Tag Archives: Revelation

A green olive tree in the house of God | Sermon for Proper 11C

But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God;
I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever. (Psalm 52:8)

Gethsemane

The earthy smell of the olive trees in Gethsemane, ancient and alive at the same time, reminds Jesus of Martha and Mary. He smiles in the dark, his face wet with tears.

His disciples follow him as best they can, but look at them sleeping over there on this night so heavy with decision!

The men and women who crowd around him are sometimes caught up in his vision of the kingdom of God, sometimes seem to understand what he’s trying to say, but it’s his friend Mary who draws the vision out of him, whose listening ear gives him space to talk.

And it’s Martha who makes a home for him to rest in, to eat and drink and recover from the stress of his ministry.

He’s in agony now in the grey moments before dawn on this Friday morning, his heart racing just as it was when he heard that his friend, their brother Lazarus, had died.

Lazarus

Martha challenged Jesus right there in the road when he finally arrived — “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Hands on her hips, she gets right in his face: “You should have done something!”

Martha’s love drives him to tears, the living water pouring from him in waves of grief and love, like healing oil for his friends, for her and Mary and Lazarus.

“Lazarus, come out!” he says.

“Unbind him.”

The wailing of the mourners in Bethany is silenced, and all he can hear is tree limbs creaking in the breeze. The scent of the grave clothes is sharp and pungent, earthy and spicy.

Bethany

The first time he had come to Bethany, the whole house was warm, and the aroma of bread and spices filled his senses.

Martha was cooking something delicious – everything she made was delicious – and she gave him some green olives to eat before dinner was ready.

She chided Mary for not helping, but he laughed and said Mary had chosen the better part, and it would not be taken from her.

Mary held a rose in her lap, and she was listening, helping him to relax and put his thoughts in order while Martha busied herself in the background. The sharp taste of the olives kept his mind from wandering.

“You are busy with many things, Martha. There is only one needful thing.”

Like a green olive tree

On one knee in the crowded Jerusalem street, he struggles to rise. The earthy scent and the deadly weight of the wooden beam press him down, causing blood to flow freely from his wounded back and head.

Later, as he hangs from the cross, his breath getting shallower and more labored in the noonday heat, he is given a taste of sour wine.

His eyes close. What he wouldn’t give for another taste of green olives, for another evening in the warmth of Martha’s home!

Pain pierces his hands and feet in waves of grief and love as he stretches out his arms, offering himself with the same gesture she made when the meal was ready and she invited him and Mary to come to the table.

“Take, eat …”

“They know not what they do … but now I know what I am doing.”

“Lord, I know that the Messiah is coming.”

“I am the resurrection and the life … O Martha, believe.”

His vision of the kingdom completely clear now, he speaks to the one hanging next to him.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

“But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God.”

Jerusalem

In the garden of Gethsemane stand olive trees that are more than 2,000 years old.

Fr. Aran tells me they still smell earthy and spicy, ancient and alive, just as they did in Jesus’ time.

They have endured the endless agonies of men and women down the centuries, continually bearing fruit from their gnarled limbs and giving oil for healing.

Another beloved disciple and friend of Jesus did catch his vision and followed the Way of his Lord into old age. In a revelation, John glimpsed “the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2).

In the center of the heavenly city flows the river of the water of life, “and 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 – like a green olive tree in the house of God — are for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2).

Amen.

 

The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations

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. (Rev. 22:1-5)

Bible as Canon

The Bible as canon, according to John Dally of Bexley Seabury, provides a narrative arc offering salvation by helping us understand our place in the universe.

My notes from the first of three sessions of Fr. Dally’s “This Dangerous Book: Strategies for Teaching the Bible” are reproduced below.

The canonical story is organized into four parts: the creation of the world, the creation of Israel, the creation of the Church, and the end of the world.

The story begins in perfection, moves through imperfection, and ends in perfection.

Creation of the World

The creation of the world is characterized by intimacy, purpose, and naming.

The Lord God formed human beings and breathed life into us, invited us to name every other living creature, and walked in the garden with us at the time of the evening breeze (Gen. 3:8).

However, sin enters the story when Adam and Eve eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We were under the illusion of need, the illusion that the garden and the intimacy and the purpose were not enough.

Humankind is “cursed” by having to leave the garden and earn the knowledge that we stole.

Creation of Israel

Following the catastrophe of the Exile into Babylon, the people of Israel looked back over their history and came to understand their origins in the Exodus from Egypt.

During the Exodus, God freed the Hebrews from slavery and made them a chosen people in special relationship with him. God gave them the Law to guide them in that relationship.

Over time, the people of Israel came to desire a kingdom and anointed first Saul, then David, then Solomon as their kings.

The Temple — built eventually by King Solomon — grew in importance as evidence of God’s presence and as the focus of religious practice.

The simple relationship of covenant with God was not enough. Israel labored under the illusion of need and created a Kingdom and a Temple.

Creation of the Church

Jesus came in opposition to both the Temple and the Kingdom, and the catastrophe of the Cross revealed the depth of their violence.

Jesus spoke of living in direct relationship with God, praying in secret (intimacy with God), and giving away the knowledge that the kingdom of God is at hand.

The Temple fails to bring knowledge of God, and its hierarchy exploits the poor. Likewise, the Kingdom of the world (in Jesus’ time, the Roman Empire) rules through military might and exploitative power.

As the Church becomes linked with the Roman Empire under Constantine, Temple and Kingdom become one. The Church continues to obscure the believer’s direct relationship with God and to exploit the poor.

End of the World

The story begins in a garden, but it ends in a city.

The Kingdom and the Temple (which were never God’s idea) are taken up into “the holy city, the new Jerusalem,” but John says that “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22).

In the center of the city are the river and the tree of life, just like in the garden … only this time, “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

The perfect creation of the Garden is restored to perfection in the City, and humans are reconciled to God.

“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.”

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Daily his delight

Icon of the Beloved Disciple from Mt. Angel Abbey

Icon of the Beloved Disciple from Mt. Angel Abbey – the inscription reads “My heart and my flesh cry out: O God, O living God!”

When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always.
(Proverbs 8:27-30)

Powerful Seeking

John’s gospel shines with both power and intimacy.

Jesus crackles with energy, turning water into wine, driving the moneychangers from the Temple, confounding learned and pious Nicodemus, speaking with a foreign woman, and healing with a word (whether the beggar by the pool wants it or not). And that’s only in the first five chapters of the story.

Jesus’ power radiates as clearly as his love and concern for people.

The man born blind, healed by Jesus’ touch and by a compress of mud (how like God’s own touch, forming mud and clay into the first human), is driven out of the synagogue by the religious leaders. But the story doesn’t end there, and John provides the key to understanding it fully.

“Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he had found him …” (John 9:35).

Jesus the power of God, whom John has come to understand is the same Word who was with God in the beginning, seeks out those who are hurting in order to effect their healing. He seeks out those who are estranged in order to effect their reconciliation.

As Reynolds Price writes in Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament, the Gospel of John “says in the clearest voice we have the sentence that mankind craves from stories — The Maker of all things loves and wants me.”

Intimate Sending

John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, writes from a position of intimate knowledge. It is he who reclines next to Jesus at the Last Supper.

From within that close embrace, John sees both the betrayal Jesus suffers and the love that he demonstrates in washing the disciples’ feet and sending them out to serve one another.

Because today’s Feast of St. John falls on a Friday, in Morning Prayer we have the added poignancy of the Prayer for Mission that captures this intimate sending:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen. (BCP 101)

Daily His Delight

Jesus, the Word of God, was with God at creation and was “daily his delight.” At the Incarnation, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

John, the Beloved Disciple, who was close to Jesus’ heart and “daily his delight,” wrote his Gospel “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

And you? The disciple whom Jesus loves?

You who have come within the reach of Jesus’ saving embrace and are “daily his delight,” how will you reach forth your hands in love to bring those who do not know Jesus into the knowledge and love of him?

In this world and in the age to come

hanukkah_4160 egg2cake

 

A Prayer of St. Chrysostom

Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name, you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen. (BCP 102)

Knowledge of God’s truth

In this morning’s reading from 1 Maccabees we have the story of the rededication of the Temple — the event celebrated at Hanukkah each year. Judas Maccabeus and his followers have liberated the Temple and labored to rebuild it, replacing the desecrated altar and all of the vessels and fittings for the sanctuary.

Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-eighth year, they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering that they had built. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. All the people fell on their faces and worshiped and blessed Heaven, who had prospered them. So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt offerings; they offered a sacrifice of well-being and a thanksgiving offering. (1 Macc. 4:54-56)

The rededication of the Temple is part of the story of salvation history — the understanding that God continually acts on behalf of his people, bringing them back again and again from their sin and neglect of his covenant with them.

Life everlasting

The rededication of the Temple echoes through the Christian story, too, but is transformed in the visions recorded in the Revelation to John. He pictures a heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, with no more need for a Temple because of the presence of the throne of God and of the Lamb.

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 forever and ever. (Rev. 22:1-5)

Even the lampstands of the Temple will no longer be necessary, “for the Lord God will be their light” for ever.

When two or three are gathered

These stories have been a source of hope and encouragement for Jews and Christians alike, visions of heaven and reminders of God’s continuing care for those who follow him.

Our hope for life in the age to come, however, should also govern how we act here and now. Today’s teaching from the Gospel of Matthew underscores that fact.

Jesus addresses the question of disagreements among believers, outlining a sort of progressive response — first speak to the person alone, then with two or three, then with the whole assembly. If they still don’t agree, he says, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”  (Matt. 18:17).

This is a critical point that we usually miss. What does Jesus do with Gentiles and tax collectors?

He seeks them out, talks with them (men and women alike), dines with them, has his mind changed by them, comes into their households, and proclaims that the kingdom of God has come near to them.

Our hope for life in the age to come should create in us the same urgency for reconciliation that Jesus demonstrated, seeking out the one lamb that was lost from the hundred, even giving up his own life in order to break forever the separation of death.

“When two or three are gathered together,” Christ who is in the midst of us sends us out to fulfill our mission: to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ (BCP 855).

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Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen.

No longer strangers and sojourners

genuflect

I stretched forth my hand against myself;
I have broken my covenant.

My speech is softer than butter,
but war is in my heart.

My words are smoother than oil,
but they are drawn swords.

Cast your burden upon the Lord,
and he will sustain you;
he will never let the righteous stumble.

(Psalm 55, adapted)

The class I’m taking this fall at Bexley Seabury is called “This Dangerous Book” for a reason.

We’re together investigating how texts, images, and sounds in juxtaposition can help us experience the Bible at a heart level rather than in our heads.

Our exercise last night was to do some free association on a text appointed for All Saints’ Day. The reading from the Book of Daniel stirred up in me various “beasts” like Daniel saw “in the visions of his head as he lay in bed.”

I saw in my vision by night
the four winds of heaven
stirring up the great sea
and four great beasts
came up out of the sea
different from one another.
(Dan. 7:2-3)

Though I am struggling with several “great beasts” — various kinds of sin in my life — the experience of the saints reassures me that I am not alone. I am not unique in my struggles, and in fact I can learn how to live from those “who have come out of the great ordeal” before me (Rev. 7:14).

In many recovery programs, those who have gone before are called sponsors; in our tradition they are called saints. Thanks be to God that we are not left to deal with our “great beasts” alone, that we are not left to swim the great sea by ourselves.

We are no longer strangers and sojourners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Eph. 2:19).

Hail, hail! Lion of Judah!

Icon by Robert Lentz, OFM from Trinity Stores -- https://www.trinitystores.com

Icon of the Lion of Judah by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” (Revelation 5:1-5)

It’s got to be at least 25 years ago now.

A group of Episcopal campus ministers from around Illinois were gathered at Brent House, the campus ministry at the University of Chicago, for a weekend planning session of some kind.

At Eucharist one evening we sang Victory Chant (Hail Jesus) by Donnie McClurkin, and I remember being powerfully moved by the refrain:

Hail, hail Lion of Judah!
How wonderful You are!
Hail, hail Lion of Judah!
How powerful You are!

Hail Jesus! You’re my King!
Your life frees me to sing
I will praise You all my days
You’re perfect in all Your ways

At the time, I think it was the music that impressed me most — the joyous, rhythmic chant sung by friends who were all excellent singers.

I’ve written before about how I ran across this icon of the Lion of Judah by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM, but today it really cements in my mind the powerful “otherness” of Jesus.

That is to say, it helps me understand that the Risen Jesus is always more than we think, always other than we think.

He is both Lion and Lamb. He is not only Jewish, but Gentile. He is not only Mediterranean, but Indian and Chinese and African (and even English and Scottish, Irish and Welsh). He is both Judge and Lover, both King and Suffering Servant.

Part of Jesus’ “otherness,” to my mind, is his power.

“Who is worthy to open the scroll?” asks the terrible angel. “The Lion of Judah,” says the elder, “because he has conquered.”

Jesus has conquered death, we proclaim every Sunday, trampled down death by death. His power, though, is not just for himself but for us. His life — his conquering life — overcomes even our powerlessness and frees us to sing.

Hail, hail! Lion of Judah!

Visions of peace

Four Evangelists cross from the Printery House

Four Evangelists cross from the Printery House

Therefore we praise you,
joining our voices with Angels and Archangels
and with all the company of heaven,
who forever sing this hymn
to proclaim the glory of your Name:

Holy, holy, holy Lord; God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest. (BCP 362)

Today the assigned readings and the canticles appointed for the day line up perfectly to create a single unifying image for Morning Prayer.

In the Book of Ezra, we read about the rebuilding of the Temple following the return of the Israelites from exile in Babylon. They are restoring the site of their worship, and with them we picture their prayers once more ascending to God, with incense surrounding the golden cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant.

Glory to you, Lord God of our fathers;
you are worthy of praise; glory to you ….
Glory to you, seated between the Cherubim;
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.
(Canticle 13, BCP 90)

In the Revelation to John, we similarly see a vision of restoration, of worship to God in the heavenly City, the new Jerusalem. John describes his vision of a throne surrounded by 24 thrones, on which are seated 24 elders, in front of whom are seven torches and a sea of glass, and around whom are the “four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind.”

Christian tradition has long associated the four living creatures — “at his feet the six-winged seraph; cherubim with sleepless eye” (Hymn 324) — with the four Evangelists: Matthew like a lion, Mark like a man, Luke like an ox, and John like an eagle.

In Canticle 18, we respond to the reading with the same song the angels and elders are singing around the throne:

And so, to him who sits upon the throne,
and to Christ the Lamb,
Be worship and praise, dominion and splendor,
for ever and for evermore.
(BCP 94)

Now, if that were the whole story, that would be enough — a nice symmetry making Morning Prayer extra lovely. Fine.

But there’s even more.

These visions of a restored Temple, of a City with the Lamb at its center, were recorded in order to give comfort to God’s people in hard times. The exiles were struggling to recover their sense of self, and it seemed like the grinding bureaucracy of the Babylonian empire might slow down or stop their building project. The early Christian communities of John’s time were beginning to be thrown out of the synagogues where they had been worshiping and to experience persecution by the Roman empire.

These are not just lovely songs, but visions of peace meant to sustain God’s people in times of trouble.

How will you imagine peace in your life today? What images will help you get through your struggles?

A Collect for Peace

O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom: Defend us, your humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in your defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 99)