the fire.  It doesn’t “lose its taste,” as our translation suggests.  The literal meaning of the Greek word means for the salt to become ‘foolish’.  We should translate it as ‘insipid’ or ‘worthless’, not ‘tasteless’.  A people in whom the fire of divine grace and mercy no longer burns brightly are useful for nothing but stepping stones in the mud.  Those who would hide the justice of God as a lamp beneath a basket are the truly foolish.

To call someone a fool is a serious charge in the biblical world.  It means they have ignored the fundamental truths of existence.  As someone who ignores gravity is a fool, so is the one who ignores the moral and spiritual realities of human life.

“The fool speaks folly, and his mind plots iniquity: to practice ungodliness, to utter error concerning the LORD, to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied, and to deprive the thirsty of drink.” (Isaiah 32:6)

When the psalmist says: “The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God’” (Psalm 53:1), the point has little to do with religious observances; it concerns the failure to recognize the divine imperative to do justice and mercy.  The ‘fool’ doesn’t ignore church but our essential humanity.

The ‘fool’ doesn’t see Lazarus at the gate.  The ‘fool’ builds bigger barns and stores up riches rather than sharing with those in need.  The ‘fool’ doesn’t care for the sick or feed the hungry or clothe the naked.

The ‘fool’ corrupts the courts.   The ‘fool’ chooses revenge.  The ‘fool’ embraces lies and deceit.  “Like one who binds the stone in the sling is he who gives honor to a fool,” says Proverbs 26:8.  Honoring a fool is like handing over a loaded gun.

What shall we say to the foolish who would hide the justice of God as a lamp beneath a basket?

The grieving parent recognizes the folly of war, the dispossessed the folly of greed, the abused the folly of injustice, the hungry the folly of hardened hearts.  All these understand that you don’t put a lamp under a bushel, and that there is no other place but the mud for a slab that does not help the fires of love burn brightly.

The Prayer for February 9, 2020

Gracious God,
you have appointed your people to be in the world
as the fire and light of your justice and mercy.
Fill us with your Holy Spirit,
and shape our lives by your Word,
that through lives of faith, hope, and love
we may bear witness to your reign;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for February 9, 2020

First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-12
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” – In the hardscrabble life after the return from Exile, God confronts the complaint of the people that God has not answered their prayers by challenging the goal of those prayers.  They have sought advantage for themselves rather than to live God’s justice and mercy.

Psalmody: Psalm 112:1-10
“Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.” –  A description of the righteous who rest securely in God and the blessing they bring to the world, giving freely to the poor and conducting “their affairs with justice.”

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 2:1-12
“Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom.” –
Having challenged the Corinthians desire for human eloquence and wisdom, Paul writes of the wisdom of God that is so different from the wisdom of this age – the truth of sacrificial love hidden in Christ crucified

Gospel: Matthew 5:13-16 (appointed: Matthew 5:13-20)
“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” – Comparing his followers with salt and light, Jesus summons the community of Israel (and his disciples) back to their calling as the medium through which God brings blessing/healing to the world.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Salt_from_Timbuktu.jpg Robin Elaine [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

Rage and redemption

File:Smoldering ruins of African American's homes following race riots - Tulsa Okla 1921.jpg

Aftermath of the Tulsa Riot that destroyed the homes and businesses in the black community of Greenwood, killing more than 100.

Watching for the Morning of February 3, 2019

Year C

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

An outbreak of communal violence is an ugly thing. We shouldn’t think first of the mindless behavior of hometown fans when their team wins the final game. Nor should we think first of the violence that rocks nations when oppressed communities respond to state violence with outrage. We need to think about lynchings: the angry, outraged mobs that insist on immediate vengeance for some fundamental violation of communal norms.

And we need to think about our stories, not what’s happening in some other country.

Emmett Till was 14, visiting from Chicago, when he encountered 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant at the small country store she owned with her husband in Money, Mississippi. He may have whistled at her; he may have whistled to his friends; he may have whistled softly to himself as he had been taught in order to control his stuttering. He was taken from the home where he was staying with his great-uncle in the middle of the night by Carolyn’s husband and his half-brother. Emmett’s naked, shot, and brutally beaten body was fished from the Tallahatchie River three days later, barbed wire wrapped around his neck and attached to a weight.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice records that “more than 4400 African American men, women, and children were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.”

What happened to Stephen in Acts 2 is this same kind of outbreak of communal violence. A mob outraged by his claim to see Jesus at the right hand of God rose up in violent revenge. It happened repeatedly to the apostle Paul – indeed Paul participated in the murder of Stephen and was dedicated to arresting followers of Jesus when the risen Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. The arrest that led to Paul’s eventual execution in Rome followed a riot begun with a rumor that he had desecrated the Jerusalem temple by bringing a gentile into the inner court.

Communal violence is an ugly thing. The crucifixion of Jesus was a deliberate act of the governing families in Jerusalem allied with the Roman imperium. It was an act of state violence. But what happened to Jesus in Nazareth after his sermon was a more visceral outbreak of rage. We paint pictures of Jesus with children and lambs and it takes some work to understand what part of his message was so offensive his hearers rose in fury to kill him.

Jesus has laid claim to be the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel. He is the embodiment of God’s reign to rescue the poor and release the captive. But such a claim is a scandal in a culture where every

Jesus is uppity, acting out of his station in life. Jesus calls the people on their implicit rejection of his ministry – and then he dares to say that God’s reign is not for Israel but for all people. The people assert his obligation is to care for his family and village, but Jesus points to Elijah and Elisha who dispensed God’s favors to a poor widow and an afflicted leper among Israel’s enemies. This is what leads to rage, to the ugliness of communal violence. Jesus might as well have whistled at a white woman.

It is deep within us, this conviction God should care for us more than others. Donald Trump milked and manipulated it into the presidency. It took Jesus to the cross. But in the empty tomb God declared Jesus the one who speaks the truth.

So Sunday we will hear about Jeremiah’s prophetic call and God’s command he should speak fearlessly. The psalmist will declare God is his rock and his fortress. Corinthians will speak to us about the ultimate importance of love – not romantic love, but fidelity and care for all people. And then comes the abortive attempt on Jesus’ life. They will not get him this day; they will not get him in the end, for we follow one whose love is not silenced by hate.

The Prayer for February 3, 2019

Almighty God,
through your Son Jesus you revealed your gracious rule
to bind up the wounded and set free the captive.
Let us not fail to understand your will and your way,
but grant us willing hearts to receive your word and live your kingdom;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for February 3, 2019

First Reading: Jeremiah 1:4-10
“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” – God calls Jeremiah to his prophetic ministry.

Psalmody: Psalm 71:1-6
“In you, O Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame.”
– The psalm writer cries out to God for protection “from the hand of the wicked.”

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” – Paul continues to teach his conflicted congregation in Corinth about the gifts of God’s Spirit and their life together as a community. All gifts serve the community and the greatest gift is love – concern for and fidelity to one another

Gospel: Luke 4:21-30
“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”
– The message Jesus announces in Nazareth that the age to come is dawning even as Jesus speaks is met with hostility and a murderous attempt on his life.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Smoldering_ruins_of_African_American%27s_homes_following_race_riots_-_Tulsa_Okla_1921.jpg Alvin C. Krupnick Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Beloved

File:Mural - Jesus' Baptism.jpgWatching for the Morning of January 13, 2019

Year C

The Baptism of Our Lord

1But now thus says the Lord,
….he who created you, O Jacob,
….he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
….I have called you by name, you are mine.
2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
….and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you… (Isaiah 43)

No sweeter word could have been spoken to the descendants of Jacob in the 6th century bce than these words of the prophet. For a people destroyed, scattered and deported in chains to Babylon, the prophet takes up the language of the creation and exodus to declare that God will gather God’s scattered people. A new creative and redemptive work is at hand.

The prophet’s words form the backdrop for the dramatic moment when the heavens are opened and the Spirit descends upon Jesus. This is a divine commissioning for God’s saving act. The language “You are my Son,” is royal language: Jesus is the one who brings the reign of God. He is the presence of God’s justice and mercy. He is the one empowered to deliver God’s people. He is the dawning of the new creation.

This descent of the Spirit upon Jesus is more than Samson inspired in the moment to burst the bonds that hold him or to tear down the temple of the Philistines. It is more than Gideon filled with courage to summon Israel to battle. Jesus is the one, as John has told us, who washes the world in the Spirit of God.

And so, on Sunday, we will hear not only the voice of the prophet, but sing with the psalmist of the voice of God that thunders over the waters and hear from the book of Acts about the Spirit poured out upon Samaria, and we will know the dramatic hand of God is at work.

And we will ponder the mystery that, in the waters of baptism in which all are washed, we too have heard the divine voice proclaim us God’s beloved, and felt the breath of the Spirit that makes all things new.

The Prayer for January 13, 2019

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 13, 2019

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
“Then 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.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mural_-_Jesus%27_Baptism.jpg David Bjorgen [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

“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

First my heart

File:Ship of Desert.jpgWatching for the Morning of October 14, 2018

Year B

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 23 / Lectionary 28

I don’t know how – or whether – our guest preacher on Sunday will weave together the cry of Job with the startling statement by Jesus that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” I am eager to hear.

It is painful to hear Job’s lament. If only he could speak with God, God would surely declare him innocent. But God is nowhere to be found: “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.”

It is the cry of all who face life’s tragedies. It must be that God is just and faithful, yet here are all these innocents locked in cages, buried in mud, dead on the shore, cut down by random violence or bitter war. Here is the bitterness of a world of lies that go undenied and uncondemned. Here are the tears of the broken and fears of the beaten.

It must be that God is just and faithful, but where is he? If only we could plead our case, would God not set right the world?

That path from the cry of Job to the prayer of the psalm to the promise of Jesus that the first shall be last and the last first is far from simple. It is about God setting right the world. But, first, it is about God setting right the human heart.

Mark doesn’t tell us at first that the man who approached Jesus asking, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” had many possessions. He is just a man. He is like any of us. He is all of us. And the challenge Jesus sets before him, he sets before us all. “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” For we all have our many possessions. We all have things in which we place our trust, convictions we depend on, little lies and deceits that comfort our souls. And the most insidious deceit is that I am better than – better than the rich, the poor, the addicted, the corrupt, the thoughtless, the cold of heart, the smug – and that, whoever “they” are, they are not really my neighbor.

“You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

God will set right the world. But, first, God must set right my heart.

The Prayer for October 14, 2018

In your kingdom, O God,
all find shelter and all are fed.
May your Spirit reign among us
that, abiding in your goodness,
we may live with joyful and generous hearts;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 14, 2018

First Reading: Job 23:1-9, 16-17
“If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.” – Job cries out at the silence and hiddenness of God.

Psalmody: Psalm 90 (appointed 90:12-17)
“Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”
– The poet meditates on the brevity and sorrows of human life, rooted as they are in humanity’s sinfulness. The poet bids God grant them a proper humility, but also asks God to have mercy and deal with us according to his faithfulness and love.

Second Reading: Hebrews 4:12-16
“The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.”
– God knows and will reveal the heart, but the author also declares that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,” and urges his hearers to “approach the throne of grace with boldness.”

Gospel: Mark 10:17-31
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” – A man comes up to Jesus asking how he can inherit the kingdom of God (be among those to enjoy the age to come when God rules over all). But when Jesus summons him to sell his possessions, give to the poor and come, follow Jesus, he turns away. And Jesus comments on how difficult it is for the wealthy to start living the kingdom. Fortunately, “for God all things are possible.”

First Reading as appointed: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
“Because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them.” – In the 8th century BCE, during the reign of Jereboam II, the northern kingdom of Israel grew rich but failed to live God’s justice and mercy. As Assyria rises to power, the prophet Amos cries out against the nation’s failure, warning them of the coming catastrophe, and urging them to turn and live.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ship_of_Desert.jpg By Suvophy06 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Jesus and the fabric of creation

File:AberdeenBestiaryFolio005rAdamNamesAnimalsDetail.jpg

Pieces from last Sunday

St. Francis, the blessing of the animals, the creation of Eve, and Jesus on divorce: it all weaves together in our worship and message last Sunday. On the lawn with our pets, in the days after the bitter conflict over Brett Kavanagh, around a table where bread is shared, we speak the reminder that we were not made for division, the promise that the torn fabric of the world shall be mended, and the call to live from that promised future rather than our failed past.

The whole message from Sunday can be found here.

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When we ask God to bless the animals we bring with us this morning, we are talking not just about these individual animals, but also our relationship with them – and we are talking about the whole complex web of life. We want God to bless it all.

We want the world to thrive. We want the whole creation around us to vibrate with life. We want the rains to be gentle and the winds soft and the sunlight warm. We want the crops to grow in season and the fruit of the earth to be bountiful and nourishing. We want the human community, also, to be whole and good, to be gracious and generous, to be kind and compassionate, to be creative and rewarding, to be joyful and peaceable. We want God to bless it all.

And we want that blessing because we know that the fabric of creation has been ruptured.   This, too, goes back to a story about us as humans. This is the story about the “apple.” It’s our fault that the world has been thrown off kilter. It’s on us that the fabric of the world is torn by violence and war, poverty and injustice. It was not God’s purpose that that the human family should be torn by divorce. It was not God’s purpose that societies like ours should be bitterly riven over a president, a senate, and a judge.

When Jesus is asked about divorce, his opponents know full well that divorce is discussed in the Biblical law. Maybe they think Jesus, the Galilean peasant, is too ignorant to know his scripture. But more likely they are trying to frame Jesus. This is a question that will get him in trouble with the king. It got John the Baptist killed because he condemned the king’s illicit marriage to his brother’s wife…

Jesus’s answer to his opponents is brilliant. He dodges the political trap and confronts us with the existential one. It is because of our brokenness, our “hardness of heart”, that all this conflict and division exists in the world. Jesus doesn’t cite the legal code; he points us back to our beginnings. He points us back to a time before the world was torn in pieces and we were divided from one another. He points us back to God’s purpose for us – and, in so doing, he points us forward to the day when the Spirit of God breathes in every breath.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AberdeenBestiaryFolio005rAdamNamesAnimalsDetail.jpg See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons