“Salvation belongs to our God”

File:Synaxis of all saints (icon).jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Encountered by Jesus


Sunday Evening

John 13:31-35

34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

I wish it were possible to say how cute Steffan was, today. It’s unusual for a child to come forward for the children’s sermon the first time they come to worship – especially on a day when, it turns out, none of our other young people were present. But having only a single child who is new not only to me and to the parish but to the concept of a children’s message – and even to church itself – made the children’s time a challenge.

I am aware how much we take for granted when we use words like ‘God’ and ‘church’ and ‘Jesus’, let alone concepts like ‘grace’ and ‘love’ and ‘forgiveness’ and faith’. These are words with meaning inside the community of faith, but what do they mean to those who are strangers to the church?

Maybe the task of the children’s sermon is only to say, “God loves you,” and to make children feel welcome in worship.

And maybe it’s not just about children – maybe the task of the children’s sermon is to make adults feel welcome, too. It is something simple and cute and unscripted that makes church feels not quite so churchy.

But I want there to be something more, here. I think the children’s sermon should be like gathering and laying foundation stones for a spiritual life that is rooted in the experience of love and the importance of kindness, courage and hope. I want them to know something about Jesus. And I want them to be part of the worshipping community: they should know whatever it is that Jesus might be talking to us about that day in the Gospel reading.

None of us are here only to be feel welcome and loved. We are also here to encounter this Jesus and let his words and deeds work their work in us. We are here to hear what he has to say and to see what he does. It’s part of why I try so hard to explain what Jesus’ words and actions meant in their time.

I love the power, grace, rich imagery and, at its best, the beauty and transcendence of the theological and liturgical tradition of the church. But in the end it is not about any of this; it is about Jesus. Everything else is only meant to put us in a place and time where Christ may encounter us and call us into his grace and life.

I am not interested in the kind of preaching that tells people what they already know and believe. Nor am I a spiritual version of a self-help guru with keys to a better life. I am interested in this Jesus and the prophets and all the words of scripture that challenge what we think we know, and summon us not to be mere practitioners of religious ritual, but to seek and find our truest and best humanity – to be children of God, sons and daughters of light, citizens of the age to come when our shames and sorrows are left behind.

So I hope Steffan felt good about his little encounter with me and with church this morning besides the coffee hour cookies and the toys in the nursery where he played after worship. I hope there was something for him of the radiant love of God and the Christ who gives the new commandment that we should love one another.


Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKunibertZinnerVolksschuleSeitenstetten1951.11A.JPG By Anton-kurt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Dragged into the kingdom

File:Seabee Olympics at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam 150304-N-WF272-056.jpg


Acts 11:1-18

1Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

It doesn’t surprise me that Peter would face criticism; criticism is one of the most wearying aspects of congregational life. What surprises me is that Peter explained what happened and “When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God.” It’s easier for me to believe that Jesus walked on water than that Peter’s congregation was turned so easily from criticism to praise.

I want to believe that those first believers were as open and perceptive to the work of the Spirit as Luke describes, but I know that the question whether Gentile’s could be baptized into the community of Christ without first becoming a member of the Jewish community was a deeply challenging issue for the early church.

It is difficult to be certain exactly what the terms ‘Jew’ (Greek = ‘Judean’) and ‘Gentile’ (Greek = ‘the nations’) signified in the first century, but they clearly represent a deep cultural divide between those in the Judean community who define themselves as separate from the Hellenistic world and those who are thoroughly acculturated to that world. How do you have table fellowship – or any fellowship – with those who do not share the same mores, food laws and sense of purity?

To welcome “those people” is always a profound challenge for any community, and it was especially significant for the developing Christian movement. Luke goes into great detail in telling this story – and then has Peter relate the events again. Paul’s ministry to the nations is under constant attack and three times Luke relates Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord and his call to go to the nations. The problem of “Jew” and “Gentile” is the subject of the apostolic delegation to Antioch, Paul’s confrontation with Peter, and the so-called Jerusalem Conference. This issue of “them” and “us” didn’t go away and, in the end, led to the riot in the temple, Paul’s arrest and his eventual execution.

Change is not an easy thing. And it is especially difficult to bridge those cultural boundaries between different social and ethnic groups. But this is the wondrous thing about Jesus. He reaches out to tax collectors and parties with Zacchaeus and his outcast friends. Women travel in his company and he welcomes them as disciples. He converses with the Samaritan woman, treating her as a member of his family – and she brings her whole Samaritan village to him.

The Spirit empowers the believers at Pentecost to proclaim God’s praise in every language. Hellenized Judeans living in Jerusalem take up the Gospel and, when they are scattered by communal violence, share it freely with Samaritans. Philip declares there is no impediment to baptism for the Ethiopian Eunuch (who cannot enter the temple because, as a eunuch, he is ritually unclean). Peter baptizes Cornelius. Antioch welcomes Greeks. Paul and Barnabas are sent to the nations.

Despite ourselves, the heart of the Christian message transcends culture. Christ welcomes all peoples. Indeed, transcending tribalism is at the core of the Christian proclamation that the healing and redemption of all creation is at hand in Jesus. And so Paul declares:

“In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

This is a far more profound creation of a new community than the modern liberal notion of inclusiveness. It is the kingdom of God.

And though I love Luke’s picture of a Christian community open to the movement of God’s Spirit to gather all into Christ, and I still hope for a congregation that welcomes all and can recognize the movement of the Spirit with joy and praise – the more profound truth is that we are usually dragged into that kingdom kicking and screaming.

But God’s kingdom comes. To us, and for us, and in spite of us, God’s kingdom comes.


Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASeabee_Olympics_at_Joint_Base_Pearl_Harbor-Hickam_150304-N-WF272-056.jpg  By Petty Officer 2nd Class Diana Quinlan (https://www.dvidshub.net/image/1797950) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Important adult stuff

For Thursday

Mark 10:1-16

File:Lucas Cranach the Elder, Christ blessing the Children, Paris (?), private collection.PNG13People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

It’s a world where most children don’t make it out of childhood. Only 4 out of 10 born alive reach 16. I would want my child blessed, too. I would want this man who heals the sick and hands out the mercy of God like candy to lay his hands upon all my children. I am not surprised that the villagers are at the door wanting to get near to Jesus.

I also recognize the disciples who don’t want Jesus to be bothered. I can’t say I understand, but I recognize it.

I was still a rookie, serving on the staff of a large urban congregation with German roots. I was given a list of shut-ins with whom I was to visit once a month and take Holy Communion. One elderly couple had an adult daughter with special needs living with them. She sat with us in the dark back room when I first came to visit. And when it was time for Holy Communion they shooed her out of the room. “She can’t understand,” they said, and for them that was the end of the matter. I was stunned and troubled and lacked the experience to know how to respond. I will always remember the hurt and anger on her face and in her body as she was shunned from the room.  She understood quite a bit more about this bit of bread and wine than they did.

So here are the disciples shooing away mothers and children because Jesus has important adult stuff to do. And the disciples still aren’t getting it that the important adult stuff that Jesus has to do is gather the scattered and heal the wounded and bear away the sins of the world. The important adult stuff that Jesus has to do is to usher in the reign of God, the healing of the world. The important adult stuff that Jesus has to do is to bless the children.


Image: Christ Blessing the Children, Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Red Wings, the Avalanche and Jesus


Mark 9:30-37

File:IginlaDraperFaceoff.jpg37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

This word ‘welcome’ represents much more than a smile at the door should they show up at church. It means to extend hospitality, to take someone under your protection.

It is used especially with respect to travelers. It is dangerous business being in a place where you are a stranger. Ties of family and kinship are the guarantees of safety. If a member of your clan hurts me, my family will avenge. They will come hurt a member of your clan.

It’s why there are enforcers on ice hockey teams. You come after our star player and there will be consequences beyond two minutes in the box. It keeps the game relatively even. And a big hurt will be remembered even from one season to the next. Ask any veteran Red Wings fan about the war with the Colorado Avalanche over the cheap shot that broke Kris Draper’s jaw.

It’s hard for the fans when former enemies become members of your team, but once they join, they come under the team’s protection.

To ‘welcome’ is to extend the circle of your clan’s protection around a vulnerable person. And in an honor-based society, the payoff for the one who extends such hospitality is that the recipient will sing your praises wherever he goes. To show hospitality increases your own honor and standing in the community.

But what is to be gained by showing hospitality to a child? It doesn’t really make sense in the quid pro quo world.

Unless the child belongs to someone important.

+   +   +

I would prefer to stop right there and let you recognize the crucial conclusion. But, sometimes we need it spelled out for us: the child belongs to someone important. The child, the weak, the vulnerable, those on the bottom of the social hierarchy, those without power or influence – these are members of Jesus’ household. To receive even the least, is to receive Jesus. To fail to extend your care and protection for the lowliest slave in the king’s household is to betray your king.

We can argue about our relative importance in the pecking order all we want – as the disciples were doing – but the least member of the royal house is to be honored above us all.


Photo: By JamesTeterenko (Own work) [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

Those lying, lazy…


Acts 2:1-21

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Detail from the Apadana Palace, Persepolis

9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.

I wonder if its possible to translate this list in a way that conveys what it might have meant to first century ears.

Whenever we think about other nations we have, if not a prejudice or stereotype, some impression of these people. France makes us think of the Eiffel tower, at least. Switzerland evokes mountains and beautiful lakes. Germany – well this is dangerous ground, because speaking of stereotypes invites outrage and criticism. But we have them. We think of Saudi’s in certain ways, of Americans in certain ways, of Brits in certain ways.

And the ancient world had very firm stereotypes. So the author of Titus writes: “Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.” And though he is quoting a Cretan, he is in full agreement. It was a world in which to know where someone was from told you everything you needed to know. You’re from Crete? Ok. I know who you are. You’re from Nazareth?  Enough said.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Of course not.

So what would this list of nations evoke in the hearers of this text? Would it sound like Japan, Korea, China and Tibet? France, Germany, England and Spain? Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan? Sudan? Liberia? South Africa? Yemen? Each of those nations conveys a picture to our minds, a set of associations both positive and not.

And what happens when we begin to put them all together? It’s not just geography. It is this vast, complicated, conflicted, combative world. A world in which even the imperial Romans are named. And those lying, lazy Cretans are there, too.

God bears witness even to the Cretans. The mighty deeds of God are told to all. The resurrection, the dawning of God’s age of the Spirit is proclaimed to all. All. So even me. And those unlike me. Gathering all creation into the reign of God.

And we, we who claim the name of Christ, who sit in the pews on Sundays, we are the ones empowered and sent to bear that message to all.


Image: By Aneta Ribarska (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.  Page: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APersepolis_carvings.JPG