The gates of Hell (2)

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Matthew 16:13-20

18“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

2 Samuel 12 contains the bittersweet truth: I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” It is David speaking after the death of his child, conceived in the illicit union with the wife of his noble warrior Uriah. When the prophet reveals the consequences of David’s abuse of power, foretelling the death of the child, David weeps and fasts in prayer, refusing to rise from his bed. His servants are afraid to tell him when the child finally dies – but he hears their whispers and intuits the cause. To their surprise, he then rises, washes, and eats. It’s not the behavior you expect in grief. But David had prayed for the child’s life, and now that life is over. There is no prayer yet to be offered: “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” There is no return from the grave.

It’s the finality of death that wounds so deeply.   Never again will I hear my daughter’s laughter or see her smile. Never again will I see daisies in her hair – only the ones I placed there before they closed the casket. And never again will I see the feisty twinkle in my grandmother’s eye or my grandfather with his handkerchief keeping his bald head warm. Never again will I hear my cousin Jim’s deep guttural guffaw and shining eyes. I will go to them, but they will not return to me.

It is a simple fact that the boat only goes one way across the river Styx. The “witch of Endor” could call up the spirit of Samuel, but it is only a shadow of the man whose eternal sleep has been disturbed. “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”

So it is easy to declare that shame and grief and guilt and all death’s weapons cannot hold us. But there is a deeper mystery, here. It is not only that the living will go free; the grave itself will surrender its prisoners. The Biblical metaphor is not that we will be rejoined with loved ones in heaven; it is that we will walk again on the earth. The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth. Whatever that might mean, it means that this life is not a shadow of what is to come. This is the life for which we were made and it shall not ultimately be taken away from us.

God is in the business of restoring his world. Healing it now; healing it forever. Delivering it from its bondage. Breaking down not just the walls of hate and fear, violence and neglect, but breaking down the gates that bar the dead from the fullness of life. The Biblical metaphor is that we shall feel again the grass beneath our feet. We shall drink again from clear mountain streams. We shall hear the surf pound upon the shore but not feel it waste our homes and cities. We shall feel the gentle rain and not fear floods. We shall hear the rumble of lightning far away and not smell the ozone or fear its fires. We shall know the joy of a child’s hand in ours without having to fight the anxiety that wraps around our hearts. We shall know the tenderness of love with out the strain of our brokenness. We shall feast on Zion and no one shall make us afraid. The gates of hell cannot withstand the work of God to open the grave.

The church’s teaching about resurrection is the hardest for our rational minds to comprehend. We are as David. We know that “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” But before us is the promise that the gates that enclose the realm of the dead shall not withstand the Spirit of God. And before us is the witness of Mary and Peter, the twelve and the five hundred that the grave is empty. The crucified one lives.

We know the promise Jesus makes about the gates of hell means we are not bound by our sins; there is grace and deliverance for all. But it also means that God’s project in calling forth the world will not be sidetracked by the horrors spawned by our primal rebellion. A new creation awaits. A birth from above. A healing. A feast. An inexpressible and glorious joy.

And even now we taste this. The Spirit is given. The breath of Christ Jesus is upon us. The life of the age to come is ours to be lived now. The keys of the kingdom are in our hands. The iron gates shall not hold.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AYuma_Territorial_Prison_cell_doors.jpg Jerry Stratton / http://hoboes.com/Mimsy, via Wikimedia Commons

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Butterflies, June bugs and the Kingdom of God

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Shenandoah National Park

“So Jesus declares that it is the things you say and do that make you unclean, not your ritual purity. And then a Canaanite woman shows up.”

A reflection on Matthew 15:10-28

Several summers ago, as I drove over interstate 80 on my way to my Father’s house in Colorado, I came to a section of the road near the crest of the Sierras where the air was thick with butterflies. It was amazing to see, except that the poor creatures were splatting across my windshield. I was saddened that so many of these creatures were meeting their demise on my car. But there was nothing I could do. There was no way to avoid them, no way to get across the mountains without going through this cloud of butterflies.

Driving across Nebraska at night, on the other hand, I don’t feel any regret about the bugs that splat against my windshield. I wish they didn’t because my windshield wipers just smear the goop around and it takes forever to clean them off the windshield when you stop at a gas station.

So what’s the difference between the insects at the top of the Sierra’s and those in Nebraska?

We think of butterflies as pretty, and June bugs and grasshoppers as pests. Fireflies are lovely on a summer’s evening. Mosquitos are not. The praying mantis we saw in my father’s yard in Virginia were cool. The horde of bugs occupying a Louisiana gas station bathroom late one August night was disgusting.

If a butterfly landed on your hand, you wouldn’t feel an impulse to wash your hand. But if a roach ran across, you probably would.

Some things are ‘clean’ and some things are ‘unclean’.

We’ve talked about purity rules before. And I can’t remember what stories I have told, so I hope you’ll bear with me. But this notion of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’, of ‘pure’ and ‘impure’, is deeply important. And it is very instinctive. It seems automatic within us. We care about butterflies. We don’t care about June bugs.

But this is important to recognize: although the notion of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ is instinctive, the things we identify as ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ are cultural. They are learned. When I was a kid and loved to fish, I wouldn’t think of eating a rainbow trout raw. That’d be disgusting. But I love pickled herring. Pickled herring is part of our family tradition. It is part of being Danish. It connects with big family dinners and special lunches with my dad. It connects me with my father’s parents, Farmor and Farfar, and all those memories of Uncle Erik and Aunt Betty and Uncle Dan and cousin Jim – and my daughter, Anna – who loved it. They are all gone, now, we have laid them all in the grave, but the pickled herring is part of us. We are all still connected.

The ideas about purity are about our identity. It defines who we are. It declares to whom we belong. Megan came home from school in the third grade distressed at having learned that people in China ate dog meat. “What kind of people can do that?” she wailed. They are not us. They are them. And we are not even sure they are human. “What kind of people can do that?”

What kind of person can drive a car through a crowd of pedestrians? Our president said he’s “an animal.” He isn’t really human. He’s not one of us.

Of course, the whole thing in Charlottesville was about who is ‘them’ and who is ‘us’. Who are ‘clean’ and who are ‘unclean’. Who are ‘acceptable’ and who are not. And the problem is that we are not talking about whether certain behaviors are acceptable; we are talking about whether the other side shares in our humanity.

Rules of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ define us. They convey a sense of identity. Sometimes there is goodness in this. Having a Saturday lunch of herring and sardines and aromatic cheeses with my father touches something deep in my dad. And the Danish cookies and the frikadellar and the hakkebøf and the cucumber salad and the red cabbage and the pickled red beets they are all part of my connection to my family.

So when you marry into the family we set before you the family foods. We teach you how to make the toasts and drink the akvavit. It makes you part of us. When you’re born into the family we set before you all these things. When Anna was two years old, at the end of a big family dinner, she was sitting on her mother’s lap and reached out to the table, grabbed an empty akvavit glass, and stuck her tongue in to lick its last drop. When she did that everyone laughed and cheered: Anna was truly one of ‘us’.

For Israel, all those purity rules about foods and blood and dead bodies – they not only reflected the culture, but they helped to preserve Israel from the idolatry of the cultures around them. If pigs are a sacrificial animal in the cultures around you, but you think pork is unclean, then you won’t participate in the worship of those gods. You won’t lose your identity as a people who have been brought out from bondage in Egypt and called to live justice and mercy.

But there’s a dark side to purity rules: it’s when we think that people who don’t share our rules aren’t really human. “What kind of people can do that?”

We turn our enemies into animals so that we can kill them. If Nazi’s are animals, then we don’t have to care about them. It’s why slavery was defended as an institution: these people aren’t really people. It’s why Jim Crow laws were enacted: these people are unclean. We can’t share a bus seat. We can’t share a water fountain. We can’t share a swimming pool or a public park or a hospital – or our neighborhood.

One of the pictures I considered for the bulletin cover was a photograph of a large, elegant sign from Shenandoah National Park – built in that handsome style of all the other national park signs indicating entrances, park boundaries and special areas. This sign reads “Lewis Mountain” and beneath that, in large letters, it says “NEGRO AREA”. The next line says “Coffee Shop & Cottages” and beneath that “campground picnicground” (sic). At the bottom is the word “entrance” inside an arrow pointing the way.

It’s a nice sign. And I’m sure it’s a nice area. But what the sign really says is that “you people are unclean.” “You are less than.” “You can’t mix with us.”

I read an article about the life of James Fields, Jr., the young man who drove his car into the crowd in Charlottesville. I felt sorry for him. His life has been troubled for a long time. It doesn’t make his actions any less hateful, any less a crime, but his story makes him a human being instead of an animal.

We shouldn’t do to them what they do to others. We shouldn’t forget their humanity. We should be trying to help us all remember our humanity.

It’s so easy to forget. So easy to fail. We curse an idiot driver on the road. We look away from a homeless person on the street. We look disapprovingly at a mother who has taken her young child with her to the grocery store at 11:00 at night. We roll our eyes at a clerk in the store who is moving too slowly. We yell at family members. It is so easy to forget the humanity of others. So easy to abandon our own humanity.

Jesus’ attack on the purity system in Judea was fierce. What renders you unclean, Jesus declares, is how you treat other people, not whether you have done the proper ritual pouring of water over the hands before you eat. The good Samaritan is willing to touch the bleeding body of the victim at the side of the road because – unlike the priest and Levite – he isn’t concerned with outward ritual purity but with the well-being of the wounded man.

Jesus is willing to heal on the Sabbath because mercy and compassion are more important than an outward purity. Jesus is willing to touch a leper because true purity is fulfilling our obligations to one another rather than protecting our own purity. Jesus touches the dead girl to lift her up to life. Jesus touches the bier of the dead young man to give him back to his widowed mother. Jesus eats at the home of Zacchaeus because he sees his humanity. He sees him as a brother.

Jesus is willing to forgive your sins because he sees your humanity.

In the world of Jesus, we are the outsiders. We are the ‘them’. Few, if any of us, are descendants of Abraham by blood and soil – but we are the descendants of Adam and Eve.

We have become descendants of Abraham because we are descendants of Abraham’s faith. We are descendants of Abraham’s trust in and allegiance to the God who fashioned us all, and redeems us all, and calls us all to lives of compassion and faithfulness to one another.

So Jesus declares that it is the things you say and do that make you unclean, not your ritual purity. And then a Canaanite woman shows up.

She’s not just a gentile; she’s one of those people God warned the Israelites about. One of those people who polluted the land twelve centuries ago and made the land vomit them out. One of those people that Israelites were not supposed to marry lest their hearts be led astray to worship the Canaanite gods. One of those people like Jezebel who would teach greed and injustice in the name of her gods. And, if you are offended by what Jesus says to the Canaanite woman, you should be. It is deeply offensive. It is tribal. She is one of ‘them’, not one of ‘us’. God owes her nothing. She has no right to ask. You cannot take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs – the dirty mongrel dogs scrounging the wastes of society.

The woman is unclean. But she understands that God is a god of mercy. She sees that God is a god of all. She clings to the confession that God is god who will show faithfulness to his whole creation. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

She understands that what renders you unclean is what you say and do, not what you eat, or what you touch – or who your parents were.

And Jesus says, “Here is faith.” “Here is great faith.” Here is true allegiance.

And lest we miss the implications of this encounter: if what renders us unclean is what we say and do, then none of us is clean. None of us is pure. None of us is deserving.

If what renders us unclean is what we say and do, then all of us are dependent on God’s mercy.

If what renders us unclean is what we say and do, then none of us is welcome at God’s table – except that God has welcomed us in his love and mercy.

And maybe that’s our avenue back to our humanity. It’s when we think we are clean and others are unclean that lines get drawn. It when we think we are “better than” that others become “less than”. It’s when we think we are the good people and others are not that evils happen.

But when we can see that we are welcomed only by God’s mercy – maybe then we can see others with mercy.

Sermon from Sunday, August 20, 2017
Proper A 15, Lectionary A 20
Los Altos Lutheran Church

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALewis_Mountain_Negro_Area.jpg By National Park Service (http://www.nps.gov/shen/images/20070117113507.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“I kept that promise.”

File:Verso l'infinito - Convento Frati Cappuccini Monterosso al Mare - Cinque Terre.jpgSunday

It’s hard to describe what happened to me at the altar during the prayers of the church, yesterday. Typical Lutheran congregations don’t have a shared vocabulary for discussing personal spiritual experiences. Other communities of which I have been a part find it easier to say that God spoke to them. They know we are not talking about any kind of auditory experience, but a kind of intuition, a sense of some truth breaking into our consciousness.  A truth that comes from somewhere beyond us. Or deep within us.  Though it does seem almost audible at times.

It typically comes with the force of deep conviction. It carries a certainty, though we seldom think of it as if it were absolute. If the intuition doesn’t work out, we are willing to let it go. We misheard. Or it’s something whose truth is waiting its time.

Anyway, I had one of those moments in worship Sunday morning.  It came to me as if a voice, saying “I kept that promise.”

The reference is to the story of the synagogue ruler’s daughter, where Jesus comes in answer to the father’s prayer for her healing only to be met by the wail of mourners. On the way, the little girl had died.

It is that story with the words “Talitha cumi”, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

I have read that text in worship many times since I laid my daughter’s body in the ground. The text from Mark comes around in the assigned lectionary every three years, as does the account in Matthew, and we have been through the cycle five times, now. It is always bittersweet to give voice to those words before the congregation.  I recognize the message of the text. I understand the grace of Jesus’ work. I also know the parents’ grief. There has always been a certain kind of hole in my heart that Jesus wasn’t there to say those words to Anna on the night her life was taken.

It’s been 16 years. And, for some reason, this morning I was finally ready to hear Jesus whisper to me: “I kept that promise.”

He had spoken those words. Beyond my hearing, in ways far more profound than I can understand, he kept the promise. He spoke to Anna saying, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

I know it sounds like pie in the sky, a pious fiction, a denial of death’s dark realty.  And anytime in the last 16 years it would have sounded that way to me, too. I have fought fiercely – sometimes unfortunately fiercely – to be truthful about the reality of death. I resist all the pious platitudes about God’s plan and loved one’s in heaven. Death is death. It rips from our arms those we love. It rends the human community. It is an invader in God’s good creation. And even in those times when it comes as a relief after long suffering, it is still death, still a thief, a bandit, a terrorist, stealing life from the world – whether sucking it away slowly and snatching it away all at once.

The wonder of Easter is not that it minimizes death’s power. The wonder of Easter is that it proclaims that death is a pretender. It does not own our lives. It could not silence Jesus. It could not stop God’s redeeming work. There is a making whole of this rent world that awaits us. Somehow. Beyond our understanding. But real enough for us to trust. Real enough for us to live.

Why, today, I don’t know. It wasn’t our assigned reading. The text hasn’t been on my mind. I wasn’t experiencing a moment of grief – though the grief of Anna’s death is never all that far away. It wasn’t particularly related to the prayers being offered or the sermon I had just preached. But there it was. And today, for whatever reason, I was ready to hear: God was faithful. He spoke the words. He kept the promise.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Verso_l%27infinito_-_Convento_Frati_Cappuccini_Monterosso_al_Mare_-_Cinque_Terre.jpg By GIANFRANCO NEGRI (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Prisoners of hope

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Saturday

Zechariah 9:9-12

12Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.

We can take apart the grammar and poetry of this sentence. We can discuss the cultural context from which these words derive their meaning. But I want first to simply relish them. I love the unexpectedness of the phrase “prisoners of hope.”

Jesus was a master of the unexpected. The parables, so familiar to us now, are masterful at the sudden twist, the startling comparison, the shocking example. The prophets, too, are brilliant at this: Jeremiah’s underwear. Walking around the temple court wearing a yoke. Ezekiel telling a lurid tale of sexual betrayal. The scriptures are full of the shocking. And they need to be. We are such complacent, rutted people. It is not easy to make us see ourselves differently. Not easy to make us see others differently. Not easy to make us see God differently. And how hard it is to make us behave any differently!

The scriptures need to catch us up side the head. There’s no other way to get through to us.

So how many of us are prisoners of hope? How many of us are bond-servants of a wondrous promise? How many of us are truly captives to the vision of a world made whole as if it were a conquering hero returning from the battlefield with prisoner/slaves in tow?

How many of us wake up each morning and run to serve the promise of a world where peace reigns? We go to bed in despair. We wake up in fear. Hurry to work. Hurry to school. Hurry to coffee and traffic. The alarm clock makes us groan. Dinner is a chore farmed out to whatever I can pick up on the way home. We eat on the run……or we eat alone. Something frozen. Maybe cereal from a box after too much wine. There is no family at the table, no prayer of blessing, no song of joy.

We are, most of us, I suspect, captives to the pressures of daily life rather than prisoners of hope.

And the people of Judea were captives to the daily struggle and shame of a once glorious city still littered with rubble and now under Persian rule.

So the prophet points to the horizon and promises a king – a king no one believes is coming. But he will come. Hidden in a Galilean peasant. Speaking words of grace and challenge. Touching the world with healing and freeing it from evil. Enduring the shame and degradation of the cross, but leaving behind an empty tomb and a hundred and twenty prisoners of hope. They will become millions.

And shall we break off the shackles of hope for the shackles of mammon? Will we break off the ties of mercy, compassion and kindness for the sour belief that these shall not prevail? Shall we surrender to the thump of weapons as our true hope? Is it only death and taxes that are certain, not grace and life? Shall we forfeit joy?

No. I will come to the table that promises a world gathered to speak the blessing. I will sing the song, and feast the feast. And I will willingly extend my hands to the thongs of hope.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AName-Keftiu-at-Abydos-Ramses-Temple.jpg By HoremWeb (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“If you love me…”

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Watching for the Morning of May 21, 2017

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

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

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

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

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

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

Preaching Series: Genesis 3: Fall

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

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

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

The Prayer for May 21, 2017

Gracious God,
you have given us your Spirit as our advocate and guide
that we might abide in you and you in us.
Grant us courage and faith to follow where you lead,
to obey your commands,
to love as you love;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for May 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Like Living Stones

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Friday

This is a reposting of a reflection for this fifth Sunday of Easter from three years ago. It connects also with our preaching theme for this week on Genesis 2. The anniversary of my daughter’s birth is this week also. I have written about it here. I have also changed the second photo of the Church of Saint Sava. You will see why.

1 Peter 2:2-10

5Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

I love the passive tense in this verse: “let yourselves be built.” We are not given a great task of building a cathedral. God is the builder; we need only let it happen.

Tuesday would have been my daughter’s 33rd birthday. Words don’t come easily this week. Sentences start, but can’t find their ending. Thoughts flit by, but don’t linger, don’t focus. I can’t find those strong threads that weave themselves into coherent messages. I read a blog entitled “I had a boy,” from a woman who had lost a child, and all I could respond was, “I had a girl…”

Grief is a strange thing. Did C.G., our cat, remember all her kittens that were given away? Was there some ache in her soul? Some remembrance? Some emptiness? If she did, I saw no days of lethargy and tears.

We are beings meant to connect. Meant to connect with others. Meant to connect with that heart of existence we call God. And when those connections are sundered, we are like amputees whose minds still envision their missing limbs and are at a loss to find them gone.

Simon and Garfunkel sang, “I am a rock. I am an island.” But, in the words of John Donne, “No man is an island.” We are living stones, meant to be built together into a living temple.

After setting the first human into a garden in the creation story of Genesis 2, God says, “It is not good that this human should be alone.”   It’s not just about marriage and family, it is about friendship and community. It is about our humanity.

Those ties between us are so constantly ruptured, riven by thoughts, words and deeds. The hunger for connection is so primal, but the reality so difficult to achieve. This is the first portrait of sin: Adam and Eve hiding from each other and from God behind fig leaves.

It will not be long before the years Anna has been gone will surpass the years she was here. But the torn threads of the rent human fabric linger. To them comes only the promise that God is building a living temple…and the exhortation to let ourselves be joined, bit by bit, into that crowning achievement where God and humanity dwell together.

File:Bělehrad, Vračar, chrám svatého Sávy v noci II.jpg

Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACathedral_of_Toledo_(6933231488).jpg By Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium (Cathedral of Toledo) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AB%C4%9Blehrad%2C_Vra%C4%8Dar%2C_chr%C3%A1m_svat%C3%A9ho_S%C3%A1vy_v_noci_II.jpg  This image is a work by Aktron / Wikimedia Commons.

He goes ahead

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Wednesday

This is a reposting of a reflection for Good Shepherd Sunday in 2014

John 10:1-10

4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

Palestinian shepherds are different than most shepherds worldwide. Most places in the world the shepherds come behind, driving their flock. In Palestine they walk ahead and the sheep follow.

This contrast alone makes this chapter of John priceless. How much religion consists of people being driven? Driven by guilt, by rules, by demands, by self-righteousness, by the psychological needs of the leadership, by history, by desire. Most of life is driven. Driven by our need to provide, our need to succeed, our need to feel safe. Driven by our fears, our wants, our restless sense that we are missing something. Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden in their shame. The prodigal son is driven home by his desperate hunger – but the prodigal father runs to welcome his son with open arms.

Jesus leads his flock. He goes before. He goes ahead. And though that often results with us running to catch up, it means we are not going anywhere that Jesus has not already been. Every sorrow he has tasted first. Even the grave. But also the resurrection.

He is our elder brother. He goes ahead. He paves the way. He opens the door. He does not ask us to wash feet before he has washed our feet. He does not ask us to take up the cross before he has taken up his cross. He does not ask us to give what he has not given. He does not ask us to walk where he has not walked. He does not ask us to love anyone he has not loved or forgive anyone he has not forgiven.

There is all the difference in the world between the command to go and the invitation to “Come with me.”

My brother got me to do all kinds of things by doing them first. I learned to swim because my brother went first. I learned to ski because he went first. I learned to hold a pigeon, I walked the streets of Brussels, I picked up a live crab, I left home for college. And there were some things I didn’t have to do because he did them, battles he fought I didn’t have to fight.

God does not sit on a throne spouting orders; he has come as our elder brother, leading the way. There are commands in the scripture, to be sure. We know of the ten, even if we can’t name them all. Jesus himself gave a new commandment – and tightened the others. He talked about forgiving seventy-seven times. But he went first. He goes ahead. He calls our name and bids us walk with him.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APikiWiki_Israel_19308_Settlements_in_Israel.JPG ארכיון עין השופט [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A fountain in my house

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Wednesday

1 Peter 1:3-9

“In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials.”

“Even if.”

There is a joy that transcends the trials of life.

I know this is easy for me to say. I have clean water from a fountain in my house (well, really it’s just a spigot in an apartment, but think about it: I have three rooms, a kitchen sink, two bathroom sinks, a bathtub and a shower). I have a refrigerator (however small) that keeps fresh foods cool and a freezer in which I can even make ice cubes. I have a continuous supply of electricity (less the interruptions from the occasional Pacific storm), and natural gas piped into my apartment to heat it if I get cold. I am, by all the standards of the world, living in luxury. I complain, of course. My neighbors make too much noise. I feel closed in with no garden to enjoy. I cannot keep a pet, use a barbecue, or light a candle. But I have fresh, potable, water and access to a grocery store with unimaginable abundance. So it’s pretty easy to talk about joy that transcends the trials of life. I have not fled violence. I do not occupy a refugee camp. I am not crushed by a collapsing pile of garbage. I do not have to search the garbage for sustenance. I do not watch my children perish from Sarin gas or hunger. I do not have to breathe air so thick you cannot see far beyond you. I am not the object of racial or ethnic hatred. I worship freely. I walk the streets freely. I am among the most privileged.

So who am I to speak of joy in trials?

There are some, of course. I am a human being. There are loved ones I grieve. There are people for whom I fear. There are aches and loneliness and the little cruelties humans inflict upon one another. But these hardly count compared to what others bear.

But I have seen others bear such trials. Deep, deep wounds. Great guilts and sorrows. Great fears and pains. Great tragedies. I have walked with many through the depths. And I seen in these others a joy that transcends their trials.

There is a joy that involves human connection. There is a laughter that still rings. There is a delight in a hug or the presence of a child’s hand in yours. And beyond all this there is a song that sings. A promise that rings. A truth proclaimed. A grave that is empty. A new creation coming. A grace abounding. A love immeasurable. A forgiveness unimaginable.

There is a joy that transcends the trials of life, “an indescribable and glorious joy.”

“Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASwann_Fountain-27527.jpg By Ken Thomas (KenThomas.us (personal website of photographer)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With glad cries of deliverance

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Saturday

Psalm 32

7 You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

It’s a sweet verse, a memory verse, the kind you might keep in your pocket through the day or find inscribed in a cross-stitch on the wall. It’s the kind of promise added to photos of mountains and sunsets and sent around the Internet or posted on the overhead screen at church. We need such verses. We need the promise. We need the reminder. “You surround me with glad cries of deliverance.”

But the verse doesn’t stand alone in this psalm. The author has just finished describing his distress, declaring that: “Day and night [God’s] hand was heavy upon me.” The poet’s life had become arid and brittle: “my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer”.

Though he now finds himself surrounded by joy, he has seen affliction. He has walked those paths where the life of the Spirit withers. Where some bitterness, anger or sorrow occupies the heart, where some hidden sin or open defiance pushes us away, where misfortune darkens the spirit, or where the ordinary burdens of life suck us dry.

The poet finds the root of his particular spiritual wasteland in himself. He is the one who has closed himself from God. He is the one in whom some unacknowledged defect of character or fault of conduct has robbed him of life’s goodness and joy. But he exults that the God of mercy has brought him back. So he sings and sings rightly that God surrounds him with deliverance.

It is important to keep in mind the whole of this psalm and not just the one verse of triumph. The American adoration of success often makes it seem like the Christian life should be an endless stream of victories, but the journey of life is a complicated one. Things happen. Sometimes terrible things. Sometimes we bring these upon ourselves. Sometimes not, as Job knows so well.

We live entangled in a fallen world, but the poet reminds us not to be swallowed by it. These great and precious promises of deliverance stand side by side with the acknowledgment of arid days. They do not judge us when we fail; they call us toward the light. And they remind us that even the driest days and months and years are yet surrounded by the joyful cries of creation’s first light and the empty tomb.

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

Before the mystery of life

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Sunday Evening

Matthew 4:12-23

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

I sat alone in worship this morning. I am staying with my father this week following the death of my stepmother. A marriage of nearly 61 years. He wasn’t up to worship.

But I could go. No one here would really recognize me. There would be none of the gestures of sympathy that create awkwardness to those who are trying to keep control of their emotions. But emotions there are. I buried my grandfather from this church years ago. I know where I sat that day. I remember my young cousin sitting on my lap in the car as we rode away from the church in what seemed like darkness, though it couldn’t have been. I buried that same cousin from here not too long ago.

We buried my grandmother from here. More recently we have buried my uncle, the father of that cousin who sat tearfully in my arms as we left my grandfather’s funeral. Maybe what I remember is the funeral home. That would explain the darkness.

Whatever the case, this space has been associated with too much grief of late. I was baptized here before I can remember, but I was a participant in none of those other joyous occasions when children were brought to be baptized or weddings might have been celebrated. So it’s just memories of where Farmor sat and where I have sat with my father and stepmother on the occasional Sunday while visiting.

The night she died, Gloria asked me to do her service. If today was any indication, it won’t be easy. Tears floated in my eyes making it hard to see the hymnal, let alone sing. The sermon was kind. I was grateful to be at the table. But after, in the silence back in the pew, I could feel the sorrow welling up. So I ducked out before the benediction to avoid the crowd of friendly people eager to make me feel welcome at their church.

Only it is also my church, in a way. And the day is coming when we will set Gloria’s ashes on the table near the rail and try to honor her memory and somehow find our way through the complicated realities of an extended family that tends to see church as a cultural thing, not the promise and presence of that power at the heart of the universe that is the source and goal of life and the font and perfection of love.

first-lutheran-sanctuary-windows-2It would be nice if we could just say the ancient words and all be carried along by their familiar comfort. But they aren’t familiar to us anymore. And they are tainted by the negative perceptions of all religion as partisan and judgmental and even hateful and violent, despite the fact that Jesus was not the founder or reformer of religion but its victim.

Yet in him was the face of the eternal. In him was courage and truth and mercy and life. In him was the balm for our sorrows and the summons to live as his hands and heart in the world. In him is a life that will not perish.

Hymns and traditions and rituals have grown up around Jesus’ words and deeds, but the hymns and traditions are not the point; they are meant to help us hear and see him, meant to connect us to the Spirit that was in him, meant to empower us to live the strength and compassion and grace that was in him, meant to embrace us in our sorrows and stand together before the mystery of life with hope.

Photos by dkbonde