Jesus Knows Our Needs

John 14:18 – May 21, 2017

John 14-18 not leave you, coin

“Jesus Knows Our Needs”

Today in our service, we focus on Mental Health and Mental Illness. All across the United States, one in four people are affected by mental health issues each year. Whether the health difficulty is mild, moderate or serious, still—one in four people have challenges or difficulties that affect their daily lives. And if you add the families and loved ones of those who are affected, you are talking about a lot of people! Often times, people with mental health challenges do not have much to look forward to, and not much hope at all.

In our Gospel reading from John 14, Jesus gives us all some hope and comfort.

This reading is from Thursday night in the Passion week, the night before Jesus was crucified. Jesus knew He was going away. He told His disciples so. However, Jesus tells His friends about a Helper He is going to send when He is gone: “16 And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept Him, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. But you know Him, for He lives with you and will be in you.”

Jesus promised us to leave us another Advocate—another Helper. We will explore Jesus’s message to all of us for those times when we are feeling alone, afraid, separate and isolated. Just like people who are dealing with mental illness. Just like their loved ones, too.

The disciples still don’t understand a lot of what Jesus was telling them. Even though He had been with them for many months, even years, they still do not get it. Of course, we have better understanding of what Jesus told them in that Upper Room, looking back on it from our fuller point of view, today. But even now, many people have a challenging time figuring out exactly what Jesus was saying. Helper? Advocate? Spirit from God? What is that all about?

In a magazine, Vision New England’s Ministries with the Disabled, a minister writes “How many families in your [acquaintance] have a loved one who struggles with a serious, acute or chronic mental health issue?” Carlene Hill Byron says that “Someone is probably hurting and they’re afraid to tell you.” [1]

NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness. NAMI teaches us that “Mental illnesses are medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.” [2]

Do you think Jesus understands how we feel? How about everyone, absolutely every person—does Jesus know how each one of us feels? What about individuals who are suffering from major depression? What about schizophrenia? Bipolar disorder? Obsessive compulsive disorder? How about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Are all of these afflictions diseases that Jesus understands? Can He come alongside of each of us, in whatever mental state we happen to be in? Or, will Jesus desert us, like so many people do who just do not understand us?

The next verses in John 14: “18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see Me anymore, but you will see Me.”

Where Jesus mentions “I will not leave you as orphans,” that is exactly what He said, and exactly what He meant. “Orphan” (orphanos) “was a common metaphor to describe disciples left without their masters.” [3] Dr. O’Day mentions a special poignancy in Jesus’s words here, where He talks about a special family relationship He has with His friends and disciples. Especially here in the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to His friends as “little children.”

“I will not leave you as orphans.” Sometimes, in this imperfect life, things happen. Loved ones die. Listen to this personal recollection from the Rev. Dr. Anna Hosemann-Butler: “Orphaned. Alone. Without guidance. Without support. Without parents. Without anyone. Mostly, “orphaned” means being so isolated in this world that it feels like no one cares whether or not we live or die. Orphaned. Really depressing. At least, it can be—and terrifying, too.

“Although an image of children first comes to mind when we use that word, any of us can be orphaned at any age. In fact, on any given day, a lot of us are orphaned, at least in spirit.

I lost my father to cancer when I was eight years old, and so became a “half-orphan,” and thus appropriately half-terrified.

“I became a child who on the surface was fine, but inside was frantic in my love for my mother, always on the edge of panic where her well-being was concerned, desperately afraid that something would happen to her and I would be completely alone in the world. Anxious fear was a constant childhood companion. There was no way around it, it seemed.” [4]

Imagine fear and anxiety like that, every single day. Dr. Hosemann-Butler describes her childhood feelings so vividly here as she relates how filled with panic and anxiety she was at the sense of being orphaned. I suspect many, many people with mental illness go through similar feelings of panic, fear, anxiety, and loneliness. It is not just fear and desperation at being left alone for people with mental illnesses, but it’s also a dark cloud of stigma that surrounds them. Many times, they can be unfairly labeled, bullied at school or work, excluded or shunned in social situations, and marginalized in many different ways.

But, Jesus never does any of those things. Can anyone imagine our Lord Jesus bullying someone? Or, shunning anyone? Certainly not! He would be likely to go out to the parking lot or in back by the alley, where the shunned and excluded ones are hanging out. Just as Jesus thought of His friends and disciples as His children, that is the same way He thinks of any of His modern-day friends and followers, too.

Remember what Jesus reminds us: “16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth.” Even though Jesus might have known He was ascending to heaven in just a few weeks, He knew the Holy Spirit would come to be with the disciples. Just as Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit is with us today as well, indwelling us and coming alongside of us.

I would like to encourage all of us, today—be friends for someone who is hurting, today. Come alongside of someone who struggles with mental illness, or one of their family members, today. Provide a warm welcome for these friends, so they don’t feel alone any more.

I want to reiterate: Jesus will not leave anyone as orphans—not grown ups, not children, not seniors, not people who are blind or deaf or with speech impediments, not people who are developmentally disabled, and not people with mental illnesses. No one. No one.

Remember Psalm 23, where King David talks of walking through the valley of the shadow? Sure, the road ahead may be dark sometimes, and take unexpected twists and turns, but the Holy Spirit will be right by our sides. Always. Jesus has promised, and we can take His word for it. Alleluia, amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

[1] A quotation from Carlene Hill Byron, from Vision New England Ministries with the Disabled, http://mhn-ucc.blogspot.com/p/mental-health-sunday.html   https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1-I-16TIdciVlprWldQOTEtdUE/edit , page 11.

[2]. http://mhn-ucc.blogspot.com/p/mental-health-sunday.html   https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1-I-16TIdciVlprWldQOTEtdUE/edit

[3] O’Day, Gail, The Gospel of John, The new Interpreter’s Bible: general articles & introduction, commentary, & reflections for each book of the Bible, Vol. 9 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 748.

[4]  http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Orphaned-Anna-Hosemann-Butler-05-20-2014 , “Orphaned?” Anna Hosemann-Butler, Edgy Exegesis, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Where Jesus Is

John 14:3 – May 14, 2017

John 14-3 prepare a place, words

“Where Jesus Is”

Home. There’s no place like home.

I know this feeling is not true for all people, but it’s very true for many, many people, around the world. Many of us have a deep craving to go home, to be comfortable, with familiar people we know and love. Have you ever felt this way? Have you ever been away from home for a long time, and returned at last? Perhaps felt the satisfaction, the relief, the deep-down joy at being in your own hometown again? In your own neighborhood, on those familiar streets once more? And especially, in your own bed?

That is one of the deep emotions our Lord Jesus taps into in today’s passage from the Gospel of John, chapter 14. It is the evening of the Passover Dinner, the Last Supper. He knows His time on this earth is almost over. Jesus gives His disciples as much reassurance as possible. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?”

A place, especially for you. That heartfelt feeling of “home” is something that goes deep, indeed. Sure, many people grow up at home. Families are at home. Beloved pets are at home. Even all of our stuff is oftentimes at home.

Remember the movie “The Wizard of Oz”? That MGM mega-blockbuster made in 1939 had Dorothy, played by Judy Garland, singing a song early in the movie about what she imagined about a special place for her. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was almost cut from the finished movie by MGM, because they thought that it slowed down the pace of the movie.

This longing, this yearning for a home somewhere far away, somewhere over the rainbow, is deep within the human psyche. As commentator Chris Lohrstorfer says, ““Somewhere over the Rainbow” encapsulates our own wandering heart’s desire for a promised land of rest and restoration. It speaks to our hope – our need for somewhere else.” [1]

The disciples, Jesus’s friends, often did not understand what He was about. They did not get it. Again and again we see how much they did not understand what He said. How often do we misunderstand the words of Jesus, too?

In retrospect, we can look at certain passages in the Bible and say to ourselves, “Oh, of course Jesus meant that when He preached to the people!” Or, “Naturally, Jesus was saying thus and so when He spoke to the disciples in that way!” Remember our Gospel passage for today: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?”

Also remember, the Rabbi Jesus had been an itinerant Rabbi for three years. That meant that Jesus had no permanent residence. He had no home! In Matthew 8 and the parallel passage in Luke 9, “Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’”

Is anyone here familiar with that feeling? Not having a permanent place of residence?

One of my daughters is recently without a permanent residence. Earlier this year, she moved from her small apartment out east back here to Chicago—for some of the time. She sold the bulk of her furniture and put the small remainder in her father’s basement. She has a great job! But, she does not have a regular office to go into, and not even a place to stay permanently.

My daughter’s arrangement is a whole different concept for me! Imagine, being a temporary visitor in a place. Several people I know are resident aliens. Citizens of another country, they live here in the United States for an extended time. With school visas or work visas, they often cannot live here permanently. True, they can learn, go to school, go to work and provide for their families and loved ones, and go about all the other activities involved with living a full life, but they cannot have a full, deep sense of “home.” There’s no place like home, as Dorothy said.

Here in John 14, we hear Jesus letting the disciples know He understood them, deeply, intimately, completely. We know Jesus can understand us and our problems, too. He knows every tear that falls, even those silent and sorrowful tears that redden our eyes late at night. He knows all the pains and suffering that can come into our lives day by day (even out of the clear blue sky, like what happened to Lill).

One of my blogging friends, Marilyn, is a registered nurse who grew up as the daughter of missionaries to Asia. Marilyn has lived in a number of countries overseas and can speak several languages. She sometimes blogs about that elusive feeling of “home” that Third Culture Kids (like her) feel strongly. Some Third Culture Kids (now TCK adults) never have a permanent place of residence for very long, because they and their expatriate parents are so often on the move.

Yes, it is good to get comfy, take off your shoes, and have a cup of hot chocolate or steaming coffee or a cool iced tea. For others, finding “home” can be more difficult. So often, we look diligently for that elusive “home.” And, it is not always obvious or nearby. There is a yearning for it deep in the heart, so much like that yearning Dorothy had for a place somewhere over the rainbow.

Certain people do not associate warm, loving, caring things with their concept of “home.” With serious things in some lives like desperately hurt feelings, challenging people, awkward situations, and less than optimal living conditions, some people would rather not think of a specific place called “home.” I can see how they might feel really conflicted. Painful, even agonizing situations, unkind and uncaring people, places and things: sad and sorry, indeed.

However, Jesus shows us that finding that place called “home” is often not a place, but a relationship.  The next verse, from John 14: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

See? Jesus is not leaving His disciples all alone. Jesus understood about “home.” He understands our deep need for rest and restoration. He promised to get a place ready for us!

Jesus shares with us – His home, His inheritance, His position. We now are “children of God.” Can you imagine the great love that speaks to us? [2]

This is not only good news, this is great news! The absolutely best news that anyone could ever have delivered to them. We do know for sure, because Jesus tells us in these verses, that God will be with us and take care of us after we die.  So, we and every person we love who dies are okay. [3]

Today, on this Mother’s Day, we all can look forward to finally going home, where Jesus is. Where Jesus has gotten everything ready for us. Where there will be no more crying, no more tears, no more fighting or wars or conflict of any kind. Jesus has promised! Such Good News.

Alleluia! Amen.

[1] http://wbs.edu/2016/06/theres-no-place-like-home/, Dr. Chris Lohrstorfer

[2] http://wbs.edu/2016/06/theres-no-place-like-home/, Dr. Chris Lohrstorfer

[3] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/03/year-the-fifth-sunday-of-easter-may-18.html 

Worshiping with Children, Easter 5A, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

If anyone would like to check out my blogging friend Marilyn’s blog, here is one of my all-time-favorite posts of hers: https://communicatingacrossboundariesblog.com/2015/09/28/stupid-phrases-for-people-in-crisis/

Green Pastures, Quiet Waters

Psalm 23:2, John 10:4 – May 7, 2017

John 14 Good Shepherd, stained glass

“Green Pastures, Quiet Waters”

If I mention images of sheep and green pastures, what comes to your mind, on that video screen in your head? For some people, it might be something on the Nature channel on cable television, with verdant, green grass and gently rolling hills, dotted with fluffy white sheep. For others, it’s a painting at an art museum, with lush green meadows under brilliant blue skies. Again, dotted with sheep feeding on that green grass.

In Psalm 23, our psalm writer is King David. He is writing about his youth as a shepherd for his father’s sheep, long before he ever became king. That time as a shepherd must have been vivid in his mind, because David’s poetic description of sheep and shepherd remains one of the most striking, beloved, and relatable passages in the Bible, in either the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament.

Here is another way of saying the first verse of Psalm 23: Because the Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything that I need.

Wait, that makes me a sheep, and sheep are not particularly intelligent. Now, I am okay with that. As I have said in the past, this is a common analogy in the Bible. The nation of Israel is referred to as sheep several times in the Hebrew Scriptures. Different biblical writers refer to people who believe in God as sheep. Several times in the Gospels—as in our Gospel passage from John 10, today—Jesus talks about Himself as Shepherd, and His followers as sheep.

I figure God must know a few things about people, being the Creator of the Universe, and all. Since God uses this common analogy of sheep and shepherd so many times in the Bible, and since sheep have been known to be stubborn and timid and sometimes even foolish, I guess I might have a few things in common with sheep. Maybe you do, too.

Sheep need stuff. They need grass, water, nurture, and protection against enemies. They depend on their Shepherd to provide all of these things for them. But, what if there is no Shepherd? What if there is no one to provide all of this good stuff for us—I mean, for sheep?

Sometimes bible study leaders and bible teachers have their students do an exercise. They write a reverse psalm. That is, writing the reverse of what the verses say. One of the bible commentators I read used this process. She said, “I’ve been led in this process, and led my Bible Study in it. At first you might ask, ‘Why do it this way?’ But, especially when in a group, reading back all the hopeless examples of our life without God, we see the power of this psalm more clearly.” [1]

I’m going to read just the first few verses of Psalm 23, written in reverse. It was written by a then-15 year old named Anna Thompson.

“I have no shepherd, I need a shepherd./I am caught in the desert.
I am thirsty/and no one is telling me where to go.
I am lost and no one cares./I am scared of evil, because I am alone.”  [2]

This is truly a hopeless example of our life without God! What would happen to a few little sheep, huddling in the wilderness or the desert, with no one to guide them, take care of them, or to shepherd them? I don’t think they would last very long. Some predator might come along and have some lamb and mutton for dinner. That’s what probably would happen. This is a far cry from the green pastures and the quiet waters the psalm describes for us, and quite different from the Good Shepherd who supplies our wants and needs.

Jesus takes this image of sheep and a Shepherd from Psalm 23, and enlarges on it.

Notice what is not mentioned in either Psalm 23 or John 10. Is there any mention of the sheep needing all the stuff we see on television? I must have this new outfit or latest electronic gadget or trendy pair of shoes. I absolutely need to be healthy, beautiful, entertained, wealthy and successful. No, neither of these bible readings have anything of the kind.

Psalm 23 has a basic set of wants that “the shepherd provides for his sheep. That list includes food, drink, tranquility, rescue when lost, freedom from the fear of evil and death, a sense of being surrounded by the grace of the Lord, and a permanent dwelling place in the house of God. An ever-rising mountain of material possessions is not on the list.” [3]

.           Let’s think about the reverse psalm again. I have no shepherd. I am caught in the desert. I am thirsty. I am lost. I am all alone.

Doesn’t that hit you right in the gut? Hopeless, helpless, life without God. Where are You, God? I’m all alone out here, and I am lost and scared!

One of my favorite commentators is Carolyn Brown, a Christian educator who’s worked with children for decades. She writes about the Bible and our worship being filled with metaphors. We try to help children understand them “when we carefully explore the details of a few key ones, expecting them to become familiar with the concrete part of the metaphor and some of the spiritual realities it embodies, but not fully making the connection until later [when they are older].  The Good Shepherd is definitely one of those key metaphors. [Doctor and educator] Maria Montessori reports that while working in a children’s hospital she found that when she told sick children stories about the Good Shepherd using small wooden figures, they almost all grabbed the figure and held onto it ‘for keeps.’” [4]

It doesn’t matter if we are talking about the Shepherd of Psalm 23, or the Good Shepherd of John 10. The Shepherd helps the sheep to feel safe, to feel protected and full, able to rest and feel content. Not to feel hungry, thirsty, frightened, lost and alone.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus adds something to the picture of the Good Shepherd that is not in the 23rd Psalm. Jesus talks about the sheep knowing the Shepherd’s voice. That means whether sheep are in green pastures or brown ones, in the desert or high in the hills, the sheep will recognize the shepherd’s voice and call. As Jesus said, “When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”

In Palestine, in the mid 1930’s, a village near Haifa had some internal conflict. The occupying British soldiers confiscated all the villagers’ animals and put them in a central pen, mixing them all up. The animals’ owners were permitted to redeem their animals, if they could identify them. An orphan shepherd boy whose only possessions were six sheep and goats came to the officer in charge, and asked for his animals. The officer ridiculed the idea that the shepherd boy could possibly pick out his “little flock” from among the hundreds of animals in the pen. The shepherd boy had his pipe and gave his own “call”—his unique call for his animals. “His own” separated from all the others and trotted out around him. [5]

The sheep know the Shepherd. They follow the Good Shepherd’s voice, and willingly go with Him to green pastures, and by the quiet waters. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and He will be with us in green pastures as well as desert places, by quiet waters as well as in thirsty times. And, Jesus will walk with us through those dark and scary valleys of the shadow, too.

Even when we walk though the valley of the shadow more than we like, praise God, our Good Shepherd will always be there beside us, to help, nourish, protect and nurture us.

Yes, I am a sheep. I freely admit that.

I know if the Good Shepherd is my Shepherd, surely His goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

[1] http://bethquick.blogspot.de/2011/05/lectionary-notes-for-fourth-sunday-of.html

[2] Psalm 23: “I Have No Shepherd” https://re-worship.blogspot.com/2011/05/psalm-23-i-have-no-shepherd.html

[3] Bailey, Kenneth E., The Good Shepherd (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 39.

[4] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/03/year-fourth-sunday-of-easter-may-11-2014.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 4A, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014. 2011.

[5] Bishop, Eric F. F., Jesus of Palestine (London: Lutterworth, 1955), 297-98. Quoted by Kenneth E. Bailey in The Good Shepherd, 42.

 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

They Recognized Jesus!

Luke 24:19-35 (24:31) – April 30, 2017

Luke 24 Supper at Emmaus, Rembrandt

“They Recognized Jesus!”

In centuries past, people did not have many options when it came to traveling places over land. Sometimes, when they had a little more money, they would ride horses, or donkeys—or, use wagons or carriages. However, most people did not have that luxury. So, people would walk.

We are going to consider our Gospel lesson this morning. It is a lengthy reading, most of Luke 24. Luke talks about two disciples who are walking to a nearby village called Emmaus, which was seven miles from Jerusalem. Does anyone here know how far seven miles is? I wanted to give you all a real-life example. If you left St. Luke’s Church here in Morton Grove and walked seven miles east down Dempster, you would end up in Evanston. Right about at Dempster and Ridge, at the Jewish synagogue Beth Emet. It would take me between two and a half to three hours to walk that far, at a moderate pace. (Just so we all know how far the two disciples walked.)

From Luke 24, this is a reading about two people on the road. (start walking from the front of the church)  “13-16 That same day two of them were walking to the village Emmaus, about seven miles out of Jerusalem. They were deep in conversation, going over all these things that had happened. In the middle of their talk and questions, Jesus came up and walked along with them. But they were not able to recognize who He was.

17-18 He asked, “What’s this you’re discussing so intently as you walk along?’ (full stop)

Ah. We can see that they were busy talking, pouring over the information, and trying to understand what had happened.  These disciples were people who both knew the need for and had hope for the coming of a Messiah who could redeem God’s people. [1]

“They just stood there, long-faced, like they had lost their best friend.”

How often have we been hoping against hope for something wonderful? Something dynamic, that will knock everyone back on their backsides? And then—and then—hope fizzles. Hope is gone. The Messiah, their leader is put to death on Good Friday (what a misnomer!), and nothing more is possible.

“Then one of them, his name was Cleopas, said, ‘Are you the only one in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard what’s happened during the last few days?’

Cleopas is not mentioned in any other biblical reference. He and his unnamed companion had been followers of Jesus. There must have been a number of these lesser-known people, disciples who knew Jesus as a prophet mighty in deed and word. A Miracle Worker whom they had hoped would be the Messiah, the one to redeem Israel. [2]

(Then, Jesus asked a leading question.) ”19-24 Jesus said, “What has happened?”

(Continue walking and reading.) “They said, “The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene. He was a man of God, a prophet, dynamic in work and word, blessed by both God and all the people. Then our high priests and leaders betrayed Him, got Him sentenced to death, and crucified Him. We had our hopes up that He was the One, the One about to deliver Israel. And it is now the third day since it happened. But now some of our women have completely confused us. Early this morning they were at the tomb and couldn’t find His body. They came back with the story that they had seen a vision of angels who said He was alive. Some of our friends went off to the tomb to check and found it empty just as the women said, but they didn’t see Jesus.”

(Be at the back of the church by now.) Did everyone hear? Jesus chose to appear to some women, first thing. And now, Jesus appears to two unimportant, minor followers. Not even the big three disciples, Peter, James, and John. How Jesus cares for and is concerned for those who are unimportant, and sometimes shunted aside. The risen Jesus comes to them, especially! (Continue walking.) The seeming unimportant, the ones behind the scenes, the forgotten ones.

25-27 Then He said to them, “So thick-headed! So slow-hearted! Why can’t you simply believe all that the prophets said? Don’t you see that these things had to happen, that the Messiah had to suffer and only then enter into His glory?” Then Jesus started at the beginning, with the Books of Moses, and went on through all the Prophets, pointing out everything in the Scriptures that referred to Him.”

Wouldn’t you like to be on that trip, with Jesus and the two lesser-known disciples? Imagine, Jesus Himself, explaining how the scarlet thread of salvation is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. What insights! What glory! (Walk up to the front.)

Now, we arrive at the village of Emmaus: “28-31 They came to the edge of the village where they were headed. He acted as if He were going on but they pressed Him: “Stay and have supper with us. It’s nearly evening; the day is done.”

These two caring disciples were people who were concerned for others—or at least for this traveling companion of theirs who thought He’d continue on in the evening.  “Cleopas and his friend knew how unsafe the roads were.  Surely the man who had spent so much time with them talking about Scripture would be better served by a simple meal and safe accommodations for the night.” [3]

“So Jesus went in with them. And here is what happened: He sat down at the table with them. Taking the bread, He blessed and broke and gave it to them. At that moment, open-eyed, wide-eyed, they recognized Him. And then—He disappeared.”

What was that all about? Were these two men dreaming? All the talking, all the pondering of what-ifs, suppositions, different theological opinions, pro and con. There is a kind of resignation in all this, both in Luke’s story and often in our own lives.  Can’t you hear the cynical, long-suffering comments? “Get real.”  “Grow up.”  “Back to work.”  We can only imagine how the families and friends of Cleopas would offer snippy, unsolicited advice and opinions when the two got home to long untended work and family obligations. [4]

And then—and then—Jesus makes Himself known to them. Something nebulous, some intellectual and theoretical story changes in the twinkling of an eye to something real, wonderful, and concrete. Something these two men are eyewitnesses of, and can testify to.

32 Back and forth they talked. “Didn’t we feel on fire as He conversed with us on the road, as He opened up the Scriptures for us?” 33-34 They didn’t waste a minute. They were up and on their way back to Jerusalem. They found the Eleven and their friends gathered together, talking away: “It’s really happened! The Master has been raised up—Simon Peter saw him!” 35 Then the two went over everything that happened on the road and how they recognized Him when He broke the bread.”

As we look back on the movement of this narrative from Luke: 1) the two travelers are met on the road, 2) have the Scriptures opened, 3) and share in a meal that reveals the identity and presence of Christ. Then, 4) the travelers are sent out to share and live the Good News. [5] Isn’t that what happens as the two lesser-known disciples waste no time in going back to Jerusalem to share their story?

Remember, these two disciples had been on the road. Aren’t we all traveling? All on the road through life? Doesn’t Jesus come alongside of each of us, as He opens the Scriptures and explains how He has come into the world to reconcile us to God? And then, Jesus enters the house (or, church) with us, and we recognize Him when He breaks the bread of life, for us, too?

The last, and most important part, is sharing the Good News. We can tell others how Jesus has risen from the dead. We can tell others how He has changed our lives through His Word, the Bible. We can tell others how He comes to be with us each time we break bread, too. Just like Cleopas and his friend, just like Peter and the other disciples, we can turn the world upside down, too.

I close with the words of a special prayer—the Collect for today, the third Sunday of Easter, from the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer. “O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to His disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold Him in all His redeeming work; who lives and reigns with You, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”

 

(The Gospel reading is from the modern translation The Message, by Eugene Peterson. With gratitude, I appreciate Rev. Peterson’s translation and use his words in my sermon today.)

(I thank Carolyn Brown for her wonderful idea of traveling, of walking around the congregation in my sermon today. From Worshiping with Children, Easter 3, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/03/year-the-third-sunday-of-easter-may-4.html )

[1]  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=933  Commentary, Luke 24:13-35, (Easter3A), Sarah Henrich, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.

[2] Ibid, Sarah Henrich, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.

[3] Ibid, Sarah Henrich, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.

[4] Ibid, Sarah Henrich, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.

[5] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3188 David Lose President, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia

 

Don’t Doubt—Believe!

John 20:19-31 (20:27) – April 23, 2017

Jesus and Thomas John 20-24

“Don’t Doubt—Believe!”

Being skeptical can be a positive thing. Just think of ice in winter, covering a lake. Am I right in being skeptical that the ice is hard enough to hold me (and my weight)? And, think about engineers and scientists. They are often naturally, honestly skeptical and analytical; they hold things at arms’ length and consider all sides of a situation. That can be positive and helpful, in many situations. Even necessary, at times.

Consider Thomas. He missed the big event, the first time that the resurrected Lord Jesus came back to the rest of the disciples. Let’s look at this event from Thomas’s side. For some reason (we are not told the reason), Thomas missed the weekend gathering of the eleven disciples, plus some others who also were traveling with Jesus. Perhaps they were gathering for regular prayer, or for a worship service. Maybe to have a meal together. Maybe all of the above.

The gathering was secretive. Remember, the Roman and Jewish authorities were disgruntled and angry. The body of Jesus had disappeared completely, even though the tomb had been guarded by Roman soldiers. Therefore, the authorities were looking for a really high-profile body, and it was unbelievable to them that there was no trace of the Rabbi Jesus’s remains, anywhere. Of course the authorities would seek out this upstart Rabbi’s close companions, and keep them under surveillance, just in case any of them knew where the body was.

Whatever the reason, Thomas was not there the previous week. And, he—and the other disciples—had good reason to be jumpy, and cautious. Even, skeptical, as we will see.

Reading from our Gospel passage, “So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But Thomas said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

This passage comes to us from the Gospel of John. Throughout John’s Gospel, this writer has an understanding of believing that is active. To John, believing in Jesus is not just an intellectual exercise. No! Belief to John is very much an action verb.

Believing in Jesus is having a relationship with Jesus. As Jesus Himself said earlier in the Gospel of John, “I abide in you and you abide in Me.”  So, for this Gospel writer to say that skeptical Thomas was having trouble believing is not quite the same thing as making light of Thomas for doubting. Thomas had just seen his Rabbi and leader die on the cross, be executed by an extreme and cruel form of suffering and agony. I suspect Thomas’s relationship with his Rabbi was pretty close to being extinguished. Sure, Thomas was skeptical.

Are there times when you or I are skeptical, too? I mean, times of sincere questioning of our faith? When we might think, with Elijah, that the heavens are all closed up, and nothing can penetrate, not even a desperate prayer? If we were honest with ourselves, I suspect in almost every person’s life there are difficult times, challenging times, times when we  come to the end of ourselves and have no more hope, no more tears, no more swear words to say.

Desperate times, indeed. Who can blame Thomas for being skeptical? As Father Rick mentioned on a sermon preparation site I follow, how crushed Thomas must have been. Perhaps, to keep his heart safe, he refuses to believe… it hurts too much to believe. [1] Can you hear pain, and fear, and maybe stubbornness in his response?

Here is a slightly different translation of Thomas’s dramatic statement: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and shove my finger into the mark of the nails, and shove my hand into his side, I absolutely will not believe” (20:25, translation by Jaime Clark-Soles). Here, we look at the verb from a slightly different angle. The Greek verb ‘believe’ is a forceful one (ballo), as is the emphatic negative (ou me). “I absolutely will not believe.” Not a simple, “I’ll believe it when I see it” —Thomas has a lot of conditions;” [2] conditions that he speaks out of a dark place of anger and grief and anxiety, and conditions that will only be met by the resurrected Jesus.

But, what happens next?

Now, this is not resolved right away. Thomas is left doubting—rather, being skeptical, for a week. Reading from our Gospel passage: “A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

What would that do to your faith? If your faith were wavering, and you were faint of heart, perhaps doubting, maybe even skeptical—what would we do if Jesus were to come among us today—right there—and say, “Peace be with you!” Would that cause people to believe in Jesus? Let’s find out.

“Then Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

If Jesus appeared among us and said those things to us, would that cause you and me to have the kind of belief that John is talking about here—where we start or cement a deep, true relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus, and believe in our hearts that God has raised Him from the dead? What did those words do for Thomas?

28 Thomas said to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”

Did you hear? Thomas just made an earthshaking confession of faith as well as a crystal clear statement of belief.

(And, remember, we are using John’s definition of belief. A deep, true relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus!) Praise God, this is a confession that Jesus is our Lord, He is our God. As John tells us in the beginning of his Gospel, He is the Word made flesh, come into this world to make His dwelling among us. To abide in us as we abide in Him. All this Thomas confesses in this statement of faith. This confession is made all the more powerful because skeptical, discouraged, frightened Thomas has made it.

I ask all of us, again. What would we do if Jesus were to come among us today—right there—and say, “Peace be with you!” What would we do if Jesus showed us the nail scars and where the spear went into His side? Oh, no! some might say. Jesus would never do that. Not here, not now. Perhaps in bible times, but not today.

Here we have a clear invitation to the skeptics, to the doubters, to those who are not sure about their faith any longer. This Gospel reading is also for those who have been hurt by the church, and perhaps are not sure there is Anyone up there listening to them any longer. This passage is for you, too.

Praise God, Jesus has conquered death, and He will be with us when we walk through fiery trials and dark places in our lives. Using John’s definition of belief, we all can have a true, deep relationship with Jesus as our Lord and our God, just like Thomas.

Have you heard? Do you know that Jesus has risen from the dead? This is not only Good News, it’s the best news ever shared, in the history of ever. It is much more than just the dry words from the Apostles Creed, written on a page. Jesus holds out His hands, shows us His side. Christ is risen, indeed!

[1] http://desperatepreacher.com//bodyii.htm Posted by Rick+ in Reno, March 31, 2016.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3222  Jaime Clark-Soles

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

He Is Not Here!

Matthew 28:1-10 (28:6) – April 16, 2017

Matt 28-6 He is not here, cursive

“He Is Not Here!”

Birds. butterflies, and flowers all have something in common: they are all surprises! You might not expect a brightly colored cardinal or peacock to hatch from a plain old egg, but, it does! You might not expect a lovely Monarch butterfly to come out of a drab cocoon, but, it does! You might not expect a colorful tulip or sweet-smelling hyacinth to grow from the lumpy bulb you planted last fall, but, it does!

Birds, butterflies and flowers are very common things. We have become used to their small surprises, every time they emerge from the dull former things to the bright, new life. What kind of surprise do we have, at Easter time? What great big thing has changed?

Let’s go back three days, from Easter Sunday to Good Friday. The priests and religious leaders finally thought they beat Jesus. That upstart Rabbi, false Messiah, calling Himself the Son of God—the religious leaders finally got that Galilean troublemaker arrested. About time, some might say! That Jesus was just a rabble-rouser, speaking against the Romans, stirring up trouble, and protesting against the established order of things. Serves Him right. (Or, so some people said.)

We know the Passion narrative, how our Lord Jesus was arrested by Roman soldiers, tried, beaten, jeered at, spat upon, and finally brought before Pilate for the sentence of execution to be delivered by the ruling governor.

We know the Way of the Cross, how our Lord Jesus walked the Via Dolorosa, the way of sorrows, carrying that cruel cross on His back through Jerusalem. And, the many women and others in the crowd, watching Jesus walk that road out of the city.

We know the Crucifixion, how our Lord Jesus was nailed to that cross, hoisted up, and hung there for hours that Good Friday morning and afternoon. Until, at last, He died on that cross amidst the thunder and earthquake.

What some do not know is that our Lord Jesus was taken down from that cross later Friday afternoon and laid in a new tomb. Quickly, quickly, before night fell on that Friday evening, and the Jewish Sabbath began. A time of God-ordained rest when no work could be done, not even to bury a dearly loved one.

Friday night passed. All day Saturday—the Jewish Sabbath—passed. Saturday night, and nothing could be done. No work, certainly. It was dark, after all!

On Sunday morning, the first day of the week, the two Marys came to the new tomb. I’d imagine they came early, early in the morning, creeping—coming on tiptoe toward the tomb. I’d also imagine that they might have been frightened to come into a graveyard.

We don’t know much about the other Mary (other than her name, which was a very common name for that time), but we do know several things about Mary Magdalene. When Jesus met her, a year or two before, she had a number of demons residing in her. Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, cast the demons out of her! The old, horrible existence she had been living was—gone. Everything had become new. The demons were gone, Mary was healed and free to live the abundant life. The very life she lived was proof of God’s abundant power in her life. [1]

I don’t know about you, but if Jesus had done something that awesomely powerful in my life, I may have followed Him, too, no matter what!

Both Marys were going to the tomb to perform a solemn, loving ritual for their Rabbi, teacher and leader, a ritual of anointing with precious oils and expensive spices. They had not had time to do this loving anointing when they so hurriedly placed Him in the tomb late Friday afternoon.

I suspect the women were also concerned about how to roll away the stone. Possibly, they meant to ask the Roman soldiers. The last thing the two Marys were expecting was an Easter surprise!

As Matthew tells us in his Gospel, an Angel of the Lord had rolled away the stone, and sat upon it. “[The Angel’s] appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.”

What about the two Marys? The Angel said to them, first thing, “Do not be afraid!”

Do you notice that? Almost every single time that angels appear in the Bible, they first have to caution people: “Do not be afraid!” Angels must really be fearsome creatures, since they always are saying, “Do not be afraid!”

Let’s go a few verses further. The risen Jesus greets the two women with the same words: “Do not be afraid!” Here, I am certain the women were scared half to death when they encountered Jesus!

Talk about an Easter surprise! No one expected their Rabbi Jesus to be alive again.

What on earth does this mean for us, today? “For children, this simply means ‘don’t be afraid of anything.  I am stronger than the worst evil there is.  And, no matter what happens I will be with you always.’” And for us big people, it can mean exactly the same thing. Jesus tells all of us, “Don’t be afraid!” This is a message we can tell each other again and again. This is a message that we can unpack repeatedly.  “On Easter for children it begins with knowing that no one could kill Jesus forever” and, it’s a celebration of God’s cosmic, unbeatable power. [2] On Easter for us big people it means that Jesus has conquered death once and for all, and lives forever.

We go back to birds, butterflies and flowers, these very common things. God has created them to hatch, to burst forth, to bloom. We have become used to their small surprises, every time they emerge from the dull former things to their bright, new lives.

“Tradition has it that Christ was raised from death to life in the springtime, when the ground and the trees are waking up from the dead of winter and showing the unmistakable signs of rebirth that come every year. But the new life that is in Christ is not really like the new life in nature in spring.” [3] New life in Christ is not only a physical matter, but a spiritual matter.

On Easter, we have a great big surprise, a huge surprise: a dead body coming out a tomb, alive again. Jesus has overcome death. God has done the biggest miracle in the world—in the universe. Our Lord Jesus is alive again. This is the greatest Good News of all!

Alleluia! He is risen! Alleluia!

[1] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/easter-sunday-festival-of-gods-creation

Worship Planning Helps (Easter): Worship & Preaching Notes, Hymn Suggestions and Worship Resources from the United Methodist Church General Board of Discipleship.

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/03/year-easter-sunday-april-21-2014.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter Sunday, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

[3] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/easter-sunday-festival-of-gods-creation

Worship Planning Helps (Easter): Worship & Preaching Notes, Hymn Suggestions and Worship Resources from the United Methodist Church General Board of Discipleship.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Your King Comes to You

Matthew 21:1-11 – April 9, 2017

Jesus Palm Sunday - Giotto di Bonde, Entry into Jerusalem 1304-06, Fresco, Cappella Scrovegni Arena Chapel, Padua

“Your King Comes to You”

Has anyone here ever been at a really big “welcome home” celebration? I am thinking really, really big! Like, after the Cubs won the World Series last fall, and they returned to Chicago in triumphant victory. Or, after the Black Hawks, the White Sox or the Bulls won their championships. Has anyone experienced the joyful, expectant feeling of the crowd? The wild cheering and celebration as the focal point of the parade came into view?

Imagine that level of celebration, and then add an additional layer. The country of Israel had been under the heel of various world powers for several centuries. The Roman government was the current dominating overlords, and an ever-present occupying force. By Jesus entering Jerusalem in the way He did, He fulfilled a well-known prophecy from the Hebrew Scriptures. In addition, by doing this He was claiming the mantle of Messiah, the Anointed One of God. As Zechariah said, “Tell the city of Zion, ‘Look, your king is coming to you! He is humble and rides on a donkey.”

What about the crowd gathered there in Jerusalem, for the Passover holiday? Emotions run high when you are in the midst of a crowd. Higher highs, lower lows, all kinds of extremes. As Rev. Adam Copeland said, “Whether they are for sport, political protest, or public worship, gathering with thousands inevitably changes our mood and actions. I have never felt as alone as in a rival team’s stadium filled with thousands of home-team fans. I rarely feel as important as when I’ve gathered with others to protest unjust laws or call for social action. I get Goose bumps when I’m able to recite the Lord’s Prayer with a few thousand other worshipers.” [1]

What was the crowd looking for from Rabbi Jesus? This Messiah, Anointed One?    

A companion question: what were the disciples looking for from Jesus? From their Rabbi and leader, whom they had been following for months, even years? I remind everyone that there were more than just twelve men following after Jesus. There were more. Maybe Peter’s wife, maybe others’ wives or sisters. Women, other men, maybe even some children and youths. Many of these had been faithful in following Jesus for some time, and they were true believers. Faithful followers.

St. Ignatius of Loyola was a man of deep prayer. He instructed many in the way of deep, significant prayer. He had a special way of praying, which can also be used for reading the Bible. Ignatian spirituality, prayer and bible reading have been adapted from his instructions.

St. Ignatius would have us put ourselves into the biblical scene. Imagine yourself right there, on that Palm Sunday morning. I invite you to choose a place to stand: either among the crowd, observing, cheering; or among the disciples, close in to Jesus and the donkey. Perhaps even take the donkey’s point of view! Let us all immerse ourselves into the narrative. Hear the raucous noises and roar of the crowd. Feel the jostling shoulders as we jockey for position, to get the best view of the parade. Because, that is what it is! A procession! A joyful entrance into Jerusalem, the historic capital city of King David!

Can you feel the energy of that immense crowd? Jerusalem was full to bursting! People of Jewish ancestry had come to Jerusalem from all over the known world, to commemorate the Passover holiday. And, here were people welcoming this Messiah, this Anointed One, into the city like a king.

Can you feel the emotions of your fellow crowd members? What expectations are rising to the fore? Some desperate to throw off the heavy yoke of the Roman occupation, and so are delighted to see someone, at last, taking up the mantle of the Messiah! To call together the men of Israel and lead the Jewish army to victory! Some, I am sure, leery of this upstart Rabbi, and wondering how far He is going to get before the Romans scare Him off. And others, simply caught up in all the excitement of the moment, welcoming this Holy Man, this Miracle Worker, into the city of Jerusalem.

What were the expectations of those there, on that Palm Sunday morning? Sure, as our Gospel reading tells us, there was a large crowd around the city gate, ready to cheer and wave and make noise. The noise and celebration put the whole city into an uproar, turning things inside out and upside down.  In fact, the Greek verb in that phrase, “uproar,” is the same word used for an earthquake. Jesus shook up the people of Jerusalem, and He certainly stirred up the religious leaders and priests.

Let us fast forward, to the present. What are our expectations, right here, right now? What are we to do with this Jesus, riding in on a donkey?

Sure, there are many people in churches across the world today who are excited to celebrate another Palm Sunday. A highlight of the liturgical year, the beginning of Holy Week. Some are caught up in the pageantry and celebration. Others are content to wave their palms and observe things from the sidelines. Many, even, feel the solemn beginning of that sorrowful Holiest Week of the liturgical year. But, is there more?

The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem was so typical of Jesus. He did not blindly accept these short-sighted expectations that were foisted upon Him. Instead, Jesus knew who He was, and did not need to clutch any lofty or power-hungry or mean and angry persona to Himself. No, Jesus entered Jerusalem knowing exactly who He was. God’s much beloved Son, the Messiah, the Anointed One of God. He had all that kingly authority already.

Let us remind ourselves exactly why Jesus had come into the world, exactly why He began His preaching, teaching and healing ministry. He came preaching forgiveness and mercy. He came teaching love and reconciliation. He came healing people from physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual diseases. Jesus came to give us life, and life abundantly!

But, today, Jesus’s voice gets drowned out by countless distractions. “Choked as we are by all of our distractions and tranquilizers—our cars, our houses, our 60-inch televisions and 6-inch computers, our smartphones and gizmos and gadgets, all of our conveniences and drugs and entertainment—we are likely to lose sight of the gate into heaven.” [2]

So often today, many people’s attention gets pulled away from things of God. Some are too busy to see Jesus. Some are too worried to listen to His voice. Some today couldn’t even care if Jesus lived or died.

Let’s focus on people within the church, worldwide. Some celebrate and wave palms on Palm Sunday and are content to let the whole rest of Holy Week slide right by without it registering on their hearts, then slide right into the following week’s celebration on Easter Sunday without a second thought. [3]

Jesus rides into our midst today, humble and seated on a donkey. He asks us the pointed question: what is it we seek in Jesus? Have we lost sight of the forgiveness, mercy, love and reconciliation He offers? He offers it to us, freely.

We can ask our Lord Jesus to enter our hearts, and to help us to lay at His feet all that we have and are today.

God willing, may we say “blessed are You who comes in the name of the Lord.”

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-adam-j-copeland/palm-powered-protest_b_5106331.html

“Palm Powered Protest,” Adam Copeland, ON Scripture, Odyssey Networks, 2014

[2] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/palm-passion-sunday1; The Preaching Notes are written by Dawn Chesser, Director of Preaching Ministries, Discipleship Ministries, dchesser@UMCdiscipleship.org

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1546 ; “To Be Continued…” David Lose, WorkingPreacher, 2011.