A cup of water

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Watching for the Morning of July 2, 2017

Year A

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 8 / Lectionary 13

A cup of cold water. That’s all it takes to be remembered in heaven: a cup of cold water. The simplest gesture of hospitality to the ambassadors of heaven’s reign will be rewarded.

After all that Jesus has said to his followers about their mission, after the instructions to give freely, to take no provisions, to carry no beggar’s bag, to stay with whomever will receive them; after the warnings that they are going out like sheep among wolves and will be dragged before the authorities; after the warnings that they will be betrayed even by members of their own family and hated by all because of Jesus name – they should expect, after all, no different treatment than their master received – after the declaration that those who will not take up the cross are not worthy of him comes this sweet and simple promise that “whoever welcomes you welcomes me.”

We are emissaries of the new kingship that is come to the world. We go out as runners to announce that the old empire is falling and a new empire marching towards them – an ‘empire’, a dominion, that heals the sick and raises the dead and gathers the outcast and sets free the oppressed.

The world of greed and violence and slaveries will not surrender easily; but a new dominion marches through the land, and all who show welcome to that reign shall stand forever in the king’s radiance.

We don’t live in the world of rival claimants to the throne waging war and summoning every town and village to declare their allegiance, but we know enough about the dark side of politics and international affairs to understand. There is risk in siding with the insurrection. And risk should you choose wrongly. The inertia is with what is known not what might be. But we are called to be children of what might be. We are called to be emissaries of the one who heals and blesses and gathers and forgives. We are sent as agents of compassion and mercy and truth. We are sent to be healers and reconcilers in a world of death and division.

And though the old regime will not surrender easily, the war is decided. The grave is empty. What might be, will be. And the simplest hospitality to the messengers of that kingdom will be remembered and rewarded.

The Prayer for July 2, 2017

Almighty God,
you send your followers into the world
to proclaim your justice and mercy,
promising that every act of kindness shown to them
will be honored in heaven.
Grant us courage to go forth as your faithful people
bearing witness to your light and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 2, 2017

First Reading: Jeremiah 28:1-9 (appointed: 5-9)
“As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.” –
Jeremiah confronts the prophet Hananiah who has declared that God is about to set Judah free from the hand of Babylon – a message in conflict with the warnings God has spoken through his prophets in the past.

Psalmody: Psalm 89:1-4, 15 (appointed: 1-4, 15-18)
“I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.” – In a prayer that will cry out to God in distress over the loss of the Davidic kingship, the poet here sings of God’s faithfulness and his promise to David.

Second Reading: Romans 6:8-23 (appointed: 12-23)
“Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.”
– Countering the objection that justification by faith (restoration to a right relationship with God by trust in and fidelity to God’s work and promise) leads to lawlessness, Paul argues that if we have come under the reign of God in baptism, it makes no sense that we should continue to yield ourselves in service to the dominion of sin and death. The “wages” for serving sin is ultimately death (death came into the world because of Adam’s sin); whereas the “wages” of serving God is the free gift of the life of the age to come.

Gospel: Matthew 10:40-42
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” – Jesus concludes his instructions to his followers on their mission as heralds of the reign of God by affirming that they go as his emissaries. Christ is present to the world in and through their witness, and no gesture of hospitality shown to them shall go unrewarded.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Small_Cup_LACMA_AC1997.253.17.jpg, public domain.

The throne of David

Watching for the morning of December 21

Year B

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

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Michelangelo’s David

It is as if King Arthur was returning to bring a just and righteous reign to the land. The birth of a new king is proclaimed to Mary:

“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

The promise made to David of an eternal line – a promise that seemed broken after Jerusalem was destroyed and brought under the dominion of Babylon then Persia then Greece and its warring successor states until finally Roman troops ruled the city – that promise has been resurrected. And Mary is chosen for the terrible and wondrous task of giving birth to this new king.

The promise made to David and fulfilled in Jesus governs our readings this final Sunday in Advent. In the first reading we hear Nathan declare God’s promise to David of an eternal reign:

“Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me;
your throne shall be established forever.”

Like a river that can find no path to the sea, this promise seemed to sink into the arid desert. The line of David appeared broken by Babylon and the imperial conquerors that followed. But the hope remained that Israel would again be free, that the glory of David’s realm would be restored, that they would be freed from the woes of foreign dominion. And now suddenly there is a heavenly messenger standing before a peasant girl declaring that she would bear that child, that all God’s ancient promises would be fulfilled, that all the shame of Israel’s life would be lifted away.

The joy of that promise echoes through the song of salvation from Isaiah. And the scope of that deliverance is extended to the whole world in the passage from Romans. For the king to come is far more than the warrior king to reclaim Jerusalem, but the redeemer king who brings the New Jerusalem.

As we gather on the cusp of our celebration of that birth, the joy of God’s deliverance breaks through. God’s anointed, God’s Christ, shall reign in us forever.

The Prayer for December 21, 2014

Mighty God,
who stands at the beginning and end of time,
through your son Jesus, child of Mary,
you entered into the fabric of time
to make visible among us your reign of grace and life.
Fill us with gratefulness, wonder and awe
that we may receive you with joy at your coming;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for December 21, 2014

First Reading: 2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16
“Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’” – When David seeks to build a temple for God, God declares he has it backwards: it isn’t David who builds a house for God, but God who builds a house (a dynastic line) for David.

Psalmody: Isaiah 12:2-6,
“With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” – the prophet sings a song of thanksgiving, anticipating the day of God’s redemption.

Second Reading: Romans 16.25-27
“Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ.”
– A hymnic conclusion to Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome celebrates the mystery now revealed of God’s purpose to gather all people into Christ.

Gospel: Luke 1:26-38
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph.” – The angel Gabriel invades Mary’s home and presents her with the news that she will give birth to the heir of David’s throne.

The appointed psalm: Luke 1:46-55, the Song of Mary (the Magnificat)
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” – Mary sings with joy of God’s coming deliverance when she is greeted by Elizabeth whose unborn child already recognizes their coming Lord.
or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
“I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.”
– The psalmist sings of God’s promise to David.

Image credit: By Rabe! (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The kingship belongs to God

Sunday Evening

Psalm 89

white rose.charlie18For our shield belongs to the Lord,
our king to the Holy One of Israel.

The poet’s opening themes are God’s faithfulness and covenant promise to David that his royal line shall never fail. Then the poet sings of the host of heaven praising God’s faithfulness and might. He uses as his poetic image God victorious over Rahab, the primeval chaos monster of Canaanite myth. All creation, heaven and earth, the divine and the mundane, is the LORD’s.

But we, the listeners, know that the Davidic kingship has fallen; the poem will end with lament and plea for God to remember and act. Still, the poet sings that all heaven and earth belong to the LORD, that God’s “arm” is “endowed with might.” It is why the people who know the festal shout are happy.

And then this little verse peeps in:

18Our shield belongs to the Lord,
our king to the Holy One of Israel.

The king belongs to God. The kingship belongs to God. God made a promise, but the kingship belongs to God. The line of David shall continue as the sun and moon “established forever”, but the kingship belongs to God. If kings forsake God’s commands, God will punish, yet he will not take away his steadfast love – so God has spoken – but the kingship belongs to God.

There is a remarkable humility in the text. The promise is ever allowed to be a promise; the poet does not take it as a possession: the kingship belongs to God. God has promised it to them, but it belongs to God. It is gift. It is a sure and certain promise by the one whose faithfulness and might are sung by all creation. But the kingship belongs to God; it is not Judah’s possession. It is not something that can be clenched in their fists. It comes only as promise. It must be trusted.

God binds himself with a promise, yet God is free. We can trust the gift, but we don’t own it. The kingship is not ours; it is God’s.

Jerusalem got in trouble when they thought the city could never fall because they possessed God’s temple. They imagined God’s presence and protection as their possession. It disconnected them from trust. It no longer mattered what they did – or didn’t do. They became a city that didn’t follow in faith, didn’t live the life they had been given, didn’t abide in God’s teaching. And the city fell – with the temple and kingship.

God binds himself with a promise, yet God is free. We can trust the gift, but we don’t own it. The kingship, the city, the promise is not ours; it is God’s.

Salvation is gift. Grace is gift. The Holy Spirit is gift. The presence of Christ in the bread and wine is a sure and certain promise, but it remains a promise, not a possession. A promise must be trusted; a possession I own. A possession I control. A possession asks nothing of me.

Christ is gift, not possession. Grace is gift not possession. Salvation is gift, not possession. They come to us as promise and we receive them with trust. We are confident, we are bold, we build on rock not sand, but we are not in control. We are not the masters. The kingship is God’s.

In this great psalm of praise and lament, hope and plea, confidence and yet confusion, the genius of the poet weaves together in a deep and abiding trust all these various threads: the faithfulness of God, the surpassing might of God, the certainty of his promise, and yet the knowledge that God is free. God is still God. God is not bound by us; we are bound to him. Our right and proper response to God is humble trust in his promise. To the invitation to God’s holy table, to the gift of bread and wine, to the promise of forgiveness, to the participation in the body, we can only say thank you. It is and always remains gift and promise, not our possession.



Psalm 89

File:Cskt-zarandoklas a cedrusokhoz libanonban (1907).jpg

Zarándoklás a cédrusokhoz Libanonban (Pilgrimage to the Cedars in Lebanon). by Tivadar Kosztka Csontvary, 1907

15Happy are the people who know the festal shout,
who walk, O Lord, in the light of your countenance;

A friend finds herself for the first time tending a loved one in that strange realm of tubes and monitors and the alien sights and smells of Intensive Care that is our modern version of the valley of the shadow of death. I do not expect that she will be anywhere else but riding the rollercoaster of emotions that attend such times of trial. But in the midst of a harrowing night, she found the hospital chapel. And there, for a moment, found also the peace of God.

15Happy are the people who know the festal shout.

This word ‘happy’ means more than happy. It used to be translated blessed, but these are slippery and changing words that now seem to distort the sense of the text. Blessed has come to mean ‘lucky’. “We are so blessed” translates to “We have been very fortunate” and, as contemporary Americans, such ‘blessings’ refer to material prosperity, security and health. But ‘happy’ or ‘blessed’ here means something more like ‘at peace with God, oneself and others.’ We use phrases like “I’m in a good place, now,” or a simple but heartfelt, “Life is good,” though even these don’t convey that sense that our lives rest securely on the Rock which is Christ – an awareness that can come to you even in a hospital chapel.

15Happy are the people who know the festal shout,
who walk, O Lord, in the light of your countenance;

Those who know the ‘festal shout’, who share in the great festive celebrations of the nation, who walk into the temple among the pilgrims with God’s face shining upon them, are in a good place. They are rightly aligned with God and others.

This word, ‘Festal shout’, is also used for the sound of the shofar, the ram’s horn, that is the nation’s call to worship, the reminder of God’s goodness, the trumpet blast of God’s victory. Happy are the people who know the sound of the shofar, who know the God who frees the bound and gives land to the landless. Happy the people who know the God who commands justice and mercy. Happy the people who know the God who guards the weak and vulnerable. Happy the people who know the shofar that sounded at Sinai and sounds in Zion and will herald a day when all things are made new. To know the ‘festal shout’ is not only to know the joy of the great festal services, it is to know the God worshipped in those liturgies.

Centered and whole are the people who know the Easter “Alleluia,”
who walk in the light of the resurrection.

Happy and at peace are the people who know the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

Happy and at peace are the people who know that the sins of the world are forgiven.

Like fruitful branches on the vine are the people who know that the world moves towards justice.

Like the stillness of dawn’s first light upon the lake are those who see God’s mercy and life in all things.

Exultant and joyful are those who find their place among the community of God’s pilgrim people.

Centered and whole, free and joyful, deep and steadfast, happy and at peace are the people who know the Easter “Alleluia,” who walk in the light of the resurrection even when they travel the darkness.

Praying in the dark


Psalm 89

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Hope gate, seen from outside, Quebec City, Quebec, Canada, circa 1871

1I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever;
with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.

It is not unusual for the lectionary to pick out the praise portions of a psalm for us to sing or say in Sunday worship, but much more is going on in this psalm that just these words of praise. There was a time when a line or two would call to mind for the worshipping assembly the whole of the psalm, but those days seem long past. We are no longer Abraham Lincoln learning to read by firelight with a copy of a Bible. We are not a biblically literate society anymore. When we hear the poet recite God’s promise: “I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations,” we do not hear also the cry that comes at the end of the psalm “Yet you have rejected, spurned and become enraged at your anointed. You have repudiated the covenant with your servant; you have dragged his dignity in the dust.” (39-40TNK)

The poet lives and prays in the tension between the promise of God and the apparent collapse of that promise.

This makes the opening words of the psalm poignant:

1I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever;
with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
2I declare that your steadfast love is established forever;
your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.

They are words of praise, but words overshadowed.

3You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to my servant David:
4‘I will establish your descendants forever,
and build your throne for all generations.’”

God promised forever, but now that lineage has perished. The sons of the king were executed by the Babylonians; the city walls torn down; the temple stripped, desecrated and consigned to flames. The kingship is no more.

What does he do with this tension? Is the future gone, or is the future to come in ways we have not conceived? Do we go forward trusting a hidden faithfulness, a grace greater than our sins? Or do we walk away, letting faith crumble into the dust along with the bones of the defeated?

The poet is not singing of God’s steadfast love in the bright shiny days full of hope and possibility; he is singing of God’s covenant faithfulness in the darkest night. It is not a religious self-delusion. It is not a blind faith. It is a deep faith. The very deepest of faith: faith that has seen into the heart of the eternal and knows mercy is not at an end. He dares to trust that “His compassions fail not”.

We see this in many places in the scripture. Faith that walks through the valley of the shadow of death trusting a promise whose fulfillment they cannot see.

17Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, 18yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. 19God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-190

This psalm is not a song of untested faith. This is faith that has seen hope crushed yet not lost hope. This is faith that has seen Good Friday but trusts an Easter to come.

The promise of God abides, even when we are in exile. The promise of God abides, even when the land of promise is far off. The promise of God abides even when Abraham is 100 and Sarah 90. The promise abides even when Joseph is sold by his brothers, betrayed by Potiphar’s wife, and forgotten in prison by the royal cupbearer. The promise abides. The steadfast love of the LORD never fails. It is a spring that flows in every arid day and becomes a river of life. From this promise to David a future shall come – a future whose mystery and majesty we have not yet begun to conceive.

But it is why the babe in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy. It is why Simeon and Anna rejoice. It is why all heaven sings, to the fearful surprise of shepherds. It is why Mary goes to the tomb even after hope is lost. The promise abides, and is fulfilled in ways that can only fill us with awe.

The poet expresses his lament, but he cries out because he knows the faithfulness of God. He prays in the darkness because he knows God is light.