A New Commandment

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Watching for the Morning of April 17, 2016

Year C

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Peter does what many regard as unthinkable when he chooses to baptize Cornelius and his family. Cornelius is a centurion in the Roman army, a commander of the occupying forces. Though he is a good man, he is outside the community of Israel. And so begins the conversation that decides whether Jesus is the Messiah of Israel or the Redeemer of all the earth.

Is Jesus the anointed one who frees Judah or the anointed one who beings the day when all heaven and earth are reconciled. Does Jesus make us better Jews or citizens of the age to come when death no longer holds dominion over God’s creation?

For Peter, he had no option. God had decided this question by giving these Gentiles the gift of God’s Spirit – the gift of the age to come. If they had the baptismal gift; Peter needed to finish the job with water. It was in keeping with the prophets and the words and deeds of Jesus. The grave was empty. The dawn of the world gathered to God was underway.

John of Patmos describes it for us as the heavenly Jerusalem descending to earth and all heaven and earth made new. The voice of the psalmist joins the refrain calling upon all creation to sing God’s praise. And at the center of our worship on Sunday will be the words of Jesus giving the new commandment – the commandment that characterizes the age to come – the commandment to love one another. Such love reveals that we are student/followers of Jesus. Such love bears witness to ultimate triumph of God’s love.

The Prayer for April 24, 2016

Gracious God,
whom all creation praises,
and whose will it is to gather all things into your wide embrace,
pour out upon us your Spirit of love,
that we may follow where you lead
and obey what you command;
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 24, 2016

First Reading: Acts 11:1-18
“If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” – Peter faces criticism over his baptism of the Gentile, Cornelius, by recounting the sequence of events leading to his visit and God’s outpouring of the Spirit.

Psalmody: Psalm 148
“Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens.” – The psalmist calls upon all creation to sing God’s praise.

Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-6
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
– In this culminating vision of the Book of Revelation, the prophet sees the earth made new and the heavenly Jerusalem coming to dwell on earth.

Gospel: John 13:31-35
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – On the night of the last Supper, Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment: to love one another.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWashing_the_feets_(1420s%2C_Sergiev_Posad).jpg  By Workshop of Daniel Chorny and Andrey Rublev (http://www.icon-art.info/group.php?lng=&grp_id=9) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A balm for Detroit

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For Wednesday

Revelation 7:9-17

17for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

In a world with as much sorrow and destruction as ours, these words are a sweet balm. When my daughter, Anna, was small and we were living in the inner city of Detroit, she used to wish that money did grow on trees so that no one would have to be poor. Her other solution was that everything should cost a penny. I started once to explain economic theory to her, but it was the wrong enterprise. She was speaking a child’s instinctive vision of the kingdom of God: no one should suffer.

One night at bedtime she offered: “I wish there was a balm for Detroit.” It took me a moment before realizing that in worship that week we had sung “There is a Balm in Gilead.” The words of the hymn echoed through her soul and she wanted a balm for Detroit.

I want a balm for Detroit. I want a balm for Syria, for the parents of Sandy Hook, for the schoolgirls of Chibok, Nigeria. I want a balm for little Alan Kurdi in the red shirt and blue pants lying in the surf. I want a balm for those who have lost their homes near Fukishima, and those who witnessed Hiroshima. I want a balm for the families with whom I stood as they buried their children. I want a balm for the widows and widowers of my parish, for those who face grim diagnoses, and for those whose steps have grown frail and pained.

It matters to me that on these Sundays in Easter we sing the song from Revelation that declares “the lamb who was slain who has begun his reign.” I appreciate that our second reading in worship throughout this Easter season is from the visions of worship around the throne of God in the Book of Revelation. In the communion liturgy we sing the Sanctus – from Isaiah’s vision of the seraphim singing God’s praise – and in this season we sing an adaptation of the ancient Eucharistic prayer “As the grains of wheat once scatter on the hill were gathered into one to become our bread; so may all your people from all the ends of earth be gathered into one in you.”

It is not just a hope of a peaceful world; it is a promise. All creation shall be gathered, the lamb on the throne lives, the world is being born anew. Swords shall be beaten into plowshares and the reaper overtake the sower. Everything shall cost a penny. Tears will be wiped away.

It is not, as we are often accused, pie in the sky. It is pie on every table. It is every heart made new. It is every sin forgiven, every debt wiped away. It is a world as joyful as Eden, and as full of compassion as Anna’s heart.

 

Image from the Bamberg Apocalypse: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABambergApocalypseFolio018vHomageToLamb.JPG  By Deutsch: Auftraggeber: Otto III. oder Heinrich II. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Lift up your heads

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Watching for the Morning of November 29, 2015

Year C

The First Sunday of Advent

So much of our imagery of the end of the world seems to describe “the end of the world.” We get stuck on the four horsemen of the apocalypse and forget that the whole narrative of Revelation drives towards the vision of the New Jerusalem – the making new of the world. Maybe that’s because “the end of the world” is so common in our experience. The loss of parents, the loss of a spouse, the loss of a marriage, the loss of a job – they all contain elements of a life that will never be the same, life that seems irrecoverable, life that seems at an end.

I remember how often I tried to remind my girls that some catastrophe at school or at home – a broken relationship, a broken toy or spilled milk on a report – was not “the end of the world.” But even there, “the end of the world” is equated with disaster – just a bigger one than whatever misfortune has just occurred.

Though Christianity recognizes how deep and stubborn is the rebellion in the human heart, how prolonged the labor pains might be in the birthing of God’s new world, it is about God’s world made new – restored, freed, healed, redeemed, saved. Those are all the words at the center of Christian faith, not the dark woes of apocalypticism.

There is a stunning realism in this religion accused of being “pie in the sky” – a realism about the darkness that lurks in human societies, and the wastes and wraths of our sorrows. Kings go to war, bombing villages and destroying ancient communities, disrupting food and water supplies, leading to disease and death long after the sword has passed through. Leading to the suffering of children and innocents. Leading to the birthing of hate and revenge. Leading to the birthing of despair. There is realism in Christianity.  The central story we tell is about a brutal torture and execution of an innocent man.

But the end is not the grave. The world belongs to God and not to suffering and death. We were created for joy not sorrow, for meaningful work not slave labor, for union not divorce, for a life with God in the garden not hiding in the bushes. We were created for life not death. And though we yield so easily and completely to the powers of death (revenge, hate, neglect, cruelty, greed, bitterness, and the darkest nihilism) we are creatures born of the breath of God in whom we can also see all that is glorious about our made-in-the-image-of-God humanity: love, tenderness, laughter, play, kindness, care of strangers, sharing of bread, coming to the aid of those in need.

So on the first Sunday of the year our eyes are on the horizon – not because the world ends in whimpering and silence, but because it ends in joy. And the God who comes on the horizon of history is the one who has already met us lying in a manger, and at a breakfast barbecue on the shore of Galilee.

The prayer for November 29, 2015

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Make us ever mindful that our lives move towards your Grace,
that we might be faithful children of hope;
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 November 29, 2015

First Reading: Jeremiah 33:14-16
“In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
– In the aftermath of the national catastrophe when Babylon’s armies came and crushed the nation, destroying Jerusalem and the temple of its God, the prophet rises, daring to declare that the LORD’s promise to Israel is not voided. That God will yet fulfill his promise under the banner of a true and faithful king.

Psalmody: Isaiah 51:4-11 (appointed: Psalm 25:1-10)
“The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads, sorrow and sighing will flee away.” – In place of the appointed psalm, our parish sings the song of salvation from Isaiah 51 where the prophet declares that the faithfulness of God is more enduring than earth and sea and heralds the return from exile in “everlasting joy.”

Second Reading: Philippians 1:3-11 (appointed: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13)
“This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more… so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless.” – Though Paul writes from prison, his eyes are on the fulfillment of God’s promise to establish his reign of grace and life and writes his beloved congregation, rejoicing in their faith and urging them to faithfulness.

Gospel: Luke 21:25-36
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” – Reading now in Luke at the beginning of a new church year, we start with eyes turned toward the horizon of human history and the promise of the ultimate dawning of God’s reign over all creation.

 

Image: Filippino Lippi, Archangel Gabriel in the fresco of the Annunciation, Carafa chapel.  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

God of all

Saturday

Romans 16

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The Angel Gabriel in an icon of the Annunciation, from the Icons of the Church of the Annunciation (Prilep)

25.…the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed.

Did Abraham understand God’s purpose when God called him to go forth from Haran? Did he hear the great plan of God to gather all creation to himself in those simple words by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves”? Probably not. He probably heard something more like “Everybody will say, ‘May you be blessed like Abraham is blessed.’” It wasn’t yet a hope that all people will be blessed, as much as it was a hope that Abraham will be blessed more than anyone else.

And when that clever, yes, but lying cheat, Jacob, whose name will be changed to Israel, hears God promise him a future is he thinking of God’s plan to rescue all people?

Joseph in Egypt seems more like a curse than a blessing – though everyone is fed by his foresight, it comes at the cost of their freedom. Pharaoh ends up owning all the land. Perhaps it’s only right that Jacob’s family, too, should end up enslaved. But when Moses leads them out to freedom, do they think this is the next great act of a God determined to liberate the world, or do they think they have become the favorite children of one particular God?

David’s temple and holy city is thought to be the navel of the world – not for the world, mind you. They are trapped in their solipsism. Our God is the king of all gods. Our God is better than all gods. Our God is stronger than all gods. “Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah.”

And let’s not feel superior. We often think the same way. Religion is about me, not my neighbor. About God protecting me and mine rather than rescuing his whole earth.

The prophets begin to speak the language of God’s universal scope. Of course it starts off with God’s judgment on the foreign nations who have toppled Israel and Judah. But if the God of Israel is determined to punish those nations – then is God not the acting agent for those nations? And so, is he not the Lord of all? If God will punish other nations, will he not also save them? When the prophets talk about the lion lying down with the lamb they may have had in mind peace in Israel. But the words sprout and grow and reveal a deeper meaning.

Pretty soon Jesus is not just treating women as disciples and eating with sinners and tax-collectors, but he is welcoming the Samaritan woman, and healing the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman. Pretty soon Philip is baptizing Samaritans and an Ethiopian eunuch and then Peter himself is commanded not to regard any as unclean. Standing in front of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, he watches God pour out God’s Spirit upon him and his family and he has no choice but to baptize. And then the believers in Antioch are welcoming Greeks and sending Paul out to the Hellenistic cities of the Roman Empire.

Jesus is the embodiment of God’s revelation, God’s speech to us, and he is not reforming Judaism but declaring that the reign of God over all the earth is dawning. Pretty soon John sees his vision of a heaven and earth restored. Yes, he calls the heavenly city brought to earth “Jerusalem”, but it is the whole world healed, the garden restored, life made whole, the lion lying down with the lamb.

25.…the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed.

This is a dramatic revelation, a great mystery, incomprehensible to us for a long time, but now revealed in Christ Jesus. Is God the God of Jews only?”

But it’s not new information being revealed; it’s more about us finally coming to understand what was there from the beginning when God formed Adam from the dust and Eve from the rib, and then protected his rebellious children as they lost the garden, determined to bring them home.

It’s not God finally revealing secrets he never told us, but us finally starting to hear what he has always said. Everyone is our brother. Everyone our sister. God is redeeming the world.

And we are still trying to learn what it means.

Alive in Christ

Thursday

1 Thessalonians 4

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Icon of the Second Coming of Christ. Greece ca. 1700

13We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.

It doesn’t say Christians won’t grieve; it says we grieve in hope. And before we decide how literally we want to take the imagery of this whole passage, we should be clear about the purpose of Paul’s words: “so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”

Grief is hard work. Even when we grieve together, it tends to be a lonely road. We pull in to ourselves and away from others. Not on purpose, it’s just the nature of pain. We are not far from the wounded animal that looks for some safe hole in which to curl up and lick its wounds.

Grief is hard work for those who care for the grieving, too. It hurts us to see them in pain.

And grief is not simple. It is not one wound, but many. There are all those complicated emotions lurking in the shadows of loss: feeling like you have been abandoned by your loved one; guilt for feeling abandoned; anger that you have been abandoned; guilt over the anger. And then there is just plain guilt: for some part you have played in your loss or some things you have failed to do – or simply that you survived. And then, sometimes, there is relief – even gladness – that the person is gone. And, of course, we feel guilty about that.

Grief is not simple. And there are all those spiritual and theological questions that arise. Doubt. Anger at God. Feelings that God, too, has betrayed us. Despair whispers in our ear, “Life is meaningless. There is no hope.”

But mostly there is just that ache at the hole in your life.

Grief is what comes to my mind when I hear the psalmist speak of the valley of the shadow of death. Grief is the wilderness where the devil must be fought, like Israel traveling towards the Promised Land, or Jesus after his baptism.

Paul’s purpose is to reassure. “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”

The promise is not that Jesus comes floating on the clouds; the promise is that Jesus comes in the power and presence of God – this is what the clouds have always signified in the scriptures. The clouds, the trumpet blast, were elements from Israel’s encounter with God at Sinai and in the temple. Yes, Paul and the first believers may have taken this imagery pretty literally. They inhabited a world of spiritual beings dwelling in the realm of the air. But we are not being asked to share their worldview; we are being asked to share their faith. We are invited to trust the promise they trust – that Christ shall come in the power of God and gather all things to himself…whatever that may mean, however that may happen. It is a daring, life-shaping trust that “nothing can separate us from the love of God,” as Paul writes in Romans.

There is a multiplicity of images in scripture for the age to come. These are signs and pointers not tech manuals. It takes some work to weave them together as the prophet does in the Revelation to John. But even he cannot weave them all into a single narrative. And he doesn’t try. The point isn’t the details; the point is the promise. This age of man’s inhumanity is not the final word on human existence; there is healing ahead of us.

There is a world ahead of us where we have not eaten every fish in the ocean, where we have not killed every elephant for ivory trinkets, or every tiger for increased manliness. There is a world where we do not make ashtrays of gorilla’s hands. There is a world ahead of us where violence does not tear a home or a people. There is a world where compassion reigns, not greed. There is a world where reconciliation replaces revenge.

And the dead in Christ shall be there. And even those of us whose hearts are still beating shall, with them, be made alive in Christ.

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”

Saturday

Revelation 22

17The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”

I can understand that the bride says come.  The bride is the faithful community yearning for God’s kingdom to be present in its fullness.  In the time of Jesus the final negotiations between the family of the bride and the family of the groom could go late into the night.  The family of the bride wants to be sure everyone knows they are reluctant to part with such a precious member of their family.  But once the negotiations are over, the groom comes by torchlight to claim his bride.  The “bridesmaids” are waiting with lamps to join the festal procession (thus the parable of the 10 virgins).  And in this story’s most ideal and romantic form, the bride waits eagerly to be claimed by her husband and taken by him to live with him forever.

Those who have heard Jesus’ voice, those who have seen in him the signs of God’s kingdom, God’s reign, those who have seen lives and communities made whole, who have seen the wounded restored and the broken raised up, who have seen the marginalized welcomed and the outcast gathered in, those who have tasted the bread of heaven and seen the world-to-be where all are fed, those who have drunk the new wine as at Cana, the Spirit of grace and joy – these all wait with eager longing for the bridegroom to come and claim his bride, to come and claim his world, to wipe away every tear, to lift away every sin, to fill the world with light and life.

I can understand that the bride says, “come.”  But the Spirit also says, “come!”  God himself cries out for the fullness of that great wedding banquet when heaven and earth are joined.  It is not we alone who yearn for a world freed from fear and sorrow; God so yearns.  It is not we alone who yearn for a world where love reigns; God so yearns.

We are on the same side, God and us.  We share a common hunger.  And the table at which God meets us each Sunday is only the tiniest foretaste of the feast to come.  But there the bridegroom comes to meet his bride.

And we say, “Come!”

The River of Life

Friday

And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. (Revelation 21:10)

On Sunday morning we will be reading again from John’s vision of the day when all things are made new, when the new Jerusalem dawns upon the earth.

Empires in the ancient world were not empires of nations but of cities: cities that rise in wealth and power and become cities of expansion and conquest, growing ever richer and stronger by the booty of the cities they conquer, and the “tribute” of the cities that surrender.  The treasures of the first temple were carried off by the Empire of Babylon.  Rome plundered the second temple and with its treasures built the great Coliseum where they entertained the crowds with the wars of enslaved gladiators and the feeding of Rome’s enemies to wild beasts and tortures.

Jesus announced God’s kingdom, God’s empire, God’s city.  In his healing of the sick, feeding of the hungry, and heralding of good news to the poor, he brought that reign of Grace.  His death seemed to belie the promise – but Easter declared it anew, and Jesus sent his followers into the world as heralds of God’s new and everlasting “empire”.

In our text the prophet is granted a vision of that new Jerusalem dawning in its fullness, radiant and shining like a bride adorned, a city that does not feed on its enemies but is a source of life for the world.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  (Revelation 22:1-2)

We come on Sunday to hear again this promise and drink deeply of the water of life.