When the fire of love no longer burns brightly

File:Salt from Timbuktu.jpg

Watching for the Morning of February 9, 2020

Year A

The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Three years ago, I wrote that Jesus spoke these words about being salt and light to the “poor”:

Jesus is talking to rural villagers, not the Jerusalem elite.  He is talking to those who are poor, mourning and hungering for the world to be set right.  He is talking to refugees in the camps when doors are shut.  He is talking to mothers and children scratching out their existence in the rubble of wars.  He is talking to those in fear of uniforms unrestrained by any law.  He is talking to those who know hunger and thirst.  “You are the salt that burns bright the fire of God.  You are the light that is set on a stand.”

I wonder, now, how those words should be heard among those on the other end of the social pyramid.  Is there grace here, or only judgment?  Is Jerusalem the city set on a hill that cannot be hid?  Is it from the judgment of God the governing authorities cannot hide?  Jerusalem was not a shining beacon of hope; it had become the center of an unjust and impoverishing rule.  Jesus’ scathingly condemns the governing elite in Matthew 23, weeping over the city before predicting its fall.  The authorities choose Rome over the promised kingdom of God and hand Jesus over as a terrorist.

The salt of which Jesus speaks is the salt slab used at the base of an earthen oven that burns dung as fuel.  Salt serves as a catalyst for the fire, letting it burn hot enough to bake the bread that sustains the poor.  Eventually, the slab loses its ability to catalyze the fire.  It doesn’t “lose its taste,” as our translation suggests.  The literal meaning of the Greek word means for the salt to become ‘foolish’.  We should translate it as ‘insipid’ or ‘worthless’, not ‘tasteless’.  A people in whom the fire of divine grace and mercy no longer burns brightly are useful for nothing but stepping stones in the mud.  Those who would hide the justice of God as a lamp beneath a basket are the truly foolish.

To call someone a fool is a serious charge in the biblical world.  It means they have ignored the fundamental truths of existence.  As someone who ignores gravity is a fool, so is the one who ignores the moral and spiritual realities of human life.

“The fool speaks folly, and his mind plots iniquity: to practice ungodliness, to utter error concerning the LORD, to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied, and to deprive the thirsty of drink.” (Isaiah 32:6)

When the psalmist says: “The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God’” (Psalm 53:1), the point has little to do with religious observances; it concerns the failure to recognize the divine imperative to do justice and mercy.  The ‘fool’ doesn’t ignore church but our essential humanity.

The ‘fool’ doesn’t see Lazarus at the gate.  The ‘fool’ builds bigger barns and stores up riches rather than sharing with those in need.  The ‘fool’ doesn’t care for the sick or feed the hungry or clothe the naked.

The ‘fool’ corrupts the courts.   The ‘fool’ chooses revenge.  The ‘fool’ embraces lies and deceit.  “Like one who binds the stone in the sling is he who gives honor to a fool,” says Proverbs 26:8.  Honoring a fool is like handing over a loaded gun.

What shall we say to the foolish who would hide the justice of God as a lamp beneath a basket?

The grieving parent recognizes the folly of war, the dispossessed the folly of greed, the abused the folly of injustice, the hungry the folly of hardened hearts.  All these understand that you don’t put a lamp under a bushel, and that there is no other place but the mud for a slab that does not help the fires of love burn brightly.

The Prayer for February 9, 2020

Gracious God,
you have appointed your people to be in the world
as the fire and light of your justice and mercy.
Fill us with your Holy Spirit,
and shape our lives by your Word,
that through lives of faith, hope, and love
we may bear witness to your reign;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for February 9, 2020

First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-12
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” – In the hardscrabble life after the return from Exile, God confronts the complaint of the people that God has not answered their prayers by challenging the goal of those prayers.  They have sought advantage for themselves rather than to live God’s justice and mercy.

Psalmody: Psalm 112:1-10
“Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.” –  A description of the righteous who rest securely in God and the blessing they bring to the world, giving freely to the poor and conducting “their affairs with justice.”

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 2:1-12
“Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom.” –
Having challenged the Corinthians desire for human eloquence and wisdom, Paul writes of the wisdom of God that is so different from the wisdom of this age – the truth of sacrificial love hidden in Christ crucified

Gospel: Matthew 5:13-16 (appointed: Matthew 5:13-20)
“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” – Comparing his followers with salt and light, Jesus summons the community of Israel (and his disciples) back to their calling as the medium through which God brings blessing/healing to the world.

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Salt_from_Timbuktu.jpg Robin Elaine [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.

File:Z cyklu Podivuhodné krajiny - Japonsko (1989).jpg

Watching for the Morning of December 8, 2019

Year A

The Second Sunday of Advent

Stunning words come to us this Sunday.  Our reading from Isaiah will proclaim that “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse.” The fallen royal line, named from David’s father, shall bloom again.  “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him.”  He will be filled with wisdom and girded with faithfulness to God and the people.  And then come those sweet, ecstatic, words that under his governance:

6The wolf shall live with the lamb,
….the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
….and a little child shall lead them.
7The cow and the bear shall graze,
….their young shall lie down together;
….and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
….and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9They will not hurt or destroy
….on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD 
….as the waters cover the sea.

A world without violence.  A world like Eden.  A world restored to its primal innocence.  A creation made new.

We look at the bloodshed on earth, the betrayals of allies, the enduring hatreds of ancient animosities, the violence of speech and thought, the violence that manifests itself even in schools and churches, and such words are sweet indeed.  We can escape all this.  There will be a day…

From Isaiah we will turn to the Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah at the birth of his son, John – who we know as John the Baptist.  We will hear Zechariah’s joy at the coming fulfilment of God’s promise.

68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
….for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69He has raised up a mighty savior for us
….in the house of his servant David,
70as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

Zechariah will then sing of his son’s calling:

you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
….for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77to give knowledge of salvation to his people
….by the forgiveness of their sins.
78By the tender mercy of our God,
….the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
….to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Salvation, healing, wholeness, peace – God’s shalom is coming.

And we will hear John preach in the Gospel for the day.  Coming in fulfillment of the prophetic promises, dressed like a prophet of old, out in the wilderness beyond the Jordan where Israel once waited to enter the promised land, John will call the nation to new beginnings, to preparation, to living in anticipation of that day when all things are made new.

It will carry the sound of warning.  The ax is ready.  Trees that bear no fruit will be cut down.  But also promise.  God is able to raise faithful children even from stones.  The world is about to be awash in the Spirit.

The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.

The Prayer for December 8, 2019

Holy and Gracious God,
our breath of life and everlasting joy,
who gathers all things into your eternal embrace:
fill all creation with the light of your love
and the knowledge of your will;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for December 8, 2019

First Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
– Like new growth from the stump of a felled tree, a new king shall arise from the fallen line of David, a king filled with the Spirit of God, who will govern in righteousness and bring all creation to peace.

Psalmody: Luke 1:68-79 (The Benedictus)
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” – In place of the appointed Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, we sing the song of Zechariah, sung at the birth of his son, John, whom we know as John the Baptist, praising God and predicting his role as the one who “will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.

Second Reading: Romans 15:4-9 (appointed, verses 4-13)
“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” –
Speaking to that fundamental divide between observant Judeans and those who had become thoroughly enmeshed in the culture of the Greek world, between ‘Judean’ and ‘Gentile’, Paul calls for the believers to live the reconciliation that has occurred in Christ, giving multiple examples from the Scriptures in support of God’s mission to gather all nations.

Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
– John comes as a prophet of old, heralding the dawning of God’s reign and calling all people to ‘repent’, to turn and show allegiance to God.

+   +   +

(If you are interested, daily reflections for this season are posted at Holy Seasons)

+   +   +

© David K. Bonde
Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Z_cyklu_Podivuhodn%C3%A9_krajiny_-_Japonsko_(1989).jpg  Zdeněk Thoma [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

The bright vision

Watching for the Morning of November 3, 2019

Year C

All Saints Sunday

(I’m returning from a sabbatical this week, driving home from my Father’s into a state I know is aflame.  This reflection from 2013 fits the texts for Sunday even though, at first blush, it seems perhaps a little too cheerful.  Or simplistic.  But there is nothing simplistic about biblical faith.  It knows we live in a broken world, sometimes stumbling but generally fleeing its maker.  Biblical faith is not surprised by famine or flame.  It is not surprised by marching armies or hateful speech.  It is not surprised when religious leaders defend the king against God.  Biblical faith understands the fallen world.  But still it sings – for it also understands the faithfulness of God.)

There is a thread running through the readings this Sunday: a line in Daniel that the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom; a line in the psalm that God adorns the humble with victory; a portion of the Ephesians reading ending with the hymnic declaration that God has put all things under Christ’s feet; and the promise of God’s blessing upon the poor, the hungry and the grieving.  The texts, as diverse as they are, share a confidence in the purpose of God to rescue God’s fallen world and restore all things.

But there are troubling things in these texts, too: notes of judgment, sounds of vengeance, reflecting a world divided between a wealthy few and a powerless and hungry many, a world of mighty empires and suffering peasants.  In the case of Daniel, it is an empire determined to rid Israel of traditional faith and practice.  People were put to death for circumcising their children, or not eating pork, or keeping Sabbath.

The feast day of All Saints started out like a tomb of the unknown soldier, a day to remember the nameless martyrs tortured and killed by Rome for holding to a faith that claimed there was some other Lord than Caesar.  It would become a day to honor all those saints who did not have their own feast day on the Christian calendar.  Ultimately, for Reformation churches, it became a day to remember all the faithful who had passed into glory, all those who had held fast to a hope in a God who comes to the aid of those in need and sets right the world.

All Saints looks blinkingly on the bright vision of God’s ultimate triumph over sin and death and echoes with the joy of heaven.  It sustains those still engaged in the struggle to bear faithful witness to the way of God in our broken and troubled world.  And it reminds us all that we are not alone: “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witness.”  Like the crowd cheering runners in a great race, the saints above cheer us on.

The Prayer for All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2019

You are our beginning, O God, and you are our end;
You are our hope and you are our path.
Sustain us in your grace that we may live as children of your kingdom
until that day when all heaven and earth are joined
in a single song of praise.

The texts for All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2019 (assigned for All Saints Day, November 1)

First Reading: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
“Four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever.”
 – Writing to the time of the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes IV, the author uses the Daniel traditions to call the community to faithfulness.  Four terrible beasts represent four beastly empires, but these will be judged and “one like a son of man,” a humane empire, God’s empire, will dawn.

Psalmody: Psalm 149
“Let Israel be glad in its Maker; let the children of Zion rejoice in their King.” –  A hymn celebrating God as king, freeing God’s “humble” people and vanquishing the kings of earth.

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:11-23
“That…you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.”
– The author’s prayer for the fledgling believers near Ephesus celebrating the work of God in Christ.

Gospel: Luke 6:20-31
“Blessed are you who are poor… woe to you who are rich.” – Jesus declares the poor honored in God’s sight and the wealthy elite shameful and calls on his followers to live out the values of God’s reign: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”

+   +   +

Image: dkbonde: Desert light, Stansbury Mountains, Utah

Rich and Poor, Honor and Shame

File:I000073 (10704267663).jpgFile:Homes-LuxuryHome3-Bel Air California.jpg

This is the message from Sunday, February 17, 2019, based on Luke 6:17-26:

Jesus came down with the twelve and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
….“Blessed are you who are poor,
….….for yours is the kingdom of God.
….“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
….….for you will be filled.
…. “Blessed are you who weep now,
….….for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

….“But woe to you who are rich,
….….for you have received your consolation.
….“Woe to you who are full now,
….….for you will be hungry.
…. “Woe to you who are laughing now,
….….for you will mourn and weep.

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

+   +   +

Last week we talked about some of the material that comes between the portion of Luke’s Gospel we read last Sunday and our reading this morning. In the text last Sunday we heard about Jesus teaching from Peter’s boat, directing Peter to a wondrous catch of fish, then calling Peter and Andrew, James and John to follow him. We connected that story with a passage from Ezekiel to show that the focus of this story is on the wondrous catch of fish as a sign of the dawning of God’s reign. The summons to follow Jesus was a call to gather all people into this new creation, this dawning of God’s grace and life. Peter and Andrew, James and John, were not being asked to join a religious club, but to join God’s mission of reconciling all creation.

It was important, last week, to touch on the material between the wondrous catch and our reading today to better understand last Sunday’s text. And we need to do so again because we are jumping over sections of Luke’s gospel. Presumably we are skipping parts of Luke’s account because we read these stories from other Gospels in other years but, unfortunately, this means we can lose track of the thread of Luke’s narrative. So just as a reminder: Luke is the Gospel that gives us the familiar nativity story about Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem and the shepherds hearing the angels’ song. Luke is quite clear in his narrative about the presence of Roman imperial rule, but the poor and the powerless receive God’s promise and recognize in this child the fulfillment of God’s promise to come and reign.

Jesus is anointed with the Spirit of God and God declares that Jesus is God’s beloved ‘Son’ – a royal title indicating that Jesus is invested with the full authority to speak for God and to dispense the gifts of God. At this point, Luke inserts an amazingly honorable genealogy for Jesus that goes back through David and Abraham all the way to Adam and to God. When the devil attacks Jesus to show that he is unworthy of such honors, Jesus never breaks faith with God. Jesus is worthy of the title he has been given.

Jesus returns to Nazareth, but the people in his homeland are outraged when Jesus stops his reading of the prophet Isaiah without reference to God’s wrath on Israel’s enemies and they refuse to recognize Jesus as God’ s anointed. When he cites scripture to show that God’s grace and mercy are for all people, not just Judeans, they try to kill him. The story foreshadows what will happen in Jerusalem. Israel’s leaders will declare that Jesus is speaking falsely about God and seek to invalidate everything he has said and done by handing him over to be crucified. But, just as Jesus walked untouched through the murderous crowd at Nazareth, God will vindicate Jesus by raising him from the dead.

After Jesus leaves Nazareth, he comes to Capernaum where he is received as true, and great crowds are healed and delivered from evil spirits. When Jesus teaches by the shore of Galilee, and the crowd press in to hear him, he gets into Peter’s boat to teach. Jesus then demonstrates the dawn of God’s day of grace by the abundance of fish, and summons Peter and the others to follow him to gather all people into the nets of God’s mercy.

They leave everything to do that.

So the mission of God has been announced and disciples summoned to gather all into God’s grace. Jesus then goes on to embody and bear witness to this mission. He touches(!) and heals a man with leprosy; the man is an outcast and Jesus restores him to the community. While Jesus is teaching, the friends of a paralyzed man carry him to Jesus and, when they can’t get in the door, climb up on the roof, pull apart the branches shading the inner court, and lower the man down. Jesus releases him from the debt of all his sins. The Pharisees go crazy, but Jesus heals the man and he walks away restored to his life, his family and his community.

Jesus then calls Levi, a local tax gatherer, to be one of his disciples. Levi is a despised person, working for the imperial powers who are stealing the lifeblood of the community. By the very nature of his job, he is an unclean person.  But Jesus eats with him and his companions, gathering him back into the community of Israel.

Jesus is pressed by the Pharisees about the failure of his followers to observe the customary fasts and he declares that you cannot fast in the presence of the bridegroom. These are all signs that the day when all things are made new has begun in Christ. The reign of God is at hand – which, in Jesus, is a day of grace and not judgment, a gathering of all creation into the nets of God’s mercy.

The conflict with the Pharisees continues over the rituals of hand washing and Sabbath observance. When Jesus heals on the Sabbath, they begin to plot his destruction.

Jesus goes up on a mountain to pray and summons twelve of his disciples to be his apostles, to be sent as special witnesses of his mission. Jesus then begins to teach both them and the crowds about the nature of God’s reign – and this is where we pick up today.

Luke has gathered a collection of Jesus’ teachings and assembled them here. It is similar to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and is often referred to as the Sermon on the Plain (our translation said Jesus stood “on a level place”). Where Matthew imagined this moment as something like Moses at Mount Sinai giving God’s instructions, Luke envisions it as something more like Moses’ exhortation in the book of Deuteronomy when Israel was about to enter the land after their journey through the wilderness. It declares who God is, what God is about, and what it means to live God’s way. It announces the reign of God and teaches us how to live that reign.

Both Matthew and Luke start their account of Jesus’ teaching with a list of beatitudes, and it’s important that we understand what these words mean. We tend to talk about blessings as if they were the good things we have in life. We talk about our many blessings and we have in mind our children (maybe our grandchildren) and things like our family, our spouse, our home, our health – all those things we tend to mention around the thanksgiving table. Those are all great and wonderful blessings. We are fortunate if we have them. And all of us have something for which to give thanks. But the word Jesus uses here doesn’t refer to those kind of blessings, those things we refer to as good fortune.

There is nothing fortunate about being poor or hungry or grieving, and we do God and the scriptures a terrible disservice if we try to say that the poor are somehow fortunate. The woman in my parish in Detroit who needed to heat her house with a space heater attached to an extension cord that ran through a window from her neighbor’s house isn’t fortunate. The man who spent Michigan winters in a window well in downtown Detroit with newspapers for a blanket wasn’t fortunate. The mother who lost her son to suicide wasn’t fortunate. The young couple who lost their newborn to an asymptomatic ruptured appendix wasn’t fortunate. And the six-year-old girl who stole food from church to feed her grandmother and two younger siblings because her mother was a crackhead wasn’t fortunate.

There is nothing lucky about being poor or powerless. This word translated as “blessed” is speaking about honor. The poor and powerless are honored in God’s sight. The hungry and grieving are the recipients of God’s mercy.

And they are honorable because they receive and embrace the reign of God. They embrace the kingdom. They embrace the vision of shared bread. They do not steal what belongs to others. They do not reject those who are poor. They do not regard those who are sick as unclean. They embrace this dawning world of faithfulness to God and one another.

When the Bible talks about the rich and poor, these words are not fundamentally about material wealth. Honor is more important than money in the world of the scripture. Your reputation, your place in society, your family land and your family name, these are things that matter.

And in the Biblical world people understood all these things as fixed commodities. As I have said before, these are like land. There is a finite amount of land, so if someone is going to get more land then others are going to lose theirs. If someone is going to get more honor, then others are going to lose it. The most important thing in that society was for a family to protect what was theirs, whether it was their land or reputation. A person who lost their place or position or land was called ‘poor’. You could lose your position because you got sick and became an outcast, or because you were lame and couldn’t work, or because you lost your land and had to work as a tax gatherer, or because you were childless, or became a widow, or because you were a foreigner.

And what do we see Jesus doing? He is restoring people to their place in the community. He made Levi a disciple. He forgave a paralyzed man and returned him to his family. He touched and healed a leper, bringing him back inside the community. And he called Peter and his companions to help in this work.

The poor are honored in God’s sight. God’s mercy, God’s deliverance, has come to them. And they have embraced this kingdom where all are welcome, where all are cared for, where all are reconciled.

But how shameful are those who take instead of give, who do not embrace God’s way of grace, who take people’s lands, who take advantage of the powerless, who plunder the widow and ignore the orphan. How shameful those who do not share their food. How shameful those who live for the praise of others rather than the praise of God.

Amen

+   +   +

This message was from Sunday, February 17, 2019, based on the assigned Gospel reading for the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany in year C. The other readings on that Sunday helping to shape the message were Jeremiah 17:5-10, Psalm 1, and 1 Corinthians 15:12-20.

© David K Bonde, 2019. All rights reserved.

+   +   +

Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:I000073_(10704267663).jpg Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Homes-LuxuryHome3-Bel_Air_California.jpg Rackstorrocky [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

 

An audacious and generous love

File:Fog of War (18986349660).jpgWatching for the Morning of February 24, 2019

Year C

The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Having declared that the poor, the hungry, and the grieving are honorable in God’s sight (they embrace the values of God’s reign), and calling the rich shameful for enriching themselves at the expense of others, Jesus moves immediately to Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

Our obligation as participants in the reign of God is to live the way of God: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them… But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

A new administration has come, with a new set of values. These are not the values of empire that amasses great fortunes from conquered peoples; these are the values of a God who makes the makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous,” who anointed Jesus to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

At the heart of this new administration is showing to all people the fidelity and allegiance we show to our own people. Israel knew the command to love the neighbor, but who falls inside the circle? Who is one of us? Even the Roman soldiers, says Jesus, and foreign mercenaries marching through their lands, even the tax gatherers helping Rome and Judea’s elites to plunder the people, even the sinners pushed beyond the limits of proper behavior, even the pious full of self-righteousness and judgment.

And why such audacious and generous love? Because such is the love of God. Such is the reign of the Spirit. Such is the new world born in Jesus.

So Sunday we will hear about Joseph’s extravagant grace to the brothers who sought to kill him but settled for selling him into slavery and telling their father his favorite child was dead, dousing Joseph’s special coat in blood to show a lion got him. But Joseph will see beyond their vengefulness to the bounty of God, and will provide for them all during the five years of famine to come. And Sunday we will hear the poet remind us not to “fret because of the wicked…for they will soon fade like the grass.” “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath,” for “the wicked will be no more,” “but the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.”

…In abundant prosperity. In overwhelming grace. In an audacious and generous love.

The Prayer for February 24, 2019

God of truth,
make us attentive to the teachings of your Son
that in his words we may find the path of life.

The Texts for February 24, 2019

First Reading: Genesis 45:3-11, 15
“I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.” –
Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and receives them with grace.

Psalmody: Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40
“Do not fret because of the wicked…Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more…But the meek shall inherit the land.” – the poet meditates on the destiny of the corrupt who ignore our God-given obligations to one another and promises the fulfillment of God’s promise (the land) to those who remain faithful.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
“But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised?”
Arguing against those in Corinth who deny the bodily resurrection, Paul now attempts to convey the notion that the resurrected body is different than our present existence.

Gospel: Luke 6:27-38
“Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”
After opening Jesus’ teaching about the dawning reign of God with Jesus’ declaration of those who are honored and shameful in God’s eyes, Luke immediately sets forth Jesus teaching, “Love your enemies,” for this is the pattern of God’s action in the world.

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fog_of_War_(18986349660).jpg 1st Lt. Danielle Dixon [Public domain]

Like a shrub in the desert

File:Tree trunk at Deadvlei, Namibia (2017).jpgWatching for the Morning of February 17, 2019

Year C

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

From the mountain where he has prayed and appointed twelve apostolic witnesses, Jesus now descends to the plain to speak to the crowds who have come in search of healing. We know these words as “Blessed are you…” and “Woe to you…” but their meaning is better expressed by something like “How honored are you…” and “How shameful are you…”

It is about wealth and poverty – but wealth and poverty in a very specific context that concerns far more than money. It is a society that thinks about all things as a limited and fixed supply. It is like land: for someone to gain more someone else must lose. The ‘poor’ are those who have been unable to protect what was theirs, whether possessions or lands or family name. The ‘rich’ are those who have used their power to acquire what belonged to others. They are inherently regarded as thieves. (This is different, however, from those who prosper by natural means such as an exceptional harvest or fruitful flock – though such gifts from God require sharing with those not so fortunate.)

We understand something of this. We regard the auto mechanic who takes advantage of a traveler on the road as a thief, as are the pharmaceutical companies that jack up the price of life-saving medications – or those who pushed the sale of opiates. It is shameful to take advantage of the weak or vulnerable. It is shameful to steal from the elderly. It is shameful to abuse children. “Woe to you who are rich…Woe to you who are full now… Woe to you who are laughing now…” It is not a threat of punishment so much as a declaration that such people are shameful in God’s eyes and have no place in God’s reign.

No one is lucky to be poor. No one is fortunate to be powerless. There is no inherent good in being a victim (though good can come if it incites us not to victimize others, if it creates allegiance to the reign of God). The vulnerable are favored in God’s eyes because God has always been their advocate and defender, and now the reign of God has drawn near in Jesus the anointed. But what is expected of the poor – as also of the powerful, though they tend to refuse – is that they embrace this reign where bread is shared and sins forgiven and the human community made whole.

Jesus’ words on Sunday are full of grace to the beaten down, but they challenge the privileged – even as Jeremiah and the psalm contrast the tree drawing life from a stream with the dry shrub in the desert.

The Prayer for February 17, 2019

God of Mercy,
Redeemer of the world,
bring your healing to us and to all
that, transformed by your Grace,
all may know your justice and mercy.

The Texts for February 17, 2019

First Reading: Jeremiah 17:5-10
“Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals.” – The prophet condemns the king whose confidence in power politics has led him to an alliance with the king of Egypt to rebel against Babylon, a course of action that will lead to the destruction of the nation. The timelessness of the wisdom saying is pointedly applied to the nation’s leadership.

Psalmody: Psalm 1
“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked…but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.”
– The psalm, written in the singular (“Blessed is the one”) opens the Hebrew psalter with an affirmation of the importance of individual fidelity to God.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:12-20
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” – Paul challenges those in Corinth who deny bodily resurrection.

Gospel: Luke 6:17-26
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.’” – Having ascended a mountain to pray and then chosen his twelve apostolic witnesses, Jesus comes down to teach a great crowd of his followers, beginning with these declarations of those who are honored and shameful in God’s sight.

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tree_trunk_at_Deadvlei,_Namibia_(2017).jpg Olga Ernst & Hp.Baumeler [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Rage and redemption

File:Smoldering ruins of African American's homes following race riots - Tulsa Okla 1921.jpg

Aftermath of the Tulsa Riot that destroyed the homes and businesses in the black community of Greenwood, killing more than 100.

Watching for the Morning of February 3, 2019

Year C

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

An outbreak of communal violence is an ugly thing. We shouldn’t think first of the mindless behavior of hometown fans when their team wins the final game. Nor should we think first of the violence that rocks nations when oppressed communities respond to state violence with outrage. We need to think about lynchings: the angry, outraged mobs that insist on immediate vengeance for some fundamental violation of communal norms.

And we need to think about our stories, not what’s happening in some other country.

Emmett Till was 14, visiting from Chicago, when he encountered 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant at the small country store she owned with her husband in Money, Mississippi. He may have whistled at her; he may have whistled to his friends; he may have whistled softly to himself as he had been taught in order to control his stuttering. He was taken from the home where he was staying with his great-uncle in the middle of the night by Carolyn’s husband and his half-brother. Emmett’s naked, shot, and brutally beaten body was fished from the Tallahatchie River three days later, barbed wire wrapped around his neck and attached to a weight.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice records that “more than 4400 African American men, women, and children were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.”

What happened to Stephen in Acts 2 is this same kind of outbreak of communal violence. A mob outraged by his claim to see Jesus at the right hand of God rose up in violent revenge. It happened repeatedly to the apostle Paul – indeed Paul participated in the murder of Stephen and was dedicated to arresting followers of Jesus when the risen Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. The arrest that led to Paul’s eventual execution in Rome followed a riot begun with a rumor that he had desecrated the Jerusalem temple by bringing a gentile into the inner court.

Communal violence is an ugly thing. The crucifixion of Jesus was a deliberate act of the governing families in Jerusalem allied with the Roman imperium. It was an act of state violence. But what happened to Jesus in Nazareth after his sermon was a more visceral outbreak of rage. We paint pictures of Jesus with children and lambs and it takes some work to understand what part of his message was so offensive his hearers rose in fury to kill him.

Jesus has laid claim to be the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel. He is the embodiment of God’s reign to rescue the poor and release the captive. But such a claim is a scandal in a culture where every

Jesus is uppity, acting out of his station in life. Jesus calls the people on their implicit rejection of his ministry – and then he dares to say that God’s reign is not for Israel but for all people. The people assert his obligation is to care for his family and village, but Jesus points to Elijah and Elisha who dispensed God’s favors to a poor widow and an afflicted leper among Israel’s enemies. This is what leads to rage, to the ugliness of communal violence. Jesus might as well have whistled at a white woman.

It is deep within us, this conviction God should care for us more than others. Donald Trump milked and manipulated it into the presidency. It took Jesus to the cross. But in the empty tomb God declared Jesus the one who speaks the truth.

So Sunday we will hear about Jeremiah’s prophetic call and God’s command he should speak fearlessly. The psalmist will declare God is his rock and his fortress. Corinthians will speak to us about the ultimate importance of love – not romantic love, but fidelity and care for all people. And then comes the abortive attempt on Jesus’ life. They will not get him this day; they will not get him in the end, for we follow one whose love is not silenced by hate.

The Prayer for February 3, 2019

Almighty God,
through your Son Jesus you revealed your gracious rule
to bind up the wounded and set free the captive.
Let us not fail to understand your will and your way,
but grant us willing hearts to receive your word and live your kingdom;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for February 3, 2019

First Reading: Jeremiah 1:4-10
“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” – God calls Jeremiah to his prophetic ministry.

Psalmody: Psalm 71:1-6
“In you, O Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame.”
– The psalm writer cries out to God for protection “from the hand of the wicked.”

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” – Paul continues to teach his conflicted congregation in Corinth about the gifts of God’s Spirit and their life together as a community. All gifts serve the community and the greatest gift is love – concern for and fidelity to one another

Gospel: Luke 4:21-30
“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”
– The message Jesus announces in Nazareth that the age to come is dawning even as Jesus speaks is met with hostility and a murderous attempt on his life.

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Smoldering_ruins_of_African_American%27s_homes_following_race_riots_-_Tulsa_Okla_1921.jpg Alvin C. Krupnick Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Beloved

File:Mural - Jesus' Baptism.jpgWatching for the Morning of January 13, 2019

Year C

The Baptism of Our Lord

1But now thus says the Lord,
….he who created you, O Jacob,
….he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
….I have called you by name, you are mine.
2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
….and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you… (Isaiah 43)

No sweeter word could have been spoken to the descendants of Jacob in the 6th century bce than these words of the prophet. For a people destroyed, scattered and deported in chains to Babylon, the prophet takes up the language of the creation and exodus to declare that God will gather God’s scattered people. A new creative and redemptive work is at hand.

The prophet’s words form the backdrop for the dramatic moment when the heavens are opened and the Spirit descends upon Jesus. This is a divine commissioning for God’s saving act. The language “You are my Son,” is royal language: Jesus is the one who brings the reign of God. He is the presence of God’s justice and mercy. He is the one empowered to deliver God’s people. He is the dawning of the new creation.

This descent of the Spirit upon Jesus is more than Samson inspired in the moment to burst the bonds that hold him or to tear down the temple of the Philistines. It is more than Gideon filled with courage to summon Israel to battle. Jesus is the one, as John has told us, who washes the world in the Spirit of God.

And so, on Sunday, we will hear not only the voice of the prophet, but sing with the psalmist of the voice of God that thunders over the waters and hear from the book of Acts about the Spirit poured out upon Samaria, and we will know the dramatic hand of God is at work.

And we will ponder the mystery that, in the waters of baptism in which all are washed, we too have heard the divine voice proclaim us God’s beloved, and felt the breath of the Spirit that makes all things new.

The Prayer for January 13, 2019

Heavenly Father, Eternal God, Holy and Gracious One:
in the waters of the River Jordan
you anointed Jesus with your Holy Spirit
and declared him your beloved Son.
Make all the earth radiant with your glory
and pour out upon all your children
the abundance of your Holy Spirit.

The Texts for January 13, 2019

First Reading: Isaiah 43:1-7
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” – with language that evokes the creation and exodus and promises their return from exile, the prophet declares God’s abiding faithfulness to the people.

Psalmody: Psalm 29
“The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.” – Using the imagery of a thunderstorm coming off the Mediterranean Sea and crashing upon the slope of Mount Hermon, the poet proclaims the power of God’s Word.

Second Reading: Acts 8:14-17
“Then Peter and John laid their hands on them [the new believers in Samaria], and they received the Holy Spirit.” – When the Greek speaking (Hellenized) Judeans are driven from the city following the communal violence against Stephen, they carry the message of Jesus to Samaria. The message is received with faith and representatives from Jerusalem are sent to affirm that this surprising development is of the Holy Spirit.

Gospel: Luke 3:15-22 (appointed 15-17, 21-22)
“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.”
– The prophetic ministry of John comes to its conclusion with his arrest, and the baptized and praying Jesus is anointed with the Spirit.

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mural_-_Jesus%27_Baptism.jpg David Bjorgen [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Like showers watering the earth

File:08152 Bukowsko (powiat sanocki).jpgWatching for the Morning of January 6, 2019

The Epiphany of Our Lord

6He will be like rain falling on a mown field,
like showers watering the earth.

We will read Psalm 72 on Sunday from the old 1984 translation of the New International Version because that version presents the psalm as promise rather than wish. The current NIV reads “May he be like rain falling on a mown field,” and the New Revised Standard Version reads similarly. ‘May’ is too soft a verb. It robs the prayer of passion. In our time, in our conflicted politics, it sounds more like a sigh than a song.

I understand the translators’ choice. But the text is not just a relic of an ancient coronation rite; it is now deep in the canon of scripture. It now bears the divine word to a broken world. It preaches. It declares what kings and presidents ought to be – and what the reign of God will be. It stands against those who use their office to bless themselves and proclaims the promise of God to all creation. It summons us to live the faithfulness that is coming, to be participants in the blessing of the world.

When we gather in worship and set this song next to the child of Bethlehem, the magi, and the murderous king, the song soars. We hear the yearning and joy of all heaven and earth: in the outstretched arms of Jesus is God’s true and lasting reign and the healing of the world. To him belongs the obeisance of the nations. To him belong the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In him is the end of every murderous regime. In him is the silencing of every deceitful tongue. In him is the end of the whip and the lash, the nails and the wood, the taunts and the dying. In him the grave is powerless. In him is the soft rain that brings life to the earth.

Sunday we read this song that is prayer and promise and proclamation. We hear of the magi kneeling before the child of Bethlehem, and of the kings of this earth with the blood of children on their hands to prevent his rising. The voice of the prophet declares: “Arise, shine; for your light has come.” It is the feast of the epiphany, the feast of Christ revealed to the nations, the feast of light shining in the darkness. The wondrous grace of Christmas Eve blazes across the skies.

And, yes, the shadow of the cross lies across the day: Herod echoes Pharaoh’s murderous attempt upon the children of Israel. But the child will live. The child will come forth out of Egypt. The child will settle in Nazareth. And in his outstretched arms all creation is born of God.

The Prayer for January 6, 2019

Gracious God,
by a sign in the heavens
you proclaimed to all the earth
the advent of your son Jesus,
who would receive the throne of David
and reign in justice and righteousness over a world made new.
May he reign in us and in our world bringing his perfect peace.

The Texts for January 6, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” – In the years after the return from exile, the prophet heralds a restoration of the nation: though Jerusalem and the temple are now only a pale reflection of their former glory, the Glory of God shall be upon them, the sons and daughters of Israel scattered throughout the ancient world shall return, and the people of all nations will make pilgrimage to “proclaim the praise of the LORD”.

Psalmody: Psalm 72 (appointed 1-7, 10-14)
“Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness.” – A royal psalm, likely composed to celebrate the ascension of a new king, has become a promise of the anointed of God (Messiah/Christ) in whom all creation is made new.

Second Reading: Ephesians 3:1-12
“This grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ.” – Paul is privileged to proclaim God’s plan, once hidden from our eyes but now revealed, to gather all people into one body in Christ.

Gospel: Matthew 2:1-23 (appointed 1-12)
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Judeans?”
– the visit of the magi, representing the nations coming to bow before the dawning reign of God in Christ, and his rejection by Herod and the Jerusalem elite who plot to murder the infant king.

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:08152_Bukowsko_(powiat_sanocki).jpg Silar [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

“And he shall be the one of peace”

File:Bicci di Lorenzo - The Nativity - WGA2160.jpgWatching for the Morning of December 23, 2018

Year C

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)

This word from a prophet of Israel’s God some 2,700 years ago shapes our gathering on Sunday. It is not a prediction; that’s never what prophecy was. It is a message, a sermon, a warning, a promise.

The words are old, very old, spoken in an ancient tongue and an alien culture. And yet it was spoken in this world, to humans very much like us, warring, greedy, loving, bitter, doubtful, hopeful, kind, cruel.

We are not much changed since then; only our technology has changed: bullets kill faster and better than swords. But war’s desolation we know. We see the rubble, even if we don’t have to live in it. We see the broken bodies, the mass graves, the fiery explosions, the children gasping for breath or searching for bread. And we know the hope for peace: peace in our world, peace in our homes, peace in our hearts.

Sunday we will sing the words of the prophet Isaiah about swords beaten into plowshares. We will hear Paul encourage us to set our minds on what is true, honorable and just, knowing that “the God of peace will be with you.” And we will hear the words of the Angel Gabriel to Mary about the child to be born who “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” In that promise we will find the fulfillment of the prophet Micah: a divine and royal presence come to breathe a new governance into the human heart – “and he shall be the one of peace.” (Micah 5:5)

These aren’t the appointed texts for this final Sunday of Advent this year, but they are ones that bear the Advent promise of a world made new, and prepare us to ponder again the child of the manger and the peace he brings.

The Prayer for December 23, 2018

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Fill our hearts with your Spirit,
and guide our steps in the way of that day
when Christ shall reign in every heart
and all creation shall dwell in your peace;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for December 23, 2018

(We rearranged the readings in Advent to accommodate our children’s Christmas program. As a result, we read the story of the visitation last week and have added the story of the annunciation to our Advent this year.)

First Reading: Micah 5:2-5a
“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.”
– Amidst the words of judgment in the 8th century BCE are also words that promise a new future for the nation. This is the famous passage, quoted by Matthew, promising a king from the royal line of David who will “be the one of peace.”

Psalmody: Isaiah 2:2-5
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” – As Assyrian power rises in the 8th century BCE, the prophet reverses the call to arms, and summons the nation to walk in God’s way of peace.

Second Reading: Philippians 4:8-9
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure … think about these things.” – Though Paul is in prison facing the possibility of death, he urges his community to abide in all that is true and honorable.

Gospel: Luke 1:26-33
“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, of the house of David.” – Following the announcement to Zechariah that Elizabeth would bear a child who would be the forerunner of God’s anointed, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary.

The texts as appointed for 4 Advent C

First Reading: Micah 5:2-5a

Psalmody: Luke 1:46-55, the Song of Mary, the Magnificat (alternate: Psalm 80:1-7)
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” – In response to her encounter with Elizabeth, Mary sings with joy of God’s coming to set right the world.

Second Reading: Hebrews 10:5-10
“Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.’” – In the midst of the author’s gathering of the scriptural witness to the superiority of Christ, he points to this passage and the words “I have come to do your will, O God” to speak of the new work of God in Christ Jesus that replaces the pattern of temple sacrifices.

Gospel: Luke 1:39-45
“As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” –Having heard from the angel Gabriel that her kinswoman, Elizabeth, is also wondrously with child, Mary comes to greet her. Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit, and the child in her womb (John the Baptist) leaps for joy.

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bicci_di_Lorenzo_-_The_Nativity_-_WGA2160.jpg Bicci di Lorenzo [Public domain]