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Sunday’s sermon: Passion

To listen to audio, push play (triangle).

Call to worship

Holy Week starts on Palm Sunday with Jesus weeping over the people of Jerusalem before entering it – not as a warrior on a war charger – but as a person of peace on a donkey that had never been ridden before. 

The crowd goes wild – for the Healer, the Teacher, the Miracle-maker, the bread-and-fish-breaker, the Calmer of Storms has come. How we might long to slip into their midst and wave our palm branches in greeting – our “Hosanna” song rising to heaven on the lips of the throng:

Give thanks to the Lord, 
for He is good!
His love endures forever!

Psalm 118:1 New International Version

But Palm Sunday has another name with words so much harder to hear that we would rather wash our hands of them. Instead, I invite you to open them wide where you are sitting and to hold within them the passion and the pain of the Psalmist’s prayer:

Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress;
    my eyes grow weak with sorrow,
    my soul and body with grief.
My life is consumed by anguish
    and my years by groaning;
my strength fails because of my affliction,
    and my bones grow weak.
Because of all my enemies,
    I am the utter contempt of my neighbors
and an object of dread to my closest friends—
    those who see me on the street flee from me.
I am forgotten as though I were dead;
    I have become like broken pottery.
For I hear many whispering,
    “Terror on every side!”
They conspire against me
    and plot to take my life.

But I trust in you, Lord;
    I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hands;
    deliver me from the hands of my enemies,
    from those who pursue me.
Let your face shine on your servant;
    save me in your unfailing love.

Psalm 39:1-16 New International Version

Candle-lighting

If you are listening to this an audio reflection, I invite you to pause it for a moment to light a candle and join in the hymn below by singing along or speaking the words out loud:

Born in the night,
Mary’s child,
a long way from your home;
coming in need,
Mary’s child,
born in a borrowed room.

Clean shining light,
Mary’s child,
your face lights up our way;
light of the world, 
Mary’s child,
dawn on our darkened day.

Truth of our life,
Mary’s child,
you tell us God is good;
prove it is true,
Mary’s child,
go to your cross of wood.

Hope of the world,
Mary’s child,
you’re coming soon to reign;
King of the earth,
Mary’s child,
walk in our streets again.

Together in Song 323

Prayer

Blessed be you, Divine Peacemaker,
seeker of justice, 
the One who weeps with and for us 
as we fail to see how dazzled we are by the trappings of status
and how distant we have become from your passion for the world.
Give us eyes to see what is scandalous, 
voices to speak up for those without worth, 
courage to confront both power and pride,
and enough care to place in Your hands 
the burden of the wrongness of this world
which we name before You now.

In Jesus’ name.
Amen.

Reflecting on Scripture

Today we reflect on a portion of the Gospel reading for Passion Sunday in which Jesus appears before Pilate who washes his hands of him.

Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“You have said so,” Jesus replied.

When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer.Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor.

Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.

While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”

But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.

“Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor.

“Barabbas,” they answered.

“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.

They all answered, “Crucify him!”

“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”

When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”

All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”

Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

Matthew 27:11-26

It is something that I learned to love in South Africa: the provision of a beautiful bowl of warm water, often strewn with pretty petals or a few drops of scented oil, for a guest to wash their hands in before a meal. More than a practical act of cleanliness, it was a measure of hospitality as well. 

How different our preoccupation is with hand washing now as we sing or pray our way through a twenty-second scrubbing as we seek to be safe and keep others safe in a world where others might bear the cost of our unsantized touch.

Perhaps it is this regular, relentless act that first drew me to this reading. 

Perhaps it is the injustice of it all that pulls me in – for surely the world is not so unfair, the crowd so bloodthirsty, our leaders so quick to do the wrong thing if it means retaining their power and popularity. 

Perhaps it is my frustration that the Living Word offers no words really in his defence and that all the articulate theological arguments around why the salvation of the world must come about through such a brutal story still make little sense to my heart. 

Perhaps it is because I know how many times, at the end of a long day, I have run myself a hot bath and allowed to slip away words that I have spoken to influence or injure, the names of people I did not get around to calling because I’ve put so many other priorities on my plate, deep questions about love and life and faith that I am not yet ready to consider, good intentions that have amounted to nothing beyond a brief thought, the truth of how great a divide there is between who I am and who Christ calls me to be. I wish that I could say that I at least wallow in these things for a while, but with the warmth of the water they are fast forgotten – particularly when paired with a good book.

I wonder if it was that way for Pilate – or if the guilt and shame ate away at him over time. Scripture is clear in telling us that he knows the motives of the crowd are false, that he is warned by his wife of Jesus’s innocence, that he gives up the truth when he sees that he is getting nowhere. 

His act of washing his hands and declaring that he is innocent of Jesus’s blood is ludicrous – for though the crowd has asked for it – he is the only one with the power to have Jesus flogged and handed over for crucifixion. So, what is its significance? Why waste time on such a meaningless ritual? 

As I wonder these things, I am struck by the difference between the passion of Christ and the pretence of Pilate. Between an act of loving servanthood in which Jesus took basin and towel, got down on his knees, and washed each disciples’ feet and this pointless gesture of hand washing in which one with great authority takes absolutely no responsibility for his choices. Between one who is willing to lay down his life for the liberation and healing of others – and one who is unwilling to risk anything at all for the sake of justice or peace.

It is a story of contrasts which speaks radically to me of what it means to be Church as we enter into Holy Week, to be a people made new by baptism and nourished each day by the living waters of God’s Spirit instead of a people who wash our hands of the world that God has given us responsibility for. 

As you listen to or sing along with the next hymn, I invite you, as you are able, to pour a bowl of water and – as you wash your hands – slowly consider what significance this action might take on in your life right now.

For me, I am reminded of the words of Trevor Hudson who speaks of each one of us as sitting beside a pool of tears. As I dip my hands into the water, I choose not to give up responsibility for a world that is hurting, but to open myself up to stories of heartache and pain so that, together, we might find healing and transformation.

Jesus Christ, I think upon your sacrifice
You became nothing, poured out to death
Many times I’ve wondered at your gift of life
And I’m in that place once again
I’m in that place once again
And once again I look upon the cross where you died
I’m humbled by your mercy and I’m broken inside
Once again I thank you
Once again I pour out my life

Now you are exalted to the highest place
King of the heavens, where one day I’ll bow
But for now I marvel at this saving grace
And I’m full of praise once again
I’m full of praise once again
And once again I look upon the cross where you died
I’m humbled by your mercy and I’m broken inside
Once again I thank you
Once again I pour out my life

Thank you for the cross
Thank you for the cross
Thank you for the cross, my friend

Matt Redman

Blessing

May the blessing of God who fashioned and formed us 
be upon us in the place of pain and the pool of tears
that we may never forget the world’s suffering 
nor forsake God’s great love, 
but seek to do justice,
love mercy,
and walk humbly with God.

Looking ahead through Holy Week …

Next week, instead of the daily pattern of prayer, a short reflection will be offered each night on the lectionary readings that lead us to the cross. I do hope that you will join me on this sacred journey. 

Yours in Christ
Yvonne 

Sunday’s sermon: Breathe

Audio

Grace, hope and peace to the gathered community as we meet, not in person, but in the person of Christ Jesus who binds us together beyond boundaries of time and space and solid lines on manmade maps ….

I love this Sunday in Lent which marks the beginning of Passiontide. It is a time of prophecy and of promise as we get ready for the old, old story of Jesus’s joyful entry into Jerusalem, his final meal with the disciples in the upper room, his anguished prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, his trial before Pontius Pilate who chooses to wash his hands of him, his slow death on Calvary’s cross between two thieves, and – ultimately – his resurrection. Our Scriptures on this fifth Sunday in the wilderness journey give us something to hold onto us we face the darkness that lies ahead. 

As we lead into a time of prayer this morning, I invite you to take a moment to light a candle or open a curtain and be reminded that we are a people of promise, prophets in this time who kindle a flame to lighten the dark and take our fear away. 

You may want to listen to the chant below as you do so, or to simply repeat the following words three or four times:

Kindle a flame
to lighten the dark,
and take our fears away.

Let us pray (based on Psalm 130):

Lord, we cry out to You
from the very depths of our despair.
Hear our voice. 
Listen to our plea for mercy
and answer our prayers.
You do not measure us 
and find us unworthy.
You do not mark our sins 
and find us unclean.
You welcome us with Your forgiving love –
so we love and worship You.

We wait for Your word of hope;
We expect Your breakthrough;
We long for the morning’s light.

Keep us hoping,
keep us trusting,
keep us waiting 
on Your tender heart 
and Your liberation. 

In Jesus’ name.
Amen.


So we hear the words of the prophet Ezekiel 

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

Ezekiel 37:1-14, NRSV

Our Gospel reading (which you are welcome to take a moment to read in John 11) paints, for me, one of the most intimate pictures of Jesus that we find in Scripture. 

It is a story of relationship, of friendship, of deeply human connection which we know because it begins by fleshing out for us the characters who make it so real and relatable. 

We know Mary and Martha from the Gospel of Luke and remember how one – Mary – chose to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his teaching while the other – Martha – did not have too much of a choice in taking responsibility for extending the hospitality of their household to Jesus and his followers. We are told that Mary was the one so moved by love for the Christ that she anointed his feet with an expensive perfume and wiped them with her hair. We hear quite plainly in verses 4 and 5 that Jesus, in turn, loved each of them: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, the brother who lived with them in the village of Bethany.

Yet, Lazarus is ill. It is obviously a serious sickness for Mary and Martha write to Jesus with the expectation that he, their beloved friend, will come immediately and help – even though the Jews in Judea have recently tried to stone him. 

That’s friendship. The reaching out for the comforting presence of another in a time of need and knowing that they will show up because that it the nature of the love between you, because the give and take and mutual self-offering is how it has been consistently over time ….

But Mary and Martha wait. They wait and they worry. They take turns looking out the door or the window for a sign that the one they have sent for is coming. They wait and they worry and they watch. They watch helplessly as the day turns to night and Lazarus slowly slips away. 

Hope turns to grief. Without breath, Lazarus’ body is buried – to return again once skin and flesh and sinew have decomposed to dry bones, to the ashes of the earth.

It is only four days later that Jesus shows up and, in an interesting turn, it is Martha who goes first to greet him. In the bleakest of circumstances she professes, “Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 

We can move quickly now to the end of the story where the stone is taken away and Jesus calls his friend out of the tomb and all who see Lazarus breathe again believe that Jesus is not just some healer but the Promised Messiah, the Resurrection and the Life.

Yet I would have us wait for that moment between Martha’s professed faith and the miracle, to sit with the heavy accusation that falls from Mary’s mouth when she sees him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” to open ourselves up to the anguished weeping that moves Jesus himself to weep – even though he knows that this story will end with restoration and resurrection. 

In the quiet, I invite you to breathe. 

To breathe in deeply the breath of God, the gift of Spirit. To breathe out slowly the grief, the pain, the disappointment, the loneliness, the fear, the questions, the heartache that has settled deep within our bones. 

Breathe in the promise of restoration and resurrection, and breathe out the years of longing, watching, waiting, weeping, praying with little sign of the newness coming, of the vision taking shape. 

Breathe in the love and friendship and intimacy of the Christ who weeps with us in the darkest night, and breathe out that love, that friendship, that intimacy as though you are filling the whole world with it. 

Just breathe … and in your breathing in and out, I invite you to hold all who are struggling to breathe in this time through sickness or sorrow or suffocating life circumstances before God. 

Lord, we cry out to You
from the very depths of our despair.
Hear our voice.
Listen to our plea for mercy
and answer our prayers.

Amen.

May you know the friendship of God
who draws near to us in the darkest of days,
who weeps with us when we are weeping,
and who leads us to resurrection life.

And can it be that I should gain
An int’rest in the Saviour’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain –
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

’Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies!
Who can explore this strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love Divine!
’Tis mercy all! let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
’Tis mercy all! let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.

He left His Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace;
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me.
’Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me.

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness Divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

Charles Wesley, Together in Song 209

Sunday reflections 22/3

Welcome friends, fellow pilgrims on the way to God’s promised end in this time of disaster, disease and dis-ease when many of us feel truly anxious and alone in the wilderness ….

Yet, as we gather in new ways and in new times and in new spaces like this one, we remember that it was through the ascension of Christ and his return to the Father, that we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit who dwells within each one of us and is with us even now, ensuring a deep and spiritual connection with all the heroes of the faith who have gone before us and with the whole host of heaven. So, in faith, let us pray:

Gracious, gathering God:
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
from the beginning, connected,
and through the connection, creative,
and in all creation, communing

with Your children
who You fashioned in Your image,
wove together with Your own hands,

named “beloved,”
and called according to Your good purpose and plan,
how wonderful,
how truly delightful it isto enter this day
into the sweet harmony of Your salvation song:

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

As we gather together in this moment
with all our sisters and brothers across time and space,
may the togetherness of our spirits
be a source of blessing
and a sigh of our deep yearning
for the day when You will gather all things up
in heaven and on earth
into Your perfect peace -forever and ever.
Amen.

Our Good News comes today from John 9 and I read from The Passion Translation.

Afterward, as Jesus walked down the street, he noticed a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Teacher, whose sin caused this guy’s blindness, his own, or the sin of his parents?”

Jesus answered, “Neither. It happened to him so that you could watch him experience God’s miracle. While I am with you, it is daytime and we must do the works of God who sent me while the light shines. For there is coming a dark night when no one will be able to work. As long as I am with you my life is the light that pierces the world’s darkness.”

Then Jesus spat on the ground and made some clay with his saliva. Then he anointed the blind man’s eyes with the clay. And he said to the blind man, “Now go and wash the clay from your eyes in the ritual pool of Siloam.” So he went and washed his face and as he came back, he could see for the first time in his life!

This caused quite a stir among the people of the neighbourhood, for they noticed the blind beggar was now seeing! They began to say to one another, “Isn’t this the blind man who once sat and begged?” Some said, “No, it can’t be him!” Others said, “But it looks just like him—it has to be him!” All the while the man kept insisting, “I’m the man who was blind!”

Finally, they asked him, “What has happened to you?”

He replied, “I met the man named Jesus! He rubbed clay on my eyes and said, ‘Go to the pool named Siloam and wash.’ So I went and while I was washing the clay from my eyes I began to see for the very first time ever!”

So the people of the neighbourhood inquired, “Where is this man?”

“I have no idea.” the man replied.

So the people marched him over to the Pharisees to speak with them.

They were concerned because the miracle Jesus performed by making clay with his saliva and anointing the man’s eyes happened on a Sabbath day, a day that no one was allowed to “work.”

Then the Pharisees asked the man, “How did you have your sight restored?”

He replied, “A man anointed my eyes with clay, then I washed, and now I can see for the first time in my life!”

Then an argument broke out among the Pharisees over the healing of the blind man on the Sabbath. Some said, “This man who performed this healing is clearly not from God! He doesn’t even observe the Sabbath!” Others said, “If Jesus is just an ordinary sinner, how could he perform a miracle like that?”

This prompted them to turn on the man healed of blindness, putting him on the spot in front of them all, demanding an answer. They asked, “Who do you say he is—this man who opened your blind eyes?”

“He’s a prophet of God!” the man replied.

Still refusing to believe that the man had been healed and was truly blind from birth, the Jewish leaders called for the man’s parents to be brought to them.

So they asked his parents, “Is this your son?”

“Yes,” they answered.

“Was he really born blind?”

“Yes, he was,” they replied.

So they pressed his parents to answer, “Then how is it that he’s now seeing?”

“We have no idea,” they answered. “We don’t know what happened to our son. Ask him, he’s a mature adult. He can speak for himself.” (Now the parents were obviously intimidated by the Jewish religious leaders, for they had already announced to the people that if anyone publicly confessed Jesus as the Messiah, they would be excommunicated. That’s why they told them, “Ask him, he’s a mature adult. He can speak for himself.”)

So once again they summoned the man who was healed of blindness and said to him, “Swear to God to tell us the truth! We know the man who healed you is a sinful man! Do you agree?”

The healed man replied, “I have no idea what kind of man he is. All I know is that I was blind and now I can see for the first time in my life!”

“But what did he do to you?” they asked. “How did he heal you?”

The man responded, “I told you once and you didn’t listen to me. Why do you make me repeat it? Are you wanting to be his followers too?”

This angered the Jewish leaders. They heaped insults on him, “We can tell you are one of his followers—now we know it! We are true followers of Moses, for we know that God spoke to Moses directly. But as for this one, we don’t know where he’s coming from!”

“Well, what a surprise this is!” the man said. “You don’t even know where he comes from, but he healed my eyes and now I can see! We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but only to godly people who do his will. Yet who has ever heard of a man born blind that was healed and given back his eyesight? I tell you, if this man isn’t from God, he wouldn’t be able to heal me like he has!”

Some of the Jewish leaders were enraged and said, “Just who do you think you are to lecture us! You were born a blind, filthy sinner!” So they threw the man out in the street.

When Jesus learned they had thrown him out, he went to find him and said to him, “Do you believe in the Son of God?”

The man whose blind eyes were healed answered, “Who is he, Master? Tell me so that I can place all my faith in him.”

Jesus replied, “You’re looking right at him. He’s speaking with you. It’s me, the one in front of you now.”

Then the man threw himself at his feet and worshiped Jesus and said, “Lord, I believe in you!”

And Jesus said, “I have come to judge those who think they see and make them blind. And for those who are blind, I have come to make them see.”

Some of the Pharisees were standing nearby and overheard these words.

They interrupted Jesus and said, “You mean to tell us that we are blind?”

Jesus told them, “If you would acknowledge your blindness, then your sin would be removed. But now that you claim to see, your sin remains with you!”

***
It’s an interesting way to start a story, isn’t it?

The disciples see a man afflicted from birth by blindness and their immediate assumption is that somewhere along the line someone in his family must have done something terrible to deserve this punishment.

Their question reveals as much about their culture as it does about their picture of God, their notion of justice, and the attitudes that they have towards others that have been ingrained since birth by teachers and parents and rabbis and priests. It is a wonder, actually, that they did not spit on the ground and curse at him as they passed him by.

Yet, Jesus does not just walk on without seeing both the need of this man and the opportunity to open the eyes of his disciples to shine a light wherever it is dark.

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the physical limitation of the man born blind is far more easily remedied than the disbelief of his neighbours, the rigid and enraged hearts of the religious leaders, and the fearfulness of the man’s family of being thrown out in the street – excommunicated from their faith community if they celebrate that something miraculous has happened to their son and publicly confess Jesus as the Messiah.

By the end of the story, we only hear account of one man – the blind man – seeing with new eyes Jesus, the Son of God, as the source of his healing and salvation and declaring, “Lord, I believe in you!”

I wonder what the disciples believed in this moment; how watching the interaction between Jesus and this so-called cursed creature and then Jesus and their Jewish leaders may have challenged what they thought they knew about the world and people’s place in it.

On Thursday morning, I felt that I had woken up in a new world as we, in the Uniting Church in Australia, have been urged – like churches in other denominations throughout the world – to cease meeting in person for the common good of all on our planet, but particularly the most vulnerable in our midst.

COVID-19 follows so closely after the devastating bushfires and a period of prolonged drought and other natural disasters that we must surely say, “This is the dark night when no one is able to work.”

Yet, as spit on the ground could be used to open the eyes of those who desire to see, this time in our life as God’s Church, challenges all who believe in the Son of God, to become signs of His presence with us and lights that pierce the world’s darkness.

As we are challenged by this dark time to forgo many of our religious traditions and rituals, to think about what we know of the world and people’s place within it, and to embody the healing and transforming power and presence of Jesus, let us be particularly mindful of those who feel forgotten as the public eye has shifted so quickly from the horrors of this summer and a long, dry season to this global pandemic.

Let us be mindful of vulnerable communities throughout the world whose little access to adequate healthcare or good nutrition or sufficient space to self-isolate or maintain social distance places them at great risk.

Let us be mindful of the elderly in our midst, and, especially, those on their own who already feel isolated, and who cherish the company offered in physical gatherings and in the peace passed by human touch.

Let us be mindful of those whose names we have forgotten, who have been on the margins of our Christian communities or ceased to worship a long while ago due to difficult family circumstance and ill health, and may slip through the cracks in our care

Let us be mindful of all who have already been struggling day in and day out with cancer, and depression, domestic violence, and addiction, broken relationships, and financial concerns.

Let us be mindful of those whose employment makes them vulnerable to infection and those whose employment and income are currently at risk.

Let us be mindful of individuals and families who can neither celebrate wonderful moments nor grieve great losses as they would normally do.

As I end with an encircling prayer, I invite you to write down some of the names of people and places that come to mind as we consider those who are especially impacted and to lay them out on a piece of cloth or a scarf which you will fold over them each time you hear the word “encircler” – just as Christ covered the man’s eyes with spit and mud his act of healing.

Let us pray (adapted from the Carmina Gadelica III):

My Christ! My Christ! My shield, my encircler,
Each day, each night, each light, each dark:
My Christ! My Christ! My shield, my encircler,
Each day, each night, each light, each dark.

Be near us, uphold us,
our treasure, our triumph,
in our lying, in our standing,
in our watching, in our sleeping.

Jesus, Son of Man! Our helper, our encircler,
Jesus, Son of God! Our strength everlasting:
Jesus, Son of Man! Our helper, our encircler,
Jesus, Son of God! Our strength everlasting.
Amen.

A long time to wait

Sunday’s sermon at Pilgrim; also shared at liturgies4life.com

Today, we look at Jesus’s family tree from Matthew 1 against the backdrop of the prophecy in Isaiah 11 regarding the shoot that shall spring from the stump of Jesse. You’re welcome to read through the first half of the first chapter of that Gospel but for those who may be put off by all those names, here’s a handy little lyrical version that I found on youtube:

Isaiah’s hope-filled vision occurs, interestingly, in the context of the growing Assyrian threat, in a time when the legacy of King David is all but lost in spite of God’s promises that his house would endure forever.

In the midst of those first 39 chapters of the book, we hear the voice of first (or proto) Isaiah: a voice full of judgment and warning about the bad things that are about to happen because the people of God have not lived in right relationship with God nor with one another nor with their neighbours. 

It’s a countdown to conquest really; but, against all odds, a new shoot will grow from an old stump – the stump of Jesse who was David’s father and David was Israel’s first and greatest King. 

And this new King – the Messiah – will receive the fullness of God’s Spirit: wisdom and understanding, counsel and power, knowledge and reverence for God and delight in doing God’s will. Through him, the poor and the needy will find favour and all that are divided will find peace and harmony. There will be no harm, no hurt in his kingdom.

Isn’t that a beautiful image?
A hope to hold on to?

But what do words and pretty promises mean when your home is burning, your child is dying; when you have no freedom; when there is no peace or harmony – only harm and hurt, hurt and harm day after day, month after month, year after year after year? 

It was 700 years or so before the promised child was born – so full of Spirit; the Son of God. Born into the midst of Roman occupation and religious exploitation and poverty and need …

… for the more things change, the more they stay the same as we say so casually.

But when we step back a little further and look at Jesus’ family tree, we see, in fact, God’s promise to deliver, to rescue, to save spanning the fourteen generations from Jesus’ birth to the exile in Babylon. And fourteen generations before that between the tile and the reign of King David. And fourteen generations from David all the way back to Abraham, who is known as the father of our faith for God made a promise to him and he left all that he had known to follow God.

Forty-two generations! That’s a long time to wait for a promise; a long time to hold on to a hope when you’re hurting right now.

We will spend a lot of time with the Gospel of Matthew in Year A of the lectionary cycle, and you will see how often he draws attention to things happening in fulfilment of what the prophets said. The author wants us to know – in both head and heart – that God does what God says God will do.

But each person has a part, a place, in fulfilling these promises, including:

  • Tamar, who was nearly burned to death for being pregnant out of wedlock,
  • Ruth, the foreigner,
  • Rahab, the prostitute,
  • Bathsheba, who was so beautiful that King David had her husband killed so he could have her for himself,
  • and Mary, who was pretty much an insignificant little nobody until she was chosen to bear the Christ-child.

Everyone has a place – including those we deem unlikely, insignificant, and unworthy (hence my choice of women from Jesus’ family tree) – in the unfolding promises of God who is active in every generation.

As we hear again in this Advent season that familiar story of the Christ-child born in our midst who will come again one day to establish the perfect peace of his kingdom, once and for all, it would serve us well to wonder – and perhaps to talk about over the table:

  • what does that promise really mean?
  • what might it mean for those who are in the midst of drought, destruction, and despair right now?
  • do we walk with dread each day because of bad things happening?
  • do we set out into the world in anticipation that God will draw near to us?
  • do we offer hope through pretty words or through active participation in what we see God doing to bring comfort and healing and peace in the midst of harmful, hurtful situations?

My prayer as we travel the prophet’s path is that we will enter into each new day as if God is coming – not in 700 years’ time or 7000 – right here and right now, in the words that we speak, and the love that we share, and the space that we make at the table.