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7th Sunday of Easter/Ascension 2018 – 05.13.18

“You are witnesses of these things.”  The author of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts provides us with two descriptions of the ascension of Jesus.  They are slightly different, although they do not conflict with one another.  The Ascension was necessary because it was time for Jesus to return and become one with God again.  He could not remain on earth in his post-resurrection state of being, which apparently was similar to how he appeared before the crucifixion, but not exactly the same.  That brief post-resurrection time was critical to the survival of the early church.  The empty tomb as proof of the resurrection was not enough.  In the Book of Acts Luke tells us that “Jesus presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.”  The continuation of Christ’s mission to the world required eyewitnesses to the resurrected Jesus, and, one of the main concerns of Jesus, when he appeared to his followers, was to correctly interpret Scripture to them.

Although the post-resurrection time was not meant to last forever, Jesus could not just disappear while no one was watching.  There had to be a dramatic event witnessed by his followers, so people would see, know and understand that not only was Jesus no longer going to be visible among them on earth, he was reuniting with God in heaven.  The Ascension needed to make a powerful and lasting impression.  Belief in the resurrected and ascended Christ cannot be argued or taught.  Even Jesus did not try that method.  He knew that the truth had to be seen, to be touched and to be experienced by his followers.  On that day they became eyewitnesses to the glory of the Ascension.  It was another part of the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that they had to see and experience in order to carry out Christ’s great commission to the world.  

Jesus had to be reunited with God in order to fulfill the reason for becoming incarnate in the first place.  God had decided it was necessary to come to earth and become fully human in order to spread the message of grace, mercy and justice through the person of Jesus.  But while he was here, he also experienced life as a human being for the first time.  God is all-knowing, all-wise – as we say, omnipotent – yet God had never participated in the human experience before.  God always had intentions, hopes and dreams for humankind, but had never actually walked the earth as one of us.

Hebrew scripture is full of examples of God being in relationship with human beings, but there is always a separation between the human and the divine.  God sometimes dealt with human beings in the second person plural, as in the story of the Tower of Babel.  “Come let us go down and confuse their language…”  God is certainly loving and caring, sometimes judgmental and even capable of meting out devastating punishment.  But in the Old Testament, God cannot truly empathize with the human condition because empathy requires sharing the same experiences.

In the Gospel narratives, God becomes fully aware of the human condition through the Incarnation, becoming fully human in the person of Jesus.  It was clear to Jesus’ followers that he was a real human being who shared in their joys and sorrows, their failures and their triumphs.  They had to come to the understanding that he was also divine.  In the New Testament, even after Jesus ascended to be one with God again, there is a new empathy with the human condition.  We can see this, for example, in the letters of Paul, who had never met Jesus, yet had no doubt that God fully understands and empathizes with all of humankind.

Because of the Ascension, God understands what it is like to be us.  God in the person of Jesus learned what it is like for those who are poor, outcast, suffering and afraid.  Jesus had friends and family whom he loved and he mourned the death of loved ones.  He experienced betrayal.  He knew both sorrow and joy.  He showed us that God gave us life to live in abundance, not at the expense of others but rather enough to share with them.  Jesus knew when it was important to be serious, and when appropriate he demonstrated righteous anger.  But he also took great pleasure in being in relationship with people, in enjoying the natural world, and he really liked a good party.  Most of all, through his genuine and authentic love of life and love of humankind, he showed us how to love one another.

Jesus is never gone from us.  As Jesus blessed them and promised the gift of the Holy Spirit, the first disciples must have felt as though they were going to be left alone again.  It had been a rollercoaster of emotions since they arrived in Jerusalem with Jesus.   His arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection must have left their heads spinning.  Then they got to spend time with him once again, which must have been immensely reassuring.  Now he tells them, “I have to leave you again.”           

The culmination of Jesus’ life on earth was the gift of the Holy Spirit, which we celebrate on Pentecost.  That was not a one-time-only event.  We are given the gift of the Spirit in our baptism, which comforts, strengthens, and empowers us.  We are able to fulfill his mission because we know that he fully understands what it is like to be us.  Jesus lived, died and was raised from the dead in a particular time and place, but he is not stuck there.  He is the Jesus of everyone, everywhere.  At our synod assembly, there was a wonderful display of portraits of Jesus by various artists.  He was not just the Northern European Jesus that we are so familiar with, but the African, Asian, Eastern European, Latino and, yes, Middle Eastern Jesus which probably most closely resembles him.  It was the perfect reminder that Jesus is God Incarnate for all people in all times and places.

After the Ascension, the first disciples did not just stand around “looking up in the air.”  They were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ teaching, healing, Transfiguration, crucifixion, post-resurrection appearances and Ascension, and they weren’t afraid to tell that story in faraway places.  Thanks to their courage and faith, the message of God’s mercy, justice and grace continues to be told today, over two centuries later.  Their witness has been passed down to us, and through us, to the next generation.  We are commissioned to talk about that power of the Spirit that breathes in us, that unites us in faith and in our quest to bring God’s justice, mercy and compassion to the world.  Jesus is physically gone from us, but he is never gone.  We are witnesses of these things!  Amen.     

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Sixth Sunday of Easter – 05.06.18

On this day when Paisley and Blake are going to be baptized into the family of God, we have a story about baptism.  It is the second recorded story of the baptism of Gentiles, in this case a Roman centurion of the Italian Cohort named Cornelius, and his family.  Cornelius did not practice the official Roman religion, he was a devout believer in God who was told in a vision to send for a man named Peter to enlighten him.  He sent servants to fetch Peter so that he might come to their home. 

Before this took place, the apostle Peter had been struggling with the idea that Jesus came not just for the Jewish people but for Gentiles as well.  God sent him a vision in which he was encouraged to break from Jewish dietary laws.  It took three times before he understood that God was trying to show him that not everyone has to be Jewish before they become followers of Jesus.  Peter accompanied the servants of Cornelius to his house, but when he arrived he pointed out that “it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile.”  Then he launched into a sermon in which he tried to show the connection between Jewish tradition and what God had revealed in Jesus.  He goes on to explain the mission of Jesus’ followers.  That is where our first lesson begins, “As Peter was still speaking…”  It seems that neither God nor Cornelius needed to hear Peter’s entire spiel; even as he was talking the Holy Spirit came over the listeners in a similar fashion to what had taken place on Pentecost.

Suddenly Peter realized that God doesn’t play favorites either in food or people.  He was discovering there are no requirements for receiving God’s favor beyond recognizing God’s greatness and acting with justice.  The action of the Holy Spirit increased Peter’s perception that God acts freely, absolutely independent of the ethnicity or social status of people.  Immediately he called for Cornelius and his family to be baptized, in recognition of what God had already accomplished in them.

All of our readings describe how God calls for a new community, not with the intention of wiping out differences, but to manifest the many ways in which divine love can be expressed.  In First John, the author stresses that the purpose of Jesus coming into the world was not so much to establish a church, or particular traditions, but “so that we might have life through him.”  The emphasis is on the nature of faith, our belief that Jesus, the Christ, has come from God. 

We are the loved and loving children of God who keep God’s commandments, which is not a burden because we are loved.  We are reminded of Jesus’ crucifixion, but as children of God we believe his death was not the end, he rose again so he might return to be one with the Father, which made possible the gift of the Holy Spirit.  All who receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, as Blake and Paisley will today, experience forgiveness and eternal life in his name.  We are one with Jesus and so one with God.

Our gospel begins with the astounding statement, “As the Father loves me, so I love you.”  That is another way of saying, “I love you as an integral, intimate part of my own identity.  I could not be who I am without you.”  Jesus spoke these words to his followers at the Last Supper.  He invites us to “abide” in his love, which means we both receive life from him and dwell in him.  This is an invitation to a relationship that is one of friendship rather than slave and master.  He is willing to give his life for us.  He is not exactly our equal, he retains a unique position.  Yet he has brought us into a relationship of reciprocal love, creating a community of friends who are willing to sacrifice ourselves for one another. 

Christian love is not just a warm, fuzzy feeling, but a conscious decision to put ourselves on the line and risk everything for the other. This kind of love will make sure justice is done in the world.  We are to venture out from the safety of our community into the broader society to see that it is transformed by the love Jesus modeled for us.  Cornel West says that “justice is the shape love takes in society.”  In John’s Gospel, Jesus does not speak the words of institution at the Last Supper as he does in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Here he washes his disciples’ feet, a clear sign of his love for them.  He was modeling true discipleship, so we would know how to give of ourselves for others.

It must have been difficult for those first followers of Jesus, many of whom set out away from the safety of community, to bring the gospel message to faraway places.  They had been set apart to lead pretty strange lives, and were often separated from families, friends, and neighbors.  Although filled with God’s abundant love, that life might become lonely and the disciples were vulnerable.  Yet new friends will become a lifeline for them.  New friends fill in when family and community are far away or lost.  They become another circle of family.  They shorten the distance to our hearts, they embrace what is authentic, they listen and they love.

Catherine Faith McLean is now senior minister at St. Paul’s United Church in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.  Her prior call was in Yellowknife, capital of the Northwest Territories, about 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle.  The city is on the edge of a lake, which can be crossed in winter by an ice road to reach the nearest neighboring village.  In midwinter, there is weak sunlight from 10 am until 2 pm.  For the other 20 hours, the northern lights gleam in curtains of color across the dark sky.  Caribou graze so close to town that workers can hunt on their lunch break.  Life there is remote with high prices for necessities such as groceries that must be trucked in.

One January in Yellowstone, in 24-hour darkness, MacLean and her spouse brought their newborn daughter home from the hospital.  It was 40 degrees below zero, the northern lights were streaming green, white and red.  They walked into their house and the power went out.  This was remote living, but not totally isolated.  They lit a fire in the woodstove and friends came bearing food and gifts.  They had been called to a place they had never dreamed of living, spent time with people they never expected to meet and learned to love the people and the land.  Through joy and a commitment to loving one another, they were not isolated.  The people in the community chose to love one another, even to lay down their lives for one another if necessary.

We will probably not have to lay down our lives for Paisley and Blake, but we will promise today to support and nurture them and their parents on their faith journey.  David and Missy will promise to raise them in the faith, teach them scripture and the doctrines and traditions of the church.  They cannot do that alone, and we cannot exist without new people joining our congregation.  Just as God in Jesus needs us to abide together in love, so we need one another.  Blake and Paisley have their loving biological family, they have a circle of caring friends, and now they will have this new circle of their loving family of God.  We close with the words of Teilhard de Chardin, “Love is the energy of evolution, drawing all of creation forward into God’s future.”  Paisley and Blake are very important participants in God’s future.  Amen.

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EASTER5B18 – 04.29.18

Our gospel lesson for today is a familiar image.  It is often represented in religious art, such as stained-glass windows or wood carvings, that depict a grapevine and may include the inscription: “I am the vine and you are the branches.”  This story takes place right before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion when he was attempting to explain to them as much as possible about his mission and the kingdom of God.  It was like a cram course in preparation for their future vocation of sharing the gospel message, a calling that would dominate the rest of their lives.

The grapevine is one of a series of “I AM” symbols that Jesus used in an effort to identify who he is.  (I AM the bread of life, the light of the world, the Good Shepherd, the resurrection and the life.)  Vineyards were a common sight throughout Israel and were important because wine was the beverage that everyone drank at that time.  The image of the grapevine is found throughout Hebrew scripture.  In this case it is meant to be a beautiful image of community – God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are intimately bound together with “you” – and you is plural throughout.  This is not about a private relationship but rather the home, or dwelling place, that God in Jesus provides for all believers. 

Many of us have seen grapevines thanks to all the wineries out in eastern Long Island.  Each grapevine consists of a main vine with smaller branches coming off of it.  In the vineyards the branches are supported horizontally on strings or wires and they are carefully pruned so that the best fruit will be produced.  This idea of the grapevine as community is both comforting and challenging.  It is comforting to know that we can accept the invitation to be bound up with God in such a strong abiding place.  We feel supported and protected.  It is also challenging because we must submit to pruning.  We may be asked to give up things that are unnecessary or a lifestyle that is counter-productive or destructive to our well-being.   And, let’s be honest, sometimes pruning hurts, although it is necessary to produce good fruit.  It is actually kind of startling to see how many branches are clipped off from vines that were full with leaves and fruit in the summer. 

Jesus evoked this image of community in order to invite us to be part of a dynamic relationship in which everyone plays a part.  Before any grapes appear, the vines are pruned and cleaned, withered and dead branches are removed.  The vines, like the community of faith, are always changing.  And the ultimate purpose is for all members of the community to bear good fruit.

Our first lesson for today tells how Philip did just that.  Philip was among a group of believers who had left Jerusalem in fear for their lives following the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.  Like Stephen, Philip had been set apart as a deacon   Luke tells us in Acts that “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.”  Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the gospel message with great success.  His testimony to the Samaritans bore much good fruit and many were baptized.  Then an angel of the Lord told Philip to travel south, down to the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza.  Although Philip is “on the run” away from the religious and civil authorities, he isn’t hiding, he is listening to and obeying the words of God sent to him through the angel and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  It is pretty amazing that in a short time after the resurrection of Jesus the gospel message was already spreading north, west and now south in the Roman Empire. 

On the road to Gaza, Philip encountered the Ethiopian eunuch who served as treasurer to the queen of Ethiopia.  This was an unusual encounter. Philip was probably looking rather haggard since he had been on the road for a while.  The eunuch was a man of some authority and a high social rank.  We believe his name is probably omitted from the story because he is meant to represent many people.  Ethiopia was considered to be very far away from Palestine.  There aren’t even any Ethiopians mentioned among the many Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem on Pentecost.  As a eunuch, he also represents people on the margins.  Eunuchs could convert to Judaism but were prohibited from full participation in temple rituals and the Jewish community.  As far as we know, the eunuch was the first black person to spread the good news, in his case south to the African nation of Ethiopia, where a flourishing Christian community would arise.    

This story testifies to the great possibilities of personal encounters and it demonstrates Christianity’s vast inclusion of those who are geographically and/or ethnically from far away as well as those who are “different” from society.  Philip was a vagabond at this point.  The Ethiopian was a learned man, able to understand all that Philip offered to him from scripture.  Yet in spite of their obvious differences, and in spite of the many social taboos that normally would have prohibited their conversation with one another, the Ethiopian invited Philip to ride with him in his chariot.  Both demonstrated humility in their willingness to interact with one another.  It may seem unusual that the Ethiopian accepted Philip’s word about Jesus so quickly that he asked to be baptized on the spot.  It is clear that the Holy Spirit was working in him, enabling him to be receptive to the message that Philip was inspired to share.

The interaction of Philip and the eunuch reinforces the model of community that is found in the image of the grapevine.  Even though we are invited to abide with God in the safety of community, we must accept that the community is not static, but always changing.  God’s Holy Spirit is not confined by our human expectations and limitations.  If we read through the Book of Acts, we find that Luke tells story after story of the Holy Spirit acting in people’s lives.   Sometimes it is visible, as in the flames of Pentecost, but more often it is not, as in the heart and mind of the Ethiopian.  We often like to confine God into our own carefully constructed image of who God is and what God does.  We tend to stay in our comfort zone when we define who is included in God’s community of faith.  Yet that is not the way God operates. God usually chooses radical inclusion, grafting many different types of branches onto the vine. That is why the Holy Spirit is described as the wind which blows as it pleases. 

As the gospel promises, God invites us to abide with Father, Son and Holy Spirit in an intimate community of faith.  Yet within that safety we are always challenged to submit to pruning and to bear good fruit for the world.  As the story of the Ethiopian promises, God will seek out people from all over the world, people of all ethnicities and cultures, with a variety of physical, emotional and intellectual characteristics, to experience the gift of God’s love and the power of the resurrected life.  As members of God’s community of faith, we are safe but not comfortable.  We are loved but also challenged to be open to new experiences and unexpected or unconventional encounters.  When we are willing to accept those challenges, we will bear good fruit that will help to fulfill God’s intentions for humankind.  Amen.

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Fourth Sunday of Easter – 04.22.18

In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus is talking to religious leaders, in this case, Pharisees.  So, when Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you,” the “you” is plural and refers to those religious leaders, although the community hearing the text gets the message as well.  Jesus is deliberately contrasting two kinds of leaders – good shepherds and hired hands – who lead the community, which is compared to a flock of sheep.  

Shepherds were a common sight throughout the Roman Empire in the first century.  The role of shepherd also has religious and cultural connotations.  In Hebrew Scripture, many of the leading figures in the history of Israel began as shepherds – God appeared to Moses when he was tending the sheep of his father-in-law.  David, who would become the celebrated king of Israel, learned the art of war by protecting his flocks from predators.  The term shepherd was often used to refer to Israel’s leaders and to God.  The Greek classics, which provided the foundation for education in the Greco-Roman world, used shepherd as a metaphor for model leaders like King Agamemnon.  Philosophers and orators often compared the art of governing people to the art of shepherding a flock. 

The image of the shepherd appears throughout the gospel narratives, often specifically referring to Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  Shepherd can have both positive and negative associations – in the first century, shepherds were pretty near the bottom of society, they were kind of smelly from hanging out with sheep, sometimes condemned as unscrupulous when they pastured their flocks on other people’s land or pilfered lambs or kids from another flock.  (Shepherds also tended goats.)  People referred to shepherds then the way we refer to used car salesmen today, whether fairly or unfairly.  Today we recognize the term Good Shepherd as a name for Jesus.

The fourth Sunday in Easter is designated as Good Shepherd Sunday, and in our reading for this year, Jesus boldly proclaims, “I am the good shepherd.”  He is claiming to be the shepherd as described in Psalm 23, a powerful metaphor today but even more powerful to his Jewish audience in the first century.  They all knew that God, or Yahweh, is the good shepherd in the beloved 23rd Psalm.  The Pharisees would have understood and been scandalized by the fact that when he called himself the Good Shepherd, he was referring to himself as God.  He also makes it clear that if any harm comes to him, if he lays down his life, it will be because he allows it to happen, and he will overcome it and will not be permanently silenced.  This is a much more radical story than it first appears to be.  It is no wonder the religious authorities felt threatened by him.

David is thought to be the author of many of the psalms, including Psalm 23.  It is probably the best known of the psalms and is traditionally read at both Jewish and Christian funerals.  What was David expressing as he wrote these words?  It seems that looking back on his life, he saw God’s blessings everywhere.  In spite of all the authority and blessings that God granted to David, in many ways David had a hard life. He knew what it meant to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, because his life was threatened many times.  He also suffered the loss of loved ones in many ways and he was stalked by all kinds of enemies. 

Yet for David, God was the unchanging Yahweh, his Lord and shepherd who was always faithful to the covenantal promises.  And so, as David faced his future, he composed these words in the psalm, “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life…”  Those are covenantal words which sum up all that God promises us.  As David understood, it doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us, but that God will ultimately make all bad things work together for the good of God’s people. 

David believed that no matter what happened in his life from the beginning to the end, no matter how dark the shadows in the valley, no matter how fierce the enemies, God’s goodness and love would always be there.  We don’t have to ask for those promises, because they are always with us.  Nothing can separate us, and in the end, love will win over whatever evil comes our way and will turn it into goodness. 

David sums it all up by saying, “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  That image was important to David.  He wanted to build a house for the Lord, an image that inspired his son Solomon to build the first great temple in Jerusalem.  Yet David understood that any house of the Lord was not meant for human habitation, it was a metaphor for being close to God and to live in God’s presence at all times.  David believed that no matter what happened, his future was secure in the promise of God.

In his role as shepherd, Jesus constantly found ways to build relationships with those who needed his presence, even at great risk to his own life.  Ultimately, he gave his life for us, his sheep.   Every time we hear of another mass shooting, we often hear stories about those who died saving others.  On February 14 at Margory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, three teachers died because they put themselves between the gunman and their students.  That is a sacrifice that should not have been demanded of them, but one that humbles us as we honor them and try to envision in what ways we can lay down our lives for others.  Usually that demands sacrifices of time, talent and/or treasure but sometimes it demands a literal sacrifice of our lives.

Shepherds have no purpose unless they have a flock to tend.  We believe that an important part of faith is belonging to the sheepfold, the community of faith.  Having faith by one’s self is a lonely enterprise, missing the support, the joy and, yes, the challenges of being church together.   Repenting, praying, giving thanks, listening, learning and breaking bread together strengthen our bonds so we can serve the world, sharing the confidence we have in God’s promises with others. 

The image of shepherd is commonly applied to both bishops and pastors.  Bishops – who carry the shepherd’s crook as one of their signs of office – are to shepherd the flock and oversee the “assistant shepherds”, the pastors who care for the sheepfolds, smaller units of the larger flock.  Bishops and pastors are called to be model shepherds, never hired hands.  We are never to answer the call to vocation for purposes of a paycheck, career enhancement or personal success.  Our lives are dictated by the needs of the community.  We always remember that Jesus is the true Good Shepherd, and we humbly follow his example as best as we can. 

As this sheepfold, this community of faith, contemplates the task of choosing a new pastor, you can walk through that valley of shadows confident that God, the one who is shepherd over all of us, accompanies you every step of the way.  Because ministry is a vocation, there is a person who will be called to serve this congregation faithfully, building relationships, calling each one by name, inspired by the model Jesus gave us.  You have to trust, as David did, in the words of the psalm that God will continue to guide you, to restore your souls, to feed you and bless you abundantly all along the journey.  “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow you all the days of your lives, and you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  Amen.

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Third Sunday of Easter – 4.15.18

            The Rev. Walter Bouman was a pastor, a theologian, an author, and a seminary professor.  I came to know him through his ecumenical work.  He died in August of 2006 from advanced colon cancer.  Walter Bouman was also the cousin of one of our previous bishops, Rev. Stephen Bouman, who is now Director of Evangelical Outreach for the national church.   When he preached the homily at his cousin’s funeral, Bishop Bouman revealed that Walter Bouman loved to read mystery novels, and he had the curious habit of reading the last chapter first.  Whenever people asked him why he wanted to know the solution before even entering into the mystery, he explained that we read stories differently when we know the ending.

            That is absolutely true when we read scripture.  Whether we hear it in church on Sunday or read it on our own, whether we are very familiar with the entire Bible or only know scattered texts, Christians know the end of the passion story of Jesus.  It doesn’t matter if we read early Hebrew scripture from the Old Testament, the Gospel narratives or letters of the New Testament, we already know that the ultimate miracle performed by God is that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead.  We cannot hear or read scripture without the reality of the resurrection informing how we interpret its words.

            There are resurrection accounts in all four Gospels, although on Easter Sunday we usually read the beautiful account found in the Gospel of John.  This year we are reading through the Gospel of Mark, and so I chose to read the account of the resurrection as told by that author.  As the Sundays have progressed, we have become used to Mark’s brevity.  When we open to that passage in the gospel, we see immediately after the last verse we heard today there is a heading “The Shorter Ending of Mark” followed by this verse:

            “And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter.  And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”

            That’s all there is – Mark’s brief Easter story followed by a one sentence account of the women apparently recovered enough from their terror to share the story with the other disciples, and another, slightly longer sentence, which alludes to a commissioning of the disciple to share the story.  After that appears another title. “The Longer Ending of Mark” followed by ten verses which scholars believe were added by other writers to soften the impact of Mark’s abrupt ending, as well as to provide a correlation to the resurrection stories told in the other Gospels. 

            But let’s imagine for a moment that the Gospel According to Mark, as originally written, with its very abrupt ending, was the only gospel in the Bible.  What if we read scripture knowing only that as the end of the story of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Unlike the other gospel narratives, there is no sense of his followers slowly coming to grasp the significance of his resurrection, there is no description of his post-resurrection appearances to them when left them with no doubt that he had been resurrected from the dead.  Thus, the main emotions we would be left with are those experienced by the women as described by Mark – terror, amazement and lost hope – not the most promising or positive place for us to enter into the story.  How could this account of the resurrection, standing by itself, enable and empower us to live the resurrected life?

            The only disciples present are the women – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome.  A few verses earlier, Mark describes these women as being faithful followers of Jesus, women who apparently provided for him and the others financially, who were present at the foot of the cross, the only ones, along with his mother Mary, who remained with Jesus through his agony until he died.  In their grief, there is only one thing they can do for him, and that is to follow Jewish burial customs and anoint the body with spices and perfumes.  Their question that morning was “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb?”

            The tomb represented their worst fear come true, because within it lay the dead body of the one whom they placed all their hope.  Their grief was intense, their fear real, their hope lost.  Yet when they arrived, they found that the stone had already been rolled away.  Some power beyond their understanding, some force that initially inspired terror and amazement had rolled the stone away and freed the trapped body inside, leaving the dark tomb empty.

            What are our worst fears?  What does that sealed tomb represent for us today?  For some there is the fear of aging, of illness, of losing our ability to be independent.  For others, fear arises from low self-esteem, from failures we fear we think we cannot overcome, or from changes challenges or even opportunities that present themselves.  Some of us are afraid to be vulnerable, to let down our guard, to get to know people as they truly are.  Others are afraid to creak open the rusty shutters of their minds to allow for other opinions and ways of doing things.  For some the greatest fear is to assert themselves and stand up for what they believe.

            In addition to our personal fears there are the specters that haunt humankind – ongoing violence and war, poverty and homelessness, racism, sexism, ethnic cleansing and religious persecution.  All of these fears, personal and global are locked in that dark tomb, just waiting for someone to roll away the stone and allow the dead corpses of our fears to escape and be exposed to the light, where they can no longer exist. 

            We should not be too critical of the terror and awe that the women experienced when they discovered that empty tomb.  Sometimes new-found emptiness evokes a response of terror and amazement before we can adjust to the banishment of our fears and the new, shared opportunity to live the resurrected life.  Sometimes it feels safer to leave things as they are, to keep that stone tightly in place and resign ourselves to forever grieve over lost opportunities.  Others need help, although they want to roll the stone away, they are unable to do so by themselves.

            The traditional Easter Gospel from John reveals the poignant moment when Mary Magdalene recognizes the voice of Jesus.  Her grief and sadness are washed away and she is empowered to share the good news of his resurrection with the others.   It is a beautiful story, yet it may not always reflect real life as we experience it.  It is almost too easy.  Perhaps this spare, tense, raw account of terror and amazement that Mark describes comes closer to what we experience when we confront our fears.

            Who will roll the stone away?  That is the challenge that Mark offers.  He assures us in his blunt style that the proclamation of salvation made possible by Jesus’ resurrection is “sacred and imperishable.”  That salvation is there for all who believe that the tomb was empty because Jesus died for our sin and rose from the dead so that we might all share in the gift of eternal life.  That gift empower us with the courage to roll the stone away and let of all our worse fears that are trapped inside escape out into the light of resurrection, where they will be transformed from insecurity into confidence, from stubbornness to cooperation, from selfishness to generosity, from evil to good, from intolerance to understanding, from acts of violence to acts of kindness.

            Mark’s story is authentic because he tells the unvarnished truth – it isn’t easy to be a disciple of Christ, we will at times be paralyzed by terror and amazement.  Bishop Bouman described his cousin Walter as one who lived with the sure and certain hope in that sacred and imperishable gift that Mark promises will be ours if we believe.  For Walter, knowing the end of the story allowed him to live his life with the courage to roll the stone away from the tomb that imprisoned not only his own personal fears but also many of the specters that haunt human society.  His life made a difference in this world.  Like his habit of reading the end of mysteries first, our knowledge of the cross and the empty tomb gives meaning to our everyday lives.  We can live secure within our knowledge of the paschal mystery because knowing the end of the story allows us to truly live the resurrected life.  Amen.

April_calendar

Easter Sunday – April 1, 2018

 

The Rev. Walter Bouman was a pastor, a theologian, an author, and a seminary professor who was also active in ecumenical work.  He was the cousin of one of our previous bishops, Rev. Stephen Bouman, who is now Director of Evangelical Outreach for the ELCA.   Walter died in 2006 from advanced colon cancer.  When he preached the homily at his cousin’s funeral, Bishop Bouman revealed that Walter loved to read mystery novels, and he had the curious habit of reading the last chapter first.  Whenever people asked him why he wanted to know the solution before even entering into the mystery, he explained that we read stories differently when we know the ending.

That is true of the Easter story.  Whether we hear it in church or read it on our own, whether we are very familiar with the entire Bible or only know scattered texts, Christians know the end of the passion story of Jesus.  We already know that the ultimate miracle performed by God is that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead.  We cannot hear or read scripture without the reality of the resurrection influencing our interpretation of its words.

There are resurrection accounts in all four Gospels, although on Easter Sunday we often read the beautiful account found in the Gospel of John.   We are in lectionary Year B when our gospel readings are from the Gospel of Mark, so I chose the account of the resurrection as told by that author.  As the Sundays have progressed, we have become used to Mark’s brevity compared to the other gospel writers.  When we look at the Easter story in the gospel, we see immediately after the last verse we heard today there is a heading “The Shorter Ending of Mark” followed by this verse:

“And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter.  And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”

That’s all there is – Mark’s brief Easter story followed by one sentence assuring us that the women apparently recovered enough from their terror to share the story with the other disciples, and another, slightly longer sentence, which alludes to the commissioning of the disciples to share the story across the Roman Empire.  After that appears another title. “The Longer Ending of Mark” followed by ten verses which scholars believe were added by others to soften the impact of Mark’s abrupt ending, as well as to provide a correlation to the post resurrection stories told in the other Gospels. 

But let’s imagine for a moment that the Gospel According to Mark, as originally written, with its very abrupt ending, was the only gospel in the Bible.  What if we only knew what Mark tells us about the end of the story of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Unlike the other gospel narratives, there is no sense of his followers slowly coming to grasp the significance of his resurrection, there is no description of his post-resurrection appearances which left them with no doubt that he had been resurrected from the dead.  We would be left with the same emotions Mark tells us the women experienced – terror, amazement and no proof other than the empty tomb and the promise of the angel.  How could this account of the resurrection, standing by itself, enable and empower us to live the resurrected life?

The only disciples present are the women – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome.  A few verses earlier, Mark describes these women as being faithful followers of Jesus, women who provided for him and the others financially, and who were present at the foot of the cross – the only ones, along with his mother Mary, who remained with Jesus through his agony until he died.  In their grief, there is only one thing they can do for him, and that is to follow Jewish burial customs and anoint the body with spices and perfumes.  Their concern that morning was “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb?”

The tomb represented their worst fear come true, because within it lay the dead body of the one in whom they had placed all their hope.  Their grief was intense, their fear real, their hope lost.  Yet when they arrived, they found that the stone had already been rolled away.  Some power beyond their understanding, some unknown force, had rolled the stone away and freed the trapped body inside, leaving the dark tomb empty.

What are our worst fears?  What does that sealed tomb represent for us today?  It may be the fear of aging, of illness, of losing our ability to be independent.  Fear may arise from low self-esteem, from failures we think we cannot overcome, or from changes, challenges or even new opportunities that present themselves.  Some are afraid to be vulnerable, to let down our guard, to let people know us as we truly are.  Others are afraid to creak open the rusty shutters of our minds to allow for other opinions and ways of doing things.  For some the greatest fear is to assert ourselves and stand up for what we believe.

In addition to personal fears there are the specters that haunt humankind – ongoing violence and war, poverty, hunger and homelessness, racism, sexism, ethnic cleansing and religious persecution.  All of these fears, personal and global, are locked in that dark tomb, just waiting for someone to roll away the stone and allow those fears to escape and be exposed to the light, where they can no longer exist. 

It seems natural that the women were afraid when they discovered that empty tomb.  Sometimes new-found emptiness evokes a response of terror and amazement before we can adjust to the banishment of our fears and the new, shared opportunity to live the resurrected life.  Sometimes it feels safer to leave things as they are, to keep that stone tightly in place and resign ourselves to forever grieve over lost opportunities.  At times, although we want to roll the stone away, we are unable to do so without help.

The Easter Gospel from John reveals the poignant moment when Mary Magdalene recognizes the voice of Jesus.  Her grief and sadness are washed away and she is empowered to share the good news of his resurrection with the others.   It is a beautiful story, yet it may not always reflect life as we so often experience it.  Perhaps this spare, tense, raw account of terror and amazement that Mark describes comes closer to what we may experience when we confront our fears.

Who will roll the stone away?  That is the challenge that Mark offers.  He assures us in his blunt style that the proclamation of salvation made possible by Jesus’ resurrection is “sacred and imperishable.”  That salvation is there for all who believe that the tomb was empty because Jesus died for our sin and rose from the dead so that we might all share in the gift of eternal life.  That gift empowers us with the courage to roll the stone away and let of all our worse fears that are trapped inside escape out into the light of resurrection, where they will be transformed from insecurity into confidence, from stubbornness to cooperation, from selfishness to generosity, from evil to good, from intolerance to understanding, from acts of violence to acts of kindness.

Mark’s gospel is unique because he tells the unvarnished truth – it isn’t easy to be a disciple of Christ, we will at times be paralyzed by terror and amazement.  Bishop Bouman described his cousin Walter as one who lived with the sure and certain hope in that sacred and imperishable gift that Mark promises will be ours if we believe.  For Walter, knowing the end of the story allowed him to live his life with the courage to roll the stone away from the tomb that imprisoned not only his own personal fears but also many of the specters that haunt human society.  His life made a difference in this world.  Like his habit of reading the end of mysteries first, our knowledge of the cross and the empty tomb gives meaning to our everyday lives.  We are blessed to know not just Mark’s version of the resurrection, but also the accounts in the three other gospels which describe the reassuring post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.  We can live with hope and joy, confident in the future, because knowing the end of the story allows us to truly live the resurrected life.  Amen.

April_calendar

Fifth Sunday in Lent – 03.25.18

The themes for our readings during Lent this year are covenant and knowing God.  We learn about the many covenants God made with God’s people in our readings from Hebrew scripture, and we get to know God incarnate, God in Jesus, through the gospel narratives.  In our first reading, God entrusts the prophet Jeremiah with the job of explaining the new covenant God will make with the people in exile in Babylon.  It will be accompanied by a repopulation of the land of Israel and a rebuilding of Jerusalem. This is an earthly covenant.  It is given to Israel, not to some new people that God will create.  God will make this new covenant with all Israel, both the Northern and Southern kingdoms. The promise is given to a discouraged and disheartened people who are in exile.  This new covenant is God’s promise for this specific group of people, assuring them they will return home.

The old covenant formula of relationship still applies, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” Jeremiah says. But Israel will now be constituted as the people of God in a new way. God will give them a new heart so that all the people will know the Lord.  The law will remain a key component of the covenant, but now it will be written upon their hearts, not just learned, but internalized.  Forgiveness is the basis of the covenant, the people have broken former covenants, specifically the one made at Sinai during their wilderness journey, but God offers them grace-filled forgiveness.  God remains faithful to the covenants God makes with us – with Noah, with Abraham, with the people as they wandered in the wilderness, with the exiles returning from Babylon and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  It is we who so often turn away from our covenantal responsibilities, always needing to get to know God in a new way.

In the Gospel of John, seeing and hearing are the new ways people come to know God in Jesus, to believe and trust in him, and to recognize his unity and singleness of purpose with the Father. The opening verse of today’s gospel reading takes us back to chapter one, when Jesus said to Andrew, “Come and see,” and to Philip, “Follow me.” In this story, some Greeks say to Philip, “We want to see Jesus.” They may be Greek-speaking Jews of the diaspora or Gentiles converting to Judaism.  Either way, they represent the wide range of interest in Jesus.  Right before our reading some of the religious authorities were complaining that “The world has gone after him!”  It seems that people from all walks of life want to see and believe in Jesus.

Ironically, we don’t know if those Greeks ever got to see Jesus.  John goes on to tell us that this is a Kairos moment.  The time is now right for Jesus to share with his disciples as much as he can about the ordeal and death that lie ahead of him.  In John, following Jesus is the path of abundant and eternal life.  In this gospel, the word “hate” means “reject”; it usually refers to what the world does to Jesus and ultimately, to his followers.  So, when Jesus says, “Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life”, he is encouraging us to follow his lead in rejecting this world’s definition of life as a small and isolated negative existence.  He will not, and we should not, depend on just one small seed and thereby fail to bear much fruit.

Ultimately, bearing much fruit can mean losing one’s life. This is not done easily or thoughtlessly.  According to John, Jesus considers and rejects a prayer like the one he prayed in Gethsemane in the synoptic gospels (“If it is possible, Father, save me from this hour.”).  John tells us at this moment he chooses a different prayer instead, “Father, glorify your name,” and he hears in reply, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”  To all those who will listen, the connection between Jesus and the Father remains steadfast even as the hour of his death approaches. In John, Father and Son are always on the same page: if you have seen one, you have seen and know the other.  The glory of each is the love that they share, the love God shared in the covenants, the love that Jesus shares as he washes the disciples’ feet, the love that he shows as he lays down his life for his friends and as he is lifted up on the cross, he draws all people to himself.  Unfortunately, not all have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

Yet, John insists on offering hope that those who cannot see Jesus now will recognize him soon. Jesus will be lifted up for all to see.  As the result of his crucifixion (being lifted up on a cross), resurrection (being lifted up from death) and ascension (being lifted up from the earth to return to the Father), people will see that he and the Father were always one.  Questions about who Jesus is, where he has come from, and with what authority he speaks will be answered. Jesus holds out hope that these events will reveal him to those who could not before recognize him as the only Son of the Father.

His disciples were the first for understood this revelation.  After his death and resurrection, John tells us, “They remembered.”  They remembered and connected what Jesus taught them.  After Jesus was raised, after he was glorified, the disciples could see even more of who he was and what he had been doing during his ministry on earth. The end of the story helped them to see what they had been looking at all along.  John writes that it will be the same for us: “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God,” he says, “and that believing, you may have life in his name”.

Here’s the challenge offered by our lessons today – do we really want to see and know God in Jesus?  John says that in order to truly believe, we must accept Jesus’ teaching.  Do we want to do that – accept the command to love one another as God loves us, an unconditional love extended to all people, of all genders, sexual identities, ethnicities, cultures and faiths – or do we think that maybe Jesus wasn’t serious about that, that we know better to whom we should extend God’s love, mercy and compassion?  Truly knowing Jesus means not just learning stories about his life, but accepting and believing what he teaches, and therefore rejecting the division, hatred and intolerance taught and promoted by the forces of evil in the world.  Jesus said “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself” in other words, the promise is extended not just to the people we approve of, but to all people. 

We understand that these texts from the prophet Jeremiah and gospel writer John have not been fully fulfilled. We still need to encourage others to “know the Lord.” The claim from Hebrew scripture that “all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” remains a promise for the future.  Not everyone looks upon the cross of the crucifixion or the empty cross of the resurrection and understands who God in Jesus is.  It is up to us to share the good news, to believe in the teaching of Jesus without reservation and to model it for others, to truly see what we have been looking at all along, so that by our words and actions all may come to know the true God.  Amen. 

April_calendar

Fourth Sunday in Lent – 03.11.18

Our first reading seems rather strange.  The Israelites, who are on their journey through the wilderness, are in one of their frequent bad moods when they complain to God about everything.  Did you notice that they complain about having no food, and then say the food is terrible?  Which is it?  No food, or terrible food?  Then they are confronted with a plague of poisonous snakes.  It seems natural to assume that God must have sent the snakes because the people complained.  The people themselves seem to believe that.  However, neither the narrator nor God ever explicitly says that God sent the snakes for that reason.  The story specifies that God sends the snakes, but neither God or the narrator calls the snakes a punishment.

Perhaps that conclusion comes from employing a false sense of logic.  Maybe God did not send the snakes because of their quarreling after all. Crying out to God in complaint is not usually condemned in Scripture; for example, there are many psalms that center on complaint or lament.  There are times in Scripture when “speaking against” God or God’s messenger does bring catastrophe, but that is usually made explicit.  There is no direct correlation named here, this week’s reading leaves us to draw our own conclusions.  Is God punishing the people with the snakes?  We don’t know the answer, just that God is not predictable.

In the story the people repent of their sin and then ask Moses to pray for them. This role as intermediary is what Moses does best: facilitating communication between God and God’s people. In this instance, God does not literally give the people what they ask for, which is to “take away the serpents”.   The serpents do not go away, nor do they stop biting.  Instead, God instructs Moses on how the people who are bitten can be healed. Deliverance does not come in the way that they expect but rather in the form of another covenant God makes with God’s people.  If they believe in God’s promise when they look upon the bronze serpent, they will be saved.

In our gospel, Jesus refers to that serpent that was lifted up in the wilderness by Moses, saying that just as the people believed God’s promise in the covenant when they looked at that bronze snake, so now God’s promise will be revealed when he is lifted up.  Of course, at the time, no one understood that he was referring to his own crucifixion.  Now we know when we look upon Jesus on the cross, God wants us to believe the covenantal promise that he died for us so that we might be saved. 

Our story also includes what is probably the best-known verse from scripture, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  The simple explanation is that God loves the world and he sends his child (God’s self) to save it.  Saving the world requires a process that ends hate, injustice, intolerance and oppression and replaces it with justice, compassion, mercy, love and equality.  Verses 19 -21 explain that some choose hate over light, evil deeds over good deeds, and therefore they reject the light of the son of God who was lifted up on the cross.  Those who believe agree with Jesus’ mission to change or restore the world from being full of evil and injustice to the loving, just and caring world that God intended.  For the author of this gospel, believing in Jesus has more to do with what we believe regarding evil, hate, exploitation, and injustice rather than some sort of mystical “religious” conversion.

In his commentary on the gospel of John, theologian Rudolph Bultmann offers helpful insight into John’s thinking: “In the decision of faith or unbelief it becomes apparent what man [sic] really is.” (The Gospel of John a Commentary,159) In other words, for Bultmann, one’s disposition to do good reflects a person’s true character, philosophy or belief system, and therefore becomes an important factor in determining whether one rejects or believes in Jesus.  Bultmann believed that for John, believing in and accepting Jesus’ message had more to do with agreeing with his teachings than with having some sort of change of heart.  The challenge posed by the incarnation of Jesus is that we are called to decide who we are, what we stand for, and what exactly we believe.

As Christians, we are faced with the question of whether or not we can stay neutral in the midst of wrongdoing.  It seems that John was letting us know that whether or not to believe in Jesus cannot be a neutral decision. Jesus demands we take a stand, which requires making a decision and acting on it.  Neutrality and indecisiveness are not options. To follow Jesus requires the courage to make decisions about the evils of hate, exploitation and oppression that surround us, to stand against the brutal and sinful ideologies that often run rampant in the world.

Paul addresses this question in our second reading from Ephesians.  For Paul, the function of the cross was to tear down walls of alienation which divided nations and peoples of the world; the result is a new humanity whose identity is in Christ and who are also identified as God’s chosen people (in addition to God’s first chosen people).  Paul insists on the central role of the cross that Jesus alludes to in our gospel reading.  Jesus Christ becomes the means through which the unity of “all things in him, all things on earth,” are made possible.  The global church longs for the reconciliation of all peoples and nations.  In his letter, Paul invites the church at Ephesus to exemplify unity in the midst of diversity.

Sometimes denominations in the 21st-century seem to be reversing the message of unity because walls of hostility are being erected around various social issues.  The church is challenged to rethink its evolving identity as the people of God as a place where individuals use their spiritual gifts to build bridges of unity with others.  In his book Capital Gaines, author and TV personality from “Fixer Upper” on HGTV Chip Gaines talks about bridge building.  He describes himself and his wife Joanna as “true dreamers” who are sometimes idealistic “to a fault.”  Inspired by scripture, they see a future role for themselves as bridge builders, to facilitate conversations among all kinds of people, of all genders, faiths, ethnicities, and cultures, that will help figure out a way forward for our world.

In the same way the apostle Paul invites us to know and identify our God given place in the church and the world.  The church should help us identify our role and empower us to use our gifts and talents in the transformation of the world.  Every believer has to realize that God has a role for us to play, and if we fail to function in that role, something important may not be done.  Ephesians calls all people, of all genders, ethnicities and cultures to find our place in God’s mission and carry it out. Paul reminds us, “For by grace you have been saved by faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God — not because of works, lest any person should boast.” The intelligence and gifts we have are all gifts from God, and we have to recognize and accept those gifts and use them for the sake of God’s mission in the world.  Amen.

Our first reading seems rather strange.  The Israelites, who are on their journey through the wilderness, are in one of their frequent bad moods when they complain to God about everything.  Did you notice that they complain about having no food, and then say the food is terrible?  Which is it?  No food, or terrible food?  Then they are confronted with a plague of poisonous snakes.  It seems natural to assume that God must have sent the snakes because the people complained.  The people themselves seem to believe that.  However, neither the narrator nor God ever explicitly says that God sent the snakes for that reason.  The story specifies that God sends the snakes, but neither God or the narrator calls the snakes a punishment.

Perhaps that conclusion comes from employing a false sense of logic.  Maybe God did not send the snakes because of their quarreling after all. Crying out to God in complaint is not usually condemned in Scripture; for example, there are many psalms that center on complaint or lament.  There are times in Scripture when “speaking against” God or God’s messenger does bring catastrophe, but that is usually made explicit.  There is no direct correlation named here, this week’s reading leaves us to draw our own conclusions.  Is God punishing the people with the snakes?  We don’t know the answer, just that God is not predictable.

In the story the people repent of their sin and then ask Moses to pray for them. This role as intermediary is what Moses does best: facilitating communication between God and God’s people. In this instance, God does not literally give the people what they ask for, which is to “take away the serpents”.   The serpents do not go away, nor do they stop biting.  Instead, God instructs Moses on how the people who are bitten can be healed. Deliverance does not come in the way that they expect but rather in the form of another covenant God makes with God’s people.  If they believe in God’s promise when they look upon the bronze serpent, they will be saved.

In our gospel, Jesus refers to that serpent that was lifted up in the wilderness by Moses, saying that just as the people believed God’s promise in the covenant when they looked at that bronze snake, so now God’s promise will be revealed when he is lifted up.  Of course, at the time, no one understood that he was referring to his own crucifixion.  Now we know when we look upon Jesus on the cross, God wants us to believe the covenantal promise that he died for us so that we might be saved. 

Our story also includes what is probably the best-known verse from scripture, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  The simple explanation is that God loves the world and he sends his child (God’s self) to save it.  Saving the world requires a process that ends hate, injustice, intolerance and oppression and replaces it with justice, compassion, mercy, love and equality.  Verses 19 -21 explain that some choose hate over light, evil deeds over good deeds, and therefore they reject the light of the son of God who was lifted up on the cross.  Those who believe agree with Jesus’ mission to change or restore the world from being full of evil and injustice to the loving, just and caring world that God intended.  For the author of this gospel, believing in Jesus has more to do with what we believe regarding evil, hate, exploitation, and injustice rather than some sort of mystical “religious” conversion.

In his commentary on the gospel of John, theologian Rudolph Bultmann offers helpful insight into John’s thinking: “In the decision of faith or unbelief it becomes apparent what man [sic] really is.” (The Gospel of John a Commentary,159) In other words, for Bultmann, one’s disposition to do good reflects a person’s true character, philosophy or belief system, and therefore becomes an important factor in determining whether one rejects or believes in Jesus.  Bultmann believed that for John, believing in and accepting Jesus’ message had more to do with agreeing with his teachings than with having some sort of change of heart.  The challenge posed by the incarnation of Jesus is that we are called to decide who we are, what we stand for, and what exactly we believe.

As Christians, we are faced with the question of whether or not we can stay neutral in the midst of wrongdoing.  It seems that John was letting us know that whether or not to believe in Jesus cannot be a neutral decision. Jesus demands we take a stand, which requires making a decision and acting on it.  Neutrality and indecisiveness are not options. To follow Jesus requires the courage to make decisions about the evils of hate, exploitation and oppression that surround us, to stand against the brutal and sinful ideologies that often run rampant in the world.

Paul addresses this question in our second reading from Ephesians.  For Paul, the function of the cross was to tear down walls of alienation which divided nations and peoples of the world; the result is a new humanity whose identity is in Christ and who are also identified as God’s chosen people (in addition to God’s first chosen people).  Paul insists on the central role of the cross that Jesus alludes to in our gospel reading.  Jesus Christ becomes the means through which the unity of “all things in him, all things on earth,” are made possible.  The global church longs for the reconciliation of all peoples and nations.  In his letter, Paul invites the church at Ephesus to exemplify unity in the midst of diversity.

Sometimes denominations in the 21st-century seem to be reversing the message of unity because walls of hostility are being erected around various social issues.  The church is challenged to rethink its evolving identity as the people of God as a place where individuals use their spiritual gifts to build bridges of unity with others.  In his book Capital Gaines, author and TV personality from “Fixer Upper” on HGTV Chip Gaines talks about bridge building.  He describes himself and his wife Joanna as “true dreamers” who are sometimes idealistic “to a fault.”  Inspired by scripture, they see a future role for themselves as bridge builders, to facilitate conversations among all kinds of people, of all genders, faiths, ethnicities, and cultures, that will help figure out a way forward for our world.

In the same way the apostle Paul invites us to know and identify our God given place in the church and the world.  The church should help us identify our role and empower us to use our gifts and talents in the transformation of the world.  Every believer has to realize that God has a role for us to play, and if we fail to function in that role, something important may not be done.  Ephesians calls all people, of all genders, ethnicities and cultures to find our place in God’s mission and carry it out. Paul reminds us, “For by grace you have been saved by faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God — not because of works, lest any person should boast.” The intelligence and gifts we have are all gifts from God, and we have to recognize and accept those gifts and use them for the sake of God’s mission in the world.  Amen.

April_calendar

Third Sunday in Lent – 03.04.18

            In keeping with the theme of our readings from Hebrew scripture during Lent, our first reading for today describes yet another covenant God made with humankind, the gift of the law.  Familiar to us as the ten commandments, the law allows us to live in community with one another.  Although we often think of the law just as something to be obeyed, God intended the law to be a framework for humankind to live in safety and peace.  If you watched the video about Abraham and Sarah last Sunday, it was obvious that their story predates the giving of the law through Moses to the people as they wandered in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.  Some rather shocking customs were taken for granted by God’s people before the code of law existed.  Loving parents, caring teachers, anyone in a position of responsibility know how important rules and boundaries are for life together.

            It becomes confusing sometimes when we hear Jesus, and later on, Paul, say things that seem to contradict the law.  However, neither Jesus nor Paul sought to abolish the commandments and laws that evolved to support them.  The problem was that at times people had taken the law too far, that they were more concerned with a rigid adherence to details of the law than they were with obeying the command to love God and one another.  For example, the command to honor the sabbath is one that we might wish was followed more closely today.  Many people do not attend worship, stores are open, schools hold events, people in non-critical jobs are required to work.  However, in Jesus’ day, he was criticized for healing on the Sabbath.  Jesus taught that the offering of mercy and compassion should super cede the law not to work on the Sabbath.    

            In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus was faced with another case of the law being applied inappropriately.  John depicts Jesus in a rare fit of anger, as he drives the animals away from the outer court of the temple and overturns the tables of the moneychangers.  It is difficult for us to understand the culture and rituals of the temple at that time.  The temple was the meeting place between the God of Israel and God’s people. Sacrifices were offered during religious festivals and at special times in people’s lives, such as in honor of a birth or in thanksgiving for a harvest. The temple was a holy place. It was a place where human life and divine blessing came together.

            What Jesus did by upsetting the status quo, driving out the animals for sale for sacrifice and the money changers – because only money minted by the temple could be used to pay tithes and offerings –  is akin to stopping a television broadcast.  Commentator Mary Hinkle Shore explains it this way – imagine if you are walking outside an arena where a basketball game is going to be televised.  There are huge generators, all kinds of lights, cords and tractor trailers connected to the arena so the game can be seen by thousands of people.  Suddenly someone cuts all the power lines.  Now there is no light, the scoreboards don’t work, and the game can’t be broadcast.  Everything comes to a standstill. 

            That is what happened at the temple that day.  Everything would have been interrupted, the normal activity of the temple could not be carried out.   In the other gospels, the reason for Jesus’ anger and his attempt to stop the transactions at the temple were strictly out of concern for the law – the people were often being cheated by those conducting business.  There is also some historical evidence that before the Romans conquered Israel, those activities took place outside the temple, down in the valley.  Now they had been moved into the outer courtyard, which was still part of the temple so the Romans could keep watch.  The writers of the synoptic gospels borrow from the prophet Jeremiah, saying the temple had been turned into a “den of robbers.”   

            In the gospel of John, this conflict in the temple takes on a different meaning. Jesus is not acting only against corruption, he is involved in what Shore calls “performance art.”  As she explains, “Jesus brings all temple activity to a standstill in order to point to another holy place altogether. “Destroy this temple,” Jesus says, “and in three days, I will raise it up.”  Like a lot of what Jesus says in John, this line from Jesus does not connect to from what precedes it.  You hear it, and you think, “Huh? Who said anything about destroying the temple?”  The people listening to Jesus are confused.  They point out that the temple has been under renovation for decades. “Really, Jesus, you’re going to rebuild it in three days?”

            The author tries to help us understand – “He was speaking of the temple of his body,” John writes.  In John’s Gospel, the body of Jesus is the new “holy place.”  Remember, John opens the gospel with these words – “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”  In the incarnation, with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s dwelling place is with human beings, as a human being.   In this story, John tells us that Jesus taunts the religious authorities: “I dare you: destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” John insists that a human body, the body of Jesus, a lot like any other human body, is also the holy place of God.  Jesus was not just “wearing” a human body like a set of clothes. He was a human body, as inseparable from his body as we are from ours. And God was inseparable from him.

            During the season of Lent, we follow the body of Jesus as his feet walk to Jerusalem, as his hands braid pieces of rope into a whip to herd animals out of the temple, as his knees bend to kneel so he can wash the feet of the disciples.  We watch him eat and drink with his friends, and we follow him to the garden, where the bodies of his disciples nod off to sleep while Jesus sweats through a prayer that he might not have to endure the torture in his immediate future.  We see his body beaten, crucified, taken down from the cross, and laid in a tomb.  Even in the stories of his resurrection, he is still a body – scarred by his ordeal, but able to be hugged, touched, and to eat with his followers to prove he wasn’t a supernatural being.  John insists the body of Jesus is the location of God, and the point of connection between divine and human life. 

            Even as Christians it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, for us to fully understand the concept that God raised Jesus from the dead just as God will one day raise us from the dead.  Nevertheless, we will not let go of that hope, precisely because God was committed enough to human flesh and blood to become it in Jesus Christ and committed enough to the human body to raise Jesus up after his death, as a body that was able to eat fish, and point out scars to Thomas, and ask Peter to feed his sheep. 

            As Paul writes in our second lesson, the wisdom of God looks like foolishness to the world.  People treat the covenant of the commandments as though it was made to be broken.  They demand proof, signs, a test of human wisdom, but we persist in believing the message of the cross.  The disciples did not understand all this as they accompanied Jesus on his journey, but they believed after he was raised from the dead, and they courageously passed that faith on to us.  Amen.  

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Second Sunday in Lent – 02.25.18

            Our first reading for today describes the second covenant God made with humankind.  The first covenant was made with Noah and all the people and creatures who survived the flood.  God hung the bow up in the sky, the weapon of hunting and fighting, as a symbol of God’s promise to never destroy the earth again.  Humankind may be responsible for destruction on earth, but God will not destroy creation.  Whenever God sees the rainbow, God remembers the covenant.  Now God is making a covenant with Abram, who he will rename Abraham (father of a multitude).  Just as our story for last week noted, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God” so now God tells Abram to “walk before me, and be blameless.”   Just as creation was marked by the rainbow to remind God of a commitment to humankind, now Abram’s family is marked to show its privileged relationship with God. 

            God promises Abraham two things:  descendants and land.  Over and over again the descendants of Abraham will face obstacles to the realization of one or both parts of the covenantal promise, and the people will wonder if God will keep the promises.  Just as Isaac is born to ninety-year-old Sarah and one hundred-year-old Abraham, so the people will eventually be led to the Promised Land.  Centuries later, after being taken into exile in Babylon, they will return to reclaim the land, and again after the unthinkable, the Holocaust, it will become the nation of Israel, a safe haven for a people who were rejected by so many countries even after such unimaginable persecution and suffering.

            Paul uses the story of Abraham in his letter to the Romans as an example of how God takes the initiative to set people in right relationship with God, and to show that the appropriate human response is to have faith in God’s promises.  Abraham’s faith is not a work that earned him God’s favor, it was the right response to God’s free gift of righteousness.  Abraham did not do anything to earn God’s favor, what makes him special is that in spite of making mistakes he always trusted God and God’s promises. 

            Abraham is the first patriarch of Israel, but he is more than that even in Jewish tradition.  God promised to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham, to make him the ancestor of many nations – which does not mean a political or geographical country, but rather many different ethnicities.  Paul tells us that the descendants of Abraham, who also inherit the promises made to him, are not just his biological descendants but all who share his faith in God.  Paul insists that the inclusion of Gentiles in the community of faith is part of the fulfillment of God’s promise to make Abraham the father of many nations.  And so, we call him, “Father Abraham.”

            The trust that Abraham had in God, in spite of how illogical or impossible God’s promises may seem, is what makes Abraham righteous before God.  Paul reminds us that it is the same for all who trust that God makes promises to sinful human beings and fulfills them.  God’s ultimate promise is that of the Messiah, a promise which we believe was fulfilled in Jesus.  The God of Abraham is the same God who has dealt decisively with the sin that alienates us humans from God through the death of Jesus, God’s son.  By raising Jesus from the dead, God makes it possible for us to live new lives in a restored relationship with God and with others.  This is a pure gift of grace, we just have to believe and trust that it is true.

            Accepting that life and relationship with God is a gift, based on trust, can be hard in a world where career advancement, good grades in school and many other things depend on our ability to perform.  We have all experienced the pain of broken promises or promises that are made lightly, so we can be pretty skeptical when people say, “just trust me.”  We may wonder if our faith is as strong and unwavering as that of Abraham, or of Paul, and worry if we can fall out of favor with God.  But the hope we have lies not in Abraham’s or Paul’s faith, it lies in God’s honesty and faithfulness to us.  We will always have moments of doubt, just as Abraham did, but God still fulfills the promises. 

            Our gospel story depicts Peter as he struggles with his new-found faith in Jesus as the Messiah.  In the verses preceding our story, Jesus asked his disciples, “who do people say that I am?”   They answered him, “John the Baptizer, Elijah and others.”  He asks, “but who do you say that I am?”  Peter responds, “You are the Messiah.” 

            Then Jesus begins to teach them about what will ultimately happen to him, that he will undergo great suffering and will be rejected by the religious authorities, he will be killed and after three days will rise again.  Peter is naturally very upset by these words and takes Jesus aside and rebukes him.  Peter wants to keep Jesus safe, and avoid this terrible fate he anticipates.  But this gets Peter into big trouble with Jesus.  Peter is the first in this gospel to understand who Jesus is, but he cannot wrap his mind around what Jesus must do because of who he is.  Peter understands what Jesus told them, but he doesn’t like it and wants to create a different ending to the story. 

            Peter has not yet been able to set his mind on the things of God, he is focusing on human things.  He wants to be the leader, and save Jesus from the awful things he has described to them.  He is looking through human eyes rather than the eyes of God, and he needs an “attitude adjustment” in order to be a faithful follower.  That will happen, at the end of the Gospel of Mark.  After the women discover the empty tomb, they are instructed by the angel to go and tell Peter and the others that Jesus will see all of them in Galilee.  Peter will receive that blessing, the gift of understanding, when he encounters the risen Jesus.  Ultimately he become of leader of those who also believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise of the Messiah. 

            Jesus knows what he must do in order to fulfill the promise, even though his followers obviously do not like it, and he gives us pretty clear instructions as to what we must do in order to follow him.  We must follow behind him, as the leader, Jesus comes first.  We must deny ourselves – which means to be willing to allow God to be the controlling force in our lives, rather than our own will.  We must take up our cross – which does not refer to the burdens life imposes on us but rather to difficult, sometimes painful, but always redemptive action that we voluntarily undertake for others.  Jesus says “pick up and carry” the cross, which brings to mind the condemned person who had to carry their cross to the place of execution, while they were ridiculed by the onlookers.  Perhaps we are also being called to publicly display our faith and be willing to suffer any consequences as a result. 

            We live in the now and not yet, we see and believe what Jesus has done and what we are to do, but it isn’t completely clear.  We are waiting for that final healing touch, that final revelation, like the post-resurrection appearances by Jesus.  We follow Jesus, but, like Peter, we get distracted by human things rather than the things of God.  God has always been in the business of creating out of nothing, and of bringing life to where there is only barrenness and death.  As we reflect on the brokenness of our lives and the world during Lent, we find hope knowing that God works where we least expect it.  We trust in the promises God has made and continues to fulfill.  Amen.