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

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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

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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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Christ among the faithful

File:Simeon the God-Receiver (Old Believers, 19th c, priv.coll).jpg

A sermon for the Sunday in Christmas when the child Jesus is greeted by Simeon and Anna, Luke 2:21-40 .

There is a popular mode of preaching that presents Mary and Joseph as political refugees displaced by Roman power. They are often referred to as homeless, and Mary is sometimes described as a pregnant unwed teenager. I would be a little afraid to look back to sermons I preached at the beginning of my ministry in fear that I would have said just such things.

There is power in that picture. It carries an emotional impact: the mother of our Lord going from inn to inn knocking at doors and turned away until finally offered a barn.  It is a powerful image. It invites us to compassion and care of the poor. It affirms that spiritual vision that the beggar who approaches us could be an angel in disguise, of the truth from Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats that “as you did it to the least of these you did it to me.”

So I don’t want to turn us away from the recognition that it is among the poor the Christ comes to us. But this idea of the homeless and abandoned refugees is not fair to the writer of our Gospel, for this is not the picture that he presents to us of the birth of Jesus. The picture Luke presents is that Jesus is born among the faithful poor.

It was the King James translation that told us “she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7) But the word that the King James elected to translate as ‘inn’ is the same word that Luke uses when Jesus sends his followers to arrange for what we have come to refer to as the “upper room” – a guest room where Jesus could celebrate the Passover meal with his followers. This word that the King James planted firmly in our minds and in our children’s Christmas pageants as an ‘inn’ refers to a ‘guest room’ in a home.

The world that Mary and Joseph inhabit isn’t a world with motels. It is a world where travelers stay with members of their extended family. You may have never met them, but if you had family in a village, and came to that village, and informed whomever you met of your lineage, they would direct you to members of your kin and your people would provide you with lodging.

As I have talked about before, the typical peasant house was a one-room building. One end was at ground level and the other was raised a few steps. The family slept on the upper level and the animals were brought in to the lower level at night. The warmth of the animals provided heat for the family during the night, and there would be a depression in the floor at the edge of the upper level with feed for the animals. Such a single room house would have an attached room with its own exterior door that was used for storage. It would be cleaned out and provided to guests if they came. So the picture Luke presents for us is that when Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem and are directed to the homes of their extended family, the guest rooms are already in use, presumably by people of higher social standing. Mary and Joseph are not turned away, they are welcomed into the house where the women attend the birth and the child is laid in the fresh hay of the manger.

The picture is not of a homeless family, but of a faithful community taking care of those in need.  This is very important to recognize: the portrait Luke gives us is not of a homeless and friendless couple, but of a faithful community taking care of those in need.

Where does the Christ child come? He comes to the faithful. He comes for the world. He comes to gather the scattered. Glad tidings are announced to the outcast shepherds. But he is born amidst God’s faithful people.

This is a very important idea for us to ponder: Christ comes into the world among God’s faithful people. It is among God’s faithful people that Christ is revealed to the world. Christ is revealed to the world where travelers are welcomed and protected. Christ is revealed to the world where the hungry are fed and the sick tended. Christ is revealed to the world where the obligations of charity and hospitality are lived.

Christ is revealed to the world among the people who show kindness and mercy, who do justice and grace, who welcome the outsider and care for those in need. That’s what it means to be the body of Christ in the world. Where we do those things, Christ is made manifest to the world.

Christ is not revealed to the world among the angry and harsh. Christ is not revealed to the world among the vain and self-righteous. Christ is not revealed to the world in the glories of the temple but in Simeon and Anna who have eyes to see and voices to sing of God’s salvation.

It is among the faithful that the Christ is born into the world. And Luke is careful to describe the people in his narrative as faithful. Zechariah and Elizabeth show themselves faithful to the word of the angel in the naming their child John. Mary shows herself faithful to God by responding to the angel’s message saying, “Let it be to me according to your word.” Mary and Joseph are obedient to God in naming the child Jesus. Mary and Joseph show themselves attentive to the observance of God’s commands regarding circumcision and the rituals of purification in the temple. And we have read today about the pious fidelity of Simeon and Anna.

Even the outsiders in Luke’s account, the shepherds out in the fields, showed themselves faithful by following the angels’ word and going to see the child. The whole point of the narrative is that God has not worked through the reigning families in Jerusalem, but through the faithful poor.

So this narrative is both promise and call. It proclaims to us the faithfulness of God who draws near to save. And it sets before us this image of the faithful, inviting us to be that faithful community thorough whom Christ comes to the world.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASimeon_the_God-Receiver_(Old_Believers%2C_19th_c%2C_priv.coll).jpg By Anonymous Russian icon painter (before 1917) Public domain image (according to PD-RusEmpire) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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Light for our darkness

File:Tumacacori12-11 016.JPG

The message from Christmas Eve.  The central texts of the service are the nativity story from Luke 2 and the prophetic word from Isaiah 9.

Well, it’s been an interesting year for us as a country and for the world. Some of it has been comical. Some of it has been horrifying. There has been division everywhere and violence seems to be contained nowhere. And here, in this night when we come for a multitude reasons, we don’t want to hear about the state of the world. We want to hear a word of peace. We want to have some breathing room. We want to hear that the boots of the tramping warriors will be burned as fuel for the fire. We want to be reminded of beauty. We want to hear the angels sing.

Don’t worry; I mention that the times in which we live are interesting times because I want to acknowledge that Christianity was born in interesting times. Uncertainty and change are nothing new. War and political violence are nothing new. Hate and social conflict are nothing new. And the early church’s response to the interesting times in which they lived was to tell the story about who Jesus was and what happened to him.

The response of the Christian community to the “interesting times” in which they lived was to tell the story of Jesus. To speak about the blind eyes he opened. To speak about the withered hands he made whole. To speak about the unclean he made clean. To speak about the sinners he welcomed. To speak about the sins he forgave. To speak about his summons to live justice and mercy. To speak about his command to love not only your neighbor as yourself but to love your enemy. To speak about his teaching that we should forgive as we have been forgiven, that we should welcome the outcast and heal the sick and feed the hungry. To speak about the reign of God that Jesus made manifest among us: a world where the Spirit of God governs every heart, the world of which the prophet spoke when he declared:

All the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore

We are here tonight not just to sing the carols and see the pretty candles (although, I admit, when I was young that was why I came). We are here to tell the story.

Two Sundays ago we had our Christmas party with a very nice luncheon after worship and the Main Street Singers, from the High School, performing for us. They stayed for the lunch and a young man from the choir was sitting across from me. In the course of our conversation I mentioned that the young people in our parish had done the Christmas story in worship that morning. And he responded, “Oh, yeah? What story was that?” So I tried to give him a brief version of the story we read tonight.

He then asked me if there wasn’t something in the story about a boy with a drum (he was thinking of the song “The Little Drummer Boy” that was written in 1941 and became popular in the late 50’s). I mean no disrespect of this young man, I am certainly not making fun of him; he simply didn’t know the story.

And he is not alone. As a society, we don’t know the Biblical stories like we once did. We aren’t familiar with the sound of the scriptures. We often don’t understand the imagery. We take things literally that were never meant to be taken literally, and we ignore things that seem fanciful to us and miss their profound truth.

Since there are so many different religious opinions out there, and since it seems like the only Christians that we seem to see on TV are the crazy ones, we tend to look upon the whole religious enterprise as suspect.

But words don’t get remembered and written down and passed on for thousands of years unless they are exceptionally profound. They don’t get saved because someone said they were scripture; they become scripture because everybody saved them.

I want to say that again. These writings weren’t preserved because someone said they were scripture; they become scripture because everybody saved them.

And they made copies, and they passed them on to friends, and they translated them into different languages. These words are remembered and regarded as divine because they have power to affect us, because they ring with truth, because they speak to the deepest question of our lives.

This is why, in these interesting times, we tell the story. To whatever darkness there is in the world, to whatever shadows loom over our hearts, to whatever challenges stand before us, to whatever fears we face in these interesting times, we tell the story of the one who opened eyes and hearts and healed families and communities and refused violence and revenge, who did not yield to fear, in whom was no greed or selfishness, in whom was a perfect fidelity to God and neighbor, a pure love of God and others. All others.

We are here to tell the story:

6A child has been born for us,
a son given to us.

We are not alone in the world. There is a heartbeat to the universe. There is a song of love and life at the heart of all existence. It is a reality we don’t know how to describe except by calling it divine. Our confession as a community is quite simple: that heartbeat, that song, that spirit at the center of all things shines through the words of this book and takes on form in the life of this child of Bethlehem, in the life he lived, in the Spirit he breathed, in the death he died, and in life he yet lives.

In the work and words of this child is the truest expression of our humanity and the fullest expression of the divine. In the work and words of this child is the light for our darkness and the guide for our paths. In the work and words of this child is the life than cannot perish.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATumacacori12-11_016.JPG By Packbj (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Always

File:MOs810, WG 2014 20, OChK Las Miejski (Lesnictwo Smoszew, wayside shrine).JPG

An Advent Reflection

The theme of the fourth week of Advent in our parish is “The Promise of ‘God with us’” from last Sunday’s readings. The advent verse for Saturday, December 24 is from the final words of Jesus to his followers in the Gospel of Matthew.

Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. —Matthew 28:20

Is there a promise more powerful than this one? I am with you always. I am with you on the cold nights when darkness seems to govern the earth. I am with you in the joyous moments when you dance with delight. I am with you in the searching days when the path is hard to find. I am with you in the morning light and the first taste of spring. I am with you when family life is brittle and unrewarding. I am with you when it is full of goodness and peace. I am with you.

I am with you when the bones creak and fears crowd. I am with you when the home team rises victorious. I am with you when you dinner table is full and when it is spare. I am with you.

I am with you in the morning prayers full of the Spirit, and in the prayers that echo off empty walls. I am with you when you travel alone and when you cannot find a private moment. I am with you when sleep comes too late and the alarm too early. I am with you when conflict surrounds. I am with you when hopes soar and when they are dashed. I am with you.

Of course the ‘you’ here is plural, so it means also, and more profoundly, that Christ is with the community of his followers. He is with us when we bicker over Peter’s decision to baptize a Roman soldier. He is with us when we struggle over the welcome given to Greeks in Antioch. He is with us when argument breaks out over Paul’s preaching. He is with us when Roman authorities arrest pastors demanding they surrender their copies of the scriptures. He is with us when Constantine sees his vision at the Milvian bridge and paints a cross on the shields of his marching army. He is with us when church becomes feudal lord and pope renaissance prince. He is with us when pilgrims cross the sea and German churches acquiesce to a strong leader promising to make the nation great again. He is with us when we gather food for the hungry and when we sing hymns and chants and high thanksgivings. He is with us as we pray and when children are baptized and when we gather at the table. “I am with you.” “Always.”

And from that promise springs every effort to be faithful sons and daughters. From that promise springs the desire to welcome the stranger and visit the sick and care for those in need. From that promise springs every desire to work for justice and to advocate mercy. From the promise springs every kind word and shared sorrow. From that promise we journey slowly, sometimes painfully slowly, but journey nonetheless toward that day when he who is with us governs every heart and all that is torn is mended, and all that is broken made new.

It is why we gather Christmas Eve and Christmas Morning and each of the Sundays and holy days to follow. He has chosen to come to us. He has chosen to be with us. Always.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMOs810%2C_WG_2014_20%2C_OChK_Las_Miejski_(Lesnictwo_Smoszew%2C_wayside_shrine).JPG By MOs810 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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At last

File:View from Mount Willard.jpg

An Advent Reflection

The theme of the fourth week of Advent in our parish is “The Promise of ‘God with us’” from last Sunday’s readings. Friday’s advent verse is from the visions of the New Jerusalem recorded by the prophet John in the book of Revelation.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them. –Revelation 21:3

At last. Heaven has come down to earth. Or, to say it another way, earth has become heaven – the dwelling place of God – as it was meant to be.

At last.

I hiked with a friend years ago over the White Mountains in New Hampshire. The journey uphill began with a steep climb and though there were some slightly level or a little bit downhill sections, it was mostly uphill. The second night was getting dark, but we saw a small flat space off the trail and decided to set camp. We woke up in the morning covered in snow. Cold and stiff and anticipating another day of climbing, I was less than eager. But we got moving with morning light to discover we were only a hundred yards or so from the crest. We came over the ridge and looked down into a sun-warmed valley. At last.

The voice from the throne declares that at last the sun rises to set no more. At last the heavenly Jerusalem lives on earth. At last God dwells among us. At least we are not our warring selves, but God’s peoples. At last.

You can describe it, with the prophet, as a great city with gates made from single pearls but, to me it will always be that wondrous landscape, the warmth of the sun, and the knowledge that the path is now all downhill.

We have seen the first morning light of that day in the child of Bethlehem. Heaven has come down. God is with us.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AView_from_Mount_Willard.jpg By Fredlyfish4 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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