Facts Matter

File:BLW Truth and Falsehood.jpg

Alfred Stevens, “Truth and Falsehood”

The news keeps reporting that some large percentage of the American population believes we are on the wrong track as a country. I don’t doubt the news. But the problem with that statistic is that we might think we are on the wrong track for conflicting reasons. 100% of the bus passengers may agree that I-80 towards Truckee is the wrong road, but if half think we should be headed up I-5 to Oregon and the other down to LA, our apparent agreement means little.

We have become sloppy with facts. That is the kind way to say it. A drug is reported as lowering the risk of some disease by 50% and that sounds very impressive. But if the risk of this disease is only 1 in 5 million, decreasing the odds to 1 in 10 million doesn’t mean what it sounds like.

I remember standing on the roof of a new Eichler over on Louis Road (no tall trees yet) to watch the first US satellite. We believed in facts then. Or at least it seemed like we did. We lost some faith in science when we read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. But it wasn’t the science that was the problem; it was what people did with the science. Doctors knew that lead was poisonous to children, but the lead industry persuaded the government to add it to gasoline. The problem wasn’t the science.

Facts had a way of correcting us. The cigarette companies had the science on tobacco and lung cancer, despite their denials, and eventually the facts won. More or less.

We changed as a country because of facts. We don’t have lead in gasoline any more. We don’t have the smog that once filled the Bay Area. We can see the East Bay hills, now. We don’t have the litter we once had. We stopped feeding the bears in Yosemite. We can change.

But now we seem to be going backwards. Kellyanne Conway didn’t mean it quite the way it came out, but we do seem to have come to a time of “alternative facts”. We make up facts that suit us. Or, at least, we cherry-pick them. Facts don’t seem to get listened to; they just get challenged and denied.

Christians bear some guilt in this. The war on evolution should never have been about the science; it should have been about the story people told using that science. Some used it to say everything was getting better every day, but the science didn’t say that. Others said that it meant that biology was destiny, that we can’t – or don’t need to – transcend our innate natures. But the science doesn’t say that either, only that when disaster strikes, when the environment changes, some animals are more likely to survive than others – and the ones who survive, pass on their genes. Evolution can describe what is, but not tell us what we ought to be. Tribalism might have an evolutionary advantage, but we are the ones to decide whether fear of the other or love of neighbor is the right path for us. (Jesus had something to say about this.)

Facts matter. And Christians should be out front on this issue. We are the inheritors of a tradition that does not look at the world around us as filled with spirits and numinous powers; we say that the world was made. Nature has an objective reality. It can be measured and studied and known. There are facts.

And though the resurrection of Jesus is a unique event in history and, therefore, cannot be verified by repeatable scientific experiment, the Christian confession has always been that what happened was a fact and not a mythological story. It was an event in time not a metaphor. It occurred in Judea during the administration of the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate. Facts matter.

The first question God asks his rebellious humanity in that marvelous story from Genesis 2 is “Where are you?” – not because God doesn’t know, but because we need to face the truth. We are hiding in the bushes. We are creatures to whom deception comes naturally. None of us had to teach our children how to lie; that is innate in us. It is truth we need to teach. It is truth we need to practice. It is truth we need to honor.

The Christian community is drawing near to that great drama of the Paschal Triduum, the three days from the evening of Maundy Thursday when Jesus is seized, until the first light of Easter. It is a story that asks us to see truly. Humanity tortured and crucified the embodiment of truth and love. He was a threat to us, we said. But God did not let the lie endure.

Neither should we.

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABLW_Truth_and_Falsehood.jpg Iza Bella [CC BY-SA 2.0 uk (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/uk/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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Let us pray for wisdom

March 17, 2017
It’s not possible to remember everything. With time memories slip away. Fragments remain. And the love remains. At least, that’s what should remain.

I was looking for pictures to go with my post, yesterday. I dug out some boxes where they have been stored for nearly 15 years. Boxes I was reluctant to open. Too busy too open. Boxes that needed sorting. Boxes full of memories.

It was sweeter than I imagined. Places we had been. Things we had done. Pictures Anna had taken of her friends after a performance of The Diary of Anne Frank. Pictures of youth gatherings, choir trips, and school performances. Anna playing on a beach in Maine with children for whom she had once been their babysitter. Sitting with them on a massive rock by a waterfall in New Hampshire. All these pictures taken after the photo albums of infancy and early childhood had been assembled, but before parents started putting them together for their grown children. She never reached that stage.

I didn’t get very far in these boxes. The pictures trigger memories. I want to go through them with someone to whom I can tell the stories, otherwise the smiles of recognition turn to melancholy.

I want to put them in order. I want to get a scanner and make digital copies and sent them to Megan. I want to remember everything. Our hike down the Lost Coast. The Christmas at Grandma D’s when we slept on the living room floor because the house was full of family.

There is only one picture of Anna from our backpacking trip on Isle Royale, but there is the moose we saw, the bunchberries we ate, the scenery we gazed at in wonder from the ridge looking out across the islands and inlets.

I want to know, too, about the pictures I do not recognize. Ones Anna took. She wrote names on the back of some of them. Who were they? And who is the boy with her in this picture? And who is the boy in that one?

And there are questions. For what show was it that she dyed her hair?

I linger on these pictures. I am reluctant to put them back in the boxes. I want to take them out and spread them around. There is an impulse to paper the wall like some deranged character in a television cop show.

I want to remember it all. But there are holes in the stories. Memory fades.

I used to know details from the night her life was taken: how long was the skid mark (from her car, please understand; he never hit the brakes), how short the moment for the driver of Anna’s car to react, how high was the blood alcohol level of the one who careened toward them down the wrong side of the freeway. I have to look such things up, now. Maybe that’s ok. I only wish that memories of Anna didn’t fade, too.

Some things don’t fade. The spot on the side of the freeway. The hallway outside the courtroom where a reporter asked for a comment. The slimy lawyer who taught people how to avoid a DUI arrest – he grabbed my hand outside the courthouse and expressed his condolences before I could react. I wanted to wash that hand. I held it away from my body, not even wanting to wipe it against my jeans.

I asked the attorney to let me see the crime scene photos and the evidence pictures of Anna’s demolished car. I can only remember one of those photos, now, though I remember the devastation they showed. I wish I could see them again. I think.

I am not alone, I know. I have walked with people through some dark and desolate places. And I have heard stories yet more dark and desolate. I know some of the secrets people carry. I am always amazed at our capacity to endure.

I am heartened by those who turn their sorrow into kindness. I am saddened by those who turn it into bitterness. But I understand, most of us have stood at one time or another at that fork in the road where those two paths diverge, and I suspect most of us test the bitter road for at least a few steps. But the wise come back, or hack their way through the forest undergrowth to find their way to compassion.

Let us pray for wisdom. For each of us. For all of us.

Photocredit: dkbonde
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All lives

16 years ago tomorrow my 19 year old daughter and two of her friends were killed by a driver who had been drinking. Though Anna and her friends had been driving responsibly, traveling the speed limit, wearing their seat belts, and switching drivers every two hours, they could not protect themselves against this unseen attacker. The force of the impact tore the aorta from Anna’s heart and she bled out in minutes. Hit nearly head on, the car stopped moving, but her internal organs continued to travel through her body at 65 miles per hour. Two others survived the crash physically, though that doesn’t end of the consequences for them. It was not an accident.

The dreaded anniversary comes again, tomorrow. It doesn’t have the anguish of those early years. There is no use in rage at the coupons in my mailbox for St. Patrick’s Day beverages or the decorations that pubs will use to profit their business. I don’t mind the green cloverleaf cookies anymore. I don’t fantasize about letting the air out of the tires of every car in the nearby bar. Not much, anyway. There’s no emotion in the thought that the police should just break the legs on the spot of every drunk driver they stop. (It would keep them off the road for a few months, anyway.) I am just sad and disappointed in world so given over to cruelty, hate, violence, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and the selfishness that sets my desire to drive home over the well-being of every other person on or near the road. Though I have done it, years ago, as a stupid young adult. Now I know the price.

Lives are precious. It’s not enough to say that life is precious; lives are precious. Our stories. Our gifts. Our loves. Our contributions to the world. Our care of one another. Our triumph over pains. Our courage in adversity. Our desire to dance or sing or play in the dirt. Our hopes and dreams. Our fears and sorrows. That whole complex reality that is a life. It all matters.

The lives of others should matter to us. All others. We are again watching images of starving children on television. We are still watching images of cities turned to rubble. We are still hearing voices of white supremacy and hate. We are still watching callousness of heart as lives are treated as unimportant. The lives of blacks. Of refugees. Of ‘illegals’. Of the people of Nice out for a walk on a summer’s evening, or the revelers at a nightclub in Orlando. The callousness of the human heart burdens me. How is it we can beat children, force young girls into prostitution, curse our neighbors, scurry through red lights, dump toxins, deny truth, believe lies.

The world needs more young girls with daisies in their hair, not fewer. They matter. The world needs more young women dancing jazz and ballet. The world needs more young women like Anna who taught adolescent boys the joy of baking cookies. The world needs more song, more beauty, more joy. We need to treasure lives. All lives.

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Ashen crosses and Jesus’ way of prayer

A Reflection on Ash Wednesday and the Lord’s Prayer

The key texts for the reflection this Ash Wednesday were Isaiah 58:5-8 and Matthew 6:1-21. The Lord’s Prayer is the focus of our preaching during Lent this year. Daily verses and brief reflections related to our theme can be found at our Lent blogsite.

The meaning of ashes
File:Salib abu.jpgTo be honest I would love to have a conversation on what this liturgy means to each of us. The pastors at our text study yesterday spent some time sharing our own experiences of the ashes. That is one of the things about the liturgies of the church: they speak to us in different ways – and they speak to us in different ways at different times in our lives.

In the course of that conversation, yesterday, I found myself thinking that this thing with the ashes is not just an echo of an ancient ritual; it is a profound reminder that we are creatures. There is something more here than just the fact that we are mortal. We are mortal because we are physical beings. From a Biblical perspective, we are not spirits trapped in material bodies; we are embodied beings. We are made of the dust of the earth and the breath of God. We eat and we laugh and we hug one another. We weep and we ache and we age. We are physical beings in a physical world, not spirit beings in a spirit world. Our bodies affect our spirits and our spirits affect our bodies. When our bodies ache, we can get short-tempered or downcast. When our spirits soar our bodies are able to dance. We are creatures.

The mark of the cross
It seems to me that all of this is contained in this mark of the ashes. We are creatures – but we are also creatures who have been gifted with the mark of the cross. (Excuse me for using ‘gift’ as a verb; I know it’s not, but it works in this case.) The mark of the ashes on our foreheads is not placed there as a smudge to remind us of our mortality, our creaturely-ness; it is given to us in the shape of the cross.

In our baptism that sign of the cross was placed upon us. We have a brand. I don’t know any modern brands – I don’t keep up with such things – but I remember when the shirts with the little IZOD alligator were all the rage. We have a mark on us. We are children of God. We are mortal creatures with the mark of eternity on us. The reality of death and the promise of resurrection are both there in that little cross. It is such an important reminder of our creaturely-ness – and, at the same time, such a huge promise that Christ is our life. It is a promise that this me that dances and weeps and despairs and hopes and loves and prays – this me born in time will be carried into eternity to join the eternal dance. It is an amazing and humbling promise.

It is also, however, a mark that carries me into the world. It is a mark of service, not of privilege. It is a mark of love not hardness of heart. It is a mark of shared bread not possessiveness. It is a mark of connection, not separation – of community, not detachment.

It is a mark that we belong to Christ, that we are Christ’s body in the world. We are light in the darkness. We are compassion on the Jericho road. We are brother to the Ethiopian Eunuch and sister to Lydia who deals in purple. We are fruit-bearing branches in the vine. We are the ambassadors of a new kingdom.

We are mortal, creatures of this physical world, yet marked with the sign of eternity, and sent to bear grace into the world. This is no small thing that happens with this little bit of dust and ash.

…Do Justice…Love Kindness…Walk Humbly…
Our theme during this Lenten season falls under the large banner of that verse from the prophet Micah:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”

It is one of those verses that captures essential truths very simply and it is an important reminder for this Lenten season. It captures what we also hear in the first reading today and in our Gospel: God is not interested in the outward performance of religious obligations; God is concerned with the shape of the human heart and the way we live with one another.   God wants a charitable heart, not a show of our giving. God wants a humble heart, not one that wants everyone to see how religious I am. God wants a prayerful heart, not a pretentious one.

The uniqueness of the Lord’s Prayer
We focus on a piece of the catechism each year, and this year we are focusing on the Lord’s Prayer. Through this season we will include in the bulletin the usual material from the catechisms about the Lord’s Prayer. We will talk about elements in the prayer and its core meaning. But our theme today is about the way Jesus prays – and the way he teaches us to pray – because the manner in which he prays is so different from anything else that was going on at the time of Jesus.

There are hints of this uniqueness in the Biblical text, references to Jesus spending the night in prayer, for example. In Luke, Jesus is in prayer after his baptism when the Holy Spirit comes upon him. We don’t see Jesus making the grand public prayers that are designed to give honor to God; we see him talking to his heavenly father. We don’t see Jesus parading for God; we see him communing with God.

The ancient world tended to think about the gods from their experience of rich and powerful humans. Society was divided between clients and patrons. If a hailstorm wiped out your crops and you didn’t have seed corn, you would go to your Patron and praise him for his goodness and beg him for aid. When he gave it to you, you would go through the street and publicly praise him for all to hear. Your job was to make your patron look good.

So prayer was about getting favors from the deity and making your god look good in the eyes of others. That’s why people built big temples. It’s why people made a big show of their gifts. It’s why people would stand on the street corner and praise God loudly when the call to prayer came.

But Jesus tells us to go in our room. The task is not to make God look good, but to be in communion with our heavenly Father. The goal is to be shaped by God’s presence, God’s Spirit – God’s love and mercy and compassion.

God knows what you need before you ask, says Jesus. Prayer is about something much more important than gaining favors; it is about being shaped by the Spirit of God.

The imperative tense
The second thing about the prayer Jesus gave us is that it is filled with the imperative tense. We are so used to saying this prayer that we don’t really see it, I think. We are not saying “pretty, pretty, please,” like a child hoping for another cookie or permission to spend the night at a friends house. We are saying “do this, and do this, and do this.”

It is a remarkable way to speak to God. But it is the way he has told us to speak with him. To speak boldly. To speak daringly. To expect God to answer. To expect God to do what God has promised to do.

Demanding the promise
This is the third feature of the way Jesus taught us to pray: we are told to pray for God’s kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done, for God’s forgiveness to be given. We are praying for God to do what God has promised to do. It’s not “Can I go to Jimmy’s house”; it’s “You promised to take me to Jimmy’s house. Now go get the car keys.”

We wouldn’t dream of speaking like that to our parents. It is an unheard of way to speak with God. But this is the God who has shown himself to us in Jesus: A God whose purpose is justice and mercy and kindness. A God who has promised justice and mercy and kindness. A God who wants us to expect of him justice and mercy and kindness. A God who wants us to expect it of ourselves.

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”

We are mortal creatures. We are children of this physical world with all its glories. We are promised eternity and marked with its sign. We are empowered to call upon God for God to do God’s mercy. And we are sent to bear that mercy into the world.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASalib_abu.jpg By Edi Wibowo (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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Purple

LALC.Elements at the altar with palms

Next Wednesday, March 1, we begin again our Lenten journey, a season shaped by the purple robe placed around Jesus when he was shamed and tortured by his guards. They were taunting him for those whispers and cries that he was God’s anointed, mocking the notion there was any kingship but Rome.

We have seen photos of such taunting. They came to us from Abu Ghraib. The guards exulted in their power over the despised enemy, as did the Romans over this Judean. Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ”, was criticized for its violence. Critics called it a snuff film. But that’s what the Romans were doing, snuffing out the threat posed by this peasant claim of a divine revolution.

What does it mean for us that our altar is vested in purple? Do we see Jesus there, beneath his crown of thorns? When the bread is broken, do we see Jesus there with pierced hands? What does it mean that our central image as a faith community is brokenness?

This is an important question. Religion and power are usually a deadly mix. We know (a little) about the crusades (that they happened, but little more). We know (a little) about the inquisition. We know (a little) about the thirty years war that devastated Europe with war, disease and famine. (In the German states, between 25% and 40% of the population perished.) We know about Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland; Hindi and Muslim in India; Sunni and Shia in Iraq. We know Germany’s “final solution” against the Jews (and 3 million others). But such wedding of religion and violence is not the fault of religious traditions; it is the fault of the human heart that uses religion to divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’, and to cloak our conflicts in a righteous banner. (How else dare we kill our fellow humans but with the claim we have God’s command?)

During Lent, the altar is vested in purple. The pastor is vested in purple. We should drape the cross in purple – we should drape the building in purple – to be clear that Jesus renounced the sword.

And, yes, God commands the Israelites to war against the Canaanites, but we confess that Jesus is the fulfillment of Scripture and he said, quite simply and directly, “Love your enemies.” And, yes, love of neighbor sometimes requires the use of force to protect the neighbor from violence, but we are still left with an altar dressed in purple and a crucified messiah.

Jesus said that greatness was in service. That all were neighbor. That bread was to be shared. That “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) Too many Christians in this country are looking for a wedding of religion and power. Jesus wedded religion and ‘weakness’ – that strange and powerful ‘weakness’ that looks down from the cross and says “Father, forgive them.”

Photo: dkbonde

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An eternal kindness

Yesterday we held the memorial service for my stepmother. My brothers did the remembrances; she asked me to give the message. These are the two key texts and my remarks. I wrote about her in the post entitled “Gloria” and at “Watching for the Morning” in a post: “Before the mystery of life”.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:12-14)

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:1-6)

gloria-meganGrace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

Gloria was my stepmother. She has been since I was five. My brother, Ken, and I would spend summers with Dad and Gloria, and I have memories from all those places where they lived – beginning in Manhattan Beach in those days when they still passed out gum on the DC-6 to help your ears adjust to the changing altitude as you took off and as you descended to land.

I wish I could explain what Gloria has meant to me. I am not sure I can say very much and still keep my composure. But I will say this, that in all the craziness of my childhood and throughout my adult life, she has been a persistent presence of kindness. That is the reason I suggested the passage from Colossians for our second reading: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”

Gloria said something that last day that sounded like she didn’t want preaching at her service. But here I am. (She also asked me to do the service.) I think she meant she wanted the message to be simple. I can get carried away with the rich wonders of the scriptures and the profound depths of the Christian tradition. I believe passionately that there is a powerful message here about fundamental truths of existence and the nature of our true humanity. And I believe that all the traditional language of Christian faith can be explained in a way that makes sense in the modern world. But Gloria wasn’t interested in all of that; she was just trying to live “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” I think she wanted to keep this simple. So let me try.

The passage we read from John’s Gospel is one that Gloria had picked. It began: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” They are words that Jesus speaks to his followers in the night in which he will be arrested. Jesus can see what’s coming. It is Thursday night after what we now call the “Last Supper.” When he is finished speaking they will go to the Garden of Gethsemane, the olive grove where he and his followers were staying, and a mob will come in the darkness to seize him. The next morning, Friday, will bring the cross.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

When we hear the word “believe” we tend to think about ideas, but Jesus isn’t talking about concepts or doctrines. He is saying, “Stay with me.” “Trust me.” “Don’t lose faith and go home.” “Sorrow is coming, but don’t let go of your allegiance to me and to God.”

And then Jesus says: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” It seems like an odd thing to say if you take it literally. But the things Jesus says in John’s gospel are always about something more profound than their literal meaning. He offers the woman at the well ‘living water’ – but he doesn’t mean the ordinary sense of that word as ‘running water’, he is offering her a life-giving water. When he restores the sight of a blind man, it is about far more than fixing his eyes; it is about removing the darkness within and granting him light to see the work of God. When Jesus talks about being born anew, Nicodemus gets stuck on the literal question how to get back into the womb and come forth a second time, when Jesus is talking about being born from above, born of the Spirit of God.

So we are not supposed to imagine here that Jesus is speaking of a literal house. Jesus is using a metaphor: God is like a householder with a grand estate large enough to provide for everyone. And the word for ‘dwelling places’ is the word that Jesus has used throughout John’s Gospel to talk about abiding in God and God abiding in us.

There is room in the heart of God for us all. For the thickheaded like Nicodemus, for the unseeing like the blind man, for the grieving like the disciples. There is room in the heart of God for us all.

And when Jesus says that he is “the way, the truth and the life,” he is not saying that Christianity is the one true religion, he is saying that the path into the heart of God is revealed in his life and teaching, in his words and deeds.

“I am the way, the truth and the life.” These aren’t fighting words – us against them. These are words with open arms. Come with me into the heart of the Father. Follow me into the embrace of God. Trust me. Stay with me. There is a life in God beyond all imagining. There is an Easter that awaits us.

And so here we are, not able to imagine this life beyond imagining, but hearing the invitation to trust him, to walk with him into the mystery.

To trust God that the water of our tears can be turned to the finest of wines. To trust God that in Christ is a bread that gives life to the world.   To trust God that there is room in the heart of God for us all.

The doubting, the unbelieving, the hard of heart – there is room in the heart of God for us all. The grieving, the uncomprehending, the struggling – there is room in the heart of God for us all. The fearful, the hopeful, the blissfully ignorant – there is room in the heart of God for us all. The poor in Spirit, the pure in heart – there is room in the heart of God for us all. For you and me and Gloria – there is room in the heart of God for us all.

There is much more to be said about Christian faith. But not today. Today is just the simple reminder that there is room in the heart of God for us all. Today there is the voice of Jesus offering words of assurance: “Stay with me,” “Trust me.” Today there is the promise of a life that cannot be contained by the grave. Today there is the promise of an eternal kindness.

Amen

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Where the heavens bend

File:AuroreAurores-boréales-7octobre2015-3-1024x657.jpg

It’s hard for me to be optimistic about the next four years. The sight of violence in Sproul Plaza bodes ill. The blatant falsehoods and hypocrisy coming from the White House and the Republicans, the disarray and apoplexy of the Democrats, the presidential threats against dissent, the hate speech of Bannon – I fear we are being swept over the cliffs into the sea.

I fear that people I care about will be sent back to the Middle East. I fear for my cousin researching renewable energy in the Department of Energy as his leading researchers jump ship and go to work for China. I fear the saber rattling. I fear the death of facts.

This seems darker to me than the chaos of the sixties. Our civil institutions were strong enough to fight off the threat that Nixon posed. There was a moral outrage at the transgression of our core values. There was a presumption that the arc of history was long, but it bent toward justice. I watch with trepidation as it now seems to bend toward chaos. Indeed, disruption has become an inherent good.

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil.
who put darkness for light and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!
21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
and clever in their own sight! (Isaiah 5:20-21)

I don’t want any more sorrow. The world doesn’t need any more tears.

Something radiant came into the world in Jesus. It was not just the promise that God was coming to reign among us; it was the evidence of that reign. Eyes were opened, lame bodies made strong, voices set free. Evil spirits were driven out. Outcasts were gathered in. Sinners were restored to their communities. Water was turned to wine. Peter walked on the sea. The chaos of the storm yielded to Jesus’ word of peace.

But it seems like we are marching again towards Good Friday, towards the death of kindness and mercy, to the triumph of naked power, to a paroxysm of the Father of Lies.

And with what do we stand? Simply the promise that he is risen. The darkness cannot prevail. Death itself yields to the author of life.

It may be that my courage falters because I have sat at too many bedsides with grieving families. It may be that my vision is darkened by walking with others through too many tragedies. It may be.

My father wanted me to do something official, pastoral – last rites or something – when I sat on the hospital floor at my stepmother’s bedside. But in that moment I had only tears. I was not the pastor symbolizing the presence of God; I was the grieving son.

In all the craziness of my family life as a child, she had been a steady presence of kindness. For 61 years. And now she was going.

Kindness is the simplest and most valuable thing we can give to one another. Kindness must sometimes be firm, but it is always kind. It recognizes the other. It values the other. It speaks truth for the sake of the other, not to wound. It knows when to be silent and when to speak, when to act and when to wait, when to embrace and when to refrain from embracing.

So I grieve Gloria. And I grieve the country. I miss kindness. And hope seems elusive. There is a part of me that wants to rant and rave and throw things – not the tantrums of a frustrated child but the rage of grief at a world so determined to do cruelty.

But then I stand at the altar. And I hold the bread in my hands. And I hear the song of the community echoing the song of the angels. And, for a moment, it all seems okay. For a moment I remember, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” (Psalm 24:1)

There is a deep and profound vision at the heart of Christian faith, a confession that there is more at work in the world than our passions and fears. There is a heartbeat of compassion. There is a breath of freedom. There is a song of joy. There is a love for us.

We come to worship to be reminded of that heartbeat, to hear that song, to join that song. We come to know that we are welcomed at the table of peace, that the universe runs towards us with flapping robes and slapping sandals to embrace us prodigal children straggling back toward home. The text will challenge us often. It is not simple to live as sons and daughters of God’s perfect compassion. It is a challenge to keep our lamps burning. But we come. And we invite others to come. Because here is a light that does not perish. Here is a life-giving bread. Here is the abundant new wine of the wedding feast where the heavens bend to kiss the earth and all join the dance.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAuroreAurores-bor%C3%A9ales-7octobre2015-3-1024×657.jpg By optik360 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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Gloria

My stepmother had asked me to help her with her obituary. I didn’t get it done. At least not when she and I could talk about it and be sure it came out the way she wanted it. She died last Sunday evening. So this week I have been trying to freshen and revise her words and add to them some of the things that only we can say. It is something of a communal project – which is its own kind of challenge – needing the input and approval of my father and brothers. But all that is helpful. It makes it stronger, clearer. And fresh eyes can see what we take for granted – like my daughter pointing out that our first “final draft” said when but not where the memorial service would be held.

Obituaries are great for some things, but they can only hint at the life that has been lived. They cannot capture the voice we remember, or the kindness we experienced, or the true bonds that weave lives together. It washes over the challenges, abbreviates the sorrows, and obscures the courage life sometimes requires. Nor can an obituary capture the fullness of joys and depth of friendships – which in one case for my stepmom stretches back to the first grade.

Life is amazing. It’s not a resume we build. It’s not a course to be run. It is a rich tapestry made of very simple things. My brother remembers a spontaneous footrace with his mom one day in grade school (perhaps because she beat him?).

What we weave into that tapestry matters. There was a songbird that made a nest in a bush in our back yard once upon a time, and filled it with eggs. We tiptoed as we came in and out of the house. But I came out after a rainstorm and found the nest destroyed and the eggs broken on the ground. The bird had used a piece of plastic in the nest that caused it to fill with water and collapse. Gloria wove well. Choosing kindness and care (and not a little patience with four boys) as her threads. I wish I had finished her obituary with her last summer, but I expect that she would still say whatever we have put together is wonderful.

gloria-bondeGloria Bonde

January 4, 1931 – January 15, 2017,

Gloria Bonde passed away on Sunday, January 15, 2017, at Longmont United Hospital, the consequence of a long history of pulmonary infection. She died peacefully, late in the evening, surrounded by her family at the conclusion of a day of laughter and tears. Cremation was entrusted to Ahlberg Funeral Home and a memorial service will be held at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, February 18, 2017 at First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Longmont.

Gloria was born January 4, 1931, the eldest child of Sarah (Rafferty) Cadieu and Cyril Cadieu in Robinson, Illinois. She was proud to have walked to school from first grade through college in Bloomington, Indiana, and graduated from Indiana University in 1953.

Gloria always said she had a wonderful life. She and her college friends had summer jobs in Yosemite National Park and, after graduation, she taught second grade in Fresno, California. Later she became a stewardess with United Airlines where she met her husband, P. K. Bonde, a pilot with the airline. During their 60 years of marriage, as PK’s career with the airline advanced, they lived in Manhattan Beach, California; Denver, Colorado; McLean, Virginia; Palos Verdes Estates, California; Chatham, New Jersey; Menlo Park, California; finally moving to Longmont after PK’s retirement in 1981.

Gloria loved her supper club group, gardening, hiking in England, being active in the Pi Beta Phi Alumnae Association, participating in PEO, doing volunteer work, and traveling the world. Gloria effortlessly made friends and touched the lives of everyone she met.

She was a loving wife, mother, and grandmother. She especially loved her dear grandchildren and cherished the time she spent with them. She particularly enjoyed their many travels together and visits in the summers.

Gloria is survived by her husband, PK; her son, Alan, and his wife, Kathleen, of Altadena, California; her son, Rick, of El Cerrito, California; her stepson, David, of Los Altos, California; and her grandchildren, Megan, Clark, Dillon, Troy and Tai. She adored them all. She is also survived by her brother, Ted Cadieu, of Estero, Florida, and numerous nieces, nephews, extended family members and friends. She is preceded in death by her stepson, Ken, and her granddaughter, Anna.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the PEO, (PEO Colorado Chapter CJ, 816 Wildflower Drive, Longmont, CO), Pi Beta Phi Foundation, or First Lutheran Church where she was a longtime member.

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In the tears of the River Jordan

File:F Mochi Bautismo de Cristo 1634 P Braschi.jpg

We celebrated yesterday, January 15, as the Baptism of Our Lord and the primary text for the day was Matthew 3:13-17:

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Also, it helps to understand the sermon to know that I announced to the congregation at the beginning of the service that I learned the previous day that my stepmother was in the hospital, critically ill and had been place on palliative care only. I had to leave the service early to catch a flight to be there.

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

Water is a powerful and primal image. We know that life came from the sea. We know that the child in the womb is surrounded by fluid. We know that without rain the earth cracks and dries and all life perishes. We know that the rain makes the hills green and the deserts bloom. We know that a hot shower or quiet bath can wash away the shame and hurt and frustrations of the day. We know that water cleanses. We know water heals, whether it is the cool washcloth on the forehead of a feverish child or the wounded veteran limping towards the shrine at Lourdes. Water is joy and play – whether a sprinkler on the lawn or a pool or a beach. Water is calm and peace like a lakeshore in the evening. And water is dangerous and destructive, unstoppable and powerful, as we have seen in the flooding last week. There is something primal about water, something that is very much about death and life and healing and transformation. We can talk about baptism logically, but it is far more than logic.

We have talked before about the development of the Gospels – How Mark’s gospel was the first telling of the story of Jesus. It was an oral Gospel that got written down and passed around to other Christian communities in other cities. Mark was composed and recorded sometime during or in the raw aftermath of the Judean war with Rome that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70.

In the decade or so that followed, the authors we know as Matthew and Luke took Mark’s Gospel and used it as an outline to write Gospels that contained other stories and sayings of Jesus. Their Gospels were written gospels – made to be read to the community, to be sure, but composed on paper. (And so, for example, they did things like fix the grammar of Mark’s Gospel.)

As Matthew and Luke assembled their gospels, they shaped the stories to speak to their communities. This shaping is generally pretty subtle. For example, Matthew changes the phrase “Kingdom of God” to “Kingdom of Heaven.” There is a tendency in Jewish piety to avoid using the name of God (lest you use it in vain), so presumably Matthew’s congregation has more traditional Judean roots. (In the same way, I will tend to talk about “the reign of God” rather than “the kingdom of God” because we don’t live in a monarchy anymore. I think it connects better with our experience of the world to speak about a world governed by the Spirit of God.)

So although all three of these Gospels talk about John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus, there are slightly different accents to the way each one tells the story. Mark said that the voice from heaven spoke to Jesus and said: “You are my Son whom I love.” Matthew wants to be sure that we understand that everyone heard the voice – and that we are to hear that voice – so Matthew has the voice of God say: “This is my son, whom I love.” Mark didn’t think God and Jesus were having a private conversation. Mark has God say “You are my son,” because for Mark this is something of an enthronement. God is declaring to the world that this Jesus is his anointed one who shall dispense the gifts and victory of God on God’s behalf. But Matthew, writing to a slightly different audience, wants to make it clear that God is testifying to the world that this Jesus is his anointed.

As we hear this account we have to remind ourselves that the phrase “Son of God” has two references. First, it is used of the king in Israel. In the ancient world it was common for kings to present themselves as members of the pantheon of the gods. But the language Israel used was that the king was the “Son of God”: the one who represents God and acts on his behalf in the world. So the voice from heaven is declaring that Jesus is the “Son of God”, the one who represents God and acts on his behalf in the world. Christian reflection will deepen our understanding of the relationship of God and Jesus, but here, at this point in the Gospel, the declaration being made is about kingship: Jesus is the one who represents God and acts on his behalf in the world. Jesus brings the reign of God. Jesus comes and governs as God will govern when all things are again brought under his dominion.

For Jesus to come to John to share in his “baptism of repentance” would seem to make John the more important person, but this is backwards if Jesus is the one who represents God and acts on his behalf in the world. So Matthew records for us that John said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” And he gives us this response from Jesus: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

More importantly, if Jesus is the one who represents God and acts on God’s behalf in the world, why does he need to undergo a baptism of repentance? For what would Jesus need to repent?

And before you go too far on that question, I want you to remember this: We are not asking if Jesus has done anything bad for which he should feel sorry. We are asking why should Jesus need to change his allegiance back to God and God’s way in the world? If Jesus represents God, if he brings God’s reign, it doesn’t make sense for him to be rejoining the cause.

Now this is where we talk again about Josephus. He was a general in the Judea army during the rebellion from Rome. When he was defeated and captured, his opponent, the Roman General, spoke to Josephus the exact same Greek words that we translate in the Gospels as “Repent and believe.” Josephus was being offered the chance to switch sides from the rebels to the Romans: to ‘repent’ (change his allegiance) and ‘believe’ (show fidelity to Rome).

Since John’s baptism is a “baptism of repentance” to bring the people back to an allegiance to God and God’s reign, why Jesus should need to turn and show allegiance to God? Matthew wants to be sure we understand what Jesus’ baptism means: Jesus is not changing sides; he is standing with people who need to change sides. It is an act of solidarity. It is a gesture that says “You and I, we are connected. We are one people.” Jesus doesn’t show up and say: “You need to change.” He shows up and says: “We need to change.” Jesus is showing righteousness; Jesus is showing fidelity to us. He stands with us as one of us.

This brings us to the second meaning of the phrase “Son of God”. The Son of God was the king, but it is also used to refer to the people of Israel. The most famous place this shows up is in the prophet Hosea where God says, “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (11:1) – a Biblical passage Matthew has just referred to a few verses before. (And remember, these people knew their Bibles, so to reference one verse is to reference the entire chapter)

The passage from Hosea is an amazing and wonderful message where God talks about the people of Israel in wonderfully intimate terms. God declares all that he did for his son, how his son turned away from him and was scattered among the nations, but how God cannot give them up. It declares God’s passionate attachment to his people and his intent to save.

So God’s people are God’s faithless son, and John is calling God’s people to return to faithfulness, to return to this way of God, this life for which God had brought them out of Egypt: a life of justice and mercy and compassion, fidelity to the stranger and love of neighbor. (To fulfill what the prophet Micah said: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?”) This is why John’s baptism is a baptism of changed allegiance. Jesus will express this idea of a world brought under the governance of God’s Spirit as love God and love neighbor: showing fidelity to God and to one another, being faithful to God and to others.

In his baptism by John, Jesus is not subordinate to John, and he does not need to change his allegiance, but he is standing with the people in their journey back into God’s way of life. He is fulfilling all righteousness; he is fulfilling what fidelity to the people requires.

 

So when God declares that Jesus is his son whom he loves, he is not only using a royal title to announce that Jesus is the one who represents God and acts on his behalf in the world, God is also revealing that Jesus is the faithful son that Israel was supposed to be, that we are supposed to be.

Matthew has told his story to accent this. Jesus embodies our story as the people of God. So the wicked king tries to kill the baby Jesus just like the wicked pharaoh sought to kill not only Moses, but all the male children of Israel – and, thus, to destroy any future for the people of Israel. But God saved the child Jesus as God saved his people.

And Matthew has Jesus go down into Egypt and then come out of Egypt – just like Israel did. And Matthew arranges the teaching of Jesus into five blocks of material just like the Torah of Israel has five books. Jesus is the faithful Son, who teaches and lives the way of faithfulness for the world. Jesus is what Israel was called to be. What we were called to be.

And here is the big point: as Jesus stood with us in the baptism of repentance, as Jesus stood with God’s unfaithful people, so in our baptism we are drawn to stand with him as God’s faithful son.

Jesus became one of us, and walked with us, and shared our unfaithfulness so that we might become like him and walk with him and share his faithfulness.

I hope you are getting this, because this is really a big deal. He shared our faithlessness that we might share his faithfulness. He shared our life that we might share his life.

 

So I find myself thinking what would this mean to my father if he were among us this morning. His mind and heart are totally preoccupied with his sorrow and loss. And none of all this great stuff would mean much except that it all drives to this point: Jesus is one of us. He walks with us. He walks with my father through the hallways of that hospital and sits at the bedside of his beloved. He shares the tears. He prays the desperate prayers. He embraces his family members and listens politely to whatever the pastor has come to say and remembers none of it except that somehow the presence of the pastor has reminded him that God is here, even here. And that there is a community, a people, a congregation, whose hearts go out to him, who stand with him.

But, here is what my dad also needs to hear. As Christ is with him and with his beloved; his beloved is in Christ. She is all that Christ is. As Christ is beloved of the Father, she is beloved of the Father. As Christ is anointed with the Spirit/Breath of God, she shares in the Spirit/Breath of God. As Christ is the faithful son, she is the faithful daughter. As Christ is risen from the dead, she shares his resurrection life.

Christ is faithful to us and stands with us in the tears of the River Jordan. And Christ is faithful to us and brings us to stand with him in the waters of life.

It is a mystery. But it is a mystery full of grace – and a mystery to which we cling.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AF_Mochi_Bautismo_de_Cristo_1634_P_Braschi.jpg Francesco Mochi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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Some things are right with the world

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Christmas does not mean that all is right with the world. That is clearly not the case. Humanity has a long way to go before swords are beaten into plowshares and a special needs teen isn’t abused and tormented by angry young people because of his vulnerability and race. But something is right with the world. It is a season where we hope for peace. It is a season where we think of generosity. It is a season where we value kindness. Some things are right in the world.

Gifts have been given to the families at the Fisher house. Gifts have been provided for the families at the shelter trying to find their way out of domestic violence. We have listened together to a choir of young people joining their voices together to bring exquisite beauty to the world. Some things are right with the world.

Religious communities have gathered in this darkest time of the year to light candles and speak about light for our darkness. Families have come together to enjoy and build the ties of love. We have practiced the art and the value of giving. Some things are right with the world.

Yes, we are facing an uncertain future. Yes, hate and intolerance seem to be on the rise. Yes, violence still plagues the human community. And, yes, families still struggle to be kind to one another. But some things are right with the world. And it is far more than that the sun still shines and that rains come. It is far more than the presence of a few teachers and healers in our midst. It is the persistent presence of the words and remembrance of this child of Bethlehem – and of the teachers and prophets who went before him.

The Voice of God continues to speak to us, continues to call to us, continues to challenge and summon us to realize in our lives what is good and right and noble. The Voice of God speaks of heaven’s faithfulness and calls us to faithfulness to one another. The Voice of God speaks words of healing and bids us be healers. The Voice of God speaks mercy and summons us to mercy. The Voice of God speaks forgiveness – release from the brokenness we have brought to our relationship with God and the earth, our neighbor and ourselves – and bids us do the same.

Some things are right with the world. And our simple act of coming together to hear the ancient stories and sing the songs new and old, and share fresh baked bread around a table where all are welcome reminds us of what is good, of what we could be, of what we should be. And maybe, before all the rhetoric heats up again, we can hold on for a moment to what is noble and true, to the vision of our true humanity presented to us in this Jesus, to the desire to governed by his Spirit and see the fruit of that Spirit in our lives, to the hope and presence of peace.

I drafted this article for our January parish newsletter and the references to the Fisher House and shelter reflect our support of these children and families at Christmas and throughout the year. The Fisher House is a residential facility at our local VA Hospital for the out of town families of patients in the poly-trauma unit.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A101222-N-9094S-062_(5285972916).jpg By U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos (101222-N-9094S-062) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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