All Saints

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Watching for the morning of November 5

Year A

All Saints Sunday

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal
…..Have mercy and hear us.
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace, Lord of Life,
…..Be our hope and consolation.
First born of the dead, breath of the eternal,
…..Be our calling and our faithfulness.

With those words we will begin our service on Sunday, a day that remembers all those who have died in the previous year, a day that hears the song of all the saints gathered around the throne of heaven, a day the remembers this great mystery of the body of Christ gathered from all times and peoples, joined as one.

I do not understand completely the rich liturgy of the orthodox churches, but I recognize the power of that iconostasis, showing all the saints looking down on the gathered assembly, representing the heavenly host with whom we are united in our worship. The barrier between heaven and earth grows thin in worship, and saints below are united with saints above in a single song of praise.

Every Sunday does this. But the rhythm of worship through the year is a little bit like a symphony where the theme is taken up by different instruments at different times and brought to the fore to be given special notice. So this Sunday brings to the fore the mystery of life and death and the life that transcends it all. There is a radiance brighter than the sun. There is a wonder surpassing the miracle of a newborn child. There is a majesty greater than the highest mountain peaks. There is a peace beyond the soft rhythm of a calm sea. There is a beauty beyond the most brilliant butterfly. There is a glory beyond the most vivid sunset. There is a song beyond the tears and aches of our frail days. There is a love more tender than the deepest intimacy. There is a life that rolls away the stone and ends forever the grave.

So Sunday we will hear the prophet speak of the song of the saints and martyrs around the throne of God. And we will sing with the psalmist of the goodness of the Lord.   And we will hear the elder say “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God,” and remind us that though our vision now is limited, the promise is certain: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

Sunday we will name the names that have joined that heavenly chorus, and sing with them the song that knows no end.

The Prayer for November 5, 2017 (for the observance of All Saints)

Eternal God, source and goal of all things,
founding the world in your goodness and renewing it by your Holy Spirit,
creating us in your image, redeeming us in your Son,
and uniting us in one great company from every race and nation,
who sing your praise and bear your word and work to the world,
fill us with that confidant hope, born of the empty tomb,
that frees us to live as your faithful people, now and forever.

The Texts for November 5, 2017 (for the observance of All Saints)

First Reading: Revelation 7:9-17
“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”
– The prophet’s vision turns from the woes of earth (as the seals are opened that draw the earth to that day when the reign of the slain-yet-risen lamb is everywhere acknowledged) to the heavens where he sees the faithful gathered around the throne of God.

Psalmody: Psalm 34:1-10, 22
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” – A song of praise for God’s deliverance that celebrates God’s care for the poor vulnerable and describes those who are honored in God’s sight.

Second Reading: 1 John 3:1-3
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” – The author affirms that we belong already to the household of God, inheritors of the age to come, and declares that, though we cannot comprehend the future that awaits us, “we shall be like him” – sharing in the resurrection.

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12
““Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – The Gospel for All Saints takes us back to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount and the foundational teaching about those who are honored in God’s sight.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADeir_Mar_Musa_04.jpg By Bernard Gagnon (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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But there are others

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Watching for the Morning of October 29, 2017

Reformation Sunday

Sunday is the 500th anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses, and names like Martin Luther, Philip Melancthon, and Katherine von Bora (Katy Luther) will surely get the major share of attention.

But there are others.

There are others like Justus Jonas who was dear friend to Luther, and Bugenhagen, and Frederick the Wise of course, without whom none of us would remember Luther except as another heretic committed to the flames. And there is John the Steadfast who became the Elector of Saxony after his brother Frederick and stayed the course despite its ultimate cost. (Saxony was defeated by Emperor Charles V in 1547 and the lands, title and privileged vote as Elector were stripped away and given to the Duke of Saxony who had betrayed the Protestant cause.)

But there are others.

Luther and his colleagues in Saxony were protected by Elector Frederick. So, too, those in other sympathetic German states. But the emperor had direct control in the Low Countries and enforced his Edict of Worms declaring Luther outside the protection of the law, forbidding anyone to provide any food, clothing, protection or assistance to Luther, and authorizing the confiscation of the property of any sympathizers, supporters, patrons, or followers.

Johann Esch, Heinrich Voes, and Lampertus Thorn were among the monks in the Augustinian monastery in Antwerp arrested for supporting Luther’s ideas. The prior and others recanted, but these three refused. On July 1, 1523, Esch and Voes were burned at the stake. Thorn died in prison.

So we will read these wonderful texts for Reformation Day, this Sunday, and sing with trumpets the stirring hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” and for some it will be like singing the old college fight song – a stirring tribute and remembrance of our team. But it is not about our team. It is about this compelling and dangerous word of Jesus that sets free and makes true disciples. It is about the promise of God through Jeremiah to establish with God’s frail and corrupt humanity a new covenant. It is about this message that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” but “are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” It is about the work of God to fashion a new creation and our trust in and allegiance to that work.

Even when it may lead to the flames.

The Prayer for Reformation Sunday, October 29, 2017

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

The texts for Reformation Sunday, October 29, 2017 (assigned for Reformation Day)

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

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

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

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

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALucas_Cranach_d.%C3%84._(Werkst.)_-_Martin_Luther_und_Philipp_Melanchthon_(1543).jpg workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The stone the builders rejected

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Isaiah 5:1-7:
Let me sing for my beloved

my love-song concerning his vineyard…

Psalm 80:7-15:
“…You brought a vine out of Egypt;

you drove out the nations and planted it.…”

Matthew 21:33-46:
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard…”

Proper 22, Lectionary 27, Year A
(and a 70th wedding anniversary celebration)

I thought about taking this occasion to preach about marriage. But, in some ways, that’s a scarier topic to me than to preach those texts where Jesus talks about divorce. It’s like talking about money; it’s a subject in which all of us are deeply invested. Marriage is something that we have hoped for and never found, or something we have found and lost, or something we have found and struggled through – sometimes successfully, and sometimes less so. Marriage is something that begins with radiant hopes and often suffers under the weight of unfulfilled desires. It is dangerous ground for preaching – easy to preach about in a way that is shallow or sentimental or a little too confident that the preacher knows what is good for everyone else.

There is also a problem because marriage in the scripture is a different thing than marriage in the modern west. Our understanding of what marriage is supposed to be has changed a lot since the Adam and Eve story was written down 3,000 years ago. But it is still a remarkable story and I don’t hesitate to call it inspired. It is far more profound than the story told in the cultures around ancient Israel.

The element of the Biblical witness that is remarkable is the notion that marriage is something holy and sacred, not because of its connection to sex and procreation, but because it is a covenant. It is a relationship created and sustained by a promise and a trust in that promise. Marriage is made of the same stuff as faith: a relationship created and sustained by a promise and a trust in that promise.

Marriage is holy not because sex is mystical and primal and crosses into the generative realm of the gods; marriage is holy because it is about promises – trust in and fidelity to those promises. This is why, when the prophets talk about idolatry, they speak of it as adultery: Israel betraying its covenantal relationship with God.

We see this in our first reading, today. But before we go there I want also to say this: It’s worth pondering the fact that marriage stands at the beginning and end of scriptures. It is there in the garden when God takes the flesh of Adam to form a companion equal to him. And it is there in the vision of Revelation 21 when it describes the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. The human story begins in perfect faithfulness and communion with God and one another, and our story reaches its fulfillment with all creation restored to perfect faithfulness and communion. Marriage embodies the memory of the garden and the promise of the new creation.

Marriage is meant to be life-giving and life-sustaining and the perfection of joy and intimacy. But we are no longer in the garden. And we are not yet in the New Jerusalem. And since we live in a broken world, marriage isn’t simple; love and forgiveness must be practiced.

Again this is just like faith and living a Christian life. We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – so love and forgiveness must be practiced. Kindness and compassion must be practiced. Hope and joy must be practiced. Mercy and truth must be practiced. Generosity and humility must be practiced. Patience and understanding must be practiced.

But we are not alone. The Spirit of God is given. God is leading and guiding and teaching and exhorting and challenging and summoning us to lives that are holy and true.

So I want to speak briefly about the passage in Isaiah and then we’ll look at the parable of Jesus and try to hear what’s there.

You saw in the psalm that Israel is compared to a vine that God brought out of Egypt, planted in the land and tended and cared for it. The psalmist is writing after the nation has been destroyed and crying out for God to see and come to their aid. The protective wall has been torn down, as it were, and the vineyard ravaged by the wild animals. This notion of Israel as God’s vine is important. When Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard, he is talking about the nation.

The song that the prophet Isaiah sings – the poetry he recites in the public square – is a masterful piece of preaching. He stands up to sing a song about his beloved. And when he begins, the crowd understands that he is singing about his best friend. And as soon as the prophet begins his story about his friend’s vineyard, the crowd knows that this is a song about his friend’s marriage. It has the hint of a scandalous tale. It causes the crowd to lean in just like we lean in to any juicy gossip.

So this friend has done everything he can for his vine, but he has gotten nothing but wild, wanton, bitter grapes. His wife has been unfaithful. And the poet/prophet summons the crowd for their opinion, their judgment. What more could he have done? He declares that he will reject his vineyard, strip away its protection, and let the wild beasts have it.

At this moment when he has won the sympathy and support of the crowd, the prophet says, “You are God’s vineyard.” This is not a story of a friend with an adulterous wife, but of God and God’s faithless people who have gone off to embrace other gods. They have chosen gods of wealth and power, gods of injustice, gods who devour and destroy.

7For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
…..is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
…..are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
…..but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
…..but heard a cry!

The power of this poetry we can’t begin to capture in the translation. God expected ‘mishpat’ and got ‘mispach’. God looked for justice – faithfulness – and look, only bloodshed and violence. God looked for ‘tsĕdaqah’ and got ‘tsa`aqah’. He looked for righteousness but behold, only the cry of the poor.

The people draw near to hear what they think will be a lascivious story – and there they are met with the voice of God revealing their faithlessness. The people were God’s vine from whom God expected good fruit, and God has gotten bitter deeds.

When Jesus tells his parable, he is standing in the aura of these great prophetic texts. And Jesus does the same thing that Isaiah does. He tells a story that suckers his audience. Jesus is speaking to the wealthy elite in Jerusalem. We are no longer traveling the countryside; Jesus has come to Jerusalem. He has ridden in on a donkey and the crowds have shouted hosanna and waved their palm branches before him. He is standing in the temple square. He has already kicked over the tables and declared that they have turned God’s house into a den of thieves. He has declared that the leadership of the nation is like a good son who says, “Yes, father,” but doesn’t do what his father asks – such a person is regarded as a good son in that culture because he doesn’t shame his father in the eyes of the community. But Jesus has declared that the good son is the one who, though he had shamed his father by saying “no”, changes his mind and does what the father asked. The good sons are the poor and outcast who have embraced the way of justice and mercy, and the Jerusalem leaders are bad sons who give honor to God but don’t do what God asks.

Now, today, Jesus tells this parable about an absentee landlord to people who are absentee landlords. They own all this land in Galilee that they have taken against God’s command because the people fell under the crushing burden of debt. In this story of an absentee landlord with rebellious tenants who foolishly imagine that they could kill the son and take the vineyard for themselves, he asks what the landlord in the story will do knowing full well what these landlords would do. They are quick to answer: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Then Jesus says, “You are the tenants.”

It is a parable that is full of poignancy, because Rome will come in less than 40 years and tear down the city wall and put all its rebel residents to death.

It is a parable full of poignancy because these rebel tenants will kill Jesus thinking it will gain them the vineyard; but it is God’s vineyard and their actions ensure they will lose it.

I didn’t choose the bulletin cover because of Ann and Paul’s anniversary. I choose it because of the text this morning:

Have you never read in the scriptures,” says Jesus,
“The stone that the builders rejected
…..has become the cornerstone.”

Jesus, whom they rejected, is the foundation that keeps the whole building true.

Justice and mercy, Love of God and neighbor, faithfulness to our obligations to God and one another, this is the foundation stone the builders reject. But it is the only true and lasting stone. It is the only stone that can ensure that the walls rise square and true.

And so we are back where we began. We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – but we are headed there. So love and forgiveness must be practiced. Kindness and compassion must be practiced. Hope and joy must be practiced. Mercy and truth must be practiced. Generosity and humility must be practiced. Patience and understanding must be practiced. We must give God the fruit God seeks. We must build on the stone that is steadfast love and faithfulness. We must build on the stone that was rolled away. We must build on him who is the cornerstone – the one who died and rose and will come again.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Heart-shaped_stone.JPG By Sylda31 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The song of all creation

 

File:Western Meadowlark singing.jpgI started writing yesterday morning at my dining table with a cup of fresh coffee. Maybe it’s because I was writing a sermon that I was so mindful of what a privilege it is to have a cup of good coffee. Coffee beans don’t grow here. The label on my coffee says it is from small family farms in Nicaragua, Peru and the highlands of Chiapas in southern Mexico.

Between those family farms and the cup of coffee on my table there is a vast network of people. It is not just about those who harvest the beans and whoever roasts them, but there are people who must transport those beans, and people who arrange for those beans to come to my Trader Joe’s. There are people who make the cans the coffee comes in. There are people who design and print the label. There are people who build the trucks or ships or planes or however it is that it gets here – and people who drive them. There are people who are loading and unloading boxes. There are people who are filling out orders and stockings shelves and running registers. There are people who made the bags I bring to the store in which to carry it home.

Somehow there is water in my kitchen sink that is clean enough for me to use for coffee. And I know there is a host of people involved in building the dams and infrastructure required to bring that water to me – and cleaning up whatever gets dumped down the drain.

Somehow, too, there is electricity so that I can heat the water with which to make my coffee. And that means there are people running power stations and tending power lines and growing trees that can be chopped down to make utility poles. There are people digging the copper out of the ground for the wires, and others who refine it and shape it.

Someone made the coffee filters I use. Someone made the little plastic device that holds the filter for my coffee. And to make that plastic thing, someone had to find oil and get it out of the ground and ship it somewhere where it got processed somehow to make whatever it is that becomes plastic.

Someone had to make the grinder I use to grind the beans. And there are people working in that little store on Main Street where I bought it. In between those makers and that store there are more trucks and drivers and all that goes with it – the gas stations and the truck companies and the road builders and the police officers to patrol them.

There are also people who will pick up the coffee grounds when I am through with them and take them somewhere to compost them. And there are people who make those trucks, too, and keep them repaired and running.

And, of course, all these people need clothes and food and health care to do all that needs to be done so that I can have a cup of coffee when I sit down to write this sermon.

This is so hard for us to remember, so hard for us to acknowledge, but we are all part of a vast, intricate, interconnected web of life. John Donne was right when he wrote, “No man is an island.” None of us stands alone. We didn’t come into the world alone and we won’t go out alone – and we certainly don’t live alone.

My life is connected to all those people. Unless they prosper, I cannot prosper.

Every now and then something in the system goes wrong. Some field worker who doesn’t have access to a bathroom pees in a field and a plant from that field ends up in a salad bar thousands of miles away and suddenly all kinds of people are sick. We are connected for good or for ill. What we do affects others. What they do affects us.

Part of the pain in Puerto Rico is what happens when that complex and intricate web gets so profoundly disrupted. Which makes it all the more necessary to remember that what happens to the least of these happens to me. We are connected.

And what is true of human society is true of the whole interconnected web of life on this planet. We are not alone; we are connected.

We are here today because it’s Sunday, and on this first day of the week, in the early morning, the women came to the tomb of Jesus and found it empty. Every week we remember Easter. Every week we remember the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Every week we remember the whole sweep of the world’s history from its origins in the heart of God to its destiny in the heart of God. We come to hear the story and, with the sharing of the bread, enact the promise of a world made new, where the lion lies down with the lamb and all people are gathered at one table in peace (Isaiah 11:1-9, Isaiah 25:6-8).

We are here, today, because it’s Sunday. And we have brought our pets today not just that they might receive a blessing, but that we might remember that they share with us in the blessing. They share with us in the goodness of the creation that God has given, and they share with us in the promise of a world made new, a world made whole, a world set free from our brokenness. They share with us in the promise of a world brought under the reign of God’s Spirit – the world where swords are beaten into plowshares and there is none to make them afraid (Micah 4:1-4).

We bring our pets to receive a blessing, but the truth is our lives have been blessed by them. Something deep and profound happens with the animals in our lives. In our shared lives there is something of the goodness of the Garden in the world’s first morning. And because there is a taste of the goodness of the creation, there is a taste also of the promised fulfillment of a world renewed and restored.

St. Francis is remembered for far more than pets. He is remembered for seeing this profound web that binds all things together. And so, in our first hymn this morning, he sings of the sun and moon praising God. He sings of the wind and clouds singing God’s praise. He sings of the sunrise and the waters and the earth itself as part of that great chorus that proclaims God’s praise.

What we hear from St. Francis is a reminder of what we find in the scriptures – that all creation draws its life from God and for God. The song of the meadowlarks is beautiful to our ears, but it is also beautiful to God’s ears. The rhythm of the waves speaks God’s praise. The sound of a mountain brook. The strange sound of the wind over the sands. The chorus of frogs early in summer and crickets late in summer. The wind in the Aspens. It all sings God’s praise. It testifies to the beauty and wonder and majesty and marvel of all that is around us. It testifies to the intricate web in which all life is united.

Francis not only showed love and faithfulness to the wild creatures of the earth, but his love and faithfulness to the poor and needy was cut from the same cloth. We are connected. We are meant for lives of compassion and generosity, kindness and faithfulness. We are meant for lives of praise to the one who is the source of all life. We are meant to join the song of all creation.

The love we have for our pets is a small portion of that great song that vibrates through all of creation. And the love they have for us is part of that song. So we come here week after week to remember the song. And on this day we bring our animals to remember that they, too, are part of that song.

As torn as the world is by false and discordant notes, as torn as we are by anger and greed, as torn as we are by killing and sorrow, these are not our true song. These are not our final song. Christ is risen. Christ is present among us. And Christ will bring the fulfillment of God’s promise of a world renewed, of every heart beating in rhythm with God’s heart, of every voice in harmony with God’s voice.

Amen

A print version of this reflection from Sunday, October 1, 2017, is available here.

The text and pictures from Psalm 104 from Sunday is available here.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWestern_Meadowlark_singing.jpg  By Alan Vernon (Western Meadowlark singing,) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Peace and dismay

Sunday was a delightful service. People were gathered with their pets on the lawn in the shade of great trees, warm sun and a soft breeze. The service began with a prayer and a reading of Psalm 104 illustrated with beautiful photographs of this wondrous creation entrusted into our care. The sermon hit the right note of our connectedness to one another and all things. The pets that evoke such strong emotions from us are at our side to receive a blessing. We share in the prayer of St. Francis: “Lord make me an instrument of your peace.”

And then I wake up the next morning to the news of the shooting in Las Vegas.

For a moment all seemed right with the world. Now all seems wrong.

This is the strange position of the Christian community. We live in the borderlands between two worlds: this age of sorrows and the age of joy, this age where the lamb dare not lie down with the lion and the age to come where a little child shall lead them. We are a crucified people, yet risen. We are sinners, yet forgiven. Christ is present, but we await his coming. Eden is lost to us, but the new creation is at hand.

Tragedies like Las Vegas will call forth great acts of courage and compassion. And they will also call forth more hate and invective. It is the strange and saddening reality of our human condition. But next Sunday we will gather at the table yet again. Next Sunday we will hear the promise, yet again. Next Sunday we will dare to trust that this age is passing away and a new one dawning. And next Sunday we will taste it in the bread, in the sharing of the peace, in the words of grace, in the singing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and in the commission to “Go in peace. Serve the Lord.”

Image: dkbonde

Marching towards the new birth of the world

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Saturday

Matthew 16:21-28

21From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

We call this a passion prediction – a prediction of his suffering and death. It doesn’t require any special divine foreknowledge. It’s reasonable to think that Jesus was astute enough to recognize that the things he was saying and doing would eventually bring him into conflict with the Judean authorities – and that the outcome of that would be his death. But Jesus adds “and on the third day be raised.”

For a long time I rather ignored this portion of the prediction. Scholarship rightly understands the Gospels as works of the church, the faith community of Jesus’ followers. Jesus didn’t write the Gospels; his followers did. But scholars tend to then make a distinction between what they think came from Jesus and what came from “the church”.

So Jesus could have foreseen his death, but who could imagine his resurrection? The first part may have belonged to Jesus, but the second part surely belongs to the early church. They are the ones who added that Jesus would be raised, because they had seen it.

It’s a reasonable thought, I guess, though it requires a certain audacity on the part of his followers to put words into the mouth of Jesus. Moderns think ancients are willing to do that (and in many cases they were), but that we wouldn’t (though we do). I am always in support of a little humility about what we are certain we “know”.

For a long time, then, I saw in this text the passion prediction and just kind of ignored the resurrection prediction. But the truth is the resurrection prediction is a key element of Jesus’ prophetic word. Indeed, the entire bulk of the Biblical prophets is to warn of pending judgment and destruction, but then to affirm grace and restoration. The Biblical story is a story of sin and redemption. The wicked world drowns at the time of Noah, but from destruction a new creation rises. Israel is condemned to wander in the wilderness but a new generation rises to enter in to the promised land. Jerusalem is destroyed, but the prophet declares that springs will flow in the desert and a highway lead the people home.

The whole Biblical story is about death and resurrection, judgment and grace, suffering and redemption. So why couldn’t Jesus have trusted that his death would lead to resurrection? His message is about the dawning of the age to come, the reign of God where lives are healed and blind eyes opened and tears wiped away. Resurrection is at the heart of this ministry. Jesus is herald of the new. The dead shall give up its prisoners. The gates guarding the realm of the dead shall not stand. Life is at hand.

So I understand the skepticism of the scholars. And it is important to resist the notion that Jesus was some kind of superman who had powers greater than the rest of us mere mortals. Jesus was fully human. This is the ancient and persistent confession of the church. But the Spirit is upon him. He trusts God fully. He knows the sacred writings intimately. He understands God is a God who delivers – even from the wrath of Jerusalem’s elite. Even from the grave.

And because God is a god who delivers – he sets his sights on Jerusalem. Courageously, faithfully, obediently, he marches towards the new birth of the world.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAivazovsky_-_Descent_of_Noah_from_Ararat.jpg Ivan Aivazovsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The gates of Hell (2)

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Matthew 16:13-20

18“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

2 Samuel 12 contains the bittersweet truth: I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” It is David speaking after the death of his child, conceived in the illicit union with the wife of his noble warrior Uriah. When the prophet reveals the consequences of David’s abuse of power, foretelling the death of the child, David weeps and fasts in prayer, refusing to rise from his bed. His servants are afraid to tell him when the child finally dies – but he hears their whispers and intuits the cause. To their surprise, he then rises, washes, and eats. It’s not the behavior you expect in grief. But David had prayed for the child’s life, and now that life is over. There is no prayer yet to be offered: “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” There is no return from the grave.

It’s the finality of death that wounds so deeply.   Never again will I hear my daughter’s laughter or see her smile. Never again will I see daisies in her hair – only the ones I placed there before they closed the casket. And never again will I see the feisty twinkle in my grandmother’s eye or my grandfather with his handkerchief keeping his bald head warm. Never again will I hear my cousin Jim’s deep guttural guffaw and shining eyes. I will go to them, but they will not return to me.

It is a simple fact that the boat only goes one way across the river Styx. The “witch of Endor” could call up the spirit of Samuel, but it is only a shadow of the man whose eternal sleep has been disturbed. “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”

So it is easy to declare that shame and grief and guilt and all death’s weapons cannot hold us. But there is a deeper mystery, here. It is not only that the living will go free; the grave itself will surrender its prisoners. The Biblical metaphor is not that we will be rejoined with loved ones in heaven; it is that we will walk again on the earth. The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth. Whatever that might mean, it means that this life is not a shadow of what is to come. This is the life for which we were made and it shall not ultimately be taken away from us.

God is in the business of restoring his world. Healing it now; healing it forever. Delivering it from its bondage. Breaking down not just the walls of hate and fear, violence and neglect, but breaking down the gates that bar the dead from the fullness of life. The Biblical metaphor is that we shall feel again the grass beneath our feet. We shall drink again from clear mountain streams. We shall hear the surf pound upon the shore but not feel it waste our homes and cities. We shall feel the gentle rain and not fear floods. We shall hear the rumble of lightning far away and not smell the ozone or fear its fires. We shall know the joy of a child’s hand in ours without having to fight the anxiety that wraps around our hearts. We shall know the tenderness of love with out the strain of our brokenness. We shall feast on Zion and no one shall make us afraid. The gates of hell cannot withstand the work of God to open the grave.

The church’s teaching about resurrection is the hardest for our rational minds to comprehend. We are as David. We know that “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” But before us is the promise that the gates that enclose the realm of the dead shall not withstand the Spirit of God. And before us is the witness of Mary and Peter, the twelve and the five hundred that the grave is empty. The crucified one lives.

We know the promise Jesus makes about the gates of hell means we are not bound by our sins; there is grace and deliverance for all. But it also means that God’s project in calling forth the world will not be sidetracked by the horrors spawned by our primal rebellion. A new creation awaits. A birth from above. A healing. A feast. An inexpressible and glorious joy.

And even now we taste this. The Spirit is given. The breath of Christ Jesus is upon us. The life of the age to come is ours to be lived now. The keys of the kingdom are in our hands. The iron gates shall not hold.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AYuma_Territorial_Prison_cell_doors.jpg Jerry Stratton / http://hoboes.com/Mimsy, via Wikimedia Commons

Choose your kingdom; choose your king

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

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

Watching for the Morning of August 6, 2017

Year A

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 13 / Lectionary 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choose your kingdom. Choose your king.

+       +       +

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

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

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

Choose your kingdom. Choose your king.

The Prayer for August 6, 2017

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

The Texts for August 6, 2017

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

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

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

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

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATomato_vender_at_the_Covington_Farmer’s_Market_in_Covington%2C_LA.jpg By Saint Tammany [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Prisoners of hope

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Saturday

Zechariah 9:9-12

12Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.

We can take apart the grammar and poetry of this sentence. We can discuss the cultural context from which these words derive their meaning. But I want first to simply relish them. I love the unexpectedness of the phrase “prisoners of hope.”

Jesus was a master of the unexpected. The parables, so familiar to us now, are masterful at the sudden twist, the startling comparison, the shocking example. The prophets, too, are brilliant at this: Jeremiah’s underwear. Walking around the temple court wearing a yoke. Ezekiel telling a lurid tale of sexual betrayal. The scriptures are full of the shocking. And they need to be. We are such complacent, rutted people. It is not easy to make us see ourselves differently. Not easy to make us see others differently. Not easy to make us see God differently. And how hard it is to make us behave any differently!

The scriptures need to catch us up side the head. There’s no other way to get through to us.

So how many of us are prisoners of hope? How many of us are bond-servants of a wondrous promise? How many of us are truly captives to the vision of a world made whole as if it were a conquering hero returning from the battlefield with prisoner/slaves in tow?

How many of us wake up each morning and run to serve the promise of a world where peace reigns? We go to bed in despair. We wake up in fear. Hurry to work. Hurry to school. Hurry to coffee and traffic. The alarm clock makes us groan. Dinner is a chore farmed out to whatever I can pick up on the way home. We eat on the run……or we eat alone. Something frozen. Maybe cereal from a box after too much wine. There is no family at the table, no prayer of blessing, no song of joy.

We are, most of us, I suspect, captives to the pressures of daily life rather than prisoners of hope.

And the people of Judea were captives to the daily struggle and shame of a once glorious city still littered with rubble and now under Persian rule.

So the prophet points to the horizon and promises a king – a king no one believes is coming. But he will come. Hidden in a Galilean peasant. Speaking words of grace and challenge. Touching the world with healing and freeing it from evil. Enduring the shame and degradation of the cross, but leaving behind an empty tomb and a hundred and twenty prisoners of hope. They will become millions.

And shall we break off the shackles of hope for the shackles of mammon? Will we break off the ties of mercy, compassion and kindness for the sour belief that these shall not prevail? Shall we surrender to the thump of weapons as our true hope? Is it only death and taxes that are certain, not grace and life? Shall we forfeit joy?

No. I will come to the table that promises a world gathered to speak the blessing. I will sing the song, and feast the feast. And I will willingly extend my hands to the thongs of hope.

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

Do we laugh?

File:Donkey and Villager 0744 (508121161).jpg

Friday

Zechariah 9:9-12

9Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!

I wonder if the people laughed at the voice of the prophet. I wonder if they looked around at the city built from rubble, subjected to a foreign power, and plagued with a poor economy, and laughed. No king is coming. No king will raise this backwater to the heights it once enjoyed. No king can arise in this feeble country to fight off the might of the Persian Empire.

We know from scripture that the prophets were not generally received with favor. King Ahab calls Elijah “you troubler of Israel” because he only has bad news to speak about his idolatrous and corrupt leader. Nor did he want to consult the prophet Micaiah ben Imlah when plotting war against Syria because “he never prophesies anything favorable about me.” King Jehoiakim burned the prophetic words of Jeremiah. Ahaz made a pious show of refusing Isaiah’s message.

The resistance of the ancient elites was certainly in part because the prophets of old stood in the way of the wealthy and powerful. They challenged the neglect of God’s law, the abandonment of the poor, the failure of justice and compassion, the loss of faithfulness. But was it any easier for Israel to hear a message of hope? When Isaiah announces Cyrus as the LORD’s anointed (the LORD’s ‘Messiah’) to throw down Babylon, when he proclaims a highway through the desert for a new exodus, did the people turn away from him as a starry-eyed dreamer? And do we, too, dismiss such words of peace? Do we smile benignly at the promise that swords shall be beaten into plowshares? That Jerusalem shall be a city of peace? Do we ensconce the words of Jesus in a pious frame rather than build our lives on the notion that the poor and peacemakers are the blessed and honorable ones in God’s sight?

The prophet promises a king, a king who will “cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem,” who shall “command peace to the nations,” and whose “dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” Yes, the prophet may well have meant, “from the Euphrates to land’s end” (i.e. the shore of the Mediterranean), but we recognize the big brush with which the prophet paints. He is not just talking about a new king for Israel. This is a new reigning power for all creation.

So do we smile benevolently like listening to a child’s dream? Or do we dare put our trust, hope and allegiance in this promise of a dawning reign? And do we see this dawning reign in the one who healed and forgave and taught us to treat all people as members of our kinship group then rode up to his fateful destiny in Jerusalem on the day we have come to call Palm Sunday?

“Lo, your king comes to you,” says the prophet, “triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Do we laugh or bend the knee?

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADonkey_and_Villager_0744_(508121161).jpg By James Emery from Douglasville, United States (Donkey and Villager_0744) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons