The path of life

File:GNM - Fußwaschung.jpgWatching for the Morning of May 19, 2019

Year C

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

The arc of the Easter season moves from the empty tomb towards Pentecost. Last Sunday we turned from the appearances of Jesus whom God has raised to life, to the Good Shepherd who brings life to the world. This Sunday the life-giving shepherd gives his followers the new-life commandment: to love one another. From here we will talk about the Spirit that empowers such love and wait for that mighty breath of God that launches the followers of Jesus out into the world.

Jesus has washed his followers feet. He has shown them the path of life. He has shown them the path he will travel. It is a path that leads from the garden to the tomb to the right hand of God. And he bids us follow: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

The command to love is paired this Sunday with Peter’s account of his vision of the net when the heavenly voice declares: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” ‘Profane’ is an accurate but overly nice a translation. We humans have no trouble regarding others as ‘unclean’. We divide the world easily. Even when we don’t call those who differ from us ‘dirty’, we often treat them as vaguely contagious. So, yes, the word means ‘ritually unclean’, but this isn’t about ritual. It is about those whom we regard as acceptable to God and those who are not. But God welcomes all. Arms wide, robes flapping in the wind, God welcomes all into the divine embrace.

Jesus understands this perfectly. And so he does the ‘unclean’ thing. He takes the ‘unclean’ place. He bends to wash feet. While the followers of Jesus worry about their place at the table, Jesus takes the lowest place. He shows us the path of life. He shows us love of all. He bids us follow.

The second reading sees the promise of God fulfilled. John of Patmos is given a vision. Peering into the heavens, he sees the heavenly Jerusalem descending to earth. The city Rome destroyed is replaced by its perfect counterpart. Radiant and whole, like a bride adorned, the city without tears comes. The earth is become the dwelling place of God and all is made new.

Jesus has washed our feet. He has shown us the path of life. He bids us live the holy city. And with the psalmist, he calls all creation to joy and wonder.

The Prayer for May 19, 2019

Gracious God,
whom all creation praises,
and whose will it is to gather all things into your wide embrace,
pour out upon us your Spirit of love,
that we may follow where you lead
and obey what you command.

The Texts for May 19, 2019

First Reading: Acts 11:1-18
“If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” – Peter faces criticism over his baptism of the Gentile, Cornelius, by recounting the sequence of events leading to his visit and God’s outpouring of the Spirit.

Psalmody: Psalm 148
“Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens.” – The psalmist calls upon all creation to sing God’s praise.

Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-6
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
– In this culminating vision of the Book of Revelation, the prophet sees the earth made new and the heavenly Jerusalem coming to dwell on earth.

Gospel: John 13:31-35
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – On the night of the last Supper, Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment: to love one another.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GNM_-_Fu%C3%9Fwaschung.jpg

The face of a priceless love

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Washing of the Feet (Le lavement des pieds) - James Tissot.jpgMaundy Thursday
March 29, 2018

Our gathering on Maundy Thursday is the beginning of the three-day service known as the Paschal Triduum, the central worship of the year that proclaims the death and resurrection of Jesus. (Click here for an account of these three days). We begin our celebration with an exhortation, allowing the washing of feet to serve as a visible sermon following the reading of the Gospel: John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

The texts we will hear this evening are important for us to keep in mind as we come together over these next three days to let the cross and resurrection speak to our lives. I want to talk about them briefly – but first I want to say something more about this last sentence: we come together over these next three days to let the cross and resurrection speak to our lives.

We are here to hear the voice of God. We are here trusting the promise that, in these words and actions, we will hear the whisper of the eternal call our name, lift us up, touch us with the Spirit, lead us in love, grant us strength and courage, and fill us with hope and joy. We are here trusting the promise that somewhere “in, with and under” the sound of the splashing water, the caress of the towel, the words of the readings, the cry of the prayers, the taste of bread and wine, we will feel the embrace of a wondrous love.

We are here to let this whole majestic and profound story of the cross and resurrection speak to our lives. We are also here to let this majestic and profound story be spoken into the world.

The world needs to hear this story of suffering love. The world needs to hear this story that the one who is the perfect image of God bends to wash feet. He bends the knee; he does not bend the truth. He prays for the world and seeks to fulfill God’s will. He endures spittle and shame and does not respond with hate. He forgives his torturers and takes no revenge upon a brutal world. To the end, he remains faithful to God and to us.

We need to be brought back again and again to this story. But we are also here to let this story loose into the world.

There are lots of things to worship in the world, lots of things in which we are tempted to put our trust. There are plenty of stories about what we should be: There are people telling us how to get rich. There are people telling us how to be youthful and sexy. There are people telling us how to be successful in life and love. There are people telling us that these things are the secrets to life. They tell us such things are worthy of our worship, adoration and praise. They are worthy of our time and energy, our mind and heart, our wealth and resources. But the truth is that all these things are rendered powerless by death. There is only one who is not undone by death.

We are here to let this majestic and profound story of the cross and resurrection speak to our lives and be spoken into the world. We are here to hear the voice of the angels who sang at Jesus’ birth and waited in the tomb to declare: “He is not here; he has been raised.”

Tonight we see the face of God that bends to wash feet. But this night is also the night of the last supper when Jesus took bread and broke it saying that his body would be broken. And this is the night we remember the Passover when the blood of a lamb saved Israel from death – and Christ is revealed as the true Passover lamb whose blood is poured out to deliver us from death’s power.

So our first reading is about the Passover. The instructions on the annual observance of the Passover are placed within the historical account of that first Passover. Every year Israel is to remember this night. Every year Israel is to remember that they were slaves and God set them free. It was supposed to keep them from surrendering their freedom and becoming slaves again. And it was supposed to keep them from betraying their freedom and making slaves of others.

The story also commands them to eat this meal with their bags packed and their shoes on their feet. They are to be ready to move, ready to follow where God shall lead, ready to live their freedom.

The lamb is to be roasted – roasted because it is quicker to cook, quicker to eat. There is no time to bring the pot to boil and let the meat simmer all day. They need to be ready to go. The bread is unleavened because there is no time to wait for bread to rise. They are a people on the move from bondage into freedom. They need to remember all this in the years to come.

The second reading will tell us give us Paul’s instructions to the believers in Corinth about the Lord’s Supper. These are the familiar words we use every week over the bread and wine. It is part of a longer conversation about what it means to share in this meal. The Corinthians had forgotten that they are members of one another, that at the heart of this meal is the example of priceless love. This is why, when John (the writer of the Gospel) wants to talk about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, he doesn’t talk about the bread and wine, he tells us about Jesus washing feet. At the heart of this meal is priceless love. Christ’s body is given for us. Christ’s blood is shed for us. Christ kneels in priceless love.

The psalm that lies between these two readings speaks of lifting up the cup of salvation. In this psalm the Christian community through the centuries have heard words and phrases that evoke Jesus and what we do in Holy Communion.

Then, finally, we will hear of Jesus bending to wash feet and giving us the mandate to love one another. That mandate gives us the name Maundy Thursday. Mandate Thursday. Commandment Thursday. Whatever else we may be as a Christian community, we are to be a community where love dwells. It is by love that everyone will know that we are followers of Jesus.

When Jesus bends to wash feet, he shows us the face of God and the face of our true humanity. I remember reading some book when I was a child that told the story of Narcissus. Narcissus, in Greek Mythology, was known for his beauty. But he was full of himself and spurned the affection of those who loved him. He was lured by the goddess Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, to a pool where he fell in love with his own reflection. He couldn’t ear himself away from his own reflection and it led ultimately to his self-destruction.

Somewhere along the way I read a similar story about an enchanted room where the more you looked into the mirrors, the larger they became while the windows grew progressively smaller. Ultimately this person was left in total darkness.

Our self-concern is not the path to our true humanity; it is the path to darkness. We are most fully human when we look out the windows toward God and others rather than in the mirror at ourselves.

The Christ who meets us this night, and in this entire story of the cross and empty tomb, is a man who loves completely. He is crucified for this. He is judged and condemned as a liar about God and a danger to the people. But God will overturn that judgment. God will void the sentence of death. God will declare Jesus true.

Here in this man with a washbasin and a towel is the true face of our humanity. Here is the true face of God. This is the story we come to hear. This is the story we come to set loose into the world.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABrooklyn_Museum_-_The_Washing_of_the_Feet_(Le_lavement_des_pieds)_-_James_Tissot.jpg James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Encountered by Jesus

File:KunibertZinnerVolksschuleSeitenstetten1951.11A.JPG

Sunday Evening

John 13:31-35

34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

I wish it were possible to say how cute Steffan was, today. It’s unusual for a child to come forward for the children’s sermon the first time they come to worship – especially on a day when, it turns out, none of our other young people were present. But having only a single child who is new not only to me and to the parish but to the concept of a children’s message – and even to church itself – made the children’s time a challenge.

I am aware how much we take for granted when we use words like ‘God’ and ‘church’ and ‘Jesus’, let alone concepts like ‘grace’ and ‘love’ and ‘forgiveness’ and faith’. These are words with meaning inside the community of faith, but what do they mean to those who are strangers to the church?

Maybe the task of the children’s sermon is only to say, “God loves you,” and to make children feel welcome in worship.

And maybe it’s not just about children – maybe the task of the children’s sermon is to make adults feel welcome, too. It is something simple and cute and unscripted that makes church feels not quite so churchy.

But I want there to be something more, here. I think the children’s sermon should be like gathering and laying foundation stones for a spiritual life that is rooted in the experience of love and the importance of kindness, courage and hope. I want them to know something about Jesus. And I want them to be part of the worshipping community: they should know whatever it is that Jesus might be talking to us about that day in the Gospel reading.

None of us are here only to be feel welcome and loved. We are also here to encounter this Jesus and let his words and deeds work their work in us. We are here to hear what he has to say and to see what he does. It’s part of why I try so hard to explain what Jesus’ words and actions meant in their time.

I love the power, grace, rich imagery and, at its best, the beauty and transcendence of the theological and liturgical tradition of the church. But in the end it is not about any of this; it is about Jesus. Everything else is only meant to put us in a place and time where Christ may encounter us and call us into his grace and life.

I am not interested in the kind of preaching that tells people what they already know and believe. Nor am I a spiritual version of a self-help guru with keys to a better life. I am interested in this Jesus and the prophets and all the words of scripture that challenge what we think we know, and summon us not to be mere practitioners of religious ritual, but to seek and find our truest and best humanity – to be children of God, sons and daughters of light, citizens of the age to come when our shames and sorrows are left behind.

So I hope Steffan felt good about his little encounter with me and with church this morning besides the coffee hour cookies and the toys in the nursery where he played after worship. I hope there was something for him of the radiant love of God and the Christ who gives the new commandment that we should love one another.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKunibertZinnerVolksschuleSeitenstetten1951.11A.JPG By Anton-kurt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Witnesses

File:Evstafiev-bosnia-cello.jpg

Friday

John 13:31-35

35“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It is what the world wants from Christians, and why so many are so angry with the church. We have, for the most part, been defenders of middle class morality (or, more recently, defenders of an educated elite class morality) rather than witnesses to and participants in God’s new creation.

Mark and Luke have Jesus declaring that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Matthew uses the phrase Kingdom of Heaven to speak of God’s drawing near to reign in every human heart. And John uses the phrase “eternal life” – the life of the age to come. This age is our present world torn and troubled by the warring of nations and peoples, hunger and disease. The age to come is the world made new, when sin and death and the greeds and passions of the human heart no longer rule.

But Jesus did not let that age to come be a pious hope for life after death, or life in some distant future. He said this life has come to us now. The kingdom is dawning amidst us. We are called to live the kingdom now. Eternal life is a present reality not just a promised future.

This is why we get all these stunning challenges in Jesus to forgive not seven but seventy-seven times, to love our enemies, to transform our encounters with the occupation forces by carrying the backpack an extra mile. This is why the poor, the meek, and those who hunger for righteousness are honored now. This is why Jesus speaks of the true shepherd as one who dies for the people not the other way round. This is why the vineyard owner pays all his workers a full day’s wage and why the king gathers street urchins to his wedding banquet. This is why Jesus opens blind eyes, and banquets with sinners and Pharisees alike. This is why Jesus touches lepers and lays hands on the dead to raise them to life. The world is being set right. The world God created is being restored. The age of righteousness – when all people are faithful to God and one another – is upon us.

All of this is connected to the redemptive work of Jesus. Humanity has a lot of explaining to do for its long legacy of death and destruction. How do you make it right with God for the death camps? How do you make it right with God for the fire-bombing of Dresden or the treatment of prisoners in Japanese prisoner of war camps? How do you make it right with God for the children traumatized and even murdered by parents, let alone friends and strangers? How do we make it right with God for all those throughout history who have been sold into slavery? How do we make it right for every act of disdain, every word of gossip, every malicious or salacious thought?

Something profound must change for the world to be born anew. Something deep in the human heart must perish and be reborn. And even then, there is no hope for us but in God’s choice to wipe away the unpayable debt. It is a transformative act. Humbling. Wondrous. The kind that should make us weep tears of gratitude and joy and dry his feet with our hair.

So loving one another is not about being a little more kind to our neighbors. It is about the kingdom itself, the new world God is creating. We have seen it in Jesus. He has laid down his life. He has breathed out his Spirit. The door to the kingdom is open. We are summoned to the banquet.

The world hungers to see hope, to see a future, to see some witness to the triumph of love. We are sent to be that witness.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Evstafiev-bosnia-cello.jpg  By Mikhail Evstafiev (Mikhail Evstafiev) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A New Commandment

File:Washing the feets (1420s, Sergiev Posad).jpg

Watching for the Morning of April 17, 2016

Year C

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Peter does what many regard as unthinkable when he chooses to baptize Cornelius and his family. Cornelius is a centurion in the Roman army, a commander of the occupying forces. Though he is a good man, he is outside the community of Israel. And so begins the conversation that decides whether Jesus is the Messiah of Israel or the Redeemer of all the earth.

Is Jesus the anointed one who frees Judah or the anointed one who beings the day when all heaven and earth are reconciled. Does Jesus make us better Jews or citizens of the age to come when death no longer holds dominion over God’s creation?

For Peter, he had no option. God had decided this question by giving these Gentiles the gift of God’s Spirit – the gift of the age to come. If they had the baptismal gift; Peter needed to finish the job with water. It was in keeping with the prophets and the words and deeds of Jesus. The grave was empty. The dawn of the world gathered to God was underway.

John of Patmos describes it for us as the heavenly Jerusalem descending to earth and all heaven and earth made new. The voice of the psalmist joins the refrain calling upon all creation to sing God’s praise. And at the center of our worship on Sunday will be the words of Jesus giving the new commandment – the commandment that characterizes the age to come – the commandment to love one another. Such love reveals that we are student/followers of Jesus. Such love bears witness to ultimate triumph of God’s love.

The Prayer for April 24, 2016

Gracious God,
whom all creation praises,
and whose will it is to gather all things into your wide embrace,
pour out upon us your Spirit of love,
that we may follow where you lead
and obey what you command;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for April 24, 2016

First Reading: Acts 11:1-18
“If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” – Peter faces criticism over his baptism of the Gentile, Cornelius, by recounting the sequence of events leading to his visit and God’s outpouring of the Spirit.

Psalmody: Psalm 148
“Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens.” – The psalmist calls upon all creation to sing God’s praise.

Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-6
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
– In this culminating vision of the Book of Revelation, the prophet sees the earth made new and the heavenly Jerusalem coming to dwell on earth.

Gospel: John 13:31-35
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – On the night of the last Supper, Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment: to love one another.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWashing_the_feets_(1420s%2C_Sergiev_Posad).jpg  By Workshop of Daniel Chorny and Andrey Rublev (http://www.icon-art.info/group.php?lng=&grp_id=9) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons