“Salvation belongs to our God”

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A message for All Saints, shared this morning at Los Altos Lutheran church

I want to focus on a single verse from our first reading this morning. It is from verse 10:

They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

To set the context for that verse, however, we need to begin with verse 9:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

It is hard for us to fully appreciate the words we are hearing. This is a society in which the image of the emperor is on every coin, with images and titles that are just like this. The emperor was acclaimed as the savior of the world. He’s the bringing of peace. He’s the source of prosperity. The emperor sits on a throne with choirs and crowds attending him. The emperor had temples built and cities named in his honor. The emperor’s word had the power to free or condemn a person, a city, or a whole people.

Among the Judeans, however, there was a current of deep resistance to such claims of divine honors for the emperor. It led to the revolt that broke out under Judas Maccabeus in the 2nd century BCE when the Seleucid King, Antiochus IV – who called himself ‘Epiphanes’, the manifestation of God on earth – put a statue of himself inside the temple of Jerusalem. And it led, ultimately, to the revolt against Rome in 66 CE that resulted in the emperor to be, Titus, marching his armies through the land in desolation and slaughter. They built an arch in Rome to honor his victory that shows Judeans being led away as captured slaves, and the temple treasures carried to Rome by triumphant soldiers. The wealth of the temple would pay to build the coliseum where Christians and others would be crucified and fed to the lions for spectacle entertainment. Rome seemed to have won the argument over whether or not Rome ruled the world.

But in his vision, the prophet John, exiled to the island of Patmos, would see people from all over the world gathered around a different throne, waving palm branches and singing: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

We live in a society where we tend to hear these words as religious language and to imagine that they are separate from political speech, but they are not. “Salvation belongs to God” means that kingship belongs to God. Authority, power, glory – these all belong to God and not the emperor.

The second thing that we should recognize in these verses is that this proclamation is being announced by people of every nation, tribe, and language. The emperor presented himself as ruler of the whole world. Of course, the Roman Empire wasn’t anything like the whole world, but it was the whole Mediterranean and it was big. It dominated the world from England to the Persian Gulf and from the Caucuses to all of North Africa. The Emperor ruled many nations, tribes and languages – but the prophet sees all these nations singing the praise of God not Caesar.

The third thing we should recognize here is that the people gathered around the throne of God are from every nation, tribe, and language – which is to say that God is the god of every nation, tribe, and language. God is not the god of Judeans only. God is the god of the whole world. God is not our god; God is the salvation of every nation, tribe, and language. God is the redeemer of the whole world. God is god of all creation.

Ancient society was even more ethnically divided than our own. You have to think back to that time when the neighborhoods in our cities were divided by language: Irish neighborhoods and Italian neighborhoods, and Jewish neighborhoods, and African-American neighborhoods. In East Toledo there was a Hungarian neighborhood where, when I was there, the priest still did the mass in Hungarian. The Lutherans in the German neighborhoods had given up German services because of the war, but they were still German churches. There was an Hispanic neighborhood which the Germans told me was okay because those people knew their place. And there was a Dutch neighborhood where, not so long ago, they wouldn’t speak to the new wife of a man who married outside his community.

But gathered around the throne of God are people of every nation, tribe, and language. The followers of Jesus fought this battle and recognized that Samaritans were welcome and eunuchs were welcome, and that God insisted they break bread with Gentiles.  Every nation, tribe, and language. God is the god of all. And we are many peoples who gather together as one people.

When we gather to worship, we are joining the chorus of heaven that declares that God is our salvation not any human ruler. We are joining the chorus of heaven that declares that God is the God of all people. We are joining the chorus of heaven that gathers us as one people – all that divides the human community is washed away in Christ.

What is it that divides us? Is it not our sin that divides us? Does it not all come back to our fears and greeds and hates and tribalism? It is washed away in Christ.

And finally, the one who is seated on the throne is the lamb: the lamb who was slain but lives. The lamb who was sacrificed to save the world from bondage but was made alive again. The lamb who was sacrificed to save Isaac from the knife. The lamb who is the good shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep. The lamb who is the good shepherd, who brings us to lie down in good pasture and leads us beside still waters. The lamb who stands at the beginning and end of time and makes all things new. The lamb who is the world’s true lord, reigning not by power and the sword but by grace and truth – who opens blind eyes, who heals the sick, who gathers the outcast and reconciles the divided. The one who welcomes sinners to his table, and washes away our sins in the font. The one who is our light and our life, now and forever.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASynaxis_of_all_saints_(icon).jpg By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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70 years

Sunday Evening

Sunday was delightful. A couple in the congregation were celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary (yes, 70, it’s not a typo). Her dress decorated the fellowship hall along with photos from the day. The tables for our usual coffee hour now had linens and flowers in colors keeping with their day. A tree of cupcakes and wedding type goodies added to the simple but festive celebration.

We presented them with corsages to wear at the beginning of the service and escorted them out to a wedding recessional while the congregation filled the air with those little wedding bubbles. It was sweet and wonderful.

When I began to write the sermon, I started by explaining why I didn’t want to preach about marriage. Nevertheless, by the time I had finished drafting the message, a full third of it concerned marriage. It surprised me how the topic fit with Isaiah’s searing indictment of a nation that yielded bitter grapes, and Jesus excoriating the leaders of Jerusalem with a parable about tenants who refused the fruit due to their lord.

It’s worth pondering the fact that marriage stands at the beginning and end of scriptures. It is there in the garden when God takes the flesh of Adam to form a companion equal to him. And it is there in the vision of Revelation 21 when it describes the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. The human story begins in perfect faithfulness and communion with God and one another, and our story reaches its fulfillment with all creation restored to perfect faithfulness and communion. Marriage embodies the memory of the garden and the promise of the new creation.

Marriage is meant to be life-giving and life-sustaining and the perfection of joy and intimacy. But we are no longer in the garden. And we are not yet in the New Jerusalem. And since we live in a broken world, marriage isn’t simple. Love and forgiveness must be practiced.

And what it is true of marriage is true also of faith and life: “We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – so love and forgiveness must be practiced. Kindness and compassion must be practiced. Hope and joy must be practiced. Mercy and truth must be practiced. Generosity and humility must be practiced. Patience and understanding must be practiced.”

In a day both delightful and overshadowed by the terrible events of this last week in Las Vegas, celebrating enduring faithfulness was refreshing and important.

(The sermon was posted in this blog as “The stone the builders rejected”)

The stone the builders rejected

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Isaiah 5:1-7:
Let me sing for my beloved

my love-song concerning his vineyard…

Psalm 80:7-15:
“…You brought a vine out of Egypt;

you drove out the nations and planted it.…”

Matthew 21:33-46:
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard…”

Proper 22, Lectionary 27, Year A
(and a 70th wedding anniversary celebration)

I thought about taking this occasion to preach about marriage. But, in some ways, that’s a scarier topic to me than to preach those texts where Jesus talks about divorce. It’s like talking about money; it’s a subject in which all of us are deeply invested. Marriage is something that we have hoped for and never found, or something we have found and lost, or something we have found and struggled through – sometimes successfully, and sometimes less so. Marriage is something that begins with radiant hopes and often suffers under the weight of unfulfilled desires. It is dangerous ground for preaching – easy to preach about in a way that is shallow or sentimental or a little too confident that the preacher knows what is good for everyone else.

There is also a problem because marriage in the scripture is a different thing than marriage in the modern west. Our understanding of what marriage is supposed to be has changed a lot since the Adam and Eve story was written down 3,000 years ago. But it is still a remarkable story and I don’t hesitate to call it inspired. It is far more profound than the story told in the cultures around ancient Israel.

The element of the Biblical witness that is remarkable is the notion that marriage is something holy and sacred, not because of its connection to sex and procreation, but because it is a covenant. It is a relationship created and sustained by a promise and a trust in that promise. Marriage is made of the same stuff as faith: a relationship created and sustained by a promise and a trust in that promise.

Marriage is holy not because sex is mystical and primal and crosses into the generative realm of the gods; marriage is holy because it is about promises – trust in and fidelity to those promises. This is why, when the prophets talk about idolatry, they speak of it as adultery: Israel betraying its covenantal relationship with God.

We see this in our first reading, today. But before we go there I want also to say this: It’s worth pondering the fact that marriage stands at the beginning and end of scriptures. It is there in the garden when God takes the flesh of Adam to form a companion equal to him. And it is there in the vision of Revelation 21 when it describes the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. The human story begins in perfect faithfulness and communion with God and one another, and our story reaches its fulfillment with all creation restored to perfect faithfulness and communion. Marriage embodies the memory of the garden and the promise of the new creation.

Marriage is meant to be life-giving and life-sustaining and the perfection of joy and intimacy. But we are no longer in the garden. And we are not yet in the New Jerusalem. And since we live in a broken world, marriage isn’t simple; love and forgiveness must be practiced.

Again this is just like faith and living a Christian life. We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – so love and forgiveness must be practiced. Kindness and compassion must be practiced. Hope and joy must be practiced. Mercy and truth must be practiced. Generosity and humility must be practiced. Patience and understanding must be practiced.

But we are not alone. The Spirit of God is given. God is leading and guiding and teaching and exhorting and challenging and summoning us to lives that are holy and true.

So I want to speak briefly about the passage in Isaiah and then we’ll look at the parable of Jesus and try to hear what’s there.

You saw in the psalm that Israel is compared to a vine that God brought out of Egypt, planted in the land and tended and cared for it. The psalmist is writing after the nation has been destroyed and crying out for God to see and come to their aid. The protective wall has been torn down, as it were, and the vineyard ravaged by the wild animals. This notion of Israel as God’s vine is important. When Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard, he is talking about the nation.

The song that the prophet Isaiah sings – the poetry he recites in the public square – is a masterful piece of preaching. He stands up to sing a song about his beloved. And when he begins, the crowd understands that he is singing about his best friend. And as soon as the prophet begins his story about his friend’s vineyard, the crowd knows that this is a song about his friend’s marriage. It has the hint of a scandalous tale. It causes the crowd to lean in just like we lean in to any juicy gossip.

So this friend has done everything he can for his vine, but he has gotten nothing but wild, wanton, bitter grapes. His wife has been unfaithful. And the poet/prophet summons the crowd for their opinion, their judgment. What more could he have done? He declares that he will reject his vineyard, strip away its protection, and let the wild beasts have it.

At this moment when he has won the sympathy and support of the crowd, the prophet says, “You are God’s vineyard.” This is not a story of a friend with an adulterous wife, but of God and God’s faithless people who have gone off to embrace other gods. They have chosen gods of wealth and power, gods of injustice, gods who devour and destroy.

7For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
…..is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
…..are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
…..but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
…..but heard a cry!

The power of this poetry we can’t begin to capture in the translation. God expected ‘mishpat’ and got ‘mispach’. God looked for justice – faithfulness – and look, only bloodshed and violence. God looked for ‘tsĕdaqah’ and got ‘tsa`aqah’. He looked for righteousness but behold, only the cry of the poor.

The people draw near to hear what they think will be a lascivious story – and there they are met with the voice of God revealing their faithlessness. The people were God’s vine from whom God expected good fruit, and God has gotten bitter deeds.

When Jesus tells his parable, he is standing in the aura of these great prophetic texts. And Jesus does the same thing that Isaiah does. He tells a story that suckers his audience. Jesus is speaking to the wealthy elite in Jerusalem. We are no longer traveling the countryside; Jesus has come to Jerusalem. He has ridden in on a donkey and the crowds have shouted hosanna and waved their palm branches before him. He is standing in the temple square. He has already kicked over the tables and declared that they have turned God’s house into a den of thieves. He has declared that the leadership of the nation is like a good son who says, “Yes, father,” but doesn’t do what his father asks – such a person is regarded as a good son in that culture because he doesn’t shame his father in the eyes of the community. But Jesus has declared that the good son is the one who, though he had shamed his father by saying “no”, changes his mind and does what the father asked. The good sons are the poor and outcast who have embraced the way of justice and mercy, and the Jerusalem leaders are bad sons who give honor to God but don’t do what God asks.

Now, today, Jesus tells this parable about an absentee landlord to people who are absentee landlords. They own all this land in Galilee that they have taken against God’s command because the people fell under the crushing burden of debt. In this story of an absentee landlord with rebellious tenants who foolishly imagine that they could kill the son and take the vineyard for themselves, he asks what the landlord in the story will do knowing full well what these landlords would do. They are quick to answer: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Then Jesus says, “You are the tenants.”

It is a parable that is full of poignancy, because Rome will come in less than 40 years and tear down the city wall and put all its rebel residents to death.

It is a parable full of poignancy because these rebel tenants will kill Jesus thinking it will gain them the vineyard; but it is God’s vineyard and their actions ensure they will lose it.

I didn’t choose the bulletin cover because of Ann and Paul’s anniversary. I choose it because of the text this morning:

Have you never read in the scriptures,” says Jesus,
“The stone that the builders rejected
…..has become the cornerstone.”

Jesus, whom they rejected, is the foundation that keeps the whole building true.

Justice and mercy, Love of God and neighbor, faithfulness to our obligations to God and one another, this is the foundation stone the builders reject. But it is the only true and lasting stone. It is the only stone that can ensure that the walls rise square and true.

And so we are back where we began. We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – but we are headed there. So love and forgiveness must be practiced. Kindness and compassion must be practiced. Hope and joy must be practiced. Mercy and truth must be practiced. Generosity and humility must be practiced. Patience and understanding must be practiced. We must give God the fruit God seeks. We must build on the stone that is steadfast love and faithfulness. We must build on the stone that was rolled away. We must build on him who is the cornerstone – the one who died and rose and will come again.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Heart-shaped_stone.JPG By Sylda31 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The song of all creation

 

File:Western Meadowlark singing.jpgI started writing yesterday morning at my dining table with a cup of fresh coffee. Maybe it’s because I was writing a sermon that I was so mindful of what a privilege it is to have a cup of good coffee. Coffee beans don’t grow here. The label on my coffee says it is from small family farms in Nicaragua, Peru and the highlands of Chiapas in southern Mexico.

Between those family farms and the cup of coffee on my table there is a vast network of people. It is not just about those who harvest the beans and whoever roasts them, but there are people who must transport those beans, and people who arrange for those beans to come to my Trader Joe’s. There are people who make the cans the coffee comes in. There are people who design and print the label. There are people who build the trucks or ships or planes or however it is that it gets here – and people who drive them. There are people who are loading and unloading boxes. There are people who are filling out orders and stockings shelves and running registers. There are people who made the bags I bring to the store in which to carry it home.

Somehow there is water in my kitchen sink that is clean enough for me to use for coffee. And I know there is a host of people involved in building the dams and infrastructure required to bring that water to me – and cleaning up whatever gets dumped down the drain.

Somehow, too, there is electricity so that I can heat the water with which to make my coffee. And that means there are people running power stations and tending power lines and growing trees that can be chopped down to make utility poles. There are people digging the copper out of the ground for the wires, and others who refine it and shape it.

Someone made the coffee filters I use. Someone made the little plastic device that holds the filter for my coffee. And to make that plastic thing, someone had to find oil and get it out of the ground and ship it somewhere where it got processed somehow to make whatever it is that becomes plastic.

Someone had to make the grinder I use to grind the beans. And there are people working in that little store on Main Street where I bought it. In between those makers and that store there are more trucks and drivers and all that goes with it – the gas stations and the truck companies and the road builders and the police officers to patrol them.

There are also people who will pick up the coffee grounds when I am through with them and take them somewhere to compost them. And there are people who make those trucks, too, and keep them repaired and running.

And, of course, all these people need clothes and food and health care to do all that needs to be done so that I can have a cup of coffee when I sit down to write this sermon.

This is so hard for us to remember, so hard for us to acknowledge, but we are all part of a vast, intricate, interconnected web of life. John Donne was right when he wrote, “No man is an island.” None of us stands alone. We didn’t come into the world alone and we won’t go out alone – and we certainly don’t live alone.

My life is connected to all those people. Unless they prosper, I cannot prosper.

Every now and then something in the system goes wrong. Some field worker who doesn’t have access to a bathroom pees in a field and a plant from that field ends up in a salad bar thousands of miles away and suddenly all kinds of people are sick. We are connected for good or for ill. What we do affects others. What they do affects us.

Part of the pain in Puerto Rico is what happens when that complex and intricate web gets so profoundly disrupted. Which makes it all the more necessary to remember that what happens to the least of these happens to me. We are connected.

And what is true of human society is true of the whole interconnected web of life on this planet. We are not alone; we are connected.

We are here today because it’s Sunday, and on this first day of the week, in the early morning, the women came to the tomb of Jesus and found it empty. Every week we remember Easter. Every week we remember the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Every week we remember the whole sweep of the world’s history from its origins in the heart of God to its destiny in the heart of God. We come to hear the story and, with the sharing of the bread, enact the promise of a world made new, where the lion lies down with the lamb and all people are gathered at one table in peace (Isaiah 11:1-9, Isaiah 25:6-8).

We are here, today, because it’s Sunday. And we have brought our pets today not just that they might receive a blessing, but that we might remember that they share with us in the blessing. They share with us in the goodness of the creation that God has given, and they share with us in the promise of a world made new, a world made whole, a world set free from our brokenness. They share with us in the promise of a world brought under the reign of God’s Spirit – the world where swords are beaten into plowshares and there is none to make them afraid (Micah 4:1-4).

We bring our pets to receive a blessing, but the truth is our lives have been blessed by them. Something deep and profound happens with the animals in our lives. In our shared lives there is something of the goodness of the Garden in the world’s first morning. And because there is a taste of the goodness of the creation, there is a taste also of the promised fulfillment of a world renewed and restored.

St. Francis is remembered for far more than pets. He is remembered for seeing this profound web that binds all things together. And so, in our first hymn this morning, he sings of the sun and moon praising God. He sings of the wind and clouds singing God’s praise. He sings of the sunrise and the waters and the earth itself as part of that great chorus that proclaims God’s praise.

What we hear from St. Francis is a reminder of what we find in the scriptures – that all creation draws its life from God and for God. The song of the meadowlarks is beautiful to our ears, but it is also beautiful to God’s ears. The rhythm of the waves speaks God’s praise. The sound of a mountain brook. The strange sound of the wind over the sands. The chorus of frogs early in summer and crickets late in summer. The wind in the Aspens. It all sings God’s praise. It testifies to the beauty and wonder and majesty and marvel of all that is around us. It testifies to the intricate web in which all life is united.

Francis not only showed love and faithfulness to the wild creatures of the earth, but his love and faithfulness to the poor and needy was cut from the same cloth. We are connected. We are meant for lives of compassion and generosity, kindness and faithfulness. We are meant for lives of praise to the one who is the source of all life. We are meant to join the song of all creation.

The love we have for our pets is a small portion of that great song that vibrates through all of creation. And the love they have for us is part of that song. So we come here week after week to remember the song. And on this day we bring our animals to remember that they, too, are part of that song.

As torn as the world is by false and discordant notes, as torn as we are by anger and greed, as torn as we are by killing and sorrow, these are not our true song. These are not our final song. Christ is risen. Christ is present among us. And Christ will bring the fulfillment of God’s promise of a world renewed, of every heart beating in rhythm with God’s heart, of every voice in harmony with God’s voice.

Amen

A print version of this reflection from Sunday, October 1, 2017, is available here.

The text and pictures from Psalm 104 from Sunday is available here.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWestern_Meadowlark_singing.jpg  By Alan Vernon (Western Meadowlark singing,) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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.