Walking towards hope

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The Fourth Sunday of Easter, year A (Good Shepherd Sunday)

May 3, 2020

Sunday’s Readings:

Psalm 23 (NRSV):

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff
they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
for ever.

John 10:1-10: “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He   his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a strang, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.  7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (NRSV)

Sunday’s Prayer of the Day:

Gracious God,
 guardian and shepherd of our souls,
keep us in your Word
that, hearing and following your voice,
we may know your abundant life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever

Sunday’s Message:

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

The hymn at the end of our service this morning is simple, but very sweet:

Have no fear, little flock;
Have no fear, little flock,
For the Father has chosen
To give you the Kingdom;
Have no fear, little flock!

Have good cheer, little flock;
Have good cheer, little flock,
For the Father will keep you
In his love forever;
Have good cheer, little flock!

Praise the Lord high above;
Praise the Lord high above,
For he stoops down to heal you
Uplift and restore you;
Praise the Lord high above!

Thankful hearts raise to God;
Thankful hearts raise to God,
For he stays close beside you
In all things works with you;
Thankful hearts raise to God!

The hymn is full of tenderness and compassion and the living presence of God in our lives to comfort and sustain us.

Neither the hymn nor its author shows up in Wikipedia, nor in any of several reference books on hymns.  It doesn’t have the theology of sophisticated reflection or the music of great composition.  It is a simple song of faith – a faith that, in its simplicity, is, in fact, deep and profound.

Our readings this morning, and today’s theme of Christ as the Good Shepherd, take us to an odd place.  It brings us to a little oasis in a world that has become strange and fearful.  It takes us to a place where there are still waters and good pastures and a shepherd who knows our name.  It takes us to a safe place where we can lie down and sleep in peace.  It is tender and calm.  We are not locked in fear in the upper room but at home in a sheepfold with a good shepherd.

But even as it takes us there, David’s psalm speaks about sitting at table surrounded by enemies, and Jesus speaks of thieves and bandits who climb over the wall “to steal and kill and destroy.”

How we hold these two elements together is the challenge of the day.  We live in a dangerous world with corrupt leaders – but Christ is risen and in our midst, and Sin and Death lie beneath his feet.

There is a kind of sweet, innocent faith that has never been tested.  It speaks easily of God’s guidance and protection because it has never faced real danger.

There is also a kind of disillusionment when innocent faith is knocked down.  It may lead to feelings of abandonment and betrayal.  Or it may move towards cynicism and hardness of heart, even professions of unbelief and mockery of those who remain faithful.

And then there are those who have walked through the darkest valleys and crossed the wilderness into a deeper faith, a more profound trust.

I’ve heard all of these in the hospital and in funeral homes: Deep faith that knows the presence of God even in the midst of trial, naïve faith thrown down into bitterness because tragedy has come, and innocence that has not yet been challenged – or lives in a kind of determined denial.

And, of course, we see all of this in the scripture, too.  The Bible is very much a real and terribly honest book about the human spirit.

Pastors walk a tricky line.  Profound faith and naïve faith often sound the same, but they are very different creatures.

A friend and colleague in Michigan died from a medical mistake that turned an ordinary procedure into significant suffering and weeks in the hospital from which he never returned.  The text he wanted to hear from those who visited was Psalm 91:

1 You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
….who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
2 will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
….my God, in whom I trust.”
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
….and from the deadly pestilence;
4 he will cover you with his pinions,
….and under his wings you will find refuge;
….his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
….or the arrow that flies by day,
6 or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
….or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

7 A thousand may fall at your side,
….ten thousand at your right hand,
….but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes
….and see the punishment of the wicked.

9 Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
….the Most High your dwelling place,
10 no evil shall befall you,
….no scourge come near your tent.

11 For he will command his angels concerning you
….to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
….so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder,
….the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.

14 Those who love me, I will deliver;
….I will protect those who know my name.
15 When they call to me, I will answer them;
….I will be with them in trouble,
….I will rescue them and honor them.
16 With long life I will satisfy them,
….and show them my salvation. (NRSV)

As my friend neared the end, it was hard to read without tears.

Jim’s faith was not naïve.  He knew his condition was perilous and likely fatal.  But he heard in the words of this psalm something far more than a naïve promise that he would be protected from harm.  He heard in the text the profound awareness that, no matter what sorrows come, the hands of God hold him.  “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” says our psalm today, “I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”

There is a reality greater than disease, suffering, and death.  None of us want to face any of these things.  But God will still be God.  And God’s promise abides.  Christ knows our name.  We know his voice.  He guides us toward good pasture.  He brings us to still waters.  Such faith may look naïve, but it is born in the crucible.

The language about shepherds in the scripture is about leadership and those who govern.   Jesus takes up the image of the good shepherd as he confronts the pharisees who hold positions of leadership but have showed themselves to be bad shepherds.  Jesus uses sharp and unmistakable words when he talks about thieves and bandits who come to steal, kill and destroy.  He is saying the leaders of his nation steal life rather than give it.  They bring sorrow and division rather than protection and peace.

Jesus had just healed a man who had been born blind, but the leaders turned out to be the ones who could not see.  They first denied that the man had been born blind.  Then they tried to force this man who had been healed to say Jesus was a sinner.  They said they didn’t know where he came from, implying – not so subtly – that Jesus was from the devil.  When the man responded that such an idea was amazing, since only someone from God could open they eyes of a man born blind, the leaders said he was born in utter sin and cast him out of the synagogue – which meant casting him out of the community. But Jesus found him and welcomed him.

In an exchange with these leaders, Jesus declares that they are the ones who cannot see and are bound in sin.  It leads to these words about thieves and bandits sneaking into the sheepfold – and about himself as the good shepherd who gives life rather than steals it, who lays down his life for the sheep.

As I began drafting this sermon on Friday, the number of people in the United States who have died from Covid-19 had grown by 11,000 since last Sunday.  As of Friday, the number (66,230) now exceeded the combined population of Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, and half of Cupertino.  By yesterday, 1,200 more had died, and the evidence is mounting that many more have died from this disease than have been counted.  80 more will perish while we are gathered here.  As the minutes pass, lives tick away because, when the wildfires began to burn, the fire chief said it would burn itself out and didn’t sound the alarm or call out the firefighters.

In three months, we have surpassed the total number of American dead in all 38 of the wars and military conflicts in which the U.S. has been involved since end of the Korean War.

I keep thinking about the monuments I saw in Europe constructed to petition God to deliver the people from the plague, or built in thanksgiving when the plague ended.  I keep thinking about the farmland that returned to forest and all the other consequences of the plague in the Medieval era.  I think about Luther who, when he went to join the monastery, was required to spend the first month in isolation to be sure he didn’t bring the plague into the community.  I think about the gripping account in Daniel Defoe’s novel, A journal of the Plague Year, about the London plague in 1665.  I think about Angel Island where we quarantined Chinese immigrants because of plague.  I think about my mother, as a child, who was quarantined with her family when her brother caught scarlet fever – and the church choir came and sang from the middle of the street.  And I remember lining up at school to get the sugar cube with the polio vaccine.

The human story is full of great sorrows.  And disease is only one small part of human suffering.  I have read John Hersey’s account of the suffering in his book, Hiroshima.  I have read Eli Wiesel’s narrative of the death camps in his book Night.  I have read Richard Wright and many others about the experience of being black in America.  I have stood and pondered the blood in the soil beneath my feet at Antietam, and walked through the Marietta National Cemetery in Marietta, Georgia, where lie the 10,000 Union dead from Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign.  I have also walked through the other cemetery in Marietta, where Confederate flags still fly.

The human story is full of great sorrows.  And every life bears its own personal sorrows. Jesus’ death is witness to the cruelties of which human beings are capable.  He is also witness that God does not turn away from any of us in our time of shame or sorrow.

Indeed, from the grave comes life.

Jesus is the good shepherd.  He has walked every battlefield.  He has walked every death camp.  He has walked every lonely road on the fight for freedom.  He has walked with every grieving family.  He has held the hands of every patient dying alone.  And life is given in his touch.

Nothing about this is naïve faith.  It is a deeply profound one.  It has heard the agony.  It has looked upon the wounded hands.  It has seen the pierced side.  It has gazed into the empty tomb and dares to trust that Christ is risen and in our midst, and Sin and Death lie broken beneath his feet.

Such faith walks towards hope in the midst of despair.  It believes in joy even through tears.  It persists in kindness when kindness seems wasted.  It lives with open arms for it knows the open arms of the Good Shepherd.

Amen

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© David K Bonde, 2020, All rights reserved.

Image:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PikiWiki_Israel_30576_Wildlife_and_Plants_of_Israel.jpg
lehava nazareth  Pikiwiki Israel / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)

Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

 

The moments I treasure

“Harry” at the Blessing of the Animals in 2017

Looking back on Sunday

Psalm 8

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them?”

The moments I treasure as a pastor are not the big things: a great worship service, a program that succeeds, a rousing concert or delightful children’s program.   What vibrates sweetly in my heart are the small things: A gesture of compassion and generosity from someone in the parish that you learn about later. Coming to make a visit and finding a mom with a guitar, her two small children, and three of her children’s friends singing to a shut-in. Or arriving at the home of a sickly and self-obsessed woman to find a member of her same age on her knees washing the kitchen floor.

Last Sunday was our commemoration of St. Francis and the Blessing of the Animals. We hold our service on the front lawn and this year we were short of our usual number of volunteers to help bring out chairs and set up the space for worship. At the Oktoberfest celebration the evening before, I asked a young man if he could help, but he had tickets and was taking his sister to a 49’rs game in the morning. To go get his sister, he couldn’t make worship. Nevertheless he came early on Sunday and helped us set up.

Simple things. It’s in the simple things that goodness shines. It’s in the simple things that all the preaching and teaching seems not to be in vain.

It’s a tough time to be church. All of us are affected when evidence of clergy abuse surfaces or hateful messages are broadcast. All of us are affected when the news talks continually about churches and preachers wedded to Trumpism. The Christian witness to compassion and sacrifice doesn’t resonate when Twitter is alive with rage and outrage. Sunday worship seems a pale form of entertainment to an entertainment culture. And the church’s respect and ties to the faith, prayers and hymns of the ages don’t resonate with a society focused on novelty.

It’s a tough time to be church. And most preachers don’t know how the faith is shaping the daily life of its members. We don’t see bedtime prayers or soup taken to a neighbor. We don’t see acts of courage that stand up against hatefulness. We don’t see acts of compassion to strangers or generosity to those in need. We hope the voice of Christ is echoing through our members’ lives, but we don’t always know. So those moments when we get to see little acts of kindness and generosity are very sweet.

It makes up for the bug that flew up my nose during the blessing of the bread.

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Images: Carl S. Gutekunst, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Decisions, decisions

File:Byzantine fresca from St-Lucas.jpgWatching for the Morning of August 26, 2018

Year B

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Lutherans don’t like to talk about decisions. Well, some Lutherans. There is a deep strain in the Lutheran branch of the Christian community that recognizes that the only important decision is God’s decision. It’s not that God’s decision for us strips us of our own will or responsibility; rather that the wonder of God’s grace and faithfulness overwhelms our resistant and rebellious hearts. Can a person swept off their feet by the love of another really say it was his or her own choice? It sounds as self concerned as it is. We are not heroes for choosing God; God is the hero for choosing us. The Biblical record makes clear that we humans have shown ourselves persistently unworthy of God’s faithfulness.

But here we are, this Sunday, with Joshua confronting the generation of those who have taken possession of the land with the challenge to “Choose this day whom you will serve.” And Jesus is pressing the few followers who remain after his offensive talk about eating his flesh and blood, asking, “Do you also wish to go away?”

Choose. Are you staying or going?

The author of Ephesians will urge us to “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power,” and “put on the whole armor of God.” There is a choice to be made in the daily walk of Christian life. A daily choice. And there is an implicit choice, too, in the words of our psalmist who rejoices that “When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears, and rescues them from all their troubles.” But the poet also acknowledges “Evil brings death to the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.” There is a choosing that happens, and the choosing has consequences. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.” There is a redemption that surpasses all our sorrows.

So we must choose, even as the beloved must choose whether or not to trust the love that has come to them, whether or not to abide in the love that comes as gift, whether or not to be faithful to the lover who has chosen them.

The Prayer for August 26, 2018

Keep us, O God, in your eternal Spirit
that, when challenged by your word,
we may never turn back from following you,
but always confess and believe
that you have the words of eternal life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 26, 2018

First Reading: Joshua 24:1-3, 13-18 (Appointed 24:1-2a, 14-18)
“‘Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.’” – Joshua gathers the people following the forty year wandering in the wilderness and the occupation of the promised land and challenges them to put away their foreign gods and serve the LORD with fidelity.

Psalmody: Psalm 34:15-22
“The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry.”
– The concluding section of an acrostic poem declaring God’s fidelity to those who are faithful to him.

Second Reading: Ephesians 6:10-20
“Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”
– The author uses the metaphor of a Roman soldier’s armor to call the community to faithfulness to God.

Gospel: John 6:56-69
“When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’” – The words of Jesus about eating his flesh has revealed that many even among his followers do not understand the meaning of the sign of the bread (the feeding of the five-thousand) and they turn away. Jesus then asks the twelve: “Do you also wish to go away?”

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Byzantine_fresca_from_St-Lucas.jpg See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We come to be the new creation

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Friday

Ephesians 4:1-16

11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

This is one of those Bible verses that is too easily brought into the service of the church as an organization. We can hear offices in the institutional church rather than charisms in the community. We can picture persons in authority rather than the multitude of unique gifts, talents and graces that make for a vibrant and meaningful community.

Jesus didn’t come to build an organization. He came to bring the new wine of the feast to come. He came to bring new birth to an aching world. He came to fulfill the promise of the prophets of a day when every heart is turned to God. He came to open eyes, free the bound and gather the scattered. He is the dawn of the new creation, the healing of the world.

The words that matter in this verse about apostles and prophets, pastors and teachers, are these: “until all of us come.” Until all of us come to the unity of the faith. Until all of us come to the knowledge of the Son of God. Until all of us come to maturity. Until all of us come to the measure of the full stature of Christ. Until all of us come.

The church is not an institution with officers; it is a community with charisms. It has not arrived with buildings or priests or sacraments; it journeys towards our wholeness. We are a pilgrim community heading towards the promised land. We are a people seeking to be conformed to the image of Christ. We are mendicants looking to be filled with all the fullness of Christ. We are children of the dawn preparing for the full light of day. We are seeking to grow into the full stature of Christ. We seek to feel his compassion, breathe his Spirit, live his love. We look to embody his truth and life. We come to be born from above, to be delivered from the dominion of death and darkness, to live the feast to come. We come to bring each other into “The measure of the full stature of Christ.” We come to be the new creation.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Porto_Covo_July_2011-6.jpg By Alvesgaspar [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Will we live the new creation?

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A sermon from the festival Sunday of Pentecost (May 20, 2018) that celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ followers fifty days after Easter as described in Acts 2:1-21.

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

I want to invite you to think back to how we have come to this day. This day in which we hear again about how the Spirit was poured out upon the followers of Jesus and they were empowered to proclaim the wonderful work of God in all the languages of the earth – this day happens after Easter. It is the culmination of this Easter season. What began in the empty tomb, what was born in the encounter with the risen Christ, reaches its logical end with the Christian community bearing witness to the world.

But before the empty tomb came Good Friday. Before Easter was the harsh judgment of power that tried to break Jesus with torture and shame. But Jesus did not break. He did not weep and cry for mercy. He did not rage at God or his betrayers. He did not pray for vengeance upon the Romans or the Judean leaders or the soldiers who had impaled him upon the cross. He lived even with pierced hands the mercy he taught.

We are here on Pentecost because of Easter and Good Friday.

And before Good Friday was Maundy Thursday, that night in which Jesus ate his last supper with his followers – the meal we still eat together with Jesus every Sunday. At that meal Jesus embodied everything he had taught his disciples about the way of God by taking a towel and assuming the role of the lowliest slave to wash their feet. The reign of God is not about reaching the top of the social ladder but kneeling before those at the bottom.

We are here on Pentecost saying that God has given us the Holy Spirit because of what we have seen about that Holy Spirit on Easter and Good Friday and Maundy Thursday.

And we didn’t get to Maundy Thursday without the long journey through the season of Lent – the season that walks with Jesus towards Jerusalem, the season that talks about spiritual renewal, and care of the poor, and a deeper walk of faith.

It was a season that began with Ash Wednesday – a day of repentance, of turning anew towards God, of renewing our allegiance. That day at the start of Lent remembers our mortality, the inheritance of our turn away from the source of life, summoning us to turn back. We are but dust and ashes, but with the breath of God we are living beings, able to love and be loved, able to hear God’s word and sing God’s praise, able to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.

Before we come to this day celebrating the Spirit, we came through Easter and the God who gives life to the dead, and we came through the 40 days of the wilderness, and the reminder that apart from God’s spirit we are but dust.

And before Ash Wednesday and Lent was the season that lives in the light of the epiphany – the season that begins with the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan and the heavens opened and the Spirit coming down and the voice of God saying, “This is my beloved son,” – the season that ends on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus and his followers and the cloud of God’s presence and the voice of God declaring again that this Jesus is God’s beloved, telling us to listen to him.

Before our Lenten journey to Jerusalem was Jesus revealed to us and to the world as God’s beloved and the voice of God telling us to listen to him.

So we are here on this day, listening to the fulfillment of the promise of the Spirit being poured out on the world because of Easter and Good Friday and the broken bread and common cup of Maundy Thursday and the journey to Jerusalem and the radiant vision of the Spirit of God upon this Jesus.

And before that were the magi, representing all the nations of the world, kneeling before the child. And before that Simeon and Anna singing God’s praise when they see the infant in the temple, the fulfillment of all God’s promises of redemption. And before that were the shepherds hearing the heavens sing and coming to kneel before the mystery of the Word made flesh.

And before the wonder of Christmas was the season of Advent, of hope and expectation that God would fulfill God’s promise to make the world whole.

Six months ago we were talking about God’s promise to make the world whole, and here we now stand with the gift of the Spirit and the work of Jesus’ followers to go out into the world to declare that hope is fulfilled, the world has a new captain.

What began with the promise of the prophets has been fulfilled.

I know that we gather today in the aftermath of yet another school shooting. I know that within twenty minutes of that shooting, fake Facebook accounts began to spew lies and division about the shooting – showing the suspected shooter with a Hilary 2016 hat and linking him with Antifa, the anti-fascist group.

I know that there are people stoking fear and division among us, sowing the spirits of hate, intolerance, bigotry, and fear. But the promise of the prophets has been fulfilled.   There is a holy Spirit poured out.

I know that there are spirits of greed and callousness loose in the world. I have heard about the racist rant of the lawyer caught on tape and the president calling people ‘animals’ and saying, “These aren’t people.” And it doesn’t matter if he was only talking about gang members; we are becoming accustomed to the dehumanizing language that has been used in every act of genocide and violence. But the promise of the prophets has been fulfilled.   There is a holy Spirit poured out.

I know that they are spirits of deceit and falsehood loose in the world, but the promise of the prophets has been fulfilled.   There is a holy Spirit poured out.

I know there are spirits of bitterness and despair loose in the world, but we are here because the promise of the prophets has been fulfilled.   There is a holy Spirit poured out. And it has been poured out upon us.

And the choice we make every morning is whether we will live in this holy Spirit, or in those other spirits loose in the world. Will we live healing or division? Will we live compassion or hardness of heart? Will we live kindness or neglect? Will we live forgiveness or revenge? Will we live hope or despair?

Will we live the Holy Spirit? Will we live what God is creating? Will we live the shared table? Will we live the mystery of the font and a life turned away from self to neighbor? Will we live at the culmination of this journey that began with the promise of Advent and the wonder of Christmas and journeyed to Good Friday and Easter and this day of Pentecost? Will we live the new creation?

Amen

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

Small hands and eager eyes

I love the way children receive communion. There was a very young child at the altar last week, his parent teaching him by gently unrolling his fingers so that his open hands might receive the bread. (It’s hard when you’re small and the rail is high.) There was a child receiving the bread hungrily and stuffing it in his mouth with one quick sweep of his open hands straight to his mouth. Another received the bread with happy, twinkling, dancing eyes. A sleeping infant received the blessing gently without a stir, trusting completely the arms that held her.

A young girl lingered at the rail, deep in prayer, never noticing that everyone left and the next group came forward, filling in around her. There is a child always eager to remind me that he takes the gluten free wafer – apparently a bit too enthusiastically for his parents’ comfort. When the altar used to be up three steps and near the back wall, there was a child who left the rail running and jumped the steps to the sanctuary floor. There was a child, years ago, who went home and lined up his stuffed animals for communion, using poker chips for wafers.

When my daughter was three we attended a midweek Lent service at a neighboring church. At the distribution we stood in a circle around the altar, Anna in my arms, and she watched intently as the pastor went round the circle handing out the bread. I whispered to her, “What is that?” “Bread,” she answered. “Who gives us that bread?” “Jesus,” she responded. “Why does he give it?” “Because he loves us.”

The table is a wondrous miracle in a world much too loud and harsh. Here we stand or kneel, a people from all nations and walks of life, side by side in peace. Here grace and wonder reign. Here even a small child recognizes the presence of the divine.

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Image: Carl S. Gutekunst, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Ash Wednesday

Watching for Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Tomorrow we begin our long journey to Jerusalem where Jesus will wash feet, break bread, pray in Gethsemane, get kissed by Judas and abandoned by his followers, be abused by the thugs who snatched him in the night and tortured by Roman Soldiers in the full light of day. And he will not fight back. He will raise no army. He will lift no sword. He will call for no chariots of fire. There will be no joining of earthly and heavenly armies to slay the imperial troops of Rome. There will be hammer and nails and a tomb with its entrance barred by a stone.

And in the darkness of that final night will shine the light of a divine mercy that envelops the whole world in grace. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian observance of Lent, a forty day period of fasting, sharing and serving, a time of spiritual renewal that will bring us to that day when the women find the tomb empty and see a vision of angels declare that God has raised Jesus from the dead.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. And our evening begins with the burning of the palm fronds from Palm Sunday last year and the ancient practice of anointing ourselves with ashes.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – it is partly about remembering our mortality. More profoundly it remembers that death came when humanity turned away from God. And so it is a day of repentance, of turning back to God. It begins a period of forty days of intentional turning towards God, an intentional deepening of our spiritual lives, an intentional deepening of compassion, faith, hope, and joy.

Our signs of repentance are not merely personal. We ask God’s forgiveness on behalf of the whole human race. And there is much to confess. The deceit and destruction loose in our world, the greed and over-consumption, the violence, the warring. There is much to confess. And we will stand with the victims of all our evil. With those ashes we stand with the abused and forgotten, the hungry and homeless, the refugees unwanted, the fearful and grieving. We stand with them all, daring to name our human brokenness, knowing that Jesus will share that brokenness and bear the scars in his hands and feet.

We dare to name it all, because God is mercy. Because God is redemption. Because God is new life. Because God is new creation. Because God is eager for us to turn away from our destructive paths into the path of life.

So with ashes on our foreheads we will renew the journey that leads to the empty tomb, the gathered table, and the feast to come.

The Prayer for Ash Wednesday

Almighty God, Holy and Immortal,
who knows the secrets of every heart
and brings all things to the light of your grace.
Root us ever in your promised mercy
that, freed from every sin and shame,
we may walk the paths of your truth and love.

The Texts for Ash Wednesday

First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-12 (appointed: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17)
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” –
After the return from exile in Babylon, life was hard and Jerusalem and its temple continued to lie in ruins. The people complained that God did not respond to their prayers. The prophet challenges the meaning of such prayers when the people fail to embody the life of justice and mercy to which God called them.

Psalmody: Psalm 103:8-14
“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.” – In our parish, we use the appointed Psalm 51 (the famous cry of repentance by David after he has been confronted by the prophet Nathan over the murder of Uriah and the taking of Bathsheba ) in the confession at the beginning of our liturgy. When we come to the time for the psalm we hear the poet speak of the tender love and faithfulness of God who has “removed our sins from us” “as far as the east is from the west.”

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:1 (appointed: 5:20b-6:10)
“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
– Paul calls his troubled congregation to live within the reconciling work of God in Christ.

Gospel Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” – Jesus declares at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount that, in order to enter into God’s dawning reign, our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Now, having spoken about the meaning of the commandments (in contrast to the way they are taught by the scribes) Jesus turns to the acts of piety for which the Pharisees were known. Our prayer, fasting and charity must be done not for public acclaim but to please God.

And Jesus alone remains

File:Israel hermon (5330547343).jpg

The reading begins “Six days later”: six days after Jesus first told his followers that he would be rejected in Jerusalem, crucified and raised; six days after Peter has rebuked Jesus for such a thought and been himself rejected; and six days after Jesus taught that they must take up the cross for “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Mark 9:2-9: Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

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I found myself struggling to find a story to tell this morning, something that could pull out the drama of this text, something with which we could connect. The problem is that the Gospel story itself is so unreal to us. We are not a people who have visions – or, if we do, we tend not to talk about them. They aren’t considered normal. If we told someone we saw things like this they might think we are a little crazy.

Other cultures put great importance on visions. We know, for example, that certain indigenous societies had a rite of passage sometimes referred to as a vision quest. Such visions provided profound guidance for their lives. But we don’t do visions. We don’t listen to dreams. We don’t hear God’s voice. Our spiritual lives are often neglected and impoverished.

I am not suggesting that you go on a vision quest. There is a rich spirituality within the Christian tradition, and I would invite you to see what is to be seen: To see Christ in the water, washing you with grace. To see Christ in the bread, joining his life to yours. To see Christ in the cross that walks in our midst. To see Christ in the glory of the flowers that decorate our space. To experience Christ in the beauty of the music. To see Christ in your neighbor, to feel Christ’s hand in yours at the passing of the peace, and to feel your hand become Christ’s hand as you extend peace to others.

But to go back to our text: This is a strange story to us because it speaks in a language we don’t really understand. And because we don’t understand the language, it’s easy for us to get it wrong.

This is my story about imagining Jesus to be kind of like Superman. When I heard this story as a child, I imagined that this event showed us the real Jesus, that the story gave us a glimpse inside the phone booth. Clark Kent pulls back his shirt and there we see the bright red S. Jesus is God and the disciples are getting a glimpse of it.

But that’s not what’s happening here. Jesus is not Superman. Jesus is not God masquerading as a human being; he is a human being just as we are. He doesn’t know things we don’t know – he just sees more clearly than we see. He hears the voice of God better than we hear. He feels the breath of the Spirit more profoundly than we feel it. He sees into the human heart more honestly and courageously than we see.

We are not seeing the true Jesus on the mountain; we see the true Jesus on the cross. We see the true Jesus protecting his disciples when the mob comes with torches and weapons. We see the true Jesus extending the hand of compassion to the leper, and to the synagogue ruler whose daughter has died. We see the true Jesus invite himself to the home of Zacchaeus and call Matthew, the tax gatherer, to be a disciple. We see the true Jesus driving out deceit and falsehood and all those spirits that corrode and debilitate human life. We see the true Jesus in the outrage at what’s happening in the name of God at the temple, and in the tears at the death of his friend Lazarus.

The real Jesus is the human being.

But Peter, James and John are given a vision. They see for a moment beyond the ordinary reality of everyday life into deep and profound things of God. For a moment that bread in their hands radiates with an overpowering grace. For a moment the word of forgiveness at the beginning of the service seems to thunder. For a moment they are grasped by an infinite truth.

The nature of visions, however, is that they not only give, they also take. They give us truth, but they also take away falsehood. They grant us a new vision of God and ourselves, but that means that old ideas get left behind.

We have all had these moments when we think that a person or a situation is one thing, and then we have one of those “Oh, my goodness” moments when we see everything differently. Once your perception has changed, there is no going back.

Sometimes that process is sudden and dramatic. More often it takes time. The vision is granted and then the person must ponder the vision to understand what it means.

So these followers of Jesus are granted this vision of Jesus made radiant by the presence of God. They see all the glory of God shining upon him. Jesus is the perfect mirror of God.

And they see Jesus on par with Moses and Elijah, the great heavenly figures that are the pillars of Israel’s faith and life: Moses the giver of God’s law and Elijah the prophet, empowered by God’s Spirit, working wonders, the living voice of God.

They see, but they don’t yet understand. And so Peter says, “Let us build three dwellings”.

Our text repudiates Peter by saying: “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”

I used to think that Peter was a doofus who put his foot in his mouth by saying the first thing that came to mind. That he couldn’t think straight because he was so terrified at what he saw. But Peter wasn’t babbling. His suggestion was based upon what he thought he was seeing.

He has seen Jesus destroying the citadels of Satan’s power. He has seen Jesus casting out demons, cleansing lepers, healing the sick and raising the dead. He has seen Jesus commanding the wind and the waves and walking on the sea, the remnant of the primordial chaos.

Now here are Moses and Elijah. Now here are the heavenly figures who fought God’s battles in ancient times and who disappeared into the heavens without anyone ever finding their bodies. Here is Moses who stood on the mountain and held up his hands and – when his hands were raised, the Israelites triumphed over their enemy. Here is Elijah who stood on the mountain and won victory over all the priest and prophets of Baal. I don’t think Peter is terrified at the presence of God as much as he is terrified by the moment: the heavenly armies are about to appear. The battle of good and evil is beginning, the cosmic battle that will overthrow all tyranny and oppression and bring God’s new creation. It’s happening now!

And Peter is proposing that they set up three tents by which these three commanding generals can witness the battle when all evil is overthrown.

But Peter didn’t know what he was talking about. Peter wasn’t seeing what was there to be seen. The vision wasn’t over. The cloud of God’s presence envelops them and God speaks: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And then Moses and Elijah disappear and Jesus alone remains.

The rebirth of the world isn’t coming with the battle of heavenly armies; it is coming with Jesus crucified. It is not by victorious conquest, but by deeds of love and mercy. It is not by strength and power but by service. It is not by judgment but by grace. It is not by purifying the world of the faithless but by gathering the outcast. It is not by gaining the world but by remaining faithful to Jesus even at the cost of one’s life.

“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” says the voice from heaven. And then Moses and Elijah disappear and Jesus alone remains.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AIsrael_hermon_(5330547343).jpg By Yoni Lerner from Tel Aviv, Israel (hermon) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Raised for the world

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Watching for the Morning of February 4, 2018

Year B

The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

There are echoes in our Gospel reading for Sunday that are not fully apparent in English. Our translation says that Peter’s mother-in-law was in bed and Jesus lifted her up, but the Greek word will be used for the resurrection. The word order has been changed in the English as well – the act of raising her stands at the head of the sentence. The word that the fever left her – departed from her – is the word used for forgiveness. And the statement that “she began to serve them” uses that important Greek word that is the basis of the English word deacon. It is the word we find in Mark 10 when Jesus describes the character of Christian life:

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Jesus who teaches with authority – an authority confirmed by his command of evil spirits – raises us from death into life as servants to the world.

We need to let that sentence linger in the air for a moment: Jesus who teaches with authority – an authority confirmed by his command of evil spirits – raises us from death into life as servants to the world.

And he himself is such a servant. When all come to the door of Peter’s home they are healed. And, in the morning, when the disciples want Jesus to come back to Capernaum, he declares he must go on to other towns and cities.

Sunday will summon us to hear the magnificent words of the prophet Isaiah declaring “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.” And that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles.” They shall be raised up – we would understand in light of Jesus – raised up for service.

And our psalm will have us sing of our God who “heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.” And Paul will speak to us of his service to bear the message of Christ to all saying, “though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” It is not a manipulative missionary strategy; it is a life freely given to bear the grace of Christ to all.

This Jesus who teaches with authority – an authority confirmed by his command of evil spirits – raises us from death into life as servants to the world.

The Prayer for February 4, 2018

Almighty God, healer of all our sorrows,
grant that we might not seek to possess you for ourselves,
but joyfully bear your word and grace to all people;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for February 4, 2018

First Reading: Isaiah 40:21-31
“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” – The prophet addresses the exiles with a promise that the God who laid the foundations of the earth has not forgotten this people but will restore them:

Psalmody: Psalm 147:1-11 (appointed 1-11, 20c)
“Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises to our God.”
– A psalm of praise proclaiming God’s power and grace as revealed in God’s work of creation and in his mercy to Israel.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
“I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” – In the middle of Paul’s response to the question whether believers can partake of meat that has been offered in sacrifice to other gods – a response that begins with the necessity of not acting in a way that derails another person’s faith – Paul offers himself as an example of serving others in love.

Gospel: Mark 1:29-39
“Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
– Having summoned Simon, Andrew, James and John, and astounded the crowds in Capernaum with his teaching and authority over the unclean spirits, Jesus dispenses the gifts of God, healing Peter’s mother-in-law and many others in the community. The next morning he announces that they must take this message and ministry to all the towns and villages in Israel.

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Image: Healing Peter’s Mother-in-law, from a 13th century manuscript from the Athos monasteries, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAthos-Evangeliar_Heilung_der_Schwiegermutter.jpg See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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