Sheep and Goats

File:Fra Angelico 009.jpgWatching for the Morning of November 26, 2017

Year A

Christ the King / Reign of Christ:
Proper 29 / Lectionary 34

So Atticus Finch turned out to be a racist – kind of a soft, benevolent racist, but a racist nevertheless. And Charlie Rose turned out to be I’m not quite sure what, but hardly the warm, intelligent, nobility he portrayed on television. Power does some ugly things. It gives rein to the perversities of the human heart. We begin to think we will not be accountable for our actions.

You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance.”

This is not our psalm for this coming Sunday; it was the psalm last week. But its voice lingers. And we have heard the words of Jesus when he says For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light.” I don’t know for sure what Jesus’ meant. I think it had more to do with the reign of God that is now hidden ultimately shining forth, but Jesus repeats the idea in Luke 12:2 when he is talking about hypocrisy. Where the light shines, what lurks in the shadows is revealed.

So Sunday brings us to the final Sunday of the church year and the great assize – though there is no inquest here, no examination, no discovery, just a passing of sentence: the great judgment. All the nations are gathered before the Son of Man in his glory. The jig is up. Some are sheep. Some are goats. And it’s time to divide the flock. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

It is a great story about the importance of simple kindness – as Tolstoy expressed so wonderfully in the story of Martin the cobbler. It declares what is valuable in the eyes of God. In it’s simple form it reprises the Sermon on the Mount and embodies the character of God’s reign: justice and mercy. Fidelity to one another is fidelity to God.

So Sunday we will hear God speak through Ezekiel about judging between the fat sheep and the lean sheep and the promise to appoint a new shepherd. And we will sing with the psalmist that God is “a great King above all gods.” We will hear the author of Ephesians write of Christ risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of God “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” Together they will bear witness that Christ is the final measure of our lives and the final goal of all creation. It will stand against the claim of all earthly rulers to our faith and allegiance.  It will also stand against all human pretension.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment. (Romans 12:3)

 

The Prayer for November 26, 2017

Eternal God, Lord of all,
before you every human community and every human life must stand,
and by the example of your Son, Jesus, be measured.
Grant us an abundance of his Spirit,
that as he brought your grace to the fallen and your healing to the broken,
we too may be agents of your compassion;
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 November 26, 2017

First Reading: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
“I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.” – God speaks a word of judgment upon the shepherds of Israel (the leaders of the nation) who take care of themselves rather than the people in their care. God will be their shepherd and gather his scattered flock. He will judge between the fat and the lean sheep and appoint a new David to govern them.

Psalmody: Psalm 95:1-7a
“O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” – In these opening verses of Psalm 95, the poet calls the community to acclaim God, the creator of all, as their king.

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23
“He has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things.” –
With soaring poetry, the author of Ephesians offers his prayer for the community – prayer that rises into praise of God who raised Christ Jesus “above all rule and authority” and placed all things under his feet.

Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory… All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” – The final parable of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel is this vivid declaration that the nations will be judged by their treatment of “the least of these” with whom the Son of Man identifies himself: “as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.”

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFra_Angelico_009.jpg Fra Angelico [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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We will go forth in hope

File:Religión en Isla Margarita, Valle del Espíritu Santo.jpg

Watching for the Morning of November 19, 2017

Year A

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 28 / Lectionary 33

There will be thanksgiving in the service on Sunday, but it will not be enough to set our hearts at ease. We do not feel like the world is safe. We see divisions and threats. We are uncertain about the future. We are not confident that a turkey on every table is the truth of the country. We don’t see bounty and peace.

The first thanksgiving was not the meal of bounty and peace we have rehearsed in grade school plays, but we want that myth, the truth embodied in that story. It seemed inevitable, once, our manifest destiny: prosperity for all. We appear to have replaced it with uncertainty for all.

So it will be an act of faith when we offer prayers of thanksgiving on Sunday. We will dare to assert that God is good, that God is generous, that God is rich with mercy and love. We will dare to believe in generosity. We will dare to act on the notion that a table is to be shared, that kindness is to be shown, that truth is to be spoken – and can be spoken in love.

And we will do this even as we listen to texts of terrifying judgment. The prophet is so carried away with the ferocity of God’s coming wrath he sees the whole earth consumed “in the fire of his passion.” The poet ponders the brevity and frailty of life and declares: “Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.” And Jesus will use the image of a ruthless and vindictive rich man casting his worthless slave into the outer darkness, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” to tell us about God and the living of God’s reign.

In this season of harvest, when days grow short, darkness grows long, and leaves fall to the ground, when we draw near to the end of the church year and ponder the end of all things, there is a certain dread in the air. But we will cling to the promise in our reading from Paul, “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,” and with courage remember all for which we give thanks. And we will go forth in hope.

The Prayer for November 19, 2017

Almighty God, Lord of all,
you summon us to lives of faith and love
and stand as judge over all things.
Renew us in your mercy that, clothed in Christ,
we may live as children of the day
that is dawning in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for November 19, 2017

First Reading: Zephaniah 1 (appointed: 1:7, 12-18)
“Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is at hand.” – During the reign of Josiah, in as era that seems like a period of great national revival (though not far in time from the Babylonian conquest), the prophet exposes the underlying faithlessness of that generation. His portrait of the coming cataclysm is cosmic in scope.

Psalmody: Psalm 90:1-12
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” – This opening prayer of the fourth ‘book’ (section) of Psalms, reflects on the brief and fragile nature of human life, and the ever present threat of God’s “wrath” – God’s opposition to our ‘sin’, our rebellion from and resistance to the fidelity to God and one another for which God fashioned us.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.” –
Having assured the community in Thessalonica that those who have died will share in the coming transformation of the world, he urges them to be awake and aware of God’s dawning reign of grace, living as faithful children of the light.

Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30
“It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.” – Jesus uses a salacious example of a greedy and ruthless man entrusting his affairs to his underlings in a parable summoning us to understand the nature of God and God’s dawning reign.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AReligi%C3%B3n_en_Isla_Margarita%2C_Valle_del_Esp%C3%ADritu_Santo.jpg By The Photographer (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Fruit

File:Grenache grapes on the vine.jpg

Watching for the Morning of October 8, 2017

Year A

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 22 / Lectionary 27

Somewhere along the way we seem to have imagined that Jesus’ parables are sweet little agrarian stories about the love of God and the importance of kindness and mercy. At least that was the impression I gained from Sunday School as a child. It’s hard for us, raised on a piety of the tender good shepherd, to hear Jesus’ blunt and brutal attacks upon the leadership of the nation. But here we are. Chapter 21 has brought Jesus to Jerusalem and he fully stands in the tradition of the prophets and their powerful critiques of those in authority. He drives the moneychangers from the temple. He heals the blind and lame (powerless). He curses the fig tree for bearing no fruit (a symbol of the nation). He rebuffs those who challenge his authority by trapping them in their cynicism and self-preservation. He gets them to condemn themselves with the parable of the two sons. And now, this Sunday, we will hear him again get the leaders of the people to condemn themselves with their own words by the parable of the rebel tenants: “‘When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘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.’”

The poor and the outcast that Jesus has gathered around him, however, hear a word of grace: “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you [the leaders] and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom [the poor and outcast who embrace the justice and mercy of God’s reign].”

We are in for a rough and tumble ride these last Sundays of the church year. Fortunately there are some festivals scattered in: Reformation Sunday and All Saints (and last Sunday’s blessing of the animals).

But judgment is always mercy. There is grace for the poor and lame. There is the possibility of repentance (changing our ways and showing allegiance to God’s justice and mercy). And there is the knowledge that though the powers judged Jesus a heretic, God proclaimed him true. We who come to stand before these stories know the crucified one was raised.

Sunday we will hear the prophet Isaiah’s brilliant use of a tawdry tale of infidelity to proclaim judgment on the nation (see “Scandal”). The poet will also use this imagery of Israel as God’s vineyard to plea for God’s aid. And Paul will count all his worldly claims for honor and righteousness to be but rubbish. Christ alone matters: sharing in the resurrection, participating in the life of the age to come, living the realm of God already manifest in Christ, bearing the fruit our master requires.

The Prayer for October 8, 2017

God of mercy, Lord of all,
you have made us to be your vineyard, your field,
your heart and hands and voice in the world.
Govern our hearts and minds by your Holy Spirit,
that our lives might bear forth the fruit of your kingdom;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 8, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7
“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard.” – The prophet sings of his “beloved” who tenderly cared for his vineyard only to have it yield bitter grapes and invites the people of Judah to judge whether he is not justified in tearing it down.

Psalmody: Psalm 80:7-15
“You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it… Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?” – The psalm uses the image of Israel as a vine, brought out of Egypt and planted in a good land, and laments that the vineyard has been breached and ravaged by the wild beasts – a metaphor for the destruction of the nation.

Second Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14
“I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
– Paul declares that he considers all his righteousness under the law as worthless compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus and his righteousness.

Gospel: Matthew 21:33-46
“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.” – Taking up the conventional imagery of Israel as God’s vineyard from Isaiah and the psalms, Jesus tells a story of an absentee landlord whose tenants refused to give to their master the fruit they owed him. The tenants rebel and kill the son in order to claim the vineyard for themselves, but are ultimately destroyed and the vineyard given to others.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGrenache_grapes_on_the_vine.jpg By Josh McFadden (originally posted to Flickr as IMG_3272) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Marching towards the new birth of the world

File:Aivazovsky - Descent of Noah from Ararat.jpg

Saturday

Matthew 16:21-28

21From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

We call this a passion prediction – a prediction of his suffering and death. It doesn’t require any special divine foreknowledge. It’s reasonable to think that Jesus was astute enough to recognize that the things he was saying and doing would eventually bring him into conflict with the Judean authorities – and that the outcome of that would be his death. But Jesus adds “and on the third day be raised.”

For a long time I rather ignored this portion of the prediction. Scholarship rightly understands the Gospels as works of the church, the faith community of Jesus’ followers. Jesus didn’t write the Gospels; his followers did. But scholars tend to then make a distinction between what they think came from Jesus and what came from “the church”.

So Jesus could have foreseen his death, but who could imagine his resurrection? The first part may have belonged to Jesus, but the second part surely belongs to the early church. They are the ones who added that Jesus would be raised, because they had seen it.

It’s a reasonable thought, I guess, though it requires a certain audacity on the part of his followers to put words into the mouth of Jesus. Moderns think ancients are willing to do that (and in many cases they were), but that we wouldn’t (though we do). I am always in support of a little humility about what we are certain we “know”.

For a long time, then, I saw in this text the passion prediction and just kind of ignored the resurrection prediction. But the truth is the resurrection prediction is a key element of Jesus’ prophetic word. Indeed, the entire bulk of the Biblical prophets is to warn of pending judgment and destruction, but then to affirm grace and restoration. The Biblical story is a story of sin and redemption. The wicked world drowns at the time of Noah, but from destruction a new creation rises. Israel is condemned to wander in the wilderness but a new generation rises to enter in to the promised land. Jerusalem is destroyed, but the prophet declares that springs will flow in the desert and a highway lead the people home.

The whole Biblical story is about death and resurrection, judgment and grace, suffering and redemption. So why couldn’t Jesus have trusted that his death would lead to resurrection? His message is about the dawning of the age to come, the reign of God where lives are healed and blind eyes opened and tears wiped away. Resurrection is at the heart of this ministry. Jesus is herald of the new. The dead shall give up its prisoners. The gates guarding the realm of the dead shall not stand. Life is at hand.

So I understand the skepticism of the scholars. And it is important to resist the notion that Jesus was some kind of superman who had powers greater than the rest of us mere mortals. Jesus was fully human. This is the ancient and persistent confession of the church. But the Spirit is upon him. He trusts God fully. He knows the sacred writings intimately. He understands God is a God who delivers – even from the wrath of Jerusalem’s elite. Even from the grave.

And because God is a god who delivers – he sets his sights on Jerusalem. Courageously, faithfully, obediently, he marches towards the new birth of the world.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAivazovsky_-_Descent_of_Noah_from_Ararat.jpg Ivan Aivazovsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Burdens heavy and light

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The “work” of scripture

Once more from last Sunday

Last Sunday was warm – not as warm as it has been, but it was the weekend following the fourth of July, so it seemed right to begin the sermon by saying:

On a hot summer day it seems hard to say more than “God loves you; go in peace.” We should be at the beach with our toes in the sand. We should be at a lake in the mountains, or on the back porch listening to the ball game with an iced-tea in our hands. We should be holding hands in a movie where the theater is cool. Or visiting a friend with air-conditioning and children the same age running around the back yard. Hot summer days don’t seem like the days for work.

But scripture is work. It asks something of us. It bids us listen. It asks us to see. It calls for self-examination and an open heart. It summons us to generosity and compassion and the hard work of reconciliation.

Scripture is work. But scripture is also promise. It comes to heal. To comfort. To reassure. To encourage. It comes to free what is bound and restore what is broken. It comes to gather what is scattered and unite what is divided. Scripture is work, but it is also promise. It bids us bend the knee, and yet raises us in an eternal embrace.

If you would like to read the whole sermon, it is posted here. It is rooted in the Gospel text for Sunday that includes harsh words of judgment against the cities of Jesus’ day and the sweet word of invitation:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Here are two other thoughts from the sermon:

People wouldn’t listen to John because he was too freakishly religious, and they won’t listen to Jesus because he’s not religious enough. At least, he’s not their kind of religion. But this is the deal. We don’t get to pick the god we want. We have to deal with the God who is.

+     +     +

There is a yoke here. There is a life of service to be lived. It is not an easy yoke in the sense that it doesn’t ask much of us; it asks very much indeed. But it is light because the work of mercy and grace lifts the heart and frees the Spirit and leads to joy and life.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKom%C3%A1rom554.JPG By Szeder László (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Fall

File:Metz (57) cathédrale St Etienne 36.jpg

“Why does Jesus have to tell us to love one another if we have been made in the image of God whose very being is faithfulness and love?”

This question from last Sunday’s sermon led us into the narrative of humanity’s turn away from God and their plucking the fruit of the tree that brings the knowledge of “good and evil”, of life’s joys and sorrows.

What follows is the information in the booklet we handed out following worship explaining the images used in our sanctuary last Sunday. The sermon series is designed to help us understand what Jesus was telling his followers on the road to Emmaus about the fundamental witness of the scripture to the sacrificial, redemptive love of God.   (For more information about this series, see the explanation in the post for week 1.)

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Metz_(57)_cath%C3%A9drale_St_Etienne_36.jpg By Jacques CHAZARD (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Genesis 3


In the middle of the garden were the tree of life
and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.


File:Shaki khan palace interier.jpg

In the garden is the tree of life. We are mortal creatures, but we are not made for death. There is a food that grants life. The tree of life shows up in Revelation. Christ has opened the way to the tree of life. It bears fruit in every month “and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

But there is also a tree that will give the knowledge and experience of life’s sorrows, the knowledge of what is beautiful and what is brutal, what is kind and cruel, what is joyful and grievous. Here are the tears of life from which God would protect us. And so the command: every tree but this one.

Painting of life tree in interoer of Shaki Khan palace, Azerbaijan National Art Museum, Usta Gambar Garabagi
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AShaki_khan_palace_interier.jpg By Urek Meniashvili (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 


“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”


File:Adam and snake sculpture, Iskola Promenade, 2016 Dunakeszi.jpg

Trouble comes already with the question. Humans are free to choose to trust God’s word or to trust their own judgment. Until now they live in a perfect trust: they are “naked and not ashamed,” vulnerable but not fearful, open to one another and to God not turned in on themselves, living in perfect love of God and one another.

But then comes the question: “Did God say…?” It is the kind of question that plants doubt and uncertainty. Instead of trusting God’s word they question it. It is like a remark to a woman or a man, “Are you sure your husband/wife is working when they come home so late?” The question plagues the hearer and the harmony of the relationship is torn.

Now comes the decision whether to abide in God’s word or turn aside. And suddenly they are listening to the serpent deny the consequences of turning away from God’s word. Now they are hearing the serpent insinuate that God is trying to preserve his privilege and position as the knower of these things. Now they are deciding for themselves: it looks delicious, it tastes sweet, and it’s good to be wise. And the deed is done. They reach for the fruit.

Sculpture group at 10-12 Iskola Promenade, Dunakeszi, Pest County, Hungary.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adam_and_snake_sculpture,_Iskola_Promenade,_2016_Dunakeszi.jpg By Globetrotter19 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

When the woman saw that the tree was good for food,
and that it was a delight to the eyes,
and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise,
she took of its fruit and ate.


File:Adam and Eva by Eugeny Kolchev.jpg

Adam and Eve. Skulpture of Eugeny Kolchev. 2003, bronze. Gallery La-Sandr Art, Minsk.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adam_and_Eva_by_Eugeny_Kolchev.jpg Eugeny Kolchev [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

She also gave some to her husband, who was with her,
and he ate.


Adam was with her. Though he will try to blame this on the woman – and God who gave him the woman – he was with her. He was a partner in this act.

And even if he were only a follower, there is shame here, too. It shows something dark and troubling about the human heart. We follow too easily down pathways we ought not tread. We go with the crowd. We surrender to hates and fears and wars. We yield to peer pressure and social convention. We are silent when we should speak. We go along.


Then the eyes of both were opened,
and they knew that they were naked.


File:Adam and Eve. Downfall.jpg

Their communion with God is broken. Their communion with one another is broken. They hide (vainly) behind fig leaves from the eyes of one another. They hide (vainly) in the bushes from the gaze of God. Alienation. Pretense. Secrets. Shame. They know sorrows.

Adam and eve. The fall of man. 2012. Oil on canvas. 60×60. Artist A.N. Mironov
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAdam_and_Eve._Downfall.jpg   By Andrey Mironov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Lord God called to the man, and said to him,
“Where are you?”


File:Adam Listening to the Voice of God the Almighty. John Martin.jpg

The first question is not asked because God doesn’t know where the humans have gone. The question is asked because they need to see that they are hiding. It is a hard question, but a gracious one. Where are you? What is the truth of your life? What has come of the human race? What sorrows do we wreak? We need to see the hammer and nails in our hands.

John Marton. Oil on canvas. circa 1823-1827. Victoria and Albert Museum – London (United Kingdom – London)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adam_Listening_to_the_Voice_of_God_the_Almighty._John_Martin.jpg   John Martin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“The woman you gave me…”


The finger pointing is comical, but so true about us. But God gives the humans the right explain themselves. He listens. The God who speaks listens.

Do hear ourselves? Do we recognize the human heart, willing to deflect and excuse and blame even God for our choices and deeds? Do we hear the voice of God ask that simple question, “What have you done?” not as an accusation, but an invitation to choose to live in the truth?

But nevertheless, the action has consequences.


“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers.”


File:Crotalus atrox diamantklapperschlange kopf.jpg

Enmity. It’s not only the relationship between God and humans, and the relationships between humans, that have been disrupted; humanity’s relationship with the natural world now involves fear. There are snakes. Where we lived in harmony with the natural world, now it is a stranger. There are things that creep in the night. There are lions that roar. Dogs that bite. The deer turn back into the forest and the turtle pulls into his shell. There is fear.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Ulm, Germany, Zoological Garden.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Crotalus_atrox_diamantklapperschlange_kopf.jpg By H. Krisp (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken.”


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Sweat. What was work now becomes labor. What was good becomes mixed with struggle. Childbirth is now labor pains. The ground gives weeds with the wheat. There are worms in the apples and crows in the field. Gentle rains become storms, and an unseasonal freeze can kill the oranges. The joy of work remains, but it is mixed with sweat. The joy of childbirth remains, but it too is mixed with sweat. We turned from trusting God’s word. We chose to know sorrow.

And ultimately the ground from which we came will take us again.

Parc Tivoli, Mulhouse: statue of a perspiring worker (1905)
Cropped version of https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASchweissdissi.jpg By M.Strīķis (Parc Tivoli) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

At the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim,
and a sword flaming and turning
to guard the way to the tree of life.


File:The Expulsion from Paradise. Christian Rohlfs - 1933.jpg

“The serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die.’” It was a lie, of course.

Yes, death didn’t come immediately. God didn’t strike them down. But death came. They lost the garden. And with the garden they lost the tree of life. Now the death-free life that had been provided for them is lost. They go out into the world of sorrows.

There is grace here, however. It is a kindness not to live forever in our sin. Imagine if every Hitler and abuser were eternal? Imagine if we lived forever knowing betrayal? Or infirmity? Or shame? There is a hidden grace here.

And there is a visible grace: God clothes them in animal skins. There is no killing, yet. Leaves and grass were all they would have had as they went forth from the garden. But God provides them with clothing to keep them warm, to protect them, to provide some cover to soften their shame.

There is a curse on the land and the serpent, but not on the humans. Life has been thrown off kilter, but the rivers still flow to water the earth. There is sorrow – and more sorrows to come – but God continues to care for his creatures. There is still goodness. There is still beauty. We are not cursed. Innocence is lost, but we can still choose faithfulness and love.

The Expulsion from Paradise. Christian Rohlfs – 1933
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Expulsion_from_Paradise._Christian_Rohlfs_-_1933.jpg   Christian Rohlfs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cover Image: misericord from St. Etienne cathedral of Metz (France)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Metz_(57)_cath%C3%A9drale_St_Etienne_36.jpg By Jacques CHAZARD (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
© Text by David K. Bonde, Los Altos Lutheran Church, 2017

Honoring the prophets

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Friday

Isaiah 58:1-12

1 Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.

I pity the prophets. Who really wants this assignment? It’s a lot more rewarding to be able to speak a word of grace to those who are broken than to be assigned the task of pointing out sins no one wants to acknowledge.

Of course there are always those who seem to delight in pointing out sins…and mistakes and imperfections…and pretty much anything with which they disagree or disapprove. There is a heady intoxication in moral outrage. Our public airwaves are filled with it at the moment. But it’s one thing to rant at the powers that are far away. A very different thing to be assigned the task of pointing out sins close at hand. It got Jeremiah thrown in jail. Elijah had to hide out for safety. And we don’t know what happened to Isaiah, but those later chapters have enough potent poetry about God’s suffering servant that I suspect its author knew something about suffering first hand.

So I pity the prophets. But I honor them deeply. What they did was a great sacrifice, paid with tears and despair at the hardness of heart of the people and their leaders.

The way to honor the prophets, of course, is to not let their words fall to the ground. The way to respect their courage and sacrifice is to let these words find root in our hearts and lives, to take seriously the command to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. The way to honor the prophets – and the God who sent them – is to live the way of justice and mercy:

6 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?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? …
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday…
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AProphets_from_Ferapontov02_(Kirillo-Belozersk).jpg By Anonymous (own photo by shakko) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The days ahead

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Watching for the Morning of November 13, 2016

Year C

The Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 28 / Lectionary 33

The end of the church year looks towards the horizon of human history. In this second to last Sunday, the Gospel reading always draws from Jesus’ prediction of the fall of the temple and the question it elicits from his followers about the end of the age. They cannot imagine an end to the temple apart from the end of this age and the dawn of the new, so one leads to the other. But Jesus recognizes the cataclysm that is coming upon Israel, torn as it is between the entrenched power of the elite priestly families, the passion of the zealots who would cast off Rome, and the eschatological fervor of those who expect heavenly armies to join the battle to liberate the land and temple. It will be a time of distress for his followers. They will be hated by Romans and rebels alike. But this is not the end. Not yet. There is work to be done. There is a message to be proclaimed. The reign of God does not involve swords and spears or priestly rule but a new creation.

So Sunday we will hear the prophet Malachi declaring a day of judgment upon “the arrogant and all evildoers” but “for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” The psalm rejoices that “the LORD…is coming to judge the earth” and calls all the earth to sing God’s praise. And Jesus warns us not to be led astray by the traumas of our age and those who claim to be our savior. Circling this conversation about the end of this age is the reading from 2 Thessalonians where the author speaks of our obligations to one another as a community of the age to come that is already dawning in Christ Jesus.

Elites want to maintain the order of things and terrorists want to force a new order. The followers of Jesus simply try to live God’s new order, assured it is the reality that is coming.

The Prayer for November 13, 2016

O God who stands at the beginning and the end of time,
you have promised truth, justice and life for the world.
Grant that we may not be deceived by falsehood,
seduced by injustice,
or turned from the path of life,
but set our hope fully upon your Word;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for November 13, 2016

First Reading: : Malachi 4:1-2a
“See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble…But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”
– the prophet warns the community of God’s judgment on “the arrogant” who think God will not hold them accountable for their actions and promises God’s blessing on those who show themselves faithful.

Psalmody: Psalm 98
“Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.” – A hymn celebrating God’s reign, calling all creation to exult in his deliverance and his fidelity in bringing justice and righteousness to the world.

Second Reading: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
“We hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.”
– For a community that shared resources, and whose central act of worship was a shared meal, the letter rebukes those who make no commitment to help provide for the common good.

Gospel: Luke 21:5-19
“When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” – Jesus warns his followers about events to come (the national convulsion that culminates in the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, but also the perennial warring of nations and distressing tragedies), cautioning them not to be led astray by those who claim to be God’s anointed, urging them to faithfulness in their witness, and assuring them of God’s ultimate deliverance.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AVictoria%2C_BC_-_Christ_Church_Cathedral_-_stained_glass_28_-_Chapel_of_the_New_Jerusalem_(20623905782).jpg Joe Mabel [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), 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

Panting on the heights

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Jeremiah 14:1-9

5 Even the doe in the field forsakes her newborn fawn
because there is no grass.
6
The wild asses stand on the bare heights,
they pant for air like jackals;
their eyes fail
because there is no herbage.

The creation suffers because of human sin. We can smugly say that the ancients were ignorant of modern science and didn’t understand the nature of weather patterns and naturally occurring droughts. And it might be that the ancients had a simplistic view of the weather as directly controlled by the gods – Baal, after all, is the storm god, god of the rain and therefore of prosperity and fertility. And we moderns may sneer at Texas Governor Rick Perry leading a prayer service for rain. But there is a deep spiritual insight in these ancient texts.

Our actions affect the world around us. When we tear down a mountain we affect the wind patterns. When we destroy wetlands we worsen the damage of storms. When we build on cliffs with beautiful ocean views we make ourselves vulnerable to the shore’s natural erosion. When we create acid rain we change ecosystems. When we pollute water systems we jeopardize health. When we pump water and chemicals into the oil fields we awaken old earthquake faults. The natural world changes when we kill off the top predators or cut down the forests or fill the air with chemicals that destroy the ozone or raise the greenhouse effect.

Our actions affect the world around us, for good or ill. When our actions are wanton and greedy, when they are thoughtless and self-absorbed, there is a price to pay. It gets paid by starving polar bears and algae blooms. It gets paid by dying reefs and perishing species. It gets paid by narwhal young when the melting of the arctic ice grants killer whales access to narwhal birthing sites.

So the prophet is not wrong when he sees “the doe in the field forsakes her newborn fawn” and the wild assess panting “for air like jackals,” and recognizes these as symptoms of a society whose people are greedy for luxury and not for justice.

There is no simple answer to the drought in the West and its accompanying sorrows. But there is occasion for repentance: for self-examination as a community and as individuals to consider whether we have exercised the care for the earth God assigned us or whether we have bowed down to other gods. It is an opportunity for “turning” (the meaning of the word repentance): for changing direction, changing our attachments, showing a proper fidelity to God and the world entrusted to our care.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A3_khulan_am_Wasser_Abend.jpg By Kaczensky at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

God sees

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Thursday

Jeremiah 23:23-32

23Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?

It is a question that will have great power in the years that follow Jeremiah’s preaching, when Jerusalem has been destroyed and its citizens carried off in chains to exile in Babylon.

Is God with them in this far off land? Or do they now inhabit another’s realm? Can we end up so far from home that God is not with us? When we are broken, is God present? Or is God a god who prefers greatness, who stands with those on the victory platform?

It seems that way, sometimes. The stories of some Christian communities are so filled with success and answered prayers that those who walk through the valley imagine God walks only with others.

But the Biblical story is that God is god even in exile, even in Egypt, even in the wilderness. The shining light at the heart of Christianity is a cross: Christ among the degraded, Christ among the broken. God among the exiles.

Yes, God is present.

But Jeremiah’s challenge is spoken to a nation and a leadership enamored with the voices of prophets who speak their own thoughts and passions and dreams: “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name,” says the LORD.

Yes, God is present in the valley. But God is also present on the stage where the name of Jesus is whipped around in support of ideologies and bigotries and zealous agendas. God is present where nations are led to the adoration of might and away from the adoration of the true. God is present where peoples are led to the worship of success and not to the honoring of mercy, where people are enamored with promises of glory and not justice. God is present – to judge, as the divine representatives of the nations gathered before God in the psalm will hear.

23 “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? 24Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” says the Lord.

God sees.

The word is comfort to the fallen, great comfort. But the word is danger to our idolatries.

God sees.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJakarta_slumhome_2.jpg By Jonathan McIntosh (Own work) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons