Serious business

File:Duccio Maesta detail3.jpg

Watching for the Morning of October 21, 2018

Year B

The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 24 / Lectionary 29

“They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.”

The text as appointed for Sunday doesn’t include these words, but we will read them. They are laden with the fateful truth about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Jesus leads. It is his decision, his determination to walk into the lion’s den. And those who follow are amazed and afraid – amazed at his boldness, afraid at its consequences. Afraid not just for him for them all.

Following Jesus is serious business.

So Jesus will again tell his students about his fate in Jerusalem: “they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” And they will understand none of it. James and John will make their request to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in his glory – and the rest of the disciples will be outraged, presumably because they didn’t ask first. And again we will hear about living as servants in the world rather than masters, and Jesus will remind us that, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Following Jesus is serious business.

We will begin with Isaiah on Sunday, speaking of a suffering servant who “was wounded for our transgressions” with all it’s troubling implications that we are not, in fact, the noble human beings we want to believe we are, but immersed in a human community deeply flawed and turned from God and neighbor. And we will read the psalm together that speaks a promise we know cannot be true, for we are not always delivered from the snare of the fowler. And even if the psalm that once exalted Israel’s king now speaks of Jesus, we know that the angels will not bear him up lest he strike his foot against a stone. Thorns and nails await. And the mystery of God’s deliverance is much more profound than a simple protection from life’s harms.

Following Jesus is serious business.

But then, before we listen to Jesus’ fateful words, we will hear the author of Hebrews write: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

These are serious things. Eternal things. Undying. Imperishable. And perfect.

The Prayer for October 21, 2018

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 21, 2018

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.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Duccio_Maesta_detail3.jpg Duccio di Buoninsegna [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Shamed

Wednesday

File:Francisco de Zurbarán 006.jpg

Isaiah 53:4-12

9They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

When we remember the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, where the first line is restated by the second line, we see the words ‘grave’ and ‘tomb’ in parallel and that makes sense. But then we see the words ‘wicked’ and ‘rich’ in parallel.

Christians move so quickly in the hearing of this text to Jesus laid in a rich man’s tomb that we seldom pause to recognize that the word ‘rich’ is regarded as a synonym for ‘wicked’.

From the perspective of the oppressed poor, burial among the rich and mighty is a scandal for a prophet. Political candidates work hard to wear plaid shirts and drink beer like one of the guys (or gals). This is odd when you consider that they are applying for the post of representing our country among the leaders of the world. We don’t want our president wearing plaid shirts to have a face to face with Putin or Merkel or Xi Jinping. We want him wearing his fiercest power suit.

But there is a suspicion about the rich and powerful that’s different than those who prosper from hard work and good fortune. People who get rich by clever schemes that leave homeowners underwater are not regarded as much more than thieves. So the president wears plaid shirts.

But this poor prophet is condemned to burial among the rich elite, as if all his words had fallen on deaf ears. The prophets call for justice. They stand with the poor, the victims, the faithful of the land trying to do right by God and their neighbor. They do no not hobnob with the men or women wearing hundred thousand dollar suits or watches or pearls or yachts. They might as well be sitting on the porch with the leader of the Crips.

And then, in our text, ‘violence’ and ‘deceit’ become parallel to ‘rich’ and ‘wicked’. The prophet lies in state among the ‘wicked’ even though he did no violence and told no lies!

Guilt by association. Shamed completely. “We accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.” We regarded his fate as just. We thought God had given him his due. We did not see that he was wounded for our transgressions,” that God made “his life an offering for sin.”

Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” says the Baptist. Behold the lamb whose blood marks the doors of the Israelites to save them from death. Behold the lamb who dies at the hour the Passover lambs were sacrificed.

Behold. See. See truly. See deeply. Recognize the face of God beneath that crown of thorns. Recognize the hands of mercy pierced. Recognize the faithfulness of God who does not strike back, but bears our violence and sin.

Behold the one shamed; it is our shame.

9They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

But the prophet does not stop there, for then God speaks: “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous.” The disgraced one was faithful – and will make us faithful.

So we are summoned no only to see, but to follow. And the faithful one tries once again to help us understand: Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

 

Painting: Agnus Dei, Francisco de Zurbarán [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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

A more profound revolution

Watching for the Morning of September 13, 2015

Year B

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 19 / Lectionary 24

File:Christ Sculpture, Cambridge (7063878723).jpgWe have reached the turning point in Mark’s Gospel. Now Jesus begins to talk about his destiny in Jerusalem – to be crucified and raised.

It’s not hard to foresee that he will be crucified. He is challenging Rome’s claim to dominion over human life. He is denying that Caesar is the savior of humankind. He is announcing the dawning reign of God – and even his followers think of the kingdom of God in terms of the restoration of the Davidic monarchy and the nation’s deliverance from all foreign oppression. Rome meets all such claimants with the torture and shame of the cross.

But Jesus has a much more profound revolution in mind.

The prophet, in the reading from Isaiah on Sunday, is rejected by his community – but the LORD is the one who has given him the message to speak and will be his vindication. It is an appropriate choice for Jesus who will also be rejected by the leadership of the nation but vindicated by God.

The psalmist sings of God’s deliverance and uses words in which the Christian community finds hints of resurrection: “you have delivered my soul from death…I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” Though the disciples do not yet grasp what Jesus is talking about – though they do not yet see fully – the hints of God’s remarkable work are sprinkled like Easter eggs through the Old Testament for those with eyes to see.

So we begin our Gospel reading on Sunday with the story of the blind man. Jesus heals his eyes but, when asked, he says “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” It takes a second act of healing to help him see clearly. So it is when Jesus speaks with his disciples – they can see that he is the anointed, the Christ/Messiah, but they do not yet see clearly. They do not understand the cross and resurrection.

The prophets like Elijah or John boldly challenged the evil they saw in their society, but Jesus is more than a prophet. Jesus is on a mission not to combat evil but defeat it forever.

The Prayer for September 13, 2015

Like Peter, O God,
we recognize Jesus as your anointed
but stumble over the mystery of the cross.
Grant us your Holy Spirit
that we might not seek to gain the world,
but to be found in your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 13, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a
“I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard.” – The prophet is rejected by his community but it is God who has called him and will deliver him.

Psalmody: Psalm 116:1-9
“The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the Lord: ‘O Lord, I pray, save my life!’”
– The poet praises the LORD who delivered him from death.

Second Reading: James 3:1-12
“No one can tame the tongue–a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.”
– The author warns the community about the power of the tongue and reminds them that we cannot bless God and curse others.

Gospel: Mark 8:22-38 (appointed: 27-38)
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” – Jesus begins to teach his followers about his destiny in Jerusalem and calls for them to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow.”

 

Image: By Steve Evans from Citizen of the World (Christ Sculpture, Cambridge  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“Listen to him”

Watching for the morning of February 15

Year B

The Feast of the Transfiguration

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The Transfiguration of Jesus (and Last Supper) in the Floreffe Bible, 12th Century

Sunday we come to the end of this season after the Epiphany with the Feast of the Transfiguration. God announced, “This is my beloved Son,” at the beginning of this season (Baptism of our Lord) and now these words are heard again when Jesus ascends the mountain with Peter, James and John and they see him radiant with the divine splendor.

Moses and Elijah appear, speaking with Jesus, but the three are not equals. In the end there is only Jesus, and the voice of God declaring not simply “This is my Son,” but adding: “Listen to him.”

“Listen to him.” Moses and the prophets bear witness to Jesus, but he fulfills them. He embodies them. He is the ultimate manifestation of heaven’s voice. He is the Word made flesh, God’s creating, redeeming, transforming speech in human form. He is the one to whom we should listen.

Many Biblical texts and images rattle around in the background to this event. Images of cloud and fire evoke Old Testament texts like our psalm, where the God who appeared before Israel in fire and cloud at Sinai now appears in judgment over Mt. Zion. In the first reading Elisha doggedly pursues the privilege of inheriting Elijah’s spirit (and ministry) and along the way we hear of the Chariots of Fire that reveal the divine presence and, like a whirlwind, sweep Elijah away. Even Paul speaks from 2nd Corinthians about the Glory of God revealed in the face of Jesus.

Mountains, fire, clouds, fear, radiance, it’s all here: images with which we speak and imagine the presence of God. But the buzz isn’t the vision. The buzz is that final word: “Listen to him.”

Pay attention to what Jesus says and does – not what we think he should say or do. Pay attention to the one who goes to Jerusalem with frail friends not a heavenly army. Pay attention to the one who goes to Jerusalem in fidelity to God to take the cup he does not want to take. Pay attention to the Jesus who goes to Jerusalem and does not raise his hands in violence – either to take the throne or to defend himself – but like a sheep before the shearers is silent. Pay attention. “Listen to him.”

It’s too easy to see in the transfiguration the man of power we want, rather than the man of peace we have – aah, here is the true kick-ass Jesus hiding behind his peasant robes. Nope. Same Jesus. Troubling Jesus. Crucified Jesus. Shouldering the debt of humanity Jesus. Revealing how degraded is the image of God in humanity Jesus: Look, we are crucifying people. We are burning them alive in cages. We are beheading beautiful, kind smiles. Look. And listen.

“Listen to him.” Not to the chattering class. Not to the tracking polls. Not to “all your friends.” Not to your passions and desires. “Listen to him.” “To him.”

Before that simple word all the wind and fire and cloud pale. And we rightly fall down in awe.

The Prayer for February 15, 2015

Holy and Gracious God,
wrapped in mystery, yet revealed in your Son Jesus.
Renew us by the radiant vision of your Son;
make us ever attentive to his voice;
and worthy of your service;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for February 15, 2015

First Reading: 2 Kings 2:1-14 (appointed vv. 1-12)
“Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.” – As Elijah heads toward his end in the whirlwind, Elisha seeks a “double share” of Elijah’s spirit, an expression drawn from the inheritance that goes to the eldest son.

Psalmody: Psalm 50:1-6
“Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him.”
– With the imagery of a storm over Jerusalem the poet speaks of the majesty of God who comes to speak to his people.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 3:17-4:6 (appointed 2 Corinthians 4:3-6)
“It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” – Paul expounds on the story of Moses, whose face radiated with the glory of God after God spoke to him in the tent of meeting.

Gospel: Mark 9:2-9
“He was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”
– Peter, James and John serve as witnesses when God appears to Jesus (and, like Moses, his appearance is transformed) and testifies that he is God’s beloved son to whom we should listen.

 

Image: By Anonymous (the British Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A broken servant

Wednesday

Isaiah 42

File:Hans Schäufelein - Die Kreuztragung Christi.jpg1Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.

Although the Ethiopian eunuch is reading a different passage from Isaiah, his question to Philip persists: “Who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” (Acts 8:34)

6I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
7to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.

Jesus uses a text very like this to announce his ministry in Nazareth.  And Matthew applies this passage to Jesus in Matthew 12.  It is hard for us to see the text in any other way.  Jesus is the embodiment of this promise.  But when Isaiah spoke, did he speak of a servant far away in time?  Did these words not have a meaning for the people to whom God inspired Isaiah to speak them?

We should not be so quick to see this message fulfilled in Jesus that we fail to hear the prophet’s first meaning: he is speaking to the people sometime after Jerusalem and the temple have been destroyed by the Babylonian armies, giving his broken community a new identity.

They are not the victors ruling the nations with an iron scepter as in Psalm 2 (or Psalm 149!).  They are the community broken by exile that will not break a bent reed or quash a sputtering wick.  They are the community chosen by God to bring blessing to the nations.  They are beloved of God and given to the world as a light for all peoples.  They are not abandoned and forgotten, they are beloved and sent.  Even these: the wounded, the chastised, the humbled.  They have been driven by war and sorrow back to God’s word.  There they find the teaching that God intends for all humanity.  A word that opens unseeing eyes.  A word the liberates debtors from prison.  A word that establishes true justice and righteousness.  A word from the one who brought all things into being and is the source of all life.

God’s work in the world is not a crusade; it is a labor of love by those who understand the world’s woes, who would not add to its sorrows, who endure suffering rather than inflict it.  They choose not revenge for they have been found by mercy.  They yield not to hardness of heart for they have been clothed in compassion.  They lose not hope for they have been met by the God of the exodus and the empty grave.