The stone the builders rejected

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Isaiah 5:1-7:
Let me sing for my beloved

my love-song concerning his vineyard…

Psalm 80:7-15:
“…You brought a vine out of Egypt;

you drove out the nations and planted it.…”

Matthew 21:33-46:
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard…”

Proper 22, Lectionary 27, Year A
(and a 70th wedding anniversary celebration)

I thought about taking this occasion to preach about marriage. But, in some ways, that’s a scarier topic to me than to preach those texts where Jesus talks about divorce. It’s like talking about money; it’s a subject in which all of us are deeply invested. Marriage is something that we have hoped for and never found, or something we have found and lost, or something we have found and struggled through – sometimes successfully, and sometimes less so. Marriage is something that begins with radiant hopes and often suffers under the weight of unfulfilled desires. It is dangerous ground for preaching – easy to preach about in a way that is shallow or sentimental or a little too confident that the preacher knows what is good for everyone else.

There is also a problem because marriage in the scripture is a different thing than marriage in the modern west. Our understanding of what marriage is supposed to be has changed a lot since the Adam and Eve story was written down 3,000 years ago. But it is still a remarkable story and I don’t hesitate to call it inspired. It is far more profound than the story told in the cultures around ancient Israel.

The element of the Biblical witness that is remarkable is the notion that marriage is something holy and sacred, not because of its connection to sex and procreation, but because it is a covenant. It is a relationship created and sustained by a promise and a trust in that promise. Marriage is made of the same stuff as faith: a relationship created and sustained by a promise and a trust in that promise.

Marriage is holy not because sex is mystical and primal and crosses into the generative realm of the gods; marriage is holy because it is about promises – trust in and fidelity to those promises. This is why, when the prophets talk about idolatry, they speak of it as adultery: Israel betraying its covenantal relationship with God.

We see this in our first reading, today. But before we go there I want also to say this: It’s worth pondering the fact that marriage stands at the beginning and end of scriptures. It is there in the garden when God takes the flesh of Adam to form a companion equal to him. And it is there in the vision of Revelation 21 when it describes the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. The human story begins in perfect faithfulness and communion with God and one another, and our story reaches its fulfillment with all creation restored to perfect faithfulness and communion. Marriage embodies the memory of the garden and the promise of the new creation.

Marriage is meant to be life-giving and life-sustaining and the perfection of joy and intimacy. But we are no longer in the garden. And we are not yet in the New Jerusalem. And since we live in a broken world, marriage isn’t simple; love and forgiveness must be practiced.

Again this is just like faith and living a Christian life. We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – so love and forgiveness must be practiced. Kindness and compassion must be practiced. Hope and joy must be practiced. Mercy and truth must be practiced. Generosity and humility must be practiced. Patience and understanding must be practiced.

But we are not alone. The Spirit of God is given. God is leading and guiding and teaching and exhorting and challenging and summoning us to lives that are holy and true.

So I want to speak briefly about the passage in Isaiah and then we’ll look at the parable of Jesus and try to hear what’s there.

You saw in the psalm that Israel is compared to a vine that God brought out of Egypt, planted in the land and tended and cared for it. The psalmist is writing after the nation has been destroyed and crying out for God to see and come to their aid. The protective wall has been torn down, as it were, and the vineyard ravaged by the wild animals. This notion of Israel as God’s vine is important. When Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard, he is talking about the nation.

The song that the prophet Isaiah sings – the poetry he recites in the public square – is a masterful piece of preaching. He stands up to sing a song about his beloved. And when he begins, the crowd understands that he is singing about his best friend. And as soon as the prophet begins his story about his friend’s vineyard, the crowd knows that this is a song about his friend’s marriage. It has the hint of a scandalous tale. It causes the crowd to lean in just like we lean in to any juicy gossip.

So this friend has done everything he can for his vine, but he has gotten nothing but wild, wanton, bitter grapes. His wife has been unfaithful. And the poet/prophet summons the crowd for their opinion, their judgment. What more could he have done? He declares that he will reject his vineyard, strip away its protection, and let the wild beasts have it.

At this moment when he has won the sympathy and support of the crowd, the prophet says, “You are God’s vineyard.” This is not a story of a friend with an adulterous wife, but of God and God’s faithless people who have gone off to embrace other gods. They have chosen gods of wealth and power, gods of injustice, gods who devour and destroy.

7For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
…..is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
…..are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
…..but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
…..but heard a cry!

The power of this poetry we can’t begin to capture in the translation. God expected ‘mishpat’ and got ‘mispach’. God looked for justice – faithfulness – and look, only bloodshed and violence. God looked for ‘tsĕdaqah’ and got ‘tsa`aqah’. He looked for righteousness but behold, only the cry of the poor.

The people draw near to hear what they think will be a lascivious story – and there they are met with the voice of God revealing their faithlessness. The people were God’s vine from whom God expected good fruit, and God has gotten bitter deeds.

When Jesus tells his parable, he is standing in the aura of these great prophetic texts. And Jesus does the same thing that Isaiah does. He tells a story that suckers his audience. Jesus is speaking to the wealthy elite in Jerusalem. We are no longer traveling the countryside; Jesus has come to Jerusalem. He has ridden in on a donkey and the crowds have shouted hosanna and waved their palm branches before him. He is standing in the temple square. He has already kicked over the tables and declared that they have turned God’s house into a den of thieves. He has declared that the leadership of the nation is like a good son who says, “Yes, father,” but doesn’t do what his father asks – such a person is regarded as a good son in that culture because he doesn’t shame his father in the eyes of the community. But Jesus has declared that the good son is the one who, though he had shamed his father by saying “no”, changes his mind and does what the father asked. The good sons are the poor and outcast who have embraced the way of justice and mercy, and the Jerusalem leaders are bad sons who give honor to God but don’t do what God asks.

Now, today, Jesus tells this parable about an absentee landlord to people who are absentee landlords. They own all this land in Galilee that they have taken against God’s command because the people fell under the crushing burden of debt. In this story of an absentee landlord with rebellious tenants who foolishly imagine that they could kill the son and take the vineyard for themselves, he asks what the landlord in the story will do knowing full well what these landlords would do. They are quick to answer: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Then Jesus says, “You are the tenants.”

It is a parable that is full of poignancy, because Rome will come in less than 40 years and tear down the city wall and put all its rebel residents to death.

It is a parable full of poignancy because these rebel tenants will kill Jesus thinking it will gain them the vineyard; but it is God’s vineyard and their actions ensure they will lose it.

I didn’t choose the bulletin cover because of Ann and Paul’s anniversary. I choose it because of the text this morning:

Have you never read in the scriptures,” says Jesus,
“The stone that the builders rejected
…..has become the cornerstone.”

Jesus, whom they rejected, is the foundation that keeps the whole building true.

Justice and mercy, Love of God and neighbor, faithfulness to our obligations to God and one another, this is the foundation stone the builders reject. But it is the only true and lasting stone. It is the only stone that can ensure that the walls rise square and true.

And so we are back where we began. We are no longer in the garden, and we are not yet in the New Jerusalem – but we are headed there. So love and forgiveness must be practiced. Kindness and compassion must be practiced. Hope and joy must be practiced. Mercy and truth must be practiced. Generosity and humility must be practiced. Patience and understanding must be practiced. We must give God the fruit God seeks. We must build on the stone that is steadfast love and faithfulness. We must build on the stone that was rolled away. We must build on him who is the cornerstone – the one who died and rose and will come again.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Heart-shaped_stone.JPG By Sylda31 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Walking on water

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Watching for the Morning of August 13, 2017

Year A

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 14 / Lectionary 19

We know it’s not possible to walk on water. At least for those of us in the modern western world, our perception of the nature of reality excludes that possibility. Tragically, we can therefore only see the story as nonsense or fairy tale (or, more charitably, as metaphor). But the ancients didn’t share our somewhat limited understanding of reality, and we will miss the power of this narrative if we focus on physics (or the suspension of physical laws). This is an account of a profound experience. Throughout the world and throughout history most people have understand visions and experiences such as this as decidedly real – more real than everyday life. We need to understand this possibility if the narrative is to work God’s work in us.

The followers of Jesus have an experience in the face of one of the sudden squalls that sweep powerfully across the lake. They inhabit a world in which such storms are the products of spiritual forces rather than material ones. These are forces and powers that are not subject to human control but reign over us. So they face a hostile wind, a malevolent spirit, a transcendent power threatening to drown them. Imperiled and fearful, they then see another spiritual reality: Jesus striding across the sea, untouched by this inimical power, treading it underfoot. But until they hear the voice of Jesus, they fear they see only some other spirit, a ghost.

Peter, recognizing that they see Jesus, asks to come to him. He trusts himself to Jesus’ authority over the powers that beset them. Stepping out of the boat, however, the wind grabs his attention and he loses confidence in Jesus’ mastery over the hostile forces at work in the world. He sinks, but the hand of Jesus takes hold of him. And now Jesus is with them in the boat upon a calm sea. The wind has yielded, and the disciples prostrate themselves declaring, “Truly you are the Son of God” – truly you are the anointed one who reigns at God’s right hand.

Like the account of Elijah at Mt. Sinai, this is an encounter with the truth of God. Above all the mighty forces threatening human life – above the storms of war, racism, hatred, fear, hunger, poverty, political instability, famine, rains and fires, sorrows and diseases and the troubles brought by shame and shamelessness – Jesus walks as Lord. And battered as we are by fear and doubt, he says to us, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

So Sunday we will hear God speak to Elijah in the stillness. The psalmist will sing about the God who speaks “peace to his people.” And the apostle Paul we will speak of this living message that calls us from the storms of life into the peace of God – all of us, across every boundary in human society, summoning us not by the words of a legal code, but the voice of the one who raised Jesus from the grave and leads the world out from bondage into freedom.

The Prayer for August 13, 2017

Gracious God,
in the storms of life you bid us come to you
and sustain us by your word.
Grant us confidence in your command,
and clarity in discerning your voice;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 13, 2017

First Reading: 1 Kings 19:9-18
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” – Threatened with death by Queen Jezebel for his attack on the cult of Baal, the prophet has fled to Sinai. There God encounters him in the silence and commissions him to the next stage of his prophetic ministry.

Psalmody: Psalm 85:8-13
“Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people.” – The poet expresses his confidence in God’s faithfulness and goodness.

Second Reading: Romans 10:8-15 (appointed: 10:5-15)
“There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.
For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” – It is through fidelity and trust in God’s mercy (manifest in Christ), called forth by the proclaimed message rather than by observance of the law, that all are saved.

Gospel: Matthew 14: 22-33
“Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’” – Following the wondrous provision of bread in the wilderness, Jesus comes to his disciples upon the sea – saving Peter when he begins to sink.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABril_Jesus_walking_on_the_Sea_of_Galilee.JPG Paul Brill [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The feuding farmers

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Watching for the Morning of July 23, 2017

Year A

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 11 / Lectionary 16

We call it the parable of the wheat and the tares, but it should perhaps be called the parable of the feuding farmers. A householder sows good seed. He is raising wheat, which means he has good land, not the poorer land hospitable only to barley. It is a high quality product.

Feuding is the reality of life in ancient honor-shame societies. “Enemies” are inherited adversaries, families contending for status in their communities. The back and forth between feuding families provides the substance of village entertainment. In this man’s good field with good seed, his adversary has sown a weed whose telltale signs don’t appear until the wheat begins to put forth its berries. When it does, the farmer looks the fool, as though he were conned into purchasing poor seed – or was unable to see that the seed he had preserved from the previous year was laced with weeds.

He is a laughingstock. Honor is diminished. And the social pattern calls for revenge. But whereas any other might weed his field, this man lets the thatch grow. Though the village snickers, in the end he gathers not only a fine harvest of wheat, but fuel for his fires. The tables are turned; it is the enemy who now looks the fool.

It is with the kingdom as it is with feuding farmers. Despite the hostility of an enemy, a rich harvest comes.

Patient endurance and the certainty of God’s promised reign weave through our readings this Sunday. Through the prophet, God assures a troubled people that they shall see renewal: “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants…Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses!”  The psalmist trusts in God’s faithfulness as he cries for help against those who threaten his life. Paul speaks of the creation waiting “with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” saying, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”  And then we hear of the feuding farmers and the wisdom of the one who waits knowing that the good seed shall certainly bear forth a great and abundant harvest.

The Prayer for July 23, 2017

Gracious and eternal God,
whose will it is to draw all things into your grace and life:
Grant us confidence in your promise
and joy in your Spirit
that we may be faithful to what seems right,
and suffer with patience what seems evil,
until that day when your goodness reigns over all;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 23, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 44:1-8 (appointed 44:6-8)
“You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one”
– To a people in exile in Babylon, the legacy of the nation’s folly and a fifty-year-old war that left their homeland in rubble, the prophet speaks of God’s faithfulness and the certainty of God’s promised future.

Psalmody: Psalm 86:11-17
“O God, the insolent rise up against me” –
the poet recalls God’s words of promise and seeks God’s help in trouble.

Second Reading: Romans 8:12-25
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us”
– Paul speaks of the Spirit bearing witness that we are children of God and inheritors of the promise.

Gospel: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field”
– with the parable commonly referred to as the wheat and the tares, Jesus bear witness to the wisdom of patient endurance and confidence in the dawning of God’s reign.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAEL_Saemann_und_Teufel_-_zweite_Fassung.jpg Albin Egger-Lienz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Do we laugh?

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Friday

Zechariah 9:9-12

9Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!

I wonder if the people laughed at the voice of the prophet. I wonder if they looked around at the city built from rubble, subjected to a foreign power, and plagued with a poor economy, and laughed. No king is coming. No king will raise this backwater to the heights it once enjoyed. No king can arise in this feeble country to fight off the might of the Persian Empire.

We know from scripture that the prophets were not generally received with favor. King Ahab calls Elijah “you troubler of Israel” because he only has bad news to speak about his idolatrous and corrupt leader. Nor did he want to consult the prophet Micaiah ben Imlah when plotting war against Syria because “he never prophesies anything favorable about me.” King Jehoiakim burned the prophetic words of Jeremiah. Ahaz made a pious show of refusing Isaiah’s message.

The resistance of the ancient elites was certainly in part because the prophets of old stood in the way of the wealthy and powerful. They challenged the neglect of God’s law, the abandonment of the poor, the failure of justice and compassion, the loss of faithfulness. But was it any easier for Israel to hear a message of hope? When Isaiah announces Cyrus as the LORD’s anointed (the LORD’s ‘Messiah’) to throw down Babylon, when he proclaims a highway through the desert for a new exodus, did the people turn away from him as a starry-eyed dreamer? And do we, too, dismiss such words of peace? Do we smile benignly at the promise that swords shall be beaten into plowshares? That Jerusalem shall be a city of peace? Do we ensconce the words of Jesus in a pious frame rather than build our lives on the notion that the poor and peacemakers are the blessed and honorable ones in God’s sight?

The prophet promises a king, a king who will “cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem,” who shall “command peace to the nations,” and whose “dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” Yes, the prophet may well have meant, “from the Euphrates to land’s end” (i.e. the shore of the Mediterranean), but we recognize the big brush with which the prophet paints. He is not just talking about a new king for Israel. This is a new reigning power for all creation.

So do we smile benevolently like listening to a child’s dream? Or do we dare put our trust, hope and allegiance in this promise of a dawning reign? And do we see this dawning reign in the one who healed and forgave and taught us to treat all people as members of our kinship group then rode up to his fateful destiny in Jerusalem on the day we have come to call Palm Sunday?

“Lo, your king comes to you,” says the prophet, “triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Do we laugh or bend the knee?

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADonkey_and_Villager_0744_(508121161).jpg By James Emery from Douglasville, United States (Donkey and Villager_0744) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The promised blessing

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Jesus and Nicodemus

Watching for the Morning of March 12, 2017

The Second Sunday in Lent

Sunday our focus turns to the Gospel of John and the visit of Nicodemus. In the background is the promise to Abraham that through him God will bring blessing to the earth. The earth is in travail. The flood has purged the land but not cleansed the heart of humankind. They denied the command of God to fill the earth and tried instead to storm the gates of heaven by building their ziggurat in Babel. A confusion of languages followed, a deep and fundamental disruption of humanity’s most remarkable achievement: words. With words we can storm the heavens and land people on the moon, but with words we also lie and steal and sow division and hate. With words we can connect on the most intimate level, and with words we can rend beyond repairing. In the face of this fragmented world, God speaks a promise to Abraham: in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

And now Nicodemus stands before Jesus failing to understand these words about being born from above, born of the Spirit, born of God, born of the promised blessing. He wonders what sense it makes to talk of coming forth from the womb a second time. He doesn’t understand the metaphor of the wind. He comes to Jesus “by night”; he is in darkness.

But Jesus does not drive this thickheaded lunk away. He speaks, and in his word is life. He bears witness to the majesty of God’s love, to the sacrifice such love will make, to the redemption that is at hand, to the new creation that is dawning.

Nicodemus will linger near this Jesus. He will defend him to his accusers. He will come with spices fit for a king to give this Jesus an honored burial. He senses there is something of God here, something of that longed for blessing of all creation.

Abraham was in a right relationship to God by faith, argues Paul, by fidelity to God’s promise, for Abraham was declared “righteous” hundreds of years before the law was given. The psalmist speaks of his confidence in God as he looks at the pilgrim road rising through the dangerous hills to Jerusalem. It is such a trust and allegiance that is being born in Nicodemus. And it is such a trust and allegiance that is being born in us who come Sunday to hear the words and share in the one loaf and taste the promised blessing.

Your Name Be Holy

Our focus in Lent on a portion of the catechism, the basic teachings of the faith, takes us into the Lord’s Prayer this year. Sunday we will consider the first petition: “Holy be your name.” What honors God’s name? And what shames it? And what, exactly, are we asking God to do? There is much to ponder in this simple prayer.

Reflections on the themes of each week and brief daily devotions related to those themes can be found on the blog site for our Lenten devotions.

The Prayer for March 12, 2017

Almighty God, Holy and Gracious,
who met Nicodemus in the darkness
and called him into your light:
Grant us to be born anew of your Spirit
that, with eyes turned towards Jesus,
we might live your eternal life;
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 12, 2017

First Reading: Genesis 12:1-4a
“The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” – Following God’s halt to the tower of Babel and the scattering of the nations, God calls Abraham to venture out to a new land trusting only in God’s promise so that, through Abraham, God’s blessing may come to the world.

Psalmody: Psalm 121
“I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” – A pilgrim song, expressing the people’s trust in God as they journey up towards the hills of Jerusalem.

Second Reading: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
“For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
– Paul argues that Abraham was righteous not by his keeping of the law but by his trust in God’s promise.

Gospel: John 3:1-17
“just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’” – Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the darkness, unable to comprehend the new birth of which Jesus speaks.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHenry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_Study_for_Jesus_and_Nicodemus.jpg Henry Ossawa Tanner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Temptation

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Watching for the Morning of March 5, 2017

The First Sunday in Lent

Good and evil. Beauty and ugliness. Nobility and degradation. The words have a wide range of meaning in Hebrew. Harmony and disorder. We always envision the serpent entwined in that tree, enticing the first humans to reach out their hands and pluck for themselves rather than trust God’s vision for their life in that garden. All the trees in the garden were open to them. Even the tree of life. But life’s evils and sorrows God did not want us to have to endure. But we did. And God did, beneath the whips and spit of Roman soldiers and the excruciating pain of the nails into the wood that became for us another tree of life.

This wasn’t a test of their obedience; it was a test of their trust in God. Would they trust that this tree meant sorrow and death? Would they trust that God meant for them joy and life? But the serpent’s question sowed doubt. Instead living inside God’s promise they became observers and critics of that promise. “Did God say…?” And suddenly, their hearts are turned inward and their hands stretch outward to pluck that deadly fruit.

Who shall be our hope when we persistently break faith with God? Who shall be our hope when humanity becomes tower builders, empire builders, weapons makers, revenge seekers? Who shall be our hope when humanity becomes masters and slaves, thieves and victims, deceivers and deceived? Who shall be our hope?

And now stands Jesus in the wilderness, weak with hunger but mighty in prayer. And that insidious voice begins to speak. Those round rocks look just like bread. Why should you go hungry, Jesus? One little word and you can fill your belly.

It is not the story of one man; it is a story in which the fate of all humanity hangs in the balance. Is there hope for us? Is there one who will be the faithful son?

Sunday is the first of the Sundays in Lent, a time of spiritual renewal, of fasting and prayer and care of others. A season that begins with the story of the testing of Adam and Eve, and the testing of Jesus. Our first parents fail. We fail. But our elder brother remains true. So this season may be sober sometimes, the shadow of the cross is serious, but it is a season of joy.

“Our Father”

During Lent each year our parish focuses upon one portion of the catechism – this year, the Lord’s Prayer. Over these coming Sundays we will talk about the meaning of that remarkable prayer, beginning this Sunday with the significance of the beginning: “Our Father.” It is worth pondering that we are taught to speak to God as members of a single human family. Our Ash Wednesday sermon began this series talking about the uniqueness of Jesus’ way of prayer. It can be found here at on our blog site that also contains our brief Lenten devotions.

The Prayer for March 5, 2017

Almighty God, Holy and Faithful,
who guided Israel in the wilderness
and sustained Jesus in the days of his testing,
uphold us in our times of trial.
Strengthen us by your Word
and empower us with your Spirit
that, standing in Christ,
we may share in his perfect faithfulness;
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 5, 2017

First Reading: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”’?” – With his question, the serpent disrupts the simple trust Adam and Eve had in God, and they seek to be “like God” knowing what is noble and what is not.

Psalmody: Psalm 32
“Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” – The poet celebrates the forgiveness of God, describing the corrosive power of unacknowledged sin and the liberating power of God’s mercy.

Second Reading: Romans 5:12-19
“Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”
– Paul contrasts Adam and Christ. Through Adam sin entered the world and with sin death. In Christ, grace now governs and with grace, life.

Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11
“Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” – Having been honored by God’s declaration that he is God’s beloved son, the demonic spirits test that claim, trying to show Jesus unworthy of the acclaim. But Jesus shows himself the faithful son. Where Israel showed themselves faithless in the wilderness, Jesus remains faithful.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eva_tentando_a_Adam.JPG By seraphyn, the olod Latinoamerican´s (de mi autoría.Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A crimson cord

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Wednesday

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

31By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

Her life hung by a thread, a length of crimson cord.

Joshua sent two spies into Jericho. The text says they took lodging at the house of Rahab, a prostitute – presumably the line between a public house and a brothel was thin in those days as in many others. When the king of the city learned of their presence, he sent word demanding Rahab bring them out, but she hid the spies and sent the soldiers on a chase saying the men had already left the city. Her house was built into the city wall and in the night she let the men down by a rope, having asked for them to reciprocate her loyalty. They told her to gather her people into the house and mark it with a crimson cord. When the city was taken and sacked, it would be her protection.

The brutality of the slaughter is for another time. What haunts me is that in the midst of the cries of chaos and confusion, the screams and blood, all her hope rests on a promise made visible by a crimson cord.

When Abraham went out from Haran he left with nothing more than a promise. When Joseph languishes in prison, he is sustained by nothing more than the promise given by God in dreams he received in his youth. Amidst the wails and sorrows of that night when death struck Egypt, the hope of the Israelites rested on a promise made visible by the blood of a lamb upon the doorpost.

Faith is not my own inner conviction; it is clinging to the promise we have received. Amidst the cries and cruelties of our broken world, all our hope is in a crimson cord and a promise: a splash of water and the promise that our death is taken by Christ and his life given to us.

Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Rahab – this great litany of saints – are lifted up to us by the author of Hebrews as examples not for their great deeds or holiness, but because they entrust their lives to the promise of God.

We who gather at the table of the Lord trust our lives to the promise incarnate in a bit of bread that all debts are lifted. We trust our lives to promise that the world belongs to the God who rescues the enslaved and opens the grave. We trust our lives to the God who promises that mercy, kindness, compassion, forgiveness are the destiny of the world.

All our hope is in a crimson cord and a promise, in a lamb slain who lives and shares his imperishable life with us.

1Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

 

This reflection is slightly edited from that for Propers C 15 in 2013.

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

 

With eyes raised

File:'Looking Up' at Withybush Hospital - geograph.org.uk - 925250.jpg

Watching for the Morning of August 7, 2016

Year C

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 14 / Lectionary 19

Sunday’s Gospel contains a stunning and unexpected reversal. The servants who are “dressed for action” with “lamps lit” waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet are suddenly brought into the joy of the wedding feast. Instead of serving their master when he comes, they become the recipients of his banquet.

The readings Sunday are filled with promise and joy. Abraham is brought outside and promised descendants like the stars for number. The psalm sings of the providential care of God and the joy of those for whom the LORD is their watchful, caring god. Hebrews sings of Abraham’s trust in God’s promise – a trust, the first reading tells us, God acknowledged as true righteousness (fidelity). And Jesus’ followers are assured that God delights to give them the kingdom. God’s reign, God’s new creation, God’s healing of the world does not have to be extracted from him as justice wrested from reluctant politicians; God is eager to give his Spirit. God is eager to breathe upon us his grace and life.

We live in eager expectation not just for that final day when the trumpet sounds heralding the coming of the king, but for every taste of the banquet to come, for the breath of the Spirit, for surprising mercies, for stunning majesties and every small and unexpected act of kindness. We live in expectation that kindness shall prevail, hate shall perish, and reconciliation triumph. We live with open hands and generous hearts. We live with lamps lit and eyes raised. The master is bringing the joy that has no end.

The Prayer for August 7, 2016

Gracious God,
you promised to Abraham and his children a wondrous inheritance
and called them to live trusting in your word.
Grant us confidence in your promises
and courage to live as children of your kingdom;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 7, 2016

First Reading: Genesis 15:1-6
“And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” – God renews the promise of descendants to Abraham and his trust in God’s promise is recognized as righteousness.

Psalmody: Psalm 33:12-22
“Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love,” – A hymn of praise at the providential care of God.

Second Reading: Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” –
For whatever reason, the reading of Hebrews is divided between the end of year B and August of year C in the lectionary, so this Sunday we resume readings from Hebrews, beginning with the great recital of those who put their trust in the promise of God (whose fulfillment we await with confidence).

Gospel: Luke 12:32-40
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” – Our reading continues Jesus’ teaching on wealth/possessions from last Sunday, calling us to live for and trust in God’s dawning reign of grace and life.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A’Looking_Up’_at_Withybush_Hospital_-_geograph.org.uk_-_925250.jpg ceridwen [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

One heart

File:Henry Ossawa Tanner - Jesus and nicodemus.jpg

For Thursday

John 10:22-30

30The Father and I are one.”

It’s not an ontological statement. Jesus is not talking about the nature of reality. It is not a claim that he, himself, is divine. It is a claim familiar from ordinary life that to deal with the son is to deal with the father. They are united in mind and purpose. Jesus conforms perfectly to the will of his father.

This is not to take away anything from the later theological formulations of the church. With these I do not disagree. But there is something more important in this text than the doctrine of the Two Natures of Christ or the doctrine of the Trinity. Doctrines engage the mind; Jesus engages my life. Doctrines want me to speak precisely; Jesus wants me to love well. Doctrine matters. It matters profoundly. But first we need to deal with the Jesus before our eyes saying that he and the Father are united in mind and purpose.

Do you want to know what God does? Consider what Jesus did. He healed the sick, welcomed the outcast, and raised the dead. He broke bread with sinners and tax collectors. He challenged the pious. He confronted the hypocrisy of the elite. He braved the self-interest of the privileged. He laid down his life for the sheep.

He forgave sins. He offered new birth – birth from above. He opened blind eyes. He gave life to the dead.

Anything else you want to say about God has to begin here – with a Jesus who claims to be one in mind and heart and will with the Father.

We don’t trust such people in our time. They are cult leaders and crusaders who do much more harm than good. We resist all absolute claims. Life is complicated. Nuanced. There’s not much room for someone who says they know the will of God.

But here is this Jesus. He says he does.

And we trust him, because there is no selfish agenda in him. He is not using us to prop up an ideology. He is not using us to fight his battles. He does not look upon us a fodder. He lays down his life for the sheep. He comes that we may have life, and have it abundantly. He comes that we may never perish.

So here is Jesus. And we can’t argue theology. We can’t discuss doctrines. We have to decide if he is one in heart with the father. And if so, then we have to join our hearts with his.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHenry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_Jesus_and_nicodemus.jpg  by Henry Ossawa Tanner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Paradigm shift

File:Solar-system.png

Watching for the Morning of April 3, 2016

Year C

The Second Sunday of Easter

The shock and awe of the first Easter morning gives way to celebration and even triumph as the apostles preach and John of Patmos exults in the risen Christ. The psalm celebrates the wondrous work of God: “This is the LORD’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.” And the followers of Jesus proclaim his resurrection to Thomas.

But in the texts lies also the tension between faith and unbelief. The Jerusalem leaders seek to silence the apostolic witness, and Thomas will not trust the testimony of those who have seen and heard.

When you look carefully at the Biblical record there is a lot of uncertainty. The apostles in Luke don’t believe the women returning from the tomb (24:11). The disciples on the road to Emmaus are unable to comprehend what has happened (24:25). and when Jesus appears to the whole community there respond with a mix of joy and disbelief (24:41). At the climactic scene in Matthew when Jesus ascends into the heavens, the evangelist records: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted” (28:17). And, of course, Mark ends his Gospel with the women in fear and silence (16:8).

The Easter message is not a simple one. No one expected the story to go like this. It takes some time to get their minds around it. It takes some time to get their hearts around it. This is far more than a spectacular comeback from a nearly defeated team. This asks us to recognize a different narrative of God and the world. The story is not about a world ending in a general resurrection and judgment with the righteous blessed and the wicked condemned. The story is about the new creation invading this world of tears and summoning us to live that new creation now. It is not a story of God judging the world but healing it.

It’s not easy to change one’s picture of God and the world. It takes some time – and the breath of the Spirit – and some searching of scripture – a rereading of the Biblical story – but, in the end, there is Jesus showing us his wounds and inviting us to join the story.  Thomas Kuhn called it a paradigm shift.* When you recognize that the earth goes around the sun, the world will never look the same.

The Prayer for April 3, 2016

Gracious Lord Jesus,
in your mercy you did not leave Thomas in his unbelief,
but came to him, revealing your hands and your side,
and calling him into faith.
So come to us wherever we are in our doubt and uncertainty
and by your word reveal yourself to us anew as our living Lord,
who with the Father and Holy Spirit you live and reign,
one God, now and forever

The Texts for April 3, 2016

First Reading: Acts 5:21b-32 (appointed: 5:27-32)
“We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” – Having been arrested for saying that God had raised Jesus (and thus condemning the rulers for condemning him), the apostles are released from prison by an angel and told to return to the temple to preach. There they are arrested again and brought before the ruling council.

Psalmody: Psalm 118:14-16, 22-23, 26-27, 29 (appointed: Psalm 118:14-29)
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” – We continue in this foundational psalm that was so influential for the early Christian community in interpreting what happened to Jesus. The psalm celebrates the king, returning in triumph from an unexpected victory.

Second Reading: Revelation 1:4-8
“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come… and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”
– The opening salutation of the Book of Revelation (written in the form of a letter).

Gospel: John 20:19-31
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” – Jesus appears to his followers on Easter Evening and commissions them with the gift of the Holy Spirit, then appears again, the following Sunday, to summon Thomas into faithfulness.

 

*Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASolar-system.png  By Dave Jarvis (http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons