Promise and trust

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Watching for the Morning of February 25, 2018

Year B

The Second Sunday of Lent

Sunday is another step towards Jerusalem and our celebration of the events that happened there in an upper room, at Gethsemane, in the home of the High Priest and before Pilate. Our season walks towards a hill outside the walls called Golgotha, and to a nearby tomb and a vision of angels.

The covenant with Abram opens our readings on Sunday. He is ninety-nine. Sarai is ninety. The promise is spoken and they receive new names. Abram is changed to Abraham, understood to mean “father of a multitude.” Sarai becomes Sarah, “princess” – not in the sense that my stepfather called my little sister “princess”; she is to be the royal mother of a great nation.

We know the story. Sarah is barren and beyond childbearing. Yet they receive again a promise. They are even given the name they shall call their child to be: “Isaac” from the word to laugh. Maybe because Abraham laughed. Maybe because Sarah laughed. Maybe because, at his birth, they laughed with joy. A future is given to them. A promise sustains them.

Paul will talk of this promise in Romans. Abraham was reckoned as righteous because he trusted the promise. It is Paul’s argument that righteousness comes from such faith not works of the law.

Trust in God sustains the poet in our psalm. This is the psalm Jesus will recite from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  We do not read the lament section this Sunday, however, only the concluding song of trust.

Promise and trust. And so Jesus begins to teach his followers about the cross that awaits him and the cross we must take up to follow him. The cross is the ultimate tool of imperial power. But Jesus brings another empire, a greater kingdom, a truer reign – a reign of life. Shall we trust it?

How can we not?

This Sunday we continue our Lenten series on Baptism. “Through the Waters” offers an introduction to the Lenten theme. Daily Bible verses and reflections are posted at Holy Seasons as well as the first sermon in the series, “A great and terrifying promise.”

The Prayer for February 25, 2018

Almighty God, Holy and Faithful,
whose promise to Abraham was sure;
grant us courage to follow where you lead
and to take up the cross for the sake of your Gospel;
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 February 25, 2018

First Reading: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
“No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” – God establishes a covenant with Abram and Sarai giving them new names, Abraham and Sarah, an indicator of their new destiny.

Psalmody: Psalm 22:23-31
“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.” – At the conclusion of this lament (that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,”) the poet’s prayer for deliverance turns to praise and thanksgiving that God has not let him perish.

Second Reading: Romans 4:13-25
“The promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”
– Paul argues that just as Abraham was declared righteous for his trust in God’s promise (a promise that he would become the “father of many nations”), so we (the members of those ‘many nations’) are made righteous not by the law but by trusting God’s promise.

Gospel Mark 8:31-38
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” – Jesus teaches his followers “openly” that he will be rejected in Jerusalem and killed, but Peter disavows such an idea. Jesus spurns Peter and declares that fidelity to the reign of God means his followers will share in that same shaming rejection by the governing powers: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMiroslav-z%C3%A1mek2015o.jpg By Ben Skála, Benfoto (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Casting wide the net of mercy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is a dark and devastating word from God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

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

An immeasurable mercy

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Watching for the Morning of January 21, 2018

Year B

The Third Sunday after Epiphany

Jonah opens our readings from the scripture on Sunday. The great fish has vomited him onto the shore and God tries again to send him to warn the Assyrians that God is about to destroy them for their wickedness. Unless they repent. Every prophetic warning includes the possibility of repentance. It’s why Jonah tried to run away when he was first commissioned. He was afraid the people would turn from their wickedness and God would forgive them. They didn’t deserve forgiveness.   Of course, none of us do. Some of us certainly seem like saints. Some of us certainly are saints. But living well and living faithfully doesn’t put God in our debt. We are still frail creatures, still caught in our selves. The true saints know this. It fills them with compassion for sinners. The rest of us less complete saints want a little credit. It makes us a little judgmental. Those people should know better, behave better, try harder, make better choices. And if they don’t, they don’t deserve God’s mercy. But mercy isn’t earned; it’s given.

So we will hear of Jonah half-heartedly marching into Nineveh and the people hearing and repenting. And God forgives, just as Jonah feared.

Jonah resists the call of God. Tries to, anyway. But the call of God doesn’t let us get away. It pounces on us in unexpected ways – as it did to Peter and Andrew, James and John as they were tending their nets. Suddenly the summons is there and a lifetime of fishing is suddenly turned in a new direction. They will be gathering the world into the arms of mercy, the “fishnet” of heaven’s grace.

The summons is compelling. There is no resisting the eternal voice. Christ stands before them and calls them to follow. And what shall we say? We have work to do? No, we have mercy to do. The world awaits the embrace of God. The world awaits healing and life. The world awaits care and compassion. The world awaits the message that a new kingdom is at hand, a new spirit, a new governance of the human heart.

To choose hardness of heart in such a moment seems unthinkable, though we do make that choice. Often, it seems. Our hardness of heart becomes unrecognizable to ourselves. We cheer what we should not cheer. We trust what we should not trust. We show allegiance to things we ought not serve. Jesus will have things to teach – even as God tried to teach Jonah. The cross and resurrection will be the final lesson: it’s not about what we deserve; it’s about an immeasurable mercy.

It will be sung in the psalm on Sunday. Paul will speak of it in the reading. And Jesus will name names. We are summoned by mercy. We are summoned to live mercy.

The Prayer for January 21, 2018

Almighty God,
as Jesus summoned Simon and Andrew, James and John,
to leave their nets and follow,
you summon all people to lives of faith and love.
Grant us courage to follow where you lead,
and confidence to cast wide the net |
that gathers all people into your gracious embrace;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for January 21, 2018

First Reading: Jonah 3:1-10
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’” – In this delightful tale of Jonah fleeing God’s call to bring warning to Nineveh, choosing death (tossed into the sea) rather than repentance until he is swallowed by a great fish and vomited onto the land, he now finds himself compelled to accept his commission and the thing he feared happens: the wicked city repents and God forgives.

Psalmody: Psalm 62:5-12
“For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.”
– Speaking to the community more than to God, the poet expresses his confidence in God and calls the people (warns his opponents?) to also put their trust in God.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
“From now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning.” – Paul concludes his guidance on matters of sex and marriage by reminding the community that they live in the light of the dawning reign of God and their lives should be defined by the age to come not the age that is passing away.

Gospel: Mark 1:14-20
“Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’”
– Jesus summons Simon and Andrew, James and John, to join him in gathering the nation and instigating a new era of faithfulness.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFisherman_in_Myanmar.jpg By Pupuce22 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Great mercies for a world in need of mercy

File:Lacura2.JPGWatching for the Feast of the Nativity 2017

Christmas Eve / Christmas Day

Light for our darkness will echo through our service on Christmas Eve. We will hear the great prophetic word of Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” and be reminded of the promise that “all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”

We will hear also from Isaiah that “A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,” a new king from the line of David. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” The peace of his reign that will find the lion eating straw like the ox and all the earth will be filled with “the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

Of course, the central story of the night is the remarkable birth during the imperial reign of the victorious Octavian – Caesar Augustus who was acclaimed as son of a god (son of the divine Julius Caesar) and savior of the world. Only this birth does not happen in Rome, but in a peasant home in Judea.

Two kingdoms clash – not a game of thrones like Octavian’s Victory over Antony and Cleopatra, but two profoundly different claims upon the world: one a rule of might, the other of grace. Augustus will claim all things for himself – and Jesus will give himself for all. The “census” was a listing of all properties when Rome took over a region so Caesar could claim what he wished. It led to riots and brutal repression under Quirinius. But in a manger in Bethlehem lies a true prince of peace, a true light for our darkness.

On Christmas Day we will hear John declare that the divine word that called the world into being“became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth.” We will hear the prophet speak of God’s word that does not return empty but “shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” And the author of Hebrews will confirm that “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”

Light for our darkness. Peace for our world. The mystery of the incarnation. The wonder of “God with us”. Rich and abundant themes. Great mercies for a world in need of mercy.

The Prayer for December 24, 2017

Holy God, eternal light,
source and goal of all creation:
in the wonder of this night,
you came to us in the child of Bethlehem,
seeking your lost and wounded world,
granting light for our darkness,
hope amidst doubt,
joy amidst sorrow.
Let your grace shine upon us
that we may receive you with open hearts
and know the fullness of your presence.

The Texts for December 24, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7,
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” – the prophet promises the end of war and the birth of a royal son in whom will come peace.

Second Reading: Isaiah 11:1-9
“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
– The prophet heralds a coming king who shall bring perfect peace to the world.”

Gospel: Luke 2:1-20
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” – Into the world of Roman dominion and power, a new Lord is born.

The Prayer for December 25, 2015

Almighty and ever-living God,
in the mystery of the incarnation
you have entered into the fabric of our world
to find what is lost,
to gather what is scattered,
to unite what is broken,
to illumine what is darkened,
to heal what is wounded,
to bring to life what is bound in death.
Grant us wisdom, courage and faith
to receive your Son as he comes to us as your Word made flesh:
child of Bethlehem;
prophet and teacher of Nazareth;
crucified and risen Lord;
Immanuel, God with us.

The Texts for December 25, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 55:10-12
“You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.” – Like grain sown into the soil, God’s promise will bear fruit: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty.”

Second Reading: Hebrews 1:1-3a
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”
– The opening of the book of Hebrews proclaiming the work of God in Christ.

Gospel: John 1:1-14
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John’s Gospel begins with a rich and wondrous hymn that identifies Christ Jesus with

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALacura2.JPG By Lacura (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Pregnant with what is to come

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Watching for the Morning of December 24, 2017

Year B

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Sunday presents us with a morning service for the fourth Sunday in Advent – and then, that evening, the Christmas Eve service. After worship on Sunday morning we will have to flip all the decorations from Advent blue to the gold and white of Christmas. But already the harpsichord and other instruments will be in place, already the angel will look down upon Mary as she kneels in waiting before the altar, already Joseph will stand in watch – as if the morning were pregnant with what is to come.

Such is the Advent season: pregnant with what is to come. And such is Christian faith: pregnant with what is to come. You can hear the heartbeat of the reign of God. We have a sonogram with a fuzzy image of the life we await. There are changes already in the appearance of the world. Our lives are being restructured by the day to come.

Sunday morning we will hear Nathan speak God’s promise to David that Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” It is a promise that ran into the hard realities of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. For nearly 600 years the royal line was all but gone. There was no palace, no throne, no royal court. A few governors at first, Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel, but the kingship was gone. There were brief flashes of independence, but not the line of David. The Hasmoneans were priests, and though Herod the Great was called a king, he wasn’t even from Judah. He was Idumean.

But now here is Gabriel speaking to a peasant woman not yet gone to live with her husband, telling of a child to be born who “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Birth pangs are upon the world. The day of grace is coming.

The Prayer for December 24, 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 your radiance to all creation.

The Texts for December 24, 2017

First Reading: 2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16
“Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’” – When David seeks to build a temple for God, God declares he has it backwards: it isn’t David who builds a house for God, but God who builds a house (a dynastic line) for David.

Psalmody: Isaiah 12:2-6, (appointed: Luke 1:46-55 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26)
“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: Romans 16.25-27
“Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ.”
– A hymnic conclusion to Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome celebrates the mystery now revealed of God’s purpose to gather all people into Christ.

Gospel: Luke 1:26-38
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph.” – The angel Gabriel invades Mary’s home and presents her with the news that she will give birth to the heir of David’s throne.

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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.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAny_day_now_(3423098686).jpg By Aurimas Mikalauskas from Paliūniškis, Lithuania (Any day now) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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

Of royal weddings

File:Wedding Supper - Martin van Meytens - Google Cultural Institute.jpg

Watching for the Morning of October 15, 2017

Year A

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 23 / Lectionary 28

Politics makes for strange bedfellows, so the saying goes. Those running for office often find themselves on stage or at dinners with political adversaries. Some invitations are fraught with difficulty. If I accept, I alienate this portion of the voting public; if I don’t accept, I alienate others. Invitations are not always simple.

The wedding invitation in the Gospel reading for this Sunday is not simple. It comes from the king. To refuse the king is dangerous. To refuse the king is an act of rebellion. You would only dare such a refusal if you thought he was no longer powerful enough to take revenge. You would refuse only if you had betrayed your king and given your allegiance to another.

Matthew’s account is much more overt than the story in Luke. Here the host is a king and the rebellion open and defiant. Jesus says not only that the invitees “made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business,” but that “the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.”

We are talking about Judea, now, and Jerusalem, and the murder of the prophets – and the murder of Jesus. The slaughter of the rebels and burning of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 CE now echoes through the parable. There are consequences to rebellion. Destruction follows when you misjudge who is the true king, when you misjudge who truly holds power.

The invitation to feast at God’s table is not simple. It is full of grace, but it means giving up wealth and privilege. It means embracing all as your neighbor. It means taking up the cross, risking all for the path of peace.

This is not a partisan parable – as if God were going to get “those people” who are “not like us” in the end. This is a prophetic warning to the leaders of the nation. This is a prophetic warning to us all. We are invited to the table of peace. The welcome is given to all to come to the feast that knows no end. But an invitation is not a simple thing. Refusal is rebellion. And the consequences are fateful.

So Sunday we will hear God’s great promise in Isaiah to prepare a banquet for all people. And we will sing with the psalmist that the LORD (the LORD alone) is our shepherd/king. And St. Paul will urge Euodia and Syntyche to choose reconciliation – and for the community to help them – and to keep their minds on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise. And the parable of Jesus will warn us not to take lightly the gift of God or dare to show up at the wedding feast to come without being clothed in Christ.

An invitation is a great gift. But is not a simple thing. It bids us choose to whom we will show allegiance.

The Prayer for October 15, 2017

Gracious God, shepherd and guardian of our souls,
keep us from the folly that would spurn your grace
and grant that, clothed in Christ,
we may know the joy of the eternal wedding feast;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 15, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 25:1-9
“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines.” – Following a section of the book of Isaiah containing words of judgment against the nations surrounding Judah and Israel, we are given an oracle of salvation declaring a day when God will gather all people to a feast on Mt. Zion.

Psalmody: Psalm 23
“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” – The language of shepherds is used for kings in ancient Israel – but here the poet declares that God is the one who guides, protects and prepares for him God’s royal banquet.

Second Reading: Philippians 4:1-9
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
– Paul begins his concluding remarks to the believers in Philippi with a series of exhortations about their life together both to specific individuals and to the community as a whole.

Gospel: Matthew 22:1-14
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” – With a story about a royal wedding and the vassals of the king who declare their rebellion by refusing the king’s invitations and abusing his messengers, Jesus presses his attack against the leadership of the nation who have aligned themselves with the empire of Rome rather than the reign of God.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWedding_Supper_-_Martin_van_Meytens_-_Google_Cultural_Institute.jpg Martin van Meytens [Public domain], 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

Peace and dismay

Sunday was a delightful service. People were gathered with their pets on the lawn in the shade of great trees, warm sun and a soft breeze. The service began with a prayer and a reading of Psalm 104 illustrated with beautiful photographs of this wondrous creation entrusted into our care. The sermon hit the right note of our connectedness to one another and all things. The pets that evoke such strong emotions from us are at our side to receive a blessing. We share in the prayer of St. Francis: “Lord make me an instrument of your peace.”

And then I wake up the next morning to the news of the shooting in Las Vegas.

For a moment all seemed right with the world. Now all seems wrong.

This is the strange position of the Christian community. We live in the borderlands between two worlds: this age of sorrows and the age of joy, this age where the lamb dare not lie down with the lion and the age to come where a little child shall lead them. We are a crucified people, yet risen. We are sinners, yet forgiven. Christ is present, but we await his coming. Eden is lost to us, but the new creation is at hand.

Tragedies like Las Vegas will call forth great acts of courage and compassion. And they will also call forth more hate and invective. It is the strange and saddening reality of our human condition. But next Sunday we will gather at the table yet again. Next Sunday we will hear the promise, yet again. Next Sunday we will dare to trust that this age is passing away and a new one dawning. And next Sunday we will taste it in the bread, in the sharing of the peace, in the words of grace, in the singing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and in the commission to “Go in peace. Serve the Lord.”

Image: dkbonde

The strange and wondrous truth of God

File:Afghan day laborers help Marines fill sandbags (5224388587).jpg

Afghan day laborers filling sandbags outside Forward Operating Base Geronimo, Helmand province, Afghanistan, July 14, 2010

Watching for the Morning of September 24, 2017

Year A

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 20 / Lectionary 25

Sunday we are jumping ahead to chapter 20 of Matthew’s gospel. We are skipping the Pharisees’ challenge about the legality of divorce and the strange saying about being eunuchs for the kingdom. We are skipping past the disciples’ harsh words to those who would bring their children to receive a blessing from Jesus – and Jesus’ welcome of those children. We are skipping past the words of Jesus to the young man seeking the life of the age to come, telling him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, and past the disciples’ astonishment that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”   All of which leads us once again to the truth that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” The reign of God is a profound reversal of the way of the world.

And so, Sunday, we come to the story of a landowner hiring day laborers for his vineyard and the remarkable choice to pay even those who worked but one hour a full day’s wage. It is not the act of an accountant; it is the act of a patron taking care of those who depend upon him. Except these day workers are not his people. He has no long and established relationship with them. He is not their patron. But he chooses to be.

And what shall we do with this portrait of a God who chooses to treat all people as their patron? What shall we do when our long and historic fidelity to God gains no privilege? What shall we do with a God who shows faithfulness to those who deserve none? The landowners’ final words are painful: “Are you envious because I am generous?” The Greek is literally “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

We don’t understand mercy. We don’t understand the breadth and depth of the compassion of God. We don’t even truly understand the notion that God is the god of all. We claim to be monotheists, but we are more likely to think that God is our god and he can be your god too, if you become one of us. But the truth is there is no ‘us’ and ‘them; we are all ‘them’. We have no claim on god’s mercy; it is gift given to all. Rich, abundant, overflowing, fidelity to a world as corrupt and violent, greedy and cruel as ours. Yes, we are capable of great kindness and generosity – but we are also fully capable of its opposite. We are not God’s people. Not really. We are strangers to the reign of God. We don’t really understand the language or culture of heaven. Nevertheless, God comes to us. Nevertheless, he speaks. Nevertheless, he shows faithfulness. Steadfast love.

So Sunday we will hear once again that “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” We will listen as Jonah wrestles angrily with God because God chooses to forgive the cruel and barbarous Ninevites. We will sing with the psalmist in praise of God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” We will listen as Paul exhorts us to live our lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” And we will once again shift in our seats as Jesus speaks of the just injustice of a landowner who is generous to all, pushing us to see something of the strange and wondrous truth of God.

The Prayer for September 24, 2017

Wondrous God,
whose mercy knows no bounds,
and whose salvation is offered to all:
renew us by your Holy Spirit
that we may walk in the paths of your kindness
and bear your grace to the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 24, 2017

First Reading: Jonah 3:1 – 4:11 (appointed: 3:10 – 4:11)
“When God saw what [the people of Nineveh] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. 4:1But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”
– Jonah sought to avoid his mission to the Assyrian capital for fear God would forgive the city that had destroyed Israel. Now, when this has happened, God seeks to help Jonah understand God’s compassion for its people.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:1-8
“I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.” – Psalm 145 is an acrostic hymn, each line beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet, in which the poet sings God’s praise “from A to Z.”

Second Reading: Philippians 1:21-30
“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
– In prison in Rome, Paul is faced with the possibility of his execution and writes to his beloved congregation in Philippi to encourage them to remain faithful to their Lord, living “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” – As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, he tells this story comparing the reign of God with a vineyard owner who chooses to relate to his workers not on the basis of what they deserve, but on the basis of his goodness.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAfghan_day_laborers_help_Marines_fill_sandbags_(5224388587).jpg By Marines from Arlington, VA, United States (Afghan day laborers help Marines fill sandbags) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons