Choose your kingdom; choose your king

File:Tomato vender at the Covington Farmer's Market in Covington, LA.jpg

“You that have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isaiah 55)

Watching for the Morning of August 6, 2017

Year A

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 13 / Lectionary 18

I live in a place and time where there has always been food in the grocery store. I understand that privilege. And even in the years I lived in a place that is now referred to as an urban “food desert”, I had a car with which to reach the suburban stores where milk and meat were fresh, and bread and fruit plentiful. I understand the privilege.

I have seen parts of the world where privilege is lacking. I have sat in a board meeting discussing whether we should help a companion church body in a region of the world where, after multiple years of drought, they had no seed corn. It disturbs me still, as it disturbed me then, that there was any hesitation. (We did commit to send the funds immediately, prior to the effort to raise them.)

The scripture is full of stories about famine. Famine takes Jacob (Israel) and his family to Egypt. Drought and famine had Elijah hiding in the wilderness and taking refuge with the widow of Zarephath. Famine takes Naomi to Moab where Ruth becomes her daughter-in-law (and David’s great-grandmother). Locusts (and the subsequent famine) are the occasion for the prophet Joel’s message. Subsistence farmers lead a precarious life, especially in the years of Jesus when the burden of taxes took nearly half the crop, and the necessity of keeping seed and feed left landowners with maybe 20% for food – far less for tenant farmers.

Hunger is a constant companion for too much of the world through too much of human history. And it is those who have known the anxiety and uncertainty of daily bread who recognize the full drama and grace of that day when five loaves feed five thousand.

It is food for today. And it is the bread of tomorrow. It is bread for those who hunger and a taste of a world without hunger. It is manna in the wilderness and a foretaste of the feast to come. It is the prophetic promise made present. It is a world reordered, a world set right, a world born from above. As Mary sang, “the hungry are filled with good things.

In contrast to Herod’s banquet, where Salome will dance for strangers, where the king’s daughter is used to inflame the king’s consorts, where plots conspire and the king’s vanity and shamelessness ends with the head of John on a platter – in contrast to Herod’s banquet is the banquet of Jesus where the people are healed and fed, with an abundance left over.

Choose your kingdom. Choose your king.

+       +       +

Sunday we hear of the feeding of the five thousand. And the backdrop assigned for this narrative is the prophet of Isaiah 55 giving voice to God’s offer for all who are hungry to come and eat: bread freely given, wine and milk overflowing, the voice of God that is true life. And the psalm will speak of God’s gracious providing, “The LORD” who “upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down”:

15The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
16You open your hand,
satisfying the desire of every living thing.

Sunday we will also hear Paul willing to be cursed for the sake of God’s people. And in that sentiment we recognize the spirit of the one who took the curse for our sake. The one who opened the grave. The one who poured out the Spirit. The one who brings the feast without end.

Choose your kingdom. Choose your king.

The Prayer for August 6, 2017

Almighty God,
through your Son Jesus you set a table
for all the world to come and feast.
Grant us hearts that are eager to hear your word,
share in your banquet,
and live your reign of mercy and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 6, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 55:1-5
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” – After the return from exile, the prophet calls to the community like a vendor in the marketplace, inviting them to “feast” on God’s promise that the eternal covenant once established with David is now transferred to the whole nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
“The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.” – A psalm of praise and thanksgiving for God’s grace and bounty.

Second Reading: Romans 9:1-5
“I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.”
– Having laid out his message of God’s reconciling grace apart from the law, Paul now takes up the problem that God’s people have largely ignored the message of Christ Jesus. He begins with an expression of his great grief that Israel has not received this fruit of all their promises.

Gospel: Matthew 14:13-21
“All ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” – Following the parables of chapter 13, Matthew tells of Herod’s banquet where all act corruptly and John is beheaded, and of Jesus’ banquet on the mountain where he has compassion for all.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATomato_vender_at_the_Covington_Farmer’s_Market_in_Covington%2C_LA.jpg By Saint Tammany [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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The sweetness that will not perish

File:Creche de noel.jpeg

Sunday Evening

Isaiah 35:1-10

10 Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

I wish I could capture the joy of watching our children present the Christmas story. Or, for that matter, the exquisite beauty of the High School choral group that sang for our Christmas party/luncheon after worship. The little girl who played Mary also wanted to be an angel, so we had a little costume change in the middle of the service. And her swaddling of the baby Jesus became somewhat legendary last year – carefully spreading out the blanket and then plunking the doll used for Jesus down with a thunk to wrap him up tight.

I sat with a young man from the choral group – they joined us for the luncheon – and when I said that the children had presented the Christmas story in worship that morning, he asked, “What story is that?” Though he sang these exquisite carols and choral pieces, he didn’t know the story.

There is such power in this story for those raised in the church. Watching the children in their costumes, reciting the words, and singing the carols takes us all back through the generations to our own childhoods. The stable, the shepherds, the angels saying “Hark!”, Gabriel before Mary and Mary’s song (the Magnificat, the heart of this third Sunday of Advent) – it’s hard to explain how profoundly it all reverberates through our lives. For a moment, all is right with the world.

But this bright, talented young man didn’t know the story.

And then, when I got home today there was news of the bombing of the Coptic cathedral in Cairo.

All is not right with the world. And yet it is. Bombs are falling, but children are singing. The bodies of innocents lie in the rubble, but a child rests in a manger. The Roman authorities will degrade and destroy this Jesus, but he lives. The cathedral is in ruins, but the song goes on.

The sweetness of children dressed as angels and shepherds is far more than sweetness. It is a profound confession that sweetness has touched the earth, that sweetness abides, that sweetness will endure – that sweetness will triumph. Truth, mercy, justice, compassion, generosity, fidelity, courage, hope, laughter, joy – these are the things that are enduring. These are the elements of our true humanity. These are the things for which there are no regrets. Bombs may scar the world, but God works to heal it.

I told the young man the Christmas story in its brief outline. I thought, at the very least, he should understand the origin of these songs he was singing. But what I really wished was that I could have invited him into the wonder and awe of that story, and into the sweetness that will not perish.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACreche_de_noel.jpeg By KoS (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Waters Shall Break Forth

The promise of Joy

File:Wasserspiele2.jpgWatching for the Morning of December 11, 2016

Year A

The Third Sunday of Advent

There are fragments of memory that stick in your head like a photograph. One of mine is of a young boy on a hot summer day in downtown Detroit, standing under a large fountain with clearly cold water pouring over his shivering and delighted body.

We got the city to block the streets and turn on the fire hydrant outside the church one sticky summer day. And while I remember the great arc of water shooting across the street and the screams and giggles of the young people from our summer program, no one child stands out like that boy under the fountain.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

Some years ago, in the spring following a winter when it had rained there, Death Valley bloomed. That dry and desolate valley filled with the blossoms of plants that had waited years to show forth their glory. I wanted to play hooky to go see it, but it is hard for a pastor to travel at Easter.

But even just writing those words, “Death Valley bloomed,” is delicious. The vale of death has become a valley of life.  It reminds me of Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones living. Or his vision of a river flowing from the temple making the Dead Sea live.

It is the truth that underlies all scripture: God is a god of life. God makes Death Valley bloom. God opens a road through the wilderness and fills the land with pools of water. And the people come singing. It is not dust and ashes on the heads of those who suffered the devastations of war, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and the years of exile; it is everlasting joy.

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Sunday we will hear the prophet’s song of salvation. And we will sing with Mary the song of deliverance. And, in our parish, the children will present again that joyous story of the child in the manger. And for those who read the Gospel, they will hear Jesus answer John’s question “Are you the one?” by pointing at all they have seen: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Everlasting joy.

The Prayer for December 11, 2016

Gracious God,
who called forth the first morning of the world
and brings all things to their final end when all night is vanquished,
make us ever mindful of our journey homeward,
and grant us eyes to see your life giving work,
that your joy may break forth upon us;
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 11, 2016

(Because of the children’s participation in our worship this morning presenting the nativity story, our parish will read only the first reading and sing the Magnificat)

First Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad.”
– The prophet announces that God will come to save the people in exile in Babylon, making springs abound in the wilderness and establishing a highway through the desert to bring the people home.

Psalmody: Luke 1:46-55
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” – In place of the appointed Psalm 146:5-10, our parish will sing the Magnificat, the prophetic song Mary sings about God’s righting of the world when she greets Elizabeth

Second Reading: James 5:7-10
“Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” –
The author of James exhorts the Christian community to steadfastness and hope.

Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
– John sends his followers to Jesus to inquire whether he is the awaited one, and Jesus points him towards the works that have been accomplished among them.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWasserspiele2.jpg By Peng (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The promise is enough

Friday

Luke 1:46-55

File:Gliwicki Klub Kolekcjonerów GKK - Matka Boska Lysiecka.jpg52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

It seems, at first glance, like an odd choice of tense for the verbs: he brought down, lifted up, filled, sent away – all simple past tenses. Technically, all God has done is announce what will happen. Mary will have a child who will be great, who will receive the throne of David, who will reign forever. God has announced the future and Mary sings of it as past event, as already accomplished. The promise is as good as the done deed. The future is given and received in the promise.

We don’t live that way. I can hear my mother repeating the aphorisms: “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush,” “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” and “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” But that is exactly what Mary has done. She has put all her eggs in the basket of this promise of God, and now she is counting the chickens. There is no waiting to see if God will come through, no hesitation whether God can accomplish what he purposes. The promise is enough for Mary to sing as if it is all present reality.

When I was first told I was going to be a father, I was also told we couldn’t announce it yet. In that first trimester there was a chance you might lose the baby. We needed to wait to tell family. We needed to wait before buying baby clothes. We needed to wait before creating a nursery. We needed to wait to be sure.

But for Mary there is no waiting. All that God has promised is celebrated as present reality. The announcement that this child is coming means that the world will change. The injustices of the world will be undone. The poor will be raised up and the powerful cast down. It is signed and sealed and delivered. It is a done deal.

Mary breaks all the rules. She lets go of the world as it is to grasp hold of the world as it shall be. She is counting her chickens. She is singing from joy. The promise is enough.

 

Image:By Grzegorzfl (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

Rejoice in the Lord

File:Fra Angelico - Visitation - WGA0480.jpg

Watching for the Morning of December 13, 2015

Year C

The Third Sunday of Advent

Though the appointed texts for Sunday keep us focused on John, our children are presenting their Christmas program, so we have shifted our focus to joy. Sunday we will read of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth where the two unexpectedly pregnant women exult in God’s salvation, John the Baptist leaps in the womb, and Mary sings for joy. We will hear Paul write to the Philippians urging them to rejoice always. And together we will sing the song of Mary, the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

The joy of Christmas cannot be contained. It leaks into Advent and echoes through the Sunday’s after the Epiphany. It is the joy that comes from the knowledge that what has long been longed for is near at hand. It is the joy of the lightening skies at the end of a long dark night. It is the joy of seeing land on the horizon after a lengthy voyage at sea.   It is the joy of the childless when, at last, a pregnancy comes near to term. It is the joy of the impending wedding (when all the planning is done – or when we have entrusted it all into the hands of a perfect planner).

It is not the joy of a holiday – we know such joy is ephemeral and uncertain. It is the joy that heaven draws near: God comes. God comes to save. God comes to redeem. God comes to heal. God comes to dwell with us. The eternal heart of the universe beats for us and with us. The font of all life is coming to dwell with us.

Such joy cannot be contained.

The prayer for December 13, 2015

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 13, 2015

(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.

 

Image: Fra Angelico (circa 1395–1455), The Visitation,  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The day of vengeance?

Friday

Isaiah 61

File:Gentile da Fabriano 032.jpg

The prophet Isaiah

1The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;

When Jesus reads this text in the synagogue in Nazareth and declares it fulfilled, he leaves off the last line about the day of vengeance. Or, at least, when Luke writes about that sermon, Luke leaves that last line off.

Luke, however, is not doing it out of our modern sensibilities that routinely edit texts read in worship to leave off things that sound harsh. He is concerned with the punch line that with this Jesus dawns the year of grace.

Isaiah feels no such compunction. Neither does Mary when she sings of the rich being sent empty away. They understand better than we the grace in this message about the ‘day of vengeance’.

For us, ‘vengeance’ is a dark, troubling emotion: wanting to make other people suffer as we have suffered, wanting to strike back, wanting to ‘get even’.

The problem of ‘getting even’ – is that ‘even’ never feels even. We seem to need to add a penalty and make the person hurt a little (or a lot) more than they hurt us. This is why the cycle of revenge always escalates, and why, in the Mosaic Law, God had to say [only] an eye for an eye. God wasn’t endorsing revenge or instructing us to get even, but prohibiting the altogether too common practice of avenging a wrong beyond what was necessary to keep the peace (or neglecting a wrong done to one who was weak).

And this wasn’t personal revenge; it was corporate. It wasn’t Lamech declaring “hurt me and I will hurt you worse!” It was “hurt our tribe and we hurt your tribe.” It wasn’t individuals “taking the law into their own hands” but communities requiring that the ledgers be balanced.

The problem in such a system of social order is with those who are weak and vulnerable. Widows and orphans, the poor, have no one to stand up for their defense, no one to call the community to avenge the wrongs done to them.   So God lays that burden on the community by declaring “I will avenge.” Thus, under threat of divine wrath, the ‘weak’ become a protected class instead of being easy marks for social predation.

But if God never comes to judge, the threat becomes meaningless.

So the day of grace is a day God acts: to forgive, to heal, to reconcile, to restore – and to avenge: to set right the twisted scales of a world where the weak are victimized and the poor are plundered.

In the era of Jim Crow, where communities of people where suppressed by threat of violence against which there was no defense other than submission – to declare that God is come to set them free must mean that their avenger has arisen to right the world, to fight on their behalf, to wrench from the hand of pharaoh their liberty.

This is the hidden sweetness in the phrase a “day of vengeance of our God” – it is a day God restores the lost balance of the world. And so Mary sings about the greedy rich who have plundered the vulnerable – that they are “sent empty away.”   She is not exulting in their suffering, but rejoicing that the world has been rescued from their hands.

Joy overflows

Watching for the morning of December 14

Year B

The Third Sunday of Advent

File:Children sharing a milkshake.jpg

By krzyboy2o

Joy overflows this Sunday. We hear of the call of the prophet in Isaiah 61 who has been empowered by the Spirit of God to declare God’s restoration of the people. He uses the language and imagery of the jubilee year when every debt is forgiven and all lands restored. It contains also the imagery of a new king ascending the throne announcing amnesty and a new beginning for the nation.

The joy and expectation of the birth of Jesus cannot be contained. When Mary goes to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, the child in Elizabeth’s womb (John the Baptist) leaps for joy and Mary sings her exquisite song rejoicing in God’s salvation.

Paul reminds the believers in Thessalonica to “Rejoice always” and declares that their faithful God will keep them “sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The only harsh note is the inquisition by representatives of the Jerusalem elite who come to interrogate John. They want to know whether he will lead an uprising against the powerful governing families in Jerusalem. They are satisfied that he is only a prophetic voice and do not seem to care when he declares that the coming one is already in their midst.

The coming one is in our midst. And the joy of that day is ours already.

The Prayer for December 14, 2014

Mighty God,
who stands at the beginning and end of time,
you sent your servant John as herald of your kingdom
and witness to Christ, the light of the world,
who stands even now among us.
Renew us by your promised Spirit
that, with lives made whole,
we may receive you with joy at your coming;
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 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Blessed

Saturday

Luke 1

Visitation by Fra Angelico

Visitation by Fra Angelico (Photo credit: Edith OSB)

46 “My soul magnifies the Lord,
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

As a child, it never sounded quite right to me.  It seemed that Mary rejoiced in God because she would be famous forever.  That’s the disease of our modern world.  People stand behind television news cameras and wave, excited to be on TV.  A group of young men commit brutal acts and post it on you-tube.  We all write blogs.  We seem to be a generation that wants the whole world to watch us.  People are famous for being famous.  People like Einstein and John Glenn used to be the most famous names in the country, not Honey Boo Boo or some housewife from the Jersey shore.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

But Mary is not exulting in her newfound celebrity.  She is exulting in the work that God has chosen to do.  All generations will call her blessed because God will work an incomprehensible grace through her son.  She is not glad to be famous; she is glad that God is coming to save.

Simeon will remind us that “a sword will pierce” her heart.  It is no small thing to watch your child impaled on a cross and to see him pierced by the lance of an occupation soldier.  It is no small thing to see the crowd in his hometown synagogue want to throw him off a cliff.  Of course she comes with her boys to collect him, to save him from himself, to save him from the crowds.  She is not a saint; she is a mother, full of a mother’s fears.  And a mother’s tears.

But she rejoices.  She magnifies God.  Maybe on this night when she has been greeted by Elizabeth with such joy, maybe on this night she doesn’t yet see the sorrows to come.  Maybe on this night it is about joy and motherhood and God’s promised salvation.  Maybe on this night she can hear the laughter of those who no longer hunger.  Maybe on this night she hears the joyful cries of lepers healed and outcasts brought home.  Maybe on this night she hears the songs of the angels that heaven and earth are reconciled.  But she rejoices not in her new position; she rejoices in God.

Perhaps on those other days to come, the days of sorrow, her heart will not be quite so full.  But she will still magnify God, because her eyes are not on her self, but on the fulfillment of God’s promise to right the world.