Fruitful Branches, Fruitful Lives

“Fruitful Branches, Fruitful Lives”

John 15 grape-vines

John 15:1-8 (15:4) – April 29, 2018

Spring has sprung! Finally, everything in the garden is starting to get green.

On Friday afternoon, after a medical appointment, my husband and I went to the Chicago Botanic Garden. The day was cool, but lovely and sunny. Since Friday was during the workweek, all of the garden staff was busy planting, watering, pruning, and getting the Garden prepared for spring. Everything was just beginning to bud. We saw leaves on trees and bushes just starting to unfurl, and spring daffodils, poppies and hyacinths showing their colors.

All of this new life is refreshing to see. A joy to behold. It reminds me so much of what Jesus was talking about here in our Gospel reading today. Jesus compared Himself to a Vine, and compared His followers—that’s all of us—to branches connected to the Vine.

Let’s hear again some of what Jesus said in John 15: “I am the real vine, my Father is the vine-dresser. For just as the branch cannot bear any fruit unless it shares the life of the vine, so you can produce nothing unless you go on growing in me. I am the vine itself, you are the branches. It is the one who shares my life and whose life I share who proves fruitful.”

How can the Vine and the branches not be green and growing? Especially at this time of year, in the bloom of spring? At the end of April, we can very well ask that question. How can we not be green and growing, sharing the essence, the life of Jesus? Ah, but there is a complication. A large problem.

In the farming or gardening analogy that Jesus is using here in this reading, Jesus talks about pruning, and about how God His heavenly Father “removes any of my branches which are not bearing fruit and he prunes every branch that does bear fruit to increase its yield. Now, you have already been pruned by my words.”

Now, that is a problem for me. I can follow Jesus when He talks about His followers sharing in His life, and being connected to Him. But when Jesus talks about pruning, and how God removes any branches—or followers—which are not bearing fruit, that is where I have difficulty. Big problems. This seemingly harsh statement does not square with other clear and loving statements Jesus made in other places in the Gospels.

Let’s go back to my visit to the Botanic Garden. As I said earlier, dozens of workers were out planting, watering, gardening, and pruning, all over the huge garden. They were preparing the Garden for the wonderful summer season, when everything is in full and glorious bloom.

As my husband and I walked by one of the large lagoons, we saw dozens of bushes all along the lagoon’s edge. I could see how the bare twigs were just beginning to sprout little leaves. I can’t remember what kind of bush they were, but my husband and I could see about twenty-five or thirty feet of bushes that were cut back to within a foot of the ground—severely pruned. There was a wheelbarrow half full of branches, and no staff worker around. The gardener had taken a break, apparently.

Then, further down the path were additional bushes that had not been pruned yet. My husband and I talked about how we had seen different kinds of bushes, in past years, that hadn’t been pruned, and how straggly and badly managed their growth was. We compared those bushes to the severely pruned ones we were looking at, by the lagoon.

I wonder whether that was the idea Jesus wanted to convey to us in this reading today? Did Jesus know that some wise and prudent pruning from a knowledgeable Gardener or Vine-Dresser might encourage the branches to grow?

Some preachers and some commentators on the Gospel of John say that God is going to prune away the unfruitful branches—or followers—of Jesus, and just throw them away. In other words, be fruitful for God, or die! That is such a harsh understanding of this reading. And, again, I wonder whether this understanding of the person of God is too harsh, as well?

One of my commentators J. Vernon McGee mused “no doubt that the Lord does some pruning. He moves into our lives and takes out those things that offend, and sometimes it hurts. He removes things that are hindering us.” [1]

Sometimes bushes and branches do need to be pruned. Sometimes—like on Friday, when my husband and I observed those dozens of bushes being pruned—pruning can help the overall health and growth of the whole plant. Sometimes, our loving, wise Gardener or Vine-dresser knows He has to do some pruning in our lives in order to make us more fruitful, and in order to cause additional life and growth in the whole plant—or, the whole family of faith.

Dr. David Lose, another commentator, adds “I think this is less intended as a threat about what happens if you don’t abide in Jesus but more a metaphorical description of what actually happens when you are not connected to the source of life. You end up cut off, withered, useless, like the branches and scraps we clean up from our yard and haul away or burn. Plus, if you’ve ever seen pruned bushes, you know it’s not a pretty picture.” [2]

With all this talk of pruning and cutting back and unfruitful branches, I am getting uncomfortable. I don’t want to be just a scrap or a branch that is cleaned up from God’s gardens and hauled away, or even burnt. I want very much to stay connected to Jesus, my source of life.

But then, I have never been seriously ill, as an adult. (Yes, as a teenager, but that was quite a while ago, and frankly, I do not have a clear memory of that time any longer.) However, Dr. McGee did have that kind of pruning experience. Let him explain: “I can speak to that subject and confess that it hurts. I think the Lord was pruning me when He permitted me to have a cancer and allowed it to stay in my body. He prunes out that which hinders our bearing fruit.” [3]

Let me say that I do not think that God arbitrarily makes people get sick, or forces individuals to get cancer, or heart attacks, or strokes. However, Dr. McGee was a beloved preacher and bible commentator who spent decades poring over the Bible, and had a great deal of wisdom and understanding concerning the Scriptures.

I’ll be completely frank: I do have difficulty with this aspect of John chapter 15. I do not completely understand what Jesus was getting at here. That is why I try to read commentaries from wise men and women who spend their lives studying the Scriptures in depth. I try to glean some of their wisdom and communicate it to you all in sermons and bible studies.

I think I have come to a better understanding this week, as I’ve examined this reading. As John 15 says, “For just as the branch cannot bear any fruit unless it shares the life of the vine, so you can produce nothing unless you go on growing in me. I am the vine itself, you are the branches. It is the one who shares my life and whose life I share who proves fruitful. For the plain fact is that apart from me you can do nothing at all.”

What’s the bottom line here? Jesus wants us all to share in His life. Apart from Jesus, we can truly do nothing at all. No fruit, no ministry, no sharing, no giving, no kindness, no love. Without Jesus? Nothing. With Jesus? Sharing His life? Then, we can bear fruit, for Him.

If we share life with Jesus, we have everything we ever need. Including our ability to have fruitful lives, for Jesus’s sake.

[1] Through the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Vol. IV, Matthew – Romans, J. Vernon McGee (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983), 466.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1532 Getting Real,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2012.

[3] J. Vernon McGee, ibid.

@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!)

Advertisements

For the Sheep

“For the Sheep”

John 10:11-18 (10:11) – April 22, 2018

Jesus Good Shepherd_BnF_Ethiopien_389_fol_1v

The Bible often talks about sheep. Sheep in a sheep fold. All we like sheep. The sheep and the shepherd. The nation Israel is like sheep. The followers of our Lord Jesus are like sheep. We can follow the repeated illustrations of sheep and a shepherd in many places in the Bible, in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Just like in today’s scripture readings.

The words of Jesus can be a bit puzzling to both children and adults. We as adults can figure out what Jesus is saying here in chapter 10 of the Gospel of John. We have more developed brains and we can figure out what Jesus means by the metaphor “I am the Good Shepherd.“ Jesus is like a Good Shepherd, and we are like sheep.

But, what makes a shepherd “good?”

Jesus gives us further information in His description about what a Good Shepherd is not. A good shepherd is not a hired hand, since a hired hand doesn’t own the sheep. And so, he does not truly care about the sheep. If the hired hand is watching the sheep, a wolf might come and attack and scatter the flock. A hired hand will probably run away and leave the flock unprotected. So, the hired hand is most definitely not a Good Shepherd.

I go back to my initial question: what makes a shepherd “good?” For a more complete answer to that question, we need to take a close look at Psalm 23, our psalm reading for today. Remember, we are still trying to figure out what makes a shepherd “good.”

Our description from King David lets us know more about what makes a shepherd “good.” As sheep, we might be unsure about where we will find grass to eat, especially in a semi-arid region like most of the country of Israel. Yet, our Good Shepherd knows where there are places with grass to eat; we as sheep will feel safe enough to lie down in green pastures.

What else makes a shepherd “good?” When flocks of sheep are wandering around the fields and foothills of many dry places in Israel, sometimes it is difficult finding places to get water. A quickly rushing stream is not a place where sheep like to drink, since they can get hurt or swept away by the swiftly moving water. Yet, the Good Shepherd can lead His sheep to pools of still water, where they can safely drink.

Even today, we can ask similar questions. What makes a Shepherd “Good?” Dangers and problems can crop up today, at any time, among Jesus’s sheep, too. Will I have enough to eat or drink? What about a quiet place to live? Will the place where I live be safe? Or, will there be wolves and other nasty creatures wandering in my general area?

One of the earliest known depictions of Jesus in early church art is found in the Roman catacombs, under the ancient city. One of my favorite commentators, Carolyn Brown, tells us that “The catacombs are narrow, twisting underground tunnels.  The walls are filled floor to ceiling with graves that have been dug out of them.  They are dark and spooky.” [1]

Carolyn Brown suggests that we imagine we are walking quietly through the catacombs with a small oil lamp to find Christian friends who are gathering to worship by a designated grave. Can you hear the clank or crunch of Roman soldiers’ armor or boots? Christianity was an illegal religion. Christians were often hiding or on the run from the authorities. Since this was the case, it is easy to imagine why someone painted on the catacomb ceiling a picture of Jesus as a strong young shepherd who would take care of them.

What does a Good Shepherd look like, to you?

Jesus expands on this illustration of the Good Shepherd. The people of His time lived mostly in villages or small towns. Even if they worked doing other things, I suspect almost all of them were familiar with sheep, lambs and shepherds. I bet they had some ideas about what made a “good shepherd,” and what a “bad shepherd” looked like, too.

Even though today we might not be very familiar with the job of a shepherd, we still know how safe we feel when someone truly cares for us and looks out for our best interests. We still understand when someone protective stands guard and watches out for enemies so we can feel secure. We still appreciate when someone loving goes out of his or her way to search for a lost sheep when we wander away or get hurt or are in distress.

Jesus wanted to get across the idea of how much He cared for His sheep—that’s all of us. Jesus not only compares us to sheep (a biblical illustration repeated several times in the Hebrew Scriptures), but He tells us just what a hired hand does with the sheep. Or rather, Jesus tells us that the hired hand just runs away. The sheep would then be deserted and alone, liable to be attacked and perhaps eaten by wild animals.

Except, our Lord Jesus will not run away. Instead, He will care for the sheep, feed and water them, and lead them in good places. Jesus will not allow them to stray, but instead will lovingly protect and guard the flock.

As commentator Lucy Lind Hogan says, “To be [Jesus’s] followers was to enter into his sheepfold. He came to be the one who cared for and fed them.  It was a dangerous job; protecting the sheep from wolves and bandits. As the good shepherd Jesus had not only to be willing to, he did, lay down his life for the sheep that God had given him.” [2]

What does our Good Shepherd look like? How do we know when we have found Him?

And, is it possible that Jesus loves us so much that He gave His life for us? That He laid down His life for the sheep God had given Him? Jesus goes further in this reading from John 10, even further than King David in Psalm 23. Jesus not only cares for the sheep, and loves them, but He even dies for them. Gives up His life for the sheep.

Similarly, we lay down our lives every time we set aside what we want to take care of the needs of others.  We all need to hear Jesus’ insistence that if He lays down his life He can take it up again.  Giving up what you want once does not mean you will never get it or that you will always be called on to give up what you want.  Adults have learned that, but it takes a while for children to learn it, too. [3]

I said earlier that some people, young children especially, have a problem understanding metaphors. When Jesus said “I am the Good Shepherd,” that can be one of those hard sayings.

When Dr. Maria Montessori was working in a children’s hospital “she found that when she told sick children stories about the Good Shepherd using small wooden figures, they almost all grabbed the figure [of the Good Shepherd] and held onto it “for keeps.”  So the Good Shepherd made sense to them in some way.” [4] Jesus our Good Shepherd is able to come alongside of all of us, too. We are able to take hold of His hand, “for keeps.”

We know today Jesus loves us so much He gave His life for us. How much did Jesus love us? He loves us this much. [spreads arms wide]

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/03/year-b-fourth-sunday-of-easter-april-26.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 4, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1239

Commentary, John 10:11-18, Lucy Lind Hogan, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2012.

[3] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/03/year-b-fourth-sunday-of-easter-april-26.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 4, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015.

[4] Ibid.

@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!)

 

Peace Be with All of Us

“Peace Be with All of Us”

peace be with you, formal

Luke 24:36-49 (24:36) – April 15, 2018

Sometimes I just feel like pulling the covers over my head and not getting up in the morning. Wars, rumors of wars, bombings, fires, gas attacks, and these were just in the past week. Seriously, with all of the scary and shocking things going on in the world, the world can be a downright scary place.

No matter whether we live today in the United States or two thousand years ago in occupied Israel, there can be a lot of scary and confusing stuff going on.

In the case of our Gospel reading today, the scary and confusing stuff was going on right in Jerusalem. It was the time of the Passover, during what we today call the Passion Week. As we have been considering for the past few weeks, the occupying Roman forces in Jerusalem are watching the festival and worship situation very closely.

Sure, there are a great number of visitors from all over the known world, in Jerusalem for that great festival, Passover. But, the Roman forces must have doubled down on the populace in the city. And, even more, since the Rabbi Jesus had just entered the city only a few days before. He made a huge commotion, too, what with riding in on a donkey (like King David) on Palm Sunday, debating in the Temple during the week with the scribes, Pharisees and Sanhedrin, and getting arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane late on Thursday night and accused being Messiah. And, the crucifixion on Friday? Quite a week, for the occupying Roman forces.

Yes, we know some things in general about the disciples. They scattered, running away. Hiding, afraid that since their leader and Rabbi was just executed by the Romans on Friday, they might be arrested and executed next. In fact, Peter even denied knowing Jesus while in the high priest’s courtyard. He must have been scared to death, too.

The upper room, a larger room on the second floor of a building in Jerusalem, was one place where the disciples felt at least half-way safe. They were huddled up there, in hiding, trying to keep a low profile. Luke tells us the male disciples had already dismissed what the women disciples had told them about their Rabbi, early that morning. Something about an empty tomb, and their dead Rabbi gone. Even though Peter and John had run to the tomb and checked things out for themselves, they still did not have a clear idea what was going on.

This year, the lectionary does not have us look at the post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus when He walks with the two disciples from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus. In brief, our commentator Dr. Mark Vitalis Hoffman summarizes this section of Luke 24: “Two from the group of followers of Jesus were going to Emmaus when they encounter, but do not recognize, Jesus. They express their disappointed hope that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel, but Jesus explains how everything that happened was necessary according to Scripture. The two invite Jesus to spend the night with them. During the meal, when Jesus blessed and broke the bread, their eyes were opened, and they recognized Jesus, but he vanished from their sight. They rush back to Jerusalem and report to the gathered believers what had happened.” [1]

It is later that day that our Gospel reading picks up. Later in the evening, many disciples (I am assuming both male and female) are in hiding in the upper room. Luke specifically has the two disciples from Emmaus telling the rest about their encounter with Jesus.

Yet, the rest of the disciples are having difficulty believing, understanding. Even though several of these same disciples had angels and Jesus Himself telling them of the Resurrection, what gives? I suspect many of them are still paralyzed with fear. Scared to death. Afraid of the Roman soldiers coming around and knocking on the door at any moment, ready to carry off some of the disciples to be crucified, too.

How often have we been really afraid? Almost scared to death? Terror can paralyze a person. Fear can cause us to disbelieve, to run away, to get angry and fly off the handle. Don’t you think the disciples needed Jesus right then? When He appeared miraculously in their midst, many of them were still unbelieving. Still scared to death.

I think the first thing out of Jesus’s mouth was the most needed of all: “Peace be with you!” Do you hear? Jesus went straight to the heart of the disciples’ fear, their anxiety, their unbelief, and said “Peace be with you!”

Yes, we could talk about what happened after that, when some disciples thought Jesus was a ghost, so He ate a piece of fish to show His friends that He really, actually, had come back to life. Yes, we could talk about Jesus opening the disciples’ minds to the truth of the Scriptures, and how they were to be witnesses of the Good News and the forgiveness of sins.

I would like to go back to the first thing Jesus said: “Peace be with you!” During the Children’s Time, I talked about peace. There are many greetings in different languages that mean “Peace.” “Aloha in Hawaiian means affection, peace, compassion and mercy. Shalom (Hebrew) and Salaam (Arabic) mean peace, complete-ness, and prosperity. Aloha, Shalom, and Salaam can be used on meeting or departing.” [2]

Jesus wished the disciples His peace several times, recorded in the Gospels, including right here. This word is not only wishing a person peace, but “peace, shalom, and salaam” can also be wishing a person God’s presence. The disciples really needed that, too!

In the New Testament reading today from 1 John chapter 3, the aged disciple John tells us that we are the children of God. I remember when I was a mom of young children, sometimes then would get afraid. Sometimes I would comfort them, and hold them on my lap or give them hugs. Don’t you think it’s the same way with God? When we get afraid, even scared to death, we can run into God’s everlasting arms of care and concern. Our Lord Jesus can send us His peace.

The disciples really needed peace, first of all! Perhaps, they needed it most of all. God can send peace into the world today, too. Including peace into conflict in the Middle East, peace in warring regions in Africa and Asia, peace into difficult places in Central and South America. God can send peace to the streets of the cities of our country.

Jesus offers us comfort and peace, just the same way that parents (and grandparents) do. Jesus sends closeness, caring and loving, in addition to His peace.

Can you and I reach out in peace, in shalom, in wholeness and with God’s love? That is the message on my heart from the Gospel reading today. Reach out with God’s peace. Offer God’s peace to those around you today, and every day.

We can praise God for God’s peace and wholeness. God’s peace is a sure antidote to fear, today, and every day.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3627

Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman Associate Professor of Biblical Studies Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/03/year-b-third-sunday-of-easter-april-19.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 3, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015

Unless…

“Unless…”

Jesus and Thomas illustration John 20-24

John 20:19-31 (20:25) – April 8, 2018

Imagine a city under martial law. Soldiers prowling the streets, night and day—and especially at night. The occupying army and the city authorities come down hard on the civilian population. Sure, the army of invaders polices the city efficiently, but the civilians have very little freedom of movement, very little freedom of expression. This kind of oppressive living would be very difficult. I am thinking of various cities and regions in Asia, Africa, Central and South America. Also within recent memory, we can add places in Europe that were under martial law and forces of occupation. Scary stuff.

We enter the scene in the Gospel of John right after the Crucifixion and Resurrection, late that Sunday evening. We find the disciples cowering behind locked doors, as John tells us.  They were very much afraid!

Jerusalem in the first century of the Common Era was not quite as bad as some places we can imagine from our modern day. Israel was not under strict martial law, but there were many rules and regulations concerning freedom of movement and about public gatherings. I suspect the capital city Jerusalem was a big headache to the Roman soldiers in charge of maintaining the peace, especially at the times of year of big festivals. Including Passover.

As we eavesdrop on the small group gathered there in the Upper Room, we can tell most of them (if not all of them) are scared to death. Perhaps, they thought of what had happened on that awful Good Friday. Perhaps, they considered where each of them had disappeared to. We are not told, and we can just imagine their sad and frightened conversation.

When, suddenly—suddenly—Jesus appears. The Gospel record tells us, “Then Jesus came and stood among them.”  He does not even come in through the door, but just walks right through the wall. Or, the closed door. Locks do not matter to Him. Can you imagine how shocked and scared the disciples were at this sudden appearance? Of someone they had seen die and get buried only three days before?

This must have been a terrifying, mystifying, and joy-filled experience for those disciples in that Upper Room. We can hardly imagine the deep outpouring of all kinds of emotions when they saw their Rabbi Jesus, risen from the dead. Alive once more.

Notice that Jesus did not say “What happened? Where were you? What do you mean, running away and leaving Me all alone? You screwed up! You guys are losers!” No, Jesus did not say anything angry or shaming like that. Instead, He said, “Peace.” Can you imagine? Jesus wished all of His friends “Peace.” In other words, “It is okay. I understand. I forgive you.” Can you imagine how the disciples felt when they heard this marvelous expression from Jesus? [1]

Except…not all of the disciples were there to witness this visit, this post-Resurrection appearance of our Lord. One disciple was missing. Thomas. We do not know why, or where he was, or what he was doing, only that he was indeed missing.

Let us turn to the account from John 20, and listen to what happened: “24 One of the twelve disciples, Thomas (called the Twin), was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas said to them, “Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

He did not believe. Cut Thomas some slack. Perhaps some of us might have been in the same situation as Thomas, if we had not been there either, immediately following the Resurrection. Thomas is called “Doubting Thomas,” and sometimes he is even scoffed at. But, I prefer to think of him as “Skeptical Thomas.” He did not want to believe in mere hear-say, or in false reports, or in wishful or magical thinking. No, he wanted to have firm evidence of something so serious and earth-shaking as his Rabbi coming back to life. And, can we really blame him?

I love what one of my favorite commentators says about Thomas. Carolyn Brown says that “no amount of explaining can make ‘doubter’ into a positive adjective – especially in this story.” She wants to describe Thomas as a curious person who wanted to see for himself what his friends had already seen. [2]

Did something similar ever happen to you? Did you ever miss a big event (for whatever reason), and then had to listen to your friends and acquaintances excitedly go on and on about that big event? So much so, you wished they would just cut it out, and stop chattering about the big event that happened? Do you suspect Thomas might have felt that way?

At least Thomas is honest! If we look further at the Gospel of John, we see that Thomas was the disciples “who cared enough to interrupt Jesus when he did not understand what Jesus was saying (in John 14:5). He really wanted to understand Jesus.” [3]

How many of us today can say that same thing? Can you relate to Thomas? How many of us really are trying to understand what Jesus said, and what He meant? Thomas certainly is straight-forward. He is skeptical, but he also wants to find out exactly what happened. Put his hand in the spear wound in His side, and his fingers in the holes in Jesus’s wrists.

This sounds so much like many journalists today. They want to find out, first-hand, and get all the straight information. Get the whole story. Perhaps Thomas might have made a great reporter, if they had had newspapers in the first century.

We can ask questions, too. It takes courage to ask questions. We can be skeptical of God, too. God knows we all have questions. There is no honest question Jesus cannot handle.

Children have wonderful questions for Jesus. Carolyn Brown is now retired, but before she retired, she was a Director of Children’s Ministry at a Presbyterian church. Children ask God some serious, penetrating questions, like: “Why didn’t you make me taller or prettier or smarter or…..?“ “How can God pay attention to everyone in the world at every minute?” “Why can’t I see you or at least hear your actual voice like people in the Bible did?”  [4]

There were some confused disciples and puzzled followers of Jesus after His Resurrection, too. But, Jesus does not answer us in long, drawn-out explanations. Instead, He shows us Himself. He showed Himself to Thomas, and showed his fresh wounds. He said, “Stop doubting, and believe!”

What was Thomas’s response? “My Lord, and my God!”

Thomas saw Jesus’s wounds with his own eyes, A skeptic like Thomas could work his way through honest uncertainty and come to a ringing statement of faith.  What is more, Jesus then said ““Do you believe because you see me? How happy are those who believe without seeing me!” And that includes all of us, today.

Can you and I make a rock-solid statement of faith like Thomas, too? Please God, we can, and we will.

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/02/year-b-second-sunday-of-easter-april-12.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 2, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

@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!)

Risen Indeed!

“Risen Indeed!”

Easter word cloud

Mark 16:1-8 (16:6) – April 1, 2018

            Have you ever had something completely unexpected happen to you? I mean, something so unexpected and unusual it is disorienting? Perhaps it leaves you with your jaw hanging open. I might say that the Cubs winning the 2016 World Series reminds us of that, but, no. I am talking much bigger than that—of cosmic significance! And, much more disorienting. Astounding.

            It wasn’t as if the Rabbi Jesus had kept it a secret. No, He had spoken of it to His followers, a number of times before His crucifixion. But, really, it is a bit farfetched.. Jesus, being raised from the dead? Come on, Jesus. You must be joking. Seriously?

            We know more about what happened on that Easter Sunday from the other Gospel accounts. But, Mark? Not so much. Mark writes in his usual concise, blunt manner. Short on details and description, heavy on action. Let’s take a closer look at our Gospel reading.

            “After the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices to go and anoint the body of Jesus. Very early on Sunday morning, at sunrise, they went to the tomb.”

            We already know the men disciples of Jesus scattered as soon as Jesus was arrested. This was for very good reason! The men were very much afraid that they would be arrested, too! But, this left just the women disciples of Jesus at the foot of the cross, and at the tomb.

            How often is it that women take care of the body of their loved one after death? In many cultures and all around the world, for millenia, washing and dressing the dead body, anointing the body with spices and with perfumes, holding a vigil or mourning or sitting shiva. How often is this the responsibility and privilege of women?

To continue, from Mark 16: “On the way they said to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” (It was a very large stone.) Then they looked up and saw that the stone had already been rolled back.”  The big stone rolled over the entrance to the tomb must have been worrying the women. Mark even mentions it. I suspect they already were discussing how their combined strength was probably not enough to even budge the stone. But—what is this? The stone is already rolled away! It’s the first inkling that things at the tomb are not as these women first thought.

            “So they entered the tomb, where they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe—and they were alarmed.“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “I know you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is not here—he has been raised!”

I can’t help but smile as I read my commentator’s view on this verse: “seems to be on Jesus not being present because he has better things to do than wait around at a tomb. The “young man dressed in a white robe” (angelic messenger) delivers the good tidings of Easter morning like an administrative assistant explaining why you can’t have a quick word with the boss: “You’re looking for Jesus? Sorry, you just missed him.” [1]

Wait a minute—did I hear that right? Jesus just stepped away? These women are left holding the spices, and they only have a vague idea of where their Rabbi Jesus might have gone.

I realize this whole situation is astounding, but can we put ourselves in the shoes of these women? They had absolutely no idea where Jesus was. Plus, they are faced with an angelic messenger. How often the first words out of any angel’s mouth are “Don’t be afraid!” Angels must be frightening, and awe-inspiring, and enough to make these women shake in their sandals.

Is anything clouding the sight of these women as the angel speaks to them? Is anything clouding their hearts from discerning what it is the angel has to say? We all know the grief and cares of this world, some more than others. What else did the angel say? “Look, here is the place where he was placed. Now go and give this message to his disciples, including Peter: ‘He is going to Galilee ahead of you; there you will see him, just as he told you.’”

Again, these women were flabbergasted. Amazed, half in disbelief. As our commentator Dr. Pape tells us, the angel’s instructions to the women “is to tell the disciples, and especially Peter who had denied him, that they had better get on the move (Mark 16:7). Jesus had explained already that after he was raised up, he would go ahead of them to Galilee (Mark 14:28). Now the “young man” reminds them of this scheduled rendezvous. If it’s Jesus they want, they will need to head back to Galilee.” [2]

This is a tall order. The angel orders the women to tell the disciples that they are to go clear across the country, to Galilee, and there they will meet the risen Jesus. I suspect the women already knew how skeptical the men disciples would be of their claim that Jesus was alive. And then, on top of that, the whole group of disciples were told to remove to Galilee to go and meet with the risen Jesus? Kind of far-fetched, if you ask me. Looking at this passage, we read of the women’s response: “So they went out and ran from the tomb, distressed and terrified. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

I wonder how much of the women’s response was fear and anxiety? How much was unbelief? And, how much was other emotion, and distress, getting in the way of them hearing the message of the angel clearly?

Yet, along with the Rev. Janet Hunt, “I find myself wondering about those women now… those who were looking on from a distance: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome.  And I wonder then if it was force of will that kept them there at the foot of the cross for as long as they stayed or if time stood still for them and all other responsibilities just faded away.

“And I wonder about the people who will gather in all of our places of worship this Easter morning to hear again a story many of them have heard over and over again.  I wonder what grief, what loss, what worry, what fear will be clouding their hearts as they step into a place bathed in lilies and the sounds of trumpeted Alleluias.  I wonder if for them this hour shared will be a distraction to be gotten through before they get back to other matters pressing on their minds and hearts or if they will hear in the ancient story retold a promise that will then somehow come alive right before their eyes as they return to their lives in a world.  A world which all too often seems to hold a whole lot more despair than hope, more cynicism than trust, more death than life.  I wonder if some among us, like those women on that first Easter morning, I wonder if we will see God’s promises kept in unexpected ways and places on Sunday afternoon or Monday morning or Wednesday night.”  [3]

We know now, from the other Gospel accounts, that this was just the beginning of the story, the beginning of that Good News, that Jesus has risen, indeed! Despite worry, anxiety, despair, loss, and cynicism, we know the tomb is empty. We know that with the risen Jesus, hope, love, mercy and forgiveness have come into the world again. We can say with the angel in the tomb, “Jesus is not here—He is risen!” Jesus Christ is risen, indeed. Amen, alleluia!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2406

Commentary, Mark 16:1-8, Lance Pape, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/a-gap-in-the-story-easter-thoughts/

@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!)