The heartbeat of the world

File:Altarraum-Kreuz in Taizé.jpg

Watching for the Morning of August 19, 2018

Year B

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Wisdom weaves through our first two readings and the psalm this Sunday, but they aren’t the right texts to go with this Gospel. They work. They are good texts. Jesus is talking about the bread of life and the bread of life is certainly the teaching, the wisdom, the word embodied in this Jesus. But the portion from John 6 before us this week shows another facet of the sign of the loaves and fishes. Jesus uses graphic language about munching on his flesh and blood – language sure to reveal that the crowd around him doesn’t “see”, doesn’t “believe”, doesn’t “come” to this bread from heaven who brings true life to the world. It is offensive language to people for whom eating blood – or meat with the blood still in it – is strictly forbidden by God. The ancient texts declare that the blood is the life, and must be poured back into the earth from which all life comes.

This language, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” echoes with more than the wisdom of God and the teaching of Jesus. It is language we hear in the other Gospels during the night in which Jesus is betrayed, when takes up the bread saying, “This is my body,” and the cup, saying, “This is my blood.”

Jesus’ words on Sunday are part of the turn in this chapter towards the death of Jesus, his sacrifice upon the cross, his giving of his blood and flesh. This is the language of sacrifice when the people would offer to God the blood, to the priest a portion of the meat, and take the rest for a feast that signifies reconciliation and table fellowship with God. In place of Jesus’ real flesh, this “lamb of God” offers to us bread and wine as body and blood. The blood, the life, that belonged only to God, is now given also to us.

The sign of the feeding of the five thousand is all these things. It is receiving the life that comes to us from the realm of God: it is about Jesus teaching, his way of life, his deeds of grace and mercy, his command to love, his sacrifice, his presence in the community, his gift of the Spirit. This bread from heaven is content and relationship and the feast to come. It is a participation now and forever in the reality that is Christ Jesus, the embodiment of all God’s Word, God’s speaking to us that lies at heart of creation and is the essence of God’s encounter with the world.

So we will hear, this Sunday, wisdom personified, calling like a patron summoning guests to banquet at her table. And we will sing the psalm that invites us to come and learn the way of the LORD. And we will hear the author of Ephesians call us to live “not as unwise people but as wise.” But the Gospel will invite us not just into Jesus’ teaching, but into the table fellowship where heaven and earth are united and our hearts are joined to the true heartbeat of the world.

The Prayer for August 19, 2018

Eternal God,
in the body and blood of Christ Jesus, broken and shed,
you have opened for us the way of everlasting life.
Grant us faith to trust your gift
and live your love for the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 19, 2018

First Reading: Proverbs 9:1-6
“Wisdom…has sent out her servant girls, she calls from the highest places in the town…’Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.’” – Wisdom is personified as a hostess calling the people to come to her banquet and feed on her teaching.

Psalmody: Psalm 34:9-14
“Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.”
– The poet calls his hearers to learn the way of God.

Second Reading: Ephesians 5:15-20
“Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.”
– The author continues the exhortation for our life together, encouraging us to be filled with the Spirit.

Gospel: John 6:51-58
“‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’” – the reflection on the meaning of the sign of the feeding of the 5,000, continues with Jesus provoking the crowd with graphic language about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.

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

An audacious challenge

File:Loews Protest - Against GOP Retreat.jpgWatching for the Morning of April 22, 2018

Year B

The Fourth Sunday of Easter / Good Shepherd Sunday

The shepherds of Israel are under attack in the first reading this Sunday. The priestly class are under indictment by the preaching of Peter and John. The governing elites judged Jesus a liar about God and a threat to the nation and sentenced him to death. Peter and John are saying that God voided that sentence and declared Jesus innocent. The year-long purgation of the rotting corpse that marked the removal of sin from our mortal bodies was unnecessary for Jesus. God raised him from the dead.

It might sound esoteric to our ears, but it was a direct confrontation in that day. Peter and John are saying this in the temple, in the home-court of the high priestly families. What’s more, the name of this Jesus is being used to heal the sick and lame. This Jesus is the rejected stone that God has made the cornerstone. This Jesus is the source of God’s healing and life. Healing won’t come from the rich and powerful house of Annas that possesses a firm hold on the high priestly office. Those who are supposed to be the shepherds of Israel are false shepherds who failed to recognize the true shepherd.

And so on Sunday we will join the psalmist to sing “The LORD is my shepherd.” And the Gospel of John will have Jesus say to us, “I am he good shepherd” – the true and noble who does not abandon the flock but lays down his life for them. And the words that seem so sweet and comforting will echo with an audacious challenge to all those rulers of the earth who claim authority but only fleece the sheep.

And in the presence of this bold challenge to the way of the world will come the urging of the author of 1 John: “We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

The Prayer for April 22, 2018

Gracious Heavenly Father,
Christ Jesus our good shepherd laid down his life for our sake
that he might gather one flock from all the nations of the earth.
Be at work within us
that we might hear and respond to his voice,
and follow him in lives of service and love.

The Texts for April 22, 2018

First Reading: Acts 4:1-13 (appointed 5-12)
“This man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.” – Peter and John are examined by the authorities after having been arrested for preaching that God raised Jesus from the dead (a message that invalidates the authority of the High Priestly leadership because it declares that God has reversed their judgment against Jesus.)

Psalmody: Psalm 23
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” – The famous song of trust in God that reverberates with social, political and religious meaning in a world where the king (or ruler) was regarded as the shepherd of the people.

Second Reading: 1 John 3:16-24
“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
– The author encourages his community to remain faithful to God and one another despite the departure of a schismatic group from their community.

Gospel: John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” – The middle section of chapter 10 where Jesus employs metaphors drawn from shepherding. Here he identifies himself as the true shepherd who cares for the sheep, freely laying down his life for the people.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Loews_Protest_-_Against_GOP_Retreat.jpg By Seth Goldstein [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Holy Spirit

Watching for the Morning of June 4, 2017

Year A

The Festival of Pentecost

Into a world filled with many destructive and deceitful spirits, God lavishes his life-giving, creative and transforming Spirit on the world. It is a holy spirit, unlike the spirits of anger, intolerance, revenge, desire, greed and hate that divide the world and fill it with violence and invective. It gathers a community of all nations. It speaks to the core of our hearts in our native tongue. It summons us to step onto the shores of the new creation, to be washed in the Spirit, to be participants in the life of the age to come. It is a spirit that bears the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

It is a spirit that inspires and empowers fidelity to God and neighbor. It is a spirit that teaches manifold forgiveness and love of enemies. It is a spirit that leads us to lives of service and sacrifice. It is a spirit that binds and heals, a spirit that sings and rejoices, a spirit that prays and praises, a spirit that speaks grace to the world.

We have seen it in Moses and the prophets. We have seen it in the skill of Bezalel. We have seen it in the courage of Gideon, the poetry of David, the song of Mary. We have seen it in the fidelity of Simeon and witness of Anna. We have seen it the forgiveness of Stephen and the generosity of Barnabas. We have seen it in the boldness of Philip and the obedience of Peter. We have seen it in the lives of those recognize as saints and martyrs. We have seen it in the kindness and generosity and faithfulness of any number of people who have touched our lives with grace and truth.

We have seen it wherever love prevails.

It is a holy spirit. The holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit that shall govern every heart in that day when swords are beaten into plowshares and the river of the water of life washes over the world.

It is the Spirit given to us in Christ now.

It is the Spirit by which we are called to live.

(For those who follow this blog regularly, I apologize for the paucity of recent posts. Writing time has been taken up by the special preaching series underway in our parish.)

The Prayer for June 4, 2017

O God of every nation,
who by the breath of your Spirit gave life to the world
and anointed Jesus to bring new birth to all:
breathe anew upon us and upon all who gather in your name,
that in every place and to all people
we may proclaim your wondrous work;
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 June 4, 2017

Pentecost Reading: Acts 2:1-21
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” – With the sound of wind and the image of fire, evoking God’s appearance at Sinai and fulfilling the promise of Joel, God pours out the Holy Spirit upon the first believers.

First Reading: Numbers 11:24-30
“The Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to [Moses], and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders.” – When the burden of hearing every complaint of the people in the wilderness becomes too great for Moses, God has him appoint seventy elders to receive a share of the spirit. The text contains the prophetic remark of Moses Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

Psalmody: Psalm 104:24-31 (assigned: 104:24-34, 35b)
“When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.”
– In a psalm celebrating the wonders of creation, the poet marvels at the manifold creatures of the world, and the breath/spirit of God that gives them life.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:1-13 (assigned: 12:3b-13)
“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” –
Paul teaches the troubled Corinthian congregation about the gifts of the Spirit, emphasizing that they are given for God’s purpose to the benefit of others.

Gospel: John 7:37-39
“‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive – During the celebration that prays for the autumn rains and remembers Ezekiel’s promise of a life-giving river flowing from the temple, Jesus calls those who are thirsty to come to him.

(Our parish uses the alternate Gospel reading for Pentecost because the text from John 20 was used on the second Sunday of Easter.)

John 20:19-23
“‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this he breathed on them and said ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” – On the evening of that first day of the week, the risen Christ commissions his followers and anoints them with the Spirit.

Image: Unidentified, may have been made by Hardman and Co.. Spirit with Sevenfold Gifts, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55828 [retrieved June 1, 2017]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/paullew/5827717752/.

The poor shall eat and be satisfied

File:Hand carved offering plate - West Virginia - ForestWander.jpg

Thursday

Psalm 22:1, 16-28

25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.

It is because of God’s deliverance that the poet sings God’s praise (“From you comes my praise”). And because the poet survived his desperate illness, he is able to complete the vows he made on his sick bed. These are sacrifices made “in the great congregation”, at the temple in the presence of Israel’s faithful (“before those who fear him”).

The sacrifices the psalmist offers are sacrifices, thanksgiving sacrifices and fellowship offerings that provide a banquet not just for the man and his family, but for the poor of the city: “The poor shall eat and be satisfied.” It is the nature of the sacrificial meal. When David brings the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, the sacrifices provide food for all.

The gifts we give to God are not for ourselves alone. They are shared that all may rejoice. The joy of the healed poet becomes joy for many. The grace of his healing becomes grace for others.

In my first parish, the people referred to their offerings as their dues. But we are not members of a club who must each pay our share to keep the club going. We are recipients of God’s mercy who bring our offerings that others might share the joy.

Yes, there are bills to pay. Heat and lights and water. The cost of musicians and secretary and staff. The pastor’s time and training not only to preach and teach but to visit the sick and comfort the grieving. There are bills to pay, everything from the wine for communion to the coffee for coffee hour. But the gifts are not dues. They are tithes and offerings given that all might share in the joy of God’s love.

It’s easier to understand dues. But ‘dues’ makes it about me, about what I get from the church and what I must pay to continue to receive it? The much more profound questions is what do I receive from God? And how do I pay it forward?

What is the offering appropriate for the sunrise? What is the gift that matches the gift of the world around us? What sacrifice can possibly reflect the sacrifice Jesus made? Whatever that gift is, it must be a gift that brings some measure of mercy and grace to the world. It must be a gift through which “The poor shall eat and be satisfied.”

 

Image:https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHand_carved_offering_plate_-_West_Virginia_-_ForestWander.jpg http://www.ForestWander.com [CC BY-SA 3.0 us (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/us/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The martyr’s path

Thursday

1 John 4:7-21

File:Preparing to enter Ebola treatment unit (5).jpg16God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

I remember the dinner table argument with my stepfather after I came home from a high school youth retreat filled with joy and zeal. I talked about the “trust walk” where we divided into twos. One person was blindfolded and trusted the other to lead him or her through the wooded paths of our retreat center. It was a metaphor for trusting God, and a practical application of loving one another. But something in that story set my stepfather off, and pretty soon we were arguing whether I would let a member of the Black Panthers lead me blindfolded through the streets of Oakland. He was certain I was foolish, and the militant African-American foot soldier would lead me out into the middle of traffic.

I know better, now, that there is evil in the world. I also know that evil does not come easily. I stand by my argument that I would not have been harmed in Oakland; I am not sure if that would apply just now in the battlefields of ISIL

“God is love” can seem pretty simple-minded in the hard-nosed world. And my stepfather was right to think me naïve. But God is love. And loving as we are loved requires great strength of character. It is a far more difficult, costly, and sometimes dangerous, path than I imagined as a teen.

“God is Love.” God is steadfast fidelity to the world, to humanity, to each of us. God is a determined allegiance, a zealous choice to see each of us as members of his household despite the ways we use, abuse and defame him and one another. “Every imagination of the human heart was only evil continually,” is God’s observation at the time of Noah, yet God rescues Noah and his family – not because they were so righteous, but because God was faithful and would not abandon the world he had made. Humanity is no different when they descend from the ark. The disaster does not change them; but God is changed. God hangs his Kalashnikov in the heavens – pointing no longer at humanity but, if anywhere, at himself. God will take the bullet.

God is Love. Determined to create a world without slavery, he rescues Israel and Egypt. At great cost. Human willfulness does not die easily. Children were dying under slavery. In the end, God had to let all Egypt see the death they were dealing.

God is Love. Determined to create a just and merciful world. And the price has been terribly high. Not just the fall of the northern kingdom, nor the brutal siege and sacking of Jerusalem. Ultimately it comes to a cross outside Jerusalem where God lays his own life on the line. And still we persist. Still children perish. Still God confronts us with our terrible works: death camps, razed cities, nuclear weapons, impoverished communities, refugees, a child with a broken neck dragged into a police van. God makes us see all the crucified.

God is Love. We are slow to learn. There is a terrible price. But there are some who understand.

The martyr’s path is holy. Not the martyr’s path chosen by radical Islam – that is the great and wide path of violence. But the narrow path that risks all to feed the hungry, to teach the children, to tend the sick. The martyr’s path is holy, the path that sets aside the self for the sake of another. The path that treats a stranger as brother and sister. The path that gives what cannot be returned: tender love to the dying, faithful care to the troubled, friendship to the lonely.

This martyr’s path is holy. We tend to denigrate it. And the concept is often misused. But there is something sacred about those who sacrifice self for another, something that goes to the very heart of God. For God is love.

 

Photo:  Dr. Joel Montgomery, Team Lead for CDC’s Ebola Response Team in Liberia, adjusts a colleague’s PPE before entering the Ebola treatment unit (ETU), ELWA 3, operated by Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders.  By CDC Global (Preparing to enter Ebola treatment unit) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Our true shepherd

Watching for the Morning of April 26, 2015

Year B

The Fourth Sunday of Easter / Good Shepherd Sunday

File:WhSouthLawn.JPEGWhen we read Psalm 23, or hear Jesus declare, “I am the good shepherd,” we think of peaceful, pastoral images – rolling hills, green grass, gentle waters. We do not think of the intense conflict of the royal court, the constant rivalry for wealth and power in the capital city, the alliances made and broken for the sake of fame and greater access to the media. Nor do we imagine the intrigue of the renaissance papacy as cities and kings fought for control of its wealth and power. Nor do we imagine even the petty bickering and desire to control that rattles around a town or business or local congregation. But in Israel the language of sheep and shepherds is used of the courts of power.

Jesus is the true shepherd, the noble shepherd, the good shepherd, who does not feed off the sheep but leads them to good pasture. He does not use them as canon fodder or sweatshop labor, but lays down his life for the sheep. They are not masses to be manipulated, but people to be saved, healed, and protected from the thieves and robbers who sit on thrones.

On the fourth Sunday of Easter every year, when we have told the stories of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, now we point out the truth to which all those stories bear witness: this Jesus is our true shepherd.

In our first reading, Peter and John bear witness to the Jerusalem elite who have arrested them in outrage at their preaching – for, if God has raised the one they crucified, then God has stripped these leaders of all claim to authority. They are not true shepherds, but hired hands protecting themselves.

David sings his song of trust in God, acknowledging the LORD as his (and Israel’s) true shepherd – a noble claim for a potentate.

And the author of First John reminds us that the model for our life together is Jesus who laid down his life for us. We who are students of the noble shepherd must live as he lived, not just talk about loving one another.

The Prayer for April 26, 2015

Gracious Heavenly Father,
Christ Jesus our good shepherd laid down his life for our sake
that he might gather one flock from all the nations of the earth.
Be at work within us
that we might hear and respond to his voice,
and follow him in lives of service and 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 April 26, 2015

First Reading: Acts 4:1-13 (appointed 5-12)
“This man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.” – Peter and John are examined by the authorities after having been arrested for preaching that God raised Jesus from the dead (a message that invalidates the authority of the High Priestly leadership because it declares that God has reversed their judgment against Jesus.)

Psalmody: Psalm 23
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” – The famous song of trust in God that reverberates with social, political and religious meaning in a world where the king (or ruler) was regarded as the shepherd of the people.

Second Reading: 1 John 3:16-24
“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
– The author encourages his community to remain faithful to God and one another despite the departure of a schismatic group from their community.

Gospel: John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” – The middle section of chapter 10 where Jesus employs metaphors drawn from shepherding. Here he identifies himself as the true shepherd who cares for the sheep, freely laying down his life for the people.

 

Photo: By PHC C.M. Fitzpatrick [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For the whole world

Friday

1 John 1:1-2:2

File:Meister Theoderich von Prag 013.jpg2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is crucified at the hour the lambs are slaughtered for the Passover. In John’s memory – or in his theological reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ death – it is not the Passover meal when Jesus arises to wash his followers feet. It is the night before. And the day he is sacrificed, is the day the lambs are sacrificed. He dies as the lambs died, to redeem the nation from death.

Whether John’s account is memory or reflection, the power of the imagery is impossible to miss. Christ is our Passover lamb. In the imagery of the Book of Revelation, he is the lamb who was slain standing in the center of the throne.

“He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins,” writes the author of 1 John. And with those simple words we are reminded of Christ our Passover Lamb whose blood marks the door and saves us from death.

But the author of 1 John writes more: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

“For the sins of the whole world.” He is the atoning sacrifice not only for the shame we bring upon God for our pedestrian selfishness – the occasional greed, thoughtlessness, selfishness, betrayal that’s so much a part of ordinary human existence – but for the great shame of fratricide that has plagued us since Cain rose up against Abel: the slaughter of other children of God in the name of God, wealth, power, ideology and simple hate, envy, and vengeance. Unspeakable crimes from every beaten woman to every segregated fountain, from every raped child to every tortured prisoner, from every neglected elder to every stolen pension, from every death camp to mass grave. Unspeakable crimes against humanity. Unspeakable crimes against the children of God.

“He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Most of us are likely to excuse our own petty sins. We don’t imagine they need real atonement. And for those other sins we imagine there is no atonement, no way to make it right. But before us stands the cross, the nails, the scourge, the thorns, the grave. Before us stands the stone rolled away. Before us stands the risen one with wounds. And in our hands is the broken bread – the sign of his broken body. Broken for us. Broken for the world. The whole world.

Our hands should tremble as we hold it.

 

Image: Theodoric of Prague [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

God loved the world in this way

Saturday

John 3:7-21

File:Ibaraki Kasugaoka Church light cross.jpg

Interior of the Church of the Light, designed by Tadao Ando, in Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

I can’t think of any other Biblical reference that is held up as a sign at a football game. It is recognized as a simple, concise summary of the Christian message. God, love, Jesus, eternal life – it’s all there. But something of the power and glory of this verse is lost when it gets separated from the rest of John’s Gospel.

First, we should note that there tends to be a grammatical misunderstanding in the way we hear this verse. It doesn’t say God loved the world ‘so much’, but God loved the world ‘in this way’. The manner in which God shows his fidelity to the world is in giving his Son.

But does the word ‘give’ mean offer him up on the cross as a redeeming sacrifice? or does it mean sending him from above to grant us new birth ‘from above’? These are not entirely separate ideas, but the accent is very different. A sacrificial lamb may carry off my sins, but it doesn’t abide in me and I in it. I am still very much a child of the earth not a child of the heavens. Water is not turned into wine. Eyes are not given new sight. I am not reborn as a citizen of heaven.

This Jesus is not a mere sacrifice that happens out there on Golgotha to change God’s attitude to me or the debt I owe; he is the light shining in the darkness that illumines and transforms the human heart, my heart.

God loved the world in this way: he brought us light and new birth. He brought us the breath of God. He brought us the imperishable life of God. In his Gospel, John piles up the metaphors for us: bread of life, living water, light of the world, gate of the sheep, the way, truth and life – all pointing not to an objective act of sacrifice on our behalf (with a promise of life after we die), but a new and transformed existence as members of heaven’s household now.

God loved the world in this way: he sent the incarnate word to abide in me and I in him.

And we haven’t yet come to the truly surprising element in this simple little verse: God did this for the world. We take this for granted, that God’s love is for everyone. ‘The world’ just means ‘everyone’ to our ears. But this word, ‘the world’, in John’s Gospel is not morally neutral. The world does not know this word from above (1:10). It hates him (7:7). Its deeds are evil (7:7). It doesn’t know the father (17:25). It cannot receive the Spirit of truth (14:17). It rejoices when Jesus is killed (16:20). And yet, it is for the sake of this world that Jesus comes and that the believers are sent.

God loves a hostile and rebellious world, God shows fidelity to this hostile and rebellious world, and shows it by sending Jesus as light into the darkness.

God shows fidelity to the Oklahoma SAE chanting racist chants by sending his son. God shows fidelity to the Syrian regime dropping barrel bombs on its people by sending his son. God shows fidelity to a world largely ignoring the Syrian refugees by sending his son. God shows fidelity to the drug gangs in Central America by sending his son. God shows fidelity to the privileged elite protecting their wealth by sending his son. God shows fidelity to every torn and tormented home by sending his son who is the voice of heaven and the light of Grace and the possibility of new birth. God shows his fidelity to every grieving heart by sending his son who is the life of the age to come. God shows his faithfulness, his allegiance to us, his passion for the world, his love, in this way – a man who is the embodiment of the face of God, who is the path to life, who is the resurrection.

Maybe it doesn’t seem like enough. But what if those students could have seen at the front of their bus an African American with arms outstretched, covered with the spittle of their hate, yet radiant with light and truth and love? Do we not, at some point, begin to regret the hammer and nails in our hands?  How many does it take on that bus, how many must begin to see, before the song loses its voice?

Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life. But he is more. He is the good shepherd who calls us by name and leads us out to good pasture. He is the gate that leads us into life. He is the vine to us, the branches, who through us bears much fruit.

God loved the broken and rebellious world in this way: he sent a son to bring us birth from above and make us children of heaven, sons and daughters of God.

 

By taken by Bergmann (ja:Image:Ibaraki_Kasugaoka_Church_Light_Cross.JPG) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The LORD’s sacrifice

Thursday

Zephaniah 1

File:Stanley Kubrick - butcher with slab of beef cph.3d02352.jpg

Look photographic assignment: Chicago city of contrasts. Stanley Kubrick [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

7 The LORD has prepared a sacrifice,
he has consecrated his guests.

I am ever amazed at the skill and audacity of the prophets. Here, with a half dozen words, a terrible and frightful image is set before the nation. God is getting ready to offer a sacrifice and he has called upon his guests to prepare themselves. “Take up your knife and fork. Say the table blessing. I am setting before you a feast. I myself will draw the knife and lay the carcass upon the fire. You need only come and dine.” The guests are the nations around them. Jerusalem is the fatted calf.

With five words (in the Hebrew text) any attempt to envision God as a partisan God, hawking and defending the glories of the nation, is shattered. God is not interested in Jerusalem for Jerusalem’s sake; God is seeking a people of justice and mercy. God is not interested in a temple bigger and more glorious than other gods; God is interested in a holy people, a people who walk God’s holy way, a people who honor the poor and speak the truth in testimony and do not pervert justice with bribes. A people who do not cut down the fruit trees for instruments of war, who do not take the mother bird with the eggs, who give a Sabbath even to their own oxen, who leave the margins of their fields for the poor to come and harvest. God is not looking for powerful armies, but humble kings. God is not looking ritual purity but spiritual fidelity.

And this nation, that bears God’s holy name, that sings God’s holy songs, that offers God’s holy sacrifices – this nation God will bind and lay upon the altar, a feast for all the nations to come and gorge themselves.

It is chilling. I feel like a beggar asking my congregation for scraps compared to this daring herald of God. “Please be a little nicer…” rather than “Thus saith the LORD…”

But I am not a prophet; I am a preacher. I point to the prophet’s words. I try to help those words come off the page and speak to us. I pray for God’s Spirit to grant us ears to hear. But I have a privilege Zephaniah does not have.

I am glad not to be a prophet. I envy their skill, but to I do not want their burden. I know what happened to the prophets. I know their laments. I know their sufferings.

But I am glad, not just because I do not want their sorrows. As a preacher I have this other treasure, of a child born, a man awash in the Spirit, an anointed one bearing witness to God’s ultimate governance of this earth. I have this other treasure of sins forgiven, bodies healed and spirits delivered. I have this other treasure of bread shared and feet washed and a life laid down. I have this treasure to announce of an empty tomb and an ascended Lord.

The words of judgment stand. God has prepared a sacrifice. God will pull down his own temple when it serves injustice. God will scatter his own people when they abandon mercy. But God does not abandon mercy. The knife is drawn across his own throat. He himself is the lamb that reconciles us to heaven and one another.

The prophets are fearless and bold. They speak brilliantly. And even their songs of hope are exquisite. But I get to point to a man who is the prophets’ word made flesh, who is God’s voice incarnate, who is slain but lives, and who summons us to live in him.

The smoke of sacrifices

Sunday Evening

Psalm 66

13I will come into your house with burnt offerings;
I will pay you my vows,
14those that my lips uttered
and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.
15I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings,
with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats.

It would be interesting if the offerings we put into the offering plate gave off the aroma of roasting meats. Such aromas evoke summer barbecues and laughing children and whole neighborhoods gathered together for national holidays.

When we hear about burnt offerings it is easy to mentally skip over these ideas. Such sacrifices are not part of our experience. Truth be told, they seem a little brutish and bloody for us. And it is easy to think that those times were barbaric and we are more enlightened.

It was a bloody affair; butchering animals always is, but few of us have been to a slaughterhouse. Just because we buy meat wrapped in butcher paper doesn’t mean someone somewhere wasn’t involved in blood and the giving of a life.

I wonder if I would eat meat very often had I to raise and slaughter the animal myself. I suspect meat would become a rare and special treat, only for those occasions of large family celebrations like Thanksgiving and Christmas. And this is the way it was for people in the ancient world – at least for ordinary people.

The slaughter of an animal was a rare and special occasion – a feasting to which many were invited – a feasting that was shared also with the priest and with the poor. It was a costly affair; the offering of an animal was a great sacrifice. But it was also a time of joy.

The vow of which the poet speaks is the vow to sacrifice an animal. It is a promise to give God his most precious possession if God will come to his aid. It is not a vow that was taken lightly. These were no sick bed promises soon forgotten when the crisis was passed. These vows were kept – and they were times of great celebration, for the prayers had been answered, the life saved, and the whole community was invited to share in the joy.

I wish we had a better sense of this when we put our envelope into the offering plate. I wished we recognized that we were giving a gift of value in thanksgiving to God for all God’s mercies, a gift that was being shared by the whole community in the feast of song and Scripture and Holy Eucharist – the “sacred thanksgiving” – the shared bread and wine that embody the majesty of divine grace. The feast that accompanied the ancient sacrifice was a table fellowship not only of all the guests, but a table fellowship with God to whom the animal had been offered. And so is our feast. We gather in table fellowship with God and one another, filled with thanksgiving for heaven’s mercies, rejoicing in the peace with God that brings God and us to one table.

In a torn and divided world, it is a great and powerful sign of the world reborn. And all this from the simple sacrifice of a portion of our labor and bounty placed in the offering plate.

The offering is not a necessary collection to keep the lights on; it is not dues; it is not a gift to the budget. This is a sacrifice that all might gather to feast on and rejoice in the precious mercy of God.

And this is why the first portion of that gift is given away to those in need. The church tithes its offerings so that our joy might be shared, and our offerings be a sign of that feast to come when all the world is made new.

This is the aroma I wish we could smell as the offering plates are brought forward to the altar.