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

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Shame, but Glory

File:Brooklyn Museum - The First Nail (Le premier clou) - James Tissot.jpgGood Friday
March 30, 2018

We have come to the middle of our three day observance of the cross and resurrection. Last night we heard the story of the Last Supper when Jesus stripped himself of his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waist, and bent to wash the feet of his followers.

They were gathered at Passover, when Israel remembers how God saved them in the night that death swept through Egypt and touched every home. The royal throne in Egypt had not only oppressed the people of Israel who had come to their land as refugees, but grew fearful of them and commanded the death of Israel’s male children. The midwives refused the order to kill the infants at birth, reporting that the Israelite women were like animals and gave birth before they could arrive. So the command was given that all male infants be thrown into the Nile – food for the crocodiles.

It was Egypt’s war against the children of Israel – a people that God called “my son” – and their refusal to let them go, that led ultimately to the death of their own sons. There is a price to pay for hardness of heart. But by the blood of a lamb, God protected the Israelites. And in that night of Egypt’s sorrow, they were able to flee.

The week-long festival of Passover celebrates that moment when imperial power was overthrown and God’s people gained their freedom. It is why the Roman imperial forces were so nervous during the celebration of Passover in Jerusalem. Vast crowds came to the city to celebrate this moment of national liberation and Rome feared the spark of rebellion.

When Jesus arrives in the city, and people are crying out “hosanna” as if he were a king, the powers that be sent a mob to grab him in the night and hand him over to the authorities as a rebel threat to the leadership of the nation and the might of Rome.

The punishment for rebels was crucifixion. It was a terrible way to die, but a thoroughly effective way to quash any challenge to the ruling powers. The victim was stripped not only of his clothes but any shred of dignity. It is why we end the service last night with the stripping of the altar.

Jesus is abused, tortured, mocked, scourged with a whip that has sharp bits of metal inserted into the ends of the thongs. He is driven through the streets for people to look on with horror or abuse, and impaled along the public roadway so that all can see the consequences of resisting those in power.

It is compelling to ponder how this Galilean healer and teacher should so incite the fear and hostility of Judah’s leaders that they would hand him over to the Roman authorities to be crucified. Why is Jesus such a threat to the way of the world? And why do we not see him as a threat in our time?

It is interesting to consider that, in his time, Martin Luther King, Jr. was regarded as such a dangerous man, and so widely disliked and hated. But now he is a safe and tame national hero.

We have done something of the same thing to Jesus. We have made him safe and tame. Jesus has become the defender of polite society rather than a challenge to it. What he said about the care of the poor and vulnerable, what he said about those outcasts on the margins of society, what he said about the treatment of those society sees as “sinners”, what he said about the dangers of wealth and greed, what he said about our concern for honor from society rather than honor from God – all that seems safely packaged up and stored on the shelf. But Good Friday reminds us that Jesus was not so safe and domesticated. He wasn’t interested in us being religious; he called for us to do justice and mercy. And it got him killed.

Think how easily protesters of injustice are attacked as troublemakers, whether it’s the Black Lives Matter movement or high school kids protesting the proliferation of military weapons in civil society. The police beat the protestors at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago as brutally as they beat the striking coal miners in West Virginia in another era. The powerful family of Caiaphas wasn’t going to hold back against a Galilean peasant who said that debts needed to be forgiven.

The church has helped to domesticate Jesus by making the story of Good Friday a story of personal sin and redemption. We have taken this complicated and powerful story and turned it into a rather simple religious formula: we are sinners, God is righteous, God’s righteousness demands that we be punished, Jesus takes the punishment that we deserve, if we accept his forgiveness we get to go to heaven.

I understand this idea. I understand the truth of it. There is, indeed, truth here. Jesus does take upon himself the judgment that belongs on us. There is redemption and forgiveness in these outstretched arms. But it is much more complicated than such a simple formula.

There is a profound difference between thinking about the suffering of Jesus as part of an abstract equation, and truly seeing the horror of what was done to him. And it doesn’t matter that Jesus was innocent. It’s not like it was a shame about Jesus but those other two guys deserved what they got. No one should be crucified. Something has gone deeply wrong in the human heart that we are capable of such cruelty.

Something has gone deeply wrong in the human heart that we can fail to see the humanity of others. Something has gone deeply wrong when we can write off people in categories like immigrants, criminals, Nazis or Jews. Something is deeply wrong when American citizens get rounded up and put in interment camps because they are of Japanese descent. Something is deeply wrong in the human heart when “homosexuals” and “communists” and “Jews” are rounded up for the gas chamber. Something is deeply wrong when people are classified as “enemies” and “terrorists” allowing them to be tortured or bombed. The crucifixion of Jesus is a mirror of the human heart. And what we see there should make us ashamed.

This is where we can talk about redemption. It’s not that there are some black marks in my record I need Jesus to erase; there is something broken in me. And it is in that moment when I see that something is broken in me – then I am ready to truly hear Jesus say “Father, forgive them.” Then I can understand what redemption truly means.

God has seen the worst face of humanity, and still shows love to us. He has suffered our shame. He has carried our burden. Christ on the cross has shown us the dark secrets of the human heart and the bright love of God.

Jesus has offered us his Spirit. He has given us his word. He has shown us the path. He has promised to take us on this journey of being born anew, born from above, born of the Spirit.

He has promised us life and salvation – that is to say, he has promised us healing and wholeness. He has promised to come and reign in our hearts and in our world – and he is offering to come and reign in us now.

The cross is shame, but glory. It is a terrible reflection of the human soul, but a wondrous reflection of God’s love. It is our new beginning. It is new beginning for the world.

Amen

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

“Salvation belongs to our God”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

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

An indescribable and glorious joy

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Friday

1 Peter 1:3-9

8Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

This is a wonderful verse. But there are so many words in it that we hear differently in our time. This word ‘soul’ for example, is the Greek word ‘psyche’. For most of us, I suspect, the word ‘soul’ refers to the substance of the self that occupies the body such that, when the body dies, the soul continues. However we imagine this, the concept is that the me that is me continues somehow.

It’s not easy to pin down the meaning of this Greek word. It means, on the one hand, our life, our physical existence. In Matthew 2:2, when Jesus had been taken to Egypt for safety, the angel speaks of those “who were trying to take the child’s life.” It would sound weird to us to say they were trying to take the child’s soul. The same is true in Matthew 20:28 where Jesus says the Son of Man came to “give his life as a ransom for many.” It wouldn’t make sense to us to say he gave his soul.

But this ‘life’ is something more than biological existence. In Matthew 10:28, Jesus talks about those who can kill the body but not kill the ‘soul’. You can kill my body, but you cannot destroy my ‘life’. Or in 10:39, “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” There is something in the word ‘psyche’ that is more than biological life. There is something that speaks of the mind, the heart, the spirit – yes, the ‘soul’ – of a person: their character, their being, their identity, their story – “who they are”.

What is being saved? I am being saved. Not my ‘soul’, but me. Me, who likes the color blue and chocolate chip ice cream. Me, who started in math but turned to medieval history in college. Me, who loved being father to my daughters. Me, who learned so much at my parish in Detroit. Me, who loves the woods and the high desert and good coffee. Me, who grieves my brother and my daughter and aches with all those with whom I have walked through the shadow of the valley of death. Me, who stands with open hands at the communion table and treasures the wonder of the gift given.

I am being saved.

And this word saved – it means to heal, to rescue, to make whole. I am being saved. I am being healed. I am being made whole. I am promised a place at the table when all things are made new and death is slain and all creation feasts in God’s abundance.

Whatever exactly all those metaphors mean of a banquet on Mt. Zion, a New Jerusalem, swords beaten into plowshares and the lion lying down with the lamb, they point to a making-whole of all life. They point to an end to fears and release from regrets. And this must, in some way, mean a healing of relationships and a restored bond to my brother and daughter and to the whole fabric of the human community.

And all of this is not just awaiting me in the future, but this healing, this saving, this making whole is begun even now. Even now as I hold out my hands at the table, and as I sing the songs of the angels, and as I hold those who are dear to me, and as I welcome those who are new to me – as I breathe the breath of the Spirit. All this is both then and now, future and present, promise and reality, “an indescribable and glorious joy.”

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APorto_Covo_July_2011-6.jpg By Alvesgaspar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Rejoice in the Lord

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Watching for the Morning of December 13, 2015

Year C

The Third Sunday of Advent

Though the appointed texts for Sunday keep us focused on John, our children are presenting their Christmas program, so we have shifted our focus to joy. Sunday we will read of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth where the two unexpectedly pregnant women exult in God’s salvation, John the Baptist leaps in the womb, and Mary sings for joy. We will hear Paul write to the Philippians urging them to rejoice always. And together we will sing the song of Mary, the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

The joy of Christmas cannot be contained. It leaks into Advent and echoes through the Sunday’s after the Epiphany. It is the joy that comes from the knowledge that what has long been longed for is near at hand. It is the joy of the lightening skies at the end of a long dark night. It is the joy of seeing land on the horizon after a lengthy voyage at sea.   It is the joy of the childless when, at last, a pregnancy comes near to term. It is the joy of the impending wedding (when all the planning is done – or when we have entrusted it all into the hands of a perfect planner).

It is not the joy of a holiday – we know such joy is ephemeral and uncertain. It is the joy that heaven draws near: God comes. God comes to save. God comes to redeem. God comes to heal. God comes to dwell with us. The eternal heart of the universe beats for us and with us. The font of all life is coming to dwell with us.

Such joy cannot be contained.

The prayer for December 13, 2015

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Bring the desert to full bloom,
and fill with joy our path to you;
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 December 13, 2015

(Because of the Children’s Christmas Program this Sunday, our parish has adjusted the readings during this season. We also try to retain the practice of singing the Magnificat on the third Sunday of Advent. So we will read The Visitation as our Gospel this morning and sing the Magnificat. We included the preaching of John (Luke 3:7-18) in the Gospel reading for last Sunday.)

First Reading: Philippians 4:4-7
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”
– Though Paul is in prison facing the possibility of death, he urges his community to abide in joy.

Psalmody: Luke 1:46-55, the Song of Mary (the Magnificat)
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” – In response to her encounter with Elizabeth, Mary sings with joy of God’s coming to set right the world.

Gospel: Luke 1:39-45
“As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” –Having heard from the angel Gabriel that her kinswoman, Elizabeth, is also wondrously with child, Mary comes to greet her. Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit, and the child in her womb (John the Baptist) leaps for joy.

The texts as appointed for 3 Advent C

First Reading: Zephaniah 3:14-20
“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” – though the prophetic book speaks in cataclysmic terms of the judgment coming upon the nation, it nevertheless ends with a song of joy. The prophet calls the nation to rejoice for God shall come to reign over his people.

Psalmody: Isaiah 12:2-6,
“With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” – the prophet sings a song of thanksgiving, anticipating the day of God’s redemption.

Second Reading: Philippians 4:4-7
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” – Though Paul is in prison facing the possibility of death, he urges his community to abide in joy.

Gospel: Luke 3:7-18
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” – John summons the crowd to show their allegiance to the dawning reign of God in acts of justice and mercy.

 

Image: Fra Angelico (circa 1395–1455), The Visitation,  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Without fear

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Friday

Luke 1:68-79

69He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,…that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear.

In the aftermath of the shooting in San Bernardino, people are not only frightened of possible terror, Muslim Americans are frightened of their neighbors. I can’t imagine how I would feel if the situation were reversed: a minority Christian in a Muslim dominated country when some Christians are making bombs and proclaiming, “Jesus is Lord,” as they shoot up a crowd. If the majority culture knew little about Christianity, I would fear they would view all Christians as possible terrorists – or terrorist sympathizers. It disgraces the name of Christ. It would disgrace me.

Some Christians already disgrace me (and, I think, Christ), but there are enough of us around for people to recognize that shooting up abortion clinics, church prayer groups or black youth on the street isn’t intrinsic to Christianity. But if people didn’t know Christians or Christianity…

I would keep my head down. I would be on constant guard.

Living in fear is corrosive of the human spirit. It restricts our joy. It limits our freedom. We live in the shadows, even as children of an abusive parent find places to be out of sight and mind. It is not the life God intended for us. For any of us.

It takes courage to go on national television and speak of your shock and sadness when your brother has inflicted mass casualties. It takes even more courage to wear a headscarf. Hate is made easier when you are easily identifiable, when you look ‘different’.

69He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,…that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear.

I hear these words and think of the Judean experience under Antiochus Epiphanes IV who tried to stamp out what he and his cultured despisers regarded as a backward religious belief and practice that refused to embrace the values of the ruling powers. When there is the threat of death for circumcising your child – or soldiers going village to village with drawn swords demanding you eat pork – fear becomes your daily bread. It is a much different fear than the dominant culture’s fear of terrorism. It is a fear for your very being. The fear that makes you withdraw and hide.

When I served in Detroit, the kids in my parish made fun of white folks. But beneath the laughter was a buried fear. Away from their turf, an encounter, any encounter, with the dominant culture could go south quickly and unexpectedly. You needed to always be on guard. And they are not the only ones who live with such a low grade, chronic fear.

There is no want of fear in our world. It seeps into relationships and homes and communities and human hearts. It corrodes the human spirit. Compassion rusts. Tolerance wears thin. We divide. We arm ourselves. Then someone breaks into a school a workplace, a holiday party and starts firing. And then nations rise up and go to war.

To a fearful world Zechariah sings his song:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David.
70as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71that we would be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us.”

Maybe Zechariah was thinking about the occupying Roman forces. Maybe the song is older, from the days of Antiochus. But maybe Zechariah understands perfectly that the enemy from which we are delivered is not Muslims or jihadis, terrorists or troubled teens, but the brokenness of our own existence.

And into this world where our brokenness has wrought its evil for generation upon generation, into this world comes a child, his child, John who will be called “the baptizer”. This child he holds in his very own hands will open the door for the one in whom the world finally begins to change:

You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

To guide our feet, yours and mine, out of fear and darkness into the way of peace.

 

Image: By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia (Portrait of Refugee  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, 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.

Like Christmas morning

Christmas Tree and gifts

Friday

Romans 3:19-28

There is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,

I was baptized in a Lutheran congregation as a child, in the church where my father had been raised. My mother was raised in a Lutheran congregation. Their parents were all from Scandinavia, so of course they belonged to Lutheran churches. I made my confirmation in a Lutheran church; I attended a Lutheran college; I went to a Lutheran Seminary. But it was in my fourth year of seminary that I became a Lutheran.

I was one of those students who would ask the provocative question. I was never content to take notes and regurgitate answers; I wanted to understand, to push through to the heart of the matter. So one day, when my required World Missions class had a guest speaker from the Lutheran Church in Thailand, I raised my hand and asked “Why do you, a person from (then) 20th century Thailand, identify with a 16th century German monk?”

Without being phased at all, he answered me: “I don’t identify with a 16th century German monk; I identify with his understanding of the Gospel.”

In that moment all the light bulbs went off and I became a Lutheran. The Lutheran expression of Christian faith isn’t about the culture of church music, hymns, coffee and potluck suppers. It is about an idea. One central, unshakeable idea: God has come to make us his own for no reason but his own goodness. God has come to give salvation as a gift. God has come to heal a broken world, forgive an indebted world, deliver a captive world, redeem a world in bondage. God is the physician who does not ask whether her patient is worthy of her ministrations; she simply works to save the life of the patient before her. God is the lifeguard who does not ask what kind of idiot swims out beyond their depth. God is the fireman rushing up the World Trade Center without asking if its safe; there are people to be rescued and a fire to be extinguished.

Lutherans call it grace. The official phrase the 16th century reformers used to summarize all this is: justification by grace through faith. We are brought into a right relationship with God by his free gift and favor, a relationship that is a relationship of faith, of trusting the gift that is given.

There are other things to talk about in Christian faith. What does it mean for us to live as sons and daughters of the Most High? What is our mission in the world? What does the scripture mean when it calls us to holiness of life? Lutherans can argue about all manner of things – and usually do: sexual ethics, capital punishment, worship and liturgy, gender neutral language, the authority of bishops, whether we should even call them bishops. But none of this defines us. What defines us – or should define us – is this idea of grace.   We defend that idea like a dog with a bone.

It’s not grace and works. It’s not grace and a certain spiritual experience. It’s not grace and a doctrine. It’s not grace and democracy or capitalism or liberalism or anything. It is just grace. Life is gift. Redemption is gift. Forgiveness is gift. The life of the age to come is a gift. It is not the only doctrine, but it is the font of all other doctrines.

Yes it’s a gift that is of no use unless you receive it. But the receiving of it is no credit to us. No one stands around on Christmas morning to say, “Oh, look how well you opened that gift!” They ooh and aah at the gift.

Sunday morning is, and should always be, a kind of Christmas morning, oohing and aahing at the gift.

And Christian life is living every day as Christmas day.

 

Photo: dkbonde

Ransomed

Watching for the Morning of October 18, 2015

Year B

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 24 / Lectionary 29

File:Abbatiale Saint-Pierre d'Orbais-l'Abbaye (51) Verrière de la Rédemption2.jpgThe coming passion still dominates this section of Mark’s gospel as we hear for the third time that Jesus will be shamed and killed in Jerusalem, but “after three days he will rise.” The disciples are still uncomprehending that the Messiah could suffer, and James and John boldly make a play for the premier positions of power and honor at Jesus’ right and left hand “in his glory”. But we who hear this Gospel know that at Jesus’ right and left hand will be the two thieves.

So once again Jesus teaches his disciples about the shape of life in the kingdom. Those who would be great must be servants. Those who have the position of honor at the banquet of God are bearing to others the baskets of bread as if they were the slaves. And then comes the punch line: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Suddenly we have this word ransom. When members of elite families are captured in war their families must purchase their freedom. Christ is come to purchase our freedom. Christ is come to free us to serve. Christ is come to free us for our true humanity. Christ has come to heal and redeem our world.

The idea of ransom reconnects us with the passion prediction that begins our Gospel reading. It also takes us into the first reading where we hear the prophet declare:

he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole.

‘Ransom’ is the heart of our reading from Hebrews where the author portrays Christ Jesus as the true and perfect High Priest, declaring: “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

And this theme of redemption is embodied in the rich and wonderful imagery of the psalm that promises God’s protection: “With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.” The language seems hyperbolic – A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.” – until we remember that we are talking about the ransoming of the world and the dawning of the new creation.

The Prayer for October 18, 2015

You are our refuge, O God, and our holy habitation.
Grant that, dwelling in you, our lives may honor him
who gave his life as our ransom:
your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 18, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 53:4-12
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” – In the 6th century BCE, the prophet speaks of a servant of God who suffers on behalf of the people, and “by his stripes we are healed.”

Psalmody: Psalm 91 (appointed 91:9-16)
“You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
– The poet sings of God’s faithfulness.

Second Reading: Hebrews 5:1-10
“You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”
– Christ is our true high priest, appointed by God, who mediates our reconciliation.

Gospel: Mark 10:32-45 (appointed 10:35-45)
“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.” – James and John approach Jesus looking for positions of honor in the new administration and Jesus has to once again explain that the kingdom of God inverts the values of the world.

 

Photo: By GO69 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.  Page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abbatiale_Saint-Pierre_d’Orbais-l’Abbaye_%2851%29_Verri%C3%A8re_de_la_R%C3%A9demption2.jpg

No other name

Making up for Thursday

Acts 4:1-13

File:Florentinischer Meister um 1300 001.jpg12There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.

Well there it is, that troubling sentiment expressed so poorly by some who assert or imply that everyone who isn’t a Christian (and usually, everyone who isn’t their kind of Christian) is going to hell.

Here we face the great challenge of rightly understanding the message of Jesus. Matthew, Mark and Luke are all quite clear that Jesus proclaimed that people should turn and show allegiance to the dawning reign of God. And even though the Gospel of John uses very different language to describe the reality of this life that has come in Jesus, yet the fundamental elements of the message are the same. For John, who uses the language of eternal life (in Greek the life of the ‘aeon’, the life of the age to come), this life is something we have now in Christ. It is not waiting for us in heaven after we die; it is a present reality he describes as abiding in the Father. What the other Gospels describe as ‘the kingdom of God’ is this same imperishable life, a transformed existence of a world – and our lives – that has been brought into the realm of God, brought under the gracious life-giving governance of God’s Spirit. All four Gospel bear witness to Jesus bringing a world restored, healed, transformed, resurrected.

If our fundamental narrative is that good people (good morally or good from good works or good from trusting Jesus) go ‘up’ to some place called ‘heaven’ and bad people (bad morally or bad because they did not trust/believe in Jesus) go ‘down’ to some place called ‘hell’ then this statement – “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” – is going to sound very different than if our fundamental narrative is that God has come to heal the world in Jesus, to carry us from this broken age of sin and death into a new age of grace and life.

If Jesus is the only way to get into a place called heaven, and I don’t believe in Jesus, then we are stuck putting me and all those like me in hell. But if Jesus is the one who heals a dying world, who reconnects God and humanity that they might dwell together, then his ‘name’ is what heals. Regardless of your religious experience or behavior, regardless of your psychological health or moral history, his name, his power, his identity, is what heals.

It still leaves open, of course, the question whether I am going to show allegiance to and trust in that ‘name’, but it will not be my trust that gets me “into heaven”; it is Jesus who brings heaven to the world.

The Greek words ‘to save’ and ‘salvation’ mean to heal, to restore to a full life in your social context – to restore you to family and friends and fields and the religious life of the nation. Someone who has been ‘saved’ gets to return home. They get to return to the temple. They get to return to their life. Saving the world means restoring God’s creation so that we live in harmony with God and one another. God doesn’t want us to dwell in heaven (the heavens) with him, he wants to dwell on earth with us: the lion and the lamb, the new Jerusalem, the wedding banquet that has no end. The martyrs under the altar in Revelation 7 are waiting for God’s New Jerusalem on earth; they don’t want to stay under the altar.

It is Jesus who brings healing to the world. It is the crucified one, who did not wreak vengeance on his enemies but forgave them. It is the risen one, whom God declared as his true and righteous one. It is this one who would not be tempted to turn his power or authority to his own ends but remained the perfectly faithful son (the ‘son’ we have not been) that brings wholeness to all existence.

Power, War, Sex, or any of the governing powers and ideologies of our world will not do this. War can’t bring peace. It can crush an army, but it cannot bring peace. My mother can force me to share with my brother, but force cannot make me want to share. Only a boundless generosity and love can create me as a loving, generous person. Only the boundless love of God manifest in Jesus will heal the world. That is a far different claim than “believe in Jesus or go to hell.”

Christians don’t have to – and shouldn’t – surrender and say there are many paths to heaven to avoid the ugliness of “believe like me or die.” We have to only understand that “heaven” is coming to us. Jesus is bringing to us the healing of the world.

And we are invited to show allegiance. We are invited to trust it. We are invited to live now the healing that awaits us. To forgive as we have been forgiven. To love as we have been loved. To open wide our hands and arms as God has opened wide his arms to us.

 

Image credit: By Florentinischer Meister um 1300 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons