If you love me

File:Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles.jpg“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
John 14:15

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Gracious God,
you have given us your Spirit as our advocate and guide
that we might abide in you and you in us.
Grant us courage and faith to follow where you lead,
to obey your commands,
to love as you love.

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A message from Sunday morning

The Sixth Sunday of Easter, year A

May 17, 2020

John 14:15-21: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” (NRSV)

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

At first this was an emergency.  As the threat of this novel corona virus grew, we had to think through what we would do in worship to limit our risk.  Then, as the shut-down came, we had to quickly figure out a way to continue to worship online with the few resources we had.  It was a challenge, a puzzle to be solved.  And I was entirely focused on figuring out a way for us to worship – and then to do Holy Week and Easter online.  I didn’t have much time to do anything else.

But now, as the days drag on, I find myself grieving the loss of something that has been so important to me for the last 42 years.  I’ve been a pastor of the church.  And it’s been a great privilege.  I’ve been able to embrace those who grieve.  I’ve been able to hold hands and pray for those in need.  I’ve been able to lay my hands upon those in the hospital and say the blessing.  I’ve been able to lay hands upon the newly baptized, and upon confirmands at their confirmation, and upon the dying with the last rites.  I’ve been able to hold a child in my arms and walk her through the sanctuary following her baptism, introducing her to all those who now share in her spiritual life and growth.  Now all I have is this moment when I can see a few of you on the screen and talk to you about a text that seems far away from the realities of our daily life

I’m not able to invite you to be involved in care for others.  I’m not able to celebrate silly occasions like talent shows or youth dinners.  There are no confirmation retreats.  We can’t share a moment over a cup of coffee.  There are no delightful surprises that Tom has brought donut holes or that Elaine has made Kringle, or that Yolanda and Bill have made those amazing little sandwiches.  And I don’t see an end.

At some point it might happen that a few would begin to gather in the building and I could at least see faces – but those faces are likely to be covered by masks.  And we are going to have to sneak in and out without getting closer than six feet to each other.

We are reduced to waving at each other rather than shaking hands.

Jesus touched the man with leprosy.  He made mud and put it on the eyes of the man born blind.  He took the synagogue ruler’s daughter by the hand and raised her up.  He touched the bier upon which lay the body of the widow’s son.

Jesus broke bread.  He washed feet.  And shall I risk any of that?  I will not be able to sit with children for a children’s sermon.  I cannot take a child’s hand as we go outside to look at the tiny seeds of the Redwood trees and think about how they grow into giants.

I stand here on Sunday mornings and look out into an empty sanctuary.  I know you are there.  I know we are still connected in spirit.  I know we are still gathered around this wondrous book and a table set with bread and wine.  And I know we are keeping our physical distance because we care for one another.  But I would like to be in your living room or at your dining table or watching a football game together.  There are other words to be spoken, stories to be heard, lives to be shared.

I am struggling.  So many simple and ordinary joys are gone.  And I don’t want any more losses.

I want to sing the liturgy.  I want to feel the energy of an Easter crowd.  I want to see familiar smiles.  I want to share coffee and talk about the Sunday crossword puzzle.  I want to hear Natalie’s voice and see her face in the office.  I want to feel like this place is a sanctuary in all the best sense of that word.

I want to listen to the Swedish children’s choir singing in the next room when I’m here on a Saturday working on the sermon.  I want to hear the laughter of children on the playground during the week.  I want to chat with parents from the neighborhood who bring their children to play.  I want to pet the occasional dog being walked.  And, yes, there were times I needed to hide away in my basement office for some quiet uninterrupted time to study or write, but the music school was banging their drums in the next room, and there were children walking back and forth before my window with whom I could smile and wave.  I wasn’t just alone in my office.

I am frustrated, frustrated that all this social distancing was supposed to buy time for our leaders to put a plan in place – to get the equipment we needed, to get the testing we needed, to establish a process and hire the people that were necessary to trace and contain this virus.  But we have fumbled that effort.  We have wasted that time.  And it is the weak and the vulnerable and the poor who have born the worst of it.  Some are being forced to go back to work no matter how risky it is for them – or how fearful they might be – or how many children or seniors depend on their care – they are forced to go back or lose their unemployment coverage (if they’ve been able to get it).

On Saturday evening last week, the death toll from COVID-19 stood at 79,696.  Last night it was 89,420 – almost 10,000 more.  10,000 more families have lost loved ones in this last week despite the heroic work of doctors and health workers.  10,000 more have had to die alone, without a parent or a child or a partner to sit at their side and hold their hand.  And the best we can say is that maybe it will hold steady – not because we are helpless before this virus, but because we fumbled the ball and turned it over on the ten yard line.  We have more deaths than any country in the world.

10,000 more this week.  80,000 thousand people so far.  Each with family and friends and neighbors.  Each with lives they have touched.  Each with contributions they have made.  Each with stories to tell.     Each with sadness and loss left behind.

And for each of those 10,000, there are doctors and nurses whose hopes and spirits have been worn down because they couldn’t save them.

We raised an army and built ships and airplanes to fight fascism in Europe and imperialism in Japan.  We created a Marshall plan to rebuild Europe.  We kept Berlin alive with an airlift – planes taking off and landing every 90 seconds, night and day, when the Russians closed the rail lines.  We went to the moon.  We ended polio.  We ended smallpox.  We should have been able to fight this, not throw up our hands and say tests aren’t important and masks are a socialist plot.

I appreciate the fact that on Friday mornings the CBS morning news is beginning to show some of the people who are perishing.  We talk too often about numbers and not often enough about the people whose lives are being stolen away.  Five names, one day a week, however, is not enough when 10,000 are dying.

Paul and Iris shared with the council this week that their nanny’s sister has died from this Corona virus.  These are not numbers; these are real people.  We should not have to fight to have them recognized as such.

The children of Syrian refugee camps are also real people.  As are the children of the border detention centers.  As are the children of Flint, Michigan, and every other place where people are not only absent from our minds, but absent from our hearts.

When Jesus says to us this morning: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” he is asking an important question.

The way you express a conditional statement in Greek – an “if/then” statement – can tell you what you expect.  The grammar reveals whether the “if” part of the statement is true or not.  So, one way to express this in Greek says: “If you love me (and we know that you do), you will keep my commandments.”  Another way says: “If you love me (and we know that you don’t), you would keep my commandments.”  And the third possibility says: “If you love me (and we don’t know whether you do), you will keep my commandments.”

When Jesus says this to his followers, he uses this third way.  The statement doesn’t assume that we love Jesus.  Whether we do or not will be revealed by whether we keep his commandments.

The word ‘commandments’ is in the plural.  It refers to all that Jesus has taught.  But there is really only one commandment.  That is the commandment Jesus has just given moments before when he washed the disciples’ feet and said: “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.”

And let’s not be mistaken.  When Jesus talks about loving one another, he isn’t drawing that circle around a few close friends.  He is drawing that circle around the whole human community.

If you love me, you will show faithfulness to all I have taught.  If you love me, you will treasure and observe my teaching.  If you love me – if you feel an obligation and allegiance to me as if to a member of your own family – you will keep my commands, you will show faithfulness to all, you will treat every person as if they were family.

Jesus ends this passage with the same point he made at the beginning: “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.”  Fidelity to Jesus means fidelity to all.

Jesus will not leave us orphaned.  (I rather liked the old translation: “I will not leave you desolate,” but the word does mean ‘orphaned’.)  We are not abandoned.  We are not alone. Jesus is speaking to his disciples on the night he will be taken by the mob and thrust before Pilate and impaled upon the cross.  Jesus knows what is coming, but he will not leave his disciples abandoned and alone.  He will come to them.  It is a reference to that Sunday evening when Jesus revealed himself in their midst.  And Jesus will also come to them – come to us – in the Spirit that he breathed out upon his followers.

The Spirit is the living presence of Jesus in the community.  It is our ongoing teacher and guide.  It is the breath of life and font of grace.  It is the wonder of inspiration and the courage of love.  It is the comfort that comes to the downtrodden through simple acts of kindness and bold words of forgiveness – or simple words of forgiveness and bold acts of kindness.

The Spirit is the ongoing presence of Christ in our midst, the ongoing presence of Christ in the world.

It is a truthful Spirit.  It inspires no deceit, tells no lies, creates no illusions.  It doesn’t deceive or manipulate or confuse.  It does not lead to doubt or despair.  It inspires mercy and forgiveness and courage and truth.  It inspires love and patience and kindness.  It inspires hope and joy.  It carries us from the sorrows of the world to the joy of God’s table.  It carries us from the brokenness of the world to a new birth from above.  It carries us from a wedding that has run out of wine to the eternal wedding feast.  It carries us from our isolation into community.  It carries us from death into life.

Amen

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© David K Bonde, 2020.  All rights reserved

Image:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christ_Taking_Leave_of_the_Apostles.jpg  Duccio di Buoninsegna / Public domain.

Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

 

Don’t lose your way

File:Shirakimine Highland - panoramio.jpg“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me
will also do the works that I do.”
John 14:12

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Let not our hearts be troubled, O God;
teach us to put our hope and trust in you.
Guide us in your way; keep us in your truth; enfold us in your life
that your works of love, justice and mercy
may be done in us and through us.

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A message from Sunday morning

The Fifth Sunday of Easter, year A

May 10, 2020

Acts 7:54-60: When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55 But, filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56“Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. (NRSV)

John 14:1-14: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

8Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” (NRSV)

1 Peter 2:1-2, 4-5, 9-10: Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. 2Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation – 3if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

4Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
…..10Once you were not a people,
……….but now you are God’s people;
…..once you had not received mercy,
…..…..but now you have received mercy. (NRSV)

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

There is a troubling and tragic line in our first reading this morning.  But before I go there, I want to acknowledge that the current death toll in the U.S. on Saturday evening was 79,696.  Twelve thousand more have died since last Sunday.

I trust you have seen the information that those who are dying are disproportionally older, poorer, and non-white.  The numbers in nursing homes and prisons – both workers and residents – are distressingly high.  These are people our society tends to regard as less important than others.  The White House has a rigorous testing procedure and is now testing daily, but the White House Press secretary said this week that, for the rest of us, testing was unimportant.

This is one of our deep and troubling sins as a nation: we think some people matter more than others.  I don’t need to go through all the familiar inequalities in our country.  And maybe it’s something endemic in the human heart that I matter more than you, and my family matters more than yours, but the attitude that some are less is inconsistent with biblical faith.

I want to say that again: the attitude that some are less is inconsistent with biblical faith.

I don’t know whether our president is undermining the rule of law in our country or simply nakedly profiting from the truth that our system has always been tilted towards some and away from others.  Too often, whether in law or the economy or in health care we seem to regard some as if they don’t really matter.  That’s why two white men can shoot down a young African-American jogging through their neighborhood, and no one asks any real questions for two and a half months.  It’s why Trayvon Martin is dead for being black and wearing a hoodie.  It’s why Sandra Bland is dead in prison for failing to signal a lane change.  It’s why Stanford student Brock Turner served only three months in county jail and went home to his parents in Ohio.  It’s why Jeffrey Epstein bought his way out of prison for so long and why O. J. Simpson got to go home after killing Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman.

We can go on.  The story is long.  It’s why J. Edgar Hoover ordered the surveillance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and listed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a black nationalist hate group.  It’s why Native American lands were stolen and its people sent to reservations.  It’s why Angel Island was used to quarantine and interrogate Chinese immigrants in order to refuse them admission.  It’s why Japanese citizens were sent to internment camps during World War II.  It’s why our president called Mexicans rapists and drug dealers and opposes medical care for all citizens.

Some people matter more than others.  It’s not slavery, alone, that is our nation’s original sin; it is the belief that some matter more than others.  Some are not really people.  So our president calls neo-Nazis and gun-toting protesters with swastikas “good people” and Democrats and news reporters “human scum”.  It’s why Sara Palin said only some Americans are “real Americans.”

Some people matter more.  Others matter less.  It’s why we can tolerate hunger in America, why we can tolerate poverty, why we can tolerate hate, and why so many seem so willing to tolerate death by COVID-19.

On the one hand, we have vast numbers of people in this country risking their lives to protect others – doctors, nurses, health professionals, and all the support staff – fighting to keep people alive, or struggling to connect the dying with their loved ones – and yet our leaders dismiss leading health experts because they disagree with the president or say something truthful that embarrasses or contradicts him.

How can the president’s feelings matter more than the lives of our fellow citizens?  And how can my desire to get a haircut or go surfing matter more than the lives of my neighbors?

When Scripture talks about the judgment of God, it almost always speaks of God’s judgment on the nation.  God allows our sins to come back on our own heads.  But because such judgment is corporate, falling on the whole community, the consequences don’t fall on those who are most responsible; it falls on those who are most vulnerable.

During the terrible drought at the time of Elijah, the widow of Zarephath is perishing for want of food, while the king worries about his horses.

It is the most vulnerable who suffer.  And suffering came to Israel because the core values of the society had gotten twisted.  The prophets rail against idolatry not because God is concerned with correct worship, but because the values embodied by the idols are contrary to the commands and instruction of God.

God’s vision of a just society is overthrown when people’s fundamental allegiance is to wealth and power, when the king is above the law, when profit matters more than human life, when we close our eyes and ears to the well-being of others.  So I will say again: the attitude that some are less is inconsistent with biblical faith.

The troubling and tragic line in our first reading this morning is this: they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.”

The event being described by Luke is the martyrdom of Stephen.  The followers of Jesus in Jerusalem are portrayed to us by Luke as a single community united in the apostolic teaching and mutual care.  But there are signs in the narrative that divisions existed.  The biggest challenge was the language and cultural divide between those residents of Jerusalem who had roots across the empire but had come to live in Jerusalem, and those who we might think of as more “native born”.

The language of those from other parts of the empire was Greek.  The language of those from the region was Aramaic.  And with those different languages were different cultural values.  For example, the Aramaic speaking Judeans were more likely to retain the ancient traditions about food.  And this soon become a problem: How do you share table fellowship around communion if some are keeping kosher and others are not?

We know, also, that there were concerns about the way food was shared in the community.  In the sixth chapter of Acts, the Greek speaking Judeans complain that their widows were not being treated equally with others.  In Luke’s account, this leads to the appointment of seven deacons, all of whom have Greek names.  It’s clear that these seven were not just those who help with the distribution of food; they were the leaders of the Greek speaking believers.  And when trouble arises and Stephen is killed by an angry mob, it is only the Greek speaking believers who are persecuted and driven from Jerusalem.  It was these Greek speaking believers who would go on to welcome Samaritans and the Ethiopian Eunuch and Gentiles into the body of Christ.  It was these Greek speaking believers who sent Paul and Barnabas on their mission to spread the Gospel throughout the empire.  It was these Greek speaking Christians who made Christianity a world religion with doors open to all and not a tight-knit little club in Jerusalem.

The tragic line is that the crowd who heard Stephen speak covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.”

We live in a time when too many people close their ears and shout.  And too often it leads to violence.  When we are unable to hear, when we are unwilling to listen, when we shut our minds, closed hearts follow right behind.  Then the love of God is lost.  Then anger turns to hate, and hate turns to violence.  (They dragged Stephen “out of the city and began to stone him.” – Acts 7:58)

The attitude that some are less is inconsistent with biblical faith.  So are closed minds and closed hearts.  The Christ before us has arms wide open.  He bids us live with hearts open, with minds open, with arms open.

I don’t have time to talk about the second reading this morning, but I would just remind you of its opening words: “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.” (2 Peter 2:1-2).  When 2 Peter reminds us that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,” he makes clear that we are not chosen for privilege, but for God’s mission in the world: “that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (2:9)

The Gospel reading this morning begins with the familiar words:

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

The words are familiar to us from many funerals where they can come as a sweet word of comfort in distressing times.  But there is something more than a sweet word of comfort here.  It is a call to remain faithful.

The word translated ‘hearts’ is actually in the singular.  It is not spoken to us as individuals; it is spoken to the community of Jesus’ followers.  It’s not about my personal distress, but our shared distress.

When we hear these words, it is the Last Supper.  Jesus has just informed his followers that Judas will betray him and Peter will disavow him.  These are stunning allegations, full of foreboding.  And Jesus has dropped these two bombshells on top of the radical act of washing their feet like the lowliest of slaves, and saying that his body will be broken like the bread (although, John’s Gospel does not include those words).

It is to a community at risk of coming apart that Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  It is to a community at risk of losing its identity as a community bound to Jesus and one another that Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  And the word ‘troubled’ here is used of water that is stirred up, or emotions that are overflowing.

Jesus needs his followers to remain faithful to God and himself.  Troubled times are about to crash over them, and Jesus wants them to remain faithful to himself and one another.  He has just given them the commandment to love one another and the example of bending to wash feet.  He is reminding them of who they are, and what they are to each other.

When Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places,” he is using a many-layered metaphor with allusions to the temple as the house of God, and to the grand estates of the time that could provide for very large households.  But the key word is ‘dwelling places.’  The Greek is from the word ‘to abide’ that has been used again and again in John’s Gospel to talk about the relationship of abiding in God and God abiding in us.

Jesus isn’t talking about what we typically think of as heaven.  Jesus isn’t setting out to make up the beds and put out the towels for all his guests.  Jesus is opening the way that we might dwell in God and God in us.

The way of the cross that Jesus is traveling will draw them into God’s presence like a branch to the vine.  It will connect them to God and one another and fill them with God’s spirit.  The Life of God will pulse through them bearing rich and abundant fruit.  The work of God in healing and reconciling the world will be at work in them and through them.

Jesus is saying, “Don’t lose your way.  Don’t be overcome with fear or confusion.  Continue to show allegiance to God and my teaching.  I am the way to the heart of God.  I am the truth of the heart of God.  I am the imperishable life at the heart of God.”

What seems like disaster is upon his followers, but Christ will come and stand in their midst and breathe his Spirit upon them, and we will be the living presence of Christ in the world.  We will be the open arms of Jesus that treasure every person.

There is a sweet and precious promise in this passage.  But there is so much more.  Christ dwells in us, in the community of Jesus’ followers, and through us Christ is present to the world.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not lose your way.  Remain faithful to God.  Remain faithful to me.  I am going to the Father, but I will come and abide in you and you in me.”

Amen

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© David K Bonde, 2020, All rights reserved.

Image:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shirakimine_Highland_-_panoramio.jpg   oaaioai on Panoramio / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

 

I am the way

File:Campion Hall Jesus.jpg

Watching for the Morning of May 10, 2020

Year A

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

John 14:1

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

Our hearts are troubled.  They are troubled by the fear of Covid-19.  They are troubled by the tears of those who have lost loved ones.  They are troubled by the cries of frustration from nurses and doctors.  They are troubled by the lies and incompetence of our leaders.  They are troubled by the injustices that weave through our land.  They are troubled by those who talk about freedom as the privilege to do as they please not the responsibility to do as they ought.  They are troubled that love of self seems to trump love of neighbor.

Our hearts are troubled.  And the words of Jesus seem weak to the task.  Should there not be prophetic outrage?  Should we not hear Jeremiah shouting: “They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds”! (14:14). Should we not tremble before the voice of God declaring “I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem.” (13:9)

Our hearts are troubled.  And what will the texts this Sunday speak?  Will we hear Stephen pray for his murderers as Jesus did?  Will we understand that Christ in us is to be Christ for the world?  Will we hear Peter say, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood,” and take up the mantle as those who bear Christ to the world?  Will we hear the poet speak the words that Jesus recited upon the cross, “Into your hand I commit my spirit,” and entrust ourselves so fully into the hands of God?

Will we understand what Jesus means when he says: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”?  Will we hear a triumphalist song of the superiority of our ‘team’ or the summons to walk the path Jesus walked?  Will we recognize that the way, the truth, and the life – the living face of God – is shown in the outstretched arms that bore the sins of the world and prayed that God would yet forgive a world so inured to the suffering and dying of others?  We are not gaining a privilege, but shouldering a cross.

Our hearts are troubled.  And maybe this is something we share with the disciples who sense something terrible is afoot with Jesus.  Some spectre haunts their night when Jesus will be betrayed and handed over.

Nothing is as it should be in this night.  But we are given words of assurance.  God is working in ways hidden but sure.  And we have work to do, a priestly people not called to privilege but sent as servants of our foot-washing, suffering, redeeming, teacher and Lord.

The Prayer for May 10, 2020

Let not our hearts be troubled, O God;
teach us to put our hope and trust in you.
Guide us in your way;
keep us in your truth;
enfold us in your life
that your works of love, justice and mercy
may be done in us and through us;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.
Amen

The Texts for May 10, 2020

First Reading: Acts 7:55-60
“While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’” – Stephen becomes a victim of communal violence for his preaching and teaching about Jesus, and in his dying embodies the faith and love Jesus modeled.

Psalmody: Psalm 31:1-5
“Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.” – A prayer of lament.  The trust in God embodied in the psalm is reflected in Stephen and quoted by Jesus on the cross.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 2:2-10
“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” –
Expounding on baptism, the author urges the believers to “grow into salvation” as living stones in a “spiritual house” (a spiritual temple).

Gospel: John 14:1-14
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” – Jesus makes provision for his followers in lieu of his impending death, urging them to remain faithful and assuring them that God’s resources are more than adequate to provide all their needs.

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Images: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Campion_Hall_Jesus.jpg Gownley at English Wikipedia / Public domain

An audacious and generous love

File:Fog of War (18986349660).jpgWatching for the Morning of February 24, 2019

Year C

The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Having declared that the poor, the hungry, and the grieving are honorable in God’s sight (they embrace the values of God’s reign), and calling the rich shameful for enriching themselves at the expense of others, Jesus moves immediately to Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

Our obligation as participants in the reign of God is to live the way of God: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them… But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

A new administration has come, with a new set of values. These are not the values of empire that amasses great fortunes from conquered peoples; these are the values of a God who makes the makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous,” who anointed Jesus to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

At the heart of this new administration is showing to all people the fidelity and allegiance we show to our own people. Israel knew the command to love the neighbor, but who falls inside the circle? Who is one of us? Even the Roman soldiers, says Jesus, and foreign mercenaries marching through their lands, even the tax gatherers helping Rome and Judea’s elites to plunder the people, even the sinners pushed beyond the limits of proper behavior, even the pious full of self-righteousness and judgment.

And why such audacious and generous love? Because such is the love of God. Such is the reign of the Spirit. Such is the new world born in Jesus.

So Sunday we will hear about Joseph’s extravagant grace to the brothers who sought to kill him but settled for selling him into slavery and telling their father his favorite child was dead, dousing Joseph’s special coat in blood to show a lion got him. But Joseph will see beyond their vengefulness to the bounty of God, and will provide for them all during the five years of famine to come. And Sunday we will hear the poet remind us not to “fret because of the wicked…for they will soon fade like the grass.” “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath,” for “the wicked will be no more,” “but the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.”

…In abundant prosperity. In overwhelming grace. In an audacious and generous love.

The Prayer for February 24, 2019

God of truth,
make us attentive to the teachings of your Son
that in his words we may find the path of life.

The Texts for February 24, 2019

First Reading: Genesis 45:3-11, 15
“I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.” –
Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and receives them with grace.

Psalmody: Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40
“Do not fret because of the wicked…Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more…But the meek shall inherit the land.” – the poet meditates on the destiny of the corrupt who ignore our God-given obligations to one another and promises the fulfillment of God’s promise (the land) to those who remain faithful.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
“But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised?”
Arguing against those in Corinth who deny the bodily resurrection, Paul now attempts to convey the notion that the resurrected body is different than our present existence.

Gospel: Luke 6:27-38
“Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”
After opening Jesus’ teaching about the dawning reign of God with Jesus’ declaration of those who are honored and shameful in God’s eyes, Luke immediately sets forth Jesus teaching, “Love your enemies,” for this is the pattern of God’s action in the world.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fog_of_War_(18986349660).jpg 1st Lt. Danielle Dixon [Public domain]

Joy

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

Year C

The Third Sunday of Advent

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

From dehydration.

“Whoever gives even a cup of cold water…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prayer for December 16, 2018

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Bring the desert to full bloom,
and fill with joy our path to you;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for December 16, 2018

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

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

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

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

The texts as appointed for 3 Advent C

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

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

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

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

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

The journey towards the neighbor

File:Maximilien Luce - Le bon samaritain.jpg

The Gospel from last Sunday, the 2nd Sunday in Advent in 2018, was Luke 3:1-18, combining the Gospel readings for both the second and third Sundays in Advent. For an introduction to this Sunday see the post “And us? What should we do?

I want us to keep in mind, this morning, where we are in Luke’s Gospel. The passage we just read is from chapter three when John and Jesus are now adults. It begins the main section of Luke’s account of God’s work in Jesus.

I would remind you that Luke didn’t write his work in chapters. The chapter breaks were added at the beginning of the 13th century and the verse numbers don’t appear until the 16th century. For Luke this is one continuous account. It was meant to be read as a whole and not cut up into little pieces like we tend to do.

Reading the Gospels in these little fragments needs to be like an old movie you have watched again and again. When you know a movie so well, it’s possible to talk about just one scene, because you know where we are in the whole movie. If you don’t know the movie, the scene may be compelling, but we don’t understand all that it means.

I like the image of saying that somewhere along the way, we broke up the pearl necklace of the gospel into a box of pearls and lost track of its overall beauty. To make matters worse, we had four beautiful necklaces and lumped all the pearls and precious stones into one big box. The problem with the metaphor, of course, is that it still tends to look at the gospel stories as separate pieces when they are better understood as part of a whole – like scenes in a movie.

Because we have four “movies” of Jesus, when we talk about one of these individual scenes we sometimes loose track of which movie we are talking about. So I want to remind you where we are now in Luke’s “movie”. Luke’s story is the one with Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem. It tells the story of the shepherds and all heaven singing (it doesn’t tell us the story of the magi, the wise men). Luke is the Gospel with the story of the Good Samaritan. It’s in Luke that Jesus tells us the story of the Prodigal Son. It’s in Luke we hear about the rich man who ignored Lazarus at his gate. Luke is the Gospel where Jesus on the cross prays for the soldiers saying, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” It’s Luke who tells us about the women who followed Jesus. And it’s Luke who tells us not only about the mission of the twelve during the life of Jesus, but the mission of the seventy.

And Luke’s story doesn’t stop with the resurrection; he tells us of the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and the mission of those first followers. He tells us about the baptism of Samaritans and the Ethiopian Eunuch and the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. He tells us how Paul participated in the murder of Stephen for blasphemy, and was then met by the risen Lord on his way to Damascus. It tells the story of Paul’s journeys to spread the message about Jesus throughout the Mediterranean world, and his eventual arrest in Jerusalem and transfer to Rome to have his case heard by the emperor

This is the movie we are talking about. It’s a powerful movie. And I want to emphasize again that it’s in this movie from Luke that we get the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and Lazarus and the Rich Man. It’s also here we get this message from John when his listeners ask him “What then shall we do?” and John says: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

As I wrote in the blog post at Watching for the Morning earlier this week, “The journey towards God is a journey towards the neighbor. The dawn of grace requires we learn to live grace.”

So, where are we are we, today, in Luke’s Gospel? Luke has opened his narrative with the account of the wondrous events that reveal God’s hand in the birth of Jesus. Zechariah is a priest who is chosen by lot to go into the temple and tend the candles and the incense. In the scriptures, things that happen through the religious practice known as casting lots are understood to have been directed by God. So Zechariah is chosen by God to go into the interior of the temple. There he is met by the heavenly messenger, Gabriel, who tells him that his wife, Elizabeth, will have a child. This is a wondrous thing, because Zechariah and his wife are old and barren – and so Luke’s story begins like the Old Testament with the story Abraham and Sarah and the promise of a child. The story of Jesus is going to fulfill the story of Israel. And this is one of the deep themes of the scripture: When it seems like there is no future, God creates a future.

Zechariah, however, doesn’t trust the message of the angel and asks for a sign. The sign the angel gives him is that he will not be able to speak until the child is born. (The song we sang today, by the way, are those first words Zechariah said after the child is born and Zechariah obeys the angel by naming him John.)

Six months after Elizabeth gets pregnant, Gabriel comes again – this time to Mary and announces that she will have a child and she is to name him Jesus. “He will be great,” says the angel, “and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary trusts the angel’s message an offers herself to God’s service.

Gabriel also tells Mary that Elizabeth is pregnant and Mary goes to visit her. At their encounter, Elizabeth’s child leaps for joy in her womb, and Mary sings that beautiful song we know as the Magnificat (that’s the song we will sing next week). In that song, Mary talks about God’s righting of the world. The powerful will be cast down from their thrones and the poor lifted up. The hungry will be filled with good things and the rich elites sent away empty.

After this, John is born and Zechariah sings his prophetic song. (Poetry in the ancient world was understood to be divinely inspired.) Then Jesus is born and the heavens sing and the good news is proclaimed to lowly shepherds. This child is for the poor.

Mary and Joseph go up to the temple to keep their religious obligations after the birth of Jesus. When they arrive, Simeon is guided to them by the Holy Spirit and he sings a song: “Lord, now let you servant go in peace according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” This child is for the whole world.

The 84-year-old prophetess, Anna, sees the child and begins “to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” That word redemption is important. It says the city and nation have become prisoner to greed, wealth and power – and God will buy it back, God will gain it’s freedom, God will make it God’s own again. Indeed it is the whole world that God has come to reclaim.

The child, Jesus, grows “full of wisdom and the favor of God,” and we get one story that gives evidence of Jesus’ destiny: at the age of twelve, Jesus travels with the family to Jerusalem for Passover (remember it’s at Passover when Jesus is crucified and raised). When the village caravan leaves, Jesus is left behind. His parents go back to find him, and they find him after three days! Jesus is in the temple among the teachers, and he answers his parent’s fear and anxiety by saying: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

The whole narrative to this point is filled with anticipation, with signs from God, with prophetic words, with grace to the poor and promises of the healing and transformation of the world. And then we hear our text for this morning: Into this world ruled by Imperial Rome and its client kings, priests, and rulers, God’s mighty, transformative Word comes to John in the wilderness. Beyond the Jordan, in the wilderness where long ago Israel had been made ready to enter the Promised Land, John calls the people to a new allegiance to God’s reign.

I was tempted to talk about who all these people are and what these names represent to Luke’s hearers – but it’s enough to just say this: Luke’s people live in the aftermath of the Judean war with Rome and these names all represent the people and powers that led them to destruction. Rome is not the great and glorious empire; it is the oppressive regime that crushed the nation. Annas and Caiaphas are not great spiritual leaders, but the high priests who were in bed with Rome and held a vice grip on power and wealth in Jerusalem for half a century. Into this broken world the Word of God comes to announce the dawning of a new governance.

John announces “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” a washing in the river Jordan to signify a new beginning for Israel. It is a baptism of ‘repentance’ meaning a washing that signifies a new allegiance to God. And it is a baptism for ‘the forgiveness of sins’ meaning that God foregoes God’s right to seek satisfaction for all their offenses against God.

The imagery is of Israel starting over, going out into the wilderness and coming anew into the promised land. But with this new beginning, John warns the people to bear the fruit that is appropriate to God’s reign.

These words of John are not just about John and the people out there at the Jordan River. These are words for all of us. This is what it means to show allegiance to God’s transformation of the world. This is what it means to be ready for the Christ. “The journey towards God is a journey towards the neighbor. The dawn of grace requires we learn to live grace.”

And the journey toward the neighbor is not only sharing bread; it is about love of neighbor. It is about seeing others as members of your own household. It is about seeing their humanity, about seeing your connection with one another and living out that connection.

I want to tell you again a story about two soup kitchens in Detroit. One was at a large, beautiful old church on Jefferson Avenue on the East Side of Detroit. It was a very blighted area at the time, yet right on the edge of a very wealthy suburb called Grosse Pointe.

The members of that congregation wanted to serve their community so they set up a soup kitchen. The members of the congregation were all white; the people they were feeding were all African–Americans. The doors of the building were locked while they cooked the food and set the tables. At the appointed time they opened the doors and the people filed in down the stairs into the basement. White folks stood behind the counter and dished out the food. The black folks sat down at the tables, ate it, and filed out.

It was important; people were getting fed. But on the other side of town there was another soup kitchen where they opened the doors in the afternoon when the first person arrived to start cooking. People from the neighborhood would drift in and help in the kitchen and set up chairs and tables, and have coffee as others came. When it was time to eat everyone sat down together and ate as one community. The second soup kitchen was a community meal where they knew each other’s names – or had the chance to learn them.

The journey to God is a journey to the neighbor. And the journey to the neighbor is not just an outward act of care; it is about seeing all others as members of your own household. It is about knowing that people have names and a story that matters.

There was a third soup kitchen in Detroit. The woman who was the heart of this soup kitchen was virtually blind. She was in the kitchen in the church basement preparing that night’s soup when she heard a terrific roar. The roof of the church had collapsed in on the sanctuary above her. After they dug her out, she said, “I knew something happened and figured you’d find me, so I just kept making soup.” They hauled out the tables from the basement and served soup for the community on the sidewalk. And in the days after they continued to cook in the basement and eat out on the sidewalk.

“The journey towards God is a journey towards the neighbor. The dawn of grace requires we learn to live grace.” The woes of the world are many, but we just keep making soup.

Amen

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If you’d like to know or follow up on some of the references in the message from Sunday, here are some of the links:

Because we have four “movies” of Jesus, when we talk about one of these individual scenes we sometimes loose track of which movie we are talking about. So I want to remind you where we are now in Luke’s “movie”. Luke’s story is the one with Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem. It tells the story of the shepherds and all heaven singing (it doesn’t tell us the story of the magi, the wise men). Luke is the Gospel with the story of the Good Samaritan. It’s in Luke that Jesus tells us the story of the Prodigal Son. It’s in Luke we hear about the rich man who ignored Lazarus at his gate. Luke is the Gospel where Jesus on the cross prays for the soldiers saying, Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” It’s Luke who tells us about the women who followed Jesus. And it’s Luke who tells us not only about the mission of the twelve during the life of Jesus, but the mission of the seventy.

And Luke’s story doesn’t stop with the resurrection; he tells us of the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and the mission of those first followers. He tells us about the baptism of Samaritans and the Ethiopian Eunuch and the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. He tells us how Paul participated in the murder of Stephen for blasphemy, and was then met by the risen Lord on his way to Damascus. It tells the story of Paul’s journeys to spread the message about Jesus throughout the Mediterranean world, and his eventual arrest in Jerusalem and transfer to Rome to have his case heard by the emperor.

This is the movie we are talking about. It’s a powerful movie. And I want to emphasize again that it’s in this movie from Luke that we get the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and Lazarus and the Rich Man. It’s also here we get this message from John when his listeners ask him “What then shall we do?” and John says: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

As I wrote in the blog post at Watching for the Morning earlier this week, “The journey towards God is a journey towards the neighbor. The dawn of grace requires we learn to live grace.”

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maximilien_Luce_-_Le_bon_samaritain.jpg Maximilien Luce [Public domain]

 

And us? What should we do?

File:Humanitarian aid OCPA-2005-10-28-090517a.jpgWatching for the Morning of December 9, 2018

Year C

The Second Sunday of Advent

Sunday we combine the assigned Gospel texts for the next two weeks because of the children’s Christmas program on the 16th. This gives us the chance to hear Luke’s account of the ministry of John the Baptizer in a single reading: The word of God comes into the brutal world of Rome and its client kings, announcing God’s righting of the world and the coming of the one who will wash the world in a holy Spirit. And what does it mean to prepare for this wondrous act of God? It is to bear fruit befitting God’s reign: to share your bread with the hungry and your clothes with the naked, to show faithfulness to others rather than plundering them to your benefit.

The journey towards God is a journey towards the neighbor.

The dawn of grace requires we learn to live grace.

So there are warnings on Sunday, the ax poised to strike the fruitless tree, and the winnowing fork sifting the chaff for the fire; heritage doesn’t count for anything, only fidelity. But there is also promise of a dawning salvation: a world set right and a human community awash in the Spirit. It is time, says John, to take sides. Choose the one to whom you will show allegiance: the world of rulers and empire, or the reign of grace.

Sunday we will hear the prophet Malachi speak of God’s messenger who prepares the way for God to come to his temple. His task is to purify the priestly clan of Levi, that their offerings may please rather than offend God. And in this warning of a refiner’s fire we will recognize that it is not only the preachers and priests who must have the dross burned away, but a people who must become faithful.

In the shadow of that warning we will sing the prophetic song of Zechariah that rejoices in God’s favor and the fulfillment of God’s promises, describing the mission of his son, John, to “Go before the Lord to prepare his way.” There are barriers of heart and mind that must be torn down. There are hearts that must be changed, relationships to be reconciled, wounds to be healed, love to be lived.

And we will hear Paul exhort his beloved congregation to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” in the promise that “it is God who is at work in you.”

It is a season of hope, but also a season for living the kingdom.

The Prayer for December 9, 2018

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Lead us in the way of your kingdom
that we may walk in paths of faith, hope and love;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for December 9, 2018

First Reading: Malachi 3:1-4
“I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.”
– The prophet known as Malachi spoke to a people who complained of God’s absence, but neglected their offerings and worship of God. He declares that God will come to this people, but warns he will come as a purifying fire.

Psalmody: Luke 1:68-79 (The Benedictus)
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” – On this Sunday when we hear of the ministry of John the Baptist, we sing the song known as the Benedictus (from its first words in Latin). This prophecy is sung by Zechariah when he regains his voice after following the divine command to name his son John. He glorifies God for God’s work of deliverance and declares that John “will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.

Second Reading: Philippians 2:12-16 (appointed: Philippians 1:3-11)
“Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” –Paul writes from prison, urging his beloved congregation to faithfulness in their life together. (Our congregation read Philippians 1:3-11 last week.)

Gospel: Luke 3:1-18 (appointed: Luke 3:1-6)
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” – We combine the Gospel readings for 2 and 3 Advent this Sunday where John is located in the midst of the ruling powers but speaks of the ruler to come – and calls the community to a life in keeping with the dawning reign of God.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Humanitarian_aid_OCPA-2005-10-28-090517a.jpg Technical Sergeant Mike Buytas of the United States Air Force [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With arms wide open

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Watching for the Morning of October 28, 2018

Reformation Sunday

The name ‘Lutheran’ was originally a slur cast by Luther’s opponents against those who were persuaded by Luther’s profound insight into the scriptures and the central truth of Christian faith.

Perhaps some heard only a call for the reform of the church’s life. Perhaps some saw the possibility of personal advancement or enrichment. But I suspect these came later. In the beginning there was only a compelling explosiveness to Luther’s teaching that the favor of God is freely given not earned.

Their opponents called them ‘Lutherans’. The name implied they were something separate from the Christian community, followers of a heretical and sectarian leader rather than of Christ and Christ’s church. Luther insisted that ‘Christian’ was the correct term; they were followers of Christ. He also accepted the term ‘evangelisch’.

The German word ‘evangelisch’ translates as ‘evangelical’, from the Greek word for ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’. Though ‘evangelical’ has come to have a different meaning in the modern American context, it was powerful and accurate for Luther and his movement. They believed that God had revealed anew the ‘evangel’, the news of a victory won for us over sin, death and the devil. We are not soldiers on the moral battlefield of life; we are hostages rescued and set free. We do not have to become holy; Christ has enveloped us in his holiness. Where we see too well our sins and failings; God sees only the image of his beloved son with arms stretched wide.

Yes, wrapped in Christ, graced by God’s spirit, there is a path to follow, a new creation to be. But the favor of God does not depend on us but on Christ. We are free from rites and rituals thought to appease God so that we can be about those things that truly please God – loving and serving our neighbor.

The celebration of the Reformation on this coming Sunday is not about the Lutheran church or the protestant communion. It poses no cheers for ancient heroes or the teams that now bear their names. It speaks to us of this Gospel, this fundamental truth that lies at the heart of our life together: our hope is not in ourselves and our accomplishments, but in this God who forgives sins and raises the dead, not because we deserve it – for we surely do not – but because God delights to give.

Church bodies shaped by such an insight cannot be self-righteous or judgmental; they can only be communities with arms wide open and feet ready to walk with those in need.

The Prayer for October 28, 2018 (for Reformation Day)

Gracious and eternal God,
who by your Word called all things into being,
and by your Spirit sustains and renews the earth,
send forth your Word and your Spirit upon your church,
that ever renewed they may bear faithful witness to your grace and life.

The texts for October 28, 2018 (assigned for Reformation Day)

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
– Though the covenant formed between God and the people at Sinai lies broken (what God’s people promised they have failed to do and kingship and temple have perished) God’s promise abides and God will establish a new covenant where God’s teaching/commands are written on the heart.

Psalmody: Psalm 46
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” – A hymn proclaiming the power of God to protect and preserve the people and expressing their confident trust in God’s saving work. It provided the inspiration for Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28
“Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” – Paul’s classic expression of his understanding of the function of law and gospel and the idea that we are brought into a right relationship with God (justified) not by the law, but by the free gift of God (by grace) apprehended by our trust in that gift (through faith). This phrase “Justification by grace through faith” becomes a summary statement of the 16th century reforming movement and subsequent Lutheran churches.

Gospel: John 8:31-36
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” – This promise of freedom in Christ – freedom from authorities or powers that would prevent their living in service of God – is spoken to followers who do not abide in Jesus’ teaching, and his challenge will reveal their true heart.

Sunday we will also make use of the assigned Gospel for the Sunday from October 23 to October 29:

Appointed Gospel for Proper 25 B: Mark 10:46-52
“As Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.” – Once again in Mark’s Gospel opening blind eyes follows an account of the disciples failing to understand Jesus and his mission.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Luther-Predigt-LC-WB.jpg Attributed to Lucas Cranach the Younger [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Jesus, divorce, and our moment in time

File:Studio per Vulcano e Venere.jpgSaturday

Mark 10:1-16

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

We are in a unique moment in the United States, confronted as we are by profound and troubling divide over sexual assault, the treatment of women, the allegations about Brett Kavanaugh and his elevation to the Supreme Court. The words of Jesus on divorce echo profoundly in our time, not as legal precept, but as commentary on our divisions. What follows is a posting from 2015.

Cuckold. It is a verb that describes what one man has done to another by being intimate with his wife. Committing adultery in the Biblical world was about cuckolding. It was something a man did to another man. Sex outside of marriage wasn’t the issue. Adultery was shaming a man by taking what was his – or shaming the woman’s father and brothers.

We tend to think about adultery as a matter of personal morality, a measuring of ourselves against a personal standard of conduct, not altogether so different from measuring our Body Mass Index or how fast we can run the mile. In the Biblical world, adultery is a betrayal of your neighbor and a rupture of the human community.

This was also the problem with divorce. Marriage was arranged by the parents. It involved an alliance of two families (or a bond within an extended family, since the ideal marriage was with a cousin or second cousin). For the groom’s family to dismiss the woman and send her home told the whole village there was some defect in her. It brought shame to her father and brothers. It led to feuding. It tore the fabric of the community.

So adultery and divorce are part and parcel of the same problem – human communities at war. Betrayal. Dishonor. Revenge. Feuding. It is a world awry. It is a world sundered from God and one another. The world where Cain kills Abel and we assassinate with everything from words to barrel bombs. It is the world where Jesus will be crucified.

Divorce isn’t really authorized in the Old Testament law; it is merely acknowledged. What is in the law are some restrictions to limit the destructiveness of divorce.

But, of course, that is the essential nature of the law. It seeks to limit our destructiveness. The concern is always our neighbor. The commandment not to steal, kill – or commit adultery – is not about my personal moral integrity; it is about protecting my neighbor. So the scripture limits revenge, limits greed, limits our treatment of the natural world, limits our wars and slavery and all the other realities of a broken world.

But God intends more for us than just that we be a little less cruel, a little less violent. God wants the law to be written on our hearts. God wants our lives to be governed by God’s own Spirit. God wants us to be new creatures in a renewed creation.

So, when asked about divorce, Jesus talks about the beginnings, about God’s intention, about Eden, about all that marriage could and should and will yet be when the stone is rolled away and the Spirit given and the new world begun.

We need to do more than limit the harm we do. We need to be born anew. We need to journey with Christ through the death of our old self into the resurrection of the new. The argument here isn’t whether divorce is “right” or “wrong”, but whether I am right or wrong. And the unspoken but precious promise here, as Jesus and his followers head towards Jerusalem, is that Christ will set me and us and all things right.

It seems to me that the words of Jesus should put the Christian community on the side of reconciliation and the healing of the human community rather than the pursuit of political triumph.  They also put us on the side of hope.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Studio_per_Vulcano_e_Venere.jpg Tintoretto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Immersed in a sea of sweetness

File:Hölzel-ChristusUndDieKananäerin.jpg

“A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile…”

The message from last Sunday, September 9, 2018, based on the assigned Gospel reading. The other readings on Sunday were Isaiah 35:3-7a, Psalm 146, and James 2:1-17.

Mark 7:24-37: Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go–the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

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

The texts for this morning are filled with a remarkable sweetness. The proclamation we heard from Isaiah to “strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees,” begins a few verses earlier with the words:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
….the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly,
….and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
….the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
….the majesty of our God.

I suppose you can listen to the prophet this morning and hear only a backdrop for today’s Gospel. We read that Jesus opened the ears of a man who could not hear, so we look around and clip out a portion of the Old Testament that speaks about ears being opened. But the Old Testament isn’t just a setup for the Gospel. The story contained in the first three quarters of our Bibles doesn’t just set the stage for Jesus. It is, itself, the living word of God. It is full of the same divine voice we encounter in Jesus. It proclaims a God who fashions a good and beautiful world only to see it broken by humanity’s choices. It proclaims a God who remains faithful to the world, seeking to rescue and redeem it despite humanity’s persistent rebellion. It proclaims a God who again and again delivers from bondage and shows us the path of mercy and faithfulness. It proclaims a God who suffers the sorrows of the world and comes to it again and again with mercy and love. And, in words like those of the prophet this morning, it sings a profound song of salvation full of the sweetness of God’s redemptive work.

There is a challenge to us in the Gospel reading for today – because we are still talking about clean and unclean and the wretched way we treat one another – but that challenge is immersed in a sea of sweetness. And there is challenge for us in the second reading when James rebukes the community for giving special privilege and respect to the wealthy while treating the poor like the world always treats the poor. Such is not the “royal law”, James says, and asks that piercing question: What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?” If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

Yet even this challenge is immersed in a sea of sweetness for it sees a community transformed from the way of the world we see around us to become a community that embodies the love of God. It sees a community that lives not in the world as it is, with all its bitter words and deeds, but with its feet planted in the world where the desert blooms and frail knees dance in joy, where every heart is healed, where all creation is radiant with grace and life.

Our texts are immersed in a sea of sweetness. Our psalm sings of a God – the living, active, power and presence and love at the heart of all existence – who “executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry,” who “sets the prisoners free,” and “opens the eyes of the blind,” who “lifts up those who are bowed down,” who “watches over the strangers,” who “upholds the orphan and the widow.”

This is no small thing we say. We are living in a world where there is great violence, intimidation and deceit, but our claim – the Biblical claim – is that the divine power at the center of all things, the heartbeat that courses through all existence, is life and healing, redemption and release. It is care for the vulnerable and deliverance of the oppressed. It is justice and compassion and fidelity and love. It is not greed and pride and selfishness that carries the world towards its destiny, but generosity, humility and the care of others.

It’s very easy to say that God loves us. The words have become almost trite in their familiarity. But think what these words mean! Ultimate reality is focused beyond itself. The heartbeat of the universe beats for others. The foundations of the universe are compassion and kindness. The power and presence at the beginning and end of time is not detached and mechanical, but passionate for others.

We say this so freely that God is love, but ponder what a profound declaration this is: the source of all life is turned outward; it looks beyond itself. This is a radical thought. The gods of the ancient world were great and fickle powers preoccupied with their own passions and desires. Zeus had children by his daughter, Persephone. The beautiful Leto catches the eye of Zeus and he gets her pregnant. His wife (and sister) Hera, enraged, tries to kill the twins to be born of that union. Zeus turns himself into a swan to seduce and impregnate the beautiful Leda on her wedding night to the King of Sparta (the child of that union is Helen of Troy).

Zeus appoints the mortal, Paris, to judge which of the goddesses is the most beautiful and Aphrodite bribes Paris with the promise of the most beautiful woman in the world. So Paris picks Aphrodite, enraging Athena and Hera. Of course, the most beautiful woman in the world is Helen of Troy. Paris kidnaps her as his prize and starts the Trojan War.

The stories are mythic and complex, but throughout the gods are petty and selfish. The God of the scriptures is neither petty nor vain but bends towards the world in love. The God of the scriptures suffers for the world. The God of the scriptures is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

The gods of the modern world are also great and fickle powers. Wealth and power can lift us up and, in a moment, turn on us and cast us down. They do not suffer. They do not show compassion. They do not love.

The God of the scriptures loves.

And the God of the scriptures does not stop loving his troubled world.

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.”  We are swimming in a sea of sweetness – if we will dare to see it, if we will dare to open ourselves to it, if we will have the courage to live it.

5Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
….whose hope is in the Lord their God,
6who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them;
….who keeps faith forever;
7who executes justice for the oppressed;
….who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
….8the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
….the Lord loves the righteous.
9The Lord watches over the strangers;
….he upholds the orphan and the widow,
….but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
10The Lord will reign forever.

We are swimming in a sea of sweetness. And if we are swimming in a sea of sweetness, what does it mean for the way we live in a broken world? Do we yield to the world’s brokenness or walk in the way of sweetness? Do we embrace bitterness and revenge or compassion and grace?   Do we hide in the bushes of denial and deceit or answer the call to come forth into the divine presence? Do we turn and blame or stand and acknowledge? Do we hoard like the rich man building new barns or live with open hands? Is the woman of Tyre unclean or a fellow traveler in the sea of sweetness?

The ideas about clean and unclean that we spoke about last week continue in our Gospel this Sunday, only now it is not clean hands that are at stake – or the unclean Judeans among those who follow Jesus. Now it is about those outside the community of Israel: a woman of Tyre and a man in the region of the Decapolis. The woman is clearly identified as a Greek. An evil spirit holds her daughter, which the text names specifically as an “unclean” spirit.

Jesus has gone intentionally to the region of Tyre. It’s important we see this in the text. Jesus doesn’t just end up there; he chooses to go to the region of Tyre. From there Jesus goes to the region of Sidon, then to the region of the Decapolis. Tyre and Sidon are ancient Phoenician cities.   With the ten towns of the Decapolis they enjoy special privilege as free cities of the empire. Their allegiance to Greek culture and Roman rule is ancient and strong. They were ancient seaports and wealthy trading centers – and there was a long history with Israel. It was the King of Tyre who had the cedar and skills to build King David a palace and King Solomon a temple. It was a daughter of Sidon, Jezebel, who sought to kill the prophets of the Lord and make Baal the national god of Israel. She taught Ahab the ways of true power, arranging for the murder of Naboth when he refused to sell the king his vineyard. The prophet Ezekiel would name Tyre’s pride when he declares God’s coming judgment: “you have said, ‘I am a god; I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas’, yet you are but a mortal, and no god.”

These are not the people who deserve God’s favors.

Nor are those in the region of the Decapolis. Mark’s community lives in the throes of the Roman armies marching against Jerusalem’s rebellion, when the cities of the Decapolis showed their allegiance to Rome by murdering their Judean residents or driving them from their midst.

But Jesus has gone to these places on purpose.

There are people bound there, bound by demons and disease. There is grace to be shown, healing to be done. It is to be expected that Jesus would not be left alone there, that people would come for help. There are wounded everywhere.

And so this woman, this foreigner, this outsider, this enemy, comes begging for deliverance for her daughter. And Jesus says what is likely to be in the heart of every one of his followers: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” God’s gifts belong to God’s people. They are for us, not for those people. Those people are unclean.

The Pharisaic interpretation of Israel’s law saw every outsider as unclean. It makes perfect sense, of course, because they do not have the rules that define a holy people. They do not keep the law. They do not possess the rites of purification. They eat unclean foods. They wear unclean fabrics. They walk unclean streets. Their houses are unclean. God owes these people nothing. We owe these people nothing.

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

And we should keep in mind that dogs are not kept as cute pets with nice collars and beds and inscribed bowls for their food. Dogs are mangy animals that roam the streets eating all manner of filth.

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

But the woman says simply, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She insists that the gifts of God should come to all.

Are the followers of Jesus getting it? Do they understand that those we call dogs without thought or shame are also those for whom God cares? Do they understand there is faith to be found there, bold and daring faith? Do they understand that the gifts of God are for all people? Do they understand it is for the world that Christ has come? Do they understand that there are no limits to the mercy of God? Do they understand that all people are their sisters and brothers?

Probably not. But Jesus keeps trying. So now he is passing through Sidon and on to the Decapolis. And once again there is a person in need, a person in these cities whose evils are so fresh in the minds of Mark’s hearers. These cities whose allegiance to Rome is so fixed and sure. These cities filled with those who are unclean. One of these cities was built over a burial ground and distributed to retired Roman soldiers; everything in it is unclean. The possessed man who lived among the tombs was from one of these cities. That’s why there was a herd of pigs nearby into which his demons fled. These are not holy people. This is not holy land. But when Jesus comes, the people bring to Jesus a man in need. They bring to Jesus a man who can neither hear nor speak and Jesus is willing to touch and heal him.

Do the followers of Jesus yet understand? Do they see that we are the ones who cannot hear and whose speech is troubled?

Do they not understand that it is the work of God to open every ear and free every tongue – that our tongues can be used rightly in prayer and praise and care of neighbor rather than for hate and gossip and words that sting?

The crowd cries out in wonder that Jesus does all things well. He does all that is good. He does good to all. Even out here in the Decapolis. Even in Tyre and Sidon. Even in our own hearts.

The crowd cries out in wonder, for they see that we are surrounded in a sea of sweetness.

Amen

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© David K Bonde, 2018. All rights reserved.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:H%C3%B6lzel-ChristusUndDieKanan%C3%A4erin.jpg By Adolf Hölzel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons