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The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

Written by Joe Lenow, Rector of St. James’ Episcopal Parish in Lothian, Maryland.
Joe is Pastor Larry’s son.

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“Why are your robes red, and your garments like theirs who tread the wine press?”

“I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their juice spattered on my garments, and stained all my robes. For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and the year for my redeeming work had come.”

There’s an image that’s been seared into my memory by too many adolescent re-watchings of 2000’s Gladiator: it’s Russell Crowe with a sword in each hand, spattered with the blood of his enemies, declaring vengeance against those who have wronged him. I think of that whenever I read this passage from Isaiah—the hero of Israel coming over the horizon, seen hazily at first but approaching to tell the people they have been liberated from those who would conquer and oppress him. The day of vengeance has come: his robes are darkened with the blood of Israel’s persecutors, stained like the robes of one who has been treading on grapes in a giant tub to make wine. The grapes of the Lord’s wrath have been pressed: the enemies of Israel have been defeated; the people have been freed, restored to the worship of the Lord.

I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the fact that this image has been associated with Jesus from some of the earliest days of Christianity. Those themes are there in the life of Jesus, of course. At the Annunciation, traditionally observed March 25, Mary sings that God “has shown the strength of His arm, He has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.” St. Paul writes in Romans 6 that we have been crucified with Christ, our “old self” put to death so that “we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” Revelation 19:13 is most explicit in connecting Jesus to this passage in Isaiah: “He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God.” But this image is so violent, so grim; is this really how we’re supposed to imagine the All-Merciful Redeemer of the world?

Here’s the thing: when early Christian writers turned to this text, the part that interested them most wasn’t the warrior—it was the grapes. It was the grapes pressed to the point of bursting, their juices poured out on the pavement to make wine. It was the juices that get everywhere, staining everything they touch. And it was the solitary figure, bearing the weight of God’s redemption alone as he works in the presses. For the early Church, this passage from Isaiah is an image of Eucharist: God’s victory over sin and death is accomplished by the Savior who treads the winepress alone, but just as importantly, is the grapes—by the one who, pressed by weight of the world’s darkness, redeems us by giving himself to us as wine. This image tells us that we do see the wrath of God on the Cross, and there is a victory accomplished there. God makes no compromise with evil; the violence and oppression that so define the world around us today are given no quarter in the Kingdom of God, but are annihilated totally. Whatever is sinful in us, the “old self” about which Paul speaks, is put to death fully and finally on the Cross. But the manner in which Christ accomplishes this is unexpected: by giving himself as the grapes to be crushed by the weight of the world’s sin; by pouring out his own body and blood, giving himself to us in bread and wine and nourishing a new life in us. What we need is to be cast down, overcome by the power of God. That’s what makes us truly free.

Rock & Rolling Stones Cleft for Me

Rock & Rolling Stones Cleft for Me

Written by Dan Kim, Pastor of Gum Spring United Methodist Church.

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They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.  They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. – 1 Corinthians 10:2-4

In 1987, Aretha Franklin was the first woman to be inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Long overdue and unquestionably deserving of her place in the annals of Rock N’ Roll history, her Gospel-inspired sound, prodigious voice, and gift for music earned her 18 Grammy awards and 26 nominations. During her induction ceremony, of which she was unable to attend, Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones started his casually poetic induction speech with these words, “Dictionary’s been used up, there’s no superlatives left…What can I say about Aretha? You’re in baby!” Just before her retirement in 2016 and for a production by Time Magazine, she returned to perform inside New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit where her father served as pastor and her singing career began. To set the scene, the Queen of Soul sits at a relatively ordinary piano, in an ordinary church, singing just one song that lasts for six minutes. A singular yet timeless performance of an ordinary hymn. Of course, there was nothing ordinary about her or her performance, which belies the modest church setting. Afterwards she said, “I just felt it. In my spirit today.” She continued to say, “You have the ethereal feeling there. It is the house of the Lord. It is the Supreme Being. So there is no greater space to sing than the church.”

Better than any Lenten devotional I could offer, let me invite you to watch that performance in its entirety.

(https://youtu.be/FUjJhHgix4M)

See her play, hear her say, feel her pray; “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me.” And read the hymn written by Augustus Toplady. That would be devotional enough. 

During the season of Lent, we are traditionally invited to see Christ in the empty spaces of our lives made apparent by the abstinence of typical but seemingly necessary consumables. Meat, coffee, social media; these are the ordinary things from which we commonly fast in our journey towards a deeper Lent. However, what if Lent can also be an invitation to see Christ in the ordinary? To see Christ in the everyday fullness of our lives? For the church in Corinth who struggled with enculturation, perhaps that is why Paul offers an argument against idolatry by spiritualizing food, drink, and this accompanying rock. The way Paul sees Christ in an ordinary rock from which God miraculously provides water for the Israelites could also be an invitation to see Christ in the ordinary things from which God provides spiritual quenching for us. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see Christ on Facebook or Twitter all that often. But coffee? In the mornings? Absolutely, that’s my java with Jesus. For the liturgical nerds among us, what is Lent if not the intentional spiritualization of 40 days before Holy Week that would otherwise be “Ordinary Time”? What makes Lent lenten is precisely the invitation to experience the ordinary in intentionally consecrated ways. Music, reading, food, or a rock; these things can become extraordinary equipment from God that can help us along in our faith and not merely ordinary obstacles if we but avail ourselves to Christ who transforms water into wine, wine into blood, and blood into forgiveness.

Christ is accompanying you throughout this season. Maybe we be open to transformation. May we be ordinary vessels of an extraordinary God. I pray, “As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:4-6).

Christ our Great High Priest: Resting In Prayer

Christ our Great High Priest: Resting In Prayer

Written by Anna Petrin, a Professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC.

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“Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”  – Hebrews 4:14-16

This beautiful passage from the Letter to the Hebrews is one of the most well-known parts of the Bible. It conjures up an unforgettable image of Christ as our High Priest – and quite a High Priest at that! A High Priest who has “passed through the heavens,” who is “tested” and yet is “without sin.” A High Priest who is somewhat like Aaron and his descendants in the Old Testament (Exodus 28-29), but who is also not like those high priests – because those men were sinners, and they offered daily sacrifices not only for other people’s sins, but for their own as well (Leviticus 9:7). Christ is therefore the perfect High Priest: a High Priest who offered himself “once for all” as a perfect sacrifice not for his own sins, but for ours (Hebrews 7:27).

As a teacher of worship at a seminary, I am lucky enough to work with students across all age ranges and denominations as they develop their own patterns of daily prayer and learn the history of Christian worship. And in reading journals, personal meetings, and assignments for the past decade now (from clergy and laity alike), I have heard again and again two similar refrains: “I’m worried that I pray the wrong way, so I just don’t pray,” and, “I can’t really pray because I’m too busy leading worship.” These honest moments offer us, as a church, a critical insight into our need for Christ in both our personal prayer and our communal prayer. They teach us that sometimes our desire to make our prayer “perfect” (as some of my students put it) ends up sidelining our great High Priest and places us in a role that we can never hope to fill.

As Hebrews teaches us, nobody else’s prayer can compare to Christ’s – not even that of a high priest in the Temple. What, then, are we called to as Christians? We are called to “hold fast to our confession” and to “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” The point here is not that we are supposed to say certain words (like the “confession of faith” in the United Methodist liturgy). Instead, the point is that we are supposed to open our hearts to receive the mercy and grace that Christ, our great High Priest, has already offered us once for all time.

Ultimately, Hebrews exhorts the followers of Christ to abandon self-sufficiency and to rest – to rest in the trust and knowledge of God’s goodness and provision. It reminds us of the words of Psalm 95 (“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…”), and it calls us to become people of faith who are open to “the promise of entering his rest” (Hebrews 4:1).

In short, to name Jesus as our great High Priest is to situate our own prayers – the prayers we pray in our hearts and the prayers we offer as congregations – inside the prayer of Christ. Our lives of worship are united not only to one another but to the great and unending prayer of Christ who comes to us, enlivens us, intercedes for us, and resurrects us, so that we can escape from our own prisons of achieving and performing, and instead live and move and have our being in the great and wide mercy of the God who made us. 

This idea of resting in the Lord may seem obvious and even easy. And yet I suspect it is one of the most difficult steps that we have to take in a genuine life of prayer. It is hard to embrace the land of divine rest and to stop wandering in the wilderness of self-sufficiency. But the Bible calls us back to a relationship with our great High Priest, calls us back to rest in the knowledge that Christ’s mercy and grace are waiting to soothe and heal our every need.

The Lenten season can easily become a season of work: a season in which we try to haul ourselves up by our own spiritual bootstraps with the tool of fasting. But the Lenten period is not only a period of fasting; it is a period of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. A time in which our needs both as individuals and as communities are set within the proper perspective. A time in which we are called to set aside the work of human gaining and striving in order to enter more deeply into the rest of prayer and love of neighbor. I invite you to ask yourself this Lenten season: What could I give up that might allow me to rest more deeply in the mercy and grace of the great High Priest who will never let me down?

Manna – What is it?

Manna – What is it?

Written by Jonathan Page, Pastor of Herndon United Methodist Church.

The Israelite people called it manna. It was like coriander seed, white, and tasted like honey wafers. Moses said, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Let an omer of it be kept safe for future generations so that they can see the food that I used to feed you in the desert when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.’”

Moses said to Aaron, “Take a jar, and put one full omer of manna in it. Then set it in the Lord’s presence, where it should be kept safe for future generations.” Aaron did as the Lord commanded Moses, and he put it in front of the covenant document for safekeeping. The Israelites ate manna for forty years, until they came to a livable land. They ate manna until they came to the border of the land of Canaan.

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-Exodus 16:31-35

“What is it?” The question likely reverberates in the ears of a parent listening to a curious child, in the mind of the bored student in the lifeless lecture hall, and even in the hearts of people this day and millenia before this day. Manna, the blessing from God to God’s people in the midst of their deepest wandering, is really uncertain stuff. At the root of the word manna, the Hebrew offers this question that can be both the simplest of curiosities and the fullest question of the soul. Quite simply, what is it?

In this question, there is not only exocticism, but something even greater for the Israelite people of then and us in this day: provision. Manna, even though it is unfamiliar and different, is meant to be enough for the Israelites as they navigate the wilderness of their day. For us, perhaps it is meant to be enough as we navigate the wilderness spaces of our own lives.

As Exodus 16 concludes, there is this instruction from Moses to Aaron about how the Israelite people will memorialize this blessed gift from God. They are to fill a jar with one omer of manna and keep it in God’s presence for generations to come. Because of this, it will be a persistent reminder of God’s faithfulness even in the midst of people’s uncertainty. It will be a story that is passed from generation to generation. A gift that long exceeds its present fruitfulness.

For us, perhaps this is the reminder we need of the Messiah we long to encounter in the season of Lent. In this particular season, we’re likely aware of just how mortal we are and just how lost and broken the world around us might feel. The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a very wilderness-like feel to an otherwise ordered and controlled life. We are searching and longing for some kind of provision and some kind of hope.

It is into this reality that Christ is born, that Christ lives, ministers, teaches, and heals. It is into this world that Christ is beaten, given over to suffering and death upon a cross. But it is into this space that Christ journeys through all Hell, through every wilderness we may ever know, to bring about the good news of resurrection, redemption, forgiveness, and the gift of life eternal.

So often the way Christ comes into our lives and into God’s creation is curious and unbelievable. We wonder how God might have know this or done that? We are left begging the question “What is it?”

But when the what or the who or the why or the how or whatever the question might be receives the response of Jesus, perhaps we find ourselves to be not so different from the Israelites. In our own wandering, there is enough. Jesus is provision for the otherwise unthinkable spaces of this life, the story worth sharing from generation to generation.

May Christ be a blessing, a generous portion, enough for our lives. Even when our lives are found in the wilderness of all creation.

Jesus and Moses

Jesus and Moses

Written by Taylor Mertins, Pastor of Cokesbury United Methodist Church in Woodbridge, VA.

We think the “law” can save and fix our messed up and broken lives.

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From infancy we’re spoon-fed a narrative of righteous self-determination, that if you do all the right things, and go to the right school, and marry the right partner, then everything will be as it should be.

Until it isn’t.

And then the “law” refuses to let us go.

So we adopt new habits: we buy a Peloton, we go on a new diet, we stay up late into the evening looking at Zillow for the next perfect house, we “Marie Kondo” our lives in order to get things under control.

And, even if some things change, even if we get that nice dopamine hit from imagining ourselves in a new place or we can fit into clothes we haven’t worn since college, we still can’t actually fix ourselves with the “law.”

At some point the new house becomes the old house, a few weeks away from the gym brings our waistline back, and on and on.

Enter Jesus.

Jesus came to bring us something better than another law, something better than another set of things we must do in order to get God to do something for us. Sure, we’re called to love God and neighbor, turn the other cheek, pray for our enemies, but those are never prerequisites for the Kingdom.

Remember: The Kingdom is already among us. Our sins were nailed to the cross and left there forever.

The Law (from scripture and from life) is good, but it kills us. It exists to accuse us and it shows us, over and over again, who we really are. For, to borrow an expression from Paul, no one is righteous, no, not one.

Even our subtle exercises in self-denial during Lent help to remind us of the condition of our condition: Lent isn’t about participating in spiritual olympics in which we compete with one another to see who can be the most holy – instead it’s about confronting the fact that our desires will always get the better of us.

But the Law, and its ability to deaden us, is Good News and exactly what we need. It’s only in death (read: Baptism) that we begin to know the One who came to give us grace.

Contrary to how we often water down the Gospel, we worship a rather odd God. Our God who, among other things, speaks from a burning bush, promises offspring to a wandering octogenarian, and saves the cosmos through death on a cross.

And for Christians, we know who this odd God is because we know Jesus Christ.

Therefore, Jesus is not a new Moses who displaces the old law with a new one. Instead, Jesus is the New Adam who inaugurates an entirely new cosmos.

Jesus is not a new Moses because, as the Gospel of John reminds us, the Word was God before the foundation of the world.

Jesus is not a new Moses who offers a set of guidelines to save ourselves and the world. Instead Jesus comes to be our salvation in himself.

Here’s the Good News: On any given Sunday (even in the midst of a global pandemic) the people of God called church gather together to hear the most important word we will ever hear: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us – In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

Notice – Christ died for us while we were sinners, not before and not after. Christ chooses to die for us right in the midst of the worst mistake we’ve ever made or will ever make.

In the end, that’s what it’s all about.

We don’t follow Law in order to get God to save us.

We are already saved which then frees us to follow the Law – we do the things Christ calls us to do not because it earns us anything, but simply because it makes life a whole lot more fun.

Jesus isn’t a new Moses – Jesus is God. And that’s the difference that makes all the difference.

Joseph – “Dreams and Drama”

Joseph – “Dreams and Drama”

Written by Lauren Lobenhofer, Pastor of Cave Spring United Methodist Church in Roanoke, VA.

Genesis 37:17b-20 (NRSV): “So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

In Joseph’s brothers’ mouths, “dreamer” sounds like an insult. You can almost hear them spit the word as they begin to plot their little brother’s murder. Joseph is their father’s favorite, spoiled with the gift of a luxurious robe. It is not just their father’s preferential treatment that his brothers resent, though. They also, as their comments reveal, resent his dreams.

Joseph dreams of a world turned upside down, in which a younger son attains high rank and his mighty older brothers are brought down. His dreams were of a radical reversal. In a world of patriarchal primogeniture, where the biggest, oldest sons could expect to rule over their younger siblings, Joseph’s dreams of his older brothers bowing to him were upsetting, even offensive. They expected and wanted a certain arrangement of power, an arrangement that their young upstart brother, with his wild dreams and father’s blessing, threatened to undermine.

Yet God does not submit to our expectations. God wills a world that is different from the one we envision—a world we can scarcely imagine because it reverses or obliterates the status quo that we take for granted. When God’s vision conflicts with our expectations, though, it makes us uncomfortable, resentful, even violent. When Joseph’s God-given dream subverted their expectations, his brothers lashed out. They betrayed and abandoned Joseph, first leaving him in a pit for dead, then selling him for silver to line their own pockets.

Likewise, when Jesus’ ministry went against their expectations, his disciples turned away from him. Jesus refused to fit himself into the expectations of those who followed him. He resisted their plans to start a violent uprising against the occupying Roman forces. He refused to participate in the judgment and hierarchical posturing of the religious elites. He eschewed attempts to place him on a royal pedestal, preferring instead to sit at tables with sex workers and tax collectors. He preached about his dream for a divine kingdom where the mighty and powerful were brought low and the lowly were lifted up. Eventually Judas, his expectations frustrated and his hopes stalled, betrayed Jesus for silver to line his pockets, just as Joseph’s brothers had betrayed him. The other disciples, nervous about their own fates, abandoned Jesus to his fate.

Even in the face of betrayal, abandonment, and violence, though, God brought salvation. Joseph’s suffering became a means for his family’s rescue from famine. His dream came to fruition years later in Egypt. Jesus’ suffering became a part of God’s saving work. In the fullness of time, God’s dream modeled in Jesus’ ministry, will be fulfilled as well.

Prayer: God of dreams and visions, give us eyes to see your kingdom breaking forth on earth. Give us hearts to seek your will above our own expectations. Give us courage to overcome our fears and work for your dream for all creation. Amen.