Together

File:Palmyra Ark at night.JPG

Sunday Evening

A look back to last Sunday, the Sunday in Christmas, January 1, 2016

Isaiah 52:7-10

9Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem.

I don’t know why that little word ‘together’ affects me so much, but it does. The fallen stones of Jerusalem are summoned to sing together. The ruined city is to be a choir.

We think so strongly of the faith as a personal affair. There is a whole tradition in American Christianity that asks whether you have accepted Christ Jesus as your personal Lord and savior. I understand the need for personal faith, but we could use a little more corporate faith.

Our gathering on Sunday was small, as was expected. It was New Year’s Day, after all. The culture is busy recovering from other things. And there was the final decisive week of the NFL. Children are off school. People are traveling – some to family, others to vacation. I begrudge no one their observance of the Christmas break. But the stones sing together. The stones that comprise the once holy city, akimbo, broken, aged, disconnected, scarred by fire and sword, the stones are summoned to sing together.

First Peter calls us living stones of God’s holy temple. Paul calls us the body of Christ, and spends a chapter of his letter to the Corinthians on this idea. Ephesians declares:

You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:19-21)

We are far from perfect stones for God’s holy temple. And I rather like the notion that we are hardly more than the rubble of a ruined city. But through the prophet God calls us to join our voices in praise, for God has drawn near to build such stones as these into his holy dwelling-place.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APalmyra_Ark_at_night.JPG By Erik Albers (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Advertisements

Not orphaned

9-11 memorial

Once More about Last Sunday

John 14:18-19, 23-29

18“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live…Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…”

These words sound so esoteric and spiritual to us. We forget that they are very real to the first century. The temple was the dwelling place of God. There God lived among the people. There his Spirit was present. There God’s angels ascended and descended like Jacob’s vision at Bethel. There stood the Holy of Holies, the Most Holy Place, where heaven touched earth and sins were forgiven and prayers arose like incense.

And now the temple is gone.

There is a hole in Manhattan where the twin towers stood. Two holes. They have been made into beautiful pools, water flowing down their sides, the names of all the dead etched in black stone. It is a lovely memorial.

The World Trade Center was not, for us, where God was present. Far from it. But there is still a hole there, an ache, an absence of what was and its terrible price. Imagine that one site was the White House, Arlington, Monticello, the Library of Congress, the Treasury, the Supreme Court, the Smithsonian, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the reflecting pool between. All gone. All rubble. Stomped into the earth by a ruthless army; its treasures looted, with millions dead and nearly a million sold into slavery.

“I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you. Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” The God who is the protector of orphans and widows will come to this orphaned people. The God who dwelt in the temple will now dwell in this small band of students dwelling in Jesus’ word.

It is as though the Declaration of Independence survived and is now in the hands of one small band.

If we had experienced all this, we would not take up the Gospel like an imperial banner under which to conquer the world. We would be a community that washes feet. That welcomes the stranger. That loves one another. We would be a community that witnesses tears turned to joy like water to wine. We would be a community where eyes are opened and lives are healed. We would be a community that breathes the Spirit of God.

 

Photocredit: dkbonde

“Come, let us walk…”

File:IRIA soldiers marching in formation (1).jpg

Sunday Evening

Isaiah 2:2-5

5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

This is the concluding line of the beautiful prophecy we sang as our psalm, today:

2In days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
4He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

It is a beautiful passage, vivid, memorable, timeless in its aspiration for peace. But we miss something of the power of this text because of that timelessness. The prophet was speaking to a specific time – a nation in the run-up to war. Assyria is on the horizon. Fear is rampant. Neighboring kingdoms are assembling against Judah. The king is beefing up defenses, marshaling troops, forging alliances. It is a time of muscular rhetoric and bravado, not unlike our own. The talking heads in the royal court all declare that God is on their side. They possess the temple: God will never let his holy house fall.

Now stands the prophet. He declares that the day shall come when Jerusalem will be the center of peace. All nations will come to learn the way of God. And while everyone is nodding their heads in assent at this acclamation that they are the greatest nation on earth comes the final line, the punch line: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”

“Let us walk…”

It is wonderful to hear the promise of peace. But Isaiah lived in a time of war fever. While everyone is marching to war, he summons us to walk in the way of peace.

Isaiah met King Ahaz as he was inspecting the defensive ramparts of Jerusalem and challenged him to put his trust in God’s power not his own. He promises the king a sign, any sign, whatever the king might ask for. But the king demurs. He puts on a polite religious front, but has no interest in the word of the LORD. This is that famous passage where the prophet says, “If you won’t choose a sign, God will choose one for you. A woman shall conceive and bear a son and they shall call his name ‘Immanuel’.” The king’s trust and hope are in his preparations for war, not the path of peace.

We tend to think that the way to peace comes through conquest: hurt me and I’ll hurt you worse. It is the way of the nations. Take what you can. Give back only what you must. Rule by fear and threat or overwhelming military or economic force. But these very nations, says the prophet, will come to Jerusalem to learn the way of peace. They will come to learn the Word of the LORD, the commands that require justice and mercy.

And what the whole earth will do one day, says the prophet, we should do now: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”

 

Image: Islamic Republic of Iran Army soldiers marching during Sacred Defense Week parade. By Reza Dehshiri (http://www.ypa.ir/media/k2/galleries/280/02.jpg) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

What large stones

File:Reconstruction model of Ancient Jerusalem in Museum of David Castle.jpg

Thursday

Mark 13:1-8

1As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

We like to build monuments. From our first wooden blocks, it seems, we have the impulse to build – and to build higher. “Look Mom,” we crow. How deep can you dig a hole at the beach? How high can you build your castle of sand? Humanity’s first construction project was the tower from which to storm the gates of heaven. A tower that will make a name for ourselves.”

And so we have Trump Tower with Trump’s name not only on the building but every sweatshirt for sale in the lobby is artfully folded so that it shouts “Trump” and every book is turned so Trump’s face shines.

We are builders. Big or small we are builders. We want to build a home, a family, a legacy. We build churches. Glorious churches.

I would not give up any of them. I am inspired by their soaring heights, their ancient foundations, their simple beauty. But God didn’t send us into the world to build temples and monuments. God sent us to build communities of justice and mercy.

One of the most profound transformations that happens in Christ is the notion that the community is the temple. 1 Peter writes:

2:4 Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5 like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

The temples we build are temporary things. The temple God builds is a people. And that temple endures into eternity.

19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (Ephesians 2:19-22)

 

Image: Водник at ru.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

But there is hope here

File:Roberts Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem.jpg

David Roberts, The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70

Watching for the Morning of November 15, 2015

The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 28 / Lectionary 33

Year B

The disciples of Jesus are awed by the temple. Rightly awed. It was a magnificent structure that Herod the Great had created, transforming the small temple whose dimensions were confined by those in the Biblical text into a great plaza of concentric courtyards surrounded by porticoes of towering columns. To accomplish this, Herod had to extend the hilltop, building out the huge retaining wall that still stands to support the temple mount. The exposed foundation stones in the southwest corner form the Western Wall where Jews gather today to mourn the loss of the temple and pray.

Herod created one of the wonders of the ancient world. But in 70 CE, four years after the outbreak of the Judean revolt, Rome destroyed it.

The war was devastating for the region and a catastrophe for Judea. Jewish residents of Roman cities who did not flee were murdered. Crucifixions abounded as the Roman army surrounded Jerusalem with concrete examples of the fate that awaited the rebels. No heavenly armies arrived to support the rebel leaders acclaimed as messiahs. The signs in the heavens and the purported miracles on earth did not lead to the liberation of Judea or the dawning of God’s kingdom. All that came was hunger, destruction and death.

Jesus talks about this pending disaster with no glee. There is no joy at Jerusalem’s fall. No delight in God’s judgment on the wicked. Just the sad acknowledgment that this grand attempt to honor God with worldwide renown was not the honor God desired. God desired justice and mercy.

This is the setting for worship on Sunday. It should make us a little weak in the knees. We are drawing near to the end of the church year. In the northern hemisphere it is the end of the harvest season when the grain is winnowed. Winter looms, darkness grows, and themes of judgment and the end of all things echo in our texts.

But there is hope here.

The Book of Daniel faces the devastation of 164 BCE with the promise of God’s ultimate triumph. The Archangel Michael shall arise to deliver God’s people, the grave shall give up its dead, every injustice shall be righted, and the faithful will shine with the radiance of heaven.

The psalmist sings in gratitude of God’s blessing and, when he speaks of God’s healing work, hints at a more profound mystery:

9 Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.
10 For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.
11 You show me the path of life.

Jesus acknowledges the coming judgment upon Jerusalem but warns his followers not to be led astray. This is not the end, he says, and compares it with the onset of labor pains – pains that end in joy. God’s reign will come, just not yet. The days are scary but not final. There is work yet for believers to do. Works of justice and mercy. Works of witness and service. Works of joy and life.

The Prayer of the Day for November 15, 2015

Almighty and eternal God,
set our hearts and hands to work,
not in the building of temples that perish,
but in those eternal works of mercy and truth
that serve your reign of grace and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The texts for November 15, 2015

First Reading: Daniel 12:1-3
“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise.”
– The visions granted to Daniel of the persecutions under Antiochus Epiphanes IV come to their conclusion with Israel’s ultimate deliverance.

Psalmody: Psalm 16
“Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.” – The poet expresses his trust in God.

Second Reading: Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25
“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” – Having set forth his argument for the superiority of Christ as our true high priest, the author comes to the exhortation that prompts his letter: that we should “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering” and encourage one another to remain faithful.

Gospel: Mark 13:1-8
“Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” – When the disciples call Jesus’ attention to the majesty and beauty of the temple, he predicts its destruction. For the disciples, such and event must mean the end of the world, but Jesus tells his followers that “the end is not yet,” and warns them not to be led astray. The conflicts of the nations and the convulsions of nature are but “the beginning of the birth pangs.”

 

David Roberts, The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Devouring widows

Watching for the Morning of November 8, 2015

Year B

The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 27 / Lectionary 32

File:Widowsmite.png

A bronze Widow’s Mite or Prutah, minted by Alexander Jannaeus, King of Judaea, 103 – 76 B.C.

Sunday returns us to “ordinary time” (the numbered Sundays of the year) after the festivals of the last two Sundays. Jesus is now in Jerusalem. Our narrative has jumped over the entry to Jerusalem (which we read on Palm Sunday) and the cleansing of the temple (which we read in Lent from the Gospel of John). We have skipped Mark’s description of the heightening conflict with the Jerusalem elite and Jesus’ stories of God’s pending judgment on the city. What remains before the account of the passion is this Sunday’s text and Jesus’ teaching about the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the age.

The church calendar is shaped by the northern hemisphere. This is the season of harvest, or reaping and winnowing. And the texts and tone of worship at the end of the church year turns towards the notion of the final harvest, even as the Gospel narrative itself reflects the growing crisis between Jesus and the authorities.

So this Sunday Jesus warns his followers about the scribes who love the seats of honor and the show of pious prayer, but “devour widows’ houses.” Although the words are directed to his followers, we should not imagine that this is a private conversation. It is a challenge of the Jerusalem elite for all to hear. And no sooner are these words out of Jesus’ mouth then he is able to point to a widow giving her last pennies into the temple treasury. Here is concrete evidence that instead of doing justice and mercy, the temple system bleeds the poor.

No wonder they want to kill him.

We have been taught to hear Jesus as if he were praising the woman for her dedication, but the context shows that his words are a lament. He wants his disciples to see that this is a murderous system. And the haunting realization for the hearers of Mark’s Gospel is that the murderous system is about to turn on Jesus. Jesus is about to give his last two farthings, his last full measure of devotion. The priests and scholars of the privileged elite in Jerusalem will devour Jesus to maintain the temple – but it is the temple that will be destroyed and Jesus who will be raised. God will cast down the mighty and raise up the poor. Mary will find the tomb empty and Jesus the crucified will meet them in Galilee. God’s kingdom, God’s reign, is dawning and earthly kingdoms are falling.

So Sunday we will hear of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. When drought afflicts the nation that has turned away from the God of justice and mercy to the gods of prosperity, from the LORD of the Exodus and Sinai to the Ba’al of the storm, God provides for the prophet and a poor widow and her child with a never-failing source of life.

Sunday’s psalm will bear witness to this God of justice and mercy, declaring that he “executes justice for the oppressed,” “gives food to the hungry,” and “sets the prisoners free.”

And the author of Hebrews will continues his argument for the uniqueness and superiority of Christ over every human priest, declaring that Christ has not gone into an earthly temple to make the annual atonement for the people with the blood of goats and bulls, but he has ascended into the heavens and stands before the throne of God to intercede on our behalf. The God of justice and mercy. The God who does not devour widows, but gives life.

The Prayer for November 8, 2015

Guardian of the weak, protector of the powerless, Lord of all:
send forth your Holy Spirit
that your people may not seek the places of honor,
but stand with Jesus alongside the broken and poor.
May we be among those whose lives are given wholly to your service;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The texts for November 8, 2015

First Reading: 1 Kings 17:8-16
“The word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, ‘Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’”
– As the drought grows ever more severe after God has declared no rain will fall on the kingdom of Israel when it has turned to worship the rain god Ba’al, God provides for Elijah through the faithfulness of a widow already at the edge of starvation.

Psalmody: Psalm 146
“Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God…who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.” – The psalmist sings of the character of God (in contrast to human princes).

Second Reading: Hebrews 9:24-28
“Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” – Arguing for the superiority of Christ, our true high priest, over earthly priests, the author declares that Christ Jesus has not entered an earthly temple to intercede for us, but stands before the throne of God in the heavens.

Gospel: Mark 12:38-44
“A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.” – Jesus warns his followers about the way of the scribes who “devour widows’ houses” and then witnesses a widow placing her last two halfpence into the temple offering.

 

Photo: By Randy Benzie (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Contributions/Randy_Benzie) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Widowsmite.jpg) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The unholy made holy

Friday

Acts 8:26-40

File:Menologion of Basil 006.jpg36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

It’s not an abstract question for the Ethiopian; it’s a highly personal one. He has just come from Jerusalem where the fact that he is a eunuch bars him from the temple. He is fundamentally flawed and not acceptable in God’s presence.

There is something to be said for the notion of holiness, that what we bring before God should be whole. Lame animals show no honor or respect for the Lord of all. Moldy grain, rancid oil – we ought not imagine making such gifts at the altar. God deserves our best. There is even something to be said for the notion that sinners ought to stand far off and not parade to the front, that we should come with humility, that we should approach God with care. But it is a far different thing for me to hold myself back than for others to make that judgment. It is for me to recognize God’s holiness, not for others to defend it. I should know my unworthiness rather than have someone point it out to me.

But Christ was crucified. He was made unholy. Outside the walls of the holy city, his death was hastened lest he pollute the holy days, while those who arranged his death went up to the altar with hands they regarded as clean. Pilate had to go out to the high priests as they conspired to murder Jesus, lest they pollute themselves by entering a gentile’s house.

The holy one – the truly holy one – was made unholy that we, the truly unholy, might be made holy in him. And now, what religious people excluded in order to defend God’s honor, God gathers in order to show his glory: the lame man at the temple, the Samaritans, the Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius the centurion, gentiles in Antioch.  The stories of Acts follow the seeds Jesus sowed: the Syrophoenician woman, Matthew the tax collector, the woman with the flow of blood, sinners and tax collectors.

“What is to prevent me from being baptized?” asks the Ethiopian eunuch. Marred in the flesh by men, rendered unholy by the mighty, he is now made holy in Christ by the Almighty. As are we.

It is not our job to defend God’s honor. God will take care of himself. It is for us to be mindful of God’s honor and enter into his presence with humbleness – and joy.

 

Image: Menologion of Basil II, Menologion of Basileiou – 11th century illuminated byzantine manuscript with 430 miniatures, now in Vatican library.  Photo by Мастер Георгий (http://www.pravenc.ru/text/149805.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Where heaven touches earth

Watching for the Morning of March 8, 2015

The Third Sunday of Lent

File:Christ banish tradesmen from Temple (Monreale).jpg

Mosaic in Monreale Cathedral

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection takes an entirely different form in John’s Gospel than we read last week in Mark, but once again the Gospel points us towards Jerusalem (and towards our keeping of the Paschal Triduum, the three day observance of the cross and resurrection). The one who transformed water into wine, turning tears to joy and bringing the joy of the wedding feast to come, is the true temple where heaven touches earth.

In the background stands God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai: the stunning encounter wherein the people pledge their loyalty to the one who brought them out of slavery – and God proclaims his loyalty to them: “I will be your God and you will be my people.”

But being the people of God requires fidelity to the character and values of this God who delivers the oppressed. And so we have the “ten words”, numbered differently by different faith communities, but expressing the fundamental obligations of a people freed from slavery lest they enslaves themselves again – or enslave others.

The psalmist sings his praise of the ordering work of God, shown in creation and in God’s law/teaching.

It is that broken covenant that jeopardizes the temple. Instead of becoming a refuge for all nations it has become a “marketplace”, a commercial center for the exploitation of pilgrims. It no longer proclaims justice and mercy. It no longer bears witness to light and life. It no longer is a place of encounter with the mercy of heaven. Now all this is found in Jesus, destroyed and raised up, crucified and risen.

Paul knows that the message that encounters us from the cross is power, power to save, power to cast down and raise up, power to kill and make alive, power that carries us into the new creation. It is judgment against all human sin – and the stunning proclamation that God has dismissed our debt to him, opening the path to new life.

(For our daily Lent devotion from Los Altos Lutheran church, and for sermons and other information on Lent see our Lent site.)

Our theme this Lent is Renewal, and for Lent 3: Renewing Families

The Prayer for March 8, 2015

In the temple, O God, Jesus cried out
against what was unholy and untrue
Watch over us,
renewing our lives and our families
that, cleansed of all selfishness,
our love may be deepened,
and we prove faithful to you and to all.;
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 March 8, 2015

First Reading: Exodus 20:1-17
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” – God gives the Ten Commandments to Israel at Sinai.

Psalmody: Psalm 19
“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.” – A majestic hymn celebrating God’s good ordering of the world.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
– The Word which comes from the cross is a power that casts down and raises up, foolish in human eyes, but the power of God to set us in a right relationship to Him who is eternal.

Gospel John 2:13-22
“In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their table.” – Jesus engages in a prophetic action declaring God’s coming judgment upon the temple system, and proclaims his death and resurrection: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

 

Photo: By Sibeaster (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons