The scalpel of God

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“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Mark 9:37)

This is the message from last Sunday, September 23, 2018, on which the congregation celebrated the 40th anniversary of my ordination. The sermon is related to that anniversary, but rooted in the assigned readings: Mark 9:30-37, Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, and James 3:13-4:8a,

Mark 9:30-37: They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

You see, O God,
the struggle of the human heart for privilege and honor
and set before us the betrayed and crucified body of your Son.
May he who was servant of all teach us his way;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

It’s hard to believe I have been doing this for 40 years. It’s stunning to wake up one morning and realize how long it’s been. On the other hand, it’s amazing to think back to all the people and places I’ve known. I have lots of memories – though not as many as I wish. I regret not having kept a journal of my experiences through the years.

A friend wrote me last week about a dramatic graveside service in the rain. It was Wisconsin, so I’m assuming there had been a thunderstorm. I wrote back about a graveside service on a cold November day in Toledo, grey skies, the trees stripped of their leaves, in a little old country cemetery now surrounded on three sides by an oil refinery. I stood at the head of a casket before a small huddle of people, amid the pungent aromas of the refinery and the sounds of its clangs and whistles and whooshes, reading the ancient texts and speaking the promise of a new creation. I wish I knew who that was.

I wish I remembered the name of the person whose funeral I conducted one Good Friday. I had buried his wife four days earlier. He went home after the service, climbed up in his closet and got down an old pistol. Now their adult children were before me once again.

In those days when the heavens seem silent, it falls to the preacher to speak, to break that wall of silence, to let the voice of God be heard in its fearful sweetness.

I never understood the wife of a colleague of mine who was a minister in the United Church of Christ. For her, the sermon was only one member of the community sharing their thoughts for the rest of the community – thoughts the community could take or leave as they saw fit. I don’t know if that’s true of her whole church body; I just know she didn’t share this deep conviction that somewhere in the weeds of the preacher’s words would be hiding the voice of the eternal with all its power to wound and heal.

When I was interviewed here, downstairs in the Fireside Room, I was asked to lead a devotion at the beginning of the meeting. I don’t remember if the call committee had forgotten to tell me they wanted me to do this, or if it was part of the test to see what I might do at the last moment. I turned to the passage in Hebrews (4:12) about the Word of God being sharper than any two-edged sword and talked about the fact that the word ‘sword’ there was the word for the small dagger possessed by a soldier, not the big sword. That dagger was used for fine cutting. It’s more of a knife than a sword, and I suggested we should understand the Word of God as a scalpel with which God does surgery on our hearts.

We are in need of surgery. The Bible is not a book of doctrines and policies; it gives very few absolute answers beyond loving God and neighbor with all your heart and soul and mind. But what the Bible does do is convey to us these stories, events, poems and preaching that have the power, like a scalpel, to set us free from the fears and sins that bind us and shape us into the creatures we were meant to be.

Let us imagine for a moment that Kavanaugh did this thing of which he is accused. And let’s clear away for a moment all the partisan politics and ideologies that are clamoring for power. Let us just imagine that a person is suddenly confronted with a fact from the past saying, “You did this to me, and this is what it cost me.”

It is a fearful thought. Maybe it was forgotten in a haze of alcohol, maybe it was a memory suppressed, maybe it was one of those things you never thought anything about because it was ordinary in the world in which you lived, I don’t know. But suddenly here is this word with its long bony finger pointed at you. This is the story of David and the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 11:1-12:23). David is swept away by the beauty of Uriah’s wife bathing in the moonlight. He sends for her. She gets pregnant. He brings Uriah home from the front hoping to cover his crime. Uriah is too honorable to enjoy the comforts of his home and bed while his men are in the field. David gives secret orders to put Uriah in the front lines and pull away. He is killed. The King’s crime is covered and forgotten. But then comes Nathan with a story of a poor man and his single beloved lamb. The lamb lies in the poor man’s lap like one of our comfort animals. The rich man with many flocks has a visitor arrive and takes the poor man’s lamb to serve his guest for dinner. David is incensed. “The man deserves to die,” he shouts. And then Nathan points his long bony finger and says: “You are the man.”

The word of God is a scalpel. But it points at David not to condemn and destroy, but to free and heal him.

So here we are with this story about Kavanaugh. The response we see around us is to destroy him or to destroy her, and in that instinctive reaction it is not Kavanaugh’s sins that are on display nor his accusers; it is our sins. We are not looking for healing; we are looking for triumph. One way or the other, one side or the other, we want to win. We want to crush our enemies. And we are willing to order Kavanaugh or Ford to the front lines and pull back.

So there is a story about the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 6:8-23). The king of Aram (what is now Syria) is at war with Israel. But God keeps telling the prophet what the king of Aram is doing, where he is moving his troops, where he is planning to attack, and the King of Israel keeps escaping his grasp. The King of Aram is enraged, convinced that one of his generals is betraying him by leaking his plans to the enemy. They all plead innocence. None of them is the betrayer; it is the prophet who whispers to the King of Israel the King of Aram’s private thoughts. So the King of Aram sends his army to seize the prophet. They come at night and surround the city.

In the morning, the prophet’s servant looks out and sees the town surrounded by an army of horses and chariots and cries out in fear. His story is about to end at the point of a spear. But the prophet prays for God to open his servant’s eyes, and he looks up to see the angelic armies of God encircling the city. “Those who are with us,” says the prophet, “are more than those who are with them.”

God strikes the enemy troops with a blindness, a confusion, a fog. As they come into town, the prophet says “Oh you have the wrong town. I’ll show you the way.” And he leads them to the King of Israel. The prophet prays for God to open their eyes and they find themselves surrounded in the capital city. And here is the punch line: The king asks the prophet what he’s supposed to do with the enemy now in his hand. “Shall I kill them, my father? Shall I kill them?” All his enemy’s soldiers are in his power. He has the chance to destroy them completely. But the prophet says instead that he should feed them. The king sets before them a banquet. They sit down to a table of peace. They are reconciled.

We want to win. We want to crush our enemies. “Shall I kill them, my father?” But the scalpel of God tells a story about reconciliation, repentance, transformation, love of God and neighbor.

I have a deep sympathy for Ford; I know something about sexual assault. I also have a deep sympathy for Kavanaugh; I know something about having your life turned upside down in a moment – and I know something about the sins of our youth. Perhaps mostly, I have a deep sorrow for the nation, because we are so far from the kingdom and rushing in the wrong direction. We are a people who do not know how to repent, and the sins of our past – from greed and slavery and genocide to our everlasting faith in winning at all costs – keep haunting us. Our good deeds can’t make the old deeds go away. David was faithful in almost everything. Yet this murder of Uriah needed to be confessed or it would all go wrong.

So there’s another story (1 Kings 21). King Ahab married the daughter of the Sidonian king (1 Kings 16:31). Her name was Jezebel. We don’t name our kids Jezebel anymore.

Ahab grows up in a world where God is God. God has given the land to the people, divided it among every tribe and family. The land is not my possession; it is a gift of God to my family. It is my responsibility to care for it; it is not my privilege to dispose of it. The law says I can’t sell it. If I have to, I can sell the right to use the land until the next sabbatical year. I can sell the next so many harvests, but I can’t sell it permanently.

Ahab is king. He has a palace. He wants the vineyard that belongs to Naboth in order to grow vegetables. Naboth is scandalized by the idea that he should sell his patrimony. He says no. Ahab is depressed and goes to bed. Jezebel is disgusted. She will teach him how a king uses power. She gives a banquet. She invites Naboth to sit at the high table. She hires two scoundrels to sit next to him. In the middle of the dinner they stand up and accuse Naboth of cursing God and the King. They take him out and stone him to death. Jezebel goes to Ahab and says, “Go get your garden.”

Except God has a prophet. God has a servant with God’s heavenly scalpel. And the prophet is standing there in the garden when Ahab shows up to claim it. This is not the kingship God wants, says the prophet, Ahab’s kingdom will fall by the same violence Ahab used.

And so the scalpel of God comes to us. Will we choose violence or faithfulness? Will we choose victory or redemption? Will we choose wealth, power and conquest or justice, mercy and reconciliation?

Story after story, preached word after preached word, songs and poems and history and even erotic poetry – it’s all here in this book – and lurking in it all is this God with a scalpel who would heal our hearts.

So, in the texts we heard today: Jeremiah is a prophet. He holds the scalpel of God. And the word of judgment he speaks against a corrupt regime creates enemies. The king doesn’t want to hear what Jeremiah has to say. Jeremiah will send the king a copy of everything God had said, and the king will burn it all, page by page, in the brazier standing next to him to keep him warm. (Jeremiah 36)

Jeremiah is a priest. His hometown is a village of priests. They all have a stake in the temple and the monarchy. They have a good life. They don’t want Jeremiah mucking it up for them. They see treason in him, not the divine scalpel. They plot to kill him. And so we hear Jeremiah crying out to God in the words we read this morning: “I was like a lamb led to the slaughter.” And we know there is in us a piece of this village of Anathoth that wants to hold on to what we have even if it means silencing the prophet. Even as Jerusalem rose up against Jesus.

The book of James wields the divine scalpel against the passions that drive our hearts and lead us to betray the divine will. Submit yourselves therefore to God,” he writes, “resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. The disciples are thinking: “Our time is coming! We are going to win. We are going to rule.” And they argue over which of them is the top dog.

“What were you talking about?” asks Jesus. He knows full well what they were talking about. Arguments in the Middle East are never quiet.

“What were you talking about?” And suddenly they are silent. Jesus is holding the divine scalpel in his hand. It’s not a sword, though; it’s just a scalpel. It is always just a scalpel, meant to heal and not to harm. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And Jesus puts a child in their midst.

Now we have to get this right. In our society, if you don’t have enough food, you feed the children first. In the time of Jesus, you feed the adults first. Children are loved, but they are at the bottom of the totem pole. They are valued. They are blessings from God. Hopefully they will become adults and take care of their aging parents. But the odds are they won’t make it to adulthood. The death toll is too high. The calories have to go to those who can work the fields.

If we really want to understand what Jesus is saying to his followers, we need to imagine Jesus taking a refugee, or a homeless person, or an addict, whomever we think matters least, and setting him or her in the midst of us, putting his arms around him or her and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

It is the scalpel of God.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Syriske_flyktninger_(8184618433).jpg By Norsk Folkehjelp Norwegian People’s Aid from Norway (Syriske flyktninger) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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The heartbeat of the world

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Watching for the Morning of August 19, 2018

Year B

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Wisdom weaves through our first two readings and the psalm this Sunday, but they aren’t the right texts to go with this Gospel. They work. They are good texts. Jesus is talking about the bread of life and the bread of life is certainly the teaching, the wisdom, the word embodied in this Jesus. But the portion from John 6 before us this week shows another facet of the sign of the loaves and fishes. Jesus uses graphic language about munching on his flesh and blood – language sure to reveal that the crowd around him doesn’t “see”, doesn’t “believe”, doesn’t “come” to this bread from heaven who brings true life to the world. It is offensive language to people for whom eating blood – or meat with the blood still in it – is strictly forbidden by God. The ancient texts declare that the blood is the life, and must be poured back into the earth from which all life comes.

This language, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” echoes with more than the wisdom of God and the teaching of Jesus. It is language we hear in the other Gospels during the night in which Jesus is betrayed, when takes up the bread saying, “This is my body,” and the cup, saying, “This is my blood.”

Jesus’ words on Sunday are part of the turn in this chapter towards the death of Jesus, his sacrifice upon the cross, his giving of his blood and flesh. This is the language of sacrifice when the people would offer to God the blood, to the priest a portion of the meat, and take the rest for a feast that signifies reconciliation and table fellowship with God. In place of Jesus’ real flesh, this “lamb of God” offers to us bread and wine as body and blood. The blood, the life, that belonged only to God, is now given also to us.

The sign of the feeding of the five thousand is all these things. It is receiving the life that comes to us from the realm of God: it is about Jesus teaching, his way of life, his deeds of grace and mercy, his command to love, his sacrifice, his presence in the community, his gift of the Spirit. This bread from heaven is content and relationship and the feast to come. It is a participation now and forever in the reality that is Christ Jesus, the embodiment of all God’s Word, God’s speaking to us that lies at heart of creation and is the essence of God’s encounter with the world.

So we will hear, this Sunday, wisdom personified, calling like a patron summoning guests to banquet at her table. And we will sing the psalm that invites us to come and learn the way of the LORD. And we will hear the author of Ephesians call us to live “not as unwise people but as wise.” But the Gospel will invite us not just into Jesus’ teaching, but into the table fellowship where heaven and earth are united and our hearts are joined to the true heartbeat of the world.

The Prayer for August 19, 2018

Eternal God,
in the body and blood of Christ Jesus, broken and shed,
you have opened for us the way of everlasting life.
Grant us faith to trust your gift
and live your love for the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 19, 2018

First Reading: Proverbs 9:1-6
“Wisdom…has sent out her servant girls, she calls from the highest places in the town…’Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.’” – Wisdom is personified as a hostess calling the people to come to her banquet and feed on her teaching.

Psalmody: Psalm 34:9-14
“Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.”
– The poet calls his hearers to learn the way of God.

Second Reading: Ephesians 5:15-20
“Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.”
– The author continues the exhortation for our life together, encouraging us to be filled with the Spirit.

Gospel: John 6:51-58
“‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’” – the reflection on the meaning of the sign of the feeding of the 5,000, continues with Jesus provoking the crowd with graphic language about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Altarraum-Kreuz_in_Taiz%C3%A9.jpg By Christian Pulfrich [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Casting wide the net of mercy

File:A fisherman casting a net neat Kozhikode Beach.jpgA reflection on the call of Jesus’ disciples from Sunday, January 21, 2018 (the Third Sunday after Epiphany)

Mark 1:14-20: 14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

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Before we begin this morning, I want to make two comments about the text. First, the text begins “Now after John was arrested.” The word that is translated ‘arrested’ here means to be betrayed or handed over. It is the word used of the betrayal and capture of Jesus. When we hear the word ‘arrested’ we think of a police force and a judicial process, but that’s not the world of the first century. ‘Seized’ is probably a better word. And the reason this matters is that here, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, is the shadow of the cross.

Second, I want to remind you that the phrase “repent and believe” is the exact same phrase used when the Roman General defeated Josephus when he was part of the Judean rebellion that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 ce. As a member of the upper class, Josephus was given the choice to change sides and show allegiance to Rome. Jesus comes announcing the reign of God and calling us to change sides and show allegiance to the reign of God. These are not religious words about regret and moral regeneration; they are words about the fundamental commitment of our lives.

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

The 16th chapter of the book of Jeremiah contains a brutal prophetic word. God tells Jeremiah that he is not to take a wife or have children as a sign to the people of his day that a terrible judgment is coming upon the nation, a destruction so fierce that the bodies of children and their parents will lie unburied and unwept. They will become food for the buzzards and wild dogs.

Jeremiah is not to attend any funeral, or console any grieving parent, because no one shall lament those who perish in God’s coming judgment. Jeremiah is not to attend any wedding or celebration because the sound of joy is about to be banished from the land. Indeed, God is sending for a horde of fishermen and hunters to search every cave and cove to haul this people from every hiding place to their destruction.

It is a dark and devastating word from God.

What’s interesting about this Biblical text, however, is that somewhere along the line – either when the words of Jeremiah were being written down or when they were being copied and passed on to the next generation – someone along the way felt compelled to pluck two verses of hope from somewhere else in Jeremiah’s preaching and set these words into this declaration that God was sending out fishermen with nets to gather the people for judgment.

Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt’, but ‘As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.’ For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their ancestors. (Jeremiah 16:14-15 // Jeremiah 23:7-8)

By setting this passage inside the other, the net of judgment becomes ultimately a net of grace.

God’s purpose for the nation does not end with their being scattered from the land where they were supposed to do justice, to show faithfulness to God and to one another, to care for the poor and weak – a faithfulness they failed to show. But God’s purpose ends with the scattered people being gathered.

There are many words of woe in the Biblical text, many words of warning about what will happen if we fail to live God’s justice and mercy. But the prophets do not stop there. It is easy to preach disaster. There are a lot of things that can go wrong when a society fails its most fundamental obligation to care for one another and the earth upon which we live. But God never stops with judgment. God always pushes on to reconciliation, to restoration, to hope. One of the most fundamental elements of the Biblical story is that when all hope for the future is lost – God gives us a future.

Abraham and Sarah have no child. He is 100 and she is 90. The promise of descendants seems at an end. But God is not finished with Abraham or with the world he has promised to save through Abraham’s line.

At the time of Noah, the whole earth has become “corrupt in God’s sight…and filled with violence.” (Genesis 6:12), that “every imagination of the thoughts of their hearts is only evil continually”! (Genesis 6:5RSV) But God is not done with his creation. He grants it a new birth.

Israel is in bondage in Egypt. They have been there for 430 years! (Remember, we are less than 250 years from the declaration of independence.) Pharaoh no longer remembers how Joseph saved the country. Pharaoh fears all these foreigners and instructs the midwives that every male child is to be killed at childbirth – and, when that fails, he issues an edict that every male child should be thrown into the Nile. But God saves a little child named Moses as he is being carried down the river out to sea.

When Moses leads the people out of Egypt, they become trapped between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army and all seems lost – there is no hope – but during the night a wind blows and creates a path through the sea.

The people are without water in the desert, but God brings forth a river of water from the rock.

The people are without food and want to go back to Egypt and their slavery, but in the morning there is manna upon the ground.

Jerusalem is destroyed and the people scattered throughout the world. Many are taken as prisoners to Babylon. But fifty years later, Cyrus overthrows Babylon and lets all its captured people go home. And Jerusalem is rebuilt.

God is a god of mercy. God is a god who works reconciliation and restoration. God is a god who creates a future. God is a god who opens the grave.

So the editor of Jeremiah can’t let those words of judgment stand unanswered. And he reminds us that God’s purpose is to gather the scattered. The nets of judgment become nets of grace.

When Jesus walks along the shore of Galilee and sees those fishermen working there, he sees nets of grace. And he calls those fishermen to the work of gathering all creation into the arms of God.

It’s important we understand this. Our defining task as a Christian community is to gather all creation into the arms of God. The risen Jesus will breathe his Spirit on his followers and say As the father sent me, I sent you.” The last words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew are: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Disciples. Students. Followers. Practitioners. Citizens of the dawning age. Participants in the new creation.

Our tendency is to hear those words in a vaguely institutional sense of making new church members – or at least new Christians. But the vision is of a world brought under the reign of God’s spirit. The vision is a world pulled back from bondage into freedom, from death into life. The vision is a world gathered in the nets of mercy.

Our defining task as a Christian community, as followers of Jesus, is to gather all creation in the nets of mercy.

Now there are some things about this story that I want to be sure we also hear. The text says Jesus is walking along the shore. Jesus is walking on the boundary between the land and the sea. Boundaries are places of spiritual importance in the world of the scripture. All the conversation about clean and unclean in the Bible is about boundaries. What are the boundaries between what is holy and what is not holy?

I don’t have time to go into detail on this, so I hope you will trust me. But the shore is a boundary between the land – where we are safe – and the sea – where there is danger. When God began to create, the sea was a chaos and God set boundaries to the water. He created the dome of heaven to divide the waters above from the waters below, and he divided the sea to allow dry land to appear. He set boundaries that the sea could not cross (cf. Jeremiah 5:22). When Jesus stills the storm or walks on the sea, he is commanding the sea as God commanded the primordial chaos. When Jesus casts the demons out of the man in Gerasa, the demons go into the pigs and what do the pigs do? They run into the sea. The depths of the sea is the realm of chaos and darkness, the realm of evil spirits.

When Jesus walks along the shoreline and calls his followers to be fishers of people, part of the imagery rattling around in the background is the sea as a realm of chaos and evil. We are being called to gather humanity out from the realm of bondage into the realm of freedom. We are being called to cast wide the nets of God’s mercy, to gather the world out from darkness into light, from despair into hope, from death into life.

The second thing I want you to remember is that something is lost when we read this story clipped from the larger narrative. Yes, this is a great story on its own. Yes, it is a classic Sunday school story. But this story is still at the beginning of the very first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. And, as we talked about last week, Mark’s gospel is filled with intensity.

‘Immediately’, it says, they left their nets. (v. 18) ‘Immediately’ Jesus called them (v. 20). The word ‘immediately’ is used twelve times by Mark in this first chapter alone – that averages better than one in every fourth verse. It will get used thirty more times in this short little Gospel. The story Mark tells is full of urgency. It begins with a bang.

Jesus’ summons of followers is part of this incredible dynamic power of Jesus. He is the mighty one who will drench the world in the Spirit of God. He is the one for whom the heavens are torn open. He is the one on whom the Spirit descends. He is the one of whom God will say, “This is my Son, the beloved.” This is the one who will be immediately tested by Satan and be waited on by angels. This is the one who declares that the time has come; God’s reign is begun. He summons people to come and they leave everything to follow him. Next Sunday we will hear how demons cry out and immediately he silences them. We will hear how the sick are brought to him and he heals them. In the Sundays to come we will hear how he reaches out and touches a leper and renders him clean, and how he will announce a crippled man to be forgiven and then tell him to take up his mat and walk.

This story about Peter, Andrew, James and John is not really a story about us; it is a story about Jesus. We are called to discipleship. We are called to follow. We are called to cast wide the nets of mercy. But the story is not about us. It is about Jesus who walks fearlessly on the boundary between earth and sea, between heaven and hell, between death and life to rescue the world.

This is the Jesus who encounters us in the waters of the font. This is the Jesus who embraces us in his mercy and feeds us at his table. This is the Jesus who speaks to us words of life and breathes his Spirit upon us. This is the Jesus who commissions us as his agents and summons us to cast wide the net of mercy.

In a world so deeply entangled in passions and desires and hates and hostilities, in a world so deeply fractured as our own, in a world where judgment looms over our brokenness and sin, God is casting his net of mercy. He bids us follow.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AA_fisherman_casting_a_net_neat_Kozhikode_Beach.jpg By Aswin Krishna Poyil (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, 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

Reconciliation

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Watching for the Morning of September 10, 2017

Year A

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 18 / Lectionary 23

Our first reading on Sunday sets the wrong background for the words of Jesus we will hear. The prophet takes up the image of a sentinel. If a sentinel gives warning of raiders sweeping down upon the land and the people ignore the warning, the people are responsible for whatever losses come. But if the sentinel fails to give warning, and the people are unprepared for the invaders, it is the sentinel who bears responsibility: “their blood I will require at the sentinel’s hand.” As so often with the prophets, Ezekiel has the crowd’s attention. They are nodding in assent, when suddenly the prophet turns the tables and Ezekiel himself is the sentinel warning the people of impending doom. Suddenly the sins of the nation are at issue; destruction is bearing down on them because of their failure to keep God’s way of justice and mercy. If they do not repent, their blood is on their own hands.

Such a word of warning is far different than the injunction given by Jesus that begins with the words: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault.” It sounds the same, perhaps, but it is not. Jesus is not calling us to warn the sinner; he is speaking to the one who has been sinned against. And the sins at stake here are not the failure to live God’s care for the neighbor; they are the assaults on the honor of another. Jesus inhabits a culture where every insult or dishonor must immediately be met with a corresponding insult – all very public – in order to right the balance. A person’s job was to defend his honor and the honor of his family in the eyes of the community. Any insult must be matched. Any challenge met directly and immediately. Jesus is not worried about a fellow believer’s transgressing of a moral code; he is concerned that we understand what it means that we have become members of the household of God. We are a single household in Christ. Any insult must be dealt with privately, as in a family.

But it is not the honor of the community that must be maintained. This is the trap into which churches fall when they sweep grave sins beneath the rug in the name of protecting the church. It is the tie between us that matters. It is reconciliation that is the goal, not honor. Secrets are not being kept; relationships are being mended.

Jesus isn’t concerned with the system of honor rankings; he seeks reconciliation. This is where this whole chapter began. The disciples came to Jesus to ask who was the greatest. And then Jesus is putting a child in the midst and talking about taking up the lowest station. He is talking about plucking out your eye rather than diminishing another. He is talking about the shepherd going after the one and leaving the ninety-nine. And in the verses that follow, that we will read next Sunday, he is talking about 77-fold forgiveness rather than 77-fold revenge.

We are not sentinels for one another – or for society. We are brothers and sisters seeking to live reconciliation. We don’t demand that our honor be restored when offended, we want our relationship to be restored. It is a challenging path. And so we will pray with the psalmist “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes…Give me understanding… Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain.” And we will hear Paul write that all the commandments “are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” And we will realize that, while sentinels matter, reconciliation is the kingdom.

The Prayer for September 10, 2017

Almighty God,
you call us to walk as children of the light
and set before us the command to love one another.
Turn us back when we stray
and lead us in your pathways
that, clothed in Christ, we might bear your grace to the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 10, 2017

First Reading: Ezekiel 33:1-11
“As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” – God compares the prophet to a watchman against hostile enemies and charges him not to remain silent when God has given him a message of warning for the nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:33-40
“Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.” – Another segment of this magisterial psalm celebrating the gift of God’s Law/Teaching.

Second Reading: Romans 13:8-14
“The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
– Paul urges his hearers to live the life to which they have been called in Christ where love (the solidarity of regarding others as members of your own family/kin) is the heart of God’s commands.

Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20
“If another member of the church sins against you…” – Following the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the declaration that God does not want any to be lost, Jesus instructs is followers on seeking reconciliation in the community.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AForgiveness_0001.jpg By scem.info [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A priestly people

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“Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.””

Watching for the Morning of June 18, 2017

Year A

The Second Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 6 / Lectionary 11

The First Lesson on Sunday declares that if Israel abides by God’s teaching, they shall be a priestly people. In the Gospel reading, Jesus sends his followers out as heralds and agents of God’s reign. Though the language is different, the substance is the same: a priest mediates the connection between people and God. In the Old Testament this was about the reconciliation (forgiveness) and fellowship with God established through the sacrificial system. In the New Testament it is mediated through allegiance to Christ and participation in the Spirit/reign of God.   In both you are restored to a community bound together in praise and service of God. And in both there is a word spoken that announces the reality of reconciliation and fellowship – a priestly/prophetic word, spoken on God’s behalf, that the sacrifice has been accepted, that reconciliation is at hand, that the hearer now abides in the grace and life of God. “The grace in which we stand”, says Paul in the reading from Romans for Sunday. The debt has been forgiven. Reconciliation has occurred. Peace that has been established. This is our calling. This is our identity. We are a priestly people – or, at least, meant to be a priestly people reconnecting the world with the source and goal of life. Every cup of cold water. Every healing hand. Every kind word. Every confession heard. Every kindness lived.

It is a great honor to be a priestly people. In a world where so much is torn and divided, we have the privilege of joining the realm of heaven with the realm of earth.

Preaching Series: Abram

The narrative of the flood last Sunday set before us the mystery that though the earth is filled with violencebecause of human beings, God suffers for his world and delivers it. But the people that get off the ark are no different than those who got on. And now we will hear how humanity’s rebellion continues in the building of the tower of Babel. But then come the first notes of a new mystery that follows the line of Seth down to Abram. It is a line that seems to dead end with Sarai’s barrenness – but God speaks a strange and wonderful promise that, from the line of Abraham, God will bring blessing to the world.

The Prayer for June 18, 2017

Gracious God,
you bid us pray for laborers to be sent into your harvest,
to a world in need of your healing and life.
Help us to fulfill our calling as intercessors for your world
and bearers of your grace;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 18, 2017

First Reading: Exodus 19:2-8a
“If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” – Brought out of Egypt and now before God at Mt. Sinai, the people hear and accept God’s covenant: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.”

Psalmody: Psalm 100
“Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his.” – A hymn of praise as the community enters into the temple courts and are summoned to acknowledge and serve God.

Second Reading: Romans 5:1-8
“God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” –
having established that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and that God justifies all by faith – by their trust in God’s promise – Paul declares that “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Gospel: Matthew 9:35 – 10:8 [9-23]
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” – The twelve are appointed for the first mission: to be heralds of the dawning reign of God in the towns and villages of Israel. “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHarvest_(13429504924).jpg By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (Harvest) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Leave your gift

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Thursday

Matthew 5:21-37

23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

When we hear the word gift and altar we cannot help but think of the offering plate and a church altar. It’s hard to imagine a religious institution teaching that you should not make an offering if you are at odds with someone. Every organization dependent upon donations is normally trying to remove any obstacles to giving, not adding one. But then, the mission of the church is not to encourage offerings; it is to make disciples of Jesus.

In the traditional liturgy of the church, just such a moment happens before for the offerings are gathered. The presiding minister declares “The peace of the Lord be with you” and, following the congregation’s response, “and also with you,” bids the community to share the peace with one another. God has made peace with us in Christ Jesus – now, before you give an offering, before you come to the table, we are summoned to make peace with one another.

I wonder how the community would react if we spoke more bluntly: “Don’t come to the dinner table divided from one another.” “You can’t be reconciled to God if you won’t be reconciled to one another.” “God doesn’t want your money if you’re not going to walk the walk.”

Jesus and his hearers, of course, are not imagining people in pews with ushers passing offering plates. They are imagining the massive temple platform surrounded by its grand colonnades. They are imagining the inner courtyards: for Gentiles (beyond which no gentile could go); for women (beyond which no woman could go); and for men (beyond which only priests could go). In the walled and colonnaded courtyard that is open only to ritually pure Jewish men there is a gate that leads further in to the temple courtyard with its great altar and the smoke of the rising offerings. Beyond that altar stands the temple proper, covered in gold, its giant pillars guarding huge closed doors. What could be seen only over the top of the enclosing walls is now revealed in full glory. To that gate a man brings his calf or lamb (or doves, if he is poor) where it is slaughtered and the priest takes it to the altar for the gift to be burned in part or in whole.

By the time you had completed the rituals, passed through the courts, and stood in line with your animal – to be told to leave the creature there and run out in order to be reconciled with some adversary… now we can hear the startling point Jesus is making.

God is in the world to reconcile. God is in the world to heal the human community. God is working to restore the torn fabric of life. It is not just murder that rends the human community, but every word of insult and anger. It is not just the act of adultery that tears at society, but the passions willing to violate the integrity of another family. We ought not think, says Jesus, that our moral behavior and religious acts mean anything if they are not joined to the reconciling work of God.

Tough words. Important words. Life-giving words.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASecond_Temple_view1.jpg By Ariely (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

The un-rending

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Watching for the Morning of February 12, 2017

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

The Law, the Torah, God’s teaching/instructions for our life as a faithful community, stand front and center in our readings this coming Sunday. From Deuteronomy, written as a sermon by Moses to the people as they stand at the edge of the promised land setting forth again the commands and instructions of God, we will hear the challenge that before us stands a choice between life and death. Blessing will follow if we remain faithful to God and walk in God’s ways; curses will follow if we do not.

The appointed verses from Psalm 119 for Sunday is the opening strophe of the majestic acrostic hymn celebrating the gift of God’s Torah from Aleph to Taw, beginning with the affirmation: “Happy are those…who walk in the law of the Lord.”

Paul is writing about the Corinthian congregation as mere babes, still living on milk rather than solid food, bound as they are in the ways of the world around them rather than living the way of God.

And then Jesus takes up the commandments. After his stunning opening in the beatitudes and the declaration that the poor are not only honored in God’s sight but are light for the world, Jesus dramatically transforms the commandments from a safe and secure legal code (don’t kill, don’t commit adultery) to a summons to live the reign of God:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

We will hear the same summons in the commandments about adultery and vows (and then, in Matthews Gospel, about revenge, acts of mercy, prayer and fasting). More is expected of the human race – and of God’s people – than to refrain from killing, though even that has proven itself far beyond our willingness to obey. But the kingdom chooses to rip no tear in the fabric of the human community, to rend no relationship. Jesus is driving towards that stunning command: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

We are in the presence of the dawning of God’s reign, the lifting of every burden, the setting right of the world, the un-rending of the fabric of life. And we are summoned into its bold and daring and imperishable life.

The Prayer for February 12, 2017

Gracious God,
in love you made the world and laid its foundations,
giving your gracious order to the creation.
In love you revealed your law to a people you brought out from bondage,
showing them the path of life.
Renew in us your vision for human life
and make us faithful in our calling to live as children of your kingdom;
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 February 12, 2017

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” – Moses addresses the people as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, urging them to remain faithful to God, for their life in the land depends on following God’s commands.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:1-8
“Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.” – In a magisterial acrostic psalm setting forth the wonder of God’s law/teaching, the poet expresses the wondrous ordering reality God brings to life.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
– Speaking to his divided congregation, Paul says they are yet babes in Christ who must be fed with milk, having failed to learn the basic truth of how they are to live in Christ.

Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… But I say to you…” – Jesus takes up the commandments about murder, adultery and swearing oaths, revealing the depth of their meaning in bringing human life under the governance of God’s Spirit.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWTC_Julia_DSCF1149.JPG By J. Lane (Wikipedia Takes Coventry participant) (Uploaded from Wikipedia Takes Coventry) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Quivering with joy

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Friday

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

Inhabiting joy

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Thursday

Luke 15:1-10

10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

The angels are not singing because morality has been restored. They are singing because some small part of the torn fabric of life has been mended. Reconciliation has happened. Those long separated are reunited. The coin is back with its sisters. The sheep back with the flock. The brother back with his family.

Yes there has been repentance. But we have to be careful with that word. In what way does a coin repent? No, it gets found and restored to its place. And no sheep repents: sheep, when they discover that they are lost, lie down helplessly and cry. It’s why the shepherd must carry it. And carry it home he does. The “sinner” who “repents” is the rejected one who is reconciled, who is carried towards home, who finds himself embraced in the arms of the father – and who, in that moment of embrace, yields to the love that holds him. No games, no pride, no rationalization, no manipulations, just the overwhelming truth of overwhelming love.

When the prodigal son shows up on the edge of town he isn’t looking for restoration, he is hoping to be a slave in his father’s household. Perhaps, with years enough of service, he could repay his debt. But grace finds him. The debt is forgotten. The ring thrust on his finger before he can deliver his well-planned speech.

We don’t read the prodigal son story this Sunday – the third of three parables about being lost and found – just the first two. And it’s good that we don’t, because we jump so quickly towards that idea of moral reform. But the story isn’t about reform. It is about stunning, even senseless grace and the invitation to the whole village to rejoice at being made whole. The lost son is back – even as the coin is found and the sheep returned.

It is God’s purpose to heal the torn and tattered fabric of his creation. We were not made to hide from one another – or to hide from God in the shrubbery. We were not made to stain the earth with blood. We were not made to build weapons of war and towers to the sky. We were created to inhabit a good garden together.

We are created for connection, and whenever the angels see any part of God’s garden restored, they sing for joy.

And we, we are invited to inhabit that joy.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHappy_face_makes_us_happy.jpg  By Meghana Kulkarni from Pune, India (Happiness) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons