Monday, September 4, 2017

The River of Life

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal,
flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb
through the middle of the street of the city.

On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit,
producing its fruit each month;
and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
Nothing accursed will be found there any more.
But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him;
they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.
And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun,
for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.

 And he said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true, for the Lord,
the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants
what must soon take place.’

‘See, I am coming soon!
Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.’   

- Revelation 22:1-7

There’s scary stuff in
John’s Book of Revelation: earthquakes, eclipses; dragons, four horsemen; several groups of seven: angels, seals, trumpets, stars, churches; pillars of fire, a lake of fire, Satan, and a slaughtered Lamb.  Vivid imagery.  We hardly ever read from Revelation in a church service.

But the book is a vision from Christ.  John wrote, ‘I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write in a book what you see.’

He was writing in exile from the island of Patmos at the end of the first century to seven churches in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey.  He offers words of encouragement to each church in turn but the persecutions he talks about were probably random outbursts rather than official Roman policy.  The book is a prophecy of warning and hope concerning the events of the last days, which John was convinced would soon take place.

We get the English word apocalypse from the Greek title of the book.  An apocalypse is a genre or narrative that relates a vision, or revelation, about the future either here on earth or in heaven, or both.  The Book of Daniel is also an apocalypse

While the book overall is not for the squeamish, it offers some interesting twists and turns.

The four horseman are Conquest, or Pestilence (White), War (Red), Famine (Black), and Death (Pale Green).  My then-young daughter once asked why and how a horse could be pale green.  As it happens, and to make a long story short, the Greek reads Hippos chlorosHippos is horse, as in hippopotamus, the water horse.  Chloros means green, as in chlorophyll.  It can also mean pale, which was probably John's intention, as this was the horse that Death rode into town.  But the translators for the King's James version, not wanting to be wrong, split the difference and made it pale green.  Just about every translation since keeps it that way.
Gustave Doré, Death on the Pale Horse, 1865

Here's another: Remember that it is Satan who gets thrown in the lake of fire, not us, for 1000 years, which is, in the Bible, basically forever.

We began this series of evening services with a reading from the very beginning of the Bible, chapter one in Genesis, so it’s appropriate that we end here at the end of Revelation.  There’s nothing after this in the Bible except John’s epilogue and benediction.

So we’ve come full circle to tonight’s reading about a river and a garden.

Rivers play key roles in the Bible: the Tigris and Euphrates, two of the four rivers mentioned in Genesis 2; the Nile, from which Pharaoh’s daughter plucked the baby Moses in Exodus 2; and the River Jordan, which the Israelites crossed when they entered the Promised Land and in which John baptized Jesus (Matthew 3.)

The Bible also includes many references to metaphorical rivers and streams, from the waters of Creation (Genesis 1), the waters of justice (Amos 5), waters of shalom (Ezekiel 47), to streams of living water (Deuteronomy 1), and more.  The people living in the area understood these metaphors because having a river nearby meant life, a more abundant life than you might have otherwise.  In the wilderness, there were plenty of seasonal streams called wadis, which only flowed in the rainy season.  They were very unreliable.  Therefore, God was very specific in declaring through prophets like Amos to ‘let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ – justice ought to be reliably present always.  If we love God, we should seek to do justice and righteousness too.

So what we have here in tonight’s reading is the ultimate: the river of the water of life flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, Jesus Christ.  This river flows down the middle of the street in an abundant urban garden.  There is no bad side of town in this city – the fruitful tree of life stands on both sides of the street.  Everything is good in this garden.  Here the nations can be healed by the leaves on the tree.  Here we will see God’s face.  This is how God intended it to be from the beginning.  The angel said to John, ‘These words are trustworthy and true.’  Though maybe things don’t work that way now, they will then.

We have plenty of rivers around here: The Fore and Back Rivers are local to us; in Marshfield, we have the North and South Rivers; in Boston, the once-lovably-dirty water of the Charles River; further west, the mighty Mississippi; and, beyond that, the Colorado River, which provides power and water to five states yet doesn’t quite make it to the ocean any more.  They flow but they are all vulnerable to human interference.

In our world, protecting water sources – or simply having access to it – is an ongoing challenge for millions of people.  Here, we are blessed with lots of wells and aquifers, and we’ve gotten pretty good at protecting them from pollutants and contaminants.  Globally, though, not everyone has access to fresh, clean water.  For too many people, a wadi will have to do.

And every now and then, we get a Hurricane Harvey.  With all the destruction and misery down in Houston, do we dare speak about the river of the water of life?  As we saw there and in New Orleans after Katrina, our flood-prevention systems sometimes do not perform the way we think they will.  It doesn’t help when we build cities and towns and malls on the flood plain.

Ours is a watery planet, but it’s a closed system – we have the same amount of water available to us today, more or less, that Adam and Eve had way back when.  When things like Harvey happen, people respond.  The Coast Guard unit based on Cape Cod sent thirty people, boats, and helicopters down to Houston as soon as they could.  We’ve seen video clips of people driving to Houston, boats in tow, to help rescue the stranded, the helpless.  We tend to open our hearts and wallets too.  It’s instinctive for us to offer help, to want to send some form of healing as best we are able.  It never fails.  In an emergency, our compassion is an ever-flowing stream.

In Genesis, the river flows out of Eden to water the world.  In Revelation, the source of the always-flowing water of life is God, and it is meant to heal and sustain us all, equally.  Notice that the river flows – and the water at any point along the bank today is not the water from yesterday nor will it be the same water tomorrow.  God does not wait for the end times to renew us.  God renews today.  The water of life flows from God now, today.  As our thoughts and prayers go out to those affected by Hurricane Harvey, let us be strengthened and challenged to hasten the day when John’s vision of the river of life, of fruit-bearing trees, and of healing becomes more than a metaphor to our communities and to the nation.


(Preached at New North Church on 30 August 2017.)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’
– Matthew 5:9

Introduced in 1873, The Gun that Won the West, the Colt Single Action Army® revolver, also known as The Peacemaker®, has earned more fame and renown than any other Colt handgun. Colt ownership records show a long list of ‘action-oriented Americans’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries including Buffalo Bill Cody, Theodore Roosevelt, Judge Roy Bean, Pawnee Bill Lilly, Captain Jack Crawford, Pat Garrett and General George Patton.

Designed to be defensive weapons, handguns are, nonetheless, like anything else that fires a bullet, very effective killing machines. It’s easy to see how this particular revolver became known as a peacemaker, given its ability to quickly silence the unruly.

Absent a sidearm, what does it mean to be a peacemaker? In a world so ripe and ready for peace, why is there so little of it?

First, there’s a difference between peacemaking and peacekeeping.

Most of us live in quiet, safe communities where everyone seems to get along with one another, even if your obnoxious behavior might irritate someone every now and then. Blessed is the village where everyone manages to make it through the night unscathed. Even if they never go to church, most people, in the course of their normal day, somehow seem to abide by God’s commandment, ‘Thou shall not murder.’

Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers,’ but he never said how we ought to go about doing it; no instructions, just a blessing, as if he knew that we might somehow puzzle it out.

Ezekiel prophesied that God is against false prophets who came, ‘saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace’ (Ezekiel 13:10). The prophet Micah, too, warned against false prophets, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets
   who lead my people astray,
who cry “Peace”
   when they have something to eat,
but declare war against those
  who put nothing into their mouths.
Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision,
   and darkness to you, without revelation.
The sun shall go down upon the prophets,
   and the day shall be black over them.’ (Micah 3:5-6)

Declaring peace and then not delivering it is a bad idea, and we can only achieve peace when all parties are ready to make it. But peacemaking is difficult. Even if the warring factions eventually collapse with exhaustion, making peace is no easy task.

It is true that in the Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus knew, war is mentioned far more often than peace, yet the seeds for peacemaking can be found there, again in the writings of Micah, who seems just a little miffed when he says, ‘He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
  and to walk humbly with your God?’ (Micah 6:8)

Micah describes three concepts that lead to peace. Note that these three, and not peace itself, are what God requires of us.

Joachim Jeremias referred to justice as the central concept of the Bible (Joachim Jeremias, The Central Message of the New Testament, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1981). It is something that we actively have to do. Justice – in Hebew, mishphat – ‘focuses on what is legally expected,’ wrote Munib A. Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, in 2011.

To love kindness is to be compassionate toward others, to show mercy, to be ready to speak out against injustice. We are called to join these two practices with walking humbly with God. Showing humility before the Lord is always a good idea, but the Hebrew used by Micah – hatznea (spelled here without the correct accent marks) – can also mean prudence and wisdom. So we can say that we ought to walk humbly, carefully, and wisely with God. And how do we do that? Perhaps through repentance and forgiveness, first and foremost.

Making peace is not easy, not as easy as making war and disruption. But Jesus says that those who do it, or try to, will be blessed by God. The Bible gives us a road map to achieve it, expecting us to do it not just once or every now and then, but every day. Make it a lifestyle choice, in the same way Teddy Roosevelt and General Patton once chose to make peace in a different kind of way.


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

George Gershwin Would Be Proud

And the livin' is easy
Fish are jumpin'
And the cotton is high

Six months into my call, we are now on summer hiatus, at least as far as regular Sunday services go.  The next two months will be as busy or busier than any of the others before them.  In place of Sunday services, we will host four vesper services, two in July and two in August. 

Each service features its own theme and the music and musicians will be oriented to that theme.  Our first service will be based on Genesis 1:1-2:4a, so we are literally starting at the beginning.  Next, we have a folk service, a blues-oriented service, and finally a service tinged by jazz.  Should be fun.

We also have two weddings coming up, one in July and one in August.  If nothing else, we like balance here.

Finally, I am honored to fill my Sundays with sabbatical coverage at another church, and will also provide pastoral care for both congregations.  I love my calling.  This is joyful work.

On top of that,
the church I serve will be taking steps to provide an online-giving option on our web site, and we are expanding our outreach ministry to support local transitional housing for recovering addicts.  A full plate for all of us.  It's a very exciting time here.

One of these mornings
You're going to rise up singing
Then you'll spread your wings
And you'll take to the sky

Enjoy the day.


Vintage view of New North Church, Hingham, Massachusetts

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Have You Got The Time?

The church I serve happens to have a town-owned clock up in the bell tower.  Apparently, in the late nineteenth century, the town decided that knowing the time of day was important, so took charge of maintaining several strategically-located clocks, three in churches due to the height and visibility of their bell towers (New North Church; the Congregational Church; and the Second Parish Church), and the fourth in what became a schoolhouse and is now a business (the William Fearing Building).  Each clock survives today but none of them is in workable condition.  At the most recent town meeting, a majority of citizens voted to approve twelve Community Preservation Act projects, one of which includes restoring each tower clock.

E. Howard & Company in Boston made the clock installed in New North Church (originally Third Church, built by the New North Meeting-House Corporation in 1807).

Given that we all walk around with a watch or clock of some kind on our person (via smart phones, dumb phones, or even actual watches) or in our cars, and that just about every device and appliance in our homes has a clock built into it, why bother repairing some old clocks that will still need maintenance after their respective restorations are complete?
The argument that we don’t need working church clocks anymore is compelling.  Hardly anyone looks up these days anyway; we’re too busy looking down at our phones.  Or we’re driving by and can’t see the clock in any case.  Also, they’re just too danged expensive to repair.  This town has found a solution to that concern by using CPA money for the restoration projects, which is exactly what CPA money is intended to fund.  But still the question persists: Why bother?

It has lots if gears
Each armature connects to an
exterior clock face

I can think of two reasons.  First, the town owns the clocks and has come to realize that it has a responsibility to maintain them.  But why, when they have far outlived their relevance and purpose?  That feeds into my second reason: the town values its history and its legacy.  If we turn away from our shared heritage, more and more of what we hold dear will erode away.  Is taking pride in one’s community a sin?  Should we not love the place in which we live?  Knowing that the clocks actually work might give us hope that other, less tangible stuff in town might also work as designed, and that’s a good thing.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Advent Hope

Based on Isaiah 2:1-5

Tomorrow marks the beginning of a new lectionary cycle, also known as Year A.  We call it the First Sunday of Advent, and our reading concerns the word that Isaiah saw.  That word is mostly about eschatology or the ‘end times;’ for Christians, this means the second coming of Christ.

The hope we share this first Sunday is the hope of the kingdom to come.  We pray for it in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Advent is about expectation, the hope for a better world, a just world, and a new world.

In Deuteronomy 18, the Lord says:
You may say to yourself, ‘How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?’  If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken.

So how do we know Isaiah is not a false prophet, since his words – God’s words – have not come true?

How can they be true when we live in a world of wars and rumors of wars?  It is us who must start living as if the promises Isaiah saw were true.  Isaiah tells us, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”  We have to practice peace, in our homes and in our communities.  We have to practice justice and reconciliation.  God’s words are not empty.  We are expected to wait for God to reveal the word, to share the word, and we are expected not just to listen to it but to see it as reality.  As Christians, we have to take God’s words and God’s challenges seriously, and work to create that reality.

Our current world is a frightening place.  Isaiah sees something that is not yet here: God’s creation as God intended it to be – peaceful, whole, healed, and reconciled.  Interestingly, Isaiah also tells us that they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks – but makes no mention of our swords or our spears.  The nations shall forget how to go to war but we will not be left unarmed.

Hopeful people not only pray for the coming of the Kingdom; they work for it too.  To hope for justice and peace is to work for it.  To hope for a time when all children are fed and properly housed is to do more than just complain about it; it is to find some children to feed and house and then feed and house them.  Realizing our hope is a constant struggle.

In 1995, South Africa set up a truth and reconciliation commission in the wake of the break-down of apartheid.  The entire nation engaged in a wrenching exercise in truth-telling and forgiveness, and is the better for it now.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “First, people prayed for us.”  Eugene Boring wrote, “If the Christian community is to be a ‘house of prayer for all nations,’ it must be a forgiving community, for only forgiveness makes it possible for people to live together.”

Just as we are invited to walk in the light of the Lord, we will all be invited to share a meal at Christ’s table.  Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”  And what we are called to remember is that we gather in peaceful fellowship as a community, imperfect, not entirely whole, but a community nonetheless, as a house of prayer, to live into the hope of Advent.


About the art:

The bronze sculpture, Let Us Beat Our Swords into Ploughshares, was created by Soviet artist Evgeny Vuchetich (1908-1974), and presented to the United Nations on 4 December 1959 by the Government of the USSR. 

The sculpture depicts the figure of a man holding a hammer aloft in one hand and a sword in the other, which he is making into a ploughshare.  It is meant to symbolize man's desire to put an end to war, and to convert the means of destruction into creative tools for the benefit of mankind.  It is located in the North Garden of the United Nations Headquarters.

From: Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Take It to the Cross

Based on Jeremiah 23:1-6 & Luke 23:33-43

So here we are in late November and we’re talking about the death of Jesus.  Next week, we celebrate the first Sunday in Advent.  There must be a reason why we have this reading from Luke’s Gospel for today.  Is the death of Jesus really the way of hope, to help us prepare for the birth of the Messiah?

Luke A. Powery, a professor at Duke University, wrote that the old folk songs, the spirituals, the slave songs of the South before the Civil War and Emancipation, all held the belief that ‘Jesus suffers with us.’  Jesus’ death on the Cross shows us that we are not alone in our suffering and death.  God works in the midst of suffering, especially in the case of wrongful suffering and undeserved death.

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote, ‘For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God’ (1 Corinthians 1:18).  If you think about it, we follow the teachings of a convicted criminal.  Who wouldn’t find foolishness in that?

But we find redemption at the foot of the Cross.  To say we ‘take it to the cross’ means that we celebrate not death and violence, but a love that is always faithful, even in death; a love that shows great mercy; a love that gives grace freely.

At the foot of the Cross, we proclaim the power of God to redeem and to give life.  That’s pretty good news.

As often as we gather in peaceful fellowship not just at the Lord’s Table but for all of our meals, Jesus says to share the blessings of bread and wine in remembrance of him, to give all glory, thanks, and praise to God for God’s abundant mercy and steadfast love, and to follow God’s shepherd.


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

In a Quiet Corner

Based on Luke 18:9-14

The parable form enables us to arrive at an interpretation based on where we are in our culture and in our own time and place in history.  One commentator says that some parables “break up the soil of previous teaching and prepare for a new perspective.”  Much of the meaning in a parable depends on us.  Having said that, we also want to pursue what Luke was trying to tell us.

Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous,” to people who regarded others with contempt.  At the end of chapter 17, Jesus is talking to the disciples about the coming of the Son of Man and then, immediately before today’s reading, he tells them the story of the persistent widow.  So we know that at least the disciples are present.  Pharisees and scribes always seem to be lurking about too, along with the ever-present crowd that follows Jesus around.  And then there’s us, the audience.  So Jesus is telling this parable as a warning to anyone for whom giving thanks has turned into self-praise.

This is God's judgement: that we need purging 'with hyssop;' we need wisdom; we need to acknowledge our iniquities, our transgressions. Only then can God create in us a clean heart. Only then can reconciliation and forgiveness with our neighbors occur.

Imagine how difficult it must be to continually dodge the truth that we have sinned before the Lord; how much physical and emotional energy that must take. Do you think Bashar Hafez al-Assad thinks at all about the toll the civil war must be having on Syria's citizens? Or is the enormity of his sin so great that he can't even speak about his people and what he's doing to them? Do we ever wonder about the toll exacted upon our homeless population by the policies we impose that only seem to be helpful when actually all they do is frustrate and make the problem worse? At what point do we lose our compassion and fall into sin?

How often are we thankful that we’re not like other people?  “There but for the grace of God go I.”  Is there a difference between the Pharisee just doing his duty and the person who gives to charity only to reduce their taxable income at year end?  How often do we admit that we’ve missed the mark?  Like the tax collector, do we recognize our sinfulness?  Does that knowledge bring us sorrow?

We know what God expects, through the prophet Amos:

Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
   I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
   I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
   I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
   and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (5:22-24)

When we re-orient to what God expects – justice, righteousness – when we look at every situation from God’s point of view, then we begin to see the world differently.  The situation in Syria then looks more like tragedy, and the campaign trail, like comedy.

Jesus opens the door for us to discuss the public façade of any system of oppression.  He exposes those who would destroy the village in order to save it.  He tears the veil hanging between our reality and God’s.  He helps us reorient to what God expects versus what we have become used to.  We are free to stand far off by ourselves in our own private prayer time and lay it all out to God.  That’s humbling.  It frees us from our past and from the weight of what we’ve done – or not done.  The good news tells us that all who humble themselves and confess to God what God already knows will be exalted.

Re-orientation leads to self-knowledge, re-evaluation, and transformation.  What we take away from this parable is not that who we once thought was a good guy is now a bad guy, and vice-versa, but that we need to look within and reflect on our own relationship with God – is it honest and direct or are we trying to maintain a façade for others?  Are we self-aware when we seek out the God who made us?

No one has to tell me I’m a sinner.  God knows I know that.  What’s important is how we talk to God about it.  The true confession of our weakness will get us acquitted.  But since we’re not sure this is so, it’s better if we re-orient to what we know God wants from us: justice and righteousness in all that we do.  We must all break up the soil of what we “know” and prepare for a new perspective, through Jesus Christ.