The true vine

File:NRCSCA06105 - California (1119)(NRCS Photo Gallery).tifWatching for the Morning of April 29, 2018

Year B

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”

There is a life at work in this Jesus, like the life that pushes into bloom every spring where deciduous trees bud and a carpet of wildflowers races the forest canopy to bloom. There is a life at work in this Jesus, like the drive within a child to learn and grow and master its world. There is a life at work in this Jesus that pushes and pulls all creation to its destiny in God: a push towards the light, a drive towards life, a reaching for truth, a quest for justice, a call into compassion, a persistent, haunting sense that we are meant for more than we are, that we are meant for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity…” all the fruits of the Spirit – that we are meant to love one another.

There is a life at work in this Jesus. It drives Philip towards the Ethiopian Eunuch. It reveals the strangely obscure yet obvious truth that all creation – even a eunuch – is welcome in Christ. It drives the psalmist to speak not only of the horrors of suffering (“a company of evildoers encircles me… They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots”) but of the work of God to gather all nations. It drives the author of First John to say again and again that God is love and lift up the privilege and command to live in and from that love.

There is a life at work in Jesus. A life that belongs to the age to come. A life that is eternal. A life that is divine. A life that reverberates through all things, for in him all things were made. A life that is an inextinguishable light in our darkness. A life made flesh and come among us. A life that cannot be held by death. A life breathed ever anew into us. A life working in us. A life that would bear abundant fruit in us.

He is the vine. We are the branches.

The Prayer for April 29, 2018

As the vine gives life to the branches, O God,
be our source of life.
Root us in your Word.
Sustain us in your Spirit.
Cleanse from us all that is dead and dying
that we may bear abundantly the fruit of your Spirit.

The Texts for April 29, 2018

First Reading: Acts 8:26-40
“As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’” – Philip is led by the Spirit to the Ethiopian eunuch struggling to understand the passage Like a sheep he was led to slaughter.” When Philip has told him about Jesus, the eunuch asks the potent question whether the condition that keeps him out of the temple keeps him away from Christ.

Psalmody: Psalm 22:25-31
“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.” – We are again reading/singing from that critical psalm that bespeaks the crucifixion. In this Sunday’s verses is the message that God shall gather all into his reign.

Second Reading: 1 John 4:7-21
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
– the author of First John continues to weave together the themes of God’s love for us and the command and necessity to love one another.

Gospel: John 15:1-8
“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” – Jesus uses the image of the grape vine to speak about the life of the believing community. It draws life from Jesus and his teaching and, abiding in him, bears abundant fruit.

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This reflection was previously posted on April 28, 2015 for the Fifth Sunday after Easter in 2015

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NRCSCA06105_-_California_(1119)(NRCS_Photo_Gallery).tif Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

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Forward into life

File:Crepuscular ray sunset from telstra tower edit.jpgWatching for the Morning of April 15, 2018

Year B

The Third Sunday of Easter

We have a resurrection appearance from Luke at the center of our readings this Sunday, and the elements are familiar: the sudden appearance, the fear, the word of peace, the revealing of the hands and feet. And eating. The risen Jesus eats. So much for imagining the life to come as if we were to be spirit beings rather than embodied ones.

There is much to think about in the fact that the risen Christ bears on his hands and feet the scars of his earthly life. The scars identify him, but the do not define him. He is the one who suffered this inhuman brutality – but he is not a victim. He is a life bringer. The life bringer.

This risen Jesus, this bringer of life, this bearer of heaven’s gifts, this source of healing and grace, lives. And he continues to be present to the world through his followers. They dispense the gifts that Christ dispensed. Peter and John are entering the temple when confronted by a lame man begging. They don’t have silver and gold to give; they have healing and life.

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.” Writes the author of 1 John. We are children of God now. What we will be in that day when the new creation dawns in full we cannot comprehend, but we are God’s children now. And as God’s children, we live God’s love.

The psalmist will pray for God to answer his plight – and immediately turn to rebuke those who “love vain words, and seek after lies.” He is able to “lie down and sleep in peace” because he knows God is the life-bringer. God is the faithful God who blesses the world with abundance and calls us forward into life.

The Prayer for April 15, 2018

Gracious Heavenly Father,
as the risen Lord Jesus opened the minds of his disciples
to understand the scriptures,
open our hearts and minds
that, hearing your voice,
we might walk with you in newness of life;
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 April 15, 2018

First Reading: Acts 3:1-21 (appointed 12-19)
“You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” – By the name of Jesus, Peter and John heal a lame beggar at the temple and then witness to the crowd that God has raised Jesus from the dead and appointed him as Israel’s messiah, calling them to turn and show allegiance to God’s work of restoring the world in Jesus.

Psalmody: Psalm 4
“I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.” – A individual petition for help from God. The author declares his confidence in God’s help and warns his opponents to choose God’s path.

Second Reading: 1 John 1:1-3 (appointed: 1 John 3:1-7)
“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 are already members of God’s household, and though we do not understand the nature of resurrected life, we know that we will be “like him.” Since we are God’s children now, destined to be “like him”, we should live faithfully now.

Gospel: Luke 24:36-53 (appointed 36b-48)
“While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” – Jesus appears to his followers on Easter Evening, opens their minds to understand the scripture, and commissions them as witnesses of what God has done and is doing in and through Christ.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Crepuscular_ray_sunset_from_telstra_tower_edit.jpg fir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.au [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Do not be faithless

File:The confession of Saint Thomas (icon).jpgWatching for the Morning of April 8, 2018

Year B

The Second Sunday of Easter

Thomas dominates the readings on Sunday – not a story of intellectual doubt, but a story of allegiance and fidelity. None of us understands what happened to Jesus, but will we be faithful to him?

So the first reading tells us of that early faithful community that held all things in common. They “loved one another”; they showed fidelity to one another as members of a common household. We don’t divide up the refrigerator in our homes to say this food belongs to Dad and this to Mom, and the kids can eat what’s on the bottom shelf, as if we were strangers rooming together in college. Neither did those first followers of Jesus. They lived the new creation. They lived the Spirit. They lived and heralded the reign of God that Jesus brought.

The psalm will sing of the goodness “when kindred live together in unity.” It is the shape of the world before Cain rose up against Abel or Jacob stole Esau’s blessing. It is the world of the Good Samaritan and the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. It is the world of those to whom it will be said, “As you did it to the last of these you did it to me.”

The author of 1 John will speak of “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” and the ‘fellowship’ it creates. ‘Fellowship’ is that wonderful word, ‘koinonia’, that gets used in the New Testament to speak of ‘fellowship’ with God, ‘partnership’ (NIV) in the gospel, and the ‘contribution’ Paul gathers for the saints suffering from famine in Judea. It is the ‘communion’ in Paul’s benediction: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you,” and the ‘sharing’ or ‘participation’ in the body and blood of Christ that happens in the cup and bread. Such fellowship isn’t coffee and donuts after church, but the mutual care and support of lives bound together in and with Christ.

And so we come to Thomas. What happens to those who have not shared in the apostolic vision of the risen Christ? Will they show faithfulness? Will the testimony of others be enough to bind them to Christ and the community? “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet are faithful.”

The translation of Jesus’ word to Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe,” is misleading to modern ears where doubt and belief concern cognitive assent. The Greek is better translated as “Do not be faithless but faithful.”

The Prayer for April 8, 2018

Gracious Lord Jesus,
in your mercy you did not leave Thomas in his unbelief,
but came to him, revealing your hands and your side,
and calling him into faith.
So come to us wherever we are in doubt and uncertainty
and by your word reveal yourself to us anew as our living Lord,
who with the Father and Holy Spirit lives and reigns,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for April 8, 2018

First Reading: Acts 4:32-35
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” – The author of Luke-Acts, commonly called Luke, summarizes the life of the first Christian community as a household, sharing goods and providing for one another. It represents a foretaste of the messianic age when all things are made new.

Psalmody: Psalm 133
“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” – A psalm of ascents sung as the community went up to Jerusalem for one of the annual pilgrimage festivals. A faithful people of God as a blessing upon the world.

Second Reading: 1 John 1:1-2:2
“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.”
– The author testifies to what they have seen and heard in Jesus – and to the fellowship they have with the Father, the Son, and one another.

Gospel: John 20:19-31
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” – Jesus appears to his followers on Easter Evening and commissions them with the gift of the Holy Spirit, then appears again, the following Sunday, to summon Thomas into faithfulness.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AThe_confession_of_Saint_Thomas_(icon).jpg  Dionisius [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The face of God

(A reflection published with the pictures used in our sanctuary from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday 2018)

The events of Jesus’ death and resurrection are seared into the memory of the first followers of Jesus – even as they are in the hearts of the whole Christian community. Jesus comes to Jerusalem in what appears to be a wave of public support, only to be crushed by the ruling elite in Jerusalem. He is betrayed by a member of his inner circle. His followers flee. His “rock,” Peter, publicly disavows that he knows him. He is shamed and degraded and impaled upon a cross, powerless before the might of Rome and the machinations of the temple authorities.

But here, says the Christian community, we see the face of God.

We keep ascribing power to God. And there is plenty of testimony in scripture to God’s mighty acts. But what remains unmistakable in the Biblical text are two much more important truths: the suffering of God and the work of God to do the unexpected and unimagined: to open closed doors, to make a path through the sea, to bring Israel home from Babylon, to open blind eyes and heal palsied limbs, to resurrect the dead. God makes a way when there is no way.

God suffers with and for God’s people. God suffers their faithlessness. God suffers the tragedies that befall them. No matter how justified are their self-inflicted wounds, God’s heart cries out and comes to their deliverance.

What happened to Jesus is the story of Israel: destroyed but brought back from the dead. It is also the promised story of the human race. God will not allow God’s creation to perish, but calls it back into fidelity and life. God will bring us to the New Jerusalem. God will set before all creation a table. God will restore the harmony of the world. Righteousness and peace shall kiss, the greeting of eternal friends. Swords shall be beaten into plowshares. The lion shall lie down with the lamb.

The resurrection is testimony to the truth of all Jesus said and did. It is testimony to God’s redemptive purpose in the world. And we who have heard the testimony of those who saw the empty tomb, who have heard the word of grace, who have experienced the healing power of God, who have tasted the Holy Spirit and the life of the age to come – we are those sent in wonder and joy to witness to this loving, suffering, redeeming God.

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Each day of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, the pictures in the sanctuary showed the larger arc of the story of the passion through to Mary speaking with the angels at the empty tomb – though the collection varied each day with images relating to that specific day.  For the Easter Vigil and Easter morning, the pictures portrayed people from the passion story – each representing differing responses to Jesus.  All the pictures used over these days are shown below.  (The days here reflect the day of the action in the picture, rather than the selections used that day in worship.)

Palm Sunday

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Lord Wept (Le Seigneur pleura) - James Tissot.jpg

Jesus enters Jerusalem

Maundy Thursday

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Washing of the Feet (Le lavement des pieds) - James Tissot.jpg

Jesus washes the feet of the disciples

File:Brooklyn Museum - You Could Not Watch One Hour With Me (Vous n'avez pu veiller une heure avec moi) - James Tissot.jpg

The disciples fall asleep while Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane

File:Judas and with Him a Great Multitude.jpg

Judas leads the mob to seize Jesus

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Kiss of Judas (Le baiser de Judas) - James Tissot.jpg

Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss

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

Annas and Caiphas, the High Priest

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Sorrow of Saint Peter (La douleur de Saint Pierre) - James Tissot.jpg

Peter fleeing in grief after denying Jesus (following the cockcrow)

Good Friday

File:Jesus Before Pilate, First Interview.jpg

Jesus before Pilate

File:Brooklyn Museum - Behold the Man (Ecce Homo) - James Tissot.jpg

“Behold the man!” Pilate shows the tortured Jesus to the crowd

File:Brooklyn Museum - Herod (Hérode) - James Tissot - overall.jpg

Jesus is sent to Herod

File:Barabbas (James Tissot).jpg

The crowd asks for Barabbas to be released rather than Jesus

File:Brooklyn Museum - Jesus Meets His Mother (Jésus rencontre sa mère) - James Tissot.jpg

Jesus bearing the cross

File:Brooklyn Museum - The First Nail (Le premier clou) - James Tissot.jpg

Jesus nailed to the cross

File:Brooklyn Museum - "I Thirst" The Vinegar Given to Jesus ("J'ai soif." Le vinaigre donné à Jésus) - James Tissot.jpg

“I thirst.” Jesus offered sour wine

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Death of Jesus (La mort de Jésus) - James Tissot.jpg

The women witness the crucifixion

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Confession of Saint Longinus (Confession de Saint Longin) - James Tissot.jpg

The Centurion’s confession, “Truly this was the son of God.”

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Holy Virgin Receives the Body of Jesus (La Sainte Vierge reçoit le corps de Jésus) - James Tissot.jpg

Taking the body of Jesus for burial

File:Brooklyn Museum - Joseph of Arimathaea (Joseph d'Arimathie) - James Tissot.jpg

Joseph of Arimathea gets permission from Pilate to bury Jesus

Easter Sunday

File:Brooklyn Museum - Mary Magdalene Questions the Angels in the Tomb (Madeleine dans le tombeau interroge les anges) - James Tissot.jpg

Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, met by a vision of angels

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Images:

Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Lord_Wept_(Le_Seigneur_pleura)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Jesus washes the feet of the disciples: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Washing_of_the_Feet_(Le_lavement_des_pieds)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

The disciples fall asleep while Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_You_Could_Not_Watch_One_Hour_With_Me_(Vous_n%27avez_pu_veiller_une_heure_avec_moi)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Judas leads the mob to seize Jesus: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Judas_and_with_Him_a_Great_Multitude.jpg

Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Kiss_of_Judas_(Le_baiser_de_Judas)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Annas and Caiphas, the High Priest: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Annas_and_Caiaphas_(Anne_et_Ca%C3%AFphe)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Peter fleeing in grief after betraying Jesus: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Sorrow_of_Saint_Peter_(La_douleur_de_Saint_Pierre)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Jesus before Pilate: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jesus_Before_Pilate,_First_Interview.jpg“Behold the man!”

Pilate shows the tortured Jesus to the crowd: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Behold_the_Man_(Ecce_Homo)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Jesus is sent to Herod: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Herod_(H%C3%A9rode)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall.jpg

Barabbas: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barabbas_(James_Tissot).jpg

Jesus bearing the cross: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Jesus_Meets_His_Mother_(J%C3%A9sus_rencontre_sa_m%C3%A8re)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Jesus nailed to the cross: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_First_Nail_(Le_premier_clou)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

“I thirst.” Jesus offered sour wine: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_%22I_Thirst%22_The_Vinegar_Given_to_Jesus_(%22J%27ai_soif.%22_Le_vinaigre_donn%C3%A9_%C3%A0_J%C3%A9sus)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

The women witness the crucifixion: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Death_of_Jesus_(La_mort_de_J%C3%A9sus)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

The Centurion’s confession, “Truly this was the son of God”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Confession_of_Saint_Longinus_(Confession_de_Saint_Longin)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Taking the body of Jesus for burial: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Holy_Virgin_Receives_the_Body_of_Jesus_(La_Sainte_Vierge_re%C3%A7oit_le_corps_de_J%C3%A9sus)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Taking the body of Jesus for burial: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Holy_Virgin_Receives_the_Body_of_Jesus_(La_Sainte_Vierge_re%C3%A7oit_le_corps_de_J%C3%A9sus)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, met by a vision of angels: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Mary_Magdalene_Questions_the_Angels_in_the_Tomb_(Madeleine_dans_le_tombeau_interroge_les_anges)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Text: © David K. Bonde

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

Ash Wednesday

Watching for Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Tomorrow we begin our long journey to Jerusalem where Jesus will wash feet, break bread, pray in Gethsemane, get kissed by Judas and abandoned by his followers, be abused by the thugs who snatched him in the night and tortured by Roman Soldiers in the full light of day. And he will not fight back. He will raise no army. He will lift no sword. He will call for no chariots of fire. There will be no joining of earthly and heavenly armies to slay the imperial troops of Rome. There will be hammer and nails and a tomb with its entrance barred by a stone.

And in the darkness of that final night will shine the light of a divine mercy that envelops the whole world in grace. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian observance of Lent, a forty day period of fasting, sharing and serving, a time of spiritual renewal that will bring us to that day when the women find the tomb empty and see a vision of angels declare that God has raised Jesus from the dead.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. And our evening begins with the burning of the palm fronds from Palm Sunday last year and the ancient practice of anointing ourselves with ashes.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – it is partly about remembering our mortality. More profoundly it remembers that death came when humanity turned away from God. And so it is a day of repentance, of turning back to God. It begins a period of forty days of intentional turning towards God, an intentional deepening of our spiritual lives, an intentional deepening of compassion, faith, hope, and joy.

Our signs of repentance are not merely personal. We ask God’s forgiveness on behalf of the whole human race. And there is much to confess. The deceit and destruction loose in our world, the greed and over-consumption, the violence, the warring. There is much to confess. And we will stand with the victims of all our evil. With those ashes we stand with the abused and forgotten, the hungry and homeless, the refugees unwanted, the fearful and grieving. We stand with them all, daring to name our human brokenness, knowing that Jesus will share that brokenness and bear the scars in his hands and feet.

We dare to name it all, because God is mercy. Because God is redemption. Because God is new life. Because God is new creation. Because God is eager for us to turn away from our destructive paths into the path of life.

So with ashes on our foreheads we will renew the journey that leads to the empty tomb, the gathered table, and the feast to come.

The Prayer for Ash Wednesday

Almighty God, Holy and Immortal,
who knows the secrets of every heart
and brings all things to the light of your grace.
Root us ever in your promised mercy
that, freed from every sin and shame,
we may walk the paths of your truth and love.

The Texts for Ash Wednesday

First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-12 (appointed: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17)
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” –
After the return from exile in Babylon, life was hard and Jerusalem and its temple continued to lie in ruins. The people complained that God did not respond to their prayers. The prophet challenges the meaning of such prayers when the people fail to embody the life of justice and mercy to which God called them.

Psalmody: Psalm 103:8-14
“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.” – In our parish, we use the appointed Psalm 51 (the famous cry of repentance by David after he has been confronted by the prophet Nathan over the murder of Uriah and the taking of Bathsheba ) in the confession at the beginning of our liturgy. When we come to the time for the psalm we hear the poet speak of the tender love and faithfulness of God who has “removed our sins from us” “as far as the east is from the west.”

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:1 (appointed: 5:20b-6:10)
“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
– Paul calls his troubled congregation to live within the reconciling work of God in Christ.

Gospel Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” – Jesus declares at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount that, in order to enter into God’s dawning reign, our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Now, having spoken about the meaning of the commandments (in contrast to the way they are taught by the scribes) Jesus turns to the acts of piety for which the Pharisees were known. Our prayer, fasting and charity must be done not for public acclaim but to please God.

And Jesus alone remains

File:Israel hermon (5330547343).jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The real Jesus is the human being.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

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

An immeasurable mercy

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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

A new beginning of the world

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A reflection on Mark 1:1-11 on the Baptism of Our Lord.

King David is, for Israel, like George Washington is for us. He is the noble leader that represents the best of his country. We don’t really want any dirty laundry about George Washington. We like the story about the boy who could not tell a lie and the young man strong enough to throw a silver dollar across the Potomac. We don’t really want to know that they didn’t have silver dollars in his day and that, even if they did, a dollar was worth a lot in those days and George wouldn’t have thrown that kind of money away – nor do we want to know that the original story is about chucking rocks across the Rappahannock.

We like the myth rather than the reality, because the myth has an important function. The word ‘myth’, in its best sense, doesn’t mean a false or made up story; it means a story that embodies and communicates some important truth. Our first president was indeed strong and honest, concerned about what was good for the republic rather that what might profit himself. And the ‘myth’ of the cherry tree lifts up these important qualities that embody core values of our national identity. The stories are meant to inspire us to our best selves.

The myth is important, but we do not deny reality. We know, for example, that Washington owned slaves. Though technically they belonged to his wife, he would have had the authority to free them had he chosen to do so. So we value the ‘myth’ for what it says to us, but we also acknowledge the truth.

David is the hero of Israel. And the story about Goliath sounds remarkably like one of those cherry tree stories. We respect the story about David’s courage and his trust in and fidelity to God. But the scripture is also willing to tell us that David conspired to order the death of his noble warrior, Uriah, in order to hide David’s crime of taking Uriah’s wife that would have been exposed when Bathsheba she got pregnant.

What makes David a hero, by the way, is that, when confronted with his crime, he confesses and repents. He doesn’t deny and obfuscate and lie and blame. He turns back to God.

But there were consequences to David’s crime. He had allowed power to corrupt him and lead him to betray God and the people by taking what belonged to another – and then to a cover-up that ended in violence. The result would be that his family would be troubled by corruption and violence.

So the scripture tells us that David’s eldest son, Amnon, lusted after his half-sister, Tamar, and after manipulating her into his bedchamber by pretending to be sick, he took her – by force – and then discarded her.

Tamar’s brother, Absalom, quietly plotted against his half-brother and two years later took his vengeance and murdered him. Absalom fled Jerusalem, but David refused to hold him accountable and eventually allowed him to return, though he would not allow Absalom to come to court.

Absalom got tired of that and sent for Joab who was the head of the army and one of David’s closest advisors. Joab, however, wouldn’t come so Absalom set Joab’s fields on fire to force him to come. Absalom then pressured Joab into making a way for him to return to the king’s presence. At which time, Absalom began to plot to seize the throne. He told the people that they wouldn’t get justice from David but that they could get justice from himself if he were king.

Eventually, Absalom arranged a coup and David and his advisors were forced to flee Jerusalem. (Absalom set up a tent on the roof of the palace for all to see and went in to sleep with his father’s concubines. What David had done in secret to Uriah, Absalom did to him in public.)

War ensued – and now I am getting close to my point. David gave instructions to his commanders that they were not to hurt his son, Absalom. But Joab, his leading commander, knowing the kind of threat Absalom posed, disobeyed the order and killed him. When the battle was over, a young man named Ahimaaz wanted to run back to the king to deliver the good news that his forces had been victorious. Joab tried to discourage him and sent someone else, knowing that the king would be dismayed by the news and would not reward the runner.

The Greek translation of the original Hebrew uses the word ‘euanggelion’ for the “good news” of victory. ‘Euanggelion’ is the word that comes into English as ‘gospel’. That Greek root gives us the family of words like ‘evangelism’ and ‘evangelical’. And it is the Greek word in our Gospel reading today that is translated as ‘good news’.

This is a very long introduction to the fact that the Greek word we translate as ‘gospel’ is a very ordinary word. It is not a religious word. And it has two basic semantic fields. The one is the story I have just told: the news of victory from the battlefield. The other idea at work in this word is that of a royal proclamation. When a new king arises, he issues a proclamation to the citizens of his new lands declaring amnesty and announcing his benefactions to the people.

So this document that is before us from an unknown author who, by tradition, we call Mark – this document presents itself as a royal proclamation and news of victory from the battlefield.

The translation “good news” doesn’t seem like it has enough gravitas to be an effective translation of this word. But we don’t have a word in English that will accomplish all that this Greek word conveys. So we have to remember that the Gospel that is proclaimed to us is like the announcement of peace at the end of World War II that has people cheering in the streets and a sailor sweeping a nurse off her feet with a kiss.

The Gospel that is proclaimed to us is like the emancipation proclamation of Abraham Lincoln to the three million enslaved people in the South. It is royal amnesty, a word that we are released from every debt.

This story of Jesus is ‘gospel’. It is ‘euanggelion’. It is incredible news. It is the end of war and emancipation. God has come to reclaim his world. God has come to drench us in the Spirit. God has come to wipe away the whole history of human sin that began with Adam and Eve. God has come to shatter the gates of hell and set all its prisoners free. God has come to break the grip of fear and guilt and sorrow and death.

This is the ‘gospel’. And when we call ourselves an Evangelical Lutheran Church we mean we are bearers of this proclamation.

Now if someone were hearing this ‘gospel’ for the first time, they would naturally ask, “Who is this Jesus that he should be making a royal proclamation?”

Mark tells us that this Jesus is “Son of God”, which means that he is the person God has authorized to act on God’s behalf. He is the one appointed to reign. This is a culture in which to speak to the son is to speak to the father. To hear Jesus is to hear the Father. This is a society in which the kings of Israel were referred to as “son of God”. They weren’t gods, but they reigned on God’s behalf.

This Jesus is the Christ, the anointed of God.

This Jesus is the one to whom the prophets bear witness.

This Jesus is the one upon whom the Spirit of God has descended. The heavens have been torn open. A breach has been made in the vault of heaven and the mighty wind and holy breath of God has invaded the world and courses through this Jesus.

Through this Jesus the whole world will be flooded with this Spirit of God.

This Spirit that is upon Jesus is upon us.

And God is delighted. “With you,” says the voice from heaven, “I am well pleased.” This is such a pale translation of powerful words. This is good in God’s eyes. It echoes the creation story when God looks upon what God has created and declares it good.

This is a new beginning of the world.

It doesn’t matter to Mark that armies are marching and it seems like the world is coming apart. It doesn’t matter to Mark that he has seen Rome’s brutal power impale this Jesus to a cross. He has seen the empty tomb. He has seen the sick healed and the lame walk and the blind see. He has seen sinners forgiven and outcasts restored and withered hands made whole. He has seen the unclean made clean and heard demons cry out and flee. This is a new beginning of the world.

This is a new beginning of the world.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AF_Mochi_Bautismo_de_Cristo_1634_P_Braschi.jpg Francesco Mochi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

But Christ can see

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Christmas Eve

I tried to stand well away from the altar, tonight, as I said the Eucharistic Prayer – the prayer that surrounds the words of institution (“In the night in which he was betrayed…”) for communion. Yesterday I was knocked down by a terrible cold and I didn’t want to touch the bread or get near to anyone lest I pass on my germs. So the assisting minister held the bread aloft at the proper moment, then the wine, then broke them for the distribution and served the bread for me.

I missed this opportunity to serve the community the gifts – or to share the peace before we come to the table – or to shake their hand and greet them after the service. I have been here 15 years, now, and there are people who come faithfully at Christmas. There are young people who have grown up and moved away but are back for the holiday. There are grandchildren and visiting aunts and uncles and siblings I have met through the years. It is hard to stand apart and wave at them from a distance after the service.

There is something wonderful about the power of this night to gather people together. Something warm and enduring about the ties that stretch over time. Something mystical about the power of this story of the child of Bethlehem and the beauty of a darkened room with the Christmas trees shining and every hand holding high a lighted candle as we sing of a silent and holy night. It speaks of peace, a peace that we remember, a peace we can imagine, a peace for which we hope.

It is our answer to the torchlight march last August in Charlottesville. It is our prayer for a world where too much is vile and violent. It is our yearning for what the world could be.

And it is our confession of what the world shall be. The babe of Bethlehem, the man from Nazareth, the healer and teacher, the embodiment of mercy and life, the good shepherd who lays down his life for the world, the crucified one is risen and comes to breathe his spirit upon us. He comes to touch us with grace and life. He comes to heal and renew the world. He comes to gather us to one table. He comes to reconcile heaven and earth.

Not everyone who comes to sing “Silent Night” can see all the way to Good Friday and Easter, to Pentecost and the New Jerusalem. But Christ can see. And the Spirit leads. And the song is begun.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABonfeld_-_Evangelische_Kirche_-_Kanzelwand_und_Weihnachtsbaum_2015_-_1.jpg By Roman Eisele (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons