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: Matson Collection [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sheep and Goats

File:Fra Angelico 009.jpgWatching for the Morning of November 26, 2017

Year A

Christ the King / Reign of Christ:
Proper 29 / Lectionary 34

So Atticus Finch turned out to be a racist – kind of a soft, benevolent racist, but a racist nevertheless. And Charlie Rose turned out to be I’m not quite sure what, but hardly the warm, intelligent, nobility he portrayed on television. Power does some ugly things. It gives rein to the perversities of the human heart. We begin to think we will not be accountable for our actions.

You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance.”

This is not our psalm for this coming Sunday; it was the psalm last week. But its voice lingers. And we have heard the words of Jesus when he says For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light.” I don’t know for sure what Jesus’ meant. I think it had more to do with the reign of God that is now hidden ultimately shining forth, but Jesus repeats the idea in Luke 12:2 when he is talking about hypocrisy. Where the light shines, what lurks in the shadows is revealed.

So Sunday brings us to the final Sunday of the church year and the great assize – though there is no inquest here, no examination, no discovery, just a passing of sentence: the great judgment. All the nations are gathered before the Son of Man in his glory. The jig is up. Some are sheep. Some are goats. And it’s time to divide the flock. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

It is a great story about the importance of simple kindness – as Tolstoy expressed so wonderfully in the story of Martin the cobbler. It declares what is valuable in the eyes of God. In it’s simple form it reprises the Sermon on the Mount and embodies the character of God’s reign: justice and mercy. Fidelity to one another is fidelity to God.

So Sunday we will hear God speak through Ezekiel about judging between the fat sheep and the lean sheep and the promise to appoint a new shepherd. And we will sing with the psalmist that God is “a great King above all gods.” We will hear the author of Ephesians write of Christ risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of God “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” Together they will bear witness that Christ is the final measure of our lives and the final goal of all creation. It will stand against the claim of all earthly rulers to our faith and allegiance.  It will also stand against all human pretension.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment. (Romans 12:3)


The Prayer for November 26, 2017

Eternal God, Lord of all,
before you every human community and every human life must stand,
and by the example of your Son, Jesus, be measured.
Grant us an abundance of his Spirit,
that as he brought your grace to the fallen and your healing to the broken,
we too may be agents of your compassion;
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 November 26, 2017

First Reading: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
“I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.” – God speaks a word of judgment upon the shepherds of Israel (the leaders of the nation) who take care of themselves rather than the people in their care. God will be their shepherd and gather his scattered flock. He will judge between the fat and the lean sheep and appoint a new David to govern them.

Psalmody: Psalm 95:1-7a
“O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” – In these opening verses of Psalm 95, the poet calls the community to acclaim God, the creator of all, as their king.

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23
“He has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things.” –
With soaring poetry, the author of Ephesians offers his prayer for the community – prayer that rises into praise of God who raised Christ Jesus “above all rule and authority” and placed all things under his feet.

Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory… All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” – The final parable of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel is this vivid declaration that the nations will be judged by their treatment of “the least of these” with whom the Son of Man identifies himself: “as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.”

Image: Fra Angelico [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We will go forth in hope

File:Religión en Isla Margarita, Valle del Espíritu Santo.jpg

Watching for the Morning of November 19, 2017

Year A

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 28 / Lectionary 33

There will be thanksgiving in the service on Sunday, but it will not be enough to set our hearts at ease. We do not feel like the world is safe. We see divisions and threats. We are uncertain about the future. We are not confident that a turkey on every table is the truth of the country. We don’t see bounty and peace.

The first thanksgiving was not the meal of bounty and peace we have rehearsed in grade school plays, but we want that myth, the truth embodied in that story. It seemed inevitable, once, our manifest destiny: prosperity for all. We appear to have replaced it with uncertainty for all.

So it will be an act of faith when we offer prayers of thanksgiving on Sunday. We will dare to assert that God is good, that God is generous, that God is rich with mercy and love. We will dare to believe in generosity. We will dare to act on the notion that a table is to be shared, that kindness is to be shown, that truth is to be spoken – and can be spoken in love.

And we will do this even as we listen to texts of terrifying judgment. The prophet is so carried away with the ferocity of God’s coming wrath he sees the whole earth consumed “in the fire of his passion.” The poet ponders the brevity and frailty of life and declares: “Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.” And Jesus will use the image of a ruthless and vindictive rich man casting his worthless slave into the outer darkness, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” to tell us about God and the living of God’s reign.

In this season of harvest, when days grow short, darkness grows long, and leaves fall to the ground, when we draw near to the end of the church year and ponder the end of all things, there is a certain dread in the air. But we will cling to the promise in our reading from Paul, “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,” and with courage remember all for which we give thanks. And we will go forth in hope.

The Prayer for November 19, 2017

Almighty God, Lord of all,
you summon us to lives of faith and love
and stand as judge over all things.
Renew us in your mercy that, clothed in Christ,
we may live as children of the day
that is dawning in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for November 19, 2017

First Reading: Zephaniah 1 (appointed: 1:7, 12-18)
“Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is at hand.” – During the reign of Josiah, in as era that seems like a period of great national revival (though not far in time from the Babylonian conquest), the prophet exposes the underlying faithlessness of that generation. His portrait of the coming cataclysm is cosmic in scope.

Psalmody: Psalm 90:1-12
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” – This opening prayer of the fourth ‘book’ (section) of Psalms, reflects on the brief and fragile nature of human life, and the ever present threat of God’s “wrath” – God’s opposition to our ‘sin’, our rebellion from and resistance to the fidelity to God and one another for which God fashioned us.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.” –
Having assured the community in Thessalonica that those who have died will share in the coming transformation of the world, he urges them to be awake and aware of God’s dawning reign of grace, living as faithful children of the light.

Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30
“It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.” – Jesus uses a salacious example of a greedy and ruthless man entrusting his affairs to his underlings in a parable summoning us to understand the nature of God and God’s dawning reign.


Image: By The Photographer (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Sheep or goats?


Matthew 25

File:Goat eating ribbon.jpg

A Nubian (aka Anglo-Nubian) goat attempts to eat their prize ribbon at a Scottish fair. By John Haslam from Dornoch, Scotland

32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,

Jesus calls them “my brothers,” the sick, the imprisoned, the hungry. If we could just pause here long enough, we might begin to understand the true power of the parable. We might begin to understand the true power of Jesus. He has claimed those that others have scorned.

Some have argued that the word ‘brother’ means a follower of Jesus, that the nations will be judged by their treatment of the disciples of Jesus. The suggestion is that the ‘nations’ are Judeans scattered throughout the Hellenistic world, and their response to the oppressed and persecuted witnesses of Jesus will reveal whether they are sheep or goats.

The other possibility is that Jesus has declared these ‘least’ are members of his family. If you ask me, this latter sounds much more like Jesus. He had that pesky idea that everyone was our neighbor, not just people like us – and therefore you should welcome the outcast and show steadfast love even to enemies.

We call this parable the Last Judgment, but it is not a judgment scene. It is a sorting. No lives are being weighed. No actions are being evaluated. The mass of humanity is simply being sorted out. Some are sheep. Some are goats. The sheep go over here. The goats over there.

Jesus’ hearers understand this idea: goats need to be kept warm at night; sheep can remain outside. The flocks are taken out together during the day to graze the hills, but at night they must be sorted.

So we shall be sorted.

Sheep don’t have much symbolic significance for me. I haven’t known any. I have known a couple goats. They were cute. At a motel years ago, high in the Rockies with my daughters, there was a couple with some baby fainting goats. They were adorable just gamboling around. But when you clapped your hands, they fell over. They passed out. Kerplunk. No twitching. No stumbling. At a loud noise they just fell right over. It was hysterical. And darling. Anna wanted one. Anna really wanted one. So, to me, goats are cute and sheep are just sheep.

But just as we invest animals with a certain symbolic character, so did the ancients. When we call a man a ‘dog’ it has a strong cultural meaning – so, too, if we call him a ‘puppy dog.’ Or a ‘lion’. Or a ‘fox’. And calling a man a ‘fox’ has a different meaning than calling a woman a ‘fox’.

To Jesus’ audience, sheep were honorable; goats were not. Sheep symbolize honor, virility and strength; goats are unrestrained and lascivious. (This was my experience of my friend’s goat – entertaining, but always into trouble). An honorable man will protect the honor of his family. In particular, he will defend his wife from the sexual advances of others. A ram will not allow anyone but himself to approach one of his ewes; goats, apparently, have no such compunction. A cuckolded man was called a goat. Zeus and noble Apollo were associated with the Ram; Pan looks and behaves like a goat.

This sorting of humanity into sheep and goats is more than just sorting buttons. It is a gathering of the honorable and a setting aside of the dishonorable. It evokes the parable of the weeds and wheat that grew side by side until the harvest.

It is not a judgment scene; it is a sorting – a sorting by whether we have acted honorably towards the poor, the outsider, the needy. What a surprise if American Christians are to be sorted by the hospitality shown to Muslims! Did we extend our protection to the stranger? Did we give water to the thirsty and bread to the hungry? Did we tend the sick or send them back to Liberia? I understand the fear, but the church’s first response to AID’s was not particularly honorable. We could probably come up with an uncomfortable list.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him.”   No books are opened. No witnesses are heard. No records are examined. The Lord knows who have treated others with the grace of heaven and those who have not.

We need to do more than pray for mercy.

There is grace here. The shameful will not govern the earth forever. The faithful will be gathered. This is a great promise and a profound assurance in a world with too much evil.

But there is also a challenge. And the question is not whether we will pass inspection, whether we have the right religious heritage or the right religious experience – the question is whether we have lived hospitality and compassion towards the poor and the outcast. Have we shown ourselves to be sheep or goats?

Consider the mob boss


Matthew 25


Paulamaria Walter: Die anvertrauten Pfunde, Betonrelief, 1963, Wege zur Kunst

26 ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.

It is hard for us to hear this parable as the crowd around Jesus would have heard it. We give our children savings accounts at an early age and teach them the value of accrued interest. If my girls didn’t spend their allowance right away, I paid them interest on their “savings”. I wanted to encourage the practice of delayed gratification. We share something of the mythology of the banker as the most trusted man in town – reinforced by images of Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey.

Of course, in recent years, we have discovered that bankers can be unscrupulous, selling us worthless stocks and taking a government bailout while paying themselves huge bonuses. Yet, still, we tend to make a distinction in our minds between these “Investment Bankers” or “Wall Street Bankers” and our local banker. So we have conflicting sentiments about banking, our memory of the home town banker contrasting with the impersonal megabanks charging outrageous fees, while giving the wealthy preferential treatment.

The only reason bankers pay lower taxes than I do is because, instead of paying taxes for the common good, they bought legislators who granted them special privilege. But I’m not bitter…

The ancients were bitter. They lived in a world where charging interest was forbidden by God – but bankers then, like today, found ways to manipulate or evade the rules. Charging interest was seen as taking advantage of those in need. Debt led to foreclosure, led to lost family lands, led to indentured servanthood, led to ever deeper poverty – or to landlessness and death.

So to “invest” with “bankers” in our parable is akin to investing with loan sharks. It is not honorable. It preys on human misery and multiplies it. The man who buries the talent entrusted to him is the only person in the story who acts honorably. He is the only person in the narrative for whom the crowds would feel sympathy. But they would also recognize he is a fool. You can’t swim with the sharks and not be one. He knows his master is ruthless – he should act accordingly.

And this is the strange power of the narrative. It takes a scene out of The Godfather and uses it to speak about our Father God. God’s servants should live like their master. It is dangerous folly to fail to recognize who God is and what he expects. If we are smart enough to recognize the inevitable outcome of this foolish man with one talent; we should be smart enough to recognize the inevitable outcome of those who fail to live God’s reign of mercy.

But we must remember this is a parable. It does not say God is a mob boss. It says servants are fools not to live in keeping with their master. The purpose of this story, like all the parables, is to open our hearts and minds to see and live a new way.

Wise or Foolish?


Matthew 25

File:Schadow,FW-Die klugen und törichten Jungfrauen-3.JPG

Tending the flame: Close up of Friedrich Wilhelm von Schadow, The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins

8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’

I was always troubled as a child by the fact that the five didn’t share. It seemed like the kind of thing Jesus would expect us to do. After all, weren’t we told to share our food with the hungry poor? The blessed of the Father hear Jesus say, I was hungry and you gave me food in the parable of the sheep and goats. The rich man is in torment for not sharing with Lazarus at the gate. And then there is John declaring: “Let him who has two coats share with him who has none.”

But this parable is not about sharing. It is about wisdom and folly, about understanding the times, about serving your lord.

If we change the parable so that it is a CEO delayed in returning from takeover negotiations, and ten junior execs waiting with last minute spreadsheets – we wouldn’t expect the five to share data with those who were not prepared. We would nod our heads and acknowledge that the prize goes to the prepared.

Or ten people waiting for rush seats to the theater – should the five who left the line to use the restroom, grab a sandwich and get their coat expect to have their place preserved?

The prize goes to the prepared.

The bridesmaids are not friends of the bride from school; they are like an honor guard, young maidens of client families come to honor their patron. They have come to give him and his bride a grand candlelight reception. Their families depend upon the bridegroom’s favor. He is their guardian in civil matters. He is their security net in time of crisis. They are eager to serve him however they can, for he is their benefactor.

For the bridesmaids to show up unprepared for whatever he may need is folly. And disrespect. The five wise know whom they serve, and how much he means to them. They are prepared.

So the parable asks a simple but discomfiting question. Are we wise or foolish? Are we prepared for service or nonchalant? Are we awake and watchful or dulled by the lures of the world? Are we eager and prepared to serve our Lord? Do we recognize what is asked of us? Will our master say of us, I was hungry and you gave me food”?

Waiting for the wedding

Watching for the morning of November 9

Year A

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 27 / Lectionary 32

File:Schadow,FW-Die klugen und törichten Jungfrauen-1.JPG

Friedrich Wilhelm von Schadow, close up of The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins

The Gospel for Sunday brings us to the first of the final three parables in Matthew 25: the five wise and five foolish virgins. It is a parable not an allegory. It does not bid us speculate on what the oil for their lamps signifies or why the five wouldn’t share. It bids us be wise about the reign of God.

It is harvest season. The end of the liturgical year is near. Our gaze turns towards the consummation of the age. And so we read Paul’s letter reassuring the believers in Thessalonica that those who have died will not miss the Day of Grace. But Micah warns his community not to think that the day God draws near in power will be for them a day of Grace.

Judgment and promise. The vision of the wedding banquet when heaven and earth are reconciled and joined as one; and the judgment that some are unprepared for the feast to come. We are headed towards the parable of the sheep and the goats, the great division of humankind to God’s right and left hand. The one will inherit the kingdom, the life of the age to come when all is made new. The other departs into the fire that has been made ready for the devil and his angels.

“Let justice roll down like waters,” urges God through the prophet. And we sing songs and make banners never pausing to consider what happens when we don’t let justice roll down.

It is possible to be unprepared for the wedding. It is possible to be a fool and fail to understand the true nature of the world around us. It is possible to abide in folly, grasping neither in whose image we were made nor what is our destiny. The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God,’” imagining there is no point or purpose or direction to life other than what we choose. They are driven by their fears and desires rather than walking in the way of love. They are wandering the marketplace rather than receiving the groom with joy.

Judgment serves grace in scripture. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.”   And there are words of promise in scripture about God’s ultimate triumph over our brokenness. The story is, after all, about a wedding not a legal code, about fidelity and love rather than obedience to rules. But the exhortation remains: Be ready. Be watching. Don’t miss the wedding.

The Prayer for November 9, 2014

Gracious and true God,
our eternal father and our heavenly bridegroom:
grant us wisdom to recognize your way and your life,
and keep us ever faithful to your reign of grace;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for November 9, 2014

First Reading: Amos 5:18-24
“Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord?”
– The prophet challenges the people’s hope declaring that, should God draw near, he would draw near in judgment not to save. Instead of looking for deliverance, this people should “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

Psalmody: Psalm 70
“Be pleased, O God, to deliver me. O Lord, make haste to help me!” – An urgent prayer for deliverance.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” – Paul writes to reassure his fledgling community in Thessalonica that those who have died will not miss God’s reign of grace upon the earth.

Gospel: Matthew 25:1-13
“The kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.” – As a wise bridesmaid would be prepared for the bridegroom to be delayed by the last minute negotiations of the bride price (her family must show her worth by their reticence to let her go) so God’s people must be wise as they wait for the appearing of that day when all things are made new.