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

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An immeasurable mercy

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Watching for the Morning of January 21, 2018

Year B

The Third Sunday after Epiphany

Jonah opens our readings from the scripture on Sunday. The great fish has vomited him onto the shore and God tries again to send him to warn the Assyrians that God is about to destroy them for their wickedness. Unless they repent. Every prophetic warning includes the possibility of repentance. It’s why Jonah tried to run away when he was first commissioned. He was afraid the people would turn from their wickedness and God would forgive them. They didn’t deserve forgiveness.   Of course, none of us do. Some of us certainly seem like saints. Some of us certainly are saints. But living well and living faithfully doesn’t put God in our debt. We are still frail creatures, still caught in our selves. The true saints know this. It fills them with compassion for sinners. The rest of us less complete saints want a little credit. It makes us a little judgmental. Those people should know better, behave better, try harder, make better choices. And if they don’t, they don’t deserve God’s mercy. But mercy isn’t earned; it’s given.

So we will hear of Jonah half-heartedly marching into Nineveh and the people hearing and repenting. And God forgives, just as Jonah feared.

Jonah resists the call of God. Tries to, anyway. But the call of God doesn’t let us get away. It pounces on us in unexpected ways – as it did to Peter and Andrew, James and John as they were tending their nets. Suddenly the summons is there and a lifetime of fishing is suddenly turned in a new direction. They will be gathering the world into the arms of mercy, the “fishnet” of heaven’s grace.

The summons is compelling. There is no resisting the eternal voice. Christ stands before them and calls them to follow. And what shall we say? We have work to do? No, we have mercy to do. The world awaits the embrace of God. The world awaits healing and life. The world awaits care and compassion. The world awaits the message that a new kingdom is at hand, a new spirit, a new governance of the human heart.

To choose hardness of heart in such a moment seems unthinkable, though we do make that choice. Often, it seems. Our hardness of heart becomes unrecognizable to ourselves. We cheer what we should not cheer. We trust what we should not trust. We show allegiance to things we ought not serve. Jesus will have things to teach – even as God tried to teach Jonah. The cross and resurrection will be the final lesson: it’s not about what we deserve; it’s about an immeasurable mercy.

It will be sung in the psalm on Sunday. Paul will speak of it in the reading. And Jesus will name names. We are summoned by mercy. We are summoned to live mercy.

The Prayer for January 21, 2018

Almighty God,
as Jesus summoned Simon and Andrew, James and John,
to leave their nets and follow,
you summon all people to lives of faith and love.
Grant us courage to follow where you lead,
and confidence to cast wide the net |
that gathers all people into your gracious embrace;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for January 21, 2018

First Reading: Jonah 3:1-10
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’” – In this delightful tale of Jonah fleeing God’s call to bring warning to Nineveh, choosing death (tossed into the sea) rather than repentance until he is swallowed by a great fish and vomited onto the land, he now finds himself compelled to accept his commission and the thing he feared happens: the wicked city repents and God forgives.

Psalmody: Psalm 62:5-12
“For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.”
– Speaking to the community more than to God, the poet expresses his confidence in God and calls the people (warns his opponents?) to also put their trust in God.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
“From now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning.” – Paul concludes his guidance on matters of sex and marriage by reminding the community that they live in the light of the dawning reign of God and their lives should be defined by the age to come not the age that is passing away.

Gospel: Mark 1:14-20
“Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’”
– Jesus summons Simon and Andrew, James and John, to join him in gathering the nation and instigating a new era of faithfulness.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFisherman_in_Myanmar.jpg By Pupuce22 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A new beginning of the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Jesus is the Christ, the anointed of God.

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

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

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

This Spirit that is upon Jesus is upon us.

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

This is a new beginning of the world.

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

This is a new beginning of the world.

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

 

Great mercies for a world in need of mercy

File:Lacura2.JPGWatching for the Feast of the Nativity 2017

Christmas Eve / Christmas Day

Light for our darkness will echo through our service on Christmas Eve. We will hear the great prophetic word of Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” and be reminded of the promise that “all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”

We will hear also from Isaiah that “A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,” a new king from the line of David. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” The peace of his reign that will find the lion eating straw like the ox and all the earth will be filled with “the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

Of course, the central story of the night is the remarkable birth during the imperial reign of the victorious Octavian – Caesar Augustus who was acclaimed as son of a god (son of the divine Julius Caesar) and savior of the world. Only this birth does not happen in Rome, but in a peasant home in Judea.

Two kingdoms clash – not a game of thrones like Octavian’s Victory over Antony and Cleopatra, but two profoundly different claims upon the world: one a rule of might, the other of grace. Augustus will claim all things for himself – and Jesus will give himself for all. The “census” was a listing of all properties when Rome took over a region so Caesar could claim what he wished. It led to riots and brutal repression under Quirinius. But in a manger in Bethlehem lies a true prince of peace, a true light for our darkness.

On Christmas Day we will hear John declare that the divine word that called the world into being“became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth.” We will hear the prophet speak of God’s word that does not return empty but “shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” And the author of Hebrews will confirm that “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”

Light for our darkness. Peace for our world. The mystery of the incarnation. The wonder of “God with us”. Rich and abundant themes. Great mercies for a world in need of mercy.

The Prayer for December 24, 2017

Holy God, eternal light,
source and goal of all creation:
in the wonder of this night,
you came to us in the child of Bethlehem,
seeking your lost and wounded world,
granting light for our darkness,
hope amidst doubt,
joy amidst sorrow.
Let your grace shine upon us
that we may receive you with open hearts
and know the fullness of your presence.

The Texts for December 24, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7,
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” – the prophet promises the end of war and the birth of a royal son in whom will come peace.

Second Reading: Isaiah 11:1-9
“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
– The prophet heralds a coming king who shall bring perfect peace to the world.”

Gospel: Luke 2:1-20
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” – Into the world of Roman dominion and power, a new Lord is born.

The Prayer for December 25, 2015

Almighty and ever-living God,
in the mystery of the incarnation
you have entered into the fabric of our world
to find what is lost,
to gather what is scattered,
to unite what is broken,
to illumine what is darkened,
to heal what is wounded,
to bring to life what is bound in death.
Grant us wisdom, courage and faith
to receive your Son as he comes to us as your Word made flesh:
child of Bethlehem;
prophet and teacher of Nazareth;
crucified and risen Lord;
Immanuel, God with us.

The Texts for December 25, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 55:10-12
“You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.” – Like grain sown into the soil, God’s promise will bear fruit: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty.”

Second Reading: Hebrews 1:1-3a
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”
– The opening of the book of Hebrews proclaiming the work of God in Christ.

Gospel: John 1:1-14
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John’s Gospel begins with a rich and wondrous hymn that identifies Christ Jesus with

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALacura2.JPG By Lacura (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Pregnant with what is to come

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Watching for the Morning of December 24, 2017

Year B

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Sunday presents us with a morning service for the fourth Sunday in Advent – and then, that evening, the Christmas Eve service. After worship on Sunday morning we will have to flip all the decorations from Advent blue to the gold and white of Christmas. But already the harpsichord and other instruments will be in place, already the angel will look down upon Mary as she kneels in waiting before the altar, already Joseph will stand in watch – as if the morning were pregnant with what is to come.

Such is the Advent season: pregnant with what is to come. And such is Christian faith: pregnant with what is to come. You can hear the heartbeat of the reign of God. We have a sonogram with a fuzzy image of the life we await. There are changes already in the appearance of the world. Our lives are being restructured by the day to come.

Sunday morning we will hear Nathan speak God’s promise to David that Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” It is a promise that ran into the hard realities of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. For nearly 600 years the royal line was all but gone. There was no palace, no throne, no royal court. A few governors at first, Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel, but the kingship was gone. There were brief flashes of independence, but not the line of David. The Hasmoneans were priests, and though Herod the Great was called a king, he wasn’t even from Judah. He was Idumean.

But now here is Gabriel speaking to a peasant woman not yet gone to live with her husband, telling of a child to be born who “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Birth pangs are upon the world. The day of grace is coming.

The Prayer for December 24, 2017

Eternal God, Breath of Life,
Font of Hope, and our Eternal Joy;
Open the doors of our hearts, and the gates of your mercy
to come into our world and our lives,
and bring your radiance to all creation.

The Texts for December 24, 2017

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, 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, (appointed: Luke 1:46-55 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26)
“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.

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During Advent our parish departs from the appointed psalms and sings Isaiah 51:4-11, the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and Isaiah 12 on the four Sundays. We also adjust the readings between the Sundays to allow for the celebration of a children’s Christmas program during worship in Advent. Next Sunday we will read Mark’s account of John the Baptist that is assigned for today.

During Advent we provide daily verses and brief reflections that can be found by following this link to Advent 2017.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAny_day_now_(3423098686).jpg By Aurimas Mikalauskas from Paliūniškis, Lithuania (Any day now) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Doorways

File:Sur le chemin cotier a cancale - panoramio (4).jpg

Watching for the Morning of December 3, 2017

Year B

The First Sunday of Advent

I had a profound dream many years ago that involved the discovery of a door. I was living (in the dream) in a small one room mountain cabin that seemed very much like a suburb with paved streets, an ordinary driveway and garbage pick up at the curb. But in the dream I realized there was a door behind the refrigerator which, when I succeeded in moving the refrigerator, opened into a large room with giant picture windows looking down over a sweeping vista of a clear blue mountain lake, surrounded with virgin forest.

Doorways are about discovery. Lucy Pevensie, in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe discovers a doorway into the wondrous world of Narnia in the back of a wardrobe. Daniel Jackson figures out how to open the stargate. Mary opens the door to The Secret Garden. In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo Baggins counsels his nephew saying “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” And, of course, the women discover angels at the door of the empty tomb. It sweeps the world off its feet.

A doorway to a new world. Advent looks through the doorway into the reign of God to come when the lion lies down with the lamb – and through that doorway Christ comes to us at the consummation of human history, in the present time of our lives, and in the child of Bethlehem.

So Sunday we begin our Advent journey. The sanctuary will be decorated with images of light and the blue of hope, of the night sky turning to day. And there will be photographs of doors waiting to be opened – and opened already that we might find our way to the hope, peace, joy and light that never ends.

On this first Sunday of the new church year we will hear the prophet Isaiah’s plea for God to open the heavens and come down to save. We will sing with the prophet of the everlasting joy of God’s redeeming work. We will hear Paul remind us that “are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And we will listen as Jesus warns us to be awake and aware, like servants waiting to greet their Lord.

Behold I stand at the door and knock,” says Jesus. Open it and life will never be the same.

The Prayer for December 3, 2017

Eternal God, Breath of Life,
Font of Hope, and our Eternal Joy;
Open the doors of our hearts,
and the gates of your mercy
to come into our world and our lives,
and bring us to that day
when all the earth is redeemed by your presence.

The Texts for December 3, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” – The prophet speaks the lament of the people in the years after the return from exile, when life is hard and the former glory of the nation is absent. He calls upon God to relent and forgive their sins.

Psalmody: Isaiah 51:4-11 (appointed: Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19)
“The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads, sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
Our parish departs from the appointed psalm to sing this song of salvation from the prophet Isaiah.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1.3-9
“You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” –
Paul opens his letter to the believers in Corinth referring to the matter of spiritual gifts that has divided the community, setting them in their proper context as gifts of God to the whole body as they prepare for the consummation of God’s dawning reign.

Gospel: Mark 13.24-37
“Keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come.” – Having spoken of the destruction of the temple and what is to come for the community of believers, Jesus affirms that the Son of Man will come to gather his elect. For that day they should be awake, doing the work that they master of the house has entrusted to them.

During Advent our parish departs from the appointed psalms and sings Isaiah 51:4-11, the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and Isaiah 12 on the four Sundays. We also adjust the readings between the Sundays to allow for the celebration of a children’s Christmas program during worship in Advent. This occurs on the second Sunday of Advent this year.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASur_le_chemin_cotier_a_cancale_-_panoramio_(4).jpg chisloup [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

We will go forth in hope

File:Religión en Isla Margarita, Valle del Espíritu Santo.jpg

Watching for the Morning of November 19, 2017

Year A

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 28 / Lectionary 33

There will be thanksgiving in the service on Sunday, but it will not be enough to set our hearts at ease. We do not feel like the world is safe. We see divisions and threats. We are uncertain about the future. We are not confident that a turkey on every table is the truth of the country. We don’t see bounty and peace.

The first thanksgiving was not the meal of bounty and peace we have rehearsed in grade school plays, but we want that myth, the truth embodied in that story. It seemed inevitable, once, our manifest destiny: prosperity for all. We appear to have replaced it with uncertainty for all.

So it will be an act of faith when we offer prayers of thanksgiving on Sunday. We will dare to assert that God is good, that God is generous, that God is rich with mercy and love. We will dare to believe in generosity. We will dare to act on the notion that a table is to be shared, that kindness is to be shown, that truth is to be spoken – and can be spoken in love.

And we will do this even as we listen to texts of terrifying judgment. The prophet is so carried away with the ferocity of God’s coming wrath he sees the whole earth consumed “in the fire of his passion.” The poet ponders the brevity and frailty of life and declares: “Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.” And Jesus will use the image of a ruthless and vindictive rich man casting his worthless slave into the outer darkness, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” to tell us about God and the living of God’s reign.

In this season of harvest, when days grow short, darkness grows long, and leaves fall to the ground, when we draw near to the end of the church year and ponder the end of all things, there is a certain dread in the air. But we will cling to the promise in our reading from Paul, “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,” and with courage remember all for which we give thanks. And we will go forth in hope.

The Prayer for November 19, 2017

Almighty God, Lord of all,
you summon us to lives of faith and love
and stand as judge over all things.
Renew us in your mercy that, clothed in Christ,
we may live as children of the day
that is dawning in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for November 19, 2017

First Reading: Zephaniah 1 (appointed: 1:7, 12-18)
“Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is at hand.” – During the reign of Josiah, in as era that seems like a period of great national revival (though not far in time from the Babylonian conquest), the prophet exposes the underlying faithlessness of that generation. His portrait of the coming cataclysm is cosmic in scope.

Psalmody: Psalm 90:1-12
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” – This opening prayer of the fourth ‘book’ (section) of Psalms, reflects on the brief and fragile nature of human life, and the ever present threat of God’s “wrath” – God’s opposition to our ‘sin’, our rebellion from and resistance to the fidelity to God and one another for which God fashioned us.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.” –
Having assured the community in Thessalonica that those who have died will share in the coming transformation of the world, he urges them to be awake and aware of God’s dawning reign of grace, living as faithful children of the light.

Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30
“It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.” – Jesus uses a salacious example of a greedy and ruthless man entrusting his affairs to his underlings in a parable summoning us to understand the nature of God and God’s dawning reign.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AReligi%C3%B3n_en_Isla_Margarita%2C_Valle_del_Esp%C3%ADritu_Santo.jpg By The Photographer (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Of royal weddings

File:Wedding Supper - Martin van Meytens - Google Cultural Institute.jpg

Watching for the Morning of October 15, 2017

Year A

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 23 / Lectionary 28

Politics makes for strange bedfellows, so the saying goes. Those running for office often find themselves on stage or at dinners with political adversaries. Some invitations are fraught with difficulty. If I accept, I alienate this portion of the voting public; if I don’t accept, I alienate others. Invitations are not always simple.

The wedding invitation in the Gospel reading for this Sunday is not simple. It comes from the king. To refuse the king is dangerous. To refuse the king is an act of rebellion. You would only dare such a refusal if you thought he was no longer powerful enough to take revenge. You would refuse only if you had betrayed your king and given your allegiance to another.

Matthew’s account is much more overt than the story in Luke. Here the host is a king and the rebellion open and defiant. Jesus says not only that the invitees “made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business,” but that “the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.”

We are talking about Judea, now, and Jerusalem, and the murder of the prophets – and the murder of Jesus. The slaughter of the rebels and burning of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 CE now echoes through the parable. There are consequences to rebellion. Destruction follows when you misjudge who is the true king, when you misjudge who truly holds power.

The invitation to feast at God’s table is not simple. It is full of grace, but it means giving up wealth and privilege. It means embracing all as your neighbor. It means taking up the cross, risking all for the path of peace.

This is not a partisan parable – as if God were going to get “those people” who are “not like us” in the end. This is a prophetic warning to the leaders of the nation. This is a prophetic warning to us all. We are invited to the table of peace. The welcome is given to all to come to the feast that knows no end. But an invitation is not a simple thing. Refusal is rebellion. And the consequences are fateful.

So Sunday we will hear God’s great promise in Isaiah to prepare a banquet for all people. And we will sing with the psalmist that the LORD (the LORD alone) is our shepherd/king. And St. Paul will urge Euodia and Syntyche to choose reconciliation – and for the community to help them – and to keep their minds on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise. And the parable of Jesus will warn us not to take lightly the gift of God or dare to show up at the wedding feast to come without being clothed in Christ.

An invitation is a great gift. But is not a simple thing. It bids us choose to whom we will show allegiance.

The Prayer for October 15, 2017

Gracious God, shepherd and guardian of our souls,
keep us from the folly that would spurn your grace
and grant that, clothed in Christ,
we may know the joy of the eternal wedding feast;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 15, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 25:1-9
“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines.” – Following a section of the book of Isaiah containing words of judgment against the nations surrounding Judah and Israel, we are given an oracle of salvation declaring a day when God will gather all people to a feast on Mt. Zion.

Psalmody: Psalm 23
“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” – The language of shepherds is used for kings in ancient Israel – but here the poet declares that God is the one who guides, protects and prepares for him God’s royal banquet.

Second Reading: Philippians 4:1-9
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
– Paul begins his concluding remarks to the believers in Philippi with a series of exhortations about their life together both to specific individuals and to the community as a whole.

Gospel: Matthew 22:1-14
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” – With a story about a royal wedding and the vassals of the king who declare their rebellion by refusing the king’s invitations and abusing his messengers, Jesus presses his attack against the leadership of the nation who have aligned themselves with the empire of Rome rather than the reign of God.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWedding_Supper_-_Martin_van_Meytens_-_Google_Cultural_Institute.jpg Martin van Meytens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Peace and dismay

Sunday was a delightful service. People were gathered with their pets on the lawn in the shade of great trees, warm sun and a soft breeze. The service began with a prayer and a reading of Psalm 104 illustrated with beautiful photographs of this wondrous creation entrusted into our care. The sermon hit the right note of our connectedness to one another and all things. The pets that evoke such strong emotions from us are at our side to receive a blessing. We share in the prayer of St. Francis: “Lord make me an instrument of your peace.”

And then I wake up the next morning to the news of the shooting in Las Vegas.

For a moment all seemed right with the world. Now all seems wrong.

This is the strange position of the Christian community. We live in the borderlands between two worlds: this age of sorrows and the age of joy, this age where the lamb dare not lie down with the lion and the age to come where a little child shall lead them. We are a crucified people, yet risen. We are sinners, yet forgiven. Christ is present, but we await his coming. Eden is lost to us, but the new creation is at hand.

Tragedies like Las Vegas will call forth great acts of courage and compassion. And they will also call forth more hate and invective. It is the strange and saddening reality of our human condition. But next Sunday we will gather at the table yet again. Next Sunday we will hear the promise, yet again. Next Sunday we will dare to trust that this age is passing away and a new one dawning. And next Sunday we will taste it in the bread, in the sharing of the peace, in the words of grace, in the singing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and in the commission to “Go in peace. Serve the Lord.”

Image: dkbonde

The strange and wondrous truth of God

File:Afghan day laborers help Marines fill sandbags (5224388587).jpg

Afghan day laborers filling sandbags outside Forward Operating Base Geronimo, Helmand province, Afghanistan, July 14, 2010

Watching for the Morning of September 24, 2017

Year A

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 20 / Lectionary 25

Sunday we are jumping ahead to chapter 20 of Matthew’s gospel. We are skipping the Pharisees’ challenge about the legality of divorce and the strange saying about being eunuchs for the kingdom. We are skipping past the disciples’ harsh words to those who would bring their children to receive a blessing from Jesus – and Jesus’ welcome of those children. We are skipping past the words of Jesus to the young man seeking the life of the age to come, telling him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, and past the disciples’ astonishment that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”   All of which leads us once again to the truth that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” The reign of God is a profound reversal of the way of the world.

And so, Sunday, we come to the story of a landowner hiring day laborers for his vineyard and the remarkable choice to pay even those who worked but one hour a full day’s wage. It is not the act of an accountant; it is the act of a patron taking care of those who depend upon him. Except these day workers are not his people. He has no long and established relationship with them. He is not their patron. But he chooses to be.

And what shall we do with this portrait of a God who chooses to treat all people as their patron? What shall we do when our long and historic fidelity to God gains no privilege? What shall we do with a God who shows faithfulness to those who deserve none? The landowners’ final words are painful: “Are you envious because I am generous?” The Greek is literally “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

We don’t understand mercy. We don’t understand the breadth and depth of the compassion of God. We don’t even truly understand the notion that God is the god of all. We claim to be monotheists, but we are more likely to think that God is our god and he can be your god too, if you become one of us. But the truth is there is no ‘us’ and ‘them; we are all ‘them’. We have no claim on god’s mercy; it is gift given to all. Rich, abundant, overflowing, fidelity to a world as corrupt and violent, greedy and cruel as ours. Yes, we are capable of great kindness and generosity – but we are also fully capable of its opposite. We are not God’s people. Not really. We are strangers to the reign of God. We don’t really understand the language or culture of heaven. Nevertheless, God comes to us. Nevertheless, he speaks. Nevertheless, he shows faithfulness. Steadfast love.

So Sunday we will hear once again that “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” We will listen as Jonah wrestles angrily with God because God chooses to forgive the cruel and barbarous Ninevites. We will sing with the psalmist in praise of God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” We will listen as Paul exhorts us to live our lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” And we will once again shift in our seats as Jesus speaks of the just injustice of a landowner who is generous to all, pushing us to see something of the strange and wondrous truth of God.

The Prayer for September 24, 2017

Wondrous God,
whose mercy knows no bounds,
and whose salvation is offered to all:
renew us by your Holy Spirit
that we may walk in the paths of your kindness
and bear your grace to the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 24, 2017

First Reading: Jonah 3:1 – 4:11 (appointed: 3:10 – 4:11)
“When God saw what [the people of Nineveh] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. 4:1But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”
– Jonah sought to avoid his mission to the Assyrian capital for fear God would forgive the city that had destroyed Israel. Now, when this has happened, God seeks to help Jonah understand God’s compassion for its people.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:1-8
“I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.” – Psalm 145 is an acrostic hymn, each line beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet, in which the poet sings God’s praise “from A to Z.”

Second Reading: Philippians 1:21-30
“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
– In prison in Rome, Paul is faced with the possibility of his execution and writes to his beloved congregation in Philippi to encourage them to remain faithful to their Lord, living “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” – As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, he tells this story comparing the reign of God with a vineyard owner who chooses to relate to his workers not on the basis of what they deserve, but on the basis of his goodness.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAfghan_day_laborers_help_Marines_fill_sandbags_(5224388587).jpg By Marines from Arlington, VA, United States (Afghan day laborers help Marines fill sandbags) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons