Would that God’s Spirit were on all of us

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“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

Watching for the Morning of September 30, 2018

Year B

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 21 / Lectionary 26

It doesn’t seem right to read the second half of psalm 19 about the goodness of God’s law without having read the beginning of the psalm that declares “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” The beauty, harmony and order we see in the stars is found in God’s ordering of human life by the Torah/teaching/“law” given to Israel: “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul… making wise the simple… rejoicing the heart… enlightening the eyes… enduring forever.” God’s commands to live faithfulness and mercy are “sweeter also than honey” and more desirable than gold.

Into the chaos of this last week, and the wrenching trauma of sexual assault, raging anger, and bitter partisanship, comes this sweet word about God’s gracious ordering of the world.

But our readings, Sunday, start with bitter complaint. Israel is in the wilderness craving meat and imagining that life had been wonderful in the old days. They dream of melons and cucumbers, forgetting that Pharaoh made life bitter and sought to kill their children. Moses, too, cries out in bitterness that God has entrusted him to care for such a people. God answers with the commission of the seventy elders upon whom a share of the Spirit is given. But it is the story of Eldad and Medad to which the narrative drives. They were not with the others when the Spirit was given. They were still in the camp. Joshua would have Moses silence them. But Moses answers instead: “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”

Where Joshua would seek to control and limit God’s work; Moses wants to see it spread. And so then we hear Jesus with disciples who also want to control and limit God’s work: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” He wasn’t on our team. He wasn’t one of us. We can’t allow him to succeed – even though he was freeing people from demons.

We are living in the sorrows of partisanship. And Christians have been brutally successful at tribalism through the ages. Pretty disgraceful given that our Lord welcomed all. Pretty disgraceful given that our Lord said it was better to have a millstone tied around your neck and be cast into the sea rather than cause anyone to waver in their allegiance to Jesus. And it is better to cut off your hand or tear out your eye – the punishment for lawbreakers still in some parts of the world – than betray God’s reign of mercy and life.

Moses was right. Would that God’s Spirit were upon all of us.

The Prayer for September 30, 2018

Holy and Gracious God,
before whom the least of your children bear an eternal name,
season us with your Spirit
that we may never drive away those whom you call near;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 30, 2018

First Reading: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
“Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders.” – Moses cries out to God about the burden of caring for this rebellious people, and God puts his Spirit upon seventy elders to share the leadership. Two of the elders, Eldad and Medad, are not present with the others on Mount Sinai and begin prophesying in the camp. Moses’ aid, Joshua, wants Moses to silence them. Moses wants all God’s people to possess the Spirit.

Psalmody: Psalm 19:7-14
“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.”
– The psalm sings of God’s wondrous ordering of the world, beginning with the majesty of creation, and then the gift of God’s law.

Second Reading: James 5:13-20
“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them.”
– The author urges the Christian community to mutual care and absolution.

Gospel: Mark 9:38-50
“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” – The disciples show their failure to understand the reign of God present in Jesus and he summons them to the radical commitment that the reign of God requires: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Statue_tripping.jpg By Bianca Bueno (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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The scalpel of God

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“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Mark 9:37)

This is the message from last Sunday, September 23, 2018, on which the congregation celebrated the 40th anniversary of my ordination. The sermon is related to that anniversary, but rooted in the assigned readings: Mark 9:30-37, Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, and James 3:13-4:8a,

Mark 9:30-37: They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

You see, O God,
the struggle of the human heart for privilege and honor
and set before us the betrayed and crucified body of your Son.
May he who was servant of all teach us his way;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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

It’s hard to believe I have been doing this for 40 years. It’s stunning to wake up one morning and realize how long it’s been. On the other hand, it’s amazing to think back to all the people and places I’ve known. I have lots of memories – though not as many as I wish. I regret not having kept a journal of my experiences through the years.

A friend wrote me last week about a dramatic graveside service in the rain. It was Wisconsin, so I’m assuming there had been a thunderstorm. I wrote back about a graveside service on a cold November day in Toledo, grey skies, the trees stripped of their leaves, in a little old country cemetery now surrounded on three sides by an oil refinery. I stood at the head of a casket before a small huddle of people, amid the pungent aromas of the refinery and the sounds of its clangs and whistles and whooshes, reading the ancient texts and speaking the promise of a new creation. I wish I knew who that was.

I wish I remembered the name of the person whose funeral I conducted one Good Friday. I had buried his wife four days earlier. He went home after the service, climbed up in his closet and got down an old pistol. Now their adult children were before me once again.

In those days when the heavens seem silent, it falls to the preacher to speak, to break that wall of silence, to let the voice of God be heard in its fearful sweetness.

I never understood the wife of a colleague of mine who was a minister in the United Church of Christ. For her, the sermon was only one member of the community sharing their thoughts for the rest of the community – thoughts the community could take or leave as they saw fit. I don’t know if that’s true of her whole church body; I just know she didn’t share this deep conviction that somewhere in the weeds of the preacher’s words would be hiding the voice of the eternal with all its power to wound and heal.

When I was interviewed here, downstairs in the Fireside Room, I was asked to lead a devotion at the beginning of the meeting. I don’t remember if the call committee had forgotten to tell me they wanted me to do this, or if it was part of the test to see what I might do at the last moment. I turned to the passage in Hebrews (4:12) about the Word of God being sharper than any two-edged sword and talked about the fact that the word ‘sword’ there was the word for the small dagger possessed by a soldier, not the big sword. That dagger was used for fine cutting. It’s more of a knife than a sword, and I suggested we should understand the Word of God as a scalpel with which God does surgery on our hearts.

We are in need of surgery. The Bible is not a book of doctrines and policies; it gives very few absolute answers beyond loving God and neighbor with all your heart and soul and mind. But what the Bible does do is convey to us these stories, events, poems and preaching that have the power, like a scalpel, to set us free from the fears and sins that bind us and shape us into the creatures we were meant to be.

Let us imagine for a moment that Kavanaugh did this thing of which he is accused. And let’s clear away for a moment all the partisan politics and ideologies that are clamoring for power. Let us just imagine that a person is suddenly confronted with a fact from the past saying, “You did this to me, and this is what it cost me.”

It is a fearful thought. Maybe it was forgotten in a haze of alcohol, maybe it was a memory suppressed, maybe it was one of those things you never thought anything about because it was ordinary in the world in which you lived, I don’t know. But suddenly here is this word with its long bony finger pointed at you. This is the story of David and the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 11:1-12:23). David is swept away by the beauty of Uriah’s wife bathing in the moonlight. He sends for her. She gets pregnant. He brings Uriah home from the front hoping to cover his crime. Uriah is too honorable to enjoy the comforts of his home and bed while his men are in the field. David gives secret orders to put Uriah in the front lines and pull away. He is killed. The King’s crime is covered and forgotten. But then comes Nathan with a story of a poor man and his single beloved lamb. The lamb lies in the poor man’s lap like one of our comfort animals. The rich man with many flocks has a visitor arrive and takes the poor man’s lamb to serve his guest for dinner. David is incensed. “The man deserves to die,” he shouts. And then Nathan points his long bony finger and says: “You are the man.”

The word of God is a scalpel. But it points at David not to condemn and destroy, but to free and heal him.

So here we are with this story about Kavanaugh. The response we see around us is to destroy him or to destroy her, and in that instinctive reaction it is not Kavanaugh’s sins that are on display nor his accusers; it is our sins. We are not looking for healing; we are looking for triumph. One way or the other, one side or the other, we want to win. We want to crush our enemies. And we are willing to order Kavanaugh or Ford to the front lines and pull back.

So there is a story about the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 6:8-23). The king of Aram (what is now Syria) is at war with Israel. But God keeps telling the prophet what the king of Aram is doing, where he is moving his troops, where he is planning to attack, and the King of Israel keeps escaping his grasp. The King of Aram is enraged, convinced that one of his generals is betraying him by leaking his plans to the enemy. They all plead innocence. None of them is the betrayer; it is the prophet who whispers to the King of Israel the King of Aram’s private thoughts. So the King of Aram sends his army to seize the prophet. They come at night and surround the city.

In the morning, the prophet’s servant looks out and sees the town surrounded by an army of horses and chariots and cries out in fear. His story is about to end at the point of a spear. But the prophet prays for God to open his servant’s eyes, and he looks up to see the angelic armies of God encircling the city. “Those who are with us,” says the prophet, “are more than those who are with them.”

God strikes the enemy troops with a blindness, a confusion, a fog. As they come into town, the prophet says “Oh you have the wrong town. I’ll show you the way.” And he leads them to the King of Israel. The prophet prays for God to open their eyes and they find themselves surrounded in the capital city. And here is the punch line: The king asks the prophet what he’s supposed to do with the enemy now in his hand. “Shall I kill them, my father? Shall I kill them?” All his enemy’s soldiers are in his power. He has the chance to destroy them completely. But the prophet says instead that he should feed them. The king sets before them a banquet. They sit down to a table of peace. They are reconciled.

We want to win. We want to crush our enemies. “Shall I kill them, my father?” But the scalpel of God tells a story about reconciliation, repentance, transformation, love of God and neighbor.

I have a deep sympathy for Ford; I know something about sexual assault. I also have a deep sympathy for Kavanaugh; I know something about having your life turned upside down in a moment – and I know something about the sins of our youth. Perhaps mostly, I have a deep sorrow for the nation, because we are so far from the kingdom and rushing in the wrong direction. We are a people who do not know how to repent, and the sins of our past – from greed and slavery and genocide to our everlasting faith in winning at all costs – keep haunting us. Our good deeds can’t make the old deeds go away. David was faithful in almost everything. Yet this murder of Uriah needed to be confessed or it would all go wrong.

So there’s another story (1 Kings 21). King Ahab married the daughter of the Sidonian king (1 Kings 16:31). Her name was Jezebel. We don’t name our kids Jezebel anymore.

Ahab grows up in a world where God is God. God has given the land to the people, divided it among every tribe and family. The land is not my possession; it is a gift of God to my family. It is my responsibility to care for it; it is not my privilege to dispose of it. The law says I can’t sell it. If I have to, I can sell the right to use the land until the next sabbatical year. I can sell the next so many harvests, but I can’t sell it permanently.

Ahab is king. He has a palace. He wants the vineyard that belongs to Naboth in order to grow vegetables. Naboth is scandalized by the idea that he should sell his patrimony. He says no. Ahab is depressed and goes to bed. Jezebel is disgusted. She will teach him how a king uses power. She gives a banquet. She invites Naboth to sit at the high table. She hires two scoundrels to sit next to him. In the middle of the dinner they stand up and accuse Naboth of cursing God and the King. They take him out and stone him to death. Jezebel goes to Ahab and says, “Go get your garden.”

Except God has a prophet. God has a servant with God’s heavenly scalpel. And the prophet is standing there in the garden when Ahab shows up to claim it. This is not the kingship God wants, says the prophet, Ahab’s kingdom will fall by the same violence Ahab used.

And so the scalpel of God comes to us. Will we choose violence or faithfulness? Will we choose victory or redemption? Will we choose wealth, power and conquest or justice, mercy and reconciliation?

Story after story, preached word after preached word, songs and poems and history and even erotic poetry – it’s all here in this book – and lurking in it all is this God with a scalpel who would heal our hearts.

So, in the texts we heard today: Jeremiah is a prophet. He holds the scalpel of God. And the word of judgment he speaks against a corrupt regime creates enemies. The king doesn’t want to hear what Jeremiah has to say. Jeremiah will send the king a copy of everything God had said, and the king will burn it all, page by page, in the brazier standing next to him to keep him warm. (Jeremiah 36)

Jeremiah is a priest. His hometown is a village of priests. They all have a stake in the temple and the monarchy. They have a good life. They don’t want Jeremiah mucking it up for them. They see treason in him, not the divine scalpel. They plot to kill him. And so we hear Jeremiah crying out to God in the words we read this morning: “I was like a lamb led to the slaughter.” And we know there is in us a piece of this village of Anathoth that wants to hold on to what we have even if it means silencing the prophet. Even as Jerusalem rose up against Jesus.

The book of James wields the divine scalpel against the passions that drive our hearts and lead us to betray the divine will. Submit yourselves therefore to God,” he writes, “resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. The disciples are thinking: “Our time is coming! We are going to win. We are going to rule.” And they argue over which of them is the top dog.

“What were you talking about?” asks Jesus. He knows full well what they were talking about. Arguments in the Middle East are never quiet.

“What were you talking about?” And suddenly they are silent. Jesus is holding the divine scalpel in his hand. It’s not a sword, though; it’s just a scalpel. It is always just a scalpel, meant to heal and not to harm. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And Jesus puts a child in their midst.

Now we have to get this right. In our society, if you don’t have enough food, you feed the children first. In the time of Jesus, you feed the adults first. Children are loved, but they are at the bottom of the totem pole. They are valued. They are blessings from God. Hopefully they will become adults and take care of their aging parents. But the odds are they won’t make it to adulthood. The death toll is too high. The calories have to go to those who can work the fields.

If we really want to understand what Jesus is saying to his followers, we need to imagine Jesus taking a refugee, or a homeless person, or an addict, whomever we think matters least, and setting him or her in the midst of us, putting his arms around him or her and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

It is the scalpel of God.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Syriske_flyktninger_(8184618433).jpg By Norsk Folkehjelp Norwegian People’s Aid from Norway (Syriske flyktninger) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

As you treat this child

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Watching for the Morning of September 23, 2018

Year B

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus is back in Galilee. His journey beyond the margins of Israel near Tyre and Sidon and the region of the Decapolis is over and they are headed back to Capernaum and then on to Jerusalem. Jesus is still teaching them that he will be rejected in Jerusalem. The leadership of the city will rise up against this threat to civil order and his heretical notion that the reign of God is at hand and that God desires mercy and not sacrifice, that God is looking for faithfulness rather than ritual purity. So he is teaching his followers, trying to open their eyes.

But still his followers don’t understand. They are looking for victory in Jerusalem. For them, the reign of God is full of images of Rome cast out and Jesus on a throne. So as they head to the city and that glorious day, the scramble for power and influence begins. Who among them is greatest? Who will serve at his side? Who will share the reins of power?

But Jesus is trying to teach them. So, again, he gathers a child into their midst, a child who lacks all status and significance. Surrounding him in his embrace he says simply “As you treat this child you treat me.” The kingdom of God is upside down. It is not honor and privilege that matter but compassion and service.

In our first reading on Sunday we will hear that the people of Jeremiah’s hometown plot to kill him for his prophetic message. He challenges their power and privilege as a priestly community. In their eyes, he is a traitor for saying that God is coming to judge the nation. In the psalm we join in the words of an ancient petitioner who cries out “the insolent have risen against me, the ruthless seek my life,” yet confesses, “But surely, God is my helper.” The author of James will continue his exhortation, upending social norms by saying, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom,” and warning that “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”

The word of Jesus about taking up the cross lingers. The summons is to embrace the reign of God fully, to let the new world and it alone be our hope and path.

The Prayer for September 23, 2018

You see, O God, the struggle of the human heart for privilege and honor
and set before us the betrayed and crucified body of your Son.
May he who was servant of all teach us his way;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 23, 2018

First Reading: Jeremiah 11:18-20
“I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter.” – The prophet Jeremiah discovers a plot against his life by members of his own priestly clan who want to silence his message.

Psalmody: Psalm 54
“Save me, O God, by your name, and vindicate me by your might.”
– The poet prays for deliverance from murderous enemies.

Second Reading: James 3:13-4:8a (appointed: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a)
“Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”
– The author speaks to the Christian community about the chaos that comes from their passions and desires, urging them to “resist the devil” and submit themselves to God.

Gospel: Mark 9:30-37
“On the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.” – Jesus is again teaching his disciples about his coming death and resurrection in Jerusalem, but they are arguing who will get the seats of power when they get to Jerusalem.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Syriske_flyktninger_(8184617191).jpg By Norsk Folkehjelp Norwegian People’s Aid from Norway (Syriske flyktninger) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

And Jesus alone remains

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The reading begins “Six days later”: six days after Jesus first told his followers that he would be rejected in Jerusalem, crucified and raised; six days after Peter has rebuked Jesus for such a thought and been himself rejected; and six days after Jesus taught that they must take up the cross for “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Mark 9:2-9: Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

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I found myself struggling to find a story to tell this morning, something that could pull out the drama of this text, something with which we could connect. The problem is that the Gospel story itself is so unreal to us. We are not a people who have visions – or, if we do, we tend not to talk about them. They aren’t considered normal. If we told someone we saw things like this they might think we are a little crazy.

Other cultures put great importance on visions. We know, for example, that certain indigenous societies had a rite of passage sometimes referred to as a vision quest. Such visions provided profound guidance for their lives. But we don’t do visions. We don’t listen to dreams. We don’t hear God’s voice. Our spiritual lives are often neglected and impoverished.

I am not suggesting that you go on a vision quest. There is a rich spirituality within the Christian tradition, and I would invite you to see what is to be seen: To see Christ in the water, washing you with grace. To see Christ in the bread, joining his life to yours. To see Christ in the cross that walks in our midst. To see Christ in the glory of the flowers that decorate our space. To experience Christ in the beauty of the music. To see Christ in your neighbor, to feel Christ’s hand in yours at the passing of the peace, and to feel your hand become Christ’s hand as you extend peace to others.

But to go back to our text: This is a strange story to us because it speaks in a language we don’t really understand. And because we don’t understand the language, it’s easy for us to get it wrong.

This is my story about imagining Jesus to be kind of like Superman. When I heard this story as a child, I imagined that this event showed us the real Jesus, that the story gave us a glimpse inside the phone booth. Clark Kent pulls back his shirt and there we see the bright red S. Jesus is God and the disciples are getting a glimpse of it.

But that’s not what’s happening here. Jesus is not Superman. Jesus is not God masquerading as a human being; he is a human being just as we are. He doesn’t know things we don’t know – he just sees more clearly than we see. He hears the voice of God better than we hear. He feels the breath of the Spirit more profoundly than we feel it. He sees into the human heart more honestly and courageously than we see.

We are not seeing the true Jesus on the mountain; we see the true Jesus on the cross. We see the true Jesus protecting his disciples when the mob comes with torches and weapons. We see the true Jesus extending the hand of compassion to the leper, and to the synagogue ruler whose daughter has died. We see the true Jesus invite himself to the home of Zacchaeus and call Matthew, the tax gatherer, to be a disciple. We see the true Jesus driving out deceit and falsehood and all those spirits that corrode and debilitate human life. We see the true Jesus in the outrage at what’s happening in the name of God at the temple, and in the tears at the death of his friend Lazarus.

The real Jesus is the human being.

But Peter, James and John are given a vision. They see for a moment beyond the ordinary reality of everyday life into deep and profound things of God. For a moment that bread in their hands radiates with an overpowering grace. For a moment the word of forgiveness at the beginning of the service seems to thunder. For a moment they are grasped by an infinite truth.

The nature of visions, however, is that they not only give, they also take. They give us truth, but they also take away falsehood. They grant us a new vision of God and ourselves, but that means that old ideas get left behind.

We have all had these moments when we think that a person or a situation is one thing, and then we have one of those “Oh, my goodness” moments when we see everything differently. Once your perception has changed, there is no going back.

Sometimes that process is sudden and dramatic. More often it takes time. The vision is granted and then the person must ponder the vision to understand what it means.

So these followers of Jesus are granted this vision of Jesus made radiant by the presence of God. They see all the glory of God shining upon him. Jesus is the perfect mirror of God.

And they see Jesus on par with Moses and Elijah, the great heavenly figures that are the pillars of Israel’s faith and life: Moses the giver of God’s law and Elijah the prophet, empowered by God’s Spirit, working wonders, the living voice of God.

They see, but they don’t yet understand. And so Peter says, “Let us build three dwellings”.

Our text repudiates Peter by saying: “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”

I used to think that Peter was a doofus who put his foot in his mouth by saying the first thing that came to mind. That he couldn’t think straight because he was so terrified at what he saw. But Peter wasn’t babbling. His suggestion was based upon what he thought he was seeing.

He has seen Jesus destroying the citadels of Satan’s power. He has seen Jesus casting out demons, cleansing lepers, healing the sick and raising the dead. He has seen Jesus commanding the wind and the waves and walking on the sea, the remnant of the primordial chaos.

Now here are Moses and Elijah. Now here are the heavenly figures who fought God’s battles in ancient times and who disappeared into the heavens without anyone ever finding their bodies. Here is Moses who stood on the mountain and held up his hands and – when his hands were raised, the Israelites triumphed over their enemy. Here is Elijah who stood on the mountain and won victory over all the priest and prophets of Baal. I don’t think Peter is terrified at the presence of God as much as he is terrified by the moment: the heavenly armies are about to appear. The battle of good and evil is beginning, the cosmic battle that will overthrow all tyranny and oppression and bring God’s new creation. It’s happening now!

And Peter is proposing that they set up three tents by which these three commanding generals can witness the battle when all evil is overthrown.

But Peter didn’t know what he was talking about. Peter wasn’t seeing what was there to be seen. The vision wasn’t over. The cloud of God’s presence envelops them and God speaks: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And then Moses and Elijah disappear and Jesus alone remains.

The rebirth of the world isn’t coming with the battle of heavenly armies; it is coming with Jesus crucified. It is not by victorious conquest, but by deeds of love and mercy. It is not by strength and power but by service. It is not by judgment but by grace. It is not by purifying the world of the faithless but by gathering the outcast. It is not by gaining the world but by remaining faithful to Jesus even at the cost of one’s life.

“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” says the voice from heaven. And then Moses and Elijah disappear and Jesus alone remains.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AIsrael_hermon_(5330547343).jpg By Yoni Lerner from Tel Aviv, Israel (hermon) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

As no fuller

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Watching for the Morning of February 11, 2018

Year B

The Feast of the Transfiguration

Elijah is taken up in the whirlwind this Sunday. The psalm sings of God as a devouring fire. Paul refers to the glory of God in the face of Jesus. And Mark speaks of shining white garments “as no fuller on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:3RSV).

We don’t know what fullers are anymore, so our current translation will say “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them,” but I like that old word. There are people whose job it was to cleanse fabric. The Wikipedia article linked above says: “In Roman times, fulling was conducted by slaves working the cloth while ankle deep in tubs of human urine.” It’s valuable for us to take the scriptures down from their pious mountains and remember the reality in which they speak: No amount of the ammonia in human urine could get Jesus’ clothes as white as they became in the cloud of God’s presence.

It was at the fuller’s field that Isaiah spoke to Ahaz promising the sign of a child named Immanuel. Malachi declares that one is coming who will be like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap

Slave work. Divine work.

Sunday speaks of the event known as the Transfiguration. This is the festival that brings this season of the Sundays after Epiphany to its conclusion. Once again we hear a voice from heaven testify to Jesus. As we heard at Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of this season, so again we hear: “This is my Son, the Beloved.” Unfortunately, most of us have become so used to them that they will not make us quake.

Pick an empire ruling in majesty and might over vast domains and then imagine you, a mere peasant, hear the shout: “Behold the king’s son!” We would fall on our faces. We would tremble with awe at the radiance of royal majesty. But we will likely hear Sunday’s text without terror and awe.

Perhaps that’s appropriate. The one who has come has come to save. He has shown himself our healer and redeemer. He has declared the Father’s love. But the divine command ought not be neglected: “Listen to him.”  There is a radiance here that comes from no fuller on earth.

The Prayer for February 11, 2018

Holy and Wondrous God,
hidden in mystery yet revealed in your Son, Jesus,
to whom the law and prophets bear witness
and upon whom your splendor shines:
Help us to listen to his voice
and to see your glory in his outstretched arms.

The Texts for February 11, 2018

First Reading: 2 Kings 2:1-14
“Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.” – As Elijah heads toward his end in the whirlwind, Elisha seeks a “double share” of Elijah’s spirit, an expression drawn from the inheritance that goes to the eldest son.

Psalmody: Psalm 50:1-6
“Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him.”
– With the imagery of a storm over Jerusalem the poet speaks of the majesty of God who comes to speak to his people.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 3:17-4:6 (appointed 2 Corinthians 4:3-6)
“It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” – Paul expounds on the story of Moses, whose face radiated with the glory of God after God spoke to him in the tent of meeting.

Gospel: Mark 9:2-9
“He was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”
– Peter, James and John serve as witnesses when God appears to Jesus (and, like Moses, his appearance is transformed) and testifies that he is God’s beloved son to whom we should listen.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATransfiguration_of_Jesus_Christ._Novgorod_XVI_Russia.jpg By Новгородская живопись XIV века [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Salt, Millstones and unquenchable fire

Watching for the Morning of September 27, 2015

Year B

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 21 / Lectionary 26

File:Laesoe Saltsyderi 2011 ubt-3.JPGAs you read through the collection of thoughts in the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday they begin to tumble together leaving us a little dazed and confused. It seems to make sense – however troubling the statements of Jesus might be – but pretty soon Jesus is talking about having “salt in yourselves” and you are not sure what he’s talking about anymore. But Mark isn’t just throwing together some leftover sermon bits; he (and his community) understands how all these apothegms connect.

Jesus is talking to us about what it means to live in the community of disciples, to be citizens of the dawning reign of God. The language of salt and millstones and the unquenchable fire is meant to alert us to the dramatic significance of what is happening in Jesus.

God has come to reign. God has come to drive out the power of evil and bring that day when all things are made new. That’s why Jesus will not silence someone who has co-opted the name of Jesus for use in exorcism. The demonic is being driven out. And those who use the name of Jesus in such a way will find themselves unable and unwilling to later turn against him.

The thoughts are continuing from last week when the disciples argued about who was most important. Jesus upset the applecart by placing a child in their midst. What is happening is not modeled on the kingdoms of this world; God is transforming the world. Greatness is in service. Honor is accorded to the least. The power present in the world through the name of Jesus isn’t the possession of a few but is rippling out to touch all lives.

So those who show the simplest kindness – even a cup of cold water – shall inherit their just share of the kingdom. And if any would block someone’s participation in the reign of God, it would be better for them to tie a millstone to their neck and perish at the bottom of the sea. Indeed, if your words or deeds inhibit you from participating in God’s dawning reign, be bold. Act decisively. Better to enter the dawning age of life maimed than to celebrate your wholeness on the smoldering dump of cursed idols.

And so we come to salt. Sharing salt is like sharing bread. It is the symbol of a common bond, of friendship, of covenant, of mutual aid and protection, of peace with one another. When salt has lost its saltiness – when the ties of our mutual participation in the reign of God, our fellowship in the covenant of peace – when those ties are ruptured, what good remains? Be at peace with one another. Inhabit the realm of peace. Inhabit the realm of God that is come to us in Christ. Inhabit the realm that is defined by the cross and resurrection.

This Sunday we will hear Moses, like Jesus, reject the attempt to control the Holy Spirit, sighing: “If only all God’s people were possessed of God’s spirit.” The psalmist will sing of the goodness of God’s Torah – God’s teaching for life. And James will urge us to care for one another in a mutual ministry of prayer and healing. But it is the word of Jesus that will linger, setting before us the urgency of complete allegiance to the mission of Jesus.

The Prayer for September 27, 2015

Holy and Gracious God,
before whom the least of your children bear an eternal name,
season us with your Spirit
that we may never drive away those whom you call near;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 27, 2015

First Reading: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
“Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders.” – Moses cries out to God about the burden of caring for this rebellious people, and God puts his Spirit upon seventy elders to share the leadership. But two, Eldad and Medad, are not present with the others and begin prophesying in the camp. When word comes, Joshua would have Moses silence them.

Psalmody: Psalm 19:7-14
“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.”
– The psalm sings of God’s wondrous ordering of the world, beginning with the majesty of creation, and then the gift of God’s law.

Second Reading: James 5:13-20
“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them.”
– The author urges the Christian community to mutual care and absolution.

Gospel: Mark 9:38-50
“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” – The disciples show their failure to understand the reign of God present in Jesus and he summons them to the radical commitment that the reign of God requires: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

 

Photo: By © 2011 by Tomasz Sienicki [user: tsca, mail: tomasz.sienicki at gmail.com] (Photograph by Tomasz Sienicki (Own work)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Red Wings, the Avalanche and Jesus

Friday

Mark 9:30-37

File:IginlaDraperFaceoff.jpg37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

This word ‘welcome’ represents much more than a smile at the door should they show up at church. It means to extend hospitality, to take someone under your protection.

It is used especially with respect to travelers. It is dangerous business being in a place where you are a stranger. Ties of family and kinship are the guarantees of safety. If a member of your clan hurts me, my family will avenge. They will come hurt a member of your clan.

It’s why there are enforcers on ice hockey teams. You come after our star player and there will be consequences beyond two minutes in the box. It keeps the game relatively even. And a big hurt will be remembered even from one season to the next. Ask any veteran Red Wings fan about the war with the Colorado Avalanche over the cheap shot that broke Kris Draper’s jaw.

It’s hard for the fans when former enemies become members of your team, but once they join, they come under the team’s protection.

To ‘welcome’ is to extend the circle of your clan’s protection around a vulnerable person. And in an honor-based society, the payoff for the one who extends such hospitality is that the recipient will sing your praises wherever he goes. To show hospitality increases your own honor and standing in the community.

But what is to be gained by showing hospitality to a child? It doesn’t really make sense in the quid pro quo world.

Unless the child belongs to someone important.

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I would prefer to stop right there and let you recognize the crucial conclusion. But, sometimes we need it spelled out for us: the child belongs to someone important. The child, the weak, the vulnerable, those on the bottom of the social hierarchy, those without power or influence – these are members of Jesus’ household. To receive even the least, is to receive Jesus. To fail to extend your care and protection for the lowliest slave in the king’s household is to betray your king.

We can argue about our relative importance in the pecking order all we want – as the disciples were doing – but the least member of the royal house is to be honored above us all.

 

Photo: By JamesTeterenko (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

At the high table

For Wednesday

Mark 9:30-37

File:Carl Bloch - Christ and Child.jpg37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

It’s hard to convey the magnitude of this action of Jesus. Maybe it would have some of the correct emotional power if we saw Jesus take a homeless drunk in his arms, look his followers in the eye, and say, “Whoever welcomes him welcomes me.” Or perhaps if Jesus had taken that large, swaggering and apparently thieving young black man from Ferguson into his arms. Or the drowned child lying in the surf in Turkey with the red shirt and blue pants.

When we think of this child in Jesus’ arms, he or she is inevitably sweet and innocent. But that is not the point Jesus is making. In the realm of God, greatness is in showing regard for the least.  It’s not that children aren’t loved in the ancient world; it’s that they have no status.

Jesus is trying to talk clearly and plainly to his followers about what awaits him in Jerusalem. Jesus is not talking in parables here. There is no hidden meaning. He will be rejected and crucified. And on the third day be raised. But this has no meaning to his hearers. They know no narrative of a messiah who dies. Messiahs reign. Messiahs reestablish the Davidic monarchy and deliver the nation from all its enemies. Messiahs purify the temple. Messiahs bring justice and righteousness. Messiahs lead heavenly armies and even cosmic battles against evil. But they do not die. There is nothing in their previous experience to comprehend Jesus dying.

And resurrection – this is something that happens at the climax of human history not in the middle. It happens to all, not to one. The dead are raised. The books are opened. The wicked are judged. The oppressed are vindicated. All things are set right. No, this word of Jesus doesn’t make any sense to his followers. So they go back to what they know. We are headed to Jerusalem. Jesus will deliver us from Rome. We will sit at his right and left hand. Who is the top dog? How does the pecking order go? Someone gets to sit at the high table, who will it be?

And then there is Jesus with this darn child as if the child gets to sit at the high table.

Exactly.

 

Image: Carl Heinrich Bloch, Christ and Child,  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carl_Bloch_-_Christ_and_Child.jpg

Religious violence

Watching for the Morning of September 20, 2015

Year B

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 20 / Lectionary 25

treasuryx-largeMurder is in the air in the readings for Sunday. The people from Jeremiah’s hometown – a priestly community – are out to kill him for his message. The writer of Sunday’s psalm is also battling murderous enemies, calling out to God for deliverance. Jesus is talking about his pending death in Jerusalem. And even our reading from James speaks of the conflicts that derive from our warring passions.

It’s not what we hope for from religion. We hope for peace. We hope for comfort. We dope for strength and courage for the coming week. But we are reading about tough realities – and the passions that drive them.

Jeremiah’s message that God is ready to judge the nation, even to destroying the temple, sounds to his countrymen like heresy and treason. In righteous rage they are prepared to defend God and country with religiously cloaked violence. God has revealed their plot to his prophet, but the prophet does not respond in kind; he puts his trust in God’s judgment.

The poet also entrusts his cause to God: “He will repay my enemies for their evil.” Nor does Jesus call his followers to arms; he is teaching the way of the cross. And when his followers argue about greatness, he puts a child in their midst. We are servants not masters. Our relationship to Jesus is revealed by the way we treat the least in our midst.

The Prayer for September 20, 2015

You see, O God, the struggle of the human heart for privilege and honor
and set before us the betrayed and crucified body of your Son.
May he who was servant of all teach us his way;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 20, 2015

First Reading: Jeremiah 11:18-20
“I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter.” – The prophet Jeremiah discovers a plot against his life by members of his own priestly clan who want to silence his message.

Psalmody: Psalm 54
“Save me, O God, by your name, and vindicate me by your might.”
– The poet prays for deliverance from murderous enemies.

Second Reading: James 3:13-4:8a (appointed: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a)
“Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”
– The author speaks to the Christian community about the chaos that comes from their passions and desires, urging them to “resist the devil” and submit themselves to God.

Gospel: Mark 9:30-37
“On the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.” – Jesus is again teaching his disciples about his coming death and resurrection in Jerusalem, but they are arguing who will get the seats of power when they get to Jerusalem.

Image: Cloisters Cross, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55094 [retrieved September 14, 2015]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/peterjr1961/4124100780/.

A beacon in the dark

Sunday Evening

2 Corinthians 3

File:Peggys Cove Lighthouse (3).jpg17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

Jesus is fully human. This is a very bold declaration of the Christian tradition. What he is able to do he does by the power of God working through him – not by his own power. What he is able to see in the hearts of others he sees by the power of God working in him – not by his own power. What he is able to see in the future he sees by the power of God working in him – not by his own power. The sins he forgives, the bread he breaks, the water upon which he walks – it is all the power of God working in and through him. Jesus is not a fundamentally different creature than we are. He is just better at it. He is a better human being. He is a human being in whom the link between God and himself is never broken. His trust in God does not fail.

The Transfiguration of Jesus doesn’t belie what is to come; it sustains us through it. Jesus is not Superman, letting Peter, James and John peek behind his Clark Kent suit. He is not revealing himself as the Lord of Glory as though the suffering that is to come were but a minor detour. We look at Jesus through the lens of the centuries and the doctrine of the Trinity and we tend to think that Jesus was God in a way that denies his full humanity.

But Jesus is not a divine being hiding in human form. He is not omniscient and omnipotent pretending to be limited by time and space. He is fully human. And the works that we see in him are done by faith, by his perfect trust in God. Jesus mediates the blessing and wonders of God. Technically, Jesus is not healing the sick and casting our demons, he is bringing into these places the healing power of God. He is God’s anointed, God’s Christ, God’s agent to dispense the gifts of God, to bring God’s reign of grace and life.

What happens on the mountain is not a sign of Jesus’ divinity, but a witness to Jesus’ authority – that Jesus is, in fact, God’s beloved son.

Peter, James and John need to hear God make this declaration because Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. And ignoble end is coming. A rejection. A suffering. An accursedness. The apparent failure of the promise. The apparent triumph of Rome.

The customary response to the crucifixion of a hoped for Messiah (assuming any followers survive the purge) is to go home disillusioned. We were wrong. We hoped, but we must have been mistaken. This is what the disciples on the road to Emmaus say: “We thought he was the one.” … Apparently not.

In the face of those moments in life that seem to belie the grace and power and love of God, we need to remember that God spoke with Jesus face to face. We need to remember that God has designated Jesus as the beloved son. We need to remember that Moses and Elijah came and bore witness that in Jesus the reign of God is dawning. Even when we lose sight of it.

The Transfiguration stands as a beacon in a dark world. It is one in a chain of lighthouses that mark the coastline and sustain us in the storms: the voice from heaven and the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism; the voice from heaven and the heavenly visitors at the Transfiguration; the angelic witness at the empty tomb. Again and again God bears witness that Jesus is the one in whom earth and heaven are reconciled, in whom the new world is born, in whom we are born of God.

For a long time I didn’t understand or appreciate the importance of this story. I kept thinking it was Jesus who shines when, in fact, it is God who shines upon Jesus. Jesus is radiant because he is the perfect mirror of God.

Would that there were more in the world who glowed with the radiance that comes from true faithfulness to God and one another. Would that there were more in the world who were clothed in Christ as a daily garment.

 

By Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons