Remember not the former things

File:Dülmen, Börnste, Waldweg -- 2015 -- 4649.jpg

The Third Sunday of Easter, Year B
April 15, 2018

Gracious Heavenly Father,
as the risen Lord Jesus opened the minds of his disciples to understand the scriptures,
open our hearts and minds
that, hearing your voice, we might be called into newness of life.
(Prayer for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, year B)

This was preached on the third Sunday after Easter in 2018. It is rooted in the texts for that day, particularly the Gospel reading that relates that the risen Jesus opened the minds of his followers to understand the scriptures.

When I was in college and the seminary, Biblical scholarship was predominantly occupied with dismantling the Bible as a book. This was a process that had begun years earlier, and was not without controversy, because many of the scholars who began to make these observations about the different authors and historical contexts of the various Biblical materials were perceived as dismantling the faith. There were just criticisms to be made. Some didn’t give enough care to the faith and piety of the church. We talked about the theology of John or the theology of Mark, but few wanted to talk about the book as a whole and its relationship to the faith of the church.

What happened in this country, in reaction to that scholarship, was the development of fundamentalism and a Biblical literalism that sought to hold on to the notion of the Bible as a single book, given by God, that it was true in all its parts. So a single verse about homosexuality, for example, is the end of all conversation. Each part is divinely authored and authoritative and final.

And while I agree with the statement that this book as a whole and in its parts is divinely inspired and authoritative, those words, “divinely authored and authoritative,” don’t mean for me – and shouldn’t mean for any of us – that the book dropped out of heaven as a whole. Even those who profess to take the Bible literally don’t really take it literally. They don’t imagine when David says, The Lord is my rock,” that God is literally a rock.

There are deep and real problems with literalism and fundamentalism. And it doesn’t matter whether we are talking about the Bible or Islam or economic theory, the second amendment to the constitution on the right to bear arms, Confederate monuments, or global warming. Fundamentalism says, in effect, that all that needs to be known is known and we can and should stop thinking and stop listening.

Such fundamentalism is inherently dangerous and – more importantly – it contradicts the Bible itself. The Bible is full of struggle and questioning. What is the book of Job, but 35 chapters of theological argument and struggle ending with Job bowing in silence before a God he cannot comprehend? There is a whole category in scripture of works we call “wisdom literature” – including Proverbs and Ecclesiastes – that struggles to understand the way God has fashioned the world.

The God who encounters us in the Bible is a god who leads us into a new and unexpected future. Through the prophet Isaiah God says,

18 Do not remember the former things,
….or consider the things of old.
19 I am about to do a new thing;
….now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:18-19)

The New International Version translates this as “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.” The Tanach translation says, “Do not recall what happened of old, Or ponder what happened of yore!”

The Biblical narrative is built around promises concerning the future. It is about what God is doing, where God is leading. It speaks of the human journey from the lost Garden of Eden to the promised City of God. Its foundational blocks tell of the journey of Abraham out from Haran towards the promise of God, of the journey of Israel out from bondage into freedom, of the journey into exile and home again. For the Christian community, the New Testament adds to these narratives the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem, the cross and the empty tomb, and the journey of Jesus’ followers to the ends of the earth. In the Book of Acts, on the day the risen Jesus ascends into the heavens, he says to his disciples: you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The rest of the book will tell the stories of the missionary journeys not only of Paul, but the whole Christian community.

And I need to say this: even the legal code in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, is not designed, at its core, to impose a category of right and wrong on the people, but to lead them towards a just society. There are things in there that certainly trouble us, but when we listen to them in their context, we see a profoundly different vision for human society than what was operative in the world around them. What we heard last week about the early Christians holding all things in common has its roots in the vision of the world reflected in the Law and the Prophets. As you have heard many times, Jesus gets the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself from the book of Leviticus. In the legal codes of the Old Testament, God is not trying to repristinate the past, but to call Israel into a radically new future.

So we betray the scripture wherever we cling to the past rather than walking with God faithfully towards God’s future. There are things to preserve, things to carry with us into the future, there is wisdom in the hymns and liturgy and insights of the past, but the focus of Christian faith is forward into a greater justice, a deeper compassion, a more faithful human community.

When Anna was first learning to walk, Deb would stand behind her helping to hold her up, and I would kneel down a little ways in front of her with arms open, inviting her to walk towards me. If you want a picture of God and the world, this is it. God stands behind us and before us. God helps us stand and go forward and God calls us to himself. God launches us and catches us. God calls us into God’s future, God’s reign, God’s kingdom. God calls us into the fullness of grace and the life of the Spirit.

The criticism of the gods of the ancient world that we find in scripture is that they couldn’t speak. They couldn’t call to us. They couldn’t change the world. They couldn’t save. They were gods of wood and stone, of gold and silver. They were powerless.

The gods of this world are gods of stability and order, who defend and justify the way of the world. The gods of this world defend the status quo. They are gods who support segregated schools and hospitals and bathrooms because that’s the way it’s always been. They are gods who support the wealth and power of kings and the poverty of peasants because that’s the way it’s always been. But the God who meets the world through the scriptures is a God who changes the world. He overturns unjust rule. He sets prisoners free. He forgives unpayable debts. He opens blind eyes and heals paralyzed limbs. He opens the grave. He leads us into newness of life.

In the Biblical story, when humanity rebels against God and loses the Garden of Eden, God posts a flaming sword that bars the way back to the garden. We cannot go back to Eden; we must go forward to the New Jerusalem. There is no refuge in the past – but there is hope in the future: the grave is empty.

The grave is empty. Christ is in our midst. He meets us in the supper. He opens our minds and hearts to the word. He gives us his Spirit. He sends us out with a commission and a promise to live and witness to the kingdom that is dawning.

There are deep and troubling problems with literalism and fundamentalism. And please understand, I am not just talking about religious fundamentalism. We are talking about a way of being in the world. Our political realm right now is shot through with rigid and absolutist ideas that are not open to any new facts or ideas. There’s no conversation. There’s no change. There’s no willingness to question or explore. What I disagree with or don’t like I reject as “fake news”.

This is not Biblical faith. And where the name of God is used to defend it, the commandment forbidding the misuse of God’s name is violated. When we say “God bless America” at the end of a sentence full of venom and falsehoods, we are asking God to destroy the country as God destroyed Israel when they did the same thing – when they betrayed God’s call and commission to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.

Christianity doesn’t work with hearts that are closed. It doesn’t work with closed doors and high walls. Christianity isn’t a castle to hold out the world; it is a journey in the world to the world’s new birth. It is a journey in the human heart to the heart’s new birth.

There is a reason Jesus talks to us about being the salt that makes the fire of love burn more brightly. There is a reason Jesus talks to us about a city set on a hill, a beacon for all to see. There is a reason Jesus gives to his followers the fundamental task of testifying to the reign of God and assigns us the work of healing and casting out dark and demonic spirits.

A faith that wants to defend the injustices of the world is not a Christian faith. A faith that will not walk alongside a changing world is not the Christian faith. A faith that does not walk in hope and joy is not the Christian faith.

Since the school shooting in Florida, Ken has been after me to condemn the NRA. Well, Ken, here it is. I’m not going to condemn it from a liberal perspective, I’m going to condemn it because it speaks and behaves as fundamentalists. There is no engagement of the world. There is no listening to the voices of others. It reduces complex realities to simple absolutes. It takes refuge in slogans and chants. It builds walls not bridges.

Should Christians belong to fundamentalist organizations? I don’t think there’s a simple, black and white answer. There is some truth in the argument that we need to be a part of such things in order to help change them. But there is also a danger that we get led astray by them.

And please understand, there are fundamentalisms of all kinds, on the left and the right and in the center. I understand fear and why fear makes us want to look backwards. Fear and anxiety born of change makes us want to put on the brakes and turn back and nail things down   But the way back is barred; we can only go forward. And we as Christians uniquely confess that the work of God is to raise the dead, to open the barren life, to heal the broken heart, to protect the vulnerable, to free the bound, to transform the world.

We need to recognize that this Biblical faith is not an American optimism. There are people who believe in the future because of the promises of politicians or science or the idea of human progress. These have been notoriously unreliable because they have little control over the future.

We don’t “believe in the future” we believe in the God who holds the future. We believe there is a power, a truth, a reality at the heart of all things that brought forth the world in love and calls it forth into love.

We put our hope, trust and allegiance in the one who calls us to himself.

Those scholars who began to take apart the Bible were correct. The Bible is not a single book. I have said to you that it is a library. It is a collection of books. The way Mark talks about Jesus is different than the way John talks about Jesus. Those two are different than the way the apostle Paul talks about Jesus. And all of those are different from the way the book of Revelation talks about Jesus.

It’s important for us to see this. The way Genesis talks about God and the journey of faith is different from Joshua. The book of Ruth is different from Ezra and Nehemiah. But scholarship got so preoccupied about looking at all the pieces it often forgot to pay attention to the whole. All these books add up to something. They don’t all say the same thing, but together they say something profoundly important. Together they are “divinely authored and authoritative.”

One of the other metaphors for the scripture I have used is to say that the Bible is a choir. It is made up of multiple voices. When the St. Olaf Choir sings F. Melius Christiansen’s exquisite arrangement of Beautiful Savior, some of the sopranos are soaring up here and some other sopranos are soaring over there, and some of the basses are traveling way down here and others are over here. They are not all singing the same note or the same words or at the same time, but together their voices exalt you up to the heavens.

The scripture is rich and wonderful and diverse. It is strange and foreign and yet deeply familiar. It has terrible stories and fearful images and soaring visions and profoundly sweet and comforting words. The various voices in the Bible are not all singing the same note or the same words or at the same time, but together their voices lift us up to the heavens – or, more accurately, together their voices bring heaven down to us.

Together their voices touch us with grace. Together their voices heal and renew. Together their voices call us into new paths of faithfulness and love. Together they call us into God’s tomorrow.

Amen

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Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:D%C3%BClmen,_B%C3%B6rnste,_Waldweg_–_2015_–_4649.jpg Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “Dülmen, Börnste, Waldweg — 2015 — 4649” / CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons

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Forward into life

File:Crepuscular ray sunset from telstra tower edit.jpgWatching for the Morning of April 15, 2018

Year B

The Third Sunday of Easter

We have a resurrection appearance from Luke at the center of our readings this Sunday, and the elements are familiar: the sudden appearance, the fear, the word of peace, the revealing of the hands and feet. And eating. The risen Jesus eats. So much for imagining the life to come as if we were to be spirit beings rather than embodied ones.

There is much to think about in the fact that the risen Christ bears on his hands and feet the scars of his earthly life. The scars identify him, but the do not define him. He is the one who suffered this inhuman brutality – but he is not a victim. He is a life bringer. The life bringer.

This risen Jesus, this bringer of life, this bearer of heaven’s gifts, this source of healing and grace, lives. And he continues to be present to the world through his followers. They dispense the gifts that Christ dispensed. Peter and John are entering the temple when confronted by a lame man begging. They don’t have silver and gold to give; they have healing and life.

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.” Writes the author of 1 John. We are children of God now. What we will be in that day when the new creation dawns in full we cannot comprehend, but we are God’s children now. And as God’s children, we live God’s love.

The psalmist will pray for God to answer his plight – and immediately turn to rebuke those who “love vain words, and seek after lies.” He is able to “lie down and sleep in peace” because he knows God is the life-bringer. God is the faithful God who blesses the world with abundance and calls us forward into life.

The Prayer for April 15, 2018

Gracious Heavenly Father,
as the risen Lord Jesus opened the minds of his disciples
to understand the scriptures,
open our hearts and minds
that, hearing your voice,
we might walk with you in newness of life;
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 April 15, 2018

First Reading: Acts 3:1-21 (appointed 12-19)
“You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” – By the name of Jesus, Peter and John heal a lame beggar at the temple and then witness to the crowd that God has raised Jesus from the dead and appointed him as Israel’s messiah, calling them to turn and show allegiance to God’s work of restoring the world in Jesus.

Psalmody: Psalm 4
“I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.” – A individual petition for help from God. The author declares his confidence in God’s help and warns his opponents to choose God’s path.

Second Reading: 1 John 1:1-3 (appointed: 1 John 3:1-7)
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”
– The author affirms that we are already members of God’s household, and though we do not understand the nature of resurrected life, we know that we will be “like him.” Since we are God’s children now, destined to be “like him”, we should live faithfully now.

Gospel: Luke 24:36-53 (appointed 36b-48)
“While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” – Jesus appears to his followers on Easter Evening, opens their minds to understand the scripture, and commissions them as witnesses of what God has done and is doing in and through Christ.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Crepuscular_ray_sunset_from_telstra_tower_edit.jpg fir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.au [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Do not be faithless

File:The confession of Saint Thomas (icon).jpgWatching for the Morning of April 8, 2018

Year B

The Second Sunday of Easter

Thomas dominates the readings on Sunday – not a story of intellectual doubt, but a story of allegiance and fidelity. None of us understands what happened to Jesus, but will we be faithful to him?

So the first reading tells us of that early faithful community that held all things in common. They “loved one another”; they showed fidelity to one another as members of a common household. We don’t divide up the refrigerator in our homes to say this food belongs to Dad and this to Mom, and the kids can eat what’s on the bottom shelf, as if we were strangers rooming together in college. Neither did those first followers of Jesus. They lived the new creation. They lived the Spirit. They lived and heralded the reign of God that Jesus brought.

The psalm will sing of the goodness “when kindred live together in unity.” It is the shape of the world before Cain rose up against Abel or Jacob stole Esau’s blessing. It is the world of the Good Samaritan and the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. It is the world of those to whom it will be said, “As you did it to the last of these you did it to me.”

The author of 1 John will speak of “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” and the ‘fellowship’ it creates. ‘Fellowship’ is that wonderful word, ‘koinonia’, that gets used in the New Testament to speak of ‘fellowship’ with God, ‘partnership’ (NIV) in the gospel, and the ‘contribution’ Paul gathers for the saints suffering from famine in Judea. It is the ‘communion’ in Paul’s benediction: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you,” and the ‘sharing’ or ‘participation’ in the body and blood of Christ that happens in the cup and bread. Such fellowship isn’t coffee and donuts after church, but the mutual care and support of lives bound together in and with Christ.

And so we come to Thomas. What happens to those who have not shared in the apostolic vision of the risen Christ? Will they show faithfulness? Will the testimony of others be enough to bind them to Christ and the community? “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet are faithful.”

The translation of Jesus’ word to Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe,” is misleading to modern ears where doubt and belief concern cognitive assent. The Greek is better translated as “Do not be faithless but faithful.”

The Prayer for April 8, 2018

Gracious Lord Jesus,
in your mercy you did not leave Thomas in his unbelief,
but came to him, revealing your hands and your side,
and calling him into faith.
So come to us wherever we are in doubt and uncertainty
and by your word reveal yourself to us anew as our living Lord,
who with the Father and Holy Spirit lives and reigns,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for April 8, 2018

First Reading: Acts 4:32-35
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” – The author of Luke-Acts, commonly called Luke, summarizes the life of the first Christian community as a household, sharing goods and providing for one another. It represents a foretaste of the messianic age when all things are made new.

Psalmody: Psalm 133
“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” – A psalm of ascents sung as the community went up to Jerusalem for one of the annual pilgrimage festivals. A faithful people of God as a blessing upon the world.

Second Reading: 1 John 1:1-2:2
“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.”
– The author testifies to what they have seen and heard in Jesus – and to the fellowship they have with the Father, the Son, and one another.

Gospel: John 20:19-31
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” – Jesus appears to his followers on Easter Evening and commissions them with the gift of the Holy Spirit, then appears again, the following Sunday, to summon Thomas into faithfulness.

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

The face of God

(A reflection published with the pictures used in our sanctuary from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday 2018)

The events of Jesus’ death and resurrection are seared into the memory of the first followers of Jesus – even as they are in the hearts of the whole Christian community. Jesus comes to Jerusalem in what appears to be a wave of public support, only to be crushed by the ruling elite in Jerusalem. He is betrayed by a member of his inner circle. His followers flee. His “rock,” Peter, publicly disavows that he knows him. He is shamed and degraded and impaled upon a cross, powerless before the might of Rome and the machinations of the temple authorities.

But here, says the Christian community, we see the face of God.

We keep ascribing power to God. And there is plenty of testimony in scripture to God’s mighty acts. But what remains unmistakable in the Biblical text are two much more important truths: the suffering of God and the work of God to do the unexpected and unimagined: to open closed doors, to make a path through the sea, to bring Israel home from Babylon, to open blind eyes and heal palsied limbs, to resurrect the dead. God makes a way when there is no way.

God suffers with and for God’s people. God suffers their faithlessness. God suffers the tragedies that befall them. No matter how justified are their self-inflicted wounds, God’s heart cries out and comes to their deliverance.

What happened to Jesus is the story of Israel: destroyed but brought back from the dead. It is also the promised story of the human race. God will not allow God’s creation to perish, but calls it back into fidelity and life. God will bring us to the New Jerusalem. God will set before all creation a table. God will restore the harmony of the world. Righteousness and peace shall kiss, the greeting of eternal friends. Swords shall be beaten into plowshares. The lion shall lie down with the lamb.

The resurrection is testimony to the truth of all Jesus said and did. It is testimony to God’s redemptive purpose in the world. And we who have heard the testimony of those who saw the empty tomb, who have heard the word of grace, who have experienced the healing power of God, who have tasted the Holy Spirit and the life of the age to come – we are those sent in wonder and joy to witness to this loving, suffering, redeeming God.

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Each day of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, the pictures in the sanctuary showed the larger arc of the story of the passion through to Mary speaking with the angels at the empty tomb – though the collection varied each day with images relating to that specific day.  For the Easter Vigil and Easter morning, the pictures portrayed people from the passion story – each representing differing responses to Jesus.  All the pictures used over these days are shown below.  (The days here reflect the day of the action in the picture, rather than the selections used that day in worship.)

Palm Sunday

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Lord Wept (Le Seigneur pleura) - James Tissot.jpg

Jesus enters Jerusalem

Maundy Thursday

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Washing of the Feet (Le lavement des pieds) - James Tissot.jpg

Jesus washes the feet of the disciples

File:Brooklyn Museum - You Could Not Watch One Hour With Me (Vous n'avez pu veiller une heure avec moi) - James Tissot.jpg

The disciples fall asleep while Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane

File:Judas and with Him a Great Multitude.jpg

Judas leads the mob to seize Jesus

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Kiss of Judas (Le baiser de Judas) - James Tissot.jpg

Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss

File:Brooklyn Museum - Annas and Caiaphas (Anne et Caïphe) - James Tissot.jpg

Annas and Caiphas, the High Priest

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Sorrow of Saint Peter (La douleur de Saint Pierre) - James Tissot.jpg

Peter fleeing in grief after denying Jesus (following the cockcrow)

Good Friday

File:Jesus Before Pilate, First Interview.jpg

Jesus before Pilate

File:Brooklyn Museum - Behold the Man (Ecce Homo) - James Tissot.jpg

“Behold the man!” Pilate shows the tortured Jesus to the crowd

File:Brooklyn Museum - Herod (Hérode) - James Tissot - overall.jpg

Jesus is sent to Herod

File:Barabbas (James Tissot).jpg

The crowd asks for Barabbas to be released rather than Jesus

File:Brooklyn Museum - Jesus Meets His Mother (Jésus rencontre sa mère) - James Tissot.jpg

Jesus bearing the cross

File:Brooklyn Museum - The First Nail (Le premier clou) - James Tissot.jpg

Jesus nailed to the cross

File:Brooklyn Museum - "I Thirst" The Vinegar Given to Jesus ("J'ai soif." Le vinaigre donné à Jésus) - James Tissot.jpg

“I thirst.” Jesus offered sour wine

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Death of Jesus (La mort de Jésus) - James Tissot.jpg

The women witness the crucifixion

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Confession of Saint Longinus (Confession de Saint Longin) - James Tissot.jpg

The Centurion’s confession, “Truly this was the son of God.”

File:Brooklyn Museum - The Holy Virgin Receives the Body of Jesus (La Sainte Vierge reçoit le corps de Jésus) - James Tissot.jpg

Taking the body of Jesus for burial

File:Brooklyn Museum - Joseph of Arimathaea (Joseph d'Arimathie) - James Tissot.jpg

Joseph of Arimathea gets permission from Pilate to bury Jesus

Easter Sunday

File:Brooklyn Museum - Mary Magdalene Questions the Angels in the Tomb (Madeleine dans le tombeau interroge les anges) - James Tissot.jpg

Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, met by a vision of angels

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Images:

Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Lord_Wept_(Le_Seigneur_pleura)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Jesus washes the feet of the disciples: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Washing_of_the_Feet_(Le_lavement_des_pieds)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

The disciples fall asleep while Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_You_Could_Not_Watch_One_Hour_With_Me_(Vous_n%27avez_pu_veiller_une_heure_avec_moi)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Judas leads the mob to seize Jesus: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Judas_and_with_Him_a_Great_Multitude.jpg

Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Kiss_of_Judas_(Le_baiser_de_Judas)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Annas and Caiphas, the High Priest: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Annas_and_Caiaphas_(Anne_et_Ca%C3%AFphe)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Peter fleeing in grief after betraying Jesus: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Sorrow_of_Saint_Peter_(La_douleur_de_Saint_Pierre)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Jesus before Pilate: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jesus_Before_Pilate,_First_Interview.jpg“Behold the man!”

Pilate shows the tortured Jesus to the crowd: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Behold_the_Man_(Ecce_Homo)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Jesus is sent to Herod: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Herod_(H%C3%A9rode)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall.jpg

Barabbas: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barabbas_(James_Tissot).jpg

Jesus bearing the cross: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Jesus_Meets_His_Mother_(J%C3%A9sus_rencontre_sa_m%C3%A8re)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Jesus nailed to the cross: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_First_Nail_(Le_premier_clou)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

“I thirst.” Jesus offered sour wine: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_%22I_Thirst%22_The_Vinegar_Given_to_Jesus_(%22J%27ai_soif.%22_Le_vinaigre_donn%C3%A9_%C3%A0_J%C3%A9sus)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

The women witness the crucifixion: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Death_of_Jesus_(La_mort_de_J%C3%A9sus)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

The Centurion’s confession, “Truly this was the son of God”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Confession_of_Saint_Longinus_(Confession_de_Saint_Longin)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Taking the body of Jesus for burial: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Holy_Virgin_Receives_the_Body_of_Jesus_(La_Sainte_Vierge_re%C3%A7oit_le_corps_de_J%C3%A9sus)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Taking the body of Jesus for burial: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Holy_Virgin_Receives_the_Body_of_Jesus_(La_Sainte_Vierge_re%C3%A7oit_le_corps_de_J%C3%A9sus)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, met by a vision of angels: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Mary_Magdalene_Questions_the_Angels_in_the_Tomb_(Madeleine_dans_le_tombeau_interroge_les_anges)_-_James_Tissot.jpg

Text: © David K. Bonde

Like bread dipped in wine

File:Brooklyn Museum - Mary Magdalene Questions the Angels in the Tomb (Madeleine dans le tombeau interroge les anges) - James Tissot.jpgA single picture in the sanctuary will stay the same from Palm Sunday through to Easter morning: the picture of Mary Magdalene peeking into the tomb and seeing angels.

The paintings we are using beginning with Palm Sunday are by James Tissot, a 19th century French artist who, in the last decade and a half of his life, painted 365 works depicting the life of Christ, and then began a series on the Old Testament, exhibiting 80 works before his death. The collection was purchased by the Brooklyn Museum. It’s on my list for the next time I go visit my daughter.

The images will shift as we move from Palm Sunday, through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and then to Easter. They accent different parts of the passion story, yet always preserving the larger narrative arc from the Garden of Gethsemane to the empty tomb. Only one painting is in all four sets, the resurrection, because this narrative is not ultimately about Judas’ betrayal or Pilate’s sentence, or Peter’s denial, or the jeering crowds at the cross. This story is about the resurrection. The death, yes, but the death that leads to life.

When we arrive at Easter, it would be tempting to have all the pictures represent the risen Christ, but this is a place where we run out of images. We don’t know how to paint the resurrection. We don’t know how to portray heavenly messengers. The betraying and dying are part of our human experience. What happened next is not.

To what shall we compare it? We are forced to use stylized images – angels with wings, for example, or haloes and shimmering light.

File:Grudziądz Polyptych 12.jpgThe resurrection can’t be painted like Peter fleeing the cockcrow. The empty tomb can be painted, but Jesus climbing out of a grave is a concept, an idea, not something we have ever seen.

We are up against the limits of human experience. And yet, we know something about death and life. For our Lent midweek services in Michigan one year we invited people to share something of their faith journey. One man came and told of the day he was on patrol in the jungles of Vietnam and heard the click of a landmine beneath his foot. He froze, then told all the rest of his platoon to move away to safety. This was his end. He faced it. But when he finally lifted his foot, the explosive didn’t go off. He was dead, but now he lives.

We can’t picture the resurrection of Jesus in our minds, but losing life and receiving it back again we do understand. We have been there, most of us, one time or another. Maybe more than once. Caught between the army of pharaoh and the Red Sea, when suddenly a path appears. Barren and too old for the promise to be fulfilled, but then there is a child. Carried into exile for fifty years, the city left behind in ruins, and then comes the royal decree opening the way to go home. Again and again in scripture and in life, the unexpected happens, hopelessness is turned to joy, prison doors are opened, ruptured lives are healed, broken ties restored.

We can’t paint it. But we know it. We know what it feels like. We know what it tastes like. It looks like an empty tomb. It tastes like bread dipped in wine.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_Mary_Magdalene_Questions_the_Angels_in_the_Tomb_(Madeleine_dans_le_tombeau_interroge_les_anges)_-_James_Tissot.jpg James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGrudzi%C4%85dz_Polyptych_12.jpg Master of the Třeboň Altarpiece [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Promise and trust

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Watching for the Morning of February 25, 2018

Year B

The Second Sunday of Lent

Sunday is another step towards Jerusalem and our celebration of the events that happened there in an upper room, at Gethsemane, in the home of the High Priest and before Pilate. Our season walks towards a hill outside the walls called Golgotha, and to a nearby tomb and a vision of angels.

The covenant with Abram opens our readings on Sunday. He is ninety-nine. Sarai is ninety. The promise is spoken and they receive new names. Abram is changed to Abraham, understood to mean “father of a multitude.” Sarai becomes Sarah, “princess” – not in the sense that my stepfather called my little sister “princess”; she is to be the royal mother of a great nation.

We know the story. Sarah is barren and beyond childbearing. Yet they receive again a promise. They are even given the name they shall call their child to be: “Isaac” from the word to laugh. Maybe because Abraham laughed. Maybe because Sarah laughed. Maybe because, at his birth, they laughed with joy. A future is given to them. A promise sustains them.

Paul will talk of this promise in Romans. Abraham was reckoned as righteous because he trusted the promise. It is Paul’s argument that righteousness comes from such faith not works of the law.

Trust in God sustains the poet in our psalm. This is the psalm Jesus will recite from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  We do not read the lament section this Sunday, however, only the concluding song of trust.

Promise and trust. And so Jesus begins to teach his followers about the cross that awaits him and the cross we must take up to follow him. The cross is the ultimate tool of imperial power. But Jesus brings another empire, a greater kingdom, a truer reign – a reign of life. Shall we trust it?

How can we not?

This Sunday we continue our Lenten series on Baptism. “Through the Waters” offers an introduction to the Lenten theme. Daily Bible verses and reflections are posted at Holy Seasons as well as the first sermon in the series, “A great and terrifying promise.”

The Prayer for February 25, 2018

Almighty God, Holy and Faithful,
whose promise to Abraham was sure;
grant us courage to follow where you lead
and to take up the cross for the sake of your Gospel;
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 February 25, 2018

First Reading: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
“No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” – God establishes a covenant with Abram and Sarai giving them new names, Abraham and Sarah, an indicator of their new destiny.

Psalmody: Psalm 22:23-31
“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.” – At the conclusion of this lament (that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,”) the poet’s prayer for deliverance turns to praise and thanksgiving that God has not let him perish.

Second Reading: Romans 4:13-25
“The promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”
– Paul argues that just as Abraham was declared righteous for his trust in God’s promise (a promise that he would become the “father of many nations”), so we (the members of those ‘many nations’) are made righteous not by the law but by trusting God’s promise.

Gospel Mark 8:31-38
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” – Jesus teaches his followers “openly” that he will be rejected in Jerusalem and killed, but Peter disavows such an idea. Jesus spurns Peter and declares that fidelity to the reign of God means his followers will share in that same shaming rejection by the governing powers: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMiroslav-z%C3%A1mek2015o.jpg By Ben Skála, Benfoto (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Ash Wednesday

Watching for Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prayer for Ash Wednesday

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

The Texts for Ash Wednesday

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

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

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

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

Raised for the world

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Watching for the Morning of February 4, 2018

Year B

The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prayer for February 4, 2018

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

The Texts for February 4, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

But Christ can see

File:Bonfeld - Evangelische Kirche - Kanzelwand und Weihnachtsbaum 2015 - 1.jpg

Christmas Eve

I tried to stand well away from the altar, tonight, as I said the Eucharistic Prayer – the prayer that surrounds the words of institution (“In the night in which he was betrayed…”) for communion. Yesterday I was knocked down by a terrible cold and I didn’t want to touch the bread or get near to anyone lest I pass on my germs. So the assisting minister held the bread aloft at the proper moment, then the wine, then broke them for the distribution and served the bread for me.

I missed this opportunity to serve the community the gifts – or to share the peace before we come to the table – or to shake their hand and greet them after the service. I have been here 15 years, now, and there are people who come faithfully at Christmas. There are young people who have grown up and moved away but are back for the holiday. There are grandchildren and visiting aunts and uncles and siblings I have met through the years. It is hard to stand apart and wave at them from a distance after the service.

There is something wonderful about the power of this night to gather people together. Something warm and enduring about the ties that stretch over time. Something mystical about the power of this story of the child of Bethlehem and the beauty of a darkened room with the Christmas trees shining and every hand holding high a lighted candle as we sing of a silent and holy night. It speaks of peace, a peace that we remember, a peace we can imagine, a peace for which we hope.

It is our answer to the torchlight march last August in Charlottesville. It is our prayer for a world where too much is vile and violent. It is our yearning for what the world could be.

And it is our confession of what the world shall be. The babe of Bethlehem, the man from Nazareth, the healer and teacher, the embodiment of mercy and life, the good shepherd who lays down his life for the world, the crucified one is risen and comes to breathe his spirit upon us. He comes to touch us with grace and life. He comes to heal and renew the world. He comes to gather us to one table. He comes to reconcile heaven and earth.

Not everyone who comes to sing “Silent Night” can see all the way to Good Friday and Easter, to Pentecost and the New Jerusalem. But Christ can see. And the Spirit leads. And the song is begun.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABonfeld_-_Evangelische_Kirche_-_Kanzelwand_und_Weihnachtsbaum_2015_-_1.jpg By Roman Eisele (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Marching towards the new birth of the world

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Saturday

Matthew 16:21-28

21From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

We call this a passion prediction – a prediction of his suffering and death. It doesn’t require any special divine foreknowledge. It’s reasonable to think that Jesus was astute enough to recognize that the things he was saying and doing would eventually bring him into conflict with the Judean authorities – and that the outcome of that would be his death. But Jesus adds “and on the third day be raised.”

For a long time I rather ignored this portion of the prediction. Scholarship rightly understands the Gospels as works of the church, the faith community of Jesus’ followers. Jesus didn’t write the Gospels; his followers did. But scholars tend to then make a distinction between what they think came from Jesus and what came from “the church”.

So Jesus could have foreseen his death, but who could imagine his resurrection? The first part may have belonged to Jesus, but the second part surely belongs to the early church. They are the ones who added that Jesus would be raised, because they had seen it.

It’s a reasonable thought, I guess, though it requires a certain audacity on the part of his followers to put words into the mouth of Jesus. Moderns think ancients are willing to do that (and in many cases they were), but that we wouldn’t (though we do). I am always in support of a little humility about what we are certain we “know”.

For a long time, then, I saw in this text the passion prediction and just kind of ignored the resurrection prediction. But the truth is the resurrection prediction is a key element of Jesus’ prophetic word. Indeed, the entire bulk of the Biblical prophets is to warn of pending judgment and destruction, but then to affirm grace and restoration. The Biblical story is a story of sin and redemption. The wicked world drowns at the time of Noah, but from destruction a new creation rises. Israel is condemned to wander in the wilderness but a new generation rises to enter in to the promised land. Jerusalem is destroyed, but the prophet declares that springs will flow in the desert and a highway lead the people home.

The whole Biblical story is about death and resurrection, judgment and grace, suffering and redemption. So why couldn’t Jesus have trusted that his death would lead to resurrection? His message is about the dawning of the age to come, the reign of God where lives are healed and blind eyes opened and tears wiped away. Resurrection is at the heart of this ministry. Jesus is herald of the new. The dead shall give up its prisoners. The gates guarding the realm of the dead shall not stand. Life is at hand.

So I understand the skepticism of the scholars. And it is important to resist the notion that Jesus was some kind of superman who had powers greater than the rest of us mere mortals. Jesus was fully human. This is the ancient and persistent confession of the church. But the Spirit is upon him. He trusts God fully. He knows the sacred writings intimately. He understands God is a God who delivers – even from the wrath of Jerusalem’s elite. Even from the grave.

And because God is a god who delivers – he sets his sights on Jerusalem. Courageously, faithfully, obediently, he marches towards the new birth of the world.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAivazovsky_-_Descent_of_Noah_from_Ararat.jpg Ivan Aivazovsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons