Words

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I had dinner at a restaurant the other night that had a big sheet of thick butcher paper covering the table. It is Silicon Valley, and I presume it’s there for business meetings that result in plans or complex equations. I wanted to write words, words that tell a story or speak beauty or say something of significance.

I believe in words. I believe in their power to connect us with one another. I believe in their ability to connect us with our own selves and to fundamental truths of human existence.

I believe in the power of words to inspire in all the best ways. But I also know they can inspire in the worst ways. I have stood in the Nuremburg parade grounds. Though all the symbols of the Nazi era have been torn down, the words spoken there still haunt. Words can rend relationships, divide families, tear communities, topple nations, and destroy lives.

Words are things of power. They create and they destroy. They exalt and cast down. They comfort and kill. They start war – but they can also end them. The right words, bold courageous words, can summon us to peace. It’s just that the other, hateful, bitter words are too easy. And too often we take the wide road that leads to destruction.

I wanted to write on that thick brown paper. Its broad emptiness seemed to beg for ink. But no words came that evening. So I left the pen there, besides the few scattered spots from food that escaped the dinner plate and the ring left by the water glass.

There are times to be silent. But these are not those times. These are times for words that come down from heaven and water the earth. These are times for words that bring seed to the sower and bread to the eater. These are times that cry out for words of grace and life, words that lift our burdens, befriend our enemies, heal our spirits and forgive our souls.

These are times that need honest words, true words, words of care and beauty, words that sing the song of heaven and summon us to join.

I’m sorry I had to walk away from that brown butcher paper. But I am sure there is fresh paper there. And it is waiting.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABread_man.JPG By Mohanad5ayman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Refrigerators and saints

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Our congregation council had to approve $1,000 to fix the refrigerator in the church kitchen last Thursday night. It is one of those necessary expenses to keeping a congregation running. It is linked to the ministry of hospitality – whether Sunday coffee hour or special events like our Oktoberfest, a funeral luncheon or for any of the community groups that use our building.

But there’s not much glamour in fixing a refrigerator. It’s much easier to ask people to donate to educate a small child in Rwanda or provide clean water to a village or kits for the homeless or Easter baskets for the children at the Fisher House at our local VA hospital.

I am very grateful for those who contribute to such causes. They are deeply important acts of mercy and faithfulness in a world with too little of each. But I am even more grateful for those who help to pay for the refrigerator repairs. There is little glory there, but such generosity is the foundation underneath all the others.

It matters to our community that there is a place for people to meet. It matters that there is a playground for children and a prayer labyrinth to walk. It matters that there are shaded picnic tables at which to visit and some lawn left to feel the grass between your toes. (This is California, and grass requires water, so it is now something of a luxury – and though we have reduced the size of our lawn, mindful of the call to care for the earth, we care also for one another and our lawn matters to those who linger here from the small, lawnless homes and apartments around us.)

Who would have imagined that donating to the water bill would be a random act of kindness? Or paying for the youth worker who has such deep bonds with our children? Or providing for the organist whose music causes people to linger amidst its beauty after worship – and then to visit with one another rather than rushing off to coffee or the rest of their day.

We are a society deeply ingrained with the notion that you pay for what you want. But I am deeply grateful for those who are willing to pay for what others need – or what simply adds grace and beauty to life – whether these are obvious things like food and shelter, or the hidden things like a refrigerator repair.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AToolbox_(7263382550).jpg  By florianric from Deutschland (Toolbox) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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“I kept that promise.”

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This reflection was posted at my blog “Watching for the Morning” that focuses on the readings for the coming Sunday and, occasionally, looks back at what happened during worship. However, it also belongs here where I post occasional and more personal pieces.

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It’s hard to describe what happened to me at the altar during the prayers of the church, yesterday. Typical Lutheran congregations don’t have a shared vocabulary for discussing personal spiritual experiences. Other communities of which I have been a part find it easier to say that God spoke to them. They know we are not talking about any kind of auditory experience, but a kind of intuition, a sense of some truth breaking into our consciousness.  A truth that comes from somewhere beyond us. Or deep within us.  Though it does seem almost audible at times.

It typically comes with the force of deep conviction. It carries a certainty, though we seldom think of it as if it were absolute. If the intuition doesn’t work out, we are willing to let it go. We misheard. Or it’s something whose truth is waiting its time.

Anyway, I had one of those moments in worship Sunday morning.  It came to me as if a voice, saying “I kept that promise.”

The reference is to the story of the synagogue ruler’s daughter, where Jesus comes in answer to the father’s prayer for her healing only to be met by the wail of mourners. On the way, the little girl had died.

It is that story with the words “Talitha cumi”, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

I have read that text in worship many times since I laid my daughter’s body in the ground. The text from Mark comes around in the assigned lectionary every three years, as does the account in Matthew, and we have been through the cycle five times, now. It is always bittersweet to give voice to those words before the congregation.  I recognize the message of the text. I understand the grace of Jesus’ work. I also know the parents’ grief. There has always been a certain kind of hole in my heart that Jesus wasn’t there to say those words to Anna on the night her life was taken.

It’s been 16 years. And, for some reason, this morning I was finally ready to hear Jesus whisper to me: “I kept that promise.”

He had spoken those words. Beyond my hearing, in ways far more profound than I can understand, he kept the promise. He spoke to Anna saying, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

I know it sounds like pie in the sky, a pious fiction, a denial of death’s dark realty.  And anytime in the last 16 years it would have sounded that way to me, too. I have fought fiercely – sometimes unfortunately fiercely – to be truthful about the reality of death. I resist all the pious platitudes about God’s plan and loved one’s in heaven. Death is death. It rips from our arms those we love. It rends the human community. It is an invader in God’s good creation. And even in those times when it comes as a relief after long suffering, it is still death, still a thief, a bandit, a terrorist, stealing life from the world – whether sucking it away slowly and snatching it away all at once.

The wonder of Easter is not that it minimizes death’s power. The wonder of Easter is that it proclaims that death is a pretender. It does not own our lives. It could not silence Jesus. It could not stop God’s redeeming work. There is a making whole of this rent world that awaits us. Somehow. Beyond our understanding. But real enough for us to trust. Real enough for us to live.

Why, today, I don’t know. It wasn’t our assigned reading. The text hasn’t been on my mind. I wasn’t experiencing a moment of grief – though the grief of Anna’s death is never all that far away. It wasn’t particularly related to the prayers being offered or the sermon I had just preached. But there it was. And today, for whatever reason, I was ready to hear: God was faithful. He spoke the words. He kept the promise.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Verso_l%27infinito_-_Convento_Frati_Cappuccini_Monterosso_al_Mare_-_Cinque_Terre.jpg By GIANFRANCO NEGRI (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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Sunday after Sunday

I gave a brief introduction to this reflection with the previous post – recognizing the strange times in which we live, but also the need to remember the wonder of mercy that surrounds us.

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It was a long drive back from my father’s house in Colorado, but part of me wished I could have taken it slower. I am ever amazed at the majesty of the creation, and I would have loved to be able to take photographs of all that I witnessed coming across Colorado, Utah and Nevada on the old state highways: the big sky of the high plateau of the Rockies; the snow-covered peaks of the Wasatch Range visible from deep, rugged canyons; the alternating desert valleys and rugged ranges of the Great Basin; the evening light on Sand Mountain – it all begs to be captured on camera. Or, rather, I wish I could capture it on camera, to preserve, somehow, the sometimes haunting often overwhelming beauty I have seen.

Were I on foot, could I have captured the watchful insolence of the coyote trotting across the road? Could I have captured the mind of the bull moose working to draw attention away from the cow and calf at the riverside? Could I have captured the power of eagle wings lifting off? Could I have captured the delicacy of mountain wildflowers? The frenzy of chipmunks? The dangerous languor of sunning rattlers? Or are they there only as moments to be enjoyed but never contained?

I have a few photos, taken at rest stops and occasional halts along the way, but mostly they are fading memories, replaced only by the knowledge that it was beautiful.

I suspect no one remembers last Christmas Eve, let alone the second Sunday in Advent or the 14th Sunday after Pentecost. My hope is that they each have their beauty, their majesty, their sense of the divine and that, while we don’t remember any one of them, such memories are replaced by the knowledge of heaven’s grace and the importance of living gracefully, faithful to God and to others.

It’s possible, I know, to drive the country and see little, to wonder only how long this will last and attend to little but the souvenir shot glasses, rocks, and pocketknives in Wyoming truck stops. In the days before air-conditioning I have ridden with my bare feet in the window feeling the hot wind while I waited in boredom for my sister to quit singing and it all to be over. But there was wonder there, had I dared to see it.

I visited again the church in Longmont where I was baptized and, most recently, we held my stepmother’s funeral. In between, there have been many baptisms and funerals and ordinary Sundays shifting with the generations. I remember where we sat with my grandmother, and where we sat with my stepmother, and where I sat with my daughter. One of the ladies working in the office had been a neighbor on the next farm over (past the one room grade school) from my grandfather’s farm where Dad shoveled sugar beets before and after classes at Longmont High School. I found the photo of Dad’s confirmation class in the church basement. His brother, Erik, was in the photo, too. Sunday after Sunday, hymn after hymn, scripture reading after scripture reading, sermon after sermon, the splash of baptismal water, the taste of bread and wine, prayers and tears and candlelight Christmas’s and Easter trumpets and warm summer Sundays and bitter winter ones, again and again moments of grace adding layer upon layer like the stunning rocks lifted up by the weight of the Rockies to reveal the lines laid down over eons by countless sands and microscopic remains.

Worship is not about peak experiences; it is about the wondrous beauty all around us: the fidelity of a God who abides with us whether or not we abide with him; the persistence of a God who calls, cajoles, and sometimes forces us to lives of compassion and faith; the grace of a God who welcomes us and all to his table.

It is possible to sit in the pew on Sunday morning like I once did in the back seat of our old station wagon across the Great Basin and see little of the majesty around us. But it is there. And those who come week after week know that something is being created in us bit by bit: lives that are holy and true.

Photocredit: dkbonde

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Surrounded with graces

In the crush of things last month, I forgot to post my reflection from our parish newsletter as I normally would. On a day when our president has tweeted base insults and every aspect of our national life seems degraded, it seems odd to me that a reflection should turn anywhere but to the ire of the prophets. But even the prophets reminded us of the sweetness of God. The two hold together: wrath and grace, the outcry against injustice and the tenderness of divine affection, the rage of God at our wounding world and the willingness to suffer for our sake. So I offer this, and the reflection of the month to come, mindful that there is much to be decried – but also grace to be spoken.

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I find myself flipping through our recent Bible study material hoping for something that will trigger some inspiration for this article. I have already looked back through my personal journal, but my life is too boring. There wasn’t much there except for the time I smelled smoke in the apartment, thought it was the neighbors, then eventually realized it was coming from my dishwasher. A plastic cutting board had fallen onto the heating element in the bottom, and the button on the front had gotten bumped that called for a “hot dry”.

I hate the smell of melted plastic.

My television died. But there isn’t any real inspiration there. I have not entirely missed watching the news; it gets wearisome as we lurch from one scandal and outrage to another – and from one tragedy to another. It was easier to hear about the bombing in Manchester than to watch it again and again on the television. I can imagine the TV news was full of tearful stories, and I have enough tears thank you.

I still get the news. I switched over to KQED on my radio. Unfortunately my TV went out right at the start of pledge week, but I survived those tediously repetitive appeals – although I did find myself half-wondering whether we should halt the worship service just after the prayer of the day for a pledge-break.

Actually our finances aren’t bad. We ended last month in the black. The first time in a very long time.

So my life is boring. My rent is soaring another couple hundred dollars. It is now more than seven times my house payment in Michigan. I had a mini-crisis searching through boxes to find my birth certificate and the house is still in some disarray. But you’ve seen my office; I can endure disarray.

I have enjoyed the preaching series with the pictures and booklets that we have been doing, but it has turned out to be much more work than I expected. I guess it’s a good thing that my TV picture blinked out. I haven’t had time to watch anything (except I did find a way to watch the Warriors).

It all seems very ordinary and boring. But life is never ordinary. I find myself stopping frequently to take pictures of the roses in the church’s garden. Roses are amazingly beautiful. Even when but a few petals still linger, they float on the edge of the sepal with rare grace. And it’s not just the roses. The orchids in the sanctuary are filled with grace. There’s some wall of passionate pink flowers near the Trader Joe’s – and a wall of jasmine near where I like to park. I smile at the children in the music school running up and down the dirt embankment, testing their balance and thrilling with victory when they balance on that old stump. There were children from the neighborhood on the new bouncy boat in the play yard on the very first day after it was completed. The dad was grateful. There was someone walking the prayer labyrinth last Sunday afternoon, in one of those rare moments the parking lot was empty. There was a night sky when the lights of the city against the low cloud cover created a gorgeous blue layer of sky beneath the clouds.

We are surrounded by graces big and little. A notoriously difficult passage to translate in Psalm 8 suggests that the cooing and babbling of infants is a fortress “to silence the enemy and the avenger.” Every bit of beauty, every simple kindness, every child’s laughter, every kind word or sound silences the claims of fear and evil to rule the world.

Simple joys. Ordinariness. In the midst of anxiety over the country and sorrow over lost friends, there stands the miracle of the ordinary. The sustaining grace of God. The daily rising and setting of the sun. The arc of the moon across the sky. The scamper of lizards across the walk. The sound of crickets in the night. The word of grace in the Biblical text and the bit of bread in our hand. We are surrounded with graces. God grant us eyes to see and ears to hear.

Photocredit: dkbonde

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Tomorrow

Tomorrow would have been my daughter’s 36th birthday. It snuck up in me, busy as I’ve been. But a look at the calendar today, and that number 13 jumped out. Is it really May already? Are we here again?

What shall we do with all those fading memories? Who will remember when this generation is past? What is the nature of the new creation? Is there a story line where she dances and sings with her own children?  Is there a story line that has her old, in a purple hat, playing in the grass with grandchildren?  Will she always be 19 with daisies in her hair and kindness in her eyes?

Will her voice always have the purity of youth, or will it gain the depth and resonance of years? Will her laugh abide or grow into a happy and bemused chuckle? Will she feast at the divine banquet table with nieces and nephews now older than she?

They are strange thoughts, unknowable. The shape of the promise can only be described with metaphors. It is rightly described as the far country, the world whose true nature eludes us.

And maybe there is no such land. Maybe the only future is to return to the dust that is continually blown out into the cosmos, sucked into new stars, and blown out again. To which I would say, even so, I live for the promise.

Paul may say “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” But I disagree. To live for kindness, compassion, fidelity, hope, and the healing of every human heart is not in vain. I stand with the prophet Habbakuk:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.

To live in the confidence of a world brought from death into life is not a life lost, it is a life gained.

It is better to live in a world that celebrates love than one that worships power. It is better to live in the hope of generosity than hardness of heart. It is better to shape your life by love of neighbor than care only of self.

Such things endure. Kindnesses are remembered. Truth doesn’t perish. Beauty doesn’t fade. The sunrise may be fleeting, but its glory will always be glory. There may have been a time before Yosemite – and a time after – but what we have seen will always be majestic.

I choose to live for what is eternal, regardless of the sorrows of our age. I choose the warm sands into which my step-mother desires her toes – now ashes – to rest. It may be meaningless, what will ashes know? But it is an expression of faith in the goodness of the world. A faith I intend to honor.

So it is now the 17th year in a world without Anna. But the world will never be without her. For she was. And she is. And even when she is no longer remembered her song will endure. He laughter still rings. Her kindness abides.

And whatever the far shore looks like, I live for it to come here and be our truth.

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Thinking in stories

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What is the narrative that shapes us? When Obama first ran for president, he presented us with a national narrative in which what united us was greater than what divided us. It was a narrative of hope, even if it did get a little carried away with itself sometimes. When Trump ran for the presidency he conveyed a narrative of national decline and the incompetence of those in power, but promised that he could make America great again. Each narrative, in its own way, shapes the events and actions that follow.

We are creatures who think in stories. We don’t picture the world as a set of data points; we imagine a story. My grandparents left an old world in Sweden and Denmark where the future was limited and came to the United States where the future was open. By hard work and the grace of God they overcame the challenges and obstacles they faced, built new lives and launched their children forward into even greater success. That’s our family story – a far different one than those who were brought against their will in slave ships. Depending on the story you tell, you will see the country differently, either as a land of promise or a house of bondage, a land of milk and honey or a land of bricks and straw.

We are creatures who think in stories. Confusion and anxiety reign when we can’t figure out the story line. And sometimes, when the unexpected happens, we have to radically revise our stories. I used to tell the story how Deb and I met in first grade and I kicked her in the shins – a sign of true love. But the story didn’t end the way I imagined, so I had to find a new way to tell the story: of two people who loved each other as best they could but were too young and inexperienced to overcome their mistakes.

We need to have a story. It locates us. It gives meaning to our past, shapes our understanding of the present and gives direction for the future. When Anna’s life was suddenly cut short, we struggled to make sense of the tragedy – which means we searched for the story that would make her life complete. So we tell of the lives she touched and the difference her death made in the lives of others. It’s why we endow scholarships in her name, and her fellow students campaigned for MADD, and the college built a memorial to all its students who died. We need to find the story that helps it make sense.

Congregations need a story too. Are we an aging congregation slowly sliding towards our end, or are we a welcoming congregation serving the community with our building and bearing witness to the grace and love of God?  Are we a shrinking congregation growing ever more dependent on the income from the users of our building, or are we a faithful ministry for whom God has wondrously provided? The story we tell reveals the future we expect to have.

And what is our human story as we face the storms and perils of wars and a changing climate? Are we devolving into petty nation states fighting for resources or building a world that is more just, responsible and compassionate? The story we imagine has deep and important consequences for the choices we make.

We are creatures who understand ourselves through story, and the church (the whole people of God) is the caretaker of and mouthpiece for a deeply important story. We tell a story that begins in a garden and ends in a city without fear. We tell a story where all that is is good and we are called to care for it. We tell a story of a divine presence that treasures all creatures and saves them in an ark. We tell a story of Abram and Sarai whose lives are shaped by the promise of blessing for the world. We tell a story where God delivers slaves from bondage and teaches them to be a community of justice and mercy. We tell a story of our infidelity and God’s continuing faithfulness. We tell a story that confesses Cain rose up against his brother Abel but Jesus laid down his life for the world – teaching us to see and be faithful to all people as our sisters and brothers.

We are a people who tell a story of an empty grave and the triumph of love. We see the world through this story. It gives us strength when we lose the thread of our personal stories. It gives us hope when we wonder about the outcome of our national story. It gives us courage when facing the challenges of the human story. It inspires us to service as individuals and congregations.

We are a people who see the world through this story of love and redemption. And we are a people to whom this story is entrusted for the sake of the world. The gates of hell cannot stand against it, says Jesus. And we are told to carry it to the ends of the earth. It is what makes us a peculiar people. It is what makes us a people of courage and compassion, hope and joy.

This reflection was first published in the May 2017 parish newsletter of Los Altos Lutheran Church

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKapelle_Hl._Geist%2C_Bichl.jpg By Mk pictures (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

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Lamb of God

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A reflection on the death of Jesus, Good Friday, 2017

A liturgical chant from my childhood has been rattling through my mind the last few days: “O Christ, thou lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.” The words of this piece, known as the Agnus Dei from its days as a Latin hymn, remain part of the liturgy, of course, adapted or occasionally replaced by a contemporary hymn. It is sung after the prayers have been said over the bread and wine and the community prepares to come to the table.

The melody in my head is haunting. It conveys yearning and hope and the mystery contained in the image of Christ as the sacrificial lamb.

We don’t witness the killing of animals for food, anymore. It shows up in the market wrapped in plastic or pre-cooked and frozen. We don’t see the knife. We don’t see the blood. We don’t see the life that has been sacrificed. We are exempt from the knowledge that this is a matter of life and death.

One year I bought lamb for Easter dinner. I was trying to form a tradition for that holy day like the traditions for Christmas and Thanksgiving. But the next year, my daughter, Anna, and I were down at the big public market in Detroit just before Easter, and she saw a cattle truck full of cute little lambs and said “Oh, Daddy, I want one.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell her what those lambs were doing there. And I didn’t want to tell her on Sunday evening that the meat on her plate was lamb.

A sacrifice happens when an animal is killed that we may eat and live. When God gave humans permission to kill and eat at the time of Noah, God didn’t want us to forget that we were taking a life, that we were trespassing on the realm of the sacred. God is the author of life. It is God’s to give and take. So when Noah was given permission, he was commanded not to eat the blood. It was to be poured out at the base of an altar, as if to say, “All life belongs to you, O God, and we take this life only by your permission.”

Animals were not a regular part of the ancient diet. And when their lives were taken, the feast was shared. Not only was a portion given to the priest, but the feast was shared with the poor. So the death of an animal meant life for the community.

“O Christ, thou lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us thy peace. Amen.”

There is a transaction implied in the sacrifice: a life is given that we may live – and so we share that life with others.

It was not difficult for the ancients to look upon the sacrifice of Jesus and see something of this same transaction: a life is given that we may live – and we, in turn, share that life with others. It is why we are here today to pray that the life that was given may bring life to the world.

The image, of course, is bigger than just the sacrifice of animals for food. Israel saw something redemptive in the sacrifice of an animal, something that reset the relationship between God and ourselves.

The ancient world didn’t have vast feedlots with thousands upon thousands of animals. A family may have had a cow and from the cow a calf. The sacrifice of the fatted calf was no small thing; it was a costly sacrifice.

It was something that would only happen on a very special occasion – like a wedding or the return of the prodigal son – and it would be shared with the whole village. There was certainly too much meat there for a single family – and no freezers to store it for later.

And the thing about such communal feasts is that have an important role in restoring the fabric of the community. Old irritations are forgotten around a laden table. The shared feast overcomes the inevitable conflicts and grievances of life together. A full belly brings its own kind of peace. So it is not hard to see why the death of the animal became associated with the forgiveness of sins, the redemption of the community.

“O Christ, thou lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us thy peace. Amen.”

And then there is Israel’s story of that final plague in Egypt, when death struck every household of the Egyptians and finally broke the grip of Israel’s bondage. The blood of the lamb marked their doorposts. The blood of the lamb was a sign of their trust in God. The blood of the lamb saved them from death and brought them to freedom.

So the sacrifice of a lamb is about life. And it is about redemption And it is about freedom, deliverance, salvation.

“O Christ, thou lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us thy peace. Amen.”

All of these images and ideas cluster around the death of Jesus:

  • A life is given that we may live.
  • A life is given that sins may be lifted away.
  • A life is given that the human community may be restored.
  • A life is given that we may be set free
  • A life is given that death may pass us by.

And this brings us back to our very first notion: A life is given that we may live. Only now it is much more than daily life. Now it is the life of the world freed from the shadow of death. Now it is a life that is imperishable.

What happens on this day through the death of Christ is a great mystery. But something profound has happened, something that changed the course of human history. Something that changed our relationship with the divine. Something that changed our relationships with one another. Something that changed our understanding of life’s essential truths. Something that changed our sense of what it means to be human.

“O Christ, thou lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us thy peace. Amen.”

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Francisco_de_Zurbar%C3%A1n_-_Agnus_Dei_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg Francisco de Zurbarán [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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The journey to our humanity

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A reflection as we  begin Maundy Thursday

Tonight we begin the worship service that stretches over these next three days and walks us anew through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

This service not only sets before us the story of Jesus; it brings us into that story. We are witnesses. We are participants. Our feet get washed. Our hands hold the bread. The cross is carried into our midst. The darkness turns to light. These three days are not only about Jesus, but about the fundamental spiritual journey of human life.

The human spiritual journey is about learning to love, learning to set aside ourselves for the sake of the other. Our true humanity is not found in our ability to go to war, make babies, or make money; our true humanity is found in care and fidelity to God and to others.

There is nothing noble or true or enduring in anger, greed or vanity. There is nothing eternal in such things. But love, honor, grace, compassion – these share in what is eternal

So these days are not just about what happened to Jesus; they are about what is happening in us. We are dying and rising with Christ. We are being born from above. This is about our Passover, when we renew the journey that takes us from bondage into freedom, from darkness into light, from death into life.

And this three-day service, this piece of our human spiritual journey, begins tonight with this exhortation and a rite of confession and forgiveness.

Whatever our politics might be, I think we can agree that this last year has not shown the noblest side of the human character. In our own country there has been violence at political rallies. There has been no small amount of falsification and prevarication. There have been abusive comments about women and people of various ethnicities and religious traditions. There has been an increase in hate crimes. There has been an increase in fear and intolerance.

And these things have been happening around the world.

And we have seen worse: the intentional bombing of hospitals in Syria, the destruction of civilian neighborhoods, the killing of children with Sarin gas.

There is too much violence. Too much hate. Too much greed. Too much fear and ugliness.

The story of Jesus we begin tonight is also a story of too much violence, too much hate, too much greed, too much fear and ugliness.

But it is not just this; it is also a story of a profound compassion, a profound love, a profound service, a profound faithfulness.

In the face of violence, hate, greed and fear, Jesus teaches and forgives and loves. And through it all, Jesus never breaks faith with God or with us – with humanity.

We need to say that it is possible for us to be better. It is possible for us to choose compassion over neglect. It is possible for us to choose openness over fear. It is possible for us to do kindness and love justice and walk humbly with God. If it weren’t possible, Moses wouldn’t have commanded it, the prophets wouldn’t have demanded it, and Jesus wouldn’t have taught it.

It is possible for us to be better.

And the secret to being better is in this story of the one who was perfect.

We want to think that somehow it was easier for Jesus. We want to think that he had an advantage over us. But that’s not what the teaching on the two natures of Christ or the teaching on the sinlessness of Jesus means. He was fully human. He had no superhuman powers. He had no special divine knowledge (he has the knowledge of one who is perfectly attuned to the Father). When we say he was sinless, we mean he never broke faith with God.

Or with humanity.

When we say Jesus was perfect, we don’t mean he never struggled – we know he struggled in the garden. Trusting God in the face of torture, shame and death did not come easily. But Jesus did not break faith. Jesus was perfect in the same way that we might say a ripe garden tomato is perfect. It is what it was meant to be. An unripe tomato isn’t finished yet. It isn’t complete. But a garden ripe tomato is all that a tomato was meant to be.

Jesus is what humanity was meant to be. Jesus is what we were meant to be. But, instead, we have a world with too much fear, violence, hate and greed.

And reality is so catawampus, that even when we try to do the right thing or say the right words, too often the words come out wrong, or the words get misunderstood or our actions are misinterpreted. We hurt others – sometimes because we give in to the desire to lash out, but sometimes just because things don’t come out right. It is the reality of life in our broken world.

But God is working to unbreak it.

So we are coming together to tell this story. We are coming together to experience this story. We are coming together to be encountered again by this Jesus who was what we were meant to be. We are coming together to be encountered by the God whose work is to unbreak us. We are coming together to journey again through the water of baptism from death into new life.

So we begin tonight with confession. We begin by dealing with the questions God asked Adam and Eve after they had eaten the apple and were trying to hide from God’s gaze: “Where are you?” and “What have you done?”

And having coped with those questions, we are met by this Jesus who bends to wash our feet. And in the washing of our feet we realize that he has come to wash away all our sins.

And standing then in that abundant grace, we share the bread that is the sign of God’s redemption of the world.

And having shared the bread we ponder the imagery of Jesus stripped of all honor, yielding his life for the sake of the world.

And then, tomorrow, in Jesus’ final hour, we come together to pray that God’s redeeming work will come to all the world.

And Saturday night we will come together again to hear all those great stories of God’s deliverance, and we will bless the water and renew our baptismal covenant, and darkness will turn to light and we will hear the story of angels descending to open the grave. And we will see the empty tomb and know that God has validated everything Jesus said and did. And this great drama will push and pull us a little closer to our true humanity, to our true joy, and to our true peace.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AThe_Hand_(3950973346).jpg By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia (The Hand) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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From death into life

The images and stories that begin on the evening of Maundy Thursday and walk us through the great drama of the cross and resurrection are rich and powerful. We hear the splash of water as Jesus washes feet – and the splash of water on Saturday at the Easter Vigil as we experience anew the drama of baptism. We smell the wine that Jesus said he would not drink again until he drinks it with us anew in the joy of God’s reign that gathers all the earth to one rich and abundant table. We taste the bread broken at the Last Supper and broken anew by the risen Christ with his followers. We hear the cry of desolation, “My God, My God, Why has thou forsaken me,” and the voice of the angels declare, “He is not here. Come and see the place where he lay.” We see darkness and light and know that it speaks of death and life, sin and grace, bondage and freedom.

And what does it all mean? Something new is dawning in the world. The peace of the world is shattered by the sound of bombs and the cacophony of shouting voices, but heaven has drawn near to make peace. The death of Jesus is undone. God has vindicated his anointed one. God has declared that he spoke and lived truly. Heaven has sided with the rejected one. Indeed, Heaven has sided with earth. As dangerous and dark as the human heart can be, as bloody as our hands can be, God has come to make peace with us. The transcendent power of grace and life at the heart of all things has come to draw all creation into his peace.

We tell the story carefully over these three days. And the church invites the world to come hear the splash of water, to see the light in the darkness, to touch the wooden cross, and sing the songs of exultation. These liturgies may be ancient, but they are also timeless. They speak not just to the mind but to the senses. They speak not just words but sights and sounds. There is power in the crackle of a fire.   There is drama in a single candle in the dark.

Even the unexpected sounds have power. A friend once came to the moment on Good Friday when a wooden cross is to be carried into the sanctuary, only to realize in a panic that the cross had not been assembled. As he grabbed a hammer to hurriedly attempt to remedy the situation, the sound of the hammer on the nails echoed through the sanctuary and changed forever the lives of those present.

This week begins the great mystery. And the church, so often forgotten and ignored, dares to tell its story of a love and faithfulness that took upon itself the sorrows of the world to bring us into the realm of grace. And whether people come or not, we will tell the story. For it is a story for the world, a story for a world that has been watching a father with the limp bodies of his infant children in his arms, a story for a world that debates from comfort what to do with unwanted refugees, a story for a world where fellow human beings lie abandoned and neglected, where men, women and children are hungry and hopeless. It is a story that God has taken up the wood and nails – and still he loves.

This week especially the church invites the world to come, to hear, to share in the wonder and the joy. Perhaps here can begin our healing. Perhaps here can begin in us those first few steps that lead from death into life.

Photocredit: dkbonde

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