Quivering with joy

File:US Navy 091112-N-9860Y-007 Lt. Luke Brown is greeted by his German shepherd, Smokey, at the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island flight line.jpg


Psalm 51:1-12

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

A clean heart. A new spirit. A right spirit. A willing spirit. These are the work of God. These are the fruit of God’s holy spirit. They quiver with the joy of God’s salvation.

I saw a small dog forlornly tied to a bicycle rack today. As I walked up the sidewalk, a man came out of a store and the little dog began to tremble, wave his paws, and then, as the man drew near, jump a little leap of joy – not the kind of jump that might earn a scowl or rebuke, just an expression of delight. As the man untied the leash from the rack, a pure joy settled over the dog.

A clean heart. A new spirit. A right spirit. A willing spirit. The holy spirit. The joy of God’s salvation.

I don’t know whether people are able any longer to appreciate this language of sin and reconciliation in the scriptures. We have dulled our consciences, taking as normal language in the public square and to our most intimate companions that is cold or harsh or even cruel. Accepting greed and self-interest as normal if not noble motives. Denying what we don’t want to believe and believing what we don’t want to deny. Betrayal has become normal. I read an obituary this summer in the Longmont, Colorado paper that listed among the surviving loved ones “her husband, Peter; and her boyfriend, Jim.” I don’t know the story; I just recognize that such a casual public post reflects our changing times. Trump declares we should have seized Iraq’s oil as a spoil of war and the notion of enriching ourselves by brute force hasn’t filled us with shock and horror. He calls it “strong leadership,” and we don’t recoil. He honors Putin who seized Crimea (and is working on the Ukraine) and we seem to have no memory of the Anschluss, the Sudetenland, or the terrible price paid to try to set right the world. A playboy model takes a photo of a naked older woman in a gym locker room and notions of respect for others or simple kindness never enter her mind as she posts it onto the internet. We are so surrounded by brutality and cruelty and the rapacious use of land and sea and other human beings that we seem not to be shocked anymore. We are a dog tied to a bike rack that imagines itself free – bound on the street having forgotten we ever had a home and one who loves us.

But a clean heart. A new spirit. A right spirit. A willing spirit. The holy spirit. The joy of God’s salvation. These things still await us.


Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AUS_Navy_091112-N-9860Y-007_Lt._Luke_Brown_is_greeted_by_his_German_shepherd%2C_Smokey%2C_at_the_Naval_Air_Station_Whidbey_Island_flight_line.jpg  By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tucker M. Yates [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An insulting mercy

File:Ras Dejen, shepherd's children.JPG

Watching for the Morning of September 11, 2016

Year C

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 19 / Lectionary 24

Luke 15:1-10

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

Jesus can be wickedly insulting. He is not, of course, trying to be mean. He is trying to make clear what we do not want to see: that God has chosen to deal with the world with mercy rather than revenge, that God is seeking to reconcile the human community not purge it.

We have such a sweet, pastoral picture of the good shepherd with the lamb around his shoulders, but for a host of reasons “good shepherd” (or “noble shepherd”) was a contradiction in terms for the first century. To the Pharisees with whom Jesus is speaking, shepherds were despised and considered unclean and without honor. So when Jesus says “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep…” he is comparing these pharisaic paragons of piety with the unclean and cast out. It is such sweet irony, for they are attacking Jesus for precisely this reason: that he welcomes the unclean and cast out. And Jesus would receive the Pharisees, if only they were willing… Even as he would receive us, if only we were willing…

Although Jesus stops short of the ultimate insult, choosing not to say “which woman among you…”, the parallel is clear and the example of a woman seeking a coin lost from its place (probably a necklace) bristles with offense. But women are welcome in Jesus’ presence (though the Pharisees would keep them out). And Jesus would receive the Pharisees, if only they were willing… Even as he would receive us, if only we were willing… The banquet of God is at hand, if only we are willing…

The question of what God should do with a sinful and unclean humanity rattles through Sunday’s texts. God threatens to destroy the Israelites as they dance around the golden calf, but Moses intercedes on their behalf, calling God to turn from vengeance and show mercy. David prays for God’s mercy in the psalm, in words attributed to him after he has slept with the wife of Uriah and then, unable to get Uriah to betray his men in the field by going home to enjoy her comfort, arranges his murder to hide the sure-to-be-a-scandal pregnancy. First Timothy contains words attributed to Paul, naming his own scandalous sin and God’s scandalous mercy. And then we hear Jesus talking about the joy of heaven over the sinner who repents, the outcast who returns to the community.

The angels in heaven are dancing at the healing of the world, and we are invited to join the dance.

The Prayer for September 11, 2016

God of all joy,
the heavens resound with song
where the wounds of the broken are tended
and the lost and alone are gathered in.
Help us to rejoice in what pleases you,
and to know the joy of your reconciling love.

The Texts for September 11, 2016

First Reading: Exodus 32:7-14
“The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.”
– Moses is on Mt. Sinai receiving God’s commands when the Israelites begin to worship the golden calf. God threatens to destroy them and create a new people from Moses’ descendants, but Moses intercedes on their behalf.

Psalmody: Psalm 51:1-12  (appointed vv. 1-10)
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.” – This exquisite prayer of confession is attributed to David after the prophet Nathan exposed David’s sin with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband.

Second Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17
“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.”
– The letters to Timothy are penned by Paul or in his name as parting words of advice to his protégé, Timothy. Here Paul speaks of the mercy he received though he initially persecuted the church.

Gospel: Luke 15:1-10
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” – The first two of three parables speaking of God’s joy in gathering the outcast and restoring the community of Israel – indeed the whole human community.


Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARas_Dejen%2C_shepherd’s_children.JPG By Florian Fell (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Changing direction

Watching for Ash Wednesday, February 10, 2016

File:Spoilt for Choice^ - geograph.org.uk - 640101.jpgAsh Wednesday takes us into territory that we, as Americans, don’t travel much. It is a season of repentance. We have a hard time acknowledging our sins, much less feeling bad about it. Nor do we like to think about our mortality and the frailty of life. But there is no wisdom without these.

Our instinctive national answer to the tragedy in the Middle East is to blame and send more troops, not to ask how we ended up here and whether there is another path we should take. We do not like to consider whether there are stains on our hands.

There is something to be said for the forward view of American culture. We are a people who do not feel bound by the past. Its blessing is our inventiveness. Its curse is that we do not learn well from the past.

We do not have time for navel-gazing; there are things to do. We do not believe in abstinence; the economy depends upon impulse purchases. Even Santa, after all, we now know, ditches his sleigh for the much more pleasurable experiences of delivering present in his bright red Mercedes.

Ash Wednesday tells us to be still. To remember we are mortal. To consider the realm of the spirit. To let go of some generally simple pleasures (that we imagine we cannot live without) and turn our attention to those who are in need of life’s most basic necessities like food and shelter. Or friendship. Or kindness. Or a listening ear.

So Wednesday we will hear the traditional texts from Joel calling us to return to the LORD, and the David’s psalm crying out to God after being confronted with the abuse of his royal power to take Bathsheba and rob Uriah of his life. We will hear Paul urge us to be reconciled with God. And we will hear Jesus talk about the difference between acts of public piety and a life that embodies the mercy of God.

Forty days is much to long to feel sad about our sins. But both the Greek and Hebrew words translated as repentance mean changing our direction, not feeling guilty.

We need occasionally to stop, and look, and turn away from the well-worn path into that other path that is true life.

We call it Lent.

It takes us to Easter.

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: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.” – Facing a terrible plague of locusts, the prophet calls for the people to turn to God, marking themselves with dust and ashes and rent hearts that God may see their desperate plight and come to their aid.

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.


Image: John Bennett [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Unquenchable fire

The Evening of Ash Wednesday

Psalm 51

File:0507 HRO Strandparty PICT5896.jpg10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.

I learned something new this year.

We begin our Ash Wednesday service with the burning of the palm fronds that people received last Palm Sunday and brought from home that, with their ashes, we might mark the beginning of Lent.  We burn them in a small fire pit – and though I purchase commercially prepared ashes to use, I also symbolically add some of the palm ashes to the bowl.  The purchased ashes simply work better; they have just the right mix of oil and fine ash to stick to a forehead without making a mess.

As the fire settled, I used the tongs to pick out a small, perfectly sized wisp of ash.  As I brought it towards the bowl, I realized this thin string of burned palm had a small glowing ember on the end.  But rather than return it to the fire and choose another, I assumed it was ready to go out, dropped it in the bowl, and we began the silent procession into the sanctuary, following the cross.

But the ember didn’t go out.

As I held the bowl for the prayers and opening words of the confession, I realized it was still glowing.  By the time we had finished the portion of Psalm 51, the bowl was getting warm.  I had to be careful not to stick my thumb into the glowing coal as I began to put ashes on peoples foreheads.  The bowl continued to get warmer, the glow seemed to grow larger, and I realized that the small ember had ignited a small spreading fire among that perfect mixture of charcoal and olive oil.

If our attendance had been much larger, I might have been in trouble.

The blaze of fire from the palm fronds was meant to speak to us of the fragility and evanescence of life.  The psalmist acknowledges life’s brevity: we are ephemeral like grass.  And the prophet proclaims, All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. But the prophet’s declaration leads to the confession that though we are fickle, the promise of God is not: “the word of God will stand forever.”

Like that small ember slowly spreading through the ashes, God’s promised grace endures and spreads and sets alight not just a few hearts here and there but, quietly, patiently, like yeast spreading through the whole loaf or a mustard seed cast into the ground, it works relentlessly to transform the whole world.

May it ever burn within me.