“Salvation belongs to our God”

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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.

Amen

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

All Saints

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Watching for the morning of November 5

Year A

All Saints Sunday

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal
…..Have mercy and hear us.
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace, Lord of Life,
…..Be our hope and consolation.
First born of the dead, breath of the eternal,
…..Be our calling and our faithfulness.

With those words we will begin our service on Sunday, a day that remembers all those who have died in the previous year, a day that hears the song of all the saints gathered around the throne of heaven, a day the remembers this great mystery of the body of Christ gathered from all times and peoples, joined as one.

I do not understand completely the rich liturgy of the orthodox churches, but I recognize the power of that iconostasis, showing all the saints looking down on the gathered assembly, representing the heavenly host with whom we are united in our worship. The barrier between heaven and earth grows thin in worship, and saints below are united with saints above in a single song of praise.

Every Sunday does this. But the rhythm of worship through the year is a little bit like a symphony where the theme is taken up by different instruments at different times and brought to the fore to be given special notice. So this Sunday brings to the fore the mystery of life and death and the life that transcends it all. There is a radiance brighter than the sun. There is a wonder surpassing the miracle of a newborn child. There is a majesty greater than the highest mountain peaks. There is a peace beyond the soft rhythm of a calm sea. There is a beauty beyond the most brilliant butterfly. There is a glory beyond the most vivid sunset. There is a song beyond the tears and aches of our frail days. There is a love more tender than the deepest intimacy. There is a life that rolls away the stone and ends forever the grave.

So Sunday we will hear the prophet speak of the song of the saints and martyrs around the throne of God. And we will sing with the psalmist of the goodness of the Lord.   And we will hear the elder say “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God,” and remind us that though our vision now is limited, the promise is certain: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

Sunday we will name the names that have joined that heavenly chorus, and sing with them the song that knows no end.

The Prayer for November 5, 2017 (for the observance of All Saints)

Eternal God, source and goal of all things,
founding the world in your goodness and renewing it by your Holy Spirit,
creating us in your image, redeeming us in your Son,
and uniting us in one great company from every race and nation,
who sing your praise and bear your word and work to the world,
fill us with that confidant hope, born of the empty tomb,
that frees us to live as your faithful people, now and forever.

The Texts for November 5, 2017 (for the observance of All Saints)

First Reading: Revelation 7:9-17
“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.”
– The prophet’s vision turns from the woes of earth (as the seals are opened that draw the earth to that day when the reign of the slain-yet-risen lamb is everywhere acknowledged) to the heavens where he sees the faithful gathered around the throne of God.

Psalmody: Psalm 34:1-10, 22
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” – A song of praise for God’s deliverance that celebrates God’s care for the poor vulnerable and describes those who are honored in God’s sight.

Second Reading: 1 John 3:1-3
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” – The author affirms that we belong already to the household of God, inheritors of the age to come, and declares that, though we cannot comprehend the future that awaits us, “we shall be like him” – sharing in the resurrection.

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12
““Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – The Gospel for All Saints takes us back to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount and the foundational teaching about those who are honored in God’s sight.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADeir_Mar_Musa_04.jpg By Bernard Gagnon (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It was prayer

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Sunday

The assisting minister fought back tears as she struggled to offer the prayers of the people on Sunday. Her family is in Puerto Rico, in the desolation left behind by hurricanes Irma and Maria. Information has been spotty. The phone line that let her know they had gathered in her parents’ home and survived the storm is now dead. Text messages get through occasionally. The neighborhood of her family’s congregation is underwater. The roof of her parish church has blown away. The whole island is without power.

I had planned to have her husband give us an update during the announcements before we began worship, but I didn’t write it down on my list and the moment passed.   So, after the Prayer of the Day, when the children come forward for the children’s message, I brought the traveling mike to Paul to tell us how things were going for their family. I realized, after Paul finished, that it belonged there inside the service. It belonged there when we had begun to sing and we had begun to pray and the cross was in our midst. This was not an announcement like the activities in the parish and upcoming concerts. These were people we knew. These were about profound human experiences. It belonged inside the service.

And so did the prayers that Iris struggled to offer. Our prayers are meant to be the cries of our hearts. Liturgical prayers sometimes come across as formal and vaguely homiletical – things we ought to care about rather than those things that ache within. But Sunday, the prayers spoke with profound truth. Here, God, here are our broken hearts. Here are our fears and tears. Here are our hopes and needs. Here are those cries and sighs too deep for words.

We are often embarrassed by “losing control” and expressing our emotions in public. I tried to tell Iris that what happened Sunday was perfect. I suspected she might later regret it, so I told her husband also. It was perfect. It was true. It was prayer.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABerl%C3%ADn_orante_05.JPG By Miguel Hermoso Cuesta (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A river of grace

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About Last Sunday

Last Sunday, as I was greeting people at the door after worship, one woman said to me that she would have liked the sermon to be more uplifting. I don’t exactly know what she meant by that. I had rather liked the sermon (I posted the message at my blog Jacob Limping and in “recent sermons” on this site; you can judge for yourself) and thought it appropriate for our context on Sunday. We were celebrating Reformation Sunday and also the confirmation of three young people in the parish. I thought it spoke of the wondrous grace of God and our calling to be agents of that grace in the world.

What I said to her briefly – but would have liked to explain more fully – is that the sermon is but one part of the worship experience. When we are together there is confession and absolution; there are liturgical songs derived from the vivid description of the worship of God in heaven from the book of Revelation; there are hymns and readings and, above all, the invitation to feast at God’s holy table. The sermon is part of a whole that is meant to convey to us the love and mercy of God and draw us into the reality of God’s reign of grace. It is the service as a whole that should refresh and renew us as followers of Jesus for our daily life in the world, not just the sermon.

The individual Sunday service is also one of many during the year. All those Sundays and holy days are like the instruments of an orchestra or the voices of a great choir, blending together to proclaim to us the love of God and to call us to live that love.

So perhaps there was more challenge to discipleship in this last Sunday’s sermon than you would get on Christmas Eve or the Sundays of Easter. But this particular challenge was a part of a service that witnessed young people committing themselves to a life of discipleship – the ongoing relationship with God begun in their baptism. At the core of that Rite of Confirmation, at the core of the readings from Jeremiah, the Psalms, Romans and John, at the core of the communion table, at the core of “A Mighty Fortress” and all the other hymns, is the great river of grace that sweeps down from the New Jerusalem growing ever deeper as it brings life to all the earth.

So perhaps the sermon wasn’t so uplifting, perhaps it did speak of discipleship more than encouragement, but it is embedded in the song of angels and the joy of heaven. And what can be more uplifting than that recognition that God reigns over all. Even us.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1-2)

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFlying_over_the_meanders_of_the_mighty_Yukon_to_Arctic_Village.jpg By Jessie Hey [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I will sing

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Thursday

Psalm 104:24-31

33I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.

I sat down to work on this post, and wrote I just wish that I could hearinstead. It’s posted on my blog Jacob_Limping – Jacob limping towards the Promised Land.

There are times we can’t sing. It’s why we come together as a worshipping community – so that others can carry us with their song.

It is the hardest thing to teach congregations. We are so wired to think of worship in terms of what it does for me. We evaluate the preaching, the music, the hymns, the prayers – even the acolytes and ushers – based on what they do for me. Does the preacher inspire me? Do the songs speak to me? But there have been times when I have not been able to sing – or even to speak – and in those times the congregation has carried me.

We sing for one another. We pray the ‘Amen’ for one another. We say the creed even if that morning we cannot believe any of it, because there are people there who need to hear all of it – that there is a God who fashioned them in love, who embraces them in Christ, who gathers them by the Spirit.

We sing for one another. We bear each other up like the men bringing their friend on his mat to Jesus. So determined are they that, when they cannot get in the door, they carry home to the roof and lower him down. Would we were so determined in our song. Determined to sing for one another. Determined to sing for the world. Determined to sing for the whole creation. Determined to sing with and for the Leviathan in the sea.

The world needs our song. The world of crackling weapons and concussive explosions needs our song. The world of angry mobs and bitter politicians needs our song. The mean streets and lonely houses need our song.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APriereMilan.jpg By Taizé (Taizé) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Only this day will be this day

Sunday Evening

File:Hand bell large.jpgWe had a delightful addition to worship this morning: a husband and wife team playing hand bells. Twelve bells in four hands playing music whose richness and delight I can’t describe. They were fabulous. The music was wonderful and the sight amazing.

But it was a holiday weekend, people are traveling, and attendance was low. People missed it.

I was still a student at the seminary when I learned not to skip church. We had chapel every day in the mid morning. My apartment was a small building along an alleyway everyone traveled from the classrooms and offices to the chapel. One morning, swamped with homework, I tried to duck into my building, but a professor spotted me. “Bonde, you coming to chapel?” It was a professor to whom I wouldn’t have been able to say no, so I said instead “I’m just putting my books down,” and joined the mob heading towards chapel.

It was the most memorable sermon I heard at seminary. It spoke so profoundly to me I was in tears. And all I could think about later was that I almost missed that moment of perfect grace.

Not every Sunday will be life changing, though added together they will be. Again and again we will be taken back into the story of God and the world. Again and again we will be taken back into the grace that is Christ. Again and again the Spirit will breathe upon us, slowly shaping our lives as a people gathered and sent: gathered by grace and sent to a world in need.

Not every Sunday will be life changing, but a surprising number are. One sermon taught me to tithe. One sermon changed our marriage by the practice of Sabbath. One sermon changed the way we ate on behalf of those who hunger. There are others whose effect is harder to describe, but I remember them still. One involved a homeless person who wandered into an elaborate liturgy installing a bishop and tried to address the community.  I learned something important about who we should be that day.

Worship services are not repeatable. They are not like movies offering multiple showings each day; they are unique, like concerts. They have a common structure. They contain familiar prayers. But what happens this day will only happen this day. We will hear other bells, but it will not be the same surprise and joy as this day.

And you never know which day will be the day that changes you forever.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hand_bell_large.jpg

Practice, practice, practice

Sunday Evening

Psalm 147

Lutheran Altar7 Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving;
make melody to our God on the lyre.

Today was Boy Scout Sunday. Our troop served coffee hour and joined us in worship.  I was reminded of the difference it makes when there is a larger number of people in worship. The energy of the service is different. The singing is stronger. The energy in the preaching is higher, because the feedback from the congregation is greater.

When I have been on vacation, I have tended to think I had an obligation to myself to find a worship service. I have thought “this is what Christians do” – they gather on the first day of the week to hear the word and share in the Lord’s Supper.

The time I had a sabbatical, the worship service was less of an obligation, but still something I did for what I received. It was a healthy pattern, a focal point of the week, an occasion for prayer and the sacrament. It was good for me. What I didn’t consider was that my presence – as one of many – made worship better for others.

I have told parents who bring infants for baptism that their children have a ministry in the church. One of the promises the parents make in the baptismal service is that they will bring their children “to the services of God’s house.” But we often don’t see them until the child is ready for Sunday School. It’s a shame. The ministry of babies in a congregation is to be babies. Babies attract a crowd. They make everyone smile. There is an “aaaw” effect that connects people to one another.

No one coos over me at this point in my life, but nevertheless each voice makes the worship of the church richer, fuller. I have not only an obligation to God to come thank and honor him with the first hour of my week; I have not only the privilege of hearing God’s Word and receiving God’s gifts; I have a ministry to the community to come and sing and pray and add myself to our shared experience.

There have been times I have been unable to sing, times when the prayers stick in my throat, times of grief and despair when I have needed the community to pray the prayers and sing the songs for me. Though I couldn’t get the words out, the community spoke them for me. I have understood this. And yet, I never thought about the importance of doing this for others when I was trying to decide on Saturday night whether to go someplace on Sunday morning.

We make worship about me. My convenience. My enrichment. My spirituality. (I had members of one church leave for another because the new church had a 45-minute 8:00 a.m. service and they could “get in and get out and still have [their] whole day.”) But worship is not just about me. It is about the community. I add something to their experience just by being there. So even if I got nothing else from the service, it would still be worthwhile, for I have been there for the sake of others. And this is the whole point of worship – to practice being people of God.