“If you love me…”

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Exhortation to the Apostles (Recommandation aux apôtres) - James Tissot.jpg

Watching for the Morning of May 21, 2017

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Again, this Sunday, we hear Jesus speaking after supper on the night of his betrayal. Again we hear him providing for his little band as he faces what he knows will be his death. Again we hear him speak of the Spirit who will come, an ‘advocate’ who will turn the hearts of the crowd in their favor. Again we hear the promise that Jesus will come to his followers. Again we hear about love and fidelity and abiding. And again we hear about living out Jesus’ teaching: “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.”

Fidelity to Jesus will mean fidelity to his teaching.  We are not joining team Jesus against team Pharisees. We are not joining team Jesus against team Humanists. We are not joining team Jesus against team Hillary or Team Trump. We are disciples, students, of the one who redeems the world: the one who forgives sins, who heals families and communities, who restores the world to its true source and life.

All the other promises weave together with this one: faithfulness is seen in the doing. There is no faith in concepts, ideas or doctrines. Nothing is gained by believing in a six-day creation or a literal ark. Nothing is gained by nodding to the notion of forgiveness. Those who have looked into the eyes of grace will live grace. Those who have fed at his table will feed others. Those who have been touched by his healing hand will extend their hand to others.

When I was about ten my step-father allowed a friend to store his sports car in our garage. We sat in the driver’s seat and roared through the gears, drinking in the wonder of this machine. But make no mistake; we were not driving it.

So, Sunday, Paul will call the citizens of Athens to hear the message that the “unknown God” has been made known in this Jesus. And the author of First Peter will summon us to do what is good even if it brings suffering. And the psalmist will speak of faithfulness in the midst of trial. And the table will be set that welcomes all and the songs will be sung that hint of the harmony to come, and we will be drawn again into the redemptive love made visible in this Jesus who sends the Spirit and comes to abide with us and in us.

Preaching Series: Genesis 3: Fall

We are in the third week of our series going through key stories of the scripture to see, as Jesus showed his followers on the road to Emmaus, that the scriptures bear witness to the sacrificial and redeeming love of God that is manifest ultimately in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The story before us this week is the moment when the harmony of God’s good garden goes wrong, when humanity reaches out for the knowledge of life’s joys and sorrows and finds itself now alienated from the world, one another and God.

We are capable of imagining a world of perfect peace and harmony, but we know that the world is full of woe. We are capable of ugliness of spirit and act. We hate. We fear. We abuse. We wage war. We build ovens. We harm even those who are closest to us with words that should have gone unsaid. We know the beauty of the world; why must we also know its ugliness? “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars.”

The Prayer for May 21, 2017

Gracious God,
you have given us your Spirit as our advocate and guide
that we might abide in you and you in us.
Grant us courage and faith to follow where you lead,
to obey your commands,
to love as you 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 May 21, 2017

First Reading: Acts 17:22-31
“Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.’” – Paul, traveling by himself to avoid a conspiracy to murder him, comes to Athens where he seeks to engage the leaders of that city with the message of God, the creator all peoples.

Psalmody: Psalm 66:8-20
“Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard.” – The psalmist calls for all nations to praise God for his gracious deeds to deliver those in need.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:13-22
“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” –
The author’s continuing exposition on baptism, now touches on the Ascension: “Baptism…now saves you–not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” The author urges his hearers to remain faithful in the face of hostility, to do what is good and be ready to give account for the hope that is in them.

Gospel: John 14: 15-21
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” – Continuing last Sunday’s reading, Jesus makes provision for his followers in light of his impending death, promising that God will send the Holy Spirit (the ‘Paraclete’).

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABrooklyn_Museum_-_The_Exhortation_to_the_Apostles_(Recommandation_aux_ap%C3%B4tres)_-_James_Tissot.jpg James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Advertisements

Unwelcome prophets

Watching for the Morning of July 5, 2015

Year B

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 9 / Lectionary 14

File:Nicolás Francés - The Twelve Apostles - Google Art Project.jpg

Nicolás Francés – The Twelve Apostles

Following the healing of the woman with the twelve year infirmity and the raising of Jairus’ twelve year old daughter, Jesus goes to his ‘hometown’. But Mark doesn’t say he went to Nazareth; the word Mark uses is something more like ‘fatherland’. This is not just about Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth; it hints at his rejection by the twelve tribes of Israel he has come to heal.

Prophets are not welcome in their hometown. We hear his townspeople respond with a kind of “Who does he think he is?” attack on a member of the community who acts outside his station. It is the same attack made by the leadership of the nation.

Prophets have not been well received in Israel – despite their huge influence on the shape of the Biblical tradition. Jeremiah was imprisoned, his message callously thrown into the fire by the king, page by page as it was read to him. Amos was accused of treason and told to go home and ply his trade in Judah when God sent him to warn the northern kingdom of Israel. But Amos was not one of the professional prophets – the talking heads who assured the king of God’s favor.

Sunday we hear of Ezekiel’s call to deliver God’s message – though he is sent to a house of rebels who will not hear. Though the psalm will claim that the people are attentive to God, like a servant watching the master’s hand, both the reading from Ezekiel and the Gospel text will suggest otherwise. We are a stubborn people wanting to hear what we want to hear rather than what God has to say. And so God’s power to heal is not welcomed in Nazareth – and too often lost to us.

But God is not deterred. Jesus sends his twelve – twelve to represent the whole community of believers – to announce God’s dawning reign and dispense God’s gifts of healing and life. And where they go, the realm of Satan is driven back.

Outside the theme – yet obliquely connected – is Paul’s struggle to defend his ministry and his acknowledgment of a “thorn in the flesh.” Whatever it might be, it reminds him that the power is in God not himself. He is not a victorious crusader; he is one of the wounded who knows the wondrous grace God.

The Prayer July 5, 2015

O God, whose will it is to gather all people into your eternal embrace,
make us ever mindful of your call,
and ever fruitful in our task,
to bear witness to your reign of grace and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 5, 2015

First Reading: Ezekiel 1:28b – 2:5 (appointed 2:1-5)
“I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me.” – Having received his overwhelming vision of God, the prophet is summoned to speak God’s message to the rebellious people of God.

Psalmody: Psalm 123
“As the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God.”
– A pilgrim song, the poet imagines the people as an attentive servant awaiting the master’s kindness.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 (appointed 12:2-10)
“To keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh.”
– Paul must defend his ministry by “boasting” of his gifts, yet fully aware that all is by God’s grace.

Gospel: Mark 6:1-13
“He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” – Rejected at Nazareth, Jesus continues and expands his mission, sending out his followers as heralds of God’s kingdom.

 

Image: Nicolás Francés [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Kenosis

Friday

Philippians 2:5-11

File:Kirche San Michele de Murato, Korsika - Der Sündenfall (die Schlange reicht Eva die Frucht vom Baum der Erkenntnis).jpg

San Michele de Murato, Corse – Fall of man

6Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

The Greek word for Christ’s emptying of himself is ‘kenosis’. In seminary we wore the cloak of learning with theological jargon that identified us as members of an elite class. Every educational discipline does the same thing. We use technical terms and language to define ourselves as members of a special class of the knowledgeable.

It isn’t just academics that love this illusion of being special. Those who work with their hands mock those ‘eggheads’ who can’t fix a thing. We mock the ‘fruits and nuts’ of California as they the ‘rubes’ of the heartland. So-called liberals mock so-called conservatives – and vice-versa – as if they were utterly ignorant of the most basic truths. Abortion, sexuality, guns, pick a topic, any topic, and we lift ourselves over the ‘others’.

In a world of constant king-of-the-hill, of a perpetual squabble over the pecking order, Jesus is among us as one who emptied himself.

And then we use him to lift ourselves over others – because we know how to use the word kenosis, or because we are true believers of one kind or another.

Christ emptied himself. He who is Lord of all becomes the slave/servant of God. He who is master of all accepts a master. He who is bound by none becomes bound to all. The one who is the incarnation of the eternal word of God bends to wash feet. I am among you as one who serves.”

We all want to escape the servant class. We want to be our own boss. We hunger for freedom from, not servant to. We promise that Christ will make you free, without carefully pondering the sentence that freedom comes from abiding in Jesus’ teaching, from letting Jesus’ teaching and spirit be your guide and – shall we say – master.

He emptied himself. And we struggle mightily to turn that submission into some kind of self-assertion, some kind of courageous individuation, some bold and exalted lead by example. But it is what it is, submission to the will of another.

Our forebears chose themselves when they clutched at the fruit of the one forbidden tree – the tree that was sure to grant us knowledge not only of life’s beauty and joys (which they already knew) but its sorrows and horrors, the fruit that promised we could be like God who knows every woe. Is there a child killed God does not see? Is there a woman abused, a man tortured, a body desiccated by hunger or disease that God does not know?   A hellish cruelty God does not taste? Ah, but we will be like God? We will be our own gods!

Jesus doesn’t reach out to pluck that fruit. He doesn’t grab and grasp. (I don’t know why the translators use ‘exploit’ for a word used of robbery and rape, the seizing of a prize.) Jesus doesn’t seek to be as God. He chooses to be a slave/servant of God. He chooses to be what our first parents were created to be.

Jesus declared that the reign of God was dawning. And everywhere he went he embodied that reign: forgiving sins, healing, freeing, restoring, uniting, reconciling. It was a journey of submission to the will of another, not the assertion of his own will. Every fiber of our being wants to go the other way. We are children of the first Adam not children of the new Adam. Still he stands before us as the completely faithful one, the one we crucified but God raised, the one who bears perfect witness that the true and imperishable life is found in relationship to the eternal one rather than submission to our passing passions and desires.

We are children of the first Adam. But God has invited us to be a child of the new Adam, to be united with his son, to die with him and rise to newness of life. God invites us to bend the knee now before the one to whom all creation shall ultimately bow. God invites us to enter now into the glory that awaits.

It is an invitation we do not deserve. But he is among us as one who serves.

 

Photo: By Dnalor 01 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Time to plow

Watching for Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Monday

File:A Stiff Pull.jpgWednesday we begin our Lenten journey, our spiritual pilgrimage to the three days in which the great mystery of God’s healing and reconciling work in Christ are celebrated. The “holy city” to which we travel are those events in which Christ kneels to wash our feet, breaks with us the bread of life, is arrested and stripped of all honor and glory, is debased and broken upon the cross, and laid in a tomb. The work of God to heal and reconcile and save our sorry world is brutally rejected. No single act could reveal the collective rebellion of humanity from the way of God than this. Among us, when the emissary of a king is so treated, it is cause for war. But God chooses not to take revenge. He raises Jesus from the dead, bearing witness to us that Jesus is the perfectly faithful one whose words and deeds are true.

We have to prepare ourselves to experience again that story. It’s not that we are cleansing ourselves by some outward ritual to participate in a sacred rite – we are tilling the ground, breaking up the soil of our hearts, so that we will be ready to hear and receive all the power and grace of this message – so that it can take root in good soil and bear abundant fruit in us.

We need time to get ready. We need to plow the ground. We need to pull the stumps and clear the weeds.

Ash Wednesday is the first step of this spiritual journey. It points the direction we must travel. Repentance is not about guilt; it is the recognition that we need to turn back to the path, renew the journey, remember the stunning grace of God and live it anew.

The Prayer for Ash Wednesday

By your prophets, O God, you call us to repentance and faith
leading us on a journey into wholeness and life.
Watch over us, renewing our lives and our world
that, abiding in your grace, we may prove faithful to you and to all

The Texts for Ash Wednesday, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-12 (We are using the alternate this year)
“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.

Assigned 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, rending their hearts that God may see their desperate plight and come to their aid.

 

Photo: Peter Henry Emerson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“A new covenant”

Saturday

Jeremiah 31

Sharing the first ring of the Kransekage, a Danish wedding cake

Sharing the first ring of the Kransekage, a Danish wedding cake

31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

It is difficult to communicate how profound a declaration this is. It is the word of a marital partner repeatedly betrayed and, at the end of a brutal divorce, declaring: “We will yet have a happy marriage. There will be a new wedding. The day will surely come when perfect love is written on the heart.”

If it were not the voice of God, we would give the spurned spouse a “Denial is not a river in Egypt” award.

God will start again. A people created by a promise to Abraham, led out of bondage, wondrously delivered into a new land and provided with every blessing, turn instead to the gods of the land, the gods of fertility and prosperity, the gods of the surrounding nations, the values of ancient cultures built on wealth and power,

God let it fall to dust, crushed by yet greater wealth and power. Temple, priesthood, kingship, city, all destroyed.

But God will start again.

It is the pattern found throughout the Biblical narrative from the very beginning: Garden and betrayal. God appeals to Cain, but Cain chooses murder. God gives Adam and Eve to one another in perfect love, and Lamech chooses multiple wives, Sodom chooses rape, the daughters of Lot choose incest. Judah chooses prostitution. Gibeah chooses rape and murder. David murders Uriah and takes his wife. Prostitution, pederasty, adultery, God’s precious, intimate, life-giving gift is sacrificed to the gods of power and pleasure. Self-giving love becomes selfish love.

War, pillaging, slavery, hunger, everywhere God’s gift of a good and bountiful creation is corrupted and abused.

But God will start again. A new heaven and a new earth – not meaning God will discard the old, but God will heal the broken and wounded world until the soiled becomes pure, like a bride adorned. Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”

God will birth us from above. God will pour out his holy Spirit. God will conform us to the image of Christ. The deserts shall blossom. A holy city.

“I will make a new covenant.” There shall be a new wedding. Our rebellious, defiant hearts shall be made free. We shall learn love and fidelity. The will and purpose of God will be written on our hearts.

Come, Holy Spirit, Come. Come and begin your work now in me.

33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Royal rage

Saturday

Matthew 22

File:François-Joseph Heim - Study for Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans - Google Art Project.jpg

Study for Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans by François Joseph Heim

7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.

Jesus is in Jerusalem, along with the crowds for Passover and the additional Roman soldiers brought in to keep anyone from thoughts of freedom at this national festival of liberation. For Jesus this is his final week. He will be accused of resisting Roman rule and will suffer the ancient equivalent of a beheading broadcast across the internet, designed to show everyone the futility of resisting those in power.

What does Jesus say about those who will not have God as their king, who refuse the realm of grace and life?

The banquet story is a story about grace – a God who invites all into the joy of the marriage of heaven and earth. Even those who live on the streets are clothed in wedding garments and brought into the king’s palace.

But as Jesus stands in the temple in Jerusalem facing those rulers of Jerusalem and Judea who are plotting to kill him, the story takes a more ominous turn. Where once the story had focused on the gracious gathering of outcasts to a great banquet, now the story concerns a king and the vassals who chose to rebel – and the inevitable outcome of that rebellion.

It is not an allegory; Jesus is not equating God with the king. God is not an enraged lord coming to slay his enemies. Jesus is simply reminding the Jerusalem elite of the world in which they live and the need to choose their lord wisely.

Wedding feasts were weeklong affairs. Like all banquets they were public rituals where questions of honor were foremost. Who is invited? Who will be asked to sit where? These are issues of which we are familiar in the Gospels. This is the reason for the two stage invitation: first, invitations are sent – followed by time for people to find out who else is invited and whether they should associate with such people. Then the servants are dispatched to escort people to the banquet. In this telling, Jesus skips over that first invitation and goes right to the second – the sending of servants to gather the guests and the invitees stunning rejection of their king. Even more surprisingly, the king gives his subjects the opportunity to repent by sending a second wave of servants – but the royal subjects escalate their rebellion by the disgraceful humiliation and murder of the king’s men.

All those wealthy landowners owe their privilege to the beneficence of the king. To spurn his invitation means that they have shifted their allegiance to some other lord. To abuse his servants is a declaration of war. Jesus doesn’t need to ask the question what will happen to such rebels; he just tells the story. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.”

This is political reality among human empires. After Julius Caesar was assassinated and his murderers defeated, war broke out among the triumvirs, Herod the Great was allied with Antony and Cleopatra. His fealty was pledged to Antony; his troops were in his service. Octavian (who we know now as Caesar Augustus) crushed Antony and Cleopatra’s forces at Actium. Had Herod’s troops been present in the battle, he too would have been crushed and his kingdom given to another. But Herod was off defending the eastern borders so, when Antony fell, Herod came quickly to kneel before Octavian and somehow persuaded him to receive his fealty.

Rebel realms are crushed and their cities burned. That is the way of empire. At least, that is the way of human empire. Everything depends on serving the right lord.

Jesus stands before the elite of Jerusalem as the representative of God’s empire. He is ushering in the reign of God. And this parable about welcoming all now also warns his hearers of the dangers of rebellion. They are choosing between two ‘empires’: one is the realm of life; the other the realm in which death holds sway. One is the new Jerusalem; the other burned cities. One the realm of grace; the other the realm of revenge.

They should choose their allegiance wisely.

Wicked tenants

Friday

Matthew 21

File:Hubacker mit Turm.JPG

photo credit: Symposiarch

33There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.

It’s interesting to me that this story is often referred to as the parable of the wicked tenants. The tenants are certainly wicked in the eyes of the landlord, but I suspect that the peasants in the crowd, reduced to poverty through tenancy, are cheering for these daring rebels.

Some have suggested that the story is a warning by Jesus about the need for land reform. I don’t doubt that Jesus had things to say about land reform – but this is an argument about scripture rather than politics. What did God require of Israel? What fruit did God seek? What is the harvest God expects? The Torah was clear about land: it was a gift from God to a people rescued from slavery, a people without land. It was God’s land entrusted to them. It was not to be sold and acquired, but protected and preserved – and occasionally redistributed – that all might have access to life’s necessities.

Misfortunes leading to debts were not to drag a family down forever. “There will be no poor among you.”

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. I say “of course” only because of the reality of our resistance to the way of God in favor of the way of self.

The zealot answer was resistance and rebellion. It was the seizing of the temple and the burning of the debt records. (How profound is that symbolism that the temple served as the bank and kept record of debts?! Religion wedded to wealth and power rather than sharing and service.) And Rome’s answer to resistance and rebellion was crucifixion and destruction. A cycle of violence we continue to witness.

Jesus talked about forgiveness of debts, love of enemies, living the way of God. This is not land reform for the sake of land reform. This is land reform for the sake of our essential humanity, for being the reconciled and renewed sons and daughters of God. Faithful. Giving to God the fruit for which he looks.

So, like the prophet Isaiah, Jesus tells a vineyard story. Like the prophet, Jesus draws the crowd of listeners into his tale. Rebel tenants. The high priestly families that hold precisely such tenant vineyards are outraged by the behavior of these tenants. They cannot help declare that the owner will come with an army to destroy such rebels! And it’s only then, when they are fully engaged in the narrative – perhaps ready to do battle, expecting Jesus to defend the tenants – that Jesus let’s their own words condemn themselves: 41They said to him, “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.”

To which Jesus answers, after quoting Psalm 118 about the stone the builders rejected:

43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom

The leaders of Jerusalem are the tenants. The ones in bed with Roman wealth and power. The ones who have neglected justice and mercy. The ones who built, in the name of God, a system God said they should never build.

This parable becomes dark with memory after the son, the crucified, is laid into a tomb. It morphs from parable into allegory: God is the landowner; the prophets are the servants sent to gather the “fruit”, the obedience owed to God; the rebel tenants are faithless Israel; the new tenants are the sinners and tax collectors and ultimately the gentiles who will give to God God’s due.  And the dark, dark memory of Jerusalem destroyed.

But it is not a tale of how we have gotten the vineyard. It is a tale about the consequences of not giving God what God has required of us: our love, our compassion, our generosity, our mercy, our fidelity – God’s way of sharing and service.

“Have you never read in the scripture?” Jesus asks. And it is much more than a question about that one verse where God takes the rejected stone to build his true temple.