When all seems lost

File:Two-tailed pasha (Charaxes jasius jasius) Greece.jpgWatching for the Morning of May 5, 2019

Year C

The Third Sunday of Easter

“Children, you have no fish, have you?” It is a haunting question. A night of labor has resulted in nothing. And this strange figure on the shore in the dim light of dawn knows it.

The writer of this Gospel doesn’t tell the story of Jesus encountering Peter by the sea at the beginning of his ministry where they leave their boats and embark on a new life as those who work to gather the human community into the nets of God’s mercy. And we do not know whether our Gospel writer has transformed that story into a resurrection appearance or the risen Jesus came to meet Peter once again at the sea, repeating the summons that first changed Peter’s life – though there is a great spiritual truth in the latter.

There is a profound element of new beginnings in this narrative. Three times Peter had denied Jesus. Now he is presented with the opportunity to give a new answer to the threefold question whether he belongs to Jesus.

The texts this Sunday are rife with new beginnings. Saul is given a new beginning in his encounter with the risen Jesus. He has tried to purge Israel from this dangerous heresy that Jesus was raised and here he is with eyes opened and a new beginning to his life. The psalmist sings of a new beginning, having been delivered from a deadly disease. And the hosts of heaven singing the praise of the lamb who was slain yet lives anticipates the rebirth of the world.

It is a theme deep in the biblical narrative as a whole – when hope is lost, new life is given. God calls the world into being from its primal chaos, rescues it in the days of Noah when there is nothing but violence, gives to Abraham a promise of land and descendants when he and Sarah are homeless and barren, calls Moses to lead Israel out from bondage when the imperial power has turned against them – and when they are trapped by the sea, God opens a way, swallowing up the might of Egypt behind them. From death into life, from judgment into grace, from sorrow into joy, God gives a new beginning to us and to all creation.

When the story seems over, there is Jesus on the shore summoning us to cast wide the net of mercy, dine at his table, and tend the flock of all God’s children.

The Prayer for May 5, 2019

Gracious God,
through the resurrection of Jesus
you have turned all human mourning into dancing.
As he appeared to his followers by the seashore,
nourished them at his table,
and sent them out into the world,
so come to us that, fed by your mercy,
we too may carry your bread of life to the world.

The Texts for May 5, 2019

First Reading: Acts 9:1-20 (appointed: 1-6 [7-20])
“Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” – Saul (Paul) is blinded when the risen Christ encounters him on the road to Damascus and Ananias, responding to God’s call, goes to heal him.

Psalmody: Psalm 30
“Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” – With words that echo the resurrection, the poet sings of God’s deliverance from an unexpected affliction.

Second Reading: Revelation 5:11-14
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
– The prophet sees the heavenly hosts around the throne of God singing praise to the Lamb who stands upon the throne.

Gospel: John 21:1-19
“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” – In an addendum to John’s Gospel, The risen Jesus appears to his followers at the sea of Galilee and gives Peter the opportunity to turn his threefold denial into a threefold affirmation of allegiance to Jesus, conveying to him the leadership of the nascent Christian community.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Two-tailed_pasha_(Charaxes_jasius_jasius)_Greece.jpg Charles J Sharp [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Joseph forgave his brothers

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“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36)

This is the message from Sunday, February 24, 2019, based on the first reading Genesis 45:3-11, 15, (Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers) and Luke 6:27-38, the Gospel for the day when Jesus commands us to “love your enemies.” The other readings were Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40 and 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50 . An introduction to this Sunday and its texts is posted as An audacious and generous love.

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Because of my cough, I need to keep things short and concise this morning. This poses a challenge, since these texts are all so important.

Every time you hear someone talk about how the Old Testament is all about violence and wrath, you need to say simply: “Joseph forgave his brothers.”

The story of Joseph takes up the last fourteen chapters of the book of Genesis. This is the book that begins with the wondrous creation of all things and then tells how the harmony of God’s world was lost, how Cain killed Abel, how violence multiplied in the earth until God felt it necessary to wipe the slate clean and start again. Genesis tells us of Noah, of the tower of Babel, of the call of Abraham, of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, of the birth of Ishmael, of the birth of Isaac and the command to offer Isaac in sacrifice.

Genesis recounts how Abraham sends a servant to search for a wife for Isaac: his beloved Rebekah. It tells of the birth of the twins, Jacob and Esau, and how Jacob stole the birthright and the blessing. Jacob had to flee from his brother’s murderous wrath and has his dream of the stairway to the heavens with angels ascending and descending. Jacob meets Rachel and negotiates seven years of labor that she might be his bride and, on the morning after his wedding, finds Leah in his bed and realizes that he, the cheater, has been cheated. He works another seven years for Rachel and cheats his father-in-law out of the best of the flocks until he has to flee, taking his wives and possessions. Jacob is caught between an angry father-in-law behind him and a murderous brother ahead of him – and then God jumps him while he is sleeping alone at the river Jabbok. They wrestle all night. Jacob wants to know God’s name and God refuses. As dawn nears, God dislocates Jacob’s hip with a touch to force Jacob to let go, but Jacob demands that God bless him. Then there is the climactic scene when his brother Esau comes galloping towards him with 400 armed men.

All of this and so much more is in Genesis – including all those “begats” – but the book still devotes a fourth of its narrative to Joseph.

The Joseph story is critically important – and it is a story that reaches its climax with an act of unmerited forgiveness. Joseph forgives the brothers who hated him and intended to kill him.

The Old Testament is not about wrath; it is about mercy. It is about a troubled and violent world that is not the world God created, but is the world God chooses to forgive, to redeem, to save, to heal.

The forgiveness of which Jesus speaks – the forgiveness that is the heart of the Old and New Testament alike – is a real forgiveness lived in a broken world. It is not carefree young people singing “All you need is love;” it is a gritty, determined, dirt-under-your-fingernails, love.

The beatitudes we heard last week, “Blessed are you who are poor, blessed are you who are hungry, blessed are you who weep,” – these are not romantic ideas; they are real world ideas. And those exclamations about what is honorable and what is shameful in God’s sight lead immediately to this one sentence: “Love your enemies.”

“Love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you.
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also;
and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
Give to everyone who begs from you;
and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:27-31)

Do to others as you would have them do to you.” We call it the Golden Rule but, as I have said, it is a gritty, determined, dirt-under-your-fingernails, kind of rule.

And understand why Jesus says this:

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:32-36)

We are to love our enemies because God loves God’s enemies. God is faithful to us when we are not faithful. God is generous when we are not generous. God is kind when we are not kind. God is merciful when we are not merciful.

We are to love our enemies because God loves God’s enemies. And we are not talking about generalities. They tried to kill Joseph. They did kill Jesus. They showed no mercy. They showed no generosity. They stripped him and beat him and pierced his hands with spikes and his side with a spear. They mocked him as he hung there in shame. And the soldiers, after they had had their sport of dressing him up like a king and beating and spitting upon him, demanding that he prophesy – after they had done their Abu Graib cruelties, they callously ignored him on the cross and threw dice for his few meager possessions. But there were no thunderbolts from heaven, only a sad darkness. And there were no curses from the cross, only mercy and forgiveness.

God is merciful though we are not merciful. God is kind though we are not kind. God is faithful though we are not faithful. And this merciful God summons us to follow, summons us to spread wide the net that gathers all into God’s grace.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6:37-38)

Joseph forgave his brothers.

Amen

© David K Bonde, 2019. All rights reserved.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Afghan_girl_begging.jpg Evstafiev [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D

And us? What should we do?

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

Year C

The Second Sunday of Advent

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

The journey towards God is a journey towards the neighbor.

The dawn of grace requires we learn to live grace.

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

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

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

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

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

The Prayer for December 9, 2018

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

The Texts for December 9, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

What shall we say, O God?

Images of the Passion, 2

The entrance to Jerusalem (Palm Sunday)

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Anna and Caiaphas

File:Brooklyn Museum - Annas and Caiaphas (Anne et Caïphe) - James Tissot.jpg

Barabbas

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What shall we say, O God, at the smiling face of Barabbas?
What shall we say about all those who game the system?
Those who say you do not see?
Those who go free at the expense of the innocent?

What shall we say about the injustices of our time?
the weak who are preyed upon,
the families that are separated,
the children who fear,
the debtors imprisoned?

What shall we say about the deceivers in power,
the manipulators and liars
who know how to crucify their enemies?

What shall we say about the one who comes to Jerusalem
knowing the truth of the human heart?
What shall we say about the shepherd who offers himself as the lamb,
the royal son who wears a crown of thorns?

What shall we say?

We have nothing to say,
only our prayers to offer,
our broken pride,
and our dependence on your priceless mercy.

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https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABrooklyn_Museum_-_The_Lord_Wept_(Le_Seigneur_pleura)_-_James_Tissot.jpg James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABrooklyn_Museum_-_Annas_and_Caiaphas_(Anne_et_Ca%C3%AFphe)_-_James_Tissot.jpg James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABrooklyn_Museum_-_Barabbas_-_James_Tissot.jpg James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Broken Faith, New Covenant

File:Cruz de Poveda.jpgWatching for the Morning of March 18, 2018

Year B

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Sunday we hear the prophet Jeremiah promise a new covenant. It is a sweet word set against a painful history. The nation lies in ruins. It had betrayed its God, violated its own core values. It had chosen the way of the nations over the way of the God who brought them out from bondage and called them to justice and mercy. They were not to mimic the economic idolatry of the gods of wealth and power. They were to keep Sabbath for all, not twist justice to favor the rich, and speak truthfully. They were to have just weights, provide for the poor to glean, and not covet what belonged to others. They were to honor elders and protect the weak and vulnerable. And they failed. They bent down at the altars of those who were not gods.

The covenant lay shattered, the city in ruins, its people scattered and captive. But the prophet promises a new beginning, a new covenant, life from death. God’s will and way will be carved not on stone but on every heart.

The psalmist will pray for God to “Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes.” The second reading will turn our eyes towards Jesus who showed himself faithful and became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” And then the gospel reading will mark the hour for “for the Son of Man to be glorified.” We have come to the moment for Christ to be lifted up, exalted upon the cross, drawing the eyes of all to see the perfect mercy of God.

Our Lenten journey has crossed the plains and sees the Rocky Mountains rising before us. Beyond this Sunday will be the Palm Sunday joy and the reading of the Passion. Then we will walk the three days from the Last Supper and the washing of feet through the night of Jesus’ arrest to the hill outside Jerusalem and on to the empty tomb. The mystery lies before us: brutal death and empty tomb; a world that has betrayed its creator but is brought to the dawn of the new creation; broken faith and new covenant.

This Sunday we continue our Lenten series on Baptism. “Through the Waters” offers an introduction to the Lenten theme. Daily Bible verses and reflections are posted at Holy Seasons as well as the weekly themes and sermons in the series.

The Prayer for March 18, 2018

Almighty God, Holy and Longsuffering,
in your Son, Jesus, you laid down your life for the world,
that in him all people might be drawn to you.
Set our eyes fully on Christ crucified and risen,
that in him we might know the fullness of your love;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for March 18, 2018

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” – In the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, God promises to make a new covenant with crushed and scattered nations of Israel and Judah. Though they have betrayed and broken their covenant with God, God will start again, promising to write God’s commands on their hearts.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:9-16 (appointed: Psalm 51:1-12 or Psalm 119:9-16)
“I treasure your word in my heart.”
– A portion of the majestic hymn to the revelation of God’s will and way in the Torah, God’s word/law/teaching.

Second Reading: Hebrews 5:5-10
“He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.”
– Jesus the faithful one has become our perfect high priest.

Gospel John 12:20-33
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” – When Greeks come to “see” Jesus (see with faith), Jesus knows that the hour is at hand for him to be exalted/lifted up on the cross. He will lay down his life like a grain of wheat – and his followers also – for the sake of a rich harvest that gathers all people into life.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACruz_de_Poveda.jpg By Nacho (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

One more thing about naming the stars

File:Karte kl 5.4.2014 ON (Mittel).jpg

Saturday

Psalm 147

4 He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.

Just as the notion that God names the stars – the spiritual realities affecting human affairs – is “a message worth remembering when deceit and hate seem to rule the day,” so also every act of kindness, every word of truth, every noble deed, every act of love is also named and known. No mercy is missed, no forgiveness forgotten in the heart of God.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKarte_kl_5.4.2014_ON_(Mittel).jpg By Utz Schmidtko [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Raised for the world

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Watching for the Morning of February 4, 2018

Year B

The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

There are echoes in our Gospel reading for Sunday that are not fully apparent in English. Our translation says that Peter’s mother-in-law was in bed and Jesus lifted her up, but the Greek word will be used for the resurrection. The word order has been changed in the English as well – the act of raising her stands at the head of the sentence. The word that the fever left her – departed from her – is the word used for forgiveness. And the statement that “she began to serve them” uses that important Greek word that is the basis of the English word deacon. It is the word we find in Mark 10 when Jesus describes the character of Christian life:

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Jesus who teaches with authority – an authority confirmed by his command of evil spirits – raises us from death into life as servants to the world.

We need to let that sentence linger in the air for a moment: Jesus who teaches with authority – an authority confirmed by his command of evil spirits – raises us from death into life as servants to the world.

And he himself is such a servant. When all come to the door of Peter’s home they are healed. And, in the morning, when the disciples want Jesus to come back to Capernaum, he declares he must go on to other towns and cities.

Sunday will summon us to hear the magnificent words of the prophet Isaiah declaring “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.” And that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles.” They shall be raised up – we would understand in light of Jesus – raised up for service.

And our psalm will have us sing of our God who “heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.” And Paul will speak to us of his service to bear the message of Christ to all saying, “though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” It is not a manipulative missionary strategy; it is a life freely given to bear the grace of Christ to all.

This Jesus who teaches with authority – an authority confirmed by his command of evil spirits – raises us from death into life as servants to the world.

The Prayer for February 4, 2018

Almighty God, healer of all our sorrows,
grant that we might not seek to possess you for ourselves,
but joyfully bear your word and grace to all people;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for February 4, 2018

First Reading: Isaiah 40:21-31
“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” – The prophet addresses the exiles with a promise that the God who laid the foundations of the earth has not forgotten this people but will restore them:

Psalmody: Psalm 147:1-11 (appointed 1-11, 20c)
“Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises to our God.”
– A psalm of praise proclaiming God’s power and grace as revealed in God’s work of creation and in his mercy to Israel.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
“I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” – In the middle of Paul’s response to the question whether believers can partake of meat that has been offered in sacrifice to other gods – a response that begins with the necessity of not acting in a way that derails another person’s faith – Paul offers himself as an example of serving others in love.

Gospel: Mark 1:29-39
“Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
– Having summoned Simon, Andrew, James and John, and astounded the crowds in Capernaum with his teaching and authority over the unclean spirits, Jesus dispenses the gifts of God, healing Peter’s mother-in-law and many others in the community. The next morning he announces that they must take this message and ministry to all the towns and villages in Israel.

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Image: Healing Peter’s Mother-in-law, from a 13th century manuscript from the Athos monasteries, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAthos-Evangeliar_Heilung_der_Schwiegermutter.jpg See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Casting wide the net of mercy

File:A fisherman casting a net neat Kozhikode Beach.jpgA reflection on the call of Jesus’ disciples from Sunday, January 21, 2018 (the Third Sunday after Epiphany)

Mark 1:14-20: 14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

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Before we begin this morning, I want to make two comments about the text. First, the text begins “Now after John was arrested.” The word that is translated ‘arrested’ here means to be betrayed or handed over. It is the word used of the betrayal and capture of Jesus. When we hear the word ‘arrested’ we think of a police force and a judicial process, but that’s not the world of the first century. ‘Seized’ is probably a better word. And the reason this matters is that here, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, is the shadow of the cross.

Second, I want to remind you that the phrase “repent and believe” is the exact same phrase used when the Roman General defeated Josephus when he was part of the Judean rebellion that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 ce. As a member of the upper class, Josephus was given the choice to change sides and show allegiance to Rome. Jesus comes announcing the reign of God and calling us to change sides and show allegiance to the reign of God. These are not religious words about regret and moral regeneration; they are words about the fundamental commitment of our lives.

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

The 16th chapter of the book of Jeremiah contains a brutal prophetic word. God tells Jeremiah that he is not to take a wife or have children as a sign to the people of his day that a terrible judgment is coming upon the nation, a destruction so fierce that the bodies of children and their parents will lie unburied and unwept. They will become food for the buzzards and wild dogs.

Jeremiah is not to attend any funeral, or console any grieving parent, because no one shall lament those who perish in God’s coming judgment. Jeremiah is not to attend any wedding or celebration because the sound of joy is about to be banished from the land. Indeed, God is sending for a horde of fishermen and hunters to search every cave and cove to haul this people from every hiding place to their destruction.

It is a dark and devastating word from God.

What’s interesting about this Biblical text, however, is that somewhere along the line – either when the words of Jeremiah were being written down or when they were being copied and passed on to the next generation – someone along the way felt compelled to pluck two verses of hope from somewhere else in Jeremiah’s preaching and set these words into this declaration that God was sending out fishermen with nets to gather the people for judgment.

Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt’, but ‘As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.’ For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their ancestors. (Jeremiah 16:14-15 // Jeremiah 23:7-8)

By setting this passage inside the other, the net of judgment becomes ultimately a net of grace.

God’s purpose for the nation does not end with their being scattered from the land where they were supposed to do justice, to show faithfulness to God and to one another, to care for the poor and weak – a faithfulness they failed to show. But God’s purpose ends with the scattered people being gathered.

There are many words of woe in the Biblical text, many words of warning about what will happen if we fail to live God’s justice and mercy. But the prophets do not stop there. It is easy to preach disaster. There are a lot of things that can go wrong when a society fails its most fundamental obligation to care for one another and the earth upon which we live. But God never stops with judgment. God always pushes on to reconciliation, to restoration, to hope. One of the most fundamental elements of the Biblical story is that when all hope for the future is lost – God gives us a future.

Abraham and Sarah have no child. He is 100 and she is 90. The promise of descendants seems at an end. But God is not finished with Abraham or with the world he has promised to save through Abraham’s line.

At the time of Noah, the whole earth has become “corrupt in God’s sight…and filled with violence.” (Genesis 6:12), that “every imagination of the thoughts of their hearts is only evil continually”! (Genesis 6:5RSV) But God is not done with his creation. He grants it a new birth.

Israel is in bondage in Egypt. They have been there for 430 years! (Remember, we are less than 250 years from the declaration of independence.) Pharaoh no longer remembers how Joseph saved the country. Pharaoh fears all these foreigners and instructs the midwives that every male child is to be killed at childbirth – and, when that fails, he issues an edict that every male child should be thrown into the Nile. But God saves a little child named Moses as he is being carried down the river out to sea.

When Moses leads the people out of Egypt, they become trapped between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army and all seems lost – there is no hope – but during the night a wind blows and creates a path through the sea.

The people are without water in the desert, but God brings forth a river of water from the rock.

The people are without food and want to go back to Egypt and their slavery, but in the morning there is manna upon the ground.

Jerusalem is destroyed and the people scattered throughout the world. Many are taken as prisoners to Babylon. But fifty years later, Cyrus overthrows Babylon and lets all its captured people go home. And Jerusalem is rebuilt.

God is a god of mercy. God is a god who works reconciliation and restoration. God is a god who creates a future. God is a god who opens the grave.

So the editor of Jeremiah can’t let those words of judgment stand unanswered. And he reminds us that God’s purpose is to gather the scattered. The nets of judgment become nets of grace.

When Jesus walks along the shore of Galilee and sees those fishermen working there, he sees nets of grace. And he calls those fishermen to the work of gathering all creation into the arms of God.

It’s important we understand this. Our defining task as a Christian community is to gather all creation into the arms of God. The risen Jesus will breathe his Spirit on his followers and say As the father sent me, I sent you.” The last words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew are: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Disciples. Students. Followers. Practitioners. Citizens of the dawning age. Participants in the new creation.

Our tendency is to hear those words in a vaguely institutional sense of making new church members – or at least new Christians. But the vision is of a world brought under the reign of God’s spirit. The vision is a world pulled back from bondage into freedom, from death into life. The vision is a world gathered in the nets of mercy.

Our defining task as a Christian community, as followers of Jesus, is to gather all creation in the nets of mercy.

Now there are some things about this story that I want to be sure we also hear. The text says Jesus is walking along the shore. Jesus is walking on the boundary between the land and the sea. Boundaries are places of spiritual importance in the world of the scripture. All the conversation about clean and unclean in the Bible is about boundaries. What are the boundaries between what is holy and what is not holy?

I don’t have time to go into detail on this, so I hope you will trust me. But the shore is a boundary between the land – where we are safe – and the sea – where there is danger. When God began to create, the sea was a chaos and God set boundaries to the water. He created the dome of heaven to divide the waters above from the waters below, and he divided the sea to allow dry land to appear. He set boundaries that the sea could not cross (cf. Jeremiah 5:22). When Jesus stills the storm or walks on the sea, he is commanding the sea as God commanded the primordial chaos. When Jesus casts the demons out of the man in Gerasa, the demons go into the pigs and what do the pigs do? They run into the sea. The depths of the sea is the realm of chaos and darkness, the realm of evil spirits.

When Jesus walks along the shoreline and calls his followers to be fishers of people, part of the imagery rattling around in the background is the sea as a realm of chaos and evil. We are being called to gather humanity out from the realm of bondage into the realm of freedom. We are being called to cast wide the nets of God’s mercy, to gather the world out from darkness into light, from despair into hope, from death into life.

The second thing I want you to remember is that something is lost when we read this story clipped from the larger narrative. Yes, this is a great story on its own. Yes, it is a classic Sunday school story. But this story is still at the beginning of the very first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. And, as we talked about last week, Mark’s gospel is filled with intensity.

‘Immediately’, it says, they left their nets. (v. 18) ‘Immediately’ Jesus called them (v. 20). The word ‘immediately’ is used twelve times by Mark in this first chapter alone – that averages better than one in every fourth verse. It will get used thirty more times in this short little Gospel. The story Mark tells is full of urgency. It begins with a bang.

Jesus’ summons of followers is part of this incredible dynamic power of Jesus. He is the mighty one who will drench the world in the Spirit of God. He is the one for whom the heavens are torn open. He is the one on whom the Spirit descends. He is the one of whom God will say, “This is my Son, the beloved.” This is the one who will be immediately tested by Satan and be waited on by angels. This is the one who declares that the time has come; God’s reign is begun. He summons people to come and they leave everything to follow him. Next Sunday we will hear how demons cry out and immediately he silences them. We will hear how the sick are brought to him and he heals them. In the Sundays to come we will hear how he reaches out and touches a leper and renders him clean, and how he will announce a crippled man to be forgiven and then tell him to take up his mat and walk.

This story about Peter, Andrew, James and John is not really a story about us; it is a story about Jesus. We are called to discipleship. We are called to follow. We are called to cast wide the nets of mercy. But the story is not about us. It is about Jesus who walks fearlessly on the boundary between earth and sea, between heaven and hell, between death and life to rescue the world.

This is the Jesus who encounters us in the waters of the font. This is the Jesus who embraces us in his mercy and feeds us at his table. This is the Jesus who speaks to us words of life and breathes his Spirit upon us. This is the Jesus who commissions us as his agents and summons us to cast wide the net of mercy.

In a world so deeply entangled in passions and desires and hates and hostilities, in a world so deeply fractured as our own, in a world where judgment looms over our brokenness and sin, God is casting his net of mercy. He bids us follow.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AA_fisherman_casting_a_net_neat_Kozhikode_Beach.jpg By Aswin Krishna Poyil (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

An immeasurable mercy

File:Fisherman in Myanmar.jpg

Watching for the Morning of January 21, 2018

Year B

The Third Sunday after Epiphany

Jonah opens our readings from the scripture on Sunday. The great fish has vomited him onto the shore and God tries again to send him to warn the Assyrians that God is about to destroy them for their wickedness. Unless they repent. Every prophetic warning includes the possibility of repentance. It’s why Jonah tried to run away when he was first commissioned. He was afraid the people would turn from their wickedness and God would forgive them. They didn’t deserve forgiveness.   Of course, none of us do. Some of us certainly seem like saints. Some of us certainly are saints. But living well and living faithfully doesn’t put God in our debt. We are still frail creatures, still caught in our selves. The true saints know this. It fills them with compassion for sinners. The rest of us less complete saints want a little credit. It makes us a little judgmental. Those people should know better, behave better, try harder, make better choices. And if they don’t, they don’t deserve God’s mercy. But mercy isn’t earned; it’s given.

So we will hear of Jonah half-heartedly marching into Nineveh and the people hearing and repenting. And God forgives, just as Jonah feared.

Jonah resists the call of God. Tries to, anyway. But the call of God doesn’t let us get away. It pounces on us in unexpected ways – as it did to Peter and Andrew, James and John as they were tending their nets. Suddenly the summons is there and a lifetime of fishing is suddenly turned in a new direction. They will be gathering the world into the arms of mercy, the “fishnet” of heaven’s grace.

The summons is compelling. There is no resisting the eternal voice. Christ stands before them and calls them to follow. And what shall we say? We have work to do? No, we have mercy to do. The world awaits the embrace of God. The world awaits healing and life. The world awaits care and compassion. The world awaits the message that a new kingdom is at hand, a new spirit, a new governance of the human heart.

To choose hardness of heart in such a moment seems unthinkable, though we do make that choice. Often, it seems. Our hardness of heart becomes unrecognizable to ourselves. We cheer what we should not cheer. We trust what we should not trust. We show allegiance to things we ought not serve. Jesus will have things to teach – even as God tried to teach Jonah. The cross and resurrection will be the final lesson: it’s not about what we deserve; it’s about an immeasurable mercy.

It will be sung in the psalm on Sunday. Paul will speak of it in the reading. And Jesus will name names. We are summoned by mercy. We are summoned to live mercy.

The Prayer for January 21, 2018

Almighty God,
as Jesus summoned Simon and Andrew, James and John,
to leave their nets and follow,
you summon all people to lives of faith and love.
Grant us courage to follow where you lead,
and confidence to cast wide the net |
that gathers all people into your gracious embrace;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for January 21, 2018

First Reading: Jonah 3:1-10
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’” – In this delightful tale of Jonah fleeing God’s call to bring warning to Nineveh, choosing death (tossed into the sea) rather than repentance until he is swallowed by a great fish and vomited onto the land, he now finds himself compelled to accept his commission and the thing he feared happens: the wicked city repents and God forgives.

Psalmody: Psalm 62:5-12
“For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.”
– Speaking to the community more than to God, the poet expresses his confidence in God and calls the people (warns his opponents?) to also put their trust in God.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
“From now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning.” – Paul concludes his guidance on matters of sex and marriage by reminding the community that they live in the light of the dawning reign of God and their lives should be defined by the age to come not the age that is passing away.

Gospel: Mark 1:14-20
“Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’”
– Jesus summons Simon and Andrew, James and John, to join him in gathering the nation and instigating a new era of faithfulness.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFisherman_in_Myanmar.jpg By Pupuce22 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, 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: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AReligi%C3%B3n_en_Isla_Margarita%2C_Valle_del_Esp%C3%ADritu_Santo.jpg By The Photographer (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons