My Father is still working

File:Cornus florida 02 by Line1.jpgA reflection on John 5:1-9 and Revelation 21:9-10, 22-22:5 (the texts for Easter 6 C) on the occasion of my grandson’s first Sunday in worship and the first step towards his baptism.

There are a couple things I need to say about our texts before I share with you what I have written for this morning.  This passage from John is an amazing narrative.  The man has suffered for 38 years.  When asked whether he wishes to be made whole, he answers by saying he has no one to help him into the water.  The legend held that an angel would occasionally descend and stir the water and the first person into the pool would be healed.  But this man has no one.  His answer expresses brokenness and despair.  He has no hope of healing.  He has no community, no family, no friends, no one to care for him – until Jesus finds him.  And Jesus does find him. 

The leadership of the nation responds to this wondrous healing by criticizing the man for carrying his mat on the Sabbath.  We didn’t read this part.  We should have, but that would have required us to read the whole chapter.  But it is important to note this because religious people are often this way.  We respond to God’s wondrous work with nitpicking and legalism.  He’s not supposed to work on the Sabbath and carrying your mat is defined as work.

The conflict over the Sabbath is the central element of this narrative.  When Jesus, himself, is criticized for working on the Sabbath, he answers by saying, among other things, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.”  The leadership of the nation imagined God’s work of creating was over.  God had created for six days and now God was ‘resting’.  But Jesus declares that God is still at work.  God is still creating — and God’s work is a work of healing.  God is working to make us whole.  God is working to make the world whole.

Sometimes it needs to be said that God is still at work.

Our second reading was the vision of the New Jerusalem given to John of Patmos.  It is a vision of the world made healed and restored.  At the time John writes, the earthly city has been destroyed by rebellion and war.  Rome has crushed it.  But at the consummation of human history, in that day when all human rebellion is overcome and all things are made new, in that day the heavenly counterpart of the earthly city descends to earth.  And though we don’t get the measurements of the city in our portion of the reading, the city is a giant cube some 1,200 to 1,500 miles across and high. The reason it measures as a perfect cube is that the holy of holies inside the temple, where God was present, was a perfect cube.  The world is now the holy of holies where God dwells.  The consummation of human history is God coming to dwell with us.

Sometimes it needs to be said that God is still at work – and that God’s purpose is to dwell in our midst.

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As you know, my daughter and her husband are here this morning and we are doing a rite of blessing in anticipation of a baptism that will happen later where they live.

There are things I want to tell Finn, but he is not ready to hear them.  I want to tell him about the beauty and grandeur of the world around us.  I want to tell him about the Grand Canyon and the waterfalls at Yosemite in springtime.  I want to take him to the Monterey Aquarium and talk about the mysteries of the deep.  I want him to gaze into the wonder of those tiny flowers in the grass outside and the supple lines and color of a rose.  I want him to watch with wonder the flight of a swallow and the migration of the monarchs and to hear crickets in the evening.  I want him to see how seed turns to sapling turns to towering tree.  I want him to walk among redwoods and see dogwoods in the spring. 

I want him to know the beauty of the world.  I want him to know its goodness before he learns its sorrows.  I want him to play in a soft summer rain before he feels the power of a storm.  I want him to see the wonder of a bird’s nest before he learns that other animals would prey on the babies.  I want him to delight in bunnies in the yard before he worries about hawks overhead.  I want him to know human kindness before he learns of human cruelty.

I want to tell Finn this story we have received of a world conceived in love, of a creation called into being by a divine Word and that God saw and declared all things good and noble and beautiful.  I want to tell him this story that he is made of the dust of the earth and the breath of God.  I want him to know that he was made to live in God’s presence and tend God’s garden – that he was made to live in harmony with all things.

I want Finn to know the goodness before he learns what happened in that garden, how humanity broke faith with God and broke the ties that bind all things together. 

I want Finn to know the beauty of the earth before he tastes its tears.  I want him to know the goodness of family before he learns about Cain and Abel and the bitter envy that tears the human family apart.

And I want Finn to hear the voice of God speaking to Cain, telling him that we can choose kindness and faithfulness.  I want him to know we can choose to listen to the breath of God rather than the murmurings of bitterness and revenge.

There are so many things I want to tell Finn.  I want to tell him of Abraham’s courage in trusting God’s promise, of Isaac’s love for Rebekah, of Jacob the cheat burning all his bridges and wrestling with God at the river Jabbok.  I want to tell him of Joseph who forgave his brothers and Moses who stood before the burning bush.  I want to tell him about Pharaoh’s hardness of heart and God’s determination to bring freedom to both the oppressors and the oppressed.  I want to tell him about Sinai and the wilderness and the radical notion that God is a god who travels with us, that God is not a god of rock and stream but a God of love and mercy.  

I want to tell him of the prophets.  I want to tell him of the psalms of joy and the cries of lament.  I want to tell him of the faithfulness of Ruth and the courage of Esther.  I want to tell him about the gifts and call of God.  And I want to tell him about the child of Nazareth, the song of the angels and the message given to shepherds.  I want to tell him about the boy Jesus in the temple and the grown man at the Jordan.  I want to tell him about the words he spoke and the things he did.  I want to tell him about Zacchaeus in the tree and the woman at the well and the banquet in the wilderness that fed five thousand families with twelve baskets left over.

I want to tell him about the empty tomb and the gift of the spirit and the dawn of God’s new creation in the world and in us.  

I want him to know about the women at the tomb and Mary, the first witness.  I want him to know about the boldness of Philip baptizing the Ethiopian Eunuch and Peter trusting the voice of heaven and baptizing a Roman centurion and family.  I want Finn to know of Lydia and the Philippian jailor bending to wash feet.  I want Finn to know the healing of the world is at hand.

I want to tell Finn about the courage and faithfulness of Perpetua and her companion, Felicity, who were martyred in the arena, and how she guided the executioner’s hand when he faltered.  I want to tell him about Francis of Assisi and Katy Luther and how Bach wrote “Soli Deo Gloria” – wholly to the Glory of God – on all his music.  I want to tell him of all the courageous men and women of faith and this wondrous mystery of the church gathered from every nation on earth to bear witness to the grace and mercy of God.

And I want to tell him about the promise of his baptism and the promise of the table.

I want to know that there is mercy in our sorrows and strength in our challenges and hope, always hope, for the grave is empty and the arms of God are open to us and to all.

I want Finn to know all this.  Even more, I want his parents to tell him these stories.  And I want all of us to tell him these stories.  I want the community of God’s people to uphold him in his journey and to uphold one another as we try to live Christ for the world.  I want us to sing and to pray and to labor side by side in hope and faithfulness, 

I want Finn to hear with us and understand with us this story of Christ and the man at the pool of Beth-zatha.  I want him to know Christ as healer and to know that this is the work of God.  I want him to know the power and promise of Jesus’ statement: “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” 

And I want Finn to hear and understand with all of us the power of this vision of the New Jerusalem, a city without fear, a city whose gates never close, a realm that gathers all that is good and noble of every culture and people, a city shaped like the most holy place – a world that has become the dwelling place of God.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cornus_florida_02_by_Line1.jpg Liné1 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D

The trail with wondrous views

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

Year C

The Sunday in Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prayer for December 30, 2018

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

The Texts for December 30, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Joy

File:Native home. 'No room at the Inn' LOC matpc.10504.jpgWatching for the Morning of December 16, 2018

Year C

The Third Sunday of Advent

The news this morning told of a seven-year-old girl who died in custody after she and her father crossed into this country and presented themselves to agents as refugees. She was separated from her father and six hours later was dead.

From dehydration.

“Whoever gives even a cup of cold water…”

There will be a seven-year-old girl in our Christmas pageant this Sunday. Her eyes will be bright with delight in her role as Mary. She and Joseph will knock on the door of the inn looking for shelter and will be turned away.

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…”

We sing the Magnificat this Sunday, the Song of Mary that exults in God’s righting of the world. The wheel will turn. The mighty will be cast down and the lowly lifted up. The refugees will find refuge. We will hear Paul write to the believers in Philippi saying, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” And we will hear of the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaping for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice – and the presence in her womb of the one for whom the world waits.

The theme of this Sunday is the Journey towards Joy. We journey towards that day when every little girl’s eyes will be bright with delight, when no travelers are turned away, when no children are born in the cold of a stable.

And, yes, I know that the nativity story is not about an inn and a stable, but about a peasant home where the store room that functions as a guest room was filled with family of higher rank. So the child is born inside the home, into which the animals are brought to spend the night, adding their warmth into the darkness. But the tradition we have inherited (on a misleading translation about an ‘inn’ rather than a ‘guest room’) about a family dislocated by imperial power and unable to find shelter tells a great truth about the human heart, the human experience, where God chooses to dwell, and God’s determination to set all things right.

Our joy rests in the promise. And its true delights come to us in those moments when we live by the promise. Our journey towards God is a journey towards our neighbor – and in the journey towards our neighbor is the path to God. There we also find the way towards joy.

The Prayer for December 16, 2018

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Bring the desert to full bloom,
and fill with joy our path to you;
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 December 16, 2018

(Because of the Children’s Christmas Program this Sunday, our parish has adjusted the readings during this season. We also try to retain the practice of singing the Magnificat on the third Sunday of Advent. So we will read The Visitation as our Gospel this morning and sing the Magnificat. We included the preaching of John (Luke 3:7-18) in the Gospel reading for last Sunday.)

First Reading: Philippians 4:4-7
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”
– Though Paul is in prison facing the possibility of death, he urges his community to abide in joy.

Psalmody: Luke 1:46-55, the Song of Mary (the Magnificat)
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” – In response to her encounter with Elizabeth, Mary sings with joy of God’s coming to set right the world.

Gospel: Luke 1:39-45
“As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” –Having heard from the angel Gabriel that her kinswoman, Elizabeth, is also wondrously with child, Mary comes to greet her. Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit, and the child in her womb (John the Baptist) leaps for joy.

The texts as appointed for 3 Advent C

First Reading: Zephaniah 3:14-20
“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” – though the prophetic book speaks in cataclysmic terms of the judgment coming upon the nation, it nevertheless ends with a song of joy. The prophet calls the nation to rejoice for God shall come to reign over his people.

Psalmody: Isaiah 12:2-6,
“With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” – the prophet sings a song of thanksgiving, anticipating the day of God’s redemption.

Second Reading: Philippians 4:4-7
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” – Though Paul is in prison facing the possibility of death, he urges his community to abide in joy.

Gospel: Luke 3:7-18
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” – John summons the crowd to show their allegiance to the dawning reign of God in acts of justice and mercy.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Native_home._%27No_room_at_the_Inn%27_LOC_matpc.10504.jpg Matson Collection [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“The best day ever!”

Sunday Evening
The First Sunday of Advent

Mark 10:15-16

15“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

“This is the best day ever!” she said emphatically and repeatedly at the end of our day today. Worship had been followed by the “Hanging of the Greens” as we set up and decorated the Christmas trees in the sanctuary, a “family” Christmas tree in the entryway (with ornaments from every family), and decorated the campus of the church with large ornaments hanging from the trees.

At the children’s sermon they had come forward and stood before a large mural of Mary and Joseph journeying towards Bethlehem, and discovered that it was a large Advent calendar. It’s only December 2nd, so there were only two doors to open, but the second contained a gift for the children – small binoculars because on this first Sunday in Advent we look towards the horizon of human history and a world made new, when Christ reigns in every heart.

I’m not sure they got the message. They were too excited looking for the numbers and getting the packages open to use their binoculars.

Their joy and enthusiasm is a healing balm and delight for a congregation. Children have the very important ministry among us of being children – even the sad child who came to the altar rail at communion with tear stained cheeks. I don’t know the source of distress, but I appreciated the child’s sad and yearning look into my eyes as I placed my hand and gave a blessing. We all need to feel the hand of blessing at times.

So Advent is come. Christmas draws near, but this is the season of waiting and hope, of expectation and joy. For the child of the manger is the one who comes at the fulfillment of the human story, and his hand is a hand of blessing.

Small hands and eager eyes

I love the way children receive communion. There was a very young child at the altar last week, his parent teaching him by gently unrolling his fingers so that his open hands might receive the bread. (It’s hard when you’re small and the rail is high.) There was a child receiving the bread hungrily and stuffing it in his mouth with one quick sweep of his open hands straight to his mouth. Another received the bread with happy, twinkling, dancing eyes. A sleeping infant received the blessing gently without a stir, trusting completely the arms that held her.

A young girl lingered at the rail, deep in prayer, never noticing that everyone left and the next group came forward, filling in around her. There is a child always eager to remind me that he takes the gluten free wafer – apparently a bit too enthusiastically for his parents’ comfort. When the altar used to be up three steps and near the back wall, there was a child who left the rail running and jumped the steps to the sanctuary floor. There was a child, years ago, who went home and lined up his stuffed animals for communion, using poker chips for wafers.

When my daughter was three we attended a midweek Lent service at a neighboring church. At the distribution we stood in a circle around the altar, Anna in my arms, and she watched intently as the pastor went round the circle handing out the bread. I whispered to her, “What is that?” “Bread,” she answered. “Who gives us that bread?” “Jesus,” she responded. “Why does he give it?” “Because he loves us.”

The table is a wondrous miracle in a world much too loud and harsh. Here we stand or kneel, a people from all nations and walks of life, side by side in peace. Here grace and wonder reign. Here even a small child recognizes the presence of the divine.

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Image: Carl S. Gutekunst, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Flooded with Joy

File:Leather bucket of a well.jpg

Watching for the Morning of December 17, 2017

Year B

The Third Sunday of Advent

“The LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus uses our first reading for this Sunday as the text in his sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth. The message will be simple: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It is the language of the jubilee year when every debt is wiped away and all things restored. It is, in the mouth of the prophet, a promise of the return from exile and the rebuilding of their life in the land. It is, in the life of the church, a promise of that day when all things are made new. Everlasting joy.

Joy ripples through our worship this Sunday. It is the day once known as “Gaudete Sunday” from the ancient introit: “Gaudete in Domino semper…,” “Rejoice in the Lord always” from Philippians 4:4-6. We will hear similar words in our second reading that begins with the exhortation to “Rejoice always.” We will hear joy in the song of Mary, the Magnificat. And it is reverberates through the proclamation with which Mark begins his account of Jesus: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The runner has come from the battlefield to announce that the city is saved. The enemy is fallen. Our long awaited king comes to wash us in the Spirit.

Every translation of which I am aware says that the one who is coming will ‘baptize’ us in the Spirit. And, yes, the Greek word in the text is taken into English to give us the word ‘baptism’. But, for us, the word ‘baptism’ is almost exclusively a church word. We might refer to a baptism by fire, but we would never say that drowning sailors are being baptized. The Greek word was not a religious word, and if we take it out of the religious realm for a minute, we might hear something of the true drama of this promise: The coming one will wash us in the Spirit. The coming one will immerse us in the Spirit. The coming one will drown us in the Spirit. The coming one will drench us in the Spirit. The coming one will flood us with the Spirit. The coming one will shower the spirit upon us.

In a world often immersed in hate and fear, violence and deceit, here is the promise that we will be immersed in the Spirit of God. We will be awash in grace. We will be showered with compassion. Good news will be announced to the poor. Liberty will be proclaimed to the captive. We will be flooded with joy.

The Prayer for December 17, 2017

Eternal God, Breath of Life,
Font of Hope, and our Eternal Joy;
Open the doors of our hearts, and the gates of your mercy
to come into our world and our lives,
and fill us with the joy of your presence.

The Texts for December 17, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 61.1-11 (appointed: 61.1-4, 8-11)
“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” –
The prophet describes his ministry as announcing a jubilee year, when all debts are forgiven and all lands restored.

Psalmody: Luke 1:46-55, the Song of Mary (the Magnificat)
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” – Mary sings with joy of God’s coming deliverance when she is greeted by Elizabeth whose unborn child already recognizes their coming Lord.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
– Paul concludes his letter to the believers in Thessalonica with a series of exhortations about their life together as they wait for Christ’s return and the consummation of God’s dawning reign.

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

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The appointed texts for December 17, 2017

Psalm: Psalm 126, (Luke 1:46-55 is an alternate for the psalm)
“Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
– The poet remembers the joy of their restoration to the land, and prays now that God would refresh the land anew with rain and abundant harvest.

Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” – The wealthy and powerful leaders in Jerusalem send representatives to discern whether John represents a threat to revolt against their rule, and seem satisfied that he is “only” a prophetic voice. They fail to hear his message that the coming one is already here.

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During Advent our parish departs from the appointed psalms and sings Isaiah 51:4-11, the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and Isaiah 12 on the four Sundays. We also adjust the readings between the Sundays to allow for the celebration of a children’s Christmas program during worship in Advent. Next Sunday we will read Mark’s account of John the Baptist that is assigned for today.

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

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

Doorways

File:Sur le chemin cotier a cancale - panoramio (4).jpg

Watching for the Morning of December 3, 2017

Year B

The First Sunday of Advent

I had a profound dream many years ago that involved the discovery of a door. I was living (in the dream) in a small one room mountain cabin that seemed very much like a suburb with paved streets, an ordinary driveway and garbage pick up at the curb. But in the dream I realized there was a door behind the refrigerator which, when I succeeded in moving the refrigerator, opened into a large room with giant picture windows looking down over a sweeping vista of a clear blue mountain lake, surrounded with virgin forest.

Doorways are about discovery. Lucy Pevensie, in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe discovers a doorway into the wondrous world of Narnia in the back of a wardrobe. Daniel Jackson figures out how to open the stargate. Mary opens the door to The Secret Garden. In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo Baggins counsels his nephew saying “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” And, of course, the women discover angels at the door of the empty tomb. It sweeps the world off its feet.

A doorway to a new world. Advent looks through the doorway into the reign of God to come when the lion lies down with the lamb – and through that doorway Christ comes to us at the consummation of human history, in the present time of our lives, and in the child of Bethlehem.

So Sunday we begin our Advent journey. The sanctuary will be decorated with images of light and the blue of hope, of the night sky turning to day. And there will be photographs of doors waiting to be opened – and opened already that we might find our way to the hope, peace, joy and light that never ends.

On this first Sunday of the new church year we will hear the prophet Isaiah’s plea for God to open the heavens and come down to save. We will sing with the prophet of the everlasting joy of God’s redeeming work. We will hear Paul remind us that “are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And we will listen as Jesus warns us to be awake and aware, like servants waiting to greet their Lord.

Behold I stand at the door and knock,” says Jesus. Open it and life will never be the same.

The Prayer for December 3, 2017

Eternal God, Breath of Life,
Font of Hope, and our Eternal Joy;
Open the doors of our hearts,
and the gates of your mercy
to come into our world and our lives,
and bring us to that day
when all the earth is redeemed by your presence.

The Texts for December 3, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” – The prophet speaks the lament of the people in the years after the return from exile, when life is hard and the former glory of the nation is absent. He calls upon God to relent and forgive their sins.

Psalmody: Isaiah 51:4-11 (appointed: Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19)
“The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads, sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
Our parish departs from the appointed psalm to sing this song of salvation from the prophet Isaiah.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1.3-9
“You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” –
Paul opens his letter to the believers in Corinth referring to the matter of spiritual gifts that has divided the community, setting them in their proper context as gifts of God to the whole body as they prepare for the consummation of God’s dawning reign.

Gospel: Mark 13.24-37
“Keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come.” – Having spoken of the destruction of the temple and what is to come for the community of believers, Jesus affirms that the Son of Man will come to gather his elect. For that day they should be awake, doing the work that they master of the house has entrusted to them.

During Advent our parish departs from the appointed psalms and sings Isaiah 51:4-11, the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and Isaiah 12 on the four Sundays. We also adjust the readings between the Sundays to allow for the celebration of a children’s Christmas program during worship in Advent. This occurs on the second Sunday of Advent this year.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASur_le_chemin_cotier_a_cancale_-_panoramio_(4).jpg chisloup [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The stone the builders rejected

File:Heart-shaped stone.JPG

Isaiah 5:1-7:
Let me sing for my beloved

my love-song concerning his vineyard…

Psalm 80:7-15:
“…You brought a vine out of Egypt;

you drove out the nations and planted it.…”

Matthew 21:33-46:
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard…”

Proper 22, Lectionary 27, Year A
(and a 70th wedding anniversary celebration)

I thought about taking this occasion to preach about marriage. But, in some ways, that’s a scarier topic to me than to preach those texts where Jesus talks about divorce. It’s like talking about money; it’s a subject in which all of us are deeply invested. Marriage is something that we have hoped for and never found, or something we have found and lost, or something we have found and struggled through – sometimes successfully, and sometimes less so. Marriage is something that begins with radiant hopes and often suffers under the weight of unfulfilled desires. It is dangerous ground for preaching – easy to preach about in a way that is shallow or sentimental or a little too confident that the preacher knows what is good for everyone else.

There is also a problem because marriage in the scripture is a different thing than marriage in the modern west. Our understanding of what marriage is supposed to be has changed a lot since the Adam and Eve story was written down 3,000 years ago. But it is still a remarkable story and I don’t hesitate to call it inspired. It is far more profound than the story told in the cultures around ancient Israel.

The element of the Biblical witness that is remarkable is the notion that marriage is something holy and sacred, not because of its connection to sex and procreation, but because it is a covenant. It is a relationship created and sustained by a promise and a trust in that promise. Marriage is made of the same stuff as faith: a relationship created and sustained by a promise and a trust in that promise.

Marriage is holy not because sex is mystical and primal and crosses into the generative realm of the gods; marriage is holy because it is about promises – trust in and fidelity to those promises. This is why, when the prophets talk about idolatry, they speak of it as adultery: Israel betraying its covenantal relationship with God.

We see this in our first reading, today. But before we go there I want also to say this: It’s worth pondering the fact that marriage stands at the beginning and end of scriptures. It is there in the garden when God takes the flesh of Adam to form a companion equal to him. And it is there in the vision of Revelation 21 when it describes the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. The human story begins in perfect faithfulness and communion with God and one another, and our story reaches its fulfillment with all creation restored to perfect faithfulness and communion. Marriage embodies the memory of the garden and the promise of the new creation.

Marriage is meant to be life-giving and life-sustaining and the perfection of joy and intimacy. But we are no longer in the garden. And we are not yet in the New Jerusalem. And since we live in a broken world, marriage isn’t simple; love and forgiveness must be practiced.

Again this is just like faith and living a Christian life. We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – so love and forgiveness must be practiced. Kindness and compassion must be practiced. Hope and joy must be practiced. Mercy and truth must be practiced. Generosity and humility must be practiced. Patience and understanding must be practiced.

But we are not alone. The Spirit of God is given. God is leading and guiding and teaching and exhorting and challenging and summoning us to lives that are holy and true.

So I want to speak briefly about the passage in Isaiah and then we’ll look at the parable of Jesus and try to hear what’s there.

You saw in the psalm that Israel is compared to a vine that God brought out of Egypt, planted in the land and tended and cared for it. The psalmist is writing after the nation has been destroyed and crying out for God to see and come to their aid. The protective wall has been torn down, as it were, and the vineyard ravaged by the wild animals. This notion of Israel as God’s vine is important. When Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard, he is talking about the nation.

The song that the prophet Isaiah sings – the poetry he recites in the public square – is a masterful piece of preaching. He stands up to sing a song about his beloved. And when he begins, the crowd understands that he is singing about his best friend. And as soon as the prophet begins his story about his friend’s vineyard, the crowd knows that this is a song about his friend’s marriage. It has the hint of a scandalous tale. It causes the crowd to lean in just like we lean in to any juicy gossip.

So this friend has done everything he can for his vine, but he has gotten nothing but wild, wanton, bitter grapes. His wife has been unfaithful. And the poet/prophet summons the crowd for their opinion, their judgment. What more could he have done? He declares that he will reject his vineyard, strip away its protection, and let the wild beasts have it.

At this moment when he has won the sympathy and support of the crowd, the prophet says, “You are God’s vineyard.” This is not a story of a friend with an adulterous wife, but of God and God’s faithless people who have gone off to embrace other gods. They have chosen gods of wealth and power, gods of injustice, gods who devour and destroy.

7For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
…..is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
…..are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
…..but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
…..but heard a cry!

The power of this poetry we can’t begin to capture in the translation. God expected ‘mishpat’ and got ‘mispach’. God looked for justice – faithfulness – and look, only bloodshed and violence. God looked for ‘tsĕdaqah’ and got ‘tsa`aqah’. He looked for righteousness but behold, only the cry of the poor.

The people draw near to hear what they think will be a lascivious story – and there they are met with the voice of God revealing their faithlessness. The people were God’s vine from whom God expected good fruit, and God has gotten bitter deeds.

When Jesus tells his parable, he is standing in the aura of these great prophetic texts. And Jesus does the same thing that Isaiah does. He tells a story that suckers his audience. Jesus is speaking to the wealthy elite in Jerusalem. We are no longer traveling the countryside; Jesus has come to Jerusalem. He has ridden in on a donkey and the crowds have shouted hosanna and waved their palm branches before him. He is standing in the temple square. He has already kicked over the tables and declared that they have turned God’s house into a den of thieves. He has declared that the leadership of the nation is like a good son who says, “Yes, father,” but doesn’t do what his father asks – such a person is regarded as a good son in that culture because he doesn’t shame his father in the eyes of the community. But Jesus has declared that the good son is the one who, though he had shamed his father by saying “no”, changes his mind and does what the father asked. The good sons are the poor and outcast who have embraced the way of justice and mercy, and the Jerusalem leaders are bad sons who give honor to God but don’t do what God asks.

Now, today, Jesus tells this parable about an absentee landlord to people who are absentee landlords. They own all this land in Galilee that they have taken against God’s command because the people fell under the crushing burden of debt. In this story of an absentee landlord with rebellious tenants who foolishly imagine that they could kill the son and take the vineyard for themselves, he asks what the landlord in the story will do knowing full well what these landlords would do. They are quick to answer: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Then Jesus says, “You are the tenants.”

It is a parable that is full of poignancy, because Rome will come in less than 40 years and tear down the city wall and put all its rebel residents to death.

It is a parable full of poignancy because these rebel tenants will kill Jesus thinking it will gain them the vineyard; but it is God’s vineyard and their actions ensure they will lose it.

I didn’t choose the bulletin cover because of Ann and Paul’s anniversary. I choose it because of the text this morning:

Have you never read in the scriptures,” says Jesus,
“The stone that the builders rejected
…..has become the cornerstone.”

Jesus, whom they rejected, is the foundation that keeps the whole building true.

Justice and mercy, Love of God and neighbor, faithfulness to our obligations to God and one another, this is the foundation stone the builders reject. But it is the only true and lasting stone. It is the only stone that can ensure that the walls rise square and true.

And so we are back where we began. We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – but we are headed there. So love and forgiveness must be practiced. Kindness and compassion must be practiced. Hope and joy must be practiced. Mercy and truth must be practiced. Generosity and humility must be practiced. Patience and understanding must be practiced. We must give God the fruit God seeks. We must build on the stone that is steadfast love and faithfulness. We must build on the stone that was rolled away. We must build on him who is the cornerstone – the one who died and rose and will come again.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Heart-shaped_stone.JPG By Sylda31 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The gates of Hell (2)

File:Yuma Territorial Prison cell doors.jpg

Matthew 16:13-20

18“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

2 Samuel 12 contains the bittersweet truth: I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” It is David speaking after the death of his child, conceived in the illicit union with the wife of his noble warrior Uriah. When the prophet reveals the consequences of David’s abuse of power, foretelling the death of the child, David weeps and fasts in prayer, refusing to rise from his bed. His servants are afraid to tell him when the child finally dies – but he hears their whispers and intuits the cause. To their surprise, he then rises, washes, and eats. It’s not the behavior you expect in grief. But David had prayed for the child’s life, and now that life is over. There is no prayer yet to be offered: “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” There is no return from the grave.

It’s the finality of death that wounds so deeply.   Never again will I hear my daughter’s laughter or see her smile. Never again will I see daisies in her hair – only the ones I placed there before they closed the casket. And never again will I see the feisty twinkle in my grandmother’s eye or my grandfather with his handkerchief keeping his bald head warm. Never again will I hear my cousin Jim’s deep guttural guffaw and shining eyes. I will go to them, but they will not return to me.

It is a simple fact that the boat only goes one way across the river Styx. The “witch of Endor” could call up the spirit of Samuel, but it is only a shadow of the man whose eternal sleep has been disturbed. “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”

So it is easy to declare that shame and grief and guilt and all death’s weapons cannot hold us. But there is a deeper mystery, here. It is not only that the living will go free; the grave itself will surrender its prisoners. The Biblical metaphor is not that we will be rejoined with loved ones in heaven; it is that we will walk again on the earth. The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth. Whatever that might mean, it means that this life is not a shadow of what is to come. This is the life for which we were made and it shall not ultimately be taken away from us.

God is in the business of restoring his world. Healing it now; healing it forever. Delivering it from its bondage. Breaking down not just the walls of hate and fear, violence and neglect, but breaking down the gates that bar the dead from the fullness of life. The Biblical metaphor is that we shall feel again the grass beneath our feet. We shall drink again from clear mountain streams. We shall hear the surf pound upon the shore but not feel it waste our homes and cities. We shall feel the gentle rain and not fear floods. We shall hear the rumble of lightning far away and not smell the ozone or fear its fires. We shall know the joy of a child’s hand in ours without having to fight the anxiety that wraps around our hearts. We shall know the tenderness of love with out the strain of our brokenness. We shall feast on Zion and no one shall make us afraid. The gates of hell cannot withstand the work of God to open the grave.

The church’s teaching about resurrection is the hardest for our rational minds to comprehend. We are as David. We know that “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” But before us is the promise that the gates that enclose the realm of the dead shall not withstand the Spirit of God. And before us is the witness of Mary and Peter, the twelve and the five hundred that the grave is empty. The crucified one lives.

We know the promise Jesus makes about the gates of hell means we are not bound by our sins; there is grace and deliverance for all. But it also means that God’s project in calling forth the world will not be sidetracked by the horrors spawned by our primal rebellion. A new creation awaits. A birth from above. A healing. A feast. An inexpressible and glorious joy.

And even now we taste this. The Spirit is given. The breath of Christ Jesus is upon us. The life of the age to come is ours to be lived now. The keys of the kingdom are in our hands. The iron gates shall not hold.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AYuma_Territorial_Prison_cell_doors.jpg Jerry Stratton / http://hoboes.com/Mimsy, via Wikimedia Commons

The gateways of the morning

File:Canada Geese and morning fog.jpg

Wednesday

Psalm 65:5, 8-13

8 You make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.

We forget, sometimes, that the bulk of scripture is poetry. It is part of why we get in trouble if we read the scriptures too literally. When we point to the transcendent, we are inevitably in the realm of metaphor. And it is impossible to speak about things that truly matter without metaphor and simile. The truth of life can’t be told by an equation. My love isn’t actually “a red, red rose.” When we speak of God’s throne, or God’s right hand, or say that “the LORD is my rock” or “my shepherd” – they are all metaphors. We are creatures who think in images.

And the best images are the ones that make us see in new ways.

File:Gate in the evening - May 2012 - panoramio.jpg8 You make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.

The creation stands in awe. The furthest bounds of the East and West glory in the goodness of God. Where the first light of dawn breaks upon the world to the place where the last rays of the sun dip below the horizon, all the earth exults. It exults in the awesome deeds, the deliverance wrought by God: slaves set free, the homeless given a home, the hungry provided with land, the persecuted delivered, the lost gathered, the forsaken welcomed.

8 Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs.

Signs. Deeds and words that point to the deeper truth. The deliverance from Egypt points to a God who frees the bound. The path through the Red Sea is a sign pointing to the God who is the source and goal of every journey to freedom. The water in the wilderness, the manna from heaven – the daily rising and setting of the sun – point to the persistent, determined, faithful love of God.

You are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.

The farthest seas. Every place. Even in my place. In my home.   In my heart. Praise for God’s deliverance. Hope. Hope based on past actions. Hope based on the signs that point to the heart of God.

9 You visit the earth and water it.

At the end of the dry season, at the end of the long summer months without a wisp of cloud when the future stands in doubt, when the haunting question lingers: “Will there be rain? Will there be water for the cisterns and refreshment for the cattle? Will there be a sowing and harvesting to come? Will there be bread?

File:Overflowing Stream after prolonged rain - geograph.org.uk - 1481335.jpgYes.

“You visit the earth and water it.”

God’s saving grace comes. God’s redemption. God’s gift of a future. God’s abundant mercy. New wine and oil. New grain. New sowing and harvesting. New banquet and song. New sharing and compassion. New joy.

8 You make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.

The creation stands in awe. The whole human community is as a city, and at the eastern gate the song of joy arises to the sun and rain and care of God. And across the vast expanse of humanity to that western gate where the sun sets, there is joy.

File:Takhte Jamshid.jpg

Images:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Canada_Geese_and_morning_fog.jpg By Brocken Inaglory (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gate_in_the_evening_-_May_2012_-_panoramio.jpg Forester2009 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Overflowing_Stream_after_prolonged_rain_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1481335.jpg John Darch [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Takhte_Jamshid.jpg By Omid Izanloo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons