The gates of Hell (2)

File:Yuma Territorial Prison cell doors.jpg

Matthew 16:13-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Prisoners of hope

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Saturday

Zechariah 9:9-12

12Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.

We can take apart the grammar and poetry of this sentence. We can discuss the cultural context from which these words derive their meaning. But I want first to simply relish them. I love the unexpectedness of the phrase “prisoners of hope.”

Jesus was a master of the unexpected. The parables, so familiar to us now, are masterful at the sudden twist, the startling comparison, the shocking example. The prophets, too, are brilliant at this: Jeremiah’s underwear. Walking around the temple court wearing a yoke. Ezekiel telling a lurid tale of sexual betrayal. The scriptures are full of the shocking. And they need to be. We are such complacent, rutted people. It is not easy to make us see ourselves differently. Not easy to make us see others differently. Not easy to make us see God differently. And how hard it is to make us behave any differently!

The scriptures need to catch us up side the head. There’s no other way to get through to us.

So how many of us are prisoners of hope? How many of us are bond-servants of a wondrous promise? How many of us are truly captives to the vision of a world made whole as if it were a conquering hero returning from the battlefield with prisoner/slaves in tow?

How many of us wake up each morning and run to serve the promise of a world where peace reigns? We go to bed in despair. We wake up in fear. Hurry to work. Hurry to school. Hurry to coffee and traffic. The alarm clock makes us groan. Dinner is a chore farmed out to whatever I can pick up on the way home. We eat on the run……or we eat alone. Something frozen. Maybe cereal from a box after too much wine. There is no family at the table, no prayer of blessing, no song of joy.

We are, most of us, I suspect, captives to the pressures of daily life rather than prisoners of hope.

And the people of Judea were captives to the daily struggle and shame of a once glorious city still littered with rubble and now under Persian rule.

So the prophet points to the horizon and promises a king – a king no one believes is coming. But he will come. Hidden in a Galilean peasant. Speaking words of grace and challenge. Touching the world with healing and freeing it from evil. Enduring the shame and degradation of the cross, but leaving behind an empty tomb and a hundred and twenty prisoners of hope. They will become millions.

And shall we break off the shackles of hope for the shackles of mammon? Will we break off the ties of mercy, compassion and kindness for the sour belief that these shall not prevail? Shall we surrender to the thump of weapons as our true hope? Is it only death and taxes that are certain, not grace and life? Shall we forfeit joy?

No. I will come to the table that promises a world gathered to speak the blessing. I will sing the song, and feast the feast. And I will willingly extend my hands to the thongs of hope.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AName-Keftiu-at-Abydos-Ramses-Temple.jpg By HoremWeb (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The ordinary

Sunday Evening

I wish there was something special to write about worship this morning, but it was all quite ordinary. Yes, we watched the slideshow from our summer program and thanked our youth director for her extraordinary work – so there were images of happy kids and crafts and tales of chimes and songs. And, yes, we had an accordionist for our special music this morning, taking up hymns and songs we are likely to hear this week of the Fourth of July. And, yes, there was laughter and heartfelt prayer and children for the children’s message and wonder of God’s invitation to come to his table and share the bread that is the sign and promise and dawning reality of that day when all creation shall be gathered to one table.

But it was also ordinary. A simple summer service in which the community gathers for a host of different reasons: some because of friends, some because of habit, some because they have found a new congregation with a message that speaks to them, some because they had tasks to do – from working the sound board to making coffee.

Worship is ordinary. And yet is also extraordinary. It is like the roses in the flowerbeds around the patio near the parish office. Always there. Always blooming. Always ordinary yet wondrous in their beauty if you stop and see.

Its not just that there is beauty in the ordinary. It is that all existence is extraordinary. The brilliance of the clouds against the sky. The courage and faithfulness of a blind and deaf dog. The love of his family for an animal of no economic value. The laughter of children. The kindness of strangers. The sharing of the peace. Ancient texts that still speak to our human condition and the divine promise. The aroma of morning coffee. The pleasure of a simple dinner. The crickets in the evening. Fresh corn on the cob. The smell of fresh basil. Rosemary. Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. The sound of a child plinking out the melody line of Jesus Loves Me on the piano.

We are surrounded by extraordinary goodness. We don’t really need fireworks. We need to feel the grass between our toes and the ocean lapping at our feet. We need to feel the cool breeze in the evening and the hand of a loved one in our own. We need the connection of family and friends and the reminder that such bonds should tie the whole human family.

Even where terrors seem to govern, there is goodness waiting. If we will see it. If we will be open to it. If we will live it.

Worship is ordinary. But it is oh so much more than ordinary, for it bids us to see that love and life reverberate through all existence and summons us to join the song.

Photo: dkbonde

Majesty and Mystery

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Watching for the Morning of June 11, 2017

Year A

The Feast of The Holy Trinity

We begin with the creation story from Genesis 1 this Sunday. Then we join in Psalm 8, the paean of praise and wonderment of the God who made us “a little lower than the heavenly beings.” These images of creation are then paired with the Trinitarian commission of the risen Jesus: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you,” and the salutation by Paul: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

Set before us on Sunday is the majesty of God: wondrous, grace-filled, life-giving, life-renewing – the beginning and end, source and goal of all things. Jesus’ command to “make disciples” is not to recruit for the home team; it is to gather all people into the holy purpose of God – a beautiful, noble and good world. A world in harmony with God and one another, where we may not necessarily be naked, but there is no shame. Where God dwells with us in the morning that has no end, in the Sabbath rest of all creation, in the holy kiss of heaven and earth. Though it is not assigned for this week, the words of the prophet/poet seem appropriate:

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky. (Psalm 85:10)

Preaching Series: Genesis 6-9: Noah

Our preaching series on Sunday will take us to the account of the flood in Genesis 6-9. On a day that stands in awe before the majesty of God and the beauty of creation we will hear of the grief of God and a world that nearly falls back into the primordial chaos. We need to linger there before the prospect of a world fallen back into chaos by the spread of violence. We need to hear the voice of God weep that the earth is filled with violencebecause of human beings, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” But we also come to hear of the faithfulness of God who, in the face of our violence of body and mind and spirit, works to save his world, vowing never to destroy it: “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.” This is the one who has come to us and, with spikes through his wrists and feet, prayed Father, forgive them.” And this is the one who sends us to wash the world in the name – the power and grace and presence – of the God who called forth the world and calls us yet to himself.

The Prayer for June 11, 2017

O God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,
of Moses and Miriam,
of Ruth and David,
of Mary and Joseph;
God wrapped in mystery and wonder,
who breathed life into our first parents
and your Holy Spirit into all creation;
God who loves and fathers and sends
and is loved and begotten and sent;
help us to praise you rightly,
love you fully
and walk with you faithfully;
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 June 11, 2017

First Reading: Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” – The first chapter of Genesis tells of the creation of all things by God’s word, God’s declaration that the creation is good, God’s blessing of humanity, and their commission to care for the earth.

Psalmody: Psalm 8
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” – The psalm celebrates the majesty of God and marvels at the position of honor and responsibility God has given to humanity by entrusting his wondrous creation into their care.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 13:11-13
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” –
In his final greeting at the close of his letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul uses the familiar language that ultimately leads to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” – Following Pentecost we return to the Gospel of Matthew, resuming here at the end of the Gospel because of the Trinitarian name: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. With these concluding words, the risen Jesus declares his abiding presence among his followers and sends them to make disciples of all nations.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AV%C3%A4imela_M%C3%A4ej%C3%A4rv_2011_09.jpg By Vaido Otsar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Garden

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“Say what you want about ‘all the killing in the Bible’, the Bible begins with two narratives about relationship with God and relationship with one another and a world in perfect peace.” – from today’s sermon.

We looked at Genesis 2 in worship this morning, the narrative about the creation of Adam and Eve. What follows is the content of the booklet that was handed out following worship explaining the images used in our sanctuary today. 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%3ANevuas.jpg By Géder Abrahão (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Genesis 2:4-25


“The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”


File:Épaule musée archéologique de Naples.jpg

The creation narrative in the first chapter of Genesis is a sweeping and majestic portrait of a God who speaks and whose speaking brings order, goodness and beauty, calling all things into being. The creation story in this second chapter gives a more intimate portrait of a God whose first creation is a human. Where Genesis 1 views humanity as the crown of God’s creating, Genesis 2 presents humanity as God’s first thought. Where God speaks with a royal we in chapter 1, and like a great king his word effects what he speaks, in chapter 2 we meet an artisan forming humanity from the earth and breathing into him the breath of life.

And since the Hebrew word means both ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’, something is happening that is far more than mere respiration. Again we are in the realm of intimacy. God is not just our creator; God is our breath. And we are bound together even as God’s speaking (in Genesis 1) begets relationship.

Marbre antique, détail, épaule, musée archéologique de Naples
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A%C3%89paule_mus%C3%A9e_arch%C3%A9ologique_de_Naples.jpg By photogestion [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“The Lord God planted a garden in the east, in Eden;
and there he put the man he had formed.”


File:Araucárias ao fundo Parque Nacional da Serra da Bocaina - denoise.jpg

Having formed a human, God plants a garden to provide him a home. There are notions of a royal garden in this image. This is a place where God will walk in the cool of the evening (3:8) and the human creature is given the responsibility “to till it and keep it”. We are the royal gardeners, granted the right to sustain ourselves from the fruit of the garden. But we are not hired hands; we are bearers of the divine breath and companions of God.

Sunrise with Paraná pines as seen at the Serra da Bocaina National Park, Brazil..
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AArauc%C3%A1rias_ao_fundo_Parque_Nacional_da_Serra_da_Bocaina_-_denoise.jpg By Heris Luiz Cordeiro Rocha (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground
trees that were pleasing to the eye…


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…and good for food.”


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God provides for the human all the goodness and beauty of the earth. It is God’s first act of faithfulness and love.

Capitol Hill Cherry Blossoms
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACapitol_Hill_Cherry_Blossoms_-_Flickr_-_treegrow_(14).jpg By Katja Schulz from Washington, D. C., USA (Capitol Hill Cherry Blossoms) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
A wedding cornucopia
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACornucopia_of_fruit_and_vegetables_wedding_banquet_(cropped).jpg By Jina Lee [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“A river watering the garden flowed from Eden.”


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Four great rivers find their headwaters in the garden – the rivers on whose banks human society will find life: the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Nile (Gihon), and a fourth whose identity we no longer know (though there are satellite images suggesting an ancient river across the Arabian peninsula.) Perhaps it’s just as well we do not know this river: now all the rivers of the world can be seen as arising in the garden.

And it does not matter that these rivers don’t connect with one another. That is not our author’s message. The garden is the source of life for the world. Even when the garden is lost to us, its waters continue to flow, bringing their fertility and abundance to human society.

It is an image taken up by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 47) when he describes a life-giving river flowing from the new temple, by Jesus when he declares that he is the source of the water of life (John 4:13-14; 7:37-38), and by the author of Revelation when the river of life flows from the throne of God and the Lamb in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22).

Waterfall at Manavgat (Turkey).
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AManavgat_waterfall_by_tomgensler.JPG By Thomas Gensler (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“It is not good for the man to be alone.”


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Amidst all the beauty and abundance of the garden, it is not yet ‘good’, perfect, complete. Humans are meant for relationship. It is not good for this human creature to be alone. It is a fundamental truth. It is part of what is meant by the image of God. For there to be love, there must be an other, a beloved. We are meant for community.

Solitude, Louis Rémy Mignot
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALouis_R%C3%A9my_Mignot_Solitude.jpg Louis Rémy Mignot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them.”


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And so God continues to create, bringing to the human all the other creatures of the earth.

The creatures of the earth are part of our community, part of our connectedness. We know this in our pets, but also in the birds we hear singing in the morning or watch around a feeder. There is an intake of breath when we stumble across a rabbit or a deer. There is something familiar in sounds of the frogs in the pond or the sight of a lizard sunning on a rock. We talk to them without thinking about it. They are part of our community. And so the sight of a starving polar bear grieves us, or a wounded bird that has hit our picture window.

The creatures of the earth are part of our community, but in all these creatures there is not a companion equal to that first human.

The King James Version translated this as “an help meet for him.” It would have benefited us if they had added a comma after the word ‘help’, (an help, meet for him) for what popularly turned into a single word, ‘helpmeet’, actually means a helper “equal to him”, or “matching him”.

So God takes a portion from the first human and from it makes another.

Adam naming the animals, Folio 5 recto from the Aberdeen Bestiary.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAberdeenBestiaryFolio005rAdamNamesAnimalsDetail.jpg Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man
he made into a woman.”


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The woman is not made for the first human but from him. She is separate, but she is of the same stuff as he. She is not made like the animals are made. She is unique. And they are uniquely connected.

The Hebrew words here are tricky to translate comfortably into English. The creature God makes is an ‘adam’. It is a word that refers to human beings. There are other words to refer to male and female. And there are ordinary words for a man and a woman.

Clearly the Biblical writers imagined the first human as a male, but women are also “humankind”. In Genesis 5:1-2 it says: “When God created humankind (‘adam’), he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them “Humankind” (‘adam’) when they were created.” It is only with the appearance of this other that humanity emerges as ‘man’ and ‘woman’.

Self portrait of Tracy Caldwell Dyson in the Cupola module of the International Space Station observing the Earth below during Expedition 24.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATracy_Caldwell_Dyson_in_Cupola_ISS.jpg By NASA/Tracy Caldwell Dyson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”


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Now come the words for ‘man’ (‘ish’) and ‘woman’ (‘ishah’). These are not the words for ‘male’ and ‘female’; they are words that speak of relationship, words that evoke the connection of men and women in family and community. We are made for one another, even as we are made to be in relationship with God.

Adam and Eve, sculpture by Oscar Stonorov
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAdam_Eve_Storonov.JPG By Smallbones (Own work) [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

He goes ahead

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Wednesday

This is a reposting of a reflection for Good Shepherd Sunday in 2014

John 10:1-10

4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

Palestinian shepherds are different than most shepherds worldwide. Most places in the world the shepherds come behind, driving their flock. In Palestine they walk ahead and the sheep follow.

This contrast alone makes this chapter of John priceless. How much religion consists of people being driven? Driven by guilt, by rules, by demands, by self-righteousness, by the psychological needs of the leadership, by history, by desire. Most of life is driven. Driven by our need to provide, our need to succeed, our need to feel safe. Driven by our fears, our wants, our restless sense that we are missing something. Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden in their shame. The prodigal son is driven home by his desperate hunger – but the prodigal father runs to welcome his son with open arms.

Jesus leads his flock. He goes before. He goes ahead. And though that often results with us running to catch up, it means we are not going anywhere that Jesus has not already been. Every sorrow he has tasted first. Even the grave. But also the resurrection.

He is our elder brother. He goes ahead. He paves the way. He opens the door. He does not ask us to wash feet before he has washed our feet. He does not ask us to take up the cross before he has taken up his cross. He does not ask us to give what he has not given. He does not ask us to walk where he has not walked. He does not ask us to love anyone he has not loved or forgive anyone he has not forgiven.

There is all the difference in the world between the command to go and the invitation to “Come with me.”

My brother got me to do all kinds of things by doing them first. I learned to swim because my brother went first. I learned to ski because he went first. I learned to hold a pigeon, I walked the streets of Brussels, I picked up a live crab, I left home for college. And there were some things I didn’t have to do because he did them, battles he fought I didn’t have to fight.

God does not sit on a throne spouting orders; he has come as our elder brother, leading the way. There are commands in the scripture, to be sure. We know of the ten, even if we can’t name them all. Jesus himself gave a new commandment – and tightened the others. He talked about forgiving seventy-seven times. But he went first. He goes ahead. He calls our name and bids us walk with him.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APikiWiki_Israel_19308_Settlements_in_Israel.JPG ארכיון עין השופט [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Overflowing

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Watching for the Morning of May 7, 2017

The Fourth Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday)

The fourth Sunday of Easter each year takes us to the tenth chapter of John and the 23rd psalm. In John 10 Jesus uses several metaphors rooted in the care and keeping of sheep, leading ultimately to the declaration “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” His claim that he has the power to lay his life down and take it up again leads to the accusation that he is demon possessed and an attempted stoning.

We should not let sweet images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd with a lamb around his neck obscure the fact that such words nearly get him killed. The language of shepherds and sheep is deep in the Biblical tradition for the relationship of Israel’s leaders to the people. His claim to be the good shepherd means that the Jerusalem leaders are not good shepherds. Indeed, in these opening words, Jesus asserts that they are thieves and robbers. Ironic words given that they will crucify Jesus for being an insurrectionist (here translated as ‘robber’).

These thieves and robbers have no true claim to the sheep – they sneaked over the wall to plunder the sheep. But the sheep (the crowds) hear Jesus’ voice and follow. And whereas the leaders of the nation are thieves and robbers, Jesus is the gate through which the sheep go out to rich pasture.

Jesus is the source of true life, not the pale imitation of life offered by the nation’s elite; but the true life of God’s people, an overflowing life, the good and imperishable life God intended for his creation.

So we hear Peter speak of Jesus, “the shepherd and guardian” of our lives. And we sing with David that the Lord is our shepherd who guides us through death’s vale and grants us rest in good pasture. And we hear Luke, the author of Acts, tell us of this remarkable community living with “glad and generous hearts,” who “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Among them none went hungry.

Abundant life. Life to the full. Life overflowing. Life that was meant to be.

Preaching Series: Genesis 1, The Life-giving Word

Last week we heard how, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus took his followers through the whole of scripture to see how it bears witness to God’s self-giving love fulfilled in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Sunday we begin our own survey with a look at the brilliant and courageous work we know as the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis. Written following the chaos of a terrible war, in a time when Jerusalem was destroyed and the people in exile, the author bears witness to the God who brings order to the stormy primal sea and makes all things good, beautiful, noble. In Babylon, where the world was said to be created from the slain body of the chaos monster – and humans fashioned from its blood – Biblical faith bears witness to a good world called into being by a God who speaks and whose word creates.

The Prayer for January 22, 2017

Gracious God,
guardian and shepherd of our souls,
keep us in your Word
that, hearing and following your voice,
we may know your abundant life;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for January 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChampagne_tower.jpg By ori2uru (originally posted to Flickr as champagne tower) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

An indescribable and glorious joy

File:Porto Covo July 2011-6.jpg

Friday

1 Peter 1:3-9

8Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

This is a wonderful verse. But there are so many words in it that we hear differently in our time. This word ‘soul’ for example, is the Greek word ‘psyche’. For most of us, I suspect, the word ‘soul’ refers to the substance of the self that occupies the body such that, when the body dies, the soul continues. However we imagine this, the concept is that the me that is me continues somehow.

It’s not easy to pin down the meaning of this Greek word. It means, on the one hand, our life, our physical existence. In Matthew 2:2, when Jesus had been taken to Egypt for safety, the angel speaks of those “who were trying to take the child’s life.” It would sound weird to us to say they were trying to take the child’s soul. The same is true in Matthew 20:28 where Jesus says the Son of Man came to “give his life as a ransom for many.” It wouldn’t make sense to us to say he gave his soul.

But this ‘life’ is something more than biological existence. In Matthew 10:28, Jesus talks about those who can kill the body but not kill the ‘soul’. You can kill my body, but you cannot destroy my ‘life’. Or in 10:39, “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” There is something in the word ‘psyche’ that is more than biological life. There is something that speaks of the mind, the heart, the spirit – yes, the ‘soul’ – of a person: their character, their being, their identity, their story – “who they are”.

What is being saved? I am being saved. Not my ‘soul’, but me. Me, who likes the color blue and chocolate chip ice cream. Me, who started in math but turned to medieval history in college. Me, who loved being father to my daughters. Me, who learned so much at my parish in Detroit. Me, who loves the woods and the high desert and good coffee. Me, who grieves my brother and my daughter and aches with all those with whom I have walked through the shadow of the valley of death. Me, who stands with open hands at the communion table and treasures the wonder of the gift given.

I am being saved.

And this word saved – it means to heal, to rescue, to make whole. I am being saved. I am being healed. I am being made whole. I am promised a place at the table when all things are made new and death is slain and all creation feasts in God’s abundance.

Whatever exactly all those metaphors mean of a banquet on Mt. Zion, a New Jerusalem, swords beaten into plowshares and the lion lying down with the lamb, they point to a making-whole of all life. They point to an end to fears and release from regrets. And this must, in some way, mean a healing of relationships and a restored bond to my brother and daughter and to the whole fabric of the human community.

And all of this is not just awaiting me in the future, but this healing, this saving, this making whole is begun even now. Even now as I hold out my hands at the table, and as I sing the songs of the angels, and as I hold those who are dear to me, and as I welcome those who are new to me – as I breathe the breath of the Spirit. All this is both then and now, future and present, promise and reality, “an indescribable and glorious joy.”

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APorto_Covo_July_2011-6.jpg By Alvesgaspar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Haunted

File:

“Christ and Nicodemus”

Saturday

John 3:1-17

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

The skeptical can look at the reported wonders wrought by Jesus and dismiss them easily enough. It is not possible to walk on water. The dead girl was just in a coma. The generosity of the boy with five loaves and two fish made all the rest of the crowd bring out their hidden lunch. It is possible to dismiss them all. But these reported deeds of Jesus are haunting. Here is a man who, for whatever reason, brings healing. Here is a man where sinners are forgiven, outcasts gathered in, the sick restored to their families, the human community restored. Here is a man untouched by the storms of life – who drives out those storms from the troubled. Here is a man who is reported to have forgiven even the foreign soldiers who tortured him to death. The stories haunt us. Even the most skeptical must admit that there was something there or such stories would never have been told.

The stories haunt Nicodemus, too. There is something of the presence of God in this Jesus or he could not do such signs. But this Jesus is so different than anything Nicodemus would have expected of a man of God. He is haunted by Jesus. Drawn to him, but confused. He hears Jesus’ words but doesn’t understand them.

Nicodemus is a moth to the flame. This Jesus is dangerous to him. He excites his imagination, but threatens his understanding of the order of the world. Nicodemus is a member of the ruling council. He is charged with a tradition about sacrifice and purity. He guards the temple, as it were. But here before him is this wondrous loose cannon who talks of a birth from above and a world reborn, who talks of the wind of the Spirit, of a new and better wine, of living water and a bread of life – who talks of the life of the age to come as if it were a present reality.

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…” Jesus haunts him. So Nicodemus will find himself trying to defend this Jesus when the plot is afoot to wipe him from the face of the earth. And Nicodemus will find himself carrying spices fit a king to give this Jesus an honorable burial.

Jesus haunts him. And he should haunt us, too, for there is something wondrous at work here, something that proclaims a profound and imperishable grace and truth and life.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A%22Christ_and_Nicodemus%22_-_NARA_-_559136.jpg By Unknown or not provided (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Before the mystery of life

first-lutheran-sanctuary

Sunday Evening

Matthew 4:12-23

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

I sat alone in worship this morning. I am staying with my father this week following the death of my stepmother. A marriage of nearly 61 years. He wasn’t up to worship.

But I could go. No one here would really recognize me. There would be none of the gestures of sympathy that create awkwardness to those who are trying to keep control of their emotions. But emotions there are. I buried my grandfather from this church years ago. I know where I sat that day. I remember my young cousin sitting on my lap in the car as we rode away from the church in what seemed like darkness, though it couldn’t have been. I buried that same cousin from here not too long ago.

We buried my grandmother from here. More recently we have buried my uncle, the father of that cousin who sat tearfully in my arms as we left my grandfather’s funeral. Maybe what I remember is the funeral home. That would explain the darkness.

Whatever the case, this space has been associated with too much grief of late. I was baptized here before I can remember, but I was a participant in none of those other joyous occasions when children were brought to be baptized or weddings might have been celebrated. So it’s just memories of where Farmor sat and where I have sat with my father and stepmother on the occasional Sunday while visiting.

The night she died, Gloria asked me to do her service. If today was any indication, it won’t be easy. Tears floated in my eyes making it hard to see the hymnal, let alone sing. The sermon was kind. I was grateful to be at the table. But after, in the silence back in the pew, I could feel the sorrow welling up. So I ducked out before the benediction to avoid the crowd of friendly people eager to make me feel welcome at their church.

Only it is also my church, in a way. And the day is coming when we will set Gloria’s ashes on the table near the rail and try to honor her memory and somehow find our way through the complicated realities of an extended family that tends to see church as a cultural thing, not the promise and presence of that power at the heart of the universe that is the source and goal of life and the font and perfection of love.

first-lutheran-sanctuary-windows-2It would be nice if we could just say the ancient words and all be carried along by their familiar comfort. But they aren’t familiar to us anymore. And they are tainted by the negative perceptions of all religion as partisan and judgmental and even hateful and violent, despite the fact that Jesus was not the founder or reformer of religion but its victim.

Yet in him was the face of the eternal. In him was courage and truth and mercy and life. In him was the balm for our sorrows and the summons to live as his hands and heart in the world. In him is a life that will not perish.

Hymns and traditions and rituals have grown up around Jesus’ words and deeds, but the hymns and traditions are not the point; they are meant to help us hear and see him, meant to connect us to the Spirit that was in him, meant to empower us to live the strength and compassion and grace that was in him, meant to embrace us in our sorrows and stand together before the mystery of life with hope.

Photos by dkbonde