Singing the new song

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Saint Cecelia, the patron saint of musicians

Watching for the Morning of May 8, 2016

Year C

The Seventh Sunday of Easter / Music Appreciation

This Sunday, in our parish, is Music Appreciation Sunday in which we give special acknowledgement to all the musicians who contribute so much to our worship through the year. Accordingly, our liturgy is adapted for extra music and the theme of praise. Psalm 98 (Sing to the Lord a new song) and Psalm 92:1-4 (It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High) begin our worship. The choir will sing, the handbell choir will play – we even have a guitar and accordion prelude. There are many contributors to the service and we thank them all.

Sunday we stand between Ascension Day and the Day of Pentecost, between the narrative of Jesus ascending to the right hand of God and the Spirit descending to empower the witness of the believers. We are near the culmination of this Easter season, near the dawning of that day that marks the gathering of the nations and the Spirit poured out on all people, men and women, young and old. The dawning of that day in which the world is born from above and God’s law written on every heart. The dawning of that day when mercy triumphs and peace reigns.

And so we will hear Jesus pray for his fledgling community, and for all those who will be drawn by their testimony, that they may be one as he and the Father are one. We will hear of Paul and his companions singing God’s praise in the Philippian jail, when an earthquake breaks every bond and opens every door. They bring life and grace to the Philippian jailor who will wash their wounds and himself be washed into Christ. And we will sing the new song, for “the LORD has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations.” (Psalm 98:2NIV)

The Prayer for May 8, 2016

Almighty God, whose will it is to unite all things in your beloved son,
whom you have raised to sit at your right hand;
unite our voices in that great song of praise
born of your love and mercy
and make us faithful as his body in the world;
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 May 8, 2016

Psalm 98 (Sing to the Lord a new song)

Psalm 92:1-4 (It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High)

First Reading: Acts 16: 16-34
“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.” – Paul and his companions are arrested after conflict erupts when Paul casts out a fortune-telling spirit, robbing her owners of their income. Though an earthquake sets them free, they do not flee as if they were criminals – and they stop their jailor from harming himself when he assumes he has lost all his prisoners.

Gospel: John 17:20-26
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” – Jesus concludes his prayer for his followers with a petition that all those who come to faith may be united as he is united with the Father.

The Prayer for Easter 7, year C

Eternal Father,
fountain of mercy and source of light and life;
help us to abide in you
that we may be worthy vessels of your love;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The texts as appointed for Easter 7, year C

First Reading: Acts 16: 16-34 (as above)

Psalmody: Psalm 97
“The Lord is king! Let the earth rejoice.” The poet celebrates God’s reign over the heavens and the earth.

Second Reading: Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
“Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.”
– The concluding blessings and declarations of the book of Revelation.

Gospel: John 17:20-26 (as above)


Image:  By GFreihalter (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

That we may be one


John 17:6-19

File:Brooklyn Museum - Jesus Goes Up Alone onto a Mountain to Pray (Jésus monte seul sur une montagne pour prier) - James Tissot - overall.jpg11 Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

The history of Christianity is not great in this regard. The great theological controversies of the third and fourth centuries were complicated by appeal to imperial edict – and imperial troops. In the second century, what we know now as orthodox Christian faith was struggling against gnostic teachings and teachers. In the first century the church was divided over the question whether gentiles and Hellenized Judeans could become Christians without first adopting the ritual laws of the Old Testament. It was the rumor that Paul brought an uncircumcised person into the temple that started the riot that led to his arrest and, ultimately, to his death.

And working the other direction from the fourth century is the great split between the Bishop of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople. The moving of the imperial capital meant that now the Patriarch was the emperor’s pastor and de facto head of the church – a position of influence the bishop of Rome seemed unwilling to yield.

There was the lengthy – maybe perennial – conflict with Pelagianism (and semi-Pelagianism) whether we are saved wholly by grace, and the Donatist conflict born of the late persecutions: could a pastor who surrendered the scriptures or denied the faith in the face of death continue to serve as a priest? Were his sacred acts valid?

And we haven’t yet come to the shattering of the Christian west that happened with the Reformation. A necessary reformation, to be sure, but Christendom devolved into Lutherans and Calvinists and Anglicans and Anabaptists, and each of these further split until the Pilgrims/Puritans fled England to land in what is now Massachusetts where we continued our fragmentations with all kinds of innovations like Shakers (no sex), and the Oneida community (plural sex), and Mormons (polygamous sex). (I know there is much more to these communities than sex, but our willingness to break free from even the most fundamental social conventions is a unique element of the American experience.)

Lutherans were skilled in dividing, too. By 1900 there were some 150 different Lutheran church bodies. Not to mention individual congregations that periodically split as if the Christian mission was simply a matter of mitosis.

It’s important to argue theology. We need to struggle with one another to be sure that we speak the authentic Christian message. But Jesus is praying that we may be one. He is not praying that we should each have our thriving little kingdoms, fueled by the self-righteous imagination that we alone have the truth. He is praying that we may be one, united in care for one another and for the world, abiding in the love that he has revealed from the heart of God.

In Matthew, Mark and Luke, after supper on the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus goes to Gethsemane where he is engaged in a great spiritual struggle, praying that he may escape the cross set before him, but praying more fervently that he will do the Father’s will. If we think that prayer was only about Jesus we are mistaken. The prayer of Jesus is a model for our prayer: “Not my will but yours be done.”

In John’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t pray for himself; he prays for us: That we may be one. That we may be a community living God’s love. That we may be a people who pray “Not my will but yours be done.”


Painting: James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The lure of the eternal


Psalm 133

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1How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
2It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
3It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
life forevermore.

It is a psalm of ascents, from the collection of songs sung by pilgrims traveling up to Mt. Zion for one of the ancient festival days. In that simple designation we are reminded of the strange unity of spirit that infects a crowd walking towards the stadium for a big game, or riding the train to the ballpark. One or two people can quickly get the whole car singing the school fight song. Churches get a small sense of this even in that short walk among the luminaries from the parking lot to the sanctuary on Christmas Eve.

That sense of unity, of bond, of community that transcends all our differences, is deeply pleasant – and though oil on the head may not be the first metaphor that comes to our minds, we do certainly know the soothing relief of a good lotion on dry chapped hands, or a lip balm on chapped lips.

The dew from Hermon doesn’t actually fall on Mt. Zion. But it is the highest mountain in the region, and from its snowmelt comes the River Jordan that fills the Sea of Galilee and brings life-giving water to the whole rift valley and its surrounding hills.

Rich, abundant, vital, renewing, healing – drenching rain and the oil of anointing are apt metaphors for the goodness that a common spirit brings to the human community.

Conflict, dissension, partisanship arise so easily among us, but the pull of worship – that deep human impulse to turn towards the eternal, to heed the call of grace, to stand before the majesty and wonder of God – unites what life divides. In the song of the community a little bit of that boundary between self and others dissolves and we are touched by the bliss of heaven.

“There the LORD ordains his blessing, life forevermore.”

Photo: מוחמד מוסא שהואן [CC BY 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Christ divided


1 Corinthians 1:10-18

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By Roland zh (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

11It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

“Has Christ been divided?” Every translation of which I am aware has this as a question, but the Greek manuscripts don’t have punctuation marks and it’s possible that this is simply a statement:  “Now I say this: because each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ ‘But I belong to Apollos,’ ‘But I belong to Cephas,’ ‘But I belong to Christ,’ Christ been divided!”

I don’t wish to go against the consensus of scholarship, but I am curious how reading the text this other way heightens the impact of Paul’s words.  It is not just that it is wrong to divide the Christian community; it divides Christ.  Division into parties within the church is more than unhelpful; it pushes the saving work of Christ off the stage in favor of the prestige of the church’s various preachers.  Christianity becomes a school of thought, rather than a way of life.  We choose up sides rather than take up the ongoing work of Christ in the world.  We claim superiority in our teaching or tradition and are more invested in being Lutherans or Catholics or Baptists than we are in being Christ in the world – or we claim to be superior to all that because we are non-denominational.

The Corinthian congregation had twisted the faith so it was about me and my spirituality rather than about Christ and the world.  When I make the faith about me, Christ is divided, chopped up into little pieces and worthless to the world.

And it is not just about the big divisions between church bodies.  It is about all those groups within the church who want this or that style of worship, this or that sanctuary design, this or that program emphasis, this or that focus for our mission support or this or that stance on some issue of public or church policy.  Such balkanization of the congregation robs the world of the message of the cross.  It robs the world of the redemptive and transformative work of God.

Nothing in Paul’s letter suggests we ought not have differences of opinion, only that our disagreements cannot be about ourselves.  We are not groups competing for attention and privilege in the church; we are Christ in the world.  When we are divided, Christ is divided.  When we are not united in the mind of Christ, we are lost in our own minds.  We become rags flapping in the wind rather than a sail filled by the wind of the Spirit; we become waves tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine.

A human body that is “divided” – that has open wounds or sores – is ‘unclean.’   It cannot serve the purpose for which it was made.  And so a community that is divided is unclean, unfit for God’s use, unable to fulfill the purpose for which it has been set aside.  But a community that is whole, that shares the mind of Christ, that is united in its service to the world, such a body is ‘clean,’ ‘holy,’ an acceptable vessel to bear Christ to the world.

Disagree we will; divide we cannot without dividing Christ.

When Jesus looks upon the church

Sunday Evening of May 12

From Sunday’s sermon on John 17

…When Jesus prays that we would be one, he is praying that we would embody all the honor of being a beloved people of God, sisters and brothers of the Messiah who governs the universe – and that we would live our lives in such a way as to protect the honor of the family and of God: courage, generosity, kindness, openness, compassion, humility, service…

…We have been born into the most honorable family in the universe.  We want to uphold that honor…If I do not feel generous, I need to commit to learn generosity for the sake of Christ.  If I am not welcoming to outsiders, I need to commit to learn hospitality for the sake of Christ…

When Jesus looks

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” (John 17:20)

When Jesus looks upon the church, the community of his disciple/students, he sees not only what is but what shall be.

He sees not only those who have followed him from Galilee but those who are yet to hear and respond in trust and allegiance.  He sees not only the 120 but the worldwide communion extending through the generations.  He sees not only the few gathered in a Sunday morning congregation, but all those whose lives they will touch throughout the week.  He sees not only those who have arrived early to the party, but all those who are waiting in the wings to become part of the community of joy.  And he prays for all.

And he sees not only a church divided, but the city adorned like a bride.  He sees not only our frail, imperfect communities, but the perfection that is to come – even as he sees us each, not in our torn and tattered tunics, but dressed in the garments provided by the King at the royal wedding banquet.