A Whale of a Tale

“A Whale of a Tale”

Jonah spitout, painting

Jonah 1:12, 2:1 – August 18, 2019

Jonah and the whale is a much beloved bible story often told to children. Many young ones listen with wide eyes and ears to the story of Jonah being swallowed by a great fish. Every bible story book I have ever seen mentions that the great fish was sent by God, so children (and adults) will know God was with Jonah even in the belly of the whale—or, great fish.

That lesson is definitely one everyone can use! Children, young people, adults, seniors alike, how valuable it is to know that God is with all people—even in the metaphorical or actual belly of a whale.

But, with our adult-sized viewpoint, let’s go back to the beginning of this story, to the beginning of Jonah chapter 1. Jonah was an acknowledged prophet of God. Prophets of God were held to particularly high standards. Everything they said in the name of God had to come true: this was stated in Deuteronomy, in the Law Code of Moses. And, Jonah understood he needed to follow God’s commands. Except—he didn’t. He stubbornly decided to turn tail and run, run in the opposite direction.

What about you and me? What if there is a command Jesus plainly sets forth in the Gospels—like give away your money and you will have treasure in heaven, or love your neighbor as yourself, or especially, love your enemies? And, some Christians—maybe even you and me—do not follow those commands? What then?

We follow Jonah as he runs away in the opposite direction. He goes west, taking a ship for Tarshish, across the Mediterranean Sea. The Lord pursues Jonah with a great storm, the ship almost founders at sea, and the sailors ask Jonah why the storm has come upon them. Jonah is finally honest and says it is all his fault. He is the cause of the great storm. Throw him overboard, and the storm will stop. The sailors were unwilling at first, but finally they did throw Jonah overboard. And, lo and behold, the storm did indeed stop.

Have you ever wished that God could talk to you as clearly as God talked to people in the Hebrew Scriptures? I know I certainly have. Except—even if God talked clearly to us as a dear friend and close companion, are we sure we would listen to God’s spoken words? Or would we be disobedient sometimes, just like Jonah?

Finally, Jonah stops running. Finally, in the belly of the great fish, Jonah repents and asks God for forgiveness. What does God do? The Lord is gracious, forgiving and compassionate, of course! That is God, all over. Exactly the Lord’s gracious, compassionate heart.

As we follow Jonah in the fish’s stomach, and as he gets vomited up on land on the third day, we have a sudden glimpse of why Jonah did not want to go preach to Nineveh. For anyone who knows the history of the book of Jonah, the Assyrians controlled large parts of what is now Syria, Iran and Iraq, among other nearby regions. The Assyrian armies were particularly cruel and bloodthirsty to the nations they fought with and conquered—similar to other armies.

Is anyone surprised to learn that Jonah did not want to preach to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire?

Jonah finally goes to Nineveh and tells them to repent, otherwise God will destroy Ninevah! What happens? The Assyrians and the King of Nineveh do repent. In fact, this is what the King says. “Everyone must turn around, turn back from an evil life and the violent ways that stain their hands. Who knows? Maybe God will turn around and change his mind about us, quit being angry with us and let us live!” 10 God saw what they had done, that they had turned away from their evil lives. God did change his mind about them. What God said he would do to them God didn’t do.”

What is more, Jonah was furious with God for not destroying Nineveh! Here’s what he  said to God: “1-2 Jonah lost his temper. He yelled at God, “God! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!”

We can laugh at Jonah for getting furious with God and stalking off, essentially slamming an imaginary door and leaving an imaginary room. But—God forgave Jonah for Jonah’s sins and disobedience. God created the people of Nineveh. Can God not express divine love and compassion and forgiveness for all the people in the world God made?

When you and I allow hatred and fear to take residence in our hearts and blind us to the fact that God created each person on earth. Father Richard Rohr warns, “you will go back to dualistic thinking and judgments: good guy/bad guy, win/lose, either/or.” [1] That is not the way of God, the way of heavenly compassion and mercy, grace and truth.

Sure, God knows very well that we all are sinful. Sure, God knows that we all mess up. Even, stealing from the weak and old, killing with knives or guns or bare hands. What about the other ways of hurting people, like destroying someone’s reputation by spreading false rumors? Or destroying a marriage by sleeping with someone’s spouse? Or, destroying the well-being of a temple or church by embezzling a large sum of money?

Sure, you and I are very glad and grateful when God forgives us, when God has compassion and mercy and grace on us. But, if we slip into the fearful, dualistic thinking and judging of good guy/bad guy, win/lose, either/or, we are in danger of missing the path of God’s heavenly love and compassion, God’s love and mercy, God’s everlasting arms of forgiveness.

Yes, this is so challenging for all of us. I do not know how, but God was somehow in the midst of horror and violence and desperation, of victims and post-traumatic stress and even the horrendous death and torture that the Assyrian armies were responsible for. And, God forgave the Assyrian people of Nineveh. God has forgiven countless countries, because each country is made up of individuals created by God.

We can move that to the 20th century, and the 21st. God created each person in the American military, the German army, the Russian navy, the Japanese military, the French or Palestinian resistance, and all their families. God created each person in the Nigerian army, the Iraqi military, the British or Chinese navy, and all their families. People are wounded and many died. Yet, God loves all of those people—both the ones who did the awful things as well as those who were wounded or killed. I do not understand how, but God does love them.

Yes, this is a challenge for which we need God’s help. Jesus calls us to love our enemies, no matter what. Jesus did not give us a loophole, a way out. We can look at the original disciples, and Christians of the first few centuries. None of the original disciples died in their beds except John, and he was exiled to a tiny island. God is somehow in the midst of all of the horror and anxiety and despair. I don’t know how, but the Lord is with us, no matter what.

Just like King David said in Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, You are with me.” God is faithful, merciful, and forgiving, and will remain at our sides through pain, suffering, fear, anger, desperation—no matter what. What a comforting thought. Each of us can say a heartfelt “Amen!”

Thanks be to God for God’s abundant mercy and grace—towards each one of us.

 

[1] Richard Rohr Meditation: The Perennial Tradition: Weekly Summary Aug. 11-Aug. 16, 2019   Center for Action and Contemplation (WeeklySummary@cac.org)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Advertisements

Where’s Your Treasure?

“Where’s Your Treasure?”

Luke 12-34 your treasure, words

Luke 12:29-34 – August 11, 2019

I greet you all in the name of our loving, gracious God and our Lord Jesus Christ. It is good to be back here with you at Epiphany United Church of Christ.

Is anyone here familiar with a particularly challenging time? Either in your life, or the life of someone close to you? I’ve been through a number of challenging, even difficult times, over the years. Periods of unemployment, strained and broken relationships, times of extended illness of loved ones, even death and periods of grieving and loss—of many kinds. Sadly familiar to many here, I suspect.

On the flip side, I have experienced times of great happiness and contentment in my life, periods of harmony and peace, times when I felt I was in a good place, in terms of relationships, employment, and my personal and family life. Those are times I suspect many people want to continue to experience, long-term. Even, your whole lives long.

What did Jesus have to say about both of these long-term situations? Both the up-side as well as the down-side?  Our Scripture reading from the Gospel of Luke sheds some light on that question. Our Lord Jesus gives many instructions in Luke 12, and tells His listeners a number of important things. He talks about the positive times in life as well as the times of sadness and heartache. And—Jesus does not shy away from challenging His listeners. By no means! He talks straight, and lays things on the line, not pulling any punches.

Let’s pull back, and look at today’s short, power-packed reading from Luke chapter 12 in context. Luke 12 comes from what bible scholars call the Sermon on the Plain, a section from the Gospel of Luke that parallels the Sermon on the Mount closely, Matthew chapters 5 through 7. Many of these statements in Luke state or summarize statements we find in Matthew. (Both Sermons have versions of the Lord’s Prayer, for example.) But, these words of the Rabbi Jesus—from either sermon, Luke or Matthew—have both comforting as well as challenging moments. For example, the words from our Scripture reading today.

This reminds me of two years ago, when I preached a series of sermons on the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 5. Those were the lectionary readings for February 2017. Yes, the words of Jesus are familiar. We are the light of the world, the city on a hill. We need to take care of our tongues and not call each other names. And, especially, Jesus’ command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Jesus meant all that. All of it. I found it particularly challenging to faithfully lift up the words of Jesus for those Sundays. I tried to do my best, but I know our Lord’s words can sometimes be difficult to hear, and even a rebuke for us.

So, it is with a similar feeling of anxiety that I come to this reading today. What is Jesus saying in this section of the Sermon on the Plain, anyway?

I included a part of last week’s reading from Luke to begin our reflection this morning. Words of a reassuring nature for people going through some difficult, challenging times. Concentrate on God. Keep our eyes focused on things that matter to God, and don’t worry about the peripheral but distracting stuff that happens in our lives. That sounds great! I could just stop right there, couldn’t I?

But, Jesus does not stop there. He continues: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”

Wait a second, Jesus! It’s all very well to tell us comforting stuff like “Do not be afraid, little flock,” and “your Father (or Parent) knows what you need.” Those things are great, and reassuring, and encouraging, especially when we are going through difficult times in our lives. But, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor?” and, “provide for yourselves a treasure in heaven?” What kind of stuff is that? Sounds pretty suspect to me. I can imagine two hecklers in the back of the room glancing at each other, and elbowing each other. Yeah, I always knew this Rabbi Jesus was running some sort of con game.

Except, it isn’t a con game. Jesus is really for real.

Sure, economic security is certainly a concern for almost everyone. And, appropriately so. Concern for ourselves and for our families is to be commended. But, I think we can better understand where Jesus is focused: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Commentator Matt Skinner notes that “we can train our wills and our ways of thinking (for that is what the heart symbolized in his culture) through the ways we use our money.” [1]

Jesus is really asking each one of us: where are your priorities? What do we put first in our lives? Are my priorities “me, me, me!” and “my house, my car, my 401 K!” Or—are my priorities something else? Something that would be pleasing to God? Something involving having an open heart and loving compassion?

These words of Jesus tell us a lot about God’s view on charity, on being open-hearted and open-handed. The parable of the rich fool is found just a few verses back in Luke 12, where Jesus talks about a foolish man who had big barns stuffed full of all his crops and other goods—all his wealth. And then, after doing a tour of all his barns stuffed chock full of stuff that he was hoarding for himself, he had a sudden, massive heart attack and died.

Jesus’s words for us today are closely connected to this mindset. Where is our treasure? Where are our priorities? If we spend all our money on ourselves, guess where our hearts will be. What is more, we can extrapolate further. Perhaps some do not have too much money, but are particularly focused on their house, or their car, or have some other focus for their life. What is their priority in life? What would Jesus say about that particular priority?

Are we leaving our relationship with Jesus in the dust, in a far distant second or even third place?

I am going to start a third chaplain internship next week, two days a week, and I will still be pastor at St. Luke’s Church in Morton Grove. (And, I would appreciate your prayers, both for my challenging internship and my faithful service to the lovely congregation at St. Luke’s.) When I considered this Scripture passage this past week, I couldn’t help but think of people in the hospital. The patients and their loved ones who I will meet.

I am familiar with that environment, since I was a hospital chaplain for some years, before I came to St. Luke’s Church. I remember many who had total reliance on God, who were spread thin, in trauma. Many of these folks had been pushed so far, and had very little left in the way of resilience. They had fears, anxieties, trials and tribulations. But, they also had faith in God, in whatever faith tradition they came from.

When they—when we—reach a traumatic situation, God is there. God is faithful. That was some of what Jesus was saying in the first part of our Scripture reading today. And, for those who have not faced such sadness and trauma in our lives—yet—this statement of Jesus applies, as well. Where are your priorities? Where are mine?

When we put God first and allow other things to take second place, it is amazing how things sort themselves out. God has a personal hand in sorting things out in each of our lives, and that is truly a wonderful thing. So, where is your treasure?

I’ll let Jesus have the last word: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4142  Matt Skinner

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Happy Birthday, Jesus!

“Happy Birthday, Jesus!“

 

Shepherds adore the Christ child, Jan de Bisschop

Luke 2:4-15 – August 4, 2019

What events are particularly meaningful to children? Birthdays, of course. The birthday is not only a marking of the day the child was born, but is often (in this society, at least) a day for parties, presents and special things like ice cream and cake. And, children naturally love to go to birthday parties, too. No wonder many people celebrate birthdays as something really special.

Our two Scripture readings this morning both tell about the birthday of a really special Someone: the Baby born in Bethlehem, the baby Jesus. Except—I do not think it was common to celebrate birthdays with a birthday cake in those days.

When Isaiah wrote his prophecies six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, he was writing to a contemporary situation, it is true. But there is another situation, another prophetic announcement that people have marked from that point on. But, more about that birth announcement in a few minutes.

Yes, it is common for small children to concentrate on the baby Jesus and his birthday on Christmas Day. But, why did Jesus get born to a teenage girl in Bethlehem, anyhow? Why was this birth announcement made by the prophet six hundred years before the event?

For some of the answer to that question we need to go all the way back to the beginning, in the book of Genesis.

We know that God created the world, and God made plants and animals and humans. God created time and the seasons and great beauty and complexity in this marvelous world, and called it all good. In fact, very good. But, we know what happened. Sin happened, and entered into this world. Sin has caused tons of evil, heartache, misery, hatred, and disaster. We all know how much sadness and badness there are in this world.

Yesterday, in a shopping mall in the city of El Paso, Texas, we saw a horrific example of evil. The young, white shooter took the lives of twenty people, and did horrible harm to the lives of countless more. Is there a more visible example of corrosive sin and evil that can be shown to us? Sadly, violent situations such as this happen all too often, with tragic repercussions.

Yet, God the eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity, saw this horrible, pervasive evil of sin and nastiness and hatred that entered into the world, and knew its sweeping, widespread effects. God the eternal Son emptied Himself of all Godhood, and became a tiny, helpless baby human.

As the Apostles Creed tells us, We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary. Every time we say those words of that ancient—most ancient of creeds, we affirm those eternal truths. Are many Christians aware that in repeating this creed, we regularly proclaim the Good News of Christmas, the miracle of God the eternal Son breaking into human history and becoming a tiny baby?

As we examine that ancient birth announcement from Isaiah chapter 9, we reflect on those words that reverberate deep in the soul. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The music that George Frederick Handel used in his oratorio “Messiah” for this chorus ring in my mind whenever this Scripture passage is read.

Yes, God the eternal Son was born as a baby, just as this verse from Isaiah says. But not just a human child, but much, much more! Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. This baby was sent into the world to change the world. This baby was sent into the world as the Prince of Peace, to bring peace to a troubled world and dispirited people. This baby was mighty to save.

It is sort of a challenge to communicate all of that difficult, mind-blowing stuff about sin and salvation to little children. I can well understand how the ease of having a birthday party for the Baby Jesus would appeal to them instead. Small children understand about birthdays and birthday parties. That is within their experience. And, we certainly tell them about the Baby Jesus being born in Bethlehem at Christmas.

As we move to the second chapter of Luke, this narrative of the Nativity is so familiar. Is there anything here we haven’t looked at before?

We see Mary and Joseph, check. Knocking on lots of doors in Bethlehem, check. Refusal at an inn, but welcomed to a stable, check. We examine this next important part of the story. “There were shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Suddenly, an angel appeared to them and said, ‘Don’t be afraid! I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be known to all people.”

While Mary and Joseph were busy with the birth of their firstborn Son, our scene shifts to the shepherds on the hills surrounding Bethlehem. We are familiar with this next part of the story: shepherds guarding their sheep at night, and the heavenly angel breaking onto the scene.

Does anyone remember what we just looked at from the book of Isaiah? The Lord God had a wonderful birth announcement, given a few hundred years beforehand. But, this is the time! This is when the prophet was talking about. The angel told the shepherds that a newborn Savior had arrived. He is not only a Savior, He is Messiah, too, with everything that that means to an oppressed, downtrodden people in an occupied country. Believe me, Rome was not exactly a gentle group of overlords. No, the Roman empire was an oppressive regime. I can just imagine how welcome this heavenly announcement was! God-sent, indeed.

Plus, the name given to this special Baby by the angel Gabriel had great meaning. Mary and Joseph did not go to a bookstore and pour over the selection of names in a baby book to help them name their son.  If we go back a chapter to Luke 1, the angel who tells the teenager Mary she is going to bear the Messiah also tells her what His name will be: “You will have a son, and you will call His name Jesus.” In Hebrew, the name Jesus means “the Lord saves.” That is just what the angel tells the shepherds—”Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.

What a build-up for this heavenly event! Imagine, repeated birth announcements for this wondrous Child born in Bethlehem. Is it any wonder that this was the biggest, best birthday ever? If we go back to our first example, with the children having a party celebrating someone’s birthday, we could have a humdinger of a huge birthday bash, indeed.

Happy birthday, Jesus! We can celebrate, because Jesus came into the world on that Christmas Day. We can celebrate, because there is no other name given among people that can save us from our sins. Praise God, we have a Savior, indeed!

Alleluia, amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

David Triumphs over a Bully

“David Triumphs over a Bully “

1 Sam 17 david-goliath, Peter Boon

1 Samuel 17:1, 4, 8-11, 20-24, 31-32, 41-51 – July 28, 2019

Who has experience dealing with a bully? It could be on the playground, or in your neighborhood, or at work, or even in a local church. It does not matter where you or your siblings or children or grandchildren or parents happen to be, chances are that bullies can be found all over.

Our scripture reading features a big bully. Saul is king of Israel, and the perennial enemy of Israel, the Philistines, come to attack Israel yet again. Instead of fighting with the two armies coming up against each other, the Philistines send out their acknowledged champion, a huge man called Goliath, to challenge someone from Israel to fight. Did I mention he was a big bully?

Children often encounter bullies at school or on the playground. As adults, we often have thicker skins and are able to deal with the physical, psychological and verbal abuse bullies so often heap on the smaller and weaker ones around them. Bullies can and do seek out their victims, intimidate, and prey upon them, even if teachers, coaches, administrators and other adults are on the lookout for bullying behavior.

When my husband was growing up on the west side of Winnetka, a neighborhood bully named Adam lived just a couple of blocks away, to the east. You may even have seen him on television or on the big screen after he grew up.

According to common knowledge around the neighborhood, Adam had an unhappy home life, and I feel badly about that. That probably contributed to his negative attitude. Adam was antagonistic to other boys in his neighborhood. He was a sizeable kid, and would intimidate and beat up many other boys. My husband was fortunate, since he never tangled with Adam. I suspect Adam was well known at the local school, and not for a good reason.

Is this similar to Goliath’s backstory? A great question, and one we cannot answer.

1st Samuel 17 tells us for forty days the army of the Philistines were in attack formation, drawn up in battle gear across the valley from the army of Israel. For forty days the large man (some would call him a giant) Goliath would stride in front of the Philistine battle lines to challenge the army of Israel to send out a champion of theirs, to fight. As Ralph Klein, retired professor of Old Testament at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago tells us, “The idea that a combat between two champions could decide a battle is well known in ancient sources. Goliath was 9′ 9″ tall and extremely well armed. His armor would have weighed about 125 pounds.” [1]

Just think—a huge guy with impressive armor and weapons. Goliath was massive!  That alone would be disheartening. But, wait. When we add physical and verbal intimidation to what the Philistine army would be guilty of, we see what a horrible impression they made on the army of Israel. And not only the army of Israel, but for the whole nation of Israel by extension.

Does this sound familiar? Do we have bullies in our neighborhoods? Our schools or workplaces? When we examine and break down how Goliath used intimidation and fear, we can see that Goliath was a master intimidator. (Or, at least, how antagonistic and intimidating were the people who wrote the words for Goliath to say. He might have had great writers.)

What about the other side of this lopsided-looking match-up? We do know what David looked like, from this and other descriptions in 1 and 2 Samuel. At this point, while David is only a teenager, he has not become tall and broad-shouldered yet. He is described as ruddy and good looking. We can also see how full-grown warriors of Israel are afraid and intimidated by the insults and trash talk of Goliath and the Philistine army, and the teenaged David has a very different response. He is horrified at the blasphemies and trash talk Goliath spouts.

Let’s examine what Goliath said, more closely: “Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me.  If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.”  And the Philistine said, “Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.”

Goliath was a soldier by profession, and very good at what he did. He had probably honed and fine-tuned his scare tactics. We see classic manipulation and intimidation patterns.

I would like to highlight one type of person from our modern context. This can be an office manipulator, a neighborhood busybody, or an overbearing and mocking know-it-all. This type of person is not necessarily a huge menacing presence. They might not be physically intimidating, but their verbal browbeating and coercion can be just as terrorizing. This poisonous activity can induce just as much fear and demoralization in the attitudes and behavior of those surrounding this toxic person. This toxic person can be a virtual Goliath, and might come in many shapes or sizes. We need to be aware and on the lookout for mean bullies like this.

Let’s go back to David. He comes to the army camp with supplies for his older brothers, but the whole camp is away at the battle lines for Goliath’s daily intimidation. “There, David finds his brothers, and as he talks with them, Goliath steps forward to repeat his challenge for the 81st time (see 1 Samuel 17:16). Goliath says what he always does, but this is the first time David has heard him. David listens to this giant’s challenge and his cursing of Israel and her God. He watches the frightened Israelites (including his brothers) draw back, their courage shattered by this man’s words and appearance.” [2]

Wait, says David! Who is this Philistine, and why is the army of Israel cowering in fear?

Great question! We all know the rest of the story. David volunteers to challenge Goliath, comes at him with only a slingshot and smooth stones, and nails Goliath between the eyes with an Olympic-worthy shot from his sling. As the huge man falls to the ground, dead, David hews off Goliath’s head with his own sword, and thus becomes the darling of all of Israel for defeating Goliath. The original David vs. Goliath match-up.

The point of this bible story often displayed for children in Sunday school is that God is with us even when we are afraid, just like God was with David when he faced Goliath. However, from an adult understanding, we can go further. Yes, absolutely, God will be with us in all kinds of unequal, David-versus-Goliath battles. What is more, using God’s perspective can be lifechanging. From God’s point of view, David was the winner even before he used his slingshot. David was a teenager after God’s own heart. He kept his eyes on God and prevailed against a bully, against all human odds.

Are you facing a continuing battle today? Is there a mean bully in your workplace or neighborhood? Finding God’s perspective on the toxic problem is a great help. Continue doing what you know is right, in a winsome and positive way. And, God will continue to be with us, against all the Goliaths that come into our lives.

Alleluia, amen!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=331

Commentary, 1 Samuel 17:[1a, 4-11, 19-23] 32-49, Ralph W. Klein, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2009.

[2] https://bible.org/seriespage/14-david-and-goliath-1-samuel-171-58

“David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17:1-58),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Jericho’s Walls Tumbled Down

“Jericho’s Walls Tumbled Down“

Josh 6 Walls_of_Jericho_1217-94

Joshua 6:1-7, 15-17, 24-25 – July 14, 2019

Obedience can be a really good thing. Parents at home, managers in the workplace and teachers in the schoolroom depend on obedience for good, orderly behavior, conduct and communication in a group setting. It makes so much sense: when people listen, understand and obey, everything works so much more smoothly. So much more easily, too.

The people of Israel were not always obedient to God and God’s Word. Not by a long shot! Remember after Moses led the people out of Egypt, and they wandered around the area of the Sinai peninsula for forty years? Repeatedly, the people of Israel were disobedient to God’s commands. God finally had enough with their rebellion and disobedience, and said that every person who had come out of Egypt across the Red Sea (where the Lord did a mighty miracle) would die in the wilderness—the sad penalty for grumbling, rebellion and disobedience.

It is a new day, with a new administration. Moses’s trusty lieutenant Joshua is now the leader of the wandering nation of Israel. After some celebration at crossing the River Jordan into the land of Canaan, and ritual preparation—circumcising every adult male—Joshua sends two spies into the city of Jericho. A covert operation, to check out the lay of the land.

The two spies are welcomed into the house of Rahab, a prostitute. She quite possibly had rooms to rent, and this was also a source of money for herself. The spies quickly find a friend in Rahab, and get some valuable information about the great fear and anxiety that had entered into the hearts of all the people of Jericho. More than that, Rahab even hides the spies when the city authorities come to her house to check out more about the whereabouts of these spies.

After the spies bring the news of the great fear and anxiety filling the hearts of all people in Jericho, Joshua our fearless leader prepares his army to fight.

Thus far, everyone among the people of Israel has been obedient to the voice of God.

I wonder, are you and I obedient to the word of God? Do we follow all of God’s commands? We might say, with the rich young ruler, we have followed all of the Big Ten. Jesus even tells us of the commands in His interaction with the rich young man: “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.”

I suspect the people of Israel followed the Ten Commandments, too. This was part of the Law that Moses brought down from the top of Mount Sinai just a few decades before. Although, lots of those people of Israel grumbled, rebelled, and disobeyed God, and Moses, while they were in the wilderness. As punishment, they all died without seeing the Promised Land.

As I said, this was the dawn of a new era. Joshua was the new leader of Israel now. The people of Israel were young, vital, and excited to enter the land of Canaan. The army of Israel made themselves ready to attack the city of Jericho, buoyed up by the positive report of the spies.

Except—what kind of a battle plan was this? Joshua, are you crazy? Are you drunk? What on earth were you thinking? Just walking around the well-protected city of Jericho once a day, in total silence, for six days? Not just with the army, but with the priests and the Ark of the Covenant, too?  Then on the seventh day, to walk around the city seven times, in total silence. And then, give a mighty shout, all together! Shout, and blow trumpets, and the thick, high walls will fall down all by themselves.

What kind of battle plan is that? God’s battle plan. God was going to fight for the people of Israel, and show everyone that God was on the side of the nation of Israel.

Lo and behold, the army and priests obeyed Joshua and the command of the Lord. Lo and behold, when the trumpets blew and the army shouted on the seventh day, the walls did come tumbling down. “In the face of such a great obstacle, Joshua complied with the plan of God. Though he may not have completely understood the plan or its significance, he followed God. Joshua moved the people to action.” [1] Obedience was the key to Israel’s success.

I wonder, again. Are you and I obedient to the commands of the Lord, today? Do we follow all the words of Jesus in the Gospels? Here is more of Jesus’s conversation with the rich young man: ““Teacher,” he declared, “all these commands I have kept since I was a boy.” 21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”

How do we square love of money and possessions with the concept of obedience to a just God? I don’t care who we are, one commentary on this passage said we each have “virtual strongholds that impede our spiritual progress. It may be a weakness in our character, a physical infirmity, it may be indifference to spiritual things in general or to a specific area we are neglecting. It could be materialism or some life-dominating pattern. It may be a difficulty at one’s place of work, in the home, with a particular personality, or it may be a financial burden.” [2] Each of us has difficulty obeying God, in one area or even several at once.

I return once more to the question of the day: are you and I obedient to the commands of the Lord, today? Do we follow all the words of Jesus in the Gospels? Commands like being a good neighbor to absolutely anyone, even a Samaritan? Even someone of a different color, or a different religion? Let’s look at another command of Jesus. Love one another. Sure, it’s easy to love our neighbors and those in our families. But, what about loving the stranger? Yet, the Bible tells us we have to do that, too. Do we? Or, would we rather turn our backs on the foreigner, put the stranger in detention, or perhaps even deport them?

Let’s look at some commands Moses gave to the nation of Israel, the commands this nation of Israel must have been very familiar with. From Deuteronomy 10:19 – “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And, from Leviticus 19:34 – “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” In the books of the Torah—the first five books of the Bible alone, Israel is commanded to care for the stranger or non-citizen thirty-six times.

These are some important commands of the Lord. Are we going to be obedient to these commands, or are we going to grumble, rebel and be disobedient? These commands tell us to be open, welcoming, loving and caring to all—just like our God. These are challenging commands. Yet, they are echoed again and again throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.

Looking at a children’s bible story from an adult point of view? This serious reading about obedience from the book of Joshua pulls us all up short, and gets our attention. May God aid our understanding of our Scripture reading and sermon this morning.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://www.lifeway.com/en/articles/sermon-overcome-obstacles-jericho-promised-land-joshua-6

Michael Rochelle is pastor of Shadow Hills Baptist Church in Las Vegas, Nevada.

[2] https://bible.org/seriespage/destroying-fortresses-victory-jericho-joshua-61-27

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Dad’s Favorite!

“Dad’s Favorite!”

Gen 37 Jacob shown bloodstained coat - Rembrandt

Genesis 37:3-4 – June 30, 2019

“It’s not fair!” Who remembers hearing brothers, sisters, or cousins say that? “He gets more!” “I don’t have any!” “He has fancy gym shoes!” or, “She takes special classes, but what do I do? Nothing!” At its worst, sibling rivalry can tear a family apart. When brothers and sisters fight among themselves, hurt feelings and disgruntled relations often result as bickering and arguments break out. These hurt feelings can fester for years, even for decades.

But, what if the whispers and even shouts of “It’s not fair!” happen because a parent plays favorites, elevating one sibling over all the rest? Hurt feelings can become downright animosity, which can fester, simmer, and flare up repeatedly in a lifetime. This animosity can be a devastating family-destroyer.

This very sad topic is what we see, taking a closer look at Genesis 37. Jacob plays favorites with his favorite son, Joseph.

In Sunday school, children often learn about young Joseph and his coat of many colors. Or, as lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Weber referred to it in their classic musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Children get all excited by the many-colored coat. This bible story from Genesis is a great opportunity for making something colorful and memorable for a children’s craft. Often, children do learn about Joseph being his father’s favorite, but not as much about how Joseph tattled on his older brothers, and brought the tales back to his father Jacob. Being a rat like that would not help relations between siblings, either.

But, what was this coat that Jacob gave to Joseph? One of my favorite commentators, Carolyn Brown, wonders about this, too. “Depending on the translation, it was a fancy coat, a beautifully decorated coat, a coat with long sleeves (for one who does not have to work), or a coat of many colors. The Bible was written in another language centuries ago and no one knows exactly what kind of coat it was.” [1] Whatever kind of coat it was, it certainly caused trouble. 

Jacob did not have a simple marriage like those we are familiar with—like we do, in the United States today. No, Jacob had two wives, Rachel and Leah. Plus, Rachel and Leah each had a maidservant, Bilhah and Zilpah. According to the customs of several thousand years ago, Rachel—being a legitimate wife of Jacob—could claim any sons her maid bore if Jacob slept with her. The same went for Leah, being a legitimate wife of Jacob. So, Jacob ended up having four wives, essentially. And, lots of sons. That was where Jacob’s twelve sons came from: from Jacob sleeping with Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah.

We might also be familiar with a big pack of kids, cousins, brothers and sisters, kids on the block or the playground. This was what Joseph and his brothers were—a really large family. Plus, little brother Joseph was a little big for his britches. He boasted a lot. You know the type.

After Joseph got the fancy coat from his dad, Jacob, he had a dream. “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.” His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.”

Even his father Jacob and mother Rachel got sick and tired of Joseph and his arrogant boasting. Here is Joseph’s second dream: “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” 11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.” That is, Jacob remembered the boasting dreams that Joseph had. What is more, these dreams would work out to be true in an unimaginable way. But, we are jumping years ahead to the end of the story, already.

If we take a closer look at Jacob, the dad of these twelve brothers, Jacob was no ideal father figure. He not only played favorites with one particular son, but he chose one favorite above the others among his wives and concubines. Rachel was his cherished, favorite wife, and Joseph was her older son. Benjamin was Rachel’s younger son—Jacob’s youngest son, and Rachel died of complications from his birth.

Yes, there was tumult, tragedy and trauma in the whole extended family, going all the way back to the time Jacob was working for Leah’s and Rachel’s, the two sisters’ dad—Laban. Father-in-law Laban was no prize winner where his ethics were concerned. He hoodwinked Jacob into marrying the more unattractive older sister Leah in addition to the beautiful younger sister Rachel. This whole family was messed up, from way back. So, are we surprised if sibling rivalry, hurt feelings and even outright animosity affect all twelve brothers?    

In many ways, a lot of us sympathize with the other brothers. Joseph was a boastful, arrogant pain in the backside. Plus, the brothers had a legitimate complaint against their father who was playing favorites. So many have heard this sadly familiar refrain over and over again. “It wasn’t fair that Joseph got the fancy coat and they had their old clothes. It wasn’t fair that the youngest brother was not required to work with the others and was actually sent to check up on them. Where the brothers got into trouble was when they used an unfair strategy (selling their defenseless brother [as a slave]) to get what seemed only fair for themselves.” [2]

When family members plot and plan against other members of their own family, that is definitely a sign that something is really wrong and really dysfunctional. Perhaps we have been so angry at one of our family members—or a good friend—that we might even have wanted to do something mean or hurtful to them. This seems like something a person who is far from God might want to do—complete with rubbing the hands together and an evil laugh.

Our New Testament reading today is from Romans 2. The apostle Paul lets the believers in Rome know that God judges all people the same—Jews and Gentiles alike. God does not play favorites—unlike Jacob in our sermon passage from Genesis 37.

We know how Jesus responded to people who were unkind to Him, even hated Him. He loved them—all of them. How do you think God wants us to respond when people are unkind to us, or when we don’t like other people? Would God want us to be mean and nasty, and turn our backs on them? Or, would God want us to be kind and loving, even if others are mean and bad? Remember that next time you—we—are tempted to get angry, curse, or fly off the handle.

Face it, this can be really difficult to do, say or think things that are pleasing to God while anger is twisting and roiling deep inside of each one of us.

Going all the way to the end of the story of Joseph, we know he did forgive his brothers for selling him into slavery. In retrospect, Joseph realized that God’s purposes were accomplished, and he reconciled with his brothers,

God can help us reconcile all kinds of families, and friends and acquaintances, too. God can help bring peace and repair relations. God can even bring reconciliation and love back to what some might view as hopeless situations.

Praise God, we indeed have a wonder-working God! Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/07/year-proper-14-19th-sunday-in-ordinary.html

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

[2] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Believe and Obey!

“Believe and Obey!”

Gen 8 Noah's Ark 5

Genesis 7:5, 23, 8:1 – June 23, 2019

Who remembers Sunday school? If not your own experience in Sunday school, perhaps your children’s time there? Or even your experiences teaching Sunday school? Children’s bible stories play a big part in Sunday school. We are going to look at ten children’s Sunday school stories for our summer sermon series, starting with Noah and the ark from Genesis.

I have memories of Sunday school and Vacation Bible School where the children sang songs about Noah and his ark, including “Rise and Shine!” complete with hand motions and hand claps. I suspect many of us have memories about Noah, Mrs. Noah, the ark, the animals coming two by two, the rain falling for forty days and forty nights, and finally the rainbow at the end of the story. We can learn some things as adults from this narrative in Genesis, too.

First, imagine yourself—ourselves—back in Noah’s time, in Genesis. According to the Bible, the world was different, in a lot of ways. People had a huge tendency to do things and say things that were contrary to God’s will and God’s ways. (Some things have not changed.) People were so downright disobedient to the Lord’s manner of living and the ways God had instructed people to act that God got extremely angry with all the people. Except, for Noah and his family.

This is not the version of Noah and the ark that is found in Sunday school stories for children. That warm, fuzzy, sanitized version tells children about Noah and his sons building the ark, the animals coming two by two (carnivorous beasts, too!), and everyone living in harmony on the ark while it rained. Which is one version of the events.

Are you familiar with what some other groups say about the God of the Old Testament? About how God is a mean, angry, vengeful God, ready to smite anyone who steps even a toe out of line? These groups emphasize narratives like this one from Genesis, “a story that is most definitely not for children. In this interpretation, God is so angered by human rebellion that God floods the whole earth, wiping out nearly everything in a fit of divine rage. This is a story about a God whom you’d be crazy to want to have anything to do with, a God of wrath who is ready and willing to strike down sinners.” [1]

This second interpretation does not quite hit the mark either. We have two ends of a pendulum swing—the first version warm and fuzzy and happily-ever-after, and the second version mean and vengeful and smiting and wiping out everything on the face of the earth.

What does the book of Genesis say? As Eileen read from Genesis earlier in the service, “The Lord then said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation.” And, “Noah did all that the Lord commanded him.”

This is in contrast with the whole rest of humanity that God had created. In Genesis chapter 6, “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.”

Or as Eugene Peterson’s translation “The Message” says so poignantly, “People thought evil, imagined evil—evil, evil, evil from morning to night. God was sorry that he had made the human race in the first place; it broke his heart.” And, “As far as God was concerned, the Earth had become a sewer; there was violence everywhere. God took one look and saw how bad it was, everyone corrupt and corrupting—life itself corrupt to the core.”

It is difficult for me even to contemplate such extreme evil and wickedness as Genesis describes—until I think of murder, slaughter, concentration camps, internment camps, gas chambers, razor-wire fences, genocide, people “disappearing” and abducted in plain sight, carpet bombing of civilians, and napalm raids. There have been so many people approving of these horrible activities throughout history, in hatred and fear of other people-groups, or in the name of their country’s security. Even today.

God’s heart, in striking contrast to the evil inclination of the human heart, is grieved by their betrayal. God is pained by the brokenness of creation. God sends the flood, then, not as an act of revenge, but out of grief over the rending of right human relationship with God.” [2] Perhaps I can see why the Lord was sorry God had made the human race in the first place. Perhaps all of this horror and human-made devastation can break our hearts, too.

But—Noah alone believed God. Noah was a righteous man, and was obedient to the words and ways of the Lord. As The Message says in Genesis 6, “Noah was a good man, a man of integrity in his community. Noah walked with God.”

How many of us can say that about ourselves? How many of us are good people, and people of integrity? For that matter, can we point to anyone, any single person we know and say, “That person walks with God!” Yet, the Bible says that about Noah.

So, Noah and his sons (and perhaps their wives, too) built the ark, believed God and were obedient. The Lord sent the rain upon the earth to wipe away every living creature, for forty days and forty nights. Only Noah and those with him on the ark were saved. And finally, “But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded.”

After Noah and his family finally left the ark, the Lord made a covenant with Noah. Perhaps we remember this covenant of the rainbow. “At the heart of that covenant with Noah and his descendants is God’s promise that “Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life” (11b).  In other words, God seems to promise that God will never again use a natural catastrophe to destroy all earthly life. Yet while God says “never again,” God doesn’t add, as we might expect, “but in order for me to spare creation, you must do this and that.”  God’s post-Flood covenant is unconditional.” [3] In other words, no strings attached.

As commentator Doug Bratt reminds us, perhaps the Lord knows if we try to keep up our end of the bargain by acting in a manner pleasing to God, we will just fail completely. Again. “People after the Flood, after all, aren’t much different than they were before it.” [4]

Just as the rainbow covenant (or promise) was unconditional—no strings attached, so is the promise of Resurrection we have in the risen Lord Jesus. God promises through Christ Jesus and His death on the cross to forgive us our sins; just as the Lord promises through the rainbow to never flood the earth again.

Can we believe God, today? Can we obey God, instead of going our own way?

We have the opportunity to believe and be obedient to God, just like Noah. We can strive to be people of integrity, walking before the Lord in righteous living, and treating each other as God would have us do. We can thank the Lord for the Resurrection promise we grasp hold of, the blessed truth that the risen Lord Jesus has provided salvation for us, just as the ark provided salvation for Noah and his family.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1222

Commentary, Genesis 9:8-17, Elizabeth Webb, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-1b-2/?type=old_testament_lectionary

Sermon Starter of the Week, illustrations, text commentary, etc, Scott Hoezee, Center for Excellence in Preaching, 2015.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Holy Father, Holy Son, Holy Spirit!

“Holy Father, Holy Son, Holy Spirit!”

holy trinity mosaic

John 16:13, Psalm 8 – June 16, 2019

In our everyday lives, all kinds of things come in threes. The rule of threes tells us that when things are presented to us in threes, they are easier to remember. Comedy tells us that when jokes come in three parts, they are somehow more satisfying and funnier.

Commentator Alyce McKenzie reminds us, “We read The Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, Goldilocks and the Three Bears before we eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with a knife, fork, and spoon. We hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil despite the fact that we are threatened by lions, tigers, and bears. We play rock, paper, scissors. Our goals are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and we count on the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government to assist us in this pursuit, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, because we cherish our government of the people, by the people, and for the people. We live a hop, skip, and a jump from snap, crackle, and pop. Our journey of life has a beginning, a middle, and an end. On the journey we encounter lights that may be red, yellow, or green. Our motto, for the past, the present, and the future is Ready, Set, Go!” [1]

The rule of threes does have relevance in our Christian life; we know the Trinity with the traditional expression Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the Triune God. One in Three, and Three in One. Yet, how can we wrap our heads around such a huge concept as the Trinity?

We might consider God in this way: God was, God is and God will be. God past, God present and God future. Our psalm reading for today, Psalm 8, talks about the majesty and power of God the Creator, God the Father. That is what our opening hymn of praise lifted up: “How Majestic is Your Name.” God created the whole universe, everything we see when we look up in the sky, times 1000. Times 100,000! It is truly mind-blowing to consider how enormous the universe is. I cannot even comprehend a tiny sliver of how immense the cosmos is!

And yet, God still thinks about each of us, and loves each one of us as very special people. As our psalmist King David said, “What is man – humanity – that You are mindful of them?” In other words, how can the amazingly huge God who called the whole universe into being ages ago with a word even think about such tiny, insignificant beings such as humans? Yet, God does exactly that.

God the Father, God-not-only-in-the-past is part of this incomprehensible God, One in Three, Three in One, the Trinity.

Yet, there is God the Son. God the Son was eternal, too. He was in the beginning with God, as John chapter 1 tells us. The eternal Son was incarnate, was made flesh. That is fancy wording for Jesus becoming a baby. What’s more, He emptied Himself of all Godhood, all God-ness. Jesus became a baby just like any other newborn baby you might meet.

Jesus grew to adulthood, and lived life as a human being, like you and like me. Jesus got hungry, tired, slept, worked, laughed and cried. Yet, at the same time, Jesus was God. I can’t understand it, yet that is what our Gospels and many other places in the New Testament tell us. Here, in John 14 through 16, Jesus tells His disciples some very important things. This is God the Son talking, who would very shortly die on the Cross and very soon transition into His Resurrected form.

We see God-in-the-present here in John 16, telling His friends about the not-so-distant future. Jesus is talking about the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Oh, what kind of wondrous happening was this, Jesus the Eternal God the Son, talking about a Spirit of truth? Even though the disciples probably had some kind of idea about the wisdom that came from God – Proverbs and several Psalms serving as great examples – when their Rabbi Jesus started talking about a Holy Spirit, I have no idea what must have been going through the disciples’ heads!

When Jesus talked with His disciples in the Upper Room on that Thursday, that Passover night before His crucifixion, He knew everything was going to change for His friends. Jesus would no longer be with them, in a human body. Jesus was promising them something for the future. God-in-the-future, as well as in the present and in the past. Jesus promised the coming of the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, to live with them and remain with them as long as they were on this earth. The Holy Spirit was—is indwelling every believer in Jesus Christ. And, that is still the case, today.

Another—very imperfect—way to think about the Trinity is in the family context. All of us are members of a family. All of us came from a mother and a father. I will take myself for an example. I am a daughter to my parents. (Now deceased.) I am a mother to my children. I am a wife to my husband. Those are three distinct roles. Very different roles, too! Yet, I am one person. Not wanting to compare myself to the eternal, ineffable, transcendent Holy Trinity (much), I hope this family example might be able to give another example, some idea of the complexities in considering the Trinity.

Which brings me to the question I passed out to everyone in your bulletin: “When I—when you—thought about God, I used to think…” What did we used to think about God? How has it changed? What do we think about God, now? Has the blessed coming of the Holy Spirit into each of our lives changed those thoughts?

When we come at this theological doctrine of the Trinity head on, yes. It is important. It is part of our Creeds, and a foundational aspect of the Christian faith this church proclaims. Yet, a perfect understanding of Christian theology is not at all necessary for us to be saved, for us to enter into a close, deep relationship with God.

Throughout the Easter season, for the past weeks, I have been preaching on testimonies. When various people were confronted by the claims of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, and what happened after that. Mary Magdalene was the first evangelist when she ran to the other followers of Jesus on that first Easter morning and cried, “I have seen the Lord!” Mary did not have a full understanding of Christian doctrine and of the three Persons of the Trinity, But, she knew that Jesus had risen, and was alive again.

I hope and pray that our understanding of God keeps growing, deepening, and maturing.  I hope that each of us keeps that excitement, that exuberance in our lives and our testimonies as we proclaim Jesus, as we tell all that the Trinity has done for each of us.

Alleluia, amen!

[1] https://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Power-Three-Alyce-McKenzie-05-21-2013.html

“The Power of Three,” Alyce M. McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Dynamic Spirit Power!

“Dynamic Spirit Power!”

Acts 2 Pentecost mural

Acts 2:2-4 – June 9, 2019

Have you ever been outside in hurricane-force winds? Either you, or a loved one you know and who is very dear to you? How about a massive storm that has huge bolts of lightning, and loud cracks of thunder? Can you imagine God’s mighty power displayed, for everyone to see and hear and feel? Anyone who has ever been caught in such a powerful storm can tell you, such a dynamic panorama can be earthshaking, literally. That mighty God-sent power is just what I’ll be preaching about today.

Most of us, perhaps even all of us are familiar with the disciples’ fearful reaction after our Lord Jesus ascended into heaven. And, for good reason! The Roman authorities were still hunting for the body of the Rabbi Jesus that disappeared from the tomb, some weeks before. Remember what happened on Easter morning? Not only the Roman authorities but also Jewish leaders were still demanding to see the body of this itinerant rabbi that they said was stolen from the tomb! Of course, we know better.

God’s mighty, miraculous power intervened, by way of the Resurrection and Ascension. Our Lord rose from the dead, walked and taught on this earth in His resurrected body for seven weeks, followed by His bodily ascension into heaven. What is more, the last instructions of Jesus to wait for power, to stay put in Jerusalem, were still fresh in people’s ears.

But—still, God left the disciples very much afraid, and very much in hiding. At least, after the risen Jesus went away for good. That’s what humans thought, anyhow.

Here we are, on Pentecost morning, waiting with the disciples. As was their custom, they were gathered for prayer in the Upper Room. Can you imagine a large group of disciples, with Jesus’ mother Mary in the midst of them? Talk about a prayer meeting! Still, they were huddled, in hiding. These disciples were being faithful, as best as they could. When, on Pentecost morning, a God-sent happening occurred. But, you don’t need to take my word for it!

Listen to what Dr. Luke says at the beginning of Acts 2: “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.

Now, today, if something like that happened, we might look around for the fancy special effects team in the background. We might wonder where the cameras were placed when those tongues of fire wondrously appeared above each person—marking them, letting everyone know that God was director, and God wrote the script.

Getting back to a description of a display of God’s mighty power, that other-worldly power was certainly on display in the sound like the blowing of a violent wind from heaven. In keeping with my analogy, God was also producer and certainly handled all special effects.

The Koine Greek word for “power” is dunamis, which the Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament defines as: able to produce a strong effect power, might, strength” and “as supernatural manifestations of power, miracle, wonder, powerful deed.” This is the same word that is used ten times in the book of Acts to refer to God’s mighty power or acts. Plus, dunamis is the root word for dynamite: the mighty, powerful dynamite of God!

This dynamic power was on display to the disciples, in the upper room. Dr. Luke mentions that “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” On display only among the disciples—at first. But, soon, other people started to get in on the action!

Let’s hear from Dr. Luke: “Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?”

Once the dynamic Holy Spirit blows in on the disciples with tongues of fire, and their physical tongues are loosened in many other languages, what an awesome display of power! Passersby from other countries off the street gathered around. They heard the violent wind of the Spirit and the expression of many languages that quickly followed. All of the disciples were telling the Good News, that Jesus our Messiah is risen from the dead—in many different languages. And, probably because of the regional pronunciation, the expat onlookers were able to tell that many of those who were speaking different languages were Galileans. Is it any wonder that these onlookers were totally amazed?

I am reminded of a flash mob in some public place, like a mall or in a downtown square. Just as passersby are engrossed in the performance the flash mob does, in a similar way, the onlookers are fascinated by the whole God-sent operation that happened in Jerusalem on Pentecost morning, especially by the sharing of the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ in their own heart-language, their own mother tongue. And, since the Holy Spirit was present in mighty power on that Pentecost morning, many came to believe in Jesus as their Messiah that day.

But, Pentecost was not just a one-time event. You know, an event that happened just in the distant past, in Bible times, never to be repeated. No! Whenever anyone believes on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, a Pentecost happens! The Holy Spirit blows through that person, that beloved one of God. The Holy Spirit blows into each of our lives, and the power and possibility of God acting with and through each one of us is an amazing and awesome truth!

Commentator Rev. Gary Simpson brings out the fact “I am more aware of the numerous ways the Holy Spirit comes into people’s lives and affects positive change. No longer is my understanding of Pentecost simply wrapped around the phonetic languages we speak out of our mouths. Rather, I am aware of the many ways the Holy Spirit speaks through us and to us through sounds, pictures, ideas and even hope.” [1]

I am reminded that some people think Pentecost was just a day, an event that happened two thousand years ago. But, no! Wait a minute! Are these well-meaning people putting limits on the mighty power of God? What about that violent wind of the Holy Spirit that blew through the house on that first Pentecost? Are these well-meaning people trying to put God in a little box of their own devising and understanding?

As the Rev. Simpson reminds us, Pentecost is not simply a day to remember the birth of the Church, but it is also a day to celebrate the mighty power of the Holy Spirit, the dynamite of God, active and present in each believer’s life and heart. It is God’s power working in us and through us, so we can be witnesses to what the risen Lord Jesus has done for us. Yes, we are changed, too! And we have the opportunity to change the world, just as much as the first-century disciples of Christ—by the power of the God-sent dynamite of the Holy Spirit.

Alleluia! Amen.

[1] http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=88

Lectionary Commentary, Acts 2:1-8, Gary V. Simpson, The African American Lectionary, 2009.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

 

The Jailer’s Story

“The Jailer’s Story”

Acts 16-31 Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ stained glass

Acts 16:30-34 – June 2, 2019

A number of years ago, a pastor friend of mine needed to buy some new tires for his car. He had an acquaintance who was an auto mechanic, and went to his auto shop to purchase the tires. My friend Pastor Jamie was fascinated by the machine used for balancing, and watched the tires go round and round. The mechanic watched, too. Pastor Jamie suddenly asked the mechanic, “Did you ever feel your life was just spinning round and round, just like that tire? So fast, that you weren’t sure if it was going to spin out of control?”

As we follow the apostle Paul through the book of Acts, we might get the same idea. Paul’s life seemed to spin out of control time and time again. Trouble certainly seemed to follow Paul; take this week’s Scripture reading, for example. Paul and his friend Silas were beaten and thrown into prison. What is that all about?

We need to back up and see exactly why the people of the city of Philippi were so upset. Last week, we met Lydia, a well-to-do Gentile business owner who became a believer in the Gospel. She invited Paul and his friends to stay at her large house and use that as their base of operations. This week, we continue in Philippi with a slave girl who had an evil spirit, who did fortune-telling to earn money for her owners. She followed Paul and his friends around town for days, calling out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, telling you the way to be saved!”

On the face of it, Paul and his friends might have looked on this slave girl’s hollering to be free advertising. But, no! It got annoying, very quickly! The slave girl was a kind of heckler, constantly trailing after the missionaries. Finally, Paul got fed up, and cast the evil spirit out of the slave girl. The spirit was gone! However, so was the way the girl had earned money, telling people’s futures and fortunes. The girl’s owners were really upset at this turn of events! They got mad at the apostle Paul, too.

Now we start to see why Paul and Silas got thrown into prison—this time.

I am not sure whether life has ever spun out of control so much that you and I have gotten thrown into prison, but things can take unexpected twists and turns, and sometimes drag us into some awful predicaments.

It did not matter whether the owners of the slave girl were lying or not when they accused Paul and Silas in front of the Philippian judge. (They were, though.) The false accusation—that Paul and Silas were trying to lead the citizens of Philippi astray by encouraging them to leave behind good, solid Roman practices—fired up the crowd and got them to shout out against Paul and Silas. What is more, the judge was convinced to have Paul and Silas beaten and put in prison.

To give us a closer look at what their punishment involved, I am afraid Dr. Luke will offer a candid description. I am letting people know, just in case anyone needs a trigger warning.

First, Paul and Silas were beaten with rods—around the size of a broom handle. We cannot be sure in Paul’s and Silas’s case, but the beating with rods was oftentimes so severe that it broke bones and lacerated the skin. Following the painful beating, Paul and Silas had their legs pulled far apart and wooden stocks were clamped around their ankles. [1]

After this acute pain and suffering, the two missionaries actually were singing hymns of praise at midnight. Can you imagine how much Paul and Silas had just experienced? After all that, Dr. Luke reports that they were singing hymns of praise to God, and the other prisoners were listening. What a change from the usual prison noise of shouts, groans and curses.

Perhaps we have not experienced anything as severely agonizing as being beaten and thrown into jail unjustly, but life can spin out of control in any one of a number of ways.

We can see how Paul and Silas singing hymns at midnight is a key part of this narrative, because the Lord sends an earthquake to the Philippian jail as a result of that praise. “Just as the Gerasene demoniac was loosed from his chains by Jesus (Luke 8:35), all the prisoners, including Paul and Silas, are loosed. The work of the Spirit brings freedom to all who are captive.” [2]

Enter the jailer upon the scene. At this climactic point, the Philippian jailer was filled with fear and despair. Dr. Luke says, “When the jailer saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped.”  His prisoners—his duly-appointed charges—had been sprung. The jail had been destroyed, and the jailer thought he would be tortured and killed by the Roman authorities for failing in his duty.

It is at this critical point of despair for the jailer that Paul calls out, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”

Remember my friend, Pastor Jamie, and his acquaintance the auto mechanic? Remember how they both watched the tire spinning round and round, almost out of control? Jamie made that comment, and the auto mechanic immediately agreed. The auto mechanic then asked the question of the day: “what’s the use? What can I do about it?”

This is so similar to the question asked by the Philippian jailer: “The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

What can we do to get right with God, get our lives on track, and come into a loving relationship with our Lord and Savior? Paul and Silas’s answer is in the next verse: “They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house.”

Pastor Jamie shared the good news of Lord and Savior with his acquaintance the car mechanic. Similarly, Paul and Silas shared the good news with the jailer, another working-class guy. Both gratefully received the Gospel. And, the jailer and his prisoners were ultimately freed—both in this world, and the next.

To take that sudden out-of-control moment and transform it into something God-sent is truly a gift of God. We can all pray with Jesus in our reading from the Gospel of John, our Gospel reading for today, “26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

The narrator Dr. Luke so skillfully expanded the apostle Paul’s groundbreaking adventures in the city of Philippi into an elegant story or drama in Acts 16. Using the backdrop of Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew [Paul and Silas] or Greek [Lydia, the slave girl, the jailer], there is no longer slave [the slave girl] or free [Lydia, Paul], there is no longer male [Paul, Silas, the jailer] or female [Lydia, slave girl], for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” [3]

God’s power acts to bring together the most unlikely group of people for God’s glory. We can celebrate, because God has arms wide open for all who believe. Even me, even you.

Praise God! Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://www.christianlibrary.org/authors/John_L_Kachelman_Jr/phil28.htm

[2] Landers, Richard M., Homiletical Perspective on Acts 16:16-34, 7th Sunday of Easter, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 527.

[3] Walaskay, Paul W., exegetical Perspective on Acts 16:16-34, 7th Sunday of Easter, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 527.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

 

You Had to Be There!

“You Had to Be There!”

Acts 16-14 Lydia, words

Acts 16:14-15 – May 26, 2019

Sometimes, you had to be there. Consider my daughter Rachel. As part of her music studies, she is taking an intensive summer course in Broadway musicals. Right now, she, her small class of graduate students, and her professor are all in New York City—studying Broadway musicals, in depth. She has told me a little about two of the performances she has seen, and they sound wonderful. So wonderful, she could not even do them justice in describing them. I can imagine her saying “You had to be there!”

The power of narrative, of story. That is what a Broadway play or musical is all about. That is what personal testimonies are all about. As we hear personal stories, we can become immersed in the happenings, the events, the trials and tribulations of the person we are listening to—sometimes to the point of having a personal stake in the events we hear and see.

Consider the apostle Paul. He and his friends Silas, Dr. Luke and several others were traveling around Asia Minor—present-day Turkey—on Paul’s second missionary journey. When, all of a sudden, Paul receives a vision from God. A man from Macedonia—northern Greece—appears to Paul. He begs for Paul to come to Macedonia and preach the Gospel to the people there. This dream or vision was God-sent, and Paul and his friends got on a ship immediately and set sail for Greece.

Ever been in that situation, where you had a dream or vision or message from God that was so strong, you just had to obey? Apparently, this sort of thing happened more frequently in Bible times. And, the followers of Jesus hearkened to Paul and his words about the vision. It wasn’t a second-hand or even a third-hand recounting of some vision some guy had, no. Paul’s first-person account of his amazing vision was so much more compelling!

The narrow stretch of water Paul and his friends crossed to get into Macedonia was the same strip of water that many, many refugees from the Middle East recently crossed to get away from life-threatening danger. Imagine their relief to finally cross the water and be physically separated from war, starvation, political persecution, and loss of life and property. That was the first-person story of the refugees in recent times, their personal testimony.

Let us return to Paul and his friends, and their personal story. Dr. Luke is with them at this time, and he makes note of the place where they are staying: Philippi, a leading city in that area of Macedonia. Not anywhere else in Macedonia, “it is straight to Philippi. In places just like that God planted (and still plants) the church to the community that says ‘no’ to the ways of imperial power and offers a different way of life, a different story, and a different promise.” [1] We have the opportunity to hear a different kind of first-person account, a different sort of personal testimony from people from the imperial city of Philippi, in Europe—not in Asia.

Paul and his friends stay there for some days before any serious preaching or teaching goes on. Then, as is Paul’s habit when in a new town, today’s reading tells us “On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there.”

Hold it right there! I see a couple of things right off the bat that make this a different kind of situation. There is no synagogue, no ordered gathering of Jews in this large town. Plus, Paul and his friends meet with a bunch of women. Not even a mixed gathering of men and women, but a group of Gentile women. How open-minded of Paul!

Something further: the Bible hardly ever mentions a gathering of only women. Now, this was not in Israel, where things were culturally sensitive. How fascinating “that this well-known Pharisee and teacher from Jerusalem would carry on a serious discussion with a group of women.” [2] Yes, aspects of this whole situation were completely new, almost alien for Paul and his friends. All the same, Paul still preached and taught the Gospel of the Lord Jesus. He still preached Christ crucified. He still told his own personal story.

As Paul discusses spiritual and theological things with the group of women, Dr. Luke tells us about one in particular: “One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.”

God does the totally unexpected. “When God does begin to work in Philippi, it comes with a surprise. Paul’s vision had involved a Macedonian man. But the first to welcome the gospel in Philippi was a woman, and in fact a woman from the area that Paul had just left in the east.” [3] We saw several weeks ago when we considered the Easter morning testimony that God chose women to be the first ones to hear and believe the Good News of the Resurrection. Now, here in Europe, the first one to hear and believe the message of the Good News of the Resurrection is also a woman, and a prominent one for this time, too.

Lydia is a business-woman, a dealer in purple cloth. This is a luxury item, which only the upper class was allowed to wear. In today’s terms, she could be seen as a high-end clothing designer and manufacturer. She owns a large house, and has a number of servants and/or employees. Plus, she is held in high enough esteem that when she believes the Good News of the Gospel, her whole household is led to believe in the Good News, too. A pretty persuasive woman! And, a leading citizen of Philippi.

What a turn of events! The first convert in Europe is not a sober Jewish man of stature, a leader of a local synagogue, but a savvy Gentile business-woman, wealthy and significant in the community. Any expectations Paul and his friends had of their missionary trip to Greece were certainly turned on their heads. This reminds me not to make meticulous plans set in concrete for any operation, because God will often surprise us with unexpected outcomes.

But, that is not all. Dr. Luke tells us, “When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.’ And she persuaded us.” Imagine, Paul and his friends invited into a large, spacious, wealthy home. Not only that, Lydia probably invited them to make her house a base of operations for their mission to the whole region. A good friend and follower of Christ, indeed.

Remember what I said about having plans set in concrete? “It is not the charismatic personality of the pastor or preacher that has the power to create faith; it must come from God’s own merciful activity. From beginning to end, this [Scripture passage] stresses that it is God who is in charge of the mission, God who sets its direction, and God who determines its results.” [4]

Can we show hospitality like Lydia? Like Paul, can we persuade others to consider the claims of Christ? We are still in the Easter season, a wonderful opportunity to tell others our personal story. God can use any personal testimony, to God’s glory. Praise the Lord, we can invite friends, neighbors and acquaintances into a relationship with God. Let us not miss this wonderful, God-given opportunity. To God be the glory. Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1627

Commentary, Acts 16:9-15, Brian Peterson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013.

[2] Walaskay, Paul W., Exegetical Perspective on Acts 16:9-15, 6th Sunday of Easter, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 479.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1627

Commentary, Acts 16:9-15, Brian Peterson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Everything We Need?

“Everything We Need?”

Psalm 23 KJV

Psalm 23:1 – May 12, 2019

Advertising lets us know how much stuff we really “need.” Madison Avenue certainly knows how to plant the thoughts of desire and dissatisfaction in our hearts, prompting us to go out and buy, buy, buy! Consume, consume, consume!

Aren’t we supposed to be dissatisfied with what we have? I thought I was supposed to buy lots of things at shoe stores, department stores, sporting goods stores, computer stores, car dealerships, even garden supply stores at this green and growing time of the year.

What does King David tell us, in the very first verse of our psalm reading today? From the Good News Translation, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need.”

The first verse of Psalm 23 many people are familiar with? “the Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” The other translation has a bit different words for the second phrase; ‘I have everything I want.” But, doesn’t this fly in the face of advertising and popular culture today?

One pastor expanded on this thought in his comments on this psalm: “We live in a consumerist society that thrives on teaching us to want. Wanting more and more and more: I want a new car. I want a flat screen TV and a Blue Ray player. I want more apps for my iPhone. I want to win Lotto. I want a bigger house. I want it all… “ [1]

Anyone who knows more than one language knows what a challenge it is to exactly translate certain words and phrases from one language to another. Sometimes there are no exact translations. The Good News Translation is one of those versions of the Bible that instead of words, it translates thoughts and phrases from the original Hebrew and Greek into English. Like, right here, where we have the phrase “I have everything I want.”

If I look at life from a sheep’s perspective—which is one perspective of Psalm 23—we do have everything we want. Fields of green grass to eat, quiet pools of fresh water to drink, and a quiet place to rest, all provided for us by this Good Shepherd.

The problem is, we are not sheep. We are human beings, with the complexities and challenges of living in the real world. Life continues to happen. Friends get sick, relatives lose their jobs, loved ones die. Wildfires burn many acres of land, hurricanes devastate towns, floods wash away livelihoods.

We come back to the opening words of this psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need.”

Another word for a psalm is a poem. King David begins with a simple metaphor. This first line is concise, simple, and expresses the message of the entire psalm. The Lord supplies—or satisfies—every need. [2] This idea of King David’s definitely goes against everything that Madison Avenue and popular American culture tells us today. But, most of us want to have our emotional and spiritual needs met, too.

Rev. Lockhart lists these needs: “I want a happy life. I want to live in safety and security. I want to be left alone. I want someone to show that they care about me. I want someone to visit me. I want the best for my children and my grandchildren. I want my husband to be more considerate. I want my wife to understand me. I want worship to be more fun. I want to know God loves me. And I want to die peacefully in my bed. I want and I want and I want.” [3]

What’s the use? Life is just not fair. I want so much. I’m never going to get what I want. I may as well quit trying to get what I need.

Except—that attitude of defeat is not what God wants for us.

I can tell us all right now that God never promised us a huge flat-screen television, or a fifteen-room mansion, or the latest iPhone, or winning numbers in next week’s Lotto drawing. However, God did promise us the Good Shepherd’s presence at our sides, all along our journey.

This psalm is so familiar, and well-loved. The pastoral images leap right off the page, they are so vivid. We sheep do have a Good Shepherd. We sheep are led into green pastures full of grass. We even have nice, quiet pools of water to drink from, and can lie down to rest, free from all danger.

Except—we are not supposed to flop down and stay in those green, verdant pastures forever. King David describes a journey. We—that is, all of us—are on a journey. A journey through life that the Lord oversees and guides. Sure, sometimes we do get to rest in those green pastures, but it’s just temporary. Our psalmist is on the go, walking beside the water, along paths, and through valleys. Some of those valleys are really deep and dark, too! [4]

What does verse 4 say? “Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for You are with me.” It does not matter what the darkness is—devastating disaster, mental illness, shattering disease, emotional trauma, sexual abuse, grinding poverty, constant warfare. God has promised to be with us all the way, and all the time, too.

Verse 6 says “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.” The Hebrew word “follow” can also be translated “pursue.” You know, the same word used when enemies pursue us when we are trying to run away. Except, it’s not enemies pursuing us. Instead, goodness and love will be pursuing us and chasing us down! [5]

We can thank God for such a wonderful image.

The last line of our psalm finishes up our journey. We are to dwell in the house of the Lord all our lives long. Except—the Hebrew word is not exactly “dwell.” Instead, our verb means “to return.” Again, we were—we are—on a journey with God. Our lives are sometimes peaceful, and sometimes difficult. Sometimes quiet, and sometimes traumatic. This psalm enables us to shoulder difficult burdens, and aids us as we sometimes walk sad paths, as well as those times when we rest in beautiful green pastures—or comfortable, joyful places.

No matter where we are on this journey with the Good Shepherd, Jesus has promised to be right by our sides. Yes, we will end up with God when we finish our journey! I do not know exactly what that will be like. I can’t give you a blow-by-blow description. However, as King David tells us, we can continually return to God’s presence all the days of our lives. And, no matter what, if God is there, for sure we will have no more worries or concerns.

What a Good Shepherd. What a wonderful promise. Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://revplockhart.blogspot.com/2012/04/psalm-23.html

Psalm 23, Peter Lockhart, A Different Heresy, 2012.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2372

Commentary, Psalm 23, Joel LeMon, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher, 2015.

[3] http://revplockhart.blogspot.com/2012/04/psalm-23.html

Psalm 23, Peter Lockhart, A Different Heresy, 2012.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2372

Commentary, Psalm 23, Joel LeMon, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher, 2015.

[5] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Who Are You, Lord?

“Who Are You, Lord?”

Acts 9 conversionofsaintpaul - ethiopian icon

Acts 9:1-20 – May 5, 2019

Once there was a recent college graduate named Martin. He had enrolled in a doctoral degree program at the University of Erfurt, but he went home for a few days before the class session started. On his way back, not far from the town of Erfurt, a huge thunderstorm broke over the countryside. Martin was trying his best to get to shelter when a sudden lightning bolt fell to earth. BOOM! It struck the ground immediately next to Martin—so close he could feel it singe his clothing! He was thrown to the earth with great force. Frightened almost to death—literally—Martin made the immediate, passionate vow that he would change course in his life, become a monk and devote his life to God. All this happened while Martin was traveling, on the road. A true “Road to Damascus” experience.

Has anyone here ever known someone who went through a radical transformation in an instant? Or, at least, in a relatively short time? That is what happened to Saul of Tarsus, on the road to Damascus.

But, that comes after the end of our narrative, today. What is the beginning of the story? How did Saul of Tarsus get to this point?

The wonderful commentator Bob Deffinbaugh sets a vivid scene for us. He says, “Imagine for a moment that this is the week of Saul’s arrival at Damascus. By this time Saul has gained a reputation as the ringleader of the movement to make Christianity extinct. A devout Hellenistic Jew, of the tribe of Benjamin, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, Saul did not agree with his teacher, Rabbi Gamaliel, on how the Christians should be dealt with. Rather, he sought the arrest, trial, conviction, and punishment (with imprisonment the norm and death the ideal, it would seem) of those in Jerusalem. Saul was not content to punish some and to drive the rest from the “holy city.” He did not want to merely contain Christianity or to drive it from Jerusalem; he wanted to rid the earth of Christianity and its followers. His opposition to Christ and His church took on a ‘missionary’ spirit. Saul went to other cities where he sought to arrest Christians and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. Damascus, a city 150 miles to the northeast of Jerusalem, was one such city. Word was out that Saul would soon be arriving.” [1]

I don’t know about you, but if I heard of such a bloodthirsty, vengeful person coming to my home town, I might be scared to death, too. What are the followers of Jesus going to do? Ethnic hatred blended with and heightened by religious hatred is corrosive and hurtful, and greatly to be feared.

This was not just a problem in bible times. Seriously, there are many places in the world today where determined, devout people want to eradicate people who do not believe like they do. Not just run them out of town, or out of the country, but instead, put them to death. I am not just speaking about devout Hindus, or devout Muslims, but sometimes devout Jews, or devout Christians or Catholics or Orthodox Christians.

This was the situation with Saul of Tarsus! He was a religious, observant Jew, an up-and-coming rabbi, a “Hebrew of the Hebrews,” by his own account. And, he could not kill these “heretics” fast enough. He even had letters of recommendation to the heads of synagogues in Damascus, to let them know his official status as a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council.

This was early in the life of the Church, only a number of months after the great Pentecost happening in Acts chapter 2. And, the followers of “The Way” (as they were called) were spreading like wildfire!

But, similar to the situation with Martin in the scene I opened this sermon with, Saul was literally knocked off his feet. A heavenly light, brighter than bright, surrounded Saul. A shocking, out-of-this-world thing happened on the road to Damascus, indeed!

Just like Moses at the burning bush, just like Martin when the lightning struck, Saul had the presence of mind to realize that this was so huge, so stupendous, this could only be a God-moment! Have you ever had a God-moment? You, or someone you know? An instant when you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is present? Did you get an answer to that question, “Who are You, Lord?” up close and personal?

I did. I remember it vividly. Itp was early in my first chaplain internship, right out of seminary. In Cardiac Care, I held the hand of a tiny, very elderly woman as she transitioned from this world to the next. The woman had no one—no relatives, or friends, or any one else, except for a state-appointed medical power-of-attorney. I could feel the presence of God. And, yes, God was there with us, as she died.

Saul got that answer from God in plain language. From our reading today from Acts: “Saul fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” He replied.

How stupendous was that response! And, how crushing! All the orthodox theological and religious scaffolding Saul had painstakingly erected throughout his education and training was tumbling around his ears, in that one moment.

Dr. Luke continues with the risen Lord Jesus’s words: “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So, they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days Saul was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.”

“It was time for Saul to ponder what he had seen and heard. For now, he was told to proceed on to Damascus, where he would be given his next instructions.” [2] It was as if this revelation was going to come in several different pieces, or parts. Yes, his sudden conversion happened on the road to Damascus. However, Saul’s blindness allowed him the opportunity to think deeply about these events, and gave him the opportunity to wholeheartedly commit his life to the risen Lord Jesus Christ. How many of us would take something like this seriously?

Remember bloodthirsty Saul? Breathing fire and brimstone? Remember the shock and stunned reaction to the heavenly light, on the Road to Damascus? And, the follow-up question, “Who are You Lord?” Saul made a first-person testimony. We all can thank God for Saul’s—now, Paul’s—testimony and subsequent witness, too. Witness and Apostle to the world.

Remember Martin, almost struck by lightning? That was Martin Luther, and that was a true story. It really happened in 1505, and Martin’s life was forever changed, that day lightning just missed striking him. That was his Road to Damascus experience, sending Martin on the path to grapple with God’s presence and forgiveness in his personal life, and more.

It doesn’t matter whether you or I have had a Road to Damascus experience, or whether we more gradually become aware of God’s work in our lives, because there are countless ways to come close to God. These were the ways Saul (who changed his name to Paul) and Father Martin developed their relationships with the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus has His arms open. He wants us all to struggle out of blindness, like Saul, and come into His heavenly light, the light of a loving relationship and friendship with Him.

Come to Jesus, like Saul, like Martin. Jesus has His arms open wide.

Amen, alleluia.

[1] https://bible.org/seriespage/conversion-saul-acts-91-31

“The Conversion of Saul (Acts 9:1-31),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

[2] https://bible.org/seriespage/conversion-saul-acts-91-31

“The Conversion of Saul (Acts 9:1-31),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Jesus is Back! Just Ask Thomas.

“Jesus is Back! Just Ask Thomas.”

John 20-28 st-thomas

John 20:19-29 – April 28, 2019

Who remembers reading storybooks to their children or grandchildren? I do! I love to read stories, and I read books to the preschoolers here every Tuesday morning. One of my favorite stories is about Curious George. Curious George is a monkey who is very curious and mischievous, and always gets into big trouble because of his curiosity. But, by the end of the books, everything always comes out all right. Except—George remains curious.

Traditionally, many people have thought of “doubting Thomas” as really negative, a person we might point our fingers at, and perhaps view as “the Disciple least likely to believe in Jesus.” But what if we viewed Thomas as curious, as the kind of person who needed evidence? Sincere questioning is positive. Being curious is positive. Some people need first-hand evidence. Curious Thomas was just such a person.

What would the monkey Curious George have thought of not being there for something exciting, a super exciting event he missed out on? That was what happened to Curious Thomas. For some reason—we are not told why—Thomas was not with the other Disciples when the risen Lord Jesus came to be with them on that first day of the week. Afterwards, I suspect when the others told Thomas about it, Curious Thomas was beside himself with curiosity! He had to see for himself what had happened!

Do you know someone who is like that, who really needs evidence to fully believe? How many of us need evidence before we stop being skeptical? “Well, I’m not sure. It seems like a real long shot. I wonder—but we will have to see.” Curious, yes! And skeptical, yes!

We know God welcomes questions! How many times was Jesus asked honest questions during the Gospels? And how many times was Thomas one of those asking the questions? I suspect Thomas was one of the Disciples who just had to know “why,” who was both skeptical and curious. Curious Thomas.

Dr. David Lose, one of my favorite commentators, put it this way: “But that’s not the way it works with Thomas. He doubts. He questions. He disbelieves. He’s not satisfied with second-hand reports and wants to see for himself. And again I would say, who can blame him? He was, after all, one of those who saw his Lord and friend mistreated, beaten, and then crucified and has probably spent the last few days pulling the broken pieces of his life back together and trying to figure out what to do next.” [1]

Listen again to our Gospel reading from John: “24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he 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.”

In this modern day and age, scientific evidence is held up as the gold standard for many things: for medical testing, for chemistry experiments, for biological research. Commentator Dr. Martin Marty says, “The counsel is clear: do not accept something just because people traditionally have done so. Science is creatively disrespectful of such traditions. Scientists reason that if they are to heal, they must probe, criticize, evaluate, and seek to discover.” [2]

Sometimes, our honest questions show we are particularly curious, and extremely interested in what we are questioning. Sometimes, we need evidence, just like Thomas.

Except—Jesus does something remarkable the next time He returns to the Upper Room. He obviously knows that Thomas has honest questions, and He will certainly respond to them! However, listen to what Jesus does first: “26 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!”

Did you hear? Before Jesus does anything else, He wishes His disciples peace. “Peace be with you.” That is what we did after the reading of Scripture today. Many churches make the Passing of the Peace a weekly part of their worship service, and I wanted to highlight it. Peace, or shalom, is a traditional Jewish greeting, it is true, but for Jesus to wish His friends peace? For the risen Lord Jesus to bless His disciples with peace, and commend peace to them? This is so significant, and so moving.

It is only then that our Lord Jesus turns to curious, skeptical Thomas: “Then Jesus focused his attention on Thomas. “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.”

The Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio created a famous painting called “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.” In this painting, the risen Jesus shows the wound in His side, and Thomas is actually sticking his finger into the wound. We know from John’s Gospel account that Jesus was quite willing to go to any length to give Thomas the evidence he needed to satisfy his questions, to allay his curiosity and skepticism.

How far are we willing to go with Jesus? Do we have honest questions? Do we have questions regarding some miracle, or are we curious about a parable Jesus told? Or, perhaps are we just plain skeptical about the Resurrection story itself? Do we wonder how on earth the story of Jesus rising from the dead 2000 years ago will make any difference in our lives today?

What is it to be a Christian? Do we need faith? Do we need evidence? Do we need to see God at work in people’s lives?

How serious are we about this thing we call Christianity? Is it a religion, a creed, a set of beliefs we believe in, and if other people don’t believe exactly the way we do, are they wrong? Do we banish them to outer darkness, and not allow those people to come into our churches or our lives? Or, do we have a living, vital relationship with the risen Lord Jesus Christ? Is He our Best Friend? Does He come alongside of each one of us, in the happy times as well as the sad times, and walk by our sides all the way? No matter what?

Thomas made the first-person testimony after he was convinced that Jesus was alive. He said, “My Lord and my God!” Can you and I say that, and mean it?

Jesus is waiting. He has His arms open wide. Come with your honest questions: God can handle them. Come with your skepticism and fear, your anger, or hesitancy and doubt. Jesus does understand. He really does.

Come to Jesus, today. Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2016/03/easter-2-c-blessed-doubt/

“Blessed Doubt,” David Lose, …in the meantime, 2016.

[2] Marty, Martin E., Theological Perspective on John 20:19-31, 2nd Sunday of Easter, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 396.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Too Good to Be True?

“Too Good to Be True?”

Easter He is risen

Luke 24:1-12 – April 21, 2019

Advertisements often promise us marvelous things. If we wash our clothes with this special detergent, our clothes will be whiter than white, cleaner than clean. The brand new car we see advertised is so shiny and the ride is amazingly smooth. If we buy this fancy shampoo, our hair will become unbelievably sleek and silky. The reality never lives up to the hype. We even have an expression for this: “Too good to be true.”

I wonder whether the disciples felt like this on that Easter morning, so long ago?

We need to go back to Friday, to get a better idea of what was happening. The women did not have time to take proper care of the body of Jesus when it was quickly buried late Friday afternoon, just before sunset. And then after Friday night came, it was the Sabbath. All observant Jews rested on the Sabbath day, as prescribed in the Jewish Law. More than that, it was the time of the Passover, an especially sacred time.

This Sabbath observance must have been especially sad and sorrowful for the followers of the Rabbi Jesus, dispersed as they were. I can imagine some huddling together in the upper room where so short a time before Jesus had led them in that Passover dinner on Thursday evening. Perhaps, a couple more hiding in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, a few miles down the road in Bethany. What must have been going through their minds?

The Easter morning story was read for us by Eileen: about the women going to the tomb, shocked to find Jesus’s body gone, and angels there instead. The angels tell the women the Good News, the Gospel message that Jesus is alive again. When they run back to tell the disciples, the men do not believe the women. Here again is what Dr. Luke says: “10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.” As we said before, the disciples thought, “Too good to be true.”

The New Revised Standard Version translates verse 11 like this: “11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Rev. Rick Morley, one of the commentators on our Scripture reading from Luke said, “And the disciples thought it was an “idle tale?” How condescending, right? There go those excitable women again…<eye-roll> <knowing-glance to another disciple> <raise of the eyebrows> [1]

Let’s consider historical context: women in Palestine were second class citizens. They had very prescribed roles in life and in the family, had no standing in court, and could not even be witnesses in a court of law.

However—when Jesus called His disciples, He called both men and women. Both men and women followed Him. The Gospels say Mary sat and learned from Jesus’s teaching just as much as any of the male disciples, and when Martha complained to Jesus about how Mary was not “doing her woman’s job” in serving and doing kitchen duty, Jesus corrected Martha. Not to mention His courteous, egalitarian treatment of women throughout the Gospels—the woman at the well, the woman with the flow of blood, the widow of Nain, just to mention a few. Extremely significant to treat women as equals, especially in that time and place.

So, when the women followers—or, disciples—of Jesus ran back to the others with this witness to the Good News, the Gospel that Jesus is alive!—are we surprised to have the women’s witness dismissed as an “idle tale?” “Too good to be true!”

There is another, sadder side to this “idle tale” business. Rick Morley reflects further: “It’s a popular position in the world and an increasingly popular position in the church. I mean how many people—how many self-professed Christians—take Easter as a nice little hopey-springy cute-bunny-loving pastel-wardrobe-opportunity? How many people who almost never come to church, will come on Easter either because their spouse or mother forced them to—and while they’ll play the game and sing the hymns, they see the Resurrection of Jesus as a metaphor at best, or at worst a cute little myth?” [2]

Yet—this Gospel, this Good News was the women’s real experience! Dr. Luke reports “When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others.” When they ran back to their friends, they did not spout deep theology. They did not expound profound sermons. No, they reported the facts. They told what had happened to them.

Some of these women were at the foot of the Cross on Friday. They had seen Jesus in agony. They witnessed Him suffering for hours, and saw Him die. Some of these same women were now swearing that Jesus was alive again. The angels said so, too!

Rev. Janet Hunt, a Lutheran pastor who has a church in De Kalb, a few dozen miles to the west of us, reflects on this Easter Good News, this Easter promise. She looks at it from a sorrowful perspective. “How will the Resurrection Promise resound in the ears of one whose winter has been long and death has seemed to have had the last say too many times?

“What will it sound like in the ears of one whose week-end is spent in a hospital bed waiting for a risky surgery first thing Monday morning, to the one who has just been arrested for his third DUI and who is waiting his court date, hoping the whole town did not read the police blotter last week, to the one who is afraid to hope that finally this pregnancy will hold?

“What would the gift of life where death has seemed to hold sway mean to those whose fleeing for their lives has left them at our southern border with futures still uncertain? To those whose livelihoods have been destroyed by flooding across our nation’s midsection? To already desperately poor people whose meager existence has been wiped out by natural disaster or disease?

“What does it mean to any and all of these and also to you and me to know that the story does not end with the closing of the tomb on Friday afternoon? Indeed, what if having heard it and believed it, we actually began to live like it was so?[3]

You and I do not need to preach a sermon, or give deep theological reasons why Jesus is alive. People today need to hear that Jesus IS alive. His life makes a difference. Jesus changes lives—he turns them upside down, and your life—my life—will never be the same again.

Is this first-person testimony too good to be true?

“‘I have seen the Lord’ insists that the ways of love will win over the ways of hate. ‘I have seen the Lord’ confirms that the truth of kindness can be heard over the din of ruthless, callous, and vindictive rhetoric. ‘I have seen the Lord’ gives witness to the fact that there is another way of being in the world — a way of being that is shaped by resurrection, that embodies anything and everything that is life-giving, a way of being that is so counter-cultural, so demonstrative of mercy, so exemplary of the truth of Easter that others will listen to you, watch you, wonder about you and say, ‘Wait a minute. Did I just see the Lord?’[4]

This—this right here—is where the Gospel begins, with this first-person testimony—the great Good News that Jesus is alive! This great Good News changes everything, for each of us, and for the whole world.

[1] http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/2546

“Idle Talk,” Rick Morley, 2013.

[2] http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/2546

“Idle Talk,” Rick Morley, 2013.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/needing-the-easter-promise-now/

Janet Hunt has served as a Lutheran pastor in a variety of contexts in Northern Illinois. Currently she serves as pastor at First Lutheran, DeKalb, IL.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4571

“True Resurrection,” Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 2016.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

 

The Coming King

“The Coming King”

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

Luke 19:35-40 – April 14, 2019

The most powerful person in the world. Ever hear that expression? I suspect it is familiar to most of us from movies, from comic books, from historical fiction. With the release of super hero blockbusters every few months, we certainly have the opportunity to see the clash of titans on the big screen, and the super hero of the movie conquering the huge threat or the big bad guy—or big bad girl. The thing is…can we imagine Jesus as the most powerful person in the world?

Our Gospel reading today from Luke 19 tells us that a huge crowd of people thought the Rabbi Jesus was a really important person, a really powerful person. He was a Miracle Worker, He preached with authority, and just to be in His presence—wow! The crowd was hailing Him as the long-awaited King, the Anointed One of God, the Messiah.  

Jesus, Himself, had been telling His disciples that He had to go to Jerusalem for some time now. Even though His friends kept telling Him that the Jewish leaders and the Sanhedrin had it in for Him and wanted to kill Him, Jesus still “determined to go to Jerusalem,” as Luke tells us back in chapter 9.

Today’s story has all the makings of a great drama. (And, the narrative of the Passion Week has been recorded a number of times in motion pictures.) As commentator Alyce McKenzie tells us, “Good stories, screenwriters tell us, have a compelling protagonist, a believable supporting cast, a series of vivid scenes, and plenty of dramatic tension.” [1] Dr. Luke’s telling of the Palm Sunday story has all that, and more.

Here we are on Palm Sunday, and the weeks of Lent are almost over. That means that our series on the Lord’s Prayer is almost over, too. What sentence are we going to look at today, with our Scripture readings of Luke’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, and the Apostle Paul’s hymn of Christ’s humility? We take a closer look at “for Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever, amen.”  What more glorious Scripture readings to examine!

As we think of our great Divine drama, Jesus not only is a marvelous protagonist, but we can see He displays Divine foreknowledge. “Jesus knows ahead of time where the colt will be and what the response of the owner will be to being told, “The Lord needs it.” Luke shares with the other evangelists a portrait of Jesus as a true prophet whose prophecies are fulfilled and who has access to the secret knowledge of human hearts.” [2]

The second necessary feature of a great drama is a believable supporting cast. Look at the disciples—human, and distinctive. Listen again to Luke’s story: “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. 35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it “

We notice the rest of the supporting cast here, in the next verses. “As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. 37 When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: 38 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

From time to time we have talked about putting ourselves into a Scripture reading, and viewing it from the inside. Where would you be, in our Gospel reading from Luke? Are you an excited disciple or crowd member, waving your arms and picking up a palm to welcome the Messiah Jesus into the city of Jerusalem? Or, are you one of the skeptical ones on the road, holding back, with a wait-and-see attitude?

“The people were obviously weary of the Roman occupation. They had been hearing rumors of a great teacher from Nazareth who healed the sick, fed the hungry, and made the scriptures come alive. Some of them had seen miracles first hand and had heard parables straight from Jesus’ mouth. Now, they had a deliverer; their long-awaited Messiah and Savior, King Jesus, was with them.” [3]

The third necessary element in any great drama is dramatic tension. Boy, does the Triumphal Entry have that! Even down to the antagonistic Jewish leaders who come up against the Messiah Jesus, this has drama all over the place.

It is almost too difficult for me to put myself into the narrative, I know this story all too well. Yes, I am tempted to rush right through the Palm Sunday celebration, go once-over-lightly through the several events recorded in the other Gospels during Holy Week, and cry again because of the Crucifixion this Friday night. Or, was it two thousand years ago?

Switching to the New Testament reading from Philippians, the apostle Paul has a slightly different point of view. Paul is writing from the other side of the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and Jesus’ ascension into heaven—as we know from the Apostles Creed, Jesus has taken His seat at God’s right hand in heaven.

As we start this reading to the church in Philippi, Paul tells us of Jesus, before His incarnation and birth in Bethlehem. The eternal Christ humbled Himself, emptied Himself of all Godhood, all Godly prerogatives, and became a helpless human baby. Imagine the most powerful person in the whole world, in the whole universe, even. The eternal Christ put aside the kingdom of the universe, the ultimate power and the infinite glory, to become human.

Another way of looking at this is that Jesus put aside all of that kingdom, power and glory so He could communicate better with us, so He could come along side of us and be Emmanuel, God-with-us, as we have talked about at Christmas. But, that is not the end. Oh, no! Certainly not!

We see this progression: the preincarnate Christ, in all His kingdom, power and glory. Amen! “Christ emptied himself of inherent divinity, and for his supreme obedience unto crucified death, he was exalted by God for unending glory. Philippians 2:5-11 keeps the focus Christologically and theologically tight. On Passion Sunday [today, this Sunday], Paul keeps us grounded in what God, through Christ Jesus, is doing.” [4]

We do not look at the institution of Communion on Maundy Thursday and the Crucifixion of Good Friday. We are skipping the additional drama, trauma, anguish and grief today. Paul does mention those things briefly, but he looks to the amazing ending. “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

If that is not a proclamation of the last line of the Lord’s Prayer, I don’t know what is. “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever, amen.” Have you bowed the knee to our ascended and exalted Jesus the Messiah? Is your tongue acknowledging Him as Lord and Savior? Yes, Jesus was crucified on our account. It was for our sins He was crucified. His arms are open. His pierced hands are extended. Come to Jesus, today.

[1] https://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Palm-Sunday-Alyce-McKenzie-03-18-2013.html

Rewriting the Palm Sunday Story: Reflections on Luke 19:28-40, Alyce McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2013.

[2] https://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Palm-Sunday-Alyce-McKenzie-03-18-2013.html

Rewriting the Palm Sunday Story: Reflections on Luke 19:28-40, Alyce McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2013.

[3] http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=15           

Commentary, Zechariah 9:9-13 / Luke 19:28-40, Rodney S. Sadler, Jr., The African American Lectionary, 2008.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=284

Commentary, Philippians 2:5-11 (Passion Sunday), C. Clifton Black, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2009.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Hallowed is Christ Jesus

“Hallowed is Christ Jesus”

Phil 3-7 consider things loss, circle

Phil 3:4b-14 – April 7, 2019

            “Holy:  adjective, ho·li·er, ho·li·est. 1. specially recognized as or declared sacred by religious use or authority; consecrated. (holy ground)  2. dedicated or devoted to the service of God, the church, or religion. (a holy person)  3. saintly; godly; pious; devout. (a holy life)  [1]

            Holy, or “hallowed” is what we say about God and God’s name every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer.

Perhaps some people think of God as some huge guy with a long white beard, sitting in some glorious heavenly Temple, the Holy-of-Holies in the sky. “Holy is Your name!” Maybe some people think of God as a massive earthquake, and the whole countryside shakes, rumbles and crumbles. Then, perhaps some folks see God in the vast quiet of nature, the quiet rustle of a green meadow, or the gentle quiet of the waves lapping on an ocean beach.

We have two Bible readings today. Each of them gives a different perspective on Jesus and His magnificent, awesome holiness.

            Let’s look at them chronologically. First, Jesus is at a fancy dinner in Bethany, not long before His arrest, trial and crucifixion. His friend Martha made Him dinner, Mary and Martha’s brother (newly raised from the dead) Lazarus probably was hosting, and everyone is having a wonderful time. When—Mary takes an incredibly expensive jar of sweet-smelling ointment and pours it on Jesus’s feet. What is more, she unbinds her hair and starts wiping His feet with her hair. The whole house is filled with the marvelous scent of that ointment. I am sure that was a scent (and a sight) that everyone there remembered for the rest of their lives.

            The next Bible reading is from the letter to the church at Philippi. The apostle Paul (who often uses run-on sentences) goes on and on about himself, how much of a super Pharisee and righteous Jew he is, and even filled with great zeal for God. He is single-minded for the Lord! All God, all the time! But then—Paul comes to a complete stop. He says all of his marvelous resume is completely worthless, compared to the mega-awesome, super-special magnificence of knowing his Savior Christ Jesus his Lord.

             The commentator Carolyn Brown says “The petition “hallowed be thy name” in the Lord’s Prayer underlies both Mary’s lavish gift and Paul’s total commitment to Jesus.  Both give and live as they do because they know God/Jesus is hallowed.” [2] So, both Mary and Paul know that Jesus is the Holiest-of-Holies.

            In Mary’s case, this anointing of her Rabbi, teacher and friend with ointment was a coming attraction. In essence, a preview of the human Jesus’s death and resurrection. Mary gives her incredibly costly gift because she knows that Jesus is so holy and set apart. Not only pious, devoted and dedicated to God, but something even more special.

            Paul went about this in a slightly different way. Paul gave his readers a brief snapshot of his impressive resume, before Jesus Christ made such a difference in his life. Admittedly, this rundown of who and what Paul was makes him sound like one of the entries in the first-century’s version of Who’s Who, a mover-and-shaker of the Ancient Near East.

            In verses 4, 5 and 6, “His credentials, Paul tells us, were impeccable. Both through inheritance and attainment he has more reason than others to boast of his status. Paul’s loyalty to Israel’s God was unsurpassed. Paul’s very persecution of the followers of Jesus bore witness to his deep desire to please God.” [3] Yet—Paul makes a sudden shift in his bragging. Listen: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.”

            Remember, Paul writes from the perspective of one who has made a commitment to Jesus; and not just the human Jesus, either.  When our resurrected Lord and Savior appeared to Paul on the Damascus Road, that was a huge earthquake of an experience. The apostle Paul gives fascinating autobiographical details about himself, but then says all of that is worthless compared to the ultimate joy of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord.

Or, is that Christ Jesus our Lord?

            I think most of us—if not all of us—are familiar with well-meaning but worldly-driven parents, who seek out such stellar activities for their children’s resumes. We can see that Paul had it all, from a worldly point of view: until he had that divine, life-changing encounter on the road to Damascus.

            Sure, only a portion of Christians have a sudden, thunder clap of a Damascus Road encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, we all name Him holy. Don’t we? We all pray the Lord’s Prayer, don’t we?

            In the original language of this letter, Greek, Paul uses what some might say is a nasty, word, even perhaps a swear word. This word is found in verse 8: from the Good News Translation: “For his sake I have thrown everything away; I consider it all as mere garbage, so that I may gain Christ.” Or, one of my favorite translations, the Message: “everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him.”

            Comparing himself to Jesus, the ultimate Holy-of-Holies, is it any wonder that Paul considers everything that he thought he had going for himself as dog dung? Flushing his impeccable resume and outstanding pedigree down the toilet?

Beforehand, before he met Jesus on that road to Damascus, Paul’s total, single-minded commitment to his Lord, the Jewish understanding of God, puts us all to shame. But, afterwards? He transferred that single-minded commitment to his Lord and Savior. As Paul himself says in verses 12-14, “I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.”

            Carolyn Brown compared holy and hallowed to the words awesome, special and wonderful. This is the very, very, very best. When we say “hallowed be Thy name,” those are words that can be applied only to God. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, just like the apostle Paul, just like Mary of Bethany, we are saying “God, You are holy, You are the very, very, very best there is in the whole universe.”

We are well on our way, reaching out for Christ, who so wondrously reached out for all of us. For each one of us. Thank You, God! In Jesus’ precious, redeeming name, amen!

[1] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/holy

Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2016/02/year-c-fifth-sunday-in-lent-march-13.html

Worshiping with Children, Lent 5C. Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2016.

[3] http://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/55769/7_April_Angus_Morrison_5_in_Lent.pdf

The Mission and Discipleship Council would like to thank the Very Rev Dr Angus Morrison, Minister of Orwell and Portmoak, for his thoughts on the fifth Sunday in Lent.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Patient, Forgiving and Welcoming

“Patient, Forgiving and Welcoming”

Luke 15 prodigal son sketch, Rembrandt

Luke 15:20 – March 31, 2019

What do you think of when I mention the black sheep of the family? The kid who went astray? A really rough customer? A person you would not trust an inch with any amount of money? Someone who you wouldn’t want any children hanging around?

This is the kind of person we are going to meet today in the parable of Jesus we read from Luke 15. Some people call the parable “The Prodigal Son.” Remember the Rabbi Jesus was having dinner with some people the good, righteous synagogue-going people did not approve of? They were sniffing and clucking and making a big stink about Jesus and His dinner companions. So, as a response, Jesus tells three parables in Luke chapter 15, the last of which is the parable of the Prodigal—or the Lost Son.

The parable begins: “Then Jesus said, “There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, ‘Father, I want right now what’s coming to me.’ So the father divided the property between them.”

This younger son was a brat. Or, worse, he was an ungrateful wretch. Do you know what he asked for? In that day, the son essentially told his father he wanted him to drop dead. That was the only way the younger son would have gotten his inheritance, in the normal order of things. What an ungrateful, selfish so-and-so! The father—amazingly—liquidates a third of his assets, giving the younger son his share of the father’s property. Perhaps you haven’t been as crass or unfeeling enough to walk up to one of your relatives and shout, “I wish you would drop dead!” and really mean it. But, that is exactly what Jesus begins this parable with.

Back to the parable: “It wasn’t long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.”

Going to a faraway, distant country. Sounds sort of romantic, doesn’t it? However, it does not take too long for this black sheep to run through all his money, lose all his fair-weather friends and end up on the streets as a homeless person. Plus, a famine struck the country he was living in. Consequences! What should he do now?

Let me step back from our parable for a moment—away from the younger son in the pigsty. I invite us to reflect on the church season we are presently in, Lent. Lent is a season where we are invited to reflect on our personal brokenness, and the need for God’s redemption.

This Lenten season we are also considering the different sentences of the Lord’s Prayer. This week, our sentence is “forgive us our debts (or, sins) as we forgive our debtors (or, those who sin against us).” I have a question: have you ever been so angry with someone that you have said (or thought) “I could never forgive him/her!” What is even worse is if you—or I—turn our backs, fold our arms across our chests and stubbornly insist, “I will never forgive her/him!”

What kind of unforgiving attitude is that? If we expect to be forgiven by God for all of the sins we commit daily, isn’t that unforgiving attitude a bit hypocritical? Rather a lot, really? What would God say about that ungodly attitude? What would you say about that attitude, now?

Back to the parable. “That brought him to his senses. The son said, ‘All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I’m going back to my father. I’ll say to him, Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.’ He got right up and went home to his father.”

“The son’s repentance is implied, even if it is not clearly named by the ambiguous expression he came to himself (verse 17). After all, he hits rock bottom, longing to eat what unclean animals eat, once he is done in by a trio of calamities… As signs of contrition, he confesses sin and plans to ask his father to welcome him home as a slave instead of a son.” [1]

Now our parable shifts its point of view. We see the father: “When the son was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, the father ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’

Remember, we are in the middle of Lent, a season when we are thinking of how much each of us sins against God and against others. We journey with Jesus towards the cross in Lent, but we also take the time to think about how much each of us need God’s forgiveness, grace and redeeming love.  What is more, “Lent helps us see when and how and where we think only of ourselves. Lent helps us see our true motivations for our actions and our true motivations for apology or repentance. Lent helps us see when we truly are in the depths of despair. Lent helps us see our deep longing for love.” [2]

Let’s look at the father’s response: “But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!’ And they began to have a wonderful time.”

Almost any parent knows the feeling that if your kid really screws up, no matter what, the father (or mother) has the same love towards him, regardless of sin and unforgiveness. One might say any parent knows the feeling that even if the child goes off the rails and repeatedly misses the mark, the father is especially joyous to see the son who returns. But—the parable does not end there. Oh, no! We see the further unforgiving attitude of the elder son.

“All this time his older son was out in the field. When the day’s work was done, he came in. As he approached the house, he heard the music and dancing. Calling over one of the servants, he asked what was going on. He told him, ‘Your brother came home. Your father has ordered a feast—barbecued beef!—because he has him home safe and sound.’

The older brother stalked off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen. The son said, ‘Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!’”

The elder son says “It’s not fair!” Well, guess what? The ways of God’s kingdom are NOT fair. True fairness leaves NO room for grace. Yes, God’s redeeming love for us is not fair. Would we really want it to be absolutely fair, all cold, legal rules with no grace and love at all?

The elder son is just as much as lost as his younger brother, isn’t he? Lost in his resentment, anger and alienation. “His father said, ‘Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!’”

Whoa! “No one bothered to call [the elder son] in to join the party! Accordingly, he does not enter the house. He does not address his father as “Father” and speaks to him about “this son of yours” instead of “my brother.” His refusal to celebrate stems from his deep resentment. Why is he resentful? He is taken for granted. No extravagance celebrates his reliable service. He accuses his father of showing preferential treatment.” [3] But, I ask again—do we really want God to be absolutely fair, in a cold, legalistic manner? With no grace or love at all?

Yes, “forgive as we wish to be forgiven” is a great lesson. But, I think the parable of the two Lost Sons has much more for us this week. Jesus told this parable to illustrate the boundless love of a parent for their children—the love of God the Father for His wayward sons and daughters. If you have really messed up, and you don’t think God could ever, ever forgive you, isn’t it wonderful to hear that the Prodigal’s father welcomed both His sons back home?

In this parable, Jesus tells us that God is patient, welcoming, and forgiving. God loves each one of us, forever and ever. Talk about good news! Isn’t this the best news in the world?

(Thanks to Eugene Peterson’s wonderful modern translation “The Message” for the use of this scripture reading. The parable of the two Lost Sons is from Luke 15:11-32.)

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=533

Matt Skinner  Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4553

“Perspective Matters,” Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 2016.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=533

Matt Skinner  Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Tempted by the Evil One

“Tempted by the Evil One”

Luke 4-2 devil tempted

Luke 4:1-13 (4:1-2) – March 10, 2019

Have you ever heard of H.A.L.T.? Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. These four factors in life are abbreviated to the acronym H.A.L.T. and has been used to great effect by recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and other, similar self-care and mindfulness methods.

Whenever you or I find ourselves hungry, angry, lonely or tired, we are that much more susceptible to negative thoughts, behaviors, or both. “It seems simple enough, but when these basic needs are not met, we are susceptible to self-destructive behaviors including relapse. Fortunately, hunger, anger, loneliness, and tiredness are easy to address and serve as a warning system before things reach a breaking point.” [1]

In our Gospel reading today, we find our Lord Jesus in the wilderness for quite a long time. The Gospel of Luke mentions He was there for forty days, and had little to eat. Yes, Jesus was fasting and observing an extended time of prayer and spiritual preparation before God. However, I want us to focus on one specific facet of this Gospel reading today: our Lord Jesus was tempted by the devil. Luke says so, right in verse 2.

What is temptation, anyhow? We know that our Gospel writer Luke said the devil came to Jesus and tempted Him. But—we were not there. We don’t know if the temptation was internal, in Jesus’s head, or external, where the figure of Satan in a red suit with horns and a pointy tail appeared to Jesus. It could be either, both, or something we cannot even imagine, in our limited, earthly minds. But—this we do know. Jesus was tempted—tried—tested exceedingly—by the power of absolute evil, personified. As the devil tried to get Jesus to go his way, away from God and God’s way, we need to pay close attention.

This is serious business indeed, and we ought to sit up and take notice of what Jesus said and did. But first, I would like for us to consider the Lord’s Prayer. Yes, we will be looking at a line from the Lord’s Prayer each week in Lent. What line is more appropriate to this Gospel reading today than “Lead us not into temptation?”

Let us return to Jesus, at the end of His forty-day period of prayer and spiritual preparation for His time of public ministry. He is definitely hungry and tired, and most probably lonely, as well. Definitely two of these strong physical, psychological and spiritual triggers that serve as a warning system for us humans, and probably all three of these triggers. We would expect Jesus to be very hungry, lonely and tired.

At such a physical, psychological and spiritual low point for Jesus, the devil suspected He might be susceptible to temptation. Wouldn’t you suspect it, if you were totally evil?

What were Jesus’s responses to these tests or trials? First, the devil tempted Jesus physically, with food. This bread was a perfectly reasonable thing for Jesus to desire! Except—not in the way the devil was presenting it. Hear, again, the first temptation: “The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.’”

Ah, the devil keeps using the old tried-and-true deception. “IF you are the Son of God…then…” Trying to plant doubt in people’s minds, and put them on the defensive! “IF this is so…then…” But, Jesus does not take the bait. He answers with the Word of God from Deuteronomy: “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’” No discussion, no wiggle-room, just the Word of God.

The devil tries another tack, and tempts Jesus psychologically. The devil tests Jesus with ultimate power and authority even before the very beginning of His ministry, instead of waiting three years until after Jesus’s death on the Cross and Resurrection from the dead. (Again, I have no idea whether the devil actually took Jesus to a high place, like a real mountain, or whether this was a projection in their heads, sort of like virtual reality.) The culmination for this second test was if Jesus considered all the kingdoms of the world, then He needed to bow down and worship the devil. Which, was not happening! Jesus responds again from Deuteronomy, and says ““It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

The third temptation was a spiritual one, where the devil dared—even, double-dog-dared—Jesus to throw Himself down from the roof of the Temple. (Which was the first-century equivalent of a high-rise.) For the third time, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy, and says, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

This is an excellent reason to memorize Scripture, by the way. Just so we can respond to the devil when we are confronted by a temptation that seems overpowering! God’s Word is truly “alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword,” as Hebrews 4:12 tells us. We can see that Jesus used this two-edged sword freely, to defend against temptation of the devil. We can always turn to the Lord’s Prayer, too, where we ask God to please keep us away from situations where we might be tempted by the devil.

The Lord’s Prayer is direct quoting of Scripture, too, from Matthew 6. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount gives us the template of a great prayer we can always pray to God, in countless varieties of situations. Like, in this one, where we ask God to “lead us not into temptation.”

That quoting-Scripture-stuff is all very well, but how do Jesus and the devil being on top of the Temple connect with my life and experience? Well, we can go back to some temptations we are able to relate to. Temptations that are almost irresistible for many people, temptations the children and I talked about today. Remember? What about a plate of cookies left on the kitchen counter—with no one else around? What about an extra-cool smart phone left unattended in a very public place, like an empty table in the food court at the mall? Or, what about a set of test answers in such plain view that you can hardly help but see them on the desk of the student next to you? Or, next to your kid, or your grandchild?

All of those things are SO tempting! And, for most of us, we will see the situation, and automatically do the right thing. But, sometimes—maybe even with you or someone you know—the temptation is SO real to do the wrong thing, to steal a cookie or three, or to pocket the smart phone, or to take a quick photo of the test answers with your phone.

It is in those pesky situations where any of us can feel weak and susceptible that we can pray “lead us not into temptation” and really mean it, with all our hearts! Or, even better, we can put those Bible words into our own words, and internalize this concept into our hearts. “Something like ‘God, help me know what is right and wrong and be able to do what is right without even thinking about it.’” [2]

Let us pray to God so that we all may follow God more nearly, and love God more dearly, each day more and more, throughout Lent and beyond. Please God, may it be so.

[1] https://bradfordhealth.com/halt-hunger-anger-loneliness-tiredness/ Accessed March 9, 2019.

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2016/01/year-c-first-sunday-in-lent-february-14.html

Worshiping with Children, Lent 1, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2016.

Clean on the Inside!

“Clean on the Inside!”

Psa 51-2 wash me, cleanse me

Psalm 51:1-3 – March 6, 2019

I remember the wringer washer my mother had in the basement of our small brick house on the northwest side of Chicago. I remember it well! We did not have an automatic washer, like all of my classmates at school. This was in the 1960’s and 1970’s. No, my mom insisted that the wringer washer did a perfectly good job cleaning our clothes—and even though I protested, she would say that a few broken buttons from the wringer were easily repaired with a trip to the fabric store for more buttons, and some needle and thread.

King David had no idea of a washing machine when he wrote this psalm—not even an old-style wringer washer. But, his filthy insides certainly needed cleaning up. This psalm, Psalm 51, was a lament to God. David felt so dirty on the inside! Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever made a really, really, really big mistake? What can be called a huge sin before God? A transgression so big you did not even want to think about it, but you—we just wanted the earth to open up and swallow us whole, because we felt so rotten? That is how rotten David was feeling.

Admittedly, David’s sin before God was indeed huge.

In short, he had seen an attractive young woman named Bathsheba from the roof of his huge palace in Jerusalem. He was king, after all, so he had his private guard of soldiers bring her to him, and he slept with her. (This was despite having a number of wives and concubines of his own, already.) After a few weeks, Bathsheba sent to King David to let him know that she had become pregnant. Big problem! Bathsheba’s husband was a general in King David’s army. He was away from home. so she would become known as an adulterer, and possibly be stoned.

King David summoned General Uriah home from the battlefront, but Uriah would not go home to sleep with his attractive wife Bathsheba—he was too filled with integrity to do that, since the men under his command did not have access to their wives because they were on the battlefield. So, David ends up unjustly ordering Uriah to go back to the front and die a valiant yet horrible death on the field of battle. Essentially, murdering him, but using the enemy army to do the wicked deed. So—the pregnant Bathsheba was free to marry David.

Except, this chain of events went so much against God’s laws, and David had broken so many of God’s commands. This series of sins was so huge that when David faced up to the immenseness of the horrible deed, he fell on his face before the Lord and confessed his transgressions in the words of Psalm 51. After all, this psalm has the superscription attributing the psalm to David “after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”

Perhaps you and I have not committed such a huge wrongdoing as King David. But whether our sins are huge or not-so-huge, they still have that dirty, grimy patina that discolors our souls. “Psalm 51 was spoken, sung, and later penned by someone who understood the cleaning industry [of that day]. Look at the verbs: wash, cleanse, wipe, purge, blot. They all speak to something that is very dirty or really deep, or both.” [1]

It does not matter whether David was remembering the women of the village where he grew up, washing, scrubbing and wringing out their families’ clothing in tubs outside their homes, or whether we think of the agitator on those automatic wringer washers of yesterday, we all need to be cleansed from the wrongs we commit, on a regular basis.

Today is the first day of Lent, that penitential period of forty days before Easter when the Church all across the world begins to journey with Jesus towards the Cross. Yet, many people use external things like food or drink or certain practices to show their observance of Lent. This is a good thing, and I do not want to cause anyone to rethink their Lenten practices. However, King David here in Psalm 51 had something far more radical in mind. He wanted more than just his exterior cleaned. He wanted his insides cleaned up, too. Cleaned, and renewed!

Ash Wednesday is the day in the liturgical year when we concentrate on renewal—the messing-up we have done, on the inside as well as the outside. Whether large or small, we can all be cleansed and renewed deep down on our insides. The psalmist uses that most intimate of all things, first-person pronouns. “Have mercy upon me,” “blot out my transgressions,” “wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,” “I know my transgressions,” and “my sin is ever before me.”

At the beginning of each regular service each Sunday, we at St. Luke’s Church have a corporate time of confession. This Ash Wednesday service is a special time to gather together, and to become aware of our turning-away from God. This understanding of our sin—of the messing-up we have done and are continuing to do—prepares us to receive the forgiveness and joy of salvation that comes through Jesus Christ. And the cross of ashes on each forehead is a reminder of that blessed forgiveness in each one of our lives.

Praise God, we can be restored to a close relationship with God. Ash Wednesday and its intimate reflection can deepen our trust in God and thankfulness for God’s faithfulness. And best of all, when we are restored to a close relationship with our Lord—vertically, we are freed to enter into a closer relationship with everyone else—horizontally.

What a wonderful thing to look forward to. Praise God, indeed.

[1] Marty, Peter M., Homiletical Perspective on Psalm 51, Ash Wednesday, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 9.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Terrified? Astounded!

“Terrified? Astounded!”

Jesus Transfiguration_Russian icon

 

Luke 9:28-36 (9:34-35) – March 3, 2019

Have you ever been truly terrified? Not of a horror movie on the movie screen, or of a horrific news story on television, in the newspaper or on the computer, but something terrifying that happened in real life? A first-hand experience, when you were an eye-witness to something truly terrifying?

Both Scripture readings today feature people who were eye-witnesses, who were also absolutely terrified. Both situations are so extraordinary, so far out of the observers’ common, every-day experience that they are frightened almost to death.

Let’s take the three disciples, first. Peter, James, and John, his brother. Jesus asks them to climb with Him to the top of a mountain to pray. This was a regular thing that Jesus did—not the mountain part, but going away by Himself—or with a couple of other people—to pray and meditate in depth. (May I say that this practice of regular prayer is a wonderful practice! And, one we will talk more about as we journey with Jesus throughout Lent in the coming weeks.)

So, Jesus and the three disciples retreat up the mountain to pray, and Peter, James and John were pleased and proud to be singled out in this way by Jesus. I am sure Jesus had a regular practice of prayer and communion with God. He probably led the disciples in regular prayer, and His habit of prayer times were a normal, every-day activity to the disciples.

Let us look at the Scripture reading from Exodus, where the people of Israel are at the foot of the mountain while Moses is up on top, meeting with God and receiving the tablets with the Ten Commandments on them. I am sure the people of Israel were living their common, ordinary, every-day lives while Moses communicated with God for days at a time. Other than some thunder and lightning from the top of the mountain, nothing had really changed for the people of Israel.

Except—in both situations—something suddenly crashed into their every-day lives and ordinary experiences and made all of these people terrified. What was it? They were all eye-witnesses, but what could possibly make them so terror-stricken?

Has anything suddenly crashed into your lives, and upended everything normal and ordinary? Something fearsome and terrifying?

C.S. Lewis wrote the Chronicles of Narnia, a series of books for children that featured a mysterious lion, Aslan. Aslan is the Great King of Narnia, who we later see as a Christ-figure. There are talking beasts—animals, in the Narnia books. When the children from this world speak with some talking beavers in Narnia, Mr. Beaver mentions Aslan: “He’ll be coming and going. One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down – and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.” [1] The character of Aslan shows himself in Narnia as a large and terrifying, but also magnificent and wise, lion with warm, kind eyes.

Aslan is dangerous! His roar is both fearsome and magnificent. People in Narnia say “He’s not a tame lion.” Aslan embodies all that is good, and yet is terrifying at the same time. Can you see how something awfully good and magnificent can also be fearsome and terrifying? Both, at the same time?

I suspect that was what the disciples experienced, on top of the mount of Transfiguration as well as the people of Israel, when Moses came down the mountain with the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Good and magnificent, but fearsome and terrifying at the same time.

The disciples were familiar with the figure of their Rabbi Jesus in prayer. They knew that common sight; it was comforting, even. But, listen to what Luke says: “29 As Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. 31 They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. 32 Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.”

In other words, Peter, James and John were astounded and terrified. Jesus was manifesting the presence of God, the divine glory, so His face shone and His clothes became brighter than bright. Fearsome, indeed!

In the case of the people of Israel, when Moses came close to them after being in the presence of God for days and days, his face shone brighter than bright. All of the people of Israel were terrified! What’s more, they begged Moses to cover his face, so that they did not have to see the divine glory reflected in the face of Moses.

Have we ever been eye-witnesses to the presence of God? To the divine glory? In all honesty, I have heard God’s voice on two occasions, but I have not seen the divine glory. Yet, in both readings today, all the people seeing the divine glory were terrified. By all accounts, what a fearsome sight, to be sure!

The three disciples saw the transformed Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, discussing His departure, His crucifixion and what would come next. Except, they did not understand all that, yet. The point that fascinates me is that God manifested divine glory in Jesus—made His face all shiny and magnificent—not for Jesus’s benefit. No! God did this for the disciples! They were the ones who needed to see the glory of the transfigured Christ! Not their Rabbi Jesus, who they had been living with for the past few years. They sort of knew He was special, but they did not realize how special! “By wrapping Jesus in a shiny cloud and incredible clothes, God was telling the disciples, ‘Jesus is more than a special person. Jesus is God-with-you.’” [2]

Praise God! Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us! Jesus has great power, magnificence and divine glory. Yet, Jesus is kind and gentle, loving and caring. Astounding, terrifying, and God-with-us in His majesty and power.

Moses and Elijah came to talk with Jesus while He was transfigured with the divine glory. In Communion today, we can imagine ourselves coming to the Lord’s table with Moses and Elijah and a host of others. A traditional phrase from the Communion liturgy is “with the angels and archangels and all the heavenly host.” That is exactly who we are joining as we come to the Communion table today.

Who are you joining at the Communion table today? We are connected to God, our heavenly Parent, to our Lord Jesus, as well as to a whole host of others, both those living today as well as those with the Lord. Yes, a terrifying thought! But, also welcoming. Not either/or, but both/and.

The divine glory surrounding Jesus is terrifying! Yet, also magnificent, and welcoming, with God’s glorious transformative power. Can we be drawn closer to God today? God willing, we can.

Alleluia, Amen.

[1] Lewis, C.S., The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1950), 180.

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2016/01/year-c-transfiguration-of-lord-february.html

Worshiping with Children, Transfiguration, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2016.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

What Are You Expecting?

“What Are You Expecting?”

Jesus teaching

Luke 6:17-23 (6:18-19) – February 17, 2019

Have you ever been expecting something, with all your heart? Perhaps, getting to a stadium early, and expecting a great ball game? Or, arriving at the church, expecting a wedding of two people who are dear to you? Maybe, finally going to a concert you’ve been waiting for, for many months. You are there with many other people. And, all of you have such expectations!

Expectations—of what?

We see something so similar with the scripture reading Eileen just read to us, from Luke chapter 6. Yes, this was early in the Rabbi Jesus’s ministry, but there already was talk about this promising young Rabbi. He not only teaches with authority, but this Jesus heals people’s diseases, too! And, He even casts demons out of people!

Wouldn’t that be something to travel a long distance for? Just imagine—a Rabbi, a high-profile teacher who spoke with authority. On top of that, He’s a healer and miracle-worker, too! That is something to see, indeed!

We need to step back a bit, and look at the bigger picture. Did you know that Luke chapter 6 contains much of the same information that Jesus preached in Matthew, chapters 5, 6 and 7? Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount—leading off with the Beatitudes—is summarized in about one third of the space, right here. In Luke’s Sermon on the Plain.

Both sermons contain much of the same information, except sometimes in different phrases and from a slightly differing point of view. Matthew was one of Jesus’s disciples, he was Jewish, and an eye witness. Dr. Luke was a Greek, he was writing his Gospel some years later, and relied on the testimony of a number of first-person accounts. Just so you can see these two sermons side by side.

Instead of diving into the sermon right away, I want us to look at the people who were hearing it. Dr. Luke is quite particular in his wording: he wants us to know that people from all over are listening, from down south in Judea and Jerusalem (good, God-fearing Jews), as well as people from the coast in the north, from the cities Tyre and Sidon. This second group of people was more mixed, some Jews, but secular, pagan Gentiles as well.

Luke mentioned the disciples, specifically. These were the twelve disciples, recently hand-chosen by Jesus. Moreover, “there are the larger crowds of disciples who are followers of Jesus, who have responded to His ministry, but who have not received a special call from Jesus.”[1] Quite a diverse group, indeed. And, Jesus preached to them all.

Have you ever been in a crowd of all different kinds of people? At a ball game, or, in a crowd at a concert, perhaps. I’ve been there, and I have felt the camaraderie, the fellowship and general good nature of certain kinds of crowds.

Reading again from Luke 6: “Jesus went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of His disciples was there and a great number of people who had come to hear Him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured.”

Expectant? I suspect that is exactly how this crowd was feeling. Even before Jesus can start preaching, people surged around Him. Listen, again from Luke: “and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.”

People not only wanted to see Jesus, they wanted a word of comfort or encouragement from Jesus. And, people wanted to be healed by Jesus most of all! Did you notice that Jesus did not just heal people from their physical problems, but also their spiritual and psychological difficulties, too? Such miracle-working activity must have brought people many miles to see the Rabbi Jesus.

As the Rev. Ernest Lyght mentions, “Perhaps there are some similarities between the crowd on the plain and the crowds that come to our churches. When you look out into your congregation, whom do you see? What are their needs? Who are the people who come to our churches? Do they reflect the neighborhoods around the church? Surely, they are folks who want to hear a Word from the Lord, and they want to be healed. They come with certain expectations.”[2]

Which leads to the next question: what are your expectations for the worship service, this morning? Were you expecting a warm, familiar service, with nice, familiar hymns, and a warm, comforting sermon? Or, were you surprised and even taken aback when we heard the testimony about a lovely ten-year-old boy with autism who wrote that wonderful poem for his English assignment? (I had tears in my eyes when I first finished reading that poem. God bless that boy, and God bless that teacher, too.)

Does Jesus challenge you – challenge me – in our daily walk with Him, or are you just looking for a nice, easy, quiet stroll with Jesus? What are your expectations?

Let’s look at some of Luke’s version of the Beatitudes: “’Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.’”

Whoa, wait a minute, Jesus! I thought You were warm and cuddly, like a teddy bear. At least, that’s what I heard. From Sunday school, or somewhere. Where did Jesus come up with all this about hungering, and weeping, with people hating me, excluding me, insulting me, even rejecting me. What gives, Jesus? What happened to that warm, fuzzy Christianity I thought I knew?

Christianity is not a religion, being a Christian is a relationship. It’s a series of relationships. Jesus and me, vertically. Sure! But, it’s Jesus and all of us too. Plus, it’s the horizontal relationship between you, and me, and you, and you—and all of us, with each other. That is what Jesus came to offer all of us. A radical change in relationships between God and humanity. And, in how we all relate to each other. No matter who.

Have you told anyone about this radical, out-of-this-world friendship between you and God? Have you been changed in how you relate to everyone you meet?

Bishop Lyght is now retired from the United Methodist Church. The UMC has for its advertising catch phrase “open hearts, open minds, and open doors.” Great images! Wonderful things to strive for, too. We can take that phrase to heart, and ask ourselves: do we have open hearts? Are our hearts open to everyone who may walk in to our church? Do we have open minds? Are our minds open and accepting of everyone, no matter what ethnicity, mental challenge, sexual orientation, or other kind of differences they might have?

Finally, do we have open doors? Who are the people who do not come to our church, on this corner? Do we truly welcome all people? In our church? On the street or at work or at line in the grocery store? In our neighborhoods?

What are your expectations? Check with Jesus, and see who He would welcome.

 

(Many thanks to the Rev. Ernest Lyght and http://www.umcdiscipleship.org for ideas and assistance for this series on discipleship.)

[1] http://www.crivoice.org/lectionary/YearC/Cepiphany6nt.html

Lectionary Commentary and Preaching Paths (Epiphany C6), by Dennis Bratcher, at The Christian Resource Institute.

[2] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/season-after-epiphany-2019-part-2-worship-planning-series/february-17-sixth-sunday-after-the-epiphany-year-c/sixth-sunday-after-the-epiphany-2019-year-c-preaching-notes  

Who Is a Disciple?

“Who Is a Disciple?”

Jesus fish

Luke 5:1-11 (5:10) – February 10, 2019

When did God become real to you? Were you sitting in Sunday school, when you felt deep within that God was real, and you felt wonder? Or, were you at a camp or retreat, around a campfire, when something let you know God was the real thing, and you felt nothing but awe? Or, perhaps, were you praying next to a loved one’s bed in the hospital, and you powerfully understood that God is real, and you felt deep comfort? Have you had a God-encounter?

The situation here today is where God becomes real for these people. Eileen just read the Gospel lesson from Luke 5 to us, and we heard about Jesus calling the first disciples. But, we need to back up in this reading, before the Rabbi Jesus calls anyone to be a disciple.

We break into the action quite early in the public ministry of Jesus. So early, in fact, that He has not even called anyone to follow Him, to be His disciples. We see Jesus, alone, teaching, preaching, healing, and beginning His ministry. Luke starts off with the phrase “One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret.” I think Luke meant this to say that this was a typical day in the life of Jesus. Teaching, preaching, doing miracles. All in a day’s activities, for Jesus.

But, this is early on. The crowds who have gathered to hear Jesus teach and preach—and watch the miracles!—I suspect are filled with wonder, curiosity, and questions. Who is this rabbi with such clarity in teaching the word of God? Who is this rabbi with such power and authority? Yes, we see the people crowding around Jesus so much that He got in a boat by the seashore, put out a little way, and then preached to the crowd.

(Did you know—little known fact—that Jesus was using the natural amplification of the water to make His voice heard better? When someone is out in the water a little distance from shore, their voice can be heard as naturally amplified because of the sound waves bouncing off or echoing off of the surface of the water and traveling on towards the shore.)

Back to Jesus. The boat Jesus used to preach was Simon Peter’s boat. He and Simon Peter must have been acquainted a little, as we can see from their interaction. “When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.”

Have you ever worked hard all night, with nothing to show for it? How about all week, or all month? Or, even, all year, with nothing concrete to show for it? Like, in the fisherman Simon Peter’s case, no fish at all?

There are some professions where there are fewer concrete markers to show how much a worker has done. At least Simon Peter had a definite marker to show “success” in his profession: the number of fish caught. However, he also must have had periods of time when he caught no fish, or very little fish.

Do you think Simon Peter got depressed, or frustrated, or anxious, or just plain angry? How did he deal with failure? He was a professional fisherman, after all. He had fished in those waters for many years, so I suspect he knew the territory, was familiar with the places the fish liked to hang out, and understood when was the best time of day to go fishing. Which leads us to the next comment by Simon Peter, made to the Rabbi Jesus: “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

Remember, “Peter, a fisherman, might have known that Jesus was a carpenter. He might have thought that a carpenter did not know anything about fishing.  But he surrendered his prejudice and let down the nets. Peter was the one who sat on the boat with Jesus while he was preaching and heard the good news of Jesus.” [1] “But because you say so.” Against his better judgment, Simon Peter agrees to traipse out to the deep water to go fishing, even though they have worked hard all night, because Jesus requested that he and his co-workers go out and try fishing again.

We know what happened. Hardly had the nets gone into the water, but the fish came swimming into the nets. The nets were filled to bursting! It was a miracle. Simon Peter and his co-workers experienced it—were eye witnesses.

What was the surprising response? Continuing from Luke 5: “When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, 10 and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.”

Yes, we can see that Simon Peter confessed he was a sinful person. But, I want to lift up another deep feeling within Simon Peter. God became tangibly real to him, at that moment. Too real, because he was filled with feelings of sin and inadequacy,

We already know some feelings going through Peter’s head. He felt ashamed and guilty of falling short of God’s mark. He came to Jesus in sorrow—probably with frustration, fear and sadness. He suspected that Jesus would indeed be able to forgive him his sins.

What happened? Simon Peter had a God-encounter, there in the boat. God became real to him. Simon Peter deeply experienced God as very real to his life, but couldn’t handle it.

What is Jesus’s unexpected response? Jesus tells Simon Peter and his co-workers, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” Jesus calls them into a God-encounter.

I ask again: do you remember when God became real to you? When did you encounter God? This is just the first of many occasions that God became real to Simon Peter. Can you remember a situation where God showed up in power, or in encouragement, or comfort? For you, or for a loved one?

For Simon Peter and his co-workers, his friends, this was decision-time. They decided to drop their nets on the shore, leave their boats where they were, and follow Jesus. There were many, many people in the crowd who also had the opportunity to follow Jesus, but they did not. At least, not at this time. They only stayed for the good preaching and the miracles, not the following-Jesus-part.

How about you? Has Jesus struck you to the heart and soul, like Peter? Has God become real to you, through this Scripture reading today? If you have never taken the step of following Jesus, I encourage you to follow Him today. Thank Him for forgiving your shortcomings and sins. Thank Jesus for inviting you to come with Him for the journey.

What can we do with this newfound, exciting relationship with God? Become a disciple. Go out and talk about how God became real in your life. Talk about God’s Good News, today, to anyone you meet. God will be wonderfully praised by all who tell how God has become very real to them, and changed their hearts and lives.

How has God become real to you? Become a disciple. Go and tell.

[1] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/season-after-epiphany-2019-part-2-worship-planning-series/february-10-fifth-sunday-after-the-epiphany-year-c/fifth-sunday-after-the-epiphany-2019-year-c-preaching-notes

(Many thanks to the Rev. Dr. Kwangki David Kim and http://www.umcdiscipleship.org for ideas and assistance for this series on discipleship.)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

The Most Excellent Gift

“Love: The Most Excellent Gift”

1 Cor 13 love, ring

1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (12:31) – February 3, 2019

In less than two weeks, the yearly holiday of romance and love will be celebrated. Yes, the holiday of Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. According to the popular women’s magazine Woman’s Day, people here in the United States spend a lot of money on their Valentines: an estimated $18.2 billion in 2017, including 144 million Valentine’s Day cards. [1] Gifts, cards and chocolates are wonderful for that special someone in your life! But—is this idea of love what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote the Scripture passage we read today?

As we come to the end of our series of gifts from God, we can think back over the past month. As we celebrated Epiphany the first Sunday of January, we not only saw the gifts the foreign-born Magi gave to the toddler Jesus, but we celebrated the greatest Christmas gift of all time: the gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. We also rejoice as we remember our baptism and the tremendous gift of God’s grace bestowed upon all of us.

We consider what Paul was talking about in the previous chapter, 1 Corinthians 12. Spiritual gifts! We spent two weeks discussing the generous gifts God gives each of us—all of us. Gifts of helps, service, teaching, healing, wisdom, understanding—and then some. What is more, Paul encourages us to put these gifts into practice for the common good of others. And last week, we explored the interconnectedness of each of us and each of the gifts that we bring to this family of faith. We learned that we need one another in a fundamental way. [2]

Which leads us to our Scripture reading for today, from 1 Corinthians 13. Paul caps off this discussion of spiritual gifts with the most excellent gift of all: love.

Many people relate the reading of the this “Love chapter” with weddings. Romance and hearts and flowers—and Valentine’s Day—seem to go hand in hand with this chapter. That is, on the surface. But, when the Apostle Paul really gets going on the depth and breadth of God’s love, he does not mean hearts and flowers and candy at all. God’s love is what is offered to all of us.

What does God’s love look like? Paul gives us some vivid examples. Reading from The Message: “If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all God’s mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, ‘Jump,’ and it jumps, but I don’t love, I am nothing. 3-7 If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.”

Forgive me. I’ve just told you what God’s love does not look like. This is what happens when a person does not have God’s love living within him or her. A very sad, despairing state of affairs, to be sure.

Paul does tell us what love is, however. Again, from the Message; “Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, Doesn’t have a swelled head, Doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always “me first,” Doesn’t fly off the handle, Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, Doesn’t revel when others grovel, Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back, But keeps going to the end.”

This description from Paul tells us what love is.

Very sadly, if we read the newspaper and turn on the news, we see another expression of God-talk. This kind of black-and-white thinking, all-or-nothing talk comes from rigid or extreme religious groups. You know the groups I mean. Groups that say unequivocally “I’m on God’s good side, and you’re not. I’m going to heaven because I do the things God wants. You don’t, so you are going to hell.” It doesn’t matter whether they are stringent Christians, fundamentalist Catholics, extreme Muslims, or radical Hindus. Such hurtful thinking and corrosive speech lets us know these religious groups have likely not experienced God’s life-changing, wondrous love. You know, all of the wonderful, life-giving parts of love that the Apostle Paul just described to us.

Father Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest and director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico, has written and taught extensively on God’s love. He spoke of these hurtful religious groups, and then asked, “How can we do better? To begin, we might put ourselves in the other’s shoes and imagine why someone is so hateful.”

Father Rohr continues: “While working in the Albuquerque jail for over a decade, I met many men who had been raised in a punitive, authoritarian, absolutist way, often with an absent or abusive father. Understanding another’s story can teach us compassion. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t set some healthy boundaries. But it does open our hearts and help us recognize that other people are victims, too. They’ve been wounded, too. Yet they are still objectively an image of God, created in God’s image.” [3]

We are not all called to work in prisons, like Father Rohr. But, God has gifted each of us to offer our gifts to others. Each of us have been given gifts to reach out to our friends and neighbors with the love of God. Remember what we talked about last week, how all of our spiritual gifts are interconnected? Each of us is needed by the others in this family of faith. And, God’s love is one of the greatest connectors of all.

One of my absolute favorite people ever is Mister Rogers. Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, ordained to ministry in television and mass communication by the Presbytery of Pittsburgh in 1963. He had a marvelous, moving ministry to children—and to adults—for decades—in public television.

One of the ways Mister Rogers reached out and communicated to children with his television show was through music. He wrote over two hundred songs about important things and things that concern children very much. Like this one: “There are many ways to say I love you. There are many ways to say I care about you. Many ways, many ways, many ways to say I love you. Cleaning up a room can say I love you. Hanging up a coat before you’re asked to do it. Drawing special pictures for the holidays and making plays.” [4]

Important words from a loving, honest, generous man, Fred Rogers. He let us know that love can be as simple as hanging up a coat—or doing the dishes—or sending a greeting card. Mister Rogers would definitely agree that showing love is being kind to others, and being your honest, caring self. No matter what.

A reminder, from the Message: “[Love] Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back, But keeps going to the end.” That is the kind of God we have. Love is a gift God offers to all of us, freely.

It doesn’t matter how each of us expresses God’s love. God gives many gifts to all of us, freely. Let us give love away to everyone, no matter what. Just as freely as God gives to us.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://www.womansday.com/relationships/a4702/10-fun-valentines-day-facts-103385/

[2] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/season-after-epiphany-2019-part-1-worship-planning-series/february-3-fourth-sunday-after-the-epiphany-year-c/fourth-sunday-after-the-epiphany-2019-year-c-preaching-notes

[3] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Exploring and Experiencing the Naked Now, disc 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2010).

[4] http://www.neighborhoodarchive.com/music/songs/many_ways.html

(Many thanks to the Rev. Jeff Campbell and http://www.umcdiscipleship.org for ideas and assistance for this series on spiritual gifts.)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Interconnected Gifts

“Interconnected Gifts”

1 cor 12-27 part of the body

1 Corinthians 12:11-31 (12:20) – January 27, 2019

Have you ever seen a Mr. Potato Head? A children’s toy, with a plastic potato body, and different holes you could stick different parts in. Eyes, ears, hat, nose, mouth, hands and feet. Can you imagine a Mr. Potato Head with all hands and no eyes, nose or ears? Or, how about a Mr. Potato Head with several mouths and no feet? I suspect some people would laugh at that children’s toy. Can you hear children saying, “Look at that silly Mr. Potato Head!”

Let’s take a closer look at our Scripture reading for today from 1 Corinthians chapter 12. We have been talking about gifts for the past few weeks. Not only in the weekly sermons, but also in other parts of our worship service, too. Here the Apostle Paul is continuing his discussion on gifts that God gives to every believer. Willingly, generously, God blesses each person with at least one spiritual gifts, and sometimes many gifts. And, as Paul tells us, the Holy Spirit decides who gets what, and when.

Let’s go back to our Mr. Potato Head. We can all see how the different parts fit into the toy. Any child could tell us that we need diverse parts. Eyes, nose, ears, mouth, hands and feet. Eyebrows, too. And mustache, and hat. All different parts, with all different functions.

Reading Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 12 from Eugene Peterson’s translation The Message, “You can easily enough see how this kind of thing works by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body. It’s exactly the same with Christ.”

So many parts, many pieces, many functions. And, one body, or one church.  Let’s let the Apostle Paul elaborate: “Each of us is now a part of Christ’s resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain—his Spirit—where we all come to drink. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves—labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free—are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive.”

Sounds like the Apostle Paul has already heard about a church or two that has had arguments or disagreements about their spiritual gifts. You would think these individual Christians would be thankful they have been given one special way to identify themselves!

In the past, and even in the present, Christians might identify themselves differently. They could concentrate on separate differences. For example, some of us here were born in the United States, and some were born overseas. There’s one difference. Some of us identify as male, and some as female. Some of us are right-handed. Some of us have brown eyes.

There are lots of ways to identify the people in this room. We could line up under these different signs, Or—and this is the important part—we could all identify as Christians.

What does the Apostle Paul have to say about this very question? Paul approaches differences from a functional point of view. “I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so? If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, lovely and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it.”

When Paul often talks about church to his friends in Corinth, he means them—the local church. That’s what Paul means right here. He is talking to the local churches. He is talking to me and you. He means St. Luke’s Church, right here on this corner in Morton Grove. Rev. Jeff Campbell, United Methodist minister, says “In the body of Christ, all of us and the gifts that we bring to the church are indeed interrelated. We cannot succeed in our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, unless we are working together, truly valuing and depending on the gifts that each disciple offers for the good of the whole.” [1]

Some parts of the Bible are confusing or troubling; they don’t make much sense. Strange and mysterious passages! This Scripture reading from Paul is not. It talks common sense. Understandable and clear. But, these instructions are not always simple and easy to follow. Sometimes, something inside does not want us to work together.  Something inside might not want to ask for help, or be willing to be a Good Samaritan, and give help to whoever needs it.

The Rev. Campbell suggests taking a not-so-very official poll, to let us understand a little better what he is talking about here. For the following statements, rate how much you agree or disagree. Be honest! You may keep the answers to yourself. But, try to be truthful, in your heart.

  • It is okay to need another person’s help.
  • All that I need I can provide.
  • Don’t ask me for help. I’ll offer help when I can.
  • I would come close to death before I would consider asking for help.
  • It makes me uncomfortable to ask for help.

This thoroughly unscientific poll reveals a few possibilities:

  • We are uncomfortable being vulnerable.
  • We are uncomfortable asking for help.
  • We don’t have extra time to help. [2]

Asking for help, even in the church, can be a challenge! Accepting help can be difficult, too. All kinds of things can get in the way. As Rev. Campbell says, “When it comes to recognizing the interrelated nature of our gifts, we must come to terms with our own vulnerability and dependency; and we must declare that it is okay to need one another!

“The reality is there are many parts of the body that aren’t always functioning, and those parts often don’t realize how it hurts the whole. This is not about guilt or telling you to do more. No, this is to say — with honesty and love — that we need you and we need one another. God has gifted you in ways that God has not gifted me. I need you to show up and share your gifts, because without your gifts, this body will not function the way it was meant to function.” [3]

Remember that Mr. Potato Head, with all hands, and no eyes, ears or nose? The apostle Paul tells us that everyone—each person in a local congregation has their role, and their gift. It may not be a prominent gift, it may be a humble gift, but every gift has its place. Each Christian has their place in the body of Christ, too.

We all need each other to show up, and to be here as a community, to use our gifts for the glory of God. There is no such thing as a solo, Lone Ranger Christian. We are a community of Christ! Paul reminds us of that blessed fact: mutual care, concern and encouragement of each other, and ministry to those who need to know about the Lord. Let’s get going, and do the work God has intended for us to do!

Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/season-after-epiphany-2019-part-1-worship-planning-series/january-27-third-sunday-after-the-epiphany-year-c/third-sunday-after-the-epiphany-2019-year-c-preaching-notes

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

(Many thanks to the Rev. Jeff Campbell and http://www.umcdiscipleship.org for ideas and assistance for this January series on spiritual gifts.)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Suit Yourselves

(I would like to post this sermon from October 2004. It seems applicable today. Sadly.)

“Suit Yourselves”

2 tim 4-3 ears tickled

2 Timothy 4:1-5  –  October 17, 2004

Have you seen the comics lately? I’m sure everyone here is familiar with the comics section of the newspapers–the daily comics in black and white, and the Sunday comics in full color–even if you don’t read them regularly.

Can you picture this scene from the comics? A single panel, showing two business men by an office water cooler. One looks like a boss, and he says to the other, “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a yes-man. Isn’t that right, Baxter?”

We chuckle, because we all are familiar with that kind of attitude. I’m sure we can recognize that tendency in other guises, other forms. Getting some yes-man to tell us what we want to hear . . . not what’s good for us to hear, not what we need to hear, but instead what we want to hear.

Many people have a yearning to hear good news today. With all the worry and anxiety, trouble and danger in this modern world, people are actively searching for good news. Many don’t know where to start. Many are searching in all the wrong places. Commercialism and consumerism are rampant, with many people accumulating more and more stuff and always needing to get something else, something more, something new. Oftentimes, these people are trying to fill a hole deep inside.

Sometimes, some people search for thrills, for that adrenaline rush, for some kind of excitement in life. It doesn’t matter if thrills come from drag racing, gambling, or risky behavior, like a wild bender at the local bar. Regardless of how hard people try or how much they want a good time, something is lacking.

Other people turn inward, searching for spiritual fulfillment. There are many ways of experiencing some kind of spirituality, like through the martial arts, or through meditative practices. Fung shui, the Chinese method of arranging furniture (and other things in this material world) is an attempt to try to find balance and proper order in this life. Sure, doing an inside job, concentrating on the inside of ourselves is a great place to start, but . . . searching for inward, spiritual fulfillment on our own just won’t work. Anyway, not without God.

We have the assurance, from our scripture passage today, that Timothy had the opportunity to know God. He had the opportunity to read some of the same texts we have to read today! Timothy was instructed, from the time he was very young, in the way of salvation through Jesus Christ. His mother and grandmother were both women of faith, and Timothy grew up in a believing household, a household that put God first.

As we read further in our passage today, we find there are people who will not put up with sound doctrine. They will not even want to listen to the truth! Even when the truth is as clear as day, and presented to them in a straight-forward manner, still, some will turn away and disregard the truth.

You probably are all familiar with that modern phenomenon–tele-evangelists, some of whom are worthy people of God. However, there are those who are frauds. Charlatans. Fakes. Preaching not of sound doctrine or biblical teaching, but instead telling their listeners exactly what they –the listenerswant to hear.

Are you familiar with the health, wealth and happiness gospel, which focuses on only a few isolated passages from scripture? Most renditions of this false gospel tell the listeners that God wants us all to be healthy, wealthy and happy! All the time! And even shows us the example of Job–why, didn’t God give back to Job everything that was taken away? And in good measure, overflowing, in superabundance? But . . . and this is a big but here . . . we must have faith! And if anything is wrong in our lives, or if our house burns down, or if we get sick, or if someone we love loses a job, or if our child gets in trouble, or . . . or . . . or . . . you get the picture. Well, then, we just didn’t have enough faith, that’s our problem. Oh, and we didn’t send enough money to the tele-evangelist, either. So, God apparently must be withholding His blessing because of our lack of faith and our stinginess.

Not so!! No way!! This is a perverse, yet skillful, twisting of the truth! I bet you can see parts of the true Gospel here in what I’ve just described, but the rest is so skillfully bent and twisted!! It sounds so similar to the Good News of God we have come to know and to understand and to love. Like, and yet unlike. The true Gospel tells us that God does indeed want to bless us abundantly! And, it is an inside job! God wants to change us, to help us change ourselves, to make us new creations from the inside out, through faith in Jesus Christ.

This twisted health, wealth and happiness gospel is just one of the horrible perversions that is out there, on television, on the radio, on the Internet, just waiting to snare unsuspecting folks, and especially people who want to turn away from the truth in God’s Word.

What did our scripture passage today say about this sort of people? It mentions that they have “itching ears.” This is a Greek phrase that can be translated several ways–another way is “having their ears tickled.” In other words, having the preacher tell you exactly what you want to hear! These people with the itching ears, who wanted nice, warm, soft, fuzzy things, nonthreatening, reassuring things preached to them from the pulpit, these people turned their backs on the truth of God’s Word and of sound doctrine.

These rebellious people with the itching ears had an agenda–and that was to hear only what they wanted to hear, at all times. None of the challenging words, none of the admonishing words, none of the emotional words of Scripture. This is another form of idolatry–putting themselves first, putting God aside as an afterthought. You know the attitude–me, me, me! I’m the most important person around here! Everything needs to go my way! Nobody else counts!

As I was thinking and praying about this text over these past days, it came to me–what would Calvin say? John Calvin was one of the foremost theologians in the Reformed tradition, the tradition we as Presbyterians follow and adhere to. What would Calvin say about these false teachers, preaching a “health, wealth and happiness” gospel, or any other sort of false gospel, for that matter?

I would like to give you some background about me, since I am still new around here. In my early 20’s, I had a strong sense of God’s power and presence in my life. I read all kinds of books on bible and theology. One summer, I especially remember reading Calvin’s Institutes, his great systematic presentation of the Christian faith. I said an internal “yes!” to the biblical and theological concepts as presented by Calvin, and since that time, my personal theology began travelling down a Reformed path in earnest.

Since that time, I have always had a great appreciation for the great number of writings that John Calvin left to us. And so, it is natural for me to wonder, what would Calvin say? How would he deal with these false teachers, leading people astray? Checking the Institutes, I find that Calvin spoke strong words against these false teachers, saying that they, in fact, pose the greatest danger to the church! These false teachers take the lead! They lead people away from true scripture and sound doctrine, and are responsible for bringing in destructive heresies!

But . . . that’s not what we learned. That’s not what Timothy learned. We have the “sacred writings that are able to instruct us for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” We have the opportunity to come into a relationship with Jesus Christ. We have the Good News, in and through Jesus Christ our Lord. How wonderful, how awesome, and how sobering that Jesus entrusted us with the message of His Good News.

 

Now what? I’ve been teaching the adult Sunday school class here for several weeks, and I’ve said this phrase–now what?–each week as I’ve taught. The different New Testament letters do indeed tell us definite things about doctrine, about theology . . . but then . . . what do we do with all of this information? How do we put it into practice? How do we live the Christian life? Now what, in other words?

I consider the commands in this passage to be good advice to anyone wanting to follow Christ more nearly. We are to proclaim the message. Communicate the Good News! In whatever way we can.

This command may give some people pause. How can  I  preach the Good News? Am I supposed to go to some cable television station and get on the air as yet another tele-evangelist? Or how about standing out on a street corner, preaching with a megaphone? Both of these are perfectly valid ways of proclaiming God’s Good News, but I don’t think most of us here in this church could ever see ourselves doing either of these things. But there are other ways to proclaim the message.

Preach the Gospel. Proclaim the message. Every believer in Jesus Christ is told this! Another way of thinking about it is . . . telling what God has done in your life. What has God done for you? How has God made a difference in your life? How has God made a difference in mine? What new things have you and I learned from the Lord lately? What an opportunity it is to share these things with others, with our friends, with those who might not know God in a personal way.

Do we need advanced degrees in divinity or theology to do this? To share what God has done for us? No!! Oftentimes, we are excited to tell people about other things, like who won the latest ball game, or about the neighbor next door spraining her ankle, or what exciting story we just heard on the news. Why can’t I tell people about Jesus, and what He’s done for me?

 I  can tell about answers to prayer I’ve gotten recently–and I have gotten some exciting ones! And if anyone wants to hear about them, I’d be happy to tell you after the service. I can tell about God’s faithfulness in my busy, hectic life. I can praise God for helping me to walk the Christian walk, one day at a time.

Thank God we have been given this Good News! What a opportunity! What a thing to celebrate! Praise God, we have been granted salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. That’s truly something to celebrate. That’s truly Good News to share.

Alleluia, Amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Infant Holy, Infant Lowly

“Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”

Infant Holy, words

Luke 1:39-45, 56 (1:45) – December 9, 2018

The meanings of names are a fascinating subject. The particular meanings of certain names are more well-known. Just think of Peter—Greek for “rock” and Irene—Greek for “peace.” Three names from Hebrew, Rachel (“lamb”), David (“beloved”) and Daniel (“God is my judge”). Then, there is my own name, Elizabeth, which comes from the Greek and means “God is my oath” or “God’s promise.”

My parents did not have any particular person on either side of the family who they were thinking of, or who they wanted to name me after. They just liked that name. I have always really liked my name, too.

I don’t know whether you have ever thought about the meaning of your name. Did your parents name you after a beloved aunt or uncle? Or perhaps a dear grandparent or godparent? Or did they just happen to like your name when you were born?

There is another Elizabeth in the New Testament. Our Gospel reading from Luke 1 talks about her. She was the mother of John the Baptist. She was the older cousin of Mary, living some distance away in the hill country of Judea.

In the verses just before this reading, we meet Mary, a teenaged girl who is visited by the angel Gabriel. Of course, the angel informs Mary that she will become the mother of the Messiah; Mary is to name the baby Jesus, Yeshua, or Joshua, which is Hebrew for “he saves.” As the angel says, “He will save His people from their sins.”

The angel Gabriel gave Mary some important information about her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth, as well. Apparently, Elizabeth and her husband the priest Zechariah had tried to have a baby for years, but could not. Finally, when Elizabeth had just about given up hope, she found she was indeed pregnant. This was called a miracle by everyone. Imagine—Elizabeth pregnant at an advanced age. God certainly works miracles, mighty acts and acts beyond the explanation of human eyes and ears.

What about Elizabeth, and about her younger cousin Mary? They are both women. Females, usually discounted and considered second-class by the cultures of their day. What do we find that is different about Elizabeth and Mary?

”All four gospels support the equality of women, but Luke is the one who is most obvious about it.  The male in the story, Zechariah, had been visited by an angel, but he did not trust [the angel’s word] (1:20) and was made mute.  His wife Elizabeth, however, who was an older woman, turns out to be the heroine of the family and she, in stark contrast to her mute husband, speaks under the influence of the Holy Spirit (1:41).” [1]

Elizabeth greets her young cousin, and says “God has blessed you more than any other woman! He has also blessed the child you will have. 43 Why should the mother of my Lord come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, my baby became happy and moved within me. 45 The Lord has blessed you because you believed that God will keep his promise.”

We could list several facts. Elizabeth spoke by the power of the Holy Spirit. She announced that Mary was richly blessed, as was Mary’s baby, Jesus. She also stated that John, the baby inside of her, had responded to the nearness of the very young infant Jesus. Finally, Elizabeth praises Mary for believing in God’s promise. And, we can be sure that God does keep God’s promises.

When I was in grade school, I was fascinated by the meanings of names. It was at around this time that I happened to start attending a Lutheran church in Chicago, brought there by my older sisters. They attended sometimes because of several friends from high school in the church youth group. They stopped attending when they left for college, but I kept going to that church.

I was a voracious reader. I would read just about anything, and as I mentioned, one of the books my parents had on their shelf had many lists of names and their meanings. I would pore over that book, and I sincerely wondered about my name. “God is my oath,” or “God’s promise.” It was at about this time that I started learning a great deal about the Bible and theology, and about the various promises of God. Especially the promises fulfilled at Christmas, in the birth of the Messiah.

What an earthshaking event, the birth of that Infant Holy. What a marvelous miracle, lifted up by Elizabeth in our Scripture reading today.

Here we have two strong women. Two women who know their own minds, and two women who are not going to be put in the background. These are two women—one younger, one older—who have been chosen by God to do great things. Not only to be the mothers of John and Jesus, but also to have the responsibility of raising them.

What stands out even more is that Mary has unshakeable faith in God’s promises. Can you imagine? I do not have complete faith and trust in God. A pretty good faith, but not one hundred percent, not doubt-free.

Rev. Bryan Findlayson has an intriguing comparison. He talks about seeing faith in Jesus as if it is a good bet. “If we are wrong, we lose nothing, but if we are right, we gain everything. Jesus is certainly a good bet, but the bet is not faith.” [2]

Mary’s faith is faith in God’s promises. She took God at God’s word. Sticking to God’s promises, firmly resting on them, this is what the Bible means by faith. Isn’t that what we lift up in these weeks of Advent? We have faith in God’s promises, and we rely on the Bible’s words, both in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament.

Tonight is the anniversary of the first showing of the “Peanuts Christmas Carol” in 1965. We can watch this Christmas television special and laugh as we watch the Peanuts characters. We can also take the Christmas message to heart, as read by Linus, when Charlie Brown wanted to know what Christmas was truly all about.

God deeply wants to send abundant peace into the world. The birth of the Prince of Peace helps us to welcome Jesus for ourselves. He may have many different names, like Jesus, Joshua—”He saves,” Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God—but our Lord Jesus is the one and only Savior. As we prepare to celebrate “God with us,” Emmanuel, we also can lift our voices to praise the Prince of Peace.

Alleluia, amen!

[1] https://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2012/12/lectionary-blogging-luke-1-39-55.html

Lectionary Blogging, Luke 1:39-56, John Petty, Progressive Involvement, 2012

[2] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/studyg/advent4cg.html

“Mary Visits Elizabeth,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources.  

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

O Come, Emmanuel

“O Come, Emmanuel”

O come Emmanuel

Luke 1:26-38 (1:31) – December 2, 2018

Have you noticed when you saw or heard your first Christmas commercial this year? On television, or on the radio? Or, perhaps it’s the first piped-in Christmas music at the store or at the coffee shop. Do you remember where you were? This expectation we go through every year; we pause, we watch the commercials, we hear in the music, we see in the displays of holiday lights and lighted figures outside of our neighbors’ houses.

These four weeks of Advent are weeks of preparation, of anticipation, of expectation. All these things are announcements of an impending arrival. Little reminders of the anticipation of the narrative from the first chapter in Luke. Ours is a fraction of the expectation that Mary had, beginning with the announcement from the angel. The teenage Mary had the angel Gabriel burst in on her, unannounced, giving her the very first Christmas commercial.

The anticipation we feel today is only a shadow of that we find in the Bible. I suspect, the teenage Mary was surprised out of her sandals by this unexpected visitor. Mary is told to expect the birth of the Son of the Most High.

If we go back several centuries, to the time of the prophet Isaiah, we notice the prophet writing about a young woman bearing a child, too.  In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, Isaiah 7:14 reads “a virgin will conceive and give birth to a son.” The Gospel of Luke shows this prophecy being fulfilled. But—not quite yet. Mary needs to go through a nine-month waiting period, a period of anticipation, expectation, and preparation.

As one commentator says, “Let’s be honest. Perplexity is exactly our response when the Lord shows up. To me? Why me? Why now? I think we underestimate the impact of what it means to know that God is actually around. Here. With us. Doesn’t God have better things to do? Bigger things to take care of? More major issues to maintain besides me?” [1]

Mary has a problem. She is not only a virgin (which the angel tells her not to worry about). However, she thinks she is merely a common, ordinary, every-day-type young woman. There is nothing special or extraordinary about her! It is “only after expressing her wonder and dismay, and then hearing again Gabriel’s affirmation and promise, does she manage to summon the courage to believe that God is indeed favoring Mary by working in her and through her for the health of the world.” [2]

This week is the first week of Advent, and we are going to focus on songs during these weeks. The Advent and Christmas seasons have marvelous carols, hymns and songs written during a number of centuries. This week, appropriately, we highlight the Advent carol “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” An excerpt from a fine article on this carol is found in your bulletin.

If you look at the article, notice several things. This is one of the oldest carols we have in our hymnals today. Christians have been singing it for over 1000 years. Originally written in Latin, it was translated into English by the scholar and priest John Mason Neale in the 1800’s. The translation of this hymn lets us know how much theology was written into the original lyrics. Each verse mentions a number of biblical and theological references.

You know what this ancient Latin hymn reminds me of? Young Mary. Eileen did not read Mary’s song from the first chapter of Luke, the Magnificat, but Mary does exactly that—after the angel leaves her, she breaks into song, and praises God. Not only that, she must have been biblically knowledgeable, because her song is chock full of biblical and theological references.

We know Mary was an introspective young woman, thoughtful and contemplative, since Dr. Luke tells us so in chapters 1 and 2. Does it surprise us that she knew a great deal about the Hebrew Scriptures, as we can tell from reading her song, her response to God?

Quoting from this wonderful song, the Magnificat:

“My soul glorifies the Lord  47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”

A modern setting of this song of Mary is the Canticle of the Turning, by Rory Cooney. I keep reminding myself not to get political in my weekly sermons—except when the words of the Scripture we read from the Lectionary are clearly lifting up some direct calling from God. Through Mary’s words, we are called to stand up in this neighborhood, this country, this world, and stand with the humble, the hungry, with those who fear God. We are called to stand against the proud, the rich, and the rulers.

In the Canticle of the Turning, this new retelling of Mary’s song is, indeed, about the birth of a baby. It also talks about how this birth turns a family upside down. Yet, this whole event—the birth of the Son of the Most High—is about God turning the world around. It is through God’s Son, Jesus, God welcomes us all. Not just welcoming the rich and privileged, but everyone, male, female, rich, poor, slave, free, whatever difference one person has from another. All means Jesus welcomes everyone. No matter what, no matter who.

Perhaps God did an extraordinary thing through Mary—just as the angel said—to show the world that through God all things are possible. Just as it was for the prophets, so it was with Mary, and so it is with us. May we all respond like Mary—“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to Your word.”

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3462

Advent as a Way of Life, Karoline Lewis, Working Preacher, 2014

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1611

“Favored Ones,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2011.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Moses in a Basket

“Moses in a Basket”

Exod 2 Pharaoh's daughter and Moses in the Dura-Europos synagogue fresco, c. AD 244

Exodus 1:15-2:6 – July 7, 2019

On social media, one sure way to get loads of “likes” and “shares” is to post the photo of a cute baby. So many people love seeing photos of little babies looking adorable. And when photos of crying or unhappy babies are posted, many people pour out their sad, shocked, and comforting emotions in their responses online.

Is it much different in our Scripture reading today from Exodus? As we hear about the infants born to the Israelite women in Egypt so long ago, I suspect many in our congregation are sad and shocked, and wish to comfort those women and families involved.

And yet—this narrative about infants from Exodus has a much starker, darker impact, as we read it over again in the clear light of day. With the typical economy of words that Hebrew often employs, our narrative opens with: “Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.” In other words, a number of generations had passed, and as commentator Karla Suomala suggests “the new king didn’t remember Joseph’s role in keeping the Egyptians alive during a time of famine or simply chose to ignore this piece of history. It seems to be more willful than a simple act of forgetting.” [1]

The people of Israel, resident aliens living in Egypt for several hundred years, have become extremely numerous. So numerous, in fact, that the new Pharaoh and other racist Egyptian leaders feared the people of Israel would be guilty of insurrection or an alliance with a foreign nation. The Egyptians ruthlessly worked them even harder, but they continued to multiply and grow as a sub-people group within the nation.

I give a trigger warning, since this sermon is going to speak of some horrible events.

Further compounding [Pharaoh’s] false statement, is a clear strategy to create an “enemy within” and to stir up fear of the foreign or immigrant other. The Pharaoh then wastes no time in putting a plan together to deal with this dangerous element in their midst.” [2] Pharaoh and the other leaders became so fearful and anxious that they come up with a nefarious scheme—killing all the Jewish boy babies, from that point onward.

We take a side trip to consider women in healthcare, specifically working as midwives. This work as midwives outside the home has been an accepted thing for certain women to do for millenia. The two women we look at come at the beginning of Exodus, in the middle of this narrative about the Israelite—or, Hebrew boy children.

These women were diligent in their work. We even know the names of these midwives—Shiprah and Puah. The biblical writer honors them by recording their names for posterity. Plus, they were God-fearing women, who understood their work was important in God’s eyes.

As we know, Pharaoh’s evil plan was to command the Hebrew midwives to kill all baby boys, to commit male infanticide, yet allow the baby girls to live. This is a slow yet sure way of eradicating Egypt’s problem population. What do we think about such horrendous acts of cruelty? No, even worse, acts of murder? What would you consider doing, if you had been in the place of these Hebrew midwives?

The midwives Shiprah and Pual were civil servants; they worked for the Egyptian government, and so the all-powerful Pharaoh was their ultimate boss. However, Pharaoh and his cronies did not have much power. Pharaoh needed to meet with the Israelite midwives in a huge turnover in power. Imagine, we are faced with the question: where—with whom—does true power reside?

Apparently, Pharaoh is not aware of this power differential. What is more, Pharaoh tries to deputize these Hebrew midwives to do his dirty work for him. He does not want to get his hands (or the hands of his fellow Egyptian leaders) bloody.

The midwives are honorable and God-fearing, and most probably cannot even consider killing the newborn infants they assist bringing into the world. However, when Pharaoh asks them why they are not killing the baby boys, “the midwives respond by playing to his own stereotypes about immigrants and their breeding habits. “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them,” they say.” [3]

Here we see that racist stereotypes are sadly perpetuated from generation to generation. Has this frightening, common, xenophobic mindset changed today? I think not.

The Pharaoh clearly sees that he won’t be able to convince the Israelites to kill their own children. So, he and other racist, xenophobic Egyptian leaders turn to the Egyptian population, telling them to throw the Jewish baby boys into the Nile River. This is where we pick up with the story of Moses. His mother gave birth to Moses in secret, hid him for three months, and then finally did put him in the Nile River—in a floating, waterproof basket.

We follow Miriam, Moses’s older sister, watching from the riverbank, as Pharaoh’s daughter finds the floating basket. Pharaoh’s daughter is charmed with the darling baby who she correctly identifies as a Jewish baby, spies Miriam nearby, and asks whether Miriam can find a wet nurse for this baby she decides on the spot to adopt. Thus, the adopted Moses is suckled by his own mom—and even paid to nurse her own child. Such are the amazing incidents that happen in God’s providence.

One fascinating insight about the male Pharaoh and the female midwives: one of the most striking points of this section is the fact that the text names the midwives. Why do we need to know the names of these two women, Shiphrah and Puah, who never appear again in the story? Names are very important in the Book of Exodus. Moses’s sister Miriam is named, too, further on in the book.

Who remains nameless? Pharaoh. Pharaoh is unnamed. Pharaoh’s royal family members are unnamed. Pharaoh’s officers are unnamed. Pharaoh’s royal advisors are unnamed. Every Egyptian in the book of Exodus remains nameless. All public figures in Egypt take great efforts at self-promotion and control. [4] But when God steps in and raises up the women in this story, we need to sit up and take notice.

A final act of defiance to the Pharaoh’s authority and will comes from his own daughter. Moses will grow up under the protection of the princess even before he is officially adopted. [5] Sure, we can see the patriarchal mindset and attitude shown in the Bible remains deeply entrenched, through the centuries. However, in God’s providence and outworking in these connected situations, we can see defiance and subversion of Pharaohs’ commands, even from within his own house at the hands of his own daughter.

God be praised. Yes, there is continuing horror, despair, death and destruction. But, God’s purposes shine through all the darkness. Moses rose to prominence, to lead his people out of Egypt. And, God’s purposes continue to shine through.

That is something to truly celebrate. Alleluia, amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

This entry was tagged angry, arrogant, coat of many colors, dysfunctional, favorite, Genesis 37, God’s purposes, hurt feelings, Joseph, praise God, reconcile, sibling rivalry.

 

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3380

Commentary, Karla Suomala, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2017.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3380

Commentary, Karla Suomala, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2017.

[4] https://juniaproject.com/midwives-vs-pharaoh-exodus-question-of-power/

[5] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=972

Commentary, Exodus 1:8-2:10, Amy Merrill Willis, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.